Better Late Than Never

A Patlabor Fanfic

By Sean Gaffney

Patlabor (c) 2001 Headgear. I have no rights to these characters.


He stared at the window, a frown creasing his features. This was not an unusual appearance for him, as the man was used to looking grim and serious. About his business of selling Labors, about Japanese regulations and politics, and especially about his family. He had already failed in this regard, failed to be a good father to his son. And for that he had paid the price. Some might say (including Asuma, his other son) that this did not affect him in the least, but they were wrong. There was a difference between not allowing feelings to show and not having them. He grieved for his son, but privately, in his own time.

And then there was his relationship with Asuma. He was not necessarily trying to put right what he had done wrong with his eldest. But Asuma certainly thought he was. This made it that much harder, as Asuma's grief about his brother's death had turned into full-fledged paranoia. For years, they did not speak. Asuma enrolled in the Special Vehicles Division to try to get away from what he perceived as his father's tyranny.

But slowly, ever so slowly, progress had been made. Starting with a simple graveside visit, the two had begun to at least communicate again. And he was able to explain things to Asuma, explain how important the business was to him, and how important it was that he carry on the family legacy.

It was almost perfect. He was not exactly cordial with his son, but they were able to hold reasonable conversations without them degenerating into shouting matches. His son had left the Labor Police, and was now working here at Shinohara Industries, helping to make the Labors that the police were using the best in the country.

There was only one slight problem, and it was not one that Asuma's father could easily intrude on. At least not without Asuma taking offense and possibly causing a new rift in their still tender relationship.

The problem was this. His son was in love. The girl he loved was also in love with him. Asuma's father knew this. All of their friends and former co-workers knew this. He even suspected, deep down, that they knew it.

But they did nothing. They were both in their mid-thirties now. It had been over 10 years, and still they were content to remain good friends, still content to do nothing that might risk hurting each other, no matter what the benefits might be.

For years Asuma's father had watched their little dance, watching the blushes and stuttered words, watch them dating in all but name. What was it that stopped them? The two of them knew each other better than anyone else on this planet, yet they still feared intimacy? He watched this, and is frustration grew greater and greater.

But he was no longer content to simply watch. He had just returned from a visit with his doctor, which had confirmed what he had suspected for quite some time. He was dying. He was 76 years old, not nearly old enough in his opinion, but his body cared little for that. He had at most a year.

And here he was, with the Shinohara line dying out with his spineless son, simply because he was afraid to let a friendship become something more.

There was no more time for just watching.

"Kaga-san," he murmured.

The assistant was immediately at his side. "Yes, sir?"

"Please call my son in here at his earliest convenience. I want to discuss an important matter with him."

***

Asuma Shinohara was doing one of his favorite things, looking over the new specs for labors. Actually, this wasn't even accurate, as he wasn't consciously studying them. He was simply letting his eyes drift over the blueprints, letting his unconscious try to find any flaws that might crop up later, or any new improvements that might be tacked on. He found that he usually fared better when he wasn't actively thinking about such things.

"Hiya, Asuma!"

Asuma grinned as Noa walked into the room. She was several years older and wiser from the day they had met, but had still never lost the perky cheerfulness that made her so endearing. He hoped that she never really lost that sense of optimism.

"Noa, hey. Just glancing over the specs for this new Labor. Not a lot for me to do here, they did a good job."

Noa grinned. "That's because they know better than to try and give you flaws. You don't let them sleep for days."

He frowned, but his eyes were smiling. "I'm not all that bad."

Noa sat down next to him, and offered him a bun from her paper bag. "I was just over at the hospital. Shinobu and the baby should be ready to leave tomorrow."

Asuma shook his head. "I still can't believe I'm hearing those words. I thought that was something that just wasn't going to happen."

Noa giggled. "Well, Captain Goto was certainly persistent. And you could see the two had feelings for each other almost from the start. It just took them forever to admit it."

There was a pregnant pause, then the two of them glanced away from each other. After a few moments, Asuma pushed back from the drafting table. "My eyes are getting tired. What say we go out for some food."

"Asuma!" Noa looked outraged. "What do you think I just brought you!"

"Pff. That was just a snack."

Noa was ready to respond in kind when suddenly a shadow fell over the two of them. They turned to see Kaga standing next to them, looking as unobtrusive as possible. "Asuma, your father has requested that you go to see him at your earliest convenience."

Asuma frowned. "What does he mean by that, do you think?"

Kaga shrugged. "I believe he genuinely means it, Asuma, but I sense that whatever he wants to talk to you about is of the greatest importance. I wouldn't put it off for very long."

Noa was concerned. "He hasn't talked to Asuma in a while. What do you think this is about?"

The older man paused, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I really think that you should ask him yourself."

Asuma and Noa looked at each other, sensing the unease in Kaga's tone. Asuma sighed, and moved towards the door.

"Better put a raincheck on that dinner while I see what this is about, Noa. Don't know how long this will take, I'll call you when it's done."

Noa smiled. At least the mere mention of his father didn't put Asuma in a miserable mood anymore. "Sure."

***

As Asuma entered his father's office, the familiar tension built up in his shoulders. His relationship with him was the best it had ever been, but it would still never be perfect. His brother would always be there to prevent that.

He had gotten better at dealing with that tension, though. "What's up? Some new company we have to worry about?"

His father turned, and Asuma was starting to get very uncomfortable. His father looked... weary. Tired like he hadn't been for years. Whatever was going on here, it couldn't be good.

"Asuma, sit down for a moment."

Asuma sit, fighting the impulse to swing his legs over the chair. "What's the matter," he repeated.

His father sighed, and sat across the desk from Asuma. "I just went to visit Dr. Chen. The results were what I expected, though perhaps not to the degree indicated."

The sense of unease increased, until Asuma felt he had a hole in his stomach. "Doctor?"

Another sigh. "Asuma, I'm going to die. Soon. Perhaps as little as three months, more likely close to a year, but very soon."

Asuma stared at his father. He didn't seem able to take it in. His father had always seemed eternal, an iconic figure, frustrating, humiliating and sometimes hateful, but his presence always consumed Asuma's life. He couldn't imagine his father not in it.

He tried to say something, but there were no words coming out. His father must have noticed this, because he continued the one-sided conversation.

"I'm trying to do my best to take care of everything before I leave. Some things are easy. I have seen you progress enough in the job to where I believe you can take over Shinohara Industries and continue to keep it a viable business."

Asuma, still trying to deal with his father's shocking news, wasn't ready for this unusual praise. His eyes must have looked as big as saucers.

His father chuckled. "There is still one matter that I would dearly love to take care of before I leave this world. But in order to do it, I would need some help on your end. In fact, it's something that only you can possibly do."

Voice finally came back to Asuma. "What are you talking about?"

His father pinched the bridge of his nose, a sure sign that Asuma wasn't going to like what he was about to say. "Asuma, you are the last of my line. I do not want the Shinohara line to die out with you, and I do not trust you to take care of such matters after I die. You have been an exemplary son, with the exception of finding yourself a wife. You had had the excuse of being busy with your career and your duties, and I accepted that. But I am dying now, and I find myself growing less accepting. I want you to marry, Asuma, and I want it to be soon. Within the next month."

Asuma seemed to be mastering the art of opening and closing his mouth without saying anything. "You can't do something like that without my say-so!" he finally shouted.

"Of course I can, Asuma, I'm your father. Something which I have not thrown in your face for many years, but choose to do now. If necessary, I will find a wife for you to marry. I hope and think that it will not be necessary."

Asuma's frown deepened. "What do you mean by that?"

"Asuma, I am tired of playing these games. Marry Noa. The two of you have loved each other for years, and yet refuse to do anything about it. This is my ultimatum. Marry her, or I will find you someone else. But you will marry before I die."

Asuma felt almost too angry to speak. He hadn't gotten this mad in years, but this was bringing back all the old feelings. And it would seem that this was all that his father would say on the matter, as he turned back towards the window with an air of dismissal.

The slam of the door was deafening.

***

Noa was just about ready to go home when she saw Asuma coming out of the main offices. He was angry. In fact, he looked beyond angry into that state of rage that she'd only seen once or twice in her entire life. She immediately took off her helmet and headed towards him, knowing that she was probably the only person he would talk to when he was like this.

"What's the matter? What did he say? Did he fire you?" Theories were running through her head, none of them good.

Asuma stared at her for a second. For a moment she was afraid he might cut her off and tell her it was nothing, like he used to do back when they'd first met in the Special Vehicles squad. She had thought that sort of thing was behind him now.

But after a moment, his eyes seemed to soften and he motioned her over, walking back towards the left side of the compound where he kept his apartment. "I'll tell you after I have a drink."

Noa followed him, not saying anything. She wasn't willing to commit herself before she knew what this was about.

After they had settled on his couch, and Asuma had fortified himself with a Scotch, he began to tell her what had happened. Noa listened to him, at first horrified, then simply stunned.

"Then I just stormed out of there. I can't believe what he's doing, Noa. It's like any progress we ever made never happened. He's still trying to control my life, trying to ensure that I keep the all- important bloodline going. I don't matter to him at all, except as a means to an end."

Noa hadn't even really thought about Asuma's father, to be honest. Ever since Asuma had mentioned the concept of his getting married, Noa had thought of nothing else. Especially when she heard his father's possibility of Asuma and Noa getting married.

She'd thought about it a lot, to be honest. It wasn't as if she wasn't aware of her own feelings for Asuma. It was just... it was just easier to keep things as they were. They had been friends for so long. Maybe a few years earlier, when they'd been younger, something could have happened. But now they had become such good friends that the possibility simply couldn't come up. It would bring too many questions with it. It was simply too scary. Better to keep things as they were.

But now Asuma's father was upping the ante. They weren't going to be able to keep up the pretense. Asuma would be getting married. And if it wasn't to her, it would be to someone else.

This was scarier. This was positively terrifying.

Asuma was still in the 'anger' part of the whole thing, rather than the 'fear' part. "I can't believe this," he repeated for the eighth time. "Does he think that I have no responsibility whatsoever? He must think I'm still a child! No, worse, he thinks of me as an object! Nothing but another labor of his, to be bought and sold at his whim!"

"Asuma," Noa finally interrupted. "Can he do this? I mean, can he force you to marry someone else?"

He paused, startled at being cut off in mid-rant, but then gave the question some consideration. He sighed. "Yes, he could do it. Mostly because if I didn't, he could easily ruin me. Make sure that I never work on another labor again. Labors are my life, I'd have to start over completely. I have money, but he could easily make that disappear. My father is powerful, Noa. When he uses that power... it's almost impossible to defy him.

That brought a deathly silence over the two of them. Noa knew what she had to say. She just didn't want to. No, that wasn't true, she did want to. She just didn't want anything to change. This would change everything. No longer friends, but something more, something far more attractive and dangerous.

It came out in one single breath. "OK, let's go get married."

He stared at her, looking for all the world as if she'd grown a Labor out of her forehead. "What?"

She wasn't able to look at him, choosing to study the floor instead. "Well... I mean, it's what he wants."

She knew immediately that she'd chosen the wrong words. His eyes flared with rage again. "What he wants? Why should I want to do anything that he wants? Why should I force you to? You aren't his daughter! He can't make you do anything, Noa! This is just about the two of us."

"But..." She still felt inarticulate. "But then you'd be marrying some stranger!"

He frowned. "I don't want to be forced into marrying you." There. He'd said it, point blank.

She wish he'd stuck a knife in her chest instead.

"So..." she said. "That's what it all boils down to."

He nodded. "Basically."

"You'd rather marry a complete stranger than marry me."

"I...what?!" Now it was his turn to look wounded. She wasn't about to let up, though. Her rages weren't as deep as Asuma's, but they were almost as legendary. And she felt very mad now.

"Why should I even be surprised? After all, nothing has ever happened between the two of us for so long. I must have just been imagining things that weren't there."

He was shaking his head now, and holding out a hand. "Noa, you're missing the point."

"Oh? And what IS the point? That you care so little about med that you're going to go off and get married to some gold digger or worse? Just so that you can stay with your labors? You must really hate me if you're thinking like that."

"That's not it at all," Asuma shouted. The two of them were now staring nose to nose with each other. "I don't want to marry anyone! But if I have to, I don't want to force you into it! You deserve better than that!"

"I deserve better than you? Is that what you're saying?"

He slapped his forehead. "Yes! You deserve a terrific man, someone who can make you happy, someone who can treat you like a princess! Someone who makes you feel special every day." His voice got quieter as he went on.

Noa's voice was almost a whisper. "Asuma, that is you."

"Eh?"

She felt frustrated now. "Why do you think we've been best friends for so long? Who do I always talk to when I'm in trouble? Who's always there to cheer me up? It's you! You are the most incredible man I've ever met! Why would I ever want to marry anyone else?"

He gaped at her, open-mouthed. After a moment, she realized she was going to have to say something more.

"Asuma, forget about your father for a moment. Forget about heirs, and trying to outdo each other. If all that were gone, and I asked you to marry me, what would you say?"

He blinked, but the answer was faster than she'd imagined. "Yes."

She grinned, and was sure she looked nine years old. "Really?"

He nodded, a flush coming to his face. "Everything you said about me... it's you. Everything that makes you such a great friend, it's why I want to spend the rest of my life with you." His face turned red. "Plus you're beautiful."

She was deeply red too now. "You too. Handsome, I mean."

For a few moments they sat there, looking at their hands. "What now?" Noa said.

"If we... if we get married, my father will think it's because he bullied me into it. In fact, most of the people I know will think that."

"Is it true? Are you marrying me because of the threat, or because you love me? If he came in here right now and said he took everything back, what would we do?"

"Well..." and here he reached out to touch her cheek with his hand. "I think we've gone a little too far now to simply go back to just being good friends."

She grinned. "We were there a long time ago, we just didn't want to admit it."

"OK. Let's do it."

"Such a romantic." She said. Then they kissed, and it was like a door had been opened inside them.

"What about your father?"

Asuma thought about that for a moment, then grinned. "Well, I am the son of a powerful family. He'd want something big. A nice ceremony, involve all our friends, lots of pomp and circumstance."

Noa could see where this was going. "Elope?"

He nodded.

"Isn't that a little childish? One last battle with your father?"

"I don't know. I think this one we both won."

END

Author's notes: This was written for the Anime North 2001 Iron Author contest, and I'm happy to say it won. ^_^ It's a bit rushed (the contest was write a fic in 2 hours, and it shows), but I'm happy with it.