Hidden Scars by Maya Perez
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             Rachel stood, but made no move to go.  Giorge got the sudden feeling there was something more she wanted to do or say.  He did nothing to encourage her.  After a moment, she turned away and left.

             As soon as she left, Giorge got to his feet and dragged both chairs over to the far wall.  Before Nambu came to release him, he'd had an idea on how to get away.  He glanced up at the vent sitting high over where his bed once stood.  It was perfect.  It was a way he could use to get away and one by which he wouldn't be seen and they might not think he'd use.  Giorge knew it could be done.  Ninja's had done it in the martial art movies Neal brought for them to watch on Saturday nights all the time.  If they could do it, so could he.

             Giorge set one of the chairs against the wall and got up on top of it.  To his chagrin, he found it didn't put him high enough to reach the vent.  He got off and then precariously stacked the other chair on top of the first.  He stared at it, realizing that getting on it without bringing the whole thing down would be tricky.

             After a number of tries and a couple of bruises for his trouble, he was finally able to make it on top.

             Giorge studied the grill of the vent critically.  The grill was screwed into the wall and he couldn't see well enough beyond it to see how big the vent was.  Moving slowly, he reached into his pocket and slowly removed Nambu's wallet.  He went through it, checking what was inside, seeing if anything in it was the right thickness for him to use against the screws.  He settled on one of the doctor's security cards. 

             Gripping the card sideways, he used the corner of it to turn the screws.  After about five to ten minutes, he was able to get them all off.  He then took the grill off, holding his breath, too many hopes riding on what he'd find beyond.

             The vent was small, but not too small.  Giorge was pretty sure he'd have enough space to crawl through it.  Once in it, he was sure he'd be able to go anywhere inside the building.  He realized he should have thought of leaving this way from the start.

             Gingerly, he stuck his arms and head through the hole into the vent.  Flattening his palms against the cold metal, he pulled up even as he kicked out with his feet against the chairs to shove him up.

             The chairs tipped over and fell.  But he was in!

             Without a backward glance, he wiggled further into the vent.  He sneezed as he crawled along, his movements making small dust clouds of the accumulated dirt inside.  The walls of the vent pressed closely against him making him nervous.  A strange fear hovered in the back of his mind that insisted the crawl space was getting gradually smaller.  He'd experienced this sensation in his room on occasion, but never as intensely as this.  Beads of perspiration broke on his brow.  He made himself move faster.

             After an innumerable number of turns, Giorge finally ran across a down shaft.  Sweat stung his eyes as he tried to look down into the shadowed gloom.  Luckily, he found that the connection was a little wider than the horizontal shafts.  He was sure he could make it.  Going back and turning himself around, he lowered himself into the new shaft feet first.  He spread himself out inside it and pressed his hands and feet against one side while putting his back to the other.  Gingerly, he inched down the vertical shaft at an awkward crawl.  It wasn't long before his already stressed muscles screamed in protest at the new unusual strain.  Giorge had no choice but to ignore them, knowing that to stop now would be to die.

             Sweat poured from almost every pore of his body as he continued down.  He counted the number of horizontal shafts until he reached the second one down from where he started.  Black spots swam across his eyes as he crawled into and collapsed inside a horizontal shaft on his right.  He closed his eyes, unmoving, grateful to feel the shaft's cold metal pressing against his face.  Every muscle in his body ached with an intensity he hadn't known before.  This hadn't looked that hard when the ninja's did it.

             After several minutes, he forced his still protesting arms to lift him up.  They shook as he leaned on them but they held.  With a grimace followed with a look of cold determination, Giorge moved on.

             He followed his current vent as far as he could before taking a turn to the right.  He kept an eye out for bright patches of light as he crawled along and looked carefully into the rooms they came from.  Eventually, he ran across one that seemed to look into an empty office.  From his vantage point, he could see it had a window.  It was exactly what he'd been looking for.  He was almost free!

             Giorge tried to pry out the vent cover but found that it wouldn't budge.  Not able to get at the screws holding it in place from the inside, he soon decided to try something else.  He crawled back out into a vent juncture and crawled in backwards.  When he reached the grill again, he laid down on his back and kicked at the grill with all his might.  After a couple of kicks, the grill gave up and flew across the room to bang against the far wall.

             Giorge cringed at the racket and then waited tensely to see if anyone would come investigate.  When no one showed, he slowly slipped his body out of the vent until he was hanging by his arms.  He let go.

             His legs buckled as he landed on the carpeted floor making him fall with a thud.  He missed hitting his head against the corner of the office's desk by mere inches.  Trying to ignore his pain, he crawled over to the door.  He locked it.  As soon as he was through, he let himself go limp on the floor.

             He was tired... so tired.  Surely he could take a minute to rest -- just for a moment or two.  His eyelids started to close.

             Shooting pain coursed up his right leg as one of his muscles cramped.  He jerked up into a sitting position, and stretched his leg forcing his foot into a perpendicular position.  He hissed in increased pain even as he tried to control his breathing and practice the relaxation techniques Neal had taught him.  Breath deeply, in and out, imagine a tingling sensation rising and falling through the limb with each breath.  The pain decreased and soon the spasm was over.

             Giorge grabbed onto the desk and used it to help him stand up.  He felt more alert than moments before, the burst of adrenaline from the cramp giving him more energy.  He was sure this wouldn't last long, and he still wasn't free.

             Half-limping, he made his way over to the office's window and peered outside.  A small pleased grin showed momentarily on his face -- he'd gotten lucky.  The office looked to be in the back of the building.  Beyond it was a twenty foot area of manicured lawn followed by a line of trees.  Perfect!

             He fiddled with the strange window for a minute until he figured out how to open it.  The bottom half of the window slid out and then up.  As soon as he got it out of his way, Giorge stuck his head out the window and quickly looked both ways.  He spotted no one.  Gingerly, he pulled himself through the window to the outside.

             As his feet touched the lush grass, a tired smile lingered on his face.  He looked up at the late afternoon sky marveling at its deepening blues and the yellow of the sun.  He stared down at his feet at the green carpet of grass.  He felt as if he'd gone from a world of only black and white to one suffused with color.  Giorge took a deep breath of fresh air and instantly noticed the antiseptic smell he'd been forced to breathe for over two years was gone.  This was Freedom!

             The sound of a car horn from around the building reminded him he wasn't quite free yet.  Checking both ways one more time, he made himself hurry across the lawn into the woods beyond.

             Once he was hidden by the trees, Giorge didn't stop, sure this would be one of the first places they would think of to look for him.  He stumbled on, touching everything he passed, welcoming back the trees, leaves, branches, birds, sky, air back into his life.  He was free!  Soon, he would see Alan and the others again.  Soon everything would be made right!

             The wooded area turned out not to be very extensive.  After about thirty feet, the trees fell away to a large, open golf course.  Moving as fast as he could, Giorge followed one of the asphalt golf cart trails on toward the clubhouse.  As he went, he tried, as best he could, to wipe away the dust and grime caked sweat he'd picked during his struggles.

             By the time he made it to the clubhouse, he was feeling quite winded.  His entire body ached and his stomach was growling unhappily.  He tried to ignore them, though he couldn't blame them.   He'd had no food or proper rest since the day before.  His stomach angrily reminded him perhaps he shouldn't have been so quick to turn down Rachel's offer for food.  Giorge shrugged the complaint away and moved on.

             Only a couple of people were hanging about the entrance to the club from the golf course.  He steered well clear of them and sneaked inside.  Straightening out his clothes as best he could and combing his hair back with his fingers, he looked about trying his best to seem as if he had every right to be there.  He started making his way toward the front of the building.

             Almost there, he spotted the restrooms as well as a row of vending machines and pay phones down a small hallway on the left.  He headed right for it.  Using some of Nambu's money, he bought a Coke and a bag of Doritos.  He gagged on his first gulp of the Coke, the fizz going straight up into his sinuses.  He coughed and spluttered also not used to the soda's overtly sweet taste.  He made himself take another swallow.  Though he tried not to give the matter much attention, deep down, it bothered him that his body reacted this way.  He'd had Cokes before, and never did he react like this.  He and Alan had always gotten them in the tall glass bottles, the ones that were closest to being frozen, which always made them the best tasting.  They would then guzzle them down and collect the bottles to use later for rock target practice.  Had the drinks changed while he'd been away in the hospital?

             Giorge quickly added that grievance to the tally his enemies would have to pay for.  He went ahead and drank half the contents of the can of Coke before moving to open the chips.  Not sure how his body would react to them, he gingerly took one out of the bag and ate it.  The taste was strong, but good.  It even made the Coke taste better.  He ravaged the bag and finished off both.  He felt a little better than he had before.

             He went back and got another set of each.  He then sat himself down by the row of phones.  He grabbed one of the phone books he spotted there and opened it.  He started in on the new bag of chips as he flipped slowly through the pages.

             From the front of the book, he found out he was in the greater Dellas area.  Giorge had heard of the city before.  It was in Americana.  One of his mother's favorite shows had been named after this city.  She hadn't been too happy when it was canceled.  Something about the show had amused her very much.  Giorge only found it boring.  Now he wished he'd paid more attention to it, he might have then known more about where he was.

             "Excuse me, what are you doing?"

             Giorge's head snapped up, panic cutting through him as he stared into the eyes of a young man wearing black slacks with a white jacket.  The stitched words Sinclair Country Club sat above a heavily embroidered crest close to his lapel.

             "What's it look like I'm doing?  I'm waiting for my Dad to come out of the bathroom."  Giorge gave him one of his best glares, even as his heart pounded inside him at a million miles an hour.  "You got a problem with that?"

             The attendant took a startled step back.  "Ah, no, no, sir, no problem."  His face turned red.  "Please accept my apologies.  We've had problems with undesirables on occasion.  I hadn't realized you were one of our guests.  Please forgive me.  Let me know if you or your father need anything."

             Giorge trembled inside but let none of his trepidation show on his face.  He humphed and dismissed the man as if he didn't exist, just as any truly disgruntled club member was bound to do.  He dared to breath again as the attendant took his cue and left.

             Once he was alone, he flipped quickly through the phone book looking for the listing for the club.  Thanks to the attendant he now knew exactly where he was.  On finding the listing, he marked the page with the address and then flipped through the rest of the phone book until he came across the listings for taxi services.  He picked one at random and then dialed them up on the pay phone.

             "Taxi Flyers, may I help you?"

             "Ah, yes, I need to be picked up?"  Giorge tried to get his voice to drop as low as he could.  "I'm at the Sinclair Country Club on Park drive."

             "All right, sir, we can have a car out to you in about fifteen to twenty minutes.  Your name please?"

             Giorge's mind blanked for a second.  He knew he shouldn't use his own name, but he could think of no other to use.  He said the first one that popped into his mind.  "Nambu, my name is Kozaburo Nambu."

             "Thank you, sir.  I'll put the call out right now."

             Twenty minutes...  He had to keep himself from being found for another twenty minutes...

             Giorge put the phone book back where he found it and finished off his Coke and Doritos.  Glancing quickly about to make sure he wasn't being watched, he then went into the bathroom.  After finishing his business, he looked at himself in the mirror and immediately knew why the attendant had hassled him.  His face was haggard with deep bags under his eyes.  He looked thin too, too thin for anybody normal.  His clothes were still dirty despite his previous efforts and his hair was still a total mess.  He was lucky the attendant hadn't questioned his story closer or just thrown him out just to be safe.

             Using paper towels and water, Giorge tried to clean his clothes again.  He washed his face and hands and then used wet fingers to try and straighten out his unruly hair.  By the time he finished, he looked a little more presentable.  It would have to do.

             Acting as if he owned the place, he made his way out the front door of the club.  He loitered in the shadows of the club's entrance, waiting for his taxi as well as maintaining an eye out for any signs of trouble or pursuit.  He made sure he had at least three ways of escape from that spot in case someone did come looking for him.  He had no intention of going back to the hospital ever again.

             A yellow cab with the words Taxi Flyers on the door pulled up into the club's circular drive around ten minutes later.  Forcing himself not to appear hurried, he stepped out into the open and got in.  The driver, who wore a yellow cap with white wings and a matching jacket, eyed him warily. 

"Mr. Nambu?"

             "Yeah, that's me."

             "Where to?"

             "The airport."

             The driver nodded after giving him one last long look and then popped the car into drive.

             Giorge held his breath as the taxi pulled out of the club's drive into the street and drove right past the hospital.  From the amount of people he saw scurrying about the parking lot, he was sure they'd discovered he was missing.  He crouched down a little so he wouldn't be seen, as they quickly went past.

             The ride to the airport was quiet and without mishap.  Giorge didn't acknowledge the cabby's attempts at conversation and stared out the window drinking in the view as the sun was slowly swallowed by the horizon.  After about a half hour or so, the taxi turned off the highway into the Dellas International Airport.

             "Do you have a specific terminal you'd like to get off at?"

             Giorge picked one at random from an electronic listing above their heads with the airline and terminal names.  "Terminal 3-E, please."

             The cabby maneuvered through the heavy airport traffic and brought the cab over to the departures curb.  "That'll be fifty five dollars and seventy cents."

             Without batting an eye, Giorge pulled out Nambu's wallet and handed the driver three twenties.  "Keep the change."

             "Hey, thanks!"  The cabby got out and opened the door for him.

             Giorge got out and strode off toward the terminal as if he knew exactly where he was going.  The cab drove off.

             No longer under immediate scrutiny, he took the time to look around.  He had a vague idea on how airports worked, he and his family had traveled around enough.  He just wasn't exactly sure on how to go about taking care of the details.  He did, however, have an idea on how to find out.  After several minutes, he finally spotted what he was looking for -- the terminal's information desk.  He hurried right over.

             Giorge smiled as he came near, trying to attract the attendant's attention.

             "Well, hello there, young man!"

             "Hi!  I need some information, please."

             The woman smiled sweetly.  "That's what I'm here for.  What would you like to know?"

             Now that the moment was here, Giorge found himself hesitating.  "Are, are there any flights from here to B.C. Island?"

             "B.C. Island?"

             He tried not to let the fact that she'd never heard of it bother him.  "Yeah, it's near Sicily."

             "Hold on a sec, let me check the computer."

             Giorge fidgeted against the round desk as the check seemed to take forever.  Wearily, he kept an eye out on the people walking busily around them.

             "Ah, here we go.  While none of the carrier's here fly there directly, they can get you over to Catania.  It says here that from there you can take a ferry that will take you straight to B.C. Island.  United and Euro Air both make stops at Catania.  Are you and your parents thinking of going there?"

             "Maybe."  He shrugged.  "They've been thinking about it.  It's supposed to have some cool resorts."  He stifled an unexpected pang of sadness as he recalled how much fun they'd all had there.

             "Did you need anything else?"

             "Yeah."  Giorge looked away not sure how the woman would take his next question.  "How would we go about getting tickets?"  He glanced up to see her reaction.  She didn't seem perturbed by the question at all.

             "Hm, do your parents have a travel agent?"

             "N, no.  I don't think so."

             "Well, normally that's how most people go about getting their tickets.  You call them up, tell them where and when you are wanting to go, and they check on what flights are available and tell you how much it will cost.  If what they say seems good to you, then you agree to pay and they'll get the tickets for you.  You can either pick them up then or have them sent to you."

             Giorge pondered on all that a moment.  "Do you have a list of travel agents that are nearby?"

             "Unfortunately, no.  It's against the rules.  But you should be able to find some in the yellow pages.  You can find some over there by the pay phones."

             "Thank you.  Thank you very much."  Giorge gave her a heartfelt smile and headed off in the direction she indicated.

             He found one of the directories hanging on a chain by one of the phones.  The whole wall there had been dedicated to telephones of all types, including some that only took phone cards instead of money.

             Giorge stared at the adds for the different travel agencies and finally decided on one with a half page add -- they were open till late and it was already dark outside.  As he put the money into the pay phone, the numbers on the page got momentarily fuzzy.  Giorge wiped at his eyes finding his

exhaustion finally crawling back over him.  He had to hold on for just a little bit longer, just a little more!

             "International Travel Agency.  Linda speaking.  May I help you?"

             Giorge pinched his nose and brought his tone to as low a pitch as he could.  "Ah, yes, I'd like to buy some airline tickets."

             "Of course, sir.  Your destination?" 

             "Catania in Sicily, please."

             "When would you be traveling?"

             "As soon as possible.  There's a family emergency."  He hoped she wouldn't ask what it was.

             "Sir, the earliest flight possible is tomorrow morning at eleven.  Would that be all right?"

             "Yes, yes, I guess so."  Surely he'd be able to wait that long.  Tonight would have been so much better but...

             "Let me check on what they've got available."  Giorge waited every muscle tensed with anticipation.  "I can fit you in an aisle seat in first class.  Would that be acceptable?"

             "Yes!"  Couldn't they get on with it?

             "And your name, sir?"

             "Na - Nambu, Kozaburo Nambu."

             "All right, Mr. Nambu, I have you booked for flight three forty five from Dellas to Catania at eleven twenty three on terminal 2-E.  Will you be needing a return ticket?"


             "How would you like to pay for your ticket, sir?"

             That brought Giorge up short for a moment.  He was sure he didn't have enough cash.  "Credit card?"

             "That would be fine, sir.  Visa or Mastercard?"

             He fumbled to open Nambu's wallet and look at his cards.  "Visa."

             "Your account number?"

             Giorge looked at the card and gave her the first numbers he ran across.

             "Expiration date?"

             Giorge's gaze roamed back over the card until he found what he needed.

             "We're all set then, Mr. Nambu.  Will you be coming by to pick up your ticket today?"

             Pick them up?  They would never give a ticket to him, not if they saw he was a kid.  A tendril of panic rushed through him until he remembered what the information woman had said.  "Is it, I mean, could you have them delivered to the information desk at the terminal?"  Giorge held his breath not sure what the answer would be.

             "Of course, sir.  But it will add an extra surcharge to the cost of your ticket."

             "Tha, that would be fine."

             "Your tickets should reach the information desk at terminal 2-E no later than ten in the morning tomorrow."

             "Great, that's great!"

             "Thank you, sir.  Have a nice flight."

             Giorge hung up the phone heaving a heavy sigh of relief.  He was going to make it, he was going to make it!

             Over the next hour, he hunted down the correct terminal and then made sure he knew the location of the information desk.  His legs hurt, his feet hurt, his eyes were burning.  He had all night before the flight tomorrow, yet he couldn't afford to sleep though he wanted nothing more in the world.  Sooner or later Nambu would figure out where he'd gone and come looking for him.  He had to keep his eyes open or they would catch him again.  But he still needed to rest while not attracting attention to himself.  He soon thought up a compromise.

             Walking through the terminal, Giorge found a gate filled with a small crowd of travelers waiting to board.  He sat among them as if he too were waiting.  He kept a look out for anyone suspicious, but after a while he inadvertently fell asleep.  He jerked awake once the loading calls began.  He groggily climbed to his feet and made himself look for another waiting flight.

             He did this for the next several hours.  Twice he was questioned and he quickly lied and said he was waiting for his father to return from the restroom.  As soon as he could, he always got out of sight.  The unwanted naps, rather than making him feel rested, just made him feel more tired than before.  Flights waiting for boarding became more and more rare.  Around two in the morning, Giorge went to the bathroom.  As he got there, he noticed the cleaning crew coming out.  As he went about his business, an idea slowly trickled into his head.  Choosing the farthest stall from the door, he closed the door and then hunkered down between the wall and the toilet.  He immediately went to sleep.

             The sound of a toilet flushing grudgingly brought his eyes open.  They grew wide as he became aware there were a number of people in the room.  What time was it?

             Giorge grabbed on to the toilet and used it to help him stand.  His body screamed at him not happy about the concept at all.  He stretched inside the stall as best he could, trying to ignore his stiff back and neck.  He tried his best to straighten out his rumpled clothes and at the last minute remembered to flush the toilet before opening his stall's door.  Guardedly, he looked out at the men in the bathroom.  Most looked like business travelers, and all looked half asleep.  He quickly washed his face and finger combed his hair and then left.

             He stumbled out into the large airport hallway and turned to look at the bank of screens showing the day's departures and arrivals and the upper corner that gave the current time.  It was six thirty eight.  He felt himself relax, not realizing until that moment that he'd been coiled like a spring. 

             Stifling a yawn, still feeling tired and draggy, he headed off to the right.  Already, a number of the food courts had opened for business.  Giorge found himself a small quiet place with a number of exits and went in to eat.  The food was terribly expensive, but he had enough of Nambu's money left to get by.  He bought a helping of French Toast covered with a healthy layer of powdered sugar, as well as a side order of bacon, and a tall glass of orange juice.  He ate everything before him and then licked his plate.  He felt a little better once he got through.

             He had a little less than three hours to kill before he could go pick up his tickets.  Still keeping an eye out for anyone suspicious, he once more joined groups of people waiting on departing flights.  After a couple of hours, he looked up his flight number on the screens and tracked down

his departure gate.  A kernel of nervous tension grew inside him as the time for his pick-up loomed ever closer.

             More and more of the time, Giorge found his gaze shifting to the large windows at the gates and watched as planes landed and took off before them.  Soon he'd be on one of those.  Soon he'd be on his way home.

             At ten on the dot, he appeared before the information desk.  It took him a minute to catch the busy attendant's attention.  "Excuse me, sir, I'm here to pick up some tickets from the International Travel Agency."

             "Oh?"  The middle-aged man gave Giorge an odd look.   

"Yes, the tickets are for Kozaburo Nambu."

             "Ah, yes, hold on a second."  The attendant ducked out of sight for a moment and then came back up.  "Yes, here they are.  Could I see some ID?"

             ID?  Giorge grew cold inside but didn't dare let is show on his face.  Quickly, he took out Nambu's wallet, his mind racing at a thousand miles an hour.  He took out the doctor's driver's license.  "My Dad gave me this to show you.  Is that okay?  He was having a problem with Mama's car but wanted to make sure he got his ticket on time."

             The attendant gave him another odd stare even as he took the offered driver's license.  "It's a little unusual, but I guess it's okay.  Here you go, kid."  He handed Giorge a sealed packet and the driver's license.  "Be careful with those.  If you lose them, your dad could be in for a heap of trouble."

             Giorge forced himself to smile at the unasked-for advice.  "Sure.  I'll be real careful."  He got out of the man's sight as fast as it was prudent.  He never saw the attendant reach for a phone.

             As soon as he was out of sight, Giorge tore open the packet.  Inside, he found a ticket, an itinerary, as well as a couple of brochures on his destination.  He smiled sure they would come in handy.  He made his way toward his gate, tired but feeling exalted at the same time.  He held his ticket in his hand and stared at it as if it were a pot of gold.  He'd almost reached the gate when a hand fell on his shoulder.  "Giorge."

             Startled, he whipped around to see who was there.  He tripped over himself in his hurry and fell on his butt.  He cursed as he looked up and saw who was there -- it was Nambu.  No!

             "Giorge, let me help you up."

             He ignored the doctor's hand his eyes darting everywhere else around him.  With a growing sense of despair and panic, he noticed eight men in uniform set in a loose circle about them.  No, no, no, no, no.  How did he not notice them?  How could he have gotten so careless!  And after he'd been so careful!  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Anger rose to override his exhaustion and everything else.  They weren't going to stop him now, he'd come too far!  He was so close.  Giorge rose slowly to his feet, his every muscle tensed as he looked for the best place to bolt. 

             "Thank you for your help, gentlemen, but everything is all right now.  I can handle it from here."  The uniformed men looked confused but slowly backed off.  Giorge glared at Nambu with suspicion.  What was he up to?  Was he that confident he could keep him on his own?  Giorge felt the doctor's gaze lock with his own.

             He stayed ready to run, not sure of what he should do.  It would be easy to get away from Nambu now, unless making the men back off was only part of a twisted plan and more men were waiting for him where he couldn't see them.  What was his game?  A part of him wanted to just run and be done with it, for good or ill.  But his plane was here, his chance to go home was here.  He couldn't just throw it away.

             "I want to give you something."  The doctor reached slowly into the inside of his jacket.  Giorge kept a wary eye on him not sure of what he was about to do.  Surely the man wouldn't kill him here -- not in front of all these witnesses.  Right?

             Nambu brought his hand out.  Instead of the gun Giorge half expected, Nambu held in his hand a small blue book.  He tossed it over to Giorge's feet.  "You're going to need this if you're going home."

             He backed up a step not trusting Nambu or his little book.

             "Go ahead, take it.  It's a passport.  Without it, they won't let you into Sicily."

             A passport...  something about the word rang a bell.  Gingerly, never taking his eyes off the doctor in case this was just a ploy in which to try something, he scrunched down and picked it up.

             On the cover, the book had large gold letters spelling the word passport.  Over it was the seal of the Unified States of Americana.  He frowned.  Opening it, Giorge found inside a fairly recent picture of himself, one he never remembered being taken.  Under the place for a name, he found that he was listed as Joe Asakura.  Giorge glanced up at the doctor with a touch of fear clutching at his innards.  Joe -- that had been his street name.  No one but his friends had known about it!  How had Nambu found out?  Who was this man?

             "Now you have everything you need to get there.  But, are you sure that going there is the right thing to do?"

             Giorge detected no trace of antagonism in the doctor's voice.  It made him nervous.  He was sure that the doctor was up to something.

             "It isn't safe for you there, Giorge.  You've no idea on what you'd be walking into."

             Giorge glared at him in defiance but said nothing.  He knew Nambu was trying to goad him into talking, just like Jessica always tried to do.  It didn't work for her and it sure as hell wasn't going to work for him.  Giorge glanced sideways at the bank of screens -- it was ten twenty five.

             "There's some things you and I have never talked about, and we should have.  I apologize for that.  We probably wouldn't be here now if I'd taken care of it sooner."  Nambu took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose.  "Your plane won't board for a little while yet and you look awfully tired.  Why don't we go sit in that cafe over there and have something to drink while we wait?"

             Ah, it was a trap!  "No."

             "I thought as much."  Nambu made no other reaction other than to heave a small sigh.  It wasn't at all what Giorge had expected.  "I suppose I'll have to tell you what needs to be said here then."  Nambu's voice fell to almost a whisper and Giorge had to strain to make out the words.  With all the traffic surrounding them, it was unlikely that anyone would be able to overhear their conversation.

             "Giorge, before I brought you here, you spent a week at the Mother of Mercy Hospital on the island.  Because of things happening there, it proved necessary to fake your death even as you were secretly taken out of the country.  The people who murdered your parents weren't going to be satisfied

until all three of you were dead.  Your grave was set a few feet from that of your parents.  It's only because of this that you've been relatively safe up to now.  If they even suspected that you were alive, they'd never stop until they made sure the job was done."

             Giorge stared at Nambu in disbelief.  He was dead?  Alan, Giovanni, Vinny, everyone of them thought he'd been killed...  It explained so many things.  Giorge's knees turned to jelly.  He had to strain not to fall.  He couldn't afford to show any weakness now, not here, not in front of this man.  He pushed the knowledge he'd been given away, telling himself over and over that he would have time to deal with it later.

             "If you go back, you'll start to ask questions.  As soon as you do, you will get noticed and others will get involved.  Those responsible for your parents' death will figure out who you are and they won't rest until they've corrected their mistake."

             "I'll take them with me."  Giorge's utter conviction made Nambu's brow rise.

             "Yes, you might at that, but how many of your friends and their families will you also be taking with you?  You have no money, no home, you're a minor.  When you get there you will need a place to stay, food to eat.  How will you get them?"

             Giorge's face hardened.  Dead or not, Alan would never turn him away.  Alan would sneak food out to him no problem.  And as for a place to stay, he'd stay at the clubhouse.  No one would go looking for him there.

             "I can see what you're thinking.  But I'm afraid that doing that would end up being a terrible mistake."  Giorge snorted.  What would he know about it.

             "Think about it.  If the organization would go through so much trouble to take you down, don't you think that they'd also go out and take down anyone you might have spoken to?  Anyone who had realized you'd never died?  They can't afford to let anyone know that they failed once in killing you.

 And they'd hunt everyone of your friends down.  They are that ruthless.  That's the kind of people they are.  That's why your father was willing to listen to me.  The only truth or honor they believe in is whatever happens to be convenient at the time.  Are you going to become like them to get your revenge?  Will you willingly put your friends' lives in danger for your own gain?"

             Giorge looked away from Nambu's hard stare.  Would he really be putting everyone in danger if he went?  Surely the murderers would have no quarrel with them...  But, why wouldn't they?  They had killed his parents in cold blood.  They'd shown they had no understanding of honor.  Could this man be right?

             No!  His parents had to be avenged, their murderers punished!  Their souls would never rest until they were.  Yes, it would make things harder, but there were other places he could find to hide at, vendors he could steal food from.  It would work, it had to.  What other choice did he have?  "I'm still going."

             Giorge turned away, sure that now the doctor would try and stop him.

             "Giorge, there is another way." 

             Despite himself, Giorge stopped and found himself listening.

             "I know who murdered your parents.  I know things about them that no one else does.  I know what they want and I know how to stop them.  What happened to your parents is but the beginning of what they have in mind for the world.  If you want it, I can make sure that you're involved in bringing

them down, that you'll be one of the few involved in striking the organization down to its knees.  If you work hard and have patience, I can give you the opportunity to make them pay without any of your friends having to pay the price as well."

             Giorge turned around and stared at the doctor's square features, sure that this had to be some sort of trap.  "I don't believe you."

              "That, I'm afraid, is something that is entirely up to you." Nambu shrugged.  "I've made my offer.  It's up to you to accept it or drop it as you see fit.  It's your choice to either decide to come with me and have a sure shot at getting what you want or getting on that plane and running the risk of getting innocent people killed while maybe or maybe not fulfilling your vendetta.  It's all entirely up to you."  Nambu turned away and started to walk off.

             Giorge stared after him, stunned. 

             What, what if this wasn't a trap?  What if, if everything he had just said was true?  Giorge knew he was well known at B.C. Island.  People would recognize him, and not all of those who would liked him.  Gino and his gang hated his guts.  They'd sell him out to the murderers just to get rid of

him and maybe implicate the others out of spite.  Unbidden, an image of the village rose in his mind, the bullet ridden bodies of his friends and all those he knew scattered in the streets over pools of drying blood, their faces masks of pain and horror.  "Wait!"

             Nambu stopped and turned back around slowly.  "Yes?"

             Giorge hesitated.  Could he take the chance?  Dare he believe that this man was wrong?  Could he risk believing that he was right?  Giorge's face twisted with his indecision.  "I, I need guarantees."

             Nambu shook his head slowly.  "There are no guarantees.  The choice is yours, for good or ill."

             His choice.  Giorge almost laughed at the irony.  Nothing had been his choice!  He'd never wanted any of this!  And now, now he didn't know what to do!  He grimaced.  Yet, if there was the slightest chance that he'd be putting the others in danger...  That left him only one direction.  And if it turned out that all he'd been told was a lie, he'd make them regret it.  He'd remind Nambu of that very fact before he made him die.  Giorge's face cleared.  "All right...  I'll try it your way -- for now."

             Nambu nodded as if his comment were no less than what had been expected.  Giorge stared at him still looking for signs of duplicity, but found none.     

            "The car is this way."  Nambu pointed behind him.  He turned away and left Giorge on his own to catch up.  "You can keep the passport.  I'll also open an account for you with a travel agency in case you ever decide to change your mind.  I want to make sure that you don't feel that you're being held against your will."

             Giorge humphed but otherwise made no other comment.  He didn't understand this man, but sooner or later, he'd figure out his game.

             A green sedan was waiting for them at the curb outside the terminal.  Nambu opened the door to the back and got in.  Giorge followed.  As soon as he'd closed the door, the driver wove the sedan out into the airport traffic.

             "Giorge -- "

             "No, call me Joe.  That's who my passport says I am.  Giorge is dead."  A part of him cried at the decision, but the rest of him took it in stride as something necessary.  Revenge would be had, but Giorge had died on the same day as his parents, interred beside them at St. Christopher's.  Only

Joe remained...

             Nambu eyed him strangely for a moment and then nodded.  "All right, Joe it is."  He who had been Giorge grunted his thanks.  "So, Joe, do you think I might be able to get my wallet back now?"

             Joe didn't bat an eye, refusing to regret having taken it, and took it out of his pocket and handed it to him.

             "Thank you."

             "Now that I've done what you want, I want you to tell me who killed my parents."  Joe locked his gaze to Nambu's daring the doctor to try and evade the request.  Nambu didn't.

             "Your parents were killed by a rising criminal/terrorist organization called Galactor."  Joe frowned.  Hadn't he heard that name before?  The memory eluded him.  He brushed the question aside.  "Their power has been growing rapidly for the last several years and they've been very busy making their presence known in certain circles.  Their aims, however, aren't the usual ones of just profit and power.  I believe that there's more to it than that.  All indications point at the fact that they're pushing to become a global force, one that can eventually try and take over the world."

             Joe stared at him, thinking that all he'd said was beginning to sound like a bad monster movie.  Yet he could see in the doctor's face that the man believed every word.

             "The group I work for, the International Science Organization, or ISO, has slowly come to understand the threat that they represent.  To counter it, they've given me the authorization to implement a plan to counter Galactor.  If you prove capable, you will be a major part of that plan."

             Joe pondered on all that for a while.  "What happens now?"

             "Now?  You're to continue to improve your health and build up your stamina.  You'll also need to try and catch up on what you've missed in school as well as concentrate on some specialized topics.  There are many things you'll need to know if your going to be able to stop Galactor."

             He had to study?  Joe cringed.  Surely he already knew all he had to know.  "Look, I'm ready now.  I know I can take them out."

             Nambu's brow rose as he studied Joe critically for a moment.  "I did warn you that you would have to be patient.  Galactor is already too massive for us to destroy at the moment.  We're not ready.  You're not ready."  Joe started to protest but Nambu stalled him with a raised palm.  "You've made a remarkable recovery, yes, I'll grant you that.  And your determination and resourcefulness these last few days are to your credit.  But both your body and your mind still need to be honed so that you can survive no matter what Galactor throws at you.  And that will take time, but it will be worth it."

             The doctor's words made sense, but Joe still didn't like it.  He sulked, ignoring Nambu for the moment as he tried to figure out how long all this training was going to take.  He still had a promise to keep and he had no intention of having to wait forever before getting a chance to carry it out.

             Joe came out of his reverie as the sedan turned into a familiar parking lot.  He stared at the three storied building before them totally surprised.  It had never occurred to him to consider that Nambu would bring him back to the white prison.  "Do, do I have to stay here?"

             Nambu's expression looked puzzled for a moment but then cleared.  "Unfortunately, yes, at least for the time being.  It's the best place for the things you need to do.  I realize your stay here has had its problems, but I promise you that it will be better this time.  Now that we all know where we stand, we can make things more comfortable for everyone, especially for you."

             "By doing what?"

             "What would you like?"

             Joe stared at his lap giving the matter some serious thought.  "I want a bigger room, and a normal bed.  I want to be able to go wherever and whenever I please.  I want normal food.  I want exercise equipment.  I want my switchblade back.  I want a TV without restricted channels."  He stared Nambu in the eye.  "There might be other stuff too.  I'll let you know as I think of them."

             Nambu stared blankly at him for a moment and then burst out laughing.  It was an amused laugh and not a mocking one as Joe had half expected.  "Well, I guess I asked for that."  The sedan stopped before the hospital entrance and the two of them got out.

             "Most of what you want can be arranged.  Some, however, are either impractical or dangerous.  But I'm sure we'll be able to reach some sort of compromise, don't you?"





             The room and furniture Joe had demanded were made available to him almost immediately.  Most of the television channels were unlocked, though a couple Nambu had been most firm in denying him.  As well as acquiring for him a bed and exercise equipment, Nambu threw in a dresser, a study desk, a computer, and a printer.  Joe didn't mind the dresser or even the desk, though he knew what it implied, but was totally indifferent about the computer.  He'd heard of them, and that was about as far as his experience with computers went.

             Joe was promised an occasional sinful meal, but only if he earned them.  Nambu forced Angstead to give his approval to allow Joe to go anywhere in the building, especially the interior garden and the roof.  He was not, however, to ever leave the premises unescorted.  That was a point Nambu wouldn't budge on no matter how hard Joe pressed.  Joe was now to be required to

stick to a loose schedule of physical training and study.  Neal was to continue to monitor his physical progress as well as start him training on basic martial art techniques.  Nambu would be sending him books to study from and lesson plans to follow.  Rachel was to help him with these as well as

tutor him on how to use the computer.

             Though he'd argued over a number of these things until he'd almost driven Nambu ballistic, overall, Joe wasn't displeased with the results.  Some, he'd known as soon as he'd asked for them that he'd never be allowed to get away with, but that didn't change the fact that he'd be damned if he wasn't going to give them a hard time over them anyway.

             On that first day, Joe, once he'd let down his guard long enough to fall asleep, had remained unconscious for over a day.  Rachel and Neal babied him as he recouped from his ordeal even as Joe battled with Nambu about what he could and couldn't have.

             Once Nambu's schedule got under way, Joe looked eagerly to his sessions with Neal.  He pushed with all he had to toughen his body and make it as deadly as he could.  The studying sessions were another matter entirely...  A lot of the lessons made Joe feel like a fool when he didn't understand seemingly obvious things, or at least that's how they looked once Rachel had explained them to him.  Others just gave him a headache or bored him to tears.  He did come to find though that it seemed he had a knack for computers.  That and Rachel's endless patience for explanations were about the

only things that kept him from sending all his books down the toilet.         

            As the months passed, Joe took to spending more and more of his time out on the roof.  He would practice his moves there to near collapse, or just lie on a blanket and stare at the sky.  On particularly difficult days, when his patience over Nambu's continued excuses had worn thin, Joe would go there and vent his anger and frustration on imaginary enemies until he could bring them down to more manageable levels. 

             Each day Joe grew more restless than the last.  He tried to use the feeling to push himself harder and make himself absorb all of what Nambu wanted him to learn. 

             Jessica still visited him now and then, though her talks had taken a different turn from before.  He welcomed the distraction and her cooking.

             Angstead avoided him and that suited Joe just fine.  Most of the other people in the building paid him no mind, unless he got into something he shouldn't.  For the most part though, Joe ignored them more than they ignored him.

             Nambu would come by an check on him about once a week.  His manner was always solicitous and open.  Patiently, he would go over any of Joe's studies that he seemed to be having a particularly hard time grasping.  The few times that Joe totally lost his cool, the doctor had remained the pillar of calm in the storm.  It was something else Joe told himself he needed to aim for.





             It was a bright, pleasant afternoon and Joe was busy practicing his katas on the roof when Nambu showed up unexpectedly there looking for him.  Though Joe tried his best not to keep track of the weeks and months, he instinctively knew that Nambu was early.  He tried not to think about it as the doctor came closer.

             "Joe, how are you?"

             Joe shrugged.  "Okay."

             "I have news for you."

             "It's time?"  Joe was sure of the answer, but hadn't been able to help himself.  One look at Nambu's sad smile told him that he was right.

             "No, not yet.  But this is something that will bring you closer to that."

             Joe blinked.  "I don't understand."

             "You're leaving here.  It's time for your training to move on to the next phase."

             Joe nodded but said nothing.  He felt a spark of hope that he'd not felt for sometime.  "When do I leave?"

             "Whenever you're ready."

             "Okay.  Ten minutes tops!  Meet you at the lobby."  Joe ran past him leaving the startled Nambu behind.

             Finally, he was going to get out of this stinking place!  No more white walls, no more white uniforms!  No more doctors!  He ran faster.

             Joe skidded to a halt as he rushed into his room.  Rachel was there, already packing his clothes into a large suitcase.

             "Ah, Joe!"  She quickly turned her face away from him.  Had those been tears he'd seen in her eyes?  Joe's brow crinkled in confusion.  Surely she wasn't sad at seeing him go.  How could she be?  He wasn't.

             Rachel turned back around and smiled at him.  The gesture looked a little strained.  "There you are!  Dr. Nambu has been looking all over for you.  Did he find you?"

             Joe nodded not able to come up with anything to say.

             "I, I hope you don't mind that I started packing your things?"

             "No.  Thanks."  Joe fidgeted feeling suddenly uncomfortable.  It had never honestly occurred to him that any of them really cared.  Now that he knew, he was sure he was supposed to dosomething, he just wasn't sure what.

             Rachel smiled at him again and this time the gesture looked more natural.  "Why don't you get your things from the bathroom while I finish here, okay?"

             Joe nodded and headed there, glad to be doing something.  He didn't really have much there, just his toothbrush, a comb, and his fingernail clippers; still, he lingered there, staring at the white tile on the walls, not wanting to face the emotions waiting for him in the other room.

             After several minutes, Joe forced himself to go out.  He laid his things quietly on the bed and then turned his attentions to his desk.  Silently, he gathered his books and papers and gave them to Rachel.  She put them in the suitcase as well. 

             "Well, I guess that's everything..."  She closed the suitcase with an audible snap.  Joe stared at the floor, still unable to come up with anything to say.  She brought the suitcase over to him.  "Are you ready?"

             Joe started toward the door without a word.  His hand moved to reach for the door knob when he was suddenly hugged from behind.  He stood still as if frozen.

             "This is a great day for you, Joe.  I'm so very happy for you.  You've been such a brave boy.  I'll miss you terribly."  Joe felt something warm land on his shoulder.  He didn't know what to do.

             "Th -- thanks."  Rachel slowly let go of him.  "M -- me too."  He quickly opened the door and left.  Rachel didn't come after him.

             Joe felt terribly confused by the mixture of feelings going through him.  There was no reason for it!  He'd been waiting to leave this forsaken place since he'd first set eyes on it!  Why had Rachel gone and spoiled it all?

             "Hey, Sport, wait up!"  Joe stiffened recognizing Neal's voice.  No, not again!  "I heard you were finally leaving.  Congratulations!"  Neal slapped Joe lightly on the back.  Joe shrugged.

             "You did say good bye to Rachel, didn't you?  You're her favorite patient."

             "Yeah."  Joe's throat felt clogged.

             "Great!"  Neal's face widened with a pleased smile.  "Here, let me take that for you."  Neal reached for the suitcase.  Joe pulled it away.

             "I can handle it!"  Joe immediately regretted snapping at him.  The large man, despite everything, had always been nothing but kind to him.

             Neal didn't appear in the last bit offended.  "Well, stubborn to the end, eh Sport?"  He followed Joe to the elevator and went down with him to the lobby where they joined a waiting Nambu.

             "Neal, thanks for the great job."

             The large man actually blushed.  "Doctor, to be honest, I had very little to do with it.  Most of the credit belongs to Joe here."

             "Well, thank you anyway."  Nambu smiled at him before looking over at Joe.  "Is there anyone you'd like to say good bye to before we go?"

             Joe shook his head no.

             "Okay then -- "

             "Hold on a moment, sir."  Neal knelt down in front of Joe.  "Rachel and I had these taken a while back knowing that you'd be leaving us eventually.  We wanted you to have them to remember us by."  He pressed an envelope into Joe's hand.  "Think about us every once in a while, okay?  I know we will about you."

             Joe held on tightly to the envelope and nodded.  His lips were pressed into a thin line.  He could feel a headache coming on.

             Neal stood back up.  "Be happy, Sport."

             Joe only nodded again and silently followed Nambu out of the building.

             Nambu led him to a brown Ford sitting in the parking lot.  He had Joe put his suitcase in the back, but had him sit up in the front with him.

             Once they got under way, and after Joe made sure that Nambu wasn't looking, he carefully opened the envelope that Neal had given him.  Inside, he found a handful of pictures of Rachel and Neal.  Most looked like they'd been taken at the hospital's garden during work hours.  A couple actually had them smiling at him in regular clothes.  Joe stared at their smiling faces and felt -- nothing.  He put the pictures away.  That part of his life was over.

             He caught Nambu studying him  from the corner of his eye.  "You're being awfully quiet.  Aren't you even a little curious about where we're going?"

             Joe shrugged.  In truth, he didn't really care.  Anywhere was better than where he'd been.

             "We're going to Utoland.  The ISO's headquarters are located there.  I also have a rather large house there."  Joe stared out the window only half listening.  "I've had some work done on the basement and converted into a training area.  You and Ken should be able to progress in your training quite nicely there."

             The plural caught at Joe's attention.  He wasn't going to be the only one?  The muscle at his jaw twitched.  What did that mean?

             "Ken is about your age.  The two of you met a couple of years ago.  From what I gathered, that didn't turn out too well, but I'm sure that this time the two of you will get along much better."

             Met him before?  Joe wracked his brain for a memory of this supposed meeting but couldn't find anything.  If he'd been worth while, surely he would remember him.  He dismissed the topic as totally inconsequential.

             Before long, Joe spotted the airport's control tower in the distance.  He quickly reached down and felt for his passport.  He always had it on him.  Not once since he'd agreed to stay had he let it out of his sight.  If all else failed, it guaranteed him being able to get home.

             Nambu took the Ford to a rental car drop off and then had them take a shuttle to their terminal and had Joe's bag taken in.  Nambu checked the screens for their flight. 

             "Hm, we still have a couple of hours to go.  Why don't we get a bite to eat while we wait?"  Joe shrugged.  Nambu led him past a number of food places finally settling on one specializing on soups and sandwiches. 

             The two of them ate in silence.  Occasionally, Joe caught the doctor studying him from across the way.  He wasn't sure what to make of it.

             In due time, they were able to board their plane and take off.  Nambu rented them both a pair of headphones.  Joe was surprised at the gesture, but made no comment.  He messed around with each of the stations available, listening to the wide range of music until the in-flight movie came on.

             It was a black and white film, one Joe had never seen before.  It was an odd film called Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Love the Bomb.  Though a number of passengers laughed at the film in places, the few glances Joe risked in Nambu's direction showed that the doctor was looking even more serious than normal.  Did something about the film bother him?  Joe amused himself by pondering on that a while.

             Sometime during the flight, Joe fell asleep.  The jerking of the plane as it touched down brought him awake.  "Huh?"

             Nambu smiled at him.  "We're here.  We're in Utoland."

             As they got off the plane and followed the other passengers, Joe was finally able to verify that Nambu's statements about needing a passport were true.  After some uniformed men had inspected his luggage, they'd scrutinized his passport and then stamped it before giving it back to him.  Hopefully this meant that everything else the doctor had told him would prove true as well.

             When they got to the outside, it was raining, making the night seem even darker than usual.  Nambu hailed a cab for them and they hurried inside trying not to get too wet in the process.  Joe stared out the window as they moved off trying to get a look at the new city.  There was little to see

through the pouring rain.  Joe hoped that this wasn't one of those places where it rained all the time. 

             After about a half hour, the cab turned off the main street to a short drive before a large gate.  He pulled up to a hooded speaker set on the side of the drive.  The driver rolled his window down and called out to the speaker.  After a moment, the gate opened and the cab drove through.

             Joe peered past the speeding windshield wipers, but other than for being able to make out a large blob of darkness ahead of them, he could tell nothing about the house.  The cab moved slowly under a covered drive that curved about the house's main entrance.

             "Here you go."  Nambu quickly paid the driver.  "Come on, Joe."  They got out.

             Joe eyeballed what little he could now see of the outside of the house.  It was a multi-storied affair made of dark bricks with a red wood trim.  There was nothing white in sight.  That right there said a lot for the place.  As Nambu stepped up toward the front door, it opened before him.

             "Nambu Hakase, welcome home!"

             "Thank you, Ken.  It's good to see you too."  He walked on in, waving for Joe to follow.  Joe followed after him, scrutinizing the boy Nambu had mentioned before.

             Ken stood almost as tall as he did.  He had dark brown hair and large, clear blue eyes.  His face had a cutesy quality to it that made him look almost pretty.  It was the face of someone soft -- a mama's boy.  Great.

             Nambu closed the door behind them, cutting off the sound of falling rain.

             "Ken, this is Joe Asakura.  Joe, this is Ken Washio."

             "Hi!  Pleased to meet you!"  Ken extended his hand in greeting.  Joe blatantly looked away and in no way acknowledged the gesture.  Instead, he walked past the new boy and stared at what he could see of the house.  He missed Ken's troubled glance at Nambu and the latter's reassuring smile.

             "Hakase, the head office has been calling for you.  They asked that you please call them back as soon as possible."

             "Thank you, Ken."  Nambu frowned slightly and cleaned his glasses, deep in thought.  "Why don't you show Joe your room and then give him a quick tour?  I'll try not to be too long."

             "Sure, Hakase."  Ken turned to look at Joe.  "This way, Joe.  Our room's upstairs."

             Joe thought again of ignoring the new boy, but decided against it as he caught Nambu studying him.  It wouldn't do to get the doctor mad this early in the game.  But how he could even consider this wimp as one of those who would get to fight Galactor...?  Joe picked up his suitcase and followed

the energetic boy down a short hallway.

             The foyer led to a broad set of curved stairs.  Ken took them two steps at a time until he'd reached the second story though the set of stairs continued on up.  "Hakase's room is on the other side of the stairs.  Ours is over here."  He turned to the right and followed a number of short hallways until he reached one with a door at the far end. 

             The room was large, and had two sets of everything.  Each side was almost a mirror image of the other.  Each had a captain's bed, a bureau, and a study desk.  All of the furnishings were made of a thick dark wood.  A large window split the wall on the back, staring out somewhere onto the area in the back of the house.

             Joe set his suitcase on the dark green carpeting and looked around.  From the lack of personal items on the right hand side, it was easy to tell which bed was his.

             "Come on, let me show you the rest of the house."  Joe humphed and followed Ken out.

             "Hakase has an office up on the third floor.  It's off limits unless he tell us otherwise."  He pointed up the stairs.  "This floor has eight guest rooms as well as our room and Hakase's."  He opened a few of the doors so that Joe could peek inside.  From the number of corridors Joe had glimpsed already, he figured that the place was huge.

             "How long have you been here?"

             Ken stopped at the stairs and looked back up at him.  "Only a couple of weeks.  I was at the Torayama Orphanage before that.  Why?"

             Joe shrugged and moved past him.  Ken hurried to catch up.

             "This is the main hall.  That passage there to the left leads to the living room that Hakase uses for his important guests."  They started off in that direction.  "Here's the dining room, but I've never eaten there.  Most of the time we eat in the kitchen."  He moved on.

             Ken showed Joe the kitchen, the study, the TV room, the pool room, and the den.  He also showed him the French doors that led out into an extended patio and a garden beyond.  Due to the rain, Joe couldn't see much of either.

             "I thought there were supposed to be places to train in here."

             Ken flinched at Joe's condescending tone.  "I, I was just about to get to that.  Come this way."

             Off from the kitchen, Ken led Joe to a hidden set of stairs.  "All that's down here.  There's two ways down, these stairs and a small elevator in the laundry room."  He started down.  Joe followed.

             What Ken showed him there were three underground levels with just about every kind of training room anyone would ever desire.  The bottom most level held an olympic sized pool and a jacuzzi.  The other two levels held a target range, a full exercise equipment room, a number of matted rooms, jogging tracks, and more.  Joe was quite impressed.  "I guess it'll do."

             Ken stared at him not sure if the other boy was joking.

             Joe locked eyes with him.  "So, why are you here?"

             The obvious antagonism in the question caught Ken off guard.  "To train, same as you.  If I prove worthy, I'm to be the leader of Hakase's scientific ninja team."

             The leader?  Him?  Joe sniffed loudly and then turned back toward the stairs, leaving a baffled Ken behind.  The Japanese boy caught up to him as Joe made his way toward their room.

             "Look, Joe, I know we haven't known each other long, but just give us a chance, okay?  After all, we're both working toward the same things, right?"

             Joe ignored him and went on into the room.  He picked up his suitcase from where he'd left it on the floor and set it on the bed.  With as many rooms as the doctor had in this house, why had he put the two of them together?  It was stupid.  He should have had his own room, then he could have shut the other boy out.  He wouldn't have minded sharing a room with Alan, but with this boot licking mama's boy?  He clicked open the suitcase.

             "Want some help unpacking your stuff?"

             Joe didn't answer the question and started unpacking.

             "You shouldn't get mad just because someone offers to help you.  Nambu Hakase says that you're at one hundred percent, so you shouldn't worry about people thinking you can't do stuff anymore."

             "Who said I was worried?"  Joe stuffed his socks in the top drawer of his bureau.

             Ken frowned, biting his lip before deciding to try a different tack.  "We've met once before, you know.  When you were still hurt.  Hakase told me that it'd happened to you when you were trying to stop the person that killed your parents."

             "Yeah, what about it?"  Joe stiffened.

             "I was just -- I'd just thought..."  Ken stared at the floor.  "I just wanted you to know that I know how, how that feels, that's all.  My, my father disappeared a long time ago during an experimental plane accident.  I just wanted you to know that I understood."

             Understood?  The fool thought he understood?  What did his father disappearing have to do with watching your parents get murdered before your eyes?  The idiot had no idea about anything!

             Joe turned around and gave Ken a cold smile.  "You don't understand dick, mama's boy.  Or should I say glorious mama's boy leader!" 

             Ken's eyes grew wide at Joe's scathing words but they quickly narrowed with anger.  His face flushed.  "I'm not a mama's boy!"

             Joe's cold smile grew.  "Yeah, right.  I take it then that some people just figure that you're a mama's girl, right?  Do you wear dresses too?  Bet you just look so cute!"

             Ken's hands bunched into fists at his sides.  His whole body shook with barely repressed fury.  "Take that back!  Take that back now!"

             Joe's smile disappeared.  His eyes were hard.  "Make me."

             Ken leapt at him.  Expecting it, Joe tried to dodge.  He wasn't fast enough.  The two fell in a tangle on the floor.  They rolled around punching and kicking at each other each giving as good as they got.

             Despite the fury of Ken's attack, Joe found that he was actually enjoying himself.  He'd teach the little upstart to mind his own business.  He'd show the little mama's boy his proper place in things.

             "WHAT'S GOING ON HERE!"

             Joe felt Ken abruptly pull away, his eyes clearing.  The boy leapt to his feet, head bowed, his eyes glued to the floor.  Joe took his sweet time rising to his feet.  Nambu glowered at the two of them, his anger open for both of them to see.  "Ken, what is the meaning of this?"

             The boy shrunk in on himself.  His face was brightly colored in shame.  "I'm, I'm sorry, Hakase.  It's all my fault."

             Joe glanced at Ken in surprise.  It wasn't that he didn't believe that it was Ken's fault, but was surprised that he'd admit it.

             "Who threw the first punch?"

             "I did, Hakase."  Ken's voice was very small.

             Nambu glanced at Joe when Ken answered, almost as if he suspected that Ken was lying for him.  "Why did you do it?"

             "I --,"  Ken hesitated, "I was jealous of having to share the room.  I took it out on Joe."

             Joe saw Nambu's brow rise.  He was sure that the doctor didn't believe Ken's answer but at the same time did nothing to press him.  "Ken, I expected better from you.  You know the reason why things have been arranged this way."

             Ken's head hung even lower than before.  "I'm very sorry, Hakase.  I promise it won't happen again."

             "I'll hold you to that."  The doctor's gaze turned to Joe.  "I don't wish to have to discipline either of you, but if you're not able to get along with one another, you'll leave me no choice.  I don't have time to take care of children.  What we're doing here is too important."

             Joe glared at the floor, not missing Nambu's implied threat.  He didn't like it, he didn't like it at all.

             "Come, Mrs. Pham left a note saying that she'd left dinner in the oven for us.  We'll eat and then turn in for the night.  Everyone's had a long day and tempers are bound to be short.  We'll start over again in the morning.  There's much to do."

             Ken nodded and instantly moved to obey, his eyes still glued to the floor.  Joe followed more slowly.

             Dinner was a little strained, but Joe didn't care.  Nambu said little, Ken even less.  Joe said nothing at all.  He didn't miss the fact, however, that throughout their meal Ken kept his eyes set on his plate and when he spoke he did so in very low tones.  It seemed stupid to him that the mama's boy should take such a minor scolding so hard.  It only helped cement all he'd figured out about him before.

             "Joe, I noticed that you'd yet to finish unpacking.  Why don't you go do that now while Ken and I clean things up here?"

             Joe shrugged and got up to leave.  He caught Ken looking up in his direction, but the moment their eyes made contact Ken turned away.  Joe dismissed him from his mind and went up to their room.

             After putting away his clothes and putting up a couple of his posters on the walls, Joe flopped onto the mattress of his bed to check it out.  Not too soft, not too hard; he supposed it would do.  He stared up at the ceiling pleased that the patterns in the plaster above didn't look familiar.  He was out, really out.  He'd rather die than ever go back there again...  except....

             Joe looked up and over and spotted the envelope with Neal's and Rachel's' pictures inside.  Reaching over for them, he slipped the envelope beneath the mattress of his bed.

             Not too long after that, Ken returned to their room.  Joe paid no attention to him from where he lay, even as the other boy took out a pair of pajamas from his bureau and changed.  As soon as he was ready, Ken pulled back the covers on his bed and then turned out the light before crawling in.

             Joe glared at the other boy in the ensuing darkness, aware that the other boy had known that he himself wasn't ready for bed yet.  Roughly, Joe got up off the bed and smacked the lights back on.  He glanced over at Ken's bed only to find that the other boy had turned his back to him and in no way seemed to acknowledge that the light had been turned back on.  Joe itched to go over there and yank the smug little bastard to the floor.  He forced himself to resist the urge, sure that he'd already been in more than enough trouble for one day.  He had to be careful and he knew it.  Nambu held the key to everything he wanted and this creep wasn't worth throwing it all away.

             Joe undressed and changed.  He turned out the light and got in bed turning his back against the other side of the room and the person resting there.  After a while, he was able to drift off to sleep.






             He was at the beach.  The sun was only now starting to peek over the horizon turning the sea into the color of blood.  Joe jumped back, away from an incoming wave as it claimed the sand around him for itself.  The beach was the color of pale flesh.  He soon realized that he was the only living

thing on it.

             The place looked familiar, but for some reason Joe still couldn't figure out where he was.  He glanced around, trying to find some clue that would give him the answer, when a soft breeze carried over the sound of familiar voices to him.


             Joe turned around and looked behind him, memories splashing over him like a cold wave.  He knew where he was!  He knew what was about to happen!        No!  Not again!

             Joe ran.

             The sky turned a putrid brown.  The sand beneath his feet turned black.  Joe ignored these things and kept on running.  MamaPapa!

             Holes looking like bloated sores popped open before him.  Joe dodged the dark festering openings and kept moving toward his goal.  He thought he'd made it past them when one suddenly opened directly beneath his feet.  He fell.

             Joe came to a stop with a splash.  Spitting salty water, he rose to his feet and looked about him desperate to find a way out as the insistent feeling washed over him that he was running out of time.

             Cold laughter suddenly filled the air around him.  Joe froze, fear welling within him at the sound.  He stumbled backward trying to get away from it and tripped.

             A bright flash of light blinded him even as the laughter came closer.  Blinking, Joe looked down to see what had made him trip and realized that he was hip deep in a pool of blood.  He struggled to get up out of it, when his eyes locked onto something on the wall.  The bodies of his mother and

father hung there, blood welling from their mouths and filling the area where he stood.  It poured and poured from them as if it would never end.  Even as the blood rose ever higher around him, the strong rotting smell of it made him gag.

             He'd been too late -- again.

             The blood continued to rise, clinging to him.  Soon it would be up over his head and claim his life as well. 






             Joe sat up with a jolt into unfamiliar darkness.  A scream lodged itself in his throat as he felt the warmth of his parents' blood still clinging to his body.  Something touched him.  Joe lashed out with all his might not thinking about where he was or what he was doing.  His fists connected with something soft.  A thud reverberated up from the floor not too far from him.

             The echoing sounds of pained breathing slowly brought Joe back to his senses.  He wasn't in a pit, he was in a room, on a bed -- he was at Nambu's house.  He'd been having a nightmare...  They'd come to haunt him even here.  Then what -- ?

             Something moved on the floor and let out a soft hiss.  Joe stared at it as it rose, realizing as it came within the shaft of moonlight coming from the window that it was Ken.  He suddenly realized what had happened.  "What the hell were you doing?"

             Ken said nothing as he shuffled over to his own bed and got in.  Joe huffed in his general direction, not really caring, and laid back down with his back to him.  Served the fool right for not minding his own business.  Who'd asked him to butt in anyway?

             Joe shivered in his covers, hearing the echo of cold laughter in his mind.  It took him a long time to go back to sleep.
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