"That's the last straw," Kaname mumbled.
She watched as pots and pans---all full of food---came flying out of the opening in the cafeteria wall.
Most people were watching in disbelief. Not Kaname, however. She had seen more than her share of bizarre, unbelievable, and incomprehensible things, all thanks to a certain scar-faced student.
It had all started innocently enough.
Lunch had promised to be pleasant.
Kaname, Ren, and Kyouko had each cooked up one item to bring in. Ryo, Maya, and Mizuki had waited in line to buy a few items that looked close to being edible. Sharing the food, they became quickly engrossed in gossip.
They even sat and became somewhat philosophical, wondering where they would all be five years from then.
Sousuke, as usual, sat like the Sphinx, a never-moving stone statue with its gaze placed firmly on Kaname's table.
The Sphinx had managed to say 'Thank you' ……… but nothing more……… when Kaname brought over a plate for him too. But, his gratitude was quite evident: he tossed aside his protein bar and actually managed to take a number of bites.
That had been enough to make Kaname smile.
Sometimes a joke can break the mood, make a stale situation into something lively or vibrant. Other times, a joke can kill the mood, or makes things divisive or defensive. That afternoon, a joke lit the fuse that led to a veritable powder keg.
"I... I... I..." One boy lurched to his feet. "I think they're trying to p---p---p---poison us." He staggered about, bumping into his fellow students and knocking trays to the floor.
"The t... t... tempura." With that, he folded up like the dying villain in a bad black and white movie. He lay unmoving for minutes. Some people took the bait……… almost certain it was a joke…….. and went over to shake the boy with no response.
Before the girls knew what happened, a blur went past and the tempura was gone. Maya's hand was left suspended over an empty part of the table.
Not long thereafter, a number of loud 'Crashes' and 'Bangs' sounded in the bowels of the food preparation area.
Soon enough, the 'Time of the flying pots' began.
Sousuke was getting better: when he was satisfied that the food was safe…….. each and every variety…….. he returned to Kaname's table. He brought a fresh plate of tempura.
"You may all eat in safety and strictest confidence," he said.
Kaname was getting better, too.
A watchful Kyouko…….. busy taking pictures…….. might beg to differ. There was no halisen symphony. No knees to the groin. Soususke was not flung across the room by his neck.
"Why... thank... you... so... very... much..." Kaname spat out, pushing a breaded piece of food into Sousuke's mouth with each word.
"JUST WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???"
"Kmrmrmnmnm…(gulp)…Kaname, I……..." Sousuke never managed to finish what he had intended to say.
The other Jindai students looked on.
It was like a living soap opera.
"Never mind. I know the answer, You WEREN'T thinking!" Kaname's anger was the result of pent-up feelings. It had been a rather 'Sousukesque' week, similar to the dark days that followed the young soldier's arrival at the school. "You were reacting. Badly."
She tossed her hair and left.
Sousuke, handed a mop and a rather large shovel, was unable to follow.
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
The last straw.
'The straw that broke the camel's back.'
That saying was attributed to Charles Dickens in his story 'Dombey and Son,' Chapter 2.
'As the last straw breaks the laden camel's back' was written to point out the fact that there is a limit to everyone's endurance. Everyone has his or her own breaking point.
It wasn't a new observation.
Especially not for Kaname.
Dickens may well have had his inspiration from a much earlier proverb recorded by Thomas Fuller in his 'Gnomologia' :
'Tis the last feather that breaks the horse's back.'
Kaname was neither camel nor horse. Sousuke's escapades were not as light as a feather, nor were they a practical as straw.
Just the same, a boundary had been crossed.
Maybe it was simply because she had been ravishingly hungry.…….. or because she had been having an exceptionally pleasant time with friends.…….. or since she had been uncharacteristically excited and concerned about her possible future.
Perhaps it was due to events earlier in the week.
Or, it might have been the overall accumulation of countless deeds.
Her jaw set, Kaname took a cone-shaped paper cup and filled it with water from a large glass cooler. About to drink it, she changed her mind. She poured it over her head, shivering as the cold liquid ran down her neck. Shaking the water out of her hair, she tried to control her breathing.
Yes, the event with the visiting soldiers on career day had made her angry.
The visitors were veterans who had taken time from their busy schedules to speak to the class. The meeting had been akin to a recruiting drive, but that was understandable. What was a mystery was why Sousuke felt it was necessary to correct each and every misstatement they made.
It seemed that every other word out of their mouths was wrong somehow.
The new mandatory self-defense course had not been a ray of sunshine either.
During the inaugural class, Sousuke had walked by the gym just as the girls were being shown some simple but effective moves by the instructor. Naturally, the man looked large and imposing. Of course, he had chosen Kaname as his pretend victim.
The hole in the gym wall wouldn't take too long to repair.
The instructor would be in the hospital for a few days longer.
Memories of the class picnic had Kaname reaching for another cup of water. She would drink that one. Her throat felt dry.
It had been a marvelous day. There were blossoms everywhere. The view had been simply breath-taking. Everyone had looked forward to the excursion: three straight weeks of bad weather had put a wet blanket over everybody's spirit.
"Kaname, watch out!"
Those words echoed in her mind.
Sousuke had yelled what he did when a rather large wasp landed on a muffin she was about to bite. Kaname could have simply blown on the venomous insect, or brushed it away. Sousuke, of course, had different plans.
Kaname flexed her hand.
It was still somewhat sore.
Sousuke had sent the wasp to oblivion……… and had blown the muffin into and expanding cloud of crumbs……… with a well-placed rubber bullet.
That would have been bad enough.
After rebounding painfully off of Kaname's hand, the stray shot had gone on to hit two other people. The teacher spilled an entire pitcher of punch she was pouring. Her white dress bore an eerie resemblance to the Japanese flag.
Three girls had been huddled together, marveling at the hyacinths in a koi pond. When one was struck in the buttock, she fell in, knocking her companions in as well.
Those otaku episodes had been enough on their own. But, there was another instance that weighed heavily on her mind.
It really hadn't been that big a thing, but it touched on a sensitive area: Kaname's need to achieve, and her desire for approval and attention.
She had studied hard.
She had gone the extra mile, digging up more reference than were necessary.
She Had even dug up some comparisons to contemporary literature.
The assignment had been the first dozen books of 'The Iliad.' Homer's book was tedious reading, with archaic turns of phrase and countless references to gods, heroes, kings, and what not. Kaname had distilled the underlying theme: the tales were about the wrath of Achilles arising from an affront to his honor by the hubris of Agamemnon.
It was also about many other things, both human and divine.
Everyone was certain to be impressed by her insights.
Achilles. Agamemnon. Chryseis. Zeus. Odysseus. Hera. Hephaestus. Thetis. The Muses. Menelaus. Helen. Priam. Paris. Aphrodite. The list of names went on and on and on. But, she had them all organized, with their significance documented.
Kaname knew more about Greeks, Trojans, and gods than she ever wanted to.
During her recital, Sousuke had brought up a parallel. He had meant it as an illustrative point, and had actually complimented her on her presentation up to that point. Kaname felt as if she was going to burst: the praise had her blushing.
At first, the interruption seemed welcome, the gift of divinity. But, the mood of the gods is often capricious, and their gifts often carried a subtle sting.
"The 'Shahnameh' is one of the definitive classics in world literature," Sousuke had said. "It was written by Ferdowsi around 1000 AD, and is essentially a compilation of old Iranian stories, fables, and historical facts. It too tells of ancient heroes. Many have thought of it as the Persian Iliad."
That wouldn't have been so bad.
Unfortunately, Shinji wanted to know something about the heroes in the Shahnameh. Other boys spoke up, asking for Sousuke to tell them more.
They totally ignored the fact that Kaname wasn't finished yet.
His mind focused on something with military connotations, Sousuke automatically complied.
"Rustam, or Rostam, the son of Zal, was born with grey hair. At the age of ten, he was present when the white elephant of the shah broke loose. He killed it with a strike to its head by his club." He went on to detail the hero's battles with the White Demon, explaining how it had Oedipal connotations. He spoke about the valiant warrior's fight with the Deevs. In great detail he described one of Rustam's confrontations with dragons. Feeling a certain kinship with the literary figure, he even spoke some verse:
"Rostam is the scourge of the base,
Not for him were pleasures meant; Rare are his feasts and holidays, His garden is the desert place, The battlefield his tournament.
Not for him were pleasures meant;
Rare are his feasts and holidays,
His garden is the desert place,
The battlefield his tournament.
x x x x x Not the armour of jousting knights, But the skulls of dragons and Deevs; Nor shall Rostam, as he believes, Ever be quit of the foes he fights.
"There the sword of Rostam cleaves
Not the armour of jousting knights,
But the skulls of dragons and Deevs;
Nor shall Rostam, as he believes,
Ever be quit of the foes he fights.
x x x x x
"Cups of wine and wreaths of rose, Gardens where cool arbours stand, Fortune gave such gifts as those Not to Rostam, but hurtling foes, Strife, and a warrior's heart and hand." Kaname was too angry to see the parallel that Sousuke made with those words.
"Cups of wine and wreaths of rose,
Gardens where cool arbours stand,
Fortune gave such gifts as those
Not to Rostam, but hurtling foes,
Strife, and a warrior's heart and hand."
Kaname was too angry to see the parallel that Sousuke made with those words.
He was no longer comparing the great Persian work to the Iliad. He was doing something that she had long wanted to see him do: in his own way: he was opening his heart.
The verse could easily have been written to describe a young warrior, gun in hand, never knowing anything more than battle and danger.
Kaname had composed herself.
There had been no shouts of 'Moron,' 'Jerk,' or 'Big Idiot.'
The halisen rested peacefully in her bag.
Not a word was said to Sousuke.
When she was able to resume her presentation, all of her enthusiasm had been leeched away.
She felt little joy when the teacher gave her the highest compliment.
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
Their roles were reversed, this afternoon.
Kaname was trailing Sousuke home. He had been forced to stay for detention after the cafeteria incident.
She waited for him in seclusion, wanting to speak her mind when he reached some secluded place away from the other students.
"Sousuke!" There was steel in her voice. Her anger was at ebb tide. Her determination swept strongly across the shore.
"Kaname?" Sousuke turned, a neutral expression on his face. "It is good that you waited. I shall be able to protect you now. I am pleased that you took an active role in your own safety!"
"Stow it!!!" A touch of anger. Sousuke had that effect. Kaname's efforts were commendable.
"Are we going on a journey, Kaname?" Sousuke became ultra-alert. "Have you discovered some unforeseen danger that makes a getaway necessary?"
"Oooooooh...... SOUSUKE!!!" Unexpected waves of anger washed in, collapsing a castle of calmness she had worked so hard to construct.
"Kaname?" Sousuke had his pistol out. A pair of binoculars were at his eyes as he surveyed the surroundings.
"I meant 'enough with the military crap.' Enough already!!!" She stood with her hands on her shoulders, paying no attention to the optical device she had swatted out of Sousuke's hand.
"Crap, Kaname? I do not consider your safety to be excretory matter." Sousuke looked puzzled.
Even that matter-of-fact reply had the power to push Kaname past the breaking point.
The camel had it easy.
There are worse things than a broken back.
"C-r-a-p, Sousuke!" Kaname wasn't usually one for coarse language, but the situation called for it. "Have you ever heard the saying, 'too much of a good thing?'"
"Yes, Kaname." For a moment, he was pleased, thinking that Kaname saw protection as a good thing.
He fully realized that he sometimes took things too far. It was a by-product of his early life.
Those who didn't take things too far often ended up too dead.
"Well, your trying to save me from every possible imaginary threat is TOO MUCH OF A BAD THING!!!" Spit flew as the blue-haired girl spoke forcefully.
Even Sousuke should get the point, right?
"I see. There is another saying. 'Better safe than sorry.'" To Sousuke, only one thing mattered: success at his mission.
There was a personal issue as well: Kaname must be kept safe at all cost.
"Sayings only count for so much, Sousuke." Kaname's voice had dropped a number of octaves. Her shoulders had a noticeable droop. For a moment, she looked like a young lamb, lost and alone in a vast meadow.
"You make me safe, but all I feel is sorry. I'd rather live in constant danger, enjoying the things every other teenage girl enjoys. What joy can I find in misadventure after misadventure? Am I going to wake up some day, realizing that the most wonderful days of my life have passed me by, wasted?"
Sousuke remained silent.
He tried to put himself in Kaname's shoes, but his life was too different now, and had been incomparable earlier.
There were tears running down Kaname's face. She didn't wipe them away.
Would Sousuke be moved by her sorrow?
Could he see tears as anything more than a physiologic response.
Had he seen the tears of so many tragic victims, that they lost all meaning to him?
"What is it that you are asking of me, Kaname?" Intelligence is necessary for any mission.
But, there was something more. Sousuke did indeed have a heart, wrapped in armor plating as it was.
Kaname's mention of the best days of one's life had touched something. He had heard other people refer to childhood in that manner. His own childhood was something no one would wish for.
"Cold turkey, Sousuke. Cold turkey." Kaname sniffed, then wiped her face with a handkerchief.
"Kaname? You are hungry?" Sousuke looked perplexed. He thought a moment. Sometimes people with Depression have a change in appetite.
"No, Sousuke!" Kaname stamped her foot.
"May I see your arms, Kaname? Have you become an addict? There are better ways to deal with problems." Sousuke had heard the term used in connection with Heroin users.
It meant sudden and complete withdrawal from narcotics, perhaps because the bumps on an addict's skin could come to resemble those on an uncooked turkey.
"God, how can you be SO dense?" Kaname should have known better.
She should have spoken without any ambiguous references.
But, everybody knew that 'going cold turkey' meant that a person promised a complete avoidance of some habitual activity.
"It means staying completely away from something, you big idiot!"
It also meant, in a more antiquated sense, to do something without preparation or warning. Without mincing words. Like grabbing cold turkey to eat, rather than cooking a meal.
Unbeknownst to Sousuke, his goose had long since been cooked.
Kaname acted without warning. The halisen had Sousuke sitting in the middle of the alley, rubbing his jaw.
"That hurt, Kaname."
"It was supposed to, Sousuke. I don't have time to go chasing my own tail with someone so utterly clueless. I need you to listen. Then, I need your answer. You don't realize just what is as stake yet. When you do, I hope you think before you answer!" Kaname was angry enough to take some extreme steps.
"I shall listen, Kaname."
"Thank you-u-u," she drawled sarcastically. "I want you to go Cold Turkey with military things, Sousuke. That means abstinence in the things you do and the things you say. That also means restrictions in the things that you carry with you." She stopped, letting that much sink in.
"First, you will carry no weapons..."
"But, Kaname. If..."
"SOUSUKE!!!" Kaname's eyes flashed. "Do I have to mention up front what is at stake? Or will you allow me the courtesy of getting a word or two out. Geez. Why do I keep hoping for good manners from a mechanical military misfit?"
"I do not know, Kaname."
That had been a rhetorical question.
Be at peace, Kaname.
"Listen up soldier! It will be the last martial thing you do, if you know what's good for you...and me." The last words came out in a whisper.
"I shall not speak again until ordered, Kaname."
"SOUSUKE!" She shook her head. No one said this would be easy.
But, the payoff would be worth the efforts made.
"We will not speak about 'orders' again. Instead, you will think in terms of requests and suggestions. Is…….. that……… clear?"
"Good. Finally. No weapons, Sousuke. No exceptions. That also means that you will not construct any form of weapon from the materials around you. None. Nada. Zilch. Are you still with me?" This felt good. Kaname felt as if she might once again be in charge of her own destiny.
"Excellent. Splendid. It also means that you will not attack anyone, no matter what. There will be no offensive actions. There will be no defensive actions. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS! " She brushed her hair out of her face. "Do I have to go into more detail, Sousuke?"
"Marvelous. Wonderful. It also means an absence of verbal violence. No threats. No warnings. No promises of things to come. Not a one. Regardless of the situation. Is that much understood?" Kaname had thought this all through, waiting for Sousuke.
"Fine. Super. You will purge your talk of all things military. When you are at school. When you are within sight of me, elsewhere. Even in your sleep, if you don't want to get into any bad habits. No Rustam. No Persian this or Macedonian that. No ancient battles. No modern weapons systems . None of that. And, you will make it a point to practice courtesy and consideration to people who are speaking." She should not have embellished there at the end.
"I see. But, courtesy is a big part of military organizations."
"You must have been absent for that training, then!" Kaname groused. "Courtesy is a part of every day life. It doesn't mean simply not killing someone who looks suspicious. It means taking other people's feelings in consideration. I hope that is not all Greek to you, Sousuke."
"I shall do my best, Kaname!"
How many times had he said something to that effect before?
"Great. So you will do as I asked?" Her hopes were high. This could be so perfect!
"No." That single word hit like an axe to a tree, a stake in a vampire's heart. "I have a mission, Kaname. I am expected to follow it. It is in your better interest."
Kaname stood gasping for air, like a fish out of water.
"I doubt that Captain Tesstarossa or Lt. Cmdr. Kalinin would go along with such restrictions. What purpose would I serve, then? They would pull me back in an instant. It would mean battle again."
Kaname straightened her clothing. She had gotten too far ahead of herself. Sousuke's answer was quite appropriate, even if it did go contrary to her wishes.
There was thinking to do, fast.
"I understand that Sousuke. Unless we find some compromise, your mission here will be finished." Those were hard words. Despite everything negative that Sousuke had brought into her life, she did not want to see him go.
This would be a terrible risk she was about to take.
But, sometimes progress requires people to put themselves…… or their hearts…… in danger.
"I'm fed up, Sousuke. I can't take it any more. If I have to, I will call that Captain and make an ultimatum. If you don't get any better... if my life doesn't get more pleasant... I will ask to have you removed from this mission." Kaname stopped to catch her breath.
Despite an attempt to remain calm, that had all come out in a rush.
"I will take my chances with another operative, if I must. I will even risk going about my life on my own, Whispered be damned. If Tessa won't listen, I will threaten to tell the military…….. and the media…….. everything I know about Mithril." There was no sound of artifice in her voice whatsoever.
Now it was Sousuke's turn to imitate that fish.
"B-B-But, Kaname!" The full weight of her words struck him like a ton of bricks. He would need to leave school. He would return to the full combat rotation.
He would likely never see Kaname again.
No 'buts,' Sousuke. You find a viable alternative, or I call Tessa." Kaname had her fingers crossed.
Sousuke spent time in thought. Kaname walked away fro a while, brainstorming on her own. They both arrived at similar conclusions.
"A short period, Kaname?" Sousuke could do that much. No word need reach his commanders.
"That's just what I thought, Sousuke." Kaname's smile lit up her face like fireworks. "One week. To the minute. Following every rule to the letter. It might teach you enough restraint that I feel comfortable allowing you to carry weapons again."