The TV station's helicopter is scooting around unpredictably, and it is getting on Kaede's nerves. The flight powers she grabbed from that guy with the beard don't seem to work the way most people's do. She's nearly ricocheted into a skyscraper three times in the last three minutes. With the helicopter's camera faithfully recording it every time.
The window of the airship shatters under someone's kick. Kaede spreads her arms and tries to hover in place, hoping she's right and she's not holding still for some crook with a machine gun.
She's right. Pao-Lin's head sticks out the broken window, and she gives Kaede a thumbs up. Her shout is drowned out by helicopter blades and the airship engine, but it echoes clearly through the radio in Kaede's helmet. "Heads up, Copycat!"
"What?" Kaede says. But then Pao-Lin is throwing something at her head. Kaede hovers and catches it nicely and, oh hey, it's the bomb. Pao-Lin got the bomb out! Great! Sort of.
There is no visible countdown. All bombs should come with a visible countdown, they should make a law or something. Right! Where the hell is she going to ditch this thing? A Hundred-Powered drop-kick would be great right now. Apart from the part where Kaede would then fall three hundred feet straight down. Anyway, it looks like the kick is going to have to be Kaede-powered. She'll fly as close as she needs to, then kick that sucker straight over the goalposts. Hopefully before it blows her into tiny pieces of barbecue. Where is close enough? Where can she guarantee to be completely deserted? She casts her eyes around. Okay, that's going to have to do.
She's over there in two seconds, her helmet informs her. The idiot helicopter is right on her tail. "It's a bomb!" she yells through the radio. It doesn't back off, but she's already tossed it in the air, used the flight power for momentum, and snapped out a high kick that sends it sailing in a beautiful arc, straight at her chosen target …
… the ten storey mid-town department store where Kaede bought sushi and underpants this lunchtime. She sees it land on the roof. There are a couple more seconds of silence, which she uses to gain some height. The helicopter follows her up too, probably more to get a great bird's eye shot than because the crew are trying not to die.
Then the roof garden of the store blooms into a gorgeous, deafening, no-lives-lost ball of flame. They'll be calling Karina already, and Kaede knows Karina to currently be enjoying a well-earned night off at a karaoke bar with her surprisingly nice celebrity boyfriend and a bunch of their friends. She's currently probably waving a bottle of beer and belting out "My Heart Will Go On", and she is going to ride Kaede's ass so hard about this. But. No lives lost! That's what it's all about, eh?
"Did you see that, Dragon Warrior?" Kaede yells into her radio. She does a little victory twirl in the air, skating on imaginary ice.
"Yeah!" says Pao-Lin. "And the bad guys are down here, too. It's a wrap." There's a moment of silence. "That is the store they evacuated earlier, right?"
"Of course it is," says Kaede. She's so outraged she pauses right in the middle of her awesome split jump. "What do you think I am?"
The second TV commentator, Josie, bursts into ringing laughter. Finally on solid ground, Kaede pulls a face and unhooks her earpiece. "That does it. I'm having a word with those guys. I just want to go through one broadcast without being compared to my dad. It's old hat! It's lazy journalism! It's –"
"You did blow up a department store," Pao-Lin says.
"What?" Kaede throws her hands up. "It was midnight! We evacuated the security staff! And where the hell was I supposed to put a bomb that size, it's not like I can just throw it in the air!" Actually, now she thinks of it, she probably could have thrown it in the air. Pao-Lin could have detonated it with a well-aimed lighting bolt. Hell, if she'd gotten herself back to the airship, Kaede could have detonated it with a well-placed lightning bolt, because her control is actually way better than Pao-Lin thinks.
"Chin up and start smiling," Pao-Lin says, "here come the cameras."
As the photographers arrive, the two of them go into their usual routine of poses. Back to back like badasses, arms folded. High-fiving like dorks: Agnes has limited them to five fist-bumps per season because it "looks too aggressive". Kaede hasn't quite fathomed how fist-bumping looks aggressive to viewers after half an hour's footage of them drop-kicking criminals into dumpsters. Pao-Lin with an arm casually slung over Kaede's shoulders, while Kaede smiles perkily and waves a v-sign. "Unresolved sexual tension is ratings dynamite," Agnes had said. "I have literally no idea where you get these ideas," Kaede had replied, and she's ninety per cent sure it sounded pretty convincing.
They're close enough to HQ to change there. It's such a pleasure, every time, to pull off the close-fitting helmet and the heavy armour that protects her torso. In her sweaty undersuit, Kaede stretches and wriggles. She pulls her hair from the braid. The roots of it ache, and she massages her fingers into her scalp. She catches Pao-Lin looking at her for a moment. The corners of Pao-Lin's mouth go up, like Kaede's totally dignified post-mission stretching routine is funny or something.
They stay looking at each other for a beat of Kaede's heart. Another of those little moments, which, throughout the half-a-season they've been partnered, seem to be happening more and more often. Sometimes actually on camera. Well, screw you, Agnes.
"I'm going to shower!" Kaede says, and totally doesn't bolt.
The water pressure in the changing rooms at HQ is about twenty times better than at Kaede's little shoebox apartment on the Silver Stage. She savours it every time. When she returns, Pao-Lin is already in and out the shower and is blow-drying her short hair, finger-combing it until it's perfectly tousled.
Kaede gives her own hair a quick blast, then pulls it up into a high pony tail. She pulls on her skirt and boots and shirt and a couple of bangles, and congratulates herself on turning back into Kaburagi Kaede, ordinary citizen of Stern Bild who totally has a day off tomorrow, and some exciting and sophisticated weekend plans which involve sweat pants, bubble tea and a stack of video games.
Pao-Lin is dressed now. It's one of the tailored suits. She started getting into formal wear a couple of years back, and boy was that ever a good move. She checks her cuffs, pulls the collar of her jacket straight. As usual, she is dapper and handsome and sexy like it just emanates from her pores or something. As usual, Kaede is relaxed and friendly and totally not a dead giveaway that might scare her off.
But despite the popped shirt buttons and the perfectly ruffled hair, Pao-Lin looks wired. Oh, hey, that was pretty funny, wired. Actually, Pao-Lin looks wired a lot of the time. The issue, or at least Kaede's considered interpretation of the issue, is pretty obvious: Pao-Lin might only be three years older than Kaede, but she has been in this business nearly a decade. And before that, from what Kaede gathers, there were years of hard training back home: seven days a week, five a.m. start stuff that makes Hero Academy look like a cakewalk. After all that, is it surprising that she sometimes has trouble finding her off switch? Well, that's why it's great that she has Kaede for a partner! Kaede will find that switch for her and push it good! Uh. So to speak.
"You seem wired," Kaede says.
"Are you trying to pun again?" Pao-Lin says.
Kaede looks innocent. "Are you? Wired?"
Pao-Lin sighs. "It's so annoying not to be able to just hit the gym after a job. I might go for a walk, maybe."
"You feel like going for a walk with me?" As Kaede says walk, she mimes tipping a beer bottle into her face.
It take a moment for her to warm up, but then Pao-Lin gives her that devastating, sweet little grin. "I don't know about a bar," she says. "I'm a little wiped to deal with fans." Pao-Lin's suit never did much to disguise her, and in consequence she gets recognised all the damn time.
"My apartment just happens to have beer," Kaede says. "It also happens to have wasabi peas, take out menus and video games."
"You had me at wasabi peas," Pao-Lin says. She shuts her locker and turns fully in Kaede's direction. There's another of those stunning, heart-melting smiles. And – was that an eyebrow wiggle? Was it?
Kaede totally keeps her cool.