Chapter 2: Under the Water’s Surface
October 16th, 08:53 (Japan Standard Time)
Choufu-shi, Tokyo, Japan
Jindai High School
On the fourth day of the mid-term exams, the first subject was World History.
It was 23 minutes into the test. The sound of test pages turning and pens writing filled the room. Since it was so quiet, the noise of a car passing on the main street in front of the school sounded loud. Kaname’s eyes ran over the top of her test paper.
The Roman Empire’s prosperity. Five intelligent rulers. Augustus. Cicero. Sicily’s rebellion. This or that. There were many words that she knew but didn’t understand, and that she’d probably forget completely after the test was over. Really, regular testing was just a pointless and unproductive ritual.
She glanced up towards the window.
Sousuke’s seat was empty.
He hadn’t been heard from since the day before yesterday when she had called him before exams. She had thought he might show up today, but he continued to be absent. In the end, he had missed everything since the first day.
A sigh escaped somehow. Since it had been quiet in school thanks to Sousuke’s absence, she should have been able to relax. So why did she feel uneasy? Why did she feel as if something were missing?
No, I can’t. I’m in the middle of a test right now. I have to concentrate.
She fixed her attention back onto the problems.
The collapse of the Chinese Empire. The invasion of the Huns. The Yellow Turban Rebellions. Sou Sou. The fight of Akakabe. This and that. Since she had read the story about “The Annals of the Three Kingdoms” in a comic before, she knew this one well. She just couldn’t remember the kanji*1 for it. Now how do you write the character for “kou” in “koumei”...?
I wonder where he’s gone off to... She suddenly thought as she was filling in an answer.
I wonder what kind of job it is... if he’s met up with any danger... if he’s okay... or if he’s meeting up with that girl... speaking of which, he was acting strange when I called him the other day...
She returned back to herself with a start.
No, I can’t do this right now. I did it again. I’m neglecting my test and unconsciously thinking about him.
It’s his fault. He’s been absent without any excuses, and now he’s skipping tests. So I’m worried. I mean, I am the class representative, and we’re not exactly strangers. Those are the only reasons, but even so, it still tugs at me. Why is it bothering me so much? If he’s not here, then I should be able concentrate on the tests, but...!
Just then, the classroom door flew open.
“I’m...sorry I’m late,” said none other than Sousuke Sagara as soon as he entered, his shoulders heaving.
It seemed that he had come in a quite a hurry because there was sweat pouring down his taciturn face. And for some reason he wasn’t wearing his school uniform, but some dark green camouflaged clothes instead. One could see the design was different from the field clothes that he occasionally wore. The ones
he wore now had the words “U.S. MARINES” embroidered on the chest.
“Sagara... You’ve come back to take the test? And what’s with your clothes?” said the test supervisor with the frown.
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t have any time to change, so...”
“Never mind, it’s okay. Just hurry up and take your seat.”
Sousuke hurried over to his seat. On the way, his classmate Shinji Kazama whispered to him.
“Sagara, why are you wearing those clothes...?”
“A situation came up.” He replied shortly, sitting down.
He received the test from the teacher, and taking out his pencil box, he quickly turned over his paper and began.
Kaname looked at him absent-mindedly from across the room. Relieved, she felt as if a pressure had been lifted from her chest. For a moment, their eyes met. In lieu of a ‘good morning’, Sousuke lifted his pen a little. Kaname hastily withdrew her gaze and concentrated back on her test.
♦ ♦ ♦
October 17th, 16:09 (Australia Standard Time)
Mithril Operations Headquarters
This is the second time I’ve come to this investigation room with Lt. Commander Kalinin like this...thought Tessa.
Their previous subject had been a 15 or 16 year old boy; this time it was a middle-aged man.
Vincent Bruno, whom Mao and the others had kidnapped, was smiling arrogantly in a cocky manner.
It was probably just a bluff. This wasn’t a police station- this was Mithril Operations Headquarters. There was no lawyer
here to defend him, nor would he get a fair trial. And Bruno, sitting behind the one-way mirror, knew that as well.
Tessa was only wearing a light coat over the uniform that she always wore. Similarly, Kalinin was wearing olive-colored field clothes. Since they had taken one of Mithril’s jet planes and were then met by a limousine at the airport, they had not been seen by civilian eyes.
They had flown out to Sydney from the Merida Island base in the West Pacific when they received word that the mission to retrieve Bruno had been successful.
This man was partly responsible for the desperate crisis that had taken place on her ship. There was no mistaking this, but she couldn’t make herself believe it. He was the enemy on whom she was supposed to place the rest of her hate, but she could only feel cold disdain for him brooding within her chest.
“I don’t believe it,” she muttered. “I don’t believe how such a pathetic excuse for a human being almost managed to sink my ship.”
“You could say that it’s because he is such a pathetic character that he was able to be such a good actor. It wasn’t very hard for him to win over his enemies, was it?” replied Kalinin.
Through the one-way mirror, they could see two other men in the investigation room with Bruno. They were both from Operations Headquarters, a First Lieutenant and a Corporal. According to Kalinin, the First Lieutenant had come from the Intelligence section in Peru, and seemed to know a lot about interrogation.
“Let’s start with some easy questions, Mr. Bruno,” the Lieutenant began. “You were the secretary in charge of human relations. In June of this year, you made it so that John Howard Danigan and Guen Bien Bo would be assigned to the SRT unit of
the Western Pacific Fleet’s Tuatha de Danaan. You downgraded, or possibly even erased, the high priority data on four other active non-commissioned officers, as well as the data about the recommendations of the Belize training camp, and they were sent to the Tuatha de Danaan, who, at the time, were shorthanded and had no choice in the matter. Or am I wrong?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Bruno nonchalantly, gazing off into space. The Lieutenant just smiled calmly, moved to the restrained corporal next to him and said:
“Yes sir,” answered the large corporal, who immediately punched Bruno in the face to wake him up.
Bruno was about to topple out of his chair when the corporal caught him up by the collar and pulled him close. He pressed Bruno’s wrist against the desk, and seizing his little finger, bent it back in the opposite direction.
Crack! was the horrible sound that came next. The bone in his little finger had snapped, and Bruno’s ear-shattering scream filled the interrogation room.
“Don’t worry. That’s all,” Kalinin informed Tessa, who had flinched and averted her eyes from the spectacle. Bruno was shaking all over and sobbing.
“Stop...please stop! I understand, I’ll tell you anything! So...so please, no more...” he screeched, clutching his pinky finger.
“Then answer me. Were you the one who sent Danigan and Guen to the TDD-1?” asked the Lieutenant in a cold voice.
“Yes! Yes, I did!”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait! I-I don’t know their real name! They just said to use ‘Amalgam’!”
“‘Amalgam’? What’s that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought it was probably just some Soviet secret service or something. They didn’t deny it either. It was just petty stuff in the beginning! They paid me $200,000 in advance...two hundred grand, can you imagine!? It’s not like I had any reason to refuse! I replied to them twice-”
“What do you think...?” Kalinin asked Tessa, who was listening quietly. Looking at the indicator on the LCD screen next to him, he continued, “It doesn’t look like he’s lying, and I don’t think he has any hidden motives. Although it would appear that he himself doesn’t even know much about it.”
The computer was analyzing what Bruno said in real time- checking the stress level in his voice and authenticating the veracity of the suspect’s testimony. It was a fairly accurate system, a type of advanced lie detector. The purpose of the first violent blow had simply been to excite the suspect’s agitation for this kind of analysis.
“‘Amalgam’...I wonder what that name implies?”
‘Mithril’ was the name of a fictional silver metal. The enemy called themselves ‘Amalgam’, a mercury alloy. Or maybe it was just some kind of bad joke.
“I don’t know their true identity! I swear!” cried Bruno. His pale face was covered in cold sweat, and he glared into the darkroom from the other side of the mirror.
“Are you satisfied now!? You heard it all, right!? Don’t just stand there looking in from there, how about you come out and show yourselves!! Look at what you’ve done to me...just what the
hell is ‘Mithril’, anyway!? It’s the ‘metal of evil’, that’s what it is! Hypocrites who pretend to be heroes, that’s what you are!”
“Calm down, Mr. Bruno.”
“What would you have had me to do, huh!? I hope you’re all cursed!! Die like the murderers you are! You bastards! You’re all bastards!”
Tessa angrily tried to ignore him. But still, a single word wasn’t able to stop the outpour of deadly language coming from Bruno’s mouth.
“How dare he...”
The faces of her subordinates who had been lost in this affair came to mind, and she felt as if the blood in her entire body had started to boil. She wanted to turn the lights on in the darkroom, show herself to that man, and level out some verbal abuse to him. You’re the murderer. Give me back my men. You’re the one who’s cursed. Even though you’re just a worthless man who doesn’t know anything, you sit there and vomit up poison. You don’t know your place- you presume to judge me, you greedy, no-good imbecile. Don’t be so cocky...! You want me to order that corporal there to break off the rest of your fingers...!?
Violent emotions welled up within her. She wasn’t just simply angry, it was as if something more insolent was trying to provoke her.
Kalinin’s voice brought her back to herself.
Her palms were damp with sweat.
She was disgusted with herself. She wanted to deny it, but she couldn’t. Just now, she had enjoyed the sight of that man in pain.
“Captain, let’s leave the rest to the Lieutenant. Admiral Borda is waiting.”
“...you’re right,” she answered weakly, and turned away from the storming Bruno.
“It’s a terrible way of doing things, isn’t it...?”
For him, and for us, she added to herself.
“I don’t deny it, but it is effective. It’s not life threatening, and his finger will soon heal.”
“I know, but still...” she glanced at the profile of Kalinin’s expressionless face and faltered.
Does he not feel anything? He was looking straight at what just happened, but wasn’t even shaken at all. Even though, just like me, that man killed his subordinates.
Just as she finished thinking this, the Russian added in a cool tone of voice:
“If it had been me, his finger would’ve been cut off.”
♦ ♦ ♦
They left the interrogation room, and went to the office of the Chief of Operations.
Mithril’s Operations Headquarters, which they were in right now, was located on a street corner in the heart of Sydney.
If you had said that Mithril, which was an organization active throughout the world, had their most important base located here in Australia, two out of three people would have given you a dubious look. And if you had said that a base here was more advantageous than one in Europe for coordinating transportation facilities and ground facilities, as well as taking care of many other various things, no business man would have believed you.
At least, that was common sense up until twenty years ago. But because of the growth in satellite communications technology and the internet, the wealth of information flooding the world
today made the physical location of headquarters unimportant. Also, because places like Paris, London, Brussels and Geneva had old influential information agencies- establishing a large base there would be difficult.
Simply stated, it was a matter of claiming one’s turf.
Mithril was a young organization. Almost ten years before they had instituted their model, they had plans to build their Operations Headquarters in Europe, but small problems kept cropping up one after another, and it the end overflowed. Presently, out of the many information bureaus that Mithril had, only a few were located in Europe.
The Operations Headquarters, for being called “The Skyscraper”, was actually a rather short building.
On paper, the owner of the building was the “Argyros Security Company”. “Argyros” was the front that Mithril used, but in actuality, they were running security businesses in various places of the world, and making moderate profit from it. The outward appearance of many of Mithril’s members was that of people working for this security firm. And because discharged personnel commonly told others that they had worked for the security company, this disguise had worked out to be very convenient. Mithril also possessed many other companies such as this one.
The fields of business which they owned varied, consisting of such businesses as “Ross & Humbleton”, the manufacturers of the M9’s nuclear power reactor, “Umantack”, which did the majority of their shipping, “Martin Marietta”, which was their aviation mainstay, and so on; they ranged from rapidly growing up-and-coming enterprises, to those which were saved from the verge of bankruptcy. They also had influential banking facilities, as well as nominal paper companies. Public fronts, capital
investment, equipment supplies, searching for new talent...there was much more than just managing the organization, and Mithril made use of these businesses. Many of people who worked for these companies didn’t even know that Mithril existed.
The “Argyros” building that Mithril used for their Operations Headquarters appeared somewhat old, but the security system itself was top-notch. Every point in the building was equipped with bug and wiretap counter-measures, countless surveillance devices and plain-clothed security guards on the lookout for intruders.
Tessa and Kalinin arrived at the Chief of Operations’ office, and a male secretary came out to receive them.
“Nice to see you again, Madame Captain.”
“Nice to see you, Mr. Jackson. You look well. But please don’t call me Madame Captain.” As she said this, the under-forty secretary smiled brightly.
“Nevertheless, you don’t look like a ‘Miss’ like that, since from what I’ve heard, you’ve been doing very well for yourself. It’s only right that I show you some respect.”
“Thank you. Well...no matter how much I protest, you’d still do it anyway.”
Before she assumed command of the Tuatha de Danaan, Tessa had worked here in Operations Headquarters for a period of time. Besides assisting Admiral Borda, she did research on battles at sea, battles underwater, and battles under special circumstances. This secretary, Lieutenant Jackson, was a friend of hers from then, and at that time, he called her things like “Miss” and “Little Teletha”. She wasn’t promoted to the rank of Captain until after she took command of the TDD-1.
“Where’s the Admiral?”
“He’s on the phone right now, but I don’t think he’ll mind if you just go on in. He’ll probably check you again while he’s talking. The security’s been pretty tight around here.”
“Yes, he will. Thank you.”
After she thanked him, both she and Kalinin walked into Admiral Borda’s office.
The room almost as wide as a cafe, but the walls’ high bookshelves were overflowing with books. Much of the furniture employed the wood in its design and had a black glossy finish. The indirect lighting caused by soft natural light and incandescent lamps gave the room an atmosphere like that of an old library.
Admiral Borda was sitting in his work chair, talking on the phone.
“Yes...mmm. I know...yes...that’s my line. We’ll take care of any improper conduct in our department ourselves. Of course we’ll give you a record of the interrogation. Trust me a little... Custody? I don’t understand what you mean.”
While he was busy talking to whomever, Admiral Borda returned Tessa and Kalinin’s salute, pointed to the guest chairs, and without making a sound mouthed the words “Have a seat”.
“...I guess so. Well, do as you please...that’s right. We should save that problem for another day...mmm. I’ll think about it... No. I have guests, so I’m gonna go,” he unilaterally informed the other party, and pressed the hang-up switch. He threw the receiver on the desk as if he had been touching something disgusting, and slowly stood up.
“Glad you’ve come. Want anything to drink?” he asked, walking to the mini-bar in the corner of the room.
“Thank you, but I’ll just have water.”
“I’ll have the same.”
“Heh, how dull,” he said, shrugging. He took a bottle of Perrier out of the refrigerator.
“How are the M9s working out, Lt. Commander?” Borda asked in lieu of a greeting.
“There’s room for improvement, but overall, it’s been favorable. There’s still the problem of maintenance, however. Because the compatibility of certain parts is too low, our current stockpiles were reduced to nothing,” Kalinin answered briskly.
“You’re still the same as ever. But I’ll remember,” Borda said with a smile.
When people talked about Mithril’s Chief of Operations, Jerome Borda, they said that was like a good-natured uncle. He reminded people of one of those apron-wearing hot dog vendors, because of his mild demeanor.
He was almost 60 years old, but his salt-and-pepper colored hair made him appear ten years younger. Even to someone like Tessa, who was young enough to be his granddaughter, his looks were quite charming. And though it might be a little rude to the man himself, the way the skin under his eyes and the corners of his mouth drooped a little gave him the air of a cute little dog.
But that wasn’t to say that he wasn’t dignified. A regular person could guess from just meeting him once that he was a man of firm intelligence and experience, with leadership qualities and fortitude. Actually, he had been an officer in the American Navy for more than 30 years, where he had climbed the ranks from sailor to admiral. There was sorrow and grief of facing the world hidden in his eyes- and in that respect, he wasn’t a man much different from Kalinin.
“That was the Chief of Information on the phone,” he said as he poured water into the glasses. “It looks like we made them mad by kidnapping Bruno, since they had also found out that
Bruno was in Sicily. We went to the trouble of alerting Paltholon so they wouldn’t stall us.”
“Paltholon” was one of the four squadrons in the Operations Department, and normally they would have carried out the kidnapping operation. By moving the Western Pacific Fleet’s Tuatha de Danaan there, they had outwitted both Bruno and the Information Bureau. Then again, only a few people in the squadron had been moved.
“So we’ll be handing Bruno over to the Intelligence Department?” Tessa asked.
“Yes. Of course I refused, but...by the way, did you come to see the interrogation?”
“I need to know what you found out from it, since the Squadron Chief will be continuing it from here on out- your road is one of carnage. A corridor of long, grim battle fields,” Borda said, with a hint of mystery in his expression.
The one who led me to witness that scene was Admiral Borda himself, then...Tessa realized.
As soon as they had arrived, they met with a non-commissioned officer who told them “The Admiral has a little business that he has to attend to. Would you like to watch Bruno’s interrogation until then?”
Why would he show me such a thing? What would I learn from it?
Battle was neither a beautiful nor a dirty thing- she didn’t think that he would preach such a common sermon to her. Of course, when she compared herself to the Admiral or Kalinin, or many of the people there, she hadn’t seen “dirty things”. She had been fortunate in that respect.
But what this middle-aged gentleman was telling her was even more of an ambiguous concept. It was complex for being so simple. Was there not some symbolism in the fact that she couldn’t express words or logic in that situation?
An ominous hint. A melancholic miniature. Bits and pieces of things to come.
Was he not hinting about her being in that situation, and the difficult dilemma she would have to face one way or the other...? Even though she was a genius, there were principles that she couldn’t comprehend as a sixteen or seventeen-year-old girl that worked on the flip side of the phenomenon- were those principles showing themselves through the Admiral...?
“You think too much,” the Admiral said, handing the glass to Tessa. “You’ll understand either way, sooner or later.”
“...What’s going to happen to Bruno?”
“I would call for capital punishment, but this isn’t the regular army. That would be execution. Regulations have allowances for punishment by firing squad, but that hasn’t been the practice. The standard punishment is long-term confinement, until all the information he knows about Mithril’s equipment, organization, agents and such becomes old and useless.”
Tessa also knew those regulations. Imprisonment of five years or so would probably be an unending amount of time. Ten years, perhaps even fifteen. But would this organization still exist then? She suddenly became caught up in these groundless thoughts.
“This isn’t a buddy-buddy club. Penal code has to be applied. Anyway... the real punishment will be decided by the board after they’ve finished interrogating him,” Borda said, changing subjects as he sat down on the sofa opposite to them.
“Now then... I called you out here to talk about something else, as well. I think we need make some structural adjustments.”
“That’s to say...?”
“I’ve looked over the case report on the incident at Perio Island. Those two Japanese people- the girl named Kaname Chidori and Sergeant Sagara- the role those two played is really quite unbelievable. You also stressed it in your report, but it seems that they were the ones who saved the TDD-1.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“The importance of those two has become undeniable. In the matter of the ‘Whispered’, as well as in the matter of the ARX-7, it’s already come to the point where it can’t be handled as ‘one of the pending problems’.
“The Department of Intelligence has been complaining about this and that and the other about it. There’s also the issue regarding ‘Wraith’.”
“It’s about time we looked again at their situation. Wouldn’t you agree, Lt. Commander?” Borda asked.
Kalinin drooped his head slightly and replied in a reserved voice, “You’re right. However-”
“I don’t need any bureaucracy. Even if we smooth things over somehow, it won’t change the inefficiency in the way things are being done right now.”
“Your opinion, Teletha?”
“...it’s exactly as you say, but-”
A look of extreme displeasure came over Borda’s face, and he pointed straight at her.
“Very well. Now let’s talk about some concrete plans.”
♦ ♦ ♦
October 19th, 14:59 (Japan Standard Time)
Choufu-shi, Tokyo, Japan
Jindai High School
The week after exams the school held life guidance sessions.
Even though it was importantly called “Life Guidance”, it was actually more of an event to listen to the teachers as they continuously gave their long-winded sermons.
The principal said:
“-Everyone might be thinking ‘But I’m just in second year’. However, even second year students have to seriously consider what path they will take after they graduate. Especially in a time like this when there’s a recession, employers want to know about what you are learning and what abilities you have, more than just your academic background. Therefore, you should really think hard about these things, as well as your plans for the future-”
And so on and so on.
He says all that, but really... thought Kaname and the others.
The class representative said:
“-alright? Stop thinking things like ‘I’ll just take my time about getting into college or getting a job’. Those kind of thoughts lead to even worse results. What about Sumo wrestlers? Even though they try with all their might to become the sumo grand champion, most Sekitori*2 won’t be able to; but will the Sekitori who thinks ‘Just being able to become Juuryou*3 is good enough for me’ really be able to become Juuryou? Probably not. Such is the severity of society. In other words-”
And so on and so on.
But since we’re not Sumo wresters... thought Kaname and the others.
The 320-something second year students who were gathered in the gym had no ambition one way or the other.
Just as Kaname’s head was about to nod off in boredom, the final speech ended.
“...so endeavor to be more, and think about it well. We’ll go ahead and put information packets in front of the guidance office for the necessary people to take.”
They dispersed. Starting from Class 1 and going in order, the students left the gym. Because the guidance took six hours, it wasn’t long before school let out for the day.
On the way home, Kaname sat down on one of the train’s rattling seats and let out a big sigh.
“You slept well, huh, Kaname...” said Kyouko, who was sitting next to her.
In front of them stood a sullen-face Sousuke. He had dark rings under his eyes from an apparent lack of sleep, probably due to the fact that he had been working day and night since Sunday reassembling Ms. Kagurazaka’s car.
“Well of course. I can’t take that kind of guidance counseling seriously,” Kaname said, suppressing another yawn.
More than people’s opinions, she wanted to hear about practical things, such as “the average annual income for a lawyers is this much”, or “it’s about this difficult to get into this famous company”, or “just quit your dream of being an animator”, and things of that nature.
“But they also said some good things, too. It made me think a little.”
“Wha- Kyouko, you were paying attention?”
“Yeah. I started to think about myself... I mean, I was planning on getting a job after I graduated, but now I’m wondering what I should do...”
“Haaah...” Kaname let out a vague groan. For some reason right then, the profile of Kyouko’s usually childlike face looked much older than her own. She noticed the serious look in Kaname’s eyes, and flashed what seemed to be an embarrassed little smile.
“Well, I guess it wasn’t that serious. Other than that...” Kyouko started, staring at Sousuke, who was still standing in front of them.
“Sagara, I had been thinking it since earlier, but... hasn’t your hair grown out recently?”
Sousuke gave a puzzled look.
Kaname also copied Kyouko, openly staring at Sousuke as well.
His hairstyle was the same as always, an adequate but messy cut. But when they looked at it more closely, they could see that it was longer than before. It looked like the hair in the front had grown quite a bit- but you couldn’t tell from every angle.
It wasn’t to say that it looked ugly. Because of his fearless looks, the length didn’t seem that extreme. But it had grown just enough to be bothersome.
“Now that you mention it, it has...” Kaname said, prompting Sousuke to pinch a piece of his hair in one hand.
“Does it look strange?”
“No, not really, but... speaking of which, do you normally go to a salon or someplace?”
“What do you mean by salon?”
“...ah. No, I’ve never used one of those. I cut it myself.”
“With this,” he said, pulling a rather rugged combat knife out from under his uniform.
“I see... that explains it, then.”
She finally understood the reason why his hair always looked unkempt.
Just then an idea seemed to come to Kyouko, and pointing her index finger up she said in an excited voice “Hey! I just thought of something- why don’t we take Sagara to a salon? That way he could have a kind of makeover.”
“Ha ha. That would be quite...interesting.”
“Wouldn’t it? I think Rizento*4 looks pretty good.”
“No, it’s too stringent.”
“Then what about a mushroom cut? He could wear colorful glasses with that.”
“No... heh heh heh, a punch perm would be pretty funny, wouldn’t it?”
“In the real world?”
“Putting dog’s ears on him would be nice, too.”
“That’s not a barber-”
They carried on in this way, piling up the numerous possibilities.
At the start of the conversation, they seemed to be mostly joking in their proposal. However, because they had brought up the subject, Sousuke suddenly decided to take them up on their suggestion.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“Going to a barber. That’s where normal high school students get their hair cut, right?”
♦ ♦ ♦
They took the south exit out of Choufu Station, and a short walk later they came to a barbershop that had somewhat of a playful feel to it.
The barbershops in Afghanistan were very different from this... thought Sousuke as he looked at the exterior.
There were also barbershops in the troubled lands where he grew up, but Sousuke had been indifferent to such facilities until now. Now his inclination to go to the barbershop came from his own ambition.
He needed to adapt more to the lifestyle of this city.
That motive was vaguely at work. If not for what Mao had said a few days before, he might not have even bothered thinking about it. Of course, there was simple curiosity as well.
“Is this place okay?”
“Yes. I leave it to you,” he said, and the three entered the shop.
“A haircut for him, please,” Kaname said to the shop stylist that met them. At that, the stylist seemingly guessed the situation, and with a sweet smile told Sousuke
“This way, please.”
Sousuke clumsily sat down in the chair. The stylist first wrapped a towel around his neck, followed by a vinyl sheet.
“Now then, what kind of style are we going for?” the stylist asked Kaname and Kyouko, who were standing next to him.
“What do you think, Kaname?”
“Hmm... well, we better stop joking about getting a Mohican haircut or something like that.”
“Oh, the Mohican’s a nice one. I’ve always wanted to try doing it once myself,” the stylist joked.
While Kaname and Kyouko laughed, they discussed as to what to do. After talking for about three minutes, they finally settled on something safe.
“Well, just cut enough to where you can see the eyebrows. Since there’s a lot of hair in the back, just even it out. Is that okay, Sousuke?”
“Okay then. I’ll leave him in your hands, and we’ll be waiting over there,” she said, and with a small wave, she and Kyouko went to the waiting area.
Somehow, Sousuke felt helpless. No, it wasn’t just that.
He had a bad feeling about this. Even though there wasn’t anything strange going on, he was bothered somewhere deep down.
Is it my imagination...?
He didn’t know. His intuition was often out of place here in this peaceful city. It was okay to say that he couldn’t trust it most of the time. There was no telling how many times he had messed up by trusting it...
“...there now. Time to wash, Sir.”
He started to pour some shampoo from a bottle onto Sousuke’s head.
“Wai...” Sousuke began to say, but then held back.
“Never mind... please continue.”
The stylist gave a doubtful look, but put some shampoo on the top of his head. Bubbles quickly began to form as he massaged Sousuke’s hair. A complete stranger, a man whom he had never met before, was pressing his fingers vigorously against Sousuke’s scalp.
“It doesn’t itch anywhere, does it?”
“...No,” he answered shortly, although truthfully it itched all over.
He felt uneasy. He felt horribly uneasy.
What if the contents of this bottle were some kind of transdermal poison? Or the stylist had some kind of poison stingers hidden in his fingers? What if he had a small automatic pistol hidden underneath that white coat?
He would have no way of defending himself.
Don’t worry. This is just ordinary soap... he’s just an ordinary barber... Sousuke told himself.
The concept that this barber was an assassin was just nonsense. Since the one who chose this shop was Kaname, and he had decided only earlier to come here on a whim, it wasn’t as if an enemy targeting either him or Kaname would have been able to plan an ambush.
“O-kay, this way, please,” the stylist called to Sousuke, as he ran hot water in the washbasin in front of him.
“So I can rinse out the shampoo.”
He somehow seemed to being telling Sousuke to put his head in the sink.
But if he did that, his field of vision would become zero. It would furthermore expose his defenseless neck to this stranger, making it easy for him to do something like snap his spinal cord with a weapon, or thrust a syringe into him. Or there might even be an enemy lurking outside the shop somewhere.
“Is it absolutely necessary to do that?” The stylist was surprised, and gave Sousuke a troubled smile.
“Well, of course it is. I can’t cut your hair like this. Okay, this way now.”
Now overcome with dreadful mental anguish, he slowly leaned his body forward and put his head into the washbasin. Underneath the sheet, he pulled his automatic pistol out of its holster, which comforted him a little.
“How’s the water?”
“...normal,” he answered, but he was so troubled now that he wasn’t even aware of the temperature of the water.
If he let down his guard for even a second, wouldn’t this man try to take his life? Wasn’t his demand of “make yourself defenseless” kind of strange? What if someone had used some unimaginable trick to outsmart him, arriving at the barbershop earlier and pretending to be the stylist? Or what if there were other enemies who would come after him the moment he was vulnerable?
That’s right. He had no reason to be safe. Even now, there were people still after Kaname. If he were to die here, who would protect her...?
“Okay, all done here. Now then-”
As he wrapped a towel around Sousuke’s head, he slowly moved him back to his seat. Sousuke wasn’t able to see because of the towel, and the way that the stylist was briskly scrubbing his head to dry his hair was torture.
“Time to cut the ha-ir,” the stylist said, and snipping the scissors, he easily caught up some of Sousuke’s hair. A man of unknown origin was standing behind him holding a sharp object.
An alarm went off violently somewhere in the back of Sousuke’s mind.
This is bad. Get a hold of yourself. At this rate, you’ll-
It was too much.
His body moved on its own. Just as the scissors got close to his head, Sousuke grabbed the man’s arm and rising from his chair slammed him into the mirror in front of them.
“Wh-what are you-”
“Don’t move!!” Sousuke yelled sharply. He looked over at the startled employees and customers, waving his gun in their direction.
But there were no enemies to speak of. The stylist, whom Sousuke now had his gun pressed against, was whining in a thin voice and struggling against him, not understanding what just happened.
There was no threat. Neither in the shop, nor outside.
His intuition had been wrong again. As usual.
Kaname had left the waiting area. She was headed straight for him, holding a rolled-up fashion magazine in one hand. No doubt about it, she was angry.
Correction. There is one threat...
Sousuke readily accepted his fate, and in the next instant the makeshift club came swinging down on his head.
♦ ♦ ♦
Kaname was still mad on the way home.
“We took you because you said to... why do you always have to blow up like that!?”
“I’m ashamed of myself,” Sousuke said dejectedly, following after her.
After the incident at the shop, he had joined Kaname in apologizing to the barber who told them “I’m sorry, but could you go somewhere else? No-no, of course you don’t need to pay,” and acting as if he were handling someone in the mob, he kicked them out. Afterwards, Kyouko had said “Guess it can’t be helped,” and laughing, parted with them on the way home.
“But it was too dangerous to be helpless in a situation with a stranger who had a sharp object,” Sousuke explained.
“Oh, I see. Then in that case, don’t say ‘Let’s go to the barber.’ You were getting a haircut- didn’t you imagine that’s how it would have been from the start? Would you have hurt that barber, who had done nothing wrong, if he had made one false step? Why don’t you get a grip and stop thinking that everyone’s an enemy or an assassin!”
“I can’t do that,” he stated firmly. “There are enemies out there. That’s a fact. It’s not strange that they would come to attack you.”
“That’s...” Kaname started but faltered.
If he had not pointed this out, it seems she would have forgotten. It was true, she was a target. All because she was one of the “Whispered”, whose reason for existing she didn’t know.
“Protecting you is my first priority here,” he stated clearly, and Kaname no longer felt the urge to criticize him.
“But... nothing’s happened since then,” she said in an almost whining voice.
“I know, but I can’t let my guard down.”
“For heaven’s sake...”
Since the incident on the field trip, there hadn’t been one instance where these so-called “enemies” had directly targeted her, or set up any other kinds of traps. At least, not to her knowledge. She had been caught up in some dangerous situations since then,
but those were merely “in the wrong place at the wrong time” scenarios.
Here in Tokyo, every day was peaceful. Well, her life might be a little noisier than a normal high school student’s thanks to Sousuke’s antics.
Were there really enemies out there...? It wasn’t just Sousuke and Mithril making more of a fuss than necessary...?
Kaname’s doubts were only natural.
Unconsciously, the two slackened their pace.
The residential area was very quiet now that it was dusk. Autumn was deepening, and the air was growing chillier. The evening quickly cooled down from the setting sun.
“Half-a-year has already passed...”
She meant since Sousuke first appeared in front of her in the spring. It would be six months soon.
“It’s gone by quickly, hasn’t it?”
“But you haven’t improved at all, Sousuke.”
“Really,” she said with a chuckle, and Sousuke cocked his head a little in confusion. In the end, his hair was uncut, wet and ruffled up. He looked somewhat dispirited, reminding her of a tired stray dog. He looked pretty bad. Leaving him like this would almost be irresponsible.
“Hey...” she said suddenly, after thinking for a minute.
“Why don’t you stop by my place? Then I could finish giving you a haircut.”
Her proposal was very unexpected to him. In rare fashion, Sousuke’s eyes widened and blinked a few times in surprise.
“Do you not want to?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just...”
“Are you worried that I’ll attack you?” she asked, and he shook his head instantly.
“It’s nothing like that,” he denied insistently, feeling happy that she would do it for him. “I’m not worried- you’re an exception.”
Even though Kaname’s apartment was big enough for a family to live in, the bathroom was small and cramped.
Mocking the way the barber spoke, Kaname said “Alright, Sir, if you would please sit down,” carrying a chair into the bathroom.
Sousuke complied willingly, and Kaname wrapped a towel and vinyl sheet around his neck. She had already finished changing and was now wearing a light T-shirt and jeans.
“You doing okay?”
“Yes, there’s no problem.”
“O-kay then, let’s do this. Heh heh heh heh...” she said with a mischievous smile, taking the scissors in her hand.
Sousuke then became uneasy for an entirely different reason than enemies or assassins.
“Chidori, have you... do you have experience cutting hair?” he asked.
“Nope,” she answered frankly, “but I’ve played around with Kyouko’s hair before. This is my first time cutting, though.”
“Don’t worry. It’s better than you cutting your own hair, at least.”
“Please don’t cut my ears off.”
“Okay, I’ll try not to if at all possible,” and with a laugh, she pinched up some of his hair and cut. Then again. She was a
little hesitant to start out with, but then gradually got into a rhythm, snipping here and there.
“Hey, Sousuke...” Kaname said without stopping, “Did you miss school the other day because you had a job?”
“Did you have to fight again?”
“Yes... what about it?”
“Nothing. Did you get hurt?”
“Just some light scratches. It’s not a problem.”
For a while, she was silent as she continued cutting his hair. She would look at his head in the mirror, occasionally muttering “mmm...” to herself. She would then make a difficult face and go back in with the scissors. The cut hair had fallen off of the vinyl sheet and was scattered all over the place.
“Well, I...” Kaname uttered finally, “I heard from Tessa that you’re not the only one protecting me.”
This was the first time she had brought up the subject. She had probably been thinking about it ever since their conversation on the way home.
“But... it doesn’t feel that way at all, does it? I mean, it doesn’t seem real sometimes. It’s like... everything that’s happened up till now, as well as the whole Mithril thing, has all been a lie.”
Sousuke’s mission here in Tokyo had simply become “Guard Kaname”. However, that didn’t mean that he was the only one keeping an eye on her. Mithril’s Intelligence Department also had sent an agent who was always hidden somewhere nearby. It was thanks to this agent that Sousuke was able to leave Kaname to go on overseas missions.
Sousuke, Kalinin, and everyone else in the Operations Department called this agent “Wraith”.
“Have you met this person before?”
“No. I’ve never talked to him, either.”
“Do you know who it is?”
“No. Probably someone you don’t know.”
“I wonder if I can trust him.”
“...that’s to say, him and Mithril and everything.” A heavy, uneasy feeling hung in those words. Although Kaname was normally upbeat and cheerful, she was frightened- Sousuke was able to pick up on it just then. If he seriously thought about Kaname’s present situation and how she was being targeted, he knew that she would only be able to depend on Mithril. The police couldn’t help her.
“Of course you can. You should trust him,” he answered, but without any faith in his own words.
Wraith was always far away.
He was outside of the school while she was in class. After she returned home, he was several blocks away from her apartment. Without being too close or too far, he was guarding her from somewhere. It was because of this that Sousuke didn’t have to stay stuck by her side day and night.
This agent never responded to them, though. No matter what happened.
Even when Kaname herself was in danger, Wraith wouldn’t act. So far, when she had been mixed up in problems on the street, gone into unknown characters’ houses, even when the terrorist group A21 had abducted her, Wraith hadn’t moved. It always ended up that Kaname was safe afterwards, but Sousuke was extremely irritated after these incidents.
Why doesn’t he move?
Why doesn’t he come to protect her in my place?
In his written reports to his superiors, Sousuke had repeatedly stated “I have serious doubts about the ability of the agent from the Intelligence Department, code name: ‘Wraith’.” However, his reply was always the same: “Under Investigation. Resume Mission as before.” Neither Kalinin nor Tessa had tried to explain this decision. “It’s okay, just carry on as usual,” they would say persistently. That’s why Sousuke always felt very anxious when he had to leave Kaname. Just leave everything to Wraith ...those were his orders, but he didn’t believe that Wraith was carrying out his duty.
Was Wraith patiently waiting for the real enemy to appear? What if he was just using Kaname as bait until a bigger fish nibbled and no matter how the float bobbled up and down, he had no intentions of reeling it in? If that were so, he understood why Wraith hadn’t shown himself before now.
No, that’s absurd.
If Kaname were to die before then, wouldn’t he lose everything he was working for? It was horrifying to remember, but up until now she had been exposed to many dangers where she would have died if he had made a mistake. Even then, Wraith had not lifted a finger to help. What was the reason for that...?
He didn’t know.
Suspicious, coldhearted logic was at work somewhere. Despite the Intelligence Department’s assurances, were they not hiding something from him...?
“Sousuke?” Kaname called out to him, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“What’s wrong? You seem to be thinking about something.”
“About what I just said, don’t worry too much, okay? I know I said that, but...” she stopped cutting and hesitated for a moment. It was almost like she was working up some courage after that- and looking away from the mirror, she said:
“I trust you completely.”
A strange sensation overcame him. It was an unknown sensation, warm and tender, and it felt as if his heart had suddenly tightened in his chest- that was the feeling. His face was hot, and he felt as if something were welling up from deep within his body.
Why, he wondered. There was something sentimental about it.
What was this kind of feeling called...?
He couldn’t remember.
“...thank you,” he barely managed to say.
“You’re welcome,” she said in a in a relieved tone of voice, and resumed cutting.
“...let’s see, could you turn to your right a little?”
“Not that way, the other way.”
She pressed her thin fingers softly against Sousuke’s cheek. The sensation of her cold fingertips on his skin felt good, like a small breeze drifting through a dense tropical forest.
In the corner of his eye, he could see his black hair and Kaname’s white T-shirt moving. It was a pretty cheap T-shirt made of material so thin that you could see through it in the light. As she moved in front of him to try to cut the hair on his forehead, the contour of her body from her armpit down to her hip was slightly visible through the shirt. It was a sleek and slender curve. Sousuke quickly looked down as if he had just looked at the sun.
“Heh heh, I’m really getting the hang of this now...” she said, her style becoming more refined from when she started.
She cut his hair with a pair of round-tipped scissors, and then used a razor to even it out in the back. After she was finished cutting, she began diligently combing his hair- as she did so, Sousuke became drowsy.
What’s wrong with me... he thought.
Even though there’s a person holding a sharp object this close to me, I’m getting sleepy.
I am. Me.
I can’t believe it.
But, what is this indescribable ease that I’m feeling?
Chidori. Perhaps I’m-
“Okay, now to rinse off.”
She pushed his head down into the sink and doused it in cold water. His drowsiness was quickly cured.
“Not too shabby, I think,” she nodded, turning the dryer on.
“Doesn’t look like it changed much to me,” Sousuke commented, looking in the mirror with a serious expression.
His hair was shorter than it was before to be sure, but he didn’t think that his overall look had changed at all. He looked as he had just a month earlier. His hair was still as disheveled and all over the place as ever. And the length on both sides seemed to be asymmetrical now.
“What are you talking about? It looks very different.”
“Yup. It looks much better. Listen to what everyone says at school tomorrow about it.”
After one more hard look in the mirror, Sousuke stood up.
“In any case, I appreciate it. I’ll cut your hair next time when I get the chance.”
“That’s a definite negative,” Kaname said, grimacing.
He helped her clean up the bathroom, and after they ate a light meal, he said goodbye.
He somehow regretted having to leave.
It was dark when he left her apartment. It was probably past eight already, but there were still many people out on the sidewalks: business men coming home from work, elementary school students coming back from cram school*5, couples walking their dogs. He cut through the flow of these people, and headed towards his apartment in the building across the street from Kaname’s.
For some reason, his step was lighter. No, he was in high spirits.
His morale had been lifted... that was probably the best way to phrase it. Just a few hours earlier, his mind had been filled with thoughts of Wraith, work, and what Mao had said about his future, there shouldn’t have been any room in there for anything else.
But it was different now. ‘Why not go for it’ was what his feelings had turned into.
Guarding Kaname. Adapting to society. Training at Merida Island. As well as combat. He would try to manage them all as best as he could.
She was depending on him. What would happen if he didn’t have confidence in himself?
He could worry about this stuff next week.
He still had a mountain of work to do. First, he would go home and send today’s report to Merida Island. Next he would get some equipment and weapons and check the sensors set up around
the neighborhood. After he finished with that, he would then study for his make-up exams.
He quickly returned home, turned on his satellite-link laptop computer, and typed up a simple report in five minutes. After running it through a strong encryption program, he immediately sent it. It wasn’t long before he received the message “Transmission Complete”, along with another, separate encrypted file.
The file was an “Orders Message” from headquarters.
TOP PRIORITY ORDERS (98J005-3128)
From = Western Pacific Fleet Headquarters (Merida Island Base)
To = Uruz 7/ Sergeant Sousuke Sagara
A: Operations, Command, and Fleet headquarters have cancelled current operation orders 98E001-3128 (Operation name: Guardian Angel) as of 1500 hours (GMT).
B: Uruz 7 is to withdraw from location safe-house and take route 38 back to Merida Island Base with all due speed.
C: A letter of resignation is to be sent to the point of infiltration – Jindai High School – reasons for withdrawal are left to Uruz 7’s discretion.
D: Guard duty of Kaname Chidori will be taken over by Agent code name “Wraith”.
E: Contact with Kaname Chidori is prohibited as of today 1500 hours (GMT).
Sousuke rubbed his eyes and read the message again.
Its contents didn’t change. No matter how many times he read it, or how many ways he tried to interpret it, it was the same as before.
His mission of guarding Kaname was over for good- that’s what it said.
“Operations Headquarters” meant that it was the decision of characters who outranked both Tessa and Kalinin, so no protest that Sousuke could make would have any effect.
Sousuke stood there motionless staring at the LCD screen for several minutes. It may have even been more than ten minutes.
There was only the sound of his teeth grinding against each other.
“Guard duty of Kaname Chidori will be taken over by Agent code name “Wraith”.”
Before he knew it, he had slammed his fist down on top of the computer. Its metal frame bent and keys went flying up into the air, scattering all over the place. His fit of rage continued to spur him on.
He left the computer, which now smelled like smoke, and headed straight to the veranda. He slid open the glass door, grabbed the handrail with both hands and surveyed the neighborhood.
“Where are you...?” he muttered, his shoulders heaving in anger.
It was a residential area at night. There was nothing out of the ordinary, just a quiet night-
“Come out, Wraith! Come out and speak to me!!” Sousuke yelled at the top of his lungs.
He may have been mad, but there was no point in this. Even if he vented to someone, his orders wouldn’t change... he understood that, but could not keep quiet.
“I know you’re here somewhere! Why don’t you answer me!?”
Unexpected orders from Mithril. An expressionless message is read back over an LCD screen. Sousuke's feelings blow up in a violent rage.
His voice resounded throughout the neighborhood. The people passing by on the streets below looked up and asked, “What’s that?”
There was no response. Sousuke knew that just yelling like this would never get Wraith to show himself, so he took a different approach.
“My name is Sergeant Sousuke Sagara! My post is Mithril Operations’ Western Pacific Fleet’s Tuatha de Danaan! I was ordered to guard a certain person, and was sent here to Tokyo on April 20th! I can think of the following reasons why she would be targeted! One! She’s one of a special group of people called the ‘Whispered’! Two! The ‘Whispered’ are believed to have connections to the military, but the information is not yet known as to-”
Suddenly the phone in his room started ringing.
He quickly stopped yelling and returned inside, calmly picking up the phone and pressing the talk button. The other party shouted at him right away.
“You bastard, what the hell are you doing!?”
It was a deep, synthesized voice. He was using an electronic voice changer. He sounded like a monster, but Sousuke knew that he had called him out of anger.
He was speaking to Wraith- the other agent who had been sent by the Intelligence Department.
“Where’s the agent who’s shouting classified information across the area? This is clearly interfering with the operation!”
“You were ignoring me,” Sousuke replied in a cold voice.
“You should be able to understand the danger in us talking like this. Uruz 7, what you’re doing right now is-”
“Answer me. Is your mission to guard Kaname Chidori, or simply to observe her?”
“You aren’t qualified for that information.”
“Then I guess you don’t mind if I go back out on the veranda and continue shouting out what I know for the rest of the night. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
“Don’t try to threaten me, Uruz 7. I’ll file an official complaint to the Operations Department myself.”
“Do what you want. But you’ll answer my question.”
Sousuke heard the other party click his tongue. After a moment’s hesitation, Wraith seemed to have gotten the idea that Sousuke was serious and replied:
“Guarding her, of course.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s up to you what you believe, but the mission I was given, code name ‘Angel’, is being handed over to my department, and you are interfering with it. It’s as simple as that.”
“Then why haven’t you helped her? She’s been in dangerous situations many times up until now.”
“Those were just incidents with petty gangsters. There’s no reason for me to come out for street quarrels.”
“I see. Then how do you explain the A21 incident? Even then you didn’t try to rescue her.”
After he said this, Sousuke suddenly heard him say “you” ...or maybe it was “you people”.
“What’s the matter? Answer me.”
“Even though I had intended to let the enemy move around, the situation went beyond my control. You also made me nervous during the fight at the Fushimi Academy, but the situation was resolved without my interference. It seemed that at both times no one recognized the girl’s importance. It’s the same situation with the gangsters.”
“You’re just twisting the truth. It seems to me that you don’t have any serious intentions of protecting her.”
“I don’t care if you like me or not, just as long as you don’t bother me,” the synthetic voice scoffed at him. “The Intelligence Department should have been in charge of this operation and everything after the Shun On incident from the very start. The Operations Department butted in there, so we let you stay. Your people say that you’re effective as a decoy, but you’ve been nothing but an annoyance to me. You’ve posed as a problem so many times that I’ve thought of killing you myself.”
“It’s not too late now. Do it.”
“I was just kidding. I don’t think I’d get out unharmed in a fight with you. Though you have allowed me my favorite pastime.”
“Since I sit undercover at a distance pointing my rifle in your direction, I can make you extremely uneasy just by moving the bolt on my machine gun. You have a magnificent instinct for battle, but it’s because of that that you screw up so much. I enjoyed myself today, too, watching you at the barbershop.”
“Don’t get so mad. It’s a done deal now,” he said with a hint of triumph in his voice. “Either way, the fun ends today. You are to return to base and get back to your original missions so I can continue with my job. Both of us are professionals, so why don’t we stop this petty argument?”
“I can’t do that. What about Chidori’s safety?”
“That’s no longer your concern. You’ve officially been ordered to withdraw. You’re really not planning on disobeying orders, are you?”
“I...” Sousuke faltered.
“Don’t forget that Mithril is the one that put you here. You’re not really a high school student; you’re just a mercenary- an assassin. Your family history, school history, all of it was forged. Everything about you is a lie.”
“From the very beginning, you’ve criticized me, but do you really believe that someone like you can protect her? For six months you haven’t been able to adapt to Japanese society at all. Your being here is an unnecessary risk to the girl.”
Sousuke felt the impact of these words. All at once it felt as if the air around him had grown heavy and sticky.
Wraith had a point.
“Your guard duty has been worse than third-rate. The girl will only get hurt eventually, not to mention the innocent bystanders who may get involved, as well.”
“Playtime’s at an end. Follow your orders and return to base,” and without a word from Sousuke, Wraith hung up.
Sousuke dejectedly put down the phone.
Shortly thereafter, feelings of incompetence and helplessness came crashing down on him.
1. Kanji are the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing.
2. Sekitori are ranking sumo wrestlers in the senior or junior divisions.
3. Juuryou is a junior sumo wrestler.
4. Rizento haircut is kind of like a gang style, think John Travolta’s hair in Grease.
5. Cram school is a school that students go to after regular school in order to prepare for entrance exams.