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     Chapter 9
The Price of Evil

       A frightened young boy cried out, "No, please stop! You're hurting her! MOMMY!" He was powerless to stop the person from assaulting his mother. He helplessly watched as his mother’s lifeless body fell to the ground. The hooded figure crouched over its victim, and as if just realizing the boy was still there, it turned to him. With a bloodied knife in hand, the murderer stepped towards the crying, fear-paralyzed boy. He knew it was going to go after him next. Without a moment's hesitation, the murderer lunged at him.

 

###

       Kenichi's eyes flew open, his heart racing as he relived the nightmare. "No!" he yelled out in fear, his hand clenching tight over his chest. He forced his breathing to slow, taking in the unfamiliar sterile smell of the room. Voices from a small virtual screen on the wall caught his attention, but he couldn't focus on them. "Why do they always put virtual screens that are too small for the room in here?" he muttered to himself.

 

       His gaze shifted to the warmth flooding in from the window at his side. Memories flooded his mind as he gazed at the armchair by the window. "Mom used to sleep in an armchair like that the many times she had to take me to the hospital as a kid," he thought, his mind wandering. His attention returned to the virtual screen, which was displaying the Capital News. "Seems like the city is excited about the upcoming Butterfly Festival," he read, his interest piqued.

 

       His gaze then shifted to the wall, where a virtual machine spanned the entire half of it, displaying more information than he'd ever seen before. He recognized the quickened beeps on the screen and realized that his heart was still erratic, but slowing down. "This must be the medical recovery room," he deduced, the fog in his mind beginning to clear.

 

       A familiar voice pulled him away from his stupor. "You finally woke, huh," Kana said, lying upright on a bed covered in bandages on the other side of the room. "I woke up here a few hours ago," she added.

 

       "Is this the hospital?" he asked rhetorically.

 

       Kana replied, "Not quite, supposedly this place is called Barzakh. It’s like a hospital but focuses on Guardian recovery. The staff here thinks it means being born again or something. Long story short, our biology is altered enough that we need specialized care, so we come here instead. The bright side is, instead of taking months or years to recover, we’re back in fighting form in a few days."

 

       Kenichi couldn't believe it. "Amazing," he said. "Why is there so much we don’t know when it comes to Guardians? How’d they keep information like this secret from the public? You would think it would be at least whispered about."

 

       "I’m sure SMA is more than capable of keeping information out of the public’s eyes," Kana remarked disinterestedly, flopping back in her reclined bed.

 

       Struggling to come to terms with the fact that all his nights spent learning about Guardians amounted to nothing, Kenichi collapsed back into his bed, disheartened.

 

       But then, a sudden thought hit him. "Oh, wait," he quickly switched to his side to face Kana. "Did we win?"

 

       Kana's gaze lingered on his alluring red eyes, causing her to wonder if they had always been that captivating. "They're such a strange shade of red," she thought to herself, mesmerized by their depth. Her trance was abruptly interrupted by a second question from him, bringing her back to the present moment.

 

       Kana hesitated, her attention turning to her hands fidgeting nervously in her lap as the beeping of the patient monitor grew faster. She couldn't understand why she felt so apprehensive about telling Kenichi that they had failed. “What am I afraid of? Just tell him,” she thought. 

 

       The monitor’s hastened beeping overtook her somber tone. "No, we never stood a chance," Kana said, gripping her fist in her lap. "But not because of you. I was too confident in my strength while severely underestimating hers. We were no more than gnats to her."

 

       Kenichi's heart sank. "Oh," was all he could say.

 

       Kana's emotions grew intense. Her hitched voice made words hard to translate as waves of sadness, disappointment in their performance, and relief at Kenichi finally waking up made themselves known in her broken voice. "You got so beat up buying time for me to get in place. When it was finally my part, I failed you completely. She was so much stronger than I thought she would be."

 

       As Kana waited for Kenichi's response, it felt like an eternity had passed in the few seconds it took for him to speak. She braced herself for disappointment but was surprised to hear understanding and acceptance in his words.

 

       "The only thing that matters is that we gave it everything we had, right? That’s all Master wanted. Therefore our objective was successful," he said. 

 

       Kana felt a wave of relief wash over her. She realized that Kenichi wasn't blaming her for their defeat. Encouraged by his words, she broke her focus and looked back at him. "The only thing that matters is that we gave it everything, right?" she said, her voice shaking with emotion.

 

       Kenichi nodded in agreement. "So no need to say it was anybody's fault. Besides, I think we did pretty well against someone who has been training to be a Guardian far longer than we have."

 

       Kana couldn't help but smile at her partner's optimism. She knew that he was right, they had come a long way since they started training together. But their victory had come at a cost. 

 

       Her memory of the fight was hazy, with everything after Kikimori breaking out of Kenichi's chokehold a blur. But she remembered the feeling of death creeping over her body as she faced their opponent alone. It was a feeling she never wanted to experience again.

 

       For a moment, they both lay there in silence, lost in their thoughts. But then Kenichi spoke up again, his voice laced with concern. "What about you, Kana? How badly did she hurt you out there?"

 

       Kana couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt. She knew that if she had been stronger or more skilled, maybe things would have turned out differently. But she took a deep breath and tried to put on a brave face.

 

       "I'm okay," she said, forcing a smile. "Just a few bruises and scratches. But you, you took the brunt of the damage. You were really brave out there. Kana couldn't help but feel a sense of unease about their injuries. Kenichi's long list of broken bones and internal injuries left her feeling worried and helpless.

 

       He sustained a compound fracture to his left forearm, a crushed shoulder socket, a crushed femur, a fractured eye socket, and a ruptured spleen and kidney. But she quickly found solace in the knowledge that they were in Barzakh. The green sphere of light surrounding them accelerated their healing, and Kenichi was expected to be back to full strength in just three days.

 

       "We're lucky to be alive," Kana said, wincing as she shifted her weight. "But thanks to this green sphere of light around us, our healing process is much faster. Supposedly only a few days and we will be back to fighting shape.

 

       The thought of the quick recovery time for such serious injuries left Kenichi in disbelief. "It's hard to believe that such advanced application of Shakti in the medical field is already here.”

 

       Kana lay there in silence, her mind racing with thoughts of the battle they just faced. As she lay there, she heard a faint rustling from the other bed in the room. Kenichi was flipping through his medical folder, likely reading through the extent of his injuries. 

 

       “Wait how did you know about my injuries?”

 

       "It was in my medical folder. I’m assuming since we are partners that if you get injured I’m granted full access to your medical files," she said softly.

 

       Kenichi looked confused for a moment before flipping through the pages of his folder. "Ya, I have the same thing in mine too." He read through the list of Kana's injuries, his expression one of shock and concern. "Damn," he muttered, "You sustained one collapsed and one partially collapsed lung, seven broken ribs, a crushed jaw, a dislocated hip, and a dislocated shoulder. You also shattered every bone in your right hand, wrist, and forearm. That's a lot to deal with."

 

       Kana nodded, barely containing her disappointment in herself from showing as her partner read off her injuries. Turning away on her side, she pulled the cover near her face. She didn't want him to see how she was feeling.

 

       "Unfortunately. Anyway, you should get some rest," she said, trying to change the subject.

 

       Kenichi sat back, resigned to the fact that she didn't want to talk anymore that day. He closed his eyes, "I'll get stronger, Kana. Next time I won't be such a disappointment to you." he thought to himself.

###

 

       Three days passed by and Kana was awoken by the sound of yelling, causing her to sit up in bed. 

 

       "What the hell are you doing, Mrs. Ayumi?!" Kenichi's voice boomed.

 

       "I told you, Kenichi, I was checking your popliteal pulse in your leg," Ayumi happily replied.

 

       "It's not that high up," Kenichi grumbled.

 

       "I know," Ayumi teased, giggling mischievously.

 

       Kana yawned and rubbed her eyes, groggily asking, "What are you guys doing?"

 

       "Oh, good, you're awake," Kenichi chirped. "I wanted to let you know that I'm being discharged soon before I leave."

 

       "Yes, your partner has fully healed and no longer needs to stay here," Ayumi added, her furry tail waving freely around occasionally smacking Kenichi in the face.

 

       “So, what are you gonna do?” Kana asked with a tinge of loneliness in her voice.

 

       “Master came by earlier while you were sleeping. He said to just wait on you at the house. No training. Just wait around, and when you get discharged, he will meet us at the training field again in two days,” Kenichi said reassuringly.

 

       “I see,” Kana sighed, looking troubled.

 

       “Are you okay?” Kenichi asked, noticing the defeated look on her face.

 

       Kana hesitated for a moment before shaking her head. "No, never mind. Just have something nice to eat when I get home tomorrow. Something this place kept the same is the bland food they serve here," she joked.

 

       "Sure, no problem," Kenichi replied, smiling softly. "Just make sure you get better. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

 

       "Okay," Kana smiled back at him as he left the room, putting on his sleeveless cloak.

 

       "Aww, you two are so cute," Ayumi gushed.

 

       Kana's face contorted into an annoyed expression. "What are you still doing here?"

 

       "Oh, I just want to verify some information with you. Nothing big," Ayumi chirped, completely ignoring Kana's glare.

 

       Kana could only patiently wait until she was discharged so she would no longer be disturbed by Dr. Ayumi's antics and personality.

###

       “Steak, check. Lobster, check. Buns, check. Fries, check. Hamburgers, check,” Kenichi recited, looking over the table with satisfaction. He wanted to make a good impression on his partner and had prepared a wide variety of dishes. "I don't know what type of food she likes, so hopefully by cooking a little of everything, something would catch her eye," he thought.

 

       Although he enjoyed cooking, he wanted to impress his partner, who had only requested something good to eat when she got home. "Alright. She will be home soon. Try not to look like you have been waiting all day just to see her," he reminded himself.

 

       He was interrupted in his thoughts as he heard the door close in the other room. He stood up as Kana walked into the kitchen a few moments later. Her eyes widened with tears as she took in the feast before her. "You cooked all this food just for me?" she asked, her hands raised to her chest in gratitude.

 

       Kenichi smiled and motioned towards the table. "Well, dig in." Kana sat at the table, and Kenichi watched as she devoured the food, feeling proud of his culinary skills. Several hours later, they stood at the kitchen sink, helping each other clean the dishes.

 

       "So, what do you plan to do for the next two days?" Kenichi asked, handing a soapy plate to Kana to be rinsed.

 

       "There are some things I want to get for this place to make it feel more like home than it currently does. I also want to take a look around the city and maybe pick up a few knickknacks along the way. What about you? Any plans?" Kana asked.

 

       "I want to visit the Cathedral," Kenichi replied.

 

       Kana looked surprised. "Oh, what's so special about there?"

 

       "Supposedly, if you need any information, that's the place to find it. My family came here a few years ago. We were searching for information on something, but all the information we had access to proved to be useless," Kenichi explained. "There is another section of the Cathedral that only guardians have access to. Now that we are guardians in training, I want to pick back up on what we were looking into to see if there may be any extra information hidden there."

 

       Kana thought about what Kenichi said. "A place that only guardians can go that holds information that's not available to the public. That's a good place to start if any," she thought to herself.

 

       "How about this?" Kana caught her fist in her hand as an idea took over. "You come to help me get a few things for this place and put them up with me, and I'll join you on your trip to the Cathedral. It piqued my interest, and I want to check it out too. So what do you say?"

 

       Kenichi looked at Kana, thinking about her proposal. "I guess we could do that. Do you mind if we get something to eat along the way?"

 

       "Sure, I don't mind. Do you want to go after we finish with this? All I need to do is take a shower and put on some different clothes."

 

       "You mind if I take a shower first?" Kenichi asked, hoping to get the nod to go ahead.

 

       "Sure, that's fine. How about you go ahead and jump in, and I'll finish drying and putting these up."

 

       Kenichi dried his hands as he started walking off to their shared bedroom. 

 

       Kana's thoughts swirled around in her head as she gazed out the window, lost in contemplation. She couldn't help but replay the conversation she had just had with Kenichi, over and over again. It had felt so natural, like the kind of exchange between a normal couple on any given day. But why did it feel that way? This left Kana wondering if their strong connection was due to their recent link as Guardians. Was this a normal experience for all those who became Guardians?

 

       She furrowed her brow, her mind racing with questions. How could she feel so comfortable around someone she had only known for two weeks? It didn't make sense. She had friends she had known for years, and yet she never felt as at ease with them as she did with Kenichi. Was this what happened to everyone who became a Guardian? And if so, why?

 

       Despite her usual guardedness, she had been showing more of her true self to Kenichi without even realizing it. It was as though her defenses had crumbled in his presence, and she found herself opening up in a way she never had before. And yet, she didn't feel exposed or vulnerable. Instead, she felt a sense of freedom, as if she could truly be herself. Something she wasn’t able to do for a long time.

 

       Kana was also curious about her partner's thoughts and feelings. Was he just as comfortable around her? She couldn't shake off the thought of their recent conversation where she had asked him to come shopping with her, instead of just offering to accompany him to the Cathedral.

 

       A sudden noise snapped Kana out of her reverie. She realized that the shower had turned on in the bedroom, Kana left her thoughts right there, still questioning why she felt so strongly about someone she had only known for a short time.

###

       A tall man stood in front of the desk of the large office where the 83rd Prime was seated, looking over some documents in a folder. "Do you not think that's too much?" she asked.

 

       "No, Lady Prime," Kiyoshi responded. “After reviewing the footage over and over as well as seeing them in person, I think they will be ready to accomplish a task like this. Though contrary evidence provided says otherwise, I believe they have the ability to far exceed any expectations placed on them.”

 

       "So they were able to piss off Satana enough to have her bring out her battle form?" the Prime inquired.

 

       "Yes," Kiyoshi confirmed. "Although it was more from losing control of her emotions than any physical need to defend herself. But the fact they were able to land several attacks on her no matter how inefficient it was, still putting them well ahead of an average new team."

 

       "Okay, I'll approve this request," the Prime decided, finishing signing the document and closing the folder before handing it back to Kiyoshi. "You're dismissed."

 

       "Yes, Madam Prime," Kiyoshi bowed before turning and opening the door.

 

       "Oh, Kiyoshi," the Prime called out, stopping his exit. "Tell my daughter to report here after training."

 

       "Yes, my lady," Kiyoshi bowed again before closing the door behind him.

###

       After drying the last plate, Kana placed it on the open shelf cabinet. Hearing the water finally cut off, she made her way into the bedroom to gather some clothes for herself to take with her into the bathroom. As she grabbed the rest of her clothes, the bathroom door opened, and the rush of steam and heat filled the room as her partner stepped out of the bathroom, drying his hair.

 

       Kana stared at him, shocked that he would step out in their shared bedroom wearing nothing but a towel. She thought secretly but in shock, "He really does have a solid body. Not muscled up too much. Just very toned if anything. He has a masculine jaw. Taller for his age. Though his red eyes were kind of scary at first glance, they also give off a certain allure that keeps you wanting to look at them more. His hair is longer than I would like but all in all, not bad."

 

       Kenichi looked over at the staring Kana, clearly with a shocked look on her face. "Oh no. I just walked out of the shower almost naked. I didn't even consider that she would need to be in the bedroom also. I need to be more considerate and aware of our new situation,” he thought embarrassingly. “Oh, I'm sorry, Kana." Kenichi's hands waved in the air defensively. "I walked out here out of habit. I'm very sorry. I'll remember to grab my clothes and bring them with me next time." Kenichi rushed into the shared closet, slamming the door behind him.

 

       "Great, now she is gonna think I'm some perv that purposely exposed myself to her like that. Ugh," Kenichi sighed as he leaned against the back of the door.

 

       Saved from the embarrassment of being caught staring at her partner's body, Kana rushed into the bathroom with her clothes before closing the door behind her. New flashes of that dream she had the night they became guardians were going through her mind. Kana shook her thoughts out of her mind as she reached in and turned the shower on, steam refilling the bathroom that had escaped earlier.

###

       After an hour, the two were now dressed in plain civilian clothes, ready to start the rest of their day. "You ready, Kana?" Kenichi asked.

 

       "Ya," Kana replied as they headed out the door.

 

       "So where are we going first?"

 

       "Well, originally I was gonna pick up just a few things for the home, but now that we are going out together, I figured we would go to the inner city and just get anything we need for the apartment. That place is a little too function over form for me." Kana didn't mind sharing an apartment with someone, but if she was going to stay there for at least three years, she wanted to spruce the place up a bit with some personality.

 

       "Okay. So what should we get?" Kenichi's confusion was starting to build as he couldn't think of too much that the apartment needed outside of what it already provided. "It already has a bed, a couch, a TV, and cookware. What else could she mean?" he thought.

 

       "Well, first thing first. Let's head over to Souchi’s Megaplex and see what we can find. I'll tell you what. I'll pay for everything so long as we can both agree on getting it. This way we can both have a say on what goes inside, that way neither of us feels like we have to put up with something they really don't want to because of the other's extreme taste."

 

       Kenichi walked past his partner, marveling at how much she had changed since they first met. "It seems like you took some time to understand our living situation and thought of a way to equally compromise on what we both might want," he said, impressed by her consideration. "Sure, but I can't agree to have you pay for everything. I'll go in half with you on everything we get."

 

       "Deal," Kana said, pleased that her idea had been so readily accepted. She hurried forward with determination, eager to buy everything they needed before heading to the cathedral later.

###

       After hours of shopping, they finally returned to their apartment, exhausted but satisfied with their purchases. Kenichi wiped the sweat off his forehead as he placed the vase of flowers on their new coffee table, while Kana emerged from the bedroom, a smile on her face. "I got the bedroom done!" she announced.

 

       "So, does this place feel a little more homely now?" Kenichi asked.

 

       "You bet your ass it does," Kana replied, excitement evident in her voice. With the generous credits that even Guardians in training received, they had more than enough to buy everything they wanted and then some for the apartment they shared. "I'm so excited to try out the new bed we got. Aren't you?"

 

       “Sure,” Kenichi's nervous laugh betrayed his reluctance. The bed was the only thing he lost on when it came to what they bought today.

###

       Kana stood firm, refusing to budge on her demand for a comfortable bed. "No, I will not do it," she declared firmly. "I'm not a child who can sleep on a bunk bed. I need a bed that allows me to move around freely. Besides, you'll get tired of hitting your head on the ceiling up there. And every time you climb up, it shakes my bed and wakes me up when you go to get a snack at night."

 

       Kenichi's hesitation was evident as he considered her proposal. "Are you sure about this? Sharing a bed seems...intimate," he said tentatively.

 

       Kana's face flushed as she realized the implications of her suggestion. Despite her embarrassment, she refused to back down. "The matter still stands," she insisted. "We're going to be partners for the foreseeable future. Sleeping in a more comfortable and larger bed shouldn't be an issue. And if it makes you feel better, we can just put some pillows between us."

 

       Her tone was resolute, and Kenichi knew better than to argue. With a resigned sigh, he nodded in agreement. "Fine. We'll share the bed," he conceded. "But don't blame me if I accidentally roll over onto your side."

 

       Kana's cheeks flushed a deep shade of crimson as Kenichi's words sank in. She bit her lip nervously, unsure of how to respond. "Um...well...I'll just have to make sure to push you back to your side if that happens," she stammered, her voice barely above a whisper. Her mind was racing, trying to come up with a witty comeback, but all she could think about was the awkwardness of the situation. "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that," she added with a nervous chuckle.

###

       Changing the subject, Kana asked, "By the way, what did you do with the art supplies that we got? I want to draw while you cook."

 

       "I set them in the hallway closet. By the way, do you like to draw a lot?" Kenichi asked.

 

       "Yes, it was a big passion of mine before..." Kana trailed off, memories of her past rising to the surface. She shook her head to clear her mind. "It doesn't matter, but yes, I love drawing. It's like capturing something you want to see forever inside a picture. When you draw it, you can see basically what the artist sees. So two people can draw the same image, and they will both be different in their own way,” she said rummaging through the closet. “Ahh, here they are. By the way, what's for dinner tonight?"

 

       "I was thinking of trying out one of my mom's famous dishes from back home. Anytime some function or event was going on, she would always make this dish. You could say it was her signature dish because whenever someone started eating it, they would seem like putty in my mom's hands, getting them to do basically anything she wanted. It's called Sui Dante Soup."

 

       Kana sat down at the table and spread out her art supplies and canvas, feeling a little self-conscious. "Umm, Kenichi, do you mind if I draw you while you cook?"

 

       "Huh? No, I don't mind, although I'll be moving a lot, so I might not be the best subject to draw."

 

       "It's fine. There's no need for you to stay still. It's what's known as a slice-of-life drawing. I basically capture a moment in time as you do your routine."

 

       "Wow, you can do that? Sure, okay," Kenichi said, impressed by Kana's skill.

###

       Kikimori stood in front of the door, her hand hesitating before knocking. She knew what awaited her on the other side, a lecture or worse, a reprimand from her mother. She took a deep breath, reminding herself to stay composed. She knocked on the door, her hand shaking slightly.

 

       “You may enter,” her mother's calm voice came from the other side.

 

       Kikimori pushed the door open and entered the room, her eyes avoiding her mother's gaze. "Mother."

 

       "Ah, Satana. Come, sit down," her mother said, gesturing to the chair in front of her desk.

 

       Kikimori clenched her jaw, trying to ignore the use of her title instead of her name. She sat down stiffly and waited for her mother to speak.

 

       "I called you here for a new assignment," her mother said, sliding a folder across the desk towards her.

 

       Kikimori picked up the folder and began to read, her eyes widening as she took in the details of the mission. A slow grin spread across her face. "We will leave immediately, Ma'dam Prime," Kikimori said, rising from her chair.

 

       "Satana, remember that you are in charge of this mission. Don't do anything stupid that will hurt them beyond repair," her mother said sternly.

 

       Kikimori nodded, her face expressionless as she closed the folder and turned to leave.

 

       She walked out of the room, her mind already racing with plans for the mission. She couldn't wait to prove herself to her mother and her partner. “Time to see if you really deserve to be our partner,” She said ominously.

###

       After finishing their meal, Kana laid back in her chair, giving her stomach room to stretch out. "Man, that was good! I had to have eaten four bowls. I can see why your mom had anybody she wanted in her hands after eating that."

 

       "I know, too bad you couldn't taste the original. It would blow your socks off. You know that tingly sensation you get in your mouth when you swallow?" Kenichi said.

 

       "You mean that sensation that feels like every ingredient is popping subtle hints of what they are," Kana remarked knowingly.

 

       "It’s the secret ingredient that has supposedly been passed down through the generations since the birth of the Solveri family," Kenichi explained.

 

       "Oh wow. I wonder what it is? You know what they say, 'your partner should know everything about you,'" Kana hinted slyly.

 

       Kenichi chuckled, "Not a chance. I don’t think knowing the secret ingredient to our family recipe counts as relevant information."

 

       "Fine, just saying. But when you're too injured to cook or get sick and you need me to cook something for you, I'm just gonna be like, 'I would if only I had that secret ingredient,'" Kana laughed, walking to the bedroom.

 

       "Hey, Kenichi,” she called in front of the bedroom door, “do you mind doing the dishes so I can take a shower? I can't get the idea of sleeping on this bed of ours for the first time out of my mind," Kana said, before realizing how her words could be interpreted. "I mean, I mean as far as being comfortable and all. Not like excited for us to be sleeping on it together," Kana nervously corrected.

 

       Kenichi turned away from her, hurriedly grabbing a dish to wash, feeling embarrassed at the thought of what she originally said. "Yeah, yeah, I knew what you meant. Sure, I'll finish these up and take a shower after you."

 

       Kana's hands fumbled behind her as she finally found the door handle, and opened it. "Thank you, goodnight," she said before rushing into the bedroom.

###

       Water droplets fell rapidly against Kana's skin, washing away the soap from her hair and body. She stood with her eyes closed under the shower head, lost in her thoughts. Since their loss against Team Giai, her mind had been all over the place. The only peace she had found in the last few days was the shopping spree they had gone on.

 

       “What are you doing?” Kana muttered to herself, the water masking her words. “You've been here for over two weeks and haven't found any information about the Hearts of the Emperors. Have you even tried? Since the Guardian Awakening, it feels like you've forgotten why you're here.”

 

       She leaned her forehead against the cool tiles, berating herself for her lack of progress. “You were even happy enough to start drawing. How long must she suffer because you're in this state of bliss? You need to remember what's most important to you. Once you settle into a steady routine here, you'll start searching. You can't keep falling into this trap of being a Guardian.”

 

       Kana turned the water off and stepped out of the shower, drying herself off and getting dressed to let Kenichi know it was his turn. Strolling into the bedroom her eyes fixated with anticipation on their new king-sized purple-colored Durple mattress, she couldn't help but smile. It was a small moment of happiness in an otherwise tumultuous time, and she clung to it as a reminder that even amidst the chaos, there were moments of joy to be found.

 

       "I'm dying to get into this bed!" She smiled happily.

###

       Kenichi and Kana lay quietly on the bed, each feeling the tension and awkwardness between them like a palpable force. One big body pillow separated them, a physical barrier that only served to amplify their unease. They both avoided making eye contact, staring intently at the ceiling as if searching for a way to escape the situation.

 

       After what felt like an eternity, Kenichi broke the silence with a nervous remark. “Ummm, this bed is really comfy, isn't it?”

 

       Kana nodded in agreement but didn't say anything. She fidgeted with the corner of the sheet, twisting it around her fingers in an attempt to distract herself from the awkwardness of the moment.

 

       The silence returned, heavy and oppressive. Each of them was lost in their thoughts, unsure of what to say or do. Kenichi couldn't help but wonder if Kana was as uncomfortable as he was, or if she was completely at ease in this situation. He felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought that maybe she had shared a bed with someone before and knew how to handle it.

 

       Meanwhile, Kana was berating herself for her lack of social skills. She couldn't believe how awkward she was being, especially considering how comfortable she had felt around Kenichi in the past. She longed for the confidence and ease she had felt before, but it seemed like a distant memory now.

 

       As they lay in silence, Kenichi's mind wandered to thoughts of home. He wondered how his parents were coping now that their youngest children had flown the nest. “I wonder if they already turned my room into a storage space?” He couldn't help but chuckle at the thought. His thoughts then turned to his brother Akito, who was also in training. Did he face the same life-threatening situations they had?

 

       Kenichi couldn't help but worry, hoping he was safe and sound. The thought of seeing him again brought a faint smile to his face, but he quickly pushed it aside, not wanting to dwell on it for too long.

 

       “Hey, Kenichi. You still awake?” Kana whispered, breaking the stillness of the night.

 

       Kenichi turned to face her. “Yes, I am.”

 

       “Can I ask you something private?”

 

       “Sure. What is it?”

 

       Kana took a deep breath. “Does it make someone evil if they do bad things for something good?”

 

       Kenichi hesitated before answering. “It's not that simple, Kana. The world isn’t always black and white. There are shades of gray. Imagine a scenario where a Provence has a valuable mineral that can be used to make a medicine that can save millions of lives. However, the only way to extract the mineral is through a process that harms the environment and the people living in the area. The government might decide to go ahead and extract the mineral, arguing that the benefits of the medicine outweigh the negative consequences. But the people living in the area might protest, saying that their health and livelihoods are being sacrificed for the greater good. In this scenario, the government is doing something that could be considered evil by harming the environment and the people, but their intention was good in trying to save lives. This is where the question of 'What makes someone evil?' becomes complicated and there isn't a straightforward answer."

 

       “I see what you mean. It's not always black and white,” she murmured softly.

 

      “Exactly,” Kenichi replied. “When your actions affect others, it's not that simple. That's when you need to ask yourself if what you're doing is worth the consequences. How many people are you willing to hurt to achieve your goals?”

Kana closed her eyes, the weight of Kenichi's words heavy on her mind. She felt a pang of betrayal and hurt as she realized the implications of her own actions. “How much hate would I take? His hate? Sure. The entire region's hate?” The thought was overwhelming. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing thoughts as she drifted off to sleep.

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