It was the same. And yet, it wasn't the same.
An other-worldly sense of déjà-vu took over as I disembarked the New God Phoenix, leaping off of its hull to the still-wet metallic floor, following my winged teammates from the hangar. Despite my absence for the past two years, they had instantly re-accepted me among their number. They had questions, I knew, but they had agreed not to push me for answers to those questions. It was just as well. I wasn't entirely certain what I would say. There was so much to tell… and yet, so much that I was unable to reveal.
As I had done on the flight back to base, I observed everyone closely, taking advantage of the natural distance I had always maintained, even among these, my closest friends.
Jinpei ran around foolishly, hopping from one foot to the other in his excitement. Every so often he would cast a wide grin in my direction, and I would see Ryu holding him back by his collar, to allow me my personal space. The Owl was relaxed and good-natured, just as I remembered him.
Ken, however, was not as I remembered him. There was something unusual about him. Outwardly, he appeared as he always had, but there was something different in the way he moved. I recalled how his hand had twitched in the Gera Desert, as if to help me up, after he had knocked me to the ground. But the gesture, which would have been entirely like the Ken I had known, had never materialized.
It was his legs.
The moment I thought of it, I could see it. Ken's upper body moved as I recalled: with the power of a restrained tiger, carefully controlled, yet ready to be unleashed with grace and a wild beauty. But his legs… his legs clumped along as if he were some Galactor goon, thumping in utilitarian fashion along the metal corridor. Even as I watched, I noticed a brief stumble… hardly worthy of notice on a normal person, but for Gatchaman? It all but screamed that something was wrong.
Jun had told me how he hadn't been able to keep up with the others at Galactor's Arama Base. She had been concerned enough to reset the explosives timer that the Team had placed on the uranium reactor. At the time, I had thought her overanxious, but now…
Jun. My thoughts drifted unconsciously to her. She had been my constant companion for nearly two years. It felt strange… almost unnatural… being away from her now: so much so that it was a painful shock every time my eyes fell on the newest member of the Science Ninja Team. I knew that her name was Mako, and that she had been engaged to the ill-fated Getz. Presumably she knew that Getz had been murdered by Galactor, but did she know that he had died in my arms, his last thought being of her? I had to tell her… but then, that would mean more explanations. Explanations I wasn't quite ready to give. Yet I had made a promise…
Jun would be furious with me when she learned what I had done. She had known that Dr. Nambu's message was a trick to get us to reveal ourselves to the others, and she had begged me not to go.
Yet I had had to go. They had needed me.
But… I didn't have to stay. I could still change my mind, leave this base and go back to Ebiza Island. Jun would be waiting for me there, once she realized I wasn't coming back to New Jork. A large part of me wanted to. Hell, all of me wanted to.
The part of me to which Ken had appealed in the Gera Desert… that part wanted to stay. The friendship I had shared with my teammates… our bond as comrades… that was still there. They had known me as I had been… and I liked to think that something of that man still remained.
And whatever remained of that man wanted to help the Science Ninja Team.
"Joe, please come with me."
The words were spoken quietly into my ear, and clearly not meant for the others. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned my head to encounter Dr. Nambu's expressionless face. I knew what he wanted, and I appreciated that this would happen away from the others. I nodded curtly, then moved quickly aside, preparing to follow the Doctor.
"Hey!" Jinpei's startled exclamation brought the others to a quick halt. "Where are you taking Joe, Hakase?"
"Joe needs to be debriefed." Dr. Nambu explained smoothly.
"Debriefed?" Ryu's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "If it's anything like what you did to Mako, I don't like the sound of that."
"It's not the same situation." the Doctor replied, unruffled by the Owl's scrutiny. "I just need to obtain some information from Joe."
"So what was that promise you made in the Gera Desert, then?" Ken asked in a frosty tone. "You told Joe that he didn't have to say anything about what he's been doing, if he didn't want to."
"I have every intention of keeping that promise." Dr. Nambu's manner was completely calm and collected, despite the negative reaction he was experiencing from the others. "I'm not going to force Joe to say or do anything with which he is not fully comfortable."
I opened my mouth to add that I was willing to speak with Hakase, and that no one was forcing me to do anything. Hell, if anyone had twisted my arm, it had been Ken, practically begging me to come back and rejoin the Team. But before I could get a word out, Mako rounded on the Doctor.
"Are you going to take blood samples too?" she asked bitterly. "Give him a DNA test to prove he is who he says he is?" The expression on her face was both angry and self-deprecatory.
"No, I don't think there's any need for that." Dr. Nambu shook his head.
"Look," I said, barging into the middle of this confrontation before it became any more heated, "I don't mind. I'm willing to speak with Hakase. Why wouldn't I be?"
The others stared, openmouthed, unable to formulate a response as I walked off with Dr. Nambu.
"What's with their reaction?" I asked, as soon as we were out of earshot.
"My precautions where Mako was concerned were not appreciated." the Doctor answered dryly. I nodded in response. I could only imagine Hakase's suspicion of Mako, after I had told him that Getz had been murdered and replaced with a Galactor agent. Hell, I would have been suspicious of Mako as well. Yet at the same time, having seen firsthand how she had acted on Easton Island, in the face of Galactor's trickery with regards to her fiancé, I could also see why the others would have been angered by Dr. Nambu's 'precautions'.
The Doctor escorted me to an office with a ceiling so high, it could have doubled in use as a submarine bay.
"Ridiculous, isn't it?" Dr. Nambu smiled thinly. "But the ISO insisted. Apparently an impressive office is a significant asset when securing outside funding." He grimaced wryly, gesturing to a comfortable chair adjacent to his desk. He pressed a few buttons on a nearby control panel.
"There. Now we won't be disturbed." he informed me as I sat down.
"I can guess what it is you want to talk about." I cut to the chase.
"Jun." the Doctor obliged, an emotional vulnerability appearing briefly upon his face before it was wiped away. "Why didn't she come with you? Where is she now?"
"Right now? I'd guess she's still in New Jork, wondering where the hell I am, worried sick about me." I frowned. "I told her I'd be coming back. I promised her…"
"We need you, Joe." Dr. Nambu leaned forward. "We need Jun too. You have seen how the new Science Ninja Team operates. They're not up to the standard they need to achieve. They've only survived this long through sheer will… and some crucial assistance at exactly the right moments." He eyed me sharply, gauging my reaction.
"I guess it won't come as a surprise to you to learn that Jun and I have been keeping an eye on things." I admitted, but then I turned the table on the Doctor. "What's wrong with Ken? His legs…?"
"Ken lost his legs at Cross Karokorum. They were crushed in the gears of the Black Hole Device."
"What the hell? How could this happen?" I was in shock and disbelief. "Ken is usually so cautious…"
"According to Ryu and Jinpei, he was anything but cautious, that day." Dr. Nambu sighed heavily. "Ken has paid the price for his moment of hotheadedness ever since. He now uses prosthetic legs built into his Birdstyle and civilian uniforms."
"I had no idea…" I fell back into the chair, attempting to process what I had just been told.
"You can see now why we need you to rejoin the Science Ninja Team." the Doctor pressed on. "And Jun as well, if she can. Ken has very little field effectiveness, and Mako still has a long way to go. That leaves just Ryu and Jinpei with most of the burden."
"I can see that." I acknowledged. "For what it's worth, I agreed to stay, and I'll stay. I'll do my best."
"What about Jun?"
"I… I can't make any promises on her behalf." I replied slowly. "But I don't think she'd be willing to do that. Neither of us was going to…"
"You changed your mind." the Doctor pointed out, interrupting my train of thought. "Couldn't she?"
"It's not the same." I tried to explain, while still preserving our privacy. "It's… well, hell, I guess it is the same. But… I think she'd see helping from the shadows as a better alternative. That's why she didn't answer your summons today."
"Summons?" The Doctor leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers underneath his chin as his mouth twitched with amusement.
"That's essentially what it was, wasn't it?" I stated plainly. "Let's call a spade a spade. You set us up. You wanted us to reveal ourselves to the rest of the Team so we'd be forced to return. That's why Jun refused to come. I almost refused to come."
"Are you sorry you did?"
"No… yes… hell… I don't know!" My jaw tensed from the effort of holding in my frustration. One thing these past two years had taught me was how to better control my emotions. With the physical strength I now possessed, punching walls could quickly lead to some serious property damage.
"I just wish…" I let my voice drift off, refusing to say aloud what was in my heart.
"You can contact her here, if you'd like."
"Transmissions from my office are not monitored. If you'd like, I can leave you alone, to speak with Jun. To let her know what's happened."
"The information you two have passed on to me over the past year has proven invaluable. Let me do this, at least…"
"I… Thank you, Hakase." I inclined my head gratefully, glad that I would at least get a chance to explain to Jun… although I had no idea how that was even possible.
Dr. Nambu stood from his chair, showing me where the communications systems were located, then left the room. Once I was alone, I moved over to the transmission station and initiated scrambling processes and privacy protocols.
All I had to do now was contact Jun.
I hesitated, suddenly feeling nervous. I pushed the feeling aside and put the transmission through to Jun's personal communication device. I suspected she was still waiting for me in New Jork, nowhere near the communications systems on our transport vessel.
It took only an instant for Jun to answer.
"Joe, thank goodness!" I could see the relief etched on her face through the communication. My perspective was slightly off-kilter as she looked into her hand-held transmitter, but I could see that I had been right: she was still in New Jork, at the seedy hotel room we had been sharing.
"I'm sorry I took so long to contact you." I replied. "I know you must have been worried…"
"You talked to them, didn't you?" Jun sighed heavily. "They know you're…"
"No, I didn't tell them!" I incriminated myself immediately. "But yeah, I met with them."
"What… what did they say?" Jun was curious, despite herself. "Did you... tell them about me?"
"No, I would never do that to you, Jun." I shook my head vehemently. "Not without your permission. Of course, Dr. Nambu knows, but the others don't. They didn't know I was alive either, until today."
"So they were surprised to see you?" Jun appeared slightly relieved. "How… how are they doing?" I hesitated, and she could instantly tell that something was wrong.
"What is it, Joe?"
"They're not doing well." I admitted. "You saw it yourself, at Arama Island, and today, in New Jork. You were right about Ken."
"I was?" Jun's face drained of all color. "What's wrong with him?"
"It's his legs." I admitted, then passed on what Dr. Nambu had said.
"He… he can't use his legs properly." Jun repeated softly.
"No." I replied. "And Mako isn't up to snuff, yet. It's basically Jinpei and Ryu…" I purposely drifted off, leaving her to come to the obvious conclusion.
"They wanted you to stay, didn't they?"
"I… I told them I would stay." I admitted, my stomach twisting into knots. "They need me, Jun. They… they need you too. They need us."
"They don't need me." Jun replied bitterly. "They've replaced me."
"Mako is nowhere near your level of abilities, Jun, and you know it." I lectured her. "Cut the shit. That's not the real reason."
"I know." Jun bowed her head sadly. "But I can't face them, Joe. I can't face them knowing what I am."
"They don't know what I am. They don't have to know."
"You can't fit in, Joe. Even if they don't know, you're different. They'll sense that. It will isolate you. You won't be as effective. You can still help them, like we've been doing…"
She was begging, and we both knew it. Angrily, she wiped at her eyes, but that simple gesture cut me to the core. I had expected her to be furious, but instead, she was… devastated. I felt as if I had abandoned her. In a way, I guessed I had.
"Jun, you could still…"
"No. I can't. You knew that."
The transmission ended sharply, her unspoken accusation still ringing in my ears.