I reluctantly sat down on the sand, my hands on my knees. Why had I let the others convince me into coming here? Jun and Jinpei ran giggling down to the water, laughing like a pair of kids on vacation.
Next to me, Ryu pulled off his shirt, eager to join his friends in the surf.
“What’s eating you, Joe?” he asked.
“I don’t think I should have come.” I shook my head. “The beach isn’t really my thing. I should have stayed back with Ken.”
“What do you mean, the beach isn’t your thing?” Ryu asked. “I remember when you used to strut around the beach, trying to impress the girls with your Jim Morrison act. And you enjoyed the water too.”
“Things are different, now.” I said coldly, looking off into the distance.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Ryu groaned. “But why does it have to be such a big deal? We’re all fine with it. Why shouldn’t you be?” The Owl looked genuinely puzzled at my distress.
I knew that he meant well. Ryu was a good-natured kind of guy, and he never let troubles get him down any longer than was necessary. It made him a strong member of the team, and of all of us, I think he was the most well adjusted.
But he just couldn’t understand. How could he? There was no way he could comprehend the emotional agony that gripped its cold fingers around my heart every day.
I decided that I didn’t want to get into this right now, and certainly not with Ryu. However well adjusted he was, he was terrible at keeping secrets, and I knew that anything I told him would be common knowledge within minutes.
“I think I’ll just go back and help Ken.” I said quietly, raising myself from the ground.
“If you want to go stick yourself with some boring, old reports, instead of grabbing a rare chance for fun, then you really have changed, Joe.” Ryu pointed out. “It’s like you want to distance yourself from us; like you want to be miserable.”
The big guy had a point. I did want to distance myself. But did I want to make myself miserable? No… at least, I didn’t think so. I just was miserable. It was more of an undesired side effect to life, rather than something I had consciously chosen.
But Ryu’s words had their desired effect. I sighed, and dropped heavily down to the ground, staring morosely out at the ocean.
As I looked out at the water, I saw Jun burst forth from underneath the waves, coming up behind Jinpei and splashing his back. He yelped, startled, then angrily turned, but she was gone. She had slipped away as quickly and unobtrusively as she had come. I gave a small smile, in spite of myself.
Seeing that I intended on staying, Ryu tossed me a towel to sit on, then ran off toward the water. Over the last couple of years, his bulk had become more muscle than fat, but I was still amazed how quickly he could run.
The Owl was anything but subtle. He ran over to Jun, grabbed her around the waist, and spun her around. She laughed and squealed, her face full of life and excitement. I noticed a few of the guys on the beach watching him with a mixture of curiosity and envy, wondering if she could possibly be his girlfriend. I chuckled in mild amusement. If only they knew.
These days, Jun was most attached to Jinpei. I watched the two of them splashing each other in the surf, both of them attempting to convince Ryu to side with them in their water fight. It was a hopeless battle, and Jun knew it, but she still tried. Although she was attached to Jinpei, he was becoming more and more attached to Ryu. Oh, he still needed her, but the closer he got to becoming a man, the less he needed a motherly influence. Sometimes, I could see, from the look in her eyes, that Jun knew this, and she tried hard to give him his space, despite how much it hurt.
Hey, letting go was part of life. At least Jinpei was still involved in her life, and always would be. I envied the bond they had, and wished that I could be included in it.
But that was impossible. I had to stay away from emotional ties. Hadn’t that been proven to me, over and over again? Anyone I ever cared for had died, and soon, I would be the one who was gone. I knew the pain that I had gone through in the past, and from what I understood, the pain I had put the others through had been worse than that.
They didn’t deserve to go through it again.
And yet… there were times when I desperately wanted to reach out… to belong, the way I once had. Somehow, those days when I used to laugh, when I used to be filled with excitement, when I would do things for the sheer thrill of the experience… they seemed so far away. They had evaporated, as I pushed the only family I had ever known away.
Although, who knew how much time I had left? Should I really be sitting here on such a beautiful day, feeling sorry for myself? Why not enjoy what little I had? But I couldn’t go swimming: I was too heavy now, and couldn’t really float. It was an effort to keep my head above the water. I supposed I could go down and enjoy the lapping waves with the others, but their boisterous play was a little too much for my state of mind right now.
I closed my eyes, taking a few deep breaths and trying to relax, meditating quietly as the ocean wind ruffled my hair. I had never really paid much attention to meditation before, but of late I had found that it helped me clear my head, and focus on tasks.
Right now, since I had no task to speak of, I merely concentrated on driving the cold depression from my mind. I felt the warm sun on my face, and opened my eyes.
The first thing I saw was Jun.
She had apparently given up on her splash fight with Jinpei and Ryu, and she strode confidently up the beach, toward my position. I noticed the eyes of various men watching her as she passed, but she was oblivious to their attention. I could see why they stared. Her red bikini showed off her incredible figure, glistening drops of water sliding their way down her form, and splashing onto the sand in her wake. Her emerald eyes sparkled, and she radiated confidence and joie de vivre.
“What are you still doing up here?” she asked me, reaching for another towel. “Why don’t you go into the water?”
She slowly ran the towel over her body, oblivious to the way my eyes followed her every move. The sight of her made me realize that while I was no longer entirely human, my body still retained the same responses as any other man.
In a way, just knowing that helped me relax, and I unconsciously grinned at her.
“Why would I go in the water, when you’re up here on the sand?” I asked.
“I’ve been in the water for half an hour.” Jun pointed out, seeing through my attempt at avoiding the true answer to her question. “You’ve been up here the entire time.”
“I… just don’t feel like swimming.” I replied.
Jun sighed and sat down next to me, spreading her long legs out to finish drying in the sun.
“You know, Joe,” she began, obviously choosing her words carefully, “sometimes I’m not sure you feel like doing anything anymore.”
I decided not to answer her, looking away instead, as if I were incredibly interested in a game of beach volleyball off to my left.
“Why don’t you ever go racing at the track anymore, Joe?” she asked, talking to the back of my head. “I’m not even sure what you do in your spare time. I see you training, and occasionally you come by the Snack, but most of the time you’re just off by yourself.”
I felt her slim hand cover mine, and the warmth of her breath brushed by my ear.
“Haven’t you spent enough time on your own, Joe?” she whispered. “We’re here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. If you can’t be with us, then whom can you be with?”
She had a point. If I couldn’t be with my own friends… my family… then there wasn’t really anyone else. And yet, they were also the hardest people to be close to, knowing how they had once been hurt, and how they were likely to be hurt again.
I turned to answer her, and found that I couldn’t. Those big green eyes of hers were looking into mine, and for a few seconds, I felt that she could see right into the heart of me… or at least, what was left of my heart. My mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out.
She smiled at me, and for an instant, I let myself bask in the warmth of her presence.
“You don’t have to say anything, Joe.” she said quietly. “Whatever you’re trying to sort out, I get that you need to do it on your own. Just don’t isolate yourself completely, okay?”
I nodded briefly, too taken aback by the sudden effect she was having on me, to realize what I was doing.
Her smile widened, drawing me in, as if we shared a secret that no one else in the world could understand. I leaned forward, slowly, so that our foreheads were touching.
“Juni…” I breathed, “I… just…”
It was at that moment that I found my face full of sand.
I turned, sputtering, my eyes snapping with rage, to find Jinpei and Ryu looking at me sheepishly.
“Sorry, Joe!” Jinpei apologized. “We were just fooling around. I didn’t mean to throw the sand at you.”
“You have lousy aim, Jinpei!” Jun muttered, trying unsuccessfully to brush the sand out of her wet hair.
“Sorry, Onechan.” Jinpei grinned. “You sure do look funny, though…”
That was all he got out before Jun leapt up, racing after him across the beach. She appeared angry at first, but it wasn’t long before they were both laughing, and enjoying the thrill of the chase.
“Those two…” Ryu smiled, shaking his head. “They act like they’re related, or something…”
“They’re as close as a real family.” I replied.
“We’re all a family, Joe.” Ryu responded, looking straight at me.
I had to turn away. I couldn’t afford a family.