What he had originally wanted for a snowy Friday night was to curl up in front of his fireplace blazing with the wood he had tirelessly chopped the day before, read a good long book and have some of his very best R&B playing in the background.
Instead he was now stepping out of a popular dance club, ears still throbbing from the menacing thumping of too-loud bass lines, half-dragging a suitably intoxicated Joe back to the car. The snow now fell even heavier; he rested Joe against the side of the car while he brushed the snow off the windshield.
"Remind me never to do this again, Joe," Ken growled tiredly. "This is the absolute last time I'm letting you talk me into club-hopping with you. Especially on drum n' bass night." He shook his head, ears still ringing.
Joe snickered. "Y'said that b'fore."
Ken glared. "I mean it this time."
"Y'said that b'fore, too."
He decided to shut up before he lost his temper unnecessarily. Windshield as clear as he could get it, he walked over to Joe and frisked him for the car keys.
"Nuh-uh, I'm drivin'," Joe grumbled.
Ken looked up at his second-in-command briefly, recounted the amount of alcohol consumed, and said flatly, "No."
"S' my car," he insisted, not remotely caring that Ken's hand was in his front jeans pocket. "I got th' keys."
Straight-faced and hand in the back pocket now, Ken replied, "Joe, first of all, we came in my car; you only have the keys because you drove us here. And second of all, you're way over the driving limit." He looked back at the road, covered with slick ice and snow, and with less sarcasm, added, "Thirdly, those roads look grim."
At last, he pulled the keys out of Joe's other back pocket. Opening the passenger side door, he helped Joe in and secured the seat belt, then got into the car himself. He turned the ignition, turned up the heat, and lay back.
Realizing that they weren't moving yet, Joe looked over to the driver side. "What're you doing?"
Ken closed his eyes. "Warming up the car. Resting a little. You're pronouncing your g's again, does that mean you're detoxing already?"
"Guess so," came a reply slightly less slurred than before. "Now can I drive?"
"I'll let that slide." He exhaled deeply, opening his eyes.
Joe's brow crinkled. "You hardly danced in that club. How come you sound so wiped?"
Without replying, he put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. The tyres crunched the ice beneath them and slid a little, but as they drove some more, they remained stable. Still worried, Ken drove as slowly as the other vehicles would allow him. He almost never drove in icy conditions, happy to let Joe, who was more used to it, take the wheel, but this night he had little by way of choice.
The car took the winding roads carefully, windshield wipers at full force as the snow continued to come down. It was just another fifteen miles to his airfield.
When the car skidded a little, Joe said, "Look, let me drive. You're not used to driving in this weather."
Ken gripped the steering wheel harder, regaining some measure of control over the car. "I would, believe me, but you're still over the limit."
"I'm detoxing, I can drive us."
"I'll let you take over once you're detoxed, not while you're detoxing," he responded. "Anyway, it's only a little further to the airfield." The car skidded again, but the brakes held. His hands started to tremble on the steering wheel.
Even Joe tensed. "Ever considered snow chains for your tyres, Ken?"
"Believe me, I'm kicking myself right now about that." The corner came up on them at what Ken felt a speed slightly more than he was comfortable with. The line of trees along the road seemed too close. He hit the brakes again, but there was no traction. "Oh crap."
"Go into a skid and slam the brakes!"
At sixteen, Ken had taken most of his driving lessons from Joe, and so he knew that sometimes, whatever Joe said to do, it had to work. He dropped the handbrake and turned for a skid, holding on to the wheel with everything he had, until at one point he couldn't hear anything else but the sound of the tyres screeching for a grip. He couldn't see anything, because he'd chosen to shut his eyes.
When it was quiet and he opened his eyes, the car was about four inches away from having its driver's side caved in by a tree trunk, saved only by snow that the car had piled up in its skid and - Ken figured - heavenly guardians. He didn't look at Joe, knowing exactly that look that would be waiting for him. He simply laid back and said, "I'm giving you ten minutes to finish detoxing, and then you're driving."
Joe couldn't help snickering. "You almost didn't trust me right there, huh?"
"The last thing I want is for this barely-a-year-old car to be done in by a tree, okay?" He broke into a smile. "Your idea was as good as any."
This time Joe laughed earnestly. Not as driven by the last remnants of alcohol, so did Ken, if only with less enthusiasm. He peered out the window again, to the tree just inches away from crushing him, and disbelieving, leaned towards Joe, saying, "So close. It's scary."
Cybernetic hearing hardly ever failed him. Perhaps because he was detoxing at the same time, he couldn't discern the sound as quickly.
But all Joe knew between recognizing that crack, calling out to Ken and feeling the impact of the tree limb upon the roof of the car was that he should have heard it three seconds earlier.
He could smell dried wood and dead leaves. There was cold air in the car, and when he fully awoke, he could hear Ken trying to breathe and failing.
"Oh, shit, Ken."
The tree limb was as wide as himself, nearly as long as the car. The windshield had caved in, along with a portion of the driver's side of the roof. The only reason why Ken was not dead was because he had chosen that moment to lean towards Joe; his head only narrowly missed being crushed by either the limb or the car itself. Of that, Joe was thankful, but now though he wasn't dead, Ken could be anywhere near dying.
He unfastened his seatbelt and turned around: the limb was resting squarely on Ken's chest, but that was about all. There was no sign of bleeding.
"Ken, can you hear me?"
There was a small nod, but he didn't open his eyes. "Can't - breathe..."
Joe kicked the passenger door open and rushed out of the car, running to the other side. He reached in through the shattered windshield and slowly, gingerly, lifted the portion of the limb that had Ken pinned down. Certain that he wasn't going to do any further damage, he flung the limb away, at least six feet past, marking his anger at Fate.
He popped the driver's side door open and leaned in, probing Ken for anything broken. He counted three ribs and a dislocated shoulder, a small price to pay for being sat on by part of a tree. But his breathing was still labored.
Crouching in close, he said, "Ken, take it easy. You can breathe now."
This time, Ken shook his head. Between huge gasps of air, he said, "No. My - chest hurts... I think - I think I..."
And as the pain became more and more visible, as his hearing sharpened to listen to his heartbeat, Joe knew what it was. "Hold on. I'll get Hakase. Just please, hold on."
Nambu sent the God Phoenix out as soon as he got the call, and in a rare instance, he, too, went on board the warship. They landed in a clearing just behind the line of trees, dry and weakened by the frost and wind, and found Joe kneeling next to Ken, who he had wrapped in the emergency blankets he'd found in the trunk, who, he told them in a breaking voice, had stopped breathing three minutes ago.
It took them just shy of ten minutes to fly to the ISO Medical Research Center, where the specialist team Nambu had called for stood waiting, going in quickly and rushing Ken into the emergency room. Despite loud and clear protests from Jun, Jinpei and Ryu, they were ordered to take the God Phoenix back before returning to the center. "If Galactor sees the God Phoenix anywhere near this institution, we would be putting not only Ken but everyone here in grave danger. Go quickly and come back even quicker if you can, but be careful."
They fully understood that last piece of advice. It was why they were here at all. And so they went, leaving Joe and Nambu to wait.
They sat for a while, their Styrofoam cups of coffee slowly cooling without having sipped any, time slipping away before Nambu asked Joe to explain exactly what had happened.
Joe knew that there couldn't be anyone to blame. Fate was designed by humanity so that it can be blamed instead. But perhaps those three seconds could have made a difference, just three seconds...
"You worked as quickly as you could, Joe," Nambu reassured his foster son. "You did your best."
"Can they repair the damage, Hakase?" he asked tentatively. "Dr. Raphael isn't as available as he used to be ten years ago."
Nambu nodded. "We've learned enough from him to be able to work on our own. It'll take time, just like before."
Joe never fully understood why this had always hurt so much more than losing his parents, why this risk was something he never could take, why after ten years the fear was still as dominant. Tears stinging his eyes, he looked at Nambu with clenched fists and said, very simply:
"I don't want to lose him again. Not to this."
"To what?" That was Jun's voice, after which she claimed they had broken the land speed record getting back there.
Jinpei lunged forward, moved straight to Nambu, asking, "Is Ken-aniki going to be okay?"
Joe looked to Nambu, and the foster father asked his three other children to sit down, because he had a long story to tell them.
A little more than ten years ago, Ken Washio, age eleven, died.
The story was that Sayuri Washio's hard birth might have contributed to it. The birth of her only son did aggravate her own illness, weakening her heart even more. There was no doubt that she was a proud, strong woman, but all the same, she inherited her own mother's weak heart. All she wanted was for her son to not have shared the same fate.
Despite the difficult birth, Ken passed every medical examination. Like his mother, he was proud and strong, and gratefully, without the illness she feared she may have passed to him. So young Ken grew up, as his foster siblings knew, to the age of four, when his father faked his own death by a plane crash, to the age of ten, when his young mother died of the heart disease that had threatened her from the day she was born.
A year before that, Giorgio Asakura entered their lives, and for a little while, the Sicilian boy who decided to be called Joe had a mother and a slightly younger brother. Ken was at first angered by the newcomer who managed to garner his mother's attention, until it was explained to him the circumstances of Joe's being in his family. Once he understood that, he grew generous to share his mother with him. Looking back, Joe knew the honor that it was to be raised by - of all the mothers in the world - Ken's mother. Simply because she had doted on them both equally, ensuring that they would be best friends rather than rivaling siblings. Joe had adored her as deeply as Ken.
Which was why, when she died a year later, the two boys stayed huddled together, crying for the mother they shared, the only mother Ken knew, and the woman who freely loved Joe as if he were her son, too.
Joe had often wondered why Sayuri Washio's death drew them closer. He figured it was probably because she had stressed so much on the notion that they were a family, that in a sense, losing her meant that Ken was really the only family he had left. And he'd be damned, even then, to lose another family.
When the boys had recovered from their grief, Nambu had taken both for a medical check-up, something that had not been done for both boys for a long while. It was during this check-up that they found that murmur in Ken's heart. And whether it was looked upon as frightening or fascinating, the murmur pattern was exactly the same as his late mother's in the months just before her death.
It came to almost no surprise then, that a few weeks after the diagnosis, Ken grew very ill. He stopped running, opting for walking slowly. He spent many days sitting by the window, wanting to play outside but realizing his body would not let him. Joe knew almost certainly at the time what was wrong with his younger brother but he didn't dare ask; sometimes not knowing was easier to deal with.
The hospital staff who treated Ken's mother and who now treated Ken tended to say, in a rather romantic notion, that Ken was suffering from a broken heart as a result of his mother's death. Even Joe knew better than that. But it was apparent that Ken didn't even know part of it.
One night, he learned that he could not climb up the stairs anymore. He made it up the third step, and dropped to his knees. Joe didn't trust himself to help Ken up the stairs, afraid he may cause more damage than give help, so he called for Nambu. When Nambu arrived, Joe could recall, till this day, the expression the older man wore when he saw his first child in that state: it was the first time Joe had ever known Nambu Hakase, his foster father, to be frightened. He scooped Ken into his arms, commenting lightly about how much heavier he'd grown - though Joe knew that was a lie; Ken's weight had dropped rapidly since the beginning of his illness - and carried him up. What Joe heard next haunted him for many nights after.
Ken had begun to cry, sobbing quietly into Nambu's shoulder, and asked plaintively, "Hakase, what's happening to me?"
It helped Joe make his decision to not spend a second away from his side. Nambu could not stop him from moving into Ken's room, choosing to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor or doing his schoolwork on the desk there.
In mid-winter, Ken spent his eleventh birthday drifting in and out of sleep, sipping small amounts of cool juice and very little else. It was the one day that Joe did not spent its entirety by his side. Instead he had begged Nambu to take him to church so that he could pray to God, what seemed the most sensible birthday gift he could possible think of for his foster sibling.
A little over two weeks later, Joe awoke from a bad dream, sitting up on the floor of Ken's room. The room was silent, and he realized that sometime in the night, Ken had stopped breathing.
Nambu did not let himself nor Joe ride along in the ambulance. He knew that if he were among the medical staff, he might potentially see Ken as a patient rather than his son. As for Joe, he was afraid to allow him to go through another loss, his possible third in his short lifetime. They followed the paramedics to the hospital in the car.
Waiting was always the worst thing. Time was always the ultimate enemy in times such as these. Everyone said that then, and they still say it now. Nambu and Joe both were never sure if the equipment had been overly loud or if the walls of the emergency room were too thin or if they were just very susceptible to the sound, but both had somehow heard the flatline.
When the medical doctor emerged from behind the doors and said that sentence that no doctor ever wants to say, no family member ever wants to hear, but has to be said and heard, Joe exploded into angry tears and tried to get past both adults into the room where Ken was. Each time he was stopped by either of them, he would scream and try to beat them off, but always fail. In the end he crumbled into a heap in Nambu's arms, screaming over and over again, "Give him back, give him back to me. Don't let them take him, too."
Joe had been asleep, exhausted from crying, when Nambu was approached by Dr. Raphael. A genius in cybernetics, knowing he had perfected his skill but with very little opportunity to prove as much, he asked if Nambu would allow him to 'repair' young Ken's heart.
"You not only have a broken heart, Nambu Hakase, but also a sizeable dilemma on your hands," he had said. "Ken Washio was meant to lead your team, a team that's nearly complete. The Southern boy is due to arrive soon, is he not? And you'll soon be taking the girl and her young companion out of that dismal orphanage up north. I am giving you a choice. Had Ken been any other young boy with a defective heart, I may not offer this chance. It's only because it's not just you nor little Joe that may feel this loss, but the rest of the world as well, if there is no replacement for the Eagle. I'm not doing this to spare you a broken heart, Nambu Hakase. I'm doing this to perhaps give this world a fighting chance against what is to come."
Dr. Raphael spent some days designing and building the cybernetics that would repair and restore the heart of an eleven-year-old, while Dr. Nambu had the more difficult task of explaining things to Joe when the young boy realized that there wasn't a funeral yet. How do you tell a boy that this is a one singular case where the dead - a term Nambu kept refusing to use when referring to Ken - just might come back? To be fair, the why of it had been far harder to justify.
"But he died, Hakase," Joe had said, still with traces of anguish in his voice. "Why do they want to bring him back to life?"
Nambu almost couldn't understand him. "I thought you didn't want Ken to die, Joe."
"I didn't. But if they're only doing this because of the project, maybe it would be better for Ken to rest." Joe, too, never used the word 'dead' when referring to Ken, even though he could say that Ken had died. 'Dead' was too final. "You know that. You know those people are only doing it because they need Ken, not because they love him."
And that was the one and only time Nambu had heard Joe state so clearly how much his younger brother meant to him.
The day came when Ken's cold body was brought back to the operating room, but this time in an ISO base facility that, naturally, no one knew about. Nambu had watched the long, careful operation, watching as small components - some small enough to sit on his fingertip - were attached to the silent heart. He had watched in wonder when Dr. Raphael injected a liquid into the heart, which he later learned was pure sugar, and some moments later, it came to life.
For the next few days, Ken's bloodstream was fed with practically diabetic amounts of sugar, his fuel source. Of the amount he was consuming, his body only really needed about ten percent, but his heart needed the rest to slowly restart everything else. Like a person walking through a house and turning on the lights in each room one by one, Ken little by little came back to life. He breathed normally, he digested normally, and his brain functioned normally.
Then he woke up.
He thought he'd been asleep without dreaming for ten days.
Joe didn't care what he thought. He got his brother back. Even though that day he also swore that he would make certain Ken would be repaid in full for giving up heaven in order to help protect the world.
Ken did learn later on that he had in fact died. The knowledge had frightened him at first, and then saddened him, because he understood that the only reason why it was done was because he was needed. And because he came to realize that there would be many more operations to come.
When Jun, Jinpei and Ryu arrived, it was unanimously decided between Ken, Joe and Nambu that they didn't need to know, that it wasn't important. All that was important was that Ken was alive, and that he could eat his own weight in sugars and not gain a single ounce.
Excuses were made for him when further operations were required: improving the system so that he could go through long periods without consuming sugar, making the system more efficient so that he could function on smaller amounts of the substance, making certain that he could sustain the pressure of the Hinotori maneuver and the Tatsumaki Fighter. When he hit puberty the chemical imbalances nearly gave him a minor heart attack, but that, too, was repaired very quickly.
Not long after that operation, Dr. Raphael fell off the face of the earth. No one knew where he went, of if he was even still alive, but he had left behind enough of his work for the ISO Medical Research Center to work with and improve upon in his absence. Eventually, Raphael reappeared to save Joe by turning him into a full-fledged cyborg, certainly more state-of-the-art than Ken, but far less intricate.
Ken had pretended to not know Raphael when he claimed he had rescued him from his burning plane when he crashed during their first assault on Galactor after two years. And deep inside he could not help but think that if Raphael was alive, for some reason Joe had to be alive, too. He had said that the dead did not come back. But then he had been dead, too.
To be continued...
The idea was, what if cyborg Joe wasn't the only technological wonder that existed, and what if Ken's nother did not die of leukemia, but of something else that he ended up inheriting?
Hope you guys enjoy it.