She was instantly aware, eyes wide in the deep shadows of the room, blood beating a staccato tempo in her veins. It wasn't the thunder - she'd faced far worse in her life than the mere heavens clashing in anger over her head. It was that the sound still reminded her subconscious too sharply of other, more unnatural things. Distant gunfire, armored tanks, the vibrations of a monster mecha rolling over the ground.
*It's over,* she reminded herself - breathing deeply, letting the tension bleed away. *You don't have to worry about that any more.*
She wondered suddenly if she was the only one, or whether the thunder ever woke him up, too, poised for battle in the bleak chill before dawn. She turned her head to see, and sighed with quiet disappointment. The pillow beside her was empty.
He was gone again.
She touched her fingertips lightly to the indentations that lingered in the sheets, the faded cotton still shaped around the memory of his body. Still faintly warm - he hadn't been gone long. *Maybe he didn't really leave this time,* she thought, hope rising. *Maybe he's just restless, can't sleep.* She reached out with her trained awareness for some trace of sound or movement, but heard nothing that didn't belong to the storm outside.
Maybe he was downstairs. She hesitated for a moment, listening to the hiss of the rain as it hit the street outside her window. Then she swung her long legs over the side of the bed, pushed her feet into slippers and pulled an old chenille robe around her slender body. Shivering slightly in the damp chill of the air, she padded quietly out into the hallway toward the stairs.
A powerful streak of lightning lit up the bar as she entered, washing the room in its harsh blue-white glare for a brief moment before the darkness snapped back again. The momentary illumination made it starkly clear that the room was empty.
Trying to swallow the disappointment that burned at the back of her eyes, she pulled the robe more tightly around herself and crossed to the bar. Hot cocoa, she decided. That always helped her get back to sleep.
She poured the milk into the pan and turned on the flame under it, staring down with unseeing eyes as she stirred. *Damn him,* she thought suddenly, fiercely. *This is not the way it's supposed to be.*
The war was over. Katse was dead, Sosai X gone without a trace. This was it, the beginning of the rest of their lives - the happily ever after that none of them had seriously thought they'd see. The happily ever after that she still clung to, even now, despite the slowly growing awareness deep inside her that it wasn't turning out the way she so badly wanted it to.
The thunder made her jump a little, close enough now for the vibrations to make the windows rattle. She turned back to look across the room, watching black rain pour from the sky and remembering.
It had been a night just like this only a few months ago when he'd come to her for the first time.
She'd been sleeping when the sound of the car woke her, a different timbre from the steady thrum of the rain on the roof and the high pitched whistle of the wind. It was the first night she'd spent in her own bed since they'd returned from Cross Karakoram, victors in the final battle but too numb with grief to care. Despite the exhausted depths of her sleep, she had awakened almost as swiftly that night as she had done tonight, knowing with unerring instinct that he was there, and that he had come to her because something was wrong.
She slipped out of bed, the quilt wrapped around her like a rustling shroud as she moved to the window and stared down into the street below. Watched him park crooked against the curb, climb unsteadily out of the car. She couldn't tell if he was drunk or ill or just simply too far gone past his last reserves of strength to function any more.
At first it seemed like he was going to come straight up to the door, but then he hesitated, standing in the street in front of the car, staring up at the building. His shoulders slumped and he sank down slowly on the hood in the icy, pouring rain. He looked as if he'd found the end of the world and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't let him just step off into oblivion.
A fist clamped shut around her heart, squeezing so painfully that she ground her knuckles against her breastbone to ease the pressure. She ran out of the room, down the stairs, across the darkened bar. Fumbled with the locks, finally pushed open the door and burst out into the street, gasping as the freezing rain soaked her to the skin in seconds. "Ken!" she called frantically. "Ken!"
He raised his head slowly, looking at her with dull, bloodshot eyes. The fist squeezed again around her heart, making her breath catch. She took his hands. "Ken, come inside," she said. "Now."
For a moment she didn't know if he even heard her, let alone understood what she was saying. But at long last he nodded, and let her pull him to his feet and lead him inside.
She felt the hard trembling begin in his muscles as they crossed the threshold. His skin was like ice, and she realized he must have been wandering around out there in the cold and rain long enough to make him a candidate for exposure. She helped him up the stairs and, ignoring his mumbled protests, pushed him into the shower and turned on the hot water full blast. When he tried to resist she did the only thing she could think of, she wrapped her arms around his shaking body and held on as tightly as she could.
After a while, as the steam rose around them in thick clouds in the tiny room, his frozen rigidity began to thaw. She felt his arms go around her and hold her against him just as tightly as she was holding him. When he began to shake again, she realized with a shock that he was crying, face buried in her long, soaking black hair, fingers gripping her hard enough to leave bruises. "Oh, Juney, Juney, I killed him, I killed him, I killed Joe..."
"Shhhh," she said automatically, one hand wrapping around his head, the other stroking his back as if he were Jinpei awakened from a nightmare. "No, you didn't...you didn't...it's going to be all right..."
"No," he said, his voice raw and bleeding. "Nothing's ever going to be all right again, not ever..."
She lifted her head, staring at him, unable to hold back the tidal flow of her own tears. "Ken," she whispered.
He kissed her then, savagely, pushing her against the tiled wall of the shower. She wound her arms tightly around his neck, still crying, feeling him tear away her clothes until his hands found flesh and she arched into him with a soft cry, mouth opened against his. There was nothing gentle about him now, his hands and mouth hot and hard and demanding, but she had rehearsed this moment a thousand times in her dreams and she was more than ready for him.
It was perfect, even like this - just as perfect as she had always known it would be.
When it was over he refused to let her go, arms like steel around her trembling body. She put her fingers over his mouth to forestall the apology she knew was coming. "Sssh," she whispered, "Don't..."
He stilled, then, as though the last of his strength was finally all spent, allowing her to turn off the water and towel them both dry. She led him quietly to her bedroom and he lay down beside her, gathering her wordlessly back into his arms, holding her head against his chest. She fell into a deep, dreamless sleep with the sound of his heartbeat echoing the pain and joy in hers.
*"Shimatta!"* The milk boiled over with a loud hissing sound, snapping her back to the dark cold of the bar even as she reflexively jerked the pan away from the flame. It wasn't until she had run water into the pot and lifted a hand to brush away the hair that had fallen into her eyes that she realized that the memory had made her cry.
The pan forgotten, she sank into a chair beside the bar, wiping ineffectually at the tears that wouldn't stop flowing. What was happening to her? She wasn't like this. She was tough, strong, resourceful - Nambu had frequently called her the best problem-solver on the team. As a child she had survived years on the streets, keeping both herself and Jinpei alive and well long before the doctor had found and adopted them. She was beginning to loathe this unsure, insecure, unhappy woman she was becoming.
She pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and hugging herself into a tight ball. It had been so good between them, in the beginning. Ken hadn't wanted to let her out of his sight at first, following her around wherever she went, reaching out to touch and hold her as if needing to reassure himself that she wasn't going to disappear into thin air and leave him alone. She had high hopes for their future in those early days, lying wrapped in his arms after making love, dreaming of all the things they could do and be now that the war was over and their lives were for the first time truly their own.
Even Ken himself seemed to be making plans, talking about cleaning up the airfield, reviving his flagging mail business, maybe buying more planes and even opening a flying school. She loved him so much, she was so focused on her own happiness, she didn't want to see that the hope in his words never once reached his eyes.
There were dark shadows in those eyes permanently now, and he sometimes went a long time without speaking, just staring into space. He'd leave in the middle of the night and sometimes not come back for hours, or days. He would never say where he'd been or what he'd been doing. In the beginning she had asked him what was wrong, but he just got that distant look on his face and shook his head, and talked about something else. *Everything's okay,* he would say. *Everything's fine.*
But she knew, now that she was forcing herself to take the blinders off and really see. He was getting worse, not better, and something inside him just wasn't healing.
She remembered, suddenly, how he had looked during those awful first few days after their return from the Himalayas. While the world celebrated their victory over Galactor, the Kagaku Ninja Tai endured a grueling round of debriefing - three endless days of repeating themselves in conference room after conference room, their audience changing although their words didn't. Telling them over and over again how they won the war.
And lost Joe.
She had been unable to take her eyes off Ken during the debriefings, deeply worried at how very pale he was, that bruised, numb look in his eyes. He was taking it harder than any of them, harder than even she had thought he would. He had never faltered, his voice had never cracked, but she bled inside herself for every word he spoke because she knew what it was costing him to answer those questions, over and over. To keep telling them the same hideous truth - that when the second in command of the Kagaku Ninja Tai had lain shot to pieces on the scrubby, bloodstained grass of Cross Karakoram, it had been by the orders of his commander that the team had left him behind to die.
Just once he had looked at her, across the cold gray steel of the conference table, and in all her years she had never seen so much pain in one person's eyes.
He still looked like that, every time she looked at him, every single day. The rest of them were slowly letting go, still mourning, but getting stronger and moving on with their lives. She had thought him the strongest of them all...so why wasn't *he?*
Lightning seared the walls again, the stink of ozone washing across her as her eyes suddenly went wide. *Oh, God.*
*Oh, Juney, Juney, I killed him, I killed him, I killed Joe..*
It was all so desperately clear now, what she hadn't seen before. What she hadn't *wanted* to see before.
She shivered, feeling him all around her now, his dark brooding energy crackling off the walls, so like the storm that raged outside. She stood up, clenching her fists. "I won't let you take him, Joe," she whispered. "I won't let him die for you."
For a moment as she left the room, she thought she heard the deep rumble of his laughter. She paused with her hand on the door handle, turning.
But it was only thunder.