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Snake in the Grass

Chapter Text

Sam didn't realize at once. The sparkle of blue haze which accompanied every Leap seemed no more than sunlight on water, and was just as fleeting. And what was more, his head was still submerged.

There, however, the similarity ended abruptly.

For in stark contrast to the crystal clear Atlantic, this water was murky and brackish, and Sam most certainly could not breathe nor hold his breath here. He struggled not to swallow the vile water as he fought to find a way out. Something was holding him down. There was a pressure on the back of his head, his neck and shoulders. His hands were being held at arms length behind him.

Just when he felt his lungs would burst, the pressure eased and he bobbed up like a cork, coughing and spluttering and fighting for breath. But before he'd fully caught it, the pressure was reapplied, forcing his head back down into the smelly, slimy tank his blurry eyes had barely made out. In the split-second before his dunking, he managed to suck in and hold a deep breath, but it didn't last nearly long enough.

What on Earth had he leapt into now?

Why was his new host being tortured so?

And by whom?

He got a clue the next time he bobbed up. Several voices were shouting at him, urging him to do something in words that were at once both strange and yet somehow familiar. Another dunking into the stagnant mire banished all thought but surviving 'til the next breath, which seemed even longer in coming. He had to find a way to end this torment before it ended him. A red mist danced and swirled before his eyes as he emerged once more from the depths.

The same voices again.

The same imperative: "Apologize."

Only that wasn't precisely the expression used. "Oayamari nasaimase." What language was this? All at once it came to him. Japanese! His assailants were speaking Japanese!

"Oya, oto konokito!" he panted. "Oh, boy!"

Down he went again, pushed roughly from behind so that he almost knocked himself out on the jagged lip of the rusty metal tank. These bullies meant business. They would not give up until he gave them what they wanted. Which appeared to be an apology.

How had he offended these people? He had no idea. Nor did he know if they'd deserved whatever he'd done or said. He did know that there were twenty different ways to say sorry in Japanese, depending on the level of guilt. He had no clue as to what was appropriate, but he dared to hazard a guess that 'sumimasen' wouldn't do – the type of apology to be used if you bumped into someone inadvertently, for example. He hardly thought it likely that such a minor accident would provoke so savage a retribution, even among such proud people.

Sam decided there was only one safe course of action. In his ignorance of his alleged crime, he would offer the humblest and most sincere of all Japanese apologies – literally "I have no excuse" in the hope that it would placate his attackers and end his suffering. He knew he couldn't take much more of this punishment.

Next time he was let up, he gasped and cried out, "M-moshiwake-gozaimasen, moshiwake-gozaimasen!"

To his immense relief, the pressure eased and he was allowed to straighten up, though his hands were still held to prevent escape.

The leader of the group moved around into his line of blurred vision as he shook the foul water from his hair, choking and spluttering to clear the damp from his lungs and the awful taste from his mouth. As Sam's eyes cleared he could see - he blinked, disbelievingly, - for he was confronted, not by the scar-faced villain of his imaginings, not by a mustachioed Mafioso, but by a lad of no more than seventeen. This was the thug he'd been so afraid of? Sam drew himself up to his full height to face his apparent enemy, flexing his muscles beneath the iron grip of his human handcuffs.

The boy's stern expression suddenly melted into a smile, then a laugh, which was echoed by the others – a gang of some seven youths, each one Asian, in his teens, and wearing a purple bandana on his head. The tallest lad slapped Sam almost playfully on the shoulder and pronounced "Kakkoii," then again in English, "Cool!"

He was impressed. Sam had chosen his words wisely.

"I like you, kid. You're okay." The boy told Sam. "I'm gonna let you Jump-in." He nodded to his cronies, who loosed their grip, whilst the others moved in to surround Sam, in a tight circle. The time traveler was too befuddled to take advantage of the release. Hostility and attempted murder had turned to jocularity and even approbation, in little more than a heartbeat. Then this latest - he was to be allowed to jump in.

In where? The vast expanse of water which he now saw a short distance away?

He cast around to get his bearings. They were in a run-down ramshackle industrial area of some sort – dilapidated warehouses with broken windows, paint peeling on faded company signs, dust and grime everywhere. Yet, beyond the rusty fence he could make out the hustle and bustle of a thriving business environment and a teeming metropolis. Finally, he focused in the direction of the water, and followed it almost to the horizon, where he recognized with a shock a landmark that left him no possible doubt as to his current location.

It was the Golden Gate Bridge!

So, he was in San Francisco, not the Far East.

Okay, but why? Not to go for a friendly swim, that much was for sure. With trepidation evident in his strained voice he sought clarification.

"J-Jump in?"

"That's what you want, isn't it? To join the Cobras?"

A gang initiation!

Quite frankly, that was just about the last thing Sam wanted. Steady, dependable, studious Dr Beckett had never believed in frivolous fraternities, gung-ho gangs and other forms of juvenile hi-jinks, and he didn't intend to start subscribing now, thank you very much. And if that made him a mega nerd, he couldn't have cared less.

But without Al there to advise him, he daren't refuse. The timing suggested that perhaps he needed to be in, in order to complete his secret mission. So, once again he prepared to infiltrate behind enemy lines.

He'd been a Cobra before, he recalled unhappily, and hoped that this time he wouldn't have to ride a motorbike. Or face a Mad Dog. With hindsight, he later wished those things were all he'd be called on to accomplish, and been thankful to have been let off so lightly.

"What d-do I have to do?" he asked, his voice still husky from the near drowning.

"Do?" the boy standing next to the gang leader echoed, smiling wickedly, a hint of venom in his tone. "Oh, you don't have to do anything - Just stay on your feet for the next five or ten minutes. The rest of us will be doing all the hard work, won't we boys?"

Cruel, mocking laughter surrounded him. Only one boy, just in front and to his right, winked at him reassuringly.

"You'll be fine, Kaz," he whispered. "We don't use weapons or nothing, only fists and feet. Remember what I told you; it's just a little beating. You don't fight back and don't cry for mercy and before you know it, you'll be a Cobra, like me!"

The boy was fourteen at most, short and slight of build, wiry. He looked harmless, but his affinity with this gang meant he'd need watching closely. "Kaz" appeared to be his friend, yet here he was cheerfully planning to set upon him and likely knock seven bells out of him, and Sam was expected to be grateful! The more he heard, the less he liked the idea of being a Cobra.

Where was Al? He really wanted to be told he didn't have to do this. Yet experience told him the easy path was seldom the right one.

"Yoi, Cobras?" enquired the Leader. He didn't ask Sam if he was ready. How do you prepare yourself to submit voluntarily to a mugging? As soon as the Jump-in had been granted they'd begun to divest themselves of shoes and socks, which were used now to mark the edge of the arena.

"Yoi, your Majesty," chorused the Cobras, bowing formally in traditional samurai manner, arms straight, and hands by their sides.

The King Cobra turned to his left and addressed the wiry boy.

"Yasuo, as our newest member, and his friend," here he indicated Sam, "you have the honor of striking the first blow. Don't hold back."

With an authoritative gesture, he commanded, "Hajime."

Yasuo stepped up, looking as if he were about to present Sam with a gold medal. Sam steeled himself not to flinch, as his 'friend' bestowed upon him a fierce body blow to the stomach. For a young lad, he packed quite a punch. Sam exhaled vehemently, winded but unbowed.

"Very good," conceded the King. "Next."

This lad was far stockier, though not much older than the first. He drew back his fist and struck Sam full in the face – another kid who certainly wasn't playing at it. Sam's head recoiled from the blow, but he stood his ground.

"Excellent," proclaimed 'his majesty', "you take it well. Next."

The third boy was tall, almost as tall as the King Cobra himself. He moved in close to Sam and punched him hard and low. Sam bent over slightly, and his eyes moistened, but he kept his balance.

So it was for the fourth, fifth and sixth – each dealt him a swift punch to the torso, which he absorbed with barely a grunt. He may not be enjoying it, but he could take it. No sweat.

Only number seven made him sweat. He appeared to be Crown Prince, second in command and in seniority. At sixteen he was well developed, muscular, and his face was already battle-scarred. His eyes blazed maliciously. As he attacked, he feigned a punch, then sidestepped and swung around, kicking Sam viciously in the side. Sam very nearly crumpled over, but steadied himself at the last second and resisted the urge to clutch his aching side. The thug looked disappointed, and then glared at Sam with pure hatred.

Now it was the King's turn. Sam swallowed; bracing himself for another brutal blow, for surely the Leader would have to outdo his lieutenant? Instead, he looked at his hands as if deciding whether or not to sully them on a mere commoner. He wore a gold signet ring on the left little finger, engraved with a purple cobra.

Sam suddenly recalled a similar ring drawing blood on his cheek. Another beating. One he had barely survived. He drew in a sharp breath.

'Focus' he told himself. He tried to work out how long this had taken so far. How many blows each would fit in within the allotted ten minutes, and how many of the boys were capable of causing any real damage. Only three, he decided – the King, his number two, and the tall lad. If the leader decided to step back and merely watch the spectacle, it shouldn't be too bad.

Unfortunately, he was not to be so lucky. King Cobra looked up from his scrutiny and made a circling gesture with his hand, encompassing the whole group.

"Now, the games can really begin," he announced, and dropped his arm in Caesarean command.

All at once the entire gang set upon Sam, striking from all sides. It was all he could do not to collapse in a heap under the sheer weight of the onslaught.

Fists and feet flew at him from all directions, landing blow after blow on his head, limbs and body, leaving him bruised and battered. Yet still somehow he stood his ground. The natural urge to fight back, to defend himself, grew stronger as the minutes passed, a never-ending blur. Finally, he felt he could take no more. Though it was humiliating to admit that a grown man, normally fit and strong, was being bested by a bunch of teenagers, he was most definitely swaying. He wanted to curl up in a ball on the ground and envelop himself in some protective shield, to deny them their target. He wanted to put out his arms defensively to block the incoming blows – forearm guarding blocks; middle inners against the punches; lower outers to counter the kicks. Yet these moves could be misconstrued as hostile, and then he'd have suffered in vain.

Then miraculously, just as he was about to crumple in an undignified heap and holler 'Uncle', the King Cobra called a halt to the trouncing with another grand gesture.

"Enough!"

Ever obedient, the gang ceased hostilities immediately, and instead raised Sam in triumph onto their shoulders and paraded him around, chanting, "Co-bras, Co-bras!"

He knew he should feel elated, should be full of pride and camaraderie and a sense of having achieved a long-sought goal. Instead, Sam just felt gratitude and relief that the "little beating" was over at long last, mingled with a gut-churning fear of what 'delights' awaited him as a fully-fledged member of the gang.

And with good reason.

His erstwhile assailants lowered him to the ground, with words of congratulation and hearty (rather too hearty!) slaps on the back. Then, at a signal from their leader, they formed a semi-circle behind him as he faced his new sovereign. His friend Yasuo alone stood with him, to the left and a little behind, like a squire attendant on his knight. He placed a hand on Sam's shoulder, and by a gentle pressure gave him to understand he was expected to kneel. Reluctantly, and somewhat stiffly, Sam complied.

The King Cobra stepped forward and raised his arm. Three cheers ensued for the newest recruit.

Then silence.

He held it for the longest moment before speaking. The mark of a strong leader – he had them in the palm of his hand. When he spoke, it was softly, yet his voice carried easily to the furthest acolyte. A voice that compelled one to listen and take note.

"My fellow Cobras," he began unhurriedly, sweeping his arm majestically to encompass them all, and making brief but significant eye contact with each in turn. Here was a clever and charismatic commander. His mere presence kept them aware of his superiority, and the need to curry his favor else incur his wrath, yet there were just enough of the small touches of familiarity to make even the lowliest feel important, a valued member of the group. These kids would follow him anywhere, and do anything he asked of them, even gladly lay down their lives for him. That made him exceedingly dangerous.

"It is with great pleasure," he continued, smiling benevolently for emphasis, "that I, Matanaru Fujiyama, King of the Cobras, ask you to welcome Kazuo Sakaguchi, who has shown himself worthy to be called a Cobra. Treat him as your brother. Share all you have with him, and be prepared to defend him with your life, against all enemies."

"We will!" came the devout chorus.

"And you, Kazuo? You will do the same for each of these, your new brothers, will you not?"

"I – I will," Sam felt compelled to affirm. It was not quite the ritual he had expected, not the long drawn-out oath he'd thought he'd have to repeat, but there was a reverence to the ceremony all the same. Especially when Fujiyama signaled to Sam's second, Yasuo, who bowed and left the arena.

He returned bearing something resembling a dark cushion in front of him, which he brought before the King and, kneeling on one leg, offered up in homage.

The leader took something shiny from atop the bundle and held it high, nodding to Yasuo as he did so. The boy rose and turned now to present the "cushion" to Sam. At close quarters he could see that it was, in fact, a neatly folded black leather jacket, such as each of his companions was wearing. Emblazoned on the back, naturally, was a magnificently embroidered purple and gold Cobra, coiled like a rope, its head rising menacingly from the center, poised to strike. Beneath the beast, the word 'Cobras' was marked out in silver star shaped studs. Sam had to admit it was a stunning uniform, which many young lads would aspire to own. Yasuo helped him to open it out and put it on, pulling a purple bandanna from the pocket, which he tied on his friend's head, then told him he should hold out his hands in supplication, his head lowered. As he did so, his liege bestowed upon Sam the small silver object, which was cold and hard in his upturned palms. Sam was horrified to realize that it was a flick knife, but still he thanked his benefactor in a voice he hoped would pass for awe. With a grand gesture, Matanaru Fujiyama bid him rise to his feet, and step back to take his rightful place with his new brethren.

It was at this point that a bright white doorway appeared, immediately behind Fujiyama, and Sam's best friend, Observer, Guide, Guru and Guardian Angel, one Admiral Albert Calavicci, stepped through both the door and the boy to stand before Sam, resplendent as ever in his far from military attire.

Today, he wore a shirt mandarin in both color and collar, patterned with fine black swirls and squiggles such as may have been created by a spider drunk on the ink into which he'd fallen. His suit was black and shiny, with tangerine lapels and a fine orange stripe down the side of each leg. The ensemble was topped off with a deep orange fedora circled by a black band, set at a rakish angle.

Though inwardly startled by the close proximity of his friend's materialization, years of practice enabled Sam to mask his reaction from the assembled group. There were still times when he "looked like he'd seen a ghost", but for the most part he took it in his stride. "Expect the unexpected" was less a motto, more a way of life. On the other hand, because he was invisible to all but Sam, more or less, Al could express his emotions in the traditional grand Italian manner, and frequently did. Sam decided he'd give his invisible pal something to react to. Knowing he couldn't actually hurt his friend, which he would never want to do, he turned the knife over in his hand, so that Al could not see clearly what he had. Then, with a twist of the wrist, he flicked it open and made a quick slashing gesture, slicing neatly through his friend's holographic throat.

"Aaaargh!" shrieked Al, instinctively jumping backwards and around three foot into the air. "What d'ya wanna go and do a thing like thatfor?" He clutched his neck then patted it nervously as if making sure it was still intact, checking his fingers for bloodstains. Even when he was sure they came away clean, he still fingered his collar repeatedly, with shaky hand, staring at Sam wide-eyed with shock.

Sam allowed himself a brief flicker of amusement, then became contrite, looking up sheepishly through half lowered eyelids. Perhaps he had gone a bit too far after all.

Before he could attempt the usual double talk that passed for communication with his spy in the crowd, Sam's new family swept him away in a flurry of excited chatter, including approbation for his handling of the knife, and further hearty slaps which made Sam wince and stumble, 'til Yasuo hooked him up under the arm and buoyed him along like the best man holding up the groom after too much booze at the stag party. Sam accepted the support with unashamed gratitude.

Now that the formalities were over, they were like any crowd of teenage boys, laughing and joking casually and planning the evening's entertainment. It all seemed innocent and natural when they invited him to go hang out at the mall with them. Sam couldn't help having his doubts, though. Thus far, he'd never Leapt-in for an innocuous night out on the town. He appeared to aim his whispered question at Yasuo, but it was to Al he looked for his answer, "Do I have to go?"

"It's not part of the initiation, Kaz," Yasuo told him, "but it'd look better if you came. You don't want to offend Fujiyama. And anyway, what's the point in joining the Cobras if you don't hang out with us?" As he said this, he let Sam go and leant over to pick up two rucksacks, obviously discarded after school when they met up with the rest of the gang. Putting one over his own shoulder, he tossed the other to Sam, who staggered back under its unexpected weight, grunting.

Meanwhile, Al was busy punching buttons on the handlink. Finally, he replied, "Zig says it's an uneventful outing, Sam. You're not here for anything major tonight, so please yourself."

'That'd be a first,' thought Sam. What he said aloud was, "If it's all the same to you," encompassing both his companions, "I'd just as soon go home and have a long hot bath – in iodine!" He winced anew at his stiff, aching body, and wiped almost dry traces of blood from his nose and lip with the back of his hand. A small, yet fairly deep cut on his forehead just along the hairline, caused by his unfortunate introduction to the water tank, oozed unnoticed into the deep purple headscarf.

"Yeah," Yasuo sniggered. "I kinda felt that way when I jumped-in," he admitted, "but it's worth it, I promise you."

Sam's tender hide felt otherwise, as did his maturity, but he held his tongue and smiled at his friend and brother Cobra, who had further pearls of wisdom to impart.

"Don't forget to take your jacket off before you get home, and keep your knife out of sight. Your obaa-san will have a fit if she knows you're in the gang."

'Which strikes me as another very good reason why I shouldn't be in it,' thought Sam, wondering why Kazuo lived with his grandmother. An orphan, he presumed. Had this contributed to the lad's current flirtation with the wild side?

Sam's instinct told him that he and Yasuo should spend as little time as possible with the gang, but experience led him to hazard a bet that avoiding them would be next to impossible.

Still, one step at a time. Perhaps he could keep his new friend out of trouble for a while, and help himself too. With a sway that was not entirely counterfeit, Sam put his hand to his head and leant towards Yasuo, who grabbed his arm to lend support, exactly as Sam had hoped.

"You okay?" Yasuo asked, with genuine concern, which was echoed by Al.

"I'll live," Sam assured them both, "but I do feel a bit dizzy and uh sick, probably all that foul water I swallowed. I don't want to spoil your fun, Yas," he lied, "but would you mind coming home with me? I don't want sobo to find me passed out on the doorstep." 'Not to mention the fact that the city of St Francis is a mighty big place when you don't know where you live.'

Al registered for the first time his friend's damp hair and clothing masked beneath the newly acquired uniform, and added it to his list of things to worry about. Honestly, he couldn't leave Sam alone for five minutes without the Leaper getting himself into some scrape or another. He sought advice from Ziggy's medical database, and was relieved that no permanent harm seemed to have been done. Sam still looked pretty green around the gills though, and Al surmised that he was in for an uncomfortable night. He was street-wise enough to know all about Jumping-In ceremonies, and their after effects on the 'lucky' recipients of the sugillation; the added ill effects of consuming contaminated water could only make things worse.

One of these Leaps, thought Al, Sam would get a break and arrive to find himself the pampered master of a harem, but this one was obviously going to be far more true to form, and push his friend to (and beyond) the limits.

Little did the Rear Admiral imagine quite how right his prediction would be.