Disclaimer: All things Gatch belong to Tatsunoko Pro.  Only having fun.

After the Fire

The mech was claimed by a brilliant fireball, and quickly became a disintegrating hulk rocked by secondary explosions.

On the bridge of the God Phoenix, tension hummed in the air, and Joe spun away from the console to face the door.  As soon as Ryu had signaled him that he’d picked up the others, Joe had fired the Bird Missiles.  On their way down, the others would have heard the explosion, felt it as the concussion wave rocked the ship, and Ken was sure to storm onto the bridge, breathing fire about firing the missiles without Nambu Hakase’s authorization.  He tensed, fists curled, leaning forward slightly, the simmering anger he lived in heating within him.

So what if he says we can’t fire the missiles without Hakase’s okay? Joe thought, already defending his decision.  Nothing less was able to destroy the fucking thing!  I saw my shot and I had to take it.  I am not going to take his sanctimonious shit this time.

The door whooshed open, and Jun and Jinpei spilled out of the lift.  The ride down wasn’t very long, but they were already embroiled in an argument.  Jinpei darted past Joe and stood near Ryu, grinning hugely at the screen as the ruin of the mech became a fiery rain on the mountain below.  “See, Oneechan?  I told you—your bombs are the best!” The scuff of boots against metal told him that the boy was doing the peculiar little victory dance he’d invented.

As Jun moved out of his field of vision, Joe kept staring at the bridge door.  Waiting.

I’m ready for you this time, Ken . . .

The lift door closed on empty space.

There was a ‘thunk’ as Jun rapped Jinpei sharply on the top of his helmet.  “And I told you that just because I’m out of your sight for five minutes, I’m not planting bombs!”

“Damn it, that hurts,” Jinpei muttered.

“Then behave.”

Joe kept his eyes glued to the bridge door, and his fingers flexed.  His muscles trembled in anticipation.

“Hey, where’s aniki?” The boy sounded surprised.

Ken? Come on, Ken, you should know better than to keep me waiting . . . It’ll only make it worse . . .

“What do you mean, where’s Ken?” Ryu asked, a note of worry in his voice.  “We thought . . .” There was a distinct creak as he turned in his seat to look at Joe’s back.

Jun and Jinpei’s sudden intakes of breath were very loud in the wake of Ryu’s words.

Together, they raised their bracelets, but Jun spoke first.  “G-1, this is G-3.  Come in, please!”

There wasn’t even the crackle of static that had signaled they were being jammed by the mech.  There was nothing.  The silence on the other end was so complete no one could even tell if the call had been received.

The realization crashed over Joe in a wave, rough and strong, trying to drag him down, but he fought to keep his head above it.

Because it couldn’t be true.

I saw all three of them . . . I know I did . . .

Jun’s voice was hollow, punctuated by the blips of the displays.  “I met up with Jinpei after he had gotten the information Nambu Hakase wanted, and sabotaged the computer.  We . . . we couldn’t raise Ken on the communicator because of the jamming field.  We thought he’d already . . .” She trailed off.

Joe turned, finally, from the empty door, weighed down by what he had done.  Ryu was looking at him, his broad, usually placid face pinched in a frown.  Jun stared at the console, her eyes wide behind her visor, one hand covering her mouth.

The safety for the Bird Missile trigger was still open.  She looked up, trying to catch his eyes, but he glanced quickly away.  He couldn’t stand the accusation she tried to hide.  She knows, he thought, as close as he ever came to despair, and longed to close his eyes.  Seeing Jinpei studying the front screen intently was no better.

Guilt beat on him from every side.  There was no way to escape it. 

“Oneechan . . .” Fright crept into the boy’s voice. “I don’t see him . . . I don’t see him . . .”

There was no flash of white in the sky for the sun to refract off, only oily black smoke drifting heavily away.  As Ryu urged the God Phoenix into motion again, the mountain below came into view, littered with bits of red molten metal, with trees burning torch-like as they caught fire.

It was Hell.

Even if Ken survived the explosion . . . nothing could live in that.

He reeled slightly at the thought.  It made him lightheaded and nauseous.

“Oneechan . . . Aniki made it off, didn’t he?” Jinpei’s voice pleaded with Jun again, begging for reassurance.  “Didn’t he?”

“Jinpei . . .” Jun choked out, her voice thick.  She put her hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing.  “I don’t know . . .”

Joe could feel her eyes boring into him.  His hands were clenched into fists so tightly that he could feel the joints popping.

“We’ve got to look for him!”

“We’ve got to contact Nambu Hakase first, squirt,” Ryu’s voice, calm and quiet, overrode Jinpei’s anxious demand.  He craned his neck, looking over his shoulder at Joe again.  His brown eyes clearly betrayed the apprehension that his words did not.  “Once we let him know what happened . . . then we can go search for . . . for Ken.” He reached out to clout Jinpei on the shoulder, but the boy dodged and slipped into Ken’s seat.

Joe knew the words were directed at him as much as at Jinpei, and as much as he resented Ryu, of all people, reminding him of his duty, there was still a part of him that was grateful for direction. 

Anything to jolt him out of the numb, empty feeling that seemed to have swallowed him up.

He brought his bracelet up to his mouth.  “Nambu Hakase, come in.  This is G-2.”  Even to his own ears, he sounded . . . wooden.  Frozen.  Jinpei twisted to look at him strangely around the back of Ken’s seat.

One of the small screens fizzed and came to life.  Dully, Joe raised his eyes to meet the image of the team’s mentor.

“This is Nambu.  What is your status, G-2?”  His eyes sharpened behind his glasses.  “And where is Ken?”

Joe swallowed.  “The . . . the Galactor mech has been destroyed.  However, we have reason to believe that Ken . . . may not have been clear when it exploded.”

Nambu frowned at him severely.  “Why?  What circumstances could possibly . . .”

He fought the urge to close his eyes.  “There was a jamming field that interrupted the communication frequency of our bracelets.  I didn’t know he wasn’t clear when I fired the Bird Missile.”

Whaaaat?” Jinpei leapt up from Ken’s seat, instantly furious.  Jun grabbed him before he could tackle Joe, but it took all her strength to hold him back.

Nambu’s mouth grew pinched and white at the corners. “Joe, I will expect a full report from you in five minutes.  You will contact me from a secured terminal.  The rest of you will search for Ken in as quick and efficient manner as . . .”

No!

Even the normally unflappable Nambu looked briefly startled at Joe’s outburst, but then his features hardened again.

Before he could speak, however, Joe slammed his hand down on the console with a bang, scowling angrily.  “No!  You’re not keeping me from looking for Ken!”

“Joe . . .”

No.”  He looked down at his hand, now clenched into a fist so tight he could hear his knuckles creak.  “I am going to look for Ken!” His voice fell to a whisper, but it still sounded loud in the absolute quiet of the God Phoenix.  “I have to.”

“You will carry out my order,” Nambu replied coldly.  “Once I have your report, then you may search for Ken.”  His tone grew even icier and more disdainful as he went on, “And do not forget that it was your actions that have lead to this situation.” Joe flinched at that, still staring at the console.  “I will expect your signal in five minutes.”  The screen de-rezzed to blackness.

“You bastard,” Jinpei howled, straining against his sister’s hold.  “You fucking asshole! How could you!” Tears streaked his face.

Without a word, Joe turned and left the bridge.

He could hear Jinpei screaming faintly even through the door.  But most of his attention was focused inward.  He took a few slow steps down the corridor, then stopped.  One hand was still curled into a fist.  For a second, he wondered why he hadn’t hit anything, but then it was too late and his knuckles ached as he pulled his hand back from the wall.

His mind was running in an inescapable circle.  He was unable to break free of the thoughts that repeated themselves endlessly.  It was all he had heard since realizing that Ken had not returned with the others.

I killed Ken.  It looped over and over in his head, filled with guilt and a dreadful certainty.  I killed my brother . . . I killed Ken . . .

Nearly every night, in his nightmares, he relived finding his parents dead on that falsely peaceful beach, feeling something in him wither and die and not even knowing what it was, what it might have been . . .

He knew he would never have that nightmare again.

***

It was too damned quiet to sleep in the God Phonenix.  He was used to hearing the night noises of wherever he happened to be and have them sing him to sleep.  It was also too warm.  Not only was his trailer not soundproofed, it didn’t have an inch of insulation.

Joe lay sprawled across the narrow bed, staring at the bottom of the empty bunk above him.  The blankets twisted around his feet, and he wore only an old pair of pajama bottoms he’d found by chance in a drawer.

They’d searched until it was far too dark to see, and even then Ryu had had to threaten to find him and beat him unconscious if he didn’t return to the God Phoenix.  More than that, though, it had been the thought of forcing someone else, someone not to blame, to relay their failure to Nambu Hakase.  So he had faced their mentor’s displeasure, had endured his not-quite-abusive comments for the second time that day, and made the report.

He would have gone out again afterwards, too, but Nambu had ordered them to stop until it was light enough to see in the morning.  Once again, Ryu had made it clear that if he did not obey, bodily harm would be imminent.

Under other circumstances, it probably would have been funny.

Except that Jinpei was pointedly ignoring him, and Jun couldn’t even look at him the few times they spoke, and Ryu was completely unnerved by the day’s events, such that there had actually been a couple of times where the God Phoenix had come close to crashing.

It had been easy to let his rage at being pulled off the search spill over onto the others.  It was their fault.  They needed to sleep, they were weak, but he would go on until he dropped from exhaustion. 

But Nambu was concerned only with them.  And it made him burn.

He’d turned away from them and silently stalked away, not caring if they saw how furious he was, not caring what they thought of him in that instant.

He liked being angry; it was simple, it was familiar, it was almost comforting.

Seething, vision red, he hardly even noticed the flash of the de-transformation, the heat and the backlash doubled in the tiny bunkroom.  Fine, he thought resentfully, if the order is to sleep, I’ll obey . . . until I don’t feel like obeying.

His shoes slammed against the wall and fell to the floor, clattering noisily.  His shirt landed in a heap near the door, his jeans draped haphazardly over the small storage cabinet.  When he yanked open one of the drawers in the cabinet, he pulled so violently that it hopped its tracks and got stuck halfway open.

Growling, he drew out a pair of soft cotton sleeping pants.  When he flapped them open, though, they were unfamiliar.

They’re probably Ken’s was his first thought upon noticing, and he’d turned to ask if he could . . .

Then he’d slumped upon the bed and just sat for a long time, staring at the worn fabric, trying to think of nothing, trying to find his way back into the anger that had drained away so completely when he’d remembered.

But Ken was too much in his thoughts for that to work.

And now he was keeping Joe awake, too.

Joe pummeled his pillow flat and rolled over.

He knew—after everything that had happened today—that he should be exhausted.  He was exhausted.  But the heat and the quiet and the emptiness inside all combined to make sleep impossible.

Eventually, though, no matter how much the mind dreads falling asleep, how much it fights against it, the body demands rest.  Sunk deep in his own misery, Joe slipped from wakefulness to sleep.

Ken, his civvies in tatters, blood trickling down his face, reached out.  His hand was burnt, red and raw from the heat of the firestorm raging around him.  “Joe,” he yelled, his voice raspy and ruined by the curls of black smoke.  “Joe!”

Joe simply stood, horrified, his BirdStyle protecting him from the flames leaping and snapping.  He longed to take Ken’s hand, to pull him out of the blaze, but he could not, he was frozen.  Nambu Hakase’s words rang around him.

The flames roared, rose skyward, and devoured Ken, swallowing him in an instant

“KEN!” Suddenly he was able to move, and he reached frantically through the fire, shouting, screaming to be heard over the crackle.  He lost his balance and stumbled forward, diving headfirst through the fire.

When he looked up, there was Ken, uninjured, his BirdStyle gleamingly white, untouched by soot or smoke.  He smiled down at Joe, and stretched out one hand to help him up.  Joe’s hand trembled as he accepted.

“When have you ever obeyed an order that you really didn’t want to?”

Jolted out of sleep, breath locked in his lungs, he sat bolt upright, the top of his head just barely missing the bunk above him.  For a minute or two, he just panted, trying to calm his racing heart.  Air that he’d earlier thought too warm chilled him now, and he shivered, feeling the cold sweat run down his cheek, his back.  He ran his hands through his tousled hair, groaning.  “God, what a nightmare . . .”

The darkness pressed on him, almost reproachfully, and the guilt came swirling back, the knowledge that he was the one to blame sinking into him until it felt like it was imprinted on his skin, I killed Gatchaman.

“I didn’t mean it.  God, Ken, I didn’t mean it,” he said softly, repeated it over and over like a mantra, head bowed, hands fisted in the sheets.

But it didn’t help, because there was no answer.  Ken’s image did not float into the room, his voice did not magically sound from the walls, telling him he was forgiven.

“When have you ever obeyed an order that you really didn’t want to?”

He straightened too quickly, this time banging his head painfully on the bottom of the top bunk.  Something like hope twisted his heart, made it pound less heavily in his chest.  “Ken?” he called, softly, hesitantly, then caught himself and bit his lip.

No.  Ken is . . .Ken is . . .

Slowly, realization dawned on him.  Ken is the only reason I ever obeyed an order I didn’t want to.  And he’s not here.

Suddenly given purpose, Joe kicked his way free of the entangling covers, and felt his way around the tiny room, collecting his clothes.  He changed, making no sound, then, carrying his shoes, slipped silently out the door.  Shadow light, he flitted past the rooms where Jun and Jinpei and Ryu lay sleeping, down the dim corridor to the bridge.

Once there, safe, with at least one soundproofed and reinforced door behind him, he put on his shoes, then brought his arm around in an arc, whispering “Bird Go!”  The flash and tingle of the transformation swept over him, waves of heat that reminded him of his nightmare for a moment.

He shook it off, and worked quickly at the controls, programming it so that the nose of the God Phoenix to open and lower the G-2 at the same time the lift activated to take him to the top.  He wouldn’t have much time; the vibration, however faint, would likely wake Jun or Jinpei, and they would try to keep him from leaving.

But I need to go, he thought, his fingers flying over the console.  I need to find Ken.

And if I die while I’m out there looking . . . He shrugged the rest of the thought away.

A faint whirr told him that even distracted, he’d found the right controls, and he leapt for the lift, landing lightly, wings drawn tight around him.

Outside, the moon was a sliver, obscured by billowing smoke and clouds.  Uncertain beams filtered through the cover, making the ground look at once far away and too close.  Before he could be caught, he ran forward, slid down the truncated nose of the ship, and dropped to the ground with a knee-jarring thud.  Stumbling slightly, hand outstretched, he fell against the G-2 and let out a breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding.

His bracelet signaled as he climbed into the car, growing ever shriller as he peeled away from the God Phoenix and into the fires that were still burning around the remains of the mech.

I’ll find you, Ken.  I’ll find you or die trying.

He scoured the ground they had already searched, not caring about the fiery tree limbs that crashed down all around him, eyes darting this way and that for any hint of white or blue or blood red . . . Every time the flames danced, allowing him a glimpse of heat-distorted ground, his heart jumped, and then sank again when he realized that it wasn’t a human’s movement, that it wasn’t Ken.

Soon, the heat invaded the G-2, and sweat ran down his face, stinging his eyes, making them burn.

All the while, his bracelet pinged, and he had to suppress the automatic response his body wanted to make, to lift it to his mouth and reply.  If he didn’t respond, then he could pretend that he’d never heard the signal, that the heat had shorted out the communicator somehow.

After a few hours, his bracelet began to beep less and less frequently, and Joe knew the others were starting to wonder if he was still alive.

He just drove on.  It was hard to care what the others thought.  They’ll probably be better off without me anyway, Galactor-born and bred . . .

But it was only as the sky was starting to lighten with a false dawn that it suddenly occurred to him why.

His hands clenched on the steering wheel, slick inside against the leather of the BirdStyle.  It’s me.  The rest of them . . . they can probably function with a new leader, a new Gatchaman, if Hakase can find one.  They could even make it without me, if I don’t come back.  But I can’t go on without Ken.  I . . . I need him.

The car forged on without his conscious direction for a few seconds as he sat stunned in the wake of his revelation.

Well, he thought somewhat dazedly, at least that explains why I’m willing to die out here . . . He had a dim suspicion that there was more to it than just that, but he shied away from following that idea; it felt like it was marked “Keep Out!” with electrified barbed wire fence surrounding it.

Joe came back to himself just in time to notice that the ground stopped a few yards in front of the nose of the car, and skidded to a stop inches from the edge.  He sighed in relief and looked around.

It appeared that he’d left the worst of the fire behind and below him, so he got out of the car, morbid curiosity leading him to see how far he would have fallen.

The cliff was hardly worthy of the name; the ground fell perhaps 10 feet, and then continued on, sloping slightly downwards and leading into what appeared to be a small canyon.  Rock walls rose sharply on three sides, protecting the grass and trees here from the blaze.  A small stand of trees clustered along the far wall, rustling faintly in the fire-induced wind.

Joe felt his mouth fall open as he stared down into the canyon.  There was a flash of white just in front of the trees.  “Ken!” he shouted, and jumped, heedless of the rocks that littered the ground beneath him.

He landed badly, but ran anyway, ignoring the pain that told him he’d twisted an ankle.  A few strides and he flung himself to the ground beside Ken, tearing off his helmet and reaching out with shaking hands.

Ken lay on his stomach, unconscious.  His arms were outstretched over his head, one bent at an unnatural angle.  He wore his civilian clothes, and when he gingerly moved Ken’s broken arm, Joe could see why; the bracelet had been smashed, its face completely destroyed.  A dark splotch shone wetly in the darkness against the white of his jeans, telling of a wound along the back of his leg.

But he was alive; when Joe ripped off his glove and pressed his fingers on the side of Ken’s throat, his skin was warm, pulse steady, and breath ruffled against his hand when he touched Ken’s face.

“Ken?  Ken, wake up!” Carefully, Joe rolled him onto his back, praying to the God he’d grown up with that Ken had no internal injuries that he was making worse.  “Ken!”

Ken stirred, groaned, and tried to toss his hand aside.  “Not now, Joe,” he ordered weakly.  “Shimatta, my head hurts . . .”

Without even knowing what he was doing, Joe pulled Ken up by his shoulders and hugged him tightly, burying his face in the other’s smoke-scented hair. 

Ken hissed as the movement jarred his broken arm.  “Joe?”

Joe pulled away immediately.  “How badly are you hurt?”

He watched as Ken took stock of himself.  “Broken arm, fractured ribs, probably.  Don’t think my leg is broken, but it hurts . . .”

Joe laid him back down, trying not to notice Ken’s obvious pain as his arm was jostled again.  “Don’t move.  Just wait.”

Ken closed his eyes.  “You’re the one who moved me, idiot,” he muttered, but he was smiling slightly as he spoke.

For some reason, it coaxed an answering smile out of him.  “G-5,” he said into his bracelet, “this is G-2 . . .”

***

Joe slammed the car door and looked up at the ISO medical building with trepidation.

It was time to confess to Ken what had happened.  At least, he won’t be able to kill me outright, as injured as he is . . . The knife twisted a little bit deeper when he recalled just how Ken had come to receive those injuries.

After an elevator ride that was just long enough to tie his stomach into knots with dread, he knocked on the door to Ken’s room and entered without waiting for a summons.

Ken was sitting up in his bed, a bandage around his head, arm in a sling, scowling at a nurse and a tray of hospital food that was unappetizing even from where Joe stood.

“Joe!  Tell her that this stuff isn’t fit to feed pigs!”

Joe caught the nurse giving him evil eye and said warily, “What is it supposed to be?”

Instead of answering, the nurse sniffed and took the tray away.  “You’ll eat when you’re hungry enough!” Grumbling about difficult patients under her breath, she stomped away and did not quite slam the door behind her.

Ken relaxed slightly.  “I don’t know which is worse; the food or the care.”

Somewhat stiffly, Joe assumed his usual position, leaning up against the wall, arms crossed.  All the things that he’d been avoiding thinking about for the past 28 hours were starting to demand his attention once more.

“Joe?” Ken gave him a concerned look.  “Are you all right?”

Joe nodded shortly in response, and stood away from the wall.  He paused for a second; what he was about to do was completely foreign to him.  But it was . . . right.  He bowed his head and said clearly, “I’m sorry.”

Looking through his lashes, he saw Ken’s jaw drop.  There was absolutely no sound for moments, though Ken’s mouth was working.

Finally, Ken found his voice.  “Sorry for what?

Joe blinked and straightened, surprised.  Ken had sounded puzzled more than anything.  “I fired the BirdMissile without . . .”

Ken frowned thoughtfully.  “You often do, and you never say you’re sorry . . .”

He fought against biting his lip.  “I didn’t know you were still on the mech when I took the shot!  I thought I saw the three of you . . .”

Ever since finding Ken, he’d been trying to think of a way to explain what had happened, and even some of what he had felt, because there was no way to justify what he had done and why without getting into the whole of it.  As early as the return journey to Utoland, he’d been testing out words, as Ken lay unconscious in the sickbay to escape his pain.

Somehow, it was all wrapped up in the reasons why he had not been able to release Ken’s hand for the entire flight, why he knew he would not be able to go on without him, but he still had not discovered the courage to go into that fenced off area.

“You did.”

“What?” Startled out of his thoughts, Joe just stared.

Ken grinned at his confusion.  “You did see the three of us.  I was a few seconds behind Jun and Jinpei.  Somehow, when I jumped out, I caught a different air current.  It angled me down to the mountain rather than back to the God Phoenix.  When I heard the explosion, I knew you had fired the Bird Missile, and then the concussion wave caught me and threw me off course even more.  I think I fell onto some rocks, but I’m not sure, because I knocked my head against something.  That must be when the bracelet got smashed, too.”  He shrugged, as if unconcerned.

Joe slumped back against the wall, distantly grateful for some kind of support.  “Oh, God . . .”

All that guilt and pain and thinking you were . . .

Ken was eyeing him worriedly again.  “Sit down before you fall down,” he ordered, pointing to the chair by his bed.

Joe shook his head, unable to move his legs to obey.  “I thought I’d killed you,” he said in a low voice.  “I thought you were . . .”

He heard a shuffling noise, but before he could identify it, Ken was standing in front of him, somewhat unsteadily.  Wearing an uncertain smile that did not reach his eyes, Ken said, “It will take a lot more than that to kill Gatchaman, brother.”

After a moment, Joe summoned an answering smile, and nodded.  Ken wrapped him in a rough one-armed embrace, which he reciprocated awkwardly, remembering Ken’s fractured ribs.

When Ken released him and limped back to the bed, Joe shook himself inwardly.  Act normal, he thought firmly.  Nothing’s normal yet, but it will be soon.

Whatever lurked behind the “Keep Out!” sign in his mind could wait until later.  I’ll deal with it later.  After the spots in my vision go away.  I’ll deal with it then.

~owari