Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 5

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Chapter 5 - Calm Before The Storm

"You know, this would've been a lot easier if you just tell us." The young man who once introduced himself as a Knight-Justiciar asked. The sight of his expression was blurred by tears, but his tone revealed obvious boredom -- frustration that his time was being wasted over such distasteful endeavors.

"I d-don't know! I seriously really really don't know! I really wish I knew so I could tell you but I don't! I swear I really, really swear! I'm just a college student on my way to, on my way back to school--"

A sigh came from his hazy figure as he stepped forward once again, his fingers twirling a metal rod before grasping it firmly...

"--O please don't please pleaseplease don-AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

She felt as though her entire chest spontaneously combusted. The surging electricity that poured through the contact point just below the breasts lit every nerve in the front torso on fire. The pain was beyond intense. The agony was worse than intolerable. Yet the torment still sought to outdo itself by reaching beyond the physical, denying her even the sanctuary of her own mind. Broken images flew through her mind's eye, like watching falling paper from a torn scrapbook as some foreign entity ripped through her consciousness, tearing through page upon page of memories without care.

The rod soon broke contact. The pain dimmed but didn't stop as seizures continued to wrack her body...

"Look girl, just as I've told you over and over -- I'm not stupid. I'm certainly not stupid enough to believe in that impossible tale you claim to be truth. So how about you tell me the facts already, and I don't have to hear your retarded screaming!?"

Wheezing from the breathlessness of pain, sobbing from the hopelessness of depair...

Then, the door on the far side of the room turned, and a larger figure stepped into the room. His silhouette was bleary in her eyes like everything else, but the swagger in his walk was unmistakable.

Overwhelming fear froze her every thought at once as his voice rang about the room:

"Hey... still at it?"

"You say it like I want to be here doing this junk," the knight quipped back.

"Shouldn't you be happy to see me then?"

"Not at all, you sicko. But she's freaking hopeless, so you can take her; enjoy your perversion!" The young knight remarked in disgust as he walked straight towards the door, haphazardly tossing his rod onto a nearby counter as he went.

As the door slammed behind his exit, the larger guy reached towards the table and picked up something that seemed like a flexible twig -- a long riding crop, armed with functions even more insidious than the rod.

His voice was dripping with sadistic, almost-gleeful anticipation:

"Now... shall we begin again?"

The hand raised the crop up high before the arm came slashing down, striking the left ribs underneath the forcibly raised arms and...

-----

Kannon bolted awake from the cylindrical sleep module, almost smashing her head into the glass cover before it could fully retract. Her face, her hands, her entire body was covered with sweat despite the perfectly regulated environment within the device.

It's just a memory. It's over. It's in the past... Don't look at yourself. Don't examine. Just let time heal everything...

She repeated the same words to herself, over and over, again and again, while her mind regained strength and shoved all these unnecessary thoughts and feelings aside, gradually... but surely.

...I must have slept too much. Time to get back to work.


----- * * * -----


"So that makes the fusion cores, the gravitic inductors--"

"Induction drives!"

"Right right. Then the hyperspace tunneler, and the inertial compensators... What else they still want info on?"

Korey tilted his head back and brushed his long silky hair aside as he answered Haidar:

"The sensor suite, all of them: gravitic, electromagnetic, radioactive, biological..."

"Ehhh! How long is that going to take!"

"Aren't most of them just located in the nose section, Kannon?"

"Kannon is currently unavailable, please leave a message." Kannon responded absentmindedly as she finished adding another reference label to the detailed, three-dimensional scan of the hyperspace tunneler drive before looking back up from the AR window.

"...Sorry, wasn't paying attention. You seek aid from the guardian of knowledge?"

Haidar blinked, several times.

"You don't have a multiple personality disorder or anything do you?"

"Only if you have a borderline personality disorder," she casually bounced it back.

"I clearly don't have a psych problem, whatever that is."

"And I'm clearly a normal person." Kannon replied in all seriousness.

Haidar was about to retort before Korey cut him off, again.

"Well, normality aside, Haidar has finished his scan of the inertial compensators. The last on the list is the sensors suite. Can you give us a rundown of where they are?"

"Uh... give me a minute -- most of them are in the nose, but let me check the manual's diagrams and overlay them for you."

"Thank you~"

Kannon opened yet another window to conjure up a clean three-dimensional structural scan model of the ship. Then she turned over to the AR window that had the TSV-9's operation and maintenance manual open and dragged it over to the hologram with her right index finger. After bookmarking her current spot, she jumped over to the sensors section to sync the manual's labelled section diagrams with the scan model.

Because of the risk that this mission might fail, Haidar had made a full scan of the TSV-9 survey craft that brought Kannon across the wormhole as soon as they escaped the Hadrian. But the engineers and ethaneers (ether engineers) from the 1st District headquarters who were reverse-engineering it based on the data had claimed that the scan resolutions of the critical components weren't detailed enough.

Hence, the three of them spent the last two hours working in the Somerset's common room: Haidar casted the spells, Korey guided the details since he was actually a starship engineer -- technically an advanced ethaneer -- and Kannon simply gave them a pointer every now and then. She also busied herself trying to answer some of the questions those same engineers sent her, many of which were simply too far out of her league.

"Too bad we couldn't just teleport this thing to them," commented Haidar as he sat down on the nearest couch. "A single casting would suffice at this mass. Those techies can then unshrink it over there and play around with it themselves!"

"Teleport?" Kannon absentmindedly asked as she focused on her task.

"Yeah! You know. Poof! From this end. Bam! On the other end. Instantaneous spatial jump. Done!"

"Convenient."

"But it's too far!"

Wait a second--

She looked up as the word finally registered.

If they have teleportation magic...

"What's the range limit?"

"For me? about seventeen hundred kilometers," Haidar proudly raised his chest.

That's definitely too short for interplanetary travel. But...

"Then why didn't we just jump onto the Somerset directly back aboard the Hadrian?"

"You wanna get scrambled? Everyone knows that military facilities have Astral Jamming wards, assuming it's not too large to simply slap on a Lockdown ward."

"Most bases also have perimeter and compartmentalized Barrier wards that will bounce teleportation spells," Korey answered in a far gentler voice from the kitchen. "Companies and personal homes usually have one or the other as well. You see, magic has gifted us with much in this society, but it also meant that we must ward against magical crimes."

"...Wouldn't all those wards make teleportation spells dangerous to use?"

"That's why there are laws and certifications regarding teleportation. Most public locations have homing markers to help teleportation spells targeting the area lock on and synchronize. It's also usually advisable to check a beacon's status over the public network first, or scry it if it's a private beacon."

A shrill whirling noise came from the kitchen as Korey finished his explanation and started up a blender.

"The spell itself also has a few built-in safeguards to avoid collisions," Haidar added. "Accidents do still happen, but only because someone screwed up. Don't worry! I'm an expert! I'll give you the smoothest first-time teleportation experience you'll ever have!"

"Like that time when we ended up in a trash depository?" Korey teasingly called over the blender's noise.

"That only happened once! And I only read the marker code one off! Anyone could have made that mistake!"

And wasn't there only one first time? Kannon thought back, late as usual.

"What about the time when we landed in a pond?"

"That was caused by the wrong coordinates!"

"Or when you landed in the Captain's lap?"

"That never happened! Don't mix me into your homoerotic fantasies!"

"And when you fell on top of Lysette in a convenient groping position?"

"That was before I found out what a bitc-- I mean..."

"Well then you sorry excuse for a living bag of stinking meat..." Lysette's voice resounded from just outside the doors that opened a split second ago. "I hope you have your epitaph written already."

The vicious mockery sounded perfectly like Lysette; yet somehow Kannon knew it wasn't really her...

Haidar instantly spun around and stared at the doorway in shock and fear. But instead of Lysette, it was Kaplan who walked in, trying hopelessly to hide his grin behind a serious face.

"Damnit XO, knock it off with your Ventriloquism spells!"

"XO that was perfect timing!" Korey followed loudly with gleeful enthusiasm, easily lifting the irritation left in the air by Haidar's tone. "But you spoiled it too fast! You should have followed it up with an illusion in that situation!"

"I don't have time to play silly jokes for that long," Kaplan remarked as he grabbed three bottles of cappuccino from the fridge and turned to leave the room. But his stern words weren't fooling anyone when traces of a smile still lingered in his expression.

"Awww comeon~! You're an illusionist! With that kind of talent you have to learn how to pull quality practical jokes!"

"Hey don't use me to teach him how!" Haidar retorted loudly. But rather than being angry like he sounded, a faint grin also worked itself onto his face.

Kannon couldn't help but giggle as Kaplan left the common room without a word, waving his right hand backwards as if wishing the two good luck.

"Don't encourage him!" Haidar shouted as he turned towards her.

"But~ the sweet bickering of a married couple is quite romantic too~"

"Aren't we just perfect together?" Korey grinned with a cute gesture, tilting his head to one side and clapping his hands diagonally beside his cheeks.

"Oy! Stop it already!"

"But he's so cold during the day~ yet last night in bed he--"

"OY! Don't say completely misleading and disgusting things with such a straight face!" Haidar shouted as he leaped from his seat. His annoyed face was so red that all Korey and Kannon had to do was stare at him and then smirk at each other before bursting into laughter.

"Okay okay we're not married... yet--"

"Knock it off already!"

"--But we did go through training together," Korey proudly explained as he walked towards Kannon from the kitchen. His hands carried two large glass cups, each filled with some white, creamy drink and decorated with chopped pineapples and a cherry on top.

"Haidar was the best in the class! ...But only at magic," he chuckled before stopping next to her and handing her one of the drinks. "Here, try some of this."

"Thank you. What is it?" She asked as she took the cold glass. Much of the drink was simply crushed ice mixed with some kind of milk; a large straw has already been inserted.

"Pina Colada, Aaruvian style. Try it. I think you'll like it~"

Kannon took the straw and began sipping from it. She had coconut milk before, and there was definitely something strange in this drink compared to the usual coconut drinks. But it was also cold, refreshing, just sweet enough, and simply delicious. Her mind relaxed as the headaches brought by those engineering questions began to ease away.

"Good, isn't it?"

"Most scrumptious~!" Kannon responded with her father's favorite reply. "Thank you very much!"

"You're most welcome~" Korey replied as he extended the other cup to Haidar, who accepted it with a nod of appreciation before happily declaring:

"Of course it's good! It's Korey's iced curry--"

"It's not curry!"

"Sure it is. It's got tons of coconuts in it!"

Sighing audibly, Korey grabbed his own drink from the kitchen before returning to change the topic.

"Well... as I was saying, Haidar here was a real prodigy at magic. But he was... somewhat inadequate at everything else except physical training. On the other hand, my magic potential wasn't too high--"

"By that you mean they sucked! So did your athletic scores!"

"--Just barely made the cutoff for auxilia. But I was pretty good with both the applied sciences and the social courses. You see, together we simply made the perfect combination!"

Kannon nodded and turned towards Haidar:

"...Is that why you seem to be the team's main caster? Disintegration, teleportation, fire support--"

"--Scrying, warding, dispelling... etcera etcera," Haidar continued the list. "Other than illusion, which Kaplan is better at, and enchantment, which the Captain specializes in, I pretty much take care of all our other needs. I was an ex-Knight after all."

"...Ex-Knight? Early retirement?"

"Ha I wish!"

"He was originally in the Citadel Knights' program," Korey explained as he leaned against the wall besides Haidar's sofa. "But he couldn't quite get along with their rules--"

"--And their pompous attitudes," Haidar cut in defiantly.

"--So they dropped him back down to the auxilia program."

"...Aren't those just classes for generalist magic support?" Kannon asked in-between sipping on the drink, trying to remember the brief description from the ship's database. For some reason, she was starting to feel drowsy. Her head was becoming heavier and her face was also heating up.

"Not quite," replied Korey. "The auxilia program is the Republic's generalist magic education program. Those in the military who graduated from it are typically seen as support mages compared to the magical prowess of the Knights. But most mages in the Republic were once trained as auxilia. Many of us still have our own schools of specialization."

"Oy Korey, I think we ought to start at the beginning." Haidar interjected before climbing onto the back of the sofa he sat on and launching into his own explanation: "Basically, the military trains four types of personnel in terms of magic grades." He raised his right hand, thumb hidden behind the palm as he counted off each finger:

"First, you've got the marines, operators, engineers, etcera etcera. They account for over half of the populace and have virtually no magical affinity -- magic conductive nerves and all that. They can only use everyday ether-tech items with the help of commercial ether crystals, but that doesn't extend to the magic-gobbling military stuff. That's why marines have to rely on heavy powered armor and bulky equipment to make up for it."

"Then, there's the grenadiers, pilots, ethaneers, and so forth," Korey followed up as Haidar pressed down a second finger. "They're thirty-one percent of the population and just barely attuned to magic, usually blessed by one to nine magically conductive nerve circuits that links up to their soul, capable of processing some mana to ether. They don't usually have the affinity for serious spellcasting, but enough to operate our basic common equipment like the Comm Rings and Vector Shields. Like us, they also learn to charge personal ether crystals for backup power."

So... since my Communication Ring, my utility belt, the personal gravity field generator in my boots, and others are all still working, I must have at least some magical ability, considered Kannon.

"Third, you've got the auxilia, devicers, and their hybrid: dragoons -- pretty much our entire team." Haidar said after taking back the proverbial baton. "We represent around fifteen percent, basically the average mages with double-digits in conductive nerves, and can actually cast decent spells, usually in a wide variety of supportive roles. We also receive training on a lot of things, but..."

"Jack of all trades, master of none," Korey stated with one finger raised. "Although not always -- there are some who specialize in one thing and barely dabble in the rest."

"Lastly--"

"Lastly, there are the knights," Korey took over from Haidar with a sympathetic nod. "They are people both interested and gifted in magic, with at least a hundred nerve conduits and available to no more than one percent of the populace. They're taught the Republic's most advanced magic -- spells powerful enough to pose a significant danger to public security. Furthermore, many of them also have partial Arvitor blood. That's why the selection process is quite strict, and requires not merely the demonstration of performance but also state loyalty and lawful dedication. After graduation, they basically enroll into one of the three Knightly Orders depending on their district -- the Citadels, the Justiciars, and the Cross -- and are tracked by them for life. Haidar had spent nearly a year on the Citadel program before he was dropped to auxilia. It's really no surprise that he's by far our best spellcaster, not to mention one of the best within our entire organization."

"Still I say -- good riddance! What dedication!? More like as long as they play by their own laws!" Haidar spat out in disgust.

Kannon felt herself shivering as memories of the torturous time aboard star fortress Hadrian pierced the strange fog that has been collecting in her mind. Haidar was totally right. It was like those Justiciars didn't even care about what methods they used as long as they received what they wanted. Yet in a way, the sheer amount of venom in Haidar's voice as he spoke of the knights was surprising. She couldn't help but wonder how a person with such personal values of morality ended up joining a black ops unit.

What about Korey?

Unless he had another side to himself just like the Captain and Lysette did, Kannon found it simply odd to see such a gentle person in the military, let alone special ops.

"Well the Orders do have their own ways of doing things," Korey shrugged with a disapproving expression. "The 2nd District's Judges especially have a tradition of... putting themselves above the law."

Before Haidar could retort with his opened mouth, the doors to the common room flew open as Captain Arkadi walked in.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. How are you three doing?"

"We've only got the sensor suite left sir," Korey answered.

"I do hope your implants' detoxifiers are on, if you're going to drink alcohol during work," Arkadi smirked as he eyed the glasses Haidar and Korey carried before settling on Kannon and frowning.

"Of course~"

"What about Kannon?" He asked, concerned.

"I'm fine~!" Kannon called out mirthfully, a little louder than expected, as she placed her empty cup down on the table beside her. She could feel her face burning up as she locked sight with Arkadi, but he broke it after only a few seconds.

"Korey? How much alcohol was in that?"

"Two shots of Aaruvian white rum."

"Two!?"

"It was a large cup," Korey shrugged. "I figured that was minimum, light enough even for her size."

"For a Fraternity graduate such as yourself, of course, even if you didn't have the detoxifier. But we don't even know if she's ever had alcohol, let alone drinking on an empty stomach right before dinner!?" Arkadi continued with a stern look. "Take a close look at how red her face is."

Korey then stepped into the center of Kannon's view and stared at her curiously, as though gazing upon some kind of odd creature...

...Don't look at me liked that...

"Whoa--! She must have caught all of the Orient's alcohol genes!"

Albeit his teasing words, Korey's eyes grew worried in an instant. The fear and aversion that rose inside Kannon seconds ago melted away instantly. But somehow, even though her mind was returning to a state of tranquility, her burning cheeks seemed to only grow even hotter. In fact, she felt like she was floating atop a layer of clouds right now -- her legs hanging in the chilly air and her body swaying in the wind, which made her feel a little sick.

Kannon curled up in her chair and laid her head down on the armrest to get a little more support.

Arkadi then walked over and knelt down in front of her chair. His concerned eyes gazed deeply into her own. It reminded her of when they first met in that dark cell aboard the Hadrian.

"Hey Kannon, are you feeling alright?" He asked as he took off his right glove and put his palm onto her forehead. Its touch felt refreshingly cool against her overheated face.

"I'm fine~" Kannon replied with barely a whisper. It felt weird to be drifting above the clouds, but she rarely felt so in peace with herself.

Arkadi's deep-violet eyes only grew more worried.

It couldn't have been any more different from the first time they met face to face. They were in a bright and open room, watched over by those they knew. There wasn't the slightest pain across her body, nor a trace of fear and anxiety in her mind. She wanted to assure him of that, assure those worried eyes that she was fine now, thanks to his help; that she was saved by his help. She hoped to convince him to let her repay him, to allow her to return the favor by supporting him in what ways she could...

Kannon reached up with both of her arms and gently grasped his large hand before pulling his palm down to her chest and hugging it tightly.

"Thank you... for saving my life..."

Her voice was no more than a whisper as she smiled and closed her eyes, hardly even registering the surprised expressions on both Arkadi and Korey's faces. Her senses focused on how warm his palm felt in her cold fingers.

"I'm alright now... so please... let me help."

"I guess she's the type that curls up into a ball when drunk enough?" Haidar's curious voice came from the far left. But although Kannon continued to hear them, her mind was slowing down and barely recognizing their words.

"Her hands are really cold," a hint of distress worked itself into Arkadi's troubled voice. "They're also trembling..."

"You don't think...?" Even Korey was worried now.

"You can't be serious -- she's that much of a lightweight?"

"In any case I don't think she's reacting very well," Arkadi continued, "and with Alicia gone we're currently short a healer."

"Do we still have any Toxin Neutralizers?" Haidar asked.

"I've got a vial here. Would that work though?" Arkadi wondered aloud. "The Neutralize Toxin spell was designed to counteract deadly fast-acting poisons that may overcome the detoxifier."

"It won't flush the alcohol from her system, but it should lower the blood alcohol concentration from being harmful," Korey replied.

"Kannon--"

At the call of her name, the pink-haired girl half-opened her eye and found herself gazing back into a pair of deep-violet eyes once again. His hand also neared her mouth, carefully holding a vial of spring-green liquid.

"Open your mouth, you need to drink this."

Kannon pulled her lips open. They were even drier than she expected. She felt another hand delicately raise and support her head as he poured the vial in, sending the cool and soothing stream of fluid down her throat.

Gently pulling his palm from her grasp, Arkadi placed his hands under her legs and behind her back before lifting her up to his chest. Warmth enveloped her body as she closed her eyes once again and snuggled in a little closer.

To Kannon, the entire sequence brought back recent memories; yet it was completely different from last time. Instead of seeking to relieve her fears and carrying her to safety, it felt like there was something more accepting this time; something that sought to bridge the distance...

"Oy Korey, your nose is bleeding!"

"Uwaaa -- but she's so adorable!"

"I'm going to put her in bed and make sure she's alright." Arkadi's reassuring voice sounded from just above her.

"Get chance?" Haidar taunted with a shade of mockery.

"Don't confuse me with yourself."

Through her closed eyelids, Kannon felt the surroundings dim as they left the common room for the hallway outside. His arms held her steady as he cradled her down the ship towards the room she slept in.

It was hard to believe that she wasn't already in heaven, comforted by the warm embrace and rocking gently from his steps while her light body drifted across the sea of clouds. It did feel a little weird. But for once, for the first time in months, maybe even years, Kannon relaxed in the haze that surrounded her thoughts without a single worry.

It felt just like home... The short times when home was actually home because they were there.

She wished it could last forever... or at least a little longer; a day, an hour, even a minute, but always a little longer...

Before Kannon realized it, she was being laid down onto a bed. She shivered involuntarily as the coldness spread across her skin after she left the warmth of his chest. Her arms instinctively reached out towards him again, hoping that he wouldn't leave just yet.

...It had been too short, after such a long wait...

No--

This wasn't like last time, or the time before, or every time before that...

I'm not just a kid anymore.

Kannon worked hard all her life to reach this point... She could now help out with their business, the family business. She wanted to make them proud and stay with them. She wanted to be praised by their affectionate eyes and words as she proved herself to them -- that unlike what everyone else claimed, she was indeed worth the world, the hopes they bestowed upon her.

"Don't... leave me behind... I'll do... anything I can, so, please... bring me along."

He grasped her thin fingers with his warm hand, while some thick comforter was pulled up over her chest.

"Don't worry. I'll be right here." He replied in a soft, gentle voice. "So be a good girl and sleep for now. You're already coming with us, and we can talk again when you wake up."

She nodded slowly.

"I may be inexperienced but... I'll be in your care..."

The last thing Kannon remembered was when he brought his other palm in and wrapped both of his hands in a warm embrace around her cold fingers...


----- * * * -----


Kannon filled up the glass with water and downed it all in seconds. But her lips still felt as thirsty as before.

She had slept for six-and-a-half hours according to the sleep module, which was already longer than the usual four hours for her, and closer to the seven to eight recommended hours. Another fifteen minutes had passed since she woke up, but she still couldn't get the fog out of her head, nor could she bring herself to stop swaying.

There was also the thirst, the nausea, the faint headache. But not a single one of them compared to the memories of what she did last night.

Could have at least given me the courtesy of not remembering everything, even what I was too oblivious, stupid, and delusional to realize at the time!

Just what kind of embarrassing character skit was that!? Mine, of all people!

Kannon violently shook her head, wishing those memories would be thrown out. She couldn't believe she had brought his hands to her breasts like that, or cuddled into him like that. She certainly wasn't brought up to flirt so openly like that.

Nonono, it's all wrong! We aren't anything like that! What will he think of me now? How am I going to face him now?

Sure sure, making a move on the protagonist is normal. But this is more like those stories of accidentally flirting with the boss because one is too drunk and too stupid to realize it!

Kannon looked into the mirror to the side of the kitchen counter. Her entire face was still beet red, but she wasn't sure if it was the lingering effects of alcohol or simply her own embarrassment. Thankfully, at least the common room was deserted right now, since it was effectively the dead of night with the crew mostly either on watch or sleeping.

But, as her voice of reason continued to tell her: there was no use dodging it.

What's done was done. I must accept and fix what I did.

Kannon forced her mind back onto the subject. She felt her blush spreading as memories of last night replayed once again. She knew she must address this as soon as possible, to fix any misunderstandings as soon as she could. But right now, it was also the last thing she wanted to face.

Leaning over the wash basin, Kannon turned on the water and its containment dome. She then sank her face into it for the weightless, drifting bubbles of water to splash. At least it helped to cool her head down.

Okay, I just need a good opportunity sometime soon to apologize to Arkadi and thank him for being such a gentleman...

If her memory served, the Captain should be on watch with Kaplan right about now. They had specifically scheduled it during lunch yesterday to discuss plans for once the ship reaches Brocéliande. Kaplan wasn't quite as silent as Marius, but he usually kept out of other people's affairs. Then she could just bring Arkadi into the hallway for a few minutes to talk...

This might be the best chance I can get!

Kannon slapped both of her cheeks with water-cooled palms and stood back up. Reaching out for a clean towel nearby, she dried her face in front of the mirror before smoothing out her hair. With steeled nerves, she walked straight out into the hall and towards the bridge.

It's now or never.

The walk felt way too short.

Before she realized it, she was already standing in front of the bridge doors. She closed her eyes and took in three deep breaths to calm her anxieties. Unsatisfied, she held still for several more moments before focusing on the gateway and opening it with a thought. The brightness of the bridge flooded her vision within an instant, but...

It wasn't what she expected. It wasn't even whom she expected.

Arkadi was sitting in the Captain's chair as usual, but atop his lap was none other than Lysette. Their arms interwined around each other. Their bodies pressed again each other. Their faces, which now turned to look upon her, were no more than a breath away from one another.

Kannon had a sheltered life in relationships, but even she could immediately realize what they had been doing given Lysette's flustered cheeks, messy hair, and opened collar.

"S-sorry for the intrusion."

Since she awoke, Kannon had thought of dozens of things to say, and dozens of ways to respond to what Arkadi might ask. But not a single one of the scenarios that came to mind had predicted this situation. The fact she had zero experience handling such circumstances made her feel even more awkward.

Arkadi's grin persisted even after he looked towards Kannon. His voice was as kind as ever, but it only made her feel worse.

"Good morning, Kannon. Are you feeling better? Do you need help with anything?"

"No! Nothing really -- I'm much better now, and I'm alright as well! I just thought that I should thank you for last night! I really wasn't being myself!"

A torrent of words that she had been repeating to herself over and over rushed out of her mouth at once.

"Don't worry about it! It was the least I could do for a lady."

Arkadi's proud response only made the atmosphere more awkward for Kannon. His hands continued to hold Lysette close, with her well-endowed chest pressing into his. Neither of them showed any embarrassment from public affection or any intentions of opening that distance.

He doesn't even care... of course not, it's me who intruded upon their private time.

Lysette smirked from the corner of her mouth as her triumphant eyes gazed upon Kannon's, who swiftly looked away to break the uncomfortable contact.

Stop making this some stupid love triangle drama scene! The Captain and I have a perfectly professional relationship!

"Well... thanks again! And sorry to bother you two!" Kannon bowed deeply and replied with the most cheerful voice she could muster as her thoughts brought the bridge doors to a close.

The instant they shut, her body spun around and ran back towards the familiarity of the common room. Only her footsteps and the rattling chain on her arm broke the silence of the hallway. But within her mind, it was anything but quiet as rushing rivers of thought continued to pour through:

It doesn't matter to me who Arkadi is going out with. His personal life isn't any of my business when I'm merely a collaborator and the charge of his current mission. I know that. I know all that. Then...

Why do I feel so disappointed?


----- * * * -----


"Captain."

"Time to change already? Right. Kaplan, you have the bridge," Arkadi said as he closed the windows around him and pushed himself back up from the captain's chair.

"Affirmed, I have the bridge," Kaplan returned the formality as he stepped up, ready to take the emptying seat once Arkadi finished his prolonged stretching.

Though, there was one thing he needed to talk to Arkadi about. But with Marius also here...

As Arkadi slowly retracted his arms, Kaplan brought his right hand up and fist-bumped the Captain's, knocking their communication rings against each other with a metallic chime. In that one split second, a temporary one-to-one link was synchronized. Kaplan then focused his thoughts to speak over it.

"I presume that you did it again?"

"Isn't that what you wanted?" Arkadi replied as he stepped aside.

"I did agree to our schedule swap after all," Kaplan said coldly while he summoned a window to display the camera that watched the bridge passageway. "It's true that you were being far too friendly towards her, even by your standards. She would be of no more concern to us once this mission completes, and surely disposed of once the Marshal learns what he needs from her. There is no meaning to grow attached to such a temporary relationship."

"What's wrong with making the best of relationships while they last?" Arkadi countered as he laid his hand on Kaplan's shoulder, one finger at a time. "You should try simply enjoying the moment sometimes. Life is far more delightful when you aren't worrying over lies, my dear accomplice."

Kaplan sneered for a brief second. It were moments like these when he couldn't decide between being impressed by Arkadi's sheer force of will, or being disturbed by the cold-blooded way this man viewed others. After all, there was only one way to openly connect oneself with others yet avoid becoming attached.

"I see my status has fallen from ally."

"Well, our short-term priorities have grown slightly apart," Arkadi replied with a wide yet thin smile that could only be classified as dangerous. "Still -- it's a shame that I had to do something so crude to make sure she doesn't receive the wrong impression and become too sticky. I really do like her..."

"You merely convinced yourself to like whomever that's in front of you.

"...She's cute, innocent, hardworking, adaptive..."

"Best summed up by naive, unusually so for a corporate scion."

"Mmmh... I'm not so sure about that," Arkadi countered with a puzzled expression. "I may be rushing to conclusions, but I think she has a serious case of being in denial. It's like she's trying to stay blind from half the world, and probably doesn't even realize it."

"So she's immature on top of being naive."

The Captain then shrugged:

"All the better. The purity of untarnished whiteness. Doesn't that simply make you want to dye her in your own colors? Open her eyes -- figuratively and literally in this case -- in your own manner of preference?"

"What are you, a pedophile trying to write your own Tale of Genji?"

Arkadi gave Kaplan a stern gaze.

"First, that's unfair to her; even if not fully mature, her common sense in situational analysis and circumstantial introspection is better than most adults -- that kind of mentality is far harder to train than mere skill or experience. Second, half my blood and culture is East Asian -- not everyone in the world focuses as much on mature sensuality as you Westerners when it comes to women. But honestly, I really should consider make a subordinate out of her. She wouldn't be a security risk anymore if she simply became one of us, and that little play should set a basic foundation for the rules of our relationship. With her innocence, love enchantment atop existing charms will easily bind her... I think I know just the one to use when the time comes."

Kaplan wasn't reminded of it often, but part of him never forgot that Arkadi was an enchanter. The Captain's favorite magic were combinations of beguiling charms and emotive manipulators, called forth with neither audible incantation nor ether flare and delivered solely through directed speech. The power of such spells were almost negligible. But only the most vigilant detectors could notice its activation, and its residue aura could drop below traceable margins within moments. Repetitively used during sweet, social encounters that left fun, loving memories, it reinforced the skills through which Arkadi, well... enchanted women.

Unsurprisingly, a few of Arkadi's more potent spells were listed under the category of 'magic to directly induce love' and therefore legally considered a form of rape. But the disgust Kaplan once felt had ceased long ago. Instead, he thought Arkadi more of a hypocrite on the matter -- since Arkadi was particularly vocal against physical rape, to the point he once shot an ally over it. But to be fair, even Arkadi wasn't fond of the illegal spells, and his other enchantments weren't that much different from other enjoyment enhancers that appealed to emotions, like romantic music or scented candles.

"She won't be as convenient as Lysette," Kaplan noted.

"Of course not. No one wants her to become an assassin prodigy with such an... unique sense of interaction."

Kaplan almost snorted from his thoughts at the mildly-put statement. For him, any phrase less descriptive than 'sociopath with a freakish fetish' simply fell way too short for that girl. Her mentality was forever scarred beyond counsel by her unspeakable past, and Arkadi recruiting her for his plans hasn't done one ounce of good.

"Nevertheless, I'm sure you've noticed how her aura has changed over the past few days," Arkadi continued, astonishment quickly working its way into his voice. "I thought we were just lucky when the Communication Ring kept working even after its precharged ether should have ran out. But not only did her ether production manage to keep up with the equipment we kept giving her, subconsciously and without training at that; her magic aura has risen to nearly on par with undergrad auxilia after merely a few days!"

"I figured that was behind your sudden interest in the Arvitors' history. But surely you can't be suggesting--" Kaplan's words suddenly dropped off as he remembered a minor detail that history often pretended to ignore -- that some Arvitors did manage to flee back through the wormhole after the Arvitor Hunts began. The odds were hugely against it, but it was possible...

"We'll know in due time, Kaplan," Arkadi mentally chuckled before dropping back to a solemn tone. "In the meantime, once Haidar comes up for his shift, I want you two to deal with Marius, right here on the bridge where he will least suspect it."

"You don't think he's trustworthy enough to accompany us back to Avalon?"

"No. I'm certain his persistent avoidance of us proves that he hasn't forgiven me yet for killing every person he served with aboard the Hadrian. Infiltrator he might be, but he's certainly not one for our business. Given the importance of our mission details, our only other choice is to shut him up for good."

"Affirmed," responded Kaplan as Arkadi walked casually out the bridge doors.

Turning back to his console and looking at the clock, Kaplan realized there was only eight hours remaining before they entered Brocéliande's orbital perimeter, and less than an hour before more blood must stain his hands for the sake of the revolution.

It's too bad though, he thought. I'd have enjoyed being in the same revolution as you, Captain.



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