At their current depth, the ocean outside of G-Town remained dark at all hours, so the base used interior lighting to mimic the daily cycle. Ken padded on bare feet down a dimly lit hall that was silent save for the hush of air conditioning. At the west end of their level was a small kitchen and lounge, serving as a gathering area for those who didn't have kitchenettes in their quarters or who didn't feel like cooking. Ken headed there--maybe a glass of milk would help him sleep.
He discovered he wasn't alone. Joe sat beside the window, looking out at the ocean, a glass of water in his hand. At the sound of Ken's footsteps, he glanced back, then turned toward him. The exterior light above the window cast a dim, blue-green glow into the room and projected Joe's shadow across the floor.
Joe had been back with them for a week now. After a trip to Scrapton to retrieve his belongings, he'd moved into what had once been Getz's quarters, gotten refitted for an updated Birdstyle, and under Nambu's orders, taken up the kind of exercise regimen the Team used when recovering from injuries. Ken was both surprised and gratified at the way the old jokes had returned, and from time to time, he'd check to make sure Joe was really there; truly real. He noticed the others did it too. But something wasn't quite right. Once in a while he'd find Joe staring into space, a troubled look in his eyes. While Ken could hardly expect Joe to readjust as if nothing had happened in the past two years, his distress reawakened shades of the months before Joe's disappearance. Back when he'd first started feeling ill. Back when he'd begun hiding his pain.
"Can't sleep, huh?" Ken said.
Joe wore a blue terrycloth bathrobe, on loan from Dr. Nambu, and the soft fabric concealed the bandages on his arms. One gauze patch covered the abrasions on the right side of his face. Abrasions from an explosion that by all rights should have killed him.
"How're you feeling?"
"Scrapes sting a little. They're okay." The words meant little, but Ken took in his calm expression and decided it was good news.
He went to the refrigerator and rummaged through it. Finding nothing he wanted, Ken walked over to the window and sat across from Joe.
Outside the window, the light attracted tiny organisms which in turn drew the larger fish to feed. For a long time the two men just sat, staring at the wriggling shapes. Finally, Ken took a deep breath and spoke. "It's good to have all five of us together again."
Joe didn't look at him. "Glad you think so. You haven't said much for the past week."
"I've been thinking." Ken said. "I still feel like I'm dreaming."
"What if you are?"
"Don't push it," Ken growled. Joe still didn't look at him, but Ken caught the tilt to his mouth, the grin that showed briefly, then faded. "I think the others are still getting used to this."
"No kidding. Jinpei is still camping on the couch in my quarters. Jun demands a daily itinerary. I'm under guard like a high-profile convict."
"Can you blame them? They think you're going to vanish in a puff of smoke. It's not every day your teammate comes back from the dead."
Hearing the sharpness in his voice, Joe glanced back at Ken, then closed his eyes.
"You weren't... captured and tortured," Ken said. "They didn't try to brainwash you."
Joe snorted and shook his head. "I wasn't captured. If Galactor had found me again, they would've finished what they'd started." Ken winced.
"I can't imagine what would keep you away, then."
"I remember telling you I can't stand a man who won't quit. I'll tell you when I'm ready." Joe stood abruptly and turned toward the door.
"So you're just going to walk away? You're getting good at that."
Joe stopped. After a moment, he turned, glaring, and started to speak, then thought better of it and returned to the window. Leaning one shoulder against the sill, he stared outside.
Ken said, "It's been two years. Why don't you ask the questions?"
"All right." Joe looked down at his friend. "What's going on with you and Jun?"
Ken rolled his eyes. "Any question but that one."
"Jinpei told me all about his school conquests on the trip home. Ryu finally found a girlfriend he's had to leave behind while he camps down here. Dr. Nambu... who the hell knows what he's been up to? That leaves you two."
"We got together. We broke up." Ken shrugged. "That's it."
"You got together?" Joe's eyes widened. "For how long?"
"I don't know. A few months maybe. It's over."
"It just is."
"I've already heard all this," Ken growled.
"Yeah? From who?"
Ken looked startled, then he slumped, resting his elbows on his knees. "It doesn't matter. Just drop it."
"It matters. I was wondering why she kept looking at you like that. If it's gonna mess up how we work together...."
"That's why it had to end!" Ken snapped. "We can't have that kind of fraternization going on while we're fighting as a team. Do you think I haven't considered this countless times? At least we had the time together that we did."
"Aa," Joe said softly. "At least."
Ken put his head in his hands, not wanting to look at his second's face, at the disapproval he knew would be there. When he finally glanced up, he found Joe staring through the window again.
"You know," Ken said. "I still can't believe you're back."
Joe turned to look at him.
"You used to remind me every mission that we were a team, yet, after you came out of the Condor Attacker, you only wanted to disappear again. You were ready to leave us to fight on your own. That's not the Joe I knew."
Joe regarded him, mouth open slightly. "I...." He looked away at the fish. "I didn't think you'd take me back. Not after all this time."
"Look what we had to work with." Ken gestured. "We had Getz--a Galactor spy. Don't be stupid. Do you really think that little of us?"
"Did you really think we'd just discard you?" Ken's voice rose. "Now that's really insulting. The team means more than that--my friends mean more than that. Or at least I thought they did."
Joe clenched his fists. "I told you, I'll explain everything. Just not right now."
"Why not now? You're not making sense!" Ken lunged up off his seat and stood, legs braced, facing him. His voice reverberated down the hall. "What could possibly have happened to you to make you think you were better off dead than talking to us--to me?"
Joe looked down the dark corridor, then glared at Ken and pushed away from the wall. "Let's go to the gym," he growled. "That way you don't have to wake the whole damn wing."
"The gym?" Ken regarded Joe's bandages. "You're injured."
"Won't keep me from kicking your ass."
Ken moved past him. "You couldn't do that in your prime."
"Yeah? Time for me to refresh your memory."
"I'll go easy on you anyway. I don't want to have to answer to Hakase for your next trip to the infirmary."
Ken led the way to the gym and training area that Nambu had designed specifically for the team. As they got closer, he picked up the pace. In the locker room they donned judo gi. Joe dressed quickly, his back turned.
"I'd think you'd have more scars than that," Ken said. "Especially after you got shot all those times."
Joe winced. "Dr. Rafael did some weird shit after he rescued me. Grafts or something."
Grafts left scars too. Dr. Nambu had ordered a full analysis of blood withdrawn during Joe's initial physical, and he'd sent a copy of the results to Ken. The DNA tests confirmed this was indeed Joe, but now things felt even more wrong. Ken followed Joe onto the floor of a training ring set between a weight set and the gymnastics bars. Once in the padded ring, the two squared off, crouched in ready stance and circling. Ken watched his opponent through narrowed eyes, remembering the familiar moves, though oddly, Joe didn't try to strike first. Ken did, moving in for a grab and throw, which Joe dodged fluidly. Then Joe struck at him. He normally led with his left, then followed with a vicious right hook. Ken dodged the blows and responded with a foot sweep that didn't connect.
Even after all this time, the two knew each other's style so well they could predict each offensive, though now Joe focused more on throw attempts or eluding Ken's attacks than striking back. Was this his way of apologizing? Ken felt a surge of anger. It wasn't enough.
He turned the pressure up a notch, concentrating his efforts in a barrage of attacks rather than with single strikes. Still Joe dodged him, missing by a flicker here, a hair's breadth there. Ken felt like he was fighting a ghost, never making an impact. Joe seemed lighter, faster on his feet--he'd improved over his time away. Ken's breath came harder. Realizing it, he backed off, and the two resumed circling.
"So," Ken said. "You probably spent some months in recovery, some months doing rehab."
"So what kept you from picking up a telephone? You could have done that from your bedside."
"Rafael stayed pretty isolated."
"Come on. A man capable of bringing back the dead certainly has the tech to make a radio call. Didn't you even try?"
Joe glanced away. Ken lashed out, and this time connected to Joe's ribs. With a grunt of pain, Joe backed away.
"It's easy; you find a radio and turn it on, tune it to an ISO frequency...."
"And he does comedy, too," Joe muttered. When Ken tried a right cross, he deflected it with his left arm, knocking Ken away with more vehemence than necessary. "So the lectures begin again."
That stung. "For a week, I've been trying to give you the benefit of a doubt, but it's not working," Ken snapped. "What you did was cold-blooded and cowardly. You had no right to put us through that." He stabbed a finger at Joe. "We searched for you for weeks. The whole team mourned you for two years! Jinpei thought you were haunting us. Ryu blamed himself for leaving you alone at Cross Karakoram. Jun lost her self confidence, and I--" Ken's breath caught. "Did you enjoy doing this to us? Did you want us to feel the kind of bitterness you grew up with?"
Joe gaped at him. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Ken lunged forward, grabbed the front of Joe's gi, and hauled him up close. His voice lowered, but he fired the words like bullets. "Yeah, I lost it for a bit when my father died, but when it all comes down, I never knew him very well. You and I worked side by side for years. You were my second and the closest thing to family I ever had. One call, Joe. One message, two words-- 'I'm alive.' Why was this too much to give?"
Joe remained motionless, staring down into Ken's face. "You would have come after me."
"Of course we would have come after you!" Ken shook him. "We wanted you back, we wanted you home! I don't know what Doctor Rafael did to you, but I don't give a damn if he cobbled you together out of corpse parts to get you back among the living!"
Joe turned his face away, closing his eyes.
"We've seen each other at our worst, Joe. I was there when you realized your parents had been Galactors. What could you possibly have to hide from me?" Ken threw his weight back, toppling Joe to the mat in a throw, then followed up with a roundhouse kick that Joe ducked beneath. As Joe rolled to his feet, Ken lunged at him.
"When did you start holding back?" Ken punched with a rapid left-right. "You tried hiding your illness. You hid your recovery. What else is there?" A right hook. "When did you stop trusting me?" A side kick. His eyes were wild, and Joe tried to backpedal, but Ken followed him, striking with words as well as blows. "You bastard, I thought you were my brother, my closest friend. Was I wrong all this time? Hakase tells me nothing now. The others pull away from me, and you... you're still a million miles away. You ripped my heart out for two fucking years, Joe! Two years, and not one word, and you won't even tell me why!"
Joe held both arms up, fending him off. "Ken, I never realized--"
"You didn't know? Is that what you're trying to tell me? You didn't know?" Ken screamed, driving Joe back with his fists. "You haunted my thoughts--I'd turn around, and there you'd be, standing in the shadows, judging me, only to disappear when I really needed you there. How could you not know, after all we've been through?"
Joe hesitated, and at that moment, Ken's fist found its mark, hitting Joe squarely in the solar plexus. Joe cried out in pain. His answering kick caught Ken in the side, sending him flying across the ring before he fell and slid to the edge of the mat. Ken rolled and curled on one side, struggling to breathe. Joe clutched his middle, then slowly straightened, staring at Ken in horror. "Oh shit... shit... Ken, are you all right?"
Ken shook his head. At last he got his lungs working again, took a few deep breaths, then felt gingerly along his side. "No, I--nothing's broken."
"Is this how it's going to be from now on?" Joe stood over him, hands still clutching his stomach. "I never meant to do any of that to you. Never!"
"Don't tell me--you--didn't know," Ken gasped.
"I thought you could handle it--you've always been the pillar of strength in this team. You stood through your father's death, the destruction of Crescent Base... I don't know what happened to you in all this time, but don't try to pin it all on me in my absence. I couldn't wreck you this way even if I'd been here trying my hardest. You did it to yourself."
Ken closed his eyes. "You're wrong--you're so wrong...."
"What does it take to convince you that I'm sorry, Ken?" Joe's breath came faster. "How do I make amends? Should I get on my knees and beg your forgiveness? Should I stand here and let you hit me some more? Or should I leave and we can all pretend this never happened? You want to know why I stayed away? Because I--" He choked, then lowered his head, mouth working silently. "I thought I was a security risk. I couldn't decide whether Rafael--whether I--was on the level. Can you handle that?"
Ken said nothing.
"Take what you see because that's all I have," Joe snapped. "Or don't." He turned toward the exit. "In the end, it doesn't matter."
Behind him, Ken chuckled softly. "Stubborn... that hasn't changed. You still... talk up... a good fight." He laughed, but the laughter had a brittle edge to it. "Even though... you think you're too good to... spar with me now." Joe slowed, but continued walking, and Ken's laughter turned to another sound; a sound that froze him in his tracks. Joe whirled to find Ken lying with one arm over his face, his chest heaving as he choked back tears.
In all these years, Ken had never let the rest of the team see him so broken. Not since his mother died back when he was eleven, and Joe had been the only witness at the time. No one had begrudged Ken his tears of rage and frustration over the death of his father seven years later, and since then, he'd stood tough through years of bone-wearying battles; giving his all just to break even in the war with Galactor. But now; now he wept with the helplessness of a man who had exhausted all his options.
Silently, Joe returned to where Ken lay, then sat down within reach of him and rested his head in his hands.
"I don't know why it all happened like this, Ken," he said quietly. "I wasn't thinking straight. Maybe those bullet fragments were in the way."
Ken quieted and rolled onto his right side, away from Joe. His shoulders still trembled and he kept his teeth clenched and his eyes squeezed tightly shut as another deluge threatened to burst past his restraints. Two years of madness had culminated into this, and now it wasn't an imaginary voice he was listening to as Joe continued to elude him.
Ken heard Joe stand and leave the gym. He lay where he was. The tears had finally been forced down, leaving his face wet and raw and shameful. He forced himself to breathe away the rising gorge and the tingling in his face. Joe wouldn't be back. After this, he would disappear again. The rest of the team would blame Ken for this, of course. Nambu wouldn't let them search for Joe, thinking it a waste of time, and he was probably right. If I had said nothing; if I had just let it go....
The door opened, and Ken heard footsteps approaching. He remained still as they stopped in front of him.
"Ken." Joe's voice rumbled at him. "Open your eyes. Can you sit up?"
He opened his eyes. Joe sat in formal posture in front of him, a package wrapped in fabric on the mat. "This is yours," Joe said.
Ken sat up slowly and regarded the package. His hands numb, he fumbled with the green cotton hachimaki to find a varnished cedar box. He flipped back the latches and opened the lid. Inside, packed in soft foam and wrapped in blue silk, was his old boomerang.
Ken's eyes rounded. Slowly, he reached into the box and lifted out the weapon. It had been meticulously cleaned, and the gym's overhead lights reflected off surfaces polished to mirror brightness. Ken snapped out the blades, feeling the sharp edges against the calluses on his hand, skin that had toughened at all the points of contact. He flipped the boomerang in his hand and snapped the blades shut.
"You told me at Cross Karakoram to think of this as your heart," Joe said. "Now I can return it to you."
"But you discarded it," Ken said. "Jinpei found it on the site."
"I tried to use it on Rafael when he came after me. But it's a boomerang. It came back. Rafael claims one of his people found it later. He gave it to me a few weeks after I woke up in his lab."
Ken stared down at the boomerang, and his hand tightened around it. A thin line of blood welled up between one blade and his thumb. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Joe tense.
"I just want to understand why," he whispered.
"Ken, I--" Again, Joe's mouth worked silently. "Okay, you're right. It's not enough. Maybe it's better that you know now." Hearing the roughness in Joe's voice, Ken didn't look at him. "I stayed away... I stayed away all this time because... Ken, I thought I was dead out there in Cross Karakoram. It was all I expected. Dr. Rafael picked me up and took me to his lab, and he did what he thought he had to in order to bring me back. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it." Joe looked away, summoned a deep breath, then turned back to Ken. "He made me... I'm a cyborg, Ken. He made me into a weapon--brought me back to kill X for him."
Ken stared at him, his pale face perfectly still. No one breathed.
"That's impossible," Ken whispered.
"I thought I might be a security risk. I had to be sure of Rafael's motives. I had to be sure I could trust him. He said it was mostly implants and armor, that most of me is still in here, but I had to make sure I was in control and not him or anyone else." Joe reached for the gauze taped to his arm.
"No!" Ken's voice echoed through the gym. "No. Don't." He lowered his head, closing his eyes. "Just stop there."
Joe sat back, shoulders sagging, and let out his breath in a long, slow sigh. "Now you know." His voice took on a bitter edge. "I suppose you'll be calling Security."
Ken stared down at the boomerang. I didn't want this. I wanted things to be as they were in the old days; to be as normal as they get around here. I wanted--
Abruptly, Ken climbed to his feet and walked toward the door. "Where are you going?" Joe asked.
"Out." Ken looked over his shoulder. "You should get some sleep, if that's what you need."
Joe tensed. "Are you going to report it?"
"I don't know." With that, Ken left the gym. He kept the boomerang clutched in his hand as he walked down the corridor toward the elevator.
Just as the elevator doors opened, he heard footsteps, then Joe's voice sounded loud in the hall. "I want an answer, Ken!"
"When I'm ready." The doors closed between them.
Ken jabbed at a random button and the elevator began its ascent. The doors opened on the level that contained Nambu's office. Ken let himself into the enormous conference room with the great glass walls, and he stared at the dark ocean beyond. He sat cross-legged on the floor, facing the window and confronted his own reflection. Straggly, sweat-matted hair surrounded a pale, haggard face. He brushed the hair from his eyes with his left hand.
It was selfish of me to hope, he thought. There's no such thing as happily ever after, is there? The DNA tests said it was Joe. His heart told him it was Joe, but now Joe himself was saying it was all wrong. A cyborg... All Ken could think of were the Galactor cyborgs they had encountered: Romina and Julia, Joe's report on Lucy, and the clumsy facsimiles of the team that Nambu had ordered to act as decoys. Joe was nothing like that.
He still held the boomerang in his right hand. The bleeding had stopped, but started again as he transferred the weapon to his left hand. He stared at the blood smeared along the sharp edges of the blades; the beads of red that formed a line down his thumb. When they were kids, they'd pricked their palms with the point of Joe's pocket knife and pressed their hands together. That made them blood brothers, Joe had said. At least then. Ken was type B negative, Joe an A positive, as was Jinpei. Though the kid didn't have enough blood in his whole body to replace what Joe had lost when they found him in the mountains.
"At least take this boomerang...." he'd said to Joe.
How could Joe be a cyborg? That was insane. But no, all the evidence supported it: Joe climbing from the half-melted wreck of the Condor Attacker with only scratches; the absence of scars on his body; the astonishing strength with which he'd kicked Ken across the gym.
If that was the case, Joe was indeed a security risk--a great one. Only Galactor had the technology to make cyborgs that could be mistaken for human. Was Joe--the Joe he had known all these years--truly dead? What if, somewhere inside him, a program had been set to turn him against the ISO? Nothing had happened so far, and Joe had been here a week, but what did that mean? Ken would have to call Security. He'd have to report this to Dr. Nambu. They'd need a full workup on Dr. Rafael and a complete scan of every single component he'd placed into Joe. How could Joe tolerate the humiliation? Reduced to an object, a ticking time bomb with flesh attached. Imprisoned, disassembled and analyzed in an ISO laboratory... he'd be better off dead.
Why should I care, since he's just a machine?
How could he look Joe in the face and think that?
He could let Joe leave. That's what Joe had wanted all along, wasn't it? They could re-secure the base, move it to a new location.... But then the team would never forgive him, and Joe would haunt him from the outside.
Dammit, Joe! Why must you always do this to me?
What would Joe do now? He could leave tonight. The fact that he hadn't already meant he was waiting for Ken's decision. He trusted Ken to make the right one.
So it all comes down to this: I demanded the truth, and now I get to decide whether to sell him out or risk endangering the entire base.
Did Nambu know about this? How had Joe's secret gotten past the medic during his physical? Ken frowned at his reflection. Either the medic had told Nambu, who'd decided to conceal the information yet again; the medic was blind, or the medic had been planted by Rafael. Which meant that Rafael had complete access to G-Town. Ken wasn't sure which option horrified him more.
Ken pressed his hand against the hem of his gi until the bleeding stopped, then gently wiped his fingers clean. A computer sat on the receptionist's desk outside the closed door to Nambu's office. It was running, displaying a screen saver of aquarium fish. Ken rolled his eyes as he jiggled the mouse to free up the machine, then typed in his password at the prompt. In a few minutes he began searching the ISO libraries for all he could find on a Dr. Raphael. The initial results gave him several names and thumbnail photos, none of which fit. Ken altered the spelling and after a moment, the search engine gave him Dr. Esteban Rafael, a physician, a specialist in skin and organ grafts and an active member of SETI back before Ken had been born. The file photo depicted a younger version of the man Ken had met, with tidy black hair, a trimmed beard and without the bird. Shades of Dr. Damon?
There was more, but that required an additional password. Ken's worked. The ISO had been wooing Rafael, trying to sign him on, and he'd been discussing this with Dr. Kimball, Dr. Nambu's predecessor, before he'd disappeared for ten years. When Ken turned eight, the same year that Joe came to live with him and Nambu, Rafael renewed communication via a handwritten letter, but contact since had been sporadic. Galactor had clearly been pursuing him. Nambu had offered him asylum, but received no response. Of course, ISO asylum was no assurance of safety.
Ken called up all the letters on file in the ISO's records, and sat back in the chair as the data downloaded. He found ten in all. The first one he read carefully; the others he just scanned. None of the letters shed any light on any connection between Rafael and Galactor.
Ken switched tracks, moving now to G-Town's personnel files, trying to track down a list of recent transfers. This required more passwords, but as Gatchaman, Ken had access to more of the database than most high-level officials. During the past week, Dr. Nambu had personally signed three new employees onto the base. All three were physicians. Ken recognized one of them as the medic who had examined him upon his return from his latest missions. The other two... The database didn't indicate where they had been assigned. He had to find the team's medical records.
A full computer search yielded nothing, not even a mention of the team's names. Ken propped his chin on his fist and glared at the screen. Where would Nambu keep the records? Ken remembered his own doctor hand-writing something on a clipboard--could their records be in hard-copy only? That was one low-tech way to keep the documents secure, especially since the Syndicate had a penchant for stealing data tapes. He looked over his shoulder at the door to Nambu's office.
The lights in the office began to brighten, and the clock on the computer registered 6:30 am. Soon the morning staff would report to work. Ken decided to end his research for now. Leader of the team or not, Nambu would never allow him to go freely through the team's medical records without a lot of questions. He returned to his room.
Ken kept to himself the following day, leaving his quarters only for his daily workout. Joe was there, trailed by Jun and Jinpei, and though he said nothing, his direct stare was question enough. Ken only shook his head and turned his back. He wasn't finished.
That night, Ken returned to Nambu's office. It took half an hour to get the door to respond, and Ken wished he could rouse Jun or better yet, Jinpei to deal with the lock. Suddenly, a beep and a loud click signaled success. Ken pulled the heavy door aside and stepped into the office.
Long-ingrained training left him feeling he was doing something wrong, but the more locks he encountered, the less guilty he felt. The locks on the file cabinets and on the drawers of Nambu's desk were easier to get through than the door, but yielded nothing. At last a button concealed in the top drawer of the desk caused a wall panel to pull back, revealing a file cabinet, and in it, Ken found what he was looking for.
Joe's personal profile was there, filed in alphabetical order by first name. The thick binder contained a complete medical history, including a copy of his birth certificate and records from before he'd been brought to the ISO as a child. Ken paged past years of injuries to copies of CT scans dated two years ago, then reached the back of the binder. The final notes, dated a week ago, described bruises and contusions. The treatment signed in were bandages and an injection of an antibiotic--nothing out of the ordinary for a minor scuffle. No scars....
The signature on the file belonged to Dr. Raul Martinez, one of the new staff Nambu had signed in.
Ken locked everything behind him and returned to the receptionist's computer. Calling up the information on Dr. Martinez took a fraction of the time that Rafael's search had, and when the doctor's profile scrolled before him, Ken's face twisted.
"Damn you, Hakase. It never stops, does it?"
He stood abruptly and stared at the screen with his fists clenched, forcing himself to take deep, slow breaths. When he calmed, he closed all the applications, deleted the records of his search and left the lobby. He didn't sleep that night, spending the remaining hours before sunrise working out in the gym.
At zero six hundred, Ken stepped out of the shower. He could imagine the sounds of alarm clocks going off in the surrounding quarters; Jinpei groaning and ducking under his pillow, Ryu slapping the snooze button. Ken dressed and walked to Joe's quarters, then knocked.
The door came open to reveal a darkened apartment. Joe stood fully dressed a few feet inside of the entryway. Even in the dim light, Ken could see the tension on his face. His bandages were gone, revealing smooth, undamaged skin. He wasn't wearing his bracelet.
"Can I come in?"
Joe stepped back and Ken entered the apartment, closing the door behind him. He turned on the hall light, causing them both to blink. In the main room, Ken could make out a small shape on the sofa, wrapped in blankets. Jinpei had buried his head beneath his pillow.
"What's your decision?" Joe asked, his voice flat.
Ken swallowed, knowing Joe had expected betrayal, and it hurt. "I'm glad you were the one to tell me and not Hakase. Is there anything else I should know? Any special conditions, stuff you need?"
"You'll have to tell me what the differences are--make a list. I need to know what we have to work with. I don't... know how to deal with this, but there's no other choice."
"You should tell the others, too." Ken said. "These kinds of secrets... they can be damaging enough."
"What about the security?"
Ken's jaw tightened. "That's Dr. Nambu's problem, not mine. The important thing is that we're a team again, that we continue on. I want my second back. I need someone I can trust." He stared hard into Joe's face. "I always could trust you."
Joe's gaze dropped to the floor. "Ken--"
"No more secrets, Joe."
Silently, Joe nodded.
Ken turned back toward the door and grabbed the handle. His voice brightened and he glanced at Joe with a breezy half-grin. "Now that you've recovered, we can go back to full drills. We all meet at the gym in an hour. See you then."
The door closed behind him, leaving Joe alone. He didn't move for a long moment, staring silently at the door.
Behind him, Jinpei stirred on the couch, and he startled. "Something wrong, Joe n' aniki?"
"No, nothing. Get up."
The boy groaned and tried to burrow deeper into the cushions. Joe allowed himself a grin. Then his bracelet chimed, and he hurried to the bedroom to snatch it from the nightstand.