Star Magic
By Elven Shaman

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I realize that the title of this story is probably synonymous with that of Rainbow Brite's horse or a store in the Village. Worry not, this IS metaphorical, I assure you. If it's corny then I apologize in advance. If it's mind-blowing, stupendous and overwhelmingly GREAT then I take all credit. =)
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"I've done a lot
God knows I've tried
To find the truth
I've even lied.
But all I know is down inside I'm bleeding."
-Richard O' Brien

"Mom, can I have a dollar?"

"What for?" she asked, impatiently. She was late for work again, a half-eaten piece of toast on the floor where she'd dropped it in a rush to fix her hair.

"I just wanna stop somewhere after school," said Rowen, shifting the weight of his bookbag on his shoulder. There was a good chance he would be late as well.

"Where's 'somewhere'?" she asked, not looking at him.

"Just gonna go to the store or something..." he mumbled, averting his eyes. "I don't... y'know, don't wanna come home before Dad does anymore."

His mother sighed and dug through her smelly, cracked leather pocketbook. There wasn't any need to ask why. Actually, it would be better for him if she came home first.

"All right, but you'd better not get anything senseless, I'm running low on money this week." She hastily fished a wrinkled bill out of her change purse and handed it to Rowen.

"Thanks, Mom," he said, quickly kissing her cheek. "Gotta go!"

"You and me both!" She snorted, grabbing her coffee mug and heading out the screen door after him. The air was pleasantly cool and dry outside but the sun was shy. Summer heat knew when to call it quits and the chill of early September was making its presence known in the steadily falling temperature. The mother and son walking briskly down the street could take nothing special into consideration about the air that day. It was a weekday and weekdays were full of other things.

"You taking the bus with me today?" he asked, a hint of exasperation in his voice. She ignored it.

"I've got to, I'm late." Her light grin faltered a little as she glanced at her watch. She cursed silently at the bad timing and focused on her son's face as he walked instead. Brushing aside his everyday features, she searched vainly for a trace of the look he used to give her whenever she'd announce that she'd be traveling to work with him that day, or whenever she'd fish out the orange-flavored Flintstone vitamin for him to chew. It was a look she used to envy and adore in him at the same time but it was, unfortunately, an endangered expression at his age. Sighing, she knew the sprightly look had faded with his freshman year. She doubted she would ever see it again. Since when had he become so detached? She missed his youth more than she did her own, the thoughtful, talkative youngster with the too-bright eyes. Now...?

She watched with a tinge of regret as he unceremoniously shoved the dollar in his pocket and quickened his pace a little ahead of her. His rejection of her stung... but it was expected now.

"How's your head?" she asked, suddenly concerned about him. "You said it hurt before..." He did not turn around.

"It's okay," he replied, flatly; hinting that he did not want to discuss it. He was doing his best not to engage her, acting virtually oblivious to her mild queries which, more often than not, annoyed him. They walked in uncomfortable silence until his mother's curiosity got the better of her.

"Is your breathing doing okay, honey?" her voice was deeply concerned although she knew it was a forbidden question. At least she had not SAID the word "asthma" out loud, but all the same, it pissed him off. Rowen sighed irately and she flinched at the sound. She hadn't MEANT to make him angry.

"It's FINE, Ma, and please don't call me 'honey'!" he said, almost gruffly but feigning more.

"But... you didn't sound good last night," she persisted. "Do you think it might be time for you to see the doctor? I can take you to-"

Rowen shook his head, waving her offer away with a frustrated groan. "Aw c'mon, I'm fine, really!" he protested loudly, walking faster. Honestly, this was getting tedious! Why wouldn't she just shut up?

"If you say so," she sighed, casting her eyes to the pavement. Rowen glanced at his mother a little over his shoulder. He suddenly felt sorry for the brusque attitude he'd shown. It seemed to pain her. He HAD been annoyed, but he hadn't meant to act like an asshole!

"Um, it was just the cold, Ma. It always gets bad in the colder weather," he said more gently this time, in recompense.

"You sure?"

He nodded, looking at her. "Mm-hm. It's okay, really. Don't worry about it." With that said, he turned his head to the side, pretending to be deeply absorbed in gazing at the row of gray apartment buildings across the street.

"Maybe we should get you some new medication?"

"Maybe..." he mumbled.

"Well?"

"Ma, can we please talk about this some other time?" he sighed, frowning. "You know I don't like discussing my asthma." It embarrassed him... greatly. She decided to take the hint and bite her tongue the rest of the way to the bus stop. Obviously, concern only seemed to annoy him, regardless of its intent. She couldn't help it, being his mother. She ALWAYS worried about him, despite the fact that he didn't like it. She was painfully aware of how sensitive he was about his asthma especially and instantly regretted asking him about it. Against her will, she replayed the look of confused disappointment washed across his face when he'd learned he could not join the basketball team this year... and what happened after that she'd rather not remember.

They'd told him it was due to his "physical disability". It was their own concern for his well-being, they'd said but they were wrong, she knew, DEAD wrong! Her son was no frail weakling by any means. Who could possibly think that to look at him? He was muscular and full of stamina which HE had full credit for. After all, he hadn't been BORN with a firm, muscular build. He'd trained himself hard over the summer, developing his muscles with specific exercises under his doctor's supervision. Determination meant nothing to the asthma so he used discretion. The finest aspect was that the sudden burst of devotion was not solely for vanity's sake. ANY chump could work out just to get a good physique but he'd wanted to be eligible for the basketball team and he knew he'd never stand a chance if he did not strengthen his upper body and legs. THAT was the beauty part, the self-reliance.

So he'd trained. He trained himself much harder than anyone (even his doctor) knew, always pushing past his limits of exertion which might be called unwise due to the asthma.

Frequently that summer, she would find him in his room, dead asleep on the floor with his barbells next to his head, too exhausted to climb into bed. The sincere fervent obsession with which he pursued his goal had almost begun to frighten her. He barely left his room all summer and for the first time in his life, she had to actually REMIND him to eat. The changes were small in the beginning but within the next eight weeks, he'd acquired a fairly muscled build with the regular weight training and flexibility exercises. He'd become tireless, full of energy-he'd even started practicing his shots.

Therefore, with such skill and gusto, she did not understand why the team would NOT accept him! Stupid bastards! His asthma wasn't chronic, it could be controlled. What the fuck was the problem? He could not understand it and she could tell it frustrated him beyond what he allowed to show. What worried her more than anything was that his rage was always silent, barely perceptible even to her. Why couldn't he be like a normal teenager and fly into angst-ridden rages? His father always did! Why wouldn't he ever VOICE complaint? Why didn't he ever rebel or talk back like most kids his age? Why was his room so well- kept and orderly? It was almost abnormal! She kept her eyes glued on Rowen's back and smiled at the way he always kept his shirts neatly ironed. She barely had to lift a finger for him anymore...

The image of her son was always tinged with admiration. Not just a mother's admiration but genuine pride. She was proud of him like no one else was. He was handsome with bright blue eyes like his father. However, HIS eyes lit up with the intensity of his thought whenever he spoke. His father's eyes only sparkled when they were glazed drunk. Rowen had pale, clear skin like hers and a delicate bone structure that neither she nor his father had. His black hair was usually rather shaggy but now it was parted neatly in the middle and held down with water and a dab of grease.

She had to admit, he looked very attractive and vaguely wondered why he did not have a girlfriend yet. He was quite the auspicious individual-good-looking, tall, built as well as highly gifted! Maybe girls just didn't like him? Maybe HE didn't want them? After all, he was the top student in his class so he was normally constantly occupied with something or other. He got straight A's all the way which had already won him the Academic Fitness Award from the University of Tokyo-his biggest accomplishment so far. Maybe if he was lucky, they would accept him next year after he graduated? Then she would be so proud, so proud of her diligent, hard-working son...

"DAMN!" His shout brought her out of her contemplative state. With a sinking heart, she watched the source of his displeasure. The bus had just pulled away and there would not be another one for another valuable ten minutes.

"Shit," she cursed, stamping her foot for emphasis. This was not her day.

"Geez, I'm sorry, Mom..." he sighed, frowning. "I made you late."

"No, it's okay, honey. We'll wait."

He cleared his throat, irately and ran his hand through his hair in an annoyed gesture. "Uh, don't call me 'honey', please, Ma?"


Rowen strolled out of the school building that afternoon, fairly content but with no company. He'd managed to get to class on time with two minutes left to spare, that had relieved him. Now he fished inside his coat pocket and pulled out two pieces of paper. The first one he unwrinkled and admired. It was his first math test of the marking period, a perfect score. The ONLY perfect score in the class. He gave half a grin at the red A scrawled on the margin.

Maybe THIS'LL satisfy the grinch when I get home? he thought, sarcastically. He shoved the peace offering back into his coat pocket and clutched the second paper in his fist-the dollar his mother had given him. This would hold him until about five o'clock, and he had a whole afternoon to blow before she came home. When his mom was home, he could be assured that his father would be more likely be in a calmer mood than if he was just home alone.

"Hey Rowen!" his friend, Ikura, called from behind him. "Wait up!"

"Hullo, Ikura," he said pleasantly, quickly shoving the dollar back into his pocket. It would be improper to have his money visible. He grinned at Ikura's unsteady gait, his tall, skinny legs always made him wobble and his oily, lank hair always hung in his eyes, presenting him with the title of class klutz.

"Hey, I heard you aced Masuka's test!" Ikura hopped merrily alongside him, reminding him of a puppy on speed. If only he had a tail to wag...

"Yeah," Rowen said, trying his best to sound nonchalant about it. "No big deal." Really, to him a perfect score was a trifle nowadays. His mother would be happy and that would make HIM happy. That was all. The appeal had died long ago.

"No big deal?" Ikura's eyes widened to the size of saucers, and Rowen was afraid he would tackle him and slobber him with big, wet, drippy kisses. "Are you crazy? That Masuka is a tough old bastard! He shows no mercy! Misplace one decimal, carry one too many over, be off by a fraction and yer ass'll wind up with a failing mark to bring home! You're so cool you aced it!" He dragged his arm across his nose and sniffed.

Apparently, Ikura had a bit of a cold. Rowen shrugged, not sure how to respond to him. He didn't feel he was so cool, really. He'd never really NOT aced anything... except...

"Well, gotta go Rowen." Ikura shrugged and grinned widely, making him look even goofier than he sounded with his red nose and unruly bangs. "Coach doesn't look too pretty when you're late for practice, and I've ALREADY failed one test today! JA-NE!{1}"

And with that, Ikura bounded off towards the gym, ready to jump at a whistle. Rowen's heart sank as he watched him go but his demeanor betrayed no sign of umbrage.

Although Ikura's innocent words had stung him worse than he would ever admit, showing pain was humiliating and only made things worse. He watched, expressionlessly, as a few of the blue-jersied team members filed into the red-brick gym. Then he turned around and began walking out of the schoolyard, vehement disgust merging with the envy, making him antsy. The further he was from the building, the better it felt. That basketball team had been his prime goal all summer, his one chance to prove to everyone that he was NOT just the clean-cut, straight-as-a-line, teacher's pet he resembled.

Oh sure, that was all good. He had the best grades in his class, the golden average, the get-by-in-life-easy report card. However, he could never quite be content with just those things. He'd been taught to constantly want more, to rise above what he could reach-master everything. Now he wanted to be respected for MORE than just his marks, he wanted to show them all he could make it as ANYTHING- ichiban! He wanted difference, he strove for it. He could be invincible with his intellect, he could score more points than any player on the basketball team, he could date cheerleaders, he could be popular, he could have more fun and... and maybe, just MAYBE, his father wouldn't beat him so much? However, this was a dream denied, not even deferred. It made him sick just thinking about it.

"Fuck...!" he cursed himself, rubbing the scar on his forehead as if to massage away the memory. It still hurt when he touched it lightly, but remembering how it got there hurt worse.

Bitterly, Rowen had always known that his father had wanted a son that would succeed in the things HE had failed at in his own youth. Rowen sighed, it was the same old story. Fathers with passionate desires to have sons that would exceed them. In his own country, he knew this was a particular age-old trend. However, Rowen Hashiba could not seem to do it fast enough.


His father wanted a champ, a long-coveted strapping athlete. This was no secret. Why else would he regard his flawless marks so coldly? Rowen could remember many a night when he would lie awake in bed, listening to the long, slurred talks his father had with his mother in the evening; the winding, drunken tirades about his future and his past always made him feel sick to his stomach. At least he was not alone. His mother's presence was the only mild comfort he had while his father's tongue reminded him of who he was. The only son... and a failure in powerful liquor-glazed eyes.

"Goddamn grades! Thinks he can win me over with a red mark on a piece a paper!? Shit...!"

"It was a GOOD grade," his mother would say, meekly. "He tries."

"Good grades! Stupid kid...! Can't win ANYTHING with those!"

"He... he tries..."

"Doesn't do it RIGHT!" The sound of something falling or breaking usually accompanied such a loud outburst, "FUCKIN' THINKS... THINKS THE WRONG WAY... don't give a SHIT about his fuckin grades...!"

"Please, lower your voice. Rowen is asleep."

That's what THEY thought!

"Think I care?" he laughed. "I hope he hears a MOUTHFUL! Maybe THEN he'll learn how to MIND me!"

"But-"

"Can't even BREATHE right! Nothing but a weak shithead nerd!" he mumbled. "He's a BLISTER!"

"But he-" she was often interrupted.

"You let me alone! You're always defending him!"

"I'm only trying to help."

"Well you can shut up, Misao. Ya AIN'T helping."

Silence. Rowen would hear the sounds of his mother picking things up from the floor, nauseating anger stirring in him, making him too anxious to fall asleep. He pitied her.

"A MERCY he ain't a girl, Misao! A goddamn MERCY!" he spluttered suddenly.

"He... he's a good boy, Ken," she insisted.

"Good..." he intoned, scornfully. "Good..." He ignored her for a moment after that, downing the last of the vodka straight, letting the lukewarm liquor numb his brain and ignite his words .

"Still a fuckin' mercy... all I need is a GIRL telling me I'm wrong! A GIRL!"

He had NOT wanted to be given a son and then CURSED with a thin, spindly, asthmatic know-it-all! What a joke! Frequently in his harangues, he would swear that maybe even a daughter was better! A daughter would not have the smarts or the gall to contradict him when he was wrong, a girl would know from the start that her father was ALWAYS right! No arguments, no grades, no silent contradictions, just sweet femininity to cherish like a pretty pearl. But Rowen, the blister, was nothing like that.

It was a great shame when your own SON knew better than you did. It made him cringe just seeing Rowen's face screwed up in thought. How he hated Rowen's soft corrections, his mild, critical eyes, his high- and-mighty contemplations, all of the questions that popped into his head, the ones that HE was incapable of answering! Even worse was how he could always TELL when the little bastard was criticizing him. He loathed being criticized, ESPECIALLY by his own family! No one had a right to criticize him in ANY way! Not when HE lead the family!

But in large, glassy, silent stares, he would see the shame reflected at him, the disgust and the hatred locked forever in his son's blue eyes- eyes that SHOULD be his!

The sight made him want to tear those bright eyes straight out of his head. No more eyes to see him... and judge.


Rowen HAD tried. He'd tried very hard in the past to please his father in the only way he could. He brought home marks and teachers' praise that would surely make any OTHER father bust with pride. But was his father content? No, dad did not want a scholar.

He wanted a new Michael Jordan, a star basketball player- ichiban{2} and nothing less! A mere walking, talking cliche-how pathetic! Disgusting and pathetic but what his father wanted. High marks and intelligence simply did not suffice... or worse, matter. Rowen remembered, with a sense of resentment, how much it had pleased his father when he'd made the vow to work out and train himself last summer. NOW he'll get what he wants! If that was the only way to get anything besides a knock over the head or dead silence he would do it!


Sticks and stones are hard on bones

Aimed with angry art

Words can sting like anything

But silence breaks the heart.


Dad would never raise a fist to him while he was in training, he even hit Mom less. So train he did-with more vigor than he knew he had! The exhaustion never bothered him, as long as he kept in mind that it would all pay off when he'd made the team. Rowen's face fell as he walked and his hands clenched into fists as his thoughts drifted slowly back to last month... when he'd received the rejection letter.

They didn't want me...

Rowen slowed his pace a little as if to balance the cumbersome weight of the memory. He had not made the team, they said, on account of his asthma. This news had not only discouraged and shocked him, it had also made him fearful and with good reason. He'd tried to hide the pink notice letter from his father-whom he knew would not take it well- but careless negligence had blown his cover.

How could I have been so stupid?

His eyes squeezed shut.

He could still hear his mother's cries, muffled by the sound of his skull crashing against the floor. The man had kept at it until he could no longer breathe. He hadn't even paused to rest like he usually did, just kept on slamming his head into the hard wood floor again and again, holding his prone body in check with his massive weight. A strong, fetid stink of alcohol saturated his breath as he hollered insults and curses to the skies, one after the other with each blow.

"STICK TO YOUR FUCKIN' BOOKS! KOROSE SONO BOKE!{3}"

The immense weight of his father and the pain aggravated the asthma but Rowen had set his lungs and done his best not to wheeze lest the noise enrage the estranged man further.

He'd withstood the onslaught with his usual numbness, fighting hard not to cry or move-ignoring the blood and the words. To protest in any way was always dangerous even at his age.

He could not clearly remember how the whole thing had ended, only that his last memory of the beating was lost in a flurry of blows with something warm and wet filling his eyes, running down his face in streams.

He'd not seen black but he had begun to see and hear white. He knew nothing after that. He'd woken up on the floor, the droning pain in his head blinding him and his blood smeared everywhere, making the floor beneath him feel sticky and warm. His mother was sobbing from miles away yet her face hovered directly over him, trying to mop up some of the mess with a tissue. Later, he'd learned that she'd been locked inside her bedroom during the ordeal, helpless to intervene. It would not have made much of a difference, anyway. What could she have possibly done against him? Call the police? She'd never do it. Fight him? Impossible. Besides, the storm had lulled. He was nowhere in sight and that fact had flooded him with relief so intense that he'd almost passed out again.

With a few days of bed rest and excuses, the swelling had gone down and he was able to go back to school. It always stung him a little each time his friends would ask about the faded bruises on his face or the scar across his forehead.

"I ran into a wall..."

"I tripped..."

"Bear attack..."

"I fell..."

"I must have been sleeping the wrong way..."

"Just new eye makeup."

White lies, all of them. He was even able to get a little creative with them nowadays, they kept him from breaking down. Most of his friends would not know how to react properly if they saw him, the quiet smart boy in the class, burst into a fit of emotional tears. It simply would not do.

Returning to school was necessary but he'd returned to face his own shame mirrored in the sweaty faces of the basketball players-the healthy kids who'd made it! The non-asthmatics, the jocks, his peers-even awkward Ikura had made it! He would not be able to join them in their exclusive camaraderie, never be able to feel the elation of winning a game. He would only feel ashamed at his one loss... and he would keep the scar on his head the rest of his life.

Such was the price of failure in his father's house.


Rowen kicked an empty soda bottle as he turned the corner, headed for his favorite novelty shop-the one with the glittering things. He thought of his mother briefly. She was always so protective of him. It DID irk him sometimes but he appreciated her kindness all the same. She always knew how he felt because he was not the ONLY one his dad chose to beat on. Next year he would go to college, be able to leave everything behind, even the basketball team. But his eyes misted when he realized that SHE couldn't. He could not imagine leaving her alone with that abusive man!

He shook his head, his thoughts scattered by the tumultuous, unfamiliar sound of American rap music booming from inside the novelty store. It was called STAR MAGIC, and Rowen frequented it. He liked the feeling the place gave him with its dim interior and ceiling decorated with glow-in-the-dark plastic stars. It was unusual therapy but rousing around in a wonderland of false celestial treasures quieted the aching buzz in his head somewhat. The store sold novelty goods, frivolous things that sparkled and glowed. Everything from astronaut ice-cream to colorful holograms that made you dizzy just staring at them. It was owned by an American company and many of the random younger Americans who lived in the neighborhood often met there to chill, exchange unusual American candies and scream hilarious English obscenities at the top of their voices.

Rowen wondered at the customers gathered in the shop. Most were American regulars and he spied two Japanese junior high school girls, identifying them from their navy blue uniforms. He never really spoke to any of the Americans except the store's cashier, a friendly woman who always chewed gum and treated him respectfully. She spoke pretty good Japanese in his dialect though he preferred to speak English with these people. They were wild cards, all of them. Each one wore different clothing, some of it even ripped ON PURPOSE! Many of the American girls had at least three holes in each ear, their nails painted an array of unusual colors, and their apparel-so strange! Black vinyl miniskirts, shirts made of material that shone in a tawdry fashion, bangles, wide-legged pants, tiny T-shirts, sweatshirts that hung loose and baggy, large neon shoes that clumped...! So unlike the pressed, color-coded school uniforms and black loafers worn by his friends.

These people were all so different, yet he ADMIRED them for it. Different was the one thing he, and many people he knew, were raised not to be. A few of them looked up as he walked in and then quickly went back to what they were doing. They'd seen him before and they didn't care. He tried not to dwell on the fact that he was the only Japanese person in the store when the high school girls giggled obnoxiously and left soon after he entered.

"Konnichiwa{4}, Rowen-san." The cashier snapped her blue mint bubble gum at him. She was a thin, dark-haired woman of about 40 years and she was the only woman over 20 he ever saw who still chewed bubble gum.

"Can I find you anything today? I just got an order of red neon planets..." she offered in accent that always made him want to burst out laughing.

"No, no thank you, Libby-san. Just here to look," he said politely, lowering his eyes to her and wandering over to the shelf of Rubix cube puzzles. He loved those things. He picked one up and turned it over carefully in his hand. Then, after two minutes of studying it, he solved it with a few deft twists of his wrist. That had been TOO easy! It was all in the structure of the thing, really. Not too hard to solve if you'd taken a calculus course or two. He put it down and picked up another one. THIS one, shaped like a cylinder, was even easier than the last one. It took him about forty-five seconds to complete the whole thing. Its cylinder shape had made it easy for him. These particular puzzles bored him quickly so he turned his attention to the glow-in-the-dark stars. A lambent display of them glowed warmly under a black lightbulb and he stared at them a while, smiling in their yellow-white radiance.

He imagined how his bare ceiling would look with a few of them sprayed against it. It would look cool. He sighed at them, despondently. His father would never approve of such a frivolity, even a relatively cheap one. HIS son could not marvel at items meant for children. HIS eyes were always right! Cheap stars were meant for toddlers. Old bastard couldn't even let him decorate! His stomach grumbled angrily to match his mood and he realized he hadn't eaten much. Remembering the dollar in his pocket, he decided to head over to the McDonald's right across the street.

He turned around to leave, his eyes still lingering on the stars... but he did not get very far.

"YOWZAH!" a high voice yelped.

Rowen gasped as his head was slammed directly and quite forcefully into something blocking his way. White flashed in front of him, then a bright, hectic swirl of colors took over so he couldn't see.

"Ow!" he squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his throbbing forehead. His head was still very tender from-

"Oops! I'm sorry, you chillin?" the voice asked and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Rowen blinked to clear his vision, surprised at the unfamiliar, kindly touch, and met a pair of black eyes staring back at him with a vaguely familiar look of concern he normally saw in his mother. These eyes had long lashes, obviously belonging to a girl. A girl he'd never seen before.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he answered, embarrassed, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, I shoulda watched where I was going."

"Got lost in the stars, huh?" she asked, leaning against the display case. Her smile immediately hooked his attention. "I don't blame you."

"Um... I dunno. I guess I did." He laughed with an empty wit and decided he wanted to look at her a little longer before heading over to McDonald's. She didn't look like she was going anywhere anyway, and she seemed friendly. In fact, she looked almost like she wanted him to STAY and chat. He didn't know what but something about her would not let him excuse himself and walk politely away.

"Oh, you DID, my friend!" she snorted at him. "No worries, though. You're okay, right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied.

"Good."

"So... come here often?" he asked, making small talk.

"Not really," she answered, blowing out her breath flippantly. "I just felt like dropping in to go star-hunting." Rowen was wary of the faint trace of nonchalance in her tone, maybe she DID want to be left alone after all? One rule of thumb, he knew, was never to detain an impatient girl. Since she made no move, he studied her a bit and thought that she was definitely worth looking at, at least. She was rather odd though, and definitely not Japanese. Her beauty was alien but charming even to his Eastern eyes. She looked about fifteen years old or so. He couldn't tell from her face just how old, but she was certainly SHAPED like a teenager, not a child. She looked like a cherub, actually. A small girl, much shorter than him, even if she WAS fifteen.

Her hair was her strangest aspect, it had snagged his attention at first glance. Rowen was accustomed to the dark black-brown to jet black hair of the people he encountered every day. Blonde hair was rare, but he even saw THAT every now and then on a few of the tourists.

But never in all his years had he ever seen a young girl with WHITE hair! White to match her face, it hung short and straight, framing a narrow, child-like bone structure set with two pieces of shining onyx on either side of a snub, short nose. White hair, black eyes, she was colored like a chess set! He noticed later that she was wearing green and black striped tights and huge army boots that did not become her skinny legs.

She wore an olive-green corduroy skirt and a bright fruit-colored T- shirt that read SERENDIPITY in big purple letters. A small crescent barrette of silver pulled some of the blanched hair away from her chin leaving the rest to hang about her cheeks. Something dark blue and elastic was wound around her wrist and she smelled like tobacco. Odd-looking girl.

A rather large, dark brown, cloth handbag hung from her shoulder and it did not look like she was carrying school books. Her ears were pierced TWICE, and four small, silver hoops adorned her lobes. This was obviously a girl who would be thrown out of his school the second she stepped into it. A girl who looked like this-more likely than not- meant trouble.

"Do you live around here?" Her voice rasped slightly. She sounded and smelled a lot like a smoker.

"No, I uh, live somewhere else. Far from this neighborhood," he said, keeping in mind that he could end this discussion whenever he chose to. But for some reason, he didn't want to. She seemed easy enough to talk to and he could use some company until five o'clock came around. "How about you?" he asked.

"I live down the block," she said nonchalantly. Her face changed suddenly, as if she were bored with the present conversation. "Who are you?" she asked, out of the blue. Rowen felt like hitting himself, he'd all but completely forgotten to introduce himself!

"Oh, my name is Hashiba Rowen." He smiled and made a curt, polite bow as he was taught to do when he met new people.

"Charmed, Rowen-san," she said, acknowledging his bow with a nod. She was probably American.

"You are?"{5}

"I'm No One."

"Is... that your name?" he asked uncertainly.

"No," she sighed, "but it's the best one I could think to give you. After all, No One is perfect."

She was witty, he liked that! "C'mon, what's your name?"

She lowered her eyes, a huffy expression screwed up her face. What was HER problem?

"Phaedra. I despise it." She pouted, sucking a tooth and folding her arms. "I'd RATHER be No One." Her gaze shifted to Rowen's and he instantly felt hot. Something about her look or her eyes or BOTH made him feel penetrated in a weird way. He began to wish for all the world that he could think of something to say that would make her stop. In fact, now he couldn't really decide whether he liked her or not. Her eyes narrowed, squinting up at him like two shining black discs. The whites of her eyes were gone, the overall effect was scary. Were they slanted like a Japanese? Or were they round like an American? He really couldn't tell WHAT she was from her eyes.

"You've got a scar," she observed with her outlandish eyes. Rowen's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. In the dim light, how could she see the scar on his forehead? Besides that, it was a strange thing for her to say in the first place! He wasn't about to inform HER that she had holes in her ears! His fingers touched the scar lightly.

"Oh this? Just an accident," he lied, letting out another nervous laugh, hoping she would turn her eyes from him-she didn't.

"Uh-huh," she said, either uninterested or sarcastically. Her eyes glued on his face. "Tell me," she spoke abruptly. "Do you LIKE stars?"

"Huh?" Rowen stammered.

"You look like you do, that's all," she shrugged.

The question was odd; unexpected, but he might as well answer as long as she was looking at him like that. Maybe then she'd stop?

"Uhh, sure I do. Stars are cool... when they come out, anyway." He shrugged, hoping that would satisfy her.

"Right..." her voice changed abruptly, again. She had a hard time staying focused or content, "You don't gotta be so bothered, Rowen- chan! I won't bite you," she said, smiling.

"Who, uh, me?" Rowen blinked and frowned. "I-I'm not bothered."

"You're such a kidder, Rowen-chan!" she giggled and called him by the respective name, as if they were old friends.

"Why? I'm serious, I am NOT bothered!" he denied, feeling weird by her demeanor. Hell, her hair alone was enough to make him feel weird!

"Really?" she pouted, "You act kinda funny... like you don't wanna talk or something." She crossed her arms over the SERENDIPITY on her chest and tapped her foot. Maybe he should go now? But he wouldn't just leave without explaining himself.

"No! I mean, I... I do, it's just that-um..." Rowen didn't want to say it but- "...well, YOU act kinda funny yourself."

"That's what they all say!" she sighed, rolling her eyes and showing the white. He was relieved as she broke her gaze, glancing up at the glow-in-the-dark stars pasted on the ceiling from the corner of her ebony eyes instead.

"Why do you like them?" she asked. Her questions were so sudden, in a way, rather arbitrary.

"Them?" He'd forgotten, in his confusion, what they had been discussing.

"You know, the STARS?" she asked. "Why you like?"

Rowen thought before he answered. What a STRANGE girl she was! No one had ever asked him so many questions before on a first meeting-and such ODD questions! A stranger did not usually care about what he liked or why he liked them. He could not help answering them. These questions, though pervading, were about what had interested him for as long as he could remember, it made him feel good to talk about them. If this girl only acted normal, he'd be overjoyed but... she was a stranger, he had to be careful. Feeling a little uncomfortable and wary of her, he cleared his throat.

"I just do." He shrugged, thinking of nothing better to say. "They're just... pretty and... and they're always there," he finished quietly.

"Go on, I know you've got more to say than just that," she urged, still looking up, her eyes sparkling like...

"...black diamonds and pearls. If I ruled the world..." the rapper on the stereo sang.

Drowning out the music's monotonous beat, he joined her in her mock star-gazing. Looking at them and not her would better help him describe why he liked them so much.

"The real ones-they twinkle. I like things that twinkle and when you got em up in the sky like that, it's like the stars wanna invite ya up there," he continued, feeling a little dumb and almost wanting to shut up right there on the spot... but he didn't-(or couldn't?). Nostalgia wafted through him like the smell of rain in the desert. He couldn't stop talking now.

"I like how they, y'know, just stay in one place and greet you every night. They're so old and so many and we're like... like, um..."

The beating of the song thrummed back into his ears, he'd lost what he was about to say. Reality was back and so were her eyes.

"Ahum..." he cleared his throat, embarrassed. He decided he'd probably babbled too much, let enough slip.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Uh, nuthin. It... it's stupid." He was glad the place was dim, he was probably blushing. He wished she'd stop staring. Maybe he should go...?

"Mmmm... not at all," she said, absently.

"Really?"

"Uh-huh. Who am I to criticize? YOU barely know me!" She smirked to herself.

"True."

"Don't go yet," she pleaded.

"No, no I wasn't," he said. She looked relieved.

"Good. Then you know what I think? I-I mean, since you've been vulnerably honest with me, I'll tell you what I think, okay?"

"Sure, why not?" he shrugged. He liked to hear opinions.

"Stars," she began, looking back at the ceiling, "are like some people you know, shining things you can only reach at a distance."

"Hm?" he frowned. She was crazy! But she only studied the ceiling with interest, practically ignoring him. Was she high, or just acting that way?

"Ever wonder why you can't touch a star? It's just like people..." she said, placing her hand under her chin thoughtfully. It seemed she didn't care that he thought she was acting strangely... how un-Japanese! His odd look of disapproval did not falter.

"No. It's obvious why I can't," he answered, shrugging.

"Because they're so far away? Because each one is separated by miles and miles of darkness?" she asked. He was about to answer unintelligently, but she continued. "But there are certain ways to reach them if you got the know-how..." He continued to stare at her quizzically until, finally, she looked at him. "PEOPLE, I mean, not stars! NASA touches real stars, the rest of us are grounded." She smiled too much, like a little kid trapped inside a young woman's body. He frowned, not really getting her meaning. It sounded too philosophical, too many metaphors which got annoying after a while. He never really saw any use in them anyway, he was used to people telling like it is. She noted his puzzled look with a small frown.

"Don't look at me like that, Rowen. I'm not the first to say that, you know," she paused, grinning to herself. "Few... perhaps NO ideas... are truly original. Paraphrases, maybe. Varied imitations."

"Stars interest you?" He cleared his throat, strategically changing the subject.

"Isn't that obvious?" She snorted and giggled a little, sounding a lot like that American pop singer, Cyndi Rauper or something... "I'm glad you like them too, Rowen-chan," she continued. "I don't usually see too many people who get lost looking at fake stars. We've got something in common, then." She seemed delighted by the fact.

"True..." sighed Rowen. As he gazed wistfully at the glowing, shaped plastic on the ceiling, his thoughts drifted, almost automatically, to the past. A fond memory flashed through his brain like an old friend in an unlikely place. The stars-he'd always liked to keep the stars in the sky his secret, HIS passion, like what most kids hid under their pillows or in a hole in the backyard. The thing that only he would notice on a clear, cold night while everyone else stared down the street. He'd always look up and wonder about them. How dull night would be without them, just a black slate, an empty hole, a blank thing!

While he was still in grade school, he even used to talk to them from his bed, naming each one as he gazed out his window. They were sort of his friends who came only at night and he remembered how he had loved falling asleep, murmuring playful conversations with them. Imagination and childhood allowed him this, he hadn't had as many inhibitions then. But one night, his father had been grievously drunk and heard him talking, unconsciously, in his sleep-not even awake.

The beating Olympics he'd gotten for it made him bite his tongue whenever he'd felt the urge to speak aloud to the stars-his friends. The growing up had not made him forget his celestial conversations. Thinking about it now, he guessed it seemed rather stupid to talk to balls of gas burning miles away in the sky. He'd been much younger the last time he'd spoken to them and, although they never spoke back, he thought by the way they twinkled that maybe they DID listen every now and then...?

That was long ago. The stars, along with their magic, were gradually put away like many childhood fantasies, as he plunged himself into the heavy task of learning, studying, and thinking about good-old- fashioned fact. However, though he no longer regarded the stars as friends, his profound interest in the sky and its wonders never vanished with age. He learned as much as he could about it, even took an extracurricular course in astronomy. He could do it too, he had the recommendations. His freshman year had been fruitful, he'd been allowed to audit a college level astronomy class, rigorous, but he'd liked it. Rowen smiled remembering his professor's praise, how he'd called him a "prodigy". His connection with the night sky made him feel a slight twinge of nostalgia. Maybe THAT was why he kept coming back to this place?

STAR MAGIC, he thought, sighing. When was the last time they DID hold magic for me? Magic died in his father's voice and breath, his mother's tears and his own doubt. This girl, Phaedra, had sparked his interest, made him remember when. Actually, he was glad of it and wondered-could he do the same for her?

"If stars could talk, what would they say?" he asked, thinking it a dumb-sounding question. However, she tilted her head in thought.

"They'd tell you to come with me," she said, decisively.

Rowen blinked, "Huh?!" That was not the answer he was expecting.

"Come with me, you look like you need to get out of something," she said again, grinning.

"But..." he began, then stopped. But what-? No excuse. He jumped a little as her hand shot out and grasped his. There was no escaping her now. "But I... I..." He looked down at his hand then at her.

"...need to talk somewhere else. Come WITH me!" she urged, tugging him towards the door.

"Wait, wait!" he stuttered, lagging behind her. "Hold on a second!"

"Why?" she stopped and asked loudly, "Do you have somewhere else to go?"

"No," he admitted, feeling like a fool, "but... but I... I don't even know you!" he protested, wishing she hadn't been so loud. They were getting stares.

"We're friends now, Rowen-san." She spoke quieter this time, to his relief. "Any friend of the stars is a friend of mine!" She began to smirk at his reaction, but he was disturbed all the same.

"But where are we going?" he asked, uncertainly.

"To a place," she replied.

"I know that, but WHAT place?"

"You'll see. Don't worry, I said I wouldn't hurt you." She smiled wider, seeing the look of goggle-eyed frustration on his face. "You'll like this."

"But-"

"Follow me?"

He hesitated, unwillingly. He knew he shouldn't go anywhere with strangers but... somehow she didn't seem too threatening-hardly even a stranger, although he had to remind himself that she was. She was, at least, enjoyable, now that he thought about it. Still... should he give in to curiosity?

"Just do it, please?" she pleaded. "Instinct doesn't like to be questioned too much, Rowen-chan, and you know you wanna come with me." She winked at him and it tugged his heart. Annoyed, he knew she was right. He DID want to go with her, wherever it was. However...

"But I barely know you and-"

"-and the curiosity must be KILLING you! Come on?" she finished for him, requesting, not demanding. Her fingers squeezed his wrist gently and on the radio, the rapper guy was finishing his song.

"Better find out before your time's out. What the fuck?"

"Oh well...!" he sighed.


Playfully yet determinedly, she dragged him out of the store, letting go of his hand as she reached the corner of a nameless street. She skipped up the next block, making him feel slightly embarrassed at being seen with her.

"C'mon! You're so slow!" She laughed out loud like she hadn't a care in the world. Rowen frowned as he strolled absently behind her. In Japan, nobody past the age of four skipped. Yet here she was, a young woman, skipping down the street like a little girl! He had to admit, he envied her, not unlike how he envied the Americans. Maybe if he were American, he'd be able to skip and not give a damn too? Or pierce his ears as SHE had done? Or maybe even dress out of his school uniform for once?

The crisp white shirt and grey slacks he wore every day to school were comfortable and that didn't bother him. What DID bother him, he reflected, was the lack of choice. If he wanted to wear orange T-shirts or baggy jeans he knew he couldn't bring himself to do it. He would be wary of the stares he'd get wherever he went. He would be able to practically TASTE the disapproval in the air around him.

Being Japanese, he was expected to ACT Japanese. If you looked American, people here expected you to act different. But if you looked Japanese and you didn't act it, people could be really cold. He wanted to think that he'd acquired at least SOME of his Western heritage in his face, but people around here knew him. He was born Japanese, and therefore he was Nihonjin all the way. Japan had imprinted itself in practically everything he owned, but his conscience... and even there it could very well invade.

"Pardon my asking," he said, catching up with her skipping, "but where are you from?" She swung her shoulder bag a moment in reflection, which confused him...

"I don't remember," she replied finally, making him gape in surprise. "I guess I'm from someplace just like everyone else." She looked over his expression and smiled. "You sure don't catch the obvious too well."

" I thought you might be... American?" he guessed.

She shrugged. "Maybe I am. Who knows?"

"Well, uh, I wasn't taught to presume too much," he said, expecting her to frown at his clumsy words-she didn't.

"That's good. In America, people tend to presume too much." She paused, sighing. "That's partly why they have such a big problem with diversity. Presumptions, presumptions..." she whistled.

"Um, I see." -the Japanese national term for 'I don't get it'- "Where exactly are we going, um, Phaedra?"

"To my place." she said. "I TOLD you I wanted to show you something."

"Oh, yeah..." said Rowen, nodding, "...where's that?"

"Not far, just down the block," she replied with a forward gesture. The block they were on now looked very much like most of the city blocks Rowen was familiar with in Tsuwano. Wooden houses one next to the other. What house could SHE live in? A fragile, old paper house would quickly shred to pieces with a skipping girl like her living in it! Paper houses were meant for the quiet, contemplative, peaceful people- not rowdy Americanized teenagers. He followed her silently until another thought occurred to him, breaking over like a tsunami.

"Phaedra, wait," he said loudly, her outlandish name rolling strangely off his tongue. "What did you mean when you said I needed to get out of something?" She stopped skipping and turned around to look at him.

"I'm not exactly sure you are, but I just think that maybe you do," she shrugged. He shook his head, blowing out his breath slowly.

"You're weird. What do I wanna get out of?"

"You tell me."

Rowen stared at her and shook his head again, unable to give an answer. "You're too strange," he sighed.

"You DID it!" she cried abruptly, clapping her hands.

"What? What? Did what?" he asked, startled by her sudden outburst of enthusiasm.

"You've finally grasped the obvious! You CAN presume!" She began to giggle again in that annoying high-pitched way that made his heart pound angrily.
"That's exactly what I mean!" he cried, his voice rising. "You! Here you are, bumping into a complete stranger and NOW you're taking him somewhere he doesn't even know about!"

"So?" She seemed confused by his anger which irked him all the more.

"But... but, PEOPLE JUST DON'T DO THAT!" he shouted, fervidly. He could feel his face growing hot, but Phaedra didn't blush, blink or flinch.

"First," she said, walking up close to him but he did not back away. "I didn't hold a gun to your head, YOU followed me. Second, you CAN trust me."

He shot her a skeptical look, and she crossed her arms indignantly and pouted. "Come on, Rowen-chan, take a look at where you are! This isn't New York, this isn't New Orleans! You can trust the kindness of strangers here, laddie!"

"Can I?" he asked. "You're not from here."

"Nobody knows that for certain. Look, I know you think Im strange, but that's only natural."

"You ARE strange!"

"If you think so, I am."

"But WHY?"

"Because you think so."

Rowen groaned, frustrated with her. He did NOT have to put up with this, but he'd gone too far to just turn around and leave. He wondered for a minute how she would react if he left, but he had a more nagging issue in his head.

"Phaedra?"

"What?"

He paused before he spoke, choosing his words carefully. "Why... why do you know so much about me? I-I never told you anything."

He frowned at her suspiciously, expecting some odd reply. He got one. She ignored him with her slow smile and lofty voice, "Don't ask too many questions, just come on."

"Wait!"

She turned around to leave him unsatisfied but he grasped her shoulder firmly. She did not cry out or jerk back as he thought she would, only gave him a questioning look.

"Look Phaedra, I'm not going ANYWHERE with you until I get some answers!" he said with about as much exasperation as he could muster. She said nothing, just gave him the same look that had made him uncomfortable in the store. Maybe, he thought with a growing sense of dread, she can read my mind? "Please?" he added, meekly. He hoped he did not offend her, wondering vaguely how a girl like this would express anger. Perhaps he was about to find out?

"Ask a question first." She did not seem perturbed, only urgent. Rowen took a deep breath.

"Where are we going? Who are you? WHY DO YOU KNOW SO MUCH ABOUT ME?" he cried in one breath, letting go of her arm and running his hand through his hair, nervously. She put her hand out to touch him, but he recoiled from her, annoyed and agitated.

"Calm down, Rowen-kun," she said, her calm expression never faltering. In fact, the calmer she looked, the angrier he got. "We're going to my place, and my place is located right up the block." She pointed, but Rowen could not see exactly what she was pointing at. "Secondly, my name is Phaedra, and I'll be your friend if you let me."

"But why?" he asked. "Why me?"

"Why DO friends become friends?" she asked, sucking a tooth. "Too many reasons for that." True, that was a good point.

"ARE you my friend?"

"I said so, didn't I?"

He sighed, nodding. It was good to have a new friend, enigmatic as she might be. She went on.

"Friends know about each other, even some things that are never spoken, right?" Rowen shot her a skeptical look but she appeared quite serious. He shook his head at her, sighing.

"Why don't you explain yourself?"

"I never explain anything."

"But I don't know anything about you!"

"What's to know? My name is Phaedra and I'm not Japanese. I AM, however, friendly." And she smiled sweetly just to prove it.

"But that's ALL I know about you!" He wanted to jam his fist into something-namely her smile.

"What more do you want? My bra size is about 34B, if that helps any."

Rowen's face reddened and he looked down, taken aback. "Uh, that's not exactly what I wanted to know..." he mumbled, clenching his fist. She put her hand on his shoulder and he jerked slightly.

"Rowen, sometimes it's no use asking questions that won't be answered. I've told you almost all I want to, now let's go. Please?"

He did not move. She shrugged and turned, walking away from him as if she didn't care if he was following her. He let her go and thought long and hard about the situation. He glanced at his watch. It was 2:40, and he knew he had better be home by five o'clock or his mother would worry. His dad usually didn't worry too much after his evening bottle of booze, so he had nothing to fear unless there was a screaming fight going on when he got home. So what ELSE was there to do for two hours or so? Phaedra HAD promised to show him something, and curiosity about HER as well as their destination got the better of him.

"Instinct doesn't like to be questioned..." Sighing, he followed her silently, listening closely to the sound of her earrings jangling and watching her bright, white hair bounce with her movements. Her jewelry intoned her words, making them tingle, like her voice, in his ears throughout the entire walk.

"Instinct doesn't like to be questioned... come with me... you know you want to... come on... my bra size is 34B if that helps any... come on..."

They walked to the next corner where she came to a halt next to a junkyard by a mechanic's station. The earrings stopped chattering. Rowen looked at her, a confused expression on his face. They couldn't possibly be stopping here!

"Here we are!" she announced, slinging off her shoulder bag.

"Uh... here?" he asked, surprised. "But this is a junkyard!"

"Uh-huh." She tossed the bag over the fence and began to climb it. "You're really smart!"

"I despise sarcasm," he muttered under his breath, hoping she wouldn't hear him...

"I worship it. C'mon," she said, cheerfully.

Rowen hesitated, loosening his own bookbag hesitantly from his arm. "Are you sure it's safe in there?"

"Oh yeah, I live here. Of COURSE it's safe!" she snorted.

Rowen shrugged, what did he have to lose? He realized with a smirk that that was the exact question he'd been asking himself ever since he'd MET her! Phaedra had already climbed into the junkyard and was waiting on the other side. He tossed his bookbag over to her and took hold of the fence, glancing behind him just in case anyone was watching. Then, with a forceful shove, he vaulted over it. The junkyard didn't smell as bad most junkyards, but it was awfully messy and he had never lived in one before. Rusted metal parts were strewn everywhere along with unidentifiable bits of cracked plastic that Heaven knew what had once been.

"Gee, you're pretty strong," she said, bending down to pick up her shoulder bag. "That stunt seemed almost effortless."

"Yeah," he said, taking up his bookbag. "I work out."

She turned away but glanced at him coyly, askance. "I see."

She began walking briskly through the debris, which had been cleared modestly to form a path through all the broken toys and other wreckage.

"Excuse the mess," she said, with a wry grin. "I don't get much time to clean up. I don't usually entertain guests, either, so..."

"You're quite excused," he said, scanning the area. "You REALLY live here?"

"For now," she said. "I don't know how long I'll be staying in Japan."

"Why?" He felt he HAD to ask.

"Oh... we wouldn't have to go into the details now."

"Are you a criminal?" he grinned.

"Yeah," she snorted sarcastically and gestured towards her bag. "See my bag? It's chock full of all my cruel instruments of kinky TORTURE!" She burst into a fit of hysterical giggling, as he expected.

"I take it you're not dangerous, then?" he said, laughing a little himself.

"I'm about as dangerous as you are," she said, controlling her laughter and catching her breath, "Ah, here we are!"

She stopped in front of what LOOKED like an old broken-down station wagon. The ancient paint job was an awful snot-green color where it was not chipped or rusted. The windows were amazingly intact with not a crack.

"Is this it?" he asked.

"Uh-huh, I'm real lucky I found this place!" She opened up the door and threw her bag inside. Then she plopped onto the ground, amid all the filth, and began unlacing her boots.

"How long have you been living here?" he asked, scanning the endless horizon of metal scrap and black rubber odds and ends.

"Ne, I don't remember THAT either..." she sighed. "Anyway, I may not stay. It's not too important."

"I gotta say, you're a bit absent-minded," said Rowen, setting his bookbag down. "No offense." She shook her head.

"If you GOTTA say so," she grinned. "I just don't feel the need to remember those things," she said, worrying at a knot in her laces. "You like my place?" she asked, looking up at him with that inquisitive, piercing look that made him feel queer.

"Uh... um, ya really LIVE in this car?" he asked, averting his eyes from her to the station wagon.

"Uh-huh. The best about it is, it's free, it keeps the rain out and the seat cushions are still nice and squishy."

"But where are your parents? How do you survive?"

"I get by." She pulled off her left boot and started unlacing the right one, "It don't take much to feed me, and the people at McDonald's are real swell with their toilet policies. They let me use them whenever I want to! As for parents-" she waved a hand, "-I've no use for them now. Maybe later." It was another one of her statements Rowen did not and would not bother to understand.

"Jiminy Crickets...!" Rowen blew out his breath. She was too much! He wondered how he would survive if he had no home or "parents". He'd never thought about it before because he'd never needed to. Perhaps without his mother, he WOULD have no parents. He never usually counted his father as a parent, since his father never usually counted him as his child.

His mother worked and his father gambled, but he'd always been clothed, fed and educated. Never any need for him to think of his survival. Was he capable of it, given the circumstances? He shrugged off the thought just as she shrugged off her right boot.

"Well," she said, standing up and beckoning him, "enter."

"What about-?"

"I'll join you in a minute, I just need to cover the windows. It's daylight, you see." She picked up her shoulderbag and began rummaging.

"Huh? I don't-"

"You WILL see, you WILL see, GO ON!" Her smile returned, prodding him inside. Rowen climbed into the backseat of the car, leaving his bookbag outside trusting that no one would disturb it. The car was spacious and musty-smelling, the steering wheel was nowhere in sight and the passenger front seat had been ripped away. Phaedra was right about the car, the remaining cushions were intact and dry. A miracle must have been protecting it from the elements, it was so comfortable. There were old pillows propped against the seats and a blanket was spread out in the trunk space. He imagined himself, living like this girl did. In a wrecked car with a brown shoulderbag for company. She seemed content with it and, for some inexplicable reason, he smiled at the thought. He sat back, wondering vaguely at where he was and why. He glanced out the window and watched Phaedra. She was bustling around the car with a wide, black sheet in her arms.

"What's that for?"

"What, the sheet?" She glanced down at it and smirked. "Oh, just for atmosphere. I carry it around with me, it's my traveling black sheet," she said with pride. Just as he was about to plunge further into the mystery of the traveling black sheet, it was tossed over the windows.

"Hey! What're you doing?" cried Rowen, his insides clenching at the sudden darkness.

"Just flip the light switch!" called Phaedra from outside.

"Huh? Where?"

"Somewhere on the ceiling, I'll be right in if you can't find it."

Rowen shrugged, groping around in the darkness for the light switch. His fingers touched something rusty and metal which felt like it would produce a light if he flicked it.

SNAP The switch snapped.

"Oooohhhh!"

Rowen fell back on the seat, his breath caught in his throat. As he stared up at the roof of the car, he understood the reason for the black sheet. Scattered in crazy arrangements against the black interior, a universe of millions of tiny, twinkling dots of light broke the darkness. The car door opened and slammed next to him, making him start. Phaedra crawled into the backseat and plopped down next to him.

"Brrrr! It's cold out there!" she said, but Rowen wasn't listening very much to her. Tuning out, he could only hear a "white" noise, standing on the ledge of an endless void of stars. So it came as a slight shock to hear his own voice come from his own mouth again.

"This is so... COOL!" he breathed. He could barely see her in the dark, but he sensed her nodding. "What are they?"

"Fiber optics," she answered, softly. "Like them?" she asked, as if she were showing him a new table set. "I got them from a nice fellow in China."

"Mmmmm..." was all he could manage, because he was beginning to space out again. At the moment, China seemed like a faraway distant place. In fact, from where he was now, the very Earth was somewhere unfamiliar to him. He felt drowsy and lost but he didn't care. She touched his face with an icy hand, snapping him rudely back to present. "Yikes!" he started, shuddering. "Oh god, you're cold!"

"You're a GENIUS!" she laughed, hysterically like she had done so many times.

"Hey...!" he thumped her on the shoulder playfully. "Quit patronizing me!" He turned his attention back to the "stars", struck with their beauty and filled with the urge to sleep.

"You look tired. Want to sleep?" He shook his head.

"No, let's talk, do you mind?"

"Not at all."

"Good."

Then there was silence. Rowen's palms grew moist trying to think up something worthwhile to say that would keep him from falling asleep and keep an odd girl such as her, entertained. He was such a lousy conversation-starter, he knew. He wished SHE would go off and say something. However, she simply lolled her head from side to side as if she were singing to herself, a small smile on her face. She would not speak.

"Um, Phae?"

"Yeah?"

"Um, why do you-?" he asked, hesitantly. "Why did you put-?" he stopped, embarrassed. It was a stupid thing to talk about but the first question that popped into his head.

"- them in this wreck?" she asked, finishing for him. After all, it DID seem somewhat strange to have fiberoptics in a car wreck when she COULD have just sold them for money-she looked like she could use some money, at any rate.

"Well, um, uh... no offense," he mumbled, tearing his eyes away from the stars and pointing them down at his hands, ashamed at his boldness.

"Not taken," she said. "I put them here because everyone's world needs to change now and then, even mine," she said matter-of-factly, her voice eerily clarified in the silence of the car. "Some people just need it sooner than others." He felt her hand go under his chin and point it back up.

"Keep watching, I know you like looking at them," she smirked, amused. "But you'd best absorb em while you can, the power'll be out soon and then they'll fade." He nodded, absently. He didn't want to think about the stars fading right now.

"Woah...!" Rowen traced the pattern of constellations; she hadn't missed any details. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at her. She was gazing along with him, now only a half-smile on her face, as if she were gazing directly at him again. The golden glint lit up her pale face warmly, and Rowen couldn't decide on whether the effect looked breathtakingly beautiful or hauntingly weird. The tiny lights reflected in her fathomless eyes looked like miniature universes in themselves, Rowen shivered just looking at them. They made him feel small.

"My world changes wherever I go," she said, suddenly, making him start. "But I think anyone with an imagination can be happy here. Unless you're too dumb to try, that is!"

He nodded, numbly. In the back of his mind, he wished she didn't look so spooky. Under any other circumstances, being alone with a pretty (even strange) girl under false stars would seem romantic, but the way she spoke and the way her eyes seemed to probe him did not induce any stirring of passion. No, what he felt now was nothing close to it. Something else was making his blood heat. She continued her thought aloud, breaking his own.

"Without the sheet, I end up in a Japanese junkyard with a rusty car wreck for a home. But-" she paused, grinning "-when night falls, my eyes play tricks on me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, they tell me I'm in outer space when my poor head knows it's still just a rusty car wreck." A few moments passed in heavy, intrigued silence. Rowen was thinking, in an awed sense, trying to sort out his emotions without showing it.

"Amazing what a few strands of glass and some light can do to a place, eh Rowen-san?" she asked, nudging him. Rowen could only gape, breathless, at the studded ceiling of that broken-down station wagon feeling a complex mixture of emotions. Some of them were ones he hadn't felt in a great while. Some of them, he carried with him every day.

"Aren't they just fab?" she asked, nudging his shoulder. She was obviously itching for praise, which he could only express on a silent nod.

These stars did not twinkle in the same silvery way like the ones he was used to, but they glowed warmly, making the chill air seem milder than it had been. No more words were said for a while and in the comfortable silence, he was suddenly hit with a strong temptation to just close his eyes and fall asleep underneath the celestial canopy. How lucky she was! To be able to sleep under the stars, even indoors! What a bliss to own a childhood memory, to be embraced in the glow of a hundred stars without the fear of heavy footsteps storming down the hall. But his eyes stayed wide open, staring, and for a few moments, Rowen could not speak, almost as if he had forgotten how. He wouldn't have even if he could. Words were poor messengers of awe, they could easily ruin a moment so all he could do was stare up at the plastic spectacle above him, letting nostalgia stir while getting lost in the glow as he had done earlier in the store.

Unfortunately, if there was one truth Rowen held about perfect moments such as these it was that they never lasted. Indeed, the stars began to fade even as this thought crossed his mind. "It'll be dark soon," said Phaedra, quietly. "Perhaps I should take off the sheet now?"

"Mm-hm. In a minute, though. Just... couldja stay with me a bit?" His voice cracked with disuse. He did not hear her reply, but he trusted she wouldn't just leave. He began to think long and hard about all the things Phaedra had said to him that day. What was it that had stuck out? What had made him angry and at the same time... resolved.

Distance... stars... Rowen-chan... blackness... barriers-You need to get out of something-.

Phaedra nodded her head sleepily, her earrings jangling. The noise struck a chord in him, her voice mingling with that of the metal against metal. Suddenly, he found himself laughing inwardly, remembering her words. He'd just had an epiphany, a thought so ingenious that it seemed almost funny.

"Hey, I see what you mean now...!" he exclaimed.

"Eh?"

"About me wanting to get out of something."

"Uh-huh?"

"You're right! I... I think I do!"

"What?"

"Well for starters-" he said, stretching, "-my hair." She almost laughed out loud.

"Your hair."

"Yes," he decided, grinning. "I-I wanna get out of my hair." Boy, did that sound dumb! But he knew what was true.

"You're born with your hair, lovey. I'm afraid you can't get out of it," she said, giggling at the thought.

"I know that, but I'm just trying to say that I'm beginning to see what you mean by getting out of something."

"How so?"

Rowen paused before answering. He wasn't exactly sure how to begin explaining it. Epiphanies like this were not easily explained. Realization is rarely swift and never simple.

"Y'see..." he began, hesitantly, "...I've always thought I had to be more that what's expected of me-even to the point of what I'm NOT!" he began, staring down at his hands, his grin faded. "My father, he... he makes it so difficult for me to exist within myself."

Phaedra's smile vanished as well; the tone of his voice did not sound like it would humor gaiety. Rowen hung his head, refusing to look at her.

"He can't he just let me be me, y'know? He can never be content with who I am right now..." he explained, an outpouring of soul in a broken-down station wagon. He would never let anyone know about this.

"Rowen-chan, your father wants what he can't have. That's HIS problem, not yours."

"But it IS!" he cried, his heart thumping all of a sudden. "Why do I have to be what I'm NOT just to please him? He's my father, I-I have to obey him!"

"Rowen-chan..."

"You don't get it, Phaedra!" he said, meeting her eyes to silence her, "my father is INSANE! He-he's so fuckin' afraid of me not fitting his mold, he won't even let me change my hair if I want to!" He leaned his head against the window, suddenly weary.

"It's pretty, I like it," she said, reaching over and patting his head. "Soft and shiny," she sang, twirling some of it in her fingers.

"Yeah, my MOM is always saying that." he snorted. "But it pisses me off when I think that all of me is permanent, that I can't change ANYTHING!"

"Why?"

"I... I... um, forget it." Rowen faltered, his cheeks burning. He wanted to open a window but it would ruin the effect.

"You know I can't do that," she said. "Please tell me, I won't laugh, trust me."

Strangely enough, he did. He cleared his throat and confessed very softly, "I'm... afraid."

Phaedra tilted her head. She liked him. One who is not afraid to admit that he is afraid. He breathed out hard to steady his voice, thinking she'd want further explanation. So this was what therapy was like?

"Y'see, it's my father. He-"

"Ssssh!" she hissed, interrupting him. "Lemme guess."

"But-"

"He drinks?"

"Huh? How do you-?" he frowned. She'd done it again. First the scar and now his father... what next?

"It's awful!" she whispered, frowning her delicate features into an almost evil grimace. "Stupid fathers are one thing, drinking doesn't help them." She laughed a little in irony. "How piteous! I hope their teeth turns yellow and their hair falls out!" Rowen laughed in spite of himself, he'd thought very much the same about his father, although his wishes for him were a bit more final.

"Yup, that's HIM all right!" sighed Rowen. "Gee, how do you know so much? It's spooky." She shrugged.

"I just do. I can't think of anyone else in the world that would make a person like you afraid."

"Like me?" he asked, uncertainly. "What do you mean?"

"You're a pretty strong kid." She met his eyes. "You've got guts, I can tell. But I've seen grown men who can't even stand up to their fathers." She shook her head, confused at something.

"So, you know then?"

She chuckled then, almost to herself. "I know more than I think I should! Don't be afraid, though-" she said hastily, noting his look of disapproval, "-I don't know anything that can hurt you."

"Right..." he sighed. "God, I don't even know why I'm telling you this!" He smirked in his usual nervous way.

"And I don't exactly know why I invited you here. Who cares?" She smirked, pointing at the purple letters printed on her shirt- SERENDIPITY. Rowen sighed, unsure if he should continue. Phaedra made it easy for him.

"Go on, I'll listen," she urged, biting a nail. Rowen shrugged and went on.

"Y'see, my father..." He paused, trying to come up with a word bad enough. "I don't like him, I-I HATE him!" The words came out in a growl, making Phaedra shudder.

"Mmmm. I can see that," she said under her breath.

"He's a selfish bastard, always... always HURTING me! I know he doesn't care if he beats me, I bet he doesn't even WANT me!" he fumed, gritting his teeth in suppressed rage and breathing noticeably quicker. "THAT'S why I'm afraid!"

"Calmly, Rowen-chan, don't get excited now." Phaedra put her hand on his shoulder but he barely noticed her touch. He was angry and at the same time... appalled.

"Y'know, it's funny, but I think you've changed me, Phae." He began to smirk softly in the semi-darkness of the car, the last few stars shimmering weakly. She said nothing.

"Yes." His eyes lit up, like he had just seen a flying pig. "I always thought that as long as I lived with my dad, I could never change. That I'd always stay the same FOR THE WORST!" His expression was sulky for a moment. Phaedra lowered her eyes from him as if she were considering this. Rowen continued to shake his head in amazement.

"But hey, we both live in a hell, don't we? You've got no home with running water, and I got a pop who'd sooner hit me as spit on me!" he snorted.

"Rowen-chan, I don't h..."

"Lemme finish." He interrupted her for the first time. "You, Phaedra, you don't let rain and bad weather keep you from having your universe, right? You can be happy here. You don't need to get out of it."

Phaedra kept her mouth shut, waiting eagerly for what he would say next.

"Why the hell should I wait?" he asked no one in particular.

"Wait for what?"

"Why the FUCK should I have to wait until he's DEAD to get out?" he asked, angrily clenching his fists.

"Yes," she grinned despite the serious look on Rowen's face, "why should you?"

"And here I thought it was my asthma that was my only fault..." he chuckled "But y'know? I think I might have even been happy not being on the stupid basketball team if my dad hadn't STRESSED it so much! Because of HIM, I can never be content with who I am!" He pounded his fist onto the seat, making the whole car vibrate.

"Oh Rowen-san, who needs a basketball team?" she shrugged, hoping to calm him. "They don't last forever anyway."

"Nothing does," he said, bitterly.

"But intelligence does, even when you're dead," she insisted.

He considered it. Could intelligence be immortal? Not when it was suppressed and he knew well enough of that.

"I need to get out of something..." he murmured, fighting the urge to send his fist crashing through one of Phaedra's windows.

"How ya gonna do it?" It was almost like a challenge. "Be optimistic, Rowen-chan," she said quickly, taking note of his clenched fist.

"I... I don't know anymore. Can you help me?"

"Hmm..." She bit her lip in reflection, opening the car door. "I can do SOME of it, I guess. You DID say you wanted to get out of your hair, didn't you?"

"Huh?" he asked, but she had left the car without explaining anything, ripping the black sheet away from the windows. Rowen sighed, halfheartedly. Outer space was gone and Japan was back, the afternoon sun piercing his eyes rudely.

"Well, that was enjoyable, no?" she asked, cheerfully, pressing her face against the window which made Rowen smile in spite of himself.

"What are you gonna do?" he asked.

"As far as appearance goes?" she asked, searching through her mysterious brown bag, "I can do very little. Face it, you won't end up the next James Bond."

"THAT'S a relief!" he laughed. "But I need to get out of me for a while! Just LOOK like someone I'm not. I'll still be me but I just wanna... wanna look different for a change."

"I understand."

"So maybe I CAN'T pull it off? Cool and I just don't... mix," he sighed.

"Ah, that's where you're wrong!" she said, flourishing a small glass jam jar filled with some unidentifiable blue substance.

"Is... that...?" he asked, uncertainly.

"Uh-huh." She winked and grasped his hand through the window. "Let's go. You're gonna dye!"

One hour and then some later...


"I can't believe I let you do this...!"

Rowen stood gaping at his reflection in the sink window of the McDonald's mens' room.

"Kawaii{6}! You look so cute!" cried Phaedra, joyfully clapping her hands and laughing, ignoring the odd glances of the other male patrons. Rowen, meanwhile, could only shake his head in wonder at the person reflected back at him. His straight, smooth black hair had been washed and cut in a shaggy, wild style, perked up with mousse. Phaedra had painstakingly meddled with a pair of scissors and a comb, giving him loose bangs with a longer piece constantly falling over his nose. However, the style wasn't what bothered him...it was the color.

"I can't believe you dyed it!" he gasped, incredulously. "I... I just don't believe it! My hair looks like a freak show!"

"I can't believe you LET me do this," she countered, playfully. "I'm proud of you, Rowen-sempai!"

"It's just so... so..." He'd never wake up the same again; mirrors would surprise him till he got used to it.

"Awww Rowen-chan, don't be shocked. It matches your eyes!" she interrupted.

"It looks like a smurf!"

"Nonsense, your hair looks like a summer sky!" she said, adoringly. "Besides, you SAID you wanted to change, and that's what I'D call a pretty fair one."

"Yeah, but..." For crying out loud, his hair was BLUE!

"Well, change doesn't ALWAYS have to be so mental. I think you look darling!" She was beaming at him.

"Well, you're weird."

"So is your hair," she chided, sticking out her tongue. Reflexively, his tongue shot out back at her, which almost made her crazy with laughter. He swallowed his own laughs and slapped her lightly on the back to get her attention.

"Exactly my point! What if people think it's funny?"

"Awww, Rowen-san, don't you know your own mind?" she asked, in an exasperated tone.

"Yes, of course I do!" he retorted.

"Well, do YOU like it?"

Rowen looked in the mirror again and studied his reflection. He was still there, his face hadn't changed much-but his hair would never look the same again, and actually, he had to admit he DID like it! He looked cool, like the Americans he so admired in the novelty shop. None of THEM even had blue hair.

"Yes," he breathed. "I like it."

"Then that's all that counts. Fuck 'em!"

Rowen gave a lopsided grin, feeling strangely exhilarated and a bit hot. Wait until the old man got a look at him! Even his mother wouldn't take this very well! He had no worries right now, anyway. Let em get an eyeful! The piece of hair from his bangs fell across his nose again and he blew it away, annoyed with it.

"Damn bangs!"

"Here," said Phaedra, unwinding the blue elastic from her wrist. "Take my headband. It suits you."

"Thanks," he mumbled, taking it from her and placing it around his head. The headband held back the loose strands and it also made him look rather sharp.

"You look different," she said, walking towards the door. "Isn't that what you wanted?"

"Uh-huh."

"Well, you LOOK it, now let's see if you ARE it." She opened the door.

"Wait," he said putting out his hand, "where are you going?"

She glanced up at the wall clock. "It's late," she stated, pointing to the clock, "almost five o'clock. Didn't you say you had to be home by then?"

Recollection rushed up and slapped him in the face!

"Oh shoot!" he cursed, flying out the door. "You're RIGHT! I gotta go!" He'd almost forgotten while a not-so-strange stranger had remembered.

"All right, then," said Phaedra, leading him out of the McDonald's. Once outside, she walked him to the street corner, right across from the novelty store they had met in a couple of hours ago.

"Um, thanks, Phae," he said, for lack of anything better to say. He prepared himself to bow, but he hesitated. Bowing was so... expected. Instead, he reached over and tweaked her nose, gently.

"Heeey!" she cried, wrinkling her nose. "Chill with the nose!"

"Just thanking ya!" he chuckled. "Gee, you should lighten up!"

"Hmph! You silly, go on home!" She pushed him away, playfully, but he stopped in front of her. She frowned slightly at him.

"Will I ever see you again?" he asked. Phaedra didn't answer right away, instead she abruptly looked up at the sky, black eyes slanted narrowly, as if she were trying to see something from high above her. Rowen was daunted.

"Maybe," she said, absently, making Rowen frown. She met his eyes. "I wish you'd have gone, I HATE goodbyes."

"Me too, but why maybe?" he asked, curiously.

"I can't stay here."

"What do you mean?"

"It means I-" She faltered a moment, then smiled. "I gotta go SOMEday, you silly."

"But I thought you were my friend!" he asked, stung. Why'd she go about all day telling him she was his friend when she would just leave him now?

"I am, and always if you think of me."

"But-"

"When you were little, did you ever think you would KEEP your friends?" He didn't answer her. She gave him a look of pity. "Friends part sooner or later, Rowen-chan. I'm just hitting the road a little prematurely. The rest will die in time, no doubt."

"Huh?" Die? What did she mean?

"Hey, don't frown like that, Sour Face!" She patted his hand. "I'll most likely turn up again somewhere, don't worry."

"Where do you HAVE to go?" he asked, staring blandly at her face.

"Where everybody else has to."

"And that is...?"

"Wherever fate feels like taking me. It's a beach having it control your life, but I guess I'm stuck with it." She sighed, shifting her brown bag.

"Oh," he said, his shoulders sagging. He would miss her and her tinkling earrings, her white hair, her raspy smoker's voice...

"But before I go," she said, brightening a little. "I'd better tell you something or I'll forget."

"What?" he mumbled.

She hesitated for a moment. "Wait... no, I've got a better way to tell you. Hold up a sec?"

She dug a black marker pen out of her bag and seized his hand, before he could protest she began to scribble something on his palm, never taking her eyes from his face.

"Hey," he laughed at the tickling of the pen. "What're you're doing?" She didn't answer him directly.

"I think you were meant for far greater things than basketball teams, Rowen-kun," she said, pocketing her pen. "Be prepared and remember..."

"What?" he asked expectantly, puzzled by what she had said. Greater things?

"Remember that someday distance won't be such a big barrier between you and your friends. JA-NE!"

Before he could open his mouth to question her, she was gone. Off like a shot straight down her block and back to her celestial junk pile. Rowen looked after her a moment and then suddenly remembered his palm. He glanced down at what she had scrawled, his brow furrowing.

"Chi?" It was the symbol for wisdom... or did she mean blood?{7}

He was confused, he was flabbergasted, he wanted to just plop down on the sidewalk and lose himself in deep thought. Instead, he strained his eyes down the street, searching for a glimpse of Phaedra's green tights, but they were nowhere to be seen. She had disappeared, leaving only her headband, dyed blue hair, tinkling metal and CHI for memory. He could pursue her back to the junkyard or... "Fuck, it's almost five!" ...he could get home before he got into a lot of trouble.


"Mom? You home?"

Rowen dumped his bookbag on the table, shaking his new shock of wily blue hair. There was no car in the driveway so his father wasn't home yet. That was good.

"Mom?"

"Okaeri!{8}" his mother called from her bedroom at the end of the hall. "Where were you?"

"I went out after school, Mom," he replied, nervous excitement quickening his words. The door opened and she walked out to greet him. However, she stopped short in the hallway, dropping her jaw with the washcloth she'd been holding.

"Uh..." Rowen began, but he was cut off.

"What in HELL have you done to your hair?" she cried, rushing over to examine it.

"I dyed it," he said without a falter, grinning broadly despite his mother's astonished stare. "Like it?"

"What possessed you?" she gaped, shocked. "Have you gone crazy?"

"Oh mom, it doesn't look THAT bad, now does it?" he asked, rolling his eyes. That simple gesture had convinced her, reminded her who he was, calming her anger. She considered it, looking him over closely. He was still his handsome self. Same slow smile, same pale skin-only with blue hair and changed eyes.

"If you like it, honey, then I think it's fine," she shrugged.

"What do YOU think, Ma? I know what I think."

She smiled, tousling his hair. Her eyes crinkled. "I think it's cute enough, but I'll have to get used to it," she said. He beamed at her approval, his old look returning. She hadn't seen a smile this bright on him since his younger years. The happy child she had cradled had returned to visit her-for a while at least.

"Is... Dad home yet?" he asked, his smile fading. She was amazed to note that he did not blanch or frown like he usually did when he asked that question. The thought of her husband coming home and seeing him almost knocked her down. What would he do when he saw this?

If a simple pink piece of paper could throw him into a rage so fierce it shook the house, surely blue hair would result in something far worse! The joy of the moment faded like it had never existed, replaced instead with tense apprehension. She could barely answer him.

"Oh, Rowen!" she bit her knuckle, frowning.

"What?" he asked. She was shocked that he did not know the cause of her anxiety himself. In fact, he should be sharing it!

"He isn't home yet but... oh dear, what...what will he say when-?" She couldn't finish, so she chewed on her lip and studied him worriedly. Maybe Ken would be too drunk to notice? She was a bit surprised to see that Rowen was casually unbuttoning his school shirt, as if he were unworried.

"Rowen? Are you listening?"

"Hai," he said, speaking her native language, which usually pleased her. Not this time.

"Oyaji wa...?" she asked, fearfully.

"Oyaji?" he paused before speaking. This had to be the truth. "Kuso oyaji, nannka kankei-naa!{9}" He made his way to the bathroom to finish undressing.

"Ah! You can't mean that!" she gasped in English, too shocked to express anger in Japanese, the more potent. She followed him to the bathroom, her arms folded angrily. "He's your father!"

"Doushite? Why?" he asked, taking off his shirt and tossing it into the bathroom hamper. "He doesn't give a damn about ME!"

"NANI?!" He had never spoken of his father like THIS before, his rage ever a silent thing. Never out loud, but she'd always be able to feel its tacit thunder in his gaze; his scowl. However, THIS was a first.

"I said to hell with him, Ma! I don't CARE anymore!" he said walking past her, leaving the bathroom and heading back to the living room. She wrung her hands, disturbed by his words.

"Rowen, don't try my patience," she warned.

"I'm sorry Ma, I don't mean to upset you," he apologized. The house was silent for a while, Mrs. Hashiba not quite knowing what to make of it. She was about to rub his back to calm him but he spoke again.

"Where IS Dad, anyhow?" he asked, caustically. "Drinking his sake in a box?"

"He's late, Rowen," she said, not liking his tone. "Who knows where he is?"

"Good!" he said, smirking. He plopped down on the couch, flippantly. "I hope he gets arrested!"

"If he heard you say that, you'd get what you got last week!" she said, gravely. "Don't say that again!" He looked at her but said nothing. She saw his muscles tense beneath his tank top at her words, as if he were remembering. She knew she shouldn't have mentioned that. However, he spoke before she could apologize.

"I'd fuckin'... MURDER him before I let him do THAT to me again!" he growled lowly as if speaking to himself. Disgusted, he turned away from his mother's astonished expression. His voice rumbled dangerously, and she blanched with dread. It was never in his nature to swear but there are times when certain threats are to be believed, no matter how insane they sounded.

"IYAA! URUSAI{10}!" she gasped, covering her mouth with her fist. "You can't be serious, you idiot!"

"Can't I?" he snarled angrily, his temper flaring.

"Don't say such things to me!" she shouted, her eyes glistened in her crimson face. "How dare you!"

"Why?" Rowen shouted back, his eyes misting over with angry tears. "Should I just LET him beat me senseless? Why don't I just let him kill me first and just fuckin' get it over with?" He fought to keep from crying. His mother shook, unused to his unnatural, violent temperament.

"Yume-chan{11}..." she said agitatedly, using his pet name and sitting next to him, "...it-it's okay..."

"No, it's NOT!" he still shouted, startling her. "Something's gotta change around here, and if it won't be him, it'll be ME!" His mother stared at his angry countenance, aghast.

"What's gotten into-?"

"Sssh!" Rowen hissed, stiffening. He glanced quickly down at the CHI written on his palm and closed his fingers around it. His head began to thrum painfully with his heart in the effort to swallow doubt and think. Above the thrum, he could hear the telltale sound of the car pulling up in the driveway, and slurred curses mingling with the sound of earrings' chatter. Mrs. Hashiba shut her eyes fearfully at the heavy footsteps against the cement path outside. If her son was TRULY changed, she was about to find out.

SIDENOTES

{1} The Japanese term for "Later!", an expression of farewell.

{2} Japanese for "Number one" or "the best"

{3} Literally, "Kill such an idiot!"

{4} Japanese word for "Hello".

{5} Hey Rowen! How do you spell URINATE? (Couldn't resist, never could!)

{6} Japanese word for "CUTE".

{7} In the Japanese kanji system, the symbol CHI can stand for either blood, strategy, or wisdom. Kanjis in Japanese are seriously confusing because one symbol may have a dozen different meanings.

{8} The Japanese word for "Welcome back!"

{9} "Who the hell cares about him?"

{10} "Shut up!"

{11} Pronounced Yoo-may Chon. YUME is the Japanese word for "dream" and CHAN is the Japanese term of affection meaning "cute" or "little". So he's her "Little Dream".

DISCLAIMER: Elven Shaman does not own Ronin Warriors, neither do we (Nasuko & Sayuri). We do not claim ownership. All rights reserved.