It was the Condor's own damned fault.
They all knew that. They'd seen him, mouthing off to the base commander before the mission, knowing, or at least believing, that the officer couldn't do anything to HIM in return. After all, they were about to go out and blow the shit out of the Galactors' latest mech, and he knew that his own people couldn't do the job. He wouldn't dare come down on the Condor, with his world-wide reputation for being tempermental at best, psychotic at worst.
So he didn't say a word as the Condor made snide remarks about the men on the base, since they COULDN'T fend off the Galactors. Maybe it was deserved, but it was rude. Then he went off with the team to fight the Galactors, and the whole lot of them got gassed while inside the mech. They were barely slowed down by it, but when they returned to the base eighteen hours later, exhausted and starved, the Base Commander ordered them all to get innoculations to insure they didn't get sick. It was a logical thing to do, but the Condor told him just where he could stick his needles and stormed out. So the base commander gave a simple command.
Hunt down the Condor and bring him back by whatever means necessary, short of killing him. The base crews leaped on the chance, wanting desperately to get their honour back.
But the Condor had his pride too.
Ken stirred slowly, opening his eyes with a lazy stretch and a yawn. Looking around, he saw he wasn't in a room he recognized, then remembered that they'd stayed at the base overnight. After that mission, they'd all been exhausted. He'd lost track of how many hours they'd been fighting, but it was a mission much longer than the average ones, and far more tiring. Jinpei had been snoring in his seat while they returned, and Ryu had looked like he was about to nod off himself. Ken hadn't felt much better, so he ordered them back to the base, rather than all the way to Crescent Coral. They'd needed the sleep.
The room he'd been given was small, with just a bed and a wardrobe, presently holding his clothes. Ken stood and stumbled to the tiny bathroom attached. Ten minutes later, his grimy hair and bruised body showered, he came back out, feeling worlds better. Grimacing distastfully at his filthy civvies, he pulled them on nevertheless and shifted to BirdStyle.
The change always sent a thrill though him. A tingling that started at his wrist and worked its way throughout his entire body, making him feel not-all-together-there as the molecules of his clothes were switched with those of his uniform, tickling him with the extra-dimensional pocket where they rested. His vision swam blue and he stretched, settling into the tall boots more comfortably and twitching his wings back. It was too warm to wear them closed. Fully garbed, he opened the door.
"Sir!" The fully armed marine on guard duty outside saluted.
Ken nodded politely. Anytime he was at a base overnight in birdstyle, a guard was put on his door, to prevent anyone from attempting to sneak up and kill him in his sleep, or even from just trying to get a peek at his true face. Anyone who succeeded would find themselves scrubbing toilets in a bottom level of Cresent Coral for the rest of the war, but that didn't stop some idiots from tying. Better to have a guard, especially as he could just ignore the man, unlike Jinpei who felt that any guard put on his door was a target for pranks. Hopefully, he'd have been too tired to bother last night, though many marines seemed to take being pranked on by the Swallow as a strange badge of honour.
He went down the hall and knocked on the next door, nodding to the marine before it as well. A sleepy woman's voice sounded from within. "Get up, Swan," he called and heard her moving around inside in response.
"Swallow," he called at the second door. "Time to get up."
"Five more minutes, Aniki," the boy wailed.
Ken hid a smile. "No, now get up. We have to get back for debriefing."
Ken decided to ignore that comment and tapped on Ryu's door. Getting the helmsman to even acknowledge him took him long enough that Jun had stepped out her door just as he got the big man to mumble that he heard and yes, he'd be right out.
"Morning, Ken," she yawned.
"Surely you can't still be tired?" he commented, glancing at a clock on the wall. "We've been asleep for about twenty hours."
"That long?" she stretched, cat-like, and he politely averted his eyes. "It only feels like an hour or two."
He didn't reply. In looking away from her, he'd seen Joe's assigned room, the only one without a marine guard. Frowning, he went over and opened the door. "Condor?"
The room was empty, the bed perfectly made. Joe wouldn't do that unless Nambu ordered him to, then sat there to make sure he obeyed. He turned to the marine who'd followed him. "Where is Kondoru no Joe?"
The man saluted. "I don't know that, sir."
Ken frowned again and raised his wrist to his mouth. "Eagle to Condor. Come in, Condor." Static answered him. "Answer me, Condor."
"So, enjoy your beauty rest?" Joe replied. He sounded breathless.
"Report your location, Condor."
"Hell, no. They might know our frequencies."
Jun came up, accompanied by Jinpei. "What's going on?"
Ken stepped away with them until the marines were out of earshot. "I don't know. Condor, what are you doing?"
"What do you think?" the gunner spat. "Playing hide and seek with the goddamned marine corp."
Jinpei laughed. "Cool! Can I play too, Aniki?"
"You think this is fun, you little punk?!"
"Hey! Who are you calling little?"
"Behave yourself, both of you." Ken saw Ryu shuffle out of his room. "Joe, how long have you been up to this?"
"Since about five minutes after we landed."
Ken winced while Ryu whistled, Jun grimaced and Jinpei blinked. An eighteen hour mission, plus however long he was awake before that, followed by twenty hours of running around a military base. Joe had to be ready to drop.
"Joe, I want you to report in and get some sleep. This has gone on long enough."
"Hey, not until the marines surrender. I'm not going to let them win."
"Whoa, I've got my pride, you know! K'so! Gotta go. I think they're homing in on me." He cut off the transmission.
"Joe!" Ken stared at his wrist, then lowered it with a curse. "When is he going to grow up?"
Jun smiled sweetly. "When hell freezes over."
Jinpei laughed. "Joe n' Aniki landed himself in this one big time."
Ken turned away. "Maybe. But I'm going to end it now. If Galactor pulls another attack, he'll be useless to us."
Quickly, he strode down the hall, following his memory through the base to the Commander's office. The others trailed behind, Ryu whining about wanting breakfast. At the office, Ken went without anyone trying to stop him past the secretary and office workers, and right into the Base Commander's office.
Base Commander Haroldson was talking on the phone, but stopped the instant he saw Ken, hitting hold. "Gatchaman!" Standing up, he saluted and took his hand with genuine pleasure. "Did you rest well?"
Ken smiled briefly and sat in the chair he indicated. "Yes, but I understand my second in command didn't."
Haroldson smiled coldly. "Anytime the Condor is willing to come in for the shots I ordered, I'll gladly order my men to stand down."
Ken rubbed his chin. "Well, that's the problem. Kondoru no Joe is kind of stubborn. He'll run himself straight into the ground before he gives up."
"Well, I'm afraid many of my men feel the same way. Catching the Condor has become a point of honour for many of them, especially as your second has hurt some of them in the process of keeping away."
"Was anyone seriously injured?"
"No, but you see my position." He folded his hands on the desk. "For morale, I have to let this hunt continue. Kondoru no Joe won't be hurt. I'll courtmartial the man who injures him. But I have people who are spending their free time searching every corner of this base. Morale hasn't been so high in months."
Ken did see his position, and the glint in his eye. Joe had insulted HIS honour, and he wanted revenge. And humbling the Condor was the best way he could get it. So he'd let this farce of a hunt go on, no matter how it damaged Joe's reputation. A small thing, but a rep for being unstoppable had saved the Condor from the Galactors many times. Any weakening of it could be deadly, even more so if Joe WAS brought down and began to doubt himself.
"I can't convince you to stop this from your end?" He asked, even though he knew it was hopeless, and he didn't have the authority to order the man.
Haroldson shook his head. "I'm afraid not. You'll have to order the Condor to surrender instead."
Fat chance in hell of that ever happening. Ken stood. "Thank you for your time. My team and I will stay until this is... resolved."
"We're honoured to have you with us, Gatchaman."
Quickly, a squad of marines ran across the tarmac, following orders barked over the PA. Ken watched them impassively as he sat sipping a cup of coffee.
"I wonder what Aniki n' Joe's doing right now?" Jinpei sighed.
Ken didn't answer so Ryu shrugged, even as he continued to dig into his lunch. "Probably off having a beer while the marines run in circles."
Jinpei laughed. "Probably. What do you think, Onechan?"
Jun bit her lip and looked at Ken. "I don't know. It's getting pretty tight out there."
Ken knew exactly what she was talking about. Periodically during the morning, they'd see marines moving to where Joe had been seen, hoping to catch him. They'd even heard a few fights and once seen Joe's shadow as he ran out of the grasp of an ambush along an overhead powerline. But now the ambushes were coming closer together, and the marines had less distance to run to the next. There were three platoons of marines on the base. They could alternate, keep fresh, but the Condor had to be on his last legs and pride wouldn't let him leave the base. He had to stay, and keep away from the marines after him at the same time. Ken just didn't know how much longer he could keep it up.
"How long does someone have to be awake before they start hallucinating?" He asked quietly.
Dead silence answered him and he looked up to see his team staring at him with wide eyes. "Galactors wear green," he reminded them. "So do the marines."
Jinpei swallowed convulsively. "You don't think he'd mistake a marine for a..."
"If he's tired enough and angry enough, he might." Ken stared out the window. Haroldson wouldn't end this. He was in his war room, overseeing the ambushes. It was a great exercise to him now, but if Joe starting killing his men...
"Spread out," he ordered, standing. "Find Joe. If he won't come to the God Phoenix peacefully, make him. This has gone on more than long enough." Drawing his wings close around him, he headed outside to start a hunt of his own, for the same prey but for different reasons.
Jun quietly pushed open the door of the hangar and walked in, ignoring the marine squad that was presently searching the area. They didn't ignore her, and she heard one man whistle appreciatively before his CO told him curtly to watch what he was doing.
There was a series of jets in the hangar, sleek, deadly looking planes that were in for maintenance. Jun walked around them, sure that there was no way the Condor would be stupid enough to try and hide in one, than spread her arms, and her wings, and leaped. The soft swish of air through her wings was the only sound in the hangar to accompany her as she flew up to the girders that framed the top of the hangar. Once there, she walked along them, quietly calling "Condor", loudly enough that if he were close, he'd be able to hear her, but the the men below wouldn't.
"Come on, Joe, please come out. I know you're in here." She didn't, not for sure, but she had her suspicions from the way the dust was laid on the girders that he'd at least been here recently. She searched for his signs, any place he could be hiding, humming a quiet song as she did so. It was a trick she used with Jinpei, to calm him when his nerves were running ragged and he couldn't relax. She wasn't sure it would work on Condors as well as Swallows, but there was only one way to find out.
Coming to an alcove in the wall of the hangar where a vent led down, she peered in, seeing the telltale tip of a feather jammed between the lip and dislodged screen. The Condor was slipping.
"Is he up there?" The marine officer shouted from below.
Swan looked down and smiled at him. "Now, why would I tell you?" she replied sweetly.
Jinpei was laying a trap of his own. Crouched behind two barrels beside a storage hangar, he peered around the corner at the squad searching in his direction. He suspected the Condor was inside. He hadn't seen him, but he had found some of his tracks and it was where HE'D hide, and he had no intention of letting them find him.
"Hunt my Aniki n'Joe, will you?" He whispered with a grin, then turned and scuttled to the door of the hangar. Slipping in, he vanished among the stacks, careful not to trip any of the carefully laid traps he'd set up in the last ten minutes. None were fatal, or even likely to hurt. Embarass? Now, that was another story.
Finding a good vantage point, he waited and watched. Only minutes later, the first of the marines peeked into the half-open door, then they charged in combat style - and the first one got a bucket of machine grease on the head.
Jinpei howled silently as the man swore, trying to get the stuff off his face so that he could see. His companions were laughing at him as well, even as they spread out to search the hangar. They didn't see their mission as being dangerous, which irritated Jinpei. No one should ever not take the Condor seriously, except for his own family. Only they were allowed to torture him. Grabbing a pully rope beside him, he yanked down.
And a snow storm of flour from the base food stores rained down on the marines, turning their green fatigues to a snowy white, then to a paste that clung tenaciously as Jinpei turned on the fire hose he'd wedged between two crates and aimed at them.
The men roared in rage, bolting for the clear. One tripped over a wire and brought tires bouncing towards him and his companions, forcing them to scatter, another slipped on the grease he'd coated sections of the floor with.
Jinpei buried his face in his hands, laughing silently as the officers bellowed, getting the men back into formation. In far less time than it'd take the Galactors, they were organized again, no longer ready to treat the hangar nonchalantly.
"All right, Condor," the officer yelled. "You've had your fun. Now the Marines are going to have theirs!"
Jinpei swore. He hadn't meant to make things worse for Joe. Cursing himself silently, he fled back into the hangar, determined to find his teammate first.
Ryu walked into the mess hall, smelling the chow they were serving appreciatively. It was dinner time, and he pushed his way up to the serving line hungrily, and not with too much guilt. He knew his foster brother too well. No one would ever find Joe Asakura unless he wanted to be found. He'd eat a little dinner, then keep looking. If Joe had any sense, he was snoozing on the bridge of the God Phoenix. He'd check there first.
Piling the food high on his tray, he went to find a table, the men eating there moving to give him room, staring at him curiously. Ryu found a table and sat down, digging in. The fact that he was still wearing his helmet wasn't a problem. He had lots of practice eating with it on.
The food was plain but good, better than Jun's by far, though nowhere even close to Jinpei's. Not that he was picky. They had trouble keeping even something as simple as ration bars stocked on the God Phoenix, since he kept eating them.
As he ate, he heard the men whispering about him, wondering the usual questions. Who was he really, how could someone as big as he be a member of the Ninjatai. That one irritated him faintly. How could a mere five kids do what entire platoons of marines couldn't. He'd heard that one whispered many times, not that any man in uniform had ever dared to ask him. Not that he'd answer, or that they'd even understand the answer. It was too simple. When they went into battle, they weren't five people, they were five as one. Unstoppable.
"You think he knows where the Condor is?" He heard one whisper.
"Maybe," his neighbour sniffed. "They're probably hiding him."
"Heh. I knew that Condor's rep was blown all out of proportion. He's got so many of our men after him he's probably wetting his pants by now."
"No shit!" They high fived.
Finishing his drink, Ryu ignored the rest of his tray and stood, turning around. Silence fell over the mess hall as everyone watched him walk over to the two men who'd spoken.
"Excuse me," he said politely as he grabbed the one who'd called the Condor a coward and yanked him out of his chair, and off of his feet. "But did I just hear you insult my teammate?"
The man gasped, half choking from the grip on his collar. The partner leaped to his own feet, bristling. "Hey! Let him go."
Ryu looked at him in surprise. "Oh, I'm sorry, did I forget you?" The marine tried to dodge, but Ryu's arm shot out faster than he could and he joined his friend. Bracing himself, Ryu held them both up. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes, I believe I was about to demand an apology for insulting the honour of the Kagaku Ninjatai."
"Go- to- hell," the first man gasped. "He insulted... marine honour first." An angry rumble started in the hall at that.
"I do apologize most humbly for that." Ryu bowed, then yanked the man in until he was nose to nose with him. "But Kondoru no Joe is no coward. Do you understand that?" The man's eyes widened at the look in his eyes. "Nod if you understand," he said, nodding himself, and the man slowly nodded. "Good."
Dropping them both, he made his way out of the hall to continue his search for Joe. He didn't feel hungry anymore.
In the centre of the base was an old radio tower, standing one hundred feet above the ground, with a beacon on the top to prevent planes from hitting it.
Eagle Ken stood at the very top of it, balanced on the tip with his wings blowing behind him in the wind, the sunset burning the sky behind him as he surveyed the base below, watching the marines continue their systematic search. It was almost dark, but they showed no signs of stopping. Another twelve hours of sleeplessness to add to the Condor's tally. It'd gone so far that he didn't even know anymore how he was going to pull the Condor out without alienating hundreds of hardworking marines. They didn't need the kind of hate that could bring. The only solution was to bring down the Condor himself and give him that damn stupid innoculant. Joe was only one man, and his pride would sting less if it were his own Commander who humbled him, instead of strangers. And it was his big mouth that started the whole mess, even if there'd always been a sort of friendly rivalry before between the marines and the Kagaku Ninjatai. Not anymore after this, though.
Jun, Jinpei and Ryu hadn't found him yet, but Ken was absolutely positive that Joe was still on the base. Raising his bracelet to his mouth, he spoke. "Report, Condor." Nothing. Joe hadn't answered their calls since his first words that morning. Not even curses. It wasn't a good sign. He knew his brother and he knew his limits, plus he had strong suspicions that Joe was sick already, and trying for a long time to hide it.
The marines were converging on a hangar, but if Joe were there, Ken would be very surprised. At least if he was, he'd be getting out fast. Sure enough, he saw a brief dark flash on the roof, heading away.
Ken leaped. Wings spread and he glided towards the building the shadow was aimed for. He could move like lightning in the sky when he wanted to, but he only floated now. He wanted a better view of what he was getting into. It was a barracks, one for single officers living on the base. Ken landed silently on the roof and followed the faint footsteps to the door leading down. It'd been kicked in. Joe had to be exhausted if he wasn't even trying to hide his progress any more. The marines would have him soon, Ken had no doubt of that.
The building was empty, no surprise there. All the officers were out Condor hunting, and Ken slipped down the halls, listening for movement. He heard a faucet in the main showers for the third floor and opened the door.
Kondoru no Joe'd been splashing water on his face. The second the door opened, he bolted, but he was slower than normal, his reflexes down to human normal. Ken collided with him in midair and brought him down on his back, sitting across his stomach and holding his arms pinned.
"Easy, Joe, it's just me."
Joe blinked at him wearily. He looked terrible. He had heavy bags under his half-lidded eyes and his skin was white and pasty. He trembled slightly under him. He looked like a man who hadn't slept in three or more days and had been going like a bat out of hell the entire time. Probably hadn't eaten any either.
"Are you going to hang me up like some prize too?" He rasped.
Ken shook his head. "Of course not. I'm going to give you that stupid shot you were ordered to take yesterday and then take us all home."
"So I AM a prize."
Ken started to get angry. "No! Why would you think that?"
His brother licked pale lips. "Because the marines will think that. Doesn't matter who brings me down, they'll all jump on the fact that someone DID."
The Eagle shook his head, not letting up his grip since he knew Joe would try to make a break for it if he did. "You're being paranoid. And stubborn."
"Nope. I've got my pride too, Ken."
And it was his pride that got him into this. "You shouldn't have insulted the marine corps stationed here in the first place."
"I take it you didn't hear them calling the God Phoenix an overgrown blue chicken ship."
Ken blinked. "What?"
Stifling a yawn, Joe continued. "I've been insulting marines for years. They insult me right back. It's the godamned base commander who decided to take it personally."
"What about the shot?" Ken asked quietly.
"Had it a month ago. Full series. Ask Hakase. I'm not supposed to take it again for at least a year, only no one asked me. Haroldson just started barking orders."
Ken moved back and Joe sat up gingerly, trying to hide the shaking in his arms. "Why didn't you just say something?"
Joe shrugged. "Because he got in my face the way I hate, and I was tired, and I just didn't give a damn about military protocol. We're not in the usual chain of command, he doesn't have the right to boss me like I'm an incompetant. Next think I knew, the whole godamned base was chasing me like a prize turkey."
Ken sighed. Pulling off his glove, he felt Joe's forehead. It was hot. The very fact that Joe let him showed him how badly off he was. "I think we've got a problem. Marine honour demands you be brought in."
"And ninja honour demands I don't. Which matters more?" Joe swayed slightly. "I'll hate myself if they catch me. I don't have anything against marines, but..."
It was pride. Ken watched his best friend sway. "They're going to win, Joe," he told him quietly. "You're too tired. They're all fresh."
"I know," Joe admitted, defeated. Then he chuckled. "Too bad they're not trying to kill me. Then you guys would be backing me up, not trying to help them."
Ken stared at the floor. "I'm sorry, Joe."
"Yeah, well, I'm not going to be an easy catch." Surging to his feet, he lurched to the door, stumbling wearily against the wall.
Ken watched him for a moment, then rose. "Joe..."
The Condor bulleted out of nowhere. The marines who were entering the hangar yelped as the blue winged man shot out of the darkness right over their heads, ducking as he swooped over them, then up, flipping over to balance on the very top of a glowing lamppost. He flashed them the bird and was gone again, airborne where they couldn't follow. His laughter trailed after him.
"Shit," one of the marines cursed. "Doesn't he ever stop?"
"Nope," one of his fellows remarked in admiration. "Must be why he's with the Ninjatai."
"Get it together, men!" The Sargeant cried. "Order from on high are in that he's being recalled in the morning. We've only got a few hours left to catch him!"
The marines whooped and continued the hunt.
On the God Phoenix, parked on the main runway, Jun looked at her monitors and laughed, careful to keep her voice down. "These marines are very good," she said quietly.
"But not good enough!" Jinpei whispered back with a grin.
Jun noogied his helmet and stood, making her way to the front. She could see Ryu's helmet above his seat, and his green wings trailing to either side, next to the Commander's seat, where long white wings curled. Jun came up beside Ryu and smiled as he flashed her thumbs up.
"How's he doing?" She whispered.
"Sleepin' like a baby," he replied in an undertone. "He needs it."
Jun nodded and looked down at the Eagle. It was strange to see Joe wearing the white wings and light blue gear. She was too used to seeing him in darker colours, but it was no stranger to see Ken in indigo and navy. Joe didn't have the helmet on and his long hair spilled over the collar, a dark burnished brown-gold against the white and blue. He was deeply asleep.
"How long do you think Ken can keep them hopping?" Ryu asked, careful not to wake the exhausted Condor.
"Long enough." Jun smiled again. Ken and Joe were the only ones who could pull this sort of thing off. They were close to the same height and build, after all. She tried to imagine herself in Jinpei or Ryu's birdstyles and stifled a snigger. outside, a dark form leaped onto the nose of the God Phoenix, waved at the viewscreen and leaped off again, tiring marines still in pursuit. He was mimicking Joe's style pretty well, she saw, which wasn't a surprise. No one else knew their brother better.
Joe mumbled in his sleep, turning his head away from them, and Jun carefully tucked the white wing closer around him for warmth. "Keep me informed," she instructed the helmsman and made her way back to her own seat. Settling in, she leaned back, as they all did, prepared to wait as long as honour demanded.