A/N: Let's see, February, March, April… Okay, it's been an unacceptably long time. I'd apologize and cite several real-world problems that have kept me from being the most conscientious of authors, but whatever—you kids are here for the fic, right? Thus I'll keep the notes short this time around.

My undying love goes out to anyone who's still reading this. I write for my enjoyment, yes, but anyone who tells you that s/he's posting hir fics online and doesn't give a damn about feedback is almost certainly a miserable liar. We writers are such ego-whores.

We now return to "Beauty and the Otaku," already in-progress.


Slim fingers gently touched the cold surface of the expansive picture window. Ice continued to glint in the thin beams of moonlight crossing the courtyard; slick patches had already begun to form upon the stone pathways.

Kaname frowned at the sight, all the while attempting to quiet the insistent nagging at the back of her mind. Something's wrong. Dammit, something's wrong...

"Oh, shut up," she muttered irritably to her inner voice. It could be so utterly defeatist sometimes.

Yet she couldn't halt the shivers that continued to run down her spine, and her equivocations that they were simply a result of the cold winter air rang hollow.

"This is just stupid," Kaname finally asserted as she leaned against the window, her eyes narrowed slightly in annoyance, lips pursed. "Everything's going to be fine. Sousuke'll come back from his mission and everything will be back to normal…"

Sousuke.

Kaname was largely ignorant of military maneuvers, but she'd heard stories of soldiers dying horrible deaths on the battlefield, missing limbs, eviscerated…

A brief yet painfully vivid image of Leonard slicing Sousuke's throat, blood gushing as Leonard's steel-grey eyes glinted with ever-present menace, flashed through her mind and refused to fade.

Kaname's annoyance evaporated immediately at the vision. She shut her eyes tightly and sank to her knees upon the uneven stone tile, sucking in a deep breath in an attempt to soothe her frayed nerves. God, what if something happens to him? What if he…he…

She cared. She could lie to Melissa and Kurz and assure herself that there was nothing—no emotions, no feelings, no semblance of warmth—but she knew. The slightest touch, the minutest smile, and her heart began to race, her pulse quickened, her breath became short. She had begun to wake in the middle of the night, her stomach painfully twisted and her brow beaded with sweat as yet another nightmare showed her one of the countless ways in which Sousuke could be brutally killed.

Sleep always became elusive shortly thereafter.

Kaname sighed deeply and hoisted herself up onto the bed. The softness of the down mattresses did little to comfort her, and she soon found herself staring into nothingness as her thoughts raced. What if something happens to him? What'll happen to me

Her rational side quickly took command, immediately chastising her defeatist subconscious for its morbid thoughts. "Ahh, what the hell am I going on for?" She laughed loudly and awkwardly in a vain attempt to ease her anxiety. "There's no way anyone could even touch that lunatic. I think even God himself would have a tough time taking him down."

Kaname smiled slightly to herself at the thought of all the things she and Sousuke could do if…no, when he returned. When, Kaname, when, she reminded herself. He will come back. He promised, remember?

She still had to harness the longbow; the recurve had taken her long enough to finally understand. Damn Sousuke for hindering her progress with his manipulative closeness! If it hadn't been so cold out and he hadn't been so warm, she wouldn't have felt the urge to move closer to him and therefore she would have learned the proper stance much sooner.

A small part of Kaname's subconscious, having grown thoroughly tired of frantically waving its metaphorical arms in an attempt to be recognized, finally heaved a metaphorical sigh and went on its merry metaphorical way.

Now slightly calmer, Kaname closed her eyes and breathed in the relaxing scent of lavender from her freshly-laundered sheets, hugging her knees to her chest. There were so many things she had yet to accomplish; of course Sousuke would return, and soon. Maybe he could even help her with that damned needlepoint—he certainly seemed patient enough to put up with that tedious garbage.

And…they could always go for a few more walks through the courtyard. The thought had Kaname smiling against her pillow.

There was so much more to do…so much for them to do when Sousuke returned…

A somewhat hesitant knock at the door woke her from her thoughts. Kaname straightened in bed and pushed aside the slight tremor of fear slicing through her subconscious. Sousuke's paranoia had really begun to rub off on her… "Yes?" she called somewhat uneasily.

The heavy oak doors slowly opened to reveal Melissa Mao, her brow furrowed slightly. The older woman's stance lacked her usual confidence, and she seemed strangely distracted. The nagging, insistent feeling of dread returned to Kaname in full-force, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck.

"Kaname," Melissa began awkwardly, "I'm afraid we have a problem."

Kaname's eyes widened slightly, and her breath hitched in her throat. "Sousuke. Oh my God, something happened to Sousuke!"

"No, no, we haven't heard anything from the Eastern province," Melissa assured her, crossing the room to sit upon the edge of her bed. "As far as we know, he's doing fine."

Kaname let her eyes fall shut and released the breath she hadn't know she'd been holding. "Oh, thank God. I mean, not that I care about his safety or anything! It's just that…you know…I don't want anyone to die or anything…even if he is a jerk, I mean, I don't want him to die…"

"It's not that, Kaname…" Melissa sighed and drummed her fingers upon the bedspread, fixing her absent gaze upon the far wall. "I have no idea how to word this…"

"…what's going on?" Kaname asked hesitantly, unconsciously leaning forward despite her internal ambiguities about hearing Melissa's news. "Sousuke…he's…he's coming back, isn't he?"

Melissa shut her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose, drawing in a sharp breath. "He is." Her mouth had drawn into a tight line, eyes betraying a hint of sympathy as she turned to face the young woman. "But…you won't be here when he does."


Sousuke frowned, tapping the handle of his combat knife absently upon the scarred wooden table within the barracks. Something was definitely…off.

Amalgam's forces were indeed formidable, but there was a lack of passion in their fighting, a strange and noticeable departure from their usual ferocity. They seemed almost…bored by the battle. The soldiers fought for their lives, but little else.

The day's earlier skirmish was indicative of the conflict's nature. Mithril's two thousand soldiers had proven themselves to be perfectly capable of squaring off against Amalgam's three thousand, displaying their collective skill at combat. Yet Amalgam's soldiers were widely regarded not only as skilled but ruthless—a fair percentage of the antagonistic organization's ranks was populated by rogues and scoundrels who were more than willing to die in battle for the sake of glory and had no qualms about cutting down scores of men in order to sate their rampant bloodlust. Mithril's men were bound by a sense of honor and nobility that did not restrain their enemies; between Amalgam's numbers and its lack of morality, it seemed realistic that Mithril should have been forced to retreat within the space of a few battles…

Sousuke shook his head, a note of worry in his eternally-emotionless grey eyes. Something is definitely wrong.

Apart from the strange stand-off in which he and his fellow soldiers had found themselves, Sousuke had yet to see Leonard Testarossa in the conflict, which was in and of itself highly unusual. Leonard had made it a point to be present in all of the battles in which Sousuke participated, most likely owing to a bitter feud that had erupted between the two some time ago.

Had Sousuke been an even remotely sarcastic individual, he surely would have engaged in an enthusiastic eyeroll at the memory. As he was, he merely frowned again and inspected the heel of his knife. Leonard must truly be a proud individual to let such a thing continue to influence his mindset, he thought to himself. After all, the battle had really been a minor skirmish between Mithril and Amalgam, and Leonard had only lost the duel due to his exhaustion from previous battles earlier in the day…

Sousuke would never understand such a thing. Pride was not something he himself had ever experienced, and he most likely never would.

"Hey, soldier, got a light?"

Sousuke, still deep in thought, glanced over at the young sergeant with whom he was bunking and silently passed him the flint and tinder he'd used earlier to light the small rush light upon his desk.

"Thanks," the soldier nodded in appreciation. "I promised the little woman I'd send her word that I'm still alive after a week. You know how it is."

"I'm afraid I don't."

"What? You're not married at your age? Lord, boy, what are you waiting for?" The young sergeant laughed as he struck a match.

"Romantic entanglements interfere with one's duty," Sousuke responded simply, tucking his knife into its sheath and moving to recline upon the uncomfortable bunk. "I would prefer silence now, Sergeant Belmont."

"Whatever you say, man," the sergeant said with a shrug, dipping his pen into a small well of ink and beginning his letter. "Dear Mary…"

"Sergeant."

"Geez, sorry." Sergeant Belmont's mouth twisted into a slight frown. Bet he's the life of the party…

Sousuke ignored the hint of annoyance in his fellow sergeant's words, already reflecting deeply upon his earlier question. 'What are you waiting for?'

Kurz had asked him the same question several times, remarking upon the abundance of charming young women in the nearby village. "They're probably just waiting for a strong, handsome man to come along and sweep them off their feet," he'd say with a leer. "Of course, I'm sure you'd do fine anyway, Sousuke." His comments always ended with some form of bodily harm from Sergeant Major Mao.

Romance had never seemed at all important. He'd been a soldier for as long as he could remember, and he'd always assumed that he would perish in battle. His mind was always focused upon survival, not upon the possibility of marrying and raising a family.

Or at least…it had been.

His eyes fell shut as his mind brought forth the image of the one person who had torn his life asunder and caused him such confusion. Between punches, she somehow displayed a strange sense of camaraderie with him.

Miss Chidori…

She was so angry and peevish, so aggressive…but she needed him. When she anxiously clutched his arm or allowed a slight tremor of fear to enter her voice, he was determined to protect her no matter what the cost. She had indeed become more than just a mission; she was his friend.

True, he had other friends of a sort—he did have Kurz and, to some extent, Melissa, though her position as his superior added a required element of distance. In the end, however, they remained yet another arm of his military identity, one of bloodshed, destruction, and cold indifference.

Kaname was different, radically so. She was, after all, a civilian, despite her brushes with Amalgam and the subsequent necessity of her protection. Her eyes still held a hint of innocence, a concept long lost to men whose years are spent watching enemies and comrades die brutal, often meaningless deaths. She was temperamental and moody, but when she smiled…anything seemed possible, and Sousuke felt long-dormant emotions coming back to him.

Coming…back…

"I need you to promise that you'll come back to me."

Amalgam's forces seemed to be holding back, but there was always the possibility that he might die in battle. The idea of death had never truly bothered him; as a soldier, such was his lot in life. But now…

Who would protect Kaname in his place if harm should befall him? Would another soldier shield her from any form of pain, destroy anyone who dared to make her cry? Would he unquestioningly lay down his life for hers, suffer wounds meant for her?

The sudden thought of Kaname tenderly dressing the wounds of another soldier, her eyes soft and concerned, caused an incredible surge of anger within Sousuke, anger which he could not accurately describe.

There was also the unrelenting fear that tragedy might strike in his absence. Sousuke dug his nails into his palms at the thought—what if he returned to the fortress safely, only to discover that Kaname had been killed by one of Amalgam's assassins? Even though she remained within Merida Fortress under the watchful eyes of Kurz and Melissa, there was no guarantee that Leonard or one of his superiors would be unable to sneak a highly-trained soldier past enemy lines and effectively harm the young maiden. Really, all they'd need was lessened security around Kaname or a distraction to…

Sousuke's heart stopped in mid-beat.

No…Amalgam wouldn't possibly have gone to all this trouble simply to remove him from Kaname's side. The girl was special, and the strange "Whispered" powers with which she had slaughtered Leonard's henchmen would likely prove extremely useful to an organization with less-than-honorable intentions, but to actually stage a conflict in order to capture one person? The very idea was absolute lunacy!

"It's…been a very trying day," Sousuke muttered to himself, shutting his eyes and attempting to achieve a moment's peace.

"So is Amalgam always like this?"

Sousuke unsuccessfully attempted to suppress an annoyed grunt at Sergeant Belmont's innocent inquiry. "No, the organization's soldiers are normally ruthless in their pursuits."

"Makes ya wonder why they're holding back, then," Sergeant Belmont wondered aloud as he picked his teeth with the tip of his knife.

"I was just wondering the exact same thing, sergeant."

The image of Kaname's broken and bleeding form lying silent upon the cold stone floor of Merida Fortress suddenly flashed before Sousuke's closed eyes, causing his heart to race and sweat to bead upon his brow. Baseless fears have no place in war, soldier, he mentally scolded himself as he attempted to banish the unwanted picture.

"Well, ya know," Sergeant Belmont replied after spitting a distance across the barracks, "they could be trying to draw someone out…or they could just be bored. Or, who knows, maybe we're just a diversion."

"A diversion?"

"Yeah, you know—like, they have some grander scheme in mind so they're tryin' to make Mithril focus on this one battle so we'll be distracted while they go for what they're really after."

Sousuke merely grunted in response, his anxieties beginning to grow and multiply. Kaname had come perilously close to death the last time she had encountered Amalgam; if not for his quick response, she would certainly have been raped, tortured, and finally killed at the hands of Leonard. The idea that the current conflict might possibly be a front for the organization's true goal of exploiting Kaname's status as one of the Whispered seemed too impractical, too outlandish, but still…

Still…

"Thank you…for saving my life."

"Don't…don't leave me, okay?"

"I need you to promise me you'll come back to me…"

The image of her bloodied frame lying motionless, coupled with the feel of her limp, exhausted body in his arms after she risked her life to save him from Leonard…

Sousuke was on his feet before his thoughts of Kaname had even begun to subside. "I have to go," he said gruffly to the bewildered Sergeant Belmont, quickly grabbing his rucksack and slinging it carelessly over one shoulder.

"What the hell are you talking about, man!?" the other sergeant cried out in shock. "You can't just leave in the middle of a conflict, Sergeant Sagara!"

Sousuke pretended not to hear him as he ran towards the stables at the far end of the camp. His head screamed at him to rethink his actions, to reconsider abandoning his duty for the sake of baseless paranoia, but his heart continued to loudly urge him to go back to the girl he'd come to care about more than anything, just to make sure she was safe.

His decision came too late.


"Th-there's nothing you can do?"

Kurz and Melissa exchanged worried glances as Kaname shakily clutched her tea the next morning. A few drops of blood clung to her fingers where she'd ravaged the formerly-neat cuticles.

"We can try to appeal to the higher-ups," Melissa said carefully. She pushed her oatmeal away after staring at it somewhat warily. Kaname's frantic behavior had caused her to lose her appetite. "It's…really a long-shot, though."

"A long-shot, huh?" Kaname repeated in a monotone, her eyes dazedly fixed upon the far stone wall. "I guess that means it's permanent, right?"

"We could always try to fight it, Kaname," Kurz offered. "If you still think you're in danger…I mean, we can't go against orders, but we could find you a place to stay…"

Kurz frowned as he fully took in Kaname's appearance. Dark circles had formed under her eyes, the consequence of little sleep and constant worry. Her normally-expressive eyes were somehow dull and faded, the whites bloodshot. She had clearly seen no reason to comb her hair, and the normally carefully-tended locks were tangled and wayward. Her shoulders slumped slightly, as if a great burden rested upon them.

Such a beautiful girl should never be under that much stress, he thought, shaking his head.

The suddenness of a terse, sharp laugh sounding through the silent Great Hall caused Melissa and Kurz to nearly leap out of their chairs in surprise.

Kaname cracked her knuckles and continued laughing a bit too enthusiastically. "Hey, why bother trying to appeal the decision? I can go back to my normal life, and I'll never have to deal with that deranged Sousuke again!" Her laugh echoed through the hall and mixed with a sharp series of cracks. "I'll go pack my things!"

Kurz and Melissa turned simultaneously to stare at the remnants of Kaname's discarded teacup, now reduced to a small pile of porcelain fragments. "Um, Kaname, are you sure you don't want us to…"

"I'm fine! Fine!" She smiled broadly. "In fact, I'm better than fine! I'm perfect!" Her resulting laugh sounded eerily similar to a broken sob.

"Kaname," Melissa began, catching her by the wrist. "Can we at least escort you back to the village? It'd be a lot safer than you wandering around by yourself."

Kaname violently wrenched her wrist from Melissa's grasp, angrily massaging the flesh as though she'd been burned. "How many times do I have to tell you that I'm okay!? I…I just want to be alone, all right?" Her footsteps echoed loudly throughout the fortress as she strode to her room to gather her things.

As she packed the small bundle of clothes she'd accumulated during her time at Merida Fortress, she convinced herself that the tears streaming down her pale cheeks were the result of hysterical laugher and not unbearable pain at the thought of being forever separated from a certain sergeant.


Outside the bedroom, a young maid stood with her ear softly pressed against the door, thoughts racing.

"Miss Kaname…"


It was really shaping up to be a beautiful day.

The ice and snow had slowly faded into the night, and the midday sun cast shadows upon the roads as it shone through the bristled pines lining the still-frozen pathways. Brightly-colored songbirds chirped loudly from the treetops, and a passel of wild rabbits hopped serenely through the underbrush.

It was making Kaname sick.

The young woman sighed and shifted the small satchel containing her few belongings to her other arm, shutting her eyes briefly. The weather almost seemed to be mocking her. "Yes, you're doing everything in your power to keep from breaking down into tears, but enjoy this beautiful, comparatively-temperate afternoon anyway, compliments of Mother Nature, who clearly has an incredibly sick sense of humor."

"Miss Chidori? Are you sure you wouldn't like an escort back to the village?" one of the guards at the front gates asked hesitantly, shrinking back slightlyat the clear look of annoyance upon her features. Kaname Chidori had proven herself to be a formidable foe when she so chose; several of the other guards still complained about the savage beatings she had afforded them during her last escape attempt. He was not about to intentionally place himself within range of her wrath, but the idea of Kaname returning to the village on her own did not sit well with those who had spent so much time ensuring her safety.

Kaname exhaled sharply, attempting to rein in her resulting anger at the constant repetition of that question. "Yes, I'm sure I wouldn't like an escort, soldier. I'm fine, okay? So leave me the hell alone." She scowled and started down the short bridge spanning the moat, ignoring the slight look of dismay and concern in the guard's eyes.

I'm anything but fine. The thought was unwanted and caused Kaname's anger to flare once again, but it was the truth. She had wanted nothing to do with any of this—she had kicked and screamed through those first days under the watchful eyes of an emotionless sergeant, unwilling to leave her normal, peaceful life behind, though she had only recently so despised it for its monotony. How quickly it all had changed. She had fought so hard, so hard! All those years spent carefully guarding her emotions against any possible pain disintegrated into nothingness the moment she met Sousuke. He was so horrible at first, completely uncaring and devoid of any and all humanness. But he was so…different now. He was like a child in so many ways, naïve and confused, but in those moments where his hand brushed hers or his gaze lingered a bit longer than necessary, she knew he cared about her. It was an intoxicating feeling, and there had been times where she had let her defenses slip just a bit…

…but not enough. It had never been enough.

Kaname's boots thudded softly against the wooden bridge. The songbirds continued to chirp in the distance. The guards spoke in hushed tones, barely audible to her distant ears.

She heard nothing but her inner voice, deafening in its loudness.

I could have… I should have…

Kaname stopped once she reached the solid terrain across the bridge, turning to stare at Merida Fortress one last time. It was such an imposing structure, constructed of cold stone worn smooth by countless seasons of rain. Sousuke had guided her through the fortress on several occasions, droning on about the strength of the gatehouse and how the hoardings had been completely reconstructed only several years ago after their destruction at the hands of an opposing army, but she had cared only about the spectacular view of the village and the surrounding areas from the watchtower. Watching the setting sun paint the river valley in pink and orange hues, Kaname hadn't even minded the fact that Sousuke had stood by her side unflinching, forever committed to his duty. High above the village, under the light of an early winter sunset, she had glanced at his ruggedly handsome features and thanked God for the pinkish light that helped disguise the blush rapidly rising to her cheeks.

She had hated being kept under lock and key. She had hated the loss of her freedom. But now that it had been returned to her unexpectedly, she wished desperately for just one more moment. Just one more…

"Wishes are for kids and people who don't know any better," Kaname finally scolded herself, glancing back at the fortress one final time and starting back to the village.

The gradual distance between herself and Merida Fortress did nothing to lessen the persistent lump in her throat.


The day had become slightly overcast by the second mile, a fact that was little consolation to Kaname, who was forced to wrap her traveling cloak more tightly around her trembling shoulders as the sun's warmth left her. The dirt road had been muddied by the melting snow and ice, and one seemingly shallow puddle left the young woman with sopping wet and horribly squishy socks. Cold and miserable, her thoughts began to stray from the rational.

Maybe I should be going back through the forest, she thought absently. Every time I go there, something bad always happens and Sousuke shows up out of nowhere. So if I walk through the forest, Leonard or one of those other idiots will try something, and I'll scream and Sousuke will come back…

"That makes sense," she said aloud over the squishing of her shoes as she stepped off the path. "Let's see, I was about half a mile in this direction…"

Once deep within the forest, Kaname slowed her pace, clasping her hands behind her back and sweeping her gaze across her surroundings. No one behind that grove of trees…or in that section of underbrush…wait, something moved! …oh. A fawn. Cute.

She frowned slightly and sat down upon a felled tree trunk, resting her chin in her hands. So far she'd seen no signs of suspicious activity, and her impulse to wave her arms and scream, "VULNERABLE GIRL WITH CRAZY PSYCHIC POWERS AT YOUR DISPOSAL!" seemed ill-advised at best.

"…maybe I'm really not in danger anymore…" she began hesitantly, nudging a pinecone with the toe of one boot.

A twig snapped a short distance away.

Kaname's breath hitched in her throat, and she instinctively threw herself to the forest floor, peeking out over the fallen log. A series of snaps followed in short succession, accompanied by a high-pitched yelp. Kaname narrowed her eyes and grit her teeth, clutching the small knife she'd holstered to her hip…just in case. Sousuke be damned! she thought determinedly. I'm a strong, independent woman! I can take on any danger by myself! She slowly moved into a crouch, ready to spring to action at a moment's notice.

As the sound of snapping twigs grew closer, Kaname recognized the sound of leather moccasins brushing against the grass. Footsteps. Right. Sousuke had instructed her in this, as well. She clutched her knife more tightly.

Closer…closer…

"Ah, Miss Kaname!"

Strike!

The intruder shrieked as she was flung to the ground, head pushed forcefully against the ground as Kaname pressed the knife to her neck. "State your name and purpose!"

"Miss Kaname! It's me, Kyouko! Kyouko Tokiwa, the maid at Merida Fortress! Please don't hurt me!"

"…Kyouko?" Kaname blinked once, twice, as she observed the small girl pinned beneath her. Twigs and blades of grass clung to her braided hair, and her glasses had landed in a half-thawed puddle across the clearing. "What are you doing here?"

"I'll be more than happy to answer if you'll take the knife away from my neck!"

"Oh, right!" Kaname blushed and sheathed the knife. She absently dusted off her skirt and cursed loudly at the sight of the torn hem. "I'm sorry about that, Kyouko. I just thought…"

"That I might be an enemy?" Kyouko asked in a cheerful voice, her earlier fear completely absent from her voice. "No, I just wanted to make sure you're okay."

"So you're secretly trailing me through the forest?" Kaname asked incredulously.

"Well…" Kyouko looked sheepish. "I know you wanted to be by yourself, but I felt like I had to talk to you."

"About what exactly?" Kaname's features were a portrait of serenity that would fool all but a most astute observer.

Unfortunately for her, Kyouko fit the bill perfectly.

"I was listening at the door when you were talking to Lady Mao and Master Weber…" Kyouko admitted. "I know how upset you must be now that you've been separated from Lord Sagara. To be honest, I was really worried about you, Miss Kaname. I wasn't sure you'd be okay."

"Why wouldn't I?" Kaname sniffed loudly and shouldered her satchel. "Look, I'm kind of in a hurry here, Kyouko. I appreciate your concern and everything, but I'm eager to resume my normal life away from that military maniac."

"You can't really mean that! I've seen the way you look at him and the way he looks at you! Can you imagine how he's going to feel when he comes back to the fortress and finds out you're gone?"

"It'll probably take him a month to even realize it."

"How can you say that? He's clearly in love with you, and I know you feel the same way!" Kyouko cried, reaching out and grabbing Kaname by the elbow.

Kaname pushed Kyouko back forcefully, eyes blazing. "I think you need to spend some time away from the cleaning solvents, Kyouko; you've obviously lost your mind!" She turned her back to the young maid and laughed loudly.

Love…right.

The corners of her mouth inadvertently turned downward.

"You were crying…I wanted to apologize."

"I'll protect her no matter what!"

"I promise I'll come back to you."

He had stood watch over her as she slept, chasing away her nightmares with his mere presence. He had sworn to protect her at all costs, saved her from death at the hands of Leonard and his henchmen, and slowly begun to break down the defenses she had spent the past few years desperately constructing. She had marveled at how human Sousuke had become since they became closer, but she had never considered how she had changed in turn.

He needed her. And she needed him.

Isn't that…

"NO!" she shouted, striking a nearby tree trunk with her fist and deeply startling Kyouko.

"Miss Kaname, are you all right?" the young maid asked carefully, taking Kaname's hand and inspecting the quickly-reddening knuckles.

"I'm fine. Fine!" The effect of Kaname's laugh was negated by the beginnings of tears in her eyes. She cradled her hand against her chest and massaged it gently. "I'd really like to be alone now, Kyouko. Please."

"But…Miss Kaname…"

"Please." She allowed her eyes to betray a hint of despair.

Kyouko's brow was creased in worry, and she'd taken to wringing her hands in the fabric of her dress. "A—all right, Miss Kaname. If you're sure you'll be okay…"

"I'll be fine," Kaname stated, finally allowing the façade of cheerfulness to fade from her tone. "Really, I will." She turned to the young maid and smiled slightly. "Thanks, Kyouko."

Kyouko returned the weak smile and bowed deeply. "It's been a pleasure to serve you, Miss Kaname."

Kaname said nothing in reply as she made her way through the forest, oblivious to the briars and thorns lining the path. Kyouko's words raced through her already deeply-confused mind. One in particular stood out amongst the rest, taunting her as it had for weeks before, from the time Sousuke had rescued her from Leonard following her botched escape attempt to the time he'd held her close and, oblivious to the stark blush upon her cheeks and the fierce pounding of her heart, instructed her in the proper use of the recurve bow.

"Yeah, you want me to be safe because of your mission, right?"

"That's one of the reasons."

Her heart had leapt to her throat with those five words, spoken so plainly yet containing within them more emotion than any valiant declaration he might present to her.

She wanted Sousuke to come back to her. She wanted to feel her heart race and her breath quicken and her head spin when he was near. She wanted him to tell her that he wanted to protect her, over and over. She wanted to stay with him.

What am I going to do?

Kaname continued upon the path in silence, thoughts racing all the while. It's okay…he'll show up out of nowhere. He always does. He always…

The trees gave way to a small cottage flanked by a series of sturdy maples, their limbs naked in the cold winter air. A thin sheet of ice covered the nearby lake.

I'm…home.

Kaname let her satchel slide from her shoulders, staring into nothingness. She could now resume her normal life as if nothing had ever happened. Trips to the market, unashamed advances from the village men…the same tedium she had been desperate to escape but to which she soon longed to return.

"This is what I wanted," Kaname said aloud, her voice cracking in mid-sentence. "I…wanted to be a normal girl… I wanted to…"

I'll never see him again.

Kaname sank to her knees and finally allowed her long-suppressed tears to fall.


The intermittent clouds had finally darkened into the night, and once again snow began to fall.

Kaname leaned back in her armchair, her hands clutching a cup of tea that had completely cooled over an hour ago. A sudden chill breeze caused the tapered candles on the nearby table to flicker, casting shadows upon Kaname's emotionless visage. She hadn't moved in hours.

She remembered the promise she had made after her mother had died, the solemn vow that she would never again allow her emotions to be compromised, never again allow herself to love and lose and suffer silently in the aftermath. "I'll never let anyone hurt me again," she had stated, her voice firm and determined.

She had broken her vow, and once again she suffered.

"Never again," Kaname said softly, glancing across the room at the framed picture of her mother.

She would forget Sousuke, in time, just as he would forget her. "Life's full of changes and setbacks, after all…I don't need him. I'll be fine on my own." Her words sounded hollow and desperate even to her own ears.

She had come so close to admitting her feelings when he'd left for the conflict with Amalgam. Yet she once again hid from her emotions; she'd run away from the possibility of having her heart broken again.

And now she'd never have another chance to tell him. She could never tell him that she loved him.

Such were her thoughts as a slight knock sounded upon the door.

Kaname's movements were slow and listless as she set down her tea and shuffled to the door. It's probably Kyouko again…I really appreciate her concern, but I just…don't want to see anyone right now. I can't.

It was only after she had opened the door that she registered that horribly familiar voice.

"Good evening, my dear Miss Chidori. I've missed you so."

The last thing she felt was a dull pain against the side of her head as she slumped to the ground, eyes falling shut.


"Let's move, Testarossa!"

Leonard ignored his companion's frantic shout as he carefully cradled the unconscious young woman in his arms, frowning as he observed the slight smear of blood at her temple. Hm, perhaps he'd hit her a mite too hard. Oh well. As long as she lived, she'd be fine. He smiled.

The night was still and silent, punctuated only by the soft whisper of snowflakes in the air. "Come on, we have to get out of here before someone sees us!" the young soldier hissed quietly, motioning to the forest with his lantern. "You know we're screwed if anyone from Mithril's still got an eye on her."

"I wouldn't worry about that," Leonard stated with a smirk as he gently placed Kaname into the waiting carriage and climbed in after her. "Sagara's still off in the Eastern province, and Mithril's terminated its protection of the lovely maiden Chidori."

"Idiots," the other soldier said with a quiet laugh, clicking his tongue and spurring the twin horses to begin a steady gallop.

Leonard said nothing in reply, busying himself with securing Kaname's wrists and ankles. After checking the ropes for any frays or tears, he leaned forward and stared at his captive's features for a long moment. She was so beautiful…her beauty had in fact captivated him long before he'd known of her strong personality or her status as one of the Whispered. He hadn't truly fallen for her until he'd spent time in the young woman's presence. She was a true spitfire, Kaname Chidori, fierce and temperamental, and an exceptional fighter.

Just my type, Leonard noted, his smirk still firmly in place.

"Such a pity that such beauty must be wasted," he observed simply, leaning over to place a soft kiss upon her lips. "I'd prefer a much kinder end for such an incredible woman, Miss Chidori, but I'm afraid I have little say in the matter."

His eyes betrayed no emotion as they rode into the night.


At the edge of the forest, hidden amongst the thick briars and wild brush, a young maid remained frozen in fear for several long minutes, her knees shaking terribly.

"Miss…Kaname…"

As she regained her voice, she dashed into the forest, desperate to reach Merida Fortress before it was too late.

To Be Continued…


End A/N: God, I worked so damn hard on this chapter. I know it probably doesn't show, but it took a lot out of me. This is the longest chapter thus far, and I've put a fair amount of time into it. For someone with such a suck work ethic, that's a major accomplishment.

Again, I apologize for taking so friggin' long with this fic, but I hope the wait was worth it. Any and all concrit is graciously accepted.

That's it for now, kids. There are only two chapters left in the story, so I should be finished by…oh, 2015.

That's a joke. Don't hurt me!