Jun ate her dinner quickly, knowing visiting hours would be upon her soon. Every time she caught herself looking at the clock she cursed herself for a fool. He wouldn't come. He'd never come. Why did she insist on such a stupid fantasy?
Over the last several hours, Jun had slowly convinced herself that Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei had united in a conspiracy to throw her and Ken back together. The alternative was too impossible--too painful--for her to even consider it. It was them, she knew it was them.
Though the flowers had continued to come all the day before, she could have forgiven them. But once the gifts had started arriving that afternoon, she knew the three of them had gone too far. She had to stop this. Had to stop it once and for all. They would only end up making things worse for all of them.
Jinpei had called her earlier so she knew the three of them would be there today. If they thought they could drag Ken with them, she knew they'd be in for a rude awakening. But if that wasn't their plan, then so much the better. At least all of them would be here so she could put and end to this once and for all. Now if they'd only get here! The sooner she could get this over with the better.
Visiting hours finally arrived and Jun found herself fretting as the three of them didn't immediately materialize.
The still growing collection of flowers and plants was spread throughout the room, leaving room for little else. The scent of greenery lay heavily in the room taking with it any smells that would have told someone they were in a hospital room instead of a garden. Here and there, nestled between them, were piles of presents, some of which she'd worked herself into opening, others, which she hadn't.
Jun got up and paced though she'd been expressively forbidden from overdoing it. Nervously, she wrapped the white silk robe more tightly about herself, one of the few things she'd received as a gift she actually had a need for.
A soft knock on the door brought her to a startled stop. Jun ran for the bed and tried to calm herself before bidding whoever was there to enter.
Jinpei hesitantly stuck his head into the room, followed closely by a curious Ryu. Seeing she was awake and apparently expecting them, the two of them shuffled on inside even as Joe shoved at them from behind.
"Neechan, guess what! We have very good news, we..." Jinpei's words trickled to a stop as he noticed all the wrapped gifts nestled in the room and the increased amounts of plants and flowers. "Oh, wow!"
"Jun, these are beautiful," Ryu exclaimed.
Jun but her lip, frowning, knowing they shouldn't have been that surprised.
"The good news short stuff here didn't quite get out-"
"Hey!" Jinpei stared at Joe indignantly. Ryu tried to stifle a giggle.
The latter continued as if he weren't there at all. "-is that we spoke to your doctor and he said you'd checked out fine today. He's going to be releasing you tomorrow."
"Oh." They were going to release her? She, she hadn't thought that far yet. She wasn't ready! How could they let her go so soon?
"You don't mind if we pick you up, do you, neechan?" Jinpei asked her. "We can go celebrate!"
"I--I guess not. Sure." What would she do? Where would she go?
Joe amazingly was suddenly there beside her, squeezing her hand. "Everything will be fine."
Nothing would ever be fine again.
"Neechan, who sent you all this great stuff? Was it Ken?"
The hope she heard in his voice hurt her. She could say nothing.
"It could be," Joe answered. "Though whoever it is was only bold enough to put on them that he's her secret admirer."
"Really?" Ryu's eyes were bright.
Joe grinned. "Yep, and is this guy corny."
"Stop it! Stop it!" Jun screamed at them, her hands bunching into fists at her sides.
Startled by her unexpected anger, all three turned to look at her with worry and confusion.
It was an act, it was an act! "It's not going to work. I've seen through all of you and I know what you're up to. So you can just stop all this nonsense right now." They shouldn't look so shocked. Why did they look so shocked?
"Neechan, what's wrong? What are you talking about?" Jinpei stared at her his worry plain for all to see.
Jun bit her lip until it bled. "This," she waved her arms around. "All of this! Ken didn't send it to me. There's no secret admirer. It's been you, the three of you! Can't you see how wrong it is for you to do this to me? That you're only leading me to more pain?" She stared at them, begging, pleading for them to prove her accusations true.
"But, we'd never do anything to hurt you." Ryu's voice was soft and meek. "We love you."
"Then admit it! Admit this is your doing." Her nails dug into the palms of her hands. "Tell me you did it, that you're sorry, and that you won't do it anymore!"
Joe slowly glanced at the other two in the room and then at her. "I'm sorry, but we're not responsible for any of this," he told her calmly. "I wish we could tell you what you want to hear, but we can't."
Jun stared at him frowning, not wanting to believe and then looked at the others. Jinpei was staring at the floor his toe trying to dig into the carpet. Ryu's cheeks were red and he was trying to look anywhere but where she lay. Looking at their averted faces Jun slowly realized Joe was right--they hadn't done this. But if that was true... No, no, it couldn't be! "I'm, I'm sorry."
The room turned unusually quiet after her whispered apology.
Jinpei tried a few times to start a conversation going, but every time he looked at Jun's weary and pained face, his voice would catch in his throat and then simply die.
Jun couldn't look at them. She felt like such an idiot. And she was afraid, afraid of seeing the pity she knew would be there. So instead, she played with the tie of her robe and twirled it uselessly in her trembling hands.
Eventually, not able to withstand their own discomfort and her own, Ryu and Jinpei silently left the room after giving her murmured good byes.
"Why is it so hard for you to believe he could have done this?"
Jun looked up, caught off guard, having thought Joe had left with the others.
"Are you that afraid it might be true?"
"Joe, I don't--" She started to shake her head.
"Would it really be such a bad thing?"
"Yes!" Not looking at him, she slipped out of bed on the opposite side where he couldn't reach her. "I, I don't love him anymore." Her voice shook at the last and she hated herself for it.
"Then why are you afraid? If you don't love him, his gifts can't possibly hurt you."
She turned on him. "They're not his!"
"They are and you know it." She couldn't read his expression. "I thought they were from him when I read the card. I knew it when I saw the look on your face when you read it."
The metallic taste of blood rolled over her tongue as she bit her lip again. It was him. If Joe thought it was, it had to be him. But, but... "I don't want to hurt anymore. I hurt so much already! I, I can't afford to give him another chance. I can't. I can't."
Jun doubled over, her legs giving out beneath her. Joe rushed to her side and picked her up. Jun clung to him. It was all she could do to hold back the threatening flood of tears.
Gently, Joe placed her back in the bed and covered her up in her blankets. Jun looked away, the tears still threatening her eyes. She still didn't look at him as he pressed a glass of water into her hands and bullied her into drinking it.
The water cooled her throat and pushed back some of the dizziness that had come upon her. She gave the glass back to Joe, her tear filled eyes looking at his for the first time. "Joe, I'm so afraid."
"That's all right. So is he."
Jun looked away again not sure on whether she dared believe him.
Jun got dressed slowly, knowing very soon, she would be leaving the only haven she could call her own for a long time to come. Unsure of what she could expect from the future, she gently fingered the fabric of the bright, spring dress that had arrived for her that morning.
Having finally forced herself to open every gift she'd been sent, Jun had found everything she could have ever wanted to make her hospital stay more comfortable as well as all she'd need to leave that day.
With some trepidation, she'd stacked all the gifts on the end of her bed, still unsure as to what she was going to do with all of them. The only thing she did know was that since the others were coming to get her, she wouldn't be forced to go back to what had been Johnny and Kate's home. That was the last place she ever wanted to go to again.
Jun thanked Joe in her mind for the millionth time for having offered her what space he had at the dojo. If he hadn't brought it up, she still wouldn't have gone home. Though what she would have done instead, she had no real idea.
Dressed and packed, Jun turned on the room's TV and sat down in a chair to wait. She stared at the plants that had come to fill so much of her room, and smiled a little, their presence having done much more for her than she could have hoped. She wanted nothing more than to take them with her, to keep them around her as a living shield. It was such a strange picture it hurt her inside.
At a light knock at the door, Jun felt her stomach fill with butterflies. She got up and turned off the TV before going to answer it.
"Good morning!" Ryu, Jinpei, and Joe walked into the room. Ryu and Jinpei had on big smiles, while Joe brought up the rear somewhat more reserved.
"Good morning. Thanks for coming." Impulsively, she gave each of them a big, hard hug. She wanted more than anything to dispel any unpleasantness remaining from yesterday's stupidity. Both Jinpei and Ryu seemed to glow after the affectionate display.
"Well, we have two cars waiting for all this," Joe said. "I'm hoping two cars will be enough."
Jinpei grimaced as he got a look at all they'd have to take away from the room. "Neechan, you don't really want all this, do you?"
"Why?" Asked Joe innocently. "Are you interested in making a bid for her underwear?"
Jinpei turned a shocked look on Joe and then a betrayed one on Ryu. "You told him! How could you tell him! You promised me!"
Ryu shook his head. "No, no, I never told anyone! If you want to collect women's underwear that's your business."
Joe laughed hard. "Talk about hitting a target with a shot in the dark!"
Jinpei snapped back around in panic having momentarily forgotten who else was in the room. "Neechan, ah, it was nothing! It was a long time ago!"
It was more than Jun could stand. Laughter bubbled out from her. She hugged her brother hard. Until that moment, she'd not been sure she would ever laugh again. "It's all right. I know."
"Let's grab some of this stuff and get going. I'm sure Jun doesn't want to stay here any longer than she has to." Joe pointed at the plants and gifts.
Jun said nothing, not really eager to go at all.
Jinpei grabbed some of the nearest plants sending Joe and Ryu dirty looks now that he was off the hook with his sister. Ryu followed him with a few more. Joe took hold of most of the packages and held the door open with his foot so Jun could go on out.
In the hallway, grabbing a hold of a cart sitting there, Joe dumped all the packages he was carrying. He gave Jun an arch look as he finally noticed that she'd grabbed a potted plant on her way out as well. "Put it here."
"I'm doing fine. It isn't heavy." Jun hoped they weren't all going to start treating like glass after all these years.
"I know, but just humor me. Okay?" Joe pushed the cart a little closer to her to emphasize the hint.
Giving in, she set the plant on top. Joe followed her as they made their way to the floor's main desk.
After spending several minutes signing necessary paperwork, and getting a brief lecture from her doctor on what she should and shouldn't do for the next several days, Jun turned away only to find a nurse and a wheelchair waiting patiently behind her. "If you'll please take a seat, Mrs. Terell, I'll be happy to wheel you outside."
Jun tried not to flinch at the wrong name and stared at the chair with just a touch of distaste. "Is that really necessary? I'm quite able to walk on my own."
The nurse waited tolerantly as if this were not the first time she'd heard the particular argument. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but it's part of the discharge procedure."
With a small sigh, Jun sat down in the wheelchair definitely not liking all the sudden babying. If Jinpei and Ryu decided they could treat her like this as well....
Joe fell in beside her and Jun could see a small grin tugging at his lips.
"Asakura, if you dare make a comment, they'll be using this thing to bring you back inside."
"My someone sure is testy today." His grin widened into a full fledged smile. Jun tried her best to ignore it.
Once outside, the nurse asked Jun to please wait in the chair while Ryu went off to get his pickup truck. Joe smoothly volunteered to stay with her, leaving Jinpei stuck with the chore of going back up with the cart for another load of plants.
Watching her brother grumble as he left, Jun raised her hand to her mouth to hide a quickly growing smile. Maybe leaving here really wouldn't be bad after all.
As they waited for Ryu to show up, however, a large, white limousine exited from the multilevel garage and moved to park before them. Not really paying much attention, Jun watched disinterestedly as an uniformed chauffeur got out of the limo and went around it heading straight for them.
"Excuse me, ma'am, are you Mrs. Kate Terell?"
Jun stared at Joe in confusion only to see her own emotions mirrored in his face. "Uh, yes, I'm Kate Terell."
The chauffeur smiled at her and after taking off his hat bowed in her direction. "My name is Frank Drake from the Siskell's Limousine Service."
Jun could feel her growing frown. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand." She wasn't really sure she even wanted to.
"I've been assigned to see to your needs for the next several days, ma'am. I was also to inform you that a suite has been reserved for you at the Clairmont Hotel."
"No, that's not right." She shook her head lightly. "It can't be."
Ryu drove up his truck behind the limo and honked his horn.
"Jun?" Joe looked at her questioningly.
"The Clairmont is a heck of a lot nicer than my place," Joe said. "If you want, we can follow you there."
Jun bit her lip, looking at the limousine again, still not quite sure what she should do. "I, I'll go. But, will you ride with me?" She grabbed hold of Joe's hand, her eyes staring questioningly into his face. She couldn't go alone, she just couldn't. It embarrassed her to notice that her hands were shaking. What was she afraid of?
"Hey, I'd be thrilled to. It's been ages since I've had a chance to ride in a limo." He gave her a wicked grin. "Though I'm sure Ryu and Jinpei aren't going to be too happy about it."
The nurse wheeled Jun to the limousine even as the chauffeur opened the door for her. Eager to be once more under her own power, Jun quickly transferred from the chair into the car. She left it to Joe to break the news to Ryu.
Jun was intently staring about her in deep fascination when Joe finally joined her. She couldn't help but be amazed at the extravagant amenities that had been crammed into such a limited space. "I can't believe all this."
"All of what?" Joe asked.
The chauffeur shut the passenger door and moved around the car to enter the driver's seat.
"All of this." She indicated everything around them. "I mean, this isn't a car, it's an apartment. It has a VCR, a TV, a radio, a refrigerator, a bar. If it was any bigger, I'd think we were in your old trailer."
Joe snorted. "Heck, my trailer was never as comfortable or as well stocked as this." He glanced appreciatively at the bar as he moved to sit across from her.
"Do you think he's gone mad?"
Joe shrugged, knowing whom she meant, as he moved to look into what was stored in the fridge. "For you maybe. Though if you'd asked me that three or four days ago, I might have had to say yes."
Jun almost asked, tempted by the bait as she'd been meant to be, but bit down on her tongue before she could do it and make a fool of herself.
The chauffeur eased the limousine out of the driveway and leisurely drove the streets. It wasn't long before they reached the hotel.
Parking the limo beneath the hotel's main archway, the chauffeur got out of the car and quickly opened Jun's door. Hesitating a moment, Jun then extended her hand and let him help her out. She stared at the wide glass entrance and the streaked marble columns there and felt a bolt of trepidation cut through her.
"Ma'am, I shall be either here in the parking lot or close by. If you need me, please call this number and I'll be here to pick you up right away." The chauffeur extended a card to her that he'd taken from his breast pocket.
"Th--thank you." Jun took the card not really sure what she should do with it.
Joe joined her at the entrance as a screeching pick-up made it into the parking lot. Jinpei jumped out of the passenger side and pretty much ran to catch up with them. "A limo! A limo! How could you take off without-hmph--"
A winded Ryu had rushed up beside him and clamped his large hand over Jinpei's mouth. "Did you want us to get your stuff and take it up to your room, Jun?" Ryu suddenly grimaced as Jinpei bit his hand with all his might. "Ow!"
"Mrs. Terell, please permit me to take care of that for you." This came from the chauffeur. "If you'll just point out the cars for me, I'll make sure everything is brought inside."
Jinpei eagerly pointed out to him where the stuff was. Taking charge of a number of bellboys, the chauffeur set off to work.
"Where'd you get that guy? And can we keep him?" Jinpei was grinning ear to ear.
"Don't ask." Joe threw him a heavy look.
Jinpei didn't seem to notice. "He's real handy. I really want one! I wonder if he does physics?"
Ryu threatened to put his hand over his mouth again.
"Sheesh! Enough already! I get the hint." He turned to look at Jun. "So, neechan, can we go up and look at your room now? Please?"
Jun looked hesitantly at the glass doors again. "Wouldn't you rather go somewhere to celebrate first? You'd get to ride in the limo then."
Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei exchanged a set of quick devious looking glances. "We could always do that later." Was Joe's reply.
"None of us has ever been in a suite." Was Ryu's.
Thinking maybe she should refuse just to spite them, Jun decided to just go ahead and get it over with. "All right. Let's go."
Finding herself abruptly surrounded by the three of them, Jun was quickly herded to the lobby before she could think to change her mind.
Upon stating her name at the front desk, the clerk there immediately produced for her a key and a charming smile. Jun got a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, and once more wondered if what they were doing was such a good idea. Had it occurred to the three of them that maybe he was here? Or was that why they were so eager?
Finding herself surrounded again, Joe and the others herded her to the elevators. The clerk came along with them and personally pressed the button for the hotel's twenty third floor.
"Are you guys sure you wouldn't rather go out? I'm feeling a little hungry. How about lunch?"
Joe sent her a sly look. "You don't really think we're going to pass this up, do you?"
Jun bit her lip sure now more than ever that she'd made a mistake.
The elevator reached the twenty third floor and the clerk got out and held the door open for them. A broad hall curved off to either side. The clerk led them down the right hand side passage until he came across a set of double doors colored in a light blue. These were the first doors they'd seen since entering the floor.
Smartly opening the way for them, the clerk motioned for them to go on in.
Jinpei whistled appreciatively as they stepped into a large foyer, which opened up onto a larger room beyond. Huge glass windows filled the back wall and curled around filling the room and the foyer with bright sunshine.
A massive glass table took up the center of the foyer and held a huge fruit basket display filled to overflowing.
Prodded deeper into the suite by the others, Jun stared in growing disbelief as the room widened out even more than she had imagined it could. The wide room was sparsely decorated with heavy plush chairs and small couches, and with vases of flowers placed on pedestals strategically about the room.
Three doors on each side of the room led inconspicuously to other areas of the suite.
"I hope you will find everything to your satisfaction. The kitchen has already been stocked for you convenience as requested, but if you prefer, please do not hesitate to use our excellent room service or the hotel's main restaurant on the second floor." He smiled that charming smile again. "If you need anything at all. Please don't hesitate to call."
Not sure what else to do Jun started fishing in her purse for a tip.
"Please, madam, that won't be necessary. All details of your visit have already been well taken care of. Please enjoy your stay." Bowing to her, he left the room, leaving the keys to the suite on the foyer table on his way out.
Jun stared after him. "He has to be crazy..."
None of the others heard her soft whisper as they walked about to explore the other rooms of the suite.
Later, never having left the main room of the suites for fear of what else she might see there, Jun was finally able to pull the others the rest of the way out. Jinpei was still going on about all the marvelous virtues of the place when they found themselves seated on a nice nearby Italian restaurant.
"But did you see the view from that balcony? And that kitchen! The whole stinking place! Wow!" He turned to look at his sister as his eyes lit with an idea. "Neechan, do you think we might be able to spend a few days with you there? I bet Carol wouldn't dare turn me down if I told her I could get her into a place like that!"
Jun slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Jinpei, but I don't think so. I'm not planning on staying there anyway."
Unintentionally, Jun had managed to gain all of their undivided attention. "I think it would be wrong. Things have just gone too far."
"But--" Jinpei began.
"That's really all I'm going to say about it." She made sure her expression told them quite clearly the subject was not open for discussion.
The afternoon went by quickly and the subject was never brought up again.
Around six o'clock, the limousine took them all back to the Clairmont's parking lot. Bidding each other good night, Jun watched as Ryu and Jinpei left to return to their respective homes. She didn't miss Jinpei's last wistful glance back at the hotel as he and Ryu drove by.
Jun sighed a little sadly wondering what she was going to do with him.
"Should we go up and get some of your things before we go?" Joe asked her.
"No. I'd rather not. I just want to stay away from it all for a while." Thinking to use the limousine for the last time, Jun had the chauffeur take them back to the hospital for Joe's car. Joe then took her to the dojo. She followed Joe in through the front door.
"You know I really don't have much to offer you other than a mat, some blankets, and a place to sleep." He looked shyly over at her, which was something new Jun had never seen him do before. "Are you really sure you want to do this? I can still take you back."
Jun smiled lightly at his sudden concern. "Yes, I'm sure. Besides, you know all those trappings aren't important to me. I think I'll feel more comfortable, more at home, here."
They removed their shoes before going on any farther.
"Okay, but don't ever say I never gave you the chance when you get that back ache or feel like having cheesecake at two in the morning." He grinned.
As they stepped up onto the main matted room, so Joe could begin a small tour, Will ran into the room.
"Oh! Sensei, it's you!" He stopped, obviously relieved and quickly bowed. Unobtrusively, he turned his head just enough to throw a glance in Jun's direction, a confused look on his face about the unexpected company.
"You're here late, Will."
The boy glanced shyly once more in Jun's direction before replying to Joe's statement. "I know, sensei. I'm sorry. I, I wouldn't have been much longer." His voice dropped. "I was almost finished. Since I'd not been sure when you'd be home, I took the liberty of leaving you something to eat for whenever you got back." The boy stared at the floor, seemingly embarrassed by the admission before a stranger and perhaps thinking he'd overstepped his limit.
Joe approached the boy and then teasingly passed his hand over the Will's half curls. "See, helpful. What did I tell you? Almost as good as a wife."
Jun hid her mouth behind her hand as Will turned beet red right before her eyes.
"Come on, let's go see what he left for us to munch on." Wrapping his arm around Will's neck, Joe pulled him along with them.
The large spacious kitchen had hardly been changed since its days as a restaurant. From the amount of large pots and pans still hanging everywhere, it gave the appearance of still functioning like one. The large stack of dishes still drying on the racks only added to that conviction.
"So, how did the lessons go today?" Joe let go of his student once they'd entered the kitchen so he could show them what he'd made.
"Everything went fine, Sensei... except..." Will looked worriedly up at the two of them, especially at Jun.
"Go on, Will. She's safe."
Will turned away as he pulled on some kitchen mitts and then reached in to take something out of one of the large ovens. "Ricky acted up again. I think it was mostly because you weren't here and he and I are the same age and all. I--I had to take him to the room."
Jun threw Joe a quick questioning glance. He signaled that he'd explain later.
"Did you do it during class?"
Will almost dropped the casserole, the question catching off guard. "No, Sensei! It was private! I, I asked him to stay after class saying that you'd left special instructions for him. I didn't tell him what I wanted until everyone else had gone."
Joe nodded. "Very good. And?" Both his voice and face were neutral as he asked the last.
Will adopted the same manner. "He lost."
"And when he left?"
Will hesitated only a moment. "I think we had a better understanding between us."
Joe nodded again, this time a small smile on his face. "Well done. Though don't expect this to fix all your problems with him. Ricky is quite a stubborn one."
Will's eyes shone with the approval in Joe's voice.
"My friend Jun here will be staying with me for a few days." Again the shy look strayed in her direction. "Why don't you set up a table for three and join us for dinner? I'm sure you haven't eaten yet, and if you're already this late, I don't think they'll mind another hour or so. I might even feel nice enough to call them and get you off the hook."
Though at first he'd looked as if he'd refuse, upon hearing the last Will's face brightened perceptively. Nimbly, he rushed to get out plate mats and other implements to begin setting up the table.
Smiling easily, Joe led Jun back out into the hallway and then on towards his office. Before getting there, however, he turned to one of the smaller matted rooms on the left.
"This is ‘the room'." He shrugged. "Actually, there are several, but when it's business they all become ‘the room'. For tonight though, this one will be your ‘bedroom.'" He grinned at her.
His grin grew wider as Jun tried to imitate the tone he'd used on Will before. "It's a disciplinary place for private ‘discussions'. I only use them when it's absolutely necessary. But occasionally there're just times when the egos of these kids get out of hand. Heck, I even had a student challenge me to come in here rather than the other way around once."
"I take it a lot of them remind you of yourself at that age?" Jun asked a little too innocently.
"Why, what ever would make you think such a thing?"
Dinner was warm and comfortable. Jun was surprised to discover Will was actually quite a good cook. Though it took some doing, Jun was able to get him to feel at least semi comfortable in her presence before they were done.
After all the dishes had been cleared away, Will took his leave after Joe had made a phone call on his behalf. Jun was quite pleased as the boy actually gave her a heartfelt good night.
Joe hunted down provisions for Jun's stay and gave her a quick tour so she could find the amenities before they bid each other good night.
Jun undressed in the dark and sneaked under the heavy blankets. As they warmed up around her, an unwanted shiver ran down the back of her spine. The solitude and quiet pressed in around her letting her thoughts drift. Instead of feeling sleepy, Jun found herself uncommonly alert. Now that she had no distractions, her mind turned stubbornly to try and comprehend Ken's seemingly inexplicable actions.
What did he want? What did he hope to gain? In no way had he tried to contact her since that day at the hospital. But it was obvious he'd called to find out about her. Otherwise how would he have known when to send the limo for her? But what did he want? Things should be just as he'd wanted them all along. Could he be doing all this just to make sure she didn't desert the team? Or could there be more to it than that? Dare she think there could be?
Jun flipped over on her side not wanting to think anymore just to sleep. Yet the harder she tried not to think, the more the questions intruded on her.
Several hours later, frustrated and a little angry, Jun sat up and stared blindly at the door before her. Why wouldn't this leave her alone? She didn't care, it shouldn't matter! She didn't want this! But how else would she put aside all these horrid doubts? Shouldn't she at least ask him? Didn't he at least deserve that much?
Jun shook with more than cold. Dare she do it? Would she be willing to pay what it might cost her? Slowly her face calmed and a look of pure determination settled in her eyes. Not letting herself think of anything else but what she had to do, she got up and quickly dressed. Quietly opening the door to her room, she slipped into the hallway and sneaked her way to Joe's office. Darting in and closing the door behind her, she turned on the light and moved around the low desk to reach for the phone.
Jun dug in her purse for the card for the limousine service, but as soon as she found it she put it back, discarding the idea. Instead, she picked up the receiver and called information. Even as she dialed the numbers, her eyes caught sight of a set of keys sitting on the table.
"This is the operator. May I help you?"
"Oh, ah, yes! I need the number for the Yellow Cab company. Their branch in Wellington, please."
A prerecorded voice suddenly clicked on the line. "The number is ... 5 5 5--4 3 2 0... The num--"
Jun hung up the phone still staring at the set of keys before her. Biting her lip, she made herself look away and picked up the phone again. Halfway through the number, however, she hung up. Quickly, before she could change her mind, she grabbed the keys on the table.
Searching frantically for a moment, she finally found a loose piece of paper and wrote Joe a quick note of both apology and explanation. Leaving it folded by the corner of the phone, Jun turned off the light and left as quietly as she'd come in.
Moving silently down the hall, she eventually reached the front of the dojo. Everything was quiet around her as she slipped on her shoes and softly opened the door to the outside.
She'd had money for a cab, but she would have had to wait for it and the noise might wave woken Joe and brought questions she had no real way to answer. This way she could go now, and hopefully be back before he was ever the wiser. Or so she hoped.
Going to his car, Jun ducked inside and tried a number of keys before finding the one she needed. Guiltily, she stared out of the midnight blue charger's front widow as the engine purred into the night a lot louder than she would have liked.
Not waiting for the car to warm up, Jun left the lot before the racket had a chance to wake up Joe.
Her resolve to face Ken and ask her questions held together all the way until she saw the house. As she came up the lighted street and spotted the familiar driveway, recognition and pain swept over her crumbling it down as she came close.
What was she doing here? What did she really think this would accomplish? Maybe he wasn't the one that was mad, maybe it'd been her all along! The car slid slowly past the driveway. Jun found her gaze looking into the rearview mirror even as her eyes filled with tears. "No."
Jun stomped on the breaks bringing the car to an abrupt stop. She wearily leaned her throbbing forehead against the steering wheel of the car and let it thrum against it. She sat there in the car, in the middle of the road, the car idling, for several long minutes.
"Damn it!" Roughly bringing her head up, she wiped away at her tears and then slammed the car into reverse. She backed the car down her old street and turned it up into her driveway.
Quickly silencing the car, Jun got out making sure to lock it behind her. Slowly stepping on the walk, she dug into her purse for her keys, her hands shaking as they reached in.
Finding them, she took them out only to drop them once she went to put the key in the door. Cursing softly at herself she bent down and retrieved them, and then stayed there, carefully listening for any signs that someone had heard her inside. Tense and ready to bolt at the first sign of anything, she eventually chided herself for her overtly dramatic nervousness and got up.
Jun inserted the key into the lock and then turned it ever so slowly to minimize the amount of noise she might make. As she found herself turning the key without effort, she suddenly realized the door wasn't locked. She felt goose bumps rise up her arms. Was Ken expecting her? Was he that confident she'd come back to him? She squelched the anger that threatened at the thought.
There was only one way to find out for sure and she knew it. So, gingerly turning the handle on the door, she opened it and cautiously let herself inside.
Closing the door behind her, Jun stood very still in the darkness letting her eyes adjust.
She found her breath coming in and out quickly, and took a moment to slow it down as she and the others had been taught so long ago. Nothing lunged out at her from the darkness, but Jun nevertheless found herself feeling nervous and jumpy. There was nothing to fear here. Yet the feelings got no better.
After five minutes of nothing, Jun took a deep breath and stepped farther out into the living room. As far as she could tell, nothing had been moved, so she had no trouble navigating to the other side. She'd made it all the way to the main hallway when she found herself hesitating. Though she knew why she'd come here, she found now that she was here, she had no idea how to proceed. The growing tension in the pit of her stomach did nothing to make the choices any easier.
For the second time she strongly considered forgetting the whole thing and just going back to the dojo before she got caught. Yet she knew that if she left now, she'd never find the courage to try this again.
Glancing around in indecision, Jun felt a sudden pang as her eyes fell on the door of what would have been the baby's room. An unstoppable wave of hopelessness and pain mixed guilt washed through at the thought of her unborn child.
With threatening tears, all else momentarily forgotten, Jun stepped forward toward the unfinished room.
Her hands shaking almost violently, Jun still somehow managed to open the door and pushed it inwards. Stepping inside, barely daring to breathe, she closed the door behind her. Jun found she couldn't really see much of anything. No street lights shone into this part of the house leaving her standing in almost total darkness.
Shaking, she reached to the side looking for the light switch. That Ken might somehow discover her because of it was the farthest thing from her mind.
Bumping lightly against the chest of drawers they'd brought into the room less than a week ago, Jun remembered the small lamp with the hanging balloons they'd set on top of it. She decided to turn that on instead.
The soft light lit up the room bringing out almost cruelly all its happy colors. As she blinked back tears and tried to adjust, she heard something from the other side of the room.
Glancing quickly in that direction, Jun's breath caught hard in her throat as she found the source of the sound.
Lying on his side, partially covered by a blanket, was Ken. He'd moved in his sleep to turn his face away from the light.
Jun rapidly quieted her speeding heart as she realized he hadn't awakened. Forcing herself not to ponder at Ken's strange choice of sleeping quarters, she stepped back, her hand reaching behind her for the knob on the door.
Her hand finally found what she sought, but didn't turn it. Her eyes never strayed from Ken's prone form.
Jun frowned for a moment and then let go of the knob behind her. Hardly daring to breathe lest it alert him of her presence, she stepped gingerly away from the door and followed the wall to the left. Her frown deepened as she was overcome by a disturbing curiosity to see her husband's hidden face.
Cautiously, ready to run at the slightest provocation, she stuck to the wall, as far away from him as she could. She even went so far as to skirt the ends of his blanket. Meticulously, Jun lowered herself to the ground not far from where he lay. Not really sure what she was doing or why, she forced herself to study his sleeping face.
A part of her sensed almost immediately that something wasn't right about him. Stubbornly, Jun told herself quickly she wasn't supposed to worry about him anymore, yet the feeling came anyway as she noticed how gaunt and pale his face had become.
Though he was sleeping, his face looked tense to her, and troubled. She felt a sudden urge to touch him, to wake him, to ask him what was wrong. Why it was he had such dark circles beneath his eyes. She leaned forward and then snapped back as she became abruptly aware of what she'd been about to do. Fear flooded through her system. It wasn't supposed to be this way! Just by looking at him she shouldn't be having these kind of feelings. What about all that had happened? What about the things he'd done?
She thought of leaving, of running before he totally disarmed her. She was almost at his mercy now and he was asleep! How much worse would it be if he was awake and talking to her? Looking at her with those gorgeous eyes of his. Would she even get a choice then? Would she have what it took to break it off forever if that's what she chose to do?
Jun didn't rise from her seat. What should she do? What should she do?
The room looked bright, too bright. Still, Ken found his mind having trouble accepting the fact he might have just slept through the night. For the last four days it'd been a trial to get any sleep at all. Only once he'd driven himself to near exhaustion or cried himself into unconsciousness had the sweet oblivion of sleep been his for a few precious hours, and then only if he didn't dream.
Slowly, however, he came to realize two things as he lay there. First was the fact the light around him wasn't from the morning sun. The second was that he wasn't alone.
Not thinking, only reacting, Ken rolled away from his present position and then half stood to get a look at the intruder. He jerked back and hit the wall, half overcome with fear, as his mind tried dealing with the incongruity of what he found there. She was here! It was Jun.
Ken found he couldn't return the soft greeting, his mind still too shocked, elated, and frightened at finding her there. Though he wanted to, he found he couldn't move. He couldn't take his eyes off her. She was sitting against the wall, her yellow sundress contrasting nicely with the half painted wall. He swallowed hard. She was really there!
"I want to talk to you."
He nodded at once, cold goose bumps rising on his chest and back. He dared not speak, he didn't trust himself. He knew the wrong word, the wrong tone might make this vision disappear and he'd be all alone again.
Ken watched Jun carefully as she momentarily looked away from him and bit her lip. How he'd dreamed of this! Dreamed and despaired. Surely even God wasn't so cruel as to make this just a too realistic nightmare.
Her green eyes looked up in his direction again. Ken found he couldn't read Jun's expression. "Have I you to thank for all the gifts and flowers I received at the hospital?" She asked softly.
Ken stared at her cautiously, knowing he was on dangerous ground. Never once fighting Galactor had he felt he had so much to lose as he did at this moment. Again, he only dared to answer her with a nod.
"And the limousine? The hotel?"
"Yes..." Ken didn't dare so much as blink as his answer whispered its way across the room.
"I want you to stop it." Her voice was cold.
Ken felt a lump lodge itself in his throat even as his heart sank in hopelessness. "Yes, whatever you want." And before he could stop himself. "I'm sorry..." He looked way from her, at the carpet at his feet, not wanting to watch as she left him forever--sure this was all she'd come to ask of him.
"Tell me... tell me why, Ken." Her voice was nearer. He didn't dare look up. "Why did you do all these things? What were you hoping to accomplish?"
Ken couldn't bring himself to look at her, but he was eventually able to give her a reply. "I, I wronged you. I wronged you badly. And I owed you for that. Owed you for taking our child away. I, I was just trying to find some way to, to try and make even a small part of it up to you."
"How?" she snapped. "How could you ever think money could ever take away from me the death of our baby? How could it ever possibly erase all that's gone on between us?"
Ken forced himself to look up into her anger, his jaw set to take his due like a man. Yet his eyes glistened with tears. "I, I never expected it to do that. All I wanted was to at least try to make it up to you. I'd hoped it might make things just a little more tolerable." His voice cracked. "I didn't know what else to do!"
Jun turned her back to him and walked away. It broke his heart to see it. But what had he expected? What had he honestly thought she'd do?
"So that's all you were doing? Making it up to me? Paying me for our time together?"
Ken turned away though he could see she wasn't looking at him. Her questions had sent his heart racing, even with the anger there behind them. Racing because he'd hoped for it, hoped to be able to say the one thing he couldn't even now entirely admit to himself. "N--no."
The silence filled the room between them like a palpable wall. Ken counted the seconds in agony, hoping she'd take the next step. Hoping she'd push him where he couldn't go on his own.
"Then, what else were you trying to do?"
Ken opened his mouth and nothing came. The moment was here and yet nothing came! He stepped back, his hands bunched before him, his eyes searching desperately over the wall of clowns and colors for the courage to go on in this toughest of battles. "The--the gifts, the flowers, I sent them because, I sent them because I wanted you--because I wanted you to know you mean the world to me." He turned around, needing, wanting to see her face, for good or ill as he decided to gamble it all. Jun was standing with only her profile facing his way. Her hands were gripping the rail of the baby crib. "I wanted, I wanted to let you know that I, that I love you."
She didn't react. All he could see as she stood there was her pale face. And suddenly, irrevocably, he knew he had lost. He'd waited so long, and had had to live another life to love her, yet now when he thought he could, he would live with it and cherish it, he'd lost it.
Ken felt his face crumble and the tears gather in his eyes. He turned away not wanting to dump that on her. Not wanting to give her any more guilt that wasn't hers to suffer through. He started toward the door.
He stopped, his hand on the door, his heart stuck in his throat half believing she hadn't really called for him.
"I, I need some guarantees, Ken. I, I can't live through something like this again."
Even as his hopes had dared flared again, so were they extinguished. His chest tightened, making it hard to breathe. It took all he had not to break down in front of her. "I wish.... I wish with all my heart I could do that, but, but I can't! I don't think I can give you children. The Spartan..." His throat tried to close up on him. "I can't promise my damned pride, my love, my worry won't get in the way again. All I can do is promise you, promise you I'd try, forever if that's what it took, not to let something like this happen again."
Ken felt his strength leaving him. It was over now. It was over. His head banged against the door as he felt himself falling to despair. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Tears rolled down his face. By telling her the truth he'd ruined any chance he might have ever had of winning her back since he'd lost her to his foolishness. But he just couldn't lie. There had been so many lies already. As a tortured moan escaped his lips, Ken forced himself to act and turned the knob wanting to get away before he shamed himself any more before her.
As he moved to go, a hand at his shoulder kept him from leaving. He didn't dare shake her hand away, but neither could he stay. Her other hand landed on his arm and tried to turn him but he resisted. Jun pulled harder, and he gave in, telling himself it was her due. Still, the moment his eyes met hers, he turned his face away shamed that she could see his pain.
Mercilessly, she took his face in her hands and forced him to look at her. He moaned again as his full agony came once more to her full view.
Her eyes scanned his face, not letting him go, even as her own pain flashed like an open wound before his own eyes.
Ken stood absolutely still, her pain burning him, driving home what he'd done and what he'd lost. If she wanted to kill him, he'd let her. He wouldn't resist. He deserved no less for his stupidity.
"Damn you! Damn you!"
It was too much. He almost closed his eyes, but forced them to stay open.
Hers stared with tears into his own. "Why won't you kiss me?"
With his face still in her hands and his eyes growing wide in dawning surprise, her lips pressed themselves against his sending a bolt of lightning to his core.
Jun opened her eyes, a strong feeling of warmth and contentment flowing through her. She looked down and found Ken cradled in her arms and simultaneously felt a wave of love and fear flow through her.
After that initial kiss, Ken had sobbed like a child and clung to her as if he'd feared she might disappear. She'd never seen him so insecure before, so vulnerable. It had crumbled what little resistance she'd had left. He was hers, truly hers for the first time. She could face the uncertainty of the future with that--she would.
When they'd both quieted down, though, that's when the true wonder had begun. Ken had started talking, hesitantly and somewhat muddled at first, but with more and more confidence as time went on. He'd told her how he loved her in thirty different ways. He told her of his daily battle during their old lives of keeping her at a distance. He explained his reasons. And though many of these she'd already been aware of, never had he told them to her before. Never had he shared those fears with her before.
They'd cried often and she all the more when he explained his hurt at the loss of the Johnny Terell identity. How he'd felt everything slowly slipping away and her loss being the greatest of all. He'd apologized, she didn't know how many times, about the loss of their child and his certainty the fault was entirely his. She'd felt so guilty then, for her previous feelings, her words at the hospital. She'd never once truly blamed him, yet he'd totally blamed himself, not her.
With the might of the ISO, he assured her he would try and see if the damage from the Spartan was reversible. If Kozaburo couldn't find a way to stabilize his sperm, and if Jun still wanted a child--he'd held her tightly, and told her almost too softly to hear--he'd promised her if there was nothing that could be done, there were other means to give her the child she wanted. Her egg could be fertilized with another man's sperm. She would have her child.
It was almost more than she could bear.
Then he'd told her of his confrontation with Nambu and Kamo. Told her of the room with the extreme security and the lack of answers they'd given him there. How to him, all that had happened had seemed to be for nothing. It was with some shock and amazement that she'd listened to him as he'd told her the man she'd thought was Nambu was actually his clone.
But overshadowing all this, what had made her feel so terribly weak, was his soft confession of his attempt at suicide. She'd trembled inside as he spoke of it, at the yearning he'd had for it, and thanked the gods over and over Joe knew Ken as well as he did.
It had all been almost too much. But every word had only reinforced the rightness of her decision. It had helped push the fear farther and farther back until it was almost gone. And it had proved to her, beyond a doubt, that what Kate had had with Johnny, would be Jun's as well and more.
When he'd finally finished talking, they'd slept a while. After she'd awakened a few hours later, she'd slowly teased him awake with kisses and they'd made love. It'd been so different from the times before. She was Jun, he was Ken. It'd been the true culmination of her dreams. And he'd been so eager to please, so desperate, still clinging to her as if unwilling to admit to himself she was really there and all this was really happening.
Joy had poured through her in such a rush once it was over, once they lay calmly, comfortably in each others arms, she hadn't been able to help herself and had burst out laughing, tickling him without mercy until he laughed as well and again they'd ended in tears. Then they'd made love again and this time she'd led the way.
She stared at his sleeping face now, the strange lines she'd seen on it the night before eased away and smooth. He was hers; he was really hers. And the wonder in that shot through her again. Gently, she caressed his face and moved a stray strand of hair away from his face. His eyes flickered open and Jun found herself smiling at the sight. She watched as his eyes grew large with fear and panic until he looked up and saw her and watched both those feelings recede as their eyes met.
"Good morning." Jun had no real idea of what time it was, but it seemed like the thing to say.
"Good morning." Shyly, Ken sat up and kissed her. Jun returned it eagerly.
"Should we take a shower?" she asked.
He nodded and then helped her up. In all this time, they'd never made it out of the baby's room. Ken grabbed their clothes for them, but also took hold of Jun's hand and wouldn't let go. Smiling, she led the way to their bathroom and the shower stall.
She was the one to start the game. Jun filled her hands with lather and started washing him, exploring his body, getting to know it, wanting to know it, washing from him the pain of the last week from his flesh. She'd already noticed how gaunt he'd looked earlier, but now she found more proof he'd lost weight. Ken had always been thin, even as Johnny, but now his ribs showed a little too well, his cheeks were a little too sunken, his color a little too pale. The only other times she'd seen him look like this were after his father's death, and when they'd thought Joe had died at Kross Karakoram. It was as if when he was in deep grief, he couldn't eat, as if his body wanted in its own way to join those he'd lost. Well, this time, she'd be the one to take care of it for him. "Ken?"
"Hm?" He'd retrieved the soap to lather up for her turn.
"When was the last time you ate anything?" She stared at him, watching his eyes grow momentarily dark as they struggled with the seemingly simple question.
"I--I don't remember. Is it important?"
She smiled at him. "No. Let's hurry though--I'm starving."
As soon as their shower was over and they'd gotten dressed, she dragged him to the kitchen and gave him some juice while she scrounged around for things to make for them. With some pride, she made Eggs Benedict for him, something she would have been afraid of spoiling a few years ago. There were some things she'd had the time for as Kate she'd never much bothered with as Jun. She chased those with pancakes, bacon, and hash browns and overflowed his plate even as he devoured everything in sight. She wasn't far behind him.
The clock in the kitchen read three, but Jun wasn't too sure it was of the next day. How long had they talked? It seemed impossible, but she was sure more than one day had to have gone by and they'd never noticed. That's when it dawned on her. "Oh, shit."
"What's wrong?" Ken's eyes looked just a little wild.
Jun had to try hard to keep from laughing and crying. "It's Joe. I--I stole his car to come here." She felt her cheeks grow warm.
"Oh." The relief in Ken's voice was obvious.
"I guess I've left him a little inconvenienced..."
"We can return it to him now if you want," he offered.
"We probably should," she replied. "But after the dishes get done. I'm already in trouble, so I don't think another half hour will matter."
As they were doing the dishes, Jun noticed a pensive look work its way onto Ken's face. Jun handed him another dish, and gave him a questioning look when he glanced over at her. "What's on your mind?"
He looked away, and then purposely made himself look at her again. "I--I was trying to figure out what we might do next. I don't want to have anything threaten what, what we've got, yet there's so many questions left. Sooner or later Kozaburo and Kamo will remember what all of this is supposedly about, but..." He frowned. "How can we get on with our lives when any minute the two of them might decide its time to disrupt it again..."
Jun felt a cold chill at the thought. "Maybe we shouldn't wait for them." She stared at the dish in her hands. "That room you told me about--it had to be set up that way for more than just meetings. Otherwise the extensive security makes no sense. I'm thinking, maybe it has something to do with that pedestal you saw."
Ken nodded. "I was thinking the same thing." His eyes brightened. "Should we take a side trip after we drop off Joe's car?"
Jun smiled, seeing some of the old confidence back in his eyes again. "I think we should."
"That does it for today, guys." Joe stood up straight and pulled down on his gi. Ten boys, including Will, looked at him in disappointment. "We'll pick up again tomorrow. Scat or you'll be late."
Joe watched them go with a slight smile. Over half of these boys came from the orphanage two blocks down the street. Three and a half years ago, when he'd bought the place he'd made a deal with the orphanage to let any who wanted come for classes. Why he'd felt the need to make such an offer at the time he hadn't know, though he understood it all better now. He'd been surprised though when the orphanage had readily agreed and then had insisted on paying him for the services. After seeing the kind of manipulations that had happened in Ken's role as Johnny Terell, he was no longer surprised. The ISO had always taken care of their own--whether they liked it or not.
Sighing, Joe made his way back to his quarters. It'd been three days--three days since Jun had left with his car. He'd hoped she'd gone to make up with Ken. The idiot sometimes had to be hit over the head before he learned anything, and she was the one to do it. He'd just thought he would have heard something by now. He'd caught himself more than once picking up the phone to try and call them, and had had to threaten Ryu and Jinpei to keep them from going any farther themselves.
Joe showered and dressed letting the silence in the school steal over him. He understood Ken's previous problem only too well. He'd never taken kindly to being manipulated himself, and sometimes it seemed they'd had it happen with too high a frequency.
Yet he'd surprised himself so far by keeping his cool. Living as George Collins must have mellowed him out a bit--though too many questions still lay unanswered. That life had given him a strange hate-untainted perspective, something he otherwise would have never had. And for the first time, he truly knew there was something outside his hate. Even four years of ignorance hadn't erased it though, but if his suspicions about why they had been awakened were true--still, it did give him something he'd never thought to hope for--a life after the killing.
"Sensei, your tea is ready."
Joe spotted Will as he passed the kitchen. From the way the kid liked to take care of him, you'd think Joe was the helpless orphan and not the other way around. "Thanks." He really wasn't sure what he'd do without him.
Joe stared at the young boy's soft face as he served him tea. Will'd had so much anger when they'd first met. You wouldn't think this shy boy and the one who'd challenged him back then were the same person. Even as in some ways he'd reminded him subconsciously of himself, he realized now Will had also reminded him of Ken way back when in so many ways. "Come here, Will."
The boy came right over. "Yes, sensei?"
Joe snapped out and wrapped his arm around the boy's neck and brought him up close rubbing a knuckle into his head. "You spoil me way too much kid!" After watching him squirm a bit, Joe let him go.
Will moved quickly out of reach and frowned at him. "I don't do any such thing, Sensei."
Yeah, like Ken, he too sometimes had a serious streak much too wide for his own good. Joe found himself laughing. Will's frown deepened. "Aw, come on, quit being a sourpuss and have some tea with me."
Will studied him a second longer as if not trusting him not to get silly again, and then nodded. He took the opposite chair on the small table.
After they were done, he walked Will to the door. "See you again tomorrow."
"Sure, sensei." Will gave him a smile and started off back toward the orphanage.
Joe was about to close the door when the sound of an engine vied for his attention. Was that...?
He watched as from the other side of the lot his car gently glided to its usual parking spot. Right behind it was a gold Saturn that took the slip next to it. Joe felt a grin tugging at his face in pleased surprise as he realized it was Ken and Jun.
As they got out, Jun spotted him and he saw her blush. She said something to Ken and he glanced over in his direction. They were talking again. That's all Joe needed to know. He set out for them across the lot.
"Hey, you two," he shouted. Jun looked better than the last time he'd seen her. She looked a lot more relaxed and a small smile seemed to hang about her lips. Ken didn't look all that healthy, but he did look happy. Joe wasn't sure what he'd been doing to himself to get that way, but it was obviously over now.
"Joe, I'm so sorry about the car," Jun said. "I hope I didn't put you in too much of a bind?"
Damn but she looked happy. Now that he'd gotten close it seemed to pour out of her pores. Ken even more so. He saw that unconsciously they'd joined hands. And wasn't it about bloody time! Not thinking about it, his own happiness for them welling inside him, Joe grabbed both of them in a heartfelt hug. After a moment, he let them go. "Glad to see you two finally got things worked out. It's about damn time."
Jun blushed again, this time joined by Ken. "Is it that obvious?"
"Hell yes!" Before they could do anything, he'd hugged them both again. He almost laughed as they both turned even darker shades of red. "So, do you want to come in and tell Uncle Joe all about it?"
He watched as Jun and Ken traded quick glances.
"Actually, we were just on our way to take care of something." Ken's blue eyes met his. "You wouldn't be wanting to get into some mischief would you?" Jun nodded, seconding the question.
"Why, now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind doing that one bit." Joe grinned. Ken and Jun grinned back.
Joe volunteered to drive so they all piled into his car. Ken told him their destination was the research center. Joe couldn't have hoped for a better spot.
They parked the car a block away and thanks to Ken's knowledge of the center's systems, they skirted the parking lot's security cameras and sneaked to the back to the delivery door. As the other two kept watch, Ken swiped his override card on the security lockout and got them in.
Joe felt an excited chill as the old skills came once more into play. Damn, looks like he'd actually missed all the sneaking around. He was finding it hard to keep the grin off his face.
After a short while of avoiding the people still there and overriding a number of other systems, the three of them finally made it to the conference room they'd been taken to before. It hadn't changed from the last time Joe had seen it. His curiosity finally got the best of him. "So guys, why are we here?"
"Because of that." Ken pointed to the golden pedestal at the end of the room. "This place has the best security the center has to offer, yet other than for that thing, there's nothing here to guard."
"I see your point." In the midst of his worry for Ken, and Nambu's and Kamo's revelations, Joe had never even noticed the thing.
Jun locked the door into the conference room and joined the two of them as they headed toward the pedestal.
It was about five feet wide and two feet tall. Strangely enough, it looked metallic, almost as if it were made of gold. There were no apparent openings into the thing.
"It doesn't look like anything..." Ken frowned as he stared at it.
"There could still be components inside," Jun said. "Whatever it is, it might be controlled by remote."
"Do you want me to flip it over?" Joe added. Surely there'd be a panel they could pry open underneath.
Ken nodded. Joe moved to reach for it.
The three of them jerked back, their gazes quickly scanning the room for the disembodied voice.
"Who's there?" Ken demanded.
Joe felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as he sensed the silent hesitation. His gaze moved toward the pedestal again. He grabbed a chair, ready to bash it into the thing as a soft hum abruptly filled the air.
A soft light issued from the top of the pedestal and grew in intensity as it also rose miraculously in height. The light continued building on itself, giving an impression of almost solidity, until it reached five feet in height. The shimmering luminescence fluxed in and out within the boundaries of the pedestal until it eventually stabilized into a humanoid figure.
Greetings, Science Ninja Team.
"Who, or what the hell are you?" Joe's voice came out rough as he stood poised before the pedestal the heavy chair still in his hands. It made him vaguely uncomfortable that the strange voice sounded female, though he didn't know why.My name is ----- A high lilting set of musical notes filled the air and seemed to also resonate in their minds. Joe saw his own surprise mirrored in the faces of the others.
However, you may find it easier to call me by my adopted name Aree. The figure's arms moved in a soft motion as if keeping time to her words.
"You still haven't answered my question." Joe felt every muscle in him coiled. If she was what he thought she was...
No, I am not like him. A shimmer of blue rose through the energy figure. I am of another race. We are akin to one another, but very different at the same time.
Joe felt himself grow cold all over as he realized this being, whatever and whoever it was had just read his mind.
"You're an alien?" Jun sounded shocked and excited at the same time.
The figure turned toward her. Yes. I come from the world ---- A long varied string of musical notes followed.
"Why are you here?" Ken asked. He was staring at the alien with fierce intensity. "What do you want?"
A pink ripple flowed through Aree. I am here to help you. I've been helping you. All I want is to help you.
Joe saw his own doubts reflected in Ken's face. "Explain."
The energy form looked away and then turned back to face them. Selectro is our shame. Her form lost cohesion and then reformed. We came upon them in our travels, in their youth. They were so much like us we could not help but greet them with open arms. Her form fluctuated sporadically.
We taught them everything we knew, hoping to swell our ranks with those so very like us. But we were wrong. In the end, they weren't like us at all, and we learned all this too late. Those on Selectro were an insane race. They coveted power and madness. They spread out to their neighboring systems doing as they liked regardless of the life forms already living there. They'd already destroyed two systems before we realized our error. Aree's color dimmed until she almost wasn't visible. It was too late to save them, any of them, but we swore we'd do what we could to stop what we'd accidentally begun. We pushed the Selectrans back to their planet and imprisoned them there. This was agony for us, because we don't believe in such things, but we also knew it had to be done.
Aree's form shimmered unsteadily before them. Later, however, we learned that a few of them had found a way to get past us. Yet because of how much power it took to keep the others in check, we couldn't go after them to force them back. One on one, we are no match for them, and violence is not easy for us if possible at all. So volunteers were sent after them, hoping to offset or at least minimize whatever these escapees had in mind. That is how I came to be here...
Joe frowned. Something about this didn't seem right. "How long have you been here? Did you just now arrive to ‘save the day'? You're a little late."
Several ripples of color rose through Aree's form. I, I have been here almost from the beginning. Sosai had only been here a span of your years when I arrived. By then, already some humans had come to suspect all was not well. It was one of these men that I approached and revealed myself to. With his help and my knowledge, we worked to build a force that would be able to overcome Sosai's ambitions. He was Kozaburo Nambu.
Ken took a step forward. "Then the clones' memory gaps...?"
Yes, they are of me. Nambu had kept my secret well, but his clone was young and the process hard, and I wasn't yet ready to reveal myself again. And there were other considerations...
Ken glared at her even as Joe felt his own emotions clashing inside him. "So you're the driving force behind the formation of the team. You gave us the technology for the uniforms, the Fiery Phoenix, Gatcha Fencer! You're the one responsible for the medallion. The one responsible for the loss of our memories and the way they were brought back! You've been behind everything that's happened to us since almost the moment of our birth and Nambu knew it all along."
Aree was forced to duck as the chair Joe had been holding careened right past her head and smashed against the far wall.
"You manipulating bitch!" Joe seethed with barely checked anger. "What gave you the right to do what you've done to us? Who asked you to take matters into your own hands? You're no better than Sosai ever was!"
Aree raised her arms and crossed them before her as if trying to protect herself from Joe's emotional assault. Her entire form wavered and changed colors towards a deep purple hue.
"Joe!" Jun took a half step toward him, yet it was Ken who bodily moved to stop him as he picked up another chair.
Joe let his gaze scathe over his friend as Ken grabbed a hold of his arm. "Let go, Ken. You know you can't stop me if I don't want you to."
Ken met his anger dead on. "Where's that stable man that's been so calm since all this started? Where's the logical mind that stopped me from foolishly jumping off to a senseless death?" Though his voice was barely above a whisper, the words drove into Joe as if he'd shouted them.
"Think! This is our one chance to get answers," he continued. "Possibly even answers to questions we've lived with all our lives! Let her talk, let her explain herself. And if her reasons aren't satisfying enough, you'll have to beat me to get at her before I do."
Joe stared hard at his friend's face and felt a grin suddenly tug at the corner of his mouth as he realized Ken was deadly serious. It looked like his reconciliation with Jun hadn't taken all his fire. Relieved by that and the fact he wasn't alone, Joe slowly relaxed and set down the chair.
Aree's hues slowly returned to normal as the feelings for violence passed. It had never been my intent to manipulate anyone. I haven't always acted wisely, but I've done as best as I could. We are not of the same species, and that has caused misunderstandings. But also, the need to keep my presence secret has not always allowed for many choices...
Joe snorted at that.
"Why was it so important that you keep your presence secret?" Jun asked.
Aree's hues darkened. If Sosai had discovered or suspected one of my race was here, he would have done everything in his power to destroy this planet and make sure it took me with it. Though he did go even more insane after the destruction of Selectro and did try to destroy your world, he would have actually given off his own energy to speed the process if he'd been aware I was here.
"You sure seem to think an awful lot of yourself." Joe stared at her with contempt.
Aree wouldn't look at him. No, you just don't understand the hatred of Selectrons. More colors wove through her image. If you can imagine what it would be like to have your racial prejudices magnified a thousand fold--even then it wouldn't be enough to compare to what they feel. Our races were so similar, so close in every way that without knowing what to look for you couldn't tell us apart. Yet though in the beginning it meant nothing to us--eventually it meant everything to them. It didn't help we were so much more advanced than they were. They hated us for everything, even the fact we'd come and extended ourselves to them in friendship. It was a blight they felt had to be outdone or erased. As I said, they were insane.
"Why did you take away our memories?" Jun shivered as she spoke. Ken walked over to her and put his arm around her protectively.
Sosai was destroyed. And many times before his death Nambu had wished all of you had never been brought into this conflict, that you'd been able to lead the normal lives you which would have been yours if Sosai had never appeared. It had seemed a way to give you what he'd always wanted for you. A life of your own, without the scars of death and violence...
"Then why give us a life only to take it away?" Joe found his question sounding slightly bitter. Was he missing that gift of hers that much? He shied from looking at the answer too closely.
As if sensing all this and more Aree, turned away and seemed to almost shrink on herself. After Sosai's death and having made sure you were safe, I left to rejoin my people. I, like Sosai, had felt the death of his world. It was not conceivable to me that my own kind had done something so final, so I had no idea what had truly happened.
I went there to seek answers and to join my people again... Her voice faded to nothing.
After several moments of continued silence, Joe glanced at Ken and found his friend looking back at him with the same questioning look. "What did you find?"
Rather than through her voice, her answer came within their minds. For a moment, all three of them weren't where they had been but were somewhere else. The vastness of space spread all around them. A dim sun lit the night and around it was a spread mass of gasses and dirt particles swirling in the pattern of a giant ring.
The image vanished leaving them where they'd been, just as Joe had started feeling a touch of panic. He was forced to lean against the table as his mind tried to grasp what had just happened to them.
As one, the Selectrons had pooled their energy and destroyed their own planet just so they could take us with them. My people had never considered their hate to be so strong. A large number of us were destroyed. Aree's form was barely visible. Yet even as they did this, a number of their own people absorbed some of the powers of others of their race so they could escape. She went silent again.
Joe pounded his fist hard on the thick table and a crack appeared beneath his hand. "What does any of that have to do with us?"
The Selectrons are very territorial. Though a number of them escaped, they would never enter each other's areas unless truly desperate and they were not. But they can sense each other's deaths. They take them very personally; and they knew the moment Sosai was gone. As soon as I realized what had happened at their home world, I returned, hoping what I feared wasn't true. But I wasn't wrong. One of the survivors has come and claimed what once belonged to Sosai.
He will do as Sosai tried before him. He covets and he hates. It is all he knows. So the Science Ninja Team is needed again. You are needed again--and for more than before. Since one has come to replace Sosai, there could be others, even if we are able to defeat his replacement right away. Plans need to be made to always have a group who knows the danger, who is ever vigilant against the possible threat, and who are trained and able to take care of it if it does occur. Only you can do what must be done. The Earth needs you now more than ever. It is the only reason why I have done what I have done. Aree held out her arms her mental words and actions begging them to accept what they'd been told. You are the only ones who can do this. You are the only ones who can later help others do what you have done.
"And how do we know you're not one of them?" Joe demanded. It all made too much sense and he wasn't sure he wanted it to. "How do we know this isn't all a bunch of hogwash?"
What would I have to gain from it?
Joe could make no reply to that, and seemingly neither could the others.
"All right. We'll believe what you say for now," Ken said. "If we study the evidence and there is a threat, we'll do what we've been trained to do. But if there isn't..." he left the rest of it unsaid.
Aree nodded her understanding.
"And we will have other questions." Jun added.
Joe nodded as well. "Damn right."
I will hold nothing from you... But you must swear to keep my existence a secret outside of the seven. It's for your own sakes.
"We'd best get the rest of the team here," Ken said. "If all she's said is true--we've no time to waste. This is our world, and we will protect it."
Jun reached for the phone on the table. Joe kept his eye on the alien sure he would definitely protect it, even if it ended up being from her.