Pain and Loss by Maya Perez
Summary: After the death of his father, Ken tries to deal with his betrayal.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Berg Katse, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Ken Washio, Kentaro/Red Impulse
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama
Story Warnings: Death, Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Mid-Series
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 2 Completed: Yes Word count: 23861 Read: 6271 Published: 06/13/2007 Updated: 06/13/2007

1. Part 1 by Maya Perez

2. Part 2 by Maya Perez

Part 1 by Maya Perez
Pain and Loss

By Maya Perez



            "Father!"

            The sky blurred before me in hues of pink and orange.  The bright explosion, signaling the end of so many things, was already fading from its surface as if it had never been.

            I'd found him.  After all this time, I'd finally found him - my father.  After all the years of doubt, of fear, I'd finally proved he was alive.  But I did so only to lose him.  There was no question that this time he was dead...

            Minutes ago, my father had sacrificed himself to save the world. 

It meant nothing to me.  All I could think about was how I'd lost him again.  It wasn't fair!

            "Ken?"

            I stiffened at Jun's soft whisper, having momentarily forgotten that I wasn't alone.  I quickly wiped at the tears coursing down my face.

The five of us were in the country of Huntwall, in the base dedicated to their allies, Galactor.  We were in the country that had for days held the world at ransom with their implementation of the V-2 plan.

            How could so many things have happened so quickly?  It seemed but hours ago that Sabu had come back into my life claiming to have seen my father.  I hadn't seen Sabu in years, yet like a fool, I'd rushed off with him to look for my father only to get myself captured by Galactor.  They'd used my friend to trap me in the hopes of using me to catch the man they suspected of being an ISO spy.

            Even after Red Impulse and the others had come and rescued me I'd had no inkling on who he really was.  At the time he'd shoved aside all my questions, throwing the news of the implementation of the V-2 plan at me, derailing me with duty away from things I wanted so desperately to know.

            By then, the missile had been launched.  The Earth's Van Allen Belt had been destabilized and the world had been thrown into chaos.

            When Red Impulse had offered me the chance to infiltrate Huntwall with him to go put a stop to it, I'd jumped at the chance.  It was in this way we'd come to find out there was a way to reverse the effects of the missile.  The Earth could be saved.  But we also found out that the means weren't ready.  The autopilot system hadn't been set.  Katze had started his demands and set the whole machine in motion without having the means ready to stop it if the world gave in to his whims.  Someone would have to give up their life in order to reverse the conditions that were tearing the world asunder.

            It was then that things started falling apart. 

            Red Impulse proclaimed that he would be the one flying the missile.  But it was my duty, my place, and I told him so.  That's when he did what had always got me the most annoyed with him, he treated me like a little child and told me I wasn't going to go.

            We were about to come to blows when the rest of my team showed up.  And that's when Jun told me.  "Ken, don't!  Nambu Hakase told us everything.  Red Impulse is your father!"

            Red Impulse, my father?  Yet, when he'd raised his visor - the way he'd looked at me.  I couldn't doubt.  I forgot everything.  All I could do was stare at him, filled with an indescribable joy.  At last my quest was finally over.

            And then... then he'd taken hold of me for what I'd thought would be an overdue embrace but wasn't.  He lifted me high into the air and after spinning me round and round had thrown me across the hangar floor.  Before I could do anything to stop him, he'd boarded the missile.  He'd launched it into the horizon giving his life for the world and for me...

            My eyes stung again and I couldn't look at Jun though I felt her presence so close to me.  But that was when it started, that was when my blood turned cold as her previous words whispered through me once again - Nambu Hakase told us everything

            Hakase had known

It was as if a light had been suddenly snuffed inside me.  I couldn't feel anything.  Nambu had known?

"Ken?"

Jun reached for me and I pulled away at her touch, anger and revulsion pouring through me.  My face grew hard.  They'd known before me.  Somehow Nambu had known and he'd told all of them instead of me.

"We have to go."  I almost didn't recognize my own voice it was so devoid of everything.  "Our job here is done, and since Katze has escaped again, it's more than likely that this place won't be safe for long."

I didn't look at Jun as I snapped around and cut past Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei.  It was definitely likely that Katze had set in motion a self-destruct sequence on his way out.  Honestly, I didn't care.  I half hoped the base would take the whole stinking country with it when it blew.

I heard the others whispering as they followed behind me, so I walked faster.  Sparks of anger continued to speed through me though I was trying my best to stay calm.  Still, they'd known before I had.  They'd been told before me

I leapt up to the top of the God Phoenix and took the platform down without waiting for the others.  My shoulder convulsed, the muscles too tight as I sat myself down stiffly at my station and waited for them to catch up.

They were quiet as they came in.  I kept my eyes staring blankly at the view screen as they moved to take their places.

The old familiar background vibrations rose throughout the ship as Ryu fired the engines.  Within moments, the God Phoenix lifted off leaving the accursed base behind.

Silence lay like a smothering blanket in the bridge and I was glad of it.  Jun's words kept spinning round and round in my head - Nambu told us everything.  Everything... what did that mean?  What was everything?  And how would Nambu have known it?  A cold fire rose inside me as the truth showed itself.  Could it mean that Nambu had known the truth all along?

"A - aniki," Jinpei's voice rose up shyly from the back, "shouldn't we call hakase to tell him the mission is finished?"

Finished -- what a quaint word.  Yes, finished was what it was.  "Go ahead."  I had to bite the words out.  All I wanted to do was scream.

At least the kid kept the report short and to the point.  I felt my right eye twitch as he mentioned my father's death.  Nambu hadn't been at Crescent Coral, but Jinpei had been patched through to the UN building.  I could almost picture the doctor in his cold, detached way, trying to hold the pieces together while the hysterical leaders of the world waited for the time of the ultimatum to run out.  He would be relieved just like the rest of them at the news.  That one man had been sacrificed to achieve the end of the Earth's destruction would mean nothing to them.

No one said anything the rest of the way back.

The moment we docked at Crescent Coral and the water was pulled from the bay, I got up out of my seat and headed for the elevator.

"Ken, wait!"  Joe caught up to me there and was forced to grab my arm to stop me from leaving.

"Let go of my arm."  My voice was filled with venom and I saw Joe flinch with surprise.  I took that as my chance to wrench my arm from his grip.  The elevator doors closed on his face.

I detransmuted when I reached the outside and headed for the nearest exit from the bay.  As the doors opened, music and the sounds of loud celebration slammed into my ears.  No one was actually out in the hallway, the sounds were coming from the speakers that were on throughout the station. 

I frowned at the sounds of merrymaking.  What the hell were they celebrating for?  Yes, Galactor had been stopped from subjugating the world, but as far as things involving them were concerned, nothing had really been resolved!  Katze had escaped - again.  He would try to bring the world to its knees once more as soon as he got the opportunity.

And next time, next time they might not be as lucky.  They should all be mourning not celebrating.  Not only had there been thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths during this ordeal, but they'd also lost one of the most valued fighters for their freedom.  Fools!

I stomped down the hallway my anger growing with each step.  At the main hallway, revelers filled the area moving to and from.  Alcohol was flowing freely and a number of the revelers were none too steady on their feet.  Many danced to the upbeat music coming from the speakers.  Others just laughed and talked as if their lives were now totally carefree.

I steered clear of all of them, my hands bunching into fists at my sides.  The more I saw of them, the more my anger flared.  I knew I was being unreasonable, but I didn't care.  How dare they?  My father was dead.  Galactor was still alive.  There was no reason to celebrate.

"Get out of my way!" I barked acid at a couple entwined in one another's arms right in front of the elevator doors.  It was all I could do not to grab them and fling them across the hall.

At my words, they looked up, startled, and quickly stepped out of the way.  I could see that one of them recognized me.  I stepped into the elevator before he could say a word.  The smile that had lighted on his face had told me all that he would say.  I would have killed him if he had.

I jabbed the button for the office level, the merriment flooding over me from the speakers above setting my teeth on edge.  I almost screamed in frustration when the doors opened and I found my way once more blocked by revelers.

Unkindly, I pushed past them, even as I fought the irrational urge to pummel them out of the way.  Their happiness cut at me like slashing wounds.  I made myself walk faster.  I could feel my restraint starting to slip.

Luckily, the revelers thinned the closer I came to Nambu's office.  His door was closed at the far end but I knew he wasn't there.  I also knew, however, that he would show up eventually.

I walked into the dark office and left it that way.  I closed the door and stumbled forward to the closest chair and sat down.  It was time to wait.  I had some questions for my dear guardian.

As I sat there in the dark, still surrounded by the never-ending sounds of merriment, I followed the lessons we had learned so long ago and slowed my breathing and attempted to meditate. 

I tried to focus my attentions inside, to study an element or object there, to ease the tide of anger and fury within me.  It wouldn't pass, it wouldn't be pushed back.  The events of the day replayed themselves with uncommon clarity and I couldn't separate the feelings from them.  If anything, each detail, each nuance only seemed to make them grow stronger, more fierce.  Just trying to get my body to even half way relax was a struggle.  I'd never before felt so unbalanced, so out of touch with myself.  It only served to add fuel to the fire.

The minutes turned to hours and I still held on  -- only the certainty that Nambu would eventually come here keeping me together.

My bracelet beeped but I ignored it.  I couldn't talk to them, not now, not with the things I felt.  They'd been told before me.  They'd been used as messengers, making them participants in the whole sad affair.  And through it, they'd stood by and done nothing.  They'd stood by and let me live, even as my father chose to give his life to save the planet.  No, I couldn't, wouldn't talk to them.

A chill of expectation ran through me when the door to the room opened quietly minutes later.  I sat perfectly still as the lights came on and I heard the door close.

Once I could see, I watched as Nambu walked slowly to his desk and dropped down into his chair.  Dark circles had grown beneath his eyes.  He looked drawn and pale.  A part of me worried over what I saw, but my anger quickly silenced it and my heart grew cold again.  "Hakase."

He looked up at me in surprise and when he spotted me, I saw his eyes fill with what looked like sorrow.  "Ken."

None of it meant anything to me.  "Hakase, I have some questions for you."

Nambu looked away and nodded.  "I'll answer whatever you like."

I rose slowly to my feet, my voice cold.  "How long have you known?"  I didn't have to specify what I was talking about.  We both knew only too well the only topic I would care about.

Nambu hesitated, and I felt my ire rise.  He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose.  "I've... known from the beginning."  His tired eyes rose to meet mine.

A jolt slammed through me at the words.  From the beginning?  He'd known all this time?

"Fourteen years ago, during Galactor's early years, they formed an alliance with the country of Huntwall.  It was a long-term strategic alliance that had but a single purpose.  It was a purpose that only through luck, or fate, became known to us.  They were to be the vessels for the research and implementation of the V-2 plan." He paused, his voice sounding weary beyond bearing. 

"A young pilot stumbled over some information during a test flight of a military craft and brought it to the research facility I headed at that time.  The data was astonishing, it was almost too terrible to believe.  But I had to, yet there were problems when the matter was brought up to those who could do something about it.  Things started to go wrong.  In the end, we were forced to take matters into our own hands."  Nambu stared down at his lap.

"Your father made the choice to be the one to go, to be the one to try to find more information on the project and if at all possible put a stop to it.  I... wasn't qualified enough."  He sounded bitter.  "But to do this he knew he'd be putting his family in danger, especially if he were ever suspected or discovered.  To circumvent that Kentaro swore me into secrecy and then placed you and your mother in my care before faking his own death during a test flight."

My hands clenched and unclenched at my sides.  "So... what you're telling me is that for fourteen years you've not only known that my father was alive, but also strove to keep the knowledge from me."  I stared daggers into him but he didn't even flinch.

"Yes, that is correct."

"You bastard!"  I rushed forward and slapped my hands on his desk.  I shook as I struggled to keep from launching myself at him.  "And when, if ever, was I going to be told?  Were your words about my finding out who my father was once this mission was over, just bait?  Just your way to try to keep me in line?  You never had any intention of  telling me!"

Nambu eyes wouldn't meet mine.  "It wasn't up to me."

I wanted to scream.  It wasn't up to him?  "But isn't that exactly what you did do?  Didn't you tell the others so that they would tell me?"  I slapped the desk again.  The pain in my palms only echoed my fury.

"You had disappeared," Nambu calmly explained.  "The world was in a crisis and we couldn't afford to lose you in a wild goose chase for him."  He paused.  "I'd hoped that Kentaro would understand."

"Well I don't understand, do you hear me!"  I was shouting and I didn't care.  "The two of you were more than happy to have me as your little ninja leader but you didn't feel you could trust me with my father's identity?  That's crap!"  This time my hands had curled into fists when they struck the desk.

"I could have been told as soon as I entered the science ninja team program.  What the hell did you think I'd do?  Go out there and expose him to Galactor?  Wasn't I already keeping secrets on classified information by the age of twelve?  But you couldn't tell me this?  Lies!" 

I kicked the desk with all my might and it actually jumped forward an inch or two.  This drove Nambu abruptly back into his chair in shocked surprise. 

"Ken, please -" 

I cut him off.  "I have given everything I am to you, to the ISO, to the world for that matter, and this is how I'm repaid for it - with lies, betrayals.  Well I've had enough of it.  I won't be used anymore."  I tore my bracelet from my wrist.  I wanted nothing more than to throw it into his bewildered face, the bitterness of all he'd told me eating at me from the inside.  It was all I could do to just slam it onto the top of the desk instead.  "I quit!"

I turned away and headed for the door, hatred, pain, and above all, rage battling inside me.

"Ken, wait!"

I didn't.  "I hope you burn in hell."  I slammed the door hard on my way out.

Four shocked and horrified faces met me in the hallway.  I didn't feel a thing.  Served them right for being involved in things that didn't concern them.  I closed myself off to them and went to make my way past.  They wouldn't let me go that easily.

"Ken, what happened?"  Jun crossed my path staring at me with worried eyes.

I didn't want this!  "Don't."  My anger came through in my voice.  They'd been told before me.  "I don't want to talk about it.  Just leave me alone."

I pushed past her but not before I saw the hurt growing in her eyes.  I told myself it didn't matter.

Ryu took one look at me and quickly stepped back as if he'd been slapped.  Joe proved more stubborn.

"This is serious, Ken."  Joe's dark blue eyes searched mine and I could tell he didn't like what he found there.

"This is my business and it's going to stay that way.  Butt out!"  I roughly shoved him out of the way.  "Leave me the fuck alone!"

I almost tripped over Jinpei in my haste to get past.  He stared at me his eyes wide.  "Aniki..."

I stormed past him, trying not to notice the tears gathering there.

I took the stairs and sped down to the lobby not trusting the elevator to get me down there fast enough.  The others' faces kept flashing before me as my feet slapped down hard on the steps, their echo ringing in my ears.  What had they expected?  There was nothing to say.  How could they have thought otherwise? It should have been perfectly obvious to them all. 

I made it to the lobby and got mobbed as I came out the door.  More revelers.  Were these people never going to stop?  I shoved my way through them, a grimace on my face. 

I took another set of stairs down to the garage.  Out, out, I wanted out!  I made it to my bike and was about to get on when I hesitated.  Damn!  This was the ISO's.  I didn't want to use their equipment, I didn't want to owe them anything, but how the hell was I supposed to get home?  I kicked the bike in disgust and then left it where it sat.

I stomped my way to the exit and walked out into the bright sunlight.  I frowned at the happiness I saw there and the light.  It was as if the whole city had lost its senses and everyone had poured out into the streets.  It'd been hours since the end of the world had been averted yet here they were still partying.  Had these people nothing better to do?

What little traffic there was stood at a stand still -- revelers of all ages and sizes clogged the streets.  So much for my taking a cab.  It looked like I'd have to walk home.  Great.

I shouldered my way through the revelers cursing at anyone foolish enough to stay in my way or try to force me to join their fun.  The streets were total chaos even as it looked like Utoland was trying to out do Mardi Gras.  I pushed forward harder.  I had to get away from this.  I had to get the hell away!

Taking the alleyways helped a little, but even they weren't free of revelers.  You'd think from the way they were acting that there was no more evil in the world - blind fools!

As I made my way out of town, the crowds grew mercifully less.  But though I'd thought that the growing solitude and quiet would help me calm down and feel better, it instead gave me time to think and stew.  Though I hadn't thought it possible, I grew angrier than ever.  My whole life had been a sham, a lie.  And my poor mother!  She got to die of leukemia, alone, deserted.  Maybe it was a kindness that she'd never known Kentaro was still alive.  Had he ever even asked about her?  About me?  Surely he could have made an exception for her?  He had supposedly loved her, hadn't he?  Yet he'd let her die alone.  I wanted to howl my misery.  Everything had been so clear before - but then only because of the lies.

It took me several hours to make it to the airfield.  By then, the sun was already low to the horizon.  My legs hurt, my whole body hurt.  I couldn't remember when was the last time I'd eaten or slept.

When I spotted the familiar buildings, I felt a draft of relief - the first positive emotion since all of this had started.  It didn't last long.  As I got closer, I remembered that the field, the house, the hangar, they were all things that had been left for me as a supposed legacy from my dead father.  New rage flooded through me as I realized that it was actually more like a bribe to obscure the truth.  It rankled me as I walked on past the tarmac that I was going to stay here.  All this would be one giant constant reminder of the lies instead of the comfort I had hoped for.

I shoved the door of the small, one bedroom bunkhouse open and it slammed against the wall with a bang.  Finding the sound strangely satisfying, I slammed it shut even harder.

I reached for the lights and then stared at the room before me.  Everything was as it had been before my father's supposed death.  All the furniture, the décor, most of the utilities were as they had been when Nambu had presented me with my birthright at fifteen. 

How delighted I'd been, how grateful to finally have something that had belonged to my father.  What lengths I'd gone to over the last few years to preserve it as it had been before. 

Bile filled my mouth as it all turned bitter.  Everything made sense now.  I'd always wondered why I hadn't found much that belonged to him that was personal.  It'd been one of my greatest hopes when I'd first come here.  Well, he'd obviously cleaned the place out before his "death" to remove all traces of himself, to get rid of any evidence that could come to haunt him later by pointing out who he had been.  And I'd worked so damn hard to keep it intact, to add very little of myself to it, to preserve the feeling of his presence here.  Stupidly hoping that if he was dead, perhaps he would watch over me.  How pathetic.

"Lies!  It was all lies!"

My eyes burned and I suddenly couldn't stand to look at it, couldn't stand the thought that Nambu and Kentaro had believed that this would be enough to replace my father. 

"You bastards!"  I screamed at the top of my lungs all the pent up emotions of the day rushing forward to make me feel as if I would explode. 

Not thinking, only feeling the rage, the confusion, the pain, I grabbed the nearest thing to me and threw it across the room.  Half blind with madness I stormed into the kitchen and opening the cabinet doors, started throwing their contents in every direction. 

After I ran out of things there, I stomped into the small living room and picked up the coffee table and launched it at the large window in the front.  I paused a moment as it crashed through it, and watched the piece of glass shatter and fly everywhere just like my life.  A chair bounced off the wall and another hit the refrigerator.  I pulled the cushions from the couch and tore the stuffing from inside.

Like a raging tornado I moved from room to room to cause havoc and destruction.  Nothing was safe.  All I wanted was to destroy.  Bills and papers littered the floor, some intact and some not.  Chest drawers and clothes went everywhere.  Pictures were jerked from the walls and were stomped underfoot.

Mindless, after I knew not how long, my vision swam before me in spirals and I fell exhausted to my hands and knees, sweat dripping off me to the floor.  My breath came in harsh painful gasps that I'd overlooked till then.   I lay down to ease the pain, my rage finally letting me know that I had done enough.

I hadn't been there long before darkness came and claimed me.

 

 

 

A burning sensation on one side of my face slowly brought me back to consciousness.  I opened my eyes only to shut them again as bright sunlight blinded me.  With a push of effort, I turned my aching body onto its back and tried again.  This time I was more successful. 

Having done that much, I just lay there a while and stared at the ceiling.

I felt numb, drained, dead, but I could still feel the rage laying somewhere beneath the surface, roaming.  It was quiet at the moment, satiated, but still there, and still full of fire.  Nothing would ever be the same for me again.

Little by little I talked my body into letting me sit up.  After a little more time, I even made it to my feet.  There were things I needed to take care of, a life I needed to put together and a livelihood to create now that the old one was gone.  I stared at my wrecked home and felt nothing.  With a shrug, I stumbled off towards the bathroom.

The shower felt good even as I scrubbed myself raw.  He had touched me, he had held me, and I wanted none of it.  I scrubbed at my skin until it almost bled as if doing so could take away the memory of all that had gone before.  Damn him.

Dripping wet, I shambled into my room, no towel in sight.  As it was, it took me over fifteen minutes just to find some clothes to put on.  I'd really made a mess of things.  How'd you like what I'd done to your so called legacy, father?

After putting on some old work coveralls, I followed my trail of water back to the bathroom.  I retrieved my uniform and folded it neatly into a pile.  I'd need to mail these to Nambu today - by courier if I could afford it.  No way in hell was I going to give him an excuse to come here to get them.

In the living room, I swept off some of the broken dishes from the counter by the front door and set the uniform there.  My stomach grumbled lightly, but I ignored it.  There were too many other things to do.

Checking my wallet, I found that I had forty-three dollars to my name.  It took me almost an hour to track down my savings account book so I could see what I had there.  It wasn't much -- just a little over fifteen thousand dollars.  That wouldn't get me very far, not with some of the expenses I knew I'd have to worry about.  Maybe I should have waited to quit until after I'd gotten paid.

My barking laugh at the thought sounded strange to my ears.  Why had everything turned so sour?

I set the savings account book by my uniform and then stepped outside.  The sun shone over me but didn't warm me.  Hands shoved deep into my pockets, I walked on over to the hangar.

When I'd actually done delivery work, I'd always done it in the G-1.  That plane would never sit in this hangar again.  In the back, covered by an old tarp was what I'd have to use instead to try to make a living. 

The old Cessna had seen better days.  It'd come along with the airstrip just like everything else but after sitting around for eleven years before it'd come into my possession, it had gone a bit by the wayside.  It grated on me that I would have to depend on Kentaro's "gifts" for my livelihood, but at this point I knew I had no choice.

Up to now, I'd been slowly refitting the old girl, trying to get her back up to specs in the little spare time we'd been given between fighting and training.  Now I'd have to get it done in a hurry or starve.  That was assuming that my money would go far enough to get all the things I needed.  Great.

I struggled to get the tarp off the Cessna even as my mind quickly ran through my options. I didn't have many. 

On a best situation scenario, I would get the plane up and running in a few days and then scrape up some business by getting in touch with some old friends.  Or if the money didn't go far enough, I could try to get a loan from the bank.  Though with someone with no steady source of income and no real credit history that might prove a bit difficult, even with the airfield as collateral.

Another option would be to just say hell to it all and sell the place - to just get rid of it.  I had no family, so without the airstrip I'd have nothing holding me here.  I could go wherever I fancied and use my flying skills to get me a job on a small strip somewhere. 

I stood there, the tarp in my hands that last idea looking very appealing.  I could sell the place and get out.  I could leave all this behind me.  I could get rid of it all.  I let the tarp fall to the floor.

Still, there was no telling how good or bad the market would be after all the disasters from Katze's latest attempt at world domination.  It'd be best to find a way to eat now and then worry about selling later.

The Cessna's paint was old and faded.  It even looked to be cracking in a few places.  It'd need a new coat, but that could wait.  I made a mental note to check and see if the licenses and permits for the plane were current.  I knew I'd meant to do something about them sometime back, but couldn't remember at the moment if I'd done anything or not.  I should have prepared a little better for this eventuality, huh?

Luckily, I had previously bought oil, sparkplugs, and some filters, so I wouldn't have to buy everything.  My biggest worry though was the engine - which until I'd taken the trouble to empty it out, clean it, and replace all the normal wear and tear parts, I'd have no real idea on its condition.  I'd just have to wait and see.

The morning wore on quickly as I spent it working on the plane.  The busy work kept me from thinking and I found that I liked that just fine.

A stubborn spark plug was fighting me when the wrench slipped.  My hand went with it, smashing against the engine block, sending shooting pain up my arm.  "Dammit!"

"That's no way to say hello."

I looked up, caught totally off guard by the familiar voice.  Joe stood leaning against the doorway into the hangar a small, amused look on his face.

A chill cut through me, my previous pain forgotten.  "What the hell are you doing here?"

"My, didn't someone get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," he said.  Joe pushed away from the doorway and started towards me.

I felt a queer sense of panic building inside me. Why was he here?  What did he want?  I climbed down from the work ladder I'd been using to work on the plane, my eyes glued to him.

"You should be happier about seeing me anyway," Joe added.  "After all, I am a Sicilian bearing gifts."  He grinned, lifting a six pack of long necks for me to see.  "I would have just put these in the fridge, but after seeing the state of your place, I wasn't too sure of what might happen to them there."

I looked away from his penetrating stare having no intention on explaining what had occurred there.

"Here, take one."  Joe took one of the beers from the pack and held it out to me.  "Come on, they're still cold."

Hesitantly, I took the offered beer not sure what else to do.  I felt nervous, and that sense of panic hadn't lessened, but it still felt good to see him.  Especially after the way I'd treated him the last time I'd seen him.  Still, I didn't know what I was going to do with him.

Trying to buy myself more time, I picked up a wrench and used it as a makeshift bottle opener.  I handed it over once I was through so he could open his own.

I took a long swig and felt the cool liquid travel down my grateful throat to smash like a rock inside my empty stomach.  Despite that, I took another long draught after the first, the alcohol already giving me a light buzz.  "Thanks."

"Don't mention it."  Joe shrugged.  "I know you never keep anything worth while in this rat trap of yours."

"Yeah, like your trailer's that much of an improvement."  I ducked beneath the plane and moved to sit on the lower steps of the ladder.  The beer was hitting me harder than I'd expected.

"At least my fridge is stocked."  Joe followed me a smug look on his face.

"Whatever."  I took another pull from the beer.  Miraculously, I actually felt my shoulders relax a little.

Joe leaned up against the Cessna and we drank our beers in companionable silence.

When I handed him my empty bottle, he immediately handed me another.  Though I knew better by then, I took it anyway.  I relaxed a little more.  I pushed the hair away from my face with my greasy hands.

"So, you're finally fixing the old crate?"  Joe patted the side of the plane taking a look at what he could of the engine.

"Trying to anyway."  I shrugged, half-hoping he'd volunteer to help me but also feeling I had no right to ask.  I took another long swig of my beer.

Joe only nodded.

"So, why'd you come here anyway?"  I was starting to get a headache.

"Can't a guy just show up to share some good beers with a friend?" Joe asked me.

I glanced up at him and his easy laid back stance, and though I tried, really tried, I couldn't fall for it.  With all that had happened, there was no way he'd come here without an agenda.  "Cut the crap.  I wasn't born yesterday."  That came out a little harsher than I'd meant it to be.

Joe nodded and his expression grew suddenly serious.  "So much for the pleasantries I guess..." He took one long last swig of his beer and then set the bottle down on the floor.  Watching me, he reached into his pocket and pulled out my wrist activator.

I felt my whole body tense.

"I came here to give this back to you."  He held the activator out to me.

I jumped to my feet before I'd realized I was doing it, the rage from the day before flooding back as if it had never gone.  "What?  Did Nambu send you to bring his little fool back?"  I spit it out like an accusation.

Joe blinked in surprise at my vehemence.  He didn't know the half of it.

"Actually, no, he didn't send me," Joe announced.  "If anything, he was against the idea, but I did it anyway."  He shrugged.

"Well it doesn't matter.  I don't want it."  I waved his hand and the activator away from me.  "You can even save me the postage and take the rest of the uniform back with you.  Give the whole lot back to him.  I'm not going to be needing it anymore."

Joe stared at me, putting the activator back into his pocket.  "So that's it then?  You're just going to throw it all away?  Will we be next?"

I felt myself bristle at the words.  What the hell did he know anyway?  "What business is it of yours what I do with my life?  It's mine not yours.  Don't you dare tell me how to live it."

His gaze narrowed as I screamed at him.  Angry lines sprung up around his eyes.  Good.  Maybe he'd like a taste of all the shit I'd been going through.  "So I guess what you want is for me to just watch you flush it down the toilet?" Joe asked.  "Did I get that right?"

"Dammit, you don't know anything about anything!"  I twisted away from him not wanting to get into this - not wanting to see where it might lead.  When I stopped turning though, the room didn't.  I watched as if from somewhere else as the beer bottle slipped from my numb fingers and shattered to a thousand pieces on the floor.  I felt myself starting to follow it.

"Ken!" 

Joe was suddenly behind me, propping me up.  The anger in his face had vanished as quickly as it had come.  "Are you all right?"  He pulled me over to sit back down on the ladder.

I was seething inside.  Seething at the fact he'd helped me, seething that I'd so stupidly tried to fall at all.  I roughly pushed his hands away from me.  "I'm fine!"

"When was the last time you ate anything?"

"It doesn't fucking matter," I growled.  "Just leave me the hell alone."

Joe backed off, his face unreadable.  "All right, if that's what you really want."

"It is."  I wouldn't look at him.  "So get out."

"Fine, but one last thing before I go."  Joe's voice grew quiet.  "The UN is having a memorial service for your father early tomorrow.  I can pick you up and drive you there."

"That won't be necessary," I told him.  "I'm not going."  My jaw felt wired tight.

"He was your father."  Anger had crept back into Joe's voice.  Good.

"Was he?  Was he really?"  I looked up at him.  "How many fathers do you know that go around letting their sons think they're dead?"

His gaze studied mine.  "Then perhaps you should consider going just to pay your respects to Red Impulse."

"No."
            Joe sighed.  "Suit yourself then.  I'll be seeing you."  He put two fingers to his forehead and gave me a salute, then turned to go.

I watched him as he headed for the door and never looked back.  I breathed a sigh of relief after he'd gone, knowing that it could have gone much worse.  It was nice that he cared, but he just didn't understand.  No one could.  None of them had been lied to all their lives; none of them had been branded as unworthy to know the truth.  A pang of pain tore through me at the thought, but I quickly crushed it with anger.  Damn them all if they thought so little of me!  The only thing I had need of was me.

Joe'd been gone about a half hour when I finally felt steady and calm enough to get back to work.  The hours passed.

As the sun lowered in the horizon, I stopped only long enough to turn on the lights and slowly sip at one of the beers Joe had left behind.  I took my time with it, hoping to avoid the effect they'd had on me before.

The quiet and the solitude were wonderful - none of the outside world intruded here.  None of the hollow celebration that I was sure was still going on rang here, none of the questions either, none of the doubts.

I worked on into the night until my hands couldn't hold anything without shaking.  I was exhausted, tired to the bone, and it felt good.  I was looking forward to welcoming oblivion.

As I staggered back to the house, I frowned as I noticed light shinning through the broken window.  Had I left the light on from last night?  I shook the question away.  It didn't matter.  At least I wouldn't have to bumble along in the dark.

When I stepped inside, it was instantly obvious that someone had been there.  Someone had made a hurried attempt to straighten out the worst of the disaster area.  I hadn't had a clue anyone had been here.  Would Joe have done this?  I wasn't too sure.  But when I glanced at the counter I knew he had at least been here.  But instead of taking my uniform like I'd asked him to, he'd instead left my wrist activator on top of the pile as well as a piece of paper with what looked like an address and time.

I felt a shaft of annoyance cut through me at his presumption but it evaporated as quickly as it'd come.  In the end, whatever Joe did or wanted wouldn't make a bit of difference.  I'd made my decision and I would stick by it everyone else be damned.

I closed the door to the house and was about to go take a shower before crashing for the night when I smelled it.  I turned, surprised, and spotted the covered dish sitting by the side of the kitchen sink.

I recognized the metal cover and the white plain plate it sat over - they were the same as those used at the Snak J.  Jun had been here. For some reason, the thought of her having come here and my never being aware of it, sent a chill down my spine.

Not sure why I did it, I walked into the kitchen and lifted the plate's cover.  Inside I found a large steak, wedge potatoes, and corn on the cob - some of my favorites.  This had definitely been done by Jun.

Suddenly I saw a flash of her face and the hurt that had covered it when we'd met outside of Nambu's office.  Damn, why did she have to care?  Why had she been the one to tell me about my father?

I pushed the food away, my insides churning.  It was all so bloody unfair!  Why had she told me?  It would have been so much better if I'd never known.  I would still have my life, my friends, and my purpose.  I would have been a fool living in a lie, but I would have had the blessing of ignorance.  And ignorance was bliss.

Without a second thought, I left the kitchen and headed for the bathroom as I'd originally intended.  Jun's handiwork was evident even there.  My razor, toothbrush, and combs were no longer on the floor but back on top of the sink and medicine cabinet.  She'd even put towels on the rack and the soap back in the shower dish. 

But like this place and what I'd done to it, nothing would bring it back to being just like it'd been.  The broken things could be replaced but the originals were gone.  I felt like that inside.  I almost laughed at the apt comparison.

I stayed beneath the shower's scalding water until I'd pruned and beyond.  Once I'd half fried myself, I put on my nightclothes and exited to the bedroom.  Jun looked to have attempted to put my bed back together too, but the frame was bent and wouldn't hold the mattress.  Exactly how I'd managed to make it that way I couldn't quite recall.  So without much emotion, I took the mattress from the frame and then set the frame up against the wall out of the way.   I set the mattress back on the floor and piled my covers on it.  My head had barely touched the pillow before I was out cold.

 

 

 

"No!"

My scream echoed in my ears as I sat up in bed, my eyes opening into darkness even as bright explosions flashed across the sky in what remained of my dream. 

My breathing was harsh and heavy, my chest was filled with pain.  I bent forward, my sight narrowing, and put my head between my knees until I could breathe again.  I shook in the darkness though I wasn't cold, and I was hard pressed to make it stop.

It was just a dream.  A cruel memory - why was it making such a wreck of me?

I lay back down, my cold sweat drying on my skin.  I tossed and turned, feeling even more exhausted than when I'd turned in, but sleep evaded me.  I gave up after a couple of hours and got up.  I spent the time till the rising dawn cleaning up the rest of my mess and making a list of things I needed.

As the sun finally broke over the horizon, I stepped barefoot outside.  I walked over the cold tarmac to the dew covered grass beyond and watched the sun grow before me.  I stood there and stared at it, the dawning realization growing inside me that it was another day Kentaro would never see. 

Yet here I was. 

I saw the splendor of life and renewal and found that it meant absolutely nothing to me.  Even the sun's rays didn't seem capable of warming what had happened to my heart.

Numb, colder inside than before, I made my way back.  The things I felt, the undercurrent of rage, the things I didn't feel, my lack of I knew not what, clashed together into something that made no sense at all.

As I walked in through the doorway my gaze lighted on my uniform sitting on top of the counter and I felt myself shiver.  They were symbols of my past, part of what I'd been.  If Joe hadn't been so blastedly stubborn they wouldn't be there now reminding me of what I'd had and of the lies that had come with it.  I would send them back to Nambu today, one way or another - it'd be another loose string I wouldn't have to worry about anymore.

Most of the other things would go away on their own too.  But... four of them, four of them would be part of the hardest thing I'd ever had to do.  I knew they'd come to understand in time.  And really, in this one thing, Nambu and Galactor might do me a kindness after all.  If things worked out right, the two would keep the others very busy, making the process that much easier for us all.

I hunted down some shoes and socks and then decided to tackle the kitchen.  Broken plastic and glass crackled underfoot even as I reached for what was left of the broom.  What would Jun have made of all this destruction? 

I clamped down on the question before it could go any further.  Why the hell was I thinking these things anyway?  I scooped up three broken cups and dumped them noisily into the trash.  Who cared what she made of it?

My eyes flickered to the untouched food by the sink and didn't listen to the answer of the question.  How long had it been since I'd eaten?  Joe had asked me the same thing yesterday and I didn't have any more of an idea now than I'd had then. 

A part of me toyed with the idea of food, but as I looked at what was there, it only turned my stomach.  It looked like most of me just wasn't ready yet.

I'd made some progress in the kitchen and had moved on to the broken front window to break off some of the glass still hanging from the frame when the phone rang.

I whipped about in surprise making no move to go answer it, my gaze sliding towards the activator half expecting it to beep.  Nothing happened.

It was one of them though, I was sure of it.  Who the hell else would it be?  Still the phone continued to ring and I started to doubt.  What if it was someone looking to hire me?  Could I pass up the chance?  The list I'd compiled that morning of the things I'd need to fix the plane hadn't painted a pretty picture. 

I sprinted across the room for the phone.

"Washio Airstrip.  Can I help you?"  My knuckles were white as I gripped the phone.

"Ah, you're awake.  Great!"  Joe's voice came over the receiver his tone unbelievably cheery.  That put me instantly on guard.  "I thought you might want to get to the memorial service early.  Are you ready for me to come and pick you up?"

I heard the bones in my hand pop.  Feeling like a bonfire had just come alive inside me, it took everything I could not to scream into the phone.  "I thought I told you yesterday that I wasn't going."

"That was yesterday," he said as if he'd honestly expected me to have changed my mind.  "So, just say yes now and I'll come right over."

"Joe, I don't need this."  I shook, my voice low, I was so angry.  I'd already told him I wasn't going.  What was the matter with him?

"Quit playing stubborn, will you?  You know you want to go."  His smug tone threw me right over the brink.

"You fucking son of a bitch!  I said no!"  I slammed the phone back on the hook and then yanked the whole thing off the table and hurled it toward the broken window.  The phone cord snapped itself out of the wall and broke from the phone on the other end.  The phone's momentum halted, it crashed to the floor with a loud clang.

The fucking bastard!  How dare he tell me what I did or didn't want?  Why did everyone feel they had to decide everything for me?  Was there no one that believed that I could make my own decisions?  I stared wildly around the room looking for something, anything to vent my rage out on but there was nothing there that I hadn't already broken or mutilated in some way.  Was everything to be denied to me?

I was thinking of having a go at the smashed TV set anyway, when a sobering thought brought me up short.  Joe hadn't taken my refusals seriously.  What if he decided to come over here to pick me up anyway?  A part of me celebrated at the thought.  If Joe dared show his ugly face here I could give him a greeting he'd never forget.  I'd teach him to go around making my mind up for me.

Still... 

I felt a shiver of fear course through me.  He'd sounded so sure, so certain.  Was there a part of me that did want to go see a memorial to this man who'd been my paternal father?  But that'd be insane!  And beside the point.  Joe had a plan though and that wasn't so easily set aside.  He seemed too sure that he could make me go there whether I wanted to or not. 

I'd take one look at his smug, confident face, and I wouldn't be able to help myself.  He was probably on his way right now.  And if I saw him, I'd kill him.

Cold inside and out, I knew with all certainty that I couldn't be home when he showed.  I rushed to the table where I'd compiled my lists, grabbed them and shoved them into my pocket.  Not slowing, I grabbed a trash sack from the kitchen and shoved my uniform inside.  Joe's note fell on the floor, and without thinking I grabbed it and shoved it into my pocket as well.  The only thing on my mind was my need to get out of there in a hurry.

I ran down the length of the tarmac with the trash sack over my shoulder, frantically trying to calculate how long it'd take Joe to get here.  The way he sometimes drove, I assumed I had ten minutes tops.  Damn!

Rather than follow the meandering road from the field, I cut across the grass to get to the main thoroughfare.  Joe would be approaching from the east, so west would have to do for me. 

I was sweating and winded by the time I reached the road.  I kept glancing over my shoulder expecting to catch sight of Joe's sedan at any moment.

Luck was with me though, I hadn't gone far before an eighteen wheeler roared down the opposite way and I was able to flag him down.  I flopped into the seat, giving the driver a heartfelt smile, breathing a lot easier now that I was sure I was going to get away.

About thirty minutes later, I waved goodbye to my ride just outside Utoland and made the rest of the way in by bus.  Once I got close to downtown, I got off and walked the rest of the way to the Utoland Central Bank.  I withdrew all the money I had from my account except for twenty bucks so that the account would remain active.  I stared at the cash now in my hand, hoping that it'd go farther than I knew it would.

I walked by a newsstand in the lobby on my way out and despite myself slowed to take a look at the headlines.  ‘Residual effects of Galactor's latest ploy still being felt across the globe. The final count of the disaster related deaths reached into the millions -- Stock Market still closed as world tries to recover from the emergency.'  It looked like everything was back to normal. 

‘UN to honor valiant hero in private memorial service.'  This I found in small print at the bottom of the front page.  Hell, if they'd waited a few more days, it would have been just a small footnote in the obituaries.

I turned away disgusted and at the same time angry with myself for feeling that way.  The man was dead, none of it mattered to him, and he didn't matter to me.  I shouldn't care.  But the gall of those people.  How could they care so little over the man that had sacrificed his own life for them?  If things had run differently, it would have been me.  And that's all my life would have meant to anyone, a minor footnote in the paper somewhere.  Shit as it was, I wasn't even worth that much anymore.

I hit the glass door a little hard as I made my way outside.  None of this mattered; I had other things that needed my attention.  Damn them all to hell.

The morning wore on as I walked the streets going from one specialty store to another looking for the things I needed.  A lot of the items I had no choice but to order and my money quickly dwindled as I paid for them in advance.  The one bright spot in that was that at least they'd be delivered to the airfield so I wouldn't have to figure out a way to get them home on my own.

At the post office, I bought a box and dumped the trash bag inside and sealed it up.  I flinched as I was told how much it would cost me to have the box delivered when I took my package to a nearby twenty four hour local delivery service.  I was already almost out of cash and I knew I'd barely even started.  Things were definitely going to be very tight for quite a while.

Aching, worn out, and thirsty, I walked into a small café for a break.  I almost dozed as I nursed a Coke in a back booth, the cool air from the air conditioner sweeping over my sweaty skin. 

"Turn that up, will you, Nadine?"

I glanced up from my table as the waitress reached up and turned up the volume on a large TV dangling over the front door.

" - amazing turn out of heads of state and national leaders.  The ceremony was informal and closed to the press despite protests lodged by the media.  Even now, after it's all been said and done, the UN still refuses to disclose the identity of the man rumor has it drove the rocket into the Van Allen Belt to save the Earth from total annihilation."

The reporter rattled on, the camera switching to a photo of a large cliff side and then to another high air shot which showed a large group of people gathered about a simple grave marker set in the grass near the cliff's edge.

I looked away, a part of me sure that the place was familiar.  Not wanting to hear more, I quickly slipped out of my booth gulping down the rest of my Coke as I went.  The cold rushed to my head bringing on a light headache.  I ignored it.

"As well as the famous heads of state, it's been said that the illustrious member of the ISO, Dr. Kozaburo Nambu was also in attendance as well as the champions of the world, the Kagaku Ninjatai."

I felt my eye twitch even as I stubbornly refused to hear anymore.  Had Nambu faked my presence there?  It wasn't as if he hadn't done that before.  Would he have dared?  I tried to clamp down on my rising anger.  This was no longer my concern.

I shoved my hand into my pocket as I reached the register, hoping for some change I might have dropped there, and encountered paper instead.  I pulled it out to get it out of the way and quickly paid for my drink and got out of there.

The heat as I walked out the door almost forced me back inside.  I grit my teeth against it, fighting a sudden strange bout of nausea, and hurried on down the three steps  onto the sidewalk.  I'd hurried off almost a block, perspiration breaking out all over me, when I remembered the piece of paper still in my hand.  Moving under an awning out of the direct sunlight, I unfolded it, having totally forgotten what it was.

The address I found there written in Joe's lazy scrawl clicked in my mind with the photos on the TV.  I'd been there before - I'd been there with him

It'd been one of the few times I'd actually felt at ease with Red Impulse, one of the few times I hadn't felt angry, chided, or even overwhelmed by his presence.  Many times I'd had the suspicion that he made me feel those things on purpose, but he hadn't on that day. 

The mission had gone well.  The information we'd retrieved had shown great promise of providing a means of ending the war.  We were wrong, but we hadn't known it then.

I'd been so startled when he'd invited me on that drive.  Red Impulse had been quiet and more withdrawn than usual.  He'd taken me with him to that place and had shared the sunset with me. 

It had always struck me how vulnerable he had seemed that day.  I'd been certain more than once that there'd been something he'd wanted to say to me.  But though I'd waited for it, he never had.  It was only too easy to figure out now what it might have been.  Yes, only too easy.  My fist crushed the paper in my hand.

Damn him.  Damn him.  How many times, how many chances had he had to tell me?  But I couldn't be trusted.  I couldn't handle the truth.  Even on a night of seeming victory he hadn't been able to bring himself to tell me.  Bastard!  And now that I knew, I couldn't spit my anger in his face.  I couldn't tell him what a sorry son of a bitch he really was. 

Or could I?

I felt a faint shiver course through me at the idea.  Yes, to tell him off. 

With a burst of righteous strength I moved out from beneath the awning and headed for the nearest bus stop.

Five buses and a twenty minute walk later, I was there. The grounds housed an ISO weather station, one of the first, if I remembered right.  Now it was a memorial as well.  The gates to the drive were closed but that didn't stop me.

I walked through the trees at the perimeter towards the cliffs suffused with angry purpose.  Though I knew Kentaro's body was but scattered atoms now, his memorial was here, so in a way he was here as well.  He would hear me.  I was sure of it.  And I definitely had some things I wanted to say.

A cool breeze rose from the sea, tickling my hair as I studied the area by the cliffs.  The grass had been recently cut and looked fresh and clean, showing no signs of the crowd that had stomped all over it that morning.  Seagulls called to one another overhead, even as my gaze moved to the small cordoned off area near the cliff's farthest edge.  Red velvet ropes formed a square, held up by gold posts set around a marble plaque on the ground.

I made my way over to them, a sense of urgency moving through me now that I was so close.  I unhooked one of the velvet ropes and entered the cordoned off area.

The sky slowly changed to brilliant hues of orange and pink, the sun lowering towards the horizon as I stood there and stared.  The marble marker was beautiful, gray and white with swirls of black.  Engraved into it were the year and the words ‘We Honor You in Gratitude for the Lives You Have Spared With Your Own.  May We Have the Wisdom to Not Let Your Selfless Sacrifice be in Vain.'

There was no name, no clue as to who this was for - just the year and the UN's platitudes.  Served him right.

"Do you see what it's got you?  Do you?"  I screamed at the plaque, sure in every fiber of my being that he was here and that he would hear me.  "You bastard!"  My voice echoed around me before being snatched away by the wind.

Words piled in a rush into my mouth, the rage that had so far lain mostly dormant pushing against me to burst free.  "You're a liar and a scoundrel," I accused.  "You weren't worth the uniform you wore.  You may have saved the world but that still doesn't mean you were ever a human being!"  I stomped on the marker with all my might.  It didn't even scuff the surface.

"As far as I'm concerned, Kentaro Washio died twelve years ago.  You were nothing but a shadow of what he could have been!"  I glared at the marker daring him to come refute my words as if he ever could.  I spit on the marble, my disgust, my rage, and my disappointment more than I could put into words.  He was gone; I would never get satisfaction.  This would have to do.  Still, I shook with the unfairness of it.  "You would have gone to your death and never told me!"

A stabbing pain poked through my eyes and I turned away.  It was true.  If not for Jun and the others, I would have never known.  He wasn't going to tell me, not even at the end.  "You bastard!"

My nails cut into the palms of my hands as I screamed my accusation with everything I had as if by will alone I could reach him wherever his spirit had gone. I ached from head to toe.

My rage suddenly left me as if snuffed, leaving me only empty and numb.  He was gone.  My old life was over.  That was that.

I took a step forward to leave him forever.  To get on with the rest of my pathetic life, when everything turned upside down and my world suddenly went black.

 

 

 

 

 

My eyes blinked open my mind blank and dull.  After several seconds, the knowledge slowly trickled in that I wasn't where I'd been.  Rather than laying sprawled out on the lawn of the old weather station, I was at home, on my couch, with a blanket thrown over me.  How?

I looked up and my eyes grew wide as I spotted the back of a red jacket and the unique red helmet.  Through my mind flashed the other two or three times that had been so like this very moment.  Sudden hope flared inside me.  It had all been a lie.  It had all been a bad dream!  "Father!"

Hope crumbled to dust as the red clothed man turned to reveal a harsh but familiar face that was not Kentaro's.  I looked away, not meeting his eyes, ashamed and angry at the hope that had risen inside me.

I forced myself to look up again at Red Impulse's close teammate as I felt his eyes on me.  "Oniishi...?"

A small smile touched the mute's face as he nodded to me in acknowledgement.  I could feel questions forming up inside me like a rising wave, even as fear rose up with them that I might actually ask them.  This man, this man had worked with Kentaro for years.  He would know things about him.  Kentaro might have shared his private thoughts with him.  But I didn't care!

I stood up, turning away, confusion flooding through me.  Why was I even thinking of asking Oniishi anything?  I had all the answers I needed.  I had all the betrayals I was willing to take.

The room spun around me and I found myself suddenly floundering.  Oniishi appeared at my side and helped me sit back down.

"Sorry about that."  I felt weak and foolish.

Oniishi shrugged and seemed to take it all in stride.  He set the blanket back on my lap and after patting me softly on the shoulder headed off towards the kitchen.

I must have blacked out at the memorial site.  It was the only thing that made sense.  Had Oniishi already been there or had he come later and found me lying there?  I hadn't known that he had any idea of where I lived.  I supposed I was lucky he'd not taken me to a hospital or worse, the ISO.

Did he know the truth, I wondered.  Did he know I was his leader's son?  A flare of annoyance lit inside me.  More than likely, I was the only one who hadn't known.  It had proved true over and over again.  Poor little Gatchaman always left alone in the dark.

My hands coiled into fists on my lap.  I forced my fingers apart, willing my hands to relax.  I had other things to worry about.  Like how to get Oniishi not to tell the others what had happened.  All I needed was the team suddenly hovering over me gushing with concern.

I could see through my broken window that the sun was already high in the sky.  It looked like I'd been out for quite a while.  I knew I hadn't been taking good care of myself, but so far that had been the least of my problems.  I hoped Oniishi wouldn't prove to be another.

I'd spent several minutes contemplating on whether or not I should try standing up again when Oniishi returned.  He pushed my beat up coffee table towards me with his foot and then set a filled tray on top of it. 

He pointed at the steaming bowl of Campbell's chicken soup, at the tall glass of orange juice, at another of water, and then at me.

"I'm - I'm not really hungry," I told him.

Oniishi raised a brow and stared at me.  He pointed at the bowl again and then at me his eyes never leaving my face.

How do you argue with a man who can't argue back?  Not that his set expression left me much room for that anyway.  With a small defeated sigh, I reached for the spoon next to the bowl though in all honesty I had absolutely no desire to eat. 

Originally I planned to eat just enough to satisfy Oniishi's badly aimed good intentions, but his hard insisting stare remained on me until all the soup was gone.  Every time I tried to stop, the eyebrow would go up and his gloved hand would point at the soup and then at me again.  I ended up eating it all.  I felt bloated, almost sick.  How long had it really been since I'd eaten anything?

I was about to sit back when Oniishi stepped forward and moved the glass of orange juice towards me.  I sighed again, but after a moment under that gaze I gave in and drank it down though I was sure I was going to explode.  I mightily hoped he wouldn't insist on my drinking the water as well.

I must have looked a little green, because after giving the water a glance, he picked up the tray and took it away.  I leaned back, trying not to move much, sighing with relief.

I closed my eyes and listened quietly as he put the dishes in the sink and before I knew it I fell into a light doze.  The next time I opened my eyes, Oniishi was sitting on the couch beside me, his gaze intent.  Something about it made me very nervous.

"I - I want to thank you for bringing me home," I said.

Oniishii shrugged his expression non-committal.

I pushed on.  "I realize this is going to sound a little strange to you, but I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't inform anyone on how you found me last night."  Goose bumps rose up between my shoulder blades as he just sat there and stared.  Had he already informed them?  Or was there something else going on?

I studied Oniishi with my doubts even as he slowly reached within his jacket.  From within it, he withdrew a battered looking envelope.  The face of it had my name written on it.

Dread clamped around me as I realized what it might be.  Oniishi held the envelope out in my direction.

"No!"  I pushed away from him as if he'd threatened to electrocute me with a touch. "I don't want it."

Oniishi made an impatient gesture and held the envelope out to me again. 

Anger and fear shot through me.  I stood up and found that my vision remained steadier than before.  "I said no!"

Oniishi stood up, his face set, and once more thrust the envelope in my direction.

"I'm grateful for what you've done, but I won't take that.  I don't want it."  I turned away from him thinking of heading for the door but he cut me off.  I couldn't read Oniishi's expression as he stood again before me, holding out the envelope that he still expected me to take.

"I won't read it even if I take it."  I tried to sound as cold as I felt.

His dark eyes locked with mine as he once more thrust the envelope towards me.

I snatched the dratted thing out of his hand and threw it on the coffee table.  Calmly, he picked it back up and held it out to me again deep determination on his face.

Why was everyone in the Red Impulse team such a bunch of stubborn fools?  I didn't want to read the damn thing; didn't he understand that?  Who knew what lies Kentaro had told Oniishi over the years.  Who knew what lies he was about to tell me in that letter.  "No."

I tried going around the table but Oniishi blocked me at every turn always holding that blasted letter before him like some kind of accusation. 

"I don't want it!"  I twisted around, thinking to feint past him, but fell instead.  My cheeks burned as I picked myself up off the floor, even as Oniishi stubbornly presented me with the letter yet again.

"You're not going to stop are you?"  I felt tired to the core.  Was nothing in my control anymore?  Had anything ever been?

Oniishi stared at me and slowly moved his head from side to side. 

I sat on the floor, weary, not doubting his answer in any way.  Sighing heavily, I reached for the battered envelope.  I held it in my hand, staring at my name on it, in no hurry to see what was inside.

Oniishi's presence stood over me, pounding at me like a conscience.  With another sigh, I turned the envelope over and slit it open.  I was surprised to see my hand shaking as I took out the letter nestled inside.

Part 2 by Maya Perez

            Ken - my beloved son -

            How I've yearned to say these words to you...

            If you've received this letter, it means that I never found the courage to say them to you face to face.  It also means that I am probably dead.  And for both, I beg your forgiveness.

            I must apologize to you for this letter.  It is heavily lacking, though I've reviewed it, rewritten it, reworded it over a thousand times - it has never said all that I truly need to say to you.  And due to circumstances and my own cowardice, I have no choice but to hope that it will do.

            First and foremost, I want you to know that I love you and that I'm so very proud of you.  You're everything a father could want in a son.  You're strong, independent, self-assured - you have goals and ambitions, you know what you want to do with your life.  Your every breath proves that life is worthwhile.  I feel confident that you will go on doing well now that I'm gone.  Not all parents can say that of their children.

            I'm sure you have many questions.  I would in your place.  And so being, I will try my best to be as truthful and thorough as I am able...

            Twelve years ago, by pure accident really, I stumbled over a test of the V-2 plan while over Huntwall space, flying a prototype reconnaissance fighter.  Though I had no idea on what I'd stumbled into at the time, the conclusions Kozaburo drew from the test recorders on the plane and my own testimony over what I'd seen, scared us both deeply.

            Kozaburo sent out some quiet inquiries through a trusted contact in the UN and two weeks later the man turned up dead.  All evidence of his line of investigation disappeared.  We had a number of indications that we were being watched and followed.  It all gave a cold horrid reality to our fears.

            We had no idea whom we could trust, yet something had to be done - and  we were the only ones left who could do it.  We needed more information, but we had to get that information without it being tracked back to us, we didn't want to put our families or ourselves in danger.

            In the end, the decision was entirely mine.  Kozaburo protested, but eventually he too saw that we had no choice.  I had a family, but I also had the necessary skills.  Kozaburo was no slouch either, but he had the scientific background and connections to get more done on our side of things. 

            I... I couldn't tell your mother, the risks were too great - and to be honest, I'd foolishly thought it would all be over in a year or two.  I'd thought I'd be able to do what needed to be done and then I'd get to come home to my old life - that I would explain and make things up to her when I returned.  I was stupidly, horribly wrong.

            One year turned to two, then three.  And the more I uncovered the uglier and bigger the mystery became.  I longed to come home to you, but I couldn't.  The stakes were just too high.  And if I had just given it up and returned, how long would we have been safe?  How long could I have dealt with living life always looking over my shoulder waiting for the end?

            After the first three years contact with anyone outside the group was a danger.  It was another two years after that before I was able to get any news out let alone get any in.  By the time the information trickled its slow way into me that your mother was ill, she was already dead.

            I blame myself for that, as I have many other things, and until my last dying breath you can be sure that I'm still asking for her forgiveness.  And then of course, there's you -- the son to whom I've never been a father.

            By the time the lines were drawn well enough to give me room to move, you were already well on your way in Kozaburo's project.  It had pleased me to no end that you'd been chosen, yet at the same time I feared for you.  Kozaburo wanted to tell you about me then, but I wouldn't let him.  You already had so much riding on your shoulders - you hadn't needed this as well.

            Later I came to think that perhaps I'd made yet another mistake.  But by that time, I could never find the courage to correct it.

            You see, I realized that it was just so much easier to be the cold, aloof Red Impulse than your father. 

            I feared what you'd think of me, what you'd say.  But as Red Impulse I could be near you, teach you, mold you, without our mangled history getting in the way.  Without having to deal with the doubts, the guilt.

            A few times I almost made it - I almost worked up the nerve to tell you.  But every time I looked at you it was almost as if I was looking into your mother's face.  And I couldn't face her, I couldn't face the disappointment, the anger, I might see in your face that would be so much like her own.  I couldn't face myself most of all.

            But despite all my mistakes, despite everything, I couldn't be more proud or love you more.  You have been my beacon, my strength - at times the only thing that's kept me going.

            My son, I don't expect you to understand my reasons.  Half the time I don't understand them myself.  But if you get nothing else from this, even if you feel you must curse me into eternity, don't ever forget the importance of who and what you've become.

            With love forever,

your father...

 

                                    Kentaro

 

 

                       

           

I stared at the words before me, my mind stunned.  Something warm coursed down my cheek but I had no idea what it was until the tears fell onto my lap.

I was crying?  But why

My mind shied away from the questions and I glanced away from the proof of my tears.  Oniishi was nowhere in sight.  He must have left while I was reading, his duty done.  Had he been that sure that I would read the entire letter once I'd begun?  Was I that predictable?  Pressure filled my head sending pain into the back of my eyes.

Carefully, I set the letter aside and looked at the envelope it had come in.  I frowned.  Something was still inside it.  I picked up the envelope not sure what to expect.  Within was a very small packet with the logo of the World's International Bank.  Nestled inside the packet was a key.  All I could do was stare at it as the implications of its meaning slowly added up inside me.

My headache got worse.  Surely I wasn't contemplating seeing what was at the bank, was I?  I hated my father; I wanted nothing to do with him or anything belonging to him!  He'd abandoned me, all his reasons be damned! 

Someone had to be the focus of the burning rage inside me.  But why did I also feel so horribly sad inside?  Did I pity him?  That was wrong!  Damn Oniishi, damn my father, damn his blasted letter!  This was all supposed to get easier not more complicated!  I could feel the pressure building.

I... I needed to talk to someone.  I needed to force some of this to make sense.  If I didn't, if I didn't do something, I was sure the strain inside my head would continue to build until eventually I would explode!

I grabbed my father's letter and placed it back in the envelope and folded it into my pocket.  I snatched the key after putting it back in the packet, and stuffed it into my pocket as well.  As I stood, I felt my headache ease slightly.  Without no more doubts, at least for the moment, I left the house.

 

 

 

 

Almost two hours later, I finally managed to make my way into the small familiar trailer park out in the suburbs of Utoland.  The sun was high in the sky making it close to mid afternoon.  The shade of the scattered trees in the park was a welcomed relief, the sun having pounded down on me all the way there.  I hesitated in their shadows, feeling suddenly unsure of what I thought I was doing there.  It's not like I'd be a welcomed sight - my behavior of late couldn't be considered endearing.

As I made myself go forward, it was almost a relief when I realized that his car wasn't there.  Absently wiping the perspiration off my brow, I shuffled up to the short steps at the door to his trailer and sat down.  I let my arms hang off my knees and sat back closing my eyes.  If I was truly lucky, something had come up and Joe wouldn't be coming home at all.  It was a little unsettling to feel this nervous about seeing someone I'd spent almost every day with for the past five years.  I really was losing it - losing it big.

The minutes and then hours passed by and all I did was sit and wait.  When the sun got too hot on my face, I leaned forward and hung my head between my knees, in no shape or inclination to do anything else.

"Ken?"

I looked up, my heart jumping in my chest as I recognized his voice.  And there he was, big as life - the familiar square jaw, the dark piercing eyes, the raised eyebrow in inquiring surprise.

How did Joe do it?  His whole life he'd lived with bottled rage.  How had he kept it from consuming him from the inside all this time?  My rage was fresh, hungry, and it was already destroying me.  Worse, I knew it and I didn't care.  How did he?

"Dammit, Ken, you look like shit," Joe said.

I almost burst out laughing.  I could always count on Joe to state the obvious.  "Hope you don't mind that I was waiting for you."

"No, no.  I'm glad to see you.  But, ah, how'd you get here?  This place is a long way from the airfield."

 "Walked, took a couple of buses."  I shrugged.  "No big deal."

"Sure."  I noticed a sudden guarded tone in his voice.  "Want to come inside?" he asked.

"Thanks."  I got up tentatively, not sure how I'd do.  I seemed to be too unsure of myself of late in everything.

Joe waited until I'd gotten out of the way then slid his key into the door and opened it.  His eyes never left me during the entire operation.  I guess I really must look worse than I'd thought.  Joe had me go in first and stood by the door after we'd gone inside.  I got the distinct feeling he thought I might make a run for it.  Were my feelings that obvious?

I made myself step over to the small foldout table by the kitchen and sat down.  "I - I wasn't sure you'd see me.  I know I've been somewhat of a heel lately."

Joe shrugged as he walked over.  "You've got a lot to sort out.  Besides, you're always a heel."  He flashed a mischievous grin at me.

I felt my nervousness recede a little.

"I got some left over pizza in the fridge.  Want some?"  Joe stepped into the small utility kitchen.

"No thanks, I'm not hungry," I said.  "I'll take a beer though if you've got one."

I noticed that he didn't look too happy about my answer.  "Yeah, sure."  Joe opened the fridge and took out a box of pizza and two beers.  He set all three on the table and then opened the bottles.  He slid one of them over to me.

I took a long swallow of the beer and felt it hit my stomach like a bomb.  When my stomach did not retaliate, I put the cold bottle up against my forehead to cool it down.  "One of the men from the Red Impulse team came to see me today."

"Oh?"  Joe's face was carefully neutral.

I closed my eyes just letting the harsh cold of the glass drive itself into my brain.  "Yeah.  He had a letter for me from my father."

Joe didn't say anything and neither did I.  Eventually, I moved the bottle away and took another drink.  Soon the stuff would start working on my weakened system.  I couldn't wait.  With a small sigh, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small packet with the key.  "He also brought me this."  I set the packet on the table.

"I see."

I glanced up at Joe, not sure if he really did or not.  "I -- I'm not sure that I want to know what's inside."

"Don't you?" Joe asked me.

His lack of doubt made me bristle inside.  I tried to hold my anger back.  It wouldn't get me where I wanted to just now.  "Whatever's there won't change anything.  Dead is dead.  But I don't want to leave any loose ends either."  I took a deep breath and plunged on.  "I know it's asking a lot, but I'd appreciate it if you'd empty it out and close the account for me."

I studied his face even as Joe stared at his beer and was silent for several moments.  This was one of the main things I'd come here to do and the one with the highest likelihood of failing.

His dark blue eyes suddenly rose and locked with mine.  "What are you afraid is in there?"

I jerked back as if slapped.  Why would he ask me such a thing?  My anger ignited again.  "I'm not afraid of anything!  I just don't care about it that's all.  If you don't want to do this for me, just say so!"

"Whoa, chill."  Joe held up his hands.  "I'll do it, I'll do it." 

I felt my anger ease just a bit.

"But we'll have to wait until tomorrow," he added.  "The bank is likely to be closed by now."

I hadn't considered that.  I had no real idea of what time it was at all.  "Okay, to - tomorrow then."

"No problem," he said.  "You realize though that you'll probably need to come with me."

"Why?"  I tensed, sure suddenly that he was up to something.

"A lot of places need a signature or ID to open lock boxes, not just a key.  And though I'm pretty sure Red Impulse put your name down on the account, I'm also damn sure he didn't put down mine."

That hadn't occurred to me either.  "I see what you mean..." I finished off the beer.  I held the empty bottle towards him.  "Can I have another?"

"Only if you eat something."  He tapped the top of the pizza box.

"Then I guess I won't."  I glared at him as I half stood off my seat.  How dare he give me ultimatums!

Joe snorted.  "So, you ask me to do this big favor for you and yet you're going to get all hacked off at me when all I ask is for you to have a crummy piece of pizza?"

I looked away and sat back down, feeling abruptly deflated and guilty.  He had offered to help me.  And if I could stomach some food for Oniishi, surely I could stand to do the same for Joe.  "Sorry."

"That's more like it."  Joe threw back the lid to the box and tore me off a piece of cold pizza.  As I stared at the embedded pepperoni and green olives, he got up and got us both another beer.

The pizza hit my stomach no worse than the beer for which I was grateful.  I finished my duty piece without much relish and then threw the crust back in the box.  Joe handed me another before I could protest.

"Good huh?" he prompted.

I shrugged and just held the piece in my hand.

"I found a new little place off of Royal."

I took a couple of bites and then threw the pizza back in the box.  I'd had about all I was going to eat.  I chugged down half of my new beer.

"Surely that's not all you want," Joe interjected.  "I've got some ramen if you'd prefer that.  Or if all else fails, I know we can definitely find you something at the Snak J."

I felt myself go cold all over.  "This is fine."

Why was Joe pushing me?  The rage inside me was like an overloaded boiler and needed only the smallest push to explode.  He should know that.  He of all of them would be the one to understand this.  So why was he doing it?  It made no sense.  Suddenly I realized that I didn't want it to either.  I got up to go.

"Nambu got your little package today."  Joe spoke in a matter of fact tone.  "He looked pretty upset."

The muscles in my shoulders jerked I was so tense.  "Yeah.  So?"  Joe don't do this.  Yet a small part of me said yes.

"I just thought it was rather cold."  He stared right at me.  "He deserved better than that."

The rage responded before I was even aware of what I was doing.  My beer bottle shot close past Joe's ear to shatter against the far wall.  "The fuck he did!"

Joe stared into my maelstrom as calm as ever.  It only pushed my rage to burn that much hotter.  "Like you have any fucking idea what the bastard did to me.  He knew, damn you.  He'd known all this time about my father and never said a word to me!"

I smashed my fists onto the table and it shook beneath me.  "To tell the truth, I'm glad it hurt him.  Do you hear?  I'm glad!  He deserved no less."

"Why don't you kill him then," Joe suggested.  "It'd be kinder."

I shook where I stood I was so furious.  My nails dug into my palms.  "Why don't I just kill you?"

I was dead serious.  The rage flowed through me insisting that I should kill him.  Who was Joe to question me?  Who was he to judge what I'd done?  All I needed was an excuse - any excuse - and I would lunge across the table to rip out his eyes and strangle him with his own innards. 

But Joe only sat there, staring at me, his body calm, a knowing look in his eyes.

Do something you bastard!  Give me my excuse!  I shook so badly it rattled my teeth.  Still, as I stood there waiting, it slowly dawned on me what it was that I was wanting to do - what it meant.  Worse, I also realized that he knew it as well.

It was like a switch had been flipped in my head.  One moment I was burning with a maelstrom of  rage, ready to commit murder, the next, I was feeling guilty, scared, and cold as death.

"My God."  I turned away not wanting to look at him, not wanting to see that knowing stare.  My body shook again but this time not with barely restrained violence and rage.  I took two steps towards the door wanting nothing more now than to get the hell out of there and away from what I'd considered doing.  Before I could go any farther, my legs betrayed me and I fell to my knees on the floor.

What had I been thinking?  What had I almost done?  This thing would destroy me!  I doubled over my stomach cramping inside me.  This thing was eating me alive!  "How - how do you, how do you live with this?"

"Live with what?"  Joe's voice was very quiet.  He'd made no move to get up from his chair that I could tell.  But I knew he knew what I meant.  Why did he want me to say it?

I felt my anger trying to rise again.  "The rage, damn you!  The rage!  How do you keep it from consuming you into nothing?"

His voice grew quieter still.  "You have to give it something else to feed on."

"What?"  I half glanced in his direction desperate to hear what he might say, even as a part of me feared that it was already too late for me.

"You have to focus the anger, give it a direction," Joe explained.  "You can't get rid of it, you see.  The more you try the more frustrated it grows and the stronger it gets.  Then it'll lash out at anyone and anything just because it can.

"The only thing you can do is point it at one specific thing, always the same thing, and then let it run wild.  If you can focus it, give it a goal, and then follow that goal, that will keep it satisfied and it won't feed on you.  But you have to keep it satisfied."

Focus it?  Give it a goal?  The pain inside me grew worse.  I thought I would scream.  I leaned my forehead on the floor even as I tried to keep the pain inside me.

I heard Joe get up and slowly approach behind me.  "Your father is dead.  It's no use hating him."  His voice was cold.  "Nambu may have been wrong in what he did, but he doesn't deserve to be the focus of your anger either."  I closed my eyes shut as I felt him kneel beside me.  His words beat on me like nails being pounded into a board. 

"There is someone else though, a group involved in all this that deserves your rage.  If not for them, there would have never been any need for any of this to have ever happened at all."

 

 

 

 

I opened my eyes, my head thumping even as I was flooded with the queerest sense of déjà vu.  I couldn't see much, even as my gaze roamed about me, darkness coloring everything. 

I frowned, realizing that I had no idea where I was.  I could feel a mattress beneath me, a blanket over me, but I had no idea where that was or how I'd gotten there.  I shivered feeling cold though the blanket itself was warm.

The last thing I could remember was being with Joe.  He'd forced me to eat some dinner and then I'd...  

My mind shied away from the memory not really wanting to look at it any closer.  There were things there that I wasn't ready to see.  Something moved off to my right and I tried to focus on it rather than think of things that had gone on before.  I realized that someone had just gone out what looked to be a trailer's door.  I must still be at Joe's.

Automatically, my eyes looked for his digital clock and I saw that it was close to one in the morning.  Where could he be going at such an hour?  What was he up to now?  Dread coursed through me sure that whatever it was, it wouldn't be something I'd like.

Not sure exactly what I expected, I got silently out of bed and went after him.  As I came close to the door, I heard the sound of voices from outside.  It was then that I noticed that the door hadn't closed all the way.  Someone had come to see him?  I inched a bit closer, curious despite myself, to hear what was being said.

"Quit being stupid."  Joe's voice was close to the door. 

"I tell you I killed him!"  I felt my eyes grow wide as I recognized the voice.  I'd never heard Jun sound so anguished.

"You had nothing to do with it, and you know it. He made his choice." Joe's tone held no doubt.  "It's what he wanted."

"But Ken might have won."  That came out almost as a sob.  "If I hadn't told him the truth, Ken might have won and saved him."

Joe's tone grew cold.  "And then Ken would be the one who'd be dead."

"You don't understand," Jun cried.  "I gave him his father only for him to lose him.  How can I ever face him again?" 

Her pain tore at me, but I couldn't let it.  After all, she was right.  She had in a way given me my father only to take him away.  I would have rather not known!  Red Impulse might have beaten me and if so then I would have wept over his death, but not lost my father in the bargain.  And if I'd won, it wouldn't have mattered at all!  I would have given my life for the world and known before it'd ended that my life had had meaning.  Now it meant nothing at all!

I couldn't listen to anymore.  My rage burned at the edges trying to push me to open the door and accuse her right then and there.  I wouldn't do that.  Not with what she'd meant to me before.  But I had to fight not to.

I stepped away as quietly as I'd come.  I crawled back into bed though sleep was the farthest thing from my mind.  Though I tried to do anything but, all I could think about was the argument going on outside.

After almost an hour, Joe sneaked back inside. 

I held still and closed my eyes as he made his way back to the bed.  I slowed my breathing knowing he'd be able to tell I was awake if I didn't.  I wasn't ready to face him, wasn't ready to face the things he might say.  With only too horrid a clarity I recalled how badly I'd wanted any excuse to kill him before - my best friend!  I'd had no control of myself whatsoever.  What if I lost control again?

I lay there and listened to him as he crawled under the covers with his back to me.  To be honest, it surprised me a little that he'd share his bed after the way I'd treated him.  Not, I don't think, that he hadn't been looking for the reaction he got.  Still...

After a while, I turned my own back to him and waited for him to drop off deeper into sleep.

Around three, I slipped quietly out of bed.  I'd already caused enough trouble.  And there was no telling what promises Joe had made Jun during their conversation outside.  I wanted nothing to do with any of it.  It was time for me to get myself elsewhere.

Though I still had on my clothes, Joe had taken my shoes and I couldn't see them in the dark.  Knowing that if I took the time to look for them I'd wake him up for sure, I headed instead to the door.  With any luck, I'd be half way home before he even knew I was gone.  I quietly reached for the doorknob.

"Don't even think about it."

My head snapped around towards the bed, but though Joe's voice had been clear and alert, he hadn't moved from the position I'd last seen him in.

"You owe me," he said, "and I'd appreciate it a whole lot if you wouldn't force me to get up to wrestle you back into bed."

I stared at his dark silhouette and then back at the door weighing my options.  I hadn't been in the best of shape lately and I knew it.  I couldn't outrun him of that I was certain.  But I would have a few precious seconds on him and could be out the door and in the dark before he came close.  With all the trees and trailers, there was a chance I could lose him before he could catch up to me.

"Ken..."

I glanced back at Joe again at his warning tone, sounding as if he'd read my thoughts.  He still hadn't moved from his prone position.

I hesitated for another half minute.  Hell, it wasn't like he couldn't figure out where I'd go.  There weren't that many places available to me anymore.  And if he got stubborn about it he'd go wake the others and get them to help look for me as well.  Damn.  "All right, you win," I sighed.

Joe only grunted.

I doubted that he'd ever even bothered to open his eyes.  Worse, I found that he'd taken my departure from the bed as a chance to grab most of the blanket.  With a light snort, I got back in bed and gave the blanket a yank.  If he was going to make me stay here, I would be covered up!  Joe gave up just enough of the blanket for me to manage that but no more.

After a short while, my body dragged me into sleep again.

 

 

 

 

I awoke later to daylight and the sounds of snapping bacon.  The scents of warmed toast filled the air.  I turned over only to find Joe fiddling away at the trailer's small stove.  That was a sight I'd thought I'd never see.

Joe looked up from the bacon he was frying.  "Ah, you're up!  I'm still going to be a few minutes, so why don't you go get cleaned up a bit."  He jerked his head towards the bathroom.  "There's some hot water left and a spare toothbrush in the medicine cabinet."

I didn't look at him directly and nodded slightly.  I got up and glanced around, but still didn't find a trace of my shoes.  I looked up at the door leading outside and then glanced at Joe, and found him watching me out of the corner of his eye.

I sighed, knowing it was useless, and walked past him to the bathroom.

"And while you're in there, don't even think about trying the window," he called after me.  "Not even Jinpei can squeeze through that sucker, and he's tried."  Joe gave a low chuckle.

I made no comment and shut the bathroom door behind me.

I had no want or inclination to "clean up a bit" as he'd called it, but I did it anyway as it gave me an excuse not to face him for a while.

I found the hot shower pleasant and invigorating unlike what anything had felt like in days.  Maybe it meant I'd get through this, maybe I would live after all - that or it was just the rise before a bigger fall.

I got out of the shower and dried and then wiped the steam from the sink mirror to look at myself.  Was that haggard and worn face really mine?  God I'd never looked so tired.  Yes, please, come fly with Ghoul R Us.  Yep, this face would make a great impression on the clients.  Wonderful.

Joe banged on the door making me jump.  "Hey, did you die in there?"  He banged on it again.  "Hurry it up, will you?"

No longer able to put off the inevitable, I hurried on and finished up.  I came out of the bathroom to find Joe waiting for me, his arms crossed.

"It's about time," he said.

I wouldn't meet his eyes.  "Sorry."

"Sit down and dig in before your breakfast gets cold."  He pointed with a spatula at the waiting table.

He'd really outdone himself -- I was amazed.  It was almost too much to believe - coffee, toast, bacon, and omelets of all things.  Who'd a thought it?  "I'm not really -"

He cut me off.  "Just sit down and eat it.  No breakfast, no bank."

Anger snapped to life inside me and I glared daggers at him.  My heated gaze met the same calm, knowing eyes from yesterday.  The visage was like a bucket of cold ice crashing over me.  It was almost too much to take.

I turned away from him, my anger momentarily snuffed, and took my seat without another word.

"Ken, you have to pick up the fork to eat," he calmly pointed out.

I could feel his eyes on me as I just sat there.  He was bullying me into this, damn him.  But I just didn't have the strength to fight him, not if he'd give me that knowing look again.  Slowly, I forced my hand to move and picked up the fork.  The scents of eggs, ham, and melted cheese wove around me and I knew they should have been making my mouth water, but they weren't.  It seemed so queer how everyone was so determined to make me eat.

Without much enthusiasm I ate what was before me.  Joe's own portion disappeared long before my own, but he stayed where he was once he'd finished, keeping his eye on me until most of mine was gone as well.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked.

I said nothing and kept my eyes on my plate. 

"I don't do this just for anyone you know.  It's normally something I only use when I want to impress the girls."  He made it sound as if he'd just let me in on a big secret.

I didn't really care.  I just sat there and said nothing.

"Just give me a couple of minutes to clean up and then we can go."

As I waited for Joe, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate, my stomach churning uncomfortably.  To my surprise, I actually had some success this time, and welcomed the lack of thoughts like I'd welcomed nothing in sometime. 

"Hey, are you asleep?  I'm ready to go if you are."

I opened my eyes to find Joe leaning on the table looking down at me, his eyes dancing.

I looked away from him and pushed back my chair.  "I - I need my shoes."

"Here you go!"  Joe held them out to me and then set them on the floor before my feet. 

Damn, I hadn't seen where he'd hidden the blasted things!  Annoyed at myself, I quickly put them on.  "I'm ready."

Joe slapped me lightly on the back, and led me to the door.  "Great!"  He seemed in way too good a mood -- especially after everything that had happened yesterday. "Let's go!"

The ride downtown didn't take long as Joe took to the roads with his usual wild abandon. 

It felt strange being in the car with him; the music turned high and the windows rolled down to let in the screaming wind.  It was almost as of nothing had ever happened -- as if my father's death and the close destruction of the world had never been.  It was as if I'd never made the break with my old life.  The duality made me suddenly dizzy.

We got to the bank minutes after they'd opened.  As I stared at the large doors nestled between the tall roman columns, I abruptly felt a strange sense of dread sweep through me.

"Come on, let's go inside."  Joe grabbed my arm and dragged me in.  His eagerness left a strong, bad taste in my mouth.  Was he up to something?

Looking around at the bank's conservative interior, we soon spotted a desk with the sign ‘safety deposit boxes'.  An austere woman sat behind the desk looking grim.  Joe made a beeline for her.

"Morning."

I frowned as I saw Joe give the woman one of his best smiles.  She was old enough to be his grandmother.  I was sure he was definitely up to something now.  He was just too darn happy.

"Good morning," came the cold reply.  "My name is Miss Cont.  May I help you?"

"My friend here has a box he needs to get a look at and he also wants to close the account," Joe told her.

The austere woman looked over at me and raised a skeptical brow.  "I see.  And the name on the account?"

I hesitated at her question not sure what name the account might be under.  Suddenly though, it came to me.  "Ken Washio."

Miss Cont opened up a drawer and quickly pulled out a folder with some records inside.  From another, she removed a piece of paper and then set this and a pen within my reach.  "I will need your signature for confirmation please.  I'll also need to see some kind of ID."

I complied, wondering how in the world they could confirm a signature I'd never given them.  I burned for a moment as it occurred to me that with Nambu's help, my father could probably have gotten anything he'd needed and I would have never known.

"All seems in order, Mr. Washio," Miss Cont said.  "You have your key, yes?"

Joe took it out of his pocket and handed it over to me.  I'd forgotten all about the blasted thing.

"If you'll come this way?"

I didn't move.  "Joe, here." I tried to give the key back to him.  "You said you'd do this for me."

"I'm sorry, sir," Miss Cont interjected, "but this account strictly stipulates that the box can only be opened by the assignee."  The woman stared at me as if unused to having to state such things.

"But -"

"I'm sorry, sir, the stipulations on this account are very specific."  Her face was deadly serious.  "We don't make exceptions."

I glanced at Joe and he just shrugged.

He'd known this might happen.  The bastard!  I wanted nothing more right then than to punch that satisfied smug look off his face.  "Fine."
            "This way please."  Miss Cont led us to the back of the bank and picked up a key from the security desk.  A guard opened up a gate there and let the three of us through.  We followed a wide set of stairs down past the main vault into another gated area.  After a guard on the other side checked us out and allowed us through, we turned to the right and entered a vault with a door as thick as the one we'd seen upstairs.  Row after row of safety deposit boxes filled the entire room.  Small plaques before each one contained a row of six digit numbers.

I stared at my key even as Miss Cont found the right box.  With rising dread, I inserted my key in the keyhole beside the one she used for hers and we turned them at the same time.  Once the small door had been opened, she extracted a long metal box from inside and holding onto it, led the way back out of the vault.

Miss Cont turned off to the left down a small corridor that contained several private rooms.  She used another key to open one of them and then stepped inside and set the long box on the table there.  "Please take your time, Mr. Washio," she said.  "Just press the button when you're ready to go back upstairs."  She pointed to a white button by the door.

"Thank you."  I watched her as she left the room and closed the door behind her.  I then looked at the metal box she'd left on the table and did nothing at all.

"Well, aren't you going to open it?"  Joe pulled out the chair next to the table pointing at it for me to get in.

"You never had any intention of doing this for me, did you."  I scowled at him. 

He didn't even have the decency to look guilty.  "Yep, you got it.  So come on, just bite down and get it over with."

I was more than half tempted to press the white button and summon Miss Cont back.  That would have put a nice quick end to all of Joe's machinations. 

Still, now that I was here and it was before me, I just couldn't leave it unsolved.  Despite everything, I found the need rising inside me to see what the man who'd abandoned his family had in the end left for his son.

I sat down, but not before sending Joe a final displeased scowl in his direction.  Seemingly unaffected, Joe stepped back close to the door and leaned against the wall giving me as much privacy as possible without actually leaving the room.

My mouth was dry as I finally reached forward to open the deposit box's lid.

Inside, the box seemed filled nearly to the brim, it's contents covered over by what looked to be a folded terry cloth sack.  One would almost think Kentaro had already anticipated what I had in mind.

I gently removed the sack and then hesitated as I saw what filled almost one third of the long box - money, nicely stacked bundles of money.

I didn't count it.  I didn't want to, so I just pulled the bundles out and set them to the side.  I listened, waiting for Joe to comment on what seemed to be a lot more than pocket change, but anything he might have had to say on the subject he kept to himself.

A stack of yellowed pieces of paper vied for my attention next.  When I opened one of them, I found a crayon drawing of three stick people staring back at me.  Had I drawn this?  The three figures where obviously a family -- a man, a woman, and a boy.  Fascinated despite myself, I opened another.  This one had a man standing by a plane.  The next was of a boy, a man, and a plane.

Beneath the short stack of drawings was a red ball covered with yellow stars.  Beneath that were a small baby blanket and a training spoon.  Kentaro would have had to have taken these when he'd first left, right before the accident.  Could it be true?  Had he only thought he would be gone for a short while? 

I shook my head trying not to think about it.

Beside these things I found a handkerchief with my mother's initials, still smelling faintly of her favorite perfume.  And pictures, there was a stack of pictures - they were of me, of my mother, but none of him.  Not one of the pictures was of him.

At any other time, seeing these things, seeing what he'd taken to preserve his memory of us would have had my eyes flooding with tears.  But today, today I felt absolutely nothing.  And that nothingness scared me, but it also made me very angry. 

My rage rose this time aimed at myself, at what had happened to me, as well as at my father...  But no, Joe was right.  Though my father had been guilty of many things, in the end perhaps, he wasn't ultimately responsible for all that had gone on.  And though Joe hadn't said so, those who were to blame for the twisted turns in my life were also those who had robbed Kentaro of everything.  The ones responsible for all our misery and that of millions of people around the world were the bastards of Galactor.

They'd taken my father.  They'd taken Joe's parents.  Perhaps Jinpei's as well.  They'd made my father into spy, Nambu into a liar.  And Jun an unwilling pawn in the ugly charade.  They'd even driven me into trying to destroy everything of any value in my life.  They'd driven me into trying to destroy my soul.

Damn them

The bottom of my fists stung as I smashed them against the table.  They were the ones who should pay.

"Ken?"  I heard Joe push himself away from the wall.

"I'm all right."  I said this through clenched teeth -- this wasn't the time, this wasn't the place.

Stiffly, I opened the bag my father had so conveniently provided and put everything in the box inside it.  When I was through, I slammed the lid to the box closed.  "Press the button.  I'm done here."

I didn't look to see whether Joe did as I'd asked or not.  I just stood there at the table, the bag in my hands, my rage flooding through me like a tidal wave.  And all it wanted to do just now was wash away everything in its path.

I almost laughed with self loathing as it hit me suddenly that now that I'd finally found a true focus for my rage, I no longer had the means to vent my wrath on them for I'd thrown the mechanism that would have allowed me to away.  I was such a fool.

The door behind me opened.  With a calmness that wasn't really there, I turned around.  Joe was staring fixedly at me, a strange look on his face, but I ignored him.  Miss Cont came in.

"Was everything in order, Mr. Washio?" she asked.

"Yes, thank you.  Everything was fine."  I gave her an unfelt smile.  "I'm ready to go now."

"Very well."  She moved out of the way so I could leave first.

Once upstairs, it only took a few minutes to fill out the necessary paperwork to close the account.  It felt like an eternity.  Miss Cont assured me more than once that a check would be mailed to me to refund the balance on the prepaid account.  I couldn't have cared less.

I led the way out as soon as I could escape and left Joe to catch up.  I was already in the car with the door closed by the time he did.

As he got in, I felt his eyes on me, but he said nothing.

"Take - me - home."  My jaw was so tight I thought it might crack.  Everything inside me was starting to fray.

"But, Ken - "

I turned in my seat and glared at him.  "Take - me - home." 

For the first time, Joe looked unsure and after a moment said, "Okay."

I looked away and centered my attention out the window.  No more words passed between us as he pulled out of the parking lot out into the traffic.

We'd been on the road several minutes when it came to me that Joe wasn't driving in his usual way.  For once, in all the years I'd known him, he actually seemed to be driving the speed limit.  He even went so far as to stop at the traffic lights even when the lights were only yellow.  My eye twitched, my rage flaring in the already consuming heat, sure that he'd only do this if he were trying to delay me from getting home.  I was positive that his devious mind was rapidly trying to find some way to drag me back to whatever plan he'd been working from in the first place.  Well, it didn't matter.  He'd get nowhere; none of his tricks would work anymore.  I needed to be alone, alone before this thing took over me and I didn't care who got to pay.

To my surprise and partial relief, Joe never once tried to engage me in conversation.  The moment we made it back to the airfield and he'd come to a stop, I opened my door.

"Ken -" His hand settled on my arm.  I hesitated though I didn't look back at him.  I could feel the snarl curling on my face, my rage expecting the worst.  "Look, if you need anything, anything at all - just call me."

I nodded and his hand dropped away.  I got out of the car and closed the door without a glance back.  I stood there unmoving, unseeing, until his car was long gone.

Knowing I was finally alone, I stared up at the sky and screamed.  Louder and louder, my frustrations pouring out of me until my throat was raw.

Feeling only slightly less like a time bomb, I headed to go in what passed as my home.  As I reached for the doorknob, I stopped, frowning, a part of my mind insisting that something there wasn't as I'd left it.  Glancing quickly around, not sure what to expect, my eyes lighted on my broken front window.  The opening wasn't there anymore.  Someone had taken the time to cover it with cardboard and tape it shut.  My eyes snapped in the directions Joe had gone, but I knew it couldn't have been him.

Had Oniishi done this?  No, the window had been open to the elements when I'd left, and he'd been long gone before that.  Then who?

I went ahead and opened the door trying not to speculate.  The first thing I noticed was a large bowl of fruit on the counter - oranges, apples, bananas, pears - all just sitting there for the taking. 

The dishes Oniishi had left out to dry were gone, presumably put away.  The kitchen was spotless.  A wrapped loaf of bread sat on top of the refrigerator.  With a strange suspicion in the back of my mind, I opened the refrigerator's door.  The fridge was stacked to the brim with food inside.  It was Jun again - it had to be.  This stirred a bittersweet pain inside me.

I closed the refrigerator door and stepped out into the living room.  The blanket Oniishi had covered me with was gone.  The beaten coffee table had been squared with the couch.  A neatly folded newspaper sat on top of it as well as a simple arrangement of flowers.

Frowning, I moved on to the bedroom.  That had been changed as well.

My bed was together again.  Someone had taken the time to fix the dented frame.  Fresh sheets and blankets covered it now, and it looked like my ripped pillows had been replaced as well.

Jun hadn't done this alone then.  They'd all been in on it.  Even after...

A strange pressure built up behind my eyes and though I tried I couldn't get rid of it.  Jun just felt guilty, that's all it was.  She had bullied the others into this.

Her words from the night before echoed once more unbidden in my mind, her raw emotions dragging at me, as they hadn't done then.  There was more to it than guilt and I knew it.

Then maybe, maybe it wasn't too late for everything.  Maybe the damage hadn't been so bad.

I abruptly plopped down on the edge of my bed a dragging weariness coming over me.  I was mad, I knew that.  This thing had driven me insane.  The things I'd said; the things I'd done.  And soon there was a chance I might become madder still. 

It was so ironic...  I'd thrown everything I'd had away over something that I ‘d never had - a father.  A family of four to a family of one and I'd thrown them all away.  Yet despite all I'd done to them, it looked as if they hadn't given up on me, not even Joe - even if his methods did leave a lot to be desired...

They, they would take me back.  I suddenly knew that with all certainty.  There was pain there, pain he'd put there, there was guilt on all sides, but they would do it.  But could I, could I put enough of this behind me to let them?  Was I too crippled with my rage now to do what would be needed so I could have them back?  Would I be able to salvage what I'd almost stupidly thrown away?

I didn't know.  I just didn't know.  And that was what hurt most of all.

Until the tears soaked through the pants of my coveralls I wasn't even aware that I was crying.  Maybe, maybe there was hope for me yet.  Maybe I would live.

Despair and hope battled inside me as I sat there.  The tears continued to flow despite my efforts and were soon followed by racking sobs.  Would I lose them?  My real family? Would I be the ultimate fool and lose them?  I held onto myself, rocking, as I cried -- my pent up emotions no longer to be denied.  It was all I could do for I don't know how long. 

I lay on the floor, hours later, in a half doze, until my stomach of all things, brought me slowly back to myself as it rumbled with hunger.  Hunger - that was new.  Perhaps it meant it was time to start paying attention to the little things again.

I dragged myself into the kitchen, wiping my face on my sleeve, and grabbed a pear.  I took a bite of it, it's sweet juices filling my mouth, and though my throat was still raw and pained me, it still felt amazingly wonderful. 

I ate another.

Thoughts turned themselves over and over in my mind even as I found more things to give to my stomach.  I was suddenly ravenous.  A sandwich, soup, more fruit, milk, water, juice, it was like I couldn't get enough.  By the time the need was satisfied, I hurt, I'd eaten so much.  But all of this happened outside of me, like an unconscious process, while the rest of me went over what I knew had to be done.

I had money again, so after taking a few bills from one of the bundles I'd brought home from the bank, I stashed the bag away in the closet and called myself a cab.

By the time the cab showed up, I felt more stable than I had in days.  I knew what had to happen.  I knew what I would say.  Only as the familiar building came into view did I feel any twinge of doubt.  I turned the rage in the background upon it and burned it away.  Nothing would stand in the way of its revenge - nothing

No one harassed me as I entered the building and headed for the elevator.  It looked like I'd not been blackballed off the lists and I had mixed feelings about that.  Had Nambu expected me to come back all along or had he not yet had time to revoke my privileges?  After having been manipulated for so long, would I be able to tell the difference?  My finger hesitated over the floor buttons at the thought before I forced myself to jab the right one hard.

People got on and off as the elevator rose, none seeming surprised or upset at seeing me there - though a few did frown at the way I looked.  It made me want to laugh in their face.

Eventually, the elevator stopped on Nambu's floor and I got out.  I took the most direct route to his office.

His door was closed, but I didn't let that hinder me and went on in without knocking.  I could feel my rage growing without cause, nipping at the edges of my control almost as if it could sense a potential target for its heat.  I tried my best to hold it at bay, reminding myself over and over that the doctor would be a means to an end. 

He would be the way to get at those that were truly responsible.

Folders were strewn all across Nambu's desk and floor making his office look more cluttered and disarranged than ever.  Nambu was there behind his desk, his head leaning against his hand as he wrote busily on some papers before him.  He didn't seem to even be aware that I'd come in, so I slammed the door to get his attention.  His startled glance gave my rage a bit of much needed satisfaction.  "Ken!"

Nambu looked like hell.  Dark circles covered his eyes and his cheeks were sunken.  His usually immaculate clothes were wrinkled and looked slept in.  Even his normally neat tie was askew and half-undone.  He'd obviously not been having a nice time of it.  Good.  I almost smiled.

Nambu recovered quickly, his surprise covered over by the neutral mask he normally wore.  "What can I do for you?"

I came closer saying nothing, battling with myself and the mixture of feelings surging up inside me.  This was it, the time was now.  I would either fix things or make sure that I took a straight path to madness.  "I came to ask you if the vacant position in the ninja team had been filled yet."

Nambu uncharacteristically looked away, his cheeks showing small patches of flushed color.  It suddenly occurred to me what it was that he'd been so fervently working on when I came in.  I felt myself tense though I knew better than to have expected anything else.  Nambu was never one to waste any time.

"No," he said.  "It hasn't."  There was a strange quiver in his voice I'd never heard before.

"Then I'd like to fill it."  My eyes bore into him waiting for a reaction, this the one thing I couldn't be sure of.  If everything that had happened had been done in as cold hearted a way as my rage would have me imagine, the proof would be shown to me here and now. 

Nambu's mouth opened but nothing came out.  He suddenly looked away and wiped at his eyes.  After a moment, he opened one of the drawers on his desk and took out an unmarked, lidless box.  Inside I spied my uniform and bracelet, folded even more neatly than how I'd returned them.  He set the box on the desk.

A part of me softened just a little as he looked up at me with welling emotion in his eyes.  "It will be good to have you back."

I hardened up again.  "Don't be too sure."

Nambu frowned at that.  Good.

"Things will not be like they were before."  I made no move to pick up the box.  "If I think your reasoning flawed, I will question it.  If I don't like something, I won't hesitate to point it out.  I will never again be the blind fool I was before."

Nambu stared at me quietly, absorbing my words.  I could see a number of emotions running through his face.  And though I couldn't read them, never had he seemed more vulnerable.  Perhaps everything that had happened had affected him more than I had given him credit for.

"I understand," he said.  "I would expect no less."

I grunted and waited to see if he'd add anything else.  When he didn't I finally stepped forward and retrieved my things.  "We'll see."

I took my leave without another word.

 

 

 

 

 

Once away from his office, I turned into the first restroom I found.  I stripped out of my coveralls as if they were on fire.  My hands actually shook as I took my shirt out of the box to put it on.  Oh, it felt good in my hands, on my body.  The rest of the uniform quickly followed. 

I saved the wrist comm for last and gingerly settled it around the pale band on my wrist where it had always sat before.  A strange sense of triumph and completeness shot through me.  I looked up and stared at myself in the mirror.  I still looked like shit, but for the first time in a while I looked whole.

Now it was time for the last piece to be put in place.

I went down to the ISO's garage and took ownership of my bike again.  Some things would change though; I hadn't gone through all this to learn nothing.  And if betrayal somehow came again I would be prepared.  The money my father had left me would see to that.  I would buy transportation of my own, one without strings.  I would fix the old plane.  I'd revive the courier business.  It might be that I would never need them, but damn if I'd ever be caught unprepared again.

As I hit the road, the wind felt good on my face.  It was strange feeling alive, even just feeling.  Sounds and smells actually registered inside me proving over and over that there was still life in me.  Though my rage was far from gone, I still felt free.  I was back in business and once more I was in a position to make Galactor pay.  And they would pay.

I parked the bike in the side parking lot and walked slowly to the front door.  Nervous excitement filled me, as if I was doing something for the first time.  Here was the last piece.  And without it, none of the rest of would be worth a damn.  I'd been a fool before, but I wouldn't be one anymore. 

I spotted my query through the glass at the front door.  I knew they'd be here.  At this time of day, it'd become like a ritual of sorts over the years - almost like real family dinners.

Joe and Ryu sat at the counter, with Jun on the other side diligently wiping it as she talked with them.  Worry lines marked her face and I felt a twinge of guilt.  As usual, Jinpei was zooming about the Snak J helping customers. 

I ran my fingers through my hair trying to tidy up at the last second.  What would they make of me?  Could I be wrong as to how they really felt?

I pushed the unwanted thoughts aside.  The door's tell tale bell went off as I pushed the door open.

Jun looked up and her eyes grew unusually wide as she spotted me coming in.  Her mouth opened up in a large, silent ‘O'.  Her eyes suddenly filled with pain.

I smiled, holding her eyes with my own so she wouldn't look away.  It's not your fault, Jun.  I forgive you.  Forgive yourself.  Help me to forgive myself.

I made my way over to where they were.  "May I join you?" I asked quietly.

Jun's face blossomed in a shy, disbelieving smile even as Joe and Ryu snapped around to look at me.  "Ken!"

I felt a grin tugging at the edge of my mouth.  I couldn't help it.  How could I have ever believed I could do without them?  How could I have been so stupid as to think I'd get rid of them?

"Aniki!"  Jinpei's scream came from across the room.

True pleasure, something I'd thought I'd never feel again, suffused me as his small body careened into mine to give me a fierce hug. 

I'd yet to recover from Jinpei's attack when Jun made it around the corner and added to it a hug of her own, tears streaming down her face.  Grinning like an idiot, Ryu added his arms to the fray as well.  I wasn't sure how much longer I'd be able to breathe under the assault when Joe added his amused self to the pile.

This felt right.  This was where I belonged - with these people, with my true family.  We weren't of the same blood, but time and time again they'd proved that that didn't matter.  They were all the family I'd ever really had and would be all the family I'd ever need. 

In the end, I guess it didn't really matter too much how I had gotten there - how it was that we'd all come to be together.  The important thing was that we had.  And damn all of Galactor and the world if necessary, if I would ever be fool enough to give them up again.

 

            The End

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