Warning: Profanity. The usual fanfic disclaimers- everyone and everything here belongs to Tatsunoko and no infringement is implied. The story is mine. I only wish Joe were mine too!
A "Normal" Conversation
The bell jingled as the door to the 'J' opened, and a backlit form hesitated on the threshold. Jun looked up, squinting against the blinding sunlight streaming through the windows. She recognized the shape and went back to wiping down the counter.
"Hey Joe," she said with a smile.
"I didn't think you'd be open after yesterday. I was about to go around the back when I noticed the sign." He slid onto his usual stool at the end of the bar.
Jun sighed. "I know," she replied. "I'm beat, but I need the money. Rent's due at the end of the week. Coffee?"
"Yeah, I need it," he groaned, rubbing his eyes. "I found my cabinets growing cobwebs when I woke up, and I don't have the energy to go shopping."
"Is that a hint?" Jun smirked, raising an eyebrow. She knew Joe hated going to the store. He wouldn't go shopping himself if he could help it. Every few weeks he would give her money and a list, drop her and Jinpei off for their regular shopping, and pick them up when they were finished.
"Actually no, but now that you mention it..." he laughed, glancing around. "Where's Jinpei?"
"Upstairs on the couch, zoning out in front of cartoons. I figured he could use some rest- it's been dead in here all afternoon anyway. Hopefully I'll need him later." Her eyes went to the stairs leading to their apartment. "Some missions just beat the hell out of him. Sometimes even I forget he's just a kid," she added.
"Why, you old softy!" Joe grinned and caught the dishtowel she snapped at him. "Anybody else been around?"
"No, Ryu said he was taking the day off to see his folks. Ken is god-knows-where. Why, aren't I enough for you?"
"No one I'd rather see, babe. I haven't had you to myself in a long time," he smiled.
"Why don't you take a booth and I'll have a cup of coffee with you?" Jun suggested. "I'm sure I can take a few minutes' break," she sighed again, looking around the empty room.
Joe threw his jacket into one of the booths, and wandered over to the jukebox. He picked out a few favorites and slid onto the bench as Jun came up with not only two coffees, but also a plate of cookies. Joe regarded them warily.
"Don't worry," she said, making a face, "Jinpei made them."
"Ah...if only we all still had the energy of a twelve year-old. I mean, I'm rechargeable, but the Doc's not that good."
Jun looked up from blowing on her coffee. Joe rarely talked about his cybernetics, but she knew it really bothered him. He looked over the rim of his cup at her and put it down with a rueful look. She decided it'd be better to let the comment slide.
They both reached to snag a cookie off the plate at the same time, and their fingers touched. Joe gave a start. He'd felt a tingle when his skin touched hers. "Sorry," they both mumbled simultaneously with a fleeting smile. Joe felt embarrassed about his reaction, but Jun didn't seem to have noticed; her eyes had been attracted by something on the street. He studied her as she absently chewed on the cookie.
He'd always thought she was a beauty, and the strain of their work had done nothing to diminish it; rather, she seemed more beautiful to him now than she ever had before. Maybe because she was older. Maybe it was because he had missed her those two years he had kept away. She was definitely graver than in the past, but they all were. 'Constantly being surrounded by death will do that,' he thought.
Jun had noticed his reaction, though, and quickly looked out the window hoping she wouldn't blush. Why would a casual touch from Joe make her feel giddy? And why did he get so startled- was she blushing? She decided she must just be overtired when she noticed no further reaction from him. Neither spoke for a few moments.
"My, aren't we talkative," she finally managed, breaking the silence.
Relieved by her smile, Joe grinned back. "Sorry. I guess I'm still half-asleep." He took another cookie and added, "What shall we talk about?"
"Oh, I don't know. We never seem to have any time just to sit around- I barely know how anymore. Didn't it seem easier in the old days to put each mission behind you?"
"I think we were just younger and stupider then- we actually thought it would all be over soon. The good guys would win and we could all have a normal life." He smiled faintly. "Except none of us has ever had a normal life. We wouldn't even know how to live one."
Jun smiled back at him. "You've become quite the philosopher, haven't you? Since when have you been one to analyze? I thought 'gut instinct' was your gig?"
"Now there you go assuming that I never think about anything! I have thoughts, I just don't talk much. Wasn't that always a remark on my report cards? 'Doesn't play well with others and doesn't like sharing'?"
"Among other things," she laughed. "That sounds tamer than I recall. I had the opposite problem- always yapping and trying to share even when it wasn't welcomed." She focused on her cup. "I suppose that's what my problem was with Ken: I always thought we needed to share everything, and he couldn't...or wouldn't."
"Ken's always been an idiot when it comes to you," he replied, surprised she brought up the topic.
"And I was always an idiot around him. Well, I learned the hard way. Ken's always worried about the consequences of his actions. I know that's his job, but... he never surrenders to the moment. I think he believes he's not entitled to love-something bad always comes of it. In our case, that something was Galactor coming back."
"Well, it wasn't a complete loss; I came back too!" Joe said lightly.
"Yeah- that's true," Jun laughed. "I'd rather not discuss Ken right now. How'd we get on this subject, anyway?"
"I have no idea," Joe admitted. "I think we were attempting to have a normal conversation. Like I said before, we're not good at 'normal'. Any more coffee left?"
"Sure." He watched as she went back to the bar. He had always cared about Jun, but the brief hormonal notion that he might have a chance with her had died long ago when Ken came home from flight school. Or had it died? 'It damn well better have,' he thought angrily. 'I have no future with anyone, let alone Jun.' But why was he finding himself dropping by the 'J' all the time? Why was he so interested in exactly what had gone wrong with her and Ken? Lack of anything better to do in between missions, probably.
Jun came back with the refill and as if reading his mind, she said, "I think you miss racing more than you'd admit."
"Oh, so now we're gonna talk about me, huh?"
"Of course. Anyway, you started the analysis session."
"No I didn't!"
"Yes you did!"
"No, I di...see- this, we can handle- first grade conversation level!"
Jun burst out laughing. "You're right! We're so emotionally stunted it's pathetic!"
"What textbook did that come out of?" he shot back. Glad to hear her laughing even though cooped up in the 'J', Joe had a sudden inspiration that surprised even him.
"You know, I think keeping the 'J' open this afternoon is a waste- how about I kidnap you and we go out for a ride? You could open back up later, and if you're real nice to me, I'll be your bouncer tonight."
"What about Jinpei?"
"Jun- 'live in the moment!''" Quickly realizing he was mocking her earlier words, she took a swipe at him. He ducked, laughing, and added more seriously, "Take a few hours off from everything-you need a break. He'll be fine. C'mon!"
She hesitated, then abruptly got up and made for the stairs.
"I'll go see if he minds staying alone. Be right back."
"I'm sure he can manage!" he called after her. He thought again just how twisted their lives were- she was worried about leaving her brother alone- a kid of twelve who killed in the line of duty without blinking an eye.
She reappeared about ten minutes later with a picnic cooler and a blanket. "If I'm going to be kidnapped, at least I'll be comfortable," she grinned. "Jinpei said to take our time- I think he likes the idea of having the place to himself."
"Maybe we should take him along," Joe smirked. "You may come home to the ashes of your former establishment!"
"Do you really think...."
"I'm kidding, Jun! Remember humor? Don't worry- he won't budge from the TV all day- guaranteed."
Joe propelled her out the door, only pausing to let her lock it. He opened the car door and gallantly waved her in. She gave him an evil look, but slid in without comment. He threw her gear in the back and hopped into the driver's seat.
"Any preference- beach ...trees?"
"Well, if we head toward Nambu's, we can have both. No one should be around."
"Good idea- we'll stay clear of the house just in case. I have no desire to be roped into one of Hakase's little research projects."
He drove out of the city, and Jun leaned back and enjoyed the speed. It was one of the things they shared- the sheer thrill of a fast moving vehicle. They talked of inconsequential things while driving, but once out of the city they fell silent, enjoying the scenery and each other's company. Jun broke the silence.
"Do you even remember the last time we were out here? I mean, it's not that far, but we never seem to come out anymore."
Joe considered, and replied, "No, I don't. It seems like we spend more and more time at G-Town. Half the time I don't even get back to my trailer between missions. No wonder you need rent money- when was the last time you had the 'J' open for more than a few days in a row?"
"I should have left it open this afternoon- I should be there now..."
"No, you should open it later when you have half a chance of doing some business. Right now you should be enjoying your kidnapping."
"Oh, right- I forgot- I'm here against my will. Makes me feel so much better!"
Joe pulled off the main road that led to the house and, turning down a barely visible side trail, parked by a grove of trees. The open fields on the bluff south of Nambu's estate stretched out before them. They got out of the car and Jun stretched.
"Race ya down to the cliff!" Joe took off sprinting across the field.
"Hey! No fair!" she yelled after his quickly disappearing figure. "You're supposed to give me a head start! Your legs are twice as long!"
Jun gave up a race as a lost cause, but continued running after him for the sheer exhilaration of it. Slowing to a walk, she admired his fluid movements as he slowed down almost unwillingly. She suddenly remembered an incident years ago when he had done this and transmuted to birdstyle at the last minute without breaking stride. He had then launched himself fearlessly off the cliff and glided down to the beach below. The birdstyles were still new to them, and Ken had been furious. She could still see Joe's face as he laughed back up at his fuming commander from the beach.
"I thought you were going to jump off the cliff just like that time..."
"You remember that?" he interjected, a surprised smile on his face.
"Ken was so mad at you! Hakase wasn't too pleased either!" she said as she came up beside him. She laughed again at the memory. "How could I forget? I snuck out that night and did the same thing!"
Joe looked down at her incredulously. "You never told me that!"
"I never told anyone half the things I used to do. I just never got caught!" she grinned back at him.
"I wish I'd seen that one!" Jun in flight really did resemble a graceful bird. He watched her as she gazed out to sea, inhaling the breeze.
"I love the smell of the sea," she said softly. "I was always happy here." She smiled up at him, squinting against the glare. "Thank you for kidnapping me."
"Anytime, Jun." He reached out impulsively, gently brushing away the hair that had blown across her cheek. She looked surprised, and he mentally kicked himself for his action. Abruptly turning back toward the trees, he asked casually, "So... what exactly is in that cooler, anyway?"
Still taken aback by the caress, she could only reply, "You sound just like Ryu." Joe was not normally demonstrative, and yet this was the second time today he had touched her. He was already striding quickly back across the meadow, only pausing to pick up a long blade of grass to chew on. She caught up to him again, and he shortened his stride to match hers.
"You know, you have a definite oral fixation," she said, hoping to tease him out of his sudden discomfort.
He grinned back at her. "You have been brushing up on your psych books! Bad habits are hard to break. I think the med team has a heart attack every time they see a shuriken in my mouth. What doesn't kill ya only makes ya stronger, eh?" He seemed relaxed again, and Jun wondered if she had imagined his unease. Maybe she was reading too much into his behavior.
They reached the blanket and settled themselves against the tree so they could see the ocean. Spreading out the food from the cooler, they ate in silence, each staring out over the water in thought. Finishing, Jun leaned back and gestured at the scene before them.
"Sometimes I wish things could be like when we were kids. Living on the estate, swimming in the ocean, learning to fly." She rested her chin on her hands. "Everything seemed so simple back then. Now it seems as if it's all just about the job."
"That wouldn't be a veiled reference to Ken now, would it?"
She shot him a look. "It wasn't all bad, Joe. I was really happy for awhile. I finally got what I thought I always wanted. I think that Ken would never really let me in. The more I tried, the more he closed off from me." She paused, thinking. "You know, it affected more than just me. Jinpei had a lot of trouble adjusting to school and at first Ken was there to help him. He still tries, but it's not the same."
"I'm sorry that happened." Joe set aside the rest of his food.
"You have no idea. We spent two years recovering from the war, trying to live normal lives. Two years of grieving for you." She looked away.
"It wasn't as simple as that, Jun. I spent almost a year recovering and the rest learning to use this body. When I finally got it together, so much time had passed..." He trailed off, staring up at the shifting sunlight through the leaves. "Seeing the team again, hearing you call for me- that hurt in a way I hadn't felt for so long. I knew then that I should have let you know I was okay. I just couldn't do it." He fell silent.
Jun stared, amazed he'd admitted missing anyone since emotions were such a touchy subject with him. She reached over for his hand, threading her fingers through his. "It's strange, after all these years, we didn't know each other like we thought we did."
Joe gave a short laugh and squeezed her hand. "No, I guess not."
"I'm glad you're back, though."
They lay in companionable silence, just listening to the soft sounds of the early spring. Joe found himself drowsy, and looked down, surprised, when he felt Jun's head drop to his shoulder as she drifted off to sleep herself. He gazed down at her face, so peaceful, and felt his chest tighten. He didn't know what he'd do if something happened to her; the last time she was wounded, he'd gone berserk. He knew he'd always felt protective of her, but just what were his other feelings for his beautiful comrade?
He knew it was over with Ken officially, but he wondered how much she still felt for the Eagle. She had been in love with Ken for so long- would she ever really be over him? Even if she were, why would she even consider himself? He wasn't even human anymore. He suddenly realized for the first time that he actually wanted Jun to consider him, and it scared the hell out of him. He pushed it down- he had no time for feelings beyond friendship, he was on a course that would inevitably lead to his death. Besides, was Ken still in love with her? He wouldn't risk alienating his best friend.
Joe couldn't concentrate- not with her practically in his arms, the scent of her hair so close. He willed himself to relax. The more he tried not to think about her, the more he did. He was aware of the rise and fall of her steady breathing; the soft blush that spread across her cheeks. He realized his feelings were too strong- he gave up the fight and decided that he would, in her words, 'enjoy the moment.' He placed his arm around her to cradle her head, and was gratified by the way she snuggled closer to him as she slept.
He remembered the last time he had held her like this: the mission on K3. She'd so stubbornly followed him and would have died from exposure after the avalanche. He'd been trying to save her life then, but he couldn't deny that the thought had crossed his mind that if he were to die, there was no place he would rather be than with Jun in his arms. Strange how she seemed to be with him during so many pivotal moments in his life: she had been the one to find him dying on Cross Karacolm. He closed his eyes. 'What do we fight for, but for moments of peace like this,' was his last hazy thought before drifting off to sleep.
He woke with a start a few hours later as the evening breeze picked up. The sky had gone a delicate pink with the sun just beginning to set. Groggily, he realized that Jun was now wrapped tightly against him in her sleep: one leg twisted sinuously around his and her arm draped across his chest. His own head had fallen to fit neatly against hers. What really startled him was the fact that her hand had somehow worked its way under his shirt, and was warmly resting on his bare skin.
'Well, this is the either the best dream or the best wake-up call I've had in a long time,' he thought wickedly. He gently righted his head and looked down, careful not to disturb her. Her lips had parted slightly in sleep and it took all the control he could muster not to kiss her. He looked away and sighed, which caused Jun to shift again closer to him and to half-consciously caress his chest.
'Oh shit!' he thought miserably. 'She probably thinks I'm Ken.' He had to wake her- he couldn't stand much more of this.
"Jun," he began softly. "Jun- wake up."
She mumbled something and he smiled at the way her brows furrowed in annoyance. He shook her shoulder slightly. "Jun!"
"It's too early, Joe. Stay in bed,' she murmured.
His eyebrow went up and his heart skipped a beat, then started to race, as it was obvious she was not dreaming of Ken. She slowly opened one eye, registered his face looking down at her, and smiled as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be lying in his arms. The eye closed, and he watched in amusement when it shot back open wide in alarm.
She bolted fully awake. "Oh God, Joe- I'm so sorry!" she managed, blood rushing to her cheeks. She looked mortified, and Joe tried to sound casual as he replied, "Hey, it's ok- I fell asleep too-we were both exhausted," as if he hadn't noticed that she still had her hand up his shirt. She suddenly realized it and snatched it out as if it were burned. She rolled off him and sat upright, knees pulled to her chest. Joe regarded her in silence, letting her compose herself.
"Um...did I talk in my sleep? I-I've been known to do that," she finally blurted out.
"Not a peep," he lied easily, and sat up himself. She risked a small smile at him, and he continued. "I woke you 'cause I know how you love sunsets, not to mention that we should be getting back if you want to open the 'J' tonight."
"Right- we should go!" She began to hastily pack up their stuff when he stopped her.
"Hey! You can do that after the show- just look at that sky!" He hugged his own knees to his chest, and they both watched the sun slowly sink towards the sea. She slowly relaxed as she focused on the horizon.
"When we were very young," she began softly, "Hakase once told me that if you sat very quietly and concentrated, you could hear the hiss as the sun met the water." She looked at Joe, smiling at the memory. "I always thought I could hear it."
He grinned back. "I never thought he was that sentimental," he answered. They both turned back to the view and Joe couldn't stop himself from leaning close to her ear and whispering "Listen!" just before the sun touched the horizon.
Jun felt the blood rushing to her temples in confusion as she felt his soft breath on her neck. Their faces were inches apart and his proximity made her tremble. Meeting his eyes, she barely breathed back, "I didn't hear it that time."
Joe looked intently into her eyes and replied softly, "I did."
He almost kissed her again, then got up instead. "C'mon, we'd better get back," he said hoarsely, carelessly chucking things into the cooler.
Jun got up and slowly folded up the blanket, all the while wondering what was going on between them and why her heart was beating so wildly.