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PAST THE MISSION

Emby Quinn (savageredhead@aol.com)

Part 2

She said, 'They all think they know him well
But I knew him better
Everyone wanted something from him
I did too, but I shut my mouth
And he just gave me a smile'

--Tori Amos

The Land Rover rumbled into Montanville shortly after eight o'clock. The shops in the middle of town were just opening their doors, but there weren't many people out--most of the inhabitants had evacuated the night before and were just now returning home after a long, sleepless night in emergency shelters, waiting for the end of the world. Thankfully, it hadn't come.

The Rover pulled into a parking space that was really too narrow for its bulk, but since there were no other cars nearby, it didn't really matter.

Joe emerged from the driver's side and stretched his long legs. The sunlight felt good on his face; he hadn't expected to see another morning, and this one was unquestionably beautiful. There was a definite nip of early chill in the air, but the sky was high and blue and absolutely cloudless.

After a moment, Miya stepped out of the Rover and locked her door before closing it. "Well, at least we didn't have to sit here and wait for the stores to open," she smiled.

Joe chuckled in the back of his throat. "Being...sidetracked by car-play...can have its advantages." He met her at the front of the car and caught her hand, looked earnestly into her sky-colored eyes. "You be careful," he said, not wanting to let her out of his sight but knowing it would be ridiculous to trail her every step.

Miya gave him a significant look. "I'll try to survive the screaming hordes," she said, waving her free hand at the empty streets. "There's a phone stall by the drug store."

"Seen it." He let go of her hand and watched her walk off, her hair catching the fire in the morning sunlight and glowing with it, finespun copper set aflame. When she disappeared into the clothing store, he headed for the pay phone, searching his memory for the direct line access number to Gatchaman Central.


* * *
G-Mountain's base was eerily quiet all morning despite the rush of activity to determine the status of the Galactor Syndicate, now that its leader and most of his faithful had perished. Parts of the base were still being repaired from the devastating attack in which Dr. Nambu had been lost, and the somber air of the base had turned positively grim in the past hours. The status of the Science Ninja Team was officially "missing", but everyone knew that the Ninja, the heart and soul of their security operation, were very probably dead.

Stacks of reports sat on the Chief Engineer's desk, most of them containing details of arrests and surrenders of the stragglers who were all that was left of the once-mighty Syndicate. It was nearly ten o'clock, and Kamo knew he should be working...but he couldn't concentrate. He'd never been effective as a paper-pusher; he'd always been a hands-on type of fellow, and at the moment he didn't have the heart to even make the attempt at paperwork. He sat in his office, staring at the small model of the GatchaSpartan on his desk.

He couldn't believe they were gone. He'd said that Gatchaman was immortal...and he wished he could truly believe it, deep down in his soul. It wasn't possible, though. No one could have survived the destruction of the massive orbiter that had housed Sosai Z's essence.

So why was he sitting here as though he were waiting? Waiting for...what?

*ringringring*

Kamo jumped so severely he almost fell out of his chair. It wasn't the regular office phone that was signaling so insistently for his attention. It was the special line, the line used only in emergencies, when the activators weren't functional--the line that only six people knew existed, including himself, and--

*ringringring*

He snatched the receiver out of the cradle so fast he almost disconnected the phone from the wall. "Kamo!" he shouted. He wondered if his heart had actually stopped beating, or was it just that he'd forgotten how to breathe?

Silence for a moment, just long enough for him to think it was some kind of malfunction, a glitch in the phone system, a loose wire somewhere, a ghost in the machine. Then, a low measured voice, deeply-pitched and unmistakable. "Good morning, Chief Kamo."

"Ji...Jyo...JOE!!!" Kamo leapt to his feet, sending his office chair skidding back on its casters to slam against the rear wall of his office. "What--where--how--when--is everyone all right??"

Joe's low, gravelly chuckle came over the line. "Everyone's fine. As for where we are, it's a pretty little place up in the mountains, a few klicks outside of Montanville. The road's a bit of a long drive, but if you give us time to rest up and get our bearings, we can be back at the base tonight--if you don't mind us bringing a tagalong. You've never met Ken's sister, have you?"

"I didn't know he had one." Kamo's head was spinning. Ken, Joe, all of them, alive. It was so surreal--joyous, no question of that, but at the same time...so incredible.

"Mmn. Not surprising. Let's say they had a family dispute that's recently been resolved. Anyway, I think you'll like her. Her name's Miya." He pronounced it almost as if it were a possessive pronoun in his native Sicilian: mia.

"But, Joe--I mean, it's wonderful to hear from you, I'm glad everyone's all right, but--how?! We saw the Galactor base destroyed, there's been no sign of the Spartan, we were certain you were all dead--"

"I know, there are a lot of questions to ask, Chief, but we don't have all the answers yet. We'll be there, I promise. Just give us all a chance to get our heads together first, hm?"

"It won't be any trouble to send an air transport to pick you all up--"

"And where will a transport land in the mountains, Chief?" Another dry chuckle. "Just relax. We're not going to vanish off the face of the Earth--not after we worked so hard to save it. We'll be there in the morning, that's my promise to you."


* * *
The clerk at the clothing store knew the tall, lanky redhead on sight--almost everyone in town did. Mina, or Maya, or perhaps Mara? No, that was too much like her own name, Nara decided. Most people simply called her "the Redhead". Nara marveled that such a young, reasonably pretty woman would live by herself in a long-abandoned house in the hills, miles from anywhere. Rumors flew about, as they always did in small towns, but no one dared ask the lady herself, and she was around so seldom, preferring to keep to herself, that she never gave a chance to get to know her well enough to learn any personal information.

This morning the Redhead was smiling--no, in all honesty, she was beaming. There was an unmistakable lightness in her step, an inescapable lilt in her voice as she asked for various articles of clothing in a wide range of sizes--far too varied for one or even two people.

"These don't seem to be your usual choices," Nara ventured as she rang up the purchases.

The woman grinned. It made her look much younger than the thirty-odd years of age people assumed she was. "I had family drop in unexpectedly," she confided. "But they, ah, lost their luggage, so I came in to get them some things to change into."

Nara could hardly keep from giggling with suppressed glee--the mystery woman did have a family! "It's very late in the year to be travelling," she said, a seemingly innocent remark baited to fish out more information while the Redhead was being so forthcoming.

"I wasn't exactly expecting them," was the answer. "Still, I'm glad to see them." She looked outside, and Nara followed her eyes. A stranger, a tall, lean man in a black T-shirt and tight faded jeans, stood at a phone booth.

"One of your family?" Nara asked in what she hoped was a casual tone. A ridiculous question, she knew. There was no resemblance whatsoever between the two--the man's hair was either dark blond or a very light brown, with the slightest hint of red in the sunlight, but that was where any hint of similarity ended.

"Not yet." The Redhead tipped a saucy wink at Nara as she handed over a handful of bills. "Thanks for your help."

"Bring them down to visit before they leave!" Nara called, but got no answer as the Redhead walked out. Nara rushed to the window and watched as she went to the large white road vehicle she always drove and loaded her purchases in the back. The young man hung up the phone and walked over to help her. Nara squealed into her hands when the man caught the Redhead's chin in one hand and planted a no-nonsense kiss on her mouth--on the street, in broad daylight, where anyone could see! The Redhead swatted at him playfully, and they got into the car--the man was driving--and pulled out onto the road.

Nara ran to the telephone to call her best friend Jane at the credit company. She had to tell someone what she'd seen before she burst with excitement.


* * *
Ken insisted that they get started back to Gatchaman Center as quickly as possible. No one discussed whether or not Miya would accompany them--it was taken as a given that she would by all concerned. She locked up her house and this time handed the car keys to Ken. He and Jun occupied the front seat, while Joe and Miya sat behind them. Jinpei and Ryu were relegated to the rear of the Rover, and before they'd even reached the highway the two of them were fast asleep, Ryu snoring loudly.

Miya explained to those still awake how the Firebird had appeared out of a clear sky and landed beside her house, and how she'd gotten them all inside. Ken listened carefully to her story, never taking his eyes off the treacherous road ahead. When she'd stopped speaking, he said, quite clearly, "There's something you're not telling us."

No response, which meant of course that he was right.

Jun looked from brother to sister, a small crease of worry furrowing her high white brow. "What...?"

Ken glanced at his sister's calm, composed face reflected in the rear view mirror. "What were you doing outside at the edge of a cliff in the middle of the night? I doubt you were stargazing."

Miya's reflection met his eyes, in that direct and relentless stare of hers. "I was dead-ass drunk and contemplating suicide. More or less in that order."

"Miya!!" Jun turned around in her seat. "You wouldn't have...?"

"To be honest, I don't know if I could have gone through with it." The redhead shrugged. "I only know that I wanted to. Everyone I knew and loved was dead--or so I thought. I had nothing left to live for."

"That's an incredibly lame reason to kill yourself," Joe pronounced darkly. "If any of us had thought that way, we wouldn't be here now."

"I know." Miya accepted Joe's rebuke without flinching. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now...I wasn't thinking straight, I was ready to take the coward's way out, and that's not something I'm exactly proud of. That's why I didn't mention it before." She looked at Ken's face in the mirror again. "I just got my little brother and my friends back, I didn't want you to be--to be ashamed of me."

Ken's eyes flickered between her and the road. The silence spun out around them as the broken white line in the center of the road seemed to mark the passing seconds.

"Ken...:" Jun prompted softly when she could bear it no longer.

Finally Ken spoke. "Promise you won't be so stupid anymore and you're forgiven."

Relieved, Miya smiled and nodded. "Done."

"And Joe? You have my permission to either punch her or spank her. I'd do it, but she can kick my ass."

"Only because you go too easy on me," Miya countered.

Joe smirked. "I gave up punching my girlfriend for Lent. And if I spanked her, she'd only enjoy it."

"You!!" Miya slapped Joe's shoulder, and Ken grinned, while Jun giggled, glad that the lingering tension was finally gone.


* * *
The secret base was housed within a mountain range in the south. "Funny how we both ran for the hills," Ken remarked, trying to make a joke of it, and his sister nodded.

The Land Rover stopped at the security checkpoint, and a stocky young man in the familiar "G" coveralls came out of the guard shack to greet them.

"Security's tighter than I remember," Miya murmured to Joe.

"Lots of things changed after...after President Anderson was killed," he whispered back. "And it only got worse from there."

She sighed and squeezed his hand.

"I don't have my identification with me," Ken explained to the sentry. "If you call Chief Kamo, he can verify my identity for you."

The sentry scowled. "Dr. Kamo is very busy at the moment. I'm afraid you'll have to come back when you have your clearances ready."

Ken blinked. "Excuse me? I'm G-1, the Eagle. My teammates and I don't need special clearances."

"The Science Ninja Team perished last night. Besides, there were only five of them," the guard added, peering into the vehicle, "not six."

"If you would just call Chief Kamo--it won't take a moment--he can clear this up for you." There was a definite edge to Ken's voice now.

"As if I had time to bother Dr. Kamo for verification of every nut-case crackpot who comes up here." The sentry stepped back and waved a hand dismissively. "Get lost."

Ken snarled and shoved the door open to get out of the car. "You want verification?"

The sentry jumped back and drew his gun. He was shaking, but Ken didn't care.

"Here's your bloody verification! BIRD GO!!!!" Ken raised his left forearm and brought it viciously down in front of his face. A blinding flash of light, and when it faded, Ken Washio was gone.

In his place stood Eagle Ken, Gatchaman, leader of the Science Ninja Team.

The sentry's jaw dropped. "Guh--Gatchaman?!"

"You were expecting the Avon Lady?" Ken fumed, his eyes wide and blazing underneath his visor. "Now either use that gun or put it away. We don't have time for any more of this foolishness."

The sentry blinked. "Sorry, sir--I was only doing my job, sir--" He missed the holster twice before finally putting the gun safely away. He jumped back into the guard shack as if seeking protection from the angry man in BirdStyle and triggered the gate open. "Go right in, sir."

Ken didn't bother to change back in case they met with anymore overzealous greenhorns. He got back behind the steering wheel and almost floored the accelerator speeding past the guard shack into the complex.

He became aware that Jun was looking at him strangely. He dragged his temper back down and sat hard on it. "I know, I know, he was only doing what he was supposed to do, but he was still pissing me off. He's lucky I didn't deck him."

Jun shook her head. "Ken..."

"What?"

"You're not wearing your bracelet."

"........" Ken looked at his left wrist, where his activator was--or should have been. It wasn't.

"None of us are," Jun continued quietly. "So how did you go BirdStyle?"

Ken slammed on the brakes, waking the sleepers in the back and making everyone grab for support. "Kuso..."

"What? What?" Jinpei groused. "Aniki, what happened?"

"Hush, Jinpei," Jun told him. She didn't take her eyes off Ken.

"I...I don't understand," Ken faltered. "I didn't even think about it--I was so angry...I just did it. But how...?"

"Let's find out," Joe said from behind him. "Bird GO!"

Flash.

"Well, that answers that question," Miya said mildly, looking at the Condor in BirdStyle who now sat beside her. "I thought you needed your bracelets for that."

"We do," Jun protested. "Not just our activators, but our special civilian attire, too. It's just not possible--"

Two more flashes from the rear of the Rover. "Well, it worked for us too," Jinpei announced, leaning forward and bumping Miya in the back of the head with his Swallow visor.

"Hey!"

"Sorry."

Jun was almost afraid to try it herself, but it would be better to find out now than later, and besides, she felt silly sitting here in ordinary clothes with the rest of the team in BirdStyle. "Bird GO!"

Flash.

"Neat trick," Miya said. "I wonder if I should try it."

"Don't," Joe cautioned. "I think your little brother has about reached his weirdness tolerance level for the day."

"Just as well. I'd probably turn into a crane or something anyway."

Ken said nothing. He was still trying to grasp the fact that he was in BirdStyle without his bracelet. Not for the first time, and not for the last, he wondered what the hell had happened to him--to all of them--up on that satellite.


* * *
Saburo Kamo emerged from his office at a brisk trot despite his ample girth. The first thing he did was envelop Ken in a fatherly embrace. "It's true, you're all safe," he said, achingly close to tears. "Thank God."

Joe smiled and patted Kamo on the back. "We're pretty happy about it ourselves."

Then it was Joe's turn to get hugged all but breathless. "I never could have forgiven myself if any of you had been hurt...or worse," Kamo confessed. He embraced the others each in turn, and almost took hold of the tall redhead standing beside Joe as well, but stopped himself just in time. "Oh! Pardon me, uhm, I don't believe we've met?"

Ken chuckled. "Chief Kamo, my sister, Miyae."

"Oh, yes, of course, Joe told me about you on the phone--I'm so pleased to meet you!" Kamo shook Miya's hand warmly. "Please, make yourself comfortable in my office...I need to borrow the team for debriefing, but it shouldn't take too long."

Miya smiled. "I understand."

Kamo escorted her into his private office, then returned and led the team to the briefing room. As soon as the door closed behind him, he grew serious. "Tell me everything that happened," he said. "We were monitoring, but the information was...confusing, to say the least."

Quietly, and in as much detail as he could, Ken related the story of what had happened on the satellite: the battle to get inside, finding Egobossler impaled on his own sword, the final confrontation with Sosai Z. When he got to the part about the whole team being taken down, his words became less assured, more halting, but he continued, explaining as best he could.

"I could barely keep my eyes open...the others looked unconscious, or dead. I was sure we were all finished." Ken's voice was so low now Kamo and the others had to strain to hear him. "Then I saw...I saw the Doctor...Doctor Nambu. Or his spirit, I guess. I must have been so close to death it didn't matter. I wasn't surprised to see him, really. I thought he was there to take me to wherever it was we go after death. But he told me that I couldn't die--that I...all of us...were the immortal Phoenix. Then he was gone, and I..." He closed his eyes. "I don't remember much after that."

"We saw the Firebird emerge from Z's satellite," Kamo prompted. "Then it disappeared from our sensors."

"Miyae told us she saw the Firebird in the sky when she--when she went outside. When it landed, she found us all alive, but unconscious."

"And naked," Joe added with a smirk. "Don't leave out that part."

Ken ignored him. "Miyae let us use her car to get here. And now you know everything we do."

"What about your vehicles?" Kamo asked. "The Spartan?"

"I don't know, Chief Kamo. I seem to remember the vehicles assembling, and this bright light as the Spartan formed..." Ken rubbed his forehead with a weary sigh. "But I don't remember anything after that. There was no sign of the ship or our separate vehicles where we landed. Like Joe said, we didn't even have our clothes."

"Or our bracelets," Jun reminded him quietly.

"You didn't have your activators? Where did you find them?" Kamo asked, curious.

Ken sighed. "We didn't."

Kamo blinked. "But...you're in BirdStyle...?"

"The watchman on duty didn't want to let us in without identification, and he wouldn't call you to verify. So I decided to show him who I was the quick way." Ken shrugged. "I forgot I didn't have my bracelet on...but I transformed anyway. We all did. And we have no idea how we did it."

"Incredible..." Kamo shook his head, pondering, his brown eyes darting from one to another, studying each of them in turn. "Have you tried transforming back?"

Ken shrugged. "It couldn't hurt. Bird Go!" He raised his left arm again, just as though he still wore his BirdStyle activator--and with a flash of light, he stood once more in the open-necked shirt and jeans he'd worn earlier.

"Masaka..." As the other team members deactivated their BirdStyles, Kamo's wide brow furrowed in thought. "Well," he said after they were done, "I think the next logical step is to have each of you examined by the staff physician--particularly you, Ken."

"Chief--"

"You look reasonably healthy at the moment, Ken--" Better than he had in weeks, certainly better than he'd been since Nambu's death, Kamo thought-- "but I don't believe in taking chances with the lives of people who are so important to our operation." Particularly, Kamo added silently, when they're supposed to be dead.

He checked his wristwatch. "It's a bit late to get started now. Why don't you all get some rest and I'll let the doctor know to get started first thing in the morning."

Kamo led the team back to his office and opened the door. "Miss Washio, if you'd like, you can return home; or you can wait here until--" He stopped.

"What is it, Chief?" Ken asked, peering over Kamo's shoulder.

The older man put a finger to his lips. "Shhh."

Miya sat slumped in a chair. She was fast asleep.

"Poor thing, she's worn out," Jun whispered. "Small wonder; I thought she looked awfully tired."

"She didn't sleep last night, that's for sure," Ken replied, just as quietly. "That's what I gathered from what she told me, anyway."

"I'll arrange for a room to be made ready for her," Kamo murmured.

"Don't bother." Joe made his way past the others, bent down and scooped the sleeping woman up in his arms. She made a drowsy little sound, and Joe shushed her. He turned, cradling her, and walked out towards his quarters without another word.


* * *
The next morning, Ken reported as ordered to the infirmary. The doctor who examined Ken was new--at least he hadn't seen her before. She was close to forty, with a wide smile and analytical eyes behind green-tinted glasses and a matronly body and a silver nosering and an abundance of salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a tight French braid. She introduced herself as Shuko Kamimura, and set at once to examining him with a directness that was both refreshing and a bit unsettling.

Ken was nervous about submitting to the exam, though in truth he felt better than he had in a long time. He didn't feel so tired, or so unsteady on his feet--in fact, he felt fantastic.

It took longer than he expected; Kamimura seemed determined to run every test twice, and once she was finished with that she spent an inordinately long amount of time doing things at her computer terminal. She didn't tell Ken why she was being so meticulously picky, and he didn't dare ask.

Dr. Kamimura was reading from Ken's chart, casting him suspicious little glances from time to time, as he dressed. "Strange..."

"What is it, Doctor?"

"You are Ken Washio, right?"

He pondered the question. "I was the last time I bothered to check."

"Hn. Well, the blood type and the physical description match, so I guess I haven't gone crazy." Kamimura scowled. "I wonder if some of the files got crossed by accident. Have you been suffering any ill effects recently?"

"I was," Ken confessed. There was no point in lying to the doctor--all the details of his illness were right there in front of her. "I'm not feeling ill at the moment, though."

"You shouldn't be. You're in perfect health."

"For a man who's dying of cancer, you mean."

Kamimura turned to face him. "No, you don't understand. You're not sick. There's no sign of any debilitating illness in your body at all. Every test I've run has come back negative. You're clean."

Ken froze in the act of pulling on his sweater. His face lit up. "You mean..." He almost didn't dare say it aloud. "You mean my cancer's in remission?"

"I mean," Kamimura said, her dark and piercing eyes slightly troubled, "that there is no cancer. There's no sign that there ever was."

Ken stared at her. "That's impossible."

"That's what I thought, so I ran a complete system diagnostic, and everything's working fine."

So that was why she ran every test on him twice. "So...I'm not going to die?"

"Sure you're going to die, maybe in about eighty years or so, if you don't jump in front of a bus before then."

Ken sat down hard on the exam table, absorbing all this with a blankly stunned expression. "But how...? I was sick--I was dying...it wasn't just that I'd been told that, I could feel it...how could all that just...go away?"

Kamimura sighed and signed the release form, tucking the stylus pen absently behind her left ear when she was done. "The human body is a remarkable thing. Given half a chance, it has a remarkable capacity to heal itself that defies all attempts to explain completely away. Medical miracles really do happen, though they're rarely as radical as this." She smiled at him. "My advice is not to question it too deeply--just thank God for it."

"I do, believe me. And thank you, Doctor."

"Now get your disgustingly healthy butt out of here so I can take a look at the rest of your team, willya?" She tipped him a wink as he chuckled, her mischievous grin fading when he was safely gone.

Her predecessor hadn't been an incompetent--all the information on Ken Washio was right there in his file. Advanced multi-systemic malignancy induced by hard radiation exposure. Inoperable. Irreversible. The treatments had slowed the progress of the cancer, but not stopped it, and even those had eventually failed. Ken Washio had, at the time of his last medical examination, less than a month to live. And that report was dated two days ago.

One of the primary reasons Shuko Kamimura had been called in was because of her experience in cancer research and biogenetics. She'd known before she'd finished looking over Ken Washio's file completely that the man was doomed.

And he'd just walked out of her office with a clean--flawless--bill of health.

Impossible. But there it was.

Kamimura shook her head and closed Ken's file. She called the girl in; she'd take a look at Jun next, then the others each in turn. She'd save the cyborg for last; his examination would take longer than all the others put together, particularly since her hands-on experience with cybernetic augmentation was rudimentary at best. Still, at the moment she was the most qualified physician on the base, and she'd have to do her best.


* * *
"Wake up, sleepyhead."

"Mm...?" Miya opened her eyes to a flat gray unfamiliar ceiling. "Where...?"

"You fell asleep in Kamo's office," Joe said, sitting on the edge of the bed . "I didn't think you'd mind spending the night in my quarters."

She sat up. "What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

"Nani?! You let me sleep for--" A quick mental calculation. "Fourteen hours?"

Joe smirked, unperturbed. "If you slept that long, you needed it."

A soft knock, and the door opened. Ryu stuck his tousled head in. "Joe, the doc's ready for you. Hi, Miya."

Joe grumbled and snagged his shirt.

Miya yawned hugely and waved in mid-stretch. "Morning--sort of."

"The rest of us are done; we're goin' down to get some lunch. Wanna come along, Mi?"

"Sure." Miya got up and looked around for her jeans--she'd been put to bed in her shirt and underwear. She found them draped over a chair and climbed into them, then hunted down her shoes.

Ryu grinned at Joe. "Don't worry, the new doc's a cool lady. She won't bite 'less you ask her nice."

"That's no fun." Joe planted a kiss on Miya's lips. "Save me some coffee, will you? This is probably going to take a while."


* * *
"Well, whatever's happened to us, it hasn't affected your appetite," Jinpei said as he watched Ryu finish his third plateful of food.

"The doctor told us we're all in excellent health," Jun said, sipping from a glass of pink grapefruit juice. "That's good enough for me."

Ken took another mouthful of rice and didn't say anything. He could feel Jun's eyes on him, and he knew she was no less amazed than he was by the "medical miracle" which had restored his health. My whole body was riddled with disease. I knew it, Hakase knew it, the medical team here knew it. I could almost feel my insides rotting. I didn't care, so long as they held together long enough for me to finish Galactor once and for all.

Well, they're finished now--and here I am. Perfect health, Dr. Kamimura said.


He heard Nambu speak inside his head again: You can never die. You are all immortal, like the Phoenix.

Dear God. Maybe we really did die up there.

"Joe?"

Everyone looked up at Miyae's exclamation. Joe stormed through the doorway, past the table without looking at any of them, and slammed out into the open corridor without so much as a pause or a look back.

"Uh-oh." Jun started to get up, but Miyae was already out of her chair and out the door after him.

"Now what?" Jinpei all but wailed.

"Damn," Ryu sighed. "Just when I thought things were gonna be okay."

Ken and Jun exchanged worried glances.


* * *
If Joe noticed Miya was following him--and he must have done--he chose not to acknowledge her presence. He walked the maze of corridors for long, grimly silent minutes, and anyone meeting him in passing took one look at the expression on his face and hurried to move out of his way without attempting any courtesies.

Finally Joe turned sharply left into a large set of double doors. Miya scurried to follow and found herself in a sort of indoor garden--an arboretum, really--full of green trees and flowering shrubs and scattered fountains carefully crafted to look like natural formations in the unnatural setting of the base's interior.

Joe sat down beside one of the fountains, his arms folded forbiddingly across his hard chest, and shut his eyes, his head bowed, his chiseled face set in an introspective scowl. Miya perched lightly on a convenient stone a meter or so away from him, rested her elbows on her knees, watched him, and waited.

Joe was taking slow, deep breaths in an obvious effort to master his temper. Miya had seen this often enough and was secretly gratified to know that some things never changed. What she didn't realize was that Joe's infamous ill temper had shown itself only rarely in the years since his return from the missing-and-presumed-dead.

Finally he opened his eyes, and they focused at once on her as though just noticing that she was there.

"What?" Miya asked quietly.

Joe looked away without speaking.

Miya sighed, but held her tongue. She had tried, once, to push Joe into telling her something he didn't want to reveal. He'd reacted by walking out on her and not returning except once, to say goodbye before leaving for Cross Caracolm to die. She wasn't going to drive him off again. So she waited for him to tell her.

"That damned doctor's a quack," he said at last.

Miya blinked. "Oh?"

"Either that, or she's crazy. Or a liar. Or her equipment's screwed."

Miya's heart beat a little faster. "What's wrong?"

Joe looked at her.

"Oh, gods...you're not...?"

"I'm not what?"

"You're not--" Broken, she was going to say, and bit it back hard. "Sick? Hurt? Da-damaged, in some way?"

He laughed, a bitter bark with no humor. "I'm in perfect health."

She relaxed a little. "So...everything's working okay."

His eyes narrowed at her slightly.

Miya flushed. "I mean--your...augmentations. They're not...malfunctioning, or anything."

His jaw twitched dangerously.

She swallowed hard. "Are they?"


* * *
"What?!" Kamo stood up, slamming his hands on the desk hard enough to make Kamimura jump in her chair. "What did you say?"

The doctor took a deep, calming breath before speaking. "Joe Asakura is human. Completely, fully, utterly and undeniably human. No sign of any cybernetics whatsoever. His bone and muscle mass are a lot denser than I would expect in a man of his age and build--he weighs half again what he should--but there's nothing there he wasn't born with, not even documented scars. He's completely flesh, blood, and bone--with a healthy dose of attitude." This last was added with a slight edge.

"That's not possible," Kamo said, shaking his head as he sat back down. "Joe's body was ravaged years ago--his brain, his heart, his motor functions were all driven by Dr. Rafael's cybernetic enhancements. He couldn't survive without them. If they were gone, he'd be dead."

"Well, he's very much alive, and he all but called me an ignorant slut before he blew out of my office breathing fire and smoke."

"I'm sure he found your findings...unsettling." Kamo didn't have to mention that he did as well.

"I can let you check my report, and if you want to call in another doctor--a specialist--I'm sure it could be arranged." Kamimura's words were respectful, but her tone was tinged with frost. "I wouldn't expect you to take my word on the matter as gospel."

Kamo gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm not doubting your abilities in the least, Dr. Kamimura--you came quite highly recommended. No, it's simply difficult to grasp. For Joe most particularly, I'm sure."

"I don't pretend to understand how it could have happened," Kamimura said, forcing herself to remain calm and polite. After all, the man had a right to be surprised, even incredulous...no more than she was herself. "Any more than I can explain how Washio's terminal illness simply vanished without leaving the slightest trace, not so much as a malformed cell, to show it ever existed."

Kamo sat back and folded his hands on his generous belly, his pleasant face furrowing as he thought. "And you say the other members of the team are healthy?"

"Completely. No remarkable changes from their last examinations, each of which took place no more than a month ago."

Kamo looked at the model of the lost GatchaSpartan on his desk. He studied its clean, sleek lines, trying to put everything the doctor had told him in perspective with the events of the past forty-eight hours.

The Science Ninja Team had survived the destruction of Sosai Z's satellite. Not only had they returned alive, but all were in excellent--perfect--health. And Ken was no longer ill--no longer dying. And Joe--Joe was human again.

How would he ever manage to explain all of this to the Council? And what would happen once he made his report? No doubt the team would be isolated, quarantined, examined minutely and repeatedly--for what? Would they be suspected as doubles? Clones? Cleverly-crafted cyborg doppelgangers with internal workings designed to fool the most sophisticated medical equipment? Aliens in human form, perhaps fleshly manifestations of X, or Z, itself? Perhaps something even more sinister?

The war with Galactor was over. The Syndicate was no more. These people--these children--should be released from their lifelong obligations, to go seek out the peaceful, private, normal lives so long denied them by trial and circumstance.

"Dr. Kamimura," Kamo said, fixing his brown eyes firmly on her, "I want you to keep your findings absolutely confidential. Discuss them with no one else on staff. Any further developments or findings should be reported directly to me, in person. Put a Level Five security lock on all files concerning the examinations. Prepare a brief--very brief--summary stating that the Science Ninja are in acceptable condition given their respective circumstances and that there is no reason to detain them any further. Understood?"

Kamimura nodded with a slow, conspiratorial smile. She understood very well.


* * *
"...and so, by order of the International Council, Gatchaman Mountain Base will be put on standby status, with a maintenance crew in residence should the need for our branch of the International Science Organization arise again."

Kamo surveyed the five young faces before him--young faces made too old before their time by hardship and trouble.

"And...what about us?" Ken ventured.

"You will each be given a stipend, and of course you may return here whenever you feel the need to do so, until and unless the time comes when the Science Ninja Team must be reactivated. Otherwise, you are all free to do as you like with the rest of your lives."

"All?" Joe asked, arching one eyebrow. Kamo met the Sicilian's eyes; the two hadn't spoken of the miracle that had occurred to make Joe human again, and Kamo had no idea whether Joe had shared that revelation with his teammates--his family--or not. Kamo hadn't mentioned it himself to anyone since Kamimura had told him.

"Since the Syndicate has been defeated, there is no need for you, or Ken, to conceal yourselves any longer. After careful research and consideration, I see no reason for either of you--any of you--not to go out into the world and make your own way. Naturally, you will always have a home here if you need it."

"A normal life..." Jun's voice, soft, almost dreamlike. "It's almost impossible to imagine." Her wide green eyes tracked over to Ken, and Kamo smiled.

"We can all keep in touch, though," Ryu said, looking around anxiously. "Can't we?"

"Of course," Kamo assured him. "I'd encourage that, in fact. You are all each other's family, no one would expect you to simply go your separate ways and never see each other again."

"It doesn't matter what anybody expects," Jinpei said, a note of defiance in his still-somewhat childish voice. "Where Sis goes, I go."

Kamo smiled. "No one would expect any different, young man."


* * *
"Need some help with that, baby brother?" Miya watched Ken struggle a large trunk into the back of the new sleek pewter-toned PT Cruiser.

Ken grunted and shoved hard, and the trunk slid into place. He turned to face his sister with a wide, careless grin. "Thanks anyway."

"You'll write, won't you?"

"Every chance I get. I promise. And you can come visit anytime you like."

"You'll have to come down once the resort is open," Jun said, setting a large hamper in the back seat. "And if you want work, I'm sure there will be a position open for a good piano player and bartender."

Miya laughed. "It sounds tempting--but I hate the cold, remember? Snow makes me break out in a regular rash."

It had been almost a week since Kamo had announced the dissolution of the Science Ninja Team--though it wasn't really dissolution so much as semi-retirement, a setting free, a letting go. Ryu had already returned to his family's small fishing town to spend some time with them before deciding which course his life should take. Jun had decided to open a retreat out in the West, and Ken was going with her.

"Have fun chasing snowbunnies, kid," Miya grinned as Jinpei came out sipping on a Surge drink.

"I'm going to be too busy studying for my college exams," he said. He paused for a moment, looking from Ken to Jun, then finally to Miya. Quickly, unexpectedly, he reached out and hugged her. "G'bye...and thanks," he said, scrambling into the back of the cruiser before she could respond.

Jun smiled. "Don't be a stranger," she said, hugging Miya herself. "Come see us soon, ne?"

"I will,"

"You'll be there for the wedding, at any rate." Jun drew back and smiled, glancing at her left hand for perhaps the twentieth time that day. A small but perfect diamond, set in a white gold ring, glinted on the third finger of her left hand. "Ne?"

"A chance to see my baby brother in a tux? I wouldn't miss that for the world."

Jun laughed. "Since you're going to be my maid of honor, you'd better not!"

"'Bye, Sis," Ken said, enveloping his sister in his arms and holding her for a long moment, resting his cheek against her fiery hair. Then he drew back and searched the eyes as familiar as his own. "Miyae...are you sure you won't come with us? At least for a visit? I don't like the idea of you staying out here all by yourself."

"I'll be fine," Miya said. "And I will come visit you. Before the wedding. Just to annoy the hell out of you."

"We're joining the real world, Sis," Ken said. "Maybe it's time you did, too."

Miya looked at her brother, mirroring his warm smile, but said nothing.

"Come on, we need to get going," Jun said briskly, opening the driver's side door.

"Hey, who said you could drive?" Ken protested with a chuckle.

"Don't think I'm going to let you drive, Eagle Scout. We'd never make the plane."

"Oh?" Ken gave Miya's hand a last brotherly squeeze before getting in beside his fiancée. "Are you making a comment on my driving skill?"

"You drive like an old lady when I'm in the car and you know it."

Miya chuckled. "Safe trip, you guys."

Jun waved brightly and started the cruiser. Miya stood and watched the car pull out, waving until it was out of sight. She stood, listening still, until the sound of the engine's echo had finally faded, and the early afternoon was silent once more.

"...And I've been here, silent all these years..." Her voice, so seldom raised in song of late, rang faintly in the crisp mountain air. Seized by a sudden need to feel the smooth keys of her piano under her fingers, to hear the notes spilling out into the perfect stillness, Miya went inside.

She had a battered old upright that she'd found in an antique store down in Montanville. Like the house, she'd restored it herself, tuning it as precisely as she dared, considering its age. She sat down at the piano and began to play, letting the music fill the round, hollow silence that she somehow could no longer tolerate.

"I don't believe I went too far
I thought I was willing
She said she knew what my book did not
I thought she knew what's up

"Past the mission, behind the prison tower
Past the mission I once knew a hot girl
Past the mission they're closing every hour
Past the mission, I smell the roses..."

The sound of a car's engine approaching made her stop playing and singing and listen intently. For a moment she thought Ken was coming back to try and insist that she go with them; he didn't like the idea of her staying up here alone, after all, and even with Jun's quiet insistence, Ken had always been reluctant to let go of an idea once he got it into his head. But no, that wasn't the cruiser's engine--it was too rich, too intense, too powerful, too loud--

She sprang up from the bench like a wild horse that had broken its tether and ran outside, her heart pounding madly.

The cool mid-November afternoon was bright, the sky clear, the air still. The sunlight dazzled off the gleaming black Cobra convertible idling in front of her house.

"Nice, isn't it?" Joe said, jumping over the closed door to land outside the car. He wore a black leather jacket over a black tank top and jeans with black leather riding boots. He removed the mirrored sunglasses he'd been wearing and patted the car's sleek curved fender. "It's about time I got a car for my birthday--Ken got a Mazda when he was eighteen."

"Nice," Miya echoed faintly, nodding. "Happy Birthday. That's quite a hunk of rolling iron--I assume it's not just for show."

"I'm thinking of joining the circuit again. I've missed the track a lot--I yearn for the sound of twisted metal and screaming tires," he grinned.

"Sounds great. Do you think it's safe to go public again?"

"Probably not." Joe tugged idly at one of his black leather racing gloves. They were too new to fit properly, but he had plenty of time to break them in now. "I've got a trailer waiting for me in Caldwell. Custom Airstream. Almost like my old one, but it's got a few modifications."

"Oh?"

"Uh-huh." Without raising his head, he looked up at her, his gaze as direct and piercing as a bullet. "Like a double bed."

Miya heard the invitation in his voice, and for a moment she literally couldn't move. Her feet felt rooted to the ground as her gaze registered every aspect of his appearance--the light brownish hair framing his squarish face, the winter-ice eyes, the full mouth, his whipcord-lean body, his long-fingered hands, his slim but sturdy legs. She drank in his presence, his existence, his thereness--the totality of Joe Asakura, his history, his strengths, his wounds, his dreams, his flaws, his desires, his careless facade that masked an intensely passionate nature. He wasn't wearing his "game" face now--he looked at her with unmistakable longing, and she saw plainly that he was offering to open up his whole life and future to make room for her. The questioning tilt of his eyes, the hopeful curve of his mouth, promised everything in his heart to her, if she chose to take it. He was leaving the choice to her, to accept or turn aside as she willed.

He had made himself completely vulnerable, left himself at her mercy, and she could break his heart and his reawakened spirit with a single word: No.

She found herself released and went running to him, and he caught her up in his arms, spinning her around. He laughed, and his laughter was sweeter than any music she'd ever heard. She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him to celebrate the resurrection of hope and the future that lay miraculously restored and whole before them, a future they could spend however they chose, together, at long last.


* * *

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