Chapter 68: The Faces of People

(Takeru's POV) (PX) (11:20 AM)

Ow… ow… my arm… is numb.

Damn that Yuuko. She didn't have to go that far just because I called her old. That woman is totally overreacting over the little things. She was practically sucking my life blood up like a vampire. Anymore than that then I would've been dried up for sure. Why does she need so much of my blood anyway? It's not like she's gonna get anything different than before.

Ugh… and now with that fiasco done, my blood sugar levels are down to 0 and now I have to walk all the way back to base and get something to eat. Ughh… she could've at least given me something. Anything! And to think that I had two good meals yesterday to make up for it. Now I wouldn't mind just getting a slice of bread down my mouth. Maybe even a little yakisoba on top would be nice too. Synthetic would be fine…

Sniff…

Haaaaa… damn it. My stomach is now affecting my other senses. I can actually smell yakisoba sauce in the middle of this snowy weather. (Sniff) Heh… it actually smells nice. Right now there's not a thing I wouldn't give for taste of that.

"Deal accepted… (Eh?) Morn…"

"Ah… Ayamine… good morning. (…) Hey… is that thing in your hand…"

"Yakisoba bread" She answered immediately, sticking the said bread in front of my face. "Want some?"

"YES PLEASE!"

Munch!

New record… 0.6 seconds per bite. Yakisoba bread eaten in 4.8 seconds.

"Uwaaaa…! I'm revived!"

"You like it?"

"Yes! Very much so! Your creativity of making yakisoba bread is top notched, Ayamine"

"Good. The contract is signed. The pact is sealed. (…?) You will now go on a date with me?"

"Huh? How'd you come to that conclusion?"

"You were saying it out loud. (Saying what?) That you'd give your virginity to me"

"There's no way in hell I would say that!"

"Tch… he's sharp"

"That has nothing to do with being sharp! You just played my words on a whim!" Damn it… no matter what, Ayamine has to be the strangest most bizarre girl any man has ever met. There's just no telling what's going on in that head of hers. It's like a bag full of feral cats just waiting to gouge out someone's eyes.

"You said it… (Huh?) That there was nothing you wouldn't give… for yakisoba bread" Eh? I was saying that out loud? "Yes you were" Geh! What the? Can she read my mind? "You think with your mouth. You can't hide what you think"

"Ah… oh… right" Damn it. My mouth is totally flying. I really need to learn how to keep my thoughts in my head. At this rate, I'll be spouting things like top secret information out of the blue for everyone to hear.

"I can still hear you. (Geh geh!) Then let me use my 1 wish. (I'm not a genie) You will grant it"

"Hey… are you even listening to me anymore?"

"The deal was irreversible when you ate the bread. (Damn it!) If one bread won't do, there's more" She then pulled out another Yakisoba-Bread from nowhere and shoved it in front of my face. "Give me your hand"

"Yes ma'am!" DAMN IT! Why is my mouth resisting what I'm thinking now!-? (Yoink) "Ah! The bread! (Sit) Wha? (Sit…) H… hey I'm not a dog!"

"If you sit, I'll give you two…"

Sit…

DAMN IT!

"Very good…"

Munch…

As my teeth sunk into that bread, I couldn't help but cry as my pride was struck down with every bite. How pathetic it is for me to cry over such little bread.

"Want another one?" Why do I suddenly get a sense of dejavu here? I feel like a dog being trained by his master and wagging his tail like he's ready for the next order. "Fetch…"

"Stop it! I'm not a dog!"

"Then go on a date with me? (Eh?) That's my wish. (A… date?) No good?"

"Well… sure… if you want. (…!) H… hey what's with that expression. You look petrified"

"A shocking answer. (Huh?) I didn't expect this. Shirogane is bold today"

"Hey, you were the one who was asking me. (…) Are you taking it back?"

"Never ask a talking horse how it talks. I'll take it. (Huh?) Meet me at the gate in 20 minutes"

"Ah! Hey wait!" Damn it… that girl runs just as fast as Mikoto. She didn't even let me finish. And… isn't it supposed to be 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth'? Haaaaa… I don't think I'll ever understand women, no matter how long I've lived with them.

Whirrr…

Hmm? That noise… that's a TSF engine. Oh? A pair of F-15 Eagles. I haven't seen one of those in awhile now. Oh

(Marimo's POV) (Office room)

Hmmm… hmmm…

Thud…

And that's the last one. I knew that the paperwork would be slow after yesterday. After we plowed ourselves through that hell, we only needed to sign up a few more forms to ease up the pace. I once again have the afternoon off. I wonder if I can catch an early lunch today. I've got nothing better to do so I may as well enjoy myself. After tomorrow we'll be back to daily work and the team will probably be returning to their training routine with the captain.

Haaaaaa… a girl can get really lazy with such a long holiday. If only I could spend another day in the southern island then it would be complete. In fact…I wouldn't mind a trip to America either. A warm place is fine enough for me, anything to be rid of this bygone cold.

"Ara… Jinguuji san. Are you finished already?" 1st Lt. Suzumiya called out to me. "You work fast. I'm surprised you got all of that done in just half the time"

"Years of practice tend to rub off on you. After experiencing the hurdle we had in Sadogashima, things like this are child's play. Are you done on your end too?"

"Mostly. I intend to finish the rest after lunch. Will you be joining me? (Of course) You seem to be in a good mood today, Jinguuji san"

"Eh? I am? (Yes) I don't think I've acted any different from before"

"No… it's not that" Suzumiya added to me. "You just look like you're happy all the time. (I am?) It's because you've been smiling nonstop since you arrived here this morning. Did something good happen?"

"Eh… well… not that I can think of"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Out of all the places in this base, there wasn't a place more crowded than the PX. It was the warmest place in the base with the other being the hangers. But the smell of metal and iron were the only thing that kept people out of there. They much prefer the smell of hot food to warm their senses. Even I have to agree that the atmosphere around the PX was far better than the engineering block any time. After placing my order and my meal ticket in I thought about getting a little snack along the way.

Oh… that reminds me. I still haven't had the chance to make lunch for Shirogane yet. Even though I promised to make him a meal, I still haven't gotten around starting yet. So much for that promise.

Hmmm… but I wonder what he likes. Judging from last night he seems to be shy about his order so I couldn't really place anything on it. He seems to like all types of meat but very picky about his vegetables. He barely even touched any of the broccolis they had for the side dish.

Ahuhuhu… just thinking about this makes me feel like his wife living in—

…!

Thud!

"J… Jinguuji san? Are you alright?"

What the hell is wrong with me? Here I was having a regular time of my life and the next thing I know, my mind is blurting things as if it was just a natural expression. I'm pathetic… no… I'm less than that. I'm a pathetic hypocrite with mentality issues. Yeah… that's probably it.

"Jinguuji san? Are you ok? You hit your head pretty hard. Is there something wrong?"

"No~ Just trying to get rid of my old, pathetic self~~ (…?)"

"Ah! Suzumiya san, Jinguuji san!" Hmm? That voice…

"Tamase?" Suzumiya answered to the little girl running towards us. "It is you! When did you get released from the hospital?"

"Just this morning. But the doctor said that I shouldn't do anything too strenuous for at least a week. I got released altogether with Chizuru and Mikoto chan"

"Heh? Yoroi and Sakaki too?" I inquired with a positive nod from the little pink haired girl.

"Yeah, they're coming right now. You wanna join us?" And true to her word, Yoroi and Sakaki quickly arrived in unison with trays in hand.

"Ah! Suzumiya san, Instructor!" The blue haired figure greeted us with her usual carefree smile. "It's been so long. How have you two been? Did anything happen when we were apart?"

"Yoroi. You should address your superior officer properly. And it's not Instructor anymore" Sakaki was the same. Still strict on regulations. But it seems like she lost that bitterness edge in her tone. "It's good to see you again, 1st Lt. Suzumiya, 1st Lt. Jinguuji"

"Ahuhu, you can drop the formalities" I coddled her. "The captain specifically said that we don't need to use them while we're in public. And you can still call me instructor if you still want. Though our ranks may have differed since then, we're still comrades in arms. (Ah… yes ma'am)"

"Uwaa… it feels like we haven't seen each other in 3 years. Everyone looks so much taller than before. I could almost cry. (Ahuhuhu) (Ahehehe) Ah! That's right. Did anyone receive any presents while they were in the hospital? (Gifts?) Yeah, I got a whole bunch of them. I was so surprised when I woke up the other day. I got flowers and chocolate alike"

"Ah yeah!" Tamase sprung up with glee. "I got some chocolate from Papa right before I was discharged. I still have some in my room"

"Heeeh… I also got this cool hat too" Yoroi added pulling out the said hat from her jacket. "It was left along with the flowers. Uuuuu… I feel like one of those adventurers in Indiana Jane! I feel like I wanna go exploring"

"If all of you are here then that means that the whole squad is back together" Suzumiya declared. "I'm sure the others will be glad to see you all. Though it might be some time before we're redeployed again. Considering all your injuries and the fact that our replacement TSFs have not yet arrived, we will have to be stationed here for now. (Ahehe) Well I supposed we can consider this an extended vacation for now. We should enjoy it while it lasts"

"Hai!"

Heh… I guess Suzumiya isn't wrong there. With Yoroi, Sakaki and Tamase here… the team is practically back on its full fighting strength. But it does seem that it will take awhile before they decide to use us anywhere.

The Battle of Tokyo took a lot out of the team both physically and mentally. The damage that was done there could easily crush any normal citizen to a state of depression but I supposed that really wasn't the case for these girls. They're strong… stronger than many of the people I've seen. I guess war really does pull the worse… and best out of humanity.

The TSFs that we brought into battle were also severely damaged beyond repair. Some of which are probably still left stranded somewhere in the ruins of the city. Though it's already been a week since the battle, it will still take some time before all our lives return to some sense of normalcy. But… at the very least… we have this.

(Streets of Kyoto) (Takeru's POV)

Haaaaaa… why does this always happen to me? I was planning to spend this day with some peace and quiet but instead I've been drag by a strange girl through town in this bone chilling weather. Well… to be fair, I was the one who agreed to this date but now I feel like taking it back. Damn it… I'm tired, I'm cold, I'm hungry and I'm low on blood sugar. The only good thing that came out of this deal was the three yakisoba bread that Ayamine made for me an hour ago.

If I knew it would be this cold outside, I never would've agreed to coming. "Hey… Ayamine. (…yo) Can you stop holding my arm like that? It feels weird with you clinging onto me. (No…) Come on. Can't you just walk normally like other people? (It's cold…) But you're wearing a jacket"

"Does it bother you?"

"Well… not really. It's just that… you don't normally cling onto someone without a reason. (Then it's fine) No it's not! Come on. Listen to reason here. What if someone we know sees us like this? They might get the wrong impression"

"We're on a date"

"Yes I know that. But I have the right to my left arm, you know?"

Oh… she's making that pouty face. "It's a decision. I want to hold"

"Haaa… is there anything I can do to let you go?"

"Wanna hold hands instead?"

"Clinging it is…" I surrendered to her monotone voice. There's really no point in trying to reason with her. Any sort of logic is impossible to work against someone who brushes them off like the wind on their face. "So… where are we going anyway? (…) We've been walking for almost an hour now in this general direction. Do we have a destination at all?"

"I dunno…"

"Gah! Then why the hell have we been walking for!-? If you have no destination then it's pointless to even leave the base in the first place!"

"Shirogane, you're too loud"

"I'm only loud because you make me loud!"

"A man should lead. Take the initiative. That is their purpose" This girl is really trying my patience!

"You were the one who wanted to go on this date in the first place! It's not a date if we don't even know what we're supposed to do or where we're even supposed to go! It's called dating principle!"

"Shirogane, you fail as man. (Why!-?) No… you fail as a human"

"I don't want to hear that from you of all people! This date is completely pointless!"

"Hmm… Shirogane… you have no sense of fashion. (Huh?) You have poor taste"

"Again… I don't want to hear that coming from someone like you!" Haaaa… I really need to calm down. Why am I getting worked up over such trivial things? It must be because of my low blood sugar. Yeah… that's definitely it. "And besides… it's not like they provide a wide variety of things to wear. This uniform is the only casual wear I have. I can't help it if I don't have anything else to wear"

"Then let's get you new ones. (Eh?) Yosh… destination set. Let's go…"

"Eh? Ah! Wait! Ayamine!"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

A clothes store. Why am I not surprise? This date is really going from one area to the next. She created a destination right off the bat and entered the nearest store possible. I have a bad relation with stores like these. I remember my mom taking Sumika and me into one of these shops on a weekend. They spent a whole 2 hours playing dress up and looking for the perfect swimsuit only to keep them in reserve before trying another shop entirely to differentiate the price.

After that ordeal was done they spent another 4 hours in a shoe shop trying out all kinds of footwear that doesn't seem to be any different from the other from my perspective. I spent ¼ of a day inside the mall, lost in my own boredom and the worst part of it all I missed all my Saturday anime that showed on TV. It was a painstaking process. That much is clear.

Ruffle…

Bwahh! What the hell? Why am I buried in fabric!-? Is the clothe store taking revenge on me again!-?

"Shirogane, try these on" Eh Ayamine? Did she pick out these? "Dressing room is over there"

"Wait! Why am I trying them on? I don't even want new clothes!"

"You need a new wardrobe"

"I'm perfectly fine with my uniforms, thank you! I don't need you buying me new things as it is"

"Do you… want to see me try them on?"

"Huh? How'd you come to that question?"

"You're bold…" Geh… this woman is just…

"You're twisting the situation again! Can we please not try them and just go and eat somewhere? (No…) Why not?"

"Because I want to see you in more or less than your uniform" Wait… more or… less? What the hell does that even mean!-? "Put them on… Dressing room is there"

"There's no way I'm going to try them on! I refuse!"

We gave out a small staring contest before she gave out a sigh in defeat. "You mistake me, Shirogane. (Eh?) It wasn't a request. (Crackle!)" OH NO! No! I have to get out of—(WHAM!) GWAHHH! NO! Damn it! It's the unbreakable, Ayamine Death-Grip! She hasn't used this move on me since we were cadets! No matter what universe I'm in there was never a time where I was able to break free from these perfected hand-held bonds. They were like the ball and chain tied to my hands. "It is futile to struggle"

Damn it all!

Thud…

Fwoosh…

Ruffle…

How humiliating. She threw me into the changing booth, closed the curtains and dumped the clothes on my head like a pile of laundry.

"Don't worry. I won't let anyone peek"

"Who the hell would want to peek!-?"

Ugh… there's no going around it. She's definitely not going to let me out of here before I try some of these. Haaaa… I might as well just give in. Maybe Class rep was right. I really have no sense of self respect whatsoever. To be pushed around by Ayamine, a subordinate of all people. Maybe I'm just too used of being pushed around. After all… it's not like I can say no to anyone. Heh… it almost reminds me of our date after the cook-off battle back in my world. But of course back then we had a more leisurely time than today.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

After fifteen minutes of trying out one shirt after another, I was finally released from my captivity with Ayamine's approval. This was… perhaps the plainest thing I could find in that stack. Even if I don't have a sense of fashion, I know that I look well enough to walk around.

"Hooo… nice, Shirogane. It can only be an improvement"

"Somehow… that doesn't sound like a compliment coming from you" Well… at least she's satisfied. Now I don't have to spend hours picking my pants or shoes.

"You got money? (Eh?) It's expensive" Hey… don't tell she's… "Joking… it's my treat" Haaaaa… I nearly yelled out again that time. If this girl was going to force me to buy something I didn't want then I was definitely going to put my foot down. Besides… I didn't have any money to begin with. I still don't know how this paycheck system even works. I remember getting paid a few times doing some part time job at a local convenient store but that's pretty much it. I have absolutely no life skills when it comes to this world. Heck, the only knowledge I've gained in this world are loosely based on military and top secret information alone. Hardly worthy of a person whose been living in this world for more than a hundred years.

Maybe I really should focus on gathering more casual information rather than military details. I remember reading a magazine back when I was incarcerated back in the embassy.

"…"

Hmm… I wonder if there's a bookstore somewhere. I could use something else to read than those military tactic books in my room. Even a little light novel can go a long way for someone like me.

"…"

Seriously… I don't normally read but even one of my manga back home would be a nice change of pace ahehehehe…

"…"

Ok… that kid has been looking at me for quite awhile now. He's got those big eyes locked onto me like I'm some kind of clown in the middle of the room. It was a kid about 5-8 of age. He was about the height of my waist, with brown shaggy hair with eyebrows to match. He was wearing a jacket with the same color and blue shorts that went just below his knees. "Uh… hey there. (…) Is… there something on my face?"

"Wah… man on TV" Eh? What did he say? "You're that hero on TV"

Hero? Me? Heh… kids. They really can say the strangest things. "Me? No I'm not a hero"

"Aha… then that means you are a hero! (Eh?) Heroes never say they're heroes, which means you are a hero!" What the heck…? Did this kid just play with my words? "Yay! A real hero!"

Ahehe… this is embarrassing. Even if it is just a kid's imagination, it kinda feels nice to be called a hero. "Alright alright, I'm a hero so keep it down. You don't want everyone to know, do you? (Ah… right… sorry) Are you with your parents today? (Yup!) Ok, so where are they? (I dunno) Eh? You don't know or…"

"I don't know where they are" Oi… how can you possibly lose your parents in a store like… wait… now that I took a good look around, this shop seems bigger than I first imagined. With all the racks of jackets, pants and jeans… I might actually get lost myself.

"Could it be that…you're… lost?"

"Yes I am!" You're joking. How can you even say that with such a cheerful face? This is such a pain. "Hey Mr. Hero. Can you help me find them?"

That was perhaps that most childish request I've heard since my years living in this world. It's not like I can refuse either. Leaving a kid alone in a store like this is just breaking moral ethics. "Alright. Can you tell me what your parents look like? (Hmm?) Do you remember what clothes they wear or the color of their hair?"

"Umm… they wore… something like that" Huh? A store clerk? But why would they…

"Hey, do your parents work here?"

"Yeah! My mom works here. My dad brought me here earlier" Somehow I feel like I want to hit my head on a wall right now. This kid isn't lost; his parents just brought him here to meet up and he must've wandered off. "You're a weird hero…"

No… the only weird one is you kid. But I can't say that out loud. "Don't go calling people weird just because they take their time thinking. The Golden Rule states it as so. (Golden… rule?) Yeah… it's Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. (…?) J… just don't say bad things about people"

"Ahahaha… Mr. Hero talks weird" Damn it. Now I made a mockery of myself. So much for being a hero. "Ahahaha… you're a funny hero"

"Ahehe… I guess I am" I couldn't help but rub the back of my head in embarrassment. This kid may be a little weird with words but he's a true kid at heart. I haven't seen one of them since Susono City. (Tug!) Arghh! Uh… what the? My head… it's throbbing again.

"Hey Mr. Hero… are you ok? You don't look so good" Heh… even a kid can see my face flinching. I really need to hide my expressions more often.

"Yeah… I'm fine. Just a little headache" What in the world…? Why is my headache coming now of all times? I'm not inside a TSF and I'm not even that tired yet. Yuuko sensei said that my headache is caused by extreme stress or something similar to that. But now… it's just coming randomly. Even during Tokyo… this pain in my head just comes at the worst possible moment.

"Yuuta! (Hmm?) There you are. We've been looking all over for you"

"Ah! Mom! Dad!" Eh? Are those… the kid's parents? I guess we didn't need to look for them after all.

"I told not to run off on your own like that. Goodness. Your habit of daydreaming is beginning to worry me"

Aheh… I guess parents really do have their hands full with a kid. It must be tough raising a child as your own. (Flash) Eh? What the? (Flash) This image… who…? Those two girls in the open field. Why do I… know this?

"Impressive…"

"Huh? Oh… Ayamine"

"8 out of 10 kids often cry in front of strangers… even more so when they're lost" Just what kind of chart system does she have in her head? "A well made chart…"

…!

"Ah! Crap! Did I think out loud again?"

"No… that one was obvious. (Eh?) Shirogane… your face speaks more than your mouth ever could. (Really?) You have no poker face at all. (Geh!) You'll be terrible in a game of chance"

"Geh! Oh come on! Isn't that a little too harsh!-?"

"It's called tough love" She added with a mocking wink. "No good deeds go without punish. (…?) But still… I am impressed. (Eh?) You talked with the child without making him cry. (…?) You even made him laugh. That's a rare gift"

"I wouldn't call that a gift. I just have a way with children. They just seem to agree with me more"

"A kid at heart. Ah… no… a kid either way"

"Somehow… I get the feeling that you're saving a punch line for later. (You noticed?) So that really was a buildup!"

"Heh… you'll be a great father. (Eh?) Shirogane… papa. (Pat pat pat)" Wh… what the heck? I don't get it. Is she trying to compliment me or is she just trying to get me to drop my guard when the ball drops? I just don't get her at all. I really really don't.

"Umm… excuse me" Oh… it's the parents. "I'm sorry about that. I hope my son didn't intrude on you"

I waved the mom with a casual smirk. "No it's alright. He didn't do anything wrong"

"Dad, dad look. It's the funny hero from the TV" The kid pointed at me with a toothy grin.

"Yuuta. Don't call people like that. He's… not… ah…?" Hmm? What's wrong with him? The guy's face suddenly grew pale. "Ah… AH! y… you're… Sh… Shirogane… (Eh?) Shirogane… Ta… Takeru?"

"Huh? How do you my name?" Wait… didn't something like this happen before with the florist last night?

"F… forgive us, your Excellency! I apologize for my rudeness. I… I didn't know!" Whoa! Why is he suddenly bowing at me like that? And… what did he call me?

"Shirogane? Shirogane… Takeru?"

"That's the boy?"

"Could it be? He seems to be a lot younger than I thought"

Hey… what's going on? Why did the mood in the shop suddenly turn eerie? And… why is everyone looking at me so strangely? (Whispers) Something isn't right… I suddenly feel like every pair of eyes is suddenly onto me. (Tug!) Ugh… damn it… not again. My head is… pounding again. What the hell is happening? Did I do something… weird? (Tug!) Ugh!

"Shirogane… let's go. (Huh?) The things are paid for. Let's go" And before I can even protest to Ayamine, I was pushed out the door with people making way as if they were avoiding the plague itself.

(U.N. Base Kyoto) (Barrack's Courtyard) (03:10 PM) (Takeru's POV)

Haaa… haaa… haaaaa… running in the middle of a snowy weather was not the best idea. Now I got snowflakes inside my uniform freezing my skin.

"Safe…"

"This isn't the time for your jokes" I was too tired to even yell at her. "What the hell was that? Why were those people…?"

"Who knows? (…?) Maybe they saw an oyster"

"There aren't any oysters here" Is she trying to test my nerve here? I'm really running out of patience. (Flash) That guy… there was just something about what he said. (Tug!) Ugh… and this headache. Why now?

"You ok?"

"Yeah… I'm fine. I just need to… sit down for a minute" It seems like all that running in the middle of a snowy weather didn't really agree with my condition. I'm suddenly beginning to feel dizzy like the whole world is spinning all around. This seems to prove that whenever I'm in a great deal of stress, the headache just seems to come back and haunt me. "But… what was that all about?"

"What was what all about?"

"D… don't you find it weird at all!-? I mean… they were staring at us"

"Do you find it weird to be stared at?"

"Of course! Especially when it's unnatural!"

"I stare at you all day and you never give any attention"

"That's different! This is way… and when did you ever stare at me?"

"Every time… (Eh?) I stare at you even when you're asleep" Wha? Wait… is she serious? That's disturbing! "You look cute when you drool"

"Cut it out! This isn't the time for one of your—(Tug!) Arghh! (Shirogane?)" Ugh… my head. That last one was a strong one. Crap… am I blacking out? (Tug!) Ugh… damn it…

"Shirogane? What's wrong?"

Damn… not here… not… now…

"Shirogane!"

(Yuuko's lab)

Yuuko never once thought she could be taken by surprise. She was a woman who was born with a natural poker face, a person who wouldn't flinch even at the end of the world. She's seen it all before. Weapons of mass destruction, mass graves, even the deaths of some of her closest friends back when the war first began.

Even before she became a member of the United Nations, she understood that human emotions were simply a chaotic tool that drove people to do the most ridiculous things. It was a factor that played an illogical concept in a game of facts and theories.

Emotions are a dangerous tool. It cannot be tamed, negotiated nor reasoned with. They simply flutter around a person's subconscious going back and forth without any order or any kind of system. They do what they want without cause or effect. Like a children without a handler they will simply do what they wish without even a strict sense of knowing when, what, why or how.

To compensate for the lack of such trivial things, Yuuko built her stoic smile as a front to hide her deeper feelings. It has worked well for the past few years and it has never failed her…

Until someone showed up on her doorstep and decided to drop a bombshell of information that was too much for her to process in a few hours.

She'll be honest. Meeting with Shirogane extended her list of interest greatly. The information he provided was fascinating and downright critical to the importance of her precious ALTERNATIVE IV. She has to admit that if it wasn't for him, then things would've turned out a lot differently for the people of this world. Whoever said that one man's action can change the course of history would find this boy to be proof of his claims.

"Vice Commander…" But the mad scientist's train of thoughts was interrupted when her blonde secretary came into the corner of her eye. "I have the event report that you requested. (Oh?) Yes ma'am. It seems you were correct. There appears to be a multinational event coming to play a few days from now. A joint training exercise hosted by the U.N. Armed Forces and the Research and Development Division"

"A training exercise?" Yuuko raised a brow. "At this time? Isn't it a bit too late to have such an informal event?"

"Yes ma'am. This proposal was passed on two days before the events in Shikoku. It was supposed to be held last week but certain events that occurred during that time canceled the event completely. The council and welfare committee agreed to this with the reason to develop better weapons to combat the BETA"

"I see…" Yuuko showed a little sly grin knowing well who was planning this façade. "It seems like my sister is planning something quite grand for Shirogane after all. Do we know what parties will be involved in this exercise?"

"Yes ma'am. The U.N. Special Development Team from the 11th Pacific Army, the 211th Battalion from the Far East Soviet Forces 3rd Army, the Japanese Army Fuji Tactical Training Group, the 44th Tactical Armor Battalion from the E.U. and finally… from the U.S. Army, the 65th Combat Training Battalion. There will also be a number of cadets from various armies to observe and/or participate in the matches should the need arises. (…) The hosting location will be here in Kyoto, the training ground will be at the Awaji Island, Hyogo, and the ruined city of Gose, Nara"

The mad scientist went deep in thought. If it weren't for this little bit of information, she'd probably be surprised by her sister's act. Her eyes carefully scanned the list of armies that were to be participating in this so called 'Training Exercise'. It was almost as plain as the eye could see. To bring forces from around the world in one location was simply a setup for something much grander. She can't tell what it is yet but she knew that if she and her sister had anything in common, then she probably would've done the same thing.

"It seems like we're going to be busy soon" Yuuko nodded, flipping the pages back and forth. "A dangerous game is about to be played and now we have this. It's as if we're signing our own death warrants without even knowing it. (Ma'am?) 1st Lt. Piatif, get a direct line to the Imperial Ministry of Technology and get the jeep ready…"

"Uh… yes ma'am. Right away"

While Elena was off sorting things through her intercom, Yuuko could only stare blankly into the dark clouds above from her window and grin evilly. "A gathering of heroes… hmph… how fitting…"

(Takeru's POV) (Barrack's Courtyard)

Hmmm… uhmmm…

Ugh… what happened?

Did I… pass out? I guess I did. Ugh… that headache must've really hit me hard. I'm still feeling the aftermath in my head. Ah… this is… the courtyard behind the barracks. I guess I must've fallen here. It's a good thing nobody saw me. Otherwise I may have been rushed to the hospital. I don't like that place.

Still… this is the second time I fainted now. The sudden rush of emotions, stress and the combined effort of Ayamine's antics must've all played a part in my condition.

…?

Speaking of Ayamine. Wasn't she with me earlier? Don't tell me she ran off when I fainted. What kind of friend is she?

"The best kind…" Eh? That voice. "Did you sleep well?"

"Ah… Ayamine? Why are you… up there and I'm… down here?" Wait! Am I lying down on her lap? Ah crap! (Whack!) "Ow! What was that for?"

"Stay down. (…?) Never rush up after taking a nap. It's not good for you. Yoroi said it before" Huh? Oh yeah… I remember hearing that in one of her First-Aid lectures. But putting my head down on a girl's lap just seems… too mushy for my taste.

"I see. I guess you're right about that. (…) How long… was I out?"

"Six hours… (Eh?) It's now 09:15 PM. You were asleep for a very long time" Six hours? I was out for a whole six hours? That's too much even for me. "You feelin better?"

"Y… yeah… thanks. (…) Hey… Ayamine. Did you… stay with me this whole time? (…) You could've brought me to the infirmary"

"You didn't look like you want to. (Eh?) That was the feeling I got… from you"

Feeling? What kind of radar is she using in that head of hers? Is it like a sixth sense or something? "Then… you could've called for help"

"No. (Eh?) I wanted you… all to myself. Even if it is… just for one evening. (…?) Even if you were not aware… it was worth it"

Ayamine… you… (Flash) Heh… silly girl. She's as possessive as ever. Always a strange selfish brat with a sweet heart no matter what universe she comes from. Even back then in my world… she was like this. But even though she's selfish… there's just something beneath that layer that makes her special. Hehehehe…

Ah… but I guess this is nice too. With everything that's been happening, my body must've finally given out. Falling unconscious must've been a way for my body to say that I've been overworking.

I guess I should learn to take it easy from here on out.

"Can you stand?" Ayamine lifted my head up gently brushing my hair as I go.

"Yeah… I'm fine now. Thanks… Ayamine"

"…don't mention it…" She replied giving me a smirk in return. "So… you sick?"

"Huh? Oh… no… it's nothing like that. It's… well…" I can't tell her about my unique abilities. Yuuko specifically said not to tell anyone about my powers. Well… it's not like they'll believe me anyway. I mean… who would believe someone to possess supernatural talents that make them invincible? "… it's complicated…"

I hope she can take that as an answer. I mean… I don't really know of any other way to say it.

"I see…" Oh? She accepted it? "Should I tell anyone?"

"I'd prefer if you keep this quiet. I don't want the team worried about me over and over"

"Hmmm…" Oh she laughed? "Alright… I'll keep it a secret. (Thanks…) But one day. (…eh?) You'll tell me… one day… ok? (Ayamine…?) Maybe not now… maybe not tomorrow… but definitely one day… right? (Y… yeah…)" All I could do was answer honestly. "Then I'm happy. (…?) Here…"

"Huh? This is… more yakisoba… bread?"

"Payment for the date. I made enough for everyone. I was saving it… as a surprise… for the party"

"Party? Oh yeah… I remember the Captain saying that we'll be having a party to celebrate. You plan to give this to everyone? (Nod) Well… I won't stop you. If they're just as good as this one then I'm sure the others will be happy you made it for them. (Yeah…) Thanks again and… sorry if I made you miss dinner"

"No prob. I got to spend time with Takeru. (Eh?) Will you… be ok?"

"Huh? Ah… yeah don't worry. It doesn't last this long. I should be good from here on"

"That's good. (…?) Shirogane… you really are… special. (Eh?) See you…"

…!

"Y… yeah… see you" W… what the hell? Why do I feel so lighthearted? I feel… like I got butterflies in my stomach and my why does my face feels so… hot? I think my heart even skipped a few beats too.

Ayamine… that girl is just too strange… even for me. Even after years of living with her… I can't seem to get the basic principle of understanding of her thoughts. Everything I try just seems to bounce off of her like a trampoline. It's like talking to a wall. But I suppose… in this case, I might actually get a more decent conversation talking to brick wall than out of her. I think that was the first thing I thought about her when we first met.

Ugh… but this isn't the time for that. I need to see Yuuko sensei quickly and talk to her about this headache. That serum she gave me barely worked too. Hopefully she'll be able to sort this out.

(Hanger area)

Brrrrr… damn it. Did the temperature drop again? How much longer do we have to put up with this weather? I know that it's the winter season and everything but still… this is too much. It's been ages since I last saw the sun. I could really use a summer day to brighten up this sour mood of mine.

The base was being buried under a ton of snow as it is. Even with the street sweepers cleaning it up every hour they can't seem to keep up with the weather at all. The only place they can only manage was the airstrip next to the base. I guess they have to set their priorities straight.

Ah… there's the lab.

Click…

Eh? That's odd. The door is locked. (Click click…) Maybe if I knock… (Knock!) Yeow! That's cold! The wall is frozen solid! The temperature must be below freezing point if it gave me frostbites in just a few seconds. Phew… I need to put my mittens back on.

The weather seems to be picking up. The wind blowing through my face is so cold I might just freeze to death for real this time. These weathers can be brutal especially in the middle of winter where the temperature can go below -5 Celsius. Its times like these I wish I could have a kotatsu in my room to keep me warm 24/7. Heck… I'll even buy a futon just to sleep under there for the rest of the night.

It doesn't look like Yuuko's inside. Maybe she went on some urgent meeting. In any case… it doesn't seem like I'll be able to get inside any time soon. The door is pretty much frozen to its hinges and I can bet that there are plenty of security details added around this place. Yuuko wouldn't leave her research unattended without someone to look after it. I'll just have to come around tomorrow. Right now I should probably go back to my room and get some rest. That's probably one way to nurse a splitting headache.

Whirrrr…

Hmm? What's that? Are those… TSFs? Why are those guys sorting in the middle of the night? That's quite a lot for one group. Are they training or something?

"Alright! Move the last of them in!" Hmm? That voice… isn't that the captain? "Bring the Gekishins in first followed by the training units. I don't want them tangled inside like last time"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Yup… I was right. It's Captain Isumi for sure. I'd recognize her voice. She seems to be coordinating the mechanics in the hanger. That's a lot of TSF for one group. I'm counting at least… 10… maybe even 20 if my eyes don't deceive me. They're just Fubukis and Gekishins. I've seen plenty of them before but not in this quantity. The only time I've seen so many units in one place was during the 12/5 incident and that was a long time ago.

Hmm… that reminds me. I wonder if my Shiranui is somewhere around here. I remember Yuuko saying that our TSFs are stationed here. If I recall… my Shiranui was still busted when I left it at Saitama. I wonder what happened to it.

"Good. Once they're stored, commence a check up on all units. Don't leave a single part unchecked. (Roger!)" Wow… even though we're supposed to be off duty, she's still working around the clock. I guess the higher you are in the military the more responsibility you have. "Hmm? Eh? Shirogane?" Ah… crap she saw me. "What are you doing here?"

"Ahehehe. Hi there ma'am" I waved my hand jokingly back at her. "Sorry… I didn't mean to interrupt"

"That hardly matters now. (Ahehe) What are you doing—no… how were you able to get in? This area should be off limits. Didn't the guards try to stop you?"

"Guards? I didn't see any. At least not through the rear entrance"

"Tch… and this is supposed to be one of the most secure bases in the U.N. They can't even lock the back door properly" Uh… maybe I shouldn't be here. "Well… I guess there's no point in punishing you for it. I'm going to have a word with the man in charge of the security detail later" Phew… I dodged that bullet there. Sorry 'other-guy' it looks like you're taking this one for me. "In any case, why are you even here? If you wanted a place to stroll around, the track field should be more than sufficient"

"No… I was just going to meet with Yuuko sensei in her place but it looks like she isn't here"

"Eh? Yuuko sen—ah you mean Professor Kouzuki. That explains it. Her lab is here after all. Sorry you had to waste your time but you missed her awhile ago. (…?) She left her office about an hour ago with Lt. Piatif. I'm not sure when they'll be back" Well, I guess that rules out the possibility of them being trapped inside the lab.

"I see… it can't be helped. But what are all these, Captain? (Hmm?) There seems to be a lot of TSFs coming in and out of the base lately. I even saw a couple of F-15s flying above head this morning"

"Ah these… I guess it's safe to tell you seeing that you'll be briefed about it in a few days. (…?) These are cadets from the U.N. 6th Pacific Army stationed in Kyushu. (Cadets?) That's right. They're recruits that just finished their Comprehensive Combat Skill evaluations. They'll be observing and/or participating in the upcoming Training Exercise being held here in Kyoto. (Training Exercise?) Well… that's one way of calling it. To be honest it's pretty much just another program to advance weapon designs for multiple companies that are funding the TSF projects around the world. In the addition of it being an advance training course, mechanics and scientists can also get battle data from various TSFs and compare them along the way. This is pretty much the fastest and proper way of gathering battle data with any risks"

I see… I supposed that explains why there were so many TSFs flying around this morning. They're preparing for a training exercise.

"Who else will be participating in this?" I asked.

"Other than the Japanese Imperial Army and the U.N, the Soviet Union is expected to participate in this match. (Heeh…) I also hear than the U.S. and a few companies from the E.U. are coming too"

"Hooo!-? That's huge. This is almost like the Olympics. (Olympics?)" Ah crap… I forgot they don't have sports events here. "It's kind of like nations around the world competing in basketball or soccer. And the winner takes the trophy home"

"Oh… well I guess that is similar in this event. It is a tournament in its own way. Squads of different factions are expected to fight one another to ease tension amongst the nations. You could say that this is the most humane way of settling scores. If that were the case then I wouldn't be surprised if Hayase asked you for a rematch here. (Geh!) But I wouldn't worry about it. I think it's best if we sit this one out and let the others work it amongst themselves"

"Heh… I can agree with that ma'am"

"The Valkyries will probably just be observing if not coaching the matches"

"Captain…" A mechanic interrupted us. "Sorry to interrupt but we're just about finished here"

"Ah… alright then. The cadets should've already been briefed to where they'll be staying for the night. Wrap up everything here and we'll call it a night. You can do all the maintenance work tomorrow morning when it's not as cold"

"Understood ma'am" The mechanic nodded in reply before turning to his crew. "Alright let's wrap it up! Close the hanger doors and lock the entrances. Seal the berthing grounds"

"Well that just about finishes my work here. Let's go, Shirogane. (Yes ma'am)"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

When we got back outside, Captain Isumi quickly pulled in her jacket and stretched her arms and legs out as if she was finishing a long day's work. "Ahhh… we're finally done~ Now I can finally unwind. A few glasses of beer and the night will be perfect" The captain's pretty loose once she gets the work weights off her shoulders. Despite her age she doesn't act any differently from the rest of the squad. Even a person of her caliber likes to chill after working hours. Heh… she kind of reminds me of a school kid who likes to party after a hard day at school. If I were her, I'd probably say the same thing.

"You seem pretty upbeat, Captain"

"What else did you expect? A stiff old lady, being serious about everything?" She replied with a childish tone. "I try to separate my regular self from my professional personality. If I start mixing those two together then it'll be difficult to sort myself out in different situations. (Heh…) Why? Do I really look that different when I was inside?"

"Well… yeah. You almost look like a completely different person. You're like a child again, ma'am"

"Oi… Shirogane… if you say that to another girl, they'd hit you. (…?) Just what do you take me for? I'm not that old. I may be the second eldest in the family but that doesn't make me any less of a youth than you. If you call me old one more time, I'll send you to the detention center just for insubordination"

"Ahehehe… sorry ma'am. I'll try to be more considerate next time"

Grumble…

Isumi raised a brow at me when my stomach made that noise. "Shirogane… was that…? (Ahe…) Could it be that… you haven't had dinner yet?"

"Well… no…" It's because I was forced to go on a date with Ayamine this afternoon. By the time we got back I blacked out. The only thing I have now is the yakisoba bread that she gave me. "I was… mostly busy with something else"

"I guess luck isn't on your side today. The PX is probably closed by now" She returned with a mocking tone. "But if you're still hungry then I can probably help you there. (Eh?) Come on. I can't have one of my best Eishis starve to death because he's too lazy to get his own food"

(PX)

Even though she said that… why the heck did we come to the PX anyway? Like she said earlier, this place is closed for the night. The stalls were locked up and the kitchen was empty. Unless she plans to cook herself, I don't think we'll be getting much out of this place.

"Oh… good. It looks like no one's here" The Captain said to no one in particular. She's… ruffling through the cupboards. "Ahaha… I was right. They really do have leftovers after all"

"Captain? What are you doing?"

"Leftovers. (Eh? Leftovers?) Every night, the chefs here usually have excess supply and they store them up for tomorrow. Normally they'd put them in the freezer but they tend to run out of space so they put them in storage units like these. Here"

Eh? One of the plastic bags—ahh! "Yeow that's cold!"

"Ah sorry about that. I forget that they also make sure to store it in cold temperatures to keep them fresh. You usually have to heat them first but the kitchen is locked up for the night so don't expect anything fancy"

"Eh…? Have you… done this before, Captain?"

"Well… it wouldn't be my first time stealing food from the PX" She added with a slight chuckle. "Don't tell anyone. But back when I was a cadet, I'd usually come by and pinch from the PX's supply room late at night. (Huh?) I'm usually hungry after I finish my independent training so I come by whenever there are leftovers"

Heeh? So the Captain did something like that when she was a kid? I'm surprised. I usually thought that she's the type of girls who can do no wrong but now I'm seeing her in a new light.

By the time we finished scavenging the cupboards we happily took a table and feasted upon the unnaturally large gourmet set up for us. To be honest I felt kind of guilty of taking food from the PX but the captain doesn't seem to mind at all.

"Itidakimasu!" Isumi called out with her chopsticks in hand. I know that I haven't really gotten to know the Captain very long but seeing her act like a blissful child is kind of… new. I never imagined that there is a hidden persona underneath all that tough exterior. "What's wrong Shirogane? Aren't you going to eat?"

"Ah… yeah… well…"

"Is it too cold? I already told you that it isn't going to be something fancy. But something for the night can make a big difference in the long run"

"No it's not that. It's just that… I've never seen you like this before? (Hmm?) It's like… I'm seeing you in a whole new light. You act so different then when you were at the hanger"

"I see… well I supposed that's true. I already told you that I keep my personal self and professional self separated. (Really?) You have a long way before you can understand us girls, Shirogane. (Eh?) Girls are… complex creatures. You need to spend years with them to actually begin to understand the surface of their nature. (Uh…) What you see now is probably what I'm not afraid to show you but deep down there's a side of me that I tend to keep to myself"

"Heh… I think Misae san said the same thing once"

"Then you're one step closer to understanding women. (Ahehehe) Ahuhuhu. Now eat up"

"What's the rush? It's not like the food can get any colder, ma'am"

She gave me a small hearty laugh in return. "That's true. But like my sister once said: Never leave the food hanging no matter what. (Your sister?) The eldest one in my family. She's an excellent cook and doesn't like it when we keep the food waiting. Though she might be an airhead at times she can be really motherly with the three of us. I supposed being the eldest has it rough"

The eldest sister… (Flash) Wait… could it be… that girl I saw back then…?

"Hey… Captain. (Hmm?) Could that person you're referring to. Could it be… Yayoi san by any chance?"

Her eyes widened in response. "You know her?"

"Well… I actually met her? (…?) Before Tokyo. We met in Saitama"

"Saitama? When was th—wait… was this the time you and Jinguuji were taken in?"

I nodded back in return. "Yeah… she was working with another member of the Ministry of Intelligence. We were picked up together before we were…"

"Hold on…" The Captain then abruptly put her hand up to stop me. "Are any of the information you're about to say related to your mission in Tokyo?"

"Well… yes…"

"Then I don't want to hear it. (…?) Though I am a bit curious, I can't divulge myself with information that doesn't concern me. The official word of your task is that you were sent on a top secret mission. If I learn anything more than that then I might become a liability of information leak" Oh… she's right. The things that Yoroi and Yayoi san showed me back in Saitama were pretty highly classified information. They probably went through a lot of length and a small dose of desperation to tell me what they did.

"Y… you're probably right, Captain" I admitted.

"So… you met Yayoi already. I never imagined that she would be part of the operation you were doing. How is she? (Eh?) I might not be able to ask what you two were involved in but I can ask how she's doing, can't I?"

"Ah… well… she's fine. As far as I remember. (Is that so…) Sorry I can't tell you more. We didn't really have time to sit and talk"

"No… that's alright. I actually got to meet with her awhile back. (…) But… it's good to know that she's alright. After what happened in Tokyo, I lost track of a lot of my old friends around the countryside. It'll be a welcome change. (Ahehehe) Oh… by the way, Akira sends her thanks"

"Akira? (Flash) Oh… your younger sister?" I remember her. We only met briefly during the Sadogashima Campaign. I actually almost forgot about her.

"She's been asking to see you since Sadogashima. I think she may have even taken a fancy of you. (Eh!-?) Ahuhuhu, just kidding. There's no way my sister would go for someone like you. (Hey!) I suppose the only person you need to meet is Marika. (…?) She's the second youngest in the family but she has talent. If we get the chance, maybe you should meet her"

"I'd love to. Though… I think that'll be difficult in the situation we're in right now"

"True… our involvement in missions keeps us from making personal contact. But… we'll keep that little thing in mind. (Alright…) Ah… hey… since… we're on the topic right now…"

"Hmm? What's the matter ma'am?" That's odd. Her tone suddenly changed. Now she seems more… timid than usual.

"I never really got to thank you properly for saving my life back in Sadogashima. (…?) With everything that's been going on, I think now may be the only time I get to say my peace with you. (Captain?) D…don't misunderstand me. Though I'm grateful that you went through all that length to save me, you still went out of your way to disobeying orders. You were fortunate that the Vice Commander levitated your punishment to simply boring tasks"

"Well they do say that no good deed goes unpunished"

"The Vice Commander said that you were reckless beyond measure… but I supposed that's one of the few traits that you have that are actually commendable" Ouch… now that just hurts. "Many of your actions nearly cost you your life. You're lucky you just lost a few TSFs along the way. (Ahehehe) The Head Mechanic back in Yokohama will probably give you an earful by the time we get back. (Geh!) You only have yourself to blame. If you can only handle your TSF better then you wouldn't have come back a complete mess. I can't even begin to realism of how many TSFs you've wrecked even before you became a commissioned officer. I used to think that Hayase was the only reckless person in my Squad but it turns out you broke every record she had by a large margin. (Guuuu) Really now…"

"Ahehehe… well… I don't suppose there's any way for me to look good in that scenario, is there?"

"None…" Gwahh! I felt like she just stabbed a nail of tough love in my chest. "You're reckless, (Stab!) foolhardy, (Slash!) and always acting before thinking. (Hadoken!) But… despite all that, I supposed it's safe to say that… you… are a good person. (Eh?) You might not be the perfect soldier that everyone dreams of… but I'm well aware that you are loyal and a good friend to those you cherish. Though it's rather childish, I still think that you have a good heart. (Captain?) So all in all… I supposed your good quality balances your bad quality altogether"

Thud!

"So in the end, this long speech of yours had absolutely no point from the start?"

"Maybe…" I'm starting to think the Captain is becoming more and more childish the longer I stay here. It's like she turning back time in a more literal way. "Well, now that we're done, let's eat!" Don't go ending the subject so abruptly! That's just as bad as Mikoto! "Don't be so glum. It's only natural to have a conversation while we're eating, neh?"

"Geez… Captain. Your method of teasing is almost as bad as Misae san"

"Well I wouldn't call it equal but I can understand a little bit why she likes to tease you so much. (Eh?) It's that face you make whenever your thoughts are being derailed. (My face?) It's like a lost puppy that's trying to chase its own tail without even knowing it. It's almost adorable. (EHH!-?) Now, let me try this. Open wide"

"I'm not a kid! Don't go spoon feeding me! (Ahuhuhu) C… captain!"

"Alright alright. That's the last one, I promise. (Geez…) Ahuhu… sorry about that. I guess I couldn't resist. It's fun to unwind after a long week's work. We really should do this more often" What am I supposed to be? An object of her releasing pent up stress or something?

Haaa… maybe the captain's right.

Women really are complex…