1. Chapter 1 by Maya Perez
Editing by Wendy Dinsmore
Ken walked into the room and spotted Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei. Though the four of them hadn't seen each other in months, he instantly noticed how far apart they sat from one another as if afraid to admit the others existed. How had he let things ever get so wrong?
His gaze first moved toward Jun. She looked so thin and wasted away, consumed as she typed into her laptop, her only reason for existence. Jinpei sat on the other side of the room, one giant coil of tension, all of his attention on the four coins he was busy juggling. Ryu appeared the most uncomfortable, fidgeting in his chair, wanting to be anywhere but there.
Ken ran a hand through his hair, wondering if there was any hope for them. "Thank you all for coming. It's been a while."
He didn't get much of a reaction, just a nod or two. Not that he was at all surprised.
"Ken, we're all quite busy and your invitation was more of a command than a request." Jun's fingers never slowed on the keys as she spoke. She never once glanced in his direction.
Ryu shuffled his feet. "My father needs me this afternoon, so..."
"Aniki, what's this about?" Jinpei stopped juggling, but wouldn't look at Ken directly, his jaw tight.
Ken sighed internally. When was the last time the four of them had spent more than five minutes in a room together? When was the last time they'd thought of each other as more than mere acquaintances? They had become so much less than they'd been before. The others had given up on each another after Joe had disappeared and couldn't be found. He'd been unable to stop what was happening until he too had given in like the rest. And now...
"I found him. I found Joe."
All eyes finally turned in his direction.
"What did you say?" Jun's hands were still poised over the keys but had stopped. Her face was flushed.
"I found Joe."
"Really, Aniki?" Bright excitement flared through Jinpei before going dark. "But he didn't come back with you, did he." Flat eyes looked past Ken at the empty doorway behind him.
"How is he? Is he doing okay?" Ryu asked the questions in a small voice, not looking at Ken, almost as if he feared the answers.
"Where is he?" Jun ejected out of her chair, her laptop falling to the floor with a crack, totally forgotten.
Ken could barely look at the need radiating like heat from her. Of them all, she had been searching for Joe the longest, the hardest, an overwhelming passion that had denied everything else-including him.
"He was in Huntwall, of all places. A small town not far from the border."
"And you've seen him?"
The frenzied expression on her face made him want to cry. "Yes, I've seen him."
"Then why are you just standing there? Take us to him, take us to him now!" Jun rushed forward and grabbed him by the arm, half twisting him around before he could try to stop her.
"It isn't that easy, Jun. Things have happened."
"Things? Things?" She let go of his arm and stepped back as if he were a leper. "What things?"
"He's been shot."
"So he's dead?" The lack of emotion in Jinpei's voice was like a pit.
Jun swayed on her feet.
"No," Ken said quickly, "he's not dead. Nambu sent off troops and medics he'd been gathering by the border the moment we reported in, so they showed up minutes after it all went down. They were able to stabilize him and then took him out of there."
"So where is he now?" Ryu asked.
Ken looked away. "I don't know. And Nambu's not telling." Barely reined anger burned in the back of his eyes as he faced them again. "I was hoping together we could find out anyway."
"Wait, wait a minute." Jun stumbled back to her chair and sat down, her breath coming in gasps. She placed her head between her knees to calm her breathing.
Ken noticed that none of the others moved to help her. That's how far things had disintegrated between them. He felt his face harden.
"Some - of what you're - saying makes no sense." Jun's face finally came up and she stared at him from her seat. "How did you find him in the first place?"
He felt them all waiting for his answer. He was sure they wouldn't like it. "I didn't find him, exactly. Nambu sent me on a mission to contact an agent who'd reported possible activity in a known Galactor sympathizer's villa and needed help verifying what he'd found. I didn't know the agent was Joe until we met."
"That, that can't be right, can it?" Ryu asked. "I mean, how could Joe be an agent for the ISO? Wouldn't that mean Hakase knew?" His confused face begged the others for an answer.
Ken fought to keep the emotion out of his voice. "That's my guess."
"So all this time Nambu knew where Joe was?" Jinpei's face fell.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." Pale as death, Jun suddenly jumped up from her chair and rushed out the door, both hands held tightly over her mouth.
Ken understood only too well how she felt-how souring it was to find out you'd wasted the last year of your life searching for someone when someone close to you had already made sure you'd never find him. This wasn't the first time Nambu had played such games. A habit Ken hoped to break and soon. At least he was gratified to see some concern in the gazes of the other two after their departing teammate.
"Aniki, none of this makes any sense. Why would Hakase do such a thing?"
Some of Ken's bitterness leaked through despite his efforts to contain it. "Why does he do anything? I would love to give you a better answer, except the good doctor isn't returning my calls or taking appointments. He's seemingly holed up in some facility offsite, and no one is telling where."
"You think he's with Joe then," Ryu piped in.
"I do. So if we find one, we're likely to find the other."
"But why hide him?" Jinpei asked. "If he let you find him the first time, why hide him now?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
"I want to see them." Joe's voice modulated strangely for a moment at the end. Like everything else about his new body, he was having to relearn how to do things he'd always taken for granted before.
"You're not ready."
"Like hell I'm not!" Joe glared at Nambu through the flat screen set like a window in his training habitat. "I might not have one hundred percent control over everything yet, but they can stand on the other side of that screen just as easily as you can."
The large domed room had been Joe's home for the past several weeks and it was starting to get to him. As sickeningly white as a hospital room, the padded walls stared at him day and night. Sturdy exercise equipment and extra tough furniture were the only things around to break the monotony-and those had been replaced several times with identical clones. Nambu had not spared any expense for his comfort, however, fitting the place with a kick-ass stereo system, a huge plasma screen, and even had books and magazines of all descriptions scanned and made available to him through a built in terminal screen--all of it activated by voice command. So when they weren't putting him through his paces he had the means to keep himself entertained, but being locked up all the time was still incredibly hard to take.
"Seeing you fully healed will be enough of a shock to them. It will be difficult for them to understand what's happened and that you're now a cyborg. Having them around you when you're in less than optimal control will only make accepting the changes that much harder."
Pandora, who'd been in the background studying the day's readings, now decided to add her two cents as well. "Mr. Asakura-Joe, I'm sure it won't be that much longer. You're making incredible progress. All of you will be together again before you know it."
Anger flared through Joe as he turned his attention to the red headed woman. Though directly responsible for giving him a second chance at life, she had driven him mercilessly from day one, acting as if he were nothing more than her personal toy. He couldn't wait to get out from under her thumb. She'd accomplished a miracle and he was grateful, but there was something false about her, something he couldn't pin down.
Joe turned away from the screen before his loose mouth would say something he'd later regret. As he was only too aware, he wouldn't be cleared out of this prison and released into the world until she told the powers that be that he was ready. That it felt as if he were totally at her mercy chafed more than he could say.
At least having to concentrate on walking distracted him from thinking about her. Though he spoke and moved more normally than when he'd first awakened here, such simple things were still not quite second nature. When he got careless, things tended to get broken.
"Have you even told any of them I'm back yet? Hell, did you even tell Ken I didn't die?" Joe remembered only too clearly Ken's worry and anguish right before he'd lost consciousness. He hadn't seen or spoken to his old friend since.
"He was informed."
The fact Nambu said nothing else spoke volumes. Joe was sure Ken had demanded more information and been stonewalled at every turn. Typical.
"So when will I be ready to be seen by them?"
Pandora answered that one for him. "Well, basic movements are coming along fine, but they need fine tuning. Also a lot of the more delicate maneuvers are still beyond you, like grabbing an unpeeled ripe banana. I'd say another month should do it-if you apply yourself."
Another month in this hellhole, another month of the damage he'd caused eating at the others like a cancer when he should be working to fix his mistakes. What did those two think he'd held on for so long for? He sure as hell hadn't done it for them! Shit.
Joe pounded his fist against the metal table and inadvertently put in a three-inch dent.
"Or maybe it will be more like two months."
"Have you found anything yet?"
Ken hovered over Jun's shoulder, watching a lot of unintelligible code flow past on the screen.
When she didn't immediately answer, he reached out to touch her, but then hesitated. Ever since she'd returned from dealing with the shock of Nambu's betrayal, she'd been restless, eager to do whatever it took-just like she'd been those first few months after Joe's disappearance. It made him feel uneasy though it was probably exactly what was needed at the moment. But what would happen if they failed?
Jun's fingers flew over the keys though her urgency wasn't exactly the same as last time's. Before, it'd been tainted by grief and piled on guilt-this time it burned in her and it appeared as if it would scorch anything that got in her way.
"I'm past three of the four safeguards. The last one is going to be tricky." Her eyes never left the screen, absorbing the scrolling code. "Whatever he's into this time is big. This terminal is not connected to any networks or phone lines, meaning the only way to get at the data is after breaking into the building and then only if you knew it was even here. On top of that, the drive is encrypted and full of defenses. He truly wants no one to know what's in here."
Ken glanced around Nambu's dark office, almost smiling at the fact those restrictions would work on anyone but them. It was the sort of thing they'd trained for most of their lives. Now Nambu would see what it was like to have those skills used against him.
The door to the office opened silently and Jinpei stuck his head in. "Aniki, you guys have got to hurry. The next security pass is in less than ten minutes. Ryu will only be able to hold them off another five minutes max without it starting to look suspicious."
Ken nodded and the kid disappeared.
"Once we get in here," Jun said, "I'll make sure to leave a backdoor so when we have to do this again, it won't take nearly this long." Her words were clipped and tense. "I can also do some chipping on some of the components so the system will automatically create copies of all files and make them ready for easy downloading. Then he won't be keeping any secrets from us ever again."
Ken sighed. That would sure be a first, but not entirely true. The owners of the secrets will have changed, not the fact of the secrets themselves. But it would definitely be nice to be in the know for once. He was very tired of the games Nambu kept on playing. None of them had ever deserved them-but they'd all been made to pay dearly anyway.
"Okay, I'm in." Jun's fingers flew even faster over the keys. "Doing a search now."
He stared hard at the screen, willing it to give them the information they were looking for.
"There's nothing under Joe's name. Let me try Hakase's. Then I'll narrow it down by date."
Ken could hear the excitement of a nearing kill in her voice.
"I have a couple of hits. This one here looks promising," she said. "It's on something called Project Human Phoenix. I'll download what there is of it now."
Project Human Phoenix? Did this have something to do with the Fiery Phoenix? Was Nambu trying to give Joe back to the team by making him into some kind of energy covered human or could it have more to do with the legends connected to the ancient phoenix instead? The Greek legend said that when the phoenix was close to death it would build its own pyre, burn, and then rise once more, reborn, from its ashes. He felt his pulse speed up. If that was true... He clamped down on the thought before it could go any further. As things stood, it would be best to wait and see before jumping to any conclusions.
Jun took a couple of more minutes creating her back door once she downloaded the data, then got out. She sent Ken a look of pure triumph as she ejected the CD and tucked it away.
He found himself giving her a half smile, more pleased by the life shinning in her eyes at the moment than their actual success.
The door to the office opened again and they both froze.
"Aniki!" It was Jinpei again.
"We just finished," Ken told him. "Go get Ryu. Let's meet at my place in a half hour."
"Roger." The kid disappeared.
Ken and Jun weren't far behind him.
As agreed, all four members met again at Ken's condominium. He'd bought the place less than a year before with the proceeds from the sale of the airfield. There'd been no point in keeping the place, and selling it would at least let someone else make use of it rather than letting it rot slowly from neglect. Between his fieldwork and searching for Joe, he'd had even less time to take care of things there than during the war, and even less inclination.
The condo was large, boasting three bedrooms, two baths, several fireplaces and other amenities. But aside from one room filled with untouched boxes, the place was virtually bare and untouched. No pictures, no posters, nothing to warm the place-there'd just never seemed to be a point to go to the trouble-a reflection of his life and the barren place it had become. He doubted he'd even spent more than a few days here at a time and it wasn't as if he'd ever expected to have visitors, not the way things had turned out.
"Nice place, Aniki." Jinpei did a cartwheel in the living room, the only furniture there an old beat up couch and long coffee table with a laptop, its docking station, and computer screen set up at one end. They looked swallowed in the broad space. "Kinda empty though. Did you just get it?"
Ken didn't look at any of them. "No. I've had it for a while."
"I like the carpet," Ryu said. It was colored a deep blue-green.
"Came with the place."
"Ken, may I?" Jun pointed to the computer.
Jun almost leapt for it. She instantly got to work.
The rest of them waited tensely to see what she would be able to make of the data they'd stolen.
"That's odd," Jun said several minutes later.
Ken forced himself to sit down, trying to prepare himself for the worst. If they hadn't found what they were looking for, he had no idea what they would do next. "What is it?"
"Well, there's a lot of information here, yet none of it actually says what the project is about. Most of the details are about the facility, stress points, reinforced areas, and available equipment. It's weird."
"But Neechan, does it say where the place is? And is Joe there?" Jinpei sat down on the carpet, legs crossed, looking out of sorts.
Jun slowly nodded. "I have the coordinates and it shows Nambu should be there as well as the head of the project, a Dr. Pandora."
Ken had never heard of her. Was she new?
"It's not far, is it? I've really been gone too long from home already." Ryu didn't look in their direction, but stared at the floor.
Ken bristled at his words, but held his tongue. Since the end of the war they'd been a team in name only. Once peace was achieved, they'd been decommissioned, like the God Phoenix, but kept on the payroll for past efforts and the off chance they might someday be needed again. They'd been set loose, to live their own lives, to do as they wanted. Could he really blame Ryu for not wishing to get involved in digging up painful memories? He had no authority to order any of them around anymore.
Jun glanced up, fire in her eyes. "If this is where I think it is, it will take us a day or more to get there. Since we no longer have the God Phoenix, we'll have to take a commercial flight there and then take a ferry to the island before charting or stealing a boat."
Ryu still didn't look up. "That's a long time. I don't know if..." He left the rest unsaid.
Jun's growing anger now reached her face. "Don't you want to see Joe?"
Ryu's hand bunched into a fist on his thigh. "How do we know he wants to see us? He did run away without a word or a good bye after all."
The tension in the room was almost palpable.
Jun slowly stood up. Her previous anger had been replaced by sudden doubt. "He does want to see us, doesn't he, Ken? You did get that much out of him when you met with him before. Didn't you?" She turned her tortured gaze in his direction. The other two also followed suit.
"Yes, of course." Ken lied, Joe never having said anything of the kind. But he knew Joe would want to see them. He would make it be true, for their sakes. Now that he knew why Joe had left them and he'd found him again, he wasn't about to let him go-whether anyone liked it or not. With Joe back, things had no choice but to get better between all of them again. They had to.
"The sooner we get moving on this the better. Let's give Hakase as little time to botch this for us as we can." Ken started rattling off orders. The busier he could keep them, the less time they would have to be plagued by doubts.
Using ISO resources, Jun was able to supply the four of them with forged identities and legitimate itineraries to get them past the security checks in Greace on the way to an ISO sponsored research island which they would stop at before moving on to their final destination. Though their real identities had more than enough clearance for where they were going, Ken wanted nothing to give away their presence if Nambu was looking. Ryu and Jinpei were in charge of scavenging what equipment they might need. It seemed only apt that since the ISO had been used to conceal Joe from them that the same resources would be used now to get him back.
They reached Greace and then the port city of Tannos without incident, their authorization papers getting them past customs with ease. Boarding the ferry to Pecos Major didn't prove a problem either. The island served as a minor ISO outpost espousing numerous lab facilities, the majority aimed at the study of marine life and the changes in their environment due to spilled chemicals, oil, and other agents in the sea as well as the ramifications of garbage dumping. Those who'd been living there since before the ISO facilities were built had expanded their entrepreneurships from just fishing to restaurants, small shops, and a multitude of services.
Their final destination, Pecos Minor, could be seen from the island's largest pier as a distant slice of vegetation, harmless and deserted.
"It still doesn't look like much," Jinpei snorted.
The four of them were currently on the balcony of the lounge area in the ISO dormitory for visiting scientist and students.
"So much the better to keep secrets in," Ken said.
Ryu frowned. "Still, why take Joe there? It's so remote and isolated, not the type of place to take someone needing a hospital."
Jun's eyes flared. "Do you think he brought him here just to keep him away from us?"
Ken slowly shook his head. "To be honest, I just don't know. But with any luck, we'll be finding out tonight."
Four silent shadows extricated themselves from the dormitory building and rapidly made their way toward the beach. A sliver of a moon watched from above as they slid down the embankment beside one of the piers and went beneath it to continue their work unseen.
Not long after, a dark raft with four mismatched silhouettes inside it rowed quietly past the island's distant blinking markers and out to deeper waters.
They reached the island without incident. The soft sounds of nightlife and the rustling of leaves were the only things breaking the silence around them. From the specs they'd taken from Nambu's computer, they had a pretty good idea of the location of the entrance. Despite their efforts to find weak points in the installation from the data they'd stolen, they'd found that only the entrance was a possible penetration point. All vents and other points of possible covert entry built purposely too small to be used by humans.
Though the informationed they'd obtained said nothing of external monitoring devices, they all kept alert searching for them anyway. Aside from the plants and animals, however, there was nothing on the small strip of land that shouldn't be there. Anyone else inspecting the place would have thought it uninhabited. But they knew better.
The entrance lay hidden just where it was supposed to be. Jun easily bypassed the security system and opened the door. Ken felt a shot of adrenaline as they passed the dark portal, knowing that soon they'd be reunited with Joe again.
As they'd agreed on before coming, the four ninja began the search for their missing teammate floor by floor. The more Ken saw of the facility, the more he was confused. Yes, they'd found the usual communications room, staff quarters, etc, but one thing he had not found was a hospital wing, or anything that could be used to save someone in desperate need of medical care. Instead, they came across rooms filled with miniaturized machine parts, strange assembly canisters, scanners, and a room with a man sized table with more wires and computer equipment than he'd ever seen put together in one space. Just what was Nambu doing here? And how did Joe fit into all of it?
Ken saw his own questions mirrored in the faces of the others, though none of them voiced them out loud.
More disturbing were the heavy amount of emergency bulkheads and drop down metal doors set at major junctions. Ken felt a bit of uneasiness in the pit of his stomach, wondering what it was Nambu had built this to be defended against.
And then he found the giant magna-locked airlock.
It was huge, round, and was pushed into place by a reinforced four-foot thick rod. Whatever they had in there they didn't want coming out. Now that he thought of it that seemed to be the main idea on the way the place was built. Not to keep those inside safe from external threats, but to do everything in its power to keep something from getting out. Trying not to think of why Nambu would need such a thing and how it could be connected to Joe, Ken searched around for a way to open it.
Joe couldn't sleep. Though his body no longer needed rest, his brain still required at least a few hours of REM, but tonight it was having nothing to do with it.
He had another month, maybe two more in this hellhole. Four to eight weeks before he might be able to leave to find the others and see the extent of the damage he'd caused and then try to find a way to fix it. It wasn't right! Damn Pandora and her stupid tests, damn Nambu for his caution.
He paced the floor like a restless tiger, a single yellow strip of light his only companion. He wanted, needed to get out of this place. But Nambu had taken no chances-this space had been prepared especially for him and what he would become. Pandora knew his possible capabilities better than Joe did and between them had refitted this small outpost in expectation of his arrival. It still chafed how Pandora had told him of all the precautions with a smile, as if she were doing him a favor, so he wouldn't worry if his cybernetics got out of hand-instead of making it absolutely clear to him how much of a prison this place really was. Nambu had made it clear in his own way that he didn't want to take chances with Joe's usual impatience with hospitals and doctors as well as his penchant for leaving unannounced. As always, too much was at stake for him to take any risks. So, his little "home" was made of two-foot thick double steel reinforced concrete walls. His floor vents were the size of tissue boxes with welded grates for good measure. Even the view window wasn't real, but was made of projections from hidden cameras along the arch of the dome aimed at flat screens embedded in the walls.
Though he'd only mentioned this once, and then only in passing, Joe knew another reason Nambu worried. Though Galactor had a lot of experience with cybernetics, the ISO didn't. He didn't quite know what the effects of such a change would be to a human mind. Guess Hakase didn't think of him as the most stable of people, not that he could rightly blame him. And on some nights, what had changed in him did seem rather hard to accept, despite the benefits.
Besides, the world could end and he'd never know it. He'd had more freedom as a cripple than he'd yet to get in this place.
If they didn't let him out soon, even if only for a short while, Nambu would be having to put up with an extreme case of cabin fever. Maybe trashing the place a bit would give the doctor a clue.
Joe was smiling evilly in the near dark when an audible clang, followed quickly by another, reverberated through the room. He froze, having heard the sound before. The airlock was being cycled. But at this hour of the night? It couldn't be official; even Pandora wasn't that rude. So who?
He'd soon find out and he intended to make them sorry if they weren't supposed to be there. It would be a nice distraction and might yet give him a legitimate reason to trash the place.
A totally different kind of smile lit across his features. Whoever they were, they'd picked the wrong place to break into today.
Silently crossing the room, Joe sidled up to the still closed doorway. A sudden hiss signaled the release of the magna-lock. Joe felt his cybernetic muscles tensing, his mind quickly running through his options. That he didn't have full control of his body was a fact, but that didn't mean he was utterly helpless either.
As the thick metal door pulled back, he got ready. As soon as the shadow of the intruder moved past the opening, Joe side stepped behind it and gave it a double-handed shove up and forward. A surprised gasp was all he heard as the stranger was thrust violently forward. Joe didn't trust himself to grab or punch things without doing major damage, but this should soften up whoever it was enough for him to find out what was going on.
He tracked the dark form with his eyes and then got a surprise of his own as the intruder used the momentum to flip in midair then used his hands and feet to bounce off the curved wall to land unharmed on their feet.
"Do some fast talking, or be prepared to leave here in a body bag." Joe crouched down, not sure what the intruder would do next.
The familiar voice brought him up short. "Ken? Is that you?" A rush of excitement coursed through him.
"Aniki, is he in there?" Another familiar voice whispered in from the other side of the airlock.
"Jinpei?" They were here. They had found him.
Ken moved slowly into the faint yellow light. "Yes, he's here. Go get the others. Hurry."
Joe stepped back, resisting the impulse to rush to his friend and wrap his arm around his neck and mess up his hair while grinning happily.
Ken reached out past the airlock door with one arm, his gaze locked on Joe's indistinct figure. The interior lights clicked on.
Joe held his breath, not sure what Ken would see. Though he'd seen his own reflection in a mirror and both Nambu and Pandora had assured him he looked exactly as he had before the end of Kross Karakoram, it would be his friends who would prove the final test.
For his part, Ken looked well, though worn at the edges as if he'd not been getting enough rest of late. Joe watched him closely, especially as his friend's eyes grew slowly bigger as it filtered through that Joe was standing straight without the aid of a cane and looked better than he had any right to.
"How? Why would they...?"
Joe opened his mouth to answer, not totally sure of what he would say, when Ryu, Jinpei, and Jun abruptly poured into the room. They all followed Ken's astonished gaze and stopped to stare at him as well.
"Joe-Aniki..." Jinpei's face was a mask of incredulity, as if not having believed they would actually find him until this very moment.
"You look...so good." Ryu's eyes were as big as saucers.
"Joe!" Jun's astonished face filled with tears and then she was suddenly in front of him, wrapping him in her arms. "Joe!"
Ecstatic at their presence, he automatically moved to return the hug then brought himself up short, stiffening in her arms.
"Joe?" Her tear covered face glanced up into his eyes, sensing his hesitation and abrupt tension. She took a half step back, her face crumbling with misery, but not quite letting go. "What is it?"
Joe tried hard to smile, but was sure he felt short of the mark. How could he explain to her he'd been suddenly filled with terror at the thought that he could have very well hurt her if he'd not caught himself several moments ago? "It's not what you think."
"G-3, step away from him." Nambu's authoritative voice boomed across the room. The projectors kicked into life, showing the monitoring room on the screen. The doctor was there, wearing a blue robe, his hair disheveled, the trademark glasses sitting slightly askew on his face.
"What?" She glanced at Nambu then at Joe, looking even more confused.
"Jun, I asked you to step away from him."
Joe's expression soured. "She's not in danger, damn you!"
He did nothing, however, as she hesitantly let go of him and stepped further back.
"I would never hurt them."
Nambu's face was impassive. "I know you would never do so intentionally, but at the moment, you're not entirely under your own control."
Ken turned to face the screen, his expression clouded. "What is this about? Why is Joe locked up like some experimental bomb? What is project Human Phoenix?"
"This would best be discussed once you have all exited from the chamber."
"Like hell! I'm through doing things just because you say so. You took Joe and disappeared. You didn't even have the decency to let me know if he was dead or alive, even though it was you who arranged for me to find him in the first place. You're going to explain this and you're going to explain it now." Ken almost shook in his fury.
Joe wondered how long he'd been holding it all in.
"You owe it to us, Hakase." Jun's anguish was palpable. "You hid him from us, though you knew we wanted nothing more than to find him!"
Joe lowered his eyes, his fists bunching at his sides, the pain in the room so real and the very thing he'd tried so hard, or thought he'd tried so hard to avoid for them. Yet it had all been in vain. But he would end it, he would start ending it now. "I suggest, Hakase, that you tell them everything they want to know, otherwise I'll walk out of here and damn the consequences."
Confused expressions filled the others faces but they remained silent as they all waited for Nambu's answer. Joe glared up at him, prepared to fight to the surface if the doctor didn't capitulate--screw his project. There were some holes in Joe's understanding of this mess that he wanted filled in anyway.
"I see." The doctor removed his glasses, suddenly looking exhausted. He sat down and after massaging the bridge of his nose for a moment, put them back on. "Project Human Phoenix has been a work in progress initiated over a year ago." His hard gaze raked over all of them. "It was started about the same time Joe approached me with his desire to leave. The agency had been contacted by indirect means by an ex-Galactor scientist calling himself Rafael. This individual had knowledge he had no right to be privy to, most of it concerning the current disabled state of the Condor as well as his belief that Sosai X, the true power behind Galactor, had recently returned to our world to pick up where he'd left off at Karakoram."
"The alien's back?" Jinpei exchanged worried looks with Ryu. The rest were entirely focused on the doctor.
"After making this known, this Dr. Rafael then offered to give the ISO some highly technical information with the stipulation it be used to engineer the downfall of the soon to be resurrected organization, but specifically X itself."
Ken interrupted before the doctor could go on. "What kind of technical information?"
"Robotics. Specifically human interfaced robotics-cybernetics."
Ken's eyes flashed in Joe's direction. Joe didn't meet his gaze waiting to see what else Nambu would say.
"At the time, the information looked as if could prove invaluable if a new war was forthcoming. But verifying it was authentic was going to take some time. So, rather than let the one to whom it could prove most beneficial disappear and run the chance he couldn't be found once the time came, I decided to help Joe achieve his goal while making sure to keep him within reach."
Joe snorted. So that was why he'd been so accommodating.
"In the meantime, I tried to convince Rafael to join the ISO to advance his research and put his ideas to work. Sadly, he refused. His work is years ahead of its time and the equipment to implement his schematics had to be constructed, tested, calibrated, and tested again. Luckily I was able to find an up-and-coming cybernetics expert to help bring Rafael's proposals to reality. The expert's name is Pandora."
Nambu leaned forward. "But even with her help, it took a year to get to the point where we thought there might be a modicum of a chance of success. Our uncertainty, though it grew less each month, is why none of you, including Joe, were told of this possible eventuality. Yet when the report came in that Huntwall was possibly showing renewed Galactor activity it appeared to be the right time to bring Joe back into the fold and then present to him the possibilities. This is the reason Ken was sent in to assist.
"Unfortunately, matters escalated rather rapidly once Joe was shot. The question on whether or not he would agree to the procedure was now irrelevant. Either it would work or it wouldn't. So since he was dying, I made the only choice that could be made."
Jinpei stepped forward. "So Joe-Aniki had parts of him replaced? His heart, his bad leg?"
"That and more. After the internal damage to his system from Katse's drugs, the bullets, and then the final shot which severed his spine, there was little to nothing left in him worth saving. So we didn't. Virtually nothing was transferred to his new cyborg body aside from his brain."
Joe was shocked, though he was sure he should have known better. During his stay, he'd not asked for many details of his transformation and tightlipped as ever, Nambu had offered little to none. And he'd be damned if he was ever going to ask anything from Pandora. When he'd seen himself in the mirror and seen his old face, his old body, he'd just assumed... He didn't know what he'd assumed.
Joe stepped back, feeling suddenly ill, then wondering how he could manage it if he had nothing to feel ill with. He'd been turned into Lucy, and he remembered only too clearly what had happened to her. Had Nambu planted a self-destruct device inside him too? Was he now just a piece of hardware to be used when convenient and the tucked away somewhere when there was no more use for it anymore?
He glanced up afraid of what he might see, and saw his own thoughts reflected in the face of the others. Was there also concern there, perhaps fear? He stared at the ground not entirely sure those feelings weren't also his own.
"How could you do this?" Ken yelled at Nambu's image on the screen. "Did you even ask him if he wanted this? Or did you just decide to play God on your own?"
"So you would have preferred that I just let him die?" There was no emotion in Nambu's quiet response.
Ken swept the question aside, any answer too emotionally loaded to discuss now. "Irregardless, it still doesn't explain why you've been avoiding me, why you wouldn't tell us what was going on, and why you're demanding we don't get near him now."
Nambu stood up slowly. "The success of this project was chancy at best-raising your hopes up would have been cruel. There was also the matter of security. The last thing the world needs right now is for Galactor to find out what has been done. As to why you should leave, Joe is not yet in full control of his body. He's stronger than he was and has yet to get used to compensating for that fact. The chances for disaster until he's gotten fully acclimated to his new parameters are high."
"You could have still told us, despite all that..." Jun would no longer look at him, her arms wrapped about herself as if she were cold.
"I only made the decision fate deemed necessary. And I will continue to make them as best I can for as long as I can. That you understand my reasoning is not always necessary." Nambu's face was unreadable, his voice flat. It was normally a warning sign.
"You better get used to it then," Ken snapped back. "Because I've just about had my fill of decisions being made on my behalf-on our behalf-without being consulted."
Jinpei and Ryu stared at Ken with wide, glazed eyes as if this demand, along with the other revelations that day had become more than they could mentally take. Jun looked set. Joe totally agreed with Ken. They owed Nambu a lot, but his games had also cost them a lot too. Enough was enough.
"Be that as it may," Nambu retorted calmly, "it's late and what's done is done. There are unused quarters you can borrow for the rest of the evening. Dr. Pandora can answer your more technical question in the morning if necessary. Also, please leave things as you found them." The screen went blank.
"That went...badly..." Ryu ran his hands through his spiky hair. They were shaking.
"I bet he has a bunch of troops waiting in the morning to escort us off. He was mad. We're mad." Jinpei still stared at the empty screen as he spoke.
"Are you as dangerous to be around as he says?" Ken made his way across the room, voicing the question only loud enough for Joe to hear.
Joe shrugged. "I doubt it, but I can't say for sure. I haven't been out of this stinking room since I first woke up here." He tried to hold back the bitterness and frustration he felt at this, but had a hard time doing it. His friends were here, he wanted desperately to go with them, yet now that he knew more about what he had lost than before he found himself thinking that perhaps it would be better, safer, if he did stay locked up in here--no matter how much he didn't like it.
Ken nodded. "Okay, I'm willing to take your word for it. Come with us as we take Hakase up on his hospitality so we can then seal this place up as he asked us to." His eyes were bright.
Joe could feel his needs and fears warring inside him. "Sounds like a plan."
Ken led the way with Joe right behind him, the others bringing up the rear. As they cycled the airlock and reset the locks, Joe felt a moment of elation at finding himself on the thing's other side. It felt even better with the others there as well.
Ken stood by him as if they were the same they'd always been. Joe could see Jun out of the corner of his eye hovering about as if afraid to be noticed. Jinpei's face was a changing mask of emotions, flickering too fast to read. Of them all, Ryu seemed to be the one trying the hardest to keep his distance.
"Aniki, those lights over there weren't on before." Jinpei pointed down the hall outside the airlock to the left.
"How automated is this place?" Ken asked Joe.
"If my room's any indication, it might be a lot. Could be Nambu's equivalent of a yellow brick road."
"Are we going to follow it?" Ryu nervously eyed the lit path.
Ken shrugged. "Might as well, since he went through all the trouble to do it. Stay sharp though."
The kid bounced down the hall, taking point, flashing a grin as he took off.
"The way's clear, Aniki."
A number of turns later, they found a small common area with a number of rooms attached. Five of the doors were open, the rooms lit.
"I think he's watching us," Ryu whispered.
Joe grimaced. "Probably worried about all the equipment I might break."
"Naw, probably wondering if we'll do something to break you." Ken grinned.
It was frayed and a little sloppy, but Joe was still thrilled to see it, even at his expense.
"You wish." More than likely, Nambu was only being halfway hospitable in the hopes they wouldn't decide to help his new scientist's toy go AWOL.
Now that they were all together with no particular destination in mind, they sat down randomly in the common room, an awkward silence settling over them.
Joe felt Ken's gaze studying him intently as if to note all the differences from the last time they'd seen each other, perhaps searching for any hints of madness or his stolen humanity. Jun, on the other hand, wouldn't look at him at all, suddenly shy and reserved.
Jinpei was grinning still, but there was a forced edge to it, his foot tapping on the ground as if he were nervous. Ryu would glance at him for a moment or two then look away as if still trying to convince himself that despite all that had been said Joe was really there with them.
He'd wanted this, been dreaming of it for quite a while. Yet now that they were all together again, Joe found himself at a loss on how to begin carrying out the mission he'd set for himself. Nambu's bomb put a kink on things he wasn't totally sure how to deal with. He wasn't sure he was actually himself anymore. And this kind of thing had never been his forte. Still, he had to at least try-he owed them that much.
"It's...good to see you all again."
"You too, Joe-Aniki."
Nods trickled over from the rest.
Yeah, this was going great. Silence covered them over again.
"How does it feel?" Jinpei ventured.
"How does what feel?"
"You know, being a cyborg."
"Jinpei!" Jun's horrified gaze swept from her brother to Joe, then away again.
"It's okay, Jun. I don't mind." Joe tried to give her a confident look and then turned to answer her brother. "It doesn't really feel all that different than before. Though I've had to learn to do everything pretty much from scratch again."
Ryu perked up. "Like what?"
Joe stared at his hands, feeling somewhat embarrassed and awkward, but hoping that letting them know would prove to help him reach his real goal. "Talking, walking, holding things. It's not that I forgot how to do them, but that I had to get used to doing them again."
"You look like you're doing okay on all that," the kid piped in.
Joe shrugged. "I do alright most of the time." He flexed his hand open and then closed each of the fingers until he made a fist. "But I'm stronger now than I used to be. It takes more control to hold on to delicate things. Half the time, if I pick up an orange, I squish it into pulp without meaning to." It had scared him the first time it had happened. He'd not expected it. He'd not realized had much had been taken. "I can't do eggs or water balloons at all yet."
"What about soda cans?"
"Doubt it." Joe didn't like the rising tone of excitement in Jinpei's voice.
"If I found one, would you try it?"
Joe felt himself stiffen. It was one thing to tell them of his troubles, but to actually embarrass himself before them. "Look, I-"
"Jinpei, back off." Ken sent the boy a hard look.
The kid looked startled, then mad, before his face closed like a clam. "Sorry."
"I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to see me make a fool of myself if Nambu lets you stay." That he wasn't looking forward to.
"Joe, before I forget, I explained things to Thomas and his mother for you. I also had your things and Sophia brought over. Thomas told me her name." There was an amused glint in Ken's eyes.
Joe felt his artificial heart speed up.
"Sophia? Who's that?" Ryu asked.
Even Jun's curiosity got the best of her and she glanced toward him to see if he would answer.
"She's a...a project of mine. A car I was rebuilding." And now he would have the time and resources to finish her properly-that was once he could work on her without destroying her while trying. "Thank you for bringing her."
It would be a while before Joe would be in any condition to work on her again, but when he was able, and he was done, he would be able to drive her as well. Yes, he would be able to drive again, to push Sophia to her limits. The rushing wind on his face, the motor's efforts thrumming through the frame--becoming one with the machine. All at once, he found himself grinning like an idiot. Make that becoming one with two machines.
The lights flashed overhead-Nambu's not too subtle hint for them to turn in. If he'd been watching them this whole while, the cameras he was using were very well hidden.
"Maybe we should do what he wants." Ryu stood up slowly. "It's been a whopper of a day."
Jun shot to her feet. "Yes, he's right. It's been a long day for all of us." She instantly headed for one of the open doors, not looking at any of them.
Jinpei stood up, took a step toward Joe then stopped. "Guess I'll go too. Good to see you again, Joe-Aniki." He turned away and hurried to his room.
"Good night... Joe." Ryu nodded toward him then also made his way to one of the remaining rooms.
Ken rose to his feet then walked up to Joe. "Guess I'll see you in the morning then." He patted him on the shoulder. "Welcome back."
Joe nodded. "Glad to be back."
Ken took one long last look at him then turned away to go toward his own room.
Once they were all gone, Joe stepped forward toward the last open door. He stared into the bright, simple room for a moment then instead of stepping inside, turned to one of the others.
Concentrating hard on one finger, he gingerly pushed the call button next to Jun's door. He was forced to wait for almost a full minute before it was answered.
Jun's eyes widened in surprise at finding him there and quickly looked away. It was nowhere near fast enough for Joe not to notice her red, swollen eyes. Studying her as they stood there, he realized she looked too thin as well, as if she'd not been taking good care of herself for sometime. Her nails were a mess, chewed down to the quick. There was also a listlessness to her stance he didn't like. A guilty pang echoed inside him, knowing he was partially responsible for this.
"Joe." She backed up a step. "It's late."
"This will only take a moment." His chest felt tight. "I just wanted you to explain something to me."
Jun took another step back. "I, I'll try."
"What the hell have you've been doing?"
Jun looked up, backing up even further, shocked at the unexpected anger in his tone. "Whaa...?"
"So I left, so I didn't tell any of you. I was wrong in what I did, and I regret that. But just how does that have anything to do with the mess you've made of your life since I left?" He went ahead and stepped into the room. The door closed automatically behind him.
Jun stared at him as if never having seen him before.
"I leave and the team crumbles? Why? Ken tells me you started ignoring anything and everything, making it your quest to find me. Why? Would I have left if I'd wanted to be found?
"You've always worked so hard at keeping all of us together. I expected you to, no, counted on you to keep doing your job after I left. And what do I find out? Instead of you taking the opportunity to get with Ken, to bond the four of you together once the cripple was gone and get on with your lives, you're the first one to bail out. What were you thinking?"
Jun shook her head at every word, still stepping back, her face a sea of confusion.
"You left them high and dry. I don't even think you understand the damage you did. And for what? Me? You think ignoring them and letting them go their own ways was something I would want? You were supposed to forget me. Instead you destroyed the very thing I ran away to save."
Jun stared at him, her eyes wide, the words sinking in. Her utter misery stabbed at him, but he wouldn't back down. She'd deserted the team even more than he had and with less cause. "You disappoint me."
Tears welled in her eyes but didn't fall. She glanced away, her hands bunching into fists, and finally looked up at him again. Instead of showing more pain, this time her eyes flared with defiance. Before he could stop her, Jun crossed the short distance between them and slapped him in the face.
"You sanctimonious bastard!"
Joe barely felt the hit. He was just glad to finally see some life inside her.
"Who, who are you to make me your cleanup girl? Why should I be the one to make sure everything was all right after you left? Why?"
"Because I thought you were the only one who could handle it."
This time the tears did come. Jun's legs collapsed from under her and she slipped to the floor, her hands covering her face. "It hurt so bad, it just hurt so bad. I only wanted you back!"
Joe knelt down beside her but though he ached to, he didn't touch her. "Well, I'm back now, so I guess we both have a mess to fix."
She stared at him through her tears as if looking for any hint of falsehood or pity. She found neither. "Joe!" All at once, she threw herself against him, tears streaming freely down her face.
With deliberate slowness, Joe placed his arms around her and tried comforting her as best he could.
Joe left Jun's room quite a while later. Looking back as he closed the door, he almost smiled. After the tears, Jun had clung to him as if she still didn't dare believe he was back. The fact she'd made no comment on his skin as she clung to his arm had happily shot down one of several uncertainties Joe had been gathering about his new body. Feeling the skin for himself meant nothing-he had no idea if the perceptions from his fingers were true or just part of the illusion, but for someone else to touch it and it seem normal to them-that was something else altogether.
Once the tears had stopped, they'd talked a little-all the topics harmless, as if saying the wrong thing might drive him away. Eventually though, the emotional exhaustion of the day had taken its toll and dragged her down.
For him, however, sleep was out of the question. He was too keyed up-and it seemed a pity to waste his possibly temporary freedom on sleeping. He wanted, needed to see the sky, to breathe unfiltered air. And he aimed to do that while he had the opportunity. All he had to do was find a way out.
A few false starts and a floor later, Joe found an elevator. The call button had a passkey reader attached to it. Though at the moment he didn't have enough finesse to work electronically around it, there were times when brute force could get the job done just as well-and if there was one thing he had at the moment, it was plenty of brute force.
Placing the flat of his hands on each of the elevator doors, he braced himself then slowly began exerting pressure to pull the two apart. As the doors began to give, he wedged his fingers into the developing crack to give himself more leverage. The doors groaned in protest though he'd yet to even start applying real effort to the task.
"Aniki, Hakase's going to get mad if you break those."
Startled by the unexpected voice, Joe stopped pulling on the doors and almost got his fingers caught between them in the process. He turned around to stare at Jinpei, even as the kid stepped forward and hit the call button.
"Besides, they probably haven't had time to find all of Neechan's bypasses yet, so this should still be working okay."
The elevator gave a soft chime and opened its doors, accentuating his words.
Joe got inside without comment, trying not to feel stupid. Jinpei happily bounced in after him. The elevator started on its way up.
The kid seemed as full of energy as ever, and Joe could swear he was definitely taller than the last time he'd seen him. He still had the same gangly gait, his features full of angles. But he'd changed as well. There was a new aloofness and also hardness at the edges, especially about the eyes. More evidence of his handiwork?
He didn't pursue the thought, however, as the elevator doors opened again--a short, dark, sloping hallway led to a seeming dead end in front of them. Confident, the kid stepped forward and touched a concealed panel on the wall. The ceiling near the end of the ramp slid aside, letting in more darkness and the scent of vegetation.
Joe eagerly stepped forward for his first taste of fresh air in weeks. As he stepped forth, the hallway fell away from him, opening to the outside.
The feeling of wide spaces, the sight of trees and plants, the sound of night birds cooing to one another, the ability to walk beneath the stars and the moon-freedom. He breathed deeply letting it all wash over him.
"There's a strip of a beach too. Wanna see?"
Jinpei was off before he could answer. Joe followed after him, watching the boy dart between trees with ease, even with the low visibility.
Within minutes, the trees changed to palm trees and then they all fell away to reveal a thin strip of sand and a large expanse of moonlit water running as far as the eye could see.
"Joe-Aniki, how about a race? Down the beach?" Jinpei grinned up at him.
Joe wasn't sure what he was up to, but at the moment running sounded like a great idea. Aside from Pandora's geared up treadmill, this would be his first chance to actually run since Karakoram wrecked his body two years before. "Okay, kid, you're on."
"Then on your mark, get set, go!" Jinpei rushed through the words, taking off before Joe had made it to his side.
"Why, you little cheater!" With a half grin, Joe took off after him. He poured it on, having no real idea just how fast he could run now. The monkey never gets told the lab results.
Joe caught up to Jinpei with ease and just as effortlessly passed him, even with the startled boy putting on an extra burst of speed.
Joe stopped a ways down the beach and waited for him to catch up.
"Aniki, that was, that was awesome!" Jinpei doubled over to catch his breath, sweat standing on his brow from both the exertion and the humid climate.
Joe, on the other hand, didn't feel the least bit pushed by the run and was completely dry. He wondered how many other differences he was bound to come across.
Jinpei plopped down on the sand. "What other stuff can you do now?"
Joe sat down more slowly, staring at the softly rolling surf. "I heard you're no longer living with your sister."
The boy looked momentarily surprised by the question before his face turned bland. "That's right. What about it?"
"Why is that? Jun's always depended a lot on you."
The kid snorted. "Yeah, right. People can only depend on themselves." A bitter tone crept into his voice. "Others are for using and ditching."
Jinpei threw him a dirty look. "No. It's just the way things are."
Joe leaned back on his elbows. "So you'd rather use people and discard them now. Then how do you plan on using me?"
Jinpei stood up so fast he almost fell. He glared at Joe with such a fierce look it would have given the Condor a run for his money. "Like you didn't use us and throw us to the side! When you disappeared Neechan went half crazy! She neglected the Snak J until there was no choice but to shut it down. I couldn't even try to save it because she was always sending me off somewhere to go looking for you.
"Then Ryu started going home more and more often till he stopped coming. Neechan and Ken got into big fights all the time and so he stopped coming too. She never even noticed when I left. And all of this happened because you left without telling anyone."
Joe stared at him impassively, though inside he sorrowed to see the kid's pain--so much damage. They should have never cared so much-the price was just too high. "And now I'm back and you want to find out why." He stood up.
Jinpei backed up several steps, his stance ready for anything Joe might care to try.
"I've come back to make amends."
"Liar!" Jinpei took another step back. "It's not true. You've been gone over a year."
Joe shrugged. "What can I say? I'm stubborn. It took Ken's hard head and a Galactor bullet to show me I was wrong. Now I can only try to make up for my mistakes as best I can."
"I don't want to hear your lies!" Jinpei put his hands over his ears.
"And you don't have to. But it won't change the truth-I won't leave the team again."
"Liar!" The boy launched himself at him.
Joe sidestepped the attack easily, though keeping his footing after dodging it took a little more effort--he was still working on adjusting to sudden movements. "Jinpei, don't be stupid."
In total silence and with deadly precision, the boy turned back around and rushed him again. Once more Joe was able to avoid him with disturbing ease.
Speed and dexterity were Jinpei's greatest weapons, and when pushed, he could give the other members of the team a hard time. But as he came at Joe again and again, he couldn't get near him, he couldn't connect. Even when Joe's lack of perfect motor control made him slip and fall to the ground, his improved reflexes still gave him plenty of time to rectify matters before the kid had a chance to strike again. Jinpei's face changed to a mask of fury as his frustrations rose to ever greater heights.
Joe, in turn, was surprised he was holding out so well on his own. His new body was amazing, utterly amazing. But it had its frightening side as well. For though he could evade the boy all he wanted to, he also dared not try to stop him or strike him in any way. His lack of fine motor control combined with the heat of the moment could very well have him cripple his teammate rather than just stop him. "Jinpei, enough already! This is useless."
A feint, a thrust, an evasion-they moved up from the beach toward the line of trees.
"Take back your lies then. Confess the truth-you've only come back to dupe us again!"
Why wouldn't the blasted kid believe him? Joe dodged out of range again. "I can't do that. It's not what I came back for."
"Liar!" Jinpei reached into a hidden pocket and brought out his famed pair of bolos. He cocked his arm, took aim, and launched them.
At such close range, Joe had less than a moment to react. He shoved hard off the palm tree behind him and dove off to the side. The bolos wrapped around the truck of the tree and came to a stop with a resounding crack.
Before they even came to rest, however, Jinpei was already moving, pressing the attack. Joe jumped back to his feet, barely avoiding the boy's heel as it rushed toward his face. Despite all his intentions, Joe was starting to get annoyed. "Jinpei, enough!"
"No! You took everything away from me. I'm not letting you sneak back into our lives so you can do it to again." He launched another kick a Joe, which the latter barely blocked with his arm. Though it could have easily fractured a bone, Joe's cyborg arm barely felt the impact.
Joe was having a harder and harder time holding himself back from reacting. "I didn't take anything away from you, you let it all go."
"Liar!" Jinpei came at him again. "You're the one that dumped us. You're the one that didn't trust us. You're the one that came to hate us!"
Joe stared hard at the kid. "No--that was exactly what I was trying to prevent when I left."
Jinpei's momentum staggered at the confession, but only for a moment. "That's not good enough." He launched himself at Joe again.
And Joe thought he was stubborn. What would it take to get through to this kid? Why wouldn't he just listen to him? He'd had about as much of this as he could stand. "You little moron, are you trying to make me hit you? Did you listen to nothing they said in there? Are you looking to die?"
"I'm not afraid of you!" Jinpei feinted to the left then darted in with another kick. Joe was forced to flip backwards to get out of the way and landed badly. His mood was souring by the second.
"You will stop this and you will stop this now!" Joe's fist pulled back then launched like lightning at Jinpei. They boy had no time to move, no time to do anything. Joe's fist smashed into a palm tree next to the kid's head.
A cracking sound like a snapped metal cable reverberated through the beach. Bark and tree meat sprayed everywhere. The sound was still echoing loudly in their ears when the palm tree toppled, and fell to the ground with a resounding smack almost knocking them off their feet.
Jinpei stood paralyzed, the dead tree mere inches before him, staring at Joe with eyes as wide as saucers. "You-- How--"
Joe was somewhat amazed if not horrified by the results himself, but made sure to show no sign of it. "Now will you stand still long enough to listen to me?"
Jinpei said nothing, instead falling flat on his butt, his legs seemingly refusing to hold him up any longer.
Joe wasn't sure what kind of damage he'd done to himself with this stunt, so he slipped his hand out of sight not wanting the boy to see. "Get this through your head, okay? I ran out on all of you, that's true. But it wasn't for anything any of you did--it was only because I felt had to. I feel bad about it hitting you all so hard, but I'm not taking the entire rap for what came afterward. That was mostly your doing. I'm back, and I'm willing to make amends, but I'm not going to be anybody's punching boy. Got it?"
Jinpei nodded quickly, his eyes still wide.
Joe sighed. Would any of this ever get any easier? "You should go back inside."
The kid nodded again and slowly got to his feet, his gaze moving to the mangled tree trunk. Joe could see his mental wheels spinning as the boy realized that could have too easily been him. Jinpei's face turned crimson.
"I, I guess I was pretty stupid, huh?"
"You could say that."
"But, Joe-Aniki, it's just that--"
"I know." Though he hadn't meant for it too, it came out as a half growl. He made sure to still keep his hand right hand out of sight. There was still no pain, but it might mean nothing.
Jinpei retrieved his bolo, but didn't leave.
Joe watched him saying nothing.
"You, you're not going to tell the others about this, are you?" The question was little more than a whisper.
"Wasn't planning on it. As long as you're not thinking about doing this again."
"No, no, I won't!" Jinpei finally glanced up at him. "You're really going to stay?"
The boy's eyes suddenly reflected more light than before. He quickly wiped at his face with his arm. "Good. Good night, Aniki."
Not waiting for a response, Jinpei turned away and went back they way they'd come.
Only once he was sure the boy was out of sight did Joe bring his hand forward for inspection. He wasn't sure what to expect, but what he found shocked him-other than for some powdered bits of bark, his hand was totally undamaged. True, he'd felt no pain when he hit the thing or afterward, just an increase in pressure when he'd punched the trunk, but still... It looked like there would be a lot he would have to start getting used to.
He flexed his fingers, amazed yet again at what Nambu had been able to achieve.
"That was quite a show."
Joe whipped around, startled by the unexpected voice. "Ken!"
His friend was leaning against a nearby palm tree. Though his pose was relaxed, Joe still sensed an undercurrent of tension flowing through him. How much had he seen? "You're up late."
Ken left the palm and came closer. "I couldn't sleep. Figured if you were still up I'd talk to you some, when I spotted Jinpei following you, so I followed him."
"How much did you-?"
Ken shrugged. "Enough. Like I said, it was quite a show."
Joe wasn't sure what to make of that.
"It's kinda funny really."
"You left us because you didn't like to be reminded of how you could no longer keep up with the rest of us. But now that you're back and you're this new improved you, we'll be the ones left in the dust if we're not careful. What does it feel like, being Superman?"
Joe was up before any of the team. After the episode with Jinpei, and Ken's ominous words, a couple of hours of sleep was all he'd been able to manage. He waited for them in the common room, his finger tapping nervously against the couch's armrest.
The anxiety he hadn't felt last night was making up for itself now. The team had now slept on the revelations of the night before. They'd now had time to mull things over, to think. What ideas had come to them in the night, what memories? The young couple who'd loved each other despite their loss of humanity-Lucy, who'd changed sides at the end only to be destroyed by what she had become. Would they think he wasn't himself anymore?
His gaze roamed the room for the umpteenth time. He glanced at his hand, and saw his finger tapping so rapidly it'd become a blur. He forced himself to stop. The material had been pummeled so thoroughly it was almost threadbare and the armrest now had a half-inch indentation. Great, just great.
He stiffened as he heard one of the four doors finally open. Ryu came out, stifling a yawn and scratching at his spiky haired head. As soon as he spotted Joe, every last vestige of his sleepiness disappeared.
His teammate nodded, not looking at him. "Go-good morning." Ryu's eyes quickly darted around the room trying to ascertain if any of the others had gotten up yet.
Joe watched the large round face grow troubled as he found no one. Of the four of his teammates, Ryu had always been the easiest to read. "They're not up yet."
"They should be up soon, so come take a seat."
Ryu hesitated a moment, then shuffled forward to take the couch across from Joe's.
"How have you been doing?"
The God Phoenix's pilot stared at the clasped hands on his lap. "Fine."
Joe resisted the impulse to grimace, the conversation so far not going well. "Good fishing so far this year?"
No, not going well at all. Looked as if would have to push it forward himself a little.
"I may not have been right in doing what I did, but at the time it had seemed the best thing for everyone."
Ryu's head jerked up, his eyes wide. "Uh-"
"Things are different now though. I'm back and I don't plan on going anywhere else anytime soon. Besides, it looks like Galactor is planning on giving us work again."
Ryu's mouth opened, then closed, making him look like a carp hunting for food. Joe supposed the reaction wasn't totally unexpected-he wasn't known for having heart-to-hearts, especially with their largest team member. It was quite humorous in its own way really.
One of the other doors opened.
Joe stood up.
Jun came out of her room. Upon spotting the other two, she came toward them, a shy, half-smile growing on her face. For the first time that morning, Joe dared relax a little. It wasn't too much longer before Ken and Jinpei joined them as well.
He was pleased to see Jun greeting her brother personally, and following it with a hug as well. Though the boy floundered for a moment at the unexpected affection, he didn't pull away from it, which was a start.
After some awkward minutes filled with morning greetings, they went looking for breakfast. That familiar sense of being together was in the air, and though not all of them seemed entirely comfortable with it, it was a start. Joe kept an eye out as they walked along, surprised Nambu had yet to show to spoil the party.
Eventually the group found a small cafeteria with a breakfast buffet arrangement. There were several people already there eating, but after giving the young group surprised glances, they didn't say anything as the five continued to act as if they had every right to be there.
Joe let the others move before him into the line, shutting out pretty much everything trying to concentrate. This was where he could really alienate himself from the other-here with this one simple thing. He felt his brow furrow with concentration as he gingerly picked up one of the plates. He was grateful they were made of a thick, sturdy plastic.
"You can still eat, Joe-Aniki?"
"Doesn't everyone?" He didn't actually know for sure if he could do without or not. Pandora sent him some protein drinks on a regular basis, so he assumed he still needed some nourishment. Besides, the rising smells from the open serving platters were making his mouth water. Ingrained mental response or not, he was dying for some of that sausage. Heck, even the semi runny eggs looked good-anything would be better than Pandora's dust flavored drinks.
He was grateful for the large metal spoons tucked into each of the trays. Tongs would have probably been beyond him. He stuck to finger foods, remembering he'd yet to remaster the art of using chopsticks or silverware.
The group grabbed a table, pushing over a couple of chairs so they could all sit together. After staring at one another for several moments, almost as if afraid of committing themselves, Ryu and Jinpei finally broke the impasse and dug in, the rest of them going at a more leisurely pace.
Joe reached down for one of his sausages, amazed at how much he truly was looking forward to eating it. His fingers came together to grab it, but in his excitement misjudged and ended up squishing it in two. Glancing up, he saw none of the others had noticed, except for Ken, whose own gaze rose from Joe's plate to his face, an unreadable expression in his eyes.
Joe looked away, feeling embarrassed and nervous all at once. After that Superman comment, he wasn't entirely sure what was going on in his friend's mind. He tried the process again, trying to act as natural as possible, and was more successful. When he glanced in Ken's direction again, his friend was busy with his own meal and was no longer watching him.
Joe brought the sausage up to his mouth, making sure not to squeeze. At the moment, he wasn't sure what to expect. Though he could taste Pandora's concoctions, he didn't know if what he tasted was accurate, if his taste would be anything like it was in his old body.
He could barely repress a grin as the familiar spicy, meaty taste inundated his senses. Raphael looked to have thought of pretty much everything.
Joe was reaching down for another sausage when both Nambu and Pandora strolled into the room.
"Good morning, team."
Jun's fork hit her plate with an audible click. The previously semi-relaxed atmosphere disappeared, tension rising several notches, especially around Ken and Jun. The doctors didn't seem to notice.
"I've someone I'd like to introduce to you. Team, this is Dr. Pandora. She's been instrumental in our research of Rafael's work and Joe's integration and recovery.
"Pandora, this is the rest of the team-Ken, Ryu, Jun, and Jinpei."
The doctor gave them all a bright smile, though her brow rose as she spotted what was currently on Joe's plate. "It's a pleasure to finally meet all of you."
"We're grateful for your efforts on Joe's behalf," Ken said softly. "When do you foresee his release from here, or at least when can we start training with him again as a team?"
"Well, that honestly all depends on him and what progress he makes. Though if what I've seen so far today is any indication, it might be sooner than last expected."
Joe sent her a sour look, not appreciating being talked about as if he wasn't even there. "That's awfully kind of you."
Pandora acted as if she hadn't heard him.
"So there'll be no need to keep him locked up anymore then." Though he spoke to Pandora, Ken's hard gaze was aimed at Nambu.
Pandora looked suddenly uncomfortable. "Well..."
"It's acceptable," Nambu cut in, "as long as no cause is given to make it otherwise. The previous arrangement has been as much for his safety as ours."
Joe was thrilled at the news but still bristled inside. Did no one care he was sitting right here while they discussed all this?
"And what guarantee do we actually have that you'll do as you say?" Jun didn't look at Nambu, her hands locked together on top of the table, her eyes seething. "It's not as if you haven't lied to our faces before to suit your needs."
Nambu was taken visibly aback. Ken answered her question before he could.
"That's easy. He will because we're going to stay here to make sure he does."
Joe saw Pandora step back as if sensing she was in the middle of something she didn't belong in. Maybe she had some redeeming qualities after all.
Jun let go of her white knuckled grip and actually smiled. "Good." Ryu slowly nodded as well. The kid was staring hard at Nambu to see what he would do.
The doctor's expression had become totally unreadable. "Your presence here is not required. While I've allowed you free rein for the moment, your continued stay could prove distracting to the project's progress." His tone grew an edge. "And while that may mean little to all of you, any delays could prove fatal if we're not ready in time to meet Galactor when they finally make their appearance."
Ken didn't say anything to this, but Joe could tell it was having an impact. His friend had always had a penchant for putting the world's needs above his own. Well, not today.
Joe stood up slowly. "If you don't let them stay, I can promise you I won't make any progress at all. I need them here." For their sakes and his own. He'd made some progress in trying to fix things, but all their wounds would need time to heal and they would all heal faster if they did it together. There was still a lot to make up for and no one and nothing was going to get in their way-not even Nambu.
"So be it."