The Return by Maya Perez
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The Return pt. 3

By Maya Perez


Helpful prodding by Wendy Dinsmore



            The morning was bright, the sky clear with a light breeze blowing across the open lawn.  The ninja team, Frost, and Colten sat comfortably at the white iron-rod table enjoying their breakfast.

            "I made contact with Nambu this morning as per the schedule," Ken said.  "He informed me that the ISO satellites have detected some unusual high activity close to your southern border.  He's dispatched some operatives in that direction to check it out."  Ken spoke calmly, almost icily to the Linthinium's heir apparent.

            "So, we may not have to wait long after all."  Frost's gaze ventured to the south.

            "Most of our people have been pouring in from the outlying villages, including those on our southern border," Colten informed them.  "They've been taken to the underground city as soon as they've arrived."

            Frost smiled warmly, grateful for the information.  He turned to look at his guests.  "Unfortunately, duty calls this morning, and I must spend my day inspecting the constructions under the dome as well as a number of other projects currently underway.  However, you're all welcome to come along if you like.  Your company is always most appreciated."  His gray gaze looked over them coming to rest on a rather quiet Jun.

            Ken looked away from the lingering exchange.  His attention was diverted further as a man ran up to them from the castle.

            "Sir, sir!"

            Frost's gaze snapped in the direction of the voice, his eyes lighting with sudden excitement.

            "Sir, it's coming!"  The man stopped breathless before them for a moment before going on.  "A mecha has been spotted from remote 638.  It's three miles from the southern border."

            Throwing a quick glance at the ninja team, Frost left the table and started towards the castle at a run.  Without a word, Ken and the others rose as well and quickly followed after him.  Colten was left behind to catch up at his lower pace.

            Rushing through the halls, they entered the sitting room and headed straight for the hidden elevator.  Pouring out of it as soon as it had opened on the complex below, they quickly reached the main control room and piled inside.

            "Status report!"  Frost converged on the seat near the front, his eyes glancing at the cameras lit around the room.

            A flushed young man turned around from one of the numerous controls.  "Sir, we've picked up a large mass moving at high speeds through the southern quadrant.  A number of probes were launched towards it and when they got cloe to its vicinity they were almost immediately destroyed."

            Frost leaned forward, his arms resting against the back of one of the high chairs.  "Have you been able to obtain any visuals?"

            The young man swiveled back to his controls and deftly pressed a number of buttons before him.  The screen-filled wall above them stopped flickering through its myriad scenes and then filled with partial images that formed one giant picture.  Someone in the room gasped.

            An enormous cloud of grayish gas undulated on the screens before them, long waving tentacles stretching out from within.

            "Looks like Katse might be getting a little more imaginative in his designs."  No one commented on Joe's remark.

            "What's the intruder's speed?"  This came from Frost.

            "We estimate it to be currently moving at 200 mph.  It should reach us in less than 30 minutes, sir."  It was hard not to hear the touch of fear in the young man's voice.

            "Come on, let us at it!"  Jinpei proclaimed.  "That's what we came here for anyway, right?  We'll take care of this nasty for you.  No sweat!"  His excited statement was followed by quick nods from Joe and Ryu.

            "Activate all the defense systems currently on line," Frost said.  "Notify the bay crew to stand by."

            Colten, breathing rather heavily, limped his way into the crowded room as Frost finished issuing his instructions.  The prince turned to him.

            "Old friend, I'm giving you command of the control room.  I'll be going with the Gatchaman team."  With a curt nod, Frost moved past him, not waiting for a response.

            "But, sir!"  Colten's protest fell on deaf ears.  Frost left the room.

            Jun opened her mouth to add her own dissatisfaction to his decision but stopped as Ken followed the departing prince without a word, his face unreadable.

            "He's not taking my seat!"  Jinpei rushed after them soon followed by the others, leaving a slightly confused Jun behind. 

            Sending a concerned look in Colten's direction, and seeing her worry mirrored there, Jun took off after them. 

            In less than a minute they'd all reached the bay housing the disguised God Phoenix.  As they rushed up the lowered ramp, all five members of the team spoke into their bracelets and activated their clothes unusual transformation capabilities.  "Bird Go!"

            Frost stared, enraptured, as each of the five was momentarily enveloped by bright, coalescing bands of color before they emerged covered in the familiar uniforms of the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.  Seeing them like this, Frost suddenly found it a little difficult to picture them as the long-haired teenagers they'd been but moments before.

            Piling in shifts of two into the lift, the six of them soon entered the bridge.

            "Ryu, dissengage the outer façade."  Ken spoke as he headed for his seat.

            "Roger!"  Ryu was only a step behind him.

            "Everyone, quickly check your stations."  Ken's hands flew over his own controls as he spoke.

            "Roger!"

            The team ignored Frost as each reached his or her own station and started in on their pre-flight checks.  A loud thump rocked the ship as the façade on the exterior was summarily detached.  The team quickly finished their checks and soon Ryu flipped on the ship's vertical engines.  The top doors of the bay opened as they approached.  The God Phoenix shot up through the opening.

            "Bring us into a high arc, Ryu," Ken said.  "I want to get a good top view of this thing."

            Nodding, Ryu switched to the thruster jets and set their course in a southerly direction.  It wasn't long before they found their quarry.

            "Look at the size of that thing!  And that cloud around it is so thick you can't see anything through it."  Jinpei was half out of his seat trying to get a good look at the mech before them. 

            "Why don't we put a couple of missiles in there and see if we can stir them up a bit?"  Joe's eager glance strayed towards Ken, his body already poised to leap from his seat if he got the answer he wanted.

            "No, not yet."  Ken didn't look back at his second in command, but turned his head to look at Ryu instead. "Ryu, make a pass over them.  Try to get us low enough to see if we can disrupt that cloud of theirs."

            The pilot frowned.  "Those tentacles aren't going to make this easy." 

            "Just do whatever you think you can get away with."

            "Roger."

            From the back of the bridge, Frost studied the people around him even as Ryu began his dive.  Though he wouldn't have readily said so, he was amazed by what he saw.  As he stood there, he could sense a change in the small group that went farther than a mere change of costume.  Although in many ways they were acting the same as they had before, he could still sense a palpable, yet not quite identifiable change.

            "Everybody, grab hold of something," Ryu yelled out.  "I might have to get fancy!"

            Suddenly realizing that the bridge had never been meant for six, Frost quickly stepped forward and grabbed a solid hold on the headrest of Jinpei's seat.  Hearing him move up, Jun looked up and sent him a reassuring smile.

            Diving at a steep angle, the God Phoenix headed directly towards the tentacled cloud.

            The mecha's appendages waved madly at their approach, and moved, seemingly without restraint, all through the cloudy surface.  Deftly gauging the tentacles' movements, Ryu wove between them as he abruptly righted the ship.

            After skimming through the dark cloud, the God Phoenix quickly darted away from the Galactor ship.  Ryu maneuvered the God Phoenix into a sharp climb as the mecha chased after them.

            "I couldn't get any readings of the ship's interior, Ken," Jun said.  "There's something in that cloud that's interfering with our sensors."

            Ken barely nodded.

            "You want me to put a couple of missiles into her now?" Joe asked eagerly.

            "Go ahead," Ken answered, "give it your best shot."

            Joe slid past Frost, a humorless grin painted on his face and a devilish spark in his eyes.

            "Jun, how far behind is that thing?" Ken asked.

            Jun switched duty stations and quickly came up with a reading.  "It's at ten thousand meters and rising.  We've got better speed."

            Ken nodded to Joe and Ryu that they could begin.  Instantly, Ryu moved the God Phoenix into a diving turn straight at the ascending mecha.  Joe fixed the firing systems cross-hairs on the center of the cloud and then smashed his fist down on the large, red firing button set on the console before him.  Before the first missile had gone far, Joe swicthed his aim to either side of the cloud's center and fired two more times. 

            Ryu swerved as soon as Joe finished, expertly avoiding the closest of the rising tentacles.

All three missiles easily entered the body of the cloud.  They watched expectantly, but no explosions ensued from the attack.  They all watched in shock, as seconds later, the three missiles came out of the cloud's other side and heaved straight for the lush land below.

"Damn!"  Joe's fist slammed down angrily on the console before him.

Tight faces stared as the missiles continued unhampered on their way.

"Ryu, try to go after them!"  The ship changed course at Ken's terse command.

As soon as they were able to get close enough, Joe sent three more missiles to stop the wayward ones before them.  As a credit to their skills, they were able to take them out before they hit the land below.

Before the team could decide on what to do next, the bridge's communication screen lit up.  Harsh laughter echoed out around them as a familiar purple clad figure gazed down on them from the screen.

"My, my, isn't this day turning out to be quite delightful."  Everyone tensed as more laughter followed Katse's chortled phrase.

"I hadn't expected to see you here, Gatchaman.  How nice of you to come out and put the icing on the cake," Katse said smugly.  "Not only will I be able to rid myself of some bothersome upstarts, but I'll have the pleasure of getting rid of you as well!"  He leered at them with glee.

"You're being a little premature aren't you, Katse?  We aren't through fighting you yet!"  Ken's eyes flashed, his determination written clearly on his face.  "Your tricks haven't brought you victory before, and they won't do so now."

Katse laughed with wicked amusement, not at all deterred by Ken's statement.

"It might behoove you to listen to him, Berg Katse."

Katse's laughter died as he tried to identify the strangely familiar voice.  Frost stepped forward into his field of vision. 

Katse stared in slight confusion at the handsome stranger.  "So... the Gatchaman team has a new member does it?" he said.  "Is the ISO so poor that they couldn't afford to give you a birdie costume of your own, boy?"

Frost smiled in good humor, diffusing whatever enjoyment Katse might have been expecting from the barb.  "I hadn't thought it'd been so long since we'd last spoken that you would have already forgotten me, Katse," Frost said. "Though it has been quite sometime since you've actually seen my face."

Katse's eyes widened with sudden recognition.  "You!"

Frost allowed a sly smile to tug at his lips as the leader of Galactor fought to overcome his surprise.

"I see."  Katse spat.  "Everything becomes quite clear now."  He gave them a humorless smile.  "I should have known that your spineless countrymen wouldn't have the stomach to try and thwart me on their own."

Frost laughed in his face.  "Think what you like, Katse, it makes no difference to us."  His tone turned serious.  "I will give you one more chance for you and your men to get out of Linthinium.  We'd rather resolve this peacefully, but we will do whatever is necessary to get you out of our borders."

Katse's ample, red lips pursed themselves for a moment as he stared at the set face before him.  His previous haughty expression returned full force.  "Your seemingly kind gesture is duly noted and rejected," his voice dripped with sarcasm "Fool!  Don't expect such foolishness from me as I grind your people beneath my heel."

            His laughter still rang in the bridge as the transmission was cut off as abruptly as it had appeared.

            "The Galactor mecha has stopped its pursuit!  It's moving back to its original course."  Jun's anxious eyes moved back and forth between Frost and her commander.

            "He didn't buy it..."  Frost's stare was glued to the retreating ship on the screen.

            Without being told to, Ryu maneuvered the God Phoenix to follow the giant mecha as it continued once more towards the munitions factory.

            "Look," exclaimed Jinpei.  "Some of the tentacles are changing!"  He pointed excitedly forward.  Everyone's gaze followed in that direction.

            A number of the mecha's tentacles had stopped waving around and had become stiff.  Their smooth tips then flared out, a circling metal band slipping from the tip to about an eight of the tentacle's length.  Even as they watched the odd transformation, some of the newly changed tips started to spin.

            "Hey, they're making them into boring machines!"  This came from a startled Ryu. 

"The factory won't stand a chance," Joe added.

In frightened realization, Jun turned to look at Frost.  She knew only too well that they were all that stood between Katse and the lives of those below.  Whatever defenses the people of Linthinium had been able to erect over the past few months would slow Galactor down, but it wouldn't stop them.  And so far, the team hadn't even been able to do that much at all.

"Let me fire again at that thing!  At least one of the missiles is bound to hit something."  Joe's hand hovered over the ship's firing button.

"No," Ken responded.  "All it would do is make us run out of missiles and help Katse destroy the country side."  He never looked at the second in command, his eyes locked on the Galactor mecha.

"Dammit, Ken!"  Joe turned on him.  "We've got to try something."  The Condor's agitated face hung close to Ken's, but he said nothing.

Frost stepped forward.  "Is there not something in your arsenal that might help to disperse that cloud?  If it were gone, then you might be able to see something to hit."

Ken's head snapped around, his eyes locking with Frost's questioning stare.  A smile broke slowly over the Eagle's face.  "Well, there is something."  His smile faded.  "But it won't be pleasant."  He looked at the others.  "Jinpei, rig up with Joe.  Frost, you'll take the Swallow's position.  Everyone, prepare yourselves for the Fiery Phoenix."

Jun gasped, a cold chill running down her back.  They'd never done the change with civilians on board.

Without a word, Joe ran back from the firing console to his station even as Jinpei left his.  Once Joe was settled, he helped the smaller boy up onto his lap.

"Don't try anything funny while I'm here, eh, aniki?"

Joe slapped his open palm against the side of Jinpei's helmet.  "Smart ass!  As if anyone would want to have a go at a skinny thing like you."  His face wrinkled in disgust.

"Hey!"  It was hard to tell which had made the Swallow more upset, the blow or the insult.

Jun ignored the friendly banter going on behind her as Frost settled into the chair at her side.  "There, there might be some risk to you," she admitted even as a small frown creased her forehead.  "Our suits were specially designed to protect us from the rigors of the transformation into the Phoenix.  We've never gone through it without them."  Her eyes met his.  "Maybe it'd be better if we dropped you off rather than take the risk."

She didn't notice Ken glancing back in their direction.

Frost reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly.  "No, Beautiful One, we can't afford to lose the time involved for that.  I'll just have to take my chances."

Ken nodded at Frost's answer as if it had been intended for him.  In one smooth move, he reached forward and took hold of the large, red lever on the console before him.  Taking one last look back to make sure everyone was ready, Ken then pulled the lever all the way down.

A deep humming sprung up around the bridge penetrating them to the bone.  Waves of pressure beat at them from all sides even as the ship shook in every direction.  The bridge acquired a surreal quality as all objects within it appeared to occupy a number of spaces at once.

A loud screeching filled everyone's ears as the Fiery Phoenix came to life.

 

 

The God Phoenix now in the guise of a giant flaming bird, bore through the air and pierced the dark undulating cloud before them.  Within moments, in a spurt of flame, it spit out the dark cloud's other side.

 

 

Ken numbly released the lever holding the ship in its present state even as the pressure of the transformation continued battering mercilessly at them.  Faster than it had come into being, the pressure and all that had come with it disappeared.

Jun struggled to straighten up from her console, feeling drained as she always was after the transformation.  She jerked her head up way too fast, as her muddled mind remembered their extra passenger.  Ignoring the ensuing dizziness, Jun turned in her chair to look at Jinpei's station.

Frost was sitting back in the chair, his eyes closed, and his chest rising and falling slowly.  His face was unnaturally pale, his lips parted slightly, even as a thin layers of perspiration made his light-colored hair stick wetly to his forehead.

"Frost?"

Jun's query was greeted with silence, but after a moment, his eyes slowly fluttered open.  Looking incredibly tired, his gray gaze moved to meet her own.  A slight smile played weakly at the corner of his lips as their eyes met. 

"I'm... fine," he said.  "Did it work?"

His question caught Jun off guard.  She'd forgotten all about why they'd gone through this in the first place.  Quickly, she glanced forward to see if Ryu had brought the ship around so they could find out.

"Jinpei... get off!  You're not that light you know."  Joe sounded more tired than annoyed.

The boy jumped indignantly off the Condor's lap. 

Joe was forced to make a grab for him as Jinpei's unsteady legs tried to go out from under him.

"Take the chair," Joe offered.  "I won't be needing it.  It's time for my finger to really go to work."

"I'm okay."  Jinpei sounded surly.  "I don't need to sit."

Joe arched an eyebrow.  "Yeah, right." 

"I can handle it!"  Jinpei threw him a dirty look.

As soon as Joe had gone, however, the young team member took the empty seat.

None too steady on his own feet, Joe supported himself against anything he could grab a hold of on his way to the firing station.

"Ryu, bring us about."

"Roger, commander."

Ken and Ryu both sounded as drained as the rest.

Jun kept her eyes moving from the front viewscreen to Frost's pale face and back again, not sure which she should be worrying about the most. 

Though his features still looked strained, Frost's eyes were clear and he stared ahead with great intensity.  Jun didn't notice how he was doing his utmost, however, to remain absolutely still.

The God Phoenix arced about slowly, once more bringing the Galactor mecha into view. 

The dark cloud that had surrounded Katse's ship was gone.  In its place, two large rings were revealed connected to one another by four long tubular sections.  Tentacles roamed over the two rings and through the tubes at amazing speeds.  As the team and Frost watched, the whole dispersed structure twisted and turned on an invisible axis making it obvious, since its camouflage had been dispersed, on how it had evaded damage from their missiles before.

"Katse's getting sneakier - the bastard!"  Joe glared at the ship, his disgust dripping with every word.

"Ryu, get in close," Ken said.  "Joe, do you think you can hit one of those central struts?"

Joe's finger was already poised over the firing controls.  "Just watch me."

The God Phoenix drew closer to the Galactor mecha even as it ignored them as it continued on its original approach.

As soon as the first missile left the God Phoenix's launcher, however, all of the mecha's tentacles slid back to the rear ring to form a crude shield for the ship.  As Ryu banked the God Phoenix to attack from another angle, the tentacles followed them and moved to protect the targeted area.  After launching several missiles, they'd gotten no closer to damaging the Galactor ship than they had before.

"Damn it all," Joe cursed.  "Those struts have got to be the weak point.  But those stupid tentacles won't let me get a shot through!"

"We're going to have to go in closer."

All but Frost turned to look at the ninja team's leader.

"K - Ken, you've seen how fast those things move.  I... I don't think I can go faster than them."  Ryu stared only at his console, embarrassed by the admission.

"We don't need to be in there long.  Just enough to fire some missiles too close for the tentacles to be able to defend against them."  Ken's determined gaze moved to his second in command. "Fire three missiles when I give the word."  He then turned to their pilot.  "Ryu, you'll follow the missiles in as close as you dare and then, just before they hit the tentacle shield, twist us off towards the nearest exposed area."  He glanced at the Condor again. "Joe, I'm sure you know what I want done then."

Joe's broadening grin assured them that he did.

Jun noticed that Frost was smiling faintly as he sent what might have been a look of approval, perhaps even admiration in Ken's direction.  Slowly, he leaned forward in his seat and then spoke.  "Commander, please, before you do this, send Katse a final message.  Give him a last chance to avert his people's bloodshed.  Make it convincing."

"We don't have time for that!" 

Frost ignored Joe's outburst, still waiting for Ken's response.

Ken looked back, surprised as he noticed Frost's pale pallor.  He turned away as he also noticed Jun's open faced concern for him.  "Jinpei, make the call."

"Roger!"  Jinpei's hands worked busily at the controls before him.  "Aniki, he's coming through."

Katse's haughty countenance filled the screen.  "Well, well, well, to what do I owe the pleasure of this most unexpected call?"  He smiled magnanimously.  "Have you decided to surrender yourselves to me?"

"I don't have time to waste bantering words with you, Katse.  So just shut up and listen!"  Ken half rose out of his seat, a metallic echo booming through the bridge as he slapped his hand hard on the console before him.  "This is your last chance to leave here intact.  You have ten seconds to change course or you'll leave us no choice but to blow you and your men to oblivion."

Katse's surprised face stared at Ken and then started chuckling softly.  "So, is this what you have come to is it, Gatchaman?  Empty threats and petty delaying tactics?  Tsk, tsk, I'd thought better of you than that."

Ken's gaze was hard.  "Believe what you like.  You'll be finding out the truth of it soon enough."

Katse's smile slowly faded under Ken's deadly serious expression.  But it didn't do so for long.  "I'm calling your bluff, Gatchaman.  Destroy me if you can."

The comm screen went blank.

"Joe, Ryu, get to it before he comes up with something to divert us!"  Ken sat back down.

Timidly, Jun placed her gloved hand over Frost's own as she leaned over to gaze into his face.  Frost's eyes stared at nothing, his face hard.  "I'm sorry, Michael..."

His gray eyes focused back around them and turned to look at her.  "There's nothing more any of you could have done... I know that."  His voice was soft.  "I didn't really have much hope that Katse would suddenly listen to reason."  His gaze left her concerned face and turned to look once more out the front screen.

"I'm ready when you are, Joe," Ryu said.

            "Go for it!"

            The God Phoenix shot towards the Galactor mecha as Joe set three missiles on their way.  As they'd expected, the tentacles gathered together at the targeted area and formed a shield to protect it.  Speeding in after the missiles, Ryu sharply changed course as they connected with the erected shield.

            Braced against Ryu's chair, Joe waited patiently for his opportunity to fire.  As the God Phoenix careened over the top of the shield and over, Joe fired, finally locking onto a clear target.

            Two missiles were already under way when the God Phoenix was violently slammed from behind. 

            Joe was thrust hard into his console, a blue clad hand reaching out for him as he was then propelled backwards.  Ken grimaced as he kept his precarious hold on his temporarily dazed friend, even as Joe tried to gain purchase on the back of his seat.  "Chikusho!"

            The God Phoenix tumbled as it was batted about, clanging noises reverberating throughout the ship.

            "Ryu, get us out of here!" 

            "I'm trying, I'm trying!"

            The ship pitched and yawed violently as Ryu struggled with his controls.

            "Joe, give those bastards something else to think about!"

            The Condor stared at Ken in confusion for a moment before comprehension dawned.  Timing the erratic movements of the ship as well as possible, Joe left the safety of the back of Ken's chair and leapt for Ryu's.  Landing hard, Joe quickly wrapped his arm tight against the head rest before another jerk of the ship could pitch him away.  Holding on for dear life, Joe lifted his foot and slammed his heel down on the ship's missile firing button.  He lifted it just enough to do it again and again.

            Instantly, most of the pounding against the ship ceased, as a large number of the attacking tentacles moved to block the outgoing missiles.  With one hard pull of the controls, Ryu seized the brief respite and thrust the God Phoenix on a high speed course away from the tentacles' reach.

            "Did we damage it at all, aniki?"  Jinpei strained to look out the front view screen from Joe's station, not yet ready to release the death grip he had on the chair's arms.

            Ken didn't answer, instead signaling Ryu to turn them around.

            The tentacles were still moving randomly across the dispersed structure of the ship, yet it was almost immediately obvious that one of the struts was being used less than the rest.  Moving to view that side of the mecha, the team quickly found out the reason.  A large, uneven hole was gaping form the struts' side.  As far as they could tell, however, that was the only damage their risky effort had brought about.

            "What's it going to take to destroy that thing?"  Joe's frustrated question spoke for them all.

            "At least there's an opening now," Ryu said.  "If one of us could somehow get inside...?"

            "I'll go!"  Jinpei stood up excitedly, hoping against hope that they would allow him to go do the quick-and-thorough job he knew he was capable of doing.

            "There's no time for that."  The odd tone in Ken's voice brought them up short and made them glance out the view screen before them.

            The white spires of Linthinium's royal castle gleamed in the bright sunlight, contrasting against the backdrop of the large mountains beyond.

            "Can... can your ship do its transformation again?"

            All eyes turned to look at the doomed kingdom's pale-faced ruler.

            "It should, but why -"  Ken stood up, his eyes widening with startled realization.  "The damage we could inflict that way from the inside..."

            Both men stared at one another, the look in their eyes showing their hope that this new gimmick would work where the other had not.

            "No, you can't!"

            Both of them turned in surprise at Jun's anguished statement.

            "Ken, he's already been through this once and it was almost too much for him.  He could be seriously hurt, or killed if you have him go through it again!"

            A glint flashed  in Frost's eyes at Jun's words, an almost unnoticeable smile touching his lips.  Ken's, which lay partially concealed behind his visor had gone blank.

            "I'm sorry, Beautiful One, but this has to be done."  Frost spoke only to her.  "My people come first."  He turned to face Ken once more.  "Commander, please, we're running out of time."

            Ken turned away from the gray stare, not once looking in Jun's direction, and sat back down.  "You heard him, people. Ready yourselves for the Fiery Phoenix."

            "Ken!"  Jun moved to rise out of her seat.  He just couldn't do this.  There had to be another way!

            Frost's hand landed on her arm.  "I will be fine.  Trust me.  We have to do this."

            Jun heard the reassurance in his tone but didn't believe it.  They should have never allowed Frost to come on board in the first place.  What had Ken been thinking?

            Not knowing what else to do or how she could stop this, Jun stayed in her seat.

            Making sure all were ready, Ken pulled the lever down.

            The God Phoenix hurled itself towards the still moving mecha like a falling meteor, transforming into its bird shape and spreading its fiery wings as it closed in on its prey.

            Tentacles moved swiftly to intercept the Fiery Phoenix and prevent it from its chosen destination only to melt into slag as they crossed its path.  With a scream of victory, the Fiery Phoenix plunged into the whole yawning on the Galactor ship's side.

            Only moments later, the Fiery Phoenix burst in a cloud of flame from within the mecha and into a clear blue sky.  Dark smoke stained the heavens as the Galactor ship suddenly lurched in the air, wracked by violent explosions.  Its tentacles writhed madly, trying somehow to attempt to avoid the destruction that spread like a plague all about them.

            The God Phoenix left the mecha behind, its flames dying and as it changed once more to its normal red and blue shape.

            A bright burst of light and sound flared out behind them sending showers of small metal pieces raining down to the land below.  Larger pieces of tentacles fell helplessly towards the ground as they no longer had anything to cling to, except for one of the tips, which suddenly extended a set of hidden wings.  With a burst of a now exposed engine, the newly created rocket rapidly sped off towards the far horizon.

 

 

 

            The bridge of the God Phoenix lay unusually silent.  The ninja team was strewn about their stations, none of them moving as a shrill beeping sound suddenly filled the deathly silent room.

            After a minute or more, Ken moaned softly as the beeping continued to ring insistently in his ear.  The shrill noise eventually forced him to open his eyes, its high pitch digging in his head to give him a piercing headache.

            Almost as if a deep fog were lifting, the memory of what had just transpired slowly trickled back into Ken's awareness.  Exerting his will, he forced his tired body to sit up from where it lay draped across his console.  His gaze slowly drifted towards the Owl's station and he found Ryu fallen over the arm of his chair.  Ignoring the still insistent beeping, Ken got to his feet and then somewhat unsteadily stumbled over to him.  "Ryu, wake up.  Ryu!"

            Ken shook his teammate trying in vain to set him upright, even as he had to lean on Ryu's console for support.

            Ryu moaned loudly after a few moments, his eyes fluttering open to stare at Ken in a daze.

            "Ryu, the ship needs you," Ken said.

            The Owl's eyes abruptly became a little clearer.  "Roger."

            Making sure that Ryu would remain upright on his own, Ken regretfully pushed himself away from the console and made his way towards the others.

            As he reached the back, he noticed that Jun was already sitting up on her own, her head cradled in her hands. "Jun, are you all right?"

            Dark circled eyes looked up at his question even as Jun tried hard to smile.  "I'm all right...  Now if I could just get my head to stop spinning..."

            Ken leaned heavily against her chair and tried to return the smile.

            "Jinpei...off..."  Joe's request was barely more than a grumble.

            "But, aniki, it's so comfortable here..."  Jinpei's eyes never opened and he didn't try to move despite the fact his inaction could earn him a hard bop. 

The hit never came as Joe could only find the strength to growl his displeasure.  Neither of the two looked to be in the mood to move any more than they had to, which at the moment was not at all.

Ken couldn't help but grin at them.

"Frost?"

Ken's gaze returned to Jun as she leaned over her armchair to touch Frost's shoulder.  The prince was slumped over the console, his face turned away from them.  He made no reply to Jun's query.

Jun stood up too fast, her face suddenly creasing with concern, and almost fell over in the process.  Ken moved to the other side of Frost's chair a strange mixture of emotions flowing through him, and helped her sit him up.  The shrill beeping continued to fill the bridge.

Frost's face was totally without color.  His closed eyes looked sunken, with wide dark circles running beneath them.  A trickle of bright red ran from the corner of his mouth.

Though Jun shook him almost roughly, still Frost didn't respond. "Michael!"

 

 

 

 

 

How long she'd been sitting here, Jun couldn't remember.  In a sort of daze, she recalled the seemingly timeless periods when one or another of her friends had helped her keep her silent vigil in the large room. Colten had sat with her at every available moment, holding her hand, regretfully excusing himself and asking for her forgiveness whenever duty called him away.

Off and on, each of her friends had tried to get her to leave so that she might eat, maybe even sleep, but she wouldn't do it, couldn't.  It wasn't right that he was lying there so quietly, so pale, while she hadn't been hurt at all.  It was wrong.

And... and she cared for him.  She knew that now.  Might she even be falling in love with him?  The question had been buzzing in the back of her mind even before this tragedy began.  Jun had found herself yearning more and more for Frost's company.  Yet he could so frequently and easily infuriate her.  But he could also please her, embarrass her, and make her lose herself entirely in a span of but a few seconds.  Was that love?

She sighed feeling the weight of her exhaustion as well as other things. What about her feelings for Ken?  She'd loved him for what seemed like forever, hopeless as it so often seemed.  Should she give up that comfortable, familiar kind of love for one that might be more erratic yet burn hotter than anything she'd known before?

If only everything weren't happening so fast!  How could she be sure she wasn't being influenced by all the weirdness that had happened to her of late?  Would she feel the way she did if she'd met Frost as a normal girl, without all the world-threatening business getting in the way?

Frost should never have been allowed to come with them!  She should have protested it when she'd had the chance.  She should have forced Ken to make him stay. She should have done something...  Instead of letting herself be lulled by the eagerness to be able to share her secret life with Frost, to give her a chance to show him what it was they went through - so that he could see what had made them as they were.  But she'd given in to this strange, secret desire, driven on by her joy at Ken's and the team's acceptance of Frost to the point where none of them had disputed his coming along.

Jun felt hot tears fill her eyes as they had done so many times that day.  Colten didn't even blame the team for what had happened, no one did; and it was horrible - horrible!  It was their fault!  They should have known better that to take a civilian out to battle.  They knew better!  Frost's life had been endangered by her own stupidity.  She looked up guiltily towards the cause of her concern. 

A lone light lit the darkened room, dimly illuminating the folds of an unbelievably wide four poster bed.  Frost lay tucked beneath the bed's heavy covers, only his head showing through.  His pale face and hair seemed almost to glow amidst the darkness, a beacon for her desperate gaze.

He'd been unconscious for so long... The doctors had seen to him immediately and had later told them that he'd passed on into a deep sleep sometime during the late afternoon. The diagnosis had been good.  No one had seemed overly concerned. Damage had been minimal, still Jun couldn't bring herself to believe it.  She wouldn't believe it until Frost was awake and made it clear to her. 

Though she knew she had no cause, Jun had been gripped by a fear that he would never awaken, that Frost would never be there to tease her again, that there was damage caused inside him by the Fiery Phoenix effect that none of them had seen. Until she saw him smile again, until he made her blush again, she wouldn't let herself believe that he was all right. Only then would she really be sure.

The hours had dragged on and she'd yet to even see him move.  If she hadn't occasionally reassured herself by watching the perceptible rise and fall of his chest beneath the covers, she would have been certain he was dead. 

He wouldn't die on her!  She would kill him if he did!  Jun abruptly chuckled humorlessly at the irrationality of her thoughts.  She felt tired, so horribly tired, but she couldn't sleep, she couldn't leave.  It was partially her fault Frost was here like this, and she couldn't shake the feeling that something would go terribly wrong if she didn't stay.  Yet she was so tired...

Jun jerked up from where she sat in the deep comfortable chair, realizing that she'd almost dropped off to sleep.  Roughly, she got up from the chair and started pacing about the dark room, making herself look about her though she'd not bothered to do that before.

Now that she did, she stared curiously at the neatly stacked toys sitting on a set of low wooden shelves - the remnants of Frost's happy youth before it'd been destroyed by Galactor.  She picked one up, handling the smooth wood in her hands, picturing Frost as she'd seen him in that picture back at Crescent Coral.

Putting the toy back, Jun found her wondering gaze caught by a large painting hanging on the wall directly across from the wide bed.  From where she stood, Jun studied the dark enshrouded figure of the woman within it. From what little she could see, the woman was tall and her stance was graceful and natural.

Overcome by a surge of curiosity as she wondered who the woman might be, Jun walked closer to the picture to try and get a good look at the at her face.  Hunting around for a nearby light, Jun noticed a set of carefully hung lamps surrounded the painting.  She was able to quickly find the switch for them, and after hesitating for a long moment, she flicked it on.

Instantly the lamps around the painting came on and suffused it with a soft white light; making it come alive in the darkness.

The young woman indeed was graceful.  It showed in every line of her body.  She stood at ease amidst a breathtaking field of colorful flowers, which rather than take the attention from her, it actually made her presence stand out all the more.

The woman wore a sleeveless light gray dress that flowed past her knees.  A rose-lipped smile bloomed lightly on her slightly angular face.  Captivating green eyes called for Jun's attention.  How much more beguiling they might have been in real life, Jun dared not guess.

A hint of an idea as to who the mysterious woman might be tickled Jun's mind as she was finally able to disengage her attention from the green, piercing gaze to look upon her long flowing white-blond mane.

"Her name was Eleina."

Jun snapped around, startled by the familiar voice.  She could barely make out Frost's form within the dark canopy of the bed as he struggled to prop himself into a sitting position.

"My father... it pained him to see it, so he gave it to me... I've always kept its memory with me."

Jun glanced one last time at the painting and the woman within it before slowly moving to the right side of the large bed.  "Was - was she as beautiful in real life?"

"I... don't know, though I've always fancied that she was."  Frost's voice was soft.  "She died when I was very young."

Jun reached the side of the bed and ached at the pain she saw momentarily flicker across his face as he stared at the painting before them.  "I'm so sorry."

Frost's sparkling gray gaze turned to meet her own.  "There's no need for it.  You can't miss someone you've never known."

Jun was forced to turn away to hide her face from him.  She knew from her own experience that what he'd just told her was a lie.  She felt tears gather in her eyes over the pain she'd felt at missing her own parents and the pain she knew he felt as well.  Helplessly, she tried to stop them, knowing that her exhaustion was working against her.

"How long have I been like this?" Frost asked.

Jun quickly raised her hand to wipe at her eyes, still keeping her back to him.  Trying to sound more normal than she felt, Jun made herself answer him.  "It - it hasn't been too long.  Perhaps a day?"

He didn't seem to notice her uncertainty.

"Have there been any other attacks?"

"No, everything's been quiet."

Jun could feel Frost's eyes on her.  Guilt, anger, relief, and utter exhaustion swirled simultaneously inside her, none of which she could control at the moment.

"Beautiful One -"

"How dare you call me that!"  Jun whirled around to face him, her mixed emotions covering her face.  "Why didn't you listen?" She half-pleaded, half-accused.  "Don't you realize how close you came to getting yourself killed?"  She looked away.  "You knew better.  We knew better!  What would your people have done if you'd been killed?  Where would they be without you?"

Jun turned angry eyes on him, wanting, yet not wanting him to respond.  While a part of her thought that it was mightily unfair of her to be yelling at him like this, another part was sure that it was probably long overdue.

Frost's face lit into a brilliant and mischievous smile.  "Missed me, did you?"

Jun's anger stalled as she stared at him in open mouthed surprise.  A grin suddenly tugged at her lips, her anger irrevocably dissolved, leaving behind only relief and exhaustion.  She didn't realize she was crying until the hot tears splashed onto her shirt.  Quickly, Jun turned away hoping in vain that he hadn't seen them.  "I - I'd better go now."  Her voice wasn't quite steady.  "You need your rest.  I can finish giving you my lecture tomorrow."

Without waiting for a reply, Jun got up and started towards the door, feeling what little control she still had over her tears quickly fraying.

"Jun - please!"

She stopped, hearing something she didn't understand in Frost's voice.

"Won't you stay?"  His voice was barely audible.  "For some reason, I... I don't relish the prospect of being left alone just now."

Jun shook her head slowly, momentarily unsure on how to respond.  He sounded so vulnerable.  "I - I can go find someone else to stay with you.  I'm really tired and should have gone to bed sometime ago."  Though she meant what she said, she made no move to go on towards the door.

"If it's your virtue that concern you, I promise, on my honor, that I will try nothing.  It will remain intact." 

Jun frowned.

"It isn't as though I'm in any shape to try and take advantage of a not-so-helpless maiden..."  His voice was filled with mirth.  "Wouldn't you agree?"

A splintered sigh eased from Jun's lips as she fought to decide on what things she should or shouldn't do.

"I would consider it a great favor," he said.

Drying her eyes as inconspicuously as she could, Jun turned around slowly and tried to smile.  "All right."

"Thank you."

Jun almost frowned again at the large amount of relief she sensed in those two words.  Silently, she moved back to the bed.  Not daring to meet Frost's gaze, she carefully moved aside the curtain on the bed's canopy and sat down.

Keeping her back to him, Jun stiffly removed her shoes.  Trying to act as if she were unconcerned about how close she was to him, though at the moment she could think of nothing else; she lay down on the bed, on top of the covers.  She let the slow realization that Frost would be all right drag her down into the depths of long denied sleep.

 

 

 

 

The door quietly inched open into the prince's dark room.  Silently, Ken slipped inside, holding onto his resolve like a cloak, a determined look on his face.  "Jun?"

Getting no response, he gently closed the door behind him.  Glancing about the barely lit room, his gaze was caught by the lit-up oil painting across from the canopied bed. 

For several long moments, he stared wonderingly at it, almost entranced by the gentle beauty captured there.  Tempted, but deciding not to go for a closer look, Ken moved forward to the high backed chair where Jun had been keeping her constant vigil.  When he went around it and was surprised to find that it was empty.

Knowing from her previous protests that she wouldn't have left the room of her own free will, Ken looked about trying to find her.

He was just starting to think that perhaps one of the others had somehow succeeded in making her leave, when he noticed a pair of clothed legs through the half closed curtains of the bed. 

Carefully making his way there and shifting the curtain to the side, Ken found Jun stretched out on top of the bed's cover.  Her hair had fallen, partially covering her face and her eyes were closed in sleep.

Ken smiled a little at what he saw, not entirely able to help himself.  The smile slowly disappeared though as he raised his eyes and found Frost's covered form laying not too far away. 

If Jun had succumbed to sleep, it meant that Frost had awakened at some point.  Had he asked her into his bed or had she unthinkingly decided to lie there?  Ken shook his head to drive the question away.  After all, it was none of his business.

Perhaps Jun would be happy with Frost. Actually, he very much doubted that she wouldn't be.  Frost would be good for her, the prince had proven his worth to them all.  He would miss her, perhaps even regret all the ‘might have beens' once their battles with Galactor were finally over.  But then, that didn't matter either.  This would be the best thing that could ever happen to her.

Ken found himself staring softly at his teammate.  On impulse, he studied Jun's face very carefully, engraving every line and dimple into his memory.

Jun shifted.

Surprised by the movement, Ken stepped hastily back.  Abruptly deciding that he didn't want to be found there by her, he almost collided with the chair behind him.

Ducking down, he realized after a moment that she hadn't awakened.  Instead, she'd curled her legs up against her body.  Ken wondered if she was cold.

Although he knew he should be moving to get out of there, Ken quickly glanced about looking for something to cover her with instead.  He found a discarded afghan on the floor.  More than likely, Colten had brought it for her earlier in the day and Jun had dismissed it as she had everything else.  Picking up the afghan, Ken gently laid it over her.

Absently, he carefully moved the hair away from her face.

He really would miss her.  And if Jun stayed, would Jinpei do the same?  With a small sigh, Ken stared at her one last time before letting the canopy's curtain fall between them.

As silently as he had come, Ken made his way to the door.  He never noticed the piercing gray stare that followed after him.

 

 

 

Jun awoke slowly, her mind wandering aimlessly as her cob webbed brain tried to clear.  Barely opening her eyes, it took her a moment to notice the bright sunlight coming from somewhere behind her.  Stretching as she turned to lay on her back, her eyes followed the light to the huge windows that were open to the clear sky.

Jun sat up and with a yawn gingerly stretched again.  As the afghan slid down to her lap, she realized that she'd been sleeping in her clothes.  Frowning at this, her gaze wove more carefully about her.

She wasn't in her own room.  Then where...?

The events from the day before abruptly came back to her.  Turning where she sat, Jun looked for the object of her previous vigil.  Her brow furrowed as she found that Frost wasn't there.  Quickly glancing about the room, she found she was alone except the eternal form of Eleina guarding the bed.

Running a hand through her disheveled hair, Jun rushed out of the bed only to notice a large silver tray sitting on the nightstand beside the bed. 

On the tray, sat a still warm pot of tea and a plate full of delicate pastries.  A folded note sat between the two.  Without pausing to think about the food, she reached for the note.

 

            Good morning, Beautiful One.

            I had things to do and couldn't find the heart to disturb you.

            If you're up by then, I will see you at lunch.  Don't worry,

            I'm fine.  Thank you so very much for your company and

            Your indulgence of a foolish prince. 

 

                                                F

 

Reading the note over again, Jun slowly frowned wondering if he could actually be as fine as he claimed.  And he'd just left her there!  He said he didn't want to disturb her but she was disturbed.  Jun's building annoyance was suddenly waylaid by a loud growl from her stomach.  She sighed.  While pouring herself a cup of tea, Jun quickly bit into one of the pastries and then chased it down with the tea.  As soon as she was done, she made her way hurriedly out of the room.

Licking the sugary topping off her fingers on the way to her room, Jun stopped in the hall as it occurred to her to wonder what the others had thought at seeing Frost up and about this morning with her nowhere in sight.  Would they have asked about her?  Would he have told them that he'd not awakened her because she was tired?  Would he then have added, with that mischievous smile of his, that she was still asleep in his bed?  Jun felt her ire rise knowing Frost wouldn't be able to resist the temptation.   He would have had the lot of them jumping to all sorts of conclusions.  All the wrong conclusions!  She'd wring their necks if they had.  And if they dared tease her...!

Even so, as Jun reached the hallway containing all their rooms, she glanced down it from the corner to make sure none of the team were around.  Seeing no one, she ran to her room, closed and locked the door once she was inside. 

For over a half hour, Jun bathed, scrubbing, soaping and soaking, until she finally felt more like her old self.  More prepared then to find out what everyone had been up to, Jun got dressed and went looking for them.

 

 

 

"How much longer are we going to be staying here?" Joe asked.

Ken looked up from his coffee, which he'd been idly stirring for the past hour and a half.  "Why do you ask?"

Joe scowled slightly, obviously not liking his question to being answered by a question.  "Let's go for a walk - now."

Ken's brow raised up a bit at Joe's ‘not be debated with' tone.  After a moment, he set his spoon down and got up to go with him.

Walking away from the small hill where they'd had breakfast earlier that morning, Joe silently led them to the left, towards a maze made of sculpted hedges.

Ken waited expectantly as they walked into the maze, but his somber companion said nothing.  Joe continued on at a fast pace until the tall, wall-like hedges hid them totally from view.  Only then did he stop and turn to look at Ken.

"I think it'd be best if we went home as soon as possible," he said.

Ken frowned.  "Why?"

A flash of impatient anger flew across Joe's eyes, but was quickly subdued.  "We're finished here.  We should leave.  The sooner... the better."

Ken slowly shook his head and walked further into the maze.  "We still have our second mission to complete."

"Are you willing to pay the price that's going to cost you?"

Ken snapped around, feeling suddenly annoyed.  "Will you just get to the point!  I'm not in the mood to play twenty question with you."

Joe glared back at him, but was silent.  After a moment, he stepped up until their faces were very close.  "We've been here too long.  If we stay, we're bound to lose her."  His voice turned to almost a whisper.  "It may already be too late."

"You brought me all the way out here to talk about Jun?"  His annoyance growing, Ken forced himself to turn away from his second in command.

"Yeah, that's right.  You know, Jun, the girl, our teammate."  Joe's voice dripped with his own anger.  "I wasn't kidding when I told you Frost would try to keep her here.  And if we don't leave now, she's bound to let him!"

"So?"  Ken shrugged, not looking at Joe.  He was only too aware of that already.  He started back the way they'd come.

"Dammit, Ken!  If she stays, there's a real good chance Jinpei will stay too.  What good will the Gatchaman team be if we're cut down to only three of us?"

Ken didn't answer but kept on walking.

With a grimace of barely restrained anger on his face, Joe stomped up behind him and yanked at his arm, forcing Ken to turn around and face him.

"Let go of me, Joe."  Ken's tone was cold.

"No.  We're going to talk about this."

Ken's face was hard, his eyes expressionless.

Joe didn't back down.  "You can't stand there and tell me you don't care about whether or not she goes or stays," he growled.  "She's family, damn you, and we all care for her.  Why are you just standing there letting her be taken from us?"

Ken's eyes narrowed dangerously at the accusation.  "I'm not doing any such thing."  He shrugged out of Joe's hold.  "If for some reason Jun decided to stay and marry Frost, it'll be her decision.  I won't stand in her way."

Joe looked disgusted.  "You're that afraid to fight for her are you?  You think you're that outclassed?"

"That has nothing to do with it."  Ken kept his voice level, trying hard to keep his growing anger in check.

"Then talk to her!  Let her know there's something waiting for her if she comes back with us."

"You have no right to ask that of me!"  Ken almost screamed this in his face.  How dare he?

"No one can offer her that but you."  Joe's dark eyes locked with Ken's.

"You know I can't do that."

Joe snorted.  "It's not that you can't.  It's that you won't."  He grinned without humor.  "You're too stupid to do what's best for you."

"It doesn't matter."  Ken shook his head slowly as if from regret.  "I won't do it."

Joe's grin turned into a nasty smile.  "I can make sure you do."

"You can't and I won't."  Ken tensed.

"You  -- will!"  Joe launched himself at him.

 

 

 

 

"Sigh.  I wish I had a kite."

Ryu looked down at Jinpei as the latter stared with a whimsical look at the wide open sky.  "A kite?  What for?"

Jinpei shot his large friend a reproachful look.  "To fly it, you moron!  That's what they're for."  He looked once more at the sky.  "Look at this place.  It'd be perfect!  You could run and run ‘till the kite flew on forever.  There'd be nothing to get in your way..."  A faraway looked settled over his features.  "I wish I had a really large kite..."

"Maybe you could ask, Colten.  He might be able to find one for you."

"Nee-chan!"  Both Jinpei and Ryu turned in surprise to find Jun standing behind them.  She gave them a big smile.

"Did Frost join you all for breakfast?" she asked.

"Yeah," Ryu answered cautiously.  "Though you didn't show."

Unobtrusively, Jinpei reached over and jabbed Ryu in the ribs.  "What he's really trying to say, nee-chan, is that we missed you.  Isn't that right, Ryu?"

Ryu quickly nodded, his cheeks turning red.  To her chagrin, Jun now had no doubt that most of them had assumed the things she'd hoped they hadn't.  She made herself ignore it.  "Did he seem all right to you?"

"Who?"  Jinpei and Ryu looked questioningly at her though she had thought it would have been perfectly obvious whom she meant.

"You know, our host, Michael Frost?"  She stared at them as they still looked a little befuddled.  "Are you two feeling all right?"

Ryu and Jinpei exchanged odd glances before deigning to give her an answer.  "Everybody's fine, nee-chan.  He was walking a little slow, but said he was okay."

"He left after breakfast," Ryu added.  "Said he had to catch up on stuff."

Jun nodded absently at their replies.  She wondered how much weight she should give their information.  "Do you know where the others are?"

"Ken was still at the table when we left earlier, nee-chan," Jinpei replied.  "We have no idea where Joe went."

"Do you think he might have gone with Frost?"

            Jinpei shrugged.  "Don't know.  Did you want us to go looking for him?"

            "No, no, I was just curious."

            Ryu and Jinpei joined her as she moved to stand in front of the stone veranda and stared out at the manicured landscape.       

            "Nee-chan... Do you really think Colten might have a kite?"

            Jun smiled at her brother's one track mind.  She found it hard to believe that he was the same person who'd not long ago had thought such awful things about her.  "I don't know, Jinpei.  But it would be worth a try."

            "Hey, who's that?" Ryu asked. 

            Jun and Jinpei followed his gaze towards the far side of the lawn.  Two figures, barely visible, moved away from the distant hedged maze.  Keeping a five foot distance from one another, the two figures staggered their way slowly towards the castle.

            Not sure of what was going on, all three started towards the pair, afraid that perhaps Galactor hadn't given up after all.  As they got close, they suddenly realized who the pair were. 

            "Ken!  Joe!"

            Both men lifted their heads in their direction and stopped.  It didn't take Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei long to run up to them.

            Grass stains, scrapes, and small cuts covered the two men from head to foot.  Surly expressions met their questioning gazes, though neither Ken or Joe would look at them directly.  Jun had seen them in this kind of state before.  The only thing was, as far as she knew, there was no reason for it.

            "What happened?"  Jun stared at them very concerned.

            Joe glanced at Ken, waiting for him to answer.  When he didn't, Joe glared at him and then answered for them both.  "Nothing much, I guess."  He sent another glare in Ken's direction.  "We weren't watching where we were going and tripped.  No big deal."  Joe shrugged, his eyes telling a different story.

            Ken said nothing on the obvious lie.

            "Uh - yeah."  Jun bit her lip not sure what to make of all this.  "Are you hurt?"

            Both shook their heads no and then glared at one another for having responded in the same way.

            Jinpei dodged for a moment behind his sister's back, glancing at Ryu.  He made an ugly face and twirled his finger at his head, giving his opinion on the whole affair.  Ryu quickly nodded agreeing whole-heartedly.

            The glaring kept on between Ken and Joe with Jun not at all sure what she should try to do about it.  Without warning, however, Joe grinned nastily in Ken's direction, his eyes brightening with obvious delight.  "Jun, there's something Ken is dying to talk to you about."

            "Shut up, Joe!"  Ken took a menacing step towards him.

            Joe's grin widened, an almost triumphant gleam in his eyes.  "I think this would be the perfect time, Ken."

            Ken took another step towards Joe his eyes bright with anger.  Abruptly exerting control, he stopped, his body stiff, his hands bunched into fists at his side.  "Joe..." His tone dripped with promised dire consequences.

            "Come on.  Go ahead."  Joe's grin grew into a smile.  "Now she won't leave you alone until you do."

            Ken's mouth twitched at Joe's smug comment.  A moment later, however, his whole stance noticeably relaxed.  "All right, you win...  I was going to wait until lunch, but I guess now that I've got no choice..."

            Joe stared hard at Ken, a suspicious look in his eyes as he waited for him to go on. 

            Jun stared from one to the other wondering what in the world was going on.

            "We're all to meet at two this afternoon in the sitting room.  It's been agreed that it's time for us to discuss our second mission here in Linthinium.  Please make sure you all show up on time."  Without waiting for a reply, Ken turned away and continued on towards the castle.

            "Ken!"  Joe's furious voice called after him, but Ken never slowed or looked back.  Joe's murderous fury spilled onto his face, his body tensing to strike.

            "Joe!  What is it?  What's wrong?"  Jun recklessly stepped in front of him blocking Joe's view of Ken's retreating back.  His burning gaze locked with her own, yet he was still the first one to look away.

            "Joe... What's happened?" Jun asked.

            He tried to slip past her to go after Ken.  Jun reached out and took hold of his arm to stop him. 

            Joe glanced back at her, knowing his gambit might now backfire.  He was fuming.  Ken, you bastard!  Rage and disappointment welled within him. Yet going after Ken again wouldn't solve anything.  His friend could at times be as stubborn as he was, and he was proving that today.  Joe's anger eased a bit.  Still punching Ken in the face again would have made him feel at least a little better.

            "Joe?"

            His dark blue eyes locked with Jun's.  Here was his opportunity.  Perhaps he could do what Ken wouldn't.  He could tell Jun how much she meant to all of them; how her level headed, and sometimes calming influence was something he didn't want to do without.  He could tell her all these things, stack the odds in their favor, so that when the question came - as he no longer had a doubt it would - there might be at least a slight chance that Jun would decide to stay with them instead of Frost.

            Joe opened his mouth intent on saying all this and more; wanting to express his feelings more than he'd ever wanted to in his life before.

            "Joe?" Jun's brow furrowed.

            "Jun - we - I - "  The words stuck themselves stubbornly to his throat, Ken's previous words and Jun's trusting gaze tripping him up before he'd even begun.  "Jun - uh -"  Joe looked away.

            He wasn't meant for this kind of thing and he knew it!  Damn Ken for putting him in a position he'd known damn well he couldn't handle!  It wasn't his place, he had no real right.  Yet the only one that might have any say, the only one who could possibly give Jun a reason to stay, was the very one who was willing to let her go!  "Jun, it was... nothing." 

            Joe tried to walk away then, but Jun was still holding onto his arm.  "Joe?"

            Jun's emotion laden whisper tore into him, but he still remained silent.  What could he say?

            Seeing that he wasn't going to add anything else, Jun reluctantly let go of Joe's arm. 

            Without once glancing back, Joe walked away from them, returning once more to the green hedged maze.

            Jun's heart screamed for her to go after him, to try and somehow convince him to tell her what all this had truly been about.  She didn't move, already knowing the uselessness of it.  So much had been happening lately - too much.  How was she supposed to keep up with all of it?

            Jun turned around, knowing there was another way of finding out what she wanted.  Something important had happened since Galactor's defeat and Frost's collapse and she intended to find out what it was!

            The burning question died on her lips as Jun confronted the two stares that looked as confused as she felt.  Trying hard to smile at both Ryu and Jinpei, she said nothing.  Whatever had happened, it had been strictly between Ken and Joe.  Until one or the other broke down and told them of their own free will, none of them would ever be able to find out what this had been all about.




To be Continued…

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