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Full Metal Panic! Bonds

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“I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It's only when we use them for good or evil that they become good or evil.”
-William Gibson

 

Dancing Very Merry Christmas

 

December 23, 1558 hours, local time
Meridia Island Whispered Research Facility
578 miles south of Japan

 

“...Base material of the intervertebral disk dampener...chemical reagent for the palladium reaction...total invisibility incomplete...laser screen oscillation system overload...ozone smell...”

The words murmuring out of the blue-haired young woman's mouth were an incomprehensible jumble of technical jargon related to Arm Slaves and black technology, but the activity stemming from her hands, her fingers a blur as she keyed in information she neither saw nor fully comprehended, was as clear and concise as any scientific journal. Technicians scattered at workstations around the room struggled to keep up with the stream of data flowing from the young woman’s mind through her fingers, processing and sifting the information to the workstations where it would be most relevant.

To anyone who had not seen the process before, or did not work with it daily, it would have been a mind-numbing experience. To Sergeant Major Sousuke Sagara, mercenary of MITHRIL, Arm Slave pilot, and boyfriend of the young lady in the coffin-like glass chamber, it was unnerving and disturbing to watch. A chill crept down his spine at the sight of the blank, almost lifeless expression on her face, the absolute flat tone to her words.

Shaking himself out of his discomfort, he turned to look down at the workstation he was standing behind, feeling a migraine coming on as he attempted to make some sort of sense out of the stream of numbers and words flowing across at a pace that seemed impossible to track with the human eye. Tearing his eyes away from the screen, he glanced at his wristwatch, a very fancy timepiece that had been a six-month anniversary gift. This session should be over shortly.

“Early as usual, I see, Sergeant Sagara,” a warm voice called to him.

He turned to see the lead research technician, one Doctor Julia Vasser, approach him, carrying two plastic cups of water, which were both handed to him. Nodding his thanks, he consumed the contents of one, then held onto the other, which was intended for his girlfriend once the session had ended. “I always plan to be ahead of schedule,” he answered politely. “Except for my funeral.” And other events I won’t name to anyone but Kaname, he thought to himself, fighting hard not to turn red.

Doctor Vasser smiled. “Yes, it’s always best to procrastinate in arriving for one’s own funeral,” she said, then glanced at a clock on the wall. She turned to another technician and said, “Joe, bring her out of it. We’re done for today's session.”

“Powering down neural resonator,” the technician reported, entering commands into his station, turning dials, and flipping switches. A steady humming sound appeared in the room, then began to lower in volume. “REM amplifier offline. System disconnect in three...two...one...” He completed this report by pointing to the glass chamber, the lights within which had gone off.

Nodding, Doctor Vasser turned toward Sousuke and gestured to the chamber. “She’s all yours, Sergeant,” she said with a faint smile. “Remember to approach slowly so that she can acclimate to the presence of your aura and come out of her trance on her own time, give her the water, and then see to it that she has something substantial to eat in the next hour.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sousuke answered automatically with a nod. It was all business as usual to him, now. He still didn’t understand any of the talk about his aura, despite having it explained to him several times; he had been told that when a Whispered’s abilities come out of their dormant state, they usually key to and resonate with the closest figure with whom the Whispered has formed an emotional attachment. This resonance allows the Whispered to automatically enter what is referred to colloquially as the ‘Whispered trance’ whenever the other figure is in a potentially-harmful situation that the knowledge and abilities of the Whispered in question would be able to influence. The resonance is also useful for slowly coaxing the Whispered out of their trance in a manner that does not cause any psychological harm, otherwise the rapid transition from the mentally-heightened state to normal mental activity could cause irreversible brain damage.

All that meant to Sousuke was that he would be nearby at the beginning and ending of each of these sessions.

Sousuke turned from the doctor and began to slowly approach the resonance chamber, attempting to project an ‘aura’ of comfort and stability as he neared. It wasn’t hard; all he had to do to put comfort and stability on his mind was reflect on the fond memories of the past two and a half years. As he neared, he watched her shift slightly in the chamber, a smile lighting up her face. Over the past several years spent researching the Whispered, it had been learned that they possessed the ability to view surface images of the person they resonated with while they were in their trance. Though it wasn’t outright telepathy, some theorized that, with practice, a Whispered could learn to read the thoughts of the person they resonated with.

Less than two paces away from the chamber, it swiftly lowered from its inclined position to a flat horizontal plane, looking all the more like a coffin, if not for the happy expression on the face of the girl within. Stopping beside the chamber, Sousuke watched her for a few moments, unable to resist a smile of his own, then reached over and pressed the chamber release button. With a hiss of compressed air, the top of the chamber rose on hinges on its left side, just as the girl opened her hazel-colored eyes.

Smiling up at Sousuke, she took a moment to stretch languidly like a cat, then sat up on the lower part of the chamber and accepted the cup of water from him, sipping slowly. She wore a gown identical to the kind seen in hospitals across the world, and over it was Sousuke’s old high school uniform jacket. The technicians allowed and even encouraged her to wear it; the smell of gunpowder and machine oil soaked into the jacket was a smell that Sousuke himself carried, that scent a familiar source of comfort for her. The technicians had explained that the familiar scent would help keep her relaxed during the sessions, and allow her to focus the direction of thoughts in her trance, as opposed to drifting along on them like so much flotsam.

“Welcome back, Kaname,” Sousuke said warmly.

Grinning, she reached out her left arm toward him, still holding the cup in her right hand. He obligingly leaned forward, allowing her to wrap her arm around his neck and pull him down toward her, where she then kissed him softly. “How was your day?” she asked, frowning when her dry throat caused her voice to crack halfway through. She quickly gulped down the rest of the cup.

These sessions only lasted two hours, and required her to take no additional time out of her routine to prepare for them, so her question was more a formality than anything else; she had spent most of her day with him, in and out of their classes. “Ayame called,” he told her, softly kissing her forehead as he helped her down from the machine. “She ordered me to remind you that her birthday is next month, and she’s expecting, in her words, ‘tons of presents from big sister.’”

“Looks like we’ll have to go shopping this weekend.”

He nodded and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, walking alongside her toward the changing area. “Kyoko also called. She’s in town for a few days and wanted to invite us to dinner.”

“You accepted?” she asked, tucking her head into his shoulder.

“Of course,” he answered, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. “I told her that we’d love to join her. She’ll be meeting us at our apartment at seven.”

She took a quick glance to a wall clock. It was seven minutes past four. “Okay, we still have time,” she said. “Let’s get back home so we can get ready, hm?”

“Miss Chidori,” a technician called out to her, causing the couple to pause. He held a clipboard in his hands, no doubt the preliminary results of the day’s session. “Are you interested in seeing what we’ve discovered today?”

“No, I can’t today,” Kaname Chidori apologized, bowing slightly to the man. She had no love for her Whispered status, but she usually wanted to see what came out of her head during her muttering trances. “We have a dinner date that we have to get ready for.”

The technician was not put off in the least. “Of course, Miss Chidori,” he said, smiling understandingly. “See you in two weeks, then.”

---

December 23, 1915 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

“I can’t believe it's been so long now,” Kyoko Tokiwa mused as she stared across the dinner table at Sousuke and Kaname. After the couple had returned from Meridia Island, the three had unanimously decided that they would rather have a quiet order-in dinner at Sousuke and Kaname’s apartment, rather than deal with the hassle of eating in a restaurant. “It almost seems like just yesterday that Sousuke was blowing up his first locker.”

“How the times have changed,” Kaname agreed, leaning over and nudging the mercenary with her shoulder. “It’s been what? Two months since you pulled your gun on anyone?”

“Affirmative,” he answered, purposely reverting to his old speech patterns, taking his time in destroying his plate of curry rice. “I have not seen need to use force in the pursuit of protecting Kaname for some time. It has been a very peaceful period.”

The Whispered girl sighed theatrically and shook her head. She knew he was teasing, but she reached over and pinched his side anyway. “And it’d better stay that way, Mister,” she said. “I’ve grown to like not having to worry about what you’re going to blow up.” She leaned in close and whispered, too quiet for Kyoko to hear, “And I bet MITHRIL’s just as happy that you're not wrecking things.”

Kyoko smiled at her friends’ antics. “And you guys have been dating almost three years,” she said in between bites. “It’s amazing you guys haven’t killed each other.”

Sousuke and Kaname exchanged looks, smiled, then she reached over her left hand to grab his right, lacing her fingers together with his. “Yeah, who would’ve thought we’d have ended up together?” Smiling wistfully, she took a moment to review her fondest memories, not the least bit surprised to note that some of them came from before they ever began dating. She squeezed Sousuke’s hand and grinned. “It’s just...”

“I know,” Kyoko said with a knowing smile. “You two are just made for each other.” She paused to take a sip of her tea. “So, have you guys talked about marriage yet?”

“We’ve-”

“Somewh-”

Both of them stopped, having begun speaking at the same time. Kaname blushed, squeezed Sousuke's hand again, and said, “Go ahead, Sousuke.”

He nodded, turned to Kyoko, and answered, “Some discussion has taken place. We haven’t made any decisions yet, but we’re content to take our time.”

Kaname nodded in agreement. “We’ve talked about waiting until we graduate from college, or after this year is finished.” She shrugged, then bit her lip and smiled at Sousuke. “I guess it’ll happen when we decide we don’t want to wait anymore.”

Sousuke nodded. He knew that what he was about to say would earn him a thump, but teasing Kaname was worth it. “Kurz, a penultimate sniper, has commented that my patience knows no bounds,” he said off-handed. “So it will be whenever you don’t want to wait anymore.”

Spitting the mercenary with an icy stare, Kaname pinched the skin between his fingers hard enough to leave a mark. Before she could say anything, Kyoko spoke up in Sousuke’s defense, “He said it before I could, Kaname. We all know that you’re not exactly patient, Kaname.”

Sensing that Kaname was a time bomb about to go off, Sousuke leaned over and whispered something in her ear, causing her to flush bright red and swat at him playfully. The situation successfully defused, he returned his attention to dinner. “You’ve gotten too good at that,” Kaname murmured.

“Necessary survival trait,” he quipped around a mouthful of curry.

She fixed him with another glare and raised her hand as though to swat him. Once again, Kyoko came to the rescue. “You guys are soul mates,” she said, sighing dreamily, and not a little bit jealously. It wasn’t that she had any designs for Sousuke; she’d been the couple’s most ardent advocate since the second day he came to Jindai High School. No, she was jealous that they had managed to find their destined partner, something she had not done for herself yet.

“Soul mate?” Sousuke asked genuinely.

Kaname turned a curious look to him. “You’ve never heard that before?” She was taken aback when he shook his head. “Wow, that... I’m surprised... Well, some people believe that every person has one person out there that they’re destined to love and spend their life with. Some say that this person is their other half, that they complete them.” Leaning over to Sousuke, she turned his face toward her with a finger on his chin and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “In Japan, it’s said that a red string is tied to the pinky fingers of two of these people.”

Obligingly, Kyoko passed a ball of red string to Kaname, who swiftly cut off a length with her knife, then proceeded to tie one end to her pinky, the other end to Sousuke’s. Then she lifted her hand and grinned at the mercenary. “See? That makes us soul mates.”

Sousuke smiled. “Destiny, huh?” he asked, staring at the string attached to his hand. “That sounds great.”

---

December 23, 2018 hours (Japan Standard Time; 1118 Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, Surface
Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan

 

Captain Teletha Testarossa stood in the spacious hangar bay of the palladium-powered assault submarine that she had personally designed, flanked on either side by Commander Richard Mardukas and Lieutenant Commander Andrei Sergeivich Kalinin, a clipboard in her hand that she scanned the contents of.

“Resupply is coming along smoothly, Captain,” Mardukas reported. “All supplies will be aboard and stowed away no later than 2100 hours.”

“Excellent,” Teletha said, passing the clipboard to her left hand in order to twirl her silver-blonde ponytail around her fingers. “And we’re picking up a new member of the SRT as well.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kalinin answered. “A freelance mercenary with a sense of honor and morality. Something of a rarity in this day and age. He’s done work for the United States CIA, the British SAS, and also fought in the joint SAS-USMC action in central Russia two years ago.”

“The Russian Ultranationalists and the missile scare, yes?” Teletha asked, looking up at the taller man.

Kalinin nodded. “Yes. MITHRIL also had forces in that operation, which is where we first encountered him. He disappeared for a while after that, and when he reappeared in Japan just recently, we extended him an offer of employment.”

“And this will be him, now,” Teletha said, lifting her head and nodding toward the figure striding from behind an MH-60 Sea Hawk, military duffel slung over his right shoulder. The figure made a beeline directly for the command trio, and as they waited, Teletha brought the clipboard behind her back, taking a moment to give the man a cursory inspection. He was from America, according to his dossier, and that certainly explained his height, topping out at 6’ 2”. His body type, not easily determined due to the baggy military flightsuit he wore, likely conformed to the athletic build commonly found in soldiers. The dark tan visible on his exposed skin spoke to many days spent fighting in the fields of war, and the unkempt mop of brown hair on his head likewise spoke that he hadn't seen a barber’s scissors in several months.

Stopping in front of them, the man dropped his duffel to the ground, stood at attention, and snapped off a smart salute. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?”

Schooling her features into military neutrality, Teletha returned the salute and answered, “Permission granted. Welcome aboard the Tuatha de Danaan, Mister Crayson.” Lowering the salute, she extended her hand toward the man. “I look forward to working with you.”

“As do I, Captain,” he answered, surprising her by not shaking her hand as she had expected. Instead, he grasped her arm by the wrist, the kind of grip normally employed to pull a comrade out of harm’s way. Teletha instinctively matched his action, and he glanced down at her firm grip on his wrist, smirking in amusement. “Nice grip you’ve got there, Captain.”

Neither of the three commanders of the Tuatha de Danaan knew what to make of this. Kalinin looked curious, Mardukas looked on the verge of dressing the soldier down, and poor Teletha just looked confused. “Umm... you have a strong grip as well, Mister Crayson.” Clearing her throat, she reached up and twirled her ponytail nervously, then turned toward the exit of the hangar bay. She motioned for the mercenary to walk beside her, then began a small tour of the submarine. Mardukas and Kalinin followed behind. “So, Mister Crayson, according to your dossier, you claim your nationality as Malaysian?”

He chuckled slightly, shouldering his duffel again. “No, Captain, that comes down to an error in the personnel computers,” he answered. “I told them that I was Mandalorian, and they misinterpreted it as Malaysian.”

Teletha looked up at him quizzically. “I’m afraid I don't recognize that nationality.” She blinked, realizing how that had come out. “I mean, I’m not trying to invalidate it. What I mean to say is...” She cleared her throat again, and once more set her ponytail to twirling. “I’m unfamiliar with it, is what I mean.”

He nodded in understanding. “Less a nationality than a culture, really,” he explained. “A way of living one’s life. It’s quite a long process to explain.”

“I see,” Teletha said, an interested note in her voice. Kalinin and Mardukas exchanged weary glances; the captain’s innate curiosity tended to cause trouble. “I’d like to take the time to learn about that at some point, if you wouldn’t mind.”

As the quartet passed out of the hangar and into the corridors of the submarine, considered spacious by normal submarine standards, the mercenary was silent for a moment, then gave Teletha a sideways glance. “The basics, sure, but I can’t tell you any of the serious stuff,” he said finally. “That’s only for those with serious intent to become Mando’ade.”

At an intersection, two approaching crew members stopped to salute the passing entourage. Teletha turned to return their salutes, then fixed the mercenary with a confused look. “I'm sorry. Become what?”

Mando’ade,” he repeated. “Mandalorians. It’s our word for ourselves. We have our own language.”

Teletha’s eyes all but sparkled. The young captain craved knowledge, and this sudden revelation of an unknown culture with its own language was a tempting lure. “Oh, that’s...wow.” She brushed her ponytail against her lip, feeling a thrill rush through her at the thought of new things to learn. “Maybe, could you teach me some of the language, at least?”

The mercenary opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, Mardukas cleared his throat and announced in a testy voice, “Captain, Mister Crayson needs to be assigned quarters and be informed as to his assignments.”

“Oh!” Teletha started, her cheeks tinging pink, as she turned an apologetic expression up to the mercenary.

He gave her a knowing smile, rolled his eyes at Mardukas’ intolerance, then mouthed the word, “Later.”

Teletha beamed upon understanding his meaning, then cleared her throat and coughed into her fist. “Yes, yes, thank you, Commander,” she told Mardukas. She turned to the mercenary. “Having accepted a commission from MITHRIL, Mister Crayson, your prior battlefield experiences will earn you the pay grade of E-7, with a bi-weekly stipend of two and a half thousand US dollars, which can be easily exchanged to any existing global currency you wish with no penalty. You will earn an additional five hundred dollars per combat mission per pay period. The bonus is a flat rate, but can change upwards depending on the difficulty of the mission in question.”

“Outstanding,” the mercenary said, walking beside the captain with his hands clasped behind his back. “Getting paid even when I don’t have to go out and kill anyone.” He glanced over to his new commander, noting the stricken expression on her face. “It’s a joke, Captain. If I thrived on killing, I would have continued to sell my services to the highest bidder.”

“We’re pleased to have you with us,” Teletha said with an easy smile, then sobered again. “You’re assigned to the Special Response Team, filling the position of Urzu Five. You have operated Arm Slaves before, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve driven everything but that shiny one I saw in the hangar back there and those new Soviet models.”

“Good.” Teletha nodded in approval. “Then there’s no need for you to undergo training. You are ready to undertake a mission at any time?”

“You point, I shoot, Captain.”

“Quarters have been assigned to you,” she said as the group entered a stairwell and descended one deck. “Do you have any other belongings?”

Shaking his head, he hefted the duffel. “Here’s a freebie about Mandalorians. We’re nomadic by nature, and that means we have to be ready to pack up and move at the drop of a hat. If it’s not useful or weighs you down, it’s not worth having.”

Teletha carefully observed the mercenary as he said this, then turned away, the rest of the walk to the crew quarters made in silence as she appeared to be considering his words, weighing the message as though it were a precious gem. Finally, they stopped outside a set of quarters that the door was not closed to, and Teletha motioned toward it with her clipboard, twirling her ponytail around the index finger of her other hand. “These are your quarters, Gunnery Sergeant,” she said. “Settle in at your leisure. There will be a morning briefing at 0800 tomorrow. You’re off-duty until then.” She gave him a look that very plainly pleaded for him to find time to teach her what things he could about his culture and language.

He nodded and stepped through the portal into his new quarters. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll be there. Is there anything else you need, Captain?”

“No, that will be everything, Gunnery Sergeant,” she said, then smiled and headed further on up the corridor.

Mardukas and Kalinin turned and went back the way they came. “Garon Crayson,” Kalinin mused aloud. “An interesting young man. I find it somewhat amusing that his name is so similar to Gauron.”

“I find it distressing,” Mardukas scoffed. “And this nonsense of his, this mercenary culture, these...”

“Mandalorians,” Kalinin supplied.

“Yes. You noticed how he flaunted that nonsense to distract the captain?”

“I think the nonsense is in your reading of the events, with all due respect, Commander,” Kalinin said. “You know the captain as well as I. She craves knowledge on all new things, and this Mandalorian culture is new. She will learn all of it that he allows her to learn, and things will return to normal.”

“I can only hope, Mister Kalinin, that for your sake, you're right.”

---

December 23, 2110 hours, local time (1210 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan Deck 1, Corridor C

 

Now hear this, now hear this,” the stern voice of Commander Mardukas droned over the ship’s intercom. “All hands, rig for dive. Normal operations mode. All hands, rig for dive. Normal operations mode.”

“Vending machines on a submarine,” Garon mumbled to himself as he looked over the available selection, ignoring the announcement. He reached out a hand to grab the side of the machine, bracing himself as the deck tilted beneath him. “I can see why the US Navy calls this thing the Toy Box. All sorts of amenities and extras you’d never find on a Virginia-class...”

The deck remained tilted for several minutes, before finally leveling off. Having never served on a submarine before, Garon had no idea how deep they had gone; even if he had served on a submarine, he knew that the unique characteristics of the Tuatha de Danaan allowed the next-generation submarine to dive faster than any known boat. Once the ship had leveled, he looked up and down the corridor, shrugged, and let go of the machine.

“Now, about my choices,” he murmured, stroking his bottom lip between thumb and forefinger as he leaned over to inspect the snack food vending machine. “Wow, tons of regional stuff from all over the world in here... What’s a guy gotta do to get a bag of Doritos?”

“A7,” Teletha’s voice called out from his left.

His gaze immediately snapped toward her, followed by his body snapping to attention as he gave a crisp salute. “Captain.”

Teletha promptly returned the salute, then gestured to the machine. “A7 isn’t exactly Doritos, but they’re a Japanese equivalent. They taste the same.”

“Ah, thank you, Captain,” he said, tapping the code into the keypad and watching the machine dispense the bag as Teletha stepped past him and perused the choices of the beverage machine.

“Have you had a chance to explore the ship, Mister Crayson?” she asked, brushing her ponytail across her lip.

“Somewhat,” he answered, peering closely into the snack machine again. “Aha! Sour skittles, there you are, you sneaky little di’kut.” He pleasantly tapped a new code into the keypad after inserting the proper coinage.

Teletha pursed her lips in concentration as she attempted to decipher the meaning of the foreign word he had used through context and intuition. As she did so, she absently tapped her fingers across the selection row of the beverage machine. She didn’t realize she’d pressed down a selection button until she heard the heavy metallic thunk of the can landing in the access tray. Looking down, she blanched when she realized that the beverage she had inadvertently chosen was not one she enjoyed. “No! I didn’t mean to hit that button! I don’t want that one!”

Garon looked over at her curiously. “Captain?”

Still fuming, she huffed out, “Oh, I was just standing here trying to see if I could figure out what that word meant, and I hit that button on accident and got a drink I don’t even like.”

He leaned over to look at the can lying in the tray, then shrugged, leaned over, and inserted enough coins into the machine to pay for a second beverage. “Here, I’ll take that one, since I like it anyway, and you can pick what you want.”

Momentarily forgetting that she was the commanding officer of a multi-trillion dollar assault submarine, she clapped her hands together happily and squealed, “Oh, thank you, Mister Crayson! That’s so generous of you!”

“No worries, Captain,” he said, leaning down to collect the can already in the tray. “And the word di’kut is usually a derogatory word for an idiot or a moron. But in the context I used, it’s harmless, and could be similar to the phrase ‘you sneaky little bugger’ or whatever.”

Nodding her head, Teletha pressed the button for her favorite drink, a fizzy strawberry-flavored milk. “I don’t imagine I would’ve figured that one out,” she said as she watched the can crash down into the tray. After retrieving it, she looked up at her newest crew member, restraining a giggle at the arm full of snacks he carried. “Are you busy at the moment, Mister Crayson?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “What do you need me to do, Captain?”

“I’m off-duty right now, so please call me Tessa,” she said. “If you don’t mind, would you join me in the recreation room? I’d like to start learning about your language and culture.”

He nodded. “Of course. Lead the way, Cap—” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me. Tessa.” Falling into step to the captain’s right, he allowed her to lead the way to the recreation room as his brow furrowed in thought.

Teletha picked up on this. “Something on your mind, Mister Crayson?”

“Just an idle thought, really,” he answered, shrugging. “You prefer it when people call you by your nickname when you’re not on the clock, right?”

She nodded, curious as to where he was going with his questioning. “Yes, that’s right.”

“Very well.” He nodded to himself, as though he’d just come to a decision. “Please don’t take offense, but it feels strange to me to say a name like ‘Tessa.’ So, if it’s okay with you, I’ll call you Tel’ika.”

She tilted her head to the side, wordlessly calling for an explanation.

“’Ika is a diminutive modifier to a name,” he explained. “You take the first syllable of a name, two at the absolute most, cut off the rest, and add ’ika to the end. It means ‘Little...blank’ and is often used for children, but it also is a term of endearment, or a nickname.”

For a moment, she’d almost taken offense at the meaning of the modifier; she was terribly self-conscious about her short stature, after all. But then she saw the new nickname for what it was: his recognizing her desire to learn about his culture, and his cooperation by applying a little bit of his culture to her.

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said, smiling. “But since it also is a term of endearment, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to call me by that. I don’t know you well enough yet.” She modulated her voice up higher at the last sentence, then barely stifled a giggle and skipped around the corner into the recreation room.

Left in the corridor with an arm full of snacks and a raised eyebrow, Garon regarded his captain curiously. “Did she just flirt with me?” He shook his head slowly. “Poor girl has obviously never dealt with a Mando before, and it therefore falls to me to teach her the proper manners.”

Walking into the recreation room, Garon took quick stock of the place. A row of tables along the far wall held four desktop computers. Unsure of the mechanics of the internet as concerned a submarine when underwater, he stopped short of assuming that they had internet access or were used for gaming. Three couches lined the wall immediately to his left, along with two more couches facing the wall on his far left, where a flat-screen plasma television sat silently. A pool table was situated behind the couches, followed by three groupings of large tables for eating, socializing, and that sort of thing. Teletha was sitting on one of the couches facing the television. Crossing the empty room, he came around the side of the couch, which could comfortably fit three people, and sat down at the opposite end from the captain.

“For starters,” he said without preamble, “that curious greeting I introduced to you earlier. It’s the Mandalorian equivalent of a handshake. The reason for the hand-to-wrist grip is to prove that you’ve got the strength to haul a wounded comrade to safety.”

Teletha nodded; she could see the reasoning behind that. She was silent, her eyes pleading for more information, as she sipped the fizzy drink and carefully observed the mercenary.

“The most traditional Mandalorian greeting is Su cuy’gar, which literally translates to ‘So you’re still alive.’ Generally, it’s shortened down to Su’cuy and means the same thing when said that way.” He scratched his head for a moment, then took the time to open the bag of chips and tentatively taste its contents. Satisfied with the taste, he nodded his head. “As you may have already inferred, the Mandalorians are a nomadic warrior society, and usually they produce a lot of mercenaries and bounty hunters. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

Teletha shook her head. “No, no, I understand perfectly. Please, continue.”

He nodded, then leaned back against the couch. It was quite comfortable. “Many view the Mandalorians as a bunch of thugs and honorless brigands who’d cut your throat just as soon as look at you. This is not true. The people who assumed that just broke one of the rules of socially interacting with Mandalorians. They’re simple and easy to understand.” He raised his left hand and began ticking off points. “First, always speak your mind. Second, never turn down a meal if you’re offered one. Third, always look a Mando straight in the eye when you’re talking to one. Fourth, take off your boots when you're a guest. Fifth, pay your debts. Sixth, respect the elderly; if they’re old, that means they’re crafty and skilled enough to have survived to old age, and that means they’ve earned the respect. Seventh, fuss over Mandalorian children. Believe it or not, the Mandos are actually a very family-oriented bunch. And, lastly and most important, never make a pass at a Mandalorian of the opposite sex unless you intend to go all the way, and by that I mean become a Mandalorian yourself.”

At the last point, Teletha blushed and looked away, then blinked, remembered the third rule of dealing with Mandalorians, and forced herself to turn back and meet his gaze. In order to hide her embarrassment, she asked, “How does one become a Mandalorian?”

Smiling, feeling his point to be made, he leaned back into the couch and munched a few more chips. “That’s fairly easy. Follow the Six Tenants, or the Resol’Nare, as we call them. Ba’jur, beskar’gam, Ara’nov, aliit, Mando’a bal Mand’alor- An vencuyan mhi.”

Swamped with so many new words, Teletha wavered in her seat, seemingly about to pass out from sensory overload. She quickly took a sip of her drink, and this managed to calm her down considerably.

Obligingly, he explained, ticking off points again, “Ba’jur. Education. Raise your children as Mandalorians. Beskar’gam. Armor. Wear the Mandalorian armor. I’ll explain that another time. Ara’nov. Self-defense. Defend yourself and your family. Aliit. Clan. Help your clan succeed and sustain itself. Mando’a. Our language. Gotta learn it. Mand’alor. Our leader. When she calls us to arms, we answer the call. An vencuyan mhi. All help us survive. Live the Resol’Nare, and you’re a Mando. That simple.”

Nodding her head in understanding, Teletha considered, for a brief instant, to make a joke that she was already working on learning the language. But in a flash of insight, she realized that it would be a gross insult to make light of one of the core principles of being a Mandalorian. “Yours are a very complex people,” she said. “Sadly, I don’t think that either of us can devote the necessary time for me to learn the language in these kinds of informal meetings. Would you happen to have a written translation dictionary, or better yet, any instructional books on learning the language?”

“A translation dictionary I can give you,” he answered. “I’ve got one stored on a memory chip in my kit, my besbe. No go on instructional books, though. Nobody who would be of the mind to write one took the opportunity to learn the rules on how to socially interact with Mandalorians beforehand.” He grinned darkly. “Most people who don’t know those rules usually end up in a world of hurt.”

Teletha smiled, either oblivious to or unconcerned with the unspoken statement that ‘world of hurt’ usually meant ‘just plain dead.’ “Then since I do know the rules, perhaps I can write just such a book.”

Garon raised his drink can in a toasting gesture. “That would indeed be something to see, alor’ad.”

“Captain,” she stated confidently.

He smiled. “You’re a fast learner.”

---

December 24, 2022 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

Kaname and Sousuke sat snuggled together on the couch in the living room of their apartment. The lights in the living room were turned off, leaving the only illumination in the room coming from the multicolored light strings wrapped around the Christmas tree in the corner. Turning her gaze over toward the tree, Kaname sighed happily and nuzzled her head into Sousuke’s chest, warmed from without by the heater keeping their apartment cozy, warmed from within by Sousuke’s embrace around her.

Looking down at the peaceful girl in his arms, Sousuke wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly, then kissed the top of her head. He took a deep breath, drinking in the scent of almonds and vanilla that came from the particular shampoo she used. Bringing up his right hand, he traced his fingers through her hair, starting from her scalp and slowly threading his way through the soft strands down to their termination point at her hip. She let out another sigh at this contact, reached back to untie the ribbon from her hair, then shook her head, setting the water-colored mane streaming across her shoulders and back.

As she settled herself against him again, Sousuke looked over to the end table at the end of the couch. Reaching over, he tugged open the drawer, reached inside to produce a small, wrapped rectangular box, then closed the door, held the box within Kaname's range of vision, and said, “Happy birthday, Kaname.”

“Hm?” She lifted her head reluctantly, opening her eyes, blinking as she saw the offered box. “Sousuke?” She sat up and took the box in her hands, looking over it, smiling as she saw the tag that read ‘To: Angel’ in Sousuke’s handwriting. Slipping her finger beneath the taped flap at the end of the box, she broke the tape seal, unfolded the end of the wrapping paper, and slid the box within out. Her eyes widened when she saw the name of the jewelry store Zales on the box. She flipped open the box, and nearly dropped it. “Oh, Sousuke...” she breathed, covering her mouth with her free hand.

Sitting inside the jewelry box, glistening in the light of the Christmas tree, was a beautiful bracelet with eight blue topaz gems outlined with diamond-accented sterling silver. She turned the box in her hands, watching the gems sparkle as they reflected the tree’s lights. Feeling tears welling up in her eyes, she looked toward Sousuke, who was watching her carefully, his expression akin to that of a puppy who brought the newspaper to his master and was waiting for praise.

Smiling, Kaname carefully set the box down beside her, then leaned over, wrapped her arms around Sousuke’s neck, and demonstrated exactly what she thought of his gift. When she pulled back moments later, Sousuke was gasping for breath, and she, herself, was likewise breathless. “Thank you, Sousuke,” she whispered. “I love it.”

He smiled and kissed her forehead. “I had an idea, that since your birthday is the day before Christmas, perhaps we should celebrate both on your birthday.”

She grinned. “Thoughtful and efficient,” she said. “Things have changed so much since we first met.” She leaned down and kissed him again. “But I wouldn’t trade anything that’s happened. And I also think that’s an excellent idea. I’ll pass out the presents.”

Standing up off the couch, she took a moment to stretch out her muscles, rising up on her toes and reaching up toward the ceiling, giving Sousuke quite a pleasant view. She then strolled over to the tree in the corner, sat down, and beckoned her soldier to join her. As he stood up to sit beside her, she leaned over and grabbed the first present beneath the tree, looking at the tag on it. There weren’t even half a dozen presents under the tree, but it was something that Kaname took great pride in. Sousuke had spent his entire life on the battlefield, and she was determined to ensure that he could enjoy the things that normal people took for granted.

“This one’s yours, Sousuke,” she said, smiling, as she held it out to him. As she started to reach for another present, she suddenly remembered what that one was, and paused with her hand resting on top of a bow in order to watch, holding her breath, as he opened the present.

Unaware of her eyes on him—it had taken them both many months to train him so that it didn’t set off his combat instincts whenever she watched him—he went about unwrapping the present with as much meticulous care that he would approach assembling a sniper rifle and setting up an observation point. Setting the wrapping paper aside, he pulled the top of the box off, and she caught the subtle upward motion of his eyebrows. Reaching into the box, his hand came back out clasped around the grip of a boxy pistol half the length of his forearm.

“Oh, please tell me that you don’t already have one of those,” Kaname pleaded, wincing slightly. “I looked through all your weapons and didn’t see one like that...”

“Heckler and Koch MP7A1,” he said, turning the weapon over in his hand. “I’ve...I’ve been wanting to have an opportunity to requisition one from the MITHRIL armories.” He looked up at her. “How did you get this?”

She smiled, pleased that she had chosen the correct weapon. “Kurz and Melissa helped me. I paid for it, they used their credentials to buy it and have it brought here, then I had a bit of custom work done to it. Look at the bottom of the stock.”

Tipping the weapon up, he turned his eyes to the lower end of the rear of the retractable stock, seeing that a Valentine heart had been laser-engraved into the metal of the weapon, with the initials SS and KC inside it. Though it was little more than a schoolyard symbol of young love and affection, it was nonetheless special to Sousuke, who always felt as though he was playing catch up in matters of love.

He looked up at her and smiled. “Thank you, Kaname. I’ll always keep this with me, and it’s just one more reminder of why I need to come home safely from missions.”

Kaname literally glowed, then turned and picked up the present she had been resting her hand on, which also was Sousuke’s. She held it out to him, then turned and picked up the next present, labeled for her, and the two opened their presents together. Both were books, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War for Sousuke, and The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, which was a complete collection of all five Douglas Adams books, for Kaname. Kaname had been a fan of Douglas Adams since before she’d ever met Sousuke, and the young soldier became fascinated with the tactics and strategies presented by the Max Brooks novels.

Reaching back underneath the tree, she pulled out a large boxy item with her name on it. Curious, she tore off the wrapping paper, and found herself staring at the harisen she had once used to forcefully adjust Sousuke's attitude, framed, and with a plaque attached, which read, ‘A faithful soldier.’ Kaname laughed and looked over at Sousuke. “Okay, who gave you the idea for this? Was it Kurz?”

“No.”

“Melissa?”

“Negative.”

“Shinji?”

He shook his head.

“Kyoko!”

“I thought of it on my own, Kaname.”

She giggled and looked down at the framed harisen. “Who ever would’ve thought? Sousuke Sagara giving a gag gift.” She smiled up at him. “It’s very special, Sousuke. You did good.” She looked back under the now-empty tree, and her heart began to hammer in her chest. Now’s the time...

Taking a deep breath, she set the framed harisen down, stood up, then grabbed Sousuke’s hands, pulled him to his feet, and guided him back over to the couch. “I’ve got one last present for you, and it’s a surprise,” she said, pushing him down onto the couch. “Now close your eyes, and don’t open them again until I tell you.” She smiled, then added playfully, “That’s an order.”

“Understood,” he answered automatically, closing his eyes and waiting with his hands on his knees.

Giggling quietly to herself, Kaname reached into the drawer of the end table, grabbed a roll of red wrapping ribbon, and placed the end of it between Sousuke’s fingers. “Hold that. Don’t let it go.”

“Uhh, okay,” he answered, clasping the ribbon in his fist securely.

Several minutes passed as Sousuke waited, eyes closed obediently. He had heard Kaname’s door shut, heard her shuffling around inside her room. He assumed that she had hidden this last present in her room, but couldn’t make any sense of the reason she’d handed him a ribbon. After a few more moments, he could no longer hear any movement from Kaname’s room. Then he heard her call out, “Okay, Sousuke! Open your eyes and follow the ribbon to your present!”

Opening his eyes, he immediately stood and pulled the ribbon up, walking along its length to its source. Finding it wrapped twice around her doorknob, he paused, looking at the point where the ribbon disappeared around the door. Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, and nearly collapsed where he stood.

There, sitting on the bed, her face burning red, Kaname watched him. She was not wearing the clothing she’d been wearing in the living room. Instead, she was clad in very revealing lingerie designed like the wrapping on a Christmas present, with a large bow covering her chest. The ribbon he held in his hand led directly to her, tied to the end of the bow.

Smiling past the massive blush on her cheeks, she asked him, “Well, aren’t you going to come open your present?”