Ken considered skipping the Snack J. Did he really need to repeat the usual pain? He didn't want to be alone, though. It was a mistake, but he still opened the door, stepping inside.
"Hey, Ken!" Jun smiled brightly, her gaze sweeping over him as only a trained ninja's could.
He saw her take in the lack of card, candies, or flowers in the span of a glance. Her smile dimmed, and he hated himself for being the reason. "Hey, Jun."
"So," she said with a forced casualness, "any plans?"
Drinking himself stupid? No, of all days, Ken knew that would end in disaster. Wrapping himself in his cowardice, he continued the lie. "Not really. Should I have plans?"
"Apparently not." Jun dried a glass viciously. He was surprised it didn't snap or shatter.
The bell rang as someone came in. Ken knew who it was without turning, unsure whether he'd heard that deep voice from outside, or just the particular way Joe opened the door. A moment later, Ken smelled Joe's cologne, masculine and sporty.
"Well don't you look nice," said Jun, her tone a bit overly enthusiastic.
Joe sat next to him. He did look nice, he'd dressed up for the occasion. When Jun turned to get him a drink, Ken ignored the elbow jabbing his side, and Joe's sharp look. Yes, he knew he was an ass. No, it wasn't for the reason they all thought.
"So who's the lucky girl?" Jun set Joe's drink out in a flourish.
"You don't know her." Joe took a swig, smirking as Jun slammed a glass of tap water in front of Ken.
Closing his eyes, Ken breathed in the hated cologne. Joe always had a date for Valentine's, and he always wore cologne for his dates. As far as Ken was concerned, though, Joe always smelled best fresh off the track. The heady mix of high octane and adrenaline screamed Joe like nothing else.
"Where are you taking her?"
Ken kept his eyes closed. He knew the drill. Each question, she'd flick a glance as sharp as any shuriken at him. Every answer, Joe would do the same.
"Little Italian place. Then maybe back to my trailer."
Cue Joe's rakish grin. Ken's stomach hopped the tilt-a-whirl, on the upswing getting butterflies, then dropping down. That look would never be for him.
"Where she'll try to kill him!" Jinpei's footsteps suddenly scrambled. Without looking, Ken could picture Jun and Joe both swatting at the kid, who just cackled and retreated into the kitchen.
"That's half the fun," Joe muttered, voice dripping with sarcasm. "And they say romance is dead."
Silence. They were staring at him, he was sure. Could they see he was being petty, hoping Joe's date went badly? Why couldn't Jun just move on? Why couldn't she accept that he wasn't interested?
Ken knew, though, that blaming her wasn't fair. Playing dumb was an easy fall-back, the coward's way out. He did it with ease, always wondering how people believed the leader of a crack strike team could be so entirely clueless.
"Where's Ryu?" Joe shifted in his seat, cloth rustling.
"He had a date." Jun's tone had lightened.
Joe chuckled. "Good for him. Well, I gotta go. Wish me luck."
"Good luck, Joe."
Ken let out a non-committal grunt, definitely not adding his sentiments. He should sit Jun down tonight. He should tell her everything, so that next year, he wouldn't hear her sadness and know it was his fault.
With another elbow to Ken's side, Joe left. This year he'd do it. This year he'd tell her.
This year …
Fuck it. Ken sighed, getting up. "Sorry, I'm not great company tonight. See you later."
Jun looked at him with concern. "If you're not feeling well …"
"I'm fine." He was just a coward. "Happy Valentine's Day, Jun."
Ken could feel her gaze on his back as he left. She deserved better than this, better than this permanent limbo, but he couldn't do it. Telling her that he was gay didn't just involve upsetting her. That was bad enough, but he knew it would be temporary, and she'd move on.
No, the problem was that she might tell Joe, who might guess the truth. If that happened, it would ruin everything. He couldn't risk that. He couldn't lose his best friend.
Joe could never know he was in love with him.
Ken barely made it back to the airfield before his bracelet started beeping. He nearly ignored it, but he was already on a short leash. Hakase wasn't amused by losing his bracelet at the dinosaur exhibit in Utopia, then taking off to find it against orders.
"G-1 here," Ken answered, holding back a sigh.
"If you have no plans for tonight," said Dr. Nambu, "there's a patrol I'd like you to fly."
Like he ever had plans. Ken fought the temptation to lie and throw the man for a loop. "Just tell me what you need. I'm on it."
"Take to the air to the northwest. I'll transmit the route once you're in flight."
"Roger." He supposed spending Valentine's with his other love wasn't so bad. Some time in the skies might do him some good.
Smiling for the first time that day, he headed out.
Ken hadn't planned on going out. Galactor was unusually quiet lately, and his unexpected free time let him finish projects at the airfield. Tonight, though, it was raining. He'd heard on the news that there was a rash of incidents, young women killed during rainy nights.
More than once he'd asked Hakase if they should look into it. Each time he'd been brushed off, told to enjoy the rare downtime, and let the police do their jobs. Ken was sure they were competent, but the killings continued. What could it hurt to look?
First, though, he'd drop by the Snack J. The others were probably just as on edge as he was. As it turned out, the place was practically empty. Jun, Jinpei, Joe, and Ryu were all there, and the atmosphere was moody, to say the least.
"Aniki, how's the mail runs?"
Ken fought back a smile. Young Jinpei was a sly one, he had to give the kid that. "Better than usual. Too bad they don't all pay up front."
He got the stink eye in response. It figured, he had so little from his dad. Maintaining what he had ate every penny he could scrape in from his ill-fated delivery service. When he took his seat, Jinpei pushed a glass of water at him. Harsh.
Temptation urged him to sit by Joe. Ken fought it, staying at the counter. Not only did he not want to give himself away, but as their commander, he tried not to play favorites.
Of course that meant he had no idea of what Joe was reading in the paper. He sipped his water, waiting for comment.
"Jeez, it's an awful crime," said Joe. "Why women, of all people?"
Ken hid a smile behind his glass. Yup, Joe was as bored as he was, and just as annoyed with their not pitching in.
"It sure is," sighed Jun. "Young people aren't going out at night anymore, and it's not helping my business."
Wincing, Ken wished he had some money toward his tab. Tomorrow he'd have to spend some time chasing down payments.
"I'm actually happy about that," said Jinpei. "I can't bear it if I have to work like this all the time."
Oh boy. Ken slid a bit further down the bar.
"If you don't want to, you can always leave," said Jun, glaring at her little brother.
Jinpei recoiled a moment, but then straightened. "But if I do, without someone to fix dinner, you're gonna be in trouble."
Ken glanced to Joe and Ryu. Both were studiously buried in other things, but he thought he saw Joe's shoulders shaking behind the paper. If Jun heard him laughing, being halfway across the club wouldn't save him.
"I can fix dinner myself." Jun put her hands on her hips.
"But you fix only ready-made food."
Sliding further down the bar, Ken calculated the chances of being caught in projectile crossfire. He thought he caught Ryu shifting his chair as well.
"How dare you!"
"It's pretty pathetic!"
Ken turned so they couldn't see how hard he was working not to laugh. "Stop that, you two. Be quiet. Step outside and cool your heads."
He listened with every ninja skill he head, ready to dive for cover if the two united against a common enemy. When all he heard was stunned silence, he decided this was a good point to offer an alternative objective for restless energy, "The incidents occur on rainy nights like this."
"But it's not our job," said Ryu. "We can leave it to the police."
So Ryu wasn't in. That was fine. It wasn't like he had the authorization to order everyone out. He'd feel better if he took a look around, though. At least he'd be doing something useful. Way safer than refereeing those two.
Ken stood and turned to go. "That's true. See you."
"You can stay longer!"
He knew Jun was shooting him the sad eyes, but he really needed to do something. Steeling himself for the rain, he stepped outside, trying to ignore the running feet and Jinpei yelling. Did Jinpei really expect his sister to be ladylike? She was a ninja, not a socialite.
"It's still raining," said Jun.
Her worry was sweet, but suspect. Was she just trying to get him to stay? "I'll just go and look around the town."
Stepping outside, he did wish he had a jacket or something. It wasn't just raining, it was a deluge.
Looking down, he spotted some kind of weed. Or was it a genuine plant? "Jun, you've planted a strange flower."
He took off before there were more protests, waving off her warning to be careful. He really needed to sit her down. Could she handle knowing without telling the others?
Maybe she could.
Joe shook his head. Of course Ken would beat him to it. Like they could sit around while girls were being murdered.
Plus, the girls were all young, around their age. That could be Jun out there. Or a pretty damsel in distress, terribly grateful for timely intervention.
He heard Jun mutter something, but didn't catch it. Jinpei collected his glass and winked. "Of course not, she wouldn't do a sweet thing like planting flowers."
"Jinpei, what did you just say?" Her tone promised imminent violence.
Yeah, Ken definitely had the right idea. It might be raining outside, but thunderclouds were looming inside. Joe stood. "I'll go and look around town too."
Ryu followed suit. "Then I'll go too."
Oh, now Ryu wanted to work. Joe grinned, tilting his head toward the door.
"Wait, I'll go too!" Jinpei left his tray on the counter.
K'so, Joe hurried toward the door, Ryu following. If Jun blamed them for Jinpei's leaving, their hides were both in serious trouble.
"There's no reason for you to be so uptight." Jinpei's protest was full of righteous indignation. "We're not busy anyway. Please let me go!"
Please, that was good. Joe paused near the door.
"Who will clean up after us, then?"
"Why don't you do it yourself sometimes? The way you are, no one will have you as a bride."
Shimatta. Joe popped him upside the head for endangering them all, then took off into the rain. Better get as much distance as he could. He had to say one thing for Ken's hesitance, it might — just might — have something to do with seeing Jun on the rampage.
Picturing Jun smacking Ken for every little thing, though, made his efforts to get them together so damn worth it. Seeing Mr. Strategy lovestruck plus perpetually confused at what he did wrong, all at once, would be worth charging admission.
Ken was soaked through by the time he got the summons. Luckily, a quick transmutation to birdstyle and back dried him out. Hakase wouldn't be amused by wet trails to and through his office.
As he arrived, he saw Jun had beat him there. She looked shaken. He approached with concern. "What happened?"
Jun shrugged with a shy smile. "Easier to explain to everyone at once. Hakase's examining samples."
She just shrugged again, so Ken took a seat at the end of the couch. If nothing else, he could gauge how upset she was by whether she tried to sit by him. When she didn't, he decided it couldn't have been too bad.
Once the others filed in, Ken tried not to be distracted when Joe sat next to him. Not that they were really sitting close. Joe had his usual invisible walls firmly in place, smack in the middle of the couch, arms and legs both crossed.
Since Jun had mentioned samples, he wasn't surprised when Hakase arrived with a projector, closing the curtains. Their mentor put up a slide and they all stared. Ken had no idea of what he was seeing. Was it some kind of organism? A piece of bizarre modern art?
"Jun was attacked tonight," said Dr. Nambu.
Ken stiffened, and the tension in the room shot up. Glancing at Jun, he saw with some small pride that she'd collected herself, chin up in defiance.
"She had to blow up her attacker but returned with samples," said Dr. Nambu. "This is a cell of the monster that attacked Jun. Undoubtedly, they're plants, but …"
There they'd abandoned her to search for the things, and she'd found them on her own. Ken winced. "Jeez, we really weren't thinking. Jun's a woman too. We didn't need to bother patrolling."
Joe shot him a look, but he ignored it.
"I bet the four of you used that as a convenient excuse to get out and play somewhere," Jun snapped.
Ken supposed they deserved that.
"Jeez, you're so untrusting," said Jinpei. "We actually did patrol in the rain."
Hakase changed slides. Ken blinked. Was that a crayon drawing?
Jinpei stared. "What the heck is this?"
"It's a picture of the monster that Jun drew," said Dr. Nambu.
"Tut! What a bad picture," snickered Jinpei. "Is this a flower? Or an octopus?"
Ken considered having a talk with the kid about tact. It didn't matter that he had a point.
"Zip it, Jinpei! So what if my drawing is lousy, huh?"
He was about to break up the impending fight, but Hakase changed slides, replacing her drawing with a more sophisticated one. Except it was just as confusing as hers. "And this is?"
"It's what we imagine an ancient plant called a Jigokiller looked like." Dr. Nambu looked at Jinpei. "Looks similar to Jun's picture, don't you think?"
Jinpei squirmed, but it was Ryu who spoke. "Jigokiller?"
"It's an insectivorous plant," said Dr. Nambu, turning on the lights, "which is said to have grown on Earth before mankind was born. Well, it ate dinosaurs, so maybe I should call it a carnivorous plant."
Dinosaurs? Ken boggled, trying to picture how large the things must be.
"I got it!" Jinpei grinned. "The reason only women are attacked is because women are as low as dinosaurs!"
Ken didn't even attempt to warn him. Jinpei deserved the smack Jun delivered. Then he turned to Hakase, still trying to think this through. "But why haven't the monstrous plants been found at the scene of the crime?"
"I'm afraid the mystery is not solved yet," said Dr. Nambu. "Or rather, even the scholars don't know much about the Jigokillers."
"That's a problem," said Ryu. "Unless it's resolved, every single girl will disappear from the Earth."
Well, that would get rid of the competition, wouldn't it? Ken struggled to keep a straight face. There was no safe way to share that joke.
"That's okay, isn't it?" said Jinpei, still going for the most tactful brother award. "It's good riddance not to have someone like Sis."
Jun let out a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes. Ever more practical, Ryu said, "I mean, there won't be a bride for me."
At the sound of a door sliding open, Ken turned. He saw a metallic mannequin, and Hakase watched it thoughtfully. "It's not like we can ask every woman around the world to wear something like this."
They all walked with him to look. The thing gleamed with a strange sparkle.
"What is that?" Jun looked to Dr. Nambu.
"It's a deep-sea, protective suit made to withstand any pressure. Although, we just finished the first trial version."
Ken watched Hakase and Jun. A meaningful look passed between them, and Jun stared at the suit. Hakase meant for her to stay protected, then. At least that meant they wouldn't have to set up a rotating guard at her place.
He'd just tell Jinpei to keep an eye on her. It wasn't like Jun to do anything rash, but things happened.