Ken, Jinpei, and Joe stood before the rapidly growing crowd. Already, they'd recruited some of the civilians already there to usher the newcomers into lines. The ninjas kept the people up front from entering the wide ramp, not wanting to risk the eager escapees' safety until Ryu had arrived.
Joe tapped Ken on the shoulder. "Ryu's not answering."
Jinpei snorted. "I bet he's asleep, aniki."
"Short-stuff here is probably right. Can I give him a ‘wake-up' call?"
Before Ken could answer Joe, Jinpei took matters into his own hands. "RYU!"
"Jinpei!" Ken and Joe simultaneously tried to reach for the youngest member of the team as his scream still echoed in their ears.
"Oops! Sorry! I forgot about the earphones." Jinpei dodged like an eel out of their range to a safe distance. "I -"
Ryu's panicked voice drowned out the rest of Jinpei's response. "What's going on? Are you guys hurt? What's happening?"
Ken switched his communicator. "Ryu, we're all right! Jinpei just got a little carried away, that's all. We were trying to get in touch with you to let you know that we're ready for the God Phoenix."
"Oh." There was dead silence from the other for several seconds. "I was asleep, wasn't I..."
"We could hear your snores coming over clear as day."
While Jinpei was busy teasing Ryu, he didn't notice Joe sneaking up behind him. The Condor wrapped his arm about Jinpei's neck so he couldn't get away and pounded the top of his helmet. "We could always have Jun come back early and let her know just what you've been up to," he threatened.
"No, no, please don't!" Jinpei quit trying to get out of his hold. "I'll be good. I promise!"
Joe squeezed his arm against the boy's throat tightly for a second and then let him go. "You'd better."
"I - I'm sorry, Ken." Ruy's guilt laden voice whispered over the comm.
"Bring the Phoenix five degrees northwest from your present location," Ken commanded. "There should be a clearing about four miles from your present position. Land on the eastside, before the wide opening there."
"Roger." Ryu sounded unusually subdued.
Ken took a deep breath before raising his visor partway as he turned to face the crowd of nervous people before him. "Our transport is on its way. It'll be here in just a few minutes." He tried to sound as reassuring as possible. "This will all be over very soon. Please pass it on to those behind you."
The people closest to him replied with small, shy smiles. As Ken lowered his visor, a soft murmur ran through the crowd like a wave as the news was passed on.
"Joe, Jinpei, I'm going top side to wait for Ryu. I'll let you know when he gets here." Ken turned to go.
"Well, if you see Jun, maybe this would be a good time to talk to her."
"Joe." Ken's warning tone was very clear.
"It was just a thought - commander."
Ken ignored Joe's reply and moved on up the ramp.
Reaching the top, Ken carefully checked out the barren landscape, while trying hard to subdue the dull anger that burned inside him at his friend and at himself.
He'd known that he'd be a member of the Science Ninja Team since he was eight. There'd been nothing else for him since then. He'd wanted nothing else - he'd never looked beyond it. He'd never thought or wanted a personal life. The stakes were too high - there was too much to lose. And he wouldn't be the first to give up things for the greater good. Nambu had set his whole life aside for the sake of the world. He would do no less.
Still, he'd always had feelings for Jun -- that he'd never been quite able to deny. But he'd tried to stifle those distracting feelings as much as he could over the years. He'd always treated her as a teammate, a friend, keeping their relationship at a level he could deal with. Yet Jun's blossoming relationship with Frost had brought up so many feelings he'd hardly suspected he had and all of them he needed so desperately to ignore. What good would it do him if he gave in to them? As long as Galactor was a threat, he had a duty to perform. And he could die at any time because of it. He might be asked at any moment to give the ultimate sacrifice for their goals. What would Jun have then? And the team would need her more than ever. She wouldn't need the added distraction. He didn't want to leave her with only a legacy of pain and heartbreak.
Also, to be honest, he had no experience with this type of thing... He doubted he could ever be romantic. He didn't even think he could learn to if he tried. He wasn't rich. He had no family, no history. He had nothing to offer her. Yet he'd always known Jun had feelings for him. But why did she feel that way? And why did he for her? It was inconvenient and it made no sense. And he hated things that made no sense.
Ken's gaze traveled back and forth, his eyes moving as erratically as his thoughts. Abruptly a flicker of movement caught at his attention and all his musings stopped. For the first time, it dawned on him how rocky the area beyond the clearing really was - how much more cluttered it was than the rest of the surrounding area. With a cold feeling, it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps this wasn't natural, but designed.
Keeping his gaze locked on the spot where he'd sighted the movement, Ken sprinted to the nearest clump of rocks.
Moving slowly among them, he crept to the place he'd kept in constant sight. Upon reaching it, he found nothing. But looking a little further, Ken found what looked like a small path moving down a set of parallel jutting rocks. Silently, he followed the trail until it split. With great care, he climbed the small rock wall there, wanting to get a look at what lay beyond before deciding which of the two ways to take. Carefully taking a look over the edge, he froze as he spotted two dark figures sneaking in his direction.
It was only a moment before he recognized the two as Jun and Frost. He was about to call them, when Frost suddenly turned and fired at something off to the side. Jun turned with him and started firing as well.
Without hesitation, Ken leapt over the rock wall, his tranq gun in hand, even as a number of barely visible forms rose up from other piles of rocks to aim weapons at them.
Quickly firing at those he could see, Ken saw that Jun and Frost had yet to realize they were surrounded. With a burst of speed, he made his way towards them.
"Jun, behind you!"
She turned, something about the desperation in the familiar voice making her think it was already too late. In one smooth move, Jun raised her tranq gun even as her eyes locked onto the gun barrel that was pointed straight at her. Subconsciously, a part of her acknowledged the presence of the heavily camouflaged Galactor as his finger squeezed the trigger that would mean her death.
The flash from the submachine gun registered in her mind even as she was slammed into from the side. Unable to stop, she collided with Frost, and brought them both down. The sound of gunfire echoed in her ears as she hit the ground hard.
Jun didn't let herself think or even be surprised about Ken's unexpected presence there. Ignoring everything, Jun twisted on the ground and shot at the man who'd just fired at her before he could reaim.
"There's an outcrop close to our right," Frost said hurriedly. "Help me with him and let's make for it!"
Not sparing the time for a reply, Jun took one quick glance at Ken's prone form to find his arm, while still firing blindly about her. As Frost took hold of him as well, they both stood up and ran for cover as fast as they could with their burden.
Though not entirely sure, Jun thought she'd seen some of their attackers fall. She hoped she wasn't wrong.
As they made the safety of a jutting rock, pain filled gasps came clearly over the comm. Jun's concerned gaze moved first to Frost, and then more fearfully to Ken, not sure if what she was hearing belonged to just the one or both of them.
Frost sat down heavily, gently laying Ken out beside him, and began inspecting his wounds. Jun hugged the edge of their momentary haven, shooting anything that moved while at the same time concentrating on not thinking about the possible extent of Ken's injuries.
Frost's suspicions had proved right. There had been someone out there. But as they'd come to find out - they were terribly hard to spot. These guards weren't wearing the standard Galactor uniforms. Instead, they wore clothing that enabled them to blend in easily with the land around them. So much so, that the light intensifying capabilities of their visors hadn't helped. They hadn't even realized they'd been surrounded until Ken...
As Jun sent out a couple of darts to discourage two Galactors trying to inch towards them, her gun clicked empty. Reaching into the side pocket of her backpack, she drew out four more clips. Peeling off the backing on all but one of them, she placed them against her leg and they stayed. The last she promptly slapped home into the tranq gun after throwing the spent clip on the ground. As she finished, Jun found her gaze inadvertently wandering towards the two men with her, even as she heard Frost rip open part of Ken's bloodied suit. Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke. "How bad is it?"
Frost didn't look up at her question, but continued to gently prod at Ken's exposed flesh. "I can't really tell. I've found four entry points so far. Two went clean through. The other two penetrated the armor but don't appear to have gone in deep."
"Can you help him?" Jun was glad that her visor hid her face even as she did her utmost to sound calm.
Frost removed his backpack and rummaged inside it. "I can patch him up, stop any external bleeding."
"Please, do what you can. I'll keep the Galactors busy." With all her will, Jun forced herself to block out Ken's masked, bleeding form from her mind and turned her full attention back to the men who wanted to kill them.
Over the next several minutes, Jun was only able to down one of the Galactors. Chips of rock lay all about her from where they'd taken occasional pot shots at her and missed. Jun had to work hard to spot the enemy, their special uniforms letting them blend too well with the arid landscape. She lost all sight of them as the God Phoenix thundered overhead heading west.
"Frost, I think we're going to have to move," she said. "They're getting too close."
"All right, I'm almost ready."
Jun heard movement behind her followed by a loud hiss of pain. As she glanced inadvertently over her shoulder, she froze. Frost had turned Ken over and carefully removed his helmet. Ken's face was a mask of pain.
Jun bit her lip hard, her eyes filling with tears. Seeing his face destroyed the wall of seeming indifference she'd been trying so hard to maintain, and drove home the seriousness of their predicament and what it might ultimately mean for them.
Ken's partially glazed eyes opened and stared at her in the darkness. "Jun, call Joe... get to... the Phoenix..."
She stared at his pained, perspiring face, tears running freely down her cheeks and out the bottom of her visor to stain the dry ground beneath her. She didn't notice as Frost looked suddenly away. "Roger."
Jun turned from him, trying to recover her composure. She felt like a fool for not having thought about calling the others before. Slowly, she reached up to switch her communicator to its broader setting. "Joe, Jinpei, are you there?"
"Yes, we're here." Joe's voice came over strong. "Where are you guys? Ryu is here and it's time to go. Ken's also missing."
Jun bit her lip again. "Joe, we're in trouble. We've been ambushed by a Galactor patrol... Ken's been wounded."
"Aniki!" Joe and Jinpei almost overrode each other in their surprise. "How bad?"
Jun hesitated a moment, before forcing herself to answer the question as calmly as she could manage. "We're... we're not sure, but it doesn't look good. We need help. I think they're closing in on us."
"Where are you?" Joe's tone was almost impatient.
"East of the entrance - I'm not sure how far," Jun answered. "The Galactors are wearing special camouflage uniforms and are very hard to spot. We've tranqued a few of them, but I don't know how many are left."
"I'll be right there."
Joe suddenly overrode Jinpei's eagerness. "No, you'll stay here and help Ryu. He can't deal with all these people alone."
"But, aniki..." Her brother sounded ready to argue. They didn't have time for this!
"Jinpei, it's all right. Your job is important." Jun tried to inflect as much as she could into her words. "You have to guard those people. Joe can easily deal with this."
There was a long pause. "Okay, nee-chan, if you say so..." He didn't sound happy.
Jun sighed as she switched the communicator back to its default setting. She raised her visor as she knelt next to Ken. "Joe is coming. We'll get you out of here soon." She quickly lowered her visor again as she felt tears threatening the corner of her eyes. When she looked up, she found Frost's visor staring in her direction.
"We need to move," he said.
"Yes, we need to give Joe as much time as possible."
Silently, Frost handed her his extra clips of tranqs. Leaving his backpack where it lay, he knelt down carefully and placed his arms gently beneath Ken's shoulders and knees.
"Won't he be too much for you?"
"No, it's all right," he answered. "I have experience in this line, remember?" Frost slowly moved to stand with his burden. Ken moaned softly but did nothing else. "Where to first?"
Jun made herself look away from them and checked out the terrain around them. "There, by those boulders. They look more defensible than here."
"On a count of three, start off and I'll follow. I'm going to try and pick them off as they come up to fire."
Frost nodded again.
Jun felt her heart slamming hard in her chest. "Are you ready?"
"Okay then... one, two, three!"
Frost ran from the concealment of their current shelter, Ken's weight sitting heavily in his arms. Jun heard his labored breathing as she shot out right behind him, her eyes darting over everything but them.
For the first few seconds they encountered no resistance. After that, however, a number of figures popped up close to their just vacated haven and started coming after them. As fast as she was able, Jun fired at them, using her own body to shield Frost's if they decided to return fire.
One of the Galactors finally did, shooting ahead of them in an effort to cut them off. Jun itched for her yo-yo, her miniature explosives, anything that would help her rid them of these men in large numbers rather than having to pick them off one at a time.
Slowed by Frost's lack of speed due to his burden, the Galactors quickly gained up on them. With dull horror, Jun realized that they'd never make it to their new haven in time. "Frost, go on, save him! I'll join you when I can."
"Wha -- ?" He was trying to look behind him slowing down even more as he did so.
"Don't slow down! Just go! Trust me." Picking up speed, Jun swerved to the right and jumped into the air. She drove her foot at the nearest Galactor as she flipped in mid air, shooting another in the face. Not daring to hesitate, she gave in fully to her training, mentally urging Frost to safety. Jun kept herself in the midst of the Galactors, hoping they wouldn't fire in such close proximity for fear of shooting each other. She had to buy Frost time.
"Stop or I'll kill them where they stand!"
Jun glanced back towards the unfamiliar rough voice and froze.
Twenty feet away, Frost was poised to go over the crest of a small hill of rocks. He stood stock still as the barrel of a large submachine gun appeared from within the area they'd chosen as their next haven. Soon, Jun was able to make out the heavily dressed man wielding it.
"Drop you weapon - now," he ordered. "I've no qualms against killing these two."
Moving very slowly, Jun did as she'd been told. Keeping her voice low, she spoke into her microphone, hoping against hope that her teammate was close enough to hear. "Joe, hurry up. We're in deep trouble." She didn't receive a reply.
"Now raise your hands and move away from my men!"
Guns were aimed at her from every direction by the men still able to do so. Carefully raising her hands, Jun moved away from them and to the right.
"Now take off your helmet. And while you're at it, take off all the other gear you have on you as well." The Galactor leader sounded smug. "And no tricks, or they die."
Keeping her movements simple and non-threatening, Jun slipped off her backpack and removed the clips still attached to her leg. As they fell around her, she reached up very slowly to remove her helmet. Her gaze never wavered from Ken and Frost, even as the Galactor leader shoved them away from the hill of rocks.
As she lifted her helmet, drowning her sight in momentary darkeness, Frost was tripped to his knees. With the barrel of his gun pressed against the side of Ken's head, the Galactor used his free hand to remove Frost's tranq gun and helmet.
Jun let her helmet drop to the ground still trying to get her eyes to adjust to the night's darkness. The sky was clear, allowing the stars overhead to shed enough light to eventually allow her to vaguely make out the shapes of the people around her. Jun shook her head loosening her damp, coiled hair so that it fell about her. This elicited a number of excited murmurs from her captors.
"Well, well, well, isn't this interesting," their leader said. "A female wildcat. Things have just gotten a little brighter today."
Jun saw Frost shoot the man a cold stare that went totally unnoticed.
Jun glanced clinically about her, noticing that most of the guns were still aimed in her direction. A few of the men she had injured in the fight got up and walked around slowly, gathering their tranqued comrades.
"Now... you three are here and a ship has also landed nearby," he sidled up close. "I want you to tell me what's going on here."
Jun glanced at Frost, who held Ken protectively in his arms, and then spoke. "We're on maneuvers. Night practice for the Black Squad. We weren't aware that there was anyone else here." She lowered her voice as if embarrassed. "We originally mistook you for our assigned opponents in tonight's exercise."
The Galactor leader eyed her for a long time. "Nice story," he said. "Good try." He smiled nastily. "Don't worry though, we'll have plenty of time to sort this all out to my satisfaction." He then turned to look at Frost. "You, put him down."
Frost glanced up in confusion as the Galactor leader pointed at the unconscious Ken. "Why?"
The question got Frost a boot rammed into his side. Leaning forward in agony, Frost didn't release his hold on Ken.
"You're not here to question me! Just do as you're told!" A sadistic smile crossed the half masked face. "We have enough incapacitated men of our own. You and the girl are basically intact, however. We'll get the answers we need from you - we don't need the extra baggage." His face turned hard. "Now put him down."
Frost's expression turned stubborn. He didn't move. Jun felt her chest tighten in helplessness, knowing what would probably come next.
"Suit yourself, though I think you will find the process somewhat messy." He turned to two of his men. "Hold her." As they moved to comply, he approached Frost and kicked him again. As the prince gasped in pain, the leader brought the barrel of his submachine gun to Ken's temple.
Jun's face twisted in anguish as they took hold of her arms knowing there was nothing she could do. That if she even tried - she would die the same as Ken, leaving Frost on his own.
The leader grinned cruelly at them as his finger ever so slowly moved to squeeze the submachine gun's trigger. Suddenly, however, he looked up and behind him, his hand reaching for the back of his neck and then unexpectedly collapsed.
Jun didn't wait to try and find out what had happened, but instead used her guards' surprise at their leader's actions to escape their grip and attack. As soon as she had incapacitated the two of them, she dived into the midst of the other Galactors and attacked them en masse.
Something stung her arm, making it feel numb and then warm, even as shots rang out carelessly about her. Jun noticed something dark dart by just at the edge of her vision, but ignored it as it didn't immediately threaten the lives of those she was hoping to save.
A Galactor dropped in front of her even before she'd had a chance to lay a hand on him. Jumping out of the way, kicking another, her gaze locked on the fallen guard long enough to make out the shape of a familiar feather dart sticking out from the back of the man's neck. A tide of fresh energy flushed through her at the proof that help had definitely arrived.
After an interminable amount of time, Jun looked around for another target and found none. Joe's masked form turned towards her from ten feet away and raised two feather darts in salute. He raised his visor as he came near. "Like I've always said - never leave home without them."
Jun found herself helplessly returning Joe's smile.
"Hey, you're hurt!"
Jun stared at Joe in confusion as his expression changed from amusement to concern. He hurried to her side to inspect her arm. As Jun finally spotted the trickle of warm blood flowing from there, her thoughts snapped back to those whose safety she'd been so concerned with in the first place. "Frost! Ken!"
She turned to look at where she'd last seen them. Only the body of the dead Galactor leader was there. "Joe, they're gone!"
Her head abruptly started to throb making her vision blur. The pain in her arm finally made itself felt. Her heart beat rapidly inside her chest even as she tried to understand what she was seeing. This couldn't be! What had happened to them? If she'd lost them... "Michael!"
Her mind sweeping towards total panic, Jun rushed to where she'd last seen them, glancing frantically about. Joe came up behind her but she never noticed him at all.
Both their heads swiveled simultaneously in the direction of the barely heard call. Joe held Jun back as she tried to bolt forward, and snapped his visor back into place.
"Joe..." She tried to pull away from him.
"I can see with this. You can't," he said, the helmet muting his voice. "It could be more trouble."
Jun bit her lip and then scrambled back as he let her go, to retrieve her own helmet. Joe crouched down as he left her behind to silently go over the rocky hill and move to the outcroppings farther on where the voice had come from.
Jun quickly found her helmet and donned it with shakings hands; then moved to follow after him.
As she came down the small hill's other side, she saw that there was no one there. Jun partially raised her visor. "Frost?"
Joe snapped up one of his feather darts as gravel trickled down from the rocks above. A black boot now protruded from a shadow enshrouded cleft.
"We're up here..." Frost's voice whispered down to them from above. "I'm going to need some help."
Without hesitation, Joe and Jun climbed up to either side of the cleft.
"You're... going to have to pull us out... I guess I didn't consider how I would get out before I got us in here." Frost's semi-embarrassed tone made Jun instantly feel more at ease. He was all right! That quickly changed, however, after they'd pulled them out and Jun caught sight of his face. Frost's pallor was almost as pale as Ken's.
Before she could say anything though, she saw his eyes go wide.
"Beautiful One, you've been injured!" His gray eyes rose to meet her in obvious concern.
"It's nothing forget it." How could he be worried about her right now? "How are you and Ken?"
His expression sobered. "I'm all right, but we really need to get your commander some medical attention."
"Here. Let me take him." Joe moved to take Ken from Frost's arms.
Joe pulled his arms back in surprise, not having expected the savagery in Frost's response.
The prince's gaze abruptly avoided their own. "There... there must be other Galactors out there," he said guiltily. "You'd be too burdened with him to react. I'll take him."
Joe's visor stared at Frost long and hard before silently moving out of the way so that the prince could start to come down. Jun watched him in confusion, knowing from the small taught lines on his face that he was in pain. She almost suggested that he let her carry Ken, but didn't, half afraid of what his response would be.
Though her arm was now beginning to hurt in earnest, she reached out to steady Frost on his way down. Jun watched him in silence as he grimaced when he stood up, taking the full burden on Ken's weight. If Frost faltered, she made up her mind right there and there that she'd take Ken away from him by force if need be. Why did he always have to be so stubborn?
"Jinpei, Ryu, is everything ready yet?"
At Joe's question, both their voices poured from the ear pieces their words jumbled together as they each tried to make themselves heard over the other.
Joe cut them off. "Will you two chill out? We should be joining you in just a few minutes. Joe out." The condor took the lead, his head moving from side to side as he scanned the area. On his signal, Frost followed after him with his burden in hand. Jun stared worriedly after him, bringing up the rear.
As they came close to the Galactor entrace, Joe ventured on farther ahead and signaled to them as soon as he'd deemed the area safe. Moving as quickly as their situation allowed, they closed in on the God Phoenix. The ramp on the ship was down, an anxious Jinpei moving back and forth before it. As soon as he spotted them he gave out a welcoming yell and waved for them to come over. Joe had him lead the way inside quickly as the small party reached the ramp without incident.
Joe and Jinpei opened a path for Frost through the crowd of refugees gathered in the hold. Frightened, unsure faces stared at the four of them as Ken was carried towards the elevator.
"Ryu, we're in," Joe spoke into his communicator. "How about getting us the hell out of here?" He held the elevator door open as Frost gingerly moved to get in.
The God Phoenix vibrated around them as the engines were brought to life. Within moments, they felt the pull of gravity as the ship rose into the air. Jun stared at her brother as he slowly raised his visor, his eyes never leaving Ken's unconscious face. She could see tears forming in his eyes, and felt some gathering around her own in sympathy. Trying not to let it get any further, she quickly squeezed his shoulder in reassurance.
Frost half stumbled as they reached the ship's small infirmary and deposited Ken into the nearest bed. Joe stopped and removed his helmet, and ran his fingers through his hair. Jun removed her own, as she hovered by the recessed bed Ken had been deposited into, her brows wrinkled in concern.
"There are all kinds of supplies in here. Use whatever you need. Just make him hold on till we get back to your place." Joe's expression was hard, his voice steady. Only the dead look in his eyes expressed that he was expecting the worst.
Frost's gaze rose to meet his. "I'll do what I can. Just get us back as fast as possible."
Joe nodded. Taking hold of Jinpei's thin shoulder, he turned to leave. Jinpei sent a querying glance in Jun's direction, but she never noticed it. Her gaze was fixed on the two men before her. Joe dragged Jinpei out without another word.
Jun stood in silence as Frost checked out and then turned on the beds monitoring untis. Stiffly, he rose from the side of the bed and searched through the sealed cabinets along its side.
Jun didn't miss the pain that crossed his face as he moved to reach into the drawers above the bed. "Let me get that for you." Not waiting for a reply, she reached past him to bring down the package of bandages he'd been about to grab. Placing the package at Ken's side, Jun moved to open a closet by the infirmary's door. She removed a small stool that lay hidden inside it. "Here, sit. I can get what you need," she said. "I know this place better than you do. Tell me what you want and I'll find it."
As she spoke, Jun found herself slightly distracted by the pallor of Ken's face. Her stomach knotted up inside her as her mind quickly pointed out how close Frost's own color resembled their current patients'.
"Won't they need you on the bridge?" Frost's gaze didn't meet her own as he spoke.
Jun bit her lip, realizing that it sounded as if he wanted to get rid of her. Why would he want to do that? "No, they'll call me if they do. Right now, the two of you need me more."
Frost turned away from her as he slowly sighed. "Where... where is your drug cabinet?"
Jun gave the prince a long questioning look before reaching below the edge of the bed and popping open a secret compartment there. "Each bed has its own supply. There isn't much to work with, but..."
Even as she spoke, Frost leaned gingerly over the open drawer and quickly scanned its contents. Jun heard him sigh again as he removed a can of disinfectant and four packets of aspirin. Ripping open two of them, he swallowed the aspirin dry.
"Help me turn him over." He still wouldn't look at her. "I need to change his bandages."
Jun hesitated, her eyes moving from Ken's unconscious form to Frost's tense face. Then she moved up against the side of the bed and placing her hands at Ken's shoulder and thigh, she carefully helped Frost turn her wounded friend over. Her breath caught in her throat as she noticed the dark stains that had soaked through the bandages Frost had placed on him earlier.
Working quickly, Frost removed each bandage, cleaned and sprayed disinfectant all over each wound before covering it up again. With Jun's help, he turned Ken back over onto his back.
Jun sent him a worried glance as she saw that his hands were shaking with exhaustion as he removed a pair of scissors from the drawer. When she realized what he meant to do with them, she took them from him. Frost didn't try to stop her.
She quickly cut away enough of Ken's uniform so that they could remove the rest of it and Frost was able to search for any wounds he might have missed before.
"Could you bring some more blankets?" Frost asked quietly. "We need to keep him as warm as possible or he's liable to try and go into shock."
Tearing her gaze away from the shallow rise and fall of Ken's chest, Jun quickly scavenged every blanket in sight and brought them over to him. "How is he?"
Frost didn't answer the question immediately as he had Jun unfold three of the blankets and had her spread them over Ken's exposed form.
"Well, I haven't found any evidence that he's bleeding internally, which is good. And since we stopped his bleeding early, he hasn't lost too much blood." His voice grew quiet. "He seems to be holding his own... despite all the interruptions." Frost's gaze moved to meet her own. "I think he's going to make it."
Jun searched his face, looking for any sign that he didn't believe what he'd just told her. A dizzying wave of relief cut through her as she found none. "I'm so glad you've been here to help him," she said gratefully. "I doubt any of us could have done as well. Your help has meant a lot to me, to all of us. I'm sure Ken will be very grateful too, especially after all the trouble you went through to protect him."
Frosts' eyes slightly clouded over. He made no reply to her praise.
"Is there anything else I can do?" Jun was almost forced to ask her question again, at first getting no response.
"Yes... actually... there is one thing..." Frost slowly rose to his feet and pointed at the vacated stool. "Sit."
"I said sit."
Jun stared at him in confusion for a moment and then moved to do as he'd bid her. Frost knelt down beside her and stared in silence at her puzzled face. After a long moment, he tore his gaze away, gently turning the stool she sat on until she faced away from him.
"Michael?" Jun started to turn back around, his silence making her suddenly nervous.
"Be still. I want to look at your arm."
Though it had been throbbing in the background all this time, it was only now that he'd mentioned it that she remembered the wound was there. "It's nothing, really. It's just a scratch," she reassured him. "There's no need for you to bother."
Frost gave her an odd look, not saying anything, before reaching for the small pair of scissors still sitting at the edge of the bed. With painstaking care, he cut away part of the sleeve on her left arm. "Oh, but I have to bother, Beautiful One. I'd never be able to forgive myself if you were ever seriously injured because of me."
Jun heard something in Frost's voice that she was hard pressed to identify. She grimaced slightly as he carefully pulled the blood soaked cloth away from the coagulated wound. "It's my own fault," she insisted. "I should have been more careful. It's a consequence of the job we've all come to grips with..." Jun's gaze strayed guiltily towards Ken's face as she spoke.
"We were very lucky things didn't end up worse."
Jun snapped her gaze towards Frost and found his features veiled and uninformative. "But they didn't. We were successful."
Frost lavishly sprayed disinfectant after he'd cleaned her wound. Jun flinched a little as it burned into her skin.
"Yes... we were..." Frost's tone belied his agreement.
Jun opened her mouth to say more, but stopped. Something was obviously bothering him, but she wasn't sure what it could be. Taking a chance, she said what first came to mind. "It's not your fault, you know. No one's blaming you."
Frost's gray gaze looked up at her in surprise, his hands still busy bandaging her arm. His expression appeared dark for a moment, but it quickly changed as he suddenly smiled. "I know."
He finished bandaging her arm.
Jun stood up slowly, watching Frost struggle to his feet. "We have two other beds. Why don't you rest in one of them for a while. I'll keep an eye on Ken." Jun didn't look directly at him, not sure how he would take her suggestion.
"I'm glad you volunteered," he said. "I was about to ask you."
Jun breathed a sigh of relief, amazed that it had been so easy.
Frost looked over at her. "But I wasn't planning on resting quite yet."
"Your team's work is over. It's time for mine to begin." Frost gingerly moved towards the infirmary door.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot. "I don't know what you've got in mind, but you're in no condition to do it!" She forced herself to spit the rest of it out. "You're almost in as bad a condition as Ken."
Frost stopped at the doorway. His shoulders sagged as he sighed. "Beautiful One... I have to do this. There's a hold full of frightened people down there, who are even now questioning the wisdom of having come with us. I need to talk to them."
Jun saw the truth of what he was saying, but didn't like it. "I can do that for you. Please stay here and rest. You need it." She felt her anger stir as he slowly moved his head from side to side.
"This is my job. I'll take care of it."
"Why are you so stubborn?"
Frost looked back at her over his shoulder wearing a small, wicked grin.
It made Jun's anger spark into a raging bonfire. "You're not going anywhere and that's final! I'll stop you if I have to."
The grin on the prince's face softened even as a flash of color flushed into his cheeks. "It's true, you could stop me - but you won't. You know I have to do this." Without waiting for a reply, he turned away and left the room.
Jun stared angrily at the empty doorway. After a few moments, she sighed and collapsed back onto the stool letting her anger go. Her eyes roamed between Ken's unconscious and seemingly peaceful expression and the readings on the wall beside him.
"Nee-chan?" Jun glanced over her shoulder to find her brother peeking in through the doorway. "Is aniki going to be all right?"
"He's holding on," she answered. "I'm sure he'll be all right once we get him to Linthinium." Jun tried to give Jinpei a reassuring smile, but wasn't sure if she was successful. "Has Joe called on ahead?"
Jinpei's gaze strayed from the occupied bed back to his sister. "Uh, yeah, he spoke to Colten. They're gonna have doctors waiting for us when we get there."
"Do we have an ETA yet?"
Her brother took several guarded steps into the room, his eyes never leaving the bed.
"Huh?" He looked over at her as if snapping out of a trance. "Oh... ah... yeah, less than two hours. Ryu's got the throttle pushed all the way and Joe-aniki has his hand over his helping him."
Jun noticed how his eyes stayed glued to the figure covered in blankets not ten feet from him. "Jinpei... would you like to sit with me for a while?"
Joe slipped silently into the infirmary, studying Jun as she stood vigil over their unconscious commander. "How is he?"
Jun looked up in surprise. It was obvious she hadn't realized that anyone was there. "A... a little better I think. His signs are stable. Frost's checked on him a few times and thought so too."
Joe moved closer to the bed, his blank expression hiding the concern eating inside at him. None of them had ever been hurt this bad before. Sometimes he'd half come to believed they couldn't be hurt. He stopped beside Jun, gazing at his best friend's face in silence.
"Where is his highness anyway?" he asked a few minutes later.
Jun shook her head and sighed. "He's with the refugees, giving them peace of mind." She frowned a little. "You wouldn't believe how scared those people are. Frost would come in here to check up on Ken and in less than a minute several of them would have tracked him up here looking for him. At least half of them are convinced they've fallen into some kind of Galactor trap. They're just waiting for the axe to fall."
"I see." Joe looked at her for a moment. "I take it then that he hasn't rested at all?"
Jun shook her head again. "I threatened to stop him, but he called my bluff."
Joe's brow rose. "You should have called me. I would have taken care of it."
"Why, Joe! I'm flattered."
They both turned around at the familiar voice. Frost stared at them with a slight smile as he leaned against the infirmary's doorway. "Are we almost there?"
"Yeah, we just crossed the border," Joe answered. "We should reach the castle in another ten minutes."
Frost sighed, his smile growing. "Excellent." He carefully pushed himself away from the door and walked into the room. "How is our patient doing?"
Jun stood up, offering him the stool. Her eyes never left his drawn face. "Ken's the same... and you?"
"Fine." Frost didn't look at either of them as he answered. He stopped before the recessed bed and leaned down to look at the readings on the wall. When he moved to straighten up, he swayed where he stood before toppling over.
Joe reached out for him and a pain filled gasp filled the room as he grabbed him by the side. "Fool! You've pushed yourself too far!" He dragged a gasping and unresisting prince to the bed next to Ken's. Joe set him inside it and then roughly threw a blanket over him.
"Thank you... I think," he hesitated, still trying to get his breath back. "Has anyone ever told you, you have a most gracious bedside manner?" Frost smiled sarcastically as he struggled to sit up.
Joe's eyes turned hard, a threatening look on his face. "Lie down!"
"My, my! So this is the look that sends Galactors running for their lives." Frost's smile widened as Joe's scowl deepened.
"That's enough out of you, I think."
Both men turned towards Jun, neither sure of which one of them she was referring to.
Jun hardened her resolve as she noticed the prince's too brightly lit eyes and the thin sheen of perspiration covering his pale face. "Frost, you're going to lay there and be quiet." He opened his mouth to say something, she cut him off. "No arguments." She set her fists on her hips a set look on her face. "You've been so busy with everything and everyone that you've neglected yourself and its taking its toll. I humored you for a while, but I won't anymore. Colten is expecting to get you back reasonably close to the condition you left in when he last saw you and I expect to give him just that."
Frost's brow rose in defiance. "And if I don't?"
"I'll have Joe sit on you until we land."
Frost stared at her serious expression and the sudden, eager grin spreading on Joe's face. "Is this really necessary?"
Joe's grin grew to extreme proportions. "No."
Frost gave them both a final look, frowned and then laid back down.
Within minutes, the God Phoenix slowly eased itself into the waiting ship's bay of Linthinium's royal castle.
No sooner had the ship's engines come to a stop that people started pouring out into the bay towards it. Cursing beneath his breath, a worried Colten limped after them as they left him behind.
The God Phoenix's ramp lowered, a flock of refugees standing about its rim in undisguised apprehension. Those outside the ship called to them with smiles and greetings, asking them to come on out. A bent old man and his wife meekly took the lead and shuffled down the ramp towards those waiting below. As they weren't gunned down but instead greeted with hugs, food, and flowers, those still inside took courage and followed after them.
Colten paced as he watched the outflow of refugees, a cosmetic smile on his face. Couldn't they hurry? As soon as the last of them had come down, he rushed up the ramp a medical team coming up behind him.
Joe, Jun, Jinpei, and Ryu all stood together at the back of the now crowded infirmary as Colten fussed over Frost and the medical team quickly checked Ken's condition before trying to move him. In minutes, both men had been loaded onto stretchers and carried out. No one paid Frost any attention as the prince heartily protested that he could leave the ship on his own.
Once out of the bay, everyone boarded a waiting transport and headed after others that were already on the way to the underground city.
When the group reached the hospital, Ken was immediately carted off towards an operating room. Trying to follow after him, the rest of the Gatchaman team were cut off as several doctors and nurses unceremoniously dragged each of them towards different examination rooms. Frost waved at all of them as he too was carted away.
After about a half hour, Jun found herself and the others released, so they gathered outside Ken's operating room to wait for news. It wasn't long before Colten joined them.
"How's Frost?" Jun asked him.
"The prince is shall we say, testy, at the moment," the old man looked as if he might chuckle. "The doctors have forbidden him to leave his bed. If we are fortunate, he won't think to disobey them until after the sleeping draught that was slipped him has had a chance to take effect." Colten was having a hard time keeping a mischievous smile off his face.
Jun was just about to ask more about Frost's condition and Colten's sneaking way of getting him to cooperate when the operating room's doors opened.
One of the doctors that had met them at the ship walked towards them removing his surgical mask and gloves as he neared.
"How is he, doc?" Jinpei was the first to ask what was on all their minds.
"You have an extremely lucky young friend there." The doctor smiled. "The main body wounds were all shallow thanks to the vest. No major organs were hit. There is some muscle damage in the legs, but with therapy, that can be overcome... A truly lucky young man..."
"So he -" Jun couldn't quite bring herself to say it.
"Yes," the doctor said. "He's going to be all right."
The cheer that followed echoed loudly down the nearby halls.
Ken floated in a haze, pieces of thoughts floating by in meaningless jumbles. After an eternity of time, as if from far away, bits of sounds penetrated into the nothingness around him. A part of him tried to ignore them at first but they became more and more insistent - as if they were coming closer. After an indeterminate interval, another part of him informed the rest that the intrusion was somehow familiar.
The familiarity of the sounds increased, and with it a sense of comfort so powerful that he almost allowed himself to be dragged back down into oblivion. Yet before he could do so, one of the sounds caught at his attention more than any of the others. Relief washed through him as he heard it yet again.
Why this would make him feel this way he had no idea, he couldn't remember. But now that he'd had a taste of it, he found that he wanted more. Grabbed by a strange sense of urgency and need, Ken moved away from the darkness.
"...doctor say aniki would wake up?"
"It should be soon, Jinpei. Don't worry."
His eyes opened to little more than slits and his gaze tried to focus on the fuzzy figures he discovered standing around him.
"I'm not worried, nee-chan. Aniki is as tough as a rock!"
"Yeah, and his head is sure full of them. Pulling off a stunt like that..."
Ken's attention riveted on the form that stood taller than the rest. He frowned as he tried to comprehend the things that his mind told him he already knew.
"He sure would have jumped our case if it'd been one of us. It should be fun watching what Nambu has to say about it once he gets all the details."
Joe! His muddled mind cried. That one was Joe! And the others - he knew them too. They were Ryu, Jinpei, and... Jun! "J - Jun." Ken;s gaze finally focused as he spotted her sitting nearby. In fogged amazement, he watched her turn towards him as she heard him call her name.
"Aniki! You're awake!" Jinpei almost jumped into the bed as he spoke.
"I think he knows that."
Joe missed Jinpei's gard glare as Ryu excitedly moved between them to get a better look at their newly awakened friend. "We've been real worried about you. How do you feel?"
Staring with a dazed look from one to the other of them came the shocking realization that they were real. Somehow, he was still alive. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as his gaze drifted towards Jun again. "You're... all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, her face bright. "We're all fine."
He didn't even feel it as she took his hand in hers, his eyes and senses completely captivated by her relieved smile.
"Joe helped rescue us in the nick of time. No one else was seriously hurt."
Ken nodded faintly.
"How do you feel?" Her eyes trapped his own. At the moment, he wanted nothing else. Still, it took him time to force his mind to think about an answer.
"Numb. Numb and heavy... How bad is it?" He found that the cobwebs in his brain were starting to disappear.
"Not bad. And damn lucky for you too!" Joe answered the question before Jun had a chance. "You should have know better, you idiot." Joe's eyes flashed with indignation but with something else as well. "You should have thought things through before running out there like a lunatic. How many times have you lectured us on that one, commander? Don't you practice what you preach?"
"You're absolutely right... I shouldn't have... I'm sorry." Ken saw Joe frown as his answer wasn't at all what his friend had been expecting. But he had been foolish, hadn't he.
"Don't listen to him, aniki," Jinpei grabbed at Ken's attention. "From what nee-chan said, if you hadn't done what you did, she and Frost might be dead now!"
"Oh, so you like him running blindly into the paths of bullets, do you?"
Jinpei turned in surprise at Joe's vehemence. His face quickly darkened with anger. "That's not what I meant and you know it!" Jinpei turned back around, his concern over what Ken might now think of his previous statement plain on his face. "It really wasn't what I meant, aniki!"
Ken couldn't help smiling.
Jun came to her brother's rescue. "He knows that, Jinpei. Just ignore Joe. He's just jealous he wasn't the one who got to rush out into a path of bullets."
As she finished her statement, everyone in the room turned to look at Joe. He met their stares head on with a harsh, disgusted glare, inadvertently giving substance to Jun's words.
Before he could stop himself, Ken burst out laughing, Joe's disgusted look overcoming him. The rest were quick to follow. His sides hurt terribly but he couldn't stop. Joe's soured expression slowly crumbled into a half-exasperated grin.
Struggling to catch his breath, Ken lay helpless as a doctor and nurse stormed into the room and quickly hustled out his friends. He could hear their protests at the treatment all the way from hall, even as the nurse insisted they'd have to wait until tomorrow to see him again. Enough of an exception had already been granted to them as it was - and Ken needed his rest.
The doctor, meanwhile, introduced himself, and once the nurse had returned checked him over before leaving him alone. In his newly gained solitude, Ken felt exhaustion sweep over him. He hadn't realized he was so tired before. Not fighting it, he let it drag him down towards sleep.
A soft thump somewhere to his left brought him back around a few hours later. Expecting it to be one of the team sneaking back in to see him, his eyes widened slightly as he spotted a red robed figure quietly closing the door. He recognized who stood before him even before the other had turned around. "Frost."
Startled gray eyes met his own. "I'm sorry. I hadn't meant to wake you."
"That's all right," Ken said, his mind furiously trying to come up with a reason for the visit. "I would have woken up soon anyway." He stared at the prince, who was leaning heavily against a cherry wood cane. Again he wondered what had brought him here.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" Frost asked. "My ribs have unanimously decided to give me hell this morning."
"No, please, go right ahead."
Frost nodded his thanks and slowly moved forward to occupy the chair next to Ken's bed. As he sat down, his robe parted, exposing the tight set of bandages wrapped about the prince's midriff.
"Is that from before?"
Frost looked momentarily lost as he tried placing Ken's question. "Oh, what, this? No, not entirely. It was a parting gift from our Galactor hosts."
That was all Frost gave as an explanation. Ken didn't ask him to elaborate, more curious about what had brought the prince on this unexpected visit.
The silence stretched between them, Frost's gaze never leaving Ken's own. With a tinge of nervousness he hoped didn't show, Ken looked away.
"I'm sure that you've learned by now that the mission was a success."
Ken glanced back at Frost's suddenly expressionless face.
"I owe that and more to your team." His voice was low. "I am very grateful for all that you have done for us."
Ken wasn't sure what to make of it. The expression on his face and the sentiment in his voice just didn't match. "We were happy to help. It's our job."
A sad half-smile appeared on Frost's lips. "You can't refute your virtues that easily, commander. I doubt that your illustrious Dr. Nambu could have found better candidates from which to form his team." He sat back, his gaze never wavering. "I may not completely agree with your methods, but I have come to see some of the reasons for them."
Ken said nothing. Instead, he watched Frost, painstakingly studying him from where he lay. And watching him, he could find nothing he didn't like. Frost had proved himself many times over in the last few days. And from the acceptance he'd received from the others, Ken knew they liked him as well. With a small pang of surprise, he came to the realization that if Jun chose to spend the rest of her life with this man, he could live with it. More than likely, it would be the best decision Jun would ever make. Who was he to stand in her way?
Ken turned his face away, not wanting to betray something he had no wish to share.
"I personally owe you a great debt," Frost said softly. "A debt earned by deeds above and beyond the call of duty. I am not blind. I know more than you think."
Startled, Ken turned back to Frost's calm, gray gaze. The latter leaned on his cane as he gingerly used it to help him rise to his feet.
"Commander... I always pay my debts..." He headed towards the door.
What had he meant by that comment? Ken forced himself to speak. "I don't know what you're talking about. You owe me nothing." What had he meant? "I would have done it for anyone."
Frost half turned and gave Ken a one sided smile. "But it wasn't just anyone, and it wasn't just me."
Before Ken could think on how to answer that, Frost slipped through the door.
The next few days passed quickly amid hives of activity. The people of Linthinium took in the refugees as if they were all long lost relatives. All their wants and needs were seen to even as they were given places to live within the city and were made to feel at home as much as possible. Stories made the rounds about the team's adventures and the details of the new comers' amazing escape.
Ken learned about all this and more, for he was often visited by his teammates, who came filled with the latest news. Of the odd conversation he'd had with their host, he never said a word - not even after Jun and Joe had filled him in on the details of all he'd missed once he'd gotten himself shot. Everything he heard only helped confirm to him that he was making the right decision where Jun was concerned. Still, everyday, his heart would skip a beat or two whenever she came into the room, sure that today would be the day that she'd give him the inevitable news.
"Nambu called again," Joe said. "He wants us to come home as soon as you're fit enough." His friend was alone in the room with him, leaning up against the wall his arms crossed over his chest. "He says there's some rumors of Galactor activity that he wants us to check out. He's already got Braun working on therapy programs so you can get back up to speed in case anything does show up."
Ken slowly lifted himself to a more comfortable position on his raised mattress. He could feel the stitches in his side pulling painfully as he did.
"So, when do you think you'll be up for it?" Joe asked.
Ken shrugged. "I'm ready now, but I'm not sure the rest of the team is."
A dark look crossed Joe's face. "If you're up to it, then we should go ahead and go. We've done all we were supposed to here. There's no reason to stay any longer. It's already been too long as it is."
Ken sighed. He didn't look at his friend, knowing only too well what Joe had meant by that remark. "It's her life... Her decision..."
"Her decision?" Joe almost screamed it at him. "How is she supposed to make one when she doesn't know all the choices?"
"It's what's best for her." Ken's hand knotted into a fist. He hadn't really wanted this to come up again. He could already feel the heat of Joe's anger radiating at him from across the room.
"So now you're her keeper as well as her commander?" Joe growled.
Ken snapped back. "Do you want me to get up so we can beat each other up for nothing again?"
Joe stopped short, already having taken several steps towards his injured teammate.
"It's been too late for some time, Joe. Nothing will change what's going to happen." Ken tried not to sound resigned, but he did. "Perhaps it'd be best if we just went home and got this over with. Please ask the doctor if I can be released."
"Ken." Joe's voice was low, his face contorted by a number of conflicting emotions. "You're a fool."
Ken let his head hang down, his dark hair falling about his face and said nothing.
Joe stalked out of the room before the urge to strangle his friend returned and forced him to do something he might possibly regret later.
With the doctor's consent for Ken's release, the team's departure was scheduled for the next day. Colten personally took charge of all the preparations. He insisted that they permit him to do so, that they should leave everything to him so that they could enjoy their last full day in Linthinium.
Other preparations that had been going on in secret were then revealed as a city wide celebration came into being. Giant tents were set up at all the major street intersections each filled with food and drink. Colorful streamers were hung from one building to the next and bright balloons decorated all the street lamps. A large platform was erected by the city's main doors and the festivity's six guests of honor was whisked away to adorn it.
Ken had been carted away from his room in a wheelchair lavishly decorated with rainbow colored paper and taken to join Frost and the rest of the team. Thousands of people paraded before them, hailing and blessing the surprised and embarrassed group as they passed by. Though quickly exhausted by the unceasing fanfare, Ken made no complaint. Once they'd overcome their original surprise, his friends basked in the appreciation flowing towards them. At home, they'd never had a celebration as personal as this. A celebration in which they need not fear the threat of snipers or Galactor attack, one in which they were being themselves and not their usual costumed alter egos.
Still, even with so much happening around him, Ken noticed little of it. His attention remained throughout riveted mostly on their host. It would be here. The place was perfect. Here, before all his people, Frost would ask Jun to join him, to become his queen as he too would soon become king. Ken's chest felt tight as he waited for the inevitable. Yet the announcement never came. Frost stood with them throughout, looking a little stiff, but a bright smile always on his lips. He never strayed far from Jun, though he wasn't too obvious about it.
Ken was tempted to try and resume the strange conversation Frost had started those few nights ago, as it looked more and more as the prince wasn't going to do as he'd expected, but he could never get a moment alone with him long enough to try. He'd decided he wanted to tell him, to let him know that he approved of his interest in Jun. He wanted to tell him again how Frost didn't owe him anything.
At times, Ken found himself studying Jun, a dull ache filling his heart as he watched her smile and laugh with those around her, sure that soon he would never see her do so again. When was Frost going to get this over with?
Jinpei and Ryu ate everything that was brought to them, pacing the platform in their overflowing excitement. Joe gave the appearance of being as merry as the rest, even making passes at a few of the locals, but it didn't escape Ken that he was purposely keeping his distance from him.
An hour before midnight, Ken could no longer deny that he'd had enough. Having sat in the wheelchair throughout, his legs felt stiff and his wounds burned from the constant jostling on the platform. Feeling deeply tired and achy, he called to Jinpei.
"You okay, aniki?" The boy's angular face came close to his so they could hear each other over the crowd.
"I'm tired. Will you take me back?"
He nodded quickly. "Sure. Do you want to say good night to the others before we go?"
Ken looked about the noisy platform and dismissed the idea. "No, let's not bother anyone."
Jinpei took charge of the wheelchair and zigzagging through the crowd on the platform, gingerly took them down the ramp in the back and wove through the crowded streets. Wherever they went, people offered them food and drink along with more thanks and blessings.
Feeling even more tired than when they started, Ken gave a grateful sigh as Jinpei was finally able to roll the chair into the hospital lobby. As they moved along the halls, the pervading silence seemed eerie in contrast to the life filled nose outside. Ken felt his exhaustion drape itself over him like a blanket, his body numb.
"Hm?" Ken opened his eyes, which had been drooping.
"Did you want me to help you and stuff?"
Ken blinked in surprise as he realized that they'd already reached his room. "No, that's okay. I'll manage." He wiped at his eyes. "Go on back, have some more fun."
Jinpei's face lit up. "Thanks, aniki!" He flashed Ken a lopsided smile and then headed for the door. As he opened it, he stopped and turned to look back at him. "Aniki? Do you think we might ever come back here again? I like it here."
Ken felt his throat go suddenly dry. He heard Joe's prediction whispering once more through his mind. He was suddenly, horribly sure that if Jun chose to stay - as he was all too certain she would - that Jinpei would choose to stay with her. "I... I don't know. There's always a chance...."
"Well, I hope so! Good night, aniki. See ya!"
Ken stared at the closed door for a long time after Jinpei had gone. A chill made its way unwanted down his spine as the same thought spun round and round in his head - his rule for non-involvement might just destroy the very things that it had been made to protect.
Forcing himself out of the mental loop, Ken turned his wheelchair around and moved it up to the bed. There was one way he could win, one way that wouldn't break the rules. He could use guilt to make them stay. All he'd have to do was let Jun know how her decision would deprive the Earth of its only true effective means to defend itself against Galactor. He knew they both would be only too aware of how hard it would be for Nambu to find replacements. But if he did this, would it be for the Earth or for himself? Disgusted at the thought, Ken thrust the idea away. He could never place that kind of burden on her. Frost and Jun both deserved better. He'd already made it up his mind, it was too late to change it now!
The rest of the night, his sleep was filled with restless dreams. When he awoke and had been brought breakfast, he found it tasteless. He could feel himself slowly tensing inside as he always did before a difficult mission. Except this wasn't a mission - it would be one of the hardest things he'd ever have to let happen in his life.
Ken dressed alone, slowly and awkwardly. He knew his teammates would be coming for him soon and he couldn't stop from wondering what it was that they would say to him. Surely Frost had made his move already. He didn't understand why he hadn't done it last night, but it didn't matter. Had Jun accepted? Of course she had. Would she tell him herself or would she have one of the others do it for her? He wasn't sure which would be worse.
Time passed and Ken grew more and more restless. He desperately wanted to get up and pace the room, and would have if he'd thought his legs would put up with the abuse for even a moment.
Trying to gain some semblance of calm before he went mad, Ken submerged himself in meditation. It eased his tension somewhat, even though it didn't entirely vanish his troubled thoughts. After a time, his eyes snapped open as he heard the door open behind him. Quickly covering his face with an easy, pleasant expression, he turned the wheelchair around to face the worst. His mask wavered for a moment as he didn't find any of the ones he'd been expecting at the door.
"Good morning. I hope you slept well."
Ken stared at Frost's lithe form, the latter's expression as lively and full of cheer as it had been the night before. "I slept fine... thank you. And you?"
"Never better, my friend. Never better."
Ken cringed inside, knowing the reason for his host's good slumber.
"I hope you don't mind, but I insisted that the others allow me the pleasure of escorting you to your ship."
Ken was barely able to keep himself from raising a startled brow. What was Frost up to? Had Jun decided that it'd be best if he heard of her decision from him?
His bright smile never faltering, Frost moved across the room and took a position behind Ken's wheelchair. He leaned over slightly as he moved to take hold of the handles there. "I'm sorry that your stay wasn't more enjoyable. It's a shame you couldn't stay longer. I was so looking forward to getting to know all of you better..." Frost paused for a moment. "Yes, I would have truly enjoyed that."
Ken glanced back at Frost and saw that his smile was almost dazzling. He didn't know what to make of it at all.
Frost pushed the chair towards the door. "Much as I may want to, I won't be traveling for a while," the prince's voice held a note of regret. "Colten has plans that will keep me very busy. It may be some time before I find myself in Utoland again."
Ken had a strong urge to glance behind him even as Frost pushed the wheelchair down the hall towards the elevator. He held himself in check, not wanting the prince to see any part of his ongoing inner conflict.
Frost didn't speak to him during the ride down, but instead exchanged some pleasantries with a couple of orderlies that rode down with them. He sounded at ease and all right with the world. Ken just felt as if he might explode. When was he going to get this over with?
Once on the ground floor, Frost wheeled Ken to the front desk where he was formally discharged. After that, they went outside and Frost pushed him up a ramp into the transport waiting for them there. Leaving Ken by the door, Frost set the chair's breaks before taking his own seat. With a tingling sensation crawling up the back of his neck, Ken wondered if the prince had purposely chosen to sit out of his direct line of sight. Though he could have turned his head easily to look back at him if he'd chosen to, Ken didn't.
As they rode on, Ken felt his hands starting to perspire, the tension building inside him almost a palpable thing. He knew Frost was working himself up to the inevitable. Couldn't he just get on with it though? What was he waiting for?
"You made the way quite easy for me. And in some ways I appreciate that." Frost voice was low. "Yet it bothers me that you gave up so easily. You don't seem to think very much of yourself."
Ken felt the transport slow down towards a stop, but ignored it. All of his attention was centered on the voice whispering at him from behind.
"She is dearly precious to all of us... But much more so, I think, to the two of us."
Ken felt himself go cold all over.
The transport's door slid open.
"If not for your actions, I might have been lost - and she, definitely so. My debt to you is two fold. For not only did you save my life, but you saved the life of the one who is most precious to me." Frost released the chair's brakes from behind and slowly pushed it towards the open doorway.
"Don't interrupt!" The retort was sharp, but still no louder than a whisper. "I want, and believe I could, convince her to stay her with me... But I won't. Because of what you've done for us, I'm going to give you the chance you've yet to allow yourself."
Ken opened his mouth to argue, but closed it back again.
"Because I owe you this, I will let her leave. Her feelings for you, the others, and her dedication to your cause will keep her from staying here without a direct invitation from me.
"But be warned, I will only hold myself back for so long.... My people will keep me only so busy..." His voice was close. "Make your move. Take the chance I've given you. Do with it what you will... But if you do nothing, or if certain things come to pass, I will come to take her from you. And then it'll be too late for you.
"Don't disappoint me Gatchaman... I am expecting a number of things from you..."
Ken didn't see the door to the hangar bay open up before him, his mind too busy trying to figure out all the implications of Frost's words. As he passed through it, he finally looked behind him. His eyes widened in surprise when he spotted Colten there instead of Frost. "Colten, stop, take me back. I have to talk to him!"
"I'm sorry, sir, I can't do that." The vassal's face was unreadable. "This is hard enough on the young prince as it is."
Ken couldn't see past him to see if Frost was somewhere behind them. Colten never slowed, despite Ken's protests, but continued to push the chair towards the waiting God Phoenix. His teammates were waiting for him by the ramp. He noticed Jun waving back at someone behind them. She then moved down the ramp towards him as the others went on inside.
"Hi, Ken," she said. "Everything's almost ready. Ryu just wants to check on things himself before we go."
Ken couldn't help but notice how she seemed distracted, her eyes flickering to look behind him across the bay. "That's fine."
"I... I guess I'll see you in a few minutes then. There's something I have to take care of before we go."
Ken opened his mouth to speak but found that he couldn't. As far as he was concerned, Frost didn't owe him anything. Yet, the prince had stated his feelings for Jun and was still letting her go. Ken wanted to tell her this - tell her so that she could thwart his plans. But a part of him rebelled at this. A part of him didn't want to throw away the opportunity he'd been given. There were so many things about himself and Jun he hadn't realized before their visit here. He needed time to think about them. And time to do something, if there was anything he could do. He'd been given a second chance - the team had been saved. He couldn't just give it up. So instead, he watched her go, saying nothing, even as Colten guided him up the ramp again.
A broad smile greeted Jun as she came out of the bay into the hallway beyond. An odd sensation thrummed through her as she found herself eagerly returning it. "I looked for you everywhere," she gave Frost her best chiding tone. "No one seemed to have an idea of where you'd gone. I started to think that maybe you wouldn't come see us off." And looked for him she had. She'd desperately felt the need to talk to him on this their final day - though what it was exactly that she wanted to talk to him about she'd not been so sure.
"Beautiful One, you couldn't have kept me away."
Jun lowered her eyes, suddenly finding Frost's gray gaze too intent to meet any longer. "I wish we could stay longer, but..."
"I understand... It's you duty." Frost reached out and briefly caressed her arm. "Without it, I doubt that I'd be standing here today. You've done much to brighten up my life."
Jun felt her cheeks grow warm. "I, I didn't do much and you know it."
Frost smiled in response. "I would suggest you take a look in your hold once you get home. Colten decided that there were certain culinary delights that the five of you might wish to try again."
Her eyes rose to meet his. "That's wonderful! Jinpei and Ryu will be ecstatic. Being the food connoisseurs that they are. They'll be very grateful." Because it would remind her of Frost and his country, Jun was very grateful as well.
"I did take the liberty of adding one more thing..." His eyes were bright, almost dancing.
"Yes. You'll find your dress wrapped in a box in the back."
"My dress?" Jun stared at Frost confused for a moment. When she realized what dress he meant, her eyes widened in surprise. "But, no, I - I can't! That dress... I didn't, I couldn't..."
He took her hands in his. "You must take it." His eyes locked with hers. "Don't refuse my gift."
Jun felt a thrilling chill flow through her. That marvelous dress!
"Besides, it's not my size." A grin tugged at his mouth as he spoke.
They both laughed softly, their eyes never leaving each other.
"There's on more thing I'd like to give to you." Still looking into her eyes, Frost reached slowly behind his neck. Pulling a long chain up over his head, he carefully removed the medallion Jun had seen him wearing a few times before. It was the same one he'd been wearing on the day he'd first shown up at the Snack J. "This once belonged to my father, and to his father before him. Always keep it near you to remind you of me."
Jun felt warm tears suddenly gather in her eyes. Though through it all she had not thought it possible, Frost was letting her go. Ever since the night of the dance, she thought, she'd thought that... But it would be for the best, wouldn't it? Hadn't she lain awake the last few nights trying to figure out what she would or would not do if the question ever came? "Frost... there's something I'd like to say..." The words kept catching in her throat. Did she know what she was doing? "I think, I think I..."
Frost gently laid his fingers across her lips, an odd smile on his face. "Don't. I know how you feel about what you do. Go home, finish it. And when it's over, look at your life and taste your freedom. Do something with it. And then, only then, if you want to come back to me... Come. I'll be waiting."
Jun could hold back the tears no longer. They made warm streams down her face. "Michael, I -"
Before she could finish, Frost pulled her towards him and firmly planted his lips over hers. An almost desperate passion passed from him to her even as Jun found herself just as eagerly returning the kiss. Tears that might not be her own wetted her face, but she couldn't find the courage to open her eyes to be sure.
She felt something being placed in her hand even as Frost pulled abruptly away.
"Good bye for now, Beautiful One."
Opening her eyes, Jun caught one last fleeting glimpse of Frost as he turned a corner.
"Nee-chan! Ryu says we can go now!" Jinpei's voice called to her from the ship.
Jun hovered by the doorway in indecision, looking first towards the God Phoenix and her brother's small form and then back in the direction Frost had taken.
"Nee-chan! Didn't you hear me?"
"Just a second!" Quickly drying her tears with the back of her hand, Jun pressed the one holding Frost's medallion tightly against her chest. Looking one last time down the hallway, and feeling strangely relieved and sad at the same time, she slowly turned and made her way to the waiting ship.
With rapidly quickening steps, she moved to rejoin her odd family, the promise of a future safely tucked into her heart.