This was originally written as three separate fics, and was my first 'real' fic. Since the three stories flow so well together, I have put them all in one fic for the purposes of this archive.
1. Discovery - Part 1 by TransmuteJun
2. Discovery - Part 2 by TransmuteJun
3. Recovery - Part 1 by TransmuteJun
4. Recovery - Part 2 by TransmuteJun
5. Reconciliation - Part 1 by TransmuteJun
6. Reconciliation - Part 2 by TransmuteJun
7. Epilogue by TransmuteJun
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No profit is being made. No copyright infringement is intended.
The hour was late. Or was it early? Either way, Joe knew he should be getting home. But he also knew he had had one too many beers to drive. He didn’t normally let himself drink so much, but he had downed a few in a rush of anger.
Ken had been in the Snack J as well, and as usual hadn’t paid his tab. Jun had served him everything he asked for, yet he had barely glanced her way all night, talking instead to Ryu and Jinpei. It was pretty obvious that Jun had gone out of her way to be noticed, and yet Ken seemed intent on not noticing. He purposely avoided Jun’s gaze, and her attempts at conversation, and didn’t see the tears that welled up in her eyes from time to time.
Joe just sat in the corner, pretending to desire his usual solitude. But in reality, he didn’t want to go near Ken, because he knew he would slug him. It angered him that Ken treated her like that. Jun was a wonderful girl. Joe loved her like a …. well, he knew she deserved better.
In his drunken fog, Joe made up his mind. He was going to get Ken to see Jun in a whole new light. Whether or not he wanted to.
The next morning the KNT were training in Birdstyle at their special facility at the Crescent Base. Ken had felt that their fighting techniques were getting a little too ‘loose’, and he and Nambu had ordered everyone to attend a two day ‘refresher’ session. Everyone groaned at that. No one liked to stay overnight at the Base if they could help it. Their quarters there were tiny and sparse, not to mention it took them away from their precious ‘normal’ lives. So no one (not even Ken) was in the best of moods. To top if off, Joe had to hide his nagging hangover, lest he subject himself to another lecture on ‘healthy habits’ from Ken.
Fortunately, Joe seemed to be performing within Ken’s acceptable range. Toward the end of the day, he and Jun sparred while Ken looked on, nodded, and dismissed them for a break. It had been a long day, and Joe hoped that was the end of the session. He was ready for a long rest.
Ken went off to work with Jinpei and Ryu, while Jun slumped on the floor next to Joe.
“Wow. What’s gotten into him?” asked Jun, “You’d think he was expecting the end of the world at any moment!”
“Well that is his job as Commander.” replied Joe sarcastically as he threw himself down next to her, “He has to keep us ready to fight Katse, and a horde of Galactor goons, at any moment.” He angrily ripped off his gloves and tossed them into the corner of the room.
“I know….” sighed Jun, “but I’m just exhausted. I was up late last night closing the Snack J. We did well, for a change, and it would have been nice to be open tonight too.” She took off her helmet and shook her head to clear the cobwebs out of her brain. She really needed some sleep. She leaned against the wall but felt herself sliding down it.
“Here.” said Joe. He propped her up and put his arm around her. She laid her head on his shoulder.
“Mmmmmm, this is nice. Thanks.” she murmured, “Much more comfy than that torture device they call a bed around here.”
Joe laughed. It was a little louder than he had intended. He noticed Ken’s head turn quickly towards them, his blue eyes snapping with annoyance.
Suddenly Joe got an idea: an incredibly wicked, yet satisfying idea. One that would both accomplish his goal, and serve to irritate the hell out of the Eagle, at the same time. He bent his head and whispered in Jun’s ear.
“I have an idea to get Ken to notice you.” Jun was startled but Joe kept her calm by breathing into her ear. “Shhhhh, don’t show any surprise. Just let him look.” He twirled a lock of her hair with his finger.
Before Jun could process what Joe was talking about, she felt his lips on hers. It was a flutter of feeling that brushed by her mouth. And it was not entirely unpleasant. In fact…
Before she could finish the thought, Joe kissed her again. She was amazed at the finesse that kept him from knocking his bird helmet against her head, but even more so at the jolt she felt inside. This kiss was not a flutter. It was an explosion inside her chest.
Joe was just as surprised. He had just intended to kiss Jun once, to make Ken envious. But the electric current that sparked through him with that brief contact had him kissing her again, and for real this time. As the kiss ended, he pulled back and looked into her emerald eyes. He found his own surprise and excitement mirrored there.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” raged Ken as shook his fist at their faces. ‘He must have made it across the room in about 2 seconds flat.’ thought Joe. He grinned artfully up at his Commander.
“Cool your jets, Ken! We’re on a break, remember?”
Jun giggled in his ear and her amusement spurred him on. “I didn’t realize that we were still being judged on our technique.”
“Well….” sputtered Ken, “You’re not on break anymore. We’re going through the drills again!”
“Again?” groaned Ryu, walking up. Apparently he and Jinpei had missed the entire exchange, but for the last part. “I thought you said we were done for today, Ken!”
“Yeah, Aniki! I’m beat!” complained Jinpei, as he threw himself on the floor next to Jun. “You promised that was our last one! Can’t we just start again tomorrow morning?”
Faced with the rebellion of his entire team, Ken relented and the KNT practically ran out of the room.
“What was that all about, Joe?” asked Jun, once they were on their way to their quarters. “Just what, exactly, are you trying to accomplish?” She looked at him pointedly.
Joe whistled nonchalantly. “I’m just trying to make Ken jealous.” he grinned. “He certainly hustled over to break us up, the moment he saw what we were doing, didn’t he?”
Jun frowned as she chewed on that thought.
“Meet me in the rec room after your shower,” Joe said, “and we can plot some more.”
Jun shrugged. Why not? It wasn't like she had anything to lose.
Ken was fuming. How dare Joe treat his training session as some kind of pickup game! He didn’t want to think about the anger he had felt when he realized that Joe was kissing Jun. It was hard enough to pretend he didn’t notice her as a woman, but to have Joe throw that in his face made Ken want to smash a wall. Yet he knew, as Commander, he had to keep his cool. Just as being Commander made it impossible to reach out to Jun.
He showered in cold water, yet he was still hot and bothered, as he dried off. He had to know what was going on. Likely, Joe was just playing some kind of game, and it was nothing. He had over-reacted.
Ken had to know. He sat down at the computer terminal in his quarters. He wasn’t as good at hacking into ISO systems as Jun was, but after a little while he found that he could access security camera feeds for the building. He began methodically looking at each channel, searching for any sign of the Condor or the Swan.
Jun walked into the rec room. It was empty. She sighed. She was tired and was really more interested in falling into bed, than Joe’s little schemes. She lay down on the massive couch and was preparing to nap (at least it was more comfy than the torturous bed) when Joe entered.
“There you are!” he smiled as he sauntered into the room. Expertly he jumped up and landed on the couch right next to Jun, so that they were lying next to each other. He was obviously in a good mood.
“What’s gotten you so chipper?” Jun asked sourly. She lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling, trying to ignore his infectious grin. “It’s not that stupid little stunt you pulled at practice, is it?”
Joe rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “Of course it is! Ken’s face was priceless!”
“It was a dumb idea. What makes you think Ken will notice me because of that? All he did was get angry at you.” Jun responded.
“Yeah, but think about why he was angry with me.” Joe chuckled, “He couldn’t bear to see anyone looking at you that way but him.”
Ken had found what he was looking for. Jun was lying on the couch in the rec room. He saw Joe walk in and leap up next to her. Now where was that damned volume control? He couldn’t hear anything!
He let his breath out in a hiss of frustration as he located the control and began to listen in.
“But, Joe,” sighed Jun, “Ken doesn’t look at me that way. He doesn’t think any more of me, than he does of anyone else on the team. Less even. At least he hangs out with you guys. God knows I’ve tried, but he never notices me.” A silent tear slid down her cheek. “I don’t think… I don’t think I’m good enough for him.”
“What are you talking about?” Joe sputtered. “You, not good enough for him? If anything, it’s the other way around! He’s not good enough for you!”
Jun gave an unladylike snort of disbelief. But she also gave a small smile.
That was good enough for Joe. “Jun, you are everything a guy could want. You’re smart, you’re strong, you’re compassionate…” He looked into her eyes and something inside of him lit up.
“And you’re beautiful…” he said softly. He traced her face from her hairline, down to her jaw, with a gentle finger. Jun drew in her breath slowly. She didn’t know what had happened but suddenly the tone of their conversation had taken a very different turn.
Joe slowly leaned down and looked at Jun. He drank in the shape of her eyes, her nose, her mouth as he softly caressed her face with his hand. Jun trembled, uncertain of what she wanted to happen next. Almost unconsciously she touched Joe’s hand and pressed it to her cheek.
Joe touched his lips softly to Jun’s. To his surprise, she met him halfway and wound her arms around his neck. Restraint gone, Joe kissed her again. He was carried away with completely unexpected sensations.
Staring at his monitor, Ken fumed. How dare Joe move in on his territory! He wanted to beat that smile off of the Condor’s face, but he found he couldn’t move. He stared at screen; his eyes wide and his mouth dry.
Jun couldn’t believe it. What had possessed her to put her arms around Joe’s neck? But it certainly had produced results! And not unwelcome ones…
Joe finished the kiss and searched Jun’s eyes for a hint of what she was feeling. Should they be doing this? Jun broke off from his gaze and hid her face in his shoulder. Joe felt a lump form in his throat.
“Jun, I’m sorry…..” he mumbled.
“No, Joe,” said Jun, “Don’t be sorry. That was…. wonderful.” She forced herself to turn and look at him as her cheeks flamed. “I never knew it could be like this….”
“Like what?” Joe asked.
“Warm. Gentle. Wonderful….” Jun’s voice trailed off.
Joe looked confused, “You mean when Ken kissed you….” the words died on his lips as Jun put her fingers on his mouth. She looked down in shame.
“You mean he never even kissed you?” Joe exclaimed. “What kind of an idiot is he?”
Ken nearly punched through the computer screen in his anger.
Jun’s cheeks burned. “I told you. Ken doesn’t want me. He’s let me know that in a hundred different ways. I shouldn’t be fooling myself…”
Joe’s eyes darkened in anger. “Ken’s an idiot, but he wants you. He cares for you very much…” It almost choked him to say the words.
“If he cares for me so much, then why doesn’t he show it?” demanded Jun, “Because, he doesn’t care. And he won’t. I need to face that….” She covered her face with her hands, shoulders heaving with her quiet sobs.
Joe was taken aback by Jun’s feelings. He knew she had always had a thing for Ken but hadn’t realized quite how deeply Ken’s oblivious behavior had affected her.
Ken was also shocked. He hadn’t realized how much he had been hurting Jun. “This is what I was trying to prevent…” he whispered to the monitor.
As Jun continued to cry, Joe awkwardly put his arms around her. He held her as one would comfort a child, but he quickly realized that his feelings were not those of a boy. Putting his finger under Jun’s face he tipped it up to meet his gaze. Slowly he brushed away her tears and replaced them with soft kisses.
Jun’s breath came out in a quiet, sad sigh.
“Thank you, Joe…” She put a finger on his lips to prevent his response. She had seen the look of contrition that had crossed his face at her words.
“Thank you, Joe,” Jun began again, “for showing me, what it could have been like.”
“I don’t understand, Jun.”
“Then I’ll explain. You deserve to know, Joe.” Jun sighed.
“After Dr. Nambu had adopted you and Ken, he decided to adopt another boy. You know that he came home with Jinpei. And with me.” Jun paused, taking a deep breath. “But what you don’t know is why he chose us.”
“I remember hearing his voice in the hallway, talking to the administrator. Hakase was telling him how he was there to adopt a young boy and the administrator was giving him a tour of the boys’ rooms. They opened the door and saw me there.”
“But, what were you doing in the boys’ rooms?” asked Joe, confused.
Ken was wondering the same thing.
Jun’s voice trembled. “There were three of them. I was only 8, and I didn’t know how to fight. When they made me go with them, I wasn’t able to stop them. I’d seen it happen before. No one ever did anything, and I knew there was no one to help me. I’m only glad that Jinpei didn’t see them, or he might have tried to aid me, even as young as he was. They would have killed him.”
She took a deep breath. “I was raped. I remember the incredible pain, and I thought I was going to die. I think they did too, which is why they left me there on the floor. But Hakase found me. He was horrified by what they had done. I don’t know how I looked, but it couldn’t have been good. There…. there was blood all over the room Joe…”
Joe’s face was a mask of cold rage. Jun recognized it as the look he wore when they were about to battle Galactor troops.
Ken had to bite his fist to keep from screaming in anger.
“Dr. Nambu sent me to the hospital, and made sure I had the best care. He even came to see me, when I was able to talk again. He told me that of all of the kids in the orphanage, he wanted me to come home with him. To be his daughter. He told me that he would teach me how to fight, so that I’d never be vulnerable again. And he kept that promise.”
Jun gave a wan smile. “I almost turned him down, because I couldn’t leave Jinpei alone. But after I explained it to Hakase, he agreed to adopt Jinpei too. I can never repay him for that.”
“I always knew Hakase was a good man.” said Joe, “But I’m astounded. And I’m very glad he found you.” He hugged Jun tighter. “What happened to the… animals… who attacked you?”
Jun gave a wry smile. “Not unsurprisingly, they ended up in prison for various offenses. And apparently while they were there, they were all recruited by Galactor. Dr. Nambu told me about it, when he discovered their wherabouts. Do you remember the giant Mecca Rhino that Galactor had awhile ago?”
Joe nodded. “The one you insisted on setting a explosive off in, even though we barely had time to escape?” Jun nodded.
“They were on it.” Jun had a grim look in her eyes. “All of them. I had checked the personnel records in the Galactor computer to make sure.” She looked at Joe, for the first time scared of what he would think.
“I’m glad.” Joe’s look was equally grim.
It was all the response Jun needed. She snuggled into his arms again, seeking his comfort.
“Does anyone else know?” he asked.
“No, not even Jinpei.” said Jun, “He was too young at the time, and when he got older, I didn’t want to talk about it. The only ones who know are Hakase, and now you… and Ken.”
Ken sat up in his seat, astonished. Did she know he was listening?
Joe was equally surprised. “Ken? How would he know?”
Tears came to Jun’s eyes again. “Dr. Nambu must have told him. He is the Commander, and needs to know about us: our strengths and weaknesses. Don’t you see? That’s why he doesn’t want me… “
Ken muttered to the computer images. “I do want you, Jun….. but I can’t…..”
“If Ken doesn’t want you, because of something that’s not your fault, then it’s his loss! He doesn’t know what he’s giving up!” spat Joe angrily.
“Oh, he knows.” said Jun bitterly. “He knows I’m damaged goods. I’m not good enough for the Commander. He’ll smile at me, and sometimes even joke with me. But the moment I touch him, he pulls away as if I’ve burned him.”
Ken fell back in his chair. “You touch doesn’t burn me, Jun,” he whispered. “It sets me on fire. I can’t control my feelings, when you touch me…”
But even as he explained himself, to a computer that couldn’t listen, Joe was responding on his behalf. “You are not damaged, Jun! Not unless you count these feelings for a guy who isn’t worthy of you!” He kissed Jun passionately.
“I want you, Jun. God help me, but I do.” He practically growled.
Instead of being frightened, Jun’s lips curved into a beautiful smile. It was like the sun had come out from behind the clouds.
She kissed him back. “Show me, Joe… show me what love is supposed to be like. Help me forget…”
Joe groaned. It was a plea he wasn’t able to resist. He kissed Jun again, although more gently, and shifted his body to move his leg on top of hers.
Ken nearly fell out of his chair, scrambling to stand up. He roughly turned off the computer and took off at full speed for the rec room.
He barreled into the room and saw them. They were still kissing but Joe’s hand was starting to find its way under Jun’s Number 3 shirt…
They both looked up, startled to see Ken there. Breaking apart, Joe started to stand up.
“Get the hell away from her!” Ken yelled.
“What are you doing, Ken?” asked Jun.
“I should ask you the same thing.” Ken replied bitterly, “What are you doing, with him?” He cast a sneer in Joe’s direction. Joe only glared in response.
Jun’s face flushed in anger. “Why shouldn’t I? What’s wrong with me being here with Joe?”
Ken searched for words. “Because…. you’re not supposed to be in love with Joe!”
Jun’s voice rose to a fever pitch. “Oh really? Because I’m supposed to be in love with you? Is that a perk of being G-1? The female on your team must always be falling all over you? Well, Ken,” she stood up and looked him directly in the eye, “what if you don’t deserve it?”
Ken realized his error, and quickly tried to backtrack. “That’s not what I meant, Jun… We’re all on a team. Relationships like this can change the dynamics… it causes distractions, hesitations, consequences… it could be dangerous… you need to maintain a distance…”
Joe boiled, but he knew that this was Jun’s battle to fight. He was still holding her hand, and he squeezed it, to let her know he was there. He was reassured by an answering squeeze.
“No, Ken.” said Jun quietly, “Those are your rules. You made them, you chose to live by them. But I don’t.”
The three sat in stunned silence for a moment before Ken simply said, “But, Jun… Joe isn’t right for you.” It was a lame response, and Ken knew it, but it was the most he could trust himself to say.
“Joe has shown me more tenderness and caring in the last hour than you have shown me in the last decade!” Jun exploded. “Come on, Joe. Let’s get out of here!” She tossed her head at Ken.
Joe quickly followed Jun to the door. Just as they reached it, Ken shouted.
Jun stopped and turned to look at her Commander. Her face softened slightly.
“There’s only one thing you can say, to me to prevent me from leaving, Ken.” she said quietly.
Ken’s mind whirled. He wanted to say it, but his nature struggled against him. His inner turmoil was evident on his face.
“I…” Jun looked at him expectantly. “I… I’m sorry, Jun.” finished Ken.
Jun’s face turned to ice. “Goodbye, Ken.” she said in a cold voice. She walked out with her head high, next to Joe.
Ken’s head fell to his chest. “I can’t say it…. I can’t say it…” he mouthed… “I can’t give you those words, Jun…”
Suddenly his instincts took over, and he ran to the door. As he looked out he saw Jun collapse next to Joe. The couple’s backs were to him but Joe’s head turned as he caught her. By the look on his face, Ken knew that the Condor would give him no quarter.
Joe practically carried Jun back to her room. Between the day’s physically punishing training session, and the emotional beating she had just taken, she was barely functioning. When they arrived, Joe sat her down on the bed, but she fell over and buried her face in the pillow. Awkwardly, he sat down next to her.
“I’m sorry, Jun. It’s my fault that you’re in this mess.”
“Don’t be sorry.” came a muffled voice from the pillow. Jun sat up and looked at him. “I needed to face up to the fact that Ken doesn’t want me. Not now, or ever.” There was a determination building in her eyes.
Joe opened his arms and Jun gratefully put her head on his shoulder. He stroked her hair softly.
After a few moments he said quietly, “For what it’s worth, I’m here for you, Jun. For as long as you need me.”
Jun raised her face and kissed him aggressively. Joe was startled by her sudden response.
“Love me, Joe! Show me how love is supposed to be!” she demanded.
Joe groaned. “I want to… oh God, how I want to…. but I don’t think this is the right time. I wouldn’t want you to regret anything later…”
Jun’s face fell with a crushed look.
“But, I’m here with you.” he quickly continued. “I won’t leave you.”
Jun’s body relaxed and she snuggled next to him again. Gently Joe laid her down on the bed and stretched out beside her. She was right: it was as hard as a board.
Jun rested her head on Joe’s chest, and let his warm presence lull her to sleep.
She was still in his arms when she awoke the next morning. He was gazing at her intently.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” she asked.
“I slept a little.” Joe said, “But mostly I just lay here, enjoying the feel of you in my arms.” Jun blushed.
“You were right, Joe… about not… not regretting anything later. Thank you, for everything you did for me last night.”
“No, Jun, thank you.” Joe answered. “Thank you, for letting me in. I never thought I’d have that chance… I never even knew, that I wanted that chance.”
“So, what do we do now?” asked Jun.
“Last night, you revealed your secrets to me, Jun, so I owe it to you, to be honest with you.” answered Joe. “I’ve been angry for a long time with Ken, for the way he treats you. And last night, I realized why.” He looked into her eyes, his face inches from hers.
“Last night, when you asked Ken to say… when you gave him a chance… I thought for a moment he would take it. I realized that I was horrified that I would lose you, just as I had discovered…” Joe sighed in frustration. He wasn’t explaining himself well. He angrily ran his fingers through his hair and tried again.
“When Ken didn’t say what you were waiting to hear, I was devastated for you… but I was also secretly thrilled for me… please don’t hate me, Jun.”
Jun looked amazed. “I don’t hate you, Joe.” she said, as she kissed him softly on the tip of his nose.
Joe continued. “If you’d like… I’d like to see where we’re going. What could happen…”
Jun smiled. “I’d like that too.”
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.
Jun woke up. It was only a minor change to her mental state, from less aware to more aware, and she resented it. When she slept, she could ignore the pain in her heart, that gnawed at her every day. While she was awake, it was all she could think about.
Jun hadn’t really gotten out of bed much at all, in the last two months. Occasionally, she would get dressed, and go downstairs to the Snack J, at Jinpei’s urging, but she would just sit listlessly, staring at the walls, until she could sneak back upstairs, to her room, again. She knew Jinpei was worried about her; that everyone was worried about her, but she didn’t think this was going to change.
The world was at peace, but Jun was not. Joe was dead.
At first, her mind didn’t really comprehend this fact, and she had managed to get through the first few days as an automaton, working on instinct, and memory. But as the days passed, and her duties as the Swan grew less and less, she retreated from the world more and more. She often wished that she were dead too, because she couldn’t fathom living like this any longer. And yet, somehow, days turned into nights, and nights turned into yet more days, and now, it had been almost 10 weeks since his death.
10 weeks without him. It felt like an eternity.
Once, they had pledged that they had all the time in the world. They wanted to take things slowly. And they did. For awhile. Until the roaring maelstrom of their feelings for each other had caught them up in a fast and furious romance. They had been together a month before they had made love, and when they finally did, it had been glorious. It had been glorious every night afterwards, for the following month… until Joe became so ill.
At first, his headaches didn’t bother him so much, when he was with her. He claimed that her company could cure him of any illness. But as things got worse and worse, he had had to submit himself to Dr. Nambu’s care, and the nights of carefree love were over. Even then, Jun had stayed by his side as much as she could, and she had still thought they could get through this. It wasn’t until that fateful day when he said his goodbyes, on the grass at the entrance to that terrible Galactor base, that she had even accepted death as a real possibility.
Jun sighed and turned over, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Jinpei opened the door slightly, peering in at his sister. It was the same. He didn’t know why he expected this morning to be any different from the days before. It had been months, and Onechan was still grieving for Joe.
Jinpei had come to accept Joe, especially once he realized how happy he had made Onechan. Deep down, he still would have preferred that she be with Ken, but he also understood why she wasn’t. But now, of course, it was a different story. Joe was gone, and Ken was there. Joe had even told her to be with Ken. But Onechan was not ready.
Jinpei walked downstairs, with a heavy heart. He began to make breakfast for Jun, hoping that today, she might actually eat some of it. She was getting painfully thin.
A knock on the door startled him out of his depressing thoughts. He walked over to answer it, and saw that it was Ken.
Ken. Maybe he could talk some sense into Jun.
“Aniki. It’s good to see you.” he said. But his voice didn’t sound happy.
“How are things, Jinpei?” asked Ken. He was as concerned as Jinpei, if not more so.
“The same, Aniki. Jun is still…”
“I know.” Ken laid a comforting hand on Jinpei’s shoulder. “It’s not any better?”
Jinpei shook his head sadly. Then he looked up with a spark of hope in his eyes.
“Maybe, if you talked to her, Aniki…” he offered, “Maybe, if you went to see her, it would help.”
Ken shook his head vehemently. He had not spent much time with Jun, since the war had ended. He couldn't even think about talking to her, until she was past her grief for Joe. But it was hard on him too. Despite his feelings for Jun, Joe had been his friend too, and Ken had grieved in his own way. But it was time to move on. Only, Jun didn’t think so.
“How can I?” asked Ken, his doubts showing on his face, “How can I take his place? Is it even right?”
“He told you to, Aniki.” said Jinpei in a cold voice. He was getting fed up with Ken’s self-deprecating ways. “He wanted you to take care of her!”
This was something else that rankled Ken. Joe had given him permission to be with Jun. It was almost too much for his ego to bear. But deep down, he knew that Jinpei was right. Ken sighed. He saw the breakfast tray that Jinpei had been working on.
“Is that for Jun?” Ken asked. Jinpei nodded, a slow grin coming to his face. He couldn’t believe how much prodding it took, for Ken to do what he wanted to do anyway.
Ken picked up the tray and made his way upstairs to Jun’s room. When he arrived, he found the door ajar, and peeked inside. He hadn’t actually been near Jun in over a month and was shocked by what he saw.
Jun was sitting up on her rumpled bed, wearing one of Joe’s old Number 2 shirts. She had a dejected, far-away look. Even with her gaunt face, and dark circles under her eyes, she was hauntingly beautiful. Ken took a deep breath and entered the room.
“Breakfast is served, milady!” he joked with a smile.
Jun turned her head slowly to look at him.
“Thanks.” she muttered. Then she looked away again.
Uncertain, Ken set the tray down on a dresser. It would be so simple to just slink out, and not come back, but he knew he couldn’t take the easy way out. Instead, he forced himself to sit down next to Jun.
The silence between them was palpable. Jun gave no indication that she even knew he was still there.
“You can’t go on like this Jun.”
“We finally defeated Galactor. Katse is gone. You should have some peace in your heart.”
Jun quickly turned and glared at Ken, her eyes full of rage.
“I know!” Ken threw his hands up in surrender. “I know you’re having a tough time, dealing with Joe’s death. We all are. But it’s been more than two months, Jun. Two months.” Then he asked the million dollar question.
“When are you going to return to us, Jun?”
She pointedly turned her head away from him again.
Ken tried once more. “Joe didn’t want you to be like this.” He tipped her face up to his, so that she was forced to look at him. “If he could see you now…”
The thought was left hanging between them. Silent tears rolled down Jun’s face.
“Joe would want you to live your life. He wanted you to be happy.”
Jun’s face crumpled. “And I’ve let him down…” she whispered.
She collapsed into Ken’s arms. She clung desperately to him, as she remembered Joe’s final words to her.
You get along well with Ken now… go find yourself some happiness like other girls.
But how? How could she move on with her life, live her life, without Joe?
Deep inside, she knew Ken was right. Joe wouldn’t want her to be this way. He did want her happy, even if that meant… no. She couldn’t face that right now.
But the solid arms around her were comforting, and warm. She took the refuge they offered, and gained strength from it.
Jun’s emotional dam had burst forth, and was evidenced by the soaking of Ken’s shirt. He held her to his chest, stroking her hair as she cried. God, she felt good in his arms. How he had longed to be able to hold her, like this. To hold her, and protect her, and… He suddenly realized that even though she was in his arms, she was still wearing Joe’s shirt. His presence was still there.
‘But please, God’, he thought, ‘let it dissipate. She needs to let him go…’
He knew that his motives were not entirely honorable. It was too soon. But his face was buried in her hair, and the feel of her was intoxicating. He silently resolved to do what Joe had asked of him, and of Jun.
He didn’t want to think about whether it was for Joe’s sake, or for his.
After awhile, Jun seemed calmer. Reluctantly, Ken broke the mood by speaking.
“You need to eat, Jun. You need to regain your strength.”
Quietly, she nodded. He brought over the breakfast tray. Fortunately, Jinpei had only prepared some fruit and toast, so it wasn’t too bad at room temperature. Ken fed her small bites, and could see her chewing mechanically.
When she had finished, she looked up at him and said simply, “Thank you.”
Ken smiled, and picked up the tray. He decided to push her just a bit further.
“You really should come downstairs, and see how well Jinpei is doing with the Snack.” he began. “Why don’t you hop into the shower, and get dressed?”
She seemed to mull this idea over for awhile, then slowly she nodded.
“Okay.” she responded. “I can do that.” She quietly padded off to her bathroom.
When she came out of the shower, Ken was gone. She rubbed her hair dry with a towel, and realized how nice it felt to be clean and fed. She looked around, but her Number 3 shirt and striped pants were gone.
‘Ken must have taken them.’ she thought.
Suddenly, it occurred to her that Ken hadn’t been wearing his civilian uniform. With the end of the war with Galactor, the KNT weren’t on call in the same way as before. Jinpei had been wearing all sorts of wild clothes, and Jun hadn’t been interested enough to really notice. Slowly, she walked towards her closet and opened the doors.
Carefully avoiding a certain red dress, she let her eyes wander over the rest of her wardrobe. It wasn’t as extensive as that of other girls her age, but of course, most of it was barely worn. She would have to rectify that, she mused.
It occurred to her that she was making plans about the future.
Quickly, she pulled a sundress off of its hangar and slipped it on. It felt good to have clean, crisp clothing against her skin. She stepped into some sandals and went downstairs.
Jinpei’s brilliant smile when she walked into the room, made her effort worthwhile. He and Ken were sitting at the bar drinking orange juice. Ken smiled too, and it was somewhat reassuring.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Onechan! Sit down” Jinpei cried.
Gratefully she sank onto a barstool. The place did look nice.
“You’ve been doing a great job keeping this place up, Jinpei.” she said. “It’s practically sparkling!” Jinpei blushed at her words.
“I did it for you, Onechan.” he said. “I wanted you to have something to come back to.”
She wrapped her arms around him, holding him tightly.
“Thank you, Jinpei.” she said. “For everything.”
“You know, you’ve really been cooped up for a long time.” said Ken. “Why don’t you get a breath of fresh air?”
“Oh, I don’t know….” answered Jun, suddenly shy. “I’m not sure I should…”
“Go on, Onechan!” encouraged Jinpei. “I can take care of things here.”
“I know you can.” she smiled at Jinpei. “But…”
“Go!” shouted Jinpei. He gave Ken a broad wink and practically shoved Jun out of the door. Ken grabbed Jun’s hand and pulled her, laughing, out of the Snack J.
As soon as she stepped outside, Jun knew that Ken had been right. The sun was shining, and soft puffs of clouds dotted the blue sky. It was a beautiful day.
Ken put his arm around her, and slowly they walked down the sidewalk, not caring where they were headed. Jun took in everything as if she were seeing it for the first time. It all felt so new.
‘This is what I’ve been missing.’ she thought, ‘Life.’
After a few blocks, they came to a park. They meandered along a small walking path, until Jun saw a bench.
“Please, Ken,” she asked, “may we sit for a moment?”
“Sure! Whatever you want, Jun!” Ken hurried to answer. He shouldn’t have pushed her. She had spent the last few weeks in bed after all.
The bench was near a children’s playground, and shouts of laughter drifted on the breeze to their ears. A ball rolled across the ground, and bumped against Jun’s leg. She looked up to see a small boy on chubby legs toddling after it, his mother close behind. Jun picked up the ball.
“Here you are, sweetheart.” she said, as she handed the ball back to the child. “Have fun!”
The boy grinned at her, and Jun ruffled his hair. He ran off, showing his prize to his mother.
“You can still have that, you know.” said Ken, reading her thoughts. “You can still have a family.”
It was a lot to think about.
They walked around the park for awhile, and soon it was lunchtime. Ken grabbed some hot dogs and sodas from a park vendor, and they had an impromptu picnic on the grass.
“How did you pay for these?” Jun asked.
“Well, since we’re not in such demand anymore, I’ve started up my air courier business again.” Ken answered. “It’s still shaky, but I’ve been able to pay off my debts at the Snack J, and support myself.”
“You paid off your tab?” Jun was incredulous. When Ken nodded, she grinned. Her face was completely transformed, and she took his breath away.
“Well, I guess I should hide out more often!” she exclaimed.
“No.” said Ken seriously. “Don’t do that again. We need you here with us. I need you here… with me.”
Jun nodded thoughtfully. Her smile was gone, but she didn’t look unhappy.
After lunch Jun felt stronger.
“Are you still training?” she asked Ken.
“Yeah,” he responded, “we have a regular schedule, mostly just to keep in shape. We’re pretty loose about it, since it’s just the three of us.” He looked into her eyes. “You could come… if you wanted to.”
“I’d like that.” she replied softly, “but, I’m afraid I’m horribly out of practice. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself.”
“You wouldn’t do that, Jun. We all understand what you’ve been going through.”
“Could we practice? Just the two of us? Just to work through the kinks. I don’t want to fall on my face, in front of Jinpei!” Jun said. “I’d never hear the end of it!”
Ken smiled. “Whenever you want, Jun. In fact, if you want, we could do it right now.”
Ken nodded toward the other side of the grass. A small tai chi class was just getting underway.
“Do you remember your forms?”
Jun smiled. “Better than you do, I’ll bet!”
The tai chi had been a good idea. The class was at a lower level of difficulty, and Jun had a chance to stretch her under-used muscles, without looking out of place. She closed her eyes and remembered learning the forms so long ago. She had not been whole then, either. She had still been recovering from that brutal attack at the orphanage, yet she had had Jinpei to motivate her and keep her going. And Ken had patiently showed her the moves, and helped her when she couldn’t quite master some techniques.
And here he was again. She opened her eyes and saw him moving, effortlessly gliding across the grass next to her. She remembered his polished movements, and how he could fly gracefully through the air. She remembered the feeling of flying herself, and the way it took her breath away.
She wanted that back.
After the class, she stretched out under an old oak tree. Ken sat next to her with a bemused look on his face.
“I guess you haven’t forgotten much.” he said. “You looked pretty good out there.”
“So did you.” She smiled back at him.
She looked peaceful and serene. It was a look he had not seen on Jun’s face for a long time. He reached out and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen over her eyes. She looked up at him and her emerald eyes shone.
Ken couldn’t help himself. He kissed her.
Jun seemed to come alive at the contact. She responded and the kiss grew deeper, more ardent. As it ended she opened her eyes and looked at Ken.
Her face went pale and she turned away.
Ken cursed himself for a fool. It had been going so well. But it was too soon. All he had done was remind her of Joe again.
He took her home and she seemed fine, but he knew that something was still broken inside of her.
Everyone noticed the change in her. After being the Swan for so much of her life, she was starting to find her place in the world as just Jun.
She began attending practice, and Ryu, Jinpei and Ken were amazed at how quickly she returned to full strength. She took an interest in running the Snack J again, and the club bustled with excitement at night. Most significantly, she started to spend a lot more time with Ken.
It was this last change that excited Jinpei the most. He craved a proper family, and the inclusive feeling that brought. But even he could see that while Jun spent more time with Ken, she wasn’t any closer to him. Whenever he asked her about it, she would just shrug and say,
“Ken’s a wonderful friend.”
A friend. Jinpei knew she wasn’t serious about him. But, he also wasn’t sure how he could change that, except to give them more time alone.
Ken knew it too. Jun seemed to enjoy his company, but the relationship was purely platonic. Once or twice he had tried to kiss her again, and she had let him, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her lips, her heart, her mind were unresponsive to him. Ken still felt that if he gave her enough time, enough patience, enough understanding, she might come around. But he was starting to get impatient. Joe had been dead for almost ten months. When was she going to move on?
One night, Ken arrived at the Snack J to take Jun to dinner. To his surprise, she had asked him out, and for the first time in months, he felt a ray of hope. He decided to push his luck by bringing her a small bouquet of flowers.
But when he got to the Snack J she was nowhere to be found. The door was unlocked, but she wasn’t downstairs.
“Jun!” Ken called. But she didn’t answer.
Concerned, Ken went upstairs and saw that the door to Jun’s room was open. He looked inside.
It was almost as if he had been transported back to that day months ago, only this time, instead of wearing the Number 2 shirt, Jun was just holding it. But the vacant look on her face was the one that haunted his dreams.
She looked up at him, tears glistening in her emerald eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ken.” she said quietly. “I know we had plans… I made them for tonight hoping that I could forget…”
“I should have known better.” she finished.
“What are you trying to forget?” Ken asked gently. He was surprised at this sudden backsliding in her emotional state.
“Joe and I… it’s our anniversary. We had our first date, one year ago tonight.”
Ken’s head spun and his knees nearly gave way. The memories of that night came back to him in a rush: Jun wearing that unbelievable red dress… learning that she had planned on wearing it for him… Jun telling him, ‘I’m over it. You don’t have to apologize.’… watching her return from her date glowing with happiness, her shoes in her hand and her hair tumbling down her shoulders and back…
It was too much. Ken sank down onto the bed next to Jun. He knew how poorly he had handled himself back then, and how he was still paying for those mistakes.
Jun’s voice interrupted his train of thought. “I just keep thinking of the way he looked at me, and the joy I felt just being with him… and somehow I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way again…” she buried her face in Joe’s shirt, shoulders heaving with her sobs.
Ken awkwardly put his arm around her. Of course, this night would be difficult for Jun. In fact, it was difficult for him as well. As Jun relaxed, he gently brought her head to her pillow.
Ken searched for the right words.
“I know this is difficult for you, Jun.” he began, “And I’m here for you. I can only imagine… I know… how painful it must be for you, to think of that night. But I promise, if you let this go, if you let these wounds heal, things will get better. I’ll… I’ll make sure of that.”
He took a deep breath and continued, staring down at his hands. “I know I’ve been too insistent with you, but I promise I won’t be any more. No pressure, just… friendship. I’ll help you through this Jun, whatever it takes. And I don’t expect anything in return.”
It was a difficult speech to make, laying himself bare like that. But he meant it. He would do anything, to get her through this depression that seemed to keep tightening its hold on her.
He wondered if he should leave her to her sorrow, just this once. He felt almost guilty, intruding on her privacy this night.
He suddenly realized that Jun had been completely silent. She had not responded to his words. Looking over at her, he saw that she was asleep. She fitfully clutched the Number 2 shirt, as if it could save her from a lifetime of pain.
Ken felt his blood boil. That damned shirt. His rage was directed towards an inanimate object that merely represented its former owner. But it was a satisfying target for his wrath.
Angrily, Ken pried the shirt loose from Jun’s grasp and threw it across the room. Being only a shirt, it didn’t make the satisfying crash he would have liked, but merely sank to the floor with a soft hiss.
Jun stirred restlessly. Her lips were slightly parted, and her eyelids fluttered. On the outside, she looked like the Sleeping Beauty, but Ken knew that she was tormented inside. Gently, he pulled up the blanket around her shoulders and tucked her in, preparing to leave her to her rest.
But, despite his well-intended speech a moment earlier, he found that he couldn’t help himself. He leaned down and kissed her.
To his surprise, Jun kissed him back. Her mouth was eager… her lips passionate. She pulled Ken down, thrusting her body against his. Ken sensed her letting go, as she gave herself over to him completely.
Ken was amazed. Her passion inflamed him, and ignited his bood. Her body, her scent, the feel of her skin… they overwhelmed him. He was consumed by his need for her.
A nagging voice in his mind struggled to make itself heard. Logic and control, usually so paramount in his mind, were weakening against the onslaught of his senses.
‘This isn’t right… she’s grieving for Joe… she’s not ready…’ the voice whispered.
Jun moaned. “Make love to me….”
‘I can make her forget Joe.’ Ken thought, and the voice was banished from his mind.
Their love-making was incredible. Ken had had no idea that he could feel like this: that two people could give and take of each other so much. He finally felt complete as a man, and understood that this woman was his soulmate.
He knew that he could never have these feelings, this intensity, with anyone else.
They finished together in a burst of passion that left them spent. Ken collapsed on top of Jun, burying his face in her shoulder. Her fingers wound themselves through his hair, caressing his scalp and neck.
Jun’s lips pressed against his ear. His entire body tingled at their touch. She sighed contentedly and whispered in his ear.
“I’ve missed you so much, Joe…”
Ken angrily threw open the door to his small house at the airstrip. He reveled in the satisfying crash it made, as it banged against the wall.
How could he have been so reckless? So arrogant? So… blind. He had dived headlong, to grab what he so desperately wanted, only to find that it was an illusion, and had never been his to begin with.
He had left Jun sleeping in her bed.
‘She can never know.’ he thought. He could at least spare her that shame. Let her believe it was a dream. He didn’t think he could deal with it, if she knew what he’d done.
He practically ripped off his clothes, as he walked into the bathroom. He could smell her on his skin, on his hands… Turning on the water he stepped into the stinging spray. The water mingled with tears, as it ran down his cheeks.
Jun awoke, finding Joe’s shirt next to her on the bed. Her ache of longing for him was almost physical. She had had an unbelievable dream about him… almost as if he had really been with her. She had felt as if her soul were flying out of her body, and reaching out to him on a spiritual level.
Deep down, she knew she had connected with him. Somewhere, in some form, she knew Joe was alive.
Joe sat up with a start. He had been dreaming of Jun, in her incredible red dress. The one that she had worn a year ago tonight. And then, suddenly, he felt her… reaching out to him. It was almost as if she were in the room with him. He had sensed her passion and love stretching across the miles, to where he lay. He had reached back to her, and for a brief moment, it felt like their souls had touched…
It was enough. Enough to keep him going on, as this shell of a man Dr. Rafael had created. To get better. If only so he could see her again.
She couldn’t believe it. Jun smiled in the darkness, revelling in the sensations coursing through her body. She reached out and gently caressed her lover’s face, tracing its shape with her fingers. Joe slowly opened one eye and grinned wickedly at her.
“My insatiable Swan…” he murmured. “Can’t get enough of me…”
“I’m not going to dispute that tonight.” Jun replied. “It’s been so long. For a time, I thought I’d never see you again. And even when I began to feel that you were still out there somewhere, you were so far away…”
“I’m just thrilled to be here in your arms again.” she continued. “When I saw you out there in the desert today, walking across the sand, my heart leapt up into my throat… somehow I knew it was you and yet my mind was still unsure… and then when we saw it was you… I can’t describe it Joe. It’s like a miracle. And then later, when that giant explosion came from underground, I thought you had gone and died on me again!”
She playfully pounded his chest. “What a terrible thing to do to me!”
Joe’s response was serious. “When I was out there today, I almost didn’t show myself. But I looked at you, and knew I could no longer prevent myself from being with you. No matter how much it hurt, I had to be with you again.”
“I won’t hurt you Joe…” Jun responded. “Unless you want me to…” She grinned mischievously.
Joe laughed and flipped her over, placing a long, demanding kiss on her mouth. When it was over, his pulse was racing and he was breathless. He felt alive again for the first time in… a long time. Could there still be enough human in him?
“You make all of the hell I’ve been through, worthwhile.” he growled.
Jun frowned slightly. “Exactly what have you been through Joe?” she asked. “Your explanation this afternoon was rather… vague.”
Joe averted his gaze. “I… I can’t talk about it right now, Jun.” He forced himself to look at her. “I promise I’ll tell you later… everything… but for now, for tonight, I just need to be with you… to forget that the last 18 months ever happened.” He knew he was begging. He couldn’t keep the pleading tone out of his voice. He just prayed that she would understand.
But how could she? How could she even imagine the changes that had taken place in him? Would she really want him, if she knew he was some kind of half-human monster? More importantly, until just now, he hadn’t known if he would want her in that way either. So many of his physical and mental functions had been disrupted by Dr. Rafael’s… modifications… that he hadn’t known what to expect. In fact, it was fear of that unknown, that had kept him away so long.
Jun held him in her arms. “What matters, is that you are here Joe. You’re alive and you’re here with me. I spent so long grieving for you. I thought I was getting over you, but then…”
“Then?” asked Joe curiously.
“It was on the night one year after our first date. I had a dream… I dreamt about you Joe. Oh, I had dreamt about you before, but this was different. I dreamt that you were with me. Sharing my bed. That you had come back to me. I can’t describe the feelings and emotions that ran through me. It felt so… real… It was as if you were actually there.”
“When I woke up, and discovered it was a dream, I knew it hadn’t happened and yet… it was so real. I felt like we had connected. And then I knew. I knew you were out there somewhere.”
She looked at him questioningly, wondering if he thought she was crazy. Certainly the others had, when she had begun insisting that Joe was still alive. The look on Ken’s face had cut her to the quick. She had thought that he, of all people, might understand…
“I felt it too.” Joe answered. “That night, I dreamt about you as well. I woke up, and it felt like you were in my mind… that your thoughts were touching mine. In the end, that’s what gave me the strength to go on… to come back to you.”
Jun kissed him then, her eyes shining. He reached for her, and they made love again, for only the second time in 18 months. It was slow… sweet… gentle… fulfilling…
And yet, it wasn’t. With their first, furious, coming together, Jun had been lost in the knowledge that he was back. That he was home again. But this time, she recognized that something was missing. She couldn’t define it, but it felt as if Joe were holding something back from her. He felt… harder. Heavier. He didn’t melt into her body as she longed for him to do.
She wanted all of him. She wanted him to be with her, as he had been in her dream. She had never felt so incredible, so alive… she wanted… no, she needed to recapture that with him. But for the moment, it wasn’t there.
Joe sensed it too. He knew what was missing. It was part of him, sitting somewhere back in Dr. Rafael’s lab. The man had saved his life and yet… Joe felt a deep resentment toward him, for what he had lost. He desperately wanted to re-claim what he had had with Jun, but he didn’t know if it was even possible now.
Ken wasn’t getting much sleep either. He tossed and turned, knowing what Joe and Jun were probably doing. His emotions were in turmoil. His first instinct when he had seen Joe this afternoon, had been to slug him, and he had followed through on it. He was so angry… angry that Joe had left, angry that he hadn’t come back, angry that Jun had become such a terrifying emotional mess… but most of all, he was angry because Joe’s return signaled the end of any chance Ken might have had with Jun. Part of him was very glad his friend… his brother… was back. But a bigger part of him raged against the hand fate had dealt him.
Adding to Ken’s distress, was the secret he had carried for months… the secret of what had really happened the night of Joe and Jun’s anniversary. He remembered being with her, making love to her, feeling completely fulfilled until she had uttered those fateful words... “I’ve missed you so much, Joe…”
It had been much easier to let her think it was a dream, but now the burden of guilt was weighing heavily on his soul. He owed it to Joe to tell him. To let him know… but then Joe would tell Jun, and she would know. Ken couldn’t bear it if she hated him. Her friendship was the one thing he had left.
But suppose Joe asked him outright? Could he lie to him? Ken didn’t know.
The next morning, Joe awoke to the soft chirp of his new bracelet communicator. Jun stirred, but did not awaken. He quietly went into the hallway to answer the call.
“G-2 here.” he responded. He suddenly realized how long it had been, since he had said those words.
“Joe,” came Ken’s voice. “we need to talk. Alone.”
“I agree.” answered Joe.
“Come out to the airstrip.” responded Ken. “We can have some privacy there.”
Joe stopped briefly to leave a note for Jun, then slipped out of the Snack J.
When he arrived at the airstrip, Ken was outside waiting for him.
“Let’s go for a walk.” he suggested. Joe followed.
“It’s good to see you again, Ken.” Joe began, “I sometimes wondered if I ever would.”
“Why?” asked Ken, “What exactly happened to you Joe?”
Joe got defensive. “Like I said yesterday… Dr. Rafael found me, and saved my life. I spent a long time with him… healing.”
“But not all of that time. You could have come back to us much sooner.”
Joe nodded quietly, his brows furrowed in annoyance.
“So, what kept you from returning?” Ken’s anger simmered below the surface of his words, but his face did not betray his feelings. How much pain could have been avoided if Joe had returned even a few months ago?
“I didn’t… I didn’t know if I could return. If I’d be able to return to the KNT. And I didn’t know what had happened with Jun…”
He turned and fixed Ken with a cold, penetrating gaze. “What about you Ken?”
Ken had not expected Joe to turn the tables on him. “Me?”
“Yeah. What have you been doing since I… left? Did you… take my advice about…”
The words were unspoken, but Ken knew what Joe was asking. Suddenly he realized why Joe was being so hostile towards him.
Joe was jealous.
His plan to confess to Joe fell apart. Telling him would ease Ken’s conscience, but would only hurt Joe. Whatever Joe had been through, it was obvious that it hadn’t been pleasant. Telling him now would accomplish nothing.
Ken swallowed hard. “After you left, Jun took it hard. Since the war was over, she wasn’t required as the Swan much anymore, and it was a little while before we realized that she had withdrawn from the world. Jinpei was incredibly worried about her. We all were.” He fixed Joe with a hard stare.
Joe nodded stoically. “Go on.”
“She spent a couple of months basically hiding from the everyone and everything. And then, one day I made up my mind to take your advice, and do something about it. I couldn’t stand to see her in such pain…”
Something glistened in Joe’s eye, but otherwise, his face remained impassive.
Ken continued. “It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I convinced her… we all convinced her… to return to living life. For awhile there, she was moving on.”
“With you.” spat Joe bitterly.
“No.” said Ken. He could see the surprise on Joe’s face, although the Condor had tried to hide it. “Not for lack of trying on my part, but she wasn’t interested in anything more than a platonic relationship.”
Joe’s shoulders visibly relaxed.
“And then, one night… the night of your anniversary… she got depressed all over again. It was like she had reverted back to that withdrawn state. But in the morning…”
“What happened in the morning?” Joe asked anxiously. He was hanging on Ken’s every word.
“She said that she was convinced that you were alive. That you were out there, somewhere. Ryu practically laughed in her face, and even Jinpei thought she was joking. But she was serious.”
“We all thought she was crazy, but the notion that you were alive seemed to help her. She was happy, and vibrant. Ryu, Jinpei and I… we decided not to challenge her belief, since she was doing so well. We figured it was helping her, and not hurting her.”
“Of course, none of us had any idea that she was right.”
Joe ignored the bait. “Are you glad I’m back, Ken?” He looked hard at his Commander.
“Yes.” said Ken. His face was a mask, but inside, his emotions were in turmoil.
Joe slowly raised a single eyebrow, but did not respond.
That same evening Joe and Jun were snuggled together in a booth at the Snack J. Jun had hung up the ‘Closed’ sign for the night, so that she could be alone with her Condor. They had turned on the jukebox, and were listening to its soft music, and just enjoying each other’s company.
As Jun lay in Joe’s arms, she thought back to their conversation the previous night.
“Joe?” she asked, “Dr. Raphael just kept you? In his home? His lab?”
She felt Joe’s body stiffen as she brought up his absence. “Yes.”
“And you didn’t want to return.”
“I did.” Joe protested, “If only… to you. But I was healing, and wasn’t able to leave for a long time.”
Jun turned around and gave him a quizzical look. Something wasn’t adding up. It was obvious to her that he was holding something back.
“That’s not all, is it, Joe?” she asked him directly.
Joe couldn’t face her. He turned away. “That’s all.” he said, staring at the wall.
“Joe, you promised. You promised that you’d tell me everything.”
Joe’s voice was cold. “I did promise. But that’s it, Jun. That’s all. Now stop nagging me!”
He roughly pushed her aside and got up. He couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t tell her that he was only half a man now. That a big part of him just wasn’t real.
Jun stood and walked up behind him. She wound her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder blade. His body softened in response, but there was doubt in her heart.
Jun’s feeling of suspicion grew. She knew she wasn’t the only one who felt it, but Joe pushed all questions about his absence aside. Everything between the two of them would be fine, until his disappearance would come up in conversation. Then, Joe would grow cold and distant.
Jun felt them growing apart, and as she struggled to pull them back together, she realized that part of the problem was Joe. He wasn’t fighting for them. He was pulling away from her. Perhaps, without even knowing it.
Jun decided to take action. This had to be resolved, one way or the other, before it destroyed them both.
That night, she invited Joe to the Snack J. She shooed Jinpei out with some money for the movies, and he and Ryu went off with knowing winks in her direction.
She was wearing her red dress. The same dress she had worn the night of her first date, with Joe.
When he arrived, his eyes lit up, and she could see that the dress had done its work. It had reminded him of that wonderful evening they had spent together, discovering what lay between them.
She extended her hand out to him. “Shall we dance?” she asked huskily.
He accepted her invitation, and held her close. Slow, sexy strains sounded from the jukebox. She relaxed in his arms, and he felt his tensions easing away.
He bent his head down, kissing her slowly. Perhaps tonight… tonight could be the night they recaptured the way it used to be between them.
Jun’s body was on fire. She thrilled at his touch and pressed herself against him, eager to be as close to him as possible. And yet… that barrier was still there. His body was hard and unyielding. He was kissing her, and yet his mind felt closed to her.
Jun pulled back from him, tears in her eyes.
“You need to tell me, Joe.” she said softly.
His eyes took on a haunted look. “Tell you what?” he asked evasively.
“Everything.” She pressed on. “Everything that happened, when you were with Dr. Rafael.”
She looked pointedly into his eyes. He felt that she was looking into his very soul. “I know that there’s more, that you’re not telling me, Joe.”
And then, he knew. He had been avoiding the truth for weeks, but it had just slapped him in the face.
He couldn’t continue to be with Jun.
She deserved more. She deserved someone who could be with her fully, who wasn’t being pulled apart by foreign matter in his flesh. She needed his whole self, yet he only had half a self left to give to her.
She would be better off with someone else.
An image of Ken’s face rose in his mind, and he angrily pushed it aside. But deep down, he knew it was what was best for Jun.
Joe sat down heavily, his head in his hands.
“I can’t… I can’t tell you Jun.”
“If you can’t trust me, Joe, then what do we have?” She held her breath. If he didn’t tell her now…
Joe lifted his hands helplessly. Then he stood up and walked out the door, not looking back.
Jun couldn’t let it end like this. She ran outside after him. It was raining lightly, but she was able to make out the form of him, unlocking the door to his car in the mist. She grabbed his arm before he could open it, forcibly spinning him around to face her.
“Damnit, Joe!” she shouted. “You just can’t leave me like this!”
“Face it, Jun!” he yelled, “I can’t tell you what happened to me. I can barely face up to what happened to me. I’m not the same man I was before!”
The heavens opened up, and the rain began to fall down in sheets. Even inches away from him, Jun had a hard time seeing Joe’s face. But she could feel the tension in his arm as she held it.
“That doesn’t matter to me!” she cried, “Whatever happened… whatever you are… I can deal with it. We will deal with it. Together…” She was pleading with him. Begging him to give them one more chance.
“No, Jun.” said Joe coldly. “You’re better off without me.”
He wrenched his arm from her grasp and got into his car, tires squealing as he drove away.
Jun fell to her knees on the sidewalk, mud and rain splashing up on her from the road.
What the hell had just happened? How had she lost him?
She didn’t know how she had gotten there, but she must have made it to her motorcycle and driven off. Because here she was, soaked to the skin, covered with mud, standing outside Ken’s airstrip.
She barely mustered the strength to knock on the door, but Ken opened it immediately. He didn’t ask questions, but bundled her into his bathroom, telling her to take a long, hot shower. Grateful for his concern, Jun did what he asked.
As the steam rolled out of his bathroom, Ken was stunned. What had happened to leave Jun in such a state? And where the hell was Joe?
The water stopped, and a minute later Jun’s wet head peeked out from behind the door.
“I’ll… I’ll need something to wear.” she said quietly. “This is ruined.”
Slowly she held up what remained of the red dress. It was a ball of muddy, red streaks.
Ken knew that dress. She had bought it for him… yet she had worn it for Joe.
“Wait there.” he mumbled. “I’ll get something.”
A moment later he returned with a t-shirt and a striped pair of pants. Jun recognized them.
“My old uniform!” she exclaimed. “But how...”
He spoke to the floor. “That day, after Joe… that day when I convinced you to get out of bed, and come back to us… I didn’t want you wearing this, and being reminded of him again. So I took it out of your room. Somehow… I never ended up giving it back. I guess, I wanted the reminder of you.”
Jun gratefully took the clothes from his outstretched hand and got dressed. When she came out of the bathroom, Ken could see the edge of the ruined dress hanging over the side of his wastebasket.
Jun sat next to him on the couch.
“Thank you, for being here for me.” she said. “I feel like I should be saying that a lot. You’ve always been there for me, Ken. Even in the darkest hours of my life. You were always there, to show me to way.”
She looked at her hands. “And I’ve been ungrateful. I’ve closed myself off to you. I never let you in, never gave you a chance… even when I thought he was dead. Instead I…”
“I saved myself… for that selfish pig.” she spat.
Ken was shocked. He held her hands in his own.
“What happened?” he asked simply. And she told him.
All of it.
Ken was amazed. He knew that Joe’s reluctance to talk was bothering Jun, but he had had no idea that it was this out of control.
It suddenly dawned on him what had been wrong all along. He had always held back from Jun. He had not shown her his true feelings, even when she asked him directly. Instead, he had buried things deep in his heart, where they had been allowed to fester. If he had been honest with her from the start, he would never have lost her.
And now, things had changed. Now it was Joe holding secrets inside of himself. And it had driven her away.
He knew that he had to come clean with Jun. To tell her everything. And so he did.
“I have some of my own confessions to make, Jun. You may not be happy about it. You may even hate me for what I’m going to say. But I hope you’ll just hear me out.” he began.
Jun nodded gravely. “Anything for you, Ken.”
“I remember the first day I saw you. Hakase brought you home with Jinpei, and I wondered what he had been thinking, bringing home a girl. But I quickly began to see why he had adopted you. You were smart, you were quick, and you had a real motivation to learn the martial arts techniques he taught us. Even when you couldn’t get them right away, you had a determination to keep trying until you did. I think that’s when I first began to admire you.”
“I’m not entirely sure when those feelings changed, but one day I realized that no other girl could compete with you. The girls at school were fluffy and weak in comparison. I tried quite a few times to approach you in that way, but always lost my nerve.”
“When Dr. Nambu founded the Science Ninja Team and made me G-1, he and I talked. He suspected my feelings for you, but told me that I couldn’t act on them. As G-1, I had to remain strong, and alone. To show caring, to show love, to the enemy was to show weakness. I had to put those thoughts aside if I was truly ready to be Commander.”
Jun was fascinated. She had always wondered what had held Ken back from talking to her about this. She was finally beginning to understand what Ken was all about.
“Interestingly enough, a year or two later my father said something similar to me. It was when we thought you had been killed with the Jigokillers. He told me that I couldn’t cry if I lost one of my subordinates, and that my feelings were making me weak.”
Jun finally understood why she had never really liked Red Impulse. Her nails dug into the palm of her hand.
Ken continued. “I was able to hide my emotions, but they were still there. And I acted on them more than I realized. I tried never to put you in danger again, although at the time I didn’t know that my decisions were being compromised by my feelings for you.”
“When we were off duty, I avoided you as much as possible. I knew that if I spent too much time with you, I’d end up doing something crazy…. like kissing you…” He gave a rueful smile.
“Would that have been so terrible?” Jun asked quietly.
“It would have meant acknowledging to myself that I wasn’t fit to be Commander.” Ken replied. “That I was putting my personal feelings above and beyond the needs of the team. But I always harbored the hope, that once Galactor had been defeated, I would be free to tell you how I felt.”
“But by then…” Jun murmured.
“You’re getting ahead of me.” Ken gently chided her. “Please let me finish.” He winked at her.
She smiled back. “Please continue.” she said with a grand gesture.
“Then came the day when I saw Joe kissing you at our training session. I couldn’t believe how jealous I got, when I saw him touching you that way. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And I did something I shouldn’t have. I spied on you.”
Jun frowned. “How do you mean Ken?”
“I hacked into the ISO’s security system and watched you and Joe in the rec room. That’s how… uh…. I was able to make such a timely entrance.”
“I had always wondered about that.” Jun mused.
“I heard everything you said… including…” Ken’s voice grew quiet, “about how you had been raped at the orphanage.”
Jun’s eyes grew wide as she whispered, “You didn’t already know?”
“No. Hakase was very discreet.” Ken replied. He hung his head in shame. “I’m just embarrassed to have eavesdropped, and heard something so personal. Something that you weren’t ready to tell me about yourself.”
“I thought you had always known.” Jun said simply. “It’s painful to discuss, even now. It’s probably not something I would ever have brought up with you. And I’d always felt that perhaps it was that part of my background, that kept you distant from me.”
“No, Jun. No!” Ken said vehemently. “I had no idea. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have made a difference in my feelings for you. It certainly didn’t, after I had heard it.”
“But, I still held onto the ideal of an emotionless Commander. I couldn’t tell you how I felt, even though by then, it was obvious that if I didn’t, you would end up with Joe. I agonized about it, but couldn’t bring myself to destroy the image that Hakase and my father had wanted me to project.”
Ken went on. “But it was clear that Joe made you happy, and so I buried my feelings again. I had even come to accept that I would never have you when... when we thought Joe died.”
“And his last words, told us to be happy together…” whispered Jun. “He knew… he knew that you really felt that way about me.”
“He knew.” Ken confirmed. “He still knows. He was always so angry with me for ignoring you. Joe is incredibly passionate about things he believes in, and he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t ever say anything to you.”
“I know now, that my motivations were misguided and that I made a lot of mistakes. But, I had hoped that once you had gotten over Joe’s death, that I could have a fresh chance with you.”
“And I never gave you that chance…” Jun hung her head in shame.
Ken squeezed her hands. “It took you a long time to get over Joe’s ‘death’. I hadn’t realized the depth of your feelings for him, until then. In fact, I tried to stay away from you, while you were still grieving, but Jinpei was so worried about you… so I did my best to bring you out of it. But I pushed you, too hard, too fast.”
“It wasn’t entirely your fault.” Jun replied. “I was ready to live again, but I wasn’t ready to give up on Joe. That was my stubbornness taking over.”
“Your loyalty is one of the things I love about you.” said Ken.
“That’s a nice way to explain it.” She smiled.
“Then,” Ken continued, “came the night of your anniversary with Joe. You had made plans with me, but when I arrived, you were lost in your memories of Joe. I was crushed. I was about to leave, when I realized that you had fallen asleep. You looked so beautiful there… and I was so frustrated with our relationship… or lack thereof… that I couldn’t help myself.”
“I kissed you, Jun.” he confessed.
Jun looked confused. “Do you think I’d be angry about something like that?” she asked.
“That was all I had planned to do.” said Ken in a small voice, “But, you stirred… and you asked me to make love to you.”
He looked beseechingly into her eyes. She saw what he was trying to say.
“It was you… that night…” she trembled.
Ken nodded, cheeks burning with shame.
It all came back to Jun in a rush. The incredible love-making in her bed. The way she had soared, had felt complete. She had found passion with Joe like never before.
But it hadn’t been Joe. It had been Ken.
Ken interrupted her thoughts. “I had thought you knew what you were asking, but afterwards I realized, that you had believed that I was Joe. That you had thought that it was a dream…”
“I couldn’t bring myself to take that away from you. Especially after you were convinced that Joe was still alive. I didn’t want to crush your newfound happiness. But most of all,” Ken confessed, “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
Did she hate Ken? She didn’t think so. He feelings whirled around in her mind. Her thoughts were a blur.
“Afterwards, when Joe returned, he asked me about you. And I lied to him. I never told him what really happened.” Ken finished his confession with a bowed head.
“I… I need some time to process this…” Jun muttered. Ken nodded.
They sat next to each other on the couch, not touching or speaking as the dark of night gave way to the cold light of dawn. As she saw the sunrise, Jun had a revelation. She knew what had been missing from her nights with Joe since his return.
When the sun was up, Ken spoke. “I guess I should take you home. It’s still raining, so I could drive you.” he offered.
Jun nodded. Leaving her motorcycle at the airfield, she got into Ken’s car for the ride back to the Snack J. Just as Ken pulled up, his bracelet came to life.
“G-1!” came Dr. Nambu’s voice, “Assemble your team! Launch the God Phoenix immediately!”
“This is G-1. Understood.” Ken responded. He looked at Jun.
“Go change into your new uniform. I’ll wait for you.” he said. Jun rushed to follow his orders. Ken began to contact the others on his communicator.
Racing back outside, she saw Jinpei close behind her. Ken motioned them both into his car. Fortunately, Jinpei was so surprised by the early morning call, that it didn’t occur to him to wonder why Ken was there in the first place.
Once aboard the new God Phoenix, Dr. Nambu explained that Gel Sadra had developed a mecha based on one of Berg Katse’s old designs. It was hidden in a Galactor base underneath the ocean. Apparently, she was planning to attack the Ogon Penninsula.
Ryu flew to the underwater co-ordinates that the ISO had transmitted.
The KNT quickly realized that they were no match for the mecha’s freeze ray. Ryu lost control of the ship, and they plunged into an iceberg. The New God Phoenix was trapped, and they couldn’t get out.
“We need to use Science Ninja Technique: Firebird!” Ken stated. But when Ryu tried, they discovered that one of the electrical connections in the G-2 storage bay had been broken.
Joe had been silent up until now. He had acted professionally, not giving any indication that anything was amiss between him and Jun.
“Leave it to me.” Joe stated. He ran off to the G-2 docking bay.
A short while later Ryu’s communicator chirped. “Go for it, Ryu!” came Joe’s voice.
Whatever Joe had done, it was enough. The firebird technique was successful. They were able to escape the iceberg, and destroy the mecha with Super Bird Missiles.
On the way back to G-Town, Joe re-entered the cockpit. His gloves and hands were torn to shreds, but he refused to comment on what had happened. He merely took his seat and sat in a cold silence, ignoring the puzzled looks around him.
Jun’s mood was grim. It was things like this, that had caused that terrible fight between them last night. She needed to know more. Quietly, she slipped out and went to the G-2 docking bay. There, she found the broken electrical connection. The two ends of the wires were lying on the ground. It hadn’t been fixed at all.
Analyzing the situation, she realized that the two ends were less than an arm’s length apart.
Joe had a lot of explaining to do. But she knew now that no explanation would be forthcoming.
Despite her anger regarding Joe’s silence, Jun still cared for him. Her feelings weren’t just something she could turn off like a light switch. While she pondered the meaning of her night with Ken, she also longed for Joe to come to her and reveal what he had been hiding. But he did not.
Then, one day, a few weeks later, she was guarding Joe on a mission. He had been chosen to drive important documents to ISO headquarters, but had gotten a blinding headache, and had lost control of his car, while trying to avoid a large group of green-suited goons.
Jun was incredibly concerned. She had thought that the days of those terrible headaches were behind him. Whatever his secrets, Joe had seemed healthy enough, since his return. Dodging Galactor assassins, she jumped off of the G-3, and into Joe’s car, trying to help him drive. But it was too late. The car plunged off of a cliff and flipped over, rendering the Condor unconscious. Jun dragged Joe into a nearby cave, and tried to contact the other KNT for help. Waiting for Joe to regain consciousness, she found a tracking device in his messenger bag. No wonder Galactor had known exactly where he was!
Joe groaned. What had happened to him? He had thought that his brain modifications would prevent any more sudden headaches. Then he saw Jun fiddling with the tracking device, and knew that it must have interfered with his cybernetic brain.
Jun. She had tried to help him, leaping into the car without thinking, facing death with him as it fell from the cliff. If she hadn’t taken him here… wherever this was… he might be dead even now. Although she hadn’t talked to him in weeks, he knew she still cared for him a great deal. The knowledge comforted him, even though he knew he could no longer return her feelings.
He had tried to forget her. He distanced himself, and barely spoke to her now. Knowing he was now the most expendable member of the KNT, he dived headfirst into the most dangerous missions, taking the most risks. So far, he had managed to escape unscathed every time. But he knew it couldn’t last. Dr. Rafael had plans for him… plans that would no doubt result in his death. He didn’t have much time left, and didn’t want Jun to grieve him again, when he was really gone this time.
Then two weeks ago he had run into Kathy… he had never thought he would see her again. She was a woman he should love: another Rafael-created cyborg like himself. If anyone could understand what he was going through, it was she. But she had grabbed the magma solidification device from him, and thrown herself into the lava to stop Galactor’s volcanic eruption… and now she was gone too. He had thought he could love her, but deep in his soul, he knew that the only true love he would ever know, would be with Jun.
Was Kathy’s demise what it would be like for him too? Would he plunge himself into harm’s way, on a moment’s notice, to fulfill his true destiny?
Whatever that destiny was, it didn’t include Jun. He was certain of that.
Jun noticed that Joe was awake.
“Thank God, Joe! I was getting worried about you.”
“I’m too tough to kill…” Joe groaned.
“An attitude like that, is what will get you killed!” responded Jun hotly. “We need to focus! I’ve been injured too. If Galactor finds us now, we’ll be in trouble. I’m trying to contact the others, but I’m not sure my signal is getting through.”
“Don’t worry about me.” Joe mumbled. “I’m not your problem any more.”
His words hit their mark. Jun’s eyes filled with tears. She angrily brushed them away and tried to change the subject.
“Joe… while you were unconscious… you were mumbling. Something about Dr. Rafael?”
“Look Jun, just stay out of my business!” he snapped. “I don’t need you prying into my affairs!”
As usual, he didn’t want to talk to her about what was going on in his mind. Jun let out a painful sigh. She should be used to it by now, but her heart still cried out at his indifference.
Suddenly, she heard a noise. Turning around, she saw a large Galactor tank-like mecha, accompanied by at least a hundred soldiers, forcing its way into the cavern.
Jun panicked only briefly. She couldn’t stand on her wounded leg. Joe was not in Birdstyle. He had no protection from their weapons, and was still too groggy to fight. As the soldiers trained their guns on him, she did the only thing she could do.
She covered his body with her own.
She cried out as the weapons fire hit her. Collapsing on the ground, her last conscious thought, was of Joe.
Joe couldn’t believe what had just happened. Jun had just sacrificed herself to save him. Even worse, it hadn’t really been necessary. His new body probably would have withstood the close range fire. But Jun’s could not. He was ashamed at the depth of her love for him, and the lengths to which she had gone, to in order to protect him. He didn’t deserve such caring.
Seeing Jun’s inert body slumped on the ground filled him with a sudden, cold rage.
Dodging Galactor’s fire, he quickly ducked in an alcove, and changed into Birdstyle. He would destroy Galactor, even if it meant tearing them apart with his bare hands.
Ken saw the smoke, and heard the shouts of Galactor goons from inside the cavern. He ran towards the explosions, Ryu and Jinpei close behind. He only hoped that he wasn’t too late, and that Joe and Jun were all right.
His knees nearly gave way, when he saw Joe carrying Jun out of the haze. She was obviously wounded, and Joe carried her tenderly up the slope to the remaining KNT.
Gently, he deposited her into Ken’s arms. His eyes sent a clear message.
She was Ken’s responsibility now.
Ken took that new responsibility seriously. He watched over Jun, both on and off duty. While she didn’t exactly fall into his arms, or his bed, he felt that she was coming to terms with the night they had spent together, almost a year ago.
The Condor had his own sense of honor, and apparently it precluded him from interfering. They saw him as little as possible, and on missions he was always professionally distant.
And then... then came that fateful day, when Dr. Pandora had shot Hakase. She had successfully stopped his brainwaves, temporarily thwarting Gel Sadra’s attack on Dr. Nambu, but it had been Joe who had saved the day by defeating her psionic fiend.
It was then, that Dr. Pandora had told them the truth. Joe, alone, had been able to accomplish thi, because of his cybernetically enhanced mind. The KNT let out a collective gasp. A cyborg???
Looking at Joe’s face, Jun knew it was true. This was what he had been keeping from her. As he walked out of the room, Jun ran after him. She didn’t notice Ken following behind.
Outside the building, she breathlessly caught up to Joe.
“Wait!” she pleaded as she grabbed his shoulder.
Joe slowly turned to look at her, his eyes like granite. “What more do you want from me, Jun?” he asked, “You know, now. Just please, let me go.”
“Joe… is this what you’ve been hiding from me? From all of us? Is this your deep, dark secret? Or is there more?”
Joe slowly shook his head. “No more.” he replied with a grimace. “That damned Pandora just laid me bare, for all of you to gape at.”
“But, Joe…” Jun said, her eyes shining, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me if part of you is a machine. What matters to me is that we can be together. After all… you’re still human here…” and she touched his chest, where his heart should be.
A laugh erupted from inside of Joe. But there was no joy, no life in it. It was a cold, bitter laugh, that cursed the day Dr. Rafael had ever found him.
“I hate to break it to you, sweetheart,” he said in a grim voice, “but there are cyborg components there too. I’m not a man anymore… I’m a machine. Any feelings I have are just remnants of my past life…”
“A life, where I did love you…” he whispered softly, “but not now… I can’t love you, now.” He reached out to touch her face and stopped, his fingers a bare inch from her skin. He held them there for a long moment.
Dropping his hand, he turned and walked away again. This time, Jun let him go. She knew it was finally over.
Completely, irrevocably over.
Just as her sorrow overtook her, she felt strong arms encircle her waist, from behind. She turned around, coming face to face, with Ken.
This was the man who had always been there for her. This was the man who had stood by her, allowed her time to sort out her feelings. Whose patience and tenderness had always gone unrewarded. Yet, he was still there for her now.
They embraced, and Jun felt her soul lighten.
From a distance, Joe watched them connect. He knew he had done the right thing. His life was intended for destruction, and his time was coming to an end. He had no right to claim Jun, no matter how much she protested. She needed Ken, to make her happy.
Only, things didn’t turn out the way that Joe had thought they would. He hadn’t died with Sosai X; it had been Gel Sadra who had taken the brunt of the blast. Afterward, he had suffered severe exhaustion, as Dr. Nambu searched for a way to re-charge his cybernetic body, and return him to a semblance of normalcy.
During it all, Jun had been there, but it was not as it had been. She had found peace with Ken, and Joe knew that Jun spent most of her nights at Ken’s house, at the airstrip. She was concerned for Joe, she cared for Joe, but her passion for him was gone.
He had watched Ken and Jun grow closer, as he had always thought they were meant to. Why had he ever been with her? Was it some kind of karmic punishment of Ken’s for treating Jun so callously all those years ago? Or was it Fate, granting him something precious, to help him through those dark days with Dr. Rafael? Joe didn’t know.
All he knew, was that his love for Jun burned as brightly as ever. He had come to understand that it always would.
And then, one day, he realized that he wasn’t going to die. That he was going to live a life as full and as long as any other man. And he had no one to share it with.
He knew then, that he had to try and get her back… even if that meant hurting Ken. She was the only thing that made his life whole. He had to fight for the only woman who had ever touched his soul.
He had made a terrible mistake, and he resolved to put it right.
Joe stood on the grass, in the darkness, his mind preparing for what was to come. He glanced at his teammates from the corner of his eye. Ryu shifted impatiently from one foot to the other, while Jinpei squirmed with nervousness, and tugged at his collar. Ken stared stoically into the distance.
Joe’s skin itched. The tux he wore was uncomfortable, but on this day it didn’t matter. What mattered, was what was about to happen.
His mind drifted back to that day… was it only a month ago? The day that Leader Z had been destroyed. It had been a close call for all of them. He and Ken had barely made it through, and they had all returned home in silence, contemplating their own mortality.
As they approached what was left of the Gatchaman Base, the spur-of the moment proposal had burst forth. Right there, on the bridge of the Gatchaspartan, on bended knee… from the heart… and Jun had been overwhelmed. She had readily accepted, and the somber mood had been lifted.
And now the day had arrived. Jinpei kept constantly checking the rings. As best man, he was responsible for their safety, and Ryu had already threatened him with bodily harm, if they should get lost.
The first edges of pink and silver began to show across the horizon, and then the light of dawn broke.
Jun appeared at the edge of the lawn. She had timed it perfectly. The rays of the sunrise set her eyes and skin aglow with color. Her hair floated behind her, like a gossamer cloud,he creamy satin and cloth of gold that comprised her gown flowed elegantly across the grass. Her bare toes peeping out from under her dress gave her the look of an ethereal faerie, made flesh for this magical moment.
She wore no veil, so Joe could see her in her full glory, coming toward him. He gulped nervously, stunned by her ingenuous beauty. It was obvious that she had never been happier in her entire life, and her joy overflowed to those around her.
She was perfect.
As she came closer, Joe looked into her eyes, and saw the radiance and peace reflected there. He was amazed by the intensity of her love. A lump began to form in his throat.
Jun stepped up to the ceremonial platform, fingers outstretched. Her groom took her hand, gently leading her to the Justice of the Peace.
Joe stood quietly, as Jun and Ken said their vows, against the backdrop of the brilliant morning sky.
His change of heart had come too late.
‘Jun’s happiness is all that matters. Jun’s happiness is all that matters.’ He repeated the mantra in his mind. In the end, all he had ever been trying to do was assure her happiness.