Ken slumped in the small room, not even bothering to look at the one-way glass. He hated the smell of burnt hair. It had a uniquely nasty stench that, since it was his own damn hair, had permanently settled around him like some dark cloud.
How the hell did everything go so horribly wrong?
A speaker crackled. "G-1, we're still trying to piece together exactly what happened."
"You and me both," muttered Ken, pausing to hack out a smoke-laden cough.
"Start at the beginning," said the crackly voice.
The beginning? Where the hell was that? Ken closed his stinging eyes, pressing the heels of his hands against his lids. It didn't help. Instead, it just worked more soot in, making his eyes sting worse.
"How far back do you want me to go?" he croaked.
Ken groaned. Where the fuck did he start?
Leaving flight school had been bittersweet. Ken had loved having so much time in the air, truly learning to stretch his wings and soar. He didn't even mind that he also had to continue his physical training regimen to keep up with the others.
But not having his best friend around was like lopping off a limb. Carl might match Joe for cocky, but Ken lacked the same connection with him that he had with Joe, and he could never really be himself among the pilots. They only trained to fly planes. His training was so much more, the feeling of gliding on the currents with only his cape supporting him was a thrill he missed terribly.
Nothing had prepared him, though, for the reality of returning. Jun had rushed at him, eyes shining. Behind her, Joe had approached more slowly, obviously wanting to maintain his cool, aloof demeanor. Yet, Ken barely noticed her. He had to focus to respond to what she was saying, all the while unable to take his eyes from how much taller Joe was, how his jaw had taken a harder edge, and how he moved with such powerful, lethal grace.
As Jun kept talking, filling him in, Ken kept nodding. She grabbed his hand, pulling him toward the house. Just as Ken turned, he caught Joe's grey eyes sparkling, his best friend's gaze flicking up and down like he was noticing things too. New things. Interesting things.
Heat filled him at the possibilities. The next few hours were the longest of his life, as he politely listened to Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei talk about what they'd been doing. After sharing a few flight school stories, Hakase finally sent the younger three off to give him some breathing room.
Once they were alone, Ken finally dared to look at Joe. His best friend flashed a hungry grin, cocking his head toward the wing of the house where their bedrooms were.
"We can talk while you unpack."
Ken licked his dry lips nervously. Not trusting himself to speak, he just nodded, flight school forgotten. That was the day that, together, they learned a new way to soar.
Joe leaned back in his seat, clasping his hands behind his head. With an easy tilt, he balanced the cheap chair on its back legs, watching the one-way glass for any hints of movement. When that got boring, he kicked his feet up onto the small table in front of him. The motion set a small flurry of charred flakes free, causing him to sneeze, which nearly tipped him ass backwards onto the concrete floor.
A speaker crackled. "G-2, we're very interested in your side of the story."
Snorting, Joe batted at more charred flakes. "What do you want to know?"
"How this happened."
"Oh, is that all?" Joe chuckled, then coughed.
"Yes. Start at the beginning."
Joe snorted again. "We're gonna be here a while."
"We've got time."
He glanced at the thick metal door, then threaded his fingers behind his head again, thinking back. In every race, there was a point where a split-second decision made all the difference. You realize the lead doesn't have the guts to push their car to the limit, so you slipstream behind them until you can make your move. Or you pass so close that your fates become entwined in writhing, twisting metal.
Looking back, he supposed there was such a point. If they'd acted a bit differently, this whole flaming wreck could have been avoided …
At first, Joe thought it was funny. When he and Ken weren't slipping off every chance they got, Jun would attach herself to their fearless leader like duckling after its mother. Well, a perverse duckling with an oedipus complex.
It was especially funny because Ken hadn't noticed. There he was, a living, breathing teen heartthrob, and somehow neither his ninja training nor his highly-honed powers of observation could grasp why when he walked into a room, so many people would stop and stare.
This worked great for Joe. If Ken didn't know anyone else was interested, he didn't have any competition. Three months after Ken returned from flight school — three months of Jun's yearning stares, sighs, and doodles — the amusement factor was wearing off. Something had to be done.
Problem was, he wasn't the one who should do it. It took him another week before he could get Ken properly alone. Or, at least, before he could get Ken alone long enough to have their fun and then have a conversation.
They'd stolen away to the landscaper's shack, since Paul never worked on Tuesdays. After they dressed, Joe pulled Ken to him, the two of them just lounging in a way they couldn't do where they could be seen.
"You've gotta talk to Jun," said Joe, hoping that maybe Ken had noticed.
Ken felt far too relaxed in his arms. Nope, he didn't have a clue.
Joe sighed. "She's got a huge crush on you."
Now Ken tensed. He looked up. "Yeah, right."
Joe looked down to meet his eyes, to show him this was serious. "You need to talk to her. She's mooning after you and it's getting pathetic."
When Ken stared at him blankly, Joe got an uneasy feeling, hesitating a moment. "Unless …"
"Unless what?" Ken blinked.
Joe couldn't bring himself to give voice to the words. Unless you'd rather have a girl. "Unless you like it. You know, the attention."
"I like your attention." Ken smiled and let out a sigh. "She'll get over it. Though, then she might start following you."
As Ken's brows rose meaningfully, Joe flashed his best rakish grin. "Maybe I'd like that."
"You'd better not," Ken mock growled.
There was a jealous glint in his eyes that had Joe purring. "I think maybe we got dressed too early."
Ken laughed and turned. Any thoughts beyond the two of them, and their rare moment of extended privacy, were soon forgotten. To Joe, that shed held some of the best moments of his life.
Jinpei had halfway finished pacing the perimeter of the room, heel to toe, heel to toe, counting his steps as he went. He was up to fifty. If he finished the whole circuit, and nothing had changed, he might have to do something drastic.
A speaker crackled. Jinpei jumped, losing count. "Damn!"
Wonderful, now he'd have to start all over. Deciding there was no point, he hopped up to sit on the table, kicking his legs in the air.
The speaker crackled again. "G-4, we were hoping that you could shed some light on recent … occurrences."
"How the hell should I know?" Jinpei waved his arms in emphasis. "I'm just a kid!"
"Regardless," said the crackling voice, "you may have useful observations."
"All I know is that everything was fine, until it wasn't." He gave a helpless shrug.
"How about you start by telling us about today. What happened?"
Oh, was that all they wanted? Jinpei considered the question. It had felt like an ordinary day, but even he knew that he had no idea of what ordinary actually was.
Jinpei had fumed as he wiped down the tables. Three blocks down, the hottest video game of the year was already on sale, soon to be sold out. Here he was stuck in the Snack J, getting ready for the morning "rush," while his sister was off making goo goo eyes and delivering a gift.
He was tempted to sneak out. Like she'd notice, anyway. Except, she would, that was the problem. She always noticed. Worse, there was probably a huge line, so he'd be there for hours.
And of course, it started to rain. Not just a sprinkle, either. It started as a huge torrent, gushing down on the streets outside like every fire hydrant in the city suddenly blew off of its base and the city hadn't had a chance to shut off the water lines.
Somehow the rain improved his mood. At least he wasn't standing outside, drowning while waiting to buy some stupid game.
Just as suddenly as it started, the rain stopped. Jinpei continued cleaning, half-expecting a summons on his bracelet, after Hakase decided the crazy weather was some kind of Galactor plot.
Instead, he was startled by the bouncy squealing of tires trying to stop quickly on asphalt that was coated with just enough water to bring all the seeped in oil to the surface. He looked up to see his sister's motorcycle half on the street, and half on the curb. His oneechan slammed the door open, causing the bell to ring dementedly, and then stormed, soaking, through the J and up the stairs.
After her bedroom door slammed closed, Jinpei surveyed the damage. "Oneechan, the mud!"
How did she pick up so much mud during such a short rain?
Her door slammed open. "Clean it up!"
It slammed shut again. Jinpei considered sneaking out, but then looked at her bike. No, if she was this pissed, the only way he'd dare sneak off would be to join the circus. It'd never be safe to come back.
Muttering about child labor laws, Jinpei got back to work. He hoped whoever'd set her off got a proper ass-kicking. Why should he be the only one suffering?
Ryu shifted in his seat, not daring to ask for a chair more comfortable for his muscular frame. Maybe they'd just forget about him. He had nothing to do with this. Surely, they had to know that.
A speaker crackled. Ryu sighed. Apparently not.
"Let me guess, you want to know what happened."
There was a pause. "Yes. We would."
Hormones and a sheltered childhood with no one else their age to attach to, that's what happened. Ryu wasn't quite ready to lay this all on Hakase, though, so he struggled to think of how to explain this.
"Just start at the beginning."
Ryu smirked. The beginning. Like it was that easy.
Ryu had noticed the change that first night. Ken was back from flight school, and suddenly two pairs of eyes — one female, one male — were riveted on his every move. Being younger, Jun was less subtle, her emerald gaze wide in a hazy, love-struck girly way that Ryu suspected involved daydreams of walks on the beach while holding hands, and being serenaded under the moonlight.
On the other hand, there was Joe. The guy was usually as subtle as a brick, but even he seemed to sense that openly drooling might be frowned upon by Hakase, so he was settling for furtive looks and speculative glances. Unlike Jun, Joe wasn't excitedly trying to monopolize the conversation, which took Ryu by surprise. Usually if Joe wanted to impress a chick, he'd brag about his race training.
No, this was different. Different in a way that made Ryu uneasy, looking back and forth between Jun and Joe. It was when he realized that Ken was half tuning out Jun -- while glancing at Joe in return -- that Ryu got particularly nervous. Not because they were both guys, like he cared about that. He just didn't want to see this kind of competition within their little family.
The kind of competition that usually ended in crushed hearts and broken dreams.
It didn't get any better that night. Over the weeks and months, it didn't improve at all. Ken and Joe had always been tight, but Ryu didn't understand how no one else noticed that everything had changed right under their noses. Everywhere Ken went, Jun followed or watched with a dreamy expression, except when she was working hard in training to perfect her skills and impress him. But neither Ken nor Joe sat her down to explain.
Ryu was tempted more than once. Sometimes the temptation was to beat the crap out of both the boys until one of them set Jun straight, so to speak. At other times, especially when she watched Ken so sadly, trying to figure out how to get his attention, Ryu nearly told her himself.
That wasn't his place, though. It shouldn't have to fall on him to break her heart. So it went on, and on, continuing until their team went active, continuing as the war raged around them. He still didn't understand how no one had noticed, but he supposed people were just used to the deep looks and comfortable, silent contact between their commander and his second.
In any other circumstance, Ryu would be happy for them. They lived in shitty times, and they were his family, so he was glad they'd found happiness together. But the longer this went on, the worst the fallout was going to be. Even when he realized he should have spoken up long ago, he'd realized a moment later that it was too late. He was just as complicit in creating this disaster-in-waiting as the others.
At least he'd been fishing when it all finally came crumbling down.
Jun waited, seething. She wanted to pace, to rant, to rave, but she was manacled to a steel chair that was bolted to the floor. That didn't stop her from trying to wriggle her way free. So far, she'd had no success.
If she did get free, though, the first thing she was doing was throwing this pathetic little table through the one-way glass. Any sign that the Eagle and the Condor had been watching her, laughing at her, and they'll have wished they left the shack sixty seconds later.
Something crackled in the air. Jun narrowed her eyes, looking around for the source. Another crackle led her gaze to a single, lonely speaker mounted in an upper corner.
"G-3, explain yourself," said a crackly voice.
Jun sneered. "You want to know how this happened?"
"Yes. Yes, we do."
"It all started," she said, her anger focusing into a bright point of light on the memory, "with a bear …"
Jun was fifteen, and she was in love. Unfortunately, the object of her affections was either some form of autistic — and there were some days she wouldn't it past their emotionally stunted Eagle — or wasn't interested. She'd devised many plans over the years to answer that one burning question, whether he wanted her or not, but every one had ended in abject failure. Things were looking grim.
Alas, it was Valentine's Day. A day she looked forward to every year, a bright, shining hope blooming in her heart. And the day she'd learned to most dread. Never, not once, did Ken so much as get her a card. The best she'd learned to hope for was a shocked and belated, "Oh, happy Valentine's, Jun."
She traced a finger in the moisture that had collected on the counter. Maybe she should just give up. Surely there had to be a guy out there who would notice her, and pay her the attention she deserved.
Jun was in such a morose mood that she didn't look up when the J's bell chimed, nor did she care when Jinpei suddenly dashed to the door, suddenly engaged in furtive whispered conversation. The bell chimed again as the door closed. She sighed. Yes, she should give up.
On the other side of the counter, Jinpei hopped up onto a stool. She tried to ignore his staring, or to make him go away with another sigh, but he wasn't having it. He just kept staring. Worse, he kept staring with this huge, cheesy grin.
Apparently there was only one way to make him go away. To make her mood clear, she let out another moody sigh. "What?"
Jinpei plunked a stuffed bear on the counter in front of her, his grin impossibly getting wider. It was tan and wearing a white and blue shirt, with a heart between its paws, a heart proclaiming, "Have a beary wonderful Valentine's!"
Blinking at it, Jun supposed she should try to show some appreciation. "Thanks, Jinpei. That's sweet …"
"Oh," said Jinpei, eyes gleaming, "it's not from me!"
"Then who …" She looked around, seeing no one.
"Aniki!" Jinpei bounced on the stool. "He came by and said he was in a hurry and had to be somewhere, but he wanted me to give you this so you wouldn't be so sad this year."
Jun eyed him. "That's not a funny joke, Jinpei."
"It's not!" Jinpei bounced off of the stool, now, bouncing around the Snack.
When he started chanting "aniki and oneechan!" over and over, she dared to hope it was true. "You don't mean Joe, do you? Or Ryu?"
Maybe one of the others was just trying to be nice. Or one of them had a crush on her. Odd, she'd never considered that.
"No! Aniki-Ken! He was just here!"
Jun stared at the bear. It wasn't a particularly personal gift. From the Eagle, though, it might as well have been a diamond tiara. Slowly, her mopey mood got burned away by sheer joy. He did like her. He probably just didn't feel he could do anything while he was in command!
Suddenly she felt like bouncing. Jun ran to the jukebox and put on some happy music. She might not have a date with the Eagle for Valentine's, but she could dance with the bear, and her brother. That would do for now.
One day, the Eagle would be hers.
"This bear," said the crackling voice. "That would be the remnants of charred fiber and synthetic stuffing we found at the blast point?"
"Yes." Jun grinned, pleased that she'd set the charges just right. She wanted them to notice that.
"And the destruction of G-1's home?"
"Justifiable retribution for pain and suffering," she said with a snicker.
"And the near deaths of G-1 and G-2?"
Jun sighed. Her one mis-step. "Regrettable … that they left the building earlier than I expected."
There was silence. Somehow, she wasn't surprised.
The speaker crackled again. "Thank you, G-3. We'll get back to you."
"Take your time." She almost had her right wrist free. "Like I'm going anywhere."
After all, the boys were still in the building. She was sure of it.