Sousuke thanked the Mithril driver and watched as the plain white van pulled away from the curb and wove its way into early evening traffic.
He turned to look at his apartment building, almost feeling a sense of nostalgia, despite the fact that he had only been gone four days and a part of a fifth.
The van had picked him up at this very same spot. The only difference had been that Kaname had been clinging to one arm, silently trying to keep him from going.
Ever since she had declared her feelings for him, Kaname had become rather possessive of him, as long as the two of them were alone. Despite hints given to the contrary, she tried to convince her friends that nothing had changed. Sousuke shook his head in wonder. He could tell all of the minute changes in Kaname...why couldn't they? Perhaps they were just being polite. But, that was at odds with their standard teenage behavior.
Swinging his travel bag up on one shoulder, he reached into his pocket for his keys. After unlocking the front door and stepping inside the dry and dusty lobby, he finally felt the weight of his latest mission catch up with him. He let his bag fall to the floor and stretched his arms, locking his fingers together to crack his knuckles. It was hardly worthy of the title 'mission,' but he carried some scars from it just the same.
Because of available flights, or the lack thereof, Sousuke had been pulled out of school early. When he let Kaname know...in the middle of Japanese History class... she had waited thirty seconds after he left the room to request permission to visit the ladies' room. She didn't go there. Instead, she tackled him on the front lawn and dragged him into the largest cluster of bushes.
She made it a point to kiss him first, in case the news made her angry enough to smack him down or to indulge in righteous indignation. When he told her that he wasn't certain of all of the details, she told him he wasn't forceful enough. When he said that he would only be gone four or five days, she told him that he was inconsiderate of her feelings. When he told her that his ride wouldn't pick him up for a couple of hours, she whacked him with her purse.
'Why?' he had asked, thinking he knew the reason.
'So I can apologize, of course. Geez Sousuke, why do you have to be such a big idiot." She had kissed him after that.
That was Kaname's new thing---doing something to Sousuke that needed an apology, and then apologizing with kisses. Sousuke was collecting an odd menagerie of bumps and bruises. His understanding of women had not improved as much as he would have liked. The boyfriend and girlfriend relationship still had him befuddled more often than not, even after four months. However, he had no reason to complain. He found that he was happier than he had ever been, and that was mostly a good thing---he still felt paranoid that something would come and snatch that feeling away. It was not a soldier's job to be happy. But, Kaname was also happy, and that was very important.
He had promised Kaname that he would always come back to her. It had been a difficult promise to make, and it was one that made this particular trip back to the TDD-1 even more difficult than it had to be. Still, the look on her face made him want to keep that pledge, no matter what. No one had ever looked at him that way before. As far as he knew, no one else would ever look at him that way in the future.
The recall order had not been related to any combat situation. The major reason for his return had been to run a number of promising candidates by the ARX-7, seeing if any of them showed any evidence of being able to interface with the Lambda Driver. None had. Not even one could make the necessary connection with Arbalest's A.I. That had been the first disappointment.
Lt. Cmdr. Kalinin had a short talk with him, wanting to know how the younger soldier found his integration back into school to be going. Sousuke gave an honest appraisal, then branched off into a touchy subject. He had asked whether or not Mithril was in the process of building more ARX- 7 class Arm Slaves, or an improved model. The grizzled Russian veteran had no such knowledge. That too had been a disappointment.
Sousuke spent the better part of a day talking with a Mithril neuro-psychologist. He was surprised when Dr. Schacher stopped by for a quick consultation as well, having mixed feelings in his presence. The final verdict was that he was progressing remarkably well, but that there would be at least ten or more sessions needed before the higher command would be completely satisfied with his recovery. That also qualified as a disappointment.
When he heard that Cmdr. Mardukas wanted to speak with him, Sousuke had felt very uneasy. The stiff and proper naval officer had never made any mention of Sousuke's conduct under the influence of mind altering medications, and had never made any attempt to explain his role in setting up such a procedure. It came as a bit of a shock when Cmdr. Mardukas made an effort to clear the air between them. Apparently, something that Souske had said left its mark on the man. While making a veiled threat in regards to keeping an eye on Sousuke, the commander also noted that he would make an effort to comment on the positive things that Sousuke accomplished... if there ever were any.
Melissa and Kurz got on his case big time. Mao was furious that Sousuke still walked carefully around them, even though they had repeatedly told him that they held no ill feelings for his actions during the conflict in North Korea. She ordered him do ninety laps around the small track in the gym area... in full pack. Kurz ran behind him throughout the entire ordeal, firing non-stop questions about his and Kaname's relationship.
'Kisses... is that all? Sousuke old man, I'm very disappointed in you. Looks like I will have to...OOPPHH!'
Kurz never had time to finish his statement. Melissa had hit him broadside with a large medicine ball. The long-haired SGT member folder up like a cot. She dragged him off to the infirmary to get a shot of 'Shut The Hell Up' vitamins. Sousuke was clever enough to know what that meant.
Later on, the two of them shared some beer with Sousuke, surprised to see their friend drinking. Somewhat embarrassed, the younger man explained that he was trying to be less rigid in his approach to life. It was a hard road to follow, but there had been some success. It had been pleasant spending an evening with his squad mates. Things were cut a little short when Kurz needed to pay an emergency visit to the shipboard dentist.
'Here Sousuke... you'll need this...' Kurz had handed him a thing of lip balm. 'It's medicated, as a precaution. Girls can get pregnant from kissing, you know.'
'They can?' Sousuke almost kicked himself for being so gullible. He had been through a brief sexual education primer during basic training. It seemed so very long ago.
'Bwahahahahahah...owwwww...' Kurz' laughter was cut short by a right cross from Melissa. Kurz went to have one of his crowns checked. Melissa sat Sousuke down and gave him a Mao-style lecture on the birds and the bees. It left Sousuke with his head spinning. He turned down her kind offer of a beaten up copy of the Karma Sutra.
Sousuke didn't know how long he had blushed after some of the coarse and forceful things his squad leader had told him. It was not a problem, however. The problem came in the form of Teletha Testarossa.
He had been called to her office. She was obviously in a bad mood when he arrived.
Sousuke picked his bag up again. Still mulling over the events of his stay on the submarine, he pushed the 'up' button on the elevator. When it arrived, he spent a few minutes inside just thinking, before punching the number for his floor.
'Sgt. Sagara, can you guess why I have called you here?' Captain Testarossa's query had left Sousuke guessing. He couldn't come up with an obvious answer
'I take it that you understand your primary reason for being pulled away from Tokyo?' The way she had said that left Sousuke feeling uncomfortable. The emphasis was unmistakable.
'Yes, Captain. Mithril is attempting to discover anyone and everyone with a possible talent to operate the Lambda Driver. It is my purpose to facilitate such a search. That, and serving as a catalyst or enabler for the system.'
'Exactly. That is what you are supposed to be doing.' Tessa was not playing with her hair. Her eyes flashed like light on a steel blade. Her jaws were clenched. There was a disapproving curve to her lips.
'The potential candidates were all hoping to be able to form a bond with the A.I. After that, they wanted to see if they could operate the Lambda Driver. The all accepted their failure with good grace. However, a number of them raised complaints. No, it was a single common complaint.' Tessa was staring directly at Sousuke, daring him to deny something.
'The test facilities?'
'No. You. You were the subject of their complaints.' Tessa's face looked like carven flint. One of her hands had started to tremble ever so slightly.
'Me? How can that be so, Captain?'
'While they all commended you on your eagerness to assist them in their endeavor, a number of the aspiring candidates thought that you were all too eager. They sensed that you were hoping to distance yourself from Arbalest, or at least find someone else to take it off your hands, so to speak. It was even more than that. Some felt that you had an open dislike for the machine. They doubted that you trusted it.' Tessa started making some tea. She only took out one cup.
Sousuke had sat quietly a moment, searching his on feelings. It didn't take long. He didn't like the ARX-7. He respected its abilities; but, all the power in the world was useless if it couldn't be depended on. No, he didn't trust the machine. He would have died in it the first time he piloted it, if it wasn't for Kaname. It had failed him completely on that island. The only reason it had worked perfectly for him in North Korea had been the mental changes thrust upon him by experimental medications and incompletely validated conditioning.
'They are correct, captain. I do not trust the machine. It is defective.'
Tessa had stood up abruptly, almost knocking over her boiling pot of water. 'You are pretty swift to jump to that conclusion, aren't you Sgt. Sagara? Perhaps it's you who are defective.'
Sousuke had opened his mouth, too stunned to reply. Perhaps his commanding officer did not trust him.
'Yes. You have never given the ARX system a fair trial. The initial bonding had been under stressful circumstances, but you had opportunity to form a more complete connection many times after that during simulated missions and training sessions. Your enthusiasm had been notably lacking. That was the reason I agreed with the order to have you undergo the treatment.' Tessa added tea to her glass pot, watching the small leaf fragments swirl and release their contents.
'Captain, the only reason I was able to connect with the A.I. in the first place had been through the assistance of Miss Chidori. That was the alpha event. I would not have been able to do so without her. I am not surprised that the machine proved difficult to harness after that.'
That had been the wrong thing to say. Sousuke realized his error while riding up in the elevator, hours after the conversation.
'Do you think I do not know that, Sgt. Sagara? Do you think I am stupid or incomplete in my analyses, just because I am a young frail little girl?' Tessa's hand was shaking violently, causing her to spill tea all over her desk top.
'Maybe you think that Miss Chidori plays a bigger role in your missions than your commanding officers do. We all remember the things you said when you were drugged. No one could miss the inappropriate manner in which you relate with that girl.' Wiping up the tea with a fancy embroidered cloth, Tessa had knocked the full tea cup into her lap.
'Indeed. That is a subject for another discussion, one which is long overdue.' Those words sent a chill down Sousuke's spine. 'I find myself questioning you dedication, Sergeant. If you cannot dedicate yourself completely to Arbalest, I wonder if you can dedicate yourself entirely to Mithril.'
Those words had stung. The look that Souske had given Tessa at that moment caused her to bring her hand up to her mouth. He had given Mithril everything. She should know that as well as anyone.
'I see. Perhaps you can find someone else to take my place. All you need to do is pour medicines into the candidates. It worked once.' He hadn't been able to hold his tongue. Part of him wondered how much of Tessa's harangue was due to his relationship with Kaname. The other part had to admit that she had a point. He had not given the ARX-7 his all.
Tessa went paler than usual. It was her turn to be left speechless.
'Is there anything more, Captain?' Sousuke cursed his own emotions. In the past, he would have simply sat there stone-faced, taking it all in, never acknowledging his discomfort consciously. If he didn't learn how to do that again, he would end up in big trouble.
Sousuke's question brought Tessa back around. Her face went from that of a timid and lonely young girl to that of a cobra, its head flattened and its eyes directly on its prey. 'The ARX system is incomplete, Sergeant. Captain Morauta died before he could finish his work.' For a moment, Tessa looked stricken. Bunny Morauta had been sixteen years old and Whispered. He had a shy crush on his fellow Captain.
Sousuke swallowed. He hadn't realized that fact about Arbalest. How was knowing the truth supposed to increase his trust and confidence?
'It's quite a coincidence, since it seems that you are rather incomplete yourself, Sergeant.' Those words struck Sousuke like a whip. He came very close to saying he was more complete since he started dating Kaname. 'So, it only makes sense for Mithril to put its efforts towards completing the ARX-7. We can do that onboard Da Danaan with me as a consultant, and with additional Whispered assistance. Or, you can do it at the major research facility with whatever staff they can assemble.' Tessa almost smiled. She hoped he would choose the former, for her own selfish reasons. But, either solution would serve. It was time that Sousuke Sagara removed his head from the clouds and started to work towards his utmost potential. She had made great sacrifices for the good of mankind. He would need to do the same.
'Me, Captain? I am not a scientist or engineer.'
'No. You are the only person in this organization with any relationship to the A.I. That A.I. Is the only one with a symbiotic relationship with the Lambda Driver. The Lambda Driver is our only hope against similar technology in the hands of out enemies. And we are the only hope for a tired and beleaguered world. That should all be simple enough to understand.' Tessa rubbed her eyes. She herself was tired and beleaguered.
'It doesn't make sense, Captain. If I am deficient, why doesn't Mithril build additional units and find soldiers who are better qualified to bond with them?'
Tessa pulled at her hair. 'Mithril does not have the funding or resources at the moment. You are not privy to the necessary political or financial details. It is just another thing that I have to worry about!' For a moment, Tessa looked ready to cry. 'You are just like all the others. You look at me as some kind of China doll. You think I'm nothing more than a figurehead or some conceited girl playing at being Captain.'
'No. Captain I...'
'I have to look out for everyone's benefit. I have to make the hard decisions on how to put people and equipment to its best use. That takes a courage someone like you will never understand. It's easy to be brave when you hide behind a gun or a big walking fortress.' Tessa pounded her small fist against her desk.
Sousuke stood silently, looking down the hallway leading to his apartment. The hall looked impossibly long and narrow. He felt the same way about his life and career at that moment. He tried unsuccessfully to keep from remembering Captain Testarossa's next words.
'I had thought you were brave, Sousuke. I cannot believe that you are worrying more about yourself than Mithril. Has that girl turned you into a coward?' Tessa had been unable to look Sousuke in the eye when she dropped that bombshell. 'I wanted to give you an opportunity to volunteer your services. I thought we all owed you that much. But, it can all be an order if necessary.'
For a brief moment then, Sousuke thought about what his life was... what it had been... and what it might be, depending on which path he followed. He didn't even factor Kaname directly into the equation. He felt like a pawn. He felt as if he would be eternally pushed around on some giant game board until he was taken out of play, or until the game was over and he was put back in the box.
He had opened his mouth to speak. He couldn't. Being a soldier had been his life. True, it had served his innermost needs, and it had given him something to hide behind. But, it had come to be more than that… he believed in what he did, and willingly risked his life for the good of the organization. Tessa's words almost seemed like a betrayal. At best, they merely diminished him and his contribution.
'You are dismissed, Sergeant.'
Captain Testarossa's dismissal had felt like shackles being placed around his wrists for a crime he didn't commit. His anger and sadness would not be easily corralled at that time. He spoke words that he only rarely allowed himself to think about.
'As you wish, Captain. Orders are effective only when someone is part of the service, correct? Perhaps Mithril has no need for cowards...' Sousuke had left his words purposefully vague. It was a veiled threat he realized that he didn't want to follow through on. But, he had thrown the dice and would need to see how they fell. At the very least, he hoped that he would not be taken for granted. If, on the other hand, Tessa felt driven to seek his discharge from Mithril, he would get a chance to lead a new life.
Sousuke walked over to his door. He could still remember the sound Tessa made when he left her cabin. It reminded him of the sound a young rabbit made when it was grabbed firmly by the ears. He wondered if she would pass along any word of the conversation to Cmdr. Mardukas or Lt. Cmdr. Kalinin. She might. But, she would also realize that Arbalest was still a key part of Mithril, and she had just finished telling him how crucial he was for the ARX project.
Could he survive on his own, if necessary? What other skills did he have?
He doubted that many mundane jobs required skills in infiltration, counterespionage, or heavy weapons training. True, he had spent little of the pay he had accrued over the years, and by all accounts, he had a fair amount of money to his name. But, it was more than that. He had enemies. Kaname was a potential target. Without Mithril's subtle hand, he wouldn't be legally allowed to use weapons of any sort---if he did, and was caught, there would be no one to make the problem disappear.
It was foolish to worry about such things. He did not resign. He had no intention of resigning. He knew the real subject he was unwilling to face. What if he was permanently pulled away from Tokyo? What would he do?
Bringing his key towards his lock, Sousuke froze. The hair he had wrapped around the door knob was gone. A small piece of paper he had wedged into the door was sitting on the hallway floor. Someone had been into his room. Could anyone be in there now?
He reached into the outer pouch of his back and brought out a Glock 26. Checking the clip, he nodded. Carefully turning the key, he opened the door silently and rushed into his apartment. Rolling across the floor of the dark room, he noticed a form laying on his couch.
He smelled perfume.
Rising and taking a few steps, he was shocked to see that it was Kaname. He realized that he shouldn't be totally surprised---she had asked for a copy of his key, and he finally gave in.
She wasn't moving. He listened intently. There was no sound of breathing. No! Could she be dead? Reaching over to check Kaname's pulse, he suddenly found himself wrapped tightly in a pair of arms and a pair of legs.
"Surprise!" Laughing, Kaname planted kisses all over Sousuke's face. Relaxing, he let his gun fall to the floor. "Was that a gun in your hand, or were you happy to see me?"
"Uh..." Sousuke was glad the lights were out. He could tell he was blushing. He wasn't totally clueless. The worst part was that he did have a bit of stiffness in a place he didn't want stiffness in at the moment.
"Does that 'Uh' mean you missed me?" Kaname sat up and patted the couch next to her.
"Uh..." Sousuke fought to keep from smiling. That 'Uh' was intentional. Kaname knew him well enough to realize that.
"I see. Not certain. Does that mean you don't care about me any more?" Kaname put her hands over her eyes.
"Uh..." What used to be an involuntary response was now part of their little game together. Most of the time.
"Sousuke. I'm going to throw myself off of your balcony!" Kaname stood up, walked over to a sliding glass door, and pulled back the blinds.
"It's not a problem..." Sousuke couldn't help but smile. Kaname had that effect on him.
"OH REALLY?" Kaname had both hands on her hips and a twinkle in her eyes. Getting a running start, she leaped onto Sousuke. "You're going to have a problem if you don't give me a real kiss, mister!"
Sousuke kissed Kaname, still filled with a sense of wonder that he should be doing such a thing.
"I really did miss you, Sousuke." Kaname let Sousuke up. She checked to see if the fix that they had put on the couch leg still held… one of her previous leaps had brought the sofa to the ground.
"I missed you too, Kaname." Sousuke's eyes went soft as he brushed a strand of hair out of Kaname's face. He brought his head up against hers and sighed, feeling the tension drain from him. "I missed you a lot."
"Good!" Kaname pulled her head away. "I was worried that you might fall for that shrimpy Captain!" She was only joking. The sudden look in Sousuke's eyes took her breath away. "You didn't, did you?"
The mention of Tessa made Sousuke tighten up. He didn't say anything.
"Soouuussskkkeee..." Kaname sounded a bit concerned. She should have known better. Her hand reached out to touch Sousuke's.
"I did something I shouldn't have, Kaname..." Sousuke was not trying to tease Kaname. He could have chosen better words if that had been his intention.
Kaname brought her hand to her mouth. Her eyes grew large. She could picture Sousuke kissing Tessa. She shivered. She could picture that large tub used to treat A.S. parts. There was plenty of room for two naked bodies in that large basin.
Sousuke repeated the conversation for Kaname. He wasn't expecting her reaction.
"That nasty little bitch!" If Kaname had been able to burst into flame, she would have. "That jealous jerk. She just wants you working close with her. But, she can't have you." Kaname stood up and began pacing the room, furious. "How could she call you a coward? After all that you have done! I wish she was here right now. I would tie her ears in a knot on top of her head, then give her a good tongue-lashing."
Sousuke watched Kaname, a warmth beginning to fill him from head to toe. Kaname really did care for him. Why did it surprise him every time he saw that? He was her protector by duty, and by choice. She was intent on protecting him in return.
"How do you dial this thing in?" Kaname had walked over to Sousuke's communications console. "She's not going to get away with this."
"No, Kaname. That's for official business only." Sousuke wasn't worried. Kaname didn't know the current frequency or call signs.
"I have official business for that little jerk! Calling my Sousuke a coward. Saying he was deficient. She's just put out because I get to see the changes in you up close. You're becoming better and better, day by day!" Kaname stamped her foot. "And you are mine," she added in a small voice.
Sousuke smiled. It felt good when Kaname called him 'my Sousuke.'
"If you leave the radio alone, I'll give you a kiss..." Sousuke wanted to see the look on Kaname's face. It went from fury to longing in the blink of an eye. Then it became calculating.
"You can kiss me after I call..." Kaname no longer had any intention to talk with Tessa. Sousuke was not going to win this point.
"OK. It is not a problem. Proceed." Sousuke was getting better at the game.
Kaname stood looking cross at him. Then, she ran and made another leap. The couch came crashing to the floor. Two other legs had broken. "You're just going to have to wait for that kiss, soldier. Get a little backbone!" Kaname smiled sweetly, gazing down into Sousuke's eyes. "I have some news to pass along. We have an invitation. I accepted."
"Invitation?" Sousuke had no idea what Kaname was talking about. A party? Another outing with their friends? He was getting tired of putting on yet another false front. Why didn't Kaname just come out and tell her friends? She wasn't ashamed of him, was she?
"Yes. Spring break is coming up. After you take your make-up exam, we'll both be free to go. I need to make airline reservations." Kaname tossed her hair, then poked Sousuke hard in the chest. "But, you will need to be on your best behavior, young man." She thought a moment, then poked him again. "No, we have work to do. You need to do better than that!"
"My father, Sousuke. You and I are going to New York to visit him, my sister, and his fiance."