Ascension by Maya Perez
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The sun was lowering in the horizon when Jun finally made her way back inside.  Silently she went upstairs to her room still feeling drained but a little more under control.

Jinpei saw her in the hallway through his open door and rushed out to greet her.  "Neechan!"

Jun made herself smile.  "Sorry I was gone so long."

Her brother shook his head dismissing the apology.  "Are you okay, neechan?"  Jinpei's face was deadly earnest.  "If Joe-aniki is mean to you again, I can beat him up if you want." Jun had the sudden desire to start crying again.  Instead, she folded her brother in her arms and gave him a hard hug.  "I love you!"

He hugged her back.  "I love you too, neechan."  His voice was muffled against her but he sounded as if he might cry as well.

Jun knew if he started, she'd join him too and then might never stop.  "Isn't it time for dinner yet?  We'd probably better get downstairs before Pho worries, right?"  She gently pulled him away.  "You know everything is all right, don't you?"

"Really?"  He looked doubtful.


Jun took his hand in hers and they went downstairs together.  When they got to the kitchen, she saw the only ones there were Ryu, Joe, and Pho.

"There you two are.  I was starting to worry.  Your dinners are getting cold."  Two heaping plates already sat at their places.  Pho pulled out their chairs so they could sit down.

Ryu gave them a welcoming smile as he continued with his own dinner, but Joe just kept his eyes on his own plate.  Jun sat down with her brother and picked up her fork though she wasn't truly hungry.

As she ate, Jun's eyes drifted to Ken's empty chair.  A wave of utter despair washed over her.  Someday he might never fill that chair again.

Pho must have seen something on her face because she put her pot down on the table and set her hand on Jun's small shoulder.  "He's all right.  He's at Braun's right now.  Pham is with him.  Kozaburo couldn't come home so he sent a car for them.  They should be back soon."

Jun nodded grateful for the information and tried to eat some more.

"Will hakase be back tonight?" 

For the first time, Jun noticed Ryu was looking a little pale.

"Probably not until very late.  This latest tremor has given him much to do."

Ryu swallowed hard.  "It's like before..." He seemed to get a little paler still.

Jun wondered at what he meant but Ryu said no more.  Instead, he started shoveling the food in his mouth almost as if he were in combat with it.

No one said much during the rest of the meal.

As soon as Pho would let him go, Joe got up from the table and left.  Jun kept her eyes glued to her lap as he walked past.  Still, she could have sworn, though she didn't see it, that his hard gaze had raked over her on the way past.

When Ryu got up to leave, Jun did the same.

Jinpei spoke up.  "Hey, Ryu, want to play some video games?"

"Not tonight, okay?"  His voice was low.

"Sure."  Jinpei sounded disappointed but not surprised.  "Neechan, will you?"

"Okay."  She looked after Ryu as he despondently walked away and up the stairs. 

Jun played games with Jinpei until she heard voices in the hallway.  Having been waiting for just such a sign, she dropped her controller and ran for the door.

Ken was moving slow as Pham walked beside him towards the stairs.  Pho hovered before them asking questions.

"You're back!"  Ryu appeared at the top of the stairs and rushed down.  Joe appeared out of nowhere to follow at a more sedate pace.

Jinpei zoomed past Jun as she hung back at the door.  "Aniki!  Are you okay?  Did they operate?"  He looked Ken critically up and down.

Pho laughed.  "No, Jinpei, no operations."

Her husband smiled as well.  "And he is, as you say, okay.  He will just have to watch rather than participate for a few days."

"What some people will do to get out of having to practice." 

Ken gave Joe a dirty look.  "I could trip you and let you get a taste of this."

"Yeah?  You and what army, cripple boy?"  Joe gave him a nasty smile.

"Enough of that you two.  Ken needs to rest."  Pho waved Joe and the others back as if they were pesky flies.  "He's going to bed now and so should the rest of you.  Now go."

Groans met her commands but they still moved to do as she'd bid them. 

Jun watched as Ken started up the stairs and noticed how heavily he leaned against the rail on his way up.  She followed far behind them to turn in as well.

The next morning, Ken was at morning practice but didn't participate.  Though Jun could never be quite sure, she had the feeling he was watching her intently as they went through their katas.  She felt both thrilled and afraid at the attention.

That afternoon, Jun spotted Pham and a couple of strange men carrying tools head downstairs to the secret levels as the rest of them finished lunch.  Jun had avoided going to practice the night before and had found out that morning that until repairs were made, no one would be using the room.

They actually saw Nambu briefly at dinner, though he ate quickly and retired to his office on the third floor as soon as he was done. 




"Neechan, do you think we'll be able to practice tonight?"  Jinpei glanced over at her on their way to breakfast.

"I'm not sure.  As soon as the others start up again then we can too."

They walked into the kitchen.

"Good morning, children."  Pho gave them a bright gap filled smile.

"Good morning!"  Jinpei bounced into his seat ready to eat.

Jun followed suit though not quite as rambunctiously.

"Children, I have a message for you from my husband," Pho softly informed them.

Jun froze in mid-bite.

"Kozaburo is here and will be monitoring the simulation room to make sure it's working properly.  Though I know you enjoy watching, Pham thought it best if you skipped today."

Jun nodded slowly, sending a warning glance to her brother as he started to make a face.  "We understand."

"It will also prove a problem tomorrow and for a few days while Ken heals."

Jun sighed, having already half expected this.  "Yes, Pho-san."

So that afternoon, after their studies were complete, Jun and Jinpei went off to the TV room rather than descending downstairs to watch the others practice.

As the minutes ticked by, Jun found herself feeling more and more uncomfortable.  What if the machines hadn't been fixed right?  What if there was another earthquake?  Who would be hurt this time?  Would one of them be killed?  Maybe more than one?  Jun stared at the TV unseeing.

If something did happen, they wouldn't be there to try and help.  If one of them died, she wouldn't even know!

Jun bolted out of her chair every muscle in her body screaming for her to rush downstairs and make sure the boys were all right.


Her gaze drifted to her brother, not sure if she could explain what she felt if he asked.  "I'm, I'm just going to go stretch my legs.  I'll be back in a minute."

Once out of the room, Jun hugged herself as she paced back and forth in the hallway.  She couldn't go down there, it was out of the question.  And she shouldn't be worried-Pham would take good care of the boys.  He'd never let them be hurt.  She'd seen them exercise hundreds of times.  They got bruised and battered but never seriously injured.  They all knew what they were doing.  So why wouldn't the feeling go away that she'd left them alone to die?

A sudden realization made her skin go cold. 

If she felt this bad when they were only at practice, what was it going to be like later?  What would it be like when they actually went out into the real world to fight their  enemies?  Her stomach cramped.  Jun started walking faster.  What should she do?

Eventually, she couldn't stand it anymore and made her way to the kitchen to look at the time.  She was sure she'd been walking for days, but found only an hour had gone by.  Agonized, she stared at the small hallway leading to the secret door downstairs.

"Jun, did you need something?"

She looked guiltily to the floor.  "No, Pho-san, I, I just came in to see what time it was."  She wouldn't look at the small woman directly as the latter came into the kitchen.

"Well, I was just about to start on dinner.  Did you want to help me?"

Jun could feel Pho's gaze on her.  She wondered at what she saw.  "Su-sure."

"Why don't you set the table for me then," Pho suggested.

Jun made herself move and retrieved the plate-mats from the kitchen pantry.  Slowly she retrieved the plates, glasses, and silverware she'd need as well.  She set them out one by one, her gaze often straying to the small hallway in the back. 

Pho hummed to herself as she expertly chopped carrots and potatoes.



Jun stared down at her hands.  "Is, is waiting always so hard?"

The old woman stopped what she was doing and glanced at her over her shoulder, her expression puzzled.  "Waiting, Jun?"  Her features suddenly cleared.  "Oh, yes, yes.  Sometimes it can be."

Jun swallowed hard having hoped for a different answer.

"It's very hard sometimes for those who have to wait," Pho said.  "The wives of soldiers, firemen, policemen-they have to deal with the waiting."

Jun turned away staring at the floor tears burning in her eyes.  So it would always be like this, even worse than this once the three of them went out into the world to fight.  "But, Pho-san, how do they, how do they stand it?"

"Some don't." The old woman's reply was soft.  "Some find the waiting too painful and so break away from their men just so they don't have to suffer anymore."

"Oh."  Jun felt her chest tighten making it hard for her to breathe.  She didn't know if she could be strong enough to suffer this.  Would she too eventually give up on them rather than go through the pain another day?  "Is, is there nothing that will help?  Nothing at all?"  Jun's voice was small.

Pho came up close and softly caressed Jun's lengthening hair.  "Some of the women say they wouldn't have the pain if they could be with them.  They'd always know first hand their men were all right and they'd have no anguish to go through then.  But that's not normally possible, is it?"

Wasn't it?  Wasn't it possible?  Pho's last words reverberated through Jun's mind even as the old woman returned to her work. 

The worry would be gone or at least would be manageable if she could watch over them.  It would ease her mind.  She'd know if they were safe or if in danger, and if the latter, she could try and do what she could to help them.

But, even as the idea appealed to her, Jun knew it wasn't an option.  She didn't belong to Nambu's secret Project.  And though being part of the Project meant being in danger; worse, it meant having to kill.  Joe had made it very clear that was what the Project was about-teaching them to kill the enemy who would invariably try to kill them.  Jun knew though they'd be doing it to save the world, killing was still wrong. 


Jun looked up from what she was doing as her brother skidded into the kitchen.

"You never came back!"

"Oh, sorry, Jinpei," she said, feeling a pang of guilt.

"Ah, little one, you're just in time.  Want to help me?"  Pho dried her hands on her apron.

"Sure!"  Jinpei joined Pho at the stove.

Once she was done with the table, Jun sat down in her seat and stared at the small hallway while her brother helped Pho.  Jun tried not to think, not to feel, even as she willed the time to hurry by.  It seemed to take forever.

"But couldn't it be related, hakase?"

Jun felt herself gasp at the sound of Ryu's voice.  They were back!

"There's still insufficient evidence to support that."

Eagerly, Jun watched them as they came into the kitchen.  Ryu and Nambu came first, followed by Joe and Pham.  Ken came last, moving a bit slower than the others.

"Still..." Ryu looked pale and his brow wrinkled in worry much as he had looked the previous night.

Jun wondered what it was they were talking about when Nambu's gaze met her own.

"Ryu, it'd be best if we spoke about this later."

Ryu followed Nambu's gaze and then looked away.  "Yes, sir."

Jun felt her mouth tighten, a tendril of anger flashing past.  She knew why this had happened--as always it was the fact they didn't belong.  How she hated their secrets!  How she hated these constant reminders that she and Jinpei weren't a true part of their lives.  Jun looked away as they came to sit down, her hands bunching into fists on her lap.  Still, her anger didn't last long, she was too relieved the boys had come back to her safe and sound.

Her relief at having them back abated somewhat though as dinner went on and she noticed Ryu's worried frown wasn't going away.  Nambu looked worn as she glanced at him and once again he rushed through dinner to disappear up into his office.

After dinner was over, Jun thought of trying to talk to Ryu, but no opportunities presented themselves for her to get him alone.  She'd remembered how on the day of the accident he'd said something about the earthquake and how he'd looked then very much like he did now.  And somehow, though she knew not how, she knew that in someway it all tied back to the Project.

Several times she was sorely tempted to bring the subject up as they all watched TV.  Jun held her tongue though, fearing other questions her own might bring up-she'd not missed the fact Joe's suspicious looks had yet to disappear.  She was also afraid to spoil the time they were spending together.

Once they'd bid each other good night for the evening, Jun was in the middle of undressing when she realized right then Ryu would be alone.  Quickly, before she had too much time to think about it, she put her clothes back on and sneaked out of her room.

Jun kept her senses alert as she tiptoed down the halls, wanting to make sure she wasn't seen.  Taking a roundabout route to Ryu's quarters, she took a peek around the last corner hoping the door to Ken and Joe's room would be closed.  It was.

Not wanting to press her luck in case they decided to open it, Jun hurried down to Ryu's door and knocked on it quietly.

"Come in."

Hearing the partially muffled response, Jun opened the door and rushed in before closing it quietly behind her.  Ryu's back was to her as he pulled down the covers to his bed.  He'd changed out of his jeans and turtleneck into a large, raggedy t-shirt and a stripped pair of boxer shorts.

"What did you guys-" Ryu's voice staggered to a halt as he turned around and spotted Jun standing there.  Abruptly his face turned crimson, and faster than she would have believed possible, he hopped into bed and covered himself up to his chin.  "J-J-Jun!  What, what are you doing here?"  His voice was a high pitched squeal.

Jun looked at the floor, hesitant to start now that she was there.  "I need to talk to you."

"You do?"  His voice rose another octave.

"I-yes.  It's very important.  Please?"

Ryu kept his covers pulled to his chin like a shield and stared frantically about him as if looking for a means of escape.  "I-I don't know.  What if somebody finds you in here?"

Jun frowned, not entirely understanding his hesitation.  Did he somehow already suspect what she wanted to talk to him about?  "Ryu, please."  She took a step towards him.  "I need, I need to know about these earthquakes.  I want to know what you meant when you said this had happened before."

Ryu's eyes stopped roaming the room and turned to look at her.  "Oh?  That's all?"  He slumped back in relief.

Jun didn't understand what was going on.

"I really don't know if I can talk about it."  He no longer looked directly at her as if afraid his words would offend her.

Jun stepped closer.  "It really would mean a lot to me.  It's real important.  Please?"  He had to tell her what she wanted to know; he just had to.

 "O-okay.  I guess."  He still wouldn't meet her gaze.  "But... you can't let anybody know I told you."

Jun nodded quickly.

Ryu then hesitated so long before speaking again Jun became unsure as to whether he would really tell her anything.

"You see, they don't have earthquakes around here.  Back home, we'd get a tremor here and there, but they just don't get them here."  His gaze rose towards her for a moment and then swept back away.  "Since they never get them, but now, suddenly, they do, I figure someone or something is causing them to happen."

Jun frowned.  Someone was causing the earth to tremble?  No wonder Nambu had become so busy.  "And you think you know who it is?"

Ryu stared at his lap.  "I suspect somebody, but hakase's found no proof yet."

"You think it's the people the Project was made to fight against, don't you."

Ryu looked up in surprise and this time didn't look away.  "Y-yes, I do."  He sighed deeply.  "You see, back home, strange things that had never happened before started happening there too.  The fish went missing.  Strange whirlpools showed up where there had never been any before.  And it was them."  His voice grew angry.   "Galactor had invaded our waters and scared away the fish with underwater construction and pollution.  They caused tremors and underwater whirlpools to destroy ships and scare people away.  Hakase and I almost died because of them.  The people who'd been with us on my Dad's boat got taken hostage though at the time we thought they'd died."

Jun stood very still, absorbing every word. 

"We couldn't find the bodies-at first.  Months later though, one drifted to shore and a week later another."  Ryu's protective blanket fell forgotten his gaze far away.  "I went back with Hakase and saw them.  Even I could tell they hadn't died by drowning."  His voice grew quiet.

Jun was forced to come closer so she could hear.

"They'd, they'd been beaten, cut, burned-tortured- at my home, at the place I'd lived in all my life."  His hands bunched into fists even as his voice shook.  "If Galactor would do that to people as important as scientists, then what wouldn't they do to simple fishermen-to my family?  To the world?"

Jun bit her lip, seeing the strong emotions running through Ryu's face.

"I-I was able to help my family and my neighbors.  I got lucky, but those bastards will think twice before coming back again..." The fear in his eyes belied the confidence of his words.  "They have to be stopped."

Jun let the silence build between them not knowing what to say.  Impulsively, she moved forward and hugged him as hard as she could.  "Thank you for telling me all this."  She let him go as tears glittered in his eyes.

As quietly as she'd come, Jun returned to her room.

Sleep didn't come easily to her that night, and when it did, she didn't rest well.  Dreams pursued her, dreams of earthquakes, whirlpools, and death.  She woke to the sound of her alarm in the morning, feeling exhausted as if she'd practiced all night.

Jun got up, though her body wanted nothing more than to just lay there.  For once, Jinpei woke up easily.  She left him in his bed, rubbing at his eyes, as she went and distractedly pulled out some clothes for him.

"Neechan!  It's morning!"  He stared at her from the bed as if the light coming through his window were a personal affront.  "You didn't get me up for practice!"

"I didn't get you up because I didn't get up."  Jun got him out of bed and prodded him towards the bathroom.

"But when are we going to practice again?  The room's fixed now, right?"  Jinpei stared at her in their reflections on the mirror as if he suspected she might be plotting something against him.

Jun shook her head feeling heavy.  "I just didn't think it was right.  We'll go tonight, all right?"

He gave her a quizzical look.  "Okay, I guess."  He looked like he might say more, but didn't.

At breakfast, Jun ate but barely paid any attention to what she put in her mouth.  Her dreams and Ryu's words of the night before meshed and clashed back and forth in her mind.  She needed to know more.  There had to be a way to know more.

"Jun dear, are you all right?"  Pho momentarily rested her hand against Jun's forehead.

"Huh?  Yes!  I just didn't sleep very well."

"You do look a bit tired."  The old woman frowned in concern.  "Maybe you should skip practice today?  I could talk to my husband."

Jun's heart skipped a beat.  "No!"  She had to go.  She had to make sure the boys were all right.  What if something happened?  "I-I really want to go."

Pho stared at her in surprise.  "If that's what you want.  But just don't push too hard, all right?"

"I won't."  Jun tried hard to smile. 

As soon as they were finished, Jun hurried downstairs.  The longer she'd been awake the greater her need grew to see the others.  She had to see them, she had to reassure herself they were alive.  Though she knew Pho would have said something if anything had been wrong at all, Jun's heart just wouldn't be satisfied until she saw it for herself.

As she rushed from the changing room Jinpei was hard pressed to keep up with her. "Neechan, wait for me!"

Jun breathed a sigh of relief, an unseen weight lifting from her shoulders as she entered the training room and saw them there-Ken, Joe, and Ryu.  They were in the midst of some complicated katas, even Ken, though he was moving at a much slower pace than the others.  They were fine, alive, unharmed-but for how long?  Jun pushed the unwanted thought aside and moved to take her usual place.

Ken waved at them as they came in as he usually did.  Ryu met Jun's gaze and then shyly looked away.  Joe glanced at them, his face unreadable.  Jun sighed not wanting to think about that remaining problem either.

With her main worry eased, Jun felt her spirits lighten perceptively.  Being together with them, it was what she wanted, what she needed.  She feared for them terribly.  And she would lose them, one way or another she would lose them-either to the Project or Galactor or both. 

When class was dismissed, Pham signaled for her to come over.

"Yes, sensei?"

"You seemed distracted today," he said.  "Is everything all right?"

"I-" she grabbed on to the first thing she could find, "I didn't sleep well last night.  I promise to do better tomorrow."

"Do not distress yourself.  That is fine."  His ancient gaze locked with her own.  "Young Ken will not be able to participate in the afternoon exercises for five days or so, but he will be there to observe.  It is regrettable, but it might be best if you do not come until he has joined the others again."

Jun looked away dread flooding through her.  Though Pho had already warned them of this the day before, she'd forgotten it.  "I understand."

Pham placed his hand on her shoulder.  "Do not despair.  It will only be for a short while."

"Yes, sensei."  Jun tried to look cheery, though she felt nothing like it.

When she left, she found her brother waiting for her in the hallway.  "What did sensei want, neechan?"

Jun took a deep breath and pushed the words out.  "He wanted to remind me we won't be able to watch afternoon practice for a few days.  Ken will be watching since he can't participate and we can't let him know we watch them."

 "It's not fair, neechan," Jinpei asserted. "Why can't they know we watch?" He frowned.  "I wish we could practice with them.  You already proved to all of them we can do it.  Can't we ask?"

Jun sighed, a deep pain rustling through her.  "We're not part of the Project, Jinpei."

"We should be!  We're good enough.  I know we are!"  He stopped before her, a confident look in his eye.  "We should be a part of it."

"It's not that simple."

"Why not?"

Jun bit her lip.  What could she say?  "I, I know some things about the Project, things that say it wouldn't be right for us."

"Like what, neechan?"

Jun stared at his questioning face, still aching inside, wondering what she should tell him.  Would the things she knew taint his view of the others?  Would he think less of them for the things they might have to do?  "Maybe we should talk about this later."

"No.  I want to know!"  Jinpei stomped his foot his jaw set.  Jun had never seen him so determined.

"All, all right, but not here.  Let's go find somewhere we can talk, okay?"  He was growing up so fast.

The two of them tried a couple of doors farther down the hallway and went inside a small matted room.  Jun closed the door behind them.

Jinpei stood expectantly before her even as Jun hesitated to begin.


Jun sat down cross-legged on the floor and waited until he'd done the same.  "Jinpei, do you remember the bad Chunese back at the monastery?"

Her brother nodded slowly.

"It seems there are people out there that are even worse than them."

"Worse?"  His eyes grew big.

"Yes, much worse.  And Nambu Hakase is working on a project with the boys so they can get ready to go out and stop them."

"That's great!"

Jun held up her hand before he could go on.  "Jinpei, stopping bad people in real life isn't like the stories I've read to you.  People get hurt.  The bad people try to kill the good people and sometimes the good people have no choice but to do the same."  She sighed.  This wasn't coming easily.  "To save the world from these bad people, Ken, Joe, and Ryu might have to kill them."


Jun was startled by her brother's unperturbed acceptance.  "Well, it's, it's because these bad people might hurt or kill others as well as us, and the fact we might have to kill them--that's what keeps us from being part of the Project."

Jinpei's brow furrowed as he mulled over her words.  "But neechan, can't aniki and the others get hurt too?"


"Then we should be in the Project," he said.  "We can help protect them, like you did with Ken, and they can protect us."

Jun looked away amazed he'd jumped to that reasoning so quickly.  "Still, there's the other thing to consider-the fact that we might have to kill people.  Killing is wrong."  Jun bit her lip as waited to see what he'd say next.  She watched as his brow furrowed even deeper and then cleared.

"If the bad people kill good people they should die."  He was very serious.


"Bad people killed your aunt, neechan.  They may have killed my parents too, and they did Joe's.  Being an orphan is bad.  Killing is bad too, but not if it's bad people who would make more orphans."

Jun stared at her brother too stunned to know what to say.  He made it sound so simple.  It couldn't really be that easy could it?

"Can we join the Project now?"

"Jinpei..." She reached for the first thing she could think of.  "Let's talk about that later.  Right now, we're going to get in trouble if we don't hurry and make it upstairs for lunch."

Not waiting for him, Jun got up and left, wanting to leave the conversation and its troubling thoughts as far behind as possible.  It wasn't to be.

Round and round, as she sat and ate her lunch, did all she'd learned revealed itself over and over in her mind.  She wanted to be with the boys, but she didn't want to kill.  Their enemies were evil and would kill them if given the chance, so to protect themselves and others they had to.  If Galactor would kill people, and nothing would change that, they should probably be killed to save the innocent.  But could she do it?  Could she do it for the people, for the boys?  And did she really want to know?

The boys left for their afternoon duties and Jun watched them go with regret.  One day, they might get up and leave, just like this and never return.  She would never know which day it'd be.  She would never have a chance to save them if they needed her.  But could she kill?  How truly evil were their enemies?  From what Ryu said they sounded very much so.  But she wasn't sure.  Was there some way to be sure?

Jun stumbled through their lessons with Pho only partially there.  Her previous questions beat at her, like weights.  She needed answers.  How could she get them?  As they gathered up their things, an idea lit inside her.

"Jinpei, let's go upstairs."

They went up and deposited their books in their room.  Jun shushed her brother into silence as she took his hand and instead of going back down as they normally did, she took them up.  There was one place that would have information.  One place that would have all there was to know about these bad men and their true evil-Nambu's office upstairs.

The door to the room was unlocked and after thanking the spirits for that bit of luck, they sneaked inside. 

Sticking close to his sister, Jinpei stared at her with wide eyes.  "Neechan, what are we doing here?"  His voice was barely above a whisper.

"I need to find out some things.  We won't be long."

Jun approached Nambu's desk, which at the moment was immaculate.  No papers sat on the top or on the two small plastic shelves.  She tried the drawer set before the large leather chair and found it locked.  She then tried all the cabinets covering the side wall but all of them were locked as well.  "Damn it!"


She looked sheepishly back at her brother.   "Sorry."

Jun looked over the room trying to find anything else that might hold information which might not be locked.  She found nothing.

"Come on, we'd better go before we get caught."  Feeling frustrated Jun took her brother in hand and left.

"What were you looking for, neechan?"

Jun bit her lip.  "I, I wanted to find information on those bad men, I want to see how really bad they are."

"Hakase will be back tonight, can't we just ask him?"

Jun shook her head.  "No, we can't.  You know that."

"Is it really important, neechan?" Jinpei stared at her with trusting eyes.

Jun sat down in a chair in the TV room feeling incredibly drained.  "Yes, it could be...  But the drawers are all locked.  There's no way we can see it."

"Doesn't hakase unlock them when he's here?"

"Probably."  Jun stared at her hands.  What was she to do now?

"So, all we'd have to do is get him away after he's opened them so you could take a look, right?"

Jun looked up at him.  "Yes, that's right."

He smiled, puffing up his chest.  "I'll do it for you!"

"What?"  Jun had no idea what he was talking about.

"I'll get hakase away so you can look."  His eyes were sparkling.  "I can do it!  I have a plan."

Though she pried and prodded at him, her brother wouldn't divulge what he had in mind.  Jun alternatively felt excitement and worry.  Between that and the fact the boys were gone to practice and she had no idea how they fared, Jun thought she might explode from anxiousness before the time for dinner arrived.

Jun eagerly watched for them as the boys came to the kitchen, laughing and happy as if all were right with the world.  She felt hot and cold, the knowledge they were all right washing through her even as the certainty beat at her that she would have to go through it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, and forever more.

Jun felt prickly as they all went off to watch TV and play games after dinner.  She kept an eye and all four of them, not able to see enough of them, the tension so tight inside her that she felt ill inside.

As in the last couple of days, Nambu had disappeared immediately after dinner to his office upstairs.  When they all went up to turn in, Jinpei bounded happily down the hall grinning at her. 

"Jinpei, tell me what your plan is."  Jun felt on edge.

"Nope.  It's a surprise!"

Jun had to restrain herself from reaching out and smacking him on the head.  "Jinpei, this is serious!  I need to know what your plan is.  I need to make sure it won't get you in trouble."

"It'll work, neechan.  I promise!" 

Jun felt none of the certainty that radiated in his smile.

For an hour, they waited as the house fell silent around them.  Nervously pacing in her darkened room, Jun almost jumped when her brother sneaked over from across the hall and opened her door.

"Is it time, neechan?" 

Jun wasn't sure she trusted the bright gleam in his eyes.  "Y-yes.  It's time."  She moved towards him.  "Tell me about your plan."

"Nope!"  He hopped away from her.  "I gotta go downstairs for a minute though.  I'll be right back!"

Before she could try and stop him, her brother was gone.  Jun had no choice but to go out to the stairwell and wait for him.

When he returned, Jinpei carried with him a tall glass of juice.  "I'm ready now."

"Jinpei..." She should stop this, she knew she should.  She had no idea what her brother planned and it worried her. 

"Neechan, I'm going to take care of it."  He was adamant.

Jun sighed.  "All right.  Let's get it over with."

Silently, the two of them went up the stairs to the third floor.  Nambu's office door sat mostly closed, light shinning out into the hallway from within.  Jun moved on to a storage room across from the office and stepped inside, leaving her door open just enough so she could see into the other room.

Once she was out of sight, Jinpei waved at her and opened Nambu's door wide.

Nambu's desk, unlike earlier, was now stacked with masses of paper.  The doctor was busy scribbling on a pad as he perused a number of them, even as Jinpei made a beeline for the desk.  Nambu never noticed him.

Jinpei marched forward holding his glass out before him like a monk carrying a holy relic, and stopped around the side of the desk.  "Hakase."

Nambu blinked, his head jerking up, for the first time aware of the boy's presence.  "Jinpei, what are you doing here?"  With an absent-minded gesture, Nambu pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.

"I got thirsty and went and got something to drink," the boy answered.  "Then I thought that you might be thirsty too."  Jinpei stood expectantly as if his answer had said all that would ever be needed to be said on the subject.

Jun frowned as she barely heard what Jinpei said.  While still not totally sure of what he had in mind, it still bothered her how lying just seemed to come so naturally to him.  She'd have to lecture him long and hard about it later.

"Uhm, that was very thoughtful of you."  The doctor seemed slightly out of sorts on what to do.

"Here, drink up!"  Jinpei rushed forward as he spoke.

Jun watched, eyes wide, as Nambu turned at the boy's quick approach even as Jinpei masterfully made himself trip, and sent a stream of bright orange flowing from the glass.  The liquid missile splashed dead on Nambu's chest, spreading over his crisp shirt, his jacket, and his pants. 

Nambu gasped and jumped to his feet as the cold liquid soaked into his skin.  The juice dripped off him even as Jinpei abruptly retreated in panic, his eyes round, almost as if for the first time truly realizing the consequences of the plan he'd put into action.  "I'm sorry, hakase.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry."

Nambu looked down at his clothes in disgust, but when he looked up at Jinpei there was no anger in his eyes.  "It was an accident.  It's all right."

"I'm so sorry!"  Tears poured down Jinpei's face.

Jun wasn't sure if they were real or not. 

Nambu awkwardly stepped over to him as he began to sob.  "Come now, there's no need for that.  It's not like you'd meant to do it."

Jinpei suddenly cried harder.  Jun bit her lip feeling for him.

Nambu stared at the crying boy looking lost as to what to do with him.  "Jinpei, please."  The doctor stared about the office looking for help or inspiration.

Jun felt her cheeks grow hot, feeling incredibly guilty though she'd had no idea of what Jinpei had had in mind.

"Say, tell you what.  You've never seen my room, have you?  Why don't the two of us go there so I can get changed and then we can go on down to the kitchen.  We can get some more juice and then come back here to clean up the rest of the mess.  What do you say?"  He knelt down before the still crying boy, his eyes desperate.

Jinpei hiccuped and slowly nodded.  He used his shirt to wipe away at his runny nose.  "O-okay."

Nambu sighed with relief.  "Wonderful."

Jun backed up and totally closed her door as the two of them moved to leave the office.  She waited for several seconds after she could no longer hear them in the hall and came out.

Jun dashed into Nambu's office and headed immediately towards the desk.  Amidst some soaking papers, she spotted a folder marked Utoland Earthquake.  She decided to look through that first. 

Inside, Jun found report after report talking of things she didn't understand.  There were charts and maps with things marked epicenter, numbers talking of something called a Richter Scale, and paper after paper on fault lines and tectonic plates.  Written on a few of these margins were small, neat handwritten words.  The ones that mostly caught her eyes were the ones that said-Not Natural.  Possibly Produced?  Construction on a huge scale or possibly something more dangerous?

Jun set the folder aside and quickly browsed through some of the others.  One was full of drawings and a lot of technical words she didn't know the meaning of.  The drawings themselves were strange.  Some were of machines that looked like they could fly, but were not airplanes.  Others were of people in strange clothes, clothes that made them looked like birds.

Still, none of that showed her what she'd really come to look for.  As thoroughly as possible, Jun put everything back as she'd found it.  Then she turned her attentions to the file cabinets against the wall.

Jun randomly opened the middle drawer of the one closest to her and opened folder after folder to see what was inside.  She found charts, graphs, and report after report but she didn't know enough to figure out what they meant.

Jun glanced nervously over her shoulder knowing her time was growing shorter by the second and she'd still been unable to find anything of worth to her.  Closing the drawer, she opened the one below it.  She'd gone through half of the folders there and was beginning to despair she'd find nothing when her gaze caught sight of an eight by ten glossy picture.  Quickly, she pulled it out to look at it and then froze.

In bright, crisp color, the picture showed three stiffened bodies laid out side by side on muddied grass.  Two of the bodies were those of men, and the third might have been that of a woman, but the body was so mangled it was hard to tell.  All three were covered with dried, crusted blood and large holes punctured them where a flood of bullets had drilled into them.  On the border of the picture, in the same handwriting she'd encountered before were the words Galactor Assassination

Jun shuddered, her blood cold, as she put the picture back.  The next folder had another picture, and her hand shook slightly as she pulled it out as well.

Each folder from then on held from one to eight pictures.  Some had bodies as mangled as the ones she'd first seen.  Others showed burned out husks of cars and homes, destroyed offices, or blood stained alleyways.  On every one of them she found Nambu's neat handwriting.  Some of the words kept repeating themselves-assassination, abduction, Galactor.

Hand numbing fear coursed through her as she put the last of them back into the folder and closed it with unsteady hands.  The enemy was evil.  It was more evil and cruel than she had ever thought they could be.  Having seen more than enough, Jun slipped out of the room before Nambu and her brother could return.

Shivering, though it wasn't cold, Jun slipped back into her room and changed clothes in the dark.  Flashes of the pictures she'd seen kept rising in her mind's eye though she had no desire for them.  The boys were supposed to fight this?  How could they win against such cold-blooded people?  Some of the victims she'd seen had been children!  If they'd kill them, they'd never hesitate to kill the boys.  Would she and Jinpei really be able to make any difference?

Jun felt bitter tears trying to rise in her eyes as she crawled into her bed and pushed them back.  She understood Ryu's reasons now, more so Joe's. 

"I'm sorry again, hakase."

Jun stiffened as she heard her brother's voice out in the hallway.

"No problem.  We got it all cleaned up so it's all fixed," Nambu replied.

Jun wondered how he could stand it, how he could stand to look at those awful pictures, how he could stand knowing what those people might do to the boys.  It made her hurt inside.

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"Good night, hakase!"

Jun quickly tried to push all those thoughts out of her head and pushed to only breathe and relax.  Any minute now, Jinpei would be coming inside to see how she had fared and to give her his own story of events.  She had to make sure he didn't catch a hint that anything was wrong.





When the alarm was about to go off, Jun stared at it and got up to turn it off.  She hadn't been able to sleep.  She'd felt intermittently hot and cold, as she'd tossed and turned on her bed unable to rest. 

As she'd expected, Jinpei had come to see her not long after Nambu had gone only too eager to tell her about all that had happened, especially after he and Nambu had left the office.  When he'd questioned her about what she'd been looking for, she'd had to turn away and said only that Galactor was definitely evil.  Surprisingly, the lack of detail on her part hadn't seemed to bother her brother and he'd taken her at her word.  He'd been so excited about it all, she'd been hard pressed to send him off to bed. 

Jun rubbed her eyes feeling heavy and tired.  Maybe practicing tonight wasn't such a good idea.  She'd yet to get any sleep and Jinpei had stayed up late.  Perhaps it'd be best if they skipped it-she still had so much to think about...

She'd just about made up her mind to get back into bed, when Jinpei peeked in to the room.

"Neechan, are you ready yet?"

"Jinpei?"  Jun stared at him in surprise, figuring that if she'd decided to practice he would have been harder to wake than the dead.

He grinned at her.  "I set my own alarm," he declared proudly.  "Ryu showed me how.  I wanted to make sure we didn't miss practice again."

Jun sighed.  "All right, just give me a minute okay?"




They practiced hard, Jun finding the more she had to concentrate on what she was doing, the less room there was for thinking, questioning, and more importantly, feeling. 

She wiped the gathering perspiration off her brow and the tickling drops that had slipped towards the back of her neck as she and Jinpei successfully finished grabbing the red kerchief thus ending this latest test.  She bent over, and placed her hands on her thighs, taking a moment to get her breath back before shoving off towards the control room to set up their next program.

"Neechan, not so hard this time, please?"  Jinpei whined at her from where he lay on the floor, trying to grab a minute of rest.

Jun barely nodded, a half, tired grin tugging at her mouth, as she opened the door to the control room.  Maybe she was overdoing it.  It wouldn't do to get them hurt just so she wouldn't have to think.  They'd do one more easy exercise and then stop for the night.

As she walked into the room and headed towards the controls, Jun suddenly stopped and froze like a deer caught in the road by a pair of headlights.  Her heart skipped a beat within her chest as it became immediately obvious she wasn't alone.

"Gotcha."  Joe grinned smugly, leaning easily up against the console.

"Joe!"  Ken stood beside him, a slight flush in his cheeks.  He looked at Jun with an expression of embarrassed apology in his eyes.

"I'd told Ken here that I knew you and your brother were up to something.  Now I've proved it."  Joe's eyes shone.

Jun found she could barely breathe, her chest growing tighter and tighter.  Why now?  Why had they found them now?  She wasn't ready.  She didn't know yet!  "I-" Her head began to pound. 

"Jun," Ken's earnest eyes met her own, "why do all this?"

Jun bit her lip.  There were so many reasons.  But would they understand them?  And really in the end, what did she expect? 

"Neechan, what-" Jinpei walked into the room and staggered to a halt as she spotted the others.  "Aniki?"

"Jinpei, run!"  Without stopping to think, Jun grabbed her brother's arm and dashed for the door leading out into the hall.

"Jun wait!"

She felt her heart constrict at Ken's panicked plea but she couldn't; wouldn't stop.  She wasn't ready.  She couldn't talk to them now.  Everything was falling apart around them!

Jun ran and didn't stop though Jinpei balked beside her until she'd gotten them back to her room.  She let go of her brother's hand and closed and locked the door.  She stepped back away from it dread pouring through her soul.

"Ne, neechan, why-why did we run?"

Jun looked away at her brother's open confusion not knowing what to say.  "Jinpei, I-" Her throat grew tight. 

She wanted a family for him, for them-and she'd thought she'd found it.  But there was the Project; it was always the Project, and it had come between them.  She'd been able to put it off for a time, but...  Something warm coursed down her cheek.

"Neechan?"  Jinpei ran forward a worried look on his face.

A sob racked through her unexpectedly, bringing her to her knees.  Jun hid her face in her hands, trying vainly to stop but her misery wasn't to be held back any longer.  Jinpei came close and hugged her tight but this only served to make her cry even harder. 

She wanted so much for them!  So much!  But she was afraid, afraid.  She knew what they had to do so all she ever wanted would be theirs.  She could kill for them, she would, and Jinpei would follow.  But was it right?  Could she actually help and keep them from getting killed?  The enemy was so strong!  And then there was no guarantee the others would even have them.  All her doubts and fears hovered over like buzzards waiting for the kill as Jinpei held on to her and she cried.





"Neechan.  Neechan."

Jun felt herself being shaken and slowly opened her eyes.  Her brother's face spun before her. 

"Neechan, you have to get up."  His young face stared into hers with concern.  "It's time for breakfast."

Jun felt heavy, as if every part of her body had changed to leaden weights.  Just keeping her eyes open was an almost impossible task.  Her brain was muddled and though she heard her brother's words, she was having a hard making sense of them.  "J-Jinpei?"  She shivered beneath her covers suddenly cold.  A small moan escaped her lips.

"Neechan?"  Jinpei reached forward and touched her forehead.  "You feel hot.  What's the matter?"  There was an edge of fear in the question.

It didn't mean anything to her.  "Let me sleep..." Her eyes closed on their own.

"I'm going to go get Pho.  I'll be right back."

Jun moaned softly again, unhappy her brother had gone but not sure why.  She didn't like being unhappy; unhappy was bad.  And she'd been so unhappy lately...

She'd almost drifted down to sleep again when a cool touch caressed her forehead bringing her back up.

"She is very hot." 

Jun easily recognized Pho's voice.  It made her feel more at ease and yet nervous at the same time.

"Jinpei, go get my husband.  Tell him to bring his herbs."

"Yes, Pho-san."  Jun heard her brother run out of the room.

"Jun, it's Pho."  The cool touch moved to Jun's cheeks.  "I need for you to wake up for me.  Try looking at me and tell me how you feel."

The meanings of Pho's words weren't immediately clear to Jun.  She tried hard to understand them, somehow knowing it was important to, and when she thought she did, Jun put some effort into at least partially opening her eyes.  "Pho-san?"

"Yes, dear, it's me."  Pho's face swam before her.  "Can you tell me how you're feeling?"

It was several moments before Jun could process the question to where she could understand it.  It took her even longer to answer.  "Tired, so tired.  Dizzy.  Heavy.  Want to sleep."  Jun felt Pho's hands cover her own.

"Not quite yet," she said.  "Pham will be here soon and he will want to speak with you.  After he's done, then you can sleep."  Her soft touch rose to Jun's brow again.

Jun kept her eyes partially open without really seeing her surroundings.  She used Pho's voice as an anchor to the conscious world.  Soon, it was joined by others. 

A harsh smell intruded into her nose, and Jun's eyes grew wide as her body protested the intrusion.  Something seemed incredibly familiar about the stench, but she couldn't place it.  Her mind cleared a little more.

"Jun, it's Pham."

Her eyes focused enough to see his face.

"We're going to help you sit up a bit."

Jun blinked as two sets of hands eased themselves beneath her and brought her up and forward before letting her settle back down in a reclining position.  Her head turned to the side as they set her down and Jun momentarily had a clear view of the open doorway and the four worried faces crowded there looking in.

A wave of sadness coursed through her without explanation and brought tears to her eyes.

"Jun, what's the matter?"  Pho leaned towards her inadvertently blocking her view.

Tears rolled silently down Jun's cheeks though her still muddled mind wouldn't tell her why.  "Tired..."

"Here child, drink this."  Pham gently held a cup up to Jun's lips.  He tipped it slightly, so she could drink.

Jun's face grimaced at the sour, bitter taste but drank all he gave her anyway.

"Sleep now."  Pham's voice was soft and close to her ear.  "You should be feeling better when you awaken."

Jun let her eyes close and was soon adrift.





"No!"  Jun gasped her eyes opening wide even as she jerked upright in the bed. 

She looked about her rapidly, at first not recognizing her own room.  She shivered her body covered in perspiration, as she realized the horror had been a bad dream.  Happy and oblivious, she and Jinpei had spent the day training in the simulation room while the boys had gone to war in strange bird like costumes.  Later in the nightmare, she'd gone to talk to Nambu only to see him making a new folder for his files.  Jun had come and looked at them later only to find pictures of Ken, Joe, and Ryu's bloodied and mutilated bodies inside.  She shuddered at the memory.  They couldn't be allowed to end up that way!

Slowly, Jun realized the light coming from the window was too bright and not direct.  Frowning, she looked at her clock, which said it was past two.  Past two?  What was she doing in bed past two?

The door to her room opened, and Jun turned quickly away so she could wipe away her tears before anyone would see them.

"Ah, you're awake."

Jun forced a smile on her face and turned back to look at Pham.  "I-I just woke up."  She yearned to ask what she was doing here, why she was in bed, even as foggy, vague memories teased her mind.

Pham approached the bed and touched her forehead.  "Looks like the fever has broken."

She'd had a fever?  Jun looked away.

"How do you feel?"

Jun stared at her hands, not sure how to truthfully answer the question.  "I'm okay."

"Everyone has been most concerned for you."  Pham gingerly sat down at the edge of her bed.

Jun continued to stare at her hands, her cheeks feeling hot, a pang of guilt rushing through her.  "I hadn't meant to worry anyone."

Pham nodded.  "May I ask a question?"

Jun felt her heart skip a beat.  Something about his tone made her very apprehensive.  Still, what could she say?  So she nodded, not entirely trusting herself to speak.

"I have noticed you have not seemed yourself of late.  Pho and I have waited, hoping you would come to us, but you have not.  Still, your burden has now become so heavy it has made you ill.  Will you not share it with me, so we can ease it from you if we can?"

Jun felt tears sting her eyes.  She couldn't bring herself to meet Pham's trusting gaze.  Had Ken and Joe spoken to him that morning?  Had they told him what they knew?  That was if he hadn't already figured it out for himself.  Jun knew he and his wife knew a lot more of what went on than they let on.  And since the others had already uncovered her biggest secret, how much longer would it be before they all guessed everything else?  "My, my family is slowly being torn apart.  And I, and I'm not sure how to stop it..." Saying the truth out loud made her well with despair.

"Ah, I see."  His reply was very soft.

Jun wanted to run away and hide.  But there was nowhere to go; nothing she could do.  "What brought the five of us together is now pulling us away.  I-I know of something I could do to fix it, but I'm afraid.  I'm not sure if we could do enough, I'm not sure if it is right for us.  And even then, I'm not sure we would be allowed-no matter how good we were."

And that was the problem, the one thing she couldn't get past.  It was a certainty to her the horror Galactor would attempt to inflict upon the world.  Though she didn't know how much good it would do, she was certain she would do all she could to protect her family and the Earth as well.  Yet the part she feared most, regardless of her convictions, was that neither the boys nor Nambu would welcome that help. 

"I have spoken with your brother," Pham said.

Jun tensed at his words.

"He has told me what you have done.  He has also told me what is in his heart."  Pham's voice grew soft.  "I believe the two of you are of one mind in this.  And it is possible that perhaps I might be able to help with at least one of the obstacles remaining in your way."

Jun stared at him wide eyed.  What was he saying?  "But sensei-"

He raised a hand to still her words.  "Tomorrow, come to the simulation room in the afternoon and we shall see what occurs.  As my wife is so fond of saying-no one can deny their fate."

Jun stared after him speechless as he got up and left the room, a small, amused smile on his face.  She was still reeling in a daze when Pho came in with Jinpei, carrying in a tray of steaming food.

Pho gave her tooth-gaped smile.  "I hope you're hungry.  I'm expecting you to eat every bite."  She gently set the tray on Jun's lap.

Jinpei was hiding behind Pho, occasionally looking past her to take a peek at his sister.

Jun stared at the food, not sure she could eat until the scent of the chicken vegetable soup teased her nose and suddenly made her mouth water.  She dug in.

"Pham says your fever has broken."  She gave Jun a proud wink.  "His concoctions usually work better than most anything.  Though Braun would dispute that to his dying breath, if anyone ever gave him the chance that is."  She chuckled for a moment.  "I'm glad you're all right."  Tenderly, she moved the hair out of Jun's eyes. 

She looked behind her.  "Now, Jinpei, I expect you to make sure your sister eats all her dinner."  Pho turned to go.  "Just bring the dishes down for me when she's through, okay?"

Jinpei nodded quickly staring hard at the floor.  Jun wondered what was wrong-this wasn't like him.  She waited until Pho had gone before she tried to find out what it might be.


"Yes, neechan?"  His voice was small and he looked vulnerable and exposed standing in the middle of the room.

"Are you all right?  Do you feel sick?"

He glanced up for a brief moment and then looked away.  "I'm not sick."  He dug his shoe into the carpet, his hands hidden behind his back.

"What's the matter then?" she asked.

His head hung low as if he were afraid to answer.  Jun was growing more and more concerned, the food before her forgotten for the moment.

"Neechan," his voice quivered and he sounded as if he were about to cry.  "Sensei asked me some questions... and I, I told him, told him everything."  His words turned into a flood.  "I was worried, and Ryu said people could die from fevers and when sensei said he might help, please don't be mad at me!"

Jun stared at him, hurting inside, suddenly realizing she'd not been the only one suffering because of their secrets.  "I'm not mad," she said it as kindly as she could.  "It's all right.  I'm not going to die either."

Jinpei looked up, tears standing in his eyes.

"Have you had dinner?"

He looked away.  "No, not yet.  Pho-san wanted to get yours done first."

"Then won't you come help me with mine?  I can't eat all this all by myself."

His face instantly brightened.  "Okay!"

Jun ate more than she thought she would and once both of them were done, sent Jinpei downstairs with the tray.  She settled back down in her pillows thinking of maybe going to sleep when Nambu showed up at her door.

"Jun?  How are you feeling?"

Tense, Jun had to force her mouth to work.  "Much, much better, hakase."

"Hm, Pham seems to think so as well."  He looked her up and down as if making his own estimation.  "Well, if you feel bad again tomorrow, have Pho call me and I will take you in to see Dr. Braun."

Jun nodded quickly.  "Yes, hakase."  Her heart beat loudly in her ears.

He gave her a light smile.  "I'm glad you're all right.  I'll see you later."

"Thank you, hakase."  Jun watched him go.  Neither Pham nor the boys must have told him of what they knew.  Strangely, she wasn't at all sure whether she should feel relieved or not.

After he'd gone, Jun tried to go to sleep but it evaded her.  Looking for something to do, so she could avoid her thoughts, she spotted some of her books and got up long enough to get one to read.  She'd been at it for over a half-hour or so when a soft knock at the door made her look up.

Jun forgot to breathe as Ken shyly glanced in her direction from the doorway.

"Hi.  May I come in?  I'd like to talk to you if you're not feeling too tired."  His cheeks were slightly flushed.


"Please?"  His blue eyes pleaded with her own.

Jun looked away.

Ken had come to ask questions-there was no other reason he'd be here.  She should have expected it.  She bit her lip trying to figure out what to do. 

She could tell him she was too tired-he'd given her the choice.  But it wouldn't be true and he'd know it.  Her secret was out, there was no denying it, and at least they hadn't told Nambu.  There really was no point in putting it off though she'd like nothing better.  At least he'd come alone and not with the others...

"All right..." Jun nodded slowly but didn't look at him as he came in.  She looked up in surprise, however, as she heard the door close shut.

"Sensei said you're doing much better."  His eyes sought hers so Jun looked away.  "We were all very happy to hear that."

Jun nodded saying nothing.  She stared at her lap.

"I never...  I never thanked you for saving my life." 

Jun heard him hesitate a moment.  She looked over at him despite herself, surprised by his words.

"Thank you."

Jun hurriedly looked away as her eyes met his, not knowing what to say.  It didn't escape her though how this conversation in so many ways paralleled the one she'd had with Ryu.  "I-I was happy to help."

She heard Ken move a little closer.  Jun felt her heart beat more rapidly inside her chest.

"I also wanted to apologize for last night.  We hadn't meant to run you off like that."  He shook his head.  "It's just once Joe gets something in his head, he won't let it go till he proves things out one way or the other."

Jun said nothing.

"You were amazing, you know.  The stuff is hard enough to do without having to worry about the controls, and you learned both on your own.  It's very impressive."

Jun looked up at him confused not sure what to make of the admiration she thought she was hearing in his voice.  Ken looked away.

"There's just one thing I don't understand."  Jun had to strain to hear him.  "Why?  Why would you want to go through all that trouble?"

Jun stared once more at her hands.  She wasn't any surer on how to answer the question today than she had been last night.  "There's, there's a lot of reasons."

An uneasy silence hung between them.

"Would you tell me what they are?  It could be important."

Jun frowned at that, not sure what he could mean and too afraid to ask.  What should she say?  "At first it was because... Because Jinpei and I were being left behind."  Jun felt her throat grow tight at the admission.  "We'd found something precious to us when we came here, when we got to stay, and we didn't want to lose it."  Jun hesitated waiting to see if he would laugh at her words.  He did no such thing.

"Then, after your accident, I-I realized the danger you would all be in with Galactor.  It made it real to me.  It scared me."  Jun squeezed her hands tight.  "I've seen the things Galactor will do, I-I checked hakase's files.  They're evil and they should be stopped, and I, and I think Jinpei and I could help do that."  Jun sat absolutely still sure he would laugh at her now.

"You got into Nambu's files?"

Jun bowed her head low.

"You and your brother really are amazing!"  Ken came closer still.

Startled by his response, Jun looked up at him.

"Do you really think you'd like to join the team?"  His eyes were bright, his expression eager.

"I-yes, yes we would."  She still didn't think it was possible, but it was what she actually wanted.

Ken nodded looking pleased.  "Then come to our practice tomorrow afternoon.  Joe probably won't like it, but I don't think Ryu will be a problem.  And after I explain what's been going on to sensei, I think he'll like it better if you practice with us than on your own."  His eyes shone brightly.  "Once you've proven to all of them what you can do, we can go on from there."

Jun found her hopes rising, getting caught up in the quiet excitement she could see in Ken's face.  She tried clamping down on it before it went too far.  "What about Nambu Hakase?"

Ken smiled brightly.  "Let's just deal with this first."  His smile grew mischievous.  "Though I have a feeling once we're ready for him, he won't know what hit him."

Ken bid her good night and left not long after.  Jun watched him go her insides in chaos.  He made it sound so easy!  But only if they somehow made it past tomorrow would she dare allow herself the luxury of hope.





Jun woke up early the next morning, an hour before her alarm was set to ring.  She tried to go back to sleep, but her body wouldn't let her, she was just too strung up to relax.  Jun felt tense, nervous, and excited all at the same time.  She'd not said a word to Jinpei about what they would be doing that day, knowing if she had, he would have been worse off than she was.

Jun paced in her room watching the minutes tick by, going over all the questions and arguments she might have to face in the afternoon hours.  If she could somehow win this, even if in the end she didn't win against Nambu, it would still make things better than before-at least for a while.  She'd have to deal with how she would handle things later once the boys were out on the field.

When it was actually time for her to get up, Jun crossed the hall and awakened Jinpei.  She helped him get ready and then the two of them went downstairs for breakfast.

Jun didn't miss Pho's knowing looks as they ate and then sent them off downstairs for their morning routine.  Nervously, Jun dressed and joined the others in the matted training room.  They received the usual greetings, though Ken's eyes seemed unusually bright.  Jun felt Joe staring at her every once in a while, his face more serious than usual.  Did he suspect what Ken had in mind or was there something else going on?

Ryu stopped her as soon as class was over.  Shyly, he looked her over.  "Are you feeling okay now, Jun?"

His concern made her feel good inside and yet guilty about the secrets she still held.  "I'm fine.  Sensei fixed me right up."  She gave him her warmest smile.

"I'm glad," he said.

As they went on to lunch and the time for the afternoon session grew closer, Jun found her apprehension growing.  She found the feeling eased just a bit, when Ken sent her an encouraging and excited look.  Jun smiled a little at his support.

She quickly looked down at her plate, however, when she noticed Joe staring at the two of them a perplexed look on his face.

After the boys had left to go study, Jun and Jinpei helped Pho with the dishes and then got on with their own lessons.  Jun found herself staring at the clock more and more as the time for their testing drew near.

"Well, I guess that will be enough for today."  Pho closed the book they'd been reading and gave them both a small knowing smile.  "Go ahead and run along.  Pham will be waiting for you.  Good luck."

Jun nodded quickly, not trusting herself to speak, and hurried upstairs to put up their books and change clothes. 

"Neechan, why are we changing?"  Jinpei looked confused.

"I have a surprise for you today, that's why."

Though he badgered her as to what she meant, Jun said nothing.  Her nervousness was now tinged heavily with anticipation.

Once they were dressed, the two of them rushed downstairs.  Pham looked up from the controls as they came in.

"Do the two of you feel ready?" he asked.

Jun nodded, barely hesitating, though she knew after this there would be no turning back.

"Are we ready for what, neechan?"  Jinpei stared at her, hope flashing in his eyes.

She didn't get a chance to answer him.

"What are they doing here?"

Jun turned around at the sound of Joe's angry voice.  Ken and Ryu were with him.

"I invited them, that's what.  Jun and Jinpei are going to practice with us."  Ken stood before his friend, his gaze and stance calm and assured.

"I invited them as well, young Joe," Pham added.

This brought startled looks even from Ken.  Pham smiled.

"Are you both nuts?"  Joe stared from one to the other of them and then took a half step back as if thinking their condition contagious.

"Joe, they want to join the team.  You saw them.  You know they have what it takes."  Ken moved to stand by Jun and her brother.

"But, they could get hurt."  The protest came from Ryu.

"And they'd have to kill."  Joe's tone was harsh.  "Are they ready for that?"

Ken was about to answer, but Jun stepped up past him before he could.  She knew deep down that in order for the others to accept them, this was a battle she'd have to win on her own.  "We want this.  We're ready."

Jinpei concurred at her side.

"Joe, you told me once that if I wanted something I should fight for it no matter what anyone else thought.  Well, I want this and I'll fight for it."

Joe didn't look happy.  "You're all stinking crazy!"

Jun felt a tinge of anger.  "Why?  Why are we crazy?  What's wrong with wanting to fight to save our planet?  What makes it so right for you to do it and not for us?"

"Yeah!  Why not?"  Jinpei made a face at Joe.  He backed off quickly, however, as Joe growled at him.

Ryu stood by Joe, looking lost and confused.  "W-won't this put us behind?"

"As a matter of fact, no."  Ken came forward.  "Joe and I saw them practicing in this room not two days ago.  They're not far behind us at all."
            "We'll prove it too.  Won't we, neechan?"  Jinpei looked over at Jun his face and form full of confidence.

"Yes," Jun said, "give us any test you want.  We're not going to be the ones to hold you back."  She surprised herself by her own heat. 

"A test would be a wise idea."  Pham looked out at the others.  "It might give everyone a better perspective of their skills."

"If sensei feels they pass, they're in."  Ken stared at Ryu and Joe.  "Agreed?"

Joe frowned, obviously not liking the proposition. 

"Joe, we need more members, you know that," Ken argued.  "They're the best we're going to find."

Joe's frowned deepened.

"I agree."  Ryu had a small smile on his face.

"Come on, Joe."  Ken stared at his friend intently.

"Shit."  He looked at Jun and her brother, at Pham, and then back at Ken.  "Whatever."

Pham took that as a yes.  "We will start out slowly and then raise the level of difficulty as things progress."  He turned to the control board.  "Please enter the room so we may begin."

Jun swallowed hard and moved to comply.  It was happening, it was really happening!

Ken stopped her with a soft touch on her arm.  "I know you'll do fine."  He gave her a bright confident smile.

It made Jun suddenly feel warm all over.  Now all she had to do was live up to it.  "Thanks."

As she entered the padded room, Jun realized that for the first time she wouldn't know what to expect from the simulation.  This time, she wasn't the one setting the controls.  An excited shiver cut through her-this would be just like what the others went through.  Today, she would be treated just like them.

Jinpei stood beside her hopping from one foot to the other waiting for the simulation to begin.

Without warning, three poles thrust themselves from the wall on their right side.  Jun and Jinpei acted instinctively and dodged out of the way.  They flipped, dodged, and wove as more and more poles thrust out at them. 

Laughter bubbled up inside her as she went through the strange dance.  Jinpei whooped as he used one pole to swing to another and touched the ceiling. 

After another two minutes, they were so busy dodging the increasingly faster poles that at first neither of them noticed the speeding car with its red handkerchief. 

"Neechan, over there!"

Jun glanced over her shoulder and was nicked on the leg by a pole.  She dropped, grabbed hold of another pole and recovered, switching in mid motion to go after the car.

Moving parallel to one another, Jun and her brother trapped the car between them.  Then they moved in for the kill.  Together, they grabbed the handkerchief and pulled it off the car.  The simulation shut itself down.

Jun found herself grinning from ear to ear, even as Jinpei happily waved the handkerchief towards the one-way glass.  He then rushed to the control room to show them his prize.  Jun followed more sedately, but no less satisfied, behind him.

 As they came in, Jun noticed Ryu staring at them with wide eyes.  "Wow!  Is that how we look when we're out there?"

"Are we in?  Are we in?"  Jinpei hopped up and down before the others.

Ken looked over at Pham his eyes bright. "Sensei?"

Their old teacher stood in the back his expression unreadable.  Jun felt a moment of doubt as he quietly studied them all. 

He suddenly smiled.  "Yes.  The rest of you would have had a hard time doing better."

"YES!"  Jinpei danced with joy.

"They still haven't passed Nambu."  Joe leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, a doubtful look on his face.

Jun bit her lip knowing he was right.

"Let's take things one step at a time, young Joe," Pham said.  "One step at a time."

Joe didn't look convinced.

"So what now?"  This came from Ryu.

"You will practice some easy lessons together-to get used to one another," Pham said.

After giving Jun and Jinpei a few minutes to rest, they went back into the simulation room with the others.  Ken was allowed to join them as well, though he was admonished to take it easy.  Jun had never seen him look so happy.  She'd not felt so happy herself for a long time.

The boys stuck close to them at first like a protective cocoon.  Jun was surprised to see Joe sticking to them most of all.  Though she knew she was more than capable of handling what Pham threw at them, rather than be annoyed at the boys' actions, it sent tendrils of pleasure through her, seeing they cared for her as much as she did for them.  She hoped the moment would never end.

Though awkward at first, the five of them went through the exercises getting accustomed to one another.  Jun and Jinpei were already well acquainted with the boys' capabilities.  It helped make their incision even easier than any of them would have thought.

That evening, a strange excitement hummed between all of them.  Smiles flashed here and there for no reason whatsoever.  Jun noticed Nambu raise an eyebrow at their strange behavior but made no comment on it.  This pleased her more than she could say.

After dinner, Ken took Jun and Jinpei aside for a moment.

"Guys, I wanted you both to know that I--that I feel real good about this."  Ken's clear eyes met theirs and then looked away his cheeks flushed with color.  "I know we don't have Nambu's blessing yet, but there's no way he'll turn you down once he sees what you can do."

Jun half dared to believe he was right.

"Until we do show him though, if you're willing, I can start showing the two of you some of the other things you'll need to learn to become part of the team."

Jun felt her heart swell.  "That would be wonderful!"  She blushed at her emotion, not knowing of a right way to express her gratitude to him.  It would be another facet of their lives she'd get to share in.

"That's so cool, aniki!  What do we get to learn about?"  Jinpei's face glowed.

Ken smiled.  "You'll see."

And they did.  With great patience, Ken introduced the two of them to the worlds of electronics, physics, chemistry, and demolitions.  Jun was alternatively awed and terrified of all the things they were learning and what they would do with that knowledge.  It excited her how much like puzzles a lot of these things seemed, her mind running at a thousand miles an hour trying to put things together and finding patterns amongst them.

As Ken taught them more and more each night, Jun felt a little guilty at taking away so much of his free time.  She brought the fact up to him more than once, but he always set the objections aside more than eager to teach them.  Jun studied hard, to make sure he knew they appreciated it. 

As the next few weeks zoomed by, even Joe's previous reticence slowly disappeared.  They practiced together everyday and pooled their skills together even as they got used to one another.  Ryu acted as if the five of them had always been together like this.  To Jun it felt like that and more-it felt right.  She couldn't believe she'd ever hesitated.

The thing that was hardest on them all during this time was making sure they didn't discuss anything unusual in Nambu's presence.  There'd been a few occasions so far where Jun or one of the others had had to kick Jinpei beneath the table to remind him of the things he wasn't supposed to talk about.  Each of them had come close to making the same mistake as well here or there.  Sooner or later Jun was sure one of them would slip, but she hoped it would be much much later.

The five of them rushed upstairs to get ready for dinner after having finally defeated a set of complicated simulations devised by Pham.  Ryu and Joe stopped abruptly in the front as they turned the corner into the kitchen.  Ken almost smacked into them from behind.

"H- hi, Hakase."  Ryu didn't move.

Ken cursed lightly under his breath, still out of sight, while Joe held a fake smile.  Jun bit her lip, realizing the sudden danger, as she and her brother slowly eased back in the direction they'd come.

"Is Ken with you?" Nambu asked.

Ken sent Jun and Jinpei a signal to stay and then popped into view beside the other two.  "Right here, hakase."

"Good."  His voice grew nearer.  Jun tensed.  "I realize you've just finished, but if you're not too tired, I'd like a demonstration of how you're coming along."

"We, we can do that, hakase."  Ken threw a quick glance in Jun's direction.  "We're ready."

"Right now?"  Ryu looked disappointed.

"Yes."  Pho's voice came from the kitchen as well.  "I thought it'd be better for you to do it before dinner rather than after.  The sooner you show Kozaburo what he wants, the sooner you'll get to eat." 

Jun was sure the old woman was smiling.

Jinpei pulled on Jun's arm and pointed at Ken.  The latter was signaling behind Joe's back for them to go on back downstairs.

Jun held her breath suddenly realizing what he meant.  This was it.  This was their chance!  Without waiting to hear more, Jun quickly turned away and headed for the secret door and palmed it open.  Jinpei followed her through.

As soon as the door was closed, they tore off down the stairs.  Jinpei followed her a quizzical look on his face.  "Neechan, what are we doing?"

"We're going back to the simulation room.  Nambu is coming!"

Still looking confused, Jinpei asked no more questions but followed obediently behind her.

With tingling excitement running through her, Jun turned into the control room.  Following on through, they entered the simulation room closing the door behind them.   Jun moved to stand in the room's right corner as far away from the view of the control room as she could manage.

Fear and exultation poured through her as she realized the time to choose their fate had finally arrived.  This day would decide everything for them.

"Neechan, I still don't understand," Jinpei insisted.

She couldn't help but smile.  "It's easy, today we're going to show hakase what we can do."

Jinpei's eyes grew round.  "Oh."

"But we have to be very quiet right now, all right?"

Her brother nodded vigorously and put himself flat against the wall as she had done.

The next several minutes were sweet torture as they waited for the others to arrive.  Suddenly, Jinpei let out a small yelp as the door beside them opened.

Ken walked through, quickly spotting them.  A broad smile grew on his face as he saw them and didn't leave as he continued on towards the center of the room.  Ryu came through next and winked at them as he walked past.  Joe came in last and was momentarily out of view of the control room as he closed the door.

"Give it all you've got," he said.  "Nambu won't have any more of a choice than the rest of us."  He grinned as he spoke and then moved to join Ken and Ryu.

All of Jun's previous fears and hesitation evaporated.  If Joe thought they'd make it, there was nothing to doubt anymore. 

Jun squeezed Jinpei's hand and sent him a happy smile.  She turned to look with him at the three others that had made their lives complete.  Nothing would stand in their way-nothing.



            The End.

Chapter End Notes:
Re edited in 2005 -  new edit added to archive 7/07
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