The boy's name was Edward Phoenix, and when he grew up, he was going to be either a superhero, a policeman, or a card designer like his father - he hadn't made his mind up yet. He was, however, only six years old, so there was plenty of time to make up his mind. On that particular night, if someone had asked him that all-important question, he would have replied that he wanted to be a Power Ranger. He was sprawled on the floor of his father's workroom, playing with a heap of different colored action figures, narrating a convoluted adventure that involved a lot of last minute rescues, unexpected betrayals, dramatic declarations, mysterious villains, secret identities, and was in short a good deal more interesting and well-thought out than most of what he watched on television. From time to time, the action figures would chime in with various supportive blips and blasts. His father, hard at work nearby, could only marvel and wonder if the boy himself could actually follow all the intricacies of the story.
"All right, Ed, I think we're done for the night," he said.
Ed bounced to his feet, going from horizontal to vertical in a move too fast to follow, and in another instant was at his father's side.
"Let me see! Let me see!" he begged.
"All right, all right - here you go." Mr. Phoenix passed the paper he'd been drawing on to his son, who took it gently. He knew the rules. You would have had more luck convincing him to burn a house down than to smudge or damage one of his father's creations.
"This is going to be one of mine, right?" asked Edo. "For my deck?"
Mr. Phoenix smiled..
"Of course," he said. "Everything I draw is for you, whether you put it in your deck or not."
"Can we play tonight? Just one game?" asked Ed, his blue eyes wide. "Please, Daddy?"
"I don't know. It's nearly bedtime..."
"I can stay up! I'm not sleepy!" Ed declared. "You're mean if you won't play with me."
"All right, just one game," said his father, "but then you have to go to bed. Run and get your cards."
Ed gave a whoop and hurried off to his room to get his deck. Mr. Phoenix smiled, feeling a glow of pride. He had become a card designer largely for his son's sake. When his wife had died two years ago, he had come dangerously close to a complete breakdown. Unable to concentrate on his work, he had lost his job as a graphic artist for a successful corporation. He'd gone through one or two part-time jobs, and on a few memorable occasions, had come home drunk or simply not come home. The cycle had finally broken when he had been sitting in his bare kitchen, staring at nothing, when Ed had toddled in and asked him why he wasn't working.
"I don't know what to do," he had admitted.
"Draw," said Ed, who knew what he wanted even back then. "Draw heroes."
So that day, instead of working or even thinking of working, he had spread papers and pencils and pens over his kitchen table and drawn costumed superheroes of every size, shape, and color until his hands ached. The next morning, he had groomed himself neatly, packed everything up in a portfolio, and made copies of his work to submit to anyone he could think of who might be interested in a man who drew comic book heroes.
As it turned out, one of them was - namely, the head of Inudstrial Illusions, who had hired him on the spot. Mr. Phoenix had been glad to be drawing a wage doing what he loved, and even happier that Ed had taken to the game like a duck to water. Even at six years old, the boy was already showing glimmers of genius; in a few more years, it would not be surprising to see him winning tournaments. Mr. Phoenix would not have minded if he chose not to, though. For now, he was his son's hero, and that was more than enough for him.
Ed returned, clutching his deck, and Mr. Phoenix took his own cards out of a drawer and settled himself down on the floor to begin to play. He wasn't much of a player himself. He had to have a thorough knowledge of the rules to design good cards, but he didn't have the instinct for gaming that his son had. Truth be told, he wasn't good enough to even hold his own against Ed, but that didn't mean he didn't enjoy playing with him anyway. Just seeing the joy Ed got out of handling the cards Mr. Phoenix had made for him made him happy.
"I win!" Ed declared.
"So you did! And now it's time to go to bed," Mr. Phoenix replied.
Ed narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Are you sure you didn't lose on purpose?"
"I promise I didn't lose on purpose. You're just getting too good for your old man," said Mr. Phoenix. "Come on, now. Pick up your cards and get ready for bed. If you get up early, we'll play again before I go to work."
With that acceptable compromise, Ed gathered up his toys and allowed himself to be hustled off to brush his teeth and change into his pajamas. His father tucked him into bed and gently kissed Ed's forehead.
"Kissing's yucky," said Ed.
"I'll do it anyway," his father replied. "Goodnight, Ed. Sweet dreams."
"Night, Daddy," Ed said. His eyes were already sliding closed. By the time his father had left the room and turned off the lights, he was already asleep.
In his dreams, Ed stood on a roof with his father, looking up at the stars as they had often done in the past. Usually there were limits to just how many stars they could see, on the roof of a skyscraper at night. The weather, the moon, and the lights of the city usually combined to block out most of them. In his dream, though, they were all there: Draco, Cygnus, Pegasus, Cancer, Virgo, Gemini, the Corona Borealis, and more that he'd never seen before. They were bright and clearly delineated, like the pictures in the storybooks where the stars were connected with lines to show how the pictures were made. They moved around, like people milling through a shopping center, looking at the other scattered stars that weren't part of any constellation in particular.
"Look," said Ed's father, pointing. "I've never seen that star before."
Ed looked up to see one star that was brighter than the others. Even as he looked, it began coming closer to earth, glowing more and more brightly until Ed was forced to close his eyes to shield himself from the brightness.
When he opened them, he was awake.
This was new. Ed rarely woke in the middle of the night, and he wasn't used to the way his room looked in the midnight darkness. He blinked a little, letting his eyes adjust until the shadows formed themselves into familiar shapes. Now that he was awake, he didn't really want to go back to sleep. He lay very still, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the night noises.
One of the noises didn't sound quite right. It sounded like footsteps. Maybe his father was awake too! Moving silently, Ed climbed out of his bed and tiptoed down the hall towards his father's office. The door was standing open. That was different. His father usually left it closed when he was working. Ed pushed it open a little further and went in.
"Daddy?" he called.
There was a clunk. A shadowy figure turned around to stare at Ed, and the little boy realized that this was not his father.
"Who are you?" Ed demanded. "What are you doing in my dad's room?"
The dark figure sighed.
"Oh, you're just a kid," he said. "Look, I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm just looking for something, and when I find it, I'll leave. So just go on back to sleep."
Ed shook his head stubbornly. "You don't belong here. This is my dad's place."
"I'm visiting," said the man flatly. "Just go away. I don't want to hurt you."
At the word "hurt", red flags went up in Ed's mind, and there was only one thing to do in situations like that. He took a deep breath and bellowed, "DADDY!"
The result was immediate. The shadowy man sprang forward and slapped his hand over Ed's mouth, but it was already too late. Within seconds, Mr. Phoenix himself appeared, still in his nightclothes, looking wild-eyed.
"Get your hands off my son!" he shouted.
That was apparently too much for the strange man. He broke into a run, pushing past Mr. Phoenix and into the hallway. Mr. Phoenix let him go.
"Are you all right?" he asked Ed.
Ed nodded. "I'm okay. Who was that?"
"No one good," Mr. Phoenix replied. He still looked a bit shaken; the arms he embraced his son with were trembling.
Satisfied that Ed was alive and in one piece, Mr. Phoenix went to the phone and made a call to the police. Ed listened in rapt fascination. If he couldn't be a Power Ranger when he grew up, the idea of being a policeman was looking better all the time. He was very sorry when his father told him to go back to bed.
"The bad man won't be back now," he promised. "The police caught him, and he's gone to jail. Everything is all right."
"I did good, didn't I?" said Ed sleepily, as his father tucked him in for the second time that night. "I caught the bad guy, just like a real hero."
"Yes, you were a hero tonight," Mr. Phoenix said. "I'm proud of you."
Ed smiled as he snuggled under his blankets, feeling completely happy. His father was proud of him. This was probably the best thing he'd ever done.
Everyone knew there were adults in the house. No one had ever seen them, but they must have been there. Someone paid the bills and earned the money to do it with. Someone kept the house spotless and cooked the meals that its inhabitants ate. The most compelling evidence was that someone must have produced the two children who lived there. But mostly, people just knew that there were adults there because that's what they wanted to believe, what they had been told, and what made the most sense. Two children, the oldest barely more than ten years old, couldn't possibly be living by themselves, could they?
Everyone knew the children existed. People saw them going in and out of the house. Sometimes they would even stop and talk to someone. Mostly, they kept to themselves - a pair of quiet, well-mannered, well-dressed children who never seemed to made noise or mess or trouble. They were easily forgettable. They probably went to school, but no one knew where, or with whom. No one ever came over to play with them.
"Did you get any money today?" asked Mizuchi, as her brother came in.
"Some," Takuma agreed. He sighed as he emptied his pockets onto the kitchen table, where Mizuchi was sitting and sipping tea. Her feet dangled several inches above the floor. She looked at the money.
"That's not enough," she said. "You're going to have to talk to the landlord again."
"It's getting harder," Takuma admitted. "He always notices when the figures don't add up. Sooner or later, he'll realize why he has money missing. I can make him forget, but he'll just remember again the next time he goes over his books."
Mizuchi's feet swung faster. "Are we going to have to move again?"
"Do you want to?"
"We might have to start stealing again," said Takuma. His face tightened. "But they deserve it! They try to take away everything we have and never give us anything, and all we want is to be left alone!"
"Don't get angry," said Mizuchi. She slid out of her chair and went to put her arms around her brother. "Ask your cards what to do. They always know."
"All right, I'll try."
Takuma went upstairs to fetch his cards. He hadn't had them for very long, and he was still a little in awe of what happened when he used them. Most of the time, he kept them stored in a box in his room, except on the days when he felt moved to take them out into the world and earn a bit of money by telling fortunes. He had stopped doing that when it had ceased to be a reliable source of income. He refused to disrespect his cards by lying about what they told him, and no one really wanted a fortune that was accurate. They all wanted good news and prognostications on their love lives. Accurate futures tended to make people uncomfortable. Takuma and Mizuchi were already uncomfortable, though, so he got them out anyway and began spreading them across the floor. Mizuchi crouched across from him, watching wide-eyed.
"Hm," said the boy, looking down at the cards. No one had ever told him what the symbols on the front meant. It had surprised him when he realized that not everyone knew. Their messages had always been as clear to him as though they were speaking into his ear. Now he gazed at them contemplatively, reshuffled them, and laid them out again in a new pattern. He frowned.
"Is it bad?" asked Mizuchi. The cards were a mystery to her. Her brother had attempted to explain them to her, but she had never quite gotten the hang of it the way he had. She could occasionally catch glimpses of the future in her mirrors, if she was lucky, but her brother was the only one who could read the lines of fate whenever he wished.
"Not bad. Just strange," said Takuma. "The cards say we have to go to America."
"Are you sure?" asked Mizuchi.
"I looked twice," her brother assured her. "We definitely have to go there. There's someone we have to meet there. Him." He pointed at a card with a serious looking man on it. Mizuchi looked.
"A grownup? But they don't like us."
Takuma shook his head. "The card doesn't tell what he looks like. It tells what he is like. This one is the Hierophant - someone who loves justice." The boy looked wistful. "A protector. Someone safe."
Mizuchi gazed at the card a little longingly. "He'll make things better?"
"Not right away, but yes," said Takuma. He pointed to a different card. "This one means he's in trouble now. We have to find him and help him. If we do that, he'll pay us back by taking care of us."
"And he won't be afraid of us or anything?" asked Mizuchi. "Let's find him." She hesitated. "How are we going to get to America?"
"The same way we do everything else," Takuma replied. "We ask."
Mr. Phoenix was still feeling shaken. The fact that someone had come that close to hurting his son, the only family he had left and his reason for living, left him feeling weak in the knees. It was long after he had learned that the intruder had been captured and hauled away, long after Ed had been put to bed for the second time, almost at the point where he had been ready to lie down to sleep himself, that he realized he had not thought to check on his card.
Come to think of it, that might be why he was here in the first place, Mr. Phoenix thought, as he got out of bed.
The Bloo-D was his greatest creation, and this was the first time it had been allowed out into the world. He had actually submitted the design months ago, never actually expecting it to be accepted. He had simply been seized with a desire to create a card that was truly powerful, something people would long for and admire. Every card designer probably went through that same thing, and Pegasus did his best to discourage people from making too many cards of that nature. The Bloo-D had been submitted more as a lark than anything else, but Pegasus had apparently been intrigued enough to allow a single copy to be printed - to be examined, he said. Mr. Phoenix was no expert on the magical side of dueling, and so had simply been pleased that the card would be created at all. In the end, Pegasus had decided that the card could be allowed to exist, but there would never be any more like it. Mr. Phoenix had asked, and been permitted, to keep the card as an heirloom for his son. It wouldn't make much of an heirloom, though, if it ended up being stolen.
He stepped into his workroom and switched on the light. It was a mess, but he had known that already - he had reported it as being such when he had talked to the police. He had been too flustered at the time to remember that there was something of value in there when usually all he had were papers and pens and pencils and paints. Now he went to the drawer where the Bloo-D had been resting. It was still there. He sighed with relief.
Content that his card had not been damaged, he took a moment to admire it. It was one thing to see the original art in its unrefined state, and another to see it framed and gleaming in its finished form. Even if he couldn't duel his way out of a paper sack, he still couldn't help but wish he could when he looked at a card like this. Almost reverently, he reached for it.
A jolt of something shot up his arm like an electric shock, and for an instant his vision blazed with pure white light. He staggered backwards, blinking at the pinpricks of light that were still dancing in front of his eyes. His heart was pounding so hard he could see the vibration through the fabric of his nightshirt. He shook himself.
"What was that?" he said. And then, "Whew. It's been a rough day. No wonder I'm seeing stars. I had better turn in, or I'll be too exhausted to work tomorrow."
He put the card back in its drawer, thinking of nothing more than lying down and getting some sleep. He shuffled back to his room, yawning, finding suddenly that he could barely keep his eyes open. The moment his head touched his pillow, he fell into a deep and dream-filled sleep. The dreams were turbulent things, full of swirling stars and pulsing lights, things that filled him with wonder. He'd never had such beautiful, vivid dreams. He was sorry when his alarm woke him the next morning and he had to go back to the real world.
Despite his interrupted night, however, he found he awoke refreshed and energized, with his mind still full of the images from his dreams. One thing he was certain of: he had to find a way to catch them on paper and on canvas. It would be a loss to the world if that beautiful light were lost to the rest of the world...
Ed was in the kitchen.
"Good morning, Daddy!" he called.
"Morning, son," said Mr. Phoenix. He went to fix himself a cup of coffee.
"I have my deck," Ed prompted. When that got no response, he added, "You said if I got up early, we'd play before you went to work. And I'm up early."
"Sorry, Ed, not today," said Mr. Phoenix. "Your father has a lot of work to do. I want to get a jump start on it while I can."
"But Dad, you promised!"
"Later," he replied, "when I have time."
With that, he took his cup of coffee into his office and locked the door. A small part of him felt sorry that he had decided not to play games, but... Ed would always be there to play games. He might not feel so inspired later. He had to work now while the lovely images were still in his head. Humming softly to himself, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began to draw.
Ed Phoenix did not know what was going on, and that bothered him. Not that he wasn't used to not always understanding why grownups did the things they did, but if there was one thing he had always understood, it was that his father was there for him. Now, suddenly, he was not. He still cooked the meals and helped Ed tie his shoes and took him grocery shopping and sometimes even stopped to play cards with him, but that wasn't the same as being there. There was always something distracted about him, a faraway light in his eyes that suggested he was thinking about something else. Even when they dueled, Ed got the feeling that his father was paying more attention to the cards than to him. The cards were getting strange, too. His father had designed a string of new ones that he had immediately incorporated into his deck as soon as they reached their final form. Ed was forced to admit that they were an improvement on his old deck, but the feeling that the only reason Ed's father played with him at all was to have a chance to admire his new cards took all the fun of it, and eventually Ed stopped asking to play.
It had been a few months since the break-in, and Ed kept waiting for things to go back to normal, but at this point he was forced to admit that things were getting worse instead of better. It had been days since his father had even spoken to him properly. These days, all he did was get up, fix breakfast, and hurry into his office and lock the door behind him, and there he would stay until it was time to come out and fix lunch, and then he would go right back in again until dinnertime. Sometimes he would come out again to go to bed. Sometimes he would not.
Today he had not come out for lunch. Ed waited quietly outside his door for a while before raiding the fridge for an apple and getting some cookies out of the cabinet.
By dinnertime, Ed was hungry, bored, and getting more than a little fed up with the whole thing. He marched up to the door to his father's office and turned the knob. It wouldn't open.
"Dad!" he shouted.
There was a rustling inside, and, finally, a voice.
"You've made me smudge a line," said his father irritably. "What do you want?"
"I want in!"
"Not now, Ed. I'm busy."
"You're always busy!" Ed shouted back. "All you ever do is work! You never pay attention to me anymore!"
"Don't be selfish, Ed. This is my job. Sometimes I'm just going to be busy, but that doesn't mean I don't still care about you."
"You don't care! You don't! If you cared, you'd come out!"
"That's quite enough. I didn't raise you to be disrespectful, and I won't have you behaving that way now. Now, apologize."
"No!" Ed shouted. "I will not! You're the one who's being mean!"
"You are behaving very badly. I'm not coming out until you apologize."
Ed felt tears welling up in his eyes. He had never been able to even imagine a world where his father would treat him this way, and he had the terrible feeling that he was losing something. He didn't understand it, was too young to comprehend it, but something inside him knew that whatever was on the other side of that door, it wasn't his father anymore. A pang of fear seized him. More than anything in the world, he wanted his father to put his arms around him and tell him this was all just a big mistake, and that everything would be all right.
"I hate you," he said. "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!"
He kicked the door, still screaming as loudly as he could. When at last he ran out of steam, he subsided into stifled sobs and stared at the unyielding door, waiting for some kind of response, some kind of reaction to show that his father was hurt by those words. Instead, there was a long silence that stretched out until it became unbearable. Ed turned silently and walked to his room.
Ed owned a backpack. His father had given it to him last September when he'd seen all the older children getting ready to go to school and decided he needed one, too. It had pictures of his latest superhero obsession of the week on it, and had been his proudest possession for a while before something else had caught his attention. Now Ed dug it out of the bottom of his closet. He stuffed a few of his favorite toys in it, three T-shirts with cartoon pictures on it, and his deck. Then he went to the kitchen and collected another apple and the rest of the cookies, along with a can of soda from the fridge. He walked back into the hallway.
"I'm running away," he told his father's door. "And I'm never coming back!"
There was silence from the other side of the door. Ed gave up and walked out of the apartment. He closed the door behind him. He began walking down the hallway towards the elevator. Then he stopped because the buttons were too far away for him to reach, so he stood and waited until the doors opened and one of his neighbors stepped out into the hallway.
"Hi there, Ed," he said cheerfully. "Where are you going?"
"I'm running away from home," Ed told him.
The neighbor gave Ed an indulgent smile that made Ed want to kick him in the shins.
"Sounds like fun," he said. "Better not go too far, though. Your father will get worried about you."
"No," said Ed seriously, "he won't."
He rode the elevator back to the ground floor of the apartment building, slipped past a bored receptionist who was too busy reading a magazine to pay attention to him, and darted outside into the world.
He ran away. For the first hour or so, it wasn't so bad. He walked down the streets he was familiar with and thought about where he would go when he was finished running away. Joining the circus seemed like an option - he was sure he had heard people talking about running away to join the circus. There was always the chance he would fall through a portal to another world and end up becoming a hero. That was what happened to people on television and in movies. He would have some adventures and make some friends and when he came home his father would have realized that he was wrong and everything would be okay again. It wouldn't take long. Movies like that never lasted much more than an hour or two. Ed walked until he was tired, and then found a place where he could stop to eat his apple and cookies. The soda had gotten warm, and spilled bubbles on his shoes when he opened it, but he was thirsty and drank it anyway. His father said sodas were unhealthy and didn't let him have them except on special occasions, like when they ordered out for pizza, so he felt it went nicely with his act of defiance even if it didn't taste as good when it was hot.
When he was done eating, he started walking again. Stopping to rest had only given him time to realize how tired his feet were, and it was getting harder to keep going. He could feel a blister beginning on his heel from the new shoes with pictures of Spiderman on them that he had insisted his father buy for him even though they didn't fit quite right. It was getting dark, too - summer was nearly over, and the day had turned overcast as he walked. Now that the sun was beginning to set, it was no longer as pleasantly warm as it had been, and Ed was wearing nothing warmer than a T-shirt and shorts. A cool wind had sprung up, smelling of rain, and thunder rumbled overhead. Ed shivered a little as he trudged along.
I need to go inside, he realized, but where could he go? He no longer knew where he was. The street was full of unfamiliar shops, most of them already closed for the day. He tried the door of one of them, but it was locked up tight. Ed sat in front of the door and wondered if his father had noticed he was gone yet, and if he was going to come looking for him. He decided he should turn around and go home to find out.... but which way was home? He had turned several corners, and now he had no idea how to get back. He was lost, and it was dark.
It began to rain.
Ed began to walk again, sniffling and feeling hot tears run down his cold face, mixing with the rainwater. He was getting hungry again, but there was nothing left to eat. He was tired and limping and cold, but there was no shelter, nowhere to rest. It was looking less and less like anyone was going to rescue him, and more and more like he was just going to wander up and down these strange dark streets forever.
"Nobody wants me," he said, and his voice was swallowed up by the rushing of the driving rain. "Nobody wants me. Nobody wants me..."
At last, he stumbled into an alley that was more or less sheltered by the overhanging roof of one of the buildings. It was not warm or dry there, but it was less cold and wet than any other place, and there Ed gave up and sat down to cry until he couldn't cry anymore. When he was done, he wiped his face on the hem of his soggy shirt, lay his backpack down for a pillow, and he slept.
He was awakened sometime later by a light shining on his face. He opened his eyes slowly, uncertain why exactly why he felt so cold and wet, and why his bed was so hard. Then he woke up the rest of the way and remembered where he was, and opened his eyes to see what was going on. It was still raining, still night, but now someone was holding an umbrella over him and shining a flashlight. Ed sat up and realized that the someone was not his father, or even an adult, but a child like himself. Not quite, though. This one was older than Ed, and had long dark hair and long-lashed eyes that made it difficult to tell at first glance if the person was male or female. A further look revealed that the newcomer's eyes were violet, a brilliant hue that Ed had never seen in any other person's eyes before, and they were glowing slightly.
"Don't be afraid," the stranger said, and the voice made Ed decide it was male. "You're all right now. I'm here to help you."
Ed's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Are you an angel?" If it was, he wanted no part of it. Angels in movies tended to be cloyingly nice, and the last thing Ed wanted was to be patronized by some pretty otherworldly thing that had no problems of its own to deal with.
The stranger looked wryly amused.
"I'm a boy with a flashlight and an umbrella," he answered simply. Now that he was getting used to the voice, Ed could distinguish and accent to it, very faint but noticeable. "You may call me Saiou."
"Oh," said Ed. "I'm Edward Phoenix. Ed."
"That's what I said," the other boy replied.
Ed decided not to press the issue. He supposed he could handle being Edo if it would get him out of this situation.
"What are you doing out here in the rain?" Saiou continued.
"I ran away," said Ed - or Edo, as the case may have been. "My father doesn't want me anymore."
"Ah. We have something in common, then," said Saiou. He sat down next to Edo. "My father doesn't want me either. What about your mother?"
"Haven't got one," said Edo. "She died when I was little."
"I see. And no grandparents or aunts or uncles?"
Edo shook his head. "Nuh-uh. Just my dad, and now he's..." Edo trailed off, sniffled, and rubbed furiously at his eyes. "I'm not crying."
Saiou nodded, and did not say anything annoying like "Of course you aren't," in that sweet tone that was meant to be comforting but really made Edo want to hit people. Edo was beginning to like Saiou. In a world that had stopped making sense, it was wonderful to find someone sane.
"Don't worry. You have me now," said Saiou. "From now on, I will be your shelter, and your light in dark places. As long as you need me, I am here."
He got up again and offered Edo his hand.
"Come. Let's find a place where we can be warm and dry. Are you hungry?"
Edo thought about it and realized he was desperately hungry. He took Saiou's hand and let him help him to his feet.
"I don't suppose you have any money," said Saiou as they began to walk.
Edo shook his head.
"Ah, well. We'll ask someone," Saiou said. "What would you like to eat?"
"A bacon cheeseburger," said Edo promptly, "with extra pickles. And a chocolate shake."
"Then let us go find someone to buy us one."
"I don't think it works that way," said Edo.
Saioh smiled. His eyes glittered in the dark. "It does for me."
They walked a few blocks until they came to a fast-food restaurant. It was mostly empty, but Saiou caught sight of a balding businessman in a cheap suit and approached him confidently.
"Hello," he said to the man. "You wish to buy a newspaper."
The man's face took on a blank expression, and he nodded and walked over to the newspaper vending machines near the front door, and began feeding coins into one of them. Saiou followed him with a puzzled Edo in tow.
"Now," said Saiou, "you will go inside and buy dinner for yourself and for us."
The businessman nodded and walked into the restaurant, holding the door so the boys could follow him.
"How do you do that?" Edo whispered as they stepped inside.
"I just do," Saiou replied.
The man stopped at the register and looked kindly, if a bit blankly, down at Edo and Saiou.
"And what would you boys like for dinner?" he asked them.
Edo relayed his request for a burger and milkshake. Saiou requested the same, minus the pickles, and asked politely for another to take home and eat later. The businessman acquiesced to everything, and ordered a sandwich and coffee for himself. They found a plastic table in a far corner of the restaurant and sat down to eat.
"Now," Saiou told him, "you will eat your food and read your newspaper. You will not listen to or remember anything my friend and I say to each other."
The man nodded agreeably, unfolded his paper, and began to eat.
"All right, now we can talk," said Saiou. He began to eat with enthusiasm that was somewhat at odds with the dignity he had conducted himself with so far.
"You put a spell on that man," Edo said, not disapprovingly.
"Not a spell," Saiou corrected. "I just told him what to think. Most people, I have learned, go through their lives without ever being sure, and are relieved to find someone who can decide for them."
Edo wasn't sure if that made sense or not, and decided to let it be.
"Why did you come looking for me?" he asked instead. "How did you know where I was?"
"It's one of my gifts," said Saiou. "I'm a fortune teller - I can read the future through my cards. They told me that you would be there, and that you would need my help, so I came looking for you." He paused to dab ketchup off his chin. "The cards did not tell me exactly what manner of trouble you are in. Would you mind very much telling me why you were in that alley?"
Edo cast a glance at the man with the newspaper.
"He won't hear you," Saiou assured him. "He's off in his own little world."
To prove it, he reached out and waved a hand in front of the businessman's face. The man never so much as blinked.
Edo wasn't sure whether to be relieved about this or not. It opened up all kinds of bothersome possibilities. If Saiou could do something like that to a wandering businessman, why not do it to him? He might even be under Saiou's control right now and not even know it...
"No," said Saiou. "I'm not controlling you. You have my word of that."
"How do I know?" asked Edo suspiciously.
"Because if I were controlling you, I wouldn't let you think about it," said Saiou. "Do you think he knows he's being controlled? He thinks he's having a late dinner and listening to a couple of children playing let's-pretend. Anyway, I don't think I could control you if I wanted to. You are still a child, and haven't learned how to lie to yourself like grownups do. I can't control someone who isn't willing to let themselves be controlled." He smiled a little. "I can, however, read your mind, sometimes. Not all of it, though."
Edo nodded. He was starting to get used to the idea of a friend with magical powers. Now that he was warm and dry and well-fed again, his fantasies about being whisked away to magical otherworlds was beginning to look a bit more realistic to him.
"Could you fix my dad, then?" he asked hopefully.
"I could try," said Saiou thoughtfully. "I can't promise anything, but I can try..."
"Let's try now," said Edo eagerly. "Please?"
Saioh looked hesitant for a moment. Then he nodded.
"I'll try," he said. "But not tonight. Let me have some time to figure out what I'm up against. Besides, my sister is waiting for me. I promised I'd come back to her as soon as I found you."
"You have a sister?" asked Edo, momentarily distracted.
"Yes. Mizuchi is her name. You will meet her soon," Saiou promised. "Stay with us tonight, and tomorrow I will see if there is anything I can do to help your father."
Edo nodded. Everything would be all right in the morning. He finished his cheeseburger.
"I'm done now," he said.
Saiou nodded and rolled up the wrapper from his meal - the actual food had vanished a long time ago. He looked at the businessman.
"The money that is missing from your wallet, you gave to a children's charity. You feel good about this. You will not remember seeing me or Edo once we leave."
The man nodded vaguely and went on looking at his paper. Saiou picked up the bag with the last hamburger in it and led the way out of the restaurant. He led the way confidently through a maze of streets, holding the bag in one hand and the umbrella in the other, giving Edo the all- important job of carrying the flashlight. It was still raining, but it was only a light mist that fell with no sound, and only served to show up the beam of light as Edo flashed it up and down the sidewalk.
Eventually, they came to a hotel. It looked expensive, and Edo gawked at it. He'd never been in a hotel before. While he stared, Saiou casually closed his umbrella and shook it dry before pushing open the door to the lobby. He walked confidently into the grand foyer and stopped to look at Edo until he caught up. They walked across the room without attracting any attention, and Saiou used a key card to make the elevator open for him. Edo didn't bother asking how a lone boy found money to afford a nice hotel like this one. He was learning.
Saiou led him to a room and knocked on the door.
"Mizuchi, I'm back. I brought him."
The door opened, and Edo found himself looking at a girl no older than he was. Her hair and eyes were darker than Saiou's, but he could tell at a glance that the two were siblings.
"That's him?" she asked. "He's younger than I thought he'd be."
"He'll grow," Saiou assured her. "I brought food. I'm sorry it's cold."
"That's all right. I'm just glad you're back safe," said Mizuchi.
Edo's face fell a little. He was remembering again that there was no one at home who was hoping he would come back safe.
Mizuchi continued, "And I'm glad he's here now, too." She turned to Edo. "Hello. I'm Mizuchi. What's your name?"
The boy smiled. "Edo."
Mr. Phoenix was not sure how he felt about the situation. Hungry, for starters - he wasn't quite sure when his last meal had been. He wasn't even entirely sure what time of day it was, other than daytime. He'd been up all night, but he wasn't tired. How could he possibly sleep with the sunlight beaming through his studio windows? It was the perfect time for getting work done, and he had so much to do. Scattered all around the workshop were the fruits of his labors: more drawings than he usually produced in a month, placed wherever he could look up at them in the rare moments when his attention strayed from his drawing board. His drawing hand ached from being used so long without a break. He'd never felt so inspired. Usually after he'd finished a work, he had to stop for a while to regather his energies before he could begin again, but for the last few days, it seemed no sooner had he finished one picture when he found another one in his mind begging to be let out. Somehow every line found its way into the proper place, every shadow and highlight was perfect. His eraser sat unused at the far corner of his desk. It felt like the best day of his life.
That bothered him slightly.
"I really should check on Ed..." he told himself, looking reluctantly down at his half- finished drawing. He had the paranoid sense that if he walked away from it now, he would forget what he'd intended to do with it and never get it back.
But he's my son...
He realized that he didn't know when Ed had last eaten. He dimly remembered Ed screaming at him, but he had been quiet since then, so he had simply assumed that everything was fine with him.
A voice in his mind whispered, He's a smart boy. He can take care of himself. You have work to do.
But he's only a child, he told himself.
He's in your way. He's keeping you from doing your great work. You should be glad he's leaving you to work in peace. He'll still be there when you're finished.
When will I be finished?
He couldn't come up with an answer for that. He shook his head tiredly.
"I'm talking to myself. I really do need to get some rest."
Regretfully, he put down his pencil and slid off of his chair, hearing bones click as long- disused joints were put in motion again. He winced. He had definitely been sitting still too long.
I'll talk to Ed. I'll make lunch - order a pizza, maybe. Take the afternoon off. I'll rest a bit, and then I can start fresh tomorrow...
With that thought in mind, he left his office and went looking for his son. He tried Ed's bedroom first, and found it empty. Since he had never gotten around to making the bed up yesterday (or, truth be told, for several days before that) he could not tell if the bed had been slept in or not. He investigated the kitchen and the living room with a similar lack of success. Then he sat down and tried to think of where else he could look, because the truth was that he still couldn't get his mind around the fact that Ed might be really be gone. He sat there a long time, letting it sink in.
Just before he was reaching the point of panic, he heard the sound of the front door opening. Relief washed over him, and he got up and hurried to give Ed a lecture on disappearing like that without telling where he was going.
Only it wasn't Ed. Standing on the doorstep was an unfamiliar boy, a few years older than Ed, with long dark hair and surprising violet eyes.
"Who are you? How did you get in here?" Mr. Phoenix demanded.
"My name is Takuma Saiou," said the boy. "Are you the father of Edo Phoenix?"
"Edo... You know where Ed is? Do you have him?" asked Mr. Phoenix, torn between anxiousness and anger. "Tell me where he is! I'm warning you..."
The boy held up a hand. He was very calm, which disturbed Mr. Phoenix. He was not used to children so young behaving with such adult mannerisms. It gave him a disturbing feeling that there was more going on than what he was seeing.
"Your son is safe," said Saiou. "He is currently residing in a hotel room not far from here. He is being given every possible care and is in no distress. And it was not I who took him. No one did - he left you of his own free will."
"You're lying," siad Mr. Phoenix, but his voice lacked confidence. Somewhere in the corners of his mind, he was remembering the sound of someone screaming that they hated him...
"I am not. Furthermore, you know I am not, so let us be honest with each other," Saiou replied. "I feel it is not in his best interests, but Edo wishes to return to you, and I have promised to do what I can."
To tell the truth, Saiou had a feeling that all of this was a very bad idea. He had not wanted to interfere with Edo's father at all, except that Edo had asked it of him and it would be a poor way to start their friendship not to at least try. It hadn't seemed like a difficult task while he had been safely in his hotel room on the other side of town, but now that he was standing here in the man's presence...
"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Mr. Phoenix, "but if you don't tell me where my son is right now, I'm calling the police."
"The police will not help you. If I command them not to, they will not even see me," Saiou replied. "This is between the two of us... and whatever is lurking in your mind."
"There is a force in your mind," Saiou repeated, more confidently. "It will not be safe to leave Edo with you until it is gone... and I intend to get rid of it."
Saioh reached out with his mind to touch the thing that burned behind Mr. Phoenix's eyes, intending to give it a push and force it to go elsewhere. Instead, it pushed back. Saiou gave a wail of pain, feeling the thing burning his mind with plumes of white fire.
You stay out of this, brat, the fiery thing hissed at him.
Saioh whimpered, feeling that voice cut through his mind like a red-hot knife. Sparks danced before his eyes. Whatever the thing was, it was stronger than he'd realized. He gritted his teeth and pushed harder.
Leave him, Saiou ordered. You're not wanted here.
Oh, but I am. He loves me. I inspire him. He's happier now than he's ever been.
That is none of my concern. Go away.
White flames seared across Saiou's mind, and he cried out, the high-pitched wail of a child in pain. Blood began to trickle from his nose. His vision now had a blurry dark edge around it, and he tried desperately to keep the world in focus.
You aren't worth my time, the flaming thing hissed. Go away before I grow annoyed with you.
You go away first.
Saiou pushed with all his might, recklessly burning through energy. A pale violet aura glowed around him, matching the pure white one that had begun to shine around Mr. Phoenix. The rest of the room seemed to have faded into shadow, as though the two of them were suspended in a pale void. Saiou's breath came in ragged gasps, and he could feel his heart pounding arrhythmically in his chest. Any moment, he was sure, he was going to pass out on the floor, but he couldn't do that because there was no telling what the white creature would do to him while he was helpless. He groped for something to hold on to and miraculously managed to get one hand around a door frame that he could no longer see, because all that was left in his vision was a hazy white world with the silhouette of a man at its center. Mr. Phoenix didn't even look winded. His expression was perfectly blank, his eyes nothing more than two points of brilliant light.
You are strong, said the light. If you had been a few years older, perhaps I could have used you... but this man is more useful to me now than you are. Leave, before I decide that you are too dangerous to let live.
For the first time in his life, Saiou was forced to admit that he was up against something far more powerful than himself. That fact hurt almost as much as the ache in his head left by the light's burning touch. He began to back away.
That's right, run away, the light jeered. Run away and take the worthless boy with you. He was only cluttering up the place.
I'll take him, Saiou replied, and someday I'll bring him back, and then you will pay for this.
His only answer was the sound of the light's laughter. Saioh staggered out of the room, tripping and bumping into things, unable to tell even where the walls were because his eyes were still so dazzled. The front of his shirt was wet with blood, but he didn't notice. All he could think of was getting away from the foul thing inhabiting Mr. Phoenix's body.
Meanwhile, Mr. Phoenix was quietly coming around, wondering what exactly he had been doing. He vaguely recalled he had been looking for something, but now he no longer knew what it had been.
Was I looking for Ed? he wondered. I guess I'm just not used to him not being here... but he's better off where he is...
Not that he was entirely sure where his son was, but he was quite certain that he was in good hands. Someone had come and offered to take care of him, someone completely trustworthy so he didn't have to worry. He wouldn't have put Ed into the care of anyone he didn't trust completely.
Now you can get some work done without distractions, he told himself - or at least, a voice he thought of as his own did. You can draw all day and night, if you want, and nothing can ever stop you....
Yes, he thought dreamily. That sounded wonderful. Nothing to think about ever again but the beautiful pictures in his mind. He walked back into his office with a faraway expression on his face and a peculiar pale light in his eyes.
Mizuchi was waiting anxiously. Usually, she could keep track of her brother by feeling for his aura - no matter how far away he was, she could sense him and know that he was all right. A few minutes ago, though, she had felt his aura flare wildly and then dwindle until she wasn't even sure it was there at all. Such a thing had never happened before, and it was all she could do not to panic. Edo didn't seem to know what was going on, and Mizuchi lacked the words to explain it so that he would understand, so they simply waited together in silence.
Then the door to their hotel room opened and Saioh staggered in.
"Takuma!" Mizuchi cried, running forward to help prop him up. "Brother, what happened?"
"You're bleeding," said Edo, wide-eyed.
Saiou raised his head, his eyes still unfocused.
"I fought," he said hoarsely. "There is... a thing, a white light, in his mind... It is evil... It's too strong for me. I tried to make it go away, but it hurt me... I hurt..."
"Let me," said Mizuchi. Pale violet light flared around her hands as she passed some of her power into him. Saiou began to breathe a bit more easily.
"Thank you," he said. He looked up to Edo. "I'm sorry I failed you. I had no idea how strong that thing would be."
Edo said nothing. He was still gawking at the blood on Saiou's shirt.
"Are you going to be all right now?" Mizuchi asked.
"For now," said Saiou. "We can't stay here. That thing is angry. We need to go somewhere far away, where we'll be safe, and Edo has to come with us."
"But..." Edo began. He wasn't sure what he was going to say. That this was his home? That he had never even spent the night outside of this city? That his father would worry about him? He looked back at the blood that was still drying on his friend's face and clothing. Edo had never thought his gentle father could do something like that to anyone, but... things were obviously different now.
"We will come back, right?" he asked. "Someday?"
"Someday," Saiou promised. "When we are both stronger, we will come back and save your father. I promise."
"Then let's go," said Edo. He put on a brave smile. "It can be an adventure."
A few hours later, the maid came to clean their room, only to find it pristine and empty. She remarked upon this to her supervisor, who checked her records and discovered no indication that the room had been occupied that day. When, the next day, a policeman came by making inquiries about a young boy who had been kidnapped, the establishment was able to helpfully and courteously explain that no such person had been seen.
To Be Continued...