"Go left," The Eagle hissed. "We'll take the right."
Silently, Joe raced down the lefthand corridor, eyes intent on the way ahead, barely aware of the small boy who raced along behind him. Jinpei could keep up easily. The kid was the fastest one among them, and he didn't want to think about him anyway. He didn't want him there after all. He preferred to do his killing alone.
The passageway joined with another coming up to it from the left, and Joe drew his gun. He dove across the open space, firing, and the Galactors who'd been waiting to ambush them screamed as he mowed them down. Then he was past the passage, somersaulted to his feet and keep going. An explosion behind him showed that Jinpei had disposed of the few remaining goons his barrage had missed. Better than them sneaking up behind them, though he resented the boy seeing him miss anyone. A second explosion took out the corridor, cutting off any further attacks from that direction.
The corridor turned again, and opened onto a catwalk above a hanger. Joe stopped just before the end of the corridor and glared out at the troops milling like sheep around the parked mecha. Jinpei skidded to a halt at his side. "All right!" The boy crowed. "We got here before they could launch!"
Joe just nodded. The mecha looked like cockroaches, dozens of them the size of tanks. Most were still under construction, but he could see one moving noisily towards the main doors with an awkward, skuttling motion. It may look like a roach, but it didn't completely move like one.
"Boy are they scraping the bottom of the barrel for these," Jinpei giggled. "These guys don't know a thing about insects."
Trust the kid who would know. Though if Jun caught him bringing pet cockroaches home again, his ass was grass.
Joe analyzed the situation. At least thirty Galactors and twelve mechs, one obviously operational, the rest shut down. Still, one mech could do a lot of damage if it got out. It could go places the God Phoenix wouldn't be able to follow, and it could disappear before he got to his car and its guns. They'd have to take it out now.
"Cover me," he said gruffly and took a single step forward, literally throwing himself off the catwalk at the mech.
"What about backup?!" Jinpei screeched.
Joe ignored him. As always, the familiar rage filled him, driving away fear, banishing compassion. The men below him weren't men. Weren't human. They were merely targets, blood stains about to happen.
As he dove, his hand flashed to his wing, coming free with three feather shuriken. He drew his arm back and threw them, seeing them strike their targets with satisfying screams. Then he had his gun out and strafed the other goons, driving them into a panic. Some were intelligent enough to fire back, but he dodged them easily. Leave it to Ken to announce himself and psyche them out with legends of the White Shadow. He preferred straight death to be his intimidation tactic.
He counted ten goons down before his landed in a crouch on the head of the cockroach. The mecha reared back, trying to dislodge him, but he rode it like a surfboard, yanking a monofilament cable out of one of his belt pouches. Looping it around the hopefully weaker neck of the mecha, he drew it tight and yanked.
It worked. He'd guessed that the neck was vulnerable, made of less resilient materials to give it enough flexibility to turn. The cable, designed to cut through anything short of battle steel, sliced through it, and Joe leapt free as the head tumbled to the ground. The rest of the mecha fell, its legs no longer supporting it without commands from the head, and slammed onto its belly, sparks flying from the severed neck. A moment later, it exploded.
The goons were stunned momentarily by the explosion and the fire, so Joe threw himself at them. The first one he kicked in the throat, then he broke the neck of another and shot a third. Two more dropped from shuriken wounds. Used to his reputation, the Galactors broke and fled, screaming "Condor!"
Joe made to pursue. Suddenly, the ground he was standing on exploded. Protected by his birdstyle, but still in pain and shock, he was blown back and landed with enough force on the floor to drive all the breath out of him. Looking up, he saw one of the mechas, its body still under construction, had turned its head towards him. Smoke issued from the artillery gun within its mouth. It fired again and Joe barely rolled out of the way in time.
Not far enough. The floor erupted again and this time he slammed into the wall. He felt something in his chest snap and crashed to the floor, dazed, too busy trying to breathe to stand. The mecha targetted on him again and he glared at it, refusing to flinch.
Suddenly, a bola wrapped around the shaft of the protruding gun and exploded. The mecha rocked back and exploded as well, spraying heated metal over Joe. Jinpei landed in front of him.
"And the Great Swallow Jinpei wins again!" He bent over Joe. "Are you okay?"
But Joe didn't answer. Some of that shrapnel had struck too close to home.
He woke up in a bathroom, Jinpei leaning over him with a towel in one hand he was using to dab at the blood on his forehead. He was lying on his back on the floor, he realized, and he could smell the urinal cakes from here. The place reeked like it hadn't been cleaned in ages.
He sat up with a groan. He felt like he had a broken rib and his head was aching. Jinpei had detransmuted him, he saw, and ripped up some thin towels to bind the shrapnel cuts lacerating his side. The boy just beamed when he moved. "Hey, Aniki! How are you feeling?"
Joe blinked rapidly to clear his vision. "I'm fine. How long was I out?"
"About five minutes. I had to pull a piece of shrapnel out of you the length of my thumb, but I think you're going to be okay." He stood up, still not much taller than Joe sitting down. "I called Ken. He's on his way."
Joe groaned inwardly. The last thing he needed was Ken the Eagle giving him shit for taking 'unnecessary risks' again. Bad enough he had to be saved by a kid.
"I'm fine," he repeated, forcing himself to his feet, headed for the door.
"You're welcome too!" Jinpei snapped.
"Listen you little brat! I didn't ask you to come with me!"
"It's a good thing I did or you'd be dead!"
"I don't need some short brat thinking he needs to cover my back..!"
"I'm not short!"
Switching to birdstyle angrily as he talked, Joe yanked the door open. It was a mistake. Nambu had drilled them over and over again to check doors before they opened them, to never assume they were safe. But he was too angry and resentful of Jinpei, without even being sure why, to think clearly. Or to recognize in the split instant he had the squad waiting with stun rifles aimed for him to do just what he did.
Then it was too late, for the second time that day.
Galactor was beginning to develop a bit of intelligence. This time when Joe came to, he was naked, save for the bandages Jinpei had wrapped around his injuries. So was Jinpei, he realized in the first fuzzy instant after opening his eyes. The boy who shared the cell he'd been dumped in was lying only a few meters away, looking remarkably skinny, and remarkably young. Blinking slowly, Joe rolled onto his belly and pushed himself up onto his elbows, his head hanging down towards the floor.
"Christ, I feel like shit," he muttered, then looked around.
The cell was about ten feet on a side, without anything other than a toilet in the corner. No sink, no beds. The floor was cold cement, as were three of the walls. There was a drain in the floor, but it was so small he doubted he could even get a hand into it. The front of the cell was barred, and he could see the cell took up half of the room, the other half being dedicated to a door out, a table, and a half dozen Blackbird ninjas standing patiently along the wall. Oh joy... Galactor was definately getting smarter.
None of them said anything to him, so Joe didn't bother to say anything himself. He just climbed to his knees and made his way over to Jinpei's side, his muscles resisting the movement. "Jinpei?" he whispered, feeling the slow pulse. "You awake?" The boy had bruises down his back and a nasty one on his chin. Apparently, after they'd gunned him down, they'd managed to cold cock him. Joe felt a surge of guilt at that. They were seriously disadvantaged in small rooms, but with two of them, they'd have been able to get away. It was entirely possible Jinpei had been captured for refusing to leave him behind. It'd be just like the kid.
"Shit..." Surging to his feet, Joe grabbed the bars of the cell, belately realizing they might be electrocuted. They weren't. "Where's Katse!" He demanded.
Two of the Blackbirds looked at each other, but neither said anything. Joe was left to seethe without relief.
Suddenly, he heard a moan behind him and hurried to kneel at Jinpei's side. "Jun?" The boy mumbled. "C'n I have s'more skittles?"
Joe suppressed a grin. If the Swallow was thinking about candy, then he couldn't be too badly hurt. He shook him. "Wake up, short stuff."
Jinpei opened his eyes and looked up at him. "I'm not short," he protested, then looked around. "Where are we? And what happened to our clothes?!"
Burning with embarassment, the boy looked around and skuttled behind him, where the Blackbirds couldn't see him. One of them smirked.
"How do we get out of this?" Jinpei whispered into his back.
"I got no fucking idea," Joe whispered back. Settling down, he laid his arms across his knees and proceeded to glare at the Blackbirds. He didn't care if they stared at him. He was going to stare right back. Jinpei kept hiding behind him. Time dragged on.
"Where do you think Ken and the others are?" The boy whispered at last.
Joe shrugged. "Probably still causing trouble," he muttered in an undertone, still staring at one of the Blackbirds he suspected to be the leader. The man was matching his gaze, but he was starting to sweat. "If they'd left or been caught too, Katze would be in here gloating."
"What do you think they're going to do?" he whispered after a few more minutes. He sounded scared.
Joe didn't care. "Grow up," he hissed. "What do you think?"
Jinpei punched him in the back. "I hate you!"
The blow didn't have much force in it, but it connected with his broken rib. Joe sucked in his breath in sudden agony, seeing red, then spun on him. "You fucking little brat!" He belted him.
Instantly, Jinpei was on him, and the next thing Joe knew, they were in a full fight, Joe seriously trying to pound the kid's skull in. He was just too quick though, and wounded less than his older teammate.
Then the Blackbirds were in the cell with them, trying to pull them apart. Instantly, Jinpei launched himself over Joe and into them. Belately, Joe took the opportunity and elbow punched one of them in the face. Grabbing his gun, he shot another in the gut.
The battle was over remarkably quickly, with all the Blackbirds down and themselves with only minor injuries. A nasty bruise growing over his right eye, Jinpei grinned at Joe, all the animosity gone from his face. "Way to go, Aniki!" He grabbed one of the shorter ninjas and started stripping his uniform off him.
Joe stared at him, stunned. That was faked? With slow horror and self hatred, he went to get clothes for himself. It hadn't been faked for him.
Two minutes later, they were out in the hallways, one stereotypical Blackbird with a bloodstained rent in the side of his costume he kept hidden under his wing, and a very unstereotypical Blackbird in a suit obviously too big for him. Joe had no idea where they were, but the corridors looked the same as those they'd entered for the mission, and he could still hear alarms, so he assumed that the rest of the Kagaku Ninjatai were tearing the place apart looking for them. They just had to find them, and their gear.
It felt odd to be wearing the Blackbird suit. It was thinner than the one he normally wore, affording less protection, and was constricting in places he wasn't used to. More, it smelled of a different man's sweat, and the very idea that he was wearing it made him feel ill. Jinpei didn't seem to enjoy it much more than he did, muttering about wanting to get his bolas back and throttle their tailor with it. The babble annoyed Joe, but he didn't say anything.
He could have seriously hurt Jinpei back in that cell. More, he'd wanted to. He watched a squad of goons pass by, obviously not sensing anything unusual about them. Why Jinpei? He was his teammate. It just seemed, the more Jinpei proved himself, the more Joe resented him, and he didn't understand why. They were supposed to be the best. Why would he resent that in a teammate? He certainly didn't in Ken, and he and Ken fought constantly. Why would he want the Swallow to fail? To be taken off the team? Joe swallowed. He didn't want to know. He was used to straight solutions to problems. He didn't like this mental confusion shit, hadn't ever since he learned who his parents worked for when they died. He liked his world in nice shades of black and white, and for some reason, Jinpei kept bringing in the gray.
"Are you all right, Aniki?" Jinpei asked, tugging on his arm. He looked funny with the Blackbird helmet sliding forward over his face, but he'd always been a perceptive little brat. Not a brat, he reminded himself. Why did he keep thinking of him that way?
Jinpei frowned. "That's what you always say."
They came to an intersection. He could hear the sound of computers and people to the left, so they went that way, heading up a stairway to a door their costumes gave them access through.
Beyond was the control room of the base and Joe grinned as he saw their birdstyles and bracelets lying on a heap on a table. He grinned even more as he saw who was standing over them, shrieking at his goons. Berg Katse.
"What the hell do you mean you can't find them?!" Katse was screaming. "They're down by two! How hard can it be to find three goddamned ninjas!?"
"We're trying our best, Katse-sama!"
"That's not good enough!" Katse backhanded the hapless man to his knees.
Supressing the grin that would give him away, Joe walked over to the mutant. Berg Katse was dressed, as always, in that godawful purple cape with the stupid ears, always distinctive, always - to his mind - moronic. Stepping up, he fingered his gun. This would be pathetically easy.
Then he heard a familiar voice, speaking familiar words, though he'd never heard them from this direction before, or understood firsthand the effect they had on people.
"SOMETIMES ONE, SOMETIMES FIVE! THE WHITE SHADOW THAT SLIPS IN UNSEEN!"
It seemed to be coming from everywhere.
"Shit!" Katze screeched, diving for an escape hatch. Joe swore as well, drawing his gun to stop him.
The entire world exploded in pain. Joe felt something razor sharp slicing across his back and only the fact that he arched in pain saved him from a severed spine. Slipping in his own blood, he fell, turning as he did so, to see the Eagle landing with white winged grace in the middle of the table that held his and Jinpei's birdstyles, his bloody birdrang smacking into his hand. It was Ken, he realized. Ken had tried to kill him.
And still would, from the look of it. He threw the birdrang again, missing the even quicker Katze but decapitating a screaming aide in the process, then glanced down at the struggling Joe as it came back.
Joe tried to get up, tried to speak, tried to let the Eagle know who he was, but his tongue was frozen by shock, his mind reeling with blood loss, and he couldn't get the words out. In slow motion, he saw Ken draw his arm back, his blue glove drenched in blood, and hurl the birdrang at his throat. The red made it look like a rose, Joe thought faintly, just like the rose the assassin who murdered his parents used to try and kill him. He had no way to stop it and it filled his vision. Somehow, it almost seemed funny. He never did think any Galactor would ever be good enough to end it for him.
Suddenly, Jinpei was there. The boy dove over him, black wings trailing, then somersaulted in midair. The head of the birdrang smacked into his palm and he spun onto his feet on the other side of him, screaming at Ken.
"Aniki! It's us!"
Joe slumped down, dizzy. Jinpei knelt over him, his helmet falling over his face until he yanked it off and tossed it aside. Ken knelt on his other side, stricken.
"Hold on, Aniki," Jinpei begged. "We'll get you out of here."
"Shit, Joe," Ken whispered, grabbing his hand. "I had no idea it was you!"
Joe wanted to say something, preferably something sarcastic, but his tongue still wasn't working and the world was fuzzing out, taking them with it. Just before it went away completely, he saw the bloody birdrang still in Jinpei's hand. It still was as red as a rose, and just before everything went away, he realized exactly what it was he resented so much about Jinpei.
Jinpei was sitting on a ledge on the roof of the ISO building in downtown Utoland, firing spitballs at the pigeons. And missing deliberately, Joe saw as he limped out towards him. He was still supposed to be in bed, but he made it a point to ignore any doctor until they strapped him down. So far, they hadn't done that, though he suspected it was going to occur in his near future.
Jinpei looked up as he approached. "How are you feeling, Aniki?" He asked automatically.
"Fine," Joe started to say, then changed his mind. "Like shit," he said instead.
Jinpei grinned at him, catching the change. He was a smart kid. No, he was a smart man. Joe had to learn to make the distinction.
Gingerly, he climbed onto the ledge and sat beside him. "Thanks for saving my life," he said slowly. It was hard to say.
Jinpei shrugged, obviously trying to play it cool. "You're welcome. It's not like it's the first time." He frowned. "I think it's the first time you've ever thanked me though."
Joe shrugged as well. It probably was.
Jinpei narrowly missed another startled pigeon, none of whom seemed able to figure out where the attacks were coming from, and looked at him sideways. "Why thank me?" He asked softly.
Joe sighed. This was what he came out to say, much as he hated it. But he'd lain in bed all day debating it, and he knew it was something that had to be said, for his own peace of mind if nothing else. "Because I'm tired of resenting you."
The boy gaped at him with a child's amazement. "What? What have you got to resent ME for?"
Joe looked skyward. "Because you're so good."
He continued to stare.
"Because," he continued slowly, dragging the words out of the depths of his soul. "You're ten, or nine, or however the hell old you are now, and you're a better fighter than most men. And because, if YOU'D been my father's son, my parents would still be alive."
For a long time, Jinpei didn't say anything. Joe didn't want him to. The admission had been hard enough to make without any kid comments to twist the knife. Jinpei could have saved his parents' from Galactor. He'd hated himself for a long time, knowing he could have saved them if he'd been better, but finally convinced himself that no little kid like he'd been ever could have.
Until Jinpei arrived.
The boy nudged him and handed him a spit ball shooter. "I bet you a bag of skittles you can't nail that brown pigeon over there that's crapping on Hakase's car."
Joe took the shooter slowly, looking at his innocent face. Then he grabbed the paper. "I bet I can."
They beaned a lot of pigeons before switching to pedestrians, but the subject Joe brought up, never came up again. For some reason, it didn't need to.