It was the night before Christmas and Joe found himself standing in a line of people waiting to get into the Snack J, even though it was already getting late. He had forced himself to stay away from the place all day yesterday, spending the day instead at the track, driving like a maniac in an effort to take the edge off his anxiety and his urge to take matters into his own hands regardless of what Ken had said.
But tonight was different; tonight was the last chance for a reconciliation between Ken and Jun before Joe's happy and perfect Christmas morning at Dr. Nambu's villa would be ruined. The small but undeniable part of his mind that was prey to superstition was convinced that a ruined Christmas would be a bad omen for the whole year to follow.
He would not allow that to happen, so as the evening went on, he'd decided that coming to the Snack J was, after all, "minding his own business" –anything that affected the wellbeing of his family was damned well his business, whatever Ken or Jun might say about it!
He was not entirely without hope. He'd driven by Ken's shack on his way here and Ken wasn't home. Joe hoped fervently that he was already inside the Snack J.
He stared up at the large banner hanging on the exterior wall of the Snack J: "Christmas Eve Extravaganza: Bring your Artistry." He dimly remembered seeing that before on a promo flyer, though he still didn't know what it meant. Were they having a dance contest –"Whoever makes the biggest fool of themselves tonight wins!"- or painting murals on the walls?
Eventually he got inside, paid his $5 cover charge and got his hand stamped with a "J" by the pretty girl with the warm brown eyes –but tonight she didn't smile at him. In fact, she barely even looked at him.
Yeah, he thought sadly, he'd screwed things up with her.
He was halfway to the bar, plowing his way through the crowd, before he realized that the music coming from the stage wasn't being played by Jun's band. He should have realized that immediately, as whoever this group was, they had a female vocalist, but then, he had his mind on other things.
So where was Jun, he wondered. Where was Nick? Was Ken here? He stared all around but he didn't see any of them. He could see Ryu, though, cranking out drinks like a real pro for the horde of thirsty customers clustered around the bar. He was getting really good at it, Joe thought. And his tip jar appeared to be stuffed. Maybe Jun would make his holiday stint into a permanent gig. He was wondering how long it would take him to get close enough to the bar to talk to Ryu when he spotted Jinpei nearby, carrying a tray of used glasses and making his way towards the back kitchen. Joe followed in his wake.
As soon as he got close enough to be heard he demanded "Have you seen Ken? Is he here?"
"I haven't seen him," said Jinpei, "Why? Did he tell you he was coming?" Jinpei looked suddenly hopeful.
"No," Joe had to admit, "But he's not at his place –I thought he might be here. Where's Jun?"
Jinpei shrugged in the direction of the nearby stairs. "I think she went up to her room." He paused thoughtfully before adding "She might have been upset about something..."
"Where's Nick?" asked Joe, his eyes narrowing.
"I don't know," said Jinpei, now looking around himself, "But he's supposed to be emceeing –he's around here somewhere."
Joe had heard enough. He sent the kid on his way, and turned to stare up the stairs to Jun and Jinpei's apartment.
More than likely he'd just make things worse, but he had to try something and talking to Jun seemed to be the only course of action currently available to him.
He was mostly up the stairs when he heard voices on the landing above. Thanks to a curve in the staircase though, he could hear without being seen.
"Oh, Nick," said Jun, in a soft and passionate voice.
Damn it all to hell, thought Joe, horrified, but he couldn't seem to move his legs.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," she added, her voice thick with emotion.
Nick murmured some reply that Joe couldn't make out. He wasn't sure if he wanted to!
This was bad. This sounded really bad. It was silent up there now –what the hell were they doing?
He didn't want to know –and yet he had to know. He took a couple silent steps and craned his neck carefully to see…
In the dim light, Jun and Nick were wrapped in an embrace, her face against his neck.
Shit! Joe had seen enough –more than enough! He fled down the stairs as fast as he could without making any noise.
He headed for the bar, blatantly shoving people out his way now –he didn't care! He needed a drink.
Ryu tried to give him a beer but he demanded a double Scotch -neat. He downed a swig, leaning back against the bar and brooding dourly and nursing his drink…
His Christmas was ruined.
And then the band –whoever they were- finished up their set and the room was filled with applause.
"That was the Raucous Rockers," said a voice Joe had come to utterly detest, "And if they're your new fave, remember their name!"
Joe looked up from his now-empty glass to glare across the room at his newest and most hated enemy. Well, most hated after Berg Katse.
There he was, sneered Joe to himself –Nick, standing on the stage, holding a mic and beaming at the crowd like he thought he owned the place. Curse that bastard.
"Next up, it's the talented vocalist Susie Adams, accompanied on keyboard by Terry King!"
Again there was a cacophony of applause and some girl started singing but Joe ignored her. He only had eyes for Nick, now moving away from the stage. He wished he could send a telepathic message –"Die, die, die!"- across the room at him by glare alone.
He cast one more look all around the Snack J. Still no sign of Ken.
He decided he would try contacting Ken on his bracelet. But he couldn't do that in here –too noisy and he couldn't let anyone see him doing it. He set down his glass and headed one more time into the crowd, working his way back towards the kitchen and the door that he knew led from it into the alley out behind.
He was almost to the door when someone emerged from the kitchen to his immediate left, so quickly they bumped into him. Joe staggered before regaining his footing.
And then he saw the careless idiot who'd collided with him.
"You!" growled Joe. Subtlety be damned! Nick's eyes widened.
"I need to talk to you!" declared Joe, grabbing Nick by the shoulders and forcing him back through the door behind him and into the alley.
Once there, he shoved Nick up against the brick wall of the neighboring building, pinning him in place with his hands.
"Jun –she's not for you," he said deeply, making an effort to enunciate every word, his face mere inches from Nick's. He was going to make things damned clear, once and for all!
Nick was breathing hard. Hah, thought Joe, his lip curling –he was getting through to him at last and he knew Joe wasn't kidding!
So then why the hell, realized Joe with sudden alarm, was the bastard now smiling?
"Oh, I know that," said Nick.
Whaaaat? Joe's mind spun; this was too easy; something wasn't right here.
"And now I think I know who really is for me," whispered Nick.
To Joe's eternal horror, Nick brought his hands up to his face and began kissing him, on the mouth.
For an instant, Joe was too stupefied to react. It was as if the entire universe had just turned upside down, so utterly bizarre and WRONG was this!
And then, at last, he regained the ability to move and flung himself back, away from Nick. But all Joe could do was stare, so utter was his confusion.
"What did you do that for?" He began wiping his mouth frantically with the back of one hand.
"Hey," said Nick, "If you're not out, I understand. I don't exactly publicize it myself. But I can be discreet, Joe –your secret's safe with me."
And then, he winked.
The universe slammed itself right way up again, and Joe's brain began to function again…
"I," he said, with more vehemence than he had ever used in his life, "I am not gay!"
"But…" said Nick, staring with confusion.
"But what?" demanded Joe.
"But… you stare at me all the time, you snub girls who want to dance with you, you follow me around –I know that's why you were at my apartment building. And what were you doing rubbing your gun and then pointing it at me if not…"
"I'm not attracted to you, you moron!" hissed Joe, baring his teeth, "I hate you!"
"Hate me?" repeated Nick, indignation now raising the pitch of his voice, "What did I ever do to you?"
Seeing Joe's eyes he hastily added "Besides now, I mean."
"You're messing things up for Jun –that's what you're doing! She's my family and you…"
Joe suddenly paused. Why wasn't his brain working properly?
If Nick was gay, then there couldn't be anything going on between him and Jun.
"Me and Jun?" Nick chuckled. "Jun's the greatest girl there is but I don't like her that way." He raised an eyebrow.
"But I saw you two earlier," said Joe suspiciously, "Wrapped around each other on the landing outside her apartment."
"She was upset," insisted Nick, "I'm just her shoulder to cry on. She's all worked up over that broody guy, Ken, who comes around sometimes. She's got it bad for him, I can tell you, but she's convinced he doesn't really care or can't let himself care and never will and all that. They had some kind of fight or something and now they're on the outs…"
Joe stared. Maybe it was all starting to make sense…
"She was really hoping he'd come here tonight, Christmas Eve," continued Nick, "For some reason it was important that she see him before tomorrow, but she insisted that he had to come to her to make things right or it wouldn't mean anything."
Ohhh. Joe was still processing all this when suddenly Nick looked frantic.
"Crap!" he said, "Nice talking to you, Joe and, uh… sorry about the, um… my mistake –but I'm supposed to be emceeing the talent competition here tonight! I've got to go back inside!"
He darted past Joe, who was still too busy putting the pieces together in his head to think of stopping him, and went back inside the Snack J. Actually, the further away Nick was from him, the better! He rubbed his mouth again, shuddering in recollection.
And then it hit him –he needed to talk to Ken! Damn, he had stuff to tell him.
And some stuff he would never tell him or anyone else! He rubbed his mouth one last time, shaking his head.
But when he tried to reach Ken on his bracelet, he got no answer.
Joe sighed. He would just have to go out to Ken's airfield and wait for him there. Ken would have to turn up there sooner or later.
He pushed open the door, but as he stepped inside, he heard Nick's voice coming from the stage.
"All right, people, we've got a last minute entry here, the last one of the night in our 'Bring your Artistry' talent competition, so give him a listen and then prepare to fill out your ballots. Everyone, this is Ken Washio."
Joe couldn't believe what he was hearing; he dashed inside, shoving past people to get a view of the stage.
It really was Ken, standing there under the stage lights, alone now that Nick had walked away. He pushed a shock of his dark hair back from his big, blue eyes and stared out at the audience. He looked miserable, and terrified –the knuckles of his hand that were gripping the neck of a guitar were white- but he also looked determined.
He swallowed, and then he spoke at last.
"This is a song about a soldier," he said, putting the guitar's strap over his shoulder and getting the instrument into position.
Joe looked around frantically. Where was Jun? She couldn't miss this!
She was behind the bar, near Ryu. Her eyes had never looked so large and deep, and they were fixed unwaveringly on Ken as her hands gripped the edge of the bar, waiting…
Ken started strumming the guitar –simply and not too fast- but he was nailing all his chord changes smoothly, as far as Joe could tell. He didn't recognize the tune, though it seemed to involve a lot of minor chords –it sounded sad.
When on Earth had Ken learned to play the guitar?
And then it hit him… Ken had been holed up in his shack like a hermit, day after day –and he'd been keeping his door locked.
All this time, he'd been in there teaching himself how to play. Joe could just see it in his mind: Ken, holding a guitar, frowning in concentration, while methodically working his way through some "Guitar-playing for Dummies" book or video, practicing over and over, only pausing when someone –like himself- started banging on his door, and then running around in haste to hide the guitar, the book or video…
Joe glanced over at Jun, hoping she appreciated the spectacle that Ken was apparently willing to make of himself in order to impress her or –he choked slightly- to attempt to be artistic.
But Jun was still just staring, her face unreadable.
And then Ken began to sing.
I'm living on the frontlines, home so far away,
Sometimes hunkered in the trenches,
Sometimes charging into the fray,
And death whispers ever in my ear,
'Today could be the day…'
Holy shit, thought Joe, stunned. Ken might not have been much of guitar player, but he could really sing! Who knew? His voice was low, a little husky, but all his notes were clear and true.
Used to be, a soldier's girl stayed behind at home,
He would know that she was safe there,
Though he would feel so damned alone,
With just the memory of her love,
To not become a stone.
But I have you at my side, my comrade in war,
Your touch, your voice and your beauty,
Keep me human amidst the horror,
And restore me, 'cause I'm with you.
It's you that I fight for.
Ken didn't look up at all and it was pretty clear that he was concentrating for all he was worth on his guitar playing. His voice was rich with sincere emotion, though. He paused briefly between verses, pushed his hair out of his eyes –those big blue eyes- and peered out for an instant at the audience, then cast his long lashes down over them as began singing again.
Joe was convinced that, at that moment, every girl in the place had gone all gooey-eyed and sighed…
Waiting for that future day, the great battle won,
When we cast aside our weapons,
And walk hand-in-hand in the sun.
No tactics, schemes or strategies,
No killing anyone.
The Captain of our unit, decisions mine to make,
I'm the one who bears the burden,
I'm the one who must never break,
I'm the one who must remember,
Our world is what's at stake.
And I have you at my side, in the midst of strife,
You are my greatest source of strength,
But also, weakness, in this life.
Wanting to save the world -and you-
Can stab me like a knife.
Joe had been too amazed by what he was seeing to pay much attention to what Ken was actually saying, but now…
Had to kill you from the sky, for the greater good,
This Captain couldn't handle it,
Awash in guilt and in your blood.
Though war and duty called me on,
I'd frozen where I stood.
The General found me and I got no embrace,
Said this is war, and duty's all,
And sent me back to take my place.
And I was only a soldier,
That day I smacked your face.
A soldier who was frightened, who used a façade,
To shield his own face, to be stern,
To punish his beloved comrade.
For making her Captain waver,
Showing that he is flawed.
Joe thought he'd been amazed that Ken was willing to learn to play a song and to sing it in front of an audience, but now he was utterly floored.
These lyrics were vague but also way too specific. Ken had to have written them himself.
Ken had written a song. Was it a good song, Joe wondered. Probably not, but did that matter?
Ken had written a song –and a song about Jun, no less! Joe felt his face stretching into a wide grin of glee.
This was great!
He looked over at Jun. She still hadn't moved –she looked like she hadn't even blinked.
But tears were running down her face.
But if what I feel's a flaw, it's one I will keep,
I need to have you at my side,
Even though the price is so steep.
You are where I am strong, and weak,
You're in my heart, so deep.
Battles will rage ever on, war's not over yet,
And I must remain the Captain,
Till the day victory is met.
But you're in my heart, at my side,
Please don't ever forget.
Ken was apologizing, explaining –and it sure looked like it was having the desired effect on Jun. Hell, even Ryu, standing right behind her, was wiping one eye.
I'm sorry, for what I did. But I cannot shirk.
When I'm torn 'tween love and duty,
Until this Captain's done his work,
I'm sorry that I can't think straight,
That I'm a hard-ass jerk.
Joe laughed. He wanted to yell "Hey, that's my line!" but Ken had come to the end of his song and didn't seem to know what to do next. He looked petrified as he stared out at the large and milling crowd.
She's behind the bar, Joe wanted to yell now. Look behind the bar!
But of all people, it was Nick who helped Ken out now. Hopping up onto the stage, he grabbed the mic off its stand and, taking Ken's arm, turned him so that he would see that Jun was jumping over the bar and now moving through the crowd towards the stage.
"All right, everyone," said Nick, "That was Ken Washio, and our final contestant in tonight's 'Bring your Artistry' talent competition! If you don't have a voting ballot, you can get one at the podium or at the bar, and that's where the ballot boxes are too! Voting closes in 20 minutes, and results will be announced and prizes awarded in one hour –so nobody leave!"
Ken had stepped off the stage and was now staring into the crowd, trying to get a look at Jun as she approached him. In that moment, Joe realized, Ken didn't know what to expect from her, or what she had thought of his artistic efforts.
He didn't have to wait long for an answer, and it was an answer that could not be misinterpreted.
Jun reached Ken and threw her arms around him; and then he responded in kind. Ken's neck and hair was obscuring a lot of her face but it looked to Joe like she was laughing or crying or both. And then she was saying something to Ken –Joe couldn't tell what- that made Ken smile, close his eyes, and hold her that much more tightly.
Joe swore he could hear a great, collective "Awwwww!" rising from the crowd all around them.
It couldn't be denied, Joe thought, it was a very moving scene.
Ken had made things right –or as right as they could be until the war was over- between himself and Jun and tomorrow morning when they were all together around the Christmas tree at Dr. Nambu's place, she would, as she always did, be aglow and gazing at Ken with shining eyes and he too would be lit with inner happiness and contentment.
Joe's family Christmas was saved: mission accomplished!
Except, Joe realized, he couldn't really take any credit for this himself. In the end, it was all Ken's accomplishment.
Nick was passing by, maneuvering skillfully around the masses of people who had begun flailing and gyrating to the thumping beat of the recorded dance music coming from the sound system now.
As much as it pained him, Joe had to acknowledge –at least to himself- that Nick had probably played a bigger role than himself in bringing about Ken and Jun's reconciliation. Just by existing and befriending Jun, he had spurred Ken to do what he would surely otherwise never have done, with apparently marvelous results where Jun was concerned…
With alarm Joe realized that he was staring at Nick, and that Nick was looking straight at him.
And damned if the bastard didn't wink at him again! Joe turned away hastily.
Suddenly he spotted the pretty girl with the warm brown eyes. Suddenly, an assertion of his heterosexuality seemed like a very good idea.
Hell, if Gatchaman could write a song, play guitar and sing in public, then he, Condor Joe of the Science Ninja Team, could –God help him- dance.
"Hey, would you like to dance with me?" he asked her, a minute later, hoping the fear of how stupid he was going to look doing it wasn't too visible in his eyes.
She surveyed him coolly, thinking…
"I'm sorry I couldn't before," he added, "Family crisis." He raised one shoulder slightly in a hint of supplication.
And then she smiled; she did have a lovely smile…
"Okay!" and she grabbed his hands and led him into the fray
Later, waiting at the bar to get drinks for himself and his dance partner, and smiling in the knowledge that her phone number was now on a piece of paper in his pocket, he realized that Nick was now standing beside him.
"Hurry up, Ryu," he muttered to himself.
But then a thought occurred to him…
And he might as well be blunt, he decided.
"That night you saw me in your apartment building," he informed Nick, "I'd also followed you to that hotel. What were doing there?"
Nick raised his eyebrows.
"Look," growled Joe, "I was just making sure you weren't up to no good –I'd do that to any guy hanging around Jun."
Nick appeared to be considering, and then he checked his watch and glanced over at the stage.
"Well," he said, pitching his voice so that no one else would hear, "The lead singer for the Demon 5 –you've heard of them?"
"Everyone's heard of them," snapped Joe. The Demon 5 were globally famous.
"Just checking," continued Nick, smiling now, "So, their lead singer -she's my cousin."
"Yes, really. But don't tell anyone –or I'll get badgered to no end with requests to get autographs or to arrange meetings with her or the rest of the band. She keeps a really low profile when she travels on her own so as to not get mobbed by fans –that's why no one knew that she was in town earlier this month. Even the hotel staff are all under the strictest orders to keep her stays there hush-hush!"
Joe recalled some of the photos in the press kit he'd seen… The lead singer did indeed have long, blond hair.
Well, that took care of the last piece in the puzzle then, Joe concluded.
But Nick was staring past him now, towards the stage.
"Gotta go!" he said.
Joe turned and looked towards the stage, where Jun was standing now and holding a bunch of envelopes in one hand and the mic in the other. Nick made his way over to the stage and joined her there.
"Votes have been tallied," announced Jun, waving her handful of envelopes, "And the results are in!"
"I hope you voted for me," said a voice.
Joe turned back around, and there was Ken.
He certainly didn't look depressed anymore, or irritated, miserable or terrified. He just looked damned happy -and also very, very relieved.
"Shit!" said Joe. "I forgot to vote," he admitted, "I was busy…"
On the stage, Jun and Nick announced that the Raucous Rockers had won the 3rd place cash prize.
"Yes," said Ken, "Dancing –I saw that. Hard to miss, really, with your-"
"Shut up!" hissed Joe.
He looked, thought Joe, like a massive load had been lifted from his shoulders, even if it might only be for one day –Christmas Day.
Some girl named Erin Wintrow was the 2nd place winner, Nick and Jun were announcing. Jun had her arm around Nick's shoulders.
"Oh, by the way," Joe added, "Nick is gay."
"Yeah, I just learned that from Jun," said Ken, "How'd you find out?"
To Joe's relief, Jun and Nick were now about to announce the 1st place winner and he pretended to be deeply interested –much too interested to reply. According to Jun, the cash prize was $1000.
"And," cut in Nick, taking the mic from Jun, "Our 1st place winner –in addition to the cash prize- will also receive five tickets to the Demon 5 concert here in Utoland on New Year's Day!"
The whole crowd was awestruck. Even Joe was aware that all the tickets to that concert had sold out almost immediately, weeks ago, and were as precious as gold. Jun looked completely surprised too –clearly Nick hadn't told anyone except Joe about his connection to the Demon 5.
"Aaaand, the winner –tonight's biggest vote-getter- is…" Nick paused.
Ken choked; it was up to Joe to give him a congratulatory thump on the back and shove him into the crowd in the direction of the stage. Jun was nearly jumping up and down, she was so excited. As soon as Ken got up to the stage, she was hugging him.
"Huh," said Jinpei, now appearing at Joe's side and grinning widely, "Maybe now he'll pay off his tab!"
"I don't know," drawled Ryu, materializing behind them and –at last!- handing Joe the drinks he'd ordered "I think he should spend it buying nice things for Jun."
"He'll be a bit late," remarked Jinpei, "Tomorrow's Christmas."
"She won't mind," said Ryu, "Trust me."
Over on the stage, Ken and Jun still had their arms around each other, but the dance music was kicking in again. Ken briefly looked horrified, but permitted Jun to lead him off into the thick of the dance floor.
Hah, thought Joe. Show her some artistry there too, Ken!
But, drinks in hand, he was now scanning the crowd for a pair of warm brown eyes and a nice smile…
"Merry Christmas,' he said contentedly to Jinpei and Ryu, "Merry Christmas."