A week and two Galactor mecha later, Ken was working on his plane, and Joe rested against the hood of his car, his arms folded. They'd run out of things to say to each other, and the sun was sinking.
"Something you need to talk about, Ken?" Joe said finally.
Ken had the feeling he'd been trying to say it all afternoon. He turned to meet Joe's eyes. "No."
"You're not acting like yourself. You seem distracted."
Ken shrugged. "Everything's fine."
"If you decide you have something you have to get off your chest…" He shrugged. "You know."
Another long silence. Ken leaned his forearm against the plane. "You ever wonder what our lives would have been like…if the world had been different?"
Joe gazed at the crimson clouds. "Yeah. Sometimes. Usually there's a girl involved." He glanced at Ken. "There a girl involved?"
Ken shook his head. Tossed his wrench back into his toolbox. "Can't be."
"You know what Nambu says."
"'Don't trust anybody.'"
"And you know how Galactor works. Falling for us is a quick way to get killed."
"It's all about cheap sex and one-night stands." For once, Joe's tone wasn't cavalier. It was resigned. Into the long silence that followed, he added, "Maybe someday, if we can win this war, things will be different."
"Maybe," Ken said.
- - -
Joe left, and Ken was finally alone with the smells of fuel and oil and metal and the leather of his gloves. He walked first to the hangar and then to his shack and flipped on the outside lights so he'd have illumination to work. He didn't feel like going inside and facing the echoing emptiness. He climbed back up to the plane with his tools.
Tires crunched up the gravel and sand, and he sighed. Joe had tried to convince him to come out to the Snack J, but he wasn't in the mood for disco and dancing, even with the promise of alcohol. He wasn't allowed to get drunk, wasn't even supposed to get a good buzz. Not when they could get called at any minute.
"I'm not in the mood, Joe," he called when he heard the door open. "I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"
But Joe didn't call back. The car door just slammed. Ken tensed, picking up the wrench he'd set aside earlier. He climbed down, bracing his foot on the strut holding the right landing wheel and then dropping to the ground. He ducked under the propeller, and found Aleksandra standing in the glow cast by the Nissan's headlamps and his porch light. The car had Utoland plates, which meant it was probably a rental. She was in blue jeans and a ponytail, and she folded her arms when she saw him.
He set the wrench aside. "Can I help you?"
She looked at him, glanced back at the car, and then drew a deep breath. "I knew you were more than just some kid when I met you."
His heart thudded hard against his ribs, but no, there was no way she could know. Not really. "They recruit us out of college when they think we're good enough," he said, reverting to the cover story he'd used during the dinner party that first night. "They pay us pretty well, and the work is cutting edge."
"That's not what I meant." She glanced at his place. "And that doesn't look like good pay to me."
He almost laughed. The irony had never really hit him before. He was responsible for saving the world, but he couldn't pay his tab at the J. Well, technically he could, but he didn't. He wasn't exactly rolling in cash.
"You're a VIP to the ISO," he said. "I'm just a strategist in training. I could get fired for going out with you, and I like my job."
She came closer. "You can't get fired." She stopped within touching distance, and her words were quiet. "You're Gatchaman."
She wasn't asking, or trying to get him to admit it. He could see in her eyes that she knew. So he didn't bother trying to deny it.
"You saved me," she said, just as quietly. "You did something beyond what anyone could reasonably have expected. If you'd just left me there, the first sunlight would have killed me. No one ever would have known that I could have been saved. But you gave me what I needed to live. And you kept my secrets."
He just gazed at her, her eyes such a warm, dark amber; her sculpted beauty absolutely flawless. The chemistry was definitely there, a nearly tangible thing. He found himself looking for it, as if it should glow in the dark.
But, "How did you find me?" was all he said.
She smiled, glancing at his plane. "You come highly recommended. Always get the job done. Nobody would ever look twice at a college-aged kid who delivers mail and packages on the side for some spare change. It's good cover."
He said nothing.
"If you aren't interested, all you have to do is tell me, and I'll go," she said, very serious now. "I know it was forward to come here, but I thought it best that I talk to you alone."
He nodded, glancing at the dust, scuffed around his feet by his and Joe's footprints. "I didn't think you'd remember," he said. "You were unconscious. I didn't think you'd see my face."
"I didn't. But I realized why you seemed to be more when I first met you. You let your power show when you're Gatchaman; you keep it shielded the rest of the time. But the energy is the same." She glanced away, licking her lips. "And I could smell your scent on me when I woke, the same way I could when I got home that night after we danced." Her cheeks pinkened a bit. "I realized what you had done. Why I was so attracted to you. Both versions of you." She drew another deep breath, shifting, letting her arms fall to her sides. "If nothing else, I needed to thank you for everything. And tell you I will keep your secrets, too."
He nodded. "Thank you."
The silence grew awkward. "Well," she said, pulling her keys from her pocket. "I guess I should go." She extended her free hand to him. "Thank you again."
He clasped her palm against his, the same way he had that first night. Her fingers were warm, her grip firm, and he tugged her forward into his arms and kissed her. This time he knew how she'd taste, and she sank into him the same way she had when he'd let her feed on him, fitting against his body like she belonged there. He heard her keys hit the ground a moment before her hands tangled in his hair, but they both ignored the clatter.
The breeze whispered over them, cool with the sun gone, and she moved closer, so her body pressed against his from knees to chest. He knew he should push her away, tell her to go, but he didn't want to. He was so damned tired of always doing what he was supposed to do.
"Come inside," he murmured against her mouth.
They left her keys and his scattered tools and went inside, where he fumbled at a lamp but couldn't seem to make the switch turn and get her shirt off at the same time.
"Never mind the light," she said.
"Okay." He tossed her shirt on the floor and pulled her down the hall, kicked off his shoes and then tripped over one of them. She laughed, her shoulder banging against one of the few pictures he had hanging on the plain wooden walls. He shoved it away and dragged her through the door into his bedroom, where he stopped, pulling her hair from the ponytail and letting it spill over his hands and down her back, long and thick and soft like silk.
They collapsed into the swirls of white sheet on the unmade bed, coming together without any of the awkwardness Ken associated with sex with someone new.
He hardly knew her, he thought. He couldn't love her.
- - -
When he woke hours later, it was to the keening of his bracelet. He fumbled for it on the table beside the bed, pressing his thumb against the face to silence it. Then he flopped back against the pillows, covering his eyes with his arm. His body ached with a pleasant exhaustion, and Aleksandra was curled up warm against his side.
"What?" he said into the bracelet. Not exactly protocol, but at the moment, he didn't care.
"You need to come in," Nambu said. "Ryu will pick you up."
"Fine." He tossed his bracelet back in the direction of the table. It sounded like it fell off and hit the floor instead. He uncovered his face and looked at Aleksandra. She had rested her palm on his chest, and her chin on the back of her hand. Her hair flowed in a rich dark river over her shoulders and down her back.
"Stay," he said, and then sighed. "Though I don't know when I'll be back."
She shook her head, and he felt the motion more than he saw it. "I can't stay. Dawn is coming. I have to go home. Back to Walachia. There is work there for me to do."
He stroked her hair. "I want to see you again."
She gazed at him, her eyes dark in the faint light coming through the windows. "All I expected was one night. That's all I asked you for. You don't owe me any more."
"I want more."
A smile broke across her face, and she leaned up to kiss him. "I was kind of hoping you'd say that."
That electric glow of carnal energy had begun to build again when his bracelet started shrieking. It would be Ryu this time, telling him where they would meet. He sighed, briefly entertaining the fantasy of smashing the damned thing to pieces with the heel of his shoe. He'd have given anything to take her back to bed rather than fight another goddamned mecha. "I wish my life were different," he moaned.
"Listen," Aleksandra said. She waited for him to find the bracelet, turn off the signal, and look at her. "The things that make your life so unique, the same things that burden you with responsibility, they're what make you who you are. They're the same things that make me want you."
"I don't have much to offer you," he said. "You need to know that."
She tilted her head a bit, her fingers rubbing gently at his skin. "I've had things," she said. "And I have wealth, if I want it. I have influence among my people, and a job I like, even if it's dangerous sometimes. What you have to offer is something I've never found anywhere else, and believe me, I've looked." She slid reluctantly out of the bed, leaving a cool spot where she had lain against him. "But you have to get up, and so do I."
He sat up and fastened the bracelet over his wrist, then touched his neck, the healed place where she had taken from him when he'd found her bound to the chair. "You didn't…take any blood," he said. "I thought vampires always did. As part of sex."
She grinned at him, flashing her fangs. "Trying not to scare you away."
"I don't think you need to worry about that," he said wryly.
When he had dressed and turned on the light, she reappeared with a pencil (which, he noticed with embarrassment, he had chewed on at some point) and an empty envelope that had once held the electric bill. She perched on the edge of the bed and wrote out the numbers and letters that would let him reach her; he traded her for a scrap of paper on which he'd written the same.
Then she pointed the end of the pencil at him. "But if you tell anybody how old I am, the deal is off, you hear?"
- - -
Joe stopped him as they headed down the hall to the briefing room, waiting until Jun, Jinpei, and Ryu had disappeared through the double doors where Nambu waited. "You all right?" he said.
Ken nodded. "Yeah. I'm…better."
"Sleep," Joe said. "Often helps." His hand stole back to his cablegun. "And there are good things about the life we lead." He smiled, a smile Ken associated with bird missiles and explosions.
Ken found himself smiling back, a real smile, if a private one. Yes, there were good things about what he was and the life he led.
He followed Joe through the double doors.