"Joe-aniki! Joe-aniki! Wake up! You've got to help him!"
Joe felt himself being roughly shaken, but it took him several moments to even care. The tone of urgency in the young familiar voice made a small part of him panic. It began poking at his lethargy and worked at bringing him awake.
"Nee-chan! Dr. Braun!" The door to the room smashed against the wall, violently thrown open. Joe groaned as the sound reverberated in his skull.
"Ughn." He leaned forward, his whole body stiff. His head pounded in displeasure even as several muscles ached in response to the uncomfortable position he fell asleep in last night. Joe gingerly propped his elbows on his knees and held his pounding head in his hands.
"Joe...?" The call sounded distant.
"Man, do I have a mother of a headache."
"Are -- you all -- right? Did, did -- she -- hurt -- you?" Ken's voice was barely above a whisper. His tone seemed guarded.
Joe massaged his aching temples. "Must have slept with my neck wrong. Shit. What was Jinpei all excited about anyway? Talk about a rough awakening... And what do you mean did she -" He froze as he looked up for the first time. "Christ!" He leapt to his feet.
"Joe, what's - wrong?" Ken sat up in bed looking horribly drawn and pale. Dark stains of blood covered his pillow and the side of his bed.
"He's dead or dying! He's -" Jinpei skidded to a halt as he ran into the room and saw Ken sitting up in bed. Jun, Ryu, and Braun ran in behind him.
"Ken, oh my God!" The four of them rushed to the bed. "Are you hurt?" "What happened?" "Where did all the blood come from?"
Ken stared at them in confusion until he followed their gaze and saw what they were talking about. Joe could tell a cold shiver cut through him at the sight. He wasn't feeling that good about it himself.
"Ken, please lie down. How do you feel?" Braun's worried countenance hovered over him even as he pushed Ken gently, but insistently, down.
"I -- it's not -- mine." They all exchanged startled glances. "The blood -- it's not -- mine." Ken sounded surprised at his own admission.
"Who, who's is it then?" Braun stared at him strangely.
"It's... Tiana's!" Ken looked both startled and pleased he was able to tell them this.
"Nobody was here last night." Joe knew his tone was harsh, but he would have known if someone had been there.
Ken seemed momentarily confused by this and absently moved his dark hair away from his face. Jinpei edged forward. "Joe aniki, you and the guards weren't awake when I came in... And it was real hard to wake you..." He made sure not to be within Joe's immediate reach as he contradicted him.
"It's not just because of me and the guards, Jinpei. She would have had to find Crescent Coral and then infiltrate it. That's not possible."
"Joe, she was here." Ken's voice sounded a little stronger.
"It's not possible!" Joe's flashed with anger.
His friend glanced away looking lost. Braun quickly checked him for any open wounds. He didn't find any.
"Ken, if she was here, what did she do? Why would her blood be on your bed?" Jun's questions were barely audible. Her face was pale and her lower lip was trembling.
Ken's lost look deepened as he tried to answer her. "Tiana, she... she cut her wrist so that I... so that I might drink her blood..." They all stared at him disbelievingly. "She -- she has a disease and had already infected me with it. She said she had been accelerating it? She told me the process would be completed last night."
"What -- what kind of disease?" Tears glistened in Jun's eyes. Braun moved to take Ken's pulse.
"I... I don't know." Ken's eyes darkened for a moment. "I think, I think she once called it an organic, communicable disease." He shook his head. "She never explained it." He was remembering things, more with every passing second -- but why was so much of it foggy? There was something important about last night he had to remember, but what was it?
"Ken, please lie still." He looked up into Braun's face and saw fear mixed puzzlement lingering there. Braun held onto his cold wrist, his puzzlement deepening. Ken was going to ask him what was wrong, but found himself distracted by the loud beating of Braun's heart. Even as he questioned how he could hear it, he heard it speed up with anxiety. The warmth radiating from Braun's hand onto his wrist was suddenly intense. Ken stared at him in wonder as he thought he could almost feel the doctor's blood as it flowed in the arteries and capillaries of his fingertips. He almost gasped when this same enthralling heat touched him on the neck.
His neck... Tiara... Ken found himself staring at Braun's own neck, distinctly aware of where his main artery swelled with the pumping of oxygen rich blood. A deep thirst woke inside him. Ken licked his lips as his eyes continued to concentrate on Braun's exposed neck. An excited shiver coursed through him as he saw and heard Braun's pulse continue to speed up alarmingly.
The doctor suddenly pulled his hands from him and stepped away from the bed. Ken reached out to stop him, but held back as he found no reason on why he should want to do so.
"Ah, um, would one of you please ask Dr. Nambu to come over?" Braun's normally jolly face was low on color.
"What's wrong, doctor?" Jun moved closer to him.
"I'd rather not speculate at the moment. Just please go get Dr. Nambu. Quickly."
Ken stared again at Braun's neck, the conversation going on around him lost to his ears. He never honestly noticed how much life seemed to pour through such a forgettable part of the body. And it was such a delicate part at that. Why did he never notice it before?
"We'll get him for you, Dr. Braun. It'll only take a minute." Jun threw Ken a deeply worried look before heading for the door. "Come on, Jinpei." They both took off down the hall. The security guards stared after them.
Joe leaned against the wall fuming silently on the seeming possibility Tiana had somehow penetrated the facility. Could she have been in here? It was a ludicrous idea. And what about all the other fantastical things Ken had said? Wasn't all of it impossible? But if she hadn't been here... what did that say about Ken?
He glanced over at his commander and friend. A deep frown creased his forehead as he noticed the intent way Ken was staring at Braun. There was something creepy, almost primal about it. It set his teeth on edge. "Ken?"
Joe got no response. Was something wrong? How could he sit so still? "Ken."
"Huh?" Sky blue eyes turned questioningly in his direction.
"Are you okay? Why are you ogling at Braun like that?"
Braun stepped even further away from the bed and stared at both of them.
"Was I?" Ken looked around and for the first time noticed that both Jinpei and Jun were gone. There were definitely two less heartbeats than there were before. Two less heartbeats? He'd heard that? Was that possible? He shook his head, not liking the questions, but mostly he didn't like the lack of answers. His thirst kept nagging at him. "Could I have something to drink?"
"I, I would prefer for you to wait, Mr. Washio." Mr. Washio? Braun never referred to any of them by their last names. "The tests weren't too conclusive on why you weren't able to keep your dinner down. It - it might not be safe for you to drink anything right now." Braun looked toward him but wouldn't meet his eyes. With a clarity that was uncanny, Ken could see beads of perspiration as they formed slowly on Braun's brow.
"You don't look so good, doctor."
"It's nothing, Mr. Washio, nothing at all. I think I'll wait out in the hall for Dr. Nambu." Without another word, the plump man hurried from the room.
Joe stared after Braun wondering what had him so uptight. He glanced back at Ken and found him sitting upright staring in the direction Braun had gone. He thought Ken looked a little paler than he had a moment ago. "Ken, how do you feel?"
He appeared distracted. "A little slow. I'm thirsty though and... cold. I, I don't know what to expect... I don't think she ever told me..."
"You keep insisting Tiana was here. How did she do it? Did you tell her about Crescent Coral?"
A flash of anger momentarily lit Ken's eyes. Joe now had his full attention. "No, I didn't tell her anything. I don't think she ever even asked. I don't have the faintest idea how she got here." He grew more and more flustered. "I don't know why she's doing this. I don't even know how she knew I was Gatchaman!" Ken's eyes grew wide as he spoke, almost as if he hadn't known these things until he said them.
"She knows? Does she know about the rest of us too?"
"I - I don't know! She... she never said." Ken's eyes looked wild.
Joe stared hard at him. "Why is it that you can suddenly talk about her? You couldn't do it before."
He shook his head. "I don't know. I'm not even sure how she stopped me in the first place."
Ryu quietly studied his two teammates, having been forgotten by them as they bantered back and forth, their frustrations building. If left unchecked, it was liable to end in some kind of explosion. He was trying to come up with some way to divert it, when fate intervened and did it for him. Ken gasped and leaned forward, his whole body shaking.
Joe and Ryu rushed to his side. Joe reached out for him and was surprised to find his skin was cold to the touch -- too cold. "God, you're freezing! Ryu, see if you can find some more blankets!"
Ryu nodded and headed straight for the room's small closet.
"Ken, what's wrong?" Joe held onto him as Ken moaned in pain.
"It's... it's burning. My throat is burning. I've never been so thirsty in my life. It hurts!" Joe's heart beat in Ken's ears. The warmth of his arms poured into him. It meant nothing to him though, his full attention taken by his burning pain.
"Just hold on, I'll get you some water. Braun's precautions be dammed!" Joe released him and ran to the bathroom where he grabbed a wrapped cup and quickly filled it with water. He placed the cup in Ken's hands even as Ryu put a thick blanket around his shoulders.
Ken eagerly brought the cup to his lips. He took a large swallow and then gagged. Joe smacked him on the back as he choked. It felt as if he were slapping stone.
"I can't drink this." Ken pushed the cup back at Joe.
"It's only water."
"I'm telling you, I can't!" Ken groaned again his thirst screaming at him as if it had a life of its own. Joe's heartbeat filled his ears, ringing inside them like a locomotive. He could clearly smell Joe's worn off after-shave. Worse, he was sure he could almost smell his flowing blood. He felt dizzy. What did Tiana do to him?
"Are you feeling warmer yet, Ken?" Ryu was busy rubbing the blanket against his arms and back, his face set with a concerned expression.
"Nambu's coming." Ken's voice was tinged with both hope and fear.
"Wha - ?" Both Ryu and Joe turned toward the door but it was still closed. Ken's body stopped shaking and he became very still. His head tilted at a slight angle as if he were listening to something they couldn't hear.
"Braun's telling him he found out that I didn't have a -" Ken's face went ashen. "He's mad! That's not possible."
"What's not possible? Ken, what did you hear?"
The door opened. Nambu appeared pensive as he led a dazed Jun inside. Braun fidgeted behind them followed by a wide-eyed Jinpei.
"Hakase, Dr. Braun can't be right! It's just not possible!"
Nambu looked up at Ken, surprised by the outburst. His face turned blank almost immediately. "That's why he called for me, Ken. We'll find out what's going on soon enough."
"Would somebody care to explain to me what the hell is going on?" Joe glanced at Ken but the latter wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Ken, I want to hook you up to the machines and see what they have to say before we jump to any further conclusions."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Nambu, I should have thought of that myself before I disturbed you. Please, let me take care of it." Braun pushed past him his cheeks flushed.
Ken closed his eyes and laid back down feeling totally overwhelmed by what he'd heard outside the room. His teeth ached, his throat burned. The sounds of a set of moving lungs and a beating heart moved over him. His thirst cried out though Ken could find no reason for it. This just couldn't be happening!
Braun quickly checked the equipment on the left side of the room. Ken opened his eyes as he heard them come on. He found his gaze drawn toward Braun's wide neck again as he picked up the sensors to put on Ken's chest.
His gaze blurred as Braun turned toward him. His thirst ran rampant demanding release though he had no idea how to try and satisfy it.
Braun gently moved Ken's covers to expose his chest. He took one of the sensor pads and placed it close to Ken's heart. One of his fingertips grazed the pale skin. Ken gasped. The touch ran through him like a bolt driving his thirst toward frenzy.
"Mr. Washio, did I hurt you?" The words barely left Braun's lips before the doctor suddenly found himself grabbed and roughly flipped onto the bed. He screamed.
As Ken effortlessly flipped the doctor over, he sat up and opened his mouth with a soft hiss. His top two canines extended past his lip. His blue eyes turned dark and showed him an aura surrounding Braun he had never seen before.
Ken only minimally registered these things, for his thirst had taken control. It knew what needed to be done. It would take care of everything. Ken lowered his mouth toward Braun's pulsating throat.
He hesitated, his new teeth millimeters from Braun's soft flesh. His mind pushed the thirst back abruptly, panicked by the horror he just heard in his friends' voices. He glanced up at them, never once thinking of releasing the doctor.
Bright auras surrounded all of them. Their shocked and horrified expressions imprinted themselves in his mind with cruel detail. Why were they looking at him that way?
"Let go of the doctor, Ken. Braun won't hurt you."
Ken stared at Nambu in confusion until he followed his gaze to the vainly struggling, whimpering man in his arms. Again his eyes were drawn to Braun's thumping artery. His thirst whispered to him what it was he ought to do.
"Oh my God!" Ken pushed Braun roughly away from him, repulsed and strangely excited by what he'd been about to do. Braun hit the floor and scurried away from him.
"He's a vampire! Aniki's a vampire!"
"Jinpei, no!" Jun held onto her brother as he jumped up and down, her fear and confusion clashing against his obvious excitement.
Ken hid his face in his hands and moaned. Joe took a step toward him but Ken waved him back. "Please, you've got to get out of here. I don't know if I can hold back for long. Please!"
"Ken, we can't help you if we don't find out -"
"It would be best if you did as he asks. He's very dangerous to those around him right now. He's not totally in control of his actions." All but Ken turned to look at the woman now framed in the room's open doorway.
"You! What have you done to him?" Joe leapt forward violence written in every line of his body.
Tiana slipped out of the way in the blink of an eye. Joe stumbled out of the room not finding his target. He turned around to try again until she glanced back at him, her eyes turning from green to black, elongated canines showing past her lips. As he hesitated, she turned away from him.
"You need to leave," she insisted. "You're quickly running out of time. Ken has a great will, but he's not used to fighting against his Thirst. If you stay much longer, he won't be able to hold it back. It is likely that at least one of you would then die." Tiana moved out of the doorway and pointed the way out. "Please, I can help him with this. But you must leave now."
"Do as she says." Nambu stood stiffly as he stared at the young red haired woman in the black body suit.
"But, Hakase -" Ryu's eyes were wide swinging from Ken's curled up form to Tiana and back again.
"Do it! All of you! This is not the time or place to discuss this. Out of the room!" Nambu herded them out. Jun hesitated but he didn't relent. Braun ran out into the hall. Tiana met Nambu at the door.
"Thank you, Dr. Nambu. If you could, however, would you mind bringing over several pints of blood? The type is not important, but if you could, please have them heated to room temperature. I hate my blood cold." She smiled at him and started to close the door.
"Rastov... You're Dr. Tiana Rastov, the disease specialist..."
A look of astonishment momentarily flickered across her face. "I'm surprised that you know of me, doctor."
"I studied about you in college. Your face, for a scientists', tends to stand out and is not easily forgotten." Tiana smiled at the compliment. The smile was quite warm. "You're supposed to be dead."
Her smile grew brighter. "I would hope so. I worked awfully hard to make it seem that way." She closed the door on his face.
"The guards are unconscious but otherwise seem okay." Braun's voice shook slightly as he inspected the two men slumped on either side of Ken's door.
"What are we doing out here? That woman is responsible for what's happened to Ken! How can you justify leaving him in there alone with her?" Joe's face was livid. His hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides.
Nambu gave him his full attention. "Would you have preferred I allow Ken to pass on his disease to the rest of you?" His stare was hard. "She's cut past all our security at least once before. What would it gain her to do now that she's not had ample opportunity to do before?" His tone was unreadable.
"Hakase, what are we going to do?"
"Do, Jun? Nothing, other than get Dr. Rastov the items she's requested." He turned to look at Braun. "Please have six pints of blood brought over immediately."
"Yes, sir." Braun hurried off, eager for the excuse to get away.
"Wha - what could she want with all that bl, blood?" Ryu's voice shook.
Nambu's expression softened. Before he could try and reply, however, Jinpei spoke out. Wonder tinged his words. "They're going to drink it, Ryu. They're vampires, both of them! That woman has turned aniki into an undead."
Tiana sighed softly as she easily overheard the conversation going on just outside the door. This blunder was totally her fault. She'd been incredibly foolish. She should have anticipated the possibility that Ken's Thirst would set in so soon. She should have taken him with her. But she hadn't and now she'd been forced to show her hand to avert a terrible disaster. She wondered for a moment just how the levelheaded Nambu was apt to deal with it. Perhaps this was just as well. It might actually help ease Ken's transition -- that is once she rectified the current emergency.
Her child didn't answer her call. His face lay hidden behind drawn up knees. He didn't move. Tiana sighed again understanding only too well the fight that raged inside him.
Without a sound, she crossed the room to where he sat. Hesitantly, she reached out to touch him. "Ken."
Faster than would have been visible to the normal human eye, he jerked away from her touch and leapt off the bed. He stared at her from its other side, fear mixed anger flashing in his clear blue eyes. "Stay away from me!"
"I've only come to help you."
"Help me? LIAR! You've destroyed me! I almost killed an innocent man today because of you!" Ken made a dash for the room's door but Tiana smoothly cut him off.
"There was a reason for that, but it's only one of the many things I need to make you aware of. I want to make your transition as easy as possible. Please, come sit here so we can start." Tiana's voice turned incredibly compelling, her soft, seductive voice ringing in his mind.
Ken waved the feeling away. "You won't use that on me anymore. You've already manipulated me more than I can bear. I know what to look for now. I won't let you do it to me again! His eyes turned dark even as a growl escaped his lips. His fingernails and toenails extended out to sharp points as he leapt for her.
Tiana's youthful face was cold as she swatted him away like a bothersome fly. His body flew across the room and smashed into the wall. The plaster crumbled around him, the metal supports bowed by the force of the blow. Ken fell to the floor.
"Control yourself! Your Thirst is overcoming your better judgment. I want to help you appease it... but you have to let me."
Ken shook his head, picking himself up from the floor. He was dazed, but otherwise unhurt. A low growl issued from deep in his throat as he looked up at her. It was obvious he hadn't listened to a thing she said.
Tiana's eyes suddenly softened, a sad smile growing on her face. "Ken, come eat." She brought up her wrist and with one swift cut opened the artery there.
His dark eyes grew wide as the heavy smell flooded the room and the red, life carrying liquid splashed onto the floor. Ken's eyes abruptly cleared. He shook his head violently from side to side and backed up against the wall. "No." His voice was small.
"Yes." Tiana held her arm out toward him and drew closer.
Ken turned away to shut out the sight of the blood, but she knew he couldn't shut out the sweet heavy smell that would already be filling his nostrils. She knew he would lose--there was no denying it. The blood called to his Thirst and it would make the pain inside him unbearable.
He tried to escape again but she beat him once more to the door. She thrust her bleeding wrist into his face. Ken's eyes turned black as he tried to pull away, but she pinned him to the wall and pressed her cut wrist onto his lips. She watched with a smile as he a starving cry and lost all control as life's blood slipped into his mouth. She didn't flinch as he grabbed with desperation onto her arm and began sucking the vibrant, sweet substance offered she'd offered him.
"How long is she going to stay in there?" Joe was pacing back and forth before Ken's closed door. His anger and frustration were plain for all to see. No one dared get in his way. "She could have killed him by now!" He glared death at Nambu.
"Aniki, she wouldn't have turned him into a vampire if all she wanted to do was kill him." Jinpei stood close to his sister, his angular face serious.
"Jinpei, don't -" Jun's warning came too late.
"That's crap, you hear me? Vampires don't exist! Ken is not an undead!" Joe stopped in front of the team's youngest member daring him to contradict him.
"But, but what, what about what we saw...?" Ryu didn't look at him, his foot busily trying to dig a hole in the carpeting.
Joe raised a fist at him. "I don't care about that. It doesn't prove a damn thing!"
"Enough." Nambu stepped between them. "This isn't easy on any of us. Nevertheless, we must wait for Dr. Rastov to finish what she's doing before we can run our own tests to determine what is going on."
"Oh?" Joe turned on Nambu. "And how do you know her name is Dr. Rastov, by the way? Is this some kind of ISO experiment you decided it'd be in our best interest not to tell us about?" His voice was filled with barely disguised vehemence.
A spark of anger flashed in Nambu's eyes. "I recognized Dr. Rastov from an old medical book. She was a pioneer on disease research back in the forties. She was reported to have died after returning to work from a long illness. I believe there was some sort of gas leak that ignited and took out her building late one evening."
"But, Hakase, that would make her over sixty years old," Jun pointed out, her voice full of uncertainty. "The woman in there isn't over twenty-five. How could they be the same person?"
"Nee-chan, I keep telling you -- she's a vampire! Vampires don't grow old. They -"
Nambu, Joe, Jinpei, Jun, and Ryu turned simultaneously toward Ken's door even as his scream still echoed in their ears.
"I've had enough of this!" Joe rushed to the door before anyone could move to stop him. He kicked it open and ran in.
Joe found Ken not far inside, his back to him. His body was shaking violently. There was a large indentation on the far wall of the room. Drops of blood littered parts of the floor. The long legged Dr. Rastov was seated on the bed looking pale and wane. A lightly guarded look of concern covered her face.
Ken turned woodenly around as the rest of them poured into the room. His face was a mask of twisted agony with twin red streaks of tears flowing from his eyes.
"Ken," Jun reached out for him, "we want to -"
"No!" He swept through them pushing them to the side as if they weren't even there and escaped the confines of the room.
"Ken, wait!" Joe picked himself up from where he fell and ran out after his friend. There was no sign of him outside. "Come on! We've got to go after him."
The rest of the ninja team got up from where they were thrown and rushed out the door. Joe threw a hateful glare at Tiana before moving off after them.
Nambu moved up to the door, staring after them. Tiana spoke. "Doctor, I don't mean to sound insensitive, but could I have the blood I asked for now?"
He nodded and stepped out into the hallway. He dragged in a small cart with six plastic bags filled with blood. He slowly wheeled the cart over to her.
"Thank you so much." Tiana picked up one of the bags and then punctured it near the top. Grabbing Ken's water glass and dumping its contents onto the floor, she filled it with the waiting red liquid. She stared at it through the glass for a moment and then took a long sip. She closed her eyes in contentment. "I had forgotten what parts of it were like..." She took a longer sip. "Odd how horror and pain can dull with time..."
"What do you plan to do now?"
Tiana opened her eyes and glanced at Nambu. "Plan? I have no plan. Well, that's not totally true. I had a plan of sorts at one time, but as you might guess, it hasn't worked out as expected..." She drank the glass dry and then quickly refilled it. Nambu saw a touch of color slowly return to her cheeks. "If you're worried that I'll whisk Gatchaman away, don't be. It was never my intention to do such a thing."
"How did you -!"
Tiana smiled as Nambu brought himself up short. "Don't worry, doctor, he didn't tell me; and no, I didn't brainwash it out of him. As a matter of fact, I've know about the ninja team for some time now." She gave him a coy smile. "I found out about a Galactor attack and waited for the team to arrive. Once there, it was an easy matter to sneak aboard and let the God Phoenix bring me here. After that, I just followed them home."
Tiana sipped at her drink as Nambu fought to analyze and absorb all she just told him. He also worked to find the right words for another question. "Why have you infected Ken with your disease, Dr. Rastov?"
She sighed and leaned back against Ken's pillows to stare at the ceiling. Nambu felt an involuntary chill creep up his back as she sat unnaturally still for several seconds. It was obvious she wasn't breathing.
"The most altruistic reason, of course, is that by giving Ken my disease, as you've so aptly put it, I could give him the power to fight Galactor more efficiently and effectively than ever before. You see, I've made him faster, stronger, more deadly than ever. The threat of the White Shadow has never been more real."
She drank in silence for a long while before she added more. "Of course, as in most things, the altruistic reasons aren't always the only ones. The fact Ken can use the gifts I've given him for the greater good is but a bonus." She sat up, her green eyes locking with Nambu's.
"Deep down, doctor, I am a very selfish person. I've been one for as long as I can remember. It's a fact I've learned to live with, even accept. I doubt I'll ever change." She refilled her glass once more. "To be honest, I've been looking for Ken for many years -- or actually, the idea of him. I didn't make my choice lightly. On the first night I followed him home, I didn't even know it would be him." Her eyes stared into the distance. "Of them all, the Condor was my first choice. He has a great, powerful will -- the main attribute I was looking for. But after watching him for a while, I realized he was already fighting a war, a war with the very fires that drive him and at times threaten to consume him. There was no telling what contending with the Thirst would have done to him." Her gaze locked with Nambu's again.
"If the truth be told, I considered you as well. You also have many of the qualities I've been looking for, even more than I hoped to find, but your position makes you somewhat inaccessible. Your job puts you in contact with too many circles. You're watched by more people than I think you even realize. I would never have found the proper time to do what would have needed to be done." Nambu raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Tiana remained silent for several minutes.
"It was then that I turned my attentions to Ken... and he was perfect. He was young, yet disciplined, his will driven by duty and not anger or hatred. Eventually I decided I would infect him. For a long time I've wanted to try and make someone like myself and have them survive it. And now I've succeeded." She licked her lips before moving to open another pint of blood.
"Might I ask how you came to contract the disease yourself?"
Tiana looked at him long and hard, her green eyes unreadable. "Knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, Kozaburo Nambu." She looked down at her glass and made its contents swish gently back and forth. "I've already let you see and hear more than is prudent."
Nambu nodded in understanding. Tiana looked at him again, a soft smile growing on her face. "I got too close to my work, doctor, something we scientists seem to do on occasion." She emptied her glass. "I heeded none of the warnings, dismissed all the signs. ‘What does the occult have to do with science?' I told them. Well I came to find out at times it sometimes holds pieces to the truth."
She set her glass on the tray. "My life after my encounter was never to be the same. For me, unlike your pupil, the change brought on by the vampiric disease was long and tedious, one which I hoped to and succeeded in sparing him. After the process was complete, I researched it as far as I could until it became necessary for me to fake my own death and remove all traces of my experiments. And so I did. It was a magnificent explosion, if I do say so myself." She looked over to check on Nambu's reaction and was not surprised by the blank, clinical expression she found there.
"I will need to talk to him again. There are many things he will need to know. But be aware the influence and power you hold here can be of a great help to him right now. If you keep him supplied with these," Tiana raised a half emptied bag of blood, "he won't be a danger to those around him. You must get him to drink it. Until he has become more accustomed to the Thirst, he won't be able to control it very well or for very long. He might not be able to stop himself the next time like he did today with Dr. Braun." She rose to her feet missing Nambu's surprised look.
"You have the power and facilities to minimize the impact of his change on his life and your goals." She turned to glance at him. "If you extend and polarize Ken's visor, that and his uniform should prove enough protection from the sun. Also, his body will normally force him to rest during the day. He can be drawn from this. It will get easier for him to do so with time and practice. You will notice that his abilities will be slightly curved during the day, but not overtly so, and definitely not enough to interfere with the business of the Science Ninja Team." Tiana stared deeply into Nambu's brown eyes. "I know I can count on you to be quite discrete in this matter." Nambu blinked as Tiana lightly forced her will upon his, but that was all. "It would only drive him from you if what he has become were to be advertised. People have a nasty habit of always fearing that which they cannot understand..." She turned away from him and walked to the open doorway before turning to face him again.
"Though you've no reason to believe me, and I've no intention of forcing you, I'll tell you now the effects of my disease are irreversible. Ken and I no longer resemble humans as you know them. And once at this point, the only release is death. I was careful in my choice, but do not believe all are that methodical. Most of the time, it doesn't even happen. We are as imperfect as the rest of humanity and in realizing the gift we have received, we are very loath to share it."
Nambu took a step toward her but she waved him back. "Please take good care of him for me. Until we meet again." He body became a blur and then she was gone.
"Ken, answer your wristcom, dammit." Joe kicked at the metal wall in frustration. He and the others already searched most of Crescent Coral and had yet to find a trace of their teammate. No one had seen him. The monitors didn't pick him up. They were sure no transport subs left the area, so he still had to be in the facility. But where, dammit, where?
Joe leaned against the wall and kicked it again. He and Ken spent a large part of their youth here in this place. Its listing as an undersea lab and experimental habitat had hidden the training and construction that went on in secret inside it waiting for the day when Earth would need them. In their numerous unauthorized forays, the two of them got to know almost every inch of the place... which meant Ken could be hiding almost anywhere. He'd already checked the few places the two of them had ferreted where they could escape from the world without much of a possibility of being found -- places they went to to escape the pressures of their constant training. Eventually Nambu figured out everyone of them, so they were never able to stay away too long -- that is except for --"Yes!"
Joe pushed himself away from the wall, his eyes lit in triumph as he ran to his quarters. Quickly, he dug out an old beat up flashlight from beneath his bed and then ran to the nearest maintenance elevator. There was one place he didn't check, one the others didn't know about. One to which neither of them had gone to in years. He pushed the button on the elevator panel that would take him down to the maintenance floor closest to the sea floor.
Dim yellow lighting greeted him as he stepped out of the elevator. The heavy sound of working machinery pounded at him even as he was assaulted by the heavy scents of oil and grease. Huge machines dominated most of the floor space. The roar of moving gears was dulled only slightly by the howling winds that ran across the room from circular pipes. It wasn't a nice place, but it was private -- no one in their right mind came down here if they didn't have to.
Joe was the one to discover the place and had occasionally used it to hide when Nambu's rules got to be way too much for him. His friend had always come and rooted him out after letting him stew for a few hours. Ken used this particular retreat only once -- and it was over something the two had promised each other never again to talk about.
Joe pushed against the raging wind and moved to the room's far side. He jumped on top of the nearest pile of running machinery and leapt from the top of one to the other until he reached a large grilled vent. The howling wind worked against him as he struggled to pry it open. He pulled it just enough to get himself through and then let it clang shut behind him. Peering eagerly into the darkness of the tunnel ahead of him, he pulled out his flashlight and turned it on.
"Ken!" The wind tore the call from him, not letting it carry very far. He got no response.
Joe was forced to stoop slightly as he decided to move on down the vent. After several feet, the vent widened out enough for him to stand straight again. His flashlight warned him of a bend not too far ahead. As he came around it, the beam of light fell on his missing friend's back. Ken didn't react as he worked to get closer.
"Ken?" Joe moved around him as he got no response. Ken wasn't moving. His arms were wrapped about his drawn up knees, his face hidden where it rested on them. Drying blood stained the legs of his striped pajama pants.
"Ken?" Joe touched his arm and found it cold, too cold. Ken didn't react to his touch at all. It was then he noticed his friend wasn't moving at all. He didn't even seem to be breathing. An unexpected bolt of fear cut through Joe's heart. "Ken!"
He dropped his flashlight and grabbed his friend with both hands and shook him hard. Did she do it? Did the bitch kill him after all? "Ken!"
His body twitched. Joe shook him harder and yelled as loud as he could in his ear. "Ken, talk to me, damn you!"
Ken's head rose slowly and Joe let go of him. He stared at his eyes as they gradually blinked open and stared blankly at him. Ken blinked again as recognition finally flashed in his eyes. "J - o - e -" As the name left his lips, Ken's eyes widened with surprise. He jerked away, stumbling to his feet and moving out of reach.
"Ken, are you all right?"
His friend laughed at him. The sound held an edge of barely contained hysteria. "For -- a dead man -- I'm doing just - great!" Ken's smile was cold.
"You're not dead, you moron. It's not possible and you know it! Come back with me and we'll prove it once and for all." Joe couldn't keep a touch of impatience from staining his voice.
Ken turned away, away from the light of the fallen flashlight. "I - I can't. I'm - I'm not ready..."
"You're not ready? What crap is that?" Ken said nothing. "You're afraid of that woman, aren't you? I'll take care of her for you." Joe grinned maliciously as he patted the secret compartment housing his feather darts.
"No... It's not her. Tiana has no power over me now."
"Well, if it's not her, then what?" Joe's tone wasn't kind.
Ken stared at the wall. Even in this partial darkness he was having no problems seeing it. He ran his fingers lightly over it feeling the intricate texture as he never could before. "I'm... I'm afraid of myself." He forced his hand to leave the wall.
"Now that's stupid. Why the hell should you be afraid of yourself?"
Ken heard Joe move closer. He quickly made sure to stay well out of his reach. "I almost killed Braun, remember? I lost control." He felt his shoulders bunch with tension. "I didn't know what I was doing. It could happen again and next time I might not be able to stop myself before it's too late!"
"That damned woman has poisoned you somehow. You need to let Nambu get rid of it and with it will go everything else. You're always telling me to be patient. Well, now it's time for you to practice what you preach! Nambu will figure out something. He'll cure you."
"They won't find a cure! Don't you understand that? How could they ever cure this?" Ken turned around toward the light. His eyes went black and he opened his mouth to show Joe long canines that protruded past his lips. The nails in his fingers and toes turned to talons.
A chill made its way down Joe's back before he could stop it. Waves of unreasoning fear cut through him and screamed at him to run. Joe bit his tongue and fought not to move. This was his friend, dammit, not some monster! He forced his face to remain as unimpressed as possible. Ken was close to the edge. It didn't take a genius to figure that out, his every word spoke of it. He could easily tip him over if he wasn't careful. He'd been there often enough to know. "That's nothing. Okay, so you can do a few tricks now, big deal. You won't know if they can't help you unless you let them try."
"It's not that easy!" Joe almost cringed at the sudden high pitch in Ken's voice. "These aren't the only changes." His face twisted in misery. "I can hear things happening in other rooms. I can hear your heartbeat from here. I can smell your sweat, your fear. I can count every hair on your head from where I'm standing! I can't eat or drink anything anymore. Just the smell of food makes me sick. I don't even think I breathe anymore! And then there's this, this thirst inside me, a thirst that almost made me kill Braun! A thirst that will only be satisfied with blood." His voice cracked. "Jinpei is right. There's no point denying it. I'm a vampire, an undead. I'm now a danger to everyone and everything!" His whole body shook. "I can't, I can't afford to stay here and endanger the rest of you."
Joe blocked the way out of the tunnel feeling Ken might run. He was losing him. "No! You damn fool, you'd be playing right into her hands if you don't! Don't you realize that's exactly what she wants you to do? Here you'd have the whole might of the ISO helping you to get back to normal. What would you have out there? Nothing. Which would leave you ripe for whatever it is she did this to you for. It's only by staying with us that you have a chance!"
Ken's eyes slowly lightened until they returned to normal. His canines shrunk out of sight. He stared at Joe for a long moment and then sadly shook his head. "It's not that easy, Joe." He moved even farther away from the light. "I - I can't face the others. How can they ever begin to understand this? Even now, after all you've seen, you're still denying it. One day, you'll have no choice but to awaken to the truth. What will I do then? And then there's still the possibility I might try and hurt you."
"So that's it then? You're going to give up and let the bitch win?" It had to be now. "What about your job? What about being the leader of the Science Ninja Team, huh? Your job sucks and I don't want it! So who should we give it to, Jun? Do you really want to put that kind of pressure on her?" Ken wouldn't look at him. "Oh, but I forgot, since you insist you're not human, I guess you don't much care about us anymore, right?"
"Joe, that's not -"
"And what about all those promises you made to stop Galactor after your father died, huh? I suppose they don't mean much to you now either. Red Impulse sacrificed his life to save the world. You'd think his son, who's gone beyond death, would try to do as much." His tone grew bitter. "But no, Ken Washio is a coward. Your father would rather stake you out in the sun himself than watch you cowering here like this, afraid of your own shadow."
"SHUT UP!" Ken's shout exploded in the tunnel and echoed down it. Joe covered up his ears, grimacing in pain. "Damn you, you bastard! How dare you?" Ken appeared before Joe and grabbed his shirt by the collar. He'd jerked him up close before Joe even had a chance to blink. "You've no fucking idea of what I'm going through! What the hell do you want from me? What would you do if you found out you'd been turned into a blood sucking monster?"
Joe stared into Ken's darkened eyes not trying to break away. "I don't give a shit about any of that! Pity yourself all you like. All I'm looking for is your promise that you're not going to run out on us. Like I said before, I don't want your stinking job!"
Ken stared at him, his face filled with anger. Abruptly, he pushed Joe roughly away and turned his back on him.
Joe fell and skidded a few feet down the vent before he was able to bring himself to a stop and could rise unsteadily back to his feet. He tried hard not to think about the ease with which Ken just did this to him, and made his way back toward his friend. Ken was standing once more back in the shadows, his back to him. Joe could see he was shaking. His eyes clouded with the uncertainty he'd been trying so hard to hide. "Ken, you've got to stay. Haven't you told me millions of times that if I were in command my rashness would get us all killed? That is, if Nambu and I didn't kill each other first. And what about the others? I can't be you for them."
Ken shook his head at his friend's words but said nothing. All he could think about was how someone else had so recently used these very same arguments to make him become what he was now.
"Look, the ISO can help you. After everything we've done for them, hell, the whole planet, they'd better help you." A nasty grin momentarily flashed on Joe's face. "Besides, scientists don't do very well when faced with personalized terrorism."
Ken chuckled softly, but didn't turn around. "I wish I could feel as sure about all this as you do."
"You won't lose anything by trying. You will lose everything if you don't."
Ken leaned his arms and face against the wall, feeling the odd new texture touch his skin. Joe stared at him, keeping silent, waiting to see what his friend would do or say next.
Dare he believe it? Was there an actual chance the ISO could help him? And what about the danger to his friends? Tiana had told him she picked him because of his strong will... but would that be enough to deal with this thing that had awakened inside him...? Should he take the chance? What if he didn't...? "All right, Joe... I'll try it your way..."
Joe didn't waste any time. He could tell from Ken's expression and tone his current decision could change at any time. "Knowing Nambu, he's in his office waiting to hear from us. We can go straight there after we stop and get you some clothes. Come on, let's get to it!"
Ken moved away from the wall and nodded slowly. As Joe started back, Ken suddenly hesitated. "What about the others? I may have given in to stay for now, but I'm not ready to deal with them..."
Joe ignored the touch of panic he heard sneaking into his friend's voice. He couldn't let him back out now. "They're still out looking for you. We shouldn't have anything to worry about. And you do need to change clothes. Blood stained pajamas are likely to bring up all sorts of unwanted questions and rumors." Ken looked down at himself not having realized the stains were there. "Now quit stalling and come on!" Joe reached out to grab his arm.
Ken jerked it out of his reach. "Don't." He immediately looked embarrassed by the force of his outburst. "Please, Joe, don't." Joe gave him an odd look but didn't ask for an explanation when one didn't look forthcoming.
The two of them left the vent and quickly made their way over to the elevator. Ken beat Joe there, his hands over his ears, a grimace on his face. The machinery in the room continued booming around them unconcerned about his discomfort.
After the elevator doors closed, the two of them pried open the control panel and wired in an override so the elevator wouldn't stop on any floors but the one they chose. Once they reached their destination, they moved quickly down the hall toward their living quarters. Ken listened ahead and helped them avoid anyone they might have otherwise stumbled upon long before they came within sight. Joe kept watch outside of Ken's quarters as the latter slipped inside and changed his clothes.
Though he looked more like his normal self once he changed, Joe couldn't help but think Ken still looked awfully pale. All the way to Nambu's office, Ken kept silent, his eyes on the ground. Joe kept a careful eye on him but said nothing.
Once they reached the doctor's office, Joe didn't bother to knock but went right on in. He made sure Ken followed after him.
Nambu was behind his desk as they'd expected, open books covering its already crowded surface. The room was dark except for a bright desk lamp and a projection of a blood sample on the far wall.
"Well, I found him. Now you fix him."
Nambu raised an eyebrow in response to Joe's statement, before asking Ken to please take a seat. Ken didn't look at him as he moved to do as he was asked.
"Are you thirsty, Ken?"
He looked up in surprise, his face tight. Nambu pulled open a drawer on his desk and brought out a large thermos. "Here, drink this."
Ken hesitated, but moved to take the offered thermos when Nambu held it out to him and trapped him with his eyes.
He sat back down, wondering what he'd been given, but not daring to ask. He felt a slight flare of hope that maybe they were able to find something to help him while he was gone, but he didn't dare let himself believe it. Gingerly, he took off the top of the thermos and flipped up the red tab of the internal lid to expose a built in straw. Hesitating only for a few moments, he moved to take a sip.
Nambu and Joe watched carefully as Ken's face first lit up with pleasure and then just as quickly fell into welling despair. Red tears gathered at his eyes and ran down his cheeks as he continued to sip at the warm liquid in the thermos.
"Ken, stop that. It's counter productive."
"Y- yes, Hakase." Ken didn't look at either of them as Nambu tossed him a handkerchief. He quickly wiped his face dry refusing to look at the red stains he would now find there. He could clearly hear Joe shifting uneasily somewhere off to his right.
"Perhaps it would be best if you left now, Joe." Nambu looked over at him.
Joe stiffened. "I don't think so."
Nambu raised an eyebrow. "I have a number of sensitive issues to discuss here. I'm sure Ken would prefer for the information to remain private."
Ken stared at the floor. "I - I have nothing I feel should be kept hidden..." His misery was quite plain.
Nambu nodded and sat down. Ken silently drank his thermos dry. "Would you like another? I have more." Ken shook his head staring only at the empty thermos.
"I realize drinking it is not pleasant for you, but from what I've been told, and the tests I've run over the last few hours, there seems to be no other choice. Your stability depends on your being well fed. Because of this, I expect you to do what is necessary, no matter how distasteful it might be."
"Yes, hakase." Cracking, crunching sounds suddenly filled the office as Ken inadvertently crushed the thermos in his hand.
"Shit!" Joe snapped away from the wall toward his friend.
"Ken, are you all right?" Nambu leapt to his feet. Both men rushed to his side. Ken slowly opened his hand, a stunned look of surprise on his face. Pieces of broken glass and plastic dropped to the carpeted floor.
"Are you hurt?"
He shook his head slowly, showing the two men his uninjured hand.
"Fuck that shit! When are you going to start helping him?" Joe kicked at the broken thermos, his insecurities raging inside him. Ken looked up at his mentor, his eyes pleading for his help.
Nambu stared calmly at the two of them for a moment and then returned to his desk. He sat down without saying anything. Joe shook where he stood, fighting the urge to fling himself across the book laden desk and choke some answers out of the doctor.
"We're trying our best to understand what has happened as quickly as possible. As far as what we've ascertained so far, we know the disease has now spread itself throughout your body. We speculate that with only one brief exposure, it would have taken possibly years before the disease would have infected your entire system. If this were the case, there might have been a chance we could have stopped it. Dr. Rastov, however, greatly accelerated the rate of infection at each of her visits to you. In short, every cell in your body has already been altered by the disease."
"Are you trying to say you can't change him back?" There was a tinge of fear in Joe's voice he couldn't quite hold back. He quickly glanced at his friend to see how he was taking it. Ken only stared at the floor as if already resigned to his fate.
"At this time, we just don't know. We don't have enough information. And, what information we do have, shows this is beyond anything we have ever encountered before." Nambu's gaze rose to the blood sample on the wall. Despite himself, Ken found his eyes moving in the same direction.
Platelets, white and red blood cells could be seen floating in slightly opaque plasma. The white cells in the sample were rare, greatly outnumbered by abnormally large platelets. The red blood cell disks were gathered in the center of the sample surrounded by red balls. As they watched, one of the balls touched one of the disks and dissolved it. Three nearby disks turned into balls.
"As far as we can tell, it seems the red blood cell generation in the bones is slowly being reduced. Your liver and spleen, which normally only produce hemoglobin during fetus development, appear to be starting that function again, but only of the already altered red blood cells. The disk shape, which is normal, is to optimize the surface area of the cell for the exchange of gases in the blood. It would seem from the new configuration, however, that perhaps that function is no longer necessary."
Ken's hands bunched into fists, his nails cutting into his palms. He knew what Nambu's findings implied.
"I don't believe it's hopeless, and if you're willing, I'd like to run more tests. At least now we have a better idea of what we're looking at."
Ken nodded but said nothing. His gaze lingered on the constantly changing blood sample on the wall.
"I'll go with you." Joe moved forward.
"No..." Ken forced his eyes away from the proof of what he had become. "Gather the others, tell them all about this. Make them understand what's happened to me..."
Joe didn't like the resignation he saw in his friend's eyes, but agreed to do as he was asked.
"So aniki really is a vampire! Cool!" The four remaining members of the ninja team were seated around a table in a small conference room. Jinpei had an excited smile on his face as he spoke.
"That's not what I said." Joe pounded his fist on the table as he snapped angrily to his feet.
Joe snarled at the team's youngest member.
"Jinpei! Joe! This isn't helping anything!" Jun's pallid face pleaded with both of them.
"Sorry, nee-chan..." Jinpei's cheeks colored slightly. Joe's face lost its anger as he plopped back down into his chair.
"Joe, how does he seem to you?" Jun's voice was very low.
He stared at his splayed hands for a moment before answering. "Scared... real scared, but otherwise all right." He looked up at her. "He's really going to need our support." His gaze hardened as he turned to look at Jinpei. "Though talking about vampires and undead isn't how we're going to do it!"
"Are, are you sure? In some of the movies the victims turn evil when they change and even try to kill their friends and family..." Ryu's question was a barely heard whisper. His gaze avoided them all.
"If you two don't stop with this crap..." Joe's tone was dangerous. "He's Ken, just Ken. You know, the guy we've spent years with, trained with, escaped from death with. The same fucking guy! If he'd somehow turned evil, wacko, or whatever else you all feel like suggesting, he's already had plenty of chances to rend me limb from limb if that's what he wanted to do. He didn't do shit! And I swear if I hear either of you mention such a stupid pile of crap to him or anyone else, you'll have to deal with me! And I do tear people limb from limb!"
Ken sat on the cold examining table as twin red streaks coursed down his cheeks.
Nambu had finally finished with him over a half hour ago or so, but he had remained there, having no idea on where he should go or even if he wanted to. Now, he was crying again.
Damn but he felt like an utter fool for it! It didn't solve a thing to cry. But he just didn't seem able to stop. As he watched the red drops stain the floor, the sight made him want to cry all the more.
For the last twelve hours or more, Nambu poked, prodded, scanned, and basically tested him in every way imaginable. And through it, despite the overwhelming despair that covered his soul, Ken was able to learn a number of things about his new self.
He already knew his vision, hearing, and even his sense of touch were greatly amplified. With Nambu, he learned that though his skin looked paler than before, it had also become very tough. In all honesty, it had scared him a little to watch as Nambu's needles bent rather than pierced his skin.
In the tests, they also found that his reflexes had become incredibly fast and that his strength had grown, though he didn't know to what extent yet. More importantly, he found out he was actually alive, though not exactly like other people. His heart had changed, gotten larger. Though it pumped, or more like pushed his tainted blood throughout his body, its activity was so subtle it could only be picked up by the most sensitive of equipment. Yet though he'd discovered he was still alive and had gained a number of gifts, he still found himself crying.
He just couldn't forget, couldn't forget what he almost did... couldn't forget the look of horror on Braun's face, the fear in his friends' eyes... He couldn't forget the fact he lost control. Ken had known Braun for almost eight years, and it scared him that he could create such terror in a man who'd known him for such a large part of his life. It scared him even more to know his Thirst didn't care one bit about it. If it was this way with Braun, what did that mean for his family?
During the last few hours, he'd become sure he wouldn't have to worry, at least in some respects, about his foster father. He'd never seen Nambu not take things in stride, and his current transformation was proving to be no exception. If anything, the doctor was the one calm point in his storm. Ken sighed.
Joe so far had been... Joe. But it was obvious his friend was denying the full truth of what happened. He wished he possessed that luxury. He hoped it would make no difference between them though, once Joe finally faced up to the truth.
It made him wonder how the others reacted once his friend told them what they found out. Would they welcome him like this? For the umpteenth time, Ken looked up toward the mirror on the far wall and saw nothing of himself reflected in it. He felt a chill course through him at the unnatural sight. Nambu had assured him that he looked normal -- but he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it. Would they see any differences?
Ken looked away from the mirror and the truths inside it. Even if he appeared the same, he could never ignore what he'd become -- too many other things were no longer the same as they'd been. The worst, the one that made him fear, was the thing he felt thriving inside him, the one that called for blood. This thing, this Thirst, was a raging mindless thing -- a part of himself he'd never seen or would have believed could exist. He hated it, hated it for making him lose control. Hated it for what it almost made him do to Braun. He despised it and feared it because it might grow strong enough again someday to take over. He could feel it now, even as it lay momentarily sated inside him, a ticking time bomb waiting for its chance to explode.
He shook his head, not wanting to dwell long on such thoughts.
Dawn would be upon him soon. Oddly enough, he could feel the sun's approach. Though he didn't tell him how he knew, Nambu warned him he might fall into an involuntary sleep once the sun rose. He wondered if that was what happened to him down in the vent shaft; he'd never heard Joe coming up to him. If he had, he wouldn't have stayed to be found.
Sleep -- the idea was actually appealing. If it was as Nambu suggested, he would have no choice anyway. Mindless sleep sounded good. But where? There was no point in going to his quarters -- they might be waiting for him and he wasn't ready to face them quite yet. He'd already had to ignore a number of their calls. Ken roughly wiped away at the tears staining his face.
The examining room would have to do. They wouldn't come looking for him here... right. He sighed. It couldn't be helped. Sighing again, he climbed off the examining table and ripped off the stained examination gown from his body and got dressed. He used the gown to clean up the floor and the table of his tears. Just looking at them made his Thirst twinge in anticipation inside him. Ken did his best to try and ignore it.
Once he cleaned the room up, he lay out on the examining table and stared at the ceiling. He wasn't tired, another seeming gift of his new state, but he felt his mind and body start to get heavy as time slipped past. He turned on his side, welcoming the heaviness, and wondered momentarily at what the sleep of the undead would be like.
The process increased gradually. A light dullness settled over his limbs and slowly worked its way to his mind. Ken felt himself shutting down and didn't fight it. Within minutes of the coming dawn, he fell into oblivion.
Far off, he felt his body being shaken. Eventually, this realization connected itself to a coherent thought. Swimming slowly through thick molasses, Ken pushed his mind and body toward wakefulness.
He heard a soft sob somewhere behind him even as his heightened and awakening senses began supplying him with information. The smell of fear mixed with scented powder and freshly washed hair bid eagerly for his attention. He felt a splash of warmth fall on his arm even as the shaking began again. His Thirst moved around inside him.
"Ken, please wake up. Ken!"
Stiffly, with great concentration, he made himself turn from his side onto his back. A startled gasp echoed in his ears even as his eyes showed him what his mind had yet to figure out for itself. "J - Jun?"
"Yes, oh God, yes! It's me. Are you all right?"
Ken stared at her, his brow wrinkled in confusion even as she turned away to wipe off her tear stained face. "All - right?" He sat up slowly and then shook his head to try and clear the fog that still clung there.
"Should I go get Nambu Hakase?"
"Huh? Oh, no, no, I'm... okay. I'm just - a little slow - right now." Ken looked away feeling suddenly self-conscious as he caught Jun's gaze lingering on him. "Wh - what are you - doing here - anyway?"
She avoided looking at him. "Oh, um, Hakase asked me earlier to come wake you around three. He said you needed to get used to being awake during the day?"
Ken got off the examining table not sure how to answer her question. Nambu seemed to know a whole lot more about his situation than he let on. "I - I take it that - waking me up - wasn't easy?"
"No, it wasn't. I half thought maybe something was wrong.... I just wasn't sure. You are all right though, aren't you?"
Ken moved away from her and her pumping heartbeat. "Yeah... I guess so. I'm sorry I worried you."
"We're all very worried about you. We're family." Jun walked over and tried to put her hand on Ken's shoulder. He stepped away before she could do so. "Hakase also asked me to give you this." Jun moved back toward the entrance of the room and picked up a large thermos sitting on the chair there.
Ken gingerly took the offered thermos but made no move to drink from it. An uncomfortable silence settled between them.
"Ah, um, so, Ken? Why did you decide to sleep here of all places? I'm sure your room would have been a lot more comfortable. Wouldn't it?" Her curiosity was almost palpable.
He turned away and placed the thermos on the examining table. "I'm sure it would have. It' just that I..." He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence.
"Wasn't ready to see the rest of us?"
"Y - yes." Ken was both relieved and embarrassed that she had guessed his thoughts. "I suppose I'm just having a hard time dealing with all this. I'm not trying to shut you all out, it's just... it's just that it's all so awkward. Things like this aren't supposed to exist. I guess I'm having a hard time accepting the fact that I am now a monster."
He heard her move up behind him but didn't try to escape this time. He stiffened as she put both of her hands on his shoulders. Bolts of warmth shot through his clothes into his flesh. Her heart and flowing blood beat loudly in his ears. The scent of her was almost overwhelming.
"We don't care about that. It's not even true. You're still you and that's what matters. We care about you. We want to help you anyway we can."
His canines throbbed -- he could feel them slowly growing. He shivered beneath her touch and though a part of him sorely regretted it, Ken made himself move away. "I - I appreciate that. It means a lot." He made sure to keep his face hidden from her and reached quickly for the waiting thermos. He pulled the top open and sipped slowly at the glorious contents within.
"Other than the fact you've been ill, Hakase's made sure no one but a chosen few have any inkling of what's happened to you. If we're careful, no one need ever know the truth." Ken nodded but said nothing. What could he say? The silence lingered. He heard Jun shift nervously behind him. "Would you consider coming back with me? I promised the others I would ask. They're really eager to see you."
He didn't answer, instead asking a question of his own. "Jun, honestly, do I seem different to you?"
"In what way?" Her tone was guarded.
"In any way." He kept his back to her. "I'd really like for you to tell me."
He heard her sit down on the chair by the door. His shoulders were tight as he waited for her response.
"You've lost your tan somehow, and it makes you look pale, almost as if you never went out much." Ken nodded and waited for her to go on. "You look a little thinner? And you seem to move a little differently, though I can't quite pinpoint how." He heard her shift in her seat. "When you stand still, like you are right now, you look too still -- almost like a statue. I guess that's part of what scared me when I came to wake you. You were so still I was sure something had to be wrong."
"Is there nothing else?" His tone was veiled.
"Ken, I've only been with you for a few minutes."
He nodded again. Now came the harder question. "What about, what about when I grabbed Braun? What did I look like then?"
His free hand bunched into a fist as he heard her heart speed up at the question.
"It all happened so fast. I - I'm not really sure of what I saw. I suppose you looked like one of those guys in the late night movies Jinpei loves so much, but more... real? We knew it was you, of course, we were mostly just surprised. I just --"
"Never mind. Forget I asked." The memory of their shocked and fear laden faces was just too vivid in his mind's eye.
"But, Ken, I -"
"Just drop it, okay? I shouldn't have asked."
"Sure... if that's what you really want." He could hear the trepidation in her voice. "You are still coming back with me though, aren't you?"
Ken drank silently from his thermos for a few moments before he gave her an answer. "I guess I really shouldn't put it off any longer." He closed the thermos and turned around, but didn't look at her directly.
"Good!" Jun's pleased smile made him feel slightly more at ease with his decision, but not much. He tried hard to give her a smile in return.
Jinpei, Ryu, and Joe fell abruptly silent as Jun led Ken into the team's common room. Greeting them, she prodded Ken toward a chair and made him sit down. Tension covered every inch of Ken's form as he did what she wanted. He couldn't bring himself to look up at his friends - he was afraid of what he might find there. As it was, he could hear their hearts hammering with their own nervousness. As he did nothing, their pace slowly began to subside.
"Aniki, can I - I mean, I wanted to know --"
Joe threw Jinpei a murderous look and the young boy stammered to a halt. Jinpei swallowed his question and looked glum.
"How are you feeling?" Ryu's voice shook just a little.
"Fine." Neither of them made eye contact.
Silence reigned once more over the room.
"Well, I for one am glad we're all together again." Jun waited for the rest of them to add something similar, but none of them did.
She tried a few more times to get a conversation going, but they all went nowhere. Ken's answers were always in single syllables if he even deigned to say anything at all. He couldn't look at any of them. Joe's face was set, his eyes never leaving Jinpei, daring the youngest member of the team to say the wrong thing. Ryu picked up on Jun's queues once or twice, but stammered through them. She slowly felt her ire rise.
"Okay, I've had enough of this! If you won't do this on your own, I've got no choice but to pull out my secret weapon." She roughly rose to her feet and glared at each of them before quickly stomping out of the room. Perplexed looks followed after her, though no one commented on her actions. Jun returned into their tense silence several minutes later, carrying a large, multi colored box. "I'm sorry it's come to this, but I guess we're all just going to have to play Risk."
"All of us, Jinpei. Maybe some large scale "ass kicking" will loosen you all up." She glared at them again. "Now move it! Pick your colors!" She slammed the box onto the table.
"Well, okay... I guess I'll play if Joe promises not to pout when he loses..." Ryu shyly reached for the box of yellow pieces.
"I don't pout!"
"Do too! ‘Cuase you're a sore loser!" Jinpei grabbed the box of red pieces dodging Joe's grab for him.
"I'll show you a sore loser." Joe grabbed the box of greens.
A grin actually flickered at the edge of Ken's mouth as he silently reached for the box of blue ones.
He trounced them; thoroughly and mercilessly trounced them. Two games and they never had a prayer. He hadn't felt this good in days. Ken wasn't sure it would last, but for the moment, he wallowed in it.
Things went extremely well, better than he ever hoped, that is... once Jun got her hands into it. It would work out. He still didn't dare let himself totally believe it, but it looked like it just might. Perhaps the change wouldn't affect his life as much as he feared it would. He'd have to wait and see.
Ken sighed and leaned contentedly back in the padded chair as the others quickly put the game board and pieces back into the box. He concentrated and listened intently to the four heartbeats around him. The sounds informed him his friends were relaxed -- that all the anxiety they were experiencing earlier was gone. He couldn't help but smile because of it.
Jinpei yawned and tipped back in his chair almost pitching himself out onto the floor. Jun frowned at him and then glanced back at the clock on the wall. "It's past two, Jinpei. You should have been in bed hours ago."
"Aw, nee-chan, I'm not sleepy." His eyes drooped even as he spoke. He had to fight not to yawn again.
"It's been a very long day for all of us. Maybe we should turn in." Slow nods moved around the table at Ken's suggestion. Joe did so grudgingly, still trying not to sulk over the trouncing he'd taken.
They all bid each other good night and shuffled off to their rooms. Ken mimicked them, not really feeling the least bit tired. If anything, he felt more alert and full of energy than he did during the day. He knew, however, that if he didn't suggested they turn in, the others would have tried to stay up all night with him. It would have been sweet, but very stupid, especially after the strain they'd all been under the last few days.
He entered his room and instantly noticed the three filled thermoses that had been left on his small dresser. Nambu must have been here - but he hadn't let them know. Ken tried to repress a smile.
His throat burned as he realized he hadn't eaten since he was awakened that afternoon. Resigned to the inevitable, he crossed the room and grabbed a thermos. The blood he sipped from it sent tingles through his tongue even as his taste buds were thrilled by the heavy taste. He sat down on his bed, still drinking, even as his mind was repulsed by the fact such a thing could taste so good. What was worse was the fact his Thirst insisted the blood would tastes incredibly better if he were actually getting it directly from the human source itself.
He forcibly shut such thoughts out of his mind. He even concentrated to clamp down on the thrilling sensations drinking the blood brought him. Instead, he focused on the sounds coming from his friends' rooms as they readied themselves for bed.
After a short while, he got up and grabbed another thermos as well as his rugged, paperback copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. A deep silence settled into the rooms around him as he tried to escape into the familiar book. For a while though, he couldn't read, distracted by the feel of the well used pages, the grainy look of the print, and a thousand other details he was never aware of before. Stubbornly, he shut each one of them out, until his mind could focus solely on the wisdom of the words in the pages before him.
He'd had just about finished his second thermos when an odd shift in the air caught at his attention. Ken gasped as his eyes caught sight of a column of shimmering gas pouring into his room through a vent. The gas remained as one unit and didn't disperse itself into the room. Before his startled eyes, the gas took on the shape of a woman.
Ken willed his eyes to go dark and was able to pick up a subdued aura from the gaseous shape. He felt his canines and fingernails elongate as a twinge of fear prickled the hairs on the back of his neck. The shimmering gas solidified into a beautiful, red headed woman.
"Tiana." The name came across his lips as a curse. He slipped off his bed and crouched into a guarded position.
"Good evening, Ken. It's good to see you're picking up on some of our skills so easily." A soft, disarming smile touched her red lips.
"What do you want?" The last word came out with a growl. Ken clamped down on his fear, insistently telling himself she no longer held any power over him.
Tiana turned away from his obvious hostility. "I know you've no wish to see me, but I had to talk to you. You're calmer now, your place amongst your teammates reaffirmed... It seemed like a good time."
"There'll never be a good time. I'll never want to talk to you."
She moved gracefully to a plush chair in the corner and sat down. She swept her curled hair away from her face, her features unreadable. "Then I guess we won't talk."
Ken blinked, caught off guard by her statement. Slowly, as she did nothing, his claws retracted back to normal. Her intent green gaze never left him. "What do you really want?"
"I'll tell you now that I will never apologize for what I've done. I did it because I wanted to and because I don't think of our disease as the horror you do. Think me arrogant, self-serving, whatever you wish, it will change nothing. I picked you out of all others to give you a gift. I did not make my decision lightly." Her gaze softened. "And I am hoping with time, you'll see what I've given you for the gift it is, and not the monstrous disease of the short sighted."
Ken said nothing, his face hard.
Tiana looked away. "Now that you've gone through the change, you'll find you'll be able to do many things outside the human norm. I'm already aware you've discovered a number of them, but there are still many more. I would be happy to teach you of them, if you would allow it." She became perfectly still as she waited for his answer.
A small chill coursed down Ken's back as he realized she really wasn't breathing. He turned away from what that meant about him as well. "You must be out of your mind. Why the hell would I willingly let you anywhere near me? You forced me into this. You never gave a damn about me or anyone else. Now you expect me to believe that suddenly all of that has changed?" Ken felt anger growing inside him and he held onto it. He would never give into her again. "You used my body, you manipulated my mind! You almost destroyed my life. I don't want to have anything to do with you."
Tiana nodded, her face neutral, almost as if she expected his exact response. "You'll find that discovering the extent of your new powers won't be easy. But I'm sure if you try, you'll find them. As in all things, everything gets easier with practice. If you apply yourself, you can get these powers to become as second nature to you as your ninja skills." She rose to her feet, her dark, emerald colored body suit leaving nothing to the imagination. Ken tried to ignore it and the memories her body tried to bring of other times, and slowly backed away from her.
"Read the vampire fiction, watch the films. Try and emulate the powers they mention. You'll find a number of them are actually within your reach. And learn from them, not only about your powers, but about yourself. Though these things have been written by humans, they do come very close to our feelings sometimes, even to the things that plague us. They might possibly even answer some of the frustrations in your heart. They might just make accepting your fate a little easier."
Ken shook his head. "No. I won't have to. Nambu will find a way to reverse what you've done."
Tiana laughed. "I know you're not a fool, Ken, so don't act like one. We both know you'll never be a normal Homo Sapiens again. What's done is done. When I felt like you do now, I researched the disease for over five years and found nothing that could change what I had become. I was the head of my field at the time." Her voice held no pride at the statement, she was just stating a fact. "Nothing will change you back. Eventually, you won't even care. The twentieth century offers too many avenues by which to bypass our diseases' most abhorrent aspects. Accept it. It is a gift."
"You'll forgive me if I decide not to take your word for it." Ken let his anger show. Once more she gave him no choice. Once more she took his control. For Ken knew, in his heart of hearts, that she was right.
A touch of sadness flickered across her face. Ken didn't know what to make of it. "Perhaps you won't always feel that way."
"I'm sure I will."
"Always, for a vampire, can be a very, very long time. You may find you'll get tired of feeling that way. I will wait until you do."
The certainty in her voice made him nervous. He didn't want to think about it. "Oh? And how many other lives will you play God with until then? How many other lives will you try to destroy as you did mine?"
Tiana turned away from his animosity, almost as if it burned her. When she looked back, a single red tear was slowly making its way down her face. "There will be no others. You are the only one. I am selfish, I won't give this kind of power to just anyone. The Thirst doesn't rule me. I promised it one child, and he has been made -- no more." Her cool facade dropped. She suddenly looked very lonely and vulnerable. "I don't expect you to understand, and I won't try to explain myself until you are truly willing to listen. You and I will meet again." As she spoke, her form lost cohesion and turned into luminescent smoke. Before Ken realized what was happening, she swirled back into the vent and disappeared.
"Tiana!" Ken rushed forward but she was gone. He had no idea how, or even if, he wanted to follow her. Yet the vision of her pain filled face wouldn't leave him. Its every detail was clearly present in his memory for examination. It made no sense. He was the victim, not her. A thousand questions began to burn inside him.
Perhaps he would be willing to meet her again... someday....