A vein in Melissa Mao's head throbbed as she sat in Kaname's apartment, trying to break the news that she herself hadn't wanted to hear in the first place. Had dreaded, actually – five months of nothing, when nobody could find Sousuke dead or alive, when he could have been anywhere in the world. She had actually hoped that he'd taken advantage of his own disappearance and simply… disappeared. Started a new life somewhere else, far away from Japan and Mithril and the military. He had been so at home in desert surroundings that she thought he might have been in Arizona while everyone else was looking for him.
But he hadn't done that. He had gone too deep undercover, trying to wedge himself into North Korea without being suspected – it was a long-term assignment. He'd actually wanted it. And things had gone smoothly for the first few weeks, until his transmissions simply stopped. No one knew why – nothing had come out about a spy being discovered, and aside from the fact that Sousuke had completely disappeared, nothing else in the world was different.
It seemed to Melissa that something should have happened: misfired rockets, an uprising squashed, even a suspicious break-in somewhere to give them something to go on. But no, Sousuke was dead and there was no reason for it. Only eight people really cared what happened to the infamous little Japanese sand rat, but the ripples faded quickly after them.
"So that's it, then," Kaname said numbly, eyes on her shoes. "I guess – they all said his chances weren't good, so we should have seen this coming, but… it's official now." She swallowed. "Kurz told me after the first month that I shouldn't get my hopes up, you know, but I thought I could just say later that I was the only one who knew he'd be all right. Thought I'd rub his nose in it, you know?"
"I know," she sighed miserably. "I know. They… I mean, the coroner says he died quickly. Whatever happened, he wasn't in pain, and there's no sign of pre-mortem trauma."
The other girl didn't seem to register the morbid comfort. "Quick. That's good for him, I guess. I didn't –" And here, a quick swipe at her eyes. "Never mind. I'm sick of crying."
"It's okay to cry, if you want," she said uncomfortably – even for Sousuke, Melissa wasn't about to take on a weepy teenager willingly. No way. But it had to be all right to cry now – she had told herself every night before this that she would cry when his body was found, and not until then. Until then, he might be alive somewhere and in no need of anyone's tears.
Not so anymore. Eventually it would be her turn to cry.
"It's okay, but I'm tired of it," Kaname gritted, stamping on an urge to simply scream. "I've cried myself to sleep every night for five months now. I can't do it anymore."
An awkward silence stretched between them. "If you need anything…" she began uncomfortably. "You know that Kurz and I will be here."
Kaname nodded and sniffed quickly, teeth sinking into her bottom lip. "Thanks. Is Kurz okay?"
"He's… well, he's having a hard time with it," she admitted quietly. "We all are. He was the one who got the call from Mithril's forensic lab in Hawaii, and Kalinin told everyone else – he just wasn't expecting it. The rest of us got a little bit of a buffer. Anyways, the captain… we're having a memorial service on the submarine tomorrow. If you'd like to come back with me – I think you should be there," she said firmly, control returning to her. "We've been in the dark too long – I think it will be good for everyone to finally get some closure."
The other girl nodded and bit her lip further, blood blossoming quickly. "I'd like that."
The silence that followed was not awkward.
Not many outsiders could look out upon the sprawling deserts of Jordan and marvel at how lovely it was; for the man sitting in a parked Volkswagen Thing peering past two camels with a pair of high-resolution binoculars, it was as beautiful as any other arid, dry corner of hell. He waved a rolled-up newspaper at a persistent fly, but when he caught sight of the silly little red fez bobbing through the crowd, the fly was forgotten, and he began rifling through his bag for a silencer. God bless tourist shops, and that stupid fucking hat.
The binoculars wavered in his hand when a pair of icy blue eyes turned and seemed to look right through those fancy lenses, right at him. And the hat still looked stupid.
I hate it when they see me coming, he thought darkly, tossing the binoculars aside and assembling the rifle quickly. Didn't matter; the little British shit was dead meat whether he had time to get right with God or not.
Although – said British shit couldn't have possibly known he was marked for death. Marked at five million big ones, no less. An innocuous, if well-paying, hit.
He didn't bat an eyelash when the boy came walking up to his vehicle, one of the local street punks looking to make a buck or two. "I told you not to disturb me while I'm working," he said without actually looking at the child. "Was there some part of that you failed to understand?"
"Message for you, sir," the kid shot back, chin held high. "From Moscow."
Ah. He had left the boy with strict instructions to bring him anything from Moscow. "So get to it."
"They say they have news of the Mithril operative you've been keeping under surveillance," he delivered, proud of himself. "His remains have been positively identified after being discovered with the wreckage of a very large boat off the shore of North Korea. They know nothing else of it."
The gun lowered as the message unfolded. "Where did they hear that?"
"Monitoring Mithril's emergency channel."
He narrowed his eyes and picked up the gun again, aiming and shooting at the bobbing red fez with not-so-deadly accuracy. The hat shot off into the air as the bullet connected, and the wearer bolted away unhurt.
"Consider yourself warned," he growled, and then turned back to the boy. "They're wrong, so you know. He's not dead. If Moscow makes contact again, tell them it's not possible. Mithril might suspect we're listening to them."
"Will you not tell them yourself, sir?" The boy shifted on his feet.
"No, I won't."
"Where will I tell them you are?"
He was offered a chilling smile. "You won't tell them anything. I've got some personal business I'll be attending to; when I want to contact them, I'll do it."
The kid looked dejected, well aware that his salary was leaving as well. "Why, sir?"
"Because," Gauron said tightly, turning on his Volkswagen Thing and lighting his first cigarette of the day. "Anyone who believes Kashim is dead obviously hasn't met either of us."
The service proved to be one of the most miserable of Kaname's young life. As she went to a public high school, several students over the years had died for one reason or another. None of them had been real friends of hers, but the memorial services were both painful and drawn out.
This made all the rest look like picnics.
Aside from Tessa, it was a clearly military crowd in attendance, and most eyes in the room were dry. Kurz barely even saw her walk in the door, but it was only because his eyes were cloudy and distant. She sought him out quickly, more afraid of enduring this alone than disturbing him.
"Hi," she said softly, laying a hand on his arm.
He seemed to hardly register her presence. "He would have hated all this," he told her tightly. "He couldn't stand being the center of attention."
Kaname chose not to argue with him; she suspected that Kurz was the one who hated it more. Sousuke couldn't have cared less. "I hope it's not showy," she agreed. "It wouldn't be right."
"You know," he said emptily, "we still don't know why. His cover wasn't blown, no one saw anything out of the ordinary. It's so fucking hard to get any sort of info out of North Korea, no one will tell us anything –" He blew out a noisy breath. "I want to know why. I want to know if there was any way of stopping it, anything leading up to it." His jaw tightened. "I want to know if anyone benefited from it. I want to know if anyone had any clue. I want a piece of everyone involved."
She didn't know what kind of piece Kurz was after, but she wouldn't have minded one herself. It seemed a poor end to her long vigil.
She supposed it was normal for a ship full of hard-core militants to keep composure during a funeral. Tessa cried a little noisily a few times, and Melissa was nowhere to be seen, but beyond that it was so stiff and formal that she thought she might keel over. It was also a little strange to be seated behind the weepy Tessa and the stoic Kalinin, who did not bat an eyelash the entire time. In truth, he looked as far away as Kurz did.
Kaname herself felt a thousand miles away as well – something about the severity and finality of the service just seemed to make it more unreal than it already was. She hadn't known there were so many nice things to say about Sousuke, but they were nice things that she'd never heard him say one thing about: he was the only AS pilot to come to a draw with Kalinin (during the Lieutenant Commander's tenure as flight instructor), he'd survived five weeks alone in a South American jungle after a mission gone awry… a slew of things that were fascinating stories, none of which he'd ever told her about.
Kalinin himself did not get up and speak, which surprised her. She didn't actually know anyone involved with the ceremony outside of Tessa. The ones who had actually fought beside Sousuke remained seated and stunned, like Kurz and Kaname, as though they were waiting for him to walk in and end this strange procession. He never did.
It was in the hallway that Kaname saw the man for the first time –Kurz had wandered off to smoke a cigarette in the emergency stairway, and she still hadn't seen Mao that day. All the other faces on the submarine were strangers, so when she actually spotted someone familiar, it took a moment for her to comprehend who she had seen.
He didn't see her, which was good – only a handful of people on the sub would be able to place his face, and if he knew he'd just passed one of them… she might not have come out on top this time.
The very fact that she saw him at that exact moment chilled her, and she wondered if it were one of those Whispered things that happened sometimes. Because for a long time as she'd roamed the ship all day, she thought first of how she missed Sousuke, and the mere thought simply… expanded. She'd thought about how life would be different now, the way it was before he came to school with an automatic weapon on his first day. She'd spent so many hours fuming to him that he'd messed everything up, even though he only meant well. But she'd never gone so far as to think of her life without him.
It was like there was no happy medium. He was either there and in her way, bothering the hell out of her, or he was dead.
But it didn't really feel like he was dead – maybe that was just the shock, but some little part of her simply refused to call him that. Maybe it would pass, but so far it hadn't budged an inch. It had been there for five months of uncertainty, so when Melissa had shown up on her doorstep and said that he'd been found among the dead on a sunken cargo ship, she was understandably more upset than she'd expected.
News spread quickly among mercenaries, because she saw a handful of faces at his service that surprised her. It was like the entire world had heard.
She'd actually been a little surprised that she hadn't seen him there – of course, he was dead, too. But he'd come back from stranger deaths yet, and life was weird enough with Sousuke's funeral – his funeral, because he was dead– and so it just would have made sense to see him. Actually, it would have proven to her that Sousuke was really gone, for Gauron to show up at his funeral and bid whatever farewell he might have chosen (whether it was a dance of joy or a shooting spree). When the most persistent, unkillable man in the universe showed up – well, it was a little bit like having Death himself lounging in the audience, admiring his work.
That was actually what Kaname was thinking about when she saw him, and for a silly moment, she thought, Huh. Death is pushing a first aid cart around. Ironic.
Then, of course, reality clicked, and she jumped behind a fire extinguisher in case he chose to turn and look her way – as if the squeak of her shoes alone wouldn't give her away, but it was worth a try.
He kept on walking, though, and when she felt sure she was far enough behind him, she slipped back into the hall and began to follow him, stepping in time with him to mask her footsteps.
It didn't look like he had a specific destination; he wandered the floor aimlessly for nearly forty-five minutes. That was lucky enough, because an elevator might have gotten awkward. And Kaname was becoming a little giddy at the fact that he hadn't noticed her yet – a world-class assassin, and she was the predator.
Until, of course, the people in the hallway thinned slowly, and she had to make sure to step exactly when he did, and remain just close enough that he wouldn't see her if he tossed a glance back. Then there was the problem of breathing, and her sandals were making a faint slap against the metal floor, and her skirt rustled noisily –
"If you think," came his voice in the chilled hallway, "that you'll be able to follow me by holding your breath and hopping along in time to my steps to disguise yours, then I've got some bad news for you: I inventedthat one."
She froze in place. "You did not."
Gauron turned and gave her a frosty smirk. "But you can't prove it, Miss Chidori. Can you?"
"If you come any closer," she said delicately, "I'll scream so loud, they'll think you've dismembered me."
"Don't underestimate me," he replied. "Because I just might."
Okay, she decided. Don't give him ideas. I was just thinking about him…
"What are you doing here?"
Well. That was subtle.
"I thought you were going to scream," he reminded her.
"Only if you come any closer, and you haven't yet. Plus, that dismemberment thing. Why are you here?" she pressed stubbornly.
"I'm here to see a friend," he replied simply.
"You heard about Sousuke?" Kaname asked uneasily.
He sniffed. "I might have heard something."
Her own grief slipped to the back-burner for a moment. "His funeral was today," she said coldly. "If that's what you came for, you're a little late."
"He'll understand. I was always a little behind."
As far as Kaname knew, there were only two ways to cope with her grief: the smart way, and the not-so-smart way. Exuding frustration of any sort upon, not to mention taking it out on Gauron qualified as… well, not-so-smart.
But her brain kept insisting, Doesn't anyone care that he's dead? Doesn't anyone understand that it's not fair? So not only did she get rather short with him, she might have been mistaken for pissy. Her hands balled into fists at her side, and there was an impressive amount of venom in her voice. "He'll understand," she repeated. "I'm sure he will. You're probably beside yourself with joy, aren't you? You jerk. How dare you come back here and pretend to give a shit one way or another about him? You never caused him anything but misery, you never did anything other than try to kill him – you're like the flip side of his coin," she decided frigidly. "Heads and tails, yin and yang. He really is dead now, you know – it's not just an elaborate hoax to trick you into leaving him alone. And frankly," Kaname added, murder in her voice, "he didn't deserve to die like that. If someone was going to die that day, for whatever reason or cause, it should have been you." She swallowed and took another quick swipe at her eyes. "So why are you here? Why isn't it him standing there while people talk about your tragic end?"
Her chin threatened to tremble, but she bit down on it. "Why isn't it Sousuke?" she demanded, and then her precious composure began to crumble.
Possibly for the first time since they'd met, he regarded her with a degree of severity. "Touching. I'd cry, but it seems you've done it for me." At her appalled, kicked-puppy look of shock, he sighed. "Forget it. I'm not here to deal with your hormones."
Kaname's face flamed bright red. "Then why in the hell are you here?" There actually seemed to be no logical answer to that question – Sousuke was dead and beyond torment, a gun had not yet been pulled on her, nor was there any mention of her status as a Whispered… it wasn't quite adding up.
"I want to see his – I'm looking for the sniper," Gauron replied haughtily, his words faltering for only a millisecond. "The cocky one. Weber."
"Kurz?" she said stupidly. That definitely wasn't what she'd expected to hear.
"His friend," he clarified with disdain, a little too tightly. "You caught me on my way to have a little chat with him."
"You came to meet Kurz?" she repeated.
"More or less." He flashed her a cannibalistic grin. "Of course, I'm hoping he's as exited to see me as you were; it's always a treat to have the element of surprise."
"Can't you just leave us alone?" she said weakly.
"I could," he shrugged, "but you're going to want to hear what I have to say first. If you don't buy into it, then you'll probably never see me again."
"Promise?" Kaname almost sneered.
There was a chilling finality to his words. "I promise."
That proved to be little comfort to her.