Five young people slumped in their seats, their bodies drooping with physical and mental exhaustion. The Science Ninja Team had just returned from a three-day mission. A successful mission… in the broadest definition of the word. They had accomplished their goal of locating Galactor's secret base and demolishing it, as well as destroying the mecha housed within. But it had been a long and arduous task, and not without error. Discomfort and disagreements had mixed with impatience and frustration, creating an environment amongst the Team that was both stressful and detrimental to their usual cohesiveness.
They needed a break.
"I see." Dr. Nambu said dryly, after Ken had recapped the events of the past thirty-six hours for him. Gatchaman had included the salient points, but had left out many of the background details. Still, it was clear from the Doctor's face that he had been able to read between the lines of Ken's edited explanation.
"I'll leave things in your hands, Ken." Nambu said, pushing his chair back from his desk and standing up. His eyes briefly swept over the rest of the Team before he exited the room.
Joe sighed heavily. He was too worn out to assume his usual standing position, although he was leaning back with his arms crossed, his body buried in his wings. Next to him, Ryu slumped over onto his arm, which was leaning on the back of the sofa. Jun huddled with Jinpei on the opposite side of the room, the Swan cradling the Swallow on her lap. Jinpei almost looked as if he had already fallen asleep. Between them was Ken, rising from his chair, doing his best to shake off the bone-numbing fatigue that encompassed them all, but failing badly.
"I want to go home…" Jinpei moaned, his face half-buried in Jun's arm.
"I'm hungry…" Ryu added.
"No one's going anywhere." Ken announced.
"I have a race tomorrow." Joe grumbled. "I just want to get back to my trailer and crash."
"What Ken's saying makes sense, Joe." Jun admonished. "None of us are in any position to drive home. Crash here at the Crescent Base and leave for your race in the morning."
"That's not what I meant." Ken snapped angrily. The others looked up at him in tired surprise.
"Huh?" Jinpei was unable to form any more coherent thought.
"We're all staying here, because first thing in the morning, we're going to go back to training." Ken ordered.
"What?" Ryu sat up in shock. "What are you talking about, Ken? With the hell we've been through for the past three days, we don't need any training right now!"
"Yeah, Galactor's going to be quiet for at least a week now, what with the setback we handed them." Jinpei agreed, yawning.
"I need to open the Snack." Jun worried. "I've been closed all week, and if I don't open tomorrow night, I'll have trouble scraping enough money together for the rent."
"Train yourself, if that's what you want, but I'm not staying." Joe muttered in disgust.
"You don't really understand what happened on this mission, do you?" Ken shouted. "Jinpei, you were sloppy and careless! Half the time you were missing your targets, and twice those goons caught you from behind!"
"Hey, I wasn't…!" the Swallow began to protest, but Gatchaman's attention was already directed elsewhere.
"Jun, you kept venturing too far from the Team! How are we supposed to cover each other if you're on the opposite side of the room?"
"You're one to talk, always flying up to the ceiling!" Jun huffed.
"Don't say anything to me, Ken! I was on the God Phoenix the whole time, remember?" Ryu sulked, crossing his arms defiantly over his chest.
"And still, you couldn't answer our calls! How long did it take you to…?"
"All right! All right!" Ryu threw his hands into the air. "I was taking a nap! It had been more than twenty-four hours since I'd slept okay?"
"And Joe," the Eagle turned to address the Condor, "you're too reckless, off doing your own thing. How the hell are we suppose to remain a team if I don't know where the hell you are?"
"Look, I was doing my job, okay?" Joe snarled. "Killing Galactors and clearing the room. Same thing you were doing."
"We need to get back to basics." Ken lectured sternly, in an unconscious imitation of Red Impulse's superior tone. "We need to remember how to work together. Fatigue and stress are no excuse for sloppy work! We can't do our job if we're all over the place, and not acting consistently…"
"If we act consistently, then Galactor figures out what we're going to do, and it's all over, Ken." Joe snapped. He had had enough. All he wanted was some rest, and here Ken was dishing out a lecture for all he was worth. The Condor stood up. He didn't need this.
"I'm leaving." Joe announced.
"The hell you are!" Ken shouted. "Dr. Nambu left this in my hands, Joe. I'm ordering you to remain on base and attend training tomorrow!"
"All hail, Gatchaman." Joe saluted sardonically, snapping his heels together to emphasize his point. "We all know who 'Number One' is around here."
"Just make sure you're here in the morning." Ken growled, stalking out of the room.
"What were you thinking, Joe?" Ryu berated. "You know there's no dealing with Ken when he gets in a mood like that!"
"You should know better, Joe!" Jinpei agreed.
"Leave him alone!" Jun cried, burying her face in her hands. "Joe only said what we were all thinking. Ken's been too heavy-handed with us lately." A shocked silence took over the room, as Jinpei struggled to sit up.
"Onechan…?" he asked quietly, tentatively placing a hand on Jun's shoulder.
"Did she actually criticize Ken?" Ryu stared up at Joe in astonishment.
"Don't look at me like that! You know it's true." Jun sighed sadly. "I've tried to talk some sense into Ken, but he won't listen. He doesn't take me seriously." Her voice was laced with bitterness.
"At least you tried, Onechan." Jinpei clumsily attempted to soothe his older sister.
"Let's get some pizza at the cafeteria, Jinpei." Ryu suggested, not so subtly pulling the boy away from the couch. "Give Jun some time to rest."
"Okay." Jinpei agreed, for once taking a hint.
"You coming, Joe?" Ryu asked.
"I'm just going to crash." Joe replied. "You go on ahead."
"Whatever you say." Ryu shrugged, before leaving with Jinpei.
Jun sat in silence as the other two departed. Joe turned toward the door himself, but then thought better of it. His eyebrow rose slightly as he contemplated the Swan.
"You know, I probably could use something to eat." he said offhandedly. "But not with those two yahoos bouncing off the walls." Jun sniffed quietly, still not looking his way. Joe's minimal patience ran out.
"Let's go." he said, pulling at Jun's arm. She acquiesced, following him out the door and down the corridor to the small break room the Science Ninja Team used when they were on base. When the door had closed, Joe swung his left wrist around his face, detransforming in a flash of light, noting that Jun had woodenly followed his example.
Without a word, Joe opened the cabinets, rifling through them. As he had expected, there were a few containers of cup noodles, packaged peanut butter and crackers, and microwave popcorn. The fridge held a few sodas and condiments.
"Ramen, Skippy, or Reddenbacher?" Joe asked, tossing the dry food onto the nearby table where Jun had already seated herself.
"Just some hot chocolate." Jun murmured softly. But she picked up one of the cracker packages and began unwrapping the cellophane.
Joe shrugged, tossing a package of Nestle mix over in Jun's direction, before placing a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Almost immediately, a buttery smell emerged and began to fill the room. He took a can of soda from the fridge, breaking it open and taking a long swallow. He sat down at the table, where Jun was already mixing her cocoa into a mug of hot water with an orange, plastic stick.
"So how long have you been feeling this way?" Joe asked, just as Jun took her first sip. It was good timing on his part, as she was able to take a moment to think about her answer before responding.
"A few weeks." Jun admitted. "As Jinpei said, Ken changed after his father died. I thought maybe, after what I said in that ice chamber…" Her voice drifted off, and Joe was brought back with her in time, recalling that moment when Ken's insanity in the wake of his father's death had gotten the entire Team trapped inside a pit of melting ice.
"None of you could possibly understand." Ken cried. "They killed my father… before I had a chance to know him!"
"Crybaby!" Jun shouted.
"What?" Ken was clearly shocked to hear Jun speaking to him this way.
"My Dad! My Dad!" she mocked in a high-pitched voice. "How long are you going to keep whining like a child? You're not the only one here who lost their parents. Joe did, Jinpei did, and I did too!" The Swan spoke as if she were lecturing the Swallow for irresponsible behavior.
"Take a good look at Jinpei." Jun continued, barely noticing the outrage on Ken's face. "He's at the age where he needs his parents the most, but he's never whined about it once. You're acting like you're the lone hero of some kind of Greek tragedy!"
Ken gasped, unable to believe what he was hearing.
"How can you call yourself the Leader of the Science Ninja Team?" Jun demanded. "You're just a crybaby! A coward!"
She might have continued berating the Eagle, but at that moment another part of the wall burst open with a thunderous crash.
"I hated doing that," Jun admitted, "but at the time, I knew it was the only thing that could snap him out of it. And for a few hours afterward, it was like we had the old Ken back. But ever since then…"
"He's been on edge." Joe finished for her, standing up to retrieve the now-cooked bag of popcorn. "Any little thing sets him off. He's more difficult to live with than ever."
"I tried talking to him again… in private." Jun admitted. "He doesn't want to hear it. He barely speaks to me anymore. Joe, do you think you could…?"
"I don't know." Joe sighed. "We've had these conversations before. Ken doesn't like it when I question his leadership."
"You're not questioning his leadership…" Jun protested.
"That's how Ken sees it." Joe replied. "There's not much else I can do." The flash of hope in Jun's eyes died, and something snapped inside of him.
"I'll try again." he promised rashly.
"Thank you." Jun smiled, and for the first time in days, she looked like her usual self.