By Maya Perez
Edited by Wendy "The Great One" Dinsmore
Joe's consciousness bubbled toward the surface. As it did so, he could feel the dull throb which covered the length of his body, culminating excruciatingly in his head. Trying not to moan, Joe eventually forced his eyes open. He'd barely gotten to glance around at the unfamiliar surroundings, when he suddenly found himself surrounded by his teammates. Mixed looks of concern and relief were painted across their well known faces.
Their presence assured him all had gone well. Gel Sadra's ID machine had been defeated. Galactor was stopped from realizing its goals of world domination once more and he'd made yet another successful stab at those he wished to be rid of. It also meant he'd survived and would still get a chance to rid the earth of X. It was possible Rafael's latest changes were to be thanked for his survival. Joe relaxed in the hospital bed, satisfied he'd made the right decision after all. The throbbing in his head eased slightly.
As a barrage of questions landed on him from the others, Joe noticed Nambu and Pandora were also in the room. Nambu's clinical presence was expected, but not Pandora's. He saw her flash him a smile and this disturbed him, though he wasn't quite sure why. Yes, she'd proven herself their ally now, but there was still something about the scientist he didn't like. He'd always held the nagging feeling she was a threat to him in some way. That he couldn't figure out how made him very nervous.
When the others finally assured themselves he was indeed all right, Pandora came forward and they threw some of their questions in her direction. She eagerly began answering them.
"Yes, it's true I shot Dr. Nambu, but it was all a ruse," she told them. "We'd hoped with the faked news of the doctor's death, Galactor would become overconfident and use their mind enhancing ID machine directly on the ISO."
Joe frowned still not liking the fact they'd not been considered trustworthy enough to have been told about this plan.
"You see, we'd gotten reports of the existence of the ID machine and its potential for mass destruction. With what information we could steal, we were able to create our own crude version of the machine. Unfortunately, it was very limited in range and so couldn't be used effectively against Gel Sadra. That was when Dr. Nambu and I hatched the plan for the fake murder as a means to lure Gel Sadra's ID here."
Like the rest of the team, Joe had thought Nambu was dead. His suspicions that Pandora had been the one to do it had almost gotten her shot.
"Though I'd initially been the one chosen to operate the machine, Joe ended up doing it for me. It was a good thing too, for our version hadn't yet been fully tested, so we had no idea it would send bolts of feedback into the user. More than likely, if I'd operated the machine, I would have died. Yet, since Joe is a cyborg, he was somewhat less affected and was able to survive the experience."
Joe felt his heart skip. He tried to disbelieve what he thought he'd heard, but one look at the others told him there was no possibility of denial.
Surprised looks crossed the room. Though they'd all heard Pandora say it as a matter of fact, none of them but her had any idea of what she was talking about. Ken was the first to regain control. "A cyborg?"
Pandora was taken aback by the groups' apparent shock and incomprehension. "Didn't you all know? I figured no one told me for security reasons. Hadn't you noticed there were unusual things he could do? Even on the first day we met, I saw there was something different about him."
As one, those in the room turned to stare at Joe. Their faces were openly asking for him to admit or deny what they'd just been told. Joe didn't look up at them, but kept his gaze centered on his clenched hands.
"Joe?" Jun reached out toward him, but suddenly retracted her hand in indecision.
"Joe, is this true?" Ken's anxiety was only too discernible in his voice. Joe could easily imagine the matching look on his face. Though he knew it would only make things harder, he still didn't dare answer.
"Joe! We have a right to know. We trust our lives to each other every day. What affects you affects the rest of us," Ken's voice grew more insistent. "Tell us, tell me. Is this true? Are you a cyborg?"
Joe flinched as if slapped. The not quite hidden anguish in Ken's voice forced him to look up against his will. He'd so fervently hoped it'd never come to this. For months, he'd tried so hard to hide the truth from them. And he'd thought he'd gotten away with it. Yet, without warning, his worst nightmare had become reality. And he knew there was no way to take it back.
"Yes, I am." Joe quickly averted his eyes so he wouldn't see their judgment. His imagination, though, was doing quite a job filling him in on what he might have seen.
Nambu would still be standing in the background his experienced gaze seeming somewhat skeptical, but generally reserving his opinions until after he'd seen the reaction of the rest of the team. Ryu and Jinpei would be turning to stare at one another not sure if they should believe what they'd heard or dismiss it as a sick joke. Ken would be staring directly at him, the markings of pain from all the deceit and betrayal plain on his face. Jun would be feeling Ken's pain and Joe's own discomfort and would be trying hard to think of some way to make it go away for both of them.
Why couldn't they have left it alone? He wasn't ready to deal with this, to talk to them about it. Why did it have to have happened now? Joe felt himself tensing up, making the pain in his head pound harder. He could tell if something didn't happen to get him out of this soon, he wouldn't be able to stop himself from screaming at them to leave him alone. He couldn't handle this, not now. Their feelings and everything else be damned.
"Perhaps it would be prudent if we left Joe alone for a while," Pandora suggested. "I realize this is quite a shock for all of you, but he hasn't completely recovered from his ordeal. I'm sure there'll be plenty of time for all of this later."
Though extremely surprised, Joe found himself grateful for the red haired scientist's interference. For a moment, he even forgot she'd been the one who'd caused this to come about in the first place.
"Team, Dr. Pandora is right. We've already taxed Joe more than necessary." Nambu's mask was well in place. "Let's let him rest for a while." Not waiting for a response, Nambu escorted Pandora out the door.
Ken turned away from Joe and left the room without a word. Jun stared anxiously at both of them, before grabbing hold of Jinpei's young shoulders and regretfully departing.
When the rest of them had gone, Ryu opened his mouth to speak but then closed it. Seeing Joe was still ignoring everything around him, Ryu stepped quietly out of the room, closing the door behind him.
With an anguished sigh, Joe sat up against his pillows. Now that he'd been exposed, he knew he needed to decide how he should proceed from this point, but his mind was too disturbed to let him think clearly. This should have never happened. Not like this. The shocked looks on his teammates' faces rose unbidden to his mind. "Damn them anyway! What do they know about it?"
Joe's anger extinguished itself as quickly as it rose. He couldn't find the strength to hold on to any of it. He'd had no choice on what happened to him, and neither did they. He stared out the room's sun-filled window as he lay surrounded by a deathlike silence. Joe had never felt so utterly alone.
Shaking his head, trying to dispel this awful feeling, he reached for the remote control on the bedside table and turned on the television. Joe flipped through the channels quickly, not really looking at what they showed him.
His reprieve was only temporary. Sooner or later, he'd have to face all of them again. And there was nothing else he was prepared to tell them. The thought of having to sit still beneath their accusing stares when he wouldn't answer them sent a chill running down his spine. The guillotine had finally been raised and all he needed to do was wait for it to fall. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been guilted into the latest set of changes. He'd always thought of himself as driven, where Galactor was concerned anyway, but Rafael made him look like an amateur. And Joe just hadn't been able to ignore the sacrifice by Wolf and the others... Now he would pay for it.
Increasingly restless and nervous, Joe swept his covers aside and got out of bed. Not letting the resulting wave of dizziness stop him, he methodically searched his room until he found his clothes. Luckily, they hadn't thought of taking them out of there. He put them on.
Joe glanced toward the door and started in that direction, but then stopped. After Pandora's bombshell, Nambu might have assigned someone to watch him. Even worse, one of the team might have taken it upon themselves to do so, knowing his track record with hospitals. He didn't want to deal with guards or them. So instead, Joe stepped over to look out the window.
His room faced the back of the hospital. It appeared he'd had at least one bit of luck today. It was three stories from his room to the ground. Joe smiled-and was only getting better. Pulling the window open, Joe took a long look about to make sure no one was around outside. Taking a deep breath, he crept out to the window's edge and then let himself drop to the grass below. Normal people couldn't make such a drop without taking damage. But then, he wasn't normal anymore. Swaying only slightly after the fall, Joe scanned the area again before taking off in a random direction.
Joe aimlessly walked the streets of Utoland for hours. He paid little attention to his surroundings, letting his restless energy take him where it would. He came to a startled halt, however, as his wrist communicator loudly beeped for his attention. He'd put it on out of habit when he got dressed. He realized now he might have cause to regret it.
Joe was seriously considering not answering the call when the comm beeped at him again. Knowing he was really only trying to delay the inevitable, Joe ducked into the nearest alley he could find before activating the communicator.
"This is G-2."
"Joe, Nambu here." The doctor's familiar voice echoed in the narrow space. "I need for you to report to my office as soon as possible. Since you've departed from the hospital, I am assuming you're feeling well enough for that. We have some things which need to be discussed."
Joe sighed. "Is this truly necessary?"
"Joe, I would appreciate your cooperation. I wouldn't enjoy having to issue a more compulsory request."
Joe thought he had some idea of what this might entail. Nambu possessed the power to make things very difficult for him if he refused. "All right, have it your way. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Do you need transportation?"
Joe's temper flared. " I said I'll be there and I will be. Your baby-sitters won't be necessary." Angrily, Joe cut off the transmission. He then removed the wrist communicator and stuffed it into a pocket. Bastard. Why was he in such a hurry anyway?
As he exited the alley, Joe glanced around trying for the first time to figure out where he was. To his surprise, he found he was only a few blocks from his needed destination. It seemed he'd been moving in this direction all along.
The sun was setting in the horizon by the time Joe set foot upon the stairs leading to the entrance of the International Science Organization's main headquarters. Longingly, he hesitated at the door and stared out at the quickly reddening landscape behind him. Joe had the unshakable feeling he might be doing so for the last time.
He finally made himself turn away from the sight and entered the building.
After signing in at the front desk, Joe took the elevator and followed the familiar twisting hallways toward the office of the creator of the science ninja team. More than once, he found himself seriously considering turning around and walking away from it all. They'd thought he'd died back then. He could have left all of his old life behind him, made a clean break of things, yet he'd found himself returning instead. And they'd taken him back. With minimal questions. And he'd dived back into his old life with abandon. All the old feelings, all the old habits. Could he leave them so easily? The first time hadn't really been his choice.
The image of his teammates' faces rose before him. Could he leave things unfinished? There were promises he'd made long ago he'd yet to fulfill. Through the ISO, with the team, he possessed a better chance of finally succeeding than going at it alone. But was it worth it? Regardless, it was too late. Too much had been said. If he ran, he wasn't sure Nambu and the others would let him get away easily. And even if he was successful, he knew Nambu would make his life and reaching his goals quite a chore.
Joe found himself before Nambu's door and hesitated. Taking a deep breath, he made himself knock on the closed door. Getting no response, Joe quietly opened the door and let himself inside. Within, he found Nambu's spectacled form sitting behind his wide, paper-laden desk. His tall leather chair was partially turned away from him as the doctor gave a number of instructions to someone on the phone.
Ignoring the plush chairs scattered about the room, Joe closed the door and leaned lightly on the wall next to it. He crossed his arms and stared critically at his fingernails, trying his best to look bored rather than show the nervous panic he felt inside.
Nambu noticed his presence in a minute or so, and quickly brought his conversation to a close. He turned his chair around to stare at his latest visitor. "I'm glad you could make it."
"I didn't think I had a choice."
Nambu ignored Joe's sarcastic comment. "As you know, Pandora's revelation was quite a surprise to all of us. Though, as she correctly pointed out, the signs were there all along. I'm sure you realize this has brought up a lot of questions."
Joe shrugged. "So?"
"I think it's time you elaborated upon your whereabouts during your prolonged absence from the team."
Joe kept his face blank even as he felt a cold stone gather at the pit of his stomach. "There isn't anything to elaborate on. I've already told you all you need to know." He was sure Nambu wouldn't take this well.
"I'm afraid that's no longer something for you to decide, Joe. By your own admission, we now know you're a cyborg. Yet, as far as we know, no one has the knowledge or technology to make such a thing possible. You've admitted previously that a Dr. Rafael rescued you from Cross Karakoram. Is he the one who created your cybernetics?"
Joe's blank expression never wavered. "As far as I know. Though I have a feeling you could answer the question better than me." Nambu let the remark pass.
Joe was sure Nambu had already tried finding out information about Rafael. Upon his return, when he'd mentioned Rafael's name, he'd thought he'd seen a sign of recognition in Nambu's eyes. Nambu had probably suspected what he'd become all along. Though he'd tried hard not to think about it before, it would explain how he'd been able to skip or fly through some of his previous medical exams. Nambu was never one to waste resources.
If Nambu held any suspicions though, he'd kept them to himself. And for this Joe was grateful. Nambu, more than anyone, could have blown the whistle on him and put him in this mess sooner. Though now that the secret was out, it looked as if Nambu didn't want to be kept in the dark any longer-or do without the benefits cybernetics might bring to the ISO. Joe frowned as he remembered Pandora was supposedly a cybernetics expert. Was this why Nambu brought her on board? For this eventuality?
"Where were these changes done to you? Where is this hidden laboratory where you were saved?" Nambu's tone was growing less friendly by the moment.
"I don't remember." Would Nambu be as easy on him if he realized the first changes weren't the only ones? He'd already been called to task a couple of times for disappearing without telling anyone where he had gone-Joe figured Nambu now suspected it'd been to meet the doctor.
"Where does Dr. Rafael operate from? How much has he told you about what was done?"
Joe didn't like the direction these questions were heading. "I don't know. He moves around. He values his privacy." Joe stared poignantly at Nambu hoping he would get the hint.
"Why didn't you reveal yourself to us earlier?"
Joe pushed himself away from the wall. "Look, I came here because you asked me to, but this is getting us nowhere. I have nothing to tell you. And I don't intend to stay here and be brow beaten and harassed by anyone, not even you." Joe turned to open the door. He could hear Nambu abruptly stand up behind him.
"G-2, I'm not finished with you yet."
Joe shot him a withering glance. "The hell you're not."
Before Nambu could offer any other objections, Joe stormed out of the office slamming the door shut behind him.
He didn't need this, he didn't! The questions were getting too close to things he couldn't, wouldn't talk about. There must to be a way to get out of this. In his anger and frustration, Joe didn't notice the woman rounding the corner until he'd almost slammed into her.
Stopping himself in time, Joe took a step back in disgust as he realized who was before him. "Pandora." Her name left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Joe, I'm glad I've found you."
He bristled at her familiarity. "The feeling is not mutual." If she'd never stuck her nose into places where it didn't belong... Joe started to move past her.
"Wait!" Joe felt her grab his arm. His head snapped around in fury, piercing her with a burning glare. Though the look had filled many before her with inexplicable terror, Pandora persevered under the barrage and made no move to release him.
"What do you want?"
"Joe, I wanted to apologize. I hadn't meant to cause you trouble. I honestly thought everyone already knew."
"It's not enough." Joe violently wrenched his arm from her grasp. He turned to move away.
"I did some research after I left this morning. I found out you were missing for over two years before you returned to the team." Pandora took a step toward him. "Perhaps none of this would have happened if you'd just told them about it from the beginning. Why didn't you?"
"That's none of your business." He was about to leave but she moved to block the way.
"I read you were dying when you disappeared," she said. "Someone went through a lot of trouble to save you. Surely having parts of your body replaced by machines isn't much of a price to pay to be alive."
Uncontrollable, scathing anger fountained up inside Joe at her words. His hands curled into fists as his anger demanded to be immediately and violently released. His face contorted by his all consuming rage, Joe forced himself to turn away form her and struck out at the nearest wall. He turned back to look at her for only a moment.
"I should have killed you when I had the chance!"
A startled Pandora stared at the empty place where Joe had just been. The hatred she'd seen in his face left her speechless. What she'd seen of his abilities and the theoretical knowledge in her own mind hadn't quite prepared her for the reality. A chill coursed through her as it slowly dawned on her the deep hole in the reinforced wall beside her could just as easily have been in her instead.
He had to hurt something, anything! The unfairness of it all was threatening to consume him from within. If the bitch had never joined the ISO, his secret would have been safe. It didn't matter that she was right. He didn't care! She could make sense all she wanted, but rationality had nothing to do with this. How dare she try to understand him? Pandora, damn you to hell.
Joe needed to vent his anger or it would drive him mad. Nothing would help it, nothing but mindless violence. Yet, there were no convenient Galactor bases at hand. No time to try to contact Rafael to find him one. Joe growled at a passersby as he thundered toward the rear of the building. Perhaps there was one place which might give him what he sought.
Joe paced like a caged tiger as the underground tram sped him toward his destination. His face, a twisted mask of burning rage, worked as a warning sign to the specialized personnel occupying the base. There were none who'd not heard about the bad temper and ferocity of the Condor. It was a trademark for him in some ways. After one look at his face, they instantly cleared the halls wherever Joe deigned to travel.
His barely reasoning mind took their avoidance as more fuel to feed the fire. He assumed their fears derived from the fact they knew he was no longer fully human or that his secrets were a betrayal of the Kagaku Ninjatai.
A low growl filled his throat as the sliding door to the ninja team's exercise room didn't slide open fast enough to suit him. Joe stomped his way across the large, familiar room to an unassuming door hidden in the shadows of the jogging track which circled a story above. Joe quickly stabbed in the unlocking combination to a keypad set into the wall beside it.
As he pounded in the last number, the door began to open. It had retracted about three inches, however, when it came to an abrupt stop as the keypad shorted out from the force he'd used to punch the keys.
With exasperated irritation, Joe kicked maliciously at the metal door and it bent in enough to allow him entry.
The small room beyond lay in total darkness. Joe walked straight into it, already very familiar with the layout. He reached out toward the wide console before him, eager to activate its controls. At the last moment, he held himself back, remembering the damage he'd inadvertently inflicted on the door's keypad.
Stepping back, Joe took a deep breath, trying to force himself to regain some semblance of control. He had no intention of accidentally destroying his only means of release. After almost five minutes, Joe finally felt calm enough to start pressing buttons. As he did so, several screens lit up around him and a feminine voice poured into the room.
"E.T.R. on line. Subject name?"
"Data in file. Test setting?"
Joe didn't hesitate. "Danger level ten."
"Level ten removes all restrictions and is considered excessive. Do you still wish this setting?"
A dark window above the control panel slowly brightened to show a cavernous room beyond. A door silently slid open to Joe's right. He hurried through it.
As the door shut behind him, Joe bounded to the center of the padded room. Eagerly, he fished his hand into his pocket and brought out his wrist communicator. Placing it back on his wrist, he raised his arm in an arc and then brought it abruptly down.
Joe was swallowed by the familiar field of swirling light, even as his skin began to tingle. Within seconds, his civilian clothes were transformed into the dark red and blue uniform of G-2. A humorless smile played on his lips as he turned to look up at the control room's window. "Computer, begin the test."
Previously unseen panels slid open all around the huge room. Several man-sized robots issued out of each one. Within seconds, they converged on the room's only target.
Joe didn't wait for his attackers to reach him. Instead, he leapt and dived behind the closest ones and then started to methodically destroy them. After ten seconds, he'd already incapacitated four of the robots. He barely noticed the effort as he moved to vent his frustrations on the rest.
Moments after he'd dispatched all of them, a second wave rushed into the room. These, unlike their predecessors, tried to counter his moves but didn't work in tandem. In less than five minutes, it was time for the third wave to move in.
Weapons extruded from these robots' innards sending live ammunition flooding through the room. The bullets hampered the freedom of Joe's movements forcing him to take three times as long to destroy the present wave.
He then dispatched the fourth wave. The fifth streamed in with no delay. Half of the new robots whirled directly toward him while the rest tried to keep him pinned to one side of the room with their weapons' fire. Joe was able to anticipate and therefore slip out of their trap, but only barely. He slammed hard against a wall, almost clipped by a wild swing from one of the robots. He cursed at himself for foolishly not having prepared better for this wave's greater speed and agility.
He'd managed to disarm half of the robots but only destroy three, when all of them came to a sudden stop. "Interrupt implemented."
Joe virtually collapsed where he stood. Taking heaving breaths, he reached up from habit to wipe away at sweat he could no longer generate. Realizing what he'd been trying to do, Joe brought his hand away in disgust.
"You've been at this for quite a while I see. You know better than to attempt level ten without supervision."
Joe glanced up at his only female teammate. "You - shouldn't - have stopped - it. I was - just - beginning to - forget." Joe dropped down on his back and spread himself out trying to make his ragged breathing easier.
"It looked more to me as if you were trying to get yourself killed."
Joe didn't look at Jun. "Same - thing." He missed the saddened expression which momentarily crossed her face.
"Well, the least you should be doing now is trying to loosen those muscles, or are we feeling testy enough to want them to cramp up on you?" Jun walked up to him and knelt down at his side. "Here, let me rub them for you."
As Jun reached out her hand, Joe jerked up into a sitting position and began rubbing them himself. "That's all right. I can do it... thanks." Joe knew his muscles no longer needed such treatment, but if he didn't go through the motions, it would only end up bringing about questions he wanted to avoid.
Jun sat back and thoughtfully watched his progress.
"What are you doing tonight?"
"Huh?" Joe looked up at her in surprise.
"Don't sound so shocked--after all, it's a totally innocent question. I'll even be nice and repeat it. - Joe, what are you doing tonight?" Jun couldn't help but smile at Joe's still amazed expression. She half wondered why he was so surprised.
Joe looked away. "Uh, nothing, I guess. I hadn't really thought about it..." He sent her a curious glance. "Why?"
"Well, it's easy to guess you're probably under a lot of pressure right now", Jun told him easily. "I doubt you want to stay here or at headquarters for the night. So... I thought I'd give you a third option. Why don't you come and spend the night with me and Jinpei at the Snack J? We have a spare room, and we'd love to have you."
"I, uh, appreciate the offer, but..."
"But what? Give me one good reason why not. Go on, give me one and I'll leave you alone. But it better be good."
Joe looked up into Jun's large green eyes as he quickly tried to fabricate a convincing excuse. Nothing came to him, at least, nothing he thought she would believe. The trailer was still in storage. He hadn't taken the time yet to try and refit it properly, so he hadn't bothered to take it out. In the two years he'd been missing, the old slot at the trailer park was long gone and he'd not looked for somewhere else to put it. This pretty much dried up his options. Realizing he couldn't turn her down, Joe found a part of him pleased by this. "I... don't have one, okay? So I guess I'm doomed to stay with you and Jinpei." Joe half smiled in grudging defeat. He found Jun's pleasure in it infectious.
"Go get cleaned up then so we can go. Jinpei's been saving dinner, so I'm sure he's quite starved by now."
The two of them rose to their feet.
"How did you know I was here?" Joe asked.
"I didn't." Jun gazed at him from the corner of her eye. "I've been looking for you since they noticed you'd disappeared from the hospital. I wasn't quite ready to give up on finding you, but I thought I'd hop on over and do some exercise to loosen up a bit and gather some ideas before looking some more. When I came into the exercise area and saw the mangled door, it didn't really take much for me to figure out you were here. Though after watching you fight for only a few minutes, I felt too tired to want to exercise. It's amazing you were able to hold out so long."
Joe shrugged as they walked out of the room. "I just have some advantages you don't, that's all. Though they're not really worth it."
The speeding water struck firmly against Joe's skin before cascading toward the drain. The water's warmth was welcome and refreshing. Slowly, it gently washed away some of his hanging weariness. Joe found himself wallowing in the sensation and the comfort it offered him. It worked to fill his skin's every pore... His skin...
Joe abruptly shut the water off, the soft mood broken. Though he'd never been brave enough to ask, he was sure what he wore now hadn't originally been his. If he'd held any doubts of it before, Rafael's latest enhancements had crushed them away. There was no telling what else was no longer his. Eventually, he might have nothing left from the original.
Briskly drying himself off, Joe got dressed and hurried to rejoin Jun.
Joe left with her in silence, even as Jun tried to hurry him along before he could think to change his mind. It didn't take them long to reach the Snack J.
"Oneechan, I was beginning to worry! Did you - " Jinpei hurried from the other side of the counter as he saw Jun come in. He stopped as he saw who came home with her. "Joe-aniki, you did come. This is great!"
Joe quickly glanced around the busy interior of the diner and part time discotheque, and was relieved not to see any of the other members of the team.
"Kathy has already shown up to take over for us, and it'll only take me a minute to heat dinner. I hope you're both real hungry." Jinpei's face suddenly clouded over. "You still eat, right, Joe-aniki?"
"Jinpei!" Jun smacked her adopted brother on the side of the head.
"Ow! Sorry." Jinpei bobbed his head in apology, shifting away from his sister's reach. "I just wanted to know. I mean, we wouldn't want all that food going to waste, would we?"
Jun glared at her brother as the latter rubbed his aching head. She forgot all about his rudeness, however, as Joe heartily began to laugh. Jinpei was glad to hear the sound, but wasn't sure what was so funny. He'd been absolutely serious about his concerns on wasted food.
Joe felt his mood lightening perceptively as they all rose to have dinner upstairs. He hadn't thought it possible, but, perhaps his fears on what they'd think of him were unfounded after all.
Bright sunshine poured into the room from two large windows, lighting up everything it touched. Awake for over an hour now, Joe still lay in bed, his mind clear and for the moment at peace, as he watched the sunlight reflect off the objects in the room.
The knob on the room's white door caught at his attention as it slowly started to turn. His body tensed reflexively, but Joe made no move to get up.
Once the knob stopped turning, the door eased itself open. Jinpei stuck his head halfway through the opening to look toward the bed. He found Joe's blue eyes staring directly at him. Jinpei smiled, his hand arching back over his head in embarrassment and then disappeared.
"Oneechan! Oneechan, he's awake."
Joe slipped silently out of the bed and moved to close the room's still open door. As he did so, he heard Jun send a reply in Jinpei's direction. "I'm sure he is, Jinpei. With all that yelling, who wouldn't be!"
Joe allowed himself a fleeting grin. It felt good to know some things would never change. Within a few minutes, Joe got dressed and then met them downstairs.
Jun smiled brightly when she saw him arrive. "Good morning, Joe. I hope you slept well."
"Yeah, fine. Thanks... I guess I'm forced to admit your idea was a pretty good one."
"Good, then it means I can expect your cooperation on my next idea. I want you to empty this plate for me." Jun set a heaping plate of scrambled eggs and bacon on the counter. "Now be a good boy and eat it all."
As Joe sat down, Jun added a glass of orange juice, four pieces of toast, and an assortment of jellies and jams. Jinpei stared at Joe with eager eyes.
"You don't have to really eat it all, aniki, I'll be happy to finish what you don't."
Jun gave her brother a highly disapproving stare. Jinpei made sure to stay out of her reach. "What I meant to say was you should eat your fill, but not to worry if you can't. I'll take care of it."
"Jinpei, you're starting to sound an awful lot like Ryu of late."
"I'm a growing boy, Oneechan!"
Jun begrudgingly released her brother from her stare.
Without further prompting, Joe tore heartily into his breakfast. He was making good progress on it, when the telltale bell on the door rang out behind him.
"Good morning! Boy, it's beautiful out there. It's going to be a great day." Ryu took a deep breath to accentuate his pleasure.
"Good morning, Ryu," Jun smiled at him as she said it. "Would you care for something to eat?"
"Well, uhm, I've already eaten, ahm, but, well... What this guy's having looks pretty good. Sure, I'll have some."
Joe looked up from his meal and turned to look at Ryu.
"Oh!" Ryu's expression changed from surprise to awkward embarrassment. "Uh, good - good morning, Joe. I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was you... I'm real sorry."
"That's all right, Ryu. Why don't you have a seat?" Joe tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.
Ryu hesitated. He glanced anxiously toward Jun not sure what to do. Jun nodded her head slightly indicating he should sit. Gingerly, Ryu sat down on the stool next to Joe's.
Ryu remained silent and unmoving as he waited for his breakfast. His only action was to occasionally glance over at his companion. Joe tried to ignore this and its accompanying discomfort and forced himself to keep eating.
"Here you go, Ryu." Jun laid an identical serving of food for Ryu as Joe's. After hesitating for a moment, Ryu began to eat but not with his usual amount of vigor.
Joe sighed, realizing it'd be up to him to set his large teammate at ease. The problem was figuring out how. "So... Ryu, I haven't been up long. What's so special outside today?"
"Yes, Ryu, tell us!" Jun wanted the discomfort between them gone as much as he.
"Well, uhm, I went fishing at the cove you see, and uhm, well, the sun just started peeking up over the horizon." Ryu's eyes picked up a faraway look. "The clouds slowly turned a blazing orange, and the water, well, it was as if it'd caught on fire. It was so beautiful, I didn't even mind I didn't catch anything." He smiled. "Nothing could be bad after a start like that."
Jun smiled at him. "It sounds great, Ryu."
"Yeah, if there weren't better things to do, like sleeping."
The young boy shrugged his shoulders. "Hey, he's my friend and I love him and all. But he's weird. Getting up so early willingly is unnatural, neechan."
Ryu threw his napkin at him. "I think you need to spend the weekend with me. I'll make sure to show you what you're missing. You might even enjoy it."
"That wouldn't be a good idea," Joe said, shaking his head. When the others turned to look at him, he added, "Then we'd have two of you taking naps the rest of the day to catch up."
Jun giggled. Jinpei stuck his tongue out at his friend.
With the ice now broken, Ryu dug right in, sure once more that Joe was Joe. The four of them were chatting lightly, when the telltale bell rang again.
"Good morning, Jun."
"Ken! You made it."
Joe turned around as Jun spoke and found himself facing his best friend and team leader. He saw Ken's half-smile dissolve into nothing as the latter realized who was before him. The two stared at each other, neither saying a word. Joe's hands curled into fists as he saw the contradicting feelings flashing through Ken's eyes. His stomach twisted into knots as Ken abruptly turned around and left the way he'd come.
"Ken!" Jun threw a concerned glance at Joe before hurrying out after their dark haired leader.
Joe watched her go out the door and felt his shoulders slump from a weight which wasn't there. Quietly, he berated himself for having thought things would ever be okay. He wouldn't fool himself with such delusions again.
"Jinpei, thank Jun for the room. But I'll be making other plans tonight." Joe got up to go.
"Joe, I'm sure he didn't mean anything." Ryu's soft words came out with uncertainty undercoating each one.
Joe held no doubts on this whatsoever. He glared daggers at them. "I'm leaving."
Neither teammate tried to stop him as Joe avoided the snack's front door and instead headed toward the kitchen. He wanted a drink, but the alcohol wasn't kept back here but in the front. Ryu and Jinpei were there and eventually Jun would be back as well. And there was no way he would give Ken the satisfaction of letting the others see how much his little show had affected him.
Joe took the back door out into the alley. Shit, all he needed was to run into Ken out here. He planned to avoid that as much as necessary. So he followed the alley away from the direction of the street until he found a branch perpendicular from the snack. What now?
His sneer lessened a little as he came up with an idea. The warehouse space wasn't far from the snack. He also doubted it would occur to any of them to think to look for him there. With lighter steps, Joe quickly headed east.
Joe yanked on the metal door and it rolled upwards with a rattling sound. Sunlight filtered into the partially grimy space. A large, one-man trailer, sat nestled in the gloom.
There it was-the ratty thing-his old home. Joe felt an unexpected pang at seeing it. He'd known where it was since he'd returned. Nambu had given him the code for the lock as well as the address. But Joe had never taken the time to even look at it. It was his past; of the part of his life he'd led when he was whole. He could never go there again. It was over. And what parts of it he'd thought he might be able to salvage were going down in flames as well.
Feeling maudlin, Joe stepped into the warehouse and walked up to the trailer door. He grabbed the handle, the familiar feel of it making the hair stand on end in the back of his neck. This had been his refuge, his nearby "fortress of solitude," or cheap "Batcave," depending on the mood. It was where he could get away from the pressures of fighting Galactor, from the disappointment he'd yet to bring his vendetta to fruition. He'd not enjoyed its solace in a long time. He wasn't sure it the magic would work again.
The interior was dusty and dark. Joe tried switching on the lights, but of course, there was no power. Still, enough light come in from the front of the warehouse to let him see well enough. The lumpy old bed still graced the right corner, the rickety table and chairs sitting on the left. The dirty dishes were gone, the racing magazines straightened in a corner, but otherwise the place looked the same as always. Except for the dust and a couple of cobwebs, it was almost as if he'd never been gone.
As if to prove the point, Joe stepped into the small kitchen area and reached for the cabinet where he used to keep the liquor. And there they were, the bottles of white and red wine for the occasional female visitor and the almost full bottle of black label. Even the shot glass was in its usual place over the lid.
It was eerie.
Nambu and the others had tucked the trailer away to preserve it akin to what happened in those movies where a family would leave a dead child's room untouched once they were gone. Except this child had come back, hadn't he?
Joe grabbed the black label with the shot glass and sat down abruptly at the table. He took the glass off the bottle and wiped the inside with his shirt until it was tolerably clean. He set the glass back down and stared at it for a long time before he actually uncapped the bottled and filled it.
Joe drank the contents, feeling the familiar burn course down his throat. He still possessed his sense of taste at least. That is until Rafael felt the need for further ‘enhancements' which might necessitate its extraction due to lack of resources. Already he'd lost pieces of himself. Alcohol for one, no longer affected him as it once did. Rafael had explained it had to do with poison filters in his system. Hooray for progress. Joe refilled his glass and took another drink.
He'd lost the team, just like he'd lost his life, his choices, pieces of his humanity. But he'd got them back, despite himself. And for what? So he could so carelessly lose them again? What had been the point? He'd been on borrowed time anyway, and he knew it. He just hadn't expected it all to fall apart so soon. Joe snorted in disgust and took another drink. Finally, the ghost of the bourbon's old warmth tickled inside him.
He stared at his empty glass, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now.
"Do you really think you need any of that?"
Joe looked up startled, not having noticed Jun walking up to the doorway.
"It won't solve anything, you know. It won't even really make it go away."
Joe glanced away; aware she didn't know how true her words were. He doubted consuming the whole bottle would even give him a buzz, no matter how much he wanted it.
After a moment, he finally looked directly at her. "Tell me, did our illustrious leader manage to evade you or did he hang back for some well earned sympathy?"
He looked guiltily away at the pain he saw flare on her face. Joe rubbed his hands tiredly over his face. It felt more worn than before. "Sorry... that was uncalled for... Though you should know better than to seek my company when I'm like this."
"No, I'm the one who needs to apologize. I asked Ken to come, but I didn't tell him you'd be there." She hesitated. "I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt you. He loves you very much. He was surprised, that's all. Please, don't think harshly of him, he's just not himself. He doesn't know where he stands in all this."
Joe grinned without humor. "Who does?"
"Joe, he's very unsure of himself, of what he feels."
"He's unsure?" Though the alcohol was having little effect on his system, it still helped bring a flash of heat into his cheeks. Jun reached out and took hold of his hand on the table before he could think of removing it.
"I know, Joe. I understand... but, I wish... I wish you could have seen him after you disappeared. We all grieved for you, but Ken, he, he felt personally responsible." Her gaze sought his. "Ken blamed himself for your death. He made the choice to leave you there at Cross Karakoram. And though he had no real choice in the decision, still, he blames himself for what happened because he made it." Her eyes pleaded with him for understanding.
"And it didn't get better, Joe. The knife of blame twisted around inside him every time those strange incidents kept happening before you let us know you were alive. Every time, our hopes rose only to be crushed by some convenient explanation. Every time, it was as if you'd died all over again!"
Jun squeezed his hand hard. "When you finally revealed yourself to us we took you back, Ken took you back. We never asked for more than you gave us, but filled the void of answers with our contentment at your return. I know how you two are. I know how you share things you wouldn't dare to with the rest of us. Yet, in all this time, you've told him nothing, and he demanded nothing. No matter how much it ate at him. Not even when strange things happened around you, not even when you did things or survived things you had no right doing.
"But now, he can't help but feel betrayed, Joe. How else did you expect him to be? He fought against everything he believes in to give you the time you needed. He ignored his training, his responsibilities to the team as its leader, and you know how much all that means to him! But he ignored it all just to take you back."
Joe stared at the gentle hand holding his, knowing it was all true. He'd wrestled with his conscience on many an occasion over it, but no matter how he looked at it, he couldn't bring himself to say anything because the base problem was still there.
"In all the time you've been back you've never shared a thing about the years you were gone from us. And then to have learned about what happened to you from a virtual stranger and on top of it to find you still unwilling to give anyone answers. How can he feel anything but cut off from you?"
Joe looked away, not wanting to face her accusing words. Jun wouldn't let him.
"You need to work this out with him! The longer you wait the harder it'll be."
Joe tore his hand from her grasp. "Don't you think I know that? It's not that easy. There are things I just can't--"
Joe hesitated as both their wrist communicators began beeping. Joe slammed his fist down on the table in frustration at the sudden interruption.
"G-3, this is Nambu. I need for all of you to assemble at my office. Now."
"Roger." Jun got up out of her chair and started heading toward the door of the trailer. She'd almost reached it before she realized Joe wasn't following behind her.
"Joe, come on. You heard him, he wants all of us."
Joe waved the bottle of JD in her direction. "Sorry, but I have better things to do."
"Is that it then?" Jun stared at him her anger rising. "You're just going to give up and wallow in self pity? Hakase called for all of us, and that happens to include you. You should be looking at it as a good sign."
Joe said nothing. Jun stomped back to the table. "You're not going to run away from this. I won't let you! I'm prepared to drag you to this meeting if necessary." Her determination was obvious in every line of her body.
Joe gave her a momentarily amused smile, knowing she meant it. It was nice to know she still cared. Though she might be the only one. "All right! I give up--anything you say. Women." He sobered quickly. "Though I don't see what good it will do."
"Just come on." When he stood, Jun grabbed him by the arm and pulled on him. At first it was akin to trying to move stone, but all at once Joe gave in and let her lead him away.
The two of them rushed down the halls in the direction of Nambu's office. The closer they got, the more tense Joe felt.
Jun slowed down as they came across a hastily patched hole in the building's reinforced wall. Noticing her gaze, Joe's nerves flared with apprehension as he recalled how the hole came into being. He slowed further. Jun noticed as he started to lag behind.
"Come on, we're late enough as it is," Jun chided. "You're not thinking of chickening out on me now are you?" Jun didn't wait for an answer, but instead grabbed his arm and found she couldn't drag him along. Intimidated by his queer solidity but not willing to give in, she gave him an impatient look until he started moving again.
Though he was liking the idea of this meeting less and less, Joe stopped resisting.
As the two of them quietly entered the office, they found Pandora and Nambu absorbed in a private conversation. Their other three teammates were already there as well.
Jun dragged Joe to a chair and she took the one nearest him. Joe sat down, his face blank, trying his best to keep himself from glancing in his best friend's direction. Nambu turned to speak to them seconds after Joe and Jun arrived.
"Excellent, you're all here. I apologize for the short notice." Nambu nodded toward Pandora, who then sat down.
"The Fielding Chemical Plant located off of Highway Thirty has for sometime been taking care of the production of certain new vaccines for testing by the ISO. We've obtained some rather promising results on these tests. One of them could very well become a future cure for cancer." He now held their full attention.
"The cultures being used are rather rare and have cost a lot in both money and manpower to be brought to their current stages. They would prove quite difficult to reproduce if lost.
"Recently, however, information has come to us indicating Galactor is aware of these cultures and the fruition of their tests so far. It would seem Galactor is presently considering stealing the cultures and trying to then copyright them internationally and destroying any research left behind so the organization would become the sole providers of any cures which might eventually be gained from them. This would of course bring them great profits and a way to put pressure on the world's governments."
Nambu stared seriously at each of them. "Since I have no solid proof any type of assault is to actually take place, I'm going to put you on alert until I can find out one way or another."
Jinpei sat up straight, his face full of barely restrained excitement. "Hakase, why don't you let us infiltrate the place and check it out for you?" Ryu nodded beside him, liking the idea.
"While that may eventually occur, it's too risky at this time. To be honest, some of this information came to us too easily. Until I have verified its authenticity, I'd rather not risk your safety. I should be able to give you more information within twenty four hours." He looked over them again. "Any questions?"
"Yes." Ken rose slowly to his feet. All of his attention was centered on Nambu. "Are you sure you'll want all five of us in on this?"
Nambu's brow rose. "Do you have an objection to that?"
"I do." Ken's gaze was hard. "I believe there's a possibility the team may have been compromised. For this reason, I suggest G-2 be excused from this mission."
Jun gasped. Joe didn't react at all, almost as if he'd somehow expected it.
Ken nodded and went on. "When G-2 reappeared, we incorporated him back into the group without question, as a matter of course. Since that time, no new information has come forward regarding the time he was gone. Only because of Dr. Pandora's astute observations have we even come to learn he's now a cyborg. If not for her, we might have never known."
Ryu leapt to his feet. "What has that got to do with anything? Why are you talking about our brother this way? He's been back with us for months now, and he's been as he's always been. There's no reason to accuse him of anything."
Ken turned to meet Ryu's shocked anger and didn't back down. "We've been lucky nothing has happened so far, but this in no way guarantees our safety in the future. Joe is a cyborg. Someone made him that way. For all we know, it could have been Galactor."
"No way, aniki! Joe would never allow himself to fall into Galactor hands." Jinpei turned imploringly in Joe's direction. "You wouldn't, would you, Joe-aniki?"
Joe ignored Jinpei's question, instead turning his head almost woodenly to stare at Ken's rigid form.
"I feel we must assume G-2 may be involuntarily giving the enemy information or has been booby-trapped against us in some way, or both," Ken explained. "Right now, he is a security risk we cannot afford. I can't in good conscience allow the team to act with him as one of its members."
"Ken, please don't do this." Jun stepped up behind him but he ignored her. He only stared at Nambu, waiting for an answer from the doctor's unreadable face.
"Ken is right, you know. There's no telling what might be inside Joe now." The younger members of the team turned to stare in shock at Pandora. Joe frowned.
"But, but, there must be something we can do," Jun protested. "It can't just end like this. Even if something is wrong with Joe, Gel Sadra will surely win if we split up the team because of it." Jun stared in rising panic between Ken, Nambu, and Pandora.
"There is a way." Ken's whispered statement brought instant silence to the room. Dread crawled up Joe's spine as he waited for the end to arrive.
"G-2 could allow us to study his body so we could make sure he's not in some way going to be used against us."
Joe's protesting shout startled every one. As he stood shakily on his feet, Joe realized he'd just doomed himself. But he'd been unable to stifle the sudden fear they would find out the extent of how much he'd been changed-that they would for sure believe him no longer to be human. It was over.
"Then there is nothing that can be done," Ken added. "I refuse to lead the team with such an obvious security breach."
No one moved. Joe couldn't help but glare at Ken's back, as if by sheer force of will he could force him to admit why he'd truly done this. Unconsciously, his cheek twitched, unsure as to whether he wanted to laugh or cry.
"Perhaps we could somehow reach a compromise?"
"Yes!" Jun eagerly grasped at Pandora's suggestion.
"Perhaps, Joe would allow tests to be run if all the results were kept confidential. The information gathered wouldn't be viewable by anyone without top security clearance and then only with the approval of the subject."
"And who did you have in mind to run these tests?" Joe couldn't keep the sarcasm from his voice, sure he already knew the answer.
"Dr. Nambu of course, who else?"
Joe stared at Pandora, startled by her answer. He'd been so sure she would select herself. She was after all the cybernetics expert here, and he was positive she was just dying to find out what made him tick.
"Well, Ken, is this acceptable?" Nambu asked. "Joe?"
Ken nodded promptly to Nambu's question. The rest of them turned toward Joe, waiting for his answer.
Joe could see it written in their faces... this was to be his last chance to prove himself to them. He didn't want this, not even with all their guarantees. Yet, if he didn't go through with it, all he'd accomplished so far would be to no avail. Feeling trapped, but wanting desperately to be accepted again by the only people who meant anything to him in the world, Joe lowered his head and stared at the floor. As if the voice didn't belong to him, barely above a whisper, he said, "All right."
He dismissed it as his imagination, when for a moment, he thought he saw something sparkle in Ken's eyes.
Nambu broke up the meeting almost immediately after Joe gave them his decision. It was obvious he wanted to get on with the tests before anyone could change their minds or any other objections could be brought to bear.
With some haste, Nambu led his reluctant subject to a high security area deep within the ISO building. After passing through three security checks, Nambu led Joe to a guarded elevator. Upon inspecting Nambu's papers, one of the guards slid a card into a slot in the wall. The elevator doors opened. Joe followed Nambu inside, never before having possessed a reason to be in this part of the building before.
As they entered the elevator, Joe noticed the compartment was totally bare, except for a row of twelve unmarked buttons by the side of the door. Without hesitation, Nambu pressed the sixth button from the top.
The elevator began to drop very quickly after giving a slight lurch as it got under way. Joe glanced questioningly at Nambu, but the latter didn't comment. After what seemed an unusually long ride, the elevator finally came to a stop. The doors didn't open.
"Security level Omega. Name?" A feminine voice whispered down to them from the elevator's ceiling.
There was a moment of silence.
"Voice print confirmed. Good day, Doctor. Glad to see you again. Name of your companion?"
"Voice print recording and confirmation needed. Subject Joe Asakura, please state your name clearly at the tone."
Joe bristled at being called a ‘subject', already feeling too much like a lab rat, but voiced his name as requested at the tone.
"Voice print recorded. Good day, Mr. Asakura. Please enjoy your stay."
The comment didn't make Joe feel any better.
The elevator doors slid open.
"What is all this?"
Nambu looked over at Joe. "These underground levels were made for high priority and classified research projects. Some of the ideas pursued here at the ISO are thought to be much too revolutionary or controversial to run the risk of a leak. Most of what is done here is theoretical, but with matters as they stand its better to keep such things under wraps. Unfortunately, more of them get disproved than those we can actually act upon."
Joe pondered this in silence as Nambu made his way down a nondescript corridor. Thirty feet down, doors appeared to either side. All of them were identical. Each held a card slot next to the wall and no knobs. Seemingly at random, Nambu stopped before a door on their left.
Nambu inserted a card into the slot. After a momentary hum, the door slid quietly open. Nambu walked in without hesitation.
"Joe?" The latter hadn't followed the doctor in.
"There's just one thing I want to make clear before I go in there."
"Yes?" Nambu's curiosity was almost palpable.
"Whatever you find, whatever you see, I don't want to know about it. I don't want to know a damn thing." Joe could tell this caught Nambu off guard. He didn't care.
"All right, Joe, if it's what you want."
Joe nodded and after hesitating a moment longer, he hurried into the room. The metal door closed ominously behind him with a soft hiss.
Several hours later, a tired but thoroughly fascinated Nambu returned to his office. He walked in blindly, glasses in one hand, busily rubbing at the sore spot on the bridge of his nose. He'd almost made it to his desk before he noticed he had company.
"Oh, Ken, I didn't notice you sitting there."
"I've been waiting for you. I hope you don't mind."
Nambu slipped into his large chair. "No, not at all. But now that you mention it, I'm rather surprised you're the only one waiting."
"Actually, I wasn't." Ken looked away from him to the floor. "After the first couple of hours, I told the others to go eat and relax for a while. I had to promise them I'd let them know immediately what you found out before I could get them out the door."
Nambu rubbed at his nose a moment longer before putting his glasses back on. "Well, you can tell them Joe is not a security risk. All the tests proved negative. No emanations of any kind or even passive bugging devices were in evidence."
Ken visibly relaxed. A soft smile momentarily decorated his face.
"I see this pleases you."
"Of course, it's for the good of the team."
Nambu sighed imperceptibly. "So things won't change between you then?"
Nambu sighed again. "Ken, I've known all of you for a very long time. And, in my own way, I've tried to get to know each of you as well as possible. Though I know I don't say it often enough, I do think of all of you as my own children and worry about your well being as much as I am able." Nambu pushed his glasses higher on his nose. "It's not escaped me there's a special bond between the five of you. It's one of the things which have helped make the Science Ninja Team as successful as it is. In many ways, your relationships to each other are deeper than those of any real family. You depend on it. It sustains you. I also know some of you would never admit to this. But regardless of that, it is there. It's come to my attention, however, your relationship with Joe may have radically changed."
Ken wouldn't meet Nambu's pointed gaze.
"The bond between the two of you is as special as it is rare. Not many people are lucky enough to have that kind of relationship with anyone in their lifetime. But, as in any number of things, even if you're lucky enough to get it, you have to work to preserve it. Sometimes you have to work very hard." Nambu paused for a moment.
"Are you truly ready to give up this gift, Ken? To blindly dispose of it? Has your time with him meant so little you're willing to dismiss it without finding out what is really going on? I don't think Joe takes this as lightly as you seem to. He wasn't ready to give it up though he could have easily left this type of life when we were sure he'd died. He came back of his own accord. And even though his secret is out, he's still here. He wants to be here."
Ken said nothing to this. Instead, he turned away from the doctor and gazed silently at the far wall. Fighting himself, Ken tried to straighten out his conflicting emotions. Nambu sat quietly watching Ken.
"I... I just don't know... He--"
Nambu interrupted him as he straightened himself up in his chair. "I'm sorry, Ken, but you're going to have to leave now. I have a lot of work to do."
Ken looked over at his mentor, his surprise plain on his face.
"Why don't you go to the lounge by the maintenance elevators and get yourself something to drink. It might help cheer you up."
Nambu looked up, his face unreadable. "Ken... you never know who you might accidentally run into there." The doctor abruptly broke eye contact and dismissed Ken by busying himself with his paperwork.
Ken glanced at the door, then back at Nambu. Sighing, Ken got up and left the room without another word.
Once out in the hallway, Ken quickly called Jun and gave her the good news regarding Joe's status.
"Ken, do you know where he is? Have you talked to him?"
He grimaced before responding. "No, Jun, to both questions."
"Ken, please, ask Hakase if he knows where he is. The two of you need to talk."
It was too late for that. "I'll call you later."
He turned his communicator off. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Ken made his way toward the main hall.
They all wanted him to talk to Joe. Why should he? Joe was the one who'd hid out on them for so long. Joe was the one keeping secrets from them... from him. What made any of them think Joe would explain himself? He hadn't done so before. Why would he now?
It wasn't like they'd not given him plenty of opportunity. It wasn't as if no weird things had occurred. Things strange enough where Joe should have tried to explain the situation instead of just giving them some offhanded glib answer and expecting them all to believe them. But he did and they had. They'd just taken him at his word. Even when things didn't add up, even when they'd made no sense.
The answer had been their in front of his nose the whole time though-Joe surviving the maiden voyage on the Condor Attacker-Joe leaping up two stories and kicking a mech and destroying it-his rescue of Ryu in the eerie flaming dimension. Joe just kept telling them he'd found a weak point, or he'd been lucky, or whatever he thought they'd buy. Anything but the real facts! Ken had ignored these incongruities, hoping the truth would come from Joe and not from speculation. The rest of the team felt the same way, though none of them ever discussed it. They'd just been so glad to have him back! And it'd been too hard to face the questions his strange actions brought up. Ken was sure all of them feared asking questions, because it might drive Joe away and then they would lose him again. But enough was enough! Just how long was he supposed to put up with unanswered questions? Joe had never bothered to tell them the truth and now it looked as if he never intended to.
Ken reached the front doors of the institute and hesitated as he stared out the glass into the flowing traffic.
Could Nambu be right though? Was he throwing something away because he didn't want to expend the effort to preserve it? Dammit, this type of thing didn't work as a one-way street. Why should he be expected to forgive when he still had no idea of why all the deceit happened in the first place? He'd given Joe months to come clean. He'd tried his damnedest not to pressure him in any way. And out of nowhere, this bomb was dropped on them. And Joe still wasn't talking.
"You bastard!" Ken thrust himself away from the glass door and headed back the way he'd come.
His pace slowed by the time he came close to the maintenance elevators. He knew the employee lounge was just on the other side of the hall, but Ken found himself suddenly hesitating. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to approach its open doorway.
A large array of vending machines were lined up against the left wall. Two large green couches took up the rest of the available wall space. As he glanced into the room, Ken noticed Joe's lean form stretched out on the couch facing the entryway. Joe's eyes were closed, his breathing slow and steady. He looked asleep. His arms were crossed loosely over his chest.
Ken remained at the doorway and watched him rest. He'd thought his friend dead for so long, he still found it hard at times to believe Joe was alive. Their victory over Katse had been soiled by his loss, the bitterness of it making the saving of the world into a hollow victory. Yet, like the phoenix of legend, Joe had returned to them just when they'd needed him most.
And he'd returned to them a cyborg. But what did that mean, really? By its very definition, someone with a pacemaker could be considered a cyborg. So what if Joe had more than that put in or replaced? What difference did it make as long as he was alive, as long as it let him be there for them? Joe looked the same. There was no difference in the squared profile, the piercing stare, Joe's overall presence. The things which made him Joe.
The changes made to Joe could be considered daunting. But that alone didn't justify what he'd done. As far as Ken could see, there was no good reason why Joe should be keeping secrets, why he should have hidden himself away and lied to them for so long. No reason why he couldn't give them the answers they wanted. Ken bit his lip, anger and need warring inside him. Maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to talk to Joe right now.
Ken backed up, his foot accidentally hitting an empty can which had been carelessly left by someone on the floor. Joe instantly sat up at the noise and turned toward him.
As soon as he spoke his name, Joe averted his eyes. He rose from the couch and headed toward the doorway. Surprised by Joe's reaction, Ken didn't find his voice until the latter had already sidled past him.
"Nambu says you're in the clear. You're no longer a security risk for the team." Ken heard him stop.
"Glad to hear it, Gatchaman."
Ken heard him start to walk away. Conflicting feelings continued to war inside him. "Joe, wait."
Ken heard him stop again. Neither turned to face the other.
"Joe, I want... to talk to you. I want... to understand." A heavy silence stretched between them. "I'd always thought I could depend on you."
Joe dug his nails into his palms as he curled up his hands into a fists. "You can."
"But the secrets, Joe. The lies."
"I needed time! I came back before I was ready, and I just didn't know how else to get it. I had no choice in what happened to me. You've no idea how it feels to wake up one day and find out you're not who you've been."
Ken started to turn around. "Needed time? Time? What the hell do you call the two years you were missing and all the weeks you've been back, if not time?" Ken tried to hold back but couldn't. "And you came back before you were ready? How long was it going to take if two years weren't enough? Can you at least answer me that?" His anger was rising. There was nothing he could do to stop it.
Joe's shoulders slumped but he said nothing.
"Yeah," Ken said bitterly, "That's what I figured-never." His throat tightened with some of the pain he'd been trying for so long to ignore and forget. "If not for the accidental slip of a stranger, you would have never told us anything."
"Ken, that's not-"
"The hell it's not!" Ken faced him fully, his fists coiled at his sides. "Just who do you think you are, you selfish bastard? How many times did you think I'd be willing to go through this? First you lied to me about your dizzy spells, then you held out on me when your health turned bad, and then worse, when we finally found out about it, you just took off to take Galactor on by yourself because you thought you were running out of time." Ken stared at his friend's stiff back, glaring his anger at him. "This is no different. Your agenda hasn't changed. You get brought back from the dead and can't waste your time to notify your family because you have other things to do. Eventually, though, you found out you couldn't take Galactor all on your own so you suddenly needed us again. And like fools, we took you back, no questions asked."
Ken took a painful breath and went on. "I've waited, I've been patient, and still no explanations are forthcoming from you. No reasons why we needed to mourn for you when you weren't dead. Not even halfhearted excuses on why you never told us you were alive or even scraps to try an satisfy us once you came back."
Ken saw Joe's shoulders slump lower but still he said nothing. Ken wanted to rush at him, to beat some sense into him, to drag out the explanations he'd craved for so long. Anything to get some kind of reaction from him. "But no, you were just content to let us rot in pain and guilt and later in ignorance just so you could keep your blasted secrets."
Joe shrunk in on himself. "I'd never meant-didn't realize-I just didn't know how-."
"Didn't know how to what? How to talk to me?" Ken shook his head wondering why he was bothering with this. If Joe didn't already know what he meant to them, if after all this time and all they'd been through he still couldn't trust him, then...
Joe felt himself floundering. This was all going so wrong and he had no idea how to explain things. Dammit all to hell! He didn't need this, not more guilt, more anguish to add to everything. He'd never wanted things to turn out this way. He'd never possessed any idea how his death had affected them all, how it had affected Ken. Since he'd been back he'd felt the other stand aloof from him, but he'd hoped and he'd waited knowing he would thaw out with time. Because what else could he do? How could he atone for all of it? Especially when there would be more to come?
Ken was the leader; he was supposed to be the strength holding the rest together. He wasn't supposed to be dependent on Joe. And how much could he tell him? How much else would Ken figure out if he did tell him anything? His own time was limited-the second refit made sure of it. He would die to take out X. The team only had him back on borrowed time. Ken and the others would have to live through his dying again. The guilt of it already ate at him. How was he supposed to handle it if Ken did figure this out?
He couldn't. It all hurt too much already as it was. He couldn't take the chance. "I've got to go." Joe took a step away from him.
"So that's it, then? You're just going to leave." Ken's heat washed over him. "Then it's just as I figured. We mean nothing to you anymore. If we ever did."
How could Ken believe this? Joe turned halfway around before he could think better of it. Ken's accusing stare pinned him where he stood.
"I don't know you anymore, Joe. The fact you're a cyborg wouldn't have changed who you are, but I still don't know you anymore. So go ahead, leave if that's what you want, keep me in the dark. But don't you ever dare come back here if you do."
Joe could do it. The temptation of it rose like a beacon before him. He could just leave, forget it all. What was the point of going through this? Rafael would help him, would probably be happier about the development. Then there'd be no extra baggage to get in the way of the work. Joe looked once more at Ken's disgusted yet expectant expression and wasn't sure he could do it after all. Would this be any less of a betrayal, any less painful than if he died again?
"Why are you doing this?" Joe's frustration flooded through him and he fought back with the only thing he possessed which might keep it at bay. "What the hell is it you want from me?"
"I want to know where you've been for the last two years. I want to know what happened to you. I want you to talk to me. To be my friend again. I want you to prove to me I still mean something to you. That any of us do."
The anger was gone. No longer did his tone demand things. Ken's face was an open book showing only vulnerability and anguish barely kept in check by faint hope.
Joe sighed. This was his doing. He'd done this. He felt his own previous anger draining away to nothing. "You matter. All of you have always mattered."
Ken's eyes brightened for a moment but then darkened again. "You'll have to do better than that."
Joe leaned back against the wall and slumped down to the floor in a heap, feeling suddenly, incredibly tired and numb. He leaned his head back and rubbed at his eyes with his hand. "There really isn't anything to tell." Aside from the fact he expected to die again. "Pandora already told you I'm a cyborg. What more needs to be said?" Ken would want details, specifics, and he just didn't know what to tell him. There were things his friend would want to know Joe himself had never held the courage to ask.
"Who is this Dr. Rafael, and what hold does he have over you? What's his part in all of this?" Ken's question whispered over to him as if he too was afraid of getting answers.
Joe sighed again. "He hates Galactor, that's all. By bringing me back, he did his bit at getting back at them. What better way to snub Galactor than to bring the Condor back to life?" And give him a means to create more death amongst the enemy when they returned.
"Aah." As usual, the quiet comment spoke volumes.
"He didn't ask, he just did it. By the time I regained consciousness, it was already done." Flashes of those first horrid moments rushed through his mind's eye.
"Were you his prisoner?"
"No." Joe heard his voice shake, but quickly brought it back under control. "But my mind needed time to adjust to the differences in my body. I was a danger to everything and everyone around me. Rafael helped me past all that." Joe felt more tired than ever.
"Why didn't you let us know you were alive then?" Ken's expression was neutral, hiding everything he thought or felt behind a calm façade.
So much hinged on this answer. But how to explain it? How to make him understand without... "I, I wanted to, but I couldn't." Joe looked away reaching for a way to try to explain this. "As I told you, I had no control at first. Rafael had changed me and I didn't fully understand what all it meant. I couldn't even hold anything in my hand without crushing it. I couldn't deal with all that and the rest of you and what you might think of me at the same time."
Ken frowned and Joe could tell he didn't agree with him. Yes, the ISO had the facilities. Yes, Nambu could have probably figured out a way to help him through this like Rafael had. But they would have seen it all, known it all. They would have seen him stumbling, they would have seen him breaking things, bending them, destroying entire rooms in vain attempts to do normal things and having no way to stop it. There'd been times he'd despaired of ever gaining control, times when he'd thought it would have been better to have died than put up with what he'd become. He could never have done it knowing they were watching. Knowing they knew all the things which had been done to him. Seeing his weakness.
"You eventually overcame all this though," Ken pressed. "What stopped you then? What kept you from joining us again all those times you came to help us?"
Joe cringed inside. Ken's voice was getting colder and more distant by the moment. "I-don't really know. Call it Sicilian stubbornness if you want. I just couldn't do it." He pushed himself to go on.
"By the time I gained some control over my body, the world thought me long dead. Rafael was already gathering intelligence showing Galactor wasn't gone but was in fact reforming stronger than ever. If I stayed dead, I would be a wild card, an unknown faction. I could cause havoc in the organization until the ISO became aware of them again and could take over. When the ISO finally did get involved, I'd been gone from here too long. I figured it wouldn't be a kindness to let you know I was around, not when you thought me dead. And I, I'd changed too much." Joe had changed even more than Ken knew. Rafael was forever looking to do improvements. Bit by bit, he was giving up his humanity for revenge. There was no telling how much more Rafael would take away from him before he was through.
"You didn't trust us to understand." Ken's tone hadn't warmed much.
The accusation was like a punch in the stomach. "No! Yes. I didn't know what you'd make of it." Joe shrugged his shoulders in helplessness. "Hell, I didn't know what I made of it, so how could I even guess what you'd all think? I just couldn't bring myself to take the chance!" Joe swung out, his frustration getting the better of him, his fist connecting against one of the vending machines. The plastic cracked and fractured. The sound of escaping fluid from busted cans of pop filled the air.
"Then why are you here?"
Joe hung his head having asked this question of himself many times before. "Because I had to be here." Abruptly, he stood up and stared Ken in the face. "And it wasn't as if you left me much choice either. Every time I turned around you were off on some suicidal run or other. You weren't paying attention; you weren't even really trying to take care of business. It was as if you'd gone out there with a ‘kick me' sign on your back. So I kept having to interfere, I kept getting thrown in your direction. You don't think it meant anything to me to keep seeing you all? And then Nambu dangled the Condor Attacker in front of me. What else could I do?" Did you expect me to just watch you throw your life away? Fool!
Joe continued to stare into Ken's face and slowly saw it thaw before his eyes.
"All right, I guess I can understand that. Though I'm still not happy at the hell you put us through and especially your secrets. Still, I think I understand this better than before."
Joe dared feel some modicum of hope. So it caught him totally off guard as Ken suddenly came at him and pinned him to the half broken pop machine.
"But I swear to you if you ever, ever try something like this again. If you ever hold out on me on something this important, Joe, I swear I won't give up until I've hunted you down and beaten you to within an inch of your life." His ice-hot eyes burned into Joe's own. "Do I make myself clear?"
Joe looked away, but only for a moment. Already there were other secrets he hadn't revealed to his friends, secrets he wouldn't reveal to Ken no matter the price. But it looked as if he'd bought himself some more time. "Yes."
Ken studied his face for a long time after his answer. Gauging, prodding, making sure it would be worth it to make himself vulnerable to this man again. Finally, he pulled Joe away from the machine. "Still friends then?"
Joe found himself feeling more guilty than ever. Once more he would take Ken's trust only to betray it again later. Why did things have to be this way? "Yes."
A shy, awkward smile brightened Ken's face for a moment. It would take time, probably more questions. But at least it was a beginning. "Then let's go out for some beers and then go find the others so they can stop worrying about us. Hakase won't mind if we're missing for a little while." A bright gleam flashed in Ken's eyes. "And by the way, you're buying."
"You wish." Joe would treasure every moment he had with them. He had to. But his days were numbered. He hoped once the deed was done and he was gone, Ken might find it in himself to someday forgive him. Though it would probably be a cold day in hell. But he couldn't tell him. This was the one thing he could never share with him. He knew Ken. And Ken wouldn't settle for the bomb to remain inside him and his life as the price for getting rid of their enemies. He'd feel Joe had already paid the price once.
Nambu would see the bigger picture, but Ken? He would force the issue with the backing of the others. He would try to get Nambu to remove the bomb. He would forget that in the end it might be their one and only hope of getting rid of X once and for all. And to reach this goal, to gain his vengeance, Joe would do whatever he needed to do and pay any cost. Be it Ken's friendship, his life, his humanity-in the end he would give up whatever it took.