She couldn’t believe it. Jun smiled in the darkness, revelling in the sensations coursing through her body. She reached out and gently caressed her lover’s face, tracing its shape with her fingers. Joe slowly opened one eye and grinned wickedly at her.
“My insatiable Swan…” he murmured. “Can’t get enough of me…”
“I’m not going to dispute that tonight.” Jun replied. “It’s been so long. For a time, I thought I’d never see you again. And even when I began to feel that you were still out there somewhere, you were so far away…”
“I’m just thrilled to be here in your arms again.” she continued. “When I saw you out there in the desert today, walking across the sand, my heart leapt up into my throat… somehow I knew it was you and yet my mind was still unsure… and then when we saw it was you… I can’t describe it Joe. It’s like a miracle. And then later, when that giant explosion came from underground, I thought you had gone and died on me again!”
She playfully pounded his chest. “What a terrible thing to do to me!”
Joe’s response was serious. “When I was out there today, I almost didn’t show myself. But I looked at you, and knew I could no longer prevent myself from being with you. No matter how much it hurt, I had to be with you again.”
“I won’t hurt you Joe…” Jun responded. “Unless you want me to…” She grinned mischievously.
Joe laughed and flipped her over, placing a long, demanding kiss on her mouth. When it was over, his pulse was racing and he was breathless. He felt alive again for the first time in… a long time. Could there still be enough human in him?
“You make all of the hell I’ve been through, worthwhile.” he growled.
Jun frowned slightly. “Exactly what have you been through Joe?” she asked. “Your explanation this afternoon was rather… vague.”
Joe averted his gaze. “I… I can’t talk about it right now, Jun.” He forced himself to look at her. “I promise I’ll tell you later… everything… but for now, for tonight, I just need to be with you… to forget that the last 18 months ever happened.” He knew he was begging. He couldn’t keep the pleading tone out of his voice. He just prayed that she would understand.
But how could she? How could she even imagine the changes that had taken place in him? Would she really want him, if she knew he was some kind of half-human monster? More importantly, until just now, he hadn’t known if he would want her in that way either. So many of his physical and mental functions had been disrupted by Dr. Rafael’s… modifications… that he hadn’t known what to expect. In fact, it was fear of that unknown, that had kept him away so long.
Jun held him in her arms. “What matters, is that you are here Joe. You’re alive and you’re here with me. I spent so long grieving for you. I thought I was getting over you, but then…”
“Then?” asked Joe curiously.
“It was on the night one year after our first date. I had a dream… I dreamt about you Joe. Oh, I had dreamt about you before, but this was different. I dreamt that you were with me. Sharing my bed. That you had come back to me. I can’t describe the feelings and emotions that ran through me. It felt so… real… It was as if you were actually there.”
“When I woke up, and discovered it was a dream, I knew it hadn’t happened and yet… it was so real. I felt like we had connected. And then I knew. I knew you were out there somewhere.”
She looked at him questioningly, wondering if he thought she was crazy. Certainly the others had, when she had begun insisting that Joe was still alive. The look on Ken’s face had cut her to the quick. She had thought that he, of all people, might understand…
“I felt it too.” Joe answered. “That night, I dreamt about you as well. I woke up, and it felt like you were in my mind… that your thoughts were touching mine. In the end, that’s what gave me the strength to go on… to come back to you.”
Jun kissed him then, her eyes shining. He reached for her, and they made love again, for only the second time in 18 months. It was slow… sweet… gentle… fulfilling…
And yet, it wasn’t. With their first, furious, coming together, Jun had been lost in the knowledge that he was back. That he was home again. But this time, she recognized that something was missing. She couldn’t define it, but it felt as if Joe were holding something back from her. He felt… harder. Heavier. He didn’t melt into her body as she longed for him to do.
She wanted all of him. She wanted him to be with her, as he had been in her dream. She had never felt so incredible, so alive… she wanted… no, she needed to recapture that with him. But for the moment, it wasn’t there.
Joe sensed it too. He knew what was missing. It was part of him, sitting somewhere back in Dr. Rafael’s lab. The man had saved his life and yet… Joe felt a deep resentment toward him, for what he had lost. He desperately wanted to re-claim what he had had with Jun, but he didn’t know if it was even possible now.
Ken wasn’t getting much sleep either. He tossed and turned, knowing what Joe and Jun were probably doing. His emotions were in turmoil. His first instinct when he had seen Joe this afternoon, had been to slug him, and he had followed through on it. He was so angry… angry that Joe had left, angry that he hadn’t come back, angry that Jun had become such a terrifying emotional mess… but most of all, he was angry because Joe’s return signaled the end of any chance Ken might have had with Jun. Part of him was very glad his friend… his brother… was back. But a bigger part of him raged against the hand fate had dealt him.
Adding to Ken’s distress, was the secret he had carried for months… the secret of what had really happened the night of Joe and Jun’s anniversary. He remembered being with her, making love to her, feeling completely fulfilled until she had uttered those fateful words... “I’ve missed you so much, Joe…”
It had been much easier to let her think it was a dream, but now the burden of guilt was weighing heavily on his soul. He owed it to Joe to tell him. To let him know… but then Joe would tell Jun, and she would know. Ken couldn’t bear it if she hated him. Her friendship was the one thing he had left.
But suppose Joe asked him outright? Could he lie to him? Ken didn’t know.
The next morning, Joe awoke to the soft chirp of his new bracelet communicator. Jun stirred, but did not awaken. He quietly went into the hallway to answer the call.
“G-2 here.” he responded. He suddenly realized how long it had been, since he had said those words.
“Joe,” came Ken’s voice. “we need to talk. Alone.”
“I agree.” answered Joe.
“Come out to the airstrip.” responded Ken. “We can have some privacy there.”
Joe stopped briefly to leave a note for Jun, then slipped out of the Snack J.
When he arrived at the airstrip, Ken was outside waiting for him.
“Let’s go for a walk.” he suggested. Joe followed.
“It’s good to see you again, Ken.” Joe began, “I sometimes wondered if I ever would.”
“Why?” asked Ken, “What exactly happened to you Joe?”
Joe got defensive. “Like I said yesterday… Dr. Rafael found me, and saved my life. I spent a long time with him… healing.”
“But not all of that time. You could have come back to us much sooner.”
Joe nodded quietly, his brows furrowed in annoyance.
“So, what kept you from returning?” Ken’s anger simmered below the surface of his words, but his face did not betray his feelings. How much pain could have been avoided if Joe had returned even a few months ago?
“I didn’t… I didn’t know if I could return. If I’d be able to return to the KNT. And I didn’t know what had happened with Jun…”
He turned and fixed Ken with a cold, penetrating gaze. “What about you Ken?”
Ken had not expected Joe to turn the tables on him. “Me?”
“Yeah. What have you been doing since I… left? Did you… take my advice about…”
The words were unspoken, but Ken knew what Joe was asking. Suddenly he realized why Joe was being so hostile towards him.
Joe was jealous.
His plan to confess to Joe fell apart. Telling him would ease Ken’s conscience, but would only hurt Joe. Whatever Joe had been through, it was obvious that it hadn’t been pleasant. Telling him now would accomplish nothing.
Ken swallowed hard. “After you left, Jun took it hard. Since the war was over, she wasn’t required as the Swan much anymore, and it was a little while before we realized that she had withdrawn from the world. Jinpei was incredibly worried about her. We all were.” He fixed Joe with a hard stare.
Joe nodded stoically. “Go on.”
“She spent a couple of months basically hiding from the everyone and everything. And then, one day I made up my mind to take your advice, and do something about it. I couldn’t stand to see her in such pain…”
Something glistened in Joe’s eye, but otherwise, his face remained impassive.
Ken continued. “It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I convinced her… we all convinced her… to return to living life. For awhile there, she was moving on.”
“With you.” spat Joe bitterly.
“No.” said Ken. He could see the surprise on Joe’s face, although the Condor had tried to hide it. “Not for lack of trying on my part, but she wasn’t interested in anything more than a platonic relationship.”
Joe’s shoulders visibly relaxed.
“And then, one night… the night of your anniversary… she got depressed all over again. It was like she had reverted back to that withdrawn state. But in the morning…”
“What happened in the morning?” Joe asked anxiously. He was hanging on Ken’s every word.
“She said that she was convinced that you were alive. That you were out there, somewhere. Ryu practically laughed in her face, and even Jinpei thought she was joking. But she was serious.”
“We all thought she was crazy, but the notion that you were alive seemed to help her. She was happy, and vibrant. Ryu, Jinpei and I… we decided not to challenge her belief, since she was doing so well. We figured it was helping her, and not hurting her.”
“Of course, none of us had any idea that she was right.”
Joe ignored the bait. “Are you glad I’m back, Ken?” He looked hard at his Commander.
“Yes.” said Ken. His face was a mask, but inside, his emotions were in turmoil.
Joe slowly raised a single eyebrow, but did not respond.
That same evening Joe and Jun were snuggled together in a booth at the Snack J. Jun had hung up the ‘Closed’ sign for the night, so that she could be alone with her Condor. They had turned on the jukebox, and were listening to its soft music, and just enjoying each other’s company.
As Jun lay in Joe’s arms, she thought back to their conversation the previous night.
“Joe?” she asked, “Dr. Raphael just kept you? In his home? His lab?”
She felt Joe’s body stiffen as she brought up his absence. “Yes.”
“And you didn’t want to return.”
“I did.” Joe protested, “If only… to you. But I was healing, and wasn’t able to leave for a long time.”
Jun turned around and gave him a quizzical look. Something wasn’t adding up. It was obvious to her that he was holding something back.
“That’s not all, is it, Joe?” she asked him directly.
Joe couldn’t face her. He turned away. “That’s all.” he said, staring at the wall.
“Joe, you promised. You promised that you’d tell me everything.”
Joe’s voice was cold. “I did promise. But that’s it, Jun. That’s all. Now stop nagging me!”
He roughly pushed her aside and got up. He couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t tell her that he was only half a man now. That a big part of him just wasn’t real.
Jun stood and walked up behind him. She wound her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder blade. His body softened in response, but there was doubt in her heart.
Jun’s feeling of suspicion grew. She knew she wasn’t the only one who felt it, but Joe pushed all questions about his absence aside. Everything between the two of them would be fine, until his disappearance would come up in conversation. Then, Joe would grow cold and distant.
Jun felt them growing apart, and as she struggled to pull them back together, she realized that part of the problem was Joe. He wasn’t fighting for them. He was pulling away from her. Perhaps, without even knowing it.
Jun decided to take action. This had to be resolved, one way or the other, before it destroyed them both.
That night, she invited Joe to the Snack J. She shooed Jinpei out with some money for the movies, and he and Ryu went off with knowing winks in her direction.
She was wearing her red dress. The same dress she had worn the night of her first date, with Joe.
When he arrived, his eyes lit up, and she could see that the dress had done its work. It had reminded him of that wonderful evening they had spent together, discovering what lay between them.
She extended her hand out to him. “Shall we dance?” she asked huskily.
He accepted her invitation, and held her close. Slow, sexy strains sounded from the jukebox. She relaxed in his arms, and he felt his tensions easing away.
He bent his head down, kissing her slowly. Perhaps tonight… tonight could be the night they recaptured the way it used to be between them.
Jun’s body was on fire. She thrilled at his touch and pressed herself against him, eager to be as close to him as possible. And yet… that barrier was still there. His body was hard and unyielding. He was kissing her, and yet his mind felt closed to her.
Jun pulled back from him, tears in her eyes.
“You need to tell me, Joe.” she said softly.
His eyes took on a haunted look. “Tell you what?” he asked evasively.
“Everything.” She pressed on. “Everything that happened, when you were with Dr. Rafael.”
She looked pointedly into his eyes. He felt that she was looking into his very soul. “I know that there’s more, that you’re not telling me, Joe.”
And then, he knew. He had been avoiding the truth for weeks, but it had just slapped him in the face.
He couldn’t continue to be with Jun.
She deserved more. She deserved someone who could be with her fully, who wasn’t being pulled apart by foreign matter in his flesh. She needed his whole self, yet he only had half a self left to give to her.
She would be better off with someone else.
An image of Ken’s face rose in his mind, and he angrily pushed it aside. But deep down, he knew it was what was best for Jun.
Joe sat down heavily, his head in his hands.
“I can’t… I can’t tell you Jun.”
“If you can’t trust me, Joe, then what do we have?” She held her breath. If he didn’t tell her now…
Joe lifted his hands helplessly. Then he stood up and walked out the door, not looking back.
Jun couldn’t let it end like this. She ran outside after him. It was raining lightly, but she was able to make out the form of him, unlocking the door to his car in the mist. She grabbed his arm before he could open it, forcibly spinning him around to face her.
“Damnit, Joe!” she shouted. “You just can’t leave me like this!”
“Face it, Jun!” he yelled, “I can’t tell you what happened to me. I can barely face up to what happened to me. I’m not the same man I was before!”
The heavens opened up, and the rain began to fall down in sheets. Even inches away from him, Jun had a hard time seeing Joe’s face. But she could feel the tension in his arm as she held it.
“That doesn’t matter to me!” she cried, “Whatever happened… whatever you are… I can deal with it. We will deal with it. Together…” She was pleading with him. Begging him to give them one more chance.
“No, Jun.” said Joe coldly. “You’re better off without me.”
He wrenched his arm from her grasp and got into his car, tires squealing as he drove away.
Jun fell to her knees on the sidewalk, mud and rain splashing up on her from the road.
What the hell had just happened? How had she lost him?
She didn’t know how she had gotten there, but she must have made it to her motorcycle and driven off. Because here she was, soaked to the skin, covered with mud, standing outside Ken’s airstrip.
She barely mustered the strength to knock on the door, but Ken opened it immediately. He didn’t ask questions, but bundled her into his bathroom, telling her to take a long, hot shower. Grateful for his concern, Jun did what he asked.
As the steam rolled out of his bathroom, Ken was stunned. What had happened to leave Jun in such a state? And where the hell was Joe?
The water stopped, and a minute later Jun’s wet head peeked out from behind the door.
“I’ll… I’ll need something to wear.” she said quietly. “This is ruined.”
Slowly she held up what remained of the red dress. It was a ball of muddy, red streaks.
Ken knew that dress. She had bought it for him… yet she had worn it for Joe.
“Wait there.” he mumbled. “I’ll get something.”
A moment later he returned with a t-shirt and a striped pair of pants. Jun recognized them.
“My old uniform!” she exclaimed. “But how...”
He spoke to the floor. “That day, after Joe… that day when I convinced you to get out of bed, and come back to us… I didn’t want you wearing this, and being reminded of him again. So I took it out of your room. Somehow… I never ended up giving it back. I guess, I wanted the reminder of you.”
Jun gratefully took the clothes from his outstretched hand and got dressed. When she came out of the bathroom, Ken could see the edge of the ruined dress hanging over the side of his wastebasket.
Jun sat next to him on the couch.
“Thank you, for being here for me.” she said. “I feel like I should be saying that a lot. You’ve always been there for me, Ken. Even in the darkest hours of my life. You were always there, to show me to way.”
She looked at her hands. “And I’ve been ungrateful. I’ve closed myself off to you. I never let you in, never gave you a chance… even when I thought he was dead. Instead I…”
“I saved myself… for that selfish pig.” she spat.
Ken was shocked. He held her hands in his own.
“What happened?” he asked simply. And she told him.
All of it.
Ken was amazed. He knew that Joe’s reluctance to talk was bothering Jun, but he had had no idea that it was this out of control.
It suddenly dawned on him what had been wrong all along. He had always held back from Jun. He had not shown her his true feelings, even when she asked him directly. Instead, he had buried things deep in his heart, where they had been allowed to fester. If he had been honest with her from the start, he would never have lost her.
And now, things had changed. Now it was Joe holding secrets inside of himself. And it had driven her away.
He knew that he had to come clean with Jun. To tell her everything. And so he did.
“I have some of my own confessions to make, Jun. You may not be happy about it. You may even hate me for what I’m going to say. But I hope you’ll just hear me out.” he began.
Jun nodded gravely. “Anything for you, Ken.”
“I remember the first day I saw you. Hakase brought you home with Jinpei, and I wondered what he had been thinking, bringing home a girl. But I quickly began to see why he had adopted you. You were smart, you were quick, and you had a real motivation to learn the martial arts techniques he taught us. Even when you couldn’t get them right away, you had a determination to keep trying until you did. I think that’s when I first began to admire you.”
“I’m not entirely sure when those feelings changed, but one day I realized that no other girl could compete with you. The girls at school were fluffy and weak in comparison. I tried quite a few times to approach you in that way, but always lost my nerve.”
“When Dr. Nambu founded the Science Ninja Team and made me G-1, he and I talked. He suspected my feelings for you, but told me that I couldn’t act on them. As G-1, I had to remain strong, and alone. To show caring, to show love, to the enemy was to show weakness. I had to put those thoughts aside if I was truly ready to be Commander.”
Jun was fascinated. She had always wondered what had held Ken back from talking to her about this. She was finally beginning to understand what Ken was all about.
“Interestingly enough, a year or two later my father said something similar to me. It was when we thought you had been killed with the Jigokillers. He told me that I couldn’t cry if I lost one of my subordinates, and that my feelings were making me weak.”
Jun finally understood why she had never really liked Red Impulse. Her nails dug into the palm of her hand.
Ken continued. “I was able to hide my emotions, but they were still there. And I acted on them more than I realized. I tried never to put you in danger again, although at the time I didn’t know that my decisions were being compromised by my feelings for you.”
“When we were off duty, I avoided you as much as possible. I knew that if I spent too much time with you, I’d end up doing something crazy…. like kissing you…” He gave a rueful smile.
“Would that have been so terrible?” Jun asked quietly.
“It would have meant acknowledging to myself that I wasn’t fit to be Commander.” Ken replied. “That I was putting my personal feelings above and beyond the needs of the team. But I always harbored the hope, that once Galactor had been defeated, I would be free to tell you how I felt.”
“But by then…” Jun murmured.
“You’re getting ahead of me.” Ken gently chided her. “Please let me finish.” He winked at her.
She smiled back. “Please continue.” she said with a grand gesture.
“Then came the day when I saw Joe kissing you at our training session. I couldn’t believe how jealous I got, when I saw him touching you that way. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And I did something I shouldn’t have. I spied on you.”
Jun frowned. “How do you mean Ken?”
“I hacked into the ISO’s security system and watched you and Joe in the rec room. That’s how… uh…. I was able to make such a timely entrance.”
“I had always wondered about that.” Jun mused.
“I heard everything you said… including…” Ken’s voice grew quiet, “about how you had been raped at the orphanage.”
Jun’s eyes grew wide as she whispered, “You didn’t already know?”
“No. Hakase was very discreet.” Ken replied. He hung his head in shame. “I’m just embarrassed to have eavesdropped, and heard something so personal. Something that you weren’t ready to tell me about yourself.”
“I thought you had always known.” Jun said simply. “It’s painful to discuss, even now. It’s probably not something I would ever have brought up with you. And I’d always felt that perhaps it was that part of my background, that kept you distant from me.”
“No, Jun. No!” Ken said vehemently. “I had no idea. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have made a difference in my feelings for you. It certainly didn’t, after I had heard it.”
“But, I still held onto the ideal of an emotionless Commander. I couldn’t tell you how I felt, even though by then, it was obvious that if I didn’t, you would end up with Joe. I agonized about it, but couldn’t bring myself to destroy the image that Hakase and my father had wanted me to project.”
Ken went on. “But it was clear that Joe made you happy, and so I buried my feelings again. I had even come to accept that I would never have you when... when we thought Joe died.”
“And his last words, told us to be happy together…” whispered Jun. “He knew… he knew that you really felt that way about me.”
“He knew.” Ken confirmed. “He still knows. He was always so angry with me for ignoring you. Joe is incredibly passionate about things he believes in, and he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t ever say anything to you.”
“I know now, that my motivations were misguided and that I made a lot of mistakes. But, I had hoped that once you had gotten over Joe’s death, that I could have a fresh chance with you.”
“And I never gave you that chance…” Jun hung her head in shame.
Ken squeezed her hands. “It took you a long time to get over Joe’s ‘death’. I hadn’t realized the depth of your feelings for him, until then. In fact, I tried to stay away from you, while you were still grieving, but Jinpei was so worried about you… so I did my best to bring you out of it. But I pushed you, too hard, too fast.”
“It wasn’t entirely your fault.” Jun replied. “I was ready to live again, but I wasn’t ready to give up on Joe. That was my stubbornness taking over.”
“Your loyalty is one of the things I love about you.” said Ken.
“That’s a nice way to explain it.” She smiled.
“Then,” Ken continued, “came the night of your anniversary with Joe. You had made plans with me, but when I arrived, you were lost in your memories of Joe. I was crushed. I was about to leave, when I realized that you had fallen asleep. You looked so beautiful there… and I was so frustrated with our relationship… or lack thereof… that I couldn’t help myself.”
“I kissed you, Jun.” he confessed.
Jun looked confused. “Do you think I’d be angry about something like that?” she asked.
“That was all I had planned to do.” said Ken in a small voice, “But, you stirred… and you asked me to make love to you.”
He looked beseechingly into her eyes. She saw what he was trying to say.
“It was you… that night…” she trembled.
Ken nodded, cheeks burning with shame.
It all came back to Jun in a rush. The incredible love-making in her bed. The way she had soared, had felt complete. She had found passion with Joe like never before.
But it hadn’t been Joe. It had been Ken.
Ken interrupted her thoughts. “I had thought you knew what you were asking, but afterwards I realized, that you had believed that I was Joe. That you had thought that it was a dream…”
“I couldn’t bring myself to take that away from you. Especially after you were convinced that Joe was still alive. I didn’t want to crush your newfound happiness. But most of all,” Ken confessed, “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
Did she hate Ken? She didn’t think so. He feelings whirled around in her mind. Her thoughts were a blur.
“Afterwards, when Joe returned, he asked me about you. And I lied to him. I never told him what really happened.” Ken finished his confession with a bowed head.
“I… I need some time to process this…” Jun muttered. Ken nodded.
They sat next to each other on the couch, not touching or speaking as the dark of night gave way to the cold light of dawn. As she saw the sunrise, Jun had a revelation. She knew what had been missing from her nights with Joe since his return.