"And that's the whole story," Nambu finished at last, his four wards around him, each with a cup of something warm in their hands. Joe had said nothing throughout while the other three had listened, fascinated.
"So we actually owe Dr. Raphael twice over now," Ryu said thoughtfully. "For Joe and Ken."
Jun nodded, thinking that she owed him far more than she could ever hope to give. Two years of life without Joe had been hard enough; to think of never knowing Ken at all... "It just explains so much about him. Like why he doesn't like loud music."
Joe spoke then for the first time. "Too-loud bass lines can actually disrupt his rhythm. That was why he was so tired tonight." He didn't look at his foster siblings, keeping his eyes low. "He shouldn't have been driving. I shouldn't have drunk too much. I should never have dragged him out in the first place."
He refused to look up when Jun's hand rested on his. Knowing how much Jun loved Ken, she would have been hurt most if tonight went wrong. "Joe, you couldn't have known this was going to happen. It's not your fault," she said. "Look, we're in this together, okay? Ken will pull through."
Jinpei huddled in. "Yeah, Joe-aniki. I mean, Ken-aniki would be really pissed off if he found out after fighting this war for like, three years, he gets killed by a tree." He laughed, then covered his own mouth with his hand. "Sorry. This isn't exactly the time for jokes, is it?"
Ryu shook his head good-naturedly. "No, but you're probably right anyway. I can just see him standing there at heaven's gate, in front of an archangel, screaming, 'I got killed by a *tree*?'"
A wave of uneasy laughter spread among them, even though Joe only smiled tightly. He felt s small degree of relief. For the last eight or so years, give or take the time he'd been missing, he had been the only one to know of Ken's condition, the only one who could act whenever he saw the signs no one else could see. When he was younger, he had been proud of that sacred duty, but once the war truly began, he had to accept Ken's words at the beginning of their first mission: "You're not going to have time to look out for me anymore. Look out for yourself, look out for them. You know you have faith that I can look after myself. You've always had that faith. Please, for me, take up that faith again."
With the war raging around them, the patrols, their own separate lives, Joe had nearly forgotten that Ken was a walking ghost, a ghost who breathed and lived. Every now and again, there would be reminders: that mission to protect their benefactor when the Devil Star, high heels and all, scored a solid kick to Ken's chest. Ken had shrugged it off, and all he got for it was a bruise the size and color of a plum. And after that, he forgot again, until now.
Everything stopped, and every eye was set on the young nurse who had suddenly appeared there.
"The operation was a success," she said with a smile. "There were a few damaged components, but we've replaced them and double-checked on the entire system. He's got a few cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder, but otherwise, he's just a little tired and he insists on seeing you."
Nambu nodded, and motioned for his foster children to come with him.
"And by the way," she continued, as if just remembering it, "He's asked for something sweet to eat, a candy bar or something. It seems our sugar feed isn't quite enough."
Jinpei, grinned. "I know exactly what to get him."
"And what to get yourself, I'm sure," Ryu added. This earned him a raspberry from the youngest sibling. He snickered.
Jun stepped towards Joe, a hand on his shoulder. "We'll go and find him something, Joe. You should go in and see him."
His chest felt tight. "Jun..."
She shook her head. "You've been the one to look after him all this time. He'll want to see you first. Tell him we'll be right there." Then she mouthed, silently, "And tell him that I love him." Then she turned on her heel, herding Jinpei and Ryu with her, and went on their search for sugary stuff.
Joe was left alone there; Nambu had already gone in to see him. He waited outside the door, left with Jun's words, Ken's words from those few years ago, his own upon being told that Ken had died.
[Give him back, give him back to me.]
For the second time now, it was exactly what they did. Joe thought of all the times Ken could have been killed - gunned down, caught in explosions, crushed, stabbed, poisoned - and yet somehow any of those could have been more bearable than what he went through tonight. Losing him to the war would have been easier to accept than losing him to this. He couldn't begin to understand why that was, and he envied Ken for somehow understanding his existence so well that he lived it so gracefully.
"'For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,'" Ken had read out once. He read practically everything, including the old Bible that Joe kept in his room. It seemed ironic that he looked at it more than Joe himself did. After reading that out, Ken had said, "Maybe it just wasn't mine at the time."
"Maybe," Joe breathed, just as Nambu opened the door. He looked up quickly, almost too quickly to maintain his reputation. "How is he?"
Nambu smiled. "Tired. I think the only reason why he's awake is because of all the sugar that's being pumped into his bloodstream." Humor aside, he said, "He's been asking for you."
Without a word, Joe went in.
He was sitting up in bed, right arm in a sling, bandages around his torso, draped in light blue flannel pajamas. An IV drip fed his body with sugar, and he was reading.
"A tree just fell on you, you nearly died, and you're reading?" Joe asked, masking his prior concern.
Ken only held the book up to Joe could see. A beat-up old Bible. "Infinite wisdom and comfort," he returned. "Sometimes I wonder why you hardly ever read yours." He closed the book, marking his page, and placed it on the table beside him.
Joe came up to sit in the chair next to the bed. "Maybe I'm jaded," he said.
"I'm glad you're in one piece. But then again, it takes a whole lot more to land you in hospital these days, doesn't it?"
He felt himself grow tense with anger. "You scared the shit out of me, you know that? If you had died tonight, it would have been my fault."
"I'm a walking dead man, Joe," Ken said in all seriousness. "Was it your fault back then, too?"
Joe bit back. Now envy bubbled up inside him; how could anyone be so graceful? "Your cybernetics are all that are keeping you alive, Ken," he said.
"And how am I different form you? Without your cybernetics, you wouldn't be here at all."
"One malfunction in me means only a part of me won't work. One malfunction in you kills you," he replied. "That's the difference."
The Eagle sighed deeply. He did look ver tired. "Thing is, considering what I'm doing, I could die at any time. You know that. I could get shot, I could get blown up, Gel Sadra herself could walk up to me and break my neck. It wouldn't be any different. 'For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven', remember?"
He began to say something, but only heaved a deep breath. He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands against the bed. Ken looked at him, kindly and quietly.
Then Joe raised his head and spoke.
"You know, all those years ago, your mother replaced my mother, and Hakase almost replaced my father. I tended to believe that if they died, I would still be heartbroken, but it would be bearable, just because it wasn't the first time it happened to me. When your mom died, it was hard for me, but harder for you, because it was the first and only mother you lost. She was my second."
Ken nodded, as if giving permission to keep talking.
"You were my first brother. Losing you would have been another first, another new pain, and I don't think I was willing to face that. When you died ten years ago..." He breathed deeply again. He tried to think of reasons why he was saying all this now: was he still drunk, or was he tired, or was this just a long time coming? "You were dead, Ken," he said, using the word 'dead' in the same sentence as his brother's name for the first time. "And you came back to life. And I'd be damned if I was going to lose you again to that."
He swallowed thickly. "To what killed you in the first place. I'd rather you died like the fighter you are in this war, or of old age. I can deal with those. I can't deal with feeling the pain I felt ten years ago all over again. I asked for you to be given back to me, and I got you back. I don't want it to happen again because I won't be as lucky the next time I ask."
The next time he looked at Ken, he was holding a tissue out to him. Only then did he realize that warm tears were making their way down his face. He took it and wiped them away quickly.
"That's the way it is, isn't it?" Ken said lowly. "It was easier losing my father the first time than the second time. It's almost like feeling cheated." He then sat up further and reached for Joe's shoulder. When Joe looked at him, he smiled. "Don't worry. I'll try not to let any more trees fall on me. I wish I could promise you that I'll either die fighting or not at all, but I don't think that's a promise I'd be able to keep even if I tried."
Joe sighed. Suddenly he felt very tired. "How about promising to drop a piano on my head every time I drink too much?"
Ken raised an eyebrow. "Would that be good enough?"
"Okay. I promise to dorp a piano on your head every time you drink too much."
He stood up then, and pulled his younger sibling into an embrace.
["You know those people are only doing it because they need Ken, not because they love him."]
"Is it okay for me to tell you I love you?" Joe said.
Ken gave a small laugh. "I think I can deal with that," he replied as they pulled away.
As he sat down again, he added," Jun told me to tell you she loves you."
He winced. "Oh, that's a little harder to deal with."
"You should tell her, you know. Especially after this."
"It's not as easy as you think."
"Either you tell her, or I'll put you back in hospital myself."
Ken digested this, then shrugged. "Fair enough."
Then they walked in, Jun smiling brightly with a small bouquet of orange roses she managed to get from an early-morning florist, Ryu and Jinpei absolutely laden with sweets and candy bars. Jinpei was already stuffing himself with Skittles.
"Hey," Jun said as she leaned over to kiss him. "How're you feeling?"
"'Tired," he replied. "So Hakase told you?"
She nodded. "And don't you dare apologize for not telling us. We've decided to punish you in a whole lot of other ways."
He was chewing on the Snickers bar Ryu had handed him. "Suddenly I'm tempted to go stand under another tree. And Jinpei, could you at least leave me some of those Skittles?"
"Oneechan said part of your punishment is not getting any Skittles," the small boy said, grinning widely.
Turning to Jun, who was arranging the flowers in a vase, he said, "If I took you out to dinner once I get out of here, will you declare all punishments null and void?"
Her eyes widened briefly. "What?"
Ryu said, "Jun, he's high on sugar. Better say 'yes' before the drug effect wears off." Ken couldn't help but laugh at this.
She thought about it, then said, "Jinpei, let him have the Skittles."
With the chaos unfolding around him, Ken thanked the heavens fo his family, and Joe thanked them for keeping the heart of the family alive, in the most literal sense that could ever exist.
Lori McDonald's fanfic has such strong standing that I almost always draw
elements from her fanfic into my own. Joe's idea of 'replacing parents' and
that Ken wasn't a replacement came from Lori's 'Suddenly Brothers', to which I
give her full credit.
This fanfic was inspired by too much time spent with medical students who
have too many stories to share, and the need for miracles and second
chances. This is also my first complete fanfic in the last three years.
Ken's reading of the Bible is Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
Crits and comments welcome. I'll get my asbestos gear out just in case.
Thanks for reading.