This was a bad idea.
He knew it from the moment he stepped into the place. It was too strange, too confusing; there was too much unknown. He didn't belong here.
He whirled on the ball of his foot, preparing to leave as quickly as possible. He didn't know what had possessed him to enter, but whatever unconscious instinct had sent him on this path, it had been wrong. He had to leave. Yet it was already too late; he had been spotted.
"May I help you?"
The voice was kind, almost friendly, without any hint of amusement or condescension, and for that he was profoundly grateful. Yet still, he would have vastly preferred to depart unnoticed. Perhaps he could still leave.
"No thanks. I'm just going."
"Are you sure?" The female voice had an almost knowing quality to it. "After all, you came in here. There must have been something you wanted."
"There was, but…" he glanced over at the woman, surprised to see that she was nearly three times his age. Blood rushed to his face, revealing his intense embarrassment.
"I was wrong." he shrugged, trying to blow off his discomfiture. "It's not here."
"You're looking for a present, aren't you?" the woman asked gently. "For someone. Someone special."
"Uhhh…" he cringed, wondering what the hell was written on his face that she could read him so clearly.
"I'm not psychic." the woman chuckled. "Just experienced. A young man, coming to a place like this, with Christmas just around the corner. And you're clearly uncomfortable, which means you're not used to this kind of thing. But I can help you, if you'll let me."
"I…" He still wanted to leave, but the woman's words had gotten to him. Maybe she could help. Goodness knew, he hadn't been able to come up with anything on his own.
"Okay." he sighed reluctantly. "Show me what you've got."
"Did you have anything in mind?" the woman asked.
"Well… sort of… Maybe."
"I see." the woman smiled kindly. "All right, let's see if we can figure out what your young lady would like."
"How did you know…?"
"That it was a young lady?" the woman finished the question for him. "A handsome young man, such as yourself, wouldn't be in here buying a present for his mother. It has to be a young lady."
He nodded curtly, confirming her guess with the least amount of effort possible. He guessed that if the woman knew that much, she might be able to help him find something.
"We have some lovely perfumes…" the woman began, then stopped as she saw him shake his head. "Or maybe some lotions…"
"No." he croaked. That wouldn't work. None of them could wear anything heavily scented, for fear of Galactor noticing or tracking the smell.
"Jewelry? We have some pretty things." she suggested. "Maybe a watch?"
"I don't think so." Jewelry was another restricted item, save for their bracelets.
"All right, how about a purse, or a wallet?"
"Well…" It wasn't a bad idea, but he had never seen Jun with a purse, and as far as he knew, she kept her money in her pocket. Did she even use a wallet?
"You're right, women are very particular about their purses. That's something they often want to pick out themselves." The woman nodded, clearly not the least disappointed that her ideas had so far been shot down. "Maybe a scarf? Or a hat? Gloves?"
"Maybe." he shrugged. Those weren't bad ideas. Although Jun obviously couldn't wear any non-regulation clothing, they did have their own jackets and such for colder weather. But still, gloves and a scarf didn't send the right message. It wasn't what he wanted to convey… not that he knew exactly what that was, anyway.
"Sleepwear?" the woman asked. His face turned bright red and his mouth fell open.
"Oh no, not that kind of sleepwear." the woman smiled, clearly holding back her amusement. "Pajamas, a robe, slippers."
"Oh." the blood drained a bit from his face. "I guess that could work." He had no idea if Jun even owned any of those things, much less if they needed replacing. But it was the best idea so far.
"Let me show you what we have in stock." the woman said, leading him over to a rack of fluffy robes. "This one is very warm and cozy…"
He wasn't really listening to the woman, as his mind drifted away from her sales pitch. He still wasn't certain exactly what had possessed him to do this in the first place, yet he couldn't bring himself to give up on it yet. Something inside of him still wanted to give Jun something special for Christmas.
Jun… As if things weren't complicated enough, he wanted to complicate them further. Although there was a part of him that hoped that this might also simplify things, in a way. Yet that wasn't realistic. When had anything ever been simple between them?
Well, maybe it had been, back in the beginning, back when she and Jinpei had first arrived at Dr. Nambu's villa. They had been the interlopers, and they had known it. Even Jinpei, as small as he was, had known enough to stay out of their way. And so had Jun, at first. But then Dr. Nambu had had her taking classes with them, and training with them, and before they had realized it she had become a fixture in their lives. Not that it made a difference: Ken and Joe were still best friends and there was no way a mere girl could ever enter into that bond.
Until she had.
He hadn't been aware of it until it had been too late, but one day he had had to face the reality that the two of them had both unconsciously become aware of the fact that Jun was [i/]different. That her developing body was far more interesting than theirs, and that when she smiled they both felt like they were on top of the world. Ken and Joe had never openly discussed the matter, but all the same, it had been apparent that suddenly they were the ones vying for Jun's attention, and not the other way around.
He was a proud young man, certain that Jun was far more interested in him than in his friend. Yet all the same, it had taken him some time to gather the courage to declare himself, to let her know that he felt more for her than mere friendship. And finally that day had come: the day he had finally worked up enough daring to approach her. He was looking for her, checking her room, checking the training areas, the outside, even the garage. And then he heard her soft laughter coming from down the hallway. She was in the lounge, watching a movie, judging by the flickering bluish-white light coming from the room. He approached silently, wanting to surprise her. He imagined her smiling as she realized that he was there, just like she always did.
But when he reached the room, he realized that she wasn't alone. They were there together, on the couch, his friend's arm around her back, her head on his shoulder. And then she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. His friend turned to face her and then they were both kissing…
It had been so long ago, so far away from this brightly lit store full of artificial holiday cheer. He scrunched his face up, pushing back the pain that came with the memory. It was surprising how much it hurt, even now. Yet if he were honest with himself, he knew that it was his pride that had suffered more than anything else that day. He had been so certain that he was the one she would choose, so much so that he hadn't even considered the other possibility… the possibility that she would choose his best friend.
From that day forward, it had been clear that Jun belonged to Ken.
"So which one do you like?" the saleswoman asked, pulling him from his memories.
"Uh, the pink one. I guess." He knew that it was her favorite color: a touch of femininity in the life of a woman who had precious little chance to simply be a girl. It suited her, somehow: a fragment of innocence for someone who had been forced to lose her innocence too soon, growing up on the front lines of a war. And through it all, she still retained her optimism: a hope that humanity could heal itself, that everything would work out for the best. Even now that the war had started again, she still believed that they could come through for the world.
Jun still believed in happy endings, even if Joe did not.
Although… why was he here, buying a gift for her if he didn't think there was at least a chance that it might…? He wasn't brave enough to put it into words, even in the privacy of his own thoughts. It was difficult enough just concentrating on the idea of a gift.
"We can gift-wrap this, if you'd like." The saleswoman's words broke into his thoughts, and suddenly Joe realized that he was standing at the cash register, with a ball of hot pink fluff sitting in front of him on the counter. The saleslady was gesturing toward a number of frou-frou boxes, presumably samples of her gift-wrapping skills.
"I…" Joe stared helplessly at the poufy mound of… whatever it was… in front of him, collecting his thoughts.
"I can't do this." he said firmly, feeling confident for the first time since he had entered the store. "It's not right. Sorry." He turned on his heel swiftly, leaving the establishment before the shocked saleswoman could attempt to lure him back to the register.
Outside, the cold December air hit him like a slap in the face, yet it was one he welcomed: a brisk wind cleaning the cobwebs out of what was left of his brain. What had he been thinking? There was no way in hell that this was appropriate, no matter the circumstances, but in a situation such as this, with everything that had happened…
He strode quickly down the street, making his way easily through the throngs of holiday shoppers. Somehow, they seemed to innately sense that he would not give way, and as such they stayed clear, almost creating a path in their midst to allow him passage.
He was there, but he was not one of them. If only they knew what he truly was.
He had to get out of here. He had to get away from these people, these lights, this noise. Instinctively, he began walking toward the racetrack, before he recalled that his trailer was no longer there. It had been removed and scrapped when they thought he had died, his possessions reclaimed by the ISO or given away. Yet it was just as well; Joe didn't want them anyway. They were relics of a past that felt as if it were a lifetime away. Racing his car, fixing his trailer, having a life outside of fighting Galactor… these things were all in the past. That had been someone else, someone who shared his name and face, but whose entire makeup had been altogether different.
He was still Joe Asakura… and yet he wasn't.
With all of this self-absorbed musing, he hadn't paid any attention to where he was headed, but now he found himself in front of the other place he had considered a sort of home, a place where he was always welcomed.
Whether fate or force of habit, he was here, and so he gave in, pushing open the door to the Snack J and walking over to his usual booth. The place looked very different now than it had before, which Joe appreciated. It was hard enough sometimes, feeling as if he was living a dead man's life, so having something new, that belonged only to him (and not the Joe that was before) helped avoid the mental confusion that had come with his return to the Science Ninja Team.
Jun's redecorating had turned the Snack from a dark, slightly seedy bar into a bright, full-fledged lunch restaurant. The Snack J was no longer open in the evenings, as Jun no longer lived at the J. They were all required to return to G-Town every evening, whether they were on alert or not. It was for this reason that Dr. Nambu had disabled the transformation sequences on their new G-Machines, to discourage them from using their vehicles as an excuse to wander too far. Utoland was acceptable, anywhere else was not. It was just another sign of how much more serious the war had become. Everything was more intense, more dangerous, more precarious, than it had been before. This 'second coming' of Sosai X was intended to destroy the planet, and they all knew it. They no longer had to fear Galactor running the world; they only had to fear a future where the world no longer existed.
Cheery Christmas music was playing inside of the Snack, and Jun was wearing a Santa hat on her head as she sauntered over to greet him.
"Doing some Christmas shopping?" she grinned at him, her eyes twinkling.
"As a matter of fact, I was looking for the perfect gift for you." Joe decided to hide the truth in plain sight. "But when I couldn't find anything, I decided to come here and give you my patronage instead."
"That's always appreciated." Jun smiled, but her expression changed as she looked at him
more carefully. "But the best gift of all is that you're back."
Joe didn't have any response to that. He simply nodded brusquely, hoping she would change the subject. Sensing his mood, she did.
"The usual?" she asked.
"Yeah, thanks." Joe replied, shifting his eyes away from her curious gaze. She had always been able to see right through him, so more often than not he found himself looking away, hiding in the only way he could.
"Coming right up." she said, apparently not the least bit offended by his brusque behavior. She was used to it, after all of these years: years he had spent locking away his feelings in a place so remote he could forget about them.
Except that he never really had.
The easiest thing to do had been to distract himself with other women. There had been a couple he had actually cared for, like Lucy, and others he had half-convinced himself he could love, such as Kathy. One by one they had met their untimely ends, yet none of them had ever been able to wipe away those long-hidden emotions. Every time he looked at Jun, they rose to the surface, and he had to force them back down again, wrestling with his own self-control. His reserved exterior and his attitude of being a loner were simply easy excuses to set himself apart, both physically and emotionally.
The most logical thing to have done would have been to have let those emotions run their course, and in due time they might have faded into sweet memories, something easily put behind him. Yet one thing had prevented this course of action: Ken.
Ken was his best friend. And Ken was clearly interested in Jun, or at least he had been, in those halcyon days before the war had begun, when Galactor had been more of a vague threat rather than a worldwide terrorist menace. Once the Science Ninja Team had been activated, and Ken had officially been named the leader of their unit, things between him and Jun had seemed to cool off. Naturally, Joe had been curious, yet he had also understood that it wasn't his place to pry. He had never directly asked any questions, nor had he brought up the subject himself, although Ken had made enough comments over those two years that Joe had eventually come to understand the problem. Being the leader of the Team, as dedicated as he was, Ken found himself unable to focus on a 'relationship' and had put things between himself and Jun 'on hold'.
Joe had respected that, and he respected Ken as his friend, so naturally he had never done anything to take advantage of the situation. While he was unencumbered by any misgivings such as Ken possessed, he also understood that Ken was different, and his devotion to duty was something so strong that it was a nearly tangible thing. Ken's dedication had become even more pronounced after his father's death, to the point where it had nearly taken on a life of its own.
Joe understood. He had been similarly consumed by his need for revenge, his desire to see Berg Katse burning in Hell. Their motivations worked in concert, making Ken and Joe a good team as they battled against Galactor. Yet Joe had eventually been able to put his need for revenge in perspective, allowing himself to take a simple joy in other things, such as racing. Being behind the wheel of a car and driving for the sheer pleasure of it was something Joe sorely missed, now that he was no longer able to indulge himself in such a fashion. It was only now that he realized how much he had depended on his racing to clear his head, to keep him on a steady path, and to take his mind off of weightier things.
Now the only thing he had remaining to him that took his mind away from those things, the only thing that kept him human, was Jun.
He had convinced himself that he had forgotten her during the two years he had been living and working with Dr. Raphael. Yet from the very first moment the Science Ninja Team had begun to suspect that he was still alive. On Easton Island Jun had cried out his name into the darkness, and he had stood there, enduring the vocal assault. Her voice had been so full of desperation, and longing, that a part of him had yearned to reveal himself at that moment, claiming her for his own.
And yet, he hadn't. It had taken more than Jun's cries. It had taken a direct plea from Dr. Nambu to get him to reveal himself to the others, and even then, he had been reluctant. He still recalled that day, every second burned deeply into his mind, with a crystal clarity that would never be dimmed.
He was striding across the sand, his cybernetic vision able to discern the shock and amazement on the faces of his former friends. Dr. Nambu stood behind them, his lips twisted into a nearly indecipherable smirk. Joe heard Jun whisper his name, tears spilling from her eyes.
Jinpei was the first to move, sprinting toward him at top speed. Jun immediately followed suit, shadowed closely by Ryu. They skidded to a stop a few meters away, staring in amazement as Ken and Dr. Nambu approached the scene slowly.
Joe removed his sunglasses, allowing them to see his face. There was no hiding now. They had to know that it was truly he: that he had truly returned. There could be no doubt as to his identity.
And it appeared that there was none. The way they were staring at him, he could see the emotions warring on their faces. Yet none of them seemed in the least skeptical as to who he was.
"There is no one who can drive this car, but me." he said, forcing them to acknowledge his presence in a more concrete fashion.
"Joe, you're alive!" Jinpei exclaimed, wrapping his arms around Joe's torso.
"You had us so worried!" Ryu added, coming up to ruffle Joe's hair. But while Joe appreciated the welcoming gestures, his focus was on someone else.
Jun stood by herself, her eyes glistening, her mouth open in an expression of joyous awe. Joe instinctively stepped away from Jinpei and Ryu, his emotions nearly overwhelming him at the sight of her. He had forgotten… or at least, he had thought he had forgotten. Now he understood that all of those feelings that had been buried years ago had only grown in strength. Here they were, rushing back to the fore, threatening to take him over, choking his throat, cutting off his breath.
"Joe…" Jun whispered, coming forward slowly, her hands reaching out for him. He put his arms out, grasping her fingers, forcing himself to maintain those last, precious centimeters of space between their bodies. He couldn't allow himself the luxury of being any closer. Not now, when he was at the mercy of his emotions, nor here, in front of everyone, not the least of which was Ken.
"Jun…" he breathed, so silently that he wasn't even certain he had uttered the word. Yet she heard him, sobbing in joy and relief, throwing herself into his arms with an abandon he had never before witnessed. He placed his hands on her shoulders, reluctant to give in to his body's demands, yet his emotions could not be so easily restrained. Tears pricked at his eyelids, spilling over onto his cheeks.
After two years of torment and hell, he was finally at peace.
Unbidden, his hands moved across her back, pulling her closer to him, her head nestling against his chest. A silent communion passed between them, and he understood that his absence had affected Jun a great deal more than he would ever have imagined. It was everything to her that he had returned, and her reaction was everything to him. For a moment, they were one, and no one else existed…
And then Ken had called him a jerk and had punched him in the face.
With his enhanced reflexes, Joe could have avoided the blow, yet he had not. It had been exactly what he had deserved, and it had felt good, in a way. To finally pay the price for hiding… hiding himself, hiding his new abilities, hiding his feelings for Jun… it had been warranted. An insignificant price to pay for all of the deceptions to which he had been party. Ken had been completely justified in his actions, whether he had known it or not, and Joe had been almost grateful for the physical assault.
What had hurt far more than Ken's fist had been the way the blow had been powerful enough to rip him from Jun's embrace, yet that was another anguish he had fully deserved. He had understood all too well the way Jun and Ken felt about each other.
Or had he?
When he had thought he was dying, he had encouraged Jun and Ken to be together. And when he had been recovering with Dr. Raphael, and had learned that the war was over, he had known in his heart that they were. The obstacles to their relationship had been removed and they had picked up right where they had left off.
Yet when he had returned, Joe had observed something entirely different from Ken and Jun. The strain between the two of them had been clearly evident, even after only a few days. It had all come to a head one evening when he had been working on the Condor Attacker. Granted, his new car was ugly as shit, but under the hood it was a high tech wonder. While there was a team of ISO technicians assigned to keeping it in shape, Joe had never felt comfortable driving a car he did not know, inside and out, particularly a car that was supposed to be an extension of himself, and his abilities. And besides, the hangar was a quiet place, once the technicians had retired for the night. It had been just as good a place as any to be alone, and to avoid the questioning stares of the others, who had all been curious as to Joe's exploits while he had been 'dead'.
This was just what he needed: a chance to immerse himself in a project that brought back sweet memories of the past and allowed him to forget the harsh realities of the present. Working on his car engine, familiarizing himself with the ins and outs of its delicate machinery, was something he could relate to on an innate level. He had missed being so intimate with his car, and while the original was locked away somewhere deep underneath Dr. Nambu's villa, this substitute would do, for now.
He was so involved in what he was doing that at first he barely registered the footsteps entering the hangar. It was only after a few seconds that he raised his head, irritation washing over him at having his privacy disturbed. Yet it dissipated immediately as he saw whom it was that had broken his solitude.
"Jun." he nodded curtly, half-hoping she might turn around and leave him alone with his thoughts once more.
"Joe." she replied, a little taken aback. "I didn't realize you were here. I was just… I'll go." She rounded on the ball of her foot, moving back toward the exit.
The word came unbidden, as something deep inside of him took control, forcing him from his self-enforced isolation.
"What is it?" she asked, turning back to stare curiously at him. There was no animosity in her gaze, only the tired expression of someone who had seen too much, taken on too much.
"Is it something…?" he fumbled for the right words. "Can I help?"
"I…" Jun appeared thoughtful for a moment, then hung her head. "I wish you could."
"I could try."
"This isn't something you can help with." she sighed. "It's…" Jun paused mid-sentence as the sound of approaching footsteps interrupted her.
"Jun." Ken's silhouette filled the doorway.
"What are you doing here?" Jun rounded on the newcomer. "Just leave me alone! Could you at least have the decency to give me some space?"
"I just didn't want…"
"It's always about what you want, isn't it, Ken?" she huffed. "You get what you want, and it doesn't matter what I want! And now that you've blown everything to pieces, you want to throw me some scraps and save face! Is that it? Well you can just go to hell!"
Ken stood in shock for a moment as she stalked toward him, clearly intending to push past and leave the area. But he caught her arm as she passed by, forcing her to face him.
"I need you to understand, Jun." he said in a low voice.
"I've been understanding." Jun growled angrily. "For years, I was 'understanding'! But no more, Ken. I can't live like this! I'm fed up with it! I'm done!"
"Done?" he asked, the blood draining from his face.
"Done with you." she clarified, her jaw clenching resolutely. "I'm done with 'understanding'. I should have realized years ago that it wasn't going to work. But I didn't want to. I wanted it to work, so badly that I ignored what was staring me right in the face."
"Jun, you can't…"
"The hell I can't!"
"Uh…" Joe coughed just loud enough that he would be heard. "Yeah. Um… should I go?"
Ken's head snapped around to stare at him in shock. Jun calmed slightly, the tide of her anger momentarily broken.
"I was just…" Joe gestured toward the open hood of his car. "Well, I can go, if you two need some privacy."
"No." Ken looked back from Joe to Jun. "You don't need to leave, Joe. I'm going. I can see that my conversation with Jun is finished." He stalked away, a trail of resentment swirling in his wake. Jun stood silently, watching his departure with disbelieving eyes. She turned toward Joe, a wealth of indiscernible emotions passing over her.
"He actually did it." she whispered, shaking her head. "He left…"
Joe refrained from pointing out the obvious: that Jun herself had been about to leave, and simply waited for her to speak again. Or not, as she chose. This wasn't any of his business. He didn't need to know what was going on between Jun and Ken.
And yet, part of him wanted to know. Part of him wanted it to be exactly what it had looked like. Wanted it to mean that there was a chance. No. That wasn't what he wanted. Not really.
Jun stood for a few moments, seconds passing into an eternity as she took in all that had happened. Finally she spoke again, this time in a voice loud enough that Joe knew he was being invited to respond.
"I'm not sure why I'm surprised." she sighed heavily. "He left long ago. I was just too stupid to accept it. But you knew, didn't you?"
"Knew that he…?"
"That he and I weren't…" Jun seemed to have a difficult time forming the words. Joe wanted to make it easy for her, yet at the same time he didn't want to leap to any assumptions.
"It's no secret that I had feelings." Jun swallowed slowly. "I think everyone knows that. But when the war began… well, we decided to wait. Ken decided to wait."
"I knew that much." Joe admitted, hunching his back against the wall, and using that posture as an excuse to stare at his feet. "I just assumed that after the war was over…"
"Yeah, me too." Jun replied bitterly. "Especially after what you said, when you…" There was a catch in her throat, and Joe looked up, only to see something shining in her eyes.
"When you died." she finished, a damp wetness spilling down onto her cheeks. Whether it was for him, or for Ken, Joe didn't know.
"That was why I said it." Joe shrugged, forcing a casualness he did not feel. "I thought it was what you wanted. What you deserved."
"What I deserved." Jun laughed in a self-deprecating fashion. "Yeah, it probably was. Just like this." She swept her hand out to indicate the direction in which Ken had departed.
"You don't deserve this." Joe disagreed quietly.
"But there has to be a price, doesn't there?" she asked, her eyes boring into him. "The things we've done, the people we've killed, all in the name of this war… we have to pay a price for that. Look at you! You've paid a price. Ken, he's paid a price. And me…"
"You shouldn't have to pay…"
"I guess that's not up to you to decide, now is it?" Jun declared, clearly not expecting an answer to her query. "It was good, you know. For a short time. We thought things had finally settled down, that the fighting was finally done. We had come to grips with losing you. We were moving on with our lives. And then, one day, Hakase called… Well, that was the end of it. Ken was back to 'waiting'. Except this time, he didn't want to wait. Only he didn't have the guts to tell me until…"
"Until just now." Joe guessed, the words coming out of his mouth before he could stop them. Immediately he regretted sticking his neck out, but Jun didn't seem to notice.
"Yes." Jun nodded sadly. "I had to know. I pressed him. And he finally admitted that it would never work. That no matter what happened, we would never reclaim what we had once had." She trembled slightly, and Joe longed to comfort her, yet he maintained his position at the wall.
"I guess, deep down, I already knew it." she went on, after a moment. "But I was dumb enough to need to spelled out for me."
"You're not dumb." Joe attempted clumsily to reassure her. "Sometimes… sometimes Ken can be difficult to read."
"That's the understatement of the year." Jun snorted derisively. "But even so, I shouldn't have pushed him. I should have just accepted it and moved on without him. Without this humiliation."
"No humiliation." Joe shook his head. "You're just being human. Trust me, that's something to be admired."
"Yeah?" she asked disbelievingly. "I sure don't feel admired right now."
"You are." he whispered, so quietly that he wasn't entirely certain he had spoken aloud. At least, he hoped he hadn't.
"Thanks for listening, anyway." Jun told him. A second later, she was gone.
It hadn't been the first time he had blown things, nor the last, but it was certainly one of the most memorable occasions. And since that time, things with Ken had been especially strained. On the surface, they were still friends, yet somehow they never seemed to connect the way they had used to. There were many times that Joe did not understand what was going on in Ken's mind, and other times when he knew Ken was waiting for him to speak, yet he did not. There were secrets they chose not to reveal, and it created barriers between them that had not existed before.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Huh?" Joe was startled out of his reverie, blinking quickly to clear his mind. Jun stood in front of him, holding the sandwich and orange soda he had asked ordered.
"You were pretty deep in thought." Jun noted, sliding into the seat across from him in the booth. "Where were you, just now?"
"Remembering." Joe shrugged, dismissing his memories as insignificant.
"There's a lot to remember." Jun fished.
"Yeah." He dug into his sandwich, hoping she would take the hint and leave him alone. Yet a perverse part of him was glad when she stayed, simply regarding him with a curious expression on her face.
"Remember when we were on that mission in Ameris and we went to that restaurant in Birdstyle and ate spaghetti?" Jun grinned. "I thought Jinpei was going to choke, he ate so fast!"
"That's not as bad as the time Ken had us roller-skating in Birdstyle." Joe recalled, unconsciously being drawn in by her friendly manner.
"Hey, at least I got to be in the fashion show for that one." Jun smiled. "A dream come true… for all of five seconds."
"Was that really your dream?" Joe questioned her.
"No, my dream was saving all of your butts when you were all sitting around puffing up your chests and telling each other how manly you were." she smirked.
"When was that?" Joe found himself mildly offended.
"When Ken had gone off to look for his Dad and we were trying to fight the Cataroller." Jun recalled. "You guys were all arguing about what to do while I went off and rigged the God Phoenix to make it think Ken's G-Machine was there."
"Allowing us to fire Bird Missiles." Joe nodded slowly. "Yeah, I remember. You saved us that day."
"You bet I did." Jun smirked.
"That's not the only time you've saved me." he said quietly.
"You've saved me as well." Jun acknowledged. "Sometimes even on the same mission when I've saved you. But that's what friends are for, right?" She reached out tentatively across the table, her fingers brushing lightly at his fist. When he didn't protest or pull away, she closed her hand over his.
He was driving a car, just as he had in the old days, but this wasn't the G-2. It was a white convertible that Dr. Nambu had dug up somewhere, allowing Joe to meet his contact and obtain the device. Unfortunately, while it was a sweet ride, it wasn't designed to dodge a hail of Galactor gunfire. Still, he was managing to hold his own, until a wave of pain and dizziness overcame him.
No! Not again! That was over! Now that he was a cyborg, he shouldn't be feeling these things…
But he was, and with a sickening jolt, he began seeing double. Vaguely, he was aware of Jun calling his name, pushing him aside. She had leapt off of her Swan Cycle and into the car, taking over the wheel.
Yet the assault continued, and Jun lost control of the car. They were flying over the edge of a cliff…
He was in a cave, Jun sitting next to him. She had injured her leg, but that didn't stop her from trying to save him once more, throwing her Birdstyle-clad body over his, shielding him from Galactor gunfire while he was injured. She paid the price for her bravery, jerking and crying out as she was hit.
And then she lay still.
Filled with a furious rage, he ducked behind a rock and transformed, emerging as a vengeful whirlwind, destroying everything and everyone in his path. Yet the only thing on his mind was Jun. She had to survive. Nothing else mattered. Whatever it took, he would get her out of there…
He had brought her out of the cave, carrying her in his arms, desperately glad that she was finally safe. He had refused to let go of her until they had returned to the New God Phoenix, and they had reached the Medical Bay. He wasn't certain how much Jun remembered of that day, but looking at her now, he wondered.
"You've always been there for me, Joe." she whispered, confirming his thoughts. "Always."
"I always will." he told her, then amended his response for honesty's sake. "For as long as I can."
"I understand," she replied, squeezing his hand, "but you've got to stop this, Joe. You can't take on everything by yourself. You can't go charging off with a death wish. We need you, but we need you as part of the team. We were devastated when we lost you before, and I don't know if we could survive it again."
"You'd survive." he assured her. "You're strong, Jun. You don't need me."
"You're wrong, Joe." she told him, her eyes boring into his with an intensity he had rarely witnessed from her. "I didn't realize how much I needed you until you were gone. And now that you're back, I don't intend on letting you go again. I want you to understand that, so that you know what you're doing whenever you go off on one of these reckless adventures of yours."
"They were not reckless…" he protested, but she ignored him.
"You've always been honest with me, Joe." she told him. "Don't start lying to me now."
"I'm not lying." he rebutted her accusation, yet the words still stung, because there was something he had been dishonest about. Something he had never told her…
"They were not 'reckless adventures'." he went on, pushing aside that dark thought. "I had information from Dr. Raphael, and much of the time, it was too dangerous for the rest of you…"
"Too dangerous?" Jun practically snorted her disagreement. "Shouldn't that be up to us to decide? Shouldn't we get a say as to whether or not you get to go off all alone on some unknown assignment that could get you killed?"
"There were things you weren't supposed to know… that you couldn't know…"
"Well we know about them now, don't we?" she said quietly, her hands gripping his very tightly. "We know you're a cyborg, Joe, and we don't care. We're just glad that you're alive, and that you're with us. I thought I made it clear to you the other day that you're just as human as you ever were. Did K3 mean nothing to you?"
And there was the crux of the matter, the day that Joe had been desperately trying to forget, ever since it had occurred less than a week before. He had insisted on going alone to the Galactor base on K3, to the point of a physical confrontation with the entire team, yet Jun had followed him anyway. He had been nearly a quarter of the way up the mountain when he had sensed her behind him, and although he hadn't said anything, he had been glad to see her.
And then there had been an avalanche and she had fallen unconscious, a dead weight on his rope. He had managed to pull her to safety, yet he had been deathly afraid that she would not awaken from her coma-like state.
"Jun!" he slapped her lightly across the cheek, desperately willing her to awaken. Yet she flopped around in his arms like a lifeless doll. He closed his eyes, pulling her against his chest, wrapping his wings around her exposed limbs, which were already stiffening with cold. The least he could do was to keep her from freezing to death, even if it seemed like so very little. Perhaps the warmth would rouse her. At this point, it was all he could hope for.
The mission was forgotten. Whatever Gel Sadra was doing, whatever Galactor's plans were, it wasn't important if Jun didn't survive. His entire world narrowed down to one simple focus: Jun's life was in the balance, and with it, his own. If she didn't survive, then he knew that he wouldn't be able to live without her…
Yet she had survived. The living proof was sitting in front of him, holding his hand in hers. Had it really only been a few days ago that he had held her against his body on the frozen slope of K3, paralyzed by the understanding that no matter the composition of his physical body, his emotions were still very human?
"K3 meant everything to me." he told her honestly.
She looked at him with a glistening gaze, and to his surprise he felt moisture coming to his own eyes. Why was it that Jun was the only one who could bring on such intense emotions, to the point of tears? That, more than anything else, told him that a part of him was still human, still connected to this world. And it was that part of him that understood that if Ken and Jun no longer had a connection, perhaps another connection could be forged.
She meant everything to him. He had to say it. It was now or never. If she rejected him, he could live with that. But he had to know if there was a chance.
"Jun, you mean…"
The chime of his bracelet interrupted him, the sound echoed by hers. It wasn't the harsh sound of an incoming message, but a soft reminder of their duty.
"We have to get back." Jun sighed, reluctantly taking her hands from his. "Curfew."
Joe nodded curtly, cursing his bad timing as he slowly got up from the seat, popping the last bite of the sandwich into his mouth and bringing his plate and glass to the bar. Jun took off her Santa hat, then quickly washed the dishes and pressed the red button on the counter, locking down the restaurant within a few seconds.
"It's too bad that you have to close early all of the time." Joe offered, in the way of conversation.
"I would have closed early tonight anyway." Jun shrugged. "It's Christmas Eve. I don't think many people will be about."
"Christmas Eve. Right." Joe nodded. He had really blown it now. His mission to find a gift for Jun and to give it to her over the holiday had gone awry. He was out of time, and had nothing to show for his efforts.
"Want a lift?" Jun asked as they walked out the front door, gesturing toward her moped, which was parked in front of the Snack.
"Thanks." he replied gruffly, getting onto the back of the bike and grabbing the helmet that Jun offered. He put it on, settling himself a mere fraction of a second before she took off. He grinned to himself, appreciating the fast speed at which she was traveling. Yet that wasn't all he appreciated. Jun's backside curved into his thighs, pressing lightly against their junction. His arms were wrapped around her waist, resting comfortably on the curve of her hips, while their bodies swayed together in unison as the bike moved and turned.
He always felt this way when he rode with her, not that it happened often. Usually it was Ken on the back of Jun's bike, and Joe completely understood why his friend had staked out that location. Still, it seemed as if Ken no longer desired this position, leaving open a possibility.
It was thoughts such as these that had sent Joe looking for a Christmas gift for Jun in the first place. Yet no matter how well he knew Jun, nothing seemed appropriate. Nothing seemed right. And that was pretty much all he had right now: nothing. No gift, no words… just the incredible feeling of holding her close to him as they joined with the vehicle purring beneath them. It was a heady sensation, and one he held onto, saving it to recall during one of the many cold, lonely nights he knew lay ahead.
All too soon they had arrived at their destination: an unremarkable warehouse and administrative building on the edge of the city. There was nothing outside or inside to indicate that it belonged to the ISO, yet its waterfront positioning made it ideal for its purpose.
Inside and out, workers moved around the warehouse, conducting business much as any of the neighboring facilities. Yet while these actions were legitimate in nature, and indeed brought in a small profit to the owners, it wasn't for this reason that the facility was present. No one remarked on anything unusual as Jun pulled her moped up to the private lot, parking it amongst the other 'loaner' bikes available to employees. She and Joe headed into the building, smiling in a casual, friendly manner at the other people present.
Once inside, they passed by the busy warehouse, eventually going through an unremarkable door labeled 'Authorized Personnel Only'. The corridor beyond led to a few dusty offices and a hidden elevator, which would take them to their destination. Together they entered the small chamber, pressing the button and slowly descending.
"I miss my old motorcycle." Jun sighed, once they were moving. "I'll bet you miss your car even more."
"Sometimes." Joe admitted. "I miss being able to go out and drive whenever I felt like it, whenever I needed to get away."
"And do you need to get away often?" Jun queried, her question half serious, half joking.
"Yeah." He looked away. "I'm not… I'm not like you guys."
"Haven't we already been through this?" Jun asked, gently touching his face and turning his head so that he was forced to look at her. "You're human, Joe. You're just like us. We know you, and we know what you've been through. If there's anyone in the world who understands you, it's me."
"I…" Joe wasn't certain how to respond. "I know…" His eyes locked with hers, and he found himself unable to complete his sentence. In that moment, all he wanted to do was to lean forward, brushing his mouth against hers, sparking the electricity between them. Yet he hesitated, uncertain if this would make their fragile connection better, or destroy it entirely.
His hesitation made the decision for him, as the door slid open with a soft ding, breaking the moment. Jun smiled, stepping away and out of the elevator, leaving him to follow in her wake as he berated himself for his indecision. Yet as they passed through the doorway that led to their destination, Joe was suddenly glad that he had not acted, for Ken was already there. He had seated himself in the small mini-submarine that would take them to G-Town.
"Hi." Ken nodded toward Joe, as he entered with Jun. "What have you guys been doing?" It was a casual question, yet Joe had to force himself not to bristle at the query.
"Just walking around town." he shrugged, plopping himself down in the seat next to his friend. "After being cooped up at G-Town, I needed some fresh air. Then I went by the J."
"I know what you mean." Ken nodded. "I had to get out too. I went to see my Dad. With the holiday… well, I've been thinking about him."
"Oh." Joe took in this information; as far as he knew, Ken never went to visit his father's grave, but then Joe was hardly up to date on these things. "I can see why you wanted to do that alone. Is that why you didn't come by the J afterward?"
"No." Ken stared at Joe, his sharp, blue eyes assessing his friend.
Jinpei bounded onboard the sub, distracting both men for a moment. The boy was closely followed by Ryu. Immediately, the two sat down near Jun, regaling her with tales of their visit to the movies and the arcade that afternoon. Ken glanced over briefly at the trio, apparently satisfying himself that they were occupied with their own conversation before returning his attention to his friend.
"A few weeks ago, in the hangar…" Ken didn't have to elaborate; Joe remembered every word.
"So things haven't improved? You and Jun aren't…?"
"We're hardly talking." Ken sighed. "It's better this way. She seems to have accepted that I can't be the man she wants. But we're still working together, and that's been fine, so far. I don't want to rock the boat. So stopping at the J…"
"Yeah." Joe nodded. "I get it." He regarded his friend curiously, trying to find the best way to approach the issue at the forefront of his mind.
"So it's never going to happen, then?" Joe asked quietly.
"No." Ken shook his head. "We tried, after the war. After you were… gone. But it didn't work. And now that we're back on duty, it's even worse. I can't afford the distraction."
"You realize that she's not going to sit around." Joe cautioned. "She's done waiting."
"I know." Ken's jaw tightened, his eyes taking on a faraway expression. "But I can't do it. I'd almost welcome it if there was someone else, but then that would take away her focus from the Team."
"What if…" Joe hesitated only a fraction of a second, yet it was enough for Ken to scrutinize his intent. "What if it didn't take away her focus?"
"Of course it would." Ken disagreed. "And she'd have to hide her involvement with the Team. I know she would, but it would be a disruption in her work."
"What if it wasn't?" Joe asked meaningfully. "If she didn't have to hide anything?"
"You mean if she…?" Ken's eyes widened slightly, and he stared directly at Joe. He paused for a moment, before nodding carefully.
"I won't lie to you, Joe." he said slowly. "It would hurt. But I'd understand."
"Thanks." Joe acknowledged the statement with a small nod of gratitude.
"How long…?" Ken stared curiously at his friend. "How long have you…?"
"As long as you, I guess." Joe shrugged. "But I could see which way the wind blew."
"So now that the opportunity is there…"
"She's hurting, Ken." Joe stated abruptly. "I want to…" He let out a sharp hiss of frustration, closing his eyes for a moment, before opening them again and facing his friend in the eye.
"I want to help. If I can." he finished.
"If that's the way it is, I won't stop you." Ken replied. "There's a lot you haven't told us about what went on during those two years, Joe, but I still trust you. You're still my friend."
"You're still my friend." Joe returned the sentiment. "I wouldn't want to cause you any more pain."
"I know." Ken closed his eyes, leaning back as if he was going to sleep in the seat. "I think that's why I'm okay with it." He turned away, facing the window, and Joe knew that the conversation was effectively over. He glanced to the side, his gaze falling on the other three, all of them still engaged in animated conversation. There was a life, a passion, to them, that he and Ken no longer possessed. Could he really be a part of it?
He knew one thing: he had to try.
When they arrived at G-Town they were all ready to head their separate ways, until Ken called a training session.
"But it's Christmas Eve!" Jinpei whined.
"We could still be called for duty." Ken reminded him. Everyone quieted at this solemn thought.
"It will be short." Ken promised. "Two hours. Just enough to keep us ready."
"Just enough to burn off Christmas dinner tomorrow." Ryu laughed. Everyone smiled weakly, but the joke had its intended effect of lightening the mood. They headed off to the gym feeling as if they had gotten out from underneath the cloud that seemed to hover over them these days.
All except Joe. He still felt the weight of the conversation he had had with Ken, and he threw himself into his workout routine in an attempt to clear his mind. He succeeded in this goal for a short while, but once they had finished the training session and he was showering in the locker room, he couldn't help thinking about it once more.
As usual, he kept himself apart from the others, refraining from joining in the horseplay in which Ryu and Jinpei usually engaged, snapping towels at each other. Yet he noticed Ken's eyes on him as he exited the locker room, returning to his quarters.
Once there, he lay down on his bed, contemplating how to proceed. Although Ken had said that he could deal with Joe's interest, Joe had no idea how Jun might react. While they were close, and he knew she had feelings for him, he wasn't entirely certain how far those feelings might go beyond 'sisterly'. Still, stranger things had been known to happen. The fact that he was still alive was proof of that. Even if he did struggle to hold onto the last remaining bit of his humanity.
He sat up, reaching over to the wall, placing his hand on a palm reader. The scanner hummed briefly, before accepting his handprint and releasing a sliding panel. The wall opened up to reveal the interior of a small safe.
While all personal quarters at G-Town were equipped with such a safe, Joe suspected that his contained the most unusual contents. There were only two items inside, both of which were the only things that he felt he truly possessed. They were holdbacks from his old life, things that had been with him for many years, that he had held onto even during the time he had been with Dr. Rafael. He had refused to be parted from them, carrying them with him wherever he had gone. He had had both of them on his person the day he had walked across the Dera Desert to rejoin his former comrades. And now they were here at G-Town, still a part of him.
He reached into the safe, pulling out the first item: his cablegun. Dr. Nambu had given the firearm to him when he was still only fifteen years old. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Even though he now had a sonic gun, as did every member of the Science Ninja Team, Joe still missed his first love: the gun that had become a part of him during those years when they had fought against Berg Katse. He held it for a short while, lost in memories, before returning it to the safe.
He pulled out the second item, contemplating it for a long moment before closing the safe. Slipping it into his pocket, he stood up and left the room.
Now that he had half-settled on what to do, accomplishing his goal became difficult. He couldn't find Jun. He looked for her in the lounge, at her quarters, at the gym, in the cafeteria, even in the hangar where her Swan Cycle was stored. Yet she was nowhere to be found. While the Crescent Coral Base had seemed big when Joe had lived there, G-Town was many times larger: truly the size of a small city. Joe wandered for nearly an hour before finally admitting that he was ready to give up on his quest. Maybe this was a sign that it wasn't meant to be.
Sighing heavily, he leaned against the wall, attempting to clear his mind. This corridor was quiet, without the usual hum of activity to which he had become accustomed. He savored the feeling of peace and solitude for a moment before realizing that there was one sound: something that had begun very softly, yet was now swelling just enough that he could pick it up.
Someone was singing.
Not just someone, many someones. Curious, Joe followed the sound, discovering that the words soothed a long-forgotten ache inside of him.
All is calm
All is bright
The words swelled within him, adding to the sense of peace he had found in the solitary corridor. Instinctively he followed the voices, his lips unconsciously moving as he joined in, words rising unbidden from his deepest memories.
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
A few moments later he stood in the doorway of a small presentation room. The lights had been dimmed, and the people within all held candles, raising them high as they sang. At the front of the room, a man wearing white vestments raised his arms, blessing those assembled in this place. Despite himself, Joe found himself drawn into the warm circle, slipping into the back row. Yet he wasn't entirely unnoticed. An elderly woman sitting by the door pressed a candle into his hand, then nodded at a large advent wreath beside her, its five flames flickering brightly. Joe lit his candle from the center flame, raising it to join the others as they finished the hymn.
Love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Each word seemed to hold a special meaning for him, bringing him into the circle: not just the group of people gathered here, but the circle of humanity. Despite his mechanical parts, he felt as one with the others, a sense of belonging that had been elusive for many years, yet was finally a part of him once more.
When the hymn finished, the last note rang in the air, clean and pure as it echoed in their ears. It was with a quiet joy that everyone lowered their candles, solemnly extinguishing them with their breaths.
"A peaceful Christmas to all." the man at the front of the room dismissed them.
"Amen." came the response.
Joe bowed his head for a moment, sending silent words to a being he had not thought about in many years. It wasn't exactly a prayer, but more of an acknowledgement of existence, and of his gratitude for the reminder of his early years. When he had finished, he lifted his head to discover that the others were slowly filing out of the room. His gaze caught a pair of emerald green eyes observing him.
"Fancy meeting you here." Jun said quietly, in keeping with the peaceful, reverent mood that had been created by the service.
"I wasn't expecting to be here." Joe admitted. "But I was nearby, and I heard the singing, and then…. something drew me here."
"I understand." Jun nodded. "I was the same way, my first time. I couldn't help myself. It was so calming. Somehow, it soothed me in a way I had never anticipated. Now I come back every year. This is my third Christmas Eve here."
"Do any of the others come?"
"No." Jun shook her head. "Just me. And now you."
"You're so certain I'll be back?"
"Yeah." he grinned wryly. "I'll come next year. Assuming that we're not…"
"We won't be." Jun placed her finger on his lips, preventing him from voicing the grim words. "We have to have faith: faith that there is some higher power out there, someone watching over us. Faith that we can win this war, and be at peace."
"I'm not sure I believe that." Joe admitted, hating to disillusion her. Yet strangely, she didn't appear to be disappointed.
"I believe it." she told him. "After all, you came back to us. Someone… something… was watching over you. You have a purpose, Joe, and you will survive to see the fulfillment of that purpose."
He nodded slowly, accepting the logic, such as it was, of her argument. It certainly wasn't something he could refute. At times he had felt as if he had some higher destiny, as if something was guiding his fate.
Even so, he was still of his own mind, able to choose his own path, to make his own decisions. Something inside of him strengthened as he resolved the path before him now.
"I want to show you something." Jun said with a soft smile, distracting him from his thoughts. "Come with me."
"Sure." he replied, but she had already turned, moving ahead, melting into the crowd. She looked back in his direction. Realizing he was not with her, she stepped back, holding out her hand.
"Come on." she whispered, reaching for him and pulling him forward.
He followed, bemused by the slightly aggressive stance she was taking, as well as by the soft touch of her hand. Once they had left the crowd exiting the service she turned to the right, headed back toward the section of G-Town that was reserved for the Science Ninja Team's use. These corridors were empty, yet she continued to hold onto him, lacing her fingers through his. She fell back a step so that she was no longer in front, and they were strolling side by side.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked her, amused.
"Somewhere dangerous." she laughed. "Do you think you can handle it?"
"I can handle anything you throw at me." he assured her, although now he was curious.
"Just remember that." she winked at him, but she refused to say any more. After a couple of minutes they arrived at the living quarters of the Science Ninja Team, and she led him to the lounge that had been set up for their use.
"Now you'll have to stay out here for a minute and close your eyes." Jun instructed him.
"Close my eyes?" he raised a doubtful eyebrow. What was this, a children's party?
"You said you could handle anything." Jun challenged him.
"Right. Fine. I'll close my eyes." he answered, with uncharacteristic good humor. Obediently he closed his eyes, hearing her enter the room. There was no noise he could discern coming from the interior, and after perhaps sixty seconds she emerged once more.
"Okay, come with me." she told him, taking his arm in hers and gently leading him into the lounge. "Now, open your eyes."
He did as he had been bidden, and he was dazzled. Before him stood a Christmas tree: a real, honest-to-goodness tree with decorations and lights and even presents underneath. The main lights in the room were off, yet the space was illuminated by soft candles artfully placed along the furniture and interspersed with pine boughs. The effect was both homey and comforting.
"You did all of this?" Joe asked, surprised. "I was here, just a couple of hours ago, looking for you."
"I must have just missed you." Jun told him. "I did all of this right before the service started. I knew how special it would be at the end, and I wanted that feeling to last. So I created Christmas right here."
"You certainly did." he assured her.
"Since you were feeling it too, at the service, I thought you might want to join me for the rest of the evening." she continued. "So would you like to spend Christmas here with me?"
"With you?" he only hesitated for an instant. "Yeah. I would."
"But what about the others?" he asked cautiously. It wasn't that he wanted them there, certainly, yet he knew Jun would be thinking of them.
"Jinpei and Ryu are already busy with their gifts." Jun sighed, gesturing toward the tree. Joe squinted, realizing suddenly that most of the presents under the tree were simply a pile of crumpled wrapping paper and empty boxes.
"Once they realized that they had new video games and Christmas cookies, they weren't interested in anything else." she shrugged. "I guess I should have known better than to let them open their gifts on Christmas Eve, but Jinpei wanted to so much…"
"You really are a softy at heart." Joe teased her.
"More so since you…" Jun smiled ruefully, shaking her head as she re-thought her words. "When you were gone, I realized that life was short. It was a lot easier to give in to the small things if they made Jinpei happy."
"And the rest?" he asked, wanting to wipe the wistful expression from her face. Unfortunately, he had chosen the wrong question.
"Dr. Nambu and Dr. Pandora went to a meeting at the UN." she revealed. "And Ken… well, I don't think he's coming."
"Why not?" Joe asked, before he could stop the words from leaving his mouth.
"He's been avoiding me." she shrugged, yet her casual gesture was forced. "I know there's nothing between us, but he's reluctant to spend any time with me, even as a friend. I think he's afraid that I'll think…"
"No." Her refusal was adamant. "I've been down that path and I know now that it was the wrong one for me, and for him. I just wish we could still be friends."
"I think you can." Joe pondered the matter. "But you know Ken; he needs to approach this at his own pace. Just give him space and let him figure things out on his own."
"I know." Jun nodded. "And I have. But I understand that tonight is too soon for him." She led Joe over to the couch, and they both sat down.
"But you're here with me." she smiled, and he could see the peace returning to her face, as it had at the end of the service.
"Is that all I'm good for?" he asked, half-joking, half-serious.
"No. But right now, it's what I need."
"What you need?"
"I need you." she said simply, laying her head on his chest. Instinctively he made room for her, and she snuggled into his body, her form pressing softly against his as he settled his arm around her shoulders.
"I need you too, Jun." he whispered, his lips brushing at her hair.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" she asked. "You're still human, and you need others. Admit it."
"I thought I just did."
"And since I'm being so open, I'll admit that this is perfect." he told her. "All it needs is a fireplace."
"That's a little difficult on an underwater base." she laughed.
"Fair enough." he acknowledged. "But this… it reminds me of… home." He gestured to the tree and their surroundings using his free arm, and was suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of memories. He remembered his parents, and Christmases he had shared with them in Sicily as a child. He recalled the Christmases he had spent with his teammates at Dr. Nambu's villa, before their innocence had been lost. The surroundings evoked in him the warmest, most pleasant memories of holidays past.
"Where did you get the pine?" he asked, pulling himself back to the here and now.
"I got this tree two years ago, when we were first stationed at G-Town." Jun revealed. "I wanted a live tree, but that's difficult here, so I brought in a small one in a pot, less than a meter tall. When Christmas was over, I carried it to the arboretum, and they took care of it for me. Lat year I borrowed it again for the holiday, and it had grown nearly double in size. But this year… well, it's a full grown tree. They even had to trim the extra branches." She gestured to the greenery artfully decorating the room.
"It was worth the effort."
"Tell that to the botanists at the arboretum." Jun laughed. "But they understand. I think they like having it too. It was already decorated when I picked it up this afternoon. I guess they had enjoyed seeing things a bit more festive around the holidays."
"They don't mind that you have it tonight?"
"They're with their families, not on duty in the arboretum. Besides, they've had their turn."
"I got you something!" Jun exclaimed suddenly, jumping to her feet. He immediately felt her absence, his body growing cold as she moved away from him. She moved over to the tree, reaching down to grab a brightly-wrapped gift, before returning to the couch. Not skipping a beat, Jun returned to her previous spot beside him, placing the present onto his lap.
"Wow." he murmured, amazed at the large box. "I don't know if I deserve this."
"Just open it!" Jun poked him gently. He smiled, carefully disengaging his arm from around Jun's shoulders and reaching for the paper. He pulled the wrapping off slowly, savoring the moment until she poked him again, impatient for him to complete his task.
Eventually he gave in, pulling away the paper and opening the box. His eyes widened as he saw what was inside. Carefully he pulled out the soft, brown leather.
"It's a jacket…" he observed. "Just like…"
"Just like the one you used to have." she finished his sentence for him. "I know how you loved your old one, and it disappeared when the ISO took over your trailer."
"I never…" Joe tried to find the words, and failed, settling instead for something simple. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Jun smiled, stretching her neck upward to kiss him on the cheek. "It took forever for me to come up with that. You're a very difficult person to shop for, Joe Asakura."
"I could say the same about you." he noted, bemused. The jacket fell off of his lap and onto the couch beside him as he focused his full attention on Jun.
"I tried to find something for you." he admitted. "This afternoon."
"Then you weren't joking, at the Snack, when you said…?"
"Am I a joking man?" he put on a stern face, yet she saw right through him.
"No, I guess not." she giggled.
"I didn't buy anything." he went on. "I really wanted to, but…"
"That's okay." she told him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I have everything I want."
"Probably." he acknowledged ruefully. "But I do have something for you." He fumbled for his pocket, while Jun pulled back curiously, patiently waiting for him to reveal his secret.
"I thought for a long time about what you might like," he tried to explain, "but eventually I started thinking about what I wanted you to have." Slowly he opened his palm, revealing the small object enclosed within it. Jun's fingers stretched forth, hesitantly at first, then more assuredly as she gently plucked it from his grasp. Carefully she lifted it, examining it from every angle before a small shudder passed through her.
"It's a bone." she whispered. "Part of a spinal column."
"Yes." Joe nodded. "My spinal column."
"Yours?" Her eyes widened in surprise.
"My spinal column was badly damaged at Cross Karakorum." Joe explained. "Dr. Raphael told me that he had had to completely remove it, and he had replaced it with cybernetic parts. When I recovered, he gave me this small piece, to remind me of what I once was."
"And you kept it…"
"I had it with me the entire time I was away. It was like it was the only link I had left with my humanity. And after a while, that's what it came to represent: my lost humanity. I wanted to put my past behind me, but I also wanted to keep it with me. This was my way of accomplishing that."
"And now?" she asked, her breath catching in her throat.
"You gave me back my humanity, Jun." he told her, his heart pounding in his chest. "A few days ago, on K3, you told me that I was just as human as I ever was, and that it was my humanity that had saved you. I didn't have this with me then. All I had was myself."
"And me." she breathed softly. "You had me, Joe."
"That's true." he acknowledged with a wry twist of his lips. "I don't need this to remember my humanity, Jun. All I need is you. And that's why I want you to have it: so that you know what you brought back to me."
He was waiting for her response, bracing himself for whatever it might be, yet he was totally unprepared when she lifted her hand to his face, cupping his cheek in her palm. She raised her lips, and then…
Their mouths joined, tentatively at first, then with more assuredness as they realized that this was something they both wanted. They moved slowly, gently exploring this new connection, savoring the moment, unwrapping this unexpected gift with as much care and anticipation as they could. It was some time before the connection was broken, and when it was, it was not a harsh break, but a slow descent of small, soft kisses pressed onto pliant skin. Jun snuggled against him, sighing happily as she laid her head on his shoulder.
"For someone who didn't know what to get me for Christmas, you certainly came up with the best present of all." she murmured contentedly.
"Funny, I thought this present was all mine."
"Oh, no. We're in this together, Joe Asakura. This is ours. Always."
"Always." he agreed, tipping her head back so that he could kiss her once more.