They had been fortunate though. Galactor’s target was the industrial side of the city, and as a result his neighbourhood had sustained little more than collateral damage. Shrapnel from the exploded mecha had fell in the area, but the worst it had done seemed to be little more than a few broken windows, or tiles from roofs. Inconvenient for the homeowners, perhaps, but not disastrous in the grand scheme of things. The power was still connected, and residents had been able to return to their homes.
Looking towards his home’s facade, he saw their bedroom light on, a good sign that his house has been left unscathed, he concluded. Galactor had struck in the middle of the night; he supposed she had rushed to the shelter without stopping to turn out the lights.
He could only imagine what she had been going through. Even after all these years, he still found the sudden attacks frightening, except he used his fear to fuel his determination to face those who threatened civilisation, to administer his own brand of justice to the organisation that robbed him of his family. What did regular citizens think when those first explosions detonated? How did they cope knowing they were under attack for no good reason? Well none that they could think of.
Maybe he should bring her something? He considered this for a moment, and then decided against it. Didn’t unexpected gifts suggest a guilty conscience? He had nothing to feel guilty for. He was doing his duty, what he was trained to do for as long as he could remember. He would take her somewhere nice, somewhere undamaged by Galactor’s latest devastation. He could say it was for their 6 month anniversary. Smiling to himself, he exited the vehicle and went indoors.
Inside was eerily quiet. He was beginning to wonder where she could have got to, when a sound from upstairs momentarily startled him.
Chastising himself, he took the stairs heading for their bedroom, stepping softly in case it wasn’t his wife up there. Only the fear of finding her dead surpassed his dread of her being captured, and possibly raped at the hands of his lifelong enemies. As he got closer, the sounds from the room got louder and more distinct.
Instantly, Joe’s blood ran cold. He froze with his hand on the door handle as he recognized his wife’s groans, coupled with a male voice he couldn’t identify.
Joe didn’t give a seconds thought to his next move, as he burst through the door and headed towards the naked pair on the bed, his fear turning to rage as he took in the situation.
“What the hell is going on here?” he demanded, pulling the guy off and hurling him against the far wall.
“Joe!” Kathleen hurried to cover herself as he turned to her.
“Well answer me,” Joe spat, “and I don’t want any of that ‘it’s not what it looks like’ shit, understand?”
“We hadn’t planned it,” she told him eventually. “It just happened.”
“Oh you just happened to fall out of your clothes and into our bed together?” Joe yelled at her, “What do you take me for?”
“A fucking coward, that’s what.” Kathleen’s lover spoke up. “Where the hell were you when she’s scared and alone down in that shelter?”
“Care to repeat that?” Joe turned on him, grabbing him by the throat as he spoke. His voice now much calmer, but the threatening edge unmistakable.
“What kind of man runs away when his home is under attack, without so much as a word to his wife to let her know he’s safe?”
Joe let his fists answer for him, delivering a powerful blow to the guy’s midriff, following up with an uppercut to his jaw. He pulled his arm back for another aim when Kathleen grabbed him, stopping him in his tracks.
“That’s enough, Joe.”
“Fine.” Joe shook her off. “You,” he told the man, “can get out of here, and if you value your life, then don’t let me see you anywhere near my wife again.”
He didn’t need telling twice, and bundling his clothes together, ran out of the room.
Joe waited until he heard the front door slam shut, before walking downstairs and poured himself a glass of whiskey.
He was pouring himself a second glass when Kathleen emerged.
“We need to talk.”
“I have just one question,” he told her simply. “Is this what I have to expect whenever I come home from work?”
“No, of course not.” She walked over to him, attempting to put a hand on his shoulder, only to have it shucked off. “I am sorry Joe, I don’t know how it happened, it just did. I have no excuse.”
“You got that right.” Joe downed his drink and slammed his glass on the worktop. “I’ll see you later.”
“When later? Where are you going?”
“Out where? How long will you be?”
“As long as it takes.”
Twenty minutes later, Joe pulled up outside the J. No matter where he went, he always looked upon this place as his second home. The decor might change over the years, but the staff always made him feel like one of the family.
Walking in, he took his usual seat at the bar.
“Evening, Joe, usual is it?” Jinpei grinned from the business side of the counter.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got anything stronger?”
“Point 1, you might be old enough to drink, but I’m still too young to serve you, and point 2, we are not licensed to serve alcohol, if that answers your question.”
“Fair enough.” Joe sighed, “Coffee it is then.”
“Excellent choice sir.” Jinpei grinned in his usual cocky manner.
“And enough of the wisecracks tonight eh, I’m not in the mood.”
“Sure.” The Swallow placed his cup in front of him. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, now you mention it.” Joe took a sip of the scalding liquid. “Your spare bed for the night.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Look squirt, if you’re not old enough to serve me a real drink, then you’re certainly not old enough to talk about my problems, ok.”
“Gotcha. I’ll call Jun.”
“Fine. I’ll be in that booth over there.”
The Swan listened patiently as Joe recounted the events of that afternoon, a grin crossing her face when she heard about the other guy calling Joe a coward, but said nothing until Joe finished his recap.
“Has it occurred to you that this guy was preying on her vulnerability?”
“What do you mean?” Joe looked confused. “We’ve been called up on missions before, but she’s never behaved like that in the past.”
“Think about it. The call goes out, and you rush off to respond. Every time she’s left alone, not knowing where you are, or what you’re doing, but each time the attacks are other parts of the world, and she isn’t in any immediate danger herself. This time, she’s bundled down in the shelter, surrounded by strangers, and she’s spotted by this guy who sees what he thinks are easy pickings and keeps her company until it’s safe to return home.”
“What are you saying, Jun?”
“That you need to hear her side of the story, before you do anything you’ll both regret later. Perhaps it was simply naivety on her part.”
“So you think she was coerced? Do you really expect me to believe that?” Joe was starting to lose his temper again, this time with a woman who was not only his lifelong friend, but comrade in arms too. All the time they had spent, fighting the enemy side by side and now she appeared to be defending his cheating wife. Joe couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Trust me, she was no innocent little virgin when we met. She knows what’s what when it comes to men.”
“I’m not really saying anything, just throwing out some hypothetical situations. I don’t know what went on, other than what you’ve just told me, but things are never just black or white. The fact he thought you a coward should be a big clue though. He obviously doesn’t know you at all.”
“Thanks, I worked that out for myself.” Joe looked up as Jinpei approached their table, bringing two more coffees for them.
“Kathleen’s over there, shall I send her across?” he asked them as he placed the hot cups down. Joe simply shrugged, but Jun got to her feet.
“I think I’ll leave you two to it.”
Kathleen timidly took the seat that Jun had vacated. For long minutes there was an uneasy silence between them. Joe simply sat, drinking his coffee, not even bothering to look her in the eye.
“I know I’ve hurt you, Joe,” she began at last, “but if you’ll let me explain.” She took Joe’s continued silence as assent. “Each time, you go off, ‘to work’ you call it, and I hear on the news that somewhere in the world there’s been some dreadful attack on some unsuspecting country, or city or whatever, but I thought nothing of it. You have a job to do, and I’m sure it’s simply coincidence that the two events coincide. Then it’s our turn. The alarm goes up, I hear bombing and explosions so loudly, I don’t need the TV reports to know what’s going on. And I think to myself, he’ll stay this time, he can’t go when we’re in trouble, yet when I reach the shelter, you’re nowhere to be found, and I’m frantic with worry.”
Pretty much what Jun had told him, Joe thought, but kept it to himself.
She paused briefly while Jinpei brought her a drink, but Joe shooed him away before he decided to join them.
“Anyway,” Kathleen continued, “While I was down in the shelter, Phil came across. He was a volunteer, just handing out blankets and taking down names, that sort of thing, and I told him I was on my own down there, and I was looking for you, and he said he would see if you’d ‘checked in’. It felt like hours before he came back, and told me you weren’t there.”
“I started to think the worst then, you were lying dead somewhere, and he sat with me, just talking about nothing in particular, but it really helped keep my mind off whatever might have happened. He wouldn’t let me dwell on it.” She sighed, and fiddled with her cup, not wanting to continue, but knowing there was more to say.
“After the battle, and we were all allowed out again, I was worried about what I would find. I had pictures in my mind of finding our house nothing more than a pile of rubble, with you trapped somewhere underneath it, so Phil offered to take me back, just in case the worst had happened. When we found the house intact, of course I was relieved at first, but then angry because you were still missing. All the hurt and frustration came pouring out, and he was so understanding, well....”
“So you had to show your gratitude, is that it?” he got to his feet, and pulled her to hers. “Come with me.”
“Just upstairs. You’ve said your piece, what I have to say doesn’t need an audience.” He half pushed her up to Jun’s flat above, directing her to the living room. “So when did you tell him I was a coward?”
“I never did, I guess he just came to that conclusion himself,” she stated, “but I can’t blame him for thinking that though. Every time we hear of these raids and battles, you disappear, nowhere to be found for the whole time, you don’t even stop to pick up your phone. Just this once, I needed you to be with me, to stay by my side, but no, you couldn’t even do that, could you?”
“Do you want to know where I was? What I’m doing when you’re all cowering in those shelters? Oh, believe me, I know it’s no picnic down there, but compared to what I have to face, it’s the easy option.”
“Good grief Joe, you’re a chauffeur, you drive the bigwigs around in a comfortable limo, day in/day out, it’s hardly perilous. You get your thrills on the track, admit it.”
“No, you’ve noticed I rush off every time Galactor strikes, no matter where in the world they are. It’s no coincidence. I’m on the front line sweetheart, and I’m out there kicking their sorry arses, fighting for humanities right to live a peaceful and happy life.”
“That’s bullshit Joe, everyone knows the Science Ninja Team are the ones that go and stop Galactor, it’s always on the news.”
“Who are the Science Ninja Team, eh?”
“Nobody knows, their identities are a closely guarded secret.” She paused a moment while she thought about what she’d just said. “Oh fuck off Joe, you’re not telling me you’re one of them?”
“And you think I’ll just believe that? On what evidence? So you’re handy with your fists, you’ve certainly proved that, but that doesn’t make you a skilled fighter.”
“You know, right now I don’t fucking care if you believe me or not. All I can think about is coming home to find you in bed with a total fucking stranger, and it’s making me wonder if you’re really worth fighting for. Will you see these attacks, not as a threat to life as you know it, or more of an opportunity to get another notch on our bedpost? Am I taking that bullet for our future, or is it a stab in the back from the woman whom I wanted to share that future with?”
“Oh stop being so melodramatic, eh, it doesn’t suit you.” She sighed audibly and took a seat. “Joe, be honest with me please, do you want to work things out?”
“I’m just so angry with you right now, I don’t know what I want.” He chose a chair furthest away from where she was sat. “I’m going to ask Jun if I can stop here tonight. We might be able to talk a bit calmer tomorrow.”
“I see. And all that about you being on the Science Ninja team?”
“I just said so, didn’t I?”
“Well that gives me something to think about too, I suppose.” She stood up and headed to the door. She was about to leave when she stopped and turned around. “So which one are you then?”
“G2, The Condor.”
“Right. Will I see you tomorrow then?” she asked nervously, as the ramifications of who she was married to finally hit her. That the easy-going racing driver she had fallen for all that time ago, could have so easily killed her, as well as the guy she had been with, if he wanted to. Shocked and subdued, she walked out. She certainly had a lot of thinking to do too.
Joe watched her leave the building before joining Jun and Jinpei at the bar. The last of the customers had gone, and they were closing for the night. Seeing Joe emerge from the upstairs flat, Jun shooed Jinpei away.
“So, do you need that bed for the night then?” she enquired.
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll be back shortly, ok?”
“Oh? What are you planning to do?”
“Just keep my eye on her. I want to know if it is just a one off thing like she said.”
“You don’t believe her then?”
“I want to, I just don’t know.”
“So you’re giving her the rope and wait to see if she will hang herself with it?”
“When the cat’s away....”
“Do you really think that guy will be back though, after the beating you gave him?”
“Maybe not, but who’s to say there aren’t others? I mean, if she’s prepared to fuck one guy within five minutes of knowing him, what’s to say she isn’t going with anyone who fancies their chances.”
“This isn’t healthy Joe. You really need to sort things out.”
“She started it.”
“Now that’s just childish. Look, if you can’t get past this, what do you think is going to happen?”
“Divorce, I suppose.”
“Divorce? You’ve only been married five minutes. Surely that’s not what you want.”
“I don’t, but how am I expected to stay with her? Every time we go out on a mission, I’m going to be wondering what she’s up to. Hell, what if she gets pregnant? I’m going to wonder whether it’s mine or not.”
“And what if she’s not habitually unfaithful? You’ll be throwing away what has been the most stable relationship you’ve ever had.”
“Why do you keep defending her Jun?”
“I’m not defending what she did, of course it was wrong, I just don’t want to see you unhappy when this could be something you could easily put behind you.”
“I wouldn’t be able to trust her though.”
“Maybe not straight away, but you’ll learn to again. And if this is just a stupid error of judgement on her part, then she won’t make the same mistake again, will she?”
“No, she’ll take a lot more care not to get caught.”
“Oh for fuck sake Joe. I think you’ve already made your mind up, so what are you talking to me about it for?” She thought for a minute. “Tell you what, give it a week, then see how you feel. Go back to the trailer, or back to your I.S.O quarters if you prefer, and have a taste of how life would be without her... then you can decide between you what should happen.”