Jun stood in the doorway of the little airfield house, watching Ken stare out across the end of the single runway towards the sunset. The air was bad again today, as it had been frequently since the end of the war, the bloated red-orange disk seeming to float in and out of a thick, obscuring haze. She missed the clear skies of just a few short years ago...the sunset had been something to watch then, set against the snowpeaks of the distant mountains. Before the blight that was Galactor had come to afflict and destroy the land.
Then again, considering how close they'd come to losing it all, maybe a little environmental discomfort wasn't so very much of a price to pay. Eventually, it would all dissipate, washed away by time, like the pain and the blood and the memories. Eventually.
Ken sat hunched forward on the old broken-down porch swing, forearms resting on his denim-clad thighs. His old white t-shirt was covered with streaks of oil and dirt He'd been working on the plane until about a half hour before, she'd heard him come into the kitchen to get a beer. It was in his hand now, forgotten, condensation trickling down the dark glass and pooling wetly against his fingers.
She'd been watching him for ten minutes at least, and the only part of him that had moved was his hair, stirring slightly against his neck in the soft evening breeze. She got the distinct feeling that whatever he was looking at, it wasn't just the setting sun.
"Ken," she said at last, "what do you want for dinner?"
No response. Jun managed to contain the sigh that was becoming an all too common means of expression for her these days. She walked down the porch to him and lowered herself to the seat, touching his arm. "Ken?"
"Hnh?" Ken glanced around, startled. His eyes cleared as he focused on her presence, the lines at the corners of his mouth softening. "I'm sorry...I didn't hear you come out."
Jun's lips compressed a little at these words from the former leader of the Kagaku Ninja Tai, a man no one should be able to approach undetected, even if he was fast asleep. "What were you thinking about?" she asked, keeping her voice light.
His eyes slipped away, gazing out again toward the thick velvet ribbons of black and orange dusk. "Nothing," he lied, as she had known he would.
She slipped her hand under the hair at the back of his neck, massaging him gently with her fingertips. "Come inside and get cleaned up. We can go out and get some dinner."
"No, thanks," he said absently. "Not really hungry right now. Maybe later."
Her fingers brushed through his hair. "Just come and get cleaned up then." She smiled. "I could wash your back."
He didn't answer, eyes still averted, staring at something only he could see.
"Ken," she said, voice coming out sharper than she had intended.
He jumped, turned back to her with an expression that looked a little guilty, she thought. Or was that wishful thinking? "I'm sorry," he said. "Having a little trouble concentrating. Did you need something?"
Did she *need* something...? Jun's fingers froze in his hair. She slowly withdrew her hand from the back of his neck. *Don't get mad don't get mad...*
She felt like a spring wound so tight that one more turn of the handle would crack her right down the middle. Her chest hurt from the tension, the holding in of the anger and the frustration. "Well, I'm hungry," she said, because she couldn't think of anything else to say that wasn't a confrontation, that wouldn't light the fuse of the argument that she feared and dreaded. The one that hovered over her shoulder like something dark and greedy, waiting for her to slip so it could take it all away.
He smiled. "Why don't you order something?" he said. "Just use my card."
Her hands ached to close into fists, she fought to keep them from locking into tight balls that he would notice. "Okay," she said stiffly.
He nodded and turned back to his silent contemplation of the sky. After a moment Jun rose slowly and walked back to the house, hoping every step of the way that he would stop her, call her back. But he didn't.
She went into the house, turning right into the kitchen, fighting the prickling of her eyes from the tears that wanted so badly to come. *Don't let go don't let go don't let go...* She reached for the door of the refrigerator, saw the photographs stuck to its worn enamel front ˆ the ones that she had had made into magnets for him one Christmas. It seemed an eternity ago now, a time when things were better, ironically, even though they had been at war. The faces stared back at her like ice sculptures from the past that refused to melt and stop tormenting her ˆ the five of them together, him with Jinpei, him with Ryu, him with her.
Him with Joe.
A dry sob forced its way out through her tight, unwilling throat. She grabbed the little metal square containing the Eagle and the Condor and hurled it away from her with all her strength.
There was a sharp tinkle of falling glass, then Ken's body in the doorway, blocking what was left of the light. Voice tight with worry. "What is it? What happened?"
She couldn't answer him. She pushed past him and fled toward the bedroom.
* * * * *
She sat on the edge of the bed, arms wrapped across her body, trying to contain the trembling that threatened to shake her apart. She heard the creak of the loose floorboard a few feet down the corridor, then felt his presence in the doorway behind her. "Go away, Ken."
"Go away!" She spat the words through clenched teeth, shivering as if with intense cold. She could feel the beast's dark tendrils shifting greasily inside her. She had to hold on, push it back, ride it out until the danger was past. *Don't let go don't let go don't let go...*
"I'm sorry," he said. She knew he meant it, there was nothing but gentle sincerity in his voice. It only made it worse. She shook her head, tightly, not trusting herself to answer.
He moved forward into the room, came around the bed to stand in her line of sight. Jun kept her hard stare on the old rag rug on the floor, rocking slightly, hugging her elbows. Counting the rows of ridges, the numbers in her head like a mantra.
"I'm sorry," he said again. She could hear the uncertainty, the hesitation. "I know I haven't been very good company, lately..."
"Stop it." Her voice was low and venomous. Despite resisting it with everything she had, the beast was clawing at her heart now. Panic skittered along the inside of her ribs but couldn't connect with the rest of her.
"Just *stop.* Stop all of it." She tried to clench her jaw shut but the words kept forcing themselves out. "The nodding, the smiling, the agreeing, the apologizing...God, especially the damned *apologizing!* If you say 'sorry' one more time I swear I'm going to throw up."
"I'm..." he caught himself, stopped in midsentence. "Jun...I don't know..."
"And that's the worst part of all," she whispered. "You don't know. You don't even realize..."
"Then tell me."
She looked up at him then ˆ bit bloodless lips at the mistake. God, he was beautiful, standing there between her and the window, the last rays of setting sun casting his hair with bronze and copper highlights. Her heart constricted, the pain so sharp she could barely stand it. She had loved him so dearly, for so very long...
She quickly averted her eyes again, eyes burning with the tears she wouldn't allow herself to shed. Tried to count rug rows again, the faded colors swimming in saltwater. "Do you even know how long it's been since you...since we..."
It took him a moment, then she felt the tension ripple through him. He moved quickly, sat beside her on the bed ˆ one arm wrapping around her rigid, trembling body, the other hand cupping her chin and lifting her face so he could kiss her. As his mouth claimed hers his hand slipped down over her collarbone, fingers brushing softly across the swell of her breast.
God, it was like drowning. Like she was a flower in the desert that hadn't seen rain in so long she couldn't remember what this unbearable blossoming felt like. For a brief moment she allowed it, but then the beast stirred again inside her, and a thick, choking wave of humiliation blotted out the sun.
She twisted free of him. "Don't touch me!"
Ken sat there in shock as she stood up, backing away. She could see the hurt on his face, the confusion. "Jun..."
Her arms were wrapped across herself again, hugging tight. She felt shivery, cold, like she was going to vomit. "Do you have any idea how it feels when a woman has to *ask* for it, Ken? Do you have any idea how *bad* that feels?"
He stared at her in silence, a deep sorrow flickering in his eyes for a moment. He didn't answer her. Perhaps he didn't know how.
Jun turned to face the window, shutting him out. After a few moments she heard him get up and slowly leave the room, closing the door behind her.
She curled up on the bed, surrounded by all the things that smelled of him. The pain burned like fire, like strips of skin were being torn from the surface of her heart. She shook in silence as she cried, soaking his pillow with her hopeless, helpless tears.
* * * * *
An hour later, the tears had dried to itchy patches on her face and she was drained of emotion again, back in that uneasy, edgy calm. Like a prisoner who was still facing the gallows...just knew it wasn't going to happen today.
She got up and crossed the narrow hallway to the bathroom, splashed water on her face to soothe the blotchiness that still lingered. Bleak green eyes stared back at her from the mirror as she dragged a brush through her thick black hair. Why do people cry, she wondered, when all it does is make you look like hell afterwards, and nothing changes?
Not a goddammed thing. She took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.
He was sitting in his father's worn leather armchair, a pile of paperwork in his lap. He was scribbling calculations on a scratch pad, dark brows drawn together in concentration. The flickering reflection of the TV told her that the game was on, but the sound was muted so that all she could hear was the occasional swell of applause and the interjection of an excited announcer's voice.
Ken looked up as she came in and her heart constricted painfully at the expression on his face ˆ hopeful of a truce, but obviously bracing for the worst just in case. God, she loved him, loved him so much it almost hurt to breathe around the thought.
But she didn't let it show on her face.
When she didn't speak, he held out his hand to her. She went to him helplessly, let him push the papers aside and pull her into his lap. She curled up against him like the small child she had never been, cheek against his chest.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, pressing lips to the top of her head. "I know you don't want me to say that, but it's true."
"I know," she said, her voice as empty as her eyes. She was exhausted, wrung out. There were a million things she knew she could, *should* say at this moment ˆ but the words broke and scattered like mercury when she tried to lock on to them. Instead she said, "Are you ready for tomorrow?"
She felt him stiffen slightly. After a long moment, he said in a distant voice, "It's going to seem strange to wear the birdstyle again. It's been...a while."
She didn't answer him, knowing exactly what he was feeling, and knowing that he knew it. Then a strange tremor ran through his body and for a brief moment she felt fear. "Ken..."
He stood up in one smooth move, holding her in his arms as if she weighed no more than a child, and took her to his bed.
Ken had always been a good lover, patient and considerate and frequently much more fiery and unpredictable than anyone would expect from the controlled mask he showed to the world. Back when things had been good between them he was often playful, too, making her laugh loud and often. Tonight it was as if they were separated by an invisible wall, an emotional barrier he couldn't break through. She tried not to notice it, tried to lose herself in him, in his hard, hot insistence around and above and inside her. But although her body welcomed his, starving for his touch after all the weeks of absence, her heart stayed numb and detached, and by the time it was over they were both crying.
Afterwards she rolled away from him, curled into a protective ball, feeling like a part of her was dying. Knowing that he knew it, knowing that he felt the same way.
* * * * *
She awoke again just after midnight, and he was gone.
Her mouth was dry from crying, her throat thick and sore. She got up to get water, and froze in the doorway as she heard the front door click shut.
The beast awoke and seized her then, jabbing her anger awake with its hard sharp tail. She quickly dragged on jeans and a t-shirt, grabbed her jacket and ran down the hall like a ghost to follow him.
Tailing him was much easier than it should have been, even with the unnaturally quiet engine of her motorcycle, but then Ken hadn't been himself for quite a while. She didn't need her lights, she knew the roads so well and like him, had trained in low light conditions until she could have found a needle in a haystack in a pitch dark coal cellar. She was so intent on keeping his car in her sights, though, that she didn't realize where they were going until he pulled off the narrow, winding cliff road and in through the gates of the memorial park.
Of course. She should have known.
The guard waved at Ken as he drove through, obviously used to seeing the Eagle make nocturnal visits here. Jun waited a couple of minutes to be sure he was clear, then drove up and flashed her ISO ID. As she expected, she got a respectful nod and a wave through. By that time Ken had disappeared, but it didn't matter because she knew exactly where he had gone.
She left the motorcycle at the near side of the stand of cypress trees that bordered the cemetery itself, one of many crammed full of soldiers who had lost their lives in the war. Many of them didn't have complete bodies in them, she knew...sometimes a small piece with identifiable DNA was all that was ever found, and families and loved ones had to be content with that. They bought the coffins anyway, listened to the rifle salutes and accepted the folded flags with hollow eyes. At least, they told themselves, we found *something.* So many people didn't even have that much.
Jun slipped into the cool darkness of the stand of cypress, pausing just inside the far edge. Ahead of her the glossy green lawns of the park sloped gently down to the edge of the cliff. Beyond that, the crescent moon silvered the surface of a vast, dark ocean.
Set a little way back from the cliff edge, a small group of headstones stood in a roped-off enclosure ˆ a miniature Stonehenge of polished granite, its darkness absorbing the moonlight without reflection. Ken was standing right where she knew he would be, in front of the last stone to the right. It struck Jun suddenly that the small dark lump seemed pitifully inadequate recompense for the amount of pain that its existence represented.
She stayed where she was, hidden in the trees, watching. He stood there motionless for a long, long time. Then her breath caught as she saw his shoulders start to shake. He reached out, touching the smooth granite with trembling fingers. Then he sank all at once to his knees, huddling against the cold hard stone as though it held his only comfort in the world.
She realized suddenly that she was breathing in short gasps round the fiery pain in her chest, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. She had to get away from here, *now.* Swinging around recklessly in the darkness, blind with tears, she collided hard with a tree trunk and saw stars.
He was there, instantly, his arm supporting her. "Are you all right?"
She tried to shake free of him, ignoring the burning scrape on her cheek. "Let me *go*..."
She broke his grip at last and stood back at a safe distance, one that she knew she'd be keeping from now on. He stared at her, face pale in the moonlight, but it was too dark to see if there was guilt in his eyes. The beast tried one last time to stir inside her, but all there was left of it now was the rattling sound of its death.
It didn't matter. She turned away from him and started back through the trees, squashing down the gibbering madness in her mind by forcing herself to start making plans for the next chapter of her life. There was so much to do... She needed to get her stuff cleared out of his house in time for them to attend the memorial service this afternoon. The anniversary of Galactor's final defeat at Cross Karakoram ˆ the day they'd saved the world.
The day Joe had saved the world.
She turned briefly and looked back at Ken ˆ still where she had left him, staring after her helplessly, wordlessly. "I wondered why you never told me you loved me," she said, her quiet voice slicing through the stillness like the edge of a blade.
He didn't answer.