1. Day 1 by TransmuteJun
2. Day 5 by TransmuteJun
3. Day 6 by TransmuteJun
4. Day 13 by TransmuteJun
5. Day 21 by TransmuteJun
6. Day 30 by TransmuteJun
Today was the longest day of my life.
One of my teammates went missing. I spent most of the day agonizing over where he was, that worry compounded by the life or death situation in which the Earth found itself: earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions only the predecessors to the ultimate destruction planned by Leader X.
When we received his signal, something in me thought that everything might actually turn out okay. That we'd all have the same happy ending we were used to, with the God Phoenix flying off into the sunset. Apparently Gatchaman's optimism is eternal.
The signal brought us to the right place, and yet it was also the wrong place. A frantic search shrouded by fog, where we were unable to coordinate our efforts due to Galactor monitoring our bracelet transmissions…
I can hardly think of it anymore. I don't want to think about it anymore. It's over. We're at peace.
But I don't feel at peace. Shock and anger still pump adrenaline through my exhausted body. My mind is screaming at me to rest, but I cannot.
The longest day of my life isn't over yet.
I can't give up this opportunity. She's as exhausted as I am. She's sure to be deeply asleep.
The last time I did this, I came close to being discovered. Since then, I have been too afraid to take the risk. She can't know what I need from her, because she would sacrifice herself a million times over just to soothe the ache that festers inside my soul. And she deserves better than that.
But I am weak. The part of me that is just a man has given in, and once more I find myself at her door, pressing the keypad with my fingertips, inputting her code to unlock her door.
I slip inside as it opens, using all of my ninja stealth to remain inside the shadows for which I am named, praying that she won't awaken at this intrusion. Fortunately, my prayers are answered. She is asleep: lying so still, I might think that she was dead, if I didn't know about the day she has just endured.
The day we endured together.
I always knew that it could happen… that one of us could die. But I never really thought it could happen. How many times had we cheated death, before today? There was always a way out: always something or someone to save us.
But not today.
Joe is dead, and it's my fault.
It's my fault that I didn't see the symptoms he was hiding from us. I should have known better than that. I knew him better than that. I should have had the time to scour the Earth to find a cure, instead of only having time to listen to Dr. Nambu give his fatal prognosis. I should have been with my friend, instead of leaving him behind. When he was captured by Galactor, I should have been there to help him.
But I wasn't.
What the hell was he thinking? Why didn't he talk to us? Why didn't he seek out help? Did he want to die? Did he want to leave us no choice but to watch him suffer? Not that long ago, we fought in an alleyway, because he wouldn't talk, and part of me longs to beat some truth out of him again, even now.
Yet that's not fair. I'm angry, but the person I'm really angry with is myself. I'm the one who failed, not Joe.
My best friend died today, and my heart has been torn into shreds. Yet as I stare at the exquisite woman sleeping in front of me, I can only think of one thing.
I'm so thankful that it wasn't her.
Guilt claws at me as this thought runs through my head, but I can't deny it. Joe's death is horrible, a tragedy… but Jun's death…
I don't know if I could go on.
But that's not the worst of it. I didn't want Joe to die. I would have done anything to save him. If I could have, I would have taken his place. And if I'd had a choice… a choice of who would die, either Joe or Jun…
I would rather have died myself.
I almost did. I wanted to throw myself into the gears of the Black Hole Device, to search for a way to stop it. But Jun wouldn't let me. She stood there, begging me to stay with her, refusing to let me die, just as I would have refused to let her die.
In the end I stayed with her. It was the least cowardly option, of the few I had remaining to me. I chose to stand and face death as the Leader of the Science Ninja Team, instead of hiding myself amongst the Galactor machinery that was dooming the Earth every second.
The blood rushes to my face as I realize how truly unworthy I am. I abandoned my best friend, and I was about to abandon the person I hold more dear than any other on this Earth… and all because I was ashamed at how badly I had bungled things.
And yet, through it all, she made me feel as if I'd done her a favor, comforting her as we waited helplessly for the end that never came. But it was so hollow, so meaningless. I wasn't the man she thought I was.
The man she deserves.
The man who died today was a far better person than I will ever be. He fought back against death itself, finding the information we needed, and then holding on until the final second so he could show us the last step on our path. I gave him my boomerang, knowing that a weapon was the one thing that would soothe his soul as he passed from this world, to whatever lies beyond.
It suddenly occurs to me that I have never really believed in either Heaven or Hell, but now… I'm hoping that whatever happened to Joe, he has ended up in the better place. A place where he can shed his cares and worries, and know that he is worthy.
If a place such as Heaven exists, I know Jun will be there. If I am fortunate enough to find my way to its gates, she will be waiting for me.
God knows, she won't be waiting for me here. Not after what I did today. Not after realizing my failure to be there for my friend. If Joe couldn't count on me, how could she?
My eyes devour her, as she lies in her exhausted, comatose state, her body slowly regenerating itself. I want so badly to touch her, to finally reveal my true feelings for her.
But as always, I hold myself back. Only now I know the true source of that restraint. It isn't my duty, or a sense of honor, or even propriety that holds me back.
Joe's funeral was today.
Technically, it was a memorial service. We never found his body, and so we weren't able to have a proper funeral. But it was almost the same. The four of us stood there, in ill-fitting black clothes scrounged up from God-knows-where, staring blankly at the memorial stone that was somehow supposed to convey our overwhelming grief.
Giorgio Asakura, friend and comrade
I suppose, when it comes down to it, that's a perfect description of Joe. He was loyal to us, his friends and comrades. Whatever his motivations to defeat Galactor, and God knows he had plenty, he always made sure we were safe. He'd stick his neck on the line every time if any of us were in trouble.
Why couldn't I see that he was the one in trouble?
I had had suspicions of course, and I had even tried to beat it out of him with my fists, but he had refused to talk.
I should have made him talk.
I had done it before, on the Marine Satan, and it had helped him. Why hadn't he trusted me to help him again?
These self-recriminatory thoughts were running through my head as Dr. Nambu spoke. His voice sounded as it always did: dry and composed. But when the light fell on his face in a certain way, I could tell that his eyes and cheeks were wet.
Jun stood next to me, inches away but miles apart. Usually when she's upset, she turns to me for comfort: throwing herself into my arms or burying her face in my chest. But today she was standing apart from me, her arms around Jinpei. He was trying to pretend that he was too big for that kind of mothering, but I could tell by his face that he needed her.
I need her too.
That need coursed through me, even as I was standing next to her. I needed her sympathy; I needed her understanding.
I needed her love.
But she was too focused on Jinpei. I was too focused on myself. Dimly, I noted her knees trembling, but when she weakened, crumpling toward the ground, it was Ryu who caught her. He gently propped her back up, but she could barely look at the rest of us. Dr. Nambu stopped speaking and came over, offering to take her home.
I just stood there, numbly staring into space, feeling unworthy of even offering my assistance. After all, the last friend I had tried to help had ended up dead.
Now, hours later, I am still wearing most of my borrowed suit, but I have removed the jacket, leaving it in my car, along with my tie. I stand outside the Snack Jun, debating the wisdom of entering.
Part of me wants to go inside, sit down and have a drink, reveling in the normalcy of that action. But then, having a drink in the J will never be the same again. I can't expect to see Joe entering the bar at any moment. There will always be an empty space at the Snack, occupying the stool next to me.
As I stand there, the lights inside go dark. I blink for a moment, not expecting this turn of events. It is early yet, and a Friday night to boot. Jun wouldn't be closing this early.
But she is. I walk up to the door, just in time to catch a glimpse of Jun through the window as she moves up the stairs.
I turn around, leaning heavily against the door as I sigh in frustration. Jun must be worse off than I had imagined, if she isn't even opening the Snack. During the war, no matter how tired she was, she always opened the J whenever possible.
But not tonight.
I gently attempt to open the door, but it is locked. Defeated, I turn to go.
And yet… part of me wants to stay, all the same. The part of me that knows that Jun is in there, all alone with her grief.
But then, who am I to intrude upon her? Wouldn't she just resent my appearance? It's not like she couldn't contact me, if she wanted to.
Defeated, I slump down to the sidewalk, seating myself awkwardly on the curb, staring at the gold faceplate on my bracelet, willing it to activate… desperate to hear her voice. To hear her ask for me.
But that call never comes.
I don't know how long I have been sitting there, but it slowly enters my consciousness that the sky has gotten dark. Another day is coming to an end.
Another day without Joe.
Another day without Jun.
Is this what I was fighting for? This lonely, empty feeling inside of me? I've lost my father, I've lost my best friend, and it seems like I've lost the only woman I have ever wanted to be with.
I need to see her.
I stand up slowly, brushing the dirt from my pants, before walking around the side of the building. Jun's room is in the back corner, on the second floor, and she has a small balcony leading off of it. It's barely enough room for a single person to stand, but I can see the sliding door that provides access between the outside and Jun's room.
Before I can think better of what I'm doing, I jump up, catching the edge of the balcony with my hands, and easily vaulting myself upward, flipping around so that I land in a standing position on the balcony.
The curtains are fluttering in a soft breeze, and gently I push them aside, peeking into the room.
My only answer is a soft sob.
She's there, lying on her bed, her body facing the wall. She trembles as another sob emerges from her throat, but she does not acknowledge my presence.
Again, there is no response.
"Are you okay?"
She is shaking, but other than the occasional sob, Jun is completely silent. I hesitate only a moment before approaching her, placing my hand on her shoulder. She moans, turning slightly, and I can see that her eyelids are closed, although they are twitching and trembling. My gaze falls on her nightstand, and I see a bottle of pills there. I pick up the plastic container, squinting as I read the label in the dim light.
Triazolam Eszopiclonate, prescribed by Dr. Kozaburo Nambu.
Sleeping pills. No wonder she can't hear me. But isn't this medication extremely strong? Jun should be completely knocked out, not crying and moaning in her sleep. It suddenly hits me that she's having nightmares.
I have seen Jun sleeping many times. Of course, there were those few times I was in her room, but I have also seen her sleeping on the God Phoenix, and during extended missions. She has never been a restless sleeper, or someone who would have trouble falling asleep.
Not until now.
"No…" she mumbles, and I hear another sob. The heartbreaking sound tears through me.
"It's all right, Jun." I tell her. "I'm here." And to my surprise, her eyelids stop twitching. She seems to calm down.
"I'm here, Jun. I won't let anything happen to you."
My hand is still on her shoulder, but it moves down her arm, to where it lies on her waist. I lean closer, almost lying across the bed, doing my best to embrace her in this awkward position.
Her breathing evens, and within a few moments, all is peaceful in her room.
It's time for me to go. If she awoke, and discovered that I was here…
But as I move my hand away from her arm, she moans again, turning clumsily. Her sleeping face bears an expression of distress.
"Don't go…" she mumbles.
I can't go now. I know I should, but I surrender to this moment of weakness. Joe's death has inflicted more pain on me than I could ever have imagined, even more than my father's death. I need to be with Jun as much as she needs to be with me.
Awkwardly, I slide onto the bed, lying next to her, wrapping my arm around her waist. Jun sighs, snuggling up against me, the softness of her backside pressing up against the hardness of my hips. My body reacts, but in her state of slumber, she doesn't seem to notice. Within a minute, she has drifted back into deeper sleep, breathing softly and peacefully again.
And a minute after that, so have I.
The light of dawn pricks at my eyelids, and as I start to become aware of my surroundings, I sense a pleasant warmth… a sense of comfort and security, wrapped in my arms.
I have always had a difficult time waking up. There have been times when I have been forced to do so, because of my duty as Gatchaman, but I am always loathe to do so. This morning is no different, as my mind and body revel in the pleasant situation in which I find myself.
The air I breathe is filled with the essence of her. My nerves tingle where my body presses against hers, and my ears luxuriate in the soft sounds of her slumber. I linger in the last vestiges of sleep, enjoying myself far too much to want to awaken.
And yet, I have to awaken.
After some time, my eyes crack open. It is just enough to see that she has turned onto her back in the night. Her face is leaning toward me, her cheek resting on my chest.
She is smiling.
I am trying to remember the last time I saw Jun smiling like that, and the memory escapes me. Perhaps that's because there is no memory, and she has never smiled like this. But I know I have seen this expression of hers somewhere before…
In my dreams.
In an instant, the many vivid dreams I have had about Jun come flooding into my mind. My cheeks flush as I recall why she was wearing that smile in my nocturnal imaginings.
I can't tear myself away.
And yet, I know that I must. Jun cannot awaken to find me taking such liberties with her person. No matter what she said, or did, last night, she was drugged, and barely conscious. She wasn't responsible for her actions.
But I was.
It takes every ounce of restraint and stealth I possess to pull myself away from her, without disturbing her rest. As I shift my body weight from the bed to the floor, I breathe a sigh of relief, that I was able to accomplish this feat. Slowly, I slide my feet into my shoes and creep to the still-open balcony door.
I turn in horror, utter shock written all over my face. There is no denying anything now. She is awake. She has seen me.
It is my worst nightmare come true.
"What are you doing here?" she asks, sitting up in her bed. She rubs her eyes, as if she can't truly believe what she is seeing.
Half of me desperately wants to tell her the truth. The other half is screaming at me to lie.
Coward that I am, I do both.
"I was worried about you." I say, looking down at the floor. "I came to see you last night, but the Snack was closed, so I came in over there." I nod toward her balcony door.
"You came in… over there…?" She's clearly still not entirely awake.
"You were crying in your sleep. I thought you might be having nightmares. But when I spoke to you, tried to wake you, you calmed down and went to sleep."
"I did have nightmares." she admits. "They…" she shakes her head, trying to form her thoughts into coherent words.
"Anyhow, I was worried that you might start having them again, so I stayed." I finish rapidly. "Your floor is pretty uncomfortable." Inwardly, I wince as I say this last. It's not a lie, but it certainly implies an untruth.
"Ken… you…?" Jun's face is lit up with something I can't identify. I'm pressing my luck. I have to get out of here, and fast.
"I'll see you later!" I say quickly, passing through the balcony door and vaulting off of the railing. Just as I let go to fall to the ground, I hear a single word coming from behind me.
I walk into the Snack J, noticing the lack of customers. I am surprised, because I thought things were picking up for Jun, now that she was able to be open more regularly. I guess it hasn't been that long, yet.
"Oh, Ken!" Jun says, walking in while balancing a tray of glasses on her arm. "I didn't expect to see you here."
She looks beautiful. A glow is emanating from her skin, and she looked happy and rested: far better than the last time we were together. It has been a week since I ran out of her room.
"I was wondering where you were." Jun gestures to the bar, inviting me to sit.
I follow her directive, never taking my eyes from her face. She truly is radiant.
I don't think she missed me at all.
Still, that doesn't change my purpose in coming here.
"Do you want something to eat?" she asks. "We're between the lunch and dinner shifts right now, but I'm pretty sure Jinpei would be willing to cook you something." I suppose that explains the lack of customers.
"I'd love a grilled cheese sandwich and fries." I say. "And an orange soda."
"Sure thing." Jun smiles at me, and for a moment, my heart stops. Unable to speak, I simply nod, watching her as she moves into the kitchen.
A few minutes later she returns with my dinner and pours me a glass of soda to go with it. I take a bite, but I hardly taste the food in my mouth.
My mind is too preoccupied staring at Jun.
"This one's on the house." she says shyly. "I'm just glad you came back. I didn't know if you would."
"I'll always come back, Jun." I promise. Her gaze locks with mine, and I can feel the heat between us. It unnerves me, and I am the first to break away.
"You don't have to comp me." I say, reaching for my wallet. "I brought this for you." Jun gasps when she sees the bills in my hand. I gently push the money across the bar and toward her.
"Ken… where did you get all of this?" she asks, astonished.
"I've been doing air deliveries for the past week." I explain. "I ran some overnights. They're exhausting, but the pay is better. I remember you always said you wanted to fix up this place, once the war was over. So I figured it was time for me to make good on my tab."
She doesn't reply. I can see her reaching for the money. Her hand is trembling. I long to hold her fingers in mine, pressing them to my lips until her body calms itself, but I don't dare. I cannot begin anything I am unable to finish. And I cannot… Paid bar tab or no, I'm still not worthy of her. She's better off without me.
Joe still haunts my dreams, but slowly I am coming to accept that he's gone. It was my fault, and that is a burden I will have to bear forever. But I have learned how to deal with it… somewhat. It no longer consumes my every waking thought. Spending days on end in a plane, flying through remote areas of the world, helped me clear my head. I know what I want, now.
Of course, just because I know what I want doesn't mean that I should have it.
"I… I really appreciate this, Ken." she says slowly. "It's nice to know… that you were thinking of me."
"I'm always thinking of you, Jun."
The words slip out before I have a chance to stop them. What has happened to my self-control? I've never said anything like this to her before. Then again, I've never needed her like I do now.
And I've never been less worthy of her.
"I think about you too, Ken." she admits, but her expression is one of concern. Cold fingers of fear close around my heart, but I try to inject a cheerful note into my response.
"I guess those are pretty scary thoughts." I'm trying to pass it off as a joke, but sweat begins to bead nervously on my brow.
"They are." Jun agrees, refusing to meet my gaze. "I…" She swallows nervously, then drops her voice to a whisper, even though there's no one else in the room.
"Do you remember the last time we saw each other?" she asks. Unbidden, the memory of waking up to find her in my arms fills my mind. The warm scent of her, the feel of her body…
"Yes." I squeak.
"You stayed with me, because I had nightmares." Jun reminds me. "They were about you."
"Oh." I tense, not knowing what to expect now. All I know is that my throat is constricting, and I'm having trouble getting oxygen to my brain.
"We were back at Cross Karokorum." Jun reveals, apparently oblivious to my reaction. "We went into Galactor Headquarters and…" She hangs her head even more, but not before I see a tear glistening on her cheek.
"And you died." she whispers.
"I didn't die, Jun." I remind her, confused.
"I know." Jun nods, finally allowing herself to look at me. "But that nightmare haunts me. Especially this past week, when we didn't hear from you, and didn't know where you were." I reel back in pain, as if she had slapped me.
"Jun, I never meant to…"
"Of course you didn't." she straightens up a bit and pulls away from me, speaking in a more normal voice now. "And I know it's irrational. I know you're alive. But all the same…"
"I'll make sure we're in contact more." I promise rashly. "If I have to go out of town, I'll let you know."
"It's okay." Jun belatedly tries to brush off what she has just admitted. "It's not that bad. I don't want to be a burden to you, Ken."
"You will never be a burden to me, Jun."
And then, she smiles.
Hours later, I am holding the memory of that smile with me, as I pace the alleyway outside of her bedroom window. I haven't been able to get her out of my thoughts. Usually, when this happens, I can push my feelings aside, concentrating instead on my duty: to find and defeat Galactor.
Except, Galactor has been defeated. The war is over. I don't have anything else in which to drown myself, to help me forget about the woman I have loved since the day we met.
I have to see her.
I'm taking risks. I know I am. But I no longer possess the restraint I once did. My need to see her has weakened my ability to resist. It isn't long before I am on her balcony again, hoping against hope that she is already asleep.
Only silence comes from inside her room. The door is open, likely to let in the cool breeze on this warm night. It isn't difficult for me to slip inside.
I see her sleeping peacefully, the smile from this afternoon still lingering on her face. It warms me, and unconsciously I take a step forward, reaching out to her.
A soft squeak startles me. I cringe in terror as I realize that I have stepped on a weak floorboard: that I am the source of the noise. Jun stirs, but before she can open her eyes, I am gone: out the door, off of the balcony and around the corner of the alleyway, adrenaline pumping madly through my veins as I curse myself for a fool. Never before have I been so reckless. Never before have I risked everything on a chance. Never before…
Never before have I been so much like Joe.
The realization fills me as I sink down to the ground, my back pressed against the wall, supporting me as I descend. Joe perceived how I felt about Jun, and although we never spoke of it directly, I could sense that he was shaking his head, wondering what was holding me back, daring me to take risks…
Even as he lay dying, he told Jun to find a life with me…
He'd laugh to see me like this: so out of control, so reckless, so undisciplined. And then he would give me a nudge, and he'd smirk at me in the way that he used to do when he approved of something.
Maybe I should go back.
I did go back. Three times this past week. But every time, I backed off. I'm feeling a bit better about myself: a little less like I failed Joe, but my deep-seated sense of unworthiness persists. I've spent so many years holding back my feelings that attempting to access them now seems almost unnatural. Coming to terms with my role in Joe's death isn't helping, either.
But today, something else took center stage. Dr. Nambu called us all into his office for a meeting. And when we had all assembled, he told us that he was temporarily relieving us of duty: that the Science Ninja Team was being deactivated.
Of course, he didn't disband us completely. But he asked us to return our uniforms and bracelets. We are no longer on call, day or night. We are free to live normal lives.
If only I knew just what 'normal' was.
Of course, when I think about what I want to do with the rest of my life, there is one obvious answer.
Frustration gnaws at my soul, as I realize the dilemma in which I find myself. The war is over. I no longer have to be Gatchaman. The Science Ninja Team is no longer on active duty. But the barriers between Jun and myself have never been higher.
I know I'm not worthy of her. I know I can't ever completely regain her confidence, or her trust, after what I let happen to Joe. But I also know that I have to try.
It is these thoughts that brought me to the Snack J, tonight. But at the last moment, just before I was about to enter, I stopped myself. I couldn't go through with it.
What if she turned me away?
Worse yet, what if she accepted me, and then I hurt her just the same?
I can't. I can't. I can't.
So why can't I stop thinking about her?
Her room has been dark for over an hour. I can practically hear Joe's voice in my head, urging me onward. And so I ignore my misgivings, jumping up onto her balcony one last time.
I can't do this again. This has to be my goodbye. I'm not able to keep going in this kind of limbo: seeing Jun, yet unable to be with her. I've put myself through that torture for long enough, and my strength is gone. I'm not Gatchaman anymore.
I'm just Ken.
I let my eyes adjust to the darkness before I enter her room, stepping silently through the open balcony door. I can see her lying on her bed. She is relaxed and serene. I take a deep breath, willing the peace that she exudes to fill me one last time.
I freeze, like a deer in headlights, ready to bound away, but unable to do so. I am directly in the line of fire, a victim of my own carelessness.
Jun is awake.
This is no dream. This is fear become reality. She has caught me in her room. I have no excuse, not even a pathetic explanation like I had the night of Joe's memorial. I grimace, staring straight ahead, preparing myself to meet the execution squad.
"Why are you here?"
I can't answer her. I want to. I want to tell her how I am drawn to her, how I need her… but my lips don't move. What can I say that won't make this already tense situation worse?
Jun stands up, and filtered moonlight from outside washes over her, rendering her pale, pink nightie a translucent silver. The curved shape of her exquisite form is visible underneath, and heedless of my precarious situation, my lusts begin to rise. As she walks toward me, the subtle movement of her hips is enough to set my senses reeling.
"It's not the first time." she whispers, her eyes narrowing in thought. Yet, she doesn't seem angry. Her mood is so unexpected that I find the courage to answer her.
"I thought so." she nods almost imperceptibly, a satisfied expression crossing her face. "You've been here four times this past week."
"You knew?" My mouth falls open in astonishment. Her reaction isn't at all what I had been expecting.
"Last week, when you came into the J, I thought we…" her forehead furrows, as if she's having trouble sorting out her thoughts. "I thought we made a connection." She pauses for a moment before finishing.
"Was I right about that?"
"Yes." I whisper, my throat tight.
"And then, that night… I heard something. And I just knew… it was you."
I can't say anything. My only response is to hang my head, too ashamed to meet her in the eye.
"But when I opened my eyes, you were gone." she continues. "I kept waiting for you to come back, but you never did… that night. But you did two nights later. And then again, and again."
"I… I'm sorry…"
"You don't have to be sorry, Ken. At least, not for being here. But you really should have talked to me about it."
"I couldn't. It was…" I stop speaking. The word I want to use is 'private', but I'm not sure how she will take that.
"I had to talk to you about it, so when I sensed you here, just now…"
"You sensed me?" Despite myself, I'm curious. I was especially careful, tonight. She couldn't have heard me.
"Once I paid attention, I could tell that you were near." she shrugs casually, as if she's done nothing more astonishing than open her eyes. "Like when we were on a mission, and we had to work together."
"We always did work well as a team." I smile.
"So you feel it too. You know what I mean."
"I guess I do." I nod, thinking back. It makes sense. Jun and I have always had a special connection. I just never allowed myself to feel it unless we were on duty.
"But this doesn't answer my original question, Ken. Why are you here?"
My body tenses, ready for flight. But she moves ever so slightly to block me, as if she knows what's going through my mind.
"I'm not going to let you run out of here, like you did last week." she states, crossing her arms in a pose that vaguely remind me of Joe. The image of her adopting Joe's attitude, while wearing that flimsy nightie, is enough to make me smile.
"Oh, you're not, are you?" I fold my arms in an imitation of her pose, smirking at her. "And just what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to keep you here, whatever way I can." Her eyebrow rises in challenge. This is all a game, but I can tell she's playing to win.
It only makes me want to push her even further.
"I dare you…."
She grins at me, accepting my terms. I alter my position, testing her, watching her counter my movements. It's as if we're back in the practice gymnasium at the Coral Base; children training for something so big, we don't even know what it is.
But we're not twelve years old anymore. And somehow, I sense that there is a lot more at stake.
I taunt her for a few moments more, inching my way toward her balcony, leading her in the direction she expects me to take. In an instant, I whirl on the balls of my feet, spinning around her and flying through the door.
At least, that's what I intend to do, before she blocks me.
Her attempt is weak, and one I could easily overcome. We both know that I could throw her to the floor and escape. I'm not even sure why she's using this maneuver. It's too little, too late. But then, rather than simply countering my movement, she flings her body against mine, pulling me toward her.
And then she's kissing me.
All thoughts of escape vanish from my head as I am lost in the sweet sensation of her lips, pressing against my mouth. My arms are around her, not to push her away, but to pull her closer, to feel the full length of her against me. It's as if our entire bodies are melting together, merging and reforming to fit in a pattern so unique that it could only ever belong to us. Every nerve in my body is tingling, screaming with fire and joy at this onslaught.
Our mouths open, drinking in the exotic taste of our combined essences. The whisper of her tongue against mine is electric, the shock resonating through my brain like a drug.
I need more.
But just as I seek out her sweetness once again, Jun pulls away. She doesn't say anything, but I can see a question in her eyes.
"You win." I gasp, still reeling from what she has done.
"So you'll stay?" she asks, walking over to her bed. She sits down, awaiting my response, despite the fact that she already knows what it will be.
"I want to stay." I reply. "But only if you want that too, Jun."
"How dense are you, Ken?" Jun shakes her head in disbelief. "Do you think I would have done that if I didn't want you to stay?"
"I don't know." I joke weakly. "I've never seen you use that move before."
"There's a first time for everything." Jun smiles. "But you're right. I've never used that particular maneuver on anyone else." My heart pounds, still recovering from her technique.
"But you never answered my question, Ken. What brought you here in the first place?"
"I wanted to see you." I admit, all restraint suddenly gone. The heady feeling from her kiss has removed any reticence from my brain.
"You can see my anytime, at the J." Jun points out.
"Yes, but… this is different. More… private."
"Ah…" Jun sighs. "You know, you could have just asked…"
"I didn't want you to know."
I grimace, wanting to shy away from the crux of the matter. But now that we're having this conversation, I have to follow through with it. If I don't do this now, I never will.
"Because… we can't be together, Jun."
My heart catches at the stricken expression on her face. I've hurt her, which is the last thing I ever wanted to do. But if I don't break things off now, it will only be worse later.
"I thought, now that the war was over…" Her voice sounds very small, and vulnerable.
"That's what I always thought, as well." I reach out for an instant, aching to soothe her, before I think better of my action. "But now, I find that… I can't."
"You certainly were capable just now." Jun points out.
"That's not what I mean." I shake my head, but my blood boils with the memory of our shared kiss. "I don't deserve you."
"What?" Jun begins to laugh. "Don't you think that's my decision to make, Ken?"
"You would, if you were really thinking about this." I tell her. "If we get together, I'll let you down, Jun."
"You could never let me down, Ken." Jun disagrees. "You've always been there for me, whenever I needed you. It's one of the things I love about you." I feel a rushing warmth inside of me at her words, but I force it aside.
"I let Joe down. If I can fail him…"
"You didn't fail Joe, Ken."
"Of course I did! Don't be naïve!"
"Naïve? Who do you think you are?" Jun replies hotly, her face flushing with anger. "You're the one coming up with these ridiculous claims. How could you possibly have failed Joe? You were at his side when he needed you most."
"Then why isn't he here now?" I growl. "If I really did everything I was capable of doing, why did he die?"
"Don't you think I didn't try, too?" Jun huffs. "I tried to talk to him. More than once. I could see that something was going on with him. It was like, after BC Island, he never really recovered. I remember when we brought him home, covered in bullet wounds…" Her words choke off in a sob.
"I know you did everything you could, Jun." I reassure her. "When Joe doesn't want to talk, he just closes up. No one can get through to him."
"So what makes you feel like you could have done it?" Jun replies. "We all noticed something was wrong. Me, Jinpei, Ryu. Even Dr. Nambu. Don't you think we all tried, in our own ways, to help him?"
"He didn't want help from anyone…" The sudden realization is like a jolt to my brain. "That time, when he didn't show up when we were being attacked by the Grapebomber…"
"And the mission afterward, when he wasn't able to execute the Tornado Fighter." Jun nods. "Of course something was wrong! But he refused to get help, Ken. He valued being on the Science Ninja Team more than his own life. He would have died before he talked about it…"
"He did." I sigh. "You're right, Jun. Joe's death wasn't my fault."
"I miss him, though."
"Me too." I agree. "Especially now."
"Now? Because the war is over?"
"Well, that, because he should have been here to see it. He should have been with us when the Team was deactivated. But it's more than that."
Jun doesn't say anything, but simply sits there, waiting for me to continue. I take a deep breath before I forge ahead, and somehow, it almost feels like Joe is with me.
"I know that he would approve of us. That he would be happy that I'm finally…"
I can see Jun holding her breath. And I can't find the words, so instead, I show her.
This time, it is my mouth that finds hers. I am the one pulling her against me. And she is the one surrendering to my touch. She sighs happily, snuggling against my chest in a way that sets all of my protective instincts raging.
But that's not the only thing that's raging inside of me.
Our mouths are still locked in their intimate embrace, and my sense are reeling as my hands move slowly down her body, the thin fabric of her nightie the only barrier between my touch and her skin. I can feel her smile inside our kiss, and then she pulls back.
She doesn't say a word, but her eyes promise everything. My hands move slowly from her back to her sides, and then to her abdomen. She nods slightly, and a rush of nervousness sets my fingers trembling.
It's too much…
But it isn't. My sensory overload eases just enough, and I am able to continue, tracing a slow path upward between her rounded breasts, and to her throat. I hesitate a moment: just long to ensure that this is truly what she wants too.
I fumble eagerly at the thin strings of satin that hold her nightie together, pulling them apart to reveal the glorious perfection of her body. My breath catches in my throat. This is so much more than I could ever have expected, and still everything I have ever imagined.
Dimly, I realize that Jun's hands are on my chest, undoing the buttons of the shirt I am wearing, pressing soft kisses into my skin as it is exposed. My veins pulse with liquid fire as her head lowers, and I am excruciatingly aware of how close she is to the evidence of my arousal. Her hands reach up, caressing my chest and then my shoulders, sliding my shirt from my arms, all the while continuing the feathery assault of her lips on my torso.
I groan, unable to stand this torture any longer, threading my fingers through her hair. I pull her head up to mine for another kiss, knowing that it is my only chance to prolong this heady feeling that rushes through me.
I'm hardly a 'man of the world', but I know enough to understand that I'm at the edge. I need to focus on her, or I'm going to run headlong into disaster in the next few minutes. So I concentrate on the feel of her skin in my hands, the satiny smoothness of her thighs, the soft curves of her hips, the enticing peaks of her breasts. She moans when I touch her there, and the sound is familiar. I recall a night, not that long ago, when she made that sound in her sleep, unaware that I was even present as she whispered my name.
That thought brings me too close to the boundary of my control, so I push it aside to savor later. For now, I delight in the sweet taste of her as my mouth finds her breasts, caressing each one in turn with my tongue. I concentrate on the soft sounds she makes, learning what pleases her most: what she craves.
Her hips wriggle eagerly as my fingers slide down her hips and into her panties. I am barely aware of her tugging at my belt, and before long I am simply reveling in the fact that there are no longer any garments between us. Her hands caress my back, hesitating briefly at my hips, then suddenly circling underneath my body to stroke my raging arousal.
"Jun… I can't…"
She seems to understand, and she pulls her hands away, leaning over to whisper in my ear.
"I can't wait, Ken. Please…"
There is no alternative but surrender. It's not in me to deny her, nor would I ever want to.
My fingers brush down, seeking the entrance to bliss, but it proves difficult to find when my nervousness underscores my lack of experience. Jun smiles, her pleasure wiping away any embarrassment I feel. She reaches down, searching…
It seems she's nervous too, as she fumbles around for a moment, seeking the part of me that she needs. Perhaps… perhaps she isn't used to this kind of thing either.
But none of that matters as she guides me inside of her, into her welcoming core. I cry out with the exquisite sensation of her soft warmth enclosing itself around me, and the knowledge that she wants me here, joining with her in the most intimate way a man and a woman can connect.
As I move within her, she throws her head back, calling my name as if she is drowning, and I am the only one who can save her.
"I'm here, Jun. I love you…"
"I love you, Ken…"
Too fast, too soon, I'm careening over the edge, taking her with me. Or am I following her? I can't tell; our two bodies have merged as one, breathing and reacting with one mind. Our physical union has been imperfect, but emotionally… it is all I ever wanted.
"I love you, Ken." she whispers, snuggling against me, surrounded by the glow of our recent intimacy.
"I love you, Jun." I breathe, tracing my fingers along the curve of her waist. Despite our mutual lack of skill in physical love, the moment is utterly perfect.
And deep inside, I know that we have a lifetime to get it right.
"I can't believe it's been a whole month."
"It seems like it's been a lifetime." I agree.
"Is it that terrible, being with me?" Jun jokes.
"No." I shake my head, pulling her closer against my body. "But it feels so right… like we've been together forever."
She sighs in agreement, then we both turn our attention back to the reason we are here.
Giorgio Asakura, friend and comrade
The memorial stone looks just as cold and impersonal as it did the day of Joe's service, but somehow, I am able to accept it, now. It no longer accuses me, tormenting me with my failures. Instead, it is a reminder of the man I knew: a man I was proud to call my friend.
"I miss you, Joe." I whisper, my heart full of regret.
"I wish you were here." Jun adds solemnly.
"I wish you would have talked to us."
"I wish you could have reached out to us."
"I wish that we had been able to help you."
Jun bows her head, as if she is concluding a small prayer. Perhaps she is. I add my own prayer to it: hoping that wherever Joe is now, he has found peace, just as I have.
As Jun and I walk away, hand in hand, we know that we will never forget Joe. We are sorrowful for what happened to him, and for what he had to endure. But together, we are able to carry that burden.
Joe Asakura will never be forgotten.