Author's notes: The romance in the story is not immediate, so if that's what you're here for, be patient. Nothing much to note in the first few sequences--I do not consider these to be "chapters"--but if there are ever any notes, they'll be up top, right before the sequence begins. Some dialogue translation will be necessary later, and will be provided at the end of the relevant sequence.

Raindrops assaulted the window, emitting a steady pounding rhythm that was occasionally interrupted by random attacks by small hailstones. The rain was falling so heavily that the view outside the window was twisted and obscured by water; a steady stream of drops squeezed through a crack in the glass, dripping onto the carpet. Three boys slept soundly in two bunk beds leaning against opposite walls, apparently unaffected by the thonk of the hail on the roof. One of the bottom bunks was empty; its usual occupant, another, smaller boy, sat on the rug in the middle of the room, encompassed in the darkness. He watched impassively as lightning struck a tree just outside; it swayed dangerously close to the house, then straightened and fell into the street. An earsplitting thunderclap boomed out, mixing with the crash of the tree and punctuating the lightning like an exclamation mark. Only one of the boys stirred, flailing at the wall in his sleep, the others groaned and mumbled sleepily.

The boy sitting on the floor tore his gaze away from the storm and looked about him. He had been sitting there for some time, and his eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and intermittent flashes of lightning; he looked around the room, reminding himself of his surroundings and the feelings of hate that bubbled up inside him whenever he saw them. Ugly striped wallpaper adorned the walls; he closed his eyes against the memory of the painfully bright colors. They were yellow and white, colors that Martha Stewart-wannabes thought of as cheerful and friendly--just thinking about it made him want to puke and wipe it all over the walls; or at least cover the disgusting wallpaper with black paint. To make matters worse, they weren't allowed to put up pictures or posters--it was against the stupid rules, rules that seemed to exist only to punish them before they actually did anything. The only furniture in the room, other than the beds, was a nightstand and standing lamp, which was almost never on; it had burned out months ago and no one had given a thought to changing the bulb.

This wasn't the first youth home he'd lived in, not by a long shot. Most of the others had been government-based and felt like pet shops--this one was privately owned, but it wasn't really any different, just smaller, and most of the guys had parents waiting for them to 'shape up' or some similar nonsense. He'd been in and out of several orphanages and group homes throughout the years; some had kicked him out, others had sent him away to make room. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that there was an overabundance of unwanted kids in the world; unwanted and forgotten, just like him.

A digital clock on the nightstand beeped, he glanced at it: 12:00 a.m. Yippee. It was his seventeenth birthday, not that anyone would notice. Of course, there was always the chance that it wasn't his birthday and he was still sixteen, maybe even only fifteen. No one really knew how old he was, all they could do was guess and invent a birthdate so his paperwork would be in order.

Another few minutes and then he would go back to bed. School was already annoying enough when he was wide-awake; he didn't want to think about what it'd be like if he were tired, especially if he ran into Van. There was no way he going to take on his rival half-conscious; even fully conscious and healthy, he never looked forward to their encounters.

12:15. He climbed into his bunk and pulled the covers over his head. Just in time, too; Howard, the Home's proprietor, came in to see if they were still asleep. Midnight checks like this were all that stupid pyro Martin's fault; last week, the moron had nearly burned down the whole left side of the room. There were still scorch marks on the walls; the yellow and white stripes were peeling off, browned and blackened, which pleased him in a twisted way.

"Jack? Well, no surprises there, considering the medication he's on. Martin? Good. I guess that field trip took a lot out of them today." Howard sounded like he was running a checklist.

He could hear the footsteps approaching the bunk he shared with Alex; fighting the urge to stiffen, he lay still.

"Alex is sleeping better these days. Dice, too."

Dice stirred slightly at the sound of his name. He'd known that his bunkmate used to have trouble getting to sleep at night, nightmares or something; lots of the other guys had to deal with that sort of thing. Dice had never had any trouble with them; his problem was just run-of-the-mill insomnia. But he hadn't known that anyone was aware of it; he'd thought he'd kept a fairly low profile. If this kind of nosiness kept up, he'd have to stop getting out of bed at night. Guess I just get to lie in bed and be bored all night. Yippee again.

He waited, listening for the sound of the door closing. Instead, he heard the soft plodding of Howard's dorky house slippers on the carpet; it didn't sound like he was headed for the door. Dice uncovered his head and rolled over to see what the caretaker was doing, careful to be as quiet as possible.

Light from the hallway filtered in through the open door, Dice automatically shut his eyes against the sudden brightness. After a few seconds, he opened them again; when he did, he saw Howard was still in the room, standing by the window. The storm had calmed somewhat; the lightning and hail had stopped and the rain was taking charge again. Howard wiped the window with the sleeve of his bathrobe and said quietly, "Looks like lightning finally hit that old tree. I probably should have put some kind of brace on it. Still, at least it didn't fall onto the roof. An oak tree that size would've done some serious damage." He shuddered, then sighed. "I'll have to call someone in to clean it up tomorrow. Might even have to do some of it myself in the morning. All that splintered wood in the street could cause an accident."

Dice scoffed inwardly at Howard's monologue; the guy was obviously a total loony, talking to himself like that. Dice rolled over onto his side, no longer caring if Howard knew he wasn't really sleeping. After a moment he changed position again. Maybe I should start sneaking some of Jack's pills--those things could knock out an elephant if they can get that guy to sleep. He folded his pillow in half and propped it up behind his head, comfortable at last, he was able to fall asleep only a few hours later.