I SO do not own or make money off of FMP, its universe, or its characters. So, no suing, please.

Chapter Six: Reunion

The moment Sousuke's boot touched the gently rolling deck of the Tuatha de Danaan, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. It felt like a homecoming, though after so many years of moving around as a mercenary, he really didn't have the words to define the feeling of comfort and belonging that settled around him. He hadn't realized how much he had missed the submarine till a few minutes ago, when it had come into view through the tiny window in the side of the chopper, and he'd actually felt a tiny smile trying to crack its way onto his face.

They had circled for a few minutes, waiting for the Mithril MH-67 Pave Mares to touch down with their M9 cargos, drop the M9 pilots on the deck, and be lowered into the belly of the ship through the massive elevator hatches. This process gave Captain Testarossa the chance to prepare an official welcome, not just for the successful Uruz team, but also to greet her long-missing SRT member and the newly appointed liaison between her struggling, decimated squadron and the South Atlantic fleet's acting commander.

The attack submarine had surfaced near the coast of Panama's most southern peninsula, a generally uninhabited portion of the country used for cattle grazing. The green, rocky coastline could be seen on the horizon, fading into rolling, forested hills. The weather promised to stay clear for the time being, but May was the beginning of Panama's rainy season and, despite sunny noon skies overhead, there was a darkly smudged promise of rain to the east.

Sousuke stood awkwardly behind Clouzot, Mao, and Weber as the French DGSE squad helped the de Danaan's medical team roll the unconscious Chief Sergeant Royer out of the Super Stallion's cargo hold on a pop-up gurney and across the deck to the crew elevator. Following them down the ramp were the pilot and co-pilot of the Marine chopper, then the two-member enlisted crew. They fell into a neat line and came to attention as the pilot, Captain Hawk, snapped a crisp salute as the submarine's diminutive, silver-haired captain approached.

"Ma'am! Polaris Three has arrived under the Algiz directive by order of Lieutenant Colonel Courtney, ma'am!" she barked, gazing directly ahead…and well over the brim of Tessa's 'TDD-1'-emblazoned cover. The young girl smiled and returned the salute.

In her soft, sweet voice, she responded: "Welcome to the Tuatha de Danaan, Captain Hawk. I have heard good things about you from the Lieutenant Colonel. Please have your men fall out and follow Commander Mardukas here," she indicated the tall, lean man who was standing just behind and to the left of her and favoring her with an unhappy expression, "…to your de-briefing. Following that you will be assigned temporary quarters."

"Thank you, ma'am," replied the pilot, and following Tessa's lead, dropped her salute and about-faced to address the three men behind her. "Fall out!" They strode away, following the stiff figure of Mardukas, who kept glancing back at his captain with a somewhat worried look on his face, occasionally flicking a look towards Sousuke that spoke wordlessly of torpedo hatches and silent, watery death.

Tessa watched them go, perfunctorily bringing up the tail end of her braid to flick back and forth across her lips. When the recessed doors of the elevator in the conning tower had closed, she turned back to survey her reconstituted SRT team with a thoughtful expression. Sousuke couldn't help but feel a spark of pride while regarding the young woman he had come to regard as a dear friend. She stood solidly on the deck of the surfaced submarine, gracefully bearing the weight of responsibility and hardship on her slender shoulders. Her dark khaki uniform was neat and pressed, her face was composed, and no one would ever guess this otherwise fragile-looking girl had led her squadron out of hell a few short months ago.

"Uruz-1, Uruz-2, Uruz-6…good work. I commend you on the multiple successes of your mission. And…" she turned to look directly at Sousuke. "Uruz-7…er, Mister Sagara…I'm…" Her soft gray eyes welled up suddenly with tears. "I'm so glad to see you…returned to us," she gasped, then burst into sobs and flung herself at him. "I thought you were dead!" she howled into his jacket, as he stood stiffly in her embrace. After a long, awkward moment he managed to extract one of his arms from her death grip and pat her shoulder gingerly.

Mao swooped in to rescue him. "There, there, Tessa; see? He's fine. I told you he would be," she chided, putting a comforting arm around her Captain's shoulders and gently prying her off an increasingly uncomfortable-looking Sousuke. He glanced down at the damp spot on his borrowed Marine uniform, as Tessa pulled herself together and rubbed her face with the braid-stiffened cuff of her jacket sleeve. She gave him a watery smile.

"We have a lot to talk about, Mr. Sagara."

There were many people crowded into the sub's primary briefing room later that afternoon, but with the excitement of Sousuke returned and the new faces representing the Atlantic Fleet, who could complain? The remaining members of the Uruz team were present – Clouzot, Mao, Sandarapta, Weber, Yan, and Mandela – and were lounging casually in the college-class style seating, most with a leg hooked over the woefully inadequate protrusion that suggested 'writing surface.' Captain Hawk and her co-pilot, First Lieutenant Sexton, were also present. Sexton kept shifting around uncomfortably, his tall, lanky frame not quite fitting into the chair-desk combo. Commander Mardukas and Lieutenant Lemming stood behind Captain Testarossa as she carefully shuffled papers on the table in front of her.

"Where is Kalinin?" Sousuke asked Weber in a low whisper, but all he got in response was a grim expression on the face of the blond sniper and a quick, negative shake of the head. He didn't have a chance to pursue the matter further as Commander Mardukas chose that moment to clear his throat and flick the remote for the large LCD screen behind him. To Sousuke's mild surprise, it showed not a map of the local terrain, but a blueprint view of the Tuatha de Danaan.

"Let's make this quick," said Mardukas in his gravelly British accent. "During the Merida Island attack, supply load-in was sacrificed in favor of personnel and time. When we left the dock, human provisions stood at 20 fulfillment, ammunition at 43, equipment materiel at 32, and mechanicals at 60. We did, however, manage to completely replace the palladium pellet in the fusion reactor, and the de Danaan should be able to operate at full power for another six months. We managed a follow-up supply stop at a previously unknown-of location, possibly the work of Commander Kalinin. Nevertheless…" he paused, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one long, bony finger. "Nevertheless, after that, supplying the attack submarine with power becomes a problem. One of Mithril's subsidiary companies was manufacturing the reactor fuel and has now been cut loose without directives from Operations Headquarters in Australia since the bombing of the Argyros building in January. That is issue one." He glanced over at his captain, who was staring blankly at the paperwork in front of her, chewing absently on the end of her braid.

"Issue two has to do with the materiel available for the M9s. We are perilously low on ammunition of all kinds due to operations conducted in the hopes of rooting out the Amalgam menace." He paused to smile wryly. "Actually, to say perilously low is misleading. We are out of bullets, gentlemen…and ladies. There are a few Javelin rockets left, and a pallet of anti-tank daggers. That is it."

To his left, Sousuke could see Captain Hawk jotting notes on a small pad. As she returned her attention to Mardukas, Lieutenant Sexton caught his eye and raised a large, bushy eyebrow infinitesimally. Really, the man could direct an aircraft carrier deck with those things.

"Ammunition is only part of it. We are nearly out of elastomeric muscle bundles, silicone lubricants, armor panels, and so on. From this point forward, any damage to the M9s is irreparable. Bear that in mind, people. Getting shot up is no longer permitted." There was a ripple of quiet, sardonic chuckles across the room from the SRT team.

Turning his head, the Commander prompted Tessa. "Captain?" She still looked lost to her own thoughts, but upon hearing her title, she pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. Her eyes were no longer vacant – they now held an expression of determination.

"We have a mission: to destroy Amalgam. They orchestrate conflicts, they escalate disagreements into wars that kill and displace innocent people by the thousands. They support terrorists, drug dealers, organized crime, anything that supplies them with money and influence. We do not know what their ultimate goal is, nor may we ever. We do know, however, that they want us out of the way." She clenched her small, pale hands into fists and raised them up chest high, her expression impassioned and resolute. "We will not be swept out of the way! We will not hide! We will strike back and cut the head from the snake, and to do so will take great sacrifice on everyone's part. We may not have the support we have come to rely on in the past, but I am confident that we can make do with what we have left. We are creative, adaptable, and resourceful!" Tessa appeared to be really working up a head of steam, and was practically panting with the effort.

The wind was taken swiftly out of her sails when Captain Hawk raised a hand.

"Captain Testarossa?"

"Hmm? Oh, Captain Hawk…yes?"

"Ma'am, Lieutenant Colonel Courtney may be able to offer some of the supplies that you need…provided you don't mind revealing yourself to the United States Navy."

Tessa exchanged apprehensive glances with Commander Mardukas, then replied cautiously, "You'll have to elaborate…as I am sure you are aware, Mithril's primary function was…is the quiet resolution of international affairs. Revealing our presence to that many people is undesirable, even at this point. Just what do you have in mind, captain?"

Captain Hawk stood up and clasped her hands behind her back. "Ma'am, I have been briefed by Lieutenant Colonel Courtney on the U.S.'s OpEval-status XM9. He said the blueprints and technology came from Mithril's Research Division…so any parts that would work on the XM9 should be interchangeable with your M9s, correct?"

Tessa stood motionless for a moment. "You are correct, Captain." Her voice was low.

"Then we could have parts for the XM9s transported by plane to the nearest Navy aircraft carrier, and then crane it over to the submarine along with food and ammunition," she finished, smiling encouragingly at the tiny submarine captain in front of her, who now had a painfully hopeful look blossoming on her face. She shot Mardukas a look that said, we must.

Mardukas pressed his fingertips to his forehead as if in pain, then grated out, "Captain Hawk, I certainly hope that you are correct about Lieutenant Colonel Courtney's ability to procure those supplies, because that would solve many of our problems nicely."

Sousuke could practically feel Kurtz grinning in the next seat over. "So do I, or things are going to get real interesting in the mess hall," the sniper hissed in a stage whisper.

Tessa's mouth curved in a tiny smile. "When we finish here, Commander Mardukas will take you down to the hanger where you will meet Master Sergeant Sax, the loadmaster. He will give you a list to requisition from Courtenay."

"Aye, aye, ma'am." Hawk sat down and made a note on her pad.

"Lieutenant Commander Clouzot, would you please review our sortie tasking over the last four months to bring Sergeant Sagara and Algiz-1 and 2 up to speed?" Tessa gestured to the SRT's commanding officer and then returned to her seat.

"Of course, Captain." The tall, dark-skinned Canadian rose from his seat and walked to the front of the room, where he took the remote from Mardukas and brought up digital video clips on the screen. "We began in San Francisco," he said, pointing in the upper left corner and moving out of the way so all could view the screen. "With all due credit to the Captain's excellent acting ability," he nodded in Tessa's direction and she blushed prettily, "we managed to locate an outpost boasting a single Arm Slave, Venom model, equipped with a Lambda Driver."

Sousuke could feel an expression of surprise working its way onto his face, and fought it down. Curiously, as Clouzot continued his description of the coordinated effort between the non-Lambda Driver equipped M9s to destroy the enemy unit, and the successful results they produced, he felt relief and worry at war in his mind. Relief, that there was a way to defeat the Lambda Driver now that Mithril's only so equipped Arm Slave was nothing more than expensive scrap metal, and worry, that their new confidence would get them killed if they encountered Leonard's Belial. He was certain there was nothing capable of withstanding such complete mastery of the Lambda Driver, even though Leonard lacked Sousuke's – or Mao's, or Clouzot's – years of experience as an Arm Slave pilot.

Clouzot went on to describe some of the follow-up actions; running the gamut from raiding Amalgam lab facilities and interrogating the scientists, to acts of near-piracy on the high seas as the sub went after cargo ships delivering the mind-enhancing drug that Amalgam used on its pilots to help control the Lambda Driver. Tracing the cargo ship routes had led them to the San Carlos installation in Costa Rica, and their objectives of destroying the facility along with any supporting Arm Slaves, then following the outbound shipping routes in the hopes of finding additional Amalgam bases. There was an undercurrent of urgency seeming to come from the tiny captain, and Sousuke could look around and tell that everyone here felt it, even Captain Hawk and Lieutenant Sexton, who shared grim expressions as they listened to Clouzot's dialogue. It felt like time was running out.

The Lieutenant Commander wrapped up, tapped his papers into a neat and even stack, and returned to his seat. Mardukas stood and dismissed the SRT team, but asked Sousuke and the Algiz team to stay. The young mercenary sat quietly as familiar faces filed past him, some clapping him on the shoulder in acknowledgement of his return. Captain Testarossa took Lieutenant Lemming aside for a moment and whispered with her, then dismissed the older woman with a brisk nod and a touch to the shoulder.

"Captain Hawk, Lieutenant Sexton," Mardukas began, clearing his throat in the manner of someone who is distinctly uncomfortable. "Sergeant Sagara," he added, bestowing a look on the young mercenary that spoke volumes: dislike, distrust, and an incongruous flicker of hope. Sousuke was pretty sure that the dislike was simply personal, and based on his relatively young age. The distrust was logical, since he had been away from the fleet for about four months, and had reappeared on their deck after a long and silent absence, wearing a United States Marine's uniform. The hope, however, baffled him.

"I am sure that you can appreciate the seriousness of the situation we are in. As far as we are aware, this sub and her crew, along with Lieutenant Colonel Courtney and a few scattered members of Mithril's South Atlantic fleet, are all that remains of Mithril's Operations Division. We have been unable to contact our headquarters in Australia, the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean fleets, or any of the scattered Intelligence bases." Mardukas took off his glasses and polished the lenses gently with the loose end of his khaki tie. "We weren't expecting contact with Australia, really. The Sydney office was obliterated. There's really no other word for what happened. Our Pacific base on Merida Island was a loss as well, after Amalgam's attack. We assume the same thing happened to the other fleets from the communications we managed to push through before the strike."

Captain Hawk's face looked tense. "What exactly happened to Merida Island, sir?"

"The Pacific Fleet's base was struck by Mach-6.3 cruise missiles that somehow took advantage of an unprecedented solar storm." Hawk and Sexton exchanged horrified glances, and Hawk mouthed a disbelieving 'Mach-6.3?' at Sexton, who shrugged. "It effectively blinded our satellite arrays, along with just about everything else in orbit above the Eastern hemisphere at the time. They took out all external defensive sites and followed it up with a land attack using three Behemoths, each carrying an adapted sixteen-inch, 50 cal. Mark VII naval gun. We lost several of our SRT members taking out two of the Behemoths. The de Danaan rammed the third." A smile crossed his face at this. It wasn't a nice smile – it looked positively feral.

"Sir – what is a Behemoth?" asked Lieutenant Sexton in his gravelly voice.

Captain Testarossa spoke up from her seat at the desk behind Mardukas. "The M9s you have seen in action are capable of performing almost any action required by a human special forces team – sniping, parachute jumps, aquatic approach, removal of explosives…the list goes on. The Behemoth is…just equipped for destruction. It has no subtlety. It's about 40 meters in height, and several thousand tons - it must be propelled by the Lambda Driver in order to prevent structural collapse."

"Lambda Driver?" Hawk looked thoroughly puzzled. "Commander Clouzot mentioned it in his briefing, but we've never heard of it."

"A weapon, Captain," Tessa said, her face suddenly seeming haggard and gray. "A terrible weapon." She appeared reluctant to elaborate for a moment, then sighed and reached unconsciously for her braid, twisting the tuft at the end around her fingers as she spoke. "It is commonly used to produce shields and projectiles that consist of nothing more than energy and the force of the pilot's will. It bends the rules of physics, and has the capability to make the nuclear bomb look like a hand grenade." She let go of her braid. "You remember mention of a drug?" Sexton and Hawk nodded. "It's used to increase Gamma waves in the brain – that's how a pilot controls the Lambda Driver."

Hawk shook her bronze head in disbelief. "That's unreal," she whispered. "And Amalgam has this weapon? Why haven't they just walked into the U.S. or the U.K. and blown up a city with it, then demanded anything they wanted?"

"We have Sergeant Sagara," Tessa replied, forcing herself to not look over at the young man who sat silently in the back of the briefing room. "He was the pilot of the Arbalest, our own Lambda Driver-equipped Arm Slave."

"He doesn't look drugged-up to me," Sexton muttered, just loud enough to be heard. Hawk rolled her eyes at him, then turned a meditative gaze on Sousuke, as if he might suddenly start foaming at the mouth or fall on the floor twitching, and she wanted to catch it when he did.

"Our Lambda Driver was a little…different," Tessa protested. "Sergeant Sagara had the necessary level of concentration needed to wield the Lambda Diver without the use of drugs." Hawk and Sexton glanced at each other.

"Wait, was the pilot?" Captain Hawk asked, catching onto the terminology. "Who is the pilot now?"

"No one," Sousuke growled from his seat. Mardukas shot him a quelling glare, but he plowed on, wanting to explain without Tessa's carefully veiled information or Mardukas' evasions. "The Arbalest was destroyed in Tokyo. Someone hauled away the wreckage the next day. There was nothing left." Hawk and Sexton both wore expressions of commingled disappointment and relief, for which he couldn't blame them. This was technology straight out of science fiction, a device that defied logic and reason.

"The sergeant is correct. We no longer operate a Lambda Driver-equipped Arm Slave. However, we have overcome its loss and developed tactics that work against equipped opponents." Tessa sounded determined. "On that note, I am dismissing this meeting. Commander, please escort Captain Hawk to the main hangar to meet with Master Sergeant Sax. Sergeant Sagara, you will come with me." She stood and tucked her clipboard under her arm, and watched silently as Mardukas led Hawk and Sexton out the briefing room door.

Sousuke felt a prickle of uneasiness as he watched one short and two tall khaki-clad backs disappear through the hatch, leaving him alone in the briefing room with Tessa. He had had the time to realize a few things during his stay in Namsak, and subsequent extended recovery in Miami, one of which being that Tessa was someone he cared about, but his feelings of fondness for her or the brief, wistful peace he had known with Nami, didn't match the way he felt about Kaname. Tessa, on the other hand, had felt strongly enough about him to ask if he loved Kaname, despite the distraction of plummeting towards the cold Pacific Ocean at the time. He dreaded having to repeat himself, since it had obviously caused her pain…

"Follow me, please, Sergeant," Tessa said briskly, and swept out the hatch as well. Somewhat taken aback, he followed in her wake, and quickly realized they were headed to the hangar. "I am glad you have returned to us, Sergeant," she said quietly, almost inaudibly, since her back was to him as they strode through the passages. "You…have returned, haven't you?" she demanded, stopping in front of him so abruptly that he almost ran her down. She spun around, and he half expected to see tears in her eyes, but she was dry-eyed and determined.

"I'm…not sure," he answered, as honestly as he could. "I need your help to find Kaname Chidori." There, that was as simple as he could make it. They stood in silence for a moment, bathed in the dim yellow glow of the overhead lights in the dark passageway.

"We would like to see her returned as well," Tessa smiled, looking…relieved? Sousuke could feel his brow furrowing in puzzlement. "Mr. Sagara," she said earnestly, "I have to apologize to you." Tessa took a step forward, reached out, and gripped his sleeve. Her high-heeled shoe made a hollow, ringing sound against the plate-metal deck. "I asked you to consider me a friend, and you did. You were a very good friend to me. You saved my life at great risk to yours." She took a deep breath. "I'm afraid I was a very bad friend in return."

"What do you mean?" Sousuke asked, staring down into her serious blue-gray gaze.

"I've had lots of time to think about this, Mr. Sagara, and to come to some…realizations. I…um, did some things that I…am not proud of. I took advantage of my rank and made you very uncomfortable when I came to visit your school," she began, as if going down a list, but Sousuke cut her off.

"No, not at all!" he protested. "It was an honor-"

"Yes, I did. You wouldn't have asked Miss Kaname to stay over as well if you had been …happy." She smiled. Sousuke worked his mouth in a credible imitation of a fish. "And before that, I…took advantage of the circumstances we were in…on the beach…when you trained me for the A.S. fight with Melissa." Sousuke stopped making fish faces and started feeling as if his collar had shrunk in the wash. He distinctly remembered trying to scramble out from beneath her, and getting a waistband full of sand for his trouble.

"You said you wanted my help because you needed a strategy to win," he choked.

Tessa had the grace to blush. "That too," she replied, looking a little ashamed. "I just wanted to spend time with you. I thought if we were together, you might realize how much we had in common…" she sighed. "I told you I was a bad friend." Her smile turned sad and pensive, and she bent her head to examine the fold of pixilated-pattern camouflage she held pinched between her fingers. "I couldn't help being a little glad when you were called away from Tokyo to deal with the Hong Kong situation." She could sense the anger that suddenly darkened his face, and she pressed on hurriedly. This was not going as easily as it had this morning in her bathroom mirror…

"I'll remind you that removing you from bodyguard duty was ultimately not my decision, Mr. Sagara," she said sharply, gripping his sleeve more tightly, as if she could hold onto him if he chose to pull away. He stood stiffly in front of her, waiting for the rest of what she had to say. "I thought it might work out for the best. I was wrong. I hope you've forgiven me for the things I said, and the disrespectful way I treated you. I was being…incredibly selfish. When you offered to stay in Tokyo for half your salary…" she shook her head, eyes downcast. "I think I knew before you did that you loved her. I probably knew before Miss Kaname did, too. She denied it for such a long time."

Sousuke left off staring straight ahead and glanced down at the bowed, silvery head in front of him. For a moment, he contemplated the sky-blue ribbon tying off her braid, the thick cable of her plait as it hung against the back of her skull and brushed her stiffly pressed collar, while his thoughts ran unhindered. Even though he and Kaname had grabbed a moment together on a Tokyo rooftop when his desperation and her fatalistic resignation had somehow led to a confession of their feelings, it hadn't quite been a full-blown admission of romantic love.

Hearing the topic from Tessa's lips, however, cast a new and mildly uncomfortable light on the situation. He…loved Kaname. He loved her, and missed her, and things like Tessa's longing affections or Nami's cheerful hero-worship paled in comparison. The last thing he remembered after being shot by Kurama in Namsak was lying in a pool of his own blood and wishing for Kaname's presence. She possessed a warm, fierce strength that had been a force to draw upon when he had been pressed to his limits. She saw him as a person, instead of a tool. She had taken him from complete social outcast to tolerated social misfit, her own determination and willpower driving her to beat him into the semblance of the person he might have been, if his life had only begun differently. There was just…something about her that made him perfectly happy to contemplate a future of following her everywhere, guarding her from all harm. He winced internally as that particular thought ran through his head…Kaname would definitely not approve of being followed everywhere.

A soft voice brought him back to reality. "Mr. Sagara?" Tessa was peering up into his face with a concerned expression. She must think he was having a PTSD moment. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to press the subject. It's just – did you tell her? Before she…left?"

"Tell whom what?" he responded, a faint guess at her meaning tickling the back of his brain.

"Tell Kaname how you feel?" demanded Tessa, looking slightly uncomfortable.

"…something like that," he muttered, watching her pale fingers crease the fabric of his bloused sleeve.

"Well, then…" she replied, looking uncertain, "That's good." There was a drawn-out, awkward silence. Then, "I wanted you to know…that I knew. And…that I'm happy for you. I am. As your friend." She backed up, releasing his sleeve. "I hope you can forgive me. And that we can be real friends, now." A grin flickered across her face. "No ulterior motives!"

Sousuke felt that smile, the same one that had swum to the surface at the sight of the de Danaan, work its way onto his face and lift the corners of his mouth. "I'd like that," he agreed.

"Excellent!" Tessa chirped, clapping her hands as if the whole matter was neatly tied off and ready to be put away for safekeeping. "Now, let's get going. Lemming is going to think I've knocked myself out by running into a pipe again." With that, she tucked her clipboard against her side again and strode off down the corridor, a bit bouncy, but forgivably so.


"Well, what?" Sousuke retorted, surveying the crate stoically. He stood in front of a five-meter-square shipping container in the Tuatha de Danaan's primary hangar, arms folded across his chest and feet planted shoulder-width apart. He could take a wild guess at the contents, and felt relatively confident he'd be right. It was, after all, Mithril. He should have seen this coming.

"I'm sure you can guess what this is," sighed Tessa, twirling the end of her braid around her fingers absently.

"Another…Arbalest?" he asked quietly. Her glance flicked guiltily to him, then away. He took a deep breath. "I will not-" he began heatedly, but Lieutenant Lemming stepped up to the box and laid an almost protective hand on the side.

"It's not the Arbalest. There's no Lambda Driver," the tall, blond woman said quickly. "It's just an M9 with a basic A.I. There's no bonding to a single pilot, no rebellious personality quirks, no catches." Lemming's face was earnest and open. "There aren't any more M9s outside of what we have in this hangar, and even then we may not be able to use some of them, due to the amount of battle damage and operating hours that have been accruing…"

"Just an M9?" Sousuke repeated, darkly. "No…surprises this time?"

The MIT graduate may have had years and IQ points well beyond Sousuke, but she quailed under his baleful stare. "It's, er…the successor to the ARX-7," Lemming blurted, looking defensive. "OK, it was supposed to have a Lambda Driver, but it doesn't because the developer died-" Tessa made a pained noise and turned her head away. "Oh god! Sorry, Captain, I'm so sorry…"

"Go on, Lieutenant," Tessa said in a stiff voice, gazing off in the opposite direction.

"Ah…yes, let's see…" Lemming flipped through a thick mass of paperwork on her clipboard. "There are some weapons built for the ARX-8, here, that are going to be useless because they relied on the Lambda Driver as a power source-" She was interrupted again as Sousuke snorted in derision.

"That's ridiculous. Even at its best, it was completely unreliable. How they could intend such a thing for the military…" he trailed off, scowling up at the crate.

"I have a spec package for you right here, Sergeant," said Lemming, clearly trying to regain her composure after apparently putting her foot in her mouth up to the knee. Twice. "It will cover operating times, weapons upgrades, any new battle system changes, power outputs, and performance projections, along with potential weak points-"

"Performance projections?" asked Sousuke, taking the packet and flipping back the first few pages to the table of contents. "Projections?" he repeated, frowning. His thick, calloused fingers riffled the pages open to the section he needed. "This Arm Slave hasn't been powered up yet?" He was incredulous. "There have been no tests – no field exercises – of a completely new piece of equipment?"

"There weren't any tests of the Arbalest, either, Sergeant," Tessa said dryly, finally rejoining the conversation. To her credit, her eyes were only a little red. "You are just going to have to treat it as an ordinary M9. Think of Clouzot's machine," she gestured across the hanger to where the black figure of the Falke M9-D crouched, waiting. "It, too, was intended to receive a Lambda Driver. It's a newer model, better performance, improved capabilities – that's all."

Sousuke gazed silently at the paperwork in his hands, thinking. After a moment, he slowly said, "That's fine."

Tessa arched an ironic eyebrow. "'That's fine'?" she echoed. "I hope so, since it's the only spare Arm Slave we have."

"I apologize, Captain. I am simply…relieved that it will…behave." Sousuke flipped the spec packet closed and read the cover page. "What is a Laevatain? It's not a Japanese name…"

Tessa's smile was thin-lipped and grim. Her blue-gray eyes were on him, but he had the feeling she didn't really see him. "It's a reference to Norse mythology. Just as Mithril and the Tuatha de Danaan's names are derived from folklore of Ireland." Sousuke nodded, they had studied Japanese folklore at Jindai High. "Laevatain was a powerful sword forged by the Vanir smith Weylund. It was so powerful that it could fight on its own, and so deadly that the gods finally took it from him. It was to cut the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which holds our realm in its branches. This would herald the start of Ragnarok, the end of the world."

"Sounds…cheerful," Sousuke managed.

"Actually, Norse mythology was rather upbeat concerning the end of the world. It clearly stated that, while most of humanity and the gods would be killed, some were left alive to repopulate the earth and the heavens and get on with life in a universe reborn. Quite cheerful, really."

Sousuke contemplated the gray shipping container. "This wasn't at Merida…"

"No. We retrieved it - and some personnel - from a research lab in Australia."

"There are new people on the submarine?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes." Tessa crossed her arms in front of her. "I trust them. Implicitly," she added, warningly. "You'll get to meet them in a moment."

Apparently, a moment meant right now, as a door opened in the far wall of the hangar bay and two figures strode across the deck towards him. He recognized Wraith immediately, her pale, aquiline features composed in an expression of – well, nothing. Her face gave away neither surprise nor acknowledgement nor confusion. She simply walked up to him, inclined her head briefly at Tessa, and stopped. It was the second girl that was the anomaly, the awkward piece...though after a moment's study, he recognized her, too.

She hadn't really strode across the floor, come to think of it. It had been more of an awkward, sloping shuffle, as if she were trying to hide behind the tall North Korean woman escorting her. She wore a gray jumpsuit like the rest of the mechanics, but aside from 'TDD-1' emblazoned on the left breast pocket, there was no other indication of rank or occupation. She had stepped in close to Tessa, and looked tired, as if she wished to rest her head on the Captain's shoulder. Her face was clean, her long, wavy red hair washed and combed, but the hollow, aged look in her hazel eyes was still there as she raised her chin to peek at him timidly from behind pale, red-gold lashes.

"Sousuke Sagara," Her voice was the same breathy whisper, but this time, it held none of the despair that had colored it when he'd plucked her out of a snowdrift. "You saved my life, in Russia…"

"Rumors of your encounter with a Hind helicopter have been verified, much to Sergeant Major Weber's delight," Tessa said wryly. "He's finally got a chance to re-tell that story as often as he likes to the rest of the crew."

"…it was snowing, and then it was raining fire…" the red-haired girl continued, abstractedly, still gazing at him with a disconcerting lack of blinking. Surely her eyes would get tired…?

"Jessie," Tessa said gently, as if reminding the girl where she was.

"Yes, Tessa?" This was delivered in a surprisingly normal tone, considering the rather disjointed behavior thus far.

"Mr. Sagara, I'm sure you remember Jessie Miller from your mission to the Ukraine? Miss Miller has been recuperating in a Mithril facility, and offered to take up a special project for us several months ago."

"I'm pleased to see you've recovered." He tried to sound as kind and polite as Kaname could wish of him.

"Recovered?" The girl gave him a bitter smile. "I'll recover when I get the bastard who did this to me." Her voice was still eerily soft. "That's why I agreed to finish the Laevatain. I've returned the gift of my life to you by building you a weapon…and with it, you'll hunt down Mr. Silver and kill him."

A/N: I'm back. Yes, I've been distracted. Sorry.

PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.