Syndicate

By Tanya Lilac

Mission 1: Calico

Summer. Ten years ago, Sendai.

"I thought I told you; I never want to see you again!"

"Come on, Suzu, you know it was just a joke!"

They'd had this conversation before. Suzune didn't pause, or look back, and just continued walking with her suitcase through the station. She'd said everything that she would ever need to this person, he was as good as dead to her now.

"Are you really running away? You're just a coward, aren't you?"

She stopped walking, letting the person behind her catch up. "Ah, Suzu, I knew that all you wanted was a hug."

"Take… Sugimura!" She snapped, whirling around with a hand up. "You are without a doubt, the biggest jerk I have ever met! If I died in an hour I would be so pissed off that you were the last person to see me off in Sendai. I am so sick of your face –"

"Your mother told me you're heading off to Tokyo for some summer camp before you start at Waseda, so I just wanted to say –"

"What, Sugimura? Sorry? Because that's not going to cut it, not after –"

He cut her short with a hug, pinning her arms safely, his chin resting on the top of her head.

"I'm glad, you know, you're getting away from this city. You were meant for better things than what we could give you here. Maybe go overseas or something."

"I hate you, Sugimura," she said, her voice muffled by his chest. "I hate you so much."

"I know," he sighed quietly, patting her back, and groaned as she kicked him sharply in the shin.

He grinned at her and ran a hand through his hair, a gesture she had taught herself to hate. Of all people, he had been the easiest to say goodbye to, or so she had thought.

"Touch me ever again and I will make you regret it," she said darkly as she turned back around and continued on her path through the station. As she passed through the ticket barrier, she was struck by the notion that leaving Sendai for good was the best decision she had ever made.


Tokyo, April 21. Ten years ago.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Suzune sighed as she stopped outside her favourite restaurant, spying a familiar face sitting at the counter. At that precise moment, her turned and saw her, and began to wave frantically.

"Why am I followed around by the most idiotic guys?" she muttered, before opening the door and entering the restaurant. She sat down next to him, and ignored the enthusiastic greeting of the chef.

"What a coincidence –"

"Stalking is a crime you know," Suzune interrupted him. "Have you been spying on me?" she asked. The sheepish look he gave her was enough to confirm her accusation.

"Come on, just hear me out here. I've been looking for you all day."

"Tokyo," she said slowly, "must be a smaller city than I expected."

"Not many people say that," he replied with another bright, cheery smile.

"I don't care. I'm leaving." She turned on the bar stool to leave and he placed a hand on her arm.

"Please don't go, just hear me out, Ichiraku-san." She looked at his hand and then back up at him, and he raised his hands as if to placate her. "It'll be my treat."

Suzune sat back down, and opened the menu, without glancing at him a second time.

Ogawa Akira smiled quietly to himself. It had been harder than he'd expected to get a hold of this young woman, but that problem had been solved once they'd found out that she was enrolled at a prestigious university in Tokyo, studying Chinese classical literature, of all things. Nonetheless, she was taciturn and evasive at every turn. Knowing just what she was capable of, perhaps this shouldn't have come as such a surprise.

"Well?" Suzune asked, forty five minutes later, after polishing off a generous bowl of oyakodon. A woman of simple pleasures – somehow, he admired that. "What is it that you'd like to talk about?"

Akira had let his yakisoba go cold a while ago, and had only been drinking beer for the past twenty minutes, trying to think of what to say. She had ignored him completely while eating and now turned to face him expectantly.

"I want you."

Her expression did not change as she moved to pick up her bag and coat.

He sighed. It had sounded better in his head. "Oh come on, you know exactly what I mean! There's nothing weird going on here!"

"According to everyone else in this restaurant, that's clearly not the case," she said dryly, casting a look around the establishment.

"Admit it," he grinned, putting a hand on her shoulder, "You want to be convinced and wooed like everyone else."

"Did you just say, 'woo'?" She asked, looking down at his hand, which he hastily retracted.

"For once in your life," Akira began, "People are looking at you differently and praising you for different reasons. So suddenly, you're starting to wonder if, maybe, they're all right and you can do more than you can imagine. And it kind of feels you've been set free from a lot of expectations you were used to having, right? Maybe the life you've been leading up to now hasn't been the path you were destined to take; it was just convenient for you to walk it because someone else had laid it out for you."

She didn't reply, and he knew that he had somehow managed to get through to her.

"One hour, tomorrow afternoon after you finish your classes. That's all we want from you. An hour of your time and you can think about it. And after you make up your mind, if you never want to see us again, we can live with that."

He left a bill on the table and handed her a business card with an odd air of formality she had felt around her parents all the time, as a child. She accepted it without saying much, but she did catch the phrase, "Tactical operations director". He was a bigger fish than she'd originally thought.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Calico-chan."


Tokyo, April 22. Ten years ago.

The next day, as promised, she found Akira standing around in the courtyard of her faculty in a business suit. Mistaking him for yet another fourth year student making the occasional appearance on campus, she had walked right past him until he called out, "Ichiraku-san!" This of course, had been loud enough for everyone around her to hear and she stopped and turned around with a sigh, unable to escape embarrassment.

"Hey, Calico-chan," he grinned, standing as she approached.

She scowled. "Don't use that name here," she snapped.

"Boring class?" He asked pleasantly as they began to walk out of the campus. Girls were turning to look back at them, giggling and hiding coy smiles.

"Annoying appointment," she snarled.

"Well it will only take another …" he checked his watch. "Fifty five minutes of your time."

They caught a taxi into the downtown corporate district in complete silence. He already knew she didn't want to make small talk. They had met each other for the first time roughly four months ago. Well, to be more precise, she had seen him from afar and he'd only been made aware of her existence perhaps two weeks after that. She had signed up for Konoha's Summer Program on a whim and had been accepted, without really knowing what she was getting into. Since overseas travel was obviously out of the question, she had simply entered her details into a form one of her teachers had given her and sent it along to a company in Tokyo.

She had expected some kind of summer internship in a large office, photocopying and the like. But when the package arrived with all of the glossy brochures, she felt the burning desire to find out what was really happening, with its sweeping grassy fields, classes to 'enrich the mind'; a program exclusively designed for the 'exceptionally gifted and talented'.

Many of the classes had been fairly easy – history, geography and other foreign languages were nothing new since she had spent time travelling with her father, a diplomat, until she entered high school at sixteen. Combat training had come almost as naturally as breathing. This had caught everyone by surprise, and she'd turned a lot of heads. It wasn't until the program had ended and she had politely refused to sign up for their 'cadetship program' that Akira first started looking for her.

The taxi stopped in front of a tall building in the business district. The building was similar to those around it, non-descript and unassuming. Suzune got out of the taxi as Akira paid the driver. There were people walking around, heading to and from appointments, leaving work early, or coming in late. It didn't seem like the kind of place to find an intelligence agency.

The tour did not last long; although she had not been here before, Suzune had a feeling that there were only certain things that he was allowed to show her. He hadn't even tried to persuade her to join yet, but they had passed by many training rooms full of people, from those her age up until middle aged men, with grey hair moving just as nimbly and with as much deadly force as a panther.

"Combat training, logistics, simulations … everything you learned during your summer vacation is just the tip of the iceberg. If you decide to work with us, we will provide you with accommodation, as well as part time employment on your days off study. Nonetheless, we would require you to finish your university degree…" Akira sighed as she paused by the one way mirror, looking into the dojo. "But of course, that was always a part of your plan, wasn't it?"

"Sorry? Oh yes, right," she replied distractedly, her eyes watching their movements.

"Why don't you join them?" he asked, leaning against the glass.

"I couldn't possibly…" she trailed off, concentrating on the demonstrator's movements. It was a class about evasion, and how to use the enemy's weight against them; a more defence-oriented lesson with roots in martial arts styles like Judo and Aikido.

"Don't you ever feel like … you could make a difference somehow? I know … about your past, and where you come from." He paused and watched as her eyes narrowed when the demonstrator completed a complicated manoeuvre, trying to comprehend the shift of weight and balance behind it. "You fear being locked up in a cage and being told what to do day in and day out. It's the reason why you decided to sign up for the Summer Program, and why you decided to leave Sendai for a private university in Tokyo."

She turned and fixed her eyes upon him. "What are you getting at?"

"Somewhere deep inside you, you want to do this. You want to see how far you can go, and see how big the world really is. The truth is, all you really want to do is find yourself. You want to live life on the edge, away from obligations and reputation."

Suzune grew very still, and he knew he was right. The story was similar to many of the women who joined Konoha; for some it was country, for others, it was about identity. They knew what kind of opportunities this job provided, and they weren't afraid to give up everything for the cause.

"What do you say?" He asked solemnly. "Will Ichiraku Suzune take the first steps to becoming Calico, or will you have to lock her in a box full of your other secrets? There's a side to you that you need to let out, and there's a whole other world just waiting for you to explore it."

She turned to meet his eyes, finally. The rest, as they would eventually say, was history.


After she joined Konoha (passing all the tests in flying colours), Akira was assigned as her handler; something that came as a surprise to neither of them. She was welcomed into the fold and told her friends only that she had received an internship at a small firm of translators, doing the usual things like data entry, photocopying, making coffee. In reality, on Tuesday and Wednesdays (her days off) and the weekends, she would head to the Konoha training compound and take lessons from Akira.

They always started with hand to hand combat, but Akira always won every sparring session. Every bout with Akira was exhilarating and constantly frustrating, he always had another trick up his sleeve, or he would read her movements perfectly and counter swiftly and with efficiently cruel precision.

"What's your secret?" Suzune asked, panting as she looked up at him from the training mat. He had swept her out onto her back with a low kick – one she had lost the energy to evade. Akira had explained a little bit about his muscle memory theory – she had been trained in different styles of dance as a child; in hindsight, this somewhat explained her affinity for combat. "Did you dance as well?" she smiled.

He shrugged. "All I can do is the result of pure hard work, you could say. More blood, sweat and tears than I'd care to mention."

Suzune gave him a dubious look.

"Anyone can swing their fists around, that's easy. But to hit something, or get rid of any number of opponents without getting hurt yourself requires thought as well, not just strength," he explained. "Think on your feet. Read your opponent. You don't need to fight clean. Just do what you need to, and only that, for the success of the mission. You never know when you'll need your strength in an emergency."

Even though he said this, when they fought, Akira was always unreadable; he was a wall of silence and complete emotional invulnerability.

Grinning, he held out his hand and she grudgingly handed him her drink bottle. "Good girl. Now, ready to get your ass kicked again, twinkle toes?"

She got to her feet. "Are you?"


The other side of her training was new; summer program participants weren't allowed to handle firearms and settled for melee weapons, most of them dull. But nothing had really prepared her for muzzle flash, the recoil and the smell of gunpowder and gun oil, the instantaneous sensations of this machine that did nothing but cause harm and death.

She sat down heavily on the bench outside the firing range and tossed her glasses and ear protectors into the tray Akira held out for her. Her mouth was dry and her hands shook as she reached for her bottle of water, and Akira was reminded how young and inexperienced she was.

"Have you ever killed someone?" She asked, looking straight ahead at the wall. He had known this question would be coming somewhere down the line.

"Yes," he said, missing a beat.

"Was it in self defence?"

"Not always." Akira looked to the side, shifting uncomfortably. There was something unsettling about her tone of voice.

"Were you ordered to do it?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you remember the first one you..."

"I remember them all, some way or another. Some really stay with you, though."

She took another greedy gulp of water from her bottle and Akira sat down next to her. He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand and sighed.

"How do you live with it? Knowing that you've taken a life?"

"This world we live in is only shades of grey. From the start, everything you do is for the sake of the mission. But this mission is for something greater than just one person, or even Konoha. This is all for the future of our country. If you don't believe in that, then you will die very young and in any number of horrible ways."

Silence lapsed for a full twenty seconds as she absorbed this.

"You kill your own?!" She asked, paling with shock.

"No, you idiot," he said, laughing and poking her in the forehead. "I'm saying you need to be wholeheartedly committed to this cause and to our country, and trust us. Every time you go out into the field, you place your life in our hands. If you're not one of us, your heart will waver and somewhere down the line, you'll stray from the path, and fall. And there's nothing we can do to help you then."

She swallowed thickly.

"Were you like that from the start?"

He grinned. "Maybe, maybe not. That, grasshopper, is a tale for another day. Run along to the shower now, and leave that jacket here."

She scowled. "Don't treat me like a kid!"


June 5, ten years ago. Tokyo.

A few weeks later, they had their first surveillance assignment. They watched an influential figure in the mining and exploration figure for three evenings, tracking his movements and noting his habits. Akira hadn't let her read the mission file and taught her the basics in profiling.

"Profiling is half science and half intuition. It all depends on the response you need to provoke from your target," he said. She was rifling around in his glove box and he pushed her hands aside and slammed it shut. "Seriously, Suzune cut it out! I know you find it boring but this could easily save your life!"

She turned to him, her cheeks slightly pink, and gave him a wide smile. His eyes narrowed.

"You're kind of a messy guy, you don't care about your appearance much but you're really meticulous about certain things. Money, for example. Your wallet is very neat and you never fumble with it; you know exactly where everything is. You don't have any pets but your girlfriend has a cat, maybe Siamese. You've got a decent sense of humour, you're hard working but you have a lot of repressed issues with-"

Silence fell as she stopped herself and he watched her from the driver's seat, rather bemused.

"You got a few things wrong. First, Morita-san has a Persian cat. Secondly, I have an excellent sense of humour, thank you very much."

"Morita-san, hey?" She smiled knowingly. "See, it's easy."

"You've known me for a while now. What about someone on the street? You need to pick up any details you can and exploit them. Can they handle themselves? Are they a threat to you? Knowing how to read into people can save your life, knowing when you need to run or create a distraction."

"Or fight."

He tensed and she froze, following his gaze out the windscreen. Their target had left his favourite restaurant and instead of catching a taxi, was walking down the street towards Akira's car. Definitely out of the norm.

Without warning, he placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned towards her, so close that she could feel his breath against her cheek and his lips brushed lightly across her skin. Her eyelids lowered and she whispered, her voice low and husky, "Where is he headed? I can't see the mirror."

"Quiet, or I'll really -"

He stopped talking as she wrapped an arm around him, pulling him close and peering around his head into the mirror, the sound of footsteps slowing as their target approached the car.

Akira placed a firm hand on her shoulder once more, this time to pin her back against her chair and capture her lips. Suzune closed her eyes, and gasped as his hands brushed against her blouse and crept up beneath, sliding up her back as he pulled her closer with the slightest pressure in his fingers.

Then, all too suddenly, he pulled away and the warmth was gone, leaving only her racing heartbeat and heavy breath. She opened her eyes and found Akira putting on a scarf and buttoning up his jacket.

He cast her a sly look. "Swept off your feet so soon?" He grinned, looking in the rear-view mirror to see where their target was headed. He was heading towards some residential apartment blocks; most likely an expensive studio he shared with his mistress of the week.

There was a tap on the windscreen and Suzune jumped, reaching for the glove box instinctively. Akira shot her a fierce look and turned around to look out the window, his expression changing to one of innocent confusion. It dropped the moment he realised who it was.

"My, my, what would Morita-san think?" Their visitor purred with a wicked grin.

"What are you doing out here, Anko?" Akira sighed.

"Taking over. We received intel that he was making the exchange tonight."

"What?! A week in advance?" He tried to open the door but Anko all but kicked it shut.

"You know how quickly the weather changes in the field. Report back to HQ tonight, this is no place for a trainee, even with someone as skilled as yourself. Abort the surveillance mission."

"Anko-"

"This is what the Director himself told me. Abort the mission or I will forcibly remove the both of you from this area," Anko said, her voice cold.

"Can I have a word? Ichiraku, stay in the car."

Taken aback by the formality of the exchange, Suzune complied wordlessly and stared as they walked off, and noticed only now that they had left, that special forces teams were now gathering, dressed all in black, and revising their strategy. She watched as they stood ramrod straight, all in a line, as they waited patiently for their signal to execute their plan.

Akira and Anko were still talking; he was gesturing expressively, but she merely shook her head and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't make me pull rank on you," she seemed to be saying. For the first time, Suzune realised that she was keeping Akira from his true line of work. All he was right now was her babysitter, when really he could have been the head of this operations team.

She sighed and waited for him to come back to the car. Without a word, he pulled away from the kerb and they drove back to Konoha's headquarters.

"Hey, let's go for a drink," Suzune said brightly.

He gave her a wry look. "You're underage. And your cardigan is buttoned up wrong."

She looked down and unbuttoned her cardigan with a shrug. "They won't care. And that wasn't an invitation. I'm not just an asset, I'm only human. And I'm fairly sure you owe me a drink or two for blatant sexual harassment."

"Ever the opportunist." He found himself smiling.

"I'm not an Ichiraku for nothing, you know."

After dropping by Konoha's operational HQ, they filled in some basic forms detailing that the mission had been aborted; the proper report would need to be completed when they returned to work on Monday.

"So, where to?" Suzune asked as they got back into the elevator. He gave her another look.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Akira sighed, when all she did was blink up at him, and he remembered how young she really was.

"I'm always deadly serious about everything," she replied. "I'm hungry. Let's go eat something."

He pulled a face. "I bought ingredients to make nabe and everything..."

"Then make it, I'll come over!" She smiled.

"That's inappropriate," he said curtly, turning to face the elevator doors. He should just let her catch a taxi home or something.

"It would be more inappropriate if you came to my apartment, or took a minor to an izakaya. Come on, it's just dinner. You're my superior but you're not that much older than me, people do this all the time."

He sighed, knowing that if he refused her, she would make things difficult for him over the next few weeks. Or so he told himself. "Fine, you can come over for nabe. But you can't stay over, okay?"

Suzune smiled, her victory akin to that of a cat that had caught a mouse to toy with.

Akira's inner-city apartment, as predicted, was clean and orderly. It was a typical living, dining, kitchen arrangement with a bedroom; in all, worth a small fortune.

He took her jacket and hung it up in the closet as she took off her shoes, and she stopped to admire the pink house slippers in the genkan that sat next to the black ones that obviously belonged to Akira.

"What?" He asked, pausing to put them on as he headed towards the kitchen.

"They're cute. How long have you and Morita-san been together?" She put on the third pair; they were blue and seemed fairly new.

"Eight months now," he replied, in a tone that suggested that was all he would say on the matter.

"You don't sound too happy about that. What did you do?" Suzune prodded, padding softly into the kitchen.

"What did I do? She's the one-" Akira collected himself and gave her a black look.

"Come on, who am I going to tell? You're the only one I see from work and it seems like you really need to relax. It helps to talk about this stuff." She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms.

Akira sighed and ruffled the back of his hair as he opened the fridge door and began to take out ingredients. Suzune put the kettle on and tied her hair into a loose bun.

"Here." Akira tossed a can of beer at her and she caught it with both hands, tapping the bottom lightly before she opened it.

"Thanks," she smiled.

They began to chop the vegetables in silence.

"So what about you?" Akira asked suddenly, taking a gulp of beer. They had finished preparing everything and now he was working on the stock.

"What do you mean?"

"Your relationship problems," he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Haven't you been spying on me?" She asked wryly, tracing her finger around the rim of the can as it perspired in the gentle warmth of the kitchen. "I have no relationships to be troubled by."

"But you were, before you came to Tokyo. In fact, your heated performance in your first few sparring matches suggested you had more than a few problems to begin with," he smirked. "Did you have a lover's quarrel when you left Sendai?"

"He was never my lover," she mumbled darkly. She took another gulp of beer and held the can close to her chest. "Not now, not in a million lifetimes."

Akira laughed. "You must really have loved him, then."

She hesitated. "You wouldn't believe it ... But then, of course, everyone knew; him especially. We were friends for a long time. He was my sempai, and our families had known each other for a long time."

"And then?" Akira asked, pausing in his stirring to look over at her. She had a faraway look on her face, but her eyes were shadowed.

"And then... Nothing. He grew up too fast, and took advantage of my feelings and hurt a lot of people. To be honest... I kind of feel sorry for him right now."

Akira handed her some cutlery, but she avoided eye contact. "What?"

"I said I feel sorry for him," she repeated, walking over to the dining table.

"After he took advantage of you?" He returned to his perch by the stove to watch over the simmering stock.

"Well... In hindsight I can see how naïve I was..." Her cheeks were stained red and he arched an eyebrow. Silence fell and he set a plate in front of her without comment.

"So? What happened with that guy? What changed in the space of six months?" He finally asked.

"He was kidnapped," Suzune said quietly. "He and his friend were the sole survivors of a kidnapping. It was all over the news some time ago."

"I'm familiar with the story," Akira said. It had been hard to miss. "So you were in love with-"

"The other one, not Nagayama. They never give his name because his family protected him." Suzune said in a detached voice. "And I'm not in love with him. Not anymore."

Sugimura's mother had called her last month, asking her to come back to Sendai to talk some sense into her son, who had been in a number of fights recently. He had needed to get stitches. Suzune had made some excuse about school and work, but all she really remembered from the phone call was how dejected his mother had sounded when she said she couldn't come back.

Silence lapsed once more, and Suzune regretted prying. Secret agents weren't always the most talkative of people, especially in the presence of colleagues – it was more of an occupational hazard that made you a liability. Akira moved the pot to the dining table and they said their thanks before eating, in silence.

"In my opinion," he said suddenly, as she was lifting a piece of cabbage to her mouth. She paused, chopsticks poised as he continued, "He's an idiot for letting you get away."

She smiled at him, feeling some kind of emotion well up that made her stomach tingle. Or perhaps it was the alcohol. "Maybe it was for the best."