Chapter Five: The Eleventh Hour

A boy sat at the top of the stairwell, unable to believe what he had just heard. Had his ears betrayed him? Or had what he thought had happened actually come to pass? Either way, Michael realized that someone had some explaining to do and for once, that someone was not his best friend. He slumped down and let his head fall to the more comfortable position of resting on his arms as he tried to ignore whispers from his parents that were coming from downstairs.

When he finally could not handle things anymore, he jumped up. This merited the attention of both his parents, as Jon exchanged nervous glances with his wife. He was just starting up the stairs when Michael turned and bolted in the direction of the school room, grabbing a blue and grey stuffed animal as he passed by the room he and Andy shared. Andy, who was still patiently working on transposing music, paid his older brother little or no attention.

The door to the school room would have slammed shut had Jon not arrived in time to prevent that from happening. As he glanced down at his son, he saw the face and body of a livid teenager. Michael's normally pale cheeks were red and his eyes narrowed in anger. One hand was clenched into a fist at his side and the other was holding the stuffed manta ray by one of its pectoral fins.

"Michael, please," Mr. Liu held one of his hands up in the air in a placating gesture. Ironically enough, this was the same stance that Michael often assumed when mediating arguments between Scott and Samantha Adams. "Just listen to me."

Michael hardly moved a muscle. For nearly five minutes, he stood there, rarely blinking and barely breathing. There was a tension mounting in the air, but Michael outwardly appeared immune to it. Silence prevailed for that period of time until he finally spoke. "Why was he here?" His voice was perfectly calm, but serious and almost deadly.

Jon drew in a sharp breath of air. "Please, Michael," he began. "Let's both go downstairs, have some tea and I'll answer your questions, okay?" He sent up a silent prayer that Michael would oblige. The boy considered for a brief moment, but nodded and followed his father out of the schoolroom, still holding the poor manta ray in one hand.

Once Jon had poured both himself and Michael tea, he sat down on the couch. Michael was sitting in the chair that Sharpe had occupied only moments before, wrapped up in a flannel blanket that rested on the back. He showed little interest in the cup of tea; instead it sat on a coaster on the coffee table in the center of the living room.

Jon sighed. He knew he would have to take the initiative; if Michael did, accusations would follow. He could see into his son's eyes that the boy was a simmering combination of angry, hurt, upset, confused and frustrated. This was a dangerous combination in almost any human, but especially someone who kept so many of his emotions typically hidden. "Mr. Sharpe decided to come by to make sure you and Sam arrived home safely." At this statement made by his father, Michael arched an eyebrow. So Sharpe had been following them earlier. "He wanted to catch up on old times for awhile, so that's what we were doing. We went to high school together."

Michael leaned back, clearly unimpressed. "He mentioned that," he replied in a non-committal voice. "Several times, in fact." There was a short pause and Michael's fingers ran along the seam of the blanket. "Why was he here? I know Mom gave him dinner." Although the Liu family was gracious to their guests, Michael hadn't expected his mother to feed Mr. Sharpe dinner.

Mr. Liu frowned slightly. "Just how much did you hear?" He took a sip of his tea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and folding his hands together.

Michael shrugged. "Enough to know what happened." His voice was level and calculating as he spoke, as if he was testing to see how his father would react before he said anything else. "After so long, I thought you or Mom would've realized that I often pretend to sleep."

Jon's glance fell to the ground suddenly. "Michael, please tell me exactly how much you heard." His voice was level as he matched that of his son, but there was a deep pleading undertone within his emotional signature that betrayed him. He was very uneasy of what would happen next and this frightened him.

Michael hardly wished to respond and he kept fiddling with the blanket in his hands. "I know that Mr. Sharpe gave you something that he intended for me to have. And yes, I heard almost everything." An eyebrow quirked upwards as Jon's face paled slightly.

Jon, who was still almost white, pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Michael. It was slightly wrinkled along the corners, but Michael ripped it open and removed the piece of paper inside. It was a handwritten note and probably the handwriting of a teenager, he guessed, and transcribed onto spiral-bound notebook paper.

[[Michael, if you're reading this, please don't shoot the messenger. He's only doing it on my request and that's it. If you want to send a reply, please trust him to get it to me. But that's not what I was going to talk about anyways. I really wanted to you to know that Sharpe's a good guy and I'd like to invite you to visit me sometime. Maybe pick up a game of chess? He mentioned that you play... so do I! Or just hang out... or whatever. It doesn't really matter to me.

I wish I knew how to say this to you, but you've really been a good friend to me. All the times we've talked and Sharpe's told me that you really do care about your friends. I've never heard him say that about anyone else, except probably your dad. He's a good guy, too, I think. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have a hunch he knows more than he says he does.

Which is why I'm actually writing to you. He really has a soft spot for some of his students and I'd like to ask you a favor. Has he told you anything about a guy called Kiyoshi Sato? I know they used to know each other. I asked Sharpe last time, but he wouldn't say anything more. Weird, huh? That and his family are the only things he never talks about.

You probably won't trust me on this. Sharpe told me to put proof in the envelope. Silly guy. But there's the camp pic of you, the twins and red-head down at the archery range. The flash that he thought was lightening was my camera. Sorry 'bout that... and thanks.

I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Signed, The Black Rook]]

Michael read the letter once and then again. One of his hands held the picture. Surely enough, the photograph clearly showed Scott and Nate arguing in the background. Sam was preparing to shoot the arrow and Michael had been standing next to the two cousins, deciding whether or not to watch them argue or to step in and play peacekeeper.

"Michael," Mr. Liu's voice was clear. "Mr. Sharpe was very insistent that you had that. In fact, he was sure you needed it. I don't know why; you'd have to ask him." He glanced down at his son. Michael's face was carefully crafted into that same stoic expression he had nearly mastered that revealed almost none of his feelings. The only sound coming from the living room was the soft chime that signalled that it was 10:30 PM. Upon hearing the chime, Michael jumped up. "What's–" Mr. Liu started to ask, but Michael cut him off before he could say anything.

"I... I need to go somewhere." Michael threw the blanket back down on the chair. Because he had not actually gone to bed yet, he was still wearing the same clothing he wore at school: a blue turtleneck and slacks. He slipped on his tennis shoes that were lying on the floor next to the front door over the socks he wore. He also grabed his long trench coat and shoved the letter and picture into a pocket. He shut the door before his father could stop him and he was gone.

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"Who is it?" A voice called from inside and a girl opened up the door just a crack. The girl was easily a few years older than Michael was and she sported a casual purple sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. Her long brown hair was pulled back loosely into a braid. "Oh, hi Michael! I... uhm, didn't expect you here so late, but please, come in." She smiled and moved to the side, allowing Michael entrance to the house.

Michael followed Jennie into the living room. The house was remarkably like his own in so many ways. Plush blue carpet covered the floor of the room in which they stood and a few chairs and the couch had been arranged around the room in roughly an elliptical shape. Jennie took a seat, but Michael remained on his feet, far too uneasy to sit down and stay still.

"Michael, you okay?" Jennie glanced over at him. "I've never seen you out this late." Even at church functions, Michael had been well-known amongst his peers for getting home at a reasonable hour.

Michael shrugged. "I need to talk to Mr. Sharpe," he stated after a moment. His voice was shaky; he was still pacing back and forth along the carpet. He clasped his hands behind his back and stopped for a moment.

Jennie placed her hands on her left knee. "Okay... let me know why you need to see my brother," she replied, her voice equally as apprehensive as Michael's had been. She was not concerned that Sharpe would be asleep; it was still early enough that the thought passed through her mind. She was well-aware of the fact that her older brother stayed awake far into the night on a regular basis.

Michael's hands came unclasped. "He... he said something to me and I wanted to ask him what it meant." There was a short pause. "It's Latin and I need to ask him about the translation."

Jennie opened her mouth slightly. "Let me call him and see what he says," she answered. "While you're waiting, we made cookies this afternoon if you want some." She spent part of her time working at Riverdale High and many of her afternoons were spent volunteering at the community center with kids who had special needs. Fridays were usually devoted to fun projects, like cooking. Apparently more cookies had been made than they were able to eat or take home.

"No thanks," Michael shook his head. Between dinner and the odd things that had happened that day, he was hardly hungry anymore. After a moment, Jennie grabbed the telephone and took it into the other room. Michael drew his lips into a tight frown. Very few things were running through his mind and the only main thing was concerning Mr. Sharpe. Nearly five minutes later, Jennie emerged from the kitchen.

"My brother agreed to let you come over," Jennie smiled, holding the phone loosely in her right hand. "I'd walk you over myself, but Mom and Dad want me home." She wrote and address on a piece of paper and sketched out a quick street diagram. "This is what he told me to do, so here. I trust your ability to follow directions is better than Scott's?" She smiled slightly and handed the paper to Michael.

Michael nodded. Scott was the kind of person who would get lost giving instructions from his house to school, despite the fact that it was only three streets away and the trio had been going to Riverdale for over two years. Michael glanced down at the paper. The address read 313 B Janus Avenue. With a split second thought, Michael knew exactly where that apartment complex was located; it was only a short distance from Riverdale High. In fact, Tyler Martin had used to live in the same complex with his mom and younger sister Emily until they had moved just a few months before.

As he walked down Chestnut Avenue, the wind whipped around his body, blowing his coat in all directions. The boy pulled in closer into his body as he kept putting one foot in front of the other. His dark eyes blinked a couple of times as he made his way down the street. It would be a long walk; that much he was certain of.

While he was walking, he contemplated the letter he had received. He was certain he knew the person who had sent it. Perhaps it had been someone from Sola Scriptura, the summer Bible camp that he, the twins, their cousin Nate, Tyler Martin, Marie Wilson and Kiran Shasthri had all attended the summer before their sophomore year. It had been a wonderful time. Michael had made some close friends that summer, like Nate Winters and Hideaki Sato and Kiran Shasthri, who had later stayed with the Liu family for a semester as an exchange student. All the teenagers spent time not only in worship, but also intense Bible study. The smaller group that Michael had been in had studied Job. As memories of Sola flooded his mind, he smiled; maybe the walk did not feel so long after all.

The apartments on Janus Avenue were not far from Riverdale High. Michael kept walking along as he realized that it made sense for Sharpe to live there if, as he said, he did not own a car. It would take Michael approximately five minutes to walk from the apartments to Riverdale; he assumed it would take Sharpe slightly less than that based on the fact that the chemistry teacher had much longer legs than he. The teenager entered the apartment complex and wandered around for a few moments. It was a nice feeling to walk around in peace... the lonely atmosphere contrasted with his home, which was ever bustling with people.

After about ten minutes of walking, he came to realize that the A apartments were on the first floor and the B apartments were on the second. He sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair, eyes darting around into the distance. He came upon the apartment marked 313A and his glance shifted upwards to the heavens. For just a moment, he marveled at the majesty of all that was happening. Despite the foul weather, the night sky was absolutely amazing: he could see the small flecks of light that were really stars, all of them many light years away. Though he couldn't find any of the constellations, he knew that the closest star other than the sun was approximately four light years away. A gentle smile touched his lips; the heavens had not yet seemed this close to him since he and a small group of friends had gone star gazing at Sola.

["Isn't that amazing?" One of the teenagers marveled as he looked up at the night sky. The moon was only a small sliver that night. "Hey Michael, look up there. The Big Dipper... or Ursa Major as Dad calls it."

"Hmm?" Michael arched an eyebrow towards the other boy. He had been counting specks of light for the past few minutes. "What did you say again?"

Hideaki smiled. "The only vacation Dad took me on was camping and we spent lots of time watching stars." His dark eyes lit up and he held his hands out to get them warmed up by the fire that was barely smoldering. "They're so far away... Alpha Centauri's the closest and we can't even see it here."]

Michael cherished that memory – like all the others – that he received from Sola and he smiled. It gave him both the strength and courage to climb the stairs to Sharpe's apartment. His hand hesitated when he reached to knock on the door. He couldn't follow through. As much as he was curious about what Sharpe had said to him and how he got the letter, the sensible part of Michael's mind urged him to give up right then.

He would have left had the door not opened right at that moment. "Mr. Liu, I presume." Long fingers opened the door from the inside as the cold voice spoke. So many times had Michael heard this voice; to him it sounded both caustic and slippery, like one of the alkaline bases they used in the chemistry lab. "Come in. We have been expecting you."

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Light streamed from the inside of the small apartment as Michael blinked a few times. He could hardly believe he was in the apartment complex, much less that he was entering the room. The man ushered him inside quickly and firmly shut the door, not allowing the wind to enter or to exert chaos upon the sparsely decorated room. Michael followed Mr. Sharpe inside and removed his tennis shoes, setting them beside the door. As he looked around, he took in every detail he could. The walls were a light grey and the thinning carpet was dark green.

"Sit." Sharpe motioned towards a computer office chair. There was a grey striped cat sitting in the seat. As Michael began to sit, the cat lazily jumped down and pranced across the carpet and into the kitchen. "Nernst is hardly used to anyone being here." Sharpe followed the cat across the room and allowed his long legs to carry him towards the dining room with little effort. "As am I." He grabbed two ceramic mugs and brought them to the living room, offering one to Michael, who gladly accepted.

Michael swished the contents of the mug around and smelled the liquid. It was a smell he would recognize almost anywhere and it belonged to Jennie and Mandie's apple cider. Every Sunday during the cold weather, Jennie would make it for the kids in the youth group at church. He silently gave thanks for something familiar around here; the whole day had just been too odd for him. The boy was pensive for a moment as he saw, waiting for the steaming liquid to cool. Apparently the contents of Sharpe's mug were less hot because the chemistry teacher was able to drink. There was an awkward silence that built up inside the room. Michael was contemplating how the day had begun by walking out of homerooms and letting the door slam behind him. The series of events that followed had led to this: being out of his house after curfew hours and sitting in the apartment of the very teacher he had been determined to hate earlier that day.

"When my sister called, she said that you had a question that you needed to ask me," Sharpe's voice had the slightest hint of a drawl, which Michael had never noticed before. The middle-aged man set his half-emptied mug down on the small table near his own chair.

Michael nodded. "Who's Kiyoshi Sato and what does he have to do with me?" Michael's eyes narrowed. This was a good question to begin with and he was well-aware of the fact that Sharpe was probably going to avoid fully answering his question; he had overheard just enough of the conversation before.

Sharpe folded his hands and took a deep breath. The ambient lighting, though dim, still seemed bright on his eyes. He resolved to fix that, but it would have to wait until later. "Kiyoshi Sato was a classmate of mine when we were in high school," Sharpe began. He chose his words carefully; now was neither the time nor the place to speak more than was necessary. "He and Emiko Takahashi's father were close friends. They happened to be in the same year that I was and both delighted in giving a certain amount of grief to their classmates." Sharpe's angular nose wrinkled ever-so-slightly at the very tip. "Your father and your aunt were both acquainted with him. Why do you care to know?" Sharpe arched an eyebrow, choosing to ignore Nernst, who had pranced back into the living room and was now rubbing up against Michael's leg.

Michael shrugged and his glance dropped to the cat. "It's just something I was thinking about., that's all." Michael was lying through his teeth and he knew it. He was also aware that Sharpe probably knew this, but he didn't care. "Could I pet him?" He glanced down at Nernst, suddenly changing the subject.

Sharpe frowned slightly. "If he lets you, then you may pet him." He watched as Michael bent down and Nernst jumped into the youth's lap. The man took a long sip and set the mug back down. "That is not everything you were going to say, was it?"

Michael shook his head. "Is Mr. Sato still alive?" He stopped paying attention to the striped feline long enough to ask the question. After remembering the crumpled paper in his jacket pocket, he resolved to inquire about the contents of that later.

"No," Sharpe let out a sigh. "He died sixteen years ago as a direct result of a decision he made." Sharpe's voice was about half an octave lower than it normally was.

[Sharpe was silent as he moved through the alley way. It was a dark and cloudy day in the middle of March, much like what one would expect to find in Seattle, not the sunny Bay Area in California. He had nothing better to do; there were no assignments due for any of the classes the college junior was taking. Even Dr. Shasthri – a difficult professor if he'd ever encountered one – had not assigned homework for the advanced thermodynamics class she taught.

This may have not been the best idea he had, but the twenty-one-year-old decided to duck into an abandoned alleyway. He hardly had reason for doing this, except that a police car was about half a block from where he stood; he did not want more of a headache than he already had from the sirens and flashing lights of emergency vehicles. In the shadows, he saw something that would make his headache much worse: Kiyoshi Sato. Sato's narrow features had grown even narrower in the past year and a half since Sharpe had seen him last.

He heard a cry coming from the basket that Sato held under one arm and he gasped aloud, barely reaching his hand up in time to muffle the sound. It was the cry of a small child. He'd heard it once before, many years ago when he was in the hospital for his own surgery, but he'd paid little attention then.

"What're you doing here, coward?" Sato's scathing voice addressed Sharpe. "I know you're here, so y'might as well show yourself." Sato set the basket down on the ground next to an old trash bin and turned around, looking for Sharpe to appear.

Sharpe decided to step out from the shadows. "Ah, Sato," his voice was sickly sardonic as he answered Sato's accusations. "And who is the coward this time? Impregnating a girl three years younger than you? Running away so you don't have to face her parents? Taking one of the children with you?" He paused for a moment, pointing a long stick at the ratty basket and the torn blanket that draped over its edges. "And who was the true coward before? Bullying someone who's half your size? Insisting that the fight is five-to-one? Now, if I were you, I'd put that knife down on the ground. Oh yes, I know you've got a knife in your pocket…" Sharpe nodded towards the front right pocket of Sato's jeans.

Sato seethed though his clenched teeth. "You…" he hissed. This was followed by a string of expletives. "I don't have time for this!" He removed the knife from the pocket of his jeans, opened it up and thought for a moment, debating at whether to lunge at Sharpe or to slit his own throat open. He decided on the latter. He brought the knife up to his own carotid artery. Sharpe stood frozen, unable to do anything. Instead of going through with his plans, Sato used his knife to slice the side of his neck. He screamed out in pain and fell to the ground.

Sharpe hurried over and held his – former – enemy in his arms. "Here," he said, holding up a vial to Sato's mouth. "It'll work faster… and not be as painful." The contents of the vial were poisonous, but it would allow Sato to die without so much pain. After all, that was what he obviously wanted. Sharpe knew Sato was a coward; what about the infant? However, Sato's breathing stopped just before he swallowed the substance.

As soon as he had realized what happened, Sharpe wove his way around the trash cans to reach the infant. He immediately noticed an envelope in the basket. Opening it up, his dark eyes skimmed the contents.

[Attention: J. Victor Sharpe

If I am to die here and today, please take the child into your care. His name is Hideaki.

K. Sato]

The date and a signature were placed on the side of the note and Sharpe frowned, his lips drawing themselves into a thin line. As carefully as he could, he picked up the basket. The young child inside was about a year old and looked almost exactly like his father did. Sharpe knew he couldn't bear to look at the youth every day for the rest of his life. It would bring back too many memories of being teased and pushed down into the mud day after day. Even if the boy stayed with the Altons – Sharpe was sure Josiah and Sherry would take him in – the memories were still too strong.

He shook his head. He would have to take the boy into a foster care center instead. With that choice being made, he set off towards home, carrying the basket under his arm.]

"Yet that holds little concern for either of us now, Mr. Liu," Sharpe's voice had reverted back to its typically cold tone. "And tomorrow, things will be made clearer." An eyebrow arched upwards as his hands clasped the warm mug.

Michael glared at the older man defiantly for several moments. Down the hall, the clock ticked and Nernst rubbed his head against the side of the chair. "Alright..." Getting Sharpe to answer his inquiries about this Kiyoshi Sato was clearly not working, so he decided to take another route. "You went to high school with Emiko Takahashi's father, didn't you?" This question was merely one of curiosity; earlier Sharpe had mentioned Takahashi being a bully.

Sharpe set the mug down on the table that was at the left side of his chair without regard to use a coaster of any sorts. "We were both on the interscholastic chess team." Absently, Sharpe reached into his pocket and pulled out an old chess piece. It was carved from a wood that looked that almost black in the dimmed lighting of the room and judging by the general shape and the cross on the top of it, Michael assumed it was a king. After a moment of twiddling it in his thin fingers, Sharpe placed the piece back into the pocket of his pants. Maybe it had been too long since he played a game of chess... that is, played and lost a good game. "If you had been listening to what I said earlier, you would have been able to deduce that." He glanced over at Michael, observing the Asian boy with a dark glance. "I know you are brighter than people–" The last bit of Sharpe's sentence was cut off by the ring of the doorbell.

"Excuse me for a moment." Sharpe pushed himself into a standing position with quite a bit more effort than Michael would have expected for someone with his scrawny stature. Soundlessly mouthing words, he made his way towards the door, limping ever so slightly. The Asian boy noted the anomaly. He had never seen Sharpe limp before or if he had, Michael had never actively noticed it before.

As Sharpe opened up the door, his normally darker skin paled to the color of light parchment. A woman in her early fifties stood outside the door, wearing an oversized travel coat. From the inside of the apartment, Michael could see that her skin was dark and the only remarkable aspect of her appearance – other than the fact that she looked somehow familiar – was a blue and purple cloth wrapped loosely around her head, neck and shoulders.