Chapter 65: Towards a Darker Tomorrow

(Hanger 31)

Yuuko gave out a sigh that night looking at the monitors in her room. Ever since she arrived here in Kyoto she's been hounded by the council demanding an explanation. It was expected. After what Shirogane pulled off back at Tokyo, it was only natural for them to be curious. Even staff officers of the Imperial Army were growing curious too.

It was not new to see a gifted soldier appear from time to time in the army. On rare occasions a talented individual would spring up amongst the rabble setting an example for all to see, becoming a shining beacon of hope. But what Takeru pulled there was no miracle or simple talent.

He performed something that no man could… no human could. No matter what story she weaved, what alibi she puts together it would never be enough to satisfy their quench for truth. Thankfully she was able to put them off her back by saying that he was an ALTERNATIVE IV plan's secret. But of course that only seems to spring their curiosity even more. She was opted to tell them the truth but doing such a thing could alter the very fabric of time and space as she knew it.

She decided to let their imaginations wander a bit and hopefully this whole thing about secret super-soldier projects and cyborg development program would blow over.

But she doubt anything like that would be happening any time soon. She wouldn't be surprised if the council had this whole lab under constant surveillance on the outside.

"Vice Commander Kouzuki" The mad scientist was brought out of her thoughts for a moment when her secretary interrupted. "I have a call from the mechanics in Yokohama Base. They say that the parts that you ordered have just arrived. More than half of the necessary resources have been allocated"

"I see… good. At this rate we can end the research early. How about the HSST ship I requested?"

"They're still looking into that ma'am. A ship of that caliber isn't exactly easy to procure"

"Tell them I don't need a factory fresh one. I just need the core module of the ship. Tell them to scavenge one or get one that isn't in use anymore. (Yes ma'am) Once they've received it want the mechanics to work on the detailed repairs. Tell the man in charge that I'll send the designs to him by tomorrow. (Understood ma'am) Hmph… if only they could procure me more hands to work with"

It would take a few moments for Piatif to call on her again. "Vice Commander. They say they can get an old version of the HSST in the storage unit. It's an older model but it works just the same"

"Good. Have them work on it immediately. We can't afford anymore setbacks. (Yes ma'am) This war isn't going to win itself" But their little workload was suddenly cut off when another irritating voice crept up behind them.

"My my… aren't we in a rush tonight?" Yoroi Sakon motioned boringly with his hands raised.

His presence alone only made Yuuko sigh even more while Piatif drew out her sidearm in response. "Oh… it's only you. You have some nerve showing your ugly mug in front of me again"

"Ahaha… apologies. If you disliked my face so much I'll be more than happy to get a facelift. I hear that plastic surgery is quite a dominant profession in America right now"

"And your sense of humor hasn't improved either"

"If it's humor you desire then search no more. I have here a long list of jokes and comedic situations that would enlighten a crowd. (…) I was walking down the street this evening when I came across a rabbit. It asked me if I was…"

"Hai hai, stop right there"

"Ma'am, should I call for security?"

"No need…" Yuuko waved her secretary off. "He's not a threat. Get me a cup of coffee. (…?) I have something to discuss with him"

"Understood ma'am. (Bzzt) This is Lt. Piatif. All security, stand down. False alarm" The girl whispered quietly to her headset earning a confirmation from the other line.

Once she was out of earshot, the two adults returned to their conversation. "So… what does the Ministry of Intelligence want with me this time? I have no use for you at the moment"

"Now now, Professor Kouzuki. We are all civilized people. Let us not be hostile with one another. Please, have a takoyaki. I give it as a peace offering"

"I don't allow food in my lab"

"Oh? That's odd. I simply found this on the sofa over there. Well if you're not having one then I shall…" He gladly ate a piece from the box. "Hmm… a little cold but the flavor is genuine"

"Are you going to start talking or do I need to have security take you out?"

"Ahahaha… please don't be hasty. I was merely lightening the tension between us"

"There is no lightening the tension between and me. After that stunt you pulled in Tokyo, I have no reason to believe that there will be any lightening at all"

"If you're referring to the splendid TV show I broadcasted, I was merely doing that to lend my support to my son in law. I never expected him to pull what he did then. After all… who could?"

"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"

"If I stopped talking we would never get anything done now, would we? But… I digress" The old spy gave out a sigh, taking a spot by the empty tables. "Your Guard Dog has become quite famous, hasn't he?"

"Thanks to you no doubt. (Ahahahaha…) If you're looking for information regarding him, then you know I can't tell you"

"Of course. I wouldn't dare go snooping into information that does not concern me. But unfortunately, the same cannot be said about everyone, especially my employers"

"Oh? And what do they have to fear? I thought the Heads of the Ministry of Intelligence were acquitted of all charges when they collaborated with the U.N. Armed Forces"

"True… I will admit that it is a rather cruel tactic that we use to survive while the rest of the world drowns around us. Special contingencies are always prepared in case of regime change. Regardless of how Japan is, the Ministry of Intelligence must continue to exist without fail"

"Abandon a sinking ship while you can. Hmph… if it didn't cost a lot, it would've been quite impressive"

"Survival is worth any price, Professor Kouzuki. You of all people should understand this more than I do. (…) But we are getting off topic. Allow me to get to the point of this matter"

"Oh? Well that's a first. I thought you'd like to keep talking" Yuuko added only to earn a chuckle from her visitor.

"As much as I would love to gaze into your loving eyes, I… have an appointment to keep. I come to you out of the goodness of my heart to give you some information as a head start. (Oh?) I have no intention of going against you, Professor Kouzuki. Many of us know that doing that would simply be signing a death warrant. For the moment, the multiple agencies around the world are not taking action. But give them a reason to flinch and they will come…"

"Don't try to sound like the hero. Because of you, everyone around the world knows about him. (Ahehehe) What are you planning, Yoroi?"

"Who knows? Perhaps I just wish to give your Guard Dog a little screen time. What he did back in Tokyo was all him. (…) But my words do have some ring. A Dead Man moves with the living. A fitting title for someone who is supposed to be dead"

Yuuko's eyes rolled. "Speculate all you want. In the end, only your imagination has free reign"

"True… but you should worry. The provincial government may try to make a move"

"Leave the political matters to me. I can handle that"

"One scarecrow won't be enough to chase away the flock… professor"

"Hooo? Are you threatening me, Sakon?"

"I won't dream of it…"

"Then let me ask you this. Who do you fear more? Me… or him?" It was that moment that Yoroi paused in his words giving a moment's thought before answering the question. It was probably one of the rare times he actually thought for a moment fearing what came out of his mouth would judge his future health. "People often ask as to who guards the Guardians when the answer plainly states that Guardians don't need guarding"

"Ahehehe… it appears you are getting very good at this game, Professor Kouzuki. It seems I am defeated on this round"

Yuuko showed him a rare grin knowing full well that victory was hers. "Now then. Now that we have all the pleasantries out of the way… why don't you tell me the real reason why you're here?"

(Takeru's POV) (PX) (06:10 PM)

Kashiwagi…

I can't believe it's her. Well… I know that it is her but after all the intensity of what happened in Tokyo, she must've dropped out of my mind. The last time I saw her was after the battle on the outskirts of Kyoto when she was taken in by the medics to be treated in the city for her injuries. She must've been released about the same time as me.

There was a big scar stretching across her face going from the top right of her forehead down to the bottom left of her nose. There are also some visible bruising around her arms and neck but they're bound to heal if given enough time. It seems like everyone here didn't come out without some scars with them.

But… what now? It feels a little awkward with me and her sitting on the same table. She seems to be quite conscious when she's here and her constant glancing aren't exactly helping. Though she won't show it, I can feel her eyes on me but every time I look her way she quickly darts off to the other side. Well… I guess I shouldn't be surprised. She did try to kill me back then. (Flash) The moment she had her daggers in front of me I knew that she was serious. The girl was ready to kill herself for the benefit of mankind unlike myself.

I supposed it shouldn't be a surprise. We were at the edge of our line with heavy losses. Coupled with the news of her brother… I can understand how Kashiwagi would do such a thing. I remember the captain telling me something about it. Her brother was considered M.I.A. after the battle on Shikoku Island. After the G-Bombs dropped I doubt the chance of finding any survivors would be low. I know it's hard for someone to lose someone important to them. I've felt it before. The sense of lost… the weakened state. It's one of the reasons why I came back after all.

"Shirogane san? Are you alright?" Haruka called out to me.

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"You have not touched your food since you've arrived" Oh… she's right. I'm so busy thinking that my meal has already gotten cold. "Do you not like the taste?"

"No it's not that. It's just that… I need to have a proper drink for something like this. Regular tap water won't do. I'll see what they have in the PX. I'll be right back"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Haaaa… that was so lame running off like that. I know what I said but in all honesty I couldn't handle the awkwardness between me and Kashiwagi. So far nobody seems to know what happened inside the Carrier. That's a good thing seeing that something like this could put her in a bad position.

"It's part of being a soldier! Sometimes we have to do things that we don't like. You should know this better than anyone!"

"If you're not willing to die for something then you're not fit to carry out anything!"

Kashiwagi…

She really… she really was planning to die that night. She was prepared to go down taking out every BETA she could get in her. That girl probably wanted to escape reality as quickly as possible in the most painless way she could think of. Ah… but I have no right to judge her. She shouldn't hear that from me. I used be exactly the same until a little while back. It was only thanks to my friends and Sumika that I was able to get through it all.

I'm sure with our help she'll get over it quickly. Though of course that won't remove the issue of what she tried back then. I'll have to figure out a way to get this awkwardness between us removed otherwise it'll affect our performance together. But how? I used to solve problems like this before but never really memorize how I was able to put them away. Maybe I'll let our situation cool down for a moment and find some time to talk with her in private. I'm sure she'd want the same thing. Nobody needs to know what happened in there. Maybe I can ask her for a talk later tonight…

"Um… Shirogane…"

"Huh? Ah! K… Kashiwagi?" Damn… she nearly gave me a heart attack. "Wh… what are you doing here?"

"Suzumiya wanted some juice too. I thought I'd get her some. (Oh…) Yeah…" Uwa… this is bad. She won't even look at me directly for more than a few seconds. It must really be bothering her just as much as it's bothering me. "So… I saw you on TV during my stay in the hospital. It seems like you're quite famous now. I didn't read the details but you were the one who brought down the ringleader of the coup in the capital, neh? As expected of the Legendary Rookie. You really are incredible"

"Ah… y… yeah" Is she trying to hold it in?

"Not only had that but you pretty much done some really incredible things back there. I bet Hayase san will be out to get you soon. Ahehehe. (…) It almost makes me feel bad that I missed it all"

"Aheh… yeah… I guess so"

"You can tell me all about it later. I need to get Akane her juice otherwise she'll get mad at me again. (Oh… right)" She's pretending like the whole incident never happened. I understand if she wants to move on but something of that scale should be discussed. Small fights and quarrels are fine but if you keep something like this bottled up inside of you, it can explode right in front of your face. "Hey Shirogane. What do you think Akane would like better? Synthetic juice or milk?

"Uh… try pineapple, I guess. (Heeh…) Giving her milk seems a bit too casual"

"You're right. Besides, if we give her milk she might take it differently. Nice answer"

Maybe this is for the best. Pretending like it never happened seems to be one option. Water under the bridge is fine with me but… will we be able to handle this awkward feeling between us. I never had this kind of feeling whenever I'm with Kashiwagi. She's been one of my closest friends in both worlds and you could say that she's the older sister I never had. Heh… just thinking about that makes me sound like a guy with a sister complex.

"Hey… Shirogane… (Hmm?) Do you have time… later tonight? (…?) I was hoping you and I could… talk for awhile… about what happened. I… don't think you could…"

"Stop" I interrupted her. "Before you say anything, I'd like to tell you that I'm not mad for what you did back then. (But…) We both know what you did back then but I don't think I can blame you. The situation was desperate and you weren't in the right state of mind. If I was having the same day as you were having… I think I would've done the exact same thing. Losing someone important can drive you to do the craziest things. (…!) I know what you're going through and I won't charge you with anything for it"

"But back then… I almost hurt… I could've—"

"Yeah… I know that. To be honest I'm still kind of shocked you were able to do such a thing. But I learned from someone that if you let your emotions get the best of you, everything else becomes a blur. (But still…) Just let it slide. You don't want to talk about it anymore than I do. It's water under the bridge now, okay? (Wait! Shirogane!) What? I already told you I don't care what you did back then. Talking about it will probably just make things even more awkward between us"

"Can… it really be that simple?"

I shrugged my shoulder. "I'm just that kind of guy I guess"

"I can't accept it…"

"You don't have to"

"It wasn't right…"

"Yeah, it wasn't…"

"Then why!-?"

"Hey hey, keep your voice down. Do you want the whole PX to hear us? Besides… you're starting to sound like Class rep in a way"

"Ugh…" She can't seem to find it in her heart to put it pass her. Usually, Kashiwagi would be more composed and brush the most serious topics off like they were wind in the air. But I supposed it's different when you're the cause. "I don't like it…"

I guess there's really no choice. "Fine. If it'll make you feel better. We can talk about it. (…) But not here. I want to keep this between us. No one else needs to know about it. Is that ok with you?"

"Huh? Ah… yeah…" She nodded with a guilty face. "Thanks… Shirogane…"

"Hey it's what teammates do"

"Then… maybe later after dinner. You could… come to my place. My room is right next to yours so we could meet in private"

"Sure. I'll see you then"

Clang!

Hmm? What was that? It sounded like someone dropping their tray on the floor and…

"Th… that's…"

"Eh? 1st Lt. Haya…se… 1st Lt. Misae…?"

"Th… that was such a hot topic…" Munakata stated out with her eyes bulging from their sockets and her mouth agape. "Haruko… I didn't know you had such conviction in you. This… this is quite a shocker. (Ha?) Inviting the Alpha Male into your room. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't hear it firsthand. You barely offered any kind of defense against his charms. Has your sexual instincts finally taken over your voice of reason? Hooo… my opinion of you has just heightened"

"Wha!-? No! It's nothing like that!" Kashiwagi protested. "You got it all wrong! And… what do you mean that your opinion of me just heightened? What did you think of me before now?"

"Why… a lonely virgin of course. (Gehehhh!) And you… 1st Lt. Shirogane. Accepting a girl's invitation into her room without hesitation. I always knew you had the eyes of the beast in you. Finally we get to see the fangs of the raging animal come out at last. This will be a night to remember!"

"No! Munakata san! You're doing it again!"

"And just when your talk was getting really interesting too. I guess it must've caught Hayase off guard as well. I thought that Kashiwagi gave up the race but now she's trying to speed boost herself to the finish line. I'm very impressed. I'm actually at a loss for words. But please… don't mind us. Continue your heated discussion. Pretend like we're not even here"

"How the hell am I supposed to pretend that when you're standing right there!-?"

"Damn… it looks like we're not getting anything more out of these two. This is all your fault, Hayase. We could've gotten a bit more before your shock came to you. (…) Hayase? Oi, Hayase. What's wrong with you?"

That's odd. Hayase seems a bit… phased. Misae san is waving her hands in front of her but she doesn't seem to be responding. It seems like Hayase was the one who dropped her tray earlier. "Is… is she alright?"

"No way… don't tell me…" Misae snapped her fingers in front of her but there's still no reaction. "I knew it. The shock came so suddenly, her brain was unable to process all the information in time. It went into overload. She must've shut herself down to prevent an outburst. Such a frightening thing. (Thud…) Oh… she fell. Be at peace 1st Lt. Hayase. I will be sure to carry on your will for the sake of others. Cross into the light and find serenity in the afterlife"

"No! She's not dead! She's not dead! Someone call a medic!"

(Hanger 31)

"The 6th Pacific Army?" Yuuko asked sounding somewhat irritated when she heard the news from her Imperial Informant.

"Yes. I heard it from Undersecretary General Genjousai himself" Yoroi confirmed it with a nod before popping another squid ball in his mouth. "The U.N. 6th Pacific Army will be arriving at Japan as a replacement for the 11th Pacific Army itself. Seeing as how General Radhabinod has exhausted nearly all of his resources during the last few campaigns in Sadogashima, Niigata, Kyoto and Tokyo in the span of two months, it seems only natural that he would lose his influence over the military. I heard that he had to promote 20 staff officers alone to replace those that he lost in the last mission"

"I thought the 6th Army would be stationed in Antarctic. Are you telling me that the U.N. is willing to abandon one of its unique sites for replacements?"

"Rumor has it that it was done under the request of the Soviet Union"

That alone made Yuuko perk in interest. "I see. This explains it" Yuuko took her seat by the table pouring herself a cup of coffee for the night. "I supposed it was only inevitable. After they lost so much ground in Kamchatka they're trying to open a second battleground here in Asia"

"The Prime Minister made a bargain, giving U.N/USSR full control over the island Kyushu in return for their continued support and supplies from overseas"

"That's rather pathetic, giving an entire part of the nation like that"

"He is merely trying to get on the good side of the world's superpower. Honshu will remain under the control of the Imperial Army. But due to the lack of resources and the restriction brought to them by the U.N. Army, you can only imagine how outstretched they are in this situation"

"So he'd prefer to let others stand between him and the BETA on the mainland. How clever. I might have a new impression for Prime Minister Sakaki. At this rate… he might stay in office for another decade or so. (Ahehehe) But I supposed this will make future operations in the far east a lot more convenient for us"

"Indeed. The U.N. Armed Force will now be the frontlines of the eastern war with the BETA in place of the Japanese Army"

There was a dry humor standing between the two adults. Even the ants that crawled beneath them seemed nervous at the touch.

"There's more to this, isn't there?" Yuuko inquired only to earn a positive answer from her informant. "Out with it. I don't have all night"

"There's been some rumor circulating around the Shogun as of late. Though nothing is confirmed, she plans to unveil a new project for the benefit of Japan. (…) The Royal Family has lost much favor since the coup and with the Emperor dead and his heirs all but thinned down to a last few subjects, not to mention the atrocities committed by the Imperial Honor Guards… they are backed to a corner. (Oh?) If the Shogun succeeds in whatever it is she is planning then the Royal Family may return to their former glory"

"I see…" Yuuko understood almost immediately. "There are people out there who would rather have them silenced forever"

"A lot of people will benefit with a puppet Emperor on the throne. You could say that this might be their… last stand"

"And what does this have to do with me? I have no beef with the Royal Family or those against them. I already kept my promise with the people of Japan by destroying the BETA Hive in Sadogashima. I'm more focused on my work than to meddle in the affairs of politics"

"Ah… but there's more, Professor Kouzuki. (…?)" Yoroi's tone changed suddenly catching the woman off guard. "The Soviet and American parties have also tried to benefit from the last coup. Taking advantage in the Eastern Front in Europe. A lot of cloak and daggers are happening behind the scenes lately. It's rather difficult for me to keep track of them all"

"I have no interest in the Eastern front. There are too many parties involve there. I'd prefer to keep it here where's things are a lot more simple"

"Oh I don't think you need to fear them but rather the new power that's been growing during the last week. (New power?) Yes. A group that only recently surfaced to our knowledge. Their leader is a powerful fighter with ties to the eastern front. The group possesses a small but frightening army, a large network of information and has many key sympathizers within every nation in the world. A very unstable, but influential, power that threatens every government it crosses. You could say that the Shirogane group is slowly forming…"

The name alone caught the woman's attention. "Shirogane… gropu?"

"How about it? Does this interest you, Professor?"

"Maybe… but keep talking and I might catch something"

"As you wish" The man nodded lowering his tone. "After the stunt your Guard Dog pulled at Tokyo… I think his message may have reached the ears of those who sympathize with him. The faction is now spread… but if you actually organize this group you can imagine how dangerous it would be to leave it alone"

"I see. So that's what got the others so riled up. He's got supporters in places he doesn't even know"

"You could say it's his charisma. Ahahahaha… I supposed you can't gauge people's abilities once they've been pushed to a corner. (Hmph…) Well… I believe that's everything. I will leave you to your business, Professor Kouzuki. Let us meet again on a later date"

"Hold on a moment" Yuuko stopped the man with a playful gesture of her fingers. "Aren't you forgetting something? (…) Though I wouldn't mind killing you here for giving me such a hard time with the council, you still owe me a debt for loaning Shirogane to you. (…) If it wasn't for him, your plan would've been halted before it even reached step 4. Don't go thinking that I'll let that slide just yet"

"Ahahaha… now that's the Professor I know and love. It almost makes me believe that expected me to do something like that. (Maybe…) Very well. If I am anything I am a man of my word. But please do not expect anything too much. With the nation still unstable as it is, it may be difficult for me to get around" He was quickly handed a small notepad which was filled with a list of items that would make even the masters of tongue twister bite their tongues. "Oh? What is this? A love letter?"

"A shopping list" She corrected. "I need everything listed there to be delivered to Yokohama Base by the end of the month. Even you can handle something as simple as this"

Yoroi raised a brow to question her as he skimmed through the items. Could such a favor really be that simple? "Hoo? That's quite a list. Just what do you need so many parts for, Professor?"

"That's not part of the deal. Give me the parts and I'll consider your debt settled. (…) I'll leave the rest up to your imagination. (Hmmm…) Lt. Piatif. Please escort Section Chief Yoroi out of the hanger properly… (Yes ma'am)"

(Barracks) (Takeru's POV) (08:50 PM)

Ugh… that was tough. Munakata really did it this time. Does she enjoy tormenting me so much? She's making my normal life harder to live with every tease she gives out. She's almost as bad as Yuuko sensei in my world. With her constant tease of me with Marimo chan, I often get the brunt side of jokes from my classmates. Even when Meiya first came into my school… it was horrible. The death stares, the death threats… even the teachers get jealous of my situation. I bet if I put those two together they'll make anyone they set their eyes on live a life of hellish screams and nails for breakfast.

Haaaa… but I guess there's no point going back. By the time we got a medic for Hayase, the PX was practically closed. I barely had a chance to eat. Hmm… I wonder if that old man would give me another freebie of takoyaki. If I plead long enough he might give me a box.

I didn't even get a chance to talk things over with Kashiwagi. Damn it. She told me to meet her at her room later tonight but without a steady timetable I'm just relying on luck here. (…) Hmmm… she said that her room was next to mine. My room is at the edge of this floor so that means this room here is hers. What are the odds of that happening? Everyone else seems to be out somewhere so this is probably as good a time as any for us to meet.

"Shirogane!" Hmm? Oh… and speak of the devil. "Haaa… haaaa… haaaaa… I finally found you" She looks tired. Did she run all the way from the PX? "Sorry about that. Things got a little hectic in PX"

"That's ok. So Misae got you too huh?"

"She wouldn't stop hounding me until I answered her questions. I had to hide in the storage room for 30 minutes just to shake her off" I think I understand how she feels. That woman has a frightening ability to twist words and bend situations to humor her. Other than Yuuko sensei and Yoroi… she's probably one of the people I can't really read. "Thanks to that ruckus the cafeteria lady gave us an earful. We had to spend our meal time cleaning up the dishes afterwards"

"Heh… serves her right for trying to smudge her way. Though I wish she didn't drag the others with her"

"Ahehehe… that's true. But I suppose that's a good thing. We won't have to worry about anyone eaves dropping. (…) Hey… you mind if we take a walk around? (Hmm?) I feel a lot more comfortable to be moving around rather than standing still"

"Of course. I don't mind"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ah… this feels somewhat familiar. It's been awhile since I've been in a real urban atmosphere like this. It feels nostalgic for some reason. Maybe it's because I grew up in a small city like Hiiragi. Ahaha… just thinking about it makes me miss my home already.

"The atmosphere here is a lot different from Yokohama Base, isn't it?" Oh… Kashiwagi seems to be thinking the same thing. "You don't get to see so many lights in one place. They usually close up the facilities when the sun goes down"

"Yeah… they do that…"

"They say that it's to conserve energy but honestly I think the workers there just want to star gaze at night. Hehehehe" Ahuhu… that does make sense. Since Yokohama Base is practically in the middle of nowhere, you can get a clear view of stars especially at the hill behind the main building. "It's funny. Usually when I get this emotional it's usually with Cpt. Isumi. But now that I'm going with a man it feels like we're on a date. (…) Have you ever been on a date before, Shirogane?"

"… yeah…"

"Hooo? I guess Munakata wasn't kidding when she called you the Alpha Male"

"She'll give anything a nickname if you give her the chance. (Ahahahaha) Hehehehe…"

"I bet the girl you took out on a date must've been very happy. (…) Heh… I guess I should be the same. (Kashiwagi…) Sorry. You had to bear through that for my sake. It seems like I like to avoid topics I can't handle"

"It's alright. I know how you feel. Even I don't like to get to the point right away"

"It's kind of ironic seeing how I'm usually the voice of reason in these kinds of situations. I must look like a complete mess"

"Well… I won't deny that you look different. But I don't think you look bad with that scar"

She brought her hand up to her face and felt the scar left behind by the gash she received a week ago. "Ah… you mean this. You could say it's a souvenir from that mission. Don't worry. It doesn't hurt. The doctor said that the scar will heal go away in a few months. (That's good…) Honestly I was surprised when I woke up in the hospital the other day. I didn't expect to come out alive from that operation. I even thought that you might've actually left me for dead. (…) But I supposed you're not that type of person. You showed me that during Sadogashima"

"Hey now… do I really look like someone who'd hold a grudge? I already told you, I'm not mad about that. Can't we just drop it and move on?"

"You might be able to move on but I can't. (…?) I already talked with Cpt. Isumi and it doesn't look like you've told anyone what happened in there"

"That's because I didn't think it was necessary. (Eh?) Look… you weren't yourself that time and from what I heard from the Captain, you were having a really hard time. I know how it feels to lose someone precious to you, especially family. (…!) Once you feel that loss, it's hard to replace it with anything else. You were angry, distraught and delusional. Put those together and it was obvious that you'd snap. (…) I'm not going to hold you guilty of that charge nor do I plan to blackmail you with it. Consider it a favor from one comrade to another and let's just leave it at that"

"Just… like that?"

"Just like that. (…) Besides… filing a charge with you sounds like it involves a lot of paperwork. I'd rather use my free time lounging around rather than doing something like that. I can be very lazy when I want to. (…) Also… do you really think that's what the others want? (…) Getting you demoted would mean that you'd be kicked out of the squad. You don't want that… and I'm sure no one in the squad wants that to happen, especially the Captain. She has enough trouble with me in the group. The last thing I want to is to burden her with this"

"That's just… so… selfish…"

"Maybe it is. Anyway. That's all I have to say in this matter. You can repay me on that later. (R… repay!-?) Yeah. If you feel like you owe that much then you can pay it back with your specialty. (…!) Hey… what's with the flushed face? Is paying back someone really that hard for you?"

"N… no! Of course not! It's just that… I… didn't take you for someone like that. (Eh?) F… fine. If that's what it takes to even us out then… I'll submit. C… come by my room later. We'll settle things there. (Settle?) J… just don't be too rough… ok?"

Rough? What is she… talking… ab… (Flash!) Eh? Wait a minute. What did I just see…? (Flash) Me and… Kashiwagi… did that?

…!

Pffffftt!

"What!-? No! I didn't mean that! (Eh?) I was talking about you making me dinner or lunch or something! (Haa?) Wait. Did you think that when I said to pay me back would be…?"

"W… wait a minute! Were you talking about food this whole time!-?"

"So you were thinking about it!"

"Well how I was supposed to know what you're thinking!-? I'm not psychic! A… are you saying that you don't want me?"

"Of course not! Whatever gave you that idea!-?"

"W… well… I thought all men are the same! Munakata even called you the Alpha Male!" Geh! Oh come on! She's using that poor excuse!?

"Don't take her words so seriously! She's manipulative that way! Besides, I wouldn't dream of… no… I wouldn't want to do 'that' with you!"

…!

WHACK!

Ow! Why'd she hit me?

"And what's that supposed to mean! (Geh!) Are you saying that I'm not good enough for you!-?"

"N… no of course not!"

"Then don't go flat out refusing a girl's offer like that! You think I don't have 'that' kind of experience? I'll tell you now that I have just much… ex… experience as you!"

"What are you saying? How did we even get to this topic!-?"

"B… be quiet! (Yoink!)" Ow… that really hurt. Don't go pulling someone like that! "You were the one who brought us to this conversation in the first place!"

"You were the one who misinterpreted my reason at the beginning!"

"Grrrrr! That's it! I'm not gonna let this one slide! By the end of next week I'm gonna make you a meal that'll leave you drooling for more!

"But I just told you that I—"

"That's far from the point!" Yikes! Why is she getting angry all of a sudden? "I can't let something like this pass without some kind of compromise! (Eh?) It's not just my honor as a soldier! My pride as a woman is also at stake here! (Your pride!-?) I can't accept such an insulting rejection after what just happened!"

"K… Kashiwagi! Your grip is… too tight!"

"If I leave this hanging, I'll never be able to live this down my throat! (Ha?) Fine! I'll do something for you as payment! I'll… I'll make you dinner, and then we'll call it even! Alright!-?"

"What are you talking about?"

Yoink!

"Just say yes to it already!" Bwahhhhh! Don't shake my head like that! I'm… still… not… fully… well~~ "You got that!-? I'll have a meal ready by next week so don't… don't go telling anyone!" Stop… shaking… me!

Yoink!

"I… don't… get… it!"

"AHHH! Shirogane! You're insufferable!"

Yoink!

Wahhhhhhhh!

Ugh… she… she finally stopped. Thank goodness. For a moment there I thought I was breaking through the space time continuum.

Sob…

Eh?

"Shirogane… why are you… such a… nice guy? (Kashi… wagi?) Why is it that the only blockhead in our team… had to be you? (Sob)" Oi… what kind of a question is that? And why are you using my chest as a pillow? Eh? C… could she be…?

"Kashiwagi. Are you…?"

"I… I'm not crying!"

Yoink!

Bwahhh! No! Stop doing that! I'm gonna puke! Marimo chan! Someone! Help!

(U.N. Embassy, Kyoto) (10:05 PM)

Tamase Genjousai walked along the halls of the U.N. embassy that night looking all the while more exhausted than before. This was the fifth meeting he had to attend today with little breaks in between his strenuous task. The reconstruction of the U.N. Army chain of command was difficult to say the lease. With most of their resources and personnel exhausted from the last battle, it became apparent that new blood was needed to replace the empty halls of the U.N. Bases.

Looking down at the documents handed down to him by the U.N. council, it was obvious that things will only get worse from this point on. He let out a sigh before tucking the documents back into his suitcase before heading off where his escorts were waiting. He would have time to deal with the politics of the world at a later time. Right now, all he could think of was getting to his hotel and get a nice hot shower and a bed to sooth his nerves.

But just before he got to the entrance, he was stopped by a familiar figure waving in the distance. "Oya! Tamase san" It called out to him in a friendly demeanor.

The Undersecretary raised a brow for a moment before he recognized the person. "Ah! Amanohara!" He shouted his name out. "This is a pleasant surprise. I wasn't expecting you to be here of all places"

"The same can't be said for you. You're quite easy to track down since everyone here knows your name. (Ahahaha) Gwahahaha! It's been a long time old friend"

"You too. I thought you'd still be with your daughter in our estate in Hokkaido"

"My work keeps me well traveled. I barely have time to stay in one place for too long. (I know what you mean) Ahahaha! Again… Tamase… I cannot thank you enough for providing refuge for my family. When we lost our home in Hiroshima, I truly thought that our luck had run dry that night. Were it not for you, my family and I would be on the streets like the squatters"

"That is what friends are for. It was fate that allowed us to meet up again in Tokyo of all places"

"Ahahaha! True. But if there is still a god watching us from the heavens, then perhaps he was with my family that day. At the very least I can have a roof over my little Suiko's head"

"Oh how is your daughter by the way? I heard you had her enroll in a medical school"

"That's right. She's studying right now in college. Though I'd prefer to keep her away from all the blood… she insists that she contributes something to humanity"

"It seems like she inherited your thickhead. (Gwahahaha!) Ahahaha. You should visit her whenever you get the chance"

"Ha! How can I miss her if she keeps writing to me every day? I have a stack of letters back in my hotel that I haven't even had the chance of ready yet. With a girl like her she'll never run out of things to say, that's for sure"

"Ahahaha… it seems like our families have more in common than we give credit for"

"Speaking of Suiko chan. I heard your daughter just recovered from battle as well"

"Indeed" Genjousai gave out a proud answer. "She's strong…"

"She's a lot tougher than her height would suggest. (Ahahahaha) Hahahaha… she's just like her mother in more ways than one I tell you. (Indeed) Ah… I apologize. Perhaps that was too much of me"

"No… it's alright. I'm done mourning"

"That's good. We remember the past to give us strength to fight the present so at the very least we would have a future! Come, why don't you and I have a drink to celebrate our reunion? For old time's sake?"

The Undersecretary thought for a moment finding little reason to decline that offer. "Hmm… yes. I think I could use a drink"

"Good. I know a place" Amanohara quickly led the way, patting his old friend by the shoulder.

"By the way Amanohara. What are you doing in the U.N. Embassy of all places? Are you waiting for someone?"

"Ahahaha! Not at all. I'm actually representing Prime Minister Sakaki to the U.N. for his post-war reconstruction of Tokyo. (…?) You're now looking at the new Ambassador of the Japanese Provincial Government Class"

"Hoo? That's a rather impressive station. I didn't know. Congratulations"

"Ah… it's not as impressive as it may sound" The large man added feigning disappointment. "They simply promoted me because they don't have anyone else qualified for the task. You could say that I was their last choice in the matter since the previous ambassador perished during the 12/5 incident"

"Still… it is a rather lofty promotion. I'm sure that you'll do just fine. (Ahahaha!) I guess with that line of work we'll probably be seeing each other more often"

"I certainly hope so. With everything that's happened in Tokyo, they're scrounging up every man they can find. It's heartbreaking… to see our own people being asked more than they could give. It will never be enough as long as the BETA are still present. (It never is…) If this continues… I have no doubt that we will be asking children to fight for us…"

"That… might come a lot earlier than you'd expect… old friend. (Hmm?) Here…" Genjousai handed the man the documents he received earlier. "A bill was passed on earlier today in discussion of the recent conflict"

"Lowering the drafting age to 10?" Amanohara stated quietly to avoid eavesdroppers from listening. They're mad to carry this bill in motion"

"No… they're just desperate. After what had happened at Tokyo, both the Imperial Army and the U.N. require new blood to continue the fight against the BETA. The U.N. itself is already diverting much of its resources from Europe to support the frontline here"

"I see. So that's how it is. (…) To let children hold our weapons—it almost looks as if the rebels had some merit to their words. I will pass this on to the Prime Minister tomorrow. Hopefully we'll find a way to resolve this without further bloodshed"

"You have my gratitude…"

(Takeru's POV) (January 10 2002, Thursday) (06:45 AM)

Ring ring… ring ring… ring ring…

No… not now. My head still hurts.

Ring ring… ring ring… ring ring!

Oh… come on. Does it have to be morning now of all time? I barely had any sleep last night. Thanks to Kashiwagi's antics… I was thrown around like a ragdoll to the point I blacked out from the G-force. (Flash) That girl is really… strong. But she's also strange. I was only looking out for her and in return she retaliated with a full blown grappling hold on me.

That little misunderstanding between us nearly got out of hand. Thankfully we resolved it before any of those words got into Misae's head. Neither of us will hear the end of it if it gets to her. She'll probably tease us and take those words to her grave, and beyond.

And after we parted ways… my brain went into a meltdown. I keep getting strange visions about me and Kashiwagi back in my world. Those strange images were like… a memory… that I simply forgot. I can't even see them clearly when I was up.

Ugh… never mind. It's Thursday and I'm tired. Maybe I'll sleep around until noon. Besides I need the strength when I go and visit the Shogun on…

…!

Oh crap! Yuuhi! I totally forgot I'm supposed to meet with her today! Wait… what time is it? 6:50! Crap! I need to—bwahh!

Thud…

Ow… from the bed to the floor. Real smooth. Grr… no time to beat myself up. I need to get change and get to the front gate in 10 minutes! Ahhh! Come on! Where are my uniforms?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Haaa… haaaa… haaaa… Damn it…

Running after waking up… wasn't my best idea. Maybe I should've told that guy to pick me up in the afternoon instead. Wha… such a gloomy weather. The snow is really starting to fall again.

This is the front gate of the base. It's only guarded by two MPs standing by the watch post. You'd expect a military base to have more security than this. But I supposed I can't say the same for Yokohama Base. After all that is where ALTERNATIVE IV is being kept.

The Honor Guard said that he'll send someone to pick me up at 7 o'clock but it's already 7:15. I don't know if being late was in their noble genes.

Hmmm… it's rather peaceful this time of day. No roll calls for cadets and not even a school bell. I can see a few cars on the road but so far no traffic. Kyoto is really huge despite the fact that it was leveled down by the BETA a few years back. You wouldn't think people would still live here after the whole place was torn down.

That reminds me. Now that the BETA Hive in Sadogashima is gone… the closest one would be in the Korean Peninsula just off the shore of Kyushu. The BETA are still in the less literal term 'Right next door' but still… I wonder how future operations will take place. (Flash) Back in my last loop… me and the rest of the A-01 were sent on a last ditch mission deep into Kashgar to take out the main Hive. I haven't heard a peep about that operation coming soon… but then again… a lot of things have changed since I arrived here.

Hell… I've altered so many things in this loop alone that I'm having a hard time keeping track of them all.

The coup, Yuuhi, Marimo chan, Cpt. Isumi… and everyone else.

And also… there's something different about me too. Though I hate to admit it, I wouldn't be alive right now if it wasn't for my unique ability to heal. My body has been changing in a greater margin than before. Back then I only had the abilities I've received when I was a soldier but now I'm stronger, faster, and more durable than before. I don't know what's making me stronger… but I sure won't complain about it.

"Excuse me… Shirogane dono…" Hmm? Who? "Pardon for my interruption. I was sent here to recover you on behalf of my lady" Eh? Hey… wait a second. Don't I know this guy? He looks really familiar. (…?) That cheekbone, that suit, that posture and that poker face. They're ringing a bell in my head. I just can't tell which one. "Is… something the matter, Shirogane sama?"

…!

Ah! That's it! Now I remember!

"T… T… Takahashi!-?"

"Yes… that is my name. Ichimonji Takahashi" It is! It is him! No wonder he looked so darn familiar! He's Meiya's chauffer back in my world! "Forgive me. I was not told that you would know who was coming to pick you up"

Takahashi…

It's really been awhile since I last saw him. Back in my world, he used to drive this 60 meter limousine like it was nothing. I think I was friends with him back in my world. When I married Meiya, we saw each other on various occasions. He used bring me to a meeting place in 10 minutes flat and drive me home before dinner. No matter where I was or where I was going I would get there before I even know we were on the road.

Man… seeing him here brings back some memories.

"Ano… are you alright, Shirogane dono?"

"Huh? Ah… yeah. Sorry. I was just… surprised"

"My apologies. It was not my intention to startle you. As I said, I have been sent here to bring you to my lady. She awaits you in her family's estate. Please follow me. (Ah… sure)"

Aha… ahahahaha… aha… hahaha…

This is really. I really want to laugh right now. That car… that's the car we're taking? Pffftt…!

"Is something wrong? Shirogane dono?"

"N… no. Sorry. I was just thinking about… something funny" Crap… I can't hold it in. After seeing him drive that 60 meter limo for so long, I've gotten used to his behavior of passing things like they were nothing. To see him with a small-ordinary-run of the mill car like this is just too… hilarious.

"Ah… I see. You need not hide it. I understand that you're used to military vehicles. Riding something as luxurious must be strange"

"Y… yeah" I played along holding my laughter back. "Sorry about that"

"It is quite fine, Shirogane dono. But before we proceed, I would ask that you put this on" He handed me a brown jacket that was about the size of my uniform. "Though it is common knowledge that Her Highness is under the custody of the U.N. we cannot allow people to see her freely without alerting her presence to the whole world. We'd rather not have a foreign soldier visit her whenever he pleases" I see. He has a point there. No matter what, I'm still a U.N. soldier by name. They won't allow foreign influence visit Yuuhi without a proper reason. It might also be scandalous for the media too. The last thing I need to is more publicity with my picture on it.

"Alright. I understand. (Ruffle)"

"I'll keep your uniform in the trunk of the car. When you are done with your visit, I will return them to you. (Ok…) Now please step inside. We have a long road ahead of us"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It's been awhile since I've been at the backseat of a regular car. Being in the military for so long you kind of get used to the cockpit of the TSF or the tight space of an armored vehicle. Usually I'd be the one driving the vehicle or manning the weapon topside. It's nice to be the passenger once more.

This car is pretty spacious too with soft seats that you could melt yourself in. The windows are darkened so I can't see outside. I guess they want to keep the estate's location a secret. Oh? There's even a sunroof, now that's classy. Too bad there's not a lot of sun these days. In this snowy weather, you'll be lucky just to get a glimpse of it.

"Shirogane dono. (Y… yes?)" I straightened my posture up when Takahashi called my name. It doesn't feel weird when he calls me with the honorifics. As far as I remember, whenever I was with Meiya he'd call me that. "The journey will take around an hour or so, so please rest while you still can"

"Oh… ok then"

He says I should rest but that was a lot easier said than done. Unconsciously… I was nervous. I haven't seen Yuuhi since the coup d'état a week ago when we were rescued from Edo Castle. So many things happened so fast that it all becomes a blur after awhile. If you leave it long enough you start believing that it was all just a dream.

Heh… yeah… a dream… a dream of me being the knight in shining armor rescuing a princess from a tower surrounded by evil minions and a giant dragon.

Haaa… if only that were the case. Still… why would Yuuhi ask for me now of all times? Though I am glad that she's fine and I'd like nothing better than to visit her… I still find it… odd. She wouldn't ask for me indirectly unless it was something really important.

Well… then again she did take the risk of visiting me in Yokohama Base a few weeks back. That alone was enough to get my heart pumping. (Flash) And that kiss on the cheek… (Flash) Eh? H… hey wait a minute…

"How can I be humanity's only hope… if I can't even save you?"

Oh…

"If your life is no longer worth living… then I'll claim it for myself. So now… more than ever… please… you must live!"

G… gahh! No wait! I'm starting to remember bits and pieces of that moment… in her room at the burning castle. I… I held her in my arms and I ki… kissed…

…!

Uwa! I remember now! That's exactly what happened! We kissed! Or… at the least, I kissed her… or was it she kissed me? AHHHHH! Crap! That's so embarrassing. Just remembering it gives me the shivers. What the hell was I thinking saying something as cheesy as that? That's even worse than the letter she wrote to me weeks ago! Ahhh! That was stupid, stupid, stupid! I am so stupid! How is it that I'm so rude when it comes to royalties?

First… I yelled at her in Susono, she sent me a letter and we had a private visit. Afterwards we… k… ki… kissed. Arghhhhh! Crap! Just remembering it lights up my face like a light bulb. I know that it was just the spur of the moment and I needed to give her some morale boosting words but if you think about it now just makes me wanna slap myself. I wonder if anyone here is having the same kind of misunderstanding-relationship as I am right now.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Back in the barracks of the Valkyries, Isumi would hear the echoes of sudden-simultaneous-synchronization of sneezes passed around from room to room.

"Hmm… the weather must be getting to them. I should requisition some jackets for the squad later today"

(Slopes of Mt. Fuji) (Kyoto) (Takeru's POV)

Hmm… odd. The estate must be really far if we're taking so long to get there. We took so many twists and turns that it feels like Takahashi has been driving in circles. The silence in this car was also getting on my nerves. I would've appreciated some kind of music to ease my stress off. Meeting with a member of the royal family wasn't exactly a common thing to happen… well… in my exception of course.

Maybe if I just call…

"Shirogane dono… we are here" The car came to a complete stop as Takahashi made the announcement. I guess he wasn't kidding when he said that the trip would only take an hour. Looks like there's not much of a difference between the Takahashi here and the Takahashi I know back in my world.

Ruffle…

The place we came upon was a forest of some sort with the road splitting up between them. Though even in this cold weather the woods were dense and you can barely see pass them unless you have really good eyes. And slab right on the side of the road was a big ordinary looking house.

Heh? So this is the Shogun's estate? It looks almost like a regular 3 storied apartment. You wouldn't even think twice that a member of the Royal Family could be living here. I supposed this is also part of their concealment.

"Please do not dally, Shirogane dono. The estate is not far now"

"Eh? Wait… isn't that the estate?" I pointed at the big building in the middle of the woods.

Takahashi raised a brow at me looking in the direction of where I was pointing. "Ah… no. That structure is the garage"

"G… garage? (Yes…) Garage as in… for cars?"

"Yes. I do not know of any other meaning for that word, Shriogane dono. (…!) But with the exception of being a parking space for vehicles and such, that building also serves as residence for the guards out on the street. The estate is further inside through this path. (H…ha?) Please follow me"

We trudged through a narrow dirt path up the hill. Even in this tough snowy weather you can still make out the small trail that leads off the road. I can easily tell that someone has been taking their time making sure this path stays clear for visitors but not enough to attract hikers or tourists. Does this world even have tourists anymore? (…) Of course not. With the world at war as it is, people barely have enough time visiting other nations for leisure. Hell… I don't even remember when I last had a holiday.

Oh? I see something ahead. It looks like an… old fashioned gate. I haven't seen one of these since the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

The whole structure was made entirely of wood and the wall that the gate was attached to seemed to stretch on forever. It kinda reminds me of the old Sengoku Era where Samurais were at the pinnacle of their fame. This place just seems to give out that antique atmosphere.

Takahashi gave out a few knocks before it was answered on the other side. "We have arrived" He announced to me before opening the giant wooden gates. "Shirogane dono… please follow me"

I followed his instructions and entered through the gate looking… wha…?

…!

Gah! Y… you're kidding me. This… this is where Yuuhi's staying?

It's huge!

No… scratch that. It's not huge, it humongous! Gigantic! Far out big! It's almost as big as the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise amusement park! You can't possibly count this as an estate but rather a big-town instead. I can fit my TSFs here and you'd still have enough space to throw a firework festival without drawing attention.

The place had the old Sengoku theme too. This place just screams out everything about Japanese cultural history. There are about 6… no 8 buildings of different sizes surrounding the main complex at the very center of the estate. There's a moat, a pond and dozens of cherry trees that are waiting for spring's blossom.

It's incredible. It almost feels like I've gone back in time or something.

Wait… I think there's an ironic joke somewhere in that last sentence of mine.

"Shirogane dono. Please hurry. We have a schedule to keep"

"Huh? Ah… yeah… of course"

We walked towards the main complex building which looked a lot more like a temple than a house. Talk about old fashion but I supposed this is one way to keep people from guessing where members of the royal family were staying.

The inside was made in the old traditional style with sliding doors and tiled rooftops with ornate designs to make the place look all the more important. You can practically call this a landmark for Japan already. I wonder how much it cost just to build something so… historical. Well… it's not like this can surprise me anymore. I've seen Meiya take down one big plot of my city just to build her room in the middle of the whole thing. Lavish castles and such things… are yesterday's news to me.

After a few minutes of walking, we finally made it to what I think was the audience room. I expected Yuuhi to be there but instead I found a familiar old lady who was staring right back at me.

"Oh? Takahashi… what brings you here at such a time?" She asked with a familiar tone that I heard back in Hakone. "I was not expecting you until this afternoon"

"Grand Chamberlain…" Takahashi bowed to her taking his hat off in the process. "Forgive the intrusion but my schedule was slightly altered last night. I have brought a guest for Her Highness"

"A guest?" The old lady raised an irritated brow at both of us. "Her Highness is currently in her sickbed. I did not allow any visitors at this time"

"This is Shirogane Takeru dono from the U.N. Armed Force. I was instructed by the Honor Guards that Kobuin sama requested his visit at the allotted time. I am merely following what I was told. Forgive my rudeness"

The old lady stopped in her words and passed a quick glance to my side. It's clear to me that I wasn't in her top-ten list of friends. "This is the man?" She asked which Takahashi answered with a solemn nod. What the heck was that supposed to mean anyway? "Hmmm… he's not as impressive as his name would suggest. (Huh?) Are you sure you have the right person?"

Hey… you know I can still hear you right?

"The Guards gave me his description. There is no mistaking it, Grand Chamberlain"

The old lady darted her eyes from me to Takahashi as if trying to find some discerning hint on my face. "I am not convinced. (…!) Bringing a stranger and a soldier from a foreign faction to a sacred ground like this is simply intolerable. I imagined that man to be more… mature" Ok… now I'm sure she's doing this on purpose. I'm still here! And I can hear you as clear as day! Can you at least try to pretend that you want to be my friend? "The one you brought doesn't look any older than a mere boy"

Ok… now she's just trying to earn my irritation.

"No… he is who he claims to be…"

…!

That voice…

"1st Lt. Kamiyo? When did you…?" Takahashi looked slightly surprised at the girl who mysteriously entered the room. 1st Lieutenant? When did she get promoted? She's wearing a different uniform too. A yellow version of her old one.

She approached me slowly and stared directly into my eyes. "Hmph… that face. You haven't changed at all…"

"Tatsumi san… do you know this man?" The Grand Chamberlain inquired only to earn a brief nod from her.

"Yes. I have met with him a few times. I recognize his face and body man is indeed Shirogane Takeru. He has my vouch"

The small tension that was in the air lifted slightly with the Grand Chamberlain's nod. I barely said a word and already I'm surrounded by old faces that I met in different parts of my life.

"Very well. I will submit to your judgment" The old lady added pulling her long gown back. "Her Highness is still having her treatment at the moment. She is unavailable at this time so you'll have to wait in the garden. I will call for you when she is ready"

"Ah… ok… thank you" I was barely able to get those words out of my mouth when Kamiyo stepped in.

"I will escort him there. (…?) I will ensure that he will not wander off. This area is part of our jurisdiction. Takahashi, you may return to your duties"

"I thank you, Kamiyo san"

This is weird. I never imagined I would actually have a tense moment with three of these people. It feels… odd.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Brrrr… it got colder all of a sudden. Why the hell do we have to wait outside in this freezing weather? Seriously I think that old lady just sent us out here because she doesn't want me in the house. Brrr… heck even the fishpond is frozen solid. I wonder if the fishes there are still edible. I wouldn't mind some fresh sushi right about now. Hmm… some grilled fish from oba san back at the base would be nice too. Maybe even a nice set of takoyaki back at that snack shop for dessert.

"Hey… you…" Huh? Oh… Kamiyo. "Here… we can't have you freezing out here just when you arrived" Huh? Ah! Mittens! That's just what I needed. Ah… that's much better. Who knew that such a simple piece of clothing would make all the difference here in a cold weather?

"Thanks, Kamiyo. (…) Ah… I mean… 1st Lt. Kamiyo. Sorry. And… umm… congratulation on your promotion"

"Forget it. I've already gotten used to your rude behavior. Changing it will not alter my perspective of you. Besides… we rarely have any conversation with one another. (Ahehehe…)" Yeah… she's right. In this world we rarely talk to each other at all. It's weird since back in my world, she and the other two idiots would be arguing non-stop. It's like a daily routine for us. Hehehehe… just thinking about it feels somewhat nostalgic. Hehehe… the Three Idiots. It's really difficult for me to call them anything else. "What's with that creepy smile? Are you plotting something?"

"Huh? Ah no. It's just that… you kind of remind me of someone I used to know. (…?) You look really similar to her"

"I see. It is not rare to see one or two people that have similar personalities. The world is still a vast place despite the circumstances" That sounded very philosophical for someone like her.

"Ah… hey. So where are the other two?"

"The other two? You mean Tomoe and Ebisu? (Yeah) They are here as well. We have been assigned as Her Highness's personal bodyguards in the duration of her stay in this estate"

"Heeeh? That's quite a big job. It must be nice for you to be in charge of the guards"

"No. (Eh?) There is no one else here in this estate. Other than me, Tomoe and Ebisu and Her Highness, the other residence only includes the Grand Chamberlain and the chauffer, Takahashi. The remainder of the Guards are stationed outside these walls and are not permitted to enter without valid reason or authorization"

"Eh? Wait… are you telling me that there are only six people living in this giant mansion?"

"That is what I just stated. Does your idiocy deafen your hearing as well?"

"B… but isn't that a bit weird? I mean… there are only 3 of you guarding this whole place"

"Do not underestimate the security detail of the Kobuin residence" She said with a stern sense of pride. "We would not leave one of the last members of the royal family without sufficient protection. The only reason we were chosen for this honorable task is because of our loyalty and dedication. Nothing else. (…) The U.N. may have custody of Her Highness in name only… but as long as we exist, we shall be the last line of defense for Her Highness no matter what. That is the duty bestowed upon us by his late majesty"

"Still… to have only three guards. (…) It's not that I don't know your abilities… it's just that… it must be tough"

Kamiyo's expression seems to agree with me. "The Honor Guard is not what it used to be anymore. Though we have some discontent and various opinions within the group, our duty still remains. I will not question my orders so long as they do not contradict our oath"

"Does that have something to do with your promotion? (…) You're a 1st Lieutenant now. That's an achievement but I don't see any difference"

She took a short pause before answering. "Our new rank is merely a token. It is not something to be proud of since we failed in our duties. (…) But I do not regret it either. (…?) To be honest… I do not believe I would be here if it were not for your actions that day"

"Where did this come from?"

"I am merely expressing my thanks and gratitude. Were it not for you… I would've died during that battle in Tokyo. Tsukuyomi sama would've killed me for sure. (…) Though it was stupid of you to risk your life like that. If you had left me to die, you would've rescued Her Highness a lot faster. It was an irrational move"

"I didn't want to leave someone behind just to save someone else. (…?) I promised myself that I wouldn't sacrifice anyone unless it was myself"

"Heh… that does sound like something you'd say. After Susono City… I think I've gotten a proper image of you in my head. It is easy to understand why people would put their trust in you without so much of a question. The course of actions you did in Sadogashima made you quite famous around the nation"

"Ahehehe… it wasn't intentional. Besides… I think I was lucky in that part. But… you were also pretty amazing in Tokyo. You, Tomoe and Ebisu. You three were all alone in enemy territory, away from contact because you only had a different opinion about your orders. If it weren't for you three, I don't think I would've been able to get into the city at all. (…) So I think we can call each other even for now. Don't you agree?"

"Heh… you really are a strange one. But I suppose that's one of your good qualities. (Huh?) Ah… n… nothing! I did not say anything" The way she blushes away doesn't make it all that that convincing. "In… in any regard. I thank you for saving my life that night. You have my gratitude. Do not take it as anything else. (Ahehehe) Do not laugh! Are you mocking me!-?"

"Ahahaha… no not at all. You just look cute when you flush like that. (What was that!-?) Ahehehe"

"What's with all this racket!-?" Geh! It's the old cranky lady. "This is a place of serenity for members of the Royal Family! Behave!"

"Forgive us, Grand Chamberlain" Kamiyo bowed lowly to her. "We were merely having a conversation. We shall keep it down"

"It doesn't matter anymore. (…?) You there… boy" She gestured to me. "Her Highness will see you now. Come with me"

"Ah… y… yes ma'am"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Kamiyo and I followed the elderly lady deep inside the main complex. There were so many corridors and twice as many rooms to fill them all. I would've gotten myself lost on the first two intersections if I came in without a guide. I wonder what these rooms are used for anyway. They can't all be bedrooms, could they? I mean… it is supposed to be a place for the royal family so I thought there'd be more.

After a few minutes through the empty halls we finally came upon a small slid screen door at the very end of the main complex. The door didn't look that different from the others. In fact… it was practically the same. Was this building designed to keep intruders guessing which one was the real room? It sounds pretty unelaborated.

"Your Highness. Forgive the intrusion" The old lady knocked on the wooden frame a few times to alert the residents within.

"Oba san?"

…!

My heart skipped a beat.

Th… that voice…! It… it's her…

It feels like forever since I heard that voice. It's so close yet it feels… so distant. (…) My body starts to feel heavy and my legs are growing numb.

"Shirogane Takeru… the guest your requested an audience with, has arrived"

…!

I heard a muffled breathing on the other side of that screen door. My body was getting itchy and my hands were getting hot under these mittens. The very weight of my body was becoming like lead. Why does it feel like every moment that passes by is a year off my life?

"Please… enter. The door is not locked"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Yuuhi…" That was the first word that left Takeru's lips when the door slid open. His gaze pierced the Grand Chamberlain to see the figure lying on the other side. In that fraction of a moment when their eyes met, everything around them remained silent. Shirogane's shoulder lifted back as if all the weight he had been holding magically came off. His heart began beating faster and faster like drum set in a rock concert. Everything that seemed relevant was left forgotten.

The woman whose name he just said returned the boy's gesture with the smile that she had not made since their last meeting. Yuuhi laid there in her bed covered by thick layers of blankets wearing a white silver gown that one would mistake for a bathrobe. Her lotus colored hair remained ever valiant and her deep sharp eyes grew soft as if to say the words her mouth could not.

Takeru did not wait for permission from anyone when he entered with his heart tightening with each step he took. The Grand Chamberlain protested to his actions but her words were drowned out by the wind and melded into the background. Kamiyo was opted to say something too but was quickly silenced by the expression the Shogun had on her face. It alone… spoke more than a scholar could say in his own lifetime.

"It is good to see you again… Takeru…" Yuuhi greeted her visitor with the best words she could think of. The feeling she had in her chest was something that no man could explain in mere words. It was the same feeling she had when she last embraced her sister in that ship so long ago.

Takeru was stunned. He knelt down beside her bed just like he did with Sumika and tried his best to smile. But something kept him from doing so. There was just something in his eyes and mouth that kept him from showing that expression.

It didn't take him long to realize that he had been crying when Yuuhi wiped a stream of tears from his cheek. A sniffle and cough followed after making the boy look like a man who just had his first child born with no complications. So few people have ever felt such joy and that alone… is considered a blessing.

Moments later, Kamiyo would pull the Grand Chamberlain by her sleeves, gesturing that they were unneeded there. They had no part in this moment and their presence here would be considered nothing more but unwanted. The mere thought of it made the old lady… jealous… if that was even possible for someone her age. But at the same time she could not help but feel some measure of happiness for the girl she came to care like her own daughter.

Feeling that they were hindrance in this moment, she closed the screen door behind her and made off, leaving the two alone for a moment of serenity.

"Thank… goodness…" Takeru added between sobs. "Thank goodness… Yuuhi…"

"Forgive me for worrying you" The Shogun cooed to him, patting his messy hair to sooth his tears. "It merely took awhile to finally get a message from this estate. Please… do not cry…"

"Ah… ahaha… yeah. Th… that's right. I'm soaking all over your bed sheets" Finally gathering his strength together, the boy wiped his unsightly face from existence and calmly looked back to the Shogun's eyes. It felt like the war with the BETA almost didn't matter to him anymore. "Sorry I was… late"

"It is fine. I was the one who asked for your visit. You have nothing to apologize for"

"I know. It's just that. I was… really worried about what might've happened to you. I… didn't know what happened after we parted from Tokyo"

"Ahuhuhu… your concern is heartwarming… but as you can see, I am well. My condition doesn't allow me to move a lot these last few days but the doctor said that I should have a full recovery by month's end. (That's great!) But you should not concern yourself with my wellbeing. In this regard, one must be more concerned about themselves before others. I too was worried of your health when we last met. (Ahehehe…) Please, sit"

Shirogane's face was flushed from the waterworks. He gladly pulled himself an idle chair nearby and returned that longing gaze to the Shogun. Many things ran through his mind when he first came to this estate. He even had a list of things to say and a script written at the back of his head. But when he saw Yuuhi… everything just seemed to have… flushed out before he knew it. All the lines he rehearsed, all the emotions he had… were just washed away in those tears.

(Takeru's POV)

"I have heard many great tales about you, Takeru. Ever since I awoke in the hospital, I have seen your name spoken by people and soldiers alike. You have become a figure of great importance in the span of just a few days" Ah… she must've watched the news about me. I've heard that my picture has been on the news channel lately but I haven't had the time to watch it firsthand. "There are some who even hail you as a hero" A hero? Me? Ha… no way. I'm still far from being a hero. "Saving countless lives at the near cost of your own. Such a title is deserving of you"

"Ah… no… I'm not that special. I was just… lucky"

"Ahuhuhu… too much modesty can be considered arrogance in its own, Takeru. (Ahehehe) But then I supposed it is only in your nature to say such things" Ah crap… my face is getting red all of a sudden. It was embarrassing enough just to cry in front of her. Akane was right… I really am a crybaby. "Is something wrong?"

"No… I'm just… relieved. When we parted ways… I was actually expecting the worst case scenario. I'm pretty sure even Meiya was worried sick about you"

"Indeed. She can be a worrisome person. Though I wish she would be more concerned over her own conditions rather than mine"

"Well… you two are alike in that sense. You worry about each other constantly that you keep forgetting your own health"

"Ahuhuhu… indeed. Perhaps we really are more alike than we truly realize" It feels strange. A few moments ago I was pouring my heart out and now I'm laughing with her like nothing happened. It feels… oddly good. "The weather seems to have warmed up a little, hasn't it? (Yeah…) It seems that winter may be ending sooner than we think. (…) Would you accompany me for a short walk, Takeru? (Eh?) I would like to get some fresh air today"

"B… but are you sure that's ok? I mean… your injuries"

"It is fine. The doctor said I can take short walks around the garden as long as I do not attempt anything too stressful. Would you… kindly help me up to my feet?"

I couldn't deny her that. With a gentle hand I moved Yuuhi up from her bed, removing the thick blankets from her lower half. Her wrists are so soft. Has she always been this small? She looks so much different from when I last saw her in person. Her stance was so unbalanced that she began to look more like an antique vase. I'm afraid that if I hold her too tightly she might just break.

"Are you sure you can stand on your own?"

She returned to me another approving smile. "Do not worry. I assure you that I have endured greater than this. I am not as weak as my figure would give out" Heh… she's right there. This girl is anything but weak. Anyone who says otherwise would be mistaken on her first look.

We arrived at the garden on the other side of the main building a few minutes later. The snow had lightened up giving way to some measure of sunlight that can be seen through the clouds. The weather was bleak to say the least but it was a lot better than the hail we've been experiencing in the last few weeks.

This garden was pretty much the same as the other one. The flowers have withered from the cold weather but the seeds inside would eventually bloom by the start of spring. The weather outside was pretty gloomy for a walk but it didn't seem to affect Yuuhi one bit.

"This place…" Hmm? "It reminds me of the time when you and I first met, Takeru" When we first met? Does she mean during the 12/5 incident? "It was snowing just like this in Hakone. (…) Though it has only been a short time since that day… it feels like an eternity had already pass by. I still have dreams of that day when you and I took a stroll in the park of Susono City"

Susono City. I can't believe it's only been a month since that eventful day. Has it really been that long? I've been so preoccupied with so many things that the days fly by like the wind. That was the time when I really changed the future. I changed so many things these past few months that I'm beginning to lose track.

In the process of those changes, I've been looking over the possible interference that may have come from it. There were a few things that changed but I can't seem to find anything relating to each other.

What happened at Susono City is a bit hazy on my end. After all, I was unconscious for about 15 hours when the battle ended. The last thing I remember before I passed out was a big fiery explosion that engulfed me. Yuuko said that I was caught in some kind of air raid but I couldn't remember much from that point onward. By the time I returned to Yokohama, things had already calmed down and there was no longer any need to be on alert.

"You need not worry about Rin nor Eiko. I was assured of their safety the other day. They have been moved to Fukushima before the battle in Tokyo began" Oh right. Those two girls we met back then. I almost forgot about them.

"That's good" I let out a sigh of relief. "At least those two are fine"

"I too am relieved to hear them well. Though I am sure it is not easy for them to witness war again… so soon after their lost. Sometimes I wonder if I could keep my word to the old lady. (…) Ah… forgive me. We should not dally with the past and move on. Please… come with me"

How long has it been since I walked down the road without a care in mind? I can hardly seem to recall when I was this relaxed. We walked for a few more minutes going from one side of the garden to a shed a few steps from the main building. I never left Yuuhi's side and she mostly did the talking in these parts.

(Imperial Ministry of Intelligence Base) (Somewhere near Mt. Fuji)

Ikaruga sat in meditative peace that night gazing at the single candle that lit his cell. It has been a week now since he was transferred to this isolated prison away from sound or any sunlight. The only companies he had for comfort were the rats and insects that infested this place by the droves. He couldn't tell how deep he was in. He was blindfolded the entire time when he was brought here. Judging by the echoes he could hear from the dripping water and the time it takes for his meal to arrive, his jailor must've put him down so deep that may as well be in hell.

In the days that came by, the man was given time to exhaust his time by reading the books that were provided. Ironically all the books were based on religion and redemption in the Christian era. None of them were of any use to a man whose sentence was set in stone.

But the man wasn't bothered by time. In fact… time was the only thing he had left. He could care less if his sentence was suspended. A few decades living in this rotting cell wasn't so bad.

As the madman returned his focus on the candle, he closed his eyes and recalled the last moments of his triumph.

A week ago… he would've been crowned a king, a hero of the Japanese people, and a living legend amongst the world. His dream of an empire strong and free, his ambition of becoming greater than what this world could offer. They were so close he could actually sense the after taste it in his tongue. In but a few short moments he would've accomplished things that were so great, the people would compete to build monuments of him across the nation.

It was a dream he shared with a select few. Though some would view him as mad… it was those select few that made him carry it through. But sadly… that dream he had hope to bring to fruition… was shattered by the tiniest flaw in his plans.

Even now, Ikaruga could picture that boy's face in front of him. That boy, who he met at the pier of Niigata… that tiny miscalculation he did not foresee, caused his entire plan to crumble in but a few short moments. After only seconds, the fragile dream he had for Japan was easily shattered. His ambition and the will of the free people were swallowed up by the voice of a naïve boy who wanted to become the hero.

Simply saying it in his head was enough to make the man laugh.

But of course… such naivety would not be taken lightly in a world of reality and idealism. In this world… there was no room for happy fairytales. It would be stamped out like a weed among the flock. But this particular ideal had more strength in it than men would bargain for.

The boy with naïve ideals bit back the force of reality and claimed his right on the table. It was something that even Ikaruga could not have foreseen no matter how much he tried.

"I'll do what I have to…"

"I'll stand and fight. And I'm going to keep on fighting until everyone gets sick of fighting. I'm going to pound that nonsense out of their heads like I did with you"

"A world without the need of sacrifice. Such a naïve world… yet beautiful… isn't it?" Ikaruga muttered to himself as he saw the last fight play through his head. Simply recalling it through meditation was enough to give him the shivers. The roar, the killing intent, the savage fighting style. You can play it over and over in a simulator room and you still won't get enough of it. It was barbaric… in every form of the word. It was almost as bad as the BETA ripping into your cockpit and preparing to eat your flesh.

But the madman's relapse came to an abrupt end when he noted footsteps echoing in the dark halls. He smelled the stench in the air and knew that it was not the time for his meal. Not unless they wanted to bring this one early for some reason.

But this set of footsteps was heavier… louder. He could tell the materials of those shoes were much more expensive than those that came before.

In but a few moments he saw the face of his new found visitor. A smile curled up from his lips as if he was greeting his attendant rather than a guard.

"Ikaruga dono…"

"Ah… so the infamous Yoroi Sakon finally shows his face. Your presence here must mean that my fate has been decided, doesn't it? (…) Come now. You must be just as surprised as I am to see me alive after the battle of Tokyo. To be honest, I expected the battlefield to be my grave… but my opponent appears to have a merciful hand in his judgment"

Yoroi tipped his hat down with a hint of agreement in his voice. "The boy has a tendency to surprise people that way. Some would call it naivety but you clearly cannot deny the results he can produce"

"I agree" The madman behind bars nodded feeling somewhat relieved. "In a world like this… results are the only things that matter. Like food… you cannot produce first-rate cooking without proper ingredients and a talented chef. Lack one and you lose the benefit of both ends. Looking at the battle back then and his determination, Shirogane is quite the first-class chef. He is indeed a mystery. I have no regret in losing against him"

The spy laughed. "Indeed he is interesting. But aren't you overestimating him too much? (…?) In the end, he crushes everything he sees with his own brute strength. In this world you need more than just muscles to rule over it. His ideals are rather childish too"

"I agree. In a world of realist, such a naivety would be easily crushed like the dirt under our foot. In a war with the BETA… such pathetic ideals are simply not allowed. (…) But that is where our opinions differentiate, Yoroi san. (…?) What if those ideals had the strength to back them up? What if such pathetic and naïve ideals had the power to hold itself on our own ground? Wouldn't that make it interesting? (…) Ahahaha… but enough of this. Though Shirogane would make an interesting topic for us to discuss, I know that you don't have a great deal of time to play 50 questions with me"

Yoroi sighed. The man was good. Tricking someone of his caliber seems inefficient no matter what he tried. Even Yuuko would have some difficulties cracking this man's skull. "Very well. I shall get to the point. 2 years ago, roughly after the time when Yokohama was reclaimed by the United Nations, a secret deal was made between the royal family of Japan and America. Though the use of the G-bombs was highly debated over the table at the time, it did not stop our nation from purchasing it. The reason for us having such powerful weapons was needed to be used in the direst of situations. (…) A total of five of these bombs were paid in advance in good gesture of the Empire. (…) Japan never required the use of such weapons thanks to the miraculous efforts of the ALTERNATIVE IV plan. So the weapons remained dormant until they were used during the 2002 New Year's incident by your faction"

"Yes… guilty as charged. I do not intend to hide it" Ikaruga raised his bottle up as if gesturing a cheer.

"2 of those bombs were used on Shikoku Island killing thousands in the process. Another one was used to power the XG-70 mobile fortress to keep it from malfunctioning. Another was given to the Eurasian Army and was later confiscated by the U.N. (…) That only leaves… one more"

"It's basic mathematics. Addition and subtraction. What of it?"

"That bomb is missing…"