Bring your Artistry
Joe walked towards the door of the Snack J, glad to trade the chill and dampness that was Utoland in early December for some light, warmth and a cup of coffee. Christmas was rapidly approaching, as signs in shop windows all up and down the street pointedly reminded him, and normally he'd be feeling the holiday spirit.
He loved Christmas –more, in fact, than he was comfortable letting on. He was buoyed by his dim memories of the magic of Santa and gifts that appeared beneath a tree, to be opened while his smiling parents looked on, everything fuzzy in that aura of warmth and security lent by ritual and tradition. Even if he didn't talk about it, the holiday always reaffirmed just what really mattered to him –family.
Gathering together with Dr. Nambu, Ken, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu for one peaceful day amid familiar, festive decorations –the tree always in the same place, always with the same star on top (slightly shabbier each year but not-to-be-replaced!)- reminded him just what he personally was defending from Galactor and made the danger, the struggle and the sacrifice throughout the rest of the year all worthwhile. No matter what, there would always be Christmas, a day of peace, joy and family. On that day, he could truly believe that he and his new family –they were family- would yet see a multitude more of Christmases whereas Galactor would surely go down in defeat –maybe even before the next Christmas came!
Yes, normally he'd be feeling some holiday cheer. But this year…
At least it wasn't raining hard today, but nevertheless a pall of grey seemed to hang over everything, sucking warmth and hope from the world. But then, it still wasn't that many days ago that they'd been battling the jigokillers. It still wasn't that many days ago that they'd been, if not literally then certainly emotionally, forced to kill Jun.
In the days since, he'd concluded that Jun understood what they'd done, more easily even than Joe himself –he, after all, had initially punched Ken out for being willing to do it. She understood why they'd had to light the field of jigokillers ablaze despite knowing that she was probably trapped inside one of those giant flowers. They were the only ones who could save the world from Galactor.
No, that wasn't the problem. He was also sure she understood why they all still felt sick with guilt nevertheless. What she seemingly didn't understand was why, when they'd finally found her and rescued her from imminent death in a Galactor base, Ken hadn't embraced her or kissed her or… anything. Instead, he'd coldly reprimanded her and then, of all things, smacked her.
Joe wasn't sure he understood it himself. Or maybe he did; Ken was the one he'd known the longest and knew best and he could sense how much inner turmoil lurked within him, twisted up with duty, discipline and repression. Maybe Jun could perceive all that too, but after what she'd gone through –she'd nearly died, and horribly- he didn't think it unreasonable of her to hope for some outward show at last of the feelings that they all knew Ken harbored for her somewhere deep inside. And she'd gotten nothing. Worse than nothing, really.
Ken had been a mess in the days after they'd burned the field of jigokillers; Joe could sense that he'd been grappling bitterly with the fact that his duty as leader of the Team had overridden his feelings for Jun and that he had no idea how to solve that harsh dilemma. Joe wasn't entirely sure if Ken could find a balance, but he was certain that there was a better solution than the one Ken had chosen in that moment when Jun had turned to him, her face so open and alight with hope and joy, only to…
Hell, it had been painful to watch. But Joe knew one other thing for certain –Ken needed to take active measures to try to make things better between Jun and him. She'd uttered no protest or complaint about what Ken had done, but in the days since she'd been a whole lot quieter and more coldly distant. Jun was the heart of the Team, and the aura of sadness and inward pensiveness that hung about her now was a contagion for gloom, affecting them all.
Joe's mind was weighed down with these thoughts as he neared the door to the Snack J. Jun might well be finally giving up on Ken for good, Joe thought. Ken needed to do… something to make things right again. Damn it, he thought, if Ken didn't do something, this was going to leave a rift and tension within the family and it was going to ruin Christmas. This would never do! If necessary, he would just have to prod or even coerce Ken into action. Maybe even right now, if Ken was here at the J.
He pushed open the door and went inside.
It was late afternoon -too late for lunch and too early for anything else- and therefore it was fairly empty inside, but that suited Joe's mood just fine. Out of the corner of one eye he registered Jun's presence on the far side of the room by the stage, along with a few other people, doing something musical, the murmur of discussion and random guitar strumming, keyboard plinking and drum tapping suggesting a rehearsal of some sort. But he made a beeline for the bar, where Ryu was sitting on a stool across from Jinpei.
Ken wasn't here.
Joe slumped down on a stool, leaning his elbows on the bar and acknowledging Ryu and Jinpei's existence with a brief nod. He noted with approval that Jinpei was pouring him a mug of coffee without even needing to be asked. Joe's thoughts turned towards the Christmas shopping that he hadn't been in the mood to do yet but which couldn't be put off for much longer. Jinpei was easy, Joe thought –some cool comics or the hottest new video games would make him happy. So was Ryu –anything that was either enjoyably edible or related to fishing and boating would have him smiling on Christmas morning.
Ken and Jun were the trickier ones, requiring a lot more thought, and never more so than this year when he didn't know what could bring them any Christmas joy –or at least, not anything he could give them that would.
But just at that moment, Jun laughed, sufficiently merry peals to carry across the room and strike Joe with their very unfamiliarity; when had she last sounded that carefree? He turned his head to look towards the stage. He couldn't see Jun's face as she'd her back to the room but she was leaning towards some guitar-slinging musician guy with curly, blond hair and clearly reacting to something he'd just said. But Joe could see that she was resting her hand on the guy's arm and he could also see the guy's face, aglow with interest and his eyes searching hers intently… The guy said something Joe couldn't hear and Jun tossed her hair playfully, shrugging one shoulder but keeping her hand touching the guy's arm –bare, as he was wearing a t-shirt.
Joe wasn't liking one bit what he was seeing. Since when did Jun laugh like that for anyone except… Actually, Joe wasn't sure she'd ever sounded that happy even when responding to Ken. Or at least, not in a long time. But who the hell was this guy, wondered Joe indignantly, to think he could just waltz in here and start flirting with the Swan? Joe's eyes narrowed with contempt as he quickly evaluated the interloper. He seemed tall and in decent shape. He had a face, Joe grudgingly conceded, configured along lines most would likely consider handsome –though maybe his nose was kind of pointy. He had a scarf looped around his neck, like something an Andean peasant would wear, he sported a bunch of woven and leather wrist bands, and the faded design on his t-shirt featured the name of some rock festival and a large round peace symbol. Joe's lip curled in a sneer. Artsy wuss, he concluded witheringly. Jun couldn't possibly have any interest in a guy like that –not when she had fine examples of real men around. Science Ninjas, no less!
So then why, Joe wondered, was she so close to the guy that she was practically whispering in his ear? What was she saying? He couldn't hear, but it made the blond guy take Jun's hand –the one that wasn't touching him- and hold it in his for a moment. Joe glanced to his side at Ryu and Jinpei but they were apparently oblivious to the disturbingly intimate-looking scene that was going on over by the stage.
Then a touch of cold air wafted over him and he turned his head the other way, towards the door. It was ajar, held open by Ken, and his face matched the bleak weather that framed him in the doorway.
He was staring at Jun.
Joe wondered how long he'd been standing there. Thirty seconds would have sufficed for him to take in what Joe himself had seen and Ken's wide eyes and clenched jaw betrayed that he had indeed.
For a fleeting moment Joe feared Ken was going to step back outside and close the door. A wall of resigned despair had been surrounding him for days now whenever he was around Jun and from her vantage, she couldn't see him and wouldn't even know he'd been here.
Come on, Ken, thought Joe, trying to catch his eye. Get in here. Do something about this!
As if Joe had spoken aloud, Ken looked over towards the bar now and spotted him. To Joe's relief, Ken then came his way, quietly shutting the door behind him. Over by the stage, Jun had picked up her guitar and seemed to be demonstrating something to the blond guy, who was listening and nodding, and to the other musicians.
Yes, thought Joe, maybe this was just the situation needed to spark Ken out of his torpor and into action, namely intimidating that musician-dweeb to stay the hell away from his girl. Joe was more than ready to be his second in that endeavor! But all Ken did was walk over to the bar, without another glance at the stage, and sit beside Joe.
Ryu peered around Joe to smile a greeting at their leader who, Joe perceived with concern, had an unfocused, inward gaze and slight sag to his shoulders.
"He needs coffee, Jinpei," said Joe, before Jinpei could speak, "Get him some."
"Actually, Jinpei," said Ken, not quite meeting his eyes, "I could really use a bite to eat. Didn't get a chance to buy groceries yet this week…"
The code words for "Can you put it on my tab?"
Jinpei swallowed, his mouth tightening.
"You heard him," said Joe, frowning, "Make him a sandwich or something."
"Got some delivery flights scheduled for tomorrow though," added Ken, looking relieved that Jinpei had taken Joe's hint to can the usual harangue about the size of Ken's tab and had begun procuring the various sandwich components from below the counter.
"So," said Ken casually to Jinpei –very casually, in fact, "What's going on with…"
He shrugged in the direction of the stage. Well, this was a start, thought Joe.
"Sis has put together a band," said Jinpei, sliding a plate with a sandwich towards Ken, "She says she wants to get a cooler scene and some more action going on around here over Christmas when lots of people are out of school and stuff, to increase business."
"That's right," said Ryu with a small laugh, "She's even got me agreeing to work here as a bartender in the evenings."
"You'll be working for tips only, remember," said Jinpei hastily, "We're not paying you anything."
"Yeah, yeah," said Ryu, "I'll be oozing charm –girls will be throwing their money at me."
Joe tried to suppress a snort of derision. It was all too clear how Jun had talked him into the gig.
"I said she should ask you, Bro, but-" Jinpei suddenly seemed to reconsider his words. An awkward silence prevailed, softened only by the random bits of music drifting over from the stage.
And now, by a whiff of… patchouli?
"Hey Jinpei," said a voice from close behind them. Joe, Ken and Ryu all turned to look.
It was the blond guy.
Ken's face went stiff like a mask; Ryu gave him a vague nod; Joe scowled.
"What's up, Nick?" said Jinpei,
"Could you make Jun a hot chocolate?" the guy asked, "With whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles, cinnamon and all that –you know, just the way she likes it."
"Sure," replied Jinpei, and "Nick" immediately began digging in his pocket.
"If it's for Sis, you don't have to-" began Jinpei, but he was cut off.
"It's my treat to her," said Nick with a smile, putting a twenty on the counter, "And make one for me too."
As Jinpei began making change from the till, he added "You're going to be seeing a lot of me around here, and the last thing I want to be is a mooch."
Joe's scowl deepened.
As Jinpei handed Nick his change, he gave a couple dollars back to the kid. "A tip," he said, "You work hard around here."
Jinpei was practically beaming. Joe could feel his own face shifting now from scowl to full-on glare as the uppity irritant in their midst received the head-to-toe survey he'd give a goon before deciding where to plant a shuriken. Ryu shifted uncomfortably on his stool. Ken seemed to have turned to stone.
"Uh," said Jinpei quickly, his smile vanishing as he glanced around, "Let me introduce you, Nick. These guys are some regulars here too."
Introductions were made; Ryu managed a smile and Ken nodded stiffly but Joe saw no reason to cease his intense glare. Refraining from hitting the smarmy twit would be his sole concession to the social niceties.
Jinpei busied himself with his beverage preparations. As Joe endeavored to radiate intimidation, he noted with dismay that Ken was just staring morosely at his partially-eaten sandwich. But the clueless Nick seemed oblivious to his far-from-friendly reception and just leaned with one elbow against the counter and smiled cheerfully at no one in particular.
"I'm going to be helping Jun out around here over the holidays," he announced after a moment, breaking the silence, "Until classes start up again in January."
"Classes where?" asked Ken, and Joe could tell he was hoping the answer would be "very, very far away."
No such luck.
"Oh, here at Utoland U.," he said, "But I'm doing a joint major –History and Poli Sci- and that keeps me busy."
Joe sipped his coffee, trying not to smirk. Could the guy be any more useless? If Ken would just talk to Jun, turn those big blue eyes on her and flash some Gatchaman charisma…
"But till then, Jun and I have big plans to really get some entertainment going around here. She's got some great ideas for special events and-"
Jinpei slid two hot chocolates Nick's way, one all dolled up in what was apparently Jun's favorite way. Joe glared at Nick again as he picked up the mugs.
"Thanks, Jinpei," Nick said, adding "So, when do you want your next guitar lesson?"
Jinpei's eyes brightened. "Hey, how about tomorrow?"
Nick smiled. "I'll be here," he said, turning away to head back to the stage.
"Guitar lessons?" chuckled Ryu, "That's a laugh."
"Some of us plan ahead," retorted Jinpei, "Everyone knows girls dig guys who-"
Ken abruptly pushed his stool back and stood up. Belated dismay flickered across Jinpei's face.
"Got things to do, guys," Ken said quietly and, before anyone could add anything, turned to walk to the door.
He hadn't finished his sandwich.
"Ooh," cooed Jun, from over by the stage, "You're so sweet, Nick."
Joe watched her accept her treat and then kiss Nick on the cheek.
Oh shit, thought Joe, and he sighed. Jinpei hastily poured him more coffee.
Joe pushed open the door of the Snack J and paused, releasing a torrent of rock music, a bright swirl of multi-colored stage lights and the din of a partying crowd into the night air outside.
It was a Thursday night and the place was jammed. And jamming.
"There's a $5 cover charge," said a girl he'd never seen before who was manning the entrance from a small podium.
Since when? Joe thought, but he was too bemused to argue. Besides, tonight his wallet was swelled with some fresh winnings.
And besides, the girl was pretty.
He'd been out of town, competing in an endurance rally, but no sooner had he arrived back in Utoland, he'd made a beeline here. He badly wanted to find out what had been going on in his absence. Was that intruder, Nick, still around or had Ken driven him off and patched things up with Jun? Remembering Ken's demeanor the last time he'd seen him, though, he feared the worst.
Apparently one thing that had been going on was that the Snack J had become a damned popular night spot! He handed over the cash and let the girl stamp his hand with a little red "J."
"'J' for Joe," she said. She had a nice smile too, but-
"How do you know my name?" he asked, eyes narrowing, but she only smiled mysteriously and turned her attention to processing the half a dozen new arrivals now coming in behind him. But the music and crowd were so loud she might not have heard him.
He had to maneuver through elbow-to-elbow people to make his way over to the bar and the area towards the stage was a frenzy of flailing arms and frenetic dancing. But then he saw who the band playing consisted of –Jun and Nick with guitars, and the girl keyboardist and drummer guy he'd seen rehearsing with them before.
He had to admit, they sounded pretty good.
Was Ken here? He started looking around. He spotted Ryu behind the bar, churning out drinks, and Jinpei running trays of them back and forth to the tables and booths, but there was no sign of Ken. In addition to the light show, the place was also festooned with Christmas themed decorations and posters promoting various upcoming events were all over the walls. Jun and her crew sure had been busy here while he was gone.
He caught the Owl's eye, who waved a greeting.
"Hey, Ryu," he said, having to shout to be heard, "I'll take a beer."
He got his beer promptly. He even tipped Ryu. Hell, it was Christmastime…
"You seen Ken?" he shouted.
"He was here way earlier," shouted back Ryu, "But he didn't stay very long." Ryu gave him a meaningful look.
Joe could take a hint. He drank his beer, but then began the slow navigation back towards the door –even more difficult now. Three people stepped on his feet, two elbowed him, and one guy even flailed an arm into his head.
"Watch what you're doing, you freak!" snapped Joe but his voice was lost in the noise.
What kind of crazy scene did Jun have going here, anyway? He'd take bullets before he'd ever be seen dancing like this in public.
Someone touched his arm. "Hi, I'm on break now," a voice said, mouth up to his ear, "Want to dance?"
It was the girl from the podium, now looking at him hopefully. She had such warm brown eyes…
"Uh," said Joe, alarmed to realize his manly dignity might not, after all, be unassailable…
But duty called.
"There's somewhere I have to be," he replied, leaning in close, "Take a rain check?" He smiled.
She shrugged but smiled back and, with a little wave, made her way into the dancing throng.
Joe stared over all their heads, now watching Jun on the stage. She wasn't wearing her civvies shirt, he realized, and the shirt she had on in its stead looked a whole lot more low-cut.
That was against Team policy, he thought, glowering. Not like Jun at all…
She and Nick were close together and even as they both played on, Joe could see she was saying something to him, smiling a flirty smile. Nick laughed and then gazed out at the audience.
For an instant, his eyes met Joe's.
Joe frowned and turned away hastily, making his way again towards the door. On his way out, someone handed him a promo flyer but he just stuffed it into his pocket without a glance.
This was all getting way out of hand. He needed to go and talk some sense into Ken.
Before it was too late.
Joe pulled up outside Ken's shack at his airfield. There was light in some of the windows, so he knew Ken was in there. He never bothered to knock here; he just walked in.
But for the first time ever, the door was locked.
"Hey, Ken!" he yelled, rapping sharply on the door with his knuckles, "Open up –I know you're in there!"
After half a minute, during which Joe contemplated removing Ken's doorknob with his gun's drill attachment, the door opened.
Ken didn't look happy to see him, but at least he looked irritated and impatient instead of depressed. That was better than the last time Joe had seen him.
"Look," said Joe, not giving him a chance to say anything, "You've got to do something! Do you realize that wimp, Nick, is at the Snack J right now, making eyes at Jun? And it looks like he might actually be getting somewhere!"
Ken didn't say anything so Joe stepped forward, expecting Ken to make way for him.
Except Ken didn't budge and remained blocking the entrance to his shack.
"Come on," said Joe, rolling his eyes with exasperation, "You can get rid of him. Hell, I'll gladly help you there, but you've got to talk to Jun. Just apologize to her and stuff –girls like it when guys grovel a little- 'cause right now she thinks you're a hard-ass jerk. Show her you care! Kiss her! Give her something to go on, and everything can go back to normal."
Ken's face had been impassive during this impassioned tirade, but now his eyes looked… tired.
"Normal?" he said, a bitter edge to his words, "You mean, normal until the next time I have to kill her to save the world?"
"She understands about all that!" retorted Joe, "She's a Science Ninja too! It's the part about you hitting her that she doesn't get!"
"It might be the other way around for me," said Ken quietly, staring at his feet now.
"Everybody knows you've got feelings for her," continued Joe, ignoring him, "Including her, but even a girl as loyal as Jun needs an actual demonstration now and then –and you sure blew what could have been the perfect opportunity! One that would have kept her smiling happily to herself for months –maybe even until we finally win this damned war!"
Ken put a hand over his eyes, rubbing them.
"Who the hell knows when this war will end, Joe? I sure don't. Maybe… maybe she's better off with someone in a different line from us, someone more… artistic. I don't know…" His words trailed off.
Joe bristled with indignation.
"Where's 'artistic' going to get you when Galactor's pillaging your city? What would a guy like Nick do? Sing to the goons? Recite a poem? Paint a watercolor landscape on the side of their mecha?"
Ken stared at him blankly.
"And besides," added Joe, "Who says we're not artistic?"
"Joe, we kill people and destroy stuff."
"Yes, but they're enemies –and we look damned good while we do it. That's true art!"
But Ken was having none of this, and he reached for the door to close it.
"I'm tired, Joe, and I've got stuff to do… aviation paperwork," he said, and then his voice turned emphatic. "I appreciate the concern, but just stay out of this, okay?"
It was not okay, but Joe recognized a dismissal when he heard one.
"Oh, we'll just see about that…" he said over his shoulder as he walked off towards his car.
"I'm serious, Joe!" Ken shouted after him, "You stay out of this!"
Like hell I will, thought Joe, digging in his pocket for his keys. He found the promo flyer from the Snack J.
"Christmas Eve Extravaganza!" it read, "Bring your Artistry!"
"Gah!" said Joe with a sneer, crumpling it up and tossing it onto the ground.
In that moment, he knew exactly what his Christmas gift to Ken was going to be –he was going to get rid of Nick. After all, elimination of enemies was his art. And, it would be a gift to Jun too, whether or not she would immediately appreciate that fact.
Oh yes, he would see to it that this would be a merry Christmas after all! Even if he didn't have too much time left in which to achieve this. He would see to it somehow that come Christmas morning, when they all gathered together around the tree, Jun would be sitting beside Ken just like she always did, her eyes shining with that special warmth she reserved only for him. And Ken would have that embarrassed-but-happy glow of contentment that he only seemed to permit himself that one day of the year.
Christmas day was sacred, thought Joe. Too bad for you, Nick.
But he would have to be subtle, he concluded, now driving down the road away from the airfield and heading for his trailer. It wasn't like he could just shoot this enemy or beat the crap out of him.
And he had to admit, subtlety wasn't exactly his usual MO, but he would figure something out, he was sure.