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No Rest for the Wicked

Chapter Text

Texas was the most foreign place Sousuke had ever encountered, he decided amidst the bustle of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Everything sparkled, and everything imaginable was for sale in shop windows. Liquor from all over the world, designer clothes and accessories, glittering jewelry offering itself for thousands of dollars apiece. Every ten feet was a new smell: cinnamon buns, barbecue, tacos, deli sandwiches, and something called Panda Express. The people were loud, and every time he bumped into a stranger, they met his eyes and said “Excuse me” politely. And while his English was good, he found himself buried under cultural colloquialisms that left him at a loss. 

He suspected he would never get used to it. Today, he braved the insanity of Austin to greet Melissa and Miss Chidori as they arrived for a private tour of the University of Texas. It was one of the few prestigious schools that worked closely with private military organizations to further Black technology, and one of even fewer that invited Whispered for further research and cultivation.

Sousuke and Kurz had arrived a week earlier to sweep and secure Chidori's temporary lodging in the case of an ambush. They ultimately deemed ten square blocks safe, which was twice the radius Mithril had specified, and Sousuke was exhausted.

Somehow, Kurz wasn't, and that was in addition to his nightly trips to what he called “Dirty Sixth”. 

“It's basically Bourbon Street without the parades,” Kurz had explained, and Sousuke flinched. He remembered being embedded in New Orleans, and how the stench of vomit and urine had never really left him.

Kaname was already full of ways to spend time. “It's actually warm enough, we could all go swimming - I brought a suit for you,” she rambled as they waited on the shuttle, “or we could go listen to music, I have a whole list of places to go -“ (she wasn't old enough to get into any of those clubs) “- and there's a festival downtown, and we could tour the Capitol, and oh, Sousuke, there are bats under a bridge, and they fly at sunset every night!-“ She went on for another thirty minutes, sounding like the human embodiment of an internet search of “Austin”. It didn't sound like she'd spent as much time looking into the school, its curriculum, programs, scholarships, or anything else a graduating senior might need to know. He had spent an entire week making sure there was no way for enemy operatives to do her harm, let alone get within a fifty-mile radius of her, while she looked up every spring-fed body of water within fifty miles. 

They arrived at the hotel after what felt like an eternity, given its proximity to the airport. Mao grabbed the majority of the luggage, not wanting to make two trips, and lit what seemed to be a very inconvenient cigarette. “Nice digs,” she remarked. “You two have been here all week? Shit, life must be nice.” She strolled off to check in.

“I doubt you are allowed to smoke -“ he began.

“Johnny Depp smokes,” she called back.

He huffed a frustrated breath, which would have otherwise been wasted on telling her he had no idea what that meant.

“He's the one in the pirate movie Chidori likes,” she added.

It was actually a different hotel than the dive they had been in. The prior week had been teeming with roaches, mildew, mattresses that must once have been crime scenes, and all manner of things for Kurz to complain about. Sousuke wasn't as picky, having spent the majority of his life in far worse. And smoking anything there was obviously well within a guest’s right.

This hotel often played host to musicians and celebrities, so the establishment was well-versed in privacy and security. They were also used to booking the entire hotel for one entourage. It would have to do, since some quiet tension between Mithril and the U.S. military barred them from staying at Camp Mabry. “Oh my God,” Kaname declared when she entered her room, “is this how you guys roll when you're not on some weird assignment? This is ridiculous!”

The Major dumped Chidori's luggage on the bed. “You're currently making Mithril a lot of money, Miss Chidori,” she reminded the Whispered girl. “We're selling the units with the new drives for a shit-ton of scratch, and hundreds have been sold already.” 

“I didn't do anything except get kidnapped,” she muttered, glancing away.

Mao looked guilty at stirring up unpleasant memories, and reached for a beer. “I'm just saying, this place is a drop in the bucket for them. Also, Tessa thought you deserved a nice time while you're deciding what to do after you graduate, so she kinda threw her weight around.”

She smiled a little, fidgeting with her purse. “I should get her a souvenir,” she decided, and Sousuke foresaw a long march through every boutique, haberdashery, and custom boot shop on the street in his future.

“I got her a Coyote Ugly shirt,” Kurz offered and, with a sly grin at Sousuke, he added, “I bought it off the bartender who was wearing it.”

Mao’s vengeance was swift, and took the form of Kaname’s smaller travel bag. Clearly, Kaname had worn off on her while he was in Antarctica.

This was going to be a nightmare. He hated urban America.

*

Ultimately he lost the fight over briefing Chidori on her specific security protocol before she went to the pool. She was determined, she had Mao on her side, and Kurz was never going to object to it, so he sighed and used the free time as an excuse to check in with Kalinin.

He was always surprised at how much the Lieutenant Commander had aged while he was away, but he had gotten better at schooling his features about it.

He studied Sousuke. “Is everyone settled in, then?” he asked. There was something nearly regal about him, transcending the military air about him.

Sousuke tried not to let his annoyance bleed through the feed. “We did not arrive here at the designated time,” he admitted. “We were stuck on a major thoroughfare for over an hour. But we are embedded for the night, until we depart to meet Captain Johnson tomorrow.” Johnson was Mithril’s liaison to the school, and had top-level access to the program Chidori would likely enroll in. Officially, it was part of the biochemistry department, but it was highly classified and very small. The single-greatest minds in the world were ensconced in that department.

"Johnson is a good man,” Kalinin assured him. “Perhaps overly fond of coeds, but everyone has their vices.”

Sousuke remained studiously silent on that point.

“And where is Miss Chidori now?” he asked.

“She was supposed to be reviewing her security packet at the moment,” Sousuke admitted, reddening, “but she... ah, rather insistently announced she would be visiting the pool. Sir.”

“The pool,” the Lieutenant Commander repeated.

“Sergeant Weber and Major Mao are acting as her detail,” he added desperately.

To his surprise, the man laughed a little. “Sergeant, I know you never had the opportunity to be a normal teenager, but I'm afraid this is what they do. Don't worry about getting in trouble just because she decided to buck responsibility and do what she wanted.”

That sparked a little resentment in him that he squashed quickly.

“Before Mithril came into her life, she was a normal teenager,” Kalinin reminded him. “She had no idea that she was extraordinary, and that her life could never again be what it was for that reason. That was why the Captain fought so hard for the time you have there now: whatever decision Miss Chidori makes, Mithril will never be too far away from her. Mithril is currently profiting from her suffering, selling those Arm Slaves to friend and foe alike. She is part of the machine now, and the machine will never let go of her, no more than it will ever let go of you. They will inspire in her the same loyalty they inspired in Captain Testarossa, and instill the obedience they value in you. So let her swim, and shop, and eat whatever she wants. Let her be a teenager,” and there was a sadness in his voice that struck Sousuke deeper than a bullet. “Because she’ll have that taken away from her someday, just like you did.”

That truth made him want to scream. It made him want to run.

*

Sousuke found himself by the pool eventually, doing the only thing that soothed his nerves when his mind churned like this: dismantling and cleaning every single firearm in their impressive arsenal. Even with his swift movements, it tended to take forever. But the repetition and the care he poured into the act set his brain to soft white noise, blessedly still.

“Anything new from on high?” Kurz asked, soaking up the hot sun in the lounge chair beside him.

“No,” he said shortly.

Kurz peeked at him over his shades, which were doing a poor job of hiding how obviously he was ogling Mao and Chidori. “Is that a bad thing? Because this is your bad-thing routine, dude.”

He glanced up, surprised. “Excuse me?”

Weber gestured at the massive undertaking he was buried under. “You always keep the primary kids in good shape, but you don't usually bust out the grandkids for a bath unless you're working through some shit. What did Kalinin say?”

Sousuke bit down words. He said we took an innocent girl and stole her life. We sold her freedom for machines, and for knowledge we don't even understand. We stole her away from a real future, and patted ourselves on the back for it. So let her have fun now, because we are going to chew her up and spit her out, and move on to the next one.

“Nothing,” he snapped, slamming down the piece he was currently reassembling with enough force that he found himself the focus of three alarmed gazes.

Kaname sat up in her float, a deeper concern in her eyes than the others, and he found he couldn't even look at her. She had been so peaceful, drifting in an inflatable panda, and he had fucked that up, too.

“Sousuke?” She was apprehensive.

He turned his back to her and went back to his task, guilt and anger guiding his hands and his mouth. “I just would have preferred that you made yourself familiar with how not to be apprehended in a hostile situation, rather than which flotation device best facilitates an even tan,” he snapped. “But then, I have always ended up being the only one who keeps Mithril’s precious asset alive, so I am not surprised.” That was all she was to them: an asset. He was protecting a person, he was named guardian to someone he cared about, and they were protecting an investment. They would make another should anything happen to her. They would throw her away.

Hurt flickered in her eyes before she narrowed them angrily, and he realized how he sounded. “Protecting me is your job, you maniac asshat, not mine. Besides, don't you have the exclusive inside scoop on everyone who wants to dig around my brain with a spoon now, Kashim?”

His palm crashed down onto the table. “That name is not yours to call me!"

He didn't realize he was saying it until it was out there, hanging like a lead balloon in the air, and he wished he could snatch the words back immediately. No one said anything, but he saw the barest flash of guilt in her eyes.  

“Miss Chidori,” he said, head falling forward into a grimy hand.

“Thanks, Sergeant, but I've heard enough.” She shoved her sunglasses and headphones back into place, and shut him out.

His burner phone buzzed, and he glanced at it in surprise. It was a text he had no context for, from a number he didn't recognize. He hated burner phones and their recycled numbers.

[I'm craving kimchi fries right now]

He pushed the phone away miserably, wanting to spill a thousand apologies to Chidori, but not even knowing five words of them.

Melissa climbed out of the pool, never reaching for a towel as she barreled down on him. Somehow, she seemed more dangerous in her red bikini than she did fully dressed and armed. But she was a natural weapon, and the less she wore, the more of it she revealed. “Sagara, what the fuck?” she snapped, yanking him to his feet. 

“Hey, babe, I'll talk to Miss Chidori,” Weber cut in gently. “There’s a lot going on, we're all under a lot of stress -“

No,” she shut him up. “You're not Sagara's ambassador to Chidori. What was that? You apologize to her, Sagara, and you make the kind of apology where it's so fucking heartfelt that you can't bear to do it in front of other people, and you pull it out of the bottom of your goddamn  heart, and that is an order.” 

He shrank under her fury, his own having fled and left him empty. “I don't know what to say,” he said quietly.

“Oh, you have time to figure it out,” she assured him hotly. “I would put a few hours between you and her, if you’d like to survive the conversation.” She sighed noisily. “What the hell, Sousuke? That was uncalled for, and you're never mean.”

His stomach lurched. “I don't know. I do know. I'm... thinking about a great deal, and I don't know how to approach much of it.”

His phone buzzed again.

“Well figure it out,” Mao told him hotly.

[I saw a truck at the corner of 8th and Trinity that claims they make the best]

He stared at his phone, frowning.

“Now what?” Melissa demanded.

He set it aside carefully, now. “Simply a wrong number.”

She sighed. “These fucking phones.”

“I will apologize to Miss Chidori,” he promised, the pain he caused her when he lashed out burning into his soul. He tentatively picked up his project and slowly continued, but kept a wary eye on Melissa in case his promise wasn't enough.

She slipped back into the pool, still glaring at him, and Kurz knew when to shut up, so he retreated quietly into his task.

[Or tacos. When in Rome, you know.]

[I believe you have the wrong number. Please do not contact this phone again] Sousuke texted, reaching for a cloth to wipe the grease from his screen.

He turned back to the pile of guns before him, and grabbed one of the lighter machine guns for attention. But he did it under the weight of Melissa’s impressive glare, which took away some of the zen art of it.

The sun crawled across the sky, and no one seemed to get any happier with him as it did.

[I’m bored]

He picked up his phone suspiciously.

[I don't think you appreciate how hard it is to be bored in an active shooter situation]

Sousuke didn't drop his phone, but it was a near thing. He closed his eyes and tried not to start throwing things, taking one deep breath at a time. He stood up calmly and said, “I'm going to start arranging my belongings,” hoping it didn't sound like a lie, and walked back to his own room.

When the door clicked shut, he pulled up the anonymous number and called it, his hands shaking. It rang once, in tandem with his roaring pulse, and he waited for a stranger to answer and tell him he had a wrong number. It rang twice, and he hoped no one would answer at all. 

On the third ring, the line connected. “What part of active shooter situation makes you think I have time to talk?” Gauron asked him. It was a reasonable question.

“You had time to text,” was all he could come up with, followed by “What makes you think I have time to talk?”

“Well, you called me, so...”

Sousuke very nearly chucked his phone across the room. “Are you serious?” he snapped tightly, running another filthy hand through his hair and pacing his room like a caged animal.

“Well, about that active shooter thing... I may have been leaning a bit towards the grandiose. It's actually a sniper who's had me pinned here since midnight,” he chuckled. “Who knew this place had such a rough part town? This belongs in Fallujah, not the land of hippies and music festivals.”

“You're in Austin?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?” 

“Well, Kashim, I'm working. I'm also currently sitting in the corner of a room on the sixth floor of a building with no roof, a few blown-out walls, and about six dead assholes lying around for ambiance.”

“And how exactly did that lead to your current predicament?”

“A few of the dead guys are drug dealers, and their security is nothing I can't handle,” he dismissed in the grossest understatement Sousuke had ever heard. “I wasn't expecting a fucking sniper in this situation, would you? He's no pro, just some idiot with a decent rifle. He was just lucky enough to get the drop on me.”

“So you are stuck with no clear path to an exit, because you did not factor in all potential threats, and now you're trapped in the scope of an amateur sniper and can't get out,” Sousuke surmised, not missing the irony of his situation.

It wasn't a little bit funny. It wasn't, and he absolutely did not have to make an effort to keep his voice neutral. “Where are you?” he asked, imbuing as much irritation as he could.

“Somewhere east, off of Cesar Chavez. Don't worry your pretty little head over me, Kashim, you know how the big leagues go. This is a waiting game, and this guy isn't prepared to wait six days for me to show my hand, but I am. He's a rookie. He's going to fuck up, and I’ll go one further and bet you he does it first thing in the morning. Now,” Gauron continued, and Sousuke heard the flick of a lighter, “the world being awake when this happens will make my job a little harder, but I’ll adjust accordingly.”

“What kind of backup does he have?” he had to ask.

“The dead kind.”

Sousuke pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. “You kill six people, and yet you text me about one ‘idiot with a decent rifle’. Just send me your coordinates.”

“Are you planning on mounting an elaborate rescue, sweetheart?” His tone was mocking, but Sousuke heard the undercurrent of tension in his voice. He shoved his hair out of his face, hyper-aware of how apprehensive that made him in return.

“Elaborate is your department, not mine,” he said dryly. “Send me as much information as you can.”

“I don't need to be rescued, Kashim,” Gauron emphasized, “but if you're going to insist on big gestures, at least do me one favor.”

“And what is that?” he asked.

His voice was low and cold, a reminder of what kind of man he was, and what he did

“Leave him alive.”

*

Sousuke quietly arranged the few things he would need in a small bag, opting to travel light, and tucked a pistol into the bag rather than holster it. It wasn't his service pistol, which was registered with Mithril and could be identified if someone looked in the right places. He waited for the cover of darkness, and for the others to retire to their respective rooms. When it had been still and silent long enough, he stepped out onto the street.

Large cities always amazed him, teeming with life even as the rest of the world settled down. People were still wandering the street in throngs with pizza and ice cream and smoothies. On one corner a man played the conga drums, and on another, a man sat cross-legged with a guitar. The city would sleep eventually, but for now it was thriving.

It took him an embarrassingly long time to get to his destination, because somehow there was still traffic, but he had the cab drop him six blocks from his destination. He paid cash and slipped into the darkness.

There was still light pollution staining the sky, but this part of town was poorly lit, and the quiet was uneasy. The windows in each building he passed were blown out and broken, ragged curtains whipping in the wind. They were old concrete things, possibly apartments at one point, but uninhabitable now.

And yet he felt eyes watching him from those windows.

He understood the Iraq reference now. Many of the roofs had long since caved in, and the structure beneath them was crumbling away in chunks that gathered on the ground like deadly jungle gyms, all shattered concrete and rebar and glass. It was a creeping collapse, as the rebar still twisted into the buildings and continued to pull.

This was a graveyard, with eerie stirrings behind the broken windows.

As he approached his target, he reached for the slim glasses in his bag. He switched them on and scanned the building for heat signatures.

And there was one, on the four-story roof, flat against the ground. Only one. He had no idea what Gauron was up to, rooting around worthless drug dealers in abandoned buildings that likely served as crack and meth houses, but they truly had no idea who’d descended upon them.

Sousuke paused, because there really was no need for him - Gauron was right, this would likely be over by morning.

But he was already here, and the cab had been expensive, so.

He crept into the building silently, bringing his gun up as he ascended the stairs. He was quick and noiseless, and he pulled himself up the crumbling frame onto the roof.

He still hadn't been noticed, but then, he hadn't wanted to be, and he wasn't exactly behind enemy lines in Somalia.

When he pulled back the hammer, it cracked like thunder in the silence.

The rifle clattered to the ground as the man rolled over, looking up at him in shock as he scrambled for his own weapon. Sousuke moved in close and pinned him, his gun digging into a fleshy chin, and he saw the moment the man realized there was no point.

“I'm sorry,” he told him softly. “I know you were just doing your job, but I'm afraid you did it to the wrong man.”

He fired two shots: one to the right elbow to prevent using a gun, one to the left knee to prevent escape, and then he struck him unconscious with the butt of his gun. It would only last for a minute or two, but that would be enough.

He tossed the pistol to the ground and put his gloves in his pocket, sparing a glance up at the building across the street. It was too dark to see anything, but for just a second, he caught the flash of a lighter in the confines of the top floor. It was too far away to see the burn of the cigarette.

He paused, half-expecting something else to happen, his heart racing.

Sousuke had named this once, but he wouldn't do it now. Not here, like this.

He left as quietly as he had come.

*

Sousuke arrived back at the hotel in running shoes and an athletic shirt he’d nicked from Kurz, having changed hastily as soon as he hit the river. A black-clad figure slinking away from a crime scene was conspicuous, but a jogger by the water was invisible. Everyone here wore yoga attire and athletic clothes, whether they were doing those activities or not.

Kurz, as though summoned, was lounging in the green space shared by the rooms, smoking what was definitely not a cigarette. “Late night run?” he said, splayed out in a pool chair.

Sousuke gave him a disapproving look, but it didn't pack its usual punch.

“Some dude playing the drums on the corner sold me this for five bucks,” he continued.

“Don't let the Major see that,” was all Sousuke had for him. “We're on assignment.”

Kurz sized him up - borrowed attire, winded, gone without a word in the middle of the night. “Should I start guessing wildly?”

“Don't bother,” he muttered, pulling out his room key.

“Hey, don't let the Major find out,” Kurz called after him, “we’re on assignment.”

Sousuke slammed his door in response.

Chapter Text

Kaname was full of opinions as they debated lunch, although she won the day when she declared, “I want a pint of Guinness on draft,” and Kurz and Mao practically gave her a standing ovation.

Sousuke was already shaking his head, “Absolutely not,” as Kurz was already whining, “c’mon, you only live once, she's abroad! Let her live a little!”

He doubled down. “We are on assignment,” he said firmly. “We have responsibilities to the mission.”

“That hasn't stopped you yet,” Weber replied smartly. Sousuke did his best to suppress a simultaneous flinch/glare from his face.

"Hey, they get to drink and stuff when they're on a mission," Kaname complained, "they do it all the time."

"That is because they are officers who are responsible for their own decisions," he replied, "but you are a civilian and often a target, and so I am responsible for yours."

"Like the swear jar," she scowled resentfully.

"You are in an unfamiliar country and under a great deal of scrutiny," he said by way of apology. "Seeking intoxication is an unneccessary risk that could compromise you in the instance of an attack, not to mention the fact that you are well underage."

“Sagara,” Mao interrupted with less ire than Kurz. “It's okay. We can have a nice afternoon and bend a few rules once in awhile. I know that's not how you're hardwired, but I'm your CO. It's not the end of the world. Besides, Tessa snagged her a pretty spotless fake ID," she added, which Kaname displayed for him proudly. "It would be a shame if we let it go to waste."

He sat back, annoyed. "If my directive as her security detail is going to be ignored every time beer is mentioned, then please change my title so that I know my place."

Melissa narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't get attitude on me, Sagara. You may run security, but I run you, and if I want to take the kid for a drink while she contemplates her future, then I goddamn will, and maybe you're invited."

"Yes, Major." He called her by rank with a sulky salute.

There was a beat. Then, "Well, and you're invited, obviously."

"Someone should at least be present and clear-headed," he muttered, "in case we get ambushed by Sudanese separatists."

"Nah, it'll be hobos," Kurz offered helpfully. "Looks like they outnumber the city three to one, and we're so obviously not from around here. We might oughta hire some Sudanese separatists as muscle, the way I see it."

Sousuke nearly rolled his eyes, well aware of a losing fight when he saw one. He opted not to even try winning this one.

*

For all her eagerness about her first pint of Guinness (which was apparently a Thing that Sousuke had never heard of), Miss Chidori took one massive swig and choked, barely managing to swallow it rather than spit it back into the glass. "Oh God," she gasped, dabbing at her mouth desperately with a napkin. "How do people drink that?"

"Warm, and with a spoon," Kurz replied.

"Ugh," she groaned, "that's not worth the suffering. Ugh."

Melissa snatched the pint from her, tilted her head back, and swallowed hard five times. On the sixth, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and slammed the glass down. 

"Pussies."

Weber laughed out loud, and even Sousuke felt a fond smile quirk at his mouth. Kaname was still a bit green around the edges, and glared balefully. "Beer is gross," she decided. "Can I get something else instead?"

"Perhaps back at the hotel," Sousuke cautioned, his every sensibility appalled that this conversation was even happening, and that he was basically under orders to have it.

"Yeah, we can pick something up and take it back," Melissa agreed. "We deserve a lazy evening abroad. Fuck it."

Kurz pushed his nearly-untouched mojito across the table to her. "In the meantime, you can have this," he said with a smile that always seemed slippery, until you knew him better. "It's way too sweet for me."

She brightened and took a sip. Her eyes lit up, and her smile was a mix of surprise and delight. "This is the best! You don't like it?"

His grin turned bashful. "Guinness isn't a newbie beer. Thought you might need a different introduction into the world of underage drinking."

Sousuke felt her kick Kurz under the table. "You're sweet."

"God, there's gonna be no living with him now," Mao groaned, but even she seemed pleased.

His phone vibrated.

[outside now]

His stomach churned as the words registered. Kurz might have noticed and scowled at him, had he not just won the day, and the positive affirmation of a beautiful young lady.

He took the opportunity for what it was and stood quickly. "I'm doing a perimeter sweep," he said shortly, standing without preamble.

Mao frowned. "Right now? We just ordered the beer pretzels."

"This location was not one of the dining venues we vetted, so I simply want to make sure we are not vulnerable to an enemy ambush," he lied.

"I thought you were kidding about Sudanese separatists," she protested.

"My sense of humor is well-documented and fills only half a page," he reminded her. "I will be brief."

*

This was where he always got in trouble. Here. Close to his team, surrounded by people, and deciding not whether he would cross a line, but how far he would go. He had just lied to his commanding officer to do this - whatever it was.

He was scanning the busy sidewalk for a familiar face, peering into large throngs of people, when he was yanked unceremoniously down the steps of the next-door beer garden, nestled between two high-rises. His shoes scuffed on the stone steps, and the sounds of the street faded a bit behind a curtain of ferns and hanging baskets, dripping leaves and limbs.

His first instinct was to fight, and he went to immobilize his attacker, but then lips crashed onto his, and he went with his second instinct, which was to yield. 

Fingers twisted in his hair and coaxed his head back, and his mouth fell open with a readiness he would deny later. He moaned and bit down as he was manhandled against the brick wall (the climbing ivy did little to soften the impact), deft fingers sneaking under his shirt, nails biting into the skin of his back and dragging down with blunt force. They would surely raise welts. Everything about the other man was all violence and sharp edges; why should kissing be different?

“Not here,” he tried to say, but Gauron was having none of it. He moved his mouth down Sousuke's neck, nosing his collar out of the way and biting down - hard. He yelped, or meant to, but it came out lower and longer than he intended. He tugged at the other man's hair in an attempt to pull away, but that just earned him another bruising kiss at his shoulder.

That searing mouth made its way back up his neck, and he shuddered. “Not here,” he hissed again, although his body was actively betraying that very sentiment. 

“Then tell me to stop,” Gauron murmured into his skin. His mouth was hot and demanding on his own, claiming.

He made his hands push them apart, though one of them still found its way to his chest and fisted in his shirt, in some semblance of control. “What are you doing here?” he said breathlessly. “What do you want?”

Despite his half-hearted attempt to bring everything down a bit, he gasped as he was forced back harder against the wall. He let a strong thigh part his legs, and when Gauron began whispering filthy things against his skin, he tilted his head back and writhed into him.

“You know what I want,” he growled into Sousuke's ear. “I want to hear you say it.”

That hit Sousuke like a bucket of cold water, and now he shoved him away firmly. “I asked you a question,” he said sharply, disentangling himself as he refused to make eye contact. 

He used the moment to discreetly assess his companion: a five-o’clock shadow from 48 hours ago, dark clothing to match the dark circles under his eyes. Blood under his fingernails. Blood under his chin, and behind his ear, where Sousuke had thought of tasting only seconds ago. “What business do you have here? Why -“ he pushed hair from his face with exasperation. “Why are you playing around with street dealers? You have paid no mind to junkies or drug deals for longer than I have been alive.” 

A shrug, now. “Maybe I'm just starting at the bottom and working my way up. Maybe I'm having to supplement my income, now that I can't auction off your sweet Miss Senior Class for a quick buck anymore.” He caught Sousuke's elbow, hard enough to bruise, pulling them flush against each other. “Maybe I wanted to see you,” he continued, his voice low and cruel. “That's a nice color on you, Kashim.” His hand twisted, but Sousuke didn't flinch. He set his teeth and bore the pain, defiant. “I bet it's nicer off of you.”

He clenched his fists at his sides, rather than get swept away by the brush of lips against his own. “Why are you here,” he gritted out softly, “why are you doing this.”

“I have my reasons.” He slid his arm back around Sousuke's waist, but he didn't kiss him. He looked at him, eyes picking him apart hungrily as Sousuke met his gaze, exposed like a butterfly pinned to a board. “Say it.” It wasn't a question.

He swallowed hard and tried not to think about the pain in his elbow and shoulder. He tried to pretend that the words were being forced from him, even as he tasted them before he said them.

“I love you,” he said in a rush, “I love you, I love you, goddamn it-“

“Say it again,” he commanded, biting at his lips, his neck, his shoulder demandingly.

“I love you,” Sousuke gasped, his hips rocking against him. 

“I don't believe you,” he hissed. “Make me believe you.”

Sousuke tried to wrench his arm free, but the hold on it was like a vice. Fine, he thought angrily, and surged forward to kiss him with all of that anger, using the grip on his arm to pull Gauron closer. “I love you,” he snarled, “but never doubt that I also hate you very, very much right now.”

“Mm,” he purred, shamelessly working his arousal against Sousuke's hip. “That, I believe.”

“Fuck you,” Sousuke said, but his words were swallowed by the other man's mouth like honey. A hand palmed his ass, and he moaned.

The moment ran its course, and they came up for air at the same time.

“We can't do this here,” he said breathlessly.

“Worried about getting arrested for public indecency?” Gauron chuckled. “I'm game.”

He huffed an irritated sigh and fished the spare room key out of his wallet, pressed it into the other man's hand.

“Later,” he warned, “when it gets quiet. It's south of the river, across from -“

“I always know where to find you, Kashim. And I have something for you, too.” He pulled a bag out of his jacket and pressed back. “You're going to need these sooner than you think.”

Sousuke regarded the package in his hand for a moment before he began to rifle through it. It was stuffed full of passports, international IDs, and what must have been millions of dollars in foreign currency. Dozens of passports slipped through his fingers, each one named and stamped differently, a dozen wallets with a dozen identities concealed within, complete with credit cards and more than a few social security cards. 

He faltered in his response. “Mithril has already provided me with covers,” he said stupidly. “Why would you-“

“When the LAMDA updates are perfected,” Gauron cut him off, two hands grabbing his face, one mouth speaking against his own, demanding his full attention. He swallowed hard and forced himself to meet that iron gaze. “You won't be worth shit to them anymore. You’ll be a very valuable liability. You represent a large portion of their offensive advancement, and for that, they'll eliminate you before you can talk. Mithril has already drawn up a containment plan for you, and it doesn't involve a plush retirement party. Once you get Chidori’s situation sorted out, they won't need you anymore, and they will deal with you accordingly.”

Sousuke was shaking his head already. “Kalinin won't let that happen. You don't understand -“

“Andre is on a short leash, Kashim, but by all means, hang your stupid life on him,” he snapped.

“I already did,” he bit back. “Kalinin picked me up when I was nothing, Mithril picked me up when I was nothing. I was nothing,” he repeated harshly. “I was not even worth the bullets they removed from me.”

He was suddenly divested of contact, and he felt it like the loss of a limb. “And they'll throw you out like it. You need to be ready to run.” Gauron crossed his arms angrily, and Sousuke realized, we're fighting. This is a fight without guns. This is what other people do. He loves me, but he's angry with me. It was equal parts exhilarating (because they were not normal people, but this felt normal) and infuriating at once.

“I’ve sacrificed everything for Mithril,” he argued fiercely, “that’s not what will happen. You're too-“

“You don't even know,” Gauron cut in harshly. “They don't give two shits about you, sweetheart. They never have. You weren't sent to an Arctic hellhole because of something you did.”

Sousuke stilled, his face cradled in those strong hands. “I don't understand.” 

He wanted to.

“Mithril is good at finding breaking points.” He dragged his thumb down Sousuke's cheek, catching his lower lip and caressing it. Sousuke wanted to open his mouth and taste it, but he didn't dare. His mind was spinning like a carnival ride gone haywire. "You're mine."

He pressed his nose into the other man's palm, asking but not demanding.

“Do me a favor, Kashim,” he said softly, his breath ghosting into the shell of Sousuke's ear. 

“Wait up for me.”

*

He dragged himself back to the table as if he had cinderblocks strapped to his shoes.

Kaname was still espousing the glories of her mojito, and Melissa had secured another beer. Kurz, however, sounded the alarm.

“Dude, that's one of my favorite shirts! How did you get it covered in blood in, like, fifteen minutes? You need to dial it down, bro.”

He looked down and realized that his shirt was actually soaked in blood, and his heart skipped a few beats. There was blood above his hips, at his ribs, and when he absently rubbed the back of his neck, he knew with a sick lurch that his fingers were slick with more blood. None of it was his. Was it all-

He shut down that train of thought with a guillotine. “There was an incident,” he said shortly. “I handled it.”

“You tell the shittiest campfire stories, Sagara,” Mao said drily. “But I still expect a full report. Ask the surrounding establishments for their security footage, see if we can catch a lead.”

He felt a surge of nausea. “May we speak in private before official action is taken?”

Kurz sat up, and while his gaze sharpened, he stayed quiet.

“Sure, whatever,” Mao breezily dismissively.

Sousuke watched Miss Chidori finish her mojito happily. He thought about everything shoved into the ziplock baggie in his pocket, and how badly the bedrock of his trust had just been shaken.

He wasn't the one who suggested that they tab out and leave, but he nearly ran out when they did.

Too much, too much, too much. Kaname, Arm Slaves, Kalinin, Mithril... Gauron, who lit a slow fire in his belly that he couldn't extinguish. Gauron, who claimed that Sousuke's sins weren't why he was punished. That idea settled in his craw like a loose piece of meat, wedged between his teeth.

He didn't say a word as they made their way back to the hotel. He didn't want to scold them when they stopped at a liquor store for vodka, and when they arrived, he parked himself by the pool, as closed-off as he’d ever felt. He barely saw Kaname and Melissa switch to their swimsuits and languish in the pool like misplaced goddesses. He covered his face with his hands and wondered. God, what have I wrought, lust hot in his chest, and if there was an answer, he ignored it.

Chapter Text

Sousuke finally caught Mao’s eye as she and Kaname threw a beach ball back and forth in the pool, and when she understood, she sighed heavily. Her mouth was set in a firm line, the easy mirth from lunch gone.

“You're in full-blown clandestine mode,” she said finally, allowing his to lead them to privacy, “and you're covered in blood. I’m not going to like this, am I.” Her red bikini made her seem like some warrior goddess, too beautiful for armor. It made him nervous.

He couldn't meet her gaze. “You said, before,” he began haltingly. “You said my way was the wrong way, and that you needed to be apprised of the situation, should there be one.” 

Melissa narrowed her eyes. “I don't like this.”

“And that my attempts to deflect and obfuscate under certain circumstances have only hurt myself and the team,” he continued doggedly, “and I agree with you.”

“Please don't tell me what I think you're about to tell me.” 

“I - he -“ He choked.

Mao pinched the bridge of her nose, her sigh a weary one. “Goddamn it.”

“He's here,” Sousuke said quietly. “In Austin. I don't know why, I only know that he has his own agenda, and I don't believe it affects ours. He’s not a threat to Miss Chidori.”

She pressed her fingers to her temples, eyes closed. “I told you to tell me when he showed up again, didn't I.”

“Yes ma'am.”

“And I said I wouldn't freak out as long as you were honest with me.”

“You did,” he allowed.

“Then be honest. What did he want?”

He handed her the bag of identities and money carefully. “To give me this.”

Her eyes widened as she sifted through the dozens of IDs and currencies, concealed in a bag meant for a sandwich. “Sousuke,” she said quietly. “This is five lifetimes worth of information, and ten lifetimes worth of income. What in the fuck is this?”

He hadn't thought about it like that, and he realized he didn't have an answer. “He, he said Mithril would - that they had -“ he swallowed, he inhaled harshly. “Major, you know Mithril is running out of uses for me. I have kept Chidori safe, I have given as much of my assistance in furthering the LAMDA driver’s advancement as I can. I have partaken in more classified missions that you can imagine. I am about to be rendered useless, and yet what I can do - what I know - is very valuable.”

“Is that what he told you?” she demanded furiously, shoving the bag back at him, and shoving him further in doing so. “He told you that you're so special, Mithril would fucking murder you to contain you? Are you fucking kidding me?”

He quailed a bit before her, clutching the bag to his chest uncertainly. “I just wanted to inform you,” he backtracked, “you said you needed to know-“

“Fuck him,” she spat. “And fuck his mother.”

Sousuke disagreed silently. He’d met a woman who he suspected was his mother, once, when he was very young, and posted in Cambodia. She had poured hot soup down his throat on a freezing night and whispered “Run, sweet boy, don't let him write your story,” when she was sure he couldn't hear. She was ancient, and brittle, and fragile. She was afraid. His mother had been a very nice woman.

“I meant it when I said I wouldn't freak out, under the right circumstances,” Mao gritted miserably. “So here I am, not freaking out. Do you intend to see him again?”

His stomach clenched reflexively. “Yes.”

“Will it compromise you, in your directive to protect Chidori?”

“Never,” he swore fiercely.

“I don't want to see him,” she said angrily. “I don't want to hear his voice, I don't want to be near him, I don't want a fucking thing to do with him. And I'll protect you, Sousuke, but you keep that son of a bitch away from me.”

“Yes, Major,” he said quietly.

“Don't let him be seen,” she snarled. “I'll do what I can for you, but he can't be seen.”

He nodded in subjugation, and made his way back to his room, chastened and nostalgic and miserable.

*

Kaname pounded on his patio door for three solid minutes before throwing it open angrily, her arms folded over her chest in open agitation.

He’d found himself falling into old habits, ones he thought he'd left in Helmajistan. He was tucked between the bed and the night stand, his knees pulled tightly against his chest, his forehead resting against them. It made him feel contained, if not safe.

“You haven't been to the pool,” she said angrily. “Mithril paid a lot of money so I could hang out at the pool, and all you want to do is hide in here, like there are bombs falling all over the place.”

He said nothing. He thought about the bombs that hit the kind woman who gave him soup, and how quickly she was gone. His fists clenched in his hair, and he exhaled. 

She panicked. "I mean, I just want you to come outside and not be locked up in here the whole time," she rambled desperately. "Come and get in the pool, Sousuke, I just want you to get in the water and relax. It's gorgeous outside, and you never want to have any fun -"

"Fine," he said tonelessly.

She knelt down in front of him, her eyes big and pleading. "I don't like being mad at you," she said helplessly. "I mean, I do, but not like this. I would rather you bring a hundred grenades with you to school than feel like this. Please, just... come with me? I just want to get in the water and get some sun."

He closed his eyes with a wince, because she immediately added, "Since all I care about is getting an even tan. Right?"

“Give me a moment,” he said shortly, rising to his feet and trying to shake his mood. He stepped into the bathroom and threw on what was probably a swimsuit, if he had to guess, and grabbed a towel.

When he stepped into the pool, he immediately submerged himself with a sigh. The cool water was glorious, and he sank to the bottom for a long moment. When he came back up, Kaname smiled and tucked a lock of his hair back in place. “See? It's not so bad in here.”

He sank down into the water and let his eyes close. “No, it's not.”

“I'm still mad at you,” she said uneasily. “You were a jerk for no reason, and you shouldn't have yelled at me.”

He stayed still, Mao's command of You apologize to her, Sagara ringing in his ears.

He wanted to tell her he was sorry.

You make it the kind of apology where it's so fucking heartfelt that you can't bear to do it in front of other people.

“I'm sorry,” he said quietly, stepping outside of every comfort zone, letting her touch his hand beneath the water. “I was not angry with you, and I should never have taken out my anger on you.”

“I shouldn't have called you, you know, that,” she argued, her slight fingers clenching around his. “I was just trying to be a jerk. I know he's the only one who calls you that. I’m sorry, it was really stupid. And mean.”

“Miss Chidori,” he said quietly, sinking into the water. “Please, don’t ever apologize to me. I -“ He scrubbed the back of his neck, frustrated. This was striking dangerously close to a raw nerve. 

“I wasn't angry at you,” he said again. “I was angry at how badly I continue to fail you. You deserve to live your own life, and now... now Mithril thinks they own you, and I let them. You don't understand,” he continued in a rush, “for someone like me, that was the best thing that could ever have happened. If Kalinin hadn't fought to enlist me, I would be dead now. I would be dead in Helmajistan, or Syria, or Egypt, but I would still be dead in an unmarked grave, and Mithril saved me. I was built to be a soldier. But I don't want that for you, I don't want that to be your life. It's fine for me, but you deserve to be happy and free. I hate that they sank their hooks into you. If anyone is sorry, then I am sorry that I let that happen. I’m supposed to protect you at all costs,” he said quietly, “and yet I led you blindly to this poisoned well. Mithril will never let you go now, and I did nothing to protect you because I thought they were right. It was right for me, but you don't deserve this.”

None of that seemed to be what Kaname expected. Her eyes were wide and perhaps too wet, catching the light of the setting sun perfectly. "Sousuke."

"I'm sorry," he repeated weakly. He ran a shaking hand across his face and waited for his words to sink in; he dreaded the moment she realized how spectacularly he had failed her, when the seed of hate would take root.

Kaname clobbered him.

At first he was surprised, but she wrapped herself around him like an octopus and shouted at him. "You failed me?" she demanded, her arms around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder. "You've saved my life so many times, you idiot, have you even been paying attentionGod, you're impossible!" He blushed when she wrapped her legs around his waist and crushed him to her, but then she whacked him on the back of the head with a closed fist, and he didn't feel quite so uncomfortable anymore.

"You could hug me," she added with venom, and he dutifully put his arms around her, careful to avoid anywhere that would get him another good hit.

"You don't be sorry, either," she grouched. "You talk about being dead without Mithril, but I would be dead without you. Probably because of your asshole boyfriend," she added darkly. 

He took it with as much grace as he could. It was an awkward situation - Kaname was buoyed by the water, but to some extent he bore her weight and kept her afloat, and he wasn't sure how to balance her and his embarrassment at the same time. He knew, from movies and television, that this was not a big deal, but he still felt awkward. Chidori, in the meantime, glared at him like she did this every day, and he needed to catch up.

"I did not spent any time in pools with other people in the past," he said finally. "This is strange."

"It's normal," she shot back, goosing him with her heels. 

He let a few moments pass before he spoke again. "I am sorry, Kaname."

She kissed his forehead. "Don't bother."

Kaname set her head down on his shoulder, and he let her. They drifted within the pool, carried only by the breeze, his toes bouncing on the bottom every so often. Her skin was warm against his own, and he let his head rest for a moment without guilt.

"I know your asshole boyfriend is in town," she said finally, loose and relaxed in his arms.

Sousuke stiffened. "I already informed Major Mao of his presence," he finally choked out.

"Oh, please," she muttered. "Like anyone needed an official briefing about that." She thumped his right shoulder, directly where he wore a dark red mark. "You have a calling card. He always bites you there. Also, really? Covered in blood? Sousuke, I swear..." she yawned. "When do we have to be at the university tomorrow?"

"Noon."

"Good," she murmured, burrowing deeper. "Don't let me drown, huh?"

He tightened his grip on her and let her soak up the sun, sleepy and indulgent and peaceful. It was the least he could do, given the circumstances.

Chapter Text

Kaname watched Sousuke like he was a flight risk, gravitating from the pool, then to a table, back to the pool, and then some. He pretended he was fine, but he was full of shit, and now even Melissa was acting nervous.

Fuck Gauron. Fuck his declarations, and fuck whatever he’d said to Sousuke. His shoulder hosted one big violent bruise, and his back looked like a forklift had gotten stuck in reverse on it. Nothing about that massive, murdering dickbag was gentle, yet if there was anyone alive who deserved to be handled with care, it was the jerk tossing and turning on a lounge chair before her. He reached out in his sleep to hold someone who wasn't there, napping the only way he knew how.

She worried at the strap of her swimsuit. If she chose UT, they would all have to relocate. If she moved here... who knew? She had no friends here, and this was a Mithril offshoot. She would be obligated to do whatever they said, because this would commit her to them forever. She'd read at least enough to understand that she was signing away a part of her life, to be allowed at such a fine institution.

When she'd read that passage on the plane, the term finite involvement based upon continued contribution had sounded like she would help Mithril and then they would be done. But the look on Sousuke's face earlier had been so firm and so tragic, so guilty that they were even here, it had unnerved her. He didn't foresee any future where Mithril set her free.

And they hadn't set him free, had they? He might know better than her how they would operate.

She knew she had to read every last letter of Mithril's introductory paperwork; they would try to slip traps into every word leading up to her signature, and then they would have her forever.

Sousuke rested fitfully on one of the pool chairs, jolting upright at one point before collapsing again. “I'm awake,” he mumbled, “I waited.” And then he was sound asleep again.

Kaname blew soft, angry bubbles into the water. Of everyone who’d ever successfully kept her alive, it was this asshole, and he was drifting further from her every day. She never pretended to know what his life before her had been like, and she certainly never claimed to understand, but their connection was solid, and yet he was withdrawing. And it always happened when that freaking jerk showed up.

She stewed quietly in the pool. He didn't need to deal with her emotions on top of his, which he barely dealt with as it was.

Music drifted from across the street as evening settled, and she finally got out of the water, thoroughly pruned. She had a lot of information to devour in her room, but she had always tested well. This was basically like studying for a test, right?

Kurz and Melissa came stumbling out of the private dining facility, tipsy and laughing. Kaname wrapped herself in a plush towel and rushed over to shush them.

“He's finally asleep!” she hissed, quieting them with violent gestures. “Let him rest. What are you two chuckleheads up to?”

“We’re definitely getting a $4.99 cheeseburger,” Kurz said gleefully.

She perked up. “Can I come? I didn't eat earlier, and I -“

Sousuke shifted and grumbled, “They are visiting a house of ill repute, despite the fact that we are on a mission, and are supposed to remain uncompromised until further notice.”

“Going to a strip club isn’t compromising,” Melissa said tartly. 

“Because we are definitely going to a strip club,” Kurz added. “It’s half-price dances til 7. Who could resist?”

She sighed. “Never mind. Be quiet. You,” she threw at Sousuke, “go to sleep.” Then, “Actually, no, this,” and marched over to him. “You're getting in bed,” she said firmly, although she was gentle as she pulled him to his feet. “Go,” she added absently to Mao and Weber, guiding Sousuke to his room.

He hung heavy across her shoulder. “I will be rested and alert when we meet the Mithril team tomorrow,” he yawned.

“You hush,” she scolded gently, taking the offered room key and entering his room. “What did you do last night instead of sleep?”

“Please don't,” he said quietly, as she steered him to his bed.

“So it was probably stupid and I don't want to know,” she scowled. “And your asshole boyfriend is in town. Great.”

“He is not a boyfriend.” It wasn't a contrary statement; it was quiet and solemn. It wasn't a denial of the man. She nearly groaned, because this was a declaration. “Please stop calling him that.”

“Kill me now,” she grouched, easing him down. She suspected he would have done all of this himself, and was simply indulging her mother-hen moment, of which she didn't have many. “He may be more than a boyfriend, but he's still an asshole. Sleep.”

*

She took her packet from the university out to the patio, putting her feet in the water every so often. And she treated every page like her exit exams, because this determined the course of her life as much as they did - if not more. The guilt and sadness on Sousuke’s face earlier flashed before her eyes again, and her stomach clenched. How could he dare think he'd failed her, when she would have been taken, tortured, and killed a hundred times over without him? Idiot.

The sun sank below the horizon as she highlighted and made notes, and she lit a little tiki torch. When the torch burned down to the wick, she turned on her phone’s flashlight.

The gate to the street clicked open, and neither Kurz nor Melissa were on the other side. “You,” she said flatly, “have got to be fucking kidding me.

Her swear jar grew three-quarters in that moment, and the f-bomb was only a fraction of it.

With gusto and expansive sarcasm, Gauron took a sweeping bow. “Miss Chidori, my apologies. You've been on the forefront of my mind since our last encounter. I could do this all day,” he drawled, “ because I just like you that much, but I actually have an agenda, so...” He flashed a hotel key card smugly. "If you'll excuse me."

“You don't deserve him,” she said viciously. “You don't deserve anyone, but you don't deserve him at all, and he definitely doesn't deserve you. You’ve already ruined his life a million times, even though you say you love him. If you really did, you would go away forever and just let him live his life. But you're happy to just ruin his life again, aren't you?”

“Are you worried about how Mithril would feel about this?” His tone was deliberately and casually antagonistic. “Are you being a good Girl Friday? You can't keep Kashim out of trouble, doll.”

“I don't care about Mithril!” she shot back. “You don't get to hurt him again! And you always hurt him!”

“And I'm planning on hurting him again shortly, but I can assure you, he’ll like it.” She wanted to slap the bitch off of his face, but knew he would strike worse off of hers in response. “Do you think you know him better than I do?”

She glared with useless fury. “I hope you get violently sacrificed to some pagan god,” she seethed, “and I hope it takes weeks for you to die.”

He shrugged. “So long as Kashim is doing the sacrificing."

She froze when she heard Sousuke's patio door open, although he remained content with himself. Of course he did, he wasn't the type to give a shit.

Sousuke glanced back and forth between the two of them, soft with sleep and processing slowly. His hair was an unforgivable mess, and he had those goddamn sweatpants on under that tacky graphic tee. She wished viciously that she had burned them, because that asshole was looking at him hungrily, his eyes dark with intent. She wasn't stupid: she was biased. Fuck you, she thought furiously.

He frowned when he saw Kaname, but jolted with horror when he saw her companion and understood. 

“I said later, when everyone was-“ he shoved at the travesty that was his hair, frustrated. “Miss Chidori, I -“

She folded her arms crossly. “Oh, don't bother,” she snapped. “If you cared about howfelt, he wouldn't have your room key.” For good effect, she lounged back in the deck chair and crossed her legs with flourish. She knew she cut a fine image of a cross woman, and it wasn't lost on him. 

“This is genuinely endearing,” the maniac terrorist commented, “but I actually have things to do that you're not old enough to participate in. So, can this special moment in time be over? I’ll be gentle with his heart,” he added in such an asshole tone that she shot to her feet furiously.

You son of a bitch,” she spat, lunging to her feet as Sousuke shot over and held her back.

“It's all right,” he promised quietly, doing his best to keep her from becoming a murderer. “He wants you to get angry. Don't let him win.”

She fumed and let him. “He has a room key. He has access.”

“That,” he confessed softly, “will always be true. He will always have a way in. But don't let him win, simply because you're angry.”

She fixed him with her most ferocious glare, which was likely diminished by her lack of clothing. His arms around her were warm and gentle, holding her back from violent murder. “I swear,” she threatened, “I swear-“

“I do too,” he agreed quietly. “But I told you, this is simply who I am, and what I know. Please let me have this, at least now.”

Kaname blinked in surprise. “I - Sousuke -“

“Please,” he repeated, “Miss Chidori.”

She quailed. “Fine. Fine. And screw you,” she added, glaring at her occasional kidnapper with all the authority of Mithril behind her. “Screw you.

Chapter Text

Sousuke hadn't intended to fall asleep again after Chidori deposited him in his room, but he found himself drowsy and brooding within minutes. He had handed over access to his quarters to a man who kept saying he loved him, and kept trying to kill him when he did so. If this had been Helmajistan, he would be dead. But no, he had made his choice in a dirty motel in Hong Kong years ago, and despite his best efforts, he kept making it.

But this felt different, and it sat in his stomach like rocks. Before, it had been like walking through a minefield, when he never knew what step would be his last. And he had written Antarctica off as retaliation as it was happening.

This was not his early tenure with Mithril, when he let someone dangerous thrill him with a false sense of importance. This was not the frozen hell where the first good thing he had, after nearly a year, was for a mercenary, assassin, and lunatic to show up and turn his world upside-down again.

This was a choice. He couldn't claim ignorance anymore. He had risked everything - nearly sacrificed it - and he had made declarations of love and permanence. This was his grave... he would be buried in it.

He closed his eyes and scrubbed them with the heels of his hands. He longed for the days when he was ignorant of things like this, and of wanting them. He waited for the click of the automatic lock, and drifted.

*

A Couple of Years Ago (but who's counting?)

The room key had been given to him the first time. It had always just been a few words and a flash drive in a dive restaurant, or a dirty alley. But the intel was always good - the hijacked fishing charter (which hosted the wealthiest man in Qatar as an honored guest) had been a big feather in Sousuke's cap, because he learned that this particular team tended to hide in an obscure channel in the Gulf of Mexico, one that didn't get a lot of traffic. It was narrow, but deep and covered in jungle foliage. He’d suggested it in the sit room, citing its obscurity and convenient proximity to the last known location of the ship. 

He’d managed to use Gauron’s information a few times prior, but that was the one that earned him a seat at the table when Kalinin sat down with Weber and Mao to discuss 

strategy. It got him promoted to Sergeant. He was a competent enough soldier that he would have gotten it on his own eventually, but this expedited the advancement, and he was able to prove his worth sooner, rather than later.

He’d known Gauron since he was old enough to graduate from a pistol to a rifle. He knew the man was a sword with no hilt, and that there was no safe way to deal with him.

But this - somehow this worked. He knew who the man was. He wasn't going to walk into a trap. Sousuke certainly didn't trust him that much; he had his guard up.

And he trusted that Gauron knew Sousuke would kill him without hesitation, should he attempt anything.

That was where he slipped up first. He trusted.

So when the room key had been slipped into his pocket, his heart skipped with apprehension. He’d heard other mercs talk about the kind of trouble that happened in those circumstances, especially with Gauron. He was known for settling his vendettas privately... except for when he wanted to set an example, and then he made a public spectacle of his vengeance. As for his side jobs, those could go either way, but they were completed regardless.

But that wouldn't happen to him. Somehow, the most wanted man in the world had sought out Sousuke to level the playing field; for reasons unbeknownst to him, he was a player in the game, and no one knew it. This man hadn't trusted Mao or Weber with the inside information he could access - perhaps it wasn't even Sousuke he trusted, but Kashim.

There was something to be said for constantly trying to kill each other and failing, to be honest. He had a grudging respect for the fact that he'd tried very hard to kill the man on multiple occasions, and he wasn't used to failure. And he knew Gauron didn't do anything halfway, yet Sousuke was still alive. As wide as the world was, they were still alive despite their best efforts, and somehow they kept facing off, and surviving.

He was ready for anything the man threw at him - a grenade, a knife, hell, even a nuke. He might think he was full of surprises, but Sousuke was ready for all of it.

He slipped into the room with his gun drawn, and Gauron started to laugh. Something about his laughter had always sounded cruel, and it made Sousuke's stomach turn with apprehension. It was the chuckle a killer let slip when he had the perfect victim laid out before him, ripe for the taking.

“I told you, I don't have anything else for you, Kashim,” he drawled, lips wrapped around a cigarette somewhat obscenely. His eyes were dark and predatory, and Sousuke had the good sense to realize he was the prey. It made his heart rate slow down, preparing to fight for his life or his death.

Oh-

He had been thrown against a wall by an enemy before, many times, but when Gauron did it now, somehow it was different. The way he used his whole body to keep him there, using his size to intimidate him, looming and resting his arm above Sousuke's head, it felt...

(He hadn't known the word for it at the time. He knew much more now.)

He was uncertain now, suddenly warm and nervous.

“I don't have any more info on the crew that has the nerve gas,” he said again. “You knew that when you came in. So why are you really here?” 

“You put the key in my pocket,” he said stupidly, alarmingly aware that he could feel the heat of his body through their clothes, and smell the sweat on his skin. He could hear his own blood roaring in his ears. 

“Why do you think I did that?” Not a leading question: a test.

“I -“ He stammered, his face getting hot. “I don't know.”

Gauron studied him for a long moment, a strange smile curling at the corner of his mouth. It wasn't a nice smile. “You really don't,” he murmured, “do you? You don't have the first fucking clue.”

“No,” he said, his whole body seizing up when he realized he had just told this man he was weak, unprepared. Two things that could be used to kill him in a heartbeat.

“The first time I met you,” he purred, “you were a brat. I always hated when those guerrilla groups brought kids to a gunfight. You're all a waste of bullets, you run when the killing starts, and you get in the way. You didn't even come up to here,” now he took Sousuke's hand in his bigger one and placed it on his ribs, “but you brought up your rifle and shot me in the shoulder. You never even flinched, just pulled the trigger.”

Sousuke realized he had stopped breathing. The only words he had ever felt so close to his skin in his life were the last words of men when he'd stabbed them, close enough to hear the air leave their lungs as they died. This didn't feel like that.

“I looked at you,” he continued, lips ghosting across his cheek, “and I thought, ‘that one is going to be fucking magnificent one day.”

“Then you struck me unconscious,” Sousuke found himself saying, his own words shocking him.

The answering laugh was low and wicked. “Now I look at you,” he murmured, “and I think, I was exactly right.”

It took him a second to realize what was happening - that suddenly there were lips pressed against his, that he was being kissed. He froze, at a complete loss of what to do.

“Looks like you still don't have the first clue, Kashim,” he breathed against his ear after Sousuke kept his mouth firmly shut, afraid to move. Heat pooled low in his belly, and the response made him start to panic, but he stayed firmly still. He shuddered as those lips tickled his skin, and his breath quickened sharply.

Gauron’s arm snaked around his waist and crushed him closer, as he moved his mouth to the juncture of his neck and his shoulder. He took a large bit of skin into his mouth and sank his teeth in, bruising but not breaking. Sousuke yelped, and threw his hands into the man's hair and held his lips in place. His whole body was hot, and the way Gauron worked his thigh, pushed now between his legs -

He licked the spot he'd bitten on Sousuke's neck obscenely. “So you like that,” he chuckled. “I'll remember it for later.”

“I don't - I don't know what -“

“No,” he agreed, “you don't.” He worked his mouth back up to Sousuke's, but rather than let it rest on his frozen mouth, he pulled his lips apart with his thumb and slipped himself in there, hot and demanding. Sousuke didn't even recognize the noise he made then, or how the other man licked it up like syrup.

He realized he was half-hard in his pants, and when a hand slipped down between them to stroke him, he made a noise he'd never uttered before and tried to wrest himself free. The wall he was backed into hindered that attempt.

“Run away, my Kashim,” he said in a low, dangerous voice. He stepped away, and Sousuke realized the only thing that had kept his erection from aching was how tightly it had been pressed between their bodies. He’d never been aroused before - not like this. He’d never taken himself in hand, he'd never felt what it was like to chase this sensation to its conclusion. His body chased it now, though, while his brain went into survival mode and he tried to run again.

He flushed in humiliation and confusion, and dug the hotel key out of his pocket.

“Go back to your little avengers,” he continued with fire in his eyes, “and think about what you know, and what you want to know.”

He felt a burst of fury. “You can't tell me I don't know-“

“You don't,” he cut in, shoving him hard against the wall. Pulling him back, and shoving him again - harder.

Sousuke shoved him back, and thrust the key at him viciously, angrier at his own confusion than anything else. “Fine,” he snapped. “Then I have no need for this.”

It was pressed back into his hands, along with another press of his mouth. “Go home, Kashim,” the man growled. “But I’ll be here for a week. Keep that, in case you decide how much you want to know.”

He wrenched himself away angrily and made for the door, feeling multiple points of contact begin to bruise. “I won't need it. You're out of control. I will not have any part in this.”

Then he was grabbed and slammed against the door, and a recently cracked rib screamed upon impact. Long fingers dug into his arm, painful and inescapable. This time, when that mouth descended upon his, he tilted his head back without thinking and let him in.

Well, for all of about five seconds. Then his wits returned to him, his ribs centered him, and he bit down on the other man's lip, hard enough that his teeth met through the skin. The moment between surprise and retaliation was his window to escape, and he bolted out of the room like a rat on a sinking ship.

Even escaping, he could still hear the words float down the hall: “If you figure out what you want, Kashim, you know where to find me. If not, I'll see you the next time I’m in Venom.” There was cruel mirth in his voice.

He didn't respond. He just fled, his mind buzzing so loudly that he couldn't think. 

Later, he sat silently on the porch of Mithril's safehouse, his thoughts jumbled and confused. The key burned hot in his pocket, and that confused him even more.

Kurz strolled over to him, his cigarette pungent and similar to the one that had filled his nostrils earlier. He could still taste it, if he concentrated. He tasted blood as well. “You on another planet?” Kurz said casually. 

“What other planet would I be on?” he muttered resentfully.

“Sousuke,” Kurz reproached him gently. “Bro. What's up? You disappear for hours, you come back all funky, and this isn't the first time.You know I don't judge, man, I do way too much dumb shit for that, but that means you can talk to me.”

“I can't,” he said, his voice smaller than he intended. “Not about this.” He suspected nothing Weber had done was as foolish as what ran through his mind now.

Because he had been able to work past his arousal, but he hadn't been able to put it out of his mind. He’d woken up aching before, certainly, but he had always been able to close his eyes and wait for it to pass. Now he closed his eyes and thought about how it felt to be kissed and trapped between a wall and a hard body, his own body engulfed by another. How it felt when that hand cupped him and pressed and he wanted more. He feared that he might have pressed back, and thrilled at the thought of how it felt when his legs had been parted, and how his entire body had responded. 

He swallowed and tried not to think about the warmth spreading through him.

Kurz grinned and elbowed him. “I don't think I've ever seen you blush, dude.”

Sousuke glanced at him with panic. "I'm not - this isn't -"

"Dude." Kurz's smile widened, although his was a far kinder smile than the one Gauron had given him. "I told you, I don't judge, Sousuke. Whatever shenanigans you're up to right now, it's cool. I just don't want you getting into something that will bring you down, you know?"

He swallowed. "I don't believe that is within anyone's power," he said quietly. "Perhaps not even my own."

"Well," Kurz sighed finally, "I hope she's worth the pain, whoever she is. Maybe someday I'll tell you about the biggest lady-pain in my ass I've ever had, and how close I came to throwing it all away. I won't push you," he added, "but I want you to know, you have an ear to bend if you ever need it."

"Thank you," he said, still quiet, "but I hope I never need it."

They sat in companionable silence for nearly an hour, Kurz keeping his promise to not pry, and Sousuke felt the key burning a hole in his pocket the entire time. He turned over every second that passed within that room a thousand times, wondered how he should have moved his mouth, and where he should have put his hands. Should he have gone for his shoulders, like he saw in a movie once, or his hips, or gone lower, where he'd felt so much and wanted him to - 

He stopped the thought before it could expand. No one had ever asked him what he wanted before, and he knew for a fact that at this moment, he had never wanted anything more.

He retired to his quarters that evening quietly, determined to keep they key in his pocket, untouched. 

The next night, he tucked the key in his palm and used it. He took off his shirt when he was told to, then let the other man take off the rest for him, because his hands shook when he tried. He stood stock-still as those big hands worked his erection, and he panicked when he was positioned face-down on the bed, because he couldn't see the doorway or the window in case of an attack. Gauron’s laugh was quiet, and always a bit menacing.

“Face to face, then,” he decided, letting Sousuke roll over before descending upon him again.

The dominos fell accordingly. He made his choice in a dirty motel in Hong Kong. 

He might have said he never looked back, but he did.

Every day.

*

Tonight's Questionable Choices

“Screw you,” Kaname snarled, ”screw you.”

He glanced at Gauron sharply, his face screaming, do not engage.

He grinned. “Have a lovely evening, Miss Kaname.”

She stormed back to her room. “I hope you have a fucking heart attack and die, you old pervert!”

“If I'm going to die during sex,” he drawled, and Sousuke hated how much he seemed to enjoy himself, “it’ll probably be from a broken neck. Kashim can be... enthusiastic, so to speak. And he has such magnificent thighs, you won't hear me complain.”

He was sorely tempted to break his neck anyways.

Why did he do this every time?

Chidori yanked her door open. “I don't want to hear anything,” she practically bellowed, and slammed the door behind her.

That left just the two of them standing beneath the trees, Gauron inordinately smug and Sousuke vacillating between mortification and fury, but still needing this man so much.

He glanced over at his own door pointedly, not dignifying this with words.

“After you, my Kashim.”

He held that molten gaze for another moment, then led the way.

 

Chapter Text

The click of the door closing cracked like the hammer of a gun. He stood motionless in total darkness, fully aware of the man moving up to him, but not touching him.

Silence stretched between them, and he knew it was his move that held them frozen.

“I need something from you,” he said quietly, keeping his back to him.

Heavy hand stroked down his arms, and lips ghosted across the nape of his neck. He leaned into it, his eyes closing. 

“I’ll see what I can do,” was the reply, deft fingers working the buttons of his shirt open. “Within reason.”

Sousuke stopped his hands and turned to make eye contact, resolved and firm.

“The package you gave me,” he began.

“Don't tell me you already lost it. That took years to arrange.”

“I need another one. Not as much, just a few burners, but I need Miss Chidori to be able to run, too. And I need to be able to find her when she does,” he said finally.

“If you keep talking about Chidori,” he warned, “my amorous flame is likely to go out. Besides, you have plenty of resources at your disposal. Get her a burn bag yourself.”

“My primary assignment is her safety,” Sousuke said fiercely, “and to protect her from everyone who would do her harm - including Mithril. She needs to be able to disappear, and I have to protect her if she does.”

Gauron regarded him for a long moment. “You're not fond of how I do things, Kashim. You like to keep things nice and clean, you like to keep people from getting hurt, and I don't play the same way you do. If you want this girl to be free if Mithril, you should do it on your own terms, not mine.”

“I don't care,” he said harshly. “I don't care how you do it. Mithril wants to take her away and mine as much information as they can, and when she's of no use to them, they'll dispose of her. They've stayed at bay, but you know what they do. They’ll keep her, they'll use her up... and they don't let people simply walk away.”

“They've certainly kept you,” he mused, his face unreadable. “You don't want them to keep the brat.”

“She deserves to live a life. I never had a life to lose, but she does. She's not like us. My job,” he repeated, “is to keep her safe from any potential threat. I have orders.”

He held that gaze for as long as he could, as solidly as possible. A long moment of silence held him, uneasy, as the other man considered him at length. 

“Every day,” Gauron said finally, moving on like Sousuke had never brought it up, “I’ve thought about what I'll do to you when I see you again. I wonder what you’ll do to me, or how you’ll say my name while I'm fucking you. If you’ll take your gun and blow my brains out. How you tasted the last time your cock was in my mouth. I think about all of it, Kashim.”

He remained motionless, closing his eyes again, those broad arms swallowing Sousuke’s slim frame. Sousuke turned his face up, engulfed in him. He met those burning eyes hesitantly, and swallowed. Some aspect of all of this felt like being struck by lightening every time... he would never get used to it, and he might not survive it.

But his hands were steady as he reached up and began unbuttoning Gauron’s shirt with one hand, dragging the other hand down his chest. He pulled the fabric away as he did, his fingers searching for the source of all the blood earlier. His eyes adjusted in the dark, but aside from a nasty gash to his bicep, and tooth marks on his wrist, there was nothing.

“You were covered in blood,” he began, and felt ridiculous immediately.

“Some of mine,” he shrugged, “lots of someone else's.” He leaned in, letting Sousuke work his shirt off and drop it to the floor. “The things I want to do to you, Kashim. I won't live long enough to do all of them.”

“Neither will I,” he finally allowed. “But I want to.”

His hands were crushed between them as his mouth was snatched up in a hard kiss. He gasped at the ferocity, the sheer need when his tongue pushed for more, and his hands pulled now with renewed intensity at their clothes, ripping his own shirt over his head and kicking his pants out of the way.

He let himself be pushed onto the bed, but he found himself laying there alone. Gauron dispensed of his remaining clothes slowly, eyes burning as he knelt between Sousuke's legs.

“Lube,” he growled, and when he blushed hotly because he’d already bought some earlier, Sousuke reached over and grabbed it from the bedside table.

Normally, Gauron would slick up his fingers and reach down to press into him, but now his hand dropped down and he began to stroke himself, settled back on his knees as Sousuke lay prone and spread open beneath him.

“My Kashim.” His voice was quiet and dangerous as his hand worked his own cock slowly. “Mine.”

Sousuke knew his eyes were wide, and he gave one sharp nod, the only acknowledgment of the fact that he truly felt the man possessed him, heart and body and soul.

His

Now his deft fingers found Sousuke's entrance, and worked in slowly. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, making his body relax and accept the intrusion. Wrapping his hand around his erection helped, although the first stroke made him gasp and tighten around those fingers.

“I’ve thought about the last time I fucked you,” Gauron purred, “every day. I think about how you sat on my cock and fucked yourself on it. I think about how you kept yourself from coming on it for so long, baby, I wanted you to come so hard.” Another finger. Sousuke keened desperately, and tried to take more of him. “Every day, I think about how you felt around my cock. How tight you were, and how you got tighter the closer you were to coming.” 

A hand covered his own on his erection. His back arched.

“How hard will you come now, Kashim?” he continued, moving his fingers away so he could press into him slowly.

Sousuke bit the back of his hand to keep from making a noise, but it was yanked away. 

No,” he hissed. “I want to hear you, Kashim, I want to hear everything.” He pressed that hand to the headboard and thrust into him once, filling him, and Sousuke let out a low moan.

That seemed to please him. “Just like that,” he growled. 

Sousuke stroked himself again, at the same time Gauron pushed into him again, and he made another small gasp. His body adjusted, his breathing slowed, and his hand worked his aching cock desperately.

“Kashim,” he growled. “Kashim.”

He looked up and met his eyes, his whole body alight and open before him. It wasn't about his pleasure; the way Gauron fucked into him was too hard and too fast, bordering on frantic, and yet he could already feel his own release building low in his groin.

“Look at me,” Gauron commanded, “and say it.”

His breath hitched, and he worked his hand on his cock faster. “I love you.” He panicked, afraid it didn’t come off as genuine, and now the words were ripped from his throat, “Please, I love you,” he said again, “I love you -“ He couldn't say it again, his orgasm was built up and choking him.

Fuck.” He thrust erratically, dropping his head to Sousuke's shoulder and thrusting into him until Sousuke let out a shout - “Gauron!” - he came with another expletive and a deep, low moan. Sousuke was right behind him, spilling hot and wet between their bellies.

They moved apart with heavy limbs, Sousuke groaning as he was left empty and sticky, Gauron rolling over to grab a cigarette: the man was the smoking section, and he had the gun to uphold it. Sousuke still shoved his pants at him and snapped, “Outside.”

They parked themselves on a double lounge chair, likely intended for hopeful boys and tipsy girls. They were neither; they simply sat comfortably and didn't speak.

The man beside him lit a cigarette, and he thought about the ache left behind when he sat down. He wondered when he would feel it again.

"You never told me why you're here," he broached carefully.

The fact that his question was responded to without being answered shouldn't have surprised him. "I was snooping. With Nick dead and Muse collapsed, I was curious about who was cultivating new strains of your favorite drug for the streets."

"Why do you care?"

"It was financially beneficial. And I remember everyone who hurts one of my own, Kashim. I don't keep very many people," he added, his voice a threat, "and you're one of them."

"And..." he left the statement open.

A shrug. "Other things came up. But never doubt that Mithril is tailoring that drug to use on the girl. It worked once before, and they want to know if it will work again. She unlocked a huge development on the LAMDA initiative.  They want everything in her head."

It made his blood run hot with fury. "They'll never get to her. I'll do everything in my power to keep them away from her."

Silence stretched again.

“We're weapons, Kashim,” he said finally. “The only two that matter.”

Sousuke made a small noise of assent. In a moment of impulse, he reached over and plucked the cigarette from his fingers, and took a long drag before passing it back.

(Then, of course, he thought I will not cough the same way he thought I will not come and I will not die.)

Gauron’s delight was barely contained. “I always think I've figured you out,” he said after a beat, “but I think you were put on this earth to surprise me. I mean, you shot me point-blank the second you met me, while I was still thinking about whether I would just kill you, or make you an example. You beat me to the punch.”

Sousuke frowned, a little dizzy from the nicotine, but didn't answer.

“Are you still aimed at me, Kashim?” A big hand rose to his sweaty face, and his eyes pinned him. He swallowed and waited, because it was a rhetorical question. “I love you.” His voice was low, and Sousuke felt like these words weren't meant for him, that he was catching a glimpse of something secret and private.

“The next time I see you,” he said calmly, his eyes holding him frozen in place, “I'm going to shoot you. Here.” He placed his hand over Sousuke's chest, but on the right side, not over the heart. His pulse quickened.  He recoiled, all of his instincts screaming run, but he stayed. Gauron stood and stretched, and tossed his cigarette away absently. When he slipped his hand behind Sousuke's neck and pulled him in for a kiss, it tasted like smoke and goodbye. Everything had been fine until sixty seconds ago, and now he felt like he was back in the dark, ignorant and blind and feeling his way over every inch. 

He pulled away, panting for air,. his heart racing.

"One thing in this world is true," the man warned him, his words so quiet that Sousuke had to strain to hear him. "I fucking love you. Everything else is a lie. Remember that." 

He lit another cigarette and walked out onto the street, still bustling with people. Sousuke didn't bother to follow after him, or even respond.

Chapter Text

Sousuke's phone didn't go off again for the remainder of their stay. He found himself checking it several times a day, and checking over his shoulder even more, but it was clear he would hear nothing until Gauron was ready to re-emerge, however catastrophically. The fact he knew he was going to get shot when that happened didn't calm his nerves.

Their meeting with Mithril’s team at UT didn't go swimmingly, but it could have gone worse. Captain Johnson was, in fact, overly fond of coeds, and if he hadn't been handsome and charming, Kaname might have scratched the whole organization off her list.

But he was in his forties with a sharp military buzz, he dressed in smart civilian clothes, and the moment he took her hand and gave it a respectful kiss, she seemed hooked.

Sousuke's hand was hooked just beside his pistol, waiting for an excuse.

She ducked her eyes when he inclined his head, her fingers still clutched within his. “My team has been waiting to meet you for a long time, Miss Chidori,” he said solemnly. “The door your knowledge has opened for our work is insurmountable. We can't begin to thank you enough for your service. Whether or not you choose to join our team doesn't matter - we're just honored to be your host this week.”

Kurz threw Sousuke a knowing look, being a snake-charmer himself, his smile apologetic. His eyes clearly said Yeah, this guy’s got her number.

Kaname smiled and blushed prettily, then folded her hands. “You have such a beautiful facility, Captain, I'm just honored to be a guest here,” she said shyly. “And I was given a copy of your group’s file to read before I came, and I was so impressed. Your plans with us Whispered are so ambitious, and yet you’re such advocates for non-violence.”

Now Kurz and Melissa looked at him, because suddenly Kaname didn't sound like a naive teenager anymore, but a sharp diplomat who was just warming up. There was a sweet, deceptive edge to her words that a stranger wouldn't pick up on, but triggered all three of them at the same time.

“We're committed to a peaceful way to extract anything we can discover about Black technology,” Johnson assured her. “So many private military organizations still resort to stress-tests and physical endurance drills to gain any information... we find it barbaric.”

“But you're cultivating a compound that sends us into a psychosis, because it's shown results,” she said innocently, “despite its effect on our own psyches.”

He backtracked quickly. “We're working on a variation that is completely host-friendly,” he said confidently. “It will eventually be easily administered, and won't have the strong side-effects anymore. The original composition is frankly distasteful -“

“I know,” she replied calmly. “It's the reason Mithril has made such significant advances lately, and it's probably the reason your budget got funded last month. Did you know I’ve been subjected to that drug before, sir?”

“I...” Johnson faltered. “There’s been talk.”

“And it's the future of the Whispered program,” she continued. “The honing of this drug, yes?”

“We have a number of options at our disposal, and dozens of other potentials,” he said quickly, “that is only one of the many opportunities at the moment -“

She smiled. “Thank you so much. I truly appreciate how forthcoming you’ve been, and I’ll let Lieutenant Commander Kalinin know the same. You’ve been a wonderful host, sir.”

That was the end of the discussion. Neither Sousuke nor his team had another word to say. Kaname tossed her hair over her shoulder and walked out with a tiny smile on her face. Sousuke suspected she had spent too much time in poor company, but he stayed quiet, and let her have her moment.

*

She rejected the university on the plane ride home. Before Sousuke could even regulate her devices upon departure, she had fired off six messages declaring her disassociation of the institution, and her disinterest in this particular Mithril affiliate. Melissa and Weber snickered, but Sagara scowled the entire way back home.

Until, of course, she cornered him on the plane as they returned to Japan, and he learned again what hell felt like.

“Okay,” she started, pitching her voice so Kurz and Mao couldn't hear her. “Listen.” Now her cheeks got pink, and he realized she was getting angry. “I never need to hear you, um - ever again, you freaking pervert - have, you know,” she faltered, her face bright red, “like, stuff. If I ever hear you and Fuck Him ever do anything ever again, Sousuke - because eww- I just, no, never again, never mind, if I ever hear a peep from you, I'll just murder you.”

His blood froze. He didn't have even the first clue how to respond, or if he should interrupt her. But letting her work through it out loud seemed like just as bad of an idea, and he at least tried.

“Miss Kaname, please -“

“Nope,” she cut him off, “if I ever hear you say please again, I don't care if it's please help me, I’m bleeding out, Sousuke, I will set myself on fire before I help you. Jesus, Sousuke, that was freaking horrifying!”

He froze. “I - ah, I solemnly swear I will not subject you to such deviant behavior again.”

“You're such a moody military nerd and you don't even know it!” she declared. “God, when you can tell me why, I'll talk to you again!”

He never figured out why.

*

The incident happened six weeks later.

Kaname had been pestering him for a movie night, and he had rejected her on principle every night. But this night found him on Chidori's couch, and tonight he was wearing a tacky shirt and soft sweatpants (“and I swear to God, I am going to set fire to all of your clothes,” she swore angrily at one point). But he still found himself dozing against her shoulder, committed to some movie she felt he had to see, which left him completely unimpressed, practically to the point of recalcitrant boredom. He practically chose to sleep, so bad was the movie.

There were several problems when the door was kicked in, and a few of them were how soundly asleep Sousuke was on Kaname’s shoulder.

“I'm going to let you get away with this once,” Gauron snapped, “but next time it's costing lives.”

Sousuke shot up, diving for his gun. He was too late; Gauron had the girl by the hair. “Kashim, listen to me.” Their eyes met fiercely.

Sousuke went for his firearm, but then his shoulder exploded when a bullet hit it. He didn't respond in time; he stumbled down to the ground, and didn't remember getting shot being so painful. He took a moment to recover before he was back on his feet, weapon drawn.

“One thing in this fucking world is true, Kashim,” he said viciously. “Remember what that is, and trust it.”

He dragged her out by her hair as she beat her fists against him and shouted- “you asshole, you said you loved him!” She didn't beg for her life, even as Sousuke struggled to remain upright. 

And then they were gone. It happened, and then it was over. He fell onto the couch, bleeding and broken. 

He had just failed her, and now she was gone. And the man he loved had taken her.

*

Months passed. His shoulder healed. He spent days upon days being interrogated, and got angrier every time. By the time he hit his limit, he was practically being accused of personally kidnapping Chidori himself.

The man questioning him was American, and obnoxious. “It's just hard to imagine,” he drawled, “how he could get so close, while you had no idea. Don't you know him better than anyone alive?”

Sousuke ground his teeth. “I am not his babysitter,” he gritted, “and if he wants to be somewhere, he doesn't RSVP. He is simply there.”

“Convenient,” the other man remarked, his tone flippant. It made his blood boil.

“Nothing about this is convenient,” he said angrily, rising to defend his words. “You’ll do better to mind your implications, sir.”

The man shrugged. “It doesn't matter. He and the girl are both dead now. This is all just a formality.”

The words took a moment to sink in, and then they hit home. Sousuke felt himself sink back into his chair, and he heard the man sigh.

“They didn't tell you,” he surmised.

 

“I want to talk to Kalinin,” Sousuke told him firmly. “Now.”

“That's beyond your prerogative, Sergeant,” the American warned.

He stood and faced the surveillance camera, and stated, “I would like to speak with Lieutenant Commander Andrei Kalinin before I say another word on the record.”

The American sat back in his chair, considering him for a long moment. “Okay,” he said finally, “he’ll be here shortly.”

Sousuke sat back down, shut his mouth, and waited. “I expect you will let me speak with him privately.”

“Is anything really private?” he said dryly.

He checked his response and stayed quiet.

“But sure, you can talk to him alone. Privately... not as sure about that.”

*

Kalinin was solemn as he entered the room. “Sergeant.”

Sousuke stood immediately and saluted. “Sir.”

The Lieutenant Commander regarded him. “I heard what your interrogator said. It hurt you.”

Sousuke stayed still and silent.

“Kaname Chidori is dead,” Kalinin said quietly. “Gauron is dead. He delivered her to a facility in Saudi Arabia, and was expected to stay until they had extracted what they could from her. There was a gas explosion, Sergeant. There was nothing anyone could have done. I identified her body in Germany a week ago. I would have told you sooner,” and he always seemed so regal, even as he was ripping every part of Sousuke's life apart, “but the investigation is ongoing. My hands are bound.” His eyes were kind, but sad. “I'm sorry, Sergeant. I would have taken you with me, but I know how much Miss Chidori has grown on you. I thought it would be too much. If I overstepped, I apologize.”

He didn't have words. He didn't have anger, or resent, or vengeance. He didn't have Kaname to protect. He had no one to love.

He had nothing.

Chapter Text

Time passed strangely. On the one hand, Sousuke could remember the last time he had seen Kaname alive like it was yesterday, but on the other hand, he remembered bleeding on the floor as she was dragged away like it was happening now.

The text came from a strange phone: Amsterdam. Three days. Train station. He fielded the text like it was from before the incident, until he remembered that a third of the people he cared about were dead. He was not rushing to save Chidori. He was not sneaking away for a clandestine night with Gauron.

He honestly had no idea what he was doing, and he went because he didn't care if it was a trap.

He waited quietly in the train station. His military ID allowed him to keep his firearm, and even though it had been healed for months, the wound in his shoulder throbbed. His fingers itched for a target to fire at, but there were too many civilians for him to do that. He couldn't spot anyone he particularly wanted to shoot, anyway. There wasn't anyone left alive now who deserved that sentiment.

He waited patiently, but nothing happened.

Until it did.

One moment he was sitting quietly on a bench alone, and then his eye was caught by a mess of bright hair stepping off of a train, and time itself stopped. He stood up, too stunned to do more than that.

She spotted him immediately and dropped everything, and broke into a run. “Sousuke!” she practically screamed, and jumped on him so forcefully he almost fell over. 

It took him a moment to realize that this was really Kaname, and she wasn't dead, and it was probably polite to hug her in return. He at least tried.

When she let him go, he could do little else but stare at her as the truth sank in. “Kaname,” he said softly. 

“I mean, you could look kinda happy to see me,” she scolded gently. But she was beaming like it was her birthday, and her words held no ire. “Sousuke.” She actually sounded happy. “He said I would know who to meet when I saw them, but I've been dealing with the same goon squad the whole time, and I figured it was one of those idiots moving me to a new location, I had no idea!”

“How-“ he tried again, “how did you get away? How did you survive the explosion?”

She blinked. “What explosion?”

“The - the lab,” he said, “in Saudi Arabia, three months ago-“

“The lab?” she repeated. “Where? Sousuke, I spent a month in Cambodia with some old lady - she called you Kashim too, she was super sweet and asked me to make sure you took care of yourself, she super-hated Gauron too, and so we totally hit it off - and the last five months I've been in Madrid with a couple of women who served together in Afghanistan and fell in love and got married like five years ago. Who on earth have you been talking to?”

“Kalinin told me that you were being held at a facility in Saudi Arabia. He said there was an explosion. He told me you and - he told me you were dead,” he rambled desperately, “and that he identified your body because he thought it would be too hard for me -“

“Are you messing with me right now, Sousuke?” she demanded, stepping back and fixing that wonderful, furious glare on him. “Because it's not funny!”

“I thought Gauron sold you to the highest bidder,” he said firmly, and absently tucked a stray lock of blue hair back in place as he did, “and when I heard about the accident-“

“Sousuke, there was no freaking accident! What are you talking about?”

In a fit of impulse, he grabbed her by the shoulders to make sure she was real, and here, and alive. “He shot me, he took you, and then I was told you were both dead. I failed you, I lost him, I lost -“ He closed his eyes. “I lost the last person who called me by my name.”

Then she was on him again, her arms crushing him to her. “I don’t know why Kalinin told you that, Sousuke, that's insane, I'm fine! I was so scared when he showed up, I always think he's to kill me, I thought he was going to kill me, Sousuke - I punched him when we got to the street, and I thought maybe I could get away with minimal civilian casualties-“

He was inordinately proud of her when she said that.

And then something caught her eye, and she swore. “Son of a bitch,” she said furiously.

Sousuke turned to follow her gaze, and the world ended again.

“Don't shoot,” Gauron said dryly, smoking a cigarette. “I told you, you wouldn't like my methods.”

“I'm so sick of you,” Chidori fumed.

It was like he didn't even hear her; he was looking directly at Sousuke with need and hunger and desire and -

No. Not today. There was no room for love to be found today.

He didn't shoot him, but he did take three long steps and punch him squarely in the face, and once he’d taken a moment to scrub his face and spit out a bit of blood, Sousuke kissed him ferociously as he began to put all the moving pieces together. He tasted blood, and there was some satisfaction to it.

He grabbed two handfuls of his shirt and pushed him forward, and didn't stop pushing. He met those cold eyes with resolve, and then everything came to a head.

“What did you do?” he exploded, “What have you done?”

“You asked me to save the brat,” he snapped, “and she's dead now. Consider her saved. You're welcome.”

He was grabbed and caught, one hand holding his chin to force eye contact, the other pulling Sousuke flush against him. He still had a fistful of fabric in his hands, and between him pushing and Gauron pulling, they were practically wrestling in the middle of a train station. It seemed fitting; they were always fighting each other, and neither of them were suited for public.

“You asked me for a favor,” he murmured, unconcerned with the people who were starting to stare. “I told you, you wouldn't like how I did it. But you asked, so I delivered.” 

“You shot me,” he said furiously.

“I told you I was going to,” was the retort. “And don't act like it was the first time, either.”

“You - you took her,” he repeated, panic making him see red, “you put a gun to her head -“

“And I told you,” he rumbled, “that only one thing on this fucking planet is true, and everything else is a lie. What was that one thing, honey?”

He narrowed his eyes, and suspected his glare might rival Chidori’s impressive one. “Is it actually true?” It was a rhetorical question, and when he was kissed, he bit down on his lip angrily.

Gauron was laughing quietly, rubbing his mouth and grinning. “I fucking love you,” he said, amused.

Kaname took a hesitant step forward, looking for all the world like she was entering into a den of vipers. “Sousuke, look, obviously you don't know what really happened,” she started cautiously.

“Clearly, I don't.” His voice was cold. “But I expect one of you to fix that.”

Gauron lit a cigarette and sat down, in no hurry to do so. He had obviously started smoking more, and Sousuke hoped the next cigarette killed him. Kaname glanced between the two of them nervously, and swallowed.

“So, um,” and now her voice wavered. “So after he kidnapped me -“

A soft scoff.

“After your asshole not-boyfriend kidnapped me,” she doubled down, “he dropped me off with some lady in Cambodia and told me to wear a wig and local clothes, and to be quiet. Like, not even casual conversation at the market.”

Sousuke glanced between them, inordinately angry. “And then what?”

“Well, then some guy came to town and told me I was being moved to another safehouse, so then I ended up in Spain, and aside from Diana and Juana, I still wasn't allowed to talk to anyone. They're cool,” she added, “I could talk to them about stuff, y’know, and they really want to meet you someday.”

“Well if that's not a new fresh hell for me to live in,” Gauron muttered around his cigarette. “Those two, and him. I wouldn't survive that.”

“You are a fresh hell,” she snapped.

Sousuke was having a hard time processing everything. “I thought - I thought you were both dead. I thought you took her and ran, I -“ he yanked a hand through his hair, half-panicked and lost. “I failed you, Miss Chidori, I am so sorry-“

She spun on Gauron. “You let him think I was dead?” she demanded. “You said it was Mithril! You didn't tell me that part! You asshole! You said I just had to lay low for awhile!”

“You-“ Sousuke choked on his words. “You were in on this together?”

Kaname put her hands on her hips angrily. “I mean, no, I legit thought he was kidnapping me with intent to kill me, but I thought he told you!”

“I didn't tell him,” Gauron drawled.

In a move that shocked all involved parties, she stormed over and slapped him. And it wasn't a girly slap: she opened her fist and struck him, throwing her weight with her shoulder and following through like a pro. “You dickbag!” she raged. “Why would you do that to him? You said you loved him!

A cruel smile curled at his lips. “I'll give you the one shot, but don't think you’ll get another one for free. The next one will be expensive, Miss Chidori.”

“You evil piece of shit,” she seethed. “Not that I ever believed anything you've said, you asshole. You wait until I tell Juana! She's going to kill you!”

Sousuke hit his limit at the word love. “What in the hell did you both do?” he finally exploded, punching the bench hard enough that he thought (guiltily) he might have broken a knuckle.

The two of them exchanged a glance, which was on the list of the strangest things he’d ever seen. Gauron made no move to clarify, lest it disturb his cigarette, and Kaname spoke up nervously.

“So, we’re talking about everything,” she clarified. “No secrets. And hey, fuck you,” she added angrily. Gauron remained nonplussed. “So this jerk dragged me out of the apartment,” she began, “and he pulled me down to the street by my hair and then he said - and I quote - ‘You don't say a word. You don't scream. You don't call a soul, and if you try to fucking run, I'll sell your brain to China like it's on clearance. If you want to live past tomorrow, you'll do exactly as I say’, and what was I supposed to do with a gun to my head?”

“I did say that,” he conceded smugly.

He didn't have an answer. He let her talk.

“So I got blindfolded and thrown onto a plane, and no one talked to me, and suddenly I was in freaking Laos, and he says ‘Shut your fucking mouth and let her feed you for awhile, she's less of an old cunt when she’s cooking’, and then he told me you would find me when the time was right- and oh, Sousuke, I didn't know you thought I was dead! I’m so sorry, I had no clue!”

“Yeah, I said that too.” Then, "Not the sorry part. That's all her."

He scrubbed a weary hand down his face. “I am simply glad you are alive.”

He didn't act on it, but he had a very strong urge to beat the ever-loving shit out of Gauron publicly. It wouldn't have been the first time. 

“You asked me to get her away from Mithril, sweetheart. Kaname Chidori is dead,” Gauron said flatly. “Mithril has closed her file, and gone on to look for another Hail Mary pass to crack open more Black tech and make them money. May the good Lord protect this one’s bones and ferry her soul to perdition safely.” He let out a slow, deliberate stream of smoke, that cruel edge returning to his smile. “I do think about choking the life out of you, Miss Chidori. Maybe someday I'll get to kill you again.”

Sousuke nearly exploded. “You fucking asshole,” he said furiously, diving at him with intent to kill.

It was only Kaname jumping between them that kept him from murdering a man in public, because this was not his first rodeo, and it wouldn't be his last. “Sousuke!” she shouted, her hands up in surrender and defense. “Stop it now!”

He froze in his assault, her tiny presence between them jarring him out of a bloody haze.

“You march your stupid military ass over there,” she said venomously, jabbing an angry finger across the station, “and you shut up, and you listen to me when I talk to you, do you hear me?” Her fury was impressive.

Gauron took another drag from a new cigarette. “I get why you keep her around. Doesn't make me want to kill her less.”

Now,” she snapped, “before I die trying to save him.”

“At least you know you'll die trying.” This was the wrong answer, because she pulled an actual rock out of her purse and chucked it like George Springer with a vendetta. It struck his ribs with enough force that he flinched.

“I swear,” she said viciously, “I give Sousuke first dibs, but if I get a shot, I'm taking it. Screw you.”

He stood easily, popping knuckles and joints absently. “Sure, babe.”

And if you call me babe again-! “

By this point, Sousuke had stopped processing. All he could hear was the scream of the train tracks and his own heartbeat. He closed his eyes and took a calming breath, and weighed how harshly he would be punished for killing him. After all, Mithril's biggest issue with him was that he hadn't done it already, and he had already lost him twice - how badly could it hurt now?

Gauron sat up a bit - “Listen, sweets, if you want to explain this to him, you need to do it now. Like, at this exact moment.” He grabbed Sousuke by the shoulder, so close that their mouths brushed. “Listen now, Kashim,” he ordered. “Shut your fucking mouth,” he said forcefully, “and listen to her. I know you can at least do that.”

Kaname’s face turned to sheer terror. “But I don't-“

He spun on her, the entirety of his wrath and fury whipping behind him. “He's going to shoot me in five seconds,” he snarled, “and he's not going to believe anything I tell him, so talk faster.”

“Okay! Okay! He fake kidnapped me, and I fake died, but I'm alive and here now, and I’m sorry we lied to you, and I'm so sorry -“

His glare was fixed on the man before him. “You took her.”

He took it calmly. “I did.”

“You shot me.”

“I had to sell it, sweetheart.”

“You had to sell it,” he repeated with a degree of disbelief.

“They watch you,” Gauron warned him softly, “and you have a terrible poker face. You had to mourn her, and it had to be real. If you really wanted her out, Mithril needed to see you grieve, so you needed to believe it.”

“Fuck you.” He meant it, but he still opened his mouth when he was kissed again.

“Oh, Jesus, I’m going to get coffee,” Chidori declared when Sousuke couldn't pull himself away. She made an impressive exit, grabbing her purse and diving for cash emphatically. 

“Why didn't you at least send word when the investigation was closed?” he asked when he could breathe again. “After they determined she was dead, they went and identified more Whispered, and I was pulled from active duty for months.”

“Kashim.” And he didn't realize it for a moment, but it was his name, spoken out loud again by the last person who had known Kashim, because even Kalinin had only ever known Sousuke Sagara. His eyes burned, and he swallowed around a lump in his throat.

“Dial it down, Kashim,” he warned. “This isn't the place for emotions, and it's not what we do. We're weapons, remember? The last two left. And we don't break.”

“I have tried to kill you at least five times,” he said, anger holding his voice steady. “You let me think that someone else did what only I can do. I wanted to kill whoever was responsible - the man who killed you for taking you away, and who took away my right to do it myself.”

The next kiss was biting. “You know that's hot, right?” he grinned against Sousuke's mouth. “I would never let anyone take that away from you. But you’ve just tried so hard for so long to do it yourself, I thought it would make you happy to think I was gone.” Sousuke shoved him, hard, but then stepped back and took a deep breath. 

“Thank you for getting her out. She didn't deserve to have the rest of her life spent as a medical experiment, subjected to tests and trials like a guinea pig. She's so...” he paused. “Normal, and high-functioning. Even without her accreditations, she can still make a good life for herself.”

“Even if she was a hermit crab on a beach,” Gauron told him, “she would be fine. She has enough money now that people would assume she's a bank robber, or that banks would rob her.”

He didn't know how to respond.

“But never doubt,” he added, “in my dream world, her parents died in a fire before she was born, and I’ve retired to the Philippines and spend my days being hand-fed fruit and wine. By you,” he assured him.

“Well in my dream world, you haven't shot me nine times,” Sousuke fired back.

The answering smile was slow and wicked. He moved in on Sousuke with intent, and pulled him in close. “Then thank Christ we don't live in our dream world,” he murmured. “What would I have done without you?” He brushed Sousuke's mouth with his thumb gently, and let his lips follow. “If you’d told me thirty years ago that I'd be fucking an amorous mercenary who kept trying to kill me, I would have wasted a bullet on an idiot for lying to me. But here you are,” he purred, “amorous and murderous and perfect.”

Sousuke closed his eyes and opened his mouth.

Gauron fed on his parted lips like a starving man. “Kashim, listen to me now.”

He half-nodded, more focused on on how the other man tasted than anything else.

He found his face taken in hand, cradled in those hot, encompassing hands suddenly now.

Listen to me,” he repeated. “You have a choice, Kashim, and you have to make it now. You can go back to Mithril tomorrow, or you can die today. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?”

He blinked, blood pounding in his veins. “I... don't think so?”

“Do you have your go bag?” he said fiercely. “If you don't, you deserve everything Mithril throws at you.”

Sousuke touched the pocket over his rib silently, holding his gaze. “Why?”

“Because if you don't, and you go back, you'll never find the twerp again. I’ll hide her so deep that a military satellite won't be able to find her. You’ll never see her again. And I'm vanishing, Kashim. For good.”

He made himself hold that gaze, even as he realized what was happening.

He put his hand over the spot Sousuke had tapped, where he carried millions of dollars and dozens of identities. “Use it,” he said quietly. “Let your little captain mourn you. Have a proper funeral. I’m already dead, Kashim. Let's be dead together.”

Considering life had not treated him better, Sousuke couldn't argue with his logic. “I don't know,” he started uneasily.

“You do know. You know Mithril will either throw you away, or throw you into a fight you’ll lose,” he countered. “And then I would have to murder everyone involved. Slowly.”

Sousuke knew he was being literal.

“Arbalest -“

“I’ve already arranged for it to be stolen by Iranian special ops,” he dismissed. “You’ll have it soon.”

“My team-“

“You can contact them after six months.”

“Chidori?” he pressed desperately.

“She likes the arrangement in Spain, and Juana will flay alive anyone who tries to hurt her. Myself included.”

He was running out of questions. “And you?”

Another shrug. “Where do you want to go? I was thinking of a beach in the Bikini Atoll, where we could be close enough to a lot of places to pick up jobs if we felt like it, but no one would look for us. And it's secluded, so if you or I ever got burned, one of us would be safe.”

His mind spun. Gauron was asking him to run together.

Or - what had he called it? Retirement.

They were the last of their kind, as far as he knew. He had gone from trying to kill him to kissing him within three minutes, which was simply their way.

“Remember, only one thing in this world is true,” he warned. 

Sousuke regarded him for a long moment. “It's nothing I didn't already know.”

His eyes burned with naked desire. “I’ve half a mind to fuck you right here, and kill anyone who has a problem.”

He hesitate. “If all of that is true,” he said quietly, “then at least tell me how I died.”

He laughed softly. “How do you think, Kashim? I'm going to blow up this train station.”

*

To be fair, the train station was blown up after a bomb threat was called in, and all incoming lines were re-routed. There were no casualties. Sousuke found the gesture oddly sweet.

Chapter Text

Being dead together worked for exactly two days, which were mostly spent seeing how much sex they could have before it became hazardous, now that it was okay. The answer was: a lot. It didn't help that Sousuke’s recovery time was about ten minutes, and it was used against him mercilessly for two days, one of them spent with his arms tied over his head. 

By the third day, of course, it eroded into an unmitigated disaster that ended with Gauron shooting the wall directly by his head and Sousuke lunging at him with the intention of hurting him badly. Which, technically, had been their new norm since the whole Muse incident. 

By the time it devolved into violence, there was no one to pull them apart, and Sousuke achieved his goal. It cost him a broken nose, a black eye, a dislocated shoulder, a knee that began to swell when he hit the ground hard, and a twisted ankle. But Gauron was just as bloodied and beaten, if not more, so he considered his injuries worth it.

Gauron rolled on his back with a groan, and Sousuke struggled to his feet, winded.

“This,” he said breathlessly, “is not going to work.”

“The fact you ever thought it would is either the nicest or most pathetic fucking thing I’ve ever heard,” he sneered, wiping at blood from a cut above his eye. 

“You said we would be different this time,” he spat as he dealt with his own wounds. He was already spent after the last two days, completely exhausted, and now he was debating which wall to hit and pop his shoulder back into place. He had already taken the hem of his shirt in hand to set his nose.

“I didn't intend to kill you, Kashim, and you didn't try to kill me. That's different. So now, if you'll excuse me,” he added, rising and storming out in an angry exit.

Sousuke flung the remote control at him with his good arm, but he wasn't quick enough, and it exploded against the door as he slammed it behind him.

He spent the rest of the evening watching the Weather Channel from the floor, leaning against the couch because he couldn't bring his broken body to rise up and change the channel until the next day.

A man had been killed by a monstrous hailstone in Thailand. Sousuke felt his pain, and envied his demise.

*

Gauron didn't re-emerge for three months, which Sousuke was fine with. He preferred it, actually. If he didn't see that man again for another ten years, it would be too soon. 

He thought about socializing sometimes, going to a bar with his new ID and seeing if he could be like other people. Like Kurz, who could buy a girl a drink and smile and slip into the night with her. He didn't feel like that was him. He wasn't able to walk up to a man and ask for what he wanted, and he knew no one else could give him what he needed anyways. He chalked it up to loneliness. He might be free of Mithril, but he wasn't free of himself.

You don't owe him anything, a small voice reminded him. You can be free of him. You have enough money, you could be free of him tomorrow.

His abandonment gave him the space to get used to his new location and new identity. He’d been undercover too many times to count, sometimes longer than this, but it was strange to know that he was actually undercover forever now. He had always been perfect with his identities, yet now he found himself forgetting his new name half of the time.

It also let him establish routines, which he couldn't function without. He was Tony Hong now, and he worked as a night stocker at a local grocery store. It was nice, because the physical labor grounded him and was at least a little satisfying. He arrived exactly on time, and left exactly when he was released.

He got on well with the rest of the staff, even if he kept mostly to himself. Apparently showing up every day, and on time, were the only things required to be liked by his superiors and coworkers.

One of them, a solid man who shouldn't have been able to make the heaviest stocking look so easy, broached a conversation after a few months the way one might approach a feral cat - casually, carefully, pretending he didn't really care. “So. I’m pretty loud, but you seem pretty quiet. Would it bother you if I put on some music?”

“Of course not.”

“You mind heavy metal?”

“I don't mind anything,” he said calmly, keeping his attention on his task. It was only the second time they had really worked together, so he kept his head down.

His name was Leo, and even if Sousuke kept his distance, he wasn't a complete idiot when it came to other people. He could spot interest when it was there, and despite only working a few shifts together, Leo was interested.

The music roared to life, but it wasn't as loud as a machine gun at close range. He continued his work.

Once they had finished unloading produce, he spoke again. “Hungry?” Leo asked casually, not looking at him. “This is a good stopping point, and we may not get another for awhile. Opening is in an hour, and we have to make sure deli gets their meat to slice before then.”

He paused. Why was he always the coworker people wanted to pry open? He was clearly not a fan of human interaction.

Then he remembered that in the average workplace, with normal people, they considered socializing a common practice, and that he was clearly the problem. “I suppose so,” he decided finally. If he was going to be Tony Hong, then he needed to act like those people.

Sousuke took a pause to regard the man beside him for the first time, considering the fact they had encountered each other for months, if not closely. Leo was forty, if not a day older, with broad shoulders and strong arms, and was clearly military - a specialist, not basic infantry. If he was an AS pilot, Sousuke would not have been surprised. He himself had always been on the smaller side of pilots. What he was doing in this place, slinging boxes, was beyond him. He spoke four languages better than Sousuke spoke two, and sported a clean haircut sprinkled with gray. He realized with a jolt of shock that the man was very handsome, and didn't know how to process that thought. 

Leo spoke first, while Sousuke tried to decide if he was going crazy. 

“So, Tony. Where did you serve?” Again, he made sure he was looking straight ahead, as if Sousuke might take off like a spooked horse.

He swallowed. “I didn't. I, ah-“ and now he was struggling with his backstory. “I went to a prestigious university in California as an exchange student. I was, I was the - I was the 

president of my fraternity until I graduated.” And why that was part of his narrative, with diplomas and certificates framed in his living room, could only have been for Gauron’s private amusement. Sousuke as a frat leader... Honestly.

Leo looked at him now with his eyebrows hiked all the way up. He knew Sousuke was lying. “You know, I rushed for a few when I was a freshman. Which one were you?”

That part of the story had completely left him, and he faltered.

A smile now, and a return to that serene, patient tone. “You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to. Me? I got kicked out of Wash U in St. Louis during my first year for scrapping with another rushee, then got kicked out of the house, so I joined up. I’ve been a company man since I was younger than you. A thousand guys have the same story. I kinda wish mine was more interesting. At my age, I could have been on a specialist team, affecting real change and taking out more than one asshole at a time, but I got tired. You can't do that shit forever, you know. I hit gunnery sergeant, rode it for a few years, and I was done. I ran my team for as long as I could, and eventually they all moved on, while I stayed where I was. So I left.”

“There are -“ he kept his head down. “There are things I can't discuss. I don't mean to sound, um,” and again he lost the words.

“Mysterious?” Leo opined with another smile, this one kind but sly.

“I don't mean to,” he said again.

“Well, looks like you picked up mystery and discipline somewhere,” he remarked. “I'm usually pretty spot-on picking out guys who served. You might be my first mistake.”

Sousuke frowned at that. The implication bothered him. “All right. I... I have been in combat since I was a child,” he finally admitted, after telling himself it was a terrible idea for ninety seconds. “I had no formal training until I was fourteen, only a need to survive. You did not make a mistake.”

“Still got it,” he said with a grin. “Can you at least tell me who you served for?”

He shook his head minutely.

“Fine, stay mysterious,” he shrugged. “I like it on you.”

His eyes widened, and he suspected he was blushing. He couldn't think of a single thing to say in response.

“You seen a lot?” he asked. “Some places, there's nothing to be seen.”

He nodded once.

“A pilot?”

“Arm Slave,” he said quietly. “I was a good pilot. One of the best.” His decorum and pride clashed, because he was goddamn great. He had done nothing else in his life but be an exceptional pilot.

Leo threw a side glance at him that made his cheeks get hot. He looked up at him quickly, only to find curious blue eyes looking back. He didn't look away, and found himself fascinated by the darker rings of blue and flecks of gold that made them so unique.

Sousuke thought he might have imagined a hand at the small of his back, ushering him along. He hoped it was real, and turned towards his companion. “I was good,” he repeated. 

“I know you were,” Leo assured him gently. “You're a hard worker, Tony. No one has missed that. But you didn't learn that yesterday.”

Sousuke stepped towards the door and spun to keep him where he was.

You don't owe him anything.

Leo put a tentative hand on Sousuke's hip, and he remembered how it felt in a flood, and how it must feel to be cared for. “I can't,” he tried, and failed.

“If I'm making you uncomfortable, tell me,” Leo said softly, lifting his hands with the promise of disengagement.

“You're not.” He didn't mean to speak so quietly, but his voice was thin and reedy. “I - I like this,” he added nervously. “It has been a very long time since I’ve had any interaction with anyone, so -“ he sucked in a desperate breath. “I don't know what happens next.”

Leo snaked an arm around his waist and pulled him toward the break room. Off-balance, Sousuke laid his palms flat against his chest. "Maybe we find somewhere quiet,” Leo suggested after a beat.

He threw the door open, and ushered Sousuke in with a firm hand. He turned beneath that hand and looked him in the eye, drinking in the clear blues and shimmering greens like they were they were the first thing he had ever seen.

So when Leo’s voice rang out in the small kitchen, calm but firm, “I’m sorry, sir, but this room is for employees only,” time itself stopped as he absorbed the situation.

In a fit of self-pity that left him as abruptly as it came, he thought, he must just find it amusing to do this. As though nothing else amused him but tormenting Sousuke (which was not out of the question).

Gauron leaned back in his chair, taking in the situation. He was wrapped in impenetrable confidence, and looked Sousuke over. “Glad to see you're making friends, honey.”

His mind worked quickly. “Leo, I must ask you to excuse us.” His hands were clenched tightly at his back now as he came back into his own space, and to the man lounging before him, he hissed, “Outside, now.”

“I think I'm more interested in meeting Leo,” he replied, a dangerous edge to his voice. His smile was not kind, or sly. It was sharp and loaded. “How are you, Leo? I see you’ve met Tony. He’s a peach, isn't he?”

“I'm going to grab the inventory list,” Leo said coolly, regarding their company with caution. “Take your hour, Tony, take care of your business. Be back on time.”

Sousuke tensed when the door closed, and Gauron stood. He touched the box cutter in his back pocket for reassurance and held his ground. 

“So how good of a friend is this one, Kashim?” he asked ominously, looming over him. “Your little engineer’s sad pining was entertaining, but you just look ripe for the picking right now, don’t you?”

Sousuke narrowed his eyes. “Don't you think it would be better if our new identities didn't interact? It draws too much attention to us both.”

He was ignored in favor of being grabbed by the hair and yanked forward, his head forced up and meeting Gauron’s furious gaze.

He went for the box cutter and pressed the flat part of the blade to his throat. “I would release me if I were you,” he warned, the tip of it directly on his jugular.

“Are you going to slit my throat in the middle of a kitchenette on your break? Because that would certainly draw attention,” Gauron warned right back. “And you're all about discretion and propriety now, aren't you?”

“Get out of here. Get out and walk out of my life. I know you're perfectly capable of it, because you're very good at it and you do it all the fucking time!” he shouted, his hand shaking around the knife.

“Put it down, Kashim.”

He glared with helpless rage, but he flicked the blade back in. 

“Smart boy,” and then he threw him into the mini fridge, which was just short enough that he tripped over it and hit the ground hard, taking the cooler with him.

He climbed back to his feet slowly, his hip and ribs protesting the movement.

“You may not actually be Tony Hong, and you may not be Sousuke fucking Sagara anymore,” he told him, “but you will always be Kashim, and never fucking forget, Kashim is mine. So I don't care if people look at you, I certainly do it a lot. But if I ever fucking see you look back at anyone else again, I'll destroy that son of a bitch so completely, there will be nothing left to look at.” 

Sousuke was silent.

“You look at me. No one else.”

“While you look wherever you want,” he scowled, rubbing his side gingerly.

“I look at three things, Kashim. I look at money, I look at power, and I look at you,” he said flatly, his arms crossed.

Sousuke let out a harsh breath that seemed to take the fight in him with it. “You still shouldn't be here. This is too public to be smart.”

“I’m glad I am. You apparently need to get checked every so often.” His eyes narrowed further. “Never thought I'd need to.”

He rolled his eyes. “He is just a coworker.”

“I have never heard that before,” he said sarcastically.

“Well if you can't believe that,” Sousuke reminded him dryly, “then remember that such interactions create a hostile work environment, which is cause for termination, and I am content here for the time being.”

“Still can't break a lot of rules, can you?” The corner of his mouth quirked. “Should have remembered that it's easier to move mountains than it is to make you have fun.”

He strolled over, his eyes dark as amber as he did. Sousuke tensed reflexively, box cutter still in his hand.

“Don't panic,” he dismissed. “Gotta understand, I've been on the other side of the battlefield from you more than I haven't. Sometimes I just get the urge to beat the shit out of you. It passes. Then I get different urges.”

Sousuke shivered and let him cup the back of his neck, and pull him into a hard, bruising kiss. All teeth and tongue, nothing sweet or tender. He moaned into his mouth and let him swallow all of his small noises for a moment, and he liked how he got rougher the louder Sousuke was, but then he pulled away reluctantly.

“I have only looked at you,” he told him quietly, “though likely through the scope of a gun, more often than not. But there has been a rash of thefts regarding employee lunches, so the security tapes are actually being reviewed. And you gave my supervisor some cause for alarm as well. You should go.”

“I’m out of town in half an hour,” he informed him, “so this your only opportunity to get thoroughly fucked for a few months. Take a chance.”

“Hostile work environment,” Sousuke reminded him.

“What if I don't want to wait that long?” he murmured.

"I expect you will keep,” Sousuke replied, just as quietly.

Gauron grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt and brought them nose-to-nose. “If I find out you outsourced your ass to anyone else, I'll ruin them and burn down this whole arrangement - including Chidori. Hell, I'll deliver her to Mithril myself. And if I find out it was this asshole, I'll destroy every person who ever bought so much as a stamp from here.”

Sousuke closed his eyes wearily. He’d forgotten how exhausting it was to deal with that deadly madness, and how pleasant it had been to live without it for awhile.

“Go away,” he sighed. “This is why people try to kill you.” He paused, thinking. “This is why I try to kill you.”

“Well, now it is. Before that, it was about the girl and the submarine. And even before that, it was over little shit like warheads and nuclear satellites. But never forget our humble beginnings: I tried to kill you to steal guns and rations, and you tried to kill me so I couldn't do any of that.” He laid another hard kiss on him, the kind he used to give when they were on opposite sides of war, like he was fighting now too. 

Sousuke disengaged firmly, after indulging for a moment. “I, ah...” he glanced away anxiously, but then he made a resolve and held his eyes, and liked how even though they weren't heated with desire or murder, the gold was darker at the edge of his irises, and shot through in spikes to his pupils. “I.” God, why did everything have to be this hard? “I love you.”

“Nothing I didn't already know.” He grinned wickedly. “Nice to hear you say it unsolicited, honey.” Sousuke jumped when he bent down and bit his lower lip. His voice lowered to a cruel, indecent rumble. “I love you, Kashim.”

Sousuke flinched at the memory of the first time he heard those words, spoken where everyone could hear, and the explosion that followed. It was the tone, really, that knife’s-edge between sanity and mania that he would always associate with them. “I'm well aware,” he said ruefully. “I’m going back to work. Please see yourself out without incident.”

Without warning, Gauron swept down and put his mouth just below his jaw, and it was only for a second, but he bit down and sucked ferociously, Sousuke's skin still between his teeth when he popped off. 

It was over in a flash, and he left Sousuke hard and wanting. “Suit yourself.” He stepped back, smug and smirking. “Be good for me, Kashim.”

He sighed again. “Please do the same.”

The ensuing kiss was an indulgent one. “I've never been good, honey.”

“No, you're horrible,” he agreed. “I just... need you to return, is what I mean.”

“I promise you, Kashim, you'll never shake me.”

“If you can't kill me, sweetheart, no one can,” Gauron said quietly. “Go back to work.”

Sousuke nodded once.

“But if I'm not allowed to fuck you,” he added, his voice threatening, “then you’re going to do something for me. When you get home,” and Sousuke shuddered as the words were spoken into his ear, his mouth tickling his skin, “you’re going to take off all your clothes, and get your hand nice and slick, and you're going to fuck yourself while you think about me. And you don't come immediately, you tease, baby. You think about everything you want me to do, and you do it, is that understood?” 

He barely managed a nod. He would have come that moment if it had been asked. 

“Say you understand,” he ordered.

“I understand,” he breathed, not daring to move.

“Good.” He backed away from Sousuke with a small smile, holding his eyes, his own eyes promising things to come. “Take care of yourself, Kashim.”

Sousuke nodded once and let himself be kissed. He consumed his mouth as if he'd never taste it again, and then broke the kiss abruptly. “Next time.”

He let out a shaking breath and contemplated the cruelty of the universe as he was left alone, his heart pounding.

*

The rest of his break was spent willing his erection to go away. The rest of his shift was spent willing himself to finish it without incident. “How about you throw that last case and clock out?” Leo suggested. “You deserve a nice morning off.”

He paused, his hands full. “Yes, sir. I can do that.”

He finished his task, clocked out, and when he got home, he did exactly as he was told.

Chapter Text

The call from Kaname was an unexpected surprise. They had agreed, upon his “death”, that it would be safest to limit contact, lest either of them be exposed, but it wasn't completely forbidden. So her invitation to Spain was a welcome reprieve from his everyday routine, and he requested the time off immediately.

The house in Spain was beautiful in its simplicity: practically open-air, with stained floors and a lovely kitchen. It was small, but efficient. Kaname’s quarters were just above the living room, and his own were right beside hers. He found himself touched that they had made a space for him. 

Juana was kind and had the sweetest smile, her body statuesque in its loveliness, but she was more than capable of causing significant damage. He couldn't have guessed her age if he tried.

He saw more of himself in her wife. Diana was all sharp edges, always combat-ready. She could be chopping onions with a sharp knife, or sitting in her pajamas on a Saturday morning with a home baked muffin, but she would still be formidable. And she didn't have Juana’s soft, deceptive beauty. She was certainly pretty, but she didn't try to hide how deadly she was.

He envied them in that respect. Juana disarmed everyone with a smile because she chose to, while Diana didn't bother to hide anything. Sousuke couldn't walk a city block without declaring that he was armed and prepared and lethal, even if he wanted to. (He didn't often want to; it shut down many problems before they could start.)

Sitting in their pajamas was exactly what they were doing, on his second day visiting, but there was an undercurrent of excitement this morning: they were expecting more company soon.

Diana placed a steaming mug of coffee in his hands, and he realized that they were trying to spoil him. His coffee consumption had increased while he was in exile, cheap and quick, but it was nothing compared to this, and when the ladies saw his face upon tasting it the first morning, they'd made sure to keep some brewed at all times.

She smiled at him, and there was something terrifying about it. “Kaname has told us about your friends, in her own special way. You fought beside them?”

“For years,” he confirmed. “Weber is one of the best snipers I've ever seen, if not the best. Certainly the best I’ve served with. He will attempt to seduce you at some point,” he added as a precaution, “but do not take offense, he does it to all attractive women he meets. It's not personal.”

She laughed, delighted. “I wish you could hear the things you say the way everyone else hears them,” she said with another chuckle. “I promise, I won't take a swing at him if he offers to take me to bed.”

“You wouldn't have to. Major Mao considers that her personal cross to bear,” he promised solemnly. “She is his most frequent target, and is very good at putting him in his place.”

“I like her already.”

“When I was first assigned to her team, I believe I was a little afraid of her,” he admitted. “She is very quick to anger, and she knows where to strike with maximum effect. I had never met anyone who drank as much as she does and survived long, but I think she needs her inhibitions loosened sometimes so that she can be appropriately reckless... and she can be very reckless,” Sousuke added. “It may be the only reason I was not killed on more than one occasion.”

“A woman after my own heart,” Diana grinned, lifting her own mug in a toast. “You haven't tried your coffee,” she said slyly. “I think your Major will like how I make mine.”

He took a sip, and he didn't exactly cough, but the burn of whiskey caught him by surprise.

“Irish coffee,” she told him innocently. “I have more for your friends when they get here.”

“It's not even ten,” he said blankly.

“We're celebrating,” she chided. “They lost two of their friends, and now they get you back. It's cause to cut loose.”

He was quiet. He had never really thought of Kurz and Melissa as friends, but of course they were. He had found himself realizing, every so often, that he didn't think about things the way he had when he joined the rest of world, even as recently as meeting Kaname. It was like pulling a band-aide off very slowly, only to discover the wound had healed long ago, and no one had told him.

“And you met Kaname as her bodyguard?” Diana prodded. “I don't mean to pry, but my wife and I have heard so much about you, and yet I feel like we know so little at the same time. Juana and I, we know combat. We’ve slept with no protection from the elements. We’ve fired a killing bullet a split-second before someone else did. We’ve fought, and killed, and we have almost lost each other. I’ve sat outside a medic’s tent while she screamed inside and wondered if I was going to lose the woman I love. So I'm curious about you, Sousuke Sagara. Is that the name you prefer?” she asked quickly.

“It's fine here,” he reassured her. “Obviously I am Tony Hong in public, but I have been Sousuke for a very long time.”

“But you have another name,” she hedged, her eyes fixed on his. She knew she might be pushing him, and was prepared for him to shut her down.

He kept his eyes firmly on hers. “I do. But you may call me Sousuke.”

Her smile softened. “I will never understand how a moral, ethical soldier as yourself came to keep such colorful company. You deserve soft beds and kind words, but I suspect you only know war.”

He ducked his eyes now.

“I’m very good at reading people, Sousuke,” she said calmly, “and you're a good, clever person. So you know what I find perplexing about you.”

He stilled. “Perhaps you could elaborate.”

Diana leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees, her dark eyes glittering with curiosity. “How has someone like you become ensnared by such a treacherous snake as Gauron?”

He figured as much, and sighed. “I expect Miss Chidori has told you everything she knows.”

“She got into the vodka a few weeks ago and possibly informed us of how much she despises him,” Diana said dryly. “And why. And how you deserve someone who deserves you.”

Sousuke sighed. “I’ve heard. I don't always disagree. But it is simply... I don't know. Like you and Juana... you know the same horrors, you know war, and because you knew those together, you know each other now. We just happened to be on opposite sides of those wars as we learned each other.”

She sat back in her chair. “I didn't think you would be able to give me a satisfactory answer, Sousuke, thank you for surprising me. I’ve hated him for many years, but I've also worked with him off and on for just as long, so I suppose I'm a hypocrite. My wife and I have grown very fond of you from Kaname’s stories, and we worried about this one. I don't like it, but you don't seem to be his victim. You might have been failed by the system, but I believe you're not his victim in this.”

“He's shot me nine times, and I've been ordered or forced to eliminate him five times,” he said wryly. “I think we don't fit within those parameters.”

She grinned, trying to smother it by taking a long drink of her special coffee.

Kaname came bolting down the stairs, clad in a summery dress. “Juana says they're here!” she squealed, running for the door. She and Sousuke were under strict instructions not to alert Kurz or Melissa to their presence, and to wait until they met in person. She was treating the whole thing like a giant surprise party, and bolted outside like the cake had been delivered.

He glanced down at his worn-out sleep pants, which Kaname had neither noticed or burned today. “Should I change?” he asked. “I have a shirt -“

Diana laughed again. “Go meet your friends. I heard a great deal about those pants, so don't let them out of your sight. And I know the shirt you’ll put on is his, so skip it.”

He paused with trepidation. “She gets very violent.”

“Stand your ground, then. She weighs 98lbs soaking wet. If you lose that argument, I'll have to re-evaluate my opinion of you.” Diana seemed entirely too pleased with that answer.

He huffed a pitiful sigh and followed Kaname to the door. The positive reinforcement didn't last long, because the moment she stepped outside, she glared at him. “I’ll tell Mel to bring me gasoline,” she told him firmly. “I'm burning those pants.”

He said nothing.

A cab pulled up and dumped them on the curb, and Kaname completely forgot her misplaced rage and began to hop anxiously. “Do you think they'll be mad?” she fretted. “Will they hate me now? You were mad, I think you hated me for a bit -“

He pulled her into a hug, crushing her to his bare chest, and she squeaked. “Sousuke!”

She pounded her tiny fists against him, and he sighed. “No one is angry with you, Miss Kaname,” he assured her. “Sergeant Weber and Major Mao will simply be glad to see you alive. Let's go greet them.”

She bolted out of his arms and threw herself onto an unsuspecting Melissa Mao, as he and Kurz appraised the situation. Sousuke fell back inside, his chest full of warmth as he watched Kaname touch Weber and Mao to promise she was real, and sob apologies into their clothes. 

“I never wanted to hurt you,” she cried into Melissa's jacket, “I never even wanted to run, but he said Mithril would keep me and hurt me, so he kept moving me and said I could never see anyone again-“

Melissa folded her into an embrace, her eyes shining. “It's okay. You did what was best for you, and no one can do better. Oh, sweetie, I’m just so glad you're alive. We lost you, and then... shit, Kaname, we got you back. But Kaname, you need to listen for a minute.” She closed her eyes heavily. “We need to talk about Sousuke. Something happened after you disappeared.”

Kaname’s face fell flat with an angry flourish. “Let me guess: the Sergeant died violently and there was no body, and Kalinin told you it was a done deal.”

Kurz took her hands in his, and even though he didn't need to, he squeezed lightly. “He didn't suffer, and neither did anyone else. He volunteered to sweep the train station alone to eliminate civilian casualties. The bomb took out four city blocks. No one in The Know could believe it didn't kill anyone else.”

She glared at Sousuke in the doorway, clothed like a traitor and a bad friend. “YOU ARE STILL SUCH AN ASSHOLE!

He felt it would be redundant to remind her that they’d had to sell it, and stepped into the sun uncertainly. He averted his gaze in case Mao and Weber reacted in anger, unable to bear their wrath.

He was met with more stunned silence. “Hello,” he said finally. 

“Wait,” Melissa began. “You both pulled the vanishing act?”

Kurz jogged up and pulled him into a hug, laying a firm clap on his back. “I kinda figured,” he said quietly, “what with all three of you going within a year, but I didn't want to get my hopes up.”

Sousuke hugged him back, suddenly overwhelmed and emotional. “I wanted to tell both of you,” he admitted, “but there was no time. I had just found out about Miss Chidori, and he said I had to make my choice right then. I couldn't alert anyone.”

Kurz sat back and studied him. “I assume he would be Gauron.”

Sousuke nodded wordlessly.

He sighed. “She's gonna be pissed, bro. We all lost Kaname, but then we lost you too. She took it hard. I was sad too,” he assured him, “but she felt responsible. She submitted your leave request and let you go. She may not have blown up the train station, but she feels like she did.”

He looked at his feet with a little shame. “I'm sorry.”

Kurz patted him again. “It's going to get worse before it gets better, and... it won't be pretty. As soon as she comes down from seeing Kaname, she's gonna freak. Let's go inside and hide, yeah?”

"Kaname's companions are waiting to meet you," Sousuke said meekly. "They will protect us. They have been incredibly kind, and the two of you have your own space arranged for as long as you would like to visit." Then, "Also, we have Irish coffee inside." 

“Hell yeah!” he grinned.

Then, an explosive “ SAGARA!”

“We should go faster,” Kurz advised.

*

 

Sousuke hid for a period of time - Kurz seemed to forgive him for the sleight of hand with his life, but Melissa had boiled over with betrayal and rage upon seeing him, and he'd fled upstairs. Her refusal to let go of Kaname was all that kept him safe. He locked himself in the bathroom and decided a shower would provide him enough time to let her cool down,

The bathroom was probably the nicest room Sousuke had ever been in, which was an odd thing to notice, but he did. The shower head was designed to mimic rainfall, and he took a cooler shower than he ordinarily would have. It was nice to feel like he was caught in a rainstorm, especially having lived for so many years where those were rare. He sighed and closed his eyes, cool water consuming him, and relaxing him.

He stepped out and reached for the towel, and he realized he was not alone anymore. He nearly slipped and killed himself in surprise.

“Hi,” was the dry greeting. Gauron sat easily on the sink, raking his eyes over him with a lewd smile on his face. “Nice to see you, Kashim. And so much of you, too.”

He flushed crimson and wrapped the towel around his waist. “The door was closed. Your appreciation of privacy is staggering.”

His smile widened. “When has that ever stopped me? The shower door was closed too, and I still almost got in there with you. Take that stupid thing off and come over here, you don’t have a modest bone in your body.”

Sousuke glared helplessly and got back in the shower, pulling the bamboo door closed recalcitrantly. Gauron’s laughter boomed in the small room.

He dried off quickly and re-emerged with the towel firmly cinched again.

It earned him an eye roll when he came back out. “Come here,” he ordered. “You don't want me to come over there.”

Some treacherous part of him actually walked over to him, but he didn't know which one. The part that was perfectly happy to do so, and wanted the towel gone now, that one he knew.

Sousuke stood before him, and jolted when he hooked his heels behind his thighs and yanked him in, strong legs wrapping around his waist and pinning him between them.

Another wicked grin. He leaned into Sousuke's space easily, and lifted his chin to look up at him. “Hi,” he said again.

Sousuke let out a frustrated sigh. “When did you arrive? And how did no one detect you? This house currently hosts five specialists and one civilian, there’s no way you got past them unnoticed.”

“I got here, oh... ten minutes go? And I didn't get in undetected,” he added. “I walked in the front door and asked where you were. Chidori threw a cactus at me, Diana pulled a gun, and Juana said you were in the shower. I figure I only got in here because your charming Major and your living kewpie doll are sharing a hippie cigarette in the other room. Juana always understood me better than her wife did,” he mused with fake endearment, a thumb caressing his lower lip and dragging down to the vein in his throat. Sousuke closed his eyes. 

“Drop the fucking towel.”

He did.

Gauron slid off the counter smoothly and pulled him in closer, almost crushing him. “There you are,” he murmured. 

Sousuke moved in to kiss him, but was turned away. He pulled back with a frown, and Gauron chuckled.

“In good time,” he purred, reaching down and taking him in his hand. “You’ve reminded me of something I wanted to do to you one night, thank you. It was incredibly sexy, and I want to do it now.”

He took a nervous breath and watched him apprehensively as he moved behind him, peeling off his shirt while he did. He pulled Sousuke back against his bare chest and returned his hand to its task. “Look at yourself,” he commanded, and Sousuke glanced down as he hardened further.

“No,” he continued, his other hand raising his head. “Look,” he repeated. “I want you to see what I do to you, because when I saw it the first time, I knew I would never let another man see it while I was alive. I wanted to be the only one who saw you like this again.” 

He looked up hesitantly, and met that golden gaze in the mirror.

“Not at me,” he said with a little bit of ire, “you.”

Oh. Well.

He shifted his eyes awkwardly. “All right.”

“The night you patched me up with an iron,” he said softly. “When you came to check on me, and threw all my bloody dressings in the trash.”

“I recall,” he allowed shakily. “You were trying to bleed out in my bathroom.”

“I wanted to stand just like this and start unbuttoning your shirt while you watched me do it,” he drawled, his fingers leaving hot trails down his skin as he traced Sousuke's erection lightly, “and then open your pants, and throw everything onto the floor until you were naked, reach down like I am now and get you hard, just like you are now. Because you're so hard now, honey, can you feel it?” He took Sousuke’s hand and put it over his. He worked faster now.

He nodded silently, but then the hand was still. He let out a breath that carried a disappointed noise.

“Tell me,” he ordered Sousuke.

He felt like he was under water. “Yes,” he said finally, his voice unsteady. “I can feel it.” His hand began moving again, and Sousuke swallowed a groan. “I - but I don't understand -“

“Your breathing is accelerated.” His words vibrated through his whole body, his words burned into Sousuke's skin wetly. “You're flushed and hot, you push into my fist faster even when you're not thinking about it. Your eyes are dilating. And you blush like a pretty little virgin when I touch you, but I know what you can do with your mouth when you put your mind to it,” and Sousuke could see everything he said was true. His eyes were wide and his lips were barely parted, and sweat was starting to trickle down his back and chest. His hair was always a tragedy. He looked thoroughly debauched. 

“Do you see yourself?” he asked, searing his skin with the question. “I do that, Kashim, understand? No one else does that to you but me.”

"Yes," he breathed. He tried to take a steady breath as he watched in the mirror, but his heart was racing too frantically. 

Sousuke's eyes fell away, embarrassed. “I... I had no training in this, I try to learn, but every time it feels like -“ like it was too much, like it would be the last time, because someone more experienced or exciting would come along, and the silly little Sergeant would lose his shine. He made himself hold his own gaze in the mirror as he tried to find words. “I’m sorry I don't - that you’ve been the only one who, um,” those words were getting harder to come by as he strained to work that hand harder, as his hips rolled back against Gauron’s own arousal. “That I don't know how to do that for you -“

He ground himself against Sousuke's back and let out a low moan. Even through his clothes, he could feel how hard the man was against him. “You still have no fucking clue,” he growled. “Idiot, you don't know you do the same thing to me? You make me reckless. You make me insane.”

“You always have been,” he pointed out, and was reprimanded with a pinch of his ass.

“You make me worse than usual,” he amended, massaging the offended skin immediately. “There are five people downstairs who have real reason to shoot me, yet here I am: in the same room as you, with all of your clothes on the ground, and it's the only reason I'm here. If I walk out and get killed, I'll do it knowing why, and it will still be worth it.” He thrust against him again. “You make me do stupid shit. You make me want to throw in the towel, retire, adopt cats. Fuck.” He moved into Sousuke again, this time rubbing himself against him as though each thrust could be the last one, just like when they fucked. But he wasn't fucking Sousuke - he was stroking him torturously, holding him close and speaking filthy desire into his ear, and branding his skin with his need. 

“Do you want me to make you come now?” It was a fair question; he already felt himself teetering on the edge.

Sousuke shook his head minutely, which earned him a twist of his nipple. “Words, Kashim. You’ll tell me what you want, or you won't get anything at all.”

“No,” he breathed. “I don't want to come yet, but I’m close, oh my God I'm so close, I don't think I can stop -“

He closed his eyes and tried to bring himself back a bit, but this time Gauron twisted harder. “You don't look away,” he ordered. “You watch until I say you don't. Understood?”

He started to nod again, but caught himself. “I understand,” he managed.

He suckled a spot behind Sousuke's ear, lips first, then his tongue and teeth. He shivered at the sensation, because this was a spot that had been neglected in favor of Gauron’s penchant for leaving nice calling cards in plain view. This was the fragile skin behind his earlobe, and the more attention paid to it, the more intently he watched them in the mirror as his cock strained in his hand.

A finger brushed his mouth, teasing at first but then seeking entry. He saw it coming, and parted his lips. Upon request, he ran his tongue up to the knuckle and made sure it was wet.

That wet finger was guided between them, and slipped down to his entrance, but didn't seek to penetrate. He just... stroked him there as he worked, and Sousuke keened, rocking into the dual sensations.

“What do you feel, Kashim?” he murmured against his ear.

“Amazing, everything,” he gasped. A nip at his earlobe was his cue to keep talking. “I feel - I feel like I will achieve release in the next thirty seconds, whether I mean to or not -“

Gauron’s laughter was genuine, if a bit ragged. “You're getting better at this, honey.”

In a moment he would later file under ‘fits of mania’, he began talking desperately, his fingers squeezing their hands tighter around his cock and his other hand reaching back to grab his hips.  

“God, yes, please -“ those clever fingers teased his entrance, and he quickened their pace on his cock. “There, yes, right there, that's - oh that's perfect, please don't stop, please,” and then his world exploded. White-hot ecstasy shot through him like a lightning bolt, and he came with a desperate cry over both of their hands so forcefully that his knees buckled.

“Shit, Kashim,” Gauron grunted, pulling his cleaner hand away to shove his pants down past his thighs, and taking the hand covered in Sousuke's seed to his own arousal. He slicked himself up with it and shoved him down so that his torso was horizontal with the counter. Sousuke laid his hands down flat against the marble to plant himself, and caught his golden eyes directly in the mirror.

But rather than penetrate, he rubbed his tip wetly against Sousuke's entrance, wrapped his hand around himself, and worked his erection ferociously. And he didn't hold Sousuke's eyes. He pressed his hand to the swell of his ass and spread him open wider as he stroked himself, and his eyes were fixed on the point where his cock met Sousuke's body. A few times he thrust a little, but never entered him. It was a delicious threat that made Sousuke wish he hadn't already come.

And then, without a hitch in his thrusts or a noise to indicate, he was coming in shallow bursts against him, spilling onto him, leaking down Sousuke's thighs. He kept his eyes trained on the mirror the entire time.

They both gasped for a moment, and Sousuke struggled for composure.

“I need a fucking shower,” Gauron groaned, when they could both breathe again.

Sousuke sucked in air desperately. “This one is nice.”

“Come with me.”

“I just got out,” he countered. And then, spontaneously, shyly, he burst out, "And I just did.” He blushed, certain he came off as foolish.

That drew a surprised laugh as he was pulled into a new kiss, his mouth searched thoroughly for new secrets, and he was pulled back into the shower. “You made a joke. Christ, you're surrounded by terrible influences. At least I'm one of them.”

He sighed and closed his eyes when the water came back on. “It mimics rainfall.”

“You never even saw rain for most of your life,” he reminded him.

“I was on a mission in Indonesia when I was eleven. It was monsoon season,” he said thoughtfully. “It was nothing like Helmajistan.”

He put a knuckle under Sousuke's chin and looked at him for a few moments with a strange smile. “You’ve known me longer than you’ve known rain.” 

Sousuke kissed him, and he might have been smiling as well when he did.

*

Kaname was waiting in the living room when they emerged, armed with a dizzying array of things to throw. The remote control was first.

“You!” she hollered with a gesture at Gauron, then a ceramic coaster. “You get out of here and you die forever! And you,” she glared at Sousuke. “We have talked about this!”

He blinked. “Miss Chidori, I'm sure I don't know what you're referencing.”

She exhaled harshly and looked to the heavens, probably just so she wasn't looking at him. “I never,” she began calmly, and he realized what she was going to say just a moment too late to stop her. “EVER NEED TO HEAR YOU TWO HAVING SEX AGAIN!”

Kurz shuffled in, looking much the worse for wear. “You've heard them doing it before?” he yawned, not sounding sorry or grossed out.

“It's not like they're hiding it from anyone!” she raged. “I wish they would! You are both disgusting perverts,” she told them, “and next time it happens, I'm going to break down the door and empty a can of pepper spray on you.”

Gauron elbowed him and whispered (loudly) against his ear, “You hear that, honey? She says we get a next-time.”

Ah. She’d recovered the cactus. They both ducked.

“Sergeant, I think it's time for you to escort your caller out,” Diana told him sweetly, touching her blouse the way he might to make sure he was armed. “I’m afraid that while he is a fairly reliable business partner, he is not our friend, and our Sunday morning brunch is for friends and family only.”

“That hurts,” Gauron said with flair, a hand over his heart.

“No, Gauron,” she still sounded like the kindest woman, but was clearly capable, “exit wounds hurt. Gut shots hurt too. Come to think, sepsis after a gut shot with no exit wound may hurt the worst, would you like -“

Juana placed a hand at the small of her back. “I think you can just tell him to leave.”

Diana considered for a moment. “Get the fuck out of my home, you asshole.”

He acknowledged her. “As you wish.”

Sousuke turned to him and took a deep breath. “I believe you have overstayed your welcome,” he said softly, drawing him to the door. 

“You never understand my movie references, buttercup,” he laughed.

Sousuke glared. “You have made yourself unwelcome here.”

“It's one of my better qualities,” he said with relish.

He sighed and assessed the situation around him before speaking. “Before you go,” he said hesitantly, glancing around. He wanted privacy, he wanted to say everything that crossed his mind, but Diana and Juana migrated only a few feet away to set the table, Kurz was yawning around his coffee, and Kaname was glaring at him venomously. Even though everyone was pretending to be busy (except for Miss Chidori), they were all listening. 

He closed his eyes and decided he had earned the right to not care. He reached out and placed a hand on his chest tentatively, and he didn't shout, but he also didn't whisper. “I love you,” he said plainly.

The other man's smile couldn’t have been wider or more devious, which was always a bad sign. “Oh, baby, do I love you too,” he replied with a grin that promised no good. “Am I allowed to put it on a billboard yet?”

Sousuke hoped his scowl was impressive enough to shut him up, but he was sorely wrong. Gauron‘s eyes swept the room with a glance that was dripping with an over-inflated sense of importance. “In case you didn't hear,” and now Sousuke thought about how hard he would have to hit to rupture his spleen, “he loves me.”

“I hope you get drawn and quartered by really angry coyotes, and that they mess you up so badly that no one can tell if you were eaten to death or ripped apart by a dog’s uglier cousin,” Miss Chidori said with an angry flush to her cheeks.

“Your endearments always leave me glowing,” he told her, inordinately pleased with himself. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag now, Kashim. I think this is the part where I make a big gesture.”

He took a step backwards, a protest on the tip of his tongue, but he was swept into a dramatic hug so forcefully that he tripped and had to be caught (with unnecessary flair). He was met with a soft, slow kiss that he chased thoughtlessly when it ended. He worked his mouth needily, biting gently at invasive lips and sneaking his tongue into that delicious mouth before he was gently pushed away, and he huffed a soft noise of disapproval despite himself.

Now Gauron looked at Kaname victoriously. “See? I told you I would be gentle with him. Sometimes.”

The hammer of a gun clicked behind them, and Sousuke recognized Mao’s angry visage when he turned around. Her service piece was pressed to the base of Gauron’s skull, and Melissa didn’t bluff. “I think the ladies told you to leave,” she said coolly. “I also think that means you need to get the fuck out, now.”

Sousuke shot her a quick negatory glance, and she backed down. Barely.

He took him by the elbow and led him outside. “They were kind enough to give you at least some time,” he reminded him finally, as they stepped into the warm sun. “It's their home, and they allowed you in it.”

“Oh, I'm always allowed,” he corrected Sousuke with a pleased smirk. “Just never for more than an hour, because Diana likes to try and kill me after that. I don't even have to talk to her. She just senses my presence and waits until she can't keep from trying anymore.”

He sighed. “I don't care.”

And here now was the kiss he’d sought earlier, possessive and deep. He realized, too late, that he had simply melted into those strong arms immediately and taken every swipe of tongue and press of lips like it was communion.

“Don't let them spoil you,” he warned Sousuke. “I like your edges sharp.”

“Come back,” he replied, his voice suddenly heavy.

“I’ll try till I don't,” was the only promise he got.

Sousuke shut his eyes until he could no longer hear footsteps, and went back inside.

*

When he finally sat down with a plate of food, he was already prepared for the fact that this was going to be terribly, horribly uncomfortable. He filled his plate with every kind of protein, a mountain of eggs, queso (which, how had he never had queso? It was the beautiful result of cheese and canned chilis being subjected to simple microwaves), and poured himself a Bloody Mary. Sergeant Sagara was dead, and Tony Hong had accrued six vacation days, so he was taking a true vacation - possibly his first.

Kaname scowled mightily when he sat down beside her.

“So,” Mao said casually, stabbing a sausage link with her fork and smirking. “Seems like you're a talker, Sergeant.” 

Kurz snickered, and Kaname looked like she wanted to murder everyone.

The whole table decided to look down at their plates in favor of acknowledging the statement, and Sousuke busied himself with his food.

“You never can tell,” Kurz remarked as he doctored his eggs. Sousuke was the most junior of his team, and he felt a thorough humiliation coming on. “It's always the quiet ones who ask for more.”

He stabbed his eggs. “This is not appropriate table talk.”

Kurz grinned. “Depends on whether or not you broke in the table while you were at it.”

“Juana and I christened this table the day we bought it, Sergeant Weber,” Diana cut in. “We don't need favors in that department,” even as Juana tried to shush her. “I simply have better taste than your comrade.”

“I would like this to conclude our discussion,” he muttered around a mouthful of sausage and pancakes.

“Oh, now you want to shut up,” Kaname scowled. It drew another snicker from Kurz and Juana.

He nearly slammed his fist onto the table, but he was a guest, and that would have been rude. 

He directed his words at Diana and Juana calmly. “I am very grateful for your hospitality,” he muttered. “It has been a very long time since I have seen Miss Chidori, and it is very kind of you to host Sergeant Weber and Major Mao as well. I’m sorry if I have brought discord in your home.”

Juana smiled at him. “We all have our vices, Sousuke. Yours is perhaps especially unsavory, but they aren't called vices because they're good for us.”

“Thank you,” he conceded finally. “I never intended... I never wanted him to affect my life so significantly that it affected others.”

“You can't help him,” she said kindly. “Don't try to.”

“He could kill him,” Diana grouched around a mouthful of food. “That would help many.”

“You're not helping,” Juana scolded gently. “Thank you for letting us host you, Sergeant.”

Kaname snatched his hand beneath the table, perhaps harder than was necessary. “Yeah, jerk, you're a guest.”

He didn't look at her, his face burning. “I apologize,” he said again, his eyes down.

“Aw, crap,” she snapped, keeping hold of his hand and dragging him from his chair. “We're dealing with this now, Sousuke, get your ass outside.”

He threw a nervous glance at the table, in case anyone wanted to rescue him, but she yanked him along with freakish strength while Mao laughed into her drink, Kurz grinned blatantly, and his hosts pretended he was not being physically hoisted outside by a teenage girl.

Kaname basically threw him down on the patio and stood over him angrily. “Are yo serious about him?” she demanded. “Because I'll respect you if you are, but if this is some adrenaline thing and you just want the rush, then I'm going to shut this down now. Because he is a killer, Sousuke. It's not funny anymore. It never was," she amended quickly, "but I swear, if you're going to tell me he's more than an asshole boyfriend, then you had better act like it!"

He balked. “Miss Chidori, it is not something I want to discuss.”

“I don't care!” she yelled. “You trusted that asshole to fake my death and relocate me, and let him do the same for you! And he knows where to find me, so you need to tell me what the deal is!”

His own words shocked him, because without even thinking, he blurted out, “I love him. I have cared for many people, and I have tried not to, but I love him.” He ripped his hands through his hair anxiously. “I'm sorry. I know that is not the answer you wanted to hear. I wish I could give you a different one, or lie. That is not how I was programmed. I was taught not to let emotion compromise my circumstance, but he has compromised me at every turn, and you have nearly died because of my weakness, and I am so sorry-“

She went out of her way to take off her shoe and strike him with it. "Stop!” she said, annoyed. “It was never you who tried to hurt me, Sousuke, so cut it out and either end it, or own it! You have to be okay with your choices! If you're ashamed to be with him, then lose his number, but if you love him, be okay with and own it! And I will always hope that his death is televised and I will never be nice to him and it won't ever make me like him, but I want you to be okay with whatever choice you make! So make it!”

He stared up at her, and his jaw might have been agape. “Are you... have you been drinking?”

“Yes!” she shouted. “It's Sunday Brunch, and Diana makes really good Bloody Marys, of course I have! But I've also been living with two amazing, empowered women since I died, and Juana went to school to be a professor of women's studies before she enlisted, and I've been learning from them! You should talk to them and learn too, Sergeant Stupid, because I don't pretend to know what's broken, but you need to fix yourself!”

He sat where he was, too stunned to move. “Yes, ma’am,” was the only thing he could come up with.

“My name is Kaname, not ma'am,” she replied furiously. “Quit mixing them up.” She helped him up. “Kurz and Mel are going to make fun of you. Live with it. Now get back inside so I can get another pancake and a stronger drink. God, you're impossible!”

He did as he was told.

He was very good at it.

Chapter Text

(Several months prior)

Kalinin strode importantly into the cafe in Paris, fairly certain of who he was meeting, even if he wasn't quite sure why. He had received the message in Morse code on his phone, which was a forgotten language these days. Any code-breaker could interpret the contents of the message, but he was above reproach. Even if he was found in breach of his terms, he had been loyal long enough to rise above basic expectations. Occasionally he was forced to deal with scum, and repugnant bedfellows. That was his curse.

Both of these things were embodied in one man, and he sat with a beer and a cigar in his hand like it was his right.

“Andrei,” Gauron greeted cheerfully. “It's been too long.”

He stopped dead in his tracks. “Not long enough,” he countered coldly.

A shrug. “That's subjective. And fuck you.” A moment passed, where Kalinin debated pulling his gun, then decided to wait. “In the spirit of openness and honesty, Lieutenant Commander, I feel the need to tell you something,” he said casually. “After all, we don't keep secrets from each other, do we?”

Kalinin suspected he had never hated anyone more.

“You are a disgusting creature,” Kalinin informed him flatly, “but by all means, continue indulging in your narrative. I don't expect you’ve brought me here to kill me; that would be lazy and boring. So go on.”

“You’ve spoiled Kashim, you know. He used to be scrappy and unpredictable. Now he just bitches about boundaries and rules.” He radiated calm, dangerous amusement. “Next thing you know, he’ll start talking about his feelings, and I'll be forced to kill him.” He tilted back in his chair, two of the feet leaving the ground, and it was all Andrei could do not to put a bullet in the man's chest and follow it with a kick. But despite the fact that he would never suffer repercussions, he saw several families with children nearby, and if he could keep a child from seeing a man die, then he would die doing so himself.

“He asked me to do him a favor,” Gauron said finally, studying the ash on his cigar. “I'm inclined to indulge him.”

Kalinin stood rigid - quiet, but prepared. “Why would you do that?” he asked calmly, well aware of the damage this man could cause with a wave.

“For Christ’s sake,” he dismissed, “you know I have the biggest crush on your stubborn little prodigy. You’ve been warning him about me for years, remember? Oh... spoiler alert, the allure of danger was too great for him to overcome. But I promise, he's still fresh as a rose.”

“I wish that the last bullet I put in you had ended your life,” he said solemnly, taking a seat across from him.

“So does my Kashim, and he’s tried harder for longer.”

Kalinin studied him for a long time. “You said he asked you for something. I assume this was when you interacted in America.”

“You can call it interacting,” he said flippantly. “I call it fucking.”

“Stay on topic,” Kalinin warned tersely. 

“I’m getting her out. The Whispered brat. Kashim wants her away from the bullshit, and free to live her life.” His amber eyes invited a challenge. 

“Mithril will never let that happen,” Kalinin said firmly, his nose burning from the smoke. “She opened up a whole new department with Arm Slaves and the Lamda initiative. She's an incredibly important person to us right now.”

“And we both know what they do with their important people,” he drawled. “You really think she deserves that?”

“Do you actually care what happens to her?” he retorted.

“Nope. Not unless it gets me something.”

“Then why even bother?” he demanded.

“I mentioned that I'm fucking your sweet Sergeant, right?” He was smug enough that Kalinin weighed the risks of killing him again, and this time he didn't envision it involving a gun. “I like the kid, and when I do him favors, he does me some favors, too.”

“I can arrange for Sergeant Sagara to be placed out of your reach for the rest of your lives,” he cautioned, keeping a tight check on his fury. How dare this man -

“I'm taking him, too.”

The audacity of those four words struck him hard. 

“Look me in the eye and tell me Kashim should be treated like cannon fodder when he doesn't deserve it, Andrei,” he challenged, his eyes hard. "Your empathetic streak won't be fatal for the next sixty seconds."

And then he thought of how young Sagara had been when Kalinin arranged a place for him, and how boldly he had faced down every challenge from the first moment to now. Sagara was a brave fighter - so brave that he might have been considered suicidal. Facing off against him in an AS might have been considered suicidal as well. And now this madman freely admitted his plan to steal him -

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sagara was still young, despite what he had experienced. He was sharp, reactive, and deadly. He was far from stupid. He would never get blindsided by some chump assassin. But this was no average murderer lounging before him.

It went against his very nature, but Kalinin took another calming breath. “What are you going to do with the girl?”

“I made arrangements. She'll be fine - you know Diana. She'll never let a hair on her head get harmed, and you know she won't let me within a mile of her.”

“And Sagara?”

Another long moment, as the man drew on his cigar and contemplated him. “Let me worry about that later. You handle Kashim in the interim... she's going first He’ll be upset about the girl, but he’ll have to be. Your people will be watching him. They won't be watching you,” he added heavily, “so I need you to play along. Tell him she didn't suffer, tell him I killed her slowly, I don't care. Make him hate me again. It might make it real for him, if I did it. I told him he wouldn't like my methods, and you won't either. But I care about what he wants, and you do too. You don't want him to die a company man before he turns twenty-five, but you also won't do anything about it unless someone forces your hand. Or gives you an order,” he added with disgust.

“You,” Kalinin informed him quietly, “are simply evil. You have no good intentions for Sergeant Sagara.”

“You're just jealous because no one loved you enough to get you out,” he said, with a fire in his eyes that gave Kalinin pause. “And that's not his fucking name.”

“What are you asking of me?” he asked plainly. “Complicity? Participation? I must be able to answer your question, if you'll ask it.”

“I'm not asking your permission, Andrei,” he said finally. “You're not the father of the bride today. I’m telling you. Work with me, and you’ll find them both alive someday. Burn me, and I'll burn both of them. So tell Mithril I killed the girl, tell them I died selling her off. Tell Kashim I was killed doing the one thing I said I would never do again. Make up a story, and make him believe it. But I’m only getting the girl out because he asked me to, and I'm getting him out at an undisclosed point after, because you know he didn't ask for this life. We didn't ask for it either, and no one gave a shit about us. But I give a shit about him.”

“I can recall multiple encounters where you tried to eliminate Sergeant Sagara, and on more than one occasion, there were hundreds of potential casualties,” he riposted. “Why should I believe this isn't an elaborate ruse?”

“You know I like to find problems and kill them,” he said dismissively. “Kashim is always a problem. I always tried to kill him. If he gets problematic again, I'll try to kill him again. But that's not where I am now, and I’m updating you before I get back there. So.” He leaned forward, determination set in his eyes like ancient amber. “Let Sousuke Sagara die. Get him away from this snake pit, you know he should live an actual life. He was too young when you swept him into Mithril’s roost.”

“Why do you care so much about Sergeant Sagara’s freedom?” Kalinin demanded, stoic through the whole situation. “You were young once, as well. You committed worse crimes than the Sergeant before you were even...” He sighed. "You take things without giving them back," and then used the man's name that was so old, even Sagara had probably never heard it. "The lives you've taken have never been given back. You've been taking them since you were younger than he was when I took him out of the desert."

“Well I don't know if you got the memo, but I'm in love with that pint-sized rebellious guerrilla soldier,” he said without blinking.

“You let an entire nuclear sub know your stance on that. You have a very colorful resume,” he replied with a touch of venom. “I know you have an agenda, so stop playing around. If you expect me to trust you,” he said firmly, “I believe the phrase is ‘cut the bullshit’.”

Gauron fixed him with a thoughtful look, but Kalinin knew that even a thoughtful, non-violent Gauron might massacre a full restaurant out of boredom.

He sighed, and nursed his beer as if he was thinking very hard about something.

“Don't tell the kid,” he said finally. “He won't take it well.”

Kalinin sat up straighter. “Of course not.”

“I’m...” he sat back with a distant look on his face. “Shit, well, I guess I have to say it now.”

Kalinin steepled his fingers without speaking, waiting silently.

“I have cancer,” he said finally. “The bad kind. The kind where they don't even tell you to quit drinking or smoking. Christ, I can't believe you're the first person to know. I knew my life was a living hell.”

“You're dying,” he realized slowly.

“Yeah, I am,” he said wryly. 

“You deserve no less,” Kalinin replied harshly.

“Say all you want, Andrei,” was the reply, “I've said worse about you, but in more languages. I don't exactly have years left. Dance naked in the street for all I care, as long as I never see it.” He leaned back in his chair, still arrogantly relaxed. “I'm getting her out first. Let me at least do that. Keep his team close, I don't think he'll take it well.”  Then an irritated, weary sigh. "Send him to the girl until then. Make sure he's with her when, well, you know."

He took a long pull from his drink. “Shit, I thought I'd be emptying my clip at him until I was eighty, or he'd cap me before that. Now I'm dying and doing favors for people.”

Kalinin stayed silent.

“The shit you do for love,” he scowled, finishing his drink. “Are we understood?” he asked finally.

“I will be able to contact each of them, should the need arise,” he replied, and it was not a negotiation.

“I expected no less,” he drawled, “I wouldn't have reached out if that wasn't part of the bargain.”

Some strange part of this made Kalinin pause and take it seriously. This, for whatever degree of dysfunction it was, might actually be him attempting to do a good thing. It would be messy and painful, but that was all he knew, and he was doing it regardless.

“Very well,” he conceded finally. “If this is Sagara's wish, and you can execute it without loss of life, then I will play my part - within my means,” he added firmly. “The moment I suspect you have ulterior motives, I will bring the full might of Mithril down upon you.”

He chewed on his cigar for a long moment. “Please do. But if you plan on having me killed, let Kashim do it. I promised him, you know.” Then, "Don't let him do anything stupid, Andrei, or I will find some way for Black tech to let me drive you to suicide."

They regarded each other for a minute. “So we have a deal,” Gauron hedged, his face unreadable. “The girl, then Kashim. And you play your part. No heartfelt disclosures to his team, and not a word to your little Captain. She's a fucking idiot.”

“I will uphold my end of this arrangement exactly as long as you do,” he replied evenly.

He grinned and threw back the shot that had been resting beside his beer. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Lieutenant Commander.” He stood and saluted, like the bottom-feeding scum he was, and strode out of the cafe.