Author's Note:This story takes place at the end of Gatchaman F #48, and I mean RIGHT at the end, before the credits even start rolling. The Ninja and the universe in which they live are not mine, I just snuck a redhead in when I thought nobody was looking. This is a fan story written by a fan for the enjoyment of herself and (hopefully) those who read it. Money? What's that?--Emby Quinn
Hey, they found a body
Not sure it was his
Still they're using his name
And she gave them shelter
Somewhere I know she knows
Something only she knows
"...threat to Earth has ended with the destruction of the mysterious satellite. The sacrifice of the Science Ninja Team will never be forgotten..."
She took another drink from the bottle of JD Black, wincing as the liquor burned its way down her throat and stoked the fire in her belly. Her vision was beginning to swim dangerously, but she didn't feel quite drunk enough to pry herself off her tatami-mat floor and stumble outside and off the edge of the nearest cliff.
A year and a half since she'd spoken to Ken. A bit more than that, really. Ever since that terrible fight they'd had..,.
After Joe's disappearance, Nambu had asked her to take Joe's place on the team. She'd known, in her heart, in her gut, that it was an exercise in futility, but for the sake of the only family she had, and in accordance with the promise she'd made to Joe before he left, she'd done her best. She'd worn Joe's colors, taken Joe's position as G-2, learned to drive a car and shoot a gun as well as she could, dedicated herself to taking up her dead lover's life's mission for him...the way he'd asked her to on that last, terrible day.
She couldn't do it. She did her best, but it wasn't good enough--she wasn't good enough. She didn't have Joe's skills, she couldn't mesh with the team, she couldn't even hold her position in the Tatsumaki Fighter without falling out or throwing up. Usually both. She would have been more a liability than an asset in the field. And she simply, truthfully, hadn't had the heart to take her dead lover's place on the team. After months of frustrated soul-searching, she chose to resign from the team. Nambu, albeit disappointed, had understood her decision and accepted it.
Ken hadn't. Couldn't. Refused to even consider it. When cajoling, lecturing, and abject pleading hadn't swayed her, he summarily banished her from his presence, his life, with four words that had finished killing what was left of her heart after the loss of Joe:
"I have no sister."
She'd taken her half of the inheritance, sold her loft apartment and all the carefully-acquired furnishings, and moved away from Utoland City within days of Ken's disowning her. In the mountains she'd found a small, long-untended cabin which would be plenty big enough for her all alone. She spent the first few months painstakingly renovating the dilapidated dwelling--repainting the walls inside and out, replacing the worn carpets with tatami mats, mounting sliding shoji doors in carefully-laid tracks, stripping the wooden beams and staining them a dark honey tone, reinforcing the sagging structure until it was at last habitable again. She wired the house herself using reference books and sheer determination; she purchased a wind- and solar-powered generator from a company in France. Bit by bit she collected furniture, slightly distressed antiques and clever reproductions, anything that fit the style of the house or her personal taste. When she was done, the restored cabin bore a strong resemblance to a traditional Japanese-style house, much as the inside of her loft in Utoland had.
The roof leaked and had to be repaired every spring; the rooms were impossible to keep heated in the winter; the kitchen was almost unbearably hot in the summer; the nearest human habitation was several hours' walk or a half-hour drive away on treacherous mountain roads. Still, it was home.
Sometimes she considered rejoining civilization--moving to the nearest town, finding an apartment, getting a job, finding a man to fall in love with, getting married, starting a family. It all seemed like too much trouble to go to. The only friends she'd ever had no longer spoke to her. The only man she had ever loved...
She hadn't completely cut herself off from the outside world. She had a short-wave radio, a stereo and a television with a satellite dish to keep her informed. She had heard about the miraculous reappearance of Condor Joe, back from the dead. That was when she was still corresponding with Jun. She knew all about the circumstances of Joe's return--as much as Jun could tell her, of course--though the details of his survival were never clear. Shortly after that, the letters from Jun stopped. She didn't try to re-establish contact. Still, Joe could have found out easily where she was. Jun had known. Joe could have come to her. If he'd wanted to.
She still didn't understand why he hadn't. She wasn't flattering herself, but she wasn't one to delude herself with misguided modesty either. She knew Joe had loved her as deeply as she had loved him. Something had to have kept him away from her. Ken, possibly? Another woman (though he'd never been seen with one that she knew of)? Something that had happened to him in his two-year absence? Those questions tortured her during many a long, lonely night alone, lying sleepless in the dark, with an aching Joe-shaped emptiness in the bed beside her, painful enough to be physically felt, like a leaden spike driven through her heart.
She couldn't go back to Utoland City, even while the team members still were there. She had been banished from Ken's life. He was the one who'd made that choice, and he should have been the one to reopen the channels of communication.
He never did. Had he really hated her so much?
Nambu had written sporadically--he was, by his own admission, a lousy pen-pal, putting off responding to a letter for days, sometimes weeks, before remembering to tap out a few hastily-written lines on a keyboard and mailing the printout. And that was before President Anderson's assassination; after assuming directorship of the ISO, Nambu hadn't even had time for that.
She learned of Nambu's assassination from the news channel. She'd gone to the cemetery, intending to witness the funeral of her father's dearest friend--her godfather, her last true link to her past before the abduction--from a safe, unobserved distance. She watched her brother and his teammates as they laid bouquets of flowers on Nambu's grave, one by one. God, they had all looked so...lost, so devastated. Ken in particular seemed to be staggering under the crushing weight of grief and responsibility. Moreover, he looked...tired. No, he looked sick. Something was wrong with him, she realized with a gut-wrenching certainty. It wasn't just grief or sorrow, Ken was physically ill--he looked as bad as Joe had the day he'd shown up at her doorstep to say goodbye before going to Cross Caracolm to die. Her heart--the heart she'd thought long dead--woke up and cried out for the only family she had. She didn't know if Ken would welcome her or spit in her face, but she was going to have to make contact, let him know that, whatever had happened, whatever was going to happen, she'd be there for him. For all of them.
But she'd never gotten the chance. Egobossler, Galactor's new leader, had appeared, mocking their grief, then destroyed Nambu's tomb. She watched it all from her vantage point on the hillside, not daring to interfere, not feeling she had the right. The team had charged off after the intruders, and she hadn't gotten another chance to contact them...
...and now she never would.
Miyae Washio tilted her head back and drained the bottle with one last huge gulp. Her head spun miserably, her temples throbbed, and she felt hot all over.
Maybe--finally--she'd gotten drunk enough to kill herself.
She rose unsteadily to her knees, stumbled to the door, and almost fell through the rice-paper panes in her drunkenness. She scrabbled at the shoji frame and slid it aside so hard it nearly jumped from its smooth wooden tracks. Barefoot, wild-haired, clad only in a halter top and faded jeans, she staggered out into the cold night, heading resolutely towards the jagged cliffs which lay beyond the path outside.
She paused near the edge of the precipice and stood swaying, looking up at the cool radiance of the stars in the deep midnight sky. She sucked in deep breaths, her exhalations sending misty puffs into the chilly late October air. Then she closed her eyes and tilted her head back.
She called to mind a memory of her brother--not as she'd last seen him, pale and drawn and haggard with grief and illness; not as he'd been when he last spoke to her, bitter and angry and accusing; but the way he'd looked when she laid eyes on him for the first time--alert, intelligent, caring, ready to open his heart and his arms and his life to a sister he'd never known existed, a stranger who'd been raised to kill him. She visualized every detail of Ken's face--the wide blue-sky eyes so much like her own, the sweep of dark-chocolate hair feathered across his brow, the broad devil-may-care grin. She pictured and held his face steady before her inner eyes.
It seemed completely right to see Jun with Ken--her long black hair framing her heart-shaped face with its gentle green eyes and a mouth like a rosebud. And of course Jinpei would be there--he hadn't grown much, he was still completely recognizable, with the wild mouse-colored hair that never lay down flat, his dark, quick eyes, his toothy grin.
She could even see Ryu there, just behind them, his protective bulk unmistakably sheltering those he loved most. Ryu had never been demonstrative, but he'd hardly been the buffoon everyone dismissed him as at first meeting.
Only one figure was missing from her imagined reunion. She sought for a place to put him, and at last his likeness came to her--closer than the others, closer to her even than Ken, as he'd always been. The predatory eyes, the color of ice over blue steel, the shaggy caramel-colored hair, the expressive mouth always so ready to curl into a smirk, or harden into a snarl, or--rarely, so rarely--even to curve into an uncommonly gentle smile. Without willing it, she saw him give her that gentle smile, the one he saved for her alone, saw him reach out his hand as if he meant to take hers.
"Joe..." She breathed his name into the night air, drawing in one last slow breath before taking that final, fatal step forward. She wondered what sounds her body would make as it tumbled down the jagged face of the cliff before it struck the rocks below, and if her eyes would be closed or open when she landed.
A rosy glow suffused her eyelids, and for a moment she wondered how long she'd been standing at the edge of suicide. Sunrise already...? She stayed where she was, disoriented, certain that it couldn't possibly have been that long, surely no more than a few minutes, no matter how intoxicated she was.
She forced her eyes open, the vision of those she loved still lingering in her mind. The sky above the mountains to the north was a palette of every color of fire, and as she watched it continued to spread and brighten--quicker than any rising sunlight.
And in any case, the sun didn't rise from the north--
Then she heard it. A wild, beautiful cry from far, far away that rang and resounded through the valleys and crevices of the surrounding mountains.
The Firebird--no, impossible, that can't be the voice of the Firebird--
The Hinotori--the majestic Firebird--tore loose from the riot of radiance along the horizon and quickly filled the sky, spreading its fiery wings protectively across the scattered expanse of stars. It shone with a light that was bright and warm, yet somehow not hard to look at, its rainbow-plumage of flame constantly shifting, an incandescent prism with wings and a crested head and a sweet, triumphant call.
The empty Jack Daniels bottle she still held slipped from Miya's nerveless fingers and landed unnoticed in the grass with a soft thump. It slid lazily to the edge and dropped off the cliff, smashing to bits halfway down and sprinkling the rocks below with shards of glass that reflected the radiance in the sky just as Miya's wide blue eyes mirrored the blazing spectacle in all its splendor.
The beautiful vision arched, voiced its haunting cry once more, and swooped down towards the Earth. It seemed to be heading directly for the spot where Miya was standing--but she didn't move. She didn't have time to think of dodging, and she might not have even if she'd been given the chance. She stood her ground, ready to accept her fate.
A blast of hot wind nearly threw her to the ground as the Hinotori shot past above her. She kept her footing and turned sharply around in time to see the Firebird fly over her house and crest the hill on the other side--and suddenly plummet downwards. She heard a soft, hissing thunder of impact, saw a bright flash of golden-white light, then the darkness settled once more.
Nothing ruins a good buzz faster than the unexpected appearance of a Firebird from the heavens. Stone cold sober as though she'd never touched alcohol in her life, Miya ran over the small hill, all thoughts of suicide forgotten, her flaming hair flying out behind her like a battle-flag. She tore past her house as fast as her long coltish legs would carry her. At the top of the hill, she froze, staring downward with incredulous eyes.
The light from the house behind her spilled down the slope, illuminating a wide irregular patch of grass that had been scorched black. There was a faint tinge of smoke that wafted through the air, but no open fires remained in the uneven circle.
Five figures lay scattered on the scorched earth, unmoving.
"KEN!!!" Miya screamed and bolted down the hill. The scorched ground under her bare feet was still hot, but she didn't pause. She dropped to her knees beside the first body she came to, a young man with dark, dark hair, lying face down on the blackened grass. "Ke...Ken...?"
He didn't move. Her hand, trembling, reached out to touch his shoulder--his bare shoulder. He was naked, as they all were. His skin was warm. She slid her fingertips up to his throat, where she quickly found a strong carotid pulse.
Alive. He was alive.
She carefully turned him over. There wasn't a mark on his smooth skin. His eyes were shut, dark lashes stark against his cheeks. He looked as though he were smiling, just a little.
"Ken?" He still didn't respond, but his breathing was deep and even. She checked his limbs, his ribcage, found nothing broken. She scooped her brother up in her arms as though he were a child and began carrying him back up the slope to her house. She settled him carefully on the tatami, covered him with a futon quilt, then swiftly gathered up as many coverings she could--tablecloths, blankets, sheets--and took them out so that the others would at least have something to keep the chill of the night off them until she could get them inside.
Jinpei, then Jun, then--after only the slightest hesitation--Joe, who seemed somehow heavier than she'd remembered. He was taller than Ken, but he'd never been much heavier, but now she staggered under his weight. She had to sling him over her shoulders in a fireman's carry, and even then she could barely manage to walk. She was out of breath by the time she got him inside. Ryu she had no hope of being able to pick up, so she was forced to bring out a futon mattress, roll him onto it and drag him on it back to the house.
"You could...wake up...and help me, you know," she grunted as she struggled to haul him up onto the porch. Ryu didn't so much as twitch; with a blissful smile on his face, he slept on undisturbed by her muttered curses.
Once he was safely settled inside with the others, Miya tried the short-wave radio to call for help. It was no good; radio reception had been erratic at best since the beginning of the crisis, and it might be hours before the interference decided to abate. Should she ride into town and try to find help? She didn't even know if anyone would be awake this late. Or this early, she amended, glancing at the clock on the far wall. For that matter, the residents might have fled to shelters in Orange City, near the foot of the mountain, when the crisis ensued. In any case, she couldn't simply leave them, not in this state, not knowing when they were going to wake up, so she fired up her small stove, put on water to boil and settled down to wait.
"Ken. Z's destruction doesn't mean your work is finished. You can never die. You are all immortal, like the Phoenix."
* * *
A cool hand brushed his forehead. Ken's eyes flew open, trying to focus. "Where...?"
"Be still." Not Nambu's voice, but another. Another he knew well, although he hadn't heard it in almost two years.
"Miyae--!" He tried to rise, but his sister held him down.
"Don't get too ambitious. You've been out for hours. At the very least."
"The satellite blew up." Miyae's image swam in his vision, but her voice and her tousle of red hair were unmistakable. "With you on it."
"Blew up...I think I remember...I..." He tried to sit up again, and felt the roughness of the quilt against his skin. "I...my clothes...?!"
"You didn't have any on when I found you."
Ken raised up on one elbow, blinking and rubbing his eyes with his other hand. Finally his vision cleared. He could see the others--Jun to his left, Joe to his right, Jinpei and Ryu on Jun's other side--spaced out in the simply furnished traditional room. Miyae had to step carefully over the bodies to bring him a cup of plain hot tea. She put the drink beside him, and handed him something else. "You were holding this," she explained. "I didn't notice until after I'd gotten you all in here. You should see the patch of grass you burned outside when you landed."
"Landed--?!" Ken blinked, then accepted what Miyae held out to him. The hard metal object fit neatly into his palm. He looked down, and smiled, unaware, sadly. "Nambu's pendant..."
"I had no idea what it was. But you were clinging to it as though it were important."
"It is...I think." Ken's voice was soft, almost reverent. "I think it's what saved us."
Miyae obviously didn't understand--how could she?--but she nodded anyway, kneeling quietly beside him.
Ken picked up the teacup and took a cautious sip. Simple tea had never tasted so good on his tongue. He swallowed, set it back down, and looked at his sister. "Miyae..."
She met his gaze without speaking, her face giving nothing away.
"Thank you for helping us."
"I couldn't leave you out there." Her voice held no inflection, stating a simple, flat fact.
"I've been meaning to contact you."
"You didn't have a chance. I understand."
Ken shook his head impatiently, determined to say what he'd wanted to say to his sister for months. He'd never found the time, or (truth be told) the courage, to seek her out. "Miyae...I shouldn't have turned against you the way I did, back when we lost Joe. If I'd known how things were going to turn out...it was a difficult time for all of us, and I shouldn't have been so harsh with you." He reached out and took her hand in his. It was cold, unresponsive, but he forged ahead. "I've had plenty of time to think about the situation, and I eventually realized that although you did your best, you weren't really suited to take Joe's position. When...when the Doctor was killed, I wanted more than anything to see you, to talk to you, to make things right between us, but I never got the chance to look for you before..." He took a deep and shuddering breath. "Anyway, I wanted you to know...I've never hated you, Miyae. You're my sister. I was angry, and lost, and confused, but that's no excuse for how I behaved."
She waited, and when he didn't say anything else, she asked, "Is that supposed to be an apology?"
Ken bridled, but he held his reaction in firm check. She had a right to be bitter after the way he'd treated her, no matter what his reasons were. "I certainly owe you more than an apology after the shameful way I acted towards you, but that's all I can offer you at the moment."
Her seamless non-expression held for the space of two breaths, then slowly her face came alive, as it often did when she finally relaxed her guard. "You don't owe me any more apology than I owe you," she said softly. "I let you down when you needed me. You gave me so much, freely, without reservations, and the one time you asked me for anything I refused you, because I didn't have the heart to do what you asked of me. I shouldn't have left. If I'd only stayed on as G-2, that traitor wouldn't have almost killed you."
"I had no right to demand that you do something you weren't really capable of. You're a skilled fighter, Miyae, but you're not a gunner or a driver. Besides, Joe came back to us, and I could have gotten in touch with you--Jun wrote you, I know, at least for a while--but...oh, dammit, Miyae, I was too proud to admit I was wrong. People say I have no faults, but that's a lie. I've got feet of clay all the way up to my ass."
She smiled and folded her hand around his. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. We could sit here till next spring going over 'shoulda'coulda'woulda' and it wouldn't change a thing that's happened."
"Does that mean you accept my apology?"
"That means I missed my baby brother, damn you." Miyae reached forward and gathered Ken into her arms. He hugged her back, tight--so far as he could recall, this was the first time she'd ever reached out for him first, ever, and his eyes stung with tears over that. That, and the time they'd lost. Wasted. For nothing.
A low, guttural groan from behind Miyae made her start in Ken's arms. He let her go so she could turn and see to his second-in-command.
She slid across the floor and sat on one hip as she bent over Joe tenderly, her fingertips barely brushing his cheek. His eyes snapped open, and he focused immediately on her face...and smiled. "Miya," he husked. "Hi there."
"Hi. And welcome back." She gently smoothed the hair back from his brow. "How do you feel?"
"Like I just woke up from a long, bad dream...what happened? Where are the others?"
Like Ken had, he started to get up, and Miyae held him down, gently but meaningfully. "They're all here, they're all fine, but Ken's the only one besides you awake so far." She scooted back so the two men could see each other. "As for what happened, I can tell you my part, but rather than say it five times over I think I'll save the story till everyone's conscious. Want some tea?"
"No. I need a drink."
"I think I--I think all the alcohol's gone, but I'll see what I can come up with." Miyae rose smoothly to her feet and picked her way across the floor, slipping quietly into the hallway beyond the interior sliding door.
Ken lifted his cup and took another sip. "You really should try the tea. It's great."
"Thanks, I'll pass." Joe sat up, and noticed almost at once what Ken had already discovered. He lifted the quilt that covered him for visual confirmation, then looked at Ken with one quizzically arched brow.
Ken smirked. "She said we were naked when she found us."
Ken held up his hand. "I don't know any more than you do, really, Joe. I just came around myself."
Joe's predatory eyes tracked towards the door through which Ken's sister had vanished. "Miya...so this is where she's been all this time."
"Strange that of all the places we should end up, it would be here...but I don't suppose it matters." Joe's icy grey eyes focused on Ken once more. "I see you two are talking again."
"Yeah...under the circumstances, it seems sort of stupid to still be mad, especially after all that's happened."
"Pity you didn't come to that brilliant conclusion sooner." Joe raised his hands and scrubbed them briskly over his face. Then he froze. Took his hands away. Looked down at his chest. Blinked. Twice.
"What is it?"
Joe looked up at Ken. "Tell me it wasn't my imagination that I got shot on the way up to that satellite."
"Of course it wasn't--huh?" Ken noticed that the flesh of Joe's chest was smooth, unmarked. So was his back, as though he'd never been injured. "That laser pierced you right through...but there's not a mark on you now. Joe, I knew you were...special...but I never realized you healed so quickly."
"Either Miya's got one hell of a first-aid kit...or something...happened to us, after..."
"You're in luck," Miyae announced as she reappeared in the doorway. "No alcohol, sorry, but I found something less likely to spill and a lot more useful."
Both men fell silent, by some unacknowledged agreement keeping their conversation private.
Miyae was carrying an armful of clothes. "These should fit you," she told Ken. "They're too big for me, and you don't have a butt to speak of anyway." She grinned as she tossed her brother a pair of battered black sweatpants and a white tank top. "And these are yours, I believe, Condor." She dropped a pair of faded jeans and a plain black T-shirt, carefully folded, on the quilt covering Joe's knees. "You never picked them up after I finished mending them."
"I remember." Joe lifted the shirt, his tip-tilted eyes darting sideways to regard her as she knelt between them. "'Condor'. It's been too long since I've heard you call me that."
She gave him a little half-smile. "Unfortunately, anything else I have in the house would swallow Jun and Jinpei alive--and there's nothing that would come close to covering Ryu--so I'm going to have to head into town and see if anything's open this early."
"I'll come with you," Ken said, standing to pull the sweatpants up over his hips. They were a bit short in the leg, the rear was baggy and the waist was so tight the elastic threatened to roll down, but they covered the important bits and at the moment that was the best he could hope for. "I need to contact Saburo, let the base know our status--"
"Forget it, Ken." Joe zipped up his old jeans and slipped the T-shirt over his muscular chest. 'I can call Chief Kamo from town."
Joe arched an eyebrow. "You need to be here when Jun wakes up. The others, too." He narrowed his eyes meaningfully at Ken: And your sister and I have some issues to discuss.
The light dawned, and Ken nodded. "You're right." Reluctantly he sat back down on the quilting, crossing his long legs underneath him.
"Good boy." Joe gave Ken a pat on the head in passing, dodging the answering swat with a grin. "Come on, Red, let's go shopping."
Joe had assumed that he'd be riding the buddy seat on Miya's motorcycle; he hadn't expected the four-wheel-drive sitting in front of the carefully-restored house. "A Land Rover," he noted, with a hint of approval. "Must've set you back a bundle."
* * *
"I wanted something that wasn't going to strand me at roadside during a snowstorm." Miya paused in front of the Rover and dangled the keys. "Want to do the honors? It's not quite the G-2, but..."
Joe smirked at her. Even after three years apart, she knew without need of acknowledgment when he needed to take control of a situation, even if it was only by getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. He plucked the keys from her fingers and headed for the driver's side.
The light of dawn--real dawn, this time--began spreading slowly up from the eastern horizon. Under Joe's hands--they hadn't lost their skill, despite the long time it had been since he'd driven anything approaching a normal car--the Land Rover skimmed the winding mountain road at a comfortable speed.
Joe had forgotten how much he'd missed driving--really driving, not during a battle, not to form the Spartan, not for any other purpose than to get from Point A to Point B in the most expedient manner possible. The Land Rover wasn't his vehicle of choice--it handled like a tank--but it woke up part of the careless young man he'd once been, Joe Asakura the private racer, the man who could out-drive any other competitor on the track, in the field or anywhere else. Had it really been three years since he'd been out on the circuit? Yes, by God, it had, and barely three at that.
He would be twenty-three two weeks from today, and he felt a hundred years old. He wondered if Ken felt the same way, after all they'd been through. They had almost seemed to switch roles in the last year or so; Joe's brushes with death, the time he'd spent with Dr. Rafael, had mellowed his burning rages, tempered his volatile nature. Ken, on the other hand, had grown more impulsive than ever, even antagonistic, prone to violent fits of temper. Somewhere along the way, they'd both lost themselves.
Jun had been the only real stability in either of their lives. She'd matured into a remarkable woman, as Joe had always known she would. When he had been submerged in self-loathing, hating himself for being what he'd always despised--a cyborg, a freak--Jun had convinced him that he was still human, with human feelings, human needs. And when Ken was consumed with vengeance--as Joe himself once had been--it was Jun who had brought their leader back to his senses, with patient words, and finally with a good dressing-down just when he needed it. Jun had finally seemed ready to take that definitive step with the man she'd always loved...and Ken, at long last, had finally begun to acknowledge what had always existed between the two of them.
Jinpei was what, now--fourteen? No, fifteen. He was still damned small for his age, but it had taken Ken long enough to grow to his full height, so there was still hope for the kid. Ryu, the "middle child" in age of all of them, was as adjusted to the changes in their lives as any of them were. He'd taken Nambu's death particularly hard--Ryu worshiped his family, Nambu, and Ken, more or less in that order--but he still wouldn't talk about it, not really. Or he wouldn't before...
Damn, what the hell had happened on that satellite? Joe couldn't shake the feeling that something had changed, something fundamental, something incredibly important, something he should be noticing, but wasn't, because frankly he was feeling too good to bother with it--
Unless that was it.
For the first time in entirely too long, Joe felt good, right down to his bones. The crushing weight of depression that had hung over him since his cybernetically-enhanced "rebirth", the pall that had cloaked his weary soul like a foreshadowing of impending doom, was gone. He no longer feared his own death, nor anticipated it as the sole release from his prolonged suffering. He no longer felt as though he'd outlived his usefulness, that his soul had perished at Cross Caracolm and his body was only a breathing, hollow, echoing shell that didn't have enough sense to lie down and die.
Was it because they had all survived certain death (again)? Was it because he was with Miya again--hardly his first love, far from his only love, but possibly his greatest love, and certainly the one woman who'd never had the ill grace to die on him? Or was it because he was behind the wheel of a car again--a Land Rover, to be sure, which steered like a cow and had the pick-up of a somnambulistic snail, but a bona fide, genuine road vehicle, rather than a wheeled instrument of destruction?
"Take the next right from here." It was the first time Miya had spoken since they'd started. Joe took the turnoff without perceptibly slowing down. The headlights illuminated a signpost that read MONTANVILLE--15 in a flash of blue on white as they passed it.
"Sounds like a hip-hop-happening place," Joe commented. It was a lame remark, and he knew it, but he was beginning to hate the silence between them.
"It's got five hundred people, a post office, a cafe' and a clothing shop," she said. "Frankly I've seen Utoland City buses with more signs of modern civilization."
"That's a scary thought." Joe pondered his next comment, steeled himself for her reaction and forged ahead. "So you've been out here in Nowhereland all this time."
"It wasn't a big secret. Jun knew." Implying that he could have found her if he'd wanted to.
Joe glared fixedly at the road ahead as though it had personally offended him. He had wanted to come to her, and she had the right to know why he hadn't, but he wasn't ready to tell her. First he had to know where things stood between them. "You could have come back," he countered.
Miya stole a glance at his rugged profile, limned by the pre-dawn radiance and the green-white nimbus of the dashboard light. "Not after what happened with Ken. He banished me, remember?"
"I wasn't there, but I heard about it. You know perfectly well that even if your brother couldn't get his ass off his shoulders, the rest of us would have gladly helped you shove it back down where it belongs. He would have forgiven you, just as he's forgiven you now. There was something else keeping you away." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her wince. "Another man?"
"Don't be stupid."
"Dammit, Joe--" Miya stamped her foot on the floorwell. "It was mostly the thought of what Ken would do or say, yes. But...yes, there was something else. I was ashamed to come back."
"Ashamed? Because you wouldn't stay on the team?"
"Ashamed, because I broke the promise I made to you. I tried to train with them--I did. But it wasn't working, and I knew it as well as Nambu did. Ken accused me of not trying hard enough...maybe he was right. It's true that my heart wasn't in it."
Joe navigated an S-curve without even slowing down. The Land Rover did, indeed, steer like a wounded wildebeest, but he managed to keep the vehicle on the road. "I missed you," he said. "You must have known that I was alive. It's been over a year since the team became active again, and I never heard anything from you."
"I didn't hear from you, either. I thought if you really wanted to find me, you would come looking for me. I waited." She directed her gaze straight ahead at the lightening sky before them. "I kept telling myself that you probably felt the same way Ken did, and wanted nothing to do with me because of my refusal to stay with the team. Or that you'd forgotten me, that you'd found someone else. "
Not for lack of trying, Joe thought. He hadn't made any real effort to fill the void in his life--there hadn't seemed to be much point, really, not when he knew was living every minute of every day on borrowed time. True, he had allowed himself to fantasize about a future with Kathy--at least she was a cyborg too, a freak like he was. But her self-sacrifice had seemed to hammer home the point that any hope for a future with a woman was as doomed as he was. After that, he hadn't really sought for anything lasting. "So for the past year and a half we've both been hanging fire, waiting for each other to show up on the doorstep?"
"It looks that way, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "I didn't intend it to be that way."
"I guess neither of us did."
"Aa." She turned in the seat to face him. "Joe, there's never been anyone else for me. There never could be, if there's any chance we could still be together."
This is it. Joe steeled himself for what he had to tell her. "Miya..."
"I know I screwed up royally by leaving Ken when he needed me. I screwed up worse by not coming back when I knew you were alive. I wanted to. I wanted to so badly, but I was a coward, and I was too damned proud to take the chance of being told 'no'."
Joe's hands tightened on the wheel. "Miya--"
"It's nothing you have to decide right now. You've been through hell and I'm not going to force you into a choice you might regret later." She took a breath. "I just want you to know that nothing's changed for me, and if you should want me again...I'll be here."
"Dammit!" Joe spun the steering wheel and drove off the road, slamming the brakes with such violence he almost drove his foot through the floorboard. The Land Rover skidded to a stop in a burst of pebbles and dust.
"Ittai nanda yo?!" Miya snapped, pushing herself away from the dashboard. "You almost put me through the windshield, you reckless bastard!"
Joe switched off the engine and turned to face her. "Miya--shut up and listen to me." Why do Washios always talk so damned much? His hands flashed out and grabbed Miya by the upper arms in a grip that was almost painful. He locked eyes with her and spoke in a low, fierce monotone. "I should have died at Cross Caracolm," he said. "I didn't because a man named Dr. Rafael saved me. He had to build new parts for the ones that were destroyed. I'm a cyborg, Miya. I'm--I'm not human anymore."
Miya blinked. "Joe..." she breathed.
He continued relentlessly. "I wasn't supposed to live this long. I was rescued--I was built for one reason only--to destroy Sosai X. There was a bomb inside me set to detonate when I came into contact with him, but it didn't work. I didn't explode. After we defeated X, I ended up in a hospital flat on my back, half alive and mostly dead because my power was almost gone. If Nambu hadn't found a way to recharge me, keep me going, I would have faded out like a radio playing on dead batteries.
"What did I have to offer you then? I was a freak, a dead man walking, an animated corpse with a malfunctioning bomb for a heart. I couldn't offer you any kind of a normal relationship. It was only when we learned that Galactor wasn't finished, that a part of X calling itself Z had returned to regroup them, that I was able to find the will to go on. I fully expected to die, and I didn't care, so long as I took the Syndicate down with me--but I wasn't expecting us all to have to die." He drew in a ragged breath. "And yet...we didn't die, and I'm not sure why we didn't. I might have survived the destruction of the satellite, even re-entry and free-fall to Earth--I'm not human anymore, and I can take a lot of punishment--but the others..." He shook his head. "I haven't been able to even think about it yet."
She shook her head. "I don't care how you all survived. It makes no difference. You're here, that's what matters."
"Is it?" Joe scowled. "Rafael, Pandora, Nambu, they're all dead--if I finally break down for good, there's no way to fix me. Even if everything keeps working like it should...I'm not the man you fell in love with, Miya." His voice roughened, and he swallowed hard. "My feelings for you haven't changed--they never have, and they never will--but my body has changed almost beyond recognition." He finally looked down, steeling himself. "I--I'll understand if you don't want to--if you don't want me."
She put her hand on his chest. "Don't say such stupid things. I've never stopped wanting you. Not for a moment."
"That was before you knew--"
"Joe--shizuka na." Miya laid two fingers on his lips, stilling them. He met her eyes again, and she leaned closer. "I've listened to you, now you be quiet and listen to me. I don't care how you survived, I don't care how you ended up in my front yard, I don't care if you're a cyborg, I don't care if there's nothing under that battle-scarred Sicilian hide of yours but wires and circuits and gears and pulleys, I don't care if you've got a working cable sattelite dish that comes out of your ass. I told you--nothing has changed. Nothing ever will." Miya blinked, hard, her eyes beginning to well up. Now it was perfectly clear why he'd never tried to find her, why he'd never come to her--because he didn't feel worthy of her anymore. What a complete idiot he was. She would have accepted him crippled, blind, deaf, dumb, without arms, without legs, lobotomized, castrated--didn't he realize that her love for him was as unconditional as it was absolute? That on the one occasion she had chosen to give her heart to a man, it was without conditions or reservations? Had she really been that hard to decipher, even to the one man who could always see right through her?
She opened her mouth to explain all this to him, but before she could utter a word, Joe pulled her to him with his old rough gentleness and covered her mouth with his own. His arms went around her--harder, a bit more muscular than she remembered, but still warm and solid and real--and she was hit with a wave of sudden desire so intense it literally took her breath away.
Joe sensed the change in her, and responded to it...but at last he forced himself away from the deepening kiss long enough to whisper one last confession in a harsh, voiceless rasp. "I...I don't know...if I can..."
"We'll work on it," Miya responded, and pushed him down on his back in the front seat.
And he could. And they did.
Jun drew in a sudden, sharp breath, and her green eyes flew open wide. "Ken--!"
* * *
A warm hand closed over hers. "Here. It's all right, we're safe."
She sat up, looking around at the room that was only just beginning to flood with the light of early morning. "Ken...where are we?"
"We haven't quite figured that one out yet, but she told me she found us outside last night, unconscious, and..." He trailed off.
That was when Jun realized she wasn't wearing anything--not her BirdStyle, not her civilian clothes, nothing. She was sitting up on a pallet on the floor, and her entire upper body was bared to Ken's eyes. She hastily grabbed the sheet that had pooled at her waist and pulled it up over her breasts, feeling the warm flush of blood rushing to her cheeks. "La...last night...?" she stammered, struggling to regain her composure.
Ken, for his part, fought to keep a smile from spreading across his face. She was so--so cute when she blushed, though she wouldn't have appreciated the observation. "You've been out for hours. Joe and I woke up some time ago--he went with Miyae into town to let Saburo know we're safe."
Jun instantly forgot about her loss of modesty. "Joe? How is he? He was shot--"
"I know...but he's healed."
"It's true, I saw for myself. It's like he was never hurt at all. Don't ask me to explain because I can't. I don't even know why we're all still alive."
A soft grunt cut off Jun's response to Ken's statement. She knelt up, wrapping the sheet demurely around herself, and scooted on her knees over to the next pallet. Sitting on her heels, she reached out to touch a tousle of mouse-brown hair. "Jinpei..."
Another noise, almost a groan this time; then: "Demo, oneechan...just a few more minutes..."
"Jinpei, wake up." Gentle, but insistent. "Come on."
The youth stirred, yawned hugely, and opened his wide brown eyes. "Sis? Why're you wearing a sheet?"
Ken chuckled. "I can see what Miyae meant about not wanting to explain the situation five times over."
"Aniki!!" Jinpei sat up and looked around. "Hey, what the heck?!" He blinked. "Oh, hell--the satellite...Egobossler...aw, man, what the hell happened?!"
"Would you keep it down, kid?" rumbled a drowsy voice from the large lump against the wall. "Some of us are busy being unconscious."
Ken grinned and winked at Jun. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Ryu."
The big man sat up, rubbing at his eyes. "Whew...what a ride. Everybody make it out okay?"
"Yeah," Jinpei said, "how did we get off that hunk of space junk anyway?"
Jun looked at Ken expectantly, wondering the same thing but not bothering to put her question into so many words.
Ken sighed. Once again, everyone was looking at him for answers, and for once he didn't have any. Not even the beginnings of one. What shreds of facts he knew were too incredible to be believed.
"The important thing to remember," he said at last, "is that we all made it out okay. Even Joe--he went with Miyae into town."
"Miya?" Ryu echoed.
"I thought you weren't speaking to her anymore," Jinpei said. "You said she was a cold-hearted selfish inconsiderate bitch."
"Jinpei!" Jun chided. "Language!"
"But that's what he said! Right, Ken?"
Ken chuckled again. "I was upset with her for a long time, yes. It does seem significant, though, that we ended up on her doorstep, of all places." And come to think of it, I wasn't even entirely sure where this place was. Jun knew, but I never asked her for details... That was significant somehow, but he couldn't quite figure out why. He filed the question away for future consideration and continued. "According to Miyae, she found us outside last night, alive but unconscious--and stark naked."
"Eww," Jinpei responded, his nose wrinkling with distaste. "So how come you're dressed, aniki?"
"I crammed myself into a pair of Miyae's sweatpants. She went into town to get clothes for the rest of you, and Joe went with her to contact Chief Kamo to let him know we're all right."
"Yeah, and I bet he's not naked, either." Jinpei got up, wrapping part of the sheet around his narrow body, trailing the rest behind him like a long tail. "I wonder if there's anything to eat around here."
"Food, now there's a concept," Ryu said, hauling himself up and folding the sheet neatly around his lower body in a makeshift sumo's loincloth. "I'll help you look."
"Boys, don't you think that's a bit rude--poking around in someone's kitchen when they're not here?" Jun folded her arms, scowling a bit.
"Ah, Miya won't care. Will she, Ken?" Ryu prompted.
"Of course she won't. You two go ahead."
"Why do I get the feeling you wanted them out of the room?" Jun asked quietly once she and Ken were alone.
"Because you know me too damned well. You always did, even when I didn't know myself." Ken hesitated a moment, then reached out and took Jun's hand firmly in his. "There's a lot we haven't had a chance to get settled between us. I know now isn't the time--but I don't care." He looked into her lovely sea-green eyes. "If I don't say it right now, I might not ever get the words out."
"Jun...we almost died last night--and the last thing I could think of, the last thought I had, was that I'd never have the chance to tell you what I should have told you years ago. I dedicated myself to duty--to what Joe always called our 'Noble Cause', capital letters and all--because that's what I thought I was supposed to do. I tried not to feel anything but friendship towards you because I didn't want to do to you what my father did to my mother. I wanted you to have the chance to find a normal man, someone with whom you could have that normal life I know you've always craved.
"These past few months, though...I think I finally came to realize what a precious thing love is--how rare it really is. It would be different if I didn't have these feelings for you...but I do. We were just starting to explore them when the world caved in on us."
"I know, Ken."
"I feel like we've been given a second chance...I don't want to waste it. Even if we have to go fight a new menace tomorrow--even this afternoon, or an hour from right now--I want us to have whatever we can, while we can. However much it hurts to lose someone you love...it would hurt a hundred times worse to lose someone you should have loved, and didn't."
Jun blinked hard. "Ken..." She threw her arms around him, pressing her face to his bare shoulder, too overcome for words. Ken held her close, letting her cry, rubbing his cheek against her soft, fragrant hair.
Words sprang unbidden to his mind, words he'd read somewhere, long ago: So this is love, as demanding and nourishing and difficult as it can be, and as strong and wise as it makes you become. There is something to be gained from commitment. There are rewards for staying when you would rather leave...and so you let love come perch upon your shoulder. And you do not turn it away.
Ken shook his head, amused at himself. Here he was poised on the brink of culminating a romance that had budded in his childhood, and the most romantic and fitting words that came to mind were from an old magazine advertisement for sneakers. A soft chuckle rumbled in his chest.
"...what...?" Jun sniffed.
"Nothing. I'll tell you later." Ken kissed the top of her head and hugged her tightly to him. "Jun?"
Ken smiled, hoping she wouldn't take his question improperly.
"Do you know how to tango?"
* * *
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