The day should have been festive, but she wasn't there.
None of them were, actually. Not Ethan, not Trent, not Dr. O. Not even Cassidy or Devin.
He missed Kira the most, with her recording career and everything. She was on the other side of the country, and him? He was attending Stanford. Stuck there.
Conner took a deep breath. His parents had been impressed when he'd gotten in, and he didn't mind that they were, but he wanted to impress somebody else.
His teammate. His friend. If Trent hadn't happened, maybe... something more?
He knew Trent and Kira had rotated around each other like planets orbiting each other.
Conner snorted. Now he was getting poetic. Or maybe had too much science homework.
Come to think of it, he hadn't heard how the two of them were doing together, lately. He should check out some of her sites... they'd probably know.
He shouldn't have to be checking out websites to know how his teammates were doing. It was depressing.
Here he was, sitting in the cafe, so busy studying that he'd lost touch with everything. This was so not Conner McKnight.
Maybe he wasn't so impressive. Losing touch with his friends. Losing touch with the others.
His email had probably fallen down a black hole. He probably didn't even have the right email address for her. For any of them.
Stupid, stupid. Doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.
He stared at his laptop, browser open, prepared to catch up with the world. Catch up with his friends. At least read the sites.
He wasn't ready to do it. He should really call. Email. Ethan should have had everybody's email addresses, or Hayley.
A chair dragged across the floor. He looked up.
"Hi," Kira said.
California still got cold in the winter, even if it rarely snowed at Stanford. "So, whatcha been doing?" he asked as the two of them sat at the table.
Kira shrugged. "This and that. The recording industry's really hard to break into, so I got myself a job in customer service."
"You? Customer service?" Conner asked, not quite believing what he heard. "You?"
"Call center work's not pretty, but the pay's pretty good," Kira said. "And the bosses are flexible enough to let me go out and deal with my budding career."
"Wow," Conner said. He tried to visualize Kira in a headset and totally failed. "I guess that's not quite what you were planning, huh?"
Kira shook her head. "Not really. You?"
"Well, Stanford's going okay..." Conner said, trailing off in an attempt not to sound awkward. Him, Conner McKnight, at Stanford, and Kira not even going to college. Things couldn't get any weirder.
"You declared a major yet?" Kira asked. Conner tried not to get distracted by her eyelashes. One year a teammate, two years apart, and he still wasn't sure how to treat her.
"Thinking of one." He leaned back in the chair. "Probably Philosophy."
She smiled a little. How he'd missed that smile. He wondered if he could get her to come to California more often.
"Conner, the Philosopher?" she asked lightly. "Isn't that one of those majors you take when you can't decide on anything else?"
"Hey," Conner protested. "Yeah, I'd rather not declare one, but I've taken a few Philosophy classes, and you know what? They're rather cool."
Kira continued smiling. "It's still..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Conner said. "You know what? College might be tough, but at least you can choose your classes. I guess I like it a bit better this way."
Kira nodded. "I guess so. I should be taking classes, but..."
"Yeah, getting your career in place is a good thing too." Conner studied her. "So, you and Trent? How's he doing in art school?"
Shrugging, Kira started tracing patterns in the top of the table. "Fine, I guess."
"You guess?" Conner asked, raising his eyebrows. "I thought you two were like..."
"Well, we still live together, but it's more a rent thing than anything else," Kira said. "He keeps his schedule, and I keep mine."
Conner leaned forward. "So you're... okay?" he asked awkwardly. This was relationship stuff. Sensitive guy stuff. But what kind of teammate would he be if he didn't ask?
"Yeah," she said, looking up at him. "We're still friends, Conner. It's just... I think we finally realized that we weren't meant to be."
"Oh," Conner said. "You know I don't follow that relationship stuff. I mean, gossip stuff."
She gave him a wry grin. "How about you and Krista?"
"Um. She went her way, I went mine, never the twain shall meet." He shifted uncomfortably. It sounded like Kira's breakup with Trent had gone far more smoothly than his with Krista.
"I'm sorry," she said, and Conner wished he could be so smooth in his relationships.
"It's okay. So, Trent?" Conner asked, wanting details. If Kira was hurt...
"We're still friends. Teammates. We get along together, it's just that we kinda realized that he was no longer who he was when we first met."
Conner nodded, understanding. "Yeah, I bet he isn't." Different would be an understatement, with what had happened to the artist son of Anton Mercer.
She laughed. "None of us are the same, Conner. It's just... Trent has some stuff he has to work out, you know?"
He nodded. He felt absurdly pleased that Kira had come to him, given all that seemed to be happening. The team seemed to be drifting apart, despite their best of intentions.
"Well, I'm glad you came to visit me," Conner said lightly.
She laughed once more. "Somebody had to."
Conner felt ashamed that Kira had come out all the way to see him. It should have been the other way around. "Sorry about not keeping in touch. It's just..."
Just that he didn't want to deal with the specter of Kira and Trent. He took a sip of his coffee - addictive stuff, especially for a Stanford student.
"I know," Kira said. "It's me and Trent, right?"
Conner gulped his sip of coffee. "Right. It's..."
He was so not good at this stuff.
"It's okay, Conner," she said, leaning back. "I know you didn't approve in the beginning."
"It's not that," Conner protested. "It's just... well..." He was going to get the words out of his mouth sometime. Really.
"Right," she said, smiling. "I guess you really have been busy. The guys and Hayley say you never talk with them, either."
"Guilty as charged," Conner admitted. Man, he hadn't even been really in touch with Ethan.
She smiled more at him. "Hayley says that Dr. O might pop the question at any time."
"Oookay," Conner said. "If she says so."
Actually, Conner wondered if those two had been doing things other than monitoring the computers when they were alone. He'd never worked out the courage to ask.
"You know what?" Kira asked.
"What?" Conner responded automatically, watching the steam of the coffee play past Kira's hair.
"It's time we all got back together. At least you, me, Ethan, and Trent."
"And Doctor O?" Conner asked, noticing the omission.
"Hayley said he was pretty busy teaching," Kira said. "But this would be a good time for both of them to take a vacation. They both need it."
Conner could only nod. Kira's eyes were lit up; she seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of putting the team together again.
And boy, did the six of them - counting Hayley - need it.
"Not a problem here," Conner said.
"Good," Kira said, her eyes dancing.
Conner had taken Kira out into the fresh air. She was still distracted, and had wandered off a bit, but he was still watching her. She was on her cellphone, talking to Hayley. She'd left a voicemail on the line she shared with Trent; he wondered if the other would deign to reply, and then reminded himself that, whether or not he'd liked it, the two had been in love. Plus, love life or not, Trent was still a teammate.
Kira finished up with Hayley and came back to him. "Ethan was in town anyway, so Hayley said she'd talk to him and Doctor O."
"And Trent?" Conner asked.
"Hey, if I can't get him over here, Hayley will," Kira said determinedly. "He's been almost as bad as you about keeping in touch, and trust me, that's hard to do when you live in the same place."
"Um. Yeah." Conner wondered if he'd ever say something witty to her. Or something useful. Something. He was better at his studies than speaking to a girl he cared about. So Mr. Suave there.
"I'm surprised you didn't go home for break," Kira said casually, after what seemed like an eternity but was only a half hour, according to his watch. They'd strolled across Stanford's campus, which Conner had to admit, didn't look its best in the winter weather. He wished she'd come during the spring, when he could really impress her. They'd exchanged small talk, nothing important, just the kind of stuff that two friends would.
Friends. Conner felt that twinge again. "Mom and Dad are outta town," Conner said. "I couldn't go with them. And Eric's up trying another ninja school, up in San Francisco." He felt another brief pang of guilt for not keeping up with his twin brother. "And you had to stay in New York."
"Conner, even call center workers get vacation," Kira teased. "I needed a break, I hadn't heard from you for a while, I came."
Conner tried desperately to suppress a blush. "Thanks." He paused. "I needed it."
"Hey, I think we all need to get back in touch here," Kira said. "Trent and I hardly see each other, Ethan gets tied up in his tech, Doctor O in his school teaching, and Hayley in her cafe. It's like we've all forgotten each other, and that shouldn't happen."
"No," Conner echoed. "It shouldn't." He paused. "We shouldn't."
They shouldn't have. And he knew it.
Kira's phone rang, and she walked off again, almost absentmindedly. She looked so pretty, even in the winter. He watched as she answered it, smiled at whatever the caller was saying, exchanged words briefly, and hung up the phone. "That was Trent," she said. "He's coming. He said Hayley threatened to pop over there if he didn't and give him a talk. And Ethan's coming too."
"How soon?" Conner asked, amazed at how fast all this was happening. He felt what must have been a twinge of jealousy at Trent's name, and then reminded himself that Trent and Kira were no longer together.
"Soon," Kira said. "As soon as they all can get here."
Conner found himself nervous as Kira's planned all-team reunion drew near. He didn't mind seeing Trent or Dr. O, but he did want to see Ethan. Get the original trio back together. Remember what their friendship had been before life pulled them away from each other.
But at least it had given him a chance to be with Kira again. Kira away - far away - from Trent. It was like the good old days, when it was just him, Ethan, and Kira.
"Yeah, I miss it too," Kira said as they waited for the others. "Me and you and Ethan - I mean, I like Dr. O and Trent, but I kind of see Dr. O as a mentor, you know?"
She hadn't brought up Trent much, for which he was grateful. Trent had had his difficulties, and he had to admit he did feel sorry for the guy. But he had to admit relief when it hadn't worked out, just like he had to admit he was relieved when he and Krista hadn't worked out. Trent was a teammate, but Conner had felt absurdly like an older brother when they started flirting.
And now? Now that Trent and Kira were over, he didn't feel very much like an older brother anymore.
"Yeah, I know," Conner had responded. He felt the same way. "Hey, I should go and visit you in New York sometime, your headsetness."
Kira laughed. Conner was glad to see her laughing. It seemed to him that doing customer service would be a thankless job, even if Kira's calls were inbound and she wasn't telemarketing, as one of their classmates had done to pay for college. "Sure. If you want to."
"Hey, someone has to be there after the sucky customers," Conner offered. "And if Trent's so busy..." He was aware he was treading onto shaky ground there.
"As I said," Kira told him, "he's got his own issues, I don't like to bother him with mine." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Besides, most of the customers are pretty nice. There aren't that many sucky ones. And when there are, I just vent about it. There's a community on Livejournal that's great for that."
"Get a lot of sympathy there?" Conner asked. He had to wonder what was happening in her own life if she was venting to complete strangers.
"And it reminds me that things could be far, far worse," Kira said. "It keeps me sane."
"Oh," he said. He wished he'd been majoring in psychology instead of philosophy - but no. He had enough going on in his life that he didn't need to be analyzing every last thing. Besides, as he told Kira, philosophy was cool. Maybe he'd get to the point where he could start debating Eric's senseis.
"Nothing brilliant to say, oh great Philosophy Major?" Kira teased.
"I'm on vacation," Conner managed.
"Well, next time take a vacation over to New York," Kira said. "Me and Trent would be happy to put you up."
He considered that. Kira would put him up happily; Trent would, he'd admit, probably would too. Then distance himself the entire time so that they wouldn't have to deal with each other.
"Thanks," he said. "We'll have to do that." He paused. "You and I and Ethan should all get together some time too."
"I know," Kira said. She grinned. "Maybe we could try another music video together, the three of us. It would be great."
Conner considered. It was a great idea... and the fact that she was specifically limiting it to the three of them was also good. "Sure."
He looked over and saw the rest of their group - Ethan, Dr. O, Hayley, and Trent - approaching. He nudged Kira, regretting the loss of their private time together, for the moment.
Kira looked where he nudged. "Hey, guys!"