Simple living is my desperate cry
Been trading love with indifference
Yeah it suits me just fine
I try to hold on but I'm calloused to the bone
Maybe that's why I feel so alone
Do you ever find yourself looking at your life, and wonder what went wrong? Why it hasn't turned out how you'd imagined it to be? Wonder what happened to all your dreams and hopes and desires? Do you sometimes look back to try and pin-point the exact moment where things changed? Where your future ended before it had begun?
Because I know that moment. That exact moment, to the very day and hour. My life changed forever the moment my parents were murdered, and any childish plans and dreams I had were forgotten in that instant, consigned to a scrapheap in my mind. Ideas of a future that no longer exists. For eight years now it's been just me and my brother; us against the world. Sure, other people have dropped into our lives – we had the Thunder Academy for a while – but they've left again just as quickly.
Now it's all changed. There are others in our lives now that we have to work with, get along with, fight with. My brother is happy; he is back at school and has friends, and a new love interest. But I don't know these people; I don't trust them and I'm not entirely sure they trust me. Still, that's the least of my worries. I have far more mundane ones, much closer to home.
The bill's lying on the table, all pure and innocent looking on white paper. I glare at it murderously, almost hoping the sheer force of my will can cause it to wink out of existence. It doesn't so much as twitch. I'm tempted to throw a thunder bolt at it, but that'll only incinerate the paper, and wreck the table beneath it. It won't solve the problem. And we can't afford a new table.
The sound of the bathroom door opening catches my attention and I snatch up the piece of paper, shoving it roughly into my backpack just as my brother walks into the kitchen, towelling his damp hair.
"Hey bro, what's up?" he asks, draping the towel around his neck and grabbing a slice of unbuttered toast off a plate.
"Nothing", I say shortly, then instantly regret my tone as I see a flash of confusion in his eyes. Blake doesn't need to know about my worries; he has more important ones. "Are you ready? You're going to be late for school." I hope my brusqueness covers my earlier snappiness.
Blake pulls a face at me through a mouthful of toast and rolls his eyes.
"Tori's picking me up. I'm not going to be late." He must have read something in my face because he quickly swallows and adds, "Don't worry. I'm meeting her downstairs." I can hear the unspoken disapproval in his voice, aimed at my only real house-rule: no visitors. Not even them.
"I was wondering though…" I know what's coming; a rehashing of our old argument, but at that moment Blake's morpher lets out a couple of beeps. He sighs, "That's Tori. I'd better be off."
"Have fun," I say, forcing a smile.
Blake rolls his eyes at me again. "Have fun at work."
I snort, but as soon as my brother leaves my smile does too, my mind drawn back to the bill in my backpack. It really is time to go to work. I need to go and play nice with Kelly in the hope that she can give me some more hours. If that fails I have to hope the bar I work at will have some late shifts available. A real job's out of the question; even if the small fact of running off the save the world every now and again would get me fired before I'd worked a week, the reality is a real job… just isn't possible. Not for me.
I shake off those thoughts quickly. I'm pragmatic; I deal with what I have in front of me. There's no point looking back and wondering about what ifs. No, I have to deal with the present. And the present involves getting my butt down to Storm Chargers before I'm late.
It doesn't take long to get there. Our apartment is in a run down building in the bad part of town. Blake pretty much refuses to walk around there by himself, but it doesn't bother me that much. The walk is quiet, streets practically deserted apart from a few kids who should be school lurking on the corner of the block. They glare at me but I meet their eyes calmly. They blink first.
I reach Storm Chargers ten minutes later.
Kelly is just unlocking the back door as I arrive, trying to juggle the keys with a box of new stock and her handbag.
"Here, let me", I say as I reach past her to take the box. She grins at me and pushes the door open, walking into the office and throwing the keys on the desk as she passes it on the way to the small kitchen to make coffee. Kelly doesn't speak until she's had her morning caffeine fix.
While she's absent I make myself busy in the back room, sorting stock and other little tasks that need to be done before the store opens. I'm just reading through a list of motorcycle parts that need ordering for some guy's bike when Kelly returns, pressing a hot cup of coffee on me. I don't need it to wake up, but the fact she always does it for me brings a smile to my face. As bosses go, Kelly is probably the best I've had. She's friendly, but not overly familiar. She doesn't pry into my private life, though god knows she must want to given how often Blake, Dustin and I run off mid-shift, and she doesn't pretend to know me. All in all, she's alright.
Once the store's open time passes fairly quickly. There're not too many customers, but that's pretty normal for a week day morning. We have a good routine set up on the days I'm on the early shift; I look after the shop front while Kelly's in the back doing the accounts, then once she finishes I head into the workshop to start work on the bikes. I'm not officially a mechanic, but unless there is really no one else to mind the front, Kelly tries to keep me away from the customers. I'm a fairly tolerant person, just not very patient. I can't say I understand how I always manage to rub people up the wrong way, but I do. I think it's a knack. So Kelly keeps me out back with the bikes. It's less painful for everyone.
It's sad to admit it, but I get on better with machines than people.
I'm just finishing tuning up a customer's engine when Kelly sticks her head in to check how I'm doing. She's waving another cup of coffee at me so I grab an old rag to wipe the oil off my hands and join her, boosting myself onto the work bench.
"How's it going?" she says, indicating the bike.
"Nearly done." My reply is short, business-like. Kelly seems to appreciate it. We sit in companionable silence for a long moment, sipping our hot drinks gingerly. Finally, deciding now is as good a time as any to broach the subject of more hours with my boss, I hurriedly swallow the mouthful of coffee I've just taken and clear my throat,
"Kelly, I was wondering, I don't suppose there're any extra shifts going are there?" Before she can answer I press on with my rehearsed excuse. "It's just, it's Blake's birthday next month" – not exactly a lie – "and I was hoping for a little extra cash to put towards it."
I know Kelly's answer before she's even opened her mouth. There's a look of sympathy on her face, which is never a good sign. "Hunter, I'm sorry. You know I would if I could but I just don't have the money to spare for extra hours."
I settle my features into what I know is an easy grin, brushing off Kelly's response as if it doesn't matter, "Hey, no worries. As I said, it was just a thought. Blake'll have to make do." Kelly smiles back at me and pats me on the shoulder as she hops off the bench to serve a customer. I rub a hand over my face, feeling the grin fall away. It shouldn't be this easy to fool people into thinking you're someone you're not, but I guess I've had a lot of practice. Most of the time even Blake can't tell when I'm faking it. Sometimes I wonder where the real me actually is, if he exists at all. That makes me sound sort of depressed I know, but that's not true. Honestly. I'm not sad, or angry, or anything really. Feelings don't apply to me. I learnt a long time ago it was easier to survive if I didn't have them.
Unfortunately people don't seem to think that's natural, or healthy, so I put on a façade. I let people see what they want to see and they don't question me. It's best for everyone.
I lose myself in the bikes, concentrating on completely stripping a dirt bike engine. I'm not entirely sure what the owner's managed to do to it, so I have to take it apart and rebuild it from scratch. It's not that difficult; I've done it enough times that it's habit. Once the spark plugs are removed and the carburettors disconnected I can take the engine off the frame and set it on the floor to properly begin working on it. I'm so focused on the job at hand that I lose track of everything else, awash in a calm, almost meditative state.
The voice is unexpected and I look up to see Blake grinning at me over the counter.
"Why aren't you at school?" I growl, annoyance rising.
"Dude, it's four. School's over." Dustin's head joins Blake's and they both laugh. I must look a mess, sitting on the floor surrounded by bits of bike engine. There's probably oil on my face; it wouldn't be a surprise, it's everywhere else.
My suspicions are confirmed by a light, lilting feminine laugh joining the boys. "Oh Hunter, what do you look like?" Tori's blue eyes are sparkling with life, her joyous nature always a source of sunshine in a grey world. Blake's world, that is, not mine. Her perkiness can be down right irritating, especially when it's aimed at me. And she confuses me.
The others are far simpler. Easy-going, trusting Dustin doesn't seem to care anymore that we used him, treated him as dirt and almost got him killed. He says he's forgiven us, and is completely cool around us.
If only it was that easy.
Shane's the opposite. He doesn't trust us, and he certainly doesn't like us. Well, more specifically me. I don't blame him.
Cam tolerates us. He's not particularly friendly, but then he's not particularly friendly to the Wind Rangers either so at least he's treating us equally. I respect Cam; unlike Shane he doesn't pretend that we're friends, or could even be friends. He keeps things professional, even if Blake and I did kidnap his father, and I appreciate that.
But Tori… Tori is sneaky. Tori is manipulative. Tori is caring. I thought, I hoped, that with her and Blake hitting it off so well she wouldn't bother me. But no such luck. For some reason that I can't fathom see seems determined to include me in things, to be friends. I don't know why. I don't know what she sees in me. I guess it's because she wants to date Blake so figures it would be easier if we all just got along. I don't think she realises we'd get on a lot better if she'd just leave me alone.
"Hunter, you ok?"
It's Kelly's turn to interrupt my thoughts this time and I blink at her stupidly. She smiles, "You were miles away. Your shift's almost done but…" She pauses, checking Blake is out of hearing. "If you want to finish this bike this afternoon I can afford some overtime. Made a couple of big sales today."
"Don't mention it," she says with a wink, before glancing at the mess I've made. "Just clean up after yourself."
I nod and fix my attention back to the bike when the others appear again. "Bro, we're heading to the beach. You coming?"
I shake my head. "Nah, promised Kelly I'd get this bike done today. You go ahead. Have fun."
That should have been it. They should have gone and left me in peace, and would have done, if it wasn't for that meddling, conniving Tori, with her butter-wouldn't-melt innocent look, poking her head around Blake and reminding me, reminding everyone, about the pizza night around Shane's later on. Pizza night, team bonding night, pure torture… Whatever you wanted to call it, I was not impressed. I'd hoped they might have forgotten, or at least forgotten me but no chance. And I couldn't get out of it. The look on Blake's face alone tells me that my presence is more than just requested; it is required.
I have nothing against the Wind Rangers; we just don't have anything in common. They're three seventeen year old high school students, who live at home with parents they get along with, to varying degrees, who have had a fairly sheltered upbringing by all accounts. Apart from the attack on the Wind Academy, and their recent experiences fighting Lothor, they've never truly experienced loss or hardship. Sometimes they even see fighting as a joke, as if the fate of the world isn't in their hands, as if Lothor isn't a murdering bastard but someone to be laughed at, or pitied. I realise I'm holding a wrench in a death-grip and sigh. Time to shut down those thoughts and pull my mind back to the job in hand.
It no longer surprises me how simple it is to do. Shut down, shut out the thoughts and memories and feelings and just be wonderfully, blissfully numb. I want to get the bike finished quickly; Kelly's paying me for the extra time but I'm not one to spin a job out, no matter how much I need the money.
Once I put my mind to it the engine is finished within the hour. All it needed was the piston replacing; a simple enough job. I find working with my hands soothing. I understand machines: bikes and, to a lesser degree, cars. They're… uncomplicated. They are logical. They can be fixed. Not like humans.
I clean up the mess I've made, putting tools back in their correct places. Systematic, organised, just how I like it. I wipe the worst of the oil and grease off me with an old rag, and then go and check out with Kelly. The shop is deserted by now and she waves me off with a smile.
I trudge home and drown myself in the shower. The water is icy. I can't remember the last time I had a hot shower. Blake and I can cope without. There's no point in heating the water; it's literally just burning money. I grab the bar of coarse soap and try to work it into a lather, but it just smears greasily across my skin. It doesn't agree with the cold. I rub my hands through my hair and then stand there for a long moment, just letting the water sluice over me. I enjoy a few minutes of peace, of shutting my mind off completely, no thoughts, nothing but the rushing of water in my ears.
The sound of our apartment door opening brings me back to reality. I sigh and switch off the shower, turning the faucet a little rougher than I'd intended. Time to put on my mask and play nice.
It takes a good half hour to walk to Shane's, just on the outskirts of Blue Bay. Yes, walk. We can't ninja streak as it counts as 'personal use', not to mention the fact it's pretty impossible to streak unnoticed through busy streets, and we don't have a car. Dirt bikes are for racing only. We have to wait at the gate to be buzzed in. Did I mention Shane lives in a mansion? Well, a very large house anyway. Compared to mine and Blake's two room slum it's practically a palace. As we're admitted into the huge entrance hall I can feel my hackles rise already. Not a good start, especially when we're meant to be here to 'bond'. There's the clattering of feet on tiles and Dustin bursts into the hall from one of the corridors.
"Dudes! Finally. Tori and Shane wouldn't let us start until you arrived and I'm starving." Seemingly oblivious to the disapproving look he is getting from the housekeeper, he grabs Blake's arm. "Come on, they're waiting in the kitchen" he says as he propels him back the way he'd come.
I follow behind, down a long tastefully (I guess, not that I know anything about interior design) decorated corridor which opens up into a huge kitchen. I mean huge. Our apartment could easily fit in to it, no problem. But then again, our apartment could quite probably fit into the main room of Ninja Ops so it's not much of a comparison. Tori and Shane are standing at the central island. Shane is making dough. Actually making dough, for the pizza bases. Homemade pizza for pizza night, who knew? Dustin's showing Blake the selection of toppings and I can see my brother's enthusiasm grow. Real food, fresh vegetables, a proper meal instead of the cheap microwave things we've been living on.
My stomach growls appreciatively and I remember I've only had a couple of cups of coffee since breakfast.
"Do you need a hand?" I offer.
I'm always more comfortable when I'm making myself useful.
Shane shakes his head, concentrating on rolling the dough out. I feel a presence beside me and turn to see Tori grinning my way.
"We're not allowed to interfere. Pizza making is Shane's baby. His dads mum's Italian and taught him how to make real pizza. Not our poor American alternative."
There's a friendly teasing behind her words and I realise I've stumbled across an old argument.
"My nonna makes the best pizza," Shane says calmly. "But if you'd rather order take-away, phone's in the hall."
"No dude, don't say that. Take-away'll take forever to get here," Dustin chimes in, his voice muffled somewhat by the slice of pepperoni he's stuffed in his mouth.
Shane glares at him. "If you keep eating the toppings you're going to have a very plain pizza."
Dustin just sticks his tongue out at our nominal leader and reaches for another slice. Shane takes a swipe at him with the rolling pin but Dustin is quick. Surprisingly quick, snatching up another piece of pepperoni and dancing nimbly away before Shane can hit him. The taller man brandishes the wooden implement at Dustin.
"Don't make me ban you from the kitchen," he says, mock fiercely.
Dustin crosses his eyes and pokes his tongue out again, darting behind Blake as Shane dives at him. My brother laughs and ducks out of the way, yelling at Dustin not to get him involved, while sneaking some pepperoni into his own mouth. Tori giggles as Shane launches himself at both boys with a growl. Blake runs behind Tori, using her as a shield but it's Dustin who Shane focuses on, chasing him around the table a couple of times. Their antics are childish and carefree, but amusing to everyone in the room.
To everyone it seems, but me.
I realise I should be laughing, or smiling, or at least reacting. But I'm just standing here. I had, for the briefest of moments, forgotten who I was meant to be this evening. I quickly plaster a smile on my face, hoping no one's noticed. I catch Tori giving me a strange look, just for a second, and I wonder if she saw. But her gaze is drawn back to Dustin as he steals another slice of pepperoni from right under Shane's nose. Her laughter is like a clear, tinkling bell, and it's infectious; my brother's happy chuckle mingling with it. It's nice to hear Blake laugh properly again, and the smile that comes to my lips isn't quite as forced as before.
Shane turns his attention away from the grinning Dustin and back to the dough, rolling it to his satisfaction and then finally allowing us to put our own toppings on. I give Blake a warning look as he begins loading up his pizza, a silent admonition not to go overboard. We don't want to raise suspicions. He gives me a small smile in return; message received.
By the time the pizza's cooked I'm definitely ready for it. I suspect I'm hungrier than Dustin, though he's more vocal about it. We congregate in the movie room with our pizzas and soda. Soda, because I'm the only one old enough to drink alcohol. I could kill for a beer. But I'll have to make do with soda.
While the boys, Blake included, argue over what film to watch, I focus on not wolfing down the pizza. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat. A mindless, repetitive activity, just what I need. I see Blake giving me a concerned look and wonder if my mask's slipped, but then the opening music of the dvd grabs my attention and the reason for his worry is clear. The Great Escape. Ah.
It's ok. I can deal. It's ok. I'm fine. Shut down, shut down, shut down. I find myself repeating those words in my head, over and over and over again, like some sort of mantra. If I concentrate on the words I don't have to concentrate on the film, or the memor- No. I can deal. It's ok. I'm fine. It's…
"Anyone need a refill?" I stand up so suddenly I almost drop my cleared plate that I'd had balanced on my lap. Blake's worried look has returned and I wave my empty glass at him with a carefree grin.
It feels like I've nailed it to my face.
I head to the bathroom first, resisting the urge to kick something as I walk down the corridor. Only once the door's safely locked behind me do I let myself sink down against it, my hands trembling from the effort of suppressing the feelings that are currently hammering against the dam I've built up in my mind. All I need is a few minutes of blessed silence before the raging thoughts are still again.
I welcome the numbness like an old friend.
Calm once more, I get up and walk on tingling legs to the sink to splash water on my face, giving myself a quick once over in the mirror to check the mask's back in place. I look fine. I am fine. If I can't quite bring myself to meet my own gaze in the glass, well, that's just because I'm not vain.
Tori's in the kitchen when I wander in to get more soda. She looks at me expectantly, eyes searching my face as if she's looking for something. Perhaps she's waiting for me to speak first. I think it would be the polite thing to do, but I'm not sure. I'm no good at social situations, or at reading people. Especially not women. What is the social etiquette for being alone with your brother's girlfriend? Or sort-of girlfriend? I'm sure I should be speaking right now. Why isn't she saying anything? I cross the kitchen and open the fridge. I came in to refill my drink so that's what I'm going to do. I'm sure I should be saying something, but I don't. Instead I make sure I pour the perfect glass of soda, tilting the glass so the fizz doesn't rise up and spill over the top. I'm so concentrated on my task that when she does speak it makes me jump.
"Are you ok?"
My hand jerks, sending clear sparkling liquid all over the previously pristine work surface. Damn. I stare at the little bubbles rising to the surface of the pool, mesmerised by their popping and hissing.
She's suddenly beside me with kitchen roll, wiping up the mess I've made. I feel like a small child again.
"I'm sorry. I'm just really tired. It's been a long day." I even manage to make myself sound sleepy.
She smiles at me sympathetically, covering my hand with hers. "You should get some rest."
I pull back from her touch as if I've been burned. It's just… too familiar, too personal, too close.
"Sorry." Even to me my apology sounds empty. "I would leave but Blake's having fun."
"And you're not?"
I curse myself for my poor choice of words, and curse her for being too bloody perceptive.
"I don't like the movie." I say it off-hand, as if it doesn't matter to me. She doesn't say anything to that so I pick up my glass and head for the door, "We should get back in there."
"Hunter, you don't have to stay." I turn back to see her standing there with her arms crossed. What is she talking about? Of course I have to stay. It's expected. It's what teammates do; hang out together. Not to mention Blake'd kill me if I ran out on everyone.
But Tori doesn't see it that way apparently. "We won't mind, you know. If you're worried about Blake I can always drop him back when we're done."
So that's it. Now I understand. They want me here about as much as I want me to be here. Can't say I blame them. I'm really no fun. I know I was only invited along this evening because of Blake. Can't have one brother without the other; that would be rude. But I don't fit here. I don't fit with them. I never fit. They don't want me here. I don't want to be here.
I need to leave.
I put my soda back down on the side, the glass clinking sharply against the marble work surface. "Then I'll go."
"Hunter." Tori sounds exasperated. An emotion I can pick up on. I often seem to make people exasperated. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant if you weren't enjoying yourself we're not going to force you to stay. You need sleep. Can't burn the candle at both ends you know."
Now I hear pity. I can't stand pity. But she's trying to be nice, even if she doesn't mean it. I'll give her that.
A wave of exhaustion washes over me. I am tired. Tired of pretending. I just want to go home, sleep, be alone. I'm not going to fight.
"Sorry Tori, I know what you meant. I'm just really tired. Will you give the others my apologies? And see Blake gets home safe?" My tone is conciliatory.
Just let me go.
"Ok Hunter," she says softly. "I'll see you tomorrow, at Ops?"
I nod and walk out. I want to run, but I have too much self control for that. Soon enough I'm out of the house into the cool fresh night air. Into the darkness.