1. Flip Side of Acceptance by Maya Perez
Nambu was watching! Nambu was watching! Jun dodged a pole, the thought running like a litany over and over in her mind. Repeating it yet again, she latched on to another pole and swung upwards. Perspiration rolled down the side of her face, leaving a flying trail of drops behind her.
Finally, after all this time, Nambu would finally see that she and Jinpei were good enough to be added to his secret project. Time after time, they'd met rejection at each step though miraculously each later was overcome. And now the two of them had finally gotten to this-a chance to show Nambu what they could do.
They hadn't planned it this way. But Nambu had come home a little early that day and asked for the boys to show him their progress. Ken had taken the initiative and waved her and Jinpei back down into the secret parts of the doctor's house, so they could sneak into the training room before them. And now, now they were showing him all they learned together!
Jun felt a smile grow irrepressibly on her face. She glimpsed her brother as he passed by her, and understood only too well the look of ecstasy on his. They were meant for this.
The two of them would finally have the family they'd been craving. They would finally have a place to belong. They'd be able to share everything with Ken, Joe, and Ryu. There would be no more secrets-no more whisperings behind closed doors, no more sneaking around, no more games. Together, the five of them would fight Galactor and help the world. But best of all, her family and her life would be complete.
And complete was what she felt. Even here, in the ensuing chaos of the training room, she found herself uncannily aware of those who meant so much to her. Jinpei had just passed by on his way down, lightly touching her shoulder. Ken was soaring on her right, confident as he tagged the ceiling and then went left. Joe did a somersault beneath her, blocking one pole while dodging another. Ryu, who hated this particular exercise, bounced from one pole to another faster than most would think because of his large girth.
All of them did their best. They were proving they were up to the task--that they could all work together. As Joe had said, Hakase would have no choice but to give them what they wanted.
The poles stopped and after a moment retracted into the walls, advising them the test was over. Smiles flashed all around as Ryu, Joe, Ken, Jinpei, and Jun landed on the ground. Jun knew by looking at them they were all suffused with the same feeling of ‘rightness' she felt overflowing within herself.
Almost as one, they rushed toward the door leading into the control room. Breathing hard from her exertions as well as her excitement, she was the first into the next room. The half smile on her face faltered, however, as she looked around and found no sign of Nambu. The others came to a stop beside her as they came to realize the same thing.
"You did very well," Pham said even as he shut down the last of the controls for the training room.
"Where's Hakase?" Ken asked, a look of confusion marring his face.
Pham didn't look at them directly. "It is hard to say."
"He just left? Didn't he say anything?" Joe's question was heavily tinged with growing annoyance.
"I'm afraid not, Young Joe." Pham's expression was illegible.
Jinpei pulled on his sister's sleeve. "Neechan, what happened?"
Jun slowly shook her head, a hole opening up in the pit of her stomach. "I don't know, Jinpei. I don't know." Except maybe, just maybe, she did.
"We did real good though!" Ryu threw in. "He had to have been impressed, right?" His good cheer held a tone of doubt.
Jun stared at the floor, something hot burning inside her. Yes, they'd done good. But it looked like in the end it wasn't going to make a difference.
"I'm sure this means nothing," Ken quickly interjected. "It was probably an emergency. Hakase gets beeped away all the time. That's surely why he left. It's got nothing to do with us."
She didn't think Ken believed anything he was saying.
Joe snorted. "Forget it. Nambu's made up his mind and he's not going to change it even though we've proved him wrong. Isn't that how it is, sensei?" Joe's darkened eyes dared their teacher to say otherwise.
Pham sighed softly, his gaze staring sadly at Jun and Jinpei. "Kozaburo can be quite stubborn. But you should not despair. Pho and I will speak to him."
Jun felt her shoulders slump feeling suddenly tired. She'd not expected this. Did Nambu hate them? Why couldn't he see what the rest of them saw? What more would she have to do to prove herself? The hot coal inside her burned more intently.
A hand fell on her shoulder. She didn't bother to look up.
"We'll talk to him to," Ken said. "Don't worry."
Jun nodded slowly but said nothing.
"Pho will be waiting for us," Pham told them. "You've all worked very hard today. You should not miss your meal."
Everyone left the room, Jun lagging behind. She went through the motions of cleaning up and then went to the kitchen though she was no longer hungry. She made herself go, knowing if she didn't the others would worry and would just come looking for her.
How had it all gone so wrong?
Pho was already serving the others when she walked in. The old Vietnamese woman gave her a small smile as she spotted her. Jun tried not to make eye contact.
"Kozaburo won't be joining us tonight," she said quietly. "He had some things he still needed to take care of at the office. He said he wouldn't be back till late."
Jun nodded, not looking at her, and took her seat. She felt a tick of anger, not surprised at the information, and then went numb. She reached for her fork without any enthusiasm.
"I left a message at Hakase's office." Ken's concerned voice filtered to her from the left. "I told him we wanted to talk to him."
"We each left him a message." This came from Joe on the right.
"That's right," Ryu piped in, "We've come too far to give up now."
Jun said nothing. She brought a fork-full of salad to her mouth and found it tasted like weeds.
"Can I leave a message too?" Jinpei asked.
"No, that should be all right," Pho told him. "He will come around in time. He cannot escape fate."
Jun gripped her fork until her fingers turned white. They didn't understand. It wasn't Nambu's fate that was working here-it was hers. Hers! There was nothing any of them would be able to do about it. The monks had told her her place, but she hadn't believed them. She'd been the one who'd thought she could change the fate the gods had intended for her. Well, she'd been proven wrong. And sooner or later, the rest of them would have to face the truth of it.
"Neechan?" Jinpei's worried tone actually made her look up.
"Everything's fine." Her voice had no inflection at all. She was surprised she hadn't screamed or wept. She had no hope anymore-there was no such thing. She was such a fool. She'd been allowed to come so far only to be yanked back into line.
Jun didn't see everyone at the table trade concerned glances. All she did was stare at her plate and eat her food, so it could settle like stones in her stomach.
No one said much of anything during the meal, somber faces all around. For once, Pho didn't harass any of them to eat more. Jun barely noticed.
When she was through, she pushed her chair back and got up. She could feel the others' eyes on her.
She sighed silently inside as her brother sounded like he might cry. She didn't look at him. "I'm not feeling very well. I think I'll turn in early." She left the kitchen without looking at any of them.
Joe caught up to her before she'd made it to the stairs. "Jun."
She didn't stop. Joe was forced to cut past her and block her path. "You're not planning on trying to run away like last time, are you?"
Jun felt herself frown. "No." It wouldn't do any good. It wouldn't change anything that had happened. Her fate would be hers no matter what she did.
She didn't move as Joe weighed her answer. After a moment, he stepped out of her way. "It's not over," he said. "Don't give up."
Jun nodded, saying nothing and walked on.
Back in her room, she laid out on the floor in the dark and stared up at the ceiling. The darkness felt like a weight against her chest pressing her down. She half hoped it would crush her utterly.
Yet, why was she questioning this? Why was it hurting her like this? She'd known her proper place since she was young. She'd always known her destined fate. But she'd stubbornly fought against it, pulled away from it, not willing to just let what had been preordained to happen. The way had been hard but the gods had been kind, despite her defiance. They'd allowed her to leave Ximang with her brother so they wouldn't have to ever be separated. They had allowed her to find a place with others like them, with whom they could be a family. And though she was grateful for this, so very grateful, she'd found she also wanted more. She'd wanted more and more until she'd finally pushed past even the endless patience of the gods.
Jun tried to clamp down on the bitterness she felt inside her. The coal that had been burning in the depths of her soul flared. No! She wouldn't be angry. She would be grateful! Grateful and happy for all that had been given to her. She would not be a spoiled child having a fit over what she couldn't have. She still had Jinpei-and she still had Ryu, Ken, and Joe. Did it really make that much of a difference that she wouldn't be able to share in every aspect of their lives?
The burning kernel deep inside her screamed ‘yes'. She forced herself not to hear it. Just being close to them would be enough-it would have to be. And her previous fears for their safety and not knowing what they were going through would be something she'd just have to learn to deal with. She would be grateful for what she had, very grateful. If only she hadn't dared believe she could be more than she'd been meant to be.
Something warm coursed down her cheek. Surprised, Jun touched it in the darkness and found she was crying. Almost as if the realization were too much for her, a sob suddenly wracked through her. No! Stop! She had so much to be grateful for.
But the tears didn't stop and a deep ache opened like a chasm before her and she fell in.
Jun opened her eyes, realizing that at some point in the night she must have fallen asleep. Her eyes felt swollen and puffy, her nose raw from her misery. Her disappointment and sense of failure nipped at her, this time chiding her for her weakness. This was the last time though, she promised herself. She wouldn't cry again. She would show the spirits and gods her gratitude as well as Nambu-no matter how much it hurt she'd not gotten all she wanted. The sooner she accepted this and learned to live with it, the sooner the others would as well. It would be the best thing to do for everyone.
Something warm shifted beside her as if in protest to her thoughts. Jun went still, not having noticed until then she wasn't as she last remembered. Someone had placed a thick blanket over her and a body lay curled beside her own. Jun shifted slowly, moving the blanket partially aside and revealed her brother's sleeping face. His sharp features were relaxed and looked at peace. Staring at him, Jun felt a fierce wave of love rush through her. Yes, she had to accept what had happened and put it behind her, for Jinpei if for no one else. The sooner she could live with the fact this was all they would ever get, the easier it would be for her brother to get over his own disappointment. And perhaps, later, when he was older, Nambu would allow him to join the others. Nambu's only reticence with him was the fact he was too young. Soon he would outgrow his handicap. She was the only one who would always be locked out from becoming a part of Nambu's secret group.
Her eyes stinging, Jun hugged her brother and laid down again. Soon, she drifted once more to sleep.
Jun felt someone shaking her by the shoulder. She slowly opened her eyes though she wanted nothing more at the moment than to be allowed to sleep.
"Neechan, we're late!"
Jun sat up in a flash, startling her brother. The stab of panic she'd felt at his words, however, disappeared as she remembered all that went on the day before. "Oh..."
She frowned. Glancing at her brother, she realized there were things she should tell him, things he'd not obviously worked out for himself. But staring at his half-eager, half-worried expression, she found she didn't know how to do it. Couldn't do it, because she knew the pain it would cause. Instead, she got up and folded the blanket they'd slept in before retrieving them both some clean clothes.
In the bathroom, as they brushed their teeth, Jun found herself staring at her image in the mirror.
Her hair had grown. It was on down past her ears. Pho had been trimming parts of it off and on trying to get it all even and it was almost there. It was a more pleasant sight than the chopped, dirt matted mess it'd been when she first met Nambu. So much had changed. The yellow tint no longer covered her skin to protect her from the elements and also from letting others know the true paleness of her skin. Her face now shone uncovered, even darkened a little by the sun of this strange place she'd made her home. She had gained weight, her face and body no longer as thin as they once were. Things were filling out inside her. If she had to, she'd never be able to pass herself off as a boy as she'd done once. One look at her would erase all doubt.
She was a stranger to herself. She was no longer who she'd been and now she had no idea who it was she would eventually be. The image swayed before her. Jun closed her eyes feeling suddenly adrift. Who was she meant to be?
Jun opened her eyes and tried to hide her fear even as she glanced at her brother's reflection. And what about him? He'd changed so much as well. He looked healthy, happy, more carefree than he had in Ximang. Would that change now? Would it twist him once he found out the truth? Would he hold it against her? Would he blame her? Or would the hope of his being able to join the others when he was older keep him as he was?
A cold sobering thought came to her then. How far would Nambu take things now? A painful stab coursed through her chest. Had they pushed him too far? Would he take things to extremes? How would she tell her brother? "Yes, Jinpei?"
"You all right, neechan?" His angular face stared worriedly into hers, taking Jun's pain deeper.
"Sure. Just fine." She hated to lie to him. But she couldn't, just couldn't talk to him about the end of their dreams. They'd gone through so much just to get this far. They'd worked through so many setbacks. But they'd finally hit a mountain they could not climb.
The past half-year had been a set of constant trials. Running away from the monastery. Taking a chance and staying with Nambu, who'd then gotten them out of Tebet and brought them to his home. The unexpected meeting of the Phams and the boys. Their growing attachment to all those who lived here even as they learned Nambu's home was full of secrets.
The more they'd found out about those secrets, the more they felt the need to become a part of them. Otherwise these secrets would just get in the way between her and the others. She and Jinpei had taken risks, made choices, and at times they'd had little control. There had been times she despaired. There were harsh choices she'd had to make. But the two of them had always made it through. She'd fought for her own victories or had others share the struggle with her. They'd all come so far, lived through so much, and always she'd tried to protect her brother from the worst of it if possible.
But now, now the final hurdle instead of being passed had instead closed over them like a trap. She wouldn't be able to shield him from the truth anymore. Jinpei would have to face the fact he wouldn't be allowed to join the team and the others. And what hurt most was there was nothing she could do to make it better.
Sedately, Jun followed her brother as he led the way downstairs. Her brow furrowed. It was only a matter of time. Would Pho mention it? Pham? Surely Nambu had spoken to the two of them by now. Heat swirled in her belly. She and her brother had gambled it all on the demonstration. How much would they lose because it? Could Nambu afford to keep-
Jun clamped down on the thought before it got any further. She couldn't stand to think of what they might have to pay, of what they might lose. If she did, she'd go mad.
The scent and sounds of popping bacon met them at the kitchen entrance. Pho looked over at them as they came in, steaming plates full of food already on the table.
"Good morning." The old Vietnamese woman gave them a half smile, her eyes watching them intently. "How are you both today?"
Jun didn't answer her question, letting her brother do it for the two of them. "Fine, Pho-san. How are you?" They sat down.
Jun stared at the stack of French toast sitting on her plate not feeling particularly hungry. Jinpei, however, dug into his food with his usual wild abandon. Jun picked up her fork and made herself eat as she felt the older woman's eyes on her.
"Hurry, neechan," Jinpei said between mouthfuls, "They'll be waiting."
Jun stared at the table her food suddenly forgotten. How would she tell him?
"Neechan? We can go, can't we?" Jinpei stared at her a look of panic rising in his eyes as she said nothing.
She bit her lip, not looking at him, trying to figure out how to best say what she would have to say.
"Kozaburo called this morning," Pho told them.
Jun looked up, mixed feelings flowing through her, as Pho came to stand next to the table.
"He spent the night at the ISO building doing work." Her tone made her disapproval of this quite obvious. "He's made an appointment for the two of you for this afternoon with Dr. Braun."
Jun frowned, not knowing what that was about. They'd gone on their last checkup just a few weeks before and weren't due to see the doctor again for at least a month or two.
"You should be able to go to morning practice, but after lunch you'll need to remain up here and wait for him."
Jun's frown cleared. Regardless of the reason, at least it would keep her from having to explain things to her brother--for now. It looked like they would be allowed to go to morning practice, but Nambu's appointment had neatly cut them off from the more dangerous afternoon routine without having to tell them they could no longer go. At the same time though, it made her angry. Nambu hadn't waited the day before to tell them he'd rejected them yet again. He didn't come home last night, yet again avoiding the task of telling them he didn't approve, but now he was maneuvering things in the background. Was she not even good enough to be told things face to face?
"You two had better hurry along," Pho said. "I'm sure the others are waiting for you."
Jun pushed her chair slowly back even as Jinpei leapt out of his. She followed her brother into the small hallway behind the kitchen as he thumbed the secret switch to open the door allowing access to the house's underground levels.
Jinpei sped down the stairs. As Jun reached the first level not long after him, she felt a strange sense of finality sweeping through her. Everything around her seemed sharper, brighter as her mind struggled to etch every nuance and detail into her memory-as a part of her insisted softly this would be the last time she would ever be allowed there.
The feeling persisted and intensified as the two of them reached the locker room and changed into their gi.
"Come on, neechan! Come on!" Jinpei grabbed her arm and almost yanked her from the room.
What would her brother do once he was no longer allowed to come here? What would he feel once he found out he'd no longer get to share in the training of the others? Would he turn dark and morose as she felt she had no choice but to do?
Jinpei opened the door into the matted training room and dashed inside. Jun hovered at the doorway clasped by sudden indecision. This would be her last time entering this room. Would it be better not to go in? Not to feel this bittersweet pain?
Joe, Ryu, and Ken stopped what they were doing as soon as they spotted them. Was that relief on their faces? Had the boys thought they might not be allowed to come down too? She wasn't the only one who knew they were running out time. Her eyes burned.
Jun made herself step inside and took her usual place. Instantly, she started in on one of the katas trying to distract herself. She put all she could into the exercise, made every motion, every movement count. If this was fated to be her last time here, she would make Pham proud for the effort he had spent teaching them. She would prove she'd learned her lessons well and that all of it hadn't been a total waste of time.
No words passed between them as she began, but instead the others fell into the same kata with her. As a group, they went through the sequence of moves flowing like a river, joined, moving like one. She would never reach this level of harmony and rightness with anyone else--never. She let the symmetry in their movements suffuse her soul-making a memory she could use to buoy herself with down the road of what was to come.
When Pham bid them to stop for the morning, Jun felt unexpectedly centered and calm. Her pain was still there as well as the anger, but they were momentarily muted and in the background.
She left with the others, wiping sweat from her brow after having given her teacher the deepest and most respectful bow she could manage. Ken hung back as she came out into the hallway and spoke to her while the others went on to shower and change.
"How are you?" he asked her quietly.
Jun noticed he was staring at her askew as if uncertain as whether or not to face her directly. His obvious worry made her stomach tighten. "I'm fine." She tried to smile.
"Hakase didn't come home last night," he stated softly. "But the three of us will talk him as soon as he gets home today."
Jun nodded, not looking at him, knowing she wouldn't be able to talk Ken out of this course though it was useless. The group of them had been able to talk Nambu out of sending her and her brother away once before-but this time it was different. This time they were threatening his project. It was one thing for Nambu to capitulate and let them stay there, it was another altogether to allow her and her brother to join the team. Nambu had been set against it since the day they'd first met in Tebet.
"Jun," Ken set his hand on her arm. "He will change his mind. You've proved yourselves. He has no choice."
She gave him a sad smile knowing better. If only Ken could be right. But this time, she had no doubt he was wrong. The spirits wouldn't be swayed and neither would Nambu. She had to learn her proper place. Without saying anything, Jun went on to the locker room.
When she finished changing, she found Ryu and Jinpei whispering to one another by a set of lockers. Her brother's face looked pinched and a little pale. What was Ryu telling him? Or was it the other way around?
Looking away, hoping Ryu might be able to do for Jinpei what she couldn't, Jun spotted Joe staring in her direction. She couldn't read his expression, but as soon as he saw her looking, he pushed away from the wall and walked away.
Trying not to think about what it might mean, she left as well. Once she ventured out into the hallway, she found both Ken and Joe there waiting for her.
"Let's wait for the others," Ken suggested. "I think all five of us need to talk for a minute." There was a tone of command in his voice Jun wasn't entirely sure what to make of. She nodded slowly wondering what this was going to be about-half-afraid she already knew.
The three of them stood in silence until Ryu and Jinpei came out and joined them. Ken gazed at each of them, his expression set. Jun felt a pang of trepidation.
"We all know yesterday didn't go quite like we expected," Ken began. "And I'm sure we can guess what Hakase will say when we see him next." His eyes hardened. "But he's wrong, he's dead wrong."
Jun stared at the floor.
"When he comes home today, we need to confront him as what we are-a team. We've all worked too hard for this just to let it end. Us, together, it feels right-we know it's right. And I for one don't want to see all we've accomplished be for nothing.
"Nambu is a great man, we all know that, and I'd be the last to question him, but in this one thing he is wrong. We have to make him see that." Ken stepped up close and put his hands on Jun and Jinpei's shoulders. "You two are part of us now. We're so much more together than we are apart. We have to make Hakase see it. And if we try to do it together, I know we can."
Jun looked away from Ken's piercing blue eyes, warmed and hurt at the same time by his determination and sincerity. Everything he'd said about the group she knew was true-all except for their chances of being able to topple Nambu's will. Ken just didn't understand what they were really up against. No one would ever thwart the true will of the gods and spirits-no one.
"Hakase will be here this afternoon, he's taking us to see the doctor," Jinpei said eagerly. "Pho-san said so."
Jun bit her lip wishing her brother hadn't said anything. It pained her to see so much hope in his young face. They would only be speeding up the inevitable disappointment which would be theirs regardless.
"Figures he'd try to sneak in and out of here when we're busy," Joe snorted.
Ken glanced back at him. "Then I guess we'll have to make sure he can't."
Ryu grimaced. "Hakase won't like it if we skip practice."
"I think there's a lot of things Nambu's not going to like today." Joe grinned.
Ken sighed. "Let's just go on upstairs."
"Come on, neechan." Jinpei grabbed hold of Jun's hand. Jun went along as he tugged on it, feeling like a leaf caught in a flood. But though they didn't realize it yet, she knew the ride wouldn't last.
The five of them made it upstairs to the kitchen and took their places at the table. An undercurrent of tension hung about them as they ate. All Jun could feel was rising dread. Someone like Nambu wasn't used to having people question his decisions. And when backed by gods, how much worse would this all be? But she knew she couldn't talk them out of this reckless course. One look at their faces told her that. And it would be the last thing they would all do together.
Pho filled their plates to overflowing as usual, but her eyes seemed distant, her prodding for them to eat automatic. Her husband too seemed distracted, not trading his usual quips with his wife. Jun wondered if Nambu had called already, if things were in motion before their last stand. Or maybe they already knew the inevitable couldn't be stopped.
As soon as they all finished eating, Pham stood up and started to lead the way downstairs. Ken stood up as well. "Sensei."
Pham turned around his thin brow rising on his face. "Yes, young Ken?"
"I mean no disrespect, but we will not be going to practice this afternoon." He glanced at the others. "We know Hakase is coming home and we have to speak to him."
Their teacher frowned as if troubled. "Is this a wise choice, Ken?"
Jun stated at her lap. She definitely didn't think it was. Still, she said nothing.
"I don't know if it is or not, Sensei, but we don't see that we have a choice. Hakase has to be made to understand."
Pham glanced at his wife, his expression veiled. "I see."
Pho stepped forward. "We believe as you do-that the five of you were meant to be together." Her expression was as veiled as her husbands. "But it seems this battle will prove harder than we thought. He is so very stubborn." Her husband nodded at this as well.
"We appreciate your support, Pho-san, Sensei." Ken bowed deeply to them both.
"Kozaburo should be here presently," Pho told them. "Wait for him by the front door, that way you won't be underfoot while I clean in here." The old woman shooed them out of the room, her husband staying with her.
Jun walked with the others toward the house's front door, warring emotions clashing inside her. Their efforts were doomed; she knew this. But at the same time, a part of her wanted them to try-needed them to try.
In the foyer, Joe leaned back against a paneled wall, Ken not far from him. Ryu wrestled lightly with Jinpei, while Jun stood alone, her eyes riveted to the front door.
After a few minutes, Jun felt Ken and Joe sending questioning glances in her direction but she didn't return them. This was the end. Here it would all fall apart, and there was nothing she could do about it. Her shoulders ached from the restrained tension.
When they heard the engine of Nambu's convertible as it pulled up into the covered parkway, everyone's attention turned to focus on the door.
"He's here." Jinpei's nervous statement spoke for them all.
Ken shifted from where he was standing to squarely face the door. Joe pushed himself away from the wall and moved to do the same. Ryu and Jinpei stepped to stand behind them. Jun watched them, wishing she could do something, and angry she felt so helpless.
As the key rattled in the lock and the knob turned, she suddenly moved to stand with them. Even if this ended as it inevitably had to, they would at least have it end as one.
The door opened and Nambu stepped in through the doorway. As he moved to set his briefcase by the door, the doctor froze seeing them all standing there for the first time. After a moment, he straightened up slowly, gazing at them. His eyes finally settled on the three older boys. "Aren't you supposed to be in practice?"
Ken stepped forward ignoring Nambu's question. "Hakase, we wish to speak with you."
Nambu's eyes narrowed slightly at Ken's tone. "I see." He quietly closed the door behind him.
"We want to talk to you about yesterday," Ken said. "About Jun and Jinpei, and having them officially added to the team."
Nambu's gaze turned cold and raked over each of them. Jun couldn't help but flinch as it scoured over her. Though he looked as calm as always, Jun felt as if she'd just been burned by the lashing heat of anger. Why?
"That is not an option." Nambu's voice was totally devoid of emotion.
Ken rallied after a moment. "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!" He stared at Nambu, his body, his spirit defiant.
"I've told you before this is not a topic for discussion."
Jun felt her chest tighten feeling it as Nambu grew more angry though nothing visibly had changed in him from before.
Ken's hands bunched into fists at his side, yet it was Joe who spoke next. "It's not? Then what is?" Joe demanded. "It's our butts that are going to be on the line, not yours. 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."
Nambu half-smiled at this. The gesture had no warmth in it at all. Jun felt herself suddenly go cold all over.
"Jun, Jinpei, come along." Nambu turned his back to the five of them and opened the door leading outside.
"Hakase!" Ken and the others stared at the doctor in disbelief. Joe took a step toward him as if he would physically try to stop him.
"I don't want to be late for your appointment." Nambu never looked back.
Jun hung her head and started to follow, defeat thrown over her like a cloak. She hesitated as someone touched her arm as if to stop her.
"Don't." Joe's gaze was intense. "He's just trying to avoid this, like yesterday. We can't let him."
Jun shook her head, feeling what little control she had quickly slipping away. "This won't help. You just have to face it-we don't belong." She rushed past him, hoping her brother had enough sense to follow. Nambu was furious enough with them as it was.
When she stepped outside, Nambu had already gone around the car and opened the passenger door for her and had flipped the front seat so they could slip into the back. Jun hurried to get there so as not to keep him waiting, her gaze never lifting from the ground. As she got into the car, she dared to raise her eyes to look for her brother. Jinpei was only a step or two behind her, his eyes also on the ground, his lips quivering. She moved aside so he'd have room to get in.
Without a word, Nambu put the seat back and closed the door then came around the car to get into the driver's seat. He quickly started the engine and put the car in gear.
Jun turned to her brother as he leaned against her and put her arm around him. He nestled his face against her and cried silently. She caressed his hair feeling terribly heavy and empty. She watched Nambu, noting the tension in his shoulders and the white knuckles holding the steering wheel as he drove.
He would get rid of them. They'd left him no choice now. Jun felt her eyes burn but no tears would come.
The boys had questioned the doctor's authority over them, might even have gone so far as to threaten leaving the project if he'd given them more time. Nambu couldn't afford that. Without meaning to, she and Jinpei had become a point of contention between Nambu and the boys-a distraction from their purpose, a threat to the project. What little hope she held they might be allowed to stay was gone. Nambu would rid himself of them and he would do it quickly, before things got any more out of hand. She went cold as she realized he might not even let them go back long enough to say goodbye.
Jun pressed her brother harder against her, eliciting a small whimper from him. This would be so hard on Jinpei. It would be as bad if not worse than when they'd lost Rikaw at the monastery. Why, why would the spirits do this to him? What had he ever done? But it was her fault, not his, and she knew it. Though it brought vile to her mouth, she knew all the pain her brother was going through and would go through was because of her defiance.
But all she'd ever wanted was a family-a group of people to love and protect. Was that so wrong? Yet none of it was to be, all through her own doing. A numbness crept over her body into her heart and soul and Jun gladly welcomed it. If she could hold on to it, embrace it, it would get her through this. It would let her be there for her brother until her own turn to grieve would come.
By the time Nambu's car entered the parking lot housing the two-storied building with Braun's office, Jinpei had quieted down. Nambu said nothing during the entire trip. Jun doubted he'd once looked back at them through the rearview mirror. Just as she had for the moment separated herself from her grief, the doctor was separating himself from them. She knew he too had realized what he would have to do.
Nambu parked the car and got out, pulling the back seat up so Jun and her brother could get out. Jun kept her eyes on the ground not looking at him. She held Jinpei's hand in hers as they walked toward the building, his brown eyes swollen and his normal bouncing energy nowhere to be seen.
Nambu led them wordlessly inside. They took the elevator to the second floor and then followed the hallway to Braun's suites. The waiting room was pretty much empty, only two three year olds playing with blocks in a corner and their mothers in the room. Nambu ignored them and headed straight for the window looking into the nurse's station.
As soon as the nurse spotted him, she signaled for them to go ahead through the door on the right. Nambu opened the door but didn't go through, sending Jun and Jinpei in without him.
Jun glanced back, frowning, and saw him take out a cellular phone from his pocket as the door swung closed. She knew what it meant and felt nothing, nothing at all.
The nurse took both of their temperatures and measured their weight and height as she'd done on all their visits. She then led them to another room and had them take turns standing still as she took a full set of x-rays. Though the nurse was cheery and even tried striking a conversation with them once or twice, the two of them remained unresponsive.
Once the nurse finished with them, she escorted them to one of the examination rooms.
"Dr. Braun will be with you in just a minute. There are some nice story books in the corner you can read while you wait." The nurse studied them as they stood in the center of the room doing nothing, a small worried frown marring her face.
"That will be nice, ma'am," Jun said, never even once glancing toward the offered books.
The nurse watched them a moment longer and then closed the door leaving them on their own.
"Neechan..." Jinpei's voice was barely a whisper. His small face gazed at her with exposed pain. "What's, what's going to happen?"
Jun stared at him, somewhere deep down horrified she felt nothing as she looked at him. "Hakase is going to get rid of us."
Jinpei paled at her words. "Why?"
She turned away from him and stared at the brightly colored wall. "Because we're in the way. Because we never belonged. Because you're a child and I'm a girl."
There, she'd finally told him. It couldn't be any clearer. Now he could go through the pain and get rid of it. As she was doing-no, as she had done.
But her heart twinged as she heard him start to sob quietly behind her. Turning around, Jun suddenly ran to him and wrapped him in her arms. "We still have each other. Don't ever forget that! Nothing will keep us apart. Not Nambu, not anyone." She held onto him, feeling her own numbness edging away, though she tried as hard as she could to keep it.
There was a soft knock at the door. Jun quickly passed her hand over her eyes and then used her own shirt to wipe away at her brother's face.
Braun entered the room. "Good afternoon, kids. It's good to see you again." The jolly looking doctor gave the two of them a large friendly smile, but it frayed a little as he caught the somber looks on their faces. "Are you two all right?"
Jun answered for both of them, though she wasn't happy at the slight quiver in her voice. "We're fine." This was probably the biggest lie she'd ever told.
The doctor studied them for a moment, seemed about to say something and then changed his mind. "Well then, let's have a look at you."
Jun and Jinpei sat quietly as Braun went through the exam. He checked the two of them from top to bottom almost as if he were looking for something. When he'd about finished, the nurse came in with their x-rays. Nambu came silently behind her.
Braun took the x-rays from the nurse and studied them with serious interest. After several minutes, he set all the sheets on the counter. "Nambu, these two are as disgustingly healthy as the others. I did find some evidence of bruises, 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..." He glanced momentarily in Jun and Jinpei's direction as if what he'd been about to say should be more than self-evident.
Nambu gazed at them for a moment saying nothing. He slowly shook his head. "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."
Submissively, Jun and Jinpei got off the examining table.
Braun fished for something in his pocket. "Hey, don't leave without these." He handed the two children a couple of pieces of chocolate each. Both took them without enthusiasm and only held them. Braun sent Nambu a puzzled look.
The doctor ignored it. "Thank you again."
The three of them left the office and headed toward the elevator. Still staring raptly at the floor, Jun spoke. "Hakase."
"Yes, Jun?" Nambu's voice sounded as subdued as her own.
"I don't understand why we're not good enough, but I won't ask. It's too late and I know that. You'll be getting rid of us now and we won't give you any trouble." She bowed low, missing the surprised look on his face. "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 doctor took a step back, startled. His emotions were quickly concealed, however, beneath his usual calm façade. "I would never separate you from your brother."
Jun bowed again staring at the floor as if she could see through it. Jinpei hiccuped behind her as if he would start to cry again. "Thank you, Hakase."
"Let's go." Nambu turned his back on them and led them downstairs and then out of the building.
Once outside, they headed directly for the doctor's convertible. Parked next to it was a tank of a car, an old black Chrysler. From within it, three men wearing dark hats, trench coats, and sunglasses got out.
Nambu stopped, eyeing them suspiciously, and placed his hand on Jun's shoulder to stop her from going past. Surprised by his touch, she looked up and saw the three men for the first time.
"Jun, take your brother and go back inside." Nambu said this quietly, never taking his eyes from the three men.
"Hakase?" She stared in confusion from him to the three men even as they moved to cut them off from the convertible.
"Please do as I ask. Go inside." Nambu's brown eyes met Jun's, totally serious.
She nodded and turned around to do as he told her, when a fourth man came out from inside the building wearing the same kind of clothes as the three men. "Hakase."
Nambu glanced back at her terse call and spotted the fourth man. "Damn."
Jun and Jinpei stepped back to stand beside Nambu again. Jinpei's eyes were wide.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't the famous Kozaburo Nambu." One of the first three men stepped forward before the others. "Fancy meeting you here, doctor."
Nambu frowned. "What do you want?"
"Now that's not very friendly," the other said. "Especially after all the trouble we've gone to waiting for you to come here again." The man smiled and made as if to reach for Jun. "What cute kids you have."
Nambu placed his hand on Jun's shoulder and pulled her back keeping her out of the other's reach. "I'll ask you again-what do you want?"
"Nambu, Nambu, tsk tsk." The stranger shook his head. "I would have thought that would be obvious. We want you to come with us," he said. "You and the children."
Jun felt Nambu's hand tense on her shoulder.
"And if we refuse?"
"Well, then there might actually be a real reason why the kids would need to see a doctor." He grinned. "So, you just come along quietly and everything will be fine."
Jun stared at each of the men before her feeling a strange sensation rising along with the fear welling inside her. These men were Galactor, she was sure of it. Everything they'd said and done so far screamed this to her. These were some of the butchers that had killed or kidnapped all the people in Nambu's photos. And now, now they planned to do the same to them.
"I'll come with you," Nambu said, "but only if you let the children go."
Jun looked up in amazement at Nambu's calm pronouncement. Even after all the trouble they'd caused him, he would willingly give himself to these men on their behalf?
The Galactor agent laughed. "Yeah, right, that's a good one." He glanced back at his fellows as if sharing a joke. "We have all the cards, doctor. You're in no position to make deals." He nodded to the men. "So quite delaying the inevitable and let's get going."
The four men converged on them, the three from the front and the one from the back. One grabbed roughly at Nambu's arm while two of the others reached for Jun and Jinpei.
How, how could they? Jun's anger flared like never before. It was people like these and the evil they did that had sent Nambu to Tebet where they'd first met. And though they might not have done so if not for them, still it was they and their evil plans that had created Nambu's secret project. It was they who had doomed all her plans for a family with Joe, Ruy, and Ken. And now, now they thought they would use them against Nambu? They would threaten their lives and the doctor's as well? She might not be allowed by the gods to join the doctor's team, but she wouldn't allow these men to hurt anyone else if she could help it.
"Jinpei!" Jun dodged the man's grab for her arm and twisted to the outside of their rough circle. Before the agent could turn around, she slammed her foot with all the force she could muster into the back of his leg.
A snap echoed in the parking lot and the Galactor agent screamed. Jun didn't hesitate at the sound of his pain and as he went down drove her fist into his throat. There would be no more pictures. They wouldn't be stuffed into a folder full of other tortured dead!
Jinpei dipped and dodged the arm coming for him and punched his agent in the groin. The guard fell to his knees with an umph of pain just before Jinpei kicked him in the face. The man went down and didn't move again.
"Holy shit!" Both men left standing fumbled for the inside of their coats. Nambu grabbed the one who'd been holding him and without much ado, flipped him to the ground. Before the man could try to rise, the doctor dropped to one knee and punched him in the face, then reached to swipe the man's half-revealed weapon.
"That's enough! All of you stand perfectly still." The agent's voice sounded shrill even as he took a step a way from them. He held a .357 pistol in his hands and was trying to cover all three of them at once. "You're going to come with us one way or the other. Whether you live to see tomorrow will be up to you."
Nambu froze. Jinpei stared at the man suddenly filled with indecision. Jun, suffused with even more fury at the fact they were being threatened again, never hesitated and launched herself at the agent.
She was a girl, she had a predetermined fate, she would never be part of the team, but she had learned, she had skills. And she'd rather die than let someone like this man hurt those she cared about.
The agent jerked to shoot at her with his weapon but Jun was too close. A loud bang retorted to her right, a stinging burn touching her leg. She barely felt it, leaping up with her arms crossed before her. She was aiming for the agent's throat, but at the last moment he blocked her thrust. Jun chopped at his wrist to get him to drop his gun even as the two of them went down.
"Leave my sister alone!" Jinpei was suddenly at her side, kicking the Galactor in the head. The agent's face snapped abruptly to the right. Blood poured out of the kidnapper's mouth, and the light left his eyes. He didn't move again.
"Neechan, did he hurt you?" Tears welled up in Jinpei's eyes and overflowed down his face. Jun stared at the cooling body beneath her, her anger leaving now that it was over.
"Are you two all right?" Nambu came to hover over them.
Jun forced herself to move and rose up from the agent's body. "We're fine, Hakase."
"Neechan, you're bleeding!" Jinpei's small face collapsed as if nothing they'd done or been through so far was as horrible as this.
Jun stared down at her leg and saw blood slowly trickling from where she'd been grazed by the bullet. Now that she'd noticed it, the wound began to sting.
"Here, put this on it. Hold it tight so it will stop the blood." Nambu knelt down beside her, gently pulling her toward him and away from the body at her feet. As he placed a folded handkerchief over her wound, Jinpei came over and wrapped his arms around his sister's midriff.
Nambu left Jun holding the handkerchief and then quickly moved to check on the four fallen men. From one, he removed the belt from the long black overcoat he wore and used it to tie the unconscious man's hands behind his back. He also took the extra precaution of removing everything from his pockets. The other three, once he'd checked on them, he did nothing to at all.
Jun realized with a shock they were dead. Joy tinged relief flowed through her at the realization-these men would never hurt anyone else again. She felt heat rise to her face as she also realized this wouldn't be the kind of thing the priests would have wanted from her.
She glanced guiltily over at Nambu and found him staring at them. Though his face was composed, there was such a look of loss and regret in his eyes, it made her want to weep. Did he think what they'd done was wrong? It wasn't. Wasn't this what the boys were training for as well?
"Let's go back inside and have Braun look at your wound." The sadness was still in his eyes as he approached her gingerly a moment later.
Jun glanced around at the fallen men again, at the rest of the parking lot, and then nodded. She realized with a fierce intensity that if any more Galactors were hiding nearby and made a move for them, she would fight them, she would kill them. Nothing and no one would hurt those she loved-she didn't care about the cost. These evil men had to be stopped.
Faces peered at them from the front doors of the building as they turned to go back inside. The high-pitched sound of police sirens filled the air, coming closer by the moment. His hand set lightly on her shoulder, Nambu ignored all this as he led them into the building.
The moment the nurse spotted them coming into the office, she rushed to open the door so they could go into the back. Braun's face was creased with concern as he rushed forward to meet them. "This way, come this way."
"I'll be there presently," Nambu said, staying behind as Braun hurriedly led Jun and Jinpei away.
"You can make, Neechan, all right again, can't you?" Jinpei stared at the doctor with a grim face as Braun helped Jun up onto the examining table.
Jun answered before the doctor could respond. "Jinpei, I'm fine. It's nothing." A shiver cut through her as it occurred to her that if she hadn't acted, it could have been her brother or Nambu on this table. They could have been hurt worse than she was or even killed. She would never allow that, not if she had any means to make sure it wouldn't happen. Her soul might be dammed to a worse life in her next reincarnation, but she would pay any price.
"I'll fix her right up, you'll see." Braun tried to smile, his face still somewhat ashen. He patted them both on the head. "You can cry if you need to, I won't think any less of you."
Jun nodded though she felt like doing no such thing. She had sinned, for good or ill, and wasn't sorry. If the gods couldn't understand why she'd done it, she didn't care.
Braun cleaned the graze and put a bandage on it. "See, your sister is fine. The wound will be gone in no time."
"Thank you," Jun said.
"Yes, thank you!" Jinpei impulsively gave the doctor a hug. Braun smiled with pleasure. Jinpei then waited for Jun to get off the table and gave her one as well. "Neechan, I was so scared!"
"You did great though," she told him. "Pham and the boys would have been very impressed."
Jinpei's eyes lit up. "You think so?"
Before she could answer there was a soft knock at the door. Braun answered it opening the door wide. "Kozaburo, there's nothing to worry about. It's just a graze."
Nambu nodded. "I've already called for a security detail. You'll need to get your records in order. This location is no longer secure."
Braun nodded, his face losing its color again, and quickly left the room after waving at the children.
"Are you two ready to go?" Nambu asked quietly.
Jun couldn't help but notice the tired slump to his shoulders or the intent way he stared at them. She suddenly made herself stand up straight, not wanting him to see any weakness in her. She was sad people had had to die, but she was also glad she'd done as she'd done. She knew without a doubt that she'd do it again if she had to and she didn't want him to doubt it for a moment. "Yes, Hakase."
Nambu nodded lightly then stepped out of the way so they could exit the room. Braun's waiting room was empty and the nurse was nowhere to be seen. When they walked out into the hallway, a man in a crisp uniform was waiting for them there looking very serious.
Rather than take them to the elevator, Nambu turned right and took them to the stairs. The man in the uniform followed. Once on the first floor, they didn't go toward the front doors but took a different way to the back entrance of the building.
A large car was there waiting for them, the back door already opened. The windows of the car were tinted in reflective silver, allowing no one to look in. Nambu motioned for Jun and Jinpei to get in.
As they got inside the car, another uniformed man sitting in the front turned to look at them long enough to make eye contact with Nambu. The other man closed the car's door and they got under way.
"How are the two of you feeling?" Nambu's intense stare raked over them again.
"We're fine, Hakase," Jun responded. Jinpei nodded his agreement.
Nambu's dark eyes suddenly softened and then he looked away. "I had never meant for anything like this to happen."
"We know that, sir." Jun replied seriously. She had no doubt Nambu would have avoided the situation if there'd been any way he could have.
"We're just happy we could stop those bad men from taking you away, Hakase." Jinpei glanced shyly over at the doctor as he spoke. "Even if you're sending us away."
"I see." A sad smile flickered on the older man's face for a moment.
No one said anything else as the driver took them home. As he buzzed the gate and it swung slowly open, Jun stared out the window at the bushes and trees she'd been so sure earlier that day she would never see again. If nothing else, the attack on Nambu this afternoon may have bought them just a little more time.
When the car stopped beneath the covered parkway, the door to the house immediately swung open and Pho, Pham, and the boys all poured outside.
From the moment Nambu opened the car door, questions bombarded the three of them. "Are you all right?" "They didn't say what happened." "A kidnapping, right?" "What did they do?" "Are you healthy?"
"Everyone, please!" Nambu gestured placatingly at the five of them, trying to give Jun and Jinpei enough room to get out.
"Jun, you've been hurt!" All eyes riveted on her bandaged leg at Ken's outburst. The worry she saw in all their eyes made her heart skip, especially Ken's. Maybe he felt as fiercely about her safety as she did about theirs. She was suffused with a strange warmth inside.
"I'm fine. It's just a graze."
"A graze?" Joe frowned.
"Neechan got shot!" Jinpei proclaimed excitedly.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot as she saw the open faced shock on the others' faces.
"This really isn't the best place to talk about this," Nambu said suddenly. "Let's get inside." He cut past Pham and the boys and led the way inside.
"So what did happen, Kozaburo?" Pho looked as curious as everyone else.
After hesitating a moment, Nambu turned around to address them all even as Ryu shut the front door. "Our enemies are becoming bolder. They attempted to kidnap me and the children at the doctor's parking lot."
This was met with shocked expression all around. "Shit," Joe exclaimed, "In broad daylight?" Ryu paled. Ken looked suddenly uncomfortable.
Nambu nodded. "Yes, it would seem our time is growing short."
Jun wondered what that meant. From the look Pham, Pho, and the boys traded with one another she could tell they did.
"So how are you not now theirs?" Pham asked quietly, a knowing look on his face.
Nambu met the old man's gaze and looked away. He suddenly seemed incredibly tired. "Jun and Jinpei eliminated the threat."
Silence met the quiet answer for several seconds. Jinpei glanced over at his sister and then took a bold step forward. "That's right, neechan and I, we saved Hakase," he told them excitedly. "There were four of them! Hakase took out one but we did the other three. You should have seen neechan! She was so cool!"
"You killed them?" Ken's expression was blank.
"We did what we had to do," Jun told him. "And we'd do it again." She was surprised by the heavy emotion she heard in her own voice. Though she didn't really expect the day's events to change anything, at least the others would know they'd been able to hold their own when it counted.
Joe stared at her and Jinpei, a weird look of grudging admiration and a little jealousy on his face. "First blood." Ryu's look was something between horror and wonder.
"Hakase, if, if this is true, then you can't possibly object now. They've proven themselves under fire. What more could you want?" Ken's face was earnest.
"It's what they want anyway, Kozaburo." Pho's eyes were bright.
"You have need of them," added Pham.
Jun frowned not sure what they were all doing even as Nambu turned away as if to ward himself from their words. "Hakase?" His back was stiff.
Nambu turned to look at her, his dark eyes meeting her own. His gaze was still locked with hers, he spoke. "Is it really what you want? Are you really sure? I could still arrange for you and your brother to have a quiet, normal life."
Jun felt her heart wrench not daring to let herself think about what this might mean. "It's what we want. We want it more than anything, Hakase." Would he? Would he let them? What about the gods? Would they strike her down now?
"Then you win," he said. After a moment, his whole body just seemed to let go of his tension and relaxed. A tentative smile lit his face. "Welcome to the team." He extended his hand formally toward her.
Jun took it, her brother beaming beside her, not daring to breathe. Was it true?
The answering whoop of congratulations from those around her gave her the resounding answer. Arms came from everywhere and gave her and Jinpei fierce hugs. "You did it, you did it!"
Jun felt tears rise to her eyes, still not sure. Had she been wrong all along? Was this the true fate the gods had intended for her from the beginning? The warm welcoming smiles of the people she loved told her it was. Her long battle was over. Jun and Jinpei were finally home.