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Sousuke's Last Stand

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Rain. Rain for 3 days straight now - so fitting. Sousuke had just received orders to leave. He'd been recalled – someone else was assigned to watch over Chidori Kaname through college. In a week, he'd be back aboard the Tuatha de Daanan.

He sighed in frustration. At least he'd graduated from high school before they called him back to the military life. This was the first real civilian thing he'd ever accomplished. Thinking back to the new set of orders - he bristled at the thought of someone else guarding Kaname. He wasn't feeling that well today, and this didn't help at all.

"When did I start thinking of her by her personal name instead of her family one?", he mused for a moment, before dread washed over him. "I should tell her about my new orders."

This emotional roller coaster was driving him crazy. So much was happening inside of him all at once – it was hard to sort out. He wondered if something was wrong – maybe he wasn't getting enough of some particular vitamin. Later, he'd take a supplement, AFTER he went to talk with Kaname...

It was still pouring rain, as he trudged across the lake in the street between his apartment and hers. He was soaked when he entered her building, and not caring one whit. The mission was to talk to Kaname. Pressing the buzzer to her apartment, he got no answer. “It's Saturday, she didn't say she had any plans. She usually does – so I don't mess them up. Is she ok?" he thought to himself while pressing the buzzer again, and again. Stepping out of the building and looking up at her apartment, he noted the lights were on. So, why wasn't she answering? A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach grew, as he reasoned, "I'm going up to make sure she's ok."

He stepped over to the nearest patio and easily scaled the building. When he reached her veranda, the curtains were closed. Hoping it was unlocked, he tried opening the sliding glass door - so he wouldn't have to break the glass. He was in luck! Letting out a relieved breath, he made a mental note, "No halisen slap for breaking anything." Silently stepping inside and closing the door, he was poised, Glock ready in his hands – scoping the brightly-lit room. He would talk with her about safety and making sure to lock the patio door.

Just then, Kaname stepped out of the bathroom in her bathrobe, towel drying her hair...

Eyes popping open wide, then narrowing, she squinted down into the 'boy you are in SOOOO much trouble' look. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING BREAKING INTO MY APARTMENT SOUSUKE?!" she was so furious that her voice squeaked as she screamed and snatched the halisen off the counter. Lowering his head obediently, he prepared for impact. She didn't even wait for an explanation - SMACK!

"I'm sorry Kaname," he whispered the reply still standing statuesque.

Picking up on the fact that he used her personal name – he never did that before. What was going on in that military otaku head of his? She huffed before letting him continue.

"You didn't buzz me in – I waited...buzzed several times. Lights were on and there was no answer. Something could have been wrong. But I see now, you were showering and didn't hear."

Her look softened, he was always here to protect her. Crazy otaku. "What am I going to do with you?" she gave an over-exaggerated sigh. "Come in, sit down. I'll get changed. Be right back. STAY IN THE LIVING ROOM OR ELSE."

Nodding, he chose not to sit. Goosebumps were forming on his skin – the rain was cold this time of year and his clothes were soaked. A puddle formed at his feet. Opening the curtain, he watched the rain pour outside, refusing to shiver.

She hurried to get dressed and run a comb through her hair. Stepping out, she saw him staring out the window and finally noticed his wet clothes. Something must be on his mind. "Sousuke you're drenched – you must be freezing. Let's get you back to your apartment for dry clothes. Then we'll talk about what's bothering you," she gently chided as she grabbed her raincoat and umbrella.

How could she tell? He'd tried hard to not let it show. Was he letting his guard down?

Walking back across the street huddling under her umbrella – the couple looked like a little mushroom. Glad he lived so close, she put her arm around him to keep him under the umbrella and noticed him stifle a shiver. It was too dark to see his face.

In his living room, she sat waiting at his table. His little apartment was so sparse! How odd - he'd actually acquired a couch this last month. Grinning at the thought of him being "civilized", she concluded he'd never really fit into society, would he?

He reemerged, wearing several layers and looking rather pale with flushed cheeks.

"Sousuke – are you feeling ok?" she inquired. He nodded. But feminine intuition kicked in and she put the back of her hand to his forehead. "Sousuke, you're burning up. Good grief!" Leading him to his couch, she motioned for him to sit and started to fuss about how guys won't admit when they're sick and what her mom did for her when she had a fever, while she dug through his cupboards to see if there was anything to make some sort of soup with.

Sousuke wasn't really listening. He HAD to tell her he was leaving – it took extreme effort to concentrate on that thought as the fever tried to overtake him. Interrupting he blurted, "Kaname, I have to tell you..."

She looked up at him with a package of noodles in her hand.

Starting again, he tried to sit up a bit, "Kaname, I'm leaving next week. For good..."

The noodles were a bomb dropping to the floor with a crunch explosion.

Chapter Text

"What?!?" she demanded, "What do you mean leaving for good?!?"

Curling in on himself a bit at her tone, he explained, "I've been recalled. Someone else will be guarding you starting seven days from now. It’ll be at least throughout your college years." His stomach knotted as he told her and it caused him to pause before muttering, "I won't be bothering you or breaking in anymore, " and pitifully struggled to suppress his feelings.

Blinking a few times, trying to take this in, Kaname slowly walked over to Sousuke. "But...but..." is all she could lamely say.

She plopped down on the large couch beside him, tucked her legs up, clasping her arms around them as they sat in silence. When she gathered her composure again, Kaname knew it probably wasn't any use but pouted anyway, "I don't want anyone else to guard me". Tears streamed down her face after her confession and she buried her head in his shoulder. Uncomfortably, he put an arm around her shoulder. Looking up, she questioned, "Is it what you want? Do you want to go?"

Swallowing, he considered. Did he want to go? Since when did he think about what HE wanted? For 2 years now, his only concern had been protecting Kaname. At first, he was horribly uncomfortable with protecting her. But now, he was forced to leave. He'd grown to like her, to be friends with her, to trust her - saw her almost everyday. What would he do now that she wouldn't be the center of his life? Could he just go back to completing other tasks as assigned? She'd changed him, but just how much – he couldn't tell.

Glaring at him and growing annoyed at waiting for an answer, she challenged, "Well?! Do you or don't you?" Kaname's thoughts instantly raced to Tessa. Maybe he wants to be around her again?

Feeling more uncomfortable than ever and not able to meet Kaname's eyes, he whispered, "No."

Relief flooded in and Kaname ruffled his hair. Teasing him a bit with military lingo, she said, "Well, soldier you’re really sick. Your current orders are to rest, until ordered otherwise. We'll talk more in the morning." He started to get up, but she held him down. Grabbing the blankets and pillow off his cot, she rummaged for some ibuprofen. Too sick to disagree anymore, he allowed her to tuck him in on the couch. She sat down on the floor beside him. In no time, he was snoring quietly.

"Poor Sousuke – they put him in a situation then snatch him out of it with no thought to what he wants. He always does what they tell him. What will it get him in the end?" she pondered. Looking around his apartment, her eyes struck on the communications equipment and an idea formed.

...

After implementing her plan as discreetly as possible, she made some soup and began to feel the late hour. Sleepily she eyed the blanket-less cot. Well, that option was out. 'Mr. Efficient Sousuke' kept his apartment at a minimum temperature. She wasn't used to that at all – and really didn't want to freeze tonight. Spying a small space between Sousuke and the back of the couch, she wondered - did she dare sneak into that space and sleep next to him?

YES – before her chance was gone. Carefully crawling in beside him, pulling the blanket up over both of them, she inched her arm around him. Barely even stirring, he was oblivious as she crawled in with him. His fever still hadn't gone down and she felt arms tensing and relaxing in a dream. Suddenly he jerked in his sleep and screamed at the top of his lungs, "No! Kaname!"

Holding more tightly, she whispered, "I'm here. It's ok Sousuke."

Instant relaxation. But then realization dawned and he bolted up, then scrambled away startled – hitting her nose hard with his elbow before falling off the couch ungracefully. THUD! Looking up at her wild eyed he stumbled over his words, "Kaname? What...what are you doing here...next...to...me?"

Holding her throbbing nose, hoping it wouldn't start bleeding she waited to explain until the pain subsided. Through her hands, her words were muffled, "There was no where else to sleep without freezing and I didn't want to leave you alone because your temp is still high. That reason enough?"

Beet red - head to toe from the fever, the startling realization that she had been lying with him and the fact that he just smacked her in the nose, he was ready for the halisen slap. But this time it didn't come. Meekly he queried, "I'm sorry about your nose – are you ok?" As her nose began to stop stinging, she giggled as he peeled her hands away, "Sorry for startling you."

Muffling several more giggles, she gave up to let out a big laugh, while holding his hand with her own.

Sousuke shook his head. He may never understand girls – just what was so funny?

Playing with his hair again, she teased him with an evil little twinkle in her eye, "I've never seen you move so fast! Am I that scary here in the dark?"

"Uhh...no," he looked down at the floor, "I won't do it again."

Grinning like a Cheshire cat she prodded, "What did you mean by that?" Then switching to take pity on him, she added, "Go ahead and tell me what you're thinking. I forgot the halisen at home..."

That brought him a bit of comfort, but he couldn’t put words to his thoughts quite yet.

In a more serious tone she said, "Maybe I should go home. I’m disturbing you, instead of letting you rest. Should I check on you in the morning?"

"NO!" he commanded, surprising himself with the force of his words. Unsure of quite what to say next, he kept his gaze on the floor as he forced the feelings to congeal into words, "Please, stay – just like we were. I’ve never..." He stumbled, thoughts were fuzzy and if he crossed this line there wasn’t any going back. Hell, it’s not like he’d be here long anyway. "For once, I had what I wanted."

How could she not smile after a confession like that? He'd never spoken so much about anything but military stuff before. The dare had been worth the assault on her nose. "Just for tonight," she murmured as she felt his forehead again. His fever was down a bit. Sighing with relief, she glanced at the glow in the dark clock. 3 A. M. He could have medicine again.

As she got up to get it, he followed her every move highlighted by the silver moonlight that poured into one of the apartment windows. As she returned with the meds and a glass of water, his mind turned over her actions. No one had ever been this kind to him. People were always seeing what they could get from him – what skills he had that they could use. He lived to do others bidding, to obey and to kill on command. More deaths then he cared to count. For the first time – someone actually was caring for him beyond military companionship. Granted those relationships run deep and he'd lost many comrades he cared about – but this was different. Slowly his feelings were piecing together and he could try to understand hers.

Feeling very awkward, they climbed back onto the couch together without a plan of who would be where, and were a bit of a jumble with Kaname on top of him for a moment – blushing profusely. Her red cheeks were even visible in the moonlight.

Then her old spirit kicked in. "Hey! Make up your mind and scoot over!" she demanded.

He ended up lying on his back with an arm around her, while she lay on her side with her head on his shoulder and her arm around him. Taking in all the sensations of her next to him, he hugged her more tightly. He'd never felt so satisfied - so at peace. More thoughts swirled in Sousuke's head. Was this what love was like? If Kurz and Melissa ever found out about this – would they tease Sousuke for not knowing what to do? For fumbling with his words? For being too sick to even kiss her? Cripes, he really wanted to. He wasn't going to let this opportunity pass, fever or not!

Turning, he placed a small kiss on the top of her head and lingered there, causing her to respond by snuggling in even closer. He lay awake for quite a while just reveling in the wonder of being near her, watching her breathe and her hair softly move with each breath. It was hard to believe the moment was real. Finally sleep overtook the soldier and this time his dreams were peaceful – without a weapon under his pillow.

Chapter Text

Morning sun crept over the couch to Sousuke's face. As the bright light hit his eyes, it woke him. Flopping his arm over his eyes and not wanting to wake, his hand hit Kaname's head causing her to stir. Realizing again that she was there, he knew he’d not be able to go back to sleep, but he wasn’t rousting. No way. Never before had he wanted to stay in bed. He'd always been up at the crack of dawn. Now the sun was high in the sky and he didn't even know what time it was. She was here...

Was he still sick? He almost hoped so. Carefully he rolled over and held her tightly to him – lips gently pressed to her forehead. Seeing her startle, he felt a smile appear on his face – for the only time that he could remember. It was hard not to laugh as she tried to figure out where she was. Recalling the last time he held her after he had just knocked her out of the way of a bus and his hand accidentally ended up in the wrong place, he reminisced - boy, did he get a halisen slap then. Things were changing indeed.

Bolting up, her face was a mask of the ‘Oh my God what happened last night’ look. As her memory came back, she sighed with relief. Catching a glance of his expression, she considered him more closely. "You're actually smiling – I can't believe it! I've never seen you do that! What's going on in that military otaku head of yours?!"

"I slept soundly without my Glock under my pillow for the first time,” he commented to her.

Again, she gave him a double take. She'd never considered him sleeping with his trusty gun at his side before – but it sounded right – it was ALWAYS with him. "Really?" she verified. He nodded. Snuggling back beside him she realized that maybe he really was changing.

Just then, a sharp knock at the door made them both jump. Kaname silently groaned in frustration and hit her head on Sousuke's shoulder as Kurz hollered outside, "Hey Sousuke you slacker – some girl called us on your comm equipment last night saying you wanted more time off before you came back!"

Sousuke slapped his forehead in disbelief - he DID NOT need this to be happening right now. Kurz wasn't supposed to be here until next week.

"Go away – I'm not feeling well. You'll catch it," Sousuke hollered only hoping it would work.

Melissa chimed in, "Ready or not here we come!" A slight picking at the door and WHAM! It slammed open. Followed by a lightning fast shuffling on the couch and finally a completely red in the face Sousuke and Kaname were sitting up at least a foot apart from each other – trying to act nonchalant. But the telltale blankets on the floor taunted them – they wouldn't disappear no matter how much either of them wished for it.

Kurz whistled loud and long and commented, "Well my boy – finally figured out girls did ya? And what a sickness they are...Hope I...HRMMPH..."

Melissa, beaming from ear to ear, had elbowed the blonde soldier so hard in the side that he scowled.

Kaname gave him the look from hell. She’d planned on making breakfast and then telling Sousuke about her actions last night, hoping to smooth this over a bit. Then the couple could talk about his future on their own terms.

Deciding to end the stalemate, Kaname stood up and offered to get breakfast for everyone from the shop down the street. Immediately Kurz nodded. Melissa agreed too, since she hadn't eaten in 16 hours.

Sousuke was NOT going to be left alone to be tortured by these two. "I'll come with you – I know what they like." He grabbed his coat and practically pushed Kaname out the door, leaving Kurz and Melissa howling with laughter behind them.

Sliding her hand into Sousuke's and smiling, she said, "Nice retreat."

He grimaced at the thought of what they'd face when they got back. Running his hand through his unkempt hair, he realized they'd also get unusual looks in the store with their wild wrinkled appearance and holding hands in public.

"So what did you do last night when I was asleep?" Sousuke tried to casually query to cover his anxiety. He couldn’t remember ever sleeping so hard – it must have been the fever. Also, he hadn't taught her how to use the common equipment yet.

Kaname had been hoping he wouldn't ask yet, but gave in, "Just as they said. I called to ask if you had any sick leave or vacation you could take before returning. There's a lot to do and you'll miss at least a day from being sick. But they wouldn't give that information to me. Can you believe it? Kurz should have! I thought it was just you who was so closed lipped..."

He shrugged. Knowing she hadn't said everything, he prodded gently, "When did you learn to use a sat phone?"

Her lips pursed. Whispered abilities were so handy when trying to figure out something electronic. Stopping, she stood on her tip toes to quietly murmur in his ear, "I'm trying to keep you here as long as I can. Do I have security clearance with you now?"

It was his turn for a double take. Holding her hand tighter, he took the lead to the store. Sousuke no longer felt like a lost puppy here in Japan. He had a purpose – even if it might not last more than a week.

Chapter Text

Sousuke and Kaname returned with breakfast and her halisen - to ensure as little guff as possible. But Kurz and Melissa weren't around. She shot a quizzical look at Sousuke, who shrugged a ‘darned if I know, but it can’t be good’ expression and began setting the table. Who could tell what those two might dream up?

The couple had begun breakfast, when Kurz and Melissa sauntered in. "We're ba-a-ack!" they teased and it reminded Sousuke of a bad horror flick. Melissa was carrying a bottle that looked like cheap wine, while Kurz had a brown sack in his hand. Melissa pulled four wine glasses out of the sack, popped open the bottle, and started pouring. Silently, Kaname pleaded with Sousuke to stop these two lunatics. He was about to intercept as Melissa raised her glass, "To Sousuke and Kaname – we thought you'd never get around to it!"

"Here, here!" Kurz lifted his and gulped down the whole glass, then handed the sack to a non-plussed Kaname. Snatching it before it reached Kaname, Sousuke feared Kurz’s perverted plans, as the blonde sergeant blabbed, “Those are for you two. You may need ‘em - they're for more than hauling water in the desert you know, Sousuke."

The younger sergeant bolted up slamming his hands on the table, seething in embarrassment, then tossed the sack over into the trash. "STOP IT RIGHT NOW!" Sousuke commanded and Kaname slapped Kurz with the halisen, which sent his plastic wine glass tumbling. Kurz and Melissa looked blankly at each other then at Sousuke. Sagara continued, "You are my comrades, but this is rude – it's embarrassing me AND KANAME. None of THAT happened! I was sick and Kaname took care of me."

Giving a yeah right nod – Kurz loved to push his luck. "But, you two on the couch... it was so... kawaii ..." Kurz protested.

Readying her halisen again, Kaname aimed for Kurz. He ducked behind Melissa, but Sousuke grabbed him by the shirt collar and decked him, as if it was a fight to the death. Still holding Kurz's collar, Sousuke watched the blonde's head whip back. Released with a growl from Sousuke, Kurz plopped down nursing his jaw.

Kaname mentally noted Sousuke did seem to know what THAT was. Sometimes she had actually wondered. Seeing more of the human side of Sousuke- especially his innocence and honor, made her so proud.

Straightening her grin and as best as she could, Melissa stated boisterously, "We're just glad you two have admitted your feelings for each other. We wanted to show you we were thrilled, Sergeant!" She smartly snapped him a salute. Glaring, Sousuke didn't bother to return it. Kaname glowed, he'd defended her reputation, when some guys would have been tempted to bolster their own in front of friends.

"Boy, you sure have changed Sagara. You're lucky we're all off duty right now," she retorted.

"But he's also stayed the same, Sis," Kurz jumped in and winked, "always doing what he understands to be right. I knew they'd be a couple, ever since the plane hijacking incident when he tried to get her to run, and she wouldn't leave us there wounded."

Wondering to herself if Kurz and Melissa had ever admitted their own feelings for each other, Chidori didn't ask for fear of too many details.

Kaname leaned back in her chair, sighed and shook her head. This seemed to be the end of the teasing for a while anyway...for once she didn't have to slap her Sousuke with the halisen – it was someone else. The aroma of fresh food was a siren to the two hooligans and they dug in with gusto. When Melissa finally dabbed her mouth with a napkin, she asked, "So, now what?"

Kaname raised an eyebrow to Sousuke in question, before asking the other two, "What would it take to get him reassigned to protect me again?"

"At least you're direct Missy," Kurz noted. "Well, we anticipated this. The Captain didn't sign that transfer. Above her head. And we can't predict what happens if he fights it."

Sifting back through his memories to all the times Kaname had said she hated him, wouldn't talk to him, or just put up with his persistent presence, Sousuke reveled in seeing her trying to help him stay. She’d changed too.

Settling in, the four of them talked about the best way to get Sousuke's transfer cancelled or postponed. It was unanimous that Sousuke should go back early. While Kaname knew it would be the easiest way for him to work on the problem, her disappointment showed clear as day. She’d counted on the time left with her boyfriend. Now instead of seven days with him – she had only two. Why did she wait until the last week to show her feelings? It was obvious Sousuke would never be the first one in that department. They’d acted like they had all the time in the world.

"Our little angel looks like she'll miss you, Sousuke. She's pouting." Kurz beamed.

"Who? Me?" Kaname tried to laugh it off – in her typical that's not really the situation at all guise. No one fell for it.

...

After Kurz and Melissa left, Kaname was wondering just how much of the next few days she could spend with her beau. The obnoxious pair had already threatened to stay in town until Sousuke left. They weren't planning anything else were they? Well, make the most of it girl! "Sousuke, what all do you need to do in the next two days? You'll have to talk with the landlord, deal with bills, and - oh - it's Sunday. Tomorrow we'll do bills. What do you need me to do?" She insisted on helping.

"Hmm..." he wrinkled his brow and thought. Apparently she wasn’t familiar with a mobile military life. He just had a little packing to do. "Maybe we should get ready for the day. I can take care of what I need to and meet you at your apartment," he suggested.

She gave him a disbelieving look and suppressed a sleepy yawn. For her sake he continued, "I’ll take care of this quickly." Looking at his watch, he suggested more boldly this time but revealing no hints, "I'll be there at 1500 to pick you up. That will give you sufficient time for a nap and be ready to go."

"Go where?" she inquired.

His plan wasn't quite complete. He'd only been mulling it since the four of them decided he should leave in 2 days. "That's classified until 1500. I will call you if there is anything you'll need to bring."

Sticking her tongue out at him, she contorted her face with her hands – like she did on the train the one time she tried to get away from him. It irked her when she didn’t know the plan.

Seeing her pick up the halisen, his eyes darted to it. Standing there motionless, unresponsive, he waited. Once again the slap didn't come. "Well, then I guess I'll take the hint and go. Are you sure you're feeling well enough?" she shared her concern.

He nodded.

"Make sure to eat some soup – or else, you're just getting better." Tucking the halisen under her arm, she marched to the door.

"Understood," he remarked. As he watched her look back at him, there seemed to be a question on her face. Then she lifted her chin, left and shut the door.

Now, to implement his new plan.

...

Thinking to herself, she wondered if she should have kissed him before she left. "Oh well, it's Sousuke," she reasoned. Her stomach growled and she lamented not grabbing some of the soup for lunch. Oh well again – she was too tired to think straight anymore. There was serious need for a nap before he arrived. Of course, he'd be right on time. Knowing him, he probably set his watch each day to match atomic time.

Chapter Text

Sousuke wasted no time getting ready for the day. There was much to do before 1500. Checking the weather report, he contacted Kurz and Melissa to make transportation arrangements for him - flatly refusing to let them know what he was up to, even though Kurz begged. The sergeant had groceries to buy, supper to pack, charts to check, gear to get ready, and his stuff to pack.

...

Kaname was still trying to decide what to wear, when the phone interrupted her decision process. Sousuke direct as ever stated, "Kaname, I need you to bring a change of clothes."

"Um...why? What are you thinking?" she asked full of suspicion. If he would be here in front of her, she'd be readying her halisen. No turning into a Kurz now that she'd admitted her feelings for him.

"You'll want something to change into if you get wet. That's all I can reveal. See you in half an hour," was all he said before hanging up. It made her suspicious, which made the time pass even more slowly.

When the buzzer rang, she was still trying to figure out what he could be up to. Two minutes early. She wished her apartment had a security camera – so she could at least see what he was wearing. Hearing his knock, she decided to take her time to answer – so she wouldn't appear too anxious to see him.

When she opened the door, his gaze lingered - taking her in. The little sundress she wore really showed off her figure. Snapping his thoughts back to his purpose, he nudged her along, "We should get going to get the most if it. It will take awhile to get there. Where's your bag?"

She gave him a suspicious look, "No bombs, grenades or Kurz and Melissa plans involved? If so I'll leave the halisen at home..."

He nodded, "Affirmative. Perfectly safe."

"Do I get to find out where we're going yet?"

"Not yet. When we’re on our way..."

His light colored T-shirt and shorts contrasting with his tan skin said that he must have seen some sun on those missions last school year. The wind had tousled his hair a bit and it suited him perfectly. Her breath caught.

"If I can't trust him – I shouldn't go," she questioned herself. Deciding, and grabbing her bag, she took his hand. They stepped out of the building to a small SUV already running, with Kurz getting out of it. Melissa was in an identical one behind.

Giving a low sweeping bow as they approached, Kurz flashed his GQ cover grin. "Transportation for you and the lady as requested," he flaunted, lady-killer mode in full force. Maybe Melissa would notice and she'd buy him a beer tonight?

Kaname was about ready to go back for her halisen, when Kurz opened the passenger door for her, then raced around to open the driver's door for Sousuke. Sitting down, she asked a little surprised, "When did you get your license, Sousuke?"

"When I turned 18." He shrugged it off as Kurz shut the door, "I've been driving for years though." Resisting the temptation to tell Kurz not to follow them, Sousuke knew better. It would only encourage those two to really follow him. The pair had sworn up and down that they already had plans for the night. If they were bluffing, Sousuke would be ready. Though, knowing those two they'd probably hit the bars until the wee hours of the morning. When he pulled out, Sousuke told Kaname they were headed for the bay. Traffic wasn't as heavy as he had anticipated and they arrived at the marina ahead of schedule. Kaname looked in wonder at all the sailboats. So he had rented one of these? Nice. She loved the sea – he’d chosen well, and this explained the change of clothes.

To Kaname’s surprise, Sousuke didn't go to the marina shop to get the keys for the boat. He pulled right up to the floating dock and headed for a sailboat, motioning for her to follow. "I'll load the boat in a bit – Come see it first," he called. Looking completely at home here, he hopped on and helped her up. She'd never thought about him as a sailor – but he WAS assigned to a submarine. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. As she was being helped up – she noticed the name on the side of the boat, "AL 2". Sousuke ran his fingers through his hair, not used to showing off. "I bought this Sydney 32 after I went fishing with you that first time. Now, I sail and fish whenever I can. I've wanted to bring you out here to fish with me for a while, but..."

She looked around, eyes flashing as she noted the fishing rods in the cabin below. Cutting him off, she cornered, "Fishing? That's what we're going to do with our next two days?" Leaving the halisen behind may have been a bad idea. She counted to 10. Fishing? Ugh – not very romantic at all! That's what they did last time before he had to go. Sousuke may have a long way to go yet. She sighed. At least they would have the time together.

"Negative. I thought I'd teach you how to sail," he saw her eyes brighten as he explained. Hopping off the boat, he called "Wait there!" as he went to retrieve her bag and park the vehicle. Looking around with new eyes, she sat down and bit her lip. How much had she'd underestimated him?

After tossing her bag and a basket on deck, he untied the mooring rope and jumped back aboard, raised the anchor, and started the engine. The cool breeze was refreshing. To keep her hair from blowing around too much in the wind, she quickly braided it.

Turning off the engines when they'd gone far enough to raise the sails, he gently tugged her hand, encouraging her to get up. The wind was perfect for sailing today. Stepping up behind her, he put his chin just over her shoulder so he didn't have to raise his voice as he pointed out the different parts of the boat. Though his hair tossing in the wind tickled her face.

Then pulling her over to the sails, he showed her how to hoist them. Doing some last minute checks, he scooted in behind her and showed her how to turn the boat with the tiller and how to use the wind to tack. They sat there together just enjoying the sun, the wind and the gentle rocking of the boat on the sea. Leaning back to rest her head on his shoulder, she felt truly at peace - wondering why he hadn't shown this to her before. Impulsively, she kissed his cheek.

Sousuke stood a little taller. Here in his boat, he could be free; he could relax – this was his domain and Kaname was here to share this time with him.

Starting to feel hungry, she inquired, "So what's in the basket?"

That popped his thought bubble. "Oh...," he fumbled as he refocused his thoughts, dousing the sails and letting down the anchor before starting toward the cabin. She followed and tried to get a peek at what he’d packed.

Meticulously, he set out deli made bento lunches with her favorite kind of bread, pop, and even Pocky. A twinge of guilt began to eat away at her. He had been watching her so carefully the last two years – he even knew what she liked to eat. Meekly she smiled and joined him at the table in the cabin. Did she ever pay attention enough to know what he really liked? "Sousuke..." she began and faltered. She wasn't quite sure how to say what she was thinking. He glanced up with his full attention. All she could manage was, "Thank you," and he nodded once in return.

Gleaning that the date must be acceptable so far, "We should hurry if we want to see the sunset," he urged as he looked out the cabin. Standing up, he grabbed a sweatshirt from the closet and held it in her direction.

Looking at him expectantly, she gingerly took it. Feeling he should say something at least, he brought up, "The temperature will drop – you'll want it."

She relaxed, thinking that he was sometimes a master of the obvious. Obediently she put it on, as he stared at her – hypnotized. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he began to head up out of the cabin when she cleared her throat expectantly, "A-hem". He turned and looked questioningly. What did she expect?

"I know this is new territory for you, Sousuke. But, I think it WOULD be appropriate for you to hold my hand. People who date usually have a little more contact," she softly chided.

He acquiesced and she intertwined her fingers with his.

Arriving on the deck, Sousuke let go of her hand, gazed out over the ocean and murmured, "How do you know what to do next on a date? Is there some behavioral code? I know how to teach you to sail, but...you were just there with me last night. Everything was easier then..." Looking particularly morose, he was a goldfish swimming in a saltwater tank when it came to dating. What NOT to do was evident from Kurz's stories, but that was about it. Maybe things weren't going so well anymore.

Taken back a bit, Kaname sensed he was feeling out of place. She always seemed to have expectations of him, yet she’d only had one date before this. Should she be so demanding? Considering, she answered softly, "The whole idea is just to be together. To learn more about each other, I think. I haven't dated much either you know. We do what we want, but there's not an overall plan in it. It's about learning and experiencing together, as far as I understand it. Hopefully we'll learn to read each other and know what to do next. Our date has been great so far." She let that sink in.

Expertise took trial and error...practice. The idea of not having a carefully laid out plan was perplexing. Relationships were so much more complicated than piloting an AS; there was even training and a manual for an AS. But not everything would be as natural for him and he was probably in the middle of training right now. Letting out a breath, he nodded – feeling a little confidence return. "So we do what we want and improvise?" he verified just to be sure.

“Yep.”

Her mouth turned up as he stepped closer. Drawing her face to his, he tenderly placed his lips to hers. Her hands gravitated to the back of his neck, and he pulled her tight to his chest. Nope, he wouldn't mind more of this at all. No wonder Kurz talked about girls so much.

She had waited for that kiss for over a year, and finally it was hers. Relishing the whole experience, they were oblivious to the sun's shrinking rays coloring their faces.

...

Kaname stirred. The smell of breakfast invited her to continue waking. Dreamily she propped her head in her hands and smiled at her soldier, preparing an omlet.

Recalling last night as they cuddled on the couch in the cabin - when he nuzzled his head in her shoulder and whispered regretfully, "I should probably take you home..." He didn't move to get up - didn't want to. Emotions were clouding his head.

She didn't want to go home either – she wanted all of Sousuke's remaining time here. There wasn't anyone waiting at home for either of them. It would be ok, right? Granted, there had been some misunderstandings in the past. But he'd listen if she asked to go home.

Tenderly kissing his ear, she whispered back, "I'll stay. I trust you."

He was a perfect gentleman.

Chapter Text

The last day passed too quickly... Sousuke's Tuesday 0700 departure had arrived.

He only let himself look back once, while she could see him. But after takeoff, he was unable to look away from the door, trying to will it away so he could reach out for her. Putting her hand on Sousuke's shoulder, Melissa knew leaving Kaname today was one of the hardest things Sousuke would ever do. Fate had played an especially cruel trick on him – as soon as he realized love, he had to leave unsure when he'd return.

When words came to him – he mused out loud, "She wore the bracelet today. I had given it to her just after we met, so I could track her if I needed. Me tracking her appalled her then. Never thought she'd wear it."

Kurz attempted to lighten the situation, the down mood started to get to him. "Well, my boy, you know that girl – if you don't return soon, she'll hunt you down and pummel you with that halisen of hers." The jest had the effect of a water balloon on the metal wall around Sousuke. Melissa groaned. The six hour flight to the meeting with Captain Testarossa, just got longer.

...

Tapping his past experiences, the sergeant forced himself to refocus. A soldier can't let himself be overpowered by leaving someone behind. He had to keep looking forward, because the core of who he was hadn't changed.

...

Saluting as he walked into Captain Testarossa's office, he didn't waste time. "Thank you Captain, for allowing me to meet with you about reassignment." A curt nod pricked his intuition that she wasn't thrilled.

Direct was likely the best way to proceed and get this over with, so he laid it out, "I want to be the one to protect Chidori Kaname. What will it take to be reassigned to protect her?"

"It's not possible. That's already been decided. It's out of our hands," she brusquely denied.

"When I was reassigned to her last time, after the plane hijacking incident – it was no problem. Why is it different this time? I am her insurance and am finally starting to think about my future," he declared.

Never had he been this pushy before. In the past, he’d go about his orders, never showing like or dislike - just obeyed. Why was he behaving so differently? Was it true he had fallen for Kaname? Thoughts surfaced of when she took a vacation and visited Sousuke's school.

Taking a big breath, she gained momentum putting her petite hands squarely on her desk and raising the volume in her voice several notches, "You weren't in Japan to build a relationship soldier! This was not a paid holiday for you to go dating Miss Chidori! You have been given a promotion and a choice assignment. Can’t you appreciate one so tailored to your talents?" Her anger had peaked and she felt tired from it already. What she said was harsh, and it probably showed more about her own feelings than she wanted. No time to take it back now.

"Understood, Captain," he stated through gritted teeth, carefully keeping his eyes on the floor. Every muscle in his body was tense as he continued, "My tour of duty is up in three weeks. It may be time for me to think about my future outside of Mithril."

A gasp escaped Tessa’s lips. With new anger building, she rebutted in the only way she could think of without going off on him again, "You're dismissed Sergeant!"

He saluted, overstating the whole gesture. Tessa returned it halfheartedly as he left the room. So it was true, her head dropped and tears began to fall on her desk. This feeling of helplessness tortured her far too often.

...

Later that day, Tessa hunted Sousuke down. She'd attacked him because she’d been jealous and it nagged at her. "Sergeant Sagara!" she called down the hall.

He turned around to see what she wanted, "Yes, Captain?"

"I owe you an apology for my outburst today. I'm sorry." She couldn't bring herself to admit to him why it happened. But she was apologizing and that's what counted. Meekly she added, "I'll do what I can. I know it means a lot to you. Though, I truly don't know if we can change it. Sure the promotion can be turned down, but we really need your experience training new AS pilots. And someone else has already been assigned to Miss Chidori, it is felt the risk for her is minimal now."

He nodded. "Thank you, Captain. Permission to speak freely?"

She nodded affirmation, and he confided, "You're stronger than you think you are."

Turning, she walked down the hallway to the bridge with confidence and grace in her step.

...

Sousuke made a beeline to the range. He was STILL edgy, and target practice usually helped him focus. Nodding acknowledgement to Kurz, Sousuke took the lane beside him. As he was just about ready to fire, a few other soldiers walked in. Seeing Sousuke, they chuckled to themselves, "Hey look at that! Sagara's back. I heard he had a whole two years guarding some hot chick in high school and didn’t make a single move. Bet he’s too socially clueless to even have kissed one of those cute gals and he was surrounded by them!"

Sousuke's eyes narrowed as he brooded to himself, "Do they think I can't hear them with this headset on?" Granted, he was used to getting guff for being the straight man, but today it finally got to him. Squeezing the trigger several times, he hit the silhouette target directly in the forehead every time. Meanwhile Kurz coughed hard several times, to try to overcome his laughing fit.

Peeking around the corner when Sousuke retrieved his target, the blonde flashed a huge grin and conspiratorially whispered, "Hey little Bro, those guys think they have you pegged. But WE know better." His eyes widened and he whistled as he saw how close the pattern on the paper target was, "You're an even better shot when you're angry. Man, you are SCARY sometimes!"

Shrugging, Sousuke was about to pack up, when Kurz pulled a picture out of his pocket and handed it to him. "This was the ID shot I had of Chidori in Japan. She was a few years younger, but I thought you might want it."

Sousuke nodded and accepted gratefully. "The Sergeant Major won't have to buy you a beer tonight, I will.”

...

Two days later...

Tessa was just leaving the teleconference with Rear Admiral Hover at Headquarters. He'd been the one who had signed Sousuke's original reassignment and promotion to Staff Sergeant. Keeping her promise wasn’t easy and the meeting didn't go well. She spotted Melissa, "Sergeant Major Mao, please, have Sergeant Sagara meet me in my office in ten minutes." Melissa saluted, before heading in the direction she thought he would most likely be.

...

When he ran into Kurz, Sousuke had just returned from Tessa's office.

"Man, you look like you could use a beer – even more sullen than usual. Why don't I buy you a drink this time?" Kurz suggested as he put his hand on Sousuke's shoulder to lead him to the bar.

Sousuke unloaded on Kurz, telling him about Tessa’s efforts and how they wanted to promote him to Staff Sergeant and have him train AS pilots.

Kurz inquired, "Well, little Bro, what now?"

"I'm turning in my resignation tomorrow. My tour lasts only 2 weeks, 4 days and 3 hours more," Sousuke confessed.

Beer spewed out of Kurz's mouth, all over the table and Sousuke. "What? You? A civilian?" Kurz's laughing hysterics were stopped by Sousuke's unflinching stare. "You mean you're SERIOUS?"

"Aren't I always?"

"I mean... it will do you good to be in the real world for a while. But ...Wait a minute...You and Kaname did it. Didn’t you? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be throwing away the only life you’ve ever known to go somewhere you really don't fit in... just for her." Kurz gave an exaggerated wink, thinking he'd figured it out.

Rising indignantly, Sousuke’s stare bored into Kurz - who put his hands up in surrender. Remembering his swollen jaw from Sunday, Kurz relented, "I'm just surprised, that's all."

"I need to call her before it gets too late and I need to change," Sousuke managed as he left his comrade gaping.

Chapter Text

Back in his quarters, Sousuke flopped in his bunk and dialed Kaname. Thanks to the De Daanan's superior technology, the crew enjoyed being able to make calls home via cell phones, utilizing the sub's signal booster and access to communications satellites.

The phone kept ringing... "Where could she be?" he wondered. He would let it ring 5 more times before hanging up. About to give up, he closed his eyes in relief when she answered a little breathless.

"Hello?" she panted.

"Kaname. It's Sousuke."

"Sousuke! Why didn't you call me sooner? Did you get reassigned? Where ..."

Before she could interrogate him any further, he calmed her. "One question at a time..."

Kaname flinched and quieted, "I kept hoping you'd call."

"I waited until I had news... They won't reassign me to you. The risk for you is minimal now and I am needed elsewhere..."

She seethed, "What?! You're just gonna go along with this? I can't believe..."

Before she could get any further in her tirade, he interrupted, "No.” When her mouth clamped shut, he had her attention. If he were there with her, he'd have just narrowly dodged the halisen. “I'm putting my resignation in tomorrow. I'll be back in 19 days.” Silence on her end. “So what were you doing before I called?"

She sniffled pitifully as she replied, "I just got back from shopping with Kyouko. We bought new swimsuits and summer dresses."

"Are you ok, Kaname?"

"I will be."

"Then, will you do two favors for me?"

"Of course. What do you need?"

"I need an application to Tokyo University with a study guide for the entrance exam. And would you see if the landlord rented out my apartment yet? I’ll need a place to stay.”

“Okay.” She picked her jaw up off the floor. “Sousuke. You're actually looking to the future…”

It hurt too much to hear her voice as reality was sinking in for him. He’d be leaving all he knew behind. "I'll call you again soon."

"I'll be counting down the days! I can’t wait to have you back for good!"

...

With a warm glow in her heart, Kaname hugged her pillow. He was coming back soon and giving up the only life he knew to be with her! What could she do for him to show that she loved him? Love Sousuke? Well, she really must! They hadn't said it to each other, but she'd remedy that soon – and she'd do something for him ... just what should it be?

Kaname sprang out of bed with the idea fresh in her mind to make a few phone calls.

...

The days seemed to dig in their feet, kick and scream to not pass as they were dragged along, but finally Sousuke's last day came. First off, he had weapons check in. Dread loomed – he'd never had to go anywhere without a weapon before. Heaving a large sigh, he toted his cache behind him.

Commander Mardukas mulled as he walked down the hall to the armory that he'd never been fond of Sagara. The youth was not an ideal soldier. But the very thought of him in the civilian world was even more frightening than him staying in Mithril. Mardukas was shaken from his thoughts by a crisp voice, "Sergeant Sagara reporting for weapons check in, Sir!" He didn't even look up to see Sousuke salute, "Sergeant, let’s get this over with. Checklist. Now."

Sousuke handed over a thick packet of paper. Mardukas's eyes bulged in surprise then squinted.

"3 RF detonators, " the Commander grunted. Sousuke retrieved the weapons and placed them on the table. The commander neatly checked off the weapon. "1 taser...check" "30 directional buckshot mines...check" "45 M61 fragmentation hand grenades...check" "1 Steyr AUG assault rifle with ammo...check" "155 Flash grenades...check"

Mardukas paused and put his hand to his head, a headache was forming in his skull. "What in the world were you doing with all those grenades?" he bewilderedly asked and then thought better of it, "No. I don't want to know."

"1 AK-47 with ammo...check" "10 rocket propelled grenades...check" "1 Barrett model 82 sniper rifle with ammo...check" "32 MK 3A2 concussion grenades...check" "1 M-79 grenade launcher...check" "1 M-203 under rifle grenade launcher...check" "10 pounds of C4...check"

Mardukas's eyes bulged and then he just shook his head and continued.

"2 reels of primer cord...check" "1 box of detonators...check"

...

Two and a half hours later...

"Good God Sagara! You had more than half the armory!" Mardukas snarled.

Finally, he announced the last item on the list... "One Glock 26 pistol..."

Sousuke reluctantly unbuckled his belt and pulled off the holster with his old friend in it. The Glock and he had been through much together. Running his fingers over it's barrel one last time, he bid farewell.

"Hurry up soldier, we don't have all day! That weapon wasn't yours to begin with!" Mardukas snapped. As, the Sergeant slammed the pistol down on the table, the commander snatched it up and tossed it carelessly into the pile.

"Check. You are now free to complete the rest of the checkout process, Sergeant. Dismissed."

Sousuke smoldered as he headed to the next stop. Violated, that’s how he felt - like he'd been strip searched for drugs.

...

After all the bustle, Sousuke wandered around the ship, just taking it all in and letting the memories flow. He found himself in the hangar standing before AL. His eyes traced every line of the AS's sleek form. It was Kaname who first helped him use the lambda driver. Without her, he’d be dead. Though, he never fully understood AL, and wondered if the next pilot would surpass his feats. For old times' sake he climbed into the cockpit.

"Begin voice print check. Your name and identification number please," AL mechanically requested.

"Sergeant Sagara Sousuke. B-3128."

"Check complete. Confirmed as Sergeant Sagara. Give your orders now."

"I came to say good-bye AL. I've resigned and go home tomorrow. Good luck with your new pilot," Sousuke felt odd talking to this machine – it had no emotions. But he just couldn't leave without saying something. Looking at his watch, he calculated the hours and minutes left. Time to try to get some sleep before the long flight. As he climbed out of the Arbalest, he heard, "Unable to process. Repeat command."

Sousuke shook his head and sauntered to his bunk.

Chapter Text

At last, Sousuke's first morning as a civilian arrived. He hadn't slept a wink and felt incredibly apprehensive. He'd said his goodbyes to his comrades and left a forwarding address with anyone who asked. Now, it was time to board the plane for home. Home – had he ever really had one? No...Tokyo was his first.

Stepping into the hangar carrying his duffel, he felt odd in his blue jeans, T- shirt and flight jacket with the Arbalest's patch on it. Fatigues and his old school uniform were much more familiar.

As Sousuke entered the quarterdeck of the De Daanan, he looked out and saw most of the crew on the dock. What caught him off guard was that everyone wore their dress uniforms – standing in parade formation, arranged by department and divisions. Then he saw the Officer of the Deck motion him onto the gangplank. Stepping forward, he felt unsure. The bell rang out with two strikes, then two more, and finally two more. Then the familiar call of the boatswain whistle sounded and the words "Sergeant Sagara Sousuke departing".

A lump formed in his throat as he walked toward the plane past each of his crewmen. Kurz and Melissa had conspiratorial smiles plastered on their faces. Kalinin and Tessa were the last in line. Tessa whispered to Kalinin. He said with a twinkle in his eye, "Good luck, my boy," and then barked, "A-bout face!"

The whole crew turned around. Tessa threw her arms around Sousuke, as he stiffened and turned crimson. Speaking quietly in his ear, she wished him well, "Thank you for the confidence you've always had in me. Good luck." He self-consciously hugged her in return. Just as Tessa let go of Sousuke, Kalinin gave the ok to turn around. The crew whooped and hollered as they saw their Captain stepping back from the blushing ex-sergeant boarding the plane.

...

Jittery, Sousuke could not sit still. He’d always been able to remain calm before today. Having no weapon made him even more unsure of what lay ahead of him. Being cooped up in the plane only made him want to get out and give it a push. Crap. Two hours left. He tried to tell himself that it wasn't very long and he'd waited much longer for objectives before. But looking at his watch every few minutes was driving him crazy and he fidgeted in his seat.

...

Kaname tapped her foot on the runway impatiently and scanned the sky. A glint caught her eye and a small speck appeared, growing larger on the horizon. It seemed to take it’s sweet time to land.

"Geeze, finally!" she thought.

The plane tormented her, crawling as it taxied, then stopped farther away than she thought it should. Resisting putting her hand on her hip and pouting, she reminded herself that she was here for Sousuke.

Stepping out of the plane, duffel over his shoulder, he’d meant to say thanks to the pilot - but there SHE was waiting for HIM. As soon as he reached the last step his duffel hit the ground, Kaname was sprinting for him. Her arms flew around his neck and she kissed him, practically knocking him over. This was worth all he'd endured. He didn't want to ever let her go.

Absorbed in each other, oblivious to everything else, they missed the pilot pinned against the window snapping pictures.

As they walked back to the car she'd rented, he seemed troubled. She teased, "Hey, you look hot in civilian clothes, Sousuke. You might even become, well ... civilized."

"I still prefer fatigues. Probably always will."

"Do we need to stop by the JSDF surplus store on the way to your apartment?" she pressed with a sly grin.

"Uhh, no. I'm going to wear these clothes for a while, to get used to the feeling of being a civilian."

"How long will you be able to stand it 'till you have to wear cammo again?"

"I feel more naked without my Glock - keep checking for it, thinking it should be there."

She suppressed a grin, trying to present an understanding look.

...

The door shut at his old apartment - spartan with only the couch, table and chairs that the landlord hadn't bothered to move out. Candles ornamented the meticulously set table. Soft music was playing. Kaname stepped over to Sousuke and put her arms around his waist pulling him to her. "There's something you need before I start dinner." Kissing him deeply, lingering, caused his breath to catch. "I've been planning this for quite a while and waiting for the day that you came back. First we need to take this off." She slid his jacket over his shoulders and down off his arms and tossed it aside. Caressing the back of his neck then around and down his chest - oh, she definitely had his attention and reveled in it, smirking devilishly.

A whimper escaped before he could smother it, his eyes wide with innocence and surprise. This was so sudden - where was the girl that would hit him over the head for even accidentally putting his hands in the wrong place? His voice went up 3 notches in the course of the next phrase. "Uhm... Kaname is this the right thing to do right now?"

"Yes, Sousuke. It's the perfect thing to do right now. You'll have a little more confidence after this."

Under her spell, he closed his eyes and kissed her with all his pent up intensity.

"Ah – ah – ah!" she chided putting her finger to his lips, "Stay still."

Reaching over she pulled the cover off something on the table, then slipped it up over his arm and reaching around him carefully supporting whatever was attached to the strap - tenderly placing her lips on his shoulder in the process. He blinked, utterly confused - she wasn't the type to be into anything weird... was she? He gulped.

Her breath was warm on his ear as she murmured, "Sousuke, now let me put your other arm through." Obedient, he was starting to be a little wary as she kissed where another strap covered. Then realization dawned, feeling a familiar weight by his side.

Whispering again into his ear after kissing his cheek, "I wanted to tell you I love you. Couldn't think of a better way to help you not feel so naked and lost. You have time to play before supper," patting that weight and it gave a metallic clink.

His mouth gaped. He'd been duped and confessed to all at the same time. Giggling, she meandered over to the kitchen. "What were you thinking it was going to be, Sousuke?"

"Uhm...That's classified," he said sheepishly while running his hand through his hair, causing her to burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Meekly, he looked down and pulled out the gun, it felt so familiar in his hands – a Glock 26. Dumbfounded, he questioned, "But... how did you know?"

"I've only been watching you for two years, you know. I should know a few things about you."

Putting the pistol back in the holster, he ran over and swung her around, kissing her. "I love you, too. Th...thank you." It was all he could say as he laughed. He was a fool – but he was a fool in love.

"Now go play. Out of the kitchen while I cook!" she commanded.

Grinning from ear to ear, he sat down in the living room. He'd never had a real childhood. This was the closest thing he'd ever had to experiencing Christmas or a birthday, and he was a boy happily checking out his present. Taking the weapon out of the holster, he aimed it, and repeated this several times. Then he field stripped the gun and put it back together, repeating this too.

Kaname snapped a picture – Kyoko'd have a blast seeing Sousuke practically giddy.

Noting him put it back in the holster and leaving it there for a while, she said, "There's ammo on the table for it. After that runs out you buy your own." His crawling scramble made her stifle another giggle.

...

During dinner Kaname told him the story of how she obtained the pistol.

"After you called me from the de Daanan, I wanted to show you how much I loved you. When I realized they would take away all your weapons, I knew what to do. But I had to figure out what your gun was called first. So Kyouko and I searched through all her pictures to find a good one with your old one. Then I called my father and told him more about how you'd protected me the last few years and emailed him the picture. He and I both wanted to show our appreciation. So, he arranged the connection with Mr. Torokito. He's one of Father's childhood friends, who also happens to be the uncle of Mikihara, the school president's attendant. Remember, you helped her father's mob gang out last year? And I paid for the gun when Mikihara delivered it with lunch in the bottom of the basket. That was the most expensive food I'd ever bought. I think you owe me dinner out, mister."

"Affirmative. I really owe you," he conceded as he looked at her with more than a little awe.

Chapter Text

Kaname was washing the dishes and Sousuke was putting away his present, when they heard a knock at the door.

"Hey Sousuke let me in, even if you have a girl in there!" Kurz pounded on the door and hollered, "I know you two are in there – get decent and let me in!"

Holding her hand up, Kaname signaled to Sousuke to stay put.

The door cracked open, exposing only her face, fingers wrapped around the door, and part of her bare leg. "I'm sorry but we're busy right now – please come back later," she quietly said and put her finger to her lips indicating silence.

Blinking at Kaname, Kurz would have passed out but the lecherous side of him willed him to remain conscious.

"Kaname! Let him in. Don't give him any ideas!" Sousuke hollered. Swinging the door open to reveal she was modestly clad in a t-shirt and shorts, she doubled over in laughter sputtering, "Isn't shock value great?"

Kurz whined as he ambled in, "Oh man! She has an evil side to her, Sousuke – watch out!"

"Tell me about it!" Sousuke replied grinning at Kurz, who wearily plopped onto the couch and placed a long package at his feet.

He leaned back and gently kicked it over to Sousuke. "Here little bro, I thought you might feel exposed without any weapons. So I brought you a gift."

Sousuke, tilted his head slightly, questioning.

"Well, go ahead – open it," Kurz urged as Kaname came to sit beside Sousuke.

Tearing apart the package, revealed a Mauser SP66 sniper rifle. He ran his fingers up the length of the barrel and over the sighting scope. Then no longer able to resist, he aimed over at the wall.

Looking up at Kurz, gratitude welling up inside, he managed with voice a little thick, "Thank you big brother." Taking Kurz's hand firmly, he helped him up to give him a gruff bear hug.

"Well, now put it away, you don't want to leave your toy lying around," Kurz chided. Sousuke obeyed and pulled the cushions off the couch to open his weapons trunk, swaddling the rifle as he put it in.

A glimpse of the Glock caught Kurz's eye. "Well, well – what do we have here? You weren't weaponless?" he prodded as he reached for the pistol.

"Uhm...you would probably say, I got lucky," Sousuke admitted conspiratorially with color in his cheeks.

A gasp escaped Kaname – he actually joked and a BAD ONE at that. Wrapping her arm around his head and rubbing her knuckles in his hair, she retorted, "Revenge will be sweet, moron! I'll bring my halisen tomorrow!"

"Ow! Uhm... Ow!" Sousuke sniveled as he tried to escape – like a cat backing away from water. This wasn't a ‘comfortable’ position for him being next to her chest – especially in front of Kurz.

Kurz snorted a surprised laugh at the two, and perched on the floor slapping his knee. Putting the pistol back, allowed Sousuke to re-cushion the couch after he freed himself. They all crawled onto it as there was another knock at the door.

"Sousuke, it's me Mao. You here?" Hope was in her voice.

Sousuke shrugged and went to let her in. She was also carrying a package. Tilting their heads, Kaname and Kurz simultaneously moved from the couch to the floor. They were going to have to get up anyway.

Mao made herself comfortable, as she watched Sousuke open the present. Victoriously, he held up the AKS-74U shorty assault rifle. Kaname and Kurz clapped and OOH-ed appropriately. Hugging the rifle, Sousuke gratefully responded, "Thank you, Sis."

Melissa shrugged it off saying, "It's nothing – just had to take care of my little bro."

Kurz pulled the cushions off the couch, so Sousuke could add the new acquisition to his personal armory. Slapping her forehead with her palm, Melissa rolled her eyes as she saw the other weapons in the trunk. They'd beat her to it. Kaname put the cushions back. When everyone but Sousuke sat on the couch, the ex-soldier mused as he beamed with joy, "It's only June. But, this is how I always thought Christmas would be like if I'd celebrated it – together with my family."

Another knock at the door made them all jump and they all piled to the door. "Special delivery for Mr. Sagara Sousuke from Captain Testarossa and Lt. Commander Kalinin," the Mithril deliveryman winked as he announced the large crate.

Kurz couldn't restrain himself from saying, "And Santa just arrived with his box full of toys for the good little boy." Everyone helped him drag it inside.

When Sousuke had finished emptying the crate, an RPG-7V bazooka with 7 boxes of flash grenades, a sat phone and manuals lay on the floor beside him. Wondering if the grenade launcher would fit in the trunk, Sousuke read the letter that came with the crate.

"Dear Sousuke,

As you already know, you're still on the reservist list with Mithril for 2 years. We wanted to personally supply you with a few things that may come in useful – should the need ever arise.

Enjoy!

Tessa and Kalinin"

...

Kurz spying Melissa about to doze on the couch, said, "Hey sis, let's go buy each other a beer." She held out her hand for him to help her up. Then with guilt checking him, he started his confession, "Sousuke, I need to tell you something."

The younger Sergeant looked up at him, placidly.

"Well, you see. It's like this...Do you remember when those guys were dissing you at the shooting range – that you'd never know what to do with a girl?"

Sousuke nodded.

"Well, I made them a bet...and I owe you the picture and the negatives."

Sousuke and Kaname both leaned forward with an eyebrow raised.

Pulling out a packet of negatives and the photo from his coat pocket, he confessed, "I had the pilot take pictures of when you two were reunited. Then I showed those jerks this one, of you two almost making out on the runway and made them pay up. I bought the rifle with that money. Best Wager I’ve made in years!" Handing them to Sousuke he shared the real doozy with eyebrows waggling mischievously, "I was really tempted to sell them. Could have made a mint!" Melissa slapped Kurz up the backside of his head and dragged him out by the ear, "Come on Kurzie."

Sousuke just shook his head, set the items aside, and leaned back on the couch with his arm around Kaname. Who could have a better first day as a civilian?

Chapter Text

The next evening...

Sousuke's thoughts relentlessly replayed the conversation before Kaname had gone home. She’d been quietly resting in the niche of his shoulder with his arms wrapped around her, when she sat up with a serious expression on her face. Looking up into his, she point blank asked, "Sousuke why are you applying to the same college as I am?"

"To be with you." There wasn't any other answer for him being here, away from Mithril. He was simple, predictable in this way. Shouldn't she have known the answer?

"Have you thought of what you're going to do? You can't just follow me around all my life. What if we don't make it as a couple? What will you do?"

Sitting in stunned silence, his thoughts whirled. Why couldn't he just follow her? Granted, he'd be getting a Criminal Justice degree, then likely apply to the police force. But, a future WITHOUT her? He struggled to push that ten ton thought out of the way. What did she want from him? Wasn't she happy just being together? Now that the threat to her was minimal, wouldn't they have a peaceful life – together? A deadly serious look shadowed his face.

Expectantly, she waited. No answer came.

"Sousuke, I love you. I didn't mean to put you in a bad mood. I'm sorry. I need to go – I promised Kyouko I'd go shopping with her in the morning. It's late and I need some sleep. She knows you're here. But, I can't wait to tell her you're back for good. See you tomorrow." She crawled off the couch, ruffled his hair, and kissed him on the forehead.

When he saw her out, he held her so tightly that she had to ask him to let her breathe.

With what felt like an ominous thud, the door shut. Left alone for that awful question to haunt him, he stared ahead lost in his thoughts.

...

Snapping back, he shook his head. "Get a hold of yourself. The soldier inside you wouldn't have let that thought control you. The civilian won't either," Closing his eyes, he focused himself with a deep breath.

...

Glock safely tucked under his pillow, Sousuke tried to find a comfortable position on the couch. Had he been foolish to hope that Kaname would stay the night? He tossed. Why did she have to start that conversation before she left? He turned. He beat his head on his pillow. 'This is getting you nowhere...STOP the 'what ifs'!' he rebuked himself inside his own head.

In his peripheral vision he saw the table, then his eyes lighted on the Tokyo University registration form and entrance exam study guide. Why not do something – get your mind off this? Sleepily, he trudged to the table.

...

0300 hours. Sousuke's head was nose down on his study guide. His breath a little ragged, eyes tracing REM patterns on his eyelids, the happenings of his dreams tried to force themselves into reality as he screamed, "KANAME!"

Sweating and shaking, Sousuke awoke, hearing what must be his own voice as the nightmare replayed in his head...

Locked in her whispered state, she lay shrieking on the verge of mental collapse. Outside the room unable to get in – nothing he did would penetrate that wall. She was helpless and all he could do was watch.

Mind jolting as it switched gears to reality, he recalled the song Kaname made him listen to the day before...

Softly opening my heart

If I pull you toward me hard

I'll certainly get through to you better

Well...

Living busily, squeezing out everything

My legs get tangled

But I always get ahead with them

Taking it, catching it

If it isn't you

It has no meaning...

His head drooped and he ran his hands through his hair. Was he so obsessed with Kaname that it made him unstable? Or was she the first normal part of his life - unsettling all he had made do to build his life around? What would happen if she were gone? Everything was adequate. No. Better than that, at least until that conversation a few hours ago. Should he call her to be sure she was alright or should he just let her sleep?

"Focus," he demanded and forced himself to obey his own order, as his eyes roamed to his pillow... "Of course..." - a placid look replaced the insanity.

The Glock, her gift of love. He scrambled over to dig the holster out of his armory trunk.

Sliding it on, he recalled every touch from her as she put it on him the first time. Comfort came from the hug of the straps around his shoulders. Sliding his Glock into the holster, he closed his eyes and stood taller. Kaname knew him so very well. Did she imagine he'd find consolation from it in the early hours of the morning, when she planned this gift? This Glock wasn't something to shove under his pillow – it was meant to be at his side, especially when she couldn't be.

An ache still nagged at his heart, but he didn't feel like he was losing his mind anymore. Should he call her? Affirmative. Better safe than sorry.

7 rings...8 rings...9 rings... "Uh, hello?" she answered – sleep and annoyance messages subliminally being sent to the offending caller.

"Kaname, are you ok?"

"Sousuke! Argh. Yes, I'm fine. What are you doing calling me at...3:25 A.M.?"

"Uhm...sorry."

"Listen, it's sweet of you to care. Now go to bed. I'll stop by your place before I meet Kyouko in the morning. Ok?"

"Understood."

...

He flopped on the couch, relief and sleep flooding in like the tide.

Chapter Text

1000 hours.

"Why hasn't Kaname shown up yet? Her phone is busy too...has been for at least an hour." He sulked and noticed the developing habit of talking out his thoughts.

A soft knock at the door interrupted his thought train. Maybe it was Kaname? Heart lifting, he answered the door.

But it was Kyouko, "Uhm, Sousuke, sorry to bother you. Have you seen Kaname? I stopped by her apartment to go shopping with her. But there was no answer. I tried calling, too..." Her words halted when she saw the color drain from his face.

"Stay here!" he commanded and shoved his cellphone into Kyouko's hands. Not waiting for Kyouko to respond, he bolted out the door.

Pouring all his speed into is run, he felt like he had lead in his shoes as he dodged and leapt over cars in the street. "I'm coming, Kaname," he whispered to the air as he shot the door lock at the base of her apartment building and hit only every 3rd stair on the way up. The apartment door yielded to his Glock as he simultaneously kicked it open. Frantically, he called out for her, searching each room.

Collapsed on her bedroom floor, head lying on her cellphone, Kaname was droning out Black Technology secrets. "Kaname!" his primal scream had no effect. She just kept murmuring until the phone clicked signaling the end of the call. A shriek rocked the apartment before she went limp.

He knelt and scooped her up, cradling her and shaking her gently. Brushing the hair out of her face, he demanded, "Come on! Snap out of this, wake up! Kaname!" Panic replaced his adrenaline rush. When he realized it had become more of a whiplash effect, he stopped shaking her. Coming to his senses, he pleaded, "Please, Kaname, wake up..." Putting his lips to her cheek, he picked up her phone and took a screenshot of the number for the last incoming call. Next, he dialed Kyouko.

"Uhm, hello? Sousuke? Is Kaname ok?" Kyouko anxiously blurted.

"No time for explanations – behind my couch is a sat phone. I need you to get it and contact Mithril for me. I'll talk you through it."

...

On the sat phone, Kyouko's nervousness peaked, "Ahhhh, hello? I'm calling in place of Sousuke...err I mean URZU-7...Please respond."

"WHO IS THIS? IS THIS A JOKE? THIS BETTER NOT BE CHIDORI AGAIN!" An unforgiving tone entered the already hard voice.

Stunned and blinking, she replied, "Ahh, I'm Kyouko. Her friend." It was hard to listen to Sousuke's directions and pay attention to the voice blaring at her from the radio.

"WHAT IS IT WITH YOU GIRLS USING MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT ASSIGNED TO SAGARA?" the voice demanded.

"LISTEN HERE! This wasn't my idea. Sousuke asked me to do this. So you just listen to what he's telling me from the phone to tell you, will you?" she shouted back, her frustration venting at the gruff voice. Picking up speed, she babbled the rest, "Kaname was in something Sousuke is saying is called a Whispered State. She wouldn't snap out of it. She was lying on top of her phone murmuring something he calls Black Technology. The call ended and she screamed and passed out. I heard the scream all the way across the street. He needs to get her to something called the Whispered Facility pronto. He also needs an expert on Whispereds available in 10 minutes. He'll call back on the sat phone then. Do you understand me?"

She was bawling and trembling by the time she finished.

A much meeker, "Yes, Mam. Understood. Will wait for URZU-7 to re-establish contact. Mithril base out." was the reply.

"Good girl, Kyouko," Sousuke soothed, "Now bring me the sat phone and help me with Kaname."

Ineffectively, she wiped at the tears with her sleeve and lugged the heavy case there as fast as her short legs could move, working her way through the gathering crowd.

Kyouko elbowed past the curious onlookers and squeezed into Kaname's apartment. Dropping the boxes and slamming the broken door behind her. "Sousuke?"

"In her room. Get some hot wet towels – we need to warm her up. She's going into shock."

Obeying she returned with the sopping, steaming towels to witness Sousuke caressing Kaname's face as she lay on the floor. Hearing the water dripping on the carpet, he took the towels and asked, "Has someone called an ambulance?"

"Yes, should be here any minute," she replied as he carefully wrapped Kaname. What little of her nightgown showed, now became transparent from the wicking effect. Kyouko's knees buckled under her, and she put her fists on the floor to support herself as she wept. "Sousuke, will she be ok?"

"I hope so," he replied forlornly, eyes glued on the girl he loved. Shaking his head, he forced himself up to call Mithril headquarters.

Chapter Text

During the plane ride to the Whispered Facility, Sousuke just clung to Kaname, rocking her. There was nothing else to do in the between time. NOTHING he could do for her, nothing but accompany her. He viciously hoped that she would wake up and they could go back. His hand throbbed, it was his only reminder that this wasn't his dream.

Previously at the hospital:

No doctor at the hospital had been able to help her – after several hours of tests all they could tell Sousuke was something traumatic forced her into a coma. Their futile words only further provoked the wounded tiger, pushing him to break and he slammed his fist into the hospital wall right next to the doctor's head. His rage had scared off most of the hospital. Security would be on their way. Picking Kaname up, he hustled her to the roof – their rendezvous point with Mithril.

Kyouko stayed behind to take care of the chaos at the two apartment buildings. Tessa would meet them when they landed to escort them to the facility. Now they were over the middle of the ocean halfway between home and their destination.

Sousuke carefully played the scenes from previous experiences back in his head. Kaname had only naturally Whispered in her sleep or when she needed to understand something technological. When she had been kidnapped – they had used a visual stimulus to try to trigger her capabilities. The phone call had to be the trigger, but how? Could he have prevented the call in the first place by insisting she stay with him? Why wasn't her newly assigned protector there to help her too?

When he contacted Mithril before the ambulance had arrived, the Whispered expert had been waiting to talk with Sousuke. Dr. Shou said to bring Kaname in – just as Sousuke had planned. It was hurry up and wait while she was in a coma. He sounded very concerned as he explained that three other Whispereds had been flown in earlier with a similar experience. They'd all been found in a coma state next to their cell phones.

"What about Captain Testarossa?" Sousuke questioned, feeling a pang of concern for his former Captain.

"She's fine. Under strict security. All communications for her are being sent in person or on paper," Dr. Shou reassured.

"So this may not just be transmitted by cell phone?" Sousuke put that piece into the puzzle.

"We're afraid so, we'll go over this with the response team when you arrive."

...

Fading sunlight gave the plane a fiery hue as it landed. Tessa waited in the ambulance on the runway, for Sousuke and Kaname. Deep concern etched her face, as she saw Sousuke carry Kaname down the stairs toward her. A large tear slowly traced a path down her face, and she took a big breath to ward off any more. She had been a heated rival with Kaname over Sousuke, but never wished any evil toward her. If circumstances would have been different, maybe they could have been good friends – sharing what it was like to be a Whispered, yet trying to live a life of one's own.

Kaname was the same color as the pale hospital sheets that Sousuke had wrapped her in. Her head bobbed up and down against his shoulder as he ran with her. Though, Tessa noted that she looked at peace. What had she gone through before the coma? Kaname had been one to fight her Whispered tendencies, trying to live as a normal high school girl.

Stomach knotting, Tessa hoped that tendency didn't make things worse for Kaname. Why hadn't she taught Kaname more about the Whispered state? "If Kaname gets better..." she shook her head at that thought, "No, WHEN she gets better, I will teach her more - then maybe she and Sousuke can have a more normal life."

Sousuke carefully laid Kaname out on the stretcher and sat down. He grasped her hand and entwined her fingers in his, while the paramedic silently but obtrusively began to put EEG electrodes on Kaname's head. Sousuke put his other hand over one of the sensors and the paramedic gently removed the Sergeant's hand, with a sympathetic shake of his head.

Seeing her hooked up to a machine like this, Sousuke's brow furrowed. Tessa, sensing his distress, pushed past the paramedic and held Kaname's other hand. No words were exchanged between Sousuke and Tessa in the ambulance on the way to the Whispered Facility, just mutual concern.

...

Thirty minutes later. Briefing Session at the Whispered Facility:

Sousuke, Tessa, Mardukas, Kalinin, Dr. Shou, Mao, Kurz, plus a few doctors that Sousuke didn't recognize – a Dr. Hankin and Dr. Sandiaz sat at the planning room table.

Shuffling a few papers in her folder, Tessa began the meeting, "Ladies and gentlemen, HQ has received intelligence that a week ago, two Whispereds were kidnapped by terrorist forces in Algeria. They've used the Whispereds to develop a Black Technology triggering device – which emits a set of frequency intervals – just barely past normal human detection. With this, they're able to attack a Whispered through communications devices such as cellphone or radio, and force that person into a Whispered State – evidently then they begin recording the Whispered's technology secrets. The problem is, when the forced state is started it is traumatic to the subject. After the frequencies are halted the subject goes into shock and then a coma. At this point we are unsure if there is any long-term damage to the subject..."

Tessa concentrated on breathing deeply for a moment before she could continue. This was hard news to deliver.

With his face pained, Sousuke glanced up at Tessa, then down at his notes. The corners of his mouth fell and his mouth opened to almost say something during the pause. The soldier inside him knew better, so he smothered the avalanche of emotion inside himself and let his face settle into a stern visage. No amount of outburst about the apparent failures of the assigned protectors for the Whispereds would help Kaname or the others right now.

Closing her eyes momentarily to concentrate, Tessa had been staring at Sousuke and it was bringing him unnecessary attention. Going back over her notes, she continued, "The call to Miss Chidori was the longest. We were able to trace the source, but were unable to determine the exact goal of the perpetrators – whether they were retrieving Black Technology to sell it or whether they were looking for something specific. The call was ended before we were able to determine." She sat down, ending her intro.

Everyone in the room could read the growing anger in Sousuke's look. Kaname had been used as bait.

Rising, Kalinin continued the briefing and the lights dimmed as the projector turned on. "The response team will make a strike at 0500. Here are the latest satellite photos of the complex, just south of Adrar in the Sahara. The two Whispereds are believed to be in this section of the complex." Using a laser pointer, he highlighted the northeast corner to the row of buildings. "Their strongest points are there and in the opposite corner. We will make our strike here in the center. Resistance is expected to be heavy. Intelligence suggests that they have acquired a batch of ASes. Sgt. Sagara – you are being called back into active duty and will be assigned to the Arbalest. More specific orders and assignments will be discussed with Sgt. Major Mao, after this meeting." Kalinin rested in his chair and crossed his arms, indicating he was done.

Dr Shou was next. "There is still one test we wish to run on the Whispered victims. Captain, we would like to request that you attempt to contact one of the victims via the Whispered State. We know that it's possible to communicate in the state, maybe more can be gathered from an attempted contact."

Tessa nodded her agreement, "I would like to attempt it with Miss Chidori, since I have contacted her before."

He nodded and resumed, "Then with your permission Captain, we'll begin the test in an hour."

Sousuke looked at his watch – 1700 hours. He might be able to be there for the test. Deciding to be bold, he requested, "Captain. Dr. Shou. May I be there for the test?"

Mardukas scowled.

Dr Shou glimpsed Tessa’s ok, before consenting, "I don't see why not."

Dismissing the meeting, she bee lined it for Sousuke, as did Mardukas. But, Mardukas cornered him first and began to vent his anger on Sousuke. "Sergeant, I don't know what the hell you were thinking, but you damned near destroyed all our input when you broke into Miss Chidori's apartment hollering like a hooligan. You were the one responsible for us not finding out what they were after. Do you hear me Sergeant? Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Sousuke swallowed and clenched his fists. He had nothing to say that was fit to say to a superior officer.

"Commander, stand down!" Tessa couldn't believe what she was hearing. Mardukas had always been a father figure to her. He stammered to stop, stunned. Treading further, she pointed out, "What if the Whispered had been your wife? What would you have done? Sousuke did what any man in his position would do. You are dismissed, Commander."

Mardukas indignantly exited.

In amazement, Sousuke whispered, "Thank you, Captain." She smiled and replied, "See you in an hour."

Chapter Text

Clicking of shoes and boots on the tile floor disturbed the silence in the dimly lit monitoring room for the Whispered victims. Screens with EEG readouts were above the beds. None of the Whispereds had made any progress so far. Contacting one via the Whispered State was risky, but there were no other options to try.

Leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed and more melancholy than ever, Sousuke watched Tessa and Dr. Shou by Kaname's side. Dr. Shou was a young American, of Chinese descent. His tender demeanor endeared him to his patients. It made Sousuke wonder if he was also a Whispered.

Kaname lay there motionless on her back. Tilting her head, Tessa closed her eyes to key in on the state. The familiar swirling of images and sensations began. Feeling an acute awareness of her surroundings and the other Whispereds, she spoke out loud for the benefit of the onlookers and her voice became hollow, "Chidori-san. It's me Tessa. We are all concerned for you. We need you. We need you to come back to us. We need your help – you are one of several to have been attacked. Please, help us."

Tessa's head bobbed forward and her braid slipped out of the hand that had been twirling it, as what was happening in Kaname's mind trickled forth from her mouth. "Help me...Help me please. I can't get out..." Kaname was pleading, crying helplessly.

Sliding helplessly down the wall, Sousuke crouched frozen, head down, hands on the floor in front of him supporting himself. The Wall from his nightmare was right in front of him.

Tessa lilting her head back again, replied, "We here for you. How can we help you? What can we do?"

Kaname replied in panic, "Where are you? I can't see you. I can't move. Help me... please"

Tessa soothed, "We are here in the room with you, doing all we can. Try to open your eyes or move you hand for us please..."

The readings on the monitor above Kaname spiked wildly and Tessa screamed out for Kaname – the sound reverberating in the air. As Tessa collapsed, Dr. Shou caught her.

Sousuke couldn't hold still any longer. Filled with dread, he sprang over to Kaname like an arrow shot from a bow. He held her head in his hands and pressed his forehead on hers and pleaded, "Please, Kaname. Hang on for me, please." For the first time he could remember, he was almost in tears.

"Sousuk..." Tessa's head drooped as Dr. Shou scooped her up. Tessa's eyes slowly opened, "Uh...where am I? Dr. Shou?"

The doctor let Tessa down and she gingerly stepped away from his strong frame. He reiterated the situation, "It's alright, Captain. You contacted Kaname and she started to react badly – but things have calmed down now. Thank you for doing what you could. Go and rest." His dark eyes looked into hers as he put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. Looking down, blushing and then back at him, she nodded before heading out.

"Sergeant, do you want to stay here with Kaname until you need to leave for the mission? She seemed to be asking for you. It may be good for her to know that you are here," Dr. Shou softly offered.

"Affirmative, Doctor," Sousuke whispered, choking back his emotions.

The shyness made Dr. Shou smile as he walked away, "Understood. We’ll get her back, soldier."

After making sure the doctor had left the room, Sousuke gently climbed into the bed on his side, next to Kaname. Not wanting to hurt her, he pulled his booted feet back so they hung off the bed. He tucked his chin in by her shoulder and put his arm around her. Her breathing seemed like she was asleep.

"Kaname, if you can hear me... The doctor said I could stay with you for a few hours until I need to leave for the mission. I'll be on the assault team to take out the group that did this to you. So much is going through my head right now. It was just like my nightmare last night..." his hushed words dropped off as his throat tightened. He wanted to stay with her – to stay here until she woke up, IF she woke up. But he knew his duty. A small comfort came from the fact that she still wore the bracelet he gave her. Kissing her cheek, he nuzzled beside her, and began to watch the clock.

...

Departure minus 12 minutes...

Kurz was about to walk into the Whispereds' room to roust Sousuke...

Beep beep! Beep beep! A high-pitched watch alarm went off. Shaking his head as he waited, Kurz should have known his friend would be punctual.

Sousuke stealthily turned off the alarm. Running his fingers through Kaname's hair, pushing it out of her face, he murmured, "I have to go now. I'll be back as soon as I can." He kissed her tenderly, slid covertly off the bed, and resigned himself to his duty.

When he walked through the door, a slap on the back made him jump and shook him from his thoughts.

"Well, lover-boy – you really have it bad...I feel for you," Kurz lamented. His own former girlfriend was far away in a hospital and he sent all his money to support her. One night when he'd been slobbering drunk and Sousuke helped him get back to his bunk, he'd shared the story.

"I know..." Sousuke growled and glared at Kurz, but his spirit settled a bit as they walked to the hangar. He recalled that Kurz hangs on through this, day in day out, and so would he. Though, he still felt like blowing something up to let off tension. Would he be able to utilize the swirling dread, anxiety, and need for revenge in the Arbalest? Or was his focus too far off?

In the dimly lit room, Kaname's lips mouthed Sousuke's name...

Chapter Text

Flight to Algerian Sahara...

The URZU trio - each had a role after the initial strike. Melissa was to take out as many of the enemy ASes as possible and provide cover – then destroy the facility. Kurz would retrieve the FWS (Forced Whispered State) and destroy any evidence of it. Sousuke was to take out their communications and retrieve the Whispereds with any data extracted from them. When completed, a C-17 would land and wait for the group to return.

Each of the pilots had just climbed in their ASes – they were nearing their destination, ready to parachute in. Dawn had not yet arrived in the Sahara, but the clouds provided a small amount of cover. Sousuke sat waiting in the Arbalest, fighting jittery nerves setting in. His body twitching with anticipation. "Al, I didn't think I'd be your pilot again. Are you ready?"

"Affirmative. No other pilots have been accepted. Please issue command," the hollow voice responded. Sousuke shook his head at the irony – he was stuck with Al, like it or not. Or was it the other way around?

The green light was given and the three ASes plunged out of the plane. Once in the air, parachutes popped out and made the ASes sway like children's swings. One hundred feet until touch down - Sousuke concentrated on relaxing before impact. WHAM!

The feet of the Arbalest hit the ground hard, leaving small craters and jarring Sousuke's skull, before the machine's knees bent and rocked forward to stifle the effects of the impact. Even though the ASes had an incredible shock system, landings were the rough part.

"Not a problem," Sousuke told himself as the AS righted itself. He pulled the picture of Kaname out of his glove and hung it up with velcro on the back. Why they didn't make pockets in AS suits was beyond him.

"This one's for you," he promised to Kaname's early teen picture, then his eyes narrowed. Growing anger for what they did to Kaname welled up - familiar like the revenge he used to fight with when he was a child in the guerrillas. Switching mental gears Sousuke gave the command, "Al, initiate Lambda Driver."

"Affirmative, starting Lambda Driver diagnostics" Al's computerized voice confirmed and the cabin went red. "System, ok. Executing main system boot up wizard...20 seconds to release." The lambda driver cams locked in place, Al's fins extended, and the vents opened in the back of the Arbalest kicking up a small sandstorm. Sousuke could hear the hiss from the vents even from inside. "Lambda Driver initialization complete."

"URZU-7 to URZU-2 and URZU-6, do you copy?" Sousuke radioed for his companions.

"Loud and clear URZU-7," Melissa confirmed.

"Damn! Don't you just hate those landings? My brain feels like Jell-O." Kurz whined.

"Stuff it URZU-2. Until attack, maintain communications silence. We've got quite a hike over these dunes," Melissa grunted.

...

Wind howled over the tops of the steep dunes, spraying sand like water, as they neared their target. The Sahara looked more like a Martian landscape than Sousuke had remembered, but he could almost feel the turban cloth wrapped over his face again and the hot wind forcing sand into every nook and cranny. Small tufts of vegetation appeared atop the smaller crests as the cloaked ASes waded. Blowing, shifting sand was erasing land rover and camel tracks in the flattening landscape. The walled adobe compound with its multiple domes blended into the landscape. One dome on the side peeped out from the wall – it housed the satellite-communications dish. Only shadows differentiated the building from its surroundings. This compound was unusually tall for buildings of this area – AS units must be stored inside.

"Ready boys?" Melissa verified. Sousuke pulled the Boxer 57mm scattershot from the back of the Arbalest as Kurz and Melissa readied their ASG96-B 57mm smooth bore guns. "Now!" Melissa ordered. The cloaked figures could be heard running, but one could only see the footprints and the small sand clouds that were kicked up.

Kurz uncloaked and opened a hole in the wall at the center with a Javelin missile. The small plume was spotted too late by a century at the southwest corner who yelled "Get the Whispereds underground!" and sounded the alarm. One shot from Kurz knocked him out of his turret. What was left of the body fell to the ground with a few soft thuds, leaving the bloodied turban cloth fluttering in the wind. Kurz and Melissa rushed through the opening.

Wanting to catch the Whispereds before they were hurried underground, Sousuke rushed the wall and used the Arbalest's left hand to help him clear the hurdle in one bound. Al's feet crashed into the satellite dish's adobe dome and Sousuke ripped the dish from the pedestal – hurling it at his oncoming attackers. Several foot soldiers were taken out and most of the rest fled into the nearby building. Only a few remained to fire at him with their machine guns. Sousuke noted that these turbaned soldiers didn't have the dark hair and tanned Algerian skin. So, they were cowards trying to blame another culture. It added to his rage.

"Main communication and Whispered attack system out. Now the Whispereds..." he check-listed the completed item out loud for the others' benefit over the radio.

...

Meanwhile Kurz and Melissa fought their way to the communications building, which housed the FWS. One soldier with a grenade launcher was particularly annoying. Melissa was getting tired of dodging those pesky grenades. After a roll forward and uncloaking, she sprang to a kneel on one knee and aimed, striking the attacker.

Taking the cue, Kurz ran and flipped his GRAW-2 into his AS's hand and stabbed the launcher like a cockroach. Holding the knife above his head he offered, "Sis – want me to Bar-B-Q this little morsel for you tonight? You Chinese eat a lot of weird things."

"Idiot! Get going!" she barked and searched for the ASes that intelligence had reported.

"I just love to see you pissed off – you're more aggressive!" he retorted as he ran into the building. Shots started flying at Kurz from every direction and Abrahms tanks rolled into view firing directly at him. Kurz jumped to dodge the deadliest part of the swarm, but one shell seemed to track him. The outside casing was discarded in mid-flight and it lodged into his AS's right leg. Coolant trickled down. "Aw, Shit! I've been hit." Kurz sent a missile in the tank's direction and watched the explosion intently.

"Warning, hull breached," the M9 complained. Kurz's eyes bulged as he noticed the "shell" had a lot of legs and was cutting into his AS. He took a swipe at the six-legged intruder with his monolecular cutter, but the insect moved quickly and began its work farther up near the M9's hip. A little shaken, Kurz kept swinging and dodging as he radioed, "Umm – URZU-6. I was hit with some sort of AI bug – it's breaking into my M-9 – probably hoping to disable me. Damned fast little bastard. Watch out for the things!"

...

Fighting had died down near where the Whispered hostages were kept. "Not good. They must have them underground by now," Sousuke reasoned out loud. Entering the Northeast building, he spotted a scrawny teenager with short sandy brown hair, standing in front of a large hole in the floor, holding his hand out as if asking Sousuke to stop right there. A number of dead turbaned soldiers lay in front of the boy. Robot spiders were just crawling off their victims. Rack after rack of computer equipment was against the far wall. To the side stood a Whispered pod – being disassembled by another group of bugs.

"I know you're there, you might as well uncloak and save your energy. You must be here to rescue us. So, I'll be retrieving my twin brother. The rest of the bugs are under his direction. If you have comrades with you – tell them the ASes are in the building next to us," the young man with a Swiss accent apprised, with his hand on his hip.

Sousuke was unsure whether to believe him, but concurred, "Understood. URZU–6, I've found one of the Whispereds. He says that the ASes are one building over."

"Roger, thanks for the info. Heading to help URZU-2 then will head there," Mao gratefully responded.

"I'm Hagen. Don't suppose you could give me a hand down into the tunnels? They should be large enough for your AS and I may need your help," he asked as he stepped forward past the bodies, expectantly.

Kneeling, the Arbalest held an open palm out for the boy to climb into. "Hang on," Sousuke ordered as he jumped down into the tunnel. Cushioning the land in a kneel, the Arbalest rocked forward onto one hand.

"You ok?" Sousuke questioned the boy who clung onto the Arbalest's thumb.

He nodded and his bright green eyes gleamed as if he had just made a new friend. "What's your name?" Hagen asked curiously, trying to make conversation along the way. The bugs followed them close behind.

"You can call me URZU-7 for now," Sousuke relented only a little as they walked briskly down the corridor.

"Uh – ok. People don't generally trust us when they find out what we are."

Sousuke thought about this. He trusted Kaname and Tessa - Kaname implicitly. What would make people not trust Whispereds? Well, there was Leonard... "Negative. The Whispereds I know well – I trust."

Hagen turned his head surprised. Uncomprehending he defied, "Well, we suddenly start blurting out this super technology info and we understand things most people don't. We're different. People just usually want to use us for our talents and not get to know us. It makes people nervous to be around us most times."

"I do understand," Sousuke reflectively replied and picked up the pace.

"Do you? How could you?" Hagen was a little annoyed.

"I've never fit in either," Sousuke gloomily confessed.

"Oh...I see...Well, my brother probably went this way..."

The pair continued, with only a few directions from Hagen, in a mutual understanding.

Chapter Text

Even though the lights were dim, they seemed bright to Kaname. She struggled to turn over and put the pillow over her head. "Ugh," she groaned, it was all she could manage. Her head felt like it was splitting in two, she was in a place she didn't recognize, and Sousuke wasn't there with her. Hadn’t he been here? Maybe she shouldn't try to get out of bed – the day was starting out on the wrong side anyway.

"Miss Chidori?" Dr. Shou quietly asked as he stepped into the room.

A muffled and grumpy, "Who's asking? Where am I? And where's Sousuke?" came from under the pillow.

"I'm Dr. Shou. Glad to see you're awake. You're the first of the victims to regain consciousness. Sergeant Sagara brought you in yesterday and stayed with you as much as he could before he had to leave on the mission. He was even here when the Captain tried to contact you in the Whispered State."

"I don't remember any of it. Can I have something for my headache?" She was playing with her bracelet to relieve some of her frustration.

"Sure. I'll have the nurse bring it right in. May I call the Captain in? She wanted to know when you woke up."

Kaname nodded, feeling out of place.

...

(Sahara Desert: In the tunnels under the complex...)

"Warning. M6A3 detected 50 meters ahead and closing..." Al's perfunctory voice sliced the silence. Deftly, Sousuke moved the Arbalest's index finger up to where it's mouth would be – to indicate to Hagen to be sure to remain quiet.

"Hagen, I know you're coming...what poor fool did you bring with you?", a voice echoed in the tunnel, and sounded like Hagen but a lot more cocky.

"Uh – oh. Anton, my brother is the one in the AS. Do you want to call for backup?" Hagen doubted.

"Negative. This will not be a problem. Stay here and wait for me to return," Sousuke answered in his usual terse manner and set Hagen down.

"But..."

"STAY HERE. I WILL RETURN."

Deflated and afraid for his rescuer, Hagen kicked at the dirt and sat to wait.

...

In the meantime, Kurz and Melissa had their hands full with that one little AI bug. It had managed to get into Kurz's hull and disabled the AS's right leg and was working on the cooling system, when Melissa arrived. She didn't want to shoot or stab at his AS – but she had to do something soon. "URZU-6, EXACTLY where is it?"

Kurz pointed to the M9's abdomen. Melissa grimaced – the bug was working its way to Kurz. "If that bug comes any closer, I want you out of there. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Mam." Kurz replied, unusually submissive.

"URZU-7, do you know anything about these nasty little spiders? Will they kill a human?" Mao probed hoping for a ‘No’ to the second question.

"Yes, I've seen several and they’re deadly. They’re under the control of the two Whispereds," Sousuke informed.

"Damn. URZU-6 we're getting you out of there, STAT. Maybe then we can shoot it – especially if it’s coming after you," Mao muttered as she held out her AS's hand for Kurz to jump into. She wasn't going to make him crawl down past that thing.

...

(At the Whispered Facility...)

Tessa meekly peeked around the corner to ensure it was ok to go in. Kaname smiled to reassure her. Pulling up a chair, Tessa sat formally. Memories began to resurface for Kaname...she had been crying out, hearing Tessa's voice, then she had tried to ask for Sousuke...

"I'm relieved you're awake, we were all very concerned about you after I made contact. Things just started going crazy. I've never seen Sousuke so upset before. He'd break if he lost you Kaname. You've changed him so much," Tessa dove into what she thought, hiding things wouldn't do. Doing her best to smile, she hoped to show Kaname she was trying to be happy for them.

Not quite sure what to say to her former rival, who now for some unknown reason seemed to take an interest in her well being, Kaname managed, "Oh...Thank you."

"I want to teach you more about being a Whispered. It will help you in the long run and maybe protect you in the future. Sousuke once told me I was stronger than I thought I was. Hearing that made me walk taller and I'll live up to what he said. This is one thing I can do to make us both stronger. Will you let me teach you? AND will you help me contact the other Whisperds? Maybe we can wake them up too."

Blinking a few times, Kaname was stunned and a bit ashamed to recall some of the things she'd thought about Tessa. Looking down, she nodded.

Tessa brightened, "Good. We'll start with practicing contact tonight. Before that, you'll have a few hours to get your bearings again."

"Tonight? What time is it?"

"1400 hours."

"Ugh. So I've lost more than a day? I still can't remember all of what happened to me. Well, I guess I'll see you in a few hours then."

...

(Tunnels...)

Bullets sprayed in front of the Arbalest, biting into the corner wall, as Sousuke was about to round the corner. He stopped, mentally prepared himself with Kaname's words when she had told him how to use the lambda driver that first time.

"Heh! Too scared to come around the corner? I said you were a fool – because only a fool would come after me. You won't be going back to rescue my brother. I'll make him call more Whispereds and build more of my creations."

"I don't need to come around the corner," Sousuke declared and figured he'd run a test.

"Oh, fine – you're still a coward. You aren't worth personal attention ...I'll send my toys after you," Anton huffed.

"I knew you would," Sousuke laid claim to his prediction.

Kaname's words from that time, echoed in Sousuke's head, "Close your eyes. Imagine they are doing something terrible to me. You won't let them do that will you?" - "No. It won't happen to you ever again," he talked to the memory of her lying on the floor helpless – anger growing exponentially by the nanosecond.

"Trust me." - "I do."

"Imagine in your mind." – He imagined the bugs being smashed into dust against the wall.

"Now take a breath." – He took a big one and held it.

"Hold the image" – He waited for the unsuspecting little beasts to swarm around his feet.

"Now!" she screamed - The Arbalest thrust out its hand and emitted a bright blue glow that exploded to the ground with an unearthly roar and rippled out. The bugs stopped short-circuited, as the light engulfed them. Robotic bugs crashed into the walls and ceiling.

A fine dust filtered the light in the tunnel. This was going to reek havoc with Sousuke's air filter. Nonetheless, the Sergeant had a wry smile on his face and made a mental note to watch a few more horror and sci-fi movies when he got home – so he had things to imagine for next time, IF he would ever pilot Al again.

He was ready to face his enemy now that his lambda driver test on something non-human was complete. "It can be hard on a boy to lose his toys. Didn't think you'd want to see it. Now, I'm coming for you," Sousuke taunted.

Chapter Text

(Tunnels under the Saharan complex...)

Hagen dodged back to the safety of the other side of the corner when he saw the blue glow. Thinking to himself, "URZU-7 has a lambda driver too. He's got a chance." Relieved, he headed to the communications building. He'd get the FWS and a radio and return to wait as he had been told, doing what he could to help.

...

Melissa's attention darted to the movement on the floor. A trap door was opening...

"Oh, jeez, now what?" She shielded Kurz with her AS's free hand.

A sandy brown haired, green-eyed boy's head appeared and smiled in Melissa and Kurz's direction. "Never mind me – I've just come to get this. I may need it and I don't want it left behind," his Swiss accent thick as ever. The stringy boy quickly ran over and swept up his targets.

Scrambling away faster than Melissa could let him down, Kurz tackled his prey before it could reach the trapdoor again. "Not so fast there mister. You won't be going anywhere with that."

Squirming, Hagen realized it was no use. He'd have to try to talk his way out. "But, please – I may need this to help URZU-7 take out my brother and this can never fall into anyone else's hands."

Kurz eyed the boy with suspicion, not about to be duped. "How do you know about URZU-7?" He held his Walther WA2000 to the boy's chest.

Hagen looked in the direction of Kurz's M9. "I met him... It looks like one of the bugs got to your AS. I could take it out for you..." Hagen offered and let go of his items – hoping this would help show his position.

"Let's see if he will, URZU-6," Mao indicated.

Hagen walked over to the M9. Simply snapping his fingers brought the bug racing to him. He picked up the micro-bot and held it for Kurz and the machine to get a good look at each other. Enlightening his new comrades, Hagen shared, "They act on the last order given them or can be controlled in the Whispered State. My brother added the lethal weapons to my pets, and had the audacity to call them his creations. I don't think he ever had a creative bone in his body. He just uses people. We got kicked out of Switzerland because of him, because he tested my pets on people."

The sadness showed in his voice and he fought back the emotion. Switching audiences, he talked to the bug and shook his finger at it, "These are my friends. No more of this." The bug folded up into a black palm-sized disk and Hagen put it in his pocket. Turning back to his first audience and showing a little bravado, "I developed an override in the last batch I made. My brother doesn't know about the snap. He'll be so mad when he finds out." He winked.

His look turned serious again, "Now, there is one more AS in the complex. URZU-7 will likely defeat my brother. You two need to get that AS, before Anton's troops come for it. Anton became the leader of A21 after Seina was gone. He's more of a puppet leader for them, because he doesn't have the brains to pull it off...I'm gonna go meet URZU-7 where I was supposed to wait for him. See you later." He scooped up the gear and headed down the trapdoor.

"Well, lets get to it, Sis," Kurz nudged Mao's M9. She picked him up and he quipped, "This is so wrong. It's supposed to be the guy carrying the girl. It might just be better if I got in there with you. You could sit on my la..."

"Quiet baka, or you're walking," she cut him off. Having the last word felt good – especially when it came to Kurz. They still had a mission to complete.

...

(Whispered Facility...)

Kaname had sweet-talked the male nurse into getting her a manual containing Morse code, claiming she needed some reading material in the waiting time and early codes were her thing. In reality, she wanted to contact Sousuke to say she was fine, but she knew they'd make her wait until his mission was over. She dared only send the message twice – fearing she'd distract him too much. Carefully, she unclasped the bracelet...

...

(Complex tunnels...)

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! The screaming monitor, caught Sousuke off guard. He looked around trying to figure out what that sound was. Then it dawned on him. "No! Kaname! Did you take off that bracelet or did someone else?" His heart stopped for a moment and then beat wildly. He was about to grab the monitor from the chain on his neck when it started going off in small bursts...

Beep beeeeeeeeep. Beep beeeeeeeeep beeeeeeeeep. Beep beeeeeeeeep. Beeeeeeeeep beep beeeeeeeeep. Beep. Beep beeeeeeeeep Beep beeeeeeeeep Beep beeeeeeeeep.

The message had almost completed before Sousuke recognized the pattern – Morse Code! "Come on! Repeat!" the unspoken howl had him clenching Al's arm controls. He was ready to kick the control panel when it started again.

Beep beeeeeeeeep. – .

Sousuke slouched and sighed in relief and his heart started to slow to the normal battle speed. "Girl, WHAT am I going to do with you? You about gave me a heart attack!" he thought out loud.

"URZU-7 could you repeat that message? Unsure of what you meant," Mao asked conspiratorially.

"Err...It's nothing. I'll explain later..." Sousuke momentarily dodged the question.

"Well soldier, stop daydreaming and get the other Whispered!" Mao hissed, trying to make it sound like an order rather than laughing at him.

"Understood."

Rounding the corner, Sousuke mused that Anton had been all talk. "Al, locate the M6A3 that WAS just around the corner."

"Directly above us."

Sousuke took one step to the right and put the AS's hand up toward the ceiling – just behind where Anton should be. As soon as they were finished, he could go back to Kaname. He wanted to so badly. Blue glow surrounded the hand and thunderously discharged toward the ceiling, vaporizing an AS sized hole. Sousuke fired another shot knocking Anton's AS to its knees. Revving the thrusters, Sousuke prepped a shield and leaped from the hole.

Frightened like a wounded animal, Anton fired a shot as he saw Sousuke coming toward him. The shot blew back at Anton faster than he could put up a shield and knocked him completely backwards. Though, Anton managed a shield before Sousuke could draw his anti tank dagger. Closing his eyes and imagining the dagger penetrating the shield and AS hull to the lambda driver, the Sergeant took a deep breath and plunged the knife. It slowed as it hit the shield – but the barrier was no match for Sousuke's strong will. Ripping into the hull, it split the lambda driver in twain, and the shield evaporated.

Anton exited his AS faster than he'd ever moved in his life. While, he was better built than his brother, his muscles didn't make up for his cowardice. He'd never seen anyone else master use of the Lambda driver as well as the last A21 leader had, let alone tear into a shield and take out another driver. Crab-crawling, he called to the soldiers and remaining AI bugs.

Hagen was waiting around the corner with earplugs in his ears. Snapping his fingers, the remaining AI bugs scrambled to his feet and neatly folded themselves into disks. Two ASes had the soldiers prone on the ground with their hands on their heads. Sousuke was panting in the Arbalest after releasing so much energy and emotion.

Holding the FWS under his arm and a radio in hand, Hagen spoke with disdain on his face, "I see you met my new friends. After all you put me through – we’ll see how you like this tool used on you for a change."

Anton covered his ears trying to drown out the signal. But, his body slumped and fell forward with a thud. When the signal terminated, Anton howled in mental agony.

Chucking the radio and FWS to the ground, Hagen kicked them in. "Never again," was all he uttered.

...

Three ASes herded the captured soldiers and made them carry Anton back to the C-17 several miles away. One M9 moved rather like an arthritic old man, Hagen was having a great time controlling it. One M6A3 jerkily towed Kurz's broken M9. Inside the cockpit Kurz whined as he tried to drive, "But this is backwards! I'm not supposed to be sitting on YOUR lap!" Melissa jabbed his ribs and he bumped his head in the crowded compartment, shouting, "Hey!"

"This is as close as you get, Sergeant. You could have shared space with one of the other two guys. So, stop your whining." She was thoroughly enjoying torturing him. Two good things beyond the mission in one day! Setting off the charges at the complex was most invigorating.

The Arbalest walked tall as Sousuke radioed command, "I need to have a message sent to Miss Chidori, in Morse code – not decoded, please."

"Did you know she was awake? She's been waiting to contact you. And why Morse code?" the radio operator questioned.

"I knew. She will understand," Sousuke smirked as he gave only the minimum answer to the inquisitive radio operator.

Chapter Text

(Whispered Facility... 1 hour after Kaname sent her message)

"Uh, Miss?"

Kaname glanced up from her reading to see the shy young soldier at the door of her new temporary quarters.

"Telegram for you, Mam. Sergeant Sagara said you'd understand if it was in Morse code," the Private quickly said and handed her the folded paper.

She beamed – he had at least received her message and had been well enough to send one back. "Yes, I do. Thank you very much. I'll decode it." She winked at the messenger, putting her book down.

A few minutes was all it took to decode. Memorizing the cypher with her abilities was easy. It read, "Msg received. Love you. No more msgs that way – almost had heart attack. Returning. Need kiss." She covered her mouth as she giggled and decided to frame this first love letter from Sousuke.

...

On the plane ride back, Sousuke was thinking. He'd have to give Kaname a better way to communicate with him. He couldn't afford to let that bracelet keep distracting him on the battlefield. Looking at Hagen sitting next to him, he ventured, "Uhm, Hagen... Did you say you could communicate with the spiders in the Whispered State?"

"Yes URZU-7. That's possible."

"You can call me Sagara, Sagara Sousuke," he offered. "Would it be possible for you to make something smaller that would communicate a Whispered's thoughts if they wanted?"

"Yes, what are you thinking of?"

"Something for my girlfriend..." Sousuke blushed slightly as he used that word for the first time.

"YOU have a girlfriend? One who's a Whispered?"

"Yes, it's hard to believe for me, isn't it?"

"Uh... No! For me! A Whispered actually dating – that requires trusting a Whispered! ...This means I have hope." Hagen stammered and tucked his knees up to his chest smiling contentedly.

Musing aloud Sousuke admitted, "Well, I didn't think it was possible for me either, two months ago. Didn't think she trusted me at all, even after guarding her for 2 years. Then, when I had to leave – she let me know she didn't want me to go. Now, I'm on my way back home – to her."

Afterward, Sousuke described what he wanted Hagen to make. Nodding, Hagen yawned and laid down to take up more than his share of the uncomfortable bench. Crossing his arms, Sousuke tried to get some sleep too. He didn't want to be dead tired when he arrived. Closing his eyes, he imagined the kiss he’d requested.

...

(Whispered Facility)

Everyone was anxious to get out of the debriefing. They'd just finished discussing Anton and the rest of the former A21 group's upcoming trial and likely sentence length. An unwilling victim in the plot, Hagen was granted special consideration. He also had talents that Mithril deemed useful.

Distractedly, Hagen doodled on his scratch pad. Kurz twiddled his thumbs in his lap, hoping to keep them out of site. Constantly switching positions in their chairs, Mao and Sousuke were restless. Mardukas rolled his eyes. Three of the four were soldiers and the other had expressed interest in joining, they ought to be able to sit still through one debriefing.

Kalinin none too discreetly looked at his watch and wondered why Mardukas seemed to be stalling the end of the meeting. Out of the corner of his eye, Mardukas saw it. Grumbling under his breath, he assented, "Dismissed."

The herd stampeded to the door only to stop as he added, "Sergeant Sagara – A word with you."

Anxious to go see Kaname, Sousuke turned around with disappointment scrawled all over his face.

"I'll be quick boy, I know you have things to do."

Sousuke nodded and prepared himself for the blast, remembering what happened previously.

"I pride myself on my professionalism. Before you left on the mission, I had lambasted you unjustly. I apologize." Mardukas left off there.

"Understood, Sir. It's not a problem," Sousuke chanted his mantra.

"Hagen seems to look up to you. ... Dismissed," Mardukas couldn't make himself say that he respected the young soldier. That grated his professional side - and he still wasn't sure what to think of this unusual Sergeant. At least Tessa had stopped going on and on about him.

"Thank you, Sir." Sousuke saluted and bolted out of the room, booking it for Kaname's temporary quarters.

...

Peeking into her quarters, Sousuke's heart sank to see the void where she ought to be. On the desk lay a note with his name in big kanji at the top. He stepped over to read the note, "I went to help Tessa and Dr. Shou with the other Whispereds. Waiting for you there. Love, Kaname"

Off like a shot, he booked it – she was waiting for him...

Slowing his pace, he gulped when he saw her standing there next to a Whispered victim. Tessa was standing next to Dr. Shou with another. He'd have to wait a few more torturous minutes to hold her, but he'd sneak up behind her and surprise her when she was done.

Kaname's head tilted back as she came out of the Whispered State. Stepping back to keep her balance, she reached for the bed behind her. Bumping into someone, she stumbled forward to avoid falling on the person behind her. Startled, she started to apologize. Sousuke's arms just wrapped around her, helping her keep her balance. Wide eyed, she turned to make sure it was him, "Sousuke?"

Her surprise transformed to a huge smile and she threw her arms around him, refusing to let him go. "Have you come to collect what you requested?"

"Affirmative."

Standing on her tiptoes, her lips gently touched then pressed into his. Feeling a wily urge, she tapped out a message on the back of his neck.

.. / .-.. - ...- . / -.- - ..- / - - - .-.-.- (I love you too.)

She pulled back from the kiss, grinning and winked at him.

"Message received." He swung her around and kissed her again.

"Awwww – get a room you two!" Dr. Shou teased as he held Tessa in one of her dizzy spells. The couple was oblivious.

Laughing, he carried Tessa out of the room, "It should be a few hours before the Whispereds wake up." Soaking this up, Tessa contentedly snuggled in his arms. How could she mind the attention from the dashing Dr. Shou?

The day before, Dr. Shou had confided to her why he became a Whispered specialist, while they waited for Kaname to wake up. He understood Whispereds well, since his brother had been one – before he had been kidnapped and killed. His brother's death had prompted him to help the Whispereds in any way he could. Now, Tessa admired the young doctor – in more ways than one. Not paying attention to him before, she'd only had eyes for Sousuke. The new perspective helped her to see Dr. Shou in a very favorable light.

...

(1 week later)

Sousuke held the door at Kaname's apartment open for her and helped drag in the bags from her shopping trip with Kyouko. "I need a nap!" Plopping on the couch, she was exhausted from all that frivolous spending. Granted, she could justify it – especially the clothes for Sousuke. He needed more civies now.

Mithril had cut them a deal to pay for their college and living expenses, if they would agree to a few terms. On the other side, Mithril would never again use anyone – especially a Whispered - as bait without prior consent. Sousuke and Kaname would have to be special ops throughout college, on call when they were needed.

Claiming a piece of couch next to her, Sousuke pulled a small box out of hiding. "Can you wait a minute for the nap? This arrived yesterday and I've been waiting to give it to you."

Kaname gawked at him in surprise. She was the proverbial cat, and curiosity was now killing her as he held the suspicious little box covered in black velvet. "Well?" She prodded, since he seemed to be taking his time.

"I had this made especially for you. I'll explain after you open it." His voice quavered as he picked up her hand and gently placed the gift in hers.

A gold ring with an opal set in the top of it gleamed against the black velvet background.

Astounded, Kaname gasped and tried to utter, "Sousuke, it's beautiful." But, all that came out was the last word. He'd even known that she didn't like diamonds. Where’d he get his intel?

"Kaname, would you..." Sousuke started, but she cut him off.

"Wow! This is so sudden Sousuke. But, yes! Yes, I will marry you," she interrupted, put the ring on and gave him the most passionate kiss he'd ever had.

Bug eyed, he sat there quite shocked but thoroughly enjoying this unexpected reaction to his gift. He'd expected to finish saying, "...wear this instead of your bracelet. It's a much improved version." The ring wasn't supposed to be an engagement ring – it was the disguised transmitter that Hagen had made.

Now, the last two years had trained him well, he'd be a fool to tell her otherwise. Those halisen slaps had been effective in the past – he didn't want to ruin a perfectly enjoyable moment. Besides, if MORE OF THIS was involved in marriage, it couldn't be that scary could it? Another advantage was that she'd be protected 24 hours a day by a live in bodyguard. He didn't even ever have to work up the nerve to ask her. Not a bad prospect, all in all. Maybe the ring should just have some "added features", that he'd tell her about...LATER. Putting his arms around her, he returned the affection relishing every second.

After several lingering kisses, Kaname asked, "So where are you going to take me on our honeymoon?"

Sousuke thought for a moment, a Kurz-like answer was all that would come to mind and he cleared his throat as he said, "Uhm... to bed?"

"Moron!" She tickled him mercilessly, pinning him down on the couch and they both laughed until they could hardly breathe.

...

Chuckling, the wrinkled old manager of Sousuke's apartment building took off his headphones and turned off the receiver. He didn't need to pry into Sousuke's business anymore. His mission with Mithril was now complete. Packing up, he'd call Kalinin in a bit. Sousuke would now guard Kaname permanently. Friends had made sure he had an arms stash for emergencies. The Sergeant was even beginning to act normalish.

It had been hard to stand back and not rush to Kaname's aid when the attack call came in – but he'd been ordered to stand down. Sousuke had come to her aid instead. He'd done well. He’d stood up well under all that he'd been through. But finally he fell – in love.

Tomorrow the old man would inform Sousuke that he'd be getting a new landlord. It would be hard not to tell the Sergeant congratulations on his engagement after watching him for two years.

THE END!