"Then why don't you listen when I ask? I knew I should have had the doctor check you for hearing problems...."
Ken straightened his collar and stared at himself in the trailer mirror as the arguing voices came closer. Not quite willing to face the silence of his airfield in the wake of the Kagaku Ninjatai's final battle with Galactor, Ken had moved in with Ryu and his father to help rebuild Ryu's marina. The Nakanishis roared through an argument a day, but they always quieted down once they came indoors. Good thing, too; the fifth wheel trailer Mr. Nakanishi had rented was bigger than anything Ken had ever seen on wheels, but even it wouldn't withstand the force of these two men in full debate.
The door came open, and Ryu stepped in first, rubbing his hands in the warmth of the indoors. He stopped and smiled when he caught sight of Ken. "Ah yeah, your date's tonight. You're leaving so early?"
Ken turned away from the mirror and gave him a grin. "It's Christmas Eve, isn't it? I rented a car since I don't want to fly in that mess." One hand gestured to the window and the sullen gray clouds outside. Not without the G1, anyway, he added silently.
"Yeah, looks like rain," said Mr. Nakanishi. "Maybe snow."
"Naah, it won't snow here. Say hi to Jun for me," Ryu said, then slapped a friendly hand on Ken's shoulder as he passed on the way to the kitchen. "You look good. She should be dazzled."
"I feel like a fish out of water," Ken muttered, pulling on his overcoat. Ryu chuckled.
Ken opened the front door, which was framed with holiday greeting cards from neighbors, and stepped outside. After a month, the grounds were just beginning to look like a marina again. Tidal waves from Galactor's Black Hole Operation had turned boats, piers and walkways into scrap wood, and only half of Ryu's tiny boathouse remained. Ken had helped remove the wrecked boats and rebuild two new piers, and now a few customers who'd survived the disaster were tying their boats here for the winter.
The sky was darkening past sunset as Ken drove up a winding mountain highway along the coast toward Utoland's city lights. By the time he reached city limits, night had fallen, concealing the clutter of reconstruction that claimed half the city. Someone had wrapped the surviving trees in white lights, forming tall lacy sculptures on either side of the main thoroughfare, and when he turned onto the street where Jun's snack bar was, he found someone had done the same to the smaller saplings planted on the sides of the street. A single candle glowed in the snack's front window. Ken left the car parked at the curb and walked in, pausing to grimace at his reflection in the door. His carefully combed hair had sprung rebelliously back to its natural state during the drive. He thought he looked like a penguin wearing a haystack.
The snack was open and half full of customers; Jinpei must have someone to help him with the bar tonight. Tinsel garlands and strings of colored lights hung near the ceiling and Christmas carols played over the snack's speakers. Jinpei sported a red Santa hat behind the bar.
"Aniki! Hey!" Jinpei waved at him. "You look good! Oneechan'll be down in a minute. Did you hear on the news? We might get snow tonight--a real white Christmas!"
"Yeah." Ken glanced around the snack. "I'm surprised you don't have a date tonight," he said, leaning on the bar.
"Don't rub it in." Jinpei sighed. "All my school friends are with their families. I've already gone to a couple of parties with them, though, and since you're gonna be here tomorrow, we'll exchange presents then."
"What makes you think I'm going to be here tomorrow?" When Jinpei wiggled his eyebrows and grinned, Ken snorted and shoved the red cap over the boy's eyes. "Smartass. We're meeting at the mansion with Hakase tomorrow. Besides, what makes you think I've got a present for you?"
The door opened and Jun walked in. Ken straightened and swallowed at the sight of her. She wore a close-fitting red dress and had put up her hair, exposing a slender white neck as graceful as her namesake's. A tiny diamond pendant gleamed at her throat. She carried her coat over one arm. She paused when she first saw Ken, then walked toward him with a smile.
"Wow," Ken said.
"She's been shopping for this for weeks," Jinpei murmured to Ken, leaning close over the bar. "You'd better like it or I'm never gonna hear the end of it."
"I heard that." Jun slapped the boy on the wrist.
"I, uh." Ken took her coat from her arm and helped her into it. By this time, several of the customers had turned to watch, and a few were staring at Jun. As gracefully as he could, he offered his arm to her and pulled open the door. Leaning his head close, he said, "Jun, you look incredible."
"You're not just saying that?" She arched an eyebrow at him.
"No. I mean, you're always beautiful, but--" His cheeks reddened and he grimaced at how ridiculous he sounded. "You should be in the movies or in the magazines. You look gorgeous."
Her eyes probed his for a moment, and then she smiled.
Ken took Jun to an elegant Italian restaurant downtown. In the candlelight, they toasted the evening and made small talk through dinner, dessert and coffee. Other young couples filled the restaurant, celebrating what had become a romantic tradition, but Ken caught the occasional glance of admiration or envy from the passersby. Not that he could blame them. Jun appeared oblivious to the attention, her gaze focused on Ken.
"You clean up pretty nicely yourself," Jun said, reaching across the table and taking his hand. "Odd how I've seen you in so many guises, and yet this is one I have the hardest time getting used to."
"I've been thinking the same thing all evening," Ken said. "Though tonight reminds me of that time you wound up modeling for Caridon a few years back."
"You remember that?" Jun asked, and Ken nodded. "I thought you'd been so bored during that mission."
"I was bored until we ran across those Devil Stars. I don't care for fashion shows, but I'll never forget seeing you on the catwalk." Ken could feel his whole face growing hot. He was awful at this. They'd practically lived together for years and she'd seen him at his worst, especially those first months after Joe's funeral. Still, he felt so vulnerable here without even the Gatchaman's characteristic cool to save him. Jun's eyes gleamed in the candlelight.
"You always surprise me. That's one thing I like about you, Ken. I mean, this date, this place."
Ken shifted in his seat. "We're all full of surprises, aren't we? All these years we've worked so closely together and still we have so many secrets. I didn't know Ryu did construction until we started working on his marina. He's good at it."
Jun lowered her eyes. "It's a handy skill to have in this world."
"I guess I have to confess. Jinpei found this place for me. It's no secret that he knows all the best spots in town."
Jun might have laughed, but she only smiled with a look of what Ken thought might be relief. When she caught the answering expression on his face, though, she did laugh softly. Ken joined in.
When the check arrived, Ken swallowed hard and slipped his card into the folder with only the quickest glance at the total.
"Seriously, Ken, it's okay?"
"My Christmas present to you," he said, and smiled. "Though there's more to come."
They left the restaurant and walked together along the street. Jun held Ken's arm tightly and pressed against him as they walked. She couldn't tell where he was leading her, but let him go, happy with the walk itself. The outside temperature had dropped, but she warmed where she touched him.
Finally he stopped at an unfamiliar entrance and held the door open for her. Inside, a young man took their coats, and beyond she could see the desk of a concierge. A hotel? Her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed as she glanced up at Ken, who was handing something to the bellboy. Excitement warred with outrage. Could this truly be what he had in mind? How dare he, with no warning at all?
"I hope you didn't find out about this place from Jinpei," she said, an edge to her voice.
Ken turned to her. "I still have a few mysteries left in me," he said. "I think you'll like this." He tugged gently on her arm, but she hesitated, staring at him with her brow furrowed. Was this really Ken, or has someone replaced him? Was this a joke? Should she stop this game right now or trust him and let him lead the way?
She chose to follow. Ken took her through the lobby, past the concierge and to a hallway of polished marble. He walked quickly, nervously, glancing back at her when she lagged behind. At the end of the hallway, a man waited beside a double door, and he opened it as they approached. Jun's breath caught.
She found herself staring at a ballroom with glass walls and ceiling opening onto a lacy forest of oak trees outlined in white lights. More lights graced the potted greenery inside. The entire room glittered. Couples dotted the polished wood floor, slow-dancing as the live band played "White Christmas." She turned to Ken with wide eyes.
"Ken, I--yes, I am." She followed him inside and onto the dance floor. "It's beautiful."
"This is the Crystal Palace. They finished refurbishing the ballroom just in time for Christmas." Ken half closed his eyes. "Joe told me about this place. He said if I ever had a date I wanted to impress...."
Jun pulled him closer and leaned her head on his shoulder, and they swayed until the number finished. "I never said thank you for the past few months," Ken said.
"It's all right," she whispered. "I miss him too. I think he'd be glad you took his advice."
"I didn't do this just because of him."
She held him tighter. "I know."
They didn't speak much after that. With his natural grace and a bit of training to enable the team to fit in during formal parties, Ken was an accomplished dancer, but he had never shown any interest in this kind of dancing. Jun preferred rock music, but as they moved lightly across the floor, she wouldn't have traded the moment for all of her wildest parties put together. They were two birds in flight, surrounded by swirling stars. And then Ken reached down and kissed her.
Ken had been courting Jun since their post-war vacation to Iropa. He had first kissed her beside the fountains at the Champs Elysees, shocking her to the core. This time, she tingled with the sensation of his lips gently touching hers, almost tentatively. When he drew back, she returned the kiss, lingering, and she felt the tense muscles in his shoulders relax. Ken maneuvered them beneath a grove of potted trees, and they kissed again, deeply this time, while the tiny white lights whirled outside their hiding place.
At midnight, the first few flakes of snow drifted down over the city of Utoland.
Waves pounded the rocks below the cliff, and above, the night sky was an inverted bowl sprinkled with bright stars. Joe sat back, propping himself on his hands, and tipped his head back. On an island surrounded by cold black ocean and open sky, he felt disconnected and alien; perfectly fitting given his situation.
He had spent most of his Christmas Eve in rehab, trying to gain control over his rebellious, hypersensitive cybernetics. Even after six weeks of training, he crushed things or smashed through things, often bruising himself badly in the process because he had yet to gain control over the armor that covered his skin. Only the steady stream of smarmy holiday specials over the satellite television and the Christmas carols playing in Dr. Rafael's lab had reminded him of the holiday. Rafael had offered to take him to Mass, but he'd refused, uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with outsiders in his current state. Besides, the interior of a church brought forth too many harsh memories now.
Joe leaned forward, picked up a rock and hurled it toward the sea. It arced into the darkness and disappeared. As a family on the run, his parents had taken the time to attend a Christmas service, exchange small gifts and toast the day, but they often hadn't been able to do much else. He could recall maybe one traditional Christmas, when he was five. His grandparents on his mother's side, two aunts, two uncles and three cousins all stayed at his house. They were somewhere in Iropa, and it had snowed. Joe remembered shaking the branches of trees outside until an avalanche of snow had dumped on him; helping his father untangle a snarled wad of Christmas lights; a table groaning with food, and a giant stuffed dog he'd found waiting for him under the tree.
After the deaths of Joe's parents, Dr. Nambu had tried to establish a Christmas routine for his two adopted boys, and by the time Ryu had joined, they'd set up the tradition of gifts on Christmas morning. Employees at the ISO often brought in goodies: sugar cookies and cakes as well as the traditional Christmas cake shaped like a Yule log. When Jun and Jinpei joined the team, Christmas became a celebration of family as the five youngsters huddled together, desperate for common ground. Jinpei would always mark off the days starting at the end of November.
When the war began in earnest and the team officially became the Kagaku Ninjatai, there was no more time to celebrate. The first year they had managed to decorate a tree and exchange gifts, but the second Christmas had been twisted into something monstrous when the Galactors started handing children poison gas bombs in bright wrapping paper. The third had seen the entire team exhausted, more interested in sleep than celebration. The fourth was now, and the team celebrated without him.
At last, he struggled to his feet, taking a moment to focus on easing the armor that had stiffened in his legs because of the cold. He walked through the ruins of the abandoned fishing village and decended into Rafael's hidden complex. Once back in his quarters, he settled on the bed, clicking on the projection TV that took up the opposite wall. Here he had two hundred satellite channels, displaying holiday programs in twelve different languages. He grimaced as he flipped through them. "The Twelfth Reindeer." "The Bird that Saved Christmas." "The Year that Forgot Christmas." "The Chipmunk that Saved Santa," and what seemed like six hundred renditions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." For crying out loud. "What is the meaning of Christmas anyway?" whined a child's voice on one channel. The program that followed would serenade the audience on how Christmas was a time for joy and love and giving and caring and celebration, and it worshipped either the birth of the Christian savior or a fat, bearded guy in a red suit. Joe clicked a few more channels. If you listened to the commercials, it was the perfect time for overeating, overspending and having a nervous breakdown. Or, Joe thought as he got up and headed for the shower, It's just another day on the calendar that has too much damned baggage.
He closed the bathroom door and turned on the water. On the television, the string of commercials ended and the cable news returned. "In world headline news," said the announcer, "Tonight is the night most countries choose for celebration. And fitting to this celebration, reports are in that for the first time in recorded news history, there is not a single military conflict occurring tonight in the civilized world. From the United Nations annex in Utoland, here is correspondent Robert Boggs."
"Thank you, Michael," said the correspondent. "This is the season for making wishes come true, and for the past several decades, people of all ages, in all parts of the world have wished for peace on earth. And for the first time, it appears this wish has been granted. Many of the UN dignitaries are home with their families, but here with me is ISO President Anderson. President Anderson, to what do you attribute this period of peace, and how long do you feel it will continue?"
"Well," Anderson said slowly. "As for the cause, I attribute it to the common enemy we all faced in Galactor and the awesome destruction brought about by the Syndicate's final plan. It appears the world's nations have united against this single enemy."
Abruptly the water in the bathroom shut off, the door opened, and Joe charged, dripping, into the room. He stared at the screen with wide eyes, taking in Anderson's familiar face, hearing that familiar voice.
"But that has not prevented conflicts in the past," said the correspondent.
"True, but then, we never faced the results of anything as destructive as the Black Hole Operation. I believe this peace will last for as long as we remain involved in repairing the damage and we remember how grateful we are for our survival. I certainly hope our memories last."
"I hope mine don't," Joe muttered.
"Thank you, Mr. President." The camera pulled back to reveal the night lights of Utoland City and the brilliant Christmas tree in the middle of the UN square. Snowflakes drifted into the light of the camera. "Celebrating this day of peace on earth, this has been--"
Joe shook his head at the screen. Surely they couldn't be serious. No doubt, somewhere safely hidden from the media, there were two clans firing arrows at each other because someone had stolen a few too many goats. Or some guerrilla group planning to steal its opponent's supplies during the rebuilding. Joe wished the channel had offered current news on the team, but the Kagaku Ninjatai had successfully dodged the media since before he'd first awakened in Rafael's lab.
How would the team spend this holiday? Maybe they'd meet at Nambu's for dinner and an exchange of small gifts. Would they buy a tree, skip it altogether, or would Ryu try to cut one down from the acre of ISO property surrounding the mansion? Security would love that. Maybe they'd toast this temporary respite. They deserved it. Closing his eyes, Joe imagined his old teammates at the table at Nambu's mansion; Jinpei and Ryu shoving each other and joking, Jun trying to keep order, and Ken staring into his wine glass, pensive over any of a dozen mysterious things. If he'd been there, Joe might have teased Ken about the romantic Christmas Eve he was missing with Jun, then wait to see which of the couple responded first.
If his friends could sleep one night thinking there was nothing to fight; if shopping headaches and holiday plans were the worst they had to face, then let that be their gift this year. They deserved it. If Dr. Rafael lived up to his promises, maybe Joe could help them prolong it.
Joe returned to the bathroom and finished his shower, then switched off an expose on holiday shopping before turning out the lights.