Disclaimer: Gatchaman belongs to Tatsunoko Productions. This was inspired when I heard the song as done by the group Pinmonkey, though Cyndi Lauper recorded it first.
I Drove All Night
It was only when he was blinded by the glare of the rising sun that Joe realized he’d been on the road all night.
He hadn’t even noticed the passing of time, the gradual lightening of the sky toward morning. If a DJ talked longer than it took to announce the next song, he changed the station with hardly a second thought. Music, gotta have music. He’d never heard any announcement of the hour, and had no watch at which to glance. He just knew it had been late when he’d left the hospital . . .
The car swerved slightly, and he looked at his hands in shock. They’re shaking . . .
Trying to get his bearings, he slowed down, searching for a sign or some other marker. There was nothing. He was on an obscure old highway, winding its way though a hilly countryside that was completely unfamiliar. There was no other traffic. He was quite alone.
“Forgive me, Joe. We swore we’d die together, and now I’m leaving you here alone . . .”
Abruptly, with those words spoken so long ago and nearly forgotten, everything he’d been successfully avoiding thinking about all night overwhelmed him. He pulled off to the side of the road, and sat there, staring blindly at his hands again, white-knuckled in their death grip on the steering wheel, and willing himself to stop trembling.
God, it’s not like I haven’t faced death a thousand times . . . why is it so different this time?
But he already knew the answer to that. Because it’s not me this time. It’s because it’s Ken . . . my Ken . . . He closed his eyes, bent his head to rest on his hands.
No matter how the remnants of the ISO had tried to keep it quiet, word had eventually leaked out. The world now knew that, though the threat of Galactor was over, the Eagle still fought for his life, ravaged by the deadly illness the Hypershoot had given him. It knew that the Ninja Tai kept a constant vigil. And it held its breath, waiting for Gatchaman to triumph once more. But no one could imagine the toll the past few days had taken on the team, especially on Joe.
Pure hell to see you so weak, koibito, so close to . . . He shook his head to jar the thought away. He would not think it.
Thinking it would make it real.
Joe had lived at the hospital since he’d carried Ken in. The others cycled in and out, often there for hours, doing nothing but sitting with Ken and waiting for an update on his condition, but Joe had refused to leave until Jun ordered him to leave. She added that if he didn’t leave voluntarily, she was going to throw him out, cyborg strength notwithstanding. He had no doubt she’d try.
She’d tried the first night, too- though she’d been much nicer about it then- had told him that Ken needed him to be well when he woke up, had sent him back to the airfield.
But he couldn’t face that empty house alone, all of Ken’s belongings strewn haphazardly about, Ken’s scent on the pillow . . . The moment he’d lain down, it had surrounded him. He could almost- almost- pretend that Ken was with him . . . but he knew that when he reached out, Ken would not be there, and the heartache that accompanied that knowledge was more than he could stand. He’d stared up at the darkness for about five minutes and then got back up and returned to the hospital. Jun had glared at him like she wanted to argue his presence, but he ignored her and picked up Ken’s limp hand once more.
Last night, she’d made another attempt, and rather than cause a row, he left. But he knew he couldn’t go back to a place that wasn’t home without Ken. There was no fighting it- it just couldn’t be done. So he drove.
He was tired- he’d been tired for days, snatching an hour of sleep here or there, ever since their return from Sosai Z’s body in space- but he wasn’t nearly worn out enough to be able to sleep in the bed he shared with Ken.
So now I’m here, he thought, in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve got to get back . . . He let the car slowly creep forward, looking for any spot he could turn around and start his return journey.
But the narrow road was cut out from the side of the hill, with rocks and ledge on the one side, and a long drop to the river below on the other. It continued to climb, twisting its way forward.
Then, unexpectedly, it widened, flattened. On the opposite side of the road, the edge side, there was a small open area, with a discreet sign labeling it a “scenic overlook”. Gratefully, he pulled across and started to swing the car around . . . and stopped. It wasn’t because of the vista, because he’d seen places at least this beautiful and not been moved. He’d misjudged the width of the space, and nearly crashed into the fence defining the rim of the overlook.
Not good ran through his mind, and he sighed at the inanity of the thought. Not good at all . . . He backed up a few feet and straightened out, then paused, letting the motor idle again.
He was tired, tired enough that he really shouldn’t be driving. That he’d made it this far without an accident was mostly luck and empty road. He could sleep in the car; he’d done it often enough.
But the real attraction was to escape the real world for a few hours, and meet Ken, his Ken, not-sick, not-injured, not-duty-above-all-else, in his dreams . . .
That was what decided him. He killed the motor and climbed into the back seat. Several young trees clustered on the edge of the slope, just outside of the fence, and they dappled the car with green and golden light. It shone brightly through the windows.
The light did not bother Joe, though. He closed his eyes, telling himself to remember a happier time, to erase the sight of Ken bandaged and unmoving and surrounded by the machines that helped him cling to life. If he did, then perhaps, when he fell asleep, he could dream of that time . . .
But his mind would not shift from the memory of a day not long ago. The last time we spent alone together . . .
It had started as a lazy afternoon, neither of them inclined to do anything. He’d initiated a bit of gentle foreplay, but quickly abandoned it when he saw how exhausted Ken was. Instead, he had just held him, trying to enjoy a day without duty, days that came all too infrequently of late.
At the bottom of it all, it was enough just to be able to hold him, to know that he was still alive.
It was obvious that Ken knew what he’d been about. In the darkened bedroom, his blue eyes were luminous, almost fevered, though his skin was cool when Joe touched his face.
He could almost taste the disappointment Ken felt when he changed his kisses from softly demanding to simply soft, when his hands slowly stopped roving to merely embrace him.
Even when Joe closed his eyes, he could still feel that intense gaze upon him. “How are you feeling?” he asked quietly.
Ken had taken so long to answer that Joe had opened his eyes again, to see if he’d fallen asleep. But he was obviously taking the question seriously, his brow slightly furrowed.
Ken opened his mouth, hesitated, then shook his head. “I’m not getting any better.”
“Don’t say that!” Joe growled immediately.
Ken had only reached up to brush Joe’s face, his fingers feather light. “But I’m not,” he murmured. “We need to face the fact that I might . . .”
Joe could not let him finish. There, in the darkened bedroom, his eyes glowing like sapphires, Ken had the power to determine his fate, and for one crazy, desperate moment, he truly believed that if Ken said the word, it would happen.
Instead, unable to order him to stop, he’d crushed Ken to his chest, effectively cutting him off, and began to kiss him hungrily. There was little gentleness in this lovemaking, driven as it was by the need to show Ken that there was reason yet to live.
And when he’d sobbed his climax into Ken’s neck, he’d heard Ken whisper, “I love you,” and thought he’d understood. It had been the last time Ken had tried to talk to him about . . .
He fell asleep, wondering if Ken had understood his actions.
When he awoke again, the saplings were casting long shadows, and the sun was dropping westward. He swung himself upright and got out of the car to stretch.
Sleep had not been entirely restful. Vague memories of Ken facing Z had haunted his dreams, as had images of him lying pale and weak in the hospital bed. But it had helped some.
He slid back into the front seat and started the engine, then he noticed his phone blinking unobtrusively at him.
In an instant, dread filled him, and his hand hovered over it for several seconds before he picked it up. Why didn’t it . . . he wondered briefly, then saw it was set to silent mode.
“Joe, where the hell are you? I tried the house, but you didn’t pick up there, either.” He paused, and his voice hitched slightly when he went on. “You . . . you’d better hurry back . . .”
Before Ryu had even finished, Joe had thrown the car in gear and peeled out, once again narrowly missing the fence that lined the overlook. The phone, tossed into the passenger seat, continued to replay.
“Joe? I’m so sorry. I think I know now why you didn’t want to leave. We’re all taking turns sitting with Ken, to keep him company. We keep telling him that you’ll be here soon, that you just went home to catch up on some sleep. But . . . please hurry . . .”
“Joe no aniki! Damn it, where are you? Ken no aniki really needs you!”
Joe gritted his teeth at the desperate tone in Jinpei’s voice, trying to deny the fear building inside him, and tromped down hard on the gas. The car took off like a bullet, the phone sliding across the seat and cracking into the door.
His thoughts were so scattered that he was many miles down the road before he remembered the phone again, realized that he could call and demand to know Ken’s condition. Cursing his stupidity, he dove off the road and onto the shoulder, and began fishing for the phone. It had slipped down between the passenger’s seat and the door. Recovering it, he punched in the hospital’s number. It was only when he held it up to his ear that he realized something was wrong- there was no tone. He pulled it back to study it, and realized that the antenna was hanging by a thread of plastic to the rest of the phone. It had snapped upon crashing into the door. Swearing roughly, he tossed the useless device out the window and took off again.
Time dragged by, no matter how fast he drove. The scenery was a blur, the other vehicles on the road mere obstacles to be gotten around. All that mattered was getting back to Ken as quickly as he could.
Even so, it had been full dark for hours when he screeched to a stop in the hospital parking lot. He charged up the front steps, taking them three at a time, and practically threw his badge at the guard who tried to stay him. “Get out of my way,” he snarled, pushing past the suddenly terrified guard.
He burst into Ken’s hospital room and stumbled to a stop, having run full speed from the elevators. Doctors and nurses clustered around Ken’s bed, unmoving, but giving the impression that all motion had suddenly ceased. His teammates were huddled to one side, Jinpei clinging pathetically to his sister, Ryu with his arms around both him and Jun. They were . . . Oh, God, Joe thought numbly, they’re crying. They’re crying . . .
And above it all, he could hear a high-pitched whine, a beep sustained too long . . .
Then it stopped, and a heavy silence descended, broken only by Jun and Jinpei’s suppressed sobs. The doctor paused, head bent, his finger still on the power switch of the EKG. “Log it,” he ordered quietly, just loud enough to be heard. One of the nurses gasped. “11:52 PM.”
Joe couldn’t move. All he could do was stand rooted to the spot, grabbing onto the doorframe for support, his mouth open in shock. No, you can’t. The thought ran through his head over and over. God, Ken, you can’t . . .
No matter how often Ken had voiced his concern that he might die, Joe had refused to believe that he actually would. It just wouldn’t happen; he was the eternal Eagle.
He couldn’t imagine a world without Ken in it. He couldn’t imagine living without him . . .
The medical personnel filed out of the room, stunned looks glazing many faces, and left the team alone with their fallen. Joe lurched forward, eyes burning. Ken’s warmth was already fading, his hand chill when Joe picked it up. He grasped it tightly between his own, trying to force life back into Ken by his will alone.
But after a moment, it was painfully obvious that all that was left was a shell. Slowly, Joe fell to his knees and rested his forehead against their joined hands. Too softly for the others to hear, he whispered, “I drove all night, koibito. I drove all night, and I couldn’t . . .”
October 8, 2003
Revised December 6, 2003