Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 5 Old

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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!"

It felt as though the 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 -- broken images flew through the mind's eye, like watching falling paper from a torn scrapbook as some foreign entity ripped through the 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 the 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!?"

Panting from the breathlessness of pain...

Sobbing from the anxieties of hopelessness...

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

Overwhelming fear froze 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 the young knight's 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...

-----

I bolted awake from the cylindrical sleep module, almost smashing my head into the glass cover before it could fully retract. My face, my hands, my entire body was covered with sweat despite the perfectly regulated environment of the sleep module.

(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...)

I repeated the same words to myself, over and over, again and again, while my 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." I responded absentmindedly as I finished adding another reference label to the three-dimensional detailed 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?"

"Of course not. That would be too unusual for a normal person like me." I 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?"

"Give me a minute -- most of them are in the nose, but let me check the manual and draw up a map for you."

"Thank you~"

I opened yet another window and configured it to conjure up a clean three-dimensional structural scan model of the ship. Then I 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 my right index finger. I bookmarked my current spot before jumping to the sensors section to sync the manual's labelled 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 me across the wormhole as soon as we escaped 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 why the three of us had spent the last two hours working in the Somerset's common room: Haidar had cast the spells, Korey had guided the details since he was actually a starship engineer (advanced ethaneer, technically), and I had simply given them a pointer every now and then.

I also busied myself trying to answer some of the questions those same engineers sent me -- many of which were simply too far out of my 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 the real thing!"

"Teleport?" I asked absentmindedly as I focused on highlighting the bio-sensors.

"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--)

I 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 stop 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!"

Wasn't there only one first time?

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

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

"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..." Lysette's voice resounded from just outside the doors that opened but a split second ago. "I hope you have your epitaph written already."

It sounded like Lysette alright; yet somehow I knew instantly 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.

I 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 me.

"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 I had to do was stare at him and smirk at each other before we started laughing again.

"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 me 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 me and handing me one of the drinks. "Here, try some of this."

"Thank you. What is it?" I asked as I took the cold glass. Much of the drink seemed to simply be crushed ice mixed with some kind of milk, and a large straw has already been inserted.

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

I took the straw and began sipping from it. I 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.

I could feel my mind relaxing as the headaches brought by those engineering questions began to ease away.

"Good, isn't it?"

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

"You're most welcome~" Korey responded 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, we simply made the perfect combination together!"

I nodded in agreement 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?" I asked in-between sipping on the drink, trying to remember the brief description from the ship's database.

For some reason I was starting to feel drowsy and unbalanced. My face was also quickly 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 have virtually no magical affinity -- magic conductive nerves and all that. They can only use everyday ether-tech items with the help of 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 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 their own 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...)

"Third, you've got the auxilia and the auxilia-pilot dragoons -- pretty much our entire team." Haidar said after taking back the proverbial baton. "We're basically the average mages, and can actually cast 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. They're taught the Republic's most advanced magic -- spells powerful enough to pose a significant danger to public safety. That's why the selection process is quite strict, and requires not merely the demonstration of performance but also 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.

A cold shiver went through my spine as memories of the torturous time aboard star fortress Hadrian pierced the strange fog that has been collecting in my 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. I couldn't help but wonder how a person with so strong 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, it was 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.

"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 mine and frowning.

"Of course~"

"What about Kannon?" He asked, concerned.

"I'm fine~!" I called out mirthfully, a little louder than I expected, as I placed my empty cup down on the table before me.

I could feel my face burning up as I 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 look at how red her face is."

Korey then stepped into the center of my view and stared at me curiously, as though I was 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 me seconds ago melted away instantly. But somehow, even though my mind was returning to a state of tranquility, my burning cheeks seemed to only grow even hotter. In fact, I felt like I was floating atop a layer of clouds right now -- my legs hanging in the chilly air and my body swaying in the wind, which made me feel a little sick.

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

Arkadi then walked over to in front of my chair and knelt down. His concerned eyes gazed deeply into me. It reminded me of when he first greeted me 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 my forehead. Its touch felt refreshingly cool against my overheated face.

"I'm fine~" I responded, perhaps a little too softly this time. It felt weird to be drifting above the clouds, but I rarely felt so in peace with myself.

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

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

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

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

My voice was barely more than a whisper as I smiled and closed my eyes, hardly even registering the surprised expressions on both Arkadi and Korey's faces. My senses focused on how warm his palm felt in my cold hands.

"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 my far left. But although I continued to hear them, but 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 shaking..."

"You don't think...?" Even Korey was sounding 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 wouldn't flush the alcohol from her system, but it should lower the blood alcohol concentration from being harmful," Korey replied.

"Kannon--"

I half-opened my eyes at the call of my name and found myself gazing back into a pair of deep-violet eyes once again. His hand also neared my mouth, carefully holding a vial of spring-green liquid.

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

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

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

It wasn't like the last time; it wasn't the same. Instead of seeking to relieve my fears and carrying me 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 me.

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

"Don't confuse me with yourself."

I felt the surroundings dim through my closed eyelids as we left the common room for the hallway outside. His arms held me steady as he cradled me down the ship towards the room I stayed at.

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

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

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

Before I knew it, I was being laid down onto a bed. I shivered involuntarily as the coldness spread across my skin after I left the warmth of his chest. My 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.)

I've worked hard all my life to reach this point... I could help out with their business now, the family business. I wanted to make them proud and stay with them. I wanted to be praised by their affectionate eyes and words as I proved myself to them--

That unlike what everyone else claimed, I was indeed worth the world, the hopes they bestowed upon me.

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

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

"Don't worry. I'll be right here." He responded 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."

I nodded slowly.

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

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


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


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

I had slept for six-and-a-half hours according to the sleep module, which was already longer than usual for me. It had been another fifteen minutes since I woke up, but I still couldn't get the fog out of my head, nor could I bring myself 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 I 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!)

I couldn't believe that I had brought his hands to my breasts like that, or cuddled into him like that!

(Nonono, it's all wrong! We aren't anything like that!)

I certainly wasn't brought up to flirt so openly. What was I thinking! 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 to realize it!)

(Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod I can't believe I did something so shameful...)

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

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

What was done was done, and I must accept that I did do it.

I forced my mind back onto the subject. I felt my blush spreading as memories of last night replayed once again. I know I must say something about this as soon as possible, to fix any misunderstandings as soon as I could. But right now, it was also the last thing I wanted to face.

Leaning over the wash basin, I turned on the water and splashed my face with it. At least this should help a bit to cool my head down.

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

If 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 we reach Brocéliande. Kaplan wasn't quite as silent as Marius, but he usually kept out of other people's affairs. If I could just bring Arkadi into the hallway for a few minutes to talk...

(This might be the best chance I can get!)

I slapped both of my cheeks with water-cooled palms and stood back up. Reaching out for a clean towel nearby, I dried my face in front of the mirror before smoothing out my hair. Steeling my nerves, I turned around and walked straight out into the hall and towards the bridge.

(It's now or never.)

The walk felt way too short.

Before I realized it, I was already standing anxiously in front of the bridge doors. I closed my eyes, took in three deep breaths, and paused for several moments more before I focused on the gateway and opened it with a thought.

I opened my eyes as the brightness of the bridge flooded my vision. But...

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

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

I might be sheltered, but even I could immediately realize what they had been doing given Lysette's flustered cheeks, messy hair, and opened collar.

"S-sorry for the intrusion."

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

Arkadi's grin persisted even after he looked towards me. His voice was as kind as ever, but it only made me 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 I had been repeating to myself over and over had rushed out of my mouth at once.

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

Arkadi responded proudly, his hands continued to firmly hold Lysette close. He pulled her well-endowed assets into his chest, and without any embarrassment from public affection or any intentions of opening that distance.

(It's as if he doesn't even care at all that I see them... no, not 'as if'...)

He really just didn't care. They were a couple sharing some private time, and it was me who intruded upon them.

Lysette smirked from the corner of her mouth as her triumphant eyes gazed upon my own. The uncomfortable contact quickly made me look away.

(This isn't some stupid love triangle drama scene! The Captain and I have a perfectly professional relationship!)

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

The instant they shut, my body spun around and ran back towards the familiarity of the common room. The silence of the hallway broken only by my footsteps and the rattling of the chain attached to my arm.

It didn't matter to me who he was going out with. His personal life wasn't any of my business when I was merely an information collaborator and the charge of his current mission. I already knew this. Then...

(Why do I feel so dejected and 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 replied with formality as he stepped up, ready to take the emptying seat once Arkadi finished his prolonged stretching.

Though, there was that 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 focused his thoughts to speak over it.

"I presume that you did it again?"

"Isn't that what you wanted?" Arkadi replied as he finished stretching his arms and 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 yourself 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 rather like her. She's cute, innocent, and hardworking..."

"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? Maybe I really should 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."

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, some 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 someone for it.

"She won't be as convenient as Lysette."

"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.

"But 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 graduate 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 chuckled mentally 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 but 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.



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