"I have memories of another life..."

                        --- RDAW, circa 1996

      After the departure of the SDF-1[1] and the so-called Exodus Group with the alien Chenjesu in 2014[2], the United Earth Government fell apart.

      The UEG's seemingly cold-heartedness in refusing the Chenjesu's plea for help had caused its popularity to dip throughout the world. Prominent member countries: China, Japan, the USSR, and the East Asia Economic Co-prosperity felt snubbed by their slim defeat in the UEG voting process that caused the defection of 70,000 of the world's most brilliant minds and best soldiers.

      Even before the very short war of 2014 following the Exodus that saw a limited exchange of thermonuclear weapons over the Pacific, the UEG was already considered a phantom memory. Whatever semblance of unity it once provided for humanity vanished like a dream.

      Erupting from the turmoil, the independent arm of the UEG known as Earth-Core rose into prominence. Earth-Core was first founded by the UEG as its own security force, although its beginning came much earlier. It had its roots in 2006, when the Global Defense Initiative[3] of the former United Nations was dissolved by the then fledgling UEG.

      From the ashes of the GDI came the Earth-First Policy. The arrival of the Visitor (later rebuilt as the SDF-1) in 2004 combined with the effects of the Tiberium meteorite of 1999 caused widespread paranoia of aliens throughout the world. The new UEG, hoping to ride the wave; issued the Earth-First Policy of strict neutrality from any and all aliens to be encountered in the future.

Everyone knew it was just a play of words, no one expected the Chenjesu to dramatically arrive in 2014. No one in the UEG expected to see the day when they had to actually enforce the Earth-First Policy.

Earth-Core became the ruling body of the world under the political machinations of Senator McCain. With cunning media manipulations exceeding that of even Kane during the Tiberium War, McCain managed to portray Earth-Core as the savior of humanity by early 2015.

"The Earth-First Policy is not wrong," he had expounded, drawing the ire of many. But many others who had been disillusioned by the war listened as McCain placed the blame squarely on the Exodus, the "traitors of humanity". "We must now realize that humanity is on the brink of a new era. We must protect Earth from all alien powers, and we must do it by making humanity stronger than ever before!" McCain was elected the President of Earth-Core soon afterwards.

With his drive, Earth-Core created the Legion of Iron[4], the space military and colonization arm. By 2020, humanity had colonized more than 30 worlds. With rapid genetic and biological developments, there were soon billions of humans living outside from Earth. By 2040, the number of worlds doubled.

The Great War with the Vasudan Empire[5] that began in 2046 slowed the Legion of Iron a great deal. All resources were redirected to military applications, yet the war began to reach a stalemate in 2050.

The stalemate of routine battles and skirmishes was broken with the dramatic arrival of the SDF-1 from deep space. McCain rejected the Exodus Group's homecoming and called them traitors of humanity, conspiring with the alien power known as the Alliance of Free Stars to enslave humans.

After the Exodus Group left in bitter terms, McCain intensified the war effort. When the war ended in 2053 due to unexpected circumstances that forced the Legion and the Vasudans to work together, McCain found himself alone; the old man railing against a peace with the aliens. Humanity had left him behind.

Earth-Core was ended in 2054 and the United Planets Government[6] appeared in its place. UPG President Vandega continued colonization efforts under the United Planets Space Force, the renamed Legion of Iron.

Between the years of 2054 and 2065, the UPG saw the colonization of another 200 worlds, as if making up for lost time. But the expansion came at a price. A disastrous colonization effort saw the massacre of Vela II and the subsequent invasion of UPG space by the Mimbari. After a year of major defeats, UPG forces saw the invaders drive a stake-like wedge directly towards Earth. Then suddenly, the Mimbari offered truce in the Battle of Riga. Peace resumed, however tenuous it became.

The subsequent Babylon Project came in 2069[7] and eventually led to the United Federation of Planets[8] in 2085. Humanity continued to spread throughout known space, colonizing new worlds as they go. Some still maintain close ties with Earth, others had their own agendas. All colonies were members of the UPG which was in turn a member of the Federation. With astonishing rapidity, humanity became one of the most widespread and diverse (thanks to the compatibility of homo sapiens-humanoids relationships) species in the known galaxy.

At the 300th anniversary of the inception of the Federation in 2385, the race known as Humans united under the banner of the UPG was stretched over a thousand worlds. Unity was a loose term, "conflicts" arising from trade disagreements and other sparks that lit the flames of war still exist.

Many diverse cultures appeared on the newly colonized worlds. Some clung on to their Earth heritage, some worlds totally colonized by a particular nation of Earth. United under a single banner does not mean national ties were united. On the contrary, some worlds embraced zealous nationalism in their colonization process, intensifying racial and national divides.

For example, New Avalon represented the Germans and French, Sian the Chinese, Atreus the Eastern Europeans, Tharkad the English and of course; Luthien the Japanese (mostly).

The Tiberium infestation of the 21st century ravaged the Earth. Being an industrial nation with little arable land, Japan felt the brunt of food shortages. The earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the Visitor (the future SDF-1) in 2004 only compounded the Japanese's misery. When the Legion of Iron was founded, the Japanese were among the forefront of the colonization process, eager to escape their wretched home.

Luthien[9] was one of the first worlds to be colonized, part of the Inner Sphere. As the Tiberium infestation died and a semblance of normalcy returned to Japan on Earth, Luthien grew to be known as a New Japan. Nearly 80% of its founding colonists were Japanese, many places named after similar places on Japan. Luthien was a large and beautiful world although not particularly blessed with minerals and resources. It did boast the UPG's sole resource of silsius ore, but many criticized the choice of Luthien as New Japan in its humble beginnings.

Lead by the charismatic Unzen Kurita, Luthien today was transformed from a backwater planet with fetid swamplands and barely adequate building resources. Unzen was undeterred, fanatically loyal the Japanese way of life; he swore to make Luthien the Imperial World.

It took 20 years for the completion of the Imperial City. When it was complete, the Imperial City would become the most ambitious, most expensive, most energy-consuming building project ever undertaken by the Japanese. Patterned mostly on the Japanese architecture, it included the new Imperial Palace for the Japanese Emperor, who officially moved to Luthien in a historic ceremony in 2035.

The construction of the Imperial City created an economic boom across the planet. Archaic building materials such as teak, granite, marble, and mosaic tile were suddenly in great demand because of the Kurita family's desire to create a monument to their line in the ways of the ancients. To cope with the flow of materials heading toward Luthien, a group of lesser cities soon sprang up about the construction site. Within ten years, the population of the planet had risen to 1 billion and showed no sign of stopping. Foreign merchants arrived and settled, eventually adopting Luthien as their home and built their own city versions of 19th century Earth: New Yorktown (United States), Neo Paris (France), Florentina (Italy), La Ciudad Hermosa ('The Beautiful City', Spain), Stadt-Stolzstadt ('Pride City', Germany) Du Kang ('Wine', China) and New Trafford (England). But mention Luthien and people would immediately recall the Japanese and the capital, Teito ('Imperial City/Capital').

Whatever the reasons, Unzen Kurita had succeeded in making a virtual paradise in Luthien. Eager to maintain the world's relatively untarnished beauty, he and his descendents went into extraordinary lengths to prevent pollution. Fossilized fuel sources were extracted for export only. Nuclear and reflex technologies were virtually forbidden. Despite House Kurita's spectacular fall from grace after the death of Unzen, his legacy remained. Many worlds and corporation view the untapped resources of Luthien with greed and envy. Relationships with competing worlds were frosty: political, economical and even military conflicts had risen due to such feelings.

In the wake of the drastic measures set by Unzen Kurita (and successive authorities), alternative means of power were developed intensely. Solar, wind and water power were utilized as industrial energy resources. But the primary triumph of Luthien was the emergence of steam-powered technology.

Steam powered almost everything in Luthien, from generating electrical energy to steam-powered cars to immense warships. Combined with the wonders of silsius metallurgy, Luthien managed to maintain an idyllic way of life separate from the technologies of the 24th century. There was almost no evidence to differentiate 24th century Luthien cities with 19th century Earth. People lived in the cities as if it was the industrial age, sans the black smoke and pollution.

Of course, space travel and other technologies were not unknown to Luthien, but they prefer to keep them away from Luthien Prime, the main continent; away from the Cities. Most off-world technologies were based in the advanced industrial continent of Ashio, including the spaceport.

An

Unlimited Parallel Adventures

presentation

-A Story in the New Memories arc-

SAKURA WARS – STARTING OVER

by

ARION WONG

(January 25, 2003)

Teito the Imperial City

Luthien of the Inner Sphere

2393

There was peace in the galaxy and I found myself weary of fighting pirates and other riff-raffs in the distant frontier. After I had returned to Earth, I was restless and needed to travel. I traveled throughout the galaxy, embracing a life of uncertainty.

It was in 2393 that I find myself in Luthien. Despite the Exodus Group's return to humanity in 2080, people still regard us as something not human. Who can blame that thinking? We're ageless immortals after all. Scientists would sooner dissect us for study rather than engage us in philosophical debates.

Sometimes I wonder if any of the Exodus Group members were caught by unscrupulous factions in the galaxy after the Homecoming, after the disbandment. But then I would shake my head and pity those fools who tried, any one of the Exodus Group can take care of themselves and get rid of any problems with ease. We're all trained to do so. I know, because I made sure of it.

In any case, I arrived at the Ashio Spaceport traveling under an anonymous identity that I had prepared. The dropship I was in was old and was in a state of disrepair, but it got me to Luthien in one piece and that was the important thing.

I passed through the infamously strict customs with ease, even managing to smuggle some personal belongings that the Luthien authorities would consider illegal. There were a lot of things considered contraband on Luthien. For example, no personal energy weapons were allowed in the entire continent of Luthien Prime. Of course, Luthien boasted the standard proton and quantum planetary defenses of the colonization era, relics from its Legion of Iron past.

But even Luthien's military uses conventional slug-throwers. I had heard that only the elite Imperial Guard used energy weapons, what they were no one had any idea.

Not that I was eager to find out. I came to Luthien to enjoy the sights and experience for myself their unique way of life.

From Ashio I boarded a steam-ship to the Imperial City on the continent of Luthien Prime. On the harbor entrance there was a towering statue of Unzen Kurita, greeting all visitors to the Imperial City.

It was a fine day, but the lack of clouds meant the glare of the sun was in my eyes when I craned my neck to look at Unzen's face as the ship passed the statue. Was it just me or did the statue's eyes glowed red? Whatever it was, I dismissed it as a trick of the light.

I got off the steam-ship and took my first steps in the Imperial City, to be greeted with the smell of –very- fresh fish. I looked around and saw that the harbor was also home to multitudes of vessels, from humble wooden fishing boats to the immense battleship Arisa, its 16-inch guns gleaming in the sunlight.

I made my way to the heart of the Imperial City by foot. I was in no hurry, despite lugging my bolster-like luggage on my shoulder. I had no real destination in mind, just wandering the streets of the city. I noticed that wherever I went I drew the attention of the inhabitants.

I chuckled as I glanced at my own reflection on a toy shop's window. A black trench coat with steel-tipped boots, black fingerless gloves and red-shades was as stark foreign I could be. I couldn't help my choice of clothes; I was influenced from my previous trip to New Eden. I smiled at the memories as my fingers traced the outlines of my gun I had acquired from that particular adventure, hidden in my coat.

As I walked down the streets I saw that the Imperial City was indeed what the brochures say. People reading newspapers, people dressed in traditional Japanese and Victorian-era clothes, whistle-blowing policemen, and of course; steam-power. Lots of it.

It was a bizarre experience for me, having traveled the stars and been to amazing places. But the Imperial City was unique. It was like taking a walk down a mixture of 1920s San Francisco and Tokyo at the same time. For one thing, the air was natural, very fresh. Coupled with the gentle breeze, I was tempted to think that the Imperial City could make a very good retirement home for me.

Elegant cafés and diners abound in Western style, and pretty soon I could feel my stomach growling for food. I got an empty table placed on the sidewalk outside a café. There weren't much people around; I guessed that most people would still be slogging in their day jobs before the lunch hour. The weather had settled nicely by the time I placed my order with the well-dressed waiter.

I overheard a couple of girlfriends giggling and sighing about something called the Imperial Opera Troupe, with their (presumably) boyfriends trudging behind them in an exasperated manner. One of the guys carelessly tossed a magazine to the ground near my feet and continued to walk on without a care.

I picked up the glossy item and examined the cover. It was a program booklet of sorts, detailing the performance of Cinderella by the Imperial Opera Troupe. The cover had a young Japanese girl dressed in a flowing white gown, and a blonde girl dressed dashingly in a prince's outfit, looking at each other emotionally.

Flipping through the Japanese program I found out that the Imperial Opera Troupe was the premier theatre group of Luthien, comprising of six young women. I wondered how many shows they could do with a cast of just six people.

The Japanese woman playing Cinderella was identified as an 18-year old Shinguiji Sakura; apparently this was her first leading role. Her bright eyes and wide smile made it even more obvious; she had the look of a star about to be born.

The prince was played by Maria Tachibana. Her platinum blonde hair almost covered the entire left side of her face. 'A foreigner?' I had wondered, reflecting on her hair. I was struck by how sad her eyes were, despite the small smile she had.

Kanzaki Sumire, also Japanese. She had a proud sort of look, her face slightly upturned for the camera. Somehow her beauty was not marred; indeed it was enhanced by the beauty mark below her left eye.

There was a Kirishima Kanna, a tomboyish looking woman with a shock of red hair and an easy-going smile on her lips. I could see her playing masculine roles very well; the portrait showed her broad shoulders, all muscle underneath.

Then there was Ri Kohran. Her purple hair was tied into two thick braids. Freckles adorn her face; combined with the big round spectacles it gave her a bookish look. I noticed the Ri in the katakana, it seemed to be a corruption of the Chinese surname Li. Then underneath her photo was a brief description about her Chinese background from the nearby colony of Heifong[10]. Ahh... Heifong... that's another place with lots of memories...

The last was also the youngest, Aeris Chateaubriand hailing from the prominent French world of Champagne, one jump away from Luthien. Just 11 years old, her golden hair and pink ribbons with her pixie- like face would make her adorable to anybody.

I closed the magazine as the waiter set my cup of coffee on the table. The rich smell of it had barely reached my senses before a piercing scream from across the street distracted me. A split second later, I could feel the ground rumbling beneath my feet.

I leapt to my feet and turned to see the source of the scream. A young woman had fallen on her back, paralyzed with fear at the cracking pavement in front of her.

In time with the prickly sensation running down my back, I stared in amazement as a sickly colored monster emerged. Hulking and having vaguely humanoid features, the creature was soon joined by two others identical to it. They were huge, each towering over the nearby lamp-posts and possibly weighing a ton each.

They were greenish; with arms long enough to be hanging at their sides, muscular and powerful. Their hands seemed like they could crush a man's skull with ease. The monsters were covered with armor platings, exposing their upper arms, fingers, thighs and feet. They had no visible heads; each had a neck terminating at some sort of a snout with a vent-like square for a face. Each was hulked down by a bulky device on their backs.

One of them was holding a four-barreled missile launcher of sorts, its escorts wielding huge katanas.

The woman shrieked again as one of the sword-wielders advanced towards her. Some people ran away, others were like her; rooted to where they were in terror.

"Wa--WAKIJI!!" the waiter beside me exclaimed in horror.

I had no time to ask for clarification, because I had already sprinted towards the woman. I had barely scooped her up in my arms when the huge katana split the pavement where she had fallen.

As I ran off carrying the woman back towards the restaurant, I looked back and noticed that the monsters were not following me. Instead, they marched slowly towards the town centre.

I dropped the woman at my waiter's feet. "Take care of her, get shelter immediately!" I barked at the stunned man. Shocked into his senses, he hurried carried the unconscious woman into the restaurant.

As he did so, air raid sirens blared throughout the area. As if annoyed by the noise, the Wakiji with the launcher leveled his weapon at a nearby building and fired. The building collapsed in a burst of smoke and fire. A blast of hot air and small debris washed over me.

Already the monsters were leaving the area, continuing their silent march. The streets cracked beneath each step as they trudged on, knocking over lamp posts and occasionally stopping to swing their swords at parked steam-cars.

"Damn it!" I muttered angrily. I pulled out my gun as I ran towards the rubble to check for survivors.

The gun was a vintage, dating back to the colonization years of the Legion. A good friend of mine gave it to me in New Eden[11]. It was jet-black in color, and it glinted menacingly in the sunlight.

It was an AGL Arms .45 Long Colt Revolver (EF Auto Ejecting, Double Action). I knew of only two others like it in existence in the whole universe. Non-graded cylinder and a barrel situated in the middle of the gun to lessen the tremendous recoil. Overall, a hugely bad-assed gun. It probably ranked as one of the top ten most absurdly over-powered handguns in the entire universe.

My revolver can only hold six bullets at one time, and I find reloading it to be a bitch at times, since I was much too used to using automatic weapons. As the best shooter I've known said to me once, I sucked using a handgun. Heh.

But seeing a man's crushed body lying beneath the rubble caused by the monsters seemed to give me an extra edge. Recklessly I ran towards the monsters known as the Wakiji.

One of them noticed me and turned ponderously, raising its katana high in the air. I ducked and rolled to the side and fired three times in quick succession.

I scored on its chest. I stood back up just in time to see two geysers of green ichor burst from the bullet wounds. The monster gave a shriek of agony before collapsing into a steaming pile of crap.

That got the attention of its fellows. I had to run for my life when the launcher fired again. The salvo struck the street and broke up the street. A lamp post fell over and struck a building.

The monster lumbered after me. My ears were still ringing after the explosion, throwing my balance off a little. I stumbled over debris and fell, but I managed to scoot up and turn to aim my gun at the monster.

However, it was already leveling the launcher directly at me. I panicked. The explosion could very well rip me apart. I didn't want to find out if I could survive that.

I fired my remaining shots. The monster tipped over slowly backwards as the bullets struck its vent-like face. The launcher ignited anyway, but the missiles flew off at an angle and exploded in the sky.

I sighed in relief. I stood up, dusted myself off. But wait, weren't there –three- monsters?

I turned to see the last one standing behind me, its katana raised high. I immediately raised my gun at it, but the gun clicked, reminding me that I have spent its ammo. I stared at the gleaming sword as it came at an angle, meaning to cleave me from the right shoulder to my left hip.

'Wasting bullets can be fatal,' I had reflected at that time.

Then suddenly, it stopped. The sword arm wavered as it shrieked in agony, shuddering as another sword pierced its torso from the back. Dropping its own sword, the monster collapsed to its knees and died.

Its killer withdrew its own katana. It was a machine, slightly smaller than the monster that it just slew. Three metallic fingers like a claw gripped the sword.

It was a robot, almost comical with its stout and rounded features and incongruously painted in light pink. I could see steam pipes extending from its sides, connected to a pack on the back. There was dual optics on grooves that lined the bulbous head. One of it slid to focus on me.

"Daijoubu ka Are you alright?" a female voice asked from the machine in Japanese. I was taken aback, the robot was manned? The Imperial City had secrets of its own, it seemed.

The female pilot obviously saw my puzzled look. "Don't worry sir, the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi will defend the Imperial City. Please get into a shelter immediately!" the voice continued. A young woman, I guessed from her tone, distorted as it was from the loudspeaker.

I caught something on the corner of my eyes and I quickly reloaded my gun and raised it. My sudden movement must have caught her by surprise, because the pink mech took a step backwards.

"Ah! Wait~!"

But I had already fired, and the monster behind her fell with a thunderous thud, green liquid poring from its head and chest.

The mecha turned to look at the corpse as I twirled my gun around my fingers.

"Now we're even," I said, grinning. There was a pause before she spoke again.

"Arigato," she said. I could imagine her smiling back from inside her machine.

There were more explosions further away. The Imperial City was burning, smoke swirling up to the skies. "Arigato," she repeated. "But it's not safe here; you must get into the shelters."

I shrugged. "I just got here! I'm a tourist!" I exclaimed. I took stock of my position and located my duffel bag. I picked it up and shouldered it.

"Where am I supposed to go?" I asked. That question had her puzzled too, as she didn't reply immediately.

There was a huge, bestial roar. We both turned to look. To my amazement, a huge humanoid figure was charging yet another mecha. The figure was unlike the monsters we had killed, he had the same sickly green flesh tones but was more human-looking and yet still monstrous. He also stood up straight and towered over the mecha.

The mecha opposing him was painted in red and had no katana or fingers. Instead, its hands terminated in pairs of metallic claws. Right now, the red mecha was being pushed back, claws matching its opponent's hands. Steam poured from the red mecha's feet as it struggle to push back.

"Kanna-san!" The pink mecha's pilot exclaimed and turned to help her friend.

I dropped my pack again and quickly reloaded my gun, hoping to help in anyway I could. But once more a prickly sensation ran down my back. I felt a sense of dread as I turned to look behind me.

There was a boy there, his hair cut into a bowl-shape and entirely covered his eyes. He kicked at a Wakiji's corpse. "Why don't you move?" he asked sullenly. "MOVE! MOVE!" he screamed as he kicked harder.

"Well, I was getting bored anyway," he said in a quieter tone.

Then he turned to face me, a glare full of hatred that it shot right up into my soul, freezing me to the spot.

"This is your fault. Why do you get in the way of my fun?" he said. Suddenly I felt a blast of heat wash over me from his stare, every nerve of my body screaming in pain. My brain felt like it was being lanced by fire.

I had experienced mental and psychic attacks before from my years in the RDF. But I had not expected to encounter one right here in Luthien, a world so deep inside the Inner Sphere. I had been taught defensive mental shielding, and knew enough to defend myself from a serious psychic probe, but this was different.

In other words, I was caught by surprise.

I fell onto my knees; every inch of my body seemed to be on fire. I raised my gun in an attempt to shoot the boy, but it felt as if it was made out of tritanium, making it impossible to lift.

I screamed my lungs out as memories that I had suppressed came rushing out like a geyser. Images of a past I rather forget resurfaced, flooding my mind.

As my world turned black, I was dimly aware of the pink mecha's pilot shouting a battlecry nearby.

Then I slipped into the darkness, and mercifully, the pain stopped.

---

She sighed as she looked at the unconscious tourist, lying on a bed in the Grand Imperial Theater.

There was a knock on the door and she got up from her beside vigil to answer it.

"Still no change, Sakura-kun?" the young gentleman at the door asked. She shook her head as she let him in.

"If only I got him to a shelter quickly," she said sadly.

"Now, don't blame yourself for what happened. From what you and Kanna-san said, it couldn't be helped. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm sure he will understand that."

"I hope so, Ogami-san... but what if he never recovers?" Sakura asked.

A bubbly head with bright blonde hair peeked from the open door, clutching a teddy bear shyly.

"Iris? Why are you up so late?" Ogami asked.

"Iris had a bad dream just now," the young girl replied.

"I'm sure it will go away, why don't you go back to sleep? You look like you need the rest," Ogami said.

Iris shook her head, clutching her teddy bear even tighter to her chest. "But in my dream, Iris saw this man. There are a lot of painful memories from him."

"How do you know, Iris?" Sakura asked, looking back at the sleeping man.

"Because Iris was in his dreams too... he was so sad and many terrible things happened to him. It was very painful, oniichan," she said, looking up at Ogami.

"Gwuhhh..." the man groaned and began to come around.

"He's awake!" Ogami and Sakura exclaimed in unison. Even Iris felt cheered to see the man waking up.

"Whe-where am I?" he croaked, blinking his eyes open slowly.

"Sakura, can you get him some water?" Ogami asked. Sakura nodded and left.

"Uh... that ceiling looks familiar[12]... damn," the man muttered, squinting at the ceiling.

"Huh?" Ogami was perplexed. The man sat up a little and turned to look at him.

"Argh... where am I?" he asked, massaging his temple.

"You're currently in the Grand Imperial Theater. How are you feeling?" Ogami said.

"Huh-ah... the theater? Not the hospital?" he asked, yawning.

Ogami shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, but the Imperial Hospital was damaged by the battle, and there were a lot of injuries too."

"Uh... it's ok, just asking," the man replied, slowly exercising away his neck cramp. "What happened to me?"

"Well... you were caught in a battle. You had been unconscious since the attack," Ogami explained somewhat vaguely.

"How long was I out?"

"Nearly 24 hours straight," Ogami replied.

"That long huh?" he said. He proceeded to pop his shoulders, elbows and crack his fingers, causing Iris' eyes to go wide.

"Wow, isn't that painful?" asked Iris in wonderment.

"Not really....... you look familiar," he said, looking at her.

"I'm Iris," she said shyly, hiding behind her teddy bear.

He snapped his fingers. "Of course, the theater... you're one of the actresses here... Aeris."

Iris reddened. "Everyone calls me Iris. You know about the Imperial Opera Troupe?" she whispered shyly.

The man smiled. "Well Iris, not until, um... yesterday, I guess. But I can remember you now."

"Thank you, Wong-san," she said, and then drew back; horrified.

The man's smile collapsed. "Wha-, how did you-"

But Iris had already fled the room. "Iris!" Ogami called. He quickly apologized to the man, and left to follow her.

"Hmm, the force is strong in that one..." the man Yoda-ed.

There was another knock on the door. "I see you're awake."

The man looked up and saw another blonde at the door. She was older, perhaps older than Ogami, with green eyes and thin lips. Dressed in a Prussian bluish purple, full-length coat; and with her hair cut short, she exuded cool professionalism.

"You are..... Ms. Tachibana?" the man asked hesitantly, recalling the images from the booklet.

She nodded. "I am Maria Tachibana of the Imperial Opera Troupe. How are you feeling?" she said in her relatively deep voice.

"Could be better. But I'm alright."

She entered the room and sat on a chair, crossing her legs and leveled a look at him. "And you are...?" she asked.

"Um... Jason Bourne[13]."

"I heard Iris calling you 'Wong' before she left. Your identity card does not mention that name."

"Jason Wong Bourne," the man corrected, wincing a little and resumed massaging his temple. In truth, Jason was not wincing at the pain, but at the hasty improvisation. 'Damn, my cover's blown! What a stupid name,' he thought.

"That is... unusual," Maria admitted.

"Mixed ancestry. Now you understand why I omitted the middle name," Jason said quickly. 'Too quickly?' he wondered, searching Maria's green eyes.

He was saved with the return of Sakura with a glass of water. He accepted it gratefully and drank it quickly.

"Thanks," Jason said. "And you must be Shinguiji Sakura-san?"

"Eh? Yes, I am! How did you know?"

"Saw the Cinderella program book before the attack," Jason smiled. "There were nice pictures of you in it."

"Oh! Umm, that is embarrassing. But thank you!" She blushed.

Jason frowned. "Your voice..."

"Eh?"

"You sound very familiar, but that can't be right... this is my first time in the Imperial City..."

Before Sakura could stammer a reply, Maria rose and cut her off. "Sakura, Mr. Bourne requires more rest. Let's give him some privacy."

"H-hai! It's good to see you're alright, Bourne-san! Now, please excuse me," Sakura said, immensely relieved.

They turned to leave. Maria paused at the doorway. "Your belongings are being quarantined, Mr. Bourne. I'm sure you would understand. We must check for demonic taints."

"Wha-what!?" Bourne stuttered. "Demonic-?!"

"All will be explained to you later. For now, please rest, we will call you for dinner soon. Excuse us." She closed the door behind her. Jason could hear the door being locked. He looked at the windows and noticed that they were locked too.

Jason hurriedly checked himself and found all his belongings gone. In fact, he was wearing a plain shirt and pants that did not even belong to him. He sighed and fell back onto the bed, and soon drifted into sleep, dreaming of Maria's cool, green eyes on him.

---

At the dining hall of the Grand Imperial Theater, the actresses gathered together to discuss about their visitor. The civilian had actually been attacked by the Wakiji and had survived, even killing some of them by himself. The discussion centered on what to be done with him now.

Maria Tachibana, actress of the Imperial Opera Troupe; was also the second-in-command of the Hanagumi. The others would defer to her judgment and assertiveness, trusting her decisions. Most of the time.

"Maria-san, that's not fair! He saved me at the battle, and we repay him by keeping him as a prisoner?" Sakura asked.

"Sakura, you must understand the situation. We don't know who he is. Right now, the most logical course of action would be to keep him under observation," Maria explained patiently.

"Sakura-san, it was your own fault to get into that situation in the first place!

Sakura frowned at her colleague, and occasional rival; Kanzaki Sumire.

"If you had been more skillful like me, he would not have got in the way of the Kuronosukai," Sumire continued in a condescending tone.

"Oi Sumire, don't be so full of yourself. Weren't you the one knocked down by Rasetsu earlier?" Kirishima Kanna interjected from her seat opposite Sumire.

"How dare you bring that up, you ape-woman!" Sumire retorted angrily.

"What?! You snake, you take that back!" Kanna exclaimed, jumping to her feet and slamming her palms on the table.

Maria shot to her feet. "Both of you, stop it right now!"

Sumire and Kanna sullenly sat down and refused to look at each other. Sakura and Iris felt very awkward in the tense atmosphere.

"Neh, Maria-han, what do –you- think of him?" Kohran spoke up in her heavily accented Japanese.

Taken aback by the abrupt question, Maria slowly sat down and considered for a while.

"I think he is dangerous, and should be eliminated quickly," she said finally.

"What? Why, Maria-san?" Sakura asked, shocked. Her colleagues were stunned as well.

Maria looked at each of their faces.

"It is just speculation so far, but based on what Sakura said, the man virtually killed several Wakiji by himself. Perhaps it is true that he is just a visitor traveling to the Imperial City, but his weapon... he is no simple tourist to be able to smuggle some of his belongings, especially his gun; into Luthien."

Kohran adjusted her huge glasses. "Now that you mention it, his gun –is- extraordinary. I've scanned for it in the Imperial database but so far there's nothing. Right now the Hana-Yashiki branch is checking the data against the Galactic Library. We would know in a few hours."

Maria nodded. "You see, we know next to nothing about him. Where he comes from and his purposes are yet unknown. For all we know, he might be a Kuronosukai spy trying to gain our trust."

"I... I see..." Sakura said quietly, head bowed in thought.

"That's not true!" Iris spoke up suddenly.

The young girl suddenly found her shoelaces to be very interesting when the others turned to look at her.

"Iris... what do you mean?" Maria asked.

Iris twiddled with her bear's arms, avoiding Maria's eyes from across the table. "Iris... Iris knows he's a good person. He's a very sad person, a lot of bad memories..."

Maria frowned, but said nothing. Despite Iris's young age, Maria and the rest of the Hanagumi knew that Iris had the highest spiritual and psychic powers of them all.

Sumire raised an eyebrow at the child. "Iris, did you mean that you saw his memories?"

Iris nodded slightly, still looking down and away from the others.

"Well Iris, what did you see?" Kanna asked, leaning towards her.

"Iris... Iris cannot say... but Iris heard a lot of music... a lot of wonderful music..." she answered shyly.

"Iris, why can't you say?" Sumire persisted.

"Because Iris made a promise with him not to say... at least, not yet..." she whispered.

The silence that followed was broken with the arrival of Ogami.

"Ogami-san!" Sakura greeted, eager to break the tension.

"Everyone, you're all here? Good... I just came from a meeting with Ayame-san," Ogami said.

"Taicho Squad Leader... what did the Vice-Commander say?" Kanna asked.

Ogami drew a deep breath. "She says to let him stay for several days... to observe him for the time being. At least until he recovers from his injuries."

"Is that a good idea, Taicho?" Maria asked. "We would risk exposing the Hanagumi to a total stranger."

"It's the vice-commander's decision, Maria-san. Until Commander Yoneda returns from his meeting and changes the situation, he will stay. I admit there are some risks, but it's the only thing to do right now. Besides, I think we can trust Sakura and Iris's opinions of him, don't we?" Ogami winked at Iris, who reddened considerably.

"...I see," Maria said.

"Well, now that's settled, why don't we have dinner?" Ogami suggested brightly.

"Yosh! I'll get the dishes ready!" Kanna said enthusiastically. "I'll help, Kanna-san," Sakura volunteered.

Sumire stood and followed them. "Hmph, such things are beneath me. But I'll come to make sure you won't make any mistakes," she said.

As they left the hall, Ogami could hear the beginnings of another argument. He sighed and shook his head slowly, a wry smile on his lips. Then he looked at Iris, still seated, still fiddling with her toy.

"Iris, could you please call our visitor for dinner?" Ogami asked kindly, giving her a door key.

The little girl nodded in pleasure and quickly went on her way.

"I hope that that we are not making a terrible mistake, Taicho... to invite a stranger into our home," Maria said quietly.

      Ogami started to reply, but Maria had already turned away.

      A short while later, Iris brought the visitor down. It caused the rest of the Hanagumi to raise their eyebrows to see their youngest member holding the man's hand and virtually pulling him over to the dining hall, a secretive smile on her lips. They had never seen Iris open up to a complete stranger so quickly before.

      Conversation was muted and uncomfortable. Nobody had the mood to start eating, not even the usually voracious Kanna. Everyone felt tensed with the stranger at the table.

      'Having dinner like this terrible...' Ogami thought to himself. So he cleared his throat and looked at the visitor who was staring at his food.

      "Mr. Bourne, are you feeling better now?" Ogami asked conversationally.

      Bourne seemed to be startled by the question, but managed to give a weak smile. "Er, yeah, I'm better, but call me Jason please..."

      Ogami nodded, but unsure on how to proceed.

      "Jason-san, is the food to your liking?" Sakura asked, happy that Ogami had made the initiative to start talking.

      Jason smiled sheepishly. "Umm, fish isn't my favorite, but it's all good to me."

      "I see. From what I gather, you seemed to recognize the Imperial Opera Troupe," Ogami said.

      Jason nodded, smiling wryly. "I had just arrived and happen to pick up the program booklet for the Cinderella play, when all hell broke loose."

      "In that case, let me formally introduce the Imperial Opera Troupe to you. This is Shinguiji Sakura," he motioned. Sakura smiled and gave a deep nod.

"Kanzaki Sumire, our top star." Sumire smiled at the compliment and regarded Jason with a regal gesture.

"Kirishima Kanna..."

"Yo, how are you?" Kanna said enthusiastically. Jason seemed to be taken aback the very tall and powerful woman, but did not say anything.

Ogami nodded at the next girl. "Ri Kohran of Heifong..."

The bespectacled girl nodded and gave a friendly smile, pushing up her glasses as she did so.

"Maria Tachibana, and of course, Iris Chateaubriand and her companion, Jean-Paul," Ogami finished, his mention of Iris's teddy bear made her smile with pleasure. "And I am Ogami Ichiro, resident ticket clipper and miscellaneous extraordinaire," he said, half in jest.

Jason gave a small laugh. "It must be nice for you, being surrounded by so many gorgeous ladies," he joked.

The Hanagumi seemed embarrassed by the compliment, Jason noting that only Maria seemed unfazed. Jason decided to try to break the ice with the others first.

"Excuse me, but your voice... it sounds very familiar... By any chance, are you related to anybody on the Eastern Rim[14]?" Bourne asked Kanna.

Kanna was puzzled, but shook her head. "Nope, everyone I know is here in Luthien... we're descended from Okinawa. What's up?" she asked.

Bourne smiled. "No, it's just that I have a very good friend, who sounds almost exactly like you... Forget it..."

Unexpectedly, Maria spoke up. "Where are –you- from, Mr. Bourne?"

"Call me Jason," he automatically replied. "I'm from Earth... but I've been to many places. Heifong, for example," he said, looking over at Kohran.

"Really?! What did you do there, Jason-han?" Kohran asked excitedly. "Zhen de hwei ting ma? Can you really understand me?" Kohran asked in Chinese.

"It's been awhile now, but I made several good friends there," he chuckled. "I was in the Great Space Race, several years back."

"That's incredible! I try to follow the news, but Luthien doesn't show the GSR very often..." Kohran said.

"Yes, it's very dangerous, even for the Amateur Division. Not something anyone would do everyday for a living," Jason said. "By the way... Ni de guo yu hao lan! Your Chinese is terrible!"

Kohran blushed and chuckled. "Well, I hardly got the chance to speak it here," she said sheepishly.

"Jason, what do you do for a living then?" Maria interrupted.

"Oh, this and that. I've been a cook, a cleaner, a storekeeper, a security officer... lots of things."

"Security, huh? A guy like you?" Kanna commented, her grin taking out any malice from the question.

Jason smiled. "I'm pretty quick with my hands and feet. But I guess I'm more luck than skill."

"We must spar sometime," Kanna said, cracking her knuckles.

"Honestly, only vulgar people fight with their bare hands," Sumire said, tossing her hair and looking away from Kanna, who seemed ready to explode.

"Really, Ms. Kanzaki? Well, we have to defend oneself in any way we can," Jason said, trying to diffuse the impending argument.

"Speaking of which, Jason-han... about your gun," Kohran started.

"Yes, I'm wondering about that myself. Can I have it back? It is... very personal to me."

"Sorry, Jason-san... but personal firearms are prohibited in the Imperial Opera Theater. In fact, it's prohibited in the whole of the Imperial City," Ogami said.

"Really?" Jason arched an eyebrow and glanced at Maria. She noticed it but Jason quickly averted his eyes. "Ah... well, you can take the bullets out then... it's not as if I'll be using it again, right? I guess I won't be seeing those monsters again," Jason said hopefully. "What –were- those things?"

"Those were the Wakiji."

The gathering turned to look at the doorway.

"Shihainin Manager!"

"Yoneda-san!"

Jason was so shocked at seeing the middle-aged man that he stood to his feet, jaw opened.

"It has been a while, isn't it?" Yoneda said solemnly to Jason Bourne.

To the Hanagumi's amazement, Yoneda broke into a huge smile.

---

Six ears were pressed to the door, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation between Yoneda and the mysterious Jason Bourne.

"Hey hey, can you hear anything?" Kanna said, alternating between her ears to the door.

"Shh! Be quiet!" Sumire hissed back.

"Be still, both of you!" Ogami ordered in a whisper.

"Commander, not you too?" Maria said as she came up. "Everyone, I don't think this is such a good idea. Surely, the manager will tell us in time," Maria said. She leaned against the wall, watching her teammates bemusedly.

"But aren't you curious, Maria-san? That the manager and Jason-san seemed to know each other very well..." Sakura said, easing away from the door. Kanna, Sumire, Kohran, Iris and Ogami continued to jostle for better positions.

Maria nodded. "Yes... that is very interesting. It seems that they knew each other even before the First Demon War... but Mr. Bourne doesn't look that very old, does he?"

---

"Well, Yoneda, I didn't expect to see you here."

"Is that all you've got to say after all these years? Come on now, I should be the one to say that... I've been on Luthien for nearly twenty years now."

Jason Bourne shrugged. "I didn't know... I guess I was out of the loop for a while now."

"That's your own fault; no one could ever keep track of your many identities, Arion Wong."

"You're mistaken. I'm Jason W. Bourne now."

Yoneda pulled out two cups and a bottle of sake from a cabinet. "Yes, well, you were who you were back in Dominion[15]," he said offhandedly.

"And you still have no sense of timing, interrupting dinner like that. I'm hungry, you know," Jason complained.

"Bah, I'll treat you to a bowl of noodles later," Yoneda scoffed.

"Still, I see you're living the good life," Jason said, looking over the room. His eyes fell on a framed piece of calligraphy proclaimed proudly, 'Teikoku Kagekidan Imperial Opera Troupe' on the wall.

"A good life, me? Don't be ridiculous. I got the hell out of Dominion after that fracas we caused. Luthien is like heaven compared to that polluted ball of earth," Yoneda said while filling the cups with the sake.

"I heard them calling you 'manager'. So, the infamous 'Hell-Raising' Yoneda Ikki of Dominion has become the manager of Luthien's Imperial Opera Troupe? Seemed like a drastic change in pace," Jason commented with a smile.

Yoneda chuckled and emptied his cup. "It has been a very long time since anyone had called me that." He refilled his cup. Jason had not touched his own.

"Well, you –are- getting on a bit. I hardly recognize you with the glasses and wrinkles. Not to mention those –clothes-."

Yoneda snorted. "Excuuuse me for not having Protoculture metabolism. Not everybody was part of the elite Exodus Group you know."

Jason glanced around warily. "I would appreciate it if you don't keep saying things like that."

"Oh, all right. Same problems as usual eh?" Yoneda said, downing his second cup. "What is it this time, more bounty hunters?" he asked as he poured yet another cup.

Jason shook his head. "Actually, no. I'm on a journey of self-actualization... to find myself."

Yoneda set his cup down and looked at him. After several moments, he took a long pull of the sake directly from the bottle.

"My god, that is one of the most outdated and clichéd things I have ever heard," he said finally.

Jason sighed. "After doing the things I have done, been to the places I have been and living the life I had lived, you would understand. But you don't, so it's enough to say that after a couple of hundred years, I'm getting a little tired. Traveling the Inner Sphere and getting back in touch with myself seems to be the best thing to do."

"Wish I could do the same," Yoneda muttered.

"Well, why don't you? You're not getting any younger."

Yoneda drew a deep breath. "I'm in the army now. Actually, I'm Lieutenant General Yoneda of Luthien's Imperial Land Army."

Jason frowned. "But this is a theater. And I know those girls are real actresses, although I believe there are more than meets the eye. I'm guessing Sakura is the pilot of the mecha that I saw."

"Hahaha... your mind is as sharp as ever. Yes, this –is- the Imperial Opera Troupe," Yoneda said. "Those monsters you saw and fought are called the Wakiji, mechanical steam-beasts and minions to the evil known as the Kuronosukai. Their objectives are unknown, but they are trying to destroy the Imperial City."

"'Evil'? You're getting melodramatic," Jason said disbelievingly.

"Believe me; it's supernatural to say the least. I would know, this is my second war dealing with them in Luthien," Yoneda said somberly.

Then he explained how the Imperial Opera Troupe was a cover for the girls, who were also members of the 'Teikoku Kagekidan – Hanagumi' Imperial Floral Assault Group – Flower Division. That yes, the girls and Ogami were pilots of the machines ("Koubu") that Jason saw earlier. And yes, the Grand Imperial Theater was also a cover for the staging base of the Hanagumi.

"Why a theater and an opera troupe as the cover? Surely there's got to be lots of other better ideas," Jason asked dubiously.

"The Koubus are powered by steam, but they are also motivated by spiritual power, something I'm sure you as an Exodusian have a lot of. But the suitable candidates we found were all girls," Yoneda replied.

"That doesn't explain why you have an opera troupe."

"I haven't finished!" Yoneda said, annoyed. "In ancient Japan, traditional plays like Noh and Kabuki were done to purify the spirit and appease the gods. We felt that by focusing the girls on those aspects, their spiritual powers can increase. Surely you understand."

"Ye gods... shades of Gowa Corporation[16]," Jason muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing... please continue."

More importantly, Yoneda explained the enemy known as the Kuronosukai, of their attempts to burn the 'Teito' Imperial City to the ground. He mentioned the steam-beasts again, of their organic features fused with unknown steam-powered mechanics. Then of course, the enemy's ability of appearing and disappearing at will.

There were many times during the narration that Jason had started to interrupt, but each time he was swept away by Yoneda's words. After nearly half an hour, the talk ended.

"Why are you telling me all this?" Jason asked, half-accusingly.

Yoneda smirked. "This is all top-secret military stuff. Now that you know, I can't possibly let you off. I'm drafting you into the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi."

"What? Is there no peace in my life?! Get me out of this!" Jason groaned.

"Not a chance, Mr. Bourne," Yoneda grinned.

"Gahhh..."

---

The next day, the Hanagumi assembled in the control room beneath the Grand Imperial Theater.

"Taicho, what is this about? I did not hear the alarm," Maria asked.

      "I don't know..." Ogami shrugged. "The commander just told me to get all of us here. We'll have to wait to find out."

      "This better be worth my time... I'm in the middle of my tea!" Sumire grumbled.

      "Good, you're all here," Yoneda said as he entered the room, carrying a duffel bag.

      "Teikoku Kagekidan – Hanagumi, all assembled and accounted for!" Ogami saluted.

      Yoneda waved him off. "No need for formalities, Ogami. I just want to introduce the newest member to all of you."

      "Newest... member?" Ogami wondered aloud.

      "Weren't you listening?" Yoneda grumbled. "We don't have a new Koubu for him yet, but he will help in anyway he can."

      "He?" Sakura echoed. 

"Jason, get your ass down here!" Yoneda called out.

      There was a dull thud and they could hear muffled swearing from outside. "Damned bulkheads, do you have to build them so low!?" he complained as he stepped inside.

      "Here he is, Mr. Jason Bourne of the UPSF. I trust there's no need for further introductions," Yoneda said, gesturing at Jason who was rubbing his sore head. He was wearing his own clothes which Sakura had seen him in: black boots, fingerless gloves and black leather trench coat.

      Yoneda then opened the duffel bag and retrieved a gleaming, black handgun which he handed almost solemnly to Jason. With a quick movement, Jason snapped the revolver open, spun the barrel and checked the bullets. He then closed and holstered it inside his trench coat.

      There was silence. And then, each of the Hanagumi exploded in excited chatter. Iris had a big smile. Sakura was puzzled but glad, Kohran and Kanna amazed, Sumire scandalized and Maria shocked.

      "Commander, are you sure about this!?" Maria exclaimed.

      Yoneda turned to look at her. "Yes, Maria. I understand you have some doubts about him."

      "Commander, we don't know anything about him," she said.

      "That's not true. I know him very well indeed, and I can trust him with my life. Believe in that, Maria," Yoneda said seriously, looking at Jason who was rummaging through his duffel bag.

      "I... I will accept your orders, sir," Maria said reluctantly.

      Ogami strode forward and shook Jason's hand. "It's nice not to be the only guy in the Hanagumi. Looking forward to working with you, Jason-san. I'm Ensign Ichiro Ogami, leader of the Hanagumi."

      "Haha... seems like you will have competition in getting the ladies' attention now, Ogami!" Yoneda chuckled, causing both men to go red.

      "Commander, what is his standing within the Hanagumi? Does the vice-commander know about this?" Maria asked.

      "Yes, Ayame knows of this. She is on her way to the council to tell them the news. As for Jason's rank, don't worry, he will be the lowest of the low," Yoneda said, eyes gleaming with laughter.

      Jason growled and glared at him, but Yoneda did not appear to notice. "You can all ask him for anything. Ogami, you will not be alone doing those boring jobs anymore." Yoneda began edging towards the door.

      "Does that mean he will be part of the Imperial Opera Troupe?" Kanna asked.

      "Yes. Of course, ticket-clipping is still Ogami's job," Yoneda grinned, causing Ogami to wince. "Jason here will be the person who shows the guests around the porch, lobby and other usual, mundane stuff."

      "What... you said you needed a fighter, not a handyman!" Jason yelled.

      Yoneda shrugged. "Until we can measure your spiritual power and actually manufacture an additional Koubu for you, those are your orders. Of course, you will train in simulations in the meantime."

      "Ohohohoho! Finally, a real servant around here!" Sumire laughed.

      "Yes, he can clean, wash, sew, cook..." Yoneda laughed as he ran out of the room.

      "Old man! Get back here!" Jason hollered and chased after him, leaving the Hanagumi in a mixture of bewilderment and amusement.

      ---

      Maria found herself being pulled along by Iris as she gave Jason a tour of the theater.

      "Iris, I have other things to do," she said patiently.

      Iris made a face. "Liar. You just want to get away from second brother!" she said

      "Second... brother?" Maria and Jason repeated at the same time.

      "That's right! Big brother's always occupied with Sakura and Sumire... he hardly has any time for Iris..." she said as if she was the adult and they were children.

      Jason glanced at Maria and shrugged.

      Maria sighed and resigned to follow them. Iris could literally explode at anytime.

      They led him to the reception desk, where he was introduced to the Kazegumi Wind Division trio of Sakakibara Yuri, Fuiji Kasumi and Takamura Tsubaki. To his chagrin, he found out that they also knew of Yoneda's standing orders, and warned him that they would call upon him anytime to help with checking the inventory, getting supplies, sorting and filing paperwork...

      After showing the rest of the facilities, Iris dragged Maria and Jason to his room, which was on the same floor as the rest of the Hanagumi.

      It was sparse, but it had a great window view of the city. The furniture was wooden; Jason smiled as he ran his fingers over them. He dropped his duffel bag onto the bed. Noticing Iris's curious stare, he smiled.

      "Watch me unpack?" he asked kindly. Iris smiled in agreement.

      Maria turned to leave. "Well then, I'll be leaving."

      Again, Iris grabbed her hand and refused to let go. "Maria, let's watch together!"

      Maria sighed but did not say anything when she saw the patented Jason W. Bourne style of unpacking: dumping everything out at once onto the bed.

      There were several booklets containing shining, unlabeled discs, which she recognized as CDs from the late 20th century, and a portable player. A bundle of clothing neatly folded and bound together so that it resembled a stack of books. Maria could see a portfolio of sorts, with several pages loose, depicting various scenery and mechanical drawings. Several data crystals and a data reader, a couple of pocket-sized photo albums (which Jason snatched up before Iris could take a peek), a sheathed combat knife, trinkets, accessories, a battered copy of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a music box.

      As Jason busied himself with unpacking his clothes, Iris picked up the music box. It was small and shaped like a rectangular box made of flawless crystal. She turned the tiny dial on the side, and opened it.

      Whatever Jason was doing, he stopped when he heard the music. Iris and Maria watched the box intently as soft glows of the rainbow slowly played in time with the beautiful music. The piano recording was a little garbled and grainy, but the notes came out clearly and washed over them like a refreshing rain.

DJ Pretzel's Overclocked Remixes – Roger Matthews vs. Mr Mitsuda – Radical Dreamers, Older Promises – 2:28[17]

      As the music died down, the light show faded and the box clicked itself shut.

      Iris looked up sadly at the back of Jason, who had not moved during the entire song.

      "Second brother... Iris heard this song... in your dreams yesterday..." she said sadly.

      "I need some time alone...." he said softly.

      Iris nodded sadly, and slowly took Maria's hand as she left the room. Maria did not say anything, recognizing the feeling of burden and sadness emanating from the man.

      It was something she felt within herself often.

            ---

      The rest of the day passed peacefully enough. There was no interruption in Jason's melancholy; he had stayed in his room the whole day sorting out his belongings.

      It was late at night when there was a knock on his door. Jason slowly switched off his data reader and opened the door.

      "Ms. Maria... what are you doing up so late?" he asked the blonde woman. She had wondered about knocking on his door, she was still a little mistrustful of the Hanagumi's new acquaintance.

      "It's time for the night patrol. I'm just checking on everyone. Nothing's wrong, I trust?" she said, motioning with her gas-lamp.

      He shook his head and Maria turned to leave. "Well then, good night, Mr. Bourne."

      "Call me Jason," he replied automatically. "Say, you mind if I follow you?"

      "I suppose it's alright. Usually the Taicho would be doing this, but he had a very busy week," Maria said.

      Jason chuckled as he closed his door and followed beside her. "Poor guy... Well, at least I'll be doing my best to help him from now on."

      They headed towards the open terrace. The night was clear with hardly any clouds, and they could see the lights of the Imperial City.

      "It's beautiful. I can see why all of you are fighting to protect the city," Jason said.

      Maria nodded. "Yes. The Imperial City is our home, Mr. Bourne. It has a lot of memories for us."

      "Ms. Maria..."

      Maria was startled by the gentle tone. She became even more nervous when he leaned towards her.

      "Please call me Jason," he repeated suddenly.

      Relieved, Maria smiled. "Feel free to drop the 'Miss' and call me Maria."

      Satisfied with the mutual understanding, the two continued on their patrol.

      Suddenly, Jason's eyes changed and Maria could see his body tensing up. He looked towards the dark stairway with suspicion.

      "Maria... is it me or do we have... ninjas[18] in the building?" he asked slowly as he scanned the darkness.

      Maria chuckled. "Ninja? You must be mistaken, Jason. We do have the Kuroku[19] to help us in our stage productions, but I don't think any of them would be around when they aren't needed."

      Jason slowly relaxed. "I guess it's just my imagination after all. Let's continue."

      They went downstairs to the stage.

      "I hear voices," Jason said.

      "Yes, I hear them too. It must be someone doing some late-night practicing," Maria replied.

      On the stage, they saw Sakura and Iris doing just that.

      "I am impressed with your dedication, Sakura, but staying up after the curfew is against the regulations. And it is even worse to see that you brought Iris with you," Maria said sternly.

      "Iris came on her own!" Iris exclaimed indignantly. "Iris is not a little girl!"

      "I'm sorry, Maria-san... I saw Iris looking at the stars, so I asked for her help in rehearsing my lines," Sakura apologized.

      "In any case, staying up so late isn't good for your health. Please return to your rooms to rest," Maria said.

      "No! Iris wants to watch the stars!" Iris said and ran off.

      "...Does this happen often?" Jason sighed with a wry smile.

       "The Taicho wasn't too strict about enforcing the rules... he has been slacking off the night patrol lately," said Maria.

      "Honestly, it seems that he can't do anything without your help, Maria," Jason said good-naturedly, causing Maria to grin.

      Sakura watched them bemusedly. "..Hm, Jason-san, you seem to be getting awfully close to Maria."

      "Wha-.. y-you shouldn't be up so late, Sakura-kun! R-right, Maria?" Jason stuttered.

      "T-that's right! You should go to sleep, Sakura," Maria concurred, also faltering a little in her speech.

      "Hai hai, I'll get Iris too. Please, continue your patrol," Sakura bowed with a mischievous smile and left.

      Jason and Maria paused in an awkward silence. Jason was glad for the dark environment, it hid his red face.

      "I think we should continue the patrol," Jason said finally.

      "Um, yes," Maria agreed quietly.

      ---

      The days passed quickly for the Hanagumi. Like Ogami before him, Jason became fast friends with each of the Hanagumi. Also like Ogami, he was reliable in completing any task given to him: from cleaning the stage to unclogging the pipes to helping with the paperwork. The sight of Jason Bourne casually dressed in loose t-shirts and faded jeans became familiar to the Hanagumi. Slowly they began to trust him.

They find him an enjoyable person, easy-going and yet serious, although prone to frequent inane/obscure references and ramblings in a cauldron of languages ranging from Malay to several dialects of Chinese. Sometimes he purposely mangled his language[20] beyond their comprehension, a fact that he enjoyed immensely in private.

As Yoneda had said, Jason trained with the rest of the Hanagumi with simulation programs, and performed well enough to impress the doubters, thanks to his (unrevealed) Exodusian affinity with mecha. On the other hand, Jason was amazed at the organization of the Teikoku Kagekidan, and mightily impressed at the extensive and complicated network of tunnels, underground railways and especially the steam-powered bullet-train that transported the Hanagumi to the battle, Gouraigo. But he watched helplessly as they sortie four times without him to fight the Kuronosukai and the steam-beasts.

      Although they were always victorious, the lack of real action began to bother Jason very much. He had come to Luthien to enjoy peace, but once he was promised action and didn't get it, he felt very agitated. At least working with the Hanagumi kept him occupied.

      Mornings saw him practicing unarmed combat with Kanna (and feeling sore all over after that). On afternoons he would be alternating with Ogami in teaching Iris about her homework given by Vice Commander Fujieda Ayame (except Maths. Jason sucked at Maths[21]). After that he would be down in the Koubu hangar, helping Kohran with maintenance and learning their internal workings (and usually had something explode in his face). Evenings saw him and Ogami working together to maintain the theater and running errands for the Hanagumi and Kazegumi.

And Jason had taken over from Ogami in the night patrols, partnering with Maria. After all, Maria felt a certain kinship with Jason, whom she felt resembled her in some ways.

      It was a dark, cloudy day when a moody Maria found the shooting range underneath the theater to be occupied. Occasionally she and Ogami had trained together, but then Ogami's Koubu was equipped with swords. Only she had the preference of using a gun, while the rest of the Hanagumi used swords (Ogami, Sakura), the naginata (Sumire) or none at all (Iris, Kanna, Kohran). That was, until the arrival of Jason Bourne. But she never saw him at the shooting range before. Until today.

      She was moody because of a recurring nightmare. She kept remembering how the person she considered to be her only family was gunned down right in front of her. It was a past she wanted to forget.

      Maria Tachibana was an orphan. Her parents died, leaving her alone. But she could remember being rescued by a stranger, who then passed her to be taken care of by a young military officer. She considered that officer to be her brother and protector, her only family.

      But she could not remember the stranger who saved her. All she could remember was him wiping her tears away when he found her.

      "It's okay to cry, little one..."

      She could not remember his face.

      A booming gunshot greeted Maria's ears as she closed the sound-proof door behind her. She could see Jason sighing as he slowly reloaded his unusual handgun. He was not wearing any of the safety equipment. She came up to the distracted man unnoticed.

      "Good day, Jason," she greeted, almost startling him.

      "Maria! Wha... when did you get here?" he asked.

      "Only just. You didn't answer the door yesterday for the patrol," Maria said.

      "...Sorry. Guess I fell asleep," Jason said sheepishly.

      "You're hiding something," Maria said, not accusingly but merely stating an obvious fact.

      Before Jason could say anything, she waved him off. "No matter, we all have things to think about. By the way, the manager said that your Koubu would arrive today." She glanced at his weapon. "I never see you here before. In fact, I think this is the first time I see you actually holding your gun ever since the day the manager inducted you into the Hanagumi."

      Jason smiled weakly. "I'm not a good shot, Maria. At least, I'm not as good as some of my acquaintances are. This gun has a lousy history with me so far."

      She glanced at the target circle. "I see what you mean," she said not unkindly, causing Jason to shrug shamefacedly.

      "I'm still working on it... I'm a poor shot."

      "It looks very heavy," she commented. She then looked at the box of bullets he had been reloading from. "AGL Arms .45 Longshot? I've never heard of it."

      Jason chuckled as he continued reloading. "It's... pretty obscure. AGL Arms Factory went bust a hundred years ago because their guns were so overpowered, causing them to be unstable. I had to find an expert to modify this gun for me. You won't even find their catalogs anymore."

      "But your bullets...?" Maria asked.

      "I can make them myself, with the right material. I still have enough. Besides, I don't actually fire this gun that often. Like I said, this gun has a bad history with me so far," he replied.

      "I see..." she said quietly.

      "You look depressed. This isn't like you at all," Jason remarked.

      She chuckled. "You're the one to talk."

"Maybe it's weather that's getting us down," he replied in jest.

      "Jason... do you often... dream of the past?" Maria asked suddenly.

      Jason seemed shaken by the question. "...Yes... in fact, I'm right here to try to forget my dream last night," he admitted finally. "But what's this all about?"

      "...Nothing, it's alright," Maria replied stonily.

      Jason snorted. "Yeah right. Even Kanna mentioned this morning that you were quiet for the past few days, quieter than usual that is. She knows you the best, so I believe her when she says there's something wrong with you. Hell, she said you even messed up your lines during rehearsal recently, which is –really- damn strange."

      "...You two just enjoy gossiping about me, don't you?" Maria asked with a smile, avoiding the issue.

      "Yeah well, she reminded me of a person I used to talk to back in deep space. She's even muscular and everything[22]."

      "That's good," she said simply.

Jason sighed and set his half-loaded gun down on the table. He placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. Her eyes widened but she did not pull away.

      "Listen Maria, anytime you need someone to talk to, you can look for me. I got my own problems and my own demons to conquer, but I'm willing to listen to you anytime," Jason said in a serious manner.

      She didn't say anything for a while. Finally she smiled in appreciation. "...Thank you, Jason. Perhaps I'll take that offer sometime."

      Jason nodded and finished reloading his gun, snapping the revolver back with a flick of the wrist.

      "If you don't mind, would you let me try it?" Maria asked, motioning at the gun.

      He looked at her warily. "I don't know... the gun's really powerful..."

      She bristled. "Don't patronize me. I'm using an Enfield Mk I Star Revolver. It's old but it packs far more power than any handgun I know today. I had even killed a Wakiji with it." She withdrew her own revolver and placed it on the table.

      Jason whistled as he looked at her gun. It was also a six-bullet revolver, longer than most handguns he had seen but not as big as his. He raised his hands in mock surrender. "Fine, fine... don't say I didn't warn you." He handed his weapon to her and leaned on the wall behind her.

      "We'll see who the top shooter in the Hanagumi is," Maria said. Before Jason could mention that he had never made such a claim, Maria raised the weapon with one hand and took aim.

      Maria could feel the gun's considerable weight and size. The jet-black color was also a little disconcerting, it gleamed unnaturally and Maria could feel as if the gun had a will of its own. Brushing aside her doubts, Maria concentrated on the target's bull's-eye, and pulled the trigger.

      Just as Jason had feared, the gun's tremendous recoil came as a shock to Maria. Her shot was true, it struck the red bull's-eye. On the other hand, the recoil caused her to yelp in surprise and lose her balance; causing her to start falling over backwards. The gun clattered to the floor.

      Dazed, she found herself in the arms of Jason W. Bourne.    

"Are you alright!?" Jason asked urgently. Maria found the close contact to be especially disconcerting; it was causing an unaccustomed warm and fuzzy feeling all over her body.

"I... I'm fine, Jason... Please, let me up..." she said.

Nodding, Jason slowly guided her back to her feet. She rose a little unsteadily, but refused Jason's help.

"I... I think I'll be in my room for some rest," she muttered.

"You sure you're ok?" Jason asked.

"I said I'm fine!" she snapped. Both of them were taken aback by her sudden flash of anger.

The alarm chose that moment to make a racket. Both snapped to look at the ceiling as the lights turned red and flashed in time with the siren. They looked at each other, and without a word they quickly head for the control room.

---

In a short while, the entire Hanagumi had changed into their battle uniforms and stood assembled in the control room. All, except Jason who did not have a Koubu yet and thus found an excuse not to wear the frilly, double-tailed jacket and form fitting white pants ("White is –so- not my color... uh, no offense, Ogami...."). Besides, he had his trench coat modified to be able to match to the cables of the Koubu. Despite that, it did not stop Yoneda from grumbling about Jason's non-regulation uniform. Jason doubted that he would ever hear the end of it.

"Teikoku Kagekidan – Hanagumi! All assembled and accounted for!" Ogami reported as the Hanagumi stood at attention and saluted. Yes, even Jason.

Yoneda returned their salute tersely and motioned at a large monitor behind him.

"We have a situation in the commercial district," Vice Commander Ayame said calmly. The steam-powered monitor showed the layout of the Imperial City, and a red splotch was splattered on its north-eastern corner.

"Opposition strength?" Ogami asked.

"Confirmed sighting of Setsuna and at least fifteen Wakiji. Evacuations are being executed, but there are still civilians in the area," she answered.

Yoneda coughed. "Here are your orders: Deploy immediately and eliminate the enemy presence. Minimize collateral damage and avoid civilian casualties at all costs!"

Jason found the same sinking feeling that he had felt in previous weeks. He watched from the command center as the rest of the Hanagumi jumped into their personalized Koubus. Steam poured from each Koubu's legs as they powered up. Each Koubu reflected their pilot's style of fighting: Ogami's had twin swords, while Sakura's had one katana. Maria's dark Koubu was equipped with a pistol-like cannon, Kanna had the claws while Kohran was armed like an artillery battery with multiple cannons and launchers. Only Iris's yellow Koubu was unarmed, she basically acted as a psychic defense unit.

Yoneda slapped Jason's back in a comradely manner.

"Don't worry about it; you will be joining them someday. Kanzaki Industries is pushing their production line to build even just one Koubu. Just bear with it," he comforted the forlorn man.

"I just have a bad feeling about today," Jason muttered as he watched the Hanagumi from behind the glass.

---

The Wakiji, as usual, were randomly destroying buildings. One of the monsters spotted a paralyzed mother and child and slowly raised its blade to cut them down.

Seven voices shouted: "Teikoku Kagekidan – Sanjou Go!!"

The monster paused and turned to face seven Koubu warriors. With a blinding flash of light, the one painted in the color of a cherry blossom sliced the monster in half. The monster died with a shriek, and the mother wept at her near escape. Bowing repeatedly, she carried her child and quickly ran to a shelter.

"You just love to interfere with my fun, don't you?" a voice said.

"Setsuna! Your evil stops here!" Ogami challenged, pointing one of his swords at the boy-like enemy.

"Hahahaha, don't make me laugh! Is it evil for me to do things that I enjoy?" the boy mocked.

"Hurting innocents for personal enjoyment is unforgivable!" Sakura replied in anger.

"So ka Really? Let me see..." the boy paused and glanced at each Koubu. He stopped when he saw Maria's dark blue Koubu, its cannon aimed at him.

"What about her? You killed to sooth your own feelings, didn't you? 'Kuassari' Firebird!!" he accused Maria.

Stunned, she could not reply.

"Yes... I see your memories now. You killed for revenge... did you enjoy it?" the boy laughed manically.

"Shut up!!" Maria screamed. Her teammates were unaccustomed to seeing her burst in emotional anger. They watched in shock as her Koubu lunged towards the boy while firing her cannon wildly.

The boy continued laughing as he teleported again and again away from the gunfire, infuriating her even more. Her shots fell on the streets, steam-cars, buildings...

---

Back in the control room of the underground base, Jason watched helplessly. "What the hell is happening?!" he shouted, as the monitor showed Maria's Koubu going berserk.

"It's her past, when she was a freedom fighter in the Russian colony of New Kiev..." Ayame muttered.

"New Kiev..." Jason whispered.

The Kazegumi trio was entranced at the macabre dance of Maria and Setsuna. A phone on a console beeped, causing Yuri to snap out of it.

"Commander! The new Koubu has arrived!" she reported excitedly.

"Jason! Get your ass out there!" Yoneda ordered, but Jason had already ran out towards the hangar. "I'm already gone!" he yelled back.

His Koubu was the same as the others: rounded, stout and steam-pipes protruding from its back. It was colored black with red trimmings, sported a tri-barreled Gatling gun as its left arm, and wielded a sword on its right.

"All ready to go sir!" a crewman saluted as the Koubu opened up like a clam. Jason gave him a thumbs up as he vaulted into the seat.

"All right Jason Bourne. Calm down. You done simulations before," he muttered as he concentrated to power the Koubu up. He smiled when the controls lit up, and felt warmth emanating from the Koubu.

"This is Jason Bourne. I'm moving out!" he reported tersely.

The bulbous 'ankles' of the Koubu opened up and released gouts of steam. The Koubu bent its knees a little, and suddenly accelerated forward; hovering above the ground a few centimeters as it sped towards the battle.

"Amazing," Ayame breathed. "His spiritual power is going off the charts."

"Yes, he must be very inspired to get the Koubu going on his first time..." Yoneda muttered.

---

"Maria! Listen to me!" Ogami shouted as he moved in, trying to block her. But she did not hear him; perhaps she did not wish to obey. She moved her Koubu as if it was dancing on ice; constantly trying to get Setsuna in her sights.

"You killed to avenge your... captain, isn't it, Kuassari?" Setsuna taunted, as he disappeared yet again.

Maria gnashed her teeth and turned a full 180 degrees, expecting a rear attack.

"He must be a real fool to die a useless death," Setsuna continued, as he materialized just out of Maria's arc of fire.

"How dare you! I'll destroy you!" Maria screamed, turning and leveling her gun at him, and fired.

To her horror, Setsuna was directly in front of the rest of the Hanagumi, who were surrounded by the Wakiji. Several were carrying oil drums. As Setsuna teleported away again, her cannon shot smashed dead center into the Hanagumi's loose formation.

"Look out! Scatter!!" Ogami shouted the warning too late.

"Aah~!!"

"NO!!" Maria screamed as the fiery explosion engulfed the Hanagumi and Wakiji alike. The Wakiji died, the oil drums they carried exploding spectacularly. She could hear her friends' painful reactions filtering into her radio.

      She froze, unable to speak, unable to move as the conflagration obscured her view.

      "I have you now, Kuassari," Setsuna whispered menacingly as he penetrated through her mecha's console like a ghost.

      ---

      Jason arrived at the battle too late. The Wakiji had been eliminated, but Setsuna had disappeared yet again.

      "Ogami! Kanna! Iris!" Jason shouted into the tac net as he neared the scene of destruction.

      The Hanagumi's Koubus were blackened by fire and dented in places, but each slowly and painfully rose to their feet. Jason could hear the Hanagumi groaning as they struggled to control their machines.

      "A little damage, but we're fine, Jason-san!" Ogami replied as his machine groaned and creaked.

      "What the hell happened?!" Jason exclaimed as he scanned the destruction. He spotted Maria's blue Koubu, still and away from the others.

"Maria, answer me!" he said to no reply.

      Meanwhile, Ogami knocked his console several times. "Re-establishing comlink with HQ... Commander! No signs of Setsuna... Enemy units destroyed or retreated," Ogami reported over the general tac band.

      "Very well. Get your people back here. Maria! I expect you in my office!" Yoneda gruffly replied.

      "...Maria?" Jason asked slowly as he approached her Koubu. Sensing a terrible feeling in his gut, Jason opened the cockpit and jumped out from his mecha.

      "Jason you fool! What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Yoneda hollered. The Hanagumi watched with amazement as Jason popped Maria's Koubu open.

      "She's not in her Koubu!" Jason said a moment later from inside her Koubu.

      "What?! Ogami, what the hell happened to her?!" Yoneda demanded.

      "...there's a locket here," Jason said quietly.

      Setsuna's mocking laughter filled the air.

      "You want your precious Kuassari? Then come and get her! Hahahahaha!"

      A circular portal shimmered in the air. It slowly settled onto the ground, its surface alternating between hues of black and blue.

      "Geez, a town portal[23]," Jason muttered.

      "Come if you want her back, Teikoku Kagekidan!" Setsuna challenged, and his fading laughter echoed in the air.

      "That little piece of shit!" Kanna yelled.

      "'Come and get her'... This is an obvious trap," Ogami said.

      "Just why is Setsuna calling Maria 'Kuassari'?" Sakura asked.

      Yoneda's cough on the tac band caught their attention. "Well, it's a good time as any to say it. As you know, Maria is half-Russian, half-Japanese. What you –don't- know was she fought in New Kiev."

      The information caused the Hanagumi to gasp in shock. New Kiev was the USSR's premier colony in the Inner Sphere, one of the first few worlds to be colonized by the Russians. It was a rebellious world, already wracked by several insurrections. But the USSR made a mistake when they appointed one Yuri Stefanovich to be its planetary governor. Although Yuri was outwardly loyal to the Soviet Politburo, he harbored far greater ambitions than being a governor.

      With a surprise coup, he attempted to wrest control of New Kiev for his own. Loyal Soviet troops were massacred and only a few escaped into the wilderness. The loyalists employed guerilla tactics and managed to delay Yuri's declaration of independence to the United Planets Government. The delay allowed off world reinforcements to arrive and the Soviets crushed Yuri's rebellion. Yuri's ambition had cost millions of lives, and millions more orphaned and homeless.

Ayame continued Yoneda's explanation after a moment.

"Maria was an orphan caused by Yuri's brutal purges. She was then raised by a Soviet officer, who taught her how to survive and to use a gun. He was her only family, and when he died in battle she became cold. She killed many of Yuri's officers, her terror spreading all over New Kiev. That's how she earned the name Kuassari... the Firebird. She rose from the ashes of despair."

"She didn't want us to know," Sumire muttered.

"She always blamed herself for his death, and thus she became the Maria you all know today: cold, rigid and strict," Ayame said.

"Maria's been like that ever since I knew her... She always acts tough in front of us..." Kanna said.

Kohran sniffed. "We never knew what a burden she's carrying..."

"We have to rescue her!" Sakura said determinedly.

"Hanagumi, your Koubus are damaged!" Yoneda warned.

"Not mine." They turned to see Jason getting into his own Koubu. A second later it came to life.

"You can't just go there on your own! This is a direct order! I'm sending a field repair team now!" Yoneda said.

"This can't wait! She could be tortured or killed!" Jason yelled as he throttled his Koubu forward. "Activating beacon, follow me when you guys are patched up!" he said.

"Second brother! Save Maria!!" Iris called after him.

His Koubu entered the portal and disappeared.

---

Sakura Wars OVA 1 OST – Track 44 - 1:53

It was like entering a swirl of madness. A jumble of colors danced and greeted Jason's eyes as his senses deserted him. Gritting his teeth, he pushed his Koubu forward.

He finally emerged in a warehouse. The lights were out and he couldn't see any windows to determine his location.

Setsuna's laugh echoed in his ears.

"Oh, a new one, and you came alone? What courage! Hahahaha!!"

Jason drew his Koubu's katana and raised its left Gatling in battle readiness. "Where's Maria?!" he demanded.

"Right here, you poor fool!" Setsuna appeared before him and gestured grandly at Maria who was chained to the wall.

"...Jason!" Maria said as she struggled with her bonds, rattling the chains.

"Maria! Hang in there!" Jason shouted, relieved at seeing her alive.

"This is a trap, why did you come here?!" Maria demanded.

"So what?! You're my friend, Maria! I'm just doing what a friend would do!" Jason yelled back, almost exasperatedly.

"You... came for me... really..." Maria whispered.

"Enough! Now you die!" Setsuna screamed. A fierce glare at Jason actually caused his Koubu to be pushed back. Once again, Jason felt flames licking at his psyche. But this time, he was prepared.

"Wha-you can block your thoughts!!" Setsuna gasped.

"You caught me by surprise the last time we met, it won't happen again!" Jason grinned and let his Gatling arm rip. At hundreds of bullets per minute, it wreaked havoc in the warehouse. Setsuna barely teleported away as the hail of bullets flew past him. Several bullet holes appeared on his cloak.

"Impossible!" Setsuna shrieked childishly. He clapped his hands once and more of the Wakiji appeared and surrounded Jason's Koubu.

"Jasonnnnn!!" Maria screamed in warning.

      Suddenly, a red machine burst through the wall, followed by others similar to it.

Track 44 at 0:55

      Kanna's red Koubu stabbed two Wakiji simultaneously with her Koubu's claws and tossed them aside like dolls. "You'll pay for hurting Maria!"

      "I hope we're not too late to join in the party!" Ogami said as he cut one of the Wakiji down.

      "Kanna, Taicho... everyone!!" Maria cried out.

      Two of the Hanagumi dashed towards Maria. Kohran's Koubu stood guard as Sakura vaulted off her Koubu and cut off Maria's chains.

"Maria-san, your Koubu is outside! Hurry up and join us!" Sakura said as she climbed back up her own mecha.

"You are fools, all of you!" Maria said, almost in tears of joy as she ran to her own Koubu. She quickly powered up her machine and re-entered the warehouse.

"Maria, everyone! Let's get them!" Ogami said.

"Yes sir!"

They swept through the remaining Wakiji, dancing around their lumbering forms. Kanna charged and ripped through their ranks with her claws and karate-throws. Sumire demonstrated the devastating techniques of her Kanzaki Fujin Ryu style, decimating the Wakiji with swirls of her naginata enhanced with her ki. Iris teleported her Koubu nearby the other Hanagumi members, releasing psionic attacks that literally blew the Wakiji away.

Kohran's artillery delivered rockets and missiles, even within the closed environment of the warehouse did not deter her to incur maximum damage on the Wakiji. The explosions stunned the monsters for Sakura and Ogami to team up and slice through the enemy formation.

Through it all, Setsuna watched with growing anger as his army literally began to wilt under the Hanagumi's assault.

As the last of his Wakiji fell, Setsuna screamed.

"Teikoku Kagekidan! I may have been disgraced by this defeat today, but you will now die by my hand!"

He held a circular, metallic disc two feet across and several inches thick.

"For the glory of the Kuronosukai!!"

Jason's eyes widened. "Holy crap, a warp bomb! Get the hell out of there!"

Setsuna raised his index finger to stab the pulsating bomb's centre button. The Hanagumi looked at the fatal movement transfixed with horror.

As it came down, a thunderous crack burst through the air.

Setsuna watched with morbid amazement as his index finger flew off from his hand in a splash of blood and bone.

Maria had climbed out of her Koubu and stood with cold fire in her eyes. Her gun was pointed directly at Setsuna, and it was smoking.

'Damn, that must be at least 200 yards...' Jason thought.

"Now you die," Maria said calmly.

As she promised, Setsuna died with a terrible wail on his lips and a new bullet hole in his head. The bomb clattered to the ground noisily but harmlessly, much to Jason's relief.

"Good shooting," Jason commented.

Maria gave the Hanagumi a very rare, dazzling smile.

"What a beautiful smile..." Ogami let slip. Immediately, the Koubus of Sakura and Sumire converged on his position.

"Eh!? Ogami-san, can you repeat that?!" Sakura asked in a very interested manner.

"Ensign! Did I hear what I think you said?!" Sumire demanded, also very interested.

"Eeeh... Jason...?" Ogami took several steps back and looked at Jason for help. Unfortunately, Jason either did not hear him or was simply plain ignoring him, for his Koubu was moving towards the fallen bomb.

His Koubu emitted steam as he climbed out. "Whew, where the hell did this bomb come from?" he wondered aloud as he took a closer look.

"What is it?" Maria asked as she joined him on foot.

He gestured at the bomb. "It's a warp bomb. When it explodes, it will warp time and space around it and cause the very molecules in the air to disintegrate in a chain reaction. Very nasty."

"Well, at least it's not activated," Maria said.

 "Yeah. Oh, I think this belongs to you." Jason pulled out the locket from his pocket and gave it to Maria. She accepted with both hands. Jason could see her gloved hands shaking with emotion.

"...Jason... you didn't... open it?" she asked softly.

Jason smiled and shook his head. "No, I didn't."

"I see... thank you, Jason... I appreciate it very much," she said, her head low.

Jason placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'm just glad you're back with us now, Maria."

"Oooh, Jason's quite the man!" Kohran's voice echoed from her Koubu teasingly.

"Lo-look, Sakura-kun, Sumire-kun! Such a romantic atmosphere!" Ogami pointed at Jason in an effort to distract the girls' attention away from himself. It worked, causing Maria and Jason to hastily step apart from each other in embarrassment.

 "Heh heh... Maria ain't all that icy after all!" Kanna joined in from her own Koubu.

"Oh no, now second brother's gone too," Iris sighed in mock sadness.

Jason waved his hands frantically up and down. "Oh geez, stop that!"

Maria quickly ran back to her own Koubu, leaving a flustered Jason behind. "Taicho! Shall we wrap this mission up in our usual way?" she asked. "Of course! Jason, get back into your Koubu and form up!" Ogami said.

"Wha-... oh no, wait... you don't mean..." Jason muttered as he went back into his black and red Koubu.

After every Hanagumi victory, Jason noticed that they had the peculiar habit of forming poses in formation. At first it looked a little silly to him since there was nobody witnessing it, but soon he got used to the idea of perfect synchronicity for a team victory pose. Ogami had mentioned that he had the very same doubts before to him, but Jason just did not foresee the time when he himself had to actually join in the pose.

Eight Koubus formed a tight formation with cool individual poses. For the first time, the Hanagumi had eight voices shouting in harmony.

"Shouri no pose...kime Victory pose... decided!!"

---

"You two idiots!" Yoneda yelled.

Maria and Jason stood before his desk, heads bowed and looking suitably chastened.

"The Hanagumi is a team! Next time, be sure to act like one!" Yoneda continued.

"Yes sir!" both of them chorused.

"At least you did a good job against the Kuronosukai," Yoneda said grudgingly.

Jason smiled. Deep down, he and Maria knew that Yoneda had been shouting at them for the past half an hour for a show of enforcing discipline. They knew that he was glad to have his 'children' as he referred the Hanagumi (except for Jason and Ogami who were... well, guys) back safe and sound. And Yoneda knew that they knew, and they knew that Yoneda knew that they knew. His vice-commander, Fujieda Ayame; was standing off to one side and had a secret smile of her own as she watched Yoneda's tirade.

"Yes sir, I'll never let my personal issues come in the way of the Teikoku Kagekidan again!" Maria said, her happy eyes softening the seriousness of her vow.

"And I'll make an effort to obey your direct orders, sir!" Jason said with a solemn mien, but his eyes were twinkling mischievously.

"Yes, yes... whatever. Just make sure you don't do it again," Yoneda said gruffly. "Now, for your punishment..."

Jason's jaw dropped. "Ah!?"

"Don't worry; it's not about your dress code. But don't think I have forgotten about that, you –will- wear one eventually!"

Yoneda grinned at Jason's look. Even Ayame had to cover her mouth to stifle her laugh.

"One week kitchen duty. Both of you!"

Jason sighed. "Well Maria, at least the Hanagumi can have a taste of your Russian cooking," he said with a half-smile.

She nodded and had a smile of her own. "I'll do my best, Jason. I will appreciate your help!"

"Alright, alright, you two are dismissed!" Yoneda waved them off.

They turned and opened the door... causing the rest of the Hanagumi to tumble in. Once again, they had been trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. The comical sight of Ogami being piled on by Sakura, Sumire, Kanna and Kohran with Iris peeking from the side caused Maria and Jason to break out in laughter.

"Is there no discipline around here?!" Yoneda lamented heavenward.

---

"What are you planning to make?" Jason asked Maria as they went into the kitchen. To make the punishment feel more "official", Yoneda had given the kitchen staff the week off, leaving the entire kitchen to just the two of them.

"I am thinking of making something called borscht," she replied as she took out the cooking utensils.

"A stew? Sounds good," Jason said.

"My, you know of it? Amazing," she commented. "Here, you can help me slice up these carrots."

"I hope I don't get this wrong... wouldn't want anyone to get sick from my sub-par cooking skills," Jason muttered.

Maria chuckled. "Don't worry; I think the team would enjoy anything that we make for them."

"Kanna at the very least," Jason said, causing both of them to laugh.

They settled down to cooking. While waiting for the borscht to boil, Maria continued to make some Russian bread.

"Jason..." Maria said as Jason lazily stirred the stew around.

"Yeah?"

"You seem to know a good deal about cooking," she remarked.

He waved the compliment dismissively. "Ahh, it's nothing. I learnt some cooking from my time in space. Chinese style mostly[24]."

"You seem to travel a lot," Maria said as she placed the dough into the oven.

"I've been to many places," Jason said simply.

"I see..." Maria said, slightly disappointed.

"Maybe I'll tell you some stories about the places I've been sometime," Jason said brightly, not noticing her demeanor.

"Yes, I would like that," she said, perking up.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence, content to simply wait for their cooking to be over.

Soon, the smell of their mouth-watering cooking wafted through the theater. It caused some of the Hanagumi stop and smell in their tracks.

First to arrive was the indomitable Kirishima Kanna.

"Yo, Maria! Looks like you're doing well with my partner here!" she greeted boisterously.

"Hello Kanna. Just a little longer for dinner to be ready," Maria said.

"Can't I have a taste first?" she said, clasping her hands together.

Jason laughed. "I don't think that there will be enough left for everyone else if we let you have just a 'taste'!"

Kanna placed her fists on her hips. "And whaddaya mean by that!?" she asked, glowering and towering head and shoulders above Jason.

"He was just joking, Kanna," Maria said with a smile.

"Aaaah, I knew that! But... hmmm, Maria seems to like sticking up for you, partner!" Kanna said mischievously.

"W-what? Get out of here... why don't you see what the others are doing?" Jason asked.

"Heh heh, Jason, you sure are in a hurry to get rid of me," Kanna grinned evilly. She took a look at Maria. "Well, can't blame ya, with her looking so pretty like that," she continued with a broad smile.

It suddenly struck Jason that Maria was wearing a frilly apron with a picture of two carrots. Underneath that was a pink dress with blooming sleeves, not her customary coat. Add in the fact that she was blushing like mad made her look very domesticated[25].

"Aww geez, Kanna, stop that!" Jason reddened as well.

"Y-yes. Kanna, why don't you tell the others that dinner would be ready soon?" Maria said.

It was Kanna's turn to laugh at Jason. "Oho, I see! You two want to be left alone eh? I understand!"

Before either of them could protest, Kanna quickly left the kitchen laughing, leaving the two hugely embarrassed.

Silence.

"Umm... well, I think the stew is done," Jason said hesitantly. He knew it wasn't ready, he only said it for the sake of saying something.

Maria knew that as well, but she tasted it anyway. "No... lets leave it to boil just a while longer."

More silence.

"So! Ah... what's the Hanagumi's next play going to be?" Jason tried again.

She was glad for the opening he gave her. "It hasn't been decided yet. The Taicho says he's doing a script, but I'm a little worried. It is his first time writing a play after all."

Jason arched an eyebrow. "Really? Any idea what it's about?"

She shook her head. "He said the title was "A Midsummer Night's Dream[26]", but I don't know whether it's his own work or Shakespeare's."

"Knowing Ogami, I would say that he just copy the whole thing with lots of help," Jason chuckled without malice.

"Is that a bet?" Maria smiled.

Jason did a double take but grinned back. "Sure, what are the stakes?"

"If I win, we will have dinner at the Café Noir next week at your expense," she said. Café Noir[27] was the Imperial City's most prestigious and expensive restaurant. There was a saying on Luthien that if you did not have ten thousand credits, don't bother to enter it. Of course, that was exaggerated to Jason by the Kazegumi trio.

Jason did not bat an eye at the stake. "And if I win...?" he asked in return.

"Hmm... I'll ask the manager to drop the issue with your uniform," she said grinning.

Jason beamed and rubbed his palms together. "Ahh, that's a good one. Well, you're on!"

"Well bargained and done[28]," Maria said. "Ah, the borscht seems ready. Can you please set the table?"

Jason nodded. "Sure... I'll get the rest too." He turned to leave the kitchen. "Oh, by the way, Maria..."

"Yes?" she asked as she closed off the flame on the stove.

"...that's one bet I don't mind losing," Jason said with a grin.

---

The next week...

"So, I'll wait for you at the genkan entrance?" Jason asked.

Maria nodded. "Yes. I've arranged for reservations as well as the steam-taxi, so there really isn't anything for you to worry about." She looked at the clock on the wall. "Well, I've got something to do right now. See you later," she said as she left. "Oh... and get something better to wear," Maria said, causing Jason to roll his eyes.

He glanced at his own watch. "So many hours to kill..."

He found Ogami sorting out paperwork at the office. "Morning, Jason," he greeted. Jason just gave him a look.

"Er... anything wrong, Jason?" Ogami asked uncertainly.

"Thanks to you, I lost a bet to Maria. You got anything I can wear to the Café Noir?"

"The Café Noir?!" Ogami exclaimed. "Man, she really got you good. But what does it got to do with me?"

"Ahh, forget it. I just need something fancy to wear," Jason said.

Ogami chuckled. "Sorry, I don't think they suit you. Guess you have to go to the city and buy yourself some new threads."

Jason sighed.

Hours later, Jason found himself in front of a mirror. After doing some browsing, Ogami had led them to a western-styled tailor in the posh quadrant of the Imperial City after being convinced by Jason that money was of no problem.

"Excellent choice, sir. I must say, that piece of cloth seemed to be made just for you," the tailor said smoothly.

Jason arched an eyebrow at the elderly man but continued to admire himself. He was wearing a smartly cut black suit and pants, white shirt, black tie and shoes. "Hrmm, a Man in Black," he mused aloud.

"Must everything you wear be black?" Ogami asked amusedly from the side.

"I don't say anything about you in whites," Jason replied with a smile.

"I must introduce Kayama to you one day, and then you'll see that I'm not as bad as you think," Ogami said, shaking his head.

"Kayama...? You mean the guy who's been hanging around upside down outside your window?" Jason said as he removed the suit.

"Wha-, how did you..." Ogami started.

Jason loosened the tie with a smirk on his face. "Hey, I'm the one doing the night patrols now, remember? Although I –don't- want to know what the guy is doing in your room... late at night..."

Ogami frantically waved his hands in denial. "It's not what you think...! Wait... does Maria know!?"

Jason pointedly ignored him, leaving him to sputter in the wind. He turned to the tailor who had pretended not to hear anything.

"Superb material. I'll take it," Jason said as he put his trench coat back on.

The tailor nodded. "Very good sir. And how would you be paying?"

Jason pulled a thick wad of bills.

"Cash," he said, causing the tailor and Ogami to goggle at him.

"I know it's not polite to ask, Jason-kun, but where did you get so much money?" Ogami asked as they entered the Grand Imperial Theatre.

"I was a bounty hunter," Jason deadpanned. Ogami laughed.

"Come on now, you're just joking."

"Heh, you're right. Actually, I was a space pirate," Jason replied with a smile. He went to his room, leaving a befuddled Ogami.

Jason waited at the entrance a few minutes before the appointed hour. The steam-taxi had already arrived, its engine chugging slowly outside. Jason fidgeted with his tie.

"My, you look different," Maria said, causing him to stop and turn around.

His jaw dropped because the Maria before him was a vision. She was dressed in black jacket with red undershirt and pants that marvelously showed her figure[29]. A black band around her neck with a thick silver cross as her necklace completed her ensemble.

"Wow," Jason breathed. "You look absolutely stunning," he said, causing her to blush a little.

"Thank you. You look good yourself, Jason," she replied, giving him an once-over.

"Ahh, I had the squad leader's help," he said, a little embarrassed. He offered his arm gallantly. "Shall we?" he said in a mock formal way.

She nodded with a smile and took his arm.

The ride was uneventful and they soon arrived at the base of the Imperial Tower. Maria explained that the Café Noir was situated on the top of the Tower, which served as a radio tower for the Imperial City and its surrounding satellite towns. Despite his time on Luthien, Jason was still amazed at the versatility of steam-power, which powered the extremely luxurious elevator up 60 floors to the restaurant.

Once inside, Jason could see why the Café Noir was so prestigious. It was like stepping into a European setting of sparkling marble, polished wood and classical styles complete with chandeliers and glittering lights. A musician played slow music on a grand piano accompanied by a respectable orchestra, a distinguished-looking bartender mixing cocktails with elaborate moves behind the counter, formally dressed waiters popping champagnes and serving mouth-watering dishes to customers.

The restaurant's captain bowed low and showed them to a table with a window view. Fighting his sense of vertigo, Jason could see the entire Imperial City lit up with lights.

"I'm surprised that you managed to get us a table on such short notice," Jason remarked, propping his chin with one elbow on the table.

Maria chuckled. "I had prepared right after the bet. I knew the Taicho longer than you have, so I was very sure of my victory."

Jason stared at her slack-jawed, causing her to laugh. He joined in soon afterwards.

They toasted their red wine in a Russian salute. Dinner arrived and they ate in comfortable silence. As the waiter retrieved the plates and prepared new ones, Maria noticed Jason's stare.

"Is there anything wrong with my face?" she asked after the waiter had left.

Startled from his reverie, Jason turned a bright red. "I-I'm sorry... it's just that... you have very lovely eyes."

She studied the patterns on her napkin, slightly blushing. "Thank you... Jason..."

They sat there embarrassed for sometime, not saying a word and eyes down looking at their respective knees. The pianist chose that moment to start a slow, soulful tune.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Soundtrack – 08 – Can't Say Goodbye to Yesterday (Piano Version) – 4:10

"I haven't really thanked you for coming to save me, did I?" Maria asked, looking up.

He smiled and his eyes met hers. "No need to thank me, Maria. I would never regret my decision that day."

Time flowed on as they talked. Of her past in New Kiev, of her brother that she loved so much. He told her of Heifong, where he was mixed up with a bunch of rookie prize-hunters and gotten involved in a battle against Heifong's crime syndicate[30].

She told him of her time in New Yorktown, where she was a freelancer in that city's vicious underground world[31]. How Ayame found her four years ago and recruited her into the Hanagumi, saving her from a life of darkness. He in turn sketched humorous adventures with a bunch of guys being prisoners of an all-women pirate ship[32].

Through the night they laughed and shared intimate memories, although Maria could sense that he was still hiding secrets. She decided to dig deeper a little indirectly.

"Jason... how did you come to know Yoneda-san?" she asked.

He froze. Jason W. Bourne did not know Yoneda until Luthien. It was Arion Wong who knew Yoneda Ikki 20 years ago on another planet called Dominion. He couldn't lie, for Yoneda's background as a career military officer on Luthien was well-known to the Hanagumi.

To reveal to Maria that Jason W. Bourne was actually Arion Wong was unthinkable. How would she react to an Exodus Group member like him? McCain had poisoned the minds of entire generations against them. Arion Wong was an immortal, a relic in the 24th century. The formation of the Federation bridged the gap between humans and the Freemen, but it did nothing to heal the wounds of the Exodusians. The Homecoming was merely a show of welcoming them, but deep down, each member knew that humanity had no real love for them.

Should he tell her? Before his inadvertent immortality due to a Protoculture boost in the SDF-1 way back in 2004, Arion Wong was involved in the deadliest conflict on Earth: the Tiberium War. It had descended to deeply personal levels, and Arion swore not to be the cause for the people close to him to be hurt. He had nothing to worry about his fellow Exodusians; they could take care of themselves. But others... normal and mortals? No, he couldn't risk endangering them. There were many forces at work in the galaxy that would gladly see the Exodusians dead: the Solarians, the Raalgon military, Aurelian pirates, disgruntled Zentraedi... and of course, the ongoing feud with the House of McCain.

The original Senator McCain who despised the Exodusians bore a long line of industrialists and politicians, eventually building the gargantuan Soldat[33] Corporation that spanned across known human space. After his disgrace, his sons and their sons continued their vendetta against the Exodusians. Although Eadric Lee was their primary target, Arion Wong was also a greatly prized target in their eyes. Who knew how many assassination attempts that the Exodusians had faced? And they could not fight back, for Soldat Corp was in the eyes of many a very respectable (and profitable) company. Jason Bourne was on Luthien because it was one of the few worlds relatively free from Soldat Corporation's influence.

To fight back directly against Soldat would to reinforce old hatreds against the Exodusians; hatreds ironically started and played on by the McCains themselves. The only choices left were to live a low profile, or to run.

Most of the Exodusians disappeared. But others like Arion Wong fought on directly, heedless of the consequences. Now branded as a pirate, murderer and an incarnation of evil, Arion and those who followed his way found themselves cornered and hunted. They could easily deal with anything that came their way, but decades of conflict could weary even an immortal.

Jason W. Bourne appeared because there was a need for Arion Wong to disappear. He had gotten so used to being Jason that to remove the facade seemed difficult.

'Should I tell her?' Jason asked himself again. But in the back of his mind, he wondered why the question wasn't 'Should I lie?' instead. Had the Hanagumi become so special to him?

Maria watched the silent man and saw a conflicting emotions being played across his face. His jaw was set, eyes hard as his mind concentrated on a war within himself. It was painful to watch.

She reached out with a hand and covered his clenched fist that was shaking slightly on the table. It snapped him out from his thoughts.

"Jason... there's no need to say anything. I... we know... that you will tell us when you're ready."

He relaxed his clenched fists and sighed. "Thank you, Maria," he said softly.

She smiled and nodded.

"Besides, with that face, the waiter would never dare to bring our dessert," she said dryly.

"Was it that bad? I'm sorry," he apologized sheepishly and laughed.

The waiter who had been standing at a discreet distance with the desserts on a serving tray noticed their relaxed behavior and decided to approach them.

"My apologies to have kept you waiting," the waiter said smoothly as he served the deserts.

Jason chuckled. "No, sorry to have kept –you- waiting. Thank you," he said. The waiter smiled, bowed and left.

"Well, this looks delicious," Jason said.

Maria nodded in agreement. "Yes, indeed it does. I don't often indulge in such food, but I'll make an exception tonight," she said smiling.

"What? Oh my god, even Maria's afraid of losing her figure!" Jason grinned.

She flicked the side of her hair in a way very reminiscent of Sumire. "Hmmph, I don't know what you're talking about," she said haughtily. They both laughed at her impression.

They were just about to dig in when a beeping sound came from Maria's purse.

("You have a –purse-?" Jason had asked when he first saw it.

"Of course I do! What do you take me for?")

      "That's the kinematron Kohran's been working on, right? I guess that means trouble..." Jason said.

      She nodded grimly.

      Jason sighed. "And we're just going to eat dessert. Let's go!"

      Another disturbance in the Imperial City. But the Hanagumi were more than prepared to fight. Jason knew that each and everyone of them would lay down their lives to protect the Imperial City and its inhabitants. He knew, because he was honored to be counted as one of the protectors.

---  

Weeks later...

The Hanagumi returned to the Grand Imperial Theater. The weekly attacks by the Kuronosukai were taking their toll. Recently, the frequency of attacks had increased dramatically. It gave Jason more opportunities to practice on their victory pose though.

They were weary and tired, a ragged bunch of troops returning from a series of fierce battles. In the course of the battles, Jason found himself acquainted with the face the leader of the steam-beasts: Aoi Satan.

"Taicho, I think the enemy has gotten stronger," Maria said as the Hanagumi unenthusiastically entered the recreation room. Even her usually stern and proper demeanor showed signs of fatigue.

Ogami nodded as he flopped down on a seat tiredly. "Yes, you're right. We have fought five battles in three weeks. They must be really getting desperate."

"We are fortunate that we are able to defeat them with no injuries. However, at this rate..." Maria stopped, knowing that the implications would be clear to everyone. The mood in the room took a turn for the worse.

"Ohohohoho, so long I, Kanzaki Sumire is here, there's nothing to be worried about!" Sumire boasted. But everyone knew her boast was a tad half-hearted, dark rings had appeared around her eyes. Everyone had been missing sleep due to the continuous attacks.

"Why you... you're just a cactus woman!" Kanna said from her seat, too tired to even stand.

Jason coughed loudly and interrupted them before the situation degenerated. Of all the Hanagumi, he alone showed no signs of fatigue. Protoculture metabolism gave him that advantage. When asked he merely pointed out that he did not have to practice for plays or have the leadership responsibilities like Ogami.

"Well, I hope this doesn't affect your schedule for the play. You guys do remember the premiere of Ogami's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is still on next week, right?"

The Hanagumi groaned at being reminded of the fact.

"Cheer up, everyone! Remember, being a Hanagumi don't just mean being a fighter for the Imperial City's peace. You're also makers of dreams and hopes for the Imperial City. Don't forget that!" Ogami said.

They nodded in agreement, a little encouraged by his words. Jason smiled. Ogami was quite the leader despite his quirkiness at times. He had heard horror stories from the girls about Ogami 'accidentally' entering the bathroom while it was still in use...

"But in any case, the situation has become untenable for us. To continuously react to the enemy's movements is to play right into his hands," Maria said.

"I heard from my friend that the Tsukigumi Moon Division are working non-stop to find the enemy's base. We will know soon enough," Ogami said.

Jason grinned evilly. "This wouldn't happen to come from the special person who's been hanging in your room late at night, eh Ogami?" he said. The Hanagumi gasped in shock.

"O-Ogami-san! Is that true!?" Sakura asked, distressed.

Kohran picked up Jason's mischievous smile and grinned. "Ah Ogami-han, I didn't know you have such a sneaky streak," she said, causing Sumire to turn green.

Maria, knowing the truth, smiled as the Hanagumi mercilessly teased and interrogated the flustered ensign, who tried his best to explain about Kayama. But off to one side, she saw that Jason did not join in, he was deep in thought.

She was going to say something when he acted as if he had made a decision. He rose to leave the room.

"Jason, you'll pay for that," Ogami promised while the Hanagumi pestered him about his night visitor's identity.

Jason smirked. "Get in line, punk." He made a show of stretching and yawning.

"Well, I'll be taking a shower and hitting the sack. Good luck Ogami! Heh..." he chuckled and left. He did not see Maria's eyes on his back as he went out.

---

It was premiere night. The crowd had gathered early, lining the streets to get into the Grand Imperial Theater for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. The tickets had been sold out a long time ago, anticipation had been running high. The people had felt the intensified Wakiji attacks, and were grateful for a pleasant diversion at the theater to forget their troubles.

Backstage, Jason smiled with pleasure as he watched the Hanagumi hustle and bustle with last minute preparations. Maria and Kanna were rehearsing some difficult lines, Sumire powdering her face, Sakura leafing through the music sheets, Kohran joking with Iris (and Jean-Paul) to ease their nervousness.

They had practiced long and hard for the play. The sorties against the Wakiji did not help in the least. The week-long respite from their enemy was a blessing, giving the Hanagumi time to recharge their batteries.

It was eerie to Jason, who felt helpless like the rest of the Hanagumi by simply reacting to the enemy's attacks. They had no idea of when and where the Wakiji would appear next. There were no patterns to determine their next attack.

"Well, at least they had the decency to pass this night up," he had said to Ogami earlier before the theater opened.

"You may be right, but I have a bad feeling tonight," Ogami said.

Jason knew what he meant, but he did not want to confirm Ogami's suspicions.

"Hey, cheer up! This play is your directional debut after all. Have some confidence with your players," Jason said, deliberately changing the context.

Ogami smiled. "Thanks, Jason... I needed that. Well, I'll check on the others. Time to act like a director," he chuckled.

Jason gave him a thumbs up. But the sensation of something bad was about to happen did not went away.

Yoneda drummed his fingers on the desk despondently. His vice-commander stared at the screen grimly.

They were in the control room beneath the theater.

"Damn it, I knew it was too good to last," Yoneda growled. Once again, the screen showed a red spot on the map of the Imperial City. It indicated another Wakiji attack.

They had not sounded the alarm yet. It was the first time that an attack had occurred on a premiere night.

"Commander... what shall we do?" Ayame asked her superior.

Yoneda shook his head slowly. "You know the standing orders as well as I do. We will have to cancel the play."

Ayame had her head low. "But they had worked so hard on this play..." she muttered.

"The defense of the Imperial City outweighs any play!" Yoneda thundered.

She did not recoil from his outburst. She knew Yoneda was just as torn about the matter as she was. They had worked together for many years after all, forging bonds and understanding in the heat of battle.

"I understand sir. I'll sound the alarm," she said.

"That won't be necessary," Jason said as he entered the room in his ankle-length, black trench coat.

Yoneda turned to look at the man.

"You're not going alone," Yoneda said. It was not an order, and all three of them knew it.

Jason shrugged. "You have no choice, old man. I'll go with or without your permission anyway."

"You learned nothing about teamwork!" Yoneda shouted angrily.

Jason was unfazed. "You know as well as I do that they were a team long before I ever came here."

"You fool! Do you realize what you're saying!? They already consider you as part of a family!"

That took Jason by surprise.

"Do you not remember Iris's happy face whenever you are with her? Or Kanna's? What about Kohran when you helped her with the maintenance? Sakura and Ohgami look up to you like an older brother they never had. Even Sumire had asked for your advice! And Maria... she opened up to you like I've never seen before! They all –need- you!" Yoneda continued.

"I..." Jason was at a loss.

"Enough! Ayame, sound the alarm!" Yoneda barked.

She moved to obey. But Jason stopped her hand as it hovered over the red button.

He turned to look at Yoneda in the eyes.

"I'm doing this because I care for them. They need this play, Yoneda. They deserve it. And you know I'm not a pushover either."

Yoneda sighed. "There's really no stopping you, is there?"

Jason let go of Ayame's hand. She looked questioningly at Yoneda, who shook his head in resignation. She dropped her hand limply, as if relieved at not having to push the button.

"Yoneda... if they want the truth about my past... tell them..."

Yoneda had a bestial growl as he spun Jason around and grabbed the front of his coat.

"Don't you dare say that again! I had someone push his responsibilities to me in the same way just before he died!"

Ayame gasped. She knew he was talking about Shinguiji Kazuma, Sakura's father. The three of them had been a team in the first war against the demons. Jason knew the story as well, he had heard of Kazuma's sacrifice from Yoneda, and to a lesser extent, from Sakura.

"I'll be damned if I let you do the same to me!"

Jason swept away Yoneda's grip slowly.

"Don't worry, old man. I will live... Still, if they ask you, tell them. I don't think I can tell them myself anyway... For all the Protoculture running in my veins, I'm a coward after all," Jason said softly.

He turned to leave for the hangar. Yoneda watched helplessly, cursing his own lack of sufficient spiritual power needed to drive the Koubus.

Jason glanced back and had an easy grin.

"I'll be back[34]," he said with an exaggerated Austrian accent.

---

"Wow, it's a full house," Kohran said as she looked out discreetly from behind the stage curtains.

"Look at all the people!" Kanna exclaimed.

Even Sumire was amazed at the turnout, even though she was trying to hide it.

"The audience is very curious about this new play. It's all due to your hard work, Taicho," Maria said to Ogami.

He turned to face the Hanagumi, embarrassed.

"It's a group effort, everyone! Let's make this a night to remember for all of them!" Ogami said.

"For all of us as well," Sakura added, her face flushed with excitement.

"Iris doesn't see second brother anywhere," the little girl said, looking on her tiptoes.

"That's strange. He should be out there showing the guests their seats," Maria said, taking a glance herself.

"I haven't seen him since the theater opened today," Ogami said.

"If he's not there, then the Kazegumi would be very busy," Kanna commented.

Indeed they were. As Kasumi, Yuri and Tsubaki were running ragged. With Ogami being the director for the play and Jason missing, they had to do their own tasks in addition of those of the two men.

"Ahhh~! Where could he be slacking?!" they complained.

"Come to think of it, Yoneda's not here either," Ogami mused aloud. "I thought he would be in attendance to critique my directorship."

"Maybe both of them got drunk and had fallen asleep somewhere as usual," Sumire replied.

A pair of hands clapped to get their attention. The Hanagumi turned to see Vice-Commander Ayame behind them.

"The audience is settling down. Hurry and get ready!" she said.

"Yes! Everyone, let's give them a great show!" Ogami said to a chorus of cheers.

Only Maria noticed Ayame's troubled look as they walked past her.

"Major, is something the matter?" she asked the older woman once the others were out of earshot.

Ayame shook her head. "No... It's nothing. Go ahead... I'll tell you once the play is over."

Her eyes betrayed her worries.

---

The army had deployed its forces to slow down the enemy's advance, but the steam-beasts shrugged off their bullets like it was mere rain.

The army did not realize nor believe that the Wakiji could not be harmed by conventional means; they could only be stopped by weapons that were enhanced by spiritual power. That was why the relatively conventional weapons of the Koubus were effective against the Wakiji.

The officers had watched in aghast as their firearms failed against the steam-beasts. They considered calling in an armored division of tanks.

Then one of the concealed tunnel vents opened and a black and red Koubu leapt from it into the skies. It skidded on the streets before stopping, pointing its sword at the Wakiji.

The officers looked at the lone Koubu with incredulity. "Only one!? What could they be thinking!"

One of the officers grabbed one of the steam-radios and called for a direct connection to the Koubu.

"Where are the rest of the Koubus?!" he demanded angrily.

The pilot chuckled. "Don't worry..."

"Major Goemon here! How can the Hanagumi send just one Koubu!?" the officer said angrily.

"Major Goemon, don't worry. Together I'm sure we can defeat these enemies ourselves. Send your men to herd the Wakiji together. We don't want any of them to get away," the pilot said.

"Alright, I hope you know what you're doing," the major relented. He quickly barked the orders to his troops.

Jason wondered on what to say. Usually the team would say "Teikoku Kagekidan – Sanjou!", but since he was alone this time he did not think that was appropriate. He then remembered a line from a show he had glimpsed in ages past that he never thought to be quoting in public. He winced inwardly but the line stuck and refused to go away, it was like remembering an annoying tune that will drive you insane all day long.

With great trepidation, he switched on his external mikes and said:

"For destroying public property and etcetera, I will never forgive you! In the name of love, I will punish you![35]"

He immediately switched the mike off and groaned. Then he laughed at himself. Shaking his head, he moved his Koubu forward into battle.

Meanwhile, the army personnel in the vicinity heard the short, impromptu speech. They looked at the black and red Koubu with disbelief, and then looked at each other. They shrugged and went back to their business of war.

The Wakiji did not pay much heed to the speech, although they slowly noticed that their numbers were slowly decreasing one by one. The lone Koubu had fired its Gatling cannon and ripped several of them into shreds. Whenever a Wakiji got too close, the Koubu would swing its sword and cut it in half.

But there were many left, and even with the army's help the Koubu began to take a pounding.

Jason began to seriously wonder about the costs of repairing the Koubu.

---

Ogami's heart swelled when he saw his play in action. It was a dream come true to see the Hanagumi poured their hearts out on something he had written. To have the audience totally entranced by the play was something of a bonus.

It was a short play, only about an hour and a half. Ogami was a little disappointed by the length of his creation at first, but was very satisfied. To have such rousing success on his first work was nothing short of inspirational. It got his creative juices flowing. Maybe the manager will even approve of a second Ogami play...

The Hanagumi closed the play with a group bow. As the curtains lowered, they can still hear the crowd clapping their hands furiously in praise. It continued on for sometime, causing the Hanagumi to flush with pride of their achievement. They basked in the sound of the applause.

Ogami welcomed them backstage.

"Everyone! Thank you for making my dream come true," he said solemnly and gave them a deep bow.

Maria smiled. "It was a pleasure, Taicho."

"That was fun!" Kohran said.

"Well, what did I tell ya? The crowd loved us!" Kanna grinned.

"Of course! With me, the top star, the crowd will love any show!" Sumire covered her mouth with her fan as she laughed; her face still flushed red with excitement and pride.

"Ogami-san, it was a great play! Thank you!" Sakura said, giving him a bow of her own.

As they congratulated each other, Iris glanced about. Maria caught her looking and knew what she was thinking.

"Taicho, did you see Jason or the manager?" Maria asked.

Ogami shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak.

Then the alarm sounded.

The Hanagumi gasped.

---

Jason grunted with effort as he cut down yet another Wakiji. His Koubu had dents and scars all over. Scarlet Miroku had been defeated by Sumire in a battle previously, and Jason felt lucky not to have encountered Rasetsu or even worse, Aoi Satan himself in the battle.

There were only a few of the Wakiji left. But even so, he hesitated to continuously use his Gatling, it had limited ammunition and according to Kohran, prone to overheat and thus cause an internal explosion.

Major Goemon's voice trickled into his radio laden with static. "We have done all we can...! My troops are beginning to suffer unacceptable casualties!"

"Get them out of there, major! I can handle the rest myself!"

"Affirmative! Good luck!"

Jason watched as the army pulled out on trucks and jeeps. Some carried the wounded on stretchers, others limping slowly. Some lay on the ground and were still. Jason knew those would not be going anywhere.

"Damn it... Just DIE ALREADY!" Jason screamed as rage filled his mind. Like a whirlwind, his Koubu tore into the remaining Wakiji.

Slice, dice and amen.

The last Wakiji crumpled to the ground, ichor streaming in geysers as they died shrieking.

Jason wanted to wipe the sweat off his brow. "At last it's over..."

A bestial roar filled the air.

Jason barely turned his Koubu around just in time to get rammed head-on by a huge figure that towered over the Koubu.

"Rasetsu!" Jason gasped as he struggled with his Koubu to push back against the monster's incredible strength. He knew it was a losing battle, even Kanna who was much stronger than he was couldn't stop Rasetsu.

"For Setsuna! YAAARRRGGHHHHHH!!!!!" the monster bellowed. Rasetsu grabbed the Koubu in a bear hug; he was so huge and strong that he lifted the Koubu right off the street.

"Holy shit!" Jason swore as the gauges spun wildly and sparks began to play over the console. Rasetsu was literally squeezing the Koubu to death; Jason could hear the silsius metal shriek with agony as the enemy began to gouge finger-shaped holes into the Koubu's sides.

Left with no choice, Jason pulled free of the tubes that connected to modified sockets on his trench coat. The Koubu controls went dim as he pulled out his gun and smashed the emergency eject button. The Koubu groaned mightily as it slowly and agonizingly popped open from the top like a clam. Rasetsu's tenacious grip made it impossible to open up fully.

But Jason managed to climb out partly and came face to face with the terrible monster. Without hesitation Jason lined his gun directly to Rasetsu's face and fired in quick succession, emptying all six bullets into his face.

The Koubu fell onto the street wobbly on both feet as Rasetsu tumbled over backwards like a giant tree, his death bellow ringing in Jason's ears. With the tremendous pressure gone, the Koubu's hatch snapped open to its full 90 degrees, nearly causing the Koubu to crash.

Jason heaved a sigh of relief as he slumped back into his seat, his gun hanging limply on his hand. He gulped in the night air, relieved at his escape. He had no wish having his arms and legs ripped off by Rasetsu.

A terrible sensation filled the air.

Jason snapped his eyes up to see a lean man floating up in the night sky, illuminated by the full moon on his back.

"Aoi Satan..." Jason muttered.

"You have interfered with my affairs for the last time, stranger," Aoi Satan spoke slowly. He had shimmering silver hair tied in a long pony tail, a golden headband with a winged snake's head as its crest and a long katana by his side.

"First Setsuna and Miroku... now even Rasetsu is gone. You and your Teikoku Kagekidan are annoying pests."

Jason gritted his teeth. His eyes never leaving the floating man, he quickly reloaded his gun and took aim.

"Your pitiful weapon won't stop me," Aoi Satan sneered as he slowly unsheathed his katana. It was jet-black that screamed evil, dark lightning arcing over its metallic length. Jason stared at it with morbid fascination.

And then suddenly Aoi Satan was in front of him. Before Jason could fire a single shot, a sickening sound of metal slicing through flesh filled his ears.

Feeling as if a sharp spike had been driven into his brain, Jason managed to glance down and saw to his horror that the enemy had stabbed him clean through his torso with the unnatural blade. Miniature black lightning jumped from the sword and coursed through his body, increasing the torture.

"Asobi wo owarida Play time's over," Aoi hissed evilly into Jason's ear as he drove the katana to the hilt. The stab missed Jason's stomach and spine; it came at an angle piercing through his right side. The blade went clean through the back, stabbing the Koubu's leather seat behind him. The wound was so clean that blood seeped slowly instead of dramatically gushing out like in the movies.

He gurgled as blood rushed up his throat. It trickled down his chin, his cough splattering the red liquid on Aoi Satan's madly grinning face.

"Hurkkh~!"

Jason gasped and dropped his gun when the swordsman maliciously turned the blade, intent of skewering him like a piece of barbeque. Jason fingers twitched uncontrollably as Aoi Satan slowly withdrew the sword for the final cut. Jason fell to his knees within the cramped Koubu, his hands clutching his side in a futile attempt to stop the flow of blood. It seeped through his fingers like a broken bottle of red wine, drenching the Koubu's interior.

"Your head will make a fine trophy," Aoi said as he raised the blood-soaked sword high above his head.

At that moment, Jason knew true terror.

'There can be only one[36],' his mind whispered.

Later, Ogami would marvel at Maria's pinpoint accuracy with guns. Everyone knew of Maria's proficiency, she could hit a target 200 yards away one-handed and hit it dead-center with her revolver. They had witnessed her amazing skill when she shot off Setsuna's finger. She brought her deadly accuracy to her Koubu piloting. Aiming with her Koubu's considerably larger weapon proved just as simple for her.

But at the moment when Aoi Satan had his sword high, Maria's Koubu, like everyone else, were propelled high up into the sky via the Gouraigo's railway tunnel vent system. They were free-falling from the night sky when Maria took stock of the situation, took aim and fired a single shot. Despite the situation, it struck Aoi Satan's sword arm as it swung the katana down to cut off Jason's head.

Aoi Satan howled in pain as the sword flew off his grip from the impact. Seething with fury he turned to see the Hanagumi Koubus landing on the street.

"Second brother!"

"Jason!!"

Aoi Satan gritted his teeth, his wounded arm hanging limply by his side. It was bleeding black liquid. White bone fragments showed through the wound. But even as the Hanagumi watched, his terrible wound began to close. He reached out and his black blade flew to return to his other hand.

"You have won this round, Teikoku Kagekidan. Until the next time we meet..." he hissed. He glanced at the heaving, bleeding form of Jason Bourne. "I will have your head next time."

He floated up to the night sky and disappeared.

---

The Hanagumi, still in their uniforms; held a vigil outside of the operation room for hours. They were in a military hospital, a building disguised as a commercial office block. Yet another secret of the Teikoku Kagekidan.

Each was seriously depressed by the terrible turn of events. Just hours before, they had celebrated one of their most successful plays ever. Then came the news that Jason had deployed on his own despite being warned by Yoneda not to do so. He went to fight the Kuronosukai alone to allow the play to go uninterrupted. And now, they were in the hospital because they arrived too late to prevent Jason's grievous injuries.

They had no words. Not even Maria had anything to say when Ayame revealed that Jason fought alone for the duration of the entire play. They cursed themselves inwardly. They were spouting lines and singing in fancy costumes while he was in a battle of life and death!

Sakura had tears in her eyes as she gently stroked Iris's hair, who had fallen asleep sobbing on her lap. Kanna sat beside her on the bench, her eyes brimming as she stared at the marble floor, her fists trembling on her knees. Maria had a blank expression, her fingers slightly shaking as they clutched her locket. Kohran too had fallen asleep with tears in her eyes. Sumire stood away from them, turning away her face trying to hide her sad expression.

Ogami slammed the wall with a fist, feeling the sting spreading over his knuckles, eyes tightly shut as he tried to block the images of Jason Bourne being stabbed by Aoi Satan. He could remember everyone's horror when they found out the extent of his injuries.

The Hanagumi did not seem to notice Yoneda and Ayame as they approached.

"Ogami-kun..." Ayame said softly.

He could not turn to face her.

"Ogami... everyone... pull yourselves together. He will survive this," Yoneda said gruffly.

"Commander... how could you let this happen..." Maria whispered. She was incensed inside. She had someone sacrificed himself for her sake in New Kiev, and it was like a nightmare happening again.

"We... we have no excuses..." Ayame muttered helplessly.

Just then, the signal light switched off, indicating the end of the surgery. Kanna and Maria leapt to their feet, Sakura and Sumire roused Iris and Kohran as they waited anxiously for the doctor.

The doctor slowly took off his surgical mask as the Hanagumi crowded around him.

"Doctor, how is he?!" Kanna asked.

The doctor glanced at Yoneda and Ayame before speaking. "He will live. The wound was clean. No sign of infections, but it will be several days at least before he can receive visitors."

The Hanagumi cheered in relief, even the usually proud and aloof Sumire had tears of joy upon hearing that. Ogami clenched his fist and looked up in gratitude.

"I told you he will live. Now get back to the base and get some rest!" Yoneda ordered.

They wanted to stay, but Yoneda was firm. They left reluctantly, leaving their superiors to discuss with the doctor.

Maria stopped.

"Taicho... I left something behind..." she said.

He nodded. "We'll wait for you. Go on."

She nodded in acknowledgment and turned back.

She found her locket still on the bench outside of the operation room. She gratefully picked it up. She was about to leave when she overheard a conversation between the doctor and her commanders.

Curious, she crept stealthily around the corner to hear.

"Alright Yoneda-san, I'll do as you say," the doctor said solemnly.

Yoneda nodded. "Thank you, Kageyama-san. I'll not forget this favor," he said while giving the doctor a deep bow.

The doctor quickly helped him up.

"It's nothing. I do have the Hippocratic Oath to adhere to, you know. Rest assured that I and my colleagues will keep this a secret."

"You have no idea how important he is to the Hanagumi," Yoneda replied.

"It's been a terrible shock for me and my staff. Imagine the look on our faces when his wounds simply closed up and healed on their own. Of course, we had to help clean up the process a little, but we didn't really have to do much," Kageyama said modestly.

Maria's eyes widened.

Yoneda shrugged. "He's an Exodusian. I've seen him get up from even worse injuries."

This time, Maria had to cover her mouth to suppress a gasp. She trembled with shock at the revelation.

The doctor shook his head in wonder. "It's like witnessing a miracle. If only we can duplicate their physiology... we can save many lives with their biology."

Yoneda sighed. "You can imagine the pain he went through. There are many people in the galaxy that can't control their interests like you. He and his kind were being hunted like criminals and science experiments for the past 200 years."

Kageyama smiled. "Well, I'm sure that none of them were ever caught. Still... I hope he won't mind answering some of my questions when he gets better."

"He won't be of much help. I knew him from a long time ago, and he told me many times he don't understand his condition either," Yoneda said.

"Exodusians... are they angels or devils? There are just so many things said about them, it's difficult to tell the truth from fiction," Ayame wondered aloud.

Yoneda smiled. "This one is no angel, but he's not a devil either. He's... something in between. Just like all of us."

      Maria did not want to hear anymore. She left quietly, a million questions burning in her mind.

      ---

      She did not get much sleep that night. The next morning at the Grand Imperial Theater, Maria finally came to a decision.

      The Hanagumi ate their breakfast quietly. They were still uneasy at Jason being hospitalized. But they were confident on his return.

      Maria hardly poked at her food. Ogami picked up on her mood.

      "Maria... are you alright?" he asked.

      She looked up, startled.

      "I'm sure Jason's doing alright..." Ogami began.

      Her eyes flashed angrily. She stood up and faced the Hanagumi.

      "Taicho... everyone... I think we should ask the manager some questions."

      Yoneda and Ayame were sorting out their paperwork when the door slammed open. They looked up at the intruder.

      "Maria, what is this!" Yoneda demanded as the tall blonde strode into the room. She stood before Yoneda's desk with arms folded. The rest of the Hanagumi stared at her audacity in shock as they entered the room.

      Yoneda looked at them warily. "What's the meaning of this?"

She shook her head angrily. "I should be asking you that question, commander. I think it's about time you tell us just who Jason W. Bourne really is."

Yoneda suddenly felt a heavy weight on his shoulders. He leaned deeply into his plush seat.

"Commander, I think it's time to tell them," Ayame said softly.

He sighed, and sank even deeper into his seat. "I had hoped that he would tell all of you personally... Very well..."

He chuckled. "It is just as he predicted..."

Yoneda took a deep breath.

"Everyone... bear this in mind: He wanted all of you to know. He never wanted to lie."

Yoneda paused to let it sink it.

"The man you know as Jason W. Bourne is not a UPSF officer," he began. "I first met him in my younger days back on a planet called Dominion, nearly 20 years ago. He looks almost exactly the same today."

The Hanagumi gasped. "T-that means..." Kohran stuttered in shock.

"Yes, 20 years ago. That means he is not a normal human."

"Sir, are you saying what I think you're saying?" Ogami asked.

"Yes, Ogami. He is an Exodus Group member, or an Exodusian as the Soldat Corporation calls them."

Kanna had her fists clenched tightly. "He's an Exodusian!?" she demanded.

Yoneda locked his fingers in the Gendo[37] position. "Believe me, Kanna, when I say that Soldat have poisoned everyone's minds about them."

"But... but what about the Dominion Incident? There was an Exodusian plot to bomb New Port City[38]!" Maria demanded.

Yoneda shook his head. "I was there. We served together in the Dominion Tank Police for a while. I can tell you that the bomb plot was a Soldat AI experiment that went out of control. The fact that he was there made it easy for them to blame everything on the Exodus Group."

"He was there... then... he is... Arion Wong?" Maria asked slowly, recalling the history facts.

"What!? Is that true!?" Kanna demanded.

      "Calm down, Kanna!" Ogami said.

      "Calm down!? Arion Wong is the Wolf! He's responsible for the Megatokyo disaster! Millions lost their homes due to his actions!" Kanna yelled.

      Yoneda stood and looked at each of them in the eyes.

      "Yes, Jason W. Bourne is really Arion Wong of the Exodus Group. Yes, he's responsible for the millions of people losing their homes on Megatokyo. But if he hadn't done that, those people would have lost their lives instead."

      "What... do you mean sir?" Kohran asked.

      "Before Soldat came to power, there was another corporation called Genom[39]. I'm sure you have heard of it."

      They did. Genom was the precursor of Soldat Corporation before it was assimilated. It was the leader in biotechnology and artificial intelligence before it was absorbed into Soldat Corp. There were questions on Genom's collapse, but many pointed to the Megatokyo incident as the answer. The Megatokyo Disaster of 2246, nearly 150 years ago; caused the evacuation of the entire city due to a viral infection blamed on the Exodusians.

      "Genom's major products were artificial life forms known as BUMAs, patterned from technologies of the Tiberium War. They eventually went out of control and only a swift evacuation saved those people. The BUMAs went on to destroy everything, and Arion had no choice but to wipe Megatokyo off the face of the Earth, before they contaminate the rest of the Earth. Soldat covered that up," Yoneda said solemnly.

      "But he's the captain of the Arcadia[40] after that, isn't he? He's a pirate for at least a hundred years after Megatokyo!" Kanna insisted.

      "If you research carefully, you will find that Soldat posted their bounty on the Exodusians long before the exploits of the Arcadia," Yoneda replied. "He and the rest of the Exodusians were fighting for their survival, trying to stop Soldat's bounty hunters in their own way."

      "Commander... you mean... that Soldat have been making the Exodusians their scapegoats all these years?" Ogami asked incredulously.

      "I'm not saying that Arion Wong and the Exodus Group are perfect. They were elite soldiers... men and women who fought in many, many wars, after all. But they were painted black by Soldat. They fought back against that, and that made it even worse. Look at yourselves," Yoneda said.

The Hanagumi were quiet.

"You immediately thought the worst of the Exodus Group. No human ever thanked them for fighting in the distant stars when Earth was still humanity's only home. They fought in wars we never knew about. Ask yourselves these questions: who told you to hate the Exodusians? Who told you they were pirates, murderers, and destroyers? First it was Genom, and then Soldat.

"Jason Bourne arrived on Luthien to escape the life of being hunted as Arion Wong. When I was in Dominion I witnessed first-hand of the attempts by Soldat to assassinate him. Like you, I was prejudiced against him when I found out who he really was. But then I found the truth. I hope all of you will find it too. Just remember the times each of you have spent with Jason Bourne."

---

Maria was the last to visit Jason at the hospital. The Hanagumi decided to visit Jason individually later that day. He was still unconscious, but each came and spoke words from their heart, wishing him to get better soon. There was no mention of Jason being an Exodusian... they just wanted their Jason to come back.

When Maria arrived, Kanna was still sitting beside the bed, mumbling apologies. The room had an air of melancholy.

"Kanna..." Maria said as she entered the room.

The karate expert looked up at her. "I was so stupid... How could I think of throwing away our friendship just because he's an Exodusian?"

Maria placed a hand on her shoulder. "We were all like that, my friend."

Kanna shook her head. "Ya know... I never thought I would ever react in such a way... You sure didn't imagine me to be such a racist, eh Maria?" she sniffed.

"We were... deceived, Kanna. But we now know the truth, and we are better for it. Don't think too much, I'm sure Jason would understand."

"Heh, you're right. Jason wouldn't mind. But... he's not really just Jason... isn't he?" Kanna said miserably.

"I think they are the same person, Kanna," Maria said. She was hoping for that to be the truth.

Kanna wiped off her tears and stood. "Well, I've been here long enough. Hope he gets up soon... I'd hate to lose my training partner!"

Maria nodded, sensing that the taller woman wanted to leave.

"I'm gonna get something to eat before I go back. See ya later!" Kanna said, feeling much better.

Maria watched her go.

She looked back at the sleeping man. His torso was heavily bandaged, his face serene and peaceful. Maria had seen the pictures of the Exodusian on old bounty notices; she could see the resemblances between Arion Wong and Jason Bourne. There were subtle differences though; there were more streaks of white in Jason's black hair for example, but enough combined to differentiate the two identities.

The few records she found listed his date of birth as the year 1980. That would make him at least 413 years old. Almost four hundred years of conflict... She could not imagine the pain and suffering he had gone through.

But she mentally kicked herself. How could she not realize who Jason Bourne really was? He survived the psychic attack from Setsuna three months ago. He was revealed to be an acquaintance of Yoneda from times past despite no records of Jason W. Bourne being in Luthien previously. He also had an amazing degree of spiritual power and had no trouble at all piloting a Koubu, as if mecha-piloting was something natural. He had dropped many clues about his space-faring days, clues that if Maria had bothered to research could tie Jason Bourne to Arion Wong easily.

She considered pulling out her Enfield revolver and shooting him in the head.

Nobody had ever managed to kill an Exodusian before. There were reports of their miraculous recoveries from near-death situations, but many dismissed them as exaggeration. Maria was of the opinion that a single bullet to the head could kill one.

Could she do it? Jason had walked into the lives of the Hanagumi and had left an impact. But he had deceived them all from the start.

Could he be trusted again? Could Maria trust him again?

Her hand wavered as she reached for her gun.

Jason stirred. "Guh... not another hospital ceiling..."

"You're awake," Maria said simply, letting her hand fall away limply. She felt relieved for not having to make the choice.

"Well, you're a sight for sore eyes," Jason said smiling wanly.

She took the seat vacated by Kanna.

"You should not have done what you did," she said coldly.

Jason pulled himself up, regaining strength by the second.

"I'm sorry if I hurt the feelings of everyone... I only did it because I wanted to repay what the Hanagumi had done for me..." he said slowly.

It tore her confused feelings even more. She was determined not to let it show. 'Don't say anymore...' she thought angrily. 'Give me a reason to shoot you!'

Jason could sense her uneasiness. He looked at the window, trying to make a decision himself. It was nearing sunset.

"...there's something I need to tell you and the Hanagumi..." he said softly.

Maria felt as if she was struck by a lightning bolt.

"I know I have been hiding about my past... I think it's time I explained myself to... all of you.... But I want you to know first."

She could not face him. 'Why... why did you have to bring it up now?' she thought despairingly.

"I am..." he began, when Maria shot to her feet.

"We know who you are," she cut him off. His eyes widened. Then he chuckled, a little bitterly.

She looked away, her gloved hands clenched in fists. Jason/Arion sighed as he leaned back on the bed.

"I guess you're all pissed at me now," he said.

"You have no idea," she said plainly.

"I guess so..." Jason muttered lamely.

Maria turned to look at him in the eyes. "No, you have no idea at all," she said, her voice breaking.

He looked at her strangely.

"I'm glad to have you back, Jason. We all are," she said at last. She could not hide it anymore. No matter who he really was, it was Jason Bourne who became their friend.

They talked until it was late at night. About how the play went, that his selfless act really did mattered to them. What were the Hanagumi's feelings when they heard that he had went to battle alone for their sakes. And so on.

But most importantly of all, Jason wanted to know how they feel about his real identity.

"After Yoneda told us... we didn't know what to think. Yes, not even me. I felt like I could have shot you myself..." she said softly.

Jason smiled. "But you didn't. Well, at least I know you're not mad at me."

She grinned. "Don't be too sure about that," she said, causing Jason to back off a little. They laughed.

"I think they pretty much forgive your deception. They understand your need for it. And I think Iris knew all along."

Jason shrugged. "I think so too... I mean, she called me by my real name the first time we met."

Maria nodded, remembering their first meeting.

Jason looked out at the night sky.

"It's getting late... shouldn't you be getting back to the theater?" he asked.

She smiled. "No... I think I'll stay. Tell me one of your stories like you promised to."

Jason smiled back, and told her of his adventures on New Eden, about traveling with a man known as the Humanoid Typhoon who had a bounty of sixty billion dollars on his head.

---

Jason was discharged a week later. He could have gotten out much earlier, but Yoneda needed him to stay longer as a cover story. Jason had to act as if he was in pain and limping with a crutch as he left the hospital.

With Maria helping his bluff, he soon found himself standing before the grand, wood and brass double-doors of the theater.

He glanced at Maria, who was smiling.

"It feels like coming home," he spoke.

"You –are- home. Welcome back," she said warmly.

The moment inside, he abandoned his pretense and ditched the crutch. He was greeted by the inhabitants. The Hanagumi, the Kazegumi trio, Ayame and even Yoneda were there for his return.

"Welcome home, partner!" Kanna said boisterously, clapping the man on the back powerfully. Jason staggered but managed to smile back.

"Kanna-san, must you do everything so vulgarly? I think he felt that to be more painful than his injury!" Sumire said sharply.

"Why you, cactus-woman! Why do you have to keep poking your nose into other people's business?!" Kanna hollered.

The two rivals continued their usual arguments along the lines of 'snake' and 'ape'.

"I see nothing has changed much since I was away," Jason said wryly.

A bundle of golden hair leapt from between the two arguing women and crashed into Jason, causing him to fall down onto his back.

"Wha... Iris! Good to see you too, little one," Jason said.

"Iris knew you would come back!" the little girl said joyfully, embracing him in a fierce hug. Jean-Paul the teddy bear was crushed between them.

"Yes... I'm back. But can you let me get up now?" Jason said to their collective laughter.

As he dusted himself off, Iris had a thoughtful look.

"But, should I call you second brother now? You're much older than Ogami-niichan..." she wondered aloud, causing them to laugh even more.

"Call me Jason," he said to her delight. He glanced at the others. "That goes to all of you as well."

Sakura clasped his hand with hers. "Thank you for what you have done for us! We're so glad you're back, Jason-san!"

"Glad to be back," Jason replied with a grin.

"Yo, everyone! Let's have a party tonight!" Kanna shouted suddenly.

Yoneda looked at Ayame, who smiled and nodded. "Well now, let's get a party going tonight!" Yoneda encouraged.

All eight Hanagumi cheered in response.

---

The Hanagumi celebrated two things that night: the success of their recent plays and the return of Jason Bourne. They decorated the theater's quadrangle with traditional Japanese lanterns. A cool night wind enhanced their mood.

Everyone was in high spirits. There were some people Jason did not recognize, including several high-ranking military officers in full dress uniform. Later he was even introduced to Major Goemon, the officer in charge in the previous battle.

Yoneda found the occasion a perfect excuse to break out the wine cellar. Sake and wine flowed freely, and soon Kanna found herself wearing a ridiculous tree costume. It was rigid and heavy, difficult for the wearer to move about, but then again; it –was- supposed to be a tree.

"Why am I wearing this?" she asked humorously, even though the alcohol she consumed did not affect her in any way.

"Ohohohoho! That costume suits you perfectly!" Sumire laughed.

"What!? You snake-woman!" Kanna growled. She tried to come down from the wooden stage and nearly tripped due to the awkward costume, causing everyone to break out in laughter.

Yoneda pressed a cup of sake into Jason's hands. "Don't tell me you still don't drink?" he queried.

"I'll drink this cup, old man," Jason grimaced. They toasted and drained their cups. Yoneda smacked his lips enthusiastically and poured himself another cup.

Eager to get away from the impromptu drinking session, Jason waved at someone behind Yoneda. "Oi, Ogami! Over here!"

The young man was dressed in his usual ticket-clipping uniform. He came up to them.

"Good party, eh Jason?" he said.

"Hmm? Is that -juice- you're drinking, Ogami!?" Yoneda demanded as he peered into Ogami's glass.

"Er, yes," he said sheepishly.

Jason tsked. "That won't do at all, right Yoneda?" he asked mischievously. The old man nodded vigorously.

"Here, drink this instead!" he said as he took Jason's empty cup and poured more sake into it.

"No thank you, I'm still on duty..." Ogami started to say.

Yoneda growled. "You have been here for months and you still don't know the meaning of going through thick and thin together! Drink it I say!"

Ogami was about to beg off with Ayame's help, whom he spied coming towards them. To his disappointment, the vice-commander veered off to a nearby table and took a bottle of wine herself. "Jason, over here please," she called.

Grinning, Jason left Ogami to fend for himself, who resigned to his fate.

"You look good, Ayame-san," Jason said appreciatively. She was dressed in traditional Japanese, with her green military jacket draped over her shoulders. She laughed modestly. "Thank you, Jason. I have someone here to meet you."

She introduced him to an elderly man with balding white hair. Dressed in white formal clothes and carrying a wooden walking stick, he had a dignified appearance.

"This is Count Hanakoji, our most ardent supporter on the Wiseman Council," Ayame introduced formally. She poured him a glass of wine from the bottle she held.

Jason bowed to the sitting elder. "At your service, count."

The old man was looking into the distance. "I know who you really are. The vice-commander has briefed me. To have your help with our defense of the Imperial City is indeed fortunate."

Jason nodded. "It is my honor, sir."

The count turned to look at him in the eyes. "I heard that you're the one who opened up Maria's heart. I am glad. That girl has been carrying her burden far too long."

Jason said "..." because he was speechless.

A loud commotion caused them to look away.

"If you will excuse me," Jason said and rushed to check, glad to have an excuse to get away.

When he saw what had happened, he laughed. Kanna had fallen on her face and had trouble getting up because of the costume's rigid form.

He and Sakura helped her up while Sumire tried her best to conceal her own laughter with her fan.

"You okay there?" he asked Kanna who was glaring daggers at Sumire.

Kanna scratched the back of her head sheepishly, but Jason could see how she was frustrated by her costume. Her entire body was covered by the costume, leaving only her head and arms free. Jason had seen her resort to hopping to move around.

"Ahhh, I'm alright. Snake-woman, ya got a good laugh from me falling eh!?" Kanna said.

"Ohohoho, huge one! Too bad it will never happen on stage!" Sumire said.

Kanna was about to retort when she realized that was also a compliment. She closed her mouth, and Sumire could see that Kanna was not a little grateful.

Sumire turned to look at Jason. "But Jason, you laughed too, neh?" she asked artfully.

"Is that so?!" Kanna demanded. Jason backed off with a grin.

"Looks like everyone's laughing at my expense eh? Well, let's see if I can't have some fun myself!" Kanna said. She grabbed the microphone.

"Everyone! Since we are in such a good mood tonight, the Hanagumi are going to give us displays of extraordinary skills tonight!" she said enthusiastically. The Hanagumi gasped as the rest of the party-goers applauded loudly.

"What! Kanna-san, how can you decide something like on your own?!" Sumire demanded angrily.

"Well now, who's going to be first?" Kanna said loudly, ignoring her.

Sakura raised her arm happily. "Hai, I'll be the first! But I'll need something..."

Jason folded his arms across his chest. "I wonder what she's going to do... any idea?" he asked Maria, who was standing beside him.

"I don't know. In any case, since it is Sakura, I think the Taicho would want to see it," she said.

Jason chuckled and thumbed behind him. "I'm afraid there's no chance of that."

Maria glanced behind them and chuckled when she saw Yoneda and Ogami sprawled on the ground, slurring words drunkenly in their sleep. She turned back in time to see Kanna throwing two thick bamboo shoots up into the night sky.

The crowd gasped when Sakura yelled a battlecry and leapt up. In a motion nearly too swift to be seen by the naked eyes, she unsheathed her katana and sliced the bamboo in mid-air. She landed on her feet, eyes closed.

Peering up the sky, the audience noticed something was falling. They held out their hands and they each received a makeshift bamboo cup.

There were several seconds of awed silence.

"Wah lau weh No direct translation[41]" Jason muttered in disbelief as he looked at the bamboo. The cut was clean.

The audience cheered and clapped in appreciation at the feat as the Hanagumi crowded around Sakura, who calmly sheathed her sword and smiled.

"When we have celebrations like this back at my hometown, we make cups like this for toasting. It's a Shinguiji tradition," she said proudly.

Maria had a thoughtful look. "I too... have a special stunt," she said. The Hanagumi gave her various degrees of shocked looks, causing her to blush.

"That's surprising. What do you intend to show us?" Ayame asked. Maria passed her cup to her and pulled out her revolver from her voluminous coat, causing them to gasp in surprise.

"I'll perform something called the Vershu Zudarovei," she said, rolling her pronunciations.

Kanna tried to repeat it and failed spectacularly by choking on her tongue-rolling. "What does it mean?" Iris asked, holding both Jean-Paul and her bamboo cup.

"It means 'cheers'. Kanna, I will need your help," Maria said.

She placed a target card on the large tree of the theater's quadrangle. There was another target on Kanna's costume, above her head. Maria moved Kanna so that the two trees, real and fake; were parallel to each other with the wall behind them.

"I'll shoot up into the sky. When the bullet falls, I'll shoot it and cause both bullets to hit the targets," she explained.

'That's impossible!' Jason thought, but knew better than to interrupt. The rest of the crowd gasped at the thought of the stunt.

Kanna lurched, sweat pouring down her face.

"W-what?! H-hey!!"

"Kanna, please believe in me," Maria said, calmly running her gloved fingers through her platinum blond hair.

The woman in the costume stopped, returned to her position and smiled nervously. "Alright, let's do it!" she said excitedly.

The crowed hushed as Maria took a deep breath. She slowly raised the gun high and pulled the trigger. Those who never heard an Enfield revolver being fired before gasped at the noise.

Jason mentally counted to 15 before Maria leveled her gun and fired again.

Jason experienced the phenomena known as "bullet-time[42]" and saw her second bullet narrowly missing the falling projectile by millimeters.

There was silence as the first bullet clattered to the ground and the second struck the wall between Kanna and the tree. The fake tree let out her breath which she had been holding.

Maria lowered her gun slowly. Then the shooter snickered. "Did you really think I could do that?" she said back to the crowd. The relieved Kanna laughed too.

"What the-, Maria, you lied to us!" she said in mock anger as she hopped past Maria to the rest of the Hanagumi. They laughed as they never imagined the normally stern and stoic Maria could make a joke.

But Jason frowned as he could see Maria's fist shaking, her teeth clenched.

The party over, Jason started the night patrol alone. Maria did not answer the door when he knocked as usual. He turned to leave when he glanced out the window. She was at the quadrangle, standing before the wall which she had shot.

'Why didn't I succeed?' Maria asked herself, looking at the bullet hole. She couldn't bring herself to touch it.

'Have I become weak?' her mind questioned. 'I let my guard down,' she realized with a start. She seethed and clenched her fist when her mind told her the reason. 'Because they have gotten close to you.'

"Maria," Jason called out to her.

She turned around, startled. 'Another sign of my weakness... I did not even notice his arrival!' she thought furiously.

"It's okay to make mistakes," Jason calmly stated, referring to her attempt at the Vershu Zudarovei.

"No mistakes are allowed on the battlefield," she replied coldly, more to herself than to Jason.

The night breeze threatened to extinguish the gas-lamp which Jason was holding.

"Your life is not a battlefield."

"I live my entire life for battles! It's my fate!" she said angrily.

"'No such thing as Fate and Destiny', someone once told me. They are what you alone can make them be. Nothing is ever pre-ordained, Maria," Jason said gently, closing the distance.

"Then tell me! Who am I if I am not to die in the battlefield!?" she demanded emotionally.

Jason dropped the gas-lamp and embraced her. She was too shocked to struggle.

"Your life is precious. All of your life. You get caught on your memories and troubles... but you are a part of a family now. And I'll be here for you."

Tears sprang to her eyes, tears that she did not want to shed.

"It's okay to cry, little one..." Jason whispered gently as he held her.

And she cried into his shoulder.

---

Millions of light years away, twelve men were seated around a vast oak table in a darkened room. These twelve men were not political leaders or military figures of the human race, but they can claim to be much more powerful. They were Soldat Corporation's board of directors. With a stroke of a pen they could consign entire worlds into economic ruin.

      Such power could easily frighten the rest of humanity, but Soldat had been very careful. To the galaxy, Soldat was a benign organization. It was also the largest corporation, most influential in human history. It manufactured everything from starships to medicine.

      At the head of the table, young Joseph Bartholomew McCain locked his fingers in front of him, his cruel lips twisted in a sardonic grin.

      "Gentlemen. Finally, we are presented with an opportunity to expand our business into Luthien."

      The others murmured with interest.

"Luthien has resisted Soldat's forays so far, but we now have the chance to crush the Japanese and their precious Kanzaki Industries," he continued in his deep voice.

"That world has vast quantities of precious minerals and raw resources. Its addition as a Soldat's mining world is indeed welcome. But how has the situation changed?" a man spoke in French.

"Luthien is wrought by an internal struggle. I am pleased to say that our operatives have successfully made contact with one faction," McCain answered.

"Can they be trusted? Luthien's people are known for their tenacity in defending their own world. They might be using us to achieve their own goals," an Italian warned.

Joseph smiled. "It is of no consequence. In the end, it will be Soldat who will be left standing. This faction has no desire for control of the planet. Unimaginable as it may seem, our contact on Luthien has the same desires as us: to rid the planet of its inhabitants. Of course, our wish is to have its resources to ourselves, rather than the faction's dream of total destruction of the Imperial City. Once the Imperial City is destroyed, Luthien will be worthless to everyone else."

"Are we dealing with a fanatic here?" a distinguished Englishman asked warily.

"Does it matter? The ends will justify the means. We will help this faction to achieve its aims, and then we will reap the benefits. Although our warp bomb present was not successfully used, the leader of the faction has acknowledged our goodwill," Joseph said smoothly.

"Well then, there isn't anything else to discuss about Luthien, is there?" a Russian spoke impatiently.

"No, there isn't. The faction will find our operative to be helpful. They know our own interests and would enjoy our help in speeding up their process. Now, what about our plans on Samarkand?"

And so the meeting went on.

---

There was nearly two months of relative peace in the Imperial City. Contrary to the ease that the population felt, the Hanagumi knew the battle against the Kuronosukai was far from over. Miroku was defeated but her body unaccounted for, while Aoi Satan's injury could not have possibly killed him.

But that didn't mean that the Hanagumi could not enjoy the temporary peace. They took advantage of the lull in the fighting to have excursions. Yoneda even gave them permission to visit the Hana-Yashiki branch, which was situated under the grounds of the Imperial City's theme park. Ogami had left the day before for a reunion with his former naval academy classmates.

They were mightily impressed on the facilities; an entire factory built underground, the tunnel railway connecting it directly to their own theater. They stared in awe at a huge metallic framework that dominated the warehouse-like base. When asked about it, Kohran snickered and said that it was a secret.

Kohran showed them around the labs and other research facilities. She explained that she had worked there previously, before transferring to the Hanagumi for active field duty.

They took the trip further by having fun in the theme park. But Jason did not join them; he was engrossed in a conversation with the technical people. Kohran left him to guide the others to the rides.

"Second brother is no good! Why does he want to talk when we can all have fun?" Iris pouted.

"Hmph, boys and their toys," Sumire said disdainfully.

"He might not want to leave," Maria said with chuckle as they left the facility to go to the theme park.

Kohran nudged her. "Wouldn't that be a problem for you, eh Maria-han?" she asked mischievously, causing her to feel heat in her cheeks.

"Hahaha, Maria's blushing!" Kanna laughed out loud. "I never thought I'd see it close-up," Sumire said in mock disbelief.

"Yes, she looks so... different!" Sakura remarked as if Maria wasn't there.

"Everyone... please, that's going too far," the person in question reproached, reddening even more.

"Now now, Maria-han, that's nothing to be embarrassed about. We haven't even asked about the Café Noir date yet," Kohran teased.

"There's nothing to talk about. Where are we going now?" Maria replied, eager to change the subject.

"Ooooh, ya ain't getting off the hook THAT easy!" Kanna grinned. "Lemme tell you guys something, they went off to another date recently ya know!"

The others went "oooooh". Maria tried to stop her. "Kanna! That's...!" Her protest was cut off when Kanna placed a heavy arm around her shoulders.

"I know I know... it was just routine grocery shopping, right? But it soooooo conveniently happened on your birthday! And I saw you guys make a detour at a fancy restaurant for dinner. Heh heh... very sneaky of you, Maria!" Kanna revealed.

Maria sighed. The others crowded closer around her.

"So that's why you two were gone the whole day that time. And you got us all worried too," Sakura said smiling.

"I'm sooo jealous... you're seeing somebody behind our backs," Kanna joked.

Maria blushed. Kanna was right... she –had- seen a lot of Jason lately, doing a lot of the work in the theater together, spending more time than necessary. It was bound to be noticed sooner or later.

"And you two seemed so cozy together in the library yesterday," Sumire noted.

"We were only discussing who the best shooter in the galaxy is," Maria said with a straight face.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, the man known as Eadric Lee sneezed loudly. He was as surprised as anybody by it. "Somebody must be talking about me," he wondered out aloud. He shrugged and went back to his business.

The Hanagumi stopped pestering Maria when they reached the theme park. Kohran, Kanna and Iris ran excitedly towards the rides.

"It will be Iris's own birthday soon," Maria remarked, looking at them.

"Really? She grows up so fast," Sumire said, glancing towards Iris who got on a spinning cup ride with Kohran.

"She's still a child... doesn't she ever miss her parents?" Sakura asked.

Maria's head bowed. "I don't think so..."

Sumire and Sakura turned to look at her in surprise.

"Why is that?" Sakura asked curiously.

"The vice-commander told me that Iris had a lonely childhood. Everyone was afraid to be near her at her home. Her parents had to lock her in her room..." she explained softly.

"What?" Sakura gasped.

"Does that mean she had never celebrated a birthday?" Sumire demanded.

"I can imagine that to be so."

"She must have dreamed of having friends for her birthday... her room is full of dolls... maybe they were her only friends from home," Sakura said sadly.

"That will not do at all!" Sumire said angrily. They looked at her questioningly.

"Is she not a member of the Hanagumi? If her family couldn't celebrate her birthday with her, then –we- will!" she said resolutely.

Maria smiled. "I didn't know you cared so much, Sumire."

She cocked her head to a side haughtily. "We have all changed ever since we have males in the Hanagumi. Sakura here for instance, doesn't foul up in rehearsals as much anymore."

Sakura grimaced but did not respond to the implied insult.

"Well, let's make this day a happy one for Iris!" Sakura said instead. Her friends smiled and nodded.

      "There you are... what were you guys talking about?" Jason asked as he came up to them.

"Oh, this and that," Sumire replied airily. Jason looked at them strangely while they laughed.

---

Their rest from battling the Kuronosukai came to an abrupt end a few days later.

The Hanagumi were at the theater's recreation room. Maria was teaching Jason and Ogami to play billiards. Sakura, Iris and Kohran were playing Hanafuda cards which they had bought for Iris' birthday, who was delighted at the "grown-up" game. Off to one side, Kanna and Sumire were arguing as usual, this time over a game of darts. Nobody paid attention.

A thunderous explosion from the city shook them from their leisure. It felt like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Gasping, they ran to the windows.

There was a tower of black smoke emiting from the centre of the city. Seconds later, the alarms sounded.

"A few moments ago, an unknown device detonated in the center of the city. Since it is a Monday, there were not a lot of people on the streets. In any case, the Tsukigumi are already on the scene and helping with the evacuations," Ayame briefed them.

"Your job is to cover them! The steam-beasts have appeared in strength this time; eliminate all of them and protect the evacuation effort!" Yoneda ordered.

Eight salutes snapped into attention. "Yes sir!"

Ayame gestured. "Teikoku Kagekidan – Hanagumi! Move out!"

They arrived at the scene to find signs of devastation everywhere.

"Wakiji spotted," Maria said curtly as the eight Koubus sped towards the enemy.

"There's something else out there..." Kohran said, peering closer to her screen.

"It's Kurenai no Miroku Scarlet Miroku!" Ogami shouted.

"What? Impossible! I killed her myself!" Sumire exclaimed in disbelief.

"She looks a little different, but it's Miroku alright," Jason confirmed, noticing red lines on her face.

"Uh-oh... that's not all..." Ogami muttered.

Rasetsu wrapped a huge fist around a lamp-post and pulled it out with ease. Brandishing it like a weapon, he slowly approached the Hanagumi.

"Everyone, hold your positions!" Ogami commanded.

"I thought I killed him!" Jason yelled angrily, drawing his Koubu to a stop.

To their shock, a ghostly figure slowly emerged from Rasetsu's bare chest. It was the ghost of a boy, ethereal and yet the Hanagumi could feel the terrible malice dripping from it. Like Miroku, both of them had blood red lines on their faces.

"Setsuna!" Maria gasped.

"We are back for more fun! You can't beat us combined!" Setsuna said with a mad grin on his face. He slipped back and disappeared into Rasetsu's body. A second later, the towering humanoid charged at the Hanagumi, twirling the lamp-post above his head. A group of Wakiji lumbered slowly after Rasetsu, bearing their axes, swords, crude pistols and rocket launchers.

Ogami took in the surrounding area. It was abandoned, fires licking at the buildings. Not much chance of civilian casualties by collateral damage.

"Hanagumi, engage and destroy all enemies!" he ordered.

"Kicking it into high gear![43]" Jason replied as his Gatling gun began to spin.

"Yes sir!"

"Yosha! Here I go Ogami-han!"

"Kanna, Jason! You two take on Rasetsu! Iris, Sakura, follow me; we'll back Sumire up on Miroku. Maria and Kohran, you two are fire-support. Wipe out the rest of the Wakiji!" he commanded to a chorus of affirmatives.

Kohran launched a barrage of rockets. Rasetsu's speed meant the missiles flew over him, but they struck the slower Wakiji instead. A series of rumbling explosions rocked the streets and engulfed the steam-beasts.

The Koubus of Jason and Maria fired their respective weapons. Jason's Gatling spun and spat bullets towards Rasetsu, trying to mow down the rushing monster as it zigzagged.

The hail of bullets did not deter Rasetsu, who moved at an incredible speed. Maria leveled her cannon and fired as well. Her shot snagged Rasetsu's knee, slowing him down. Seconds later dozens of bullets from Jason's Gatling struck the monster full in the chest.

Bellowing a monstrous roar, Rasetsu leapt high into the sky and smashed a double-axehandle blow on Jason's black and red Koubu. The street cracked, threatening to dump them into the sewerage network underground.

Jason's Koubu staggered from the heavy blow. A bulge had appeared on interior of his cockpit, where it was caved in by the thunderous hit.

Then Rasetsu rained more punches, causing his mecha to sway left and right with each hit like a boxer on the losing end.

"I can't get a clear shot!" Maria said as Rasetsu was too close to Jason's Koubu.

"This is getting us nowhere!" Jason growled as he backhanded Rasetsu with his Koubu's Gatling arm, his sword arm locked in a hold.

"I'll handle this!" Kanna yelled. She crashed her red Koubu into Rasetsu, staggering the berserk monster.

As soon as there was space, Maria fired. It exploded before it hit Rasetsu's head, as if it had struck a piece of glass. But the explosion snapped Rasetsu's head back. Slowly, he turned to look at Maria.

The ghostly form of Setsuna emerged once more, his ethereal hand smoking where it had acted as a shield.

"That wasn't very nice, Kuassari," the boy mocked. He gestured and suddenly Rasetsu was trying to pry open Maria's Koubu.

Jason took the opportunity to conduct an instant amputation on Rasetsu. Slashing his sword downwards, Jason sliced the area where Rasetsu and Setsuna were joined.

They shrieked in pain. Rasetsu clutched his chest while Setsuna literally tumbled out, ejected from his host. The boy, no longer ghostly but in solid form; scrambled to his feet and screamed in fear.

Jason jabbed his Gatling under Rasetsu's chin and fired. From behind, Kanna punched her twin claws into the monster's spine. Rasetsu exploded in a burst of smoke, and disappeared entirely.

Setsuna thought he had gotten away. "It's... It's not fair!" he gasped as he ran towards a dark alley to hide.

He never made it. A bullet enhanced by spiritual power found the back of his brain. He couldn't even manage a whimper as his body collapsed under him, dematerializing even as he died.

Maria's Koubu silently turned away.

---

There was a banshee shriek, and before Ogami could react; a black shadow engulfed Sumire's purple Koubu.

"Sssssumire...." Scarlet Miroku hissed emotionlessly.

"Don't you dare say my name!" Sumire shouted as she struggled against the shadow that encircled her machine.

Ogami and Sakura simultaneously slashed at the black shadow with their swords. Once separated, the smoky tendrils dissipated.

"Ssssumire..." Miroku repeated, slowly retreating.

"Ensign! Let me deal with that witch alone!" Sumire said angrily even as Ogami, Sakura and Iris hastened to follow her

Yelling a battlecry and twirling her Koubu's formidable naginata, Sumire charged at the pale woman with long black hair and soulless eyes.

Then more of the Wakiji burst through the ground. Surrounded on all sides, the four Koubus stood back to back as they were attacked by the steam-beasts.

On a building's rooftop, two figures looked at the battle scene with disinterest.

"Mr. Aoi Satan, your troops are of a poor lot," one remarked. He had salt and pepper hair with slight beard and goatee, dressed in a thick suit. His right hand was jabbed into his pocket, a lit cigar on his lips.

"They are mere fodder to prepare them for your stage," Aoi Satan said, curling his lips in a sneer. His arms were across his chest. He showed no signs of the injuries inflicted upon him previously; it had healed without a single scar.

"Well, they only managed to split them into two groups. I was hoping each of them would be on their own. No wonder you had so much trouble with those steel puppets," the man said.

"Do not be impudent, foreigner. I deigned to accept your employer's help for my own interests. I can very well send your head back to them easily," Aoi Satan snarled.

The foreigner smirked. "I'm here for my own convenience as well. Thanks to your information, I found my own piece of unfinished business here." He dumped his cigar and stamped on it deliberately. "But don't worry; my firepower is more than sufficient. I'll show you how Soldat would deal with heroes that get in our way."

"Then show me," Aoi Satan gestured. His guest grinned and left the brooding Kuronosukai leader. Seconds later, a heavy machine stirred into life...

"Well now, that was another victory for clean hands, pure hearts and superior weapons," Jason said as he slashed the last Wakiji, causing Kanna and Kohran to burst out laughing. Maria barely stifled hers.

A loud whistling sound pierced the air. Reflexively, the four Koubu pilots looked up into the sky. Something was coming down at them in an arc and at high speed.

"Missiles!" Jason shouted. "Scatter!" Maria barked a second later. The Hanagumi managed just that as the projectiles exploded where they were before.

Before Jason could take a breather, he saw the tell-tale signs of a multiple missile launch, smoke billowing in the distance.

"More incoming!" he yelled as he ducked his Koubu behind a building for cover. The missile spread struck the street, causing tremendous amount of debris flying everywhere.

He inched his Koubu around the corner to look at the attacker. As soon as his Koubu's rounded profile emerged from the shadows, a beam of light lanced through the smoke and struck his mecha, scarring its armor. Jason immediately pulled his Koubu back into cover as heat spiked in his cockpit.

"What the hell?! Take cover, there's a laser out there!" he yelled urgently.

"What?!" the others chorused.

"I was hit by a fricking laser!" Jason repeated angrily.

From inside her green Koubu, Kohran was furious at the damage to one of her 'babies'. "The Koubus are designed to withstand conventional weapons... we never expected to see lasers on Luthien... I mean, being outlawed and all..."

"Can our Koubus take laser hits?" Maria asked.

"It depends on the laser's intensity. Koubus are lined with silsius metal inside, but the lasers can melt off the steel armor. It's designed to fight the steam-beasts, not other mecha..."

Jason shook his head. "It was a Lord of Light large laser... I'm sure of it. Gigawatts of pure energy... several direct hits will fry us in our Koubus."

"Just what is using it and how the hell did they get it here!?" Kanna asked the question that was on everyone's mind.

"In any case, we're pinned down here. I'm informing HQ," Maria said, toggling several switches. She frowned when a burst of radio static filled her Koubu. "Something's wrong with the long-range communicators," she said tersely.

Jason gritted his teeth. "...ECM!"

"What the heck?" Kanna asked, bewildered.

"Electronic Counter Measures," Maria explained. "I never thought I would see such high-tech military weapons on Luthien."

"Perhaps at the Ashio mainland, but in the Imperial City? Impossible!" Kohran shook her head.

"We're trapped," Jason muttered.

"I'll work on something to descramble the communications, don't worry!" Kohran said optimistically. They could already hear her dismantling something.

Suddenly, a voice penetrated their tactical radio band.

"I am looking for someone," the thick voice said in Russian. Maria and Jason froze at the language, eyes wide open and disbelieving their ears.

"What did he say?" Kanna demanded.

"Valentinov[44]!" Maria exclaimed. "Huh?" Jason and Kanna reacted.

"Maria-han, you know him?" Kohran asked.

"A bad memory," Maria replied shortly as an answer.

"Ahhh... Maria... I hear your voice. So you really are here. I love you, Maria... I love you to death!" Valentinov continued in Russian. They could feel him smiling maniacally over the radio.

"I should have killed you when I had the chance," Maria replied, turning her Koubu left and right, looking for an avenue to escape from their current predicament.

"I've come all the way from Earth, Maria... to repay what you had done to my hand in New Yorktown!" Valentinov said vehemently, switching to Japanese.

"You scum... tonight I'll shoot off more than just your hand!" Maria promised.

Valentinov roared with anger. They could hear him punching something metallic in frustration. Then he laughed, and they could hear heavy footsteps walking towards their position.

"It is very convenient to see you here. Finally I can settle my score with you tonight. Business and pleasure in one night... fate must be on my side."

"No such thing as Fate," Jason and Maria replied simultaneously.

"Then come out and fight, you--" Valentinov's words were cut off by another burst of static.

"There, I've done it!" Kohran said elatedly. "He won't be able to hear us anymore... but I still can't get through to the base," she continued.

"It's enough. We have to take him down right now," Maria said.

"Problem is, how? He's a crack shot, and we don't know what he's piloting," Jason replied.

"Kohran, give us some smoke cover. Kanna, circle back and try to get behind him and don't stay out in the open too long," Maria ordered without hesitation. "Jason, get to a higher ground. Lay in covering fire while I try to snipe him."

"Sounds like a plan," Kanna grinned.

"Alright, let's do it then," Jason replied.

"Now!" Maria yelled.

Kohran's Koubu leapt out from her cover. It landed on bent knees from the jump and shook slightly as several rockets tore from the launchers. They streaked messily and exploded in the air, releasing huge clouds of thick smoke.

Immediately after the launch, Kohran turned to move her Koubu back to safety. But a laser beam still scored on her Koubu's knee even as the smoke charges exploded. Her Koubu managed to limp into the shadows. She could feel the heat rising inside.

"I'm hit, but I'm ok!" she reported. Inwardly she was moaning at the damage the laser had done to her precious Koubu. She shuddered to think about the molten metal on her Koubu.

Kanna's red Koubu burst through under the cover of the thick smoke, ducking into alleys and side roads. Meanwhile, Jason's Koubu leapt onto a warehouse's roof.

Muttering apologies to property owners, he leveled his Gatling and fired in the general direction of the laser that hit him earlier. The bullets kicked even more clouds of dust as the gun tore up the main street.

Maria's Koubu got clear of the smoke and found herself a hidden perch with a clear view. She peered into her console intently, trying to find Valentinov even though she wasn't sure of what she was looking for.

In the end, it was Jason who found him first.

"On the rooftops, dead ahead! He's in a Heavy Gear[45] unit! Spitting Cobra-class!" he yelled. Seconds later, his Koubu was snagged by a laser beam, followed by a hail of depleted uranium shells.

Losing control, the Koubu tumbled over backwards, crashing into the street. It did not move from the fall.

"Jason!" Kohran yelled. Maria gritted her teeth but dared not to look away from the monitor. "Kohran, see if you can check on Jason," she said.

"Roger that, moving into position," Kohran said. The smoke screen was dissipating, but Maria felt it would be enough for Kohran's Koubu to cross the main street to Jason's position.

But as Kohran started, there was a sudden gust of wind. To Maria's horror, the smoke cleared faster than she had predicted.

"Kohran!"

Her warning came too late as a laser bolt lanced into the Koubu's knee. Seconds later more depleted uranium shells smashed into the green Koubu. With a terrifying shriek, the weakened knee gave way and snapped off at the joints. Kohran screamed as she fell, and then was silent as her Koubu skidded in a shower of sparks. It stopped right in the middle of the street.

"Kohran! Answer me!" Maria shouted desperately. There was no reply. She did not know that Kohran had knocked her head and was unconscious. Dread filled Maria's entire body.

Holding her breath, Maria waited for Valentinov to finish off Kohran's Koubu. When it still didn't arrive several seconds later, she exhaled with relief.

'He must be waiting for me to come out and get her... she's the bait...' she thought. She couldn't risk checking in with either Jason or Kanna. With Kohran's radio-jamming down, Valentinov would have access to their communication.

A chuckle filled her cockpit. "Kuassari... does this remind you of anything?" Valentinov taunted.

She knew what he meant, and hated him for reminding her.

"I bet this is how you felt when your precious captain died right in front of your eyes in New Kiev. It is just like that time, you are helpless and hopeless," Valentinov mocked.

Maria gritted her teeth, refusing to give in into Valentinov's words. She tried to think of Valentinov's Heavy Gear. Heavy footsteps echoed distantly in the streets it moved, slowly and deliberately towards Kohran.

Heavy Gears were humanoid mecha, approximately 5 meters tall and weighing less than 25 tons. Despite the massive firepower of larger and more powerful Battlemechs and Destroids, they were too cumbersome to use.

Heavy Gears were developed by various corporations to replace them in the 22nd century. They were so versatile and successful that versions for civil and corporate usage called Labors[46] were developed, increasing the speed of the colonization waves.

But it was on the planet of Terra Nova where Heavy Gears gained their notoriety. The UPG was helpless to stop a corporate war to gain the rich mining rights on the planet. Vivid telecasts of manned robots fighting in giant-sized trenches, infantry-style charges and mecha-to-mecha combat were shown to a captive galaxy-wide human audience. The Terra Nova Corporate War ended with high costs, but not before an entire generation found excitement and romanticism in mecha combat.

This eventually led to the rise of Solaris VII, the gaming world; where pilots duel in all forms of mecha. Even though Gears were considered outdated in the 24th century and gradually phased out from military standards, Heavy Gears were like Battlemechs and Destroids in the sense that they survived. Relics of humanity's often brutal past, these war machines were made to last.

According to Jason, Valentinov's Heavy Gear was a Spitting Cobra. It boasted immense firepower, as demonstrated by the lasers, missiles and autocannon shells that Valentinov had used to devastating effect on her teammates.

Maria's mind scrambled to find a weakness and to use that to her advantage.

"Maria, can you hear me?" Jason's voice filtered faintly through the static.

"Jason! Are you alright?" Maria asked, relieved.

"Yeah... sort of," Jason replied. Maria could see his Koubu was wrecked in many areas; the autocannon shells he received shredded his Koubu's armor to pieces. The black and red Koubu struggled to its feet and failed spectacularly.

"Gah! Damn it... Maria, don't come out... that autocannon is deadly!" Jason warned.

"You won't come out? Then I'll come and finish your friend off now!" Valentinov snarled savagely.

Heavy Gears were equipped with a Secondary Movement System jokingly referred to as 'roller-skating'. When a Gear is 'skating', it would dash on a set of wheels or treads underneath its feet with increased speed. Valentinov's Spitting Cobra charged forward. It was on a collision path with Kohran's still Koubu.

Maria fired, but the Spitting Cobra's speed made it difficult to hit. Realizing where she was, Valentinov raised his autocannon and fired in her general direction, forcing her back into shelter. He did not stop and continued charging at Kohran's Koubu.

"I'll give you more nightmares to remember!" he said maniacally.

"Kohran! NO!" Maria yelled as she fired again. It struck dead-center on the Gear's armored chest. But it did little to slow his momentum. Time seemed to go in slow-motion as Valentinov continued to bear down on Kohran.

"Hiyeahhhhhhhh!!"

A battlecry split the night as a red Koubu burst through from a dark alley. It rammed shouder-first, blind-siding the charging Heavy Gear.

Valentinov screamed as his Spitting Cobra tumbled off to a side and smashed into a building. Without hesitation, Maria fired several times into the building. With a crashing sound, it collapsed heavily; burying the Gear within it.

"Looks like we did it," Kanna said with a smile.

"Yes... thanks to you, old friend," Maria replied as she emerged from cover. "I want to make sure on Valentinov..."

"Right... I'll check on Kohran," Kanna said as she opened her Koubu's hatch.

Maria stepped down from her own Koubu and climbed up the rubble. The building was a small motel of an extravagant western design and thus the Heavy Gear was buried underneath bricks and heavy marble pillars.

The Gear had crashed and landed face down, with the rubble on its back. A piece of steel had pierced clean through the Gear's head. It spewed wisps of black smoke as the mortally wounded Gear twitched and tried to move. After a moment of struggling against the weight, it stopped. Then the hatch tried to open.

Unlike the Koubus which opened from the top and to the front in a 90-degree angle, Gears were opened from the back. It allowed the pilot to 'slip' into the Gear like a hand into a glove.

Debris cluttered to the ground as the hatch struggled against the weight of the rubble on top of it.

"Valentinov..." Maria muttered as she drew her gun. Maria could hear him panicking as he tried to get out from the tomb.

"What do you intend to do?" Jason asked from behind her.

"...I will kill him," she answered.

He joined her to watch as Valentinov's Gear stubbornly refused to open. The machine whined as servos and motivators tried their best to lift the hatch open amidst the mess. As the stress overloaded the mechanisms, the machine died with a slow whine.

"I don't think you should do it," Jason said as he stood beside her.

"He caused the death of someone very dear to me," she replied angrily. "I shot his hand and let him go so that he would live in pain. Now he's back and I won't make the same mistake again."

Jason frowned. "Maria... killing in cold blood is something you have left in your past. It's not worth the pain it would bring."

"And did the devastation he brought tonight worth letting him go again?!" Maria demanded. "He could have killed Kohran back there!"

"Yes, he could have. But he was not able to, because she had teammates like you and Kanna to back her up."

Maria couldn't reply.

"If you're set on his death, then let me do it. I've killed more than you would dare to guess. One more wouldn't hurt me," Jason said coldly, causing her to look at him in shock.

He went to the hatch and kicked at it several times. As soon as it opened, he forcibly dragged Valentinov out from the Heavy Gear by the collar. Jason threw the dazed Russian to one side, who offered no resistance. Maria could see a cybernetic right hand and forearm that replaced the flesh and bones that she shot years ago.

Jason took out his own gun. He unloaded the bullets into his pocket save one, which he placed back into the chamber.

Spinning the barrel, he glanced back at Maria who watched in silence. "Let chance decide his life."

Valentinov chose that moment to come to. Seeing a gun aimed at him and the gunner distracted, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own golden pistol.

"Look out!" Maria cried out. Without hesitation, she fired a snap shot. Valentinov screamed in pain as his pistol flew away from his left hand.

Jason was unfazed. He looked at Maria, who was breathing heavily. 'His eyes... his eyes are so cold...' Maria realized with a start.

With that same cold, hard look; he turned to look at Valentinov who began to scoot back at the sight of the jet-black handgun aimed at him. Maria could feel a cold breeze blowing into the destroyed building.

"No... stop!" Valentinov cried in fear as his back touched the wall.

Slowly, Jason pulled the hammer, which clicked ominously in the still night. It was enough to give anyone the chills.

He was about to pull the trigger...

"Jason, no!" Maria yelled.

...the hammer struck, and there was a gunshot that echoed through the night.

Valentinov collapsed and lost consciousness. Jason had shot off Valentinov's metallic right hand. It was holed through the palm, ruining the fingers and exposing circuitry which smoked and sizzled. Otherwise, Valentinov was unhurt.

His face slipping back to his easy-going self, Jason gave Maria a wry smile. "I'm a lousy shot."

"Yes... you are," Maria replied with a smile. Maybe it was a relieved one.

---

The Hanagumi recovered the destroyed Heavy Gear, since Kohran was determined to study the relic further. Surprisingly, Yoneda agreed to her request. To prevent it from being confiscated by the military, it was reported as "totally destroyed with no salvageable value".

There was no sign of Aoi Satan in the battle, although Tsukigumi agents reported sightings of a man matching his description in the vicinity. To Sumire's chagrin, Miroku disappeared from the battle without a scratch.

The Luthien authorities threw Valentinov into prison, sans his cyber arm. Despite his defeat and ignominious confrontation with Jason and Maria, he remained silent on how he smuggled the Heavy Gear into the Imperial City.

The authorities were furious of the incident. The military was understandably mortified at such a security breach. Heads rolled and bodies slit in hara-kiri but no answers were forthcoming. That made Jason and Yoneda worried.

It was nearing sunset when Maria eventually found Jason sitting on the Grand Imperial Theater's angled rooftop. It was a spot where Kanna and occasionally Ogami had used to enjoy the breeze or a nap.

But Maria could see that Jason was deep in thought, brooding as he stared into the distance with arms locked around his knees.

"Hey," he greeted when he noticed her approaching.

"What are you doing here?" she asked as she sat down beside him.

He smiled and looked back at the sunset. "Just... thinking. About Valentinov and his Heavy Gear."

"I have been thinking about that too. But, it's already in the past," she replied, smoothing imaginary wrinkles on her coat.

He shook his head. "No, it's not..."

She turned to look at him.

"How many do you think can pull such a stunt off? Bringing a Heavy Gear unit into Luthien is short of incredible, let alone taking it into the Imperial City itself," Jason explained.

She frowned. "Just what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that someone is behind Valentinov. He can't possibly pull it off by himself, not even with the help of the Kuronosukai."

She knew what he was referring to, yet it did not stop the feeling of dread rising within her.

"Yes, Maria... Soldat. Maybe they know I'm here. Maybe I'm a risk to the Hanagumi... no, to the Imperial City," Jason continued.

Maria looked away. She knew the implications, but she did not give up hope.

"But you don't know that. Yes, Soldat have been eyeing Luthien ever since silsius ore was discovered here. But Valentinov might be working for somebody else. Maybe he was even working on his own just to get his revenge on me," she said.

Jason passed her a piece of metal. She examined it quizzically. It was charred, but a smudged marking or symbol could still be seen faintly.

"What is this?" she asked.

"Kohran found it inside Valentinov's cyber arm. That's the symbol for a Soldat's Authorized Field Agent, Class III."

She stared at it, speechless. A Soldat's AFA had the authority to work independently to fulfill Soldat's objectives given to them. There were five classes, the lower the number the more 'efficient' the agent was.

AFAs were notorious for going above the law on the planets not owned or operated by Soldat. On the planets Soldat do own, AFAs were the law. Since Soldat have no qualms about retrenching (read: liquidating) AFAs who failed them, their success rate was pretty high.

In other words, an AFA was a legal and deadly bounty hunter, working for Soldat alone. They were the bogeymen of the giant corporation, dispensing 'company policy' without mercy or exception. Those who saw the AFA symbol were often people soon to be 'liquidated'.

"Looks like I may have to leave here some day," Jason said, a little wistfully.

They sat in silence.

"So that's where you two are!" Kanna's cheerful voice broke the quietness. She leaned through the attic window and waved at them.

"Hey, the chief wants to talk to you two. Sounds important."

---

"Valentinov is dead," Yoneda said flatly.

"What?!" Jason and Maria exclaimed.

"He was found dead in his cell today. The prison officials listed it as an attempted escape," Ayame read from a note. She handed it to Maria whose eyes scanned the brief report quickly.

"He fell and broke his neck?" Maria looked up from the paper, stunned.

"That can't be right. Valentinov's too cunning to do something that stupid," Jason said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"His neck was broken in three places. It was as if he tried to climb to the barred windows of his cell when he fell. That report conveniently missed the fact that he was in solitary confinement when he died. There was no window in his cell," Yoneda said grimly. He turned to look at Jason, who went ashen at the information. "You understand what this means."

Jason nodded slowly. "Soldat..."

"Yes," Yoneda said simply. "There are simply no other suspects. His cyber arm confirms his allegiance to Soldat. Only a corporation as huge and powerful as Soldat is capable of smuggling a war machine like a Heavy Gear into Luthien's Imperial City. Of course, Luthien does have other enemies, but none would have the capability of doing such a thing except for Soldat."

"Then I can't stay here any longer," Jason replied, causing Maria to look at him strangely.

"They might not be here for you this time you know," an annoyed Yoneda said.

"Yes, Soldat does have interest in Luthien itself. They might have sent Valentinov to work with Aoi Satan for that reason," Ayame suggested.

Jason shook his head. "With their agent dead, they are sure to send others. It would be only a matter of time before they discover my presence here."

"You are getting paranoid," Yoneda replied gruffly.

"I have no wish to endanger any of you," Jason argued.

"You are not," Maria said.

"You don't know that! Even as we speak, things might be happening," Jason reiterated.

Maria gave him a cold look. "And so? Do you wish to run again?"

Jason was taken aback. "I..."

Ayame smiled kindly. "Please, don't think too much into it. The Hanagumi is a secret defense force for the Imperial City after all. There is no safer place for you than here, Jason."

"The vice-commander is right, Jason. Who could possibly find you here?" Maria said.

"But Valentinov knew Maria was here," Jason protested.

Yoneda laughed out loudly, breaking the tension. "Jason you fool! She's an actress! This is the Grand Imperial Theater! She can't help it if her pretty face is printed everywhere in posters and magazines!"

Maria blushed as Jason looked at her. He smirked.

"Can't find any fault with that logic," he said, causing her to redden even more as Yoneda and Ayame laughed.

'Well... I guess I'll stay as long as I can...' Jason thought to himself and smiled.

He was happy with that.

---

It was a dark and stormy night away from the Imperial City. Local weather-stations were puzzled because it was not the season for thunderstorms, but they did not report it. The heavy thunderstorm was happening far away from population centers and roadways. There was no need to cause alarm to the citizens.

In a cave deep in the forest, Aoi Satan had his eyes closed and hands clasped in deep concentration. Sweat dripped from his brow as he muttered nonsensical words over and over again. An idol of sorts was the lone adornment in the cave, the centerpiece of the prayer.

Behind Aoi Satan were two Wakiji, standing still and showed no reaction to the thunderstorm that was happening outside. Between them was the equally silent Scarlet Miroku, her hair down and eyes in a thousand-mile stare.

As his prayer-like mutterings increase in intensity, a circular design with a pentagram within it began to glow underneath Aoi Satan's feet. It pulsed with devilish light, eventually building to a climax that occurred in time just as the heavens shook with an almighty thunderbolt that struck the ground outside of the cave.

Snatching his black sword from his side, Aoi Satan turned and slashed his two Wakiji attendants. They squealed as they died; showering the ground with their thick, green blood. Miroku showed no emotion even as the bodies collapsed around her, the ichor staining her dress. Wisps of black smoke emerged from the corpses, swirling slowly in the air before dispersing.

Drawing his unholy prayer to a close, Aoi Satan exhaled deeply. His eyes glinted madly in the dim light.

"It is done."

Finally showing some signs of life, Miroku looked up at her lord. "When shall we act?" she whispered, her voice eager with anticipation.

Aoi Satan grinned.

"Tonight!"

---

It was a peaceful night in the Grand Imperial Theater. Maria and Jason had already completed their patrol hours earlier. All was well as the inhabitants slept soundly in their beds.

One would wonder how the Hanagumi lived within their theater. Let's take a look into their abode.

The Hanagumi's individual rooms on the first floor reflected their personality and tastes. Sumire's was extravagant with flowing curtains and bed sheets. Iris's room was full with dolls and soft-toys. Kohran's was filled with mechanical mess, unfinished inventions and blueprints scattered all around.

On the other hand, the rooms of Sakura and Ogami were proper and clean, with mementoes and personal items carefully laid out. Kanna had some fitness equipment like dumbbells arranged neatly to one side.

Maria's room was Spartan and functional: a writing desk, a chair and a comfortable bed. A small, antique radio sat on the desk, the only luxury she allowed herself. Well, that and the bottle of vodka she kept for herself. Jason's was similar, though considerably more gadgets and trinkets abound from his past. To respect Luthien's unique culture he had the more high-tech and alien ones kept inside a strongbox he bought in the commercial district.

The recreation room was one of the most frequented rooms in the theater. Due to their celebrity status, the Hanagumi would be amusing themselves and killing time by playing various indoor games: billiards, darts, monopoly, card games and so on. After every session, each item were carefully repacked and placed back to their respective places. It was a room where the Hanagumi relaxed.

Then there was the library, a much quieter place. Despite its relatively modest size, it boasted a respectable collection of books. Included were works of great authors, from Russia's Dostoevsky to China's Luo Guan Zhong. Maria, Jason and occasionally Ogami could be found there often, browsing through the books or just to spend time alone in the comfortable quietness. Kanna and Iris were less likely to be found here.

The dining hall was a large area with long, covered tables. The Hanagumi were to take turns doing kitchen duty, but it usually fell to Maria, Sakura, and Kanna. Occasionally Ogami or Jason would pop in to help. Sumire and Kohran were definitely rare faces in the kitchen, the former would not 'lower herself' to menial work, while the latter had some failed biological experiments that was enough to deter Jason from allowing her to cook again. After Ogami had made it compulsory for the Hanagumi to dine together, the hall soon became a place where camaraderie was formed. Meals were often lively affairs for the Hanagumi.

One of Jason's favorite places was in the theater's courtyard, specifically underneath the shade of the large tree where Maria had attempted the Vershu Zudarovei. It was large, spacious and most importantly of all, lush cherry blossom trees and beautiful flowers abound in the garden. The courtyard was enclosed by the four sides of the theater, giving it a vision of a small paradise walled off from the rest of the Imperial City.

Let's take a look at the theater itself. Most customers to the theater could only visit a portion of the huge building. The theater had rows of comfortable seats, as well as several balconies for exclusive and important visitors. It can house several hundred people, and it was not uncommon to see the theater packed during performances. Whenever a play begins, the entrances would be closed and the lights dimmed.

The stage was a simple wooden design, polished and waxed. Thick, red curtains draped from the ceiling. It was a place where hopes and dreams were made. One can imagine the Hanagumi in their costumes, singing and acting with passion in front of a fully entranced audience. Jason had remarked calling it the 'theater of dreams'. When asked to explain further, he chuckled and muttered something about football/soccer[47] instead.

Outside was Tsubaki's souvenir stand. Customers were often lining up before and after a play to get a bromide (photograph) of the actresses. Posters of the plays and of the actresses lined the walls. Jason had to vie with Ogami to collect the bromides, since Tsubaki made it clear that there was only a limited number to be sold to theater personnel.

The backstage housed various props and equipment needed to run the plays. The theater employed the black-clad Kuroku to help large-scale productions, but where they came from and where they disappeared afterwards remained a mystery to Jason.

Across the corridor was the music room. The theater employed a full professional orchestra for big plays, but usually they piped instrumental music through the speakers. The room had several pieces of musical instruments including a respectable piano used for musical rehearsals.

Nearby was the theater's office, where the remaining Kazegumi were found most of the time. The Grand Imperial Theater was a vast place; logistics and office work were real chores that fell to Kasumi and Yuri. Ogami and Jason were often 'drafted' to help the duo in their quest to eliminate boring paperwork.

The theater had a vast swimming pool within it. Housed within a cavernous room, the pool was a place of relaxation and exercise. Maria, being a non-swimmer; was a rare face here. Sakura, Iris and Sumire frequented it, enjoying their time in the water. Ogami was from the navy and thus sometimes seen as an impromptu instructor and lifeguard for them. On the other hand, Jason knew how to swim but avoided the pool like the plague, citing bad experiences with water despite being 400 years old.

Underneath the theater was the base for the Teikoku Kagekidan.

The control room was a place where Ogami wished not to see often. Whenever the Hanagumi were gathered there it was for only one reason, a threat to the Imperial City had appeared. But still, it was an impressive area of the base. A huge screen dominates it, usually depicting a sophisticated 3D map of the Imperial City and displaying hotspots of enemy activity. Three separate consoles manned by the Kazegumi trio were placed below it. A long oak table served as the central piece of the briefing area.

A bit further on was the hangar to the Koubus. It was Kohran's favorite place. She could be seen there, busily tweaking the machines to her heart's content. Spare-parts, tools and machinery were strewn about in one corner. A complicated system of hooks, pulleys and conveyor belts transport the Koubus to the Gouraigo bullet-train.

Nearby the hangar was the bullet-train itself. A huge steam-powered engine dominated the head, with its front fashioned to look like an iron-teethed monster. Massive wheels lined the machine. A single caboose was attached to the engine; it could carry ten Koubus if necessary. Globular portals lined its side, so that the hangar's transportation system could quickly deliver the Koubus directly into the train.

Underneath the train was a system of railways designed to connect into the public subways of the Imperial City. In an emergency, the railways will intersect and connect near instantaneously, allowing quick deployment. The citizens had learned to understand whenever their station was suddenly covered by steel mesh fences and a huge train blowing past without stopping; it was the sign of another sortie by the Teikoku Kagekidan.

All these rooms were quiet in the cool night. The moon was bright with no clouds to hide its luminosity. With the soft glow of the moon, everyone were sleeping fitfully, awaiting the dawn of the next day in their dreams.

Remember this night. For it would change very soon.

---

In her room, Iris tossed and turned restlessly on her posh bed. She was not ill, yet unknown to herself and everyone else; she was perspiring profusely in her sleep. Her body approached feverish temperature as she groaned in pain, turning her head this way and that.

Iris was having a nightmare.

      Raising her hands towards the ceiling, as if grasping at something, she shrieked in terror.

      Almost all of the Hanagumi awoke at once.

      Those who didn't woke up a few seconds later when the entire theater trembled underneath them. Distant thunder rocked the building.

      Eight doors slammed open as the Hanagumi leapt from their slumber and burst out of their rooms, still in their sleeping clothes (except for Jason, who slept in his jeans and t-shirt and a CD-player strapped to his waist).

      "What the hell is happening!?" Jason demanded as he pulled off the ear-phones.

      "An earthquake!?" Ogami asked.

      "Taicho!" Maria exclaimed as she looked outside from a window. The Hanagumi peered outside and saw the Imperial City in flames. Several explosions lit the night sky, turning the sky line into a flaming sea of red and yellow.

      "Everyone, get ready and head to the command center!" Ogami ordered. They quickly went into their respective rooms to grab their uniforms. When they came back out Jason did a head-count.

      "Iris is missing! You guys go ahead, we'll catch up!" Jason yelled as he headed towards the French girl's room, throwing on his trench coat as he ran.

      Bursting through her door, Jason found the young girl curled in a fetal position, her companion toy Jean-Paul tossed carelessly on the floor. She was crying as if in pain.

      Gritting his teeth and fighting his rising panic, Jason tried shaking the girl awake.      "Iris! Wake up!" Jason said urgently. She responded by clutching at the sides of her head, trying to press away the throbbing pain she felt in her head.

      Jason suppressed a curse and quickly scooped the little girl into his arms. He grabbed Jean-Paul without a thought as he ran out from the room.

      By the time he reached the command center the others had already fully changed and had assembled. They found the bedraggled but uniformed Kazegumi scrambling towards the command consoles.

      "Explosions in the city!" Tsubaki yelled, her eyes darting all over her console.

      "Tsukigumi reports flying creatures over the city!" Yuri said.

      "Go, ye children of darkness! Wreak your vengeance on the city!" Aoi Satan shouted madly, arms outstretched in a grand gesture. He was standing on a high building, looking down on the city contemptuously.

      Below, his Wakiji menaced the streets, destroying everything in their path. Citizens flee from their homes in panic; men, women and children wailing as they ran in terror. The unfortunate ones screamed in pain and suffering. Death throes filled the air which was becoming thick with black smoke.

      But the Wakiji were not acting alone. A dark shape flew past Aoi Satan, too quickly to be seen.

      Smiling, Aoi Satan lowered his hands and folded his arms across his chest. Several more dark shapes flew past him, heading towards the Grand Imperial Theater.

      "Bring me what I seek!"

      "What the hell are those things!?" Jason exclaimed as the Hanagumi stared at a live video feed from the flaming city.

      They were creatures from the stuff of nightmares. They flew with leathery wings, their open jaws revealing horrendous fangs and long, winding tongues slick with acidic saliva.

      The Hanagumi watched in mute horror as one of the living gargoyles ripped a lamp-post free and smashed it into a building like a lance.

      "Kouma!" Yoneda cursed as he arrived in haste. Unlike the Hanagumi, he had his own private albeit modest residence nearby. He was in his green military uniform and visibly sweating, having ran the whole way.

      The others turned to look at him.

      "Kouma?" Kohran asked.

      "I think that's the term for the enemies from the First Demon War, isn't that right, commander?" Maria asked, tearing her eyes away from the screen.

      Yoneda nodded grimly as he looked away from the screen. "Yes, you're right... though I had hoped never to see them again..."

      "Please give us the order to fight them, sir!" Ogami said.

      "Your Koubus are all damaged. It would be disastrous to send any of you to fight them!" Yoneda replied.

      The lights flickered as another rumble rocked the base. They could feel the thrum of the backup steam generators below them as the turbines kick into gear.

      "Wakiji presence detected!" Kasumi exclaimed anxiously.

      "Where!?" Yoneda demanded.

      She gave him a frightened look.

      "Here!"

      The explosions ripped a hole on the Grand Imperial Theater's side. Towering Wakiji slowly trudged within the crude opening, smashing their way within the building.

      There were no words to explain the feelings that the Hanagumi felt as the red blips representing the enemy moved into the 2D box that was their home on the map.

      Ogami slammed his fist on the oak table, gritting his teeth in anger. It pretty much summed up the Hanagumi's thoughts.

      "If only I had finished repairing the Koubus in time!" Kohran lamented. The battle damage from Valentinov's adventure was considerable to the Hanagumi, especially for Kohran and Jason. None of the Koubus were in 100% fighting condition.

      "It's not your fault, Kohran... the enemy did not intend to give us time to rest," Yoneda said.

      "Commander, what are your orders?" Ogami asked. Dust shook free from the ceiling as yet another explosion rumbled in the distance.

      The red blips within the theater began to grow in numbers.

      Drawing to his full height, Yoneda turned to face all of them.

      "All units... begin evacuation to the Hana-Yashiki."

      Reluctantly, they began to do so. But Ogami noticed something amiss as they scrambled.

"Commander, where's Ayame-san!?"

"She's still on the second floor!" Tsubaki gasped, zooming the screen on the said level. A single blue blip appeared at the increased magnification. The staircase area leading up to the second floor was rapidly being flooded by red dots representing the Wakiji.

"Damn it!"

Jason turned to run out before Yoneda could stop him. Ogami tried to follow but Yoneda managed to pull him back.

"Fool! You're the leader! Take charge of the evacuation!" Yoneda snarled as he himself ran past the younger man.

It was situations like these that Ogami cursed himself for being a leader with responsibilities.

Gunshots echoed through the lobby as Jason rolled to hide behind a pillar. He quickly snapped off another shot and reloaded his ponderous gun.

Several of the Wakiji had already been killed but there were a few more blocking the staircase. The green blood of their fallen brethren stained the carpeted floor.

"Man, the cleaning bill's going to be a bitch," Jason muttered as he looked at the mess.

"Jason! You're going to pay for the cleaning bill!" Yoneda swore as he came up to a pillar himself. Jason winced.

"Old man, just what do you think you're doing here?" Jason demanded, firing several more shots, killing another Wakiji. The two remaining monsters responded by firing their crude guns, adding holes into the marble pillar.

"Disrespectful wretch!" Yoneda grumbled as he unsheathed his katana.

"'Hell-Raising' Yoneda Ikki... will I see him return today?" Jason asked bemusedly.

"Let's proceed," Yoneda replied.

The duo laughed as they charged at the Wakiji.

---

"The Koubus have been loaded into Gouraigo!" Kasumi reported to Ogami, who nodded in acknowledgment.

"Good, now get your team into the train and begin the start-up sequence. We'll buy as much time as we can!"

The Kazegumi trio saluted and complied, with Kasumi cradling the still unconscious Iris as they boarded the bullet-train.

The Hanagumi were fighting a desperate battle to hold off the Wakiji from entering the hangar area. Even without their Koubus, they managed to halt the Wakiji advance.

Kanna twirled her twin tonfas and smashed aside a Wakiji that strayed too close. Maria finished it off with several shots from her Enfield.

"Damn! There are too many of them!" Kanna complained as more Wakiji shuffled into view.

"I will never forgive them for violating our home!" Maria promised as she fired repeatedly into the enemy ranks.

"Maria-han, Kanna-han, get down!" Kohran's voice came from behind them. They glanced back and quickly dropped to the ground as she heaved a massive steam-powered bazooka onto her shoulders.

The single projectile struck the ceiling and caused a cave-in, burying the Wakiji under the rubble.

As the dust settled, Maria and Kanna stood up to view the destruction.

"Good job, but that was reckless, Kohran," Maria admonished, causing Kohran to laugh sheepishly.

"Yeah, you could have caused more damage than the Wakiji," Kanna joked.

Elsewhere in the hangar, Sumire spun her naginata high above her head before bringing it down, neatly dividing a Wakiji into two equal parts. Its innards and green blood poured messily on the floor.

She flicked her hair as she stopped to recover her breath. She resisted the temptation to wipe the sweat from her brow.

"Evil beasts! To push me to such an extent... unforgivable!" she muttered.

Off to her side, Sumire saw Sakura with her Arataka katana in a stance facing a lone Wakiji.

Yelling a battlecry, Sakura leapt to reach the Wakiji's head level and decapitated it. The Wakiji toppled over backwards and landed with a crash, green blood erupting from the severed neck. Sakura cleaned her blade of the blood stains with a flick of the wrist.

She glanced upwards. "I hope Ayame-san is alright," she said worriedly.

"Honestly, Sakura-san, don't you have any confidence in our commander? I'm sure they are doing their best," Sumire replied without her customary sting.

Sakura smiled at her. "Yes, I will do my best too!"

"Hmph, I expect nothing less for you to keep up with me."

---

"That wasn't too bad," Jason said as they dusted themselves off.

"Speak for yourself. I'm going to get back pains in the morning," Yoneda complained.

Jason shrugged. "Well, at least you handled that Wakiji well. Nice diagonal cut, by the way."

"Hmph, if I was a little younger I would have sliced both of them without your help," Yoneda replied.

An explosion stopped their banter. They looked up at the staircase.

"The second floor..."

"Let's go, old man!"

They raced up the staircase.

"Ayame!" Yoneda called as they barged through her room's door.

They came face to face with a leering Kouma that had Ayame cornered at one side of her room. Part of the roof and the surrounding walls had been ripped away, exposing the room to the outside. The curtains fluttered in the night wind, paperwork and other miscellaneous items were scattered everywhere.

Immediately Jason fired twice, hitting the Kouma on its leathery body. It staggered but did not die; it turned to face them instead. It's long tongue wagged, as if taunting Jason's ineffective attack, dripping acidic saliva that sizzled on the woodwork.

"What?!" Jason yelled, disbelieving.

"This is where I step in," Yoneda said and slashed at the creature with his katana. It stood rock still as the blade sliced horizontally through its body like a hot knife through butter, as if unaffected.

Then it squealed like a stuck pig and dissipated in a cloud of smoke.

"..." Jason said, because he was speechless.

"You can see now that I am not joking when I said we're fighting evil," Yoneda said grimly as he sheathed his sword.

"...Was there something wrong with my eyes or was your sword glowing?" Jason asked dubiously.

Yoneda grinned. "Nah, it probably was just the moonlight."

"Man, I need to get Ripper[48] back..." Jason muttered.

"What?"

Jason shook his head. "Forget it."

They approached the relieved Vice-Commander. Despite the lateness of the hour, she was still in her uniform.

"Ayame-san, you alright?" Jason asked as he offered a hand. She gratefully pulled herself with his help.

"Yes, I'm alright now," she said smiling. She turned to face Yoneda. "Thank you, commander... I'm sorry that I caused you this much trouble."

Yoneda grunted and waved her apology off. "We were all taken off guard. No need to blame yourself."

"Yes sir," Ayame replied softly. "I was too slow to get my sidearm." She picked up the army-issued revolver from her nightstand and holstered it.

"Not that it will do any good against the Kouma. You need to regain some of your lost sword skills," Yoneda remarked lightly. She laughed, it sounded like the trickle of the morning rain. It was refreshing for them to hear after their ordeal.

"My combat days are long over, Commander... though it seems that you have some fight in you still," she said with a smile.

"I can't help it if this fool here has to depend on an old man like me to fight the Kouma," Yoneda said, poking a finger at Jason, who grimaced.

"Well excuuuuuuuuuse me, I never fought demons before, unlike you two," Jason said defensively.

"Ahh, that was nothing... you should have seen us back then, we were magnificent in the First Demon War..." Yoneda said wistfully.

"Old man, are you getting nostalgic on me?" Jason said snidely.

"You Exodusian punk! Why I oughta..."

Their conversation degenerated into a comical scuffle as Jason taunted the Japanese man.

Seeing their distraction, Ayame took the opportunity to sift through the debris that was her room. She knelt as she brushed aside some of the dirt on the floor and found what she was looking for, causing her face to light up in joy.

It was a photograph, from days long past.

"Is that someone important, Ayame-san?" Jason asked curiously, startling her. She glanced behind her shoulder to see Jason being caught in Yoneda's headlock. Despite his predicament, he was unconcerned, nonchalant even as Yoneda puffed and huffed at the effort.

She smiled softly as she looked at the photograph, yellowed with the passing of time.

"It's just a reminder of a good friend I lost in the war..."

There was sadness in her tone that caused Yoneda to release his hold on Jason.

"Yamazaki?" Yoneda asked softly as Jason straightened himself. Jason shut his mouth; he had heard stories from Yoneda about his days in the Anti-Kouma Squad.

Ayame merely nodded as she continued to gaze at the photograph. Yoneda placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"He was a good man," Yoneda said.

 "'Was' being the operative word," a sinister voice said.

They spun around to see a figure floating outside. His feet hovered over the ground as he entered the room, his arms folded across his chest. A sardonic smile lined his handsome features.

"You!" Jason yelled, aiming his gun at him, holding it steady with both hands.

"Yamazaki!" Yoneda growled, causing Jason to gape at him.

"What!?" Jason exclaimed as he looked at Aoi Satan again. His mind went back to Yoneda's office... he had seen a framed photograph on his desk, a group shot showing a younger Yoneda Ikki, Shinguiji Kazuma, Fujieda Ayame and... Yamazaki Shinnosuke.

He mentally placed Yamazaki and Aoi Satan's faces side by side... and they matched. The hair color was different, the gentle eyes and smile replaced by cruel ones. But they were the same person.

As Jason scrambled to recover his wits, Aoi Satan/Yamazaki Shinnosuke landed and slowly approached them.

      He noticed the photograph Ayame was holding. She was stunned to see him, unable to tear her eyes away from him.

      "Still holding on to old memories eh, Ayame?" the leader of the Kuronosukai said sarcastically.

      She tried to reach for him on impulse. Yoneda stretched a hand to block her.

      "No, Ayame! He's not Yamazaki anymore!" Yoneda shouted.

      Holding the photograph close to her heart, Ayame stopped in her tracks. "Sho-sa Major!" she called to him, referring to his last held rank.

Aoi Satan threw his head back and laughed vociferously.

      "The old fool is right, Ayame! I am no longer Yamazaki... My name is Aoi Satan!"

      "Just what are you planning to do!?" Yoneda demanded.

      Aoi Satan sneered. "You're clever to get those girls to fight in those steel puppets... they are the last remaining threat to my success. Once I eliminate those fools, no one can stop me."

      "I won't allow that to happen," Yoneda said as he unsheathed his katana.

      "Hoh... you want to fight me with that piece of scrap metal?" Aoi Satan sneered as he withdrew his own blade. It cackled with energy, coursing all over the black blade.

      A gunshot thundered as a bullet whizzed past Aoi Satan's face. It was enough to draw a line of blood on his cheek.

      "Impertinent man... I haven't forgotten my promise about taking your head," Aoi Satan said, his lips twisted in a cruel grin. The flesh wound had already begun to close, the black liquid that was his blood drying quickly.

      Jason smirked. "We'll see... I'm not that easy to be killed either."

      "Sho-sa... Why? Why are you doing this?" Ayame asked. Her voice was breaking.

      "Do you really want to know? Why don't you join me and find out?" Aoi Satan invited.

      "What?" she drew back, horrified.

      "Yes, join me Ayame... We can wipe this ugly city out from the face of the planet. This Teito is corrupted, diseased! It's like a cancerous tumor ready to be surgically removed! Join me!" Aoi Satan said, reaching for her.

      "Never!" she shook her head, taking a step back.

      "I see... perhaps I can persuade you otherwise..." Aoi Satan replied, slowly walking towards her.

      Yoneda and Jason immediately blocked his path by standing in front of Ayame.

      "You heard the lady," Jason said with a feral grin on his lips.

      "Hah, he never took rejections well," Yoneda said offhandedly.

      Aoi Satan raised his sword and charged, bellowing with rage. Jason fired a shot but Aoi Satan merely swiped the bullet away with his unholy blade and continued. Jason fired again but he sidestepped the second bullet.

      Then Yoneda moved forward with his sword and they exchanged several blows. Their swords clashed repeatedly, metal against metal clanging in the night, showering sparks whenever they met. Yoneda's back was to Jason and thus blocked his field of fire.

      Pushing Yoneda back, the Kuronosukai leader raised his sword high and brought it down full force. Yoneda held his sword horizontally to meet the stroke with his left palm supporting the blade's blunt back. But his katana was no match for Aoi Satan's.

Cracks appeared on Yoneda's sword, threatening to break into pieces. Yoneda fell onto one knee and Aoi Satan took advantage of it. He lashed out with a vicious kick that sent Yoneda crashing away.

In one smooth motion, Aoi Satan then took several steps forward and swung his sword horizontally at Jason's neck. Aoi Satan stopped when a cold metallic thing touched his forehead.

They were in a standoff, with Aoi Satan's blade at Jason's neck while the latter's gun pointed directly at Aoi Satan's temple.

      Jason grinned, knowing he had the upper hand. Aoi Satan made a mistake when he stopped his blade, had he continued Jason's head would have been severed. Of course, there was the risk of having his own head blown off by Jason's gun, but Jason would have been very dead by then.

      As it was, Jason could easily pull the trigger if Aoi Satan dared to move a muscle. Aoi Satan growled with anger at his situation.

      Then he smiled.

      Ayame screamed when a Kouma suddenly lunged from the air and snatched her up in its claws. Like an eagle having captured a prey, it soared high into the sky before Jason could react.

      "Ayame-san!" Jason hollered. Aoi Satan seized the opportunity to shoulder-charged the distracted man, knocking Jason down.

"I have what I seek!" Aoi Satan grinned evilly, slowly floating off the floor.

Jason could not shoot at the rapidly escaping Kouma that had captured Ayame; he would risk hitting the struggling Japanese woman instead.

      Yoneda yelled and tried to hack at the ascending Aoi Satan, but the figure merely laughed as he disappeared from view.

      Yoneda fell onto his knees and punched the floor.

      "Damn it!"

      "We'll get her back, old man," Jason said quietly. When Yoneda didn't respond, he turned to look. Yoneda was still on his knees, head bowed low.

      One hand was clutched around his abdomen where Aoi Satan had kicked him earlier.

      "Old man?" Jason asked warily as he tried to rouse him. To his shock, Jason found the Japanese man to be bleeding from the mouth.

      "Yoneda!"

---

Despite successfully stopping the Wakiji threat at the theater, the Hanagumi quietly boarded the Gouraigo with heavy spirits.

They were shocked when Jason returned carrying an unconscious Yoneda. A cursory examination revealed several broken ribs and possibly internal bleeding. Jason tersely explained what had happened while Kasumi administered some medical aid to Yoneda.

Everyone was unsure of what to do. Their commander was severely injured and the second-in-command had been captured by the enemy.

Then Jason quietly restored their confidence by asking Ogami a question:

"What are your orders, taicho?"

Ogami's eyes had widened. But when he saw the hopeful eyes of the Hanagumi were depending on him, his resolve strengthened.

"The base has been compromised. With our Koubus in no fighting condition, we must withdraw until a suitable solution is found. We will make the Hana-Yashiki branch our temporary headquarters," he said with a conviction that all of them felt.

But even so, each felt sadness as they boarded the bullet-train. They were leaving their beloved home in ruins.

Jason sat alone in the train, staring out at the blurred tunnel as it sped towards the Hana-Yashiki base. He was so lost in his thoughts that he did not notice that he had a visitor until she touched him gently on the hand.

Startled, he turned to see Maria sitting beside him.

"How are you feeling?" she asked softly.

He gave her a wan smile. "Not the best of days," he admitted.

"I understand... leaving like this," Maria said.

He gave her his full attention. Jason decided that she was far more interesting than watching the bland tunnel walls whiz by endlessly.

"What about the others?" he asked in return.

"They are putting up with it quite well... At least Iris is getting better now. I was worried about her fever, but it seems to have subsided."

"And Yoneda?"

"He's still unconscious, but at least the bleeding stopped. We won't know for sure until we get him to a doctor," Maria said somberly.

"That old man won't die just yet. He won't go until he gets me into one of those damned uniforms like Ogami," Jason replied, trying to lighten her mood.

Maria smiled in appreciation of his effort, but it quickly faded.

"I'm more worried about the vice-commander," she replied. It was Jason's turn to place his hand onto Maria's to comfort her.

"She's a tough woman," he said. Maria nodded in agreement.

"Yes, she is... It was Ayame who brought me here to the Imperial City. She... she saved me from a life of darkness..."

Maria shook her head and laughed sadly. "I must be getting too sentimental... I know I told you this before."

"It's alright, Maria."

"Sometimes I wonder... what kind of life I would have led if I refused to hear her out?" She chuckled. "She is very stubborn to say the least... she never gave up on me."

"We won't give up on her either," Jason reminded her.

She bowed her head low. "I know... but lose so much in one stroke... will we be able to return to the theater ever again?"

He squeezed her hand. She looked at him in surprise, blushing.

"We will... it's the theater of dreams, isn't it? It's our home."

She smiled.

Then she looked over to the front, where Ogami could be seen sitting alone as he poured over a book.

"What is he reading?" Jason asked.

"It's Commander Yoneda's journal from the First Demon War. I had read it myself when I was the squad leader, before Ogami arrived to take command," she answered.

"What's inside?"

She shook her head. "Nothing much of strategic value... it only gave vague details of the war. But Ogami believes that he could learn something about the Kouma from it."

"He's being meticulous."

"I guess we need every help we can get," she mumbled.

---

The train finally stopped at the underground base of the Hana-Yashiki. As they stepped off the train, the Hanagumi could see a bustle of activity everywhere. Lab-coated personnel, mechanics and soldiers were working side-by-side without a difference in rank or status.

The place was so busy that the Hanagumi could not tell where the working area stopped and the train platform began, everyone was working everywhere.

They had just gotten off the train at the Hana-Yashiki base when the brown-haired, white-suited man greeted them at the platform.

"Kayama!" Ogami exclaimed in surprise. Jason heard him and looked at the man.

To Jason's considerable apprehension, Kayama had an acoustic guitar strapped from his shoulder. His whole attire was in stark contrast of the men and women who were working feverishly around them.

 "Yo, Ogami!" Kayama greeted cheerily. He strummed the guitar nonchalantly; the twanging of the strings annoyed the Hanagumi.

"What are –you- doing here?" Ogami asked.

Kayama acted as if he was hurt. "Is that any way to greet a friend?"

Ogami shook his head impatiently. "You are a navy officer, why are you here? I thought you were on a tour of duty onboard the Arisa."

"Specifically, perhaps you mean about me being in the Teikoku Kagekidan's secret Hana-Yashiki base?" Kayama asked. He smiled at the Hanagumi's surprised reactions.

Ogami was particularly stunned.

"Ogami, you're still the same as always," he said, seemingly taking perverse pleasure at Ogami's look. He strummed the guitar again.

"Taicho... this is your good friend?" Kanna asked bluntly.

Ogami was not in any better mood. "To my shame, yes, this is the Kayama I told all of you about."

"I am not impressed," Sumire replied frankly.

Ogami had sketched some details on Kayama to the Hanagumi: he was second place in Ogami's class at the naval academy, and was also in consideration to be chosen as the Hanagumi leader.

After finally seeing the seemingly dandy-mannered person, even Sakura was a little disappointed. Seeing him now, the Hanagumi were privately glad that Yoneda chose Ogami to their squad leader. Add in their mixed feelings from the previous battle, everyone was understandably a little out of sorts.

Kayama did not take offense at Kanna and Sumire's rudeness, he merely smirked. There was something about his smile that made Kanna furious. She grabbed the man by the collar.

"Do you think it's funny!? How can you find anything to be funny while the city is in chaos!?" Kanna snapped.

The Hanagumi were not surprised by her outburst. They knew that her pent up frustration had just boiled over.

Kayama's eyes did not lose the mischievousness. "This must be the great Kirishima Kanna."

"Er, yes..." Ogami muttered, unsure on how to diffuse the situation.

Kayama grinned wider, which only infuriated Kanna even more.

"Kanna!" Maria and Jason said sternly at the same time.

Kanna gave them a glance. Seeing their frowning looks, she released him, realizing her anger was not doing any good to anybody.

He adjusted his red tie. "Ogami, where's Lieutenant General Yoneda?"

Ogami cast his eyes downwards. "He was injured in the attack on the Grand Imperial Theater... he's still unconscious."

Kayama's indifferent facade disappeared as the Kazegumi wheeled the stricken commander out on a bed. Several medical personnel rushed from the base to greet them.

"I see... and Major Fujieda Ayame?" Kayama asked in a serious tone. Jason recognized the change of another man emerging from a hidden personality.

"She was captured by the enemy," Ogami replied without thinking.

"So that's what happened," Kayama muttered to himself. He snapped into attention and saluted Ogami, who was surprised by the gesture.

"Kayama...?"

His eyes hardened and his lips were in a thin line. He had transformed into a totally different person. Only mere minutes ago Kayama seemed like a tactless fool, here he stood before the Hanagumi like a soldier.

"According to Commander Yoneda's standing orders, the next in the chain of command would be you. From now on, Ogami Ichiro is the commander of the Teikoku Kagekidan!" Kayama said loudly.

Everyone within the platform stopped whatever they were doing. With almost perfect synchronization they all clicked their heels in attention and saluted. The Hanagumi followed suit a second later with Maria leading the way.

Shocked, Ogami did not respond initially. Then he shut his mouth, drew a deep breath, returned the salute and nodded. The area returned to work immediately.

"Since you're now the commander, there's no need for me to hide my identity any longer. I am Kayama Yuuichi, squad leader of the Tsukigumi," he said formally.

"You? Leader of the Tsukigumi?" Ogami asked incredulously.

"If you could give me some time to change into my working clothes..." Kayama replied with a smile.

---

The working clothes he referred to was the uniform of the Tsukigumi. They were dressed in black gi, almost like the legendary ninja of ancient Japan. With the uniform, Kayama's transformation was complete. No one doubted his credibility as he guided the Hanagumi to their quarters. He then led Ogami, Maria and Jason to the briefing room.

"How is it out there?" Ogami asked, referring to the city.

Kayama shook his head. "See for yourself," he said as he showed them in.

The room was dominated by a large screen, showing the Imperial City in gridlines. Most of it was covered in red.

"The army is doing everything they can, but their efforts are in vain. They would be forced to pull back soon. At their current rate of losses, we have perhaps 72 hours at most," Kayama said.

"What about the Imperial Palace?" Ogami asked.

Kayama shrugged. "Undisturbed. I heard that the Imperial Guards are on standby, but so far no Wakiji or Kouma had tried to approach the palace."

Ogami nodded. "Just as the commander predicted."

They turned to him in surprise. Ogami explained to them.

"In the Records of the First Demon War, Yoneda wrote that the Imperial Palace was built on highly advantageous grounds, both strategically and spiritually. It seems that our enemies are afraid to get near it."

"Still, that means that only the palace is safe... for now. We still need a plan to stop the Kouma," Maria said.

Ogami showed her Yoneda's journal. "We might have one... 'The Formation for Repulsing Evil' mentioned in this book."

"I don't understand," Maria replied.

"Towards the end of the war, Yoneda theorized that spiritually powerful people could be placed in a formation, thus increasing their individual and total power. Such a formation could theoretically banish all Kouma in an extremely wide area," Ogami said.

"I don't recall the commander having written the exact formation," Maria said.

"No, he didn't. As I said, it was just a theory... We have to find it ourselves," Ogami confirmed.

Maria nodded. "I see... I will get Kohran to help set up the simulation programs as soon as possible."

Jason turned to Kayama. "Have you found the Kuronosukai base yet?" he asked.

Kayama was about to reply when one of the black-clad Tsukigumi burst into the room. He saluted Kayama and passed a piece of paper to him. Kayama's eyes scanned the report quickly.

He looked up and gave them a grim look.

"Yes, we have."

He pointed a finger to the screen. They traced his finger to an empty blue grid several kilometers away from the Imperial City.

Maria frowned. "That's the sea. It's underwater?"

Kayama shook his head. "Not quite. Watch."

Then, slowly, the grid changed from blue to red. It slowly expanded to cover its surrounding boxes to resemble a jagged, circular island.

"Bwah?" Jason exclaimed.

"There was a minor earthquake detected from the sea just now. A new island rose from the epicenter. Lots of spiritual energy is detected emanating from the island and a large structure could be seen in the center of the island," Kayama responded grimly.

"Then that's where we're going," Ogami said.

---

For the next day, the Hana-Yashiki branch marshaled their entire resources to repair and modify the Koubus. With guidance from Kohran and some additional information gleaned from the Record, the engineers worked feverishly around the clock.

As for the Hanagumi, Ogami put them through a punishing schedule of simulations after several hours of rest from their arrival. They accepted the tight timetable with no complaints; they understood the urgency with time working against them.

And so they drilled again and again, with the Kazegumi supervising from the command centers.

But after countless number of tests that failed to meet his high expectations, Ogami gave the Hanagumi a break. There were no complaints against the squad leader's relentless simulations.

Ogami gave them a pep talk before leaving the room. Outside, Ogami wiped his face with a tired hand, sighing heavily.

"Don't give up."

Ogami turned to see Jason coming out of the room. He closed the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone in the hallway.

"I won't, Jason. You can count on that," Ogami replied determinedly.

Jason nodded. Then he frowned. "Still... I don't see what you're looking for with this formation. It sounds too much like a long shot to me."

"From the Record, it is said that with the formation it's possible to increase our spiritual powers by a factor of ten with the right catalyst. We did achieve some increase but it's nowhere near that," Ogami said.

Jason gave him a look. "There's something else?"

"Yeah," Ogami admitted.

"What's that?"

He hesitated before replying, "I've got another reason for wanting this to succeed."

"What is it?" Jason persisted.

"No hard feelings, Jason... but I'm willing to find that long shot than have the army turn the orbital guns on the island," Ogami continued in a gentler tone.

Jason shuddered. One hundred and fifty years ago, Arion Wong did exactly that and caused the destruction of an entire city on Earth. In history books it was called the Megatokyo Disaster of 2246. Soldat's propaganda machine called it a massacre, even though the city had been abandoned in time due to warnings given by the Exodusians.

Jason quickly pushed aside the bad memories.

"I understand, Ogami. I had no choice then... but we might have one here. Anyways, there's something I want to tell you that I just remembered," he said.

"What is it?"

"At the theater, Aoi Satan mentioned something about the girls being the last threat to his success. He didn't mention you or me... Could it be...?"

Ogami felt as if lightning had struck him.

"That's it!"

"Does everyone understand the simulation guidelines?" Ogami asked the attentive Hanagumi in the briefing room.

"We are to form a formation without the taicho and Jason this time, is that correct?" Maria asked in return.

"Yes. This is something we came up together. My own spiritual power is low, and Jason's... a special case, being an Exodusian. But the six of you have comparable levels of spiritual strength," Ogami said.

"So, exactly what –is- our formation?" Sumire asked, a little impatiently.

"There are no set positions in this configuration..." Jason answered, "...except for Iris and Sakura."

Ogami motioned at the screen. Six different colored blips appeared on it.  Five of them were arranged around a central yellow blip. Lines connected the five outer blips, causing the formation to resemble a five-sided box cointaing another blip within it.

Ogami explained, pointing at the yellow blip. "Iris would be in the middle of the arrangement at all times, because she has the highest spiritual ratings. She acts as an anchor for all of you."

Despite her weary look, Iris blushed as they looked at her. Jason gave her a thumbs up.

Ogami then pointed at the top of the pentagram, at the pink-colored blip. "Sakura's spiritual level seemed to be the most stable and consistent in all recorded simulations, so she will act as the point. Her main duty is to act as Iris' shield."

Sakura nodded.

"The rest of you will be in these positions," Jason continued. The four other blips exchange colors among themselves.

"But I repeat: there are no set positions. It is up to all of you to determine who should be in the front or back at all times. For example, if an enemy is approaching from a distance, Maria and Kohran would move upfront to fire their ranged weapons. Sumire and Kanna would drop back to protect the rear in this case," Jason explained as the red and purple blips fell behind the yellow while the blue and green moved up beside the pink spot.

"However, once the formation enters a melee combat situation, the reverse would happen," Ogami said. The blue and green moved back while the red and purple took their places respectively.

"When the situation demands for something else, the formation is flexible enough so that all four points can be interchangeable," he said. The four colors then exchanged places with each other rapidly.

Ogami turned to them once more. "This is just a simulation, but if this works, we have a fighting chance of wiping out Aoi Satan and the Kouma."

"Impressive work, taicho," Maria commented with a tint of praise.

"Hey, what about me?" Jason asked jokingly, causing them to laugh. It's been awhile since any of the Hanagumi laughed.

"We still have to test it first. We still don't know whether it works or not," Ogami cautioned after the laughter subsided.

"Yosh, let's find out!" Kanna said enthusiastically. The Hanagumi girls cheered together, in higher spirits for the first time since leaving the theater.

---

Despite the urgency of the moment, Ogami gave them the next day off to cure their weariness. Even so, the Hanagumi did not drop their vigilance. It only meant that the simulations were over, all that was left was to use what they had learnt against the Kouma in actual combat tomorrow. They achieved a modicum of success, Ogami said, and they deserve rest before the battle ahead.

Each of them spent their precious time with the knowledge that if they fell in battle tomorrow, all would be lost.

Today was the first and could also be the last day of the rest of their lives. If they fail, not only their lives would be lost, but also the lives of the people who made the Imperial City their home.

For the Hanagumi, trying to relax with that knowledge was difficult.

Jason woke up early and was walking around aimlessly in his usual attire with bleary eyes before he found Kanna in the gym of the Hana-Yashiki. She did not notice him entering the room.

Jason leaned on the wall and stifled a yawn. He watched as she lifted dumbbells on each hand, alternating quickly. Despite the early hour, she was already sweating profusely. Jason wondered how long she had been awake.

"Yo," he called out suddenly.

Kanna stopped and glanced back. "Mornin', partner," she replied. She continued with the exercise. "You're up earlier than usual. Up for some sparring?"

Jason chuckled and shook his head. "Siao Crazy[49]. I'm not going into battle tomorrow all black and blue, thank you. How are you feeling?"

She placed the dumbbells on the floor and turned to face him.

"It's just that... butterflies in the stomach ya know? I mean, everything's ridin' on this big, final battle," Kanna said as she grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat. "Kinda like how I felt when I went up the stage to perform for the first time," she sighed.

Jason grinned. "But I think you did well, didn't you?"

Kanna laughed, recalling some of the memories. "Yeah... I did pretty good... it was the best feeling, to be cheered by so many people."

She wrapped the towel around her neck and tugged at the ends of it. "I never thought I could do so well in the theater... I mean, all my life, the only things I can do well are karate and cooking. The theater made me realize another part of me... a side that I have never known before."

She sighed again. "Dad always wanted a boy, ya know. Wonder how he feels about me in theater... an actress in fancy costumes."

Jason chuckled.

"Eh?" Kanna said, puzzled.

"I think you're more than anything your dad had hoped for in a boy," he answered brightly.

"What do you mean?" Kanna asked.

"Hey, you can do karate, cooking and acting. You fight to defend the Imperial City. You give people hope and dreams when you act on stage. You can do anything a guy can do and more. Heck, I've seen guys –and- girls falling for your performances on stage."

She blushed. "S-stop it, you're embarrassing me!"

"Reeeaaalllly?" Jason teased.

"What, you think it's strange for me to be embarrassed by flattery?" Kanna demanded.

"Nope, I don't think it's strange!" Jason said with a grin.

"Is that so?" she demanded, planting her hands on her hips.

"Well, you –are- a girl, aren't you?" Jason answered with a smile and a shrug. He headed for the door. "See you around," he said cheerily and left.

Kanna stood there, watching the door. She pondered on his words, scratching her face absent-mindedly.

"A girl huh?"

She grinned to herself and went back to training.

---

Jason continued to wander around the base. He spotted Kohran in the cafeteria, absent-mindedly munching on a sandwich while pouring over blueprints and schematics. He sat directly in front of her unnoticed; she was too engrossed in her work, twirling a pencil on one hand and holding the sandwich with the other.

To Jason's bemusement, Kohran opened her mouth wide and slowly moved the pencil towards it. She did not realize her mistake as she kept her eyes on the blueprints.

Just before she took a bite of the pencil's rubber tip, Jason snatched the pencil away, startling her.

"Wah, Jason-han!" she exclaimed, her free hand clutching her heart in an expression of shock.

"Silly girl," Jason chuckled and spun the pencil on his fingers.

She laughed and set her half-eaten sandwich down on an empty plate. "Don't scare me like that!" she admonished.

"What, and let you have a case of indigestion later?" Jason smirked, pointing at her with the pencil.

Kohran grinned and rubbed the back of her head. "Ahaha... guess I was too occupied," she said sheepishly.

"Huh. With what?"

"Oh, this!" Kohran gestured grandly over the spread blueprints. "It's my design for the next version of the Koubus!"

"Well, you're planning quite ahead," Jason said.

"Yeah," Kohran said with a smile. "I'm thinking of upgrading the material so that Koubus can fight other mecha on more equal terms. In our previous battle with Valentinov, we got outclassed because of his superior weapons."

"Outclassed," Jason mumbled and grimaced, remembering that his Koubu was severely damaged by Valentinov's autocannon.

Kohran did not notice his comment. "I mean, after we beat the Kuronosukai tomorrow, the only threat to the Imperial City would only come from Luthien's enemies... and they won't be affected by spiritual powers like the Wakiji..."

"So you're planning to use lasers and such?" Jason asked skeptically.

Kohran shook her head vigorously. "No, no! Koubus are for defending the people; they are not made for war. That's the job for the army and space force. Besides, those weapons are illegal here in Luthien."

She glanced at her schematics, eyes filled with obvious pride. "Koubus aren't killing machines... I'm just helping them so that they can fight both non-human and human-based threats like Valentinov. Who knows what the future holds?"

"Yeah, I understand," Jason answered knowingly. He was glad to see Kohran was looking forward to the future instead of being glum and worried about the upcoming battle.

Kohran adjusted her glances, causing Jason to look at her curiously. She noticed his stare.

"What?" she asked.

"I'm just curious. Why the glasses? It's the 24th century, why not contacts? Or better still; get laser surgery at the hospital?"

She chuckled. "Hey, all inventor-types got to have glasses!"

Jason laughed along. "Ho... You remind me of my friend... Have you heard of Jeffrey Goh?"

"Of course! He's one of my idols of science! Exodusian, brilliant inventor of a gadzillion objects and theorists of a dozen principles still in use today... do you know him well?" she asked hopefully.

Jason smirked. "Do I know him well? Heh, you can say that. He's practically the reason why I am the way I am today[50]."

"Oh! Can you introduce him to me?!" she asked excitedly.

"And get his face blown up by your inventions?" Jason teased.

"Hey, don't be so cruel! They were only accidents..."

"It's a wonder that your glasses never break whenever those 'accidents' happen," Jason said, changing the topic.

"Haha, that's true! Besides, I look cute with it, don't I?"

Jason cupped his chin and gave her an appraising look. "Hmm, you're right," he agreed with a smile. He stood and returned her pencil. "Well, catch you later. Remember; eat the sandwich, not the pencil!"

As he left, Kohran picked up the pencil.

"I'm right?" she asked the pencil. It did not respond.

She chuckled. She went back to work, taking more care to eat the sandwich and not the pencil.

---

Jason was in a considerably better mood after seeing those two. He made it a private quest to see each of the Hanagumi today.

He found Sumire all by herself in a quiet corner of the base. She was deep in thought, staring off into the distance with a cup of tea in her hands. From the looks of it, she had been there for quite a while.

"Good morning, Sumire," Jason greeted as he sat beside her.

She seemed startled from her reverie. She took several moments to regain her composure.

"Good morning to you too, Jason-san," she said finally.

"Heavy thoughts?" Jason asked.

She smiled confidently. "Ah, you must think I'm as soft as the others. How ridiculous! I'm the Teito's top star, after all!"

Jason smirked. "Heh. I guess you're right. I mean, you take the center stage in everything you put your heart in."

She nodded, pleased at his response. "Finally, someone who understands! As a star on the stage and on the battlefield, it's impossible for me to be bothered by the same trivial things that disturb the others."

Jason grinned wider.

Sumire tossed her hair in a show of irritation. "Honestly, when I look at the others, I can't help but feel great sorrow. I have to work twice as hard to compensate for everyone's deficiencies. Don't you think so?"

Jason did not say anything, his smile only got broader.

She gave him an annoyed look. "Jason-san! It's rude to smile like an idiot while I'm talking to you!" she snapped.

Jason burst into laughter. "Haha... sorry, Sumire. I guess I was busy looking at your face."

"Oh?" Sumire said, arching an eyebrow and smiled.

"Yeah... I mean, heh, not to be rude or anything, but you got panda eyes," Jason said, referring to the dark rings around her eyes.

She gasped and pounded his shoulder several times with a fist.

"How dare you!" she said fiercely. When Jason responded with even more laughter, she finally broke and joined in as well. Their mirth filled the room.

"Hey," Jason said as their laughter subsided.

Sumire wiped her tears away with a dainty handkerchief.

"Yes?"

"It's the first time I've seen you laugh so hard," Jason remarked.

She paused, and then gave him a dazzling smile. "Well then, you're a lucky person. It's not often I get to laugh like that."

"I noticed," Jason said dryly. "Why aren't you more like this around the others?"

Sumire cast her eyes downwards in a wistful gesture. "Do you know what I said when I visited you in the hospital, when you were still unconscious from your injuries?"

Jason shook his head.

"Well, let me tell you now. You know of my family background, don't you?"

"Yes. The elegant, beautiful daughter of an influential businessman and a successful actress."

She smiled. "You're correct. When you told us about your life... about how you were the eldest of four children in your family, I was... envious. Not of your family's wealth in possessions, but in relations."

Sumire sighed and looked up at the steel-reinforced ceilings of the Hana-Yashiki.

"I'm the only child. My parents gave me everything I ever wanted... except they were never there. They were always too busy with their careers, and I'm always left alone with body-guards, maids and butlers of the house. It's the way I grew up," Sumire said.

"Well, Kanzaki Sumire, it looks like you didn't do too shabbily," Jason commented gently.

She gave him a haughty look. "Of course! I'm Kanzaki Sumire, so expect no less!" Then she became subdued. "But still... it was a lonely way to grow up."

"I understand..."

"Maria-san is a strong, responsible and reliable person, someone I can compete against. Ogami... well, he's........"

"Oh? He's special?" Jason wondered loudly, causing her to flush.

"Just what are you thinking!?" she demanded, blushing hotly.

"I'm not stupid, why are you so flustered? You should be more honest," Jason replied with a grin.

"Hmph!" she said, tossing her hair again. "The ensign's a little inconsistent, sometimes he knows the right words, and yet sometimes he's so..."

"Indecisive?" Jason offered.

"Yes! Not to mention..."

"Tactless?"

"Yes, and..."

"Perverted?"

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Sumire asked.

"Just a little. But don't tell him that," Jason answered mischievously.

"Yes, I'll keep it a secret," she said, returning the mischievous grin. "But you're right... sometimes he is just too naïve with his words and actions. That is why I can't approach either Maria-san or the ensign; they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Not even Ayame-san, I felt the need to compete against her seniority and knowledge."

"I see... so you wanted someone older than you to confide in?" Jason asked, a little bemusedly.

"Correct. That is why I can relax around you. Ideally, you should have been a girl, and then you would be perfect as an elder sister..."

"What?" Jason said, flabbergasted.

"But since that is not the case, I have to make do with what I have," she continued without a pause.

"Lucky me," Jason muttered.

"I can talk to you, ask for you for advice... you're ridiculously wise and well-informed despite your looks, you know," she said.

"Thanks... I think."

"When we found out about whom you really are, I knew there's no way I can be envious of you, to try and top you like I try to top Maria-san and Ayame-san. You are someone who is better than me that I didn't feel the need to overcome. I was relieved," she continued.

"Hey, I may be an Exodusian, but I'm not a genius. I am never better than you. The only true advantage I got is time," Jason said.

She nodded knowingly. "I understand. But it is that kind of attitude that made me realize you won't ever feel the need to compete against me like Sakura, or treat me like a valuable ally like Maria... you treat me just the way you feel like it, just the way I am."

"Sumire..."

"Just how old were you when you became an Exodusian?" she asked suddenly.

"Oh, I guess I was 24," Jason answered.

"So that means you're older than me anyway. Good."

"Why?" Jason asked.

"Because, Jason-san, you are like an elder brother to me," she said.

He smiled warmly. "I'm proud to have you think of me like that."

"But if you tell anybody, I'll kill you," Sumire said with a dangerous glint.

Jason laughed. "Get in line, girl. There are lots of people who want me dead, heh. Now, you get some rest... better yet, get some sleep! You look like you need it."

"I left my pillow at the theater," she said mournfully.

"Aww geez, you really do sound like my sister."

---

After gallantly escorting Sumire to her quarters, Jason wandered around the base some more.

'I wonder who I'll bump into next,' he thought idly to himself.

He was walking along the long hallway and had just turned around a corner when he heard the pattering of running feet. He was about to sidestep to avoid it when the person wheeled the corner too quickly and crashed into him. They fell onto the floor.

"Gah!"

"Ouch!"

Grimacing, he opened his eyes to see Sakura on the floor, rubbing her aching back. The look on her face was priceless, causing him to laugh.

"Oh, it's Jason-san! I'm so sorry!" she hastily got up to give him a hand. He waved her off and stood on his own, chuckling all the while.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"Hah, nothing," he said innocently, looking at her intently.

"Is there something wrong with my face?" she insisted.

"No! But where are you off to in such a hurry?" he asked.

"Oh! I was, er..." Sakura stammered.

Jason smirked.

"Going to see Ogami?" he suggested.

"Yes... no!" she exclaimed comically, causing Jason to laugh even more. She turned beet red and gave him an angry look.

"Jason-san! Please, that's too much!" she said, trying to be stern.

"Heh heh, sorry, Sakura... but you're just too transparent to me. I recognize the symptoms," Jason said, not apologetic in the least.

Embarrassed, Sakura could not bring herself to look at the taller man. "Is that so...? I guess, I'm still too naïve..." she said softly.

Jason patted her on the shoulder. "Hey, it's part of your charm."

"But I'm not as mature as Maria-san or sophisticated as Sumire-san... I'm just so... plain and simple and clumsy compared to them," she said sadly.

"They are who they are, you are who you are. I think you're a breath of fresh air in the Hanagumi and a wonderful, kind person with brilliant potential in everything she puts her heart into. So Sakura, please stay the same, alright?" Jason said in a gentle manner.

She literally glowed with the compliments. "You're right... being true to myself is the best. I shouldn't always compare myself to them, isn't that right?" Sakura asked earnestly.

"Hmm? Well, I guess you're right... maybe..." Jason said carelessly, causing her to gasp and go teary-eyed.

"That's cold of you, Jason-san!" she complained.

"But its true isn't it? Maybe that's why Ogami is around you all the time."

"Eh?"

"Well, it's either you're too clumsy or he thinks you must be worth protecting to him," Jason continued in an exaggeratedly doubtful manner.

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Sakura asked, a little hopefully.

"I don't know if what I'm saying is what you think I'm saying," Jason replied promptly, causing her to giggle.

"And if I know what I'm saying is what you think I'm saying, I don't even want to know what I'm saying," he continued quickly.

"You babble on just like a girl. You should be my elder sister!" Sakura commented, causing Jason to grimace and wondering what the hell was happening with the sister references.

"Huh. So sorry, but you're stuck with me the way I am," he said gruffly. She laughed at his expression.

"Thanks, Jason-san... I needed that," Sakura said and bowed.

"Ahh, it's just what someone older like me should do," Jason said self-depreciatingly.

"Yes, I feel you really do act like an older brother to me. I remember how you tried to help me rehearse," Sakura recalled.

"'Tried' to help you?" Jason repeated dubiously.

"You were no help at all! You kept making me laugh," Sakura replied with a wide grin.

"So I'm weak at remembering lines, sue me," Jason grumbled.

"No many people can forget five simple words," Sakura giggled again.

"Oh sure, rub it in," Jason muttered.

"But at least you tried, that made me felt better," Sakura said.

"Wait. You still finished rehearsal badly as I recall, and yet you performed well at the play the next day. What happened?"

"Oh, I had some help after the rehearsal," Sakura answered. Then she covered her mouth as Jason leaned and leered at her.

"Oho! A Secret night training with Ogami?" Jason teased.

"Ah!!" Sakura turned scarlet again. She covered her face and quickly ran away.

"Hey, don't run around like that! You'll hit something!" Jason called after her. He shook his head, chuckled and continued on his way.

As he walked, he heard sounds of a collision in the distance and Sakura's voice apologizing repeatedly.

Jason snickered to himself.

---

"Jason-san, please wait!"

Jason stopped in his tracks and glanced to the side. He saw a breathless Tsubaki running towards him.

"Yo, Tsubaki, what's up?" he asked.

"I'm to check on Iris to see if she still has the fever, but I have to report for duty now. Could you please look after her for a while until Yuri-san comes?" she asked.

"Sure," Jason agreed. "Where is she?"

"In her room, second door from the right," Tsubaki said, pointing at the location.

"Alright. Thanks for your hard work," Jason replied.

Tsubaki bowed and watched as Jason headed for the door.

"Oh!" she blurted suddenly.

"Hmm? What is it?" Jason asked.

"Don't do anything weird!" she giggled.

She quickly fled the scene as Jason shook a fist at her.

"Damn it, she never takes me seriously," he grumbled.

He stood before the door and knocked politely. "Iris? It's Jason."

"Second brother? Please come in," Iris's voice came faintly.

"Hoh, you're still asleep?" Jason asked as he entered the room. He noticed a deck of playing cards on the bedside table, presumably from Kohran. Maybe they had played a game of poker, he mused. He left the door open and pulled up a chair beside her bed.

She rubbed her eyes sleepily. "Yes... Iris was very tired..." she said, covering a yawn.

"Still sick?" Jason asked, placing a hand on her forehead.

He nodded in approval, and removed his hand. "Ah, your temperature's fine."

"I still feel a little bad," Iris said.

"It will pass. Hang in there, Iris," Jason encouraged.

She abruptly sat up in her bed and pulled Jean-Paul closer.

"Hang in there..." she repeated softly.

"Yeah," Jason said as he shuffled the cards just for the heck of it. He had no intentions of increasing the poker skills of an 11 year old.

"Hang in there... That's what Ayame-oneechan say to me too," she said.

Jason stopped his hands. "Oh. Erm, ah, sorry. Guess I'm not original enough," Jason replied apologetically.

"But she's not here now..." Iris said sadly.

"We'll get her back," Jason said.

Iris smiled. "Iris believes you... Iris also knows that you try cheer me up just like Ayame-oneechan too!"

"Haha, is that right?"

She nodded vigorously. "Mm! You remind Iris of Ayame-oneechan... sometimes strict, but you always care for me!"

Jason had a sheepish grin. Then he frowned. "Does that mean you feel like I'm your sister too?"

"Yeah!"

"Great, just great," Jason muttered.

"But Iris prefers Jason to be second brother Jason... Iris has a lot of sisters in the Hanagumi already," she continued.

"Whew," Jason exhaled in relief.

"Are you glad?" Iris asked, looking at him intently.

"Yeah," Jason replied, though for different reasons.

"Wai, I'm so happy!" she exclaimed and leapt from the bed to hug him.

"No, Iris!! GAHH!!!"

Her momentum caused the chair he was sitting on to topple over. They spilled onto the floor with Iris sitting on Jason's stomach. The deck escaped from his hands and littered everywhere with a shower of cards.

"Ooof," Jason gasped.

Yuri chose that moment to enter the room.

"Ah, what are you two doing?" she asked politely.

"An accident. And nothing else," Jason said gruffly, knowing that the incident would be blown all out of proportion by Yuri's blabbermouth.

Iris giggled.

---

'Saving the best for last,' Jason thought to himself as he searched around for Maria.

"Ah, Jason, over here!" Ogami's voice called.

Jason stopped, privately peeved at having his quest interrupted. He turned to see Kanna, Sakura and Ogami in conference together.

"What are all of you doing here?" Jason asked as he came up.

"This is embarrassing, but we hit a snag in our plans," Ogami explained sheepishly.

Jason frowned. "Huh? What's the problem? I thought we covered everything in our strategy session yesterday."

Kanna sighed. "Work this out then. Formation?"

"We got one," Jason nodded.

"Objectives?" Ogami asked.

"Eliminate the Kuronosukai once and for all and rescue the vice-commander," Jason replied without hesitation.

"Location?" Sakura asked.

"Demon Island, duh," Jason answered, annoyed.

Then it hit him.

"Oh," he said in a small voice.

"Bravo partner, you finally got it," Kanna said sarcastically.

"How are we going to get there?" Ogami finally spelt it out.

Jason was stumped as the three looked at him for answers. "Uh... isn't that your department?" he said, pointing at Ogami.

"Hey, I wracked my brains full-time to come up with the formation! I didn't have time for anything else," he replied defensively.

"But why are you looking at me?" Jason complained.

"Well, since you're 'The Wolf' of the famous RDF, we figured that you have lots of experience with final, epic battles and such. I mean, we all heard the stories... So, got any ideas that we can use?" Ogami asked.

Jason balked. He remembered some moments of those 'final, epic battles' which were not so heroic. He winced as the memories flash through his head.

Let's see...

He gave Kane the double middle finger at the end of the Tiberium War in 2004 (embarrassing because the whole world saw it)...

Halting the Ur-Quan onslaught with the infamous (because it was so sappy and such a rip-off) "Stop! What you're doing is wrong!" speech in the Liberation War of 2016...

Then he insulted and caused Starscream to go completely berserk until the Decepticon crashed into a building in the Cybertronian War of 2037 ('fragnuts' became a popular Cybertronian insult since then).

Or what about the time he forced some of his crew to sing in an impromptu karaoke session to disorient the Robotech Masters in the Sentinels War of 2056? Till this day the theme song to 'Doraemon' still make some of the Zentraedi to shudder in fear.

Let's not even talk about what happened when he ran into the Aurelian pirates...

"Jason-san?" Sakura asked worriedly as the Exodusian spaced out.

Kanna slapped the man heavily on the back, snapping him out from the self-induced trance.

"Don't ask me for brilliant ideas!" Jason yelled suddenly, causing them to back away.

"Guess that means our plan is sunk," Ogami said slowly.

"Well, why don't you ask the Kazegumi then? Aren't they in charge of transportation and logistics?" Jason suggested after he had calmed down.

"Ah, you're right!" Sakura agreed.

"Hey hey, what are you guys talking about?" Kohran asked.

They turned to see their resident grease monkey approaching them, trails of dirt and rust lined her forehead and stained her hands.

Ogami explained the problem.

"Hee hee," Kohran snickered when he finished.

"Oi, it's not funny, this is a serious problem!" Kanna scolded.

"Don't worry a thing about it! I've got everything planned," Kohran said triumphantly.

"What? Tell us!" Ogami said, half-pleading.

"Uh-uh, it's a surprise! Leave it all to me, trust me!" she said.

"I hope it won't explode," Jason said under his breath.

"I heard that!"

---

Trusting Kohran, Jason left the impromptu meeting in good faith. He grabbed a sandwich from the cafeteria and munched on it as he strolled around without a care in the world.

'Hmm, where is she?' he thought as he glanced at his watch.

His much vaunted Exodusian skills of awareness and alertness must have taken a vacation that day, because a gloved hand reached out and pulled him aside without warning.

Before Jason could even yelp a response (possibly a curse), he found himself pushed to the wall forcefully. The gloved hand clapped over his mouth and a gun clicked underneath his chin.

His eyes widened in fear, not because he was being attacked by an unknown assailant. On the contrary, he –was- in fear because he recognized the attacker.

"MMphmhh!!" he said because his mouth was muffled by the gloved hand.

Maria's green eyes narrowed as she glared at Jason. "What's this about you had an activity of vice with Iris?" she asked evenly.

Impossible as it seemed, Jason's eyes widened even more. He shook his head vigorously in denial.

"MMm hmph Mmphh!!" he said loudly.

Sighing, Maria removed her hand. "What did you say?"

"I said, 'I did NOT'!!" Jason repeated, visibly shaken. "It was just the cards from Kohran. We weren't even playing with it!"

She laughed and holstered her gun. "It was a joke, Jason. I take the rumors from Tsubaki and Yuri with a very large grain of salt."

Jason grumbled. "As you should be! It's incredible how they can twist and spread gossip so quickly... gah, they never take me seriously."

"Well, you're such an easy target," Maria replied with humor.

Jason took a moment to reflect on Maria's behavior. Jason really felt the change in Maria since the first time they met. Perhaps the count was right; Maria had been carrying her burden far too long. He was glad to help relieve her of it.

"Huh. You're in an awfully light mood," he said, not unpleased.

"Stranger things have happened," Maria deadpanned, causing Jason to guffaw.

"Wow, twice in one day! Maybe I should get a lottery or something," Jason joked, causing Maria to be embarrassed.

"Stop it; I'm not that bad, am I?" she objected.

He stopped and looked into her eyes.

"No, you're not bad at all," he said solemnly.

Somehow, it only made her blush even more.

"So, how are you going to spend the day?" Jason asked suddenly.

"I haven't given it much thought. Maybe get a book and listen to some recordings," she said.

"Oh? What recordings?" Jason wondered aloud. He knew her penchant for listening to old-style, antique records of jazz and blues which were popular all over Luthien (as was all things 1920s).

"That depends on their collection here," she replied doubtfully.

"I don't think so. The Hana-Yashiki people may work in this base, but they don't live here like how we live in the theater," Jason said. "Well, before the emergency I mean," he corrected himself.

"How do you know?" she asked.

"Hey, all of you went for the rides, remember? I stayed behind and talked to the guys that worked here. They have their homes to return to each day, after all, they are researchers rather than soldiers."

"I see... so that rules out a peaceful evening of reading and music," Maria said, a little disappointed.

"Ah, but that's not entirely true," Jason contradicted, waving a finger.

From his trench coat, he pulled out his portable CD-player. Maria recognized it as the one he was using the night when the theater was attacked.

"Can't help you with the book problem, but I do have some music. Care to try?" Jason offered her the player.

"What's inside?" she asked, looking at it warily. CDs were passé with the advent of data crystals, but those shiny discs were particular simple to carry around and more durable compared to the delicate crystals.

But even though CDs were older than the Imperial City itself, most citizens shunned it like other obviously 'modern' technologies, obvious in the sense that it was immediately discernable. As mentioned earlier, the lifestyles of the 1920s were 'in'.

Jason took a deep breath before babbling the following:

"I call it my sleep music collection (Earth Volume). It has classics like Strauss, Pachibel, Mozart and Beethoven. But mostly 20th century Earth stuff from Yanni (hah, can't call him new age –now-, can I?), Kajiura Yuki, Richard Clyderman, John Williams, James Horner, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra to easy listening music from Jay Chou of Taiwan, Jacky Cheung of Hong Kong, Emil Chow of China (but based in Taiwan), Queen and Robbie Williams plus some ballads from England, slow rock from the United States, blues and jazz from Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to the Blues Brothers, Natalie Cole, Norah Jones and Diana Krall, some favorites from South-East Asia, lots of Japanese songs and really lots more so I guess I'll stop now."

Maria was speechless.

"I remember having one Russian song in there somewhere too," Jason added helpfully.

"I... I don't understand Chinese," she stammered finally.

Jason dismissed her doubts and literally shoved the player into her hands. "Bah, you don't need to understand the language to listen to good music. To listen to music –is- to understand, that's what my younger sister tells me."

She blinked. "Your sister?"

Jason stopped. "Oh yeah, I never told you that she's Exodusian too. She's not a fighter though; she helped in the RDF's administration. She preferred not to show her face, she had a hard time adjusting being an Exodusian at first..."

"I remember you telling us she's a pianist?" Maria asked.

Jason chuckled. "Among other things. She's talented in the arts, that's for sure."

"Where is she now? And your other siblings? You have another younger sister and a younger brother too, right?"

Jason shook his head slowly. "I lost contact with all of them... for what, nearly two hundred years now? It's not sad, but we parted ways the way siblings do... we just grew up and grew apart."

He chuckled.

"They were smart to listen to me when I told them to get the hell away when the Arcadia first launched," he explained further, referring to Arion Wong's infamous battleship adorned with the skull-and-crossbones that terrorized Soldat's ships.

"Why did you do that?" Maria asked, honestly curious.

"I tend to get busy with fighting, Maria; I don't want them to live the way I live. I won't go see them... I swore to fight Soldat to the end for what they did to my friends," Jason answered.

She looked at him sadly, realizing his burden.

"And now Arion Wong's being hunted all over the galaxy. I'm paying the price for the brief glory I got from the Arcadia," he voiced her unspoken thought.

"Jason..."

"It's alright. At least I know they are safe within Alliance space with the RDF. Soldat would never dare look for them there," Jason continued in a low voice.

She hooked her arm with his, causing him to look at her in surprise.

"Let's go some place quiet... I want to hear more about your family," she said, looking up to the taller man.

Jason had no words but to smile in return.

Sometimes, more than words is just what you need.

---

The next day, the Hanagumi sans Kohran assembled in full uniform (well, except for Jason of course). They were waiting for the inventor who requested their presence at the briefing room.

"Well, zero hour is upon us. Hope her 'surprise' works," Jason commented to Kanna.

"Yeah, hope so. Else we're all dressed up with no ride to go," she replied.

Sumire had her arms folded across her stomach. "I can handle the Kuronosukai myself if only I can get there," she said haughtily. No one chided her; they all knew she was as anxious as they were to get going.

"Iris believes in Kohran," their youngest member said with conviction.

"Yes, little one, we all do," Maria replied.

Ogami nodded in agreement, though privately he still had his doubts.

"Yosha! Sorry to make you guys wait!" Kohran called out as she arrived, waving an arm enthusiastically.

"Well, what's your surprise?" Kanna asked.

"Follow me," Kohran answered, her glasses glinting.

Their awe at the sight of Kohran's surprise could be summed up in one word from Jason:

"Whoa."

In the massive, cavernous hold of the Hana-Yashiki factory was the steel frame-work that they had seen weeks ago previously. No longer just a skeleton of metal, it was now fully completed.

It was huge. Bulbous. Stupendous. Massive domes that housed the engines and protruding steam pipes formed the rear. Large wings at the sides. Metallic sheath on top and bottom that protected the massive air bags/balloons. A carriage-like structure was slung underneath it. Four conventional propellers were behind it.

It was shaped like the bulb of a flower before it blossomed. Or resembling an elongated eyeball (the air bags) covered by an eye-lid (the sheath) connected to a thick trunk (engines).

It was also orange-yellowish with smattering of white.

"This is the airship transport Shogei-Maru (Flying Whale)!" Kohran gestured grandly with both arms spread open as she faced the Hanagumi. They were looking at it with awe (in the case of Jason and Ogami, slack-jawed).

Seeing their mute response, Kohran continued.

"This marvel of technology and steam power will be able to carry all of our Koubus directly to the island. It has power and speed to do the job. Balloons filled with N-Helium provides the lift, steam-powered turbines handle the propulsions."

When they still didn't say anything, Kohran became bemused.

"Hey, say something!" she demanded.

They crowded her all at once.

"It's incredible," Maria commented.

Kanna whooped. "So this is what you have been doing! Whooo!"

"I admit it's indeed an inspiring sight," Sumire said with more composure, though she can't conceal how her eyes darted all over the airship.

"It's marvelous Kohran!" Sakura gushed, rushing to hold her hands in gratitude.

"Good... good job, Kohran," Ogami managed to say, his eyes still transfixed at the airship.

"Haha, it's not my own effort... the Hana-Yashiki and Kanzaki Heavy Industries worked round the clock for this," she replied modestly.

"What's that?" Jason pointed at the single cannon.

"That's the sole armament of the Shogei-Maru, a 16-inch cannon," Kohran explained. "It's a transport after all, not a warship," she added, almost apologetically.

Jason whistled as he took several steps forward to have a better look. The airship was so large that it nearly filled the entire hold.

A navy-styled, steel door on the carriage structure opened and a ramp extended from it. Yuri, Tsubaki and Kasumi were in their Kazegumi uniforms and stood straight in attention. They gave the Hanagumi a synchronized salute.

"Kazegumi, reporting all systems ready to go!" they chorused.

---

"The Koubus have already been loaded," Yuri reported from her console that displayed the radar. On the other side, Tsubaki manned her station with cool professionalism.

"Hana-Yashiki reports all clear," she said while flipping toggles and switches in a confident manner.

"Ensign, all systems are in condition green. We're ready for departure," Kasumi said. She stood in the center, her station was an old-style, circular helm. Old-style but not made of wood, rather made of metal. To Jason it looked more like the steering wheel of a car rather than the helm of a ship. Looking at it made Jason long for the grand, wooden helm that was used on the Arcadia.

"Take us up," Ogami said gravely. Behind his 'captain seat' was the Hanagumi, all watching the Kazegumi's actions with anticipation.

"Aye sir. Hana-Yashiki control is now opening the hatch," Yuri said.

Seconds later, the entire complex and the Shogei-Maru trembled as the massive gate that formed the ceiling of the base opened. The gargantuan steel doors groaned mightily as they pulled open slowly, allowing the sunlight to shine in.

"Gyro and altitude systems operating normally," Tsubaki stated.

There was a slight lurch as the anchoring systems unlocked. The airship shuddered from the release, causing some of them to gasp in surprise.

"Shogei-Maru, lifting off!"

Then the airship rose, higher and higher as it finally emerged from the Hana-Yashiki base into the open air.

The Shogei-Maru flew majestically over the Imperial City.

Jason could hear the sharp intake of breath from Maria.

"They will pay for this," Maria vowed as she watched the city from the observation windows. Below them, columns of thick black smoke twirled. Every now and then an explosion flickered.

The Hanagumi watched silently, biting their lower lips or clenching their fists in anger.

They could see the Kouma circling the city like vultures.

The Shogei-Maru's journey was uninterrupted. Either the airship was construed as not a threat or the high altitude was too great for the nightmare creatures. In any case, the Hanagumi was a little glad for the respite.

There was some time before they reached the island, yet nobody took the advantage to rest. The Hanagumi did not use the private quarters provided onboard, instead they milled around on the bridge as they approached the island.

"ETA in 10 minutes, ensign. No signs of the enemy," Yuri reported. Ogami did not say anything nor gave any indications that he heard her.

They were tense.

Kanna was sitting down imperiously with arms folded, eyes closed and one foot tapping impatiently. Maria sat nearby on the window sill, trying to occupy herself by cleaning her handgun. Sakura was lost in her thoughts, her face betraying her anxiety even though she was trying to meditate. Sumire stared out from another window, watching the white clouds fly by endlessly. Iris and Kohran distracted themselves by silently watching the gauges and dials that lined the interior of the bridge.

Even Ogami was not immune; his head was bowed in deep thought as he sat on the captain's seat. Jason was more experienced with such 'final, epic' battles and knew the worst was the waiting, yet he could not find himself to try to lift the heavy atmosphere.

He caught Kasumi looking at them. He gave her a nervous smile and shrugged silently, not knowing what to do. He became puzzled when Kasumi, Yuri and Tsubaki shared a mischievous look between themselves.

Jason wanted to ask about their seemingly lax and cool attitudes, but restrained himself when the door to the bridge suddenly swung open. It startled everybody except for the Kazegumi.

The Hanagumi leapt to their feet in surprise at the visitor.

"What a bunch of pathetic looking soldiers," Yoneda Ikki growled.

He was in full uniform, immaculate and smart, the very model of the perfect senior officer. He stood up straight as he glowered at the bewildered Hanagumi. A new katana was sheathed on his hip. Even his boots were shiny.

"Commander!"

"Yoneda-san!"

Yoneda enjoyed the surprised and happy faces that surrounded him.

"Old man, so you're not dead yet," Jason said from the side, a lopsided grin betraying his gladness.

"Huh, as I said, you need help dealing with the Kouma," Yoneda replied with a grin of his own.

"Chief, it's great to see ya!" Kanna said emotionally.

"Idiot, you think such a minor injury would kill me?" he rebuked. They laughed sheepishly when he favored them with a beaming smile; he was visibly touched by their concern.

"Commander..." Ogami approached him and saluted.

Wordlessly, Yoneda returned the salute. The two men stared into each other's eyes.

Then Ogami softened. "Glad to have you aboard, sir."

"I can't help it, you are just too wet behind the ears for something this big," Yoneda grumbled. "Look at you people, what's with the sad faces earlier? Ogami, I expected you to be a better commander than this!"

"Sir, I would need more lessons from you, sir!" Ogami replied earnestly.

"As I thought," Yoneda muttered. "Anyway..."

"Entering descent vector now," Kasumi said as she manipulated her helm. The airship slowly dipped downwards. Slowly the clouds parted and in the distance, a towering structure could be seen emerging from the island.

Yoneda pointed to the view directly in front.

"There will be time for lessons later. Right now you have a job to do. All of you!"

"Yes sir!"

---

Deep within that tower, Aoi Satan cackled maniacally as he surveyed his captive.

Fujieda Ayame never dreamt that she would be captured in battle, her proud upbringing and sense of self-esteem never prepared her for such a possibility. Growing up in a militaristic Japanese family taught her that death was preferable than the shame of capture.

Aoi Satan was gracious to leave her in her green military uniform, even going as far as not removing her pistol that was holstered on her hip. He was arrogant in that gesture, since she was bound on a cross-like structure, her arms and legs tied securely by thick, sickly colored tendrils that chafed.

"So, my honored guest, how do you feel about the accommodations?" Aoi Satan asked sarcastically.

She glared at him. "You could use an interior designer."

Aoi Satan smirked at her reply. "Perhaps you would deign to be just that?" he asked.

"Why don't you just kill me?" Ayame asked softly. Inside, a mix of emotions warred within. She still had feelings for Yamazaki, yet she was totally repulsed by Aoi Satan. She could literally feel the sickening sensation of evil oozing from his very presence.

"Ah, but I don't wish it. You were a comrade once, Ayame. We fought for the same ideals. Why not do so again?" he said, his voice smooth and suave with all the charm of a dangerous viper.

"You abandoned those ideals, Aoi Satan. I have not," Ayame replied, proudly jutting her chin in a show of defiance.

"I'd rather die than help evil!"

Aoi Satan laughed vociferously. "'Evil?' How ridiculous! Humans came uninvited to this planet and took it as their own. They leveled trees, killed the natural inhabitants and moved whole mountains to suit their greed. Am I wrong to correct those misdeeds? I am just doing what this planet wants! The Imperial City is just a blood-sucking parasite on this world!"

"You're mad," Ayame whispered.

"Mad?!" Aoi Satan hollered, dropping all pretenses of civility and charm. He backhanded the bound woman's face, causing it to turn an angry red. "When my masterpiece is finished, then you'll see what I mean! I will wipe Teito from the face of the world!" he ranted.

"I see... so you're not mad," Ayame replied slowly. She chuckled despite the pain on her face.

"What's so funny!?" Aoi Satan roared in her face.

She did not back away in fear. Instead, she raised her eyes to stare deeply into his.

"You are just totally insane," she answered.

"You...!!" Aoi Satan raised a hand to strike her again, his fury so all-encompassing that he had no words.

Ayame closed her eyes, waiting for the killing stroke.

It never came.

Slowly she opened her eyes to see Aoi Satan pausing, his hand raised but his head cocked to one side as if listening to something. He grunted and lowered his hand slowly.

Then, as if finishing his silent conference, he slowly faced Ayame.

"It seems your precious Hanagumi have arrived to save you," he sneered. "I'll let you feel despair at their deaths before killing you."

An evil grin was on his lips.

"You will see their pain, Fujieda Ayame."

He turned and left the room, leaving Ayame in turmoil.

---

Basil Poledouris – Starship Troopers OST – Klendathu Drop (4:28)

"Commander! A large group of Kouma has appeared on an intercept course!" Tsubaki said anxiously.

"Damn it! Ogami, can you hear me!?" Yoneda yelled into the speaker. Below the decks, Ogami and the rest of the Hanagumi had strapped themselves into their respective Koubus.

"Yes sir, what is it?" Ogami replied, his voice tiny through the speaker.

"Get ready," Yoneda said simply.

"Sir? What are you planning to do?" Ogami asked apprehensively.

"The Shogei-Maru is being surrounded by the Kouma. We have no time to secure a landing, so brace for impact!" Yoneda ordered.

"What!?"

"It's all up to you now," Yoneda muttered and cut the communication. He looked up and saw the Kazegumi nodding at him, giving him their votes of confidence.

Yoneda smiled. "Now let's get this show on the road... Fire the cannon into the enemy tower and ram into the opening!"

"Yes sir!"

The Shogei-Maru actually rocked back when the cannon extended to its full length and fired in anger. Based upon the designs used for the battleship Yamato in Japan's World War II era, the gleaming cannon of reinforced silsius steel launched a massive cannonball that struck the stone-like tower dead on the center.

A huge cloud of smoke billowed from the opening created. It only proved how deadly that weapon was, even though it was based on something created nearly 450 years ago.

Without hesitation, the Shogei-Maru dipped its nose further and dived towards the crude opening. Metal groaned mightily as it grinded against the tower's structure, crunching through the stone like knife through butter.

When the dust settled, any observer from a distance would find the Shogei-Maru plunged nearly half its length into the tower's mid-section, its tail and engines jutting upwards at an angle.

"Everyone ok!?" Ogami yelled desperately. He was in his white Koubu onboard the Shogei-Maru. The Hanagumi braced as well as they could, but the sudden and brutal impact caused some of them to suffer knocks and bruises.

"I'm here, taicho," Maria reported.

"Taicho! I'm good to go," Kanna chimed in.

"A little bruised but nothing serious," Sakura responded.

Sumire hmphed. "Such a simple thing wouldn't stop me!"

"Iris is fine!" the little girl said.

"Me too, but, I'm going to get a headache when I see what the commander did to the Shogei-Maru..." Kohran said.

"Ready to rock and roll," Jason said cheerfully.

"Good... Commander Yoneda, can you hear me?" Ogami said.

Their commander's voice cackled with static. "We're fine here! Now get going! We will wait here to pick you up when it's done," Yoneda replied and switched off the radio.

"Is it alright to leave them here?" Ogami asked.

"Don't worry, they will be alright. Let's just move," Jason assured them.

"Yes, Jason's right. What are your orders, taicho?" Maria asked.

"Let's move out. Kohran, see if you can lower the ramps?" Ogami replied determinedly.

"Opening the ramps now... Wah, it's dark in here," Kohran said. Indeed, it seemed that whatever sunlight from the outside was seemingly absorbed and lost within the darkness.

The cargo hold to the Koubu's opened slowly, lowering a ramp from the carriage of the Shogei-Maru to the inside of the tower.

"My senses indicate... spooky. In fact, I'd go with very spooky," Jason replied as the Koubus stepped into the tower one by one.

"It's... very cold here," Sakura commented, surveying the cave-like area. She wasn't referring to the weather, rather it was the sensation one felt when something creepy was nearby. They understood that.

"Don't let it get to you. We will finish this," Ogami said.

"Yeah... but do we go up or down the tower?" Kanna asked.

"Up," Jason answered.

"Huh, why?" Kanna asked.

"Standard Operating Procedure for the bad guys. If this was a dungeon, then he would be in the lowest level," Jason replied as he maneuvered his Koubu.

"Yeah, he's right. I'm getting high readings of spiritual energy from the top," Kohran said.

"Up, taicho?" Maria asked for confirmation.

"Yes. Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi – Sanjou!"

---

"Wow, Kohran, what did you do to my Koubu!?" Kanna asked excitedly as she ripped apart a Kouma easily with her mecha's claws.

The Hanagumi had cut a bloody path through the Kouma that had blocked their way as they proceeded up the tower. The tower was built in a way so that the stairs spiraled around it. It seemed that the tower itself was hollow, there were no rooms or large areas, only a single path that headed upwards and downwards. It was as if the tower was more like a lighthouse or elevated platform rather than a true defensive structure.

"Haa, I pushed the specs to the limits! The silsius metal and harmony crystals have been upgraded, so you should all be experiencing increase strength and responsiveness from your Koubus," Kohran answered proudly.

"That's an understatement," Maria replied. She easily ducked from the last Kouma's swoop and shot it into pieces as it tried to lunge again.

"It's as if the Koubu knows what I'm planning to do before I do it!" Sumire marveled.

But even as they splattered the walls and decorated the floor with the blood of the Kouma, Sakura was getting worried. Neither Jason nor Ogami had said anything as they plodded up the stairway.

"Ogami-san?" Sakura asked.

"Yes, Sakura?" he replied distractedly.

"Are you alright? You're awfully quiet," she said, concerned.

"I... it's nothing," Ogami replied unconvincingly.

Suddenly Jason spoke up. "I'm worried about Ayame-san."

"Yes, so do I," Maria agreed.

"So, I'm not alone having doubts," Ogami said.

Sakura was about to ask further when they arrived before a large door. The stairway continued upwards beside it.

"Is this it?" she asked.

Jason shook his head even though he knew they could not see him. "I don't think so, we're not high enough."

"Shall we enter it?" Sumire asked.

"The readings indicate the spiritual source is further up," Kohran reminded them.

"We don't have time. We must continue on," Ogami said.

The Hanagumi turned to head for the stairway.

"Wait, let me check it out," Jason suggested.

"All by yourself? Not a good idea," Ogami replied.

"Ayame-san could be in there," he argued back.

"Then lets all go in together," Sakura insisted.

"But it could also be a trap," Jason said. "Besides, I'm not needed in the formation."

"No, that's too dangerous," Ogami said sharply.

"You know who I am and what I can do. It was my negligence that caused the capture of Ayame-san in the first place. Let me get her back," Jason said ardently.

"He's right, taicho," Maria cut in.

"Maria!?" Ogami said in disbelief.

"Believe in him, taicho. We need to look for the vice-commander anyway. Besides, he can handle anything that comes his way. Isn't that right, Jason?" Maria asked.

"Thanks for the confidence," Jason smirked. "Don't worry, Ogami, it will be alright," he assured.

"I understand," Ogami said reluctantly.

"Please take care, Jason," Maria added quietly, almost a whisper.

Jason was glad for the lack of video in their communication, otherwise the Hanagumi would see him blush inside his cockpit.

"No problems," he said confidently.

He watched silently as the Hanagumi Koubus moved up the stairways. After several minutes, he finally turned to face the door.

"Into Pandora's Box," he muttered as he pushed the door open with his Koubu.

Inside, a horde of Kouma awaited him with slavering tongues and glittering teeth and claws.

"Ah, hell." Then Jason smirked. "20 to one? That's bad... for you!"

---

The Hanagumi marched on without a word. Whatever resistance they encountered was swept away easily.

"We're nearing the top," Kohran said, breaking the silence.

"Finally, I was beginning to think that this goes on forever," Sumire replied.

"It's not too far away now," Maria said.

Ogami stopped them. "Wait. I want to contact Jason first." The Hanagumi stopped while he made the connection.

"Jason, report in," Ogami said tersely.

There was no answer.

"Jason? Report in," Ogami repeated more urgently.

Again, silence greeted him.

"Second brother..." Iris sniffed.

"He can't be in trouble, is he?" Sakura asked worriedly.

"No," Maria said, playing down their fears. Yet she left the word hanging.

"He's an Exodusian, right? He can't be taken down so easily," Sumire said, trying to sound confident.

"We don't know that... This is my fault," Ogami blamed himself.

"Taicho..."

"Ogami-san..."

Ogami turned his white Koubu back. "I'm going back for him. All of you, go on ahead."

"What? Ogami-han, you can't be serious!" Kohran yelled.

Sakura moved her Koubu towards him.

"Stop! Don't follow me. The formation needs all of you to work!" Ogami said loudly.

"Taicho..." Maria called.

"Maria, you're now the squad leader. I trust you to lead the Hanagumi well."

"Taicho, I don't agree with your decision," she replied.

The Hanagumi began to voice their disapproval as well.

"This isn't a democracy! I can't leave a team-member behind. I know all of you feel the same, but you have a greater mission!" Ogami thundered uncharacteristically.

"...Very well sir, I accept your order," Maria relented finally.

"Good. Now move out, you got a mission to accomplish," Ogami said.

Slowly, the Hanagumi Koubus turned and trudged almost unwillingly on their journey, leaving Ogami behind.

"Everyone..." Ogami said suddenly.

They paused.

"When this is all over, we can enjoy the cherry blossom together," he promised.

It seemed to cheer them up a little.

"I'll hold ya to that promise, taicho!" Kanna yelled even as they disappeared from his view.

"I'll keep that promise, everyone..." Ogami said to himself. Then he turned to get on his own way.

---

"Maria-san, are you sure it's the right thing to do?" Sakura asked timidly.

"It's a direct order, Sakura. It does not mean I like it, but we have to obey it. He's the taicho," Maria reminded her.

"Look, there's light up ahead!" Kohran said excitedly.

"We are at the end," Sumire said, almost relieved.

"Everyone, be prepared for anything," Maria warned.

"Yes!" they cried in unison.

They entered the light, and emerged in a large, cavernous area. The stony floor gave way to polished wood. The room was dominated by a huge, monolithic stone that stood in the center.

Looking at it, the Hanagumi realized that the tower was surrounding that huge stone as the center. It was as if the tower was built specifically to house it. Faded and unreadable kanji lined the stone, as if it was a temple stone or a burial marker.

A large table was before the stone. On it was an urn with several sticks of lit incense stuck in it. Three small cups lined the front of the urn, while two large candles stood on each side.

It was almost like an altar.

"Welcome..." a sinister voice boomed.

The Hanagumi looked about for the source.

A black portal shimmered on the floor and Aoi Satan slowly emerged from it to stand before the altar. Seconds later, Scarlet Miroku appeared as well.

"Welcome to your deaths," Aoi Satan said smilingly.

"It is your own death that you should be preparing for," Maria replied through her Koubu's external speakers.

"Your evil ends here!" Sakura said, dropping her Koubu into a battle stance.

"Whatever you plan to do, do not hope for it to succeed. We of the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi will stop you!" Sumire proclaimed.

Aoi Satan did not reply. In fact, he turned his back to them, the ultimate insult. It was as if they were insects below his notice.

Sumire seethed in anger. She withdrew her Koubu's naginata and dashed towards the Kuronosukai leader.

Two Wakiji suddenly burst through the wooden floor with their gleaming swords, ready to defend their master.

"Don't get in my way!" Sumire yelled and slashed through them in quick succession.

But they managed to delay her advance long enough for more of the Wakiji to appear. Several of the Kouma were there as well, blocking the way towards Aoi Satan.

"Move out!" Maria ordered and charged at their enemies.

"Understood!" the others chorused and rushed to follow.

They quickly decimated the foul beasts.

Maria fired quickly, every shot downing a monster. Sakura moved her Koubu as if she was dancing, slashing and slicing Wakiji and Kouma alike. Kanna stabbed at them with her claws and tossed them aside like yesterday's garbage. Kohran hung back and launched a barrage that literally splattered green blood and parts everywhere. A Wakiji's arm blew off and landed nearby Aoi Satan's feet.

Even as the sounds of battle raged near him, Aoi Satan turned calmly to face them. He smiled calculatingly, narrowing his eyes.

"It seems you are all fighting a little better than before. I will have to treat you with something more... effective."

Battle Arena Toshinden – Track 10 (3:30 [looped])

Aoi Satan closed his eyes and placed his hands palm-to-palm in front of his chest.

"On abira unken sowaka..." he repeated endlessly.

Muttering nonsensical lines under his breath, a purplish portal with a six-sided star design emerged directly from the huge stone behind him. It grew steadily larger and larger.

Satisfied with his handiwork, Aoi Satan opened his eyes and glared at the Hanagumi.

"Now, meet my greatest creation! Miroku, enter and summon Kamui!"

Miroku wordlessly complied. She floated towards the portal. Tendrils of black smoke engulfed her. Finally she knew terror, for she screamed even as the smoke pulled her in. Her scream was muffled, and then it was gone. Something else emerged from the portal to replace her.

Aoi Satan had sacrificed her for another minion.

A huge figure of purple and black emerged from the portal. It stood three times the height of a Koubu. It was a giant version of a Wakiji, though definitely more powerful and held no weapon. It was fully armored; whatever flesh it showed was black. Two large, ridged wings tubes sprouted from the shoulderblades.

"Kamui here will be your opponent," Aoi Satan continued as he floated up to the monster's head.

"What an ugly monstrosity," Kohran said.

"Everyone, execute the plan! Formation for Repulsing Evil!" Maria yelled.

"Understood!"

Each Koubu glowed with their respective pilot's spiritual power: Maria's a cool cyan, Sumire's regal purple, Kanna's furious red, Kohran's calm green, Sakura's kind pink and Iris' cheerful yellow.

With a coordinated movement, the six Koubus danced around each other before charging at the towering monster. It stayed indifferent to their maneuvers.

Kohran and Maria moved to the front.

"Fire!" they shouted together. They unleashed a firestorm on Kamui, peppering it with cannon fire, missiles and rockets. It caused severe injuries, opening up Kamui's flesh and spewed green blood.

The Hanagumi did not let up in their attack. Maria and Kohran slowed down and allowed Kanna and Sumire to overtake them.

"Kanna-san, let's do it!" Sumire yelled.

Kanna issued a battlecry as an answer. They charged simultaneously and leapt at Kamui on opposing sides. Sumire slashed off the left arm while Kanna ripped off the right as they jumped.

Even before they had landed their Koubus, the two arms flopped onto the ground and dissipated into vapor.

Then Sakura charged too. Her cherry blossom-colored Koubu delivered a heavy slash on Kamui's torso. The wound glowed as the spiritual energy from the attack lingered.

The Hanagumi quickly regrouped into their formation, ready to charge forward again.

Kamui did not even move from their attacks.

To their consternation, tendrils emerged from its amputation arms. They twisted and writhed before forming new arms for Kamui. The torso wound sealed up and left no mark.

"It can regenerate!" Sumire exclaimed in dismay.

"Does that mean we can't kill it!?" Kanna yelled.

"It means you can't win," Aoi Satan sneered. He snapped his fingers.

Sakura Wars OVA 1 OST – Track 44 - 1:53

A glow of purplish energy swirled around Kamui's head. They danced around in a circular pattern, humming with gathering energy. Without warning, they discharged and flew towards the shocked Hanagumi.

"Iris! Defense!" Maria yelled but it was too late.

They screamed as the energy sparks pounded their Koubus relentlessly.

They felt every blow.

After several moments of continuous fire, Kamui stopped. The dust cleared to show that not one Hanagumi Koubu was left standing.

Kamui allowed them to slowly stand back up.

"We won't lose!" Sakura said as she pushed her Koubu back on its feet.

"We will defeat you!" Maria yelled even as the Koubus barely stood to their feet.

"Enough with the games. Time to finish all of you," Aoi Satan smiled evilly.

A voice interrupted his glee. "I think so too."

"What!?" Aoi Satan turned.

From above, Ogami appeared. He leapt and landed between Kamui and the Hanagumi.

"Taicho!"

"Ogami-san!"

"Everyone, sorry I'm late!" Ogami apologized.

Aoi Satan snarled. "Fool, did you think just one more would matter!?"

A gunshot split the air and Aoi Satan winced as a bullet struck his arm. It was not serious but enough to cause him pain.

"How 'bout three more then?" Jason said, almost conversationally.

He was not the one who fired. Jason was holding up another person who did.

"Ayame-san!"

"Vice-commander!"

She was weak from her ordeal and needed Jason to support her, but in her steady hands was her military-grade pistol.

"The Yamazaki I knew died long ago. You're just an abomination to his memory!" she said, gritting her teeth to suppress the pain.

"Enough! Kamui!" Aoi Satan screamed. Kamui fired its purple fireballs again.

"Iris!" Ogami yelled.

Iris reacted immediately. A yellow glow emanated from her Koubu to shield everyone. The purple sparks exploded harmlessly on the shield.

Despite not being in a Koubu, Ogami stood fearlessly facing Aoi Satan and Kamui.

"Everyone, Formation for Repulsing Evil!"

The sight of Ayame, Ogami and Jason all alive gave them unbridled hope. It was as if the Hanagumi got a breath of fresh air in the suffocating atmosphere. Their Koubus glowed with spiritual power again, this time with more intensity.

Onboard the Shogei-Maru, Yuri watched her console with wide eyes. "Commander! Everyone's spiritual power is at incredible levels!" she said excitedly as the levels go off the charts.

"I've never seen such levels before!" Tsubaki gushed.

"It's unbelievable!" Kasumi said.

Yoneda grunted, but he had a private smile.

"So, Ogami found the catalyst..."

Track 44 at 0:55

"Iris Marionette!" Iris announced. A wave of yellow energy washed over the Hanagumi, giving them relief like a healing salve.

Even Aoi Satan was shocked. He tried to cover his fear with bravado.

"Insolent fools!"

Kamui fired again, but this time the Hanagumi had moved forward so that the projectiles overshot and missed them.

Then Kamui tried something else. From its back, long appendages rushed forward to crush the Koubus.

The Hanagumi advanced fearlessly, avoiding the blows.

Maria leveled her cannon at Kamui and yelled in Russian.

"Cherypoyka Snow Girl!"

The cannon's mouth glowed white and from it an ice-like column emerged instead of the usual explosives. To Jason's awe it was shaped like a girl, a figure made of ice and snow.

The snow girl reached up and embraced Kamui like a long-lost lover before disappearing. The purple tendrils that had attacked the Hanagumi were frozen solid.

Kanna took the advantage of the frozen impromptu ramp and leapt towards Kamui's head.

"Super Rinpai!!"

Her Koubu's left arm glowed red with energy and she plunged in into Kamui's head. She completed the move with a spectacular summersault and landed behind the monster.

Kohran saw the hole left by Kanna's attack and launched her own assault.

"Mini-Robots!" She yelled. A wave of miniature robots, shaped like a ball with tweezers for arms; flew from her Koubu and entered Kamui. Within it, they used their arms to tear up the internal mechanism. When they ran out of energy, they exploded inside, causing Kamui to writhe in pain.

"What did you do to Kamui!?" Aoi Satan demanded angrily.

Sumire did not answer; she spun her Koubu's naginata quickly and charged forward.

"Kanzaki Fujin-Ryu Style: Dance of the Butterfly!"

With finality, she stabbed the naginata into the floor. A stream of spiritual power burst from the point of contact and sped towards Kamui, engulfing it in spiritual fire and increasing its agony.

Ayame, Jason and Ogami watched enraptured as the five Koubus danced around Kamui as if it was standing still. Iris stayed behind to protect them.

"It's marvelous," Jason breathed. Ayame nodded in agreement.

"It's due to your efforts, Ogami," she said.

Ogami shook his head. "No, it's all to their credit," he said.

She smiled and continued to watch.

"So this is the true power of the formation," Jason said.

"Yes... this is what Commander Yoneda was aiming for," Ogami replied, clenching his fists with barely contained excitement.

"I will never accept defeat!" Aoi Satan hollered. He stood in front of Kamui and withdrew his black blade. Together, they poured their dark energies towards the Hanagumi.

The black bolts struck Iris' yellow shield. She buckled at the incredible onslaught but did not surrender.

"Iris will also fight!" she yelled and pushed back.

The onslaught stopped, their charge expended.

Aoi Satan's eyes widened when he saw a pink Koubu charging at him.

"Haja Kensei Evil-Subduing Sword! Ouka Hoshin God of Cherry Blossoms!"

      Unbelievable as it seemed, the pink Koubu seemed to hover in the air as spiritual power like lightning bolts cackled and surrounded it. The incredible bolts swirled around the tip of the Koubu's sword.

      Then it settled into a solid ball of energy and blasted towards Aoi Satan.

      Aoi Satan yelled a cry as the fireball spun and flew directly towards him. He raised his unholy blade and brought it full force in an attempt to split the fireball in half.

      They struck each other in a massive collision.

      Then the Hanagumi yelled as one, putting their ki-ai (battlecry) and poured their spiritual power into Sakura's attack.

      Aoi Satan's headband cracked into two. His sword snapped into pieces.

      Then the fireball went straight through him and sliced Kamui which was behind him. The fireball even passed through the altar and the huge stone which it was worshipping.

      Then Kamui exploded in flames and green ichor. The fires consumed its form and it died, disappearing silently.

      Overhead, the wooden beams supporting the structure snapped and fell like toothpicks.

      As the entire tower rumbled, Aoi Satan stood unmoving, as if unaware of the destruction all around him.

      "Why? Why did I lose?" he asked himself in shock.

      He threw his arms wide open and shouted to the heavens.

"WHY!!!!!?"

Then the tower exploded.

All around the Imperial City, everyone stood and watched in amazement as the Wakiji and Kouma that they had been fighting simply fell dead. The Kouma disappeared into foul vapor, while the Wakiji burst apart like overripe fruits.

The citizens were stunned into silence.

Then the city erupted in joyful cheers and tears of relief.

High above the island, the Shogei-Marui hovered, with the Koubus being airlifted and carried underneath it. The tower had collapsed entirely, leaving the huge stone center. Then it too cracked and began to rumble.

The Hanagumi watched from their respective Koubus in silent satisfaction as the stone crumbled into dust.

Inside the Shogei-Maru, the Kazegumi wept with joy at the victory. Everyone had managed to get onboard the airship just in time.

"They did it, commander," Ayame said. Yoneda sat beside her and nodded sagely.

Jason grinned. "Yes, they did... your girls are truly amazing..."

Yoneda did not reply, but his proud smile was there for all to see.

The sun shone brightly over the island.

---

With the Kuronosukai gone, the Imperial City settled to the arduous task of rebuilding. It was slow and difficult, yet the inhabitants did so by hand and steam.

The city was their home. One month passed quickly...

The Hanagumi too, were busy. Only a few days ago, they had given a performance to lighten the city's mood. The theater was heavily damaged, but already many areas had been repaired.

With the show over, the theater was closed for further repairs. Yoneda took the opportunity to design several renovations, to both the theater and the underground base to prevent future invasions.

"Ah, taicho," Maria called.

Ogami was heading towards the office, to help the Kazegumi clean up. He stopped to greet her.

"Maria. What's the matter?" he asked.

"Have you seen Jason around? He's due back from the post office."

In keeping with the 1920s lifestyle, the Imperial City maintained a post office. It was outdated compared to emails, hyperlinks and other forms of instantaneous communication, but snail mail was still popular and considerably more romantic.

"That's strange. He left some hours ago, so he should be back by now... maybe he's slacking off," Ogami grinned.

Maria smiled. "It's alright then. Thank you," she said and left.

Inwardly, she was a little worried. Jason had cheerfully helped the construction workers in the rebuilding, but had seemed distracted. She did not venture to ask him, but seeing him miss breakfast with the Hanagumi today made her determined to find out the reasons.

She looked for him everywhere, and then she snapped her fingers when she realized the one spot she had not looked.

"Penny for your thoughts," Maria said as she climbed the roof towards Jason.

He was lying down looking at the sky. It was a cool, pleasant day, the drifting white clouds obscuring the brilliant sun.

"Oh, Maria... what are you doing up here?"

She settled herself beside him but did not lie down like him. "I should be asking you that. You seem troubled," she observed.

Jason chuckled. "That transparent huh?"

Maria smiled, and then she turned serious. "What is it?"

"I'm just thinking... how lucky I am to be here."

"Oh?"

Jason sat up and nodded. "Yeah... everywhere I went before, there were conflicts. No matter how much I tried to stay away, there's always something that draws me in to fighting."

She frowned. "That happened here too."

He looked at her. "This is different. On New Eden, I fought to redeem myself, to repay my past sins. On Heifong I was pulled in by circumstances beyond my control."

Maria laughed. "And how is it different here?"

"Each time after all the fighting ended, I left."

Maria tried to control her reaction.

He placed a hand on her gloved fingers. She did not pull away from his touch.

"This time, I don't want to leave."

---

"Hey, Jason, over here quick!" Ogami yelled from up the hill.

Jason grumbled underneath his breath as he laboriously climbed the stairs. "Easy for you to say, you're not the one lugging the stuff."

He was carrying the various picnic paraphernalia needed for the cherry-blossom viewing party. Somehow, he got stuck with that duty while the Ogami and the others cheerfully went on ahead. The load where piled up so high that he could barely see where he was going.

Complaining to himself all the way, he managed to reach the top of the stairs.

"Just... one... more..." he muttered in between breaths.

Then he tripped on that last step.

'Crap,' was all he thought as he slowly tipped over backwards. Time seemed to slow down as he tried to keep all the stuff together in his arms even as he fell.

Then a strong grip grabbed his hands and pulled him up before he dropped the stuff, not to mention cracking his skull if he did fell.

"Thanks," he called, unable to see his savior.

"Luckily I was just in time."

Jason moved the stuff to a side and glanced to see Maria standing before him, arms folded and a grin on her face.

"Yeap, lucky for me," Jason said happily.

"Need some help?" she asked.

Jason rolled his eyes and she laughed. She proceeded to take some from the top of the pile.

"How come I got to carry all the stuff while you guys did nothing?" he asked her conversationally.

"You're the one who were asleep while we were busy making the food yesterday," Maria replied dryly.

"Ouch," Jason winced. "Did Ogami help too?"

"No, we wouldn't let him," she replied in a flat tone, causing Jason to laugh in return.

Then he frowned. "That doesn't explain why I'm the only one getting punished."

"Oh, he had a perfectly valid excuse," Maria said airily. "He said the gardens would be packed, so he had to leave early to get us a good spot."

 "Sly devil," Jason chuckled.

"Look over there," Maria said suddenly.

They were at a spot overlooking the Imperial City. A steel railing was in place to prevent people from falling over the steep hillside of Ueno. Jason recognized the spot; Sakura had sketched to Jason of her first meeting with Ogami vividly as if he was there when it happened.

Right now, he can see the sight for himself. Maria had moved forward to the railing to get a closer look. He decided to join her.

Jason carefully placed his load down on the ground to take in the view and stood beside her.

"It's beautiful," he said in a hushed voice.

"Yes, it is..." she whispered.

Just then, a gentle breeze swept over them. Cherry-blossom petals flew over them. They watched wordlessly as the wind carried the pink petals off towards the city.

"It is home," Jason said simply.

Maria smiled and leaned against his shoulder.

There was nothing else to be said.

The End

CAST

(in no particular order)

Jason Bourne / Arion Wong

Ogami Ichiro

Shinguiji Sakura

Kanzaki Sumire

Maria Tachibana

Kirishima Kanna

Ri Kohran

Iris Chateaubriand

Fujieda Ayame

Yoneda Ikki

Eadric Lee (cameo)

Special Thanks to all Sakura Wars FAQ Authors at www.GameFAQs.com:

Lando kayama@snet.net, Kayama jpstern@lynx.neu.edu and

Vash the Stampede vash@section-9.com

SAKURA WARS WILL RETURN

in another

New Memories

Author's notes:

Fans of Sakura Wars would recognize the extensive 'borrowing' of material from the various games, FAQs, the anime series and the OVAs. Most notably were the night patrol scene, Maria's stunt scene and of course, the final battle which I wrote word-for-word while watching the last episode of the TV anime series.

I wish to apologize if this work has offended anyone. I am just another fan. Thank you for reading.

Arion Wong,

April 7, 2003

Unlimited Parallel Adventures

-writing incomplete fanfics since 1996-



[1] SDF-1, UEG etc – reference to "Robotech".

[2] Chenjesu, Alliance of Free Stars etc – reference to the Star Control pc game series.

[3] GDI, Tiberium etc – reference to the pc game series, "Command & Conquer".

[4] Legion of Iron – reference to the pc game "Hegemonia: The Legion of Iron".

[5] Vasuda, Great War etc – reference to the pc game, "Descent - Freespace: The Great War".

[6] UPG – reference from the anime series, "The Irresponsible Captain Taylor".

[7] Babylon Project – reference to the sci-fi series, "Babylon 5". 2069 is my own adjustment.

[8] Federation, etc – reference to "Star Trek". 2085 is canon.

[9] Luthien – capital of the Draconis Combine in "Battletech". There really was an 'Imperial City' in Luthien.

[10] Heifong – A world from the anime series, "Outlaw Stars". Also known spelled/pronounced as 'Heaven'.

[11] New Eden – A name I made up for the world in "Trigun". The gun belonged to Million Knives.

[12] Familiar ceiling - Reference to Ikari Shinji from "Neon Genesis Evangelion". Whenever injured he would find himself staring up at the hospital's ceiling when he woke up.

[13] Jason Bourne – Name of the lead character in the movie "The Bourne Identity". He was a spy who became amnesiac and did not know of his past.

[14] Familiar voice – Kirishima Kanna and Monkey D. Luffy of the anime "One Piece" sounds very familiar to me. Anyway, Luffy (Mengqi D. Lufei in Chinese) came from a region called Eastern Blue in "One Piece".

[15] Dominion – reference to "Dominion Tank Police". Yoneda and Wong supposedly met up on the planet Dominion, specifically in its capital city of Newport City.

[16] Gowa – reference to the anime "Gasaraki". It involved mecha known as Tactical Armor and revolves around the story of reincarnated people and a Japanese ritual to summon Gasaraki the demon. Sort of.

[17] DJ Pretzel - (remixes under Chrono Trigger)

[18] Ninjas – from Sakura Wars OVA: A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of they leapt around silently and evaded detection in Ogami's night patrol.

[19] Kuroku – my name for the said ninjas. Kuroku, as I remembered, is the name for the black-masked stagehands in Japanese plays. It's also the name of the referee in the game Samurai Shodown/Spirits.

[20] Mangled language – Malaysians and Singaporeans enjoy their local versions of English, sometimes twisted and mangled with local dialects till the point that foreigners who speak English fluently can't understand them.

[21] Maths – Yes, I do suck at Maths.

[22] Muscular woman from deep space – Gascogne from the anime series, "Vandread".

[23] Town Portal – probably the most used spell in Blizzard's Diablo game series ;)

[24] Chinese style cooking in space – reference to Jet/Jack's cooking from the anime series "Cowboy Bebop"

[25] Maria in an apron – from the game "Sakura Taisen". You will see this picture if you did well in Maria's borscht cooking mini-game.

[26] "A Midsummer Night's Dream" – Sakura Wars OVA1 Episode 4 of the same title.

[27] Café Noir – name of a Japanese Sakura Taisen fan website ;) It's a Maria Tachibana shrine to boot. URL pending.

[28] "Well bargained and done" – Battletech fans will know this term from the Clan's bidding ritual.

[29] Maria in black & red – from Café Noir's thank you image for 250,000 hits ten_250000.jpg

[30] Heifong stories – anime series "Outlaw Stars"

[31] Maria's past – modified from Sakura Wars OVA2 Episode 1: "The Dreadful Assassin From New York"

[32] Female pirates – anime series "Vandread"

[33] Soldat – Soldats (Soldier in French?) is the name of the powerful, global secret society in the anime "Noir". Modified for my own use, acronym for Sons Of Liberty, Democracy And Truth.

[34] "I'll be back" – oft repeated and imitated. And Arnold is Austrian, not German!

[35] Short speech – oh geez... a parody of Sailor Moon's pre-battle ritual....

[36] There can be only one – oft repeated quote from the movie "Highlander".

[37] Gendo position – reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Ikari Gendo had the habit of locking his fingers in front of his lips, elbows on the desk. This is the Gendo ™ position. His glasses would reflect light randomly even though he would not move a muscle ;)

[38] New Port City – Name of the city in the anime "New Dominion Tank Police". Reference to Act 6 of the OVA.

[39] Megatokyo, Genom, BUMAs – references to the anime "Bubblegum Crisis" and "Bubblegum Crisis 2040". Arion was on Earth's Megatokyo in 2240.

[40] Arcadia – reference to Captain Harlock. Stole the cool ship for personal use ;)

[41] See the Singaporean movie, "Chicken Rice Wars" ;)

[42] Bullet-time – from the PC FPS game "Max Payne", inspired by John Woo/Chow Yun Fatt movies. Get it! There's even a Kung-Fu Edition mod on the net. Way cool.

[43] Kicking it into high gear – Chinese Gatling Tank unit response from Command & Conquer: Generals.

[44] Valentinov – from Sakura Wars OVA2 Episode 1. Valentinov was supposed to be Russian, so I find the English translation of his name as 'Valentino' to be off the mark a little...

[45] Heavy Gear – from the PC and pen-and-paper mech game series "Heavy Gear" by Dream Pod 9.

[46] Labors – reference from the anime series "Patlabor". Probably short for 'Patrol Labors', since it's about a new form of mobile law enforcement.

[47] The 'Theater of Dreams' is the home of the famous English football team; Manchester United aka the Red Devils. Their stadium/home ground is called "Old Trafford". Because of their dominance in the 1990s both in English and European competitions, fans boast by calling it a place where dreams are made. Luthien's 'New Trafford' is another reference to Man U. But their dominance is now (circa 2000s) being challenged by London's Arsenal aka The Gunners. Arghhhh....... btw, the WHOLE world calls soccer as football. Americans don't play football, the ball isn't even round!

[48] Ripper – Arion Wong's preferred weapon in other UPA stories... JG Arms Trade Co. (Freeworld) Ripper MK II Auto-Shotgun Sword aka "Jack The Ripper"... a combination of a auto-shotgun and a long blade. Arion sucks at using a gun or a sword, so he preferred to use something that has both ;)

[49] Siao – Crazy in Chinese Hokkien dialect. In Mandarin the pronunciation "Xiao" refers to "laugh" or "small". This illustrates the vast differences between the many dialects of Chinese. "Wah lau weh" referred to earlier is also Hokkien, it's a phrase of exclaimation/surprise/sarcasm/other useful situations. This concludes Impromptu Language 101 for today.

[50] Jeffrey Goh – real-life person and friend. In Unlimited Parallel Adventures' first story he's the first to cross from the real dimension to the game universe of Command & Conquer. Circumstances then lead Arion Wong and Eadric Lee to follow suit. They got stuck within that universe which eventually expanded to become the UPA universe that you're currently reading.