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Never Give Up by Lori McDonald
Never Give Up by Lori McDonald
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Author's Chapter Notes:
I blame this one on Sarah Caldwell. She inspired it. Okay, she said she'd like to see a Ryu story. That's inspiration, isn't it? :) [None of this is mine]
NEVER GIVE UP  Lori McDonald

 

The Snack J was rocking with music and laughter when the phone rang. Up to her elbows in drink mix, Jun barely heard it over the yells of the customers for more beer, more food, more music. Glancing around quickly, she saw no sign of Jinpei, who was waiting tables, and looked desperately at Ryu.

"Can you get that?"

More than a little past his limit of beer, he looked at her blearily. "Nani?"

"The phone. Can you answer it for me?"

Ryu grinned. "Sure." Finishing his beer, he got up, straightened his pants and slowly made his way around the bar, having trouble working the lift flap to get behind the bar. Amazingly enough, the phone kept ringing. Ten times, twenty, thirty. Ryu managed to get the flap up at last and squeezed his way behind the bar. There wasn’t much room back there and he had to catch a ketchup bottle he knocked off the edge. The phone kept ringing.

"Ryu!" Jun sighed in exasperation.

"I got it, I got it," he mollified her and made his way over to the phone, picking it up off the wall and putting it to his ear. "Moshi moshi."

"R-Ryu... help..."

Ryu blinked, all his pleasant fuzziness burning away in an adrenaline rush he hadn’t felt since the war ended. He knew that voice. "Who is this?" he whispered, not believing it.

A coughing laugh answered him. "W-who d’ya think? ‘s Joe."

Joe. It couldn’t be Joe. Joe was dead. Had been for four months, lost at Kross Karakorum. They hadn’t found a body. "Joe’s dead," he whispered.

The familiar voice at the other end of the line took on a edge of panic. "Nani?? Ryu... no! I-I got away but... don’t know... where I am. Please... help me..."

"I don’t believe you," he whispered. "Joe’s dead." He couldn’t hang up, though. Tenaciously, the receiver clung to his ear like a living thing.

The familiar Joe laugh, strained now and exhausted. "I said... last thing I said... was I always went... against orders... and I was sorry..."

The former helmsman’s eyes widened. "Joe?" he whimpered, feeling tears pool.

"B-believe me now?"

"Hai, Joe. What happened?"

"D-don’t know..."

Ryu looked around the crowded bar desperately. "Do you want me to get Ken?"

"H-hai." Faint banging sounded from the other end of the line. "H-Hurry."

Ken was sitting at the other end of the bar, talking with Jun, trying to talk her into floating him another free meal. Ryu waved desperately for him to come over as he heard a crash on the other end of the phone line, like something breaking through a locked door. There was yelling. "Joe? Joe!"

Ken stepped up to him. "What’s up?"

Frantic, Ryu handed him the phone. "Here!"

The Eagle put the receiver to his ear. "Moshi moshi..." He listened for a moment, then frowned. "There’s no one there."


Sitting at the bar of the now closed Snack J, Ken bit down a sigh. "Look, Ryu. It couldn’t have been Joe."

Ryu looked down stubbornly. "It was him. I know it."

Not wanting to point out to the helmsman that he looked just like a two year old in a sullen fit, Ken looked at Jun worriedly. She met his gaze with the same expression.

"Ryu, you drank a lot tonight, didn’t you?" she asked softly.

He looked up angrily. "What does that have to do with it?"

Ken stood to put a hand on his shoulder placatingly. "Look, Ryu. It was late and you’d had a lot to drink. You imagined it."

Ryu’s round face was furious. "You think I imagined our brother begging me for help?"

"Joe never begged for anything in his life."

Ryu looked away.

For the last ten minutes, Jinpei had been shredding the paper napkins he was supposed to be loading into dispensers into tiny pieces. "Maybe he’s right," he said hopefully. "Maybe Aniki’s alive."

Ken turned to him. "Jinpei..."

"But we never found his body!" he wailed. Ryu put an arm around him.

Ken sighed. Losing Joe had been the hardest thing any of them had ever had to deal with, and much as he dearly wanted his brother back, he knew it wasn’t going to happen. Seeing Jinpei and Ryu believe he was alive would only make it worse. "Jin..."

"He’s alive!"

"Jin!" He let a hint of steel into his voice. "You both know as well as I do that Joe couldn’t be alive. He was terminally ill before he even went there and he was shot over a dozen times. Even if he hadn’t gone, he’d be dead by now. Hakase said no operation could save him. The damage was too severe." He watched the hope die in the little boy’s eyes and felt like a heel, but he kept going. "The earth was all torn up where he was lying. Joe was buried by the earthquakes or when Sosai X fled. He didn’t escape."

Jinpei started sniffling and Jun went to hold him, but there was no condemnation in her eyes as she looked up at Ken. She knew what he’d said was cruel but necessary.

Ryu, however, didn’t agree. "Joe is alive," he growled, headed for the door. "I believe that and I’m going to find him." He slammed the door behind him, leaving his teammates and family behind.


Finding Joe wouldn’t be as easy as he thought. Halfway home from the Snack J, Ryu realized he didn’t have the first clue of where to look. The Ninjatai had been disbanded after the war. He didn’t have a BirdStyle, didn’t have the God Phoenix, not a fleet of support workers and computers. He had only himself.

Reaching his tiny three room home at the marina, Ryu looked at himself in the mirror. At his round face with wildly messy hair sticking out in all directions that no amount of combing ever tamed. At his watery eyes and his massive body, layers of fat over muscle trained in Sumo since long before he joined the team. He knew he was strong, but he also knew he wasn’t very smart.

Fly the God Phoenix, he thought morosely. That’s all you’re good for. Even a ten year old boy had seen more combat than he, and his attitude in briefings had usually been that of slight bemusement. Half a step behind the others in figuring out what was going on, half a step behind in everything. The bear who stood out like a monster amongst the slender, graceful deer. He was stronger than Ken and Joe combined, but that had done him no good when he could never catch them.

Ryu sighed, sitting down in his heavy chair by the window. Hours of sitting on the God Phoenix waiting for his brothers and sister to save the world always gave him plenty of time for introspection, but he’d preferred not to, to spend it safely asleep or pretending he was with the others, slamming Galactors into walls en masse while they flitted around them. Ken with his boomerang and his speeches, Jun with her agility, Jinpei with his speed, Joe with his anger.

His eyes closed. Joe... After he died, they’d all compared notes, and realized that he’d been sick for a long time, hiding it in occasional wavers in his stance, in a hand pressed to an obviously throbbing forehead, in a reaction time half a second slower in practice. In a tenseness in his eyes not due to any hatred of Katse and his army. He’d told them all in silent whispers for so long, whispers they ignored until it was too late, but of them all, Ryu was the only one who hadn’t noticed at all. His brother had been dying before his eyes and he hadn’t known it until Hakase told them in blunt, simple terms, until his brother was bleeding before his eyes and saying his good-byes.

Was he stupid? Yes. Was he ignorant? He had to be. He was a ninja for his strength, nothing more. He wasn’t smart at all, and now he had a chance to make up for his blindness and he just wasn’t smart enough to figure out how.

Rising, he went to the kitchen for a snack most people would consider a meal. It didn’t matter how much he was drinking, that had been Joe on the phone. Hurting and desperate. Hakase had said he couldn’t survive on his own though, so how? He ate his sandwiches, trying to puzzle it out, finally going and spending ten minutes digging out a pen and paper so he could write it out.

Joes fate

ded?
prisner?
joke?

He looked at what he’d written, grimacing at his appalling spelling. Yet another sign of his slowness. He shook his head and took another bite of sandwich, getting some of the filling on the paper. Joe couldn’t afford for him to feel sorry for himself. He started at the top.

ded?

Was Joe dead? Had he imagined the call?

ded?
galactor trap?
to much beer?

It couldn’t be a Galactor trap. Why not? Sandwich gone, he nibbled on the pencil eraser. Galactor was gone. They’d fallen apart when Katse died and Sosai left. Besides, why bother with trickery? If they knew who he was, why not shoot up the whole bar? Why not speak to Ken and try to trick him too? The Eagle was more important than the Owl. Or did they not expect Ken to be stupid enough to fall for it? No... it couldn’t be Galactor. They just didn’t exist anymore and it wasn’t their style anyway. He drew a line through it.

ded?

galactor trap?
to much beer?

Joe wasn’t dead. That he had to take on faith. He drew a line though that, which meant it couldn’t have been because he drank too much. He drew a line through that too. He read the list again.

Joes fate
ded?

galactor trap?
to much beer?

prisner?
joke?

It wasn’t a trap or beer. That had to mean it couldn’t be a joke, as well. He grimaced, realizing he was thinking in circles even as he drew a line through it as well. That left one thing left.

Joes fate
ded?

galactor trap?
to much beer?

prisner?
joke?

Prisoner. Joe was a prisoner. Head throbbing, Ryu stood and started to pace, his mind racing in a way he’d never forced it to before when he had his teammates to rely on. If Ken had believed he were alive, he’d have figured it out already. Well, Ken didn’t believe, so all Ryu had to rely on was himself. Throwing himself down in his chair, he started another list.

prisner
why?
who?
where?
how?

He looked at it and nibbled on the pencil. Why would anyone want to keep Joe a prisoner?

why?

blackmale
ransum
stupiditie
use him four something

Sighing, he started at the top. Blackmail. Who would use blackmail on the Condor? Or was it blackmail against the rest of them? That was the same as ransom though, and none of them had heard anything before this. No demands or anything. It’d been four months since Kross Karakorum. They’d have heard from his captors before now if they planned to ransom him. He drew lines through the first two and looked at the last. It was amusing, but hardly a reason. Someone might take the Condor because they were stupid, but they’d never keep him. He turned to the last.

why?

blackmale
ransum
stupiditie
use him four something

His eraser was gone. Ryu stared at the last reason, feeling cold. Use Joe... for what? One idea wrote itself down almost without his help.

use him four something

to kill someone

Putting down his eraser, Ryu went to take a walk and clear his head, frightened.


An hour later, he was back.

why?

blackmale
ransum
stupiditie
use him four something

to kill someone

who?

Who was Joe supposed to kill? It was the only reason he could think of to take the Condor, the most lethal hand-to-hand fighter in the world. Someone wanted to use him as an assassin. But against who?

why?

blackmale
ransum
stupiditie
use him four something

to kill someone

target?

Berg Katse
Nambu
ISO President
UN leaders
Kagaku Ninja Tai
Sosai X

Berg Katse? No, he was already dead. Nambu? Joe wouldn’t. Same with the ISO President, UN leaders and the rest of the team. He looked at what that left him.

target?

Berg Katse
Nambu
ISO President
UN leaders
Kagaku Ninja Tai
Sosai X

Suddenly, he had to take another walk.


He knew why Joe was taken. Now who did it?

Who?

Galactor
ISO
Military
Mersanarys
Other

Galactor was out for obvious reasons. So was the ISO. Why bother when Joe already worked for them? The military wouldn’t. Joe had always enjoyed temporary assignments with them, though he didn’t like the regimentalized demands they made. He wouldn’t protest a reassignment to them too much. Mercenaries? Joe wouldn’t mind being a mercenary either, but they might not know that. Of course, he’d make it pretty obvious after they had him. He’d sounded frightened on the phone. That left the last, again.

Who?

Galactor
ISO
Military
Mersanarys
Other

That didn’t help at all. He took it farther.

Other

Someone who hates Sosai X
Someone who’s a doctor
Someone who can save Joe

Someone who hates Sosai X. That was providing Joe was taken to kill Sosai after all and Ryu wasn’t just spinning in circles again. And providing Sosai was coming back from wherever he went. That idea made him feel cold again and he went for a beer.

Other

Someone who hates Sosai X

Galactor
Ex-Galactor
Someone who knows that Sosai is coming back

Galactor was out again. He eliminated them. Ex-Galactor? That was a maybe. Only Galactors knew Sosai existed until almost the end of the war. Someone who knows that Sosai is coming back? He started writing again.

Other

Someone who hates Sosai X

Galactor
Ex-Galactor
Someone who knows that Sosai is coming back

Knows when
scientist

Someone who’s a doctor
Someone who can save Joe

He buried his head in his hands. Joe was kidnapped by an ex-Galactor scientist who hates Sosai X and knows he’s coming back so he can kill him. Someone who had a way to save him. How? Joe was terminal. Make him a cyborg? Galactor had been experts at that. He laid his head on the table, pushing the papers away. He really was stupid, coming up with a reason like that. And it didn’t answer the only question that really mattered anyway.

Where?


He woke up the next morning sitting with his head on his arms at the kitchen table. The previous night could have been a dream if not for the papers scattered in front of him. Ryu read them over, wondering if he were insane, then decided it didn’t matter. He was going to save Joe, no matter what.

He was on duty that day, supposed to stay on the docks to help fishermen and pleasure boaters dock their craft and ensure all mooring fees were paid. First, he called Nambu Hakase.

"Moshi moshi?" he heard.

He swallowed, wondering if Nambu would believe him. "Hakase? I need to tell you something."

Nambu’s voice sounded as emotionless as always. "If it’s about the phone call you received, I’ve been filled in already by Ken."

Did that mean Ken had changed his mind? He believed him? "Where are we going to start looking?" he asked excitedly.

Nambu was silent for an uncomfortably long time.

"Hakase?"

"Ryu, Joe is dead."

Ryu felt his heart fall. "You’re not even going to look into it?"

"There’s no reason to. You imagined it."

No reason... Ryu scooped up the papers. "Look... I figured it out last night. Joe was kidnapped by an ex-Galactor scientist who turned him into a cyborg or something so he could kill Sosai X when he came back."

Silence. "Ryu, I’m not having this conversation with you."

"But Hakase!"

Nambu hung up.

Stunned, Ryu stood there listening to the dial tone until he heard his father outside yelling to him to hurry up and hung up before going outside to work and try to forget.


A week later, Ryu leaned against a lamp post across the street from the Snack J, staring at the door miserably. "Come on," he muttered to himself. "They’re hardly going to laugh at you."

In the entire week, he hadn’t come any closer to figuring out where Joe was and was beginning to think he had imagined it after all. Joe was dead, gone. He’d spent that morning at his grave, begging forgiveness for disturbing his rest with his wild goose chase, lighting incense to warm him while he slept, and now he had to beg the same of his teammates. He bit his lip.

Just too stupid. Seeing things that aren’t there. Stupid, stupid Ryu.

A mailman came down the sidewalk, sorting mail, put a few letters in Jun’s mailbox and continued on. Ryu sighed, crossing the road and collecting them to take in to Jun. Not much of a peace offering for dragging all their pain out into the open again. It was mostly bills he held. Water, gas, phone.

Phone. Ryu stared at the bill, starting to sweat. Before he could let himself think it through, he shoved the rest of the bills back into the mailbox and scurried away down the street, the letter hidden under his jacket like a thief with his loot.


55-568-5968

Ryu stared at the number. It was the only call to be received on the bar line the night he talked to Joe. Desperately, he found himself praying that Joe would answer at the other end. It had to be Joe. Hand shaking, he dialed the number on the payphone.

"Shimadzutai Boat Rentals."

Ryu’s hopes fell. It was a woman’s voice. Not Joe at all.

"Konichiwa? Hello?"

He swallowed. "Hai. Can I get your address, please?" She gave it and he thanked her and hung up.

A boat rental place. Three hundred kilometres north of his father’s marina, up where all sort of little tiny islands dotted the water off the coast of Utoland. What reason could Joe have for calling from there?

"...I-I got away but... don’t know... where I am. Please... help me..."

Ryu took a deep breath, wondering. Joe said he got away... did he get away to Shimadzutai boat rental and call the Snack from there?

Excited, he ran to his car.


Shimadzutai Boat Rental had a small office on a shiny marina much newer than the one his father owned, catering more to tourists instead of fishermen, and mainly renting powerboats and dingys.

Dressed like a tourist himself, with a loud shirt, a camera and sunglasses, Ryu strode into the office like he belonged there, though his heart was pounding. He hadn’t tried any disguises since the war, and then he usually had Jinpei to back him up. Those had fun, but it wasn’t as enjoyable when he was on his own. It was a clean, neat little office he entered, with only the cardboard over the broken window on the back door to break up the tidiness.

The secretary rose with a smile to bow politely. "Chinkyaku," she intoned. "How may I help you?"

Ryu grinned stupidly. "Hi. I was wondering if I could rent a boat."

"What kind?"

He thought desperately, trying not to wince at the prices listed on the wall behind her. "Uh- a dingy?"

"Of course, sir." She started typing.

Ryu tried to look disinterested. "I was wondering if you had maybe seen a friend of mine. He’d have been here a week ago. He really stands out. He’s Sicilian." He watched her out of the corner of his eye.

"I haven’t seen anyone like that, sir."

Was she lying? Ryu couldn’t tell. "What happened to your window?" he asked instead.

Her face showed a flicker of disdain. "We were burgled last week. Someone broke in and knocked over some of the furniture. Luckily they didn’t take anything."

Or someone broke in to use the phone and wound up fighting the men sent to recapture him. Ryu didn’t dare let himself breathe. "When did that happen?" he asked nonchalantly.

"Friday night." She finished typing. "Could I get your name, sir?"

"Uh." Ryu thought desperately. "Ken Washio." And winced.

"All right, Mr. Washio." She took down his address and phone number. "Where will you be taking the boat."

"Just around the marina." He watched her enter that. "Do you put down everyone’s destinations too?"

"Of course, sir."

Ryu turned away excitedly. Maybe the boat Joe used to get to the marina was listed on that computer. Providing he came to the marina over the water and not from somewhere on the mainland. Ryu shook that away. He didn’t have the brain power to try and second guess himself.


He spent the rest of that day puttering around the marina like he said he would. He’d rented the tiny boat for two days, so that night, he steered by memory back into dock, having memorized the way and the obstacles during the day. Tying it up, he went to the darkened boat rental office, took a deep breath and broke in through the same window that had been broken earlier. No alarm went off and he let himself in, making his way carefully across the floor. He didn’t have a BirdStyle to protect himself with this time and he had no idea how Nambu and the others would react if he had to call them for bail money. Or his father. His being arrested would shame his entire family.

But he was Joe’s only hope. Carefully, he sat down at the computer and booted it up, heading into the record files. Jun had taught him a bit of how to hack, though he felt too stupid to really want to waste her time, and it took him almost fourty minutes to navigate his way through the triple layers of passwords and the firewall. Finally, the records were before him.

No boat was rented the night Joe made the call, but three were during the day. Two dingys and a powerboat to a family out for a day jaunt. They’d had it back long before dark. Ryu chewed on a knuckle.

Joe didn’t come to the marina to rent a boat. He came to use the phone. He had no way to rent a boat, but he might have stolen one from his captors to get to the marina, so records of their boat rentals had to be on the computer. He started scanning all the entries, but there were too many. It was a successfully marina, especially during the tourist season. Chewing his lip now, he checked back in time, to the day Joe vanished. Five rentals. Most to families, one to a school. No luck there. If Joe were dying, they wouldn’t want to waste time renting a boat, though. He’d have been brought to wherever he was by helicopter instead. But later they might use a boat. Far more discrete that way. He checked the records a week later.

Raphael Hakase.

Ryu felt hope begin to fill him. A week after Joe vanished, a Raphael Hakase rented a boat to travel to one of the outer islands. An island called Taka no Shimadzutai to be exact. He rented the boat four times, then finally bought it outright, which was when the records ended. Every time he rented, he went to Taka no Shimadzutai.

Joe... That was where Joe was. It had to be. Quickly, Ryu powered down the computer and hurried out the door.


Taka no Shimadzutai was a barren, windswept island with a forbidding mountain and dead trees to greet any incoming visitors. Ryu cautiously tacked up to the side away from the docks, trusting to his sailing skill to keep him from dashing himself to death on the rocks. Securing the dingy, he started to climb. It was hard work. He wasn’t designed for that kind of exercise without a BirdStyle to help, but his determination got him to the top.

There were more plants growing up on the island away from the water, but they made it no less harsh. Ryu cautiously made his way across the plateau, hearing nothing except the wind and his own footsteps. Using every trick he’d ever learned in the Ninjatai, he found cameras watching the reaches, tripwires to sound the alarms, and laser detectors. Wishing he were Ken so it wouldn’t be so hard, he avoided them all and finally came to a cave. A low hum came from it and he cautiously made his way inside.

Twenty feet past the entrance, the stone of the cave became the metal of an underground installation and Ryu’s pace slowed ever farther as he made his way cautiously along. Hearing a sound up ahead, he crept up to a corner and peered around it.

An old man in a cloak with a long beard and a falcon sitting on his shoulder stood at a computer, checking the readings and murmuring to himself, though Ryu was too far away to hear what he said. The falcon preened itself contentedly, occasionally dropping a feather. The room was large and lined with computers and other machinery Ryu didn’t recognize, a table with a coffin-like object sitting in the very centre, half a dozen thick cables running to it.

Ryu watched the old man. He looked mildly insane, certainly unlike any of the scientists he had known in his intensity, except for Nambu. He finished his work and stroked the falcon, murmuring to it reassuringly as he made his way across the room and out one of the other doors.

Ryu crept into the room, glancing at the computer. The man, who he assumed was Raphael Hakase, had left the monitor on and there were plans there to insert an antimatter bomb into a human heart. He hissed between his teeth and looked around, his eyes finally coming to rest on the coffin. Going closer, he saw it was a stasis tube.

Joe lay inside.


He’d been right. He was right the whole time, even though no one believed him. Joe Asakura was alive, and about to be turned into a bomb by a madman. Tears streamed down Ryu’s face as he looked at his brother, eyes turning to look at the monitors as well. Joe was alive, thanks to Raphael, but his arms, legs, skin, eyes... everything but his heart, brain, organs... it was all artificial now, designed to look and feel like the original, for Joe himself to feel they were like the original, but to be stronger. They’d fought cyborgs before, but never one as advanced as the Condor. He was worlds ahead of the best they’d ever seen.

"I don’t care," he whispered, looking for a way to open the tube. "You’re still you, metal body or not."

The bomb hadn’t been installed yet, but otherwise Joe was fully functional and powered up. Raphael had to be keeping him asleep to keep him from trying to escape again. But he could be moved safely. Ryu opened the stasis chamber and scooped his brother out, expecting him to be heavy, but he was just as light as ever. Raphael had done a masterful job.

The moment he lifted Joe free, an alarm sounded. Cursing, Ryu clutched Joe close and bolted for the exit, his heart pounding. But this was no Galactor base and no weapons or defense systems tried to stop them.


Joe was starting to come around as Ryu laid him on his back at the bottom of the dingy. "N-nani?" he whispered, trying to sit up.

Ryu pushed him down as he prepared the sails. "Lie still. I’ll get us out of here." He untied the tiny boat.

A falcon screamed overhead and he looked up to see Raphael scrambling down the side of the hill towards him, his bird circling overhead. "Wait!" he cried. "Don’t go! I need him!"

Ryu’s face hardened as he pushed away, letting the current put distance between him and the old man. He was grateful to him for saving Joe’s life, but his reasons for doing so canceled out any obligation he might have felt. "Joe isn’t a weapon! He’s a person!"

Thirty feet of water separated them and Raphael stood in shadow. "You don’t understand!"

"Yes I do!" he shouted back. "You want him to destroy Sosai X! Well, that’s the job of the entire Kagaku Ninjatai! And we will!" Deliberately turning his back on the old man, he focused on sailing them clear of the rocks and into open ocean.

Joe watched him quietly. "How did you find me?" he asked at last, quietly.

Ryu shrugged, a little embarrassed. "I tracked your call to the marina, then found records of a Raphael Hakase. They led me here."

"And the others?"

"They think you’re dead. They didn’t want to believe me, I guess it hurt too much."

Gingerly, Joe sat up, obviously not fully used to his new body. "How’d you know what Raphael wanted me for?"

"Oh." He looked down. "I made a lucky guess. I got lucky a lot."

Joe snorted. "Not luck, skill." Surprised, Ryu looked at his uncompromising violet eyes. "You’re not nearly as stupid as you think you are."

Ryu blushed hotly as Joe extended his hand and he clasped it warmly.

"Arigato," the Condor told him. "For saving me."

"No," Ryu whispered. "Thank you."


The next afternoon, Ryu and Joe walked down the sidewalk towards the Snack J.

"They’ll all be there," Ryu grinned. "I can’t wait to see their faces when you walk through the door."

Joe smiled faintly. "Ryu, can I ask a favour?"

"Sure."

He looked down. "Can you not tell anyone that I’m a cyborg?"

Ryu nodded, not needing to ask why. "Sure, Joe." The grin returned. "Hang on outside for a second."

He went in alone. Like he’d expected, Jun, Jinpei and Ken were there, Jun and Jinpei preparing for the evening crowds, Ken trying to bum a free meal.

Jinpei looked up at him and grinned. "Ryu, where you been!"

He smiled and walked over to ruffle his hair. "Oh, here and there."

Ken looked at him worriedly. "Are you still upset about that phone call?"

He couldn’t quite keep the smile from spreading into a grin. "Not at all. I feel great about it."

Jun blinked. "You do?"

The grin widened. "Yup. Because for once I was right and I proved to myself I have a brain in my head after all."

They were all staring at him. "Ryu," Ken started. "You don’t still believe that Joe is alive, do you?"

"What’s the matter, Ken, written me off already? Don’t you know I’m too tough to die?"

With his back to the door while the three of them stood before them, Ryu had a perfect view of their faces as they saw Joe, ones he’d remember forever. Ken went absolutely white, his eyes huge. Jun sagged against the bar, one hand fluttering at her mouth like a bird’s wing. Jinpei’s whole jaw looked like it was about to hit the floor.

Joe’s low chuckle sounded behind him.

"ANIKI!" Jinpei screamed, flying past him. Ryu turned in time to see him fling himself into Joe’s arms, sobbing. Then Jun was there, hugging him desperately.

"How?" Ken tried to work his mouth. "How did you, how did he..."

Ryu shrugged. "I’ll tell you later." He took his arm. "Come on, let’s welcome him back." Ken didn’t protest and they all piled together into a five-way hug that lasted a very long time.

 

THE END
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