Emby Quinn (savageredhead@aol.com)

And my priest says "You ain't saving no souls"
My father says "You ain't making any money"
My doctor says "You just took it to the limit"
And here I stand with this sword in my hand

You can say it one more time
What you don't like
Let me hear it one more time then
Have a seat while I take to the sky

"Take To The Sky", Tori Amos

* * *

"He did what?!" Ken came up off the barstool, eyes wide.

"Checked himself out of the hospital." Jun tossed her keys carelessly onto the counter and sat down beside Ken. "No word of where he was going, nothing." She looked at Miya, who settled against the bar on her brother's other side and leaned back on her elbows. "We went by the lot where he usually parks between races, and his car and trailer were gone."

"That stupid..." Crossly Ken raised his activator to signal his second in command.

Jun put a restraining hand on his arm. "I've already tried that. He's not answering his signals. Either he's ignoring it, or he's not wearing his bracelet."


"My thoughts exactly."

* * *

He'd left his trailer in an abandoned field near the base of the mountain. He didn't much care at this point what happened to it. Nothing had ever seemed less important than tomorrow did at this moment.

He took the turn hard, tires squealing and spitting dust and gravel over the edge of the roadway into the valley below. For an instant it seemed the car had to go off the road into the abyss, it didn't seem possible for it not to--but then the tires gripped the poorly-maintained asphalt surface and propelled the car out of the turn onto another stretch of fairly straight road.

Joe applied more pressure to the accelerator under his foot, and the speedometer inched up another notch. He was pushing the car to its considerable limits again and again, forcing it to the brink, allowing it--coaxing it to go out of control before yanking it back under his command at the last possible moment.

All it would take was one turn of the wheel. To the left, a sudden collision with the jagged rockface hugged by the road, extinction in a ball of fiery death. To the right, a leap out into wide space and open air, a weightless fall roaring to the stony ground below.

Joe's eyes snapped wide, and his foot slammed on the brake pedal. The tires screamed, the reinforced steel frame shuddered violently in protest, fountains of dust and sprays of pebbles flew up in his wake, before the car finally came to a stop at the very top of the mountain.

Joe got out and walked to the front. The tires were less than a meter from the low stone wall that overlooked the canyon. He'd stopped barely in time.

He sat on the low wall with a muffled grunt. He took off his sunglasses and wiped a hand over his face. Most of his recent injuries were more or less healed, but the bullet wound in his shoulder still ached fiercely. He looked at the pale spot on his wrist where his activator should have been, then cast his eyes out over the chasm he'd nearly plunged into.

Suicide wasn't an option for him--it never had been. Not even now. Not even now that he knew who he really was.

Galactor. Galactor by birth, Galactor by blood. Damn! How could this happen to me? How could I NOT have known, all these years? Was I really that stupid as a child? Ken says it doesn't matter, that I'm Condor Joe now, but it DOES matter, it DOES...

He heard another voice in his head, completely unbidden: "Galactor denied me my life." Miya's voice, quiet, measured, calm, masking a lifetime of pain. "Because of them, I'll never see my parents again."

"You and me both," Joe muttered to the gulf below him. It had only been a few weeks ago that the nightmares had returned--the same nightmares he'd had when he was a child, where he'd seen his parents dead on the beach, where he'd nearly died himself in a flash of light and a flare of searing pain. The dreams tormented him by night; by day, the adverse reaction to bright flashes of light he'd thought he'd outgrown had come back to torment him. It wasn't until after he'd learned his true origins during the Marine Saturn crisis that he made the connection.

He'd sounded so noble, telling Miya that he wanted to build their relationship slowly, not rush things...and so he'd held her at arm's length, struggling against his growing feelings for her, not understanding why he was so reluctant to be with her. And the bad dreams, the headaches, the dizzy spells...all signs of his own internal conflict. How could he hold Miya's lifelong imprisonment in the Syndicate against her when he himself had been born into their ranks?

What an incredible hypocrite he'd been!

" I couldn't get away from them in reality, so I got away from them inside my head."

"I can't even do that." Joe jumped to his feet and paced restlessly around the car, "You don't understand any more than your brother does. It's different for you. You weren't born to Galactor--you were kidnapped. You spent your whole life hating them because they took you from your family. You never gave up hope. You always knew you weren't a part of them. Me? I can't deny that I am. My father was one of their officers. His blood--Galactor blood--runs in my veins. I've been living a lie. I don't know who I am anymore."

"All my life I've wondered where I came from, and now that I know the physical data, I'm more confused than ever."

"Join the club." Joe sat on the fender and fished in his back pocket for a cigarette. Instead his fingers touched cold steel, and he pulled out a feather shuriken. Shrugging, he placed that between his teeth and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Even if we survive...even if we win this goddamned war...I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life, and that scares the hell out of me."

"Get real. Nothing scares you."

"You want to know what scares me, Red? I'm scared that if Nambu finds out the truth about my past--and he's damned good at finding things out--he'll turn me out on the street--or lock me up and throw away the key."


He jumped, startled. That hadn't been Miya's voice, or any voice he recognized as any but his own. "What...?"

Who found you on that island after your parents died? Who forged the death certificate--remember, he showed it to you? To prove that your old life was dead? Don't be stupid, Joe. What 'if' the Doctor finds out that your father was the boss of BC Island, that he ran it for the Syndicate? There's no 'if' about it. Nambu already knew. Why else would he be there to save you in the first place? Why would he tell you, over and over, that Giorgio Asakura was dead? That you were Condor Joe now?

Joe felt his heart hammering in his chest. He hadn't thought about it--he hadn't let himself do much thinking of any sort since his memories had returned. He'd assumed that...if Nambu had known....

But...Nambu must have known.

"Kuso..." Joe's aching head reeled with the realization. His parents had been killed because they wanted out. They had been trying to defect from the Syndicate. Nambu had been there to help them escape. God, it all began to make sense now...and he'd never realized it before, never given it that much thought. He'd been so consumed with rage, so eaten up with his need for revenge, that he hadn't allowed himself to ponder the circumstances leading up to his parents' murder, hadn't wondered for even the briefest of moments why they'd been killed so brutally. Quite simply, he hadn't allowed himself to think about it much.

And now...now he couldn't do anything but think. He'd been trying to run away from his thoughts, his memories, his history--and he'd run all the way up a mountain only to find his thoughts and memories and history all waiting for him at the top.

Joe chuckled at himself. It was funny, in a perverse sort of way. He could drive faster than any man alive, in the fastest car that had ever existed, but he couldn't go fast enough to escape what he was really running from. Himself.

He put his glasses back on and got back into his car. It was time to stop running, stop denying, stop agonizing over what he couldn't change.

It was time to go back home.

* * *

"We could go out and look for him," Jinpei insisted. "He can't have gotten too far."

"This is Joe we're talking about," Ryu grumped. "He could be at the North Pole by now in that car of his."

"He'll be back," Jun said, trying to remain as calm as she hoped she sounded. "He's got a lot to deal with right now."

"It was damned irresponsible of him to run off like that." Ken tossed another dart at the target, hitting the dead center of the bullseye. "When he drags his carcass back here, I'm going to beat some sense into his worthless hide."

"I don't think so." All eyes shifted to the redhead sitting in the back booth. Miya was leaning on the tabletop, arms folded, head down. She didn't look up as she spoke. "Not unless you're willing to go through me first."

"Miyae," Ken said gently, "I know you're worried about him. But this is blatant insubordination. It's a team matter that really doesn't concern you."

"Ken!" Jun snapped. "That was cruel."

"He's right." Miya looked up at them, her eyes hollow. "Team matters don't concern me because I'm not part of your team. But this has nothing to do with your team, Ken, can't you see that? Are you so blinded by your sense of duty that you can't understand that what Joe's going through has nothing to do with your holy crusade?"

"This isn't going to solve anything," Ryu cautioned. "Please, everybody, just calm down."

Ken, affronted, paid no attention. He was glaring at his sister. "Just because you have no responsibilities doesn't mean that any of us can neglect ours."

"Ken, shut up!" Jun snapped, abandoning her attempts at self-control. Ken looked around at her, eyes wide, looking absolutely stunned by her outburst. She didn't falter--her temper had well and truly snapped. "Remember when all you could do was whine about your father dying, and how you wanted revenge and nothing else mattered? If you've forgotten, I can assure you the rest of us haven't. You weren't doing a very good job of putting your own agenda secondary to the needs of the team then, were you? Yet we were all supposed to be so understanding because you were having a personal crisis. What the hell makes you think you're better than Joe? Or better than any of the rest of us?"

"Now that's what I like best about this place," a gruff voice said from the doorway. "Can't you just feel the love in this room?"

"Aniki!" Jinpei shouted, running across the room.

"Joe!" Jun cried, joyous, her anger at Ken instantly forgotten.

Joe stepped inside, pocketing his sunglasses. Jun reached him first and enveloped him shamelessly in a sisterly hug. Jinpei danced around them, laughing. Ryu hauled his bulk out of his seat and went to join them. Ken stood back for a moment, looking decidedly uncomfortable; then he squared his shoulders and walked over.

Ignoring Jun's warning look as she drew back, Ken faced Joe head on. The two men studied each other for a long moment.

Then Ken smiled and held out a hand. "Welcome back."

Joe ignored Ken's hand and hugged him hard. "Thanks," he said, while Jun giggled at Ken's loss of composure.

Over Ken's shoulder, Joe's predatory eyes caught Miya's gaze and held. Miya stood up slowly, staring at Joe. She was so obviously unsure of what to do that Joe made the decision for her. He walked past Ken, away from the knot of his teammates. In three steps he reached her, took her in his arms, and gave her a kiss that left no doubt of his intentions toward her. No one dared say a word--not even Jinpei.

Then, ignoring the protests of his half-healed injuries, he scooped Miya up in his arms and carried her towards the exit.

"Ken, I'll be in touch," he called back over his shoulder. "Don't wait up." He kicked the door shut behind them on his way out to his car.

"Joe, wait--!" Ken started towards the door, but was brought up short by Jun's hand on his chest.

"Let them go," she cautioned. "Take one more step and I'll deck you myself."

* * *

It was an hour's drive back to Joe's trailer--by the speed laws. Miya didn't say a word during the ride. She sat still in the passenger's seat where Joe had put her, stealing glances at him now and then. She didn't touch him, obviously wary of distracting him from the road.

He arrived at his trailer, parked in a plum grove just outside of town, at the twenty-eight minute mark. He stopped the car and turned off the engine. For a moment, neither one of them moved. Outside, the sun dipped behind the horizon, and the sky darkened to a velvety indigo, the stars hidden by gathering clouds. Somewhere distant, thunder softly rumbled.

Finally he turned to look at her, and met her eyes. They looked hungry. Her hand lay on the seat between them, and he took it in his. "Come here," he growled, tugging her across the seat and into his arms. He kissed her with a rough warmth, his left hand sliding down her side to come to rest possessively on her hip. One of her arms hooked around his neck, and her other hand lay softly against his chest as she leaned into him.

The kiss led them into familiar territory, areas they had explored on several nights such as this. He cupped his hand to her bare midriff and gently stroked her side. Her fingers teased the skin just above his collar, stealing up to caress the line of his jaw as their bodies pressed closer together. His tongue darted out and teased the inside of her mouth. "Car play" was a familiar game to them both, although there was still the boundary which had never been crossed--a boundary they were fast approaching.

His hand hesitated at the bottom hem of her pale blue tunic. She arched her back, making a small sound deep in her throat. Taking this as encouragement, he slipped his hand underneath her shirt, his fingers skimming across silken flesh. While he rubbed gently at her back, she let her hand slip down the center-line of his chest. His stomach muscles tightened involuntarily as her fingers strayed down below the heavy buckle of his black leather belt. He tensed, waiting for her touch to close on him; however, at the last moment, her hand swerved to one side, trailing down the top of his left thigh. She clasped his knee for a moment, then moved her fingers gradually up the inseam, teasing the flesh underneath the taut material.

She squeezed a little, and his hips bucked in response. With a choked gasp he pulled back from her.

Immediately she looked concerned. "Did I hurt you?"

"Nuh-no..." He swallowed hard. "I guess I'm on a hair trigger. If we keep this up much longer, we'll never make it out of the car." He forced himself to let go of her and opened his door. "Let's go in while I can still walk."

He tried not to stumble as he headed for the trailer, Miya's hand firmly in his. As the first fat raindrops splattered on their skin, he fumbled to put the key in the lock for an agonizing ten seconds or so--This is ridiculous, I'm as nervous as a kid--before finally getting the door to open. By that time, the downpour was in full effect, and they were both drenched to the skin.

Fortunately the bed was just inside the door. It was barely a meter wide, meant for only one occupant, but it would serve its purpose well enough. He shut and locked the door behind them, switched on the light, and drew her close to him without pausing between actions.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," she husked, tousling her own damp hair. "If it rains every time I come to visit you, we'll flood the whole west coast."

"You won't need a robe tonight," he told her. He covered her upturned face with kisses as he worked her shirt open and slid it off her shoulders. Soon her white jeans were on top of the shirt, crumpled in a heap at her feet. She stepped out of her shoes and stood naked before him. For a moment she clasped her hands in front of her, just above the joining of her legs; then she forced her arms to her sides and let him have a look at her, her eyes cast down and away from him.

"You're beautiful," he said, and he meant it. He picked her up in his arms and laid her gently on the bed. She watched in wonder as he removed his own clothes, revealing the long, clean lines of his torso and limbs. His scars from BC Island were still fresh, but obviously healed. His olive skin was detailed with the marks of older wounds that seemed to enhance the rugged beauty of his lean body rather than detracting from it. When he finished undressing, she held out her hand to him, her eyes never leaving his, and pulled him down beside her.

He forced himself to take his time. He touched, caressed, petted and praised her. She was so obviously unaccustomed to a man's attentions that it made his heart ache.

"I don't know what to do," she confided in a whisper so soft he barely heard it. "I don't know how...please tell me."

He smiled at her. "You're doing everything you need to do. I can take things from here."

When he was sure she was ready, he took her at last. Gradually her cool disposition melted away as she surrendered herself to the heat of their passion. Her hands roved restlessly over his body, guided by pure instinct, as she learned the ways of woman's need and woman's pleasure. The knowledge that he was the first man to make her feel this way, that he was the first man she'd touched like this, was incredibly exciting. He held his own urges firmly in check and drove her into a quiet frenzy of passion with his patient, deliberate attentions. She touched him everywhere she could reach--his stomach, his sides, the small of his back. When the waves began to crest for her, she took hold of his waist and held on tight, as though afraid she might be swept away. He lost the remnants of his tattered self-control and began moving hard and fast, no longer able to resist his own unbearable need. She immediately matched her movements to his, welcoming his intensity, answering it with her own. Suddenly her supple body went rigid and she cried out his name. Her hands pulled him against her and the waves swept over him and it was like he'd never done this before, it was like the first time, it was the first time, the first time that really mattered--

Finally they were both spent. He collapsed atop her and buried his face against her flame-red hair. Her limbs were wrapped securely around him, their hearts hammering against each other. Neither of them spoke. No words were necessary, even if he'd had the breath to speak them. Joe had never said the word love to a woman before, because he had never honestly felt that way about a woman. Now that he did, he didn't need to say it. He loved her, and somehow he understood that she knew it...just as he knew that she loved him, and felt no need to say so.

He had no worries for the future. The future did not exist. They would take things in stride, facing whatever happened one day at a time, making each moment together count. They would treat each night together (or morning, or afternoon, or ten minutes stolen in a back room, he mused with a weary, sated smile) as though it was their last, because it might be. But they wouldn't dwell on the possibility (hell, probability) of loss or separation. There wouldn't be time. Or room. Joe intended to fill each moment he shared with his heart's chosen with as much sweetness and joy as possible, because who knew when or where they would get any more?

He gently shifted his weight off of Miya and lay down on his side, careful not to fall off the narrow bed. Miya whimpered a little as he moved away, then turned and snuggled up against him with a drowsy little murmur. He shushed her and nuzzled against the top of her head, his eyes closed. He let the sound of the rain on the roof lull him off into sleep.

* * *

The following week, Miya finally got her own place to live, upstairs from a used bookstore a few blocks away from the Snack. Joe went the next Saturday to help her move her few belongings.

"The place looks pretty bare," Joe observed as he looked around the loft apartment.

"My needs are few." Miya shrugged and flashed her Ken-like grin--the one she had been showing a great deal more these days. "It's a roof over my head. I'm still going to be working at the Snack J for a while--Jinpei's an excellent cook, but he isn't legal to tend bar."

"They taught bartending on that island?"

"I've been studying up. Jun says I show promise." Miya reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small silver key. "Kore."

Joe took it. "And this is to?"

"The front door. It's my spare key. So you won't have to wake me up by knocking if you should happen to come over late."

Joe smiled and pulled out his keychain. As he worked the new addition onto the ring, he stole glances at the coltish redhead, who stood against the door-jamb with one leg doubled up under her. "One of these days," he said, "I'm going to kidnap you."

"Oh so?"

"Yeah. Take you in my trailer on a trip around the world. Drag you out on the racing circuit next season, maybe. Think you could handle that?"

"Maybe if you get a bigger bed so one of us won't keep falling out in the middle of the night."

"I don't fall out of my bed. I'm used to it."

"I wasn't talking about you, Condor. I'm the one who wakes up at three in the morning butt-naked on a cold floor."

"And this is my fault how?"

"You kick."

"I've never kicked a pretty woman out of my bed."

"Tell that to my cold ass at three in the morning."

They laughed easily together--two young lovers who had all the time in the world to explore what had begun between them. Or so it seemed.

In reality, their time together was almost gone. Neither of them could have known it, but as of that moment, Joe Asakura had less than six months to live.

* * *

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