Justin  

I didn't call out her name when I woke up.  My eyes opened, and I knew I was alone in the room.  I sat up and glanced at the clock.  It was a few minutes before six.  Twelve hours ago my life was perfect.  Now it was in splinters.  I knew where she was.  We both knew the consequences of her actions.  Could I blame her for wanting to take the chance?  Ask me again later when I didn't hate her for walking out without so much as a good-bye.

I got out of bed and went into the bathroom, washing the sleep out of my face.  The cool water reiterated that she was gone.  It was almost mocking in a sense.  I kept remembering the times she had laughed in the shower when we had been in there so long that the water got cold on us.  Damn it!  She was gone.  Sure, she could come back and try to say that all was going to be normal, but the minute she revealed herself, this life she had been leading would be over.  She'd go after Manticore, and if that didn't kill her outright, then she would have to disappear into the night.

What was I supposed to do?  What did she think I was going to do?  The worst part was that I was cursed with the ability to see it from her side as well.  It was one thing to know these little kids were being taught to kill, but it was another thing to know they were putting it into practice.  With the other things I knew about Manticore, I knew they had been through Hell there.  They were brutalized, and there wasn't any "just" getting over something like that.  This was her chance to end that nightmare.  End it for the others that were still trapped there.  Who was I to stand in her way?  Maybe it was better that two people suffer rather than at least twelve live in fear and hiding.  Screw that.  I only knew one of them, and I was one of the two suffering.

There was a light noise at the door, and I heard the soft click as the key opened the lock.  I left the bathroom quickly, just as Jhondie came through the door.  She didn't look surprised to see me awake.  She seemed…a little dazed actually.  That threw me off guard.  I would think she would be focused.  Stuck in her soldier mentality, thinking of all the ways she was going to use her new information to bring down Manticore, and what she was going to do with her new freedom.

"Have a nice talk with the senator?" I blurted out, unable to contain my bitterness.  "So, did you break in his house or knock or what?"  I really didn't care about the details; I just wanted this to be over as quickly as possible.  I wasn't one for long goodbyes, and there was no way I was going to limp along in a relationship for a couple of weeks or months even while she planned an attack on Manticore.  If this was going to be over, it was better to end it quickly, like ripping off a band-aid.

"I wasn't going to talk to him," she said in a small voice, "but he was outside when I was across from his house."  Her arms crossed like she was trying to warm herself, but I forced myself to stay where I was.  I couldn't just give in like that.  For the sake of my sanity, I had to do this.  Oh God, baby, please don't cry, because then there would be no way I could stay away.

"Zack meeting you here or in LA?" I asked, trying to keep steady.  It reminded me of what she had done of her own free will and choice.

Her eyes met mine.  "I told him I was an architecture student," she suddenly sobbed out.

Jhondie threw herself in my arms, and I held onto her more out of instinct then thought.  She said she was what?  My arms tightened around her, and I could feel her trembling lightly.  Why would she tell him that?  It had nothing to do with Manticore.  Why did she say it, unless…unless…

"I couldn't do it," she whispered, her words slightly muffled from the way her face was pressed against my chest.  My heart was pounding as I realized what she was saying.  She looked up at me, her eyes watery with unshed tears.  "He asked me why I was staring at his house, and I gave him this line about being a student, and I was visiting friends, and couldn't sleep, and sometimes when I see a house that really appeals to me, I stare at it for a while so I can sketch it later.  He bought the whole thing.  Even told me how he couldn't sleep sometimes either.  Said his stepdaughter broke her ankle and wrist at her wedding and they'd just gotten back from the hospital.  Then we said good-bye and left, and…and…" she couldn't finish, and I didn't care about the rest.

"Why?" I managed to get out.  There had to be another reason.  Maybe she saw something that made her feel unsafe right then.

"Because I knew what was going to happen," she sniffed.  One hand came up and touched my face.  "The price was too high," she whispered.  "How can I call it freedom, when I have to give up everything that I live for now?"  Her eyes met mine, and the expression in them took my breath away.  "I have learned to live without the people I cared for the most when I was a child.  I learned to live without my father.  Justin, I don't even want to try learning to live without you.  That's not living.  That would just be existing."

I hugged her back against me, unable to say a single word.  Humbling.  That's the only word that came into my mind.  I could say I loved her, and she could say it back, but there was nothing that could prepare me for seeing how deeply she felt as she told me that.  What could I say?  She had said so many times that she would do anything to be free from Manticore.  Anything at all.  But when it came to it, there was one thing that she couldn't do.  Humbling.

I knew that love was an act of faith.  There was no way to really know how another person felt in their mind and heart.  There are people that are married for thirty years that suddenly get divorced.  Marriage was just a piece of paper to some.  There was no way to tell, or so I thought.  Jhondie managed to blow that theory away in one simple magnificent act of sacrifice.  I wasn't sure if there was anything I could do that would reciprocate.  A proposal would be trite after that. 

We pulled back a little from each other, and I could see a little uncertainty in her eyes.  "Tell me I'm not crazy," she said softly.  "Tell me I didn't do this for nothing."

I caught her hand in mine, and brought it between us, the moment almost unbearable in it's intensity.  I questioned our future when I thought about what she had done at Manticore.  Was that killer instinct still there, or was it gone?  "Tell me you regret it," I said, not needing to elaborate.

"The only thing about Manticore I don't regret is not leaving there sooner," she replied, her eyes begging me to understand.  I didn't know if I could really understand, but I did know for certain then that the person she had been was not the person she was.  This lovely woman didn't want to go back to that.  She might be in physical danger from Manticore, but they would never again own her mind and soul.  And I loved her.  That was not even a question.

Our eyes locked in a gaze so intimate that it made what we had done in bed seem like a handshake in comparison.  "This," I said, squeezing her hand lightly, "is my world.  I'll take whatever chances are needed, but baby, I need you in my life.  I don't care what happens as long as I have you there right beside me."

She leaned forward and kissed me, totally accepting my words at face value.  I didn't know any way that I could prove to her what I had said, but she was willing to believe them.  I meant it totally.  There was nothing that I wanted more than her.  Maybe I should have realized that when I sat on the biggest story that my career could ever have rather than doing something to hurt her.  It didn't matter when or where or why anymore.  What did matter was that she was in my arms, and neither of us was planning on letting go any time soon.  Forget that.  Neither of us was ever letting go.

Jhondie

I can't stand to fly

I'm not that naive

I'm just out to find

The better part of me

I'm more than a bird…I'm more than a plane

More than some pretty face beside a train

And it's not easy to be me

I wish that I could cry

Fall upon my knees

Find a way to lie

About a home I'll never see

It may sound absurd…but don't be naive

Even Heroes have the right to bleed

I may be disturbed…but won't you concede

Even Heroes have the right to dream

And it's not easy to be me

Up, up and away…away from me

Well it's all right…you can all sleep sound tonight

I'm not crazy…or anything…

I can't stand to fly

I'm not that naive

Men weren't meant to ride

With clouds between their knees

I'm only a man in a silly red sheet

Digging for kryptonite on this one way street

Only a man in a funny red sheet

Looking for special things inside of me

Inside of me

Inside of me

Inside of me

Inside of me

I'm only a man in a funny red sheet

I'm only a man looking for a dream

I'm only a man in a funny red sheet

And it's not easy

It's not easy to be me.

I was listening to that song as our plane leveled out at cruising altitude and the seatbelt light went off.  I know it was about an old Pre-Pulse comic book hero, but it almost was appropriate as the Manticore theme song.  Well, it was rather appropriate for us rogues I guess.  Maybe it worked for the ones still there too.  I wondered if they wished they could cry and bleed like a normal person.  I thought about 608 and wondered what she thought about having to be a killing machine, and not be allowed to get upset that she was ordered to do what she didn't want to.  One had just been killed in an accident.  Were the others upset?  Did they cry?  Did they just go about their lives as if nothing was wrong?  In a way, I hoped I would never find out.

It wasn't easy to have a barcode on the back of your neck.  Sure, it was cool to be able to jump fifteen feet, and see for miles without binoculars, but it would be nice to wear a ponytail whenever I so desired as well and not stress any time I saw some guy in an Army uniform.  Maybe this was all just part of destiny.  If it weren't for Manticore I would never have met Justin.  We certainly couldn't have been able to accomplish what we had for the boss.  Even if I had the family I did, I would just be a regular kid, struggling through college, trying to get the grades required to get me into a decent medical school.

Everything had come down to one simple question.  Was I happy?  There were parts I liked and parts I didn't, but when I asked myself that one question, I knew the truth.  I didn't want to lose my life that I had created.  If there was a way to attack Manticore anonymously, where they would only know that a couple of X-5's had screwed them over, then I wouldn't hesitate.  Maybe we would get that chance in the future.  It didn't seem likely unless someone on the inside turned traitor, but who could predict the future.  We ran.  Maybe one of the kids still there would get the courage up to cut and run.  I hoped one of them would realize what was truly important in this world.

Truly important.  I glanced over at Justin who was fast asleep in his seat.  Little wonder.  When I came back that morning, and he realized that I couldn't do anything to jeopardize our relationship, it seemed there was a subtle change in him.  Like he realized how serious I was about us, and I think in his mind and heart, he totally committed to us too.  It wasn't that he hadn't been serious before, but this was deeper.  And he had accepted what we had done.  I knew that wasn't easy on him, but he was willing to deal with it.  If nothing else told me how much he loved me then that would have right there.

Justin hadn't gotten much sleep that night, and I would have let him sleep, but then we kissed, and held each other for the longest time, and it seemed so perfectly natural for us to end up in bed together.  I don't think in all the times that we had made love; Justin had ever been so incredibly passionate and tender at the same time.  Maybe it was such a total mix of emotion that we had between us right then, but it brought me to tears, and I can't be sure, but maybe Justin as well.  And it wasn't just once either.  Neither of us could let go of the other.  Time seemed suspended for us until the wake-up call brought us both back to reality and we both realized how many hours had slipped by.

Mr. Carter asked Justin if he was okay seeing that he was dragging and I was just as energetic as ever.  I slept in the last two days.  I had all I needed.  Justin hadn't but he wasn't complaining, and he didn't want to explain to his father why he was so tired.  I thought about Justin's little comment about me being a wimp, and then told his dad that Justin's delicate little tummy was upset, and he'd been in the bathroom like four times that morning already.  I thought Justin was going to kill me, or at the very least say something rather rude, but he knew better. 

So here we were heading back to California.  I opened one of my textbooks and started to read while I sipped on the soda the flight attendant had just given me.  My eyes slid over the words without really looking at them though.  My mind was with my siblings out there somewhere.  It was with the sibling I had adopted as my own that would be at the airport in LA.  It was with the kids still trapped behind enemy lines, not knowing that was where they were.  When it comes down to it, the ones that are still breathing do have a future.  We have hope.  And that's what I was going to have to bank on for my future.  One day, guys.  One day we'll be together again.

I took Justin's hand, and even in his sleep his fingers tightened around mine.  In the meantime, I had this to let me know that I was wanted and needed for reasons other than the ones attached to my barcode.  I told him last night that it wasn't a matter of trusting him that I didn't like to talk about Manticore; it was a matter of not wanting to remember those things.  After what I had told him earlier, I think he finally started to understand.

One day.  One day I would have the chance I needed.  One day we would all be together again.  Both of my lives would be able to come together.  That was the hope.  Hope was a hard thing to find in my world.  Lots of people lose it easily.  I saw that a lot working for the boss.  But I had Justin.  I knew the others were out there.  We would have our "one-day".  And I could hope for happily ever after.

THE END