Zoids is copyright Tomy and Hasbro, I don't own anything.

.hacksign - Fake Wings

The cool metal touched his temple, brushing past the hair to rest solidly against the bone, the chill causing the young teen to shiver. He was sitting, staring blankly, unblinking, out the window, at the sunset. The sun had already gone down behind the mountains, but warm golds and reds of the evening still reached across the sky. They weren't of any comfort to the young man. The beauty wasn't lost on him, but at this point, it just served to tear his heart open further. Swallowing heavily he began to pull back on the trigger. But he suddenly jerked it back forcefully.

The barrel slipped from his head, slinging up into the air, the gun silent, the bullets still resting in the chamber. With shaking hands, he hurriedly found the safety and switched it off. Then he tried to pull back the hammer. It slipped once, twice out of his fingers.

Eventually he found it. It took both hands to pull it back. It clicked into place with a finality that sent another chill through his body, despite the fact he was sweating profusely even in the air-conditioned air around him. His shirt stuck to him in places, damp in obvious patches.

Nervous. He was nervous. That was clear for all to see.

The revolver rose again, pushing up, through, and against his sweat soaked hair, plastered as it was to his skull. His hands were shaking again, and the gun twisted slightly back and forth. He took a deep breath trying to calm his nerves.

In a few moments it would all be over.

"Yanno, if you wanted to kill yourself you picked a bad gun to do it with."

Jaime's head slewed around, the gun dropping to his lap where he tried to hide its presence.

Brad just crushed out the cigarette he'd been smoking and stepped into the room, dropping the butt into the wastebasket by Jaime's desk which he leaned against. He half-sat on top of it.

"The .45 would have worked better ya know. That way you wouldn't be laying on the floor twitching, waiting for your body to decide if it was really dead. And why the hell would you want to blow half your head across the wall anyway?"

Jaime, now nervous for more reasons than one, just stared and stammered silently. The major problem with this situation was that the gun in his lap belonged to Brad. Jaime had stolen it weeks ago when the rest of the team was out in town.

Seeing that he wasn't getting a response, Brad just went on talking, lighting another cigarette as he did.

"Look Jaime, I don't know what problems you've got or think you've got, but I can tell you that putting a bullet in your head isn't going to make anything better. Whatever problems you had, sure they'd be gone, but what about the problems you'd make by killing yourself? We'd have to deal with your death too Jaime, but we'd have the real hard part; all of us, the Doc, Bit, Leena, Leon, hell even Naomi, we'd have to go on. Just be sad and get on with life yanno?" His tone was gentle. He wasn't rebuking Jaime, wasn't scolding, wasn't accusing, Brad was just talking, eating up the silence. "And that's not what I want to do, kid."

Jaime's reply came almost in a monotone. He wasn't looking at Brad. "You weren't supposed to be here."

Brad, in turn, hmphed slightly at that.

"Of course I wasn't supposed to be here. You wouldn't have tried this is you knew I was. I played possum when Toros came to get me for the trip into town. The thing is Jaime, I knew you had my gun. I knew the first time I went into my room."

Just that matter of fact statement that all this time, Jaime hadn't been fooling anyone, trying to act the same, trying to be the same person when it was eating his soul from the inside...

"You...you knew."

Wonderment was plain in his tone.

Brad took a drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke out before replying.

"Yeah. I did. I've been worried about it for a while. And you too. So has Bit. Toros and Leena....well they've been a bit busy with other things, but even those two asked about you a few days ago, thought you were a little off. They don't know about the gun, no. Here's the thing Jaime, I know that suicide won't solve things. Oh yeah, your problems will be gone, no question there, but trust me, that's only the start of things for the rest of us."

Jaime opened his mouth, but Brad waved him to silence.

"There was a guy, back in my hometown, younger than us and he liked to hang around, wanted to be part of our group. We probably would have been about 16 or 17 then, he was a few years younger, probably 'bout 14 if that old. We never paid him too much mind, but no matter what, no matter how hard we kicked him or ignored him, he'd always be back, like some damned homeless puppy. It was kind of flattering at first, no one had ever looked up to me before. I felt important yanno? I felt like I was finally somebody worth something. We all kind of felt that way. Looking back though, we probably weren't the best role models in the universe, but by God we were probably the most interesting."

Brad grinned a little at that, remembering the fun times, the pranks Jon, Eric, Hal, and himself pulled off. They'd raised more than little hell.

Then his grin faded, his grief still as hard and jagged as volcanic glass, tearing open poorly-healed wounds of long ago.

They'd gotten their share of hell too. Hal had died, Jon almost had. They'd become something, lead themselves into something that had consequences they didn't understand 'til it all had hit and was over. Hal had died, stabbed and beaten. Ed had too. Ed, the boy who was too young to have been mixed up in what happened. Ed, who had been with Hal, who had run at the knives. Ed, who hadn't wanted to die.

"His name was Ed, a kid who wanted to be tough, wanted to be like we were. Nothing wrong with that I suppose 'cept he didn't have the heart for it. His was too big you see, he didn't like to fight, he didn't like to get into trouble. After awhile we stopped minding though, we let him hang around. But damned if he was too young to get mixed up in what happened."

At Jaime's curious, though half blank look, Brad waved a hand, smoke from the almost dead cigarette leaving pale curls in the air.

"Ancient history kid, stuff you won't care about. Long story short, one of my friends died..."

He was murdered
sounded in-mind

"...and Ed thought he was responsible for it. Thing is Jaime, we never had a chance to explain that to him. He was hiding from us, sure we would blame him. In fact we were kicking ourselves for what happened, it was our fault he was there in the first place. But he hid and we couldn't find him. Not in time, at any rate. You see Jaime, he felt so bad about what happened that he took a knife and jammed it through his own neck. He wanted to die he felt so bad. Doctor said he was aimin' for the spine, but he missed. Told me that it took a while for him to die, bleeding out of the neck like he did.

"It's not that I'm trying to scare you Jaime, but I want you to know what you're going to be doin' to the rest of us. I've had to live with one friend dying on me and Ed killin' himself on account of it. I don't need you on that tally. I don't want you there. So, c'mon and talk to me, man. Tell me what's going on in your head. I'm not tryin' to preach, Jaime. I'd probably be struck by lightning if I did. But you know the rest of us. We're here for ya."

Brad crushed out the cigarette, tossed it into the wastebasket and tucked the half-empty pack into his pocket, getting up as he did. Without a word to Jaime, he reached down and pulled the gun from the unresisting teen, clicking the safety back on and easing the hammer forward with the ease of well-practiced skill. He emptied the chamber, took the six rounds out, and tucked the empty gun into his longvest.

Night had fallen fully during the time Brad had spent talking. He regarded the teen in the dim starlight. Jaime was still staring more or less out the window and for all Brad could tell was catatonic.

Brad sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"Look, I've said my piece. If you're hell-bent on this, I won't be in your way. But at least, maybe, I've gotten you to thinking about it. If you're going to still go through with it and kill yourself, you're not making me shoulder your death too. I won't be in your way Jaime, but I won't help you along."

Brad turned and walked out of the room. As he was shutting the door, he paused for a moment. Without looking back at Jaime he gave one parting statement.

"If you want to keep talking, if you just want to pass the time, I'm in my room. Drop by man. You've always been welcome."

You've always been welcome. That's what Brad had said. But was it true? How much of what had Brad said was true? Jaime blinked every now and again but that was the only movement he made, not counting the in and out of his chest as he quietly breathed. His mind, however, twisted in a chaotic turmoil of thought, wondering if Bit and Leena and even the Doc were worried like Brad had said.

Should he ask? Did he want the real answer if Brad had been lying? Did he really want to know if Brad was telling the truth? What if....what if the truth was that everyone was worried? He'd thought no one noticed him, no one cared. Now Jaime knew that at least Brad did.

Still, the question nagged. Should he ask?

Without an answer, everything swirled in mind, churning endlessly, restlessly. Circles, circles. Going in endless circles.

What do I have to lose?
The answer came to him immediately, dredged up from his mind. All I can lose is my nerve. But if I can't even get the courage to kill myself...am I a coward then?

Time dragged on. As with most human beings, curiosity slowly invaded. Before, his questions sprang only from wonderment, surprise. Now though?

Now Jaime felt the need to know. He wanted to know.

The insatiable drive of the human mind to find answers, the same drive that had propelled geniuses for centuries to pioneer where no one had before. In greater or lesser degrees all people possessed it. And it drove Jaime out of his room now, thrusting him through the door.

Outside, in the halls of the base, everything was quiet. That was normal though. Each trip to the semi-far Romeo city took two days for the round trip, sometimes three. It was a time of blissful aloneness in the base, for whomever chose to stay.

The concrete was cold under his feet, the chill of desert night seeping in. He shivered as the drying sweat on his clothes hit cold air as he began to move. He couldn't remember deciding to go but here he was, stepping through the halls. It was like watching someone else, watching someone's life through a daze.

Everything in the past hours now seemed colored by disbelief. He was having a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that he really had put a gun to his head with the intent of pulling the trigger and letting a bullet rip through his head. When Jaime took a step back and examined himself, it was hard to picture himself ever doing something like that but he knew he had.

Or at least, he'd tried.

Brad's door stood closed in front of him, as it usually did. A kind of sanctum, the unwritten rule that you didn't knock on a closed door without reason and yet....and yet Brad had said he was welcome. He raised his hand to knock, hesitated, lowered it a bit, raised it again. He hung paused before the door, unsure knuckles barely drifting in the air above the metal.

Deep breath, a timid knock. Wait....

The door opened. There Brad stood, a cigarette between his fingers. Behind him the room was dark, a single lamp on the desk illuminating things. A mug, most likely full of coffee, rested in the glow. The air smelled strongly of smoke and nicotine.

"C'mon in."

Brad turned and went back to where he'd been sitting, the desk chair. There wasn't another one in the room, and Jaime stood bewildered for a moment until Brad motioned, with a slight tilt of his head, towards the neatly made bed. Jaime nodded absently and closed the door behind him, more out of habit than anything. However there existed a subconscious element, something in him that wanted privacy.

Unburdening one's soul was not something done in public. Tacitly, both agreed.

Silence lingered for a moment, broken only by the soft rasp as Brad ground out the barely lit cigarette.

Neither of them, now that the initial outburst had passed, knew where to go, what to say.

Yet all silence is inevitably broken. Jaime's voice came in a whisper.

"Why didn't you tell Doc and the others? Why'd you stay here?"

Brad sucked in a breath and exhaled before replying. "Truthfully? Probably 'cause I didn't think Toros or Leena could handle knowing you had problems this bad. They'd freak and help and just make things worse by trying. Nothin' 'gainst them, but it's the truth. They mean well, 'specially Toros, but....he doesn't know when to back off. Leena? She's got potential, but sometimes she's a bull in china shop, yanno? Little too blunt with the truth. Bit … well, I think he'd understand better than you think. I'm sure he's had his share of problems just like us. I can't say why he left, God knows if Bit wanted to be here he'd be here. All I can say is ask him when he gets back."

Brad paused there, letting that sink in. He picked up the mug from the desk and drank some of the coffee, grimacing at the taste. It was getting cold.

"And I told ya before, I was worried. You took my gun Jamie. You expect me not to care about that? I'm not blind. I could see you were having troubles, things were gettin' to you. So talk to me. What's got you this down?"

"It's stupid..."

"Not if it's worth killing yourself over."

"Well..." he paused as though trying to find the words but was clearly groping, reluctant, until it all began to burst out, "...it's the way everyone acts! They ignore me, no one listens. When I plan for the battles, when I make strategies, no one listens. Not Bit, or Leena, not the Doc, not even you! Everyone bugs me when it's time to cook, when paperwork needs to be done, when they want something. I try and keep this team up, but Toros spends all the money on the Shopping Channel, and zoid models, and Leena wastes her ammo..."

Jaime wound down, his eyes finding the floor, but Brad didn't interrupt. The man stayed silent, his only movement being to flick some ash from the end of his cigarette into the ashtray.

Jaime looked back up. "…it feels like everyone just used me whenever they wanted to. Bit used to me to get to the top, Toros used me to bring back my dad, you used me to get points and prize money. I got shorted out of every battle I had. The first time I did anything successful I blacked out! The only battle I remember was against the Elephander and I was knocked out of that right at the beginning. Do you know what's it like to sit on the sidelines and watch as everyone and everything races ahead of you?"

"Yeah Jamie, I do." Brad's voice was quiet. "I was out in the battles remember? I got mauled by the Elephander same as you, I was roasted by the Tasker Sisters, I had my Wolf blown apart around me. I damn near killed the Fox when I tangled with the Berserk Fury. I've lost more zoids than I care to count and I know the only reason I've come this far is because I rode the Blitz team like a gravy train. Without y'all I wouldn't have crawled past Class C. And I know it."

The conversation lapsed again. Both fidgeted, Jamie trying to make himself more comfortable on the bed and Brad staring intently for a moment at his half-burned cigarette before crushing it out. Brad reached and took another sip of coffee, but almost spit it out. He made a face at the stone-cold brew.

Jamie looked at him. "What?"

Brad gestured with the mug. "Went cold. C'mon, I'm making more. Walk with me."

The older man left the room and Jamie, for a lack of anything else and not wanting to be in a room with quite as many guns as Brad had, followed. The base was chill and dim with the desert night, only starlight coming through the windows. The interior of the base was lightless but the both of them navigated through it with the mere memory of where everything was. A hand found a lightswitch and the light clicked on, both pausing to blink and adjust.

Brad busied himself at the sink, washing out the coffee pot and filling it. He seemed to be waiting for Jamie to pick up the conversation again. Jamie didn't, and except for the clink of the coffee pot and the soft sounds of Brad changing the filter, there was nothing between them.

At length Jamie spoke up again, quieter this time. "It just feels like no one cares about me and that all of you only look at me, only see me, when I can useful to the team. I feel insignificant and I don't want to. I don't like it but I don't know what to do about it. I don't like feeling worthless. I want to be someone I can respect and that other people will too. I'm a registered member of an S Class team and I can't even beat Backdraft punks. How's that for the son of the Wild Eagle? I can't compete on the level we've been at and I know it and I hate it. I look at Bit and Leon and you and I see someone I look up to and that others do to. I'm living in my dad's legend and you know what Brad? I don't think I'll ever get out of that. And if that's what I'm looking at for my life...."

Brad took that in without interrupting. He didn't say anything for a while either, but finally, broke the minutes-long silence.

"Look, Jamie. I can tell you that you're not alone all I want, tell you 'til I'm blue in the face, but until you figure it out there," Brad pointed a finger not at Jamie's head, but at his gut, "until it's locked in right there, I'll only be wasting my breath. Sometimes we don't want to believe that we're not the worst off, that we're not that special. Truth is, none of us are as special as we like to believe. And we hate hearing that because it removes the little pedestal we've built to make ourselves noticed. But that kind of recognition? It isn't what we're looking for and isn't what we need."

"Thing is kid, we all have something we have to live up to and it always looks too hard, too high to reach. You've got the Wild Eagle, your dad who was a Champion in his day. You're not alone. Leon's looking at a double set of shoes to fill. He's got Toros's rep to live up and then he's got his own standards. He's bound and determined to climb to the top even if it's on a pile of dead zoids with him dead at the top. He's not born to it Jamie, he's not that kind of man, but damn, he wants it. Or even Naomi. Look at her. She built her rep from the ground up and along comes Bit who stole the rug out from under her. Now she's got to build everything again. For as many people there are in the world, there's that many legends to live up to."

"What about you?"

"Me?" Brad cracked a smile at him. "I've got my own standards to live by."

His mind flashed to the memory of an old parish priest standing with a group of young boys, squatting in the dust with them and telling stories. There was silence again as the coffee brewed then poured. as both men decided to indulge.

"So," Brad picked up the conversation as they sipped the fresh coffee, "you feel like you don't measure up to the rest of us. Then I've only got two words for you: Get Better. It's simple as that man. You think I got as good as I am without practice? Or that Leon or Naomi did? Or Jack Cisco? I'll admit that they've got a fair helping of raw talent to their names, but without practice it's worth nothing. Take Bit for example," Jamie looked up at the mention of Bit, "he was a golden boy for awhile. Couldn't do any wrong. Couldn't make a mistake because no matter how badly he screwed the pooch in the beginning it always, always, worked out okay. And hell man, we all enjoyed it. We trounced the Backdraft, got the money we needed to pay off the bills, the loans, and even upgraded. It was our wish come true."

"But, we all know what happened. Bit lost against the Taskers, Bit ran into Stoller who's probably one of the only pilots better than Bit is. And then came Vega. Half Bit's age and probably twice the natural skill to boot. Bit knows it too. In the Royal Cup I think Bit came face to face with the next generation and he found out it was better than he was. He stared his own replacement in the face and yanno what he did?"

Jamie could only shake his head.

"Bit gave the kid a thumbs up and took 'im along for the celebratory dinner. Damn near got the kid hooked up too. Not too bad for a blonde, eh?"

Jamie couldn't help but smile at that. The thought that Bit, Bit of all people, could get lucky with women was absurd. The only women Bit had ever met were Leena, who wanted to kill him; Marry Champ, who wanted him for his Liger; and Naomi, who wasn't even slightly interested in men if they weren't Brad. At least as far as Jamie could tell. And the idea that Bit, Bit, could get Vega a girl....it was hard not to laugh at that.

"You're serious? About that last part?" Jamie couldn't help it, he had to ask.

Brad grinned again. "Oh yeah. Bit had to beat 'em off with a stick and when they saw Vega, when the girls found out who he was, well....let's just say damn, I wish I had that kind of luck with women. 'Cept then Naomi wouldn't talk to me....hmmm.....tough choice...."

Jamie could tell he was kidding. It felt good to joke around like this. He could forget about what was bothering him, what he saw as wrong with himself for a bit. Brad, though, wouldn't be deterred.

"Look, I've told you what I think Jamie, but now's the real question. What do you think about all this?"

Brad was staring at Jamie over the rim of his mug as he asked. He proceeded to savor the taste of his coffee as Jaime paused with thought.

"I don't think I can just try harder and get better. I mean all the practice in the world isn't going to do me any good unless I get to test it right? And with us in Class S now I'm not ever going to be sent out to fight. And I don't know what to do about the rest of the team and what's going on. But I don't know how to do anything besides fight in Zoid battles. It's all I know and it's all I have."

Brad thought for a moment, put his mug down, got up, and walked to the main room in the base. He came back in with a newspaper and tossed that in front of Jamie. The teen stared at the headlines without getting whatever message Brad was trying to send. Aforementioned longhaired pilot was again currently sipping his coffee calmly, leaving Jamie thoroughly lost.

"Umm...Brad? If you're getting at something I'm missing it. It's a newspaper. So what? What am I supposed to be seeing?"

Brad set down his mug again, folded his hands together, and rested his chin there.

"There's a whole world Jamie. Leon found himself out there. Maybe you can too. Maybe it won't work for you but hell, maybe what you need is to get away from the team for awhile, get out where no one knows you and no one expects anything of you. Make your own friends and take what place you, yourself, earn and not what you earn with us. You said it right: you can't compete on our level. There's no shame in that, Leon can't, Stoller can't, and Jack can't. If you can't either, well that's okay. Being able to recognize that and admit it; that puts you above alot of other pilots."

"What about you? You said that the only reason you're in Class S is because of the Blitz team."

"Yeah, yeah I did. But I can hold my own against most opponents or work well enough with Bit and Leena to take the opposition down. I may not be able to hack it on my own but I can deal with it here."

"And you're saying I can't!" Now the young man was angry.

"No Jamie. You said that and it's the truth. You're a damn good pilot. Hell, you almost took out a Great Whale King on your own. Who else can boast that besides Bit? You were ready to take on the Berserk Fury and it had already wasted most of Royal Cup. You think that doesn't mean anything? But if you don't think you can compete with the team, if you don't think you can compete on the level we're playing at, then nothing anyone says for does is going to make a difference because you won't believe it.

"That's why I think you should take some time and leave the team. Find somewhere else to go and fight. Another team, join the ZBC, the Guardian Force. Hell, even the Backdraft. Take some time away and find yourself. Find where you're at in life and make yourself become better. Maybe not having people like Leon and Bit and Stoller around will help you see that you're already a good zoid pilot. All you have to do is put in the honest, committed, effort into making yourself a great zoid pilot. Stop worrying about being the old Wild Eagle and make yourself into the new one. Build a new reputation."

Jamie was quiet. It was clear that while he didn't relish the idea of staying nor did he especially like the idea of going.

"…you really think that leaving could help?"

"You know that staying here won't help anything, Jamie, and that eventually I'll be staring at your blood on a wall somewhere and a hole in your head. And I hope to God that if that happens, it won't be because of something I did. I don't want to live with your life on my conscience." Brad gulped down the remainder of his coffee and left the table, leaving Jamie alone again staring into his coffee and the newspaper under it, lost, once again, in his thoughts.

But he wasn't focusing on the bad anymore. The words Brad had spoken circled in his mind. Circles … circles. Despite the fact he didn't want to hear them, the words stayed and nagged him. Maybe Brad had hit on the bare-faced truth of his problems. Maybe he'd hit on the solution too.

Yet Jamie didn't want to leave the Blitz team. He barely knew his dad and it was too awkward to be around him. So where'd that leave him? Almost no money to his name all he really had was the Raynos which he'd bought from Doc with his share of the prize money from the Royal Cup.

The coffee held no answers despite what psychics claimed though there was something....

Jamie moved the mug to one side and read over the headline and caption in the newspaper once and then again.

Guardian Force offensive stalls from heavy resistance; ZBC reserves called up to fight
Backdraft airwings take their toll on landbound forces decimating attacks and hindering all progress in the effort to break the organization. ZBC puts out call for tournament pilots to join the ranks.

Maybe Brad had hit on the solution....you should take some time and leave the team. Find somewhere else to go and fight. Another team, join the ZBC, the Guardian Force...

If the ZBC was hiring, it couldn't hurt to look into the offer.

Sh33p owns Brad's history; I leased it for my hypothetical first-borne child. Ed though is mine.

Thanks to Zinou for beta-reading/editing and convincing me this doens't suck

Leave a review if ya will, thanks for reading, and take care.