Surprises by Maya Perez
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            Several students glanced back at Jun's excited call but none of them were him.  Ken watched her as she forcibly restrained herself from running up to him.  Her fervent glances back at them made her wishes for them to hurry very clear.  Eventually, she lost the battle and just gave in to her desires.  Cutting through the students, it took her only seconds to catch up to him.

            "Excuse me," she said.  "Could I speak to you for a moment?"

            Ken saw Jinpei stop and turn around, a smile on his face at the sound of her lovely voice.  As he fully looked upon her, however, the smile faltered before going back to the brightness it'd had before.  "Sure.  Are you lost?"

            The others finally caught up to them.

            "Don't I look familiar to you?" she asked.

            The boy looked slightly confused at the eagerness and hope in her voice.  "I, I..."  He took a step back as he found himself almost surrounded by the four of them.

            Kozaburo quickly brought out the medallion.  "You can remember now, Jinpei."

            Ken watched in total detachment as Jinpei's eyes were magnetically drawn to the medallion dangling from Kozaburo's long chain.  His book bag fell heavily to the ground beside him totally forgotten.  "I... I..."

            His dazzled eyes eventually looked away from the medallion, totally unaware of the students still shuffling past them as he then gazed into each of their faces. 

            Jun opened her arms, extending them out toward him, a happy, worried smile on her face.  The puzzled look abruptly left Jinpei's face and he leapt into his sister's arms.  "Neechan!"

            Tears gathered in Jun's eyes and joyously spilled down her face as she held tightly to him.

            Ken turned away, jealousy and pain mixing inside him at the sight.  His eyes burned with tears of their own, his own emotions too strong and alien for him to make any sense of them.  He had no control--not over this, not over himself.  He had to regain his center and he had to regain it soon.  How would he be able to deal with whatever tragedy had forced this intrusion into their lives if he didn't? 

            A soft tap at his shoulder made Ken turn back around.  The no longer quite so boyish face of the youngest member of the ninja team smiled at him hesitantly, his brown eyes almost level with his own.

            Ken tried his best then to set aside everything and made himself return the smile.  Just his attempt to do so was all the excuse Jinpei needed.  Before Ken could think to protest or try to hold him back, Jinpei wrapped his long arms around him and hugged him with all his might.  "Aniki!"

            Ken mechanically returned the embrace, knowing he would hurt Jinpei's feelings if he didn't.  His eyes filled with tears again, but these were tears of sadness.  For though he knew this should have been one of the happiest moments of his life, he felt no joy--no joy at all.

            Joe playfully ruffled Jinpei's hair when he finally stopped hugging them all. Jinpei glared at him as he bent to regain his books. 

Joe grinned back.  "I never thought you'd ever get this tall, short stuff."

Jinpei made a half hearted face at him.  "Show's what you know."

"Don't listen to him,"  Jun said seriously.  "You look wonderful!  You're all grown up."

Jinpei quickly puffed out his chest to show them all just how much that was.

"Once a clown, always a clown."  Joe teased.

"Once a grouch, always a grouch."

"Jinpei!"

Joe burst out laughing as Jinpei's face took on a sudden stricken look as he was hit by Jun's old warning tone.  Jun and Jinpei quickly joined them, Kozaburo smiling at them all.  Ken half turned away, hoping they wouldn't notice he hadn't joined them.  He felt detached, no longer a part of them.  His quickly spreading numbness just wouldn't let anything through.

"Neechan, where's Ryu?"  Jinpei quickly glanced around him suddenly concerned.

"He's all right, don't worry," she answered.  "We just haven't gone to get him yet."  Jun flashed a quick look toward Kozaburo to confirm what she'd just said was actually true.  The clone quickly nodded to her unasked question.

"Hey, Maurice, you'd better hurry or you're going to be late for class!" 

Jinpei turned to wave at a blond hared boy shooting past them on roller blades.  "Thanks!"

"Maurice?"  Joe looked like he felt ill.

"Don't you dare say anything!  None of you!"  Jinpei glared at them all menacingly, keeping his gaze riveted the longest on Joe.  Jun quickly hid her mouth behind her hand, so her brother wouldn't catch a glimpse of her rapidly widening smile.  Joe chortled.

"It isn't funny, guys!  I didn't even get to pick the thing!"  His protests only made Joe laugh harder.  Jun was trying her best not to giggle.

Ken couldn't bear it any longer.  Without explanation, he walked away from the four of them and went to stare at a gushing fountain across the way. How could they be so happy?  Didn't they understand what had been done to them?  Didn't they care?  With his badly muddled thoughts, he stared at the moving water, never really seeing it at all.

After a short while, he felt a presence beside him.  He tried to ignore it, not knowing who was there and not trusting himself to speak.  After a few moments, however, his curiosity got the better of him and he glanced to see who it was.  Kozaburo, his hands clasped behind his back, stood there beside him, staring also at the fountain's waters.  "Yes?"

Kozaboru glanced over at him, his expression blank.  "Jinpei has decided to come along with us," he stated quietly.  "If you're ready, we can go find the last--Ryu."

Ken only nodded, realizing he wouldn't be able to escape the inevitable.  The two of them turned their backs on the fountain and moved to rejoin the rest of the group.  As they came close, Ken thought he caught looks of worry from them, including Jun.  Purposely, he ignored what he'd seen, keeping his face expressionless.  They all made their way back to the station wagon.

Jinpei happily joined Jun and Joe in the back seat, while Kozaburo and Ken sat up front.  They soon were on their way.

"Neechan, you look like you've put on some weight."  Her brother had turned sideways and was staring at her critically.

"Jinpei!"  Jun stared at her brother as if he'd turned into a giant snake.

His cheeks suddenly flared red as he realized how his comment had sounded.  "I, I didn't mean it in a bad way!  I swear!  I just--ah, uhm."  He was in big trouble and he knew it.

Joe came to his rescue.  "He's right, you look more rounded and shapely, like you're supposed to.  And there's that glow."  His eyes were bright.  "But then again, I guess both things should be expected for a woman who's going to have a baby."

"What?"  Both Jun and her brother stared at their teammate in utter shock.  Ken stiffened in the front seat, cursing his friend for not being able to keep quiet.  Kozaburo drove on, unaffected, as if he'd known the fact all along.

"Yes, we're going to have an addition to our little family, Jinpei."  Joe grinned.  "You finally won't be the youngest one around anymore."

Jinpei turned to look in wonder at the mystery that was his sister.  "Is that true, neechan?  Are you really going to have a baby?"

Jun nodded slowly.  "Yes."

"A baby..."  His face shone with undisguised awe.

"And I don't want you teaching him any of your bad habits, understand?"  She arched a brow at him.  "For instance, mentioning people's weight after not having seen them for a long time..."

Jinpei blushed even harder than before. 

Suddenly, after looking at each other and grinning, Joe and Jun both rubbed their knuckles on Jinpei's head at the same time.  Trapped solidly between them, he was hard pressed to make them stop.  Pretty soon all three were laughing.

They'd driven for almost an hour on the state highway and out of the city when signs started springing up about a number of the major resorts to be found on Winning Lake.  As they hit the area of the highway with six exits that would put them in that direction, Kozaburo took the third, which had advertisements for residential lake property areas. 

Ending up on a two-lane road, the lake eventually appeared on their right, sparkling like clear glass.  Dozens of sailboats skimmed the water in the distance, lazily following the light breeze.  Trees grew everywhere in abundance, and the scent of pine grew heavy.  After a number of other turns, Kozaburo led the wagon into a large lot with a sign reading ‘Tiny's Boat Repair'.  He parked the car.

"Somehow this figures, you know."  Joe stared knowingly at the perfect view of the lake before them and the hinged boats lining the lot waiting to be repaired.

 "I knew he'd always wanted to be a fish," Jinpei piped in.  "Though if you asked me, he'd most likely end up as a whale."  Deftly he remained out of his sister's reach as he spoke, even as she'd tried to inconspicuously pinch him on the arm.

Ken remained silent, walking behind them as they all made their way to the small office sitting near the shore.  Jinpei was the first to make it to the open door, even as the sound of machinery started up from the other side of the building.

"There's no one in here."  Jinpei's disappointed face looked back at the rest of them.

Going around the building, they followed the strange noise to its source.  It was there they found what they'd been looking for.

A man's broad back was turned toward them as the latter expertly caressed the hull of a fiberglass boat with an electric sander.  Dust from the sanded fiberglass flew everywhere, even as a larger and larger area of the overturned hull was exposed.

Jinpei jumped forward to try and get his attention, but Jun held him back before he got far.  After a minute or so, the sander shut down as the man ran a hand over his close-cut hair, then glanced back, almost as if he'd sensed them behind him.  He set the sander down, and tried to dust himself off, his features totally obscured by dust and a large pair of goggles.  "Sorry about the mess."  He stepped over toward them.  "Name's Merril, though people around here call me Tiny."  He smiled, removing the goggles, his wide friendly face now split in three where the goggles had kept the dust from settling near his eyes.  "How can I help you folks?"

Kozaburo stepped forward and brought out the golden medallion.  "You can help us by remembering--Ryu."

Almost against his will, Ryu stared intently at the medallion for a long drawn out moment.  With a gasp, he took a step back and fell flat on the ground.  Jun and Jinpei rushed forward, immediately concerned.  Ryu stared at both of them as they helped him stand, his gaze moving from one to the other his expression horribly confused.

As his gaze traveled to those behind them, his eyes finally began to clear.  Tears quickly formed in his eyes and ran freely down his cheeks, making trails in the dust, even as his face split with a giant smile. "You're alive!  You're all alive!"

Before anyone realized what he was doing, Ryu scooped up Jun and Jinpei, the three of them laughing in pure, unexpected joy as he swung them about.  With an indulgent grin generously plastered on his face, Joe turned to glance at Ken.  Ken barely noticed as his friend's grin disappeared, having eyes for only those before him.  It was as bad if not worse than Jinpei's reunion had been.

Gasping for air, while simultaneously trying to stop laughing, Ryu slowed and finally allowed Jun and Jinpei to go free.  "You all look wonderful!  I have to be dreaming!"  He grinned.  "Surely if this was real, Jinpei would never look that good."

Jinpei reached over and pinched him.  Ryu yelped.  "Nope, not a dream. We must be real."  Jinpei gave him a smug look.

"Then come here and let me give you a nice, tight, hug."  Ryu took a menacing step toward Jinpei.  The latter dodged quickly out of his reach and took refuge behind a now somber faced Joe.

It was then a surprised look suddenly came over Ryu's face and he snapped over to look at Kozaburo.  "Hakase, uh, how is it that you're alive?"  Then he quickly added,  "Not that I mind, of course!"  Ryu looked away, feeling awkward with the way he'd worded his question. 

Kozaburo didn't seem to notice.  With great care he put the medallion back in his pocket.  Everyone waited in silence to see if he would answer.  "I'd rather wait until we meet with Dr. Kamo to explain everything.  He's been quite involved with all the developments in the last four years and he's more prepared to answer your questions than I am."  He smiled lightly.  "Right now, it'd be best overall if you used the time to reacquaint yourselves with one another and let the memories work back to where they belong.  There'll be plenty of time for answers tomorrow."

"Where is Kamo?  Is he back in Utoland?"

Kozaburo turned to look at Ken.  "No, he's currently a guest of the Conbine's Research Institute."

Ken stared at him as if he'd been struck.  "The research center?"  Where he worked?  Where he'd met Jun again?  How much, how much had they had to do with their lives these past four years?  How much was there they didn't already know about them?  Had their lives up to now been totally manipulated?  Had Jun been given a job at the institute just so they'd meet again?  Was his life as Johnny Terell a total and complete lie?

"Yes."

Ken glanced startled at Nambu's clone, not sure which, if not all of his questions he'd just answered.  Pain mixed with rising anger as he stared at the calm man before him.

"I'm hungry.  How about you guys?"  Joe stepped up and took Ken's arm pulling him away from Kozaburo.  "Ryu, do you know any good places to eat around here?"

Ryu followed after them.  "Well, I do have some food at the house, but there's a good place not far from here.  The foods really good, though nothing compared to what we got at the Snak J, of course."

Jun smiled at the obvious complement.

"If you'll let me swing by the house for a minute, I'll get cleaned up and then we can go there."  Ryu turned suddenly shy.  "Okay?"

After a round of agreement from the others, Ryu headed off toward a tan pickup parked on the other side of the small office.  Jinpei tagged along with him.

Joe purposely beat Ken to the station wagon and took his place in the front seat.  Ken frowned at this, but having no choice, unless he wanted to make an issue of it, he slipped into the back seat staying far on his side.

As Kozaburo and Jun got in, Joe's gaze latched onto the other occupant of the front.  "What's this?"  He reached over and grabbed the teddy bear.  "This must be for you, Jun, or at least for who you're carrying."  He passed the bear over with a grin.

Jun's eyes lit up at the sight of the plush bear.  She quickly took it from Joe and hugged it to herself.  "It's wonderful!"  She half turned toward Ken.  "Where did you ever find him?"

Ken looked away from her, riveting his entire attention to the back of Joe's seat.  He hadn't bought the bear, Johnny Terell had done it, and Johnny was dead.  "Nina's gift shop."  He shivered as he heard the lack of emotion in his answer.  Luckily Jun didn't ask anything else of him.

Kozaburo followed Ryu's pickup and after about five minutes turned into a gravel filled driveway next to a small lake cabin.

Ryu jumped out of his truck, waving for them to come in.  Getting out of the station wagon, Kozaburo, Joe, Jun, and Ken met Jinpei by the door and went inside.  Ken noticed with mixed feelings that Jun brought the bear in with her.

"You guys won't believe this, but Ryu's famous!"  Jinpei talked almost too fast in his excitement.  "Every single one of the resorts around here will only have their boats serviced by his company."  He scurried over to where the phone sat on a nearby counter and grabbed the yellow pages sitting there.  He flipped hurriedly through them until he found what he was looking for.  "See, he even has an advertisement in here!"  He showed them a half-page ad for ‘Tiny's Boat Repair'.  "I bet he's rich!"

"Jinpei."  Jun glanced sharply at him, stopping her ongoing inspection of Ryu's home.

Jinpei grimaced.  "Okay, I'll stop.  But for that, will you promise me you won't tell him that my name was Maurice?  He'd never let me live it down."

Roaring laughter immediately poured from somewhere behind him.  "Maurice?  Maurice?" 

Startled, Jinpei snapped around in time to see Ryu trying to double over in uncontrollable laughter.

"D--don't tell me!  Your last name is something horrid like Patootie or worse, right?"  Tears had gathered in Ryu's eyes.

Jinpei looked stricken.  "How, how did you know?"

Ryu's towel threatened to come off as he fell against the wall and pounded at it with his fist almost as if he were in agony.  Most of the others kept themselves under better control, though not by much.

Still giggling several minutes later, Ryu staggered off to get dressed.  He returned not long after, a big grin on his face and laughing tears still shining in his eyes.  Jinpei stood off alone, sulking, and immediately threw his friend a dangerously murderous look when his giggling threatened to start again.

"This is so rich."  Ryu wiped away at his eyes.  "If you guys are ready, the place is not far."  He threw a snide look in Jinpei's direction.  "All this laughing has really revved up my appetite." 

As Jinpei's look darkened, Ryu went over to him and sweeping him in his large arms and took him outside.  The others piled into the station wagon as Ryu forced Jinpei to accompany him in his truck. 

Ten minutes later, Ryu drove up into a small wooded driveway that opened up into a wide parking lot.  A big, three-storied house, looking like something out of the early 19th century stood before them, named, appropriately enough, ‘The Inn'.

Walking on up to the old fashioned southern porch, Ryu led them on through the large welcoming door.  A large fan spun lazily, giving a sense of timelessness.  Two large potted plants met them in the foyer increasing the sense of ease and lack of hurry.  They'd gone on only a few steps before a jolly looking woman wearing a large apron spotted them and immediately headed in their direction.

"Why, Tiny, what a pleasure!"  She had a thick southern accent that made the words roll off her tongue.  "You don't normally grace us with your company for lunch."

"Well, uh,"  Ryu reached up to scratch behind his neck, his face coloring slightly.  "We were all wanting to celebrate our reunion and I just knew the best place for us to go do that was here.  So here we are."  He laughed shyly.

The proprietress smiled, looking quite pleased.  Promptly, she showed them all to a large round table located near the back of the cozy establishment. 

More fans twirled slowly above them as they walked through the large dining hall.  The softly lighted area and the plants set strategically everywhere, gave an undeniable impression of blessed coolness on a hot day.

"This place is neat, Ryu."  Jinpei winked in his direction as the woman left to get them drinks.  "I think she likes you."

"Shshshshsh."  Ryu quickly glanced about him trying to make sure no one had overheard Jinpei's comment.

"Nervous are you?"  Joe teased.  "You must be making progress, huh?"

"Ah, come on you guys," Ryu pleaded.  "I've been coming here every other night for the last three months.  Please don't ruin this for me."

"Don't worry, Ryu," Jun said.  "They're both going to be good little boys--aren't you?"  She gave Joe and Jinpei a hard look, receiving purely innocent stares in return.

Any further comments that might have been made were stymied by the arrival of their waiter.  Everyone quickly decided on what they'd have and it wasn't long before the food was brought over, steam rising into the air.

Though Ken had tried to abstain from ordering, he'd been quickly overruled by the vote of his peers.  Now he stared at the soup and salad that had been brought to him, wondering how in the world he was going to make himself put it away.

"Hey, Ryu, this meatloaf is great!  It's as good as Mom's!"  Jinpei's eyes shone.  He stuffed another bite into his mouth and munched on it happily just to prove his point.

Jun stopped in mid bite.  "Mom?"  There was an odd tilt in her voice at the question.

"Oh, sure.  I guess with all that's been happening, I forgot to mention it."  Jinpei put his fork down.  "Back at the refugee camp they not only gave me a new name, but a set of parents to go with it.  Mom and Dad had lost all their children two years before in a Galactor raid."  He shrugged his small shoulders.  "I guess they figured since they'd lost their kids and I'd lost my parents by getting together we could try and make something of each other's losses."

Even Ken was momentarily brought out of his numbness at the seriousness in Jinpei's voice.

"It hasn't always been easy. But we've worked hard.  And I, I love them," Jinpei said.

Without wanting to, Ken's gaze flickered to Jun's face and saw a mixture of happiness and sadness playing on her face.

"To tell you the truth though, now that I remember everything, Mom reminds me a lot of you, neechan."  Jinpei's voice grew excited.  "I can't wait for you to meet her."

Jun smiled a little too quickly.  "Neither can I, Jinpei.  Neither can I."

Her brother let out a small sigh, as if a weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. 

"Well I can't wait to call my father and let him know I'm alive," Ryu exclaimed.  "After four years, it ought to come as a big surprise to him and my brother."

Kozaburo slowly lowered the glass he'd been about to bring to his lips and stared at Ryu.  "It'd be best if you waited until we've all had a chance to meet at the research center before you decide to make that call.  We wouldn't want to involve your father in an unnecessary breach of security."

"But, but, Hakase, would it really hurt all that much?  I'd really like for them to know I'm still alive."

Nambu's clone continued to hold Ryu's gaze.  "It would.  Just try and be patient.  It'll only be for a few days."

Ryu opened his mouth as if to argue, but finally only nodded his agreement.

Ken felt his face go blank, his eyes hard.  He held his curled fists under the table where they wouldn't be seen.  They were being given more restrictions, more manipulations.

"Hello again.  How are y'all enjoying your meal?"  The proprietress stepped up beside Ryu. 

"It's wonderful, Norma.  Everything's great!"  Ryu's face lit up as he turned to look at her.  He then stared down at his hands for a moment.  "Would, would you mind if I introduced you to my friends?"

"My, why of course not!"

Pleased, Ryu quickly made the introductions.

"Well," she said.  "I'm glad to see that Tiny has such good friends.  Seeing him here almost every night had me wondering about that just a tad."

Ryu's cheeks turned deep red and he tried to unsuccessfully hide it from them.

"When you're through with lunch, please feel free to have dessert.  It's on the house."  She gave them a big smile.

"Oh, Norma," Ryu put in, "That's not necessary!"

Jinpei's eager nodding quickly contradicted him. 

"Oh, but it is, sugah, and it's my pleasure."  Her smile had grown bigger.  "Please enjoy."  She left them, sending Ryu one long last glance before she was gone.

"Ryu, hurry up and marry her or I might just be tempted to take her from you," Jinpei quipped.  "Free dessert!"

Ryu jabbed Jinpei hard in the side. 

Almost two hours later, the group finally got up from their table to leave.  Norma happily escorted the mostly content group to the door. "Please be sure to come back, ya hear."

"We will.  We will!"  Jinpei earnestly shook Norma's hand.  Jun had to pull him away so they could go ahead and leave.

"So. What now?" Joe asked.

"We could go back to my place so I could show you around?" Ryu suggested.  "We still have a lot of catching up to do."

Jinpei got a sudden glimmer in his eyes.  "Yeah, I guess we do," he said nonchalantly.  "I mean, you don't even know neechan's pregnant yet."

"Well, yeah, that's true.  I didn't know that--that..." Ryu's eyes grew suddenly big and round as the meaning of Jinpei's words finally sank in.  "Pregnant?"

It was Jun's mistake to be standing too close to Ryu when Jinpei made his revelation.  Ryu turned on her and impulsively reached for her, hugging her hard, knocking the breath out of her.  "A baby, a baby.  You're having a baby!"

"R--Ryu. Ryu!"  Jun was half laughing as she struggled to get her breath back.

He abruptly let go of her as if having been caught holding on to a china plate he might accidentally break.  "I'm sorry!  It was just, just such a surprise," he said.  "You're the first one of us to get pregnant, and it's just so wonderful!"  His face flushed with excitement.

"Uh, Ryu, I don't think any of us ever quite had that in mind," Joe pointed out.  "Even if we could somehow get away with it."

Jinpei burst out laughing and so did Jun.  Kozaburo broke out into a grin which he quickly attempted to disguise.  Ken walked on past, unnoticed, to the station wagon.

"Ah, come on," Ryu protested. "You guys know what I meant!"

Jun took his arm smiling at him, and they started off once more toward their cars.

"Have you picked any names yet?" Ryu asked.  "Do you want a boy or a girl?  When is it due?"

Jun shook her head, at the sudden barrage of questions.  "Well, no--a boy, I think--in the early part of September."

"Well just as long as the name you pick, isn't Maurice."

Ryu took off as Jinpei snarled and came after him. 

Once they'd made it back to Ryu's home, he proudly showed them about.  Going back into the living room at the end of the tour, Ryu drew back the set of curtains lining the back wall and revealed a wide set of glass doors that looked out onto a wooden deck.  From there, they had a magnificent unimpaired view of Crystal Lake.

Rapidly opening the glass doors, he led them onto the deck so they could have their fill of what was there.

The deck extended out for over twenty feet and gave them all plenty of room to move about.  A set of stairs led from the rear of the deck down to the sparkling water below.  At the end, a small pier rose from the water, and moored to it were a thin one man sailboat and a large row boat.

"This is wonderful, Ryu," Jun said.  "You've really done well for yourself.  Your father will be so proud."

Ryu almost glowed at the praise.

Ken stayed distant as conversations sprang up between them as they tried to fill in some of the gaps of the last four years.  Mercifully, the topic of Jun and Ken's marriage wasn't brought up by either her or Joe.  Ken watched as the hours passed, feeling more and more alone.  He finally couldn't stand it anymore.

"It's past five.  Time for us to leave.  We will see each other again tomorrow."  Ken's snapped command cut across the room and overrode all the conversations.  In shock, they all turned to look at his blank face, having long ago inadvertently forgotten him.

Ken rose from the darkening corner he'd occupied most of the time and without another word headed toward the door.

"Ken, shouldn't we-"  Joe's words came to a stop as Ken went out the door never slowing.

"Neechan, what's wrong with him?" Jinpei asked.

Ken frowned barely hearing the last as he stormed around the house toward the station wagon.  What was wrong with him?  Why was everything only making him angry and numb?  Worse, what was wrong with them?  Why were they just taking everything so casually?  Didn't they understand what had been done to them?  How they'd been led?

He reached for the door handle to the station wagon and stopped as everything around him unexpectedly seemed to sway.  With a low moan, he leaned against the car and tried to catch his breath.

"Ken."

He whipped around at the voice behind him and spotted Kozaburo.  His eye twitched as he spotted the clone, a flare of anger cutting through him.  Nambu, Nambu, it was always Nambu.  Even in death he'd come back.  And hadn't everything in his life in some way or other always been manipulated by Nambu?  Ken's fists coiled at his sides.  Hatred flooded through him.  This was the man who'd kept the secret of his father hidden from him for years.  This was the man who'd now come to destroy everything he'd come to hold dear.  "Stay the hell away from me."

Kozaburo looked as if he'd struck him, but at the moment Ken just didn't care.  The others came outside and glanced in their direction, and before they could do more than perceive something was wrong, Ken sucked his anger inwards, turned from Kozaburo and got in the car.

Kozaburo didn't answer the questioning stares now aimed in his direction, but moved to get inside the car as well.  The others traded a hasty farewell with Ryu promising to get back together tomorrow after quickly exchanging phone numbers.

The drive back to town was silent and tense.

Jinpei asked to be dropped off at the university so he could pick up his car and drive it home.  Hugging Jun and giving a subdued farewell to the others, he left them so they could continue on their way.

Kozaburo dropped Joe off at his dojo, which they'd come to find was also his home.  Ken just stared out the front window as Joe got out and said nothing.  He saw him from the corner of his eye glancing in from the side window a look of growing concern on his face.  Ken in no way acknowledged it.

Once Kozaburo reached their home, Jun slipped out of the station wagon with the teddy bear in hand.  Without a word to either of them, Ken got out and headed immediately for the front door.  He heard Jun bid Kozaburo good night for the both of them.  He wondered why she even bothered.

He stepped into the house and didn't bother to turn on the lights.  He took several steps into the living room, the light from the street giving it a spectral type of look almost as if it weren't real.  Ken felt his anger rising again as the place felt foreign and indifferent to him.  That wasn't how it was supposed to be!  This was his home, dammit!  They'd destroyed everything...

The lights came on but he didn't move.  He wanted nothing more than to scream his sadness and despair and it took everything he had not to give in.

"Ken, are you all right?"

He closed his eyes, a bolt of pain coursing through him at her concern.  She'd been his wife, his wife!

"Are you still mad about last night and this morning?  Is that what this is all about?"

If it could only have been something so simple.

"Oh, I'm sorry!  I meant to apologize to you earlier, but between all that's happened today, I just never got a chance."  He heard her step closer to him.  "Couldn't we talk about it?  Please?"

Ken felt himself fraying at the edges.  Without looking at her, he walked quickly out of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

Why hadn't he answered her?  What harm could it have done?  Hadn't he been hoping for some sign from her?  What was he afraid of?  It wasn't like he'd never opened up to her before.  As Johnny Terell it had always helped him to discuss his problems with her, it had helped to put them into perspective.  Did it really make that much of a difference she was now Jun as well as Kate?  He stared in misery at the floor as he sat cross legged in the middle of the baby's room.  With a low moan, he pounded his fists onto the carpeted floor in frustration and impatience.  If only he could slow down his speeding thoughts!

Why was he acting as if everything were so different?  Could four years just disappear like that?  Where was his control?  Why was he the only one having problems dealing with all this?  He was the leader, he should be the one guiding the others not the one being the problem.  But damn it all!  Why had Nambu come?  Why had he destroyed his life?  Why?  Why?

"Johnny!"

Ken leapt to his feet cold fear shooting through him at Jun's anguish filled scream.  He rushed out the door as sudden panic clutched his throat, never having heard Jun yell like that before.

He reached their bedroom seconds later and found her doubled over on the floor.  Suddenly forgetting everything, he knelt down beside her and gently picked her up in his arms.  "Jun."  Oh, God, if he'd hurt her, if he'd somehow hurt her.

Jun's face was white, tears running unchecked down her cheeks.  As her eyes sought his in total misery, a body shaking spasm ran through her.  "My baby, my baby!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be Continued...

 

 

 

 

 

In a quiet corner of the waiting room, Ken stared blankly at a wall, his body still, his mind numb.  He'd been sitting there like this for hours, almost from the moment the ambulance had gotten Jun to the hospital. 

And though he'd done nothing, alerted no one, one by one the other members of the team had come, all knowing something had happened.  Ken bit the inside of his cheek until it bled, knowing who'd called them, knowing what it said about the last four years of his life.  His contrived life--his manipulated, watched life.

It hadn't even surprised him when the doctor had come by and informed them all that though they'd tried everything they could, they'd not been able to save the baby.  How convenient--yet another problem solved. 

Though he gave the doctor no reaction whatsoever, the man had stared at him as if pitying him from the bottom of his soul.  Then, then had come the rest.  The doctor had gone and explained to him all the different possible reasons for the miscarriage. 

High levels of stress had for years been thought to be a possible cause for miscarriages.  Ken's eyes had narrowed slightly, no doubt in his mind that in the last two days Jun'd had a lot of it.  Yet, yet it was one of the more ambiguous possible causes that most grabbed at his attention.  It was the one he had no doubt had to be the cause for it after all.

In his tight voice, the doctor had informed them that in a few cases, though hardly ever seen, miscarriage could come about due to some abnormality in the father's fertilizing sperm.

Ken had almost leapt to his feet in rage to cut the man down when he'd promptly dismissed the possibility.  Of course it had been the reason!  Couldn't any of them see that?  Were they blind?  Of course it was the cause!  It'd been his sperm--his!  He was the cause, due to the genetic damage he'd suffered as the main weapon of the Spartan.  How much more was to be destroyed by a past he had unwillingly forgotten?

By then all of them had learned he'd been the child's father.  The story had made the rounds that he and Jun had married in their other lives.  He didn't care.  But they did.  And after the doctor had gone they tried to talk to him, comfort him, even though they were filled with shock and grief.  Yet he couldn't, wouldn't let them through, totally ignoring all they tried.  It didn't matter that it would have helped them.  It didn't matter that perhaps it would have helped him.  He'd turned stubbornly away, shutting them out, staring at nothing.  Without caring, he'd only crawled deeper inside himself.

When visitors were finally allowed, Ken made no move to go see Jun.  How could he?  And though even the doctor made the effort to suggest he do so, and had told him how important it would be for both their sakes, he did nothing.

Slowly, one by one, each of the others went in and spent a few minutes with her.

Almost an hour later, Ken was aware of some flurried whispering going on behind him.  It meant nothing to him.  Minutes later, Joe sat down before him and stared into his face for a while saying nothing.  Ken just wished he'd go away.

"Why won't you go see her?  Doesn't she deserve that?"  Joe's voice was a mixture of anger and sadness wrapped in impatience.

Ken's eyes focused on him for only a moment.  "She doesn't want me to."  He snapped his mouth shut, realizing he'd spoken, before he could add that she, just like them, were only too aware of why the pregnancy had failed.

"She needs you, Ken.  You are her husband."  Joe almost spit out the words.  "She needs to know you don't blame her for this."

Ken almost laughed in pain at the irony of the statement.

"Jun needs to know you care.  Can't you see that?"  Joe's voice was growing more impatient.  "Her life and everything she thought was true has been turned inside out and now the bottom has fallen away too.  She needs something to hold onto, Ken.  She needs you."

Ken shut his eyes as his own feelings of despair and injustice bubbled up and threatening to overwhelm him.  Joe didn't understand.  He didn't!  And he wasn't sure how to make him.  What he wanted, it, it...

Stiffly, almost painfully, Ken rose from his seat.  Slowly, he left the waiting room and headed in the direction of Jun's room.  Every step of the way he felt Joe's eyes as they burned into his back.

With a staggered breath, Ken forced himself to open Jun's door.  Silently, he stepped in but went no farther than the inside of the doorway.

He could see Jun in her bed, her face looking so pale as if the life had been drained from her.  His heart cried at seeing her laying there so helplessly.  Unwanted, he felt the pain and sensed the loss he'd been trying so hard to stifle inside him and knew it was nothing compared to what hers would be over the death of their unborn child.

Ken felt trapped--he wanted nothing more than to leave yet at the same time was unable to do that now that he was there.  Even as he continued to gaze quietly upon her, Jun's eyes opened, as if sensing him, and looked up.  Caught, the two of them stared at one another in deathly silence.

Yet even as he returned her stare, her eyes betrayed her and started to water helplessly.  Ken took several steps forward, intending to do he knew not what, but stopped as he saw her face immediately harden against him.

"What do you want?"  Her voice was heavy.  "Have you come to gloat now that life has been made easier for you?  Or is this just a courtesy call, commander?"

Ken almost cringed away at the biting vehemence in her voice.  "Jun. That isn't fair..."

She sat up violently, her eyes burning with flaming, painful anger.  "Fair?  Since when has anything been fair?"

Ken tried his best not to notice the horrible wrenching sensation reaching through his heart at the pain screaming at him from her.  He had done this.  He had done this.

"I've lost my life, my husband, my baby.  I don't care anything about being fair!"

Tentatively, Ken took a step toward her.  "Jun... I--"

"Get out," she screamed.  "I've already killed your baby for you and I'm not about to give you anything else!  All you'll have now is all you've ever really wanted, and that's just the team and the Swan!"  Jun roughly tore her wedding band off her finger and hurled it at him.

Ken didn't even try to step aside, but let the ring strike him full in the face.  He didn't even allow himself the luxury of flinching as the heavy diamond ring slammed violently into his cheek.

Pain flared there and he could feel something warm pooling there, but it didn't matter.  Calmly, oh so calmly, he knelt down and picked up the ring, and gently cleaned away the blood it had taken with it.

"Get out!"

Without a word, Ken slowly turned away and reached for the door.

"I hate you, Ken Washio!  Do you hear me?  I hate you!"

He made it out of the room before his legs gave way and he tried to collapse to the floor.  He leaned wearily against the wall, the pain inside him growing.  He felt an overriding need to cry, to collapse, to just give up on everything.  His life had been destroyed by the most innocent of lies--ignorance.  But why?  He hadn't deserved this.  She hadn't deserved this!  If only Nambu hadn't...

Ken gasped his eyes growing wide as a sudden thought stirred in him and he latched onto it like a drowning man.  The thought led to another and then to a third and as he followed the chain he was able to hide again from his pain with a wall of anger.

He wanted, needed, answers.  He had to know who was really to blame for all the chaos in his life.  And he knew who had the answers!  He knew the one person who'd known everything all along.  And now, whether he liked it or not, he was going to give them to him. 

Pushing away from the wall, Ken wrapped himself in his newfound heat and purpose.  He might not be able to put back together the shambles his life had become, but he'd at least be able to give Jun some answers.

 

 

 

 

 

Joe stood up as Ken stomped past the waiting room, and frowned at the determined, unforgiving look on his face.  He also saw that his cheek was bleeding.  "Ken!"

His friend never acknowledged the call, even as Joe hurried to go after him.  He caught a glimpse of Ken as he yanked open the door to the emergency stairs.  By the time Joe made it to the door, Ken had already descended several floors as he traveled at a fast and reckless pace.

Wondering what the hell had happened, Joe shot down after him.  He'd expected some tears, maybe some angry words, but not that look.  Whatever had gone on between him and Jun couldn't have been pretty.  How could Ken be so stupid?  Yeah, he'd always kept Jun at a distance because of their jobs and responsibilities, but dammit all, fate had gotten them together anyway.  Couldn't he just accept that?  The fool!

Joe reached the first floor and glanced both ways without catching sight of Ken. On a hunch decided to head toward the cafeteria.  Running down the corridor, he reached the place just in time to watch Ken yank Nambu roughly to his feet.

"Aniki, what are you doing?  Are you crazy?"  Jinpei's voice cracked.  Ryu and Kamo stared at Ken in shock as he continued to hold Nambu by his bunched up shirt.

"I'm very tired of playing games with you."  Ken's voice dripped with rage.  "I think I've been more than patient so far, but now I've had enough!"  He jerked Kozaburo's startled face closer to his own.  "I want answers, and I want them now!"

Joe was sure he saw fear cross Nambu's eyes and that alone made him worry all the more.  Kamo held up his hands looking like a fish out of water.  "Ken, please, calm down."

"Ken, that's enough.  Let him go."  Joe reached for his arm and Ken shoved him back without even turning to glance at him.

"No!  Not until I get what I want!"  His grip tightened threateningly on Kozaburo's crumpled shirt.  Ken stared at him intently.  "You will give me what I want."

Kozaburo's face flinched before all of a sudden turning utterly calm.  "You're right.  It's time to do away with all the secrets."

The old tone of cold command acted like a bucket of water on Ken's burning anger.  He hesitantly let go of Nambu's shirt.

"I see now that I've waited way too long."

"Ko--Kozaburo, this isn't the place for this!"  Kamo came forward wringing his hands.  "You agreed!"

"In that, Kamo is right," Nambu said.

Ken's jaw hardened at the words.  Joe centered all of his attention on his friend and slowly made his way forward.  Things were getting out of hand.

"There's a place that's already been prepared back at the research center," Nambu added.  "If we could go there, I could begin immediately.  Would that be agreeable to you?"

Ken's jaw gradually relaxed.  He then stepped away from Kozaburo.  "All right."

Jinpei and Ryu visibly sighed in relief.  Joe wasn't so sure that was the thing to do yet.  Keeping close to Ken, he followed the others as everyone decided to vacate the cafeteria before anyone there could gather enough courage to ask unwanted questions.

 

 

 

 

 

Ken recognized the level of the room Dr. Kamo led them to once they'd reached the research center.  It was area Red 6, and it held the best security the installation had to offer.  It was here where all the top government research was carried out.  What had they to tell them that needed to be done in a place like this?

The room Kamo took them to had a long oval table surrounded by plush chairs.  Other than for them, it was bare, except for a strange round pedestal sitting inconspicuously in one corner. 

Kozaburo closed and bolted the door from the inside and turned on what Ken knew to be a number of sophisticated but localized electronic dampening fields which would hamper listening devices. Ken found his patience shredding though as Kozaburo took his time.  His knuckles had turned white where they gripped the back his chair, disfiguring the material.

Everyone sat down but Ken didn't follow suit.  Kozaburo met him stare for stare, still saying nothing, until Ken finally capitulated and took his seat.

"First of all, I'd like to inform the rest of you of something Ken is already aware."  Nambu's gaze traveled across the table.  Jinpei, Ryu, and even Kamo squirmed in their seats.  "You may have wondered how it is that I am here standing before you when years ago you all witnessed my execution at the hands of Egobossler."  Only Jinpei ventured a faint nod.  "The truth is, Nambu did die that day.  Irrevocably so.  I am not Nambu, I am his clone."

Ken didn't let the gasps around the room pull at him as he stared at the man with the answers he wanted.  "You're what, around twenty or more?  How long did Nambu have this nice little contingency plan?  And why weren't we told about it?"

Kozaburo's calm gaze fractured under Ken's accusing stare and all the implications of his questions.  Kamo was the one who answered the question for him.

"Actually, Kozaburo here is less than a year old.  The memories he now has of the original Nambu were given to him only a couple of months ago."

"No way!  Even now we don't have that kind of technology!"  Ken was actually surprised as it wasn't he but Jinpei who disputed Kamo's words.

"It is possible," Kamo stated.  "I built the machine myself."

Ken stared at him in disbelief.  "How?  Genetics isn't even your field.  To grow a clone, let alone accelerate it's aging, and then giving it a dead man's memories?  How could you have possibly done it?"

Kamo suddenly looked down at his clasped hands, avoiding their questioning stares.  "I--I can't really do those things.  But, I did build the machines that did them.  I just don't know how they work."  He looked at them helplessly.  "They just do."

Ken shook his head furiously in pure denial.  He was getting no answers here, only more questions!  He didn't want more questions!  He pounded his fist on the table.  "How did we survive the destruction of Sosai Zed?"

Suddenly, both Kozaburo and Kamo looked even more uncomfortable than they had before.  Slowly, Kozaburo brought out the eight sided medallion he always seemed to keep at his side.  "We've discussed this issue a number of times.  And the only possible conclusion we've been able to reach from the facts available is that somehow your escape was managed by this."  He held up the medallion.

"What?"  That came from Joe.

"But, that was hakase's," Ryu said.  "How could a piece of jewelry save our lives?"

Even as they all waited for the clone's response, a horrible light dawned in Ken's mind.  "That thing!  That's why we lost out memories!  Otherwise why would it be such a crucial part of our getting them back!"

Kozaburo's eyes met his own.  "I don't truly know.  But I concur with your assessment."

Joe stood up and leaned heavily against the thick table.  Though his manner didn't show anything out of the ordinary, his features were quite pale.  "If you have Nambu's memories as Kamo says, then tell us where he got this wonder medallion.  Did Nambu make it?"

A slight flush of panic crossed Kozaburo's features as he turned once more to glance at Kamo.  "I, I do have all of Nambu's memories.  I remember all of his experiences, even from childhood, but..."  His brow furrowed in confusion.  "But I can't remember how he got the medallion.  You see... there are holes, gaps in his memories.  One day he doesn't have the medallion and in the next he does.  I can't explain it."

Ken felt his patience snap.  He leapt to his feet.  "This is getting us nowhere!  Just tell us why you've called us back!  What is this new, world devastating threat only the five of us are fit to stop?"

Neither Nambu nor Kamo would look at him now.  It was several long heartbeats before either of them spoke.  "We don't know."

The anger, which had so far sustained him through all this, was snuffed out in that sudden unexpected blow.  Shocked, Ken collapsed back in his chair feeling as if the floor had been pulled out from under him.

"I'm sorry, this is just so hard to explain..."

"Kozaburo," Kamo said, "let me do it."  He stood up and faced the team squarely.  "Over four years ago, I--I suddenly knew where you all were even as I'd sat in my room lamenting your deaths.  Almost as if I was in a dream, I logged the orders that would allow you to be found, would strip you of your equipment, and allow you to pass through the survivor camp as only five of a large number of other victims of the war."  The engineer's sweating palms left streaks on the table's polished surface as he moved them unconsciously back and forth.  "I never questioned where the knowledge came from, I was just too happy you were alive.

"Then, almost two years ago, I whimsically found myself thinking of Nambu.  Next thing I knew, I'd grabbed up my pencils and was rapidly sketching out designs for some very sophisticated machinery.  After two months of these spurts, my curiosity finally got the better of me and so I started to build the thing.  Even as I put the first two pieces of it together, my mind suddenly knew what it would do.  I was building a giant incubator, a clone chamber, and I never had a doubt as to who it was for."  Kamo no longer looked at them, but seemed as if he were looking into another time and place.

"I don't think I've ever been as driven as I found myself back then, spurred on by the crazy belief I could somehow bring Nambu back.  Every time I finished building a piece of machinery, only then would I suddenly know what it was for.  It always seemed to me I'd known all along, but I couldn't remember it until it was ready.  Knowing where you all were was like that.  And so was the dead certainty I had to keep you hidden from humanity for a time."

No one said anything as Kamo stopped to take a deep breath.  "When to wake you, like everything else, came to me out of nowhere.  And still, it was like I'd always known the time would be now.  Every thought, every breath told me this was the thing to do."

Kozaburo took over.  "I shared these feelings as well.  And though I do not have all his memories, I am quite sure the original Nambu had things happen to him like this at one time."

Kamo moved to stand beside him.  "So unfortunately, we have no more of an idea than you do on why you've been brought back."

Ken felt Kozaburo's gaze lock on him but it meant nothing.  He only stared at the table before him in open-faced shock.  They didn't know?  He must be losing his mind.  His life had been torn apart, his wife was gone, his child was dead, and there was no why? 

Ken leaned over the table and started to laugh.  It just rolled from him in waves, he couldn't stop it.  And it was the loneliest most horrid sound he'd ever heard. 

It'd all been for no reason.

He heard one of the others move toward him and suddenly he couldn't stand the thought of being in the room with them anymore.  He had to get out, get out before his mind snapped completely and he tried to kill them all.  Before any of them had a chance to react, Ken bolted from the room and out of the building.

 

 

 

 

 

An inviting dark abyss opened up before him.  Jagged piles of quarried granite were stacked at the bottom hidden by the night's shadows.  The quarry below was quiet now, all the workmen gone home for the day, but Ken knew it was there.  On one of their dates, he and Kate had come here and had pitched rocks over the edge for fun.  He would do something very much like that again.  Ken stared longingly at the darkness below, standing atop the man made cliff.  The wind caressed him as it blew by, sending soft whispering voices into his ears.

Though the cool air soothed his burning cheeks, Ken found no relief in it.  Too many things had happened, too many things had gone wrong.  And all of it, all of it had been for nothing.

Ken took a step closer to the edge, sending rocks scattering into the darkness below.  He knew why he'd ended up here.  At this late date, he had no need to lie to himself any longer.  He had no delusions left anymore.  All he had left was this one final choice and he'd already made it the moment those fateful words had come from Kozaburo's mouth.  Nothing could be saved.  It was too late for everything.  He'd make this final choice and soon would join the bliss of oblivion.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Ken stiffened at the familiar voice.  Damn him, why was he here now?  He didn't turn around.  "Joe, why did you follow me?"

"Oh, I had a feeling you might be in the mood to go off and try something really stupid."  His tone wasn't at all kind.  "You never even once noticed me, you know.  You must be losing your edge."

Joe's ire raising barb did nothing to Ken.  He was impervious to all of that now.  "Please go.  I want to be alone."

"Why?  So you can jump guiltlessly and uselessly off to your death?"

Ken felt himself unintentionally start to glance to the side but was able to bring himself up short before he'd done it.  "You have no reason to think I'd do such a thing.  It's stupid.  Can't I, just for once, be able to spend some time by myself?"  Joe, leave me the hell alone!

"It's not worth it, Ken. There are no easy answers.  I should know.  I've been there often enough."

Ken heard him take a step forward.  He tensed not sure what to expect.

"Do you honestly believe you're the only one that's had problems adjusting to the truth?  That you're the only one that's lost something because of all this?"  Joe's voice had lowered until Ken had to strain to hear him.  "We've all lost four years of our lives, of our true selves.  Ryu led another life not even aware he had a father and a brother, both mourning for him since they thought he was dead.  He's lost all that time with them, while they've had no choice but to continue their lives without him.  And even now, though he remembers everything, he can't even try to contact them to let them know he's alive."

Ken closed his eyes trying to find a way to shut out Joe's words.  He knew what he was trying to do, but he couldn't let him.  He wouldn't.  The decision had been made.

"Jinpei lost his sister, and through it he somehow managed to pick up what he'd always wanted--his own set of parents.  But now, now that his memory's returned, he's having to face the possibility he may not be able to tell them, or worse, that now that he's finally found parents, he may have to leave them forever."

"I don't want to hear this!"  Ken covered his ears, feeling the edges of his resolve crumbling and quickly moved to take another step toward the edge of the cliff. 

Behind him, Joe had gotten a lot closer than he'd thought. Joe's hand shot out and forcefully pulled Ken back from the edge before he could do anything to stop him.

Unable to withstand Joe's enhanced strength, Ken found himself airborne.  He landed on his back fifteen feet or more away from where he'd started.

Turning the momentum to his advantage, Ken spun into a roll.  While using this to increase the distance between them, he also angled himself to head to the left, back toward the edge of the cliff.

Not to be outdone, Joe leapt after him before he'd gotten far.  Landing roughly on top of him, Joe used his greater weight to pin Ken to the ground.

"Get off me, damn you!"  Angry, Ken aimed a blow to Joe's head but found it blocked at the last moment before it could connect.  Ken then tried bucking his friend off, but couldn't manage it.  He screamed in frustration as Joe methodically wrestled his arms down and grabbed hold of his wrists.  With one hand, he pinned them up over Ken's head and nothing he did made Joe release them.  "You bastard!"

Joe stared calmly at him and resumed talking as if nothing had happened to interrupt him.  "Then there's Jun, who'd inadvertently gained a husband, a home, and a child, only to lose them all to duty.  Even though her fondest dreams had come true, both those in her current and previous lives, she had to watch as they totally came apart in front of her."

"No!"  Ken struggled harder.  He couldn't listen to this.  He couldn't let himself feel for them.  There was nothing he could do to help them, nothing!  This had nothing to do with him!

Joe's face came closer.  "Even I have lost something.  Though I've also gained a lot in return."

Ken gritted his teeth.  He didn't want to hear this.  He didn't want to hear this!

"Still, for the second time in my life, I've been robbed of my humanity."

The words pounded into him though they'd been said in the softest of whispers.  Pain flooded through Ken as he looked into his friend's eyes and saw the truth of his words mirrored there.  His heart wrenched with fresh agony as he had no choice but to face the truth of the torment Joe had had to relive for the second time as he was forced to remember that he was no longer exactly human. 

Joe's eyes cleared as they studied him and he spoke again.  "We've all lost, just as you have.  But you too have gained so much more!  For four years you lived in peace, in the serenity of ignorance of the burdens that had weighed so heavily on you before.  You found yourself a woman to love, and she you.  But she could never be more special to you than she is now. She's a woman with whom you never need hide anything, for she too shares in the shadowed past you once had!"

"No, no!  It's not true!  I don't have any of that!  Can't you see that from the beginning it was all a manipulated lie?"  Ken struggled both within and without. 

"Is it?  Is it really?" Joe asked.  "Did you stop loving Jun the instant you got your memories back?  Did what you have for four years just disappear when you realized that not only were you her husband but her commander as well?  Did you?"  Joe's face was very close to his now.  His eyes locked with his daring him to deny what he was saying.

"You don't understand!"  Ken's voice cracked in his desperation.  "I can't let myself love her.  Duty comes first, it has always come first.  My father believed this too and look what it did to my mother!  Look at what it's done to my life!"

"Ken Washio, sometime you are so blind!"  Joe stared at him in disgust.  "Don't you know you don't have to follow in your father's footsteps?  You're your own man!  Make your own damn decisions! Compromise!  You're a human being not some mindless machine!  Enjoy the fact while you still can, you bastard!"  Joe's anger hit him like a blow to the face.

"Sure, give of yourself and save the world if that's what you want, but give something to yourself too or you'll end up being useless to everyone around you, and most of all to yourself!"  Joe's face contorted as he tried to regain control of himself.  The rest of what he had to say came out as a harsh whisper.

"Self pity will get you nowhere.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  Think instead of the gifts you'll leave behind if you do this selfish thing.  The guilt, the questions, the blame--does Jun really need any more of it?  Your death would be utterly useless and totally cruel."

His eyes softened.  "Don't give the world the satisfaction.  The price is just too high.  We're needed.  We have a purpose.  It may not be as clear now as you would like, but it's still there!"

Ken had gone limp beneath him, his heart hammering in his chest.

"Do it for the rest of us if you can't do it for yourself.  But, if you still can't see what I'm trying to show you, if you still feel you can't cut this--then fuck it, go ahead and throw your sorry ass off this cliff.  And do it with my blessing!"  Joe let go of Ken's hands and got off him.  Not waiting to see what Ken would choose, Joe turned away and headed for his car over a hundred yards away.

Ken sat up, startled by the sudden change, Joe's name caught in his throat even as he battled with himself, uncertain as to whether or not he wanted him back.  Joe's words echoed mercilessly over and over in his mind even as his friend was swallowed by darkness.  The unfairness of all this still threatened to drown him, but so did the sorrow inside him for the pain that was his friends'.

The sorrow gradually overrode the unfairness as he sat on the cold ground gripped by indecision.  Could he really add more to their misery?  But he wouldn't know about it, he'd be dead!  But, Jun, my god, Jun!  She already thought the baby's death was her own fault, though he knew oh so well it was his and his alone.  Would she stupidly blame herself for his death as well?  Would the others?  That was insane!  But they would, he knew they would.  He acutely remembered his own feelings when they'd thought Joe had died at Kross Karakoram.  How much worse would it be for them this time? 

But he couldn't stand this!  He didn't want to deal with this!  Why?  Why?

Hot, bitter tears streaked down his face and once they started he couldn't stop them.  The walls he'd worked so hard and so long to build started to fall. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun bit her lip, wishing Ken would come back and see her, though she knew deep down he never would.  She still hadn't entirely reconciled herself with how she'd treated him before.  And he'd just stood there taking it from her, looking so pale and frail.  But her fear had been so high.  She'd been so sure he would blame her, so sure he'd blame her for the death of their child.  And despite all the doctor had said, she did blame herself.  She'd not been good enough, healthy enough, hadn't done enough.  And to have seen that same truth in Ken's face would have been too much to bear.

But it was all over now.  With the death of the baby the last tie to her short life as Kate Terell had been cut away.  Seeing Ken would only remind her of all she'd had, of all she'd lost.  The pain was just too much, too raw.  Maybe she didn't really want to see him after all...

She'd stay around for the others' sake, at least for a while.  She thought she'd be able to do that much.  But eventually she would leave them.  The two lives she'd had would then be over; she could start again. That would be better than the pain--this horrid hole inside her that might never go away.

Jun felt her eyes fill with tears, and she moaned in anger and despair as she felt them.  She was so tired of crying!  Yet it was all she'd done for two whole days.  Would the tears never stop?

Jun almost jumped as a soft knock at the door reverberated through the room.  Quickly, she brushed at her eyes not wanting any of the others to see her like this.  "Co--come in."

Jun couldn't keep her heart from fluttering as her gaze drifted to the opening door.  Stubbornly, she forced herself to strangle the slight, flaming hope that rose unbidden inside her.  For the hundredth time she told herself she was a fool.

The door opened all the way and all she could see where dozens and dozens of roses and a pair of legs.  Startled, Jun watched as the walking blossoms entered her room.  Once the door had closed behind them, Joe peeked out from behind the enormous bouquet.  "Good morning!"  He gave her a warm smile.

"Go--good morning."  Jun frowned.  "Are those for me?"

"Sure are!"  With a small-amused grin, Joe brought the huge floral arrangement to the side of the bed and set it on the table there.

"You really shouldn't have."  Jun was oddly warmed by the gesture.  Yet it seemed so unlike Joe.

He gave her an odd, embarrassed look.  "Ah, well.  Actually, I didn't.  I was just helping the poor overworked candy striper deliver these."

Before Jun could think to ask anything, there was another knock at her door.

"Ah, I bet that's her now."  Joe moved to open the door even as Jun leaned forward in her bed with growing curiosity.

A veritable jungle slowly squeezed itself in through the door.  At the end of the long filled cart was an obviously over taxed candy striper.  "Good morning, ma'am."  Even her smile looked tired.  "Is there anywhere in specific you'd like me to put these?"

Jun was still stunned at the large amount of colorful tropical flowers and ferns.  "I--I'm sorry, which ones do you mean?"

 "All of them, ma'am.  All of them."  The candy striper looked suddenly pained.  "And there's more downstairs."

Jun glanced in confusion at Joe as he laughed at her startled expression.

"Just go ahead and leave them there," he said.  "I'll take care of putting them around."

The blond girl sighed with relief.  "Thanks!"  Looking happier than she had moments before, she rolled the cart to one side of the room then stretched before leaving to go for the next load.

"Looks like you hit the jackpot." 

Jun couldn't take her eyes of the bewildering amount of colors.  "I, I don't understand.  You say you didn't send me these?"

"I'd love to take the credit, but..." He shrugged.

"The  who?"  Jun felt bewildered.  "Could it have been Jinpei or Ryu?  Surely it wasn't hakase."

"Why don't we find out?"  Joe reached out for a card set prominently amidst the blood red roses.  Already their scent and that of the other flowers were quickly permeating the room. 

Goading Jun on with feigned suspense, Joe took his sweet time taking out the card from its small envelope.  With infinite slowness, he opened the card and then read the contents to himself.  A disgusted twist settled on his lips even as his eyes brightened.  "Tch, I can't believe this..."

He was about to drive Jun mad.  Despite all she could do, she found her heart beating just a little fast as she waited to see what Joe had found.  "Will you just tell me what it says?  Who are they from?"

Joe made sure to stay out of reach as she impatiently reached for the card.  "Okay, okay!  Listen to this, and I quote."  Joe straightened up and stiffly held the card up before him.  Making his face as serious as possible under the circumstances, he solemnly read out the words typed within.  "To the love of my life--my greatest reason for living.  Signed--Your Secret Admirer."

He handed the card over and watched her intently as Jun held it in her hands. 

Jun's heart beat hard against her chest as she opened up the card and looked inside.  Joe had read out the contents exactly.  The words themselves were printed in gold leaving no telltale handwriting.  Yet as she reread them, Jun felt her heart wrench inside her.  On the night Johnny had proposed to her, in the park, beneath the light of the moon, he'd whispered similar words to these in her ear for her alone.

But that had been Johnny, and Johnny was dead! And for Ken, for Ken, it was too much too believe.  Too painful to hope for!

"Jun?"

Not looking at him, she crushed the card in her hands.  "I, I'd like to be alone now.  Please?"

"Is something wrong?"

Jun could feel her body shaking.  "Please."  She didn't dare look at him, she'd break down in front of him if she did.

"All right.  But let me leave you my number," he said.  "If you need anything.  Just call me, okay?"

Jun barely nodded a reply.

Joe removed a simple business card from his wallet and left it beside the roses.  He then silently took his leave.

As soon as he was gone, Jun threw the crushed card to the floor, a sob raking through her.  One followed after another, a cascade of tears staining her face.  In total misery, she turned to bury her face into her waiting pillows.
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