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Ascension by Maya Perez
Ascension by Maya Perez
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Ascension

By Maya Perez (GO)


"Basic De - mo - li - tions." Jun slowly read the title out loud as her hand reached out to take the book from the shelf.

This was the one, she was sure of it. The book she saw a few days ago in Ken and Joe's room. And she knew that this book, out of all those there, definitely had something to do with Nambu's mysterious project.

Jun understood that she and her brother were one of the few people not directly involved who even knew the project existed. They hadn't been meant to know, but they learned of it inadvertently - through curiosity and luck. And even before she realized its existence, it had been responsible for giving her and Jinpei a chance at a better life and freedom. It had also been responsible for giving them that which they'd wanted most - a family.

Taking a last look around before totally committing herself, she took the book off the shelf. She moved to one of the large leather chairs in the back and grabbing her dictionary, curled up in one of them, and gingerly opened the newly acquired book.

The ability to read was yet another gift given to them by Nambu and indirectly by his project as well. In Tebet, all she could have hoped for was a life of slavery and submission, and the loss of the only person who meant the world to her. Yet her fate found a different path the moment they met Nambu, the world-renowned scientist of the ISO. Through him, Jun and her brother found a home, a home with people who cared about them and whom they could care about.

Since the day the decision was made that they'd be allowed to permanently stay, Jun had pushed herself to study, absorb, and learn. Though she found it hard to believe it at first, she came to understand the world really was full of possibilities, even for women. Unlike where she came from, where her prospects were few and unpleasant, here she could be or do anything she applied herself to do. Anything at all. Sometimes it made her dizzy thinking about it. Who at the monastery would have ever thought such a thing possible?

Jinpei had already decided he wanted to be five or six things - a pilot, a scientist, a racecar driver, a fisherman. The list grew every day. As for her own decision, the choices were so many she didn't know if she could ever pick one. Her brothers, the ones that had become part of her heart's family with Jinpei, had already made their choices on what they would become. All three had been chosen to be an important part of Nambu's project. They would be trained and tested until they became the protectors of the Earth. They would fight the evil men that had decided to twist the world to meet their own ends.

Still, though they had chosen and seemed content by their choice, it often disturbed her that by making this choice, they'd also chosen to learn how to kill.

For as long as she could remember, the monks always preached that killing was wrong, that it was against the nature of things. But the boys had to learn to kill, because the evil ones might not leave them any choice. So they learned in order to survive against them. It was almost as if you had to commit evil to fight evil.

And so her brothers trained, and trained hard.

Due to her and Jinpei's discovery of the project and some of the training for it, the two of them were allowed to join part of their brothers' morning routine, the part that was already familiar to them - practicing martial arts. But there were many other things the three of them did that Jun and Jinpei weren't able to share in. The teachings in the book she held in her hands was one of them.

Until recently, the fact the others pursued the project without her and Jinpei hadn't really bothered them. She'd been more than satisfied just to share a part of their lives. She'd been happy they were there and they belonged with them. A couples of weeks before though, all that changed....

Joe, Ryu, and Ken never spoke to them of what they did in the training she and Jinpei didn't share with them. They never spoke of what things they learned. Though Jinpei asked occasionally, it had never been a concern of hers. That is until she started noticing how stiff they were coming into class each morning, until she caught glimpses of bruises beneath their gi's as they fought on the mats.

Something new had been added, something changed - and it worried her. It was why she had started paying so much attention to what they were doing, why she was sitting here trying to read a book with so many things she didn't understand. Jinpei asked Ken once about the bruises. Ken had just smiled a small smile and told him he'd been sloppy during a training session and that was all. Jun didn't miss the look of relief on his face when Jinpei took his answer at face value and let the matter drop. Joe and Ryu were as tight-lipped as Ken. If they didn't trust them enough to tell them, then Jun was sure it wasn't something good at all.

"Neechan! Neechan!"

Jun looked up from the difficult book, pushing aside her troubled thoughts, her brother zooming in around the corner looking for her.

"I - I found them, Neechan. I found them." The small boy stared at her, his wide eyes filled with a mixture of fear and excitement.

Jun felt a rush of apprehension cut through her. "Did they see you?"

"No, Neechan." Jinpei shook his head too excited to take offense.

She frowned, not understanding where his fear was coming from. "Did something happen, Jinpei?"

He shook his head again. "No." He came forward and took her hand. "Come see. Come see."

Jun reluctantly closed her books and set them aside. The boys were keeping this purposely from them, did she really have a right to try and find out what they were up to?

Jinpei tugged impatiently at her hand. "Come see, Neechan."

Jun sighed and gave in. She might not have the right, but she still wanted to know.

The two of them moved through the large house's familiar halls toward the kitchen. Jinpei stopped and cautiously peeked around the corner to make sure Pho, their Vietnamese keeper, wasn't there. Beckoning to Jun, he slipped inside and quickly headed to the small half-room half-hallway on the back right hand side of the kitchen.

Not long after they first arrived in Nambu's home, Jinpei had stumbled onto the secret door located in this room. It was how they first came to find out about the project. This door, like many other unseen features of the house, had been built to protect and hide the project.

Jinpei hit the hidden switch on the wall and the secret entrance to the lower levels of the house opened. Jun shut it behind them once they went on to the stairs concealed beyond.

"This way, Neechan." He hurried down the stairs and turned left at the landing.

They moved quietly down the corridor, passing the matted room the five of them normally used for their morning practice. Jinpei led Jun to another stairwell going down. She felt her pulse beat faster.

At the landing to the second underground level, Jinpei hesitated and took a quick peek down each way. Finding the hallways empty, he moved on again, taking Jun's hand in his own.

Though the two of them did occasionally go with the others to some of the lower levels to play down at the pool or use some of the exercise equipment, she had never seen much of this second level. What was here was one of the many secrets she didn't know about.

Walking silently, Jinpei led her to the right and around the corner at the far end. His pace dropped dramatically as they neared the second corner. A door stood slightly ajar on the left and he cautiously guided her there.

Jun felt her pulse quicken again as she realized this was the place. Whatever the boys had been up to, the answers were there. The hesitation she felt upstairs on finding out this secret was gone.

Jinpei peeked in through the slit opening at the door and then hunkered down so Jun could move to see as well. Standing over him to take a look, she gazed into a dimly lit room that was thin and long. A nerve-numbing hum poured out at them from inside from a large row of mainframe computers sitting against the wall beside them. On the other side of the room, Jun saw a large console that was almost as long as the room itself, which was filled with dials, buttons, and readouts. Pham, their martial arts teacher, stood before the controls occasionally moving a knob or flipping a switch. He stared raptly before him, out through a thick, long window out into a brightly lit room. What Jun saw there trapped and held her gaze.

The boys were in that room - Ken, Joe, and Ryu - all three wearing tight fitting body suits. The place was large and tall. Jun could see the three of them in her partial view, running, leaping, and mostly dodging strange looking poles that shot out unexpectedly at them from the floor, walls, and ceiling. The entire room was covered by a giant grid of small squares, and on the small lines she spotted what looked like a small car; a bright red handkerchief attached to its roof.

All three of the boys kept avoiding the thrusting poles while at the same time chased the small car to try and grab the handkerchief it carried.

Jun subconsciously held her breath as the poles shot out like angry snakes. The boys deftly avoided them with practiced ease as they sought to grab their goal. Joe leapt at one of the poles as it came out and used it as a propelling point to leap towards the fast moving car. His fingers grazed the handkerchief as the speeding car went past.

Cursing loudly, he twisted in mid-air to position himself to land on his feet. A thrusting pole clipped him on the shoulder for his trouble. Jun flinched, knowing he'd have a respectable bruise as his reward.

Ken ignored the car after seeing Joe's failure and maneuvered himself to Ryu's side. After a moment of hurried conversation while dodging more poles, Jun saw Ryu nod. As the heavy sized boy cupped his hands together, Ken put a foot inside them. Ryu gave him a boost upwards. The dark haired Ken sped through the air towards the moving car. A pole swished out suddenly at him from the side. Ken twisted his body to avoid it and then swung on another pole to retrieve his lost momentum.

Ken bounced hard against the padded ceiling, but came away with the handkerchief in his hand. The poles instantly stopped for a moment and the slowly retreated back into the wall. Ken landed, breathing hard, a half grin on his face.

Jun pulled away from the door and sat down against the wall and forced herself to breathe. Shakily, she closed her eyes and tried to slow her speeding heart as it thumped against her chest. So, that was it. That's what they'd been up to. Now she understood the fear mixed excitement she'd seen on Jinpei's face. She felt it herself. A queer sense of foreboding and apprehension swept through her. That was for the project, it was all for the project. How much harder would it still get for them?

"Neechan..."

Jun opened her eyes at her brother's hurried whisper. Jinpei still stood at the door, his eyes glued to what was inside. The humming from the computers increased making her teeth ache. Jun's heart skipped a beat as she suddenly realized they'd started again.

Biting her lip, she got up from the floor and moved to take a look again.

The game had changed. This time, dummies had been placed on the runners in the floor. The dummies were vaguely human shaped and colored a dull brown. In the middle of what could pass for a head, was a large red dot. The dummy farthest in the back had a red handkerchief sticking from a ring that protruded from its stomach.

Like a crushing wave, the dummies shot forward towards the three boys. In a flurry of motion, the boys leapt up and flipped into the middle of them. One by one, they smashed with foot or fist each of the dummies' red dots. The moment they hit them, the dummy would come to a stop.

After what felt to Jun like an eternity, the boys were able to disable enough of the dummies to enable Ryu to reach for the handkerchief and yank it loose. The moment the handkerchief was gone, the rest of the dummies stopped.

Ryu used the handkerchief to wipe at his sweating face, all three of them swaying on their feet exhausted. From the corner of her eye, Jun noticed Pham's hand flick a switch on the console.

"Well done," he said. "I believe that will be enough for today."

Sighing with sudden relief, all three boys dropped down to the mats to rest.

Jun figured it was time for them to get out of there.

"Jinpei." Hissing his name quietly, Jun grabbed for her brother's arm and pulled him away. As soon as they were far enough that they wouldn't be heard, they ran for it. They didn't stop until they'd made it all the way back to the kitchen.

"You mustn't talk about what we saw, " Jun steadied herself against her brother and tried to get her breath back. "To no one, understand?"

Jinpei nodded quickly, his eyes bright.

"Neechan, why were they doing that? What is it for?" he asked.

"It's part of Nambu's project, Jinpei." The words sent a chill up her spine as she said them.

"Still, couldn't we do it too? Couldn't we help?"

Jun sighed, having heard these questions from him many times before. "You know we can't. We're not even supposed to talk about it, remember? The project is not for us."

"But, neechan, I know we could do it." His small face stared at her own, full of conviction.

Jun wasn't too sure he was right and wasn't about to say so. "That was hakase's decision, Jinpei. So that's that."

Her brother's lower lip quivered. He looked like he might try to argue the point. Jun sent him a stern glance to try and cut him off.

"So there you are!"

Both of them looked up at the unexpected voice.

"I've been looking for you." Pho smiled her gap filled smile from the kitchen doorway. "What have the two of you been up to today?"

Jun saw Jinpei's face light up at the question even as his mouth opened to tell all. Jun quickly reached out and thumped him in the arm and sent him a quick warning look. She hoped Pho hadn't seen it.

Jinpei's excitement fell. "Oh, nothing," he replied.

Pho's white brow rose for a moment but she asked no more about it. "Would you two help me with the table? I was about to start dinner."

"Sure, Pho-san." The two of them moved to do as she'd asked.

Once the table had been set, Jinpei took his normal position by Pho's side so he could watch and help her cook. Though Jun had no real interest in the preparation of meals, her brother had turned out to be quite the opposite.

Jun sat down at her place at the table, sure that Jinpei's seemingly unassailable appetite might just have something to do with his continuing interest.

As she continued to wait, Jun found her gaze roaming towards the hallway leading to the secret stairs. Too vividly, she recalled the blow Joe had taken. How many others had they incurred today that she knew nothing about? Jun suddenly felt an intense need to see the three of them, to make sure for herself they were all right. She tried her best to squelch the feeling, knowing there was nothing she could do but wait.

Dinner was just about ready when Pham came into the kitchen followed by the boys. Jun's eyes anxiously looked over them, trying to fathom what she could of their health. Ryu seemed to have picked up a slight limp, but no other injuries were obvious. Though she didn't entirely understand it, it made her worry more.

Jun was quiet during dinner, though Jinpei and the others were as lively as ever. She just couldn't get rid of the fact that even though the project was none of her concern, the boys were getting hurt because of it. It was silly to feel this way, and she knew it, but somehow she'd never thought of them suffering for Nambu's project. And that in itself was stupid. Hadn't she seen war first hand in Tebet? Why had she thought that Nambu's Project would end up any differently?

"You don't look like you're feeling all that hungry tonight, Jun. Is everything all right?" Pho looked down at her, her brow slightly creased with concern.

Jun focused back on her surroundings realizing she hadn't been paying that much attention. She stuttered trying to recover. "Y - yes, I'm fine. Could I have more casserole? It's really good." Jun grabbed for her plate and offered it to Pho so she could give her more.

The old woman hesitated for a moment, studying her face, and then scooped her another portion of the tuna concoction.

Jun tried to stop thinking and instead pushed her concentration on eating all that was before her.

After dinner, she joined the others to watch a documentary on the Great Pyramids and another on life along the Nile, before being shooed off to bed for the night. She didn't sleep well, her night full of restless dreams.

Jun was quiet the next day at breakfast, her mood still subdued. This earned her a number of querying looks from her brother and Pho, but they left her alone.

Her breakfast sat like a lump in her stomach as she and Jinpei made their way downstairs for their morning martial arts training. As was the custom, the three older boys had risen hours before and had already been hard at practice by the time Jun and Jinpei joined them. Once it had been settled that Jun and Jinpei could stay in Nambu's home more or less permanently, the doctor had made it very clear there were certain things that Jun and Jinpei shouldn't know and others they shouldn't be involved in.

Jun followed her brother into the matted room and returned the welcoming nod sent to them by their sensei. Ken smiled his usual morning greeting and Ryu waved. Joe sent them a reserved look, which they'd all come to understand that for him was his means of conveying a joyful welcome.

Though everyone and everything was as it had always been, Jun still felt her stomach tighten as she moved to take her place. There were secrets behind their smiles, their greetings. There was discomfort and pain hidden behind happy faces. And she and Jinpei were never meant to know of them... They were to be kept in the dark - kept on the outside.

All this time, Jun and Jinpei had seemed to have been accepted into the fold, made to feel as if they belonged. It all tasted bitter and false to her today. There was one thing the five of them didn't share, one thing wedged between them and permeated so much of their lives - Nambu's project.

Her spirit feeling heavy, Jun pushed her body into the routine, seeking solace from the familiar movements. As much as she was able, she watched the boys, looking for signs of their aches, of the damage that had been inflicted on them yesterday. They covered it well, she'd give them that, but she'd already had an idea as to what to look for. Ryu was putting more weight on his left foot than his right whenever possible. As Joe went through his katas with his normal rapid, snapping pace; his eyes would flinch whenever he was forced to move his right shoulder. Ken proved to be the hardest of the three. And though she could find nothing definite, even he seemed to be holding back a little from his usual intensity.

By the time they were dismissed, Jun was more than glad to get out of there. Their wounds pained her but at the same time she hadn't been able to look away. The bitter taste that had sprung to her mouth when she had entered was still with her when she left.

At lunch, Jun tried hard to seem more normal, determined that if they could work so hard to keep their pain from her she would do the same with her own. And there was another reason-for while none of the others seemed to have noticed anything was amiss, more than once Jun had found Pham looking at her in a pondering way. She'd learned sometime back that little escaped their teacher or his wife. She wasn't sure what he'd made out of her actions in class, but she wanted to give him as little as she could to think about.

When lunch was over, Jun found herself sighing softly as the boys and Pham left. The more normal she tried to behave the more on edge she felt.

After she and Jinpei cleared the table and Pho finished with the dishes, the three of them sat down for their afternoon studies.

Much of what Jun had learned of reading and writing before her time at Ximang had steadily come back to her as and she'd gained more and more ground everyday. Jinpei, like a sponge, had taken to the teachings well and didn't linger far behind her. Three months ago, Pho had started supplementing their lessons with other things like low level math and science. Jinpei had no interest in math whatsoever and only worked at it because Jun forced him to. Science though, as long as it had something to do with animals or bugs, he was more than eager to learn about.

Jun found both subjects fascinating. She enjoyed the science for its diverse mysteries and the things it revealed to her, while she enjoyed the math for its symmetry and structured design.

Jun found herself relaxing a little as today they practiced their reading skills aloud, reading from a small storybook on ancient fables. Jinpei's favorite so far, had been the story of the turtle and the hare. The second time they'd read it, he'd changed the hare to himself and the turtle to Ryu, though by the time they'd reached the end, he'd reverted back to the hare and turtle remembering he was the one who lost.

Reading-this was one delight the project would never encroach on. And the more she read, the more she'd learn to understand and in the end she would use it to give her the wisdom on what to do about other things...

"Very well done!" Pho's praise was filled with smiles.

Jinpei grinned from ear to ear, his extra efforts outside of class having paid off. He wouldn't be complaining about the extra studying Jun'd had them everyday for a day or two at least. Jun felt a small smile light on her face. She felt proud of her brother and of her own accomplishments as well.

"I'll have to tell Kozaburo. He will be so pleased. Then I can badger him into getting us a new set of books." Pho winked at them a mischievous look in her eyes.

Jinpei giggled. "Can we get some with animals? Please?"

"I'll see what I can do." Her smile told him she'd get that and more.

Jun helped pick up their things after class was over and took them up to their rooms. Now their time was their own.

"Jinpei, what did you want to do? Should we practice some more?"

Her brother met her gaze and then quickly looked away. Jun felt a sudden sense of dread go through her.

"Neechan... could we, could we go see again?" Jinpei looked over at her from the corner of his eye.

This time, it was Jun who looked away. "You know that what we did yesterday was wrong, Jinpei."

"But, neechan..."

"No buts!" Jun found herself feeling suddenly angry. "We both know we're to have nothing to do with the project." All the tension she'd thought she'd dropped off came flooding back. "We would only be getting in the way."

Jinpei stared at the floor looking unhappy.

Jun felt her anger disappear. "Say, why don't we go outside for a while. It's cool today and maybe we can see some butterflies or locusts."

The effects of her suggestion were immediate. "You really think they'll be some?"

"There's only one way to find out."

"Okay! Let's go! Let's go!" Jinpei tore out of the room and down the hall.

Jun sighed quietly, disaster averted, and followed at a more discreet pace.

With the coming of fall, the weather in Utoland had turned cooler. It was much more to Jun's liking than the humid summer had been. And a surprise had come with the changing of the seasons. For though she'd been in love with all the luscious green of the plants on Nambu's estate, she adored them even more as they changed from that into vibrant reds, oranges, and browns.

Jinpei ran from tree to tree, madly cutting through the accumulating fallen leaves, looking for bugs. Jun stayed on the pebbled path and watched knowing he had more than enough energy for the two of them. A startled squirrel darted from the ground up the nearest tree until it was well out of reach. It didn't look happy. Jun knew exactly how it felt.

She watched the squirrel as it gave the noisy boy an annoyed look and then climbed higher into the tree. As she watched, it quickly ran down a long branch and then used it to leap onto another. She blinked as it disturbingly reminded her of the small car in the strange training room. Jun felt herself shudder. Even now, the three boys were there, chasing that car, being battered by the room's queer snaking arms and lumbering dummies. How many more bruises would they gain today?

Jun shook her head not wanting to think of those things. It was only training. They wanted to do this! It was why they were here. It was none of her concern!

Yet, the harder she tried not to think of it, the more insistent did her worry for them become.

Jun followed Jinpei again with her eyes, hoping his antics would distract her. They didn't. Whenever he leapt after a bug or thrashed around in the leaves, all she could do was think of them-of what might be happening to them.

"Jinpei!"

Her brother looked up and around, startled by the unexpected call. "Yes, neechan?"

"Come on. We're going to go check on the others."

"Really?" Hope flared on his face.

Jun bit her lip. "Yes."

She followed the path the rest of the way around the house, leaving Jinpei to catch up to her. At the kitchen door, she peered carefully through the glass to see if anyone was there. Finding the place deserted, she opened the door and quickly went in.

With her worry pressing her on, Jun made her way to the secret door and opened it. Hurried steps carried her down to the basement levels below.

Jinpei struggled to keep pace with her longer gait as she rushed down to the second level. Jun didn't hesitate once she'd reached it, but made directly for the room. It was only when she came within five feet of the door that she slowed. Quietly, with her brother behind her hopping from foot to foot, Jun reached for the doorknob and gently turned it. Pulling it open only a couple of inches, they took a peek inside.

Like the time before, the control room was covered in darkness except for the light pouring through the window from the training room next door and from the small colored indicators on the large console.

Pham stood before the console, staring raptly at what was going on beyond.

Jun nearly jumped out of her skin when he spoke.

"Ah, so I was right. I thought you might have found us yesterday."

Jun froze having no doubt that he was speaking to them, even though his eyes had never left the console. She should have known better than to think she could get anything past him.

"Come on inside." He waved at them though his eyes still remained riveted before him. "You must stay in the back, however. They must not see you."

Jun hesitated, feeling guilty she'd been caught and even though Pham was offering them a better vantage point, she still knew they didn't belong there.

Grinning, Jinpei wiggled out from beneath Jun and opened the door further to step inside. Jun, after hesitating a moment longer moved to join him. The two of them kept to the very back of the room as they moved farther in.

Currently, the boys were busy dodging and incapacitating a large number of the moving dummies while trying to catch the small racecar with the handkerchief around the room.

Jun's heart wrenched at every near miss of injury. Her body coiled with tension as she watched and she only felt free to breathe again once they'd finally succeeded in snatching the handkerchief away.

Pham's small wrinkled hands moved deftly over the controls as soon as the scenario was over. After a few short minutes, he flicked another switch and warned the boys it was time for them to get ready to begin again.

As soon as the last exercise was over, Pham warned Jun and Jinpei before letting the boys know.

Jun and her brother quickly left the room. They didn't slow until they'd reached the next level.

Jun breathed out feeling thoroughly exhausted. In contrast, Jinpei was bouncing around mimicking the moves he'd seen the others using during the simulations. And though watching him made her more tired, still, Jun felt better than she had that morning. She knew first hand where and when each of them had been hurt today and that seemed better to her than not knowing at all. And unless Pham objected later, it looked like she might be able to keep an eye on them from now on.

Over the next three weeks, Jun did exactly that. She watched the boys intently during each session. She came to grow somewhat familiar with the controls, paying attention to how Pham set up each exercise. She even grew to where she could anticipate the forms of attacks they'd receive by the controls he chose.

The boys' number of injuries grew less, their timing and reactions improving. These improvements were even more visible in the training they all shared. And though up to this point, being able to watch them had slowly worn away her strange feelings of apprehension, something unexpected moved to take their place.

This morning, as Pham had them do every so often, he had them pair off to spar against one another. Unlike most other times, Pham did not have Jun and Jinpei fight one of the others but paired them against themselves. Jun thought nothing of this and gave her brother all she had until Pham had them stop. It wasn't until one of the others went that she realized what was happening.

After bowing, Ken and Joe went at one another like lightning. Punch, block, kick, block, each move following the other almost too blurred to see. Whenever one or the other actually connected, whoever fell was back up and going again as if it had all been part of the same move.

Jun could only stare. The boys' reactions were instinctive, confident, quick. That strange room had made all this difference? She felt numb as the realization slowly came to her why Pham had paired her with her brother. Harder to face was the fact she would never be allowed to spar with any of the others ever again.

When Ryu took his turn with Joe, the impact of their blows seemed to echo in the room. Each time they hit it was like a slap to Jun's face. They were getting better, so much better. She and Jinpei were being left behind.

During Pham's critiques, Jun barely heard anything he said. In her mind's eye, the boys' combats just kept replaying themselves over and over. Even with the injuries they'd suffered, they'd been so much better. Soon they would be totally out of her and Jinpei's league.

An ache crept up into her chest and just wouldn't go away. It remained with her through lunch and their studies afterwards. When she and Jinpei went down to watch the boys train that afternoon, it grew worse. Only later, as they went to dinner did she understand why it was there.

Months ago, when they'd first come to Nambu's home, Joe had become angry when they'd first been allowed to join in the morning sessions. He had taken her aside one day and given her the first real inkling about what the project was about, but he'd also predicted something-that their involvement would only slow them down. And though at the time, his words hadn't been true, it looked like in the end he'd been absolutely right. They were slowing them down.

Sooner or later Nambu or Pham would see that and pull them out of the training. Worse, they might be allowed to stay, but they would be forever apart, the boys' growing skills rising like a wall between them. She wanted them all to grow closer not be thrust farther apart!

Jun kept quiet at dinner. She ate mechanically, not really tasting what she ate but not wanting to arouse suspicion. Her face was a mask of interest to the conversations happening around her though she was finding it extremely hard to concentrate on them at all. What was she going to do? It was as if a giant pit had opened up before her and she knew she couldn't make the leap across. Everything was falling apart.

Jun didn't realize dinner was over until everyone started getting up to go. Quickly, she rose from her own seat and followed the others out because it was what she was expected to do.

"What are we doing today?" Jinpei glanced from one of the boys to the other, his face eager.

"We-ll, how about some more swimming lessons," Ryu suggested.

"Yes!" Jinpei jumped up and down his face filled with glee. "Swimming!"

"You're going to give the poor kid more lessons on how to drown, Ryu?" Joe leaned easily back against a wooden paneled wall, a teasing grin on his face.

Ryu didn't rise to the bait. "Shows what you know."

"Ryu's a good teacher!" Jinpei rose to his friend's defense. "I didn't swallow that much water the last time."

Ryu choked, his face turning red, even as Joe burst out laughing.

"What's so funny?" Jinpei stared at the two of them, his expression baffled.

"Don't worry about it, Jinpei," Ken said. "Just ignore Joe, that's what I do."

Joe seemed to find this hilarious as well.

Jun wanted to cry. After everything, after all they'd gone through, here were the signs that the five of them were coming closer together. This was proof of the progress they'd made.

The first time Joe had laughed out loud in their presence had made her feel warm and happy. That Joe could feel at ease with them had been wonderful. Now, it felt like salt being added to the wound. It was but one of the many things they stood to lose because of Nambu's project.

"Beat you guys upstairs!" Ryu took off towards the staircase.

"Oh no, you won't!" Jinpei took off after him.

Joe followed at a more sedate pace, still chuckling softly.

"Hey, Jun, are you okay?"

She looked up only to find Ken's concerned face staring into her own. Jun looked away, his expression making her ache all the more. "I'm, I'm okay. Just thinking hard."

"Oh?"

She couldn't tell him. There was nothing he could do and he would figure it out eventually. Besides, it wasn't his fault; she couldn't burden him with this. She knew him well enough by now to know that though sometimes he tried to look like nothing could bother him, whenever there was a problem, he felt responsible and tried to fix it. And there was no way she could see that he could fix this. Jun bit her lip, trying quickly to come up with something to say. "It's a book. One in the study," she hesitated. "It's harder than the ones we're studying but it's really interesting. I just end up having to look up a lot of the words."

"Maybe I could help?" he offered.

Jun felt shame sweep through her at the lie. "It's okay. I've got to do this myself. Thanks anyway." She still couldn't bring herself to look directly at him.

"Are you coming swimming with us? Somebody needs to distract Joe so Ryu can actually get some lessons in."

Jun could hear the humor in his voice. "Maybe later? I really want to do some work on that book." She bit her lip again as he hesitated.

"Okay," he said. "See you later then?"

"Sure!" Jun tried to put as much positive emotion into the one word as she could. She watched as Ken hurried up the stairs after the others.

Jun made her way to the study keeping an ear out of the others' return down the stairs. She sat down after picking a book at random in case any of them decided to check in on her on the way.

Closing her eyes, Jun took a deep breath through her nose and then exhaled through her mouth trying to calm herself. At this point, if any of them did come in, she wasn't all that certain she wouldn't just snap.

Jun opened her eyes and pretended to look at the pages before her as she heard the others cavorting down the stairs. She prayed over and over none of them would come see her. They didn't. Yet their laughter as they went on their way, haunted her even after they'd gone.

Once five minutes had passed and the hallway remained quiet, Jun got up and replaced the book back on the shelf. Taking a peek into the hall to make sure no one was coming; she left the study and headed towards the front door.

The sun had already lowered out of sight beyond the horizon and the air had turned slightly chill. Jun closed her eyes and let it sweep over her, feeling comfortable in its embrace.

Small lights lit the covered parkway as well as the two walkways leading around the house. The trees and bushes stood about like deep undulating shadows as she followed the path on the right to the back.

Once she reached the back yard, Jun left the path and let the darkness swallow her whole. She followed what had become a familiar path to the far corner of the walled estate.

Though she couldn't see well. Jun bowed in the direction of her makeshift altar and prayed for a few minutes before sitting down against the trunk of a nearby tree. She'd never quite made up her mind if the spirits of Tebet lived here or if different spirits controlled the land, but had decided some time back not to take chances.

After a few months here, she'd come to learn the world held many more beliefs than just the ones she had known at the monastery. She'd yet been unable to find if Nambu believed in any of them, and was hesitant to ask. Pham and Pho believed in at least two, one having to do with their ancestors and another with a savior, and it didn't seem to trouble them that in some ways they were very different from each other.

Joe had made it quite plain that he believed in none of them and didn't really care if spirits or gods were real or not. This had worried her greatly.

Some of Ryu's beliefs had seemed to mirror some of her own. He too believed in spirits, spirits contained in the sea, in the trees, the rocks, and the mountains. He'd told her his village had had many shrines for the spirits. Though from other things he'd told her, his spirits didn't behave like hers. She'd asked him if he thought there were spirits here and what kind they might be, but he wasn't sure. It was also something he didn't like talking about in front of the others.

As for Ken's beliefs, Jun had been able to find out little. He seemed to know something about a lot of them, but he'd never directly admitted to believing in any.

Confused by the diversity, Jun had continued coming occasionally to her own shrine and bringing offerings just in case. Just being here, even with the uncertainty, made her feel more at ease.

Jun sat in the silence of the night, and let the serenity around her seep into her bones. The scent of pine and dried leaves tickled her nose as they played in the soft breeze. These were the scents of her new home and she found them comforting, like an old familiar but half forgotten memory.

She'd just started to think she would make it through when tears poured on their own out of her eyes. She tried to stop them, but once the flow had begun it wouldn't be denied. Jun closed her eyes, feeling the tears course warmly down her cheeks, speaking to her of the growing despair that had built inside her.

There had to be something she could do-there had to be something! She'd found something very precious to her and Jinpei here in Nambu's home and she didn't want to lose it. She knew her brother had yet to realize what was happening, but he'd have no choice but to see it soon. It would destroy him. He'd suffered so much. To have to lose not one but three of his family again! There had to be a way she could prevent that.

The easiest answer of course was to join Nambu's project. But that wasn't an option! Not only did everything she knew say that killing was wrong, but Nambu would never have them. Yet it was the project that was coming between them. It was this new training that was leaving them behind. If only she could...

Jun eyes snapped open, the thought completing itself in her mind. Yes, if somehow she and Jinpei could follow the same training, then they would improve too. A kernel of an idea blossomed inside her easing the ache within for the first time. The idea wasn't fool proof, it might not even work at all, but at least now she had a plan. She wiped away at her tears a shadow of a smile actually tugging at her lips. She shuffled over to the shrine and bowed down thanking the spirits for their guidance.

Feeling lighter than she had all day, Jun made her way back inside and then headed upstairs. It was time to join the others. She almost ran in her eagerness to be with them again.

 

 

 

 

Jun was instantly awake, the beeping from her dresser summoning her. Scurrying to her feet, her heart in her throat, she moved to turn it off, afraid someone else might hear. She'd learned from the others the clocks could be made to wake you up at specific times. A few months ago, she had toyed with hers until she'd figured out how to make it work. She'd set it every night since then to make sure she and Jinpei would never be late. Up to now, she'd beat it every morning without fail. She had used it for an entirely different purpose today.

The red glowing numbers flashed the time of one in the morning. She stared at it uncertainly, all her plans suddenly unsure now that the time was here. But she didn't really have any other choice.

Grabbing for them where she'd left them, Jun took her clothes and quickly got dressed in the dark. Her pulse racing, she moved to her door and opened it quietly before sneaking out of her room.

As she moved down the hall for the stairs, the house's silence pressed in around her. It was almost as if it were holding its breath, aware of what she was about to do.

Jun followed the familiar route to the kitchen, gingerly touching the wall with her fingertips so as not to get lost in the darkness. Visibility improved a little as she entered the kitchen as a bit of light poured into the room from the outside through the window in the kitchen door.

She toggled the switch for the secret door, suddenly wondering how she would manage to get where she needed to go in the absolute darkness she would encounter there. She mentally kicked herself for not having the foresight to borrow a flashlight or candle. It was too late for that now.

As the door opened, Jun was forced to shield her eyes as unexpected bright light gushed from the opening. She gasped, thinking she'd been caught, but found that no one was there. As her eyes adjusted, she looked down the stairwell and noticed not all the lights were on, just every other one. Was there someone down there or was this just the way things were always left? She had no way to know. Should she not go? Reminding herself why she was doing this to keep her courage, Jun forced herself to go in and closed the door behind her.

With all her senses primed, she carefully made her way to the second sub level and the boys' new training room. No lights were on inside the control room or the room adjoining it, so Jun left the outer door open until she could find the lights. She found two sets of switches by the door and flipped them both. Both rooms flooded with light.

Taking one last look into the hallway before doing so, Jun closed the door. Feeling a little nervous now that she was actually there, she approached the control panel. For three weeks she'd watched Pham manipulate the panel, thought that she'd become familiar with what did what. Now, as she stood there studying it, she was no longer sure.

Some of the buttons and switches were labeled, while many others were not. Yet all of her plan rested on this machine, on what she might be able to do with it. She had to make it work.

With gnawing uncertainty, Jun reached for the green switch on the console's upper left-hand corner. In all this time, Jun had never actually seen Pham activate the machine; she'd only seen him turn it off. Sending off a quick prayer, she hoped this machine, like so many others, would turn on the same way it was turned off. She reached out and flipped it.

A soft hum filled the room even as the reels of the computer banks against the wall rolled forward, then backward, before resetting with a loud click. Jun twisted around at the unexpected noise.

When nothing else happened, she slowly turned back to the control panel. At the beginning of each set, Jun knew that Pham paid the most attention to the controls on the right. Casting her thoughts back to earlier that day, she followed what she remembered of his settings and then activated the machines.

Poles thrust out of the walls in the other room at incredible speeds. The small car with the kerchief was there but wasn't moving. Jun frowned. This was not the effect she'd been trying to duplicate. She pressed the large button marked stop and tried again.

For over an hour, Jun changed combinations and watched the effects. She puzzled through them, keeping an eye on what did and didn't change and filed the information away. The longer she spent doing it the more her confidence grew. The pieces were coming together in her mind.

When she was finished for the night, Jun turned off the console and left everything as she had found it. There was more work to be done before she was truly ready, but she felt she'd made progress and it made her feel good.

Jun sneaked out of the basement and back to her room, no one seeming the wiser. Just in case, Jun set her alarm as she did every night, so it would wake her in the morning if she overslept. She fell asleep quickly, her mind more at ease than it had been.

The next afternoon, Jun watched Pham's every movement at the controls, committing them to memory. She watched the boys as well, studying their moves and techniques more critically than ever. For her plan to work, she'd have to learn all she could from them without the benefit of actual instruction.

That night, Jun sneaked once more down to the second basement level and practiced on using the controls. Her mastery over them grew, but she still made no attempt to go into the other room.

For the next two days, Jun watched Pham and the boys and continued to practice at night with the controls. After studying them on Thursday, Jun made up her mind that she was ready to start.

A tangled bundle of nerves, Jun set the controls to make the poles jut out only from the east wall. She set them to come out two at a time, at a slow rate of speed. She set the pattern to run for twenty minutes.

After doing a quick set of warm-ups, Jun activated the program. For the first time, she set foot on the training room on the other side of the glass.

The padded floor beneath her bare feet felt warm. She edged up and down and felt the flooring give a little. She walked from one side to the other to get used to how it felt. After that, she turned to face the east wall and dropped into a ready stance.

One pole, about mid-height, protruded slowly from the wall to her right. A second pole started out a few seconds later, a couple of feet to the right of the first.

Taking her time, Jun flipped over the first and vaulted over the second. As more of the poles came and went, Jun went over and under them in as many varied ways as she could think of. She experimented too, trying to grasp some of the maneuvers she'd seen the others do.

When her twenty minutes were up, Jun took a short break and then set the program to run again, but this time with a few more poles. She pushed the speed up a little as well, as she reset the program a third time.

By the time she stopped for the night, Jun felt exhausted but at the same time strangely satisfied. Shutting everything down, she returned to her room and fell fast asleep.

The following night, Jun used the same program she had the night before but this time had two walls instead of just one jutting out poles. At each of the twenty minute sessions, she tweaked the program just enough to push herself a little harder.

On Saturday night, she again increased the number of poles. She got her first set of bruises for the trouble, but instead of bringing her down, it pushed her to try that much harder. If the boys could put up with that and improve, she could as well!

When she entered the kitchen on her way back that night, Jun stopped something in the back of her mind screaming that something wasn't quite right. As her eyes flickered about the room looking for the anomaly, she noticed one of the chairs was missing from the kitchen table.

Goosebumps traveled up her arms and back as she stared at the incongruity. Had the chair been there when she'd first come downstairs? Where had it gone? Hating the fact she had no answers, Jun forced herself to get moving. The heckles in the back of her neck rose, the dead certainty someone was awake and about moving through her.

The urge poured through her to run, to not waste time getting back to the safety of her room. Only by an act of pure will was she able to restrain the impulse. There was a chance whoever was about didn't know that she was there. And she could keep it that way if she just stayed calm.

As she left the kitchen, Jun stuck to the walls, her ears and eyes alert. She jumped at every shadow, cringed at every bit of noise, sure she'd been discovered. By the time she'd made it upstairs her breathing was heavy, her nerves on end.

Jun rushed down the final hallway to make it to her room, but stopped when she noticed her door was ajar. Her blood turned cold in her veins. And though she wanted nothing less, she moved cautiously to her door to see who might be there waiting for her.

When she first came in, she saw no one. She wondered if she could have been wrong and had left the door open herself earlier that night, when a muffled sob reached her ears. Jun felt simultaneously hot and cold as relief and worry flooded through her.

"Jinpei?"

The blankets on her bed burst upwards as the bulge she'd originally mistaken for her pillow sat up with a start. "Neechan!" The small boy flew from the bed into her arms. "Neechan!" Jinpei rubbed his wet face against Jun's stomach, the tears soaking through to her skin.

"Jinpei, it's all right." She knelt before him trying to make her voice as soothing as possible. "I was only gone for a little while. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I'm back now." She moved the hair out of his eyes and wiped away the tears still on his face.

"I - I was so scared, neechan." He hugged her hard. "You were gone and I was worried. And then, and then they were gone too!" His small frame shook against her.

"Who's gone too, Jinpei?" Jun remembered the missing chair downstairs.

"Aniki is gone, and so is Ryu. Even Joe!" He stared at her earnestly.

The boys were gone?

"I didn't know what to do, neechan." His eyes filled with tears. "I tried to find Hakase's room but couldn't remember where it was and there were all those empty rooms... I was scared." The last was almost a whine.

"Shshsh, it's all right." Jun cradled him in her arms. "I'm back and everything will be all right now."

"But where were you?" He clung to her his eyes bright.

Jun hesitated answering not sure how much she should say. "Jinpei, you've noticed, haven't you, how the others have been getting better at practice than us?"

The boy nodded his eyes not meeting hers. "Yes."

Jun smiled a little despite herself, proud he'd noticed thought they'd never talked about it. It also seemed it had bothered him just as it had her. "Well, I think I've found a way for us to get better too."

Jinpei's face lit up. "Really?"

"Yes, really, and that's why I was gone," she said. "I had thought to try it out a while before telling you to make sure it'd work. I think it will, so now you know." She playfully tussled up his hair.

"But how, neechan? How are we going to do it?"

Jun held back a moment, subconsciously letting the excitement build. "I've figured out how to run the room."

Jinpei's eyes almost bugged out of his head. "The room?" The question came out as a high squeak.

Jun nodded, a grin growing on her face. "Yep."

"Neechan..." He stared at her with undisguised awe.

"We'll go practice there tomorrow night. We'll be taking it slow at first, so don't be frightened. We'll catch up to them in no time, you'll see."

Jinpei's face abruptly fell. "But, neechan, they've disappeared. What if they never come back?"

Jun had almost forgotten the fact he'd found that the boys were gone. "I'm sure they're all right, " she stated quickly. Jun hoped it was the truth.

"Can't we make sure?" His face pleaded with hers.

Jun hesitated. "I-I guess we can take a look in their rooms..." Her brother's worry was starting to rub off on her, but she wasn't sure what to do.

Jinpei stood up, taking Jun's hand tightly in his own.

Jun followed him out of the room and down the hall.

They checked Ryu's room first. For a moment, Jun thought he was inside until she realized the bed's pillows had been arranged to give the impression he was beneath the covers. The job wasn't good enough though to fool anyone who knew his size for long.

The fact he'd gone so out of his way to do it, however, eased Jun's growing worry considerably. Though why he'd want to sneak off somewhere in the middle of the night wasn't something she understood at all.

After pointing out to Jinpei that everything looked in order, they moved on to Ken and Joe's room. The effect of their pillows being used to mimic their missing forms was better than what Ryu had achieved. Just as in Ryu's room, everything else seemed normal and undisturbed. Wherever they'd gone, they'd gone there willingly.

"But where would they go, neechan?" Jinpei's question whispered over to her as they quietly made their way back to their rooms.

"I don't know, and I wouldn't ask them if I were you," she said.

"Could we wait up for them?"

"Jinpei..."

"Please, neechan. I just really, really want to make sure they're okay. Please?" He waited breathlessly for her response, his eyes begging her to say yes.

"It's really late --," she began.

"But it's Sunday tomorrow. We can sleep late!" His eyes lit up. He knew he had her.

Jun sighed. "All right. But only for a little while, okay?"

"'Kay!" Jinpei rushed into his room and then came out a few moments later with his pillow and blanket. "Where do we wait?"

"Hm." Jun walked back towards the main hallway trying to find a good vantage-

point that would let them see the boys but would also give them the best chance of not being caught.

Finding a spot that looked right, she sat back against the wall and wrapped herself and Jinpei in his blanket as he cuddled up beside her.

In less than ten minutes, Jinpei had fallen asleep. Jun envied him a little, though she was sure he wouldn't be happy about having fallen asleep, for she felt way too tense and awake.

As she waited in the darkness, Jun wondered if the boys' disappearance might not be something else to do with the Project. Could it be possible the pillow trick hadn't been meant for the grown ups, but possibly just for them? If they were already out and fighting the enemy, maybe they didn't want the two of them to know. Jun found she didn't like the idea very much.

Her eyes jerked up at a sound coming from somewhere near the stairs. She spotted a set of darker shadows coming up towards the landing.

"Ryu, dammit! Watch where you're going will you?"

Jun froze at the sound of Joe's voice.

"Sorry. I just can't see anything."

"Shshshsh! Do you two want to get us caught?" Ken's voice was farther up the stairs than the others.

Jun scrunched down in the blanket, abruptly unsure as to the safety of her vantage point. She watched as their dark blobs reached the top of the stairs and headed to the right towards their rooms. She stayed still, wanting to do nothing to attract their attention. She sighed once they had gone glad they'd had no idea she was there.

Jun sat and waited a short while, just to make sure they wouldn't be back. Feeling eventually it might be safe to move, Jun gingerly picked up her brother and carried him to bed before seeking her own.

The next morning, Jun reminded Jinpei forcefully not to say anything to the others about not finding them last night or what she had told him they'd be doing. One slip from him and their hopes would be over before they'd begun. Jun decided to stick close to him in case he was tempted and it was a good thing she did.

She was forced to avert disaster twice that day. And though Jinpei's shins would only be sore for a little while, keeping track of him had thoroughly exhausted her. She hadn't yet recovered when the alarm woke her at one.

Jun went to get Jinpei out of bed, hoping he wouldn't fight her too hard. She'd barely touched his arm when his eyes flew open, awake and alert. "Is it time?" His voice quivered with excitement.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Jinpei?" Jun lightly bit her lip, suddenly reluctant but not entirely sure why.

"More than anything, neechan." His face was totally serious.

He was growing up. He was going for what he wanted. And just like her, keeping their small family together was all that was important to him. She would just have to make extra sure he took care.

Once they'd sneaked their way down to the simulation room, rather than proceed where she'd been at, Jun started them back at the beginning. Jinpei took to her format easily, his smaller size making it even easier to avoid the poles.

Each evening they made a little more progress and by Saturday of the following week, they were back to where Jun had previously been.

That night, on the way back, Jun noticed one of the chairs was gone from the table again. The hairs on her arms prickled at the thought the boys were out again. She wondered once more if these disappearances had anything to do with the Project or not. If they didn't, surely they would have said something to them of it? In her heart, it felt like yet another weight-another thing trying to tear them apart.

As the sessions got harder, the two of them started picking up minor bruises and scrapes. Jun was always careful and quickly treated any injuries. Sometimes they had to get inventive to hide the bruises from sight. Jun wanted to avoid having to lie if she didn't have to.

Every Saturday night, Jun noticed a chair was missing from the table. The fact that she didn't know where the boys were going or why picked at her in the back of her mind. She tried not to think of it as much as possible.

"Neechan, couldn't we just ask them?" Jinpei stopped, staring at the empty hole at the table.

"You know we can't."

"But I want to know," he replied. "It's not fair they go without us." He looked surly. "Couldn't we maybe follow them? Just once? That way we wouldn't have to ask."
Jun stared at him, the idea having occurred to her many times before. But did she have the right to even consider doing such a thing? Would the risk be too great? "I-I don't know, Jinpei."

"Please." He stretched the word as far as it would go. "Won't you at least think about it?"

Jun looked into his eager, hopeful face. She sighed. "All right, I'll think about it. But I'm not promising you anything, understand?"

He nodded quickly, the look in his eyes saying he knew she'd see things his way.

From then on, Jinpei asked for her answer at least six to seven times a day. Jun put him off, not able to make up her mind on what they should do.

"Neechan, have you decided yet?"

The two of them were walking down the hall on their way to the kitchen having retrieved their books for their afternoon studies.

"Jinpei..."

The young boy quickly stepped back, Jun's irritation thick in her voice.

"If you ask me one more time..." Jun glared at him leaving him to figure out the rest of her implied threat.

"What are you having to decide, Jun?"

She turned around, surprised. Ken was standing at the doorway into the study. She'd forgotten he liked to go there during the boy's own study time. She didn't like the curious half frown he wore on his face. "Ah, you see-"Jun looked away, not sure what to say and positive she'd not be able to lie if she was looking at him.

"I saw a model I want but don't have enough allo-alla-allowance. Neechan said she might let me borrow some of hers."

Jun stared at her brother in shocked surprise. He'd just told a bold faced lie! For her! And the worst and most amazing thing about it was how easily he'd said it.

"Oh." Ken looked relieved.

Jun wondered suddenly what it was he thought they might have been talking about. Did he suspect something?

"If you don't have the money, Jun, I wouldn't mind lending him some of mine," he said.

"Um, no, that's all right. He has more than enough models already. He can wait."

"Aw, neechan." Even his disappointment sounded genuine.

"Sorry, Jinpei, what your big sister says goes." Ken gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder. "Maybe next time." He waved at the two of them and returned to the study.

Feeling guilty, Jun continued on her way. Before they got to the kitchen, however, she pulled Jinpei aside and brought her face close to his.

"How did you do that, Jinpei?" she whispered.

"Do what, neechan?"

"You know what I mean."

"I do?" He stared at her with a puzzled expression.
Jun sighed lightly, not wanting to say it, but saw she'd have no other choice. "How were you able to lie to Ken like that?"

His young face looked back at her with deep seriousness. "I didn't lie. There is a model I want at the store."

Jun frowned. "But you never asked me for money to buy it."

"I didn't?" He actually looked surprised.

"Never mind." Her heart felt a little easier. Lying was not a habit she wanted him picking up, regardless of the cause.

Their close call though pushed her away from sleep that night, knowing she'd have to give Jinpei a decision before tomorrow night. She still wasn't able to come up with anything.

Jun felt tight and tense all the next day. Jinpei sent her questioning glances, but for once never actually asked for an answer.

Finally, when it was time to turn in, he could hold back no longer. "Neechan! I wanna know!"

Jinpei had come into her room, closing the door behind him. He came close to the bed, keeping his voice low. "Can we, please?"

"We could get in so much trouble. Waste all that we've done."

"Please! Just this once."

The pleading in his voice resonated inside her. He only wanted what she wanted. Would it really be so bad to try and find out where they went? She hesitated at the brink just a moment longer. "All right, we'll do it."

Jinpei let out a small, excited yelp and danced around the floor.

"But..."

He froze, his eyes glancing over at her.

"But we have to make sure we think through how we are going to do this. What steps we need to take not to get caught," she said.

Her brother sighed with relief. "'Kay."

Cuddling together on her bed, they discussed what they knew and what they planned to do. After she thought there was no more they could figure out to safeguard against, Jun set her alarm and the two of them went to sleep.

When her alarm went off, Jun rose quickly, got dressed with the darkest clothes she owned and then went to wake her brother. He had gone to bed with his clothes on.

Creeping from their rooms, they went downstairs to the formal living room and unlatched one of the windows there. That done; they crept into the kitchen and on to the outside.

Jun felt goose pimples rise on her arms and legs as they quickly moved to hide in the nearest set of bushes. The cool night air and deep darkness reminded her of the night long ago when she had defied the monks of the monastery and had sought out Nambu in the guest quarters. It had been one of the events that had put them on the path that had brought them to where they were now. She hoped this night would not prove to be the undoing of all they'd gained.

The moon was three quarters full and illuminated the area enough for them to see. Jinpei quivered with excitement at Jun's side as they waited for the boys to make their appearance.

They'd been there about a half-hour when Jun saw the kitchen knob begin to turn. Ducking down behind the bushes and dragging her brother down with her, Jun waited, her ears poised to catch any sound.

Other than for a faint creaking from the door and light rustling sounds, Jun heard nothing as the boys made their way outside. As she heard nothing more, she risked a peek and saw Ryu and Joe waiting by the kitchen door with the chair while Ken silently dashed towards the barn.

In less that two minutes, Ken returned carrying a coil of rope over his shoulder. As soon as he rejoined the others, all three took the path leading towards the front of the house.

Jinpei propped up to go follow but Jun held him back. "We have to wait," she whispered.

"But we'll lose then, neechan."

"We won't."

After about a half minute, Jun let go of her brother and they moved from bush to bush, making their way in the direction the others had gone. As they neared the gate at the end of the drive, Jun froze, her gaze locking on Joe's thin form as he deftly climbed over the high wall. Signaling Jinpei, she hid behind the trunk of a nearby tree, marking the place she'd seen Joe go over in her mind.

As the two of them watched, they saw Ryu's form appear on top of the wall. Jun ducked out of sight as he lingered there a moment and looked around. Jun listened with all her senses, not sure he'd not spotted them, until she heard a dull thud as he went on to the other side. Glancing towards the wall again, she spotted Ken as he also went over the wall.

Knowing they wouldn't be seen now, Jun followed Jinpei to the high wall towards the spot they'd seen the boys go over.

As she expected, Jun found the missing kitchen chair propped against the wall, a rope tied at the top, which went on over the wall.

"Jinpei, climb up and take a look. But be very careful."

The words were barely out of her mouth before the small boy was zooming up the chair and pulling himself up to the lip of the wall to take a peek.

Jun waited anxiously as the seconds ticked by and Jinpei said nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, he brought himself back down a grin on his face.

"They're out of sight now, neechan. It's our turn!" Even as he spoke, Jinpei climbed back on the top of the back of the chair and pulled himself up on the wall until he could swing his leg over the top.

"Jinpei, wait!" Jun rushed up to follow, hoping he wasn't wrong and the others wouldn't see him.

By the time she made it to the top of the wall, Jinpei had already dropped off on the other side. He grinned from ear to ear looking up at her as she came down to join him.

"Which way?" Jun asked.

He pointed off to their right. "That way."

"Now remember what we agreed on. We must be very quiet and always stay out of sight. All right?"

"Yes, neechan." He rolled his eyes having heard this any number of times that night. "Can we go now?"

The two of them followed the high wall until it ended and then ran into Nambu's neighbor's yard. As much as possible they used whatever they could find as cover. Even going through the extra trouble, it didn't take them long before they'd caught up with the boys. The three of them seemed in no hurry as they sauntered down the sidewalk. Also, now that they were away from the estate, they were joking and laughing as they went along. Jun was becoming ever more certain this foray had nothing to do with the Project.

Occasionally as they moved from street to street, Jun and Jinpei were forced to wait until the others had moved out of sight before they could follow due to the lack of cover. Street lamps grew more frequent, making their progress more perilous, as there were less and less shadows to hide behind.

After a while, the boys left the sidewalk and walked across a parking lot into a Quickie Mart. Jun and Jinpei couldn't get close, for the parking lot was empty and lit.

"Neechan, what's in there?" Jinpei peered out past the car they stood behind, his feet shuffling back and forth, unable to stay still.

"Don't you remember? Nambu Hakase stopped here for gasoline for the car once."

"They want gasoline?" Jinpei made a face.

Jun laughed. "No silly, the inside is like a small store--candy, drinks, and other things."

His eyes grew wide. "You mean there's chocolate in there too?"

"Don't you dare start getting any ideas." Jun let her tone grow hard. "I only agreed to follow them to see where they went."

Her brother's face fell. "Aww, neechan."

Ken, Ryu, and Joe stayed inside the Quickie Mart for about fifteen to twenty minutes. Appearing to be in no hurry, they sat down at the curb facing the parking lot and talked as they drank and ate some of the things they'd bought.

Jun felt a tug on her shirt.

"I'm thirsty."

"Shshsh. You can get something when we get back." He was not going to talk her into going there.

The trip to the Quickie Mart explained many things. Many times before Jun had wondered how the others kept coming up with chocolate for Jinpei, especially since they never bought any while on their shopping time with Nambu. It also explained why they hardly ever seemed to spend their money on those trips-it was already gone. Jun wondered if they realized that sooner or later Nambu was bound to notice.

"Neechan, is this part of the Top Secret?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Then how come they haven't asked us to come with them, neechan?" He sounded a little hurt. "Don't they like us anymore?"

Jun glanced down at him quickly, hearing possible tears in his voice. "It's not that at all, Jinpei. They like us a lot, you know that."

"Is it, is it cause we're not Top Secret too?"

Jun sighed lightly. "No, I don't think it's that either." She thought about what to say next for a long moment and then went on. "I think it might have to do with the fact they're not really supposed to be out here. I think they haven't asked us because if they took us with them and got caught, then we might get in trouble too." She wasn't sure it was the true reason, but she rather believe that than something else.

"Oh." Jinpei stared back out at them, his eyes full of admiration.

"Come on, let's start back. It looks like they might be here a while yet, and it'd be better if we made it back first, that way we don't get locked out."

"Do we have to?"

Jun gave her brother a grave look. "Yes we do. Now come on!"

Once they were out of the boys' line of sight Jun picked up the pace and used the sidewalk to get them home faster. When they reached the wall of Nambu's estate, she tugged thoughtfully on the rope attached to the chair on the other side.

"Jinpei, let me give you a boost so you can climb the wall. Once you're up there, pull the chair up and over. Try not to hit the wall with it so it won't scrape against the bricks."

"Okay!"

Obediently, Jinpei climbed up on the wall as Jun helped him up and then carefully brought up the chair over the wall and handed it down to Jun.

Jun used it to climb up and then pulled it up behind her. She settled it back over on the other side, trying to get it as close to where it came from as possible. As soon as they got down, she made sure it was put back exactly the way they'd found it. Going so far as to make sure the legs were back in the grooves that had been made in the dirt when they had all climbed it earlier.

As quietly as they had come, Jun and Jinpei sneaked back into the house and to their beds. Jun fell asleep feeling easier than she had in days.
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