The church was on the outside of town, near the beach, in an area covered with great big flowering plants. We knew we had found the right place when Ryu tripped over a body in the tall grass: a Gallactor with his neck broken. We changed to bird-style and surrounded the building. I could see Jun and Ryu from where I hid in the bushes, under the stained glass windows outside the main hall. A second later, we heard gunfire--the sound of machine guns ended in a horrible scream. A voice we all knew real well. We looked at each other, and from the looks on our faces we were thinking the same thing:
Oh God, maybe we're too late!
From where he stood, Ken could see everything from the one clear window at the back of the building. From the look on his face, things were very bad. Ryu looked up at Ken and silently mouthed, "Let's go in now!"
He got a signal to wait.
"But aniki--!" I started, and Jun joined in. But again, we got the signal: wait!-- and from the look on Ken's face, we'd better not argue. Ken disappeared. I looked helplessly at my sister and brother and took position with them around the door.
Ken calls this move "the Psyche," and its purpose is to shock our enemy into freezing. I think the idea of loudly announcing ourselves sounds kind of silly, but it does give us a few seconds advantage while the soldiers are busy freaking out. Ken called out to the Gallactors, and stepped into their view. They stopped: That was our cue. Ryu kicked in the door, and we followed him inside the church. I felt the usual rush starting from my stomach and spreading to my hands and feet--fear and excitement.
I don't remember too much about the fight, other than I let a bunch of the idiots shoot themselves. Ryu was mowing down everyone like a bellowing bulldozer, and Ken was making things showy. The soldiers around him toppled like building blocks. Finally the room was quiet again. There were bodies all over the floor.
I saw a bloody trail leading up the steps at the side of the altar. Joe was sprawled at the end of it, at the bottom of a cross made out of sunlight from the window behind. It looked too much like a grave marker. We ran to him, and I grabbed his hand and felt for a pulse. It was there, very fast and weak.
"You're bleeding terribly!" Jun cried out, looking him over for a place to start. "We've got to get medical--" That was a real understatement-- I couldn't tell where Joe started and the blood left off.
"Let it go," Joe gasped out--he was awake! "It's Gallactor blood that's flowing out of me, coming clean.... "
She started to sputter something, but a strange voice cut her off.
"All right. Which one of you is called Joe?"
There was a guy in priest's clothes standing at the door with a rifle in his hand. Ken spun around to face him.
What happened in the next few moments was too fast for me. Joe yelled at him, "Stop it, Alan!" The priest traded words with Ken, then aimed the rifle at him. There was a shot, and the priest fell backwards with a hole in his chest. I looked down and found Joe on his stomach, a smoking revolver in his hands.
Ken went over and picked up the rifle. "He knew who you were," he said to Joe as he pulled the chamber open. It was empty, and Ken didn't even look surprised. "There are no cartridges in the gun."
Joe dropped the revolver to the floor and screamed, "D-Damn you! What does your death accomplish? You're so important to this island! Not like me... Until the moment you threw away your--your own life, weren't you trying to convince me to forget my revenge?"
Then he collapsed. The rest of us just stood there, stunned.
Ken's expression got really cold, as if he was embarrassed for looking as horrified as the rest of us. "Jun, Ryu," he barked. "Get him ready to travel. Jinpei, go get the stretcher and the med kit. I'll check the area." There was no use checking the priest; Joe's shot had killed him immediately.
I was out the door before he'd finished, trying my best to fly along the beach to where our small motorboat was stowed. It took me a minute to find the nearly-submerged top bubble of the Godphoenix. Going back was harder, loaded down with bulky stuff and scared as I was. True, getting hurt is part of the job, but Joe was dying! If I'd said I'd never seen so much blood come out of one person I'd be lying, but I'd never seen it happen to one of us. I kept tripping over my feet and over the gear, screaming nasty words at the top of my lungs.
When I got back to the church, Ken had already returned with bandages and supplies from the church infirmary. They had turned Joe on his back again and Jun had put her cape over him to keep him warm. As soon as I put the stuff down, Ryu ran out the door for the ship.
Jun was wrapping a bandage around Joe's head. "Here." She shoved a white roll at me. "His left leg, above the knee. Don't worry about the jeans--wrap over them. Stop the bleeding."
Ken replaced the cape with a blanket, and Jun didn't bother putting it back on because it was now all gory. Then all of us, very carefully, put Joe on a stretcher. The church windows rattled as Ryu brought the Godphoenix down outside--we didn't have to keep things quiet anymore.
Aboard the Godphoenix, just behind the control room, there's a little room that we use as an infirmary. Supplies get checked before we take off, and I think we have more stuff in there than there is in an ambulance. Jun shooed us out as soon as we got Joe in there, and sent Ken and me after spare bandages. "I'll call you as soon as he's stable," she said, then shut the door.
He hasn't been stable since I met him, I thought, but one look at Ken told me that he wouldn't find it funny at all. I followed him to where we kept extra stuff in storage, then brought it to Jun and we went to the control room.
"So what's goin' on?" Ryu asked as soon as we walked in.
"Jun's taking care of it," Ken snapped. He was furious, at a lot more than having to drag Joe in like that. He glared at me and I could hear him thinking: If you had just said something, you stupid kid, I could have stopped him and we wouldn't be going through this right now!
"Not that I saw. The church was full of bodies, all Gallactor; Joe's handiwork, it looks like."
"He musta had a field day," Ryu said.
"Don't you start!" Ken snarled. "He shouldn't have tried to do this all himself!"
Ryu and I looked at each other. Right. Sure. We'd heard this speech before.
Ken sat in his chair and glared out through the forward viewscreen. We could hear the muffled sound of rotors through the hull, and through the screen, we watched dozens of helicopters pass overhead--U.N. troops arriving to clear up the rest of the garbage.
I couldn't sit down. There was dried blood smeared all over my uniform. I wanted a bath. I wanted to go dive into the ocean and wash it all off. I wanted to go into the infirmary and help. I wanted to do something! Anything!
"Siddown kid," Ryu said. "You're making me nervous."
I was making him nervous? Why should I even-- But Ken broke in before I had a chance to say that. "It's all right," he said quietly. "Everything's under control now. Ryu, let him go."
Oh great. Now I had permission. I didn't want it. I threw myself down in the nearest chair and glared at the instruments on the panel in front of me.
"Aniki," I said. "Who was that priest? Didn't Joe call him Alan?"
"He was an old friend, maybe."
"Why'd he call Joe 'Joji'?"
"Because that's closer to his real name: Giorgio Asakura." Ken said it with a different accent that sounded more like what the priest had used. "Dr. Nambu told us about it. Remember?"
"So why did he want to kill Joe if they were s'posed to be old friends?"
"I don't know," Ken growled, and I shut up.
It felt like forever before Jun called us and said that Joe was ready to move. We took off and headed for home.
Joe was taken to the military hospital near the UN building. We waited in a waiting room in a special wing of the hospital, security everywhere in case anyone else decided to come after him. Both Ken and Nambu were really pissed--they had a good idea that someone had guessed at Joe's identity. And with him unconscious, they couldn't find out what happened or who'd seen him.
We always hate these times, waiting for somebody to come off the table. You can never get used to it. The big clock on the wall ticked in slow motion. Ken paced the floor this time. Jun tried to read a magazine, and couldn't seem to get past page 53. Ryu was snoring on the couch--I don't know how he does that, but I don't think he was really asleep. I stood by the window, watching the guards outside.
Finally the little "IN SURGERY" light went off, and after ten long minutes the surgeon came out. I thought Ken would leap on him, but he just stood there and waited for the doctor to come over. The guy looked like somebody's grandfather; big and fat, with a red spotty face, a purple nose and a droopy white mustache when he pulled off his mask.
The man said, "Well, either your friend is the luckiest man I've ever seen, pretty good at ducking, or his playmates were damn poor shots. There were some serious wounds, but nothing vital was hit."
We all but fell down in relief.
"We found ten bullets in all. Two were imbedded in the muscles along his chest. One hit his shoulder along the whatzis and the whatzat on his back." I didn't catch the words exactly. "One bullet cracked the radius of his right arm, and one passed through the muscles of his left thigh and played hell close enough to the artery to give me fits. Walking's gonna be tough for awhile, and we'll have to keep a close eye on him. One broke a rib. The two bullets that hit him in the head were just grazes, though one came close to putting in more than a dent."
"Well, I knew his hard head had to account for something," Ken said, smiling. Everyone chuckled, not really at the joke, but because we were glad the news was good.
"The rest of his injuries amount to bruises and the scratches on his face. According to X-rays, we got everything. Your Dr. Nambu will be moving him to more secure quarters tomorrow, and I think he shouldn't have any problem doing it."
"When can we see him?" I asked, edging up next to Jun.
"He'll be unconscious for the next few hours," the surgeon said. "Not that we didn't have a hell of a time getting him that way. He's hard-headed, all right."
Everybody thanked him and he left to clean up. Ken said he was going to stay and keep an eye on things--even though there was really no need--while the rest of us went to find something to eat. The food in the hospital cafeteria was okay. I watched Ryu finish off Jun's dessert (and almost mine before I caught him), then we went back.
When we got there, we found the wing filled with guards. Two followed the nurses as they wheeled a gurney toward the elevator. The passenger was covered, but we knew who it was; Doctor Nambu wasn't wasting any time. They loaded Joe onto a helicopter and took off, leaving us to go back to the ISO building on our own.
The waiting there drove me crazy. No matter how much I argued, they wouldn't let me see him. We had to go home. We dropped Ryu off across town before we got back to the Snack, and Jun started saying something about checking the books, but I wasn't really listening. Once we walked into our apartment on the top floor, I headed for my room. "I'm goin' to bed," I said.
"Ara? It's only eight o' clock. Are you sure you're feeling all right?" she said, looking sharply at me.
"I'm tired, all right? Can't I be tired?" I snapped. "Or do you have work for me to do already?" Not waiting to hear her answer, I slammed the door.
But I couldn't sleep, even though I tried. I sat in my room in the attic and poked at my model car collection. Try as I did, I couldn't help but think about what was going on.
I remember being back at Crescent Base two days ago; Jun had gotten word that we might have a patrol, and was checking on some things. I was just fooling around the hangar bay, looking for something to do when I spotted Joe backing his car into the pickup slot. I watched the lifter arms pick it up and the nose of the Godphoenix close over. A few minutes later, he came out of the ship, and he had a backpack slung over his shoulder, like he was packing to go somewhere.
"What's going on?" I asked him as soon as he was close enough. I was standing by the only door other than the airlock, so I knew he had to pass me to get out.
Joe's usual answer when he's up to something is, "Nothing," and it's usually said in an "and-if-you-ask-me-any-more,-I'll-rip-your-face-off" tone of voice. But this time, he motioned me over to a quiet corner of the hangar.
"Jinpei," he said, "I want you to make me a promise first--a man's promise--not to say a word about this to anyone. Can you do that?"
That freaked me out: he was talking quietly to me like an adult, something that only the Doctor did when he was about to give me a less than wonderful assignment. And the idea of receiving a grown man's responsibility, especially from Joe, was a Big Deal.
"Of course I can do that I--" The look on his face told me I'd better stop joking around, so I cut it short. "Yes. I promise."
"Not a word?"
"Not a word." I wanted to cross my heart and hope to die, or shake hands or something, but that's for kids. But whatever, it seemed to be good enough for him.
"I'm going to see my parents."
"What? But how? Wh--"
"They're at a place called BC Island. I plan to be away for just three days or so. Nobody should miss me."
"But you know we have a patrol soon--maybe tomorrow."
"It's just a patrol. You don't need me to sit around and bitch about the lack of action. I won't be long." And before I could say anything else, he walked away from me and out the door.
And now I can't keep from remembering the sight of my big brother lying in a puddle of blood on the church floor. If I had said something, if I had broken my promise, those damn Gallactors wouldn't have been able to make a spaghetti strainer out of him.
Adults--men--are not supposed to cry. Ken did when his father died, but that he had a good reason. This was not. I hated myself, but that didn't keep the tears from squeezing out, so I managed to muffle most of them with my pillow.
I woke up feeling sore and tired. After pulling on my clothes, I stumbled down the stairs to the bar on the ground floor--Jun never keeps any food in our kitchen. The moment she saw me, she sang out.
"Good morning, sleepyhead. Or should I say, afternoon?"
Afternoon? "Uhm. What time is it?"
"Twelve fifteen. Are you sick or something?" She came over and put her hand on my forehead. I ducked out from under it.
"Stop that," I growled. "Can I have some breakfast?"
"Breakfast was two hours ago. You should have thought about that when you shut off your alarm clock this morning."
Aw jeez, don't start...
"However," she continued, giving me the Evil Eyeball. "I'll make you a sandwich. You can hardly get to work on an empty stomach."
"You're all heart. Y'know, I've been reading about the US Civil War and the Underground Railroad. You won't hold me for long."
"Then you should already know about what happens to slaves who get caught trying to escape." She set a triple decker sandwich and a glass of milk on the counter in front of me. I couldn't think of a good enough answer, so I pulled up a stool and attacked my lunch.
"Since you missed morning shift," Jun said. "You get to make it up tonight til closing."
"When we gonna see Joe?" I asked with my mouth full.
Jun looked surprised--she was expecting me to complain about the work.
"Uh, tomorrow, I think. I went in this morning, but he was still asleep. But he looks okay and Dr. Nambu said he's doing fine. He needs to sleep it off, and we've got a lot of work to do tonight."
I slammed my glass down on the counter, feeling my face get hot. "Oneechan, why didn't you tell me?"
She didn't look shocked for long. "Because I couldn't get you out of bed, that's why!" she snapped.
Not that you should care anyway, or you would have told us where he was so we could keep things like this from happening.
I put my dishes in the sink, pulled on an apron and hurried out the door. It was slow outside. Jack, the other waiter we hired part-time, was checking with customers, and everybody had their orders, so I settled for cleaning glasses at the bar.
Jun came out, looking at me like I'd grown big, hairy warts all over my body. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked.
"Sure. Never better." Act cheerful, stupid! I lifted my leg and shook it. "See? I'm even rattling my ball and chain."
She swiped at me, missed, and went back into the kitchen.
"We've called and called, but he doesn't answer."
"We haven't been able to find him anywhere!"
I was standing in the back of the conference room in Crescent Coral, watching my three teammates pace around. Dr. Nambu stood behind his desk and frowned like he does whenever he's thinking. "Where's Joe's car?" he asked.
"G-2's in position inside the Godphoenix," Ken answered. "We won't have any trouble operating the weapon systems."
"That worries me," Nambu said. Then he looked at me and his eyebrows went up. "Jinpei, you don't look too concerned. Do you know anything about this?"
Oh great, he knows. "What do you mean I don't look worried? I'm worried!" Even to me, it sounded lame, but there was nothing else I could think of.
Then everybody jumped on me. "Whaddaya mean you don't know anything?" "Why are you shutting up now, of all times?" "What's the matter with you? Tell us where he went!" I flattened myself against the pillar, and fired back.
"I said I don't know!"
Everybody backed off, regrouped, until they figured out that I was the last person to have seen Joe. From the looks on their faces, I thought they were all going to lynch me. I know they were concerned--I was concerned. But I couldn't just open my mouth and blab it out to everybody because I'd made a promise. A man's promise. And I couldn't even tell them about that because it would be giving too much away. I'd be betraying both Joe and myself.
Or maybe I'd already blown it--Dr. Nambu intervened. "That's enough. I think Jinpei has made a promise to keep a secret. I believe I know where he went: this is the anniversary of the date that Joe's parents were killed."
They pieced it all together Ken told what had happened in the Marine Satan a month ago; about how Joe kept getting sick trying to avoid his memories, and how Ken forced him to remember. Nambu told us what he knew about Joe's parents--Gallactors, and high officers at that! That came as a shock--I mean, to find your parents were your own worst enemy... I wondered if I'd be able to handle that at all.
When I commented on it, Ken jumped all over me. "That doesn't change anything! His parents were his parents. Joe is Joe. One of us! Got that?"
"That's not what I meant--!" Then I gave up. What's the use?
Ken was right, and I didn't really care about Joe's background. But now I knew how important our secret had been. Oh God, oh God, what have I done?
Things got busy in the bar, so the next couple of hours passed without me noticing. At five or so, I took an hour off--labor laws say I can do that, though officials might have a lot to say about an ten-year-old working in a bar and serving liquor. Anyway, I walked about a block away from the "J" and caught a taxi; the cops always hassle me when they see me driving.
I got a funny look when we stopped in front of the ISO building and I paid him the money. I ignored it. If anyone asks, my dad works here. I got past reception and most of the levels without any questions--most of the staff knows us. It wasn't until I got to the 10th floor that I had to start sneaking around.
Most of the experimental stuff got done on Crescent Base, but the main building does have a laboratory for demonstrations. A small room on the same floor had been made into a hospital room, which is where they had Joe. There weren't any guards, since the building's security was supposed to be very strong. The nurse was talking to someone on the phone from a desk outside the door, and she had her back turned to me. I waited behind a filing cabinet until she seemed to be getting into something deep about how Tim and Yuki had gone into a janitor's closet but hadn't noticed the surveillance camera in thereÉ. I wanted to stay and listen to that, but I tiptoed past and got through the door without more than a tiny click.
It was dark in there, the blinds pulled shut. Joe was hooked up to a couple monitors, and the beep-beep-beep were the only noises in the room. He was bandaged up and covered with a blanket, and had an IV running into his left arm. His eyes were shut.
I walked carefully to the bed. "Aniki," I said in the loudest whisper I could manage. "You awake?"
He didn't move. I tried again. "Joe-n'aniki, it's me. Wake up!" Reaching down, I touched his good shoulder, gave it a gentle push, and got ready to duck.
There was nothing. Joe's a pretty light sleeper, and for a moment I panicked. Then I saw a chart on the table by his bed. Some doctor had prescribed something with a lot of letters that I couldn't pronounce, to be given every six hours. I tried to remember if I'd ever seen that word before. After a few minutes, it came to me.
Oh shit, it's a sedative! I'll never talk to him! Not until tomorrow, anyway, but it'll be with the others and a nurse hanging all over, and I won't be able to tell him what I want to say!
I wanted to kick something, but it would've made too much noise. Instead I sneaked out and went back to the "J."
Business had picked up by the time I got back, and nobody had even missed me. Andy showed up to deejay, and people got up to dance. It got crowded, and I had to start dodging people as I waited on tables. The lights and music and people kept me busy and made me feel a little better. Then Dave motioned for me to take his place at the bar. This usually takes a while for people to get used to, but the regulars don't mind. Besides, I don't water down the drinks.
Our Fearless Leader was sitting at the counter--he'd managed to schmooze a sandwich and a beer on his tab. Ken's tab is a legendary thing--it's said to be older than he is. I waved at him and went on to the other customers.
After a while, he leaned forward and asked for another beer. It was his usual "I'm-so-cute-how-can-you-resist-me" routine, with his face all screwed up in a tragic expression, batting his eyes--pretty gross. What he usually gets is abuse from either Jun or me, but today I wasn't in the mood. I just handed him the bottle and went on mixing a martini. This got a funny look from him and a couple of the other regulars who'd been waiting for the show.
Jun came out and sent me into the kitchen with an order. Before I got through the door, I heard Ken ask about me. Jun said, "I don't know why he's acting like that. He's been moody all day. Incidentally, where did you get that beer?"
Somebody cheered; something cute was going on. I retreated as far back in the kitchen as I could, and started making sandwiches.
We shuffled around the waiting area, waiting for Dr. Nambu to come out and give us the okay. He was in the hospital room with two nurses, taking care of the morning checkup. This was not the best time to go in--we all hate checkups, and Joe-n'aniki has to be the worst patient of all of us--but I didn't care. All I hoped was that he wouldn't be zoned out on the stuff I saw him under yesterday.
Finally the door opened and one of the nurses hurried out. I heard Joe snarling in the background, "Just let 'em all in, dammit! When I get tired, I'll tell you!"
Ken grinned and motioned for us to follow, then pushed his way in. We all walked in single-file, and surrounded the bed. The monitors were unhooked. Nambu was glaring at Joe and Joe was glaring at the nurse who hurried away with a needle. "People don't want to tell me what the hell they're doing when I'm the one who's the most concerned..." he was complaining. Nambu turned around and glared at us, as if we were responsible. Ken shrugged at him.
"I see you're back to your nasty old self," Ryu said, and laughed. "How do ya feel?"
"Okay," he said; his usual answer, which doesn't mean a darn thing. "What's the date?"
I opened my mouth, and Ken booted me in the shin, giving me the hand signal--which Joe didn't see--to shut up. "The fifteenth," I said anyway.
Joe turned and gave Dr. Nambu the nastiest look I ever saw and opened his mouth to say something, but the sudden move must've stretched something it shouldn't've. "Uugh--ow. Shit."
"He's all yours," the Doctor said, and fled out the door.
"You mean he kept me out cold for two days?"
"Well, you do have a tendency to walk out of hospitals," Jun said in the same icy voice she uses on me when I'm in trouble. Ken glared daggers at me, but I felt a little better--served 'em all right for yesterday.
"I hear they'll let you out of bed in a few days," Ken said to change the subject, and the rest of them started chattering about a lot of unimportant stuff. Joe sat there and tried to look annoyed, but you could tell he was glad to see us.
I only wished I could get him alone for a minute!
Finally the door opened and the Doctor motioned for us to come outside. Maybe this would be my chance. Jun and Ryu left the room, and Ken followed. I stayed behind. Joe looked at me as if to say, "well?"
"Are you really okay?" I asked him.
Before he could answer, the door opened again and Ken walked in, looking like he hadn't wanted to. "The funeral for Father Alan is scheduled for Friday," he said. "Two days from now."
"I'm going," Joe said. It wasn't a request.
"It's not advisable. We still don't know how clear the region is, and you're in no condition to--"
We all knew how things would turn out--Joe'd find a way, somehow. "We'll take you," Ken said, and sighed. "C'mon, Jinpei. Visiting hours are up."
"But I need to ask him something!"
I looked back at Joe, but he was looking out the window, and his mind was far away. I knew I'd lost my chance.
"I'll check with you tomorrow," Ken said to Joe, and shoved me out the door.
"Thanks a lot, Aniki," I growled at Ken under my breath.
When the door shut behind us, he turned on me. "Just what is it with you?" he snarled. "You've been sulking for two days! If you've got a problem, let's hear it!"
"It's between me and Joe, and none of your damn business! Just because I'm only ten doesn't mean I can't have any privacy!"
I guess I should've been gentler about it, but I was so mad at him, I didn't care. I saw the angry look on his face turn to hurt before he turned his back on me.
"That's what I was afraid of," he said, and walked away. Everybody else turned and looked at me.
"What're you looking at?" I shouted. "You don't know anything! Just leave me alone!"
I was surprised when they all walked away. Then I saw Dr. Nambu at the door of the waiting room. He motioned to me. "Jinpei," he said. "I want to see you in my office."
Well, I've done it now.
I followed him into the elevator, and we stood and looked at each other for several floors, just enough to make me nervous. He's very tall.
Finally, when his door shut behind us, he took a seat behind his desk and told me to sit down too. When I did, he didn't say anything. He just looked at me some more.
Well, this was it. I'd betrayed a brother, I'd hurt the rest of my family, and now I was in hot water for mouthing off. What else could go wrong? I'd might as well tell all.
"If I had told you where Joe went," I said. "He wouldn't be in the hospital now, would he?"
I waited for the Doctor to get angry. He didn't. He just said, quietly, "Maybe not."
"Then it's my fault, isn't it? I was really wrong! I didn't want to hurt anybody, but.... " I could feel the panic starting. My fists were all balled up, so tight they hurt. My eyes were already hurting, the tears trying to leak out.
"What would have happened if you had told us right away?" Nambu asked.
"We might have caught him in time, before he reached the island. Or before he got shot."
"How would he feel about it?"
"He'd be fighting mad at everyone for--" I looked at a coffee stain on the carpet. "For treating him like a little kid." I could feel my eyes growing hotter; one tear fell, and I swiped at it with the back of my fist. "He'd never trust me again."
"It's a tough call, isn't it?"
"It was your judgement. Trust is one of the most important things in teamwork. Betraying a promise has its rewards as well as its risks. It's determining which risk is greater that is the most difficult."
I couldn't believe my ears. "So I was right?"
"I didn't say that, but you made the decision for yourself. You were wrong to disobey orders--I don't condone that. Joe's injuries are serious, and will put him out of action for a few months. But you've proved to him that you can keep a secret, that you can be trusted. I don't think that's something he takes lightly."
"What about the others? Ken hates me right now because I didn't trust him-- "
"When he looks back, he'll understand. He holds a lot of secrets himself." Nambu got up from the desk and walked around to my chair. "I wish it was otherwise, but there are no easy answers. That is one of the things you learn when you become an adult. It is terribly unfair that you are being forced to grow up so soon. All of you."
"Yeah," I muttered. "If this is what being an adult means, I'd like to be a kid for a little while longer, too."
I really surprised myself, saying that. Ever since we started working as a team, I'd wanted nothing more than to have people treat me like an adult. Like a hero. Like I deserved. Now it looked like I got what I wanted, and I found I didn't really like it.
The Doctor put a hand on my shoulder. His eyes were twinkling."Wait a minute--you did find out from me where he was, didn't you? Even though I didn't say, I gave it all away!" I had been feeling a little better, but now the feeling disappeared.
"Not at all. I've been observing this date for the past ten years. Joe's disappearance merely confirmed my suspicions. No, you told me nothing except that you had a secret."
I guess I'm still bad at hiding things because the Doctor saw my sigh of relief and grinned.
"I'm not in trouble for anything else, am I?" I asked him.
"No." I got up from the chair and took a step toward the door, then he added, "Though I am curious to know what you were doing in Joe's room at 18:42 last night."
Oh shit. "Testing your security?" I guessed.
He laughed. Fumbling in his back pocket, he found his wallet and pulled a couple of bills from it. "Here's an advance on your allowance. Bonus pay. Good work."
I wanted to hug him. But instead I grinned and shook his hand. "Thank you very much, Hakase. Goodbye." And I ran out of his office.
The funeral for the priest was very quiet. From the top of the hill behind the church, we watched the procession carry the coffin to the church cemetery. A new priest, who looked almost the same age as Ken said a few words, then they lowered the coffin down into the ground. Ken talked quietly to Joe the whole time.
Finally, all the people went into the church hall for the wake. Joe asked to be alone for a few minutes. Ken didn't want to leave him, but Jun finally dragged him into the Godphoenix."Quite a bit," Ken mumbled, in a voice he thought the rest of us couldn't hear. He sat still for what had to be exactly sixty seconds. Then he looked up and barked, "Jinpei, get out of bird-style and go after him."
"Yes, you. Now." He didn't have to say it twice. I was running.
By the time I got back outside, Joe was gone. Where could he have gone in just one minute? I considered yelling for him, then saw him in the distance. He'd taken one of his crutches and managed to hobble down to a row of trashed-out buildings.
I ran after him, but I didn't try to catch up.
The building he went into hadn't been used in a long, long time. It was dark inside, except for the sunshine that came in through cracks in the boarded-up windows. The floor was buried under a foot of dust and sand. There were splintered cabinets and rotted sandbags piled up against the walls, and in the center of the room, a homemade punching bag hung from a rusty chain. It looked like a combination training room and stronghold.
Joe went up to the punching bag, dropped the crutch and grabbed the chain for support. A cloud of dust went up when he leaned his head on his hand and let the pain show through. I let him be for a few minutes to sort himself out, then called to him from the door.
I went over and picked up the crutch. "Did you know this place?" I asked.
"When we were your age... Alan and I... This was our home base."
"Somehow, I can't imagine you being my age."
That actually got a chuckle out of him. "I was pretty rotten--worse than you are."
"That's hard to believe. Aniki," I blurted out. "I didn't tell them."
"I know that."
That shocked me. "I should have."
"I knew you'd do what's right."
"That's not fair!"
"Neither's life. They're burying a man outside who shouldn't have died. Who could've saved lots more lives if he hadn't tried to clean up mine. There's a good example for you." Joe turned and looked at me. His face was chalk white. If I didn't get him back to the ship real soon, both Ken and Jun would put my butt in a sling.
It was Dr. Nambu's words all over again, in a rougher way. I couldn't think of anything to say.
"Lousy way to say thank you, isn't it?" He was watching me, something that looked like a grin on his face.
"What?" I asked. "What for?"
"For having more faith in me."
Oh god, I wanted to cry. I shouldn't have, but at least you didn't die! Turning my face away, I handed him his crutch.
"Yeah, right," I muttered. "We'd better get back." He took the crutch and leaned against me for support, and together we limped toward the door.
"You owe me all right--Everyone's pissed at me, thanks to you," I said.
"Yeah, well I'm flat broke right now," he answered, sounding more like his old self.
"Okay, there's one way you can pay me back."
"You can teach me how to be a poker face," I grinned. Startled, he accidentally whacked his leg against the doorjamb. "I mean, hell, that's gotta hurt."
"Just who're you calling a poker face?" he snarled as soon as he was able to talk.
"Oops, I'm wrong," I said. "Oneechan just says you have 'six degrees of scowl.'"
"I'll teach you a few other things, you little shit--" One hand had the crutch, and the other arm was in a sling, and he couldn't do anything about it. When he realized it, the look on his face was so funny, I couldn't help but start laughing.
"On the other hand, I'll settle for cash as soon as you get it."
He said a few other things, none of them nice at all--later I'll have to ask him what they meant. And all through this, I'm laughing like an idiot, and leaning on him for support. It wasn't that funny, but his reaction made me realize that he was back with us, and that things could get back to normal. Remember what I said about relief?
He gave me the funniest look, like I was out of my mind, and that only made it worse. I must have looked really silly because after a moment, he began to laugh too. Slowly, holding on to each other and looking like idiots, we staggered back to the ship.
And I guess you could call that a happy ending, but you know, to this day, I still wonder if I'd made the right decision.