Disclaimer: All Gatchaman and Gatchaman-related characters are property of Tatsunoko Productions. No profit is being made from this story.
On the Wings of Tomorrow
The digital clock acted as the beacon of light for the dark room. He looked off to the right side of the bed and stared at the illuminated digits for a moment, the third time in half as many hours. Two am and Ken was still awake. Disheartened, he rolled over onto his back, intertwining his fingers as he cupped his hands behind his head, and took a deep breath.
It had been just over a week since the Science Ninja Team had embarked on what would be their final battle with the evil terrorist organization, Galactor. Nine days from when they had uncovered Galactor's greatest plot, the Black Hole Operation, where nuclear explosions had caused countless earthquakes around the planet, which would have quickly led to Earth's final destruction if they hadn't intervened. Two hundred sixteen hours since the overlord Sosai X disappeared and his mutant underling, Berge Katse, leapt into the fiery magma and to hir death. Twelve thousand nine hundred sixty minutes from when Gatchaman had broken his life-long promise to his teammate and friend that they would die together.
Ken stared at the dark ceiling, barely able to discern it through the shadows cast by the light of the clock and the slivers of moonlight that stole through the edges of the bedroom window shade. As he gazed, an image formed before his eyes of a young man his age, with auburn-colored hair, steel-gray eyes, and an intense expression. A feather shuriken played in the corner of his mouth.
Joe. Known to the world as Condor Joe, G2, Second-in-Command of the Science Ninja Team. Known to the international racing world as Joe Asakura, the young man who was poised to be one of the greatest rally and stock car race drivers to have ever lived. But to Ken, along with the rest of the Science Ninjas, he was simply Joe, brother, teammate and friend.
Ken smiled ruefully to himself in the darkness of his room and through the blackness of his mood. That had made it sound so simple. Sure, to the world Joe was the weapons expert and crack marksman of the ISO's Special Operations team, but there was so much more to him than that. He was impulsive, temperamental, impatient, rebellious, and reckless to a fault. But as much as he was those things, Ken knew he could also be sensible, rational, and stable, especially when Ken, himself, failed to be.
Ken shook the image from his mind's eye and shifted his gaze to the empty wall.
Five days ago, Hakase had held a private memorial service at his estate for Joe, attended only by himself, the surviving members of the Science Ninja Team, and Director Anderson. Four days ago, a public memorial had been held for Condor Joe, as it had been announced at the press conference the day of their return from Cross Karakorum that the Condor had perished in battle. Two days ago, it had been announced that Joe Asakura, the promising young race car driver, had lost his life when the private jet he had been flying in had crashed in a secluded area outside of Utoland. Hakase had taken care of all the details, making sure that there would be no formal investigation into the apparent crash.
Now all that was left was for Ken, Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei to mourn the loss of their brother and learn how to live their lives without him.
Ken turned his head to the right, hands still cupped behind it, and glanced again at the bedside clock. Two-fifteen am. How many nights in the past week had he seen this exact time, as if time itself was mocking him?
Another thought entered Ken's mind as the week's events played on in his memory.
The Snack J had been closed since they had returned from Cross Karakorum, Jun being too upset to deal with the daily running of the café, Jinpei generally too sad to even come out of his room. Ken had made it a point to stop by every day to check on them both.
"Jinpei still cries." Jun had told him just that morning as she had desperately tried to keep the tears from streaming from her own watery eyes. The morose look on her face had been a fixture since that fateful day.
"Would you like me to speak to him?" Ken had asked. This too had become part of his new daily routine.
Jun had looked at him dolefully.
"Would you? He always seems a bit more upbeat after you talk to him."
"Of course." Ken had replied as he made his way to the upstairs living quarters.
Outside Jinpei's room, Ken had knocked softly on the door.
"Jinpei?" he had called gently.
"Aniki?" he had heard a solemn voice call back.
"May I come in?"
"Yes." the boy had replied.
Ken had entered Jinpei's room and had seen him sitting in front of his aquarium tank, watching the two inhabitants inside. Even now, whenever Ken walked into the boy's bedroom, he was surprised to see the tank there. Jun had always been so opposed to Jinpei's desire for a pet; he hadn't been able to believe it when she had finally agreed to let the Swallow have a couple of turtles a few months ago.
Ken had sat on the edge of Jinpei's bed and had remained silent for a moment. Then he had broken the stillness by asking, "How are Kame and Kingu?"
"They're fine." Jinpei had answered gloomily without looking at him.
"Did you go fishing with Ryu yesterday?"
"And? Did you catch anything?" Ken had prodded.
"Ryu caught a couple good ones, but mine were too small, so we threw them back"
Ken had paused for a moment.
"Jinpei." he called, sounding more like the Swallow's Commander than he had intended. But it had seemed to work, as the boy had turned around in his chair and looked at his commanding officer.
"Jinpei, it's ok to be sad and to miss him. We all miss him. But Joe wouldn't want you sitting up here every day, longing for him to be here. What do you think Joe would say if he saw you right now?"
Ken had stopped and looked at Jinpei pointedly. Jinpei had sat silently.
"Come on. What would he say to you? I bet he would say something like, 'What do you think you're doing, kid? Sitting here, wasting your time and energy on me. What did I tell you?' Do you remember what Joe told you, Jinpei?"
Jinpei had looked sadly into Ken's blue eyes as he had recalled the Condor's last words to him.
"Listen to Onechan and do as she says. And that he envied us for being like a real brother and sister"
"That's right." Ken had encouraged, "You need to be brave through this - braver than you have ever been before. And I know that's hard, but you need to be, not only for yourself, but for your sister, too. And for Joe. Joe was a brave man and he would be most proud of you if he knew that his bravery was instilled in you - and that you used it to help Jun."
Jinpei had looked at him tearfully but affectionately, then had run to Ken and hugged him.
"Thanks, Aniki. That's exactly what I'm going to do. I want Joe to be proud of me and I'm going to do whatever I can to make him be." Jinpei had released Ken from his grip, taken one small step back, and had shyly asked, "But is it ok if I start tomorrow?"
Ken had given a reassuring smile. "Sure, Jinpei. If that is what you want, then that is what you should do."
Then the Eagle had risen from the bed and had gone back down to a waiting Jun in the Snack J.
"How is he, Ken?" Jun had asked anxiously when Ken had re-entered the café.
"He'll be fine. He just needs to figure a few things out. He'll be better soon." Ken had reassured her. "What about you? How are you doing?"
Jun had tried to smile, but her emotions had gotten the better of her, and the tears that she had been just barely holding back had started to flow. Ken had realized that Jinpei hadn't been the only one who had still been crying.
"It's just so hard, Ken. I keep expecting him to walk through the door and sidle up to the bar. And for the past week, he hasn't – and he's never going to again. I just wish…" she had trailed off.
Ken had felt the stab of guilt in his gut as he had thought to himself, "You just wish I hadn't decided to leave him."
"I know." Ken had responded instead, gently and solemnly. "I wish things could have been different too. But you know that that was what Joe wanted. He wanted us to go into the base and defeat Galactor, that's why he told us where the entrance was. Defeating Galactor was what he had desired since he was eight. And if Joe couldn't bring about their destruction by his own hands, you know that we are the only other ones he wanted to see bring them to justice."
As Jun had wiped the tears from her eyes, she had responded, "I know. And I know you're right – that's exactly what Joe had wanted. But it just hurts so much."
Jun's tears had started flowing again, and the Eagle had known that he had to be her support just as he had been for Jinpei. He had reached out to Jun and pulled her closer to him, embracing the Swan in his arms. Jun had laid her cheek on Ken's chest, and he had lifted his chin so her head could reside underneath it. She had held onto Ken as her tears had once again turned to sobs.
"It's ok, Jun. You just need to be strong - your inner strength will get you through this."
Ken had remained quiet after this, letting the Swan cry out more of her grief.
After a few moments he had whispered comfortingly, "We'll all get through this. All of us, together."
When he had returned to his airfield, Ken had seen Ryu sitting at his front door.
"Ken." The helmsman had called as the Eagle had walked up to the small shack. Ken had been able to see the sorrow in the Owl's eyes.
"Hi Ryu." he had greeted, slightly surprised to see him there, as Ryu rarely came to the airfield.
"Ken, I just wanted to let you know that I've decided to return home for a while."
Ken had been slightly startled by this revelation, but not shocked. He had known that Ryu would most likely turn to his family for comfort and support in this time of sorrow. Ken had just been glad that Ryu had stayed as long as he had so that the surviving teammates had had time to grieve together.
"You have? For how long?" Ken had asked.
"I don't know. A couple weeks, I guess." the Owl had replied. "I have someone looking after the marina, but I can't stay away from it for too long."
"I understand." Ken had reassured him. "I'm sure losing Joe has made you long for time with your own family, especially Seiji. Ryu, you're a lucky man to have your family to go back to."
Ken had paused for a second, then added, "I know this is the first time you've lost someone so close to you by the hands of Galactor. And that you've seen how losing family by them has affected members of the team and our individual lives. Ryu, don't let Joe's death by the Syndicate consume you like his parents' death consumed him and how my father's death consumed me. Have the courage to move on and be above that. You are fortunate enough to still have your real family. And even more fortunate to have another family who also cares for you very much. This family will be waiting here for you when you return."
Ryu had held out his hand to Ken, who had taken it. As the two brothers-by-circumstance gave each other a handshake, Ryu had pulled Ken in for a hug. Just as he had done so, Ken had been able to see a tear form in the corner of Ryu's eye.
"Thank you, Ken." he had somberly replied, and before the tear could escape, the Owl had let go of his commander, walked off the porch and back down to the street.
Lying in the darkness, Ken reflected on the conversations of the day. He knew that everyone had been looking to him these past days for support, but to whom did he have to turn? His last conscious thought before sleep finally took him was how Joe would have been that person. But Joe was gone, and Ken felt more alone now than he had ever had before.
Ken awoke a few short hours later to the sound of his bracelet beeping. On instinct, he sat bolt upright, brought his wrist close to his chin, and responded to the call.
"Ken, I need to see you in my office immediately." Nambu stated through the device.
Instinctively, adrenaline started to pump through Ken's veins, immediately waking him to full consciousness. What was going on? Had Galactor returned already? How? Their headquarters had been decimated, Berg Katse was dead, and Sosai X had fled the planet. As these questions filled Ken's mind, dread quickly filled his soul as he realized that, if Galactor had returned, the Science Ninja Team was hobbled and not capable of defeating them.
"What is it Hakase?" Ken asked as evenly as he could.
"We'll discuss it once you arrive."
Kicking the blanket off himself, Ken glanced at the clock at his bedside. Six forty-five am… Even in this time of sadness and pain, Hakase was still at his post before most people even had their first cup of coffee.
Twenty minutes later, Ken stood in front of Nambu's desk, the Doctor refusing to acknowledge Ken's presence until he was ready.
Finally, Nambu looked up from his papers and indicated that Ken should sit on the couch.
As Ken took the seat, the Doctor made his way around his desk and stood in front of the Science Ninja Team leader, clasping his hands behind his back and looking at Ken with a serious but noncommittal expression upon his face.
"Ken, as you know, since the events at Cross Karakorum, the Science Ninja Team's status has been set at stand-by. We hadn't expected any further incursions to occur, but still wanted the team available until we were absolutely positive all danger had passed."
Nambu paused, then hesitantly continued, "Since that time, it has come to my attention that the remaining members of the Science Ninja Team are having serious issues coping with the loss of Joe."
Nambu paused again and looked directly at Ken, who tried to put forth an expression that wouldn't betray his true feelings.
"Sir?" Ken stoically questioned in response.
"Due to the current emotional state, and the fact that you are down a man, if there was to be any sort of attack that the team would be called in for, the unit would be completely ineffective in combat. Therefore, I have decided to temporarily deactivate the Science Ninja Team until I deem that all of you are capable of managing yourselves in battle and able to compensate for the missing G2."
Shocked and dismayed, Ken immediately stood up. Though he knew the future of the Science Ninja Team was uncertain at best, he had not expected to hear this news today.
"What?" he asked, taken completely aback. "Hakase, you can't do that. We're still a fighting force. Even without Joe, if the planet was to come under attack, we're the only line of defense the ISO has right now."
The last sentence had tumbled out of Ken's mouth before he had even realized what he was saying. But as soon as the words were spoken, a pit formed within the Eagle's stomach and the feeling of emptiness returned to his soul.
"No, you are not." Nambu countered. "You are not any force at this time. If the Science Ninja Team was to be deployed, all you would be doing is chasing ghosts, and that's something I cannot afford to let happen."
Ken's mouth went dry. He could feel his emotional stronghold waver.
"Hakase, you can't do this. We need to stay together as a team. If you take it away from us…"
Nambu's eyes narrowed as his expression became stern.
"You, as Commander, should see and understand the implications of leaving the team active at this time, Ken. You, more than anyone, should know that your team's abilities have been compromised and they are currently not prepared to be out in the field."
Nambu paused for a moment, then still looking pointedly at Ken, continued.
"Believe it or not, I understand the devastation of losing Joe. He was an integral part of the Science Ninja Team. He was our weapons expert and a consummate fighter. His loss is overwhelming, not only to the team, but to everyone on a personal level. You, Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei are suffering and all of you need to recover from that loss before you will be an effective fighting unit once again."
Ken stood thunderstruck. This couldn't be happening. It was hard enough losing Joe, but now to lose the only other constant he and the others had ever known. It was too much for the Eagle to take. As much as Ken tried to steel it, his emotional wall crumbled.
"Hakase, I can't let you do this. We need the Science Ninja Team. I need the Science Ninja Team. I've lost so much already… My mother, my father, my best friend. Don't take the only other thing I've ever known away from me. I'm not sure I can take another loss."
"Ken!" Nambu yelled angrily in response. "Pull yourself together. You're deactivated, not decommissioned, which means that you still hold a leadership rank. Now act like it. If you want the Science Ninja Team reactivated, you need to see them through this."
Ken stood numb, as Nambu's last statement repeated in his mind. 'Ineed to see them through this?' he thought bitterly to himself. 'What about me? Who's going to see me through it?'
Ken came back to attention as Nambu continued his speech.
"So the question is, what are you going to do about it, Ken?"
Stung, Ken realized that Nambu wouldn't allow him to grieve, nor would he offer the now temporarily-former Eagle the emotional support he so desperately needed. Realizing that further argument would be futile, Ken quietly removed his bracelet and held it out to the Doctor.
"I don't need your bracelet." Nambu informed Ken in a quieter, less-aggressive manner. "I'll just deactivate all the bracelets until I deem the team fit for active duty."
As Ken slid the now useless communicator in his pocket, the Doctor added, "If it is decided that the team will not be reactivated, I will collect all the bracelets at that time. Please inform Jun, Jinpei, and Ryu accordingly."
Ken momentarily stared at Nambu as disappointment, anger and hurt over the Doctor's actions and lack of empathy and sympathy took hold of him. He then wordlessly turned and started to walk towards the door.
"Ken…" Nambu called after him, his tone kinder and softer.
Ken stopped, but didn't turn around to face him.
"Losing Joe is a terrible burden to bear – for all of us. I feel his loss as much as the rest of you do."
Ken remained still and silent for a moment. Then, without turning, he flatly responded, "Yes, Hakase." and continued his walk out the door.
Ken sat at his desk at the airfield, staring blankly at some approach charts that were pinned to the wall. No real thought cycled through his brain, just the overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loss, not only for Joe, but now also for Gatchaman.
Suddenly, Ken broke out of his reverie and realized what it was that he wanted – what he needed – to do. For the first time in his life, Ken wanted to disappear. For all the years that he had been the "White Shadow that Slipped Unseen", he now, more than he ever had before, wanted to do just that. But instead of slipping into a mecha or Galactor base boldly proclaiming his presence to the enemy, all he wanted to do was slip out of his current reality and be alone.
Without much thought, Ken went out to his Cessna, which still sat at-the-ready on the tarmac, and quickly performed a pre-flight check. Within minutes, the former Eagle was in the air and in the element that made him happiest.
Having no formal plan, Ken set his heading for southwest. He had no idea what his destination would be or what he would do when he arrived there, if it was anywhere or anything, but just the idea of sunny skies and a warmer climate started to take some of the chill out of his emotional void. His mind began to drift as the engine hummed and the propeller repetitively cut rhythmically through the clear deep blue sky. For what seemed like the millionth time, Ken replayed in his mind those last few moments at Cross Karakorum with Joe, only this time it was followed by Jun's anguished unfinished thought from the previous day – "I just wish…"
Why? Why had he made the decision that he had? Ken berated himself again. It was the ultimate betrayal to the person who understood and knew him best. Anger and disappointment travelled through Ken as he thought about the fact that he had done to Joe and the team exactly what his father had done to him and his mother. Ken had chosen duty over his family - and just like his father, the consequences for that decision would have devastating life-long effects on everyone around him. Like father like son, he bitterly thought.
Ken tried to shake this idea from his consciousness. No, this isn't what he had come up here for. He had come to get away from the grief and loss that was all around him on the ground. Flying was supposed to take him away from it, to get his thoughts in order, and his mind back on track. People on the ground were depending on him to stay strong – Junwas depending on him to stay strong, while Hakase was expecting it. That's what this flight and time was needed for; to pull himself together and be the person his remaining teammates needed him to be, and the Commander that Hakase expected him to be.
A sudden eerie silence instantly brought Ken out of his reverie. A momentary panic coursed through him as he realized that the engine of the Cessna had cut out. But just as fast as the panic swept through, it was gone and the calm, strategic mind of the Eagle took over.
After a failed restart attempt, Ken quickly realized that, like it or not, one way or another he was going to land. He quickly scanned the area below him for a safe landing zone. It was then that he realized that he was over the Tannia Strait and that the sparsely populated Tannia Island was in his sights. He guided the disabled plane in the direction of the island and held the nose high as he prepared for the emergency landing on its sandy shore.
Miraculously, the sandy soil was harder-packed than Ken had expected and the landing had been smoother and more controlled for it. After an inspection of the exterior, Ken was pleased to find that the only damage to be seen was a couple superficial dings on the fuselage frame where some shells and rocks had hit.
Ken took his toolkit from the plane and started checking the internal parts for the cause of the engine failure. He found the culprit in the engine compartment within just a few of minutes of searching.
"Fuel blockage due to a broken fuel hose… Yeah, that'll do it..." he grumbled to himself, and as he pulled the defective part from the plane, he mused, "Now where am I going to get a replacement for one of these out here?"
Realizing his only option was to find a town and see if anyone could help him back to the mainland, Ken pulled the towbar from the Cessna and moved the plane away from the rising tide's reach. After he secured the aircraft, he began his trek to find civilization.
Ken hiked from the shoreline through the mountainous terrain with no signs of human life. The tropical climate of the island made his journey that much more challenging, but at least sunset was approaching, even though he knew that would lead to a new set of problems.
Ken began to weigh his sheltering options for the night, and as daylight darkened into dusk, he decided that he had better turn around and head back to the shoreline. If he had to be anywhere on this island without proper shelter, then he would want to at least be near the familiarity and few supplies of his Cessna.
As Ken turned to start his descent back down the hillside, he saw a light shining in the distance. Happy to see any indication that he was not alone, Ken made his way towards the luminary's source.
Steadily moving closer to the light, Ken began to detect the shadowy outline of a building and a vertical line of light that seemed to cut it in half. He finally recognized the slit as a set of large double doors that were slightly ajar, letting the interior glow spill out into the night.
When he was within ten feet of the double doors, Ken stopped and surveyed his surroundings. The building was old and wooden, with sections of the wood dried out and rotting from age. In the darkness, the exterior looked as if it were devoid of all color; the once-vibrant exterior having lost its luster to the many years of neglect and exposure to the elements. The building itself sat on an old dirt lot, the immediate area barren of brush and grass, though there was unruly vegetation and a line of trees in the not-too-distant background.
As Ken walked closer to the double doors, he could hear music playing from inside the outbuilding.
"Hello?" he called into the light, but there was no immediate response.
"Is anyone here?" Ken asked a little louder.
Suddenly, a metallic plink could be heard from inside, as if someone was putting something down, then he saw a shadow move toward the door.
"Can I help you?" a man gruffly asked.
With the light emanating from behind the man, Ken couldn't see the face of the person who now stood in front of him. Outside of him being around his own height; wearing a t-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, and carrying a rag that he was now wiping his hands with, Ken was at a loss for distinguishing the person's features.
"Yeah… You see, my plane blew a hose and now I need to get a new one to repair it. I was hoping…"
The man in front of him abruptly cut him off.
"Well, you've come to the right place…" he began and pushed open one of the double doors a little wider, which allowed more light to spill out. Ken peered into the now-visible interior and could see a tractor, automotive parts, and tools strewn about inside.
"The name's Genji," the man offered, his tone softened "I'm the mechanic on this island. This is my shop."
"Mechanic?" Ken asked amazed. "All the way out here?"
Genji laughed a short knowing laugh.
"You must have come up from the west side of the island. There's practically nothing from out there to here. Go east about a mile or so, and you'll hit the inhabited side of the island. Now what's this part you need?"
"It's a fuel hose for my Cessna…" Ken began to explain, but was again cut off.
"Don't get many airplane parts around here…" Genji mused, then added, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to call that in and get one from the mainland. It'll probably take a day or two to get here."
"Oh…" Ken responded, somewhat disheartened. He had wanted to get away for a while, but had thought he'd only be gone for a few hours at most, let alone a few days.
"Why don't you come in and let me see if I can get ahold of my supplier on the mainland? It's kinda late, but sometimes he's there well into the night. If we can order it tonight, we may be able to get it here by tomorrow."
Ken brightened a little.
"That'd be great, Genji."
Ken offered his hand. "The name's Ken."
Genji firmly gripped Ken's hand and shook it as he moved out of the way.
"Come on in, Ken. Let's see what I can do for you."
Ken watched as Genji picked up the phone and called his parts supplier. Now that he was inside, Ken was able to get a good look at the mechanic. Genji was slightly taller in stature than he and had dark hair that, under the weight of his cap, touched the top of his shoulders. Genji looked to be fairly young – maybe in his early to mid-twenties - and now seemed friendly enough, though Ken felt that Genji had an air about him that he was not someone you would want to cross.
"You're in luck." Genji announced when he had hung up the phone. "A supply's being shipped and delivered to the island tomorrow –your fuel hose will be part of it."
Ken smiled. "That's great! Thanks, Genji. I really appreciate it."
"No problem, Ken. Now that's good for you for tomorrow, but what about tonight? Do you have anywhere to stay?"
"I'll just head back to the beach and stay by the Cessna." Ken replied.
Genji smirked and gave a somewhat sarcastic laugh.
"I've done that more than once. But it was usually with my friends… How about if you stay here for tonight? My place is not extravagant, but it'll be a roof over your head."
Not having many options, Ken agreed.
Genji was correct in the assessment of his living quarters – it was not extravagant and about the only thing it offered was a roof over Ken's head. The meager apartment, located above the garage, was small, dark, and sparsely decorated; its only furnishings an old sofa, coffee table, floor lamp, and a card table with folding chairs near the kitchenette area of the living space. Looking around, it rather reminded Ken of a combination of his shack at the airfield and Joe's old trailer. Joe… A pang of regret struck Ken as he thought about Joe's trailer and how empty it, along with everyone else, now was with Joe no longer there.
"Take a load off, Ken." Genji instructed as he indicated the sofa, then strode into the kitchenette area and pulled two bottles out of the compact refrigerator.
"Beer?" the mechanic offered as he made his way back into the main living area.
"No thanks. I'm not much of a drinker."
"Aww, come now… Live a little!" Genji goaded as he wiggled one of bottles in front of Ken.
Ken was instantly transported back in time. How many times had he heard the same thing from Joe?
"Live a little, Ken! We just destroyed Galactor's latest base – they won't be back for weeks! Forget about your "duty" for an hour and have a beer!"
A rueful grin crossed Ken's lips as he thought about how many times "a beer" had turned into he and Joe polishing off a couple of six-packs – and how Ken had generally been the one paying for the gluttony the next day.
Genji still held out the bottle to Ken, who finally accepted it. The mechanic then picked up one of the folding chairs and placed it backwards just a few feet in front of Ken's position. Genji then sat down, his legs straddling the seat, arms propped over the backrest, and opened his beer, taking in a long drink. Ken followed suit.
"So, what's your story?" Genji inquired after he swallowed his take.
Ken gave him a meaningful look.
"I told you... My plane blew a hose and I had to make an emergency landing. End of story." Ken responded.
"No, I mean what are you doing here? Why were you in this area?"
Ken's eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion.
"I'm a pilot - I fly. It's what I do." he responded crossly.
"Hey, easy there! Just trying to make conversation…" Genji quickly tried to justify his line of questioning when he saw Ken's glare. "It's either that or we're going to have a long night of doing nothing but staring at each other!"
Genji took another deep drink of his beverage. Ken, his eyes trained on the mechanic, did the same.
"How long have you been a pilot?" Genji continued when he saw Ken's expression start to relax.
"About six years. As soon as I was able to get my student license and then my pilot's license, I did." Ken answered in a more casual manner.
"Bet you've seen a lot in those six years.." .
"Yeah. You could say that…" Ken responded wistfully. He then took another drink from the bottle, hoping to dissuade the entire conversation.
Noticing that Ken's beer was quickly nearing its end, Genji returned to the kitchen and pulled out two more bottles from the refrigerator. On the way back to the main living space, he grabbed a bag of chips.
"Sorry for the lack of sustenance. Guess I need to do some food shopping…" the mechanic apologized as he opened the bag. Ken hadn't realized how hungry he was until the aroma of the salty snack wafted into his nose. Genji held out the open package to the stranded pilot, and Ken took a handful, popping his entire take into his mouth at once. He then drank the last of his first beer to wash it all down, then immediately opened the second.
"You must be pretty skilled to be able to land your aircraft on the beach without any power." Genji prodded.
"Yeah, well, it's what a pilot trains for."
Genji noted the subtle change in speech pattern and tone in Ken's voice as the alcohol started to take its effect. A smirk appeared on Genji's face, but as quickly as it had come, it vanished.
"Ever consider joining one of the branches of the military? They can always use experienced pilots. And with your skill…"
Ken's eyes flashed.
"Join the military? Why? So I can be a pawn in someone else's game?" he responded defensively.
Genji didn't show any reaction to Ken's abhorrent tone, but rather replied, "No, so you can help save the world. Be a beacon of hope. Get rid of the evil so everyone can live their lives in peace."
"Or watch as your best friend lies dying…" Ken mumbled bitterly to himself as he drank again from the bottle.
Instead of responding to Ken's admission, Genji lifted his own drink to his mouth. A knowing grin slid across his face just as the liquid touched his lips.
Ken leaned his head back against the couch as the effects of drinking almost two bottles of beer while dehydrated and on an empty stomach started to make themselves known. Genji quietly realized it too.
"So tell me about this friend of yours." the islander requested.
Ken abruptly picked up his head and brought it forward. He could feel the slight slosh in his brain from the buzz that had begun.
"What friend?" he asked suspiciously.
"The one who was killed."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Ken denied evenly.
"Sure you do. You've practically admitted to me that you're a former military man and that your best friend died in battle. So what were you? Airman? Sergeant?"
Ken stared, then coldly replied, "No."
"Lieutenant? Captain?" Genji continued, more awestruck with each rank he named.
"No." Ken reiterated slightly annoyed.
"Come on, Ken! You can't hide the fact that you were in the armed forces. I can tell just by your demeanor. Bold, yet calm. Strategic and logical. And your reaction right now… Your denials are not convincing in the least."
Ken broke his stare and turned his head to the side. Impetuously he growled, "Commander. I was a Commander, ok?"
Genji let out a low whistle as Ken turned his attention back to his inquisitor.
"Commander, huh? That's pretty impressive. Especially for someone your age. All that responsibility, not only for yourself, but for your entire unit…."
Ken's eyes narrowed, but Genji didn't let it deter him.
"So tell me about your friend." the mechanic pressed. "He died on your watch?"
Ken felt as if he had just had a forward kick hit him square in the chest as anger began to fill him. He remained silent as he became wary of Genji's continued questioning.
As if detecting Ken's growing distrust, the mechanic added, "It's written all over your face, Commander. And it has been since the moment I met you."
Genji then put his empty beer bottle on the floor next to him, folded his arms over the top of the chair's backrest, and leaned forward, looking distinctly at Ken.
"Listen, I'm not here to cause harm or pass judgment. You just look like someone who's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. If you want to talk about it, great. If not, that's fine too. It's your call. But, there was a reason why you took that flight today, a reason why you ended up here. Maybe blowing that hose and landing on Tannia Island was not what you had expected to happen, but it did. And things happen for a reason. Maybe the reason you're stranded here is to purge that weight you're carrying. It's up to you. You've got a listening ear if you want it."
Ken felt his misgivings begin to fade, and before he realized it, the words he had never spoken out loud tumbled from his mouth.
"I left my brother to die."
Without blinking, Genji curiously asked, "How so?"
"He was mortally wounded and I chose defeating the enemy over saving his life. It's my fault Joe is dead." Ken responded quietly.
Genji again didn't respond; instead he waited silently for Ken to continue.
"What kind of Commander…what kind of brother... does that?" Ken vehemently questioned himself. "The rest of the team begged me to save him, but instead I chose our duty over the life of my best friend."
"What do you think your friend…Joe…thought about that?" Genji asked.
"It was what he wanted. He wanted us to continue our fight. In fact, it was because of him that we knew where the enemy was and we were able to infiltrate their stronghold and defeat them."
"And what would his reaction have been to that?"
A wry smile spread across Ken's face.
"He would have been ecstatic. Defeating the enemy had been his lifeblood; it gave him purpose. He never would have rested until he knew our foe had been destroyed."
"Sounds to me like you did exactly what Joe had wanted."
Ken leaned back on the couch, his eyes now downcast, the sense of defeat coming through his body language.
"On the military side, yes. But he was also my brother and I broke my lifelong promise to him that we would die together. Not only did I leave him to die, but I left him to die alone while I continued to live and to fight. That's something I'll never forgive myself for."
Genji and Ken sat silent for a minute, then Genji responded firmly, "Listen, Ken. You can't second-guess yourself now and you can't regret still living. You were forced to make a critical decision in the heat of battle, not in a calm, safe, comfortable environment. You had to do what was right not only for yourself and the team, but literally for the world at large. We all do things that we regret. Things that we say, decisions that we make. That's what it means to be human. Sometimes the situations we're in make those decisions for us, which makes it even harder on us as individuals… You say you left your best friend and brother to die. Well, it sounds like he didn't see it that way. It sounds like he saw that there was only one thing you could do – and that was to save millions of lives and rid the planet of its most dangerous threat. Maybe that was what was most important to him."
Genji paused for a moment, allowing what he had said to sink in, then added, "Your brother was a soldier. He knew the dangers of the missions you were involved in and that the chances were great that one day he or someone else from your unit would not make it back to base. But he stayed on the team. He could have walked away at any time, but he didn't, just like the rest of your team didn't. Was it loyalty to you, his Commander and friend? Or was it because it was something he had wanted?"
Ken picked up his eyes and looked squarely at Genji, again unsure as to why he was even having this conversation. It was as if there was an outside force that wouldn't allow him to not speak about it. Or, he rationalized, it could have been the combination of emotional exhaustion and the alcohol. Either way, Ken knew he was baring his soul to a perfect stranger, and as much as he knew it should unnerve him, it didn't.
"So it may have been something that Joe wanted." Ken began bitterly, "But I still could have made a better decision. I should have let one of the team take him back to the ship while the rest of us continued the mission and…"
"Ken…" Genji interrupted. "If one or two of the remaining members had taken him back to your ship, that would have decreased your numbers even more. It would have been a suicide mission if you had gone into that base down by half your team. And if they had taken him back to the ship, and Joe has been as mortally wounded as you say he was, he wouldn't have survived long enough to receive any medical attention. I'm sure Joe knew that. So, you see, there really was nothing else you could have done, no other decision you could have made. You made the only decision available to you - and Joe was fully aware of that."
"Ok, maybe it was the only decision and maybe Joe was ok with it. But my other teammates weren't. They blame me for Joe's death. They were the ones who wanted to try and save him and I was the one who said no. That's my legacy to the team, to my friends. I was their Commander, the one who was supposed to protect them – and in the end, when it really mattered, all I did was cause them the most wretched pain they've ever experienced. I selfishly and stupidly put duty ahead of family."
Genji shook his head sympathetically.
"You put too much pressure on yourself. I'm sure the surviving members of the team don't "blame" you. It may have been hard for them to understand your motives at the time, but just like you and Joe, the rest of your unit are trained professionals. They knew the risks, they knew what could happen. They let their personal feelings get in the way in the heat of the moment, but they knew what the operation's priorities were. Sure they're sad, upset, even devastated at their loss, but so are you. At the time the only thing you did differently from them was to keep your personal emotions from clouding the situation. You thought like a Commander, like you were supposed to, like you were trained to. Look Ken, like it or not, you're still human. And military protocol or not, you feel and hurt just like everyone else does. Don't push your misgivings onto your teammates. They know you did the only thing you could, and now all of you need to work together through the loss. As much as you want to emotionally push them away, you need them as much as they need you."
In the back of Ken's mind, he faintly heard the words he spoke to Jun the previous day… "We'll all get through this. All of us, together."
With this echoing in his head, Ken blurted out, "But how can I be the one there for them when I'm the cause of their pain?"
Genji looked decisively at Ken.
"Ken, you need to forgive yourself. Until you do that, nothing is going to change. You need to absolve yourself of your guilt. You know Joe wouldn't blame you, so don't transfer and internalize that onto yourself. You said Joe was like your brother, right? That means that the two of you argued, you fought, you were constantly in competition with each other… Heck, I'll bet that the two of you even competed for the affections of the same girl! That's what brothers do. And the other thing brothers do is understand each other. He knew you, Ken; he understood you – probably better than you know and understand yourself. What does that mean? That means he knows why you did what you did and he understands. He forgives you Ken. Now you have to forgive yourself."
Ken opened his mouth to respond, but Genji wouldn't give him the opportunity.
"You need to take care of yourself first, before you can even think about taking care of anyone else. You've always been the one in charge, the one to hold it all – and everyone – together, for almost your entire life. Whether that was self-imposed or otherwise imparted upon you, that's for you to decide. But, for once, it's time to put yourself first and pull yourself together. You have to. Only when you help yourself will you be able to help your friends and teammates through this."
Genji paused for a second, then added thoughtfully, "Think of it like the eagle…Not only is the eagle a symbol of strength, courage and bravery, but it also symbolizes power, wisdom and healing. Think about how the eagle's power and wisdom can heal, and let that restore your strength, courage and bravery."
Ken again wanted to respond, but shock waves instead flowed through his being, causing him to forget his reply and to instead instantly self-assess. Not only at the fact that, of all things, Genji's analogy was to the eagle, but also that these had been the very qualities Ken himself had tried to impart individually onto Jun, Jinpei and Ryu to see them through the tragedy. To Jun, he had encouraged strength; to Jinpei it had been bravery; and to Ryu it had been courage. But Ken had failed to see that, as an Eagle himself, he possessed all three qualities, and that now, more than ever, he needed to embrace each one. Ken needed to regain and be the Eagle that he was, the Eagle he always had been, and the Eagle he always would be, in both peace and war time. Somewhere, somehow, he had lost sight of that. Ken also realized that just because he was the Eagle it didn't mean that, as an individual, he - Ken Washio - wasn't human. He had thoughts and feelings – and guilt – just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, it was something that he needed to work through, both by himself and with the people he cared about and who cared about him. Once he began to work through his own grief, he could be there for the others, and the others could be there for him – and together they all would be stronger than they had ever been before.
Ken felt the weight of his oppression lift off his shoulders and be replaced by empowerment and revitalization.
"You're right, Genji. I need to stop putting my feelings on the side and deal with how this has affected me. I need to realize that Joe is at peace, and once I do that, then I can be at peace. And once the others see that I have obtained that inner peace – that wisdom, that strength - they will be able to obtain it too."
Genji smiled approvingly at the Commander.
"I knew you had it in you Ken. You just needed to let it out and work through it. Now that you have, the real healing can begin."
A wicked grin spread across Genji's face as he humorously added, "Something tells me that if Joe were here, he wouldn't have been so patient with you. He seems like the type of guy who would have kicked your ass from here to next week until you figured it out."
Ken smiled, the first cheerful feeling he'd had in over a week.
"You're right, Genji. That's exactly what he would have done."
Genji got up from his seat and went back to the kitchenette. This time when he returned from the refrigerator, he had two bottles of water in his hand.
"Here, drink this." he said as he handed one of the bottles to Ken. "I think it's time to dilute some of that alcohol in your body."
Ken woke up to the smell of coffee wafting through the apartment. As consciousness slowly came to him, Ken remembered that he was on Tannia Island, sleeping on the old sofa in Genji's main living space. When he heard the sounds of movement coming from the kitchenette area, Ken opened his eyes.
"'Morning." the gruff morning voice of Genji greeted him.
"Hey…" Ken mumbled back.
"There's some coffee on the table for you. Wasn't sure how you'd be feeling today, so I took it easy on the breakfast options."
Ken glanced at the coffee table in front of him, and in fact there was a cup of hot coffee and some toast waiting for him. He also saw the two aspirin tablets residing next to the plate.
"Thanks, Genji. Though I don't think I'll need the aspirin. My head's feeling fine." Ken informed the islander as he sat up and took the coffee cup in hand.
"Good." Genji responded as he took a sip from his own cup. "Once you wake up a bit, you may want to start making your way to the village. Kaishou should be landing with the supplies any time now. You can use my motorbike to get there; it's right downstairs."
"You're not coming?" Ken asked as he took a bite of the toast, his response sounding more surprised than he had intended.
"No, I don't have anything being delivered today, and I have other things that I need to do. But don't worry. Kaishou's a good man. And you can't miss him – he'll be the only one on the pier with a seaplane and aviation fuel hose." Genji added with a grin.
Ken expressed his gratitude again, then continued a little more modestly, "And thanks for listening last night. I guess you now know why I'm not much of a drinker… I appreciate your thoughts and advice though; today's definitely a new day."
"Sometimes the company of a friend and some liquid courage is all a person needs." Genji responded insightfully, then putting down his cup and looking at his watch, he added, "Ah, look at the time! I need to get downstairs and get some work done. Good luck with that hose, my friend. I'll see you…soon."
Genji opened the door to the apartment, took a final glance in Ken's direction, and quickly closed the door behind him.
Ken hastily finished the last remnants of his coffee and toast, then he too made his way out the door.
It didn't take Ken long to ride the two miles to the village and the island's eastern shore. Once there, he made his way down to the pier, where he could see that the seaplane had already arrived. A tall thin man, probably in his early 40's, stood next to the plane on the pier, surrounded by miscellaneous boxes and bags.
"Kaishou?" Ken asked as he walked up to the man, carefully making his way around the boxes.
Kaishou looked up from his inventory sheet.
"Ah, you must be the owner of the Cessna that needs the new fuel hose." the delivery man responded.
"Yes, I am. How'd you know?"
Ken immediately realized his question was unwarranted. Genji would of course have given Kaishou his description so that the delivery man would know who was picking up the replacement part.
To Ken's surprise, Kaishou instead replied, "I know just about everyone on this island, and I've never seen you before. There are also only a handful of people who own planes here, and I know you're not one of them. Lucky for you I saw your plane on the beach as I was leaving yesterday… It's not every day I see a Cessna sitting abandoned on the shore, so I landed and took a closer look. Saw the broken fuel hose on the ground and figured someone was going to be looking for a new one…. Say, how'd you know to come here today for it and for me? I hadn't told anyone about it yet."
Ken looked at Kaishou, confused.
"What do you mean? Genji called last night for the part," Ken started to explain.
"Genji?" Kaishou questioned, perplexed. "No, never got a call from anyone by the name of Genji… Like I said, I saw the plane out there yesterday."
Ken was having trouble understanding this.
"No, Genji called. Genji, the mechanic on this island…"
Kaishou gave Ken a quizzical look.
"Sorry, son, but I don't know anyone by that name. And certainly not a mechanic. Where'd you say he was from?"
Ken thumbed westward as he responded, "About two miles west of here. His shop is an old garage with an apartment above it."
Kaishou considered this for a moment.
"Sounds like you're talking about old Yasuo's place. But it's got to be at least ten years since anyone's lived there."
Ken was completely puzzled by this, but quickly decided that Kaishou was not quite the authority on Tannia Island residents that he believed himself to be. Ken thanked Kaishou for the hose, took the replacement part, and made his way back down the pier. When the delivery man asked if Ken would like his help in repairing the Cessna, Ken declined, stating that he would be fine fixing it on his own.
Ken mounted the motorbike and headed back towards Genji's garage to gather some tools, dismissing his conversation with Kaishou as he rode. As he thought about the discussion, Ken realized that he had no proof that Genji had spoken to Kaishou directly. In fact, Ken realized, like he with his mail route, Kaishou was just a runner. He only took and delivered the supplies he was given. And if Ken had been asked the names of the island residents he delivered to, he wouldn't know all of them either. Sure he knew quite a few of their names and even some of their histories, but he wasn't acquainted with everyone. No, Kaishou was just a transporter who wanted people to believe he knew more than he did, which was fine with Ken. Like his own mailrun, even though it served an essential purpose, supply transport could be a lonely business. And maybe this was how Kaishou made himself look more important to others.
Ken pulled up to the closed double doors of the garage, parked the bike, and dismounted. As he opened one of the doors, he called Genji's name. There was no answer. Ken opened the door wider and took a step inside the shop.
"Genji? Are you here?"
It was then that Ken realized the lights were off and no music was being played. Ken scanned the interior of the garage. Although the tractor still sat in the middle of the floor, it now looked very old and as if it hadn't run in years. In fact, in the daylight, the entire garage looked as if it hadn't been used in years.
With no sign of Genji, Ken went back outside and walked around the exterior of the building, making his way to the rear of the garage and up the staircase that led to Genji's apartment.
When he reached the door, Ken knocked, and without waiting for an answer, turned the knob to let himself in.
It was locked.
"Genji?" Ken called again. "Genji, are you here?"
With no response or movement from inside, Ken tried to peek through the dirty window panes of the door. To his surprise, the interior looked dank and lifeless as if, there too, no one had used it for years.
Perplexed at Genji's whereabouts, Ken went back down the stairs and walked along the opposite side of the building from where he had come. Looking off into the distance, Ken called Genji's name one more time.
As Ken proclaimed the mechanic's name, a slight breeze kicked up and something in the sky caught his eye. At first he couldn't discern what it was, but as the object floated down through the air and closer to his position, Ken realized that it was a single silver-white feather. With all the trees around, Ken figured that the feather must have been lost from a bird he had startled when he had called Genji's name. Dismissing it, Ken continued to survey his surroundings, wondering where Genji could be.
The feather completed its descent and made contact with the ground just in front of Ken's feet. The calamus had pierced the earth, leaving the plume to rest at a forty-five degree angle. Curiously, Ken bent over to pick it up.
It wasn't until he grasped the feather between his thumb and forefinger and plucked it from the earth that Ken noticed its smooth texture, broad shape and blunt end. As he inspected it more closely, he saw the alternating pattern on the shaft. Bewildered, Ken stared at it, then sudden understanding swept over him like a river breaking and overflowing its dam. He was dismayed at the revelation, but the events of the past two days now made sense to him. How did he not see it before? The familiarity, the ease with which Ken was able to speak to him, how he knew what Ken was feeling and thinking, and why he was able have Ken see things so clearly… Genji's whispered name escaped from Ken's lips.
Ken lifted his gaze from the feather in his hand to the sky above, tears pricking at his eyes.
"Joji!" he yelled into the air.
Then, anguished and with tears flowing freely, Ken held the Condor feather tightly as he shouted the one person's name he knew to be true:
He stopped and looked through the glass-windowed door before he opened it. He could see Jun behind the bar, her back to the entrance, carefully restocking glasses on the shelves. Though she was fully engrossed in her task, he could still see distress in her body language. Suddenly Jun looked off to her right, his eyes silently following her gaze, as Jinpei emerged from the kitchen carrying an additional tray of glasses in his hands. Jun removed the tray from the boy's possession and must have said something to him, as he saw Jinpei's lips move in response. The boy then turned and returned empty-handed to the kitchen.
With Jun once again alone in the café, he felt that now was the time for him enter the establishment.
The little bell on the door rang to announce his arrival and Jun turned to face her patron. Upon her immediate recognition of him, her entire physical appearance changed. The disquiet that was so evident mere seconds before was replaced by relief and joy.
"Ken!" she cried out as she ran to the other side of the bar to greet him.
"Oh, Ken! Where have you been? We've been so worried about you!" Jun continued, and before she realized what she was doing, she had wrapped her arms around his neck.
Ken took a step back in surprise, and Jun immediately removed her herself from him, embarrassed by her actions.
"I- I just needed some time away…to think." he stammered.
Jun gazed imploringly into Ken's blue eyes.
"We tried contacting you on your bracelet, but we couldn't get through… "
"I know." Ken answered quietly, ill-prepared to break the news of the Science Ninja Team's status to her. He paused for a moment, trying to form the right words in his head, then began, "We've been…"
Much to his relief, Ken was abruptly cut-off as an exuberant Swallow bounded out of the kitchen.
"Aniki! Is that you? Where were you? When you didn't come here yesterday…." he trailed off, his face instantly filling with concern.
"I'm fine, Jinpei. Everything's fine, I promise." Ken quickly reassured the worried boy.
He then turned to Jun and asked, "What's going on here? Is the Snack J open for business?"
A small triumphant grin crept across the Swan's face.
"Yes, in fact it is. Jinpei and I had a long talk yesterday, and we realized that it was time for us to start moving forward. We can't wallow in our own self-pity or remorse any longer. Joe is gone, and as painful as it is and as much as we wish otherwise, he's not coming back. We can't allow his passing to paralyze us and stop us from living."
Ken searched Jun's emerald eyes, confusion evident in his expression.
"I know it seems like a sudden turn-around," she quickly responded to his unasked question, "But Jinpei was adamant that we carry on, saying that he wanted to be brave, like Joe was, and that he wanted to honor Joe's memory by being so. Isn't that right, Jinpei?" the Swan asked as the boy nodded his assent.
"Jinpei thought the best way to start was by he and I returning to living our lives and doing our normal activities. That made me think about what you had said to me, Ken, about using my inner strength to get through this. And you were right - I need to be strong. Even though I wish things had been different and that he was still here, what happened happened. He's gone and I can't let Joe's loss paralyze me. That wouldn't be what he would have wanted. And Jinpei was right about honoring Joe's memory and continuing to live our lives. If I don't continue living then I can't honor his memory."
As a warm smile touched Ken's lips, relief filled him as he realized that Jun hadn't blamed him, or his actions, for Joe's death. Genji's – Joe's – words suddenly echoed in his head: "Don't push your misgivings onto your teammates." The smile remained a second longer, as Ken realized that, once again, Joe did know him better than Ken knew himself.
As Ken was about to acknowledge Jun's new-found resolve, the bell on the Snack J's door rang again.
"Ryu! You're back!" Jun exclaimed happily as the helmsman entered the café.
"Hi!" he greeted them brandishing a smile, "Yeah, I'm back."
"Hey, Ryu! I thought you were going to stay with your family for a few weeks?" Ken asked.
"I was, but then I realized I have all the family I need right here. Don't get me wrong, it was great to see my other family, but I realized that if I stayed there, I'd only be running from what I needed to face. Being home would have protected me, but I need to be courageous and continue my life here. Joe may be gone, but you, Jun and Jinpei are still here. If I stayed away, Joe's death would have consumed me; by being here, we can deal with it together move forward."
Jun wiped a tear from her eye and moved closer to the Owl to give him a hug. As she did so, the muffled sound of Ken's communicator came from his pocket. Surprised, Ken turned from the group and pulled it out.
"G1." he responded tentatively..
Dr. Nambu's voice came over the device, succinct and business-like, as usual, "I need to speak with you. Jun and Jinpei were here earlier, and I may have been a bit impetuous in my decision. Come see me in my office."
Ken smiled as he replied confidently, "Yes, sir. I'll be there shortly."
Ken looked over to the bar, where the Science Ninjas sat and spoke with each other, smiling and breaking into laughter as they reunited and reminisced about Joe. Relief and gladness rose through Ken, and the commanding grin of Gatchaman spread across his face. It vanished quickly, though, and was immediately replaced by Ken Washio's own reassuring smile.
Watching his teammates and siblings, he quietly reaffirmed to himself, "Yes, we're going to get through this, and we're going to be a team again, together."
# # #
As you now know, this story takes place in the Gatch 1 universe only. Knowing what happens in Gatch II and beyond makes this fic a little confusing, but there was no way to indicate this without giving a big clue as to whom Genji really was. My apologies for any confusion this may have caused!