Joe Asakura slouched in the too-small seat, his six foot two inch frame uncomfortably folded in an entirely unnatural fashion. He desperately longed to stand up; to lean against the wall in his traditional pose with arms and ankles crossed, but the Condor knew that if he were to attempt such a thing he would receive a stern reprimand from the one person in the world who could actually instill fear in his heart.
The object of the Condor’s apprehension sat only three feet away, apparently unaware of the feelings of resentment being directed toward him. Or perhaps he was aware, but completely unperturbed. Kozaburo Nambu appeared completely at ease, working on a small laptop computer, his standard vest and tie as crisp as ever, although for once the Doctor had forgone his usual suit jacket.
Joe grimaced to himself, wondering what had happened. At first, he had actually believed that this would be fun…
“Team, you’re going to be getting some time off.” Dr. Nambu had announced, just that morning. “I’m taking you all to the city of Las Vegas.”
“Really?” Joe’s eyebrows had shot up in excitement at the prospect of visiting the metropolis known as ‘Sin City’. He had only turned twenty-one years of age in the last few months, and the prospect of sowing some wild oats in a place known for that kind of opportunity was too appealing to pass up.
“What’s the catch?” Jinpei had asked suspiciously. The Swallow still bore a mild animosity toward the Doctor for the team’s supposed vacation in Hontworl, which eventually had led to a mission to stop the Van Allen Belt from crashing into the Earth.
“No catch.” Nambu had smiled thinly. “You are all free to enjoy yourselves as you wish. When you’re not attending the conference, that is.”
“Conference?” Ken’s ears had perked up. Joe had groaned and rolled his eyes. Only Ken Washio would get excited about some boring old conference.
“Perhaps this one won’t be so bad.” Ryu had whispered wistfully, a vain hope written all over his face.
“Yes.” the Doctor had replied. “This is the International Conference on Indium Phosphide Semiconductors in Photonic Systems and Opto-Electronic Devices. A most fascinating subject, to be sure.” Nambu’s eyes had gleamed with excitement as he had spoken.
Everyone else’s eyes had glazed over after the first three words, save for the Eagle. Gatchaman had been doing his best to feign interest in something that even he found less than appealing. And so it was to Ken that Dr. Nambu had directed his next words.
“You will all be accompanying me as I attend the conference, including performing the usual guard duty while I speak.” the Doctor had informed the Science Ninja Team. “Immediately after the conference, we will return to Utoland.”
“So, when are we going to be getting time off?” Jun had asked curiously.
“Our flight leaves in two hours.” Nambu had stated. “You will have the afternoon and evening to yourselves, along with the time before my presentation at the conference tomorrow.”
Joe had perked up somewhat at that. Even one evening in Las Vegas might be something exciting. All he had to do was make the most of the short amount of time he had.
“Something to drink, Sir?”
Joe’s mind was brought back to his current reality as he stared up at the woman old enough to be his mother. Her once-crisp uniform was beginning to lose its sharp edges, and her face bore the unmistakable signs of strain and exhaustion.
But once his brain registered what he had been asked, Joe perked up.
“You got any beer?” he asked hopefully.
“I hardly think this is the time or the place, Mr. Asakura.” came Kozaburo Nambu’s reproving voice from behind Joe’s chair. The Condor slumped back into his seat, scowling at the reprimand.
“Okay, just a Coke.” he mumbled to the flight attendant.
“Two for me!” grinned Ryu, in the seat next to him.
“Oh, no!” Jinpei moaned. “If you have two drinks, you’ll be stepping over me to get to the bathroom! No way are you having two drinks!”
“You’re the one who insisted on having the aisle seat.” Ryu reminded him. “That’s the price you pay for it.”
“I really wanted the window.” Jinpei grumbled. “But Joe wouldn’t let me have it.”
“Damn straight.” Joe grunted. “I’m not going to sit on the aisle, letting some idiot stewardess roll over my toes with that drink cart every three minutes.”
Too late, the Condor realized that the flight attendant was still standing there, pouring their drinks into flimsy plastic cups filled with ice. She glared as she passed Joe his Coke, then tossed a silver bag of peanuts in his direction. The snack landed smack in the middle of the Condor’s drink, splashing sticky-sweet soda all over his jeans.
“Sorry, Sir.” she said automatically, but from her expression it was clear that this had been no accident. Joe could almost respect her for that, except that he could already feel the cold liquid seeping through his pants to his legs.
“Thanks, Ma’am!” Ryu offered, oblivious to Joe’s discomfort. Jinpei had a Coke as well, and Joe picked his dripping peanut bag out of his own soda. At least he could drink what little was left of his soda. The Condor reclined his chair, intending to lean back with his cup.
“Please raise your seat, Joe.” Nambu ordered. “I have difficulty working on my computer when your chair is reclined.”
Great. He had to sit straight up in wet jeans to drink a half-full cup of Coke. This wasn’t easy at the best of times, but with Ryu’s bulk spilling out of the middle seat and into his own, the small seat space he had been allotted seemed more cramped than ever.
Damn, why couldn’t Hakase have bought them first class tickets? If they couldn’t be paid for their work, it was the least he could have done.
“Hey, Onechan, tight seats, aren’t they?” Jinpei asked, turning his head to gawk at the Swan sitting behind him, “Of course, I guess you don’t mind, since you’re all squished up next to Aniki.”
“Shut up, Jinpei!” Jun hissed. Joe grinned to himself. At least he wasn’t the only miserable one on this flight.
“Love birds… isn’t that what you are?” Jinpei teased. The Swallow had made a career out of never knowing when to quit. “Aniki and Onechan, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S…”
“That’s enough, Jinpei!” Nambu barked. Joe was relieved not to hear that tone directed at him, for once.
“Perhaps you should be reading up on indium phosphide photonic systems.” Ken suggested. The Swallow blanched, and quickly turned around, re-settling himself in his seat. Absentmindedly, he poked at Ryu’s arm.
“You’re in my space, Ryu!” he complained.
“These seats aren’t built for someone of my ‘stature’.” Ryu replied calmly.
“That’s because your ‘stature’ could fit three normal people!” Jinpei retorted. “Get out of my seat!”
“All right, all right!” Ryu sighed, pushing more of his generous form into Joe’s personal space.
“Watch it, Ryu!” Joe cried, as the Owl’s elbow knocked the remains of the Condor’s drink onto his lap.
“Sorry, Joe.” Ryu mumbled, passing his superior some napkins. “I just wish they’d let us fly the God Phoenix out here.”
“You and me both.” grumbled Joe, vainly attempting to mop up the new series of wet spots soaking through his jeans.
Jun sighed as Jinpei turned away. She was glad that her little brother was no longer teasing her, but that feeling was overwhelmed by the frustration she was experiencing with Ken’s behavior. The Eagle was sitting next to her, and it still seemed as if he were a million miles away. Ken actually appeared to be more interested in reading the in-flight magazine than in talking to her. Jun knew the magazine couldn’t be that fascinating, because he had already reached the end and was now reading it from the beginning, again. When she had accidentally bumped arms with the Eagle, he had practically hit the ceiling.
Ken was making it quite clear that he had no interest at all in being close to her.
It was truly frustrating. Jun had hoped that some time off might allow the Eagle to relax, and get away from his role as Gatchaman, for once. But instead, it looked as if Ken would remain stiff and tense, despite the opportunity he had been offered.
At least there was one good thing to come out of this. Hakase had given permission for her to get a new dress for tonight, especially given that they only had one evening to themselves. If they were going to have a night on the town, Jun wanted to make the most of it and look the best she possibly could. Somehow she was able to get Hakase to agree, with the suggestion that maybe the rest of the team would be interested in some new clothes too. After a moment of thoughtful consideration, Hakase had handed over his credit card, remarking how the morale of entire team might benefit from it.
The guys hadn’t been interested in the offer of new attire, but the Swan had jumped at the chance. She was already looking forward to spending the rest of the afternoon in the Las Vegas boutiques.
The impact of the Eagle’s threat had apparently already been lost on the Swallow. Jinpei was practically kneeling on his seat, looking over at Ken and Jun with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“Yes, Jinpei?” Ken sighed, looking up from his in-flight magazine.
“Are you going to take Onechan out to dinner?” the boy asked. “Somewhere nice! There are supposed to be lots of cool places in Vegas to go out!”
Ken glanced nervously at Jun before burying his nose again in his magazine.
“Uh… I don’t think so…” he mumbled from behind the wrinkled pages. “We’ll all just go out together…”
Jun blanched, ready to strike out at Jinpei when the Swallow spoke again.
“See, Onechan? I told you!” he laughed in an irritating fashion. “You need to learn how to cook! If you can’t cook, a girl as ugly as you are will never catch a man!”
Jun blushed a fiery red. Normally she would have smacked the boy hard for such an insult, but she suddenly found her eyes stinging with unshed tears, and all she could manage was a vague swat at Jinpei’s tousled head as he disappeared behind the seat.
The Swan fell back into her seat, her cheeks burning, desperately swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, hoping that Ken didn’t see what she was doing.
Damn it! Ken had picked the worst possible time to finally pay attention to her. She should have known that the White Shadow would take note of everything.
“What is it, Ken?” she asked, attempting to put a cheery smile on her face, and failing miserably.
“Are you okay?” he asked. There was only genuine concern in his deep blue eyes.
“I…” Jun’s lower lip began trembling, making it difficult for her to get out any more words.
Hesitating briefly, Ken attempted to put his arm around the clearly upset Swan. The movement was awkward, and far from natural, but that only made Jun appreciate the gesture all the more. She looked shyly up at Ken, giving him a watery smile.
A series of loud smooching noises came from the seat in front of them. In the small gap created by the Owl’s reclined chair, the Swallow’s pointed nose and one brown eye peeked out. A series of high-pitched giggles followed the rude noises.
Ken immediately pulled away from Jun, the magazine once again his primary source of interest.
Suddenly, the Swallow’s giggles were interrupted by a high-pitched yowl of pain from the boy.
“Watch it, Ryu! That’s my foot!”
“Sorry, Jinpei.” the Owl grinned sheepishly. “I need to get out.”
“I told you not to have that second Coke!” Jinpei howled.
Jun smiled to herself. Perhaps there was some justice in the world, after all.
After what seemed like hours later to Joe, the plane finally landed and parked at the gate. Stiff from sitting in the same position for so long, he was thoroughly irritated by Jinpei’s constant harassing of Jun and Ryu’s bulk constantly encroaching his space, not to mention the now-rigid jeans he was wearing. The Condor growled at the Swallow and Owl to get up and move out.
“I can’t, Joe!” Jinpei snapped back. “Can’t you see the aisle is full?”
“Make them move.” Joe demanded; he really didn’t think he could sit for one second longer.
Jinpei stood facing the aisle, his back to Joe; he wasn’t even attempting file into the queue.
Having had enough, Joe quickly stood up, forgetting that, unlike on the God Phoenix, there was an overhead bin above his position.
“Damn it!” he shouted as his head made contact with the hard plastic. Jinpei and Ryu quickly turned around to see the Condor rubbing his head, his eyes emitting a glare that would have sent every last Galactor goon running back to wherever it was they had come from.
Jinpei quickly darted into the aisle, with Ryu right behind him.
Head still aching, Joe got himself into the aisle and quickly grabbed his bag from the overhead bin. Ken was next to him, doing the same.
“Great trip so far, huh, Joe?” Ken asked warily.
“What are you complaining about? At least you got to sit with Jun!” Joe retorted as they made their way down the aisle.
As the Condor and the Eagle reached the cabin door to make their exit, they passed the flight attendant, who was standing at the front galley. A wry smile crept across her face as Joe walked by.
“I hope you had a pleasant flight, Sir.” she said, her voice as sweet as the soda that had splashed onto the Condor’s jeans. “Buh-bye.”