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By Your Side Seems Like Yesterday

Chapter Text

Kaname sighed. I peered down at her. She had a habit of making this sound when she didn't want to tell me something, although this one struck me as forlorn and uneasy. It didn't feel right amid the sunlight and falling sakura petals we stepped through.

"I can't believe it. I thought I'd never have to walk this way again," she said, disgruntled. "What if I can't make any friends? This was so much easier when Kyokyo was around. Here I am with top grades, and I'm the one has to do this year all over again."

It was April, the start of the first Semester. Kaname was- sadly- repeating. As part of the special response forces, there was very little reason for me to accompany her besides personal interests. With our professional link removed, I felt steady and content to go to school. I had not been called to a mission for over a month now, so I hoped the peace would last.

Kaname saw I wasn't listening and said, "Remind me again. What's the plan for when you call Mithril this afternoon?"

I thought back to the conversation we'd had a week earlier and recited:

"Dear Captain. As much as I appreciate the work and shelter you have provided me over the years, I would like to disengage from the organization for the sake of pursuing a different career path. Please tell me what steps are necessary to complete in order to achieve this, ma'am."


The girl forced a smile, but there was an underlying insincerity about the action. I wiped sweat on my uniform, hoping Kaname wouldn't notice.

Despite my intentions to leave Mithril for her sake (disguised as a career change), the truth was I still felt a great deal of responsibility and commitment toward the organization, especially since it was trying to rebuild after losing so many personnel. Like a gardener who dedicatedly spent every moment of his day watering his garden, I too felt a powerful inclination to nurture my home. Alas, it was ill-fated that Kaname and Mithril were part of the same soil.

When we passed the gates of Jindai High, I had hoped the facility would have remains of the familiar. It did not. As anticipated, there was no Kyokyo or waves from friends. In fact, it was as though we'd entered unaccompanied.

Losing all confidence, we ascended the stairs, reached the class III-4 and sat in chairs. It was early but the room was a quarter full of faces we didn't recognize. As though unwelcome, students glanced hesitating in our direction. Kaname gave an acknowledging nod to the classmates, and I took out my study materials.

A young man with a bandaid on his nose bowed and introduced himself as Yu. "I heard a rumor we had new students coming in today, but I didn't imagine I would recognize you."

"Where would you have seen us before?" Kaname asked, squinting suspiciously, "Do you think you are imagining it?"

"Not at all," Yu said with a smile, "The two of you were around when Jindai got hijacked last year, right?"

"You are correct," I answered, "Although we were mere victims in the situation. Kaname was forcibly removed for a number of months which is why she needs to repeat. My grades were poor so it was recommended I was held back."

Kaname stared at me, so I introduced both our names to break the silence.

"You must be good friends if you're using Chidori-san's first name," one girl from in front of us observed.

"Yeah, we're just really good friends – nothing worth gossiping over," Kaname said, blushing. "Anyway, tell me about you guys. I don't want to talk about myself."

Astounded, part of me wondered if she had used her answer to redirect the conversation, or if she honestly didn't perceive me as more than a friend. I quickly forgot about it as we started to acquaintance ourselves with the few students in the room.

Thankfully Miss Kagurazaka, who smiled at us in the way you would to a funeral guest, didn't make us introduce ourselves in front of the class. Discounting the ones we had just told, it turned out only one other person in our class knew about our connection to the terrorist attack, and her name was the only one I remembered out of the cohort. 

When I opened my bento box I felt a sharp prod on my arm. I looked to my left to meet the regard of a girl.

"Hi. My name is Nagamine Atsuko," she said in a bright tone. "Do you like Gundam?"

I heard giggles from behind me. "Hello Nagamine-san. I'm sorry, but I do not know much about Gundam."

"What? But it's so cool!" Nagamine looked ecstatic. "How can you like military stuff but not Gundam? It doesn't make any sense!"

I paused, wondering how the girl figured out I had a fondness for the military. Then I noticed the corner of volume 32 of Arm Slave Montly poking out of my bag.

"Sousuke's kind of stupid like that," Kaname chimed in. "Don't let it bother you."

"I can rent you the DVDs. I've seen it a billion times!"

The student had the enthusiasm of a child at their first time at the zoo, although she had a maturity to her eyes that reminded me of Testarossa. The combination was unsettling, and whenever I heard her voice, I felt a firm discomfort I couldn't shake.

I said no thank you to Gundam DVDs.

"Why did you get such bad grades last year?" Nagamine questioned. "That's super irresponsible, don't you think?"

A rustling of paper came from behind me.

"I didn't study hard enough," I replied, simply.

"My parents would kick my butt if I told them that!" Nagamine said awed, "You better watch out or yours will come do the same to you. I can help you come up with better excuses. I know lots. Physically making yourself sick is a good one."

"That's dangerous," Kaname pointed out, "You'd just push yourself back."

Nagamine dismissed this. "its fine. I get such good grades it would never happen!"

From that day forward, I felt like I was on a mission and had speakers attached to my head at all times.

Nagamine was like a radio. Whenever you were around her, she had something to say, like her very purpose was to broadcast sounds in an emergency. It didn't take long for me to realize that this irritated many fellow students, for no one spoke to her much except me. I often reflected her comments.

"Come on! Why won't you call me Atsu-chan?" she whined. 

"I don't feel like we are that close yet," I explained. It was hours since we had been introduced.

"B-but we are! I've told you so much about myself!"

The truth was the girl seemed to talk about anything but herself.

Kaname alternated between being silent around Nagamine, to lukewarm. Once out of earshot she told me, "I feel bad. The teachers told me she goes to one of those messed up kid institutions, but half the time I don't even know what she's talking about. I'm not trying to be mean."

We stepped off the train and were about to go our separate ways.

"Kaname," I remembered, "I couldn't help wondering if you just see me as a friend, like you said so this morning."

Kaname glared at me. "What do you think, you bonehead?"

I didn't answer. Honestly, I was unsure. Kaname didn't press the subject.


I was ashamed that I asked for assignments when I called Tessa. It was an automatic reaction, and when I thought to correct myself, I didn't.

When I told Kaname, she requested I try again. The same occurrence happened two times, so I pushed the plan to the back of my mind, not knowing how to solve it. Kaname's impatience only grew as weeks passed. As much as she said she understood my hesitation, in her words, "it's still not an excuse to risk getting your head blown off every month or so!".

She had a point. I was called out to small missions less frequently with the tactical advisement of Commander Markudas, who was taking over Kalinin's role as military strategist, but any task with Mithril had a risk of death. Still, my heart churned at the thought of leaving, from both wanting to depart and wanting to stay.

Kaname had not raised the topic since the end of first semester, making me wonder if she'd given up or simply accepted the situation. The pressure she put on herself to succeed was so prominent nowadays she hid her disapproving face behind books. The fact Nagamine was as constant as my own shadow repelled all new students, even Kaname at times. As a result, I spent a lot of time reading with Nagamine during first semester, which may have added to Kaname's frustrations. Still, I didn't mind a fellow social outcast. I asked her to read study notes to me, and that satisfied her need for constant chatter.

Before I knew it winter break had come.

It was the middle of the day on the Tuatha de Danaan, Wednesday. 15 past 13 hours. On the surface the sun had been stunning so I assume the weather was just as good today. It wasn't particularly cold, at any rate.

Why was I back in this submarine? To be honest, it was the Captain's idea. She wanted to get everyone back together for 'old time's sake'. I can't help but question her motives, but perhaps it was to start over again. Whatever the justification, I am willing to believe in Miss Testarossa's good will. The ship was on due course for the tropical island of Okinawa.

My pen froze mid-sentence as paper rustled. I turned quietly as an envelope was slid under my door. I hesitated, observing the sheet of white and curvy handwriting. Was it a bomb or an invitation to the fight to the death?

I moved out of my chair and walked briskly toward it, trying to keep my cool. It looked like just a normal envelope. The ink was bright blue, just like the pile of pens on Miss Testarossa's desk. It was probably one of the staff who had sent this, but who? If reinforcements were after us the alarms would have gone off by now. I had tested them many times.


I flinched and reached for my gun. Either someone had kicked the door or…

"Open it, you idiot!"

That was Chidori's voice. She sure had a way with words.

"Are you in danger, Kaname?" I raised my voice. "It is nice to know it's you!"

"Of course it's me!" The girl shouted through the metal. "I'm not – " she groaned, "Open up!"

There was a half-hearted knock, as though Kaname had given up. I hesitated and placed a hand on the door handle. "Tell me you're safe, unaccompanied and not being coerced, and then I'll let you in."

Kaname sighed. She didn't answer for a moment. "I'm safe and it's just me, Sousuke."

While my response was not as civilized as she would like, I still kept pride in the fact that you can never be too careful.

Slowly, I pulled open the door, met with the downtrodden face of my beloved.

"Have you read it yet?" Chidori asked, peering at the paper on the ground. Jumping to my senses, I snatched the envelope and ripped it open.

"Just a moment, Chidori." I scanned the message, growing more confused by the minute. "You can't rush your…"

What was I now? Kaname and I may have confessed our love and kissed in the middle of a crowd, but did that mean I could call her my girlfriend? I would most certainly like to, but with the suspected impression that Kaname was upset with me, I was either too hesitant or polite to ask.

For those who are interested, the message Chidori slid under my door that day was as follows:

Dear guest,

You are invited to an extravangza of fun this Saturday in the dining hall at 6:30pm. Make sure to dress up in the theme of Christmas as there will be prizes awarded to best dressed! We will then go out for dessert and karaoke at The Prince in Okinawa. Please RSVP as soon as possible. We would love to see you there! Food and drinks will be provided.

Best of luck,

Kaname Chidori

"So, Sousuke," Kaname said enthusiastically, "are you gonna go?"

I lifted my eyebrows. Three of the woman's top buttons were undone, and the shirt was slightly creased, quite unusual for her.

"What happened to your shirt, Chidori?" I asked, changing the subject. "Did someone attack you?"

"No! I just couldn't be bothered ironing it!" she protested. The color of her face would have matched the theme of Christmas. "Gosh, you're dense sometimes."

Chidori was thinking of hitting me. It was obvious by the angle of her palm and the fact it had risen into the air. I couldn't help but wonder if there was another story behind the t-shirt. It certainly didn't look different to her usual attire. It was grey with black stars, one I had seen before when she wasn't at school.

Kaname resisted. "What's that face for?"

I poured over the letter again. "I'm not sure I understand the meaning of this invitation."

"What is it you don't understand?" Chidori asked. "It looks pretty simple to me. You dress up, come to a party, have fun at Karoke, and come back."

Now that Chidori mentioned it, I recalled the Captain explaining that the trip had something to do with Christmas.

"If you want to help," she continued, "Tessa and I are going to prepare food. We'll have music and pretty lights, the submarine will never be the same!"

The light in her eyes was truly astounding. It was like she was a star, beaming down from the sky.

I scratched my head. "So what you're saying is, despite how mundane it sounds the event will still be worth our time?" 

Kaname nodded and her face lit up."You got it! If you want I could get Kurz to help you with a costume. What do you say?"

"I suppose I could do that," I agreed, tucking the letter in my pocket. "An event this festive will require a camera."

"So does that mean you're coming?"

"I will if you think the experience will be beneficial."

"I do!" Chidori gave a small dance. How strange.

I bowed curtly, with the intention of returning to my desk.

"I will see you in the kitchens, Chidori," I replied, curtly. "When are you and the Captain preparing food?"

"Tomorrow at midnight, so no one knows what we're up to."

"12 am sharp?" I clarified.

"Yes," Kaname replied.

"Not a problem."

Chapter Text

The next day [Thursday] was uneventful, until Tessa dragged me out of my room in the afternoon. She was apparently thrilled about my agreement to come to this event. I meekly pulled against her arm in the corridor. She appeared so fragile I didn't want to accidentally injure her in the process.

"I can see you're very excited about this, Captain," I gasped, "However, I would like to ask that you don't dislocate my arm."

Tessa made a strange noise to express her happiness.

"Drats, I'm sorry, Sagara," she cooed, still smiling. "I know I'm being a little crazy, but Kurz had a few outfits in his wardrobe he thought might fit you, so I would love to see you try them."

Did she have a camera? Did she plan to humiliate me? I yanked my arm free. "I'm wondering what your motivation is for wanting to see me try on clothes. With all due respect, it doesn't seem a relevant task for you,  Captain."

I knew from last year that the Captain had feelings for me, but I was under the belief that it had been resolved. Perhaps it was not the case. Mithril's leader might have gotten lax given recent events. She could be dealing with post-traumatic stress or delusions from all Amalgam's plotting.

"Did you say 'try on clothes'?!"

Kaname raced from behind me and yanked my other arm. Now I was being pulled along the corridor like a child.

How absurd.

"Please, let me watch too." She didn't beg, but Kaname had an obtuse confidence to her voice I didn't like. "It's been my dream to help pick out outfits for a man, especially Sagara."

"So, girls enjoy watching men change their clothes," I noted. "It's bizarre. What would happen if I took off my clothes?"

What looked like blood spurted out of Tessa's nose and Kaname was stunned. Like yesterday, her expression changed into one of frustration. "How dare you be so... improper, you idiot!"

Kaname tried to hit me, but again, she stopped moments before.

"What is this?!" Tessa roared, "Are you trying to not hit Sagara?!" Fire burned in her eyes. "Could it be that you've changed your ways, Chidori?"

"I change my ways anytime I want!" Kaname yelled. I was confused why they were fighting over something so unrelated to the mission at hand. "If you want, I could hit you instead!"

"Calm down, ladies!"

I turned. There was no other male on the submarine with such a smooth voice. Kurz approached us, his blond hair more meticulously groomed than usual. He grinned and waved.

"I see you're both dying to see me expose Sagara to my wardrobe." He grabbed me on the shoulder. "C'mon buddy, they're all jealous of the bond we have together."

"That's not it!" Tessa yelled, but then she caught Kaname's eye, blushed furiously, and looked at the floor. "I'll be good, Sergeant Sagara. It certainly isn't professional to be acting this way. Let's move to your room, Kurz."

I agreed with every point she made, but was too tangled between the numerous bodies to even think of an answer.

"Follow me!" Kurz waved, and he stepped in front, leading the way. Tessa and Kaname were acting eccentric. While they agreed that it was exciting to see men take off their clothes, they didn't show as much enthusiasm towards Kurz. Given the circumstances of Kaname and I's recent love confession, this could be normal for her. The same couldn't be said for Tessa though.

Once we entered the room the two girls finally let go of me.

Kurz room was as disorganized and messy as ever. Beer cans and exotic magazines trailed on his desk.

Tessa blushed as she saw them. "Ew, ew, ew."

"Grow up, princess. It's just a bunch of pictures," Kaname snapped.

Tessa glared at Chidori. It was evident by their exchange that there was a miscommunication between them.

Kurz giggled. "Ok girls, I think it's about time you step out of this room to sort out your differences. I will take it from here."

"WHAT?!" Chidori and Tessa gasped.

The blond shook his head. "We wouldn't want any blood on Sousuke's clothes, now would you?"

"But I brought a camera!" Tessa yelled. Kaname covered the Captain's mouth.

"Stop fighting it," she hissed, "Maybe if we go along with what Kurz says, we will get what we want."

Tessa nodded. "Good idea."

Just like that, the two girls left the room and shut the door, leaving Kurz and I alone.

Maybe the women were not enemies, but rivals with the same goal.

Kurz grinned and paced to his wardrobe door.

"Girls." He chuckled to himself. "They're all over you Sousuke."

"I don't believe so," I disagreed, "Although they were a few moments ago."

My colleague laughed. He must have misinterpreted me. "You don't know how lucky you are, but never mind."

I half agreed. On one hand I was lucky that Kaname and the Captain were alive. Beyond their connection to my work they were dear friends – Kurz too – Kaname was a special case. My team knew that, everyone did. 

Kurz opened the shiny wardrobe door.

"The party says its costumes, but I can't think of any Christmas costume you could wear, unless we wore Santa hats or skimpy lingerie." He sighed. "What would you prefer? I have lots of accessories, which I'd been saving for the ladies, but perhaps you can pull them off."

I thought back to Chidori, about how she was nearly jumping in excitement from the thought of me dressing up.

"I want to do anything I can to fulfil Chidori's wishes," I explained plainly.

'Ooh, sexy." Kurtz winked, to my dismay. What was he talking about? "Time to take off your clothes. Let's pick something out for you."

I glanced to the door; there was a little crack in it. I caught a glimpse of two eyes peering away. I smiled. Those girls were confusing, but quite funny as well. I took off my shirt, unzipped my pants and hesitated. There was one detail amiss.

"Kurz," I announced, and I pointed towards the door. "Lock them out!"

Kurtz chuckled, his teeth glittering white. "Sorry girls!" He laughed as he locked it, and cries of anguish from Chidori and Tessa boomed from the other side.

Part of the fun, I realized, was the mystery. I would keep them guessing until the very end.

I will leave the description of my attire for a later page, dear reader, as at the moment I am too embarrassed to describe the atrocity Kurtz convinced me to wear. When I exited the room, however, Kaname and Tessa grabbed me.

"What did you pick out?" the Captain asked, tears in her eyes.

"Please, please tell us!" Kaname pleaded. She looked positively upset. I smiled.

"As much as I can see you enjoy this, I think it is best you wait until Saturday. I am not sure how much I trust Kurz opinion, but he seems to think you will find my outfit 'interesting'."

I beamed at my beloved, hoping she understood I didn't mean any harm. The Captain settled down.

"If Kurz said so, it must be amazing," she gushed, awed, falling to the floor with another nosebleed.

Kaname turned to me. "Please Sousuke, can't you tell me? Just between us, as best buddies, ya know? As boyfriend and girlfriend?"

The hair stuck up at the back of my neck. Were we boyfriend and girlfriend officially now? It was unusual to hear the words spoken aloud, almost like a secret code brought to the public's attention when it shouldn't. Tessa looked confused too.

"I'm sorry, Chidori," I said finally, "Not today, although I can see why you have played tricks on me all these years."

I walked away, feeling like I could smile, feeling more alive than I had in a long time.

It was a start, and I hoped it would continue.

Chapter Text

Midnight came by faster than expected. I became so absorbed by my book that I lost track of time... except for when Chidori or Tessa knocked on my door every few hours and demanded I describe my outfit to them.

"Please, Sagara." My beloved sounded like she would cry. "Think of all the fun times we've had, about how good you are to me…"

"I understand, Chidori. You really care about seeing my costume." In truth, I only partially understood her intense desire. "I'm sorry but as I said previously, I cannot show it to you. I'll see you when we make snacks."

The girl kicked the door so hard I thought it might break and yelled. "DAMN IT!"

Indeed, I am not as empathetic as I strive to be. I understood minimal detail about this situation.

At exactly 11:58pm, I wandered out of my room and into the kitchen. Sure enough, the lights were on. Kaname and Tessa were positioned behind the table.

"So about your costume, Mr Sagara…" The Captain began, fluttering her eyelashes.

I approached the table. "No."

Kaname sighed. She was in her pyjamas, quite comfortable looking ones. "Enough of that, let's make some food. I bought the ingredients for the drinks a few days ago, and Tessa got ingredients for food."

"I'm impressed," I admitted, "although if these have been in the communal fridge surely our preparation of them isn't secret?"

"Shh," Kaname hissed. "We just didn't want Kurz or Melissa around."

"That's right!" Tessa agreed.

"I see."

I understood the need for privacy, but I doubted this would be a silent meeting.

I admired the girls' hard work. The entirety of the kitchen bench was covered with vegetables, fruit, fish, meats, rice, baking ingredients and snacks. Kaname washed her hands under the sink with a light stream that was nearly silent.

'The only thing left for you to decide, Sousuke," my beloved continued, "is if  you'd rather help me with putting yakitori on skewers or Tessa with strawberry shortcake."


I looked from one to the other. Both tasks were huge, and required equal amounts of support.

"I will help both of you equally for 10 minutes at a time," I concluded, "and I will help Chidori first."

"Yes!" Chidori pointed and laughed at the Captain. "You have to wait 10 minutes."

"Well, it means he may be spending more time with me to finish!" Tessa growled.

"You are both acting competitively. Do you care to tell me why?" I asked, and I stepped next to Chidori. "If I recall correctly I believe last Christmas was strikingly similar."

Both of them turned pink and looked at each other.

"Don't ruin Christmas for us, Sagara!" Tessa snapped, "We can do what we like, even if it's crazy and stupid!"

I peered to Kaname, but her expression was disconcerting. Had she forgotten how much I cared for her? 

"I see." I picked up a slab of chicken and started to cut it into slices, as Chidori was doing. "Are you afraid I will ruin Christmas?"

"What Tessa is trying to badly articulate," Kaname began, looking shifty eyed, "Is that we're both nervous that um, that um…"

"That I will ruin Christmas?" I prompted.

My beloved hit the table. The bang was bound to wake somebody. She continued directing her violent impulses toward inanimate objects.

"Oh, shut up!" she tried not to yell, but her efforts were thwarted. "Go ask Kurz and grow a brain, you nincompoop."

I suppose I ought to be pleased her repertoire of insults had expanded over the past few days, but it remained equally confusing.

I nodded. "Understood. I will consult with Kurz after this is done."

"No!" Tessa mouthed to Chidori, but I couldn't see how Chidori responded. She looked at me sternly.

"I'm not afraid for Christmas to be ruined."

With some convincing, I decided to speak to Kurz the next morning instead.

"Come in!"

I opened Kurz's door on Friday, 20 past 9 hours, to see him wearing long black pants, and no shirt. In retrospect, I don't know why I was surprised.

"I wasn't under the impression it was so hot you didn't require a shirt." Absently, I sniffed my own to make sure it didn't need washing. "Or is there some new uniform requirement I was unaware of?"

My teammate chuckled. "Should I go to the party like this, or wear my jacket?"

He gestured to a silk crimson dressed gown that read "Playboy" on the back. Of course, this was about the Christmas party. I bowed.

"The jacket," I replied immediately, "although, a bunny doesn't come across as very Christmas themed to me."

"I don't have to be Christmas-y to be sexy." Kurz said, picking up the gown and wrapping it around his shoulders."Don't you get it, Sousuke? Bishie is my style, man. Girls dig that stuff. How do you have it so easily, Sagara?" Sadly, my friend looked at himself in the mirror. "I hope I can impress Melissa at this party."

"What do you mean by "impress Melissa"? I asked.

Kurz smiled. "You really haven't figured it out yet, Sagara?"

"What is there to know?" I asked, "Actually, I was hoping you could explain, as Tessa and Kaname won't tell me."

"Perhaps they would tell you," Kurz began, only half paying attention, "if they were given a bit of privacy."

"I don't understand. Last night they had plenty of privacy."

Kurz snorted. I just remembered the preparation of food was supposed to be a secret event. "What did you say?"

I cleared my throat, "Last night the two girls had plenty of privacy."

To my bewilderment, Kurz laughed, "What kind of naughty stuff did you do to them, eh?"

"I…" I paused, as I realized the obscure context Kurz was implying. "We were very innocently preparing food in the kitchen. I was not supposed to say anything, so please make sure it doesn't get back to Kaname."

"I've got your back, buddy," Kurz said, raising his feet onto a chair. "I'll tell you some extra information too. Kaname hasn't told anyone that the two of you have a thing going, so Tessa is being … um…."

"Delusional?" I suggested.

"Ouch – talk about harsh." Kurz pointed out, crossing one foot over the other, "I don't know. She thinks the kiss was a publicity stunt or something."

I was stumped. This wasn't what I had expected to hear at all, "Mithril doesn't get any publicity."

"Well, not a lot – which is how we want it," Kurz agreed, although he appeared concerned, "She thought it was planned so Kaname could get more attention at school."

"That's extremely out of character for Kaname and the Captain." I hurried, "Of course, it isn't true. As a popular class president Kaname already recieves plenty of attention."

"I don't know, Sagara." Kurz groaned. "Maybe talk to her? All the stuff with Amalgam was pretty shifty. She could be having trouble dealing with it."

"But she's our Captain," I said blankly.

"She's a person," Kurz corrected, "not just that, a cute girl too. I'd talk to them about it, but be nice."

I must have looked confused because the blond smiled. "They think you're sexy, Sagara," he whispered. He put a hand on my shoulder, "And when this party comes along, they're going to think you're even sexier."

Something was starting to click in my head- a reason why Kaname and Tessa were getting so adamant about my costume, about why they were so persistent and obsessed.

'Sexy' is a word I have heard spoken every so often, although it was one that made very little sense to me. For example, people describe clothing, food and other human beings as 'sexy', but I'm not sure what that would imply. Did it mean they wanted to procreate with that certain object?

"What are you thinking?" Kurtz asked me, and he looked very serious. "Please indulge me. I am very curious to know."

I paused, thinking on how to phrase the question. "If someone calls me sexy, does that mean they want me to parent their children?"

Kurtz sighed. "Something like that. Hey buddy, I've always wondered this but never had the guts to ask: have you ever felt aroused by something?"

"Aroused?" I repeated, "Do you mean agitated?"

"No, I mean, sexually aroused," Kurz corrected, "Like having a crush on someone? Wanting to kiss them, or do other things?"

He giggled. I didn't see what was humorous about kissing. When I had embraced my beloved I had felt a deep affection and likeness for her. I don't think the emotion was sexually motivated.

"Not particularly," I said, "My memories consist of fighting and running for my life. I guess I feel like I am constantly aroused. It's become so normal for me to be in such a heightened state, that it is rare to percieve anything more."

Except Chidori on occasion… 

"What was that thought, Sagara?" Kurz interrupted me.

"There was one day, when Chidori gave me a haircut," I began, the memories of that evening enveloping me. "It was quite the experience. She assured me that I was safe and that she trusted me, and my panic slowly ebbed away for the first time. I begin to become aware of other feelings, of warmth, and comfort. I felt like I had learnt the meaning of peace, and justice."

"Not the words I would use, but that's promising, Sousuke." Kurz seemed surprised. "What happened after that?"

"Nothing." I recalled. "I fell asleep."

Kurz stared at me, like there was a puzzle he had been trying to figure out for hours and he'd picked up the missing piece.

"I think I get it," he said, and there was calm on his face. "When you and Chidori spend quality time together alone, you begin to behave like a normal person."

"A normal person?" I asked, and I was starting to make sense of it too. "Do you mean most people feel that amazing calm the majority of the time?"

"In preferable circumstances, yeah," Kurz said with a nod. "Dude, I always knew you were a bit weird, but could never find how to explain it. It makes so much sense now."

"I see. It is a very interesting theory you have there. But why does it matter if I can feel aroused? What difference would it make?"

"Don't worry, Sagara. I'm going to help you. We need Chidori, and we need you two to start doing nice things for each other. Perhaps over time if you calm down enough you will label someone as 'sexy'."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"Because, my friend." Kurtz clapped me on the back. "The sexy feelings help make life worth living. Besides, it will help you make more friends."

Did I need more friends?

I thought about his absurd proposition- that perhaps I had been living a half-life, too caught up in complications, missions and trauma in order to find beauty in things.

I evoked the haircut Chidori had given me to my mind, and how beautiful that feeling was. I would, and have, killed to experience that feeling again.

"Very well." I bowed, "I will speak to Chidori and later today we can do some nice things together."


Kurz danced around in his pile of silk before throwing it off again.

Chapter Text

I ate lunch in silence. Usually I would strike up conversation with Melissa, Kurtz, or Kaname, but this morning there were so many ideas in my head I lacked the capacity to speak.

I took a bite of my fried egg on toast, savouring the taste. Was this egg sexy?

I don't think so. I guess it could be.

"That looks like good egg, Sousuke," Kaname smiled, only just entering the room. "Did you spend extra time on it?"

I glanced to Kurz, who made a face, then to Kaname.

"I spent as much effort as I usually do, Kaname". I was about to leave the sentence at that, but it wasn't the complete truth. "I was thinking of you as I cooked it."

"Wow, lover boy has a soft side!" Melissa exclaimed and Kurz grinned.

"Nice to see you're coming out of your shell, Sousuke," he observed.

"A shell?" I mumbled to myself, "What interesting wording. I didn't think of it as such."

I looked at Kaname, and she had turned pink again, although she looked proud, for what reason I was unaware. Tessa looked surprised.

"Really?" Kaname asked, "You were thinking of me? Why when you were making eggs?"

"Affirmative and I don’t know why."

"What about me?"

"I have just been thinking a lot lately," I explained, and it was surprising to see everyone staring at me, as though I was a new weapon. "Do you like fried eggs, Chidori?"

"Fried eggs?" Of all the things I could have said, I don't think my beloved was expecting that. "They're ok. My favourite is scrambled eggs, especially in fried rice. That's the best!"

"Scrambled eggs…" I repeated, and I noticed Chidori was about to serve herself some miso soup. "Would you like to sit down, and I could make you some?"

Kaname blushed. "Um, I guess, but why are you being so nice?"

Was the fact I considered you special enough? I wondered, or was that not clear?

"Yeah, why Sousuke?!" Tessa exclaimed, and she was pink too, "How about you make me lunch too?"

"I suppose if the Captain wants a meal, I have no choice," I said with finality, "What would you like, Miss Tessa?"

"I would like whatever Chidori is having, thank you," she responded stiffly.

"Of course." I gave a short bow to indicate my respect. "I am thinking of making some scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast, do you have any objections?"

"No objections, that sounds lovely, Sergeant." Tessa smiled, and she threw a snobby look at Kaname.

"Not a problem," I said, strolling over to the kitchen, "Two servings of scrambled eggs on toast coming right up!"

"Hey Sousuke!" Kurz called, "Can I have some too?"

"I can do that," I said, taking four eggs out of the fridge. "What about you, Melissa?"

"I've got enough protein in my natto.," Melissa said plainly.

"Yes, I agree."

The sizzling entered the room and the others began speaking among themselves. When I finished the eggs and toast, Kaname was staring at me. Tessa was staring at Kaname.

They ate their breakfast in silence. I drank green tea, trying to decipher my thoughts.

"I sense death at this table," Melissa said darkly. "What did I miss?"

"That's not my fault!" Kaname said outraged, ignoring the question.

"You appear upset," I pointed out, back to my own cold toast. "Are the eggs not to your liking?"

"Was I making a face?" Kaname blushed. "I'm sorry."

"No, I am just curious what is going on in your head."

"At the table?" Kaname rustled.

I paused and swallowed. "Is that a problem?"

Kaname looked down at her plate. "N-n-no! I just…" No doubt nervous, she peered at her chopsticks. "Thanks for being so nice to me. I didn't think you were the type."

"Sousuke's plenty the type!" Kurz exclaimed. "He's just practicing. Right, Sousuke?"

"Um, yes, I suppose you could put it that way." I watched Kaname with worry. "If there's anything else you would like me to do, just ask and I will perform it to an admirable standard."

"Oh, Sousuke." Tessa got another blood nose. "You are so dreamy."

Kaname ignored the Captain. She smiled at me. "Thanks, Sousuke."

I felt the same I did when Kaname gave me the haircut. Slowly my tension faded away. This couldn't be right. There was something I had forgotten to do.

Kurz plan…

Jumping to my feet, I bowed.

"May I be excused? There is an important report I have to write."

Never mind there was no circumstance where any report was required. I peered at Kurz, who understood the exchange. "Yep. He likes keeping busy."

I left the room, just as my friend said, "Look at him go."

In truth, I had to prepare for the next part of my plan. I would have to do nice things for Chidori. It was a sure way to make myself more agreeable.

Dearest reader, here are some of my ideas for quality time with Kaname. I hope they sound reasonable.

1. Cook Kaname lunch

2. Cook Kaname dinner

3. Do Kaname's washing

4. Read Kaname a book

5. Make Kaname tea

6. Iron Kaname's clothes

7. Buy Kaname a present (list of ideas to be updated)

8. Ask what Kaname wants me to do

9. Describe my costume to Kaname?

Admittedly, my ideas mostly consist of food. Kurz didn't think they were very good.

"You're not her servant, man, you're her equal. Treat her like an equal," he explained later on in the corridor.

"I am not sure how to do that," I admitted, feeling underqualified.

"Unless it's a kinky thing? It's not... is it?"

Those big eyes. "I don’t know what you mean."

"Don’t mind me. Forget it."

Yet Kurz didn’t look like he would forget this idea. 

"What would you suggest?" I added. 

"Honestly? Number seven sounds good, presents are always good. Don't do number 9, or 4. In fact, screw all of them. Here's what I would like you to do."

He gave me specific instructions to be a gentleman at all costs. It was a doable request.

This mission was put in place at 42 past 14 hours. I found Chidori in her room, reading a magazine on her bed.

"Hello, beautiful princess," I said, running off the ideas Kurtz had given me. "How are you?"

What was this lunatic dialect? Kurz was making me sound dirty.

Kaname giggled and covered her mouth.

"I'm g-g-good." Her words were muffled through all the sniggering. "How are you?"

"Amazingly, now I've found you," I explained. This wasn't far from the truth.

The girl laughed loudly this time. "Sousuke, stop it."

"Sorry. What is it?"

Kaname took a moment to laugh, breathe and lower her magazine.

"Chill, ok? Kurz told me what he wants to do, and it's ok, I get it. I think you're very sweet for trying, but you don't have to act like how Kurz says you should. Just be yourself."

"Be myself?" This order made even less sense than Kurz, "But according to circumstantial evidence being myself causes me to not function to an acceptable standard."

"I know you really want this idea to work, and believe me, I do too," Kaname said. "Just relax. Here, how about you sit down?"

She gestured to a spot on her bed, next to her… I looked behind me, and edged towards the door.

"You can shut the door." Kaname smiled. "But don't lock it. No one's going to attack you."

Despite my fear, I trusted in her. She was often right outside of life threatening situations."

I shut the door, and pulled away from the lock before my instincts kicked in. I trembled as I sat down next to her. The bed was comfortable.

"This is nice," I remarked, looking around her room. It was quiet, we were alone and there was no current threat of danger. "Now what do I do?"

"I told you, stop trying so hard." My beloved almost seemed amused by my questions, "It's easy. If you want to start a conversation, just ask simple questions, and then you can ask more complicated ones."

Start small, and then build up – like transitioning from a dolphin dive to clap push up. Simple enough.

"I understand."

I looked to Kaname, who was smiling, and down at the magazine she'd left on the bed. I picked it up.

"What is your interest with magazines?" I asked.

She laughed. "I don't know if you'd care. It doesn't have guns and stuff in it."

A reasonable deduction. I looked down. "You're right, Chidori, it may not be my first choice of literature, however, I am open to hearing more about it. What topics does it address?"

"Very good, Sousuke!" Chidori pat me on the shoulder. It was not condescending but comforting. "Let's start from the beginning."

I turned the magazine over and read the front page. It had a colourfully dressed girl on it, lots of pink shapes, with the big title of "Koakuma Ageha" splayed across the top.
"It looks like it's about fashion, relationships and make up." I observed.

Kaname seemed intrigued by me, "Yeah, it's a girly magazine. You can get boys ones. You might like The Hiragana TimesHuGE or Japan Spotlight, but they're not for me."

"I have read Japan Spotlight on occasion," I said, pleased I could add to the conversation. "I never thought magazines were so good at targeting an audience."

Kaname chortled. "You're so dumb, Sousuke. Of course they're good at it. That's what these writers do for a living."

"This magazine looks like it talks about a lot of things I don't understand. Perhaps I should study it so I could ask you more questions."

"Haha, you could if you were desperate," Kaname said, and she flicked through the pages. She seemed to not realize that this conversation was out of desperation. "Fashion is just about looking good. People do it for themselves and others."

"I can't say I've ever felt the need to dress up before now," I admitted, "Have you ever worn clothes with the intention of impressing someone?"

To my surprise, Kaname blushed. "Oh. Well… of course I have! Who hasn't?"

"I haven't," I pointed out.

"Why didn't I guess?" Exhausted, Kaname took a deep breath, "If you're really curious – I mean, this stays between us, right?"

"Without question," I said, intrigued by how flustered my beloved had suddenly become. "I don't see why you need to be nervous."

The girl knocked the magazine on her knees, as though trying to distract herself, "Well, there was this boy when I was in Junior high."

"What did he look like?" I wondered. There was so much about Kaname's life I was ignorant to it would be a privilege to know more.

Kaname's  brown eye met mine and her smile trembled. "You really wanna know? Err…." She nearly sounded excited, "he didn't do much with his hair – school rules, ya know – but he liked to brush it to one side. Anyway, we took the same ethics class together so I invited him to a sakura viewing one time."

"I see. You were friends," I hesitated, "How did the meet up go?"

Kaname laughed, but it wasn't her usual laugh, but one more subtle and unsure. "It was great! I… I really should have told him I liked him but chickened out. He didn't get it, even though I tried really hard to look pretty. Talk about annoying!"

"I don't see why he wouldn't understand," I said honestly, but then my heart sunk when I looked into my beloved's eyes. She was talking about love. "Oh."

She smiled, "At least you've improved."

"Why would you be nervous?" I inquired, "You're charming at the worst of times..."

"Thanks." Kaname sounded disgruntled.

"Not to mention attractive, intelligent and popular." I paused, "What did you wear?"

"A kimono I used to have," Kaname said airily. "Don't get your hopes up. It doesn't fit me anymore."

"Did you get too tall?" I wondered.

Kaname snorted. "Not just that, my boobs and hips got too big."

"Affirmative!" I jumped, turning red myself. Of course, puberty happens around fourteen years of age on average. I should have known better.

Chidori chuckled and hit me on the back. "Sousuke, you dummy."

Yes, I am.

I bit my lip and tried to peer down at Kaname's form without her seeing, "I mean – did they really get that much bigger?"

The words came out in a whisper as I knew this conversation topic would not settle well with Kaname.

"Why?" she asked, half suspicious and half politely curious, "Do you want to see?"

"No, no, no…" I waved my arms. "I swear, that's not what I meant at all!"

"Then what did you mean?" She pressed. I still couldn't tell if she was interested in the discussion or if she was angry. It was hidden extremely well if that was the case.

"I… I am not too knowledgeable on the physical changes in adolescents turning into women," I explained quickly; sweat dripping down my face, "I spent most of my youth around men. The details were only briefly explained to me by a gruff soldier or two in my bunk years ago. I apologize if I am being intrusive."

I bowed as deep as I could without hitting my head on the bed. Kaname didn't say anything for exactly six seconds.

"That actually explains why you're so dopey," she admitted. Her tone was void of any ill-will. "Just so you know, it is my birthday on the 24th unless you've forgotten."

Given that I had almost forgotten about Christmas this detail was neglected with it. 

"What does that have to do with my lacklustre education?"

Kaname crossed her arms in such a way that it exacerbated her cleavage. "If you're up for the challenge I wouldn't mind teaching you a thing or two on Christmas Eve."

The party, funnily enough, was on the 24th.

Kaname and Tessa's birthday…. I get it now.

"Will the information deviate from what the bunk talks taught me?" I requested, out of politeness

My beloved grinned in such a mischievous way it was alarming. "Yep. I can guarantee it."

"Perfect. Good plan, Chidori." Out of habit I saluted her. She sniggered and I couldn't help but wonder if I had missed something.

With a rustling of magazine pages Kaname pushed the colourful, glossy sheet under my nose. "My favourite column is this one, it's where people can write in and share their most embarrassing moments." She pointed happily at one paragraph, her eyes shining. "It makes me feel less stupid because I've done things like this too."

Straining my eyes, I read a couple of the stories.

"These all sound like things I would do," I remarked.

"Really?" Kaname took the magazine back and read them over, "Oh my god! You're right!"

"I must be really clumsy then."

Kaname pat me on the back. "As oblivious as you are, at least you are trying to improve it. I know this sounds strange, but I'm not sure I'm ready for that Sousuke to go."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Kaname looked up at the ceiling. I watched as her long, green hair flowed further down her back, her skin beautifully illuminated by the light. There was a wondrous expression on her face.

"If you learnt more about the world, maybe you wouldn't be so charming. Half your charm is in how uptight you are. It would be weird to see you change."

"I don't have to change," I said, and I read the magazine article over again. "I just want to talk to you so I can calm down and, over time, be more normal. Do you not want that?"

"It would be nice to see you happy," Kaname said, "You're always so serious."

"Like you said, I need to- what was the word you used? - 'chill'."

"You're probably right." My beloved thought it over carefully. "It's not like your interests, or you, as a person would change much. It will probably be so gradual I won't even notice."

"No. If it means that much to you, Chidori, I can continue being foolish, even when I have become more 'chill'," I suggested. I didn't know how possible this would be, but I could try for her.

"Haha, that sounds like a good idea!" Kaname laughed. "Just for fun. You don't have to use that Kurz crap on me though."

"I'm not. I really do want to fulfil your every desire, if that is what will help me go back to 'normal'."

Kaname blushed for a moment.

"You've got your head screwed on wrong." She gave me a playful hit on the shoulder, "I don't think that is what Kurz was trying to say."


"Since we are trying to calm you down, the focus should be on you." SShe brought a finger to her chin. "How about I give you a massage?"
"A massage?" I had only seen such words pasted on red light districts, "What on earth for?"
"Massages are good for you," Chidori said pointedly, "They help your circulation, and relieve stress. How about you try it? We can start off small."

I tensed up, only this time I realized I was doing so. I tried to relax, but it was no good. Perhaps my mind was too heavily associating with criminals who used the red light district services.

Kaname crawled onto the bed covers and made her way behind me. She placed her hands on my shoulders. I grabbed her hand, out of a natural instinct, and grasped it, very tightly, in preparation for pushing her away. I would just have to twist her arm and…

"Shh, don't be like that, Sousuke."

She grabbed my hand with her other hand, and, after some tugging, softly put it back on my lap.

"I promise I won't hurt you," she murmured into my ear, just like that time at my apartment. "Now just relax, you might find you like it."

I held onto my hands in my lap, hoping I wouldn't snap and do something else. However, I had never experienced a massage before, and knew little about the subject topic. Who was I to know what would happen?

I really hoped Kaname knew what she was doing.

Chapter Text

I closed my eyes, and took in all the sensations. Kaname's hands were gentle and soft, warm, I had never noticed before. I was always so used to her fists hitting me, and how much that hurt, but now the opportunity arose for me to feel how warm she really was. Kaname grasped at my upper trapezius through my shirt and squeezed them.

"You're super tense, Sousuke." She groaned with the effort it took to hold them. "Geez, and I thought Kyoko's shoulders were bad."

"You've done this before?" I said, my words feeling distant. "That's reassuring."

"Yeah. Kyoko and I used to go to Swedish places sometimes. I'm just going off memory. It's just one of those fun things."

With every word she squeezed my trapezius, trying to get the musculature to relax, or at least, to make me stop consciously tensing, but it wasn't working just yet.

"Why aren't you relaxing?" Kaname asked herself, but then she paused. "I know. I'll put on some music. I've got a cute little CD. Just a sec."

If she thought music would assist in the process, I couldn't exactly object.

I kept my eyes shut as I felt Kaname's warm hands leave me, and the clicking of buttons entered my ears. Music started to play – it was Jpop, but thankfully not too upbeat.

"Kyoko got this for my birthday a few years ago," she explained. Her voice became closer and I felt her hands gently rest upon my shoulders again. "The CD is "To Love' by Kana Nishino. I love it so much."

"She does have an impressive range to her voice," I agreed.

"Take some deep breaths for me, Sousuke." Kaname instructed, and her voice became softer as well. "Diaphragm breaths - not crappy breaths."

"I didn't realize I was breathing inefficiently."

"Now you do. It's like in theatre. Put a hand on your tummy and feel it expand."

I did what Kaname asked. Even if the music wasn't exactly relaxing it was a pleasant distraction. The girl kept squeezing my shoulders, gradually increasing the pressure to become a rhythm. It was quite painful, but Kaname seemed to know and kept the pressure light.

Slowly, I started to feel warmth in my heart and soul, as I descended deeper into a slumber. Soon enough, my shoulders felt like jelly, and I couldn't feel my legs.

"Aw, how cute" Kaname's voice was far away, but a comfort, "I know how to make it so you can really fall asleep. Is it ok if I take off your shirt, Sagara?"

"What?" I snapped out of my stupor, "What will that do?"

"I'm limited to what I can do with your shirt on. If you lie down on your stomach, I can massage your whole back. It feels a lot nicer with oil or something, trust me."

"Are you sure?" I inquired, "It sounds like you'd be preparing to cook me."

Kaname giggled. "No, silly."

I looked behind me and tried to read her face. The skin near her eyes were creased and her forehead was neutral and unlined. She looked happy, but what for?

We were staring at each other for a long time, before a glanced over to where the CD player lay.

"Can you lock the door?"

"Oh, sure." Kaname jumped off her bed and clicked the lock. "I almost forgot about that!"

As Kaname reached the side of the bed again, she adjusted a pillow, and pulled her bed covers off, replacing it with a towel. I peered at her. Her shirt was creased again but she was looking straight at me, not having resumed her place. Did she really just want me to take off my shirt for the purpose of this exercise?

"Do you not trust me?" she asked.

I sighed. "That's not it."

Kaname grinned, "I can take off my shirt too, if that helps."

"No, I don't want to inconvenience you." I rushed.

"It's not an inconvenience," Chidori assured me. "If it makes it easier, I want to help."

Again, I suspected there was more to the story than that, but I didn't pursue an answer. Instead, I crossed my arms over and gripped either side of my shirt. This girl had seen me shirtless a number of times at the beach. How was this different?

Well, we are alone.

I ignored the pestering voice in my head. Not removing my gaze from Chidori's, I pulled my shirt over my head and dropped it on the ground.

She was blushing when our eyes met once again. She hadn't moved.

"What's wrong, Chidori?" I asked, and I hesitated, "How do I lie down for a back massage?"

Kaname snapped out of her blushing, "Just lie down how you would if you were sleeping. Only turn your head to one side, obviously."

I did as she asked, hoping her hands wouldn't be as cold as the air. She hesitated. "I have some moisturizer I could use…" she mumbled, embarrassed.

"Very well." I acknowledged. I watched at a sideways angle Kaname grab some moisturizer from somewhere in a draw, and put it on her hands. She rubbed them together. It sounded sloppy.

"Now just relax, Sousuke, like we were doing before." She said quietly, standing to the side of the bed. Take your deep breaths."

I closed my eyes again. Kaname's hands were warmer than before, they must have gotten used to my body temperature. She was right though, there was a lot more you could do with a lubricant on skin than a through clothes. I felt as though I would fall asleep again.

"You are very good at this, you know." I said, trying hard not to sound perverse.

"Thanks, that's great to know!" she replied cheerfully, "I try."

I could hear her smiling in her words. It was a very pleasant sound. It made me feel soothed. My mind began to wander. Images appeared in my brain, as the gap between conscious and unconscious became blurred, some of them I didn't like. Many were violent and made my insides lurch, but slowly, the more Kaname appeared the easier it was to remain in bliss. Outside a sometimes rash exterior was a truly kind person. I only wished she hadn't needed to suffer so gravely.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" I mumbled, trying to reach out to this beauty in my sleep. I could hardly hear Kaname's response. It was wiped from my memory. I had no recollection of anything, but blissful calamity. I had found that place again, and it was all because of her.

Chapter Text

I awoke from my slumber in Chidori's bed, except the covers was keeping me warm now instead of her hands. I hadn't been woken from discomfort. The door was open and I could hear Kaname and Tessa yelling outside. Every word was audible.

"You think he likes you, but you're wrong! If I just tell him to like me, he'll do it!"

That was Tessa.

"You get over it." Kaname interjected, "He told me he loved me over a radio, and then – as you should already know – he kissed me of his own accord in front of my entire school! Try topping that, you lazy two timing…."

Ah, so maybe romance did come into the situation. 

"You just did that to trick him, Kaname!" Tessa shouted, "I can get him to get up close and personal with me too, if you didn't steal him away. I am much more suited to his personality and interests! You don't even like Arm Slaves!"

"I didn't want to say it but you leave me no choice." There was a pause, as I suspect Kaname was taking a breath, "You're completely off your head!"

As much as I am inclined to agree with you, Chidori, I thought to myself, I have to draw the line.

With a great deal of effort I got up from the bed, picked up my shirt from under the bed and put it on. It was time to set some things straight.

Recovering from my light headedness I stepped outside. Both of the girls were red in the face, standing three meters apart. Tessa had tears down her face.

"Hello, ladies," I said pleasantly. "What can I do for you?"

That broke the silence.

"You can tell Kaname to go kill herself!" Tessa yelled, "I don't care anymore, I just- I just!"

"Crying won't change anything," Kaname said firmly, "Just wait until after tomorrow. Our Christmas party is going to be amazing. We'll make so much noise we'll make you wish you were deaf!"

"Noise?" I repeated, blankly. What was Miss Chidori referring to?

"Erm…" Kaname went red and hesitated. She had said something she hadn't meant to.

"I'm sorry, Sagara." The Captain bowed and left in tears.

I watched her go, a little sad. Why would my decision affect her so deeply?

"You look sad, Sousuke," Kaname noticed, walking up to me. "I'm sorry for yelling. You looked so cute asleep."

"It's alright, Chidori." I nodded, scratching my head. "I am confused. It makes me wonder what has happened to Tessa recently."

"I'll say," Chidori agreed. "Forget what I said before."

"As you wish, my love."

Still half asleep and disorientated, I bowed very low and Kaname squealed in gratitude.

I gave a shrewd smile. Small muscles that weren't used to moving were starting to get a work out.

It was time for dinner. I had slept for a couple of hours, which was an achievement for me. I was usually an insomniac, so it was good to catch up on such precious time. I don't remember any nightmares, either.

I served myself pasta Melissa had made in a dazed state of mind. It was as though the room had more colour than it usually did. I took notice of the patterns the pasta sauce took, the swirling of the golden noodles, the texture of the sauce. Even as I sat down, I took note of the oak and blue stripes of my plate. I looked up from my bowl.

Melissa was giggling. "Are you going to eat your food or just stare at it?"

 I felt my cheeks grow hot, and I tensed up again. "Of course I will eat it!" I retorted, my voice rocketing in pitch, "This is beautiful food!"

I stuffed some crab meat sauce down my throat as quickly as I could, almost stabbing myself with my chopsticks. Today was a strange day for me. Surely I wasn't the only one who knew this.

I glanced at Chidori as I hungrily slurped at my noodles. She was smiling, amused at my ravenous eating style. Tessa had not joined us for that meal.

I wondered if she was crying somewhere.

Kaname's eyes were the most intriguing shade of brown. The deeper I looked into her eyes, the hotter I felt myself get. It was like a fire was kindled inside me, ever so gently, but enough to sense the temperature. It was an interesting sensation. I can't say I am too familiar with it. Is this the commonly coined term 'infatuation'?

"Sousuke's getting a bit flustered" Kurz laughed, sipping beer, "Food too spicy for you, buddy?"

I already said the food was great, and I had eaten all of it within the space of a few minutes. My mood wasn't from my sated appetite. I started to shake.

"Sagara, you're looking funny," Melissa pointed out, waving a hand out of my eyes.

What was wrong with me? I must be professional; I must not lose my cool…

Just relax, Sousuke.

Kaname's voice. Oh god, it was beautiful. I felt so happy. I started to giggle. I covered my mouth, unable to stop the feeling of joy. My reaction evolved into a laugh. I buried my face in my arms, on the table. My ribs started to burn, and my stomach was tensing up, but in a pleasant way.

Why had I been this serious for so long? I was having a laughing fit. I had seen Kurz have these a lot, but had never had one myself. It was amazing, but painful- so very painful.

There was gasping around the table.

Melissa seemed to draw the first conclusion I did.

"What's wrong with you dude?" she raised her voice quickly, "Are you okay? Kurz, did you give him drugs?"

"He's fine," Kurz reassured.

I raised my head, embarrassed to let everyone see me laugh. It was like I was standing naked in front of them. At least Kaname had seen my top half. I remembered how persistent the girls had been about my costume and laughed even harder.

"I'm sorry," I choked, but my voice didn't seem familiar either, "I-I'm not trying to laugh."

"Laughing is the best medicine!" Chidori was the only rational one at the table. "You don't have to be shy about it."

"His face looks so fucked up!" Melissa mouthed, peering at me with squinty eyes, "I'm not used to it, that's for sure."

"First time for everything." Kurz agreed.

Thank you, Chidori… were the words I so wanted to say, but they wouldn't come. .

"Oh dear, what's wrong with me?" I wiped my eyes, trying to calm down. It happened eventually, but I couldn't help but smile. "I'm sorry to disturb everyone."

Kaname smiled. She got up from her chair and leant down beside me, whispering in my ear. "I think I might grow to like this new Sousuke."

She waved and left.

"Thanks for dinner, Melissa!"

"No problem." Melissa said, "Hey Sagara, what did Kaname say to you?"

I smiled, quite comfortably, "Nothing of great consequence to you."

After dinner I went looking for Tessa. While I could feel tension returning to my shoulders, I tried the breathing techniques Kaname showed me, in order to maintain this serene state. I felt lighter and my face felt oddly stretched. I didn't have a permanent numbing headache. One thing was for sure; I would try and get enough sleep tonight.

I wonder if Kaname would be so kind as to help me sleep, since other relaxation techniques hadn't helped with me in the past.

I had reached Tessa's room. I knocked.

"Excuse me, Miss Tessa?"

There was a pause then, "What is it?"

I froze. How would I start? Start slow, yes, that's what Kaname's said.

"Can I come in?"


I cautiously opened the door and stepped inside, letting the metal slab shut behind me. The Captain didn't give off the impression of someone upset. She was writing in a notebook in her bed. She closed it when we met eyes.

I blinked. She was wearing a pink nightgown, it brought out her curves and silver hair. I blushed.

"You look very nice, Captain," I noted, bowing.

Tessa blushed. "Oh really? I try so then I don't have to try so hard in the morning. I'm glad you like it."

"Yes, indeed." I took an awkward step forward, "I do like it."

"What do you want?" Tessa asked, and she looked at me with pleading eyes, "Anything I can do?"

Had she forgotten the previous squabble?

"On the contrary," I walked over to her and sat on her bed, "I was wondering if there is anything I can do for you, Captain."

Tessa blushed even more. "That's a very direct request, Sergeant Sagara!"

"Request?" I tried to think of how to rephrase, "I think of it as more of an offering."

"If that's the case, as nice as your offering is I don't… I mean, I'm not sure what to ask for," she admitted, shyly.

I paused. What else?

"How are you?" I asked, tentatively.

Tessa sighed. "Same old. Even if I shouldn't be working, sitting in a chair and doing nothing really takes it out of you. I get stiff and tight everywhere."

"You should ask Kaname for a massage." I muttered, "I hear she is quite good at it."

"Yes, I should, shouldn't I?" Tessa sighed, "I don't know. I am very angry at Kaname right now."


Bringing Kaname into the conversation probably wasn't the best idea.

"I'm jealous, I guess. I wish she could take my place for a day and see how she likes it."

"I see." I looked at my fingernails, then at the ribbon in Tessa's hair, "Is it because of that fight?"

"Y-Yes." tears filled Tessa's eyes "I'm sorry! I know I've been a fool. I should have seen this coming."

I paused. 

"Could you try and explain your feelings in more detail?" I said slowly.

The Captain played with her hair. "I guess it wouldn't hurt."

Tessa threw around a lot of words, which I understood, but hadn't experienced, so it was hard to comprehend a lot of it. I remembered this time last year when the Captain had admitted that she had feelings for me. I suspected this may be part of her sadness.

"I guess, it's just hard because I still have a really big crush on you. Isn't that silly?"

"No, Captain," I said, "from what you've told me it doesn't sound silly."

"But it is, because nothing's changed. I'm the one digging old roots out of the ground," Tessa explained sadly.

"What is it about pulling up old roots that are important to you?" I wondered, pulling at straws.

Tessa's pupils shrunk as she pondered on her answer. "Forgive me. I think the war has affected me in ways I don't want to admit."

"Uh huh. Like what?"

The girl's eyes filled with tears again. "I have nightmares. I used to be able to cope with them by spending time with my crew and focusing on my work. Now Japan is at peace for the first time in my lifetime." She paused, "This overwhelming sadness threatens to burst out of me at every moment like a sickness. I don't know what do anymore."

She wiped the tears from her eyes, trying to stay composed. I was amazed the Captain was able to stay strong throughout her work career to begin with. She had not been directly involved with the fighting as much as I had, but that didn't mean she wasn't affected. I was aware of a similar pit in my stomach, perhaps more so now I was trying to adjust to society and behave more normal. The only way I had coped was with Kaname.

The understanding of this was thrilling and pitiful at the same time.

"I'm sorry, Tessa," I replied after a while, "I don't think your feelings are unusual, but I struggle to see how this relates to Kaname."

"It doesn't matter anymore." Tessa sobbed, "Just leave me be, Sagara."

For a moment, I considered walking out, but that wouldn't resolve the problem. Again, I simply waited, too lost for words.

"I know you don't love me," the Captain  sobbed, "You don't need to remind me the kiss was real! You think I don't know? I was managing fine until the war ended. I'm not so selfish I want eternal conflict in the world. It is a dream that Japan is calm, but I cling to the idea of your feelings changing." Her voice became more distorted with anger and anguish the further her feelings were, "I want to be reminded of the fun times with my friends, like when we went to the hot spring. Don't tell me, Sagara. I know your feelings for Kaname won't change so freely. I am being crazy."

Even when she said it, I struggled to see how the two were connected. I gave a short bow.

"I'm sorry, Captain," I said shortly, "You're right; I don't think my feelings for Kaname will change, but your friendship is still important to me." I looked into her silver eyes which were bright red again. "Please, perhaps I can help you find work and new friends. Maybe that would help."

"P-Probably," Tessa sniffed. She wiped her face with her sleeve, "I'm so sorry for being so shameful. I swear I didn't mean to." It was her turn to bow, "Thank you for your kindness, Sergeant Sagara."

I hesitated. "Will you be well if I leave you to sleep?"

Tessa nodded, "I will. I have to. Don't worry about me." She gave a small wave, "Have a good sleep. I- I- I love you."

I got up from the bed, and tried to smile at her, but I don't know how convincing or natural it looked. Her eyes widened as I said my farewell.

"Sweet dreams, Captain." I hesitated, "You are a dear friend. My caring for you can only go as far as that. I'm sorry Kaname already has my heart."

The only question that remained of how much of this message I should pass onto Kaname. I fell asleep in my bunk before I thought of the answer.

Chapter Text

Saturday finally arrived: The day of Kaname and Tessa's party. The morning started smoothly. I had forgotten to ask Chidori for another massage, but I slept better than I did most nights. This was an unexpected side effect of our time spent together.

After breakfast, I pulled Chidori aside in a corridor. She seemed interested but tentative.

"Yes, Sousuke?" she quipped, "What's up?"

Everyone else was bustling past so I kept my voice low.

"I wanted to thank you for your quality time with me yesterday. I slept better last night, and I talked to Tessa about your fight." I hesitated, wondering how much information to reveal, "I think she may be more civilized today."

"Don't talk to me about Tessa." Kaname crossed her arms, "I would be surprised if she knew left from right."

"I see." I nodded, not wanting to be judgmental, "Either way, I was wondering if you'd like me to help you set up the party this evening."

"That's sweet of you but don't bother." She pinched my face. It was uncomfortable, "You just get ready. Ok?"

"Yes, I most certainly will, Chidori." I smiled at her, and bowed. "Have a good morning."

I walked away from her, just as I heard her whisper to Melissa.

"He looks so different when he smiles, doesn't he?"

"Yes." Kaname muttered, "Not his serious smile, either, but a real one."

Girls were still quite strange creatures to me.

During lunch, I made some fried rice and brought it to Chidori's room.

"Whoa, nice service!" Chidori laughed, but she calmed down quickly, "come inside."

"Thank you."

I sat down on her bed, and Chidori shuffled closer. She was reading magazines again.

"I suspect you don't have anything more interesting to read." I noted, passing the girl some chopsticks, which she took with a polite nod of the head.

"Yeah," Kaname nearly sounded worried, "I can't get any new ones until we re-surface, so I just go back and read old ones."

"Why, we are very much alike, Chidori." I said, pleasantly surprised, "I do the same with my novels and journals. Would you like to borrow a volume of Japan Spotlight?"

"I'll manage, thanks Sousuke." Kaname paused and flushed pink, "What was with the 'my love' stuff yesterday?"

"Oh, yes. I did say that, didn't I?" I replied lamely. I lowered my head in shame, "Did it bother you?"

"Not really." Kaname replied, although I wasn't sure if she was being entirely honest. "What should I call you?"

"Whatever you like." I responded, honestly.

Kaname screwed up her face in frustration. "Urgh! That doesn't help!"

"I wouldn't want to choose an offensive name." I said, "How about you take your time?"

I watched in fascination as Kaname's face softened. Maybe that's how my face looked when I was calm. "I like that idea." She said finally.

I smiled at her. It was coming more naturally, but I still felt a bit tense. Chidori grinned and ruffled my hair.

"Oh my god you are so cute!" as though only just noticing what she was doing, she stopped. "Sorry. I couldn't help myself."

Kaname blushed. I grinned, and did the same with her hair.

"It is a very flattering look for you, Miss Chidori." I remarked.

"I don't believe you." Kaname looked at the tiny mirror near her bedside table, and laughed. "I look like such a dumbass idiot."

"If you are an idiot, I am a snail." I said simply.

The girl laughed. "What? That doesn't make any sense!"

"It does to me," I hesitated, "It was a simple metaphor."

Chidori smiled half halfheartedly. "I know what a metaphor is, but I think I figured out what to call you."

I gulped, not sure what to think of this new development. Nicknames were progress in a relationship, if I was not mistaken.

"Does that mean you think I'm attractive?" I asked, cautiously.

Kaname nodded. "Yes, you're the prettiest snail to roam the land."

The submarine generally had a bite to the air, but since speaking with Kaname it was as though that wasn’t the case.

"So what brings you to my room, Sousuke?" she inquired, "Thanks for the fried rice, by the way."

"It's my pleasure, Miss Chidori." I paused, trying to rack my brain for something that wasn't a numb happiness, "I think I could do with more assistance on relaxing, if fried rice is a fair exchange."

"Hmm," Kaname fiddled with some of her hair, which was out of its ribbon today, "I'm not sure what else to do, unless you wanted another massage."

"I would very much like that, if it is no problem."

"Sure, pretty snail." She responded cheerfully. Almost mechanically, she tugged the bed covers off and abandoned them to lock the door. As it clicked, I had pulled my shirt over my head and lay down on the bed stomach down, resting my head on a pillow.

"How does the same as last time sound?" My beloved remarked as she approached me.

"Pleasant, thank you Kaname." I agreed, drifting off already from the memories of my last encounter.

Kaname nodded and found her moisturizer. "Ok!"

She seemed more confident with her technique this time around. It didn't take as long for me to relax, once I had tried breathing properly and the music had returned. 

Kaname had really soft, gentle hands, so warm and comforting. Perhaps this was her way of showing affection towards me.

"Oh, Sousuke," she cooed, "I can't wait to see your costume later tonight. I have mine all ready."

"I understand." I said, "What are you dressing up as?"

"Not telling!" Chidori exclaimed, and she increased her pressure, "but I'll tell if you tell me what yours is."

I felt her hips touch my leg as she leaned over me, wondering what the meaning of the gesture was, if it meant anything at all. I felt myself growing hot, the movement was quite rhythmic but slow, like a mellow dance. I remembered what Kurz had said.

They think you're sexy, Sagara.

You're the prettiest snail to roam the land.

While a snail may not be attractive, Chidori admitted I was 'cute'. With Kurz's additional comment, it pointed toward a particular conclusion. The girl ran her hands over me like a wave.

Does that mean Chidori wants to bear children with me?

Procreation, sex, the act of giving another your body in order to achieve a greater outcome.

Maybe I'm more drawn to her than I thought.

"Jeez, Sousuke, what is it today?" Kaname said after a few minutes, "You're tensing up and stuff again."

"Sorry." I mumbled, and I took a deep breath. "I am doing a lot of thinking."

"Cool, what about?" Kaname probed, "Try me, I can take anything you have to say."

I thought of the means to phrase what I wanted to find out. What was the socially and morally correct way to discover the answer?

I have a really big crush on you, Sousuke.

A "crush" seems to be a colloquial way to describe it. Perhaps I could use that word, but it is unusual that I place so much importance on the subject. What did want from her?

"How do you feel… when you look into my eyes, Chidori?" I phrased carefully. Kaname's hands froze for a second, but then started up again.

"Jeez, what a question!" her pace slowed, edging around the waters of conversation, "Um, what do you want to know, exactly?"

Crap! I have to think of a backup question! But I don't understand it enough yet. I'll just go with my original plan, yes, I will be a stupid pretty snail. "Do I arouse you?"

Chidori really did stop this time, but she kept her warm hands on me. It was a numbing silence, the kind you want to break with the shot of a gun.

"Why do you want to know?" she asked slowly.

"I don't know." I admitted, my voice sounding louder in my own ears, "Since yesterday, I am discovering emotions I had not experienced much before. It is interesting to learn about all the different ones."

I must sound like an elementary school student trying to learn the extensive Japanese alphabet, only causing a slightly less intensive headache. Kaname sounded dubious.

"God, you're a guy and you're asking me to describe arousal to you!"

"It isn't quite that simple." I said pointedly, opening my eyes but still unable to see anything besides her black shirt. "You may describe it any way you like, on the assumption you are willing. Forgive me."

"Well, uhh…" Kaname hesitated.

She must be as stuck as I was. I theorized, closing my eyes once more as she kneaded her knuckles up the sides of my spine.

"I, um, do think you are a very attractive guy, I won't lie, but why on earth do you want arousal described to you?" She sounded amazed. "How much detail do you want me to give you? God, you're creepy sometimes."

"I'm sorry if I have offended you, Chidori." I hesitated, trying to think of the words, but my brain was moving very slowly, "My only intention is to understand my own feelings for you, that's why, if you described the feelings I am having, perhaps it would make more sense to me."


Chidori went quiet, deadly so. It was good there was music in the background or it would have driven me mad. She took a few deep breaths, and my heartbeat was pounding in my ears. She finally answered with:

"How about you try and describe what you're feeling, and I'll see if I can put a word to it?"

"Not a problem, Chidori. Let me think…"

As I did, her technique became a lot firmer, as though she was trying to figure out my darkest secrets through my skin. It felt very nice, yet penetrating.

"When I look at you, I feel warm inside, like having a hot water bottle near me." I paused between each sentence, trying to gauge her reaction, "When you touch me, I feel like a new person, as though changing the battery in a car. I am not a poet, Chidori, but you make me feel like I could be a composer, and I don't know much about music. Sometimes I think I want to be with you for the rest of my life just to feel this forever."

She wasn't behaving much differently besides my skin was being pulled on less. I continued, gaining momentum in my speech, "Your hair is such a gorgeous colour; your eyes are like a loose plaque of sand on the beach, where without knowing I could just sink in and get stuck in the burning sand. The more I think about it, my temperature rises like a fever, and I think I might be sick. I get hot, sweaty, my heartbeat gets faster, I…"

"Stop it, Sousuke!" Kaname demanded, and she pinched my skin. "Just stop it."

My breathing shuddered. The feeling I was just describing was enveloping me, growing stronger every second, my heartbeat erratic.

"I'm sorry. Did I do something wrong?" I mumbled, and I tried to look at her, but she was out of my vision.

"No, you didn't, Sousuke." My beloved was the one taking deep breaths now, "It just made me feel uncomfortable."

"Uncomfortable?" Suddenly, I felt foolish for pouring out my heart's contents to her, "I deeply apologize."

"Trust me, it's not your fault." Her tone was wary, but words genuine, "I know you're just trying to understand all these new experiences."

"Yes, that's true, Chidori." I took another deep breath, "I'm glad you understand. Do you have any idea what that feeling might be?"

Kaname started to massage me again, and it did not help my predicament. I didn't think the emotions would evolve so quickly. I felt blood rushing to my extremities, as one would when transitioning from a hypothermic to normal temperature state. It was incredible but worrying, it really did feel like I had a fever. No wonder my fellow soldiera act like illogical animals around their preferred sex.

"It sounds like it could be lots of different feelings at once." Kaname said after five seconds.

"Affirmative." I said, disconnecting from my mind entirely.

"At first, it felt like you were describing friendship, or being close to someone." She murmured softly, "I'm not sure what the word would be."

"That makes sense."

"But then you went on to describe things that sounded like infatuation, or in your words 'arousal'. God, I hate that word!"

I laughed. "I apologize for my choice of vocabulary, Chidori. But I'm very grateful you took the time to listen to me. Thank you."

"No problem." To my amazement, Kaname ran a finger lightly down my spine, and then hit me on my, how do I say it, deriere.

"That's for being a snail!"

"Oww," I moaned, "You pack quite a punch, Chidori."

"What can I say?" she sounded happier now, "You had it coming."

She walked over to the CD player and stopped it. I opened my eyes, and was blinded by the lights at first.

"You should start getting ready for tonight." She said simply, "I need to set up."

At proficient speed, I stood up, pulled on my shirt, covering it slightly with moisturizer, although most of it had soaked in.

I bowed. "Thanks a lot for your helpa, Chidori. I look forward to seeing you tonight."

Kaname must have been blushing, because she was too ashamed to look at me. "You too, pretty snail."

I walked out without another word, and tried to look at her beautiful face as I reached the door, but I only saw the messed up locks of her hair.

I do hope you're alright, my love.

Chapter Text

"Welcome back, man." Kurz opened the door to his room, "I've just had to fight off Tessa. She wanted to see your costume."

"Understood, Uruz Six."

Part of me understood Tessa's longing to return to work. In the Mithril submarine I had an identity I was proud of. When it came to outside Mithril it was of little importance if I knew the difference between grenades or guns. What most citizens considered a normal life felt alien to me, even when my friends were here with me. Holidays didn't feel normal.

My friend stepped aside and allowed me to enter, to which I did with a march.

"You look like something's bugging you, Sousuke," Kurz noticed, peering suspiciously at me. I ignored him and stepped into the exact spot I changed out of my uniform last time. "If the women are getting under your skin I can always lighten the load?"

"That won't be necessary," I said crisply, peering around for my costume. It wasn't in direct eyesight. Damn.

The room was the same it had been two days ago, although it smelt strongly of cologne. The exotic magazines on the floor caught my eye. What articles hid within their pages? 

I clenched my jaw as my shoulders stiffened. This isn't what my encounter with Kaname was supposed to do.

"You're worked up," Kurz observed, although I couldn't feel it. Suddenly, his face brightened in understanding. "Holy shit! Are you horny?"

"I beg your pardon?" I snapped, unable to take my eyes off a photo revealing a young woman's bridal lingerie. I believe he meant sexual arousal, although my body seemed to be in a state of inquisitiveness and panic. "I am merely staying curious and watchful, nothing more."

"Pff, same thing." The blond pushed the idea aside. "I'm just ironing the rest of my clothes but if you want to have a shower I won't be long."

"Roger that."

Shower. Perfect. The water may clear my head. It was desperately needed.

Rigid and awkward, I stomped over to the on suite bathroom and locked the door.

I had to calm down or the progress I had made would be for nothing! Maybe I was sexually excited and was simply oblivious to what the emotion felt like. It was in the realm of possibility. The closest I'd had to the experience was waking up with stained underwear some mornings, although it had little to do with the dreams of the previous night. 

The bathroom blocked out so much sound from outside that the rigidity of my breathing became immediately obvious. It was how I felt when running for miles. Attempting to settle my nerves, I turned the shower handle and withdrew my arm as water gushed onto the tiles. My skin had an eerie glow in the light. Slowly, I removed each article of clothing and dropped them onto the small rug, remembering how it felt when my beloved had moved her palms over me. 

I wonder what would happen if Kaname was in here with me. I had little indication of what she looked like naked. Rather, I knew what most of her body looked like from the times we'd spent at the beach, but what about beneath her undergarments? Would her nipples be a similar colour to mine since we were both Japanese, or would it be different?

There is no benefit to acquiring this information, I scolded myself. It is pointless to speculate on something so inconsequential.

Maybe the water would help. Quickly checking the gushing stream was of a sufficient temperature; I stepped inside and sighed as the heat poured down my body. My skin had an eerie glow in the light. When the pleasant aroma of soap and steam filled the small room, I understood how sweaty I had been.

Kurz, you are a perceptive bastard.

Like my beloved was a product of brainwashing, an image of her materialized next to me. As one might expect, the beauty was not wearing clothing, glistening from the steam and hot water, hair clinging to the sides of her face.

"Sousuke," she mumbled. "You don't have to be shy; don't you remember me telling you? We're here alone now."

The would-be Kaname stepped closer to me, but I stood my ground. Knowing she wasn't really there, I merely cringed at the ludicrousness of my imagination.

We may be alone, I murmured in my mind, but despite this you still underestimate my social difficulties.

Kaname smiled in a very innocent way and fluttered her eyelashes. The droplets were like diamonds decorating her face. Her arm was methodically positioned to cover her nipples. "You're so cute, dummy. It's kinda funny how worked up you get."

Unable to think, I watched the image move her hands up to my shoulders, revealing her skin in full glory. Wanting to keep the expectation an unknown, I turned away, but she pressed her body up against my back as she dug her fingers into my skin.

I gasped in anticipation and ecstasy. It may not be real, but damn, I wished it was.

What was that thought, Sousuke? Kaname wondered, and the thought started to disappear.

I… I nearly fainted from my heartbeat skyrocketing. I'm sorry, Kaname. I am as shameful as any other man, a disgrace to what partner you truly deserve.

The mental image of my beloved had gone and I tried to focus on the water trickling down the ends of my fingers.

Get it together, Sargent.

If this had been real, would Kaname have joined me in the shower? She would definitely blush, but would she be so forward?

I believe there was a part of me that was not only curious, but ravenous for novelty.

Suddenly feeling dirty, I took what remained of the soap bar and rubbed it over every inch of my skin, foaming myself up with bubbles. I formed the impression that I was more than a snail for my social awkwardness, but for the slimy, primitive side that I couldn't intellectualize away.

Letting the bubbles crawl down the drain, I ran my hands through my hair.

How I want you, dear Chidori. I thought, the picture of her curvy body crossing my mind once again, I want to touch you, to learn the full extent of your soft wonder. You must be so beautiful and gentle, just like your hands.

I began to feel swollen and feverish again. I peered down to my feet and realized my body was not as predictable and inexpressive I believed. As Kurz might say, my trouser snake was in full salute.

How do men usually manage this?!

"Kurz!" I called out, hoping he could hear me.

His muffled voice answered. "Yes?!"

I paused. I ought to use his wording so he could understand.

"How do you stop yourself feeling 'horny'?"


Was that from disbelief or from mishearing?

"I said: how do you stop yourself feeling horny?!"

I heard Kurz laughing. "Are you serious?"

"YES!" All the anguish and rage burst out of me. I hated everything, everyone, I wanted to tear the world to pieces!

I heard him laugh louder. Kurz understood how ignorant I was about the human body so why did he think it appropriate to humiliate me for it?

"I'll tell you when you get out," he finished.


I turned off the water, which wasn't very hot to begin with, and stepped out into the fresh open air. Ignoring the cold, I dried myself roughly with the towel, put on my underwear and wrapped the cloth around me.

I stormed back into Kurz room, feeling restless. The evidence of my physiological reaction was obvious through the towel, but that meant very little to me. I wanted a solution to this unexpected reaction. Kurz was red in the face, crying from mirth. He was wearing his long black pants and his crimson, silk playboy gown. It looked suitably ridiculous.

"That's enough!" I roared. "If you have a fucking problem with me, then say it!"

"S-Sorry," Kurz choked, his abs reflecting the light. "I don't mean to ruffle your feathers. You just remind me of me when I was 13. I had this problem so often."

"I see." My eyebrows narrowed in dislike, "How do you stop it?"

"Just think of something disgusting," the man said simply, "like, really disgusting."

"Something disgusting?" I repeated. I hesitated, "I think I'm disgusting. Will that be sufficient?"

My friend snorted, "I still can't believe you're horny right now!"

The words didn't fully register in my brain. I had concocted an image of one of Mithril's late soldiers running across a dessert in the United Emirates. I had seen his brains being blast open from a close distance.

"Not anymore." I said slowly.

"Ouch." Kurz eyes glanced down for a moment, "That was easy, now wasn't it?"

I crossed my arms. "I believe you said you would iron my outfit?"

"Sure did!" Kurz face lit up, and he handed me the trousers I had agreed to wear.

"Viola, the amazing, the beautiful, 'Deep Dark Sin' trousers from Dark Angel, with the matching Bondage Belt, guilty as charged."

They were long black pants; with hooks in a belt formation up the legs. The belt was also made of dark leather with large silver hoops and studs along it. I held onto my towel as I put them on for a second time.

Kurz was the one who got a nosebleed this time.

"Those girls are going to be drooling over you," he muttered, passing me a glittery pretend gun and whip, "Now you can finally get back at Kaname for all the times she's bruised you." he winked.

I attached the accessories to the hoops. My opinion had not changed. I still thought my costume was absurd, but at least it wasn't as degrading as Kurz silk gown. Well, there was a studded collar too. I clicked it in place, feeling like someone who belonged in Hong Kong's red light district.

"I don't even want to know what you're thinking," Kurz laughed, and he handed me a dark shirt. It had similar features to the long pants, only the sleeves changed to fishnets a quarter down my arms until it stopped at my wrists.

I threw it on feeling sick and finally turned to the mirror. I looked like a male Goth Lolita. Kurz sprayed me with cologne. It wouldn't be my preference of fragrance.

"Are you sure I look good wearing this?" I asked, my eyebrows furrowing. Either Kaname had obscures tastes or my comrade was truly more complicated than I thought.

"It's great," Kurz assured me, clapping his hands around my shoulders, "Trust me. If you want colour, I have a spare Santa hat."

The fool was already wearing his.

I shook my head. "I may be mistaken, but I don't think Santa's helpers made a habit of strolling down Portland Street."

Kurz had not expected I would say that.

I pretended I was still in my uniform as I walked to the hall where the party took place. I knew what food would be provided, so I wasn't worried about its success. Grilled meats and cake couldn't go wrong in a Christmas party. Not only that, the submarine had halted. No doubt we had reached Okinawa's shores. It was almost too nostalgic to return to this part of the ship. It was the same place we had played Karaoke and Bingo a number of years prior, except now it was decorated in red and gold ribbons.

From next to me Kurz gave a sharp blow between my shoulder blades. "Cheer up Sousuke!" he grinned, "you're going to be the life of the party!"

"On the contrary I think I will be the death of the party." I mumbled.

"Very clever, Sagara," Kurz admired, "Girls love the goth look. At least, the ones I know do."

"Why didn't you wear something like that for Melissa then?"

"That's for later," my friend assured me, "For now, I'm going for the understated look."

"I don't think a bunny rabbit is understated." I pointed out.

"Shh!" Kurz hushed, as we reached the middle of the lounge room. I glanced around, eager and yet afraid to see Chidori. It was hard to tell who she was as everyone was dressed so extravagantly. It reminded me of fancy dress parties in the more wealthy parts of Europe. I nodded at other members of staff as they waved hi to me, but no one dared approach me.

I couldn't recognize the music that was playing, although it sounded like a music remix CD from Akihabara.

There was the flash of a camera. I spun around at top speed. My fears had been realized. Tessa was there with another nose bleed.

"I'm so happy I don't care my dress will be ruined!" she cried, wiping her eyes. I felt my temperature rising again. Where the Captain was, Kaname was ought to be close by.

The girl's outfit was very revealing. It was like a bikini in its design, with a frilly mini skirt, white fishnet stockings and pale heels. She had put on make-up for the occasion, and it enhanced her features stunningly.

Kurtz clapped me on the back again. "He's great isn't he? I picked the outfit."

"He looks…" Tessa stared me up and down, and then hugged me. "Please, let's stay like this."

Feeling like my personal space had been violated, I pat her softly on the shoulder and bowed as she let go of me.

"You look very nice too, Tessa."

"Where'd you get your sexy outfit, my dear?" Kurz asked her.

"One of the staff bought it for me on a whim." Tessa said gleefully, "Isn't it awesome?"

"I'd guess one staff member has the hots for you, to be honest." The blond admitted as he kissed Tessa on the hand.

"I like your heels, Tessa. I've had my outfit for ages!" Chidori wailed. I turned, only to feel myself blush. She was wearing a classy navy shirt, a bow tie and mini skirt, not to mention handcuffs attached to her belt and a police hat on her head. It was very cute.

"I wasn't aware you aspired to work for the Police, Kaname." I said, bowing down low to express my admiration. I tensed as a single drop of blood from my nose hit the Mithril floor. Trying to cover up the stain, I slid a boot over it.

Kaname grinned. "You dummy! It's just a costume."

"Even so, it would be an admirable choice of career," I blurted out.

Damn. I wished I could better compliment her.

Tessa nudged Kaname. "Maybe Sousuke wants to be the child raising housewife who works from home."

"That isn't true!" I said loudly, embarrassed by how loud I was. "I would be honored to work while Kaname teaches our potential children how to read."

Kurz, Kaname and Tessa looked as though they had been administered electric shocks.

"Sousuke, you know she was just pulling your leg, right?" the blond murmured.

Tessa giggled. "I'm sorry, Sagara." She bowed, "I didn't mean to upset you. I will go enjoy the festivities. Goodbye."

Kurz took that moment to disappear too and I was left with Kaname, who was staring down at her heels. I could only see the velvet top of her navy blue hat. If the Captain had been joking it did not change my feelings about the situation. What I said was true. If Kaname wished to be married to me I would be more than happy to work while she taught our son or daughter information I never could. Of course, I was speaking in hypotheticals and it wasn't supposed to be taken seriously.

I thought given I had kissed my beloved and all we had been through that this sort of intention was obvious, not to mention socially expected. Then again, my track record wasn't clean in social interactions.

I coughed. "I, uh, noticed you didn't get a nosebleed." I pointed out, hoping Kaname would look at me, "I take it you are not fond of my festive attire?"

"That's not it." Kaname waved a hand, "I think you look very impressionable."

"Right." I said blankly, wondering what this could mean. My beloved blushed and answered for me.

"I'm trying to say you're hot!" she whispered, leaning close to my mouth, "Pretty snail."

I smiled. Those colloquialisms I could understand. I had achieved what I had wanted - to make Chidori happy.

"Do I arouse you?" I wondered.

Kaname exploded. "STOP USING THAT WORD!"

I laughed as she stamped her foot, nearly rolling her ankle. "I'm sorry, Chidori. I am reluctant to admit it is very amusing to taunt you."

Rolling one accessory between my fingers, I pulled the whip across my palms with a snap. Kaname looked like she had been drugged.

"Don't do that," she mumbled.

"What?" I asked mockingly, "This?"

I cracked the whip against the floor. Even if it was a fake the device could easily be used to harm or strangle somebody.

Kaname seemed lost in her thoughts.

"You have the most amazing smile, Sousuke," she said slowly, "I feel very honoured that I am alive to witness it."

"Why thank you, Miss Chidori," I said with a short bow, "I couldn't have done it without you, though. The credit is all yours."

"Don't be so formal," Kaname demanded. I peered into her eyes and saw betrayal.

"Did I do something wrong?"

My beloved crossed her arms and turned away, "I don't want to talk about it now. Maybe later."

I peered around at the crowd, most whom were chatting or dancing to music. "When do we leave for karaoke?"

"After most of the food is gone." she replied, sadly.

Biting the inside of my lip, I stepped forward and grabbed Kaname's wrist. "Then we have plenty of time to talk. Please let me speak to you in private."

At first the woman appeared intimidated. Her brown irises shifted from side to side, uneasily. She must be wondering if I was trustworthy. I hoped she said yes. Slowly, Kaname touched my fingers with hers and slowly unlaced them, like carefully punching in a security code, setting herself free.

"That's no way to treat a Police Officer," she whispered, "But let's steal some food before we go."

I had to resist bowing. As I peered over to the table of food and walked side by side with my beloved, I had faith that the situation between us would be resolved. "At once, Officer Chidori."

Chapter Text

We stacked fried foods, sweets, cake and bottles of Mitsuya cider on a plate and headed to the corridor. We didn't speak, holding our tongues. Once the colourful display and crowd were behind us our every footstep echoed down the hall.

"What did you want to talk about?" Kaname wondered, slowly.

I hesitated. This was not the best place for a conversation. "Would you like to come to my room, Chidori?" I requested, "It isn't far."

For some bizarre reason, Kaname turned bright red. I turned a corner. This section of ship echoed even more.

"Are you feeling unwell?" I asked, perplexed.

She shook her head, "No, not at all! I am just over the moon – ha! Ha! Ha! Why?"

For a woman unaffected by mind altering substances her behaviour was incredibly puzzling.

"I would rather no one interrupted what I have to say."

"OH!" Kaname's eyes became so round it was like she had spotted a missile spelling out humanity's doom. "I get it now!"



It was a relief to enter my solitary room, even if it had no hint of Christmas celebrations. I gestured to the bed. "Please sit down."

Kaname did and offered me the plate of food. I tore off a piece of cake so it didn't get crumbs on my outfit. I picked up a cider and held it out to her, to which she gave an acknowledging nod.

Kaname pulled off the cap, sipped at the drink and chuckled. "You can't do the goth attitude very well, I'm sorry to say."

"I don't mind," I said blankly.

"Neither do I." she shrugged, "Goths are annoying, anyway."

I smiled at Kaname. The room was poorly lit in comparison to the rest of the submarine but it was almost romantic in its dimness. For a moment, I had forgotten what I wanted to say to her.

You are here to investigate Kaname's emotional distance. There is no time to lose.

I cleared my throat and pulled up the chair from my desk, so I was sitting opposite her.

"I am under the impression there may be a miscommunication between us." I said slowly.

Kaname responded by taking another glug of her drink. "How should I know what that is?"

Her voice was beginning to sound lazy, which indicated to me that either she was light weight or had ingested alcohol earlier.

"Ah, yes." I broke some cake in my fingers into a smaller piece and quickly swallowed it. "Earlier, in your room and at the party, you seemed taken aback by my insinuation of being attracted to you and then marriage. I hope you understand that I was merely theorizing."

My beloved snorted and had to hold out a hand so cider didn't spurt out of her nose, "Playing pretend or not, don't you know better than to joke about stuff like that?!"

Anger burst from her glare and she fit the cop image even more.

I paused. "I try my best to act appropriately in all circumstances, Chidori. I'm afraid that despite years in a high school that I am still an amateur. This is why I think you may have misinterpreted the conversation."

"I was embarrassed! Isn't that obvious?" Kaname admitted, brushing some hair out of her face. "I didn't think you fantasized that far ahead into the future."

"Why?" I asked, inclined to mention that I hardly ever saw the 'obvious', "Doesn't everyone think about it?"

She shrugged. "Probably not as much as you."

"My apologies." I bowed my head, although this made Kaname angry.

"What's with all the formalities?!" she demanded, waving her drink. "It's not like I'm royalty or something. Come on. We address each other by first names, Sousuke!"

Her voice pitched in exasperation, coming across like a cracking radio signal. The story was beginning to organize in my mind. She was talking about my communication style in relation to her. Supposedly bowing was one of these aspects she disliked.

"I suppose I can see the discrepancy." I admitted, "But I thought you wanted to be treated with respect?"

Kaname had been part of my professional life for such a long time it was difficult to disconnect business from friendship, even with my best intentions.

"Yeah, but you've taken it the wrong way," she confessed, "You've gone from one extreme to the other. I dunno. Maybe you didn't mean to."

"I didn't." I said honestly. "I'm sorry. How would you prefer I treat you?"

"For starters," Kaname began, and she sipped more of her drink, "Oh, I don't know. Now I'm worried I'll sound stupid." She hesitated, "I guess I wonder what will become of us. Was the kiss a one hit wonder? Did I imagine it? Is it ever going to happen again?"

I couldn't believe Kaname was talking about this. Did she not know that I adored her? I felt a wave of warmth rush over my body as I stared into her desperate, pleading brown eyes. " "I wasn't aware you felt that way. I'm sorry, Kaname. Do... do you want me to kiss you?"

"Well, kind of!" she admitted, looking fragile and overbearing at once, "I just thought given all the times we'd spent alone recently you'd be more... romantic or something."

"Romantic…." I pondered. That was one area I had zero knowledge. Perhaps one of Kaname's magazines or shojo manga could offer some insight. "I'm afraid I am ignorant on the subject."

As though waiting for this moment, Kaname let out her pent up emotion. Finishing her cider and placing the bottle on the ground, she waved her fists around like a captive trying to break free. "God, damn it, damn it, damn it! Sousuke!"

The presentation of emotion reminded me of when I had forgotten her homework a while ago. I waited until the rolls of thunder dissipated before continuing. "I appreciate you directing your rage at the floor, however, I am wondering if you may be able to enlighten me on the subject."

"OOhh…." Kaname's voice rumbled. She leaned forward and tugged on my arm, "You bet I will!"

"F-Fantastic!" I sputtered, being directed to sit next to her on my bed. "What will you have me do?"

Now we sat with thighs almost touching, her voice could have burst my already damaged ear drums.

"I can't believe it! Are you really that clueless?" Kaname scolded, "I mean – I've seen you do some pretty romantic things in the past! Are you saying it was all by accident?"

My ears rang with the shrieking pitch of her voice. 

"I am not the most articulate, Kaname!" I stammered, "I love you, so I try to make it known when it seems appropriate. Beyond that your deduction is likely correct."

I tried to bow, knowing my beloved would be angry with me, but she stuck out her palm and stopped my head from dropping five degrees. "No, you don't."

I struggled to regain my composure as I sat up. I was overcome with an impulse to run and take cover, but there was no real need to point a weapon in my beloved's face. She rested her head in her hands, as though warding off a migraine.

"I get it. You're just as dense as ever, I just… I'm sorry." She bubbled, "I was hoping I wouldn't have to embarrass myself by explaining this stuff to you. Didn't Kurz or any other block heads from Mithril tell you anything?"

"If they did," I began slowly, "The chances of me retaining the information was very low. I never dreamed I would meet anybody as charming and gorgeous as you. I also had a strong conviction that I was incapable of falling in love in the first place. It just wasn't part of my life or interests. You proved me wrong, Kaname."

I was less reluctant to speak now her tone was normalizing. A pink flush rose to her cheeks, although it didn't look like anger. Tears filled her eyes, "See, this is what I'm talking about!"

"Huh?" I quickly thought over my last sentenc. "Is that romantic? I was just being honest."

"I get it." Kaname spoke very fast, "You're not completely clueless, just mostly." 'Her eyes met mine with a newly found sense of ambition. "Would you like to start at square one? I can take out some magazines and be your cute tutor."

I smiled. Following instructions and paying close attention to detail is something I was good at. I saluted her once again. "Teach away, Officer Chidori!"

As fate would have it, Kurz knocked on the door, "Quiet down, you too! We're about to head out to The Prince? Wanna come?"

The timing was unusual, but intriguing. Kaname picked up a pillow and threw it at the door. "Do you have any respect for privacy, y-you pervert?"

The pillow fell to the ground, its mission a saddening failure.

"We'll be right out!" I informed, standing to my feet. The night was only just beginning.

Chapter Text

Once we dismounted from the Tuatha de Danaan and stepped onto the pavement, my first impression was that it was strange I had no need to stroll past the nearest cafe to make use of their heating. The air was pleasantly fresh from balmy sands and salt.

Throughout my life I had witnessed the Christmas season in many countries. Europe and other parts of Japan were usually caked in snow, but this tropical island was the exception. It was less urbanized near the shoreline and significantly less populated at this time of night. However, the spirit of the holiday was apparent by the lumescent blue and pink lights that snaked around trees and buildings, similar to Osaka streets, creating a sharp contrast with the pitch black sky.

Melissa and Kurz took the lead with Tessa between them.

"We finally made it!" Kurz raised his hands into the air and let out a cheer. "Even the stars look happy to see us. Neat."

Indeed, they were. There were hundreds of stars above our heads. I rarely received much opportunity to admire natural wonders with a clear conscience. 

Testarossa was more relieved than excited and let out a poignant sigh.

"I'm so pleased we arrived safe and sound," she agreed softly.

She's right, I thought, nodding as Kaname reached my side. It would be a grave disappointment if the evening was disrupted with a terrorist or yakuza attack. The submarine was long behind us, left to the sole responsibility of the remaining, possibly drunk staff. Nonethless, having a fake gun and whip at my disposal was reassuring.

"Lighten up!" Melissa said loudly, "I need to pick out a drink and SMAP song for you, Tessa."

"Oh, no." The light haired teen shook her head modestly, "You don't have to. I know plenty of songs with great dances."

I heard Kaname chuckle from next to me, supposedly thinking something devious. My colleague stopped in his tracks and held out a hand dramatically. "Hold it. We didn't come all the way out here to get lost. Melissa…"

"We want Gate 2 Street," Melissa mumbled, staring at a small map. "It should be over… that way!"

She pointed, a good fifteen degrees inaccurate to the street, and we awkwardly followed.

"Psst, Sousuke!" Kaname hissed. I turned, but it was immediately obvious what had caught my beloved's attention. She was smiling enamoured at a small, prepubescent girl who was running unevenly a meter away from us to reach her mother.

"A child," I acknowledged, watching as the mother picked up the daughter in her arms. "I assume you like children, Kaname."

"They're cute when they're like that," she said, turning a little pink.

I pondered for a moment. "On the strict assumption you had the ample financial means, would you prefer a boy or a girl?"

"Eh?" Kaname's face became deadpan, "I'm not saying I want children right now!"

"I didn't mean it like that," I replied, peering up at the coloured buildings. "I read that on occasion some women feel strong maternal instincts in the presence of small children. I just wanted to know your opinion."

The steamy fragrance of rice and beer filled my nostrils from somewhere ahead. We couldn't be far from The Prince, but I hoped Kaname wouldn't take that as a reason not to answer.

""I used to be picky, but lately…" she began, her voice becoming softer with each word. A bike maneuvered past us and Kaname's hair fluttered for a few moments.

"I don't mind, so long as it's healthy and with someone I love."

I had to strain my ears yet I heard every word. My beloved took a deep breath and appeared sad but hopeful. We met eyes and I was filled with an indescribable elation, closest to a deflated balloon being refilled with hot air. Had she given the subject of having children a great deal of thought?

"Yeah! I totally – I mean, I think I get what you mean. You can never tell when Sensei Eru is being serious or not."

I raised my eyes and spotted a young couple enveloped in scarfs and winter wear. They had dressed formally, speaking in a disjointed, rushed way.

"Some – I know! – call him the smiling assassin!" said the boy.

"No way? Haha!"

Maybe they were on a first date.

I felt a sharp prod from my left and I peered at Kaname. Her brown, piercing stare moved pointedly to the couple, to me, and back at the youths. 

I hesitated. Did Kaname want me to loop our arms together?

Melissa, Kurz and Tessa had strolled a few meters ahead, speaking loudly about what their life aspirations had been five years ago compared to now.

The few adults and families in the streets stared at us, but it was hard to tell if it was for the sheer number of us or our costumes. We probably looked more suited to Halloween.

"For starters, just in case I missed something," Kaname hushed, "are we an item?"

"Do you mean….?" I gulped, staring to the couple then to her, although the clash of different lights and her hat made her features hard to recognize. "I thought that went without saying."

"Then why don't you call me something cute?" she requested.

I paused. "I don't know what would be to your liking."

"Kana-chan is simple enough."

For someone who was poking me a few moments ago she was remarkably calm.

I tried my best to smile. "I will call you Kana-chan from now on, unless you instruct otherwise."

"As dense as you are, you're a fast learner…" she said, nudging my arm with her elbow. "Would you like a cute name from your girlfriend, Sousuke?"

I blushed. There were more couples in the streets than I had ever noticed. "I am happy if you address me as Sousuke."

"Really?" The question seemed rhetorical, so I kept silent. Her eyes widened and her lip quivered. 

"I hope I am not being presumptuous," I started, making sure I was out of earshot of Melissa and Kurz. "Would you like me to link arms with you?"

My beloved appeared as though she had lost her confidence. "I don't want to be pushy, but if you want… I wouldn't mind."

She must mean yes, but is being polite. I reasoned.

I peered back at the middle school couple who had passed us. They were laughing and still clinging to each other as though their lives depended on it. I certainly didn't want to hold Kaname that desperately, but linking arms didn't convey the message I wanted.

Keeping my eyes on the path ahead, I brushed my fingers down her arm until I touched one of her fingers. It was an indescribable relief when our hands locked together, but I didn't have the courage to look at her until we entered The Prince.

To my horror, it was a bar style Karaoke establishment. Melissa, Kurz and Tessa found a table by the time we arrived. I wasn't sure whether to let go of Kaname's hand or not, so kept hold, although she gently pulled away.

"Sorry to keep you waiting!" she said, cheerfully. "Who wants to sing first?"

"I'd like to see Sagara take the stage," Melissa said with a keen glint to her eye.

My immediate reaction was to straighten my spine to look more persuasive, but Kana-chan waved a hand dismissively.

"Are you really sure you want to do that?" Kaname asked. Again, I believe her question was rhetorical.

Tessa swished some soda in her cup. "I'm used to speaking before crowds so I can sing by myself. Maybe we can all do a group song to make it easier?"

I peered at Kurz. His eyes were on the group already using the microphone. They consisted of above average looking boisterous females in their mid-thirties, dancing ecstatically to an upbeat pop song by a male group. Their singing was slightly off key, but it was apparent they were having fun. The video on the display appeared aged.

"That day when we looked up at the sky," the women half shouted, "what were you looking for?"

Though their dancing and singing was not in perfect synchronization, the energy was similar to the boys running around on the video.

"Let's get past all of the times we passed each other. In the future that you're painting. Am I pictured right now?"

I was suddenly reminded of the only musical group I knew the name of.

"Is this SMAP?" I asked.

I remembered the name in perfect clarity as it was part of my cover story on the first day I had attended Jindai High. The fact my weapons had been confiscated, among other misfortunes, probably made the picture more vivid.

Tessa giggled. "Sagara, even I can recognize that musical group from another!"

"This isn't SMAP," Melissa drawled, "These dudes started a couple of years later. The songs are still just as embarrassing."

"That's the late 90's for you," Kurz said wearily, placing his hands behind his head. "Do you think those ladies are too old for me?"

The Chinese-American laughed. "I think your waxy six pack might be too intimidating."

I tried to pay attention to the video over the drunken cries of, "Let's start from here to tomorrow! I believe your smile!"

One of us was less engaged.

"I'm going to ask them if we can sing next," Kaname said determined as she stepped closer to the Karaoke machine and observed the selection. The group had started to look at us.

"I have confidence in Kaname's knowledge of music," I started slowly, "but I fail to see how I can join in when my greatest accomplishment in the area is memorizing Chopin's Prelude in E Minor."

"Just make it up, buddy," Kurz clapped me on the back. "We'll be right with you."

"It is all about having fun," Tessa informed, "Don't worry! I'd like to see you sing, too."

There was a reason I didn't join in on the Mithril Karaoke years ago. I thought disgruntled.

Scattered applause came from the bar as the song ended and Kaname approached a large woman with bright eye shadow.

"Excuse me, do you mind if my friends and I sing next?" she requested.

"Not at all!" the curvy one said, nearly tripping over the microphone cord, "but can we dance along too? We've been having a blast!"

"Uh…" Kaname appeared nervous, but she glanced over to us, "If you really want to, b-but don't get upset if we take up too much space."

By her phrasing, it was obvious she was implying the older women may not fit among them. I nodded to Tessa and we stepped to the middle of the room, turning to the side. Most customers were too busy drinking or speaking to friends to pay attention. My beloved pressed the play button and a similar upbeat pop number broke through the speakers. I kept my eyes on the screen where the lyrics would appear. The video was strikingly aged. My nerves levelled in knowing how off key one is permitted to sound in a bar.

"I love your costume, it's very pretty," a late twenties girl said, bowing to Kaname. Despite this the stranger's eyes were on me.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" Kaname's forced laugh rang around the room. "We decided to dress up for fun."

"Gather round!" Kurz called, already bouncing to the beat. I tried to copy him, though it was challenging in such a small space.

Melissa and Tessa began to boom, "Anyway you want. Anytime you need."

Kaname awkwardly tried to hold the microphone between all of us. The beat was predictable so I joined in with my beloved on the next line, straining to look at the display. "Everybody shakes! Everytime dance!"

I was very pleased the microphone could not pick up my voice. I tried to focus on dancing when the verse took on a different melody. It was hard to stay calm when the older women hurt my ears with their shrill voices. By the look in everyone else's eyes, it was distracting.

Maybe they would leave.

"Woo – overnightWoo- sensation!"

A third woman, one so tall and thin she reminded me of a malnourished refugee, thread through the crowd and danced next to me. I noticed Kaname glare at the woman from a distance. Was she dangerous? I tried to focus on the lyrics to deter involvement.

"What are you dressed as?" the local half shouted over the music, her accent smooth.

There was a break in the conversation as we all burst out the next line of song.

"I'm not sure," I replied honestly, wondering what she hoped to achieve. I didn't have any money on me. "What brings you to The Prince?"

"We just wanted to have fun," the woman said.


I noticed Tessa knock into me as the chorus started. I felt my heart plummet as the stranger's voice was closer to me, her breath traveling down my neck.

"What is your favourite drink?" she asked. "I can buy one for you."

"Speaking of drinks!" Kurz burst out. I had no choice but to stare at the woman's neck. She was a decent head taller than me. "If you want to buy anyone anything, it should be the birthday girls. Kaname and Tessa were born on the 24th."

"Lovely!" the woman spun around and I was able to focus on dancing again. "Are you twins?"

"No." Tessa knocked into me again, although it was a lot firmer than last time, "it's just a nice coincidence.'

There was another break in the conversation as we sung, "In work and love, all desires / left unfulfilled throughout time…'

"How about I buy the two of you drinks after the song?" the lady asked.

"I think that's a great idea," Tessa said stiffly.

Kurz next line was obnoxiously loud, "Anyone who has a dream one night / Like the romance of a crossroads / Somehow the world will handle it calmly."

Were my friends trying to tell me something? I peered over the crowd at Kaname, who seemed busy trying to out-yell the group of women in the song.

I wasn't expecting what happened next. I felt somebody knock into me and, in the confusion, run their fingers over my backside. My hand flew to the fake gun and sharply pushed the woman away in the process. I heard her hiss next to me in pain. Applause burst out. I had been so busy trying to sing along that I hadn't noticed the crowd had been singing too.

"You alright, buddy?" Kurz asked, as the song faded.

"I am unharmed, thank you, Kurz." I gave a small bow. Despite how deliberate the action seemed, I was left at a loss of whether the tall lady had tried to touch me on purpose or if it was an accident.

"Let me buy you a drink." The woman bowed so low to Tessa I could have balanced a drinking glass on her back.

"You're too kind." The Captain bowed, but before she knocked me once more and whispered in my ear, "Your orders are to sing with Miss Kaname Chidori at once, Seargant."

It was then apparent that she had been trying to alert me.

"With Kana-chan?" I said in a jumble, the new name sounded foreign in my ears, "I – I don't know any songs."

"I got it." Melissa was quick to respond. She flicked through the selection and pressed a button, "It's a duet and you start!"

Just like that, my colleague gave me a wave, passed me the microphone and headed down to the table to sit next to Tessa.

Taken aback, I struggled to understand the situation. There was something odd happening between the group of women and my friends, but I was not sure what it could be.

A slow jazz number entered my ears. The screen implied it was a song about a bar.

I watched as the curvier stranger ushered Kaname to the bar.

"Please, let me just get you one for letting us sing with you!" she said boisterously.

"I –" Kaname looked around uncertainly. She bowed. "I really can't accept your kindness. Please give Tessa my drink."

I met the Captain's regard. It was steely and authoritarian, how she looked when at work. She was at her strongest now. My other colleagues were having friendly conversation with the girls.

Your orders are to sing with Miss Kaname Chidori at once, Seargant.

Leaning the microphone behind me so it would give off shrill feedback, I filled my lungs and yelled.

"Kana-chan!" I turned red, hoping my team mates wouldn't tease me later, "Come sing with me! I need your help!"

Kaname accepted the opportunity in a flash. She gave an uncomfortable smile and bowed, "Sorry, my boyfriend wants my attention. What a pain! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

As she approached me, I couldn't bow to offer my thanks.

She called me her boyfriend, I thought in awe.

"Sousuke, look at the screen!" Melissa called.

"Of course!" I yelped, spinning around to stare at the display. I had already missed the first line. Trying to gage the melody, I sung the next part too slowly, "…Have a drink."

Kaname reached me and took the microphone off me, glaring at all the other women in the establishment as she recited, "Yeah, I'll come right out / and have a double bourbon. Dance, Sousuke!"

"I can't, Kana-chan," I said meekly, though I awkwardly copied my girlfriend in her slow dance. Kaname's voice was on key, although she seemed to be adding more emphasis than needed to the words. She edged closer to me so we could both speak into the microphone by slightly leaning forward.

Tessa sipped her drink, trying to brush off conversation so she could listen.

"I'm not gauche enough to ask your name," I sung, although the timing was off again, "Let alone anything about you."

I blushed. The lyrics were not inaccurate to how I felt about Chidori. This was humiliating, yet nobody was booing me off stage. In fact, some were singing along. Kurz cheered in encouragement.

"Yeah, we just happen to be sitting," Kaname's gaze on mine was intense, "Together at a pub."

"Both of you!" Melissa instructed.

Mechanically, I leaned forward to the microphone and glanced at the lyrics out of the corner of my eye. Kaname and I were so close we could feel each other's breath on our face.

"In a shabby pub," we sung in unison, staring at each other, "With no pictures, no flowers, no songs or flowery words."

Tessa, Melissa and Kurz clapped loudly. I gave a careworn smile. The questionable patrons had settled down because they were merely looking disheartened. Kaname seemed pleased. We executed the next few lines much better, since the tune was repetitive.

"In that case, should I stay with you until the morning?" I tried to frame the question as genuine, "I've met some bad girls."

Though Kurz laughed, I did not understand why the lyrics were funny.

My insides fluttered like a breeze when Kaname responded. "You don't need to worry about that / You just go on home."

I could sense confusion in her lovely voice.

No, I thought determined. That isn't good enough. I don't want you to feel alone in this bar, Kaname.

Reaching out hesitantly, I wrapped my fingers around my dear Kana-chan's. I gulped as droplets of sweat formed on my forehead. Wanting to somehow communicate with her, I sternly raised an eyebrow. She smiled.

I don't know if she understood my message, but she didn't look sad anymore. We grasped hands and Kaname was looking at me with big, devoted eyes. Her eyelashes appeared to have droplets in them like that dream I'd had in the shower.

"In a shabby pub." We finished, "With no pictures, no flowers, no songs or flowery words."

I sighed exhausted as the song finished. Kaname grinned, although she looked worn out too.

The cheers that followed were warm, even if the bar had a smaller number of patrons. It took me a moment to realize why. The group of noisy women had departed.

The mission was a success.

"Nice job, Sousuke!" Kaname tried to brush one of my fingers with her own before I let go. She held out the instrument while I wiped my hands on my trousers. "Who's next?"

To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to feel brave, proud or foolish.

Chapter Text

I fell into somewhat of a stupor at the table, sipping briefly at chilled water. Intoxication was an unsafe fate given the previous incident with the thirty year olds.

I hummed under my breath to the chorus the Captain was singing. A number of young men had crowded around her, swaying to the rock ballad. Despite their apparent innocence, I remained wary. My arms were crossed and brow furrowed, perhaps matching the intent of my costume at last.

Kaname refilled water into my glass and moved her chair closer. "Do you like this song, Sousuke?" 

"I enjoy the minimalist arrangement," I admitted. "Do you like it?"

"It's okay." Kaname shrugged, removing her hat. "I don't mean to sound weird. I'm just trying to figure out what kind of music you like."

"Which singer is this?"

"It's a band.The Brilliant Green," she quipped.

"Thank you. I will remember, Kana-chan."

In truth, I was unsure when I would have time to research the subject further, though I wanted to show I appreciated my beloved's efforts all the same.

I sighed. This may be similar to a night duty although it didn't stop me feeling any less tired. At least Kaname's preferred form of address was beginning to roll out of my mouth easier. "I fail to comprehend the motives of those strange women from earlier."

"Ahaha!" Kurz leaned back to join in on the conversation. "You really couldn't figure it out?"

"I observed they enjoyed my costume," I said diplomatically. "They were quite adamant about distracting me."

"They wanted to get down and dirty with you, numb skull." Melissa gave a ferocious, highly sexual hand gesture to explain.

"Oh, I see." I ought to have realized that. "Like Kana-chan and Tessa."

To my surprise, Kaname groaned and covered her face in her hands. "Sousuke…."

I failed to see what was upsetting about information already known to the majority of the submarine's inhabitants. Then again, in the past Kaname had been sensitive to this form of comments. I wasn't sure how to react, so I tuned my ears to the guitar solo instead.

As I did so, Melissa leaned forward and murmured in Kaname's ear. "As thick as he is, hey, at least there's no risk of him cheating on you. Besides, you've got the Police hat."

Tessa was finishing her song in broken English to hear, looking spectacular in the dim light. "There will be love there. There will be love there. I want to live for that one I love."

I clapped with Kurz, hoping Kaname would forgive my ignorance one more time.

It was unclear if she had, as my girlfriend and I walked back to the Tuatha de Danaan in silence. The lack of conversation could have been friendly since we held hands. It was amazing that such a simple gesture made me feel as alert as a dangerous mission. Goodnights were barely exchanged as the group split and the two of us strolled to where our rooms were located.

I stopped once I reached Kaname's door. I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed, although my beloved kept hold of my hand.

"Kana-chan," I began, looking down at her Police hat with befuddlement. "May I ask why you are still holding my hand?"

I cringed as Kaname twisted my wrist and yanked her hand away in a painful motion. "Oh! I see how it is! Why are you asking such an insensitive question?! Do you not want me around?"

Although I placed my hand at my side and attempted to interpret the situation as quickly as possible, my mind was sluggish. "I do very much enjoy holding hands with you, but I am tired. I am under the impression you feel differently."

There was silence. Bewildered, I peered into Kaname's eyes. They looked drained, and her face was strained as though she had just read an entire textbook. "What would you like to do?"

I hesitated. Was this a trick question? "I would prefer to sleep."

"Yeah," Kaname shrugged exasperated, "I'm pretty out of it too. I've been to Karaoke with Kyoko tons of times, but today it's different. I dunno why. It's just been a bigger day than usual, you know?"

Feeling hopeful, I tried to smile. "Yes, it has been eventful and lively."

The extent of my understanding of Kaname's feelings was not something I wanted to explore. I felt my hand growing limp. Now we were not connected it made it so easy to depart.

Kaname looked down to the ground for a moment and all I could see was her Police hat and fidgeting fingers.

"I want you to know, Sousuke," she began timidly, "that in answer to your other question about how I feel when I look into your eyes…um…"

She trembled and hesitantly peered at me as though worried I might attack her.

"You have my undivided attention, Officer," I said, saluting her.

The last time I had uttered such words was over the phone when trying to evade gunfire in a car. Kaname hung up on me as she had not believed in my good will. Tonight it was different. We were face to face and closer.

She laughed. "Sousuke, you're right. I'm being silly." She took a deep breath in. "You amaze me. I… I really... I get butterflies around you. You're changing every day and it's... interesting? I mean, whatever, that's obvious. People change as time goes on, I've probably changed too, but I didn't expect you would be someone I like even more. Not like, but like like."

"Like like?"

"I really like you. Still. More than a friend."

"That's very kind Kana-chan," I said with a gentle bow. The Whispered girl had become more than someone to guard long ago. "I could say the same about you."

"I'm not trying to be nasty!" Kaname implored, and she turned crimson. "What I mean is: I'm sorry for doubting you. You're still just as cute."

"Thank you very much." I unhooked the choker from my neck, and gave it to her, pleased it no longer scratched. "Perhaps you have better use for this than me."

Kaname snorted – why was a mystery – and placed the choker in her shirt breast pocket. "Maybe we can leave it until tomorrow."

My immediate confusion was how my beloved intended to use the accessory outside of the setting of a party, though I thought better than to ask.

Kaname closed the gap between us and leaned up to my face, slowly lifting onto her toes like a ballet dancer. My breath hitched in my throat. I could only assume she was going to kiss me.

For some unknown reason this romantic context was far more nerve racking than when I had kissed her in front of the school.

"I- I would like you to know I feel extremely unprepared, Kaname!" I blurted out, blushing. "I mean Kana- Kana-chan."

My mumbled ended in a terrified yelp. Why was I so worked up? 

To my pleasant surprise, the girl smiled as warm as she could. It made me tense up even more so. Kaname was so gorgeous and I didn't want to resist her affections any longer.

We closed our eyes within milliseconds of each other.

"Don't worry," she whispered, her breath gently brushing my skin. "I do too."

I embraced the dark and sensation as Kaname enclosed her lips on mine; bringing forth a fire in my heart I had never known. It was far more than the virtuous warmth I had a close association with friends, or even the fluttering of my stomach when I thought about kissing her. It was a burning, intoxicating heat. My pulse went to levels of high alert and sweat gathered on my hands and neck.

Trembling, I touched her face with my too-curious fingers, as softly as one would carry a highly dangerous weapon. She was so fragile in this state I was afraid to move. However, my beloved was receptive to my curiosity. She touched my face, my hair, ran her fingers through it. I was in heaven.

"I love you," I murmured, and Kaname merely moaned an 'mmhmm' of agreement. It was a relief that I was not the only one becoming a mere fragment of my former self.

The emptiness of was so pronounced without her lips attached to mine that I held her close, not caring that her breasts were pressing against my chest, not wanting her to pull away. I didn't just love her. There was more than innocent adulation driving me nearer in this submarine hallway.

We kissed again and I suddenly remembered Kurz words; they appeared a lot more meaningful than before.

The sexy feelings help make life worth living. Besides, it will help you make more friends.

Was this the part of my life that had been a mystery?

I smiled into my kiss with Kaname but she was oblivious to the double meaning. Interestingly, I suddenly didn't feel so tired.

Chapter Text

Breathing heavily, I bent closer to her ear, and said in an undertone, "I am sorry to say I am still at a loss of what to do, Kana-chan."

I'll admit I was too nervous and overwhelmed to speak louder. I peered to her bedroom door and for the first time wondered what would happen if I was invited inside.

Not wanting Kaname to be persuaded by my subconscious bias, I let go of her. "Could you tell me your thoughts?"

I expected Kaname to answer in an instant. Instead, it was as though she'd lost the ability to speak. Forcing a jovial smile, her mouth opened with no expression of intelligent thought.


It went on like the hum of an engine, ending after three long seconds. If she had been doing a class presentation, she would most certainly get a fail grade for the length of the sound alone.

Nonplussed, I waited in silence as Kaname bit her lip, addled and unsure of herself. Colour rising to her cheeks, she tried again.

"Yeah! My opinion!" she began, her tone falsely bright. "That's really important! I get it! Thanks for asking me, Sousuke!"

Again, to my perplexity, she waved her hands and started laughing in the over exaggerated way she did to avoid a question, "Ha! Ha! Ha! HA! HAAAA!"

It was far more embellished than normal, so something struck me as off. 

"You'll have to forgive me, Kana-chan, but I think I misunderstood," I started. The blood surging through my body had slowed to normal and so my thoughts were clearer. "What is it that you 'get'?"

My voice was as confident and tone steady, so much so that my beloved's composure returned to a more familiar, level headed one.

"Oh, that." Kaname's voice lowered to near sinister levels and she grinned. "Just forget everything I said. I was getting carried away."

She chuckled, more nervously now, like she wanted to fill the silence.

My jaw stiffened. "I can forget if you like, Kana-chan. However, I would be better able to sleep if I understood your original intention."

Kaname laughed loudly. "Trust me, you wouldn't."

"Is that so?" I raised my eyebrows, genuinely curious. "That's unusual."

"You bet!" my girlfriend agreed, sounding more relieved with each passing second.

I scratched my head. 

"Did I do something stupid?" I wondered, "Is that why you are avoiding the question?"

"Nah, I am just not feeling well." Kaname smiled guiltily like an elementary school girl that hadn't done her homework and hurried to her door, snatching the handle, "Maybe we can resume the plan tomorrow!"

"Wait!" I stepped forward, half wondering if I should stop her. "What plan?"

"You know!" Kaname said, like pointing out the obvious. "That thing I told you about the other day."

She heaved on the door and swung it open. Could the woman be anymore vague?

"I'm afraid I don't remember." 

Kaname gave a coy giggle. "You know that's a real shame because I was really looking forward to – I mean – I am just as curious as you are about this whole silly thing… maybe even more…"

"What are you talking about?!" I demanded, starting to get frustrated.

"Goodnight, Sousuke!"

As she pushed on the door from the other side I placed my shoe in to block it, gasping as the heavy metal crushed my toes. These stupid boots probably couldn't protect me against a gust of wind.

I thought Kaname would yell at me, but she merely stared, like an idolizing fan might do at a concert.

"I forgot to ask," I began, knowing I was the biggest fool of all, "what you wanted for your birthday."

It was both an excuse to keep Kaname speaking to me and a means to uncover the information.

"Umm…" My girlfriend wanted the conversation to be over by the way she was still holding the door, "You already helped me out for the party. It's fine."

"No, it isn't," I disagreed, "I may not be one for holidays but your birthday is incredibly important. Please forgive me for not asking earlier and I hope you can tell me."

I didn't care that the student wanted to minimize formalities. I bowed as low as I could without my costume snagging on my skin.

There was a sigh as I rose back to standing, Kaname appeared thoughtful,

"Just get what you think is good, even if it's something dumb." She grinned and pulled the choker out of her breast pocket, "Besides, I think this is the coolest present you've ever given me."

I cocked my head to the side. "Why is that? I've given you plenty of unsolicited gifts with more practical value."

It was then my girlfriend gave the most obnoxious, uncharacteristic giggle I had ever heard. Even her posture and expression regressed to a junior high age and she ceased to look like the woman I knew. My jaw dropped. 

Noticing my reaction, Kaname screwed up her face. "Goodnight, Sousuke! Thanks for the birthday wishes!"

Before I could respond, the girl kicked my shoe out of the way and locked the door. The heavy bang echoed down the hall for a few moments, the submarine feeling lonelier and sadder as it dissipated. One fact was definite. She was definitely not going to reopen it.

I sighed and walked away, not being able to decide if I had more questions now than she'd answered. 

I awoke for breakfast early in the morning, met with left overs for food. Kaname probably wouldn't wake up until later, especially with cake to eat. Kurz was the only other in the kitchen, which wasn't unusual. He was back in casual wear today, picking up fried meat with chopsticks.

"Merry Christmas, Sousuke," he said, with a pleasant ring to his voice. "It's kinda suitable that we had karaage here, right?"

"Indeed." I agreed, taking a plate from a cupboard and serving some of the same, "I am going to the store in order to pick up supplies and presents. Would you like to come?"

"I probably should." My colleague groaned, "It's my own fault for not buying them sooner, but we all had other stuff on our minds right?"

I nodded as I sat down at the table next to him. Secretly, I hoped I could buy presents before Kaname woke up and realize how disorganized I was.

Kurz stretched and groaned as he finished his food.

"So any luck with Kaname?" he inquired. "She definitely seemed to be putting the moves on you at Karaoke."

"I am uncertain," I said slowly, "I gave her my choker and she was under the strict impression she would find a way to use it."

Amazingly, the blond's eyes widened and he gaped. "Are you joking or what?"

I solemnly raised an eyebrow which Kurz understood, "Right, right. I know who I'm talking to, but really? What did she say?"

I scooped some rice into a ball. "She said we could use it some other time."

"Aw, man!" It was a relief that there was no one else in the room for Kurz was overexcited, his eyes close to bulging out of his head. "The worst part is you don't even get it!"

"Kana-chan said that as well," I noted, "I would be incessantly grateful if you could explain."

Kurz sniggered and grinned. "I could, but it would be a lot more fun to have Kaname explain it to you."

"Why is that?"

"Just 'cause." The model said, linking his fingers and balancing them behind his head. "I mean, I can give you the general overview."

"Of course," I encouraged.

I was suddenly aware of how deadly quiet it was in the submarine. It would be child's play to eavesdrop. 

Kurz looked to make sure no one was in the room before muttering, "Sounds like she wants your body, man… like, a lot."

Right. This again.

"My naked body?" 

"You got it." My friend gave me thumbs up.

"Uh huh." I knew this from last night; however, my brain had not connected the two together. "How does a choker come into a situation when I am expected to be disrobed?"

Kurz laughed.

"I am serious," I pressed.

"I know, I know." The blond tried to wipe the smirk on his face. "Look, don't worry about it. You're both pretty young and Kaname doesn't strike me as easy. It'll probably be a while before anything happens."

"Then why would she say it?"

"Well," Kurz hesitated, thinking of how to phrase the question. "Wanting to do something and actually doing it are two completely different things. Am I right?"

"In some cases," I agreed.

"I mean if I told you to take off your clothes right now, would you do it?"

"Hmm." I tried to honestly picture a scenario where this would occur, "If there was an ample incentive and a large risk to my safety if it did not occur…"

"See, you wouldn't," Kurz interrupted me. "If you knew for sure you wouldn't have to think about it."

I was in the process of appreciating the wisdom of my friend's words when a voice came from behind me.

"What are you two on about?" Melissa grumbled. I turned mechanically to the door. 

"You know, the usual," Kurz said nonchalant, "Debating the likelihood of Kaname and Sousuke stripping for each other."

"Ahahahahaha!" Melissa burst into cackles instantly, "You're right, Kurz. That is pretty standard! We talk about it all the time."

Sometimes I cannot believe I work with these lunatics.

'Speaking of leaving!" I said loudly, and I promptly stood to leave as Melissa wiped her eyes, "Merry Christmas, Urzu 2."

Kurz joined me for shopping although we told Melissa we were running errands. Now that it was light outside it was clear from the many signs that the Okinawa town we were in was Koza. Since it was home to an American military base many of the bars and shops were aimed toward this crowd. In hindsight, it made sense that The Prince had been a bar style karaoke business. It looked completely different in the dreary winter light, but I felt far more comfortable now I could wear my usual attire.

My colleague and I headed for Gate 2 street and the adjacent Ichibangai arcade.

"Did Melissa like your costume?" I asked in the fourth boutique, pouring over some souvenirs to give to everyone.

Kurz looked uncomfortable. "She made fun of me, but I think that's just how she reacts to everything I do." He brushed it off. "She probably liked it."

"Are you sure about that?"

"I dunno, Sousuke," Kurz sounded agonized, "How did you get things going with Kaname? I feel like I'm out of touch with the youth of today."

"There isn't much to the story," I admitted, picking up a packet of YukiShio Chinsuko. They looked like crumbly vanilla biscuits. "Do you think these are sufficient obligatory gifts?"

"Put a ton in the bag," my friend drawled, and he scooped three packets into the basket balanced on his right arm. "Don't leave me hanging. I'm sure there's more to it than that."

"It happened so gradually I hardly noticed," I said, squishing past some other customers until we reached another row of gifts, "You heard our radio conversation on the island."

"Yeah, but didn't you do anything else?" Kurz asked. "You have more guts than me."

"It isn't about guts," I said plainly, as though reporting the weather forecast. "It wasn't evident we were ever going to see each other again. In the desperation and hopelessness of the situation it was almost as though I didn't have a choice."

"You still said it. The advice isn't what I would call practical. I don't want to put Melissa in a life threatening situation for nothing."

"It would have a purpose," I pointed out, "You could always stage a hopeless situation."

"Nah, my entire life feels like one hopeless Jdrama sometimes."

I picked up two medium rectangular boxes of freshly prepared Beniimo Tart and placed them in the basket. It was half full.

Kurz sighed. "I should just tell her today. Nothing like some love on Christmas."

"It is better you do so before our peaceful holiday is disrupted," I said. With that we entered the queue, our obligatory gifts decided. Kurz reminded me that the future was mostly unknown and chances of safety were good, but I ignored him. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before.

"I don't know what to buy Kana-chan," I said, disgruntled. Some young girls behind us in the queue were staring, possibly because we were buying Christmas gifts too late.

"You think I'm supposed to know?" Kurz said, almost frustrated.

"You're right." My lips thinned to a harsh line, "What sort of gifts do feminine high school girls like?"

The line progressed quickly and Kurz paid for it. We waited until we had left the store until I paid him half.

"She likes fashion magazines," I tried to remember, "Yet I'm not sure what volumes she doesn't own."


"No idea."


"I've seen her read them. I think I would be able to recognize the ones I've seen her read." I looked around. "Could you help me pick one?"

"Only if you help me find a gift for Melissa and Tessa," my friend advised. "Hey, and while I'm feeling generous I can lend you some of my magazines too."


To be honest, I felt politely curious about the magazines, like trying to learn the rainforest terrain of a country I had never been to. 

We arrived at the Tuatha de Danaan with gifts and food, although, the walk was largely pointless as Tessa demanded we visit the local sights. I didn't get to speak to Kaname one on one then, and I suspected it wouldn't be until after our evening meal. We were set to return to Tokyo on Boxing Day at 1pm.

When we returned from hiking I was more than happy to disband from the group.

I sighed as I sat down on my bed and rest my briefcase on my lap. Inside were magazines I never thought I would ever read. Kurz had leant me two editions each of Video Boy and Urecco. I peered through them with interest, only to be disappointed as the information in them was minimal. I thought I could receive much more accurate information from a textbook or even asking Melissa, yet I highly doubted she would keep the conversation secret if I did.

Confused, I flicked through the pages at a quickened pace. Besides advertisements and many multi colored titles pasted across the ink, there were not many young adult female in these magazines that titillated me. In fact, I was lucky to find one model per magazine which provoked the hidden stirrings of my mind. Even then, I was met with an angry self-condemnation I found deeply troubling.

I felt angry that my colleagues teased me in relation to my subdued sexuality, and I found it irksome that I was clueless of how to relate to my own body. I had always seen it as a vessel to do work, a machine to be perfected in order to carry out orders. The idea that I was allowed to immerse myself in animalistic thoughts was very strange to me, like trying to learn how to tie shoelaces backwards. The fact Kaname and my friends encouraged it was more unconventional. The closest comparison I could gather was trying to drive a manual car after years in an automatic vehicle.

I left the page open at a girl I liked the most, running a finger over the paper, trying to understand what I was seeing. Whenever I focused on engrossing myself in the material and allow myself to feel stimulated, my thoughts always blocked it.

Still, I tried to analyse this feeling of detachment to the imagery. It wasn't safe, constructive or helpful to endorse these feelings. My work as a soldier required me to be logical and objective at all times. I couldn't afford to be distracted by such petty images. If my ability to think was compromised, my life or those of others could disappear.

I took a deep breath and stared into the brown eyes of the girl in the photo. What was she thinking when this picture was taken? Had she been the victim of coercion or was it done of her own free will? For a man who prided myself in logic, my thoughts were incredibly nonsensical.

Kurz liked these magazines and he was a highly proficient soldier. In fact, I had become so dysfunctional in other aspects of my life already that Kaname had been removed as part of my assignment. How would Kurz think about these pictures?

I examined every aspect of the young woman in the photo. It was obvious why I liked this model more than the others. She had Kaname's brown eyes, tanned skin and even a similar smile. Their teeth were nearly identical. Her hair wasn't as long or groomed in the same way, but it was as close to a picture of a naked Kaname I was ever going to get. Feeling sick, I was reminded of that Chinese woman in Hong Kong. Perhaps aspects of my attraction were apparent then, but I had overlooked it out of disdain. 

What do I want to do with Kaname?

Feeling my head get heavy, I placed the magazines back in my briefcase, slid it under my bed and re-positioned myself so I was laying face up on my pillow, how I might when trying to sleep. Taking a steady breath, I thought back to the fantasy I'd had in the shower. I wanted… to see what she looked like. I was curious as to how my girlfriend's body felt, all of it. I wanted to know what it was like. As straightforward my intentions were, if I did that, would she enjoy it as much as I would? Would she roll her eyes?

Perhaps it was a naïve fantasy to some, but not to me. I heard my pulse pound in my ears. Slowly, I crept my fingers down to below my belt and lightly pressed down. How odd. Blood had rushed to the area and I had not even noticed.

Trying to greater define my fantasy and its meaning, I slowly unbuckled the belt, trying to stay silent, even though there was no chance of anyone hearing me through the submarine's heavy steel door. As the pictures became clearer and intensified with each physical movement, I tried to fight my self-disgust and contempt, taking the process incredibly slowly as one might try to poison an enemy when their back was turned.

It took an hour before I surrendered to my mental and physical yearnings. I began to feel drowsy from gratification.

Chapter Text

By dinner all of the left overs were consumed so Kurz and Melissa made vegetable tempura udon noodles. The crew had lost their palate for Chritmas food so the change was welcomed. I slurped one particularly long strand that flicked hot water on the table and Tessa snickered.

"Sousuke," the Captain said slowly, "You're looking very peaceful. Have you finally gotten into the Christmas spirit?"

I nodded as I picked up a chunk of tempura pumpkin with my chopsticks. "This udon is some of the best I've had in a while."

It was a lie, though for once I saw no reason to be honest.

"That's my specialty." Seargent Weber said.

Melissa chuckled. "'m finally getting the hang of tempura after all these years," She seemed incredibly proud of herself, "that's why it tastes good."

"I think the broth makes the difference!" Tessa said loudly.

"Calm down. I'm just happy I didn't throw up in my mouth!" Kaname interrupted, placing her hand down like a judge might a hammer.

"Sousuke," the Captain continued, "We all thought it would be lovely to exchange gifts after our meal. What do you think?"

"That is fine," I said flatly.

Tessa clapped her hands together excitedly. "I'm so excited! I can't wait – I brought a camera too."

"How did the photos from last night turn out?" Kurz said.

"They were so cute! I can't wait to put them all together in a video."

I secretly hoped that when the time came I could find the means to edit myself out of the collage. Still, it was a miracle that we had taken pleasant photos at all. A year ago I couldn't have imagined spending Christmas like this, and neither it seemed did my teammates.

I returned to my bedroom afterward, not wanting to pressure Kaname into spending time with me if she was worn out. She had behaved a little too monotonous during the gift giving exercise so I suspected she may not have been happy to see me.

Kicking my briefcase further under my bed I picked up the novel Battle Royale by Koushun Takami out of the brightly colored gift bag. This was Tessa's gift. While fiction wasn't my genre of choice it was a thoughtful gift, one I would at least attempt to read. Maybe I could take Kaname fishing.

Next I scooped out a DVD from Melissa. It was a romance film from half a decade ago called Su-ki-da. It became immediately clear why it had been given when tore a small slip of paper from the cover. The Chinese-American's handwriting wrote:

Watch it with Kaname. I guarantee lots of snuggling! You can thank me after!

Even though the ex-marine's intentions were good natured, the only thing I wanted to know is what actions snuggling encapsulated.

Next was a small box that Kurz had told me not to open in front of the group. I found out why quite quickly. The present was four packets of condoms, held together in such a way that they couldn't be identified as that at a distance. Like Melissa, the model had taped a piece of scrap paper to the box.

Hey! Did I get your attention? Read the damned instructions! I made sure these came with some. – blow Kaname a kiss from me.

Sighing, I put the boxes back in the bag. It was incredibly kind of my fellow soldiers to provide me gifts that would assistant me with Chidori.

There was a knock on the door. Hastily, I put the gift bag down.

"Identify yourself!" I shouted at the door.

"It's Kana-chan!"

"The door is open." 

Kaname entered looking cheery. "They say to expect miracles on Christmas so I just got mine."

I stared at my girlfriend as she approached my bed. She had changed into a white dress with a long jacket and boots.

"I'm delighted to hear it, Kana-chan." 

"You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?" she said. I didn't answer so Kaname added, "I'm talking about you having the door unlocked."

Was that a miracle?

"It was an incredibly foolish mistake!" I rushed, to which Kaname hushed me by shaking my shoulder so vigorously she could have dislocated my arm.

"It's perfect," she whispered. Was she trying to enamour me on purpose?

"Why didn't you wear that at dinner?" I wondered, not sure if that was an appropriate question.

Kaname didn't seem to mind. "I didn't want to stain it. Would you like to go for an evening stroll with me?"

"Do you mean the two of us?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I mean." 

We walked arm in arm through the Okinawa streets five minutes later. Deliberately, we chose areas we had not already been to. It was a charming little town. Though I don't think I'd ever paid so much attention to street signs and posters before, Kaname found a lot of it exciting. I'll admit it did have some artistic merits. I wouldn't have noticed the colored outlines of text or the different fonts if my girlfriend had not told me. Some of them looked like Kurz designed them. Kaname laughed when I pointed this out.

"It's great to get away from Kurz and those guys." The girl sighed in relief. "I feel like I suffocate in that submarine sometimes."

I paused. "I feel that way most of the time."

"Yeah." Kaname didn't look at me, although she nudged me toward a street to my right. "It's good I finally got to go to Okinawa."

I was suddenly reminded of a sorrow buried deep within my bones, something that was always there but rarely acknowledged. Kaname's school trips had been interrupted on more than one occasion. The first time she had been taken away was on the flight to Okinawa. It was unfortunate that her school friends couldn't be with her. Maybe it was similar to how I felt when Kaname was taken away by Leonard Testarossa. 

"I'm sorry if I'm not as pleasant of company as Miss Tokiwa," I said, ashamed.

Kaname looked back at me and I was overwhelmed by the expression in her eyes. She was the very mirror of how remorseful and sad I felt, tears shining like the small mounds of snow our boots were buried in.

"I didn't mean it like that," she said, gently squeezing my arm, "I really like spending time with you, I just… I wish I'd gone on the school trip and graduated like everyone else, with them."

The girl lowered her head and shook once before adding, "But who am I to complain, right? At least I'm not turning over in my tombstone."

We were lucky to be alive, lucky to have our arms, legs and brains intact. I was especially humbled by the fact I was with the energetic Miss Chidori like this. However, I couldn't deny the sadness Kaname must be feeling. I wasn't sure how to comfort her, as I could hardly provide myself with any solace when I took was introspective and didn't like what I found.

I merely stood where she stood and looked out toward the brightly lit horizon as the tropical Okinawa breeze gently tickled my ears.

"It is a great tragedy when the normal routine of life is disrupted due to unforeseeable circumstances." I said slowly, reciting some lines I'd heard the Captain say at a memorial service once. 

"Tell me about it!" she said angrily, "God, I've been worrying so much about school. When I was at Leonard's mansion all I wanted was Kyoko or Shinji to bring me my homework, but now I just feel like an outsider because all my friends are already starting University!" her voice trembled from the absurdity of it all. I realized I don't think I had ever seen her get this angry at something unrelated to myself, "I can't believe we're half way through first semester already. Yeah, I've caught up, but I worry it won't be enough. My history of good grades won't mean anything to the people who matter. Who is going to want me as their prospective student or employer when I have a track record of skipping classes and even having to repeat a year? Jeez, I feel like I'm doomed."

Not only was this anger new. The anxiety associated with it was. Kaname was an extremely motivated and high achieving student. It was the reason why she held a leadership role at the school and was on the teacher's good side. Even if she got nervous about homework or stressed about exams, this level of emotion and despair was something else entirely. I could understand her isolation from the students to a degree. It was strange to attend classes without familiar faces like Shinji and Kyoko, but the new classmates weren't any worse. Between us we had befriended two more students, but there wasn't any sense of belonging.

"K-Kana-chan," I murmured, and I placed a finger on the underside of her chin, urging her to look at me. With initial resistance, she did. I was disheartened to see tears trickle down her face. As though she was made of glass, I very carefully caught the droplets on my fingernails, brushing them on my coat. Clearly desperate, Kaname snatched onto my wrist.

"What am I going to do, Sousuke?" she demanded. I noticed the tears were no longer transparent due to the make-up she was wearing. Had she done that to impress me? "Please, just tell me. You're smart. You're good at thinking clearly when emotional, right?"

"What would you like me to tell you?" I said slowly, "I have very little understanding of the Japanese work force. I would have to do some research before giving an informed opinion."

"What's your uninformed opinion, then?" Kaname said her neck muscles prominent from how intensely she was breathing. "What's your plan for when we graduate for real?"

The words caught in my throat. When I had kissed Kaname upon returning to Jindai High I had told her I wouldn't need to use a gun again. The truth was Mithril's lifestyle was so ingrained into my routine that I felt like I would struggle to apply my skills to any other scenario.

I settled on the only certain answer.

"I want to be with you."

"Even though I don't know what I'm doing?" She asked, "Don't you think I'm so stupid? You can probably get away with not studying if you wanted."

"I will give it some thought." I said finally, "You are a very intelligent and skillful young woman. Any prospective employer would be a fool to dismiss you. I wouldn't mind completing my higher education. If I leave Mithril I need a source of income so I can pay for my accommodation. Will it make it easier for you if I investigate other sources of work?"

Kaname nodded, her gaze not leaving mine.

"I could ask Mithril personnel if they can help me find work," I said slowly, "If I can find a source of income I will officially leave the organization and we can spend more time together. Then, perhaps it will become clearer what sort of life I want to lead after."

From the delayed reaction I thought Kaname was unimpressed with my plan, but she smiled. "I think that's a great idea. Thanks Sousuke. You always find your own weird way to make me feel better."

"It's an honour," I said with a small bow. "To be honest I don't know how it feels to be in your situation. I am terribly sorry for everything that has caused you hardship, even if that includes me."

Strangely, Kaname glanced around to see if the street was as deserted as we believe it was. Then, slowly, the girl placed her hands on my shoulders, hoisted herself up on her toes and lightly kissed my lips.

"You do more good than bad," She said under her breath. "By the way," a flush rose to her cheeks, "I dunno if you forgot my offer from the other day, but, if it's not a bother, do you still want my help in understanding how the female body works?"

I examined the light reflected in her eyes for far longer than what was normal for us, or socially acceptable. My beloved didn't look away, neither did she frown or show any sign of disinterest.

I had forgotten, but my opinion from the earlier conversation had not changed.

"If you are willing to discuss it, I am very eager to learn," I said finally.

We returned to my bedroom and sat on the bed, feet aching from the walk. It didn't seem like anyone had noticed we were gone. Possibly they had gone out for a walk as well.

This time I remembered to lock the door.

"I loved your present," Kaname said as she removed her boots. "All the girls in my class kept telling me to read Itazura na Kiss, but I was always busy reading other shojo manga or doing homework."

I sighed and started to do the same. "I'm delighted to hear it."

"Have you opened mine?"

I slowly picked the bag off of the floor and scooped through it until I reached the bottom, hoping she wouldn't see the other contents.

"Not yet." I said, placing the small gift on my lap, "Can I open it?"

"If you want..." Kaname said, looking nervous.

Inside was a CD.

"You weren't the only one buying gifts at the last second," she remarked.

Indeed. I flipped the CD over. It had a painting on the cover labelled, "COQUILLAGE -THE BEST COLLECTION 2" by Kokia.

"Thank you very much, Kana-chan," I said, honestly, bowing my head. "It is a very thoughtful gift."

"Oh, you're just exaggerating." Kaname tried to brush it off, "I know you're not super into music anyway. If you don't like it I kept the receipt so we can exchange it."

"It will be an educational experience for me." I said, with a wry smile. I was confident I would like parts of the CD at least, given Kaname's expertise in the area.

She bowed her head. "You're sweet. Thanks."

I placed the CD delicately on my bed side table before facing my girlfriend. "What were you thinking of teaching me?"

"Ahahaha…" Kaname blushed and laughed, "You're so serious. What do you already know on the subject?"

I tried to recall missions where the information may have been required. "I once helped a fifteen year old in Singapore give birth in a remote area."

"What?!" Kaname's jaw dropped. "Did you see anything?"

"Most of it." Confused by the look on my girlfriend's face, I added, "It was a complicated procedure and the baby died, but I'm afraid basic reproductive information is the extent of my knowledge."

"Wow, and I thought birth videos were bad," Kaname admitted.

"There is little benefit shying away from a natural process," I noted.

"Yeah!" she added a lot of emphasis, as though trying to remind another party in the room of this. "Jeez, then what don't you know?"

I blushed as I pondered over the words I'd heard Kurz use, staring at my knees. "I am extremely ignorant on using the human body for pleasure, although I am slightly more knowledgeable when it comes to men. As for women…"

My voice trailed away. When I was brave enough to look at Kaname, she was bright red. To be honest, I probably looked the same.

"Right, I knew that." Kaname's eyes didn't meet mine and her fingers were trembling, "Ok. Where should I start?"

I pondered on the question and Hong Kong's red light district came to mind, "Imagine I am training to be a prostitute…"

"Sousuke, that makes it worse!" 

"Does it?"

"Just tell me what you want to know."

I coughed loudly and crossed one leg over the other as my pulse quickened. "If it's not too much strain to educate me, I would be fascinated to know how to please a woman!"

I raised my voice in panic and stared intently at my knees, not wanting to see whatever variation of horrified Kaname had on her face. She didn't answer for a long while.

"I can only speak for myself, or what I've read in books. I've never had any friends to speak to about this."

"Books are fantastic!" I said in a high pitched tone that sounded nothing like my own. "Very well - again, if you are comfortable to – teach me however you like."

I bowed so low my neck strained.

Kaname snorted. "You're such a dork." I gasped as her hand touched mine, "but you're the only charming otaku I know. How do you best learn?" 

I jolted upright, "Of course. I should have explained. You know how much I love reading. However, since you're here I wouldn't mind hearing you talk about it."

"Talking is something I can definitely do." Kaname took a deep breath that lifted her shoulders three centimetres and relaxed, "This is going to sound embarrassing. Stop me if you don't get anything." She cleared her throat and lowered her head, as though reading from an invisible textbook, "Well… there are many ways to please women. Everyone is different, though…. So even though I might tell you something I like, that doesn't mean that will apply to someone else."

"You can use general terms if you prefer," I said, while secretly hoping Kaname would tell me her own personal preferences, "This is easy to follow so far. Go on, Kana-chan."

My beloved bit her lip and pointed to her face. "There are many places on the body that can be used to feel good. The most obvious places - erogenous zones is the proper word – are the… um…"

"Sex organs?" I filled the gap in the conversation.

Kaname nodded.

I peered down at my knees again. "What other areas can have this dual purpose?"

Kaname laughed. "Can I just point? I am too embarrassed to use words."

I simply nodded and Kaname smiled, rising to her feet. "Look, now it's like charades."

She then proceeded to point her fingers to toes, feet, thighs, buttocks, waist, breasts, fingers, mouth, neck and ears. Certainly, this covered a much broader area than what I had expected.

"May I ask what are the more common ones?" I wondered.

Kaname laughed. "Sorry, I don't actually know. Probably…."

She pointed to buttocks, breasts and mouth.

"You're just guessing?" I said slowly.

Kaname nodded. I went over what I learned so far in my head, counting on my fingers. "What next?"

"How does someone tell the difference between something platonic or ulterior motive?" I mumbled. This sort of debate must make girls very worried, it certainly would help explain the anxiety of using a mixed sex train carriage during rush hours.

Kaname pondered on this for a moment, "Usually it's obvious. It depends on context."

"Uh huh." This was the most disappointing information of all, "I think this is where I will have a lot of trouble."

Instead of appearing upset, Kaname's eyes lit up with intrigue. "Hey, can I try something?"

"What is is?" I asked, jumping as the girl moved closer to me.

"Would you like to know where your less obvious touchy feely places are?" she asked.

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

Kaname hesitated, "If I touched you as a friend..."

"That would be extremely helpful," I said. "Why are you smiling?"

"Am I?" she said, and she gave a nervous laugh. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

My girlfriend then proceeded to kneel in front of me, extending her fingers, "Feet first. I'll work my way up. Just notice how it feels different in one place to another. Maybe closing your eyes would help."

As requested, I shut my eyes. All I could hear was my own and Kaname's breathing. I helped remove my shoes and socks. Slowly and incredibly gently she ran her fingers over my toes and feet. While I wasn't usually a ticklish person, my toes curled as she crossed them… the trail then travelled up my calves.

"Some people like it to hurt."

She gave the muscle a small punch. My lip twitched. I was accustomed to more pain than this.

"I don't think I am one of those people," I said slowly, "but I could be wrong."

I curled my toes as Kaname breathed on them.

"No difference?" she asked.

I smiled, "I think I am extra sensitive because you are around."

"Hey, this is platonic, remember?" Kaname reminded me.

"Oh, yes. I know." I said crisply. Nonethless, I had the impression my skin was attuned to my girlfriend and was going to be hyperactive to everything she did, regardless of intention.

"Why are you smiling?" she asked.

"I didn't realize I was, Kana-chan."

I squirmed and struggled to keep my mouth shut as Kaname planted a kiss on the top surface on my foot.

"That was something," she remarked.

"My apologies," I said. "I wasn't expecting you to do that."

Kaname chuckled. "I wonder if you're a foot guy."

Not knowing what this meant, I stayed silent.

I braced myself as the girl planted her lips on a different spot on my foot as she held it still with her other hand. Once again, my toes curled as I had to cover my mouth not to make sound. It didn't make much difference.

"I'm sorry, Kana-chan," I said, feeling my face grow hot, "I hope this isn't unusual."

"It's just an experiment, Sousuke." Kaname said plainly, "Ok, enough of that. There are many places left."

As Kaname progressed up to my thighs, I kept trying to think of the horrid violence I'd experienced over the years to keep my excitement levels down. Quite awkwardly, I crossed one leg over the other. It wasn't incredibly effective. The next spot that elicited some kind of response were my nipples. My automatic response was to apologize, but Kaname didn't seem to mind. She kept telling me to relax. Maybe not surprisingly, all up my back was also incredibly interesting, and my jawline, but I managed to keep my mouth shut.

"All done," Kaname said cheerfully. I opened my eyes, squinting as I adjusted to the light.

"I hope the noises I was making didn't scare you." I said seriously.

Kaname looked lightly pink but calm.

"That's normal. Maybe I should have told you that earlier. All people make some kind of noise. It's different for everyone. I liked yours, though."

"You liked mine?" I repeated, confused. "What about you?"

"I don't actually know." Kaname admitted, "I'd never had anyone touch me before."

"Would you like me to try?" I asked, stretching out my legs.

"Yeah, let's do it." For some reason, Kaname didn't look happy about this, but I wasn't sure what she was feeling. "Maybe it'll make you feel better if I do something silly."

There it was, her nervous laugh again. without further ado, we swapped places. Like Kaname had to me, I started at her feet. "I will copy you. Close your eyes, Kana-chan."

The actions felt robotic and mechanical at first. I tried to copy Kaname's massage techniques rather than simply using my fingers, but my beloved didn't seem to mind. I watched carefully at her chest rising and falling. It appeared steady and at a normal rhythm. So far, there was little reaction. I tried using a lighter pressure and Kaname burst into giggles.

"I didn't know you were ticklish." I said. She was wiggling around in hysterics.

"Stop, stop, stop….."

I resumed my original pace, slowly leaned down in such a way that my mouth was quite close, gripped her foot firmly so she wouldn't kick me, and breathed over it. She squirmed.

"Haha," she giggled, "That's still ticklish."

Kaname smiled as I progressed up her legs. I sat next to her on the bed as I ran my palm over her thigh, trying not to make her dress ride up. I stared in amazement as Kaname's inhalations were deeper and her ribs rose more. I was about to ask how she was feeling when the girl merely lifted up her dress so her legs were exposed.

"It's easier that way," she said. Indeed it was, but I couldn't deny I was feeling extremely enticed by the idea of running my hands over her bare skin. I had to try hard to breathe normally so it didn't become immediately obvious. My palms were getting sweaty. I ran my palms up the front section of the thigh first before gently gliding back around and into her inner thigh. Kaname's seemed to relax and her legs seemed to gently ply open of their own accord. Her breathing became high pitched, almost letting out her own little noises.

"Are you comfortable, Kana-chan?" I wondered, using a finger to run from her inner thigh down to her knee. She nodded.

"Yep." She took a deep breath before speaking, "I think that's one of my spots."

"That's interesting," I remarked, pulling her dress back down so I could progress around her hips and onto her backside. I couldn't deny how my own body exploded with a yearning for her as I did so. Kaname also appeared to be experiencing an inner conflict.

"Sousuke…." She mumbled, sounding like she was in pain.

"What is it?" I asked, pressing through the dress onto the skin, "Am I doing something wrong?"

"No." she responded, but it sounded the opposite.

"Oh." I paused, and ran my hands up her back, creasing the back of her dress as I did so.

She mumbled something.

"What was that, Kana-chan?"

As though being tortured, the girl groaned and placed her face in her hands, rocking from where she sat. "Don't mind me. I'm missing the point of the exercise."

"Really? Why is that?" I moved my hands up to her neck and added. "How can I be of assistance?"

"No, you can't. Just forget about it, Sousuke."

Before I could ask for more information, Kaname sat on her hands and gently rocked in one place, appearing how an emotionally disturbed person might. I couldn't help but be worried despite her reassurance.

"Are you sure?" I blurted out. "I am very confused as to why you appear upset when the exercise was supposed to be platonic."

"Ahaha…" Kaname gave an amused chuckle, "Sousuke, you're such a dummy. We're dating. It's pretty damned difficult to keep the context friendly."

"I'm sorry, Kana-chan," I said solemnly. "I didn't realize."

"I know you didn't." she said softly, "I planned it that way so you wouldn't get nervous. Don't worry about it."

"It- It's not a problem."

Kaname laughed. "How does this little game make you feel? Do you have any boy hormones in that gun filled brain of yours?"

"I am feeling almost drunk," I admitted, "Thank you for your concern."

"Really?!" Kaname sounded amazed, as incredulous as she'd been when I first introduced Arm Slaves to her, "Now you've got me curious. Can you tell me as a secret?"

"Tell you what?" I asked, starting to massage her shoulders as Kaname had to me. 

"What you're thinking!" My beloved said. The rocking had stopped, although she kept her hands under her thighs.

"I am curious of why you are behaving this way." I said slowly, "I… am too ashamed to say more."

"Come on!" the girl groaned, kicking her feet like a toddler, "Tell me!"

I didn't answer but merely focused on loosening her tight shoulder muscles. "Recently, I have wondered what your body looks like."

By the way Kaname suddenly tensed it was clear she understood the context, and then I could hear the grin in her voice. "Look who's become a big pervert!"

"I am not!" I retorted, blushing.

"I'm just teasing. I've thought about what you look like tons of times."

"Is that so?" for some unknown reason, this information was disappointing; "I don't think I'm that interesting."

"No one thinks their own body is interesting." Kaname corrected me. "Maybe we can show each other sometime. It actually makes me less nervous to think about using it as a way to help you understand how it all works. I guess I'm kinda grateful you're ignorant about all this stuff. I don't think I'd be able to deal with a more sexed up guy. Those jocks are the real idiots, not you."

"Thank you." I said, and I let go of her shoulders, moving myself around so I faced her. She looked a lot calmer now she had expressed her own thoughts. Slowly, I trailed my fingers around the contours of her jaw and cheekbones. When she jerked slightly, I gently kissed her around the mouth, to which she shivered, and sat next to her on the bed again.

"I do believe I covered everything."

"You bet." Kaname sounded exhausted and she opened her eyes, "I think my hips like your hands."

"And your face," I added.

"Hey," she freed her hands and shook them out. "If you tell anyone about this I'll start making foot jokes about you."

"I'll make sure Seargent Weber doesn't force it out of me." I said in a rush and I bowed.

My girlfriend laughed. "He'd probably read your mind or something anyway."

Chapter Text

By the time the submarine had submerged and was heading back to Tokyo, I had read a quarter of Battle Royale. I didn't have much an appetite so was reluctant to talk to the others when I went to eat. I found myself knocking on the door to the control room sooner than I anticipated.

"Yes?" said Tessa, spinning around in her chair. Months later, it was incredibly odd to see her staring at its many screens without Kalinin next to her. However, she looked more relaxed than usual. "Sargent Sagara, please come in."

I bowed and entered the room, approaching the Captain's chair. It was also bizarre to see that not every other chair was filled. 

"There is a professional matter I wish to discuss," I explained.

Tessa glanced at me, concentrating, before returning her gaze to the screens. "You are permitted to speak."

I hesitated, listening as buttons clicked and beeped. The Captain may have a requirement to listen but her feelings were also fragile.

"You may be aware that Miss Chidori was required to repeat a year of schooling, ma'am," I said briskly.

The girl nodded, her silver hair glowing from the screen glare. "I was briefed on the situation by Miss Mao, Sagara."

"Yes." I unclenched my clammy fists. "If that is the case…"

"Are you wondering about your orders?"

I pressed my lips together and nodded. "Miss Chidori explained to me last night that she hopes I can give more thought to my future. I worry that with my ties to the organization that…"

"You don't want your relationship with Miss Chidori to be compromised."

I was shocked by her lightning speed deductions. "Y-Yes, ma'am. Exactly."

Gradually, still maintaining an impeccable deposition of professionalism, the Captain crossed her arms and puckered her lips. "Please tell me your thoughts."

"I am worried about a source of income if I resign," I said slowly, "I don't think I have many skills that could be applied to other organizations. How do you recommend I resolve this?"

Tessa hesitated. "I have a number of contacts, both within and out the organization. I will give phone calls and speak to the staff when we return to Tokyo, although I'm afraid I cannot guarantee anything. The job market for young people is very competitive, but you are not without skills. You are excellent at responding logically and swiftly when under pressure. This is an attribute that will set you apart from others. However, I will try to find something worthy of your name. It may take a number of months depending on how lucky we are."

Dumbstruck with the assurance, I straightened my posture. "You are too kind, Captain. I cannot fully express my gratitude."

I bowed low and when I raised my head, Tessa was still thinking. "When are you thinking of resigning, Sagara? Mithril requires a minimum of two weeks' notice."

"I am not in any rush, Captain," I said calmly, "Although if it is possible I would prefer to participate in fewer combat orientated tasks in the meantime."

"Yes, that can be arranged." The Whispered hesitated, grabbed the tuft at the end of her plait and brushed her face with it. "It is likely a position in our Research or Tactical divisions may be free. It would take training for you to replace Kalinin's late role as military strategist, though it is a potential opportunity. Mardukas has been filling in for the role temporarily, but he works overtime and it is not an ideal situation. Obviously, preparing you for his position would be on the condition our relationship is kept strictly work based." I nodded, to show I understood. "I may need your help finding a suitable candidate to replace you."

"Understood, ma'am. It would be an honour." I saluted her, relieved by the support. "Where do you suggest I begin?"

"I have a contact who is employed at the Yokota Air Base in Fussa," Tessa began slowly, "I can speak to him and aim to organize some candidates in the New Year. Of course, as pilots their skill set may be slightly different to ours, but I am told there are a number of soldiers who have heard of us."

"Americans, then?" I guessed.

"Correct for most part. Their Japanese is reasonable, enough to hold a conversation. On the other hand if you are in a hurry to leave the response team you could always plan to co-habit with Miss Chidori, although that would also take time. Her father is very wealthy."

My pulse quickened. Achieving cohabitation was no simple feat. "With all due respect, ma'am, in order to keep a low profile that would require I marry her."

My face grew hot and I looked around to see if anyone was watching. Marriage was a step I had considered briefly about  Kaname, but I never fathomed that my superior would suggest it when I was so young. Right now I was grateful we were alive. 

The tapping of buttons continued. If the crew were listening, there was no obvious sign they were interested.

"It would," Tessa agreed. Her tired eyes fixed on the monitor in front. "Is that a worry of yours, Sagara?"

I clenched my jaw. I couldn't help but wonder how much of this idea was from Tessa's genuine professional interests, or if it was a means to draw out personal information about my stance with Kaname. I stayed with the ethical route.

"It is no worry, Captain," I said, as swiftly as I could. "In the event of an emergency cohabitation would be a last resort. Even then…"

"I was only making a joke, Sagara," Tessa said lightly, and she met my eyes with a serene smile, "I will ensure you are sent to Fussa as quickly as possible. I will debrief Sargent Mao and Weber about this later. You can speak to Chidori about it in your own time."

I let out a strange noise as I half stumbled my next words. "Very well. I appreciate all you have done for me, Captain. Again, I cannot thank you enough."

I bowed low again. Tessa was smiling when I raised my head, "You will make Miss Chidori very happy." She gave a bow of the head, "Please enjoy the rest of your day."

"You as well," I mumbled, "I am enjoying the book you gave me."

"That's great to hear, Sagara." Tessa's voice was warmer now, though softer, perhaps to save face in front of the staff. "Thank you for your book as well."

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Nagawa was chosen as Tessa's present. I was very privileged that Kurz and I had found gifts together. Our minds combined were far superior to one.

I nodded as a bowed once more as goodbye, but it was a much more rushed gesture than previously.

I approached Kaname's room next, wanting to get this information off my chest before we returned to Tokyo. When I entered my girlfriend was busy reading Itazura na Kiss. She placed the book down on the ground. "I was just getting to a good bit."

"I'm sorry," I said, "Should I leave?"

Kaname flattened out her clothes before sitting upright. "No, sit down."

As per usual routine the past few days, I did as requested. She was wearing clothes of mismatched colours today.

"There is something I need to tell you," I began.

"Please don't tell me you have a mission!" she said immediately.

I flinched, not expecting the loud volume of her voice.

"Not yet," I said slowly, "it isn't like my usual assignments."

"Really? How is that?" Kaname asked, suspicion etched on every line of her face. "How many other ways are there to reframe contracted suicide before it gets old?"

"That is not my intention," I continued, trying to loosen my jaw. "It is an assignment to help find a replacement for my position in the response team."

As expected, the my beloved was surprised. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened slightly in puzzlement. "Y-Your replacement?" she repeated, "b-b-but… why? Did Tessa try to fire you?"

I shook my head.

Slowly, I gently touched her knee, hoping she would accept the affection. Kaname merely took a panicked breath and clenched her fingers together.

"I am hoping to fulfil my promise to you," I explained, keeping my voice low, "I said I would stay by your side and I am merely taking the steps necessary to reach that goal."

"You're leaving Mithril!?" Kaname shouted, completely besides herself.

Surprised she was about three sentences behind in understanding, I confirmed, "I plan to leave Mithril when it is appropriate." 

I waited patiently while my girlfriend processed her denial.

"What? Are you stupid?!" she gaped, "Did someone wack you around the head too hard? You can't work normal job! You can't even get a haircut, for God's sake! I mean, I get you're being sweet and all but I wasn't thinking straight either."

Unlike most, I was not offended by the statement. "Tessa is confident she can find me a suitable position in Mithril's Research or Tactical division. If not, there are other jobs I would be able to do."

"Don't get me started. It will be a cold day in hell before you do any customer service!" Kaname threatened with a waving fist.

She was probably right.

"I will avoid customer service then."

"Ok, fine! I still don't get it." Kaname was slowly putting the pieces together, "Replacing Mithril with more military junk? What gives? How is that any different to you risking your neck?"

"You misunderstand, Kana-chan." I said. Taking a risk, I rest my hand gently on her thigh. She, thankfully, didn't remove it. "The Research or Tactical divisions are more administrative. There would be no combat involved, except under strenuous circumstances."

"Like in an emergency?" Kaname's voice was nearly a whisper.

"Indeed." I nodded, "Thanks to our efficient Captain and defences we have rarely been in such a circumstance. It is incredibly unlikely."

"That doesn't sound so bad," she mumbled, suddenly appearing ashamed of her outburst. "I'm sorry for getting so worked up. I just can't handle this crap anymore."

"My ability to concentrate has become increasingly compromised over the time I've known you," I explained, "all situations considered; I would be more help to Mithril and yourself by utilizing my knowledge elsewhere."

"Crazy," Kaname said, and she rubbed her temples with her fingers. "I've never known life without you in Mithril."

"With any luck I will merely be transferred to another part of the organization," I said, also not wanting to imagine life without it.

"When do you leave for your mission?"

I promptly relayed the information Tessa had told me. She took a number of minutes until she fully understood the details.

"What should I tell Ayame when I get back?" Kaname asked finally.

"Your sister?" I recalled. Kaname rarely mentioned her family and kept the phone conversations private.

"Yes. She'll want to know I'm dating you." 

"So long as you keep information on Mithril private…"

"Of course I will!" Kaname snapped, "Otherwise you don't mind?"

"Not at all." I smiled, "It is important to keep in contact with your family. You're lucky they survived this recent conflict."

She seemed relieved, although her face was hidden by her hair for a few moments as she pondered.

"Does that mean you'll repeat my last semester of school with me without leaving all the time?" 

"I neglected to confirm that with Tessa, but yes," I said, "I hope my work arrangements will be organized before that happens."

"I'll say."

Kaname smiled and brushed some hair out of my eyes. "I know I acted really crazy there but thanks for telling me. I like knowing what's going on."

Rather awkwardly, she acted as though she wanted to kiss my cheek, but she moved so we were sitting with our thighs touching.

"Sousuke…umm…" she paused, "when we get back would you like to stay at my place for the night? We could hang out before you have to leave again."

"That sounds nice, Kana-chan." I smiled, and Kaname finally linked one of her fingers with mine. "Are you fond of fishing?"

"I can't say I've ever done much of it." she said, "I'll think about it though. Maybe I could read my manga."

We spoke about our plans in Tokyo for a long while.

Chapter Text

Tessa spoke to Melissa and Kurz about my potential replacement and networking in the same sitting. She was very excited one night after dinner in an unused corridor.

"Sargent Sagara," she began, "I have spoken to Lord Mallory, Commander Mardukas and my contact at the Yokosa Air Base. I would like to brief you on what will happen next."

"Yes, Captain." Out of habit, I stood up straight and saluted her.

Tessa gave a proud smile. "Commander Mallory was willing to provide some feedback on positions that may be suited to you," she explained quickly, as though she had a time limit to relay the information. "Firstly, he agreed that taking over as Military Strategist would be timely, however, he suggested how hand-over should occur. Commander Mardukas approved. I think he is eager to give up the role to somebody else as soon as possible."

"Understood, ma'am." I nodded, "What were his requests?"

"I will give you the full details in a moment. However, Mardukas suggested we limit our interactions to work from now on. He also advised against the research division given your relationship with Kaname Chidori."

"I agree, ma'am."

Tessa had a history of trying to pursue her own romantic interests outside and inside of work so it was important that Mardukas had placed a strong barrier to prevent any more of this. The Research division of Mithril developed weapons using the knowledge Whispered contained, so it should have been obvious earlier to me that this was incredibly problematic.

"What about your contact from the Air Base?" I said briskly.

"My contact reported he will recruit potential candidates for myself and Belfangan Clouseau to interview," Tessa said, looking down at the floor as though she'd dropped something. "Once we narrow the numbers you will get a chance to meet them and add your input as part of the panel so a final decision can be made."

"Are you certain you want to hold my judgement in such high esteem, ma'am?"

Clouseau was the special response team leader that I had only met on a few brief occasions. Still I could remember his sophisticated ability in martial arts and was relieved it wasn't just the Captain on an interview panel. 

"Yes. I have full trust in your decisions, Sagara," Tessa said. "You will be Lieutenant Commander eventually. In the meantime, since Lord Mallory agrees, we will begin your training in military strategy immediately."

"Of course, Captain," I said, wondering how much study I would have to do. "I can start right away."

"I am waiting for an email from Mallory," Tessa continued, "He has ebook versions of the latest textbooks from The National Institute of Defence Studies. It is a University degree, however, we understand that you have many years of experience in combat and also have worked closely alongside Kalinin. The NIDS has given us permission to adapt some assessment items and receive prior learning credit where it is due."

"Thank you, Captain."

"Preferably, a student needs background knowledge in a number of areas. Since you will be repeating your last year of high school with Miss Chidori, we shall continue to pay for your accommodation on the insistence that you study hard and get high grades in history and foreign language."

"I will do my best, Tessa," I said, feeling a burst of anticipation. I had never tried to get more than a pass when I was living the double life with Mithril. Knowing Kaname, getting the grades would be taxing. "What about the special response team? A degree takes years."

Tessa picked up the tuft of hair and fiddled with it. "The situation is not ideal, Sagara. I hope to get your replacement organized quickly so there is little disruption to Mithril's special response forces."

"Yes, ma'am," I pressed, as the Captain looked like she wanted to say more.

"I wanted to shorten your undergraduate degree to a fraction of the length, although that choice is not up to me," Tessa said. "The most I was informed we can likely do is to reduce a four year commitment to three." 

"Understood, Captain. I will work hard." 

Tessa's eyes blazed with determination. "To help you find time for readings and assessment, we will provide a letter to Jindai High School explaining your vocational studies so that will take the place of extra club activities."

"I see. That will be useful." I tried to take in all the information. "Are the textbooks only from NIDS?"

"For most part. Some are derived from other university curriculums," Tessa said, "It will be a lot of work, Sagara, but we aim to make the workload as manageable as possible. I will provide more details to you as I receive them. Regardless, you can expect that your studies will begin once we return to Tokyo."

My heart sank. If I was expected to start studying before the High School year was to begin, I was going to have less time with Kaname than I expected.

Tessa continued. "Before we approach the Military Strategy program, you will need to do background readings and adapted assessments on International Security, Peace, Conflict and War Studies and Political Theory."

It was a lot of information to take in, but at least the readings sounded like they came from areas I was interested in. Regardless, I was thankful an exception was being made and parts of the degree would be abridged.

"Before I forget, Mallory thought it best that you are supervised by a military strategist and learn on-the job while you complete your studies, which would begin once we secure your replacement," Tessa rushed. "This will cover part of the content from the post graduate Military strategy course, and how we will condense your course." 

"Like an apprenticeship?" I verified.


"Who would supervise me?"

"We have a member of the General Council who has military strategy training. In the past he temporarily stepped in for Kalinin when he was unavailable. Even if Mithril is not as busy these days, since he is taking on Kalinin's responsibilities he is currently overworked." 

"How unfortunate."

"Indeed, although he told me that he would be pleased to train you," Tessa said. "You will be able to help as his assistant once he deems you competent, and that will make the workload much easier on him." 

"I am immensely fortunate for this opportunity."

"Yes. I argued for a long while to convince them. You have proven yourself to be loyal, reliable and you have plenty of experience, even if you may not think of it as such. It may be vicarious experience, yet learning through observation is valuable in the work Mithril does. We want you to have the position."

"Thank you." I bowed as low as I could. "I look forward to further developments on my vocational studies, Tessa."

"You will make a fine Military Strategist, I am sure of it," Tessa said, bowing back. "Kalinin would be proud of you. Nonetheless, since we will be working together closely I suggest we reframe from calling each other by first name."


Tessa and I tended to address each other formally in a public work setting anyway, so this would not be difficult to do. 

As I gave a final bow, I was filled with a wave of emotion I didn't expect. It wasn't anger or resentment, though grief for what I had lost. When I had murdered Kalinin I had disconnected from any personal connection I felt to him, but he had been a large part of my life, the closest authority I had to a father. Though aI may have never called him that, in my mind he filled that space… at least, until he had been found a traitor. My feelings on the man remained contradictory and confused even after he was departed. 

"Goodnight, Captain."

I walked away before the tears could fall down my face. I returned to my bedroom to continue reading, not wanting to speak to any other staff members or Kaname. I needed time to be alone and absorb what was happening to my life. Perhaps this was inevitable considering Kalinin's treachery. Maybe it was his fault.

I didn't want to blame Kaname for these changes either. They were for the best and even though it would require adjustment, it wasn't anything I couldn't manage. 

These vocational studies wouldn't be how life was before. I wouldn't have to cram studying for an exam in a helicopter. Once my replacement could be secured, I could live as close to the life of a high school student as ever. I merely had to read day in and out.

I found it mildly disturbing that for the first time in my life I would be able to understand the sort of life Kaname lead. It was both invigorating and intimidating. My beloved could probably help me excel on my studies with her highly refined habits.

The next semester was going to be interesting.

I found myself stepping onto a train a couple of days later with Kaname. During most train commutes, she was happy to make conversation or merely tell me information about her day, but this wasn't the case today. She looked as deadpan as the other passengers, her eyes fixated on the suit of someone standing nearby, her hair especially limp as though she hadn't been bothered to groom it. Her mouth was sitting in such a way that I could not decide if she was frowning or mildly amused. The rhythmic reverberations of the train beneath my feet were in time to my heart, anticipating her response.

The most I could gather is that Kaname had perceived my new study plans with the same mixed emotions I did, trepidation and uncertainty. For some odd reason despite all the ethical concerns being taken care of Kaname still held an extreme mistrust of Miss Testarossa.

"You just watch. She won't be able to control herself," she said, to which I responded that I would take necessary action to stop it.

My girlfriend hadn't said anything to that. I was convinced that if Kaname Chidori had been involved in Battle Royale that she would try to kill Teletha first.

I went over my timetable again in my head. The rough draft had taken into account the school schedule for Jindai High. It had recommended time slots to study subjects. I was expected to have completed readings for Peace, Conflict and War Studies, and Political Theory by the end of second semester in March.

Exams would be provided for each with adapted written assessment. This would be difficult depending on how content dense the textbooks were. By the start of the new Academic year I would study International Security, have practical training sessions on Military Strategy with a man named Zach Bainbridge, a name I recognized, but all matters considered he was either English or American. This structure would continue into my third year. 

The entire paper was subject to change.

I jumped to my senses as I saw Kaname's eyes on me. They glittered with a hesitant curiosity, as though she wanted to know what I was thinking but was too afraid to ask.

"What would you like for dinner?" she asked, "We need to stop by a grocery store on the way back."

"I am happy to eat anything if it is affordable and easy to cook," I replied.

Kaname clenched a fist. "Duh! I mean specifics. We could make something Italian. My sister keeps telling me about this awesome recipe."

 I was far more accustomed to eating foods from the Middle East or Asia, but I wasn't about to complain. 

"Italian." I acknowledged. "What did your sister say?"

"Ayame found a really cool pizza bread mix from the store," she said, "We just add water, let it rise for a bit, roll it out and add toppings."

"That sounds very nice, Kana-chan." I said with a small smile, but I wasn't sure Kaname believed it was genuine. Instead, she started counting the number of notes in her wallet.

"We've definitely got enough." A grin lightened her features, "Let's get dessert too!"

I dropped off my luggage at my apartment, picked up the old CD player and DVD Melissa had given me before heading back to my girlfriend's place. As Kaname and I kneaded out two pieces of dough on the kitchen bench with flour covered hands, the kokia CD she had given me played out the speakers in the background. Despite the musical arrangement being much different to what was playing at Karaoke, I enjoyed it. It was quite mellow and relaxing. Pressing dough between my palms was somewhat therapeutic, in a way I found hard to verbalize, so I said nothing.

"Do you like the CD, Sousuke?" Kaname asked, flattening out her dough with her palm, "It's so hard to tell by that look on your face."

"I am merely concentrating." I said, picking up a rolling pin from near Kaname, "I do like it. It is quite unusual compared to what I have heard over radio channels."

"That's because the radio stations play commercial stuff, silly." Kaname laughed. There was a small smile on her face and I was pleased to see she was calming down.

Pizzas were in the oven ten minutes later. My phone rang in my pocket and I jumped. Kaname's eyes narrowed.

"I'm sorry, Kana-chan," I said, taking a look at the device. It was Teletha Testarossa. "It could be important."

"Just answer it," she said flatly.

Taking a deep breath, I answered it and placed a finger in my other ear to block out the sounds of the CD.

"Sargent Sagara here." I said.

Tessa's official like tone couldn't hide her excitement. "Hello, Sagara. I'm sorry for interrupting your evening. Have you received my latest email?"

"No, ma'am," I replied, glancing at Kaname. She was setting plates on the table. "Is there something urgent I ought to know?"

"I finally got the textbooks so forwarded them to you," she quipped, "I would like to know if the files work as Lord Mallory is travelling to Amsterdam tomorrow morning and won't be bringing that computer. It will be two weeks before he returns."

"Understood," I said quickly, "I'll check right now and call you back."

"Great. Thank you, Sargent," Tessa said relived. "Have a good evening."

I hung up and turned to Kaname. "May I use your computer, Chidori?"

"It's Kana-chan!" she said loudly, looking upset. "KANA-CHAN! Man, you go so weird and formal after those phone calls. I'm your girlfriend!"

"My apologies," I said quickly, but in reality I just wanted to get to the computer. I explained the situation to Kaname and she reluctantly turned it on.

"I was hoping you wouldn't get distracted with that stuff," she muttered.

"I as well," I agreed, taking a seat at the computer as Kaname typed in her password. "It won't be long."

Thankfully there were no problems with the PDF textbooks, although I was intimidated by their length and small font. My beloved seemed to agree.

"Geez, what are they trying to do? Cram a whole library into your head?"

"Possibly," I admitted, to which Kaname laughed.

"Maybe I should study stuff like that," she said thoughtfully. "I mean, I hate politics but it would be interesting to see how all that military crap works."

As she was speaking I dialled Tessa's number back into my phone. "It is a highly respected and useful area of employment."

When I told Tessa the situation had been resolved, Kaname scrolled through some of the initial pages of the ebook, her eyes expressing terror and admiration.

We chopped our pizzas into incredibly small slices so we could pick them up with chopsticks, although that didn't prevent melted cheese from creating a web over the plates.

"Haha! Sousuke! You got some on your nose."

"Did I?"

I wiped my face with my napkin, showing that there had definitely been melted cheese there somewhere. I gave a shrewd grin. Kaname's enthusiasm for pizza was incredibly entertaining. She would pick off all the shitake mushrooms first before eating the dough and cheese. I didn't have the heart to tell her that isn't how one traditionally eats pizza and we would make a restaurant owner in Italy very depressed.

"Have you given your career much thought?" I wondered, thinking back to how interested she had been in my text book.

"I don't know," Kaname said, "I mean, I have lots of ideas but I can never make up my mind."

"What areas interest you?" I wondered, picking up another piece of pizza with my chopsticks.

"Ah, you know…" she shrugged, taking a sip of her tea. "My Dad wants me to take up a scholarship like my sister and go to the New York University. I probably could. My English is good enough."

I was shocked by something Kaname had said for the first time in a long while. "Are you thinking of studying abroad?"

"My Dad's not dumb. He knows I was abducted – don't fret, I didn't tell him why - but he doesn't think Tokyo is safe for me. I told him it wasn't his choice I wanted to stay anyway."

"Did that make him mad?" I asked. I was no expert but to my knowledge Japanese were supposed to keep their parents in high esteem.

"Yeah, but I'm not talking to him at the moment anyway," she said with a shrug. "I guess I better make up my mind or he'd probably fly over here and force me to go."

As an environmental High Commissioner I always had the impression Kaname's father was a very laid back, logical man, although perhaps he had been pushed a step too far. The fact I had my own work issues to organize and Kaname had to repeat a year didn't help matters.

"What Universities would you prefer to go to?"

Unexpected, Kaname's eyes filled with hurt. "Look, I don't want to talk about it, Sousuke!" she snapped. I flinched. "I know I need to think about it and decide, but it's so hard to make my own choices when there are all these different people telling me what to do! I wish they'd just cut it out!"

"I'm not telling you what to do," I pointed out.

"Yeah?!" my beloved was disbelieving, "Well, it still feels like you're pressuring me."

"I'm sorry, Kana-chan," I said in a rush. "It wasn't my intention."

"Grrr!" In a series of loud clanging motions Kaname picked up her chopsticks and hit them into her plate. I waited until the noise subsided. 

She placed her chopsticks down, as though trying to redeem herself.

"Why aren't you saying anything?!" she demanded, leaning forward in her chair.

"I don't know what to say." 

"Don't just sit there!" Kaname said, exasperated, "You have thoughts and feelings, don't you? Can't you at least tell me what they are?"

If it was possible to be more alarmed than I had been a moment ago, the sobs that wrecked the girls articulate speech did it. Half guessing and half trying to express my confusion, I reached across the table and poured her more tea, watching sadly as tears hit the table. She didn't respond for a moment.

"I'm sorry." The words were hardly recognizable by how distorted they were, "I shouldn't have yelled at you. I have no idea what to do."

I could hardly relate to Kaname's dilemma as I had spent most of my life doing what others told me to do. The spirited girl was the only person who had given me a reason to defy authority, and I was extremely grateful to her for that. 

"Have you spoken to Miss Kagurazaka about this?" I asked. "I think she would be able to help you."

The teacher may have a temper for misbehaving students, but Kaname was definitely not part of that cohort. She understood the dynamic between Kaname and I much better than most of the other staff. If anyone from the school was worth approaching about career choices and emotional distress, it was her.

There was a long pause, so much so that I wondered if Kaname was going to answer at all. She finally met my eyes, hers red and still dripping with tears.

"You…" she gulped, her voice weak with appreciation, "you really out do yourself sometimes. You know that, Sousuke?"

"I'm humbled to hear you say that, Kana-chan."

When Kaname smiled back and her expression filled with warmth, I feel like I understood the meaning of the phrase 'butterflies in the stomach'. I hoped my awkward glancing at the table didn't discourage her.

The girl thanked me for the advice and said she would email Miss Kagurazaka about it. I was relieved that I was able to respond appropriately.

Feeling slightly more hopeful, the girl turned off the CD player, opened the DVD of Su-ki-da I had brought with me and put it in the DVD player.

"I'll get us some ice cream," she said finally as I made myself comfortable on the couch.

Chapter Text

Kaname and I sat by side on the couch of the dark room, our eyes focused on the screen. The small bowls of vanilla swirl ice cream were consumed rather quickly, and I volunteered to take them to the sink. When I returned, the gentle gust of wind and the plodding of feet over a hill were the only sounds in the room.

"I saw this when it came out with Kyoko," she explained, "It was so slow she nearly fell asleep!"

"Is that so?" 

"Yeah, she's used to Cantonese action movies."

I jumped as Kaname rest her head on my shoulder. "I don't mind a slow movie if I get to spend time with you."

With my next breath, I focused on my diaphragm and letting my temple find a comfortable place on her head.

"I find it unexpectedly relaxing," I mentioned, slowly reaching for her hand closest to me.

"It's good to hear that," she said, "Really. I don't think before you would have even been able to watch a movie."

"I don't watch much television," I admitted, peering as the female lead of the movie hummed a song under her breath. "Even the news is a warped interpretation of real events."

Kaname's fingers linked together with mine. This felt peaceful and right. The movie was so quiet that we were able to speak during many parts of it, making comments on what was happening on screen or asking questions. The story was touching and simple, the colours in the frame shades of blue and green, although I found more interest in the locations in the movie than the narrative.

Somehow, I got the impression that Kaname's best friend and the ex-marine had similar film tastes, unless Melissa had a secret romantic side she never told anyone about.

She had been engaged before, I reminded myself. Again, Captain Testarossa's suggestion of marrying Chidori came into my head.

That isn't right, I told myself.

And yet, I couldn't determine what age felt appropriate to bind us together in matrimony. 

"Souske – your hand is slipping."

I broke our hands apart to wipe the sweat. , Apart from that we did not stop holding hands.

Once the movie ended, Kaname asked, "Sousuke... would you like to share a bath? I can find another towel for myself."

I met her regard. She didn't look nervous. "Certainly."

I waited outside the bathroom while the sound of gushing water smashed against the basin. The lights of the lounge room hadn't been turned on yet, so I grasped the string for the curtains and pressed the light switch, dimming it. For a second through the window I saw the outlines of my apartment on the opposite side. How many times had Kaname looked out to my residence? Was it the same number of times I had done the same to her?

The last time we had been on this side of the window pane was when Kaname had given me a haircut. It astounded me how much had changed since then. Not only had my beloved been taken away twice, but we had confessed our feelings, the secrets of Mithril had been exposed and my hair was probably due for another of Kaname's haircuts.

Wrong had happened too. A year ago,  Kalinin was still alive. When Nami had died and I couldn't describe how I felt. Even now it was difficult to conceptualize in words just what that girl's demise had meant to me. She was a kind, playful person, almost a mixture of Kaname and Tessa's personalities. 

A drip of a tap entered my ears.

My eyes followed the stream of light that gushed out of the bathroom and I beheld my lover. She had already undressed and was wrapped in a cream towel, the outline of her hair and form glowing. "It's almost done." She said with a blush. "Should I go first? The tub is only designed for one person so I hope we won't get squashed."

"I don't want to keep you waiting." Slightly embarrassed, I stepped cautiously into the room, as though I suspected it was a trap. "How about you get comfortable? I will see if I can fit."

"Good idea!" Kaname said brightly. Slowly, she climbed over to sit on the broader corner of the bath, dipping a foot inside. She gave a sigh. There was a delicacy to the sound, one so delightful the echo hit my body like a vibration and quivered down to my toes.

"I hope you don't mind this temperature," she said embarrassed. "I should have checked with you. Now it's probably going to ruin it."

She placed her other foot in. I had rarely seen Kaname so brightly illuminated, except when in front of  car or helicopter headlights. It was incredible that I could observe the smooth contours of her legs and comprehend the outline of her lips without feeling the need to reach for a weapon.

"You forget, Kana-chan," I began briskly, shutting the door behind me. "I am accustomed to showering in cold water."

Bathing was something I had adapted to doing in many circumstances, though it wasn't a leisure activity. To me bathing was a matter of preventing infection and staying clean. 

"Oh." Her eyes widened, as though realizing something she should have long ago.

With a splash, Kaname slipped into the bath and hugged her knees. I watched fascinated as the towel clung to her curves and creased. It became slightly transparent, but not enough to see the texture of what lay underneath. The water line was just below her breasts. If I entered the water it would rise to our necks.

"Is there a towel I can use?" I began, but I had no sooner finished the sentence when Kaname gestured to the sink. She had balanced a small cloth there, enough to cover what needed to be hidden. I picked it up, placed it on the floor in front of me and turned away as I removed my shirt. I was certain Kaname was watching me but I didn't want to look at her expression. I was surprisingly warm as the steamy air reached my bare skin. I had been in far colder places so this was pleasant.

I stood for a moment with my arms out in front, my musculature bare and my shirt laying in a heap in front of me. Both nervous and impatient, I guided the shirt out of the way with the sole of my right foot.

We met eyes Kaname merely looked at the basin floor, hair falling over her features.

Pretending I was alone in my apartment, I fixed my gaze on a tile on the floor as I slipped off my trousers and roughly folded it to the side. There was only one piece of clothing left. I picked up the small towel and positioned it over my groin. Rather awkwardly, I tried to keep my knees close together. Once I had successfully pulled the clothes from my ankles without spreading my legs, I heard my beloved's signature laugh ("Ha! Ha!") and I spun around.

"What?" I strained, somewhere between frustration and humiliation. By now, she had covered her mouth with both hands and was red in the face.

"I'm not laughing at you!" she gasped, trying to stop, "I've just – I can't – I've never done this before."

"We are only taking a bath," I remarked, pacing hunched over toward the tub and stepping into the end Kaname wasn't occupying. "There is no need for us to remove towels if you do not feel ready."

I scrunched my body into the other corner, my thighs pressing against the towel enough so it wouldn't move. As I had predicted, the water level rose to our collarbones. Immersed by the joy of the perfect temperature, I could no longer recall who had initiated this idea.

Kaname noticed my expression. "What's up?" 

"I can't remember who decided we ought to uncover our bodies." 

"It was me."



"I just…" the heat travelled up my face so fast it was like the water had overflowed. "Never mind."

"Not 'never mind'," she urged me.

I allowed my ankles to stretch out slightly. There was very little room in this tub yet it wasn't as cramped as I feared. Kaname did the same, the water lightly splashing as we did so.

Our knees lightly touched and I gulped.

"I can take away my towel if you would like…." I began, peering to the tap to avoid her reaction. Even from the corner of my eye I saw her blush.

"Are you sure?" she asked, "I mean, I've thought about it but wow – now I'm worried of what will happen if I do see."

"What could happen?" I challenged, finally peering back. She nervously played with the contour of her towel like it was snagging somewhere uncomfortable.

"Tons of things."

I waited for her to elaborate. 

"What if things move too fast? I mean, I don't think I'm ready to do anything that I would have learned in biology class."

Sargent Weber had been right after all. My girlfriend had just admitted that she wanted to take my virginity away. Not only that, Kurz had also been correct that what she desired and what she truly was able to do were divorced from each other. I was surprised that this did not bother me. If anything, I was relieved my own lack of sexual confidence matched hers.

"The task is to take off our clothes and that is all."

Kaname appeared to squirm and hit her forehead.  "You should get an award for being a decent guy." 

"Really? Why is that?"

"You're so self-controlled you make me look bad."

I let my chin fall forward as a sign of apology. "I did not mean to come across that way, Kana-chan. I've known you to have remarkable self-control when it matters."

"You're lying."

"I am not," I said. "You are a very resourceful and intelligent young lady."

"I'd like to see you say that if you take the towel away!" Kaname tested.

"Why does me not wearing a towel concern you so much?" I wondered aloud. "You are far more experienced than I am with having baths with others."

"Yeah, but I didn't go to a konyokuburo*!"

"I'm sorry for presuming."

"Yeah? Well good!"

I gently placed a hand on Kaname's knee, since I was too far away to hold her hand. "You still didn't answer my question."

If my beloved had been drinking she would have spurted it out of her mouth from the way she expressed her disgust. "Because I like you! Why is that so hard to understand?"

"Why would that make a difference?" 

"Oh my god! I swear you don't have any hormones in your body."

"Speaking hypothetically… what is supposed to happen if you took your clothes off in front of a more typical man?"

The question was reframed so effectively all Kaname's anger disappeared. "For the sake of the scenario let's talk about a really creepy, sexed up guy."

"Very well."

"He would probably stare at me for ages with this weird look…"

"I see." I interjected.

"…get really interested in my body. He'd probably get all hot, bothered, and fired up down there, and try to touch me…"

"Oh." This time the sound was expressed as a bewildered question.

"…and I'd get really freaked out and run away," Kaname finished, "Wait, what the hell was that?"

"I think I understand," I said, "You are worried I would sexually harass you."

"Kind of? You're sorta getting it. Flip the circumstances the other way around."

I had to think on it.

"If I have interpreted your answer correctly you are hesitant for me to remove my towel," I said slowly, "because you don't want to sexually harass me?"

Kaname sighed. "Not quite, but that will have to do for now."

I peered at my girlfriend's jittery expression with interest. "How have you kept control in the past when this has happened?"

"Hey! I've never seen a naked dude before in real life!" she said defensively.

"Really? Not even one?"

"Besides little kids at beaches and stuff," Kaname corrected, "Have you?"

"Yes, I have," I said simply. I elaborated when I saw her reaction. "When I am on missions often I need to shower and change around men I don't know. Of course, we don't try to stare but on occasion you see something."

"Yuck!" instinctively, Kaname screwed up her face. "Don't you think guys things are gross?"

"No," I replied, although I remembered one nasty incident. "Only infected ones."
"Ewww! Sousuke!"

We didn't speak for a moment as Kaname took in this new information. 

"You know how when we figured out where each other's touchy feely spots are?" she began, slowly.


"And you got worried about me because I was missing the point of the exercise?"

I nodded.

"That's what I'm worried about."

The tap dripped once.

"Taking my towel away doesn't have to be sexual," I said.

Kaname waved her arms around in exasperation. "Look, I don't want to tell you you're wrong, Sousuke." She said in a strong voice, "But given everything it's hard not to make it sexual."

I bowed my head. "Okay." I recalled the night we returned from Karaoke and was reminded of something. "What was the meaning behind the choker?"

"Ask Kurz! Not me!"

"He told me to ask you."

"ARGGhhh!" she racked her hair and finally calmed down. "You know what? I'd rather have you take off your towel than explain that to you."

I hesitated and reached down to grab the towel with my fingers. "Are you absolutely certain?"

"Yes." Kaname sounded embarrassed, "I promise. I just realized how stupid I'm being about this."

"If you have any trouble you can –"

"Just take it off, Sousuke!"

Slowly, I shut my eyes, removed the small towel and further straightened out my legs, struggling to wring the cloth and place it on the side of the bath. The droplets of water splashing into the bath helped delay the silence. I opened my eyes. Kaname's gaze was deliberately fixed on the shower head above.

"Did you look?" I asked.

She nodded.

"Is something wrong?"

"Nah, I'm just worried I'll get carried away." She glanced into my eyes without moving her head. "You have a cute package down there."

"Cute…" I repeated slowly, not sure what to think.

"You're welcome," Kaname replied, even though I hadn't said thank you.

I was still confused as to how to interpret the word. "Do you want to remove your towel?"

She did after a minute or so, starting by exposing her top half. Her breasts were far more beautiful than I had expected even though they were slightly asymmetrical.

"Are you done staring?" my beloved questioned.

"I am," I responded, forcing myself to look into her eyes. "I was simply admiring."

"Yeah, right." Kaname was disbelieving, although I could hear a joking slyness to her voice.

"How are you feeling?" I asked. 

"Good. I'm now curious what will happen if I touch it."

It was fortunate I had the experience in the shower on Christmas Eve, otherwise I would have not been prepared for what was happening. Feeling a familiar light headedness and elation similar to an adrenaline rush, I very quickly moved in such a way that my groin was hidden from view, accidentally splashing water onto the tiles. Kaname laughed.

"Don't tell me…." she began with a grin, trying to peer over my knees to get a look. I crossed my arms over to act as another safeguard.

"I may be many things!" I half yelled in a loud voice, heat rising to my face, "But I am not a pervert!"

Kaname laughed again. She lay back, breasts proudly exposed. 

"You want me to touch you!" she teased.

I thought back to the way Nami's dead body had smelt of metallic blood and gunpowder. Slowly, I felt my clarity of thought returning. 

Kaname appeared startled at the intensity of my stare.

"How could I not when you're my favourite person in the world!?" I responded, a lot louder than I intended. Not expecting this answer, the beauty brought a hand to her mouth to silence herself.

"I'm sorry," she murmured quietly, "I'm being rude."

"I am afraid I agree."

"I –"

"I see it was an accident," I said firmly, "but please refrain from joking around when we are in such a vulnerable situation."

Kaname didn't respond verbally. She nodded and bowed as much as she could, her breasts moving as she did.

"I'm really sorry. I will keep it in mind for next time."

The mood was partially ruined after that. The conversation didn't quite have the same ring and our minds were not functioning as clearly – possibly from the steam, said Kaname - so we decided we had exhausted ourselves. Forgetting to bring a change of clothes, I got back into the shirt and trousers I had been wearing before.

I waited outside in the dimmed room while my beloved got changed into night clothes and brushed her teeth.

"You don't want to stay?" Kaname asked timidly, opening the bathroom door a fraction. "We could cuddle."

"I think that's enough for one night," I said briskly. Seeing Kaname's naked top half was exciting, but we were both inexperienced and sensitive. I could use some time to adjust.

As I took a step toward the apartment door, Kaname grabbed my arm. "You're not mad, right?"

"No. I had a lovely time," I said, although I couldn't manage a smile. "You're very beautiful but I think I am ready for bed."

I turned to walk away but Kaname tugged. "Stay here!" she pleaded, "Please! I don't want to be by myself. I don't want you to be taken away again."

Her voice cracked. There was more to this than the events surrounding the bath.

"I live in the apartment opposite," I said, although I was deeply touched by what I was seeing in the faint light from the bathroom. There was real fear and loneliness in her eyes. Her voice sounded the same as it had when she told me she loved me over the radio in Mexico.

This was new for both of us.

"Last time you were here you made it sound like you'd always be there," she said, "Yet you weren't when I came to see you. Your apartment was completely empty. I'm sorry. I don't know why I suddenly feel like I'm back there searching for you…. But you don't know how that felt."

I paused. "You don't know how it felt to leave."

"I want to let you walk away like you always do, but I can't. I know this is weird. I am too scared. I swear I won't tease you. I just want you near me."

It wasn't just study plans that Kaname was worried about. Remaining fragments of pain littered her consciousness, striking at the times when she was at her most vulnerable. I had heard of these responses before. I had seen them in my teammates, occasionally felt them myself. Tonight it wouldn't be appropriate to abandon her.

"I want that too, I Just…" I sighed. If I was going to stay here overnight, I had to prepare extra time in the morning to go back to my apartment and get a change of clothes. "Where can I sleep?"

We fit together in the same bed, she in her cotton night clothes and me in my damp shirt and trousers. She faced the wall and I had my face buried in Kaname's hair, wrapping my arms around her waist. The mild scent of hot water still clung to drying strands of hair, my chest pressed against her back. It felt incredible to be close to her like this, serene and comforted, our slow breaths in time to one another. Maybe one day I could feel this calm while in a bath with her.

It seemed like a dream to consider it.

Chapter Text

I was woken by ringing. Snapping my hand to the bed side table I realized it was my phone and answered.

"Sagara here."

"Hey man!" It was Kurz. "Thought I'd make sure you got up nice and early."

"Bastard," I whispered like a hiss. Thankfully, my friend knew I was joking.

I slowly slid out from the bed, hurried over to the bathroom and shut the door. Kaname stirred though there was no indication she'd woken. I didn't turn on the light.

A chuckle was broken by static. "Melissa and I got called out to do a few minor operations in Shanghai. I thought I'd give you a buzz before I lose reception."

"What?" I mouthed, suddenly filled with guilt. The special response team would be going somewhere without me. I hadn't expected Sergeant Weber and Mao to be deployed so soon. Then again, there were always small tasks that needed completion. "Is it dangerous?"

"Nothing we can't handle," Kurz replied jovially, "We won't make dumbass decisions anyway. We'll hardly get a scratch. Just you wait and see."

I was inclined to question when I would get a chance to see, but a burst of static distorted the speech. Finally I deciphered, "How's living the slacker life?"

My throat ached with remorse.

"I'm sorry I can't come with you. It just…"

"We both get it!" Kurz interrupted. "Lighten up! We stand by what we said before."

I tried to relax my arms. My fingers were grasped so tightly over the phone that I could have cracked open the case. When my teammates had come to speak to me about Tessa's news, the conversation was brief. They hoped the best for me and were pleased I was moving on with my life. Melissa, in particular, was hopeful. I remembered when she asked me to give up fighting a year ago, close to tears. At the time I still jobs I had to do, people I had to save, but now that time of my life was over and I was ready to follow her proposal.

You're hardly even an adult, Melissa had reminded me, I'm not trying to screw you around. Come back if you're desperate to put bullets in the heads of those that deserve it, but you should have more of a life than this. You deserve to be happy with Kaname.

Not only that, my friends had expressed little surprise over the information. They didn't try to interrogate, argue or persuade me to come back. They were truly grateful for the times we had shared and were genuinely happy I was focusing elsewhere.

We kinda knew it was coming
, Kurz shrugged, we're just glad you didn't wait until you were thirty.

The two had laughed. I had expected a more dramatic farewell, something poignant like going out for drinks, but we hadn't had a chance. It would happen one day, they promised.

"I'll be hearing your voices over radio again as soon as I can," I assured.

"Yeah, you'll finally get to boss us around!" I could almost hear Kurz's grin through the speaker. "Hey, I didn't get to tell you! Melissa said she'd go out with me."

"Well done on telling her," I praised, feeling somewhat out of place saying these words to a man older than me, in spite of being on equal ground professionally. I struggled to hear. Melissa seemed to shout something to Kurz and static crackled loudly.

"What was that, Sousuke?" Kurz said, "You broke up on me."

"Congratulations," I kept my well wishes short. There would be time to discuss it when they returned, and the connection seemed to be weakening. "Does Mithril have an in-house therapist?"

"A therapist? My hearing's kinda screwed here, Sousuke."

"I'm not asking for me." I lowered my voice further. "Kaname is getting …"

I paused, unsure of how to phrase my concerns, but my colleague seemed to understand.

"Good luck opening that kettle of fish!" Kurz laughed, although I wish he'd stick to the point. "Yeah, there's a therapist somewhere. No one goes though. We'd get booted if the doctor thought we were too messed up."

"Kaname's father wants her to go back to America," I rushed. "I'd rather pay for it so he doesn't have to find out."

"Yeah, good point," Kurz sighed. There was more static and the sounds of Melissa's voice, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. "Melissa says she'll text you the details, but you might have to wait a bit till we get it."

"You'll do it for me?" 

"You bet." Then the words I was dreading came, "Sorry, Sagara. You're really breaking up. Happy new year if we don't see you by then!"

"Happy new year!" I returned the kindness, although the conversation had already ended.

I looked at the time on my phone: 4:33 am. Was it worth going back to my apartment now? I climbed back into bed although Kaname had woken up.

"Did you get called into a mission?" She mumbled.

"No," I said, pressing my lips into her hair. "Kurz and Melissa did. They're dating now too."

"That's sweet, but why did they call so early in the morning?" Kaname wondered.

"I'm not sure," I lied, descending into a dreamless slumber.

I placed some miso soup, rice and salad on the table once the winter sun shone through the curtains. In ideal circumstances I would have liked to visit my apartment but given how distressed Kaname had been, it didn't seem like a good idea. Not yet.

My beloved waited until I had sat down with her when we said, "itadakimasu!"

Breakfast was fairly silent, although not unpleasantly so. She was dressed and looked very cute.

"It's New Year's Eve tomorrow."

"Is it?"

Kaname nodded. "I'd like to visit a shrine. I usually go with Kyoko but…"

I scooped up some miso in my spoon. "Which shrine did you have in mind?"

"Atago," Kaname said dully, still waking up, "It is supposed to help with careers and success in life. Would you – I mean, if you're free…"

I noticed the touch of sadness in Kaname's heavy eyelids as she said it.

"I would be honored to go." I replied.

My beloved gave a small smile. "You're going to start studying today?"

I nodded. "Mithril is counting on me. It is the only way I will be able to stay here."

Kaname groaned and picked up some lettuce so aggressively it tore. "If that's how it's gonna be, I'll suck it up and study too. I'm pretty sure if I email Miss Kagurazaka asking for a head start she'll tell me. We can help each other."

"That's incredibly kind of you, Kana-chan." 

"It's no biggie. I can make up for my bad attendance record," Kaname muttered. "Who knows? Maybe I'll even go fishing with you."

"That will have to wait," I said, although I couldn't deny the happiness that bubbled inside. "I will need to get an ebook reading device."

"Oh, yeah."

As close as Kaname and I were now, and getting ever closer still, I couldn't suppress the worry that my girlfriend was becoming afraid to be left on her own. This unique kind of panic was something I had seen refugees do in war zones but not students in a technologically advanced city like Tokyo. Yet, I was at a loss of how to bring up the subject.

Ask Mao once she sends me the Therapist's details, I told myself.

Kaname picked up some rice. "You wanna study in your apartment, right?"

Debating my answer, I sipped a spoonful of soup. "I find I think more clearly alone."

A look of unease spread on my girlfriend's face, one I had only seen when she received bad news.

"Judging from your distress yesterday evening, I suspect you are still reluctant to let me out of your sight." 

Kaname had jumped slightly at the word 'distress' as though I'd sworn at her.

"It isn't that simple," she said, dividing her food into sections, "I want to let you leave. I mean, you're just across the street."

"That is correct." I nodded, tensing my chopsticks between my fingers. Something about her fragility chilled me like being knee deep in snow.

"It's this apartment, Sousuke," Kaname decided, "Maybe it would be better if I went outside, but even then… just coming home to find it empty…"

She shivered. At a loss for what to do, I stuck to my usual practicality.

"I highly respect your opinion, Kana-chan," I began, peering at my plate, "but I am extremely worried about you. This behaviour – no matter its source or trigger - is unusual for you."

"I know." Kaname said begrudgingly. "I don't get it. Not having you around wasn't too bad, I mean, I hardly knew what was going on half the time. I missed my friends; I missed my school work, my pathetic excuse for a normal life. Here I am, whining like a little girl about something immature. I know better. It could have been worse. Any number of those Amalgam numbskulls could have killed me!"

For the second time in the past forty eight hours, tears filled Kaname's eyes, but they didn't fall. She leaned forward and groaned, a distinct sound I had heard from those with life threatening stab wounds. Like she'd been placed in one of those laboratory containers for Whispered, she jerked and placed her hands over her head.

"Sophia, shut up!" she growled, speaking to the Whispered who had merged with her psyche. "Leave me alone. Why can't they leave me alone? I didn't want this crap. Sousuke…"

If Sophia was making herself a known entity, unwilling to cooperate and immerse herself fully in Kaname's mind, something was not right indeed.

Almost knocking over my bowl of rice, I stood up, hurried to the other side of the table, sat next to Kaname and held up a hand in front of her eyes. I was not an expert in providing this type of support, but in emergencies I had seen enough from Mithril's medical team to administer some preliminary tests.

"How many fingers am I holding up?" I asked, squeezing her on the shoulder with my other hand. Kaname stared at my fingers without truly seeing it, stuck in her own little world.

"Answer me if you can hear," I urged.

Kaname appeared to mutter something, and finally. "Three."

"Good job," I said. Still very worried about her, I changed the number. "How many now?"


Her occasional twitching stopped and the words were becoming clearer.

"Do you know where you are?"

"Nowhere," Kaname murmured, her lip trembling. There was definitely something disturbing her emotions in this apartment. I tried to think of something unrelated to the room.

"Describe my shirt," I ordered.

Kaname peered at me and smiled. "It's pretty dorky." 

"What colour is it?"

"Olive green."

"How many buttons does it have?"

I watched as the Whispered's gaze trailed down. "Nine."

Pleased with the improvement in Kaname's alertness I gave her shoulder a tug.

"Let's go to my apartment," I said, "You can come with me."

"I – are you sure?" she asked, quickly coming to her senses as I pulled her off of the chair, "What about breakfast?"

"I'll put it in containers and bring it with us," I advised, letting go to pick my bag off of the floor, "Can you collect your study notes, clothes and anything you need?"

"I…" Kaname's eyes were darting from my bag to me, "You're overreacting, Sousuke. I'm fine now. Whatever you did worked."

"I would prefer not to have to get in a situation like that again." I advised, thinking to where Kaname kept old takeaway containers. "I'm not trained to manage it. I want you to stay at my place as a temporary precaution."

My beloved blushed and waved an arm dismissively. "I'm only doing it because it's you, but you're being paranoid."

I exit the bathroom of my own apartment some ten minute later, feeling relieved to be in a clean pair of clothes. I put my dirty ones in the washing machine as I didn't have a basket. In the time I had been changing, Kaname had arranged a number of pens, a textbook and a notebook on the dining room table, which she was now sitting at. She smiled at me.

"I can't believe how much better I feel already," she said, "Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea after all. I turned on your laptop for you."

"Thank you," I said, sitting down in front of the chair and typing in my password.
"Do you mind if I call my sister? I can keep my voice down."

"Just don't tell her you're here," I said, waiting for the desktop to load. I circled the mouse in a circle on the touch screen while all the icons appeared. 

"Ayame?" Kaname said, "Hi. I hope I didn't call at a bad time. Good. Uh huh."

Even if Kaname was speaking in a smaller voice than usual, I could still hear every word from where I sat. I opened my notebook, shook a pen and clicked on the internet icon. A white window appeared on screen.

"I got back yesterday. Yeah, it's been crazy. How was Christmas? Did you get my present?"

I typed my email into the URL bar and pressed enter.

"I'm so glad you like it. What did you do?"

A pause.

"That's so cute! I had a party and went to karaoke. I wish you could have been there! It was fun!"

Tessa had sent me another email. It provided a schedule for when she would be doing interviews with candidates from the air base and a rough date for when I would meet them: the evening of the 5th, nearly in time for school to start. I clicked back on my keyboard.

"I hung out with Sousuke last night. That's why I didn't get back to you."

My attention shifted at the mention of my name. I opened the Captain's previous email with the attachments.

"He's being pretty normal, to tell the truth."

I clicked on the download button and a loading bar appeared with a few minutes listed.

"Actually, you're probably going to think I'm crazy, but he's now officially my boyfriend. Ha! Ha!"


"I always kinda liked him. Hey, you can't judge. You're the one who gave people the stink eye for being half until you were in junior high. It's totally the same!"

I wrote the name of the textbook and the date into a corner of the first page of my notebook, trying to make it seem like I wasn't listening.

"Yeah, I'll tell Dad in a second. I don't know how he'll take it. Really? But your boyfriend has a high paying job."

The first file out of three finished downloading, so I opened it and crosschecked the page numbers of the initial chapter I was set to read.

"You know, he probably misses Mum too much," Kaname murmured, sounding slightly sad. "I don't blame him either, but come on. It's not fair he's being…. Yeah, I know. Right. Look, I didn't mean to sound selfish. Uh huh. How did you decide what to do after high school?"

I scrolled down the PDF until I reached Chapter 1.

"That's a good idea. I was going to talk to my teacher about it, anyway."

My eyes glazed over after attempting to read the first sentence three times. I tensed my jaw. I had studied in helicopters and during missions before, why was it so hard to concentrate with Kaname speaking behind me?

I cared about her. I prayed for her success. That's why I couldn't shut out her voice. I gulped, reached for my radio equipment and placed a set of thick headphones over my ears. That worked. I successfully read through four pages of the chapter and wrote questions to test myself before Kaname pulled the headphones off my head.

"Can I ask a question? No, questions."


"My plan is to speak to Miss Kagurazaka, and then my dad afterwards. What do you think?"

"That is a wise idea." 

"Good," Kaname said. She hesitated and sat down on the ground in front of me. "How temporary am I going to stay here, anyway?"

I paused. "…Until you can think about being in your apartment without experiencing unsolicited anxiety."

"When's that supposed to be?" 

I jolted in my seat. There was no other opportunity to explain. "I think you ought to think carefully about your health, and strongly consider seeing a doctor."

"A doctor?" Kaname repeated, looking confused, "but I'm not sick."

"I am not talking about a physical sickness." I replied. My beloved's eyes widened, but she appeared more self-loathing than angry. "I know an excellent general doctor you could go to."

Again, Kaname's expression didn't change. "I don't even know what I would say. What if the doctor thinks I'm not crazy enough? Worse, what if he gets me kicked out of school and locked up in an institution or something?"

"I suspect Miss Tokiwa had a throughout health check-up after Jindai High was victim of the hostage situation," I said pragmatically, "How about you ask her?"

Kaname looked at the floor for a few moments before picking up her phone again. "Good idea."

I placed the headphones back over my ears and got through the next five pages of the chapter with notes before Kaname requested my attention again.

"Kyoko told me it's not scary and I should do it. Could you write down the Doctor's number?"

"I need to double check the details but I will give them to you." 

"Thanks a lot, Sousuke. At second thought, it's probably best to check in case Sophia did something weird." 

One more phone call later our conversation continued.

"You know if people find out I'm staying here they're going to talk," she muttered.

I remembered what Tessa had suggested and suddenly felt defensive.

"I don't think they will," I lied.

I couldn't explain why my conversation with the Captain filled me with such vindictiveness, but I wanted to get back to study.

My beloved looked angry and tugged on my trousers. "Hey, don't avoid the issue. What are you thinking?"

Her stare was so intense I thought she could have looked into my soul and set it alight with gasoline. I tried to make sense of my instinctual reaction.

"I think your emotional well-being is more important than what our classmates say about our inconsequential living arrangements."

My tone was cold and layered in sound logic, perfectly aimed like a bullet to hurt.

Kaname didn't like it. "You're angry. You care about what people think."

"I don't," I said, although even I knew I was concealing the truth. I didn't want to consider what cohabitation would mean to those we would meet at the school. Truly, it wasn't the rumours that would upset me but the fact they would act as a constant reminder of my own indecisiveness about Kaname. 

I was ashamed of my idealistic views on relationships, especially since I wasn't sure how far in the future they belonged. When I imagined it marriage were not much older than we are now. Is that another one of my social incompetence's? I had never considered what occurred leading up to such an event. 

I couldn't deny in my heart that Kaname was the only one I could envision myself with in the future yet my logical and emotional selves were in conflict, unable to coexist. I don't even know why the fight had started. The one constant in my mind and soul was my love for her, and yet, it did not want to flourish and grow.

My expression must have lost all emotion, because Kaname's eyebrows were narrowed as though she'd seen a bird crumple up and die at her feet.

"I don't want to talk about it, Kana-chan," I said finally.

"Why is that?" 

"I don't know. If I could put it into words, I suppose I don't like how I feel."

I felt my neck throb like I had suddenly contracted a cold, and an unexpected regret pooled in my throat. She peered away, seeing something she shouldn't have.

"I'm going to go out for groceries," she said slowly, "What do you want for lunch? I can get a whole bunch of stuff."

I suggested curry, as well as whatever Kaname wanted to buy. I felt a little sad as I watched her leave.

During lunch the two of us decided that we would study until the evening, with breaks every hour, only using tomorrow as a means to get ready for the New Years Eve celebrations. Now that reading was the main activity we would be pursuing together, the idea of going fishing didn't seem to repel Kaname. She seemed interested at the thought of helping me buy formal attire for the shrine.

Reading through my textbooks and taking notes was such a mind crunching exercise; I found I was too tired to read magazines or journals during breaks. Instead, I let Kaname put on one of her CDs and gently hummed the tune under my breath. Sometimes I did push ups or planks, much to Kaname's fascination. She tried to join me, but her muscles had far less endurance.

I never thought my brain would tire of the written word. Suddenly, I considered looking at the manga Kaname liked, even if it was for girls, but I couldn't muster the courage to ask.

The kokia CD played as we prepared dinner, overwhelmed with relief that study for the day was over. Kaname helped, slightly dancing to the music as she picked up utensils and measured out the appropriate cups of rice. Now my mind was clearer, the topic of cohabitation entered my consciousness yet again.

"If you heard that two students were living together," I said slowly, "What would you think?"

"Hmm!" Kaname peered at the rice cooker to see if she'd put in enough water, "I'd wonder lots of things. Are they married? Did they run away from home? Do they not have any family?"

"I see." I said, slicing through a potato. "Anything else?"

Kaname closed the lid and pressed 'Cook'.

"I'd probably be too nervous to talk to them," she admitted. "What if they were on drugs or involved with the wrong people?"

"Roger." I nodded.

Kaname picked up another knife and squeezed next to me to use the large chopping board.

"Why do you ask?"

"No reason."

"Uh huh."

She didn't believe me. Sometimes I wished she didn't know me so well.

"What if the students were married?" I asked, keeping focused on the vegetables I was cutting.

"If it was marriage we were talking about…." Kaname sounded surprised, "It would be completely different!"
"Really?" I peered at her face briefly, but she was focusing on the chopping board. "How?"

"Firstly, I'd think they were crazy!" 

I gulped in an attempt to lodge the lump in my throat. "I would be far more concerned if the students were part of a criminal organization."

"Yeah!" Kaname half agreed, "but getting married at our age?! Really?"

"I think you have some misplaced priorities." I noted. Although I had worried about something similar myself, I was wondering if the rationalization behind the viewpoints was the same.

"No. They could wait until they'd gotten a decent job," Kaname said with a hint of derision.

"That is a good point." 

"And what if they had a child? They'd go broke like that!"

I scooped the wedges of chopped potato I cut up and placed them in a large bowl, picking another one. Kaname took a carrot. 

"What if they had the financial means?" I tested.

"Eh?" Kaname stared at me as though I'd suggested leaving the house nude. In the confusion, she knocked a piece of carrot on the ground. "Well, I guess that would be okay. If they had stable jobs and were really in love."

I tried not to, but I smiled. By my girlfriend's logic, so long as we both had a consistent source of income then there was no reason we couldn't get married.

"What's the grin for, huh?" Kaname pressed.

I chuckled. The sound must have sounded endearing to Kaname because her face turned pink.

"Your reasoning is very amusing."

"That's my line, you idiot!" she shouted.

When we sat at dinner, a thought came to mind.

"We have one problem, Kaname."


"I'm afraid I only have one bed."

"That's fine. We'll just do what we did yesterday," Kaname gave a wide smile. "Do you wanna have a bath later?"

While I was reassured by the conversation from earlier, somehow, my physical feelings for Kaname had been muted by stress. I realized I was reverting back to my previous habits. This was not good.

"No, thank you," I said, bowing my head. "I'd rather bathe alone tonight. I am incredibly stressed."

"Can I help?"

I peered earnestly into her face. I hoped she could, she had managed to before. However, I also didn't want my strong feelings to scare her away. 

Similar to on the Tuatha de Danaan, we organized two towels on the bed. I took off my shirt. I got comfortable lying on my stomach, rest a head on my pillow and Kaname hummed to herself, prancing around the kitchen.

"I forgot my moisturizer," she said, "Do you have anything we could use instead?"

I hesitated, "We could use the cooking oil."

"Good idea."

Not wanting to annoy my girlfriend, I began practicing some deep breaths, but my mind was racing.

There is no point worrying about it, I told myself, it's not like you were going to ask her to marry you.

Slightly unprepared, I groaned as Kaname's freezing hands reached my back.

"Sorry. I thought you were used to the cold."
"I am. It was an accident."

"Your heating is kinda terrible."

I shivered for a few moments until Kaname's hands warmed up.

"I don't think I've ever seen you shake like that," she remarked.

I didn't reply, not having any clearer understanding of my feelings than she did. I shut my eyes. It took almost as long as it did the first time for my body to relax, although that wasn't from any fault in Kaname's technique. 

"I'm sorry about last night," I said finally.

"You don't have to apologize." Kaname said, "I was pretty ridiculous. Please forgive me."

"I already have."

"That's a relief." The girl's hands appeared to relax as well, confessing she had forgiven me too. "How are you feeling?"


"Should I do anything else?"

The very question made me flinch. I didn't want her to have the satisfaction of knowing how to bend my body to her own will.

"You can do whatever you like," I said. 

I heard the grin in Kaname's voice. "God, Sousuke. Here I was thinking you were so innocent."

"I'll be the judge of that, Kana-chan." I mumbled, not really listening now.

I was slightly on edge when Kaname's hands left my back and I felt something heavy press into my backside. I cringed, figuring out quickly that Kaname had climbed onto the bed and sat on me. Her pelvic bones were very pronounced from how skinny she was and it dug into my muscles. Still, I took a breath and didn't say a word. I felt the tips of her hair brush my back as her whisper entered my ear.

"I bet you couldn't move even if you wanted to."

Again, I stayed silent, although it wasn't for long. Slowly, Kaname ran her fingers through my hair until they reached the back of my neck. That's when I knew my beloved was going to use information to her advantage. Preparing myself for at the very least a hit over the head, her breasts pressed into my back and she kissed the side of my neck. I forced my jaw shut, not uttering a sound. She was an enemy and I could not display weakness.

"Jeez, there's so many things I could do here. Maybe this is how Tessa feels in her ugly armchair."

I didn't respond. Next, I heard the sounds of what I thought was fabric moving against something.

"Hey, Sousuke. Guess what I just did."

"I don't know." 

Kaname chuckled. "I unbuttoned my shirt."

Oh, god. Why did she have to do this? My breathing weakened as though I'd suddenly walked out into a blizzard, shallow but controlled. I tried not to move, but I felt a distinct pressure push into the mattress underneath me. My body made its intentions known, although I didn't verbally express them to her. There was no way in hell I would turn to face her. Never.

"How badly do you want to see?" Kaname asked, "Give me a number out of 10."

"3," I lied.

"Three?!" Kaname said loudly, "Are you serious? Damn it! Here I was thinking that would be way more than enough. Wait, I know what to do."

Again, there was the sound of moving fabric.

"I- I'm not wearing a bra now." The girl said in a shaky voice, "I BET that makes you want me, doesn't it?!"

Wondering if she was lying to fool me, I tried to peer out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn't see far enough across to tell.

"Why should I give you what you want?" I challenged.

"Because I'm trying to help you," Kaname said.

"You're not," I said. "You're trying to rouse me."

"Did it work?"

"Answer my first question."

"Jeez, I feel like I'm being called on in class." The girl hit her fists on my back, "Because you love me?"

"You're right. I do love you," I replied. "But what do you gain from provoking me?"

"The same thing as you." 

Wait… did that mean Kaname was getting excited from simply undressing?

"How is that possible…" I marveled, "when I'm not doing anything?"

"I am very imaginative," Kaname pointed out, "Don't you already know that?"

In other words, my girlfriend was trying to de-stress me using more perverse, unconventional means, and she was enjoying it too. I couldn't say it was working for me so far. I felt intensely captivated, although the feelings brought its own tension and stress. On the other hand I didn't want to disappoint her by shutting down her advances.

"Very well," I concluded, "So long as you don't move me from this spot, you may do whatever you please. Do not worry about distressing me. I can cope with a lot."

"It's not about me!" Kaname shouted, banging a fist on my back, "I want to help you! God, think about yourself for once."

I could no longer follow the conversation.

"Maybe I'm wrong but I thought guys liked it when their girlfriends did this sort of thing."

"I am happy to do whatever you want." I said, taking a deep breath. "If this isn't what you want, then stop, please."

If I didn't know any better Kaname's next utterance sounded as though it came from one of Kurz's adult videos. "No – that's not just it. I… Call me gross if you want, okay? I want to mess with you a little bit."

"Understood." I closed my eyes, "If that is the plan, I stick by what I said before."

Perhaps I ought to have regretted those words, but I found that even years later I didn't. What happened next was nothing short of odd, yet I couldn't help but be charmed by the girl's daring. Kaname had been through a lot too. She wasn't afraid to express herself when the circumstances called for it. For that I was extremely proud of her.

I couldn't be certain if this was how physical relationships usually progressed, although we were both rather unique individuals. I gasped in relief as Kaname climbed off of me, allowing my groin to not be crushed against the mattress. I couldn't be sure what was happening until I heard Kaname's next words.

"Newsflash, high and mighty Sargeant Sagara. I'm not wearing anything. Nothing at all." She said, a condescending tone to her voice I strangely enjoyed, "Do you want me now?"

I smiled, enjoying this little game, unable to stop myself imagining her bare splendor.

"Five out of ten," I said simply. Again, it was a complete lie.

"WHAT?!" Kaname gasped. I could almost see her flailing her fists around in rage, "You've got to be kidding me? FIVE?! What makes you tick then? Glasses? Uniforms? Chains? Moe? Come on, give me a clue. Should I tell you a dirty story? God! That would be so embarrassing. Please, don't let it be that. Stop being weird!"

Her voice turned from anger to humiliation in one second flat. I chuckled.

"Why are you laughing!?" she demanded, stamping her feet and reaching the side of the bed. "You're weirder than I thought. You better not pull any creepy stuff on me. I'm warning you, Sousuke!"

I cleared my throat and attempted to steady my voice. "I'm sorry, Kana-chan. I only know as much about myself as you do."

"Pretty snail."

I assume she did so as an experiment, though Kaname gave me one of her powerful punches straight across my back. I grunted into the pillow, not wanting her to know how aroused I was from simply knowing she was naked behind me.

"Do you like that, huh? Maybe I should play with your feet…"

"N-N-No!" I stuttered, coming to my senses. Going down that route would be too much, "Please, I think my feet like being in their socks."

"Fine." If I could see, I was certain Kaname would have crossed her arms.

"On the assumption I was enjoying the thought of you being naked…" I said, taking a different route, "What would you do next?"

"You mean if I wasn't worrying about you?" 

I nodded.

"Well…" Kaname calmed down instantly. "I am feeling pretty attractive right now."

"I see." I said.

"I feel attracted to you as well." She continued, "Have I ever told you about how amazing your body is?"

I shake my head.

"Now you know."

"It is fortunate I cannot see you." I admitted, "Like you, I now fear that I would make a fool of myself."

"Don't get your hopes up," Kaname warned, "What I have down there doesn't look anything like girls in those adult magazines."

"I don't care." I said, "I would like to see your reaction to me looking at you."

"Really? That's not interesting."

"It is to me."

"Hmm!" Kaname hesitated, thinking on what to do next. "Hey, I know. What do you think of sex? I mean, have you ever had a fantasy before?"

"I don't make a habit of it," I admitted, "It is something I am only beginning to think about."

"Can I tell you a secret, then?" she murmured, her voice very close to my ear.

I nodded.

"I've thought about it with you."

Her words cut into my very being like a gust from a hail storm. Losing my sense of self, my breathing became more pronounced. I couldn't specify how I felt in response to this information, but I knew that I was both afraid and intrigued. I knew from the magazines and Kurz that sex had a pleasurable purpose, but I had very little understanding of how it came to be that way, in the same way humanity struggled to conceptualize whether there was a higher power.

My girlfriend hummed, as though satisfied with my reaction. I couldn't silence a gasp as she lowered her body onto my bare skin. My neck hurt as Kaname leaned over me and kissed me on the face. I felt her firm nipples, breasts, belly and the insides of her thighs against my back and ribs, confirming her nakedness.

Some part of my brain was satisfied with the closeness and absurdity of it. I could sense her desire for unity, even from doing nothing at all. My pelvis hurt with need and if I had been alone in the room, I would have tried to relieve the pain, but not now. While Kaname had possession of my body, I could not take control of the situation for myself.

Was she in as much pain as I was? Shit, she was right. I wanted her to touch me… desperately. I was half tempted to beg, but that went against my values of self-control and politeness.

"I really like you," she whispered, but the tone roughly translated to, 'You're sweet, but I will spare you no mercy'.

"K-Kana-chan…" I slur, unsure of how to express that suppressed, primal part of myself.

"You look unwell," she remarked, kissing my cheek gently.

I don't answer.

"Do you want to see?"

Finally, I nod.

"You just got screwed over by your own rules," Kaname laughed.

I tense my jaw, unmoving. At least she was happy.

"I have a better idea, anyway," she said. 


"I'm going to run a bath."


With a light kiss on the face and running her fingers down my back, I heard Kaname pick her clothes off of the floor, walk into the bathroom and lock the door. I took a moment to recover from what had just happened, rolled onto my back and unbuckled my belt as the running water from the next room distorted the perception of silence.

"Damn," is all I said.

Chapter Text

When Kaname walked out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, her smile disappeared. "What's that?" 

She was referring to what I was arranging on the floor. "I would have thought you could recognize a sleeping bag, Kana-chan."

"I know what it is!" Kaname tried not to sound frustrated, "I mean, why is it on the floor?"

"So I can use it, of course."

"Right." Apparently unconvinced, Kaname went to the luggage she had brought and pulled out some pyjamas. "You should use the bath before the water gets cold."

She didn't look at me.

Something was off about her tone but I don't think she would have elaborated even if I had asked.

"I'll be back."

The water was lukewarm, and although my temperature adjusted within several minutes the tension in my muscles did not. I failed to see the reason Kaname had been incredibly happy one moment and then troubled the next. I sighed. Experience dictated that she would explain soon, most likely with a temper.

My mind still had a tendency to fight and intellectualize the urges I felt about Kaname, so there wasn't any means for me to get relief. 

I didn't feel refreshed when I returned, wearing night clothes. Kaname was laying in my bed, reading volume eleven of Itazura no Kiss. 

"How is your reading?" I asked.

"Typical!" Kaname said with an edge of bitterness. I thought she was talking about the book until she added, "Just act like having a sleeping bag on the floor is no big deal!"

"I thought it would be better this way."

I heard a grumble and my beloved peered at me side on, closing the manga. "Enlighten me, Sousuke. I don't get what goes on in that head of yours. Did I do something wrong and you just don't want to tell me?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"Then why have you done this?" Kaname demanded.

"I think it is best that we do not get distracted." I reasoned. "We both need sleep and have plans tomorrow."

"I guess you have a good point." She placed her comic on the ground, "Still, it's not like I'm the one who wants to sleep by myself. Wait! Does that mean you find me distracting?"

I crouched to unzip my sleeping bag. "I will neither confirm nor deny your proposition."

Kaname looked as though she'd just been granted a scholarship. "That means yes!" she punched the air, "You are like other guys! You can't stand the thought of me being so close! I bet it makes you all fidgety like how I've seen you get sometimes. Ha! "

"That is not necessarily true," I said. "This is for your benefit as well as mine."

"Whatever, tough guy!"

I sighed and turned off the apartment lights. "You are safe and that's what matters."

I got into the sleeping position I usually did when forced to lie on an uncomfortable surface. It didn't take long for me to perfect it and close my eyes. Kaname, however, had not finished speaking.
"You didn't answer before. What do you think about sex, anyway?"


"What do you mean?"

It was somehow easier to talk into the darkness. Our voices carried across the room with more clarity, as though we were sitting side by side.

"I mean, you don't think about it much, so I want to know your opinion."

"It is important for the continuation of our species." I acknowledged, "Especially in Japan."

Kaname made an annoyed noise. "I'm not talking about Japan! Does that mean that you just see it as a way to have children?"

"That is its intended purpose."

"Yeah, but how do you think people think to do that in the first place?"

I felt colour rise to my cheeks. "I am aware that it is supposed to be pleasant." ….Once you discount the many ways it has been misused and misrepresented by rape, violence and sexually motivated murder. "I…uh…."

"You don't understand why it would feel good?"


Through the blackness I heard Kaname chuckle and clear her throat. "Allow your senpai Chidori to explain – well, try to anyway."

It wasn't incredibly late so there was little point forcing ourselves to sleep.

"Standing by."

"How do I translate?" I heard Kaname move around in her bed, possible rolling onto her back. "I mean…. At least for me, you can kind of guess how it might feel based on what you can do on your own."

"Ah. Right."

"Does that mean you get it?"

"Kind of." Self-gratification aside, I couldn't help but shake the feeling it wasn't that simple, "For the act itself, yes."

"You still seem confused."

"I am."

"That's okay," Kaname said. "It's not like you can help it, right? I'm sure one day you will know a lot more."

Like the midday winter sun that had been peeking through the curtains hours ago, I was filled by such an exquisite gratitude that it allowed me to almost see Kaname's outline. She was truly the most interesting human being I had ever met, full of contradictions and yet somehow the abstract pieces of her personality synthesized.

"I am sure I will too. Thank you for your help."

All conversation of sex was dropped until New Year's celebrations were over. Even then, Kaname wanted to know whether I would ask questions in my own time or whether she ought to organize when and where she could educate me. As our revision and vocational studying were the top priority, my answers were indefinite and uninspired. With her persistence, I agreed that setting aside time was best so we did not stray far from our studies.

"Maybe we could make it into a date," Kaname suggested. 

"How about you choose? Although keep in mind we are using our time fishing to revise." 

New Years was more of a somber than happy occasion. The crowds at the shrine were impressive, and while Kaname assured me this was a small turn out compared to the more popular shrines, it was still an oppressive quantity. I was on high alert and was very suspicious of minor occurrences, only quietening my mind when the bells chimed and we made our prayers for the following year.

I hoped for Kaname's good health, future study and career endeavors. I wished that the ones who would replace me were as competent as or more efficient than I was.

As the clock ticked over to the first of January, I was filled with more sadness than excitement, recalling my friends and colleagues who did not make it to this day alive.

My girlfriend sighed, her kimono glittering magnificently in the lantern light reflecting off surrounding trees.

"What's wrong?" I asked. It sounded strange within a sea of applause.

I tried to hold her hand, but she merely tensed it into a fist and refused.

"This year better not suck, right?" she murmured. Passers-by were probably wonder why such a seemingly well-adjusted girl had a frown on her face in such a sacred area on a special day. Their glances said as much, but I did not take heed.


The word meant little compared to how I felt.

Unable to hold back, I held Kaname close and kissed her before she could open her mouth to reply. I wanted to tell her I would never let her go, that I wanted to stay by her side for as long as I could, no matter what the circumstance, but the poetic announcement got stuck somewhere in my throat.

Even now, weeks after I'd confessed a similar sentiment, I still could not talk about it. I did not want to pursue rejection, but her lips did not reject me. I wondered if she could feel the strength of my fondness within the soft touch of my fingers. When she pulled away, I wasn't sure. The tears that adorned her eyes begged for explanation, maybe even condemnation, and I wondered if it was both.

"I'm scared," she said.

 About the future, our relationship or myself, I still had no answers.

"I am too," I admitted. 

Kaname smiled grimly at that.

The Captain's joking suggestion of cohabitation lingered in my mind, like a web on the ceiling no one could reach. Whether I wanted to or not, the one I had sworn to protect was living with me. Even when curled up in a sleeping bag, I felt closer to her in my heart than I ever had. I enjoyed living with her, but it couldn't last.

With the chronic lack of privacy, any chances of weakening my sexual reservations was impossible. The first days of the New Year continued with a variation of studying, cooking and conversation. I tried, but it was difficult to kiss her. Even holding her, I couldn't decide if I felt intense desire or romantic affection. The two seemed to cancel out like a blown fuse. I hoped my girlfriend understood. If she thought anything of it, I didn't find out.

I temporarily forgot about this dilemma when I read a timely email from my laptop on the 4th of January.

Dear Sargent Sagara,

I apologize for the delay.

I hope your New Year's celebrations were enjoyable. There were over a dozen applicants so it took longer than anticipated to sort them. I debriefed with the rest of the panel and we have decided on our final candidates to replace you. I have attached scans of their resumes to this email so you can formulate initial impressions and ask me questions. I have also attached scans of notes from interviews including scoring on our selection criteria and our thoughts. 

I suggest an informal meeting would be best to acquaintance everyone with Sargent Mao and Weber. What are your thoughts? If you would like to do a final interview with them afterwards I would be happy to arrange it.  

Please respond at your earliest convenience.

Kind regards,

Captain Teletha Testarossa

I opened the PDF versions of the resumes. There were three.

Chae "Reve" Ryung-Ja was the first one. From the photo, he appeared to be an Asian-American male, 27, apparently from Fontana in California. He attended Resurrection Academy, a private Catholic school, and moved to Tokyo on base to attend the Yokota's West Middle and High School. He did debating and Track and Field as extracurricular activities, and had previously worked in a night club. Both parents moved from South Korea for work reasons so Reve was fluent in English, Korean and also has 'very good spoken, but average written' Japanese. According to other scribbled notes by Clouseau and Testarossa, Reve had been part of the 36th Airlift Squadron of the 374th Operations Group for the past seven years and was recommended to apply by another employee for his attention to detail and competitive athleticism. He had heard of Mithril through word of mouth and has an interest in flying, weaponry and supplies. He was motivated to join the military and leave the US after older sister was killed in a mass shooting at a young age. According to him, Mithril would be a step closer toward his ultimate goal of helping maintain peace.

Deciding to read the interview notes in more detail later, I clicked on the next file.

Ella Mendez was a 24 year old female of American ethnicity from Lakewood, Colorado. The photo was fairly standard. She had fair skin and died black hair. She attended Devinny Elementary and Creighton Middle School in her home city, before moving on base to attend Yokota High School. She was an active participant in her forensics group and received Athletes of the Year award for excellent performance in gymnastics and wrestling. Written and spoken Japanese were superb since she taught herself before beginning a tertiary course. Japanese is 'bizarrely' more grammatically correct than her English? The girl has known about Mithril for a long time through an old middle school friend. Reads Arm Slave Monthly and Soldiers of Fortune. Mendez has been part of the 374th Operations Support Squadron of the 374th Operations Group for four years. Other work experience includes café, retail and waitressing.

One more, I told myself, trying to concentrate.

Austin Celda is a 26 year old Filipino-American male from Stamford, Connecticut. His mother is currently based in the Phillipines. Father moved with Ceda and younger brothers and sisters to the US when they got divorced. Ceda went to Villa Maria Education Center, a Private Catholic School, but moved on base for Yokota later education in secret with the help of a close Japanese neighbor, much to father's disapproval. He was involved in cross country and journalism clubs in school. English and Japanese are his most fluent languages, understands some Filipino. Inspired to join military from growing up in a low income neighborhood and wanting to protect others – knowledge of Mithril is more in depth than most other applicants. The man was recommended to apply by Testarossa's contact at the base for being a very hard working, reliable and quick thinking. Friends with Reve – also part of the the 36th Airlift Squadron. Ceda has worked for Yokota for 5 and a half years after transferring from 374th Operations Support Squadron during initial training. Past work experience includes concierge at a hotel that his father manages.

Judging from what was on paper it would be incredibly difficult to pick a candidate as each one seemed like they could learn the skills. Clouseau and Testarossa would have eliminated those who seemed suspicious or did not suit Mithril's set of personalities. Still, it would be interesting to see how much of this information was falsified. What were they hiding?

"Do you need a break from studying, Sousuke?" Kaname asked, looking over from her own notes. "I'm getting pretty tired. Hey, I had two ideas of where we could go for a date."

"Where is that, Kana-chan?" I asked, forcing myself away from the screen.

"There's a place in Shibuya that does day time karaoke or the Meguro Parasitological Museum."

I suggested day time Karaoke, as I knew I wouldn't be too enthusiastic on a museum after studying for hours on end. She looked very pleased with my answer.

"The Captain is thinking of organizing a social gathering so I can meet my potential replacements," I explained.

"Do you know who they are yet?" Kaname answered.

I nodded. "Yes, I just read their resumes."

"For real?" Kaname jumped out of her chair and hurried to look at the PDF files, "Its creepy you just know all these things about a person before meeting them. Does it make you feel like a stalker?"

"I am used to reading these sorts of reports," I said.

"Man. Hey, that girl looks scary." Kaname pointed out. "A get together sounds fun. Do you think I can come?"

I hesitated. "Social or not the ultimate goal is still work, but I can ask Miss Testarossa."

We organized to visit the daytime karaoke bar the day after the work dinner since my schedule was likely to change soon after in order to accommodate whoever was picked. I replied to Tessa's email and it was confirmed Kaname was welcome. I also read through the scanned notes from the interview which went into more detail of the applicants' roles in the Yokota air base.

Like Mithril, the Yokota air base was divided into sections. Under the umbrella title of the 374th Airlift Wing, there were operations, maintenance and medical units. Reve, Mendez and Ceda all came from the operations division. The 36th Airlift Squadron, which corresponded to Reve and Ceda, had tasks like providing personnel and equipment for response teams and helping with air land assaults if needed. Missions included airlift, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, repatriation and humanitarian relief.

The female, Mendez, part of the Support Squadron helped with airlift support for priority passengers, as well as the other kinds of evacuations and rescue operations performed by the 36th Airlift Squadron. There was potential in these young men and women. Arm Slaves were not easily available so no matter what I would have to train one of them on how to pilot and use it in combat situations. Part of the combat experience appeared to be there. They had been exposed to the battlefield on multiple occasions. 

From the written notes, these applicants had been preferred over other candidates due to professionalism, adhering to the code of conduct, personality predicted to mesh well with the work culture of Mithril, conscientiousness, initiative, being swift under pressure and team work.  

It was going to be an interesting night.

Chapter Text

After a short walk from Omotesando Station in Minato, Kaname and I pushed through the doors of an American inspired establishment called The 3rd Burger. Kaname had looked at the menu online before we left the apartment. They sold what the title implied.

She also stopped me from leaving the apartment entirely in uniform, suggesting that I changed my shirt to something more casual. I thought of it as inappropriate but my girlfriend insisted I would look out of place dressed formally at a burger chain.

Kaname layered herself in thermal tights, a dress, jacket and scarf, and I also prepared for the snow. I talked her out of putting on any make up beyond mascara. Who was she trying to impress?

The Captain's eyes lit up as she saw us. 

"Sagara and Kaname!" She bowed.  "So pleased you can make it."

Tessa had reserved a table in the corner. The establishment was nearly full of teenagers and twenty somethings, but this didn't concern me. The volume of conversation was as tame like a café. Even though we were technically five minutes early, every other seat was taken. I quickly scanned the tops of my colleagues and candidates heads. There wasn't anything unusual about them.

Kaname bowed extra low. "Thank you for inviting me, Tessa."

"Look who's back from being a couch potato!" Kurz said loudly.

My rigid jaw loosened as I gave a nod of acknowledgement to my friends.

"Kaname made you dress like a human!" Melissa jeered.

"I hope it is not disrespectful," I said honestly.

Someone inhaled loudly through their nose. I turned. Mendez tried stifle the noise. No one else seemed to have heard.

"Time for official introductions," Tessa said, and she proceeded to cheerfully tell me information I already knew.

When the Captain gestured, each one at the table gave their full attention. The Yokota trio looked slightly less enthusiastic than what their resume photos suggested, with a scratch or bruise here and there, yet they all said 'Good evening' in perfect Japanese and bowed in synchronicity. It was only then I observed the difference between their heights.

Reve, the one from Korea, was slightly shorter than me and had a distinct slimness to his frame, not far removed from a professional gymnast. Celda and Mendez were closer to the heights of Kurz and Melissa.

"Have you been in Japan long?" Kaname asked as we sat down.

The three explained in their own words.

"My Dad and sister live in New York," my girlfriend continued. "Have any of you been there?"

"Once or twice," Mendez said. She had a lazy way of speaking,. Her words nearly stuck together. "I loved the broad way shows I saw over there. Have you seen Wicked?"

"No!" Kaname seemed both happy and annoyed at herself. "My sister keeps telling me to see it, but I haven't had the time. Money, you know?"

While the two girls gossiped about theatre, I turned my gaze to the table. In spite of their romantic involvement, Melissa and Kurz were not behaving much different to usual. There was no indication they had experienced critical injuries in their last mission as they only had a few scabs and minor burns. I still felt guilty I hadn't joined them.

Reve was calm and collected, with a childlike excitement to his eyes. His carefully brushed hair had the effect of making him look like an idol gone rogue.

Mendez, now explaining enjoyable New York tourist attractions, exuberated the healthy glow of someone who ate exactly what her dietician recommended. The roots of her hair were strawberry blonde.

Celda was the only one who looked like he could snap bones beneath his fingers. By the way his eyes squinted at bright light, seemed like the sort of person who preferred to be awake at night than during the day.

"Chidori, how are you related to Mithril?" Reve asked, sitting impeccably straight.

"Miss Chidori was under close protection of Sagara for a number of years," Tessa answered. "He completed the assignment and is now dating her."

"That doesn't make me sound good!" Kaname raised her voice.

Kurz, who was on the same side of the table as the Yokota trio, muttered to Reve, "She's a Whispered, too."

The man's eyelids seemed to flutter like communicating his understanding. "That makes perfect sense, yes."

I was surprised Austin had said little in the conversation thus far. Melissa seemed to notice, because she looked in the man's direction when she asked, "How was everyone's Christmas?"

After a sharp prod from Reve, Celda appeared to wake from a daydream.

"My family's Christmas celebrations go on for weeks, but this year I put that aside to do interviews," he said, sounding nonchalant. "I still got to stay up all night on Christmas Eve. I went out drinking with Ryung-Ja. That was fun. We went to a Church service on Christmas day."

I noted from Austin addressing Reve by his non-family Korean name that they were closer friends than what the application implied.

"Are your parents religious?" Melissa asked.

The two nodded, looking rather unhappy.

"Mine are devoutly religious," Reve said.

"If you met them, they'd probably try converting you," Celda added.

It struck me that the two seemed to finish each other's sentences, almost like twins. If it wasn't for the deviation in body structure and hair styles, the men could have been related.

"Like that would ever work," Kurz laughed.

"If they talked to me, I'd spend a good hour pulling apart every argument…" Melissa cackled, "…maybe even longer if I was drunk."

Mendez's posture had slumped into one of a software engineer. Her eyes had glazed over, and she seemed extremely interested in Kaname. "What about you, Chidori? Do you visit your family on Christmas?"

"Not usually." Kaname shrugged, "I mean, my Dad sometimes gives me extra money to fly over but he doesn't get a lot of time off. Most of the time I hang out with one of my school friends."

"Isn't that lonely?"

"Sometimes. It's not a big deal. I call my sister a ton."

"It's not the end of the world," Celda added. "Maybe Chidori doesn't get along with her family."

Reve grinned. He had an awkward smile as some of his teeth were damaged. "Is there a romantic story of how you got together?"

Kaname, Tessa and I all looked taken aback by the question, although Kurz laughed.

"I can tell you the story, buddy, maybe after they leave."

"You'd tell it terribly!" Tessa gasped.

"How do you know how it went?!" Kaname demanded.

Mendez cleared her throat in a rather high pitched way.

"Are you thinking a ballad may be suitable for Sagara?" Celda muttered to his Korean friend.

Reve laughed. "I'll tell you if I think of one."

"How did the two of you meet?" I asked them, quickly changing the subject.

The men looked at each other. "At Church a number of years ago."

I don't know why, but Melissa found this funny. "Did you batt your eyelashes at each other from across the room?" 

Austin raised his thick eyebrows at Melissa, but Reve looked at his knees in apparent embarrassment.

"She's joking," Kurz muttered.

"I should hope so!" Tessa said loudly, giving Mao and Kurz looks of 'shut up'.

"We had seen each other around," Austin began. "I recognized him and sat next to him."

"That's right," Reve said, forcing a smile as he looked up. "I remembered his voice. It is very distinct. After Church we talked."

"I think that's great," Kaname said lightly. "It's nice to make new friends, especially in a country you're not used to."

"Mendez, had you met these two before today?" Tessa inquired.

"I'd seen them before, but that's about it," Ella shrugged. "I agree with you, Reve. Austin has a weird accent from when I've heard him speak English."

"Really?" Melissa asked.

"Speak some English now!" Kurz challenged.

We were interrupted by a waitress, to which we all requested drinks and awkwardly looked at the menus, trying to decide. Conversation was broken up until we ordered our respective burgers, mine an avocado wasabi.

"It's weird to think that you're so young," Reve admitted, peering at me.

"Why is that?" I wondered.

"You seem so professional, even when we're supposed to be relaxing at dinner. That takes a lot of discipline. You must be very efficient at your job. Although…" the man sighed, struggling to think of a word. "I wasn't sure what I was expecting."

"We try to make him cheer up," Kurz said, leaning back in his chair, "Hopefully Kaname here helps him with that."

"You're giving me too much credit!" Kaname explained.

"Don't talk crazy, Kaname," Tessa assured her. "You have helped Sagara a great deal."

"Yeah," Melissa gave a loud cough, "with his testosterone levels."

I tensed my fingers onto my thigh, not wanting the conversation to go in this direction.

"From appearances alone you seem as testosterone filled as the rest of us," Reve said.

I wasn't sure what to think of this. Kaname nudged me.

"He's trying to compliment you," she whispered. 

"Thank you, Chae," I said, slightly awkwardly.

"Who cares about hormones?" Ella said exasperated. "We've all got goddamned testosterone, for better or worse. He's allowed to do what he wants."

Celda grinned. He was the tallest of the three and looked like he had been on steroids at some point in his life. There was an element of honesty that was beginning to pour through after the first curse word. "I want to know what meant by the comment, Mao."

"No, you don't!" Kaname rushed, raising her hands defensively.

"Yes, I agree with Mendez," Tessa said calmly. "Let it be."

"I'm sure Sagara is very impressionable," Reve said, trying to help me save face.

"Ha!" Melissa barked. "Yeah, not in the way you're thinking, buddy."

"No need to get feisty, dear," Kurz hushed Melissa. 

"I'm curious, Chae," Kaname begun, fiddling with her scarf in her lap. "How did you think of your Western name?"

"Oh." Reve laughed. "My sister helped me. She started school before I did so she warned me that unless I did something I'd get made fun of by all the kids in school."

"What a shame." Tessa bowed her head in condolence. "I hope you did not have to deal with much of that in your youth."

"I had to deal with bullies and I wasn't even coloured!" Ella exclaimed, frustrated. "They used to say I was a Madonna wannabe with a more ugly nose. Not to mention, they'd throw food at me and corner me in hallways to make me look slutty." Now the candidates true personalities were coming out, "I beat them up and got in trouble. That wasn't a good look for me, so I never did it again, but I hope you taught them a lesson."

"I would have killed them," Reve said. I believed from the unfamiliar inflection his tone that he was serious, "but I knew doing that would have only made it worse."

"I just targeted the kids I hated in sport and made it look like an accident." Celda grinned, "Oh yeah, besides the one idiot who used to make jokes about my mother. I broke his nose with a cafeteria tray."

Melissa, Ella and Kurz laughed at this. I found it amusing, but my expression didn't change.

"My sister told me that there are always people like that," Kaname said, "But she just ignores it now and reports it if it becomes a hate crime or harassment."

"That's all I do now too," Ella said, "even if I want to break their teeth."

"Do you get much of that in Japan?" Reve wondered, "Everyone's been really nice to me."

"Not really." Ella shrugged, "Mostly older people who stare at me and whisper – which, is not discrete at all - but I just pretend they're jealous."

"They probably are." Austin said, "At least in the Philippines some people admire foreigners like movie stars."

"They better." A sick sort of smile lit up Mendez's face.

"I can guarantee you will never be treated disrespectfully based on your country of origin in Mithril," Tessa said proudly.

"She speaks the truth," Kurz admitted.

"That's one thing I really like about Mithril," Reve said, "I think some Japanese are intimidated by foreigners, but there are so many opportunities for learning. The Military in general, at least in America, does have some nasty types."

"What music do you guys like?" Kaname asked, changing the subject completely.

This went on for five minutes before Austin asked questions about the sorts of missions we had been on. It didn't help me determine who the better candidate was. Then the table had some laughs practicing English and insults from other languages.

By the time our meals arrived the conversation had turned to funny work stories. Kaname contributed to the conversation so infrequently she had resorted to eating her food as slowly as possible. 

"So…" Tessa began, looking at the sky, "We have two couples in Mithril. Is there any gossip from Yokota we should know about?"

"There are usually rumours about the girls," Celda said, peering down at Mendez. She glared back.

"Not me!" she said defiantly, but then she nervously picked up a french fry with chop sticks, "at least, I'm pretty selective with my…. company."

"I think the Captain was talking about longer term relationships," I said carefully.

Was this really an appropriate topic of conversation? They had been drinking but still...

Tessa nodded determined. "Yes, you're right, Sagara."

Austin snorted. "Not much since I left America. Long distance thing didn't work out. I'm pretty terrible with girls."

"Great, you and Sousuke will have something in common!" Kaname said brightly. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

I got the impression she was just happy to join in on the conversation again.

"I don't know. I've met lots of very sweet girls here," Reve said. "You just need to relax."

"I just can't do it," Austin said, nervously.

"You guys don't hook up with other Americans on base?" Melissa asked.

"Yes!" Reve said, as though she'd asked the colour of the sky. "But that wasn't the question."

Giggles came from around the table and ended fast.

Tessa had a flush in her face as she said, "I would be interested to hear in the cultural differences in dating… I mean – tell us those stories anyway!"

Celda laughed. "Those are the stutters of a virgin if I ever heard one."
"Hey! Leave her alone!" Kaname yelled, at a similar time to Reve.

Ella smiled. "Virgins get such a bad reputation. Come on. We were all the same once."

"That's not always true." Melissa said, "Sousuke's not a virgin and he's still helpless."

"Excuse me!" I shot back, speaking for the first time in twenty minutes, "Kaname and I have not done anything of the sort!"

Melissa laughed. "I knew that would get you to talk!"

Kaname looked like she wanted to stab Melissa's eyes with her chopsticks, but instead she hit her face with her palm, "You guys…" she groaned, "why do you have to be so mean?"

"It's funny," Kurz said. "We don't do it for nothing, you know."

"That's how it is? Fine! I'll embarrass you then!" Kaname shouted. She turned red, scrunched her scarf into a ball and waved it around as she spoke, "Tell Sousuke what a choker is for! Right now."

A clatter rang out as Tessa dropped one of her chopsticks. Her mouth was agape. The waitresses who had taken our orders placed a number of smoothies at another table, and stared at us, not sure if she had misheard, but disapproving all the same.

Frustration rising in my chest, I focused on chewing my food as though no one else was there. This shouldn't be happening, informal work function or not.

The candidates didn't look phased by the shouting. In fact, they were like someone had pressed pause on a security recording.

"You could do it," Kurz said, poking his tongue out.

"No! I know you did it to humiliate me!" Kaname retorted, trying to keep her voice down. "Come on, fess up and make amends."

My gaze diverted sideways. A different waitress bowed, asking if something was wrong with the food. It was obvious, rather, that they were trying to fish out anything- or anyone- that would reflect poorly on the restaurant. If we were not careful, they may ask us to leave.

"…just a work conversation. We are so very sorry," Reve said hurriedly, with a bow. His intentions were earnest enough that the waitress disappeared with a smile.

We waited until she had vanished behind the counter before leaning in so close we could have been divulging classified information.

"How did this crop up?" Celda asked, to which Kurz and Melissa were fairly happy to provide context.

"Afterwards, I had some questions related to my position to ask you," I said. "I don't mind the informal context so long as you remain honest and professional." 

After all the sooner this was done the better. He had to focus on study.

"Great idea, Sagara!" Tessa exclaimed. "Firstly, I am also interested in the collar."

It was embarrassing this topic had come up so quickly, but it wasn't out of character for my work colleagues. I only had to endure.

 "It's like a sex game," Kurz said.

"Or a toy," Melissa added.

"Or a fashion accessory," Kaname said.  

"I meant it the sexy way," Kurz said with a wink at Kaname, who looked vitriolic. 

"It serves more than one purpose," I acknowledged, "yet I fail to see how it can be sexy."

The candidates were trying not to grin but I ignored them. 

"You don't need to know, Sousuke," Kaname implored.

"But he wants to know," Kurz said. He grinned at me. "Right?"


"Yes," Melissa cackled. 

Kaname buried her crimson face in her hands. 

I placed my hand on her arm from below the table and she did nothing.

"What context did you have in mind?" I asked Kurz. I was adjusting to talking to him about these topics. 

"Collars can be a representation of subservience," Kurz said. "They can be a symbol of ownership."

"What does that have to do with sex?" I asked. 

"You can figure that out on your own," Kurz said. "We should stop traumatizing our guests."

"Yes. We have been terribly rude. I am sorry," Kaname rushed with a bow. 

"Don't worry. No judgement. I am not nervous to talk to Sagara now," Mendez said. 

"I want to talk to him more," Reve said.

"I wasn't expecting this form of entertainment," Celda agreed. 

"We apologize again for allowing our manners to slip," Tessa said. "Our heads are still in holiday season."

"Yep. Us too," Mendez said. 

"Hey, I think he might be improving." Melissa said with wide eyes, staring at me like an animal that learned how to talk, "Nice job, Kaname."

My beloved had deliberately disengaged from the conversation, sitting with her arms crossed and blushing. She didn't say anything, only gave a nod so small it was nearly invisible.

"Sagara, are you feeling unwell?" Reve asked.

I shook my head, yet I was pleased the candidates' presence helped negate a lot of Melissa and Kurz teasing. 

"Thank you for your understanding," I said. "Now onto some questions..."

The conversation stayed deliberately tame after that. Those involved in talking seemed relaxed and respectful of each other. I recirved the information I wanted with ease. 

Once food, drinks and conversation topics had run out, Melissa and Kurz invited the table to clubbing, but as much as I missed my co-workers, Kaname and I politely declined. Tessa also had to go home.

We exchanged pleasantries and went back to the train station, satisfied in the stomach and mind.

"I hope that wasn't too trying of an experience," Tessa said. "Some of the conversation got very inappropriate."

"As uncomfortable as it was at times, it calmed down by the end," I said.

"I was expecting it to get that way," Kaname said, her stride a lot more confident. "I mean, look at who was there! But I still want to kick Melissa and Kurz butts!"

"I'll kick them with you, Kaname!" Tessa said.


The two gave some pretend sparing punches from where they stood and giggled. It was nice to see them getting along rather than being at each other's throats.

"Still…" Tessa said. Slowly, she leaned toward Kaname's ear and whispered. It was still loud enough that I could hear. "I wish the two of you all the best."

"Thank you." Kaname sounded surprised, "By the way, you weren't fooling anyone. I saw you admiring Reve with big googly eyes."

"Hey." The Captain turned red, "Be quiet!"

"With all due respect, ma'am," I began, "It isn't wise to get attached to potential employees."

"Well." Tessa puffed up her chest, looking justified in her opinions, "I was just looking."

"He's the oldest out of all of them," I reminded her.

"Really?!" Kaname's eyes went wide, nearly tripping over her own feet.

"Yes," I said. "27."

"Whoa." It took a few moments for the information to set in. "He was not as largely built as the rest." Kaname observed, "I mean, yeah he had muscles but he wasn't like a hunk of guy. Short, too. Reve looked like he'd fit in right at home as a waiter in Takeshita street."

"He wasn't that much taller than me," Tessa said, still trying to rationalize.

"But wait…" Kaname said.

"What?" Tessa jumped.

"Do you think he's gay?"

"Gay?!" Tessa sounded outraged and horrified, "No, Ryung-kun can't be!"

"With all due respect, Captain.'

"Oh, SHUT UP, Sagara!" Tessa snapped.

"Ryung-kun." Kaname sniggered. "Just wait until Sagara tells Kurz about that."

"You wouldn't!" Tessa gasped.

"I will respect your privacy, Captain."
"Sousuke!" Kaname shouted.

"Thank you!" Tessa mouthed. "Gosh, do you think he likes boys?"

I cleared my throat.

Tessa ignored me though changed the subject. "Do you have any thoughts of who is most appropriate?"

Kaname peered at me. "I liked Mendez and Reve the best, but I'm only picking favourites in terms of their personalities."

"Sagara, I give you permission to speak."

"Outside of combat, I think Reve would get picked on by Kurz and Melissa in the same way I was."

"Yes, I noticed that too," Tessa said, "Perhaps he isn't the best choice."

"Then you can ask him out!" Kaname said heartily, "if he isn't partially gay."

"Don't say such things, Kaname!" Tessa gasped, "In all seriousness, personality wise I think Mendez or Celda would work nicely with Mao and Weber. Of course, I will ask their opinions too. What do you think, Sagara?"

"If it is at all possible, I would like to take them on a small mission and see their skills in action," I said.

"Great idea. I will pass this by Weber and Mao."

"You don't have to reject the others outright, do you?" Kaname asked in a small voice, "I mean, they seem pretty cool. Doesn't Mithril have any other spare jobs?"

"I don't know, Kaname." Tessa sighed, "I can investigate. In all likelihood the ones who aren't chosen will get merit points, so they can more easily get a job in Mithril when it becomes available."

"I would make sure you do," Kaname replied. "Unless you want to see your precious Ryung-kun cry."

"Don't be so foolish." Tessa stared at Kaname, "He's a grown man."

"Yes, a cute one too." Kaname agreed, "Adults cry, just not where you could see him. He probably keeps it all bottled up inside like Sousuke does."

Tessa brought a hand to her mouth, "Sagara! Has Kaname made you cry?"

I sighed.

Chapter Text

In twenty four hours Kaname and I would return to Jindai High and surround ourselves with students that didn't seem like they were really there. Most of the boys and girls knew we were involved in the terrorist attack last year, but I could count on my hand those who knew why.

One day remained without judgmental stares. Many students had thought were held back for being lazy. I was accustomed to scrutiny, but Kaname was not. When missions took priority it didn't matter. Now I would grasp the full pressure to excel in Japan's education system.

There was one day left of freedom. 

When Kaname told me to leave my note book at home, part of me was skeptical. If I read it on the train I could revise concepts before I was flooded with information from other subjects.

"Trust me, Sousuke," she said.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

Day time karaoke was our first official date. At least, that's what Kaname said. I didn't see why a label mattered.

As we sat on the train and navigated our way past the labyrinth of streets, I was not sure how I felt, although I liked how happy Kaname was. She often noticed small details in the environment that I didn't.

"Hurray! We made it," she said, pulling on my arm. "Now the bigger question! How long should we stay?"

My beloved's smile was so exuberant it made the man behind the counter grin as well, slightly embarrassed.

"Long enough that I can forget about my school work," I replied.

"Three hours it is!"

We walked into a private room which blocked out sound from other customers. Even if it was preferable to a public setting, it was still unfamiliar. Kaname sang first, as I didn't want to perform on my own.

After some negotiating we sang together. Focusing on the lyrics screen wiped my mind clean of political theory.

Mid way through the rendition of 'Like Yesterday' Kaname's voice dropped out. I thought her microphone was broken until she smiled during an instrumental section and said, 'Well done, Sousuke. I knew you could sing on your own.'

She had been lip syncing.

We entered the apartment, emotionally drained, almost forgetting the reason we had organized a date in a first place. If we were sticking to the original plan, my girlfriend was going to educate me on the more sensual aspects of her body.

After removing our jackets and scarves, we keeled over onto the bed, exhausted. For a good minute there were no sounds in the room but our breathing.

"I believe you had a plan in mind, Kana-chan?"

"Oh yeah, I was gonna do that, wasn't I?"

I waited.

"Sit up on the floor," she said, scrambling onto my sleeping bag. She positioned her legs carefully under her knees.

"Like this?" I asked, doing the same. We looked like we were rehearsing a tea ceremony.

"How do you expect to do anything when you're a mile away?" Kaname said. "You're not scared to sit opposite me, are you?"

Swiftly, I followed her request and Kaname placed her hands firmly on my shoulders.

"I can see you've given it some thought, Kana-chan." 

"Yeah, of course!" Kaname wiggled her knees closer to mine. "I tried imagining I was a circus performer. They visualize their acts for hours to prepare, ya know?"

We were inches apart now.

"It does not strike me as sexual so far," I remarked.

Kaname laughed. "That's cause we haven't started, pretty snail."


"Here's my idea."

My girlfriend explained how she wanted us to mirror each other. Kaname would take the lead and I would follow, mimicking every movement of hers.

"That sounds reasonable." I nod, although I noticed the wary look in her eyes. "Are you sure you don't want to rest first?"

"No, they'll be plenty of time for that after." 

"You make it sound like it will be difficult."

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" Kaname joked. "Not exactly, though I'm relieved my idea makes sense to you. I was really worried it wouldn't actually." She sighed. "Just tell me if anything is too weird."

"Likewise, Kana-chan."

"I'll move really slowly so it'll be easy to copy. Any suggestions?"

"I do have one." 

"What's that?"

I hesitated. "Could you look into my eyes for as long as you can?"

"Like… nothing but your eyes? Aa-haha…" Kaname laughed nervous, "That's a curious request, even for you. Why is that?"

"I just think it would be interesting."

"I mean…. It'll probably make me feel weird."

"If you really cannot handle it," I added, "Look at my mouth or shut your eyes."

"I can shut my eyes?"

"But please try to stay with me. I want to be able to look at you."

"Alright!" Kaname gulped, "I'll do my best. I can't say I get it… b-but I'll forgive you only if you do the same for me!"

"Understood, senpai."

"Okay, so…." Already, Kaname's face flushed and her gaze is timid, but she kept her eyes on mine, "I can't really see what I'm doing but I'm going to take off your shirt. You can do the same for me in a moment."

Very slowly, I feel Kaname's fingers clumsily touch the sides of my ribs where my shirt was and slowly pulled it off over my raised arms. I felt slightly self-conscious from all the walking we had done today and wished I could have showered.

Next, it was my turn. My body tensed as I accidentally brushed the outlines of her bra, but as per my rules, I kept my eyes on Kaname as my fingers slowly crept down to the seams and pulled it off. Kaname grinned and shut her eyes.

"Are you alright?"

"Looking at your eyes for that long is really intense," she explained.

"You don't like it?"

"It feels like I'm stepping into a volcano. Have you ever felt like that?"

"I don't think so," I admited. "It would kill me."

She laughed and awkwardly reached out a finger. I felt her nail collide with my neck. "Can you put this on your collarbone?"

"Of course."

Smiling at her was a mistake I couldn't help. We repositioned ourselves.

Slowly in time with Kaname's single finger I brought mine to the center of her collarbone and lowered it further. To the left I touched her breast and the contour of a bra. My face grew hot and I shut my eyes. On myself, Kaname's finger reached my nipple and I was at a loss of what to do.

"Over or…?" I asked.

"Over," Kaname answered.

I inhaled unevenly, and in time to her, rotated the tip of my finger around where I could only guess her nipple must be through her undergarment.

I heard a click and we temporarily halted to accommodate Kaname taking off her bra. I held my breath and peered at her mouth while I brushed the surface of her nipple, which perked up.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, although her voice was breathless and weak like in high altitude.

"I'm not sure," I admitted, trying to concentrate on the emotional upheaval from watching her and having my left nipple played with. 

"Good or bad?"


But it wasn't as simple as 'good' either. It felt stronger than the last time we experimented, like someone was pumping me of a drug, warping my senses and disorientating me.


Kaname let out a strange noise, and said, "Hot."

"Me too." 

I stayed as silent as I could, my breath coming in waves. Kaname shut her eyes. I watched her, hoping they would open. I wanted to understand. Suddenly, Kaname pinched my skin and I gasped.

"Pain?" she checked.


I do the same to her. Kaname bit her lip.

"Does it hurt?" I asked. 

Kaname's eyes opened. "Y-Yes."

Her pupils dilated as our gaze met and my attraction only intensified the longer we held it. I wanted to kiss her. Oh god, I wanted to do more than that, although I didn't know what. I felt like I had been standing in a sauna for hours and no longer knew what was the ceiling or the floor.

"You're beautiful, Kana-chan," I murmured, sighing as Kaname's meddlesome finger crept down. Doing the same for my girlfriend, I realized how fervid I had felt while being gratified. If Kaname went down she would be able to feel with her hands how…

"Kana-chan…" I began, "I am quite nervous about you going much further. I would feel a lot better if you could stop."

"T-That's fine." Kaname's hand stopper at my belt. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…"

"Don't apologize," I assured her. "What is important is that you listened."

"Okay." My beloved looked more confident when she looked at me. "This part wouldn't really work with you trying to copy me anyway."

"Shall I proceed?"

"Yes. I want you to," Kaname said. "Keep your eyes up here while I make an adjustment or two."

I averted my gaze while she unzipped her skirt and slipped off her underwear. Despite my efforts, the corner of my eyes caught a blur of the clothing color. Resuming her place Kaname leaned back and spread her knees apart.

"Can I take your hand?" she requested, to which I obliged. Languidly, she guided my fingers to within the soft confides of her pubic hair. With the delicacy of assembling a card pyramid, she let go of my hand so she could stay balanced.

For a brief moment it struck me of how exposed she was and yet we were both calm. I shook with anticipation to break the rules and look down, but a small smile formed on Kaname's lips. I couldn't hide. I had never found a smile or even clothing seductive before, yet now I was besotted.  

"You want to look, don't you?" She checked.

It wouldn't matter if I said anything. She already knew the answer. Still trembling, I nodded, peering at her mouth.

"Not just yet." She tapped the top of my palm. "Tell me what you know about what's down there. I think that's a good place to start."

Peering at her dilated pupils I wondered if she was truly ready for this. Had the outgoing Kaname gotten carried away somehow?

Urging my mind to focus, she mouthed the word 'please' in perfect clarity.

I mouthed back, 'I love you', and she looked as though someone had told her a complicated mathematical theorem, blank with astonishment.

I closed my eyes and slid my fingers down. Immediately Kaname conveyed eagerness, even if she stayed perfectly still and her voice was even.

My fingers inundated with fluid. I took a lot of care not to lose composure as a rush of light headedness overcame me. I used my fingers to split apart the folds of skin, gently prodding and labeling each spot as I did so, explaining what I remembered about their mechanisms, while the bouquet raptured and amplified my senses.

My knowledge wasn't much. Kaname, however, seemed pleased. 

"You nearly got everything right. Look." 

My brain was wiped of words as Kaname gently guided my fingers to a  small, easy to miss nodule behind where the folds met at the front. Intrigued, Kaname told me the name; although I couldn't say I had ever heard of it before. My hand shook within hers.

"Should I…"

I couldn't figure out the word I wanted – pleasetouch or help came to mind.

"I want you to" 

I was unnerved by Kaname fixated on my groin, which was making its excitement known.

"Kana-chan…" I mumbled, slightly degraded. "I apologize if I have alarmed you."

"I'm sorry I didn't ask to look. My eyes just wandered. I know there's no excuse. Please forgive me."

"I will for now, although I'd like to leave my thoughts until later. Please tell me what you'd like me to do, senpai."

"Oh, right." Kaname suddenly remembered. "It is very sensitive area. Go as gentle as you can."

I used my finger with the shortest nail and carefully moved a millimeter, like a watercolor painter trying to convey a light shade as a single brush stroke. My body erupted in exhilaration as I tried to imagine its appearance.

Kaname used one of her free hands to lightly trace a pattern into the dorsal surface of my other hand. "Copy me."

 It did not take long to get a response by copying her movements. Soon she hid her face behind the masses of her hair and moaned, the voice unlike her own.

"Are you well, Kana-chan?" I asked, hoping it wasn't a stupid question.

"Ha! Ha!" Kaname's laugh did not ring with the same explosive energy it was known for. "I – I am doing very well, thank you. I've never been better! Please ignore my – uh…."

She slipped on one of her elbows.

"How about you lie down?" I suggested. 

"Good idea. I mean, sitting up like this is really uncomfortable after a while." As she lowered herself onto her back, she poked me with one of her toes. "Sheesh, you can look. This will make us even for me breaking the rules."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes! I'm not that nervous…. not anymore, anyway."

As I beheld the full extravagance of her naked form, I wondered if I could kill an infection with the high temperatures soaring through my veins. Kaname had been right, the area I was rousing with my fingers was structurally deviant from what I saw in magazines, but it was close to the picture I conjured in my head a moment ago. All in all, the details of a woman's body retained an enigmatic charm, one that was a spectacle to me. 

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I like it."

"Don't be so coy. There must be parts you don't like about me, right?" she challenged. "Like maybe something is too big or small?"

"You look perfect the way you are."

Kaname's lip trembled and I wondered if she was going to call me a liar, but she closed her eyes with a whisper of, "Thanks."

As though drifting in and out from a dream, her eyelids fluttered open and closed at unpredictable times. My beloved's fingers twitched and her moans reminded me of my own thrilled anguish. I felt privileged and incredibly woozy to witness her. Although I slipped frequently, the momentum was not lost. In bliss she moved to the power of my devotion, her ribcage expanding and contracting rhythmically. I had rarely seen breathing in such detail. I counted her ribs and marveled at her hair elegantly spread over the sleeping bag as her back gradually arched. 

When she moaned, I wanted to express my joy for her happiness, but I wasn't sure how, or even if that would be acceptable. Too lost in the sensation Kaname didn't even try to cover herself anymore. I couldn't decide if the act was more beautiful or strange, much like a surrealistic painting that had one thousand interpretations. She gasped my name so quietly it was almost inaudible and her vocal pitch changed. The movement became so frantic and chaotic I worried I'd cut her with one of the rigid edges of my nails, though if I had she didn't say.

Heartbeat racing, I became alert to my name being repeated in rapid succession four times.

"What is it, Kana-chan?" 

"I want to show you… something." She muttered, finally opening her eyes again. I simultaneously felt inspired and morally crushed by her unfamiliar expression.

"What is it?" 

The mischievousness in Kaname's smile made my body hurt. "Do you wanna put your fingers inside?"

"I... if you would like me to."

It turned out my nails were not sufficiently filed, and so Kaname showed the angle required with her hand. 

I watch terrified and euphoric as Kaname slipped two fingers inside her and rocked her hips. Her toes curled erratically, something that made me unwillingly moan. I felt like I had been plunged under boiling water. Restricted by clothes, I felt immense pain from my erection and was tempted to remove my clothes, damn it all. Unbidden, Kaname's legs appeared to spasm. Her muscles tensed for three seconds, before going limp, and she groaned. It took a moment until I realized her peak had been reached. 

Now it was over, I thought clearly enough to decide what I wanted. Loosening my belt, I poked her lightly on the arm. "I want to lie on top of you. Can I?"

Kaname sounded like she had a head cold. "Yeah." 

I gently removed my belt, placed it to one side and gently climbed over her legs, positioning myself over her. "Thank you, senpai." 

"Thank you for… following instructions." Kaname said. "I'll remember…. About…"

Missing what was said, I lowered my torso to her breasts and kissed her, pressing my hips against hers. The two of us emitted sounds of longing, though my body continued to ache.

Kaname seemed to know what I was thinking.

"You don't need to be shy, Sousuke," she said with a half grin.

Before I could respond, Kaname wrapped her legs around my hips and pressed her heels into my backside, forcing myself forward. I jerked in surprise as I was constrained to her naked body. 

"Are you alright, Sousuke?" She said, kissing me gently on the mouth. "I like this."

Sweat I didn't know was there dripped onto Kaname's chest. I felt terrified, yet the fear was offset by a more powerful urge to combine our bodies together.

"I don't know," I confessed. "I've never felt like this before. I feel so much. I don't know what it means."

Kaname stroked my back. "Its okay, Sousuke," she coaxed. "You're safe. Did I push you too close?"

"N-no." I stuttered, "I am just overwhelmed and I wasn't expecting it."

 My consciousness regressed to when I intuitively understood the inevitability of death, and the nihilistic truth that the universe was so large that individual suffering was meaningless. 

Kaname paused. "Do you remember the song we sang at Karaoke?"

"Parts of it."

"Tell me the words."

I took a deep breath and searched my memory.

"Even on starless nights I'm by your side," I repeated as though reading in class, "It seems like yesterday. You found my wandering heart and reached out to me. Erm... I don't know if that was right. I felt lost. I was afraid of losing you. So I accepted my weakness and cried... when I touched your hand. I only remember those lines because it reminded me of when I felt I had lost you, when Leonard had you in his disgusting grasp. I remember how often I thought about being close to you. Now I am. It almost seems like it isn't real." 

"I know what you mean," Kaname admitted. "For such a simple rock ballad, it brings back harsh memories. But... we don't have to think about those bad times anymore. I don't want to." 

"Neither do I." 

"Well done on remembering the words," Kaname said. "I thought you might calm down if you focused on something else."

I took a shuddering breath. "I am feeling at ease. Thank you." 

Relieved, I buried my face near her neck. I was still incredibly uncomfortable by my desire to be inside her, but it was a far less urgent feeling. It wouldn't destroy me. Kaname was right. We were both safe here. 

For a brief moment, I imagined entering her and having her move beneath me, saying my name in a desperate mumble like she had moments before. Combining theory and experience in my mind created a cataclysm of such magnitude that I wanted to scream. Instead, I moved with her. Still covered, I pressed my hardened groin against her slickness in a rhythm, as if we were making love.

"Sousuke?" Kaname pushed me closer with her ankles, holding me tighter in her arms.

She didn't seem offended. She didn't question. She accepted and embraced it. 

As though it was real, we moved against each other, our pleasure the same, keeping desperately close… the fabric pulling and rubbing on my erection in such a way that I rapidly felt pressure building. I grunted into her neck, craving release. 

My beloved kissed me, deeply and longingly. I returned the intensity. 

Nonetheless, there was no end to the anguish of needing her. Colors blinking before my eyes, I disengaged. My insides hurt as much as my passion did.

I was embittered and angered at myself. I wish I knew how to feel as comfortable as Kaname did without clothes on.  

Chapter Text

As I removed the last of my clothing, the crisp air does not meet my skin. The water crashing against the tiles was as vicious as my mind was adventurous. It had to stop. I needed to be me again.

I stepped in the shower and suppressed a groan as icy water hit me.

I visualised the numerous snakes or snipers I'd escaped in the jungle, the landmines that obliterated villagers as I skidded for cover. I remembered their broken bones, so small it was impossible to guess what part of the body they'd come from, the acrid stench of burnt flesh and gunpowder… 

I closed my eyes, recalling the soft skin underneath me and the alluring sounds from my lover as she said my name.


I was on such an emotional high that it was near impossible to think about death or tragedy. Guilt punished me, for I was doing war victims a disservice and insulting their memory.


Not only were the violent memories lacking any emotive power, I didn't want to think about them. Kaname's strong, complete figure was lovelier.

I tensed. Were these the desires of a lecherous male?


My fists tightened and loosened as my body ceased to tremble. I couldn't feel the water or my skin anymore, and yet I still longed for touch.


For the first time in my life I felt like I could relate to the perverted stereotype of a man. There she was, no matter what I did, sneaking into my mind like an unwelcome stranger. How I wished I could extract the feelings from my mind and pour them down the drain like discarding poison.

I shuddered more erratically and looked down. My toes had changed color from vasoconstriction. My erection had somewhat deflated but it was not enough to think rationally.

Could I do what I had done in the submarine after reading Kurz magazines?

There was little choice. My usual coping mechanism wasn't working.

I pretended Kaname wasn't on the other side of the door as I grasped my length in my timid hand, my fingers so numb I could barely feel the skin.

Are you really going to resort to such a shallow means of self-indulgence? Said a cruel voice in my head.

There was no shame in feeling this way. Kaname and Kurz said it was healthy and normal.

Feeling less self-condemning, I adjusted the water. When the temperature turned to lukewarm the sensations in my skin slowly return like a spill soaking into a towel.

I lifted the skin in my hand and increased the pressure in increments. My thoughts wrestled between what I thought I should think, and what I really wanted to think.

My temperature normalized and with it comes a rush of pleasure. The water gushes down onto the tiles with such force that I hardly heard my moan. It felt even better than the other time.

With some effort, a splitting image of the naked Kaname appeared in my mind, every detail brought to life. She blushed. 

'I can't believe I'm seeing this.' she said, 'I mean, it's a good thing, really. I've just never seen someone do that in real life.'

I didn't stop to consider the fact that maybe Kaname had seen adult films or magazines, but it didn't really matter. Nearly bursting with need, I imagined prying open her legs and placed my fingers inside as demonstrated. The sounds of her pleasure were clear. I couldn't quite envisage what the inside would feel like, only that it would be slimy.

My breathing weakened as I got closer to release, shower water dripping into my mouth. I only had to picture entering her and that was enough to send my head reeling.

I nearly fainted from the force of my body rejecting its pent up desire, the sound extended and uneven. Finally, an orgasm. The skin was chaffed and sore. 

I watched dazed, not truly believing, as the evidence of my depravity washes down the drain from between my splayed fingers.

It was better this way.

When I walked back out into the room, body and hair damp, Kaname was reading her manga again. She was close to finishing it. 

"You didn't feel like a bath?" she asked. 

Still unable to form words, I shook my head.

"I didn't think you were the type to have long showers. Wasting water, inefficiency and all that…"

There was a pregnant pause. "I needed to clear my head." I said plainly.

I sat down onto the sleeping bag which had a lingering smell, although it didn't evoke any sexual feelings in me. When I looked back into her face, I couldn't tell if she was pouting, intensely muddled or simply triumphant that she had figured something out.

"I'll have a short shower then."

Snapping her book shut, my beloved left to disrobe, although I got the impression that the conversation had ended prematurely.

As though it had been timed to prevent me from eating, my phone rang at breakfast the next morning. Not only did we have school, but Kaname had organized to speak to Miss Kagurazaka thirty minutes before class started.

"Sagara, I'd like to update you on what we're doing with the replacements," Tessa's said through the speaker.

"Go ahead, Captain."

I stuffed some rice into my mouth while Kaname shot me an exasperated look, slurping her miso in a hurry.

"I understand that you may not be happy with my decision," the Captain sounded hesitant, "but I gave it a lot of thought and I think it is for the best."

"What is it?" I asked, feeling slightly cautious.

"To assist with making final decisions and training, Mao and Weber will take Celda, Reve and Mendez on the mission. They leave tomorrow."

This was a surprise. "I thought you had agreed that I could accompany them, Captain."

"Your original request was that you would only join the special response team if there was no other way." she said, "Since we will have five on the mission, even if three will be receiving some Mithril training, I thought to honour your instructions."

"Roger." It made sense. "You made the right decision, Captain."

Now she had finished her soup, Kaname scoffed down her rice at top speed.

"I still value your input, Sagara," Tessa continued, "so I sent a Military Photographer with them. He will record their interactions so you will be able to see it with Kaname afterwards and assess their performance."

"Understood, ma'am." I nodded, feeling more confident now, "I'm delighted to hear I will still be able to contribute to the assignment."

"I'm glad you think so, Sagara." Tessa sounded pleased, "I look forward from hearing you again. How is your studying going?"

"On schedule." I noted, "Do you have any details on the style of questions in my examination?"

"Yes, that's very important." Tessa remembered, "I will double check and let you know."

"Hey," Kaname began, holding out a hand, "Let me talk to her. Finish breakfast and then we can start walking to the station."

I gave my thanks to Tessa and passed Kaname the phone, picking up my bowl of rice.

"Yeah, did you hear from Mao and Kurz about Reve?" she asked. 

That's right, Mao and Kurz had taken the new recruits out drinking. I heard the soft buzzing from the Captain's reply.

"No way! That sounds pretty suspicious to me," Kaname mumbled, "I guess if he doesn't get the job you can just tell him how you feel? It wouldn't be that bad, trust me."

My girlfriend told me on the way to the train station that she was giving Tessa romance advice in regard to Reve. I reminded her that Tessa should not behave romantically around employees, and Kaname said, 'Yeah, that's the whole point of me helping her! I mean, would you rather she was going ga-ga over you?"

Feeling both were terrible ideas, I shook my head. "You make a reasonable point. Thank you for keeping an eye on the Captain."

Kaname smiled.

It was strange walking through the gates of Jindai High again. 

Kaname and I went straight to Miss Kagurazaka's office and waited outside. She was drinking a coffee and looking through emails when we caught a glimpse of the room.

"Good morning you two!" the English teacher said with a smile. I was surprised to feel great warmth when her eyes met mine.

"Thank you for seeing me so early in the morning," Kaname said with a small bow, "I hope it wasn't too much trouble."

The lady gestured it away, "I get here early anyway. Need to get my brain ready." Miss Kagurazaka peered at me, "Would you like to sit in as well?"

"I don't believe that will be helpful."

"I'll see you after, Sousuke," Kaname said with a wave, answering the question for me. "Enjoy the extra reading time."

Pleased that my beloved was receiving quality support, I entered the classroom with peace of mind. Nagamine's hair had grown even longer since I last saw her. By some uneven strands, I suspected she cut her own hair like I did.

"Sagara-kun!" she exclaimed. 

"Naga-chan." I replied. 

I sat next to her, having the liberty to choose at this hour of the morning, and took out my notebook. Our forms of address were strange combinations of formal and informal speech. After much pestering I only agreed to let the girl use 'kun' on the assumption she attached it to my last name.

"You look really cold today," she said.


"Yeah, like someone just put snow down your back."

"They didn't."


I opened my notebook and stared at it.

"That's a new book," Nagamine pointed out.

"I have begun vocational studies with a private tutor," I half lied.

"Whoa! I should get a tutor."

"Do you think so?"

Besides Kaname, the outcast Nagamine was one of the only students I could hold a conversation with in these cohort of third years.

"I like your hair." Nagamine said, "What products do you use?"

"I rarely use products in my hair at all, only on Kaname's insistence. Your hair is neat."

The girl had a correctional device in her mouth, so I always wondered if she groomed her hair and did her make up with such vigour to try drawing attention away from it.

"Where's Kana-chan?" Nagamine asked. 

"I call her Kana-chan now." I told her. "We started dating."

"That's so weird."

"In rare instances," I admit.

"Does that mean you're infected?"

"No." I responded.

I could guess the intention behind what Nagamine was saying. When I had told my colleagues about Nagamine, Mao had said the student may have been sexually or physically abused in the institution. I had never talked to her about it, but having this knowledge allowed me to pick up inconsistencies in her stories with more certainty. They were planted deliberately like mines, although the 'why' was unclear to me.

"Are you infected?" I questioned slowly. A number of other classmates stepped into the room so she was the only one that heard.

Nagamine blushed. "Hey, we should go on a double date." She said, like I asked something completely different.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" 

"I do! I've had tons of boyfriends."

I suspected a lie. "Does he go to a different school?"

"Yeah, he goes to one on the other side of Tokyo. The distance between us was such a pain we broke up. He doesn't talk to me anymore."
"I see."

The story didn't make sense.

Due to the warped nature of the conversation, I was slightly relieved when Kaname arrived in the room followed shortly by the teacher.

I leaned towards Kaname's table at lunch, having eaten my bento box. 

"How was your discussion with Miss Kagurazaka?" I asked her.

My girlfriend finished swallowing a cherry tomato before answering. "Good. We talked about my Dad a lot. I just couldn't think about me until I'd done being angry at him. Do you know what I mean?"

"I think so." I said, although I only had a vague idea, "Did she give you any career advice?"

"Yeah, she gave me a bunch of pamphlets and stuff, lists of Universities." Kaname shrugged, " I have a couple of ideas of areas I want to study, after all, but I'm not completely sure on which one to pick yet. Miss Kagurazaka doesn't think my repeating a year should get in the way. She said she would write a reference for me, explaining how good of a student I am and that I had been victim of a terrorist attack, and said I could ask the doctor about getting something as well."

"You told her about the Doctor?"

"It just sort of came up. She was so nice to me I couldn't not tell her."

 "I am very happy that Miss Kagurazaka was so kind to you."

Why did I feel so ill?

"What's your doctor's name?" Nagamine butt in from next to me, "Does the last name start with an L? Maybe it's the same one I go to."

"Nah." Kaname waved the suggestion away, not meeting the girl's eyes.

"What are you planning to do after graduation?" I asked Nagamine, hoping to change the subject.

"I just want to work so I can be independent," she said, one of the only statements she said in a calm, rational tone. "Tell me about how you guys got together!"

Kaname chewed on her food quite loudly in response, so I explained instead.

"By the way," Kaname explained after school, as we head toward the gates, "I have to head to my Doctor's appointment. Wanna come?"

I didn't realize the date was so soon, although perhaps I should have guessed from a conversation last night. 

"Oh, I want to, Kana-chan! Let me, please!" Nagamine said cheerfully, pattering behind us like a lost puppy.

Kaname's jaw tensed. "Hey, I don't mean to be rude or anything. I know you don't have any friends. I get how much that sucks, trust me, but could you leave us alone for like five minutes? I mean, don't you have anything better to do than follow us around?"

"I have lots of friends!" Nagamine protested, as though Kaname was delusional, "You should feel happy I'm spending time with you. Everyone else just isn't worthy of my attention."

"Where are they? On the internet?" Kaname challenged. As cruel as her tone was, I could see she was holding back worse insults.

We were out of school territory now and heading toward the station.

"They're just far away." Nagamine assured, going pink, "I don't need you! I can go hang out with them instead."

"Please do!" Kaname shouted, losing all reservations, "I'd love to talk to my boyfriend once today! And like I've said before, stop calling me Kana-chan! You're not my friend!"

Her rage which had probably bottled up over the entire academic term was unleashed in an uncomfortable burst. I watched downtrodden at Nagamine's angry expression. It vanished fast. Like she'd been given anaesthetic, her expression went blank and she walked toward me like Kaname was a snake.

"You're my friend, right Sagara-kun?" she said in a falsely casual voice.

"I appreciate your company." I said, not sure I wanted to call her a 'friend' either.

By the time the school day was over I was so exhausted I needed the entire evening to recover from her bundle of energy. The answer seemed to please Nagamine, though.

"What a relief! Well, if Kaname is going to the Doctor maybe we can go get ice cream somewhere."

"Don't call me Kaname either!" my girlfriend interrupted, "Seriously. You have no respect for others! Who the hell taught you manners?!"

"Sagara-kun isn't going to the Doctor with you!" Nagamine shouted.

"He didn't say that!" Kaname shot back.

"Quiet down!"

I was the one who shouted this time, and the two girls stared at me.

The train station was getting closer. We would have to depart soon.

"I won't go with either of you," I said firmly. "Not until you can speak calmly to each other."

"But it's her fault!" Kaname protested. 

I glared at the two of them. "If placing blame is all you care about you're missing the point."

We made our way up the escalator to the station. Nagamine had gone deathly quiet, how she had appeared before she'd first spoken to me, and Kaname was still outraged.

"Maybe it's a good thing you're not coming with me. You obviously can't deal with other people's feelings!"

Part of me was inclined to apologize, but I didn't. Not a word exited my mouth, not until Nagamine's hand pulled on my scarf as we reached the top of the escalator. I turned to look at her. The girl looked fairly uncomfortable.

"What is it?" I asked her.

Nagamine merely tugged on my scarf and let go. "Thank you for your time today."

To Kaname and I's amazement she bowed and turned to exit the station. My girlfriend gave a brief word of farewell and departed onto the train going in the opposite direction.

I heard from her on the rush hour train when she showed up on Caller ID. I answered my phone in a hushed tone.


"What the heck was that? Why didn't you take my side? I'm your girlfriend!" her voice was straining to keep the volume low through the phone. I waited a good five seconds after she's stopped fuming before I answered.

"I don't think you treated Naga-chan fairly."

"Shut up," Kaname snapped, "You don't need to treat her like a baby. She's taller than half the girls in the class! She's the same age as any third year."

I hesitated, choosing my words carefully. "Despite how she looks, she behaves like she is quite… fragile."

"Ha! Fragile. What a joke." Kaname gave a small chuckle, "since when do you notice stuff like that? I thought you would have told her to stop bugging you before I did."

"That may have been the case when I first arrived at Jindai High." I admitted, "But I'm not the same person."

There was a pause in which I heard the rumbling of the train carriages. 

"I guess not," Kaname agreed. "But it just seems unusual for you to notice how weird she is. You were that dopey when I first met you."

"I suppose you could say I've developed more empathy," I said, finally.

"Whatever you want to call it, I just… she should be going to a Doctor too!"

"I think she may already have a Doctor," I pointed out.

"There's no way to know. Half the stuff that comes out of her mouth is crazy! I mean she talks all the time about her strange family members, but we know she doesn't have parents."

I paused. Kaname was right. "Do you think I should ask her directly about it?"

"Look, she's not my friend." Shesaid briskly, "Do what you want, but don't let her pressure you into doing anything you don't want to."

"You should have held your tongue after asking her to leave us alone." I advised, remembering the original purpose of the conversation. "Everything after that was unnecessary."

My beloved groaned, "Okay, you have a point. To me, she crossed a line butting into our personal lives. It really bugged me, but I'm sorry. I'll keep it in mind for future."

"I appreciate it, Kana-chan." 

I realized then that perhaps Nagamine was my friend, a very emotionally unhinged, fatiguing one, but a friend none the less.

"When you talk to her, you have this kindness in your eyes like she's your daughter or something," Kaname said, interpreting my silence as an invitation to speak, "even though she's basically the same height as you. It's really funny. Have you noticed that?"

"No, I didn't." 

There was a long pause.

"Sometimes, I think it's really cute," she said, "If for some reason we ever had kids, I think you'd be a way more patient parent than I ever could be."

My heart lurched in my chest at her words, although I couldn't figure out why I was so flattered.

After a few moments, I realized I liked that she had considered the future, at least in some capacity, and I was involved.

"Thank you," I finished, not sure what else to say.

I repositioned the way I was standing on the train as it slowed down at the next station.

Chapter Text

I received a phone call from Melissa after I'd washed my dishes from dinner.

"The Captain already updated me on the situation," I said after introductions. 

"I bet you're jealous!" Mao jeered.

"Yes." I said. There was no point denying it.

"Do you want to hear about my night out with the candidates?"

I didn't answer. Was this going to be a crude story?

Mao knew me too well, and started explaining anyway. As it turned out, the candidates had rather colourful love lives. Martinez seemed to have an on-and-off relationship with one of the other men in the base. She'd also received a lot of suggestive glances from a staff member, although 'he's so polite the most he'd said was he liked my eyes.' 

"She denies it, but I bet she likes him." said Mao.

Next was Celda. He had one long distance girlfriend and was otherwise not interested in relationships, preferring to focus on work. Despite this, he had been seen eyeing off girls in the night club.

"Reve hardly said anything," Mao said, "He was brought up to think sex was dirty so he has had a few romantic relationships. One night stands came later in life, he said." After a pause she inquired, "What do you think about all this, Sousuke?" 

I then realized why the woman had brought up the topic in the first place. She wanted to know about Kaname and I.

"I don't think anything of it."

It was the truth, and I had little intention to elaborate on the subject. We spoke about the mission tomorrow, organized to go drinking when my replacement had been chosen and hanged up.

Kaname returned quite late, an hour after I had washed. She had dinner on the way home and was exhausted. I looked up from the ebook reader on my sleeping bag.

"The appointment was good," she explained, lying over the bed in a heap, "I talked a lot and filled out three papers. We start treatment next week."

"I am very pleased to hear that."

We didn't speak again until after Kaname bathed, changed and brushed her teeth.

"Hey," she began, as she slid under the bed covers. "I know it's a personal question, but did you plan on telling me why you got so embarrassed and freaked out last night? I mean, if I'm not prying."

I put down my ebook reader and stared at the sleeping bag cover. I had pondered this during the commute to Jindai High. While I wasn't entirely certain, I stayed with the only theory I was confident with. "I have seen sex portrayed in a very negative light. As such, I find my body does not agree with it."

"Not agree? You mean it makes you sick?"

"In layman's terms, yes."

My beloved peered blankly at me, slightly confused.

"Well… Don't kill me, but I asked the Doctor about that to see what she thought."

Kaname paused, gaging my reaction.

"Is that information kept private?" I clarified.


"Then continue."

"She thought that it might be a type of anxiety. It usually happens for people around our age if they've been abused and stuff. From what I told her about you, she said she wasn't surprised."

"Did she give any recommendations for treatment?" I asked. Now I thought about it, I was very lucky Kaname had cared enough to ask.

"She said you deal with it kind of like phobias," She said, "but if that doesn't work, she said you should go see a specialist."

I tensed my jaw. "I get embarrassed enough talking about this with you."

"Y-Yeah." Kaname gave a nervous laugh, "That's what I said too. That's the only reason why she told me about the phobia treatment. I looked it up on my phone. We could try it together sometime if you want."

"Good idea," I agreed, "T-Thank you for your kindness."

"It was nothing, I swear. I mean, we're both kind of messed up, aren't we?"

She waited, sensing something was wrong. As much as I wanted to pretend nothing was, I couldn't anymore.

"There is something I have been meaning to speak to you about." I took a deep breath, "I was hoping I could avoid it, but I think it will get in the way of treatment. I have been… incredibly worried about something."

"Really?" My girlfriend's eyes widened. "What's that?"

I peered up at her as though pleading for forgiveness "I am cautious. It is a topic I have brought up before."

I hoped she could understand this reference, but she didn't.

"I can't think of what it could be."

"The night we went out to Karaoke, you said I was visualizing too far ahead into the future."

"Huh?" Kaname shuffled in the bed but then her mouth formed a perfect 'O' "Do you mean… um… like all that marriage stuff?"

I couldn't see her face as she finished the sentence, hiding behind her hair.

"Yes," I forced the word out, wiping my palms on my shirt.

"What about it?"

"I…uh…" I gulped. She wasn't going to raise her head. I couldn't figure out if this made it easier or not. "I…. Why were you so distressed?"

Her original reason seemed to be missing something.

"I mean, many girls want to be swept off their feet and get married," Kaname said slowly. "That's kinda the dream. It's not I don't want that… I used to think about it a lot when I was younger. I'd been to other family members weddings before. I thought 'Hey, this seems so nice. I want a cool wedding like that." She pushed some hair out of her face. "When my Mum died, it was as though she took away part of my father with her. He just wasn't the same. Bitter. From then on relationships in general lost their appeal. I mean, you can never predict what will happen."

"I think I understand," I said, "Your family situation changed your perception?"

Kaname sighed. "It probably really stupid. I guess… when you told me you'd thought of it, I immediately worried you'd die, thinking it was history repeating itself. God, that sounds so bad when I say it out loud. Silly, huh?"

She chuckled.

"It isn't." I bit my lip. "I worry about you dying, too."

My girlfriend gave a slow bow. "You are sweet, really. I like that we think similarly about that."

"…about life's fragility?"

"Yes," Kaname said. In the dim light of the bed side table her features appeared warm. "So many people just don't understand. They've never had their lives threatened or completely changed in the snap of a finger. I just… I'd like stability for a while."

I nodded in agreement, wondering if we had lost the meaning of the original conversation.

"Why did you bring this up?" she wondered.

"I don't know."

"Yes, you do. Please try to explain. I think I can handle it."

As unexpected tears threatened to fall, I took a deep breath. "I am not suggesting this as something you need to consider seriously, but…. I think my idea of 'the future' might be sooner than what I initially believed. I'd…" I gulped, and despite my efforts, couldn't look at her. "One day I'd like you to be my wife."

Silence followed. I couldn't bring myself to look up at Kaname for a few seconds, staring at a crease in my sleeping bag, but when I was brave enough I peered over. Her eyes didn't look how I had expected them to. There was no blaring anger or rising of fists. She didn't even prepare to yell at me. The girl's skin was the same faint color, illuminated by the bed lamp.

Kaname brought a hand to her chest as if to steady herself.

"You weren't just fantasizing that night of the party," she muttered. "You're serious."

"Is that wrong?" I interrupted, wanting to defend myself. "I didn't realize at the time…"

"It's not bad," she said, but her lips trembled. "I don't know why. Hearing you say that makes me feel so sad. I mean, I feel happy somewhere inside too, but its somewhere far away and hidden I can't reach. There is so much sadness…. too much to feel happy."

Kaname wiped her eyes and sniffled, as if she'd gotten a sudden runny nose.

"I'm sorry." If I was closer to her on the bed I would hold her hand. "It was bothering me a lot, wondering what you would think."

"I'm so happy I have you. I'm happy you told me," Kaname affirmed, her voice trembling, "That's why it makes me sad."

I didn't understand what she meant and I suspected Kaname didn't either. There was something heartbreaking about the way she was sitting up in my bed, wiping her tears on the covers.

"Are you well enough to sleep?" I asked.

Kaname sniffed, "Y-Yeah. I'll be fine in a second. I just…" Her sobs became louder as many tears burst forth. "Damn it. Why do I feel like this?"

Without another moment of hesitation, I got out of my sleeping bag and walked over to where Kaname was sitting and lightly touched her shoulder. Kaname leaned sideways into me and I ran my fingers through her hair and hummed Ave Maria until the sadness ebbed away.

Kaname apologized to Nagamine the next day for overreacting but insisted she didn't want to be in a situation like that again.

"I only consider the two of you worthy of my attention," the outsider repeats, solemnly, "So I will listen."

She saluted us, something I was told might be a Gundam reference.

I confronted Nagamine after school about her lies on her way to club activities, temporarily confining to an empty classroom. In the dreary winter afternoon there was next to no sun out the window. It made my surroundings eerier than they needed to be.

"Naga-chan," I began, choosing my words carefully, "Ever since I met you I observed you tell stories that are not consistent with each other. I am .... insurmountably curious as to what the purpose of doing this is. Is there something you are trying to tell me?"

Nagamine, oddly, didn't react. There wasn't even a change in expression to indicate she'd heard me.

"Naga-chan," I said again. Like before, there was no response for a number of seconds.

"I really love your scarf," she said finally, "The amazing colors remind me of Harry Potter."

"Thank you," I answered, but I repeated, "Is there something you are attempting to communicate?"

The girl looked out the window as if she hadn't heard. "I sometimes walk into expensive clothing stores and strut around, pretending I'm important. Have you ever done that?"

Not sure my questioning was helping matters, I decided to go along with her off-topic stream of consciousness. "I have never done that."

"It feels so good, almost like I'm at a theme park." Nagamine said, her eyes widening. "Everyone looks at me."

"When I have that many onlookers," I said, "it is usually an indicator that I've done something wrong."

Finally, the girl looked at me with a forlorn face. "I should head to my club room."

Panicking, I grabbed her shoulders and made sure she could not move.

"No, Naga-chan," I say firmly, "I don't think that is wise."

"I'm going to be late for the Broadcasting club!" she yells, pulling against me. Her long hair was almost getting caught in my fingers.

"You won't if you talk."

Nagamine let out a half shriek of frustration and mumbled something, her hair covering her eyes.

"What was that?"

"I don't know how," she whispered.

Feeling shocked, I let go of her as if she was contaminated.

She bowed. "Thank you for your kindness."

Just like that, Nagamine left the room and I followed soon after.

Kaname arrived home in the evening, where I served her food I had cooked. She wasn't overly interested in how my conversation with Nagamine went.

"I called my Dad on the way home," she began slowly.

I sat up so straight the hair on the back of my head might have stood upright as well. "Did it go well?"

"He…" Kaname hesitated, "Living in America has weakened his traditionalist views about marriage and stuff, but he said he wants to meet you."

"When would that be?" I asked, my voice unexpectedly shaky.

"Next New Years, maybe," Kaname didn't seem interested, "He said he'd think about it... Dad wasn't overly surprised. I can't really tell if he approves."

"Does that mean you've thought of your plans for next year?" I wondered.

Kaname shook her head as she chewed on some rice and swallowed, "I told Miss Kagurazaka I'd decide by the end of the week. I'm choosing between two courses. I'm supposed to be preparing for entrance exams and if I don't pick soon I'll fall behind."

"Let me know," I advised.

A number of days passed, a strange blur between reading textbooks, quizzing myself on the material, taking trains, dealing with Nagamine's eccentricities and of course, Kaname. All conversation about anxiety had been dropped for now as the two of us focused on schooling. I learned that Kaname had decided to apply for the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Shinjuku. The curriculum was predominantly in English and with a strong push to do classes in other countries.

Her father would be happy with that. I didn't have much opinion on her choice. What mattered is that she was happy, although I was slightly hopeful that her degree would point her in a similar direction to my own extracurricular studies.

On that evening I picked up a package from the PO Box for my apartment. Inside was a letter.

Dear Seargent Sagara,

I have enclosed the DVD-RW that was created by Mister Kaya, Mithril's military photographer about the mission with Mao, Weber, Celda, Chae and Mendez. He requested that yourself and Miss Chidori wipe the disc afterward and return it to Mithril's West Base to be recycled. Everything you see on the DVD is classified and confidential. You may only discuss the details of the DVD with Mister Kaya, Miss Chidori and myself. The running time is 178 minutes, edited down from five days of content.

Mr Kaya insisted that if you had any feedback about the video production and any questions about the content that you contact him directly.

Please contact me as soon as possible to provide your thoughts about who your replacement should be. The final decision will be done by adding points from the panel. 

Kindest Regards,

Teletha Testarossa

I made a mental note to watch the DVD with Kaname when she returned home.

Chapter Text

The DVD displayed the inside of a brightly illuminated bedroom in the Tuatha de Danaan. I couldn't tell which. Mao and Weber were seated on the bed, with a neatly groomed man in his thirties  between them. The camera was positioned so they all fit comfortably into the frame.

I was surprised I recognized the third man. He had been lurking in the organization, often with an expensive camera hanging around his neck. Sometimes, he varied the model he used. I wasn't certain how long he had been working with Mithril, though he had been there since I was. Like the special response members on either side, the photographer had toned muscles and was alert.

"Hi!" they all waved.

"Let me humbly introduce Kaya-san!" Weber announced wrapping an arm around the photographer. "We've met before. You've done some shots for my magazine, haven't you?"

"Y-Yes, it was an honour." Kaya was grinning sheepishly and gave as much of a bow as he could. "I am very pleased to speak to you from long distance, Master Sagara."

Mao squinted at Kaya. "Master? He's not that important."

"Excuse me. Mister Sagara, then," he corrected.

"Anyway, we'll have plenty of fun together," Mao said assuredly. "It's the afternoon…"

"Do not worry. The date and time will be in the corner of the screen." As Kaya pointed, a small white numerical representation of the date and time became visible.

"We were teaching the little tykes how to play with your big toy, Sousuke," Weber said with a smile.

"Just the basic controls, although Mendez took the longest," Mao added.

"I was secretly hoping they'd do something stupid for a laugh, but there wasn't anything," Kurz said.

"The new recruits are very talented," Kaya said earnestly.

"I expected as much from Tessa and Ben," Melissa said.

"Yeah. Make sure you put together a blooper reel too," Kurz said.

The photographer peered down embarrassed. "It all depends on the footage. I will do my best to create one for your sake, Weber."

"YEAH!" Kurz punched the air.

"Has Mister Sagara been informed on what the mission?" Kaya asked.

My teammates looked at each other.

"I don't think Tessa emailed him," Kurz said slowly.

"Hey, I've got the report in my pocket." Mao pulled out some folded pieces of paper, flattened it out on her knee and held it out in front of the camera. "How's that?"

Kaya hesitated. "Miss, I don't think Mister Sagara will be able to see."

"How about now? Can you see it, Sousuke?!"

The paper was pushed right against the camera although the words blurred.

"No!" Kaya sounded panicked, "Be careful with the tripod. It's very expensive. Just explain it to him."

"Fine." Mao groaned unhappily.

As it turned out the team were on the way to Ningbo, a city in the Zhejiang provenance of China. The University of Nottingham was on high alert after a bomb obliterated the outdoor sports facility.

"It could have been worse," Kurz noted. "The bomb killed a bunch of dudes who were probably out drinking. It went off at 4 am. Not really sure if it was meant to kill anyone."

A number of photos flashed across the screen: a map of the city and the Sports facility before and after the explosion.

"The report through the SPU said the blast had an electromagnetic pulse," Kurz continued, as the trio reappeared on screen, "although the bomb was not nuclear."

"That must mean!" I said abruptly, interrupting the flow of the video.

Kaname jolted upright. "What is it Sousuke?"

With a rush, I paused the DVD. "Electromagnetic radiation only occurrs as a side effect of nuclear bombs, so if the detonation was not nuclear it is a design unheard of."

"Was it Black Technology?" Kaname guessed.

"Yes. It is possible."

"Let's find out."

Kaname hit 'play'.

On screen, Mao peered down at the paper again. "Did you guess it, Sousuke? Yeah, we think there's another Whispered. Seriously…. I thought we were done with this crap."

"How many more Whispered are going to keep cropping up?" Kurz sighed.

I silently agreed.

"Testarossa doesn't actually know who we're looking for yet," Mao finished. "Investigations on campus are ongoing. Our list will be narrowed down soon. Apparently. It better…. The SPU thought it could have been a staff member or a visitor of the University, but we know it must be someone the same age as Kaname. We're gonna have to play a guessing game."

As the scene transitioned Kaname said, "I'm already glad you stayed here." and poured some tea.

The camera framed the ship dining room, specifically the table. The numbers in the right lower corner indicated it was a number of hours later in the evening. Like the last shot, the room was framed nicely.

Dinner for the evening was spaghetti, probably with crab meat in the sauce.

Kaya was sitting in the chair closest to the camera... probably to protect it from anyone who wanted to damage it. Tessa was positioned on the stretch of table directly opposite the camera next to Reve, a single paper by her. 

Mendez peered at the camera as she chews while Reve and Celda lifted their pasta with chopsticks.

"How are we raiding the place anyway if we don't know where we're headed?" Celda said annoyed.

"I apologize for getting side tracked with small talk,"  Tessa said huffily.

"We don't mind, Captain," Mendez assured with a pleasant smile. "It was important to break the ice."

"You'd break ice just by standing in the room, honey," Kurz sniggered. 

Mao kicked him from under the table. Known to everyone, Celda and Reve tried to hide laughs. Judging by the growing animosity on the Captain's face, the 'small talk' which had been removed from the DVD had gone on for a long time.

At least the team seemed very comfortable now.

"I consider humor an integral part of this organization!" Tessa raised her voice.

Reve and Celda's laughter filled the room.

"If that's the case, I should get a rise!" Mao objected, over the top of the noise.

"I don't value it that much, Miss Mao," The Captain muttered

The laughter died down and Mendez asked Mao, "Can I kick your boyfriend too?"

"Kick him whenever you like," Mao said with a wave of the hand. "Say he's an idiot too while you're at it."

Mendez brought one of her boots sharply to Kurz's thigh, and he moaned.

"We have narrowed the search down to five students!" Tessa informed over the chaos.

The table went silent and everyone peered at the Captain.

"What's the plan then?" Celda demanded.

"There is another 48 hours until we reach our destination," Tessa explained slowly. "Luckily, my SPU contact allowed me to send over questions and she will speak to them tomorrow. With any luck, I'll be able to put the pieces together with Mardukas, leaving us free for a night raid at the accommodation of the suspected person or persons, whether on or off campus."

"Do you think the person knows about Mithril?" Reve wondered.

"There's a reasonable but not guaranteed chance. Given we arrive on schedule our raid should have little problems."

"Sounds like fun," Kurz said. "Who are the suspects?"

"Two females, a genderless, and a male," Tessa reported.

"A genderless?" Mao repeated, "Kids today."

"Gender doesn't tell us anything," Reve pointed out. "Can we offer our input?"

"I'd rather you focused on developing your technical skills with the ASs," Tessa said shortly. "Mardukas and I will let you know who we think the most likely suspect is when we recieve further data."

"Of course, Captain," Reve gave a small bow. "I didn't mean to question your judgement."

"Yes, you did!" Kurz joked 

Mendez kicked him again and Mao laughed.

"Do you want us to do any work?" Celda inquired.

"Since this is your first day, I would advise against staying up later than 22 30 hours," Tessa said. She doesn't meet his eyes. "But it is up to you."

The footage showed Kaya cleaning dishes. Unlike before, the camera was awkwardly positioned to frame the dirty porcelain. The room was quiet except for the splashes of water in the sink. The lighting, due to the placing of the camera, was limited but not completely absent.

"I hope they pay you for this," Reve's voice was somewhat louder than usual.

"I get paid a salary," Kaya said calmly, "although washing dishes isn't part of the description."

There was the sound of footsteps.

"Please let me help," Reve said.

"Uh, I don't mind cleaning. You don't…."

Reve approached the sink. Conversation vaguely could be heard in the background as the photographer passed Reve another pair of gloves and repositioned the camera. Now the men were shown to be standing side by side over the sink, viewed from profile.

"Is it filming?" Reve asked, peering at the screen.

"Yes." Kaya didn't try to hide it. "I thought I'd use spare footage to make a montage."

Reve laughed. "Are you going to make propaganda about dishes?"

"Maybe." Kaya smiled.

"Forgive me, Mister Kaya." Reve nodded his head, "I can't tell if you're joking or not."

"I am," Kaya answered. "Please call me Tamotsu."

Reve chuckled heartily and nodded. Kaya passed a clean plate to Reve, who rinsed it and placed it on the drying rack.

"What was your favorite part of Fontana?" Kaya asked. He was referring to Reve's home city.

"One of my friends had an older brother who loved Car racing," Reve explained. "We used to go watch but our parents didn't like taking us there, so they took me to the Center Stage Theater. I loved that too, but I never got around to car racing."

"It must have been disheartening to leave your home city."

"No," Reve said, "I was happy to go. Seon-Ja's death..."

"I cannot picture it, not even a little," Kaya said, "I have an older brother that does not like me. I don't know why, but it has always been that way, so I email my parents in Kyoto."

"Kyoto is a wonderful city," Reve remarked. "I went there once on a school trip."

"You must know a lot about the different cultures," Kaya said. "I could have mistaken you for Japanese."

"You're too kind, Tamotsu," Reve slipped, dropped one of the dishes and it sunk to the bottom of the metal basin. 

I crossed one leg over the other while the two spoke about Kyoto and school for a while. I couldn't help wondering if there was a mistake and this section of conversation was supposed to be cut.

Half the dishes were clean now.

"Do you prefer taking photos or shooting people?" Reve wondered.

"I don't like killing people," Kaya said slowly, "but it is a strange relief to put the end to lives of people who deserve it. Anyone who wants to kill a photographer has no appreciation for art. Therefore, I do not think they really appreciate life. I do them a favor by ridding them of an empty existence."

Reve laughed. "Maybe that makes the crazy shits target you first."

"Sometimes." Kaya admitted. "I rarely get to film for my work, so I want to do something interesting with the footage."

There was a clatter of dishes as Reve put some away. "Is that why you're filming me?"

It was unclear if the Korean was offended or flattered. Kaya washed a plate underwater so the sound of splashing was silenced. "I film whatever I think may be of interest to Mister Sagara."

"If you don't do a dishes montage now I'm going to be disappointed," Reve said with a playful smile.

Kaya appeared to avoid Reve's eye. Like Celda, Kaya was quite tall and was the oldest out of the group, although that didn't stop his tendency for politeness.

"Come on, tell me the truth. Don't you ever take photos just so you can look at it?" Reve tested.

"It is true that the guidelines for Mithril are not as strict as my previous position," Kaya said, brushing a strand of hair off his forehead. "That is why I've stayed so long, I think. There is more creative freedom."

"I don't think Sagara will be interested in watching us talk," Reve replied.

"Perhaps not, Chae," Kaya said softly.

As I watched the two men finish the dishes, I decided that I wasn't uninterested, but very confused by the inclusion of this footage.

"It's Ryung Ja," Reve corrected, his voice neither silky nor strict.

It was dark with a single light on. It might have been the Hanger, it was difficult to tell. The camera shook slightly as Kaya held it over his shoulder. Some text in the corner said it was 6 30 hours of the next morning. His footsteps were very quiet. Slowly the zoom focused in on a Caucasian woman holding a gun out in front of her.

Upon closer inspection it was Ella Mendez. 

Kaya let out a steadied breath. Thirty seconds passed as Mendez practiced drills. At random intervals, she said "Bang!" and practiced changing her stance. When the girl's eyes poured on Kaya she didn't flinch, although she rolled out of the way.

"Good morning, madam," Kaya said, walking toward her.

"Thanks, but I'm irritated," she replied,  pointing the gun at Kaya's face.

"I'm innocent!" said the photographer.

Mendez didn't answer for a moment. She rolled forward and said, "Bang!"

Kaya chortled. "You're doing very well, Mendez."

"That's a relief," she said, placing the gun in a holster. "I've been up since 4 practicing."

"You are dedicated."

"I am not letting Austin beat me," she hissed, and I saw a hint of the maliciousness in her expression. "I know he's going to get picked. He doesn't deserve it!"

"Why do you think that?" Kaya wondered.

"Do you already know what Testarossa thinks?" Mendez demanded. "Is that why you are smiling?"

"No. I haven't been told anything."

Mendez screwed up her face before walking a few paces away and picking up a manual she'd placed on the ground. "Sagara is going to see my flaws."

"You did well with the basic controls," Kaya admitted, following the woman. "I have used an AS on a few occasions, but only for shooting. I find maneuvering it is more difficult. You have to do so discretely."

"But they're loud," Mendez said blankly.

"Stealth will go a long way if you can learn it."

"Can you teach me more?" Mendez asked, "I tried to use one of the AS's just in here, but it was too noisy."

"That's what woke me," Kaya said.

"Damn." Mendez sighed, "Well, at least I only woke one person."

The two seemed to share a smile.

"I'm afraid I can't teach you much," Kaya said, "I am better with a gun and camera than an AS."

"Teach me that then!"

"Mendez, I think it is best you wait until training. You are learning weaponry on the AS today."

"Like that's going to make a difference!" Mendez said, frustrated, "I need to practice over and over."

From the silence it seemed the photographer must have indicated that she could keep talking.

"I don't even help with air combat assaults and I still got through to this stage," Mendez continued. "Doesn't that tell you anything about me? Don't I deserve to be here?"

"You made it here for a reason," Kaya affirmed.

Mendez shut the manual. "I've read about these machines. I know how they work better than Austin and Reve put together, and yet it's not fair I am the slowest to perfect the skills."

"You look very angry," Kaya said, "Do not let it cloud your judgement."

Mendez lowered the manual and splayed out her legs as though she was role playing the inside controls of an AS. "Just because I'm younger than the others doesn't mean I'm stupid!"

Kaya didn't answer, though he sat on the ground and adjusted the focus so the girl fit nicely in the frame. Her dirty blonde roots were coming through her scalp.

"Did Mister Celda say something?"

Mendez pursed her lips and pretended to move an invisible AS forward. "Did Mao tell you we went out drinking?" 

It was impossible to determine how Kaya responded.

"We got pretty drunk at… Vision, I think it was called."

"I have been there once," the photographer said. "In Shibuya, is that right?"

Mendez nodded. "Austin asked how I got accepted. He wanted to know if I'd bribed or slept with somebody."


"What sort of asshole comment was that?" Mendez demanded.

"Did Mao hear?" Kaya asked.

"Nah, she was busy making out with her man."

Again, there was no visible answer.

"You don't believe him?" Mendez wondered in horror.

"No," Kaya said, "I don't. On the contrary, I wonder if it can be taken as a compliment."

Mendez looked confused. "Is that a Japanese thing, because I don't understand?"

"No, just my thing," the photographer paused, "Perhaps Celda is intimidated by you because you are younger than him but are considered equal or greater in skill."

Mendez hesitated. "Do you think that's possible? Maybe he was trying to say I am a low life."

"You are a classy woman," Kaya said, "If he does not think so, I think it says something about his tastes."

"Hmmm…" The American appeared to forget about her AS role playing as her posture went limp. "Now I don't know what to think."

"What did you say in response?"

"I told him if he was so curious I could take him to my room and he could see if my skills were worth a promotion."

There was a pause.

"I'm joking!" Mendez laughed. "I told him 'No.' I mean, is that sort of trickery something that happens around here?"

"I don't know." Kaya admitted, "Not with the Captain. I am sure of that."

Mendez smiled at the photographer.  "Can you delete this from your final video?"

"You don't like it?"

"Sagara will see how emotional I can get. I'm not sure he'd approve."

"On the contrary I think this displays a lot of your integrity and positive qualities." Kaya said.

"You're such a cutie. I bet you and Reve would get along well."

"He is a kind person."

"If you think this video shows a positive side to me, you can keep it in."

The next section had the AS's positioned in a line. All three of the combatants were inside, with Kaya filming from the ground.

Mao was nearby, speaking into a radio. "Repeat. No body shoot. We are teaching you the controls only. Please confirm. Over."

There was a buzzing as each candidate replied in perfect order, as expected from their piloting background.

The lesson was filmed, although it was dry in content and fairly repetitive. Kaya seemed to have realized this because it cut after five minutes.

Next, the group was at the table, eating dinner again. Mendez placed some onigiri on the table.

"Somebody is feeling like a house wife," Celda mumbled.

Reve nudged him. "Hey, don't be rude."

"I think it would be far more impressive to see a man cook," Mendez said, with a glint of sassiness. "Don't you agree, Mao?"

"Yeah, stop sucking up," Mao said, "It won't change my opinion of you."

"It'll change my opinion," Kurz said.

Mao glared at Kurz and stuffed an onigiri in his mouth.

"What does Miss Chidori think about cooking?" Reve wondered.

"She cares," Kurz said.

Kaname gave a small chuckle from beside me.

"Does Sagara have a favorite food?" Celda asked.

"I don't think so," Mao replied.

"Damn. I guess I can't suck up to him then, can I?"

"Itadakimasu!" Kaya said loudly, and the table shortly followed, picking up onigiri and placing them on plates.

Tessa entered the room and everyone bowed.

"I have more information about the raid," she announced proudly. Everyone halted chewing on rice so they could listen.

Tessa hugged papers to her chest proudly. "I have copies of the floor plan, but I wanted to tell you about our suspect…"

Everyone leaned in simultaneously.

"He is a young adult named Quinn Tsung. He resides in Building 11, part of the Universities International lodging and was originally from the UK. Our goal is to capture, but not kill him. Not yet, anyway."

"What gave him away?" Kurz interrupted.

"My contact said his speech patterns were disjointed and he blurted out Black Technology without meaning to. It was very easy."

"Not too easy?" Celda checked. 

"Why didn't the SPU care then?" Mao asked.

"There was no evidence to prove he had done it. He has been seeing an on-campus psychiatrist." Tessa appeared thoughtful. "Apparently he is medicated and would have been asleep at the time of the explosion. CCTV did not indicate anyone was around or how the bomb was planted there."

"The bomb or Tsung could have done something in a way we are not aware of," Mendez said. "Or he worked through someone else."

"That's right," The Captain said darkly.

"What medication is he on?" Reve questioned.

"Seroquel. It is used for major depression, bipolar or schizophrenia," she replied, pouring over her notes.

"Which type of messed up is that kid?" Kurz said airily.

Tessa's eyebrows narrowed. She placed the papers on the table, picked up an onigiri and didn't speak until she'd swallowed one bite.

"We won't know for certain until we talk to him," she said, "It could have been a misdiagnosis. The psychiatrist probably thought it was a side effect, but Black Technology cannot be made up on the spot."

The tone was so sinister Tessa didn't add much to the conversation, and many others at the table didn't answer either.

"When are we doing the raid?" Mendez asked finally.

"Meet in the hanger at 3 AM. I urge you to sleep as soon as we finish with dinner and that you become familiar with the map of the Campus in the notes. Mardukas will give you instructions over radio before you arrive," Tessa said. "I trust you are ready?"

"Yes, ma'am!" was the reply.

Kaya and Reve decided to do the dishes again. This time the roles were switched. Reve was washing while Kaya was drying.

"Go to sleep, Ryung-Ja," Kaya said.

"Not until you do, Tamotsu," Reve replied with a crooked grin. "It'll go quicker this way."

"You're the one who needs the rest." Kaya said, "I have done this for longer than you have."

"Maybe I don't want to leave you by yourself." The Korean said, "It must make things more interesting? Otherwise you just get to sit around and do nothing."

Kaya didn't reply for a second. "It does, although I am used to living in solitude."

"I only like the quiet when I need to figure something out," Reve said.

"I suspect you have clear goals then?"

"Hmm…" the man hesitated and passed Kaya a plate. "At the moment, I do."

Something strange happened. The photographer reached to grab the plate off Reve, but he kept hold of it. 

"Are you fond of this plate?" Kaya asked.

"Will you answer a personal question?" Reve muttered in an undertone.

A tense moment passed where only the faint buzzing of the camera could be heard.

"I will if you let me dry the plate."

Reve chuckled and let go, bowing his head slightly. "I was wondering what you thought about one night stands."

There was a long pause.

"That is a strange question."

"Don't worry about it." Reve scrubbed another plate with his hands, "I ask all my close friends. I think it tells a lot about a person."

Kaya hesitated. It was hard to see his face. "I think people should be allowed to do what they want."

"What about you?" Reve whispered, "Do those same rules apply?"

The photographer hesitated. "No, I would tell myself I was being reckless and impulsive."

Reve appeared delighted, "See! I've learned so much about you already. You are very kind to others, but hide behind a veil of self-criticism."

"That is a good observation," Kaya admitted. "What do you think of one night stands?"

"I used to think the same as you, maybe worse," Reve explained, "My family is incredibly religious, although I have more laid back views now."

"Hmm…" Kaya hesitated, "What challenged your belief system?"

Amazingly, Reve bowed. "Can I whisper in your ear?"

Slowly, Kaya nodded and Reve had to raise his head to reach. The sentence was completely inaudible, but when Reve returned to focusing on dishes, Kaya was staring at the ground.

Reve laughed shrewdly. "What are you thinking, Tamotsu?"

It took until the last of the dishes were done before Kaya leaned forward to mutter in Reve's ear. Again, the words were impossible to hear and the video cut. Again, I was both confused and interested. 

"I feel like I'm spying on something I shouldn't," Kaname said uncomfortable.

"Me too. I wonder why Mister Kaya saw it as appropriate to include..."

"Shh! Something's happening."

The video blinked on at an early hour of the morning, at 2 00. It was so dark it was  impossible to tell where the camera was or what it was filming. There was the sound of footsteps and a door squeaking.

"Good morning, Austin," muttered Reve in English. The sound was muffled and distant, although the volume had been artificially amplified. As such, there was a lot of buzzing, but not enough to distort the speech.

I peered uncomfortably at Kaname. "My English might not be good enough to understand more complex words. How is your English?"

"Can you translate?" I asked.

"Don't worry." Kaname assured me. "If we don't get it we can play the video over again."

I made a sound of agreement as the video continued. 

"Obviously my knocks through the wall didn't get the message across," Celda hissed, "I want to sleep."

"You're just a pervert, then," Reve whispered. "We weren't loud. I made sure."

"I heard you talking initially. That was enough for me to know."

"What?" Reve sounded angry, "You ignore me for how long and this grabs your attention? How do you know it wasn't just conversation?"

"I know you better than that, Ryung Ja," Celda muttered.

Bed covers rustled.

"Is the photo guy awake?" Celda asked.

"No, you idiot," Reve said. "There's no blinking light on the camera."

"You filmed it!?"

"Not that," Reve said, "but something nice. He'll edit it out."

A pause.

"Does that mean you're jealous?" Reve asked. "You're finally going to say something to me now?"

"Did you do this on purpose to get me to talk to you?" Celda demanded.

"In case you didn't notice, I actually communicate when I want something," Reve sounded angrier than I had ever heard him. "You keep saying you don't know how you feel. I think you're lying. It's just a little girl excuse to not deal with the problem."

"That's nice of you," Celda muttered sarcastically.


Another awkward pause.

"It's complicated," Celda said.

"You should know I'm an expert in that field."

Celda sighed. "You're never going to let it be… even though it's for your own good?"

"Why do you get to decide that?"

"Maybe God spoke to me."

"God can kiss my butt," Reve challenged.

There was a rustling as though the men were brushing their feet against the ground.

"You look sexy when you run away like that, little girl," Reve teased.

Celda groaned. "Ryung Ja?" 

"I'm listening."

"I… I can't be with you in the way you want me to be."

"Finally! How hard was that to say?"

"That's not it!"

The silence was tenser now.

"Austin?" Reve's voice trembled, "I don't like it when I can't hear you breathing."

More silence.

"You're more than a friend to me, Ryung Ja."

"What the fuck?" Reve nearly shouted, "Don't say messy things like that!"

"I thought you were good at complicated, you wanker!"

"Jot ka!" Reve spat.

"You just swore at me, didn't you?"

There was no direct answer to the question. "I fail to understand how you can love me…."

"I didn't say I loved you!"

"Whatever. You know what I mean."

The two men were seething.

"You know why I can't," Celda muttered.

"No, I don't. Those are the words of a coward."

"Fuck you."

"If you're implying… if you're going to hide part of who you are for the sake of everyone else it will only destroy you inside," Reve said, "Trust me, I know."

"Keeping it hidden won't destroy me any more than the world already has," Celda retorted. 

"The secret will crush you until you are screaming for God's forgiveness," Reve said.

"My family would kill me," Celda said.

"Yeah? Well my sister is the only person I considered my true family and she's gone."

"That's exactly why I don't want to lose mine," Celda whispered. "I don't want the other guys in the base knowing either. I've seen enough shit from how they treat you."

"You'd rather pick status and family over me?" Reve gasped.

"When you put it like that I do sound like a prick," Celda admitted.

"I understand the fear,"  Reve admitted, "But you don't have to let everyone know right away. We can take it a step at a time."

"Stop it."

Reve was silent. 

"I've made my decision, Ryung Ja," Celda said. "I'm sorry you don't like it. This is why I didn't want to tell you."

"It crushes me somewhere deep inside" Reve whispered, "Even if part of me is happy that the feelings are reciprocated, it hurts to know you'll always be out of reach."

"Maybe it'll be good if one of us replaces Sagara then," Celda mentioned, "To get us away from each other."


The men moved around, although it was not clear how.

"How long have you been into men too?" Reve asked.

"…Long enough to know that I'm an expert at keeping it secret," Celda said.

"Except for me?"


"Why is that?"

"Now you're just asking stupid questions."

Reve was silent for a few moments. "We're still friends, right?"


"Can I come visit you when you're lonely?"

"What?" Celda sounded surprised.

"You know what I mean."

Celda chuckled. "You filthy little shit."

They seemed to suppress laughter. It seemed to be an inside joke between them.

"I haven't decided," Celda said. "To be safe, let's go with no."

"That's too bad."

There was more rustling.

"I love you just the same, even if we can't be together," Reve said in an ominous voice.

"Did you steal that from a K-drama?"

"Of course I did!"

Celda chuckled. "You're breathing on me."

"I want to kiss a certain little girl goodnight," Reve whispered.

"Don't get too excited." It sounded like Celda pushed Reve away, "If you promise to keep my secret, once this mission is over and we get back to the base, I'll invite you to my room."

"You're just teasing."

"I promise if you promise."

Reve hesitated for a long while. "Promise."

Chapter Text

The candidates were standing in the Hanger in M9 suits. It was the first time I had seen them in helmets. They fit the part well. Mao and Weber were directly in front wearing familiar looks of strained determination. The strips of red from the top of the uniform were the most festive color in the room. A radio hissed. It was difficult to near impossible to hear what was said, but the editor had kindly placed subtitles on the bottom of the screen.

"Base to all personal. Could I get a radio check? Over," buzzed Mardukas.

In order, each person responded with their respective call signs and "Hearing you loud and clear. Over", except for Mao and Celda, who did some minor adjustments to their equipment.

I pressed the side of my face and was surprised to feel no helmet. As clear and immersive as the DVD video was, I was watching events that had already occured. 

Kaname seemed to notice. "You miss it, don't you?"

I met her regard for a brief moment and nodded. "Parts of it."

My girlfriend's face was as shadowed as the people on screen, only illuminated by the glow of the television screen.

"You won't be gone forever," she assured me, "You'll be taking over as the radio guy, right?"

Radio guy…. More like commanding officer or military tactician.

"In a sense, yes."

It wasn't the proper terminology, but I respected the thought all the same.

The candidates were labelled Proxy 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Kaya's call sign was Shutterbug. Kaname found this funny. I didn't understand why. I had always associated that man with his call sign. The candidates, brightly illuminated by fluorescents, did not appear overly nervous or concerned.

"To all Proxys and Shutterbug, Urzu 2 and Urzu 6 will not engage unless they perceive you as being in danger. Is this understood?"

Celda answered first, half a head taller than Mao and Kurz, "Proxy 1 to base, understood. Over."

The others followed as per protocol.

"You may procees to enter your allocated AS units," Mardukas continued, "Proxy 1, you will use the M9D Resnick."

"Stand by." Without further ado, Celda disappeared out of the frame and Kaya tried to follow him with the camera until he climbed into the machine and the lights flashed on. Judging by the names these M9 units were recent acquisitions.

"Proxy 2, please get into the M9D Steinmuller."

"Stand by."

This time Mendez marched to the right and the camera followed her for a few moments. Finally, Reve was told to use M9D Calvino. Uzu 2, 6 and Shutterbug were the last to enter their M9s and a minute passed where a number of basic controls were tested. The camera was balanced somewhere on the side of the machine where it shook horribly. Subtitles continued to dictate the radio broadcast:

"We have traversed the QuianTang River into the University Campus and are 100 meters from Point 03. Turn your camouflage on now." Markudas continued, while 'Building 11' flashed on the bottom of the screen to indicate what the coordinates corresponded to.

"Camouflage on and functional, Base." Kaya responded, after similar answers buzzed over the headset.

"Team, your exit is Point 01. Is this understood?"

"Understood, sir," Kaya said, although the words were difficult to hear over the opening hatch of the submarine.

The AS's walked out of the submarine in order. As expected with camoflage, they were near invisible on the camera. The Campus appeared peaceful, and it was lucky the river went right into the middle of it. Thankfully, even though it was winter it was obviously warm enough that the water hadn't iced over. Nevertheless, there was little grass poking through the ground.

"Proxy 2 - open Gate 3 with the tools Urzu 2 and 6 showed you. If done correctly, this will take five seconds at most."

"Affirmative, base," Mendez replied. A shrill sound burst through the speakers as the gate was forcibly unlocked and opened with the MS equipment. The only visual through the camera was the strange looking blur where the M9s were standing.

"Passing through Gate 3 now, Base," Mendez said over the speaker. "Proxy 1 and 3, follow behind me."

"Thanks, Proxy 2."

It sounded like Reve's voice.

Mao and Kurz were doing well to be so quiet when there were so many opportunities to poke fun at the Proxies. Now that more of the University was in view, it was reassuring that there were no students walking around.

"Point 03 is on your right. Urzu 2 will get in position by the narrow stretch of windows and will lift all Proxy, Urzu 6 and Shutterbug up to the fourth floor. Carefully pry open the window and enter Point 04. Do you copy?"

Point 04 was labelled on subtitles as "Tsung's room".

The team affirmed they understood.

"We will leave you to do as you see as appropriate," Markudas finished. "If you need any help, reach us on radio channel 3. Urzu 6 will keep watch just outside the door."

"Copy that, base," Mendez answered, before anyone else could.

The video cut, coming back once the team was positioned below Building 11. Kaya dismounted from his AS and the camera readjusted itself.

The University Campus was beautiful. A thin layer of snow covered everything and glittered in the moonlight, decorating very modern, tall buildings juxtaposed by the river and surrounding foliage. If anyone had noticed they'd infiltrated the University, no alarms indicated as much. The camera remained remarkably still as Kaya hurried toward the palm of Mao's AS.

"Base to all personnel, are you in position?" said Markudas.

"This is Proxy 1, in position. Over." informed Celda, followed by the rest of the team.

The camera panned over the team with the help of a tiny light attached to the camera. The candidates appeared as dead pan as when I first met them. Mendez was the only one who gave a small smile. She took out her gun and peered around for any onlookers, the others following. Reve picked out a tool to force open the window. With the height difference and helmet obscuring his features, I could have been looking at myself. Obviously, the earlier events of the night had created some tension in the team.

Kurz grinned and waved as the camera passed him.

"How are we going to pick up the kid?" Celda asked, as the words:

'Urzu 2 to base. Lifting them now. Don't make the dude wet the bed! Hahaha!' Flashed on the screen with background buzzing. There was a rumble and the scenery behind them moved.

"Rapport building technique," Mendez said in response to Celda, like she hadn't heard Mao's joke.

"If he gets resistant, I'm grabbing him," Celda said. "If that happens, Reve, gag the bastard. We can't risk him having a tantrum at this hour. Hopefully he'll be too drugged up."

Steely with concentration, Reve nodded.

"Rapport then forced removal as back up… Would you like to go in the room first, Proxy 2?" Reve mumbled, and he addressed his speakers, "Proxy 3 to base. There are no disturbances. I'm opening the window now."

I suspected Kurz had moved somewhere next to Kaya, because neither of them were speaking. Temporarily, Reve was the only one in the frame as he pried the window open. It made a bit of noise but it wasn't enough to echo.

Reve slipped and left a small crack in the glass. "Those lousy students," he muttered, to which Kurz chuckled.

"Proxy 1 to base," Celda muttered, "Team entering Building 11 now."

Mendez stepped in first, followed by Reve and Celda. The cameraman was next, with Kurz presumably last. Reve had already scuffled ahead and pointed to one of the doors. The corridor was narrow but thankfully deserted. Mendez nodded and tip toed swiftly toward him, discretely as if she was wearing socks. No voices came from the surrounding rooms.

Reve lifted a tool on his belt to unlock the door. Celda had a hand on his gun, surveying down the corridor.

The Korean knocked open the door with a rattle and Mendez entered first. Kaya was the last to enter. Reve held out a light and gently scanned the room for materials around its edge. It was a narrow single person apartment with pale walls, wooden floorboards and all basic essentials.

"It looks so tiny," Kaname pointed out. "How do they not trip over each other? Then again, Kyoko told me University lodges differ depending on the place."

"Uh huh," I acknowledged, too focused on the screen.

The man who was likely Quinn was in his bed. He was of Asian ethnicity but his skin was paler than most. His wavy hair reached down to his ears. However, he wasn't unaccompanied. Reve's light fell on the face of a young woman, looking dreary eyed, her small breasts nearly visible from her loose clothing. She was incredibly thin with long brown hair and spoke in Chinese with a Ningbo dialect. Subtitles appeared on the bottom of the screen.

"Are you the Police?" she asked wearily. "Haven't we answered enough of your questions?"

Maybe Kaya knew the language.

Kaname gasped from beside me and I felt sweat form on my palms. Considering the room was designed to fill a single occupant, the company was unexpected.

"Do you speak Japanese?" Mendez asked. They were all attempting to spread out and stand at an angle to each other, a task proven difficult by the lack of space. 

"Little bit," the girl answered in grammatically incorrect Japanese.

"Do youspeak English?" Reve asked.

The girl blushed. "Sometimes a little."

"She wants to know if we are Police," Kaya said.

"Explain we're not then," Celda asked. 

"What are you talking about?" The stranger demanded.

"Shh," hushed Reve.

Kaya stepped forward and said in Mandarin. "We are not the Police. We are not here to reprimand anyone. We are from an organization called Mithril and we want to help Quinn."

The woman looked taken aback.

"Are you okay?" Mendez asked in Japanese, trying to keep the language as simple as possible.

"You're not from here," the girl said blankly, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What do you want? Quinn is sick. He needs a doctor. Take him and he'll get bad."

"We will take care of him," Kaya said, jumping in with perfect Chinese. "My name is Kaya, and this is my team. We have training with his specific diagnosis. We want to bring him somewhere same for a day or so... we won't contact the Police. Do you have his medication?'

"Where are you taking him?" the girl asked, more confident now she could speak in her native language. "If you don't tell me, I'll make sure you get in trouble."

"Come with please," Reve jumped in with very awkward Chinese pronunciation and hand signals. It wasn't clear if he had followed what had been said so far.

"We have a comfortable submarine and we will return you both here once we can be certain Quinn is not a risk to himself or others," the photographer added. 

"He's not!" the girl protested, wrapping the boy in her arms. "If he was, they'd hospitalize him!"

Tsung stirred in his sleep and mumbled something incomprehensible. What relationship did the girl have with Quinn? 

The Proxies all looked at each other and Mendez took another step forward.

"You seem frightened," she said in Japanese.

Immediately, it was clear something wasn't quite right. The girl's face darkened with choler.

"Tiu nia ma chow hai!" she shouted, which was translated in the subtitles as " $#% $ %$^$".

"Tell her if she yells one more time, we're taking her and Quinn with us," Celda explained to Kaya. The photographer transferred the message. 

It was no good. The woman continued to scream obscenities and dashed at the team, raising her fists. 

As though he had understood the insult, Celda gave a signal to Reve and the Korean rushed forward and stuffed a rag into her mouth. Celda copied, using a second rope to tie it in place behind her head. Celda carried her over his shoulder and absconded as nonchalant as though transporting luggage.

"Proxy 1 to Urzu 2. Please prepare for evacuation, over," he grumbled into his helmet microphone. "Sorry lady."

This was where the situation got difficult. They had only anticipated one hostage. Reve held out a hand to which Mendez handed him another set of rags. While he was being gagged Quinn woke up, screamed and seemed to have a seizure with how rapidly he flailed, yet Mendez hit him over the head with her gun, knocking him out cold. The American then pulled off his bed covers and grabbed the edge of the bottom white sheet with her arms crossed over.

"Other side," she told Reve. He seemed to figure out what she was doing and grabbed the closer edge in a similar cross formation to her.

"3, 2, 1, lift." The two said and Quinn was basically on an imitation of a stretcher. Rather awkwardly, the two moved backward in almost perfect synchronicity and turned around.

"We got him," Reve informed, unable to contain the happiness in his voice.

Without another word, the two left the room swiftly. This is where their Yokota training came in handy.

It was slightly more challenging to transport Quinn through the window, but Kurz and Celda helped. When Reve and Mendez lowered the pile of sheets onto the big AS palm, the Korean spoke in his radio.

"Proxy 3 to Urzu 2. Stand by. I'm going to get Quinn's medication." He turned to the camera, "Can you ask her?"

It was assumed that Kaya nodded because Reve smiled and climbed through the window again.

"Proxy 1, take off her gag," Mendez said. While Celda looked annoyed, he complied, holding her in an arm lock to keep her in place. In the small light of the camera while the rag was getting unraveled Kaya spoke in Chinese.

"I can see you don't like us and maybe want us to hurt, but we want to help Quinn," he said hurriedly. "Please tell us where his medication is."

The girl growled into the gag and kicked Celda as he loosened the rag.

"Do you want us to leave it there?" Austin hissed into the girl's ear in Japanese.

"Proxy 2 to Proxy 3, how's the search going?" Mendez muttered.

"Proxy 2, this is 3. I've found the script but not the tablets, over."

"Find his identification and anything else we may be able to use, over," Mendez continued.

Meanwhile, the unknown second hostage was still writhing on the ground, screaming into the gag. Celda, smartly decided to hold onto it.

"Give her an ultimatum," he hissed to Kaya.

The photographer tried speaking to the girl again, placing his free hand on her shoulder. "If you do not tell us now we will leave without it," he said calmly, "We are not trying to threaten you but we have a protocol to follow."

Finally, the Chinese girl stopped struggling but started to cry instead. She said something. Celda removed the gag just as the following was broadcast over the radio.

"Proxy 3 to 2. Wallet, handbag, two mobiles and a timetable found. What's happening with the royal bitch? Over."

"It's in the shower," the girl wailed.

"Proxy 1 to 3." Celda said, "Medication is in the shower, over."

"Got it. I'll be back in a moment."

It wasn't a lie. Reve climbed back out the window in ten seconds, just as Mendez told Urzu 2 they were ready to leave. It was a strange relief to see the crew lower down onto the ground. As the buzzing of the machine and gushing wind filled the camera, Reve spoke into the radio again.

"Proxy 3 to base. The rooms on either side came looking to see what was happening. I'd try and see if the Captain can smooth out the situation for us, over."

"This is Base. Understood. I'll contact the Captain now. Over."

"Rather have them be suspicious than have another part of the school blow up," Kurz muttered under his breath. I agreed with him. The rest of the team was peering at Kaya, who was trying to comfort the still awake hostage.

"We are taking you somewhere safe," he said, "Have you heard of Mithril?"

To everyone's surprise, the girl's eyes widened in terror and she started flailing again. Stuffing the rag in her mouth muffled the scream, Celda knocked her out.


The film resumed when the camera was at a jaunty angle inside the AS, heading back toward the submarine.

"One thing I've been wondering," Kurz said slowly, over the radio, "How are we going to interrogate them with a language barrier? I think our translator went on leave."

"Speak English, what else?" Celda responded. They had given up on call signs by now, nearly at their destination.

"I'm willing to bet Quinn is just as crazy as his girlfriend," Mao said.

"Who says they're boyfriend and girlfriend?" Reve wondered.

"I doubt the Royal Bitch can even open her legs," Celda joked, "Although I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't have a gag reflex by how much she's full of it."

Mao and Kurz laughed hysterically at this.

"Can you cut it out?" Mendez said annoyed, "I'd like to hear some compliments for once."

"You all did very well," Kaya responded first.

"Nice lifting, Ella," Reve said.

"I didn't suspect you'd be so good at shutting people up, Reve," Mendez joked.

"We got out with what we wanted and nobody died," Celda said slowly, "Obviously we did something right."

"Hurray. Team spirit!" Kurz said happily.

"Let's get out of here," Mao agreed. Now they'd reentered the submarine, the hatch closed, the submarine descended back under the water and their camouflage was cancelled, making it seem like ASs materialized out of thin air.

"Base to all personnel," Mardukas voice returned, "The SPU has been told a cover story by our contact. Please head to bed. We will get our medical and research teams to examine Quinn's body. Interrogations will begin tomorrow."

There were cheering over the headset which were audible to even myself, with the subtitle ' :- ) '.

Chapter Text

It was 5am and Mendez was in Kaya's room, wearing some loose fitting clothing. The lights were on.

"I didn't get a chance to tell you after dinner," she said slowly, giving a small bow. "I really appreciate you helping me practice gun and the AS controls, even if I didn't need to shoot anyone."

"No trouble," Kaya said, sounding sleepy.

Mendez flinched as she saw the blinking light of the camera. "Sorry. I got up early to talk to the Captain. I want to observe the first interrogation."

The photographer seemed confused. "You all get to observe."

"I want to be in the room," Mendez corrected.

Kaya mumbled.

"Did you not sleep much before the raid?" she asked.

The camera moved slightly. Perhaps the photographer knocked it.

"I'll go then," Mendez said, and she bowed. "Thanks. Don't sleep in too much or you'll miss everything."

A knock came from behind a door.

"Kaya, man. Wakey wakey!"

It was Kurz.

The photographer groaned.

"Let me wake him up," Celda said.

"Okay," Kurz sounded amused, "Just don't do the Royal Bitch treatment on him."

"Don't worry."

The door opened again. The camera was now lying sideways, although Kaya lazily adjusted it so Celda was in the frame. He sat down on the bed and shook the photographer's shoulder.

"You alright, buddy?"

"Not enough sleep," Kaya said.

The man sighed. "Come on. We're all waiting on you. Did something keep you from sleeping or what?"

I felt uncomfortable to hear the question, knowing there was a hidden meaning behind it.

Celda sighed and picked up the camera, rearranging it so Kaya was in the frame. As he did, the blurry outline of a cord became visible. It seemed the photographer had been charging the battery. Clearing his throat, Celda put on a strange voice. "Here we have a sleeping camera dude. Currently hibernating underwater…. Natural habitat is at the centre of the earth where he implodes into flames…"

Kaya grinned, slowly sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. He gave a small bow.

"Can I have it back, please?"

"And now Shutterbug takes a great risk as he tries to pounce on its attacker."

"I don't feel threatened," Kaya said, lightly pulling the charger out.

"Yeah?" Celda said, "We've hardly spoken one on one. Maybe this is a good change."

"Do you want to ask me something?" the photographer said.

"Well…" the Filipino hesitated, "Do you have any decision in which one of us gets picked?"

"No," Kaya answered, "To my knowledge, it is the combined opinions of a panel."

"Right. Who's on the panel?"

"Since I am not on it myself, I have no idea. I presume Sagars and the Captain are not the only ones."

"Sagara is the only one who will see this?"

"Yes," Kaya said, "Possibly his girlfriend."

"Ha…." Celda seemed amused by this. He stood and held the camera out of reach, heading backwards toward the door, where it shook horribly. "What kind of biased story are you telling here?"

"I aim to be objective," Kaya said, pacing after Celda. "I am a professional. I know what I'm doing."


They were out the door now. The entire thing seemed like an owner filming a pet's new trick. Kaya ran forward to reach Celda and bowed so his back was parallel with the ground.

"Please give me the camera back!"

"Prove you're not biased."

Kaya straightened,  but he was starting to look irked. "I can't. Everyone is inherently biased. I only urge you to believe in my words and ten years of experience."

"You're older than me?"

"There are many people in Mithril older than you," Kaya pointed out.

Celda held out the camera with two hands and Kaya took it off him.

"Hurry up!" Mao yelled, from somewhere out of the frame.

"What would you like to tell Mister Sagara?" Kaya asked, walking forward as Celda walked backward. The frame wasn't shaking anymore

"Thanks for putting me on the spot," Celda said with a shrewd grin, "Hmm… well I hope he likes the movie. If he cares about my opinion, I really don't want Ella to get the job, to be honest."

"Mendez?" Kaya sounded surprised.

"She knows her shit, even if she's really hard on herself. I bet Sagara would love her," Celda muttered, pacing slightly slower as they traversed the corridor, "I wouldn't disagree if she got chosen, but I'm not sure she fits in the best here personality wise."

"We're military." Kaya said, "Personality isn't the only detail taken into account."

Celda chuckled, "True." he gave the man a hard look, "You got a good head on your shoulders, Kaya-san. I'll give you that. Now seriously, hurry up."

By the harmonious presentation of the next shot, it appeared that Kaya had used his tripod.

The team were in the interrogation room, a bleak, sterile environment with chairs and tables around a table. The photographer was sitting next to Testarossa who had a pile of papers in front of her. The proxies were leaning against a nearby stretch of wall. It seemed they weren't just going to watch from behind glass.

It wasn't Tsung in the interrogation room, but the girl who had been with him. It seemed Testarossa had given her some warmer clothes. Now that her features were completely illuminated, she looked embarrassed to have everyone looking at her.

The Captain leaned forward, poured some tea out of a pot and pushed a mug toward the girl.

"Thank you for cooperating with us so far, Miss Lai." She brought her papers closer to her, "Do not worry. We have every intention of keeping you safe."

Kaya translated the phrase to Lai, but she didn't sip her drink. This would take a while.

"What has Mister Tsung told you about Mithril?" Tessa began, "I was told you were… shall we say… alarmed."

Lai looked to Kaya expectantly and she crossed her arms upon hearing the message.

"Where is he?" she asked, not looking at Tessa.

With each sentence, there was an interval as it was translated between Japanese and Mandarin.

"We left him with our Research division temporarily. He is sleeping. The procedures can be quite draining."

Lai stared at the Captain and turned to Kaya. "I don't like her."

The photographer grinned.

"What?" Tessa whispered, oblivious to the insult.

Kaya waved a hand to ignore the comment and asked Lai, "What are you studying, Miss Lai?"

The Captain sipped her tea as Lai replied, "The same as Quinn."

The photographer summarized the small exchange to Tessa.

"Are the two of you friends?"

Lai shrugged.

"Excuse me, Captain," Reve spoke up, "I had an idea, if I am given permission to speak?"

Testarossa sighed and leaned back in her chair, "Go ahead, Reve."

The Korean nodded and slowly approached the table, gesturing open palmed to a chair next to Lai.

"He is wondering if he can sit next to you," Kaya told her in Mandarin.

Lai didn't move but stared at Reve.

"Tell her I think her hair looks amazing," Reve suggested.

When the message was transferred across, the girl looked very surprised.

"Is he from North Korea?" she asked Kaya, "He looks dirty."

The photographer laughed. "No."

"Did it work?" Reve asked, not understanding.

"Can he sit next to you?" Kaya asked again.

Lai shrugged and nodded, although she didn't look at Reve as he sat down.

"How can we make you more comfortable, Lai?" Reve asked.

"We will not punish you for making requests of us," Kaya added after translating.

To Celda's amusement, both he and Tessa were asked to leave. The Captain politely left, although she screwed up her nose in disapproval as she moved out of the frame.

"I expect you to detail the conversation to me afterward," she muttered.

"Poq Gai," Lai said with a smile.

Kaya snorted. "She said something rude."

Tentatively Mendez sat on the chair that Tessa had been in. "Thank you for letting me stay."

Lai shrugged.

"Reve is right," Mendez said slowly, "You are very pretty. You make the Captain's clothes look ugly."

Lai gave a small smile back and addressed the photographer, "Is she from Europe?"

The group talked about America for a while, and the University hostage disclosed that she had always wanted to go there and moved from Singapore to study.

"Do you have one of those small rooms?" Mendez asked.

Lai shook her head. "Building 18 rooms are bigger and four can fit in there. I was worried about not making friends so didn't want a single room."

"I guess it is easier to invite someone in if it doesn't belong to others." Reve pointed out.

The Singaporean seemed embarrassed. "It isn't like that."

When this was translated there was a larger pause than normal.

"Do you like the University?" Kaya asked.

Lai seemed to have withdrawn again. She shrugged. The others waited, looking at each other at a loss.

"Why am I here?"


"We thought you might be able to help us help Quinn," Kaya answered.

"A doctor would be better," she said again, "No one else can help him. He is…"

Finally, Lai drank the tea that Tessa had poured her, but it was probably lukewarm.

"I don't even like him," she said finally.

"Then why were you in his room?" Reve said.

Lai let her head fall forward onto the table, exhausted.

"I don't think she can do this right now," Mendez said. "Let's leave it for later."

For some reason, when the video resumed Kaya was eating food in his bedroom. There was a knock on the door. By the unrecognizable language it was obvious who it was.

"Come in, Lai."

With a lot of effort, the frail girl entered. She had food in her hands too and sat down. They were silent for ten seconds, chewing on their food.

"Why are you filming?" she asked, "Are you going to show it to the Police?"

"No." Kaya gulped down his food, "We are filming it for a soldier in Tokyo. He is trying to choose a replacement out of the three who were watching you before. I am sorry for not explaining. My mind was somewhere else."

Lai waved her hand in front of the camera. "I don't like any of them."

Kaya didn't seem to know how to answer. He pushed his plate away and offered it to the girl.

"Do you have friends at University?" he asked, finally.

"I like my roommates," she admitted, "But I haven't seen them in a while."

"Did something happen to them?"

Lai shook her head. "Are you going to hurt Quinn?"

"No." Kaya sounded concerned, "Why do you think that?"

Lai hesitated, "He said Mithril was like fire, destroying everything."

"I don't think so," The photographer said. "Mithril tries to put out fire. It is water."

She looked very confused. "Can I talk to Quinn?"

"We are going to talk to him after lunch," Kaya said, "You are welcome to help."

"You shouldn't," Lai said, "He is very upset… Quinn isn't good at talking to people."

"What do you think we should do, Miss Lai?"

To the photographer's surprise, the girl got to her feet. "I don't know. Leave him alone." She hesitated. "I don't feel safe alone with him, but he doesn't feel safe unless I am there. I don't know why he thinks this way about me. I worry about how he is doing in a place he hates."

"I'll let the Captain know."

Lai struted away with a swish of her arm, with a sense of pride as though she was wearing heels. "I don't like her."

Lai is standing outside the kitchen door, staring as Reve does the dishes.

"The Captain says Tsung is awake, miss," Kaya says, "Although she told me that the Research Division put him under heavy sedatives. He won't be dangerous."

The camera is neatly positioned in the middle of a bedroom, although Quinn is on his side on the bed as though he had not been taken from the University. The hostage is pale as a ghost, and still wearing the same clothes he arrived in, although his gaze is unnerving.

"How are you, Quinn?" Lai finally said.

The boy only closed his eyes and moaned.

"What should I do?" Kaya muttered. 

"Be quiet until I say." Lai instructed, and she walked over to the bed and placed a hand on Quinn's forehead. "No fever. Is the bed nice? Do you like it?"

For ten seconds Lai ran her hands through the boy's hair and the grumbling sound turns to a gentle humming. Quinn reaches out an arm and rests his hand on the girl's head. It was hard to believe by looking at the exchange that Lai held no affection for him at all.

"Purgatory," he finally said. His voice was far huskier than what his features implied, like he had spent his life smoking. "I want to go home…. don't like the bed..."

"Can I make it better?" Lai asked.

The man nodded and his hand moved to her shoulder, pulling gently on it.

"I'll help if you meet my friend," she said, "His name is Mister Kaya."

Surprisingly, Lai climbed onto the bed with the boy and he rolled onto his back. Now straddling him, Lai placed Quinn's hands onto her thighs. The hostage turned to look at Kaya, ignoring the girl on top of him.

"Are you here to inject me as well? Want to hear big secrets?" Quinn muttered, "Don't worry. I'm hoping to starve myself to death so you don't have to clean up the mess."

"Quinn!" Lai said, despairingly, but she turned to Kaya and gave him an encouraging look.

"I've been turned into such a zombie I'm not sure that I ever felt emotion in the first place," he continued, "Don't you think that's inhumane?"

"Yes. I am sorry about that," Kaya said.

"Is that so?" Quinn seemed to be pondering the meaning behind his own words. He looked like the sort of person who, despite being blessed with soft features, was doomed to look ugly by his permanent frown.

Lai ran her hands through the man's hair again, as though trying to comb it.

"I am an honest person, but I cannot prove it to you," The photographer admitted, "What do you know about this place?"

The man shut his eyes and groaned. "I know that it exists to purge me of my soul."

"Why is that?" Kaya asked.

"They told me," Quinn said, "They were all involved with Mithril, but they didn't come save me, even though they knew who I was."

The man brought his hands slowly up Lai's thighs.

"How long have you known about Mithril?" the photographer asked.

"Years," Quinn said, "Last year it got worse. Sophia said Mithril was a mistake… end and destroy Mithril!"

Lai jumped and moved her hands down the boy's chest, but she looked nervous. Quinn pushed his arms out in front of him and the girl jumped off the bed.

"So tired," he said, "Sophia said AMALGAM was the gate to freedom. MITHRIL was a lie, a false paragon full of expert manipulators."

Lia brought a hand to her mouth and hurried over to the camera, where Kaya was supposedly sitting.

Tears filled her eyes as she waved her hands around. "See? He's so upset. No one can help."

"What is he studying?" Kaya asked.

"Mechanical Engineering," Lai muttered. "Same as me."

Quinn rolled onto his side again and groaned. "I don't like this bed!"

Kaya hesitated. "Can I bring others in the room?"

Suddenly desperate, Lai nodded vigorously.

The camera was closer to the bed. Mendez, Reve, and Celda were sitting on the floor a few feet away from where Tsung was laying, facing his back to the frame. Lai's outline was visible in the edge.

"Ask him why he's avoiding the answers to questions we already know the answer to," Celda suggested, with a hint of impatience.

"Hey, don't you think that's too much?" Reve muttered.

"The Captain already tried the Rapport and Reid Technique," Mendez pointed out. "We're kind of running out of ideas."

"He's too fucked up," Celda said.,"He needs to be off medication for us to talk to him."

Kurz laughed from somewhere in the background, "Yeah, I checked on him when the Research team got him… "Leave me alone,' quickly turned into 'Fuck off,' and thrashing."

From the bed, Quinn shouted something angrily which Kaya didn't understand, but judging from the immediate response from the proxies, it was in English.

"What did he say? I find the accent hard to understand." Kaya asked.

Giving up talking to Quinn, Celda lazily raised his hand, "He said 'You're fucking American, so speak your own fucking language."

"Be nice to them, Quinn!" Lai said, "The sooner you do as they say, we'll be let go."

"They're lying, Hui," Quinn replied in Mandarin. "I don't think I'll ever be let go. This is their prison and I'm stuck here, like a voodoo doll they stick pins in to see what happens."

"How did you first learn about Mithril?" Mendez asked in Japanese.

"Dreams," Quinn said in English. "High School… at first they were simple, but they got more complicated. I didn't think much of them until Sophia appeared over and over... like when I was awake too. She had such a history, like a sister I never had. I felt like I had met her somewhere before. She told me that there were others like me, but I would never meet them because Mithril had taken them away. Nobody who went there ever experienced freedom ever again…."

"Quinn, Mithril is just like an office. It is where lots of military people work," Reve explained tentatively, "It isn't a prison camp. We have autonomy and choices."

"How do you know? You don't work here."

"I have worked for Mithril for 10 years," Kaya explained. "I stay because I like it."

"You are all brainwashed," Quinn said, "You are part of Mithril's giant experiment to make humanity destroy itself! That's why Sophia is imprisoned in Kaname's mind! It's your fault!"

There was a hush of silence that fell over the room after Celda translated, with the realization that the boy knew about Kaname without even having met her.

My girlfriend reached for my hand in anxiety.

"It is the other way around, buddy," Kurz said sternly from somewhere off screen, "I was there when Kaname and Sophia's became one person. Sophia shouldn't be able to think on her own anymore."

"Do you think Sophia is a nice person?" Mendez wondered, in English.

Finally, Quinn turned around and faced her.

"She answers questions no one else can," He answered with an odd accent, "like my own personal angel."

"What's your medication for, Quinn?" Celda finally asked.

The boy groaned. "Ask the assholes in the laboratory. What do you think they're there for? You lazy jerk."

After translating, Celda rubbed his temples with his fingers, as though trying to remember something. He didn't seem bothered by the insult.

"Hui, I'm tired," Quinn said in Mandarin, "I don't want them here anymore."

"Thank you for letting us speak to you, Mister Tsung," Kaya said.

Quinn gave a small wave but closed his eyes, preparing for sleep.

Everyone except Lia and Mao were sitting on cushions in a circle on the floor, but no one was saying anything. There was a subtitle that read [It has been quiet for three minutes].

"Am I right in assuming that interrogating Mister Tsung was unsuccessful?" The Captain said as she entered a look of smugness on her face.

Groans were given in response.

"I am curious, Captain," Reve said, "If Tsung has been indoctrinated for years by Sophia it might take a lot more than an interrogation to get him to speak."

"That's if you do it nicely," Celda muttered. "I think this is one of those cases where sensory deprivation could work."

"He's already dealing with a form of sensory deprivation," Kurz interrupted in a joking tone

"If you tortured him we'd only be confirming his belief about Mithril," Mendez replied.

"Captain," Kaya said, "Could you explain for our sakes what you know about Sophia? I'm afraid I do not know much about it."

Tessa explained. The information was something I already knew, but Kaname was interested.

"Am I in danger if Sophia is no longer under my control?" she asked, "What should I do?"

"I imagine Sophia wants to complete her original goal," I said slowly, "if she cannot do it through you, she will find another to do her bidding."

We watched the screen as the Captain seemed to come to the same conclusion. She added, "The Research team believes that Sophia has gained control over Tsung while Kaname Chidori was asleep. Even if Tsung has only been in Ningbo this academic term they theorize that Tsung already had a strong relationship with Sophia. There is only a one hour difference between Ningbo and Tokyo, which explains how he could have set off a bomb late at night - if he was completely innocent - and how things may have gotten worse for him. The UK has a large time difference to Tokyo, making it very easy to Sophia to focus on him while other Whispered in the East are sleeping."

"Are you suggesting Sophia is trying to find a new kid to do her dirty work?" Kurz said, "Can she do that?"

"Apparently so, but the specifics are of little concern to us until we get a confession from Tsung." Tessa said firmly. "The Whisperer is a very powerful, intelligent being. It is not out of the question this happened since we are still gathering all there is to know on Black Technology."

"Do you think Sophia did it then, Captain?" Reve asked.

"That remains to be seen," Tessa said carefully, "but since the Reid technique did not work, we can only approach it from the angle of presuming his innocence."

"With all due respect, Captain," Celda began, although he sounded calm, "If that does not work I would like permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques."

The Captain's gaze grew steely, "Do you have any training in enhanced interrogation techniques, soldier?"
"Only books I have read, ma'am." The Filipino replied.

"It is true that Mithril sometimes uses these methods," Tessa said slowly, "But it is only done by those trained to do so and as a last resort."

"I am mentioning it in the case of a last resort, Captain," Celda clarified.

"I will think about it," Tessa replied finally, "but I do not think it is appropriate at this stage. I appreciate your input. I must go."

As she did, the room largely emptied. Celda appeared to follow the Captain and Reve gave one last look at the camera before vanishing to his room.

Unless the content had been deleted it did not seem like any of the details of the previous evening had been discussed. It was still unclear why the cameraman had decided to include intimate details of the trip on a video for them to see.

Kurz sighed and moved to Kaya and Mendez so they were closer to the camera.

"Hey you two, you wouldn't feel like doing me a favour?"

"What is it?" Mendez wondered.

"I don't know if you know, but I made a bet with Mao."

"I know," Mendez replied plainly.

"Kaya, man?"

"I haven't heard of it."

I felt somewhat pleased with myself that I knew something the camera man did not.

"I need some dirt on Reve," Kurz said in an undertone."You know… we could hardly get a word out of the guy when he was drunk."

Mendez sighed. "Are you filming this too?"

"I film everything," Kaya said, "The question remains is what I will cut."

"Do you think this will be kept on the DVD?" Mendez asked.

"Nah, no one cares about this stuff except us." Kurz shrugged.

The girl sighed again. "I'll only tell you what I know because I have a conflict of interest."

"I like the way you think," Kurz smirked, "What's got your brain twisted?"

Mendez stared at Kaya and then at the camera, "I don't like needless fighting. Anyway I have a story of what happened after the night out in Tokyo."

"Oooh, this sounds exciting!" Kurz leaned forward. All of them spoke in hushed whispers.

"We managed to catch the last train home and were on the way to the base,"  she explained, peering from side to side to make sure no one was listening. "We all have rooms at different areas. Austin went to his room first but Reve kept following me. I wanted to know what he was doing so asked."

"That's probably the safe thing to do," Kurz said with a shrug.

"He said he felt really sick," Mendez said, "I told him 'I hope you're not trying to get lucky.' He got all mopey and said he'd never do that because we were both drunk. Good guy."

"What happened next?" Kaya inquired.

"I got changed and sat near him while he bent over the toilet bowl, but he wasn't bad enough to puke." 

"That's good."

"Then he started crying and said he didn't want to be alone."

"He's probably the type to do that," Kurz didn't seem fazed, "What did you do?"

"I rubbed his back and kept him company for a while." She bit her lip. "He said he had to tell somebody about something that happened to him."


"It involved Austin."


"There was a big party Austin held last year at one of his friend's houses, just for socializing," Mendez said, "As you can imagine, everybody got pretty drunk. Reve drank too much and started vomiting in the shower."

"There's nothing like losing it in a shower," Kurz sighed.

"Austin ended up finding him there and made sure he was alright," Mendez said. "Stupid kid. Anyway, once Reve was conscious enough Austin turned on the shower and washed all the vomit away. He got Reve some clothes to change into and let him change in the bathroom."

"Seems pretty innocent."

"Seems," Mendez said, "Reve walks out in dry clothes and sees Austin sitting on the carpet against the bed frame, just resting, waiting for him. What does he do? Reve sits on Austin's lap, says thanks for taking care of him and tries to sleep. Again, that's pretty harmless? A bit disorientated, as you can predict, Austin tells Reve to get into the bed, but he doesn't move away. That's when things got curious."


Mendez looked grim and amused at the same time. "From what Reve told me…" she leaned her face closer to the camera, "Austin got a boner."

Kaya chuckled at this.

"It happens to the best of us," Kurz sighed.

"Yeah, like whatever. They were drunk, who cares?" Mendez said annoyed.

"Yet it upset Reve," Kurz said.

"Reve said he was so drunk he just went with it."

"Meaning what?"

The American looked amused. "Reve started rubbing his butt against…it…."

"Oh Jesus," Kurz hit his forehead in exasperation; "You don't seem shocked, Kaya."

"It is just an interesting story," the photographer said.

"I thought Austin would stop him," Mendez continued. "He'd just pick Reve up and put him to bed like he planned."

"He definitely would have the strength for it," Kurz agreed.

"Austin let Reve do it," Mendez said. "Not for a few seconds, but ages."


"Enough that Austin made a mess, let's say…"

"Huh." Kurz seemed bewildered.


Kaya burst into sniggers. It seemed like the sort of laugh one gives when extremely uncomfortable.

"But they were both drunk," Kurz reminded her.

"Yeah. I'm pretty sure any guy would react like that, but Reve seems to think it meant something more."

"Why did he think that?" Kaya inquired.

"Apparently Austin held Reve very close."


"Said his name too…. more than once."

"Sounds like high school sleep over drama to me,"  Kurz mentioned.

"I'm not sure if you can use this story as evidence to prove Reve has feelings to Celda and conclude the bet, Kurz," Kaya said thoughtfully, "It could have been a spontaneous venture."

"Let me finish," Mendez said, "Reve told me he was so upset because he had grown to love Austin… Reve was pretty confused. Austin always avoids the subject when Reve tries to talk about it. Probably embarrassed…. He didn't remember he told me the next morning, so I decided to spare his dignity. Don't tell them I said this."

"Hey, I don't judge," Kurz said, "I've had my own share of drunken adventures that I'd rather were kept in the dark."

Mendez smiled and looked Kurz in the eye for the first time during the entire conversation. "You'll have to trade one sometime."

"Hey, do I need to separate you two?!" Mao threatened, now in the room.

Startled, Mendez gave a small bow and got up from her seat as Kurz blurted out excuses to defend himself.

"I've just been talking to Tessa." The ex-marine's suspicious eyes looked into the screen. "Trying to figure out how to question Tsung next… His girlfriend is creepy, don't you think?"

"They're not boyfriend and girlfriend," Kaya said, "Although I am not sure what they are."

"Oh, that's a great plan," Mao said, "Could you talk to Lai again first?"

Chapter Text

They were in Lai's designated room judging by how barren it was, and the small pile of Quinn’s belongings in the corner. She looked up from her phone as the door opened and demanded, "What is he doing here?"

Kaya, who had the camera over his shoulder, turned it to display where Reve was standing.

"What did she say?" he asked with a small wave.

"She's wondering why you came in," Kaya said slowly. "I am, too."

"Of course, I didn't mean to be rude." Reve bowed. "I wanted to talk to you, Tamotsu. I have a favour to ask."

"Please sit down," Kaya said without hesitation. He then turned to Lai and translated to her. As Reve sat down he peered cautiously at Lai, who picked up her mobile phone and started to browse what looked like her calendar.

"I was wondering if I might be allowed to give the Captain the information from Lai. You seem so tired, and I want to be useful."

"You are doing all that you can, Ryung-Ja," Kaya said, while the buttons of Lai's phone beeped.

Reve looked uncomfortable, as though someone had just told him he'd be given an injection. "There's always more to do."

"That doesn't mean you have to put it all on yourself," Kaya said.

"Can you tell me what you are really thinking?" Reve said earnestly, "I will accept rejection if that's what you want, but…"

A gentle pleading in the man's eyes was visible even in the dim light.

Lai peered up from her phone, possibly alerted to the change in tone.

"I will tell you," Kaya said after a pause, "Please tell the Captain this: Lai has complicated feelings for Quinn…she sees him like... a 'cute but smelly wet dog with a broken leg' were her words."

"Of course," Reve nodded. "Did she say how they met?"

"It was unintentional on Lai's part," Kaya said, "They shared a number of lectures together and Lai sat two rows in front of Quinn. The two knew who the other was because they were often asking questions and participating in in-class activities."

Reve looked as though he wanted to ask a question although gestured for the photographer to continue.

"One day after a lecture Quinn approached Lai and asked if he could borrow her textbook. Apparently he hadn't been sleeping well and had accidentally left his copy in the library. She did. In the lectures that followed Lai kept asking for the textbook back so she could do readings, but Quinn kept forgetting it in his room. The fourth time this happened Lai asked Quinn to give it back or please buy her another one because she was falling behind. Quinn promised they could walk to his room after and he'd get it, that way he wouldn't forget."

"Quinn's memory was negatively affected. Got it," Reve repeated.

"On the way to Building 11 Quinn kept losing his place in the conversation and looking over his shoulder so Lai wondered about how bad his sleep was. 'Just nightmares', he said, but in the next lecture Quinn sat nearer to her. They started to talk more, and eventually Quinn confessed that he was scared the world wasn't real and Lai was the only person who was. He asked for help with his study so he could keep up his grades, and Lai did on the condition he got help, but the process took a lot of convincing. Quinn opened up to her slowly. First he told lies, that Sophia was an ex-girlfriend who had died and he had trouble with grief, but his mood, sleep and general detachment from the world was so strong Lai wasn't convinced. 'He was too weird to be just grieving," she said, 'sometimes he'd just say things that didn't make sense'. She suspected he was on drugs and to make things easier Quinn said he was. The doctor had given him medication but he wouldn't tell Lai what was wrong… until he broke down."

"What did he do?" Reve wondered. 

"He tried to kill himself with the sleeping pills the Doctor gave him, but it was unsuccessful. After being hospitalized Quinn was sent back to the doctor again to reassess his case and referred onto a psychiatrist and psychologist."

"Is that where he got Seloquel from?"

"Lai says so," Kaya explained, "He is apparently a high functioning schizophrenic with major depression. Since the medication helped Quinn become more present, our Mithril psychologist believes he has persecatory delusions alongside being a Whispered."

"How interesting!" Reve said, with a smile. "The medication wasn't all for nothing."

"Lai didn't see Quinn as more than an acquaintance, but he got very attached to her. He kept saying that he was scared if she left for too long that he would cease to exist, that someone would come hurt him. No matter what Lai said Quinn didn't listen."

"Maybe that's Sophia's fault?" Reve suggested.

"When Quinn eventually described the full extent of his experiences, it took weeks for Lai to believe him. The discovery that Mira, Leonard and Kaname were real shocked her. Quinn wanted to do something about Mithril, come up with a revenge plan. Lai told him no, but Quinn said he only would wait if she would keep him company in his room. Too scared of him in his unstable state, she did."

"Is that why they have a sexual relationship?" Reve whispered, even though Lai couldn't understand him.

"Quinn told Lai he felt romantically toward her. Lai didn't want him to feel more depressed, so said because of school they couldn't date, but they would have a physical relationship instead. I hope Lai can better distinguish what he means to her once Quinn is well."

"I agree. It's so sad." Reve noted, "And the bomb?"

"She didn't want to talk about that."

"I understand. I'll let the Captain know."

Reve turned to Lai and bowed, doing the same for Kaya, "Tell her thank you from me."

Kaya did and Lai gave Reve a small smile, the first one she had given throughout the whole trip. It was incredible how much more pleasant she seemed from the small change.

"Thank you to you too, Ryung-Ja." Kaya said, with a small bow. It wasn't clear what the meaning behind the words were, but Reve gave another polite nod of the head, smiled and left.

Next was a montage of sorts as the team chatted and played games. Lai, Mao, Kurz and even Tessa joined in with the Proxies at some point. Music had been added behind the footage. They also made lunch, although the conversation was not highlighted.

Lai and Kaya washed dishes afterward.

"What is the silver girl going to do to Quinn?" she asked after a while.

"The Captain needs to ensure Quinn is not a threat to us until we decide what to do with him," Kaya explained in Mandarin, "That's why it is so important that we find out about the bomb."

Lai hesitated for five seconds. It was beginning to create doubt of whether she had heard or not.

"Quinn isn't a danger," she said finally, "Sophia is."

The photographer hesitated, possibly thinking of what to say. It was interesting how big the height difference was between them. The two passed dishes to each other and only splashing of water could be heard for a while.

"Do you know about what happened?" Kaya asked tentatively.

It was hard to see in the camera but Lai shrugged.

"What will happen to Quinn?" she repeated.

The man sighed heavily and halted drying some porcelain chopsticks.

"If he is a danger Mithril will either hand him to the Police or our Research division where he will be under surveillance and close supervision. In worse cases, I've seen hostages killed."

"Son of a whore!" Lai swore, and it was the first obscenity which was translated, "You are a liar, just like he said. Mithril is a prison!"

"You are misunderstanding, Miss Lai," Kaya gave an apologetic nod of the head, "This is only if he proves to be a danger."

"I just told you, he isn't!" Lai shouted.

"Hey!" Celda approached them, "What's going on?"

Lai splashed some water from the sink in the Filipino's direction. "$ %$ # #$ !"

"Splash me any time, lady," Celda said with a deadpan expression.

"Celda is checking that we are alright," Kaya assured her, "Please, settle down."

"I don't know what's worse!" Lai shouted, "That you think I'm a liar, or you're a liar! Don't follow me! I don't like you!"

Without much more, the Singaporean tore off the rubber gloves from her small hands, and pushed Celda as she passed. As she exit the frame there were tears of rage in her eyes. Kaya groaned.

"You did a good job, Shutterbug," Celda said calmly, picking up the gloves Lai had left.

The photographer didn't answer. "Could you let Madam Testarossa what new information I have?"


A scream burst from somewhere in the distance.

"Quinn, no!" Lai shouted.

Off screen, a gun fired and glass shattered.

"Little shit!" Mao's shouted, boots crashing against the floor as they ran.

Without another thought, Kaya picked up the camera behind him and hurried over to the scene, Celda in front. It didn't take very long. Somehow, Quinn was walking about the building, holding a gun to Celda's face.

"Show me the way out or you die!" he shouted in English, which Celda translated.

Lao was holding up her hands and trying to keep composed, "Quinn, they're not keeping you here for no reason. They're going back to the University when you are feeling better. We can leave then."

"It's just a trap!" the young adult shouted in Mandarin, "I'll be kept hostage forever! You know it's true, Lai."

In the confusion, Mao took careful aim and shot Quinn's foot. He screamed and stumbled, hunching over yet he remained standing. He still had hold of the gun, although it was at his side and his finger wasn't on the trigger.

“Bring that bastard down," demanded Kurz from somewhere off screen. Celda nodded. Kurz and Celda tackled Quinn. He was forced down. Kurz sat on his hips and Celda sat on the middle of his back. From here Celda held Quinn’s arms behind his back so he couldn't move. Face down on the floor, Tsung turned his head to the left to see. He screamed something in English. Celda retorted but it was overshadowed by:

“What should I do?” Mendez asked, arriving in front of the camera.

“Get Quinn’s gun,” Kurz ordered. Mendez did, digging her knee into his back and using her two free hands to strenuously pull the gun free. Tsung kicked his legs and struggled, some blood from his foot splattered on the floor.

“Got it!” She called.

“Nice going Mendez,” Celda muttered.”Quinn, stop kicking around or this goes on longer.”

“Can you hold him while I get the gun away?” Mendez inquired.
The camera moved back a few paces.Celda answered Mendez’s question but it was interrupted by:
"Kill him and I'll make a revenge plan for him!" Lai shouted, but Mao grabbed hold of her.
"We just want to talk," Kaya assured them. "We're not holding any weapons and we'll stay in the one room."

“No you want to hurt him! Why are you holding him?!” Lai shouted.

“Stop struggling and we will stop doing this!” Mao growled.

“Let go of me first,” Lai commanded.
Kaya groaned in annoyance.

“Lai! They're going to take me away!” Quinn screamed.

“We are only going to take you back to your room, you moron!” Celda admonished.

“Tessa's going to be firing the inattentive ass who helped you get a gun,” Kurz groused.

Mendez and Celda must have come to an agreement because she dashed towards the camera.
"What can we do to help?" Reve said loudly over the noise, appearing to only just arrive.

“I think we have enough hands,” Mao grunted.
“Put this somewhere secure,” Mendez instructed Reve, handing him the gun. “Tell one of the doctors where we are and get them to stabilize him. We also need someone with bandages for his foot.”

“Gun away, doctors here...Right away,” Reve said. He power walked past.

“Thanks. We will see if he calms down until then,” Mendez said. She approached Mao although kept watch in case she was needed.
"Quinn is safe. You're making it unsafe!" Mao shouted at Lai, "We can’t sit back and do nothing if Quinn has a gun.”

“I know Mao and if she says she won't hurt you, she won’t,” Kurz assured Lai.
“He knows me best,” Mao agreed. “Just like you know Quinn best.”
Lai went limp and burst into angry tears. After a lot of mumbling she wailed, "I don't know!"
Mao loosened her grip although kept near her unless Lai tried something again.

“It’s very stressful,” Mendez empathized. “Can I get you anything?”

“I don’t know!”

“Let’s find you somewhere quiet to sit then?” Mendez suggested.

“No…” Lai protested. That being said, she sat on the floor and sobbed.

“Okay. The floor it is,” Mendez answered.
It was difficult to watch how out of hand the situation had become. The biggest mystery was how Tsung had gotten out. Maybe a member of the medical team had thought he was stable enough to not be tied down. Or he figured out how to leave the room himself. There was little way of knowing.

Quinn slowed down kicking and struggling too, although it seemed due to exhaustion. “Don’t trust them, Lai.”

“We heard the first time, buddy,” Kurz said wearily.

The woman covered her face and shook her head while she cried. Everyone else seemed drained.

Urgent footsteps could be heard.

“Over there,” Reve pointed out Quinn.

Someone sighed. “Sorry about this.”

A team of medical staff approached. Two of them knelt next to Quinn, a male and female. “Will you come back to the room with us?” the female asked.

“No,” Quinn responded.

"If you don't come calmly, we will have to restrain you," the female medical staff said.

"You'll do whatever you want! You don’t care about me!"

"We do. We are giving you a choice. You can come with us without a fuss or we will put you in a jacket for a little while."

"Jacket, no jacket. It makes no difference!"

"We're going to use the jacket for a little while, alright?"


"But first my friend will bandage your foot. Just something simple. We will properly fix it soon... once we are out of the room."


The male staff member, gloves already on, opened a first aid kit. 

After the wound was cleaned and bandaged (as much as could be done temporarily with a bullet wound), four more medical staff stepped forward to place Quinn in a straight jacket. They lifted him together and carried him back to the room.

Mao went with them. "I will let Tessa know."

"Good going," Celda replied, back on his feet. 

"Good luck," Kurz called with a wave. It became a lot quieter. "That was depressing. Kids let me know when you are free for a debrief."

The candidate all communicated that they had heard and understood.

Lai didn't lift her head and continued to sob on the floor.

“How about we find you another room?” Mendez asked.

Kaya translated although Lai shook her head as a new wave of tears burst forth.

“What’s wrong?” Kaya asked.

Lai didn't answer.

Mendez crouched down. “Are you not allowed to say because of Quinn?”

Once Kaya translated, Lai nodded.

“That’s a clever guess, Ella,” Reve said.

“Can you explain why?” Kaya asked Lai.

Again she didn't respond.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Mendez said.

“Leave her for a while,” Kaya said. “Go debrief with the others. Kurz will know what to do after. I will try to speak to Lai later. Thank you for your help.”

Mendez and Reve bowed and stepped towards Kurz.

 The scene faded out and then faded into Tessa's office. She turned around in her chair, gaze untrusting. "Yes?"

"Kaya finally got Lai to reveal information about Quinn,” Mendez said. “We wanted to pass that on, Captain.”

“Certainly,” Tessa said. “Before you share that I would like to commend you on your team work with Kurz and Mao of managing Quinn’s… outburst. Mao thought you did well. She was impressed.”

The team bowed. “Thank you.”

“Do you mind me inquiring as to how Quinn got the gun?” Reve asked.

“It was a complicated situation,” Tessa said. “I am still gathering CCTV footage and interviewing the medical and research teams. I will make an announcement when it has been decided what happened, how, and what I intend to do about it.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Reve replied.

“I would also like to briefly discuss the recording of the capture of Quinn.”

“Yes?” Celda pressed.

“It is clear that you each have your strengths. Yet there is much to learn. Celda, you have a tendency to be aggressive and -at times- degrading. This has a time and place where it is effective. At other times it worsens situations. Please keep that in mind.”

“Understood, Captain,” Celda said. “Does Mithril have a preferred approach?”

“It depends on the situation,” Tessa said. “However, I don't like causing harm just for the sake of it. For example, Mendez, when Quinn had a seizure you knocked him out. It would have been more appropriate to wait until the seizure was over. Then you could check he was well and gag him like Lai if you had to. I understand that you were forced to improvise although I would consider escalation only when necessary, like when Quinn poses an imminent danger. Just a hint… like with the gun.”

“Thank you for your honesty, Captain,” Mendez replied. “I realized it wasn't right shortly afterwards although by then it was too late. I will ensure it doesn't happen again.”

“Excellent,” Tessa said. “I am pleased to hear it.”

“Do you have any advice for me, Captain?” Reve asked.

“Hmm…” Tessa thought about it. “Take risks only when you feel confident and capable.”

“Thank you.”

“I am sure Sagara will agree that you are all competent and it makes the selection process difficult.”

Yes, I silently concurred.

“Moving on… what did we discover about Quinn?”

"Quinn made the bomb using his Black Technology stores, or whatever the proper terminology is," Reve said. “He ordered materials mostly through word of mouth so the pattern would be more challenging to discover,” Celda explained.

"But he didn't want to kill anyone!" Mendez added in a rush.

"It was meant to grab the attention of Amalgam," Celda said, "which is basically saying he intended to cause mass homicide."

"But Sophia was the only who convinced him to plant the bomb in the first place," Mendez said.

"Yes." Tessa nodded, "at least we have the information now and it was given freely, although it is not clear yet how we will handle this. How did the CCTV not detect the bomb planting?"

"Quinn said that was an effect of the electromagnetic pulse," Reve said.

"I think he's guilty," Celda said, "and his motive is still a mystery, but we'll leave the decision up to you, Captain."

The Whispered picked up a tuft of her hair and brushed it against her face. “Yes, there's a lot to do. Not nearly enough time to do it in. I think I would like to speak to Lai and Quinn myself. With enough rest, I am sure we can determine what happened.” She rose from her chair. “Thank you, team. And Kaya-san of course.”

“My pleasure, Captain,” Kaya responded.

There was a knock on the door. The camera moved.

"Come in," Kaya said.

Mendez peered her head through the door. "Are you alright?"

"I am very well," the photographer said, "I just need to charge the camera battery before it dies on me."

It was lonely to see the young American walk in the door,  impassive. 

"Dinner isn't quite the same without you spying on us," Mendez smiled. "Besides; we won't see you after this. After Lai is brought back to the University campus, the Captain said even if we are not chosen we will be allowed to do the physical and AS training to be placed in Mithril reserves if we want. I definitely won't say no to more knowledge and experience."

"That's very positive," Kaya said, "I hope that Mithril will not lose the remaining two."

"Me too." Mendez bowed deeply. "I am very happy to have met all of you."

"Same to you, Ella."

She stepped back. "Good luck with putting the video together."

The camera was put down, the two hugged and the girl left.

Shortly after Reve returned.

"Hello, Ryung Ja," Kaya said, filled with warmth.

The man bowed and entered, shutting the door.

"I wanted to say goodnight," Reve said, "All this learning has exhausted me. I think I'll have an early night so I can recover."

"I hope you, like Mendez, will stay in touch no matter who gets Sagara's position." Kaya said.

The Korean moved closer to the photographer and sat down.

"Definitely," Reve agreed, and a small smile curled his lips. "Do you have a favourite, if you were allowed to choose?"

"That depends," Kaya replied, "You all have unique qualities. I… my choices are purely based on my own selfishness."

"Like what?" Reve asked, "You're so humble. No need to say you're selfish."

"For example, I want to pick you for the sole reason of seeing your smile on a regular basis."

"You don't mean that," the candidate waved the compliment away with a blush, "I have one of the worst smiles because of my teeth."

"A smile is not merely from a mouth," Kaya pointed out, "but the emotion shines the eyes, cheeks, nose… it is a true expression of happiness."

Reve, surprisingly, tried to hide his face with his hands, something he had never done before on the footage. When he pulled them away he was half grinning.

"What are you doing, flattering me at a time like this?"

"I am sorry," Kaya said. "You're right. I am getting too emotional."

Reve gave an awkward bow and it was silent for a few moments.

"I remember you said that your life circumstances make your emotions confusing," the photographer said with a strange tone, "so I will try to keep my distance."

"Tamotsu…" Reve seemed to lose his words as he pushed some of Kayas hair out of his face, "Thank you for…"

"It was my pleasure," Kaya interrupted, before he could finish.

Reve passed Kaya a piece of paper. "Please accept this. I'd like to know you have it, even if you never use it. Consider it a gift."

It wasn't clear what it was, but the photographer gave a word of thanks before Reve disappeared from view.

A small ending sequence appeared on screen -a montage was included after all - when I heard a mutter from Kaname.

"I think I know why he put all that private stuff in the video," she said carefully, and to my surprise, she picked up the disc packet. "Can I talk to him? His number is on here somewhere, isn't it?"

Complying without question, I pulled the letter out of my pocket and handed it to my girlfriend.

She smiled broadly. "It's not as scary to watch that stuff when you know it's not happening right in front of you," she admitted, "Aren't you glad you didn't go?"

Truth be told, I wasn't sure what to say, but I think Kaname understood the struggle in my heart by the way she smiled. 

Chapter Text

I finally felt like I could relax my shoulders, although my mind had not halted for one moment. What was the point of all the emotional detail in the video? Not only was it unprofessional, it was irrelevant. Kaname punched in Kaya’s private number into her cell phone and held it to her ear. Apparently, it didn’t ring for long.

“Hello Kaya-san, this is Kaname Chidori. We haven’t met but…” She crossed one leg over the other. “Yes. I did watch it. We liked it. Didn’t we, Sousuke?”

Though I was bewildered by her stern glance in my direction, I answered with perfect clarity, “Yes. I am most grateful you recorded the events so beautifully, Kaya-san.”

There was a buzz of, “I am delighted to hear it, Mister Sagara” before Kaname returned the phone to her ear. I pondered on my professional opinion of the candidates as she talked.

“I had a question – it might sound weird – but we were really curious as to why some parts of the video were kept in? I mean, I have a guess although…”

First there was Reve. He was agile and his shorter build could prove advantageous in stealth situations. All the same, he didn’t appear to have much respect for professional boundaries. That may be because of the informal introduction to me, yet becoming involved with Kaya-san an hour before a trial mission was unwise and imprudent.

Mendez was hard working and diplomatic, although her style didn’t appear confrontational. This could be trained, if she had any brashness in her. It appeared she did. Also, the Captain was fair to criticize Mendez’s choice to knock the target Quinn unconscious in order to subdue him. In that situation there was more than one solution, and she had chosen one that harmed someone the team were supposed to be questioning. Another positive was that the candidate had responded well to criticism.

“You really want to know?” Kaname said, and she scratched her face absently. “To be honest, I was confused at first but then I realized you don’t seem too confident with your English. How many languages do you know? Four!? Wow. Impressive. Yeah, I have trouble with spoken English too sometimes. Ah, so that’s good to know I was right. Do… do you want a translation of the conversation then?”

It was true that Austin was aggressive in his approach but he was not afraid to take action when it was required.

Damn. This decision was difficult.

“Sure, I can do that,” Kaname said. She gave me a look that made me think she would be a while on the phone. I left the sofa to open my email on my computer and drafted a new message:


Good evening Captain,

I just finished the video Kaya-san sent me. I was impressed with his work. Here are my initial thoughts…

I became so immersed in recording my ideas that I jolted upright when my beloved placed her hands on my shoulders from behind me.

“Kana-chan!” I exclaimed.

“It’s just me, Sousuke,” she said with a chuckle, resting her chin on my head.

“I have a problem, Kana-chan,” I said, almost forgetting to address her properly, “I cannot decide who should replace me. All three are equally competent.”

“I don’t know. I can only think of rating them like how I delegate teams in student council meetings.” Kaname shrugged, “Who do you think would get along best with Weber and Mao?”

“Hmm, that is a good question,” I admitted. “Reve and Mendez displayed skills that differ most from the Special Response Team. They could be incredibly useful, but Celda has a style most similar to mine.”

“I noticed Weber hitting on Mendez and making his new girlfriend really mad,” Kaname pointed out. “Are you sure you want to put those two together?”

“Weber’s decision to upset Mao is not mine to fix,” I pointed out.

“No, but I wouldn’t want to cause trouble.”

“If Mao had big enough of a problem with Weber’s behaviour she would speak to him about it,” I affirmed,

“Okay, okay!” my beloved seemed to be losing her patience. “How do we help you decide who’s best then?”

“Yes, this is a problem.” I rubbed my chin with a finger, “Although I think you are right, Kana-chan.  The determining factor is not necessarily one of physical skill, but of personality and who best compliments the other Special Response Team members.”

“Good thinking!” Kaname said, moving so close to me that her breasts were pressing into my back. “I don’t know if I can help. You know Kurz and Mao better than me.”

I tried to ponder on what my teammate’s opinions would be as my girlfriend weaved our fingers together in a lock.

“Mao and Weber would like someone who is to the point and has a sense of humour.” I said carefully. “In fact, they are probably less concerned about combat skill than I am… so long as the candidate can follow instructions and is not completely incompetent.”

“Who do you think is the most to the point?”

No hesitation. “Celda.”

“Sense of humour?”

“I am not certain.”

“I suppose senses of humour aren’t your strong suit,” Kaname admitted. “Who is best out of Reve and Mendez then?”

“I personally think Reve is irresponsible when it comes to boundaries,” I explained. “It makes me wonder what other rules he is willing to dismiss. He is old enough to know better.”

“Yeah,” Kaname reluctantly agreed. “I don’t think it should matter, so long as he can still do everything.”

“I know you are biased because you and the Captain both found him charming,” I remarked.

Kaname went pink. I knew I was right.

“I suppose Celda fits Mao and Weber’s type of humor the most. Mendez made more mistakes in the field, although I get the impression she can learn better and she follows instructions well. Her style could complement Mao and Kurz’s just as well.”

“What have you got so far?” Kaname squinted to read my email. “That looks good. Are you supposed to pick a best?”

“Yes and rank them. My notes and scores of the criteria are added to those of a panel to avoid nepotism.”

“That sounds intense.”
“It isn’t. It is a simple procedure.”

“Anyway, it sounds complicated to me.”

“It is like taking votes about a festival stall in your classes. Or like marking homework.”
“I agree at times.”

“Then we’re down to two. Celda or Mendez?”

I realized that Mendez reminded me of Nami and perhaps part of me wanted her to succeed because I was sentimental. Still, she seemed to have the most potential whereas Celda had some stubborn traits. I knew enough about stubborn soldiers to know that, depending in what way they were stubborn, they could be the most troublesome and potentially endanger everyone in the team.

“Mendez,” I said, “Followed by Celda and Reve last.”

“Cool! Time to finish the email.”

I included information on my final decision. Kaname thought  three paragraphs was more than enough information. 

"Should I include the information from the DVD?"

"I don't think so.  I mean, it's private."

"Not anymore."

Kaname sounded uncomfortable. "I don't think there's much point unless it affected your decision."

"It did," I said. "Reve is last on my ranking because of it. Tessa wouldn't be pleased to here that Reve and Kaya-san had been unethical."

"You're writing the email, not me. Couldn't you tell her if Tessa wants more information on your decision? That way it's not in writing."

"That's a good point," I replied. "I will think about it although I may tell her over the phone anyway."

"I don't see why you can’t keep a secret," Kaname admonished. "They did everything else right. You couldn't tell they were sleep deprived or anything. Let them have a private life!"

"I simply don't want my superior left in the dark about anything that could cause problems later."

 "I don't know them that well, sure, but I don’t think so. Think about you and me. You didn't suddenly stop being a good soldier and you'd be pretty hypocritical to lecture anyone about ethics, Sousuke."

I sighed. She was right. Perhaps I was projecting due to my own insecurities. "You're right," I conceded. "I won't tell her unless she asks."

Kaname smiled. "Good to know."

I added that final detail and clicked send. It was a relief to see the draft successfully transfer.

“Thank you for your help, Kana-chan,” I explained. “What did Kaya-san want?”

Kaname appeared uneasy. “He… wanted someone to explain to him what Reve and Celda were talking about in that nighttime section. Apparently Kaya found their whispering hard to decipher.”
“I see.” I squeezed her hand. “Why was he so curious?”

“I mean… couldn’t you tell?”

I looked up at her. “I gathered that Kaya-san and Reve had a tryst. Otherwise, I don’t know.”

“That’s part of it,” Kaname said slowly, resting her head on my shoulder. “Take another guess.”
“I said I don’t know.”
“Dummy, Kaya-san liked Reve.”

I raised my eyebrow, not sure how else to express my jubilation. “I fail to see how you deduced that from the video.”

“You could see it with how they were acting around each other,” Kaname said, airily.

“Apparently, I didn’t see what you did.”
“Forget it. Here’s a different question. When did you first noticed I liked you?”

“An interesting change of topic,” I said, “which is difficult to address.”

“I’m genuinely curious.”

“I first asked myself if perhaps you had feelings for me… erm… one time we went to the beach.”

“We’ve done that tons of times!”

“Yes, that’s true. It must have been the second or third time, because I thought you couldn’t possibly be interested in my appearance for such a prolonged period of time”
Kaname snorted. “Yes, I would!”

I smiled at her. “When did you first wonder if I liked you ?”

Kaname hesitated. “I’m… not sure. If I did notice something, I thought I was imagining it.”

“That is unfortunate but an understandable conclusion to make, Kana-chan.”

She thankfully chortled.

“So... am I making you freak out right now or what?” Kaname asked.

“No. Is there a reason I should be?”

Kaname buried her face into my neck. “My chest is up against you.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” I enjoyed it although I wasn’t nervous. “I like it. I feel perfectly calm.”

“That’s good to hear. I like knowing you’re calm.”

I felt slightly guilty.  “I am ashamed and embarrassed by our time together after our date.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know what you were intending the outcome to be,” I said, “but I was frustrated I couldn't… um…”


“Like you told me once… I wanted...” I felt my palms get sweaty. “I wanted to t-t-take off my c-clothes and… have my way with - I mean, make love to you.”

There I went again, rushing out of discomfort. It took everything I had to peer up at her. Kaname looked bewildered at my admission.

“I am sorry I didn't,” I finished. “I didn’t know how.”

“Sousuke, I… don't want you to feel pressured or anything. That defeats the fun of it.” She looked slightly embarrassed yet it was endearing to me.

“I know that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise,” I said. “Yet I am frustrated all the same. I suppose I wanted you so strongly it began to hurt.”

“You idiot,” Kaname said, gently. “Sex- or whatever it is we do-- it’s supposed to be fun. Don't get all serious and ruin it.”

“I apologize,” I said. “I suppose I don’t know where to go from here. I am unsure of how to make myself more comfortable.”

“It takes time and…” Kaname blushed. “Maybe you already have some idea. I mean this is one way to think about it. When you imagine... d-doing it with me, what is it like?”

I felt my face go hot. “I just… it’s good.”
“That’s a start and all but… what do you think about? It could be what you’re more comfortable with.”

“To put it simply, I want to experience all of you. The other day… I, uh… never mind.” I avoided her eye. “What do you imagine it being like?”

Kaname went pink. “I don’t know if you really want to know that. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“I sincerely do want to know,” I said. “Perhaps if you explain I can put my own thoughts into words.”

“Let’s see. I…” Kaname hesitated. “I know it sounds typical romance movie and all, but I think about you saying how much you love me. You brush the hair out of my eyes gently and kiss me. As you do that you move your hands down my front until… of course, you are the gentleman so check if I am ok. I say that I can't stand being away from you and I take off my skirt, my pants… you're flustered but you ask if you can make love to me. I said I have wanted you to for ages. You hoist me up onto a chair, desk or something and… that's basically what happens.”

She buried her face in her hands. “Now you tell me something more embarrassing so then I can feel better.”

”That…” I tried to find words. Unfortunately it came out disjointed, “was a colourful description. But lovely. Much appreciated.”

Regardless of my panicked excitement, it was undeniably comforting that her fantasy revolved around a complementary theme to my own.

“What did you think about?” Kaname asked, more quietly. “You didn’t say.”

I brought to mind my fantasy in the shower, about I had total, yet non-violent control over Kaname as I pushed myself into her. Nonetheless, Kaname was a willing, consenting recipient of that control, of my desire and my love. How to translate this sentiment into words, though?

“I… want you to be mine to please,” I settled on, finally. “I think about holding onto you, perhaps forcefully, and not letting go until both of us are satisfied.”
I don’t know what exactly about the phrasing interested Kaname, although blood dribbled down from her nose and she appeared lost in a trance.

“Alrighty, then,” she said, dreamily.

I remembered Tessa using a similar tone around  me many times and its underlying meaning seemed to crush me. All this time I had no idea… how could I be so foolish?

“It’s not a p-problem,” I said, trying to halt my stutter.