True to his threat, Leonard laid claim his favor in the week following Kaname's final conversation with Wraith. His message came to Kaname in the form of a small, soft-sided package wrapped in brown paper, innocently nestled in with the rest of the week's mail and stamped with a return address in Estonia.

Kaname couldn't deny the pang of fear she felt when she realized what she was holding. No girl, no matter how safely entrenched in a paramilitary organization's base of operation, wants the attentions of a soulless killer.

Even so, Kaname's relief outweighed her fears. Leonard's gift put an end to the painful suspense. She could deal with the restless nights and her newly acquired habit of spacing out during lectures. Kaname didn't like it, but she could cope just fine with her own anxieties. What she couldn't put up with was a worry-ridden Sousuke.

With the week, Sousuke had her fed up with his freakishly over-protective 'security measures'. Since Aristo's return, Sousuke's behavior had rivaled the obnoxious antics of his early Tokyo days. She had dropped her lavender-scented shampoo bottle while in the shower, and Sousuke burst in, brandishing two-- two!-- guns. Even though it wasn't anything that he hadn't seen before, Kaname still felt justified in sending her solider boy through the nearest window. Later that day, Sousuke took a black eye from Del when it was revealed that he had installed spy cameras in their dorm room. The normally non-violent woman had discovered Aristo glued to one of the monitoring screen in the guys' room.

Even the amicable Bear lost his patience and kicked Sousuke out of class for three days in a row. Sousuke would dive for the cover of the nearest table, dragging Kaname down with him, every time Bear said the word 'terrorist' or 'weapon', which happened pretty frequently given that they were discussing the Vietnam conflict that week.

The package's arrival meant that Kaname could get the non-insane version of boyfriend back, so she almost welcomed it. That didn't mean, however, that she was super-keen on opening it. Kaname turned Leonard's present over to Bear right away, who gave it back to the customs group, who ran it through another round of testing and x-rays. They didn't find anything, of course. Mithril thoroughly scanned all incoming materials for potential threats, so the fact that it came to Kaname in the first place meant that nothing was dangerous about the package itself. Bear knocked on her door to return it early the next morning.

"No one has looked inside," Bear said in his comforting, lilting English. "By right, it's yours to open."

"Thank you," Kaname said as she accepted the package. It weighed almost nothing in her hands, yet somehow, impossibly, its contents balanced out the life of her friend. Kaname heaved a sigh. "Guess I better take my medicine, huh?"

Bear put a large hand on her sleep-tussled hair and beamed at her.

"I have always suspected that you, my girl, were a wonder. You will let me know if there is anything more I can do," he said fatherly.

Kaname felt a surge of pride. "I'll see you in class, Bear."

The Senegalian flashed his white-toothed grin at her and took his leave.

In the end, Kaname decided to open Leonard's present during breakfast at the mess hall table, where she could be surrounded by her friends and distracted by the hubbub of the masses.

Under the first layer of wrapping, she found a simple note handwritten in large, looping letters.

"Dearest Kaname,

My favor is this: never forget what I have done for you, even after you betrayed me, you wicked girl.

I still see you in the rain.

With endless love,

Leonard"

Kaname made a gagging noise, crumbled the note, tossed it into the nearest trash bin, and examined the rest of the package's contents.

Shock frozen her in place when she unfolded the tightly bound scrap of fabric to reveal that Leonard had sent her a familiar pair of cotton panties done in a tiny heart-shaped print.

"How did he get your underwear?" Sousuke blurt out.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Sousuke Sagara! Virgin no more!" Dibs announced.

"You know, I would have had you down as the black satin type," Aristo mused.

"These appear new, but I distinctly remember Kaname wearing a pair exactly like this in Tokyo," Sousuke observed while holding up the dainty underthing in question for a better look.

"They grow up so fast," Dibs sniffed while wiping crocodile tears from his eyes.

"Or at least a thong," Aristo continued.

"Wraith's reports were more detailed than I had thought," Sousuke nodded, clearly impressed.

"STOP! SHUT UP! NOW!" Kaname yelled while the entirety of the mess hall turned to see what all the commotion was about.

Del laughed so hard that she accidently tipped over her tray of pancakes. Syrup oozed across the table while Kaname gave up on verbal threats and tried to silence all of her heartless friends and clueless boyfriend with her fists. She missed, of course, because she was laughing too hard to aim. Aristo had put his hand into the spilled pancakes by mistake while trying to dodge her sloppy attack, and Dibs had fallen out of his chair. Then there was Sousuke, sitting perfectly still with a pair of panties in his hand and the oddest expression of curiosity and concern playing across his face.

And so Kaname's crisis ended in an oil slick of syrup and the whole lot of them chortling like hyenas.

Instead of troubling her, Leonard's gift let Kaname move through the rest of her day with a growing sense of gratitude. Her life with Mithril was a literal ocean away for the one that she had imagined for herself, but it brought her such happiness. She respected her instructors and adored her friends. She enjoyed the challenges of her daytime work for MCA and her nights with R&D. She had plans to go back to Tokyo to reunite with her old classmates for the holidays, and Sousuke had agreed to go with her, "for her protection" of course. Danger was, for the moment, as distant as one of Jupiter's moons. The great sky seemed bluer, the tree tops lusher, the endless waters lovelier.

She had no regrets, save one. Every time she checked her e-mail, Kaname felt Wraith's absence, and in that moment, Kaname suffered the stomach-rolling remorse that comes with losing a friend. But then Del would holler something "maintaining proper respect for your rescuers" to Aristo, and the phantom of Kaname's self-doubt faded. The sad truth was that she would have lost someone dear to her either way.

The day that started with the pancake/panties incident ended with another surprise. The MCA First Years bumped into Melissa and Kurz on their way back to the dorms after class.

"Hey, babe, look! It's some of our favorite people," Kurz called over his shoulder to Melissa, who was busy scribbling labels on boxes with a thick, black marker. Kurz shoved his armload into the bed of the waiting truck and grinned at them.

"Hey, Kurz. Hey, Mao. What's with the boxes?" Kaname asked.

Melissa shielded her eyes from the orange light of the setting sun. "We finally got the official offer to join the Syn team, and someone decided to bargain for a better place-"

"Don't try to blame this all on me! You know you wanted one of those villas," Kurz argued.

"-And we have to be out of the apartment by tomorrow," Melissa finished.

"Wish I could say that I'm going to miss this place, but I feel like we just moved in, " Kurz reflected.

"We did, dumb ass. Six weeks ago," Melissa huffed. She shoved her hair out of her face and slung a box over one shoulder. "Now quit stalling and start hauling. We've got a lot to do."

Kurz faked a pitiful frown and reached for a particularly heavy-looking box from the disorganized heap spilling out of their apartment door. Kaname could help but notice the heated look in Melissa's eyes as she watched the flex of Kurz's lean muscles under his white t-shirt.

"Hey Sousuke, be a pal and give us a hand," Kurz said as he headed back to the truck. "I'd offer to pay you in beer, but you don't drink."

"We drink," Del offered. She jerked her thumb at Aristo and Dibs. "They'll help too, as long as you don't go for the cheap stuff."

Kurz broke into a face-splitting grin. "For our new best friends? Never!"

"You heard the man," Del told Aristo and Dibs. She squared her shoulders and pointed to the stack of boxes. "Let's do this."

"Aw, man! Why do we have to take orders from you, Bossy?" Dibs whined, but he reached for the nearest stack of boxes anyway.

"I agree. Give me one reason why we should let you order us around," Aristo challenged. He crossed his arms over his chest and gave Del a hard look. "And don't try that 'because I rescued you' nonsense."

"One reason, huh?" Del narrowed her eyes and dropped her voice in her most fierce-some tone. "Because I'm prettier."

Aristo slumped in defeat.

"You are prettier," he conceded.

Kaname nudged Sousuke into action, and he followed the guys with their armloads of cardboard boxes to the waiting truck. They crossed paths with Melissa, who was on her way back for another load. She gave Kaname a friendly wink and stuck her hand out to Del.

"I know you. We worked together once in Pakistan. Your commander had a serious case of stupid, but you were making up for it," Melissa noted.

Kaname watched Del make the choice not to get upset about her lost unit. She offered Melissa her hand and a tight smile instead.

"Thanks. Cordelia Delgado. You're Melissa Mao, right? The first female SRT member?" Del inquired.

"Damn straight," Melissa nodded. "I hate letting the boys have all the fun."

"You know, Mithril could use more chicks with that kinds of attitude," Del said meaningfully.

Melissa threw back her head and laughed. "You know what? I get the feeling we're going to be great friends. Want to start drinking now and make the guys do all the work?"

"I heard that!" Kurz yelled from the truck.

"Absolutely," Del nodded to Melissa.

"Why do we put up with this?" Aristo complained to Kurz.

Kurz clapped the Greek on the shoulder. "Because they'll kick our asses and look totally hot while doing it. Right, Sousuke?"

Kaname felt her boyfriend's dark eyes on her.

"Affirmative," he agreed.

The work went fast with seven able bodies to lift and load. It helped that they didn't need to move any furniture. They had Melissa and Kurz's stuff into the sleek, modern villa within the hour.

The apartments were a cut above the dorms, but the villas were in a class of their own. Kaname ran a hand up the polished metal banister that lead up to an elegant loft that served as the bedroom before turning to admire the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the island's north coast. The rocky land dropped away sharply just beyond the villa's foundation, affording a near-perfect view of the blue-green water. The villa also featured a gorgeous master bath with a garden-style tub, gleaming granite tile flooring throughout, and high-end Swedish furniture.

"Do you like it?" Sousuke asked when Kaname hopped up on the stone countertop to get a better look at the blown-glass lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

"It's really nice," Kaname nodded. "I could really see myself in a place like this one day."

"Then perhaps we could...I mean...eventually...." Sousuke stammered.

Kaname felt a rush of love so strong that it made her a dizzy. She touched Sousuke's hand, but her reply to him was drowned out by the cheer that went up from the kitchen.

"Alright! They even stocked the bar for us!" Kurz shouted.

"I take back every bad thing I ever said about this place," Melissa professed as she searched the cherrywood cabinets for the glasses.

Someone thought to call Tessa, who was back on base to go through the tedious process of surrendering command of the TDD-1. She came armed with a CD of bubble gum pop music from the 1960's and an irrepressible smile.

"Someone's been kissed," Melissa teased her surrogate little sister.

"And how," added Kurz with raised eyebrows.

"So what if I have?" Tessa said smugly as she geared up the stereo. The former captain closed her eyes and swayed as the first strands of an old, familiar song swelled through the high-ceilinged living room.

The night was too warm and starry to stay indoors, so they dragged every chair they could find out onto the elevated deck and left the doors open to let the music out. There weren't enough seats, so Sousuke sat on the floor at Kaname's feet and Del dropped wordlessly into Aristo's lap.

A cool wind brought in the clean scent of the sea while the sun crashed into the water and the stars flashed on. Kurz and Dibs told raunchy jokes and kept everyone's glasses filled. Del and Melissa were deep into conversation about tactics while Tessa and Aristo chatted about music. Sousuke listened to it all as he leaned against Kaname's legs, warm and whole and hers.

Kaname knew such happiness couldn't keep forever, but the evening seemed to pass so slowly that she refused to let tomorrow's worries trouble such a perfect, endless night.

The rushing wind swirled up the nutty scent smell of Melissa's cigar smoke and the sweet tang of lime from Del's Mexican beer. It carried Tessa's light laughter and the deep rumble of Dibs's voice. It stole the paper umbrella from Aristo's ridiculous cocktail and ruffled Sousuke's unruly hair as he turned to look up at her.

"Kaname, do you need anything?" he asked.

"Not a thing," she smiled at him.


If you've made it this far, thank you. Please drop a review. I put a lot of time into this story over the course of seven months, so I'd like to know what you think.

More detailed accounts of my undying gratitude and the final A/N at unkeptsecret (dot) insanejournal (dot) com (slash) 3417