Pain and Loss by Maya Perez
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            Ken - my beloved son -

            How I've yearned to say these words to you...

            If you've received this letter, it means that I never found the courage to say them to you face to face.  It also means that I am probably dead.  And for both, I beg your forgiveness.

            I must apologize to you for this letter.  It is heavily lacking, though I've reviewed it, rewritten it, reworded it over a thousand times - it has never said all that I truly need to say to you.  And due to circumstances and my own cowardice, I have no choice but to hope that it will do.

            First and foremost, I want you to know that I love you and that I'm so very proud of you.  You're everything a father could want in a son.  You're strong, independent, self-assured - you have goals and ambitions, you know what you want to do with your life.  Your every breath proves that life is worthwhile.  I feel confident that you will go on doing well now that I'm gone.  Not all parents can say that of their children.

            I'm sure you have many questions.  I would in your place.  And so being, I will try my best to be as truthful and thorough as I am able...

            Twelve years ago, by pure accident really, I stumbled over a test of the V-2 plan while over Huntwall space, flying a prototype reconnaissance fighter.  Though I had no idea on what I'd stumbled into at the time, the conclusions Kozaburo drew from the test recorders on the plane and my own testimony over what I'd seen, scared us both deeply.

            Kozaburo sent out some quiet inquiries through a trusted contact in the UN and two weeks later the man turned up dead.  All evidence of his line of investigation disappeared.  We had a number of indications that we were being watched and followed.  It all gave a cold horrid reality to our fears.

            We had no idea whom we could trust, yet something had to be done - and  we were the only ones left who could do it.  We needed more information, but we had to get that information without it being tracked back to us, we didn't want to put our families or ourselves in danger.

            In the end, the decision was entirely mine.  Kozaburo protested, but eventually he too saw that we had no choice.  I had a family, but I also had the necessary skills.  Kozaburo was no slouch either, but he had the scientific background and connections to get more done on our side of things. 

            I... I couldn't tell your mother, the risks were too great - and to be honest, I'd foolishly thought it would all be over in a year or two.  I'd thought I'd be able to do what needed to be done and then I'd get to come home to my old life - that I would explain and make things up to her when I returned.  I was stupidly, horribly wrong.

            One year turned to two, then three.  And the more I uncovered the uglier and bigger the mystery became.  I longed to come home to you, but I couldn't.  The stakes were just too high.  And if I had just given it up and returned, how long would we have been safe?  How long could I have dealt with living life always looking over my shoulder waiting for the end?

            After the first three years contact with anyone outside the group was a danger.  It was another two years after that before I was able to get any news out let alone get any in.  By the time the information trickled its slow way into me that your mother was ill, she was already dead.

            I blame myself for that, as I have many other things, and until my last dying breath you can be sure that I'm still asking for her forgiveness.  And then of course, there's you -- the son to whom I've never been a father.

            By the time the lines were drawn well enough to give me room to move, you were already well on your way in Kozaburo's project.  It had pleased me to no end that you'd been chosen, yet at the same time I feared for you.  Kozaburo wanted to tell you about me then, but I wouldn't let him.  You already had so much riding on your shoulders - you hadn't needed this as well.

            Later I came to think that perhaps I'd made yet another mistake.  But by that time, I could never find the courage to correct it.

            You see, I realized that it was just so much easier to be the cold, aloof Red Impulse than your father. 

            I feared what you'd think of me, what you'd say.  But as Red Impulse I could be near you, teach you, mold you, without our mangled history getting in the way.  Without having to deal with the doubts, the guilt.

            A few times I almost made it - I almost worked up the nerve to tell you.  But every time I looked at you it was almost as if I was looking into your mother's face.  And I couldn't face her, I couldn't face the disappointment, the anger, I might see in your face that would be so much like her own.  I couldn't face myself most of all.

            But despite all my mistakes, despite everything, I couldn't be more proud or love you more.  You have been my beacon, my strength - at times the only thing that's kept me going.

            My son, I don't expect you to understand my reasons.  Half the time I don't understand them myself.  But if you get nothing else from this, even if you feel you must curse me into eternity, don't ever forget the importance of who and what you've become.

            With love forever,

your father...

 

                                    Kentaro

 

 

                       

           

I stared at the words before me, my mind stunned.  Something warm coursed down my cheek but I had no idea what it was until the tears fell onto my lap.

I was crying?  But why

My mind shied away from the questions and I glanced away from the proof of my tears.  Oniishi was nowhere in sight.  He must have left while I was reading, his duty done.  Had he been that sure that I would read the entire letter once I'd begun?  Was I that predictable?  Pressure filled my head sending pain into the back of my eyes.

Carefully, I set the letter aside and looked at the envelope it had come in.  I frowned.  Something was still inside it.  I picked up the envelope not sure what to expect.  Within was a very small packet with the logo of the World's International Bank.  Nestled inside the packet was a key.  All I could do was stare at it as the implications of its meaning slowly added up inside me.

My headache got worse.  Surely I wasn't contemplating seeing what was at the bank, was I?  I hated my father; I wanted nothing to do with him or anything belonging to him!  He'd abandoned me, all his reasons be damned! 

Someone had to be the focus of the burning rage inside me.  But why did I also feel so horribly sad inside?  Did I pity him?  That was wrong!  Damn Oniishi, damn my father, damn his blasted letter!  This was all supposed to get easier not more complicated!  I could feel the pressure building.

I... I needed to talk to someone.  I needed to force some of this to make sense.  If I didn't, if I didn't do something, I was sure the strain inside my head would continue to build until eventually I would explode!

I grabbed my father's letter and placed it back in the envelope and folded it into my pocket.  I snatched the key after putting it back in the packet, and stuffed it into my pocket as well.  As I stood, I felt my headache ease slightly.  Without no more doubts, at least for the moment, I left the house.

 

 

 

 

Almost two hours later, I finally managed to make my way into the small familiar trailer park out in the suburbs of Utoland.  The sun was high in the sky making it close to mid afternoon.  The shade of the scattered trees in the park was a welcomed relief, the sun having pounded down on me all the way there.  I hesitated in their shadows, feeling suddenly unsure of what I thought I was doing there.  It's not like I'd be a welcomed sight - my behavior of late couldn't be considered endearing.

As I made myself go forward, it was almost a relief when I realized that his car wasn't there.  Absently wiping the perspiration off my brow, I shuffled up to the short steps at the door to his trailer and sat down.  I let my arms hang off my knees and sat back closing my eyes.  If I was truly lucky, something had come up and Joe wouldn't be coming home at all.  It was a little unsettling to feel this nervous about seeing someone I'd spent almost every day with for the past five years.  I really was losing it - losing it big.

The minutes and then hours passed by and all I did was sit and wait.  When the sun got too hot on my face, I leaned forward and hung my head between my knees, in no shape or inclination to do anything else.

"Ken?"

I looked up, my heart jumping in my chest as I recognized his voice.  And there he was, big as life - the familiar square jaw, the dark piercing eyes, the raised eyebrow in inquiring surprise.

How did Joe do it?  His whole life he'd lived with bottled rage.  How had he kept it from consuming him from the inside all this time?  My rage was fresh, hungry, and it was already destroying me.  Worse, I knew it and I didn't care.  How did he?

"Dammit, Ken, you look like shit," Joe said.

I almost burst out laughing.  I could always count on Joe to state the obvious.  "Hope you don't mind that I was waiting for you."

"No, no.  I'm glad to see you.  But, ah, how'd you get here?  This place is a long way from the airfield."

 "Walked, took a couple of buses."  I shrugged.  "No big deal."

"Sure."  I noticed a sudden guarded tone in his voice.  "Want to come inside?" he asked.

"Thanks."  I got up tentatively, not sure how I'd do.  I seemed to be too unsure of myself of late in everything.

Joe waited until I'd gotten out of the way then slid his key into the door and opened it.  His eyes never left me during the entire operation.  I guess I really must look worse than I'd thought.  Joe had me go in first and stood by the door after we'd gone inside.  I got the distinct feeling he thought I might make a run for it.  Were my feelings that obvious?

I made myself step over to the small foldout table by the kitchen and sat down.  "I - I wasn't sure you'd see me.  I know I've been somewhat of a heel lately."

Joe shrugged as he walked over.  "You've got a lot to sort out.  Besides, you're always a heel."  He flashed a mischievous grin at me.

I felt my nervousness recede a little.

"I got some left over pizza in the fridge.  Want some?"  Joe stepped into the small utility kitchen.

"No thanks, I'm not hungry," I said.  "I'll take a beer though if you've got one."

I noticed that he didn't look too happy about my answer.  "Yeah, sure."  Joe opened the fridge and took out a box of pizza and two beers.  He set all three on the table and then opened the bottles.  He slid one of them over to me.

I took a long swallow of the beer and felt it hit my stomach like a bomb.  When my stomach did not retaliate, I put the cold bottle up against my forehead to cool it down.  "One of the men from the Red Impulse team came to see me today."

"Oh?"  Joe's face was carefully neutral.

I closed my eyes just letting the harsh cold of the glass drive itself into my brain.  "Yeah.  He had a letter for me from my father."

Joe didn't say anything and neither did I.  Eventually, I moved the bottle away and took another drink.  Soon the stuff would start working on my weakened system.  I couldn't wait.  With a small sigh, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small packet with the key.  "He also brought me this."  I set the packet on the table.

"I see."

I glanced up at Joe, not sure if he really did or not.  "I -- I'm not sure that I want to know what's inside."

"Don't you?" Joe asked me.

His lack of doubt made me bristle inside.  I tried to hold my anger back.  It wouldn't get me where I wanted to just now.  "Whatever's there won't change anything.  Dead is dead.  But I don't want to leave any loose ends either."  I took a deep breath and plunged on.  "I know it's asking a lot, but I'd appreciate it if you'd empty it out and close the account for me."

I studied his face even as Joe stared at his beer and was silent for several moments.  This was one of the main things I'd come here to do and the one with the highest likelihood of failing.

His dark blue eyes suddenly rose and locked with mine.  "What are you afraid is in there?"

I jerked back as if slapped.  Why would he ask me such a thing?  My anger ignited again.  "I'm not afraid of anything!  I just don't care about it that's all.  If you don't want to do this for me, just say so!"

"Whoa, chill."  Joe held up his hands.  "I'll do it, I'll do it." 

I felt my anger ease just a bit.

"But we'll have to wait until tomorrow," he added.  "The bank is likely to be closed by now."

I hadn't considered that.  I had no real idea of what time it was at all.  "Okay, to - tomorrow then."

"No problem," he said.  "You realize though that you'll probably need to come with me."

"Why?"  I tensed, sure suddenly that he was up to something.

"A lot of places need a signature or ID to open lock boxes, not just a key.  And though I'm pretty sure Red Impulse put your name down on the account, I'm also damn sure he didn't put down mine."

That hadn't occurred to me either.  "I see what you mean..." I finished off the beer.  I held the empty bottle towards him.  "Can I have another?"

"Only if you eat something."  He tapped the top of the pizza box.

"Then I guess I won't."  I glared at him as I half stood off my seat.  How dare he give me ultimatums!

Joe snorted.  "So, you ask me to do this big favor for you and yet you're going to get all hacked off at me when all I ask is for you to have a crummy piece of pizza?"

I looked away and sat back down, feeling abruptly deflated and guilty.  He had offered to help me.  And if I could stomach some food for Oniishi, surely I could stand to do the same for Joe.  "Sorry."

"That's more like it."  Joe threw back the lid to the box and tore me off a piece of cold pizza.  As I stared at the embedded pepperoni and green olives, he got up and got us both another beer.

The pizza hit my stomach no worse than the beer for which I was grateful.  I finished my duty piece without much relish and then threw the crust back in the box.  Joe handed me another before I could protest.

"Good huh?" he prompted.

I shrugged and just held the piece in my hand.

"I found a new little place off of Royal."

I took a couple of bites and then threw the pizza back in the box.  I'd had about all I was going to eat.  I chugged down half of my new beer.

"Surely that's not all you want," Joe interjected.  "I've got some ramen if you'd prefer that.  Or if all else fails, I know we can definitely find you something at the Snak J."

I felt myself go cold all over.  "This is fine."

Why was Joe pushing me?  The rage inside me was like an overloaded boiler and needed only the smallest push to explode.  He should know that.  He of all of them would be the one to understand this.  So why was he doing it?  It made no sense.  Suddenly I realized that I didn't want it to either.  I got up to go.

"Nambu got your little package today."  Joe spoke in a matter of fact tone.  "He looked pretty upset."

The muscles in my shoulders jerked I was so tense.  "Yeah.  So?"  Joe don't do this.  Yet a small part of me said yes.

"I just thought it was rather cold."  He stared right at me.  "He deserved better than that."

The rage responded before I was even aware of what I was doing.  My beer bottle shot close past Joe's ear to shatter against the far wall.  "The fuck he did!"

Joe stared into my maelstrom as calm as ever.  It only pushed my rage to burn that much hotter.  "Like you have any fucking idea what the bastard did to me.  He knew, damn you.  He'd known all this time about my father and never said a word to me!"

I smashed my fists onto the table and it shook beneath me.  "To tell the truth, I'm glad it hurt him.  Do you hear?  I'm glad!  He deserved no less."

"Why don't you kill him then," Joe suggested.  "It'd be kinder."

I shook where I stood I was so furious.  My nails dug into my palms.  "Why don't I just kill you?"

I was dead serious.  The rage flowed through me insisting that I should kill him.  Who was Joe to question me?  Who was he to judge what I'd done?  All I needed was an excuse - any excuse - and I would lunge across the table to rip out his eyes and strangle him with his own innards. 

But Joe only sat there, staring at me, his body calm, a knowing look in his eyes.

Do something you bastard!  Give me my excuse!  I shook so badly it rattled my teeth.  Still, as I stood there waiting, it slowly dawned on me what it was that I was wanting to do - what it meant.  Worse, I also realized that he knew it as well.

It was like a switch had been flipped in my head.  One moment I was burning with a maelstrom of  rage, ready to commit murder, the next, I was feeling guilty, scared, and cold as death.

"My God."  I turned away not wanting to look at him, not wanting to see that knowing stare.  My body shook again but this time not with barely restrained violence and rage.  I took two steps towards the door wanting nothing more now than to get the hell out of there and away from what I'd considered doing.  Before I could go any farther, my legs betrayed me and I fell to my knees on the floor.

What had I been thinking?  What had I almost done?  This thing would destroy me!  I doubled over my stomach cramping inside me.  This thing was eating me alive!  "How - how do you, how do you live with this?"

"Live with what?"  Joe's voice was very quiet.  He'd made no move to get up from his chair that I could tell.  But I knew he knew what I meant.  Why did he want me to say it?

I felt my anger trying to rise again.  "The rage, damn you!  The rage!  How do you keep it from consuming you into nothing?"

His voice grew quieter still.  "You have to give it something else to feed on."

"What?"  I half glanced in his direction desperate to hear what he might say, even as a part of me feared that it was already too late for me.

"You have to focus the anger, give it a direction," Joe explained.  "You can't get rid of it, you see.  The more you try the more frustrated it grows and the stronger it gets.  Then it'll lash out at anyone and anything just because it can.

"The only thing you can do is point it at one specific thing, always the same thing, and then let it run wild.  If you can focus it, give it a goal, and then follow that goal, that will keep it satisfied and it won't feed on you.  But you have to keep it satisfied."

Focus it?  Give it a goal?  The pain inside me grew worse.  I thought I would scream.  I leaned my forehead on the floor even as I tried to keep the pain inside me.

I heard Joe get up and slowly approach behind me.  "Your father is dead.  It's no use hating him."  His voice was cold.  "Nambu may have been wrong in what he did, but he doesn't deserve to be the focus of your anger either."  I closed my eyes shut as I felt him kneel beside me.  His words beat on me like nails being pounded into a board. 

"There is someone else though, a group involved in all this that deserves your rage.  If not for them, there would have never been any need for any of this to have ever happened at all."

 

 

 

 

I opened my eyes, my head thumping even as I was flooded with the queerest sense of déjà vu.  I couldn't see much, even as my gaze roamed about me, darkness coloring everything. 

I frowned, realizing that I had no idea where I was.  I could feel a mattress beneath me, a blanket over me, but I had no idea where that was or how I'd gotten there.  I shivered feeling cold though the blanket itself was warm.

The last thing I could remember was being with Joe.  He'd forced me to eat some dinner and then I'd...  

My mind shied away from the memory not really wanting to look at it any closer.  There were things there that I wasn't ready to see.  Something moved off to my right and I tried to focus on it rather than think of things that had gone on before.  I realized that someone had just gone out what looked to be a trailer's door.  I must still be at Joe's.

Automatically, my eyes looked for his digital clock and I saw that it was close to one in the morning.  Where could he be going at such an hour?  What was he up to now?  Dread coursed through me sure that whatever it was, it wouldn't be something I'd like.

Not sure exactly what I expected, I got silently out of bed and went after him.  As I came close to the door, I heard the sound of voices from outside.  It was then that I noticed that the door hadn't closed all the way.  Someone had come to see him?  I inched a bit closer, curious despite myself, to hear what was being said.

"Quit being stupid."  Joe's voice was close to the door. 

"I tell you I killed him!"  I felt my eyes grow wide as I recognized the voice.  I'd never heard Jun sound so anguished.

"You had nothing to do with it, and you know it. He made his choice." Joe's tone held no doubt.  "It's what he wanted."

"But Ken might have won."  That came out almost as a sob.  "If I hadn't told him the truth, Ken might have won and saved him."

Joe's tone grew cold.  "And then Ken would be the one who'd be dead."

"You don't understand," Jun cried.  "I gave him his father only for him to lose him.  How can I ever face him again?" 

Her pain tore at me, but I couldn't let it.  After all, she was right.  She had in a way given me my father only to take him away.  I would have rather not known!  Red Impulse might have beaten me and if so then I would have wept over his death, but not lost my father in the bargain.  And if I'd won, it wouldn't have mattered at all!  I would have given my life for the world and known before it'd ended that my life had had meaning.  Now it meant nothing at all!

I couldn't listen to anymore.  My rage burned at the edges trying to push me to open the door and accuse her right then and there.  I wouldn't do that.  Not with what she'd meant to me before.  But I had to fight not to.

I stepped away as quietly as I'd come.  I crawled back into bed though sleep was the farthest thing from my mind.  Though I tried to do anything but, all I could think about was the argument going on outside.

After almost an hour, Joe sneaked back inside. 

I held still and closed my eyes as he made his way back to the bed.  I slowed my breathing knowing he'd be able to tell I was awake if I didn't.  I wasn't ready to face him, wasn't ready to face the things he might say.  With only too horrid a clarity I recalled how badly I'd wanted any excuse to kill him before - my best friend!  I'd had no control of myself whatsoever.  What if I lost control again?

I lay there and listened to him as he crawled under the covers with his back to me.  To be honest, it surprised me a little that he'd share his bed after the way I'd treated him.  Not, I don't think, that he hadn't been looking for the reaction he got.  Still...

After a while, I turned my own back to him and waited for him to drop off deeper into sleep.

Around three, I slipped quietly out of bed.  I'd already caused enough trouble.  And there was no telling what promises Joe had made Jun during their conversation outside.  I wanted nothing to do with any of it.  It was time for me to get myself elsewhere.

Though I still had on my clothes, Joe had taken my shoes and I couldn't see them in the dark.  Knowing that if I took the time to look for them I'd wake him up for sure, I headed instead to the door.  With any luck, I'd be half way home before he even knew I was gone.  I quietly reached for the doorknob.

"Don't even think about it."

My head snapped around towards the bed, but though Joe's voice had been clear and alert, he hadn't moved from the position I'd last seen him in.

"You owe me," he said, "and I'd appreciate it a whole lot if you wouldn't force me to get up to wrestle you back into bed."

I stared at his dark silhouette and then back at the door weighing my options.  I hadn't been in the best of shape lately and I knew it.  I couldn't outrun him of that I was certain.  But I would have a few precious seconds on him and could be out the door and in the dark before he came close.  With all the trees and trailers, there was a chance I could lose him before he could catch up to me.

"Ken..."

I glanced back at Joe again at his warning tone, sounding as if he'd read my thoughts.  He still hadn't moved from his prone position.

I hesitated for another half minute.  Hell, it wasn't like he couldn't figure out where I'd go.  There weren't that many places available to me anymore.  And if he got stubborn about it he'd go wake the others and get them to help look for me as well.  Damn.  "All right, you win," I sighed.

Joe only grunted.

I doubted that he'd ever even bothered to open his eyes.  Worse, I found that he'd taken my departure from the bed as a chance to grab most of the blanket.  With a light snort, I got back in bed and gave the blanket a yank.  If he was going to make me stay here, I would be covered up!  Joe gave up just enough of the blanket for me to manage that but no more.

After a short while, my body dragged me into sleep again.

 

 

 

 

I awoke later to daylight and the sounds of snapping bacon.  The scents of warmed toast filled the air.  I turned over only to find Joe fiddling away at the trailer's small stove.  That was a sight I'd thought I'd never see.

Joe looked up from the bacon he was frying.  "Ah, you're up!  I'm still going to be a few minutes, so why don't you go get cleaned up a bit."  He jerked his head towards the bathroom.  "There's some hot water left and a spare toothbrush in the medicine cabinet."

I didn't look at him directly and nodded slightly.  I got up and glanced around, but still didn't find a trace of my shoes.  I looked up at the door leading outside and then glanced at Joe, and found him watching me out of the corner of his eye.

I sighed, knowing it was useless, and walked past him to the bathroom.

"And while you're in there, don't even think about trying the window," he called after me.  "Not even Jinpei can squeeze through that sucker, and he's tried."  Joe gave a low chuckle.

I made no comment and shut the bathroom door behind me.

I had no want or inclination to "clean up a bit" as he'd called it, but I did it anyway as it gave me an excuse not to face him for a while.

I found the hot shower pleasant and invigorating unlike what anything had felt like in days.  Maybe it meant I'd get through this, maybe I would live after all - that or it was just the rise before a bigger fall.

I got out of the shower and dried and then wiped the steam from the sink mirror to look at myself.  Was that haggard and worn face really mine?  God I'd never looked so tired.  Yes, please, come fly with Ghoul R Us.  Yep, this face would make a great impression on the clients.  Wonderful.

Joe banged on the door making me jump.  "Hey, did you die in there?"  He banged on it again.  "Hurry it up, will you?"

No longer able to put off the inevitable, I hurried on and finished up.  I came out of the bathroom to find Joe waiting for me, his arms crossed.

"It's about time," he said.

I wouldn't meet his eyes.  "Sorry."

"Sit down and dig in before your breakfast gets cold."  He pointed with a spatula at the waiting table.

He'd really outdone himself -- I was amazed.  It was almost too much to believe - coffee, toast, bacon, and omelets of all things.  Who'd a thought it?  "I'm not really -"

He cut me off.  "Just sit down and eat it.  No breakfast, no bank."

Anger snapped to life inside me and I glared daggers at him.  My heated gaze met the same calm, knowing eyes from yesterday.  The visage was like a bucket of cold ice crashing over me.  It was almost too much to take.

I turned away from him, my anger momentarily snuffed, and took my seat without another word.

"Ken, you have to pick up the fork to eat," he calmly pointed out.

I could feel his eyes on me as I just sat there.  He was bullying me into this, damn him.  But I just didn't have the strength to fight him, not if he'd give me that knowing look again.  Slowly, I forced my hand to move and picked up the fork.  The scents of eggs, ham, and melted cheese wove around me and I knew they should have been making my mouth water, but they weren't.  It seemed so queer how everyone was so determined to make me eat.

Without much enthusiasm I ate what was before me.  Joe's own portion disappeared long before my own, but he stayed where he was once he'd finished, keeping his eye on me until most of mine was gone as well.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked.

I said nothing and kept my eyes on my plate. 

"I don't do this just for anyone you know.  It's normally something I only use when I want to impress the girls."  He made it sound as if he'd just let me in on a big secret.

I didn't really care.  I just sat there and said nothing.

"Just give me a couple of minutes to clean up and then we can go."

As I waited for Joe, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate, my stomach churning uncomfortably.  To my surprise, I actually had some success this time, and welcomed the lack of thoughts like I'd welcomed nothing in sometime. 

"Hey, are you asleep?  I'm ready to go if you are."

I opened my eyes to find Joe leaning on the table looking down at me, his eyes dancing.

I looked away from him and pushed back my chair.  "I - I need my shoes."

"Here you go!"  Joe held them out to me and then set them on the floor before my feet. 

Damn, I hadn't seen where he'd hidden the blasted things!  Annoyed at myself, I quickly put them on.  "I'm ready."

Joe slapped me lightly on the back, and led me to the door.  "Great!"  He seemed in way too good a mood -- especially after everything that had happened yesterday. "Let's go!"

The ride downtown didn't take long as Joe took to the roads with his usual wild abandon. 

It felt strange being in the car with him; the music turned high and the windows rolled down to let in the screaming wind.  It was almost as of nothing had ever happened -- as if my father's death and the close destruction of the world had never been.  It was as if I'd never made the break with my old life.  The duality made me suddenly dizzy.

We got to the bank minutes after they'd opened.  As I stared at the large doors nestled between the tall roman columns, I abruptly felt a strange sense of dread sweep through me.

"Come on, let's go inside."  Joe grabbed my arm and dragged me in.  His eagerness left a strong, bad taste in my mouth.  Was he up to something?

Looking around at the bank's conservative interior, we soon spotted a desk with the sign ‘safety deposit boxes'.  An austere woman sat behind the desk looking grim.  Joe made a beeline for her.

"Morning."

I frowned as I saw Joe give the woman one of his best smiles.  She was old enough to be his grandmother.  I was sure he was definitely up to something now.  He was just too darn happy.

"Good morning," came the cold reply.  "My name is Miss Cont.  May I help you?"

"My friend here has a box he needs to get a look at and he also wants to close the account," Joe told her.

The austere woman looked over at me and raised a skeptical brow.  "I see.  And the name on the account?"

I hesitated at her question not sure what name the account might be under.  Suddenly though, it came to me.  "Ken Washio."

Miss Cont opened up a drawer and quickly pulled out a folder with some records inside.  From another, she removed a piece of paper and then set this and a pen within my reach.  "I will need your signature for confirmation please.  I'll also need to see some kind of ID."

I complied, wondering how in the world they could confirm a signature I'd never given them.  I burned for a moment as it occurred to me that with Nambu's help, my father could probably have gotten anything he'd needed and I would have never known.

"All seems in order, Mr. Washio," Miss Cont said.  "You have your key, yes?"

Joe took it out of his pocket and handed it over to me.  I'd forgotten all about the blasted thing.

"If you'll come this way?"

I didn't move.  "Joe, here." I tried to give the key back to him.  "You said you'd do this for me."

"I'm sorry, sir," Miss Cont interjected, "but this account strictly stipulates that the box can only be opened by the assignee."  The woman stared at me as if unused to having to state such things.

"But -"

"I'm sorry, sir, the stipulations on this account are very specific."  Her face was deadly serious.  "We don't make exceptions."

I glanced at Joe and he just shrugged.

He'd known this might happen.  The bastard!  I wanted nothing more right then than to punch that satisfied smug look off his face.  "Fine."
            "This way please."  Miss Cont led us to the back of the bank and picked up a key from the security desk.  A guard opened up a gate there and let the three of us through.  We followed a wide set of stairs down past the main vault into another gated area.  After a guard on the other side checked us out and allowed us through, we turned to the right and entered a vault with a door as thick as the one we'd seen upstairs.  Row after row of safety deposit boxes filled the entire room.  Small plaques before each one contained a row of six digit numbers.

I stared at my key even as Miss Cont found the right box.  With rising dread, I inserted my key in the keyhole beside the one she used for hers and we turned them at the same time.  Once the small door had been opened, she extracted a long metal box from inside and holding onto it, led the way back out of the vault.

Miss Cont turned off to the left down a small corridor that contained several private rooms.  She used another key to open one of them and then stepped inside and set the long box on the table there.  "Please take your time, Mr. Washio," she said.  "Just press the button when you're ready to go back upstairs."  She pointed to a white button by the door.

"Thank you."  I watched her as she left the room and closed the door behind her.  I then looked at the metal box she'd left on the table and did nothing at all.

"Well, aren't you going to open it?"  Joe pulled out the chair next to the table pointing at it for me to get in.

"You never had any intention of doing this for me, did you."  I scowled at him. 

He didn't even have the decency to look guilty.  "Yep, you got it.  So come on, just bite down and get it over with."

I was more than half tempted to press the white button and summon Miss Cont back.  That would have put a nice quick end to all of Joe's machinations. 

Still, now that I was here and it was before me, I just couldn't leave it unsolved.  Despite everything, I found the need rising inside me to see what the man who'd abandoned his family had in the end left for his son.

I sat down, but not before sending Joe a final displeased scowl in his direction.  Seemingly unaffected, Joe stepped back close to the door and leaned against the wall giving me as much privacy as possible without actually leaving the room.

My mouth was dry as I finally reached forward to open the deposit box's lid.

Inside, the box seemed filled nearly to the brim, it's contents covered over by what looked to be a folded terry cloth sack.  One would almost think Kentaro had already anticipated what I had in mind.

I gently removed the sack and then hesitated as I saw what filled almost one third of the long box - money, nicely stacked bundles of money.

I didn't count it.  I didn't want to, so I just pulled the bundles out and set them to the side.  I listened, waiting for Joe to comment on what seemed to be a lot more than pocket change, but anything he might have had to say on the subject he kept to himself.

A stack of yellowed pieces of paper vied for my attention next.  When I opened one of them, I found a crayon drawing of three stick people staring back at me.  Had I drawn this?  The three figures where obviously a family -- a man, a woman, and a boy.  Fascinated despite myself, I opened another.  This one had a man standing by a plane.  The next was of a boy, a man, and a plane.

Beneath the short stack of drawings was a red ball covered with yellow stars.  Beneath that were a small baby blanket and a training spoon.  Kentaro would have had to have taken these when he'd first left, right before the accident.  Could it be true?  Had he only thought he would be gone for a short while? 

I shook my head trying not to think about it.

Beside these things I found a handkerchief with my mother's initials, still smelling faintly of her favorite perfume.  And pictures, there was a stack of pictures - they were of me, of my mother, but none of him.  Not one of the pictures was of him.

At any other time, seeing these things, seeing what he'd taken to preserve his memory of us would have had my eyes flooding with tears.  But today, today I felt absolutely nothing.  And that nothingness scared me, but it also made me very angry. 

My rage rose this time aimed at myself, at what had happened to me, as well as at my father...  But no, Joe was right.  Though my father had been guilty of many things, in the end perhaps, he wasn't ultimately responsible for all that had gone on.  And though Joe hadn't said so, those who were to blame for the twisted turns in my life were also those who had robbed Kentaro of everything.  The ones responsible for all our misery and that of millions of people around the world were the bastards of Galactor.

They'd taken my father.  They'd taken Joe's parents.  Perhaps Jinpei's as well.  They'd made my father into spy, Nambu into a liar.  And Jun an unwilling pawn in the ugly charade.  They'd even driven me into trying to destroy everything of any value in my life.  They'd driven me into trying to destroy my soul.

Damn them

The bottom of my fists stung as I smashed them against the table.  They were the ones who should pay.

"Ken?"  I heard Joe push himself away from the wall.

"I'm all right."  I said this through clenched teeth -- this wasn't the time, this wasn't the place.

Stiffly, I opened the bag my father had so conveniently provided and put everything in the box inside it.  When I was through, I slammed the lid to the box closed.  "Press the button.  I'm done here."

I didn't look to see whether Joe did as I'd asked or not.  I just stood there at the table, the bag in my hands, my rage flooding through me like a tidal wave.  And all it wanted to do just now was wash away everything in its path.

I almost laughed with self loathing as it hit me suddenly that now that I'd finally found a true focus for my rage, I no longer had the means to vent my wrath on them for I'd thrown the mechanism that would have allowed me to away.  I was such a fool.

The door behind me opened.  With a calmness that wasn't really there, I turned around.  Joe was staring fixedly at me, a strange look on his face, but I ignored him.  Miss Cont came in.

"Was everything in order, Mr. Washio?" she asked.

"Yes, thank you.  Everything was fine."  I gave her an unfelt smile.  "I'm ready to go now."

"Very well."  She moved out of the way so I could leave first.

Once upstairs, it only took a few minutes to fill out the necessary paperwork to close the account.  It felt like an eternity.  Miss Cont assured me more than once that a check would be mailed to me to refund the balance on the prepaid account.  I couldn't have cared less.

I led the way out as soon as I could escape and left Joe to catch up.  I was already in the car with the door closed by the time he did.

As he got in, I felt his eyes on me, but he said nothing.

"Take - me - home."  My jaw was so tight I thought it might crack.  Everything inside me was starting to fray.

"But, Ken - "

I turned in my seat and glared at him.  "Take - me - home." 

For the first time, Joe looked unsure and after a moment said, "Okay."

I looked away and centered my attention out the window.  No more words passed between us as he pulled out of the parking lot out into the traffic.

We'd been on the road several minutes when it came to me that Joe wasn't driving in his usual way.  For once, in all the years I'd known him, he actually seemed to be driving the speed limit.  He even went so far as to stop at the traffic lights even when the lights were only yellow.  My eye twitched, my rage flaring in the already consuming heat, sure that he'd only do this if he were trying to delay me from getting home.  I was positive that his devious mind was rapidly trying to find some way to drag me back to whatever plan he'd been working from in the first place.  Well, it didn't matter.  He'd get nowhere; none of his tricks would work anymore.  I needed to be alone, alone before this thing took over me and I didn't care who got to pay.

To my surprise and partial relief, Joe never once tried to engage me in conversation.  The moment we made it back to the airfield and he'd come to a stop, I opened my door.

"Ken -" His hand settled on my arm.  I hesitated though I didn't look back at him.  I could feel the snarl curling on my face, my rage expecting the worst.  "Look, if you need anything, anything at all - just call me."

I nodded and his hand dropped away.  I got out of the car and closed the door without a glance back.  I stood there unmoving, unseeing, until his car was long gone.

Knowing I was finally alone, I stared up at the sky and screamed.  Louder and louder, my frustrations pouring out of me until my throat was raw.

Feeling only slightly less like a time bomb, I headed to go in what passed as my home.  As I reached for the doorknob, I stopped, frowning, a part of my mind insisting that something there wasn't as I'd left it.  Glancing quickly around, not sure what to expect, my eyes lighted on my broken front window.  The opening wasn't there anymore.  Someone had taken the time to cover it with cardboard and tape it shut.  My eyes snapped in the directions Joe had gone, but I knew it couldn't have been him.

Had Oniishi done this?  No, the window had been open to the elements when I'd left, and he'd been long gone before that.  Then who?

I went ahead and opened the door trying not to speculate.  The first thing I noticed was a large bowl of fruit on the counter - oranges, apples, bananas, pears - all just sitting there for the taking. 

The dishes Oniishi had left out to dry were gone, presumably put away.  The kitchen was spotless.  A wrapped loaf of bread sat on top of the refrigerator.  With a strange suspicion in the back of my mind, I opened the refrigerator's door.  The fridge was stacked to the brim with food inside.  It was Jun again - it had to be.  This stirred a bittersweet pain inside me.

I closed the refrigerator door and stepped out into the living room.  The blanket Oniishi had covered me with was gone.  The beaten coffee table had been squared with the couch.  A neatly folded newspaper sat on top of it as well as a simple arrangement of flowers.

Frowning, I moved on to the bedroom.  That had been changed as well.

My bed was together again.  Someone had taken the time to fix the dented frame.  Fresh sheets and blankets covered it now, and it looked like my ripped pillows had been replaced as well.

Jun hadn't done this alone then.  They'd all been in on it.  Even after...

A strange pressure built up behind my eyes and though I tried I couldn't get rid of it.  Jun just felt guilty, that's all it was.  She had bullied the others into this.

Her words from the night before echoed once more unbidden in my mind, her raw emotions dragging at me, as they hadn't done then.  There was more to it than guilt and I knew it.

Then maybe, maybe it wasn't too late for everything.  Maybe the damage hadn't been so bad.

I abruptly plopped down on the edge of my bed a dragging weariness coming over me.  I was mad, I knew that.  This thing had driven me insane.  The things I'd said; the things I'd done.  And soon there was a chance I might become madder still. 

It was so ironic...  I'd thrown everything I'd had away over something that I ‘d never had - a father.  A family of four to a family of one and I'd thrown them all away.  Yet despite all I'd done to them, it looked as if they hadn't given up on me, not even Joe - even if his methods did leave a lot to be desired...

They, they would take me back.  I suddenly knew that with all certainty.  There was pain there, pain he'd put there, there was guilt on all sides, but they would do it.  But could I, could I put enough of this behind me to let them?  Was I too crippled with my rage now to do what would be needed so I could have them back?  Would I be able to salvage what I'd almost stupidly thrown away?

I didn't know.  I just didn't know.  And that was what hurt most of all.

Until the tears soaked through the pants of my coveralls I wasn't even aware that I was crying.  Maybe, maybe there was hope for me yet.  Maybe I would live.

Despair and hope battled inside me as I sat there.  The tears continued to flow despite my efforts and were soon followed by racking sobs.  Would I lose them?  My real family? Would I be the ultimate fool and lose them?  I held onto myself, rocking, as I cried -- my pent up emotions no longer to be denied.  It was all I could do for I don't know how long. 

I lay on the floor, hours later, in a half doze, until my stomach of all things, brought me slowly back to myself as it rumbled with hunger.  Hunger - that was new.  Perhaps it meant it was time to start paying attention to the little things again.

I dragged myself into the kitchen, wiping my face on my sleeve, and grabbed a pear.  I took a bite of it, it's sweet juices filling my mouth, and though my throat was still raw and pained me, it still felt amazingly wonderful. 

I ate another.

Thoughts turned themselves over and over in my mind even as I found more things to give to my stomach.  I was suddenly ravenous.  A sandwich, soup, more fruit, milk, water, juice, it was like I couldn't get enough.  By the time the need was satisfied, I hurt, I'd eaten so much.  But all of this happened outside of me, like an unconscious process, while the rest of me went over what I knew had to be done.

I had money again, so after taking a few bills from one of the bundles I'd brought home from the bank, I stashed the bag away in the closet and called myself a cab.

By the time the cab showed up, I felt more stable than I had in days.  I knew what had to happen.  I knew what I would say.  Only as the familiar building came into view did I feel any twinge of doubt.  I turned the rage in the background upon it and burned it away.  Nothing would stand in the way of its revenge - nothing

No one harassed me as I entered the building and headed for the elevator.  It looked like I'd not been blackballed off the lists and I had mixed feelings about that.  Had Nambu expected me to come back all along or had he not yet had time to revoke my privileges?  After having been manipulated for so long, would I be able to tell the difference?  My finger hesitated over the floor buttons at the thought before I forced myself to jab the right one hard.

People got on and off as the elevator rose, none seeming surprised or upset at seeing me there - though a few did frown at the way I looked.  It made me want to laugh in their face.

Eventually, the elevator stopped on Nambu's floor and I got out.  I took the most direct route to his office.

His door was closed, but I didn't let that hinder me and went on in without knocking.  I could feel my rage growing without cause, nipping at the edges of my control almost as if it could sense a potential target for its heat.  I tried my best to hold it at bay, reminding myself over and over that the doctor would be a means to an end. 

He would be the way to get at those that were truly responsible.

Folders were strewn all across Nambu's desk and floor making his office look more cluttered and disarranged than ever.  Nambu was there behind his desk, his head leaning against his hand as he wrote busily on some papers before him.  He didn't seem to even be aware that I'd come in, so I slammed the door to get his attention.  His startled glance gave my rage a bit of much needed satisfaction.  "Ken!"

Nambu looked like hell.  Dark circles covered his eyes and his cheeks were sunken.  His usually immaculate clothes were wrinkled and looked slept in.  Even his normally neat tie was askew and half-undone.  He'd obviously not been having a nice time of it.  Good.  I almost smiled.

Nambu recovered quickly, his surprise covered over by the neutral mask he normally wore.  "What can I do for you?"

I came closer saying nothing, battling with myself and the mixture of feelings surging up inside me.  This was it, the time was now.  I would either fix things or make sure that I took a straight path to madness.  "I came to ask you if the vacant position in the ninja team had been filled yet."

Nambu uncharacteristically looked away, his cheeks showing small patches of flushed color.  It suddenly occurred to me what it was that he'd been so fervently working on when I came in.  I felt myself tense though I knew better than to have expected anything else.  Nambu was never one to waste any time.

"No," he said.  "It hasn't."  There was a strange quiver in his voice I'd never heard before.

"Then I'd like to fill it."  My eyes bore into him waiting for a reaction, this the one thing I couldn't be sure of.  If everything that had happened had been done in as cold hearted a way as my rage would have me imagine, the proof would be shown to me here and now. 

Nambu's mouth opened but nothing came out.  He suddenly looked away and wiped at his eyes.  After a moment, he opened one of the drawers on his desk and took out an unmarked, lidless box.  Inside I spied my uniform and bracelet, folded even more neatly than how I'd returned them.  He set the box on the desk.

A part of me softened just a little as he looked up at me with welling emotion in his eyes.  "It will be good to have you back."

I hardened up again.  "Don't be too sure."

Nambu frowned at that.  Good.

"Things will not be like they were before."  I made no move to pick up the box.  "If I think your reasoning flawed, I will question it.  If I don't like something, I won't hesitate to point it out.  I will never again be the blind fool I was before."

Nambu stared at me quietly, absorbing my words.  I could see a number of emotions running through his face.  And though I couldn't read them, never had he seemed more vulnerable.  Perhaps everything that had happened had affected him more than I had given him credit for.

"I understand," he said.  "I would expect no less."

I grunted and waited to see if he'd add anything else.  When he didn't I finally stepped forward and retrieved my things.  "We'll see."

I took my leave without another word.

 

 

 

 

 

Once away from his office, I turned into the first restroom I found.  I stripped out of my coveralls as if they were on fire.  My hands actually shook as I took my shirt out of the box to put it on.  Oh, it felt good in my hands, on my body.  The rest of the uniform quickly followed. 

I saved the wrist comm for last and gingerly settled it around the pale band on my wrist where it had always sat before.  A strange sense of triumph and completeness shot through me.  I looked up and stared at myself in the mirror.  I still looked like shit, but for the first time in a while I looked whole.

Now it was time for the last piece to be put in place.

I went down to the ISO's garage and took ownership of my bike again.  Some things would change though; I hadn't gone through all this to learn nothing.  And if betrayal somehow came again I would be prepared.  The money my father had left me would see to that.  I would buy transportation of my own, one without strings.  I would fix the old plane.  I'd revive the courier business.  It might be that I would never need them, but damn if I'd ever be caught unprepared again.

As I hit the road, the wind felt good on my face.  It was strange feeling alive, even just feeling.  Sounds and smells actually registered inside me proving over and over that there was still life in me.  Though my rage was far from gone, I still felt free.  I was back in business and once more I was in a position to make Galactor pay.  And they would pay.

I parked the bike in the side parking lot and walked slowly to the front door.  Nervous excitement filled me, as if I was doing something for the first time.  Here was the last piece.  And without it, none of the rest of would be worth a damn.  I'd been a fool before, but I wouldn't be one anymore. 

I spotted my query through the glass at the front door.  I knew they'd be here.  At this time of day, it'd become like a ritual of sorts over the years - almost like real family dinners.

Joe and Ryu sat at the counter, with Jun on the other side diligently wiping it as she talked with them.  Worry lines marked her face and I felt a twinge of guilt.  As usual, Jinpei was zooming about the Snak J helping customers. 

I ran my fingers through my hair trying to tidy up at the last second.  What would they make of me?  Could I be wrong as to how they really felt?

I pushed the unwanted thoughts aside.  The door's tell tale bell went off as I pushed the door open.

Jun looked up and her eyes grew unusually wide as she spotted me coming in.  Her mouth opened up in a large, silent ‘O'.  Her eyes suddenly filled with pain.

I smiled, holding her eyes with my own so she wouldn't look away.  It's not your fault, Jun.  I forgive you.  Forgive yourself.  Help me to forgive myself.

I made my way over to where they were.  "May I join you?" I asked quietly.

Jun's face blossomed in a shy, disbelieving smile even as Joe and Ryu snapped around to look at me.  "Ken!"

I felt a grin tugging at the edge of my mouth.  I couldn't help it.  How could I have ever believed I could do without them?  How could I have been so stupid as to think I'd get rid of them?

"Aniki!"  Jinpei's scream came from across the room.

True pleasure, something I'd thought I'd never feel again, suffused me as his small body careened into mine to give me a fierce hug. 

I'd yet to recover from Jinpei's attack when Jun made it around the corner and added to it a hug of her own, tears streaming down her face.  Grinning like an idiot, Ryu added his arms to the fray as well.  I wasn't sure how much longer I'd be able to breathe under the assault when Joe added his amused self to the pile.

This felt right.  This was where I belonged - with these people, with my true family.  We weren't of the same blood, but time and time again they'd proved that that didn't matter.  They were all the family I'd ever really had and would be all the family I'd ever need. 

In the end, I guess it didn't really matter too much how I had gotten there - how it was that we'd all come to be together.  The important thing was that we had.  And damn all of Galactor and the world if necessary, if I would ever be fool enough to give them up again.

 

            The End

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