The Gamble by Maya Perez
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            The next morning, Jun and Jinpei rose around the same time as usual and found that unlike previous mornings, the boys and Nambu got up about the same time as them. 

            Smiles greeted them as they arrived for breakfast, a strange, tingling excitement in the air.  Joe even looked less harsh than normal.  Later though, Jun caught him staring in their direction, a strange perplexed look on his face.

            All ate quickly and Pho didn't even try to stuff them as full as usual.

            "Jun, Jinpei, since this is your first time and you are our guests, is there anything specific either of you would like to see or do today?"

            Jun shot a warning look to her brother hoping he'd say nothing about the fact they no longer had their allowance.  Jinpei just sat in his chair and stared at his hands.  Jun answered for the both of them.  "No, sir, anywhere would be fine."

            Nambu studied them for a moment.  "Are you sure?"

            "Yes, Hakase," she answered.

            "Well, I figured we could take a tour of the area so you can see more of Utoland.  Now, if you spot anything at all that interests you while we do, let me know and we'll stop."

            "Thank you, Hakase."

            Nambu nodded and then turned his attention to the others.  "How about you, boys?" 

            He was instantly flooded with requests.  He sifted through their wants quickly and organized a route that would meet most of their demands.  Pho happily waved goodbye to the six of them as they piled up in Nambu's convertible and left.

            Their first stop was at a nearby hobby store called Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Jun and Jinpei both found the place enthralling.  Kite kits, model cars, electric trains; all sorts of new wonders lay everywhere. The two of them drifted from display to display their eyes bright.

            "Neechan, if, if we had money, we could buy these things, right?"  Her brother's face was a mixture of hope and longing.

            "Yes, Jinpei, I think so."

            "How much would it take?  Was what we had before enough?"  A sad look crossed his eyes as he thought of what he'd lost.

            "I, I don't know.  We'll ask about it once we actually have some money of our own."

            Nambu's city tour took them past the Utoland Stadium, the Public Library, Government Square, and even past the International Science Organization building where he worked.  It was no surprise to the two of them that his building was the tallest and most impressive of those in the area.

            Once the tour was over, he treated them all to lunch.  He swore them all to secrecy as he decided on Ryu's suggestion and introduced Jun and Jinpei to pizza. 

            "Isn't this good?"

            Jinpei's sauce covered face smiled brightly.  "Yeah!"

            Afterwards, Nambu drove them to a park with a large pond to one side.  Once they parked the car, Nambu opened the trunk from which each of the boys pulled out a remote control unit and a vehicle.  Ryu pulled out a sleek red and yellow striped speedboat.  Joe had an all terrain vehicle with wheels almost bigger than the car itself.  Ken tenderly pulled out his recently fixed airplane.

            As soon as he got his car, Joe walked away from the group even as Nambu's frown followed after him.

            "Hey, Jinpei, wanna learn how to drive my boat?  Her name's Sunrise."

            Jinpei's eyes marveled over the boat in Ryu's hands but then turned to look longingly at the Ken's plane.  "Could we, could we see the plane fly for a minute first?"

            "Sure!  We have to see if Joe got it fixed right."  He smiled.  "Besides, it's quite a sight to see Ken fly it."

            Jun hid a smile as she saw Ken lightly blush.

            Nambu took a briefcase from the trunk and then closed it shut.  "I'll be over at the picnic tables as usual.  If any of you need anything, that's where I'll be.  Please stay within line of sight."

            "Yes, Hakase!"

            They watched Nambu go toward a set of tree shaded picnic tables before darting off to an area of the park where the trees were few and far between.  Ken set down his plane on the grass and after getting all of them to move back, he took the controls with a grin and turned them on.

            Jinpei gasped as Ken flipped a switch and the small engine roared to life.  The propeller picked up speed and the plane slowly began to move forward.  Ken's grin grew as the plane moved faster and faster and with a bounce leapt up into the air.

            "You did it!  You did it!"  Jinpei bounced around them pointing up at the plane.

            "Oh, hold on, you haven't seen anything yet."  Ryu lightly jabbed Ken in the ribs.  Ken's cheeks grew red again even as his hands expertly moved over the controls.  Jun watched in awe and fascination as the small plane rose higher and higher and then dived steeply toward the ground only to rise again at the last moment.  As they continued to watch, the plane did loop de loops, barrel rolls, dives, sharp curves, and more.

            "Aniki, that's awesome!"  Jinpei stared at him in pure adulation.

            Ken glanced over at him, his grin growing to a smile even as he blushed deeply.  "I'd, I'd better bring her down.  I'm sure she's low on fuel by now."  He brought her down as expertly as she had risen.

            "My turn!  Let me show you what my baby can do," Ryu said.

            "Yay!"  Jinpei beat them all to the pond.

            Loud pounding music drifted over toward them as Ryu set Sunrise in the water.  Jun glanced over toward the source of the sound and saw a bunch of strangely dressed people strewn over the picnic tables in a pavilion in the middle of the park.  Despite her fascination with the boys' vehicles, she kept finding herself distracted by the rhythmic sounds.  They weren't like any pieces of music she had ever heard before and she found herself strangely attracted to them.

            Ryu handled his boat as if he was born to it.  He merrily chased ducks around the pond and made sharp turns that sent water into the air, which made Jinpei squeal with delight.  He very nearly ran over one of the ducks that didn't get out of the way fast enough, when a tinkling sound made Ryu look up his eyes alight.  "Hey, look, it's an ice cream truck!"  He quickly brought his boat to a stop.

            "Hakase!"  Ryu pointed animatedly at the truck pulling into the parking lot as Nambu looked up from what he was doing.  The doctor nodded once and then held up his wallet.

            "YES!"  Ryu raised his arm and brought it back down in exultation.  "Come on, the ice cream is on him."  Ryu picked up Jinpei by the middle and amidst screams of fear and delight took him with him on a mad dash to Nambu's table.  Jun and Ken followed at a more sedate pace.

            Jun and Jinpei got cones like the ones they had at the mall, while Ryu went for a Pink Panther and Ken for an Ice Cream Sandwich.  Ryu also bought Nambu an Ice Cream Bomb and Joe a Batman popsicle in case he showed.

            Jinpei took one lick of his cone and took off.  "I'm an ice cream plane!  I'm an ice cream boat!"  He shot out swerving and running as if he were the vehicles doing stunts.  Jun followed after him to keep him in sight. 

            Jinpei had almost reached a small brown building with bathrooms when Jun realized the thicker number of trees here had already put them outside of Nambu's line of sight.  "Jinpei!  Get back here!"

            Her brother glanced back as he made the turn and smashed into someone coming around the corner.  They both went down.

            "Jinpei!"  Jun dropped her cone and ran.

            "You little shithead!"  A teenage boy roughly pushed Jinpei off him onto the ground.  He stood up, bright colored hair pointing everywhere from an uneven Mohawk.  He straightened up, making disgusted sounds as he found Jinpei's ice cream seeping into the multitude of zipper's on his coat.  "My jacket!"

            The boy swung a booted foot at Jinpei's side but the latter squirmed deftly out of the way before he could connect.  The teenager moved to pursue until Jun got in his way.

            "Stop!  It was an accident!"

            "Out of my way, bitch, unless you're looking to get hurt."  He stepped forward to tower over her.

            Jun stiffened.  "I won't let you hurt my brother!"  Her face was set.

            "Have it your way then."  He reached out to grab her shoulder.

            Jun took a half step back, side stepped him and then pushed.  The teenager stumbled past her and Jinpei tripped him.  He fell flat on his face.  Something red dribbled on the ground.

            "Now you've done it, cunt..."  He stood up, livid with rage, one had pinching his bleeding nose while the other reached into a back pocket.  "No more Mr. Nice Guy."  He drew out a switchblade and opened it with an audible click.  Its sharp blade shone in the light.

            Jun stared at the shiny metal, fear filling her to the core.  Yet all she could think about was how this man meant to use that on her brother and how she had to do everything she could to stop it.  "Jinpei!  Run!"

            The punk smiled, advancing toward her as he swished his blade slowly back and forth before him.  "Come here, chickie, I've got something nice and long for you."

            "Neechan!"

            Jun went into a half crouch.  He wouldn't hurt her brother.

            "Back off, asshole!"

            Jun took a half glance off to her right, her eyes wide as they confirmed Joe was there.  His car and remote sat on the ground beside him, his hands bunched into fists at his sides.  The expression on his face wasn't kind.

            "Get out of here, kid.  This is a private conversation."  The punk made a sweeping gesture in Joe's general direction.

            Joe took a step forward, his mouth twisting with a snarl.  "I guess it's just not so private anymore."

            "Heh, and what do you think you can do alone, little man?"  The half grin on the teenager's face predicted it couldn't be much.

            "But he's not alone."  Ken moved up to stand beside Joe, his face serene but his eyes cold.

            "You got that right!"  Ryu moved up on Jun's other side and helped Jinpei to his feet.

            "I think this means that we have an excellent chance of kicking your ass, puny man."  Joe's eyes promised the older boy a very painful death.  The boy took a step back finding the odds not so overwhelmingly in his favor anymore.

            Jun stared at his eyes, the fear receding as an unexpected feeling of warmth rushed through her.  The teenager stared at them gauging his chances. He saw they weren't good, but still didn't want to back down.  He took another look at Joe's face.  His arm slowly came down and he put the blade away.

            "Charlie?  Where are ya man!"  The teenager glanced behind him in the direction of the pavilion.

            "Shouldn't you go clean that up before the zippers rust?"  Ken sounded anything but concerned.  The teenager threw him a scathing look after glancing down at his jacket.  Ken smiled back coldly.

            The teenager threw them all one last, long disgusted look and then turned away to go back toward the pavilion.

            As he turned away, Jun instantly dismissed him from her mind and turned to her brother.  "Jinpei, are you all right?"

            "Sure, neechan!"  Her brother grinned from his perch atop Ryu's shoulders.  "We sure showed him."

            Jun wasn't confident on that point, but was relieved he was okay.

            "Are either of you hurt?"  Ken's concerned voice came up behind her.

            "No, we're fine."  Jun felt her cheeks grow warm.  "I'm sorry about causing all this trouble."

            "Don't worry about it, I'm just glad you're okay."

            Jun dared to look at him and found him smiling lightly.  Beyond him, she spotted Joe's tense form still facing the way the other boy had gone.

            Ryu brought Jinpei down and playfully roughed up his hair.  "You're one tough little squirt, aren't you?"

            Jinpei gave Ryu a frosty glare.  "What's a squirt?"

            Ken, Ryu, and Jun laughed.

            "Looks like the idiot's gone back to his buddies.  We'd better go back before grabs a couple of them and decides to come back for more."  Ken quickly nodded yes to Joe's suggestion.

            "Jinpei, how about I teach you how to drive the boat now?"

            "Yes!"

            Jinpei took off.  Ryu was hard pressed to keep up with him.

            Joe moved to pick up his things.

            "Thank you for your help."  Jun didn't look at him directly, not sure how he would receive the thanks.  To her surprise, the gruff boy looked suddenly uncomfortable and shrugged.  "Forget it."

            "Actually, Jun, you probably just made his day."

            Joe threw Ken a dirty look.  Ken grinned happily totally unperturbed by the daggers being thrown in his direction.

            That night, Jun was helping Jinpei out of his clothes when they had an unexpected visitor.  Jinpei spotted him first.  "Neechan!"

            Jun turned toward the door only to find a curiously subdued Joe standing halfway in the doorway.  "Joe?"

            He tossed a small bag into the room.  "Hey, kid, try not to eat them all right away, okay?"  He nodded once in Jun's direction and then left without saying anything else.

            Jinpei scampered over to open the bag and found it to be full of chocolate candy bars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            The incident the day before didn't make Joe any friendlier, but as they discovered the next day at breakfast, his bite no longer seemed as sharp as it was before.  Perhaps Ken had been right about him after all?  Still, Jun couldn't forget the fact they didn't really belong no matter how the others felt.  After eating breakfast, Jun and Jinpei once more made their way to watch Pham's class.  They were welcomed eagerly by the others, and even Joe didn't seem as loath to have them there as on previous occasions.

            Slowly, over the next several days, Pham maneuvered Jun and Jinpei away from their corner and had them join the boys in the center of the room.  It made Jun feel unexpectedly happy as the five of them moved almost as one.  For a time, at least, she could pretend they belonged.  And though it wouldn't make the facts go away, she tried hard during these times not to remember they'd never been brought there to stay.

            One morning, Pham varied their routine.  For the first time since Jun and Jinpei became part of the class, Pham had them all sit while he picked two of the boys to become sparring partners.  He chose Ken and Joe to go first.

            Jun watched enraptured as the two boys bowed quickly toward one another and then began.  Just like in his katas; Ken's movements were all smooth and exact. What Joe lacked in grace, however, he made up for in fierceness and power.  Neither spoke as they fought, their entire concentrations focused on their task.  Whenever either of them was flipped or hit, they'd still say nothing and would instantly get back up and press on.

            When Pham finally told them to stop, he asked them to sit and then gently critiqued all they had done.  He asked them questions and remained over each fault or praise until all understood why.

            To Jun's surprise, Pham asked Ryu and Jinpei to go next.  Jinpei jumped to his feet and ran to the starting position only too eager to go.  Ryu got up more sedately, a small worried frown on his face.  Joe's expression soured.  Ken looked noncommittal.  "Is this wise, Sensei?"

            "Do not make judgments so quickly, Ken.  Watch and you will see."

            Jun held her breath, apprehensive despite their Sensei's confidence.  Rikaw taught them well, but Ryu was still so much larger than Jinpei's tiny frame.

            "Begin."

            Ryu immediately swept forward to grab hold of Jinpei.  He was fast for his size, but compared to him, Jinpei's small form moved like lightning.  Tiny peals of laughter rang about the room as Jinpei avoided all of Ryu's advances.  Jinpei circled, dodged, teased, and leapt all over Ryu.  Though Jinpei's blows had little impact, still Ryu made no headway.  He was breathing quite heavily by the time Jinpei finally misjudged a dodge and Ryu was able to grab hold of him and pin him to the floor.

            "Very well done!  Both of you," Pham said.

            Jinpei was still laughing as the two of them joined the others for their critique.  Ryu collapsed next to him and ruffled his hair while still working to catch his breath.

            Jun fidgeted as Pham went through the critique of her brother's fight.  Would she be excluded from this exercise?  She held little hope of participating.  They'd never been meant to be there, and she was a girl after all...

            "Jun, you and Ken will go next," Pham said.

            Joe's scowl grew even darker.

            Jun's ears rang, her heart not quite daring to believe she heard right.  She stared at their Sensei and he nodded for her to go ahead.  She stood up slowly and moved into position.  Regardless of what happened, she'd make sure Pham wouldn't regret his decision.  She would give all she had to this and more!  She didn't dare look at any of the others as she waited for Ken to join her.

            Ken got up and set himself across from her.  He smiled brightly at her as they bowed, but as he moved to take a ready stance, his expression turned serious.  With a nervous jolt, Jun realized he would hold nothing back for her.  A grin tugged gently at her lips, as she decided she wanted it no other way.

            "Begin."

            Ken didn't hesitate and came at her immediately.  Jun avoided his first attack and quickly followed it with one of her own.  Ken blocked it.  The two of them parried back and forth until Ken sneaked through her guard.  Before Jun could do anything, he grabbed hold of her gi and flipped her onto the mat.  Jun's teeth rattled in her head as she hit the floor and tears sprung to her eyes.  Knowing she couldn't stop or she might never be allowed to play again, she forced herself to move rather than lay there.  As quickly as she could, she flipped back on her feet and attacked Ken.

            Ken had more strength than she did, but she compensated for that with her legs' greater reach and store of power.  A tickling chill of success flowed through her limbs as she was able to bring him down once.  She was forced to quickly push aside her victory, however, as Ken rose back on his feet and came at her again with renewed vigor.

            "Enough."

            The two stopped where they stood.  Jun tried not to sway as she wiped away the sweat from her eyes and attempted to get her breath back.  Ken came up to her and patted her gently on the shoulder, a pleased smile on his face.  "Great job!"

            The kind words thrilled her more than she would have ever expected.  Jun found herself eagerly returning the smile.

            "He is quite right.  You did very well indeed."  Pham bowed in her direction.  Jun felt her cheeks grew hot.  Surely she couldn't have done that well.

            "All right, neechan!"  At Pham's praise Jinpei leapt to his feet and ran over to his sister's side to hug her.  All the fuss only helped to make her even more self conscious than before.

            Before Pham's critique could begin, Joe rose to his feet, bowed sharply to their teacher and then marched out of the room without a word.

            Jun felt her heart sink.

            "Do not let him bother you, child.  He is only upset because you have done better than he expected."  Jun stared at Pham not understanding what he meant at all.

            After critiquing their performance, Pham dismissed them so they could go get ready for lunch.  Jun followed her brother through the kitchen as they headed toward their rooms to change, only to find Joe waiting for them at the top of the stairs.

            He had already cleaned himself and redressed.  The scowl Jun had last seen on his face was still there.  "I need to talk to you," he said.

            "Sure."  Jun averted her eyes not able to imagine what this might be about.  "Jinpei, go on, I'll catch up in a minute."  Her brother gave each of them a worried glance before doing as he was asked.

            "Let's go back here."  Joe pointed his thumb to one of the unused hallways behind him.  Jun followed him into one of the rooms.  Joe closed the door.

            Jun felt her stomach tighten in knots.  "What, what do you want to talk about?"

            Joe turned to face her squarely.  "You don't belong here."

            Actually hearing the words told to her face brought an unimagined amount of pain.  Jun refused to let it show.  "We know that."

            Joe gave her a cold look.  "Then why do you insist on being part of things that have nothing to do with you?"

            Jun stared at the floor.  The pain still moved inside her.  "We, we never meant to do that.  But, does it really hurt so much to have us practice with you?"  Didn't he realize what it meant to them?

            "You have no idea on what we're doing here!  It isn't right for either of you to be involved at all!"  Joe's face was hard.  "We're not here to play games.  What we learn here could make the difference between life and death for us!"

            Jun shook her head not having any idea what he was talking about.

            "What has Ken told you?"  It was an accusation more than a question.

            "N - nothing, nothing about why you're really here."

            "Hmph!  That figures!  Tell one too much and the others too little--typical Ken!"  Joe looked even angrier than before.  "Let me spell it out for you, okay?  We're here to learn how to hurt people, to kill them!  When we're ready, we'll be out there fighting some bastards that care nothing about anything or anyone.  It won't be like it is here with Pham's little controlled scenarios.  You two may look like you do okay here, but out there you wouldn't stand a chance!"  His eyes locked with hers.  "Have you ever watched someone die?"

            Jun's reply was barely audible.  "Yes.  My aunt and the others..."

            Joe looked away, caught off guard by her answer but only for a moment.  "Then, then you know what I'm talking about.  And to survive in that, we have to concentrate on our lessons, take out the distractions so we can master the lessons as best we can.  We can't do that with you here, no matter how good you are!  We can't let girls and babies join the team, so it doesn't do any good to have you in the lessons slowing us down!"  His steel gaze met hers again.  "Let Nambu find you a home.  Go there, be happy!  Or do you really think you'd rather make people die when you grow up?  And what about your brother?  Do you want him having a sister who's a killer?  Would you like him to grow up to be a killer too?  Maybe even watch him get killed?"

            "We - we never -" Jun took a step back overwhelmed.

            "Yeah, right!  Who are you kidding?  You think I'm blind?  I've seen this happen before!  Ken and I have no family, but Ryu?  He liked what he saw here and despite everything he still got in.  Now the two of you come along and it starts all over again.  Well forget it!  It's not going to happen!"  He stepped forward menacingly.  "Don't come to the classes anymore!  Stay out of team business!  Be good little guests and wait till Nambu finds you a nice, safe home and gets you out of here.  You don't belong!"  Joe turned to go.

            A thousand questions bubbled up in Jun's mind, but one shouted out loudest of all.  "Do you really hate us so much?"  Her heart cried out with the pain.

            Joe glanced back at her a mixed expression on his face.  "You're wrong.  I don't hate you at all and that's the biggest reason you've got to go."

            Jun stared in total incomprehension as he opened the door and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Jun made her way back to her room in a foggy daze.  Joe's words spun around her head as if they could find no purchase.  Nambu... Nambu chose Rikaw so he could use him to kill.  Ken, Joe, and Ryu as well.  Why would he do that?  And who were these people Joe had talked about?  Surely they were killers or why would the boys have to learn how to kill?  The monks had always taught them killing was not the way, that it was evil, yet... people had killed her aunt, people had killed Joe's parents.  Was Nambu teaching them these things so they could stop that from happening?  What did it matter!  Nambu would never accept them even if it did.  He would soon find them a home and they would leave here just like Joe wanted.  None of it had ever been her decision to make.  So why did it hurt so?

            She didn't want to be a killer, but she also didn't want to leave.  And Jinpei... Jinpei...  How were they all really so different?  Why couldn't she understand all this?

            "Neechan...?"

            Jun snapped around to find Jinpei peeking in through the door.  "Aren't you coming to lunch?"

            "Y- yes, Jinpei.  Be right there."  She made herself hurry though she wanted nothing more than to avoid going down. 

            When she entered the kitchen, she looked at no one and went straight to her seat.  She missed Ken's frown as he noticed her pale face as well as the fact Joe was ignoring everyone and cleaned his plate as fast as possible.

            Jun ate mechanically, a deep need calling for her to do something but having no idea what. 

            "Jun, dear, are you all right?"

            Jun forced her eyes back into focus and plastered a smile on her face for Pho's benefit.  "Yes, I'm fine."  She didn't miss the fact Pho traded confused glances with her husband.  "I guess I just worked a little too hard today."

            "I'm done."  Joe pushed his chair back.  "May I be excused?"

            Jun bit her lip and sat still.  Ken stared from his friend's tight face to Jun's and back again.  Ryu and Jinpei stared at everyone not sure if something was going on.

            "You've eaten enough, but what's your hurry," Pho asked.

            "I'm falling behind on my studies.  I need the time to catch up."

            Jun flinched, accidentally dropping her fork on her plate.  Ken's expression darkened.  His eyes stuck to Joe like glue.  Joe stared at Pho still ignoring everyone else.  "May I go?"

            "Yes, go ahead," she said.

            Things became oddly muted after that, not that Jun really noticed.  Ryu, Ken, and Pham soon left and so Jun set about cleaning the table as usual.  As she stared at the few scraps on the plates, her eyes widened as an idea burst open in her head.  When Jinpei and Pho weren't looking, Jun gathered some of the leftovers into a napkin and stuffed it into her pocket.  She sat through the lesson afterwards trying hard to focus on it, but was heavily distracted by what she meant to do.

            As soon as Pho left them in the TV room, Jun excused herself and gave Jinpei control over the remote.  Quietly, she made her way through the house and out the front door.  Keeping her eyes open for anyone, she made her way to the back of the estate and headed off toward the far corner.  There, she found a small glade where tall trees without low branches shaded the connection of the outer walls.  Critically, she stared at the site and decided it would do.  She gathered what small branches and leaves she could find and stacked them in the corner to make a makeshift altar.  Once she was done, she took out the rolled napkin in her pocket and set it open before it. 

            There were gods here, she was sure of it.  And she needed their guidance and wisdom like never before.  Through both her tours through Nambu's estate she hadn't seen a shrine of any type--at least not one she recognized.  She'd decided to take the matter into her own hands and build her own. 

            Jun bowed before her offering and presented her apologies for the meagerness of it and the shrine she'd made.  She begged the gods' and spirits' forgiveness for her ignorance and any errors she might make in paying homage.  Then she prayed for guidance and gave promises of offerings to come.

            "Jun?"

            She twisted around shocked anyone knew she was there.  "Ken!"  Her eyes met his and he quickly looked away.

            "Sorry, I hadn't meant to intrude."  He looked uncomfortable.  "I, I just really needed to talk to you and I was coming to find you when I spotted you leaving the house."  His sky blue eyes rose to meet hers again.  "I didn't have much time or I would have waited..."

            Jun quickly stood and wiped the grass nervously off her knees.  "That's, that's okay."  She bit her lip.  "We didn't do something wrong again, did we?"

            "No!  Of course not."  He hesitated a moment.  "I thought that maybe... we had?"

            Jun looked away and said nothing.

            "It's Joe, isn't it?"  He sounded slightly annoyed.  "What did he do now?"

            "N - nothing...  He didn't do anything..." Jun focused her eyes on the ground.  She needed, wanted guidance, answers.  Could the gods have responded already and that was why he was here?  Jun forced herself to look up.  "But... could I ask a question?"

            "Sure, go ahead."

            "Is it, is it true the three of you are here to learn how to kill?"

            "That idiot!" 

            Jun gasped at the vehemence in Ken's voice. 

            Ken stomped an angry foot on the grass and then looked up at her his eyes on fire.  "We don't want to kill!  We're here to learn how to protect the Earth from an evil group of people.  If we have to kill to protect her and the people on it, we'll be prepared to do it, but it's not what we're about!"  His eyes softened as he got a look at the shock on her face.  "The terrorists we're going to fight want to take over our world and they'll kill everyone that stands in their way.  They have to be stopped--the sooner the better!  Less people will get hurt that way, people like you and Jinpei."

            Jun looked away relief flooding through her.  She believed him.  The three of them might not be doing something the Holy One would approve of, but their reasons were right.  "Jinpei and I realize that's very important.  We never meant to get in the way."

            "In the way...?  You're not in the way at all!  Why would you think such a thing?"  His face abruptly darkened again.  Now they both knew why.  His eyes sought hers.  "It's not true, okay?  You're Hakase's guests, you could never be in the way.  Don't pay any attention to Joe.  He won't say another thing about it."  He stared at her his face determined.  "I swear it." 

            Jun didn't say anything, not sure what she should think.

            "Please, just do me one favor?  Don't mention to the grown ups what you know?"

            Jun nodded.  "I won't.  I promise."  She looked at him and found Ken staring intently at her.  "Thank you."

            He tried to smile.  "So you will show up for class tomorrow?  You and Jinpei?"  His face was earnest.  Could he really want them there?  Jun found herself hoping it was so.  She nodded slowly.  "Great!  Glad to hear it."  He flashed her a wide smile.  "I've got to go take care of something, so see you at dinner, okay?"

            After Ken left, Jun knelt down before her shrine and thanked the gods for what they'd done.

            Not long after, she made her way back into the house and rejoined her brother.  When it was time, they moved on back to the kitchen for dinner and took their usual seats.  Ryu and Nambu had already beaten them there.  Within several minutes, Ken entered with Pham and Joe walking behind him. 

            Jun's eyes widened as she noticed Ken's grass stained shirt as well as cleaned cuts and scrapes on his face and arms.  Joe didn't look much better.  Jun felt herself grow cold as they sat down both wearing dark expressions on their faces.  She got the sinking feeling somehow this had to do something with her.

            Nambu frowned as he spotted them but said nothing as they sat.  He sent a querying glance toward Pham, but the old man only shook his head and shrugged.  Pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose, Nambu locked his gaze with Ken's.  "Would you mind explaining what's happened to the two of you?"

            Ken looked away, his face blank but his eyes burning like coals.  "I'd rather not say, Hakase."

            Nambu's brow rose at the answer.  His brown eyes moved toward Joe.  "Would you care to enlighten me?"  Joe looked over at him and shrugged.  The doctor didn't look pleased.  He stared from one to the other while Pho hovered in the background, dinner in hand.  "I take it neither of you are going to cooperate then?"  He got no answer.

            "Ken, go wait in my office.  Joe, you will wait in the study until I come for you.  We will discuss this at length after dinner.  You're dismissed."

            Without a word, Ken pushed back his chair and got up to go.  Joe glared at him long and hard before moving to do the same.  No one dared look at either of them as they left.

            "Did they hurt each other?"  Nambu's eyes were hard as he passed the question to Pham.

            "No.  Some scrapes and bruises, nothing permanent.  They came looking for me and asked me to check them, but would say nothing of what happened."

            Jun glanced guiltily at her brother and saw his eyes were as big as saucers.

            "Ryu, do you know anything about this?"

            The hefty boy suddenly paled.  "N-no, Hakase.  They were fine before."

            Jun bit her lip.  This was her fault, she was sure of it.  If the doctor asked her, should she lie?  Could she?  Nambu deserved better from her, but it would mean breaking her promise to Ken because surely he'd want to know all she knew.  Desperately, she tried to come up with a good lie in case he asked.  Luckily, he never did.

            Dinner was quiet, everyone keeping their thoughts to themselves.  Jun watched Nambu as he finished his meal and then quietly left the room a somber expression still on his face.  Pho shooed her, Jinpei, and Ryu out of the kitchen when it looked like the three of them were going to stay.

            "R- Ryu, what will Nambu Hakase do to them?"  The three of them were sitting in the TV room, but no one moved to turn it on.  Jun's question was barely above a whisper.

            Ryu rubbed his feet uneasily against the carpet.  "First, he'll try to find out what happened and then give them a lecture.  If they tell him what he wants to know, he'll probably just take away their free time for a day or two.  If not..." Jun found she couldn't breathe expecting something horrible.  She already knew the two would never talk.  "They won't get their allowance.  They'll have to do chores during their free time and also all day Sunday.  Nambu Hakase doesn't tolerate fighting."

            Jun stared out the door of the room seriously considering going up to Nambu's office to state her blame in all this.  She didn't move, unable to come up with a way to take the blame without revealing what she knew.  Her dinner lay heavily in her stomach, knowing that Ken and Joe had to do without because of her.

            "R-Ryu, do you, do you think Jinpei and I are in the way?"

            "What?"

            "In the way, neechan?"  Jinpei stared at her in confusion.

            "Yes, I want to know if you think we're in the way of Nambu's project."

            "Project?"

            "Yes, the team project."

            Ryu's mouth opened, but he said nothing.  His eyes whipped frantically about the room for a moment.  Jun couldn't tell if it was because he was looking for someone else to answer the question or just making sure no one else was there.  "How... how did you find out?  Did Ken tell you?"  Jun had to lean forward to hear his words.

            "Does it matter?  I just want to know if you think we're in the way."

            "Neechan?"  Jinpei's face was a maze of confusion as he stared from one to the other of them.

            "N-no.  You're not in the way."  A shy smile flickered on his face for a moment.  "It's kinda nice having somebody around here younger than me to pick on."

            "Hey!"

            Jun nodded slightly, the tension easing slightly from her shoulders.  "Could I ask you something else?"

            Ryu's face sobered, his eyes avoiding hers.  "S-sure."

            "Why are you in it?  With the things you might have to do, why did you join?  Or did you have no choice?"  Jun waited breathlessly to see if he would answer.

            Ryu rubbed absently at his legs and then looked up at her.  "I'm here because I want to be here.  I want to be on the team."  He stared at his hands.  "I'm not happy about some of the things we might have to do, but people have to be protected."  He glanced at her a moment, a haunted look in his eyes.  "I've seen, I've seen the kinds of things they'll do to people, the kinda things they'll do to our planet.  They have to be stopped!  And, and I want to do my share to make sure they are.  They just can't be allowed to hurt people anymore."  His whole body shook with his conviction.

            "I see."  All that Ken said was as true as she'd believed.  They were fighting to save people, just like the knights and princes in her fairy tales. 

            "Neechan, I don't understand!"

            Jun looked over at her brother and smiled.  "Joe, Ken, and Ryu are going to do some very important work for Nambu Hakase.  It's why they're learning the Art."

            "Oh."  His eyes lit up.  "Can we help?"

            Jun felt a jolt of mixed emotions at the question, but quickly stated what she knew could be the only answer.  "No, that's not for us."

            "Oh..." Jinpei looked crestfallen.

            "Hey, you could help me beat the Evil Ant Queen though!"  Ryu turned on the television and quickly brought out the video games. 

            Jinpei's face lit up again.  "Okay!"

            Jun watched them play until it was time for them to turn in.  They never saw or heard anything about Ken or Joe the rest of the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

            The next day, Jun felt tense and nervous as she and Jinpei made their way downstairs after breakfast.  Ken and Joe stood on opposite sides of the room both doing their utmost to ignore each other.  Jun pushed to do her best in class, wanting to make sure she did nothing that would slow the others down.

            After dinner that night, Ken and Joe went off with Pham to do chores.  The two glared death at each other on their way out.  Jun stared at nothing as she cleared the table trying to figure out a way to fix everything.  She swept scraps into a napkin and sneaked outside to pray for the boys before it got too dark outside.

            Sunday, they had to leave Ken and Joe behind so they could do chores.  Jun spent all her money, after badgering Ryu, on things she hoped the two would like.  As soon as they returned home, she sneaked into their room and left the gifts on their beds like offerings.  She bowed down and gave a quick prayer then turned to go.  Her heart nearly stopped as she turned around and found a sweating Joe walking through the doorway.  Their eyes met.

            "What are you -"

            "I'm sorry!"  She tore past, her body hitting the doorframe in order to avoid touching him as she went past, and ran off down the hall.  Jun felt Joe's eyes boring into her until well after she disappeared from sight.

 

 

 

 

            A few days passed and everyone seemed to come to a state of quiet tolerance if not acceptance.  As promised, Joe made no more comments about Jun and Jinpei not belonging but neither did he welcome them any more than before. 

            One day after lunch, Jun was distracted as she stacked the dishes in the sink when she noticed Pham was lingering about the kitchen.  Normally, Pho's husband left along with the others as soon as he was done.  From the way Pho kept sending questioning glances in his direction, Jun was sure the older woman was as distracted by the unusual event as she.

            "Jun, why don't you and Jinpei go get your books so we can get started with our lessons right away?"  Though she spoke to them, Pho's eyes were on her husband.

            "Yes, Pho."  Jun frowned as she led her brother out of the kitchen sure they'd just been sent away so that husband and wife could speak alone.  Did something happen?  Had they done something wrong?  Jun racked her brain trying to think of what it could be but came up with nothing.  Still, she couldn't get rid of the strange feeling this somehow had something to do with them.

            "Jinpei, go on ahead without me.  I need to ask Pho something."

            Jinpei gave her a strange look and then shrugged.  "Sure, neechan."  He bounced up the stairs.  After making sure he was going, Jun sneaked her way back to the kitchen.

            She hugged the wall as she placed her ear close to the open doorway.

            "And he will consider it," Pham asked.

            Jun heard a deep sigh.  "I don't believe so.  He doesn't see what we do.  He doesn't understand how they could prove to be a good balance."  Pho sounded tired.

            "That is a shame.  I would have thought he could see what good they could be for them.  To be able to be with others who are not involved."

            Jun held her breath, made certain by Pham's last remark they were indeed talking about them.

            "Will you speak to him of this?" 

            "I will, but he is stubborn, as you know.   Have you asked about his efforts?"

            Pho sighed again.  "He has spoken to a number of institutions, but has not had good results.  Finding a home for one is bad enough, but for two?  At least he does understand that separating them would be wrong--especially after all they've lived through.  But if he cannot find someone and he will not keep them, they will be sent to an orphanage till they come of age."

            Jun suddenly found it very hard to breathe.  Her chest ached and her stomach twisted inside her.  An orphanage--that was what the Chunese called the monastery.  Going to one would be the same as never having left Tebet at all.  Suddenly, she didn't want to hear anymore.  She wished with all her heart she'd not heard any of it.  She forced herself to back away as silently as she came.

            Nambu's promises for a home looked to be as empty as all the other promises in her life.  That didn't really matter though, she didn't want a home--she'd already found one.  This should be their home! She would have gone to another if she had to, but now they'd have none.

            Jun knew they'd have no choice in the end but to send them to an orphanage.  The gods were cruel-she didn't escaped her fate after all.  And here, here there was no way for her to disguise what she was, no way to hide the shame of her birth.   

            What would she tell Jinpei?  It was obvious he wanted to stay here even more than she did.  How could she bring herself to tell him that not only were they not going to be able to stay, but that they'd get no home at all?  A sob racked through her thin frame before she could stop it.  Tears welled in her eyes.  How?

            Jun ran past the stairs and out to the foyer, trying to escape what she knew.  She rushed outside, the high humidity pressing about her.  What could she do?  Where could she go?  There was nothing--nowhere.  Bitter tears ran down her cheeks.  The gods couldn't desert them.  Not now!  She ran blindly down the path around the house toward her shrine.  She fell breathless to her knees before it, her tears burning her cheeks.

            She prayed to the spirits and gods of this place for mercy, but part of her insisted all of it was in vain, that she deserved no better.  Everything before her became a green and brown blur and felt incredibly alien to her.  -- they don't belong --  Another painful sob racked through her.  It was over.  It had all been for nothing.  She wouldn't be able to escape her fate after all.  She covered her face with her hands and cried.

            "Jun?  Are you out here?"

            She froze, like a doe dazzled by headlights, at the sound of Ken's worried voice.  What was he doing out here?  Had he seen her?  Jun scrambled behind the closest tree not wanting him to see her behaving like a child.  She'd tried so hard to prove she was strong, that she'd never do anything to hold them back.  Were the spirits so angry they'd take this from her too?  Jun shut her eyes and drew up her knees, hoping against hope that Ken wouldn't find her.  She tensed as she heard his footsteps enter the grove.  No, please, no!

            "I know you come here everyday."  His voice fluctuated as he looked for her.  "I, I saw you run out."  Jun tried to make herself even smaller.  "I just want to make sure you're okay."

            Go away!  Go away!

            "Jun, what's wrong?"

            She groaned and turned her body away from the sound of his voice as she realized he'd found her after all.  "N- nothing."

            "You don't really expect me to believe that, do you?"

            Jun flinched, hearing Ken kneel down beside her, his worry pummeling her with full force.  She'd have run, embarrassed and ashamed, but she had no idea where to go. 

            "Did Joe do something?"  His voice was tight.

            "No!"  Jun stood up quickly still keeping her back to him.  "Please, I'm all right."  She shook as she tried to regain some control.

            "You don't look all right."  Jun felt a tingle run through her as Ken gently placed his hand on her shoulder.  The tears fell again even more strongly than before.

            Family...  Jinpei had wanted Ken and Ryu to become part of their family.  It was so unfair!  If only they could stay.  Why had she been born this way?  What had been the point?  "We don't want to go!"

            "Go?  Go where?" 

            Jun bit her lip never having meant to say the thought out loud.  She took a step away from him, wishing fervently for a way to take it back.  "It's not--it's not important.  I'm just being ungrateful.  It's nothing to worry--about."  Jun quickly wiped the falling tears from her face and tried to calm herself.  She was being ungrateful--it was true.  They'd already been given so much by Nambu, she had no right to expect more.  Her fate was her own and was no one's fault but hers.

            "They've found you a home....  That's it, isn't it."

            Jun glanced back at him, more surprised by the dead tone in his voice than by the fact he'd come so close to guessing what was wrong.  Why would he care about what happened to them?  She looked away not understanding.  "No...  They haven't.  There are--problems.  But we will have to go to an, to an orphanage soon if they can't."  I will soon be picked up and forced into service and I will never see my brother again.  Jun stared unseeing at the ground beneath her.

            "No."

            Jun tensed, confused by the determination echoing in that one word.  But why? Did it feel to him too that they belonged?  Did he want them to stay?  Jun squelched the thought and the feelings rising with it.  There was no hope.  Her fate was sealed.  "We--we don't belong here.  We aren't what Nambu Hakase is looking for.  We're not part of his project.  We have no right to ask for more."

            "You won't be leaving."  His voice was close.  "I won't let you.  You don't belong in an orphanage.  You need a family."

            Jun turned around and looked at him.  Though she knew better, a warm feeling spread through her at his words nevertheless.  She would be grateful to him forever for those words, but knew better than to believe them.  She shook her head.  "You can't fight fate...  But, thank you."  She tried hard to smile.

            "I meant what I said."  Ken's sky blue eyes locked with hers.  "You'll see."

            Before Jun could say anything, he turned away and went back into the house.  She stared after him, her chest tight, as the picture of his determined face played itself over and over again in her mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            By the time she went back into the house, Jun had dried her tears and started to feel more like her normal self.  Walking quickly, she headed for the kitchen, sure Jinpei had long beaten her there and that Pho would be wondering where she was.

            "Neechan!  There you are.  Where were you?"  Jinpei pushed some blank writing paper to her place at the table.

            She stared at her hands wondering if her brother told Pho she'd supposedly come back to talk to her.  "I - I was talking to Ken.  I got distracted.  I'm sorry."

            "That's all right."  Pho smiled at her, but there seemed to be a slightly puzzled look in her eyes.

            They started in on their lessons, but Jun found it hard to keep her mind focused on the task.  Ken's words and the utter determination she'd seen on his face kept intruding on her thoughts.  What did he think he could possibly do?  The more she tried to put it out of her mind, the more insistent it became.

            They gathered up their things as Pho prepared supper.  Jun grew ever more nervous as the question of what Ken might do and Nambu's arrival from work loomed ever closer. 

            When the time for dinner arrived, the three boys joined them, seeming a lot more subdued than usual.  Jun kept her eyes on her own plate not wanting to even accidentally glance at Ken, afraid of what she might see.  She missed Ryu's sad eyes and Joe's tight face, though Ken's own features were clear.  Jinpei didn't seem to notice anything was amiss and happily filled in any voids in the conversation.  He even captured Nambu's attention and drew the new kanji they learned for him in the air.

            The food vanished quickly yet no one made a move to leave when Pho stopped pushing food on them. 

            Jun dared to peek in Ken's direction, a tight feeling in her stomach telling her something was up.  She felt herself grow cold all over as she spotted him staring intently at Nambu.

            "Hakase, there's a matter I'd like to talk to you about."

            Nambu gave Ken his full attention, his brow rising at the boy's tight tone.  "Sure, Ken.  What is it?"

            He was going to do it!  Jun heart jumped into her throat.  Don't do it!  Don't!

            "Hakase, I've spoken with the others... and we'd like you to let Jun and Jinpei stay."  Ken's serious expression made him look older than his years.  "They're capable and have proved trustworthy.  We want them to stay."

            Nambu's brow rose again.  "Perhaps this would be something better discussed in private."

            Jun felt her chest tighten.  Nambu didn't sound pleased.

            "Everyone here is involved, Hakase."

            "Ken...  You know it isn't as simple as that."

            Ken's face grew determined.  Jun was positive he wouldn't let this go.

            "Hakase, it's not right to send them to an orphanage.  And they do have skills we could learn from both of them.  They can help us hone our talents, give us different people to practice with other than just ourselves."

            "How do you-- ?" 

            Pham chose that moment to speak.  "The children have been practicing with us during the morning sessions."

            "Ken--"  Nambu's tone had grown even more displeased.

            "I had nothing to do with it this time, Hakase.  They found the lower levels on their own."

            "And, since they made it that far, I saw no harm in having them join us."  Pham stared at Nambu a knowing look on his face.  "Kozaburo, they are quite good.  It would take others years to learn what they already know."

            Jun saw Nambu's gaze stray toward her and she quickly averted her eyes to her lap.  She knew what he would say--there'd never been another choice.   Her fate was hers.

            "I don't recall making decisions that affect the team an open forum."  Nambu's tone was cold.  -- They don't belong -- It sent chills running down Jun's spine.  "Ken, we will continue this in my office--in private."  The doctor stood up his eyes hard.

            "But, Hakase --"

            "In my office or not at all."  His tone left no room for argument.

            "Yes, sir."  Ken stood up to follow him.

            Jun tried to catch his attention, to think up of some way to try to dissuade him from his chosen course, but he never looked her way his face as determined as ever.  She watched helplessly as they left the room.

            "Ne - neechan, what's going on?"

            Jun opened her mouth to answer her brother but no words came out.

            "They're only trying to figure out if you should take more classes with the boys, dear."  Pho smiled easily at Jinpei, yet her eyes were dark.  "Help me with the dishes, won't you?"

            "Okay!"  Jinpei bounced out of his chair to help.

            "Ken will take care of it.  He got me in."  Ryu leaned over to whisper this to her, his eyes on the doorway.  Jun glanced over in Joe's direction, having heard nothing from him so far.  She looked away as she found the doubt of the outcome written all over his face.

            "Boys, come with me.  I need help with a couple of chores," Pham said.

            "But, Sensei..."

            "Come along.  This business does not concern you."  Pham got up and made sure they followed him to the kitchen's back door.

            "Jun dear, don't you think you should get upstairs?  I believe something is happening there that might interest you."

            Jun stared at the old woman in surprise, realizing what it was she was telling her to do.  Did she guess that was what she'd done earlier?  "I--"

            "Go, child, go.  Even Kozaburo cannot deny fate."

            She left the kitchen, her mind a swirl of confusion.  Fate--that was why she felt this would never work.  Yet this was the second time Pho had mentioned that Nambu could not deny it.  Did she know something Jun didn't?  Didn't she realize why this could never be?

            Jun ran up the third floor and gingerly approached Nambu's closed office door.  She put her ear to the dark wood and jumped back as Nambu's voice boomed through.

            "Ken, you're being unreasonable!"

            Shaken by the outburst, she still came back when she couldn't hear Ken's reply.  Her fingers trembled as she made herself reach out and gently twist the knob on the door.  With great care, she cracked the door open just enough to take a peek inside.

            Nambu was standing at his desk, his hands on top of it as he leaned forward over it.  Ken stood on the desk's other side, his body tense and tight.

            "You know it's not as easy as that.  I'm not saying I mistrust your judgment, but I don't think you're looking at the full picture."  Nambu suddenly sighed and sat down.  Ken continued facing him, his determination not waning in the least.  When Nambu spoke again, his tone was more subdued.

            "Though it's never looked it, this house is a top secret installation.  It is a place of secrets and danger.  It isn't a place for children.  It's not a home.  Their lives haven't been kind.  Yet now they have an opportunity to start over, to have better, more normal lives.  They wouldn't have that here."

            "Being sent to an orphanage is a better life?"

            Nambu's brow rose.  "There's no reason to think it will come to that.  And even if it did, yes, it still would be better."

            "But they want to stay, Hakase."

            The doctor nodded.  "That may be so, but as we both know, they don't understand what it means."

            Ken hesitated.  Jun held her breath, waiting to hear what he'd say next.  "Can't we at least explain it to them?  Let them decide on their own, once they have all the facts, whether they'd like to stay or not?  We need them."

            Nambu looked away and stared at the file cabinets around him deep in thought.  Ken shifted uneasily where he stood as he waited.  Jun stared at them both, her heart pounding in her chest.  After a minute or so, Nambu looked over and locked his gaze with Ken's.

            "No.  The security risk is too great.  And even if I explained it, I doubt they would understand.  This isn't right for them.  They don't belong."

            -- They don't belong --

            Jun's eyes filled with pain filled tears as she backed away.  It was as she'd expected--Ken would never win.  It was over....

            No!  She wouldn't let Jinpei and herself be sent to an orphanage.  She wouldn't lose all that she had gained!  She would just go on and carry through with her original plan, even if the gods and spirits had decided to desert them.  The two of them would make it on their own.  She wouldn't go back!

            Jun rushed back to her room and stared at their recently gained possessions.  All this had been given to them by Nambu.  And with him they would remain, except for...  Jun snatched a blanket from her bed and folded it neatly before tucking it under her arm.  She gave the room one long last look, a feeling of loss coming over her.  She stared longingly at her books knowing they couldn't come with her and made herself go out the door.

            She sped down the stairs but slowed as she reached the first floor landing.  From there, she made her way quietly toward the kitchen.  Peeking in through the doorway, she spotted Jinpei passing a wet rag over the table as Pho hummed at the sink cleaning the last of the dishes.  Keeping half an eye on the spry old woman in case she moved, Jun waved at her brother to come and then moved back out into the hall.

            When he joined her, she made a shushing motion as he opened his mouth.  Jun took his hand in hers and led him quickly away.  They headed toward the front of the house.

            "Neechan?  What are we doing?"

            Jun put her finger to her lips and didn't answer his question until they made it outside.  "Jinpei, we're leaving."

            "Leaving?  But aniki said--"  He came to an abrupt stop.

            "Nambu Hakase will not let us stay.  We don't belong here.  We've overstayed our welcome and it's time to go."  She pulled on his hand to get him moving again but he resisted.

            "I want to stay here, neechan."

            "We can't!  Now come!"  She yanked on his arm and moved down the drive.  Jun didn't look at him as she heard him quietly crying at her side.  She kept her eyes on the gravel road as they went on, not wanting to see the plants and trees that had brought her such joy before.  They would make it on their own.  Thinking of what they were losing would get her nowhere at all.

            "And where do you think you're going?"

            Jun looked to the side, startled by the voice on their left.  Joe stared at them, as he stood behind a partially mangled bush with a large pair of shears.  Jun looked away and continued to lead her brother down the drive.

            "Hey, I asked you a question!"

            She ignored the outburst, only to find Joe suddenly jumping before them to impede their way.  "Leave us alone!"

            Jun dragged Jinpei to the right to go around him.  Joe moved to block their way until she was forced onto the grass.  "You're not going anywhere until you answer my question."

            She glared at him--angry he was in their way, angry they had to go, angry her fate was hers.  "We're leaving!  We don't belong here and we don't wish to stay where we're not wanted."

            Jun moved to get past him again but Joe cut her off.  "You can't do that."

            "Leave us alone!"  She dropped down to sweep Joe's legs out from under him, but this time the older boy was ready for her and jumped back out of the way.

            "Is that what you use to solve all your problems?  Well, it won't help you for long out there."  He pointed over his shoulder toward the outside.

            "What do you care?  You should be happy we're leaving!"  There had to be a way she could get around him.

            "Neechan..." Jinpei wiped at his face, staring at the two of them with widening eyes.

            "Happy?  No.  Besides, how are you expecting to survive out there?  You don't have money.  You don't know anyone.  How are you expecting to get food?  Where are you going to sleep?"

            "It's not your problem!"  Jun dashed forward fully expecting Joe to try and block her way.  She made a faint to the right and then tried to trip him, dodging suddenly to the left.  Joe's foot swung out from under him but on his way down his hands grabbed hold of her arms and took her down with him. 

            "Neechan!" 

            They rolled in the grass even as Jun struggled to disentangle herself from him.  Joe kept his hold on her arms and used his greater weight to pin her on the ground.  "Let go of me!"

            "And here I thought I was stubborn."  Joe grinned as Jun bucked beneath him trying all she could to throw him off.  "You know, for somebody who wants to stay, you sure seem to be trying awfully hard to leave."

            "We're not going to an orphanage," she screamed.

            "Then don't!"

            Jinpei stared from one to the other not sure what he should do.

            Jun stopped thrashing, unsure as to what Joe was up to.  "You don't want us here."

            "I don't want you slowing us down.  There's a difference!"  His eyes softened.  "I also thought Nambu could find you a home.  Guess I was wrong."

            "So what?  It doesn't change anything."

            "Maybe.  Maybe not."  His gaze locked with hers.  "What will you do if I stop you and they do send you to an orphanage?"

            Jun looked away, the thought sending fear shooting through her.  Her fate dictated the orphanage was where she should go--but it was wrong.  She glanced over at her brother, where he'd sat down on the grass, confusion staining his drying face.  Jinpei--he meant everything to her.  She would never bow down and lose him.  "We would find a way to escape.  We've done it before and we can do it again."

            Jun wrenched hard to the right, catching Joe off guard.  "Jinpei, run to the gate!"  He didn't move.

            Before she could make it to her feet, Joe tackled her from behind bringing the two of them down again.  "Let go!"

            Joe pinned her on her stomach.

            "Gee it really does look like you put an awful lot of effort into leaving.  With so much gumption, why aren't you fighting to stay instead?  Ken's up there right now fighting for you.  Why don't you go up there and help him?"  He suddenly let go of her and stood up.  "Maybe you really don't want to stay."  His eyes were bright.

            Jun sat up and turned burning eyes in his direction.  "We've no right to demand more from him.  He's done more than he ever had to do for us!  And he's already made up his mind."

            "I've never let any of that stop me, so why should you?"  He gave her a disbelieving sniff.  "You just don't want to stay."

            "We do!"

            "Then do something about it!  Come with me back to the house and talk to Nambu right now!"

            Jun stared at him trying to read his face.  All this time, Joe had been the one pushing the fact they didn't belong.  Could only the reason they would be sent to an orphanage change his mind?  It made no sense!  "But you don't want us to stay."

            "Oh, and is what I want so important?  What about what you want?"

            Jun looked away.  What did she want?  She wanted to stay.  Wanted it more than anything.  They'd gone through so much to get this far.  If the gods were angry with them, how much more did she really have to lose though?  A strange sense of calm drifted through her.  She slowly got up to her feet.  "O - okay, I'll fight."

            Joe grinned from ear to ear.  "Great!  Ladies first."  He swept his hand back the way they came. 

            Jun walked over to her brother and picked him up.  Jinpei didn't say anything as he kept his eyes riveted on Joe.   He walked behind them as they went up the drive making sure she had no second thoughts.

            "Ryu!  Hey, Ryu!"

            "Whazzit?"  The large came out from a set of bushes on the far side of the house.

            "Come on, we're going to go talk to Nambu.  Give Ken some help."

            Ryu looked momentarily baffled but then nodded and ran to join them.

            Jun put Jinpei down as they started up the stairs.  She felt a coil of nervousness grab hold for what she was about to do, but at the same time felt strangely comforted by the presence of those coming with her.

            All seemed peculiarly quiet as they approached Nambu's door.  A final jolt of apprehension sliced through her as she reached for the doorknob.  Opening it, the first thing she spotted was Ken, standing close to Nambu's desk, his shoulders slumped as if in defeat.  Nambu's chair was turned away from him, the latter's voice low as he spoke to someone on the telephone.  Jun felt her blood suddenly go cold.  She had to force herself to step inside.

            Ken heard her and the others as they came in.  After a look of initial surprise, he suddenly smiled.  A glimmer of warmth filled Jun's heart at the welcoming sight.  For the first time, it truly felt like she really wasn't alone in this.  She smiled back and then moved to stand mostly beside him, just a step closer to Nambu's desk.

            The others moved up behind her, silent as cats.  They waited tense and quiet while Nambu remained turned away from them on the phone.

            Jun felt a jolt speed through her as Nambu said goodbye and hung up the phone.  As soon as his chair turned, he spotted the five of them.  His brows rose high.  Jun made herself speak out before the doctor had a chance to.

            "Hakase, Jinpei and I want to stay.  If we can't, we'll run away rather than go to an orphanage."  Her gaze locked with his.  "You know we can do that.  But we'd rather stay.  We wouldn't be a burden.  We'd work to pay our way." She tried not to sound as desperate as she felt.

            Nambu shook his head.

            "Ask of us whatever you will," Jun insisted.  "We'll eat less. We'll wear our clothes till they're gone.  Work for you night and day."  She searched for what else she could say.  "We won't get in the way of the project."

            Nambu's brow rose. 

            Jun swallowed hard, her chest tight, and forced herself to give the only other thing she could.  "If you let us stay, I'll, I'll willingly share your bed."  The doctor's eyes grew wide.  She pushed on.  "I'd rather give myself to you than be taken by a stranger and dragged away from my brother."  She put her soul into her words.  "I promise not to fight you or cry.  Please, just let us stay!"

            Nambu's mouth moved but no words came.  He looked away, his cheeks darkening considerably.  Ken stepped forward.  "I'll forfeit my allowance and work during my free time if they're allowed to stay."

            "Me too, Hakase!"  Ryu stepped forward as well.

            Jinpei stepped forward, caught in the moment.  "Me three!"

            Nambu frowned, his eyes going from one to the other of them.  "This, this is highly irregular..."

            Joe stepped forward.  "Count me in too.  What the hell."  He shrugged and then threw a glance at Jun, a small grin tugging at the side of his mouth.

            Whether Nambu decided to let them stay or not, she would never forget this moment.  She had never felt happier in her entire life.  For this one moment she felt that she belonged.

            "You're all determined to do this?"

            Nambu received five simultaneous nods. 

            "It's what we want, Hakase.  It's what's right," Ken said.

            Nambu was silent for a time, once more staring into their eager faces.  Jun felt her heart hammering inside her chest as she didn't dare to hope, wishing somehow she could freeze this moment forever if Nambu's answer was anything but what they wanted.

The doctor sighed softly and then nodded.  "They can stay."

            "YES!"

            Jun found herself lifted off her feet in a death hug with her brother and was swung around with wild abandon by Ryu.

            It wasn't until he finally put them down, dizzy and breathless, that Jun realized what they were just told.  They were going to stay! 

Ken and Joe crowded close congratulations flying at her.  Tears coursed down her face but unlike those before, these were filled with joy.  They'd finally found a place to belong!

 

 

                                    The End

Chapter End Notes:
Reedited in 2005 - updated archive in 7/07
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