Ken’s blue eyes narrowed as he recognized the interloper to be the boy that Nambu had mysteriously brought back with him a few weeks ago. That this boy, who appeared to be his age or nearly so, had been severely injured and he had been staying here at the villa with them, meant nothing to Ken. He had simply assumed that once better, the boy would go away again, back to wherever he had come from, leaving Ken and Nambu to their own solitude once more.
Now, however, this kid seemed to making himself at home – and trying to take over what Ken considered to be his. After all, he—Ken—had known this villa all his life and, to his way of thinking, it was as much his as it was Nambu’s.
The stranger glanced up at the sound of Ken’s approach, then stood up as Ken proceeded to head directly towards him.
“Who are you?” the boy demanded.
Ken’s jaw set and anger flashed through his blue eyes. “I should be asking you that,” he retorted. “You’re in my house.”
The kid pulled back at that information, then his blue eyes narrowed. “This isn’t your place. It belongs to the doctor.”
Ken lifted up his chin a fraction. “Right. And I live here with Nambu Hakase. So that makes it mine, too. And you’re in my spot, so move it.”
The boy lifted a hand that was clenched in a fist. “Make me.”
Ken felt the rush he had always felt before a fight. “Love to,” he said as he rushed forward, but the boy sidestepped him and Ken fought to regain his balance before going headlong into the tree trunk.
The newcomer then took advantage and swung, but Ken saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and dodged it, ducking as he did so, and launched himself forward into the stomach of the other boy.
He grunted as they went down, but grabbed at Ken to pull him off. Ken’s foot connected with the boy’s knee and the boy gave a yelp of pain.
Once separated, they immediately jumped to their feet once more, bodies hunched in anticipation of a fresh attack.
“Who do you think you are, anyway?” Ken demanded, his hands held in loose fists as they circled each other.
“My name is Geor …” The boy hesitated a moment, recalling almost too late what the doctor had told him only just that morning. “Joe,” he finished. “My name is Joe.”
“Well, Joe,” Ken said with exaggeration. “Get ready to hurt.”
Joe sneered at him. “You didn’t tell me your name, pretty boy, so I’ll know what to put on your headstone.”
Ken’s eyes narrowed, but he straightened his spine, lifting up his head proudly. “I am Ken the Eagle.”
Joe snorted. “Eagle? You? Don’t make me laugh. You’re nothing but a skinny twerp.”
“Take that back,” Ken said, gritting his teeth.
“Make me,” Joe challenged for the second time.
“Don’t worry, I will.”
Ken launched a new attack at Joe, their shoulders colliding as they dropped to the ground once more, rolling as they exchanged punches and kicks.
Before either of them knew it, they were suddenly separated by an intervening outside force, and each was left dangling at the end of an outstretched arm of a furious Nambu.
“What do you two think you’re doing?” he demanded, giving each boy a shake.
“He started it,” Joe offered.
“Did not,” Ken defended. “He was in my spot.”
“You don’t have a spot!”
“Well, I have more of one than you do,” Ken shot back.
“Enough!” Nambu roared. Both boys lapsed into silence. He gave them both a scathing look. “Joe, I told you that you could leave your room, but to go no further than the end of the hall. I want you to go back to your room this instant.” He then turned his attention to Ken. “And you. Don’t you have homework, practice and chores? Why aren’t you doing them instead of being where you weren’t supposed to be in the first place?” Nambu’s questions were met with silence. “I want no fighting, no arguing, and no back-talk from either one of you. Now move.” Nambu released them both, sending them both stumbling for their footing.
Joe glared at Ken, who rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand. Then Joe turned away from them and stalked back into the villa. Ken was about to follow when he felt a heavy hand drop onto his shoulder.
“Ken, you need to have more patience,” Nambu said in a contemplative tone. “Joe will need your guidance as he finds his way around and I am expecting you to help me see to it that he feels welcome here.”
Ken gave Nambu a sour look. “Does that mean he’s staying?”
Nambu raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Ken, that is exactly what it means, so I will expect that you and he will come to some sort of peace with each other.”
Ken heaved a sigh as they began to move towards the villa. “Fine,” he agreed reluctantly. “But I’m not giving him my spot.”
“Ken,” Nambu said in warning. Ken ducked his head and looked sufficiently contrite so that Nambu said no more as they went in.
* * *
In the several weeks that passed since that first encounter, the situation between Ken and Joe had not improved. Despite Nambu’s hopes that the two would have formed a friendship, it appeared that the two were locked in a rivalry instead. When together, they would end up in fisticuffs; when apart, each sought his own brand of mischief. Nambu needed them peaceably together, if only to make his own life moderately easier.
With that thought in mind, and having come to the conclusion that Joe was now well enough to start taking his place at the villa, instead of allowing Joe to take his evening meal in his own rooms, Nambu had Joe join him and Ken in the dining room.
With Nambu at the head of the table, Ken and Joe sat on either side, directly facing each other. The three of them ate in silence, though the boys exchanged blistering looks with each mouthful they took. Nambu ignored the exchange and continued eating serenely, hoping that this meal would break the ice and get the boys on polite, if not friendly, terms. With any luck, the boys would follow his example. He was, however, sadly mistaken.
On a whim, Ken crossed his eyes and made a grimacing face at Joe. He was rewarded by seeing the boy’s blue eyes widen in shock. Then Joe stuck out his tongue and made an equally disturbing face at Ken, who snorted and made another face in return. Joe made another face back, with Ken then trying to top it.
Suddenly everything on the table jumped as Nambu slammed a fist down.
“Enough!” he roared. Both boys shot guilty looks at each other before sliding tentative glances in Nambu’s direction. “You’re both here to eat, not play games.”
Ken licked at his lower lip, and Joe held his fork defensively. Reluctantly, they each began to eat again. The only sounds in the dining room were the clink and clack as metal met china, and the sounds of chewing.
As Nambu concentrated on cutting up his meat, Joe took the opportunity to send a pea flying over the table and scored a direct hit into Ken’s plate. Ken glanced up. Joe smirked back at him.
Ken waited his turn, and when he saw his chance, launched a small piece of carrot at Joe, hitting his milk glass in the process.
Joe fired another pea back at Ken, this time actually striking him in the chest. Ken retaliated with an attack of a lima bean, which landed on Joe’s cheek with a splat. Joe wiped at his cheek with the back of his hand and risked a look over at Nambu, who sat there calming eating his dinner, seemingly oblivious to the food fight before him.
Using his spoon, Joe fired another round of peas, only to be answered by a lump of mashed potatoes. The boys held back giggles as they continued their warfare, errant peas and carrots and the occasional potato beginning to dot the table before them.
As Nambu reached for his cup, he paused a moment, then frowned as he fished out a pea. Both boys ducked their heads and suppressed the laughter that threatened. Nambu, however, merely sighed, gave them each a direct look, and finished his tea.
“When you two are done, you will clean up the mess you have made,” Nambu said as he rose from his seat. Ken and Joe exchanged surprised looks. “Then Ken can show you, Joe, where he is in his studies and where you will be expected to pick up when the tutor arrives tomorrow.”
With orders given, Nambu left the room, leaving Ken and Joe to stare at each other. Joe was the first to break the silence.
"You have a tutor?”
“Yeah. He’s all right, but talks too much some times.”
Joe frowned. “So how come you don’t go to school?”
Ken shrugged. “It is school, only there’s just me. In the beginning, I thought it was pretty lame, but I’m used to it now. At least there’s no one here to bother me…” Ken trailed off as he thought back to the friends he had had before Nambu decided to move him here to the villa. Sabu was forever getting Ken into fights and there was a part of Ken that was glad that he didn’t have to keep on taking care of the smaller boy.
Joe grinned back at him. “Guess that just changed, huh?”
Ken gave him a wry smile back. “Yeah, I guess so.”
As they began to clear the dishes and clean the vegetable shrapnel off of the table top, they fell into a companionable silence, each working to complete their joint task as quickly as possible.
Once that was done, Ken led Joe into the room that served as a classroom. To his surprise, alongside of where he kept his own textbooks, there was now another stack of books.
“Guess those are yours,” Ken remarked as he took possession of his own. He pursed his lips as he considered one book, then another, throwing them onto the desk top in front of him. “English is okay, but I like the science better. History can get a little dull...”
“Hey, I know this book,” Joe said in surprise, pulling one out of the stack.
“Yeah, my dad has it …had it…” Joe stopped a moment as the fleeting memory flashed in and out of his waking consciousness. He felt a nudge at his shoulder and turned to see Ken’s blue eyes, filled with concern, staring back at him.
“You okay?” Ken asked warily.
Joe dropped his head and nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I’m okay.”
Ken tilted his head to one side as he contemplated his new companion. “So what happened to you?”
Joe’s eyes widened, surprise flushing his cheeks at the bluntness of the question. He shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. I don’t really remember it. Nambu Hakase said we were in an accident. I was hurt and my … m-my parents were killed.” Joe dropped his head at this confession. He heard Ken exhale in a hard sigh.
“My dad disappeared in an accident,” he offered. “I don’t remember him, though.”
Joe nodded his head and looked back at the book in his hand. “That’s rough,” he commented, at a loss as to what else to say. He ran a hand through his hair as he looked around the room. “So, uh, what do you do around here for fun?”
Ken dropped the book he held back onto the desk with the rest of his books and broke out in a grin. “Can you keep a secret?”
Joe shrugged noncommittally.
“Come on,” Ken said, running out of the classroom, looking back only briefly to make sure that Joe was still trailing along behind him.
Ken pushed open a door and hit the lights. Joe whistled in appreciation behind him. “Whoa. What is this place?”
Ken smiled at him as he turned on a few more overhead lights in the gymnasium. “It’s the training room. Pretty cool, huh?” Walking in, Ken began to point out the various items of interest as they toured the room. “That’s for strength training – ropes, pull-ups, weights. And over there is where Sensei comes for jujitsu training. You have to do everything exactly the way Sensei shows you, or else he makes you do it over and over again for the whole rest of the lesson.”
As they walked, he pointed to a side wall, where a row of standard targets stood in a line. “And that’s for the shuriken practice.”
“The – what?”
“Shuriken,” Ken repeated, then went over to a cabinet. He patted it. “Sensei keeps them in here. It’s locked now, but when Sensei comes, you’ll see. They’re feathers, with metal tips…”
Joe nodded at this information. “You do any practice with anything else?”
Ken tilted his head. “Like what?”
Joe shrugged and tried to look bored. “I dunno. Bow and arrow … or guns?”
Ken frowned in thought, then shook his head. “I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask Sensei.”
Joe nodded thoughtfully at this new piece of information, then found his attention captured by a circular metal frame with a tightly stretched canvas on it. “What’s this for?”
“That’s the trampoline,” Ken said, then climbed up and began to demonstrate a few moves. After watching for a moment, Joe clambered up to join him and tried to mirror what he was seeing Ken do. When Ken realized what Joe was doing, Ken tried to make his moves even harder.
And as they bounced, all further thoughts of school work as ordered by Nambu left their minds.
* * *
Nambu watched as his two charges worked off their excess energy on the trampoline. They did not realize he was there, of course. He was observing them through one of the one-way mirrors that lined the one side of the room.
Sighing, Nambu clasped his hands lightly behind his back. They would be a handful, he knew, and the quiet, contemplative life he had become accustomed to in the past few years was now about to change drastically.
But as he watched them, he also knew that, even if they never became friends, it was obvious that they would provide each other with the incentive to push themselves—and each other—to do their best, regardless of the task set before them.
Nambu smiled; at this point, he could not have hoped for any more.