As complex as I make it out to be, Kaname and I actually have a very simple, symbiotic relationship. We each fill in where the other one is lacking. Kaname doesn't have anyone to look out for her, and as a professional, I come in handy in that department. I never had anyone to make sure my tags weren't hanging out or bake cookies for me, and Kaname turned out to cover all of those bases quite nicely. Not that I'd ever say it quite like that to her face.
"Do you want to lick the spatula?" She smiled at me, bemused, waving the batter-covered implement in front of my nose.
I frowned, unsure. "Aren't there raw eggs in that batter? One could easily contract salmonella by consuming uncooked baking-"
"Oh, live a little," she laughed, stuffing the spatula in my mouth as I tried to speak.
After a few seconds, I discovered that it was actually quite tasty and handed it back to her reluctantly, and only after there was no batter to be found on it.
Tossing it in the sink to wash later, she turned back to the rolled out dough in front of her, trying to choose which cookie-cutters she wanted to use. "Hmmm." She eyed the dough. "Maybe I should sprinkle something on top... Sousuke, can you hand me the cinnamon?"
She waved her hand to indicate a cabinet, and I dutifully rummaged through it, moving various bottles of spices around until I found it and placed it on the counter next to her. When I looked up, I was a little confused to see her eyes glued to the open cabinet I had just been looking in, her expression focused and wary, as if she had just seen something there she didn't think she should have.
I glanced at the cabinet. Maybe she'd seen a pest; I knew she didn't care for those. I didn't see anything suspicious though, and when I looked back at her, she still had that strange look on her face.
"Kaname?" I asked, "Is there a problem?"
She glared at me, a cold, angry glare. Then she pushed me aside and reached up to rearrange the bottles, speaking under her breath as she did so.
Well, I knew Kaname liked things a certain way in her apartment, but I didn't know she took spice order so seriously.
"Honestly, what were you thinking," she mumbled. "They're obviously going to find out."
They...? I squinted, trying to see what order she was putting things in so I wouldn't make the same mistake twice, but I honestly couldn't see any pattern to it, and when she seemed satisfied and stepped back, they definitely weren't in the order in which I originally found them.
"Who is going to find out?" I asked, confused. "I do not understand the situation..."
Kaname had selected a star-shaped cutter and was dividing up the dough, stopping to sprinkle cinnamon here and there as she went. If I didn't know better, by her demeanor alone I'd say that strange little spice-interlude had never occurred.
She looked up at me expectantly. "Hmm?"
"Um..." I stuttered, motioning towards the spice cabinet. "If I may ask... what happened there?"
She raised an eyebrow. "What happened where?"
"In the spice cabinet."
She rolled her eyes, returning to her work. "Stop acting weird. You've joined the land of the living, remember? It's okay not to fake ignorance now."
Kaname liked to joke about my steady acclimation to civilian society. Since we'd started dating, I'd renewed my efforts to fit in, if only to make her life a little easier. The difference was noticeable, or at least, she said it was.
"No, why did you have to rearrange all the bottles, and who are 'they?'"
She sighed, not looking up from the cookies. "I don't know what you're talking about, Sousuke, and I'm not in the mood, so don't be like that, huh? Let's just have a fun afternoon."
I always thought getting angry at Kaname was one of the most useless things I could possibly do. Getting angry at her only makes her more stubborn in whatever she's doing, and it definitely wouldn't solve whatever issue we were having. Anyway, I get angry when people shoot at my friends, when I can't live up to my potential, or when something happens to put my side at a disadvantage. Even then, getting angry isn't the most productive choice of emotions. Anyway, getting mad at the pretty girl sitting next to me on the park bench just seemed pointless and incongruous with the way I live my life.
We were seated together on a park bench. We'd decided to meet up when the weather turned out to be so nice and had been enjoying an easy, pleasant silence for some time. Why girls always insist on speaking just when saying nothing would be appropriate, I don't know."Sousuke..." Kaname said quietly, surveying a group of kids as they passed us by. "Why are you part of Mithril?"
"What do you mean?" I asked immediately, already not liking where the conversation was going.
"I mean... why do you work for them?"
This was a line of questioning I hoped she would delay for a while. My life was already mixed up without questioning its very essence.
"It's my job," I explained warily. "I've worked for them for some time, I'm used to it, Im good at it. It fits."
"You're devoting your life to something because you're used to it?" she frowned at me.
I don't know why she always does that, always twists my words to mean something worse than what I meant. "Not exactly," I said. "I worked for other operations prior to Mithril, and I find the working conditions and duties to be preferable with Mithril, as well."
"You work for them because it's better than being a terrorist?"
I frowned right back at her. "Don't you think it's better to fight terrorists than be a terrorist?"
"That's not what I meant," she said. "But you're basically saying that Mithril is the best of a bad lot and-"
"That's not what I meant," I said firmly.
Her frown deepened. "I was just thinking..." she said. "Maybe Mithril isn't as wonderful as it makes itself out to be."
I didn't really want to know why she thought that, but her silence told me she was waiting for me to ask. "How do you figure?"
"Mithril isn't part of any government, right? So it's basically this vigilante organization running around keeping order as it sees fit."
I shook my head calmly. "There are advantages to not being run by a particular government. Mithril can see things from a third party perspective when handling international disputes, it can utilize the resources of multiple nations, and it can't be used as the ultimate weapon of one power house or another-"
"Unless it chooses to," Kaname cut in. "Mithril has an agenda, just like any organization. The only difference between Mithril and a government military force is that it has no people to answer to, no voters, no families it's obligated to protect-"
"Except," I interrupted her, "Mithril gets its funding from nations, so if it does something unacceptable, countries will withdraw their funding, and Mithril will be rendered useless."
"So what if they did? What if every country but one withdrew funding, wouldn't Mithril then become the tool of that last country? It just seems too crazy to me, to have such a powerful entity with no governing body. And it's more powerful than every other government's military forces! If Mithril did decide to act up, nothing could stand in its way!"
"If you are stating that it has the potential to become corrupt, of course, all organizations do. That does not mean that all efforts to stop terrorism should cease because they might go awry."
"I think that Mithril, in a way, is completing its own kind of terrorism," Kaname said quietly.
I raised an eyebrow. The afternoon was quickly disappearing, and I had hoped it would be spent in more recreational ways than discussing my job. "Elaborate?"
"Well, it uses children," she said, her gaze fixed on her shoes. "It's a bunch of mercenaries using children to do their bidding."
I stifled an indignant cry before it began and instead I cleared my throat. "I am not certain exactly to what you are referring, but I am under the impression that Mithril is making every effort to protect the whispered from abuse by other factions."
"But they're using them too," she said. "They say they're protecting the whispered, but Bunny was killed working for Mithril, Tessa has worked there for years instead of having her own life, and you-"
"I'm not exactly a child," I said, a little more harshly than I intended.
"But you were," she insisted. "You were when you started, and then you got sucked in, and now you do it because you're used to it, you said so yourself, and-"
"I don't remember ever being a child in the sense you're thinking," I said blandly. "I appreciate your concern, but I assure you, Tessa and I are working for Mithril because we choose to, and-"
"But what kind of choice is that, Sousuke?" She turned to me completely, a deep concern shining in her eyes. "When you first came to protect me, you'd never been to school. You didn't know how to play video games. You'd never read classic literature. You'd never been on a date, or had a picnic, or…" she motioned to the two of us, "or sat on a park bench with your girlfriend. What kind of choice was choosing Mithril, when you had nothing to measure a military life against? You had no idea what you were giving up."
I was silent for a few moments, letting her words sink in. While what she was saying was technically true, "You're forgetting that I never had the things you're speaking of to begin with. If I did not choose to work for Mithril, I would have been in a much worse situation. I would not have had park benches and picnics and whatever else you suppose children should have."
"But the people that brought you into Mithril were adults," she said. "They did know what you were missing. They did know what they were getting you into and what they were keeping you from. Don't you think that's wrong? Adults taking advantage of children like that?"
"I don't consider saving children to be taking advantage of them," I replied.
"If they wanted to save you, they would have brought you back to Japan and found you a home, or at least a foster home. They wanted to use you, Sousuke."
I felt my temper starting to rise, and tried my best to keep it down. She didn't know what she was talking about. She didn't know how ignorant and arrogant she sounded. Still, how could she pretend to be wise about this?
"Do you think if they'd dropped me off in an orphanage, I would have suddenly become a picture of childhood bliss?" I ground out. I probably would have blown the place up. I'm still having trouble managing my explosives, if you hadn't noticed.
"Maybe not, but you would have had a chance." Kaname reached out and took my hand. "I mean... look at you now... maybe... in time..."
"I don't know what you want me to say, Kaname," I said dully, refusing to look her in the eye. "I am much better off than are many of my comrades when I was growing up. I am grateful to Mithril and I will remain loyal. Since they are trying to protect you, I would expect you would feel the same."
"They're not trying to protect me, and you know it." She spat. "If they cared about protecting teenage girls, they'd be helping in any number of other situations. They're having people guard me because they don't want the information I have," she knocked herself on the head twice with her knuckles, "falling into... 'enemy hands.'"
Well... she had a point.
"Look, I'm not saying Mithril is evil, it's just…" she squeezed my hand. "You're eighteen. You're still so young. You just graduated from high school. I just wish you'd think about your life as more than something all laid out for you. You have choices, you know? I wish you'd start thinking about what you want, not just what you'd always thought you'd do."
I let out a breath, squeezing her hand back. "On that note, I was contacted this morning and fly out for a mission tonight."
"You have to go again?" She said quietly, relinquishing my hands and turning to face front.
"Affirmative," I said firmly.
"But we had plans."
"Unfortunately, I am under the impression that whatever task Mithril has assigned to me is..." of slightly more urgency than dinner and a movie. "Very important."
She snapped her head in my direction, fixing me with a disgusted stare before looking away. She crossed her legs stiffly. "But you just got back from the last mission."
"I highly doubt..." the enemy plans their assaults to fit my schedule. I swallowed. "Timing is sometimes unfortunate."
That earned me another sidelong glare before she sat back against the bench with a huff. "Did they tell you why they're calling you away?"
"I never receive that kind of information until I arrive at the briefing."
She said nothing for a while, but I could feel the frustration coming off of her in waves. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"Doesn't what bother me?"
She was grinding her heel into the dirt absently. "Doesn't it bother you to be randomly called to serve without even knowing why? Doesn't it bother you that you're putting your life on the line for them, and they don't bother to tell you what's going on?"
"It's for security reasons," I explained calmly. "They are obligated to keep such information under as close care as possible."
"But it's you Sousuke, it's not like you're going to go blab to everyone what's going on."
"There might be leaks in the communication systems... e-mail and telephoning have certain weaknesses that-"
I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She wasn't open to reason. I sighed. "Why does this suddenly trouble you so much?"
She turned to look at me as if I were crazy. "Suddenly!" she exclaimed. "What do you mean suddenly? You're not the only one who worries, you know. Do you think when we were just friends it was totally cool with me that you put your life in danger on a regular basis?"
"This isn't about our plans, then," I said.
"No, it's not about our plans, of course it's not about our plans. Do you think I'm that much of a baby? It's about you being at the every beck and call of an organization that seems hell bent on getting you killed." She huffed, and said quietly, "Maybe one of these days you should say 'no.'"
I clenched my jaw, my careful restraint wearing thin. "I'd appreciate it if you would not take the change in our relationship as a chance to throw your weight around."
"Throw my weight around? Is that what you think I'm doing? Maybe, if you mean I'm trying my best to stop my boyfriend from getting himself killed!"
"Please do not assume you are more informed about the situation than I am," I ground out, "I will do my duty as I have always done. I am a skilled professional. I do not intend to be influenced by your hysterics."
The expression on her face quickly melted from anger to hurt, and guilt hit me like a sucker punch.
"I care about you," she choked. "I've always cared about you, I just thought now that we've made that clear, I could tell you what I've always been afraid of and you might consider it. But fine, I'll butt out, I'll spare you my... hysterics." Her last words were cold and cutting, and she lifted my green canvas duffle, which she'd brought with her to the park, and tossed it hard against my chest. "Here's your bag, I mended it. Would it be throwing my weight around to ask you to be careful?" She got to her feet and started striding away.
I stood up when my wind came back to me. "Kaname!"
She broke into a run, not looking back, but calling out behind her: "Try not to come home in a box."
I teetered on the edge of running after her for a moment, finally deciding with a shake of my head to let her go. I didn't even have my own thoughts collected; I definitely wasn't in any position to try to sort her feelings out for her. Slumping back down on the bench, I turned the bag over in my hands, studying her clean, neat stitches. It had needed repairs for some time, but I just never got around to it. When she saw it one evening when she came over to make dinner for me, she insisted she take it home to fix it.
I loved Kaname for her fiery demeanor and her enthusiasm, but there was still something endearing about thinking about her spending time to sew up my stuff. I wonder if she'd hit me if she knew that.
I ran my thumb over the patched canvas, wondering what I could do to fix the situation. In truth, I should be more patient with her. After all, I'd never had anyone worry about me before, not really. I'd never had anyone waiting for me to come back, or looking to me for reassurance. It was new, but I couldn't just shrug it off as some annoyance. Maybe I got irritated because I didn't know how to handle it. Really, such attention from someone should be appreciated. I should thank her for caring, not bite her head off.
However, I couldn't just go along with her. I couldn't just drop everything I knew because I have a girlfriend. Her opinions mattered, but I would just have to work out some kind of compromise, some kind of balance. I owed Mithril a great deal. I would not cast that aside so easily.
When I got to the helipad where I was scheduled to be picked up, I was surprised to see Kaname waiting, leaning against the wall of the staircase. She looked up when I walked out onto the roof, a nervous, guilty smile forming on her lips.
She didn't say anything for a second, just walked right up to me until we stood inches apart. I wasn't sure what to do, it felt a little awkward. We hadn't really had a serious argument for some time, and I couldn't remember post-argument etiquette, so I just stood there.
"Sousuke..." she began, wringing her hands.
"Kaname," I said evenly. "I'm due to depart shortly, is there something you..."
She threw her arms around my neck, pressing close to me and speaking softly into my ear. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier. I meant it, but I also didn't mean it, I..." She pulled back slightly so she could look me in the eye. Her voice lowered in volume to just above a whisper. "My head it's... I've been so... scrambled lately."
I snaked my arms lightly around her waist, raising my eyebrows in concern. It was highly unusual for Kaname to apologize, especially when she hadn't really done anything wrong. However, it was more important to me to hear what she had to say about 'her head.' Was she finally going to tell me what had been bothering her for so long?
"Is something wrong?" I asked. "It would be helpful if you told me."
"I'm not sure..." she said slowly. "It's just... well, don't worry about it right now, you have to go on a mission. I just didn't want you to leave on a sour note, okay? We can talk about this when you get back. But I didn't mean to come on so strong, and I didn't mean to be so bossy."
"Yeah, I was. I just... sometimes I can't connect my thoughts with my words these days. It's so... odd." She had a faraway look in her eyes that made me anxious for a moment, then she shook her head and her expression returned to normal. "Anyway, you're not angry with me, are you?"
I gave her a light squeeze. "Negative," I said honestly. "I appreciate your concern and I will take your thoughts into consideration."
She nodded. "You know I was just worried about you."
My chest ached a little at the sight of said worry clear in her eyes. I didn't like the thought of leaving her like this, with whatever was going on with her psyche and worry on her shoulders. "I am aware," I said. "It is not a problem. I will return shortly. Then we can discuss your condition."
It wasn't a question or a suggestion. I would return, and we would discuss what was up with her.
She smiled, looking a little relieved, and I felt relieved as well. When we heard the helicopter coming, she got up on her toes to kiss me quickly, and I found myself once again cursing Mithril's punctual tendencies. It seemed Kaname and I had a thing for getting interrupted by flying crafts of the helicopter classification.
We separated, and I adjusted my now mended bag over my shoulder, giving her a slight wave.
"Be safe?" She asked gently, her voice still audible as the helicopter was not too close yet.
"You look... different," Kurz grunted, squinting at me as we waited for our briefing to begin.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "I do not recall making any changes to my appearance. Perhaps I may have gained some weight, although I have been very careful to maintain training standards that-"
"No, it's not that," Kurz scratched his chin, then shrugged.
Melissa laughed and flopped into the chair on the other side of me, winking. "I think Kurz is just noticing that you're glowing, Sousuke."
Blinking, I glanced down at myself. Glowing was a very bad sign. I scratched my head, trying to remember if I had been exposed to any radioactive materials recently, and if that exposure had been prolonged. Nothing came to mind. Furthermore, I honestly didn't notice any kind of unnatural glow exuding from my person. Finally, I looked back at Melissa quizzically.
She smiled slyly. "Did something happen between you and Kaname?"
Oh, she meant that kind of glowing. I'm starting to pick up on figurative language, albeit a bit slowly. I opened my mouth to respond, but closed it. I didn't really want to tell them, although I couldn't say why. It just seemed... well, I didn't think it was any of their business. I thought it might be a little disrespectful to Kaname to divulge information about our personal relationship. Anyway, I knew Kurz would have a field day no matter what I said, no need to fuel the fire.
Kurz wooped, slapping his thigh. "I knew something was different! You got lucky!"
"Yes, I am very fortunate," I nodded in agreement. Fortunate to say the least!
Kurz gawked for a moment, then grinned. "So how was it, eh? Was she a tiger in bed? I bet she's that type. I bet she totally dominated you. Did she at least-"
Whoa whoa, not that lucky!
I coughed. "I believe there has been a misunderstanding."
"Oh, so you showed her who's boss, huh? Way to go, you-"
"Please attempt to control your imagination," I muttered, crossing my arms over my chest. "I would never compromise Kaname's integrity in such a way."
Kurz rolled his eyes. "What are you talking about? She's eighteen. Her biological clock is practically bursting. Sousuke, her integrity is just screaming 'compromise me!'"
"Kurz," leave him alone, Melissa admonished. "If Sousuke doesn't want to kiss and tell, good for him. What a little gentleman he's growing up to be! He definitely got that from me."
At the front of the room, Mardukas coughed to catch everyone's attention. Kurz sighed and faced front, and we all tuned into the directions.
The objective was straightforward, but it looked like it would take a long time to finish. The enemy had many strategically placed AS units around complicated jungle terrain that was littered with landmines. The operation would have to be extremely careful to avoid casualties, since in order to make a productive attack, we'd have to either get around the mines or remove them, a process which would be arduous at best. After the briefing, we all got ready with almost leaden feet. The task would get done, and it wasn't really anything to be afraid of, but we knew we'd be out there for a very long time.
I had just finished changing into my AS suit when I heard my cell phone ring and saw on the ID that it was Kaname. I felt my shoulders relax a little, reminding myself once again that these missions were just part of the job, that I would get through it like I always did and then I could go back to her. I flipped open the phone, but she spoke immediately before I could say anything.
Her voice was quiet and unsure, and it had a waver in it that made me worried. "Sousuke...?"
"Sagara! Report to the hangar immediately, we're ready to move out!" It was Mardukas, who came personally to hurry me along. Jackass.
I held up a hand, which made Mardukas narrow his eyes indignantly. "What is it?" I said softly into the phone.
I turned to Mardukas. "I'll be right there, sir," I said as politely as I could manage, knowing that trying to shoo him away was a really bad move. He'd get back at me, one way or another.
"I'm sorry to call you, I know you're busy," she said, her words becoming more and more strained. "I just... I..." she gasped, and I heard a clatter in the background.
"Kaname?" I asked worriedly.
"Now is not the time to be chatting with Miss Chidori!" Mardukas barked, advancing.
"Please give me a moment, sir, I believe there might be a problem," I focused my attention on the upsetting sound of Kaname's labored breathing.
"There's... I can't..." Kaname wheezed. "I don't know what's going on," she moaned. "I need..."
Then she screamed, a low, painful scream. My hand clenched around my cellphone and I gritted my teeth, every one of my muscles itching to go find her. "Kaname!" I barked. "Is there someone there with you? Hold on, I will be there immediately."
Mardukas advanced, wrenching the phone out of my hands. "How dare you ignore a direct order, Sagara! Report to the hangar this instant!"
I wasn't thinking; I was deaf to his ridiculous demands. I snatched the phone back, pressing my ear to the receiver. "Kaname, what is the situation?"
She was crying, and then she said "It hurts!"
"What hurts? Who's hurting you?" I asked frantically. Whoever it was, they were going to face the consequences. I was going to go find her, protect her, and break the fucking necks of whomever thinks they can even-
The phone was grabbed from me again, and this time Mardukas threw it to the ground, where it shattered into several pieces, the screen blinking once before fizzing out.
I gaped at the pieces at my feet, then looked back up at Mardukas incredulously. "Sir! Chidori just called me to inform me she is having a problem! I must see to her immediately. Please lend me your cell phone to return her call. It is an emergency."
Mardukas met my wild anger with a steady, cold gaze of his own. "Report to the hangar, Sagara."
"Sir, my primary mission is to protect Ms. Chidori, and I believe her to be in imminent danger. Please grant me leave to investigate!"
"Permission denied!" Mardukas looked about ready to burst, a vain throbbing on his forehead in anger, and I couldn't imagine myself looking much better. For the briefest of moments a look of regret crossed his features, so quickly that I wouldn't have caught it if I weren't staring at him so intensely. As soon as it came it was gone, and I was surprised steam didn't come out of his ears. "You get to the hangar and move out, Sergeant! That's an order!"
I felt my muscles twitch, and it felt like my insides were tearing at the seams. Kaname was hundreds of miles away, hurting, and here I was being ordered to march into a jungle and dispatch of some land mines. Every inch of me was wound up and ready to get in a chopper and go to her, but...
I gritted my teeth, standing perfectly straight, my eyes locked with the commander's. He was routinely angry with me, but there was a fury in his gaze that I rarely if ever saw. I was certain something similar was reflected in my own eyes. It was probably the most intense staring contest ever to occur.
After several silent moments, I jerked my face away, stepping past him out of the barracks. "Please send someone to check on Chidori," I growled, storming down the hallway towards the hangar. Mardukas said nothing, but I could feel his glare against my back. Mardukas had never been one of my favorite people, but this was harsh even for him. Whatever had him in a bad mood didn't matter to me. Nothing was an excuse for potentially jeopardizing Kaname in this way.
"Sousuke!" Melissa jogged up to me when I approached the other SRT personnel. "It's about time you showed up! Listen, you know the deal. Should be an easy mission, just take your time and be cautious, okay?"
"Cautious?!" Tessa was standing behind her desk, her fists clenched so tightly against its wooden surface that her knuckles turned white. It was a rare display of anger from the captain, one that I wasn't entirely sure how to deal with. "Was that your idea of being cautious?!"
I frowned, keeping my eyes glued to the wall behind her, my body rigid. "I was attempting to be efficient, Captain."
Tessa was aghast, her eyes flicking over my face as if trying to find some hint that I was joking. "Sagara, your behavior back there was downright reckless!"
"With all due respect," I said neutrally, "the mission was completed, and in half the estimated time."
Tessa shook her head, letting out a tired breath and slouching into her high-backed chair. Lacing her fingers together, she rested her chin on her clasped hands. "This is... not like you, Sousuke."
I met her eyes at the casual use of my name. "I do not understand. I have always been concerned about the welfare of my comrades. To complete any objective quickly means minimizing the time our unit is at risk, I-"
"Please don't play games," Tessa said quietly. "You did nothing to minimize risks. A single misstep and the landmines would have set off a chain reaction and everyone would have been killed. Your haste only further endangered the unit."
"No one was injured," I said curtly. "The risk you speak of is purely theoretical at this point."
Tessa's eyes narrowed and she pressed the button on her intercom to speak. "Please send in Commander Mardukas."
I struggled to keep my face passive, every moment of this ridiculous interrogation grating my already frayed nerves. Perhaps my approach to the mission had been a little... unorthodox. I had wanted to expedite my efforts in order to find out what was going on with Kaname, and this extended debriefing-turned-lecture was practically nullifying that entire plan. No matter what Tessa asked me, I had one burning question of my own on the tip of my tongue. Did they just not care what happened to Chidori? Wasn't it our job to protect her? I told Mardukas to send people to look after her, and I had heard nothing of any actions taken to that effect. While they were criticizing my behavior, which in reality had no negative consequences, Chidori could still be suffering.
I clenched my jaw, willing myself to hold it all back. Mithril was an organization with complexities I did not understand. Surely some measure had been taken that eluded me.
Mardukas entered Tessa's office with an air of authority that, frankly, she could not pull off herself. Suddenly, I became aware that something more serious than I had anticipated was about to happen. I had expected a slap on the wrist for my alacrity, but whatever they were about to tell me... from the guilt on Tessa's face, I gathered Mardukas had come in because she just didn't want to be the bad guy, not when dealing with me.
"Sagara, in all of your recorded actions through Mithril, you have always exercised notable thoroughness and professionalism. It is for this reason that we find your behavior in this mission particularly suspicious." Mardukas barked from where he stood next to Tessa's chair.
Suspicious? He was speaking as if I were an enemy, not the operative I was. I looked to Tessa, but she was looking at her hands, her expression... pained.
"Now, I am going to ask you this once, and only once," Mardukas continued. "What is the true reason for all the hurry, Sergeant?"
Tessa wouldn't look at me, and my heart sped up. Now probably wasn't the time for bullshit. On the other hand, I doubt they'd take the news well if I admitted I was potentially jeopardizing one mission in favor of another. Swallowing, I shifted my gaze to Mardukas. "As I told the captain, I was trying to finish the assignment in a timely fashion in order to remove our unit from the danger zone as quickly as possible. As far as is evident, that is exactly what happened."
Tessa stood up abruptly, the legs of her chair squeaking against the floor. She reached a hand into her suit jacket. "Is that the reason?" She pulled something out, a little paper or something, and slapped it down on the table. "Or, is this the reason?"
I raised an eyebrow and took a step towards the desk, my breath catching when I got a good look at what she had had in her pocket. It was a photograph. A photograph of myself and Kaname. It appeared to have been taken at the graduation party we had recently attended. It was a rather unusual picture, as I was all-out laughing. Kaname had her arms around me, her hands clasped behind my neck, and she was looking up at my face, laughing herself. Our happiness and closeness were obvious, and it seemed neither of us even realized the picture had been taken. That Tokiwa was a sneaky one.
I shrugged uncomfortably, looking up at Tessa, a little confused. What was her point? The picture didn't spell out anything incriminating, just that we were at a party together and we were having fun.
She frowned, then flipped the photo over. Scrawled on the back in Kaname's slanted handwriting was a note:
"Be safe, come home soon. XOXO, Kaname."
My mouth went dry, and I took a step back from the desk. "Where did you get that?" I asked quietly.
"From your bag," Tessa explained. We were performing our routine luggage check and this was found."
My bag? I'd never seen that photo, Kaname never gave it to me... oh wait, she had repaired my bag. She probably slipped it in there for me to find while I was away. How sweet. How terribly inconvenient, at the moment.
I studied the back of the photo for another moment. "Well, what is she trying to tell me? XOXO? Is that some kind of new code system? Maybe there's a problem. I should contact her." Why wouldn't she have just told me instead of writing it on a picture where it could fall into the wrong hands?
"Hugs and Kisses, Sagara! Hugs and kisses!"
My eyes widened when I looked up at Mardukas, who had just yelled the strange words. "Sir...?" I choked. I had to admit, that was the last order I expected to receive from Mardukas. I wasn't about to obey, either. Honestly, what good would strange inter-ranking affection do at this time, when-
"That's what XOXO stands for," Tessa whispered as she slumped back into her chair. "Hugs and kisses. Standard way to end a letter to... someone you love."
I felt my cheeks warm at that. Oh. Well. Okay then. I guess there was no more chance of hiding the status of my relationship with Chidori. The new question was... how were they going to take this news?
"I know you received a phone call from Chidori just before you left for the mission," Mardukas said sternly. "I know you had some idea in your head that she was injured. I know you desired to return to Tokyo to check up on her. We suspect that the reason you rushed through the mission was to return to Chidori as quickly as possible. Such an action is completely inappropriate. You had a task at hand and you jeopardized it for that girl, who probably isn't even hurt, just-"
"Probably?" I asked abruptly, my heart skipping a beat. "Sir, do you mean that Mithril never investigated Chidori's situation?"
"That is none of your concern!" he barked.
"But it is my mission, sir," I objected, an edge to my voice, "to ensure Chidori's safety. When she called, she was in obvious distress. Since you would not grant me leave to aid her, I requested Mithil dispatch other personnel." I swallowed. "Did they not do that?"
"Focus, Sagara! Put her out of your brain for one minute! Do you think you can manage that?"
I said nothing, my anger growing. Their lack of a direct answer made me think that they really hadn't done anything to help Kaname. Which meant that she had been alone, for hours, with whatever it was that was hurting her. Had she been kidnapped? Killed?
"This is a serious issue," Tessa said gravely, taking the photograph and putting it back into her jacket. "Are we to understand that you and Kaname are now involved in a romantic relationship?"
"I fail to see the importance of that question at this time," I snapped, surprised at my own gruffness. "I have just returned from a taxing mission, and Kaname is in danger. Such matters are personal, and-"
"Such matters are not personal!" Mardukas bellowed. "Miss Chidori is a Whispered. She is important for Mithril to protect and oversee. Under no circumstances were you to overstep your place as a bodyguard and enter any kind of relationship with her! We have been far too lenient regarding your status as a student. To have special relations with your charge is completely unethical and out of line. Such a relationship clouds judgment, interferes with operations, and fosters insubordinanation, all of which you have demonstrated today."
"With all due respect, sir," I said, not respectfully, really. "I am not the only member of Mithril with a girlfriend."
Tessa let out a little squeak when I said it, but I was beyond feeling sorry for her at the moment.
"Maybe so, but you are the only member of Mithril who has disobeyed direct orders and endangered the welfare of the organization in order to have a whispered whom he is sworn to protect as his girlfriend," Mardukas spat.
I froze. Okay, so he had me there. Give the man a prize. So what?
"We should never have turned a blind eye to your misdemeanors," Mardukas lectured. "We should have never agreed to let you return to that school and ignore your duties. Now that you are graduated, we find the need for immediate remedial action. You are to clear out your apartment and move to a permanent station here on the Danaan. You are to end your relationship with Chidori, and in doing so, end all communications with her. We will assign a new operative to keep watch over her. You are to focus all of your attentions on improving your use of the Lambda Driver and teaching your squadron its use. That is an order."
For a few seconds, I didn't breathe... I didn't blink... I just stared at Mardukas. Was he serious? Truly serious?
He stared back. Definitely serious.
I turned to Tessa, who had finally lifted her eyes to meet mine. She looked sorry, but... resolved.
I swallowed. "Is that an ultimatum?" I asked bitterly, feeling utterly cornered.
"No of course not," Tessa said quietly, but her expression did not change. "An ultimatum requires a choice. You have none."
In the park, Kaname had told me that I was young, that I had a life ahead of me. Staying with Mithril meant losing Kaname... and maybe in more ways than one. The woman who had become such a part of my previously straightforward life wouldn't be there anymore. She'd be wiped out, erased like she was never there. Additionally, Mithril didn't seem to give a damn about her at all. Numerous times they had rescinded her protection, only to discover that the enemy was still after her, that she was still in danger. Even now, when she called and I knew she was in trouble, Mithril ignored my pleas. She was going unaided even as I contemplated this dilemma. Not only would Kaname be absent from my life should I stay with Mithril, she could very well be killed, or captured and tortured. I couldn't allow that to happen. I had made a promise to Kaname, even if she didn't know it. She trusted me, and she needed my help. I wouldn't leave her alone. I didn't want her to be alone. I didn't want to be alone.
"I just wish you'd think about your life as more than something all laid out for you."
I took a backwards step, distancing myself from my superior officers.
"You have choices, you know?"
"I have a choice," I said calmly, raising my hand in a salute.
"I wish you'd start thinking about what you want, not just what you'd always thought you'd do."
"I will return to Tokyo by helicopter this evening. All borrowed equipment will be shipped back to Mithril in a timely fashion. I regret to inform the captain that I will no longer be involved in the organization." The words seemed dull, foreign to my own ears. I felt like I was in some crazy dream, but this was real. It was real, and it would change my life forever.
AN – Whoa, it's been a while huh? I've been from Moscow to Tokyo to London since last I wrote. As you can see, things are starting to move right along with the plot. I know a lot of you are going to wonder about some of the events of this chapter, but all I can say is: I have a plan!
Thanks to everyone who reviewed chapter 1: Zade, Moonshadow29, Hououza, FuyuSarah, Gemma, full-metal-sousuke, DeepBlueQL, NefCanuck, the Mangadude, quesera, Older than Dirt, Tulip Baroo, Onigiri-Love, everwhite, Kelocena, Kiyoko, LokiGirl, openwindow, Rama chan, pagan-seijou, Kumorigoe, Re-Ane, Thaliea, Itsy-Evil-Spiders, pinklove, hugoauthen, Lady Lydia, Sabriel20, and Uchinaclan. It really means a lot to me that you kept reading into the sequel, I thought everyone would stop after D&C. All of your feedback is so much appreciated! And thanks, as always, to my wonderful beta Lakewood.