"I just think it's best... you understand, don't you, Hikaru-chan?"

No, she didn't. She didn't understand at all. She had given herself to Rei with all her heart, had thought that she would marry and spend the rest of his life with him. She had allowed him to seduce her, giving up her maidenhood, knowing that it was for the man that she truly belonged with.

"Of course," she said, lowering her head.

"I knew you would. You can see it, too. It's been fun and everything, but let's face it, we were never one of those hot romantic couples." He laughed, as if to make her feel better.

Her stomach felt like she'd just swallowed poison. She had, of course. Every word from his lips was killing her, slowly. She could feel it, feeling her body shake, and knew that once he left she would simply fall over and die.

But she couldn't do that while he was here. He meant too much to her. So she laughed too. It sounded horrid to her, more of a choked-off sob. He didn't hear it that way. He reached out and turned her face up with his hand. She wasn't crying. She had no idea why she wasn't, but at least he was spared that embarrassment.

"Hikaru, I hope you find someone, y'know? God knows you deserve someone more than a jerk like me." He grinned, that sideways grin that always melted her limbs and made her go all gooey.

She didn't, though. She deserved him. Why didn't he see that? God, was he doing this for her?

He sighed, and turned. "I'll see you around, Hikaru, OK? Don't be a stranger." And then he walked out, not looking back.

She stood there for a moment and then slipped back against the wall, slowly sliding down the surface. She still hadn't cried.

***

Dawn, the next morning. The sun slowly crept through the curtains, outlining a young woman on a futon. She lay curled up, looking so innocent in sleep. The light moved up her body, alighting on her cheekbones before trickling into her eyes.

Hikaru's eyes, flickered and then opened. She took a deep breath.

"Alright!"

She leapt to her feet.

"Today is the day! No more Hikaru Amano the manga artist and girlfriend! We throw off the old chains and find new purpose! Yes!"

She threw on some clothes and grabbed her sketchbook. "I'm gonna go out and find something active! Something vital! Something that needs the skills of an up-and-coming talent with gorgeous looks and brains to match!"

She threw open the door. "Look out world, Hikaru is here!"

DENIAL

A Martian Successor Nadesico fanfic

by Sean Gaffney

(C) Xebec, ADV, and all the other creators of this fabulous anime.


Six months later...

"And rest!" the instructor shouted. The students immediately dropped their controls and almost fell out of the simulators, exhausted with the efforts of trying to control the giant mecha before them.

Well, almost all the students.

"No! I can't stop yet! I'm up to 85,000! Another 15,000 and I'll get a bonus run!"

The instructor sighed. She may be the best prospect in the class, but reality didn't seem to be on her curriculum.

"Miss Amano, it's an Aestivalis simulator, not an arcade game. There are no points, and no bonus levels."

Hikaru appeared, a gleam in her eye. "You can't palm me off with that excuse! I got to it once, I can get it again!"

About two months ago, one of the programmers had decided, as a joke, to include video game effects in her simulator. The joke had backfired; she'd not only gotten the highest rating they'd seen in a simulator to date, but was now convinced that if she continued to excel, she'd be rewarded with more cheesy effects and points.

That did remind him of his other task. "OK, everyone, break for lunch. Miss Amano, a moment of your time."

He tried to phrase it as casually as possible, but she still came over and saluted nevertheless. "Yes sir! Cadet First Class Hikaru Amano ready for action! Let's go!"

"Amano, this isn't an anime! Oh God, never mind." He straightened up. "Anyway, I have some news for you. You're easily passing all the other cadets in your class in terms of talent, so we're going to accelerate your program. Report to the spaceport at 0800 hours tomorrow, you'll be flying out to Gamma Two for testing on the real thing."

He did not think it humanly possible that her eyes could get much bigger than they already were, even hidden behind those glasses she's started to wear (she'd pointed out that girls with glasses were 3 times more likely to succeed in mecha combat anime). He only had about a second to see it, however, before she wrapped her body around his in a bone-crushing hug.

"Oh, thank you sir! I'll never let you down! I'll go out there and win against the Jovians, and show everyone in the world how wonderful Earth can be." She looked up into the middle distance, and pointed to an imaginary sun. "Hikaru Amano, ready for ACTION!"

The instructor shook his head. "God help the Jovians if she ever does meet them," he murmured.

***

"Oowwwwch! Owieowieowieow! Please it hurts, please fix it!"

The medic sighed at the young girl on the floating biobed. He'd seen pilots come in here with injuries all the time, but this one was truly one of the sillier ones.

"I'm not allowed to fix it. It's policy. You break a limb, you let it set in the normal time, no special equipment. What if you were trapped on an asteroid? All you'd have was equipment to make a splint. You should learn to be tougher than this."

Hikaru stared at the medic, tears coming to her eyes. She brought her hands up to her chin. "But I'm not on an asteroid, I'm on a space station with lots of cool equipment, being treated by a handsome man!" She blinked, and smiled at him. "Pleeeeeease?"

She was overdoing the charm, admittedly, but she was trying to overcompensate for the shame and stupidity she felt. When the recruits had arrived at the station, she'd grabbed her pack and run off the gangplank... into one-half gravity, falling 20 feet, landing the wrong way, and breaking her ankle. She didn't think she'd ever felt so stupid in her whole life.

Not that her charm was working. The medic merely shoved her back onto the bed and moved it into the next room. "You'll recuperate here for the evening. We're not stupid enough to send you back to the barracks just now, you'd never hear the end of it."

Hikaru gulped and swallowed her objections. "Yes sir."

He pointed to a rack. "Magazines there for when you get bored," he drawled, and walked out.

Hikaru sighed and lay back. For about thirty seconds. Then she sat up, said, "OK, I'm bored!" and manoeuvred her bed over towards the magazine rack. After a cursory glance she hmmphed and returned to the corner of the room. "What kind of magazines are those? Where's the latest Newtype! Stolen, I bet. People have no respect for the sick anymore..."

Her complaining was interrupted by the medic screaming out from the next room. "OK, I need an IV and some wrappings! We stopped the bleeding, but she'll need to get some blood back into her. God in heaven, why do they let these idiots in here?"

"You don't know who she is?" said another voice, presumably the colleague to the medic she'd met earlier. "This is Hard-Luck Izumi."

"Never heard of her."

Hikaru lay in the bed, fascinated. If she closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, then the voices sounded like a conspiracy anime! Intrigue and mayhem! This Izumi was probably a missing princess!

"She's not only one of the top three pilots on the base here, but she's had two fiancés. She lost one during the battle, and found another one! She's quite the looker, you know."

"Wait, *that* Izumi? The one who's engaged to Hideyuka?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I think we just found out why this happened... ah, here's that blood."

The conversation dropped to lower murmurs then, but Hikaru had heard enough. This woman was a top pilot! She's probably gotten injured nobly in a battle with the Jovians! And Hikaru was in the same room with her! She wiggled her toes, feeling the excitement rush through her.

About half an hour went by, then the door opened and another bed was put in the room. Hikaru debated on whether she should feign sleep longer, but was simply too curious. She sat up and stared.

The other woman was every bit as gorgeous as she'd imagined. Long, black hair, with a fringe over one eye. She had the beauty of one of those tragic space opera animes, or maybe a shonen ai romance, as the woman who comes between the men in love...

The bandages on her wrists and arms admittedly spoiled the effect, however. She looked at the medic curiously. "What happened? Did her cockpit blow up during a raging battle? Did she fight to the last trying to keep her hands on the controls?" Her mind was racing.

The medic snorted. "Hardly. Her fiancé died yesterday. Her second fiancé in three years. Stupid idiot slit her wrists."

And then he walked out of the room, leaving Hikaru staring at the inert body of the pilot in shock. She tried to assume an appropriate expression of seriousness and grief, but a thought rose unbidden to her mind.

*She can't live without her true love! How *ROMANTIC*! It's just like the girl from Gundam RST!*

And with that she lay back down, continuing to stare at the young woman. Eyes gleaming.

***

Izumi Maki woke slowly. She didn't want to believe it. It hadn't worked. She wasn't with him. Or even in blissful oblivion. She was still alive.

There was an IV drip running into one arm, presumably giving life blood back to her body. She wanted to rip it out and throw it onto the floor. Who did they think they were, saving her life? Didn't they realise she'd taken her life because she didn't want it anymore? What sort of world was this if a person didn't even have the right to decide if they lived or died?

She wished she had the guts to simply be a bad pilot. Then they'd let her go, and she'd be free to do whatever she wanted. God knows she'd tried. She just couldn't go through with it. She couldn't deliberately screw things up. Ironic that she didn't care about her life, but cared about her reputation.

She wondered if anyone felt sorry for her. Doubtful. She'd done this the first time too, it was just more direct this time. Crashing around in reconnaissance, trying to get herself killed... sitting in a broom cupboard, cutting her veins with a razor. What was the real difference? It was the last, desperate act of someone who was tired of feeling. Hard to imagine someone respecting that.

"Are you awake now?"

Yes, she was, but she wasn't about to admit it. The last think Izumi wanted was some nurse hovering around her asking how she felt, telling her they were recommending some good psychiatrists for her to see, and say that of *course* it must have been *awful* but eventually you'll find the strength to go on.

She had. The first time. But not again. She was strong, but not that strong.

"Hi, you don't know who I am, but I'm Hikaru Amano, a new pilot! Um... tell me if this is a bad time to ask, but did you really try to kill yourself? Because of a lost love, right?"

Izumi showed no outward reaction, but inwardly she cringed. God in heaven, they really must not sympathise with her if they'd stuck someone like this in her room. The girls' voice practically dripped with wonder and adoration.

"That's how I want to die. Well, not that I want to die. I'm going to be a pilot! But on the other hand, if I was going to *hypothetically* die, I'd want it to be romantic. You know, my heart crushed by a tragic death... unable to live without my true love... going to meet him one way or another. *sigh* Yeah, that'd be cool."

There was simply no way to adequately react to this. Staying expressionless had become much easier... Izumi was simply stunned into a total stupor. It wasn't the sheer stupidity of the girl before her spouting the words as if it was some great romantic idea...

It was the fact that Izumi had been thinking exactly the same thing earlier. And acted on it. With no irony. Her thoughts on waking came back to her, this time in the girl's happy, clueless voice.

*Well, she certainly worked better than a psychiatrist would have. I don't think I've ever felt more stupid than I do right now,* Izumi thought, as she finally drifted back into unconsciousness, the girl still chattering at her.

***

"She's not in the barracks?"

"Nope. Dunno if you'd call it fortune or not, but she was so gung-ho to get here, she tripped over the ramp and broke her ankle. We've got her in sickbay for the evening... told her we had a policy of letting it heal naturally."

"Good. First night alone should at least keep her out of trouble and keep her from any others who might tell her things..."

"Actually, there is one other with her, but she's unlikely to say anything to her. They stuck Maki in there. Didn't want her in a room by herself, I guess... I think Miss Amano's a canary who'll warn us if she tries anything."

"Maki... *sigh*... more problems. That new disease, was it?"

"That was it. We had a watch put on her, naturally, but she's nothing if not clever. She wanted to die, this wasn't a spur of the moment decision."

"Dammit. We need her, she's one of the best there is. Even when trying to fail, she still ran rings around everyone else."

"She won't let herself fail in piloting. It's only living that's her problem."

"Very deep."

"Thank you. Getting back to Amano..."

"She'll be crucified. She's one of the best pilots we've had since... well, since Maki, and she accomplished it in one quarter the time. And she's perky. And while 'breaking in' a new pilot might work for some, I don't think it would for her. We don't want another Subaru on our hands."

"..."

"What?"

"I've just had an idea."

"Good, what is it."

"Nono, not good. It's an awful idea. I've just had a wonderful, *awful* idea."

"Uh oh."

"Why not solve all three problems with the same solution? Amano, Maki *and* Subaru?"

"You can't be serious."

"I'm very serious. We've been talking about creating a team of pilots... let's make it a trio. Maki's the number three pilot on the base, Subaru's number five, and Amano's the top new rookie. We're obviously not going to get a good result with mediocre pilots. Plus Subaru and Maki have shown a reluctance to work in teams, mostly because they're so much better than anyone else in their unit. I suspect the new girl will be the same way. If they're paired with pilots as talented as they demand, we could have something that would make the Jovians think twice. And that's our goal, remember."

"Subaru will eat her alive much worse than any of the others will. And I can't begin to imagine how she and Maki would get along."

"Subaru's not as much or a bitch as she's pretending. As I said, that's the main reason I didn't want Amano in the barracks. We don't need another king-hell bitch here. And barring a major personality change in Subaru or Maki, they should get along fine. Besides, all three of them are fanatical about their piloting. That will give them a bond."

"I still say this won't work."

"I'm not saying they'll turn into the team from Gekigangar or anything. But I'm hoping it'll teach Subaru to make friends, give Amano some experience without ripping away her exuberance, and give Maki a reason to live again that doesn't have something to do with love."

"Complex plan."

"I'm a complex person."

***

Izumi sat back and reviewed her options. She'd slept all evening, and was feeling mildly less stupid and embarrassed, so that was good. Unfortunately, the despair was still there. She'd hoped it would go away like the others. But no, there was Hideyuka, swimming in front of her face, as handsome as the day they'd met. Dammit, what was wrong with her? She wasn't evil or bitchy or a menace to society. Why was she doomed to have the life she did?

She stopped that train of thought. She didn't want to sound as silly as that girl had the other night.

"What kind of puzzle is this? It doesn't make any sense?"

Still here, then. Izumi sighed inwardly. Well, at least she wasn't hovering over her. That gave her a little time to think... hopefully she could do that without getting all morbid and depressed again. She shoved the hurt to the back of her mind, where it sat like a vulture.

What did she do now? Go back and pilot, obviously, but the idea didn't thrill her. Piloting was wonderful, it was the atmosphere that existed around it that she hated. One-upsmanship, backbiting, 'teamwork' that wasn't really teamwork at all. Nobody cared about actually fighting the enemy, just looking good and kissing ass.

If she was going to stay here she couldn't continue to be who she was. She needed something that would push everyone away, keep them from getting too close. She couldn't deal with close. Especially men.

At least she had an excuse. A near nervous breakdown. Good enough to explain anything she might do. Or act...

There was an idea. Not exactly a total personality change, just... different. Saying the things she never used to say, the puns and jokes. Everything she'd kept hidden so no one would think she was a total weirdo.

The idea made her smile. It would be relaxing at least. And she could really get to enjoy it. No more caring what impression she made, or who heard what she said under her breath... this would be really good.

"This isn't a crossword, it's a torture device. 'Shows about how old the pants are.' Um... I can't believe there's a technical term for pant ageing."

"Pageants," Izumi said before she could stop herself.

She could swear she heard the girl blink from here. In seconds she had hobbled over to Izumi's side. "You're awake!"

"Yes," Izumi said, peering over. She was exactly as Izumi had suspected... glasses, big smile, and the widest eyes this side of Osaka. Izumi had lost that innocent perk during training back on Earth... as had almost every other pilot. If this girl were here now... she must be hot. Either that or the war was much worse than they'd been told.

"Hi! I'm Hikaru Amano, a new pilot! I'm so glad you're awake! I was getting really worried!"

Despite the crossword puzzle, Izumi believed her. Hikaru seemed like one of those people who felt a lot about everything. Izumi debated introducing herself, but decided she wasn't comfortable enough yet.

"The answer to your clue. It's pageants."

Hikaru blinked, and looked back at the puzzle book she still held in one hand. "Pageants is the word for someone who ages pants?"

"It's not a normal crossword clue... does it have a number after it?"

"Yeah. Eight."

"That's the number of letters in the word you're looking for. Read the clue back again."

Hikaru was still taken aback by Izumi's abrupt change of subject. "Um... OK. 'Shows how old the pants are'.

"The real clue is 'shows'. The rest is there to tell you it's an anagram. What's a word that shows how old something is?"

"Age."

"Right. And they've already given you pants. Take 'pants' and 'age' and mix the letters around... then make that fit the definition of 'shows'."

"What kind of crossword is this?"

"It's British... that's the sort of crossword they write. It's all based around anagrams, puns, and hidden meanings. They don't just give you the definition, you have to work for it."

Hikaru looked back. "I get it now! So... um... 'one who gambles in a boat'. Is gambles the anagram?"

Izumi was warming to the subject. Wordplay was her favourite hobby, and she rarely got to expound on it. "It's not always anagrams. That's a layered double meaning clue. Another word for boat is 'punt'... and 'one who gambles' is a 'punter'... whether he's in a boat or not."

"Well, how do you know what type of word it is?"

"Experience. Sometimes it tells you within the clue... more often you experiment till you get it. It takes brain work."

"Cool... hey! You're trying to change the subject!"

Izumi's smile stiffened a bit. "Yes, I am. Please keep the subject changed and we should get along fine. Izumi Maki."

Oooh, wonderful, kick the puppy. Hikaru's expression was deeply wounded, and make Izumi's stomach churn that she'd caused it. But dammit, she wasn't going to discuss her tragic life with someone she'd met only two minutes ago who probably hadn't even held hands with a guy yet.

"Sorry," Hikaru said, and made a weak smile. "If you want to talk, I'm ready to listen, though. I mean, I've... um... been around." She flushed and went back to the bed.

Izumi frowned. For a moment, Hikaru actually looked distraught. Perhaps she'd read her wrong. Trying to be the big innocent girl to cover up a bad love affair?

No, that'd be too intriguing. More likely Hikaru had simply watched a bad romantic drama recently or something.

Izumi felt the need to speak anyway. "I don't like talking about myself much to people I've just met. I hope you understand. Maybe later on..."

Hikaru immediately brightened. "Sure, I understand! We'll get to know each other, then! My favourite colour is red, I'm a Libra, of course, I've been drawing my own manga for a bit now. When the war ends I plan to sell something to Shonen Jump Ribbon! It's basically your typical manga plot... this guy goes into an abandoned tunnel one day, only it's haunted, so he doesn't realise..."

Izumi stared at her, then sank back onto the bed. Definitely on the wrong track, there is no way this girl is anything but what she appears.

***

Ryoko stalked her way back to the barracks, running fingers through her recently acquired short haircut. She was starting to get used to it, now that she was forced to live with it. It did end up helping her new psycho bitch image... actually, lately she hadn't even needed to work on that, it was starting to come naturally.

It helped that her fellow pilots were not only the most evil bunch of hypocritical toadies this side of Jupiter, but also pathetic pilots. Slow, feeble, barely able to keep their mechs vertical, and she was supposed to keep up with them?

She went into the bunkroom without even looking, planning to head for the showers and attempt to wash a little bit of frustration out of her, when a duffel bag impacted with her face. She stumbled back a couple of steps, but managed to hold on to it, and lowered the bag to see who had assaulted her.

Emi. Of course.

She seemed even more smugly amused than usual, and Ryoko wondered what sort of slander she'd been telling the supervisors this time. Ryoko scowled and attempted to move past her. "Don't fuck with me today, Emi."

"In your dreams, skag. You aren't going anywhere, except off this base. I was just told to pack your stuff and send you to the commander's office. I was wondering when he'd finally get tired of watching you embarrass all of us."

Ryoko felt herself turn white as a sheet, and stumbled back a few steps. This couldn't be happening. She thought people would understand... or at least that her piloting would get her through until she could join a unit that she could respect.

*Not a team player, are we, Miss Subaru? The goal here is to work *with* the other pilots. I'm sorry if that doesn't come easy to you.* The works of her teacher came back to her. She didn't belong. She wasn't a team player. That was why they were getting rid of her.

Emi was still mocking her, but Ryoko couldn't even hear her voice. Her head seemed to be filled with a white static, and her vision narrowed to a tunnel. She looked back at her bunk - it had been totally stripped, even the sheets were gone. It was true, she was leaving. Ryoko grabbed her bag and stumbled out the door - stumbled due to a well-placed foot.

All the way to the commander's office, she had to force herself not to fall over. She'd beaten it, dammit, she'd finally won. Destroyed everything that she used to be, remade herself so they wouldn't laugh at her. Endured having her mechs sabotaged, and her hair being cut. All this so that she could do what she'd come here to do - be the best pilot they had and fight the Jovians. Make something of herself.

She couldn't go back. Not now.

Entering the commander's office, she forced herself to salute. "C-Cadet Subaru reporting, sir!"

The commander looked up and seemed to frown. Obviously not pleased to see her, Ryoko thought dazedly.

"Subaru, you look white as a sheet? What's happened now?"

Ryoko stared at him, her mouth hanging open. "I... I was told to come here. They said you were getting rid of me..."

This time he did look mad, and Ryoko tried not to flinch. "I told them not to have Shinozara tell you. She must have pulled favours. Subaru, you've been lied to. Again. I can only apologise."

This time she almost did faint. She stuck out a hand and by luck managed to hit a chair before falling to the floor. She sat down hard, her bag falling forgotten onto her foot. "You... you aren't making me leave?"

"Subaru, you're one of our most promising recruits, maybe even one of the top pilots on the base! Why on Earth would we want you to leave?"

Ryoko breathed out, suddenly feeling warmth spread through her. It was a trick. Emi had been lying. They weren't getting rid of her. She should be angry, but all she could feel right now was relief. She sat in the chair for a few moments simply breathing in and out, trying to regain her composure.

After a few moments, she remembered the bag. There must have been some reason to pack it, Emi's practical jokes weren't *that* elaborate. "Um... if I'm not going anywhere, why are my things packed?"

The commander smiled, the secret I-know-more-than-you-do smile he gave the troops during assemblies. "You are moving, just not off the base. We have been watching you, Subaru, believe it or not. You've held up well considering all the hazing your squad gave you. Too well, in fact. I wanted to get you out of there while you still had a spark to you. You don't belong there, that much is clear."

Ryoko felt heat burning on her cheeks, as the unfamiliar praise made her want to crawl under the chair and hide. "I... but my teachers... they say I'll never be a pilot if I don't learn how to work as a team..."

"They're right. You aren't a team player yet, that's the reason for the move. But you shouldn't have to slow down to much just to allow everyone to catch up. The best way to have you learn teamwork is with equals. We've discussed setting up an elite squad from the best cadets, and you're one of the ones we've chosen. You're to report to the sickbay, where you'll meet your other two team members, and then we'll find somewhere to relocate you."

Ryoko was once again having difficulty hearing what was being told to her. Elite squad. One of the best cadets. The words she'd longed to hear for months now.

My God, maybe it had been worth it.

"One thing I should warn you about, Subaru..."

She jumped back into focus. "Yes, sir?"

"Be aware that your team-mates, while also crack pilots... be it because of experience or simulation... are also unlikely to team up with others well. You three are mavericks. We're doing this deliberately, hoping you can bring out the best in each other. Give them a chance, don't expect it to be perfect right from the start. You above all know the risks in being too hard on people."

Ryoko straightened. "Of course, sir!"

The commander chuckled. "I'll be more pleased if you say that to me a few days from now. Speaking of which, Miss Shinozara... this is irregular, but I suppose I feel guilty enough to offer you the chance."

"Sir?"

"Would you be interested in personally packing her things before we move her off the station and back to Earth?"

Ryoko's eyes widened. Her dream come true. And yet... she couldn't do it. It would be sinking to her level.

"No sir, that's alright. I'll just report to Sickbay. Um... are my team-mates injured?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact they are. But they aren't going anywhere for another day, and I wanted you out of that barracks as quickly as possible. Oh, and Ryoko... good decision. You're better than she is."

Ryoko could now feel the flush spreading over her entire body. "Thank you, sir! You won't regret this!" And with that, she grabbed the duffel and moved out of the office as quickly as she could while still being polite.

An elite squad of crack pilots!

Trying not to grin hugely, Ryoko swung her bag back and forth. This was the best day she'd ever had.

***

"...and I remember the first time I saw the episode where Joe died. It was *so* *sad*! I couldn't stop crying for days, I was just sobbing into my pillow. JOE! JOE! It took me weeks to get over it... I even stayed home from school a couple of days."

"I imagine drinking coffee was never the same again... hehehehehe..."

"Huh? Never mind..."

Ryoko paused at the doorway, uncertain. This was where she'd been directed by the doctor... could those really be her team-mates in there? She shook her head and mentally slapped herself. She shouldn't be judging anyone on first appearances... she was better than that, better than all of her old bunkmates. She'd show them.

Opening the door, she decided to put on an outgoing, salt-of-the earth type front. "Hi there! I'm Ryoko Subaru, pilot first year. I was just told we'd been assigned to the same unit."

She was immediately met with an enthusiastic handshake from a young redhead who seemed incredibly full of energy, despite the cast on her right ankle. "Hi! I'm Hikaru Amano, a new arrival! I can't believe they've assigned me to a team already! I thought I'd have to wait a week or two! This is great!"

Ryoko's eyebrow twitched briefly. "Brand new? When did you arrive?"

"Yesterday. I kind of, um, broke my leg..." The girl flushed. Ryoko stared at her. She couldn't really be that green, could she?

"She got a ninety-seven percent on the final simulator test. I don't think they ever told her how stunning that is."

Ryoko looked over at the other speaker, and then twitched again. "You... you're Izumi Maki!"

"Yes," said the pale, navy blue-haired woman. She was sitting up in bed, and had a slight smirk on her face, as if she found the whole situation amusing.

"Um... aren't you dead?"

"Didn't you hear? I come in six-packs. Hehehehehe..." The girl started to giggle harder, till she was slapping the side of the bed.

Ryoko took a step back and tried to take in the information. She was now teamed with a young kid, never before in a real Aestivalis, who had nevertheless scored ten points higher than anyone else EVER had on the simulator. Her other team-mate was one of the best pilots on the base, but also an unlucky basket case who had supposedly killed herself after her second fiancé died.

Maki stopped laughing and stared at her more closely. "Subaru... you're the one everyone tries to get rid of, right? Ended up becoming a take-no-shit tomboy just to get noticed, right?"

OK, so Ryoko probably wasn't the greatest role model in the world either. She was beginning to see the ulterior motive of this teamup... get together three pilots with amazing technical skills and no ability to interact socially. Thanks, Commander.

She smiled weakly and walked over to the only remaining bed, tossing her duffel on top of it. "I guess the Commander wants me to brief you... um, he's putting the three of us together to try and create an elite unit."

Maki laughed again, a quick rat-a-tat-tat of a chuckle that was already beginning to grate on Ryoko. "While removing any dissonant elements from the rest of his teams, or cutting them off before they start to grow dissonant in Hikaru-san's case. This is wonderful, I must congratulate him." She looked up, and Ryoko must have had some distaste showing on her face, because Maki's expression softened. She looked almost normal again. "Sit down, Ryoko-san. It's not as bad as you think. He wouldn't do this if he didn't think it would work."

Ryoko nodded and reclined on her bed, feeling a little better. "Right... sorry."

Hikaru was back on her own bed as well, but was bouncing up and down slightly, giving the impression that the bed was vibrating. "So, Ryoko-san, what's it like here? Are the people nice?"

Ryoko stared at her, but there didn't seem to be any irony in her statement. She's really like this. My God. She heard Maki giggling, and shot her a nasty look. "The Commander's a great guy... he always looks out for people, and doesn't let anyone crash and burn unless they deserve it. The teachers are alright, provided you're a team player... they can get vicious if you don't toe the line, though."

Maki piped up again. "Keep in mind those are the first-year teachers, who are trained to be absolute bastards to make people quit. I must admit, Ryoko-san, you've impressed a lot of us in the third year. You've taken more shit than anyone else, and still refuse to give in. That's impressive."

Ryoko flushed. She hadn't even realised anyone'd heard of her outside of the Commander. "Thanks... you know, Amano-san, Maki here is one of the best pilots on the base. She's third year, and has been tearing the place up."

She then paused, unsure how much the other girl wanted her life story told, or even how much of it was true. Luckily Maki took up the narrative. "I'm also well known as a manic depressive, and as both of you know, recently tried to kill myself. None of us are perfect here. Ryoko's a hothead who tends to blame herself when anything goes wrong... it's true, admit it," she added as she saw Ryoko start to make an angry denial. Ryoko choked back her response. It was true, it just hurt coming from someone else. She was the only one allowed to hate herself.

"What about you, Hikaru-san? Why are you here? Lifelong dream to be a pilot?" Maki asked the young girl.

Hikaru actually seemed to calm down a little, and looked down at her hands. "Um... actually, I've always wanted to be a manga artist. I've got a sketchbook in my pack. But I felt like a change a while back, so I went and signed up for Aestivalis training."

Ryoko nodded. "Sounds good to me. And it looks like it paid off, if you're doing that good in sim tests. I only got a seventy-five percent, for chrissakes."

Maki, however, was looking closely at Hikaru's expression. "You felt like a change, so you signed up for Aesti training? That's not a change, that's a major lifestyle switch. What happened to you that you needed to do something *that* different?"

Hikaru flinched, and looked away. Ryoko looked at her, and felt a pang hit her heart. It hurt to see this girl looking upset.

Maki sighed. "A man. And here I was thinking you were innocent."

Hikaru had her arms wrapped around her, as if she was cold. "I don't want to talk about it now. Later I will."

Ryoko shook her head. "Hey, kid, that's not the way to--"

She was cut off by Maki. "That's fine. It can wait till later." She caught Ryoko's eye, and shook her head. Ryoko wrinkled her brow, but didn't say anything.

Maki opened her mouth wide, performing a very fake-looking yawn. "I know you're probably still excited, Ryoko-san, but Hikaru-san and I are still recovering from our injuries. Trust me, with the amount if drugs running through my system, I'm lucky I stayed up this far."

Ryoko was smart enough to catch a clue when it was bright, neon and being waved in her face. "Sounds good. Actually, the adrenaline is kinda wearing out of me... I might take a nap too."

Hikaru looked at them and nodded. "Alright."

Ryoko sighed and stretched out on the bed... she'd unpack later. She *was* a little tired, but wanted to think first. This was definitely not what she'd expected.

***

The doctor came in the next day, clearly unhappy about something. Hikaru was looking a little better, and had almost managed to convince herself that the previous day's conversation had never happened. She tried to put on her perkiest expression, hoping she'd have better luck at getting the doctor to fix her injuries with the bone knitter.

He seemed to know where she was going, as he waved his hand in her direction. "No need to give me those googly eyes, Cadet. I've already been ordered to fix your leg... as well as Izumi's wounds." There was a sudden silence as he glared in Izumi's direction. She returned the glare, saying nothing. Hikaru was inwardly thankful that she didn't try to make some pun or wisecrack. It probably wouldn't have gone down very well.

"Thank you, Doctor," Izumi said instead. The doctor clearly wanted her to say more, but she merely continued to return his stare until he looked away, back at Hikaru.

"I trust this little embarrassing incident will make you think twice before leaping into new situations, cadet... and that goes for your Aestivalis as well."

Hikaru flushed. "H-hai..." she murmured.

The doctor continued to scowl. "If I had my way, Amano would be here for another few days, and Maki, you'd be here for at least a month. But my opinion has been waived so that you three can start in on the new top-drawer training they're telling me about."

Hikaru felt she should reassure the doctor in some way. "Thank you, doctor! We promise we won't do anything to let you down or disgrace you! You needn't fear us in any way, we'll make you proud!"

He just blinked at her. "You really are like that, aren't you? Good lord. Presumably you expect me to be wandering the ship drinking sake from a huge bowl or somesuch... in any event," he said, turning back to the others, "once I fix both of you up, you and Subaru will report to Bay 13, where they'll show you your new Aestis and assign you quarters. Presumably you'll get new instructions after that."

At the mention of new Aestivalises, both Ryoko and Hikaru's eyes lit up. Hikaru still couldn't quite believe this was happening to her! She'd only just arrived, and they were putting her with other top pilots in a secret project! They'd probably be assigned to infiltrate the Jovians' top secret base and carry out some sort of sabotage. Naturally, being the smallest, she'd be the one who'd have to crawl through the ducts, creating chaos all over the base, yet never being caught until finally at the end, they'd get in their Aestivalises and fly along the surface of the Jovian base, looking for the one small port where they could drop the bomb before peeling away. She'd focus her sights, remembering the words of her commanders telling her to concentrate, just let it flow, to use the F--

"Miss Amano, are you even bothering to listen to me?"

Hikaru looked up, flushing red. "Sorry! Sorry, sir!" She turned to him and tried to pretend she'd been totally wrapped up in what he had to say.

The doctor sighed. "So let's look at that ankle of yours..."

***

Izumi tried to blend her into the background... she used to be so good at that. She watched the doctor fuss over Hikaru, trying to sound gruff and uncaring. It was cute, really; he was every inch the old-fashioned Star Trek country doctor. Probably why he was so concerned with her.

There was simply no way she was going to sit here for a month while drones performed psych tests on her. She didn't care if they thought she was going to blow her brains out the moment she left. They were hardly going to understand her any better than she understood herself.

She knew she wasn't better, not by any means. Last night she'd woken up and nearly screamed with the memory of his death. She almost got up and went to find some pills or a knife. But then she looked at Hikaru, sleeping peacefully, the depression finally worn off of her face. Every time she saw Hikaru's perkiness now she felt guilty. Why couldn't she do that? Take tragedy and convert it into happiness and joy, even if only on the surface. The brooding, tragic angst had worn thin... and she didn't really believe in an afterlife anyway. She wasn't going to meet him. She was just taking her life to a foreseen conclusion.

She lay back down, satisfied with her decision not to end her life. Unfortunately, that hadn't really helped in dealing with her feelings of grief. She'd cried silently for a few minutes before falling asleep.

Now she sat here trying to figure out what to do now. Obviously she *wasn't* going to be feeling at all better anytime soon... and to be honest, she didn't really trust herself not to try any suicide attempts no matter how grand her new outlook on life was. It was best for the time being to stick close to the other two girls, just as a precaution.

Besides, she was starting to like them. Hikaru was just too spunky to dislike, and Ryoko combined a spunky abrasiveness with a wounded innocence that reminded Izumi of what she was like after her first fiancé died. They weren't the typical grunt pilots out to impress middle management and abuse others. These were people Izumi might want to actually know.

She once again pondered her decision to stop acting like what everyone expected her to. It was fun. She felt more relaxed. Ryoko didn't seem to like it, but she'd have time to discuss it with her later. More to the point, she wasn't as oppressively obsessed and depressed. That had to be a good thing. If the CO asked her about it, she'd give him that reason. He'd accept it. He might even approve, look at all the twisted reasons he was pairing the three of them up in the first place.

Yes, this would work out, Izumi decided. Provided she put on the meek, accepting attitude till she got away from the medics...

***

Ryoko stared up at the Aestivalis before her and tried not to let the naked lust show on her face. She risked a glance over at the others and saw Amano hadn't even bothered to disguise it... she was even salivating a little. Even Izumi's jaw had dropped a little as she stared at the marvels in front of them.

"Try not to dehydrate before you get into the cockpit, Amano," the commander said with a smile on his face. Hikaru closed her mouth, but her eyes remained as wide as possible.

Ryoko looked back at the commander in shock. "Th-these are our new mechs?" she stammered.

The commander smiled. "Indeed. Surprise."

Izumi walked around, studying her sea blue Aestivalis from every angle. "Some of these things... I thought this technology was still in the experimental stages."

"It is. This is the third stage. There have to be compatibility tests somewhere along the road. If you pilots aren't able to use the new technology effectively, it's as good as useless."

Ryoko was now walking around her own machine. Her other mecha had always been gunmetal grey, the typical Aestis given to first year trainees, and ugly as hell. This was beautiful. It was a deep red (her favourite colour, though that had to be a coincidence), and exuded grace where the other mechas she'd driven had just sat there like lumps. It was almost as if these mecha were alive.

Hikaru must have asked permission to see the inside, because Ryoko saw she was halfway up her own orange Aestivalis. Ryoko took this as a general all-clear and moved towards her cockpit.

Inside was even more startling. Broadly speaking, it was the same as the old mecha, but there was so much *more*! It was better designed as well, leaving freedom of movement. The only major problem was the lack of a viewscreen...

Suddenly Izumi's face sprang to life right before her! Ryoko almost leapt out of the cockpit before realising it was just a holoscreen. She was stunned, she'd only seen the president use those...

"Testing communications. Can you two hear me?"

Hikaru suddenly popped up on the other side of Ryoko's face. "Hai! Cadet Hikaru Amano, reading you loud and clear!"

Ryoko quickly located the right panel and activated it. "Subaru here. Try and be a little less abrupt next time."

Izumi grinned. "We can wait while you change your underwear if you like."

"Izumi!" Ryoko screamed, flushing.

Hikaru was, of course, having a ball. "It's just like Gekigangar! I don't believe it, it's a dream come true!"

The commander's voice came from a speaker near the front. "Not surprising, Amano. Most of NERGAL's tech people tend to be otaku such as yourself. It's only natural they'd make these towards the anime specifications."

Ryoko was still checking her equipment. She liked the armaments given to the arms and legs - Ryoko liked physical combat, and wanted her mech to be well protected.

"Sir," Izumi spoke up, sounding serious again, "Does this 'Beam' setting mean what I think it means?"

Hikaru popped up, apparently hitting the comms button a second time by accident. "Gekigan Beam?!?! You're kidding!"

"Not quite," the commander's voice said, sounding a little less smug. "Keep in mind, you three, that all of this is a top, A-1 secret. And I do mean penalty of death. None of it will leave this room, do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir!" the three cadets said in unison.

The commander's tone softened again. "It's not quite a Gekigan beam, Amano, but it's as close as we could make it. It's a Heavy Wave Gravity Beam. Not much of a range, but it can do... impressive things within that range."

Ryoko's eyes were now almost as wide as Hikaru's. "Sir, when can we start testing?"

"Not today, much as you'd like to. The power units aren't here... it's working on battery power only, not enough for full-fledged testing. They should be here in two days at the latest. Once they're hooked up, we can start having you three learn to operate your new mechs. Oh, by the way, the design team is *here*, not just back on Earth. NERGAL insisted. So feel free to suggest any changes you feel should be made to improve manoeuvrability, response time, what have you."

"Customised," Izumi murmured. "Sir, did you do this deliberately to pique my interest?"

"I have lots of reasons for what I'm doing, Izumi, and believe it or not, you only feature in a few of them."

"Hhhmph! You wound me, sir."

"No, that was the razor, I think you'll find," the commander said dryly.

Ryoko's mouth dropped open, and she stared at Izumi with concern, wondering what the young woman would say.

"Hehehehehehe...HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"

*Why do I even bother?* Ryoko sighed. As Izumi continued to have a giggle fit, Ryoko emerged from the cockpit and headed over towards the commander. "Quarters?"

"To your left."

"Mess?"

"Straight down that corridor, automated with a chef for special meals."

"Will I ever understand you?"

"Maybe if you live to be my age... but by then, I'll be long gone."

***

Hikaru keeled over onto her bed, exhausted and depressed. *Well, so much for the prodigy,* she thought bitterly.

Reality had not been pleasant. In their first testing of the new Aestis, Ryoko had kicked her butt from here to Saturn in close combat. The longest Hikaru had gone before being taken down and/or disarmed was 20 seconds. Ryoko even beat her when she had a gun! And speaking of guns, Izumi had wiped the floor with both of them in long range target practice. She just giggled, muttered something about a bird in the hand being worth two in Shepherd's Bush, and continued to get straight, dead-on bullseyes. Hikaru got nine out of thirty, Ryoko sixteen.

She shouldn't be surprised, she knew that. Everyone had kept on telling her the difference between sims and actually piloting a large mecha like the Aestivalis. She just... she just wished she'd done a little better. Enough so that she could look her fellow pilots in the eye.

She rummaged through her things, and found her sketchbook. She hadn't done much art lately, concentrating instead on the basic piloting skills. She picked up a pen and started to draw. Gekigangar again. The more she worked with the Aestivalises, she more she thought of the old anime she loved. It was so right, so basic. Watching the show, you felt as if nothing else in the world ever existed.

She examined her art. It was meant to be a sketch of Joe, but somehow had mutated into looking more like Rei. They didn't really look much like each other... probably her unconscious dredging up things she didn't want to think about again.

"Not bad, kiddo. That's some talent."

Hikaru leapt off of the bed. "Gyaaa!"

Ryoko was standing there, grinning. "It's not as if I snuck up on you. I said hello three times. What were you doing?"

Hikaru flushed. "I get really involved when I draw."

She could now see that Izumi was sitting there too, drinking a cup of tea. "Yes, you looked really drawn in. Hehehehe..."

Ryoko frowned, and opened her mouth to snap back.

"In fact, it's a good thing you picked that up. You've looked pretty drawn these last few days. Hahahahaha!!"

"Izumi, will you knock that off?!" Ryoko shouted.

"Hehehehe... no, I won't. Suck it up." Izumi was still giggling, but there was a hint of fire behind her eyes. They'd been having this cold war building up lately, and neither of them were going to give in.

Hikaru threw her sketchbook across the room, silencing both of them. "I hate this! Why am I still here?!"

Ryoko took a step back, not comfortable with Hikaru being so upset. "Hey, kiddo, today wasn't as bad as it looked. You're coming along great -- "

But Hikaru was already shaking her head. "Not that. I don't even mean what a lousy pilot I am. I mean why am I here at all? I'm not Nanako, or anything like that. I love to draw! I should be a manga artist! Instead I wake up one day and decide to be a mecha pilot? Why did I do that?!" By now Hikaru was screaming, and Ryoko had backed almost to the door, completely unsure how to handle this.

Izumi still sat on the bed, drinking her tea. "Love's like that," she said simply.

Hikaru looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded ruefully. "Hai. It is. I thought I had everything planned. We were going to get married, he would make money from his sculptures, I'd get a deal for a new manga series that would have everyone reading it. It was perfect," she finished, almost choking off the final words.

"It couldn't have been. He left you." Izumi had finished her tea, and was lying on her stomach, legs dangling in the air. Ryoko looked back and forth between the two of them.

"I know."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what did he say?"

Hikaru was starting to cry. "He said it had been fun... that he hoped I found someone special... that he... he never thought we were a couple..." She finally broke down and began to sob. She lay down on the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Ryoko reached out a hand, but something was preventing her from going over to her. She wasn't sure what.

Izumi was frowning. "He sounds like an idiot. No offence."

Hikaru shook her head. "No, he wasn't. He was wonderful, and sweet, and caring."

A light went on in Ryoko's head. "Hey, did you... um... go all the way with him?" She almost whispered the last.

Hikaru looked up at Ryoko. "Of course."

Ryoko turned red. "Ah. OK, wow."

Each of the three pilots took a moment to think. After a few minutes of silence, Hikaru got off the bed and retrieved her sketchbook. "Don't want to lose this."

Izumi said, "And what about the Aestivalis?"

Hikaru thought for a moment. "I don't want to lose that either," she said, sounding surprised. "Wow," she added, echoing Ryoko's earlier comment.

"Wow!" Izumi shouted, throwing her arms in the air. She then giggled and rolled off the bed, pounding the floor. "Woooooooooowww!" she repeated.

Ryoko sighed, and then left the room. This entire scene may have helped Hikaru, but now she was more depressed than ever. *Izumi's going insane, Hikaru's not sure if she's a perky manga artist or a brooding pilot... and I'm the only virgin in the group. This sucks.* She wandered back to the mess. Food always helped her think. Some ice cream...

Izumi continued to giggle on the floor. She'd turned face down again. "Hikaru?"

Hikaru had watched Ryoko walk out, and was debating going after her. "Hm?"

"You had a very nice relationship. But it wasn't perfect."

Hikaru smiled. "I know." She opened her pad and sketched something.

Izumi continued to lie on the floor. She'd stopped giggling.

***

The night was the worst. She couldn't do something to take the mind off, couldn't talk to anyone.

Darkness, creeping in on her. She went into the hall, but it was set for night. Darkness in the hallways, darkness in the rooms... darkness everywhere.

There was light in the infirmary. Bright neon light calling her. She headed towards it, trying to stop herself, knowing what she was doing, but not being able to do anything about it. She craved the darkness now. Wanted it never to end.

Here was a way to make sure it wouldn't.

***

Ryoko woke up slowly, raising her head off the table. She must have fallen asleep in a sweets-induced coma after coming here last night. She didn't feel any better, unfortunately, just fatter. She sighed, and headed back towards the barracks. The others were probably asleep now, if Izumi wasn't still giggling in a fit.

Suddenly she heard something falling over from the infirmary, and a muffled curse. Out of habit she drew close to the wall, ready to strike out if this was an unexpected intruder. She peered around the corner.

It was Izumi. She was standing by the sink, something in her hand...

Ryoko reacted without thinking, rushing across the room and smacking Izumi's hand sharply. The object flew across the room and hit the floor. It was a needle.

Ryoko turned to scream at Izumi only to find herself lifted up by her jacket. Izumi's eyes were wild, and she was shaking. "Why did you *do* that?! Leave me in peace!"

Ryoko struggled to free herself. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Izumi suddenly let go, and Ryoko had to put a hand out to the sink to avoid tumbling to the ground. If anything, Izumi was shaking worse now, her entire body trembling. Not crying, just shuddering.

"I've seen perfection," she said, and looked towards the door.

"What?" Ryoko looked at Izumi, totally off balance now. Should she try to restrain her? Or would that be wise, Izumi was certainly larger than Ryoko and might be stronger as well.

"Hikaru was saying her relationship was perfect. It wasn't, mine was. Twice. Twice I've had nothing but perfection and happiness. It was a miracle I found it again... I could never get it a third time. Look at the two of you. Hikaru's starting over, she's sure to find the right man. You still have all that joy ahead of you, Ryoko, you don't even know what it's like. Me... I've done it. It's over. Empty life."

Ryoko's jaw hung open. She'd been worried about Izumi, but seeing her this close to the edge was another story. Ryoko tried to find some sort of comforting words. What was there to say to someone who'd fallen in love twice and had both men die? Third time lucky?

Besides, what the hell did she know about love? She's kissed a couple of guys once, but that was the sole extent of Ryoko's romantic history. Sure, she dreamed of finding happiness with someone... but Izumi and Hikaru had found it. Hikaru should be here. Not her.

However, right now there was something a little more pressing. "Izumi, you aren't going to kill yourself. I won't let you."

Izumi looked down. "I can't do it anymore, Ryoko. Can't watch the happy people. I need to--"

"No." Ryoko was feeling stronger. This was going to work out. She'd make sure of it. "Now, go back to bed. In the morning, you'll feel different."

"No I won't, I just won't feel as desperate."

"That is better."

"Not really."

"Izumi! Go. Now."

Izumi slowly moved towards the door. She paused for a moment and looked at the needle. Ryoko tensed, but after a moment she kept moving and headed back for the barracks.

Ryoko followed her, making a point of being seen. Izumi didn't try anything else, though, just got back into her bed. Ryoko took a seat on hers, and prepared for a long night.

She felt a lot better about herself now, ironically. Whatever shit she'd gone through, and no matter how much ice cream she'd eaten, she'd never gotten down to what Izumi was feeling.

***

Ryoko lay back on the bed, snoring gently. Hikaru stared at her, frowning. "When did she get in last night?"

Izumi finished her conversation with the commander, then turned to her fellow pilot. "We'll give her some rest. She's earned it. The commander's asked me to help you with your hand weapon skills for today on the range, then we can do more mecha when Ryoko wakes up."

Hikaru blinked. "Why go on the range? I'll be firing any weapon from my Aesti."

"Yes, but getting better in one will help the other, trust me. I used to be a sniper a few years back."

Hikaru's eyes widened. After a few minutes, she said, "Hey, you know all about me, but you never talk about yourself."

Izumi smiled. "That's because you're open and giving, and I'm nasty and secretive."

Hikaru hhmphed, but didn't press the matter. "What was Ryoko doing last night."

"Facing down some demons. She's good at it too." Izumi put a blanket over Ryoko and patted her shoulder before heading out the door. "You do know, by the way, that there are two sights on a rifle."

Hikaru blinked, then followed her. "WHAT?!?!"

***

"So, how's our little experiment?"

"Not going *quite* as smoothly as I planned, but things are working out. Miss Amano is beginning to come to grips with the fact that she's not in a sim anymore, nor can she fire Gekigan Punch. The others are coming along even faster. They're out doing freespace tactics now, battles in 360 degrees and so on."

"NERGAL want them to move out in three days."

"Yes, I expected that. Well, they'll be as ready as ever, I guess."

"You don't seem as confident as you were before."

"Maki tried to kill herself again last week."

"What?! Why didn't -- "

"It didn't get far enough. I had guards heading for the room, but Subaru stopped her in time. There haven't been any reoccurrences, though I'm not sure how much of that is due to the night watch Subaru's been putting on Maki."

"This doesn't sound remotely like they'll be ready in three days. It sounds like they're falling apart."

"It sounds worse than it is. I think Maki just had a bad night, that's all. She hasn't shown any signs of sliding back into depression. In fact, she's been happier every day. That's the one thing we do have to worry about."

"You aren't making any sense."

"Maki's essentially shutting off all dangerous feelings about her past loves by changing the way she deals with life. You know how she always loved to make puns and obscure jokes... well, picture her doing that *all the time*. It hasn't impaired her piloting or efficiency... she can turn it off if there's an emergency. But for the most part, that's how she is now."

"...wonderful. And the other two?"

"Amano's still fairly bubbly. I think there was some sort of emotional crisis after the first day of training, but the others must have helped her with it, because it didn't seem to last. She's apparently channelling any further angst she had into art... she's asked for four sketchbooks over the past week. And, as I said, she's quickly catching up with the others. Girl has the best natural talent I've seen in fifteen years."

"What about Subaru?"

"Hmm... I think it will work out eventually."

"That sounds ominous."

"Subaru and Maki haven't really been getting along. Subaru hates what Maki's turning herself into, and Maki doesn't dare try to stop for fear of losing herself to pain again. So Subaru's been spending much of the week either watching over Maki at nights or dealing with anger. They seem to have worked out a plan. Maki and Amano get up early and train till noon, then go eat lunch and wake Subaru. Then they train till dusk, eat, cool down, and the other two go to sleep while Subaru stays up watching Maki all night to make sure nothing happens."

"...you've got to be kidding."

"Well, we knew it wouldn't work out perfectly. Luckily, Subaru doesn't seem to be falling behind even with just afternoon training. And I'm fairly certain that once they're on the station or posted to a ship, the two of them will come to an understanding."

"More likely they'll beat the shit out of each other."

"That's merely another form of understanding."

"Why are you so calm about this?"

"What do you expect me to do? Ideally, NERGAL would give us three more months, but we don't have that, we have three days. I think, for the two weeks or so they've spent together, things are going wonderfully. Don't worry about things that can't be helped."

"Mmm. Well, they're due to ship out to Satsuki Midori, where they'll rendezvous with the new battleship, the latest in NERGAL's design. This is assuming the ship gets off of Earth... there have been rumours."

"Yes, I've heard them. I must admit to being a bit worried about these girls going into a powderkeg like that..."

"You think it will be a problem?"

"Only for the battleship. I suspect it will have enough troubles without adding our three pilots into the equation. I hope the captain is skilled at interpersonal relationships."

"...I hate when you smile like that."

***

Hikaru sat by the bar, sketching to herself and trying not to listen to Ryoko and Izumi fight. Luckily there didn't seem to be anyone else here to watch their antics. Even the holo-bartender had shut down.

Neither of them said anything, but Hikaru knew something had happened that night she broke down. She suspected, though she didn't dare ask either of them, that Izumi might have tried to kill herself and been stopped by Ryoko. Whatever had happened, it made Ryoko watch Izumi like a hawk every night for a week. It also made the two of them very tense towards each other. The Nadesico was due to get here in only an hour or two in any case, which was why they'd stayed up. Perhaps getting back to piloting would cool things off.

To be honest, Hikaru didn't really mind how Izumi acted, as long as she was happy. And she seemed happiest when she was acting like she was right now, making puns and teasing Ryoko. Unfortunately, Ryoko seemed to want 'serious' Izumi to be around. Ryoko was bothered by Izumi's new image and thought it was just another form of denial.

Izumi was starting to get upset, thought, Hikaru could tell. She wished Ryoko would just drop the whole thing. She tried to concentrate on the drawing she was doing of the three of them, but it wasn't coming out the way she wanted. They all looked pensive, and she'd coloured a red for the background that seemed far too deep.

*It looks like we're up against a wall of blood,* she mused, then shivered.

"Ryoko. Drop it. Please." Hikaru looked up to see things were worse than she'd thought. The two of them were right in each other's faces, the shorter woman staring up in fury at Izumi's passive expression.

"I won't. Why should I? If I do, you'll just joke about it, and make more stupid gags, and... "

Izumi's face finally showed some anger, and she backed Ryoko up a few steps. "Why is this so important to you? Why do you want me to act like that? Why can't you accept it? Do you want us to be like sisters, where I take you under my wing and show you how to deal with the cruel, cruel world? Guess what, ain't gonna happen! There is no way to deal with the cruel world! Not by joking about it, and not by sketching, and certainly not by turning myself into a frustrated, angry little bitch!"

"Fuck you!" Ryoko shouted, and slapped Izumi hard.

Izumi's head rocked back, then she responded with a right cross, sending Ryoko spinning across the bar. Hikaru dropped her pad and ran over to Ryoko, grabbing her arms just before she tore after Izumi. Unfortunately, Ryoko was stronger and bigger than Hikaru, so she mostly just ended up sliding across the floor. Izumi seemed to realise she'd gone too far and was trying to apologise, but Hikaru really didn't think Ryoko was willing to listen to reason.

"Pilots Subaru, Amano, Maki, please report to the landing bay. The Nadesico will rendezvous with the station in one hour. Repeat, Pilots..."

The three pilots froze, seemingly stunned by the message. When they spoke, they all had the same thought.

"Nadesico?!?!"

After a moment of shared disbelief, Hikaru looked at Ryoko. She was still red-faced and livid, but the announcement appeared to have penetrated enough so that she noticed some of Izumi's apologetic expression.

Hikaru decided that anything that needed to be said could be said later. "Let's get down to the hangar bay. After all, we wouldn't want to make a bad impression with our first assignment, right?" The desperation showed in her voice.

Izumi nodded and stood. "Good point. Besides, I didn't..." Her hair slipped down over her eyes. "In any case, to the hangar."

Ryoko slipped free of Hikaru's arms and nodded, the red in her face slowly slipping. "Right."

And with that, the three pilots left to prepare. Hikaru's sketchbook lay forgotten on the floor, the pensive, uncertain looks on the faces of the three girls suddenly seeming all too appropriate.

***

"What the hell is keeping them?"

Ryoko hadn't gotten into another fight with Izumi, but she still had a great deal of unprocessed anger, and at the moment it was being spent on the absent Nadesico.

"Perhaps they ran into a Tulip."

Hikaru's eyes widened. "You think so? Will they be able to fight it?"

Izumi was lying on top of a large toolkit, a hand idly tapping against the side. "It's supposed to be the best battleship Earth's minds have ever come up with, with inventions that leave every other cruiser in the shade. I think they'll be able to handle a few Jovians. Besides, maybe that's why it got that name..."

Ryoko turned, puzzled. "Huh?"

"Well, after all, when a Nadesico meets a Tulip... maybe they're cross- pollinating. Hehehehehe... HAHAHAHAHAAHAA!" Izumi's hand pounded the toolkit harder as she laughed.

Ryoko scowled, and kicked the side of the toolkit. "Hikaru, go out there and see what's going on."

Hikaru looked at Ryoko in disbelief. "Eeeh?"

"Well, they're an hour late! They've got to be within range, or else we wouldn't have been paged. Don't take your Aesti, just fly out in a flitter, introduce yourself, and we'll meet you back here. And if there *is* trouble, then we can power things up here and go out to help them."

"But what if I get blown up?!"

"That's why you're going out in a flitter. They'll barely pick you up as debris. Just don't transmit your signal, unless you're sure it's the Nadesico."

"You're the one who wants to get there so fast, why don't you go?" Hikaru was going to lose this battle, she knew, but she felt a little put out about being used like a mining canary.

"Cause if there is trouble, Izumi and I are faster at getting the Aestis powered up, so you can retreat and hop in."

Hikaru grumbled some more. Why'd Ryoko have to decide to be the leader *now*? Nevertheless, she put on her helmet and got into the tiny flitter, so small the cockpit was mostly taken up with her body.

She was still a little scared as she taxied out, radioing to the comm officer for permission. She'd never really had any battle experience yet, and if she encountered the Jovians, she wanted it to be in her gorgeous and capable Aestivalis, not a tiny little coffin with no weapons.

As she started to cruise out, she flipped on communications, hoping to catch some sign of where the Nadesico could be.

"...stunning news that the Nadesico, which was to have been impounded by Earth's government for its own use in the war, has apparently escaped, and is on the run with a crew loyal to its original builders, NERGAL. There is no further news on this, but rest assured that our crack news team will -- "

Hikaru switched off the comms, her hand trembling slightly.

Who was she suppose to trust now?

***

Ryoko watched as Hikaru's flitter broke through the force field and headed off into space. She was actually starting to feel a little more confident, at last. She'd made a plan, used her authority. She'd behaved like a leader. It felt good.

At least until Izumi hopped off of the toolkit and made her way over to a comms panel. "This is Maki. Can you give us an ETA on the Nadesico? Mm-hm. Did they say -- ahh. Thanks."

Ryoko felt her face flush again. And now she was back to feeling stupid again. "Why didn't you mention that before I sent Hikaru out there?" she shouted.

Izumi shrugged. "Why bother? It won't hurt anything to send her out there, and it gave you the chance to make some decisions. You need confidence, Ryoko."

"Then why immediately go over there and make me look stupid?"

"I wanted to know where they were. You aren't the only one worried. And found out something interesting."

Ryoko was by now getting used to Izumi going back and forth between moods. She decided to take advantage of this while she had it. "What's up?"

Izumi leaned back. "Apparently the Earth government decided to impound the Nadesico and force it to fight on their side in the war against the Jovians."

"They WHAT?!" Ryoko rose to her feet. "But wait, the Nadesico is fighting on our side, that's the point!"

"You assume there are only two sides, though. The Nadesico was built as a private ship for NERGAL. The government wants it under their thumb, though. Not surprising, considering. They try to get their fingers into everything."

"But... but we're all fighting the Jovians!" Ryoko was dumbfounded. Why was the government attacking their best chance to combat the real enemy?

Izumi sighed. "Ryoko, it's all politics. When I was with my first lover, we were... well, we were involved in some activities I can't really talk about. I got a very good idea of how things work around here. NERGAL has always been a maverick company. They come up with incredible innovations, but have no discipline as a result. The government doesn't want them as a loose cannon... and if that means destroying them, they think it's worth the risk."

Ryoko sat there, thinking. "So... so now what do we do?"

"We wait for the Nadesico. It escaped from Earth, despite 7 layers of defences hammering it, and is still on its way to rendezvous with us."

"But..." Ryoko put her hand to her forehead. "I mean... they're on the run from Earth!"

Izumi wasn't even looking at Ryoko anymore. She seemed to be staring at a point on the wall past Ryoko's head. "Ryoko, do you want to fight to protect Earth and its people?"

Ryoko was a bit taken aback at Izumi's seriousness, but quickly nodded. There wasn't any doubt in her mind about that.

"Then why not fight with the people who have the greatest chance to stop the war? To be honest, I'd rather put my fate in with a bunch of mavericks who are each brilliant in their own way than with a government machine. Do you have any idea what Earth Force life is like? You think your first year of training was bad... you were never beaten, or put in solitary simply because of the whim of a commanding officer. We were fortunate to have a commander who recognised our potential, and saw we could be used properly..."

Izumi drifted off, turning to stare at the floor. Ryoko was slightly stunned at that outburst. She knew about Izumi's lovers, and her suicidal tendencies (which thankfully seemed to be lessening), but knew almost nothing about her past, except for vague hints of some sort of surveillance work. And as for Izumi's beliefs... Ryoko suddenly felt shamed that she'd never bothered to find out these kinds of things. The three of them had talked a lot, but none of them ever really opened up. They were great colleagues and partners... but not friends.

Izumi wasn't looking up. Ryoko was worried, she hadn't looked this depressed in a few days. Sure, she might drive Ryoko insane with her insistence on being a weirdo who saw double meanings in every word and took nothing seriously, but that didn't mean the opposite was something Ryoko wanted to see. And Izumi hurting led to Izumi with needle, something Ryoko never wanted to see again.

Ryoko wracked her brain, trying to think of something to say. A joke, maybe. She'd appreciate that.

Joke. Um...

"So... um... we're going to be fighting with flower power, I guess!"

Izumi seemed to freeze, then looked up at Ryoko in disbelief. After a while, her mouth twitched, then she giggled. A normal giggle, not like her usual snickers. "Not bad, Ryoko, not bad at all. Was that your first?"

Ryoko blinked. "First what?"

"First joke. Don't worry, it was good for both of us. I was satisfied."

Ryoko sensed she was being made fun of in some way she wasn't quite getting, but at least Izumi wasn't looking sad and pensive anymore. She sat up. "Um... OK, since we don't know anything about the situation we'll meet, why don't we get the Aestis ready now, so we can be ready no matter what happens."

Izumi smiled again. "Yes sir, leader sir."

"And knock that off!"

***

Ryoko looked down from where she was making final checks of her Aestivalis. Izumi had left on some sort of errand, leaving Ryoko to charge up the Aestis and link them together to synch with her own. She was now returning with a cart on which shoot a huge white sheet, actually just a piece of large fabric.

She started to spring out to see what was going on, but Izumi waved her back into the cockpit. She quickly walked to a comm panel.

"Stay there, we need your Aesti for this."

"What the hell is that?"

"It's a sail. They have a few on the base for the solar winds competitions."

"...we're sailing over to the Nadesico."

"Of course we are. I said it'd be a breeze. HeheheheHAHAHAHAHA..."

Ryoko clutched the side of her Aesti and tried not to scream. "Why do we need the sail."

"We're going to tie it between the Aestis in a bow."

Ryoko suddenly understood. "A peace flag!"

"Nadesico's probably pretty jumpy at the moment. We don't want three fully armed Aestis heading towards them with no warning, they may shoot first and answer communications later. This may help to show we've no bad intentions."

"Unless they really are traitors."

"Ryoko, you worked with NERGAL's engineers all during training. Did they look like the kind of people who would sell out their planet to the Jovians?"

Ryoko scowled. "No one ever does."

"You've been watching too many spy films."

"OK, let's tie up this sheet, then. I wanna get out of here and onto that ship. Once our questions are answered, I'll feel a lot better."

She saw Izumi move her hand up to put her hair out of her eyes.

"You and me both, Ryoko."

Ryoko got into the cockpit and reached out to grab the sheet. She always enjoyed this dextrous work, showing that the Aesti wasn't just a war machine but a fully functioning tool for other work. It was tricky tying invisible knots in front of your eyes to make things work, but after only two tries, she managed to accomplish a decent bow.

She grinned, and gave a thumbs up to Izumi, standing on top of the toolkit. Izumi jauntily returned the gesture.

That was when the world blew up.

At least, that's what it seemed like to Ryoko. She was thrown violently backwards, the Aesti almost tipping over. She managed to right it only by activating the thrusters, which also served to send the entire unit juddering forward, since all three Aestis were now slaved to her one control panel. She set her teeth, waiting to crash into the front of the hangar.

Which was why suddenly finding herself in open space surprised her. She turned her screen 180 degrees, and found that most of the hangar wasn't there anymore, Instead, all she saw was fire and molten metal.

The whole thing couldn't have taken more than five seconds, at the end of which Ryoko had set thrusters at maximum and was speeding away from the station as fast as she could.

She was remembering Izumi's grinning face, standing well away from her own Aesti as the explosions hit.

***

Hikaru leaned up against a metal grating, still panting heavily. She'd always dreamed about doing this, but this time it seemed her dream was becoming a nightmare.

She'd just spotted the Nadesico, or at least what she'd thought was the Nadesico, when suddenly the space station behind her simply started to explode. She had watched, stunned, as the fire spread through the entire base, turning it into scrap in less than a minute. With Ryoko and Izumi on board.

Stunned, she had sat there watching the wreckage, hoping for some sign, maybe a communication from Ryoko saying they escaped or a giggling one from Izumi saying the base was still there and it had been a joke.

Unfortunately, she was so stunned that she had ended up crashing the flyer into the side of the Nadesico. The flyer, meant to be used as a lightweight and undetectable reconnaissance vehicle, was almost totalled. Hikaru had sealed up her flight suit and abandoned it, determined not to have all three pilots die. She would make her way to the Nadesico and ensure her friends hadn't died in vain.

That is assuming the Nadesico was trustworthy.

Hikaru had frozen in place, remembering the news report. Was the Nadesico now in the hands of deadly traitors? She had no way of knowing what situation she was walking into. The NERGAL engineers in training had seemed nice, if eccentric, but what if it was all an act?

No, she couldn't simply waltz up and introduce herself as the new pilot. She'd need to be sneaky.

That was how she found herself breaking into the ship, setting off about twenty-odd alarms, and taking refuge in a service duct near the crew quarters.

So far, so good. Well, relatively speaking.

She shuffled along the creaking ducts, noting that even if the ship was meant to be incredibly state-of-the-art, its ducts were still both filthy and incredibly unstable. You'd think the engineers hadn't planned for spies to crawl along them at all.

Suddenly she heard voices coming from the room below. For a moment she tensed, convinced they'd found her, but then she realised that the voices were quite familiar. In fact, she'd grown up with them.

Gekigangar! And not just any Gekigangar, but the episode with Joe's death! Hikaru felt the familiar emotions welling up inside her as she replayed the dialogue for the thousandth time in her head. All her doubts about Nadesico vanished. Anyone who watched Gekigangar was not a traitor or villain, that's for sure.

She put her ear against the bottom of the shaft, straining to hear the final dialogue. She could feel tears running down her cheeks, the emotions she'd held back since seeing the station explode lost in a haze of Gekigangar- induced trauma.

Unfortunately, that was when the duct gave way, and she fell headlong into the room.

***

Izumi sat huddled in the centre of the toolkit, trying not to either freeze to death, die from lack of oxygen, or crack her head open from the violent shaking.

When the explosions had hit, Izumi was thrown almost ten feet into the air. She spun, seeing where her own Aesti was. Too far. And Ryoko was moving too. Good for her, she reacted fast in a crisis.

Then the decision was taken away from her, as she landed in the centre of the toolkit. The lid must have jostled open in all the chaos, long enough at least to swallow her up. Unfortunately, before she could catch her breath, it closed again, leaving her trapped in a small, nearly airless box that could only be opened from the outside.

She had tried using her comms unit to contact Ryoko, but either hers was switched off or there was a fault because there was no answer. It could even simply be that Izumi couldn't be heard - Ryoko was flying the Aestis like a bat out of hell, and the toolkit was bouncing to and fro like a pinball. After a few minutes Izumi simply resigned herself to lying there with her arms braced, hoping she wouldn't end up being too bruised.

The others probably thought she was dead. Ironically, the one time she could easily have been killed, and she managed to cheat death and stay alive. Yes, the gods were definitely watching out for her.

The silly part of her mind considered making a huge entrance from the toolkit, like some sort of fairy creature come back to life. Hopefully she'd have more sense than to do something like that - Ryoko would certainly not take it very well.

She could feel herself getting light-headed. Dammit, why didn't people plan for things like this to happen? Being trapped in a toolkit with the air running out while on the run from space after your station blew up - it needed to be a priority. She'd write a letter to the editor of whatever magazine it was that did that sort of thing.

Oxygen Monthly. Modern Toolkit. For The Discerning Mackerel.

"Hehehehe..."

***

Ryoko sighed as she led the parade of Aestivalises into the Nadesico's hangar. The white sail had turned out to be a good idea; they almost had been fired on. Luckily she'd managed to clear things up, and was now headed inside to greet her new crew.

This wasn't exactly the way she'd envisioned things when the commander had assigned her to this group. A perky young pilot with an anime fixation and another one who ran from suicidal to hysterical to just plain weird. And now one was missing and the other was almost certainly dead.

Ryoko bit her lip. She'd wanted to get closer to them. She'd gotten used to Hikaru's pep, and was even starting to work out her differences with Izumi. If things had gone differently, maybe they'd finally have gotten to become good friends.

But there were more important things to worry about now. Meeting her new crewmembers, talking to the captain, and seeing if she could find out who'd blown up the station. The Jovians were the obvious suspects, but sabotage wasn't really their thing. And there hadn't been any other crafts around when Ryoko escaped.

She clamped down on her emotions, ready to give them the old couldn't care less tomboy attitude. She was good at that.

Still, one thing to look forward to: at least now she'd be able to fight the good fight and not get bogged down in emotional trainwrecks or loopy weirdness.

Yup, things were looking up.

END

Author's Notes: Can I just say that Nadesico continuity is a big fat bitch? The reason this took so long to write up is the fact that I kept trying to reconcile this fic with everything hinted at in the TV series. The reason that the fic is finally released is I finally gave up and tried to make it at least vaguely readable.

A note on characterisation: I tried to convey a certain amount of the Nadesico girl's basic personas while incorporating my own ideas into their pasts and backgrounds. In some cases, such as Izumi's, this was an extensive change. Izumi's a very difficult character to write no matter which characterisation you use. She's also my favourite. And so I decided to experiment a little, using bits of information from Episode 21 and some screencaps I saw in the Blank of Three Years video, to give a good reasoning as to why she might act like that. After all, for such a wacky punster, she does have a fairly sad expression...

Thanks to my prereaders on this fanfic: Alan Harnum, RpM, Donny Cheng, Andrew Huang, Andy Kent, Mercutio and Lara Bartram.

--Sean Gaffney --July 3, 2000