Texas was the most foreign place Sousuke had ever encountered, he decided amidst the bustle of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Everything sparkled, and everything imaginable was for sale in shop windows. Liquor from all over the world, designer clothes and accessories, glittering jewelry offering itself for thousands of dollars apiece. Every ten feet was a new smell: cinnamon buns, barbecue, tacos, deli sandwiches, and something called Panda Express. The people were loud, and every time he bumped into a stranger, they met his eyes and said “Excuse me” politely. And while his English was good, he found himself buried under cultural colloquialisms that left him at a loss.
He suspected he would never get used to it. Today, he braved the insanity of Austin to greet Melissa and Miss Chidori as they arrived for a private tour of the University of Texas. It was one of the few prestigious schools that worked closely with private military organizations to further Black technology, and one of even fewer that invited Whispered for further research and cultivation.
Sousuke and Kurz had arrived a week earlier to sweep and secure Chidori's temporary lodging in the case of an ambush. They ultimately deemed ten square blocks safe, which was twice the radius Mithril had specified, and Sousuke was exhausted.
Somehow, Kurz wasn't, and that was in addition to his nightly trips to what he called “Dirty Sixth”.
“It's basically Bourbon Street without the parades,” Kurz had explained, and Sousuke flinched. He remembered being embedded in New Orleans, and how the stench of vomit and urine had never really left him.
Kaname was already full of ways to spend time. “It's actually warm enough, we could all go swimming - I brought a suit for you,” she rambled as they waited on the shuttle, “or we could go listen to music, I have a whole list of places to go -“ (she wasn't old enough to get into any of those clubs) “- and there's a festival downtown, and we could tour the Capitol, and oh, Sousuke, there are bats under a bridge, and they fly at sunset every night!-“ She went on for another thirty minutes, sounding like the human embodiment of an internet search of “Austin”. It didn't sound like she'd spent as much time looking into the school, its curriculum, programs, scholarships, or anything else a graduating senior might need to know. He had spent an entire week making sure there was no way for enemy operatives to do her harm, let alone get within a fifty-mile radius of her, while she looked up every spring-fed body of water within fifty miles.
They arrived at the hotel after what felt like an eternity, given its proximity to the airport. Mao grabbed the majority of the luggage, not wanting to make two trips, and lit what seemed to be a very inconvenient cigarette. “Nice digs,” she remarked. “You two have been here all week? Shit, life must be nice.” She strolled off to check in.
“I doubt you are allowed to smoke -“ he began.
“Johnny Depp smokes,” she called back.
He huffed a frustrated breath, which would have otherwise been wasted on telling her he had no idea what that meant.
“He's the one in the pirate movie Chidori likes,” she added.
It was actually a different hotel than the dive they had been in. The prior week had been teeming with roaches, mildew, mattresses that must once have been crime scenes, and all manner of things for Kurz to complain about. Sousuke wasn't as picky, having spent the majority of his life in far worse. And smoking anything there was obviously well within a guest’s right.
This hotel often played host to musicians and celebrities, so the establishment was well-versed in privacy and security. They were also used to booking the entire hotel for one entourage. It would have to do, since some quiet tension between Mithril and the U.S. military barred them from staying at Camp Mabry. “Oh my God,” Kaname declared when she entered her room, “is this how you guys roll when you're not on some weird assignment? This is ridiculous!”
The Major dumped Chidori's luggage on the bed. “You're currently making Mithril a lot of money, Miss Chidori,” she reminded the Whispered girl. “We're selling the units with the new drives for a shit-ton of scratch, and hundreds have been sold already.”
“I didn't do anything except get kidnapped,” she muttered, glancing away.
Mao looked guilty at stirring up unpleasant memories, and reached for a beer. “I'm just saying, this place is a drop in the bucket for them. Also, Tessa thought you deserved a nice time while you're deciding what to do after you graduate, so she kinda threw her weight around.”
She smiled a little, fidgeting with her purse. “I should get her a souvenir,” she decided, and Sousuke foresaw a long march through every boutique, haberdashery, and custom boot shop on the street in his future.
“I got her a Coyote Ugly shirt,” Kurz offered and, with a sly grin at Sousuke, he added, “I bought it off the bartender who was wearing it.”
Mao’s vengeance was swift, and took the form of Kaname’s smaller travel bag. Clearly, Kaname had worn off on her while he was in Antarctica.
This was going to be a nightmare. He hated urban America.
Ultimately he lost the fight over briefing Chidori on her specific security protocol before she went to the pool. She was determined, she had Mao on her side, and Kurz was never going to object to it, so he sighed and used the free time as an excuse to check in with Kalinin.
He was always surprised at how much the Lieutenant Commander had aged while he was away, but he had gotten better at schooling his features about it.
He studied Sousuke. “Is everyone settled in, then?” he asked. There was something nearly regal about him, transcending the military air about him.
Sousuke tried not to let his annoyance bleed through the feed. “We did not arrive here at the designated time,” he admitted. “We were stuck on a major thoroughfare for over an hour. But we are embedded for the night, until we depart to meet Captain Johnson tomorrow.” Johnson was Mithril’s liaison to the school, and had top-level access to the program Chidori would likely enroll in. Officially, it was part of the biochemistry department, but it was highly classified and very small. The single-greatest minds in the world were ensconced in that department.
"Johnson is a good man,” Kalinin assured him. “Perhaps overly fond of coeds, but everyone has their vices.”
Sousuke remained studiously silent on that point.
“And where is Miss Chidori now?” he asked.
“She was supposed to be reviewing her security packet at the moment,” Sousuke admitted, reddening, “but she... ah, rather insistently announced she would be visiting the pool. Sir.”
“The pool,” the Lieutenant Commander repeated.
“Sergeant Weber and Major Mao are acting as her detail,” he added desperately.
To his surprise, the man laughed a little. “Sergeant, I know you never had the opportunity to be a normal teenager, but I'm afraid this is what they do. Don't worry about getting in trouble just because she decided to buck responsibility and do what she wanted.”
That sparked a little resentment in him that he squashed quickly.
“Before Mithril came into her life, she was a normal teenager,” Kalinin reminded him. “She had no idea that she was extraordinary, and that her life could never again be what it was for that reason. That was why the Captain fought so hard for the time you have there now: whatever decision Miss Chidori makes, Mithril will never be too far away from her. Mithril is currently profiting from her suffering, selling those Arm Slaves to friend and foe alike. She is part of the machine now, and the machine will never let go of her, no more than it will ever let go of you. They will inspire in her the same loyalty they inspired in Captain Testarossa, and instill the obedience they value in you. So let her swim, and shop, and eat whatever she wants. Let her be a teenager,” and there was a sadness in his voice that struck Sousuke deeper than a bullet. “Because she’ll have that taken away from her someday, just like you did.”
That truth made him want to scream. It made him want to run.
Sousuke found himself by the pool eventually, doing the only thing that soothed his nerves when his mind churned like this: dismantling and cleaning every single firearm in their impressive arsenal. Even with his swift movements, it tended to take forever. But the repetition and the care he poured into the act set his brain to soft white noise, blessedly still.
“Anything new from on high?” Kurz asked, soaking up the hot sun in the lounge chair beside him.
“No,” he said shortly.
Kurz peeked at him over his shades, which were doing a poor job of hiding how obviously he was ogling Mao and Chidori. “Is that a bad thing? Because this is your bad-thing routine, dude.”
He glanced up, surprised. “Excuse me?”
Weber gestured at the massive undertaking he was buried under. “You always keep the primary kids in good shape, but you don't usually bust out the grandkids for a bath unless you're working through some shit. What did Kalinin say?”
Sousuke bit down words. He said we took an innocent girl and stole her life. We sold her freedom for machines, and for knowledge we don't even understand. We stole her away from a real future, and patted ourselves on the back for it. So let her have fun now, because we are going to chew her up and spit her out, and move on to the next one.
“Nothing,” he snapped, slamming down the piece he was currently reassembling with enough force that he found himself the focus of three alarmed gazes.
Kaname sat up in her float, a deeper concern in her eyes than the others, and he found he couldn't even look at her. She had been so peaceful, drifting in an inflatable panda, and he had fucked that up, too.
“Sousuke?” She was apprehensive.
He turned his back to her and went back to his task, guilt and anger guiding his hands and his mouth. “I just would have preferred that you made yourself familiar with how not to be apprehended in a hostile situation, rather than which flotation device best facilitates an even tan,” he snapped. “But then, I have always ended up being the only one who keeps Mithril’s precious asset alive, so I am not surprised.” That was all she was to them: an asset. He was protecting a person, he was named guardian to someone he cared about, and they were protecting an investment. They would make another should anything happen to her. They would throw her away.
Hurt flickered in her eyes before she narrowed them angrily, and he realized how he sounded. “Protecting me is your job, you maniac asshat, not mine. Besides, don't you have the exclusive inside scoop on everyone who wants to dig around my brain with a spoon now, Kashim?”
His palm crashed down onto the table. “That name is not yours to call me!"
He didn't realize he was saying it until it was out there, hanging like a lead balloon in the air, and he wished he could snatch the words back immediately. No one said anything, but he saw the barest flash of guilt in her eyes.
“Miss Chidori,” he said, head falling forward into a grimy hand.
“Thanks, Sergeant, but I've heard enough.” She shoved her sunglasses and headphones back into place, and shut him out.
His burner phone buzzed, and he glanced at it in surprise. It was a text he had no context for, from a number he didn't recognize. He hated burner phones and their recycled numbers.
[I'm craving kimchi fries right now]
He pushed the phone away miserably, wanting to spill a thousand apologies to Chidori, but not even knowing five words of them.
Melissa climbed out of the pool, never reaching for a towel as she barreled down on him. Somehow, she seemed more dangerous in her red bikini than she did fully dressed and armed. But she was a natural weapon, and the less she wore, the more of it she revealed. “Sagara, what the fuck?” she snapped, yanking him to his feet.
“Hey, babe, I'll talk to Miss Chidori,” Weber cut in gently. “There’s a lot going on, we're all under a lot of stress -“
“No,” she shut him up. “You're not Sagara's ambassador to Chidori. What was that? You apologize to her, Sagara, and you make the kind of apology where it's so fucking heartfelt that you can't bear to do it in front of other people, and you pull it out of the bottom of your goddamn heart, and that is an order.”
He shrank under her fury, his own having fled and left him empty. “I don't know what to say,” he said quietly.
“Oh, you have time to figure it out,” she assured him hotly. “I would put a few hours between you and her, if you’d like to survive the conversation.” She sighed noisily. “What the hell, Sousuke? That was uncalled for, and you're never mean.”
His stomach lurched. “I don't know. I do know. I'm... thinking about a great deal, and I don't know how to approach much of it.”
His phone buzzed again.
“Well figure it out,” Mao told him hotly.
[I saw a truck at the corner of 8th and Trinity that claims they make the best]
He stared at his phone, frowning.
“Now what?” Melissa demanded.
He set it aside carefully, now. “Simply a wrong number.”
She sighed. “These fucking phones.”
“I will apologize to Miss Chidori,” he promised, the pain he caused her when he lashed out burning into his soul. He tentatively picked up his project and slowly continued, but kept a wary eye on Melissa in case his promise wasn't enough.
She slipped back into the pool, still glaring at him, and Kurz knew when to shut up, so he retreated quietly into his task.
[Or tacos. When in Rome, you know.]
[I believe you have the wrong number. Please do not contact this phone again] Sousuke texted, reaching for a cloth to wipe the grease from his screen.
He turned back to the pile of guns before him, and grabbed one of the lighter machine guns for attention. But he did it under the weight of Melissa’s impressive glare, which took away some of the zen art of it.
The sun crawled across the sky, and no one seemed to get any happier with him as it did.
He picked up his phone suspiciously.
[I don't think you appreciate how hard it is to be bored in an active shooter situation]
Sousuke didn't drop his phone, but it was a near thing. He closed his eyes and tried not to start throwing things, taking one deep breath at a time. He stood up calmly and said, “I'm going to start arranging my belongings,” hoping it didn't sound like a lie, and walked back to his own room.
When the door clicked shut, he pulled up the anonymous number and called it, his hands shaking. It rang once, in tandem with his roaring pulse, and he waited for a stranger to answer and tell him he had a wrong number. It rang twice, and he hoped no one would answer at all.
On the third ring, the line connected. “What part of active shooter situation makes you think I have time to talk?” Gauron asked him. It was a reasonable question.
“You had time to text,” was all he could come up with, followed by “What makes you think I have time to talk?”
“Well, you called me, so...”
Sousuke very nearly chucked his phone across the room. “Are you serious?” he snapped tightly, running another filthy hand through his hair and pacing his room like a caged animal.
“Well, about that active shooter thing... I may have been leaning a bit towards the grandiose. It's actually a sniper who's had me pinned here since midnight,” he chuckled. “Who knew this place had such a rough part town? This belongs in Fallujah, not the land of hippies and music festivals.”
“You're in Austin?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, Kashim, I'm working. I'm also currently sitting in the corner of a room on the sixth floor of a building with no roof, a few blown-out walls, and about six dead assholes lying around for ambiance.”
“And how exactly did that lead to your current predicament?”
“A few of the dead guys are drug dealers, and their security is nothing I can't handle,” he dismissed in the grossest understatement Sousuke had ever heard. “I wasn't expecting a fucking sniper in this situation, would you? He's no pro, just some idiot with a decent rifle. He was just lucky enough to get the drop on me.”
“So you are stuck with no clear path to an exit, because you did not factor in all potential threats, and now you're trapped in the scope of an amateur sniper and can't get out,” Sousuke surmised, not missing the irony of his situation.
It wasn't a little bit funny. It wasn't, and he absolutely did not have to make an effort to keep his voice neutral. “Where are you?” he asked, imbuing as much irritation as he could.
“Somewhere east, off of Cesar Chavez. Don't worry your pretty little head over me, Kashim, you know how the big leagues go. This is a waiting game, and this guy isn't prepared to wait six days for me to show my hand, but I am. He's a rookie. He's going to fuck up, and I’ll go one further and bet you he does it first thing in the morning. Now,” Gauron continued, and Sousuke heard the flick of a lighter, “the world being awake when this happens will make my job a little harder, but I’ll adjust accordingly.”
“What kind of backup does he have?” he had to ask.
“The dead kind.”
Sousuke pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. “You kill six people, and yet you text me about one ‘idiot with a decent rifle’. Just send me your coordinates.”
“Are you planning on mounting an elaborate rescue, sweetheart?” His tone was mocking, but Sousuke heard the undercurrent of tension in his voice. He shoved his hair out of his face, hyper-aware of how apprehensive that made him in return.
“Elaborate is your department, not mine,” he said dryly. “Send me as much information as you can.”
“I don't need to be rescued, Kashim,” Gauron emphasized, “but if you're going to insist on big gestures, at least do me one favor.”
“And what is that?” he asked.
His voice was low and cold, a reminder of what kind of man he was, and what he did.
“Leave him alive.”
Sousuke quietly arranged the few things he would need in a small bag, opting to travel light, and tucked a pistol into the bag rather than holster it. It wasn't his service pistol, which was registered with Mithril and could be identified if someone looked in the right places. He waited for the cover of darkness, and for the others to retire to their respective rooms. When it had been still and silent long enough, he stepped out onto the street.
Large cities always amazed him, teeming with life even as the rest of the world settled down. People were still wandering the street in throngs with pizza and ice cream and smoothies. On one corner a man played the conga drums, and on another, a man sat cross-legged with a guitar. The city would sleep eventually, but for now it was thriving.
It took him an embarrassingly long time to get to his destination, because somehow there was still traffic, but he had the cab drop him six blocks from his destination. He paid cash and slipped into the darkness.
There was still light pollution staining the sky, but this part of town was poorly lit, and the quiet was uneasy. The windows in each building he passed were blown out and broken, ragged curtains whipping in the wind. They were old concrete things, possibly apartments at one point, but uninhabitable now.
And yet he felt eyes watching him from those windows.
He understood the Iraq reference now. Many of the roofs had long since caved in, and the structure beneath them was crumbling away in chunks that gathered on the ground like deadly jungle gyms, all shattered concrete and rebar and glass. It was a creeping collapse, as the rebar still twisted into the buildings and continued to pull.
This was a graveyard, with eerie stirrings behind the broken windows.
As he approached his target, he reached for the slim glasses in his bag. He switched them on and scanned the building for heat signatures.
And there was one, on the four-story roof, flat against the ground. Only one. He had no idea what Gauron was up to, rooting around worthless drug dealers in abandoned buildings that likely served as crack and meth houses, but they truly had no idea who’d descended upon them.
Sousuke paused, because there really was no need for him - Gauron was right, this would likely be over by morning.
But he was already here, and the cab had been expensive, so.
He crept into the building silently, bringing his gun up as he ascended the stairs. He was quick and noiseless, and he pulled himself up the crumbling frame onto the roof.
He still hadn't been noticed, but then, he hadn't wanted to be, and he wasn't exactly behind enemy lines in Somalia.
When he pulled back the hammer, it cracked like thunder in the silence.
The rifle clattered to the ground as the man rolled over, looking up at him in shock as he scrambled for his own weapon. Sousuke moved in close and pinned him, his gun digging into a fleshy chin, and he saw the moment the man realized there was no point.
“I'm sorry,” he told him softly. “I know you were just doing your job, but I'm afraid you did it to the wrong man.”
He fired two shots: one to the right elbow to prevent using a gun, one to the left knee to prevent escape, and then he struck him unconscious with the butt of his gun. It would only last for a minute or two, but that would be enough.
He tossed the pistol to the ground and put his gloves in his pocket, sparing a glance up at the building across the street. It was too dark to see anything, but for just a second, he caught the flash of a lighter in the confines of the top floor. It was too far away to see the burn of the cigarette.
He paused, half-expecting something else to happen, his heart racing.
Sousuke had named this once, but he wouldn't do it now. Not here, like this.
He left as quietly as he had come.
Sousuke arrived back at the hotel in running shoes and an athletic shirt he’d nicked from Kurz, having changed hastily as soon as he hit the river. A black-clad figure slinking away from a crime scene was conspicuous, but a jogger by the water was invisible. Everyone here wore yoga attire and athletic clothes, whether they were doing those activities or not.
Kurz, as though summoned, was lounging in the green space shared by the rooms, smoking what was definitely not a cigarette. “Late night run?” he said, splayed out in a pool chair.
Sousuke gave him a disapproving look, but it didn't pack its usual punch.
“Some dude playing the drums on the corner sold me this for five bucks,” he continued.
“Don't let the Major see that,” was all Sousuke had for him. “We're on assignment.”
Kurz sized him up - borrowed attire, winded, gone without a word in the middle of the night. “Should I start guessing wildly?”
“Don't bother,” he muttered, pulling out his room key.
“Hey, don't let the Major find out,” Kurz called after him, “we’re on assignment.”
Sousuke slammed his door in response.