(November 21, 2017)
The road came up faster and faster. This battle has raged on too long, and too many have been hurt. He knew they wouldn t see this as liberation, but they needed to be freed before there was any more suffering. Kira, his former team, the children....
Shit. The children. How would they ever understand that it's better this way? That allowing them to watch him die a slow, painful death would be much worse? And if he knew Kira, she would do anything possible to keep him alive as long as possible, even if it meant stripping him of any last shred of humanity. It was she who gave him a real, human life back, even gave him not one but two kids - kids they said would never happen.
A curve came up fast. That was close. It wasn t time yet, though.
There's still time to go back... they re all waiting at home for him to drive up. He squeezed his eyes shut. Don't think about it, don't THINK about it....
His wife was young, yet, still in her early thirties. She deserved a better life than this. God, the thought of losing her, even in his own death, was almost too much to bear, but he was doing this for her. He couldn't justify years - and he knew she could keep the gears turning, however feebly, for several more years - of suffering. She had been trained by the best, but there was little she could do now but do the big overhaul. And he doubted he'd have any memory at all of his life if he underwent that.
Here it comes.
The speedometer passed 150, 160, 180....
He closed his eyes and thought of his family. Please understand, he whispered aloud. I'm already dead....
(November 21, 2022)
John? The voice floated in from the kitchen. John, honey, I need your help.
John rolled his eyes. I'm watching something, Ma...
They'll be here in an hour. I want everything just right, Kira called. I mean it.
I picked up in here.
Well, help me in *here*.
Shit, Mom, I'm *off* !
Kira appeared at the doorway, a pretty, but currently frazzled woman. You fling another shit at me and I'm pulling you out of special training, she said. you're not 18 *yet*.
John got up. Fine, fine, he grumbled. I go days off, and you put me to *work*.
Kira looked at her son. *God, I can't believe he s taller than I am,* she thought. She brushed his hair back with her finger.
I know you don't like this, she said.
*Mom*. I *hate* this. He s dead. Why do we have to do this every year?
She glanced out the window, to the modest headstone that faced the sea. It just helps, she said.
John shrugged. Yeah, well...
The front door opened. Sarah, fifteen and proud of it, bounded inside. The front s all swept up, Mom, she said. Anything else?
Kira glanced at her. Just change.
Sarah looked down at the miniskirt and tank top she had so painstakingly picked out that morning. What? I *am* changed.
I don't think so, Kira said, pointing towards Sarah s bedroom door, Change. Come on.
Sarah looked devastated. But -
Go put some clothes on, willya? John said before she could finish her protest. it's not like Andy s gonna be here.
Shut up, John, I *so* do not like Andy -
Hey! Kira interrupted Not now! Not today, OK? She pointed at Sarah You, put on that dress you wore for Matty s graduation -
Yuck! Sarah whined.
- I don't want to hear it. And you - she turned to John, who couldn't help smiling at his sister s misfortune, I want you to wash the dishes in there.
I m telling you, it's either that or finish cooking dinner.
Aw, *man* -
Come on. We ve got less than an hour.
Ken scowled at the road. Why is it always so foggy when we drive up here?
Jun shrugged. Would you like me to drive?
He shook his head. No. I just hate this drive.
Oh, it's not that bad, she said. I just wonder if we should have brought Andy.
Ken tilted his head. He ll have more fun at the movies.
I know, nodded Jun. But he hasn't seen John or Sarah in a long time. I don't know... I wish they were closer.
Those kids, he said, well, mainly Johnny - they re all into the forces and training. I want Andy to have a normal life.
I do too, Jun agreed. But sometimes I think we shelter him too much. I mean, *cancer*? We couldn't even be honest with him about why Joe was ill or why he killed himself -
Ken slammed on the brakes. Joe, he said slowly, Did not kill himself. How many times do I have to say it?
I m sorry, Ken.
He was a brave man...
I agree with you. You know I do.
Ken stared straight ahead. Jun, I can't do this again.
Jun nodded. I know how hard it is -
No... Ken interrupted, no, I.... You don't know....
He was my friend, too, you know.
Ken pulled the car back onto the road. Whatever. Let s just get there and get this over with.
She s out there already. Sarah stared out the back window.
I know, John said. He stood beside her and they watched their mother sink to her knees at their father's grave. You know how pissed Dad would be if he could see her? I know for a fact that he never wanted this.
Mom cries for him one day a year -
No, John interrupted, she lets us *see* her cry for him one day a year. He turned and walked over toward the front window. Guess they're all coming this year, huh?
Sarah nodded. I think so.
It ll be weird, having the Chief here, now that I'm training under him.
He won't treat you any differently, Sarah said, stroking her long, flowered dress.
Jeez, John said, I hope he does! He smiled.
Hm. Sarah walked over and flung herself on the couch. I look so *stupid* in this dress!
John sniffed. Yeah, you do.
Ken drove up the hidden drive. Are we the first ones here? he asked, glancing at the two cars already parked there.
Oh, it doesn t matter, said Jun. She noticed a figure at the door, peering out slightly. She gasped. Oh! Is that - that s got to be John! She placed a hand over her racing heart. I can't believe how much he looks like - she looked at Ken. He d noticed, too.
You go ahead, honey, he said. I need to just... sit here... for a minute.
Jun nodded slowly. I know.... Listen, I don't want to put any pressure on you, but it's been five years now, and you still haven t been to the grave.
The grave is no more that 50 meters from where we re sitting now, Ken said, staring at the steering wheel.
Jun opened the car door. I just think you have some issues, Ken. She got out and leaned down. You never told him how hurt you were.
He s *dead*, Jun.
I know, Jun said, And you still haven t faced him, even at his grave.
*(Flashback: May 12, 2003. The Snack J)*
Hey, what s going on? Joe walked in, looking upbeat.
You re in a good mood, Jun said. Wanna beer?
Yeah, he said, beer s good. He turned Ken! I gotta tell you what happened to me today!
Ken was hardly interested, as he was having a virtual wrestling match with Jinpei. He slapped the buttons furiously. I don't think so, I don't THINK so!
I got you this time! Jinpei yelled.
Joe leaned against the game. Ken -
Aw, Shit! Ken said, as Jinpei s virtual wrestler danced victoriously. He pointed to Joe, interference.
Oh, grow up, Joe said. You never beat anyone on this game.
Ken walked over and slid into a booth. Joe followed.
So I'm at Dr. R s right, you know, just the usual stuff, Joe took a drink. And, so, he s got this granddaughter, right? He pulled her out of boarding school so he could train her himself. You know how he s kind of an egomaniac?
As well as being the only one who s ever had any success in his field, Ken said, leaning on his hand. I hope this isn t going where I think it is.
Ken, she s the most beautiful girl I ve ever seen -
Ken leaned back and groaned in exasperation. Joe...
Jinpei laughed. Not again!
Joe swiveled to face the kid. Am I talking to you, Jinpei? he asked.
No, but I can hear you, Jinpei said.
So, everyone in this room knows that your taste in girls is pretty much totally bunk.
Joe stood up. OK. A: no it *isn t*, and second of all, this girl is totally different ANYway.
Ken sighed. I hate to say it, Joe-
All right, forget it, Joe said, sitting down. You wanna know why I don't tell you guys stuff? This is why.
Jun walked over and sat next to Joe. Well, I think it's great, she said. What s she like?
Joe sat with his arms crossed. She s just a girl.
Jun, don't encourage him, Ken said. The only reason he wants this girl is because he *knows* he can't have her.
Joe faced Ken Bull -
It s true.
You know damn well if you lay a hand on the doctor s granddaughter, he ll take your eyes out, if you're lucky. you're so effin predictable, Ken said.
Oh, you're such an expert on people you know nothing about, Ken, Joe said.
Well, Jun said cautiously, I think you should ask her out.
Joe made a face. Forget it. I don't think she likes me, anyway.
When the authorities came upon the accident scene that night, the one thing they couldn't get over was the condition of the body. Officer Kinn, who d seen too many fatal auto accidents to count, was heard to say, It looks like this guy fell off his bike and climbed into the wreck. Just a few scratches, and that was all. His skin was hardly even burned. Rookie Officer Oxsa shook his head. He had been expecting a lot of blood, mangled body parts and (the thing that had gotten him the most so far) eyeballs. Kinda freaky, he said. Maybe he ain t even dead. They stood over him for awhile before a paramedic noticed the small cut behind his ear. Looks like it was done with a pen-knife or something. Oxsa reached into the rubble, what used to be the floor of the car, and pulled out a charred Swiss Army knife that had been opened. Like this? he asked. Maybe it was some kind of foul play? Kinn took the knife and looked at it. it's strange, he said, but a little cut like that ain t gonna kill anybody.
(November 21, 2022)
Ken looked around from the front seat of his car. This place was once so full of happiness for him. Joe too. The house was simple, but comfortable, and quite lovely. In the springtime, everything was covered in blossoms; in the summer and early fall, fruit. The house was near a cliff that overlooked the sea, and had one of the most spectacular views Ken had ever seen. And the sunsets... no wonder Joe had asked to be buried here.
But now this place represented, like the late autumn foliage before him, nothing but death. This was where Joe was buried, right alongside where he had lived for ten years - where his widow and little girl still lived, and where his boy called home. Ken knew in his heart that his best friend had taken his own life. Shit, there was no way that accident alone would have killed him. He knew why he had done it, too. Joe had always been a proud man. Maybe it was selfish of him, Ken thought, and everyone else, to want him to live, even if it meant turning him into an android with little remnants of the real Joe. Ken honestly didn t want that. Or so he told himself. A sudden knock on the car s window jolted ken out of his quiet zone. He smiled as he realized who it was, and rolled down the window. Hey, Commander, what s up?
C mon, Jinpei, you don't have to call me Commander anymore. He climbed out of the car. For all practical purposes, even if I wasn t retired, you outrank me now. He looked at Jinpei, practically eye-to eye, and laughed. Which is scary.
Insane, huh? Jinpei said, putting a hand on Ken s shoulder. But you ll always be Commander to me.
I was glad to hear you got the promotion, Ken said.
Thanks. Hey, it keeps my ass out of the fire, pretty much.
Ken nodded. Theoretically, yeah, he said. Hopefully there s not too much fire to keep your ass out of.
It s been pretty quiet. A few minor concerns, Jinpei said, But I'm mainly concerned with keeping these kids trained up.
Yup, Ken agreed.
You know, this Johnny Asakura is amazing. If I had a penny for every time I accidentally called him 'Joe'.... Talented kid."
Yeah. I ve got two of them now. Asakura and Harris - what a monster *that* kid is - they wipe the floor with everyone else. There s just no comparison. Most of the others look like infants.
Well, Ken said, You only need a few.
Right, Jinpei nodded. What about yours? Andy?
Ken shook his head. Andy s not going into the forces. He s just a regular kid.
Jinpei clicked his tongue. I can respect that, he said, but if John s any indication, genetics plays a major role. And yours has some kickass genes.
Jinpei and Ken stood for a moment, watching Jun and Kira embrace at the gravesite.
Well, Jinpei said, I guess I d better go pay my respects. You coming?
Uh... yeah. Ken took a deep breath. In a few minutes.
Jinpei nodded. it's all good, Ken, he said. You don't have to. you're here, that s what counts.
You don't look too good, Mr. Washio.
Ken s muscles tightened. He turned slowly, and there he was. The kid. Although he shared some of his mother s features - her brown eyes, her pensive smile - and he wore his hair shorter, looking at John made Ken feel as though he d just stepped out of a time machine.
John, he said, You don't have to call me that. Call me Ken.
John leaned against the doorway, his arms crossed. I don't know, sir, that doesn t sound very respectful.
Hmph, though Ken, now I know I'm not talking to Joe. Really, he said. I prefer it.
John shrugged. OK.
So, Ken said, I hear you're doing real well in special forces training.
Yeah, I'm doing all right, John said. I like it a lot. Some of the kids want to get out. can't hack it, I guess. Cept me and Darrell. Ever heard of Darrel Harris?
I think Jinpei mentioned him to me, Ken said.
D s won just about every martial arts honor possible in the States. Most of Europe, too. John paused. I don't mean to sound like an ass, but I can take him. At least half the time, at least. Maybe more. No one else can, though.
Well, that s good, Ken said.
Yeah. He s a hardass. Came out of some mean shit... inner city... he s got stories, man. Fought his way out of it. Then they found him and brought him here. He s got it covered for the new team. I'm hoping the two of us will both make it.
Ken nodded. Well. it's good to have a friend.
John nodded back slowly. After a moment, he said, I don't mean to make you feel worse, Mr. - - Ken.
Ken swallowed. No, no, you're not. I like hearing about the new kids.
John looked over at the small gathering by the grave. you're ally miss my dad, don't you?
Ken blinked. Of course I do. He was my best friend. My brother.
He just wanted us to move on. To remember him as he was and not worry about how it might have been. John looked at the ground. My dad doesn t want memorials every year. All he wants is for us to be happy.
Are you happy? Ken asked.
Fuck, no - John paused, catching himself. I mean -
Ken waved his hand it's OK.
John continued. I'm not happy. How can I be when my mother is so miserable? I mean, every time I see her.... He stopped for a moment. If I make this team, and I hope I do, that s it. I'm never getting involved with a girl.
You can't say that, John.
Oh, I can, John said. And I mean it. Sometimes I wish my father could have seen things that way. There was no possible happy ending for my mother. I ll never do that to anyone.
John, Ken was trying not to sound too exasperated. I think your folks had some extenuating circumstances. Besides, your mom knew what she was getting into. And... not only that, but I like to think that Jun and I have found a happy ending. And Ryu, you know, he s got a beautiful wife, five kids....
Yeah, well, you're lucky.... John looked at the group again. You know, I love my dad, and I forgive him for everything. He did what he did to protect us... but I still think it was selfish of him to drag my mom into his life.
Wha? How can you say that, son? You wouldn t even be here if he didn t!
John laughed. I'm pretty arrogant, but I'm not arrogant enough to think that I - or anyone else - would have known the difference.
Ken shook his head slowly. You should know that your mother was with your dad because she *chose* to be, John, he said. don't fool yourself. He turned. *This kid thinks he knows everything*, he thought. *If he didn t sound so much like me at his age, I might have had to knock some sense into him.*
*(Flashback: January 15, 2004. The Snack J)*
Where the hell have you been? Ken asked, turning as Joe walked in and sat beside him.
Gimme something hot, Jun, Joe said.
Jun looked at him. What? Tea? she asked.
I haven t seen you in three days, Ken said.
So. Where ve you been?
Joe looked up as Jun placed a cup in front of him. Thanks. He looked at Ken. What? I was over with Kira.
For three days? You usually just -
The Doc had to go out of town, so...
Nuh - uh! Ken leaned closer. You dog! Spill it.
Joe pushed Ken back with his elbow. Leave me alone, man! Get your own girlfriend.
Eh... I d rather live vicariously through you.
Joe glanced at Jun, who rolled her eyes and looked away. No kidding, he said.
If you weren t here, Jun, he d be telling me everything, Ken said.
That s a load of shit, Jun, Joe said.
Jun held up a hand. I don't even care, she said, retreating to the back room.
You pissed her off, idiot, Joe said, getting up.
Oh, she s not pissed, Ken said.
Joe walked over to the corner booth, pausing to see how Ryu was making out on the game. Pretty good, dude, pretty good, he commented.
Wanna fight me? Ryu asked, without looking away from the screen.
Yeah, sure, Joe said. In a while. He sat down. After a minute, Ken came over and joined him. Joe looked at him, bemused. See, I came over *here* beause *you* were over *there*. Did you not get that?
OK, Joe, you don't have to tell me what you did with Kira all weekend, Ken surrendered.
Ken - you *know* what I did with Kira all weekend, all right? Do you want me to draw you a map?
OK, OK... Ken said. Clean slate. He stuck out his hand, which Joe ignored.
Ken shrugged. Fine, then. Let me ask you this...
All I want to know is - and you know I respect you and appreciate your ability to seemingly stay true to one girl for eight months - but... he locked eyes with Joe. When are you going to level with her?
I ve been nothing but honest with her, Ken.
Oh, Ken said, so you're saying that Kira *isn t* sitting at home right now thinking this relationship has a future?
Joe sat back, and didn t say a word.
Because I *know* that you know it doesn t.
Kira knows who I am more than anyone.
But you know that there is no future. Ken repeated.
Joe glared at Ken. After a long pause, he said, flatly: I don't know that.
Ken stood up. Dammit, Joe!
You don't know it either.
You re going to destroy this girl, Joe...
She knows where I stand, Joe said. it's all up to her... I'm not telling her anything just because I think she wants to hear it -
Where do you stand? Ken demanded. Where *do* you stand, Joe?
Joe stood up and faced Ken. I'm not leaving the team. I may never leave. I'm going to keep fighting. I'm not even human anymore, and I can't give her a family. I can't give her shit, but I love her. And if she ll take me, I won't tell her no. He turned and walked away. He patted Ryu on the back as he passed him. Raincheck on the game, bro ? he asked.
Ryu smiled. Sure thing.
Joe nodded and headed for the door. I ll see ya, Jun, he called.
Bye, Joe, she said, watching him leave.
Ryu turned away from his game. Hey, Joe! he yelled.
Joe stopped. Yeah?
Ryu shrugged. I just wanted to tell ya... I mean I wasn t listening, but... I think she will. I mean... I hope she does.
Joe paused, and smiled briefly. Thanks, man. I do too.
Ryu was always the last to show up. In fact, he hadn t come up at all the year before, which he d blamed on a hectic family life and the long drive. He had promised not to miss another year, and for that, Ken was glad. The emptiness had felt even deeper last year. It would be good to see his old friend again, after two years. the gravely sound of the car pulling up made Ken spin around, forgetting his agitation with Joe s kid.
Hey, buddy! He called.
Ryu bounded toward the pair, stopping short a few feet before them. Wow... he observed, this looks just like the old days...
Ken paused, then looked at John. Oh... he said, then smiled. Well, I, for one, will take that as a compliment.
John seemed vaguely oblivious as to what they were talking about. Hi, Mr. Nakanishi, he said.
Ryu shook his hand. How old are you now, Johnny? Seventeen? he asked.
John nodded. Turned seventeen in September.
That s right, Ryu said, pointing to Ken for no particular reason. September 19th. Remember, we d just finished a mission, and nobody - none of us, not even Joe - knew your mom had gone into labor *the day before*...
Mmmm... John nodded, looking slightly pained.
Ryu paused. But you ve probably heard this story a couple times, he said, smiling.
John smiled, too. Once or twice, he said.
Well, I won't be the one to torture you with it this time. He leaned his close, as if he was divulging a secret. And if she starts with the baby pictures, we ll accidentally blow a fuse... eh? She ll be powerless. Literally.
John Laughed. "I'm there."
Ryu turned to Ken. And look at you, Ken! You look like a hundred bucks!
Ken laughed at his backhanded compliment. Well, you look like... $42.50, at least.
Hey, now, said Ryu, smiling, I ve been told I'm aging quite gracefully!
Naw, you look terrific, Ken said. What, are you losing weight here?
Ryu stepped back. It goes up and down, he said. Curse my wife s cooking... I can never keep it off!
Ryu! Jun came running up, with the others close behind. She gave him a big hug. We ve *missed* you!
You re finally here, Jinpei said, visibly excited.
Good God, it's the Chief! Ryu clasped his heart That s it... the world is really going to end now! He stepped towards Jinpei. Come here, he said, hugging him.
Kira smiled, standing with her arms draped around Sarah s shoulders. Ken greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. How are you, sweetie? he asked.
I m good, she said.
Honestly, she nearly interrupted. How are you?
I m hangin in there, he said. I'm getting some insight from your boy.
Oh, Kira rolled her eyes. He knows the secret of life, you know, she whispered, smiling.
Ken looked at Sarah, who smiled briefly. you're growing up fast, he said, touching her under the chin.
She nodded, and shrugged. My mom made me wear this... she offered.
Kira frowned. Sarah...
Ryu leaned in I can't forget my best girl! he said, embracing Kira. Have you finally decided to run away with me?
You know I want to but I just can t! What about the children? She smiled.
Children Shmildren! Run away with me!
Mom... Sarah groaned.
Kira looked at Ryu. Are your kids embarrassed by *everything* you do?
Are you kidding? Ryu laughed. Only the little ones will be seen in public with me... and I think they re starting to grow out of it.
Oh, Kira said, to be young and mortified....
*Flashback: May 12, 2003. Dr. Raphael s table*
The doctor looked up from his meal. So, you ve decided to end your hunger strike? he asked.
Kira slid across from him at the table.
I m glad you stopped making that face, child, he said, I was afraid it would freeze that way.
Kira glanced at her grandfather as she served herself.
I wonder what changed your spirits?
I still want to go back to Academy, she said.
Yes? Well, I suppose I can't make you stay here.
Kira s eyes widened. Really?
I m not a cruel man...
All right, then... she said, I ll go back. She looked defiant.
I hope your bags are packed.
I never unpacked, she said.
Good, he said. We ll leave tomorrow.
Kira looked at the old man suspiciously. Good.
They ate in silence for awhile, Kira waiting to hear her grandfather s catch. There was no way he d be making it that easy.
The doctor finally broke the silence. You know, he said, my young patient is quite attracted to you.
Kira nearly choked.
He nodded. Yes. His vital signs were very irregular today after you met. It was very interesting, actually. I had yet to study his reaction to sexual stimuli.
Kira s mouth hung open. Grandfather! she said in exasperation.
He looked at her. it's the most natural thing in the world, her grandfather said. Frankly, I would have been disturbed if he d had no reaction. The blouses you wear look as if they were made for a preschooler.
Kira gasped. There s nothing wrong with how I dress! She grabbed her T- shirt. This is a shirt, Grandfather, a *shirt*. Nobody wears blouses anymore! And, it's a totally *un*cute shirt, anyway...
He didn t seem to think it was uncute .
Kira shook her head in disbelief.
You re my *grandfather*! Isn t this stuff supposed to bother you?
Well, he said, as you keep reminding me, I'm not your *father*.
Kira paused, then drew back.
What s wrong with him, anyway?
Actually, he s superior in every way.
Then why does he need to see you?
Well. Because he s a cyborg, of course.
Kira glared at him. No he s not.
Well, what is it you think I do? he asked. Did you think Cybernetic Biology was the same as Podiatry?
I though it was about robots.
No, no... not at all.
Well, I know what cyborg means.
It certainly doesn t mean robot . Did that boy look like a robot to you?
Kira thought. No. But.... Can you control him?
Of course not! If I could, he wouldn t be eyeing you, or any other girls for that matter. Sex is very distracting.
Kira couldn't help smiling.
But it doesn t matter, does it? you're not interested in learning about what I do.... I want you to be ready to leave by seven a.m. tomorrow. it's a long drive.
"Grandfather. I'm not going to stay here because some boy looks at me.
I would never suggest such a thing.
I mean, back at Academy, there are *lots* of boys....
Yes, he said. I suspect that s why you ve fallen back on your studies. And why you ll never be able to master the cybernetic arts, as well.
I can *master* the cybernetic *arts* if I want to.
But you don't want to.
Well, maybe I *do*.
It s too late now.
Kira stood up. You can't *make* me go back.
The doctor looked up at her. It was your decision, Sakira.
Well, she said, maybe I changed my mind.
Ken sat alone n the back step. He tried to keep his eyes off of the small headstone that stood only meters away, near the edge of the cliff. It wasn t hard, really; the sun was beginning to set, and the sky filled with reds and purples and oranges.
Mind if I join you?
It was a familiar voice, just a little off from what he knew.
Sure, John. Just admiring the view.
Yeah. it's beautiful. John sat down beside him. Haven t really watched the sunset in awhile.
Well, you haven t been home much.
John nodded. True. He sighed. I used to watch them with my dad. We d just sit and watch. Sometimes talk.
What did you talk about?
Um... I don't know, you know? School. Martial Arts. Sometimes he d tell me stories.
Ken looked at him. About the team?
Sure. Or about being a kid. His folks.
Ken s eyes widened. Really?
Yeah. It just depended. Sometimes we d just talk about what we had for lunch. He shrugged. Sometimes he d talk about dying.
Ken nodded slowly. He wanted to know more, but it hardly seemed appropriate to ask. He took a deep breath, and changed the subject.
God, I love the air out here.
John stared out into space. it's all the same air.
Ken shook his head. No way. This is *not* the air we have in town.
Thought you lived in some green suburb, John said.
We do, Ken said. But the air s not like this. Nothing is... it seems so... *bland* in comparison.
John pondered this for a moment. Well, then, why do you live there?
Ken paused. it's just where we live. it's nice, don't get me wrong... just not like this.
Why don't you move out here, then?
Why? I don't know... it's not that easy.
Well, you should be somewhere you like. Life is short.
Ken looked at John. I know, but -
You could get hit by a bus tomorrow.
Ken smiled. We don't have buses where we live, he said. But I see your point. He inhaled deeply, and turned to John. So... are you where you want to be?
I will be soon, I hope.
You really want to make that team, don't you? Ken asked.
It s all I want.
Well, then what?
John looked at Ken. What do you mean?
After that, then where do you want to be?
John furrowed his brow. I don't know.... But I don't see any point in planning for something that realistically may never happen.
don't you even *want* a life after the team? Ken asked.
John shook his head. Not really. In any case, I'm not going to *expect* one.
*Jaded kid*, thought Ken. *And he isn t even on the team yet*. Ken looked away. He didn t know whether to laugh or cry.
The back door opened, and Kira leaned out. You guys OK? she asked.
Ken and John looked up.
Yeah, Ken said.
Fine, said John.
Do you want anything? she asked. There s coffee on.
John glanced at Ken, then pulled himself up. Yeah, I ll have some, he said, heading inside.
Ken? she offered.
He shook his head. No, thanks. He stood up and faced her. Sorry. I don't mean to be anti-social.
She smiled. it's OK, she said. Seems John likes you, though.
He shrugged slightly. Yeah, that s pretty cool. He s a good kid.
He reminds me *so* much of Joe sometimes, she said. There are certain expressions he makes that-
Ken interrupted her I *know* -
-just *scare* me.... I don't know what I d do without him. Both of them. They keep me sane.
Bet they do.
don't tell them that, though, she said, smiling. They both think it's their job to drive me *in*sane....
Ken nodded slowly. Kira, he said, can I ask you something?
Sure, she said, shutting the door behind her.
He paused. How do you feel?
Kira thought for a moment. Pretty good. My research is going well.... I just got a grant to continue the work I ve been doing with bionetic limbs. The kids are excelling...
But are you happy? he asked.
Am I happy? She stopped to think.
How about this: he said, are you miserable?
She looked at him. No... no, I'm not miserable.... Are you?
He ignored her question. Your son thinks you're miserable.
She glanced inside, where John stood in the corner, watching the rest of the group reminisce. My son thinks everything s miserable.
He thinks your life s been ruined.
She crossed her arms. John said that?
Well, not in so many words...
And you believe it?
Ken paused. I know *I ve* had a hard time getting over Joe s death.
Ken, she said, Joe s death was devastating for me. There was no getting around it. And I do get depressed sometimes, and I do miss him every day.... But... I'm so thankful we had fourteen years together. She paused in thought. You know, when I told my grandfather I wanted to marry Joe, that was the first time he told me how experimental the procedure had been. And that it might not last. She looked down. He told me that I'd probably have to bury him in two or three years. Plus the fact that he d probably never father children.
Ken shook his head. Why did you do it?
She smiled lightly. I never considered *not* doing it, she said. I was young, and it seemed almost romantic.... I figured I d stay beside him, no matter how little time we had. That I d be there until the second he died. She paused. In the end, I wasn t, but that s just something I ve had to deal with.
You re stronger than I am, he said.
No I'm not, Ken, I just look at things differently. I got ten years and two babies more than I should have. I *can t* be bitter about it. I have to remember that I was given so much more than I was offered. But - even if he *had* died two years after we married, like they said, I d still do it again. No question about it. I loved him.
He loved you, Ken said.
She nodded. I know, she said. He loved you, too, Ken.
Ken looked away and exhaled loudly. Right....
Ken. She touched his shoulder. Ken, I know he probably didn t tell you.... But he told *me*.... don't ever think he didn t.
*(Flashback: July 8, 2001. Ken s quarters, 2:00 am)*
OK, OK... Joe held the bottlecap between his fingers and squinted across the room towards Ken as he flicked it. A second later, it was floating to the bottom of Ken s glass.
Shit... said Ken.
Nothin but net, baby, Joe said, smiling. Drink.
Ken drank, again, and started lining up his shot.
OK, so you and Jun are on a desert island... Joe began.
Ken flicked his cap, which pinged off of Joe s glass and landed on the floor.
Man, we ve got to make up some new rules, Joe said, drinking anyway.
I told you, Joe, I'm not playing that game.
C mon... Joe said. The two of you are on an island, and, somehow, you survive the end of the world...
Where are you?
Me? It doesn t matter where I am. I'm dead. Everybody s dead.
Ken leaned back. Well, I think I d be pretty bummed out, and wouldn t be thinking about sex...
No, Joe said, I think you d be thinking about sex *more*, actually...
Well, still, you d have to do it -
You just want to hear me say I d sleep with Jun.
Joe nodded. Yes I do.
Well... would *you* do it if -
Yes, of course I would, stupid.
You didn t let me *finish*.
It doesn t matter. If I'm stuck alone on an island with *any* girl, I'm gonna do her.
You d do JUN.
Joe shrugged. it's a post-apocalyptic situation.
Well, what if it wasn t post apocalyptic situation?
What? You mean do I want to do her in real life? He smiled. If she wanted me to, sure.
Humph! Ken stood up, angrily. I doubt she d *want* you to, and besides -
I don't think Nambu would be crazy about it either - And *I* -
Joe stood up, too. Ken! When you get that defensive about it just means you *want* her!
Ken paused. Well, I sure as hell don't want *you* to have her.
don't worry about it, man, I was just kidding, Joe said.
I don't think you were.
Yeah. Whatever, dude. He sat down again.
Ken sat down next to him.
Joe laughed. you're so funny, man.
Ken crossed his arms. Shut up. He paused. You know, it's not that I'm not *attracted* to her. I just can't see myself with any girl right now.
I mean, I d take a bullet through the heart for her....
Joe nodded, and took a drink. Sure, I d take a bullet for her.
Ken scowled at him. You would?
Look, don't get jealous, Ken... I d take a bullet for you, too.
Ken paused. He had only meant it as a figure of speech.
I wouldn t *let* you take a bullet for me.
Like you could stop me.
Joe looked at him. don't worry about what I said about Jun....
Ken nodded. I know. Joe put out his hand. Clean slate, bro ?
Ken looked at his hand, and clasped it.
Ken looked up, and smiled to see his wife at the back door. Hi, he said.
It s getting late, Jun said. We should think about going.
OK, he said, getting up. He faced her.
Are you... ready? she asked.
He turned slightly. I guess, he said. Then, after a moment: No.
He looked at her. No, I don't think I'm quite ready. He could barely make out the grave from where he stood, but it was time.
She smiled. Well, she said. I ll be right here, Ken.
The walk to Joe s grave seemed long. It was dark, and waves crashed below. Finally, he reached the plot. He stood before it, frozen. Nothing happened. The sky didn t fall. He didn t lose it.
The stone was simple: just a pair of wings engraved over the words Joji Asakura and November 15, 1984-November 21, 2017 No epitaph. Ken crouched down and ran his fingers over the words. Joe had never been one for sentiment, he thought.
He took a deep breath. Jun seems to think you ll hear me better if I talk to here, he said. And it did feel more immediate, actually. He crouched in silence for a minute.
You should see your kids, man, he said, finally. You d be so proud. He paused. Well, you d probably *freak* if you saw little Sarah.... You d probably want to lock her up till she s 30. He smiled. Makes me glad I don't have a daughter... I mean, I don't know how I d handle that. I d have to kill every hormone-soaked jerk who laid eyes on her. don't worry, though, I have a feeling Johnny is looking out for her with a dagger in his hand.
Ken swallowed. Small talk. If Joe was listening, he was probably rolling his eyes.
I miss you, buddy, he said quietly. He could feel the pressure building up in his chest. I know we didn t see each other much in the last few years, he said. It wasn t because I didn t want to.... I know you blamed Jun and I for the breakup of the team - and I *know*, we ve had this conversation - but I didn t resent you for feeling that way. And... I know you think I didn t take your apology to heart.... But I did. Both of us did. He paused. But you said some shitty things, Joe. Ken scratched his head. If I could go back, I never would have let it get to the point where we actually weren t speaking.... I know, this is supposed to be water under the bridge. And I'm glad, at least, that it was more or less resolved before you died. Still, I ll always regret that we lost that time, you know....
Ken paused. The thing that gets me - he stopped. He couldn't hold back the tears now. It was almost uncontrollable. Finally, he caught his breath. Fuck, he whispered, although he knew it would come to this.
He took a deep breath. What gets me is that you *knew* you were going to die, and you never even said goodbye.... I mean, yes, I probably would have told you that you were an asshole if you had come to me. And I would have done anything to stop you.... So if that s why you decided not to talk to me, well, you were right about it. But you didn t even leave me a fuckin note. Nothing. It was like - he had to catch his breath again.
It was like you just *forgot* me.... I never thought.... I never thought you d forget me like that. He stopped for a moment. And I - I know I shouldn t feel this way - I'm a father, too, I know how it is - but you confided in a twelve-year-old a thousand times more than you ever did with me. He wiped his eyes. it's just hard to feel like you're first in someone s life, and then - I didn t expect to be first forever, I know things change. But for me, you know, aside from my family, you were *always* number one. Sometimes I wonder if you ever felt that way about me. I don't think there was ever a single thing I ever said that you didn t shoot down. He sat down on the grass and rubbed his nose. That last statement wasn t really true, but he didn t take it back. He was feeling too hurt to remember the good times.
I just.... He swallowed. I just still can't believe you're really gone. I'd give anything to have just five minutes back.
You know, when we thought we lost you the first time, it hurt every day, but I accepted it. it's been five years now, and I still keep waiting to start feeling better... to accept that you're *never* coming back this time.... He paused. It hasn't happened yet.
Ken stood up and looked down. This is the hardest thing I think I ever had to do, he said. I'm sorry it took me so long. he bit his lip, and took another deep breath.