Ken stared into his glass angrily. He was still furious with himself for last night’s scene. He had cancelled training, because he couldn’t stand to see Jun’s and Joe’s faces that morning, and act as if nothing had happened. But he couldn’t keep his feelings inside. He had ended up at the Snack J, and when Ryu and Jinpei were chattering away, he had broken into the conversation, announcing that Joe and Jun were now an ‘item’.
“What?” said Ryu, “You’re joshing with us, Ken.”
“Yeah!” added Jinpei, “Everyone knows that Onechan only has eyes for you, Aniki!”
“Not anymore.” growled Ken, “I saw them last night. Jun and Joe definitely have something going on.”
“But, that’s not right!” yelled Jinpei. He slammed his fist down on the bar. “He’s not good enough for her! He’s just interested in cheap thrills! I won’t have him treating Onechan like that!”
“Whoa, little guy!” said Ryu, as he gently lowered Jinpei’s fists to his sides. “Calm down, there! If you go up to Joe looking for a fight, he’s gonna pound you into the ground.”
“Ken can help me!” Jinpei cried. “You’ll do it, Aniki, won’t you? And then you’ll tell Jun that you love her, and everything can go back to the way it’s supposed to be!”
Despite himself, Ken smiled. Jinpei’s view of the world was so simple, and yet, so attractive. If only it could be that way.
“No, Jinpei. I won’t do that.” Ken replied. Jinpei and Ryu gaped at him in amazement.
“You mean, you’re just going to let Joe take your girl?” asked Ryu.
Ken gulped hard. “She was never really mine to begin with.” he said, “And if Joe’s what she really wants…”
“That’s bull, Aniki!” shouted Jinpei, “You know she’d drop everything in a second, if you just told her how you felt. I know! Ryu knows! Even Joe knows! But you’ve never told her.”
Ken hung his head. “I… I can’t, Jinpei.” he muttered. “I just can’t.”
Jinpei looked as if he didn’t know whether or not to throttle him. Ryu just gaped and desperately tried to change the conversation.
“So, uh… whatcha guys planning on doing tonight?” he asked.
Just then the door opened. The three KNT looked up to find Joe standing in the entranceway. He casually sauntered into the room, seemingly oblivious to Jinpei’s glare, Ken’s bowed head and Ryu’s open-mouthed stare.
Instead of his usual Number 2 shirt and blue jeans, he was dressed in a white shirt (with the top few buttons left open) and black pants. For Joe, this was incredibly dressed up.
“What’s up with you, Joe?” asked Ryu before he thought. Almost immediately, his face took on a sheepish look.
Joe glanced dismissively over Ken’s hunched form. “I’m taking Jun out to dinner.” he said.
Jinpei began wiping down the bar, as if it were made of Galactor agents in disguise. Ryu mumbled, “That’s nice.” and stared into his drink. Ken practically jumped off of his barstool and stalked to the other side of the room, where he hid behind the jukebox, pretending to make a selection.
It was at that moment that Jun came down the stairs. Everyone looked up, and a collective gasp went through the room. From his angle behind the jukebox, Ken was the last to see her, and his jaw dropped down to his shoes.
Jun was breathtaking. She was wearing an off-the-shoulder red dress that curved across her bosom, and showed a subtle hint of cleavage. The tight bodice gave way to a swirling skirt that clung to her legs, and ended at the knee. Black stockings encased her legs, and black high-heeled shoes gave her added height. Her hair was pulled back from her face, except for a few errant curls, artfully framing her sparkling eyes. She was elegant. She was sophisticated. She was gorgeous.
She only saw Joe. His breath caught, and it was all he could do to speak.
“Wow, Jun… that dress…” He couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
“I’ve had it for awhile.” she said, “I was planning on wearing it when Ken… well… I’m happy to be wearing it now.” She smiled at Joe and her face lit up.
Ken’s heart sank. That girl. That dress. This date. It could have been his. Maybe even could still be his. If only he could say something. But he couldn’t. He was her Commander.
She sure didn’t look like a member of his team, now.
“You look fantastic!” Joe said. He made up for his clumsy words with a graceful gesture. He gently took Jun’s hands in his own, turned them over, and brought her wrists together, placing a soft kiss between them. Jun gave a soft murmur of appreciation.
Joe offered her his arm, and they turned to go, Jinpei and Ryu still staring open-mouthed. Ryu suddenly felt like he was eavesdropping on a private conversation, and buried his gaze in his drink again. Jinpei’s face looked as though he had been unexpectedly captured by Galactor goons, despite having put up a splendid fight.
As Ken watched them leave, his heart suddenly took over. He called after them.
She turned around, surprised, and saw him. Ken walked up to her.
“Jun… I…” He paused.
‘I love you’ he thought. But the words wouldn’t come out of his mouth.
Jun put a soft hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. He saw a newfound peace there.
“It’s okay, Ken.” she said quietly. “I’m over it. You don’t have to apologize.”
She turned back, and walked out of the Snack J on Joe’s arm.
Ken stood there, stunned, his hand touching the place on his shoulder where hers had been just a moment before.
“Is that all you’re damn well gonna say?” demanded Jinpei.
“There’s nothing more to say, Jinpei.” said Ken. “I’ve lost her.”
Joe ended up taking Jun to his favorite Italian restaurant in town. It wasn’t fancy, but the food was fantastic, and the owners, an older couple, knew him well. He was there every week, after all. But tonight was different. From the moment he walked through the door, they were excited and fussing over him. Over Jun.
Jun laughed, her eyes sparkling with all of the attention.
“What’s going on, Joe? They act as if you’re a long-lost son, they haven’t seen in years!”
“Actually,” Joe grinned, “I come here almost every Friday. But this is the first time I’ve ever brought someone with me.”
Jun blushed at his words. “Then I’m honored to accompany you here, tonight.” she replied.
Joe and Jun weren’t allowed to look at the menu. Instead, a special meal was prepared for them. From beginning to end, the food was exquisite. The chefs had outdone themselves. They had been seated at a private table for two, with candles and flowers. It could not have been more charming. Normally, this kind of thing made Joe want to throw up, but tonight, it was perfect.
“Jun, you look incredible.” he said. “With your green eyes and red dress, you look like a gorgeous Christmas present, just for me.”
“Does that mean that you want to unwrap me?” she asked coquettishly.
“Not just yet…” grinned Joe mischievously. “After all, anticipation is half the fun.” He winked at her, causing a blush to rise from the roots of her hair and spread down past her shoulders.
She was saved from having to respond, by the arrival of dessert. It was a delicious-looking chocolate cake with a warm vanilla bean sauce. Joe dug in eagerly.
“So am I on this date with Ryu, then?” Jun laughed. She saw a smudge of vanilla on his cheek.
“Here…” she said, as she reached over and wiped it off. Joe caught her hand and brought it to his mouth. Slowly he licked the vanilla off of her finger. She was entirely focused on the feel of his tongue against her skin. When he let her hand go she held it there, suspended in front of his face, for a few seconds, before returning it to her lap. Her demeanor was demure, but her face betrayed her excitement. Joe smiled wolfishly at her, before breaking out in an amused laugh at her response.
After dinner, they decided to go to a movie. Jun wasn’t even sure which film it was. What she did know, was that Joe had gotten some buttered popcorn.
Joe insisted on holding the popcorn bucket himself. Jun had thought he was just being greedy, but as soon as the lights went down he started to feed it to her, one piece at a time. After awhile, Jun decided that two could play his game. She started licking the butter from his fingers. Once he held his fingers at her mouth slightly too long, and she nipped him lightly with her teeth. She was pleased to see him jump in his seat.
They exited the movie laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Jun couldn’t remember when she had felt so good. Somehow, when she was constantly fighting Galactor, she forgot what she was fighting for. It was for warm nights and pleasant times, just like this. It was nice to be normal, just for once.
When they got back to Joe’s car, neither one of them wanted the evening to end. But they were both too embarrassed to suggest going home together.
“Let’s go out to the beach.” suggested Joe. It was the perfect solution.
Fortunately, Joe had a blanket in the trunk of his car for them to sit on. The night was warm, and on impulse Jun slipped off her shoes and stockings, while Joe was driving. Joe nearly got into an accident, when a sideways glance showed him a glimmer of white thighs in the darkness. He saw Jun’s legs almost every day, when she was in Birdstyle, but somehow this was different.
When they arrived, she ran out of the car, laughing and twirling on the sand. Joe quickly followed her, tossing the blanket onto the ground, and then capturing her waist with his arm. He spun her around and kissed her.
“Mmmmm… I’ve been wanting to do that all night.” he breathed.
Jun giggled. “This is perfect, Joe. Everything tonight has been perfect. I wish it would never end!” She laughed again as Joe pulled her down next to him on the blanket.
The only illumination was the moon, but it was waxing close to full, and the moonlight was strong enough to set Jun’s hair aglow. She looked almost ethereal with a cloud of silvery light surrounding her head.
“You’re so beautiful, Jun.” Joe said, “I can hardly believe that you’re here, with me.”
Jun looked at him and smiled. “I’m exactly where I want to be.” She met his mouth with a long kiss.
The waves crashed and rolled as they held each other, exchanging slow kisses on the sand. Joe couldn’t remember ever being so happy.
Eventually, Jun sighed. “I really should get home.” she said. “I think this is a lot for Jinpei to process, and I don’t want to concern him unnecessarily.”
“There’s no need to rush anything.” replied Joe. He looked through Jun’s eyes and right into her heart. “We can take all the time we want.” Jun nodded silently.
He helped her up and took her back to the car.
When they got back to the Snack J, Joe walked her to the door. He couldn’t find the words to express what he was thinking.
“Tonight was…” he started.
“I know.” she said, smiling. And strangely enough, Joe felt that Jun knew exactly what he was thinking.
She unlocked the door and opened it. Joe turned her gently and placed a lingering kiss on her lips.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” he said. And then he was gone.
Ken watched silently in the dark room. Jinpei had let him stay while he finished his drink, but long after he had drained his glass, he had sat in a Snack J booth, his mind conjuring up images of Joe and Jun together. He saw Joe kiss her goodnight. He saw Jun walking dreamily to the stairs, shoes and stockings in her hand, her hair in charming disarray. She was walking on a cloud, and didn’t even notice him there.
Ken knew it was over. Once she was upstairs, he quietly left the Snack J.
The next morning, Ken was woken up by Nambu’s call to launch the God Phoenix. Galactor’s new mecha was attacking Kantora City. He contacted the others, and within minutes they were making their way to the scene of the disaster.
Kantora City was the largest metropolitan area in this part of the world. It was also the headquarters for the last remaining vestiges of the ISO’s Mantle Project. Galactor’s attacks on Mantle Project installations had been harmful, but Kantora City held the majority of the data that was being used for World Peace.
As they approached the city, the God Phoenix’s viewscreen showed the mecha dropping deadly bombs on populated areas. It looked like a…
“What is that?” asked Ken
“I think it’s a… chicken…” Ryu answered.
“Galactor’s really lost it this time!” Jinpei quipped.
”Well, you could look at it as a compliment.” drawled Joe, “It is a bird after all. Perhaps, they think that’s what it will take to defeat us!”
“Those bombs do look like eggs.” stated Jun.
“So, Joe,” queried Ken, “do you think we should blast it with some Bird Missiles?”
“You don’t have to ask me twice!” responded Joe. With practiced expertise he suspended his finger briefly over the red missile-launcher button, before depressing it a few times, as he targeted the mecha.
As the resulting explosions cleared, the KNT were surprised to see that they had had no effect on the mecha chicken.
“Damnit!” shouted Joe. He pounded his fist on the control panel.
“I don’t believe it!” said Ken. He pounded his fist into his other hand.
“Actually…” said Jun, “it’s not entirely unexpected.”
Everyone turned to look at her. Jun quickly explained.
“Well, since we keep destroying Galactor’s mechas, they’re forced to keep building newer and better ones. We almost never upgrade our Bird Missiles, so eventually, you would assume that their effectiveness would decrease…”
“Enough speculation, Jun!” Ken said sharply. “We need solutions! We have to destroy that thing before those egg bombs obliterate the city, and what’s left of the Mantle Project!”
Jun looked miffed, but responded professionally. “Well, according to my analysis, we can’t destroy it from the outside, but…”
“We can destroy it from the inside!” shouted Joe.
“Good thinking, Jun!” complimented Ken. “Joe, Jun, Jinpei, you’re with me. Ryu…”
“I know, I know.” Ryu said, “I’m on pickup duty. Again.”
“Just don’t start napping, big guy!” said Ken, as he winked at the Owl.
The four KNT left the cockpit of the God Phoenix, and stood on its outer hull, waiting for the right moment. Ken spotted a hatch behind the chicken’s left wing and they all leapt onto the mecha.
Whhhssst! Jinpei landed, just as Ken and Joe pulled the hatch open. They all crept inside.
After dispatching a few green-suited goons, they found a computer room. Jun accessed the chicken’s main database, as the others dealt with the soldiers in the room. When they had finished, Jun was ready with her report.
“Ken,” she began, “there is no self-destruct mechanism on this thing.”
“What?” shouted Jinpei, “There’s always a self-destruct mechanism!”
“Not this time.” responded Jun. “This thing has been brilliantly designed. And it turns out, that even if we manage to set off our explosives in here, there are bulkheads all over the mecha, that prevent damage from spreading to other parts of the ship.”
Joe gave her a quizzical look. “So, you’re saying that there’s no way to destroy this thing?”
“No.” said Jun. “There are enough explosives on board to completely destroy this chicken.”
“The egg bombs!” said Ken.
“Yes. The launch bay has over one hundred of those things. I could trigger one to go off, and it would ignite the others, causing an explosion big enough to destroy the mecha.”
“Okay, Jun.” Ken approved, “You set the timer and we’ll guard you.”
Ken saw the serious look in Jun’s eyes as she spoke. “I wasn’t kidding, when I said that this thing was brilliantly designed. The eggs are too. Our explosives aren’t enough to set them off. They have to be manually triggered.”
“How long after triggering, do they go off?” asked Joe quietly.
“3 seconds…” echoed Ken. He was afraid he knew what Jun was thinking.
“But, Jun!” cried Jinpei, “If you trigger a bomb yourself, then you won’t have enough time to…”
“I know.” interrupted Jun. “But I don’t see another way. Does anyone else have any other suggestions?”
There was silence.
“Jun, you can’t do this!” said Jinpei urgently.
“I agree.” said Ken firmly. He had thought he had sacrificed her once before, and he knew he could never go through that again.
“I don’t think the millions of people in Kantora City, or the billions whose lives would be saved by the Mantle Project, would agree, Ken.” Jun responded hotly.
Ken had an anguished look in his eyes. “But I… we… can’t sacrifice you, Jun.”
“I always knew, I could die in the line of duty.” said Jun quietly. “At least this way, I’ll take down Galactor with me. Maybe Katse is even on board. He won’t have enough time to get to an escape pod.” She stared at him grimly. “You all go back to the God Phoenix, and I’ll make my way to the launch bay.”
“No!” said Ken, a little more forcefully than he had intended. “I won’t let you do this!”
“Stop, Aniki.” said Jinpei. “She’s right. She has to go. She’s the only one who can do this.”
Ken glared angrily at Jinpei. They both looked at Joe.
Joe took a deep breath and looked at Jun.
“Do what you have to do, Jun.” he said softly.
She nodded at the Condor. “I’ll give you all five minutes to get off of this thing, before I set off the bomb.” she said, before she slipped out of the room.
The remaining three KNT looked at each other helplessly for a moment, before they ran back to the hatch.
Exactly five minutes (and three seconds) later, they were back on the God Phoenix, staring at the incredible explosion on the viewscreen. The mecha chicken’s body had been practically vaporized, with the force of the explosion.
“Jun!” screamed Joe in anguish.
Ken turned angrily towards his teammate. “I can’t believe, you let her do that!” he yelled. He looked ready to slug the Condor.
“Duty comes first, Ken… you of all people should know that.” said Joe grimly. His cold gaze forced Ken to avert his eyes.
“What’s that?” asked Jinpei excitedly as he pointed to the screen.
Berg Katse’s escape pod (the chicken’s beak, or was it the wattle?) streaked off into the distance, but that wasn’t what Jinpei was looking at. In the opposite direction, a small white shape glided down to the top of a skyscraper, in Kantora City’s financial district. As they watched, they saw the remaining pieces of the mecha rain down. The Swan leapt from rooftop to rooftop, narrowly avoiding the falling fireballs.
“Get out there now, Jinpei!” commanded Ken.
“Roger!” shouted Jinpei. He grinned at Ken as he raced off.
Ryu, Joe and Ken watched, as the G-4 mecha maneuvered through the falling debris, to the Swan. Once she climbed onboard, they all let out a collective sigh of relief. The G-4 made its way back to the God Phoenix.
The moment Jun and Jinpei entered the cockpit, Joe rushed to Jun’s side, and enveloped her in a fierce embrace. Jinpei looked as if he was ashamed for ever doubting Joe’s motives, where Jun was concerned.
“How did you escape?” asked Joe.
Jun smiled. “While I was waiting for you guys to leave, I came across a lab, where Galactor was analyzing this.” she explained. She pinched her arm, and a small sheen caught Joe’s eye, between her thumb and her arm.
“A protective suit?” asked Joe.
“To be precise, the same suit I was wearing, when the Jigokiller swallowed me. Galactor took it from me then, and had planned on studying it. I guess they didn’t discover much, since it was still in their lab. So I put it on, and between that, and my Birdstyle uniform, I was able to withstand enough of the blast to jump out of the mecha, before it completely exploded.”
She shook her singed feathers. “Nambu’s going to kill me, when I explain that he’ll have to replace my wings!” she laughed.
Joe searched for the right words. “Jun, I always knew you were brilliant. But this time… this time I am truly grateful for your mind!”
And then he kissed her.
Ken did his best not to look at the Swan and Condor, as the God Phoenix returned to the Crescent Base. He could barely face up to the shame he felt inside. He had always felt… no, he had always known, that if he got involved with Jun, their personal feelings could compromise a mission. That they could fail because of it. This was what had always kept him from telling her how he felt.
Instead, he had let Joe worm his way into Jun’s heart. Yet today, on the mission, they had been quiet and professional. There had been no evidence of their ‘relationship’ until after the mission was over. It had been Joe who had told her to go and destroy the mecha. It had been he, Ken, who had tried to hold her back, and prevent the mecha’s destruction.
He was the one whose performance had been affected, by his feelings for Jun. G-2 and G-3 had both been more professional than he. Did he even deserve to be G-1? Anger and shame filled his heart. Galactor would be defeated one day. And then… then he could tell Jun how he felt. Even if it was too late, at least then he would be able to ease this burden on his soul.