Joe leaned against the boring beige wall of the non-descript lobby of the International Science Organization. Someone had gotten it into their head to put up a Christmas tree, but clearly the ISO holiday decoration budget was a mere pittance. Joe had never seen a more pathetic tree. It was barely a meter high, and had but two spindly branches sticking out. Based on the puddle of needles on the floor below, those weren’t going to last long, either. Some misguided soul had placed a single red ornament on the tree, nearly bending it over in half with its weight.
For a moment, Joe felt like the tree: bent over with the weight of Christmas. He just wanted to rest in solitude in his trailer. Even his Crescent Coral Base quarters would do.
Just as long as he had nothing to do with the seasonal holidays.
The ding of an elevator announced Dr. Nambu’s arrival in the lobby. The doors opened to reveal the nattily dressed Doctor. In honor of the festive occasion, he had traded in his usual brown vest for one made of a bright red plaid. A matching bow tie completed the ensemble.
“I’m glad to see you here, Joe.” Nambu greeted the Condor.
“I’m the only one.” Joe grumbled. “Everyone else is late.” At least, he hoped they were late. He didn’t want to be going out to dinner on Christmas Eve alone with Dr. Nambu.
“They’re not late.” Nambu replied. “They’re just picking up…”
“Dr. Nambu, your limousine is here.” the Doorman announced.
“Thank you, Fred.” the Doctor replied. He turned to Joe. “Shall we proceed?”
“Yeah…” Joe mumbled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. The Condor followed Nambu out of the lobby and to the waiting limousine. The Chauffer got out of the car and opened the rear door to the vehicle, allowing the two men to enter.
Joe sat down inside of the car, doing his best not to look up at any of the other people who were already inside. He was therefore completely taken aback when two arms grabbed him from the side and attempted to hug him.
“Little Joey! How good to see you!”
“Granny Nambu…” Joe moaned, looking up to see the other four members of the Science Ninja Team smirking at him. Dr. Nambu was giving instructions to the Chauffer, and hadn’t noticed the Condor’s expression.
“You’ve gotten so tall and handsome!” Granny declared. “I’m sure you have a little girlfriend now, don’t you? Why, I remember when you used to run around my house naked. You had the cutest little tushy!”
Jun failed in her attempt to stifle a giggle. Jinpei pulled faces. Ryu and Ken were doing their best to look serious, but utterly failing.
“Nice to see you too, Granny.” Joe said woodenly.
“So what is your little girlfriend’s name?” Granny asked. “Are you going to bring her to meet me? I’d love to get to know the future Mrs. Asakura…”
“What?” Joe sat straight upright so fast he banged his head on the roof of the limousine.
“Married?” he sputtered, rubbing his forehead. “Granny, I don’t have a girlfriend!”
“You don’t?” Granny appeared shocked. “But you’re so handsome! Don’t you like girls, Joey?”
Dr. Nambu turned around to find the rest of the limousine’s occupants laughing hysterically. The Doctor decided that it was time to intervene.
“None of the children are involved in serious relationships.” Nambu informed Granny. “They are too occupied with their work for me.”
“Oh, there’s always time.” Granny smiled wistfully. “What about that nice boy who helped Jun cook dinner last year? Jacques…? Oh my, wasn’t he delicious?” She turned to a red-faced Swan.
“Are you still seeing him, Dear?”
“N.. no…” Jun stammered. “I haven’t seen Jacques since last Christmas.”
“But you do like boys, don’t you Jun?” Granny insisted.
“Yes. Of course!” Jun nodded emphatically. She glanced over at Ken.
“Then I guess you have something in common with Joey!” Granny pointed out. “Too bad. Such a waste of a cute little tushy…”
“Granny, why don’t I tell everyone where we are going?” Dr. Nambu interrupted his grandmother’s reminiscing.
“Yes, I am so excited!” Granny replied, her eyes sparkling.
“Where are we going, Hakase?” Jinpei asked. The boy was so excited he was practically bouncing on the seat.
“It was Granny’s choice.” Nambu answered. “We are going to Utoland Hall, for a special Christmas Eve dinner theatre performance of the Nutcracker.”
Joe rolled his eyes. Ballet wasn’t exactly his style. He could see Ken, Ryu, and Jinpei blanching as well. Jun appeared to be the only one of the five ninjas who was excited by this suggestion.
“But you haven’t told them the best part!” Granny cried, gleefully clapping her hands together.
“What’s that?” Jinpei asked suspiciously.
“The music for this performance of the Nutcracker will be performed by my favorite artist!” Granny sighed. “Kozaburo, it was so nice of you to get tickets for me.”
“For all of us.” Dr. Nambu replied, just as the limousine stopped. “We are all going to enjoy a lovely Christmas Eve, here at Utoland Hall.”
The Doctor stepped out of the open door, then offered his arm to Granny, escorting her out of the vehicle.
“You don’t suppose any Galactor goons might show up?” Ryu asked hopefully. “Just to give us an ‘intermission’?”
“It would certainly give a whole new meaning to the term ‘Nutcracker’.” Joe grinned, flexing his fingers suggestively.
“I think the ballet will be lovely!” Jun huffed. “It’s about time you boys all witnessed a little culture, for a change.”
“Your sister is right, Jinpei.” Ken lectured. “We’re going to attend the ballet, and we are going to enjoy it.” There was a threatening undertone to the Eagle’s words, despite the fact that Ken did not raise his voice.
“Is that mistletoe up there?” the Condor pointed innocently at the ceiling of the limousine.
“Where?” The expression of fear on Ken’s face instantly made Joe feel better. Jun’s eyes darted around hopefully, while Jinpei and Ryu attempted vainly to smother their laughter.
Dr. Nambu stuck his head inside of the car and glared sternly at the five young ninjas.
“I understand that this may not have been your first choice of Christmas Eve activity.” the Doctor intoned. “But Granny Nambu is ninety-five years old. She may not be with us for another Christmas. You will all do this for her.” Yet the expression on Nambu’s face clearly stated that he was the one who would take offense if anyone got out of line.
Joe sighed. At least he didn’t have to eat Jun’s cooking.
The five ninjas emerged from the limousine, and immediately Joe heard Jun moaning about her clothes. All around them was a sea of elegantly dressed Utolandians, clearly excited about their night at the Christmas Eve ballet dinner theatre. Five teenagers in t-shirts and jeans didn’t quite fit into the ambiance.
Dr. Nambu walked up to Granny, offering her his arm and escorting her inside, the others meekly following the two Nambus. Jun went first, dragging Ken along after her. Ryu followed Ken, while Jinpei and Joe lagged behind. Enough of a space opened up that other ballet patrons began cutting in front of the two ninjas.
The Swallow was just going through the turnstile when a tall man who bore a striking resemblance to Lucius Malfoy stopped his advance by placing his silver cane in Jinpei’s path as he cut in front of the boy.
“There is no charity tonight.” the blonde man sneered. “No begging, street urchin!”
“We aren’t begging!” Joe defended Jinpei hotly. “We are going inside to see the ballet!”
“You?” the man sneered. He was very tall, and his features had an aristocratic quality. He swept his long blonde hair around haughtily. “I cannot believe that dirty scum such as yourselves…”
“Is there a problem?”
The man turned around to see Dr. Nambu’s stern face glaring at him. The man’s glossy pink lips trembled slightly, and then broke out into a wide smile.
“Dr. Nambu of the ISO!” he said in an obsequious manner. “I had no idea that you were going to attend the Utoland Ballet this evening. How wonderful to see you here!”
“I’m afraid I cannot say the same, Mr…?”
“Bergstrom.” the man introduced himself with a flourishing bow. He was clearly well-practiced at the maneuver. “Karle Bergstrom.”
“Mr. Bergstrom, I would appreciate it if you would allow my children to enter the Hall.” Dr. Nambu replied, clearly unimpressed by this display.
“Your children?” Mr. Bergstrom exclaimed. “Oh my, what a case of… mistaken identity…” His eyes darted back and forth, quickly taking in the angry faces of Joe and Jinpei, as well as Jun, Ken and Ryu, already past the turnstiles. Granny Nambu was giving Mr. Bergstrom a rheumy-eyed stare of admiration.
“I heartily apologize for any offense.” he smiled again, even wider this time.
Joe was immediately suspicious. There was something about this man that was familiar…
“Let’s go.” Dr. Nambu said quietly, ushering Joe and Jinpei past the turnstiles. The two ninjas quickly followed their foster father inside the Hall.
“What a handsome man…” Granny’s voice floated back to them. Joe shook his head in disgust.
The Condor forced himself to dismiss any thoughts of Mr. Bergstrom from his mind. He had enough to worry about tonight. After all, he still had a ballet to get through.
Berg Katse laughed to himself. Oh, this was a stroke of luck! Discovering that Dr. Nambu was attending this same performance of the Nutcracker! Now he could not only enjoy the ballet, but also follow Sosai’s orders.
Yes, he had just the thing in mind. It was time to resort to ‘Plan B’…
“Your seat, Sir.” said the Usher.
“Thank you.” Katse swept by the spotty-faced youth and into the private box Jacques had arranged for him. It seemed that being Head Caterer at the most exclusive dinner party in Utoland had its benefits.
The Galactor Leader settled down, placing his silver cane by his side, and pulling out a small pair of silver-engraved opera glasses. On the main floor, he spotted a large table for seven, housing Dr. Nambu, his five unkempt children, and an elderly lady.
It was the children who interested Katse the most. Five children… one a younger boy, one a female, and one of the males somewhat heavy. And their shirts were labeled with numbers one through five.
Could it actually be…?
For the briefest of moments, he thrilled to the possibilities. If the Science Ninja Team truly were sitting right here, under his nose… but then he woke up from his fantasy with a cold splash of reality.
This was too obvious. A man as sophisticated as Nambu was must have purposely chosen the physical characteristics of the Science Ninja Team to mimic those of his children. It was the perfect cover: offering his own children up as decoys, to let the real Science Ninja Team move around unhindered.
That must be it.
However, if Dr. Nambu were in danger, the Science Ninja Team would respond and come to his aid. And that was something Berg Katse could easily accomplish, this night.
Surreptitiously, he picked up his silver cane, pressing a button on the top and speaking softly into the intricate carvings that decorated the staff.
“Katse to Base, I have instructions…”