Chapter 69: Sweet Life

(January 13, 2002 Sunday) (U.N. Kyoto Base) (PX) (07:10 AM) (Takeru's POV)

Haaaaa… at last… a normal warm breakfast. It feels like forever since I actually had a regular meal without something occurring in between. Waking up extra early for a good shot at freshly made food is always to die for. A small sense of home was back at my hands.

Still… after finally eating real food for the first time in weeks I kinda feel depressed to be reduced back to synthetic food. The meal that I got from Yuuhi and the treat from Marimo chan sure cured my bad stomach but it also left an increased appetite that much I can tell. Nowadays my body has been craving for more and more. I'm already at my second serving and yet I'm still not full.

Well… like they say, a good body has high metabolism. So I'd better eat up and stick to my regular diet. Maybe I'll also pay that old man a visit. He might just give me a free pack of takoyaki if I ask nicely. Maybe if I bring Misae san, it might increase my chances of getting a free meal. But wouldn't that be abusing a friend's connection?

No! When it comes to my stomach there is no secondary purpose! All I do is to satisfy my hunger!

Yosh! After breakfast, I'll go and kidnap Misae san and get her to get me takoyaki! It's a brilliant plan!

"Ara? 1st Lt. Shirogane?" Eh? Oh… it's Haruka. "Haaa… it is you. It has been awhile since we met"

"Ah… yeah. I guess it has"

"Do you mind if I join you? The cafeteria is quite empty this time of day especially on a Sunday when most of our regulars take leave from duty"

"Not at all. Go right ahead" She gladly took her seat opposite of myself with her usual carefree smile. "You're up pretty early Haruka san. I thought I was the only one who got up this early today"

"I usually wake up at five o'clock in the morning before reporting for duty" Eh? 5 o'clock? That's even before sunrise. "Please don't make such a face. It is common for staff officers to wake up early"

"But… at 5 in the morning? I don't think I can make that kind of time. I mean… I'm probably still asleep"

"It's not difficult. I trained myself to wake up at that specific time already. I usually take about an hour on running in the track field and another half an hour to get change. I have my breakfast at around 7 and commence work at 7:45"

"Ahaha… I guess you must finish earlier than the others"

"Not at all. I have lunch break at 12:30 and return to work exactly 1:10 PM in the afternoon. Work time exits around 6 and then I usually have dinner with the team at 7. I don't usually have any other menial duties so I review my work file for tomorrow from 8 to 10. I enter sleep mode at exactly 10:15"

H… holy crap! What the hell is she, a machine? That routine is just plain brutal! With only a few hours of break in between I'll probably die of boredom before the BETA get to me! Even after years of being a soldier in the same time loop my habits still remain the same! She's more diligent than I am and probably more soldier-like than I'll ever become! Guuuu… just listening to her routine of work with little play makes me feel like a half-ass-good-for-nothing-lazy-bum. It's so real that I feel like I wanna cry.

"Oh by the way, how's Akane? I heard that she's been hanging out with Hayase for awhile now"

Haruka gave me a cute chuckle in return. "Yes that is true. They both have been spending much of their free time doing training in the gym ever since they both have been released from the hospital. It was only fortunate that they both came out of that battle with only a few bruises and scratches. Though I do wish they would take their time to relax a bit, I supposed it is in their nature to train harder"

"Well both of them are fanatics when it comes to training. Maybe they have more in common than I thought" I added before taking bite off my synthetic mackerel fish.

"Akane chan idolizes Mitsuki san since we met. Even back when we were at school she was a better swimmer"

"Eh? Hayase was a swimmer?"

She replied with a nod. "Correct. We were all in the same school one time. I was in the same class as Mitsuki san before we were all conscripted into the army. Akane chan was two years below us. They were perhaps the most competitive people I know" Heh… I guess that's a usual thing to say about swimmers. They can be competitive especially when it also came to piloting a TSF. "Despite their differences they became close friends and competed in the same swim team. Mitsukin was only faster by a small margin" Wow… so Akane can actually match Hayase in something after all. I'm amazed. I think my opinion of her just heightened…not that there was much of it to begin with.

She hated me the moment I got into Hayase's team of Storm Vanguard and I think that won't change any time soon.

"Shirogane san? What's the matter?"

"Huh? Oh it's nothing" Ugh… me and my daydreaming routine. "It's just that after hearing what you said… I'm actually seeing Akane in a new light. To be honest I don't really know much about her since we met. We only seem to meet on training and missions. And… I don't think she has a high opinion of me either"

"That's not true. Akane chan talks about you more often than you'd think. (Eh?) I observe most of her independent training especially in the training simulator room back in Yokohama Base. Do you know that the trainers back there have created a Special Course designed from your control log, Shirogane san? (…?) It was built to incorporate all of your unique movements allowing other pilots to mimic them in a friendly manner" Eh? A new training course in the simulator? Why haven't I heard of this? Well… it's not that I have enough time to visit the simulator room anymore. Right now it's all about mock battles and realistic fights.

"How come I've never heard of it?"

"It was not something spoken amongst the men. They called it an 'unofficial training session' to challenge people like Akane chan to try and do unique movements like yours. So, Mitsuki chan holds the record of completing it" Wow… I'm actually surprised to the amount of things going on without my knowledge. I just hope those guys back at the base aren't exaggerating it. The last thing I want is more attention to me.

As much as I want people to notice me, I think I've had enough attention for one day. It's hard enough just trying to avoid Hayase every day to keep her from issuing a rematch. People have been going on and on about our little fight back at Yokohama Base but seriously, I don't want to fight her. She's scary. Downright scary to the bones. I'd much prefer to be fighting with a horde of BETA any day if it means avoiding her. Then again…

"Shirogane san… you're day dreaming again"

"Huh? Ah… sorry about that. What were you saying again?"

"Ahuhuhu… it seems that Jinguuji san's profile on you was spot on. You are easily lost in your own thoughts and you speak your mind regardless of how hard you try to keep it in your head"

"Geh! Sh… she told you about that, didn't she…?"

"Ah! Speaking of which…" Haruka clasped her hands together when a thought popped up in her head. "Jinguuji san asked me to look into your paycheck delay. (My paycheck?) Yes. Apparently the money was frozen due to your time in detention a few days ago. It will take some time to get it moving again so in the mean time, please take this as consolation" She quickly produced a thick heavy envelope from her side pocket and handed it to me.

"Th… this is…?" I've been in the business world a few times myself. Money has always been an issue in every major deal. Stocks, product, supply and demand. These were the common words that flew out of people's mouths and surprisingly enough I can understand all of that.

But never… in my entire life have I seen a stack of money so large that it barely fits the palm of my hand. There was enough money in that envelope to last me 2… maybe 3 years of my allowance. My eyes were bulging and the cold sweat in me dried up. There was at least 4… maybe even 50,000 worth in large bills.

"Is something wrong?"

"Ah… n… no! It's just that… isn't this a bit too much? (…?) I mean… I'm grateful for this but this looks a bit too much even for a regular soldier"

"What do you mean? That is a standard minimum salary amount for an Eishi of the U.N. Armed Forces. There are some soldiers who still receive almost twice as much as this. (Eh! Twice as much!-?) Yes. Staff and higher ranking officers like ourselves are privileged to receive much more than this. But seeing that this is still your first military tour, you won't be seeing any significant increase in your income" Th… this is really new to me. I've only been in the army for a month now and yet I feel like this money is the weight of the world to me. To think that a stack of papers like this would weight almost as much as a gold bullion. I never held so much money in my entire life.

Even back in my world when I was with Meiya. Tsukuyomi never lets me handle money because she didn't trust me in handling it which is kind of true since I usually spend most of my allowance in games. If only she could see me now.

"Still… this is… a lot of money"

"Have you not held such amount before?"

"Well… to be honest… my dad never lets me hold more than a couple of thousand yens. He can be stingy when it came to money just like my mom"

"Ahuhuhu… your parents sound like very discipline people. Perhaps there was something that happened that made them distrust you with such things" GEH! Haruka! What are you? Psychic? How could she possibly know about that? Well… it's not far from the truth. One time my mom asked me to buy some vegetables from the store a few blocks from the house. But then I suddenly caught interest with a manga book that was on sale in the bookstore. I got so caught up that I bought it and I couldn't afford the things that she asked me to buy. To make it all worse… I thought I could trick her by buying a bunch of candies instead. I had to go without dinner for a whole night. "Ara… judging from your expression, I seem to be correct"

"Guuu… Haruka san!"

(Shogun's residence) (Audience room)

It was a tense morning for the Grand Shogun of Japan. At first she was not expecting any kind of visitor during her stay in her residence until her wounds had completely healed. She expected her hideout to be safe from all eyes, from all attentions. But such was not the case for the unexpected intruder who came knocking on the estate's front door. Now she was here in the audience room, granting privilege to someone she was not expecting for some time.

The Grand Chamberlain urged her to continue resting and turn the guest away but she insisted on meeting with that person, personally.

"My apologies for the delay… I was not expecting any visitors so early at this hour. Especially not from someone so important"

"Please, I don't like it when other people praise me with such an honest face" The female visitor who was being threatened with a gun at her back replied in her own pace. "Though I would rather not have weapons pointed at me. We cannot hope to start any kind of negotiation if I am kept at gunpoint"

The Shogun quickly signaled her three Guards away, dismissing them from the room with but a gesture of her hand. "Forgive them. They were merely performing their duties. We do not receive so many visitors here. But I am surprised. I was not expecting to meet you until later this afternoon, Professor Kouzuki. Has something occurred for your reschedule?"

"Not at all. I merely wished to discuss the terms of our support before making the official meeting" The mad scientist then laid out the designs that were handed to her the other day. "Shirogane showed me the plans for your new project. I must say there are very little flaws for me to change. Some of which aren't really even critical. (…) As you expected, the U.N. Council plans to support your project every step of the way. They're prepared to provide tools, resources and manpower to their extent in exchange for the Food Processing Plant Blueprints"

Yuuhi gave out a pleasant heave. "I see…" A small weight on her shoulder had been lifted, easing her stress. "I am eternally grateful. I was unsure whether the U.N. would take part in this endeavor. I assume that our deal is concluded?"

"Yes. We have supply trucks already en route from Mie, Aichi and Gifu towards Fukui. We also have more shipments coming from America later tomorrow. With them, it should be relatively easy for us to build any structure"

"My gratitude. It must not have been easy to persuade the council after what the Royal Family has to done to our own people. The people of Japan already owe you a great deal of debt for erasing the BETA from our lands"

"I merely delivered the killing blow" Yuuko reasoned. "It was the soldiers that handled all the hard work. (I see…) But… to be honest… there is also another reason why I came to visit in person. I simply wanted to get that annoying hurdle out of the way. (Oh?) If I may… I would like to discuss something in private. It is a rather… sensitive subject"

Yuuhi raised a curious brow to the mad scientist and quickly understood what she meant with those words. "I understand. Oba san… would you mind brewing some tea for the guest and myself?" The Grand Chamberlain answered with a deep bow and politely made her way towards the door leaving the two politically powerful figures to discuss amongst them.

"I am grateful that you understand, Your Highness"

"So then. What is it you wish to discuss with me so privately?"

"It involves, Shirogane. (…) As you and thousands of other people around the world may be well aware of, the boy isn't normal. No matter what kind of story the U.N. Council tries to weave through the media, you cannot hide something that grand once it's out there. (…) Even a kid can tell that no normal human can pull stunts like that. He's special… and in more ways than one. (…) He's naïve to the point of idiocy yet he can still deliver surprising results once he puts his heart into it"

"Indeed…" Yuuhi agreed. "His ideals can be brash and childish… but with his own strength, he still believes that he can make that world come true. (Hmph…) I do not wish to impede his path. In truth, I do wish to support it"

"Please… don't do that" Yuuko stopped her immediately. "I'd rather not spend hours deciphering cryptic messages and riddles. I have enough of that with one person in particular. (…?) If you truly wished to support his ideals… you wouldn't have gone through all that trouble to bring him here in the first place. (…) It didn't click to me at first but after I looked through the plans… they're becoming clear as snow. By making him deliver such important documents hand in hand, it won't take long for the wrong people to notice him. After what he did these last few weeks… it might actually begins to make more sense with the training exercise coming up"

"…" Yuuhi was quiet but her face made no sense of flinching. The room was like a match with two impenetrable poker faces staring back at one another.

"You're playing a very dangerous game alone with this project of yours and now you're putting him in the crossfire. Heh… I wonder how it feels like to be used in such a way"

"If you figured out that much… then I do not mind if you tell him"

Yuuko broke a smirk off her lips. "You won't mind if his opinion of you changes? And here I thought you two were sharing a moment together"

Yuuhi lowered her head a bit feeling a sense of shame rising up her heart. She knew what she had done and if Shirogane ever found out the true reason why he was brought here then their relationship would surely sour. "I see. You are as clever as they you are, Professor Kouzuki. I supposed it's no longer necessary for me to hide my intentions. (…) Yes… it was my original intentions in luring Takeru here to my side. To allow my plan to succeed… I required… someone with impeccable strength"

"Someone with impeccable strength…" Yuuko muttered silently to herself allowing the Shogun to continue.

"I make no excuses for my actions. I shall take full responsibility for what I have done"

"Even if it means you may never see him again? (…) You underestimate him, Your Highness"

"Will you… tell him?"

"No…" Yuuko's answer came as a small surprise to her. "If I were in your position… I think I would've done the same thing too. But I don't like it when someone uses something that belongs to me. (…?) I'll allow Shirogane to be your bait… but I want something in return. It sounds fair, don't you think?"

The Shogun paused for a moment looking at the woman in front of her. She had to admit that she wasn't expecting something from the world's VIP. But then again… the rumors about her eccentric attitude have been accurate in these last few minutes. Looking around and making sure that no one was around to hear them, she replied. "Very well… what is it that you want?"

(Takeru's POV) (Streets of Kyoto)

Brrrr… this is ridiculous. Is this blizzard ever going to stop? It's been snowing for three days straight and the snow alone is piling over me nonstop. Of all the time for the heater back in our place to break down, it just had to be today. Without the heater in the barracks, the only place soldiers could get warm is at the PX or the longue rooms. But there doesn't seem to be enough space for everyone. So either we all had to crump inside one room or to voluntarily heat our bodies up. In other words—exercise.

The latter idea of course was absolutely horrible. At this temperature, my sweat would probably freeze from this god awful weather before they even reach the floor and that's only if I can sweat at all.

I'd better take cover in that convenient store. At least there I'll be protected by this hail of snow until the afternoon. Hopefully it'll die down by then.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ding dong!

Oh! That tune! I haven't heard that in a long while. The convenient store automatic door alarm. Heh… as a high school kid, you can practically get used to that noise every time you enter a store. Who knew that something so trivial can remind me so much of home?

Still… this shop pretty much screams normal. I can see so much of my old world through this small shop. I don't supposed living off of microwavable food and instant ramen had anything to do with it. But… then again… isn't everyone like that? There are racks of food and snacks lined up neatly at the center of the store, drinks of all nature stashed in see-through refrigerators, and cupboard of magazines and other books stashed by the windshield.

Haaaa… just being in this atmosphere brings me back to my life as a kid again. Oh! And while I'm at it, I may as well spend my hard earned money for some food. I might even be able to buy some of that old man's takoyaki again.

Ruffle…

OOOOHHHHH! They have manga too!-? This is awesome! It's been so long since I've seen a book that I can actually relate to! I didn't think they'd have something like this in this world. I remember Class rep talking about moving comics one time but they're pretty much called anime where I came from. This is soooo sweet. I think I should buy some for Sumika too. She's not really into stuff like this but it'll definitely brighten up that room of hers. I'm sure that it'll lighten her mood too.

Ahh… I can't wait to get back to Yokohama.

Sure… it's not as pretty as Kyoto or Niigata for that matter… but to me… it's like a second home. I guess with Sumika there… it does make it feel like home.

Thud!

"Ow…!" Huh? Did someone just hit me? "F… forgive me. I was careless. Are you injured?"

"Eh? Meiya?"

"Ah? Take… Takeru? (Meiya?) This is a surprise. I never expected you to be here. Are you here to purchase some provisions as well? (Provisions?) Was I wrong? It's common practice for soldiers to bring along large amounts of contents from places they are stationed in"

"Is that so? (It is…) Well I supposed that makes sense. It's not every day we actually get stationed in a populated center like this. We won't know when we'll actually get to visit Kyoto again"

"Precisely" Meiya confirmed it with a nod. "Tamase introduced me to this store this morning. (Tama?) Apparently an acquaintance of hers works here. She has agreed to provide me with a discount for today only"

"Heh! That's great! Can I get one too?"

"I'm afraid not. This privilege is entitled to myself only. You may ask her but I would not want you to abuse her friendship for your own profit"

"Hey come on now. What kind of person do you think I am? (…) Alright alright, I won't do it" It feels like she can read me like a half-open book. Besides, how good can a discount be in a small store like this? "So what did you come to buy here?"

"The usual amenities. Though I plan to get more later on if time allows it. If you desire, I can assist you in your purchase"

"Well… to be honest I actually came here to hide from the cold. (…?) I was freezing outside so I thought I'd come in here to get warm"

"I see… so you were only here for the warmth? Why did you not remain in the base? Our rooms should have their own heaters"

"The heating thing outside turned into a Popsicle so everyone's piled up in the PX or the longue. I don't think you should go back until they fix it"

"I see…" She let out a disappointing sigh. "It would seem like the weather will not be improving any time soon. Nonetheless, all we can do is endure. Come, I would like to return as soon as possible"

Umm… how do I say this?

Everything that's happening around me—it all feels so… nostalgic. The simple act of going to a cash register with goods in hand and hearing the pleasant words of 'Thank you, please come again' just makes me feel like I was just at home. This is probably one of the most done practices of the average high-school student. I should know… because I used to be one.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It was awhile before we finally got out of the store. The weather hasn't improved either… damn it. Why didn't I just stay in the PX like the rest of the team? It would've been a lot warmer that's for sure. Heck I wouldn't even mind the crowd, as long as I don't have to freeze.

"Takeru, here… (Hmm?) Instant coffee. I got it from the store. It's not much but at least it will give you something to warm up with"

"Ah… thanks" I accepted the plastic cup and slowly sipped through it. The warmth I needed was not there but at least there was something in my stomach to keep it from freezing over.

"Aren't you overreacting?" Meiya added to me with a puzzling look. "Surely we have been through harsher climate than this"

"That's because we were wearing our exosuits at the time. We can adjust our suit temperature to meet the needs for the weather. They're much more efficient than these jackets they give us"

"You keep whining about the weather. The cold shouldn't be an issue for someone like yourself"

"Well from where I came from, it was never as cold as this. (…!) What's wrong?"

"No… it's just that I keep forgetting that you were raised overseas before arriving here" Geh… I totally forgot about that. My supposed back story that Yuuko sensei made for me wasn't really holding. I keep forgetting that I'm really not from this world either. "You are indeed strange. But anyway, we should head back to the base. If you do not wish to freeze then you should stay in the PX instead"

"Yeah… I plan to do that. But it's still cold"

"Ahuhuhu… whine all you want, it will not make you warmer"

"Hey, that's mean"

"I am merely stating the truth. Perhaps one of these days, I will have to call you the whiner in the group. (Geh!) If I take it to 1st Lt. Muanakata, she'll be thrilled for sure. (Don't you dare!) Ahuhuhu, it was a joke. Do not take my words seriously" How the hell am I supposed to do that when your face screams 'seriousness'!-? "Ahuhuhu… I'm beginning to understand why people like to tease you so. The expressions you make when your thoughts get derailed are enjoyable. Perhaps I should consider following in her footsteps"

"No! Please god no!" I pleaded. With Misae constantly pestering my thoughts and Yuuko pulling my leg on a daily basis, having the rest of the team follow in that pattern will be the death of me.

"Relax… like I said, it was only a joke. We should return. I do not wish to stay outside if the weather will continue to worsen" I agree. If it gets any colder, I might have to stay in my room with the blankets over me for the rest of the day. Maybe this is the reason why some animals like to hibernate in the winter. They'll just sleep off the days and eat during the spring and summer.

"Haaaa… what I wouldn't give to be a bear for a day. (…) Hey Mei—eh?" Where'd she go? "Meiya? Hey, where did you…" Oh… there she is. She seems to have been taken in by that toy shop next door. "Oi Meiya?"

"…"

What is she staring at so intently? A claw crane game? Heh… what are the chances? It seems like she wants that purple teddy bear at the corner of the box.

"You want it? (…?) What's the matter? You've never seen a crane claw game before?"

"Ah… no… well… I was just" She gave a defeated sigh when she knew that she couldn't come up with a good enough excuse. "No… I have not. This is perhaps the first time I've seen something like this. To be honest… this is perhaps one of the few times I've actually been in a toy store"

"EH!-? You've never been inside a toy store? (…) Geez… that must've been rough"

"D… do not patronize me. Is it wrong for someone to focus solely on their training rather than menial things? I cannot help it if I am inadequate in such things"

"Ahehehe, sorry. I didn't mean it like that. Here… let me show you how it works. (Ah no, you don't need to…) Just relax. I'm a master at this. You just put a coin in and…"

Ding dong…

"Ah! It moved!" Of course it moves. That's the whole point of the game. If it didn't then this game would've been a complete rip off for everyone.

"You use the lever here to move the crane to where you want it and then push the button to snap one in. (Beep) And… (Oh! Incredible!) There we go…"

Clink…

"Ah! You got one!" Meiya practically had her face to the box. She looks so adorable that she kind of reminds me of Sumika when we first played this game. Sumika was so close to the box that she had her face printed on the screen door. "Takeru! Focus! Otherwise you'll drop it!"

Hey… come on now. Everything that happens from here on will be the crane's fault, not me. Besides… I heard from somewhere that these machines can be rigged but I never let get to me.

Clunk…

Ratadada! I acquired a green dragon stuffed toy!

"Amazing! You actually got one?"

"Hey, that sounded like you were expecting me to lose"

Meiya flinched back with a small blush. "O…of course not. I was merely surprised how you were able to acquire a prize so easily"

"Yeah, sure. Here, you want it? (Eh?) I don't really need a stuffed toy. You can have it"

"I refuse. (Eh?) A prize not won fairly is a prize not earned. I shall earn my own prize by tackling this challenge" Hey… is she serious? The whole point of getting this dragon was for her. I didn't even want this little creature.

"H… hey wait a sec—" But before I could even voice my protest, she already inserted a coin and began playing. She hasn't changed a bit. She's the same girl I met all those years ago. A bit of a dunce when it came to normal everyday things but she always did it in her own unique and strange way. Somehow I think those two words really aren't all that different.

Clink…

Clank…

Beep…

"Ah!" Oh… it looks like the one she tried to get slipped off by a hairpin. (Click) She inserted another coin. "Hmph… I appear to have miscalculated that one" Ahehehe… this might be enjoying to watch. "AH! That's impossible! I had that one! (Click) You are cunning, small one. But you shall not escape my next attempt!" Hey… she's not planning to stay here forever, is she? "Arghh! That cannot be! (Click!)"

(About an hour or so later)

I can't really tell how long we've stayed in that toy store. It feels like an hour… or maybe even longer. But I can tell how much Meiya lost today. After using up all the loose changed she had, she couldn't even get a single one of the stuffed toys in the claw crane. I thought that she would give up and call it quits for the day but that only seem to strengthen her resolve in getting the prizes inside.

Instead of turning away from the game, she went to the cash register and exchanged for coins. We ended up staying in that store longer than I had hope and despite all her valiant attempts, all that money she invested in the game was futile.

It took me about an hour of reasoning just to get her to stop.

"Hey, Meiya chan. Don't be like that now" I pleaded only to get a verbal spat at my face.

"Do not speak to me in that manner! And do not call me by that ridiculous name!" Eya… she's really mad.

"Come on. It's not like I did it on purpose. The crane had a life of its own" The reason why she's mad isn't because she didn't get a prize. It's because of what I did after I stopped her.

After I got Meiya to stop playing that obviously rigged game, she gave me her last coin to take a free shot. And only to add an unintentional insult to her injury, the crane was able to nab not just one, not two, but three of those dolls in unison. Now I have four stuffed toys with me that I never wanted in the first place! They all just came down on my lap without my consent.

"How can I possibly believe you when you easily won those with barely any effort? This is a flaw that I must remedy on my own. As if you are not enough of a skillful soldier, you are also an expert on such cheap mechanics. Your talents truly have no bounds, Takeru" I don't know about her, but that didn't sound like a compliment at all. I mean… wasn't it just pure luck that I got all three in one?

"Hey if it really troubles you that much, you can have one. I don't really want them in the first place"

"No… I cannot accept something that I have not earned. It is unprofessional"

"What kind of logic is that? Is it really wrong to give something just for the sake of giving? You know, like Christmas Presents. (Christmas?) Eh? You don't know Christmas? The time for joy and time for cheer?"

"Is that… a western event?" Ah crud… I totally forgot that we never had any kind of Christmas celebration last year. I was thinking about our Christmas Eve. The last night we all spent together right before the base CO came knocking on our doorstep. (Flash) I remember the whole cadet school went all out on it and decorated the entire base. It almost looked like a festival of some sort.

"Ah… I guess you guys don't really celebrate Christmas here"

"No… I'm afraid we do not" She answered honestly. "I've heard of this Christmas… but I'm afraid I know not of its origins or anything that's related to it. The only thing I do know that it involves a tree" That's a pretty vague thing to say but I can understand that she's talking about a Christmas tree. But… I supposed to be fair, I'm not exactly an expert on it either. I know that it involves, Santa Clause, gifts and something about Catholic religion. "I supposed it's no surprise for you to know something seeing that you lived overseas before. I envy you"

"I don't really think that has anything to do with it"

"No… I believe it does. Unlike myself, you appear to have been raised somewhere with a lot of cultural heritage. Where a person is born and raised can shape character in my levels, much like a stone is shaped by its sculptor. I was born here in this land and was raised among people who many consider nobles. I know only the traditions of this country and nothing else. Everything I know about the foreign nations comes from books and words of others. I am not surprised if your knowledge of the outside world is far greater than most"

"Hey… first you were angry, now you're praising me? Which one are you trying to pull?"

"I am not trying to pull anything. It simply irritates me that the gap between our skills is lengthily getting further away from my grasp. Simply trying to keep up to your abilities is a difficult challenge on its own. Had I know that you would be such a great warrior, I would have pushed myself even further in my training"

I don't think any amount of training she does will ever be enough. Unlike her… I've been piloting a TSF far longer than anyone. All the years of culmination, training, studies and lessons drilled in by one of the most brutal instructor all made me to what I am today. Heck… I don't think I would even be here if Hayase didn't pile drive all those instructions in my head with her attitude.

"Well, I guess you could I'm above your average soldier. I'm not really that special if you look back at it" I laughed it off.

"I cannot tell whether those words come from your arrogance or your modesty. You returned victorious against many battle hardened warriors and even when the odds were greatly against you. Calling yourself simply 'Above average' is a vile understatement" Well… she's probably right there. I only kept my abilities toned down during our training as cadets back in Yokohama Base because I didn't want to feel alienated by everyone. But now after what I pulled off… I think it's safe to say that there's no need to hide it anymore. My skills are just… inhumane. Even Marimo said that it was already beyond human possibilities when I first took a step in the simulator.

Hmm… now that I think about it… my body also seems to have been greatly enhanced with every new loop that I go through. I guess that's also something that I need to think about. Even I have to admit that becoming faster and stronger every time I loop back is a strange behavior in this cosmos.

"Takeru, you're drifting off again"

"Ah… sorry. I guess I was just thinking about something. But in either case, you're probably right. Now that I look back at it, I'm beginning to see that my abilities are a bit supernatural myself. There's really nothing I can say that can change that but… even so… will you at least take this?" I offered her the blue dragon which I got in par with the other two. "Take it as an apology for taking so much of your time. I wasn't trying to prove anything with that crane claw machine. I just thought that… you might want it"

She paused for a moment, darting her eyes from the stuffed toy to me. It feels like she trying to decide whether to take or simply walk away. But I know her too well. After a few seconds, she reached out for the toy with a hesitant gesture. I guess she finally calmed down from that little outburst.

"Nay… you have nothing to apologies for. To be honest… I was not hoping to receive one myself. (Hmm?) I was actually planning to give it... to someone…"

"Give it to who?"

"Eh? Ah… no one! It is nothing for you to concern about. You have my gratitude. Though may I ask, what will you do with the others?"

"Heh? Oh these? I still got three of them" Why the heck did they all have to be cute stuffed dragons? "I guess I could give them to the others. Tama would probably like the pink one and I guess I could give the orange one to Suzumiya. As for the green…"

"Perhaps you should keep one for yourself. (Huh?) It seems logical. If you are simply willing to give up all that you've earned, then the game would not benefit you"

"Yeah… but little cute dragons don't really suit someone like me. If someone saw me with something like this, they'd call me whack. (Whack?) Ah… I mean… crazy or soft"

"I see. I supposed you image is important to you. Very well, I will not press on it any further. What you do with it shall be your business. (Thanks) Think nothing of it. Oh… by the way, did you receive notice of our new assignment?"

"Our new assignment? No… not that I've heard of"

"It's no surprise. You have not been with us for the past few days. 1st Lt. Jinguuji explained that there will be a mission briefing tomorrow, Monday morning at 1100. We are to report to the barrack's meeting room at exactly that time for a new mission we've been tasked with" A new mission? Ah… it must be that Training Exercise that the Captain was telling me about the other day. I supposed I shouldn't tell her until tomorrow. "Takeru… you're doing it again…"

"Ah sorry. I was just thinking that this is probably our last holiday. With all this free time, it kind of opens up a whole new world of idleness"

"After knowing you for so long, that appears to be a subject you seem most familiar with. (Hey!) I am merely speaking out of experience. The way you ignore our instructor during her lectures and the fact that you hardly put much effort in Close Quarter Combat training reveals a lot of your personality"

"B… but I still did above average, didn't I?"

"Hiding your true strength does give you an advantage over your opponent but not exercising it may have dire consequences later" Somehow… I get the feeling that she's feeling that her irritation is related to the fact I kept beating her in all those exercise.

(Oita Province, Kyushu) (U.N. 6th Pacific Army New Headquarters, Tsukumi Base) (Outskirts)

Snow fell over the old ruins of Kyushu that night. It covered the old city of Tsukumi widely like a white blanket covering from top to bottom leaving very little areas to see any other color than the sky itself.

A few weeks back, you would find this place deserted, desolated and devoured from the war of humanity and the BETA. Much of the buildings that stood here were long gone and anything of value would've been picked clean by scavengers and smugglers alike that plan to make a small fortune with the loot that they find around places like this. Empty houses, stores and monuments that stood the test of time were all that were left as clues that people actually once lived here. All traces and evidences of habitants… were plucked clean through the years of salvage.

But of course… that was weeks ago.

Now… after years of separation and isolation from the native inhabitants, the city found new life once more.

But instead of the human life that once wandered the proud streets of this city, its new residents were made of steel and metal. Giant soldiers standing as tall as buildings stood guard over the ruins like modern version of an unburied terracotta army. Tanks and trucks steamrolled through the city, searching every nook and cranny for any intruder, and a vast majority of planes and helicopters passed over the airspace, ignoring the masses below.

But among those ruins of rubble and broken buildings, a single man stood out, well hidden from the naked eyes. Yoroi Sakon observed the army with almost praising interest as to how they worked well with one another like a well oiled machine.

Click…

He snapped his camera at the new military base in the distance, taking note of the many facilities that have been built there. Usually on a normal day he would've liked nothing better but to wander the insides of a foreign military compound, gathering intelligence like a regular officer of the Ministry of Intelligence would do. But to his surprise, the place was locked up tighter than Yokohama Base in kind.

He had a feeling that Yuuko had something to do with the major change in security. With the electrical fence keeping all manner of intruders out and patrols followed with attack dogs. It would take at least a month's worth of planning, MP bribes, and a boatload of dog feeds just to get into the courtyard.

But of course… nothing was impossible for a man of his caliber.

But right before he could start mapping his way into the facility, his attention was caught up by his phone which rang silently in the snow.

"Yayoi chan… it's a pleasure to hear you again" The man answered the call with his trademark tone. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Sorry to disturb you, Chief. I just got the results of the dignitaries that you wanted the other day" The super spy paused in his investigation and quickly hid back in the shelter as a chopper passed over.

"Ah… is that so? Very good. Anyone worth noticing?"

"They're mostly diplomats from America and the E.U. And a few representatives from the multinational companies and the U.N. Undersecretary himself. These are all that are worth noticing with the Training Exercise that's about to be announced" Yayoi shuffled through the pictures, matching the names with their faces.

"Excellent. But I have a change of mind. Focus on the Americans. (Eh?) Give me a detailed background on each one of them"

"W… wait a minute Chief. There are over a hundred of officials coming from American alone. You can't expect us to keep tabs on all of them. We don't have the manpower or the resources to launch a full investigation either. Is there any way we can lessen the number by a small margin?"

"I don't need all of them" Yoroi answered. "Just those that are worth of any importance"

"These are highly respected individuals, sir. They're all worth noticing. Unless you can shorten the list of suspects, we'll be stretched thin. You'll have to be more specific. And… you haven't told me what you're up to either. There's only so much I can do without your guidance and the other agents are getting restless without you here"

"People are so easily panicked when things are lost. They should know better than to run around like headless chickens. (Sir!) I'm kidding" But just as the man was laughing at his secretary his words were silent when he noted abnormally large figures standing by the hillside. "Oh… now this is trouble. (Chief?) It seems like Japan will become a battlefield once more. With the nation as it is, it will be impossible to stop all of them at once.

"Chief. You're not making a lot of sense. Where are you? Just what are you trying to pull?"

"No time. Have a list of all the delegates on my table by the time I arrive. Cut down the list as much as possible. And get me in contact with Professor Kouzuki. (Ehhhh!-?) It's urgent. I will explain everything once I reach the base"

(Takeru's POV) (Track field)

Ugh… damn it. This is getting ridiculous. If it gets any colder than this everyone will be breathing ice out of their mouths before spring. There wasn't even a single space left in the PX. People must be out of their minds just trying to keep themselves warm. I bet more than half of the base's personnel are all in there, squeezing together to keep themselves warm. The only thing I can get out of that place was some coffee.

If I happen to drop dead here, the snow would be my grave. Heh… that almost sounds like one of those death poems I read back some old novels back in my school library.

Fwush!

Pwheh! Yeow that's cold! I got snow in my mouth. Who the hell kicked snow all over?

"Ah, sorry about that. I didn't see you th—oh… it's only you" Eh? Hold on. Don't I know that irritating tone? "What are you doing out here? Got kicked out from the PX?" Akane… I'd know that voice anywhere. There's only one person in this world I know that would use that mocking tone at me.

"Hey… you're supposed to apologize when you kick snow at someone. Not berate them out of a whim.

"Well it's not my fault that you're standing in my way. This is a track field so stand aside if you're not going to run" Haaaa… it seems like no matter what I say, I'll never be able to change her view of me. Ever since I joined up with the team in my last loop she never changes her attitude towards me. It's only with Hayase when she becomes a cheerleader. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to finish my daily exercise"

"Eh? Wait… why are you running in this weather?"

"Just because we're on a break doesn't mean I can slack off in my training. No matter what the weather is. Rain or shine, sunny or snow, I force myself to go beyond my limit to improve myself. 1st Lt. Hayase is the same. Even when she had a dislocated arm, she continued to train herself in the gym without stop"

"You really do admire Hayase, don't you?"

"Is there something wrong with having someone to look up to? (…?) Just because you're part of the Storm Vanguard Team, and because you can pull some amazing stunts, that doesn't mean you're the best among us. Don't forget that the battle you two had ended in a draw" Wow… her admiration for Hayase really shows in her words. Though I get the feeling that me being Hayase's partner, isn't the only issue she's annoyed with.

"But didn't Hayase admit defeat in the end?"

"Only because she considers a draw a lost either way. Besides, she was obviously taking it easy on you because you guys were a newbie. If she was fighting you with her full strength, she'd beat you with barely any effort" Wow… now she's starting to sound like her number 1 fan. I've never seen someone so dedicated and praising someone with a straight face. "Believe me… I've seen her fight. And you haven't seen Hayase san when she's in her full fighting mode"

Full fighting mode? Well… I've seen her fight before so I guess that's just how she is.

"You have to understand Shirogane. Hayase has had a condition even before she was enlisted into the army. She has a difficult time holding back her strength"

Hmm… I remember the captain saying that she has a difficult time holding back. I guess it comes with her character. I've known Hayase for awhile myself but only through military life and nothing more. I'm pretty sure Misae told me that women are a lot more complex than they give out to be but I still can't wrap my head into seeing Hayase any differently. Even if she was a kind hearted lady, I still wouldn't want to fight her.

"Hey… Akane. (What?) You've known Hayase for a long time, right?"

"A few months longer than you. Why?" She counter-questioned as she began a routine of stretching in front of me.

"Well I was wondering. Have you noticed anything weird from her? (Huh?) Anything out of place or character. Something that doesn't suit Hayase"

"What are you blabbering about? Are you trying to find some kind of weakness to exploit her or something? That's cheap, even for you"

"Hey, come on now. It's not like that. It's just that… I just realize that I don't really know everyone very well"

Whoosh!

She threw out a couple of punches forming a shadowboxing stance. "I've never met her personally until I graduated from cadet school. So I don't know much about her. But even if I did. (Whoosh!) What makes you think I'd tell you anything?"

"Eh? But didn't your sister and Hayase studied in the same class together? (…!) Whoa! Hey! Watch where you're kicking"

"How did you know about that!-? (Hey!) Don't tell me… (…) Have you been poking your nose in their private files or something? You scum!"

"Whoa! Easy! I'd never do something like that" But wait… how did I know those two studied together? Or the fact that they were in the same class?

"Listen to me. Don't poke your nose in someone else's private life. What happened between Hayase and onee-san is none of your business"

"What happened between them? So you do know Hayase before you came here. (…!) I guess I was right"

"Tch… listen. Captain Isumi strictly said that you shouldn't poke around other people's business unless it's necessary. So keep out of it!"

"Hey, you were the one who let out that little piece of information. (Geh!) I wasn't trying to look into any dirty secret or anything. I was just curious about something. (Something?) Well… I guess you could say I'm little curious about Hayase so I wondered if you knew anything at all. I didn't mean to upset you. (…) So can you forgive me?"

Uuuuu… she's staring at me. I don't like that look.

"One match… (Eh?) Spar with me for one round without holding anything back. If you can beat me then I'll tell you anything you want to know about Mitsuki. Deal?"

"H… hey wait a minute. You seriously want to spar in this weather? We'll freeze!"

"Then you'd better defeat me quickly if you want any answers out of me. (Huh?) En garde!"

"Hey wait a sec—(WHAM!)" Whoa! That kick looked deadly. If I didn't block, that would've left me defenseless. "Hold on! Are you serious!-?"

"What's the matter? If you can beat a whole army, then someone like me shouldn't be a problem! Come on! (Whack!)" Yeow! Just how much strength does she have in that small body of hers? It's like trying to stop a tiny tank. "Is that all you got!-? Where's that strength I saw back in Tokyo!-? You were tougher than this!"

WHAM!

WHACK!

POW!

"Oi! Hey! Stop it! Akane! You're being too aggressive! (Whapack!) Ow! Th… that's dangerous!" What the hell is this? She looks like she wants to kill me.

"I'm not done yet! Haaaa!" She threw a flurry of punches at me which I quickly parried. "Stop blocking and start hitting back!"

"Are you crazy? You just got out of the hospital! If you keep that up, you'll just end up hurting yourself!"

"Don't joke around! Even if I am injured! That doesn't mean I can't fight! I can adapt to any situation!" She repeated her routine of kicks and punches like I was a living sandbag. Despite what she said, I can tell that her body was slowing down after each blow. I can see that her movements were getting more erratic and forced. She must be hurting inside. "Don't look down on me!"

"Cut it out!" I grabbed her arms to stop her from flinging out wildly but she simply shook me off with her tiny frame. I never imagined I'd actually have to fight her like this. "Akane! That's enough. Stand down!"

"Don't underestimate me just because you're one rank higher!"

WHACK!

…!

I recoiled backward after she landed a clean kick right onto my left cheek. It wasn't strong but it was enough to bring me to a dazed state.

"I got you now!"

Damn it! I've got no choice!

WHAM!

"Gahh!"

Just as she delivered her trademark kick, I quickly smashed it away and countered with a force palm on the chest.

Thud…

Haaa… haaaa… haaaaaa. Damn it… I think I sprained myself on that last hit. I can't move properly with all these jackets to keep myself warm. But at the very least I stopped Akane from hurting herself. If she went any further, she might pull a muscle or something. I'll have another reason to thank Tsukuyomi back in the other world. If she didn't teach me this technique, I'd be in deep trouble.

"Are you ok?" I asked to the girl on the soft snowy surface. "Have you calmed down yet? (…) Hey… come on. I didn't even hit you that hard"

"Y… your hand. (Hmm?) Can you get it off my chest?"

"Huh? AH! Sorry. It wasn't intentional. I was just… trying to stop you. (…) Are you… alright?"

"Yeah. My old wounds didn't open. I'll be fine. (That's good) You really are… super strong after all. (…?) It only took you one move to put me to the ground. I guess… there's really no hope for me to catch up to you, isn't there?"

"Well… to be honest, it was mostly just luck on my part. Besides, you're injured. You couldn't use your full strength in your condition. (…) Don't look so down. You're making me look like a bully here"

"S… sorry…" Eh? What did she say? I didn't hear her. "Ah… your face"

"Hmm? Oh… crud I'm bleeding" I guess that kick had more than just a punch in it.

"I…I'll go get a first-aid kit"

"No, don't. (…?) It's alright. It's nothing serious. I'll just rub some snow on it and it'll heal"

"Don't kid around! Even a small wound can cause an infection. I'm not going to feel responsible for wounding you"

"And I'm telling you to stop overreacting to every little thing. (Ah…) Haaaa… look… if you don't feel like talking, I understand. You never really liked me to begin with so I'm alright with that. (…) I won't bother you anymore. Just get some rest before you open up your old wounds again"

"W… wait! Just wait a moment, will you? I wasn't trying to… (Flash)" Huh? Wh… what was that? "H… hey, are you alright?" Ugh… my head. Why am I feeling this now of all times? "Oi, Shirogane! What's wrong with you?"

My head is spinning again. (Flash) Images… (Flash) Too many… images. (Flash) A face… a name… why do I know?

"Hey! Shirogane. Don't joke around! This isn't funny!"

"Narumi… Narumi Takayuki… (…!) That guy… (Flash)" That name… why does it sound so… familiar?

"Narumi? How do you know about him!-? (…) Oi! Say something! What do you know about Narumi?"

"Can you give me a minute? I'm not… feeling that well. (…!) Who is… Narumi?"

"Ara ara… the Alpha Dog strikes again~ I'm impressed"

"Eh? Oh… Misae san" Where did she come from?

"You weren't satisfied with Kashiwagi. Now you're going after pure young innocent Akane. Your hormones and your morality truly have no bounds, Shirogane. (Eh?) Had I known you would be such a fisher, I would've offered myself to you from the start. (HEHH!-?)"

"M… Munataka sempai! H… how long have you been watching us!-?" Akane barked out with a flushed face.

"For awhile now. Though I must admit, I wasn't expecting a fight. Ah… Akane chan… you almost look like a little lion with her fangs cut. I was actually hoping this little incident to go… further" Further? What is she talking about? "Ah… this really is most unexpected. I never imagined that our most spirited member would fall prey to this man's charms. You're becoming even worse than me, Shirogane"

Worse? Wait… is she talking about…?

"What do you mean by falling prey!-?" Akane returned with a strained yet squeaky voice. "Like I'd fall for any tricks this guy can come up with! He got lucky with that last shot! (Ahuhuhuhu) Uuuuu…! Shirogane, say something!

"How am I involved in this?"

"You're the main reason why she's taking it the wrong way! (Ahahahaha!) Guuuuu! I'm holding you in charge of this! Take responsibility!"

"Oh… now this is juicy"

"1st Lt. Munakata, please stop doing that! (Whistle~) Gah! I won't forget this, Shirogane! Next time, I'll definitely beat you! So you'd better watch out!"

"Eh? Wh… wait a second!" Damn it… she's gone. For a girl who loves to swim, she sure knows how to run.

"Don't chase after her" Eh? Misae? "Give her some time to sort herself out. (…)" Did she come out here just to stop Akane from fighting? "I'm surprised. I never thought Akane would go and openly strike you like that"

"Oh… you saw that?"

"I saw everything. She really did a number on you, sandbagging like that"

I laughed it off. "Aha… well I wasn't expecting her to have that much strength. Besides… I didn't want to hurt her either"

"Heh… you should rethink that strategy of yours. Women aren't as fragile as you might think. (…?) But in either case, you continue to impress me. Come on. Let's get you to the infirmary bef—hm? (What is it?) Your cut… it's gone"

My cut? Ah crap! Did it heal already? "It must've healed. It wasn't really that deep to begin with"

"If you say so. But if you're still cold, then drink this. It'll warm you right up"

"Oh… ah… thanks" I awkwardly thanked her.

"And if you need someone to cure your urges, just come by my room. (No thanks) Ara… I got turned down by a man, so cruel"

"I'll thank you for the drink though… (…) Pweehh! Bwahh!" What the hell is this!-? It's so sour my tongue is actually feeling the after burn. My mouth feels like it's been placed inside an acidic room put with prunes and vinegar.

"What's the matter? Don't you drink sake?"

"Sake!-? You call this sake!-? Sake aren't supposed to be sour they're sweet! And who the hell drinks sake at two o'clock in the afternoon!-? Bweeeh!"

"Ah… it must be the fortified orange juice that I added to the mix. Either way, it got you heated up, didn't it?" My whole body feels like it just wants to puke everything it just drank in any way possible! Oh… now my stomach aches. "Hai hai… here, have some water"

"Wahhh… much better. For a moment there I thought I lost my taste buds for good"

"Don't overreact over a simple drink. (Yes ma'am) And if you really are that cold, why don't you just go to the PX?"

"The place is packed full to the brim" I answered. "They're still trying to fix the heater back in the barracks"

"That's not good. At this rate we might have to sleep in the cold. The captain might even have to implement emergency procedures to warm ourselves up. (Emergency procedures?) Sharing a bed of course. The warmth of a human can never be substitute"

"Sharing a b—!" Ah crud. The images of Mikoto and I during the Comprehensive Combat Skill Evaluation are coming back again.

"Ara… it seems you like you've already had that experience. As expected of the Alpha Dog. (Geh!) Who was it that you had the luxury of sharing bodies with? Was it Mitsurugi? Or Ayamine? No… Sakaki appears to be more your type. Masochists tend to attract one another. (Maso—?) A double punishment game. It might be fun…"

"Misae san, please don't go deeper than that. If you do, I don't think you'll ever come back. (Ahuhuhuhu)"

(A few hours later) (Barracks)

Haaaa… today has been exhausting. I barely did anything and already I feel like I shaved off a year off my life span. I haven't seen Yuuko or Kasumi all day. Maybe I'll go and visit them tomorrow. (…) Ugh… it's already dinner time. The PX is probably still packed at this time. It'll be a miracle just to try and get something to eat. I'll have better luck tomorrow during breakfast.

Grumble…

Ah… my stomach is on strike again. Come on. I'm sure we can go through one night without dinner. It's not like it'll kill me or anything.

"Wow… that was a pretty loud one" Eh? Who? Kashiwagi? "Yo, long time no see"

"Oh… hey there Haruko. Did you come here for something?"

"I was preparing myself in my room. But I never imagined I'd see you here. The PX must be really crowded"

"Yeah. The place is packed even when they're not serving anything. With the heater broken, they have to settle in that place"

She gave me her usual chuckle. "Well bees flock to where the honey is sweetest. (…?) It's an old saying. But in any case, you came at a good time. I was actually going to find you myself. (Me?) Yeah. Here…" She procured from her room a small boxed object. "Debt payment in full… with some interest"

"Eh? Is this…?"

"Tada! Kashiwagi special, homemade bento!" Oooooh! It looks great! (Sniff) It smells great too. "I haven't cooked for awhile now so I'm still a little out of practice. Since neither of us will be having dinner, wanna break bread with me?"

I couldn't say yes fast enough…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

She invited me into her room where we quickly used her work desk as our table. It was almost a complete identical room to my own with the exception of some photos around the cabinet.

Wow… the bento looks even more delicious up close. Just staring at it already makes me wanna drool. The roasted chicken, the fried hamburgers, mashed potato salad! Oooooh! Fried rice with egg strips! Wow… for a moment there I actually feel like I've had this dish before.

"It'd taste a lot better if you actually ate it, Takeru" Haruko added which I quickly wiped my mouth in reply.

"Sorry. It's just that… people don't often get to eat something like this" Soldiers like us have to live with synthetic food all year long and that's only when we're lucky. Since food supply has been prioritized to the military I can only imagine how bad it is for civilians.

"It's not that good. I bought most of the stuff here from the grocery store nearby. Since I haven't done this for awhile I'm a bit rusty. So I had 1st Lt. Jinguuji help out" Marimo chan? (Flash) I see… no wonder this bento looks so familiar. There's a hint of her cooking in it. I can see how she arranged the chicken and the egg strips. "Sorry, but I'm having the chicken. (EHH!-?) Just kidding. You looked like you were prepared to dive into that dish head on. We'll just split it in two"

She quickly arranged the food, giving me the cover of the box as my plate. "Wow… these all look really good. It's hard to imagine that you're rusty"

"Ora. I've been a self taught chef when I first came to the military school. Making homemade dishes are easy if you have the skill and basic knowledge. (Heeh…) Don't you cook?"

"Well… not really. The only thing I can make is rice and egg"

"Tamago gohan is not a dish. Cooking involves using the kitchen, or at least some measure of kitchenware. (Ahehehe) But I supposed that's men for you ahahaha. (…) Try the hamburger with the sauce. It tastes a lot better. (…) What's wrong? Is there something on my face?"

"No… it's just that… you look different today. (…?) The other day when we met in the PX… you were kind of… down. Not that I don't mind you being happy"

"Ah… that. Yeah. I guess I was a little down in the dumps" She reverted back to her old mood. Even I noticed that she was perkier than usual. Mikoto had the same expression too, a few weeks back during the 12/5 incident.

"I'm happy that you're happy. But if you're forcing it out of you then…"

"Ahehehe… you've gotten sharper, Takeru. (…?) I guess I was trying too hard back there. Sorry. I didn't mean to do it. I was just… trying to remember how I used to be before all this happened. (…) Back when we were in that worm… you saw the ugly side of me. I never thought… I could act the way I did back then"

"People change when they're in distress"

"Thanks… but that doesn't exactly make me feel better. (…) I never thought that I was… capable of doing something like that"

"Well… to be honest, I never expected to see you do something like that too. But like I said before, what's done is done. All you can do is move on. Pointing blames at someone isn't exactly going to make it any better. Besides… it wasn't your fault. If I knew someone I loved passed away, I'd probably be in the same state as you are"

"Eh? How did you know about…?" Ah crud! My mouth slipped. "Ah… the captain told you about him, didn't she? (…) I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After what you went through, you probably deserved an explanation. I supposed… she isn't wrong"

"Sorry… I didn't meant to bring it up"

"No… it's alright. To be honest… I was actually thinking how big of an idiot I was to believe in the report. (…?) I… received a letter the other day… from him"

"From him? You mean… your brother?"

"Yeah… Apparently his unit made it out of Shikoku even after the bombs dropped. He got a few cuts but nothing of immediate danger. (That's wonderful!) Yeah. And the funny part is… his teammates are calling him a hero. (A hero?) Yeah. He was the one who was able to get his team and a few hundred others to safety in Iga. One of the commanders commented on his bravery. Here… he even sent a photo of him and his new medal"

Oh? What a great group shot. They're all kids around my age. There's a big guy giving a thumbs-up on the photo, two people writing something one of their friend's arm cask, and another soldier spacing out. I'm guessing the guy with bandages, blue hair, sitting on the hospital bed, holding the medal in his hand is Haruko's brother. Heh… I can really see the resemblance. He looks pretty neat. Almost like a younger version of me a few years back.

"I think the two of you would get along really well" Haruko added with a grin. "Your personalities are almost identical. (Really?) Yup. You even have the same perverted sides as he does. (Hey!) Ahahaha, I'm kidding" Geez… this girl. Is she doing this just to get a reaction out of me like everyone else?

"But… I'm happy for you, Haruko. (Eh?) Your brother is alive. That's another reason why we should celebrate"

"Ah… yeah… I guess you're right"

"Hey, if you start crying now you'll ruin your food. Haven't you heard the phrase 'Happiness and hunger is the best seasoning' and 'Tears and depression are the worst'?" Actually I made that up just a few minutes ago.

"You made that up" Geh! She saw right through me! "I've gone to school too you know. And besides, the greater seasoning a chef can give to his dish is love" For some reason, that sounds like something a kid would say. "Love is the perfect seasoning that can make even basic steamed rice taste like a 5 Star dish. Kyozuka san makes all of her meals out of it, that's why everything she cooks always taste so good"

"Hooo? I never imagined you had such a childish side. (…?) So how much love did you pour on this meal? (Munch) Judging from the taste, it's quite a lot"

"Oi… don't twist my words to suit your own perverted fantasy"

"Ahehehe sorry, my bad. Come on, cheer up" I rubbed her head playfully to get the tension out. But still… this is great. To know that your love one is alive and well is a great relief for everyone. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I'm so calm here. To know that my friends are here with me… makes this world all the more bearable.

To know that Sumika is out there… waiting for me back at Yokohama Base… is also a relief. But it seems like our little reunion will have to wait… just a little bit longer…