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WE'LL SEE HOW BRAVE YOU ARE...

Emby Quinn (savageredhead@aol.com)

We'll see how brave you are, oh yes
We'll see how fast you'll be running
We'll see how brave you are
We'll see...


"Yes, Anastasia", Tori Amos

* * *


Joe Asakura hated hospitals.

He hated the white sterility of the featureless hallways; he hated the sound the nurses' shoes made when they walked past; he hated the solicitous detachment of the doctors who too often talked so much and said so little; he hated the antiseptic smell that permeated the air in a vain effort to mask the all-pervading stench of illness and death.

Most of all, he hated sitting around in a waiting room poring over old magazines while absolutely nothing happened--very, very slowly.

It was by unspoken agreement that the other members of the Science Ninja Team had decided to wait with Ken, even though Nambu had only asked Ken to stay. In every meaningful sense, they were family, and more than family--they faced everything together. That was how it had been since they had all been children.

We're still children, Joe mused. Some of us, anyway. He looked at Jinpei, who was dozing on Jun's shoulder. Children robbed of our childhood, though we each surrendered it willingly.

He leaned against the wall and studied their team leader. Ken was staring out the window facing the parking lot; he seemed to be studying his own reflection intensely, as though some answer lay there. He had barely spoken since their arrival, and not at all since Nambu had gone into their prisoner's hospital room a few minutes ago.

Joe wondered if Jun's remark had affected Ken so deeply. "Ken...she looks like you," she'd said. Joe hadn't gotten a good look at the Galactor assassin they'd brought back; he hadn't felt the need to bother, really. Of what significance could it be even if this woman did resemble Ken? None of them except for Ryu had any surviving family, never mind any family in Galactor.

Joe rubbed his temples, scowling. His head was starting to hurt.

* * *


"...stable; she tolerated the procedure well. Luckily no major organs were involved and the internal bleeding was minimal. Ah, she's waking up." A cool touch on her brow. "Can you hear me?"

Poppy tried to seize the hand on her face, but her arm wouldn't move. Her eyes flew open and focused on the visage of a middle-aged woman, a stranger, with a pleasantly lined round face and greying hair pulled back into a neat bun. Her deep-set black eyes were sharp but gentle. She was obviously Asian, most likely of Japanese or Korean descent.

"Try not to move around too much," the woman cautioned her. "Thirty-three stitches ought to hold you together, but if you start acting up, you could tear yourself wide open."

Poppy found her arms and legs immobilized. "Let me go."

"The restraints are for your own protection."

"Let me go. Or kill me." Her voice held no inflection; it was more a directive than a demand. It was not a request at all.

"You have to keep still, or you'll aggravate your injuries." The sharp black eyes crinkled as the woman smiled. "And I didn't just spend my afternoon off sewing you up to let my work go to waste, young lady."

"Doctor?" A new voice, a man's. Poppy couldn't see the speaker.

The woman looked behind her. "Well, she's awake, and she seems lucid. I'm afraid she's not happy with us."

"Is she strong enough to answer a few questions?"

"In theory. I'm not promising how coherent she'll be." The woman stepped to one side. "Go easy with her. She's out from under the anaesthesia, but she's likely to be disoriented." A dry chuckle. "She doesn't seem inclined to be cooperative, either."

"Let me worry about that, Doctor." The man moved into Poppy's limited field of vision. Poppy realized that her right eye was covered with a bandage. The man was a stranger as well; in his forties perhaps, wearing wire-framed glasses, with neatly combed brown hair and a moustache.

"This is Dr. Nambu," the Asian woman explained. "He works with the International Science Organization. He wants to talk to you for a while, if that's okay with you?"

"Am I a prisoner here?" Poppy asked. "At least tell me that much."

"You are a patient," the woman doctor corrected. "At the moment, your legal status is of no concern to us. You've been seriously injured, and before any other considerations can be taken into account, we have to be sure you regain your health."

The first doctor moved away; a door opened and closed. The man--Nambu--pulled a chair around to the left side of the bed and sat down, regarding Poppy with surprisingly warm brown eyes.

"How are you feeling?"

"Restrained," Poppy answered, tugging at her arm-cuffs for emphasis.

"Dr. Sun explained the necessity for the restraints."

"You're afraid if I was free, I'd be dangerous."

Nambu smiled politely. "At the moment you would be more danger to yourself than to me if you tried to move from that bed. Your injury was quite severe; any sudden movement could tear out your stitches."

Poppy considered this. A dull line of pain coursed down her right side; it took no great effort to remember Katze cutting her open. "All right," she said at last. "Since you saved my life, you must want something from me. What is it?"

"I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you're willing."

"Ask away. I'll tell you anything I can."

Nambu's eyebrow arched. "That's quite generous of you."

"I have no reason not to tell you what I know. I detest the Syndicate and everything it seeks to accomplish. I always have."

"I see. Very well, then, let's start with some basic information. What's your name?"

"Poppy."

Nambu wrote something on a notepad. "Is that your real name?"

"It's the one they gave me on the island. They never allowed us to use our old names."

"Do you remember your original name?"

"Not really." A lie, but Nambu didn't seem to notice.

"Do you know how you got to Petal Island?"

"Kicking and screaming." Poppy's voice was flat, almost devoid of inflection. "I was abducted from my mother's arms in a public place."

Another twitch of the doctor's eyebrow was the only visible reaction. "Do you remember who your mother was? Her name?"

"No."

"Do you remember how old you were?"

"Two, I think. Maybe three. I'm not sure."

Nambu scribbled again. "Do you know who Anastasia is?"

"She was the woman who took me from my mother."

"Did she know your family? Did you know her at the time?"

"I don't think so. I can't be sure. I was too young."

"Do you know why she took you?"

"To train me. She took a lot of other girls, too. Some with their parents' consent, some not."

"To train you for what?"

"To kill people."

"Just any people?"

"Whoever the Syndicate told us to kill."

"And did you?"

"We weren't given much choice. If we didn't kill our attackers, we'd end up dead ourselves."

"Who attacked you on the island?"

"Those who had failed our--their leader. Galactors who tried to desert or who had committed some offense deemed worthy of a death sentence. Cannon fodder. They were sent to the island as punishment for them, and training for us. If they survived, they would be given another chance. None of them ever survived, of course. They weren't meant to."

"And you went along with this? You killed defenseless people?"

"They weren't defenseless. They were allowed weapons--knives, guns, clubs. We killed with our bare hands. If I hadn't killed them, the others would have, and I would have died in their place. At least I killed them quick--not like some of the other girls."

More scribbles on the notepad. "Do you know anything about a message that was sent from the island a few days ago?"

Poppy closed her eyes and recited. "'The moon slowly turns his face away. When he comes around again, the red devil is swallowing his mother. The sun is beginning to set, and the flowers are beginning to blossom.'"

"Who sent that message?"

"I did."

"Why?"

Poppy sighed before she could hold it back. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Nambu looked at her over the rim of his glasses. "Care to elaborate on that?"

She looked straight on at him with her one visible blue eye. "I spent almost two decades on that island, hating every second of it. I knew what they were going to make us do, and from the time I was able to reason it out, I was determined to do whatever I could to disrupt the plans Galactor had for us. I saw an opportunity to get a warning to the outside world and I took it."

"It was a tremendous risk to take on your part."

"It was a set-up--my message led the Science Ninja right into a death trap. It was a foolish risk to take in the first place. But after eighteen years of hating and hiding my hate, I was...I was tired." Her voice almost broke, and she had to swallow before she could continue. "I really don't think I cared what happened to me anymore. Maybe I even expected to be found out. Of course, as it turns out, I didn't have to pay for my crime--another girl, Yuri, was executed for it." She shook her head. "I was allowed to transmit that message. Anastasia knew it would bring the Science Ninja Team to the island; they were to be our graduation exercise. I was a fool not to realize it at the time."

Nambu turned a page and adjusted his glasses. "Why did you try to prevent Katze's escape from the island?"

"Because I wanted to kill him."

"Because he killed Anastasia?"

"I wanted to kill him because he's ultimately responsible for what happened to me. To all of us." Poppy's face hardened. "And I wanted to kill him because he killed Anastasia...before I could kill her myself."

Nambu reached inside his suit jacket. Poppy watched him narrowly, wondering if he was going to produce some kind of weapon, or pull out a hypodermic containing some kind of truth drug--or poison. She tensed warily, but didn't try to struggle. It wasn't as if she could defend herself.

Instead of a weapon, he pulled out a photograph. "I want you to look at this," he told her. "I want you to tell me if you recognize anyone in this picture."

He held it up so Poppy could see, and her breath caught in her throat.

The image showed three people: a tall man with a thin mustache, a woman with long hair and a gentle smile, and a small boy, no more than three years old, with dark hair like his father and wide blue eyes like his mother. She quickly looked away.

"Do you know these people?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," she said, not looking at him. "I'm really tired. I don't want to answer any more questions right now."

"Please...if you do know them...if you remember anything at all, please tell me. I only want to help you."

Poppy closed her eyes and refused to answer, struggling to keep her face expressionless.

"I see." She heard Nambu rise from his chair. "I won't trouble you any further today; I'll let you get some rest, and perhaps you'll feel up to another visit tomorrow." He paused; when Poppy didn't respond, he left the room.

Slowly Poppy opened her eyes. She was alone in the room, but she knew that wouldn't last. She allowed herself one shuddering breath, and a single tear slid unnoticed from the corner of her visible eye. Her lips moved around one word, although she made no sound.

"...kaa-san..."

* * *


Ken rose to his feet when Nambu emerged from the hospital room. The doctor didn't approach the group of waiting teens; instead, he met Dr. Sun in the hallway, who handed him a clipboard. Nambu studied the documents affixed thereto, nodded as though in confirmation, then finally looked up and saw Ken's expectant posture. Nambu excused himself from Sun and walked over to the waiting area.

"How is she, Doctor?" Ken asked.

"She'll be fine. Dr. Sun wants to keep her here for a few days."

"And then? What'll happen to her?"

Nambu looked at the clipboard again, then met Ken's eyes directly. "There's something I need to talk to you about, Ken. Would you please come with me?"

Jun was on her feet at once. "Doctor...if this concerns Ken, it involves the rest of us, too. What affects one affects us all."

Nambu looked around at his charges, studying each in turn. Adjusting his glasses, he nodded once. "If Ken has no objections..."

"Jun is right," Ken confirmed. "There should be no secrets among us."

"Very well." Nambu herded the group into a small side office and closed the door. Ryu and Jinpei immediately appropriated the sofa. Jun sat primly in a straightbacked chair. Joe took up his customary position against the back wall, nearest the door. Ken stood near the center of the room, watching Nambu as the older man moved to the window and looked outside for a moment, obviously collecting his thoughts.

Nambu's habits were familiar to the team as a whole, and they knew from long experience that their mentor would not be rushed or cajoled before he was ready to speak. Nambu very seldom spoke without careful consideration, and this matter--whatever it was--seemed particularly serious. Ken couldn't shake the feeling that their prisoner, the lone survivor of the massacre at Petal Island, played a large role in Nambu's concerns.

Finally the doctor turned to face them. He held the clipboard in front of him almost like a shield, paging idly through the documents before finally beginning to speak. "Ken..."

"Doctor?"

"Did your mother ever speak to you about what happened at Suncoast Station?"

Ken blinked. "I know she went into labor at a train station...that's when I was born."

"Did she tell you why?"

Ken shook his head. "I was premature...it was a difficult birth. My mother never recovered her health." He cast his eyes downward.

"Sayuri went into premature labor due to a traumatic incident at Suncoast Station. Your mother never made mention of any details?"

Still looking down, Ken shook his head again.

Jun could sense the unease almost pouring off Ken in waves. "Doctor...what's this all about? What do the circumstances of Ken's birth have to do with anything?" She knew, or at least suspected, that Ken blamed himself for his mother's illness and eventual death--blamed himself for being born too soon, too unexpectedly. It was foolish of him, but that was the way Ken was--always accepting responsibility even when the responsibility wasn't his to claim.

"I wanted to be sure before I made any unfounded suppositions; therefore I had a genetic scan performed on our...guest, the woman who calls herself 'Poppy'. The gel electrophoresis was performed no fewer than three times, just to make sure. The mitochondrial DNA was a perfect match."

"Mighty-what?" Jinpei echoed, glancing at Ryu, who shrugged.

"Mitochondrial DNA is genetic code which is passed exclusively through the female line. All of a woman's children will have the same mitochondrial DNA, regardless of their gender."

"Skip the biology lesson," Joe muttered, leaning against the wall near the door. "Cut to the chase, Doctor."

Nambu looked directly at Ken. "The woman you retrieved from Petal Island is Washio Miyae. She was abducted from her mother's arms at Suncoast Station eighteen and a half years ago by an unknown female. The stress of the incident caused Sayuri to go into labor prematurely.

"Ken...Miyae is your sister."

"NO WAY!" Jinpei howled, sitting bolt upright.

"The test results are indisputable. This woman and Ken share identical mitochondrial profiles, and she's the same age Miyae would be today." Nambu was still speaking directly to Ken. "And Miyae, like your maternal grandmother, had red hair."

Ken swayed on his feet. Jun jumped up and put her hands on his shoulders to steady him. "Unbelievable..." she whispered.

"I'm inclined to agree, Jun, but the truth is inescapable. Both the DNA tests and the circumstantial evidence leave no room for doubt."

"But...why...?" Ken looked lost, incredulous. "Why didn't Mother say anything...? She never mentioned another child, not once."

"It was too painful for her, obviously. When Miyae couldn't be found, Sayuri chose to pretend she had never existed to begin with. Your father, on the other hand, never stopped looking for his missing daughter. That was one of the reasons he accepted the deep-cover assignment in Huntwall..although now, it seems, he was looking in entirely the wrong place."

Finally Joe broke the silence. "Oh, please. Can we be slightly more serious? A message from this supposedly deserted island just happens to be picked up by our receivers, and we just happen to go investigate, we just happen to pluck one particular person off the island, who just happens to be Ken's long-lost sister and the only survivor? I don't think so."

"I will admit that this is an astonishing turn of events, Joe." Nambu removed his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "You must remember, though, that the Syndicate has no idea of your true identities. Katze would have had no clue that Miyae was the sister of the leader of the Science Ninja. Additionally, Poppy--that is to say, Miyae--remembers her abduction, however vaguely, and was always determined to enact revenge on those who separated her from her family. When you take into account the fact that the same genetic attributes that make Ken such an excellent fighter would more than likely be shared by his sister, which would greatly enhance her ability to survive against phenomenal odds, the plausibility increases to acceptable levels."

Joe grunted, but did not argue any further.

"May I see her, Doctor?" Ken asked. "I need to talk to her...I have so much to tell her."

"Yes. I think you should." Nambu put his glasses back on. "But not tonight. She's been through a terrible ordeal, and from what little I have gathered from her, she's been in isolation all these years. It will take her some time to adjust. And you, as well, I think."

* * *


Morning.

Ken entered the hospital room quietly, watching the woman on the bed. The sun slanted in through the window, turning her crown of scarlet hair to copper fire. Her eyes were closed, and she didn't move when he approached the side of the bed. As soon as he sat down, her eyes opened and she looked at him.

The bandage on the right side of her face had been changed, and he could see both her eyes quite clearly. They were the precise color of his own, a clear, deep sky blue, with the same round cast and the same thick dark lashes. The shape of her face, the arch of her brows, even her profile, was familiar. It was almost like looking at a female reflection of himself, save for the difference in hair color. How could I have missed seeing it before? Or did I simply not want to see it at all? Is that what this war has done to me?

Banishing the problem from his mind, he engineered a smile for her. "Good morning."

She "mm"ed softly in response.

"Did you sleep well?"

"As well as I could bolted down like this." She flexed the fingers of both hands slowly--she was still held in the hospital restraints. "I don't usually sleep flat on my back."

"Neither do I." Ken took note of the bulk of the mid-body cast under the woman's hospital gown. Then he reached forward and unsnapped the cuff on her left wrist. "I think I can trust you not to try and rip my throat out."

Immediately the woman's hand (Miyae, Ken reminded himself sternly, her name is Miyae) went to her face, and she industriously scratched her nose. "Whew," she sighed with relief. "I've been needing that ever since I woke up." She looked at Ken for a moment, seeming to consider him, then nodded once. "Thank you."

"Glad I could help. Are you hungry?"

"No."

"Thirsty?"

"No. Thank you." She looked at him studiously for a moment. "The bird guy," she said. "The one in the white helmet...the one they call Gatchaman. That was you, wasn't it?"

Ken hesitated, then nodded. No point in denying it. Then he realized he hadn't the faintest clue what he should say next. Well, my name would probably help... "I'm Ken," he offered.

"Hello, Ken." She sighed. "I don't have a real name to give you in exchange, but you can call me Poppy if you want. It's what I'm used to."

"Do you know what your real name is?"

"No." She answered too quickly. A lie.

I know your name. I can see our shared heritage in your features. Why can't you see it when you look at me? Maybe because you're trying not to see it, too? How am I supposed to tell you? I don't know where to begin.

"I don't really care if I go to prison," she said into the silence, not really looking at him. "I just don't want to go back to Galactor. I'd rather die." There was almost no inflection to her voice; she might have been reciting a laundry list. Still, her words held the clear ring of truth. "Anything's better than the island, even a prison cell."

"Don't worry about that right now." Ken sat forward. "How much do you know about the Syndicate?"

"They filled our heads full of well-worded propoganda about how traditional government was foul and corrupt and it was time for the people to rise up and overthrow the oppressors, et cetera." She waved her free hand dismissively. "It was easy for them to preach whatever they wanted us to hear--we were a captive audience. A few of us, though, weren't satisfied with the party line. Crystal radios aren't that hard to build; those were our only contact with the outside world. Of course, every now and again someone would get caught listening to illegal broadcasts...and would end up having a nasty accident. Nasty and fatal."

"But you didn't."

She chuckled without humor. "I learned by observation. Also, I got very good at hiding things very fast."

"Up to and including your true feelings?"

She looked at him sharply, then her face relaxed into something like a real smile. "You catch on fast. Yes, that's pretty much it. I learned to smile and nod when all I wanted to do was scream myself hoarse. I learned to laugh when all I wanted to do was hide in a corner and cry. I learned to distance myself from the others so nobody would want to be close to me."

"It must have been terribly lonely for you."

"I survived. I kept telling myself that someday I'd get off the island--that someday I'd find my way back home and find my family. I didn't really believe it, but it was something to hold on to. "

Ken sensed an opening in the conversation and dove headfirst for it. "You did get off the island," he pointed out.

"Yes, in a manner of speaking. My only real reason for living this long was to end the Flower Plan, and with that accomplished..." She gave a small shrug.

"Do you still want to find your family?"

"Of course I do. But I have no idea where to even begin." She ran her free hand through her wild red bangs. "The very first thing I remember is being taken from my mother's arms. I was a small child. That's been the primary formative influence throughout my life, but it's not much to go on when you're trying to find your roots."

"Do you remember what your mother looked like?"

She quickly looked away, but not before Ken caught the flash of pain in her eyes.

Ken nodded once, an expression of self-confirmation. "You did recognize her in the photograph the doctor showed you last night." It wasn't a question.

She didn't bother to deny it. "She's dead, isn't she?"

Ken blinked. "I'm sorry. Yes, she is. How did you know that?"

"Because if she were alive, she'd be here. I'm sure of it." She still wouldn't look at him. "The photograph I was shown was an old one. Which means if the man with her was my father, he's probably dead, too."

Ken reached out and took her hand. It was cold. "I'm sorry."

She didn't respond. Her hand lay motionless in his.

"The child in the picture--your brother. He's still alive."

She swallowed hard. "But he won't know who I am." A bitter laugh. "I don't even know who I am."

This is it, Ken. Don't blow it. "Your name is Washio Miyae."

She looked at him. Her face was expressionless, but her heart was so naked in her eyes he was almost ashamed for her. "Washio Miyae," she echoed.

"Your given name means 'eightfold beauty'." Ken smiled down at her. "I think it suits you."

A moment's silence. Then: "I...remember," she murmured, almost a whisper. "I remember my mother, screaming...'That woman has my daughter...Miya...Miya...' I've never been able to forget it."

Ken took a deep, steeling breath. Time for the next step. "I'm--I'm Washio Ken. I'm your brother."

Miyae blinked. Twice. "You...you're the baby. In the picture."

Ken nodded, smiling a little. "I grew up."

"Obviously." She sat up a little and her hand tightened on his.

"Miyae..." Ken smiled at her. He hoped the wound on her face wouldn't leave a scar. That would be a terrible burden for a woman to bear, and she'd already suffered so much. "You'll be here a few more days, but once you're discharged from the hospital, Dr. Nambu will make sure Galactor isn't looking for you. Then you'll be set up with a secure identity and a place to live--and a steady job, if you want it."

"That's very kind..."

"But?"

She lowered her eyes. "I did kill people on that island," she said in a soft voice. "They were Galactors, and if I hadn't killed them, I would have been executed, but...I'm still a murderer. I've shed enough blood to stain an ocean red. Shouldn't I pay for my sins?"

How ironic that Ken had brought up that very point with Nambu earlier that morning. Now Ken answered his sister in words similar to the ones Nambu had said to him. "You've already paid with your life--the life Galactor stole from you. You can never get that life back, but you can build a new one now that you're free of their control." He smiled encouragingly. "I'd like to get the chance to get to know my sister."

Miyae nodded. "I think I'd like that, too."

* * *


The following Saturday, Dr. Sun released Miyae from the hospital with strict orders to avoid any strenuous activity for at least a month. It was Jun's idea for Miyae to stay at the Snack J while her status was still in question.

"Are you sure you don't mind?" Ken asked her as they waited for the discharge papers.

Jun smiled. "Not at all. From what I've seen, I rather like her. Besides, she is your sister."

"Yes. Beyond all doubt."

"Anyway, she shouldn't be alone until she's fully healed. Does she know about...?" Jun ducked her head slightly and pantomimed the shape of her swan visor over her face with one slim hand.

"She recognized me right away," Ken confirmed. "I guess she got a good enough look at me when we found her. I'm sure she's been briefed about the rest of you. Dr. Nambu has complete confidence in her, however."

"Well, that's good enough for me."

"I'm perfectly capable of walking," Miyae's voice sounded with a touch of consternation as Nambu carted her towards the door in a wheelchair.

"It's traditional," the older man chided her gently, "and it's hospital policy. Don't make a fuss or I'll tell them to keep you another week."

Miyae snorted in a most unladylike fashion, and Jun giggled.

* * *


"The guest room is small, but it shouldn't be too bad." Jun patted the simple quilt thrown over the daybed. "If you need anything, just ask me or Jinpei."

"I appreciate your letting me stay here." Miyae leaned against the doorjamb, her wide blue eyes sweeping her new, if temporary, home. "I don't know where else I could have gone--and if I'd had to stay in that hospital another night they'd've found me hanging from the ceiling by my teeth and toenails come morning."

Jun laughed. "Ken doesn't like hospitals much either."

"You and Ken...you seem very close."

Not as close as I wish we were.
Jun smiled and said aloud, "We grew up together. I don't see him much--he's always busy with his mail route--but he usually comes around once or twice a week at least. Maybe now that you're here, we'll see more of him."

"What's he like?" Miyae asked. "I mean, what kind of person is he? I'm afraid I'm not a very good judge of character."

Jun sat down on the daybed and patted the quilt beside her. Miyae obediently came over and sat down, moving gingerly because of the bandages around her torso. The younger woman huffed a soft sigh. "Ken...Ken is a very responsible person. He tends to take the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's very bright, and a good leader--that is to say, people tend to listen to what he tells them."

Miyae nodded. "I don't know how to relate to him," she confessed. "I want to be a sister to him, but I don't know how. I don't know how to be a person, even. I'm just a killing machine--made up of flesh and blood and bone instead of steel."

"No, you're not." Jun took Miyae's hand firmly in both of hers. "You have feelings, just like anyone else. Ken doesn't express his emotions very well, either. Maybe you and he can help one another. If you need someone to talk to, you can always come to me. I'd like us to be friends, Miyae--and not just for Ken's sake, either."

The blue eyes glanced down. "Could you...could you please call me 'Miya'? It's the name I clung to all my life, trying to preserve my own identity. They tried to make me forget it, but I never would. I don't want to offend you..."

"You're not." Jun smiled brightly. "'Miya' it is, then."

"Thank you." Miya looked at Jun in that direct way of hers. "I don't know how to be a friend. I hope I can learn."

Jun flashed a bright smile. "You've already begun."

* * *


Joe was the first to volunteer to show the newcomer around Utoland City. "I have a car," he said, "and I know every street on the map. If you can tear yourself away from your brother, I'd be more than happy to play chauffeur."

Jun eyed Joe suspiciously--he was being far too congenial--but Ken was too elated to notice his second's unusual behavior. "I think it's a wonderful idea, Miyae." He practically pushed his newfound sister in Joe's direction. "Just bring her back early enough for dinner."

"I'll think about it," Joe replied, playing along with Ken's fatherly mock-sternness. Underneath the banter, though, he was dead serious. Explainable coincidence or not, she's still a potential threat until proven otherwise. If Ken or any of the others end up alone with her, she might make her move and catch them by surprise. That won't happen with me. `Hello, here I am, la-de-da, an unsuspecting target.' Not.

He drove her around the city, showing her the usual necessary sights--the train station, the park, the carefully-preserved World War II battleship/museum moored in the harbor. He even called her "Miya", since Jun had said Ken's sister preferred it. She listened attentively to his tour-guide's banter, responding only with a nod or an appreciative murmur.

They were sitting at one of the inordinately lengthy traffic lights on the main boulevard when she spoke for the first time since entering the car. "You don't trust me."

Joe looked at her, but she kept her eyes fixed forward. "I understand," she assured him. "Personally, I don't know who to trust either. It all seems too good to be true, which means it probably is. I don't doubt Ken's sincerity, but it all feels like a setup to me."

Joe bristled. "Why would we want to set you up?"

"Who said anything about you?" Her tone was flat, direct, matter-of-fact, the words and phrasing decidedly masculine. "It's possible I'm being entirely too paranoid, but at this point I'd rather err on the side of caution. Don't think it offends me for you to do the same."

"I didn't realize I was being so blatantly mistrustful," Joe said. "Forgive me."

"It's all right. I'd feel the same way--I think."

Joe looked at her, and she turned to meet his eyes for the first time. Sky-blue, just like Ken's. "Galactor denied me my life," she said, in the same pleasant, expressionless tone. "By taking me from my mother's arms, they stole my family from me. Because of them, I'll never see my parents again. Ken tells me they're dead."

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the light switch to green. He tore his gaze from those too-familiar eyes, looked straight ahead and moved the car forward. "That's the way Galactor operates."

"Yes. That alone makes it easy to hate anyone who might be associated with Galactor."

He glanced sideways at her. She turned her face away quickly, but for the first time he glimpsed what lay behind her placid mask: an inexpressible sadness, a shattering grief bearable only because she had carried it for most of her life.

"You're not associated with them anymore," he said, trying to draw her out further.

"Yes. That alone makes it easy to hate anyone who might be associated with Galactor."

He glanced sideways at her. She turned her face away quickly, but for the first time he glimpsed what lay behind her placid mask: an inexpressible sadness, a shattering grief bearable only because she had carried it for most of her life.

"You're not associated with them anymore," he said, trying to draw her out further.

"I never was. Not in my heart. I couldn't get away from them in reality, so I got away from them inside my head. I wouldn't let them make me forget my mother, my family, even my name. They called me 'Poppy', but I always knew that I was Miya. I learned everything I could from them so that one day I could use those skills against them." She swallowed hard. "I hated it. I hated every minute of every day. I learned to smile when I was angry, to laugh when my heart felt ready to break. I couldn't let my face show what I was really feeling. I waited for the day when the Flower Girls would be sent out to start killing, so that I could ruin their plans. That was the one thing that kept me alive. That was the reason I wouldn't die." She shut her eyes against a faint glimmer of tears. "That...and the hope I would see my mother again someday. I think I always knew that I never would."

Pain called to pain; Joe knew too well what it was like to carry such a burden. Somewhere inside his soul, an eight-year-old boy stood on the hot sand and watched as his parents were brutally gunned down. Somewhere inside the soul of the woman who sat next to him, a two-year-old child was being carried away in the arms of a stranger. He could almost hear her crying out for the mother she would never see again.

Galactor murdered her mother as surely as they murdered mine.

Any lingering doubt faded like morning fog burned away by the sun. Joe had long ago learned to trust his inner feelings, and every instinct he had identified the woman at his side as a kindred spirit. She had come through the fire and survived, battered but not broken, tempered to a hard, sharp edge. As he himself had been.

He took one hand off the steering wheel and closed it over Miya's hand. She started and tensed, but she didn't let herself pull away from him.

"Wakatta na," he murmured in his low baritone. "I understand better than you can know."

As the car stopped at another traffic light, Miya looked at him. Their eyes met, and after a moment she smiled. It was fragile, tentative, tinged with a sorrow too deep to mask, but it was a real smile, one that reached her blue eyes and made her look surprisingly pretty, even with the faint pink line of the knife-scar still marring her cheek. Joe wasn't surprised to find himself smiling back at her.

Their tour finished up at Jun's bar. The place was almost empty, but the other members of the team were there. Jun spirited Miya instantly away, murmuring something about a shopping trip for new clothes. Ryu was watching the finals of a local sumo competition. Jinpei, obviously less than pleased at being left "in charge" of the bar on a sunny afternoon, grumbled but said nothing audible as he wiped the counter. Joe sat down on a barstool beside Ken.

"The verdict?" his best friend asked.

"She's okay," Joe answered.

Ken looked askance at him. "Three hours with her, after all the circumspect suspicion you were so unhesitant to air to the rest of us, and she's `okay'? That's it? That's your brilliant professional evaluation of her dependability?"

"What did you want me to do, Ken? Take her for a test drive?" His tone left no doubt as to his meaning. "Trust me, three hours wouldn't be nearly enough."

Ken's heavy brows knit, and he glowered at Joe. "You wouldn't-"

"Get real, Ken. If I tried coming on to her, she'd probably rip my arms off."

"If she didn't," Ken grumbled, "I would."

"I didn't realize she was under such strict supervision."

Ken looked away without further comment. Joe pretended to watch the Sony above the bar. The weather update was next. Blue skies were forecast for the weekend.

Blue skies. The color of a certain pair of eyes--that were not Ken's...

* * *

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