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LITTLE EARTHQUAKES

Emby Quinn (savageredhead@aol.com)


Chapter 4: Rip Us Into Pieces

These little earthquakes
Here we go again
These little earthquakes
Doesn't take much to rip us into pieces

* * *

"Get the ground troops into position," Kamo barked over the intercom. "If the Science Ninja Team should fail, we're not to allow anything that moves to come down off that mountain. If we have to reduce it to a pile of rubble, we need to stop Z at all costs."

The ISO and UN forces were assembled at the foot of the mountain. The last flyover had confirmed that the GP3 had landed safely, but there had been no word from the team at all. I should have given them new activators, Kamo mused. Even if they don't need them to transform, they should have some way of calling for help.

"Miyae, all we can do now is wai--" He turned, but the young woman who had been at his shoulder since they'd left G-Mountain was nowhere in sight. "Miyae? Where are you?"

His eyes scanned the immediate area for a flash of long red hair. Nothing. Before they left G-Mountain, she'd changed into a form-fitting black insuit, the same coverall that many of the troops wore, at Kamo's own suggestion--to protect her against the cold--

"Oh, no." Kamo's eyes turned towards the mountain. "Did she...?" He got on the radio again. "All units, alert. Find Miyae Washio and stop her--don't let her get up that mountain! Restrain her and bring her back to me at once!"

Kamo's orders came too late. By the time his men discovered that one of their ground vehicles had gone missing, said vehicle was already near the top of the mountain, its driver guided half by overheard directional data and half by pure blind instinct to the place once known as Cross Caracolm.

* * *

"You bastard." Joe was shaking with sick rage.

"Ahh, Condor Joe. So we meet again--for the last time, I fear. Forgive me for borrowing your mentor's body...but I was using up the living hosts far too quickly. Fortunately I gathered enough power to be able to subsist in a non-living form for a period of time...and I thought using Nambu's corpse would be a fitting touch of irony."

He turned to face the shivering man on the ground, who was trying to shield his wounded lover. "Poor Berg Katze. I was the one who sent you those nightmares. I wasn't 'looking' for you, you see--I knew where you were the entire time, but I wasn't quite strong enough to come and claim you. It would be too easy to lose you in a populated area, so it seemed logical to lure you to a place where no one else would interfere. And since you were very familiar with Cross Caracolm, I planted a suggestion that you would be safe from me here."

Katze moaned.

Joe reached for his gun. At the same time, Jun pulled her yo-yo. Ken had his Birdrang ready. "Z..." he snarled.

"That name seems rather pointless, don't you think? Since I'm here to bring about the end of your world, I think it would be more appropriate to call me...Omega." He raised Nambu's hand, and the Science Ninja froze in their tracks. "I've gathered enough energy to affect the physical world at short range now. I'm afraid that none of you can move. I'm sure it must be a very unpleasant sensation. Don't worry; once I've claimed Katze's body, I'll make an end of you all. Perhaps I'll make you kill each other; that would be an amusing and ironic conclusion to our little game, don't you thi--"

A black-clad figure leapt from one of the few stone statues still standing and slammed into Z--Omega--knocking him to the ground. Ken felt the invisible hands release his body, and he took a step forward. He saw a flash of red hair, and his stomach knotted. 'Miyae--!"

Joe finished drawing his gun and aimed it at Omega. If he could get a clear shot, blow the top of Omega's--Nambu's--head off, perhaps that would render the body useless to him. Hopefully, prayerfully, it wouldn't be able to jump into Katze from several meters away. Nambu had said that he would die without a host. If only he could get a clear line of fire...

If Miya was horrified by Omega's appearance, she didn't let it show. She hit him hard and fast, landing half a dozen killing strokes in the space of as many seconds. But--

"You can't kill what's already dead, human." Omega grasped Miya by the throat and rose up into the air with her. She grabbed the wasted arm with both hands, trying to wrench it away, but she couldn't fight her way free. She started choking, her feet dangling off the ground.

Omega's back was to them. Joe took aim and his finger tightened on the trigger of his cable gun.

Omega looked over his shoulder, and they all froze in place again. "Kuso!" Joe cursed, fighting to move his finger, straining with every ounce of will to pull the trigger, teeth bared in a rictus of fury and hate. He had a sick flash of memory--himself at eight years old, standing on a beach, his dead father's gun in his hand, aiming it at the woman who'd murdered his parents. Fighting to pull the trigger and not strong enough to manage it. Snarling with rage, he focused all his attention on making his finger move. That was all he had to do. Just a twitch, one small movement, and the nightmare would finally--prayerfully--end.

"Let her go, damn you!" Ken shouted. Miya's struggles were gradually weakening as she hung in Omega's grip, unable to breathe.

"But of course, Gatchaman. You only had to ask." Omega tossed Miya towards them--

Into Joe's line of fire.

As he released his psychic hold on the Condor.

"NO!" Joe screamed as his gun went off. The bullet tore through Miya's back and out through the center of her chest. She fell to the snowy ground with a sickening thud, a pool of blood spreading under her.

"Miya..." Joe dropped to his knees beside her. His gun fell, forgotten, from his limp fingers. "Miya...oh, God, Christ...I'm sorry...please, forgive me..."

Her eyes were wide, astonished. Her mouth moved around his name, but no sound came. Her hand fluttered up to touch his face, then fell. Her whole body gave one shuddering spasm before she went limp and the light winked out of her blue eyes.

Joe's cry of loss was indescribable.

Omega's laughter rang across the landscape. "Yes, I think I will have you kill each other--I think it will be amusing to watch. But first..." He pivoted to face Katze, who was rocking Arashi back and forth, crooning softly. "I think it's time you finally served a useful purpose, Berg Katze."

Joe had fallen silent. He knelt beside Miya's dead body, staring not at her--he couldn't look at her--but at his hands, the hands that had killed her. In a few seconds he would break into a towering, suicidal rage, but for the moment he was almost catatonic.

Ken felt himself ensheathed in a deep, abiding anger. This was too much. This was the final insult, the last straw. What should have been finished up in space would be finished here, now, today. The creature now calling itself Omega was going to wish it had died up on that satellite, when--

What had happened up on that satellite?

Ken found, without surprise, that he understood now. Perhaps he always had, but had been unwilling to acknowledge it. It was so fantastic, impossible to believe...but it was the simple truth.

With a new will he pushed Omega's restraint aside. He might not have been able to do it on his own...but he wasn't on his own anymore. He hadn't been for nearly a year now, and he never would be again.

He walked over and picked his sister's body up off the blood-stained ground. Joe didn't move, didn't look up at him. It didn't matter; he would understand as well, when the time came.

Ken turned around. Omega was hovering just over Katze, reaching out for him. Katze was cringing back, looking up with hopeless terror.

"Omega." Ken's voice rang out clear across the snowy field. "You've claimed your last victim. It ends here. Now."

Omega looked around. "So, you slipped my control, Gatchaman? It doesn't matter. You can't kill me. Don't you even know that by now? I have no physical form. Even if you destroy this body, I'll simply slip into a new one. I can never be destroyed."

"You're wrong." Ken stepped forward, cradling his dead sister close to his chest. "Even if you have no physical form, you're still a living thing. The Phoenix is the embodiment of life, and just as it can grant life, it can also take it away from the undeserving.

"And I--we--are the Phoenix."

"Ken!" Jun gasped as the Eagle suddenly burst into flame.

*Jun.*

She blinked. That had been Ken's voice, but it was inside her head. "Ken...?"

*Jun. Come to me now. Together we are stronger than Omega. Remember the satellite?*

"I don't--I..." Ken was lost to sight now among the rising pillar of flame. "I...oh. We were..."

*We were dead, Jun. We were all dead...and we brought ourselves back to life. We became the Phoenix. The Hinotori. Five became one, and in every real sense, we have been one ever since. Five bodies, one soul.*

"...Ken..." Tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Ken."

*Only as one can we defeat Omega now. It won't be enough to destroy his stolen body. We have to obliterate his essence. He has forfeited his right to exist.*

"I...I understand." Jun reached out and took Jinpei's hand. "Let's go, little brother."

"Onee-chan...?" Jinpei walked with her towards the pyre. He looked at it with curiosity, but no fear. "I heard Ken--inside my head..."

"I know. Hush, now. It's going to be all right."

Ryu found he could move as well, and he followed Jun and Jinpei into the blaze.

"What are you doing?!" Omega struggled to re-establish his hold on the Ninja, but something was wrong. Something was different. He couldn't get a mental purchase on them. "Stop it! Stop it now!"

*Joe.* Not one voice now, but four that spoke as one, calling to him. With eyes gone cold and dead he looked up at the flames. He got to his feet, not even aware of Omega's frantic attempts to restrain him. He walked forward and vanished into the fire--

* * *

"Sir? Chief Kamo? Something's happening up there."

Kamo tore his thoughts away from Ken's missing sister and looked up towards the top of the mountain. A dull red glow suffused the peak, and his throat tightened. "Get the missiles ready. Fire on my--"

A sound rent the dark sky, a wild, sweet call of triumph and joy. The glow exploded into a gout of fire, and the fire took the form of a crested bird, spreading its wings above the mountaintop.

"The Hinotori...?" Kamo raised the radio mic again. "Hold fire. I repeat, hold fire!"

* * *

"You can't destroy me!" Omega raged as the flames engulfed him. "You can turn this body to ash, but I will still exist! I'll find you! I'll destroy you all!"

*No. You will NOT.* A chorus of five voices speaking perfectly in time, blending into a single voice. *You exist only to cause pain, and death, and destruction. You have learned nothing from your past. You have forfeited your right to existence. You will be made Not.*

Omega felt himself torn from the body of Nambu. Naked, discorporate and helpless, a psychic force more powerful than he could have imagined was tearing away at him, ripping him to pieces. He fought to hold himself whole, fought with every ounce of his fierce, insane will, but it wasn't enough. The opposing force was disintegrating him. Deconstructing him. Making him Not.

Omega couldn't even scream as his consciousness was shredded into nothingness and scattered, winking out on the wind like sparks from a dying fire.

And the alien from Selectro, the creator of Galactor who had terrorized Earth for a generation, was made Not.

* * *

Berg Katze cradled Arashi in his arms, his eyes shut tight against the blinding, furious light of the Hinotori. This is the end, he thought, this is the end, and perhaps it is just as well.

The light and rush of cleansing heat faded. Katze, somewhat surprised to find himself alive, forced his eyes open. Arashi moaned softly in his arms, and Katze kissed his brow, then dared a look around.

The entire area was swept clean of snow, foliage and debris. Only an irregular patch of grass remained in a two-meter circle around him and Arashi. The Science Ninja lay on the ground some distance away; as Katze watched, Gatchaman stirred and sat up.

Ken opened his eyes. He found himself smiling, somewhat sadly, and wasn't surprised. He moved to Jun's side and helped her sit up, his arm around her slim shoulders. "Jun?"

"I'm all right." She wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. "It's over, isn't it? Finally?"

"Omega's gone. We got him, koibito."

"Thank God."

"Yes." Ken heaved a sigh. "I just wish the price hadn't been so high."

"Miya...?"

"Aa." He glanced around to check on the others. Jinpei and Ryu were just waking up. Joe was on his knees, sitting on his heels, hands dangling loosely, head down, not moving.

Lying between him and Joe on the scoured ground was the white, naked body of a woman. A woman with long red hair.

"Nani...?" Ken had expected Miyae's body to be consumed in the fire of the Hinotori. He couldn't understand why she hadn't been. And why was she naked?

As the thought occurred to him, Joe looked up and saw Miya's body. His eyes snapped wide, and he scrambled over to her. As he gathered her into his arms, he turned her over, and Ken saw what Joe had already noticed.

The gaping hole in Miyae's chest was gone. The white flesh was smooth and unmarked.

"My God..." Ken whispered. Jun looked around, and gasped.

Joe reached up and ripped off his helmet, tossing it to one side. He put his ear to her chest. "Her heart...it's...she's breathing. She..."

"She's alive," Jun finished for him.

"But...but how...?" Ken wondered.

Jun looked at him. "You said it yourself, Ken. The Phoenix can grant life. Remember? We brought ourselves back, after the destruction of Z's sattelite...and now we've brought Miya back, too."

"Cara mia..." Joe held her close, staring intently into her face. "Aprami i vostri occhi per me. Accesi, potete farli. Svegli, tesoro." He swallowed hard. "Come on, Miya. Wake up. I know you can hear me. Ritornato a me. Per favore..."

For a moment, nothing. Then, as Ken watched, Miya took a sharp breath and opened her eyes. "Ji...Joe...?"

With a choked sound that was almost a sob, Joe buried his face in her shoulder, almost crushing her against him.

"Sis..." Ken got to his feet and took a step forward, wonder and joy spreading across his face.

A cry from Katze stopped him in his tracks. "Gatchaman--abunai yo!"

Ken looked around--and his soul froze.

Nambu's body was still there. And it was starting to move.

"NO!" Ken reached for Joe's abandoned gun and took frantic aim. No, by God, you bastard, you can't come back, you can't just keep coming back, I won't let you--

"Ken!" Nambu's body held up a hand. The eyes were no longer red, but the familiar dark brown. The body no longer looked wasted, but hale, healthy, whole.

It was also quite naked.

"Ken." It was Nambu's voice. "It's all right. It's me."

Ken couldn't move. It was as though Omega had him in its psychic grip again, only this time he wasn't being impeded by an external force. "Hakase..."

He sounded eight years old again.

Jun gently pried the gun out of Ken's hand. "It's all right, Ken. It's all right. It's Hakase. It really is." She knew it to be so, and didn't wonder for a moment how she knew.

Nambu sat up with a weary sigh. "When you--that it to say, when the Hinotori drove Omega from my body, my spirit apparently reclaimed it. The same force that healed Miyae and resurrected her obviously did the same to me." He looked down at himself and chuckled. "I don't suppose anyone has a spare robe...?"

Jun set Joe's gun on the ground beside him. Then she reached up around Ken's shoulders and unhooked his winged cape from the cowl around his neck. She moved forward and draped the cape over Nambu's shoulders, and he smiled in gratitude. Behind them, Joe had already done the same to Miya, and he was standing up with her still in his arms.

"I tried," Miya gasped, her voice trembling. "I tried so hard, I tried to hang on, I fought with all my strength and I couldn't stop it. I felt the life slipping away from me like sand--Joe, I died..."

Blue-gloved fingers stilled her lips. "Calmo, calmo. Hush now." Joe's eyes glimmered behind his dark blond bangs. "Don't talk about it. Not another word. You're alive, you're here with me, and that's what matters." He held her close against him and wouldn't let her say anything more. He guided her across the blasted ground to where Ken and Jun were helping Nambu to his feet.

The older man smiled gently at Joe as he approached. "It's good to see you again, Joe. In the flesh, one might say."

"Same goes back." Joe's voice was still shaky, but he tried to summon a shadow of his habitual smirk and almost succeeded. "Next time send a telegram or something."

Ken turned and reached out to gather his sister into his arms. He kissed the top of her head, and she hugged him tight in return without saying anything. When Joe pulled her back against him, Ken didn't resist. Their eyes met, and the two men nodded in mutual understanding.

"Whoa, this is all way too weird." Jinpei and Ryu joined the group. "I don't think I can handle much more strange this week--it's like something out of the X-Files."

"Oh, I dunno. Makes perfect sense to me." Ryu knocked playfully on the side of Jinpei's helmet. "Sometimes five, sometimes one...that's the way we've always been."

Jun looked down at the two men still on the ground. "We have to get Katze's...friend to a hospital," she said.

"Yeah, and what are we gonna do with Katze, anyway?" Jinpei wondered. "I mean, you know, he's--well, he's Katze, for crying out loud."

The roar of an engine interrupted any response Ken might have made. An ATV roared down the hillside, and Kamo jumped clear before it had even come to a full stop. "Ken--Gatchaman--everyone--what's happening? We saw the Firebird, and--" He almost fell on his knees when he saw who was standing beside Ken. "P-President Nambu...?!"

Nambu rubbed his forehead with a weary half-chuckle. "This," he said, "is going to be a very interesting and drawn-out story. I think I'm going to need a cigarette first."

* * *

It was days like these that made Shuko Kamimura seriously consider tendering her resignation and looking for a job that was safer, saner, more stable. A front-line combat medic, maybe.

First she was presented with a man who had apparently either been hit by a truck or been pushed off a five-story building. He wasn't even ISO, but she was directed to do what she could for him. Saving lives was her sworn duty, after all, so she did her damndest, and of a wonder, it looked like he would make a more or less full recovery from his injuries.

No sooner had she gotten out of surgery and made this pronouncement than she was presented with someone wearing a standard-issue ISO coverall and told by Chief Kamo to do everything in her power to determine whether or not this individual was, in fact, Kozaburo Nambu.

"But Nambu's dead," she'd objected.

"I got better," the man said with a bemused grin.

Three hours of DNA tests, retinal scans, fingerprint analysis and collecting of physical data confirmed the impossible. Kozaburo Nambu, dead one year ago of a gunshot wound to the heart, was incontrovertibly alive and well and in perfect health. There wasn't a mark on his body, not even old identifying scars from his years as a field agent. But the genetic analysis and ID scans were proof positive.

After five hours of surgery and three hours of testing, Shuko was exhausted, but Kamo wasn't through with her yet. She had to go through the motions of examining a perfectly healthy woman in her mid-twenties, to make sure she wasn't suffering any "ill effects" from some unmentioned trauma she'd recently endured. Condor Joe--a man who secretly terrified Shuko--stood and watched her as she performed the exam, his piercing eyes missing nothing. She hated his presence, but she was too scared to ask him to leave.

"You're fine," she told the redhead at the end of the examination. "I only wish I was as healthy as you are--or as young and thin, for that matter. There's nothing wrong with you." Except your choice of boyfriends, she added silently.

She turned to ask Condor Joe if he expected her to examine him next--he'd never forgiven her for discovering the fact that his cybers were gone--and she gasped when he took hold of her arms and planted a kiss on her mouth.

"Consider that an apology," he told the stunned doctor. "I was a right bastard to you the first time we met and I never got a chance to tell you that you were one hundred percent right." He let her go and draped an arm over the redhead's shoulders. "Come on, cara," he grinned. "Let's go tell your brother everything's okay."

Shuko didn't move, didn't even blink, until she was alone in her office. Then she asked the empty examination room, "What the hell just happened?!"

* * *

"All right." Kamo rubbed his hands over his face. "Here's what we're going to tell the press. President Nambu--"

"Doctor Nambu, please," the man in question corrected gently. "I'm perfectly happy letting Sam fill the president's chair from now on."

"Very well then. Doctor Nambu faked his death and went into hiding for a year for his own protection because we at the ISO were convinced that Z was still a threat, and we were working to draw him out of hiding so we could finish him once and for all. Which we did. Now that Z is finished, Dr. Nambu is able to return to the public eye."

"Thanks, but no thanks." Nambu adjusted his new glasses, then scowled and took them off. "I don't need them anymore," he explained at Ken's curious glance. "In any case, I'm looking forward to a quiet life of scientific research."

"So it really is over," Jun said. "This time for good?"

"Z, or rather Omega, is finished," Nambu affirmed. "Other threats may rise in the future, but I have no doubt that you will be the equal of them."

"Hakase..." Ken bit his lip, somewhat uncertain. "The pendant you left to me...what was it, exactly?"

"To be honest, Ken, even I don't know. It was given to me along with the BirdStyle technology--"

"Given to you?" Jun interrupted. "But you invented BirdStyle, Hakase."

"No. It was given to me by a member of Omega's own race. That entity later perished when Selectro was destroyed. All I know about the pendant was that it somehow collected my consciousness when I was killed...and it enabled the five of you to form the Hinotori when all hope seemed lost. You became--you are--a collective consciousness, each retaining your own identity, yet able to form a gestalt more powerful than the five of you could ever be separately."

"This is way too deep for me," Jinpei muttered. "All I care about is that you're back, Hakase, and everybody's okay."

Nambu chuckled and ruffled Jinpei's hair. "I suppose that's all that really matters, at that."

* * *

Berg Katze looked up as Kozaburo Nambu quietly entered the hospital room, shutting the door behind him. Arashi lay on the bed, awake but still groggy from the painkillers. His green eyes flickered from the newcomer to the man sitting at his bedside, holding his hand.

"Doctor," Katze said, nodding once to him.

"It's been quite a while, Katze. You're looking surprisingly well for a dead man."

"The same could be said for you."

"Aa." He looked at Arashi. "I hear you're going to make a full recovery. I'm glad."

Arashi smiled slightly. "And you came in here just to express get-well wishes? I feel so honored."

"You know, Mr. Shinya, I've done a bit of investigation into your background. It seems that Interpol has been making certain investigations into your activities...in connection with a jewel thief known only as the 'Black Flame'. They suspect that you might be using your appraisal business as a cover for illegal activities."

The green eyes glittered. "I seriously doubt they can find any solid proof connecting me to any crimes of this so-called 'Black Flame', Doctor."

"Yes, you cover your tracks very well. Inevitably, however, you're going to make a wrong move. They're closing in on you, Shinya. It's only a matter of time."

Nambu looked at Katze. "And then there's the question of your companion's history."

Arashi's hand tightened on Katze's.

"Berg Katze was the leader of a global terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of millions," Nambu intoned starkly. "He's wanted for a list of war crimes too numerous to even begin to detail. Once it's discovered that he's alive, he'll be brought before a multinational tribunal and most likely sentenced to death."

Katze shut his eyes and went pale. Arashi struggled to sit up. "I won't let that happen," he growled.

"There's very little you can do about it, Mr. Shinya. In fact, you could well be implicated yourself for harboring a fugitive from justice."

"He didn't know," Katze protested. "Until we went to Cross Caracolm, I swear he knew nothing about who I really was."

Nambu nodded. "I believe you."

Katze sighed. "What do you want, Nambu? If you wanted me in prison, I'd already be there. You would have told the officials that you had the dreaded Berg Katze in custody and they'd be lining up at the door to be the first to parade me before the courts and the revenge-crazed masses. The fact that you've done no such thing shows that you're willing to make a deal of some sort. What do you want from me?"

"Nothing." Nambu sat in a chair at the foot of Arashi's hospital bed. "Galactor is finished, the alien who founded that organization is no more, and as far as I'm concerned, Berg Katze is dead. He died at Cross Caracolm all those years ago, perishing in a pool of lava. What crawled up out of that hell-pit was a different person. The fact that you've spent all this time completely disassociated from Galactor and the power you once craved proves that much."

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Sadly, I'm not the final authority on punishment or absolution. The best I can do for you is a life sentence. No chance of parole. In complete isolation, save for a single caretaker. A trustee, if you would--a fellow prisoner to keep you company."

Katze shook his head, confused. But Arashi's eyes gleamed with the beginning of understanding.

"A private island," he said. "Lush, beautiful, far from civilization, in a beautiful house, surrounded by fine objects...with a single, special someone." He looked at Katze. "That's always been my dream, Berke--Katze. You know that."

Katze looked with wide-eyed wonder at Nambu, who was nodding assent. "I believe that can be arranged with little if any trouble. A supply ship will visit on a regular basis to make sure your essential needs are taken care of. Otherwise, you will not be allowed to leave the island, ever, unless it should for some reason become uninhabitable--in which case alternative accommodations would be made."

"I think that would suit us just fine," Arashi husked, bringing Katze's hand to his lips for a kiss. "Don't you think so, Katze?"

The blond man could only look at Nambu with disbelieving wonder.

* * *

"I hope I never have to answer another reporter's question," Ken muttered as he entered the "green" room and flashed out of BirdStyle.

Jun giggled and hugged his arm. "Time to go back to being plain old boring Mr. and Mrs. Washio."

Ken grinned at her. "And nothing will suit me better."

Miya stood up to greet them. "So you survived the screaming mob of newshounds intact?"

"More or less." Ken pulled his sister into a hug and kissed her forehead. "You're lucky you don't have to do public appearances. It's a bitch and a half."

She chuckled. "Hey, I'm just a supporting player, remember? My name isn't even in the credits."

Ken snorted and tousled her hair before letting her go.

"So we can go back home now?" Jinpei asked, flopping down in a chair.

"Yeah, back to the straight world." Ryu rubbed his hands together. "I can't wait to tell the girls the good news."

"Business as usual," Miya murmured, smiling at Joe as he approached her. "So, are we ready to head out?"

"Not quite," he said, taking her hands and pulling her around to face him. "There's one thing we have left to do before we scatter to the four winds again."

"And that would be...?"

Joe took her in his arms and whispered in her ear. Miya's eyes went wide and she drew back to look at him. "Oh, you are so not serious."

"I've never been more serious in my life." Joe was half-smiling, but there was no glint of amusement in his gray eyes.

"Joe, we've had this discussion before--"

"What?" Jinpei sat up. "What're you talking about?"

Joe didn't respond to him. He was still looking at Miya. "Part of me was always afraid to tempt fate--that if we took that step, something bad was going to happen. So I balked...and something bad did happen. My stalling didn't stop it. I'm through living in fear, cara, and I don't want to risk losing you again. I want you bound to me by every law of God and man, and I want it as soon as we can manage it."

"Joe?" Ken frowned, puzzled. "What are you talking ab--itai! Jun, what was that for?!"

Jun drew back her elbow. "Ken, sometimes you can be so dense."

"Like I said before--thick as a brick." Joe smirked. "I'm going to marry your sister, Ken, if you have no objections."

"You what?!"

"If he has no objections? What about me?" Miya said.

Joe raised an eyebrow. "Do you object?"

"Baka-jan! Of course I don't--I mean--I didn't--I--" For once in her life, Miya was left speechless.

"Good. Then it's settled." He pulled her against him for a kiss.


* * *


THE END


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