Full Metal Panic Fan Fiction ❯ Stepping Forward ❯ Stepping Forward ( Chapter 1 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Stepping Forward
By Logistikill
“And so, as your graduation grows closer, I would like for you all to take this time to seriously consider your futures.” Concluded the teacher, looking over her senior class. “I know that several of you have applied to take the entrance exams for Tokyo University and other top educational facilities, and I wish you luck - though you have received a top-rate education here, so you have an excellent chance of passing the entrance examines.” She smiled, watching her students. Her eyes fell onto a certain all-to-familiar face. Her smile turned to a grimace. “Others should really consider a career in the military.” She gritted out, noting that the boy still hadn't taken his eyes of the girl he had been watching over for the past two years.
“Wonder who she could be talking about?” whispered a girl to the long-haired girl the boy was watching. Said girl just smiled.
“Souske, of course.” She murmured back. What other war-crazed mercenary is there? She asked herself. One seat behind her and to her right, her best friend Kyoko watched Kaname Chidori. Over the last two years, her friend had changed a bit, but in odd ways. Most of the changes had happened since the boy Souske Sagara had arrived out of the blue - and started to shoot, detonate and terrorize the school.
Still, she warmed up to him pretty fast, and she's only gotten closer to him over the last year. Thought the girl, adjusting her large glasses subconsciously. Her twin braids bobbed a bit as she turned to consider the boy in question. A serious young man, rumor had it that he had been transferred to the school by his guardian directly from a war zone somewhere where he had been fighting since he was a kid. He's handsome enough, but his viewpoint is just too extreme for most girls to be near him. Thought the braids-wearing girl. She smiled to herself. Well, that and the fact that not one week went by for so long without him blowing something up, shooting at someone or `interrogating' some hapless kid who got too close to Kana.
She was pulled from her reverie by the teacher's voice. “With that in mind, the school has made available time and places for you to explore your possible future careers during the next week. Several faculty members from major universities will be here to answer questions, set up entrance exam appointments, and so forth. In addition, the school is trying a new project this year, and allowing a few select companies to offer career-track options to the students.” Kyoko blinked. Since when did the school let corporations recruit directly out of high school? She wondered. It must be one of Hayashimizu's ideas. The legendary Student Council Chairman had graduated the year before along with his shadow, Orin. Kaname had won the vote as Chairman in a landslide, though no one knew if it was because everyone liked her and trusted her, or if Souske had `discussed' the matter with the student body at gunpoint.
“A list of times, places and organizations is posted on the bulletin board.” Concluded the teacher, hearing the bell ring. “I guess that's it for today.” She said, seeing the class bow to her. As usual, the students were gone practically before they straightened from their bow. Straightening her papers, the teacher headed for the teacher's lounge. Looking at her collected assignments, she noted that Kaname's paper was on top. Scanning the title, she frowned. Wonder what's up with her lately? She thought to herself.
“Kana!” came a voice from behind the girl. Turning, she smiled as Kyoko came to a stop next to her. “So, what school are you going to apply to?” wondered the girl, seeing that Kaname was looking over the list of companies on the board. Glancing around, she noticed Souske a short distance away, talking to Shinji and Ono-D. His eyes, however, were busy watching everyone near Kaname.
“I haven't decided yet.” Murmured Chidori softly. Kyoko blinked.
“What? You haven't decided?” she asked blankly. Of all the people she thought would have her college picked out, Kaname was at the top of the list. “Why not?” she wondered. She herself was bound for Tokyo U after graduation, and she had hoped that Kaname would be with her.
“I…just haven't.” said the dark-haired girl, her tone distracted. Kyoko considered her words.
“Then you think you might go company straight from here?” she asked, reaching a logical conclusion. Kana turned to look at her shorter friend. Something in her eyes troubled the brown-haired girl.
“Something like that.” She deflected the question. “Look, I have to take care of something, ok?” she said, moving free of the crowd. “Catch you later tonight, Kyoko.” She said as she and Souske moved off down the hall, leaving a very curious Tokiwa in their wake. Slowly, the girl turned to look at the list that had been posted, trying to see whatever it was that Kana had been looking for. Try as she might, she couldn't see anything that might make her friend act so strangely.
Kaname dropped into the large executive chair that Hayashimizu had left to her upon his graduation, sighing as she did so. “Are you all right, Kana?” came Souske's voice from her elbow. Kaname smiled. I like it when he calls me that. She thought, feeling a warm sensation in her chest. He had developed the tendency a bit more than a year ago, no doubt picking it up from Kyoko.
“I'm fine, Souske.” She replied. Looking at the amount of paperwork on her desk, she groaned. “Damn it all, why did I ever want this job?” she wondered. Souske answered for her.
“Because you like to help people.” Kaname blinked.
“What?” she asked, turning to look at him. He had the same serious look on his face he had worn since she met him. It seems so long ago, but it was only two years ago when he first introduced himself. She thought fondly.
“I said, you took this job because you like to help people.” Repeated Souske. Kaname sighed.
“Maybe, but the workload is ridiculous!” she complained. “I mean, look at this!” she gestured to the stack of papers. As ordered, Souske picked the papers up and scanned them swiftly.
“This is no problem.” He announced a few moments later, setting the papers aside. “I will deal with the persons involved directly.” He promised her. She giggled.
“I know you would, Souske, but that would only double my workload.” She said, picking up the papers and beginning to sort through them. There was nothing major in today's workload, just a bunch of nit-pick irritations.
“I want to help you, Kana.” Said Souske. “Are you sure you would not like for me to at least deal with this one?” he asked her, tapping a page with his finger. Reading it over, she frowned.
“Well, if you promise not to use your gun, grenades, knives, gas or explosives on them, be my guest.” She said. A complaint about peeping toms in the girl's locker room is not worth blowing up the ventilation system again. She reasoned.
“Very well.” Agreed Souske. She didn't list stun guns, hand-to-hand, so this will be a relatively straight-forward mission. He mused. “I will deal with this immediately.” He said, saluting her before heading for the door. Her voice stopped him just short of the door to the Student Council room.
“Hey, Souske?” she said, her voice a bit soft. Turning to look at her, he waited. “What do you see yourself doing in ten years?” she asked him, looking out the window. Souske considered that question.
“I don't know.” He replied. “It would depend on the mission, I suppose, as well as what unit I was currently assigned to…” he began.
“Never mind.” Interrupted Kaname, waving the question away. “Go take care of that for me, ok?” she said quietly. Once more, Souske saluted her before moving out. Several moments went by before Kaname picked up her cell phone and dialed a number from a scrap of paper she had tucked into her notebook.
“Are you feeling ok, Kana?” asked Kyoko as she looked across the small booth to her friend. The taller girl blinked as she looked back at her friend. The two were in a small restaurant for a quick bite to eat.
“I'm fine, Kyoko. Why ask?” replied Kana cheerfully. Kyoko knew that her reply was too cheerful.
“What's bothering you, Kana?” asked the other girl bluntly. “Is it Souske?” she guessed. Kaname shook her head.
“Of course not!” she replied, then paused. “Well, not directly.” She amended. Kyoko just waited patiently. Knowing her friend would keep on her until she told her something believable, Kaname framed some sort of answer. “It's really nothing, Kyoko. I've just been thinking about my future, that's all.” She replied. Kyoko studied her.
“And this is related to Souske how?” pressed the Tokiwa girl. “Were you wonder what to say to his proposal?” she asked casually. Kana blinked.
“Proposal? He hasn't proposed.” She muttered. “What are you drinking tonight, Kyoko?” she asked sourly. The other girl shrugged.
“So, it must be about rather or not you want to stay with him, right?” Kaname just shook her head.
“It's a lot more complex than that, Kyoko.” She said at last. “But it's ok, really. I've already made up my mind on a couple of issues, and by graduation, it will all be decided.” One way or the other, I'll have chosen my future. She thought morosely. I hope I'm not making a mistake here.
“You know, you two are the school's longest-running couple.” Offered Kyoko innocently. Kaname didn't immediately burst into denial like she used to. “It'd be a shame if you to split up before graduation.” She added.
“We aren't dating, you know.” Noted Kana, her tone soft.
“So you say, but every time you're somewhere, he's there too, and you always have so much fun together.” Protested Kyoko mildly. Chidori just stared off into space.
“Fun. Uh huh.” She murmured. Her mind recalled the school trip to Okinawa that had ended up with the plane hijacked to North Korea and the events after that. She thought about the visit to the MITHRIL base that been detoured by a jump into the middle of the south pacific to board the De Danaan, and the disaster with Gauron that ensued. He's finally gone, though. And after it was said and done, there was so much that didn't get said. She thought to herself. Between Tessa and him, and me and him, and him and us both, and Tessa and myself.
Thoughts of the platinum-haired Captain of the Tuatha De Danaan stirred memories as well. The two-week visit of the girl as an exchange student hadn't resolved anything between them, and she had been annoyed to find that she was being rude to the girl just because she was jealous of her proximity to Souske. Also, the trip had reminded her of her status as a Whispered, and the effects that Tessa had warned her about. Since using the `resonance' as the girl had called it to communicate with her while Gauron had control of the submarine, Kaname had felt the girl in her head, and she was sure that Tessa could feel her in her head, too. Odd dreams and memories that weren't her own sometimes plagued her sleep as well. “Can't take the milk back out of the tea.” She mumbled.
“What was that?” asked Kyoko, shaking her free of her thoughts. Kaname looked at her friend like a deer caught in the headlights.
“What?” she asked blankly. Kyoko shook her head.
“Let's head home, Kana.” She said simply. As they stood, Kyoko dropped some money on the table and the two made their way to the station. As they boarded the train, Kaname frowned, noticing that Kyoko was standing next to her.
“Didn't you need the next train over?” she asked her friend. Looking up at her friend, she shook her head.
“No. I'm spending the night at your place tonight, Kana.” She said simply. The taller girl blinked.
“When was that…?” she began. Tokiwa shook her head.
“Just now. You look like you could use a friend tonight.” She said simply. As the train pulled out of the station, Kyoko had one more thought for her friend. “Besides, I haven't been over to your place in ages, and who knows when we might have this chance again?” she asked reasonably. Kaname smiled at her.
“True.” She said warmly. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Souske's form discreetly tucked into a corner of the car, a paper in front of him. Her smile grew.
“Hey! It's Kurz!” exclaimed Shinji as he caught sight of a familiar blonde man entering the school. Hearing his name, the man looked around, quickly spotting familiar faces. Smiling broadly, he crossed to the small group of Shinji and Ono-D.
“Well, it's been a while.” He said, extending his hand to them. “Since the hot springs visit, wasn't it?” he prompted, earning smiles from both.
“Yeah. What are you doing here?” asked Shinji of the man. Holding up a briefcase, he tapped it.
“Just doing some recruitment here and there for my company.” He offered. “What about you two?” he asked. “Are you going career or what?”
“I'm going to enlist in the armed services once I complete high school.” Said Shinji, smiling. “My father has a way to get me into his unit once I complete basic, so it will let us spend more time together.” He explained.
“I got into the business management program at Kobe University, so I'm heading down once graduation is over.” Replied Ono-D. “I can help my family with their business and get credits for it.”
“Good to hear that.” Said Kurz. “Any word yet on what the girls are planning?” he asked the two conspiratorially.
“Tokiwa is going to Tokyo University, and Inabe is going to go to school in Okinawa for some sort of tourism management degree.” Supplied Ono-D. Shinji was silent for a bit.
“Well?” asked Kurz expectantly. “What about Chidori?” he asked.
“What about her?” came a familiar voice from behind the trio. Turning, they saw the girl in question, Souske at her side, smirking at them.
“Good morning, Chidori.” Smiled Kurz. “We were just wondering what you were planning once you graduate.” He explained. Kaname smiled at him.
“That's none of your business, Kurz.” She replied sweetly. “What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be busy elsewhere?” she suggested sharply. “And is she here as well?” she wondered.
“I'm just here as a favor to my company.” Protested Kurz. “As for `she', you'll have to be more specific.” He added, his tone curious. Kaname shrugged it off.
“Doesn't matter.” She dismissed, moving past the group. “Better hurry, or you'll be late.” She offered to the group at large. She and Souske moved into the school with Kyoko in tow. Trading looks, the three shrugged and moved into the school as well.
“Souske, got a minute?” asked Kurz, stepping up to his co-worker's side. Silently, the two drifted back into a corner of the room. After they were reasonably sure that they were free to talk, Souske turned to Kurz.
“What is it, Kurz?” he asked.
“Listen, do you have any idea what Chidori has planned?” asked the blonde. Souske slowly shook his head.
“Negative.” He replied. “She's been distracted lately, and I have noticed that she seems to have a lot on her mind, but she won't tell me anything.” He replied.
“I see.” Said Kurz. Sighing, he shook his head. “Look, Tessa sent me here for some prelim, but I have no idea what to tell her, ok? You know why and what, so help us out if you can, ok?” he said to Souske. The dark-haired man was silent for a bit.
“I will if I can, but you should know that I won't try to force her into a choice.” He said softly. “It's her future, after all.” He murmured. Kurz studied him for a moment.
“Not much of a future if she get snapped up by some rouge lab somewhere.” He pointed out. “We're about the only outfit that can both help and protect her, and you know that.” He reminded the man.
“I am aware of that, Kurz, but I fail to see how forcing her into our world is any different from what Gauron was trying to do.” He insisted.
“What are you talking about? It's totally different. We're there to help her, not to brainwash her into a weapons program.” He scoffed. Souske turned to look his fellow soldier in the eyes.
“It is her call, Kurz.” He said, his tone final. Kurz bit back his reply that it was her call unless he got orders about her,
“Let's hope she makes a good call.” He said, moving off.
“Excuse me?” asked Souske. Kaname maintained eye contact with him.
“You heard me.” She said levelly. “I want you to take me to see Tessa.” She said flatly. The two were in the Student Council room once more.
“But Kaname, the De Danaan is currently on patrol…” he began. Kaname interrupted him.
“So what? Last time, you made me jump into the middle of the south Pacific to board her on the way to a showdown, and now you're saying she's on patrol? So what? I have to talk to Tessa face-to-face.” She repeated. “Now, can you do that or not?” she barked at him.
“I might be able to arrange something.” Hedged Souske. “I might have better success if I knew why you want to see her.” He added. Kaname shook her head.
“That's not your business, Souske. Make the arrangements as quick as you can, ok?” she directed him. Souske saluted silently.
“And what about school?” he asked her carefully.
“To hell with the last couple of weeks of school, Souske!” she snapped back. “This is more important.” She said, her tone significantly lower. “Please, Souske, just get her, ok?” she asked, her tone pleading.
“Affirmative.” He agreed. Kaname nodded.
“Thanks, Souske.” She said. As he shut the door behind himself, Kana looked at the pile of papers before her and sighed before beginning to go through them. Finally, she just tossed the papers into the trash and turned to look out the window, trying to plan what she would say when she saw the Captain again.
She was still brooding over the possible ways to ask the other girl what she wanted to know when the door to the room slid open again. Hearing the door, she turned to look, expecting to see Souske. Instead, it was the principal. “Ah, good afternoon, Principal-san.” Said Kaname politely, bowing a bit to the head administrator.
“Miss Chidori.” She replied, inclining her head.
“What can I do for you today?” asked Kana. “It isn't about Souske, is it?” she asked, a bit apprehensively. Unexpectedly, the older woman smiled.
“No, it has nothing to do with that young man.” Said the woman, taking a seat in front of Kaname. “Or rather, it might have something to do with him if I'm reading the situation correctly.” She said slyly, smiling a bit more than before.
“What…did he do this time?” wondered Kana. I didn't hear any explosions, or screams or see any fire or smoke, so what does she mean `might have something to do' with him? Across from her, the principal just hummed a response.
“Before we get to that, let me ask you a few questions, if I may.” She said instead of answering Kana's original question. Kaname waited for the first question. “Tell me, have you decided on what to do with your future, miss Chidori?” asked the principal. Kaname frowned.
“Um, kind of.” She hedged. “Why ask about…?” she began, but the principal held up her hand, and Kaname fell silent.
“No real reason, miss Chidori, but none of the teachers has heard anything about where their star pupil is going to school, and you have seemed to be preoccupied with something lately. Tell me, Kaname, where do you see yourself in ten years?” she asked the girl in front of her.
“In ten years?” mused Kaname, missing the subtle change from miss Chidori to Kaname. “Well, doing something I like, I guess.” She answer, her mind being thrown back into the middle of a debate she still had no answer for. Patiently, the principal waited for her to make a real answer. “Or maybe doing something that only I can do.” She added several heartbeats later.
“I see.” Murmured the principal. “And what of Souske? What are his plans?” she asked casually.
“He doesn't really have any. All he said when I asked him was that it would depend on…” her mouth snapped shut as she realized what she was about to say and who she was about to say it to. “Ah, just his normal military otaku stuff.” She finished lamely. Knowing about MITHRIL and the Whispered and Souske's true job is a curse sometimes. I can't really talk to anyone about it but him, and having to constantly watch my words is getting harder and harder. She thought to herself.
“So, you and he have already talked about your future, then.” Smiled the older woman. “Well, I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised.” She baited. Kaname's eyes narrowed a bit.
“Why do you say that, Madam Principal?” she asked the woman suspiciously. “We're not a couple, you know.” She added. The other woman just smiled.
“So you always say, Kaname.” She said simply. “Well, I've wasted enough of your time, miss Chidori.” Said the head administrator, rising from the chair. “I'm sure you have better things to do than gossip with an old woman.” She added.
“N…not at all, Madam Principal!” protested Kaname, rising to bow to the woman. “I'm grateful that you took the time to speak with me.” She added. To her surprise, the woman chuckled.
“No, it is I who am grateful for your time, miss Chidori.” She said as she made her way to the door to the Student Council room. Pausing, she turned to study Kaname closely. “I'm sure you will make the right choice, Kaname.” She said softly before exiting the room. Blinking at the closed door, Kaname flopped back into the high-backed chair. What was that all about? She wondered. Several minutes later, she had another question. And what did it have to do with Souske?
“Kaname, we have to depart in one hour to link up with the De Danaan.” Souske said later that week. The two were at the school after last bell, having been late getting things squared away. Kaname nodded.
“Let's go, Souske.” She said simply, grabbing her small bag. Since Souske had told her three days ago that was waiting for instructions on when and where to rendezvous with the sub, she had been carrying a packed overnight bag with her everywhere. Experience had taught her that she should be prepared, as MITHRIL had a nasty tendency to spring surprise trips on her.
Exiting the school, the two grabbed a taxi to the airport and swiftly made their way to a small private plane on the outskirts of the airport. Boarding the plane, Kaname settled into a seat, her bag beside her. I'm ready this time. She thought, smiling a bit as she recalled how irritated and nervous she had been when her trip to the MITHRIL island base had been interrupted by the orders to jump into the sea for a mid-deployment boarding of the De Danaan.
“Is everything ok, Kaname?” asked Souske, settling into the seat beside her bag. As usual, he was dressed in BDUs and combat boots. Kaname just nodded.
“Yeah, it's nothing, Souske.” She said. “I was just thinking that this time, I'm ready if we have to jump.” She said, a slight chuckle in her voice.
“That was an emergency, Kaname.” Defended the young man. “It is unlikely that such an event would occur twice.” He noted. Kaname's smile faded a bit.
“Especially since we killed the asshole responsible for it, right?” she said softly. Souske wasn't sure how to answer that.
“Um…affirmative, Kaname.” He said uncertainly. As the plane took off and climbed over the Pacific, the two were silent. An hour and a half later, Souske had a question for Kaname. “Kaname, why did you want to see the Captain out of the blue?” he asked her. The girl turned to look at him.
“I…it's a girl thing.” She said, abruptly changing her mind about talking to him about it. “You wouldn't understand.”
“Understood.” Said the serious sergeant. How am I supposed to respond to that? He wondered. Watching her stare blankly out the window, he decided for one more push. “Kana, you know that I will always protect you, right?” he asked her. Kaname smiled.
“Even if it is a choice between me and Tessa?” she asked softly. Souske froze at her question. Seeing the look on his face, Kaname burst out laughing. “I swear, Souske, you look like you just stepped on an anti-personnel mine!” she laughed.
“N…not at all.” He replied. I didn't step on a mine, but why do I feel like I did? He wondered. Over the last two years, he had learned a lot about things he had never known existed, but situations like this made him realize just how far he had yet to go in his education. Kaname managed to get her laughing under control. Turning a bit in her seat, she checked her watch.
“How much longer…” she began.
“Another four hours, Kana.” Replied Souske without any hesitation. Nodding to herself, Kaname moved her bag up one row of seats and folded the arm rests down. Snuggling into the corner against the hull, she tucked her legs sideways on the seat.
“Wake me up in three and a half, ok?” she said, getting comfortable. Souske nodded, though she wasn't watching.
“Affirmative.” He said. Within ten minutes, she was asleep. Souske silently moved out of his seat, carefully settling her legs into a more comfortable position before retrieving a small pillow from the storage room next to the tiny bathroom and gently tucking it under her head. Other than some soft sounds, she didn't wake.
With a pillow under her head and her legs comfortable, Souske carefully covered her with a light blanket and moved to the cockpit for a word with the pilot. Since the plane was a MITHRIL plane, it was moving much faster than a normal plane. After making sure that the pilot knew to keep the ride smooth and even, Souske picked up the radio and made contact with the island base where the De Danaan was due to dock in two hours. Once he confirmed that everything was on schedule, he moved back to the cabin to grab some shuteye himself.
Kaname woke to someone gently shaking her shoulder. “Mmm. Five more minutes.” She slurred. The shaking continued. Slowly, her eyes opened, focusing on Souske. “Souske? What…? Oh. Is it time already?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.
“That's affirmative, Kaname.” He said. Glancing down, she saw the blanket and pillow. She felt a warm sensation spread through her body. He is always there when I need him, and he's always been very careful to look after me. She thought. “We are twenty eight minutes away from landing at the island.” He informed her. “If you like, the bathroom is open.” He added.
Stretching, she stood. As usual, she felt somewhat sluggish when she awoke. “Mmm. Thanks, Souske.” She said, snagging her bag as she made her way back to the cramped bathroom. “I'll just freshen up a bit.” She said, shutting the door behind her. It never occurred to her to lock it - after all, Souske was there, and no one would be permitted near her with him around. And it's not like he hasn't seen me naked before. She thought to herself as she checked her look in the tiny mirror.
After a face wash and a pit stop, she realized that she was still in her school uniform. Frowning a bit, she dug in her bag and withdrew a tee shirt and a pair of blue jeans and wiggled into them in the small area. Trading her school shoes for some tennis shoes, she checked her look again and smiled. “Ok, Tessa.” She said softly. “Kana is here for a chat about the future.”
“Hey! Kana! Over here!” came a familiar shout from the edge of the concealed runway. Turning to look, she spotted Melissa Mao waving to her and Souske as the plane they had arrived on was wheeled to a parking area. Waving back, Kaname shook her head as she spotted the beer in the woman's left hand and the cigarette in her lips. As the duo approached, she took a last drag from her smoke before dropping the butt and grinding it out with her heel. “Well, I see you didn't have to jump this time.” Said the woman to the two.
“Yeah, and I was so looking forward to it, too.” Replied Kana drolly. Mao laughed, tossing an arm over the shorter girl.
“Well, you get used to it after a while.” She assured the girl. Kana opened her mouth to say something pithy in return, but closed her mouth without saying anything as she remembered why she was here. “Anyway, the Captain sent me to greet you since she was busy with a minor issue with the De Danaan.” She explained. “She had planned to greet you two herself, you know.” She explained.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant Major?” asked Souske immediately. Mao looked at him over Kaname's head.
“Not really - we just fouled a prop on a fishing net as we were coming in, and the Captain is having some words with the maintenance people and the site security people about it.” She explained. “You know how she gets about the De Danaan.” She shrugged.
“It's her ship, and she loves the Dana.” Said Kana softly. Both sergeants glanced at each other, but said nothing. “Anyway, how is she doing?” said Kaname in a louder tone. “I haven't seen in her almost ten months.” She added. Not since her last visit as an `exchange student'. Heh. That was kind of fun, really.
“She's doing fine.” Assured Mao. “Since that incident with Gauron, we've been almost on holiday, mission wise. Which reminds me, Souske.” She changed the topic, “Captain wants you to do a little training eval with me and Commander Kalinin up at the boot. She's worried that the replacements we're getting are failing to measure up to the ones they are replacing.” She said.
“Roger that.” Said Souske immediately. “Do you think she's right?” he asked his fellow soldier. Mao nodded.
“Something isn't getting done right lately, and we need to find out what is being overlooked and fix it before our operational capacity is affected.” She said. Remembering that Kaname was there, she laughed a little. “Uh, sorry about talking shop, Kana!” she apologized.
“No, it's fine.” Dismissed Kana. “You do what you need to do, ok? I'm here to talk to Tessa anyway, so you'll be free to do whatever it is you need to do.” She said. Mao considered that for a bit.
“Well, ok, Kana.” She said simply. Turning her attention back to Souske, she went on with her briefing. “The Lieutenant Commander is in charge of the overall eval, while you and I are going to be doing some spot evals in the field. You're on for unarmed combat and infantry tactics, and I'm on for AS operations evaluation. It's supposed to be a three day ops.” She finished.
“Kurz isn't going on the mission?” wondered Souske. Mao snorted.
“Skirt chaser got caught with his hands on the wrong pair of panties and came down with a nasty case of latrine swabbing.” She said sardonically.
“I see.” Said Souske blankly. He wouldn't dare…no, it's Kurz we're talking about - of course he would risk it! Thought the merc. “He wouldn't have happened to try to take the Captain's panties, would he?” he asked his Sergeant Major, his voice tight and mean. Kana's eyes narrowed at that question.
“No, not this time.” Answered Mao. Sensing the relief of the two, she vowed to ask Souske some not-so-subtle questions once they were out of the hearing of Tessa and Kana. “He was caught stealing he panties of Lieutenant Kerse.” She smiled.
“Lieutenant Kerse? Isn't she the second niece to Commander Mardukas?” asked Souske. Mao nodded, grinning.
“Indeed she is, Souske.” She confirmed. “And she's not a fan of Kurz, either.” She added. “You should have seen it, Souske.” She chuckled. “Commander Mardukas had him thrown in the brig - literally! Of course, since Tessa didn't build the De Danaan with a brig, he had to improvise and had him locked into a torpedo tube.”
“That would be something to see.” Laughed Kana.
“I think the security cameras might have gotten some footage.” Noted Mao. “If you ask Tessa, you might get to see it. I think that the Commander meant to fire him out the tube at two hundred and fifty meters, but Tessa forbid it. Still, the Commander and the Lieutenant Commander were in her quarters for a half hour, and if you listened carefully, you could hear shouting from time to time.” Continued Mao. “The skinny is that Kalinin argued for him, and Mardukas against him with the Captain as the final say. Kalinin must have really done a good job, because he got off with six months latrine duty, but no dock in pay or bust in rank.” Concluded Mao.
“I will have to thank the Lieutenant Commander.” Noted Souske. Kana turned to look at him quizzically.
“Why's that?” she asked. “He's a perv, and got caught. What's the big deal if he got his pay docked or lost a stripe?” she asked. It never occurred to her that she was talking more and more like Souske and Mao. The two MITHRIL soldiers exchanged looks.
“Look, Kana, promise to keep this to yourself,” began Mao, “but Kurz sends all his pay back to his home town to pay for medical and living expenses for his girlfriend. If he got docked or busted, there wouldn't be enough to continue her care and treatment.” Said the sergeant major. Kana blinked.
“Kurz has a girlfriend?” she marveled. “Then, why the big Romeo act?” she wondered.
“It's just that: an act.” Said Souske. “He hides behind it like a mask. He is very sensitive to how this might get out, so he makes a big show of hitting on anything with a skirt to throw off the others. Should she stop responding to the treatments, I don't know how he would cope.”
“I…didn't know.” Said Kana. “He always seemed like such a slimy pervert.” She said. Mao just smiled at her.
“Don't worry about it, Kana.” She soothed her. “He wants everyone to think that about him.” Patting her shoulder, she went on. “And the fact is, he is a slimy pervert.” Seeing Kana open her mouth to say something, she went on before the girl could speak. “But that doesn't make him all bad, Kana. He just happens to have some small streak of nobility in him, that's all.”
The elevator doors pinged and opened to the main berthing dock for the Tuatha De Danaan, which was currently moored to the dock edges with work crews crawling over her like ants on a drop of jam. The bay doors on the top of the sub were open, revealing the flight deck full of mecha, from VTOL fighters to M9 Gehirns AS units, to the choppers and drones. Looking down to the water line, Kana noticed that several divers were in the shallow water around the hull of the submarine, apparently making repairs to the various systems.
Looking forward, she saw a familiar person approaching her and her two companions. That tan uniform still doesn't look that good on her. Thought Kaname as Captain Testarossa stopped in front of them, a clipboard in her hands. Both Mao and Souske were at attention, holding a salute. Looking up from the clipboard, Tessa smiled at Kana. “I see you got here safely, miss Chidori.” She said warmly, saluting her two crewmembers.
“Yeah. Sorry to barge in on you like this, Tessa, but you know…” she shrugged. Tessa nodded.
“I understand, miss Chidori.” She said. “Give me just a moment to take care of this and we'll be done here for now.” She smiled, turning to a man a short distance behind her. “I want you to prioritize the upgrade to the SOUNETS systems, and repair the seals on the flight hatch. Also, once the net is cut clear, I want the starboard drive head inspected and tested. Any signs of abnormalities or sonic irregularities are to be logged and the unit swapped for a spare. Is that clear?” she asked.
“Understood ma'am.” The man said, saluting. “We'll get right on it, but it will most likely take four days to finish all this off, two more to swap the starboard unit if it needs it.” He cautioned her. Tessa returned his salute.
“That will be fine. Dismissed.” She said, turning back to the group. “Well, let's go somewhere quieter, shall we?” she asked the group at large, stepping towards the elevator. Unfortunately, her shoe caught on the lip of the elevator doors, and she tripped. Before she could fall, though, Souske and Kaname had grabbed her arms. “Thanks.” She said sheepishly. “I'm still a bit of a klutz.” She apologized.
“Not at all, Captain.” Replied Souske.
“Don't sweat the minor stuff, Tessa.” Agreed Kana. Still as scatterbrained as always. She thought to herself. I guess that that is reassuring in a way.
“This is a nice place, Tessa.” Said Kaname as she set her bag down on the small couch in Tessa's quarters on the island. Though relatively small, the quarters were nice in an economy apartment way. A small but comfortable sitting area, an office area to one side and at the back was a large bed and bathroom area. The kitchen - if one could call it that - was a small refridge and a two-burner compact stove, with a microwave to one side and a sink. A marginal cupboard area held only a small amount of food, which made sense as the base was equipped with a full mess hall.
“Thank you.” Beamed the other girl as she shed her uniform top as she headed toward the bathroom area. “Make yourself at home - I'm going to grab a fast shower, ok? I still smell like the dock area.” She explained.
“Sure.” Agreed Kaname. “But are you sure you don't mind me staying here?” she pressed.
“I'm sure!” replied Tessa, tossing her uniform top into a small hamper, followed shortly by her skirt. “Besides, you came here to talk, right?” she asked, unclipping her bra and dropping it into the hamper.
“Yes. I did.” Agreed Kana. With her panties discarded with the rest of her clothes, Tessa stepped into the glass-enclosed shower and turned it on. Kana sat down on the small couch and considered how to pass the time. “Hey, Tessa?” she called.
“Yes?” answered the girl, shampooing her hair.
“Where is Souske staying?” she wondered.
“He has a room in the BNCOQ wing.” Replied Tessa. “Oh, but he and Mao will be leaving with Commander Kalinin tomorrow morning! Sorry if that's a problem for you.” She added sincerely.
“No. Actually, it will be easier to talk without him near.” Said Kana. In the shower, the platinum-haired girl paused for a moment.
“I see.” She murmured. It is about him. Out in the apartment, Kana caught the freeze.
“How about some tea?” she asked the Captain. Let's move on for the moment. She decided.
“Yes, thank you. You'll find it in the cupboard, second shelf.” Said the girl, resuming her scrubbing. Kana rose and quickly found the right ingredients and the proper utensils. By the time that Tessa was out of the shower and dressed in a large shirt with her towel around her wet hair, Kana was pouring tea into to cups. Remembering her last visit, she set out a small container of milk and sugar.
“Here you go, Tessa.” Said Kana, handing the girl a cup as she settled into the couch opposite her. Tessa nodded and reached for the milk. As she poured it, Kana opened the discussion.
“You can't take the milk back out, right, Tessa?” she said quietly. Light grey eyes locked into her own. Carefully, Tessa put the milk back down and slowly stirred her tea. Finally, she spoke.
“No. You can't take it back out, Kana.” She said levelly. Slowly nodding, Kana put a spoonful of sugar in her tea, stirring it slowly.
“So, where does that leave us, Tessa?” she asked the MITHRIL officer. Tessa considered that carefully.
“We aren't the enemy, Kana.” She said at last. “We won't try to force you to do anything. Still, you must realize the potential danger, both to you and from you.” She paused, seeing Kaname nod.
“Because I'm a Whispered, I could unlock technology that could destroy the world.” She said. It was a concept that she had come to terms with only recently. Tessa sipped from her tea.
“Yes. MITHRIL - no, we - could really use you on our side, but we won't force you to choose sides. If you want to live your life as normally as possible, then we won't try to stop you.” Said the girl.
“But you won't take your eyes off me, either, will you?” shot back Kana. Tessa sighed.
“No. We can't risk letting you go unmonitored; both for your sake and ours.” Replied the other girl. “The stakes are too high for that.”
“So, really, I can't live a normal life.” Stated Kana. She seemed a bit miffed, but not unduly so. Tessa wondered how to handle this one.
“I'm sorry.” Was all she came up with. Kana considered that, then exhaled before sipping her tea.
“It's not really a surprise.” She said. “And it isn't really what I came here to talk about anyway.” She added. Tessa stiffened a bit.
“You came to talk about Souske, didn't you?” she said confidently. Kana smiled.
“Only indirectly.” She parried. “Tell me, what do you think he will be doing in ten years?” she asked his commanding officer. Surprised, Tessa had to think about it.
“I don't know for sure. He would be due for promotion to lieutenant by then, and would most likely be rotated through the training school.” She mused. “His posting would depend on his requests and mission priority for his specialty.” She went on.
“But it would be safe to say that he wouldn't be watching over a Whispered who just wants to be left alone, right?” she interpreted. Tessa looked at Kana.
“Do you?” she asked. “Want to be left alone, I mean?” she clarified. It was Kana's turn to sigh.
“And that's what I really wanted to talk about, Tessa.” She admitted. “I just don't know for sure.” She admitted. “I mean, I really didn't want to get involved with this, but then that Gauron guy forced the issue, and after the North Korea incident, I had learned too much to go back. The attempts on me, Souske at my school, the dreams - it's too late to go back, but I don't know if I can go forward.” She said. Tessa was silent. She had no idea what to say or how to say it.
“I've been thinking about it for more than a month now, almost non-stop.” Continued Kana. “I've decided that there is really only two choices now.” Seeing that Tessa was listening, she explained her position. “Either I can try to put this all behind me, or I can join MITHRIL. If I choose to try to walk away, it will mean making a clean break with Souske and everyone here, but I still won't be free, because you'll always be watching me, and you'll always be in my head, Tessa.” She said.
“The other option is to join MITHRIL.” She continued. “But I don't really know what you do or how you do it, beyond the AS team and a small cross section of the De Danaan from my last visit. In short, I don't know if I can deal with MITHRIL or not.” She concluded. “So, can you help me any, Tessa?” For several minutes, the other girl was silent.
“I'm…not sure.” Admitted the Captain. “Why are you asking me?” she asked the girl. “I'm not overly familiar with MITHRIL myself, you know.” She reminded the other girl.
“Because you're a Whispered, and I can trust you.” Said Kana flatly. “As much as you're in my mind, I'm in yours.” She reminded the girl. Tessa made a small sound in her throat.
“I see.” She replied. “Well, I can give you the same pitch that was tossed at my brother and me.” She offered. Kana nodded. “Well, to begin with, you know that MITHRIL exists to maintain peace through judicious use of Black Technology.” She began. Kana listened intently for the next half hour.
“So, what's your first impressions, Sergeants?” asked Kalinin of the two after their first day on the training grounds. Mao and Souske had been busy all day, from before sun up to just now, a bit past nine p.m. Right now, they were in Kalinin's tiny visitors office area. It was scarcely more than a folding table and three chairs. On the table was a MITHRIL laptop.
“Sir. The training of the AS unit is definitely sub-par, sir. It is lacking in exercise complexity necessary to field situations, as well as short on honing basic procedural doctrine in the pilots. Also, I have noticed that the reports from post-mission debriefing are not being utilized in training future pilots for field encounters.” Reported Mao. She turned a page in her small notebook.
“The instructors are too soft on the pilot candidates, and lack motivational discipline. It is also apparent that the physical training of pilots is substandard.” She paused, reviewing her notes. “Still, it is a sound system for training, provided that the cadre of instructors stops slacking off and the trainees are pushed much harder.” She qualified. “As it stands now, I wouldn't want to go into combat with any of these cherries, sir.” She concluded.
“I see. Sergeant Sagara.” He called on his old acquaintance. Souske stood.
“Sir. The unarmed combat instruction is static and of practically no use in real combat. I have noted a complete lack of any water training and no use of field problem solving, sir. The trainees are given a task, a means to complete it, and are allowed to run the program by the numbers. In combat, this will leave them useless as the enemy counters their moves actively.” He glanced at Kalinin, seeing him typing. Nodding, he indicated that Souske should continue.
“Additionally, their tactical doctrine is out of date and irrelative to the current situations we face. The trainees are not being drilled on proper equipment maintenance or use of improvised weaponry. Expanding the program to cover these areas is necessary for the utilization of the trainees in operational conditions.” He concluded. Kalinin typed a few moments longer, then stopped, looking at each of the team members before him.
“So, in effect, you feel that the program is not producing any viable candidates for replacement to operational units, correct?” he nut shelled. Both nodded. “Very well. Starting tomorrow, I want you to begin putting together a new training manual, from the ground up. You have two more days to complete a draft of it and submit it. Furthermore, I expect you to check each other's work before it is submitted to the Captain for submission to the upper ranks of MITHRIL.” He said. The two exchanged looks. It was a tight schedule, but workable. “Understood?” asked Kalinin.
“Yes, sir.” They both said in unison, saluting him. He returned the salute.
“Dismissed.” He said. The two filed out of his office. Once they had been gone for a few minutes, he pulled an encrypted phone from his pocket and hooked it up to the laptop. Once it was in place, he keyed a number into it and waited while it connected and went secure. Once it did, he heard a pair of chirps, and typed in a set of access and routing numbers. A moment later, he heard a beep. “Sir, it is as expected. I have taken steps to correct the situation, and will have a plan on your desk upon my return. I am sending you my initial report. The key code is Sagara's gorilla name. Good evening, Captain.” He said, verifying the report's transmission and encryption. Once that was done, he ended the call and closed the laptop. Settling in on a bunk, he made sure that his pistol was on his chest before falling into the light sleep of a combat veteran.
“Well, we've got our work cut out for us, don't we, Souske?” said Mao as she and Souske made their way to their assigned room. Due to low availability of space, he and Mao had been assigned a single room. Not that that made a difference to either of them - both were hardened field troops. Arriving at the room, they entered, seeing two beds side by side in a plain concrete room. “Just like being back in basic.” Muttered Mao.
“Agreed.” Commented Souske, taking off his jacket in preparation for bed. Beside him, Mao was doing likewise. “I believe that we can accomplish our goal, though. In fact, I have considered that we should approach this much like a weapon in need of maintenance, and only swap what doesn't work, leaving the rest of the program in place.” He noted, taking off his shirt, revealing a chest and back full of scars. Beside him, Mao draped her own field shirt over the foot of her bed, leaving her in her sport bra. Unbuckling her gun belt, she set it aside after removing her handgun and checking the chamber before setting it on her pillow. Beside her, she saw Souske set his Glock aside before situating his own belt on the foot of his bed.
Unbuttoning her BDU pants, she kicked them off and draped them over her shirt at the foot of her bed, pushing her boots under the edge of the bed before laying down in bed, getting comfortable and settling her gun. Silently, she watched Souske arrange his own bed. He was in boxers, and Mao had to agree that he was in great shape, with a toned, wiry body and clean lines. If it weren't for those scars, you'd think he was just a high school jock. She thought. Maybe a boxer or wide receiver. She mused. Frowning, she saw him roll under his bed, gun in hand.
“Still haven't broken that habit, I see.” She mused.
“An enemy would expect you to be in the bed, and not being there will give you the chance to kill him first.” Replied Souske.
“Maybe. But isn't that floor hard, cold and dirty?” replied Mao, smiling a little.
“It isn't a problem, Mao.” He replied easily.
“No. I can see that it isn't.” she replied. I guess that when you grow up fighting a gorilla war in the backside of gone, you just don't care about things like that. She mused. Not for the first time, she marveled at the young man assigned to her unit. Speaking of that…she thought, remembering something. “Hey, Souske.” She said.
“Yes?” came his reply. “Can you get the light?” he asked. Standing, she stepped over to the switch and killed the single bulb. Silently, she moved back to her bed. Laying down, she resumed the conversation.
“You know, Tessa was glad to hear you were coming to see her.” She said.
“She was? Why would the Captain be glad I was requesting to meet with her?” he wondered. Mao sighed. And that seems to be the problem right there.
“Souske, have you ever thought about not confusing the uniform with the girl?” she asked her subordinate.
“I don't understand, Mao.” He replied a moment later. Fishing around on the small table, Mao grabbed her pack of smokes and lighter, expertly shaking a cigarette free of the pack and lighting it one-handed. Setting both the pack of smokes and the lighter back on the table, she took a drag and continued her campaign.
“Souske, what do you think of Tessa?” she asked him.
“Captain Testarossa is an able and efficient commanding officer.” He said.
“I didn't ask you that, Souske.” Interrupted Mao. “I asked what you thought of Tessa.” She repeated.
“And that was what I was answering.” Replied a puzzled Souske.
“No, you weren't, Souske. You were telling me what you thought of Captain Testarossa. I asked you what you thought of Tessa, not the Captain.” She explained.
“But Tessa is the Captain.” Pointed out Souske. Mao wished she had a carton of eggs to throw at him each time he said that.
“No, in fact, she isn't the Captain.” Corrected the Sergeant Major. “Tessa is a eighteen year old girl who happens to have feelings for a certain blockhead. Captain Testarossa is a MITHRIL officer with the lives of her entire command on her hands. They are not the same at all, Souske.”
“I…see.” Came the quiet reply. Mao snorted. Oh, I doubt that very seriously, Souske!
“Do you now?” she mocked him. “So, then, tell me what you think of Tessa.” She repeated the original question. Souske was silent for a bit. Patiently, Mao waited.
“She is smart and honest, and tries her best.” He said - perhaps a bit uncertainly. “She is accident prone, but I believe that that is due to her attempts to be perfect rather than from any particular physical issues. Although she is not very athletic, she is willing to try to compete with others.” He concluded. Mao considered that. There might be hope here yet. She concluded.
“What do you think of her body?” she asked the young man on the floor.
“What do you mean?” he asked the woman.
“Do you think she's sexy?” asked Mao bluntly. Well, he's not wired that way, so I guess a bit of prompting is in order. She decided, taking another drag on her cigarette.
“I…suppose so.” He replied, sounding like he was guessing. Seeing that her smoke was done, she snubbed out the butt and dropped it to the floor next to her rack.
“Suppose so, huh?” she muttered. “Good night, Souske.” She said, rolling over.
“Good night, Melissa.” He said. Facing away from him, Melissa Mao's eyes opened a bit at that last remark. My God! Could be actually be…relaxing a bit?!
“Good morning, Kana.” Came Tessa's voice. Rubbing her eyes, Kaname sat up, yawning. Looking over, she spotted Tessa pouring some coffee into a pair of cups. “Did you sleep good?” she asked the dark-haired girl as she approached the bed with the two cups of java. The bright-haired girl was once more dressed in a tee shirt that came to mid thigh.
“Yes, I did.” Replied Kana as she sat up a bit straighter and took the offered cup from Tessa, who settled on the bed by her side.
“That's good.” Said the girl. “So, what do you want to do today?” she asked Kaname. “We could go see the facilities, or spend some time on the beach, or swim in the ocean a bit, or fish, or just talk, if you want.” She offered.
“Don't you have some work do to?” asked Kana. “I mean, we were up pretty late last night, and I know you are busy and all.” She said. Tessa shook her head.
“Not really. Until the repairs are done, De Danaan is on downtime. Unless there is a major problem, I've got nothing better to do than relax and try to help you.” Said the girl. Kana sipped her coffee.
“Thanks for the coffee.” She offered, motioning with her cup.
“You're welcome.” Said the other girl. “I know you have low blood pressure in the mornings, and I thought you could use a pick-me-up.” She said. Kana frowned.
“How do you know that?” she asked Tessa. Tessa's smile faltered a bit.
“Well, we have had you under surveillance for a while now, and there are certain characteristics of being a Whispered, as well.” She said, a bit uneasily. Kana considered the situation and realized that it was understandable that they would know her routine.
“It's nothing, don't worry about it.” Said the girl. Tessa seemed a bit relieved at that. “So, what would you suggest we do today?” she asked the MITHRIL officer. Tessa considered that question carefully.
“How about we take a tour of the above-ground facilities? I don't get much sun in my line of work, and I could use some.” She said. A tour will show her more of MITHRIL, and hopefully help her decide. She thought. Kana smiled.
“Sounds fine.” She said, finishing her coffee. “Let's get to it.” She said, sliding out of bed. “What time is it, anyway?” she asked, yawning again.
“Our time or Tokyo time?” asked Tessa. Kaname considered that.
“Doesn't matter, I guess.” She said. “I've got nothing planned, so time is immaterial.” She said, pulling off her silk pajama top and bottoms. Setting them on the bed, she rummaged around in her bag and came up with a swimsuit. It was the school suit, actually, but it was comfortable and functional. Glancing over, she saw Tessa pull a bikini out of her small dresser. After a moment of consideration, she put the one-piece back in her bag and pulled out the white bikini that Mizuki had given her the first time around. Swiftly, she slipped into it and pulled out a tee shirt and a pair of shorts. With that done, she tied her hair back in a ponytail, seeing Tessa begin to braid her hair. “Hey, why not just tie it back?” she suggested.
Tessa stopped her braiding, blinking as she considered that. “I just got in the habit, I guess.” She said, laughing a bit as she unbraided her hair before pulling it back into a ponytail. Once it was secured, she grabbed a shirt and a pair of shorts as well and the two headed for the door.
The day was fairly uneventful, and by early afternoon, the two were laying on a white sand beach on the edge of the island, taking in some sun. With the island left relatively raw, the two had had to pick their way to the beach carefully, and were well secluded from observation by the thick foliage. Kana had to admit that it was relaxing to just lie there. Beside her, Tessa was resting comfortably.
“Hey, Tessa?” asked Kaname softly.
“Yes?” replied the girl beside her.
“Is there some sort of training program for MITHRIL recruits? Souske told me about some sort of boot camp where he and Kurz and Melissa all met up, but other than that, I don't have a clue how one would go about joining a mercenary outfit that doesn't exist.” She said.
“Well, there is a boot camp.” Replied Tessa. “It's where Kalinin, Souske and Mao are right now.” She noted. “But I never went there.” She elaborated.
“You didn't?” she asked. Tessa nodded.
“Due to my designing the De Danaan, I was put into the officer school instead. Other than some marksmanship training and basic weapons training, I was instructed in the command of a submarine - my submarine. Still, since I didn't have any military experience, they assigned me Kalinin and Mardukas as my operations officers.” She paused. “It was a good thing, too, or I would have made a fatal mistake by now.” She admitted. Kana considered that.
“So, if I joined, I'd have to go through boot camp and start out as a private or whatever you call them?” she asked, distinctly disliking the idea.
“I'm not sure, but I can find out.” Replied Tessa. “I think that because you're a Whispered, you'll most likely be inducted as an officer. Probably a lieutenant of some sort.” She guessed. “Do you want me to find out?” she asked, a bit hopefully. Kana snorted.
“No so fast, miss MIRTHIL.” She said humorously. “Let me ask you another question first.”
“Of course.” Replied Tessa.
“Just how military is MITHRIL?” she asked. Sensing Tessa's confusion, she clarified it a bit. “I mean, is it like being in the regular military, with all that marching, saluting and stuff? Or is it a bit more informal?”
“Well, it depends on the station.” Said Tessa. “I can't say for sure, as I've only been stationed on the De Danaan, but each command is a bit different. As I understand it, my command is a bit less formal than some, but stricter than others.” She paused. “And it also varies by what your position is. For instance, the AS units like Souske's are very military like as far as the discipline part, while the maintenance crews are less so. I would say that the bridge is somewhere between the two.” She decided. “Why ask?” she wondered.
“Well, I was thinking about some things, that's all.” Replied Kana. Like rather or not being with Souske under certain conditions would be any better than making a clean break. She thought. “What are the rules about relationships?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“You mean, like dating someone?” asked Tessa. Slowly Kaname nodded.
“I'm not real sure.” Said Tessa. “I've never had that come up.” She said softly. “I could ask, though.” she offered.
“That's ok.” Replied Kaname hastily. “I'm not sure I want to know, and I don't even know if I'm going to join or not.” She added.
“But you're joining us or not would depend on those answer, wouldn't it?” stated Tessa. Kana knew right then that Tessa and she were resonating again.
“Yes, but also on some other things as well.” She said.
“Well, like what?” wondered Tessa.
“What exactly do they do to Whispereds?” she asked. “Do they do tests on them like those flakes in North Korea, or dissect them like that Gauron asshole said, or what?”
Tessa took some time to answer that one. “There are periodic tests, Kana.” She said. “But they are usually bundled in with the physicals.” She added hastily. “Mostly they are designed to see if you are being physically, emotionally or mentally damaged by the Whispered Effect. Other than that, they leave us alone.” She said. But that doesn't mean that the voices in the head stop. She thought mentally.
“Physicals?” asked Kaname. Tessa nodded.
“MITHRIL policy.” She replied. “Yearly physicals or twice yearly for certain positions.” She chuckled briefly. “MITHRIL has the absolutely best medical care in the world, Kana!” she promised. “And the pay and benefits are the best as well.” She added.
“Like what?” asked Kana, turning over onto her stomach. Tessa did likewise.
“Well, for starters, you get paid more than any comparable position would pay and you get added benefits if you are in the field rank.” She added. “I can retire in only twenty years with a pension greater than that of most multinational chairmen.” She said, her tone a bit excited.
“Retire?” asked Kaname. “At only thirty eight?” she wondered. Tessa nodded.
“Yes. My brother is planning to retire at forty, though.” she said. Kana remembered the bit of a complex that Tessa had about her brother.
“What branch is he in, anyway?” she asked. Tessa frowned.
“He's in R&D.” she said. “I took field because I didn't want anyone else piloting my De Danaan.” She explained.
“So, as far as choices go, there is field - like you and Souske - and R&D like your brother.” She mused. “What else is there?” she asked.
“Well, I know there is a third branch, and that is headquarters.” She said. “But I don't know anyone who's been there.” She noted. “I can't even say that I know anyone who knows someone who's been there.” She added.
“Deepest of the deep shadows, hmm?” mused Kaname. Tessa nodded. For a bit, silence reigned. Then, Tessa broke it.
“Um, there is one other thing you should know, Kana.” She said softly.
“And that is?” asked the other girl.
“If you join us, you're going to have to give up some things.” Said the girl. Kana turned to study Tessa, only to find the girl looking at her intently.
“Like what?” asked Kaname. Tessa maintained eye contact with her.
“Like your `regular' life.” Said the girl. “If you join us, you will disappear from your current life and all your friends and family. Your file says that your mother died when you were young, but your father works in America for the UN.” Kana nodded. “Well, if you join us, he most likely won't see you again.” Said the girl. Kana considered that carefully.
“We don't see each other now.” She said at last. “And my friends all know what they are going to do with their lives - it's only me that doesn't have a plan.” She continued. “As for friends, if I join MITHRIL, I'll be with Souske, you, Mao - hell, even Kurz, right?” she said slowly. Tessa nodded.
“Yes.” She said simply. She could feel the turmoil in Kaname through the resonance effect they shared.
“Then, I guess the only real question is which is worth more to me.” Murmured the dark-haired girl.
“Sir, as ordered, the reports on the new training program.” Said Mao, saluting as she dropped two stapled stacks of paper on Kalinin's field desk. Behind her, Souske stood at attention. Picking one of the reports up, Kalinin looked it over.
“These appear to be in good order.” He noted.
“Sir, yes, sir.” Came the gung-ho reply from Mao. Leafing through the second report, he nodded.
“Very well.” He said, rising from his chair. “These will be submitted to the Captain for approval before being passed up the chain to headquarters.” Closing his laptop, he checked his watch. “Our flight back to base is due in seven minutes. Grab your gear and assemble at pad six in five minutes.” He ordered. Both Mao and Sagara snapped him a salute.
“Yes, sir!” they chanted in unison. Kalinin returned the salute.
“Dismissed.” He said.
The flight back was mostly quiet as they all rested or reviewed plans or read. Souske was finding himself constantly wondering if whatever had been bothering Kaname had been resolved while they were away or not. Deciding that time would tell, he grabbed some rest while the plane traveled back to base.
When the plane touched down, he and Mao exited to find Kana and Tessa waiting for them. “Welcome back, guys.” Said Kana, smiling. She and Tessa were dressed in tee shirts and shorts, and Souske thought he detected some redness in Tessa's face.
“It's good to be back, isn't it Souske?” replied Mao.
“Affirmative.” He replied. “We have completed our mission, Cap…ugh!” he broke off as Mao's bag almost accidentially clipped him in the side - hard. Mao innocently looked away when he glanced at her. Straightening, he tried again. “We were successful, Tessa.” He said, fighting not to salute her.
“I'm glad to hear that, Souske.” She said. “Kana and I got to catch up while you were away, and since you have to head back tomorrow morning, I thought we would party some tonight.” She said, smiling.
“Sounds fun.” Said Mao, smiling. “Count me in.” she said.
“Well, Souske?” challenged Kana, smiling at him.
“I as well.” He agreed.
“But after a shower and some fresh clothes.” Noted Tessa.
“Of course, ma'am.” He said, starting to salute before Mao's bag clipped him again. “I mean, Tessa.” He corrected.
“Be back soon.” Smiled Mao, winking at Tessa as she and Souske moved off toward the barracks. Kana turned to Tessa.
“Well, this seems to be going well.” She noted. Tessa nodded.
“Yes.” She said as the two headed for the room they had hijacked for the party. “I'll let you know as soon as I know the answers, ok?” she said. Kana nodded.
“Ok. I trust you, Tessa.” She said. The two shared a smile.
“Kana! Hurry up!” called Kyoko, motioning for her friend to hurry. Kana loped up to her in an easy run. The graduation ceremony was about to start, and Kana was running behind, as usual. Quickly checking her outfit, Kana smiled at Kyoko.
“Ready.” She smiled. Kyoko smiled back.
“I don't know where you went for four days, but it's good to have you back.” She said. Other than some odd questions, no big deal had been made about her unexplained absence from the school. When she had simply walked into the room the next morning, she had been the Kana she had been before: bright, energetic, and happy, rather than spaced out and moody. Though there had been questions, there were no answers from her or Souske. No one really bothered to ask him, as he never gave them any answers anyway.
She and Souske had been their normal inseparable selves, and the last month before graduation had been hectic, with Kana supervising the graduation ceremony arrangement, monitoring the vote for the next Student Council Chairman, finishing her tests and hanging out with her friends. She had been spending a lot of time with her friends, lately. Truthfully, it had Kyoko a bit concerned.
“Ah, miss Chidori.” Came the voice of the principal.
“Madam Principal, it's good to see you.” She said, bowing to the older woman.
“Yes, I'm sure you're ready to put this behind you.” Smiled the older woman. “And unless I miss my guess, you have made that decision we spoke about, am I right?” she asked. Kana nodded.
“Yes, ma'am. I have.” She said simply. The principal smiled.
“I'm sure you made the right choice, Kaname.” She said warmly before moving past the students. “Well, shall we get this done?” she asked them. The cheer was enthusiastic.
“Man, that was a surprise, to see Tessa in the crowd, wasn't it?” said Kyoko to Mizuki. The other girl nodded.
“Yeah. I thought she was busy somewhere?” she wondered.
“Well, she said that since she had such a good time here on her exchange trips, she felt she should see us all off.” Replied Kyoko. “Where's Kana?” she asked, looking around. “I want a picture of us all together.” She said. Mizuki looked around.
“Well, she and Souske were here a minute ago.” Frowned the girl. “Maybe they're with Shinji and Ono-D?” she guessed. Just then, the two in question ran up to the two girls.
“Hey, where's Souske?” they asked the two. The two girls turned to each other, frowning. “What's wrong?” wondered Shinji.
“We thought they were with you.” Said Kyoko. Pulling out her cell phone, she dialed a number. The others waited. Kyoko's face went from curious to panicky as she pulled her phone back from her ear and looked at the screen.
“What's up, Tokiwa?” asked Ono-D.
“Kana's number says it's been disconnected.” Said the girl. “I'll try her home phone.” She said, punching numbers. The others leaned closer to listen to her cell phone. Once more, the number was disconnected.
“Hey! I'll try Souske's number!” said Shinji, pulling out his cell phone. “I think I have it here.” He muttered, scrolling through the phone's memory. “Yes! There it is!” he said, dialing the number. A moment later, he pulled his cell phone from his ear and held it out. The others could heard the unctuous voice telling them that the number wasn't in service. The group frowned.
“I'm going to her house.” Said Kyoko resolutely. The others followed her to the building where Kana had lived for years. Ringing the bell got no answer. Fishing around in her bag, Kyoko withdrew a key to the apartment and opened the door. Looking inside, they all gasped. It was completely bare.
“Hey, are you here about the apartment?” came a voice from behind the group of teens. Turning they saw the apartment building's manager.
“Um, actually, we were looking for our friend, Chidori Kaname who lived here.” Said Kyoko.
“Oh! Nice girl!” said the man. “She moved out this morning.” He said, shaking his head. “Sorry to see her go, too. She was always so nice to the other tenants.”
“Moved? Did she leave any contact information?” asked Kyoko. The man shook his head.
“No, not that I recall. I asked her to fill out the normal mail forwarding forms, but they were left in my box, completely blank. Her key and month's rent were there, too.”
“Kana! What could have happened?” gasped Kyoko. The manager frowned.
“Is something wrong? She seemed happy enough when I talked to her, and that fellow with her seemed to be nice enough, too.” He mused.
“Was he a little taller than me, with dark hair and a cross-shaped scar on his left jaw?” asked Shinji. The man frowned.
“No, he was a lot taller, and had white hair and a neatly-trimmed beard. Real sharp-looking guy, if older than miss Chidori.” Said the man. The graduates exchanged bewildered looks.
“What the hells going on?!” demanded Mizuki and Ono-D. Before anyone could attempt an answer, a courier arrived at the apartment, holding a box.
“Good afternoon.” Said the man, nodding to them. “Got a delivery here for a miss Tokiwa.” He said, reading the package. The manager frowned.
“No one by that name lives here.” He said, but Kyoko stepped in front of the man.
“I'm Kyoko Tokiwa.” She said. The man handed her his board.
“Sign here, miss.” He said. She did so and took the package, tearing it open. Inside were four letters, each with a name on them. Silently, she handed them to the people whose name was on them. Opening her letter, she immediately identified Kana's writing.
“It's from Kana.” She said softly, reading the short note. The others were reading their notes as well.
“So, what does it say?” wondered the manager. Kyoko choked back a sniffle and smiled at him.
“It says she'll be fine, sir. Just fine.” She said, tucking the note into her pocket and slowly exited the empty apartment. When she got home, she tucked the note into the photo album she had kept for two years now. Once it was safely sealed into the photo album, she read it one more time.
Kyoko, I'm sorry to do this so suddenly, but I've made up my mind about my future. I'm going to do what only I can do. I wish you the best of success and happiness in your life, and I will be watching over you. Love, Kana.
Taking a deep breath, Kyoko closed the photo album, wiping back a tear from her eye. “I wish the same for you, Kana.” She said softly, putting the photo album away before slowly exiting her room.