Disclaimer: Gatch belongs to Tatsunoko Pro.  I just like making pretty boys angst.

The Way of the World

The gunshot could have been the sound of the end of the world.

Experience had taught Ken that a single bullet, unexpected, was even more deadly than the spray of gunfire that he faced every day.  So he just reacted, instinct following training, and dropped to the hard metal floor for an instant before springing back to his feet, prepared for further battle.

He spun just in time to see the Galactor – I thought they were all dead – slump back down into death, the gun clattering from his hand.   And he let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding; Joe was all right, glowering at the mook’s body as if it was a personal affront that the mook hadn’t died when he was supposed to.

For a vague second, he wondered why he hadn’t feltheard the bullet zipping past him, close enough that even he could have heard Death laughing his name

Only when he looked again and saw the way the goon had been facing did Ken realize that not only had the goon not been aiming at him, but he hadn’t heard a ricochet; had, in fact, heard the dull thwack of the bullet hitting flesh and Joe’s low grunt.  He beat down the sudden surge of fear – oh, God, not again, please don’t let him die again, I couldn’t stand it – with every bit of Gatchaman’s icy calm he could muster, and took two steps toward him, intent only on getting them out before Joe lost consciousness from blood loss.

But there was no blood on Joe’s leathers, only the hole the bullet had punched, and Ken frowned, unable to understand why.  “Joe…”

Joe jerked, as if he’d forgotten Ken was even there, and glanced up at him.  His eyes were wide behind the visor, as wide as it felt his own were, and almost absently, he pressed a hand to his side, as if to stem the blood that wasn’t there.

Then he seemed to crumble, not physically, because he was still on his feet, amazingly enough, but his shoulders slumped with some great weight coming down on him, and his face…

It should be a mortal wound, Ken couldn’t help thinking, staring at where the blood wasn’t.  He should be bleeding out…

Joe turned away from him, head bowed, shoulders hunched beneath his cape.  “Come on,” he said, and Ken had to strain to hear him.  “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

All the doubts and fears he’d had about Joe since he’d come back, all the weird things he’d ruthlessly ignored because it was Joe surged up and choked him and morphed immediately into rage.  Whoever – whatever – this was, it couldn’t be Joe.  With a cry, he attacked, leaping for the other’s back.  “You son of a bitch!”

But Joe (it wasn’t Joe, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him as Joe) spun around, moving too fast, and Ken couldn’t dodge.  They fell to the floor, Ken underneath as Joe used his own momentum against him to flip him over.  He struggled to break Joe’s grip, and discovered, with dawning horror, that he couldn’t.

“Ken, what the fuck are you doing?” Joe hissed, trying to subdue him, using more brute strength than Ken knew he’d ever been capable, and cementing for him that this couldn’t be Joe.

“Shut up, you fucking bastard!”  Ken thrashed beneath him with more fury than skill.  “You’re not him, you don’t get to wear his face!”

Joe reared back, his expression one of utter shock.  Ken got one hand free and jabbed upward, flat-palm-strike against that cleft chin. 

It had no effect, other than making his arm tingle from fingers to shoulder.

Joe caught his hand and pinned it once more, his face tight in anger.  “Now is not the time for this, Ken,” he growled, and it triggered a sense memory that Ken could have really done without.  Joe on top of him, chest to naked chest, groin to groin, grinding, thrusting, groaning…

He froze and turned away, unable to look at Joe – no, this person wearing Joe’s face – for another second.  It was only then that he became aware of the tears, hot and bitter on his face.  “I don’t know who you are,” he spat.  “I don’t care.  But you’re not Joe.”

He could hear the other’s breathing, harsh and fast.  The moment stretched on, broken only when Joe started to laugh.  The sound of it brought Ken’s gaze back to him, his mouth gaping open.  The pressure on his wrists slackened, but before he could gather himself to heave Joe off, Joe slid off of his own accord to collapse on the floor, shaking with laughter more than a little hinged with hysteria.

Slowly, Ken sat up, denying the urge to rub his wrists and restore the circulation in his hands.  He gathered his wings close around him as he stood, and stared down at the back that had been so familiar.

The laughter died away even as he gained his feet.  “You don’t know how right you are, Ken,” Joe said softly.  “I used to be… but I’m not anymore.”

“Explain,” Ken ordered.  He fought for Gatchaman’s cold demeanor, unfazed and unflappable, and knew he’d achieved it when a shiver ran through Joe’s wings.

“Doctor Rafael found me at Kross Karakorum,” Joe said without looking at him, and Ken had to forcibly stop that awful memory from playing in his mind.  “He gave me cybernetic implants… turned me into a machine.”

“A cyborg.”  Ken’s brain started ticking off the strange things he’d tried so hard to discount after Joe had returned; all the times he’d cursed himself for his paranoia when that had saved them so often.  He didn’t want us to know, he thought, and just that quick, this was Joe again, because that was exactly what Joe would do, what he had done.

The way the sense of betrayal filled his throat was so familiar.   “Why didn’t you say something?”

Joe laughed, a short bark of humorless sound.  “And what, Ken?” he asked, his tone as flat and heavy as Ken had ever heard it. “Have Nambu Hakase poking and prodding at me?  Have everyone distrust me because I’m not human anymore, or… or worse?”  He swallowed and Ken knew, because he just knew Joe, what Joe would think was worse than distrust – pity.  He hadn’t wanted it then; he wouldn’t want it now.

“Sorry,” Ken muttered guiltily, then wondered what he was apologizing for.  He kept this from… from all of us, he thought, anger still simmering beneath the surface.  I’m… we’re the injured parties here, not him.  I shouldn’t want to forgive him, not for this.

Somehow, though, that Joe had been keeping this secret or that he was a cyborg didn’t seem to matter quite so much compared to the fact that he was alive.

He held out one hand, silent offer for a hand up.  Joe shot him a wary look, as if expecting it to be the prelude to resuming their fight, but took it anyway and let Ken haul him to his feet.

“Let’s go,” was all Ken said, and he didn’t wait for Joe to respond before he dashed for the corridor.  He couldn’t figure out just what he wanted to hear from Joe – an apology, a protest, a challenge – so he wasn’t going to take any chances.  He’d gone as far as he could, as far as he dared.  At least, he amended, hearing Joe’s footsteps behind him, for right now.

If nothing else, he could still trust Joe to watch his back, because Joe was still Joe beneath it all.  All the rest… well, the world’s still turning, he thought, and pushed all his confusion into a corner to deal with later, when there was time for the thousand and one things he felt for Joe.

Right now, the world needed Gatchaman.  So did Ken.

July 20, 2009
© randi (K. Shepard), 2009