In the first few weeks following the fall of the space elevator, it rained in the region, and far beyond, almost every day. Most people didn't entirely understand why. It was to do with government cleanup efforts; that was all they needed to know. Tieria Erde had never been most people. He researched the details and found them quite simple. Although the worst of the debris had been accounted for due to the combined efforts of all the factions, there were still numerous tiny particles floating in the atmosphere. They risked causing respiratory problems and contamination of the water supply if allowed to settle down to the Earth on their own. So high-flying planes were sent up to spray aerosolized versions of custom-made nanoparticles into the worst concentrations of dust, where they quickly attached to the potentially harmful particles and metabolized them into harmless by-products.
But the combination of the nanoparticles and the minuscule debris seeded cloud formation that swept across the land. By the time the rain hit the ground and flowed into groundwater, it was safe.
"There's no need to worry," Tieria said to Feldt as she stood at a window of the Ptolemaios and stared out into the downpour. He'd been explaining this to her. "It's a cleansing rain."
"I know," she said, but her hands curled into fists. They were all on edge in the wet and cloudy darkness. But still the Ptolemaios did not venture far from the area just yet. Tactical reasons, Sumeragi said.
After the second week, Tieria had had enough of seeing the crew shift uneasily in the confines of the earthbound ship. They were stressed; they were worried. He owed it to them to try to fix that. So he found Sumeragi in her quarters, reviewing intelligence from Katharon.
"Why are we still here?" he asked her, not wasting time on formalities. The well-being of the crew was at stake.
"Tactical reasons," she said absently.
"Explain," he said, and he was surprised at the amount of authority in his voice.
So was she, it seemed. She blinked and turned to him, and for the first time since the fall of the space elevator he got a good look at her face. His memory was too good for what he saw to be an error: there were definitely more lines around her eyes. "We're needed to help keep Katharon's supply lines functioning, and we need them to give us information we're too visible to get ourselves right now," she said. "What's wrong, Tieria? Would you rather be in space?"
He hesitated. A part of him would still rather be in space. Even now, it felt better to his body. But that wasn't it. He'd come here to berate Sumeragi for neglecting the emotional health of the crew, hadn't he? "No," he said, but he couldn't bring himself to say more. Where had his ability to scold people gone? He'd been able to use it on Saji recently enough. But now—
"You can go," she said, smiling. "It's okay."
"No," he said again. "I haven't fulfilled my duty here." He took a deep breath. "It's not my responsibility to come up with plans, but I have one. Will you hear it?" He wouldn't try to usurp her position from her. She had proven time and time again that she'd earned it.
"Go ahead," Sumeragi said.
"The high-altitude cleansing project was on hold today," he said. "Tomorrow, there should be no rain. Let's go into town and...and..." He stopped. He hadn't thought his plan through. What would they do there?
"All of us?" Sumeragi asked, frowning.
Tieria imagined the entire crew trooping into town with them, while Sumeragi looked after them, made it her duty to watch them and keep them organized. He imagined new lines around her eyes. "No," he said. "The two of us."
She stared up at him blankly for a moment. He didn't understand why. Then she laughed, and he really didn't understand why.
"I apologize for not having more of a plan," he said.
"Having more of a plan is my job," Sumeragi said. "This is an easy one, Tieria. We're going to put on our best clothes and stroll through town on a date. You can pay for my lunch, and we'll be back by dinner."
Tieria accepted the offer, but as he realized later, standing in his quarters, there was still a problem. He didn't know what his best clothes were. No, that wasn't exactly true. His best clothes were, without a doubt, those of the uniform he wore for Celestial Being. But they weren't appropriate for this excursion. That left him with few other options. He found himself staring at the familiar pink cardigan buried at the bottom of a drawer. Was that the best he could offer in this situation?
No. It felt terribly, terribly wrong. He'd said things that had hurt Sumeragi, that had undermined her authority and pricked at her feelings, back when he'd last worn those clothes. That was the last thing he wanted to do now. His purpose now was to uplift her and restore her authority.
It felt good to have a purpose like that, in a way it had never felt good to have the austere purpose provided to him by Veda and the plan.
In the end, he borrowed a suit from Setsuna, who had last worn it while undercover as a chauffeur at Ribbons's party, and he deftly made a few modifications so that it would fit him well and not be too formal. When he saw Sumeragi, he was glad he'd altered it to be suitable. Her own outfit looked far too good on her for him to have put anything less than the utmost effort into his. She was dressed in a low-cut sundress, rich green on top, gathered with gold at the waist, and falling around her legs in green and brown swirls. Tieria hadn't thought much before about how clothes could set off someone's natural beauty, or indeed about whether such a thing as "natural beauty" mattered.
Sumeragi held out a hand to him. "Well, Tieria? Aren't you going to escort me to the car?" She was smiling.
He felt terribly awkward. "Sumeragi," he said, "you're very attractive today."
She laughed. "Only today? You're so harsh."
"I know," she reassured him, and since he hadn't moved from his spot, she began to pull him toward the vehicle they'd be making the trip with. He wound up following instead of leading. Beyond that, they made it to town without incident.
In this case, "town" was a quiet, slightly eccentric young borough on the outskirts of the suburbs. Locals sat openly in the now-rare sunshine at coffee houses, watching the well-dressed newcomers pass through.
"I remember when the suburbs where I grew up were a little like this," Sumeragi said wistfully. She was still holding Tieria's hand; he had found that he didn't mind.
"Shortly before solar power was as accessible as it is now in most places," Tieria filled in. "The population gradient between urban, suburban, and rural areas would have been different due to energy distribution."
Sumeragi blinked. "That's right," she said. "I did a paper on it in college—I minored in population studies. I didn't realize you knew that theorem," she said, stopping in the middle of the stony sidewalk.
"It's part of the knowledge I was supplied with," Tieria said. "Unlike you, I didn't work for it." It occurred to him with a small start that he might have said the same thing four years ago, had he dared admit certain things then—but he would have said it in a different tone. He would have thought it made him better than Sumeragi. Now he knew it was the reverse.
She smiled up at him. "I'm glad I have someone I can talk about it with," she said. "It's been a long time."
Tieria wasn't sure why he suddenly felt a little hot; the temperature was perfectly comfortable. "Let's keep moving," he said.
"There," Sumeragi said. She pointed at a little shop across the street, wedged in between some small offices. "I haven't seen a store like that in a long time, either." She started crossing the street, barely looking both ways first.
Tieria looked more carefully, then hurried after her. He studied the storefront. It was a place specializing in antiques. "Why not?" he said.
She gazed up at the sign. "Old things aren't as popular as they used to be," she said. "Maybe that's good, but..."
What she was saying seemed self-evident to Tieria, but something stopped him from chastising her for redundancy. Instead he said, "Do you want to go inside? I brought currency, in case we wished to buy something."
"How very thoughtful of you, Tieria," Sumeragi said, smiling again. He was glad to see her smiling, and so he followed her into the store without complaint.
It was cramped inside, and Tieria couldn't find any organization at all in the arrangement of goods. He made his way deeper into the store, looking for the owner or manager, determined to complain about this haphazard array of merchandise. Sumeragi had been looking forward to coming in here; she shouldn't have to be disappointed by its state of chaos.
But when he looked back over his shoulder, he saw that she didn't seem disappointed at all. Instead, she was examining a polished metal case in wonder. With a click, she opened it, revealing a checkered surface and a number of small figures that Tieria couldn't make out at this distance.
As absent as he'd been when Tieria was looking for him, a salesman now appeared at Sumeragi's shoulder. "Not many people are interested in that one these days," he said. "You must be a special case." He was flattering her. Tieria frowned, although he wasn't sure why.
"I know, but it's a shame," Sumeragi said. "This is so well made."
Tieria approached, and the figures of the strange set Sumeragi was holding resolved themselves. They were old-fashioned mobile suit models—different variations on the AEU's older Enacts on one side, and the same for the Union's Flags on the other.
The salesman shrugged regretfully. "People don't want outdated chess sets," he said. "Now the mobile suit versions are all Federation versus Celestial Being. We don't have any of those, though. They're too new."
"I'll take this one," Sumeragi said suddenly, snapping it shut. Tieria hurried to pay for the strange set.
Outside the shop, Sumeragi headed toward one of the coffee houses, the chess set tucked under her arm. "Tieria, have you ever played chess before?"
"No," he said, "but I know how. Why make a set with the pieces in the shape of mobile suits?"
"Because some people are funny that way," Sumeragi said. She sat down at one of the outdoor tables. "I'll just have a regular coffee," she told the waiter who appeared. "Tieria?"
"I don't need coffee," he said.
She smiled. "Let's play."
"Should we compete?" Tieria asked dubiously. He wasn't sure if it would be appropriate for him to win. Would that hurt Sumeragi's confidence? He didn't know anymore, if he ever had.
"It's just for fun," she said, setting up the board and the pieces. "I'll play the Union side. It doesn't matter, anyway."
Tieria and Sumeragi played.
It was a strange game, Tieria thought. Hesitantly, he ventured, "I knew of this game before, but it always seemed pointless to me," he said. "Four years ago."
Sumeragi made another move. Tieria couldn't fathom her strategy. It seemed so reckless and self-sacrificing. She was losing pieces too fast. "Why's that?"
"It seemed absurd that the whole game should be put on hold, or even ended, because a single piece was in danger," he said. He was keeping his king extremely guarded behind a wall of pawns. It would be safe that way. He understood now.
Sumeragi said nothing, but there was comprehension in her eyes. She moved another piece.
Tieria saw the opening. What she'd just done, it wasn't fitting of her strategic prowess at all—she'd left her queen vulnerable. He swept his rook away to take it. Then, holding the fallen piece in his hand, he immediately felt guilty. "I...we can redo that move if you want," he said awkwardly.
She shook her head. "That's not how chess works, Tieria," she said. "Anyway, it's my turn now." She moved a pawn that she'd been nudging across the board move by move. Now it was on the far side of the board. "Checkmate."
She laughed. "You heard me!"
Tieria looked. "The pawn is a queen now," he realized. The wall of pawns he'd left around his king gave it nowhere to escape from the new queen, and since he'd moved his rook away to take the old queen, it could not threaten the new one. "You're right. I didn't need to worry. Naturally you'd win."
"The pawn is a queen now," she echoed, still smiling. "Even though you took my initial queen."
"Yes-" But then he stopped. Her eyes were bright. Tears were gathering in the corners of them.
"It's nice how it works that way in chess," Sumeragi said. "Isn't it? You can replace a valuable piece so easily. And sacrificing them isn't hard at all, anyway."
Tieria sat very still and wondered what to do.
At the back of his head, a voice interrupted his blank thoughts. Lockon's voice. Don't just sit there, Tieria. It was a natural reaction to stress, he supposed—imagining other people's voices telling you what to do. Maybe it was even a human response to stress.
I don't know what else to do, he thought back to Lockon, to himself.
She's gotten a lot better, our Ms. Sumeragi, Lockon said in his head. But she still doesn't have anyone left for her anymore. Do you get it?
Tieria almost shook his head, but stopped himself at the last moment. No, he thought. I don't get it at all.
Lockon's voice inside his mind was patient. I shouldn't have to tell you everything anymore, Tieria. Just this one more time, all right? Then you're on your own. Now get up and go hold her.
Blinking, Tieria stood up, walked stiffly around the table, and leaned down to put his arms around Sumeragi.
She leaned back into him. Her hair was soft against his cheek, and he was no more sure how to feel about that than he was sure how to feel about any of the rest of this. "Sumeragi," he said. "People can't be replaced, but that's what makes them valuable. Isn't it?"
"That's right," she said softly. She picked up her napkin and hurriedly wiped tears off her cheeks. She sounded a little absent, though, as if it weren't his words that had gotten through to her—and she nestled a little into his arms.
After a few more moments, he let go of her. "In any case," he said, "you won the game. We should pack up and be going." He stopped, staring down at the chessboard and its pieces. "Do you really want to bring this...reminder back with you?" he asked dubiously.
"Yes," Sumeragi said. "You even said it's a reminder. It is. It's a reminder of everything we fought to stop. I don't want to forget how far it reached."
"Then...it's your choice," Tieria said. "Let's go."
They were on the outskirts of the village when Sumeragi stopped him. "Tieria," she said.
"What is it?" he asked. The car wasn't much further. They would get in it, and they would go back to the Ptolemy, and this "date," as she had called it, would be over.
She leaned up and kissed him.
It felt like all the warmth he'd tried to give her earlier, by the chessboard, flowed back from her into him. He waited until she was finished, then stared down at her. "I don't understand," he said.
"Tieria," she said, "it's a date. That's what you're supposed to do."
He definitely felt too warm now. "I wasn't aware it was that kind of date," he said. "I thought—"
She laughed again. "You always were my favorite," she said. "Let's go home, Tieria. But it's all right if we do this again, isn't it?"
"Yes," he said. He touched her shoulder. "Yes, I'd like that."