A Taste of the Apple by TransmuteJun
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Author's Chapter Notes:
This story is a sequel to my Forbidden Fruit ficlet.


Day 1

Today was the longest day of my life.

One of my teammates went missing. I spent most of the day agonizing over where he was, that worry compounded by the life or death situation in which the Earth found itself: earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions only the predecessors to the ultimate destruction planned by Leader X.

When we received his signal, something in me thought that everything might actually turn out okay. That we'd all have the same happy ending we were used to, with the God Phoenix flying off into the sunset. Apparently Gatchaman's optimism is eternal.

The signal brought us to the right place, and yet it was also the wrong place. A frantic search shrouded by fog, where we were unable to coordinate our efforts due to Galactor monitoring our bracelet transmissions…

And then…

I can hardly think of it anymore. I don't want to think about it anymore. It's over. We're at peace.

But I don't feel at peace. Shock and anger still pump adrenaline through my exhausted body. My mind is screaming at me to rest, but I cannot.

The longest day of my life isn't over yet.

I can't give up this opportunity. She's as exhausted as I am. She's sure to be deeply asleep.

The last time I did this, I came close to being discovered. Since then, I have been too afraid to take the risk. She can't know what I need from her, because she would sacrifice herself a million times over just to soothe the ache that festers inside my soul. And she deserves better than that.

But I am weak. The part of me that is just a man has given in, and once more I find myself at her door, pressing the keypad with my fingertips, inputting her code to unlock her door.

I slip inside as it opens, using all of my ninja stealth to remain inside the shadows for which I am named, praying that she won't awaken at this intrusion. Fortunately, my prayers are answered. She is asleep: lying so still, I might think that she was dead, if I didn't know about the day she has just endured.

The day we endured together.

I always knew that it could happen… that one of us could die. But I never really thought it could happen. How many times had we cheated death, before today? There was always a way out: always something or someone to save us.

But not today.

Joe is dead, and it's my fault.

It's my fault that I didn't see the symptoms he was hiding from us. I should have known better than that. I knew him better than that. I should have had the time to scour the Earth to find a cure, instead of only having time to listen to Dr. Nambu give his fatal prognosis. I should have been with my friend, instead of leaving him behind. When he was captured by Galactor, I should have been there to help him.

But I wasn't.

What the hell was he thinking? Why didn't he talk to us? Why didn't he seek out help? Did he want to die? Did he want to leave us no choice but to watch him suffer? Not that long ago, we fought in an alleyway, because he wouldn't talk, and part of me longs to beat some truth out of him again, even now.

Yet that's not fair. I'm angry, but the person I'm really angry with is myself. I'm the one who failed, not Joe.

My best friend died today, and my heart has been torn into shreds. Yet as I stare at the exquisite woman sleeping in front of me, I can only think of one thing.

I'm so thankful that it wasn't her.

Guilt claws at me as this thought runs through my head, but I can't deny it. Joe's death is horrible, a tragedy… but Jun's death…

I don't know if I could go on.

But that's not the worst of it. I didn't want Joe to die. I would have done anything to save him. If I could have, I would have taken his place. And if I'd had a choice… a choice of who would die, either Joe or Jun…

I would rather have died myself.

I almost did. I wanted to throw myself into the gears of the Black Hole Device, to search for a way to stop it. But Jun wouldn't let me. She stood there, begging me to stay with her, refusing to let me die, just as I would have refused to let her die.

In the end I stayed with her. It was the least cowardly option, of the few I had remaining to me. I chose to stand and face death as the Leader of the Science Ninja Team, instead of hiding myself amongst the Galactor machinery that was dooming the Earth every second.

The blood rushes to my face as I realize how truly unworthy I am. I abandoned my best friend, and I was about to abandon the person I hold more dear than any other on this Earth… and all because I was ashamed at how badly I had bungled things.

And yet, through it all, she made me feel as if I'd done her a favor, comforting her as we waited helplessly for the end that never came. But it was so hollow, so meaningless. I wasn't the man she thought I was.

The man she deserves.

The man who died today was a far better person than I will ever be. He fought back against death itself, finding the information we needed, and then holding on until the final second so he could show us the last step on our path. I gave him my boomerang, knowing that a weapon was the one thing that would soothe his soul as he passed from this world, to whatever lies beyond.

It suddenly occurs to me that I have never really believed in either Heaven or Hell, but now… I'm hoping that whatever happened to Joe, he has ended up in the better place. A place where he can shed his cares and worries, and know that he is worthy.

If a place such as Heaven exists, I know Jun will be there. If I am fortunate enough to find my way to its gates, she will be waiting for me.

God knows, she won't be waiting for me here. Not after what I did today. Not after realizing my failure to be there for my friend. If Joe couldn't count on me, how could she?

My eyes devour her, as she lies in her exhausted, comatose state, her body slowly regenerating itself. I want so badly to touch her, to finally reveal my true feelings for her.

But as always, I hold myself back. Only now I know the true source of that restraint. It isn't my duty, or a sense of honor, or even propriety that holds me back.

It's cowardice.

~ Table of Contents ~
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