"Stop that!" she shrieked as she hit Souske on the back of the head with her hand.

Recovering, he slipped his pistol back under his shirt hem. "Sorry, Ms. Chidori, but I keep hearing something behind us." Glancing back, he eyed the mostly empty street.

"We're in a residential area, you warmongering dolt," Kaname said, gritting her teeth. "It's probably just somebody's pet or some kids playing in the yard."

"That could be true, but still, it's better to be safe," he said, subconsciously reaching back and feeling the grip of his gun.

"Pull that weapon and the enemy will run screaming from what I do to you," Kaname said quietly.

"Of course, Ms. Chirdori," Souske said, putting his hands down.

"And stop calling me that," she said, stopping and turning towards him. "We've been friends for a year now. My name's Kaname. Say it with me, Ka-NA-me."

Her companion looked at her uncertain, as if uncomfortable with the request. "Right, Kaname," he said hurriedly, ready to move along.

Sighing, Kaname fell back into step with him. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, thinking back on everything that had happened in the last year: Mithril, Gauron, the Arbalest, Venom, finding out that she was a Whispered, and that Souske was a military sergeant assigned to protect her. She felt some heat rise to her cheeks as she thought of all the wounds and the risks he had taken on her behalf. It seemed at first that it had been all about the mission, but she found out later that he did hold some feelings for her.

Not that he'll let them show outside that cold military face, she thought with another sigh. Today was her birthday, and outside of the well wishers at school, not a peep from anyone. Even Kyoko had given little more than a 'Happy Birthday, Kana!' as she rushed home after class. Still though, she thought as she glanced at Souske again, this is a nice gift, being able to walk home with him, even if he does see it as a duty first and foremost.

All too soon, they reached her apartment. As she reached for her keys, Souske reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Wait," he said, eyes narrowed. "Someone has tampered with you door."

Kaname froze, eyeing the lock for whatever her friend saw. She noticed some scratches around the keyhole, but she had come home bleary-eyed from some function or another many times, so it's possible that they were from her, but after the last year…

Souske pulled his pistol, then took her key and opened the door, slipping in without turning on a light. She followed, wanting to stay close to her protection. She hugged the wall, knowing she was close to the light switch.

Souske whispered in her ear. 'When I tell you, hit the lights. If anything happens, get out fast." She nodded, throat tightening as he slipped away into the dark.

She willed her eyes to adjust quicker, cursing the fact that she had grown up in a city. If only she had better night sight, like Souske.

As if in response from her thought, there was a grunt and the sound of a body hitting the floor. In the dim light streaming in from the hall, she saw Souske's pistol fall on the ground near her foot.

Souske! Snatching up the gun and holding it before her like he had taught her, she hit the lights, finger tightening on the trigger.

The lights flared, and in the momentary blindness it caused, she saw a figure standing near her. The gun barked as she fired.

"WAAUGH!"

Wait, that sounded like…

"Kaname, put the gun down," came a cool voice from the side. She glanced over to see Melissa Mao lounging on her couch, a beer cracked open in her hand. Looking back at where she had fired, she saw Kurtz Webber eyeing the bullet hole in her wall that had landed only two inches above his head. Souske sat up and shook his head.

"I thought I taught you to shoot better than that," he said, confused.

"Wait, she shoots at me and you're upset because she missed?" sputtered Kurtz. "What's wrong with this picture?"

She looked around as people came out into the common area of her apartment. Her friends from school, Captain Testarossa, various members of the Tuatha de Danaan, and of course, the three members of the Urzu team.

She looked at Souske and perked up an eyebrow. "You knew?" Not a question.

He nodded. "I was against the idea because of the stress of the last year, but these two and Kyoko thought it would be fun."

She smiled, a few tears brimming in her eyes.

Holding out a can of soda, Melissa started the festivities. "Happy Birthday, Kaname."

The night went by in a blur, presents, singing, and her favorite foods. As the people started filing out for home, she looked at the members of Urzu and Tessa, the only ones who had held their gifts. Tessa held out a mid-sized box that wound up containing a nice business casual suit. "After all, college is right around the corner," she had said.

Melissa grinned as she held out a video disc. "The concert heard round the world," she quipped as Kaname saw the picture of the three ladies on stage aboard the Danaan. She hugged the older woman.

Kurtz grinned and held out a badly wrapped bundle which turned out to contain a few band T-shirts. "Had to guess at your size, so don't complain if they're too big," he winked.

She flushed and Melissa grabbed the back of his shirt and jerked a finger at the trash on the table. "Aw, man," he grumbled. "I meant that I got a decent size so she could lounge in them,"

Souske held out a small box. Inside was a pair of earrings and a pendant that matched. As she started to take them out of the box, she paused.

"Ok, how are these rigged?" she demanded.

"They aren't," he said simply. "These are meant just as they appear, unlike last time."

Kurtz grinned from where he was. "Yeah, and you should have seen him get flustered over which ones to get, too! If Melissa hadn't gone with him, he would have been lost."

Melissa scoffed. "I just helped him refocus his thoughts. He picked those out all on his own."

Looking at the jewelry, she smiled, another tear welling in her eye. "Thank you, all of you." She glanced down to wipe the tear away.

When all the cleanup was done, Souske came and stood by her looked at the floor. "I apologize about the deception, Ms. Chidori."

She pushed his shoulder. "It was a surprise party, Souske. That is the whole point."

"He'll never get it," muttered Kurtz a moment before Melissa grabbed his ear and lead him out of the apartment.

They stood there for a moment, looking at each other, silence and air between them. Souske broke eye contact first.

"I'll be going now,"

"Oh," Kaname said, a little let down. "Ok. I'll see you at school on Monday."

"Actually, I was wondering about possibly noon tomorrow. Kurtz and Sergeant Major Mao got carried away and booked a table for lunch tomorrow at an Italian place in Okinawa. I can cancel if you don't want to go," he said, stumbling somewhat.

She smiled. "That actually sounds like fun, Souske." She stood up on her tiptoes and pecked him on the cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said, grinning widely.

He was still standing slack jawed and motionless when the door shut behind her.

Goodnight, Kaname.