3: He Who Chases Two Hares...
26 June, 2140 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Fushimidai Academy High School, Chofu
“I came here a lot for student council in my first year,” Kaname explained. “It’s a hoity-toity escalator school, but the uniforms are uggo... Also, the teachers are the worst. Every time we came by they were all, ‘You aren’t from this school! What are you doing here?!’”
“Hmm...” The school looked more or less like Jindai from the outside: an unadorned facade of reinforced concrete.
Sousuke easily got them through the school’s basic security system. They avoided the custodian’s office and made their way to the student council room on the north building’s second floor. Kaname had insisted that she knew it very well, and that it was the most comfortable room for them to hole up in for now.
At last, they were able to sit down and breathe easy. Takuma, conscious again already, had been sat down next to Sousuke.
“Want some tea?” Kaname asked, rummaging around in a corner of the dim room.
“No... thank you,” Tessa responded. It seemed that wherever she went today, there was always a hot drink of some kind on offer.
“Oh, yeah?” Kaname replied huffily. “So anyway, we just need to kill time here, right?”
“Yes. We have reinforcements on the way as we speak,” Sousuke confirmed. He’d already contacted them again through his satellite communicator. A transport helicopter carrying Mao, Kurz, and the M9 had left the Tuatha de Danaan over the Pacific and was expected to land on the school lawn within two hours.
“My allies will be here first. Changing your hiding place won’t save you,” Takuma said.
“We fixed that problem, actually,” Kaname said.
Takuma looked at her questioningly.
“My microwave took out your little transmitter,” Kaname boasted.
For the first time, Takuma’s expression became serious; he must have known about the transmitter. There was no need to tell him it was broken, Sousuke thought... but he also couldn’t see how it had done any harm, so he refrained from comment. The enemy currently had no way of finding them; it would be one thing if they had gone to Jindai High, but there was no paper trail tying them to this school. They could probably rest easy, for now.
“Anyway...” Kaname pulled her PHS from the back pocket of her denim miniskirt.
Sousuke scowled as he realized what she was doing. “Who are you going to call?” he asked.
“I told you before, I gotta ask her to record a drama,” Kaname said impatiently. “It’s starting soon.”
“Don’t tell her where you are,” Sousuke commanded.
But Kaname bristled. “You know, I could watch it on the TV in here. But if I did that, the custodian might find out and get us in trouble. I’m trying to be considerate! You’re the one who got me mixed up in all this, remember?”
Sousuke fell silent.
“You’d better adjust your attitude around me in the future, O great and wise Sergeant Sagara Sousuke. Get it?” Whenever Sousuke treated Kaname as an ordinary civilian and rank amateur, it usually backfired on him like this. Lacking a proper response, he just looked down and began to play idly with his submachine gun.
Tessa just stared in disbelief.
Kaname spun the jog dial on her PHS and pressed the button. She must have had it on silent mode, because it didn’t even beep. “The second there’s a crisis, you immediately promote yourself to coolest guy in the room. It’s a gross habit. You should work on it,” she said nastily, then immediately switched to a cheerful tone. “Oh, is this the Tokiwa residence? Hey, it’s Chidori! Oh, hey! Yeah, I got it. It was so good, yeah! Hahaha... Yeah, could you? Thanks a bunch! By the way, Kyoko... hey, I’ve got a huge favor to ask you...”
“Sagara-san... does she always yell at you like this?” Tessa whispered to him.
“Ah. Not... technically always,” he hedged.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You’re far more experienced and knowledgeable than she is.”
“Well... that’s not necessarily always the case.”
“Really. She’s very quick-witted at times... um...” Sousuke slumped over a little, fiddling with the rear sight adjustment knob.
Tessa looked at him with a scowl. “I feel like you listen to her more readily than you listen to me, Sagara-san.”
“No, ma’am,” he denied automatically. “That’s not the case at all.”
“I wonder... I’m not convinced.” Tessa turned away.
This is so nerve-wracking, Sousuke thought. He was just trying to do what he had to in order to see his mission through. How had he ended up with Tessa and Kaname butting heads? Just what did I do wrong? He’d never looked forward to reinforcements so much in his life. Mao, Kurz, anyone... just get here as soon as you can!
Before long, Kaname finished her call. “Boy... schools sure are creepy at night, huh?” she mused, slipping the PHS back into her pocket. Then she leaned forward. “I dunno about this place, but Jindai High has a lot of ghost stories, you know? You know, typical stuff like Toilet Hanako.”
“What’s frightening about her?” Sousuke wanted to know. “Does she have a bomb strapped to her chest?”
“That sounds like the title of an indecent video...” Tessa frowned.
Kaname was disappointed by their ignorant responses. “Fine, whatever. There’s also the epic tale of the yokai, ebizori-kozo. It’s a terrifying ghost story told only at Jindai High...”
“What is it about?”
“Heh heh. Well, you see...” Responding to Tessa’s interest, Kaname leaned over the desk and began whispering in her ear. Whatever she said caused Tessa’s ears to turn red for just a moment before all the color drained from her face.
“That’s perverted,” she gasped.
“Well? Scary, huh?”
“Oh, my God... I would die if I met someone like that.”
As Tessa shuddered, Sousuke watched, head tilted in confusion.
Just then, they heard footsteps in the hallway. They seemed to be coming from far away, around the stairs. They were headed their way, slowly and leisurely, then they stopped in front of a room. A door opened, then closed again.
“It’s the custodian. He’s going to check in here, too.” Kaname clicked her tongue.
“Hide under the desk. Hurry.” Sousuke pointed the gun at Takuma and got him to hide under the desk. “Keep your voice down.”
“Let’s see. Will I, or won’t I...” Takuma said with his usual faint smile. There were a number of document-filled cardboard boxes stored under the desk, leaving barely enough space for the four of them to cram in together.
They held their collective breaths as they heard the custodian unlock the door and open it.
His flashlight pierced the darkness of the room. If he’s just on patrol, he should move along quickly, Sousuke thought. And yet...
“Hey, you there. Come on out,” came a hoarse voice. Sousuke followed the flashlight’s beam, and at the end of it, saw Tessa’s little cargo pants-clad behind poking out from beneath the desk.
“That’s what they call hiding your head but not your ass,” the old custodian chuckled as he led them down the dark hallway. “But I didn’t expect the head to belong to a pretty foreign girl. This is quite a night. Playing war with your toy guns, were you?”
The four of them were following the old man in a line. Tessa brought up the rear, looking stricken.
“Come on in,” the old man said as they arrived at his office on the first floor. The others followed him in, despondently. It was a small but modest Japanese-style room; they took off their shoes as they entered, then found seats around the low table.
“Would you like some tea?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” the four of them (sans Takuma) replied in chorus. They were definitely sick of hot drinks by now.
“Don’t be that way. I’ve got the good stuff.” Without waiting for their assent, the custodian brought some teacups from his kitchen. He poured hot water from a pot next to the table into a teapot with the leaves already inside.
“This school...” Takuma said suddenly, without prompting. “You called it Fushimidai Academy, didn’t you?”
“So what?” Sousuke wanted to know.
“Oh, nothing...” Takuma replied innocently. “I thought maybe I’d been here once before...”
Sousuke narrowed his eyes quietly.
“Probably just my imagination. Forget I said anything.” It was Takuma’s first time talking like this. Something was wrong.
“What are you plotting?” Sousuke demanded.
“What do you mean?” Takuma replied.
“Do you think you can escape us?”
“No. I’ve seen how good you are.”
Sousuke continued to scrutinize Takuma, who seemed unfazed by his attention.
“Sousuke, you need to stop being so suspicious of everyone,” Kaname scolded. “Even if they are creepazoids who lose their temper over stupid things...”
The old custodian set out their tea. “I don’t know what brought you all here; just make sure you get back before the trains stop running. Your parents will be worried. Don’t worry; I won’t tell the school.”
“We’re sorry about all the trouble we’ve caused.” Kaname bowed low to him. Of course, neither she, nor Sousuke, nor Tessa (probably) actually had parents worried about them, but they weren’t about to point that out.
“Takuma-san. Do you have any family?” Tessa asked.
“A big sister. That’s it.”
“What kind of person is she?”
“I see no need to talk about it,” Takuma answered, with greater irritation than really seemed warranted.
“I see... But we’re only running around like this because we’ve chosen to keep you alive,” Tessa explained. “The least you could do is to make conversation to help us pass the time.”
Takuma said nothing.
“I have an older brother,” Tessa said, gazing at the tea stalk at the bottom of her cup. “I don’t know where he is right now, but he’s a much more impressive person than I.”
“Ahh. So I guess he doesn’t trip over railings or try to hide behind desks with his butt sticking up?” Kaname interjected with a laugh.
Tessa shot her a glare. “Let me ask you this, Chidori-san. Can you solve Einstein’s field equations? With no prior knowledge?”
“I did that at six years old,” Tessa told her. “But my brother did it at four.”
Kaname’s mouth dropped open. “I don’t know what that means, but I guess it’s pretty amazing?”
“Yes, quite amazing. I’ve always had an inferiority complex regarding my brother.” She took an indifferent sip of tea.
“And?” Takuma asked out of nowhere.
“What?” Tessa looked over in surprise.
“And?” he repeated. “How did you get along with your brother?”
“Well... I suppose the closest way of putting it would be, he protected me. It... wasn’t exactly a healthy relationship,” she said in a rather gloomy voice. “But that was a long time ago. Takuma-san, do you have an inferiority complex about your sister, too?”
“Wh-What did you—”
“You do, don’t you?” Tessa peered into Takuma’s face as he snapped back to reality and tried to deny it.
He seemed a little flustered at first, but perhaps realizing it was foolish to get worked up, he just shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe it is an inferiority complex. I worship my big sister.”
“That’s the first time you’ve told us anything about yourself,” Tessa observed.
Takuma fell silent, pursing his lips and looking down at the floor. That was the end of their talk about families.
The next forty minutes passed uneventfully. There was no sign of the enemy coming; this was only natural, since they had no way of finding them.
Kaname watched her drama with the custodian. Tessa rested her head on the coffee table and slept, citing sleep deprivation. Takuma sat quietly next to Sousuke, legs crossed and eyes closed. Once, his shoulders began heaving and he showed signs of agitation, but he seemed to reclaim his reason before it escalated to an outburst. The show ended, the commercials played, and Kaname stood up.
“Where are you going?” Sousuke asked as she headed for the door.
“What kind of jerk asks a girl that?” she retorted.
“What do you mean?” Sousuke furrowed his brow; he genuinely didn’t seem to understand her objection.
Kaname turned red, and stammered, “The bathroom, okay?”
“Ah... I’ll accompany you.” Tessa got up abruptly and followed after her.
“For safety’s sake,” Sousuke began, “I should also—”
“Stay here,” Kaname and Tessa commanded in unison.
“Boy, talk about a lack of tact!” Kaname grumbled.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine, Sagara-san,” Tessa said to reassure him.
“All right,” Sousuke relented. “But don’t turn on any lights, and keep your voices down.” Reluctantly, Sousuke sat himself back down. The two left him behind and headed for the first floor girls’ bathroom.
The corridor was dark. The only illumination came from the streetlamps outside, and the red lights over the school’s fire hoses. The fluorescent lights over the emergency exits let out a dull, eerie hum. Schools really were creepy at night.
“You tagged along awfully quickly,” Kaname observed. “Afraid of going by yourself?”
“Well, yes...” Tessa admitted. “You said all those awful things before...”
Kaname gave a sinister chuckle. “It appears in hallways just like this, you know. The ebizori-kozo...”
They arrived at the girls’ bathroom before too long. Kaname left Tessa to take her own stall. She reached for the hem of her miniskirt, then started in confusion. Her PHS was no longer in her back pocket. She tried her other pockets, but it wasn’t there, either.
Maybe I dropped it in the custodian’s room? she wondered. That seemed unlikely, though; there had been nothing on the tatami floor when she got up from the TV. Could it be in the student council room, then?
She finished her business, then went out to wash her hands, feeling uneasy all the while.
Tessa was still in her stall. “Um, Chidori-san... Please don’t go yet,” a voice said nervously through the door.
“Oh? Hmm, let me think about that...” she replied with exaggerated meanness, then strode into the hallway.
Suddenly, she felt a presence behind her. She turned around to face it. A man stood there, dressed in an all-black combat uniform and wearing a mask. There was a glinting combat knife in his hand.
Kaname sucked in a breath, but before she could scream, the knife flashed. Its honed point stopped a millimeter short of cutting open her throat. Then the man grabbed her shoulder and pulled her toward him.
“Not one sound,” came a vicious whisper. The eyes visible through the holes in the mask flashed a clear warning: “If you try to scream, I’ll kill you.” There was another man in black moving around in the darkness, too; he was standing next to the door to the girls’ bathroom, drawing a knife from a chest sheath. He was probably waiting for Tessa to come out.
A sticky sort of fear began to bind around her heart. Nevertheless, her prevailing thought was the surprisingly cool-headed I’m glad I went to the bathroom first.
There was the sound of running water, and then, of the door opening. “Chidori-san? Are you still here?”
Kaname wanted to shout “run!” but her instincts stopped her. If she screamed, she was dead; besides, screaming wouldn’t guarantee the other girl’s escape. The only way out would be through the bathroom window, and there was no way someone so clumsy would be able to make it out that way.
Sousuke, she thought. So it was all true... He’d said they were being pursued, but she’d written him off, assuming he was exaggerating, the way he always did. But she’d been wrong. And now she was back where she had been two months ago. This was his house, now—the battlefield.
“Chidori-san? Please stop teasing—” The clueless Tessa stepped out, and the man lying in wait swung his arm down.
They’re late, Sousuke thought, looking at his wristwatch. Fifteen minutes had passed since they had left. Were they wandering around the school building? Were they discussing something? He opened the door and looked out into the hallway, but there was no sign of the girls heading back.
“I wonder what happened,” the custodian said idly as he watched the news.
“I’m going to go check on them. Hey... get up,” Sousuke ordered Takuma. There was no way he could leave him alone in this room.
Just then, he heard an electronic beeping. It was a Mozart melody, tinny and cheerful—the “incoming call” sound for Kaname’s PHS. It was coming from Takuma’s pocket.
“Got me, eh?” Takuma pulled the phone from his pocket, smiling in triumph. He must have swiped it when they were cramming under the desk in the student council room.
Everything then became clear for Sousuke. That suspicious line from Takuma before: This school... You called it Fushimidai Academy, didn’t you? He must have been on the line with his allies at the time. He’d kept the line open and spoken the school’s name, revealing to them his current location.
“Damn you...” Sousuke fumed. He’d been careless. Takuma might be inclined to lose his mind and lash out, but in his lucid state, he could be quite clever. He wasn’t stupid, by any means.
Close to one hour had passed since then. An hour since the enemy had learned their location! There was no sign of anyone around the custodian’s room, but Kaname and Tessa—
“Don’t you want to answer it?” Takuma proffered the ringing PHS. Sousuke took it, submachine gun still at the ready. He pressed the call button and heard an unfamiliar man’s voice on the other line.
“Yes,” he said at last.
“I have the two women. Bring him out to the yard. You have one minute.” The call cut off.
They “had” Kaname and Tessa—which meant that they were alive. Sousuke allowed himself a moment’s relief. Perhaps the enemy hated indiscriminate attacks that resulted in casualties. They’d also lost three of their own already; it was natural they’d want hostages this time.
The situation was serious. There was good visibility on the lawn; it would make Sousuke a sitting duck for sniper fire. Only a fool would just walk out into an environment like that, even with hostages on the line, and he wasn’t the kind of man to just walk into a trap and take his chances.
If he was going to go out there, he needed a plan of his own. But what kind of plan? One minute was hardly long enough to think of effective countermeasures.
I’ll just have to gamble, then. Sousuke turned back to the custodian. “Could I ask you for a favor?”
He explained his request, and the old man looked suspicious. “So... if I hear any loud sounds, I’m to turn on the field lights, you say?” The idea was to temporarily blind the enemies, whose eyes would be more adjusted to the dark. “I’ll get a tongue-lashing, you know.”
“I know that... but something much worse will happen if you don’t.” Sousuke couldn’t force the man to say yes. He just held his breath while the old custodian gazed into the night in deep contemplation.
“Well, all right. But just for a little while.” He stood up, saying no more than that.
“Thank you.” Sousuke immediately turned around and headed swiftly toward the school’s exit with Takuma in tow. On the way, he used handcuffs to lash Takuma’s wrist to his own. His submachine gun hung off his shoulder. He took a grenade out of his pocket and removed the pin with his mouth. If he released the lever now, it would explode on the spot.
“Why don’t you just stop resisting already?” Takuma wanted to know.
“I commend you for your clever trick back there. But now, be quiet,” Sousuke advised him. “I’m a little on edge.” As he came outside, he could see four silhouettes across the dark athletics field, just under the high bars: two men in combat uniforms, with Kaname and Tessa bound up behind them. He could sense someone on the school’s roof; one on top of the gymnasium as well. Those were perfect sniping positions, but that that also made them easier to spot.
Sousuke held up his hands—both the one shackled to Takuma’s, and the one holding the grenade. “If you shoot me, he dies,” he shouted. If Sousuke was shot, his hand would release the grenade lever, and it would explode. Since Takuma was handcuffed to him, he would invariably die as well.
The man in front of Kaname took a step forward. “Just give him to us and we won’t hurt you. Remove the handcuffs.”
“You call that a negotiation? Balance the tables a little more,” Sousuke said, rebelliously. He understood how a terrorist with a hostage felt now.
“All right,” the man said after a moment. “I’ll send one of the girls over to you. Will you take off the handcuffs then?”
“Very well,” Sousuke replied curtly.
“If you’re lying,” the man said, “we take an ear off the other.”
“As you wish.”
“So? Which woman should we release first?” the man asked.
Sousuke considered. Whoever was released first would be safer, since she would be with him. That meant the second would be in danger; a fight could break out while he was swapping the second girl for Takuma.
Kaname or Tessa? Logically speaking, Kaname should come first. She wasn’t part of Mithril and had nothing to do with any of this. Basically, she was an innocent victim.
But... if he left Tessa behind, would she be able to get to safety if hostilities broke out? He felt a little bad thinking it, but she wasn’t exactly athletic. If he didn’t release her first, her chances of survival would be low—no, almost certainly nil.
By comparison, Kaname was a swift runner; she was often asked to help out with the school’s athletics clubs. Releasing Tessa first and betting on Kaname’s athletic abilities to carry her through would be a more surefire way to save them both, wouldn’t it?
This is... a dilemma, he thought.
Who should he choose: Tessa or Kaname? They were both staring at him across the dark field. What were they thinking? What were their expectations? He had no way to ask, so in the end, he decided to go with the best chance of saving both of them. In other words...
“Release the Caucasian woman first, the Japanese woman second.”
Both looked equally surprised by his choice; he felt like Kaname’s eyes had widened at him questioningly.
I just have to trust in Chidori, Sousuke thought. I know that she... she can do anything. He wanted to shout that to her, but he couldn’t; it would be like telling the enemy that he was about to make trouble.
“Very well,” the man responded, removing Tessa’s handcuffs and nudging her in the back. She put up a show of resistance, but he shoved her again, harder. She had no choice but to begin walking toward Sousuke. As she got closer, he could tell that she was angry—extremely angry.
“Colonel,” he said tersely, “get behind me.”
“I appreciate it, Sergeant Sagara. But this was the wrong decision.”
“To ensure the safety of both of you—”
“Did you think I’m not prepared for moments like these?” Tessa demanded coldly. “It’s insulting.”
Sousuke had no response to that. His decision to prioritize her safety in defiance of conventional logic must have badly wounded her pride, and the tentatively amicable relationship they’d built had collapsed as a result. “You can scold me for it later,” he managed, then addressed Takuma. “The key is in my right pocket. Use it to free yourself.”
Takuma silently reached into Sousuke’s pants pocket, found the key and unlocked the handcuffs.
“They’re off,” Sousuke shouted to the man.
“Start him walking. I’ll start her walking at the same time. Acceptable?” The man released Kaname’s restraints as he made his offer. If he believed it would be that easy, Sousuke would gladly have acted in good faith... but he had killed three of this man’s comrades. There was no way that the exchange could end peacefully.
“Very well,” Sousuke said. “Let’s proceed.”
It was time for Sousuke to abandon his lifeline; to return Takuma to the enemy. Tessa showed no objection to this, so Sousuke shot him a signal, and the boy began to walk. Kaname came toward them, likewise, from the other end of the field.
A sniper’s bullet could strike any second now. Takuma’s proximity was likely the only thing staying their hands.
“When I give the signal, run into the school building,” Sousuke said.
Tessa’s refusal was immediate. “Run and hide, you mean?”
“You’ll be in danger if you don’t.”
“I did what you said back at the apartment,” she said flatly, “but our circumstances have changed.”
While they argued, Kaname and Takuma passed each other at the center of the field. Sousuke could sense a new wave of hostility coming from the snipers positioned on the school and the gym. He was out of time. They were in danger. He had to—
He released the grenade’s lever, shouted “Run!” then threw the grenade toward the gym, right into the sniper’s sight line. It detonated in midair; the explosion would hide him from the sniper on the roof.
By the time the explosion came, Sousuke had already turned his submachine gun toward the second sniper on the school building. He could see the man through his sight, aiming back at him. The sniper was faster. If he pulled the trigger—
Just then, light flooded over the field; the old custodian had flipped the switch. Sousuke could now see the sniper very clearly. The man fired desperately, blinded by the light; his bullet hit the ground thirty centimeters to Sousuke’s right.
Sousuke steadied his aim and let out a burst; three casings spat out from his gun, falling to the ground. The sniper reeled back and fell out of sight. Now, the one on the gym— he thought, turning around. That’s when he saw it. His jaw dropped.
Out on the brightly illuminated field, Kaname was doing the unbelievable. She hadn’t run to safety; she had turned to grapple with Takuma! Was she trying to use him as a shield? He’d been right to believe that she would take the initiative, but he never dreamed that she would go this far. What in the world was she—
“I’ll help!” Tessa cried, and ran directly toward the fray. He had no time to stop her. She made a beeline to Kaname, who was tangled up with Takuma on the ground.
“Colonel!” Sousuke bellowed. He didn’t have time to stop her. The sniper on the gym, having recovered from the initial explosion, was taking aim again. Sousuke threw himself forward as a bullet’s impact raised a cloud of dust behind him.
He came out of his roll and returned fire, but the motion compromised his aim, and the man was too far away; his bullets sparked futilely against the gym’s curved roof. A rifle had a range and power far superior to that of a submachine gun; the enemy sniper must have realized this advantage, because he stayed right where he was and kept firing.
Two shots, three shots, four—herded along by the close-range assault, Sousuke ran past a flowerbed. Chips of brick, clumps of soil, and vines from morning glories burst around him. He managed to make it to a concrete drinking fountain and hid behind the waist-high basin to check on Kaname and Tessa.
Kaname was still grappling with Takuma at the center of the field; Tessa had run up and was trying to separate them. Their former captor was also on his way, pistol in hand.
With a feeling of dread, Sousuke aimed his submachine gun at the man running toward the girls. His attempt was checked, though, by another shot from the gym; it chipped a shard off the basin that cut his cheek. The sniper seemed to have no interest in the girls—because they were tangled up with Takuma, most likely—his focus was on keeping Sousuke down while his comrade secured their target.
There’s nothing I can do... Sousuke thought. He’d made two serious miscalculations: one was about Kaname; the other was about Tessa. Neither had tried to run away. If they had, he might have been able to escape while keeping the sniper in check. He’d never expected his plan to backfire like this.
Sousuke looked up to check the conditions at the gym, and his heart sank. The sniper was readying a new weapon: a disposable MPATS. It was a weapon that could put a hole in a steel wall or a pillbox; the basin wouldn’t stand a chance.
The rocket fired. Trailing smoke, the shaped charge flew toward Sousuke. There was an explosion, and the sink was blasted to smithereens.