By Maya Perez
Helpful Editing by Wendy Dinsmore
Johnny walked down the sidewalk having found himself too excited to drive home again today. He'd left work half an hour early, completing his standard afternoon routine in record time. He knew he hadn't been much good to anyone of late, but he found he didn't feel bad about it either. Almost with a feeling of acute pain, he'd finished the checklist that afternoon of the research center's security equipment, not able to stand the thought of staying there a second longer than was necessary.
Though driving home would have been a lot faster, he had too much pent up energy for that. It felt so strange really. So many things just seemed so much clearer, sharper, more breathtaking than ever--and over such a simple change! It was as if he hadn't really been seeing things at all until she'd told him. And he had to try to take it all in. His heart was just too light, he couldn't help himself! Every time he thought about it, a sweep of happiness would course through him--and he thought about it all the time. He had to walk, to experience, to look, to sense, to feel the day. Riding in a car was just too passive a thing. And every experience, every sensation just reaffirmed it wasn't just a dream after all.
Here and there someone would pass by him and he would say hello, give them a flashing smile and keep on going. It was hard enough just to resist the temptation to pick them up and swing them around trying to share his joy with them.
Johnny's eyes danced over the old fashioned storefront windows he was passing, their quaint awnings keeping off the worst heat of the sun. Home, he wanted to get home, to shower Kate with kisses and his gratitude at the miracle she was creating inside for him.
Suddenly he stopped, his gaze snagged by something though he didn't immediately know what it was. A grand smile flickered on his face as he found it, surprised he'd not noticed it before. There, staring at him from the dressed up window of a small gift shop was a dark brown teddy bear, sporting a bright red bow and the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. He couldn't help but stare at it, even as it knowingly seemed to stare back. Johnny's smile widened to gigantic proportions.
Giving in to the impulse whispering in his ear, he eagerly entered the store to buy the bear. As he watched the clerk remove it from the window, Johnny felt again the ecstatic thrill that had been his ever since the day Kate had told him she was pregnant. The idea had so surprised him and pleased him, almost as if somewhere inside he'd thought it was something he would never achieve.
He paid the clerk and even solicited a smile in return. He knew his own smile was infectious. He'd had a number of his coworkers return it even as they shook their heads in consternation. Creating children might be an everyday occurrence and no big deal as far as they were concerned, but not to him--this was new and he was going to enjoy it to the fullest.
Leaving the shop, Johnny removed the bear from the bag and just stared at it, strolling down the sidewalk again. Fondly he imagined the joy it would someday bring to his growing son or daughter. Though Kate had already said she'd prefer a boy, Johnny didn't care, he didn't care at all.
For the briefest of moments, he wondered if he'd ever owned such a bear as a child. Johnny quickly let the question flow past unanswered. He couldn't answer it, even if he'd wanted to. He had no past, at least not one he could remember. And though at times this had weighed heavily on him, for once he easily pushed it aside. He had a new life now, one he'd created for himself over these past four years. That was all that mattered. And this child, this life of his blood, and maybe even others later, would live the life and create for him the past in their futures he had lost. Life was just too precious for him to burden himself with things that just didn't matter anymore.
Strangely enough, though he remembered nothing from before, his first memories after awakening were quite clear. One of the clearest was when he'd first met Kate just hours after regaining consciousness. What a vision she'd seemed to him then--that look of lost bewilderment that had called to him like nothing else until that moment. They had been but two of the hundreds of people currently housed at one of the many refugee camps located throughout the states and abroad. The camps had been created for those unfortunate enough, like themselves, to have been caught in the middle of one of the numerous and destructive attacks by Galactor and their most recent leader Egobossler.
Johnny hadn't been injured, getting away with only a few scrapes and bruises where others had lost limbs or lives. But he'd also come away with no recollection of his life or of his family. Still, he knew he'd been very lucky. The doctors were sure the memory loss was due to being traumatized by the Galactor attacks to such a degree his mind had blocked his memory away in self-defense. Since the war was over, the doctors had been optimistic his memories would eventually return. They hadn't, but it wasn't as important as it'd once been. In the end, the loss wasn't too high a price to pay for the happiness that was now his and which he'd achieved all on his own.
With a lighter step and the new teddy bear tucked beneath his arm, Johnny hurried home to the only things that truly mattered in his life.
Whistling a catchy tune as he came within sight of the house, Johnny quickened his step as he cut across the well-kept lawn toward the front door. He grinned in anticipation at the pleasure he'd see on Kate's face when she got her first look at the blue eyed bear.
Johnny stopped as he was about to reach for the front door, and glanced back to see who had called out to him.
A well dressed man in his early twenties was standing rather stiffly and uncomfortably in the middle of his driveway. Johnny frowned, not recognizing him, even as he noticed the stem-less, wide glasses that stood precariously on the man's nose, making his face look older than it should. A well trimmed mustache added to the effect, and smartly rounded off his square features. Johnny's frown deepened as he had the abrupt feeling he'd seen this man somewhere before.
Shaking his head, Johnny stepped away from the door and met the man at the far end of the driveway. "I'm John Terell. Can I help you?" Inexplicably, as he came close, the soaring joy he'd been feeling all afternoon emptied out of him like water from a glass.
"Do you recognize me?" The stranger asked, his dark eyes never leaving Johnny's face.
The question bothered Johnny, even as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. There was something familiar about this man, but at the same time he was sure he didn't know him. And even more, he was dead sure he didn't want to. "No, I'm sorry. You have me at a disadvantage, mister...?"
The stranger smiled a small smile, though his eyes didn't change at all. "Well, it was some time ago."
Johnny paled, realizing what the man had just implied. He was from Johnny's past, this man was from before he'd become John Terell.
"We knew each other quite well then, actually. We've known each other since you were a little boy."
Johnny frowned again. That had been an odd way to put it. The man looked so young. Yet he made it sound as if he were the elder. This didn't feel right at all. "Um, I'm sorry, but this really isn't a good time for me. If, if you want, we could set up a time, a place. But not here, not now. I'm not ready for this." Johnny slowly backed away from him. Before, he'd wanted to remember everything so badly. But why had this man come now? Now, when he'd finally decided it didn't matter anymore. And why did he have such an overwhelming feeling of dread about all this?
"Please, before you go, won't you just do me a small favor? I only need for you to look at something and tell me if it means anything to you at all. Please?" The stranger pressed toward him.
Johnny stopped, puzzled by the strange undertone of desperation in the man's tone. The sad look in those dark eyes confused him even more. What did he want? "I... all right. Just make it quick."
Again Johnny got a quick smile that wasn't reflected in the eyes of the stranger. If anything, his eyes looked even more full of sorrow than before. Rapidly, the stranger reached into his coat and withdrew a gold chain from his pocket, with an eight-sided medallion at the end.
He held the medallion high so Johnny could get a good look at it. Embossed on the coin was what at first looked to be the figure of an eagle. As Johnny took a closer look, however, he realized that it was in fact a flaming phoenix.
Though it had nice detail and workmanship, Johnny was actually relieved when it evoked no memories at all. "I'm sorry, I don't know anything about this medallion."
"You can start remembering now--Ken."
Johnny looked up, his eyes widening at the words, at the name, even as the stranger's face seemed to focus in his mind for the first time and screamed with familiarity. With a rising wave of fear, Johnny stumbled back as a rush of names, faces, places flooded past his mind almost too fast to understand them. A name swelled inside him and flowed past his lips before he realized he spoke. "Na--Nambu?"
The teddy bear fell from his arm to land forgotten in the grass as Johnny Terell was himself pushed aside inside him. Ken staggered back again as he stared at a man his flashing memories insisted had died before his very eyes.
He stumbled, and Nambu was suddenly there steadying him. Ken jerked back, his body rigid, his face pale, and his eyes incapable of leaving the enigma before him. "You're dead. Egobossler killed you." Even as he spoke, Ken knew the words were true, yet here Nambu was standing before him. He knew who he was, he was Ken Washio. And this man, this man was Kozaburo Nambu, famed ISO scientist and mastermind behind the formation of the Scientific Ninja Team. "You should be dead, you should be dead."
Ken shook from top to bottom and moved to step back, but Nambu's arm reached out and latched on to his own. Ken stared at him, his breath coming in heaving gasps, his mind telling him this man was Nambu even as at the same time it told him he wasn't. He was too young. Too young. Nambu was dead! He tried to break free of the other's hold, but the latter wouldn't let him go.
"Yes, you're right. You saw Nambu die. He is dead." The Nambu, who was not Nambu, came up close, his voice low. "I am his clone."
No. No! This was too much! Yet it was all there for him to see. It was all there! The intense gaze was the same, the voice was the same, and even the light cologne that teased his nostrils was the same. But a clone? Ken's mind tried to assimilate all this as well as the past still being dredged from inside him, but it was too much. "No!"
Ken wrenched his arm from the other's hold and then tripped over himself landing heavily on the sidewalk leading to the door. Pain shot up his backside and his hands as he hit the ground. The sun warmed concrete made itself felt through his shirt to his skin.
Ken sat up his eyes closed, and shook his head as he tried to put the world back into some form of coherency. The young Nambu quickly stepped up to kneel beside him a look of concern on his face. Ken's eyes snapped open as he felt him there and flinched away as the latter reached for him.
"The disorientation should pass quickly." His hand clamped itself to Ken's arm again. It was warm, strong, alive. "I'm sorry. It had never been my intention to frighten you." His voice seemed filled with some sort of strange emotion. "I would never willingly hurt any of you."
Ken found his gaze straying invariably to the worried face before him. Could this man be a clone? Could Nambu have been brought back to life? And what about himself? Dare he believe he'd lived through their final encounter with Sosai and wasn't instead the pawn of some sort of cosmic joke? And, and if he was alive, could he, could he let himself hope that maybe, just maybe some of the others had survived as well?
Even as the thought ran through his consciousness, Ken's head snapped around to look toward the house as memory and current reality momentarily snapped into place. Eyes wide, the man at his side totally forgotten for the moment, Ken climbed up to his feet. His eyes locked on the front door and he moved like a sleepwalker up to it. As his hand reached for the knob, he suddenly stopped, his heart gripped with sudden indecision.
"Ken?" The question came softly from the clone behind him.
As if the quiet query had made the decision for him, Ken opened the door and quickly entered the house.
A nice sized living room opened up before him, it had a simple, down to earth décor, that had up to now always given it a homey atmosphere. But rather than instilling in him the comfort and peace he'd come to expect from the room, Ken only felt awkward and out of place. All of the past four years and his life as Johnny Terell flashed before him and he choked back bile feeling suddenly ill. This life, this place, all of it had been one outrageous lie.
"Johnny, is that you?"
Ken's answer caught in his throat as his smiling wife entered the room. His blood ran cold as his suspicion was horrifyingly confirmed. Kate, his loving Kate--with her long green hair, her round face and full lips, and her doe-like green eyes--was also Jun, his teammate. The room began to spin.
Ken felt himself start to fall but never hit the floor. Nambu's clone had stopped him and half dragging him, steered him to the couch. Ken looked up, his chest feeling tight, as Kate, no, Jun, crouched beside him a distressed expression on her face. It hurt him to look at it. Kate was Jun, Kate was Jun!
"Johnny, are you all right? Should I call a doctor?"
Ken waved the question away, trying to gather his confused thoughts together. "No, I'm, I'm all right. It's just the heat. I overdid it today." He tried hard to smile, though he felt more like crying. "J--uh--Kate, would you please bring me a glass of water?" Without looking at her, he sensed her hesitation to leave him. It made him want to cry all the more. "Please?"
He watched her hesitate a moment more, her worry now compounded with a puzzled frown as she threw a quick look at Kozaburo, before she headed quickly toward the kitchen.
Closing his eyes and roughly loosening the tie at his neck, Ken sat back trying to calm down. As he opened them again, he noticed Nambu's clone slowly fingering the phoenix medallion in his hand. A chill traveled down Ken's spine as he guessed at what the copy of their old mentor was thinking. "Must you? Does she really have to remember?" He glanced quickly the way Jun had gone, keeping his voice very low. "You've already got me. Can't she be kept out of it?" He couldn't quite keep the despair out of his voice. Ken wasn't even sure if he was asking this for her or for himself.
Kozaburo stared at him apologetically, putting the medallion back in his pocket for the moment. He looked away, but when his gaze locked back with Ken's, there was no apology in his eyes. "I'm sorry. It was never supposed to have come to this. But there's no longer any choice."
Ken turned away from him, a part of him no longer able to look at the deep buried pain and pity reflected in the eyes of the man who seemingly was but wasn't his old teacher and friend.
Jun returned less than a minute later, carrying a tall glass of ice water which she brought straight to Ken. He thanked her as he took it, not looking directly at her, yet unable not to see the love radiating from her for him.
God it had all been a lie! Jun was alive, Kate would soon be dead. His wife, his child. Ken gulped the water down, just wanting something, anything to ease the burning he felt inside him. The cold rose to his head and gave him a pounding headache, but he welcomed the distraction even as he continued to try to bring the turmoil inside him under control.
"Thank you for helping my husband, mister..."
"Nambu. Dr. Kozaburo Nambu."
Ken stared at Jun as her brow furrowed slightly as she looked closely at their guest for the first time. "Your name sounds so familiar. Have we met before?"
Ken cringed as Kozaburo removed his hand from his pocket, holding the medallion out where Jun could see it. "We've known each other for quite sometime--Jun."
She gasped as if she'd been struck. Ken sprang to his feet, concern overriding everything as she swayed unsteadily where she stood. His hands reached out for her but he stopped himself as she remained standing. Jun's eyes were riveted as if mesmerized to the medallion hanging before her.
Ken watched her, agony running rampant inside him, as he saw her eyes slowly leave the medallion and moved to look at Kozaburo's expectant face. Her mouth opened into a silent ‘O', her breath coming in and out in hurried gasps. Tears suddenly gathered in her eyes and after a moment, she hurried forward and ran straight into Kozaburo's arms. "You're alive! Alive! This is too wonderful! I can't believe it!"
Numb, Ken watched as Kozaburo returned her embrace, unbidden tears also gathering in the clone's eyes. Ken stood there, doing nothing, as Jun finally stepped away a bright smile on her face.
She then turned excitedly toward her husband, the words ready at her lips to explain about her old friend.
Ken felt his heart ache as he watched her stop, her smile breaking apart and fading. Jun just stood there and stared at him. She studied him intently as if this were the first time she'd ever truly looked at him. She blinked, shaking her head, and then stared, her eyes once more going wide. "My God--Ken!"
Ken found he could do nothing but watch as Jun struggled with her resurfacing memories. After a moment or two, she hesitantly walked up to him. Ken watched with almost numb detachment as she slowly raised her hand and touched his cheek with her fingers. Ken breathed out as they made contact, only then realizing he'd been subconsciously holding his breath.
Jun gave a quiet whisper, her eyes suddenly glazed. "My God."
Ken was able to catch her at the last moment when her legs gave out from under her. "Jun!"
She leaned heavily against him, holding him tight. Ken thought her could feel the rapid pounding of her heart as she held on to him desperately as if she thought he might disappear.
Deeply worried, he held her close, trying hard to set aside his own confusion for her sake. "Jun, it's all right. I remember too. Everything is all right." It was a lie, but it was what she needed. He tried to smile, feeling guilty and fragmented, even as she looked up at him with confused eyes. Gently, he helped her to her feet and steered her toward the couch.
When he set her down, Jun wouldn't let go of him, so Ken was forced to sit down as well. He didn't really mind, finding her need of him actually helping to steady himself. Someone actively depending on him had always made it easier to put aside his own concerns.
"You said there was no choice but to reawaken our memories, almost as if you'd had something to do with their removal in the first place. Is that true?" Ken asked.
Almost as if his question had brought him back into being, Nambu's clone stepped forward from where he'd retreated to be out of their way.
Jun looked back over her shoulder in curiosity at Ken's question. It was then he realized perhaps he shouldn't have asked this right now. Jun hadn't yet learned this wasn't the original Nambu.
"If you wouldn't mind," Kozaburo said carefully. "I think I'd like to hold off all the major explanations for another time. I believe I've said more than I should have for one day."
Ken was about to protest, but stopped himself, remembering the shock he and Jun had already been through just from being shown who they truly were. Did he really think he could handle more?
"If you could excuse yourself from work tomorrow, I'd like the two of you to accompany me so you could try and ease the transition period for the others when their memories are restored as well." Kozaburo stared at them expectantly.
Jun stood up excitement covering her face. "You mean, they're alive, they're all alive?"
Ken got up and stood beside her his own heart beating fast in his chest. Joe was alive--and Jinpei, and Ryu.
Kozaburo actually smiled. "They're all alive and doing quite well, actually. If all goes as it should, you should be reunited with all of them by sometime tomorrow afternoon." He turned as if to go.
"You're not leaving already are you?" Jun took a half step toward him.
Ken was hard pressed to decide if the strange quiver he thought he'd heard in Jun's voice came from fear of Nambu's clone's eminent departure or from fear of being left alone with him.
He had to admit to himself he was slightly nervous over the prospect as well. The man had been the catalyst that had returned their memories to them. Would they remain once he was gone? Or would everything revert back to what it'd been before his entrance except for the horrible feeling he was going insane?
Kozaburo turned back to face them. "Yes, I thinks it's for the best right now." His expression was kind, if not apologetic. "You two have a lot to sort through and I would only be in your way. I promise to come back for you in the morning." He tried to smile. "I'm truly sorry this had to be done." Saying nothing further, he turned from them and walked out the door.
Jun took several steps as if to go after him, but stopped before she'd reached the door.
A chill passed unwanted down Ken's back as he realized the clone had truly left them on their own. What were they supposed to do now?
"Dinner should be almost ready, John--Ken. I, I guess I'd better go check on it before it burns or something." Without looking at him or waiting for an answer, Jun headed straight for the kitchen.
Ken watched her go, unsure about everything.
They had dinner in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Ken had no idea on what he should do or even say. He knew this was a dream come true for Jun, something she'd always wanted. And hadn't he wanted it as well? He'd been so happy with her, so oblivious. But then, Johnny Terell hadn't really been him had he? He hadn't had the responsibilities of the team on his shoulders, he'd never had to make sacrifices for the sake of duty. But Egobossler had been defeated, Zed had been destroyed. Wouldn't this have been the natural progression of things for them? Yet Nambu, rather, Nambu's clone, had reawakened their memories saying there was need of them again. That put everything back to what it had been before the destruction of Zed, didn't it? Ken found his gaze straying across the table only to accidentally cross Jun's own curious gaze. He instantly looked away. What would this mean for them?
Ken got up when they'd finished and carried his own dishes into the kitchen as he'd done so many other times as Johnny. Not sure why he did it, he even lingered and helped with the dishes as he'd done before. Jun didn't object.
The familiarity of the routine and at the same time the alien quality of it, all wove in and out as he tried to keep his thoughts from wondering and only concentrate on the simple task of drying dishes. It was as if these weren't truly a part of his memories but those of a stranger.
Jun stood beside him and stopped what she'd been doing only to stare hard into the soapy water before her. After she'd stood that way for several minutes, Ken studied her profile, a creeping fear that something was horribly wrong steeling over him. "Jun?"
As he worked himself up to reach out and touch her, she turned to look at him, an odd yet almost serene expression on her face. "It's just, it's just so hard to believe we're all alive." Her eyes searched his. "Though it's been four years it feels like the end just happened yesterday."
Ken's heart and mind fought one another. One kept telling him how beautiful she looked, how the light was reflecting so brilliantly from her deep eyes, her hair, while the other repeated over and over how he was her commander, she, his responsibility, and all that had gone between them would have to be overlooked. "Yes, it does feel like it was just yesterday." He turned away, seemingly to put away some dishes, but mostly just wanting to make sure she wouldn't see the dissension in his face.
"It'll be good to see the others, won't it?" She sounded both happy and surprised at the same time. "We've got four years of catching up to do." She started in on the dishes again. "I bet Jinpei is seven feet tall by now. It was so hard to keep anything around that fit, he was just growing so fast."
Damn him! Why did Kozaburo have to disrupt their lives like this? Why couldn't he have just left them alone? When would he have to stop paying with everything?
Jun's soft query quickly brought him back to himself. Almost at once, he realized he was holding onto the open cabinet too hard, his knuckles white, and let go if it immediately.
His wife--she was his wife! Jun's worry was obvious as he turned around to face her again. But even as he watched, he saw her expression retreat back to its serene façade almost as if she didn't want him to know she was aware something was wrong.
The silence that had been with them throughout dinner swept over them again.
Once the dishes had been finished, Ken found Jun staring at him expectantly in the unbroken silence. Not sure what they should do, he mutely nodded at her and led the way out of the kitchen.
Hoping it might somehow bring them some comfort if not stability, Ken moved to what they'd recently christened as the baby's room.
In just the week since they'd found out the joyous news of Jun's condition, Ken as Johnny had gone out and bought nearly everything they might ever need or want for their child. Some of it was already in the room, a lot of it lay still in its wrapper in the closet waiting to be put to use.
The baby chair and crib, both decorated with colorful balls as well as bright pictures of flowers and bunnies, sat to one side of the room, as well as a small chest of drawers. A toy box already brimming with toys sat beside them. There was also a bag of wallpaper and several cans of paints and brushes, which sat against the wall.
The two of them had jointly been working on preparing the room for a couple of days. Back then, they'd decided they'd do this slow and together, so they could both put as much of themselves as possible into the eventual home of the newest member to their family. The same exuberance and unrestrained energy he'd been suffused with for the last several days had also been shared by Jun as well. Kate and Johnny had both wanted this so much and had been so ready for it. Now it was Ken and Jun, and Ken found his own excitement muted and afraid. A child, the two of them would have a child.
Still saying nothing, Ken walked over to cover the floor in front of a half-painted wall with the rolled up pieces of plastic hiding behind the door. Jun went over to the room's only closet and came back out with a brush and paint pan for Ken and some tracing paper and cut out sketches for herself.
As they began to work, slowly but surely, Ken felt the tension ease from his shoulders. Things didn't press on him as intently as they had before. "It really will be good to see them all again," he said.
The silence between them lost the feeling of awkwardness it'd had up to now and moved toward old familiarity. They lost themselves in the depths of it even as they continued on their work for the next couple of hours.
Ken glanced up at Jun as he picked up the plastic drop cloths when they were done, her voice ringing clearly beside him.
"I wonder if Ryu has gotten even larger since we stopped training." She had a small, amused grin on her face as if she could picture it perfectly. "I suppose it'll be hard on all of us, trying to get back into shape. We probably won't have a lot of time if the need is urgent enough."
Ken frowned at her in startled surprise. "Surely, you're not serious."
He could tell by her puzzled expression she had no idea of what he was talking about. Ken felt a sudden wave of dread sweep through him as he looked into her face. He made himself turn away from her before he answered. He wouldn't be able to avoid this--shouldn't avoid this. It had to be said. Hopefully, the sooner the better for both of them. "You're pregnant. And well, I'm sure once Hakase finds out, you'll be immediately discharged from duty." He felt his throat grow tight. "You know how rigorous our training gets. And that's nothing compared to real combat."
He heard her gasp in surprise. "I would never endanger the baby!"
"I know that." He still couldn't bring himself to look at her. "But it might not be up to you out there."
"What are you trying to say to me?"
Ken took a deep breath as he finally turned to face her. "I'd prefer for you not to become involved in this, whatever it is." He could clearly see the anger building in her eyes, though she was trying hard not to let it show on her face.
"What do you mean by not involved?"
Ken sighed lightly. "Just what it sounds like. I'd prefer it if you had nothing to do with this--if you had no involvement whatsoever. The stress wouldn't be good for you..."
"Are you telling me this as my husband or as my commander?" she demanded.
Ken felt unnaturally guilty at the question. He suddenly wished she hadn't asked him. "Both."
"I take it you're saying then that I have no say in this? That I'm not responsible enough to know how to take care of our child?"
Ken said nothing.
Her eyes flashed. "I'm to take this as an order then?"
"Jun, please try to understand," he pleaded. He was going to lose this one. It wasn't going right. Didn't she understand nothing was the same anymore? Didn't she see how hard it was for him to say this?
"Am I?" She screamed the question at him.
Ken flinched at the vehemence in her voice. "This really isn't necessary. I--"
She cut him off. "Damn you. Damn you and your insistently pathetic inhibitions!" Tears welling in her eyes, Jun turned from him and ran out of the room.
"Jun wait!" Ken's first impulse was to run after her, after his wife. But he didn't. What would he say? What could he do? He felt a spark of anger rise inside him. Why should he even try to repair an argument that should have never been? Couldn't Jun, just this once, be reasonable?
Ken realized he was being unfair even as he cleaned up the rest of the things in the room. He was asking her not to be a part of the team, to sever her old life. He wanted her out of danger, where she'd be safe--though he'd never made exceptions for her before. Ken decided he should go try talk to her. Upon reaching their bedroom door, however, he found Jun had locked him out. Beside the door was a small stack, which included his striped pajama pants, a couple of blankets, and his pillow.
Staring sadly at the pile, knowing this was the first time he'd been denied his room and warm bed since the beginning of their marriage, he raised his hand to knock on the door. Before he'd finished the gesture, however, he let his arm drop back to his side and sighed. Nothing would change if he talked to her. In the end it might be better just to leave her alone.
Grabbing up the pile that had been left to him, Ken made his way to the living room. After making his bed on the floor rather than on the couch, he changed clothes and then lay down to go to sleep. Much to his chagrin though, he found he couldn't. Worse, there was an ache deep down inside his soul he'd not experienced in a long, long time.
In their three years of marriage, Ken had never been barred from their bedroom before. Oh, he'd come close once or twice, but always he'd either apologized or she'd come and taken him back. He knew though with a pained certainty she wouldn't be coming for him tonight. And how would he explain his reasons if she was willing to hear him out anyway? It wasn't like they'd ever talked of this before. Obviously from her words before though, she suspected some of the reasons for his behavior, or lack of it. But they'd never discussed them. And he wasn't sure he could.
The team had saved the world over four years ago and all they'd been given was a chance to lose themselves. And now they wanted them back.
Ken's coiled fist smashed violently against the carpeted floor as a wave of helplessness accompanied by a deep sense of unfairness swept mercilessly through him.
Four years ago, they had all survived the final assault on Zed. They'd been found together, been taken to the same camp, but had never had the faintest inkling of who they were. It seemed strange, now that he looked back on it, how none of them had made more of an issue about how similar their clothes had resembled one another's. Still, it wasn't like they'd been together long. Confused, dazed, they'd barely gotten to see each other's faces before each of them had been carted off to different doctors.
He had only been at the camp less than a month, doing what he could to help and keep busy, before he'd been given a new identity and a place to belong. Extensive testing had yielded high scores in the knowledge of weapons, weapon systems, general science, strategy, and others. Both he and his doctors had just assumed he'd belonged to one of the armed forces. They'd checked for him there, but they'd had no records of him. But so much had been lost during the war nobody had thought anything of it. And he'd been so flattered when the staff at the camp had told him about the opening at the research center. It was where he'd worked to this very day.
It had also been there he'd met Jun again--the woman, less than a year later, he'd proposed to on his knees before a moonlit lake. He'd committed in total innocence the one transgression he'd always promised himself he'd never allow to occur. He'd compromised his command of the Gatchaman team by getting too deeply involved with a team member. Damn it all! Had anyone any idea what he might have to put Jun through?
She was out of the team. Whether she liked it or not it was out of the question. She'd have to be replaced! She was his wife, she was pregnant. Why couldn't she see that? He knew it hurt, but facts were facts. How would he be able to function knowing she was there, putting herself and their baby in danger? But where would that leave her? She'd be here, at home, waiting to see him between missions. Never knowing from one day to the next whether he was alive or dead. Why couldn't he have just died like he thought he had?
Ken sat up abruptly, startled by a small noise, only then realizing that at some point in his deliberations he'd actually fallen asleep.
Though the room itself was still shadowed in darkness, light poured through into the far side from the kitchen. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Ken quickly gathered his discarded clothes after covering himself with one of his blankets. He wasn't cold, but if Jun walked through that door... He looked away feeling suddenly foolish. Jun had already seen all there was to see of him for three years. Who was he kidding? Still, he made no move to remove the blanket.
Quietly, Ken made his way out of the living room and toward the bedroom.
Finding the door open and Jun nowhere in sight, he headed straight for the master bathroom on the other side. After a quick shower, he stepped back into the bedroom to get a change of clothes. As he dressed, he couldn't help but notice their wedding album sitting out on the nightstand on Jun's side of the bed. For no specific reason, he made sure to avoid the book, while in the back of his mind he wondered why Jun had been looking at it at all.
Following the hallway to unobtrusively return to the living room, Ken found the dining room's light on. The table there was set for two. He was amazed at the sense of relief that flooded him at the sight. He hadn't honestly been sure how far Jun would want to carry this. Not daring to let his hopes run too high, however, he entered the room and took his normal seat at the table.
Almost as if she'd been waiting for him, Jun entered the room from the kitchen carrying a plateful of food. Her face betrayed nothing, as she set the plate before him with a slight smile. "Your breakfast, commander."
The words and the lack of warmth behind the smile left Ken feeling cold. "Jun, about last night..."
She turned away from him as if not aware he was speaking and walked back to the kitchen. Unwillingly, Ken felt the ache from the night before return full force. He tried to ignore it though it permeated him and more.
Jun returned less than two minutes latter carrying her own plate and a pitcher of orange juice. After pouring him a glass and setting the pitcher down, she ignored her usual seat and instead slid her place mat and all to sit as far away from Ken as possible.
Now losing what little appetite he'd had left, Ken nevertheless forced himself to eat the meal. The scrambled eggs tasted like old sawdust in his mouth as the silence between them grew even more impenetrable and awkward than the day before.
About midway through the meal, Ken looked up in surprise as Jun broke the forced silence. "I took the liberty of calling the institute and excusing you from work today." Her tone was level. Her eyes never left her plate. "I hope I wasn't out of place."
Ken's throat constricted as he desperately tried to find the right thing to say. "Thank you."
Jun didn't even acknowledge his reply, but continued eating undisturbed.
Suddenly not able to stomach any more of it, Ken pushed roughly away from the table and after throwing his napkin on his chair, left the room.
With a mixture of anger, fear, helplessness, and unhappiness clashing inside him, Ken escaped to the living room. With a rough jerk, he turned on the television hoping to find something, anything to distract him. If he was lucky, he might even be able to find some clue as to why Nambu's clone had felt it necessary to come and so destructively intrude into their lives.
After flicking through a number of the news channels, Ken was no closer to finding anything to explain why this had been done to him. He knew it meant nothing, however. Keeping the press in the dark or suppressing information was a game both sides had played before.
He'd finally settled on a channel to watch the weather when the doorbell rang. Ken had just gotten up to answer it, when Jun sped past him to go open it herself.
Ken's eyes watched her as she moved past, her tight jeans and silk blouse easily showing off her still trim figure. As his eyes followed her, he suddenly found himself overcome by a different type of hunger. Even as the need filled him, he tried to squelch it. Things were different now, that was for another life. This one had a chance of never recovering.
Jun happily opened the door, revealing the younger Nambu standing patiently on their front porch. Almost shyly, he nodded toward both of them as Jun quickly invited him in.
"Have you had breakfast? I'd be happy to make some for you." Jun was all smiles.
"No, thank you. I've eaten." Nambu suddenly looked out of place. "I hope I haven't come too early?"
Jun took his arm and brought him farther into the house. "No, no, not at all. We're both eager to get going."
Kozaburo glanced from one to the other of them. "Well then, if you're ready?"
"I just have to get my purse," she said. "I'll meet you outside." Jun hurried off toward the bedroom never once glancing in Ken's direction.
Turning off the television without comment, Ken followed the clone outside. As he walked with him to the brown station wagon waiting in the driveway, Ken's attention was drawn toward something lying in the grass. As he bent to pick it up, he felt a pang of pain as he recognized the teddy bear he'd so excitedly bought the day before. How far away that feeling of carefree happiness seemed to him right now. How disjointed the last four years seemed from his real life. Would he ever have a chance to feel that happy again? Or would it, like so many other things, die with the memory of Johnny Terell?
Jun came out of the house and locked the door behind her. Ken didn't notice her, still staring at the dew covered bear he held in his hands. He almost jumped, startled, as Jun tapped his shoulder and pointed toward the waiting wagon. "Commander, Nambu's waiting."
Ken's fingers dug cruelly into the bear as sudden irritation washed through him at Jun's use of his station. Snapping abruptly away from her, he stomped around the car and quickly boarded the front passenger seat. Without a word, Jun followed and got in the back.
After they were seated, Kozaburo put the station wagon in reverse and promptly left the driveway. The clone drove on in silence, never even divulging their destination. Neither of them ever asked.
As the awkward silence continued, Ken spotted Nambu glancing occasionally in his direction or looking up into his rearview mirror to look at Jun. Ken looked out the window, sure the clone wasn't at all happy with their present dispositions.
About twenty minutes later, on the other side of town, Kozaburo left West street to enter into a large parking lot of a one story office complex on their right. Parking the car facing the street, he shut off the engine and then got out of the car. Jun quickly followed suit. Ken did so as well, after quickly reminding himself to leave the teddy bear still clamped in his hand behind.
Leaving the two of them to follow, Kozaburo walked down the sidewalk surrounding the complex and headed toward the back of the lot. As all three moved along the walkway, Ken noticed that the style of the complex changed radically about midway. The structure went from a white concrete wall facade to a wood and lacquered one. The roof protruded and curled past the edge of the wall making a protective awning over the walkway. The combination of the lacquered walls and the curving ceiling gave the area a definite oriental flair--it made it look like a Chunese temple.
As the three of them rounded the corner, they moved past a large hanging gong. The roof extended out to a sizable canopy and was held aloft by thick red columns. A pair of large ceramic Chunese dragons lined the small entry leading to the large set of front doors. On the gong itself, red lettering proclaimed the following:
Mr. Chow's School of Martial Arts and Self Defense
Problem Children Welcome
Trading startled glances before looking hurriedly away again, Ken and Jun waited tensely for Kozaburo to proceed.
Without hesitation, Nambu's clone used the brass ring attached to one of the doors and knocked it smartly against it. They didn't have to wait long.
The red door opened wide, a smiling face appearing before them. "Good morning. What can I do for you?"
Ken couldn't help but openly stare at the man standing before them. Not until this very moment had he truly believed the actual possibility that the other members of the team had survived. But there he was, big as life, the familiar square jaw, those dark unmistakable blue eyes. "Mr.--Mr. Chow?"
The eyes and broad smile turned to Ken. "Ah, no, George, George Collins." He saw his eyes frown for just a moment, but then it was gone. "If you really came here to see Mr. Chow, I'm sorry, but you're out of luck." He laughed. "Actually you're way out of luck. Chow returned to Chuna about three years ago. He used to run a mean restaurant here. I took the place over when he left. I didn't figure he'd mind if I kept his name with the place. It's sort of part of the atmosphere, you know?" The smile changed into a mischievous grin. "Would you like to come in? I think I might have his address in my office."
Before any of them had had a chance to say yes, George had backed out of the doorway to let them in. Kozaburo didn't hesitate, even Ken fought with the desire to rush in there and grab his lost teammate in a hug yet at the same time all he wanted to do was to run away and never look back.
Trying to buy time to put himself together, Ken went on in and looked around even as the man he'd once known as Joe closed the door behind them.
The walls and ceilings of the place were made from intricately shaped tiles tucked behind decorative wooden beams and wall planks. To the right of the entry way stood a large set of boxed shelves sitting on top of tan carpeting. A few feet away from the shelved area, the carpeting stopped to give way to puzzles of large woven mats. Ken got the feeling Joe had changed the restaurant into one giant martial arts training area.
Without really thinking about it, Ken, followed by Kozaburo and Jun, removed his shoes in the obvious genkan. Their host's eyebrows rose slightly, noticing his guests familiarity with the purely foreign custom.
Ken was surprised by the quiet pleasure it brought him to feel tatami mats under his feet again. A part of him whispered he should just ignore the others and take the opportunity to start doing katas again. Then he'd be able to leave behind all thought and concentrate only on the tuning of his body and his inner self--to stabilize his wa. With a slight shake of his head, Ken dismissed the temptation. It'd be like trying to run away.
"Very nice dojo you have here," Jun said.
Ken saw that her use of the proper term seemed to surprise their host as well.
"Would any of you like anything to drink?"
The three visitors declined.
George led them to a carpeted hallway on the left. Ken glanced into the few open rooms on the way and noticed they were also matted like the front rather than carpeted. George moved on past a huge kitchen and turned the corner to enter a small office in the back.
A low table dominated the sparse room, with a few low file cabinets filling the back. Several large plush pillows littered the floor close to the table.
"Please sit." George indicated the floor even as he took his own place behind the table. His brow rose as he saw his guests ignore the cushions and took their places in the proper style. "I guess this is going to sound a little odd, but I get the weird impression we've all met before?"
Ken found himself invariably glancing at Nambu's clone.
"Yes, Joe, we've met. We all know each other very well." Kozaburo reached into his jacket and brought out the golden medallion.
"No, I'm sorry, my name is..." George's voice trickled to a stop as his eyes caught sight of the medallion. His eyes widened, his gaze locking onto it as if there were nothing else to look at.
Ken watched Joe's face intently. As he did, he saw the lines on his face, especially those about the eyes, regain that old pained expression. As the full impact of all that would be returning to Joe suddenly made itself clear in his own mind, Ken wanted to scream in sudden grief. Joe would now be remembering his oath, his family vendetta as well as the fact his parents had been murdered in cold blood. He'd be remembering his frustrations, the all-consuming anger, which had dominated so much of his former life. He'd also be realizing his life for the past four years had been a lie. Ken's hands coiled into fists at his sides. Why was this being done to them? Why couldn't they have just been left alone?
Yet even as he watched, Joe's features seemed to clear. His face relaxed until once more he looked like the ignorant and less burdened George Collins.
Joe's eyes finally broke away from the medallion. His gaze swept to stare solidly at Kozaburo and then a tearful Jun. Finally, it locked with Ken's own. "Ken."
Ken's throat felt incredibly dry. "Joe."
"I thought we were dead."
"Sorry," Ken shrugged. "I guess we're too lucky for our own good." He tried to smile, doing his best to ignore the tears trying to gather in his eyes.
Jun then did what Ken felt he couldn't, and moved swiftly around the table to throw herself at Joe. Their friend caught her easily, and laughing, returned her joyous embrace.
When Jun finally let him go, wiping happy tears from her face, Joe turned to look at Kozaburo his expression growing serious. "How did all this happen?" he asked. "You should be dead and so should we. By what miracle did you manage to save the team this time?"
Ken studied his friend, his questions not laced with the sarcasm he might have coated them with of old. Had four years as someone without the burdens he'd always carried changed him?
Kozaburo cleared his throat and looked away. "I would prefer withholding that information until we've reunited the entire team."
"Some things never change do they?" Was the taught reply. That was more like the Joe Ken remembered.
"The least you could do is explain how in the hell I got past all those doctors at the refugee camp," Joe persisted.
Kozaburo wouldn't meet Joe's burning stare. He appeared to gather himself for a moment and then plunged on. "It was quite simple for Kamo, using the ISO's clout, to have all of you examined by our own people rather than the camp staff. Hypnotic suggestions in your subconscious took care of any problems you might have otherwise had." Nambu didn't explain what he'd meant by that and none of them asked.
Ken felt a rush of heat flush through him. "Are you saying you knew all along where we were?"
Kozaburo met his questioning stare dead on. "I wasn't around at the time, but after the explosion of Sosai's fortress, it would seem Kamo was able to find a way to track the converted Spartan to its eventual landing point. He has deftly kept track of all your whereabouts ever since."
A thumping sound echoed in the room as Ken pounded his fist on the low table. "But why?" he demanded. "Why keep us ignorant of our identities if you knew all along where we were?"
Kozaburo stared at his confused fury dead on looking suddenly very vulnerable. Ken got the distinct impression that for all of the clone's airs, he was just an inexperienced and frightened young man.
"I, I... I can't answer that question right now. Please," he pleaded, "bear with me. You'll learn all there is to know very soon."
The almost palpable pain in Kozaburos' eyes cooled Ken's anger and his insistent need to understand this ever growing puzzle. Jun stared bewildered at the two of them, her hands holding tightly to Joe's arm as if she were in dire need of his support.
A heavy pall of silence fell over the four of them.
After a minute or so of this, a thin, curly hared youth poked his head in through the office's open doorway. "Sensei!" His eyes grew wide as he spotted the others there. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know you had company." The young man tried to quickly duck out the way he'd come.
"No, Will," Joe called after him. "It's all right."
The young man hesitated at the doorway.
"Come on in, I want to introduce you to some old friends of mine." Joe waved for him to come in.
Shyly, almost overly so, Will entered the room barely glancing at the others.
Joe stared at him fondly. "Will, this is Ken, Jun, and that's Nambu Hakase." He indicated the three of them in turn. "Guys, this is Will, one of my best students and part time instructor."
Will's cheeks turned slightly red.
"Would any of you like some tea?" Joe asked.
"I'll get it, Sensei." Will quickly bowed and left the room, before any of them had had a chance to answer.
"Nice boy," Jun said. She had a slight smile as she stared the way he'd gone.
"He really is. And he's been a great help too." Joe's toned deepened. "Though it did take a while to break through to him. There was a lot of hate and fear he'd been carrying with him from the war."
Ken stared knowingly at his old friend. It was ironic that in Joe's new life he hadn't had these things. He wondered how much pressure they were putting on him now.
"So, what now?" Joe's tone cleared. "What's the plan?"
He glanced questioningly at Ken who deferred the question to Kozaburo. The clone pushed his glasses slowly higher onto the bridge of his nose before answering the question.
"My own course is set, of course. I will go on to reawaken the memories of the team's last two members. The three of you can choose to remain here and I can contact you once I'm done, or you can accompany me and help make their transitions easier. It's up to you."
"I'm going," Jun said. "I can't wait to see Jinpei again."
Ken didn't see where he had a choice. "I'll go."
Kozaburo looked questioningly at Joe.
Joe grinned. "You bet I'm coming. I don't want to miss the expression on Ryu and Jinpei's faces for all the world."
Jun smiled at his infectious grin. But Ken didn't find anything humorous in the situation at all.
After a few minutes, Will returned with a tray carrying a pot of hot green tea and five cups. Jun stood up and took it from him, even as she invited him to sit with them. Will hesitated for a moment, but after an encouraging nod from Joe, sat on down. Jun set out the cups on the table and served each of them.
As she moved to pour Joe his tea, he noticed her large diamond ring. "Jun, you're married!"
Jun blushed deeply at his surprise, but didn't look at him. Ken stared with sudden fascination at his own filled cup.
Joe was grinning from ear to ear. "So, when do we get to meet the lucky guy?"
Jun shot a quick glance in Ken's direction. "You, you already have."
"Ken?" Joe's grin turned into a pleased, irrepressible smile. "So, it took total memory loss for you to do what we knew you should have done all along, eh?"
Ken didn't take his eyes off his cup, wishing with all his heart he were anywhere but there right now.
Joe's smile slowly faded as he noticed that neither of his friends was reacting as he'd expected. Kozaburo and Will glanced quickly at the three of them and then tried becoming as small as possible.
Ken and the others moved to drink their tea as the subject was abruptly and solidly dropped. The silence headed quickly toward awkwardness.
Joe didn't let it. "Will, I'm going to have to run some important errands today. I'll need for you to take care of the classes for me."
Will's eyes lit up. "On my own?"
Joe had an impish look in his eyes. "Yes, on your own. Unless you don't think you can handle it."
"Handle it? No problem!" After his outburst, Will seemed to remember they weren't alone and immediately squelched his excitement. "I'd, I'd be honored to, Sensei." He bowed toward him. He then quickly took his leave, mumbling he had to go get ready.
Joe followed him with his eyes, a small grin on his face. "When did you guys want to get going?"
"Whenever you'd like."
Ken stood up at Kozaburo's answer. "Then why don't we just go get this over with."
The other three were left to stare after him as Ken brusquely left the room.
He'd already finished slipping on his shoes by the time the others had caught up to him. Without waiting for them, he went on outside. On his way back to the station wagon, Joe ran up beside him, throwing him a questioning look.
Ken didn't even look at him.
"I'm all right!" He quickly shrugged off the hand Joe had placed on his shoulder.
"What's up with you and Jun? I thought you would have been happy about the marriage, or at least not this depressed."
Ken didn't say anything for a moment. How could he explain any of this? He was sure Joe already had more trouble with his memories than he was letting on. Wasn't he? Then over his shoulder, almost casually, he said, "She's pregnant." Without waiting to see his friend's reaction and the dawning realization of his problems, Ken went on and got in the car.
Moments, later, Joe quietly slipped into the back, Ken having taken his previous position up front. Ken made sure to pay his friend no attention, not wanting any of the questions he was sure were on his mind. Luckily, he didn't have to put him off long, as Jun and Kozaboru finally caught up to them.
Without delay, Kozaburo started up the station wagon and got them on their way. They had been driving on without anyone saying anything, when Joe suddenly leaned forward into the front seat. "So, where are we going anyway?"
Ken glanced over at the clone as he heard Joe's question and thought he caught a glimpse of what might have been a grateful smile. "We're going to the University of Arlengton, it's about twenty minutes from here. I'm hoping to be able to find Jinpei there."
"Jinpei in college." Ken could hear the pleased smile in Jun's voice. He made sure to look only out the window. "He's going to make us all so proud!"
"He's not the only one."
Joe's comment made the skin crawl up the back of Ken's neck. He prayed Jun wouldn't ask him what he'd meant. He wasn't sure he could handle it right then. She didn't.
Instead, she became much more animated than she'd been so far that morning, cheered by the prospect of soon being reunited with her lost adopted brother. Having Joe basically all to herself in the back, she bombarded him with questions all the way to the campus.
A large wooden sign first proclaimed when they'd entered the boundaries of the university. Well manicured lawns and lush trees lined the large parking areas and students lounged against them reading books and writing papers. Jun had gone quiet, her face pressed against the window, staring at everyone they passed by.
Kozaburo had barely slipped the station wagon into a visitor's parking spot before Jun was letting herself out of the car. The rest of the group got out more slowly, leisurely looking over the four storied buildings making up that area of the campus.
From the glove compartment, Kozaburo removed a map of the grounds and a copy of a class schedule. Ken studied him silently, as the clone got his bearings and then started off to lead the way.
College--it was amazing one of them had even made it there. Not because they couldn't cut the classes, but because they'd never been able to spare the time. This had been one of the many things they'd given up to save the world. But again, people came here for a degree to get a job, and they'd already had one long before then. Ken frowned wondering if Jinpei was enjoying it, but worse, if he was, would he want to give it up for what they might be asked to do?
Kozaburo glanced at his watch and slowed their pace as they walked toward one of the four storied buildings. Students walked back and forth across their path, most moving slowly and with no apparent destination.
Strolling on, Kozaburo finally stopped before a two storied, red brick building with large white letters proclaiming it as President's Hall. He glanced at his watch again, and then made for a stone bench nearby. "Jinpei's class still has about twenty minutes left to go. Should we wait here, or would you prefer somewhere else?"
"Here is fine." Ken answered for all of them.
Jun sat down next to Kozaburo. "Do you know what class he's in now?"
Her eagerness made Ken's eyes hurt.
"Yes, I do, as a matter of fact." Kozaburo looked at the class schedule he'd brought with him. "He's currently in History 2302: The Civil War to the Present."
Jun looked back toward the building a smile growing on her face. "Do you know what he's majoring in?"
Kozaburo's smile matched her own. "Electrical engineering."
"Oh!" Jun's face shone with pride.
Was there anything this man didn't know about them? Ken turned away, suddenly angry. He felt someone's eyes on him and glanced to the side, only to find Joe studying him quietly. Ken quickly tried to regain control.
The four of them waited and Jun helped them pass the time by asking Nambu about Jinpei's other classes and his grades so far. Though only there a year so far, Jinpei had taken a number of tests and gained credits toward some of the higher level courses. At the moment, however, he was having to finish the large number of weeding out classes all students were put through before getting to the core of his degree.
More students hustled through the campus, the earlier attitude of idleness gone from those who hurried by to unknown destinations. After one or two students came out of President's Hall, they heard a faint bell in the background. Within moments, a torrent of students streamed through the glass doors.
Jun stood up anxiously, trying to look through the crowd for that one familiar face. After almost a full minute, Ken turned around as Joe tapped his shoulder and pointed at one of the departing students.
The boy Joe'd singled out had smooth features, not the boyish angles from memory. The hair was shorter than Ken remembered it, and it even looked tamed, but the grin on the boy's face was exactly the same. Even as he walked by, books in hand, Ken could tell he hadn't yet gotten rid of all his old gangliness. Jinpei had gotten taller. And though in many ways he no longer resembled the young boy Ken so fondly remembered, there was never any doubt in his mind this could be anyone but Jinpei.Almost as one, the group of four moved to converge on the unsuspecting boy. "Jinpei!"