Surprises by Maya Perez
Summary: Story set after Gatchaman Fighter. Johnny recovers the memories he'd lost four years before. The mysterious man who brought his memory back is a man who should be dead. Can Johnny reconcile his current life to do one now revealed to him?
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Original Character
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama
Story Warnings: Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Sequel
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 39202 Read: 7709 Published: 06/13/2007 Updated: 06/13/2007

1. Part 1 by Maya Perez

2. Part 2 by Maya Perez

3. Part 3 by Maya Perez

Part 1 by Maya Perez
Surprises

By Maya Perez

Helpful Editing by Wendy Dinsmore



            Johnny walked down the sidewalk having found himself too excited to drive home again today.  He'd left work half an hour early, completing his standard afternoon routine in record time.  He knew he hadn't been much good to anyone of late, but he found he didn't feel bad about it either.  Almost with a feeling of acute pain, he'd finished the checklist that afternoon of the research center's security equipment, not able to stand the thought of staying there a second longer than was necessary.

            Though driving home would have been a lot faster, he had too much pent up energy for that. It felt so strange really.  So many things just seemed so much clearer, sharper, more breathtaking than ever--and over such a simple change!  It was as if he hadn't really been seeing things at all until she'd told him.  And he had to try to take it all in.  His heart was just too light, he couldn't help himself!  Every time he thought about it, a sweep of happiness would course through him--and he thought about it all the time.  He had to walk, to experience, to look, to sense, to feel the day.  Riding in a car was just too passive a thing.  And every experience, every sensation just reaffirmed it wasn't just a dream after all.

            Here and there someone would pass by him and he would say hello, give them a flashing smile and keep on going.  It was hard enough just to resist the temptation to pick them up and swing them around trying to share his joy with them. 

            Johnny's eyes danced over the old fashioned storefront windows he was passing, their quaint awnings keeping off the worst heat of the sun.  Home, he wanted to get home, to shower Kate with kisses and his gratitude at the miracle she was creating inside for him. 

            Suddenly he stopped, his gaze snagged by something though he didn't immediately know what it was.  A grand smile flickered on his face as he found it, surprised he'd not noticed it before.  There, staring at him from the dressed up window of a small gift shop was a dark brown teddy bear, sporting a bright red bow and the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.  He couldn't help but stare at it, even as it knowingly seemed to stare back.  Johnny's smile widened to gigantic proportions. 

            Giving in to the impulse whispering in his ear, he eagerly entered the store to buy the bear.  As he watched the clerk remove it from the window, Johnny felt again the ecstatic thrill that had been his ever since the day Kate had told him she was pregnant.  The idea had so surprised him and pleased him, almost as if somewhere inside he'd thought it was something he would never achieve.

            He paid the clerk and even solicited a smile in return.  He knew his own smile was infectious.  He'd had a number of his coworkers return it even as they shook their heads in consternation.  Creating children might be an everyday occurrence and no big deal as far as they were concerned, but not to him--this was new and he was going to enjoy it to the fullest.

            Leaving the shop, Johnny removed the bear from the bag and just stared at it, strolling down the sidewalk again.  Fondly he imagined the joy it would someday bring to his growing son or daughter.  Though Kate had already said she'd prefer a boy, Johnny didn't care, he didn't care at all. 

            For the briefest of moments, he wondered if he'd ever owned such a bear as a child.  Johnny quickly let the question flow past unanswered.  He couldn't answer it, even if he'd wanted to.  He had no past, at least not one he could remember.  And though at times this had weighed heavily on him, for once he easily pushed it aside.  He had a new life now, one he'd created for himself over these past four years.  That was all that mattered.  And this child, this life of his blood, and maybe even others later, would live the life and create for him the past in their futures he had lost.  Life was just too precious for him to burden himself with things that just didn't matter anymore.

            Strangely enough, though he remembered nothing from before, his first memories after awakening were quite clear.  One of the clearest was when he'd first met Kate just hours after regaining consciousness.  What a vision she'd seemed to him then--that look of lost bewilderment that had called to him like nothing else until that moment.  They had been but two of the hundreds of people currently housed at one of the many refugee camps located throughout the states and abroad.  The camps had been created for those unfortunate enough, like themselves, to have been caught in the middle of one of the numerous and destructive attacks by Galactor and their most recent leader Egobossler.

            Johnny hadn't been injured, getting away with only a few scrapes and bruises where others had lost limbs or lives.  But he'd also come away with no recollection of his life or of his family.  Still, he knew he'd been very lucky.  The doctors were sure the memory loss was due to being traumatized by the Galactor attacks to such a degree his mind had blocked his memory away in self-defense.  Since the war was over, the doctors had been optimistic his memories would eventually return.  They hadn't, but it wasn't as important as it'd once been.  In the end, the loss wasn't too high a price to pay for the happiness that was now his and which he'd achieved all on his own.

            With a lighter step and the new teddy bear tucked beneath his arm, Johnny hurried home to the only things that truly mattered in his life.

 

 

 

            Whistling a catchy tune as he came within sight of the house, Johnny quickened his step as he cut across the well-kept lawn toward the front door.  He grinned in anticipation at the pleasure he'd see on Kate's face when she got her first look at the blue eyed bear.

            "John Terell?"

            Johnny stopped as he was about to reach for the front door, and glanced back to see who had called out to him.

            A well dressed man in his early twenties was standing rather stiffly and uncomfortably in the middle of his driveway.  Johnny frowned, not recognizing him, even as he noticed the stem-less, wide glasses that stood precariously on the man's nose, making his face look older than it should.  A well trimmed mustache added to the effect, and smartly rounded off his square features.  Johnny's frown deepened as he had the abrupt feeling he'd seen this man somewhere before.

            Shaking his head, Johnny stepped away from the door and met the man at the far end of the driveway.  "I'm John Terell.  Can I help you?"  Inexplicably, as he came close, the soaring joy he'd been feeling all afternoon emptied out of him like water from a glass.

            "Do you recognize me?"  The stranger asked, his dark eyes never leaving Johnny's face.

            The question bothered Johnny, even as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.  There was something familiar about this man, but at the same time he was sure he didn't know him.  And even more, he was dead sure he didn't want to.  "No, I'm sorry.  You have me at a disadvantage, mister...?"

            The stranger smiled a small smile, though his eyes didn't change at all.  "Well, it was some time ago."

            Johnny paled, realizing what the man had just implied.  He was from Johnny's past, this man was from before he'd become John Terell.

            "We knew each other quite well then, actually.  We've known each other since you were a little boy." 

            Johnny frowned again.  That had been an odd way to put it.  The man looked so young.  Yet he made it sound as if he were the elder.  This didn't feel right at all.  "Um, I'm sorry, but this really isn't a good time for me.  If, if you want, we could set up a time, a place.  But not here, not now.  I'm not ready for this."  Johnny slowly backed away from him.  Before, he'd wanted to remember everything so badly.  But why had this man come now?  Now, when he'd finally decided it didn't matter anymore.  And why did he have such an overwhelming feeling of dread about all this?

            "Please, before you go, won't you just do me a small favor?  I only need for you to look at something and tell me if it means anything to you at all.  Please?"  The stranger pressed toward him.

            Johnny stopped, puzzled by the strange undertone of desperation in the man's tone.  The sad look in those dark eyes confused him even more.  What did he want?  "I...  all right.  Just make it quick."

            Again Johnny got a quick smile that wasn't reflected in the eyes of the stranger.  If anything, his eyes looked even more full of sorrow than before.  Rapidly, the stranger reached into his coat and withdrew a gold chain from his pocket, with an eight-sided medallion at the end. 

            He held the medallion high so Johnny could get a good look at it.  Embossed on the coin was what at first looked to be the figure of an eagle.  As Johnny took a closer look, however, he realized that it was in fact a flaming phoenix.

            Though it had nice detail and workmanship, Johnny was actually relieved when it evoked no memories at all.  "I'm sorry, I don't know anything about this medallion."

            "You can start remembering now--Ken."

            Johnny looked up, his eyes widening at the words, at the name, even as the stranger's face seemed to focus in his mind for the first time and screamed with familiarity.  With a rising wave of fear, Johnny stumbled back as a rush of names, faces, places flooded past his mind almost too fast to understand them.  A name swelled inside him and flowed past his lips before he realized he spoke.  "Na--Nambu?"

            The teddy bear fell from his arm to land forgotten in the grass as Johnny Terell was himself pushed aside inside him.  Ken staggered back again as he stared at a man his flashing memories insisted had died before his very eyes.

            He stumbled, and Nambu was suddenly there steadying him.  Ken jerked back, his body rigid, his face pale, and his eyes incapable of leaving the enigma before him.  "You're dead.  Egobossler killed you."  Even as he spoke, Ken knew the words were true, yet here Nambu was standing before him.  He knew who he was, he was Ken Washio.  And this man, this man was Kozaburo Nambu, famed ISO scientist and mastermind behind the formation of the Scientific Ninja Team.  "You should be dead, you should be dead."

            Ken shook from top to bottom and moved to step back, but Nambu's arm reached out and latched on to his own.  Ken stared at him, his breath coming in heaving gasps, his mind telling him this man was Nambu even as at the same time it told him he wasn't.  He was too young.  Too young.  Nambu was dead!  He tried to break free of the other's hold, but the latter wouldn't let him go.

            "Yes, you're right.  You saw Nambu die.  He is dead."  The Nambu, who was not Nambu, came up close, his voice low.  "I am his clone."

            No.  No!  This was too much!  Yet it was all there for him to see.  It was all there!  The intense gaze was the same, the voice was the same, and even the light cologne that teased his nostrils was the same.  But a clone?  Ken's mind tried to assimilate all this as well as the past still being dredged from inside him, but it was too much.  "No!"

            Ken wrenched his arm from the other's hold and then tripped over himself landing heavily on the sidewalk leading to the door.  Pain shot up his backside and his hands as he hit the ground.   The sun warmed concrete made itself felt through his shirt to his skin.

            Ken sat up his eyes closed, and shook his head as he tried to put the world back into some form of coherency.  The young Nambu quickly stepped up to kneel beside him a look of concern on his face.  Ken's eyes snapped open as he felt him there and flinched away as the latter reached for him. 

            "The disorientation should pass quickly."  His hand clamped itself to Ken's arm again.  It was warm, strong, alive.  "I'm sorry.  It had never been my intention to frighten you."  His voice seemed filled with some sort of strange emotion.  "I would never willingly hurt any of you."

            Ken found his gaze straying invariably to the worried face before him.  Could this man be a clone?  Could Nambu have been brought back to life?  And what about himself?  Dare he believe he'd lived through their final encounter with Sosai and wasn't instead the pawn of some sort of cosmic joke?  And, and if he was alive, could he, could he let himself hope that maybe, just maybe some of the others had survived as well?

            Even as the thought ran through his consciousness, Ken's head snapped around to look toward the house as memory and current reality momentarily snapped into place.  Eyes wide, the man at his side totally forgotten for the moment, Ken climbed up to his feet.  His eyes locked on the front door and he moved like a sleepwalker up to it.  As his hand reached for the knob, he suddenly stopped, his heart gripped with sudden indecision.

            "Ken?"  The question came softly from the clone behind him. 

            As if the quiet query had made the decision for him, Ken opened the door and quickly entered the house.

            A nice sized living room opened up before him, it had a simple, down to earth décor, that had up to now always given it a homey atmosphere. But rather than instilling in him the comfort and peace he'd come to expect from the room, Ken only felt awkward and out of place.  All of the past four years and his life as Johnny Terell flashed before him and he choked back bile feeling suddenly ill.  This life, this place, all of it had been one outrageous lie.

            "Johnny, is that you?"

            Ken's answer caught in his throat as his smiling wife entered the room.  His blood ran cold as his suspicion was horrifyingly confirmed.  Kate, his loving Kate--with her long green hair, her round face and full lips, and her doe-like green eyes--was also Jun, his teammate.  The room began to spin.

            "Johnny!"

            Ken felt himself start to fall but never hit the floor.  Nambu's clone had stopped him and half dragging him, steered him to the couch.  Ken looked up, his chest feeling tight, as Kate, no, Jun, crouched beside him a distressed expression on her face.  It hurt him to look at it.  Kate was Jun, Kate was Jun!

            "Johnny, are you all right?  Should I call a doctor?"

            Ken waved the question away, trying to gather his confused thoughts together.  "No, I'm, I'm all right.  It's just the heat.  I overdid it today."  He tried hard to smile, though he felt more like crying.  "J--uh--Kate, would you please bring me a glass of water?"  Without looking at her, he sensed her hesitation to leave him.  It made him want to cry all the more.  "Please?"

            He watched her hesitate a moment more, her worry now compounded with a puzzled frown as she threw a quick look at Kozaburo, before she headed quickly toward the kitchen.

            Closing his eyes and roughly loosening the tie at his neck, Ken sat back trying to calm down.  As he opened them again, he noticed Nambu's clone slowly fingering the phoenix medallion in his hand.  A chill traveled down Ken's spine as he guessed at what the copy of their old mentor was thinking.  "Must you?  Does she really have to remember?"  He glanced quickly the way Jun had gone, keeping his voice very low.  "You've already got me.  Can't she be kept out of it?"  He couldn't quite keep the despair out of his voice.  Ken wasn't even sure if he was asking this for her or for himself.

            Kozaburo stared at him apologetically, putting the medallion back in his pocket for the moment.  He looked away, but when his gaze locked back with Ken's, there was no apology in his eyes.  "I'm sorry.  It was never supposed to have come to this.  But there's no longer any choice."

            Ken turned away from him, a part of him no longer able to look at the deep buried pain and pity reflected in the eyes of the man who seemingly was but wasn't his old teacher and friend.

            Jun returned less than a minute later, carrying a tall glass of ice water which she brought straight to Ken.  He thanked her as he took it, not looking directly at her, yet unable not to see the love radiating from her for him. 

            God it had all been a lie!  Jun was alive, Kate would soon be dead.  His wife, his child.  Ken gulped the water down, just wanting something, anything to ease the burning he felt inside him.  The cold rose to his head and gave him a pounding headache, but he welcomed the distraction even as he continued to try to bring the turmoil inside him under control.

            "Thank you for helping my husband, mister..."

            "Nambu.  Dr. Kozaburo Nambu."

            Ken stared at Jun as her brow furrowed slightly as she looked closely at their guest for the first time.  "Your name sounds so familiar.  Have we met before?"

            Ken cringed as Kozaburo removed his hand from his pocket, holding the medallion out where Jun could see it.  "We've known each other for quite sometime--Jun."

            She gasped as if she'd been struck.  Ken sprang to his feet, concern overriding everything as she swayed unsteadily where she stood.  His hands reached out for her but he stopped himself as she remained standing.  Jun's eyes were riveted as if mesmerized to the medallion hanging before her.

            Ken watched her, agony running rampant inside him, as he saw her eyes slowly leave the medallion and moved to look at Kozaburo's expectant face.  Her mouth opened into a silent ‘O', her breath coming in and out in hurried gasps.  Tears suddenly gathered in her eyes and after a moment, she hurried forward and ran straight into Kozaburo's arms.  "You're alive!  Alive!  This is too wonderful!  I can't believe it!"

            Numb, Ken watched as Kozaburo returned her embrace, unbidden tears also gathering in the clone's eyes.  Ken stood there, doing nothing, as Jun finally stepped away a bright smile on her face.

            She then turned excitedly toward her husband, the words ready at her lips to explain about her old friend. 

            Ken felt his heart ache as he watched her stop, her smile breaking apart and fading.  Jun just stood there and stared at him.  She studied him intently as if this were the first time she'd ever truly looked at him.  She blinked, shaking her head, and then stared, her eyes once more going wide.  "My God--Ken!"

            Ken found he could do nothing but watch as Jun struggled with her resurfacing memories.  After a moment or two, she hesitantly walked up to him.  Ken watched with almost numb detachment as she slowly raised her hand and touched his cheek with her fingers.  Ken breathed out as they made contact, only then realizing he'd been subconsciously holding his breath. 

            Jun gave a quiet whisper, her eyes suddenly glazed.  "My God."

            Ken was able to catch her at the last moment when her legs gave out from under her.  "Jun!"

            She leaned heavily against him, holding him tight. Ken thought her could feel the rapid pounding of her heart as she held on to him desperately as if she thought he might disappear.

            Deeply worried, he held her close, trying hard to set aside his own confusion for her sake.  "Jun, it's all right.  I remember too.  Everything is all right."  It was a lie, but it was what she needed.  He tried to smile, feeling guilty and fragmented, even as she looked up at him with confused eyes.  Gently, he helped her to her feet and steered her toward the couch.

            When he set her down, Jun wouldn't let go of him, so Ken was forced to sit down as well.  He didn't really mind, finding her need of him actually helping to steady himself.  Someone actively depending on him had always made it easier to put aside his own concerns.

            "You said there was no choice but to reawaken our memories, almost as if you'd had something to do with their removal in the first place.  Is that true?" Ken asked.

            Almost as if his question had brought him back into being, Nambu's clone stepped forward from where he'd retreated to be out of their way. 

            Jun looked back over her shoulder in curiosity at Ken's question.  It was then he realized perhaps he shouldn't have asked this right now.  Jun hadn't yet learned this wasn't the original Nambu.

            "If you wouldn't mind," Kozaburo said carefully.  "I think I'd like to hold off all the major explanations for another time.  I believe I've said more than I should have for one day."

            Ken was about to protest, but stopped himself, remembering the shock he and Jun had already been through just from being shown who they truly were.  Did he really think he could handle more?

            "If you could excuse yourself from work tomorrow, I'd like the two of you to accompany me so you could try and ease the transition period for the others when their memories are restored as well."  Kozaburo stared at them expectantly.

            Jun stood up excitement covering her face.  "You mean, they're alive, they're all alive?"

            Ken got up and stood beside her his own heart beating fast in his chest.  Joe was alive--and Jinpei, and Ryu.

            Kozaburo actually smiled.  "They're all alive and doing quite well, actually.  If all goes as it should, you should be reunited with all of them by sometime tomorrow afternoon."  He turned as if to go.

            "You're not leaving already are you?"  Jun took a half step toward him.

            Ken was hard pressed to decide if the strange quiver he thought he'd heard in Jun's voice came from fear of Nambu's clone's eminent departure or from fear of being left alone with him.

            He had to admit to himself he was slightly nervous over the prospect as well.  The man had been the catalyst that had returned their memories to them.  Would they remain once he was gone?  Or would everything revert back to what it'd been before his entrance except for the horrible feeling he was going insane? 

            Kozaburo turned back to face them.  "Yes, I thinks it's for the best right now." His expression was kind, if not apologetic.  "You two have a lot to sort through and I would only be in your way.  I promise to come back for you in the morning."  He tried to smile.  "I'm truly sorry this had to be done."  Saying nothing further, he turned from them and walked out the door.

            Jun took several steps as if to go after him, but stopped before she'd reached the door.

            A chill passed unwanted down Ken's back as he realized the clone had truly left them on their own.  What were they supposed to do now?

            "Dinner should be almost ready, John--Ken.  I, I guess I'd better go check on it before it burns or something."  Without looking at him or waiting for an answer, Jun headed straight for the kitchen.

            Ken watched her go, unsure about everything.

            They had dinner in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.  Ken had no idea on what he should do or even say.  He knew this was a dream come true for Jun, something she'd always wanted.  And hadn't he wanted it as well?  He'd been so happy with her, so oblivious.  But then, Johnny Terell hadn't really been him had he?  He hadn't had the responsibilities of the team on his shoulders, he'd never had to make sacrifices for the sake of duty.  But Egobossler had been defeated, Zed had been destroyed.  Wouldn't this have been the natural progression of things for them?  Yet Nambu, rather, Nambu's clone, had reawakened their memories saying there was need of them again.  That put everything back to what it had been before the destruction of Zed, didn't it?  Ken found his gaze straying across the table only to accidentally cross Jun's own curious gaze.  He instantly looked away.  What would this mean for them?

            Ken got up when they'd finished and carried his own dishes into the kitchen as he'd done so many other times as Johnny.  Not sure why he did it, he even lingered and helped with the dishes as he'd done before.  Jun didn't object.

            The familiarity of the routine and at the same time the alien quality of it, all wove in and out as he tried to keep his thoughts from wondering and only concentrate on the simple task of drying dishes. It was as if these weren't truly a part of his memories but those of a stranger.

            Jun stood beside him and stopped what she'd been doing only to stare hard into the soapy water before her.  After she'd stood that way for several minutes, Ken studied her profile, a creeping fear that something was horribly wrong steeling over him.  "Jun?"

            As he worked himself up to reach out and touch her, she turned to look at him, an odd yet almost serene expression on her face.  "It's just, it's just so hard to believe we're all alive."  Her eyes searched his.  "Though it's been four years it feels like the end just happened yesterday."

            Ken's heart and mind fought one another.  One kept telling him how beautiful she looked, how the light was reflecting so brilliantly from her deep eyes, her hair, while the other repeated over and over how he was her commander, she, his responsibility, and all that had gone between them would have to be overlooked.  "Yes,  it does feel like it was just yesterday."  He turned away, seemingly to put away some dishes, but mostly just wanting to make sure she wouldn't see the dissension in his face.

            "It'll be good to see the others, won't it?"  She sounded both happy and surprised at the same time.  "We've got four years of catching up to do."  She started in on the dishes again.  "I bet Jinpei is seven feet tall by now.  It was so hard to keep anything around that fit, he was just growing so fast."

            Damn him!  Why did Kozaburo have to disrupt their lives like this?  Why couldn't he have just left them alone?  When would he have to stop paying with everything?

            "Ken?"

            Jun's soft query quickly brought him back to himself.  Almost at once, he realized he was holding onto the open cabinet too hard, his knuckles white, and let go if it immediately.

            His wife--she was his wife!  Jun's worry was obvious as he turned around to face her again.  But even as he watched, he saw her expression retreat back to its serene façade almost as if she didn't want him to know she was aware something was wrong.

            The silence that had been with them throughout dinner swept over them again.

            Once the dishes had been finished, Ken found Jun staring at him expectantly in the unbroken silence.  Not sure what they should do, he mutely nodded at her and led the way out of the kitchen.

            Hoping it might somehow bring them some comfort if not stability, Ken moved to what they'd recently christened as the baby's room. 

            In just the week since they'd found out the joyous news of Jun's condition, Ken as Johnny had gone out and bought nearly everything they might ever need or want for their child.  Some of it was already in the room, a lot of it lay still in its wrapper in the closet waiting to be put to use. 

The baby chair and crib, both decorated with colorful balls as well as bright pictures of flowers and bunnies, sat to one side of the room, as well as a small chest of drawers.  A toy box already brimming with toys sat beside them.  There was also a bag of wallpaper and several cans of paints and brushes, which sat against the wall. 

            The two of them had jointly been working on preparing the room for a couple of days.  Back then, they'd decided they'd do this slow and together, so they could both put as much of themselves as possible into the eventual home of the newest member to their family.  The same exuberance and unrestrained energy he'd been suffused with for the last several days had also been shared by Jun as well.  Kate and Johnny had both wanted this so much and had been so ready for it.  Now it was Ken and Jun, and Ken found his own excitement muted and afraid.  A child, the two of them would have a child.

            Still saying nothing, Ken walked over to cover the floor in front of a half-painted wall with the rolled up pieces of plastic hiding behind the door.  Jun went over to the room's only closet and came back out with a brush and paint pan for Ken and some tracing paper and cut out sketches for herself.

            As they began to work, slowly but surely, Ken felt the tension ease from his shoulders.  Things didn't press on him as intently as they had before.  "It really will be good to see them all again," he said.

            The silence between them lost the feeling of awkwardness it'd had up to now and moved toward old familiarity.  They lost themselves in the depths of it even as they continued on their work for the next couple of hours.

            Ken glanced up at Jun as he picked up the plastic drop cloths when they were done, her voice ringing clearly beside him.

            "I wonder if Ryu has gotten even larger since we stopped training."  She had a small, amused grin on her face as if she could picture it perfectly.          "I suppose it'll be hard on all of us, trying to get back into shape.  We probably won't have a lot of time if the need is urgent enough."

            Ken frowned at her in startled surprise.  "Surely, you're not serious."

            "What about?" 

He could tell by her puzzled expression she had no idea of what he was talking about.  Ken felt a sudden wave of dread sweep through him as he looked into her face.  He made himself turn away from her before he answered.  He wouldn't be able to avoid this--shouldn't avoid this.  It had to be said.  Hopefully, the sooner the better for both of them.  "You're pregnant.  And well, I'm sure once Hakase finds out, you'll be immediately discharged from duty."  He felt his throat grow tight.  "You know how rigorous our training gets.  And that's nothing compared to real combat." 

He heard her gasp in surprise.  "I would never endanger the baby!"

"I know that."  He still couldn't bring himself to look at her.  "But it might not be up to you out there."

"What are you trying to say to me?"

Ken took a deep breath as he finally turned to face her.  "I'd prefer for you not to become involved in this, whatever it is."  He could clearly see the anger building in her eyes, though she was trying hard not to let it show on her face.

"What do you mean by not involved?" 

Ken sighed lightly.  "Just what it sounds like.  I'd prefer it if you had nothing to do with this--if you had no involvement whatsoever.  The stress wouldn't be good for you..."

"Are you telling me this as my husband or as my commander?" she demanded.

Ken felt unnaturally guilty at the question.  He suddenly wished she hadn't asked him.  "Both."

"I take it you're saying then that I have no say in this?  That I'm not responsible enough to know how to take care of our child?"

Ken said nothing.

Her eyes flashed.  "I'm to take this as an order then?"

"Jun, please try to understand," he pleaded.  He was going to lose this one.  It wasn't going right.  Didn't she understand nothing was the same anymore?  Didn't she see how hard it was for him to say this?

"Am I?"  She screamed the question at him.

Ken flinched at the vehemence in her voice.  "This really isn't necessary.  I--"

She cut him off.  "Damn you.  Damn you and your insistently pathetic inhibitions!"  Tears welling in her eyes, Jun turned from him and ran out of the room.

"Jun wait!"  Ken's first impulse was to run after her, after his wife.  But he didn't.  What would he say?  What could he do?  He felt a spark of anger rise inside him.  Why should he even try to repair an argument that should have never been?  Couldn't Jun, just this once, be reasonable?

Ken realized he was being unfair even as he cleaned up the rest of the things in the room.  He was asking her not to be a part of the team, to sever her old life.  He wanted her out of danger, where she'd be safe--though he'd never made exceptions for her before.  Ken decided he should go try talk to her.  Upon reaching their bedroom door, however, he found Jun had locked him out.  Beside the door was a small stack, which included his striped pajama pants, a couple of blankets, and his pillow.

Staring sadly at the pile, knowing this was the first time he'd been denied his room and warm bed since the beginning of their marriage, he raised his hand to knock on the door.  Before he'd finished the gesture, however, he let his arm drop back to his side and sighed.  Nothing would change if he talked to her.  In the end it might be better just to leave her alone.

Grabbing up the pile that had been left to him, Ken made his way to the living room.  After making his bed on the floor rather than on the couch, he changed clothes and then lay down to go to sleep.  Much to his chagrin though, he found he couldn't.  Worse, there was an ache deep down inside his soul he'd not experienced in a long, long time.

In their three years of marriage, Ken had never been barred from their bedroom before.  Oh, he'd come close once or twice, but always he'd either apologized or she'd come and taken him back.  He knew though with a pained certainty she wouldn't be coming for him tonight.  And how would he explain his reasons if she was willing to hear him out anyway?  It wasn't like they'd ever talked of this before.  Obviously from her words before though, she suspected some of the reasons for his behavior, or lack of it.  But they'd never discussed them.  And he wasn't sure he could. 

The team had saved the world over four years ago and all they'd been given was a chance to lose themselves.  And now they wanted them back.

Ken's coiled fist smashed violently against the carpeted floor as a wave of helplessness accompanied by a deep sense of unfairness swept mercilessly through him.

Four years ago, they had all survived the final assault on Zed.  They'd been found together, been taken to the same camp, but had never had the faintest inkling of who they were.  It seemed strange, now that he looked back on it, how none of them had made more of an issue about how similar their clothes had resembled one another's.  Still, it wasn't like they'd been together long.  Confused, dazed, they'd barely gotten to see each other's faces before each of them had been carted off to different doctors.

He had only been at the camp less than a month, doing what he could to help and keep busy, before he'd been given a new identity and a place to belong.  Extensive testing had yielded high scores in the knowledge of weapons, weapon systems, general science, strategy, and others.  Both he and his doctors had just assumed he'd belonged to one of the armed forces.  They'd checked for him there, but they'd had no records of him.  But so much had been lost during the war nobody had thought anything of it.  And he'd been so flattered when the staff at the camp had told him about the opening at the research center.  It was where he'd worked to this very day.

It had also been there he'd met Jun again--the woman, less than a year later, he'd proposed to on his knees before a moonlit lake.  He'd committed in total innocence the one transgression he'd always promised himself he'd never allow to occur.  He'd compromised his command of the Gatchaman team by getting too deeply involved with a team member.  Damn it all!  Had anyone any idea what he might have to put Jun through?

She was out of the team.  Whether she liked it or not it was out of the question.  She'd have to be replaced!  She was his wife, she was pregnant.  Why couldn't she see that?  He knew it hurt, but facts were facts.  How would he be able to function knowing she was there, putting herself and their baby in danger?  But where would that leave her?  She'd be here, at home, waiting to see him between missions.  Never knowing from one day to the next whether he was alive or dead.  Why couldn't he have just died like he thought he had?

 

 

 

 

 

Ken sat up abruptly, startled by a small noise, only then realizing that at some point in his deliberations he'd actually fallen asleep.

Though the room itself was still shadowed in darkness, light poured through into the far side from the kitchen.  Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Ken quickly gathered his discarded clothes after covering himself with one of his blankets.  He wasn't cold, but if Jun walked through that door...  He looked away feeling suddenly foolish.  Jun had already seen all there was to see of him for three years.  Who was he kidding?  Still, he made no move to remove the blanket.

Quietly, Ken made his way out of the living room and toward the bedroom.

Finding the door open and Jun nowhere in sight, he headed straight for the master bathroom on the other side.  After a quick shower, he stepped back into the bedroom to get a change of clothes.  As he dressed, he couldn't help but notice their wedding album sitting out on the nightstand on Jun's side of the bed.  For no specific reason, he made sure to avoid the book, while in the back of his mind he wondered why Jun had been looking at it at all.

Following the hallway to unobtrusively return to the living room, Ken found the dining room's light on.  The table there was set for two.  He was amazed at the sense of relief that flooded him at the sight.  He hadn't honestly been sure how far Jun would want to carry this.  Not daring to let his hopes run too high, however, he entered the room and took his normal seat at the table.

Almost as if she'd been waiting for him, Jun entered the room from the kitchen carrying a plateful of food.  Her face betrayed nothing, as she set the plate before him with a slight smile.  "Your breakfast, commander."

The words and the lack of warmth behind the smile left Ken feeling cold.  "Jun, about last night..."

She turned away from him as if not aware he was speaking and walked back to the kitchen.  Unwillingly, Ken felt the ache from the night before return full force.  He tried to ignore it though it permeated him and more.

Jun returned less than two minutes latter carrying her own plate and a pitcher of orange juice.  After pouring him a glass and setting the pitcher down, she ignored her usual seat and instead slid her place mat and all to sit as far away from Ken as possible.

Now losing what little appetite he'd had left, Ken nevertheless forced himself to eat the meal.  The scrambled eggs tasted like old sawdust in his mouth as the silence between them grew even more impenetrable and awkward than the day before.

About midway through the meal, Ken looked up in surprise as Jun broke the forced silence.  "I took the liberty of calling the institute and excusing you from work today."  Her tone was level.  Her eyes never left her plate.  "I hope I wasn't out of place."

Ken's throat constricted as he desperately tried to find the right thing to say.  "Thank you."

Jun didn't even acknowledge his reply, but continued eating undisturbed.

Suddenly not able to stomach any more of it, Ken pushed roughly away from the table and after throwing his napkin on his chair, left the room.

With a mixture of anger, fear, helplessness, and unhappiness clashing inside him, Ken escaped to the living room.  With a rough jerk, he turned on the television hoping to find something, anything to distract him.  If he was lucky, he might even be able to find some clue as to why Nambu's clone had felt it necessary to come and so destructively intrude into their lives.

After flicking through a number of the news channels, Ken was no closer to finding anything to explain why this had been done to him.  He knew it meant nothing, however.  Keeping the press in the dark or suppressing information was a game both sides had played before. 

He'd finally settled on a channel to watch the weather when the doorbell rang.  Ken had just gotten up to answer it, when Jun sped past him to go open it herself.

Ken's eyes watched her as she moved past, her tight jeans and silk blouse easily showing off her still trim figure.  As his eyes followed her, he suddenly found himself overcome by a different type of hunger.  Even as the need filled him, he tried to squelch it.  Things were different now, that was for another life.  This one had a chance of never recovering.

Jun happily opened the door, revealing the younger Nambu standing patiently on their front porch.  Almost shyly, he nodded toward both of them as Jun quickly invited him in.

"Have you had breakfast?  I'd be happy to make some for you." Jun was all smiles.

"No, thank you.  I've eaten."  Nambu suddenly looked out of place.  "I hope I haven't come too early?"

Jun took his arm and brought him farther into the house.  "No, no, not at all.  We're both eager to get going."

Kozaburo glanced from one to the other of them.  "Well then, if you're ready?"

"I just have to get my purse," she said.  "I'll meet you outside."  Jun hurried off toward the bedroom never once glancing in Ken's direction.

Turning off the television without comment, Ken followed the clone outside.  As he walked with him to the brown station wagon waiting in the driveway, Ken's attention was drawn toward something lying in the grass.  As he bent to pick it up, he felt a pang of pain as he recognized the teddy bear he'd so excitedly bought the day before.  How far away that feeling of carefree happiness seemed to him right now.  How disjointed the last four years seemed from his real life.  Would he ever have a chance to feel that happy again?  Or would it, like so many other things, die with the memory of Johnny Terell?

Jun came out of the house and locked the door behind her.  Ken didn't notice her, still staring at the dew covered bear he held in his hands.  He almost jumped, startled, as Jun tapped his shoulder and pointed toward the waiting wagon.  "Commander, Nambu's waiting."

Ken's fingers dug cruelly into the bear as sudden irritation washed through him at Jun's use of his station.  Snapping abruptly away from her, he stomped around the car and quickly boarded the front passenger seat.  Without a word, Jun followed and got in the back.

After they were seated, Kozaburo put the station wagon in reverse and promptly left the driveway.  The clone drove on in silence, never even divulging their destination.  Neither of them ever asked.

As the awkward silence continued, Ken spotted Nambu glancing occasionally in his direction or looking up into his rearview mirror to look at Jun.  Ken looked out the window, sure the clone wasn't at all happy with their present dispositions.

About twenty minutes later, on the other side of town, Kozaburo left West street to enter into a large parking lot of a one story office complex on their right.  Parking the car facing the street, he shut off the engine and then got out of the car.  Jun quickly followed suit.  Ken did so as well, after quickly reminding himself to leave the teddy bear still clamped in his hand behind.

Leaving the two of them to follow, Kozaburo walked down the sidewalk surrounding the complex and headed toward the back of the lot.  As all three moved along the walkway, Ken noticed that the style of the complex changed radically about midway.  The structure went from a white concrete wall facade to a wood and lacquered one.  The roof protruded and curled past the edge of the wall making a protective awning over the walkway.  The combination of the lacquered walls and the curving ceiling gave the area a definite oriental flair--it made it look like a Chunese temple. 

As the three of them rounded the corner, they moved past a large hanging gong.  The roof extended out to a sizable canopy and was held aloft by thick red columns.  A pair of large ceramic Chunese dragons lined the small entry leading to the large set of front doors.  On the gong itself, red lettering proclaimed the following:

 

Mr. Chow's School of Martial Arts and Self Defense

Problem Children Welcome

 

            Trading startled glances before looking hurriedly away again, Ken and Jun waited tensely for Kozaburo to proceed.

            Without hesitation, Nambu's clone used the brass ring attached to one of the doors and knocked it smartly against it.  They didn't have to wait long.

            The red door opened wide, a smiling face appearing before them.  "Good morning.  What can I do for you?"

            Ken couldn't help but openly stare at the man standing before them.  Not until this very moment had he truly believed the actual possibility that the other members of the team had survived.  But there he was, big as life, the familiar square jaw, those dark unmistakable blue eyes.  "Mr.--Mr. Chow?"

            The eyes and broad smile turned to Ken.  "Ah, no, George, George Collins."  He saw his eyes frown for just a moment, but then it was gone.  "If you really came here to see Mr. Chow, I'm sorry, but you're out of luck."  He laughed.  "Actually you're way out of luck.  Chow returned to Chuna about three years ago.  He used to run a mean restaurant here.  I took the place over when he left.  I didn't figure he'd mind if I kept his name with the place.  It's sort of part of the atmosphere, you know?"  The smile changed into a mischievous grin.  "Would you like to come in?  I think I might have his address in my office."

            Before any of them had had a chance to say yes, George had backed out of the doorway to let them in.  Kozaburo didn't hesitate, even Ken fought with the desire to rush in there and grab his lost teammate in a hug yet at the same time all he wanted to do was to run away and never look back. 

            Trying to buy time to put himself together, Ken went on in and looked around even as the man he'd once known as Joe closed the door behind them.

            The walls and ceilings of the place were made from intricately shaped tiles tucked behind decorative wooden beams and wall planks.  To the right of the entry way stood a large set of boxed shelves sitting on top of tan carpeting.  A few feet away from the shelved area, the carpeting stopped to give way to puzzles of large woven mats.  Ken got the feeling Joe had changed the restaurant into one giant martial arts training area.

            Without really thinking about it, Ken, followed by Kozaburo and Jun, removed his shoes in the obvious genkan.  Their host's eyebrows rose slightly, noticing his guests familiarity with the purely foreign custom.

            Ken was surprised by the quiet pleasure it brought him to feel tatami mats under his feet again.  A part of him whispered he should just ignore the others and take the opportunity to start doing katas again.  Then he'd be able to leave behind all thought and concentrate only on the tuning of his body and his inner self--to stabilize his wa.  With a slight shake of his head, Ken dismissed the temptation.  It'd be like trying to run away.

            "Very nice dojo you have here," Jun said.

            Ken saw that her use of the proper term seemed to surprise their host as well.

            "Would any of you like anything to drink?"

            The three visitors declined.

            George led them to a carpeted hallway on the left.  Ken glanced into the few open rooms on the way and noticed they were also matted like the front rather than carpeted.  George moved on past a huge kitchen and turned the corner to enter a small office in the back.

            A low table dominated the sparse room, with a few low file cabinets filling the back.  Several large plush pillows littered the floor close to the table.

            "Please sit."  George indicated the floor even as he took his own place behind the table.  His brow rose as he saw his guests ignore the cushions and took their places in the proper style.  "I guess this is going to sound a little odd, but I get the weird impression we've all met before?"

            Ken found himself invariably glancing at Nambu's clone.

            "Yes, Joe, we've met.  We all know each other very well."  Kozaburo reached into his jacket and brought out the golden medallion. 

            "No, I'm sorry, my name is..."  George's voice trickled to a stop as his eyes caught sight of the medallion.  His eyes widened, his gaze locking onto it as if there were nothing else to look at.

            Ken watched Joe's face intently.  As he did, he saw the lines on his face, especially those about the eyes, regain that old pained expression.  As the full impact of all that would be returning to Joe suddenly made itself clear in his own mind, Ken wanted to scream in sudden grief.  Joe would now be remembering his oath, his family vendetta as well as the fact his parents had been murdered in cold blood.  He'd be remembering his frustrations, the all-consuming anger, which had dominated so much of his former life.  He'd also be realizing his life for the past four years had been a lie.  Ken's hands coiled into fists at his sides.  Why was this being done to them?  Why couldn't they have just been left alone?

            Yet even as he watched, Joe's features seemed to clear.  His face relaxed until once more he looked like the ignorant and less burdened George Collins.  

            Joe's eyes finally broke away from the medallion.  His gaze swept to stare solidly at Kozaburo and then a tearful Jun.  Finally, it locked with Ken's own.  "Ken."

            Ken's throat felt incredibly dry.  "Joe."

            "I thought we were dead."

            "Sorry,"  Ken shrugged.  "I guess we're too lucky for our own good."  He tried to smile, doing his best to ignore the tears trying to gather in his eyes.

            Jun then did what Ken felt he couldn't, and moved swiftly around the table to throw herself at Joe.  Their friend caught her easily, and laughing, returned her joyous embrace.

            When Jun finally let him go, wiping happy tears from her face, Joe turned to look at Kozaburo his expression growing serious.  "How did all this happen?" he asked.  "You should be dead and so should we.  By what miracle did you manage to save the team this time?"

            Ken studied his friend, his questions not laced with the sarcasm he might have coated them with of old.  Had four years as someone without the burdens he'd always carried changed him?

            Kozaburo cleared his throat and looked away.  "I would prefer withholding that information until we've reunited the entire team."

            "Some things never change do they?" Was the taught reply.  That was more like the Joe Ken remembered.

            "The least you could do is explain how in the hell I got past all those doctors at the refugee camp," Joe persisted.

            Kozaburo wouldn't meet Joe's burning stare. He appeared to gather himself for a moment and then plunged on.  "It was quite simple for Kamo, using the ISO's clout, to have all of you examined by our own people rather than the camp staff.  Hypnotic suggestions in your subconscious took care of any problems you might have otherwise had."  Nambu didn't explain what he'd meant by that and none of them asked.

            Ken felt a rush of heat flush through him.  "Are you saying you knew all along where we were?"

            Kozaburo met his questioning stare dead on.  "I wasn't around at the time, but after the explosion of Sosai's fortress, it would seem Kamo was able to find a way to track the converted Spartan to its eventual landing point.  He has deftly kept track of all your whereabouts ever since."

            A thumping sound echoed in the room as Ken pounded his fist on the low table.  "But why?" he demanded.  "Why keep us ignorant of our identities if you knew all along where we were?"

            Kozaburo stared at his confused fury dead on looking suddenly very vulnerable.  Ken got the distinct impression that for all of the clone's airs, he was just an inexperienced and frightened young man.

            "I, I... I can't answer that question right now.  Please," he pleaded, "bear with me.  You'll learn all there is to know very soon."

            The almost palpable pain in Kozaburos' eyes cooled Ken's anger and his insistent need to understand this ever growing puzzle.  Jun stared bewildered at the two of them, her hands holding tightly to Joe's arm as if she were in dire need of his support.

            A heavy pall of silence fell over the four of them.

            After a minute or so of this, a thin, curly hared youth poked his head in through the office's open doorway.  "Sensei!"  His eyes grew wide as he spotted the others there.  "Oh, I'm sorry.  I didn't know you had company."  The young man tried to quickly duck out the way he'd come.

            "No, Will," Joe called after him.  "It's all right."

            The young man hesitated at the doorway.

            "Come on in, I want to introduce you to some old friends of mine."  Joe waved for him to come in.

            Shyly, almost overly so, Will entered the room barely glancing at the others.

            Joe stared at him fondly.  "Will, this is Ken, Jun, and that's Nambu Hakase."  He indicated the three of them in turn.  "Guys, this is Will, one of my best students and part time instructor."

            Will's cheeks turned slightly red.

            "Would any of you like some tea?" Joe asked.

            "I'll get it, Sensei."  Will quickly bowed and left the room, before any of them had had a chance to answer.

            "Nice boy," Jun said.  She had a slight smile as she stared the way he'd gone.

            "He really is.  And he's been a great help too."  Joe's toned deepened.  "Though it did take a while to break through to him.  There was a lot of hate and fear he'd been carrying with him from the war."

            Ken stared knowingly at his old friend.  It was ironic that in Joe's new life he hadn't had these things.  He wondered how much pressure they were putting on him now.

            "So, what now?"  Joe's tone cleared.  "What's the plan?"

            He glanced questioningly at Ken who deferred the question to Kozaburo.  The clone pushed his glasses slowly higher onto the bridge of his nose before answering the question. 

            "My own course is set, of course.  I will go on to reawaken the memories of the team's last two members.  The three of you can choose to remain here and I can contact you once I'm done, or you can accompany me and help make their transitions easier.  It's up to you."

            "I'm going," Jun said.  "I can't wait to see Jinpei again." 

            Ken didn't see where he had a choice.  "I'll go."

            Kozaburo looked questioningly at Joe.

            Joe grinned.  "You bet I'm coming.  I don't want to miss the expression on Ryu and Jinpei's faces for all the world."

            Jun smiled at his infectious grin.  But Ken didn't find anything humorous in the situation at all.

            After a few minutes, Will returned with a tray carrying a pot of hot green tea and five cups.  Jun stood up and took it from him, even as she invited him to sit with them.  Will hesitated for a moment, but after an encouraging nod from Joe, sat on down.  Jun set out the cups on the table and served each of them.

            As she moved to pour Joe his tea, he noticed her large diamond ring.  "Jun, you're married!"

            Jun blushed deeply at his surprise, but didn't look at him.  Ken stared with sudden fascination at his own filled cup.

            Joe was grinning from ear to ear.  "So, when do we get to meet the lucky guy?"

            Jun shot a quick glance in Ken's direction.  "You, you already have."

            "Ken?"  Joe's grin turned into a pleased, irrepressible smile.  "So, it took total memory loss for you to do what we knew you should have done all along, eh?"

            Ken didn't take his eyes off his cup, wishing with all his heart he were anywhere but there right now.

            Joe's smile slowly faded as he noticed that neither of his friends was reacting as he'd expected.  Kozaburo and Will glanced quickly at the three of them and then tried becoming as small as possible.

            Ken and the others moved to drink their tea as the subject was abruptly and solidly dropped.  The silence headed quickly toward awkwardness.

            Joe didn't let it.  "Will, I'm going to have to run some important errands today.  I'll need for you to take care of the classes for me."

            Will's eyes lit up.  "On my own?"

            Joe had an impish look in his eyes.  "Yes, on your own.   Unless you don't think you can handle it."

            "Handle it?  No problem!"  After his outburst, Will seemed to remember they weren't alone and immediately squelched his excitement.  "I'd, I'd be honored to, Sensei."  He bowed toward him.  He then quickly took his leave, mumbling he had to go get ready.

            Joe followed him with his eyes, a small grin on his face.  "When did you guys want to get going?"

            "Whenever you'd like."

            Ken stood up at Kozaburo's answer.  "Then why don't we just go get this over with."

            The other three were left to stare after him as Ken brusquely left the room.

            He'd already finished slipping on his shoes by the time the others had caught up to him.  Without waiting for them, he went on outside.  On his way back to the station wagon, Joe ran up beside him, throwing him a questioning look.

            Ken didn't even look at him.

            "Ken?"

            "I'm all right!"  He quickly shrugged off the hand Joe had placed on his shoulder.

            "What's up with you and Jun?  I thought you would have been happy about the marriage, or at least not this depressed." 

            Ken didn't say anything for a moment.  How could he explain any of this?  He was sure Joe already had more trouble with his memories than he was letting on.  Wasn't he?  Then over his shoulder, almost casually, he said, "She's pregnant."  Without waiting to see his friend's reaction and the dawning realization of his problems, Ken went on and got in the car.

            Moments, later, Joe quietly slipped into the back, Ken having taken his previous position up front.  Ken made sure to pay his friend no attention, not wanting any of the questions he was sure were on his mind.  Luckily, he didn't have to put him off long, as Jun and Kozaboru finally caught up to them.

            Without delay, Kozaburo started up the station wagon and got them on their way.  They had been driving on without anyone saying anything, when Joe suddenly leaned forward into the front seat.  "So, where are we going anyway?"

            Ken glanced over at the clone as he heard Joe's question and thought he caught a glimpse of what might have been a grateful smile.  "We're going to the University of Arlengton, it's about twenty minutes from here.  I'm hoping to be able to find Jinpei there."

            "Jinpei in college."  Ken could hear the pleased smile in Jun's voice.  He made sure to look only out the window. "He's going to make us all so proud!"

            "He's not the only one."

            Joe's comment made the skin crawl up the back of Ken's neck.  He prayed Jun wouldn't ask him what he'd meant.  He wasn't sure he could handle it right then.  She didn't.

            Instead, she became much more animated than she'd been so far that morning, cheered by the prospect of soon being reunited with her lost adopted brother.  Having Joe basically all to herself in the back, she bombarded him with questions all the way to the campus.

            A large wooden sign first proclaimed when they'd entered the boundaries of the university.  Well manicured lawns and lush trees lined the large parking areas and students lounged against them reading books and writing papers.  Jun had gone quiet, her face pressed against the window, staring at everyone they passed by. 

            Kozaburo had barely slipped the station wagon into a visitor's parking spot before Jun was letting herself out of the car.  The rest of the group got out more slowly, leisurely looking over the four storied buildings making up that area of the campus.

            From the glove compartment, Kozaburo removed a map of the grounds and a copy of a class schedule.  Ken studied him silently, as the clone got his bearings and then started off to lead the way.

            College--it was amazing one of them had even made it there.  Not because they couldn't cut the classes, but because they'd never been able to spare the time.  This had been one of the many things they'd given up to save the world.  But again, people came here for a degree to get a job, and they'd already had one long before then.  Ken frowned wondering if Jinpei was enjoying it, but worse, if he was, would he want to give it up for what they might be asked to do?

            Kozaburo glanced at his watch and slowed their pace as they walked toward one of the four storied buildings.  Students walked back and forth across their path, most moving slowly and with no apparent destination.

            Strolling on, Kozaburo finally stopped before a two storied, red brick building with large white letters proclaiming it as President's Hall.  He glanced at his watch again, and then made for a stone bench nearby.  "Jinpei's class still has about twenty minutes left to go. Should we wait here, or would you prefer somewhere else?"

            "Here is fine."  Ken answered for all of them.

            Jun sat down next to Kozaburo.  "Do you know what class he's in now?"

            Her eagerness made Ken's eyes hurt.

            "Yes, I do, as a matter of fact."  Kozaburo looked at the class schedule he'd brought with him.  "He's currently in History 2302:  The Civil War to the Present."

            Jun looked back toward the building a smile growing on her face.  "Do you know what he's majoring in?"

            Kozaburo's smile matched her own.  "Electrical engineering."

            "Oh!"  Jun's face shone with pride.

            Was there anything this man didn't know about them?  Ken turned away, suddenly angry.  He felt someone's eyes on him and glanced to the side, only to find Joe studying him quietly.  Ken quickly tried to regain control. 

            The four of them waited and Jun helped them pass the time by asking Nambu about Jinpei's other classes and his grades so far.  Though only there a year so far, Jinpei had taken a number of tests and gained credits toward some of the higher level courses.  At the moment, however, he was having to finish the large number of weeding out classes all students were put through before getting to the core of his degree.

            More students hustled through the campus, the earlier attitude of idleness gone from those who hurried by to unknown destinations.  After one or two students came out of President's Hall, they heard a faint bell in the background.  Within moments, a torrent of students streamed through the glass doors.

            Jun stood up anxiously, trying to look through the crowd for that one familiar face.  After almost a full minute, Ken turned around as Joe tapped his shoulder and pointed at one of the departing students. 

            The boy Joe'd singled out had smooth features, not the boyish angles from memory.  The hair was shorter than Ken remembered it, and it even looked tamed, but the grin on the boy's face was exactly the same.  Even as he walked by, books in hand, Ken could tell he hadn't yet gotten rid of all his old gangliness. Jinpei had gotten taller.  And though in many ways he no longer resembled the young boy Ken so fondly remembered, there was never any doubt in his mind this could be anyone but Jinpei.

            Almost as one, the group of four moved to converge on the unsuspecting boy.  "Jinpei!"
Part 2 by Maya Perez

            Several students glanced back at Jun's excited call but none of them were him.  Ken watched her as she forcibly restrained herself from running up to him.  Her fervent glances back at them made her wishes for them to hurry very clear.  Eventually, she lost the battle and just gave in to her desires.  Cutting through the students, it took her only seconds to catch up to him.

            "Excuse me," she said.  "Could I speak to you for a moment?"

            Ken saw Jinpei stop and turn around, a smile on his face at the sound of her lovely voice.  As he fully looked upon her, however, the smile faltered before going back to the brightness it'd had before.  "Sure.  Are you lost?"

            The others finally caught up to them.

            "Don't I look familiar to you?" she asked.

            The boy looked slightly confused at the eagerness and hope in her voice.  "I, I..."  He took a step back as he found himself almost surrounded by the four of them.

            Kozaburo quickly brought out the medallion.  "You can remember now, Jinpei."

            Ken watched in total detachment as Jinpei's eyes were magnetically drawn to the medallion dangling from Kozaburo's long chain.  His book bag fell heavily to the ground beside him totally forgotten.  "I... I..."

            His dazzled eyes eventually looked away from the medallion, totally unaware of the students still shuffling past them as he then gazed into each of their faces. 

            Jun opened her arms, extending them out toward him, a happy, worried smile on her face.  The puzzled look abruptly left Jinpei's face and he leapt into his sister's arms.  "Neechan!"

            Tears gathered in Jun's eyes and joyously spilled down her face as she held tightly to him.

            Ken turned away, jealousy and pain mixing inside him at the sight.  His eyes burned with tears of their own, his own emotions too strong and alien for him to make any sense of them.  He had no control--not over this, not over himself.  He had to regain his center and he had to regain it soon.  How would he be able to deal with whatever tragedy had forced this intrusion into their lives if he didn't? 

            A soft tap at his shoulder made Ken turn back around.  The no longer quite so boyish face of the youngest member of the ninja team smiled at him hesitantly, his brown eyes almost level with his own.

            Ken tried his best then to set aside everything and made himself return the smile.  Just his attempt to do so was all the excuse Jinpei needed.  Before Ken could think to protest or try to hold him back, Jinpei wrapped his long arms around him and hugged him with all his might.  "Aniki!"

            Ken mechanically returned the embrace, knowing he would hurt Jinpei's feelings if he didn't.  His eyes filled with tears again, but these were tears of sadness.  For though he knew this should have been one of the happiest moments of his life, he felt no joy--no joy at all.

            Joe playfully ruffled Jinpei's hair when he finally stopped hugging them all. Jinpei glared at him as he bent to regain his books. 

Joe grinned back.  "I never thought you'd ever get this tall, short stuff."

Jinpei made a half hearted face at him.  "Show's what you know."

"Don't listen to him,"  Jun said seriously.  "You look wonderful!  You're all grown up."

Jinpei quickly puffed out his chest to show them all just how much that was.

"Once a clown, always a clown."  Joe teased.

"Once a grouch, always a grouch."

"Jinpei!"

Joe burst out laughing as Jinpei's face took on a sudden stricken look as he was hit by Jun's old warning tone.  Jun and Jinpei quickly joined them, Kozaburo smiling at them all.  Ken half turned away, hoping they wouldn't notice he hadn't joined them.  He felt detached, no longer a part of them.  His quickly spreading numbness just wouldn't let anything through.

"Neechan, where's Ryu?"  Jinpei quickly glanced around him suddenly concerned.

"He's all right, don't worry," she answered.  "We just haven't gone to get him yet."  Jun flashed a quick look toward Kozaburo to confirm what she'd just said was actually true.  The clone quickly nodded to her unasked question.

"Hey, Maurice, you'd better hurry or you're going to be late for class!" 

Jinpei turned to wave at a blond hared boy shooting past them on roller blades.  "Thanks!"

"Maurice?"  Joe looked like he felt ill.

"Don't you dare say anything!  None of you!"  Jinpei glared at them all menacingly, keeping his gaze riveted the longest on Joe.  Jun quickly hid her mouth behind her hand, so her brother wouldn't catch a glimpse of her rapidly widening smile.  Joe chortled.

"It isn't funny, guys!  I didn't even get to pick the thing!"  His protests only made Joe laugh harder.  Jun was trying her best not to giggle.

Ken couldn't bear it any longer.  Without explanation, he walked away from the four of them and went to stare at a gushing fountain across the way. How could they be so happy?  Didn't they understand what had been done to them?  Didn't they care?  With his badly muddled thoughts, he stared at the moving water, never really seeing it at all.

After a short while, he felt a presence beside him.  He tried to ignore it, not knowing who was there and not trusting himself to speak.  After a few moments, however, his curiosity got the better of him and he glanced to see who it was.  Kozaburo, his hands clasped behind his back, stood there beside him, staring also at the fountain's waters.  "Yes?"

Kozaboru glanced over at him, his expression blank.  "Jinpei has decided to come along with us," he stated quietly.  "If you're ready, we can go find the last--Ryu."

Ken only nodded, realizing he wouldn't be able to escape the inevitable.  The two of them turned their backs on the fountain and moved to rejoin the rest of the group.  As they came close, Ken thought he caught looks of worry from them, including Jun.  Purposely, he ignored what he'd seen, keeping his face expressionless.  They all made their way back to the station wagon.

Jinpei happily joined Jun and Joe in the back seat, while Kozaburo and Ken sat up front.  They soon were on their way.

"Neechan, you look like you've put on some weight."  Her brother had turned sideways and was staring at her critically.

"Jinpei!"  Jun stared at her brother as if he'd turned into a giant snake.

His cheeks suddenly flared red as he realized how his comment had sounded.  "I, I didn't mean it in a bad way!  I swear!  I just--ah, uhm."  He was in big trouble and he knew it.

Joe came to his rescue.  "He's right, you look more rounded and shapely, like you're supposed to.  And there's that glow."  His eyes were bright.  "But then again, I guess both things should be expected for a woman who's going to have a baby."

"What?"  Both Jun and her brother stared at their teammate in utter shock.  Ken stiffened in the front seat, cursing his friend for not being able to keep quiet.  Kozaburo drove on, unaffected, as if he'd known the fact all along.

"Yes, we're going to have an addition to our little family, Jinpei."  Joe grinned.  "You finally won't be the youngest one around anymore."

Jinpei turned to look in wonder at the mystery that was his sister.  "Is that true, neechan?  Are you really going to have a baby?"

Jun nodded slowly.  "Yes."

"A baby..."  His face shone with undisguised awe.

"And I don't want you teaching him any of your bad habits, understand?"  She arched a brow at him.  "For instance, mentioning people's weight after not having seen them for a long time..."

Jinpei blushed even harder than before. 

Suddenly, after looking at each other and grinning, Joe and Jun both rubbed their knuckles on Jinpei's head at the same time.  Trapped solidly between them, he was hard pressed to make them stop.  Pretty soon all three were laughing.

They'd driven for almost an hour on the state highway and out of the city when signs started springing up about a number of the major resorts to be found on Winning Lake.  As they hit the area of the highway with six exits that would put them in that direction, Kozaburo took the third, which had advertisements for residential lake property areas. 

Ending up on a two-lane road, the lake eventually appeared on their right, sparkling like clear glass.  Dozens of sailboats skimmed the water in the distance, lazily following the light breeze.  Trees grew everywhere in abundance, and the scent of pine grew heavy.  After a number of other turns, Kozaburo led the wagon into a large lot with a sign reading ‘Tiny's Boat Repair'.  He parked the car.

"Somehow this figures, you know."  Joe stared knowingly at the perfect view of the lake before them and the hinged boats lining the lot waiting to be repaired.

 "I knew he'd always wanted to be a fish," Jinpei piped in.  "Though if you asked me, he'd most likely end up as a whale."  Deftly he remained out of his sister's reach as he spoke, even as she'd tried to inconspicuously pinch him on the arm.

Ken remained silent, walking behind them as they all made their way to the small office sitting near the shore.  Jinpei was the first to make it to the open door, even as the sound of machinery started up from the other side of the building.

"There's no one in here."  Jinpei's disappointed face looked back at the rest of them.

Going around the building, they followed the strange noise to its source.  It was there they found what they'd been looking for.

A man's broad back was turned toward them as the latter expertly caressed the hull of a fiberglass boat with an electric sander.  Dust from the sanded fiberglass flew everywhere, even as a larger and larger area of the overturned hull was exposed.

Jinpei jumped forward to try and get his attention, but Jun held him back before he got far.  After a minute or so, the sander shut down as the man ran a hand over his close-cut hair, then glanced back, almost as if he'd sensed them behind him.  He set the sander down, and tried to dust himself off, his features totally obscured by dust and a large pair of goggles.  "Sorry about the mess."  He stepped over toward them.  "Name's Merril, though people around here call me Tiny."  He smiled, removing the goggles, his wide friendly face now split in three where the goggles had kept the dust from settling near his eyes.  "How can I help you folks?"

Kozaburo stepped forward and brought out the golden medallion.  "You can help us by remembering--Ryu."

Almost against his will, Ryu stared intently at the medallion for a long drawn out moment.  With a gasp, he took a step back and fell flat on the ground.  Jun and Jinpei rushed forward, immediately concerned.  Ryu stared at both of them as they helped him stand, his gaze moving from one to the other his expression horribly confused.

As his gaze traveled to those behind them, his eyes finally began to clear.  Tears quickly formed in his eyes and ran freely down his cheeks, making trails in the dust, even as his face split with a giant smile. "You're alive!  You're all alive!"

Before anyone realized what he was doing, Ryu scooped up Jun and Jinpei, the three of them laughing in pure, unexpected joy as he swung them about.  With an indulgent grin generously plastered on his face, Joe turned to glance at Ken.  Ken barely noticed as his friend's grin disappeared, having eyes for only those before him.  It was as bad if not worse than Jinpei's reunion had been.

Gasping for air, while simultaneously trying to stop laughing, Ryu slowed and finally allowed Jun and Jinpei to go free.  "You all look wonderful!  I have to be dreaming!"  He grinned.  "Surely if this was real, Jinpei would never look that good."

Jinpei reached over and pinched him.  Ryu yelped.  "Nope, not a dream. We must be real."  Jinpei gave him a smug look.

"Then come here and let me give you a nice, tight, hug."  Ryu took a menacing step toward Jinpei.  The latter dodged quickly out of his reach and took refuge behind a now somber faced Joe.

It was then a surprised look suddenly came over Ryu's face and he snapped over to look at Kozaburo.  "Hakase, uh, how is it that you're alive?"  Then he quickly added,  "Not that I mind, of course!"  Ryu looked away, feeling awkward with the way he'd worded his question. 

Kozaburo didn't seem to notice.  With great care he put the medallion back in his pocket.  Everyone waited in silence to see if he would answer.  "I'd rather wait until we meet with Dr. Kamo to explain everything.  He's been quite involved with all the developments in the last four years and he's more prepared to answer your questions than I am."  He smiled lightly.  "Right now, it'd be best overall if you used the time to reacquaint yourselves with one another and let the memories work back to where they belong.  There'll be plenty of time for answers tomorrow."

"Where is Kamo?  Is he back in Utoland?"

Kozaburo turned to look at Ken.  "No, he's currently a guest of the Conbine's Research Institute."

Ken stared at him as if he'd been struck.  "The research center?"  Where he worked?  Where he'd met Jun again?  How much, how much had they had to do with their lives these past four years?  How much was there they didn't already know about them?  Had their lives up to now been totally manipulated?  Had Jun been given a job at the institute just so they'd meet again?  Was his life as Johnny Terell a total and complete lie?

"Yes."

Ken glanced startled at Nambu's clone, not sure which, if not all of his questions he'd just answered.  Pain mixed with rising anger as he stared at the calm man before him.

"I'm hungry.  How about you guys?"  Joe stepped up and took Ken's arm pulling him away from Kozaburo.  "Ryu, do you know any good places to eat around here?"

Ryu followed after them.  "Well, I do have some food at the house, but there's a good place not far from here.  The foods really good, though nothing compared to what we got at the Snak J, of course."

Jun smiled at the obvious complement.

"If you'll let me swing by the house for a minute, I'll get cleaned up and then we can go there."  Ryu turned suddenly shy.  "Okay?"

After a round of agreement from the others, Ryu headed off toward a tan pickup parked on the other side of the small office.  Jinpei tagged along with him.

Joe purposely beat Ken to the station wagon and took his place in the front seat.  Ken frowned at this, but having no choice, unless he wanted to make an issue of it, he slipped into the back seat staying far on his side.

As Kozaburo and Jun got in, Joe's gaze latched onto the other occupant of the front.  "What's this?"  He reached over and grabbed the teddy bear.  "This must be for you, Jun, or at least for who you're carrying."  He passed the bear over with a grin.

Jun's eyes lit up at the sight of the plush bear.  She quickly took it from Joe and hugged it to herself.  "It's wonderful!"  She half turned toward Ken.  "Where did you ever find him?"

Ken looked away from her, riveting his entire attention to the back of Joe's seat.  He hadn't bought the bear, Johnny Terell had done it, and Johnny was dead.  "Nina's gift shop."  He shivered as he heard the lack of emotion in his answer.  Luckily Jun didn't ask anything else of him.

Kozaburo followed Ryu's pickup and after about five minutes turned into a gravel filled driveway next to a small lake cabin.

Ryu jumped out of his truck, waving for them to come in.  Getting out of the station wagon, Kozaburo, Joe, Jun, and Ken met Jinpei by the door and went inside.  Ken noticed with mixed feelings that Jun brought the bear in with her.

"You guys won't believe this, but Ryu's famous!"  Jinpei talked almost too fast in his excitement.  "Every single one of the resorts around here will only have their boats serviced by his company."  He scurried over to where the phone sat on a nearby counter and grabbed the yellow pages sitting there.  He flipped hurriedly through them until he found what he was looking for.  "See, he even has an advertisement in here!"  He showed them a half-page ad for ‘Tiny's Boat Repair'.  "I bet he's rich!"

"Jinpei."  Jun glanced sharply at him, stopping her ongoing inspection of Ryu's home.

Jinpei grimaced.  "Okay, I'll stop.  But for that, will you promise me you won't tell him that my name was Maurice?  He'd never let me live it down."

Roaring laughter immediately poured from somewhere behind him.  "Maurice?  Maurice?" 

Startled, Jinpei snapped around in time to see Ryu trying to double over in uncontrollable laughter.

"D--don't tell me!  Your last name is something horrid like Patootie or worse, right?"  Tears had gathered in Ryu's eyes.

Jinpei looked stricken.  "How, how did you know?"

Ryu's towel threatened to come off as he fell against the wall and pounded at it with his fist almost as if he were in agony.  Most of the others kept themselves under better control, though not by much.

Still giggling several minutes later, Ryu staggered off to get dressed.  He returned not long after, a big grin on his face and laughing tears still shining in his eyes.  Jinpei stood off alone, sulking, and immediately threw his friend a dangerously murderous look when his giggling threatened to start again.

"This is so rich."  Ryu wiped away at his eyes.  "If you guys are ready, the place is not far."  He threw a snide look in Jinpei's direction.  "All this laughing has really revved up my appetite." 

As Jinpei's look darkened, Ryu went over to him and sweeping him in his large arms and took him outside.  The others piled into the station wagon as Ryu forced Jinpei to accompany him in his truck. 

Ten minutes later, Ryu drove up into a small wooded driveway that opened up into a wide parking lot.  A big, three-storied house, looking like something out of the early 19th century stood before them, named, appropriately enough, ‘The Inn'.

Walking on up to the old fashioned southern porch, Ryu led them on through the large welcoming door.  A large fan spun lazily, giving a sense of timelessness.  Two large potted plants met them in the foyer increasing the sense of ease and lack of hurry.  They'd gone on only a few steps before a jolly looking woman wearing a large apron spotted them and immediately headed in their direction.

"Why, Tiny, what a pleasure!"  She had a thick southern accent that made the words roll off her tongue.  "You don't normally grace us with your company for lunch."

"Well, uh,"  Ryu reached up to scratch behind his neck, his face coloring slightly.  "We were all wanting to celebrate our reunion and I just knew the best place for us to go do that was here.  So here we are."  He laughed shyly.

The proprietress smiled, looking quite pleased.  Promptly, she showed them all to a large round table located near the back of the cozy establishment. 

More fans twirled slowly above them as they walked through the large dining hall.  The softly lighted area and the plants set strategically everywhere, gave an undeniable impression of blessed coolness on a hot day.

"This place is neat, Ryu."  Jinpei winked in his direction as the woman left to get them drinks.  "I think she likes you."

"Shshshshsh."  Ryu quickly glanced about him trying to make sure no one had overheard Jinpei's comment.

"Nervous are you?"  Joe teased.  "You must be making progress, huh?"

"Ah, come on you guys," Ryu pleaded.  "I've been coming here every other night for the last three months.  Please don't ruin this for me."

"Don't worry, Ryu," Jun said.  "They're both going to be good little boys--aren't you?"  She gave Joe and Jinpei a hard look, receiving purely innocent stares in return.

Any further comments that might have been made were stymied by the arrival of their waiter.  Everyone quickly decided on what they'd have and it wasn't long before the food was brought over, steam rising into the air.

Though Ken had tried to abstain from ordering, he'd been quickly overruled by the vote of his peers.  Now he stared at the soup and salad that had been brought to him, wondering how in the world he was going to make himself put it away.

"Hey, Ryu, this meatloaf is great!  It's as good as Mom's!"  Jinpei's eyes shone.  He stuffed another bite into his mouth and munched on it happily just to prove his point.

Jun stopped in mid bite.  "Mom?"  There was an odd tilt in her voice at the question.

"Oh, sure.  I guess with all that's been happening, I forgot to mention it."  Jinpei put his fork down.  "Back at the refugee camp they not only gave me a new name, but a set of parents to go with it.  Mom and Dad had lost all their children two years before in a Galactor raid."  He shrugged his small shoulders.  "I guess they figured since they'd lost their kids and I'd lost my parents by getting together we could try and make something of each other's losses."

Even Ken was momentarily brought out of his numbness at the seriousness in Jinpei's voice.

"It hasn't always been easy. But we've worked hard.  And I, I love them," Jinpei said.

Without wanting to, Ken's gaze flickered to Jun's face and saw a mixture of happiness and sadness playing on her face.

"To tell you the truth though, now that I remember everything, Mom reminds me a lot of you, neechan."  Jinpei's voice grew excited.  "I can't wait for you to meet her."

Jun smiled a little too quickly.  "Neither can I, Jinpei.  Neither can I."

Her brother let out a small sigh, as if a weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. 

"Well I can't wait to call my father and let him know I'm alive," Ryu exclaimed.  "After four years, it ought to come as a big surprise to him and my brother."

Kozaburo slowly lowered the glass he'd been about to bring to his lips and stared at Ryu.  "It'd be best if you waited until we've all had a chance to meet at the research center before you decide to make that call.  We wouldn't want to involve your father in an unnecessary breach of security."

"But, but, Hakase, would it really hurt all that much?  I'd really like for them to know I'm still alive."

Nambu's clone continued to hold Ryu's gaze.  "It would.  Just try and be patient.  It'll only be for a few days."

Ryu opened his mouth as if to argue, but finally only nodded his agreement.

Ken felt his face go blank, his eyes hard.  He held his curled fists under the table where they wouldn't be seen.  They were being given more restrictions, more manipulations.

"Hello again.  How are y'all enjoying your meal?"  The proprietress stepped up beside Ryu. 

"It's wonderful, Norma.  Everything's great!"  Ryu's face lit up as he turned to look at her.  He then stared down at his hands for a moment.  "Would, would you mind if I introduced you to my friends?"

"My, why of course not!"

Pleased, Ryu quickly made the introductions.

"Well," she said.  "I'm glad to see that Tiny has such good friends.  Seeing him here almost every night had me wondering about that just a tad."

Ryu's cheeks turned deep red and he tried to unsuccessfully hide it from them.

"When you're through with lunch, please feel free to have dessert.  It's on the house."  She gave them a big smile.

"Oh, Norma," Ryu put in, "That's not necessary!"

Jinpei's eager nodding quickly contradicted him. 

"Oh, but it is, sugah, and it's my pleasure."  Her smile had grown bigger.  "Please enjoy."  She left them, sending Ryu one long last glance before she was gone.

"Ryu, hurry up and marry her or I might just be tempted to take her from you," Jinpei quipped.  "Free dessert!"

Ryu jabbed Jinpei hard in the side. 

Almost two hours later, the group finally got up from their table to leave.  Norma happily escorted the mostly content group to the door. "Please be sure to come back, ya hear."

"We will.  We will!"  Jinpei earnestly shook Norma's hand.  Jun had to pull him away so they could go ahead and leave.

"So. What now?" Joe asked.

"We could go back to my place so I could show you around?" Ryu suggested.  "We still have a lot of catching up to do."

Jinpei got a sudden glimmer in his eyes.  "Yeah, I guess we do," he said nonchalantly.  "I mean, you don't even know neechan's pregnant yet."

"Well, yeah, that's true.  I didn't know that--that..." Ryu's eyes grew suddenly big and round as the meaning of Jinpei's words finally sank in.  "Pregnant?"

It was Jun's mistake to be standing too close to Ryu when Jinpei made his revelation.  Ryu turned on her and impulsively reached for her, hugging her hard, knocking the breath out of her.  "A baby, a baby.  You're having a baby!"

"R--Ryu. Ryu!"  Jun was half laughing as she struggled to get her breath back.

He abruptly let go of her as if having been caught holding on to a china plate he might accidentally break.  "I'm sorry!  It was just, just such a surprise," he said.  "You're the first one of us to get pregnant, and it's just so wonderful!"  His face flushed with excitement.

"Uh, Ryu, I don't think any of us ever quite had that in mind," Joe pointed out.  "Even if we could somehow get away with it."

Jinpei burst out laughing and so did Jun.  Kozaburo broke out into a grin which he quickly attempted to disguise.  Ken walked on past, unnoticed, to the station wagon.

"Ah, come on," Ryu protested. "You guys know what I meant!"

Jun took his arm smiling at him, and they started off once more toward their cars.

"Have you picked any names yet?" Ryu asked.  "Do you want a boy or a girl?  When is it due?"

Jun shook her head, at the sudden barrage of questions.  "Well, no--a boy, I think--in the early part of September."

"Well just as long as the name you pick, isn't Maurice."

Ryu took off as Jinpei snarled and came after him. 

Once they'd made it back to Ryu's home, he proudly showed them about.  Going back into the living room at the end of the tour, Ryu drew back the set of curtains lining the back wall and revealed a wide set of glass doors that looked out onto a wooden deck.  From there, they had a magnificent unimpaired view of Crystal Lake.

Rapidly opening the glass doors, he led them onto the deck so they could have their fill of what was there.

The deck extended out for over twenty feet and gave them all plenty of room to move about.  A set of stairs led from the rear of the deck down to the sparkling water below.  At the end, a small pier rose from the water, and moored to it were a thin one man sailboat and a large row boat.

"This is wonderful, Ryu," Jun said.  "You've really done well for yourself.  Your father will be so proud."

Ryu almost glowed at the praise.

Ken stayed distant as conversations sprang up between them as they tried to fill in some of the gaps of the last four years.  Mercifully, the topic of Jun and Ken's marriage wasn't brought up by either her or Joe.  Ken watched as the hours passed, feeling more and more alone.  He finally couldn't stand it anymore.

"It's past five.  Time for us to leave.  We will see each other again tomorrow."  Ken's snapped command cut across the room and overrode all the conversations.  In shock, they all turned to look at his blank face, having long ago inadvertently forgotten him.

Ken rose from the darkening corner he'd occupied most of the time and without another word headed toward the door.

"Ken, shouldn't we-"  Joe's words came to a stop as Ken went out the door never slowing.

"Neechan, what's wrong with him?" Jinpei asked.

Ken frowned barely hearing the last as he stormed around the house toward the station wagon.  What was wrong with him?  Why was everything only making him angry and numb?  Worse, what was wrong with them?  Why were they just taking everything so casually?  Didn't they understand what had been done to them?  How they'd been led?

He reached for the door handle to the station wagon and stopped as everything around him unexpectedly seemed to sway.  With a low moan, he leaned against the car and tried to catch his breath.

"Ken."

He whipped around at the voice behind him and spotted Kozaburo.  His eye twitched as he spotted the clone, a flare of anger cutting through him.  Nambu, Nambu, it was always Nambu.  Even in death he'd come back.  And hadn't everything in his life in some way or other always been manipulated by Nambu?  Ken's fists coiled at his sides.  Hatred flooded through him.  This was the man who'd kept the secret of his father hidden from him for years.  This was the man who'd now come to destroy everything he'd come to hold dear.  "Stay the hell away from me."

Kozaburo looked as if he'd struck him, but at the moment Ken just didn't care.  The others came outside and glanced in their direction, and before they could do more than perceive something was wrong, Ken sucked his anger inwards, turned from Kozaburo and got in the car.

Kozaburo didn't answer the questioning stares now aimed in his direction, but moved to get inside the car as well.  The others traded a hasty farewell with Ryu promising to get back together tomorrow after quickly exchanging phone numbers.

The drive back to town was silent and tense.

Jinpei asked to be dropped off at the university so he could pick up his car and drive it home.  Hugging Jun and giving a subdued farewell to the others, he left them so they could continue on their way.

Kozaburo dropped Joe off at his dojo, which they'd come to find was also his home.  Ken just stared out the front window as Joe got out and said nothing.  He saw him from the corner of his eye glancing in from the side window a look of growing concern on his face.  Ken in no way acknowledged it.

Once Kozaburo reached their home, Jun slipped out of the station wagon with the teddy bear in hand.  Without a word to either of them, Ken got out and headed immediately for the front door.  He heard Jun bid Kozaburo good night for the both of them.  He wondered why she even bothered.

He stepped into the house and didn't bother to turn on the lights.  He took several steps into the living room, the light from the street giving it a spectral type of look almost as if it weren't real.  Ken felt his anger rising again as the place felt foreign and indifferent to him.  That wasn't how it was supposed to be!  This was his home, dammit!  They'd destroyed everything...

The lights came on but he didn't move.  He wanted nothing more than to scream his sadness and despair and it took everything he had not to give in.

"Ken, are you all right?"

He closed his eyes, a bolt of pain coursing through him at her concern.  She'd been his wife, his wife!

"Are you still mad about last night and this morning?  Is that what this is all about?"

If it could only have been something so simple.

"Oh, I'm sorry!  I meant to apologize to you earlier, but between all that's happened today, I just never got a chance."  He heard her step closer to him.  "Couldn't we talk about it?  Please?"

Ken felt himself fraying at the edges.  Without looking at her, he walked quickly out of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

Why hadn't he answered her?  What harm could it have done?  Hadn't he been hoping for some sign from her?  What was he afraid of?  It wasn't like he'd never opened up to her before.  As Johnny Terell it had always helped him to discuss his problems with her, it had helped to put them into perspective.  Did it really make that much of a difference she was now Jun as well as Kate?  He stared in misery at the floor as he sat cross legged in the middle of the baby's room.  With a low moan, he pounded his fists onto the carpeted floor in frustration and impatience.  If only he could slow down his speeding thoughts!

Why was he acting as if everything were so different?  Could four years just disappear like that?  Where was his control?  Why was he the only one having problems dealing with all this?  He was the leader, he should be the one guiding the others not the one being the problem.  But damn it all!  Why had Nambu come?  Why had he destroyed his life?  Why?  Why?

"Johnny!"

Ken leapt to his feet cold fear shooting through him at Jun's anguish filled scream.  He rushed out the door as sudden panic clutched his throat, never having heard Jun yell like that before.

He reached their bedroom seconds later and found her doubled over on the floor.  Suddenly forgetting everything, he knelt down beside her and gently picked her up in his arms.  "Jun."  Oh, God, if he'd hurt her, if he'd somehow hurt her.

Jun's face was white, tears running unchecked down her cheeks.  As her eyes sought his in total misery, a body shaking spasm ran through her.  "My baby, my baby!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be Continued...

 

 

 

 

 

In a quiet corner of the waiting room, Ken stared blankly at a wall, his body still, his mind numb.  He'd been sitting there like this for hours, almost from the moment the ambulance had gotten Jun to the hospital. 

And though he'd done nothing, alerted no one, one by one the other members of the team had come, all knowing something had happened.  Ken bit the inside of his cheek until it bled, knowing who'd called them, knowing what it said about the last four years of his life.  His contrived life--his manipulated, watched life.

It hadn't even surprised him when the doctor had come by and informed them all that though they'd tried everything they could, they'd not been able to save the baby.  How convenient--yet another problem solved. 

Though he gave the doctor no reaction whatsoever, the man had stared at him as if pitying him from the bottom of his soul.  Then, then had come the rest.  The doctor had gone and explained to him all the different possible reasons for the miscarriage. 

High levels of stress had for years been thought to be a possible cause for miscarriages.  Ken's eyes had narrowed slightly, no doubt in his mind that in the last two days Jun'd had a lot of it.  Yet, yet it was one of the more ambiguous possible causes that most grabbed at his attention.  It was the one he had no doubt had to be the cause for it after all.

In his tight voice, the doctor had informed them that in a few cases, though hardly ever seen, miscarriage could come about due to some abnormality in the father's fertilizing sperm.

Ken had almost leapt to his feet in rage to cut the man down when he'd promptly dismissed the possibility.  Of course it had been the reason!  Couldn't any of them see that?  Were they blind?  Of course it was the cause!  It'd been his sperm--his!  He was the cause, due to the genetic damage he'd suffered as the main weapon of the Spartan.  How much more was to be destroyed by a past he had unwillingly forgotten?

By then all of them had learned he'd been the child's father.  The story had made the rounds that he and Jun had married in their other lives.  He didn't care.  But they did.  And after the doctor had gone they tried to talk to him, comfort him, even though they were filled with shock and grief.  Yet he couldn't, wouldn't let them through, totally ignoring all they tried.  It didn't matter that it would have helped them.  It didn't matter that perhaps it would have helped him.  He'd turned stubbornly away, shutting them out, staring at nothing.  Without caring, he'd only crawled deeper inside himself.

When visitors were finally allowed, Ken made no move to go see Jun.  How could he?  And though even the doctor made the effort to suggest he do so, and had told him how important it would be for both their sakes, he did nothing.

Slowly, one by one, each of the others went in and spent a few minutes with her.

Almost an hour later, Ken was aware of some flurried whispering going on behind him.  It meant nothing to him.  Minutes later, Joe sat down before him and stared into his face for a while saying nothing.  Ken just wished he'd go away.

"Why won't you go see her?  Doesn't she deserve that?"  Joe's voice was a mixture of anger and sadness wrapped in impatience.

Ken's eyes focused on him for only a moment.  "She doesn't want me to."  He snapped his mouth shut, realizing he'd spoken, before he could add that she, just like them, were only too aware of why the pregnancy had failed.

"She needs you, Ken.  You are her husband."  Joe almost spit out the words.  "She needs to know you don't blame her for this."

Ken almost laughed in pain at the irony of the statement.

"Jun needs to know you care.  Can't you see that?"  Joe's voice was growing more impatient.  "Her life and everything she thought was true has been turned inside out and now the bottom has fallen away too.  She needs something to hold onto, Ken.  She needs you."

Ken shut his eyes as his own feelings of despair and injustice bubbled up and threatening to overwhelm him.  Joe didn't understand.  He didn't!  And he wasn't sure how to make him.  What he wanted, it, it...

Stiffly, almost painfully, Ken rose from his seat.  Slowly, he left the waiting room and headed in the direction of Jun's room.  Every step of the way he felt Joe's eyes as they burned into his back.

With a staggered breath, Ken forced himself to open Jun's door.  Silently, he stepped in but went no farther than the inside of the doorway.

He could see Jun in her bed, her face looking so pale as if the life had been drained from her.  His heart cried at seeing her laying there so helplessly.  Unwanted, he felt the pain and sensed the loss he'd been trying so hard to stifle inside him and knew it was nothing compared to what hers would be over the death of their unborn child.

Ken felt trapped--he wanted nothing more than to leave yet at the same time was unable to do that now that he was there.  Even as he continued to gaze quietly upon her, Jun's eyes opened, as if sensing him, and looked up.  Caught, the two of them stared at one another in deathly silence.

Yet even as he returned her stare, her eyes betrayed her and started to water helplessly.  Ken took several steps forward, intending to do he knew not what, but stopped as he saw her face immediately harden against him.

"What do you want?"  Her voice was heavy.  "Have you come to gloat now that life has been made easier for you?  Or is this just a courtesy call, commander?"

Ken almost cringed away at the biting vehemence in her voice.  "Jun. That isn't fair..."

She sat up violently, her eyes burning with flaming, painful anger.  "Fair?  Since when has anything been fair?"

Ken tried his best not to notice the horrible wrenching sensation reaching through his heart at the pain screaming at him from her.  He had done this.  He had done this.

"I've lost my life, my husband, my baby.  I don't care anything about being fair!"

Tentatively, Ken took a step toward her.  "Jun... I--"

"Get out," she screamed.  "I've already killed your baby for you and I'm not about to give you anything else!  All you'll have now is all you've ever really wanted, and that's just the team and the Swan!"  Jun roughly tore her wedding band off her finger and hurled it at him.

Ken didn't even try to step aside, but let the ring strike him full in the face.  He didn't even allow himself the luxury of flinching as the heavy diamond ring slammed violently into his cheek.

Pain flared there and he could feel something warm pooling there, but it didn't matter.  Calmly, oh so calmly, he knelt down and picked up the ring, and gently cleaned away the blood it had taken with it.

"Get out!"

Without a word, Ken slowly turned away and reached for the door.

"I hate you, Ken Washio!  Do you hear me?  I hate you!"

He made it out of the room before his legs gave way and he tried to collapse to the floor.  He leaned wearily against the wall, the pain inside him growing.  He felt an overriding need to cry, to collapse, to just give up on everything.  His life had been destroyed by the most innocent of lies--ignorance.  But why?  He hadn't deserved this.  She hadn't deserved this!  If only Nambu hadn't...

Ken gasped his eyes growing wide as a sudden thought stirred in him and he latched onto it like a drowning man.  The thought led to another and then to a third and as he followed the chain he was able to hide again from his pain with a wall of anger.

He wanted, needed, answers.  He had to know who was really to blame for all the chaos in his life.  And he knew who had the answers!  He knew the one person who'd known everything all along.  And now, whether he liked it or not, he was going to give them to him. 

Pushing away from the wall, Ken wrapped himself in his newfound heat and purpose.  He might not be able to put back together the shambles his life had become, but he'd at least be able to give Jun some answers.

 

 

 

 

 

Joe stood up as Ken stomped past the waiting room, and frowned at the determined, unforgiving look on his face.  He also saw that his cheek was bleeding.  "Ken!"

His friend never acknowledged the call, even as Joe hurried to go after him.  He caught a glimpse of Ken as he yanked open the door to the emergency stairs.  By the time Joe made it to the door, Ken had already descended several floors as he traveled at a fast and reckless pace.

Wondering what the hell had happened, Joe shot down after him.  He'd expected some tears, maybe some angry words, but not that look.  Whatever had gone on between him and Jun couldn't have been pretty.  How could Ken be so stupid?  Yeah, he'd always kept Jun at a distance because of their jobs and responsibilities, but dammit all, fate had gotten them together anyway.  Couldn't he just accept that?  The fool!

Joe reached the first floor and glanced both ways without catching sight of Ken. On a hunch decided to head toward the cafeteria.  Running down the corridor, he reached the place just in time to watch Ken yank Nambu roughly to his feet.

"Aniki, what are you doing?  Are you crazy?"  Jinpei's voice cracked.  Ryu and Kamo stared at Ken in shock as he continued to hold Nambu by his bunched up shirt.

"I'm very tired of playing games with you."  Ken's voice dripped with rage.  "I think I've been more than patient so far, but now I've had enough!"  He jerked Kozaburo's startled face closer to his own.  "I want answers, and I want them now!"

Joe was sure he saw fear cross Nambu's eyes and that alone made him worry all the more.  Kamo held up his hands looking like a fish out of water.  "Ken, please, calm down."

"Ken, that's enough.  Let him go."  Joe reached for his arm and Ken shoved him back without even turning to glance at him.

"No!  Not until I get what I want!"  His grip tightened threateningly on Kozaburo's crumpled shirt.  Ken stared at him intently.  "You will give me what I want."

Kozaburo's face flinched before all of a sudden turning utterly calm.  "You're right.  It's time to do away with all the secrets."

The old tone of cold command acted like a bucket of water on Ken's burning anger.  He hesitantly let go of Nambu's shirt.

"I see now that I've waited way too long."

"Ko--Kozaburo, this isn't the place for this!"  Kamo came forward wringing his hands.  "You agreed!"

"In that, Kamo is right," Nambu said.

Ken's jaw hardened at the words.  Joe centered all of his attention on his friend and slowly made his way forward.  Things were getting out of hand.

"There's a place that's already been prepared back at the research center," Nambu added.  "If we could go there, I could begin immediately.  Would that be agreeable to you?"

Ken's jaw gradually relaxed.  He then stepped away from Kozaburo.  "All right."

Jinpei and Ryu visibly sighed in relief.  Joe wasn't so sure that was the thing to do yet.  Keeping close to Ken, he followed the others as everyone decided to vacate the cafeteria before anyone there could gather enough courage to ask unwanted questions.

 

 

 

 

 

Ken recognized the level of the room Dr. Kamo led them to once they'd reached the research center.  It was area Red 6, and it held the best security the installation had to offer.  It was here where all the top government research was carried out.  What had they to tell them that needed to be done in a place like this?

The room Kamo took them to had a long oval table surrounded by plush chairs.  Other than for them, it was bare, except for a strange round pedestal sitting inconspicuously in one corner. 

Kozaburo closed and bolted the door from the inside and turned on what Ken knew to be a number of sophisticated but localized electronic dampening fields which would hamper listening devices. Ken found his patience shredding though as Kozaburo took his time.  His knuckles had turned white where they gripped the back his chair, disfiguring the material.

Everyone sat down but Ken didn't follow suit.  Kozaburo met him stare for stare, still saying nothing, until Ken finally capitulated and took his seat.

"First of all, I'd like to inform the rest of you of something Ken is already aware."  Nambu's gaze traveled across the table.  Jinpei, Ryu, and even Kamo squirmed in their seats.  "You may have wondered how it is that I am here standing before you when years ago you all witnessed my execution at the hands of Egobossler."  Only Jinpei ventured a faint nod.  "The truth is, Nambu did die that day.  Irrevocably so.  I am not Nambu, I am his clone."

Ken didn't let the gasps around the room pull at him as he stared at the man with the answers he wanted.  "You're what, around twenty or more?  How long did Nambu have this nice little contingency plan?  And why weren't we told about it?"

Kozaburo's calm gaze fractured under Ken's accusing stare and all the implications of his questions.  Kamo was the one who answered the question for him.

"Actually, Kozaburo here is less than a year old.  The memories he now has of the original Nambu were given to him only a couple of months ago."

"No way!  Even now we don't have that kind of technology!"  Ken was actually surprised as it wasn't he but Jinpei who disputed Kamo's words.

"It is possible," Kamo stated.  "I built the machine myself."

Ken stared at him in disbelief.  "How?  Genetics isn't even your field.  To grow a clone, let alone accelerate it's aging, and then giving it a dead man's memories?  How could you have possibly done it?"

Kamo suddenly looked down at his clasped hands, avoiding their questioning stares.  "I--I can't really do those things.  But, I did build the machines that did them.  I just don't know how they work."  He looked at them helplessly.  "They just do."

Ken shook his head furiously in pure denial.  He was getting no answers here, only more questions!  He didn't want more questions!  He pounded his fist on the table.  "How did we survive the destruction of Sosai Zed?"

Suddenly, both Kozaburo and Kamo looked even more uncomfortable than they had before.  Slowly, Kozaburo brought out the eight sided medallion he always seemed to keep at his side.  "We've discussed this issue a number of times.  And the only possible conclusion we've been able to reach from the facts available is that somehow your escape was managed by this."  He held up the medallion.

"What?"  That came from Joe.

"But, that was hakase's," Ryu said.  "How could a piece of jewelry save our lives?"

Even as they all waited for the clone's response, a horrible light dawned in Ken's mind.  "That thing!  That's why we lost out memories!  Otherwise why would it be such a crucial part of our getting them back!"

Kozaburo's eyes met his own.  "I don't truly know.  But I concur with your assessment."

Joe stood up and leaned heavily against the thick table.  Though his manner didn't show anything out of the ordinary, his features were quite pale.  "If you have Nambu's memories as Kamo says, then tell us where he got this wonder medallion.  Did Nambu make it?"

A slight flush of panic crossed Kozaburo's features as he turned once more to glance at Kamo.  "I, I do have all of Nambu's memories.  I remember all of his experiences, even from childhood, but..."  His brow furrowed in confusion.  "But I can't remember how he got the medallion.  You see... there are holes, gaps in his memories.  One day he doesn't have the medallion and in the next he does.  I can't explain it."

Ken felt his patience snap.  He leapt to his feet.  "This is getting us nowhere!  Just tell us why you've called us back!  What is this new, world devastating threat only the five of us are fit to stop?"

Neither Nambu nor Kamo would look at him now.  It was several long heartbeats before either of them spoke.  "We don't know."

The anger, which had so far sustained him through all this, was snuffed out in that sudden unexpected blow.  Shocked, Ken collapsed back in his chair feeling as if the floor had been pulled out from under him.

"I'm sorry, this is just so hard to explain..."

"Kozaburo," Kamo said, "let me do it."  He stood up and faced the team squarely.  "Over four years ago, I--I suddenly knew where you all were even as I'd sat in my room lamenting your deaths.  Almost as if I was in a dream, I logged the orders that would allow you to be found, would strip you of your equipment, and allow you to pass through the survivor camp as only five of a large number of other victims of the war."  The engineer's sweating palms left streaks on the table's polished surface as he moved them unconsciously back and forth.  "I never questioned where the knowledge came from, I was just too happy you were alive.

"Then, almost two years ago, I whimsically found myself thinking of Nambu.  Next thing I knew, I'd grabbed up my pencils and was rapidly sketching out designs for some very sophisticated machinery.  After two months of these spurts, my curiosity finally got the better of me and so I started to build the thing.  Even as I put the first two pieces of it together, my mind suddenly knew what it would do.  I was building a giant incubator, a clone chamber, and I never had a doubt as to who it was for."  Kamo no longer looked at them, but seemed as if he were looking into another time and place.

"I don't think I've ever been as driven as I found myself back then, spurred on by the crazy belief I could somehow bring Nambu back.  Every time I finished building a piece of machinery, only then would I suddenly know what it was for.  It always seemed to me I'd known all along, but I couldn't remember it until it was ready.  Knowing where you all were was like that.  And so was the dead certainty I had to keep you hidden from humanity for a time."

No one said anything as Kamo stopped to take a deep breath.  "When to wake you, like everything else, came to me out of nowhere.  And still, it was like I'd always known the time would be now.  Every thought, every breath told me this was the thing to do."

Kozaburo took over.  "I shared these feelings as well.  And though I do not have all his memories, I am quite sure the original Nambu had things happen to him like this at one time."

Kamo moved to stand beside him.  "So unfortunately, we have no more of an idea than you do on why you've been brought back."

Ken felt Kozaburo's gaze lock on him but it meant nothing.  He only stared at the table before him in open-faced shock.  They didn't know?  He must be losing his mind.  His life had been torn apart, his wife was gone, his child was dead, and there was no why? 

Ken leaned over the table and started to laugh.  It just rolled from him in waves, he couldn't stop it.  And it was the loneliest most horrid sound he'd ever heard. 

It'd all been for no reason.

He heard one of the others move toward him and suddenly he couldn't stand the thought of being in the room with them anymore.  He had to get out, get out before his mind snapped completely and he tried to kill them all.  Before any of them had a chance to react, Ken bolted from the room and out of the building.

 

 

 

 

 

An inviting dark abyss opened up before him.  Jagged piles of quarried granite were stacked at the bottom hidden by the night's shadows.  The quarry below was quiet now, all the workmen gone home for the day, but Ken knew it was there.  On one of their dates, he and Kate had come here and had pitched rocks over the edge for fun.  He would do something very much like that again.  Ken stared longingly at the darkness below, standing atop the man made cliff.  The wind caressed him as it blew by, sending soft whispering voices into his ears.

Though the cool air soothed his burning cheeks, Ken found no relief in it.  Too many things had happened, too many things had gone wrong.  And all of it, all of it had been for nothing.

Ken took a step closer to the edge, sending rocks scattering into the darkness below.  He knew why he'd ended up here.  At this late date, he had no need to lie to himself any longer.  He had no delusions left anymore.  All he had left was this one final choice and he'd already made it the moment those fateful words had come from Kozaburo's mouth.  Nothing could be saved.  It was too late for everything.  He'd make this final choice and soon would join the bliss of oblivion.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Ken stiffened at the familiar voice.  Damn him, why was he here now?  He didn't turn around.  "Joe, why did you follow me?"

"Oh, I had a feeling you might be in the mood to go off and try something really stupid."  His tone wasn't at all kind.  "You never even once noticed me, you know.  You must be losing your edge."

Joe's ire raising barb did nothing to Ken.  He was impervious to all of that now.  "Please go.  I want to be alone."

"Why?  So you can jump guiltlessly and uselessly off to your death?"

Ken felt himself unintentionally start to glance to the side but was able to bring himself up short before he'd done it.  "You have no reason to think I'd do such a thing.  It's stupid.  Can't I, just for once, be able to spend some time by myself?"  Joe, leave me the hell alone!

"It's not worth it, Ken. There are no easy answers.  I should know.  I've been there often enough."

Ken heard him take a step forward.  He tensed not sure what to expect.

"Do you honestly believe you're the only one that's had problems adjusting to the truth?  That you're the only one that's lost something because of all this?"  Joe's voice had lowered until Ken had to strain to hear him.  "We've all lost four years of our lives, of our true selves.  Ryu led another life not even aware he had a father and a brother, both mourning for him since they thought he was dead.  He's lost all that time with them, while they've had no choice but to continue their lives without him.  And even now, though he remembers everything, he can't even try to contact them to let them know he's alive."

Ken closed his eyes trying to find a way to shut out Joe's words.  He knew what he was trying to do, but he couldn't let him.  He wouldn't.  The decision had been made.

"Jinpei lost his sister, and through it he somehow managed to pick up what he'd always wanted--his own set of parents.  But now, now that his memory's returned, he's having to face the possibility he may not be able to tell them, or worse, that now that he's finally found parents, he may have to leave them forever."

"I don't want to hear this!"  Ken covered his ears, feeling the edges of his resolve crumbling and quickly moved to take another step toward the edge of the cliff. 

Behind him, Joe had gotten a lot closer than he'd thought. Joe's hand shot out and forcefully pulled Ken back from the edge before he could do anything to stop him.

Unable to withstand Joe's enhanced strength, Ken found himself airborne.  He landed on his back fifteen feet or more away from where he'd started.

Turning the momentum to his advantage, Ken spun into a roll.  While using this to increase the distance between them, he also angled himself to head to the left, back toward the edge of the cliff.

Not to be outdone, Joe leapt after him before he'd gotten far.  Landing roughly on top of him, Joe used his greater weight to pin Ken to the ground.

"Get off me, damn you!"  Angry, Ken aimed a blow to Joe's head but found it blocked at the last moment before it could connect.  Ken then tried bucking his friend off, but couldn't manage it.  He screamed in frustration as Joe methodically wrestled his arms down and grabbed hold of his wrists.  With one hand, he pinned them up over Ken's head and nothing he did made Joe release them.  "You bastard!"

Joe stared calmly at him and resumed talking as if nothing had happened to interrupt him.  "Then there's Jun, who'd inadvertently gained a husband, a home, and a child, only to lose them all to duty.  Even though her fondest dreams had come true, both those in her current and previous lives, she had to watch as they totally came apart in front of her."

"No!"  Ken struggled harder.  He couldn't listen to this.  He couldn't let himself feel for them.  There was nothing he could do to help them, nothing!  This had nothing to do with him!

Joe's face came closer.  "Even I have lost something.  Though I've also gained a lot in return."

Ken gritted his teeth.  He didn't want to hear this.  He didn't want to hear this!

"Still, for the second time in my life, I've been robbed of my humanity."

The words pounded into him though they'd been said in the softest of whispers.  Pain flooded through Ken as he looked into his friend's eyes and saw the truth of his words mirrored there.  His heart wrenched with fresh agony as he had no choice but to face the truth of the torment Joe had had to relive for the second time as he was forced to remember that he was no longer exactly human. 

Joe's eyes cleared as they studied him and he spoke again.  "We've all lost, just as you have.  But you too have gained so much more!  For four years you lived in peace, in the serenity of ignorance of the burdens that had weighed so heavily on you before.  You found yourself a woman to love, and she you.  But she could never be more special to you than she is now. She's a woman with whom you never need hide anything, for she too shares in the shadowed past you once had!"

"No, no!  It's not true!  I don't have any of that!  Can't you see that from the beginning it was all a manipulated lie?"  Ken struggled both within and without. 

"Is it?  Is it really?" Joe asked.  "Did you stop loving Jun the instant you got your memories back?  Did what you have for four years just disappear when you realized that not only were you her husband but her commander as well?  Did you?"  Joe's face was very close to his now.  His eyes locked with his daring him to deny what he was saying.

"You don't understand!"  Ken's voice cracked in his desperation.  "I can't let myself love her.  Duty comes first, it has always come first.  My father believed this too and look what it did to my mother!  Look at what it's done to my life!"

"Ken Washio, sometime you are so blind!"  Joe stared at him in disgust.  "Don't you know you don't have to follow in your father's footsteps?  You're your own man!  Make your own damn decisions! Compromise!  You're a human being not some mindless machine!  Enjoy the fact while you still can, you bastard!"  Joe's anger hit him like a blow to the face.

"Sure, give of yourself and save the world if that's what you want, but give something to yourself too or you'll end up being useless to everyone around you, and most of all to yourself!"  Joe's face contorted as he tried to regain control of himself.  The rest of what he had to say came out as a harsh whisper.

"Self pity will get you nowhere.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  Think instead of the gifts you'll leave behind if you do this selfish thing.  The guilt, the questions, the blame--does Jun really need any more of it?  Your death would be utterly useless and totally cruel."

His eyes softened.  "Don't give the world the satisfaction.  The price is just too high.  We're needed.  We have a purpose.  It may not be as clear now as you would like, but it's still there!"

Ken had gone limp beneath him, his heart hammering in his chest.

"Do it for the rest of us if you can't do it for yourself.  But, if you still can't see what I'm trying to show you, if you still feel you can't cut this--then fuck it, go ahead and throw your sorry ass off this cliff.  And do it with my blessing!"  Joe let go of Ken's hands and got off him.  Not waiting to see what Ken would choose, Joe turned away and headed for his car over a hundred yards away.

Ken sat up, startled by the sudden change, Joe's name caught in his throat even as he battled with himself, uncertain as to whether or not he wanted him back.  Joe's words echoed mercilessly over and over in his mind even as his friend was swallowed by darkness.  The unfairness of all this still threatened to drown him, but so did the sorrow inside him for the pain that was his friends'.

The sorrow gradually overrode the unfairness as he sat on the cold ground gripped by indecision.  Could he really add more to their misery?  But he wouldn't know about it, he'd be dead!  But, Jun, my god, Jun!  She already thought the baby's death was her own fault, though he knew oh so well it was his and his alone.  Would she stupidly blame herself for his death as well?  Would the others?  That was insane!  But they would, he knew they would.  He acutely remembered his own feelings when they'd thought Joe had died at Kross Karakoram.  How much worse would it be for them this time? 

But he couldn't stand this!  He didn't want to deal with this!  Why?  Why?

Hot, bitter tears streaked down his face and once they started he couldn't stop them.  The walls he'd worked so hard and so long to build started to fall. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun bit her lip, wishing Ken would come back and see her, though she knew deep down he never would.  She still hadn't entirely reconciled herself with how she'd treated him before.  And he'd just stood there taking it from her, looking so pale and frail.  But her fear had been so high.  She'd been so sure he would blame her, so sure he'd blame her for the death of their child.  And despite all the doctor had said, she did blame herself.  She'd not been good enough, healthy enough, hadn't done enough.  And to have seen that same truth in Ken's face would have been too much to bear.

But it was all over now.  With the death of the baby the last tie to her short life as Kate Terell had been cut away.  Seeing Ken would only remind her of all she'd had, of all she'd lost.  The pain was just too much, too raw.  Maybe she didn't really want to see him after all...

She'd stay around for the others' sake, at least for a while.  She thought she'd be able to do that much.  But eventually she would leave them.  The two lives she'd had would then be over; she could start again. That would be better than the pain--this horrid hole inside her that might never go away.

Jun felt her eyes fill with tears, and she moaned in anger and despair as she felt them.  She was so tired of crying!  Yet it was all she'd done for two whole days.  Would the tears never stop?

Jun almost jumped as a soft knock at the door reverberated through the room.  Quickly, she brushed at her eyes not wanting any of the others to see her like this.  "Co--come in."

Jun couldn't keep her heart from fluttering as her gaze drifted to the opening door.  Stubbornly, she forced herself to strangle the slight, flaming hope that rose unbidden inside her.  For the hundredth time she told herself she was a fool.

The door opened all the way and all she could see where dozens and dozens of roses and a pair of legs.  Startled, Jun watched as the walking blossoms entered her room.  Once the door had closed behind them, Joe peeked out from behind the enormous bouquet.  "Good morning!"  He gave her a warm smile.

"Go--good morning."  Jun frowned.  "Are those for me?"

"Sure are!"  With a small-amused grin, Joe brought the huge floral arrangement to the side of the bed and set it on the table there.

"You really shouldn't have."  Jun was oddly warmed by the gesture.  Yet it seemed so unlike Joe.

He gave her an odd, embarrassed look.  "Ah, well.  Actually, I didn't.  I was just helping the poor overworked candy striper deliver these."

Before Jun could think to ask anything, there was another knock at her door.

"Ah, I bet that's her now."  Joe moved to open the door even as Jun leaned forward in her bed with growing curiosity.

A veritable jungle slowly squeezed itself in through the door.  At the end of the long filled cart was an obviously over taxed candy striper.  "Good morning, ma'am."  Even her smile looked tired.  "Is there anywhere in specific you'd like me to put these?"

Jun was still stunned at the large amount of colorful tropical flowers and ferns.  "I--I'm sorry, which ones do you mean?"

 "All of them, ma'am.  All of them."  The candy striper looked suddenly pained.  "And there's more downstairs."

Jun glanced in confusion at Joe as he laughed at her startled expression.

"Just go ahead and leave them there," he said.  "I'll take care of putting them around."

The blond girl sighed with relief.  "Thanks!"  Looking happier than she had moments before, she rolled the cart to one side of the room then stretched before leaving to go for the next load.

"Looks like you hit the jackpot." 

Jun couldn't take her eyes of the bewildering amount of colors.  "I, I don't understand.  You say you didn't send me these?"

"I'd love to take the credit, but..." He shrugged.

"The  who?"  Jun felt bewildered.  "Could it have been Jinpei or Ryu?  Surely it wasn't hakase."

"Why don't we find out?"  Joe reached out for a card set prominently amidst the blood red roses.  Already their scent and that of the other flowers were quickly permeating the room. 

Goading Jun on with feigned suspense, Joe took his sweet time taking out the card from its small envelope.  With infinite slowness, he opened the card and then read the contents to himself.  A disgusted twist settled on his lips even as his eyes brightened.  "Tch, I can't believe this..."

He was about to drive Jun mad.  Despite all she could do, she found her heart beating just a little fast as she waited to see what Joe had found.  "Will you just tell me what it says?  Who are they from?"

Joe made sure to stay out of reach as she impatiently reached for the card.  "Okay, okay!  Listen to this, and I quote."  Joe straightened up and stiffly held the card up before him.  Making his face as serious as possible under the circumstances, he solemnly read out the words typed within.  "To the love of my life--my greatest reason for living.  Signed--Your Secret Admirer."

He handed the card over and watched her intently as Jun held it in her hands. 

Jun's heart beat hard against her chest as she opened up the card and looked inside.  Joe had read out the contents exactly.  The words themselves were printed in gold leaving no telltale handwriting.  Yet as she reread them, Jun felt her heart wrench inside her.  On the night Johnny had proposed to her, in the park, beneath the light of the moon, he'd whispered similar words to these in her ear for her alone.

But that had been Johnny, and Johnny was dead! And for Ken, for Ken, it was too much too believe.  Too painful to hope for!

"Jun?"

Not looking at him, she crushed the card in her hands.  "I, I'd like to be alone now.  Please?"

"Is something wrong?"

Jun could feel her body shaking.  "Please."  She didn't dare look at him, she'd break down in front of him if she did.

"All right.  But let me leave you my number," he said.  "If you need anything.  Just call me, okay?"

Jun barely nodded a reply.

Joe removed a simple business card from his wallet and left it beside the roses.  He then silently took his leave.

As soon as he was gone, Jun threw the crushed card to the floor, a sob raking through her.  One followed after another, a cascade of tears staining her face.  In total misery, she turned to bury her face into her waiting pillows.
Part 3 by Maya Perez

Jun ate her dinner quickly, knowing visiting hours would be upon her soon.  Every time she caught herself looking at the clock she cursed herself for a fool.  He wouldn't come.  He'd never come.  Why did she insist on such a stupid fantasy?

Over the last several hours, Jun had slowly convinced herself that Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei had united in a conspiracy to throw her and Ken back together.  The alternative was too impossible--too painful--for her to even consider it.  It was them, she knew it was them.

Though the flowers had continued to come all the day before, she could have forgiven them.  But once the gifts had started arriving that afternoon, she knew the three of them had gone too far.  She had to stop this.  Had to stop it once and for all.  They would only end up making things worse for all of them.

Jinpei had called her earlier so she knew the three of them would be there today.  If they thought they could drag Ken with them, she knew they'd be in for a rude awakening.  But if that wasn't their plan, then so much the better.  At least all of them would be here so she could put and end to this once and for all.  Now if they'd only get here!  The sooner she could get this over with the better.

Visiting hours finally arrived and Jun found herself fretting as the three of them didn't immediately materialize. 

The still growing collection of flowers and plants was spread throughout the room, leaving room for little else.  The scent of greenery lay heavily in the room taking with it any smells that would have told someone they were in a hospital room instead of a garden.  Here and there, nestled between them, were piles of presents, some of which she'd worked herself into opening, others, which she hadn't.

Jun got up and paced though she'd been expressively forbidden from overdoing it.  Nervously, she wrapped the white silk robe more tightly about herself, one of the few things she'd received as a gift she actually had a need for.

A soft knock on the door brought her to a startled stop.  Jun ran for the bed and tried to calm herself before bidding whoever was there to enter.

Jinpei hesitantly stuck his head into the room, followed closely by a curious Ryu.  Seeing she was awake and apparently expecting them, the two of them shuffled on inside even as Joe shoved at them from behind.

"Neechan, guess what!  We have very good news, we..."  Jinpei's words trickled to a stop as he noticed all the wrapped gifts nestled in the room and the increased amounts of plants and flowers.  "Oh, wow!"

"Jun, these are beautiful," Ryu exclaimed.

Jun but her lip, frowning, knowing they shouldn't have been that surprised.

"The good news short stuff here didn't quite get out-"

"Hey!"  Jinpei stared at Joe indignantly.  Ryu tried to stifle a giggle.

The latter continued as if he weren't there at all.  "-is that we spoke to your doctor and he said you'd checked out fine today.  He's going to be releasing you tomorrow."

"Oh."  They were going to release her?  She, she hadn't thought that far yet.  She wasn't ready!  How could they let her go so soon?

"You don't mind if we pick you up, do you, neechan?"  Jinpei asked her.  "We can go celebrate!"

"I--I guess not.  Sure."  What would she do?  Where would she go?

Joe amazingly was suddenly there beside her, squeezing her hand.  "Everything will be fine."

Nothing would ever be fine again.

"Neechan, who sent you all this great stuff?  Was it Ken?"

The hope she heard in his voice hurt her.  She could say nothing.

"It could be," Joe answered. "Though whoever it is was only bold enough to put on them that he's her secret admirer."

"Really?" Ryu's eyes were bright.

Joe grinned.  "Yep, and is this guy corny."

"Stop it!  Stop it!"  Jun screamed at them, her hands bunching into fists at her sides.

Startled by her unexpected anger, all three turned to look at her with worry and confusion.

It was an act, it was an act!  "It's not going to work.  I've seen through all of you and I know what you're up to.  So you can just stop all this nonsense right now."  They shouldn't look so shocked.  Why did they look so shocked?

"Neechan, what's wrong?  What are you talking about?"  Jinpei stared at her his worry plain for all to see.

Jun bit her lip until it bled.  "This,"  she waved her arms around.  "All of this!  Ken didn't send it to me.  There's no secret admirer.  It's been you, the three of you!  Can't you see how wrong it is for you to do this to me?  That you're only leading me to more pain?"  She stared at them, begging, pleading for them to prove her accusations true.

"But, we'd never do anything to hurt you."  Ryu's voice was soft and meek.  "We love you."

"Then admit it!  Admit this is your doing."  Her nails dug into the palms of her hands.  "Tell me you did it, that you're sorry, and that you won't do it anymore!"

Joe slowly glanced at the other two in the room and then at her.  "I'm sorry, but we're not responsible for any of this," he told her calmly.  "I wish we could tell you what you want to hear, but we can't."

Jun stared at him frowning, not wanting to believe and then looked at the others.  Jinpei was staring at the floor his toe trying to dig into the carpet.  Ryu's cheeks were red and he was trying to look anywhere but where she lay.  Looking at their averted faces Jun slowly realized Joe was right--they hadn't done this.  But if that was true...  No, no, it couldn't be!  "I'm, I'm sorry."

The room turned unusually quiet after her whispered apology. 

Jinpei tried a few times to start a conversation going, but every time he looked at Jun's weary and pained face, his voice would catch in his throat and then simply die.

Jun couldn't look at them.  She felt like such an idiot.  And she was afraid, afraid of seeing the pity she knew would be there.  So instead, she played with the tie of her robe and twirled it uselessly in her trembling hands.

Eventually, not able to withstand their own discomfort and her own, Ryu and Jinpei silently left the room after giving her murmured good byes.

"Why is it so hard for you to believe he could have done this?"

Jun looked up, caught off guard, having thought Joe had left with the others.

"Are you that afraid it might be true?"

"Joe, I don't--" She started to shake her head.

"Would it really be such a bad thing?"

"Yes!"  Not looking at him, she slipped out of bed on the opposite side where he couldn't reach her.  "I, I don't love him anymore."  Her voice shook at the last and she hated herself for it.

"Then why are you afraid?  If you don't love him, his gifts can't possibly hurt you."

She turned on him.  "They're not his!"

"They are and you know it."  She couldn't read his expression.  "I thought they were from him when I read the card.  I knew it when I saw the look on your face when you read it."

The metallic taste of blood rolled over her tongue as she bit her lip again.  It was him.  If Joe thought it was, it had to be him.  But, but...  "I don't want to hurt anymore.  I hurt so much already!  I, I can't afford to give him another chance.  I can't.  I can't."

Jun doubled over, her legs giving out beneath her.  Joe rushed to her side and picked her up.  Jun clung to him.  It was all she could do to hold back the threatening flood of tears.

Gently, Joe placed her back in the bed and covered her up in her blankets.  Jun looked away, the tears still threatening her eyes.  She still didn't look at him as he pressed a glass of water into her hands and bullied her into drinking it. 

The water cooled her throat and pushed back some of the dizziness that had come upon her.  She gave the glass back to Joe, her tear filled eyes looking at his for the first time.  "Joe, I'm so afraid."

"That's all right.  So is he."

Jun looked away again not sure on whether she dared believe him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun got dressed slowly, knowing very soon, she would be leaving the only haven she could call her own for a long time to come.  Unsure of what she could expect from the future, she gently fingered the fabric of the bright, spring dress that had arrived for her that morning. 

Having finally forced herself to open every gift she'd been sent, Jun had found everything she could have ever wanted to make her hospital stay more comfortable as well as all she'd need to leave that day. 

With some trepidation, she'd stacked all the gifts on the end of her bed, still unsure as to what she was going to do with all of them.  The only thing she did know was that since the others were coming to get her, she wouldn't be forced to go back to what had been Johnny and Kate's home.  That was the last place she ever wanted to go to again.

Jun thanked Joe in her mind for the millionth time for having offered her what space he had at the dojo.  If he hadn't brought it up, she still wouldn't have gone home.  Though what she would have done instead, she had no real idea.

Dressed and packed, Jun turned on the room's TV and sat down in a chair to wait.  She stared at the plants that had come to fill so much of her room, and smiled a little, their presence having done much more for her than she could have hoped.  She wanted nothing more than to take them with her, to keep them around her as a living shield.  It was such a strange picture it hurt her inside.

At a light knock at the door, Jun felt her stomach fill with butterflies.  She got up and turned off the TV before going to answer it. 

"Good morning!"  Ryu, Jinpei, and Joe walked into the room.  Ryu and Jinpei had on big smiles, while Joe brought up the rear somewhat more reserved.

 "Good morning.  Thanks for coming."  Impulsively, she gave each of them a big, hard hug.  She wanted more than anything to dispel any unpleasantness remaining from yesterday's stupidity.  Both Jinpei and Ryu seemed to glow after the affectionate display.

"Well, we have two cars waiting for all this," Joe said.  "I'm hoping two cars will be enough."

Jinpei grimaced as he got a look at all they'd have to take away from the room.  "Neechan, you don't really want all this, do you?"

"Why?"  Asked Joe innocently.  "Are you interested in making a bid for her underwear?"

Jinpei turned a shocked look on Joe and then a betrayed one on Ryu.  "You told him!  How could you tell him!  You promised me!"

Ryu shook his head.  "No, no, I never told anyone!  If you want to collect women's underwear that's your business."

Joe laughed hard.  "Talk about hitting a target with a shot in the dark!" 

Jinpei snapped back around in panic having momentarily forgotten who else was in the room.  "Neechan, ah, it was nothing!  It was a long time ago!" 

It was more than Jun could stand.  Laughter bubbled out from her.  She hugged her brother hard.  Until that moment, she'd not been sure she would ever laugh again.  "It's all right.  I know."

"Let's grab some of this stuff and get going.  I'm sure Jun doesn't want to stay here any longer than she has to."  Joe pointed at the plants and gifts.

Jun said nothing, not really eager to go at all.

Jinpei grabbed some of the nearest plants sending Joe and Ryu dirty looks now that he was off the hook with his sister.  Ryu followed him with a few more.  Joe took hold of most of the packages and held the door open with his foot so Jun could go on out. 

In the hallway, grabbing a hold of a cart sitting there, Joe dumped all the packages he was carrying.  He gave Jun an arch look as he finally noticed that she'd grabbed a potted plant on her way out as well.  "Put it here."

 "I'm doing fine.  It isn't heavy."  Jun hoped they weren't all going to start treating like glass after all these years.

"I know, but just humor me.  Okay?"  Joe pushed the cart a little closer to her to emphasize the hint.

Giving in, she set the plant on top.  Joe followed her as they made their way to the floor's main desk. 

After spending several minutes signing necessary paperwork, and getting a brief lecture from her doctor on what she should and shouldn't do for the next several days, Jun turned away only to find a nurse and a wheelchair waiting patiently behind her.  "If you'll please take a seat, Mrs. Terell, I'll be happy to wheel you outside."

Jun tried not to flinch at the wrong name and stared at the chair with just a touch of distaste.  "Is that really necessary?  I'm quite able to walk on my own."

The nurse waited tolerantly as if this were not the first time she'd heard the particular argument.  "I'm sorry, ma'am, but it's part of the discharge procedure."

With a small sigh, Jun sat down in the wheelchair definitely not liking all the sudden babying.  If Jinpei and Ryu decided they could treat her like this as well....

Joe fell in beside her and Jun could see a small grin tugging at his lips. 

            "Asakura, if you dare make a comment, they'll be using this thing to bring you back inside."

            "My someone sure is testy today."  His grin widened into a full fledged smile.  Jun tried her best to ignore it.

            Once outside, the nurse asked Jun to please wait in the chair while Ryu went off to get his pickup truck.  Joe smoothly volunteered to stay with her, leaving Jinpei stuck with the chore of going back up with the cart for another load of plants.

            Watching her brother grumble as he left, Jun raised her hand to her mouth to hide a quickly growing smile.  Maybe leaving here really wouldn't be bad after all.

            As they waited for Ryu to show up, however, a large, white limousine exited from the multilevel garage and moved to park before them.  Not really paying much attention, Jun watched disinterestedly as an uniformed chauffeur got out of the limo and went around it heading straight for them.

            "Excuse me, ma'am, are you Mrs. Kate Terell?"

            Jun stared at Joe in confusion only to see her own emotions mirrored in his face.  "Uh, yes, I'm Kate Terell."

            The chauffeur smiled at her and after taking off his hat bowed in her direction.  "My name is Frank Drake from the Siskell's Limousine Service."

            Jun could feel her growing frown.  "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand."  She wasn't really sure she even wanted to.

            "I've been assigned to see to your needs for the next several days, ma'am.  I was also to inform you that a suite has been reserved for you at the Clairmont Hotel."

            "No, that's not right."  She shook her head lightly.  "It can't be."

            Ryu drove up his truck behind the limo and honked his horn. 

            "Jun?"  Joe looked at her questioningly.

            "I--I..."

            "The Clairmont is a heck of a lot nicer than my place," Joe said.  "If you want, we can follow you there."

            Jun bit her lip, looking at the limousine again, still not quite sure what she should do.  "I, I'll go.  But, will you ride with me?"  She grabbed hold of Joe's hand, her eyes staring questioningly into his face.  She couldn't go alone, she just couldn't.  It embarrassed her to notice that her hands were shaking.  What was she afraid of?

            "Hey, I'd be thrilled to.  It's been ages since I've had a chance to ride in a limo."  He gave her a wicked grin.  "Though I'm sure Ryu and Jinpei aren't going to be too happy about it."

            The nurse wheeled Jun to the limousine even as the chauffeur opened the door for her.  Eager to be once more under her own power, Jun quickly transferred from the chair into the car.  She left it to Joe to break the news to Ryu.

            Jun was intently staring about her in deep fascination when Joe finally joined her.  She couldn't help but be amazed at the extravagant amenities that had been crammed into such a limited space.  "I can't believe all this."

            "All of what?"  Joe asked.

            The chauffeur shut the passenger door and moved around the car to enter the driver's seat.

            "All of this."  She indicated everything around them.   "I mean, this isn't a car, it's an apartment.  It has a VCR, a TV, a radio, a refrigerator, a bar.  If it was any bigger, I'd think we were in your old trailer."

            Joe snorted.  "Heck, my trailer was never as comfortable or as well stocked as this."  He glanced appreciatively at the bar as he moved to sit across from her.

            "Do you think he's gone mad?"

            Joe shrugged, knowing whom she meant, as he moved to look into what was stored in the fridge.  "For you maybe.  Though if you'd asked me that three or four days ago, I might have had to say yes."

            Jun almost asked, tempted by the bait as she'd been meant to be, but bit down on her tongue before she could do it and make a fool of herself.

            The chauffeur eased the limousine out of the driveway and leisurely drove the streets.  It wasn't long before they reached the hotel.

            Parking the limo beneath the hotel's main archway, the chauffeur got out of the car and quickly opened Jun's door.  Hesitating a moment, Jun then extended her hand and let him help her out.  She stared at the wide glass entrance and the streaked marble columns there and felt a bolt of trepidation cut through her.

            "Ma'am, I shall be either here in the parking lot or close by.  If you need me, please call this number and I'll be here to pick you up right away."  The chauffeur extended a card to her that he'd taken from his breast pocket.

            "Th--thank you."  Jun took the card not really sure what she should do with it. 

            Joe joined her at the entrance as a screeching pick-up made it into the parking lot.  Jinpei jumped out of the passenger side and pretty much ran to catch up with them.  "A limo!  A limo!  How could you take off without-hmph--"

            A winded Ryu had rushed up beside him and clamped his large hand over Jinpei's mouth.  "Did you want us to get your stuff and take it up to your room, Jun?"  Ryu suddenly grimaced as Jinpei bit his hand with all his might.  "Ow!"

            "Mrs. Terell, please permit me to take care of that for you."  This came from the chauffeur.  "If you'll just point out the cars for me, I'll make sure everything is brought inside."

            "Su--sure."

            Jinpei eagerly pointed out to him where the stuff was.  Taking charge of a number of bellboys, the chauffeur set off to work.

            "Where'd you get that guy?  And can we keep him?"  Jinpei was grinning ear to ear.

            "Don't ask."  Joe threw him a heavy look.

            Jinpei didn't seem to notice.  "He's real handy.  I really want one!  I wonder if he does physics?"

            Ryu threatened to put his hand over his mouth again. 

"Sheesh!  Enough already!  I get the hint."  He turned to look at Jun.  "So, neechan, can we go up and look at your room now?  Please?"

Jun looked hesitantly at the glass doors again.  "Wouldn't you rather go somewhere to celebrate first?  You'd get to ride in the limo then."

Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei exchanged a set of quick devious looking glances.  "We could always do that later."  Was Joe's reply.

"None of us has ever been in a suite."  Was Ryu's.

Thinking maybe she should refuse just to spite them, Jun decided to just go ahead and get it over with.  "All right.  Let's go."

Finding herself abruptly surrounded by the three of them, Jun was quickly herded to the lobby before she could think to change her mind. 

Upon stating her name at the front desk, the clerk there immediately produced for her a key and a charming smile.  Jun got a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, and once more wondered if what they were doing was such a good idea.  Had it occurred to the three of them that maybe he was here?  Or was that why they were so eager?

Finding herself surrounded again, Joe and the others herded her to the elevators.  The clerk came along with them and personally pressed the button for the hotel's twenty third floor. 

"Are you guys sure you wouldn't rather go out?  I'm feeling a little hungry.  How about lunch?"

Joe sent her a sly look.  "You don't really think we're going to pass this up, do you?"

Jun bit her lip sure now more than ever that she'd made a mistake. 

The elevator reached the twenty third floor and the clerk got out and held the door open for them.  A broad hall curved off to either side.  The clerk led them down the right hand side passage until he came across a set of double doors colored in a light blue.  These were the first doors they'd seen since entering the floor.

Smartly opening the way for them, the clerk motioned for them to go on in.

Jinpei whistled appreciatively as they stepped into a large foyer, which opened up onto a larger room beyond.  Huge glass windows filled the back wall and curled around filling the room and the foyer with bright sunshine.

A massive glass table took up the center of the foyer and held a huge fruit basket display filled to overflowing.

Prodded deeper into the suite by the others, Jun stared in growing disbelief as the room widened out even more than she had imagined it could.  The wide room was sparsely decorated with heavy plush chairs and small couches, and with vases of flowers placed on pedestals strategically about the room.

Three doors on each side of the room led inconspicuously to other areas of the suite.

"I hope you will find everything to your satisfaction.  The kitchen has already been stocked for you convenience as requested, but if you prefer, please do not hesitate to use our excellent room service or the hotel's main restaurant on the second floor."  He smiled that charming smile again.  "If you need anything at all.  Please don't hesitate to call."

Not sure what else to do Jun started fishing in her purse for a tip.

"Please, madam, that won't be necessary.  All details of your visit have already been well taken care of.  Please enjoy your stay."  Bowing to her, he left the room, leaving the keys to the suite on the foyer table on his way out.

Jun stared after him.  "He has to be crazy..." 

None of the others heard her soft whisper as they walked about to explore the other rooms of the suite.

Later, never having left the main room of the suites for fear of what else she might see there, Jun was finally able to pull the others the rest of the way out.  Jinpei was still going on about all the marvelous virtues of the place when they found themselves seated on a nice nearby Italian restaurant.

"But did you see the view from that balcony?  And that kitchen!  The whole stinking place!  Wow!"  He turned to look at his sister as his eyes lit with an idea.  "Neechan, do you think we might be able to spend a few days with you there?  I bet Carol wouldn't dare turn me down if I told her I could get her into a place like that!"

Jun slowly shook her head.  "I'm sorry, Jinpei, but I don't think so.  I'm not planning on staying there anyway."

"What?"

Unintentionally, Jun had managed to gain all of their undivided attention.  "I think it would be wrong.  Things have just gone too far."

"But--" Jinpei began.

"That's really all I'm going to say about it."  She made sure her expression told them quite clearly the subject was not open for discussion.

The afternoon went by quickly and the subject was never brought up again.

Around six o'clock, the limousine took them all back to the Clairmont's parking lot.  Bidding each other good night, Jun watched as Ryu and Jinpei left to return to their respective homes.  She didn't miss Jinpei's last wistful glance back at the hotel as he and Ryu drove by.

Jun sighed a little sadly wondering what she was going to do with him. 

"Should we go up and get some of your things before we go?"  Joe asked her.

"No.  I'd rather not.  I just want to stay away from it all for a while."  Thinking to use the limousine for the last time, Jun had the chauffeur take them back to the hospital for Joe's car.  Joe then took her to the dojo.  She followed Joe in through the front door.

"You know I really don't have much to offer you other than a mat, some blankets, and a place to sleep."  He looked shyly over at her, which was something new Jun had never seen him do before.  "Are you really sure you want to do this?  I can still take you back."

Jun smiled lightly at his sudden concern.  "Yes, I'm sure.  Besides, you know all those trappings aren't important to me.  I think I'll feel more comfortable, more at home, here."

They removed their shoes before going on any farther.

"Okay, but don't ever say I never gave you the chance when you get that back ache or feel like having cheesecake at two in the morning."  He grinned.

As they stepped up onto the main matted room, so Joe could begin a small tour, Will ran into the room.

"Oh!  Sensei, it's you!"  He stopped, obviously relieved and quickly bowed.  Unobtrusively, he turned his head just enough to throw a glance in Jun's direction, a confused look on his face about the unexpected company.

"You're here late, Will."

The boy glanced shyly once more in Jun's direction before replying to Joe's statement.  "I know, sensei.  I'm sorry.  I, I wouldn't have been much longer."  His voice dropped.  "I was almost finished.  Since I'd not been sure when you'd be home, I took the liberty of leaving you something to eat for whenever you got back."  The boy stared at the floor, seemingly embarrassed by the admission before a stranger and perhaps thinking he'd overstepped his limit.

Joe approached the boy and then teasingly passed his hand over the Will's half curls.  "See, helpful.  What did I tell you?  Almost as good as a wife."

Jun hid her mouth behind her hand as Will turned beet red right before her eyes.

"Come on, let's go see what he left for us to munch on."  Wrapping his arm around Will's neck, Joe pulled him along with them.

The large spacious kitchen had hardly been changed since its days as a restaurant.  From the amount of large pots and pans still hanging everywhere, it gave the appearance of still functioning like one.  The large stack of dishes still drying on the racks only added to that conviction.

"So, how did the lessons go today?"  Joe let go of his student once they'd entered the kitchen so he could show them what he'd made.

"Everything went fine, Sensei... except..." Will looked worriedly up at the two of them, especially at Jun.

"Go on, Will.  She's safe."

Will turned away as he pulled on some kitchen mitts and then reached in to take something out of one of the large ovens.  "Ricky acted up again.  I think it was mostly because you weren't here and he and I are the same age and all.  I--I had to take him to the room."

Jun threw Joe a quick questioning glance.  He signaled that he'd explain later.

"Did you do it during class?"

Will almost dropped the casserole, the question catching off guard.  "No, Sensei!  It was private!  I, I asked him to stay after class saying that you'd left special instructions for him.  I didn't tell him what I wanted until everyone else had gone."

Joe nodded.  "Very good.  And?"  Both his voice and face were neutral as he asked the last.

Will adopted the same manner.  "He lost."

"And when he left?"

Will hesitated only a moment.  "I think we had a better understanding between us."

Joe nodded again, this time a small smile on his face.  "Well done.  Though don't expect this to fix all your problems with him.  Ricky is quite a stubborn one."

Will's eyes shone with the approval in Joe's voice. 

"My friend Jun here will be staying with me for a few days."  Again the shy look strayed in her direction.  "Why don't you set up a table for three and join us for dinner?  I'm sure you haven't eaten yet, and if you're already this late, I don't think they'll mind another hour or so.  I might even feel nice enough to call them and get you off the hook."

Though at first he'd looked as if he'd refuse, upon hearing the last Will's face brightened perceptively.  Nimbly, he rushed to get out plate mats and other implements to begin setting up the table.

Smiling easily, Joe led Jun back out into the hallway and then on towards his office.  Before getting there, however, he turned to one of the smaller matted rooms on the left.

"This is ‘the room'."  He shrugged.  "Actually, there are several, but when it's business they all become ‘the room'.  For tonight though, this one will be your ‘bedroom.'"  He grinned at her.

"And?"

His grin grew wider as Jun tried to imitate the tone he'd used on Will before.  "It's a disciplinary place for private ‘discussions'.  I only use them when it's absolutely necessary.  But occasionally there're just times when the egos of these kids get out of hand.  Heck, I even had a student challenge me to come in here rather than the other way around once." 

"I take it a lot of them remind you of yourself at that age?"  Jun asked a little too innocently.

"Why, what ever would make you think such a thing?"

Dinner was warm and comfortable.  Jun was surprised to discover Will was actually quite a good cook.  Though it took some doing, Jun was able to get him to feel at least semi comfortable in her presence before they were done.

After all the dishes had been cleared away, Will took his leave after Joe had made a phone call on his behalf.  Jun was quite pleased as the boy actually gave her a heartfelt good night.

Joe hunted down provisions for Jun's stay and gave her a quick tour so she could find the amenities before they bid each other good night.

Jun undressed in the dark and sneaked under the heavy blankets.  As they warmed up around her, an unwanted shiver ran down the back of her spine.  The solitude and quiet pressed in around her letting her thoughts drift.  Instead of feeling sleepy, Jun found herself uncommonly alert.  Now that she had no distractions, her mind turned stubbornly to try and comprehend Ken's seemingly inexplicable actions.

What did he want?  What did he hope to gain?  In no way had he tried to contact her since that day at the hospital.  But it was obvious he'd called to find out about her.  Otherwise how would he have known when to send the limo for her?  But what did he want?  Things should be just as he'd wanted them all along.  Could he be doing all this just to make sure she didn't desert the team?  Or could there be more to it than that?  Dare she think there could be?

Jun flipped over on her side not wanting to think anymore just to sleep.  Yet the harder she tried not to think, the more the questions intruded on her. 

Several hours later, frustrated and a little angry, Jun sat up and stared blindly at the door before her.  Why wouldn't this leave her alone?  She didn't care, it shouldn't matter!  She didn't want this!  But how else would she put aside all these horrid doubts?  Shouldn't she at least ask him?  Didn't he at least deserve that much?

Jun shook with more than cold.  Dare she do it?  Would she be willing to pay what it might cost her?  Slowly her face calmed and a look of pure determination settled in her eyes.  Not letting herself think of anything else but what she had to do, she got up and quickly dressed.  Quietly opening the door to her room, she slipped into the hallway and sneaked her way to Joe's office.  Darting in and closing the door behind her, she turned on the light and moved around the low desk to reach for the phone.

Jun dug in her purse for the card for the limousine service, but as soon as she found it she put it back, discarding the idea.  Instead, she picked up the receiver and called information.  Even as she dialed the numbers, her eyes caught sight of a set of keys sitting on the table. 

"This is the operator.  May I help you?"

"Oh, ah, yes!  I need the number for the Yellow Cab company.  Their branch in Wellington, please."

"One moment..."

A prerecorded voice suddenly clicked on the line.  "The number is ... 5 5 5--4 3 2 0...  The num--"

Jun hung up the phone still staring at the set of keys before her.  Biting her lip, she made herself look away and picked up the phone again.  Halfway through the number, however, she hung up.  Quickly, before she could change her mind, she grabbed the keys on the table. 

Searching frantically for a moment, she finally found a loose piece of paper and wrote Joe a quick note of both apology and explanation.  Leaving it folded by the corner of the phone, Jun turned off the light and left as quietly as she'd come in.

Moving silently down the hall, she eventually reached the front of the dojo.  Everything was quiet around her as she slipped on her shoes and softly opened the door to the outside. 

She'd had money for a cab, but she would have had to wait for it and the noise might wave woken Joe and brought questions she had no real way to answer.  This way she could go now, and hopefully be back before he was ever the wiser.  Or so she hoped.

Going to his car, Jun ducked inside and tried a number of keys before finding the one she needed.  Guiltily, she stared out of the midnight blue charger's front widow as the engine purred into the night a lot louder than she would have liked.

Not waiting for the car to warm up, Jun left the lot before the racket had a chance to wake up Joe.

Her resolve to face Ken and ask her questions held together all the way until she saw the house.  As she came up the lighted street and spotted the familiar driveway, recognition and pain swept over her crumbling it down as she came close. 

What was she doing here?  What did she really think this would accomplish?  Maybe he wasn't the one that was mad, maybe it'd been her all along!  The car slid slowly past the driveway.  Jun found her gaze looking into the rearview mirror even as her eyes filled with tears.  "No."

Jun stomped on the breaks bringing the car to an abrupt stop.  She wearily leaned her throbbing forehead against the steering wheel of the car and let it thrum against it.  She sat there in the car, in the middle of the road, the car idling, for several long minutes. 

"Damn it!"  Roughly bringing her head up, she wiped away at her tears and then slammed the car into reverse.  She backed the car down her old street and turned it up into her driveway.

Quickly silencing the car, Jun got out making sure to lock it behind her.  Slowly stepping on the walk, she dug into her purse for her keys, her hands shaking as they reached in.

Finding them, she took them out only to drop them once she went to put the key in the door.  Cursing softly at herself she bent down and retrieved them, and then stayed there, carefully listening for any signs that someone had heard her inside.  Tense and ready to bolt at the first sign of anything, she eventually chided herself for her overtly dramatic nervousness and got up.

Jun inserted the key into the lock and then turned it ever so slowly to minimize the amount of noise she might make.  As she found herself turning the key without effort, she suddenly realized the door wasn't locked.  She felt goose bumps rise up her arms.  Was Ken expecting her?  Was he that confident she'd come back to him?  She squelched the anger that threatened at the thought.

There was only one way to find out for sure and she knew it.  So, gingerly turning the handle on the door, she opened it and cautiously let herself inside.

Closing the door behind her, Jun stood very still in the darkness letting her eyes adjust. 

She found her breath coming in and out quickly, and took a moment to slow it down as she and the others had been taught so long ago.  Nothing lunged out at her from the darkness, but Jun nevertheless found herself feeling nervous and jumpy.  There was nothing to fear here.  Yet the feelings got no better. 

After five minutes of nothing, Jun took a deep breath and stepped farther out into the living room.  As far as she could tell, nothing had been moved, so she had no trouble navigating to the other side.  She'd made it all the way to the main hallway when she found herself hesitating.  Though she knew why she'd come here, she found now that she was here, she had no idea how to proceed.  The growing tension in the pit of her stomach did nothing to make the choices any easier.

For the second time she strongly considered forgetting the whole thing and just going back to the dojo before she got caught.  Yet she knew that if she left now, she'd never find the courage to try this again.

Glancing around in indecision, Jun felt a sudden pang as her eyes fell on the door of what would have been the baby's room.  An unstoppable wave of hopelessness and pain mixed guilt washed through at the thought of her unborn child. 

With threatening tears, all else momentarily forgotten, Jun stepped forward toward the unfinished room.

Her hands shaking almost violently, Jun still somehow managed to open the door and pushed it inwards.  Stepping inside, barely daring to breathe, she closed the door behind her.  Jun found she couldn't really see much of anything.  No street lights shone into this part of the house leaving her standing in almost total darkness.

Shaking, she reached to the side looking for the light switch.  That Ken might somehow discover her because of it was the farthest thing from her mind. 

Bumping lightly against the chest of drawers they'd brought into the room less than a week ago, Jun remembered the small lamp with the hanging balloons they'd set on top of it.  She decided to turn that on instead. 

The soft light lit up the room bringing out almost cruelly all its happy colors.  As she blinked back tears and tried to adjust, she heard something from the other side of the room. 

Glancing quickly in that direction, Jun's breath caught hard in her throat as she found the source of the sound. 

Lying on his side, partially covered by a blanket, was Ken.  He'd moved in his sleep to turn his face away from the light.

Jun rapidly quieted her speeding heart as she realized he hadn't awakened.  Forcing herself not to ponder at Ken's strange choice of sleeping quarters, she stepped back, her hand reaching behind her for the knob on the door.

Her hand finally found what she sought, but didn't turn it.  Her eyes never strayed from Ken's prone form.

Jun frowned for a moment and then let go of the knob behind her.  Hardly daring to breathe lest it alert him of her presence, she stepped gingerly away from the door and followed the wall to the left.  Her frown deepened as she was overcome by a disturbing curiosity to see her husband's hidden face.

Cautiously, ready to run at the slightest provocation, she stuck to the wall, as far away from him as she could.  She even went so far as to skirt the ends of his blanket.  Meticulously, Jun lowered herself to the ground not far from where he lay.  Not really sure what she was doing or why, she forced herself to study his sleeping face.

A part of her sensed almost immediately that something wasn't right about him.  Stubbornly, Jun told herself quickly she wasn't supposed to worry about him anymore, yet the feeling came anyway as she noticed how gaunt and pale his face had become.

Though he was sleeping, his face looked tense to her, and troubled.  She felt a sudden urge to touch him, to wake him, to ask him what was wrong.  Why it was he had such dark circles beneath his eyes.  She leaned forward and then snapped back as she became abruptly aware of what she'd been about to do.  Fear flooded through her system.  It wasn't supposed to be this way!  Just by looking at him she shouldn't be having these kind of feelings.  What about all that had happened?  What about the things he'd done? 

She thought of leaving, of running before he totally disarmed her.  She was almost at his mercy now and he was asleep!  How much worse would it be if he was awake and talking to her?  Looking at her with those gorgeous eyes of his.  Would she even get a choice then?  Would she have what it took to break it off forever if that's what she chose to do?

Jun didn't rise from her seat.  What should she do?  What should she do?

 

 

 

 

 

The room looked bright, too bright.  Still, Ken found his mind having trouble accepting the fact he might have just slept through the night.  For the last four days it'd been a trial to get any sleep at all.  Only once he'd driven himself to near exhaustion or cried himself into unconsciousness had the sweet oblivion of sleep been his for a few precious hours, and then only if he didn't dream.

Slowly, however, he came to realize two things as he lay there.  First was the fact the light around him wasn't from the morning sun.  The second was that he wasn't alone.

Not thinking, only reacting, Ken rolled away from his present position and then half stood to get a look at the intruder.  He jerked back and hit the wall, half overcome with fear, as his mind tried dealing with the incongruity of what he found there.  She was here!  It was Jun

"Hello, Ken."

Ken found he couldn't return the soft greeting, his mind still too shocked, elated, and frightened at finding her there.  Though he wanted to, he found he couldn't move.  He couldn't take his eyes off her.  She was sitting against the wall, her yellow sundress contrasting nicely with the half painted wall.  He swallowed hard.  She was really there!

"I want to talk to you."

He nodded at once, cold goose bumps rising on his chest and back.  He dared not speak, he didn't trust himself.  He knew the wrong word, the wrong tone might make this vision disappear and he'd be all alone again.

Ken watched Jun carefully as she momentarily looked away from him and bit her lip.  How he'd dreamed of this!  Dreamed and despaired.  Surely even God wasn't so cruel as to make this just a too realistic nightmare.

Her green eyes looked up in his direction again.  Ken found he couldn't read Jun's expression.  "Have I you to thank for all the gifts and flowers I received at the hospital?" She asked softly.

Ken stared at her cautiously, knowing he was on dangerous ground.  Never once fighting Galactor had he felt he had so much to lose as he did at this moment.  Again, he only dared to answer her with a nod.

"And the limousine?  The hotel?"

"Yes..." Ken didn't dare so much as blink as his answer whispered its way across the room.

"I want you to stop it."  Her voice was cold.

Ken felt a lump lodge itself in his throat even as his heart sank in hopelessness.  "Yes,  whatever you want."  And before he could stop himself.  "I'm sorry..." He looked way from her, at the carpet at his feet, not wanting to watch as she left him forever--sure this was all she'd come to ask of him.

"Tell me... tell me why, Ken."  Her voice was nearer.  He didn't dare look up.  "Why did you do all these things?  What were you hoping to accomplish?"

Ken couldn't bring himself to look at her, but he was eventually able to give her a reply.  "I, I wronged you.  I wronged you badly.  And I owed you for that.  Owed you for taking our child away.  I, I was just trying to find some way to, to try and make even a small part of it up to you."

"How?" she snapped.  "How could you ever think money could ever take away from me the death of our baby?  How could it ever possibly erase all that's gone on between us?"

Ken forced himself to look up into her anger, his jaw set to take his due like a man.  Yet his eyes glistened with tears.  "I, I never expected it to do that.  All I wanted was to at least try to make it up to you.  I'd hoped it might make things just a little more tolerable." His voice cracked.  "I didn't know what else to do!"

Jun turned her back to him and walked away.  It broke his heart to see it.  But what had he expected?  What had he honestly thought she'd do?

"So that's all you were doing?  Making it up to me?  Paying me for our time together?"

Ken turned away though he could see she wasn't looking at him.  Her questions had sent his heart racing, even with the anger there behind them.  Racing because he'd hoped for it, hoped to be able to say the one thing he couldn't even now entirely admit to himself.  "N--no."

The silence filled the room between them like a palpable wall.  Ken counted the seconds in agony, hoping she'd take the next step.  Hoping she'd push him where he couldn't go on his own.

"Then, what else were you trying to do?"

            Ken opened his mouth and nothing came.  The moment was here and yet nothing came!  He stepped back, his hands bunched before him, his eyes searching desperately over the wall of clowns and colors for the courage to go on in this toughest of battles.  "The--the gifts, the flowers, I sent them because, I sent them because I wanted you--because I wanted you to know you mean the world to me."  He turned around, needing, wanting to see her face, for good or ill as he decided to gamble it all.  Jun was standing with only her profile facing his way.  Her hands were gripping the rail of the baby crib.  "I wanted, I wanted to let you know that I, that I love you."

            She didn't react.  All he could see as she stood there was her pale face.  And suddenly, irrevocably, he knew he had lost.  He'd waited so long, and had had to live another life to love her, yet now when he thought he could, he would live with it and cherish it, he'd lost it.

            Ken felt his face crumble and the tears gather in his eyes.  He turned away not wanting to dump that on her.  Not wanting to give her any more guilt that wasn't hers to suffer through.  He started toward the door.

            "K--Ken."

He stopped, his hand on the door, his heart stuck in his throat half believing she hadn't really called for him.

"I, I need some guarantees, Ken.  I, I can't live through something like this again."

Even as his hopes had dared flared again, so were they extinguished.  His chest tightened, making it hard to breathe.  It took all he had not to break down in front of her.  "I wish.... I wish with all my heart I could do that, but, but I can't!  I don't think I can give you children.  The Spartan..." His throat tried to close up on him.  "I can't promise my damned pride, my love, my worry won't get in the way again.  All I can do is promise you, promise you I'd try, forever if that's what it took, not to let something like this happen again."

Ken felt his strength leaving him.  It was over now.  It was over.  His head banged against the door as he felt himself falling to despair.  "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Tears rolled down his face.  By telling her the truth he'd ruined any chance he might have ever had of winning her back since he'd lost her to his foolishness.  But he just couldn't lie.  There had been so many lies already.  As a tortured moan escaped his lips, Ken forced himself to act and turned the knob wanting to get away before he shamed himself any more before her.

As he moved to go, a hand at his shoulder kept him from leaving.  He didn't dare shake her hand away, but neither could he stay.  Her other hand landed on his arm and tried to turn him but he resisted.  Jun pulled harder, and he gave in, telling himself it was her due.  Still, the moment his eyes met hers, he turned his face away shamed that she could see his pain.

Mercilessly, she took his face in her hands and forced him to look at her.  He moaned again as his full agony came once more to her full view. 

Her eyes scanned his face, not letting him go, even as her own pain flashed like an open wound before his own eyes.

Ken stood absolutely still, her pain burning him, driving home what he'd done and what he'd lost.  If she wanted to kill him, he'd let her.  He wouldn't resist.  He deserved no less for his stupidity.

"Damn you!  Damn you!" 

It was too much.  He almost closed his eyes, but forced them to stay open.

Hers stared with tears into his own.  "Why won't you kiss me?"

With his face still in her hands and his eyes growing wide in dawning surprise, her lips pressed themselves against his sending a bolt of lightning to his core. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun opened her eyes, a strong feeling of warmth and contentment flowing through her.  She looked down and found Ken cradled in her arms and simultaneously felt a wave of love and fear flow through her. 

After that initial kiss, Ken had sobbed like a child and clung to her as if he'd feared she might disappear.  She'd never seen him so insecure before, so vulnerable.  It had crumbled what little resistance she'd had left.  He was hers, truly hers for the first time.  She could face the uncertainty of the future with that--she would. 

When they'd both quieted down, though, that's when the true wonder had begun.  Ken had started talking, hesitantly and somewhat muddled at first, but with more and more confidence as time went on.  He'd told her how he loved her in thirty different ways.  He told her of his daily battle during their old lives of keeping her at a distance.  He explained his reasons.  And though many of these she'd already been aware of, never had he told them to her before.  Never had he shared those fears with her before.

They'd cried often and she all the more when he explained his hurt at the loss of the Johnny Terell identity.  How he'd felt everything slowly slipping away and her loss being the greatest of all.  He'd apologized, she didn't know how many times, about the loss of their child and his certainty the fault was entirely his.  She'd felt so guilty then, for her previous feelings, her words at the hospital.  She'd never once truly blamed him, yet he'd totally blamed himself, not her. 

With the might of the ISO, he assured her he would try and see if the damage from the Spartan was reversible.  If Kozaburo couldn't find a way to stabilize his sperm, and if Jun still wanted a child--he'd held her tightly, and told her almost too softly to hear--he'd promised her if there was nothing that could be done, there were other means to give her the child she wanted.  Her egg could be fertilized with another man's sperm.  She would have her child. 

It was almost more than she could bear.

Then he'd told her of his confrontation with Nambu and Kamo.  Told her of the room with the extreme security and the lack of answers they'd given him there.  How to him, all that had happened had seemed to be for nothing.  It was with some shock and amazement that she'd listened to him as he'd told her the man she'd thought was Nambu was actually his clone.

But overshadowing all this, what had made her feel so terribly weak, was his soft confession of his attempt at suicide.  She'd trembled inside as he spoke of it, at the yearning he'd had for it, and thanked the gods over and over Joe knew Ken as well as he did.

It had all been almost too much.  But every word had only reinforced the rightness of her decision.  It had helped push the fear farther and farther back until it was almost gone.  And it had proved to her, beyond a doubt, that what Kate had had with Johnny, would be Jun's as well and more.

When he'd finally finished talking, they'd slept a while.  After she'd awakened a few hours later, she'd slowly teased him awake with kisses and they'd made love.  It'd been so different from the times before.  She was Jun, he was Ken.  It'd been the true culmination of her dreams.  And he'd been so eager to please, so desperate, still clinging to her as if unwilling to admit to himself she was really there and all this was really happening. 

Joy had poured through her in such a rush once it was over, once they lay calmly, comfortably in each others arms, she hadn't been able to help herself and had burst out laughing, tickling him without mercy until he laughed as well and again they'd ended in tears.  Then they'd made love again and this time she'd led the way.

She stared at his sleeping face now, the strange lines she'd seen on it the night before eased away and smooth.  He was hers; he was really hers.  And the wonder in that shot through her again.  Gently, she caressed his face and moved a stray strand of hair away from his face.  His eyes flickered open and Jun found herself smiling at the sight.  She watched as his eyes grew large with fear and panic until he looked up and saw her and watched both those feelings recede as their eyes met. 

"Good morning."  Jun had no real idea of what time it was, but it seemed like the thing to say.

"Good morning."  Shyly, Ken sat up and kissed her.  Jun returned it eagerly.

"Should we take a shower?" she asked.

He nodded and then helped her up.  In all this time, they'd never made it out of the baby's room.  Ken grabbed their clothes for them, but also took hold of Jun's hand and wouldn't let go.  Smiling, she led the way to their bathroom and the shower stall. 

She was the one to start the game.  Jun filled her hands with lather and started washing him, exploring his body, getting to know it, wanting to know it, washing from him the pain of the last week from his flesh.  She'd already noticed how gaunt he'd looked earlier, but now she found more proof he'd lost weight.  Ken had always been thin, even as Johnny, but now his ribs showed a little too well, his cheeks were a little too sunken, his color a little too pale.  The only other times she'd seen him look like this were after his father's death, and when they'd thought Joe had died at Kross Karakoram.  It was as if when he was in deep grief, he couldn't eat, as if his body wanted in its own way to join those he'd lost.  Well, this time, she'd be the one to take care of it for him.  "Ken?"

"Hm?"  He'd retrieved the soap to lather up for her turn.

"When was the last time you ate anything?"  She stared at him, watching his eyes grow momentarily dark as they struggled with the seemingly simple question.

"I--I don't remember.  Is it important?"

She smiled at him.  "No.  Let's hurry though--I'm starving."

As soon as their shower was over and they'd gotten dressed, she dragged him to the kitchen and gave him some juice while she scrounged around for things to make for them.  With some pride, she made Eggs Benedict for him, something she would have been afraid of spoiling a few years ago.  There were some things she'd had the time for as Kate she'd never much bothered with as Jun.  She chased those with pancakes, bacon, and hash browns and overflowed his plate even as he devoured everything in sight.  She wasn't far behind him.

The clock in the kitchen read three, but Jun wasn't too sure it was of the next day.  How long had they talked?  It seemed impossible, but she was sure more than one day had to have gone by and they'd never noticed.  That's when it dawned on her.  "Oh, shit."

"What's wrong?"  Ken's eyes looked just a little wild.

Jun had to try hard to keep from laughing and crying.  "It's Joe.  I--I stole his car to come here."  She felt her cheeks grow warm.

"Oh."  The relief in Ken's voice was obvious.

"I guess I've left him a little inconvenienced..."

"We can return it to him now if you want," he offered. 

"We probably should," she replied.  "But after the dishes get done.  I'm already in trouble, so I don't think another half hour will matter."

As they were doing the dishes, Jun noticed a pensive look work its way onto Ken's face.  Jun handed him another dish, and gave him a questioning look when he glanced over at her.  "What's on your mind?"

He looked away, and then purposely made himself look at her again. "I--I was trying to figure out what we might do next.  I don't want to have anything threaten what, what we've got, yet there's so many questions left.  Sooner or later Kozaburo and Kamo will remember what all of this is supposedly about, but..." He frowned.  "How can we get on with our lives when any minute the two of them might decide its time to disrupt it again..."

Jun felt a cold chill at the thought.  "Maybe we shouldn't wait for them."  She stared at the dish in her hands.  "That room you told me about--it had to be set up that way for more than just meetings.  Otherwise the extensive security makes no sense.  I'm thinking, maybe it has something to do with that pedestal you saw."

Ken nodded.  "I was thinking the same thing."  His eyes brightened.  "Should we take a side trip after we drop off Joe's car?"

Jun smiled, seeing some of the old confidence back in his eyes again.  "I think we should."

 

 

 

 

 

 

"That does it for today, guys."  Joe stood up straight and pulled down on his gi.  Ten boys, including Will, looked at him in disappointment.  "We'll pick up again tomorrow.  Scat or you'll be late."

Joe watched them go with a slight smile.  Over half of these boys came from the orphanage two blocks down the street.  Three and a half years ago, when he'd bought the place he'd made a deal with the orphanage to let any who wanted come for classes.  Why he'd felt the need to make such an offer at the time he hadn't know, though he understood it all better now.  He'd been surprised though when the orphanage had readily agreed and then had insisted on paying him for the services.  After seeing the kind of manipulations that had happened in Ken's role as Johnny Terell, he was no longer surprised.  The ISO had always taken care of their own--whether they liked it or not.

Sighing, Joe made his way back to his quarters.  It'd been three days--three days since Jun had left with his car.  He'd hoped she'd gone to make up with Ken.  The idiot sometimes had to be hit over the head before he learned anything, and she was the one to do it.  He'd just thought he would have heard something by now.  He'd caught himself more than once picking up the phone to try and call them, and had had to threaten Ryu and Jinpei to keep them from going any farther themselves. 

Joe showered and dressed letting the silence in the school steal over him.  He understood Ken's previous problem only too well.  He'd never taken kindly to being manipulated himself, and sometimes it seemed they'd had it happen with too high a frequency. 

Yet he'd surprised himself so far by keeping his cool.  Living as George Collins must have mellowed him out a bit--though too many questions still lay unanswered.  That life had given him a strange hate-untainted perspective, something he otherwise would have never had.  And for the first time, he truly knew there was something outside his hate.  Even four years of ignorance hadn't erased it though, but if his suspicions about why they had been awakened were true--still, it did give him something he'd never thought to hope for--a life after the killing.

"Sensei, your tea is ready."

Joe spotted Will as he passed the kitchen.  From the way the kid liked to take care of him, you'd think Joe was the helpless orphan and not the other way around.  "Thanks."  He really wasn't sure what he'd do without him. 

Joe stared at the young boy's soft face as he served him tea.  Will'd had so much anger when they'd first met.  You wouldn't think this shy boy and the one who'd challenged him back then were the same person.  Even as in some ways he'd reminded him subconsciously of himself, he realized now Will had also reminded him of Ken way back when in so many ways.  "Come here, Will."

The boy came right over.  "Yes, sensei?"

Joe snapped out and wrapped his arm around the boy's neck and brought him up close rubbing a knuckle into his head.  "You spoil me way too much kid!"  After watching him squirm a bit, Joe let him go.

Will moved quickly out of reach and frowned at him.  "I don't do any such thing, Sensei." 

Yeah, like Ken, he too sometimes had a serious streak much too wide for his own good.  Joe found himself laughing.  Will's frown deepened.  "Aw, come on, quit being a sourpuss and have some tea with me."

Will studied him a second longer as if not trusting him not to get silly again, and then nodded.  He took the opposite chair on the small table.

After they were done, he walked Will to the door.  "See you again tomorrow."

"Sure, sensei."  Will gave him a smile and started off back toward the orphanage.

Joe was about to close the door when the sound of an engine vied for his attention.  Was that...?

He watched as from the other side of the lot his car gently glided to its usual parking spot.  Right behind it was a gold Saturn that took the slip next to it.  Joe felt a grin tugging at his face in pleased surprise as he realized it was Ken and Jun.

As they got out, Jun spotted him and he saw her blush.  She said something to Ken and he glanced over in his direction.  They were talking again.  That's all Joe needed to know.  He set out for them across the lot.

"Hey, you two," he shouted.  Jun looked better than the last time he'd seen her.  She looked a lot more relaxed and a small smile seemed to hang about her lips.  Ken didn't look all that healthy, but he did look happy.  Joe wasn't sure what he'd been doing to himself to get that way, but it was obviously over now.

"Joe, I'm so sorry about the car," Jun said.  "I hope I didn't put you in too much of a bind?"

Damn but she looked happy.  Now that he'd gotten close it seemed to pour out of her pores.  Ken even more so.  He saw that unconsciously they'd joined hands.  And wasn't it about bloody time!  Not thinking about it, his own happiness for them welling inside him, Joe grabbed both of them in a heartfelt hug.  After a moment, he let them go.  "Glad to see you two finally got things worked out.  It's about damn time."

Jun blushed again, this time joined by Ken.  "Is it that obvious?"

"Hell yes!"  Before they could do anything, he'd hugged them both again.  He almost laughed as they both turned even darker shades of red.  "So, do you want to come in and tell Uncle Joe all about it?"

He watched as Jun and Ken traded quick glances.

"Actually, we were just on our way to take care of something."  Ken's blue eyes met his.  "You wouldn't be wanting to get into some mischief would you?"  Jun nodded, seconding the question.

"Why, now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind doing that one bit."  Joe grinned.  Ken and Jun grinned back.

Joe volunteered to drive so they all piled into his car.  Ken told him their destination was the research center.  Joe couldn't have hoped for a better spot.

They parked the car a block away and thanks to Ken's knowledge of the center's systems, they skirted the parking lot's security cameras and sneaked to the back to the delivery door.  As the other two kept watch, Ken swiped his override card on the security lockout and got them in. 

Joe felt an excited chill as the old skills came once more into play.  Damn, looks like he'd actually missed all the sneaking around.  He was finding it hard to keep the grin off his face.

After a short while of avoiding the people still there and overriding a number of other systems, the three of them finally made it to the conference room they'd been taken to before.  It hadn't changed from the last time Joe had seen it.  His curiosity finally got the best of him.  "So guys, why are we here?"

"Because of that."  Ken pointed to the golden pedestal at the end of the room.  "This place has the best security the center has to offer, yet other than for that thing, there's nothing here to guard."

"I see your point."  In the midst of his worry for Ken, and Nambu's and Kamo's revelations, Joe had never even noticed the thing. 

Jun locked the door into the conference room and joined the two of them as they headed toward the pedestal. 

It was about five feet wide and two feet tall.  Strangely enough, it looked metallic, almost as if it were made of gold.  There were no apparent openings into the thing.

"It doesn't look like anything..." Ken frowned as he stared at it.

"There could still be components inside," Jun said.  "Whatever it is, it might be controlled by remote."

"Do you want me to flip it over?" Joe added.  Surely there'd be a panel they could pry open underneath.

Ken nodded.  Joe moved to reach for it.

Please.  Don't.

The three of them jerked back, their gazes quickly scanning the room for the disembodied voice.

"Who's there?" Ken demanded.

Joe felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as he sensed the silent hesitation.  His gaze moved toward the pedestal again.  He grabbed a chair, ready to bash it into the thing as a soft hum abruptly filled the air.

A soft light issued from the top of the pedestal and grew in intensity as it also rose miraculously in height.  The light continued building on itself, giving an impression of almost solidity, until it reached five feet in height.  The shimmering luminescence fluxed in and out within the boundaries of the pedestal until it eventually stabilized into a humanoid figure.

Greetings, Science Ninja Team.

 "Who, or what the hell are you?"  Joe's voice came out rough as he stood poised before the pedestal the heavy chair still in his hands.  It made him vaguely uncomfortable that the strange voice sounded female, though he didn't know why.

My name is ----- A high lilting set of musical notes filled the air and seemed to also resonate in their minds.  Joe saw his own surprise mirrored in the faces of the others.

            However, you may find it easier to call me by my adopted name Aree. The figure's arms moved in a soft motion as if keeping time to her words.

             "You still haven't answered my question."  Joe felt every muscle in him coiled.  If she was what he thought she was...

            No, I am not like him.  A shimmer of blue rose through the energy figure.  I am of another race.  We are akin to one another, but very different at the same time.

            Joe felt himself grow cold all over as he realized this being, whatever and whoever it was had just read his mind.

            "You're an alien?"  Jun sounded shocked and excited at the same time.

            The figure turned toward her.  Yes.  I come from the world ---- A long varied string of musical notes followed. 

            "Why are you here?" Ken asked.  He was staring at the alien with fierce intensity.  "What do you want?"

            A pink ripple flowed through Aree.  I am here to help you.  I've been helping you.  All I want is to help you.

            Joe saw his own doubts reflected in Ken's face.  "Explain."

            The energy form looked away and then turned back to face them.  Selectro is our shame.  Her form lost cohesion and then reformed.  We came upon them in our travels, in their youth.  They were so much like us we could not help but greet them with open arms.   Her form fluctuated sporadically.

            We taught them everything we knew, hoping to swell our ranks with those so very like us.  But we were wrong.  In the end, they weren't like us at all, and we learned all this too late.  Those on Selectro were an insane race.  They coveted power and madness.  They spread out to their neighboring systems doing as they liked regardless of the life forms already living there.  They'd already destroyed two systems before we realized our error.  Aree's color dimmed until she almost wasn't visible.  It was too late to save them, any of them, but we swore we'd do what we could to stop what we'd accidentally begun.  We pushed the Selectrans back to their planet and imprisoned them there.  This was agony for us, because we don't believe in such things, but we also knew it had to be done.

            Aree's form shimmered unsteadily before them.  Later, however, we learned that a few of them had found a way to get past us.  Yet because of how much power it took to keep the others in check, we couldn't go after them to force them back.  One on one, we are no match for them, and violence is not easy for us if possible at all.  So volunteers were sent after them, hoping to offset or at least minimize whatever these escapees had in mind.  That is how I came to be here...

            Joe frowned.  Something about this didn't seem right.  "How long have you been here?  Did you just now arrive to ‘save the day'?  You're a little late."

            Several ripples of color rose through Aree's form.  I, I have been here almost from the beginning.  Sosai had only been here a span of your years when I arrived.  By then, already some humans had come to suspect all was not well.  It was one of these men that I approached and revealed myself to.  With his help and my knowledge, we worked to build a force that would be able to overcome Sosai's ambitions.  He was Kozaburo Nambu.

            Ken took a step forward.  "Then the clones' memory gaps...?"

            Yes, they are of meNambu had kept my secret well, but his clone was young and the process hard, and I wasn't yet ready to reveal myself again.  And there were other considerations...

            Ken glared at her even as Joe felt his own emotions clashing inside him.  "So you're the driving force behind the formation of the team.  You gave us the technology for the uniforms, the Fiery Phoenix, Gatcha Fencer!  You're the one responsible for the medallion.  The one responsible for the loss of our memories and the way they were brought back!  You've been behind everything that's happened to us since almost the moment of our birth and Nambu knew it all along."

            Aree was forced to duck as the chair Joe had been holding careened right past her head and smashed against the far wall.

            "You manipulating bitch!"  Joe seethed with barely checked anger.  "What gave you the right to do what you've done to us?  Who asked you to take matters into your own hands?  You're no better than Sosai ever was!"

            Aree raised her arms and crossed them before her as if trying to protect herself from Joe's emotional assault.  Her entire form wavered and changed colors towards a deep purple hue.

            "Joe!"  Jun took a half step toward him, yet it was Ken who bodily moved to stop him as he picked up another chair. 

Joe let his gaze scathe over his friend as Ken grabbed a hold of his arm.  "Let go, Ken.  You know you can't stop me if I don't want you to." 

Ken met his anger dead on.  "Where's that stable man that's been so calm since all this started?  Where's the logical mind that stopped me from foolishly jumping off to a senseless death?"  Though his voice was barely above a whisper, the words drove into Joe as if he'd shouted them.

"Think!  This is our one chance to get answers," he continued.  "Possibly even answers to questions we've lived with all our lives!  Let her talk, let her explain herself.  And if her reasons aren't satisfying enough, you'll have to beat me to get at her before I do."

Joe stared hard at his friend's face and felt a grin suddenly tug at the corner of his mouth as he realized Ken was deadly serious.  It looked like his reconciliation with Jun hadn't taken all his fire.  Relieved by that and the fact he wasn't alone, Joe slowly relaxed and set down the chair.

Aree's hues slowly returned to normal as the feelings for violence passed.  It had never been my intent to manipulate anyone.  I haven't always acted wisely, but I've done as best as I could.  We are not of the same species, and that has caused misunderstandings.  But also, the need to keep my presence secret has not always allowed for many choices...

Joe snorted at that.

"Why was it so important that you keep your presence secret?"  Jun asked.

Aree's hues darkened.  If Sosai had discovered or suspected one of my race was here, he would have done everything in his power to destroy this planet and make sure it took me with it.  Though he did go even more insane after the destruction of Selectro and did try to destroy your world, he would have actually given off his own energy to speed the process if he'd been aware I was here.

"You sure seem to think an awful lot of yourself."  Joe stared at her with contempt.

Aree wouldn't look at him.  No, you just don't understand the hatred of Selectrons.  More colors wove through her image.  If you can imagine what it would be like to have your racial prejudices magnified a thousand fold--even then it wouldn't be enough to compare to what they feel.  Our races were so similar, so close in every way that without knowing what to look for you couldn't tell us apart.  Yet though in the beginning it meant nothing to us--eventually it meant everything to them.  It didn't help we were so much more advanced than they were.  They hated us for everything, even the fact we'd come and extended ourselves to them in friendshipIt was a blight they felt had to be outdone or erased.  As I said, they were insane. 

  "Why did you take away our memories?"  Jun shivered as she spoke.  Ken walked over to her and put his arm around her protectively.

Sosai was destroyed.  And many times before his death Nambu had wished all of you had never been brought into this conflict, that you'd been able to lead the normal lives you which would have been yours if Sosai had never appeared. It had seemed a way to give you what he'd always wanted for you.  A life of your own, without the scars of death and violence...

            "Then why give us a life only to take it away?"  Joe found his question sounding slightly bitter.  Was he missing that gift of hers that much?  He shied from looking at the answer too closely.

            As if sensing all this and more Aree, turned away and seemed to almost shrink on herself.  After Sosai's death and having made sure you were safe, I left to rejoin my people.  I, like Sosai, had felt the death of his world.  It was not conceivable to me that my own kind had done something so final, so I had no idea what had truly happened.

            I went there to seek answers and to join my people again...  Her voice faded to nothing.

            After several moments of continued silence, Joe glanced at Ken and found his friend looking back at him with the same questioning look.  "What did you find?"

            Rather than through her voice, her answer came within their minds.  For a moment, all three of them weren't where they had been but were somewhere else.  The vastness of space spread all around them.  A dim sun lit the night and around it was a spread mass of gasses and dirt particles swirling in the pattern of a giant ring. 

            The image vanished leaving them where they'd been, just as Joe had started feeling a touch of panic.  He was forced to lean against the table as his mind tried to grasp what had just happened to them.

            As one, the Selectrons had pooled their energy and destroyed their own planet just so they could take us with them.  My people had never considered their hate to be so strong.  A large number of us were destroyed.  Aree's form was barely visible.  Yet even as they did this, a number of their own people absorbed some of the powers of others of their race so they could escape.  She went silent again.

            Joe pounded his fist hard on the thick table and a crack appeared beneath his hand.  "What does any of that have to do with us?"

            The Selectrons are very territorial.  Though a number of them escaped, they would never enter each other's areas unless truly desperate and they were not.  But they can sense each other's deaths.  They take them very personally; and they knew the moment Sosai was gone.  As soon as I realized what had happened at their home world, I returned, hoping what I feared wasn't true.  But I wasn't wrong.  One of the survivors has come and claimed what once belonged to Sosai.

            He will do as Sosai tried before him.  He covets and he hates.  It is all he knows.  So the Science Ninja Team is needed again.  You are needed again--and for more than before.  Since one has come to replace Sosai, there could be others, even if we are able to defeat his replacement right away.  Plans need to be made to always have a group who knows the danger, who is ever vigilant against the possible threat, and who are trained and able to take care of it if it does occur.  Only you can do what must be doneThe Earth needs you now more than everIt is the only reason why I have done what I have done.  Aree held out her arms her mental words and actions begging them to accept what they'd been told.  You are the only ones who can do this.  You are the only ones who can later help others do what you have done.

            "And how do we know you're not one of them?" Joe demanded.  It all made too much sense and he wasn't sure he wanted it to.  "How do we know this isn't all a bunch of hogwash?" 

            What would I have to gain from it?

            Joe could make no reply to that, and seemingly neither could the others. 

            "All right.  We'll believe what you say for now," Ken said.  "If we study the evidence and there is a threat, we'll do what we've been trained to do.  But if there isn't..." he left the rest of it unsaid.

            Aree nodded her understanding.

            "And we will have other questions." Jun added.

            Joe nodded as well.  "Damn right."

            I will hold nothing from you...  But you must swear to keep my existence a secret outside of the seven.  It's for your own sakes.

            "We'd best get the rest of the team here," Ken said.  "If all she's said is true--we've no time to waste.  This is our world, and we will protect it." 

            Jun reached for the phone on the table.  Joe kept his eye on the alien sure he would definitely protect it, even if it ended up being from her.

 

The End

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