"Is Ken with you?" Nambu rubbed at his eyes feeling incredibly tired.
"I'm right here, hakase."
"Good." Nambu placed his glasses back on his nose, his spirits rising as he looked upon the last of his three charges. The three upon whom so much depended on in the coming time of need.
Ken had been placed in Nambu's care by his father and looked to posses the qualities which would be needed of a strong leader. Joe, the second of the three, had come to him as an act of fate, and a more devoted, though at times difficult, member of the team he couldn't have asked for. Ryu, their latest addition, was more due to accident than actual intent, and some mischievous conniving from the other two. But despite his original misgivings, the young sumo wrestler was turning out to have a number of stabilizing qualities which would serve them all well in the long run.
Other things hadn't been going as agreeably. Intelligence reports grew gloomier by the day and the still unexplained tectonic shifts in normally stable areas didn't bode well. The enemy was flexing its muscles. It wouldn't be long now before they made their first open move.
But the team and the items they would require weren't ready yet. Far from it. The scientists and engineers had made some progress-the vehicle prototypes were under construction, the core of the underwater portable base was finished. Yet there were still so many other things which needed to be made ready. The human element of the plan was but one and yet could prove the most crucial. Nambu wanted, needed to make sure this phase of the plan at least was coming together.
"I realized you've just finished, but if you're not too tired, I'd like a demonstration of how you're coming along." How young the three of them looked. So full of energy, so vulnerable. At the moment, Nambu found it hard to recall if he'd ever felt that way.
"We, we can do that, hakase," Ken answered for them.
Nambu thought the boy seemed a little nervous. Perhaps things hadn't gone well for them today? He felt a tinge of worry at the thought.
"We're ready." This sounded more confident than the first.
Perhaps it was only due to the fact he'd not given them any warning.
"Right now?" Ryu sounded disappointed.
"Yes," Pho, the Vietnamese dietician, notified him, standing in the kitchen. "I thought it'd be better for you to do it before dinner rather than after. The sooner you show Kozaburo what he wants, the sooner you'll get to eat." She grinned.
The woman had been a treasure from the moment they first met. Without her skills in nutrition, her fierceness of spirit, and attention to detail, he would have never been able to care as well for the boys as they needed.
Ryu's wide shoulders slumped giving in to the inevitable. Nambu could sympathize with the attitude, Pho's indomitable will the one thing which ever gave him pause. Though she was very fond of pointing out she was only doing it for his own benefit. The boys never stood a chance against her, not even Joe. He felt the beginning of a grin tugging at his lips.
"Don't take too long, Kozaburo. The food will only hold for so long, and you and the boys need to eat."
It was always very difficult to argue with her. "Yes, Pho-san. It should only be about ten minutes."
The boys dashed out of the kitchen and down the hall to the secret entrance leading to the house's lower levels. With Pho's husband, the boys' martial arts teacher, beside him, Nambu stepped forward to follow.
The daily reports from the old sensei were the one bright, encouraging piece of information Nambu had received for weeks. Today though, he wanted to see their progress for himself. There were those looking for reassurances on this secretly funded project and the best way to make his arguments convincing would be to be convinced himself.
After taking the stairs to the lower levels, Pham led him unerringly to the simulated exercise control room. Of the boys, Nambu had seen no sign, all of them seemingly eager now to show what they could do. He took this as an encouraging sign.
Pham turned off the lights in the control room and moved to stand before the bank of buttons and lights in front of the window opening into the padded room beyond. The room was a feat in ingenuity and mechanics. The software so complex it took it's own mainframe to run. The package was a key ingredient in the tough training regimen for the boys. They had to be shaped, molded into extreme fighting machines. Between Pham's teachings and this special room their instincts would be honed as sharp as katana so their chances for survival could be as high as possible.
Nambu stepped up beside Pham and peered through the window. Ken, Joe, and Ryu stood in the middle of the other room. Ken was smiling and Ryu looked pleased. Joe appeared surprisingly smug for some reason. What was this about? It wasn't an expression he normally connected with the young Sicilian.
Pham's experienced hands flew over the controls and then flipped the switch to start the programmed routine. Poles appeared from the walls and thrust outwards at high speeds. The boys immediately dispersed to avoid them, even as two new figures jumped from the side into view.
"My god!" Instantly, Nambu's hand shot out toward the auto shut off button as he recognized the two for who they were. His brow rose in surprise and shock, as he found Pham's callused hand intercepting his own before he could press it. "Sensei, what is this? We have to stop the simulation before they get hurt."
Pham's calm eyes locked with Nambu's own. "No, Kozaburo, that is not so. Watch and you will see." His gaze returned to the window.
Despite his rising confusion, Nambu found himself doing the same.
With quickly rising wonder, he watched his two latest charges as they twisted and dived as deftly as the other three, avoiding the thrusting bars with seeming ease. How was this possible? The young girl, Jun, and her even younger brother, Jinpei, had only been with them for a few months. Yes, Pham claimed they had potential, but for them to be capable of this? Nambu felt himself go cold all over. Impossible. No one would be able to match the others without prior rigorous training and perseverance. How could that have happened? Watching them flash expertly in and out with the boys amidst the beams quickly left him with no doubts on how it could have. They'd all trained with one another before.
As if to prove the point, Joe, Ryu, and Jun passed a laughing Jinpei up between them, each mirroring the others' moves as if they'd worked in concert for years.
It'd been bad enough when somehow these two young ones found the secret access way to these levels. Worse when Pho and Pham decided it was their karma and because of it had taken it upon themselves to allow the two to practice katas with the boys. But this, this spoke of collusion, of security breaches, of things done regardless of his wishes behind his back. How long had this been going on?
Nambu turned away from the window flooded with disgust. Decisions had been made without his approval. His wishes on this matter had been ignored. How dare they do as they wanted? Didn't they understand the gravity of what he was trying to achieve here? Of the chance he was trying to give them in this horrible situation?
"I'm leaving. I've seen enough." The words felt thick in his mouth. Without glancing at Pham, Nambu stormed from the room.
Jun was but a slip of a girl, Jinpei a mere child. This was insanity! An insanity he'd expressly forbidden. The boys should have known better. Pham's understanding and support on this point should have been beyond reproach. What had gotten into them? He'd been a fool to have ever brought those two here. He'd been an even bigger fool to let them stay once they discovered the lower levels. How much did those two know? How big a security risk did he have on his hands? What was he going to do about it?
Nambu looked up, not having realized he'd made his way back to the kitchen already.
Pho stood by the stove, watching him with a puzzled look on her face.
There was no way the Asian woman didn't know what was going on. Nothing ever escaped her, and her husband kept no secrets from her as well. Nambu felt his unhappiness increase. How could his entire household have turned against him, against the project, against common sense, over two mere children?
"I won't be staying for dinner." He gruffly made for the other side of the kitchen-feelings of betrayal and anger and both held firmly in check.
"But the children," she said, "did you not see?"
He cut her off before she could add anything else. "Don't expect me back tonight." Nambu left without looking back.
Once in his car and driving away, he stared in the rearview mirror at the closest thing to a home he'd possessed in some time and felt it wasn't his anymore.
He drove through the streets of Utoland with no specific destination in mind. His troubles circled around him like vultures looking to feed of a desiccated carcass. Five members would be an optimum number. But to have a girl and a mere child fill the roster? It wasn't right. No matter how gifted they were. And they did seem gifted. What little he'd watched of the exercise replayed itself unwillingly in his mind. They'd kept up with the others, their execution flawless. If he hadn't known better, he would never have believed all five hadn't been training together for years. But exhibiting gifts like these weren't the same as going out into the world and killing, maiming, destroying lives. Children like them weren't meant to do such things. He wouldn't make them do such things-no matter what they could do or how much he or the world might need them.
Galactor was ruthless; it would make no allowances for their sex, their age. And Jun and Jinpei's lives had already been filled with such hardship. He would not be the one to destroy them.
Hours later, Nambu parked his car in his reserved space within the ISO's underground parking, feeling exhausted and still no closer to any answers. He was determined not to go home. And right now, he felt he understood the austere building better than his house. He knew where he stood here.
Briefcase in hand, he entered the building and made his way to his office. Stopping momentarily at one of the break rooms on the way, he bought a cold sandwich from a vending machine and poured himself a cup of coffee from a pot which had been sitting in the coffee maker a little too long. As he punched in the number for the sandwich in the machine, he realized he'd not even looked at the keypad but punched it from memory. Maybe this was why things had gotten out of hand; he'd been spending way too much time here and not enough looking after the affairs at home. His neglect had allowed events to take on a life of their own.
Weary, Nambu didn't bother turning on the main lights in his office, but instead turned on the lamp at his desk. The sharp light illuminated the papers strewn all over the mahogany surface and drove the rest of the room into a deeper darkness. He set his briefcase down and sat with his food. The sandwich tasted like old sawdust, but he'd long ago gotten used to it so didn't give it another thought. He'd eaten much worse things in his time. Some with even less nutritional value, despite what Pho might believe.
Absently choking down some of the coffee, Nambu noticed his message light was blinking. Wondering what bad news had been left for him now, he set the phone on speaker and cued the messages.
"Hakase, I need to talk to you."
Nambu's brow rose at the sound of Ken's voice.
"We've got to discuss Jun and Jinpei. We need them, hakase. They're capable; we trust them. They have everything we need. Please, hakase."
He frowned. This wasn't like Ken, doubting, questioning his judgement. Only where the other members of the team were concerned had he ever strayed, had he argued, done things without sanction. This habit had started with Ryu. Ken had apprised the young wrestler of the details of the project, disregarding security, and pretty much recruited him into the cause on his own. Ken had even argued the case on why they should keep him. As events turned out, Ryu had proved his usefulness. Nambu had thought he wouldn't have to worry on Ken's account again. It looked like he was wrong.Beep.
"Hakase, this is Joe." Nambu's brow rose again. "For what it's worth, I think you're being a fool. Ken might not be the smartest thing around-ow-but he's got this one pegged. Jun and Jinpei belong as part of the team."
His previous frown deepened. Joe too? That was definitely unexpected. He of the three should be fighting the most against this. It'd become clear, from very early on, all Joe desired was revenge for his parent's murder and wouldn't stand for anything that stood in the way of his goal. His previous acquiescence to Jun and Jinpei's presence had surprised him a little and had gone some way to tip his original decision. But for him to actively want them as part of the team?
"Hakase, I-I wanted to leave you a message too." So, Ryu had called to put in his two cents as well. "Jun and Jinpei have what it takes, hakase. Really. Jinpei is real quick. And Jun is real smart, she's found out all sorts of things on her own. She figured out the controls in the simulation room and she'd been working with Jinpei in secret before Ken and Joe caught them at it. Won't you let them show you what they can do, hakase? Please?"
The girl had figured out how to operate the room on her own? When had this happened? How had things gotten so far out of control with him none the wiser? Nambu massaged the bridge of his nose already feeling the pulsing flashes of an oncoming headache.
"Kozaburo, the children are upset." Pham's clipped tones poured from the speaker. "It is not wise to make them think you are unreasonable. I have tried to discuss this with you before and feel I must do so again. Do not be rash. There are things even you cannot fight against."
Even Pham had called. What had these two children done to them? Galactor could never have undermined him as badly as they had done. He hung up the phone before he could discover whether Pho had also left him a message as well.
Yuriko, why won't they understand? Was his point of view so difficult to see? He only wanted to preserve what was theirs by right, what we lost. Children weren't meant for burdens like these.
Without thinking, Nambu opened his top desk drawer and brought out the object set on top. The plastic felt cool in his hands and kept the oil from his fingers and the corruptive elements in the air from harming the tattered remains of the picture nestled within. The upper right hand corner of the picture was gone, the rest of the edges browned by the touch of fire. The image itself had yellowed over time, though it would not degrade any farther since placed in it's protective case. The wonders of the modern age had at least allowed him to save this much of her.
His weariness receded a little as he stared at the picture. Within it sat a wan young girl in a long taffeta dress. Her wide, expressive eyes were warm and her smile made her shine. It'd been taken during the good times, before the world had been plunged into its third war of chaos. As he stared at his sister's picture, Nambu couldn't help but wonder what she'd think of what he was doing. What would she make of all this.
Getting no answers from her smile, he slipped the picture back inside the drawer. What was he going to do? Everyone seemed heavily attached to the two children. The signs were there. They'd been quite poignant when they'd all confronted him before asking him to let them stay. Pho and Pham hadn't been as vocal, but the evidence was still there nonetheless. Joe tolerated them, might even like them, which was more than Nambu had ever expected.
But what options were open to him? The search to find the two a home hadn't borne fruit and seemed unlikely to. Jun's opinion on being sent back to an orphanage was only too clear. If his choice made them run away again, it would only put them back into a situation similar to the one he originally found them in, which was far from what he wanted for them. This didn't leave him many alternatives.
He would continue to try to find them a home, of course, but since nothing had turned up so far, chances were nothing ever would. Statistics showed children past two years old normally proved incredibly difficult to place and with the stipulation the two of them would need to be taken together...
Regardless of all that, he needed them gone. The sooner he got them away from the others the faster the boys would get over it. An apartment complex would most likely be his best option, one with other families for them to interact with. One of the secure staff buildings would be ideal. Since the increasing disappearances and murders of scientists had been connected to the syndicate, the ISO had created secure facilities for their staff to take advantage of if they wished. This option would also help contain the leaks if the two ever spoke about what they knew of the project-in a secured environment, it would keep the information in-house and prevent it from getting to unwanted ears. Finding them a full time caretaker would prove more difficult, but shouldn't prove insurmountable. Strict criteria would have to be met of course, but security could take care of that end. He'd have to arrange it all as soon as possible.
Nambu made a number of notes on a pad and then tapped the pen against his chin. He would need to have them checked by Braun again. While he had no doubts about Pham's abilities or the fact he would never allow the children to hurt themselves, he would feel more at ease if they were checked. It was always better to be overtly cautious rather than not enough.
Feeling as if things were once more on a positive road, he made a number of calls and sent emails to get things started once people started arriving first thing in the morning. With the last email composed and mailed, Nambu leaned back rubbing at the back of his neck. The days were already long and he could only expect them to get longer. He eyed the couch on the other end of the office knowing more intelligence reports would arrive for his perusal in only a few hours. He probably should get what rest he could before the option was taken from him.
Kozaburo, why are you such a serious little boy? Why aren't you out playing with the others?
Sir, I don't have time. Things have to be taken care of. They won't take care of themselves if I go out and play.
The old man shook his head sadly. I see.
Ko-chan, this pack is ready.
Be right there, oneechan. I'm sorry, sir, I have to go now.
Kozaburo, children need to play. You're only a child once. Don't throw your youth away. You'll regret it.
Thank you. I'll keep that in mind, sir.
Nambu's eyes snapped open, startled awake as his phone rang on his desk. He made no immediate move to go answer it, however, instead sitting up slowly and picking up his glasses from where he'd set them aside the night before. He frowned, recalling the strange dream/memory he'd been having. Had he ever dreamt of his childhood before? For some reason, he found the unexpected happenstance disturbing.
He stood up, straightening his slept in clothes as he did so. Might as well get work.
Several cups of fresh coffee and more vending machine fare later, Nambu was back at his desk delving into the latest intelligence reports. All the signs were there. And they were becoming more and more prevalent--the disappearances, the increase in organized crime, thefts of supplies and high dollar equipment. Tremors continued to go off sporadically in areas with no previous tectonic activity-they could be signs of deep, underground construction or worse. The resources just weren't there to make sure. They simply weren't ready.
The phone's intercom light came on followed by a soft beep. Nambu flipped it on. "Yes?"
"Dr Braun is on line two, sir."
"Thank you." He picked up the phone's receiver. "Nambu here."
Braun's cheery voice poured over from the other end. "Ah, hakase, good morning."
"Good morning. I presume you received my message?"
"Yes, but it was somewhat vague. Did one of the boys get hurt?" Concern mixed with a touch of anticipation came through over the line.
Nambu half-smiled for a moment, knowing how much Braun loved checking over his exceptional charges and how unusual it was for him to get to do so. "No. I just need Jun and Jinpei checked again. There was some unsupervised roughhousing going on at home and I just want to make sure they didn't inadvertently injure themselves."
"Oh, sure. I understand." Nambu half-smiled again hearing the definite disappointment in the doctor's voice. "Would two o'clock be soon enough?"
"Yes, that'd be fine. Thank you."
"See you at two then."
Nambu pressed the receiver to cut off the call and then dialed home. It was answered on the third ring.
"Nambu residence. May I help you?" The boys' Asian nutritionist sounded more subdued than usual.
"It's me. I'll be coming by the house after one to pick up Jun and Jinpei for an appointment with Braun. I would appreciate it if you could have them ready when I come by."
"Of course, Kozaburo." There was a guarded tone to her voice. "Did you receive our messages?"
"I did." Nambu added nothing else.
There was a long pause. "I see."
Nambu waited to see what else she would add, if anything.
"The children will be ready when you arrive." Was that a note of disapproval in her voice?
"Thank you." He slowly hung up the phone. At least Pho had decided not to speak of things best left alone. But neither had she harassed him in her usual manner about his atrocious eating habits. Not a good sign.
After more coffee, more reports, and a sandwich and soup from the deli across the street, the time arrived for him to leave.
As of yet, he'd received no information on the request for new living quarters or a guardian for the children. Though he normally didn't resort to such things, thinking them highly impractical, Nambu wished they would hurry. The sooner this was over and done with, the better.
Fortunately, when he arrived to pick up the children, the boys would be deep into their afternoon exercises and wouldn't prove a hindrance. He would have to meet with them in private later, of course, once the health of the other two had been verified.
Nambu parked the car beneath the large archway by the front doors of the house. He'd made good time, so he would have the opportunity to pick up some of the paperwork he'd inadvertently not picked up from his upstairs office the previous day.
Grabbing his briefcase, he got out of the car and using his keys, unlocked the front door. He stepped inside, bending to set his briefcase just inside the door. It was only then he came to realize he wasn't alone. Nambu froze. Not only were Jun and Jinpei already there, waiting for him, so were the boys. He straightened up slowly knowing the confrontation for what it was.
Ken stood in the forefront, his face set with determination. Joe was a step behind him, arms crossed across his chest and what looked like an expression of challenge in his eyes. Ryu and Jinpei were behind the other two, both looking nervous yet resolved. Jun stood farther back and was the only one not directly meeting his gaze.
Nambu's attention homed in on the older three boys, anything but pleased at the display. "Aren't you supposed to be in practice?"
Ken took a step forward ignoring the question. "Hakase, we wish to speak with you." His tone made the request close to a command.
Nambu felt his eyes narrowing. "I see." He closed the door behind him.
"We want to talk to you about yesterday," Ken went on. "About Jun and Jinpei, and having them officially added to the team."
So this was what it had come to had it? Throwing aside their schedules, ignoring the rules, making decisions they weren't qualified to make only because they'd found some fun playmates? Nambu raked them all with his gaze. "That is not an option."
Ken's expression faltered at his cold reply, but not for long. "Why, hakase? Didn't they prove themselves to you yesterday? Didn't you see what they could do? They're as good as we are. We need them!"
Why couldn't any of them understand? "I've told you before this is not a topic open for discussion." They were asking him to destroy them. He wouldn't let that happen to the children.
Joe took a half step forward. "It's not? Then what is?" The Sicilian's temper was winning through. Nambu could take no such liberty. He did his utmost to hide his own feelings.
"It's our butts that are going to be on the line, not yours," Joe said. "We should have some say on who is and who isn't good enough to work with us. You don't have the right to dictate something that could mean our lives."
Ah, but he did. And he would. Their lives had become his the moment the birth of the project had become necessary. All he was trying to do now was save two of them from that fate-even though they looked to want exactly the opposite. Nambu half smiled at the irony.
"Jun, Jinpei, come along." He turned his back on the small group and opened the door to go back outside.
Coolly, he wondered how far they would all actually take this. He picked up his briefcase. "I don't want you to be late for your appointment." He walked out of the house expecting the other two to follow.
He walked around the convertible and opened the passenger door, flipping the front seat forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jun rush around the car, her eyes glued to the ground. Her brother was right behind her, looking as if he were about to cry. The tears would come, Nambu was sure of it. This wasn't how he wanted things to be, but the sooner the matter was understood, the better.
He watched them get into the car and then put the passenger seat back and closed the door. He glanced once at the shut front door to the house, before getting into the driver's seat. He was slightly surprised the boys were letting him go so easily, but was glad of it, even though he was sure it would mean another confrontation later. Right now his anger at their insubordination was still too close to the surface for him to deal with this in an objective manner.
He started the car and got them on their way.
In the end, he had no one to blame but himself and he knew it. This was the true source of his ire. His decision to bring Jun and Jinpei out of Tebet he didn't question or regret. He'd had the power to prevent their future slavery, abuse, or worse, and he'd done so. He'd even set other events in motion in the hopes they could also rescue some of the others left behind. What made him churn inside though was his decision to bring them home with him. At the time, it'd seemed the most expedient, convenient thing to do. But he'd been wrong-very wrong. Now everything lay in jeopardy because of it.
He'd just never thought the others would grow so attached to them so quickly. Never had he had an inkling they would do all the things they'd done. And because of his failure to see what lay before him, he'd threatened the project and consequently the whole world's future. His stupidity was doing Galactor's job for them.
Nambu gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. The boys and the two children had bonded. They'd even faced him as a cohesive unit. Ken, more than ever, was showing the leadership qualities which would prove so crucial in the future. What price would the world be made to pay for the setback their separation would surely cause? How could he get them past this hurdle and back on the path so necessary for their survival?
He steered the convertible into the familiar parking lot and chose a parking spot at random. As he set the parking break, he took a quick glance into the back seat. Throughout the drive, he'd heard nothing from the two back there. Still, Jinpei's red and swollen eyes testified to what he'd been doing. Jun's face, however, was expressionless, and her normally beautiful green eyes appeared dull. This couldn't be helped, but he felt a pang of regret all the same. He looked away and got out of the car.
In silence, he pulled his own seat forward so the two could get out. No words were exchanged between them. The children kept their eyes averted. Nambu frowned as he realized in their eyes he was now the bad man. Someday though, they would understand. Someday they would thank him for what he was doing. Someday...
Nambu headed off toward the building, leaving them to follow. Unbroken, his imposed silence continued as they rode the elevator and then as they made their way over to Braun's office suite.
Inside, a couple of children and their mothers occupied the waiting room area. Nambu never even glanced at them, heading instead straight to the window at the nurse's station.
Before he got there, the nurse waved him to go on through and he changed direction to open the door to the right of the window. He waved a listless Jinpei and Jun through but didn't follow himself. Instead, he pulled a cellular phone from his pocket and dialed his number at work.
There were no new messages in voicemail from the boys, which was a relief. It probably meant, however, they would be waiting for him when they got back. Unfortunately, there were also no return phone calls from some of his earlier inquiries about future housing for the children or a caretaker. Even after checking with his secretary, he found no answers waiting for him on that front.
Displeased, but not surprised at the outcome, he put the phone away and then slipped into the back of the suites.
"Dr Braun is with them now." The nurse spotted him and pointed down the hall. "The x-rays should be ready in a couple of minutes."
"Thank you." Nambu stepped to the side to wait for them.
Once the x-rays were ready, he followed the nurse to the diagnosis room with the children and Braun. Jun and Jinpei were sitting side by side on top of the examination table. They looked as unhappy as they did before. Nambu looked away and watched Braun as he inspected the x-rays.
"Nambu, these two are as disgustingly healthy as the others," Braun told him. "I did find some evidence of bruising, but they're all healing nicely. They have no sprains, no broken bones, chips or fractures that I can find. There's nothing wrong with them aside from..."
Nambu found himself following the doctor's gaze, already knowing what he was referring to. "Thank you, doctor." He nodded at Braun and then turned to face Jun and her brother. "We're finished here. It's time to go."
He watched them a little sadly as they both submissively got off the examination table, a far cry from their usual, energetic selves.
"Hey, don't leave without these." Braun gave each of them a couple of pieces of chocolate. They took them from him without enthusiasm.
Nambu tried not to let it bother him. He was doing this for them. Braun sent him a puzzled look, but he ignored it. This was for the best.
Nambu led the two out into the waiting area and then the hallway. Without hesitating, he walked on in the direction of the elevators.
"Yes, Jun?" He felt a slight sense of trepidation roll through him. In their short acquaintance, this young girl had in so many ways and so many times astounded him, he wasn't sure exactly what to expect. The last time, she'd offered him her body if he would just let her and her brother stay with them. It'd stunned him that she'd believed he'd be tempted by such a thing even as the seriousness of her feelings, which prompted her to make the offer in the first place, had impressed him.
"I don't understand why we're not good enough, and I won't ask." Her eyes were rooted to the floor as she spoke. Her brother appeared very small beside her-vulnerable and young. "It's too late and I know that. You'll be getting rid of us now and we won't give you any trouble."
Nambu couldn't hide his surprise at her perceptiveness and calm, even as she bowed low before him.
"I just wanted to tell you we're grateful for all you've done for us and we'll never forget it. All I ask is that you make sure Jinpei and I get to stay together. It's the only thing that's important to us now. I'll do whatever you want to make it so."
The words rang with an all too familiar echo from years past. The older sister, the younger brother-a situation neither wanted to come to pass. Nambu wrapped his mind over his emotions and the memories and planted himself firmly in the present. "I would never separate you from your brother." He would never give another that pain. His calm veneer cracked as Jun bowed to him again.
"Thank you, hakase."
"Let's go." Nambu turned away, troubled by this more than all else before. Yet he supposed he should have expected it. If he was willing to separate the two from the boys, why should they not think he was willing to separate them from each other?
Nambu stepped outside, the bright sunshine flooding over him. He walked briskly toward the parked convertible. He would need to rush things, to get them away. Perhaps Jun's cooperation would get the others to accept the inevitable as well. As he came closer, Nambu noticed an old, black, Chrysler parked beside his vehicle. Even as saw this, three men, all dressed in trench coats, dark hats, and sunglasses, got out of the car.
Nambu stopped, a sense of alarm suddenly filling him as he noticed the intent way the three men looked their way. He placed his hand on Jun's shoulder to stop her from going past. "Jun, take your brother and go back inside." He never took his eyes off the three strangers. The feeling that something was about to go horribly wrong was increasing by the moment.
He felt her hesitate. "Please, do as I ask. Go inside." Nambu tore his eyes away from the coming threat in order to drive home to her the importance of what he was saying.
Jun's gaze connected with his and she nodded. Nambu let her go and returned his attentions to the coming men.
Something in Jun's tone made Nambu glance back. Instantly he spotted another man, dressed like the first three, coming from inside the building. "Damn." Why now? All he'd ever wanted was for these two to be safe and happy. Yet, something somehow always kept conspiring to keep him from doing so.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't the famous Kozaburo Nambu." The foremost of the three men gestured in their direction. "Fancy meeting you here, doctor."
Nambu was sure there was nothing accidental about this meeting. "What do you want?"
"Now that's not very friendly. Especially after all the trouble we've gone to waiting for you to come here again." The man's cold smile turned Nambu's stomach. "What cute kids you have."
As the man reached out to touch her, Nambu quickly placed his hand on Jun's shoulder and pulled her back. He could feel her shoulders tighten beneath his touch. She understood some of what was happening, Nambu just hoped neither she nor her brother would panic. "I'll ask you again, what do you want?"
"Nambu, Nambu, tsk, tsk." The stranger shook his head in mock disappointment. "I would have thought that would be obvious." The cold smile flashed again. "We want you to come with us. You and the children."
Nambu felt himself tense, only too aware he had little choice in the matter but still needing to go through the motions. Every second he could delay them was one more moment they might get help. "And if I refuse?"
"Well," the leader said this with a long, drawn out breath. "Then there might actually be a real reason why the kids would need to see a doctor." He grinned. "So just come along quietly and everything will be fine."
Nothing would be fine again if they went with these men. Nambu already had file after file of others Galactor had given the same false promises. He would just have to try to salvage what he could. "I'll come with you, but only if you let the children go."
Nambu stared at the leader calmly even as the latter laughed in his face.
"Yeah, right, that's a good one." Nasty grins crossed the others' faces. "We have all the cards, doctor. You're in no position to make deals." The leader nodded to the other men. "So quit delaying the inevitable and let's get going."
All four men converged on them at once. Nambu had no hope of taking them all on, but perhaps he might be able to do enough to allow the children to escape. He resisted as one of the men grabbed roughly at his arm. His mind quickly contemplated on how best to dispatch of him and then have a go at the others when he saw Jun slip past him out of the corner of his eye.
Even as she spoke, Nambu saw her dash behind one of the men and then bring her foot down onto the back of his leg with all she had.
A scream of pain echoed through the parking lot as bones snapped in two. Forgetting his own plan of action, Nambu watched in shock as Jun then drove her fist into the man's throat and brought him down.
A sound of pain on his other side made Nambu twist to look behind him. There, he saw one of the guards doubled over in pain even as Jinpei came around and then kicked the Galactor agent in the face.
Nambu's attention was drawn back to his own quarry as the agent fumbled for a gun. Using the skills he'd learned in college and later refined with Pham's teachings, Nambu grabbed the agent and flipped him to the ground in a perfect Judo throw. Not stopping there, Nambu dropped to one knee and punched the man in the face. One hand now throbbing, he used the other to retrieve the fallen agent's half revealed weapon.
Nambu froze hearing the panic in the Galactor leader's voice.
"All of you stand perfectly still." The leader stepped back, holding a .357 in his hands, which he used to try to cover Nambu as well as Jun and Jinpei.
There was only the one man left. With any luck, he might get a chance to get to him before he managed to get a shot off. If only he were a little closer...
The barrel of the gun swung in Nambu's direction almost as if reading his thoughts. "You're going to come with us one way or another. Whether you live to see tomorrow will be up to you."
In his current volatile state, the Galactor might wound the children just to get him to cooperate. He couldn't allow that. He would have to give in. With all his men wounded, perhaps the agent would be more willing to let the children go if he promised not to cause any trouble.
Nambu glanced to the side at Jinpei's frantic call just in time to see Jun lunge forward. A mask of cold fury covered her face.
The Galactor swung his weapon and pulled the trigger. No!
Nambu saw a trail of red blaze across Jun's leg, but she never slowed. Jun leapt, her arms crossed before her. She careened into the Galactor agent, bringing both of them down. Yet, even as they did, she chopped at his wrist to deprive the man of his weapon. Such focus.
Nambu rose, hardly aware he was doing it, the other agent's gun still in his hand.
"Leave my sister alone!"
Surprised again, Nambu stared as Jinpei fearlessly darted to his sister's side and kicked the fallen man in the head. Nambu's eye twitched as the leader's head twisted into an unnatural angle. The blood which pooled at his mouth gave silent testimony as to his fate.
"Neechan, did he hurt you?" The boy stood deflated, tears coursing down his face. But they weren't tears of fear or remorse, only concern over his sister's well being.
Jun stared at the body of the dead man and Nambu saw the anger siphon from her face.
"Are you two all right?" It was hard to force the words to come out calmly. Nambu fought the urge to reach out and hold them-to somehow shield them from what they had done.
Carefully, he searched their faces for signs of anxiety over what had happened, but Jun only got up coolly to her feet as if nothing untoward had occurred. "We're fine, hakase."
"Neechan, you're bleeding!" The first hint of panic touched the young boy's voice.
Blood slowly trickled from the graze on Jun's leg and had already left a trail down part of her leg. Nambu knew very easily this might have been worse.
It should have never happened. He had to diffuse this, to fix it, before any more damage could be done. "Here, put this on." Nambu pulled his handkerchief from his coat pocket. He knelt before her and gently pulled on her arm so she would turn away from the body at her feet. "Hold it tight so it will stop the blood."
As he pressed the handkerchief to her leg and made sure she held it steady, Jinpei shuffled up behind her and wrapped his arms around his sister.
Leaving them standing there, Nambu moved to check on the four assailants. The danger to the children wouldn't be past until he'd made sure they were secure.
The first man he checked was still unconscious. Turning him over, Nambu pulled the belt from his coat and used it to tie his hands behind his back. As he went to check the others, he felt his heart grow increasingly numb as he looked at each one. They were dead--all three of them.
Nambu glanced up to where the two children still stood. Jinpei still clung to his sister but appeared only concerned for her and not upset about anything else. Jun held the handkerchief to her leg as she'd been instructed, but her eyes roamed about the parking lot as if looking for other hidden danger. He'd failed them; failed them miserably. Because of him, they'd soiled their souls. All he'd wanted was to keep them safe and pure--to safeguard their childhood for them. He'd failed.
Nambu looked away from them, sternly reminding himself this was not the time for self-recriminations, there were other things which needed to be done. "Let's go back inside and have Braun look at your wound." He forced his thoughts to clear and approached the two children a moment later.
Nambu was amazed again as Jun glanced down at the fallen men as if to make sure they were no longer a threat and then once more raked the parking lot with her eyes. Since all was clear, she then nodded in agreement. It was obvious she was more concerned about their welfare than her own. The determination accented on her features left no doubt she would fight again for them if she had to.
Baffled by her reactions, Nambu gently set his hand on her shoulder, resolute there would never be a need for her to fight again.
Faces peered out at them from the inside of the building as they approached the doors. As soon as they came close, the curious stepped away as if not sure what to make of them. The sound of sirens rang off in the distance, quickly coming closer. Questions from the police and the hyena reporters were sure to follow and would better be avoided. The faster he could put a lid on today's events the better. There was no telling what kind of conclusion Galactor might come up with if it ever made it to the papers how four of their agents were thwarted and some even killed by a scientist and two children.
Once they'd made it up to Braun's office, the nurse spotted them immediately and rushed to open the door to the back area so they could come through. At her call, Braun appeared and hurried forward to meet them. "This way. Come this way."
"I'll be there presently." Nambu watched as Braun led the children away his face filled with concern.
Turning away, Nambu pulled out his cellular phone. There were calls he needed to make. Security would need to take the matter in hand immediately.
Once that was taken care of, Nambu put the phone away. His hand shook as he slipped the phone into his pocket. He'd been so careless. And these two innocents would have, and in a way already were paying, for his negligence, yet again. If they hadn't trained with the boys, if they hadn't gone against his orders, they might now have been prisoners of Galactor awaiting fates worse than any he might imagine.
Jun's valiant lunge at their assailant flashed in his mind's eye once more.
No. It'd be sheer madness to even consider it. Pho and Pham disagreed and had brought up their reasons, but Nambu couldn't agree with such things. The significance of odd numbers, omens, fate, these were the things the two based their opinions on. From Pham he could understand some of this, martial arts were often steeped in mysticism, but his wife dealt with more scientific matters, yet she was as adamant about these things as her husband. Science, logic, facts, these were tangible truths, things proven over and over again. These were the things he had to rely on, these and others he knew to be right and proper, not intangibles used to sway the masses into doing things when it grew convenient.
Shaking his head, Nambu stepped up to the room Braun had taken the children to and knocked on the door.
After a moment, Braun answered it, opening the door wide. Relief played all over his face. "Kozaburo, there's nothing to worry about. It's just a graze."
Nambu nodded, a part of him greatly relieved at the news, though he'd known this already. "I've already called for a security detail. You'll need to get your records in order. This location is no longer secure."
Nambu saw the full meaning of his words register in the doctor's eyes. Braun's face drained of color even as he nodded. The doctor took a moment to wave to the children and then took his leave.
"Are you two ready to go?" Nambu watched them critically, once more looking for any signs of the hysteria and fear he'd expected earlier. Instead of finding any manifestation of the sort, he saw Jun straighten up on the table as if wanting to make sure he knew nothing was wrong.
Nambu nodded and then stepped out of the way so they could exit the room. The nurse's desk and waiting room were deserted. Sounds of files being pulled and dumped into boxes rang out from the back. Nambu opened the door out into the hallway and stepped through first, not wanting to take any chances. He was quite relieved as he spotted a man in the telltale ISO Security uniform waiting there for them.
Nambu nodded at the guard and then turned right rather than head for the elevator. They took the stairs instead. The security officer followed behind them, his hand ready on the sheathed weapon at his side. Once they reached the first floor, the guard took charge and led them to the back of the office building rather than the front entryway.
A large sedan was parked against the back exit waiting for them. The door already stood open. Nambu was gratified to see they'd thought of bringing the car with tinted windows. He motioned the two children to climb aboard.
Once they were in, Nambu made eye contact with the driver and got in as well. The security officer closed the door and the driver got them under way.
"How are the two of you feeling?" Nambu studied Jun and Jinpei on the seat beside him still looking for any signs of distress.
"We're fine, hakase." Jun told him. Her brother nodded in agreement.
Nambu decided to finally believe them. He felt a weight rise from his shoulders he'd not been fully aware of until now. "I'd never meant for anything like this to happen."
"We know that, sir," Jun said calmly.
"We're just happy we could stop those bad men from taking you away, hakase." Jinpei glanced over at him shyly. "Even if you're sending us away."
"I see." It sounded cruel they way they put it. But he only had their best interest at heart. Nambu left the children alone for the rest of the ride absorbed in his own thoughts.
The driver took them to Nambu's estate and once past the gates brought the car under the covered parkway. As soon as the car came to a stop, the door to the house swung open and Pho, Pham, and the boys poured outside.
Nambu frowned, telling himself he should have known security would inform them of their coming. A reprieve for the children before having to deal with all this would have been best, but now looked as if it couldn't be avoided. Nambu opened the car door and was instantly bombarded with questions.
"Are you all right?" "They didn't say what happened." "A kidnapping, right?" "What did they do?" "Are you healthy?"
"Everyone, please!" Nambu gestured with his hands tying to placate them at least long enough to gain some room to allow Jun and Jinpei to get out.
"Jun, you've been hurt!"
Nambu watched the worry flash in all their faces at Ken's alarmed statement. Perhaps this would show all of them how foolish it would be for him to cave in to their wishes.
"I'm fine," she told them shyly. "It's just a graze."
Nambu noticed Joe frown at the news. Jun and Jinpei truly had come to mean a lot, even to him, during their stay here.
"Neechan got shot!"
Nambu flinched at the pride he heard in the statement. "This really isn't the best place to talk about this." If Galactor had followed enough of his habits to strike at Braun's, they might even now be watching the house. Steps would have to be taken in that area and soon. "Let's get inside."
Nambu cut past the others, fully expecting the rest of them to follow him inside.
He noticed Pho watching him curiously once they'd all made it into the house. "So what did happen, Kozaburo?"
He sighed minutely, supposing this was inevitable. They'd find out the details eventually anyway. "Our enemies are becoming bolder. They attempted to kidnap me and the children in the doctor's parking lot."
The group appeared even more shocked than they had at the announcement that Jun had been shot.
"Shit, in broad daylight?" Joe's angry statement encapsulated the problem.
"Yes, it would seem our time is growing short." And there was still so much which needed doing. Would Galactor give them enough time?
"So, how are you not now theirs?"
Nambu glanced at the wizened old face and found Pham already knew the answer even as he asked the question. As far as the teacher was concerned, this was fate-the children's destiny come to greet them. The old man would never see it for the terrible accident it was. "Jun and Jinpei eliminated the threat."
The room grew very quiet at his statement. The boys appeared even more startled than before.
"That's right, oneechan and I, we saved hakase." Jinpei's voice picked up speed with his overflowing excitement. "There were four of them! Hakase took one, but we did the other three. You should have seen neechan. She was so cool!"
Nambu watched Ken and Joe to see if they understood the meaning of what was being said. Joe was staring hard at Jun. Ken's expression had gone blank. "You killed them?"
"We did what we had to do." Jun's voice rang with conviction and strength. How could she be so sure, so set, while being so young? It shook him more than he would have ever expected. "And we'd do it again."
Nambu's brow half rose, hearing the grudging admiration in Joe's statement. He would have to watch the boy before the team's debut. Joe's bloodlust had been held in check for sometime with promises of what was to come and it wouldn't do to let it lose before he was ready. Enough blood would flow to suit him later.
Ken stepped forward, his eyes dancing as he glanced at the children as if their deeds had vindicated everything he'd already known. "Hakase, if, if this is true, then you can't possibly object now. They've proven themselves under fire. What more could you want?"
Nambu frowned. Yes, what more? But it was wrong. He studied their faces but didn't find wrongness there. Was any of this to be his choice, under his influence? Despite what he believed, could it be Pham and Pho had been right all along?
"It's what they want, Kozaburo." Pho's eyes locked with his as if she knew what he was thinking.
Pham's expression closely mirrored hers. "You have need of them."
Oh yes, he needed them, but... Nambu turned away. He felt his resolve cracking but wasn't ready to give in. But could he have been wrong about this from the beginning? All he'd wanted was to give them what had been denied to him and his sister. They'd had no choices open to them. The war had taken it from them. Soon, it would take it from millions of others as well. Yet, by making the decision for them, wasn't he taking the power of choice from them as well?
Nambu turned to look at Jun. He felt cold and stiff. "Is it really what you want? Are you really sure?"
"More than anything, hakase." Every line of her face, every aspect of her, told him she was sure.
What choice did he have then? He needed them; the world needed them. He hoped Yuriko would understand and agree with this. The more he thought about it, the more he thought she would. "Then you win."
As he spoke the words, Nambu felt unseen tension lift from his body. It was almost as if he'd been fighting against something he'd known from the beginning and now it was over. A tentative smile flickered across his lips. "Welcome to the team." And may you never have cause to regret your decision.
Fate, will, choices-regardless of how this came to be, their roads had now converged once and for all.