When the doctors had recommended a vacation for Louise, they hadn't counted on the nightmares. In the hospital, nurses made sure that she had the proper dosage of sedatives every night. It had become so routine that the doctors had forgotten the precision required to calculate those doses. Every night was different, after all. Every night she sat up clinging to herself with a new haunted look in her eyes. The nurses, with Saji's help, had learned how to adjust for each one.
Saji could not do it alone. He could find her new pills, ones that weren't steadily making her worse, and offer them to her. He could reassure her that the waves outside their quiet beach house were not about to rise up and rain fire and destruction upon them. He could attempt to convince her that the dunes around them were not about to explode in a shower of GN-Tau particles. But really, in the end, the most he could do was hold her and tell her that he wasn't going to leave and nothing could take him away. Eventually, her wild shaking stopped, although it took a different amount of time every night, and she leaned into his arms in silence. Then he rested his head atop hers and felt the softness of her hair beneath his chin. In the dim light, he could see it glowing golden. He was glad she'd decided to grow it out again. Someday, when her hair was as long as it had been before, they would return to this house on the edge of the sea, and there would be no nightmares.
In these days, when her hair was still at her shoulderblades and she still woke up with strangled screams, Saji held Louise and kissed her. They fell asleep again together, holding onto each other's bodies tightly. Louise was exhausted from her tribulations, so in the morning, Saji always woke first. He took the opportunity to disentangle himself from her arms, very carefully, giving her hands a squeeze before he left, and then he went to the little rustic kitchen with its old-fashioned digital microwave and electric stove, and he cooked breakfast for both of them, though mostly for Louise. It made him think of days when Kinue would hurriedly put together bento boxes for the two of them before leaving for work. She had never been much good at it, so Saji had learned to fix them up a little better, discreetly, before she left. When she'd finally discovered what he was doing, before she could scold him, he'd found himself volunteering to make their lunches every morning instead. So he'd learned how to cook. He couldn't do it for Kinue any longer, but he could do it for Louise.
She liked his meals, although she fussed sometimes over little things that weren't to her taste, only to immediately apologize for troubling him. He wished she wouldn't apologize. Still, the chatter they had over breakfast, then often lunch and dinner, was one of the best parts of being alone with Louise, away from the hospital that had guarded her. It almost made the nightmares worthwhile.
They played on the beach, the private beach Louise had bought for them alone with a fraction of what was left of her savings. It hadn't put a real dent in that money, she'd assured him, because it wasn't valuable property—it was too far from the desirable coastal cities for tourists, not quite close enough to the bustling little fishing towns for more utilitarian types, and too rocky in general. But she liked it, and so Saji did too.
There were things about the choice of location he didn't like, though—well, really only one thing. He didn't find out about it until after they'd spent a day there, in the sun and the water, and Louise retreated abruptly to the house. Too abruptly. He followed her, of course, only to find her sitting on the sandy porch scrubbing carefully at her left arm.
"Seawater," she muttered. "Seawater might be bad for it. Or sand. I don't know, Saji. Nobody knows anymore."
After that, every day he helped her rub down her prosthetic arm, making sure it hadn't been abraded and saltwater hadn't seeped in at the seam. That part could have been as bad as the nightmares, but Louise bore it steadfastly, and Saji was proud of her. So he bore it too.
The nightmares were still the worst, but at least they were always over by dawn. Or at least, so Saji thought. That was why he was so startled when one morning, just over a week into their recommended month by the sea, Louise jumped up from breakfast and ran to the window, her real hand shaking, her false one clenching.
"Louise! Please don't hurt yourself!" he called after her, not sure whether to run to her or not.
"It doesn't matter, it won't matter, we're both dead anyway, Saji, Saji, Saji, there's a Gundam in front of the house, it's come to kill you and leave me alone again, I'll destroy it first!" Her sentences blurred together before he could make sense of them, and when he finally realized what she was saying, she was already flinging the door open and running out in her pink and green nightgown, no shoes on her feet.
She wasn't supposed to have hallucinations. The doctors had said that was extremely unlikely, that she was almost certainly well enough to tell the difference between reality and her flashbacks when she was fully awake. Something was terribly wrong with her, and Saji had to fix it. He pushed his breakfast aside and ran out after her. And there he stopped, nearly falling over himself, at the sight that greeted him.
A Gundam crouched on the pebbly beach, its hand extended. It was in familiar white and blue colors and only partially repaired—he could see places where the plating was makeshift and the weaponry stripped down.
"It's vulnerable," Louise cried from in front of him. "They're trying to attack us with a broken-down Gundam! Saji, where's my mobile armor? I can beat this thing! I can!" She was shaking all over.
Saji stood there, overwhelmed and furious, until Louise started to dash forward again. Then he rushed ahead and grabbed hold of her arm, her real one. "It's not an enemy!"
"But—" Louise hesitated. A little of the crazed mist cleared from her eyes, and doubt crept in. "It isn't—it looks a little like the one you were in. Saji...but it's here, where we were supposed to be safe from all that!"
"I know," Saji said. He glared up at the Gundam. "Setsuna! How could you do this to Louise?"
There was a pause, during which Louise continued to shudder a little. Finally, the cockpit of the Gundam opened, and a familiar figure leapt down into its cupped hand, then stayed there a few feet above the rocks and the grit and the sand, looking at them expressionlessly.
Eventually, Setsuna said, "I wanted to see how you were doing, Saji Crossroad—and Louise Halevy."
"Setsuna!" Louise's terror had given way to giddiness, for now. Her eyes still weren't entirely sane. She'd be paying for the fit that had ensued upon her first sight of the Gundam for a while, even if the fear didn't come back upon her—and it might. "You should have given us time to prepare," and she skipped a little, not even wincing at her bare feet upon the rough ground. "Should have given us time to be Saji and Louise Crossroad, a proper family to welcome you, then we could have welcomed you instead needing to fight you!" And she was straining at Saji's hold on her again, struggling to get away and reach the Gundam (Saji wasn't sure what else it was called at this halfway stage of its repair, rebuilding, and development).
"There will be no fighting here," Setsuna said without a trace of alarm at Louise's bright madness. "There will be no more fighting for either of you. I have fought to make sure of that, and if necessary, I will continue fighting. That is the path I chose."
"You didn't have to choose to bring your Gundam here," Saji protested, finally getting a word in. "You had to know...!"
"I knew," Setsuna said steadily. "But this Gundam is a part of me now. Saji Crossroad, after all we've been through...I wouldn't come to see you with only half of me."
Saji wasn't sure how to feel about that. He shifted awkwardly; instead of addressing Setsuna then, he turned to Louise. "Are you okay?"
"I think...it's not the enemy," she said slowly. "Setsuna?" She wasn't okay yet. But she was a little better. "Saji! Let's go see Setsuna!" She started scrambling across the rocks to the Gundam.
"Wait!" He let his grip on her arm slide down to her hand, but he still followed her. "You're not going to try to sabotage it, are you?"
She halted. "No," she said very slowly. "I just..." She shook her head a little, and finally her eyes were clear, if only for a few moments. "I want to see what it's like up close when someone loves it," Louise said very quietly, too softly for Setsuna to hear. "When someone loves it instead of sees it as a tool for destruction. Maybe it's different. Maybe—" Her eyes clouded again. "Maybe it won't take you away from me. But I want you to keep holding my hand to be sure, Saji. If it tries to crush you or blow you apart I'll save you first."
"I won't let go," he promised. Then he followed Louise to the Gundam's hand, where he helped boost her up, then followed, taking Setsuna's hand when the other man presented it to help him up.
Louise smiled at Setsuna. "Thank you for coming," she said, slightly glassy-eyed. "Won't you sit down with us?" She tucked the skirt of her nightgown beneath her and settled down on one finger of the Gundam's hand. Saji cast an awkward glance at Setsuna, then sat down next to Louise.
There was no awkwardness from Setsuna, though. He simply sat down opposite them. "I'm glad you can be together," he said. "That's important, in this world."
"Oh, we're not together like that yet," Louise said airily. "The doctors told Saji that they don't know what it'll do to my body or my mind, so we should abstain until—"
"Louise!" Saji knew he had turned very red.
"It's all right, Saji, it's Setsuna! He can tell anyway," she added in confidential tones. "Isn't that right, Setsuna? How you can read my mind?"
Saji blinked. He hadn't heard about this. But Setsuna only nodded. "It isn't truly mind-reading," he said. "But you have enough quantum brain waves that I can sense many of your thoughts. I sensed your panic when I brought the Gundam down," he added. "I'm sorry."
"But," Louise said quietly, suddenly all there once more, although Saji didn't know for how long this time, "I'm glad you brought it, because for you, coming without it would have been dishonest. Like an old-fashioned knight in shining armor leaving his sword behind when coming to rescue the damsel in distress!" And gone again, at least in part. She laughed. "That's the sort of thing Saji would do. Not you."
"I would never forget to defend you, Louise!" Saji said. "I do everything I can. Even if it's not enough." He hadn't felt able to say this in front of Louise alone, but somehow, with Setsuna here, there was a new bridge between them. He did his best to cross it with his words.
"I know," Louise said, smiling. "It won't ever be enough, but it's still good enough. Thank you, Saji."
"It has to be enough," Saji said. "Someday." But he knew, even as he said it, that it wouldn't be. Louise could grow her hair out again as much as she liked, but her parents would never come back. Kinue would never come back. The Saji and Louise of five years ago would never come back.
Louise giggled. "If Setsuna is the best man at our wedding, his Gundam has to be the maid of honor! But only if it can leave its weapons behind, and all the bridesmaids are mobile suits that could tear it apart without hurting any of the other wedding-goers, at all, ever, ever, ever."
"There will be no weapons at your wedding," Setsuna simply said. "I will make sure of it."
"Thank you, Setsuna," Louise said. "Won't you thank him too, Saji?"
Saji swallowed. "Thank you, Setsuna," he said. It felt odd, to actually say it. He hadn't thought he'd get the chance. There was something this all was like that he couldn't quite pin down—
Setsuna stood up. "I should go," he said. "Before someone sees the Gundam."
"Before I take it apart piece by piece," Louise said, her voice lilting a little.
Saji almost called for Setsuna to wait, but that was when it came to him what this felt like. It was like a strange family reunion. He was too struck by the comparison to say anything for a moment. His mind raced to make the rest of the connections. Setsuna was the distant older brother, of course—the one who'd never entirely gotten along with his younger siblings, but who protected them all the same. Saji himself was just a cousin, or it wouldn't have been proper for him to be with Louise. And the Gundam...
The Gundam was their mother, sheltering them all and guiding Setsuna to a new path. But what did that make Louise? She had to be an estranged daughter who would be reunited with everyone properly someday.
"Saji? Saji?" Louise was tugging at his hand. "Did sand get into your eyes? You're crying a little. Here! I'll kiss you, and you'd better stop crying." He was too startled to stop her, and the warmth of her mouth put an end to his strange flight of fancy.
Setsuna helped them both down from the Gundam's hand. "I may not be able to come again," he said.
"But you'll watch over us," Louise said. "Won't you?"
"Yes," Setsuna said. "There is one more thing. Saji Crossroad."
"What is it?" Saji asked.
"The doctors should not be trying to separate you and Louise Halevy in any way," Setsuna said. "If both of you—" He hesitated, frowning as he came upon unfamiliar territory for him. "If both of you wish to be intimate with each other, you shouldn't let them stop you."
It was the last thing Saji had expected to hear. He clutched at Louise and tried to stammer out a reply without turning too red, but by the time he could think of anything, Setsuna had returned to the cockpit of his Gundam. Then, when he took off, Louise started to shake again, and there was nothing to say after all. Saji just held her tight and put a hand over her eyes.
"It's okay," he said. "It's okay."
"I know," Louise said. "We're such a strange family, Saji, but it's okay."