Chapter 74: An Honest Hand (Final Part)

(Takeru's POV) (PX) (January 17, 2002 Thursday) (07:30 AM)

My suit was ruined…

That was probably the beginning of an understatement. I was hoping to keep this one clean until I can get a new batch from the supply order but I doubt that'll be coming anytime soon. The first one I had was ripped beyond all reason and the second one is stained with miso soup. And right now, I was sitting on the opposite side of the two perpetrators of the incident.

They introduced themselves as members of the same unit as Sigel san. The one who I helped earlier was named Helgarose Fal—something. Her name alone is difficult to pronounce as it is. Her partner who she was looking for is Ilfriede Feulner.

Apparently, the story of this incident was due to the fact that Ilfriede had a bit of a dissatisfaction with the food they were provided and decided to come out and find more on her own. Helga of course came to take her back and from there on, things spiraled out due to my interference. Now I had soup over my uniform and my hair smells like miso.

"I apologize, Lieutenant. After all you've done to help me—word alone cannot express how ashamed I am for putting you in such position"

"It's alright" I waved it off. "This isn't the first time I've had something spilled on me"

"Then… at the very least, allow me to take your uniform to the cleaners"

"I said its fine. I can do that myself. It's not that big of a stain either" I was only fortunate that I wore my workout uniform inside so I can at least be presentable in public. "I should be getting a new batch of uniforms later today so it's not that big of a deal. (I'm sorry) You already said that. Please don't apologize every five seconds. (Forgive me…) Ugh…"

"Neh relax Helga. He already said that it's fine, so don't worry too much about it" Ilfriede, her partner intervened all the while taking a bite off her meal. "The guy already forgave us so it's water under the bridge"

"You…" Helga's aura fumed with fire. "Don't go pretending that none of this is your fault! (Eeeep!) And it's not 'this guy'. You are speaking with a Lieutenant of the U.N. Show some reserve and respect, will you? (Ehh! For real!-?) Just how slow can you be? His patch clearly states this. Be more attentive to your surroundings"

"But he doesn't even older than me. (Whack!) Ow!"

"Age has nothing to do with it! You were the cause for this whole incident in the first place. Now apologize"

"Uuuuu… Helga, you're so mean today"

"I may be strict but I am fair. I only punish those who deserve it. Now apologize"

"Huuuu… I'm sorry Lieutenant" She bowed down lowly to me with comical tears filling her eyes.

Again I waved it off. "It's fine, really. Though I'm actually surprised. I didn't think I would see other members of the Cerberus team here. (Others?) Yeah, I actually met with Lt. Sigel and that other scary guy…"

"Scary? Ah, you must mean the Major. (Major?) Yup. He's our Commanding Officer. He might look scary on the outside but he's actually quite nice once you get to know him. I actually thought him to be a big meanie when I first met him too" I guess everyone would get that kind of impression. That tanned skin guy I met the other night was more frightening than Tsukuyomi's death stare. I was so scared my whole body went stiff and my feet were glued to the floor. I even went as far as saying 'Potato' on our first encounter.

"Ilfriede. Don't go calling our CO that. (Ahehehe) He is only trying to keep his image like you should be doing. A noble lady like yourself should be an example amongst your peers" Noble? Oh that's right. I remember some of my teammates saying that the Cerberus group consisted of nobles from prominent families. I guess they weren't lying about that. "Ah… sorry Lieutenant. We were being rude in front of you again"

"No, it's fine. My Captain also loosens regulation unless we're in public areas" As a matter of fact, I think I'm actually closer to the Captain than any of the other members in the squad. She can be strict as the General but also as free as Mikoto when no one else is around. I should know about that because she sometimes sneaks into the PX to get leftovers.

"Neh neh, Lieutenant" Ilfriede called out to me. "I've been meaning to ask. But is that little girl next to you, your sister?"

My sister? Ah! Kasumi! I completely forgot about her. "…!" Geh… she looks mad. I guess I must've been unintentionally ignoring her when we got here.

"Uh… no… she's not. She's a good friend of mine" I answered embarrassingly. "Ora, Kasumi, say hi. (…) Ahehe… sorry about that. She's a little shy with new people"

"Isn't she a bit young to be a cadet here?" Helga inquired which I quickly denied it.

"Ah no she's not a soldier. She's… here on a special case. (Special?) Ah… I don't think I can talk about it"

"I see… so it's classified. Forgive me for intruding. (It's fine) Anyway, we have spent too much time here as it is. We will be going now. Let's go Ilfriede"

"Ehhh! But I haven't even finished my meal"

"You can stay if you want. But I will not be responsible what happens when Lieutenant Sigel finds out about this. (Geh! That's mean!) It is only the truth. If she finds out about this, I cannot guarantee your safety"

"Oooh? And what might I do after that, I wonder?" Another voice suddenly interrupted our conversation. I turned around and saw an angel standing right behind me. "Pray tell. What is it do you think I would do, Helga san. (L… Lieutenant!)" The two stooges quickly stood at attention with a raised up salute. "It almost sounded like you were suggesting something there, 2nd Lt. Helgarose. (Umm…) I was worried about you two, wandering off like that. The Major and I have been looking all over for you two and here I find you two ladies flirting with a young dashing man" Dashing? Me?

"No! Lieutenant, I… I can explain! Th… this is all just a misunderstanding!"

"I expected Ilfriede to be susceptible to something like this, but I never imagined you would, Helga. (Hauu!) Has your feminine instincts finally reveal themselves?"

"M… my feminine instincts?"

"It seems that our group truly does have late bloomers after all" Sigel gave out a sigh which only made the two groan altogether. "But I supposed I can forgive you two this one time. (Haa?) Ilfriede, can you fetch me some juice from the counter as well? All this running so early in the morning has really gotten me dry"

"Ah… yes ma'am" The blonde girl in question then took off to the kiosk to purchase her drink order. There were a few soldiers coming in now. I guess role call wasn't far off.

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant" Helga apologized when her partner was out of earshot. "I was keeping an eye on her as you ordered but…"

"It's alright, Helga" Sigel waved it off. "I knew that this task was too much for one person to handle. With an energetic person like her, it's difficult to keep track of her as it is. You are in no fault here. (Thank you… ma'am) But to think you two would meet this person of all people. Fate really does have a strange way of bringing people together. (…?) I hope my subordinates haven't been too rough on you, Lt. Shirogane"

"Ah no, not at all" Other than ruining my suit those two have been behaving properly, so to speak.

"Shirogane?" Helga inquired.

"Oh, right. I never got the chance to introduce myself" How embarrassing of me. "I'm Shirogane Takeru and this here is my friend Kasumi. Please to meet you. (…!)" Eh? What's with that reaction?

"Sh… Shirogane… Takeru? (…?) Then you're… (Helga…) Ah… s… sorry Lieutenant"

"Uh… did I… say something wrong?"

"No, you're not to blame, 1st Lt. Shirogane" Sigel smiled back at me in reply. "It's just that your reputation precedes you. (Huh?) Helga san is just having a hard time discerning that she has just been talking with the Legendary Rookie of Yokohama Base" Legendary Rookie? Is that title really famous? "Not to mention, the same person is the co-creator of the new OS that the world has been using as of late" Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Yuuko apparently put my name on that project to get some influence from me. I guess that little-bit got me known internationally.

"Is… is that so?"

"And to be the same Ace who defeated the Royal Honor Guards alone. You are a person of great interest, 1st Lt. Shirogane" Geh! I guess she must've heard of that too.

I then noted Helga motioning her head before inquiring to her superior. "Lieutenant. Is he truly… the same person?"

"Indeed. Though I must admit that his face is quite charming up close. The photo that the magazine published truly did you no justice at all, 1st Lieutenant" I laughed shyly in reply. Uwa… damn. Why the heck am I blushing? The way she compliments me is just so… genuine that I can't help but feel embarrassed. "If you take the hair into account, he actually looks a lot more dashing than most of the men back home" My hair? Oh that's right. I haven't had the time to visit the barber lately. With everything that's been happening, it seems only natural that it would grow through such length.

"Indeed… it's no wonder why I didn't recognize him at first glance" Helga added looking at me with a sharp gaze. "Anyway, I should be off. Good day… Lieutenants" And just like that, the purple haired girl walked off with a disgruntled face.

"Ara ara… and there she goes again" Sigel sighed looking lonely after having the seat next to her emptied. "She always had the habit of leaving off a good conversation"

"D… did I do something wrong?" I asked.

"Don't be alarmed, Shirogane san. She's merely conflicted with her emotions. (Huh?) She doesn't know how to react in front the one man who singlehandedly took on the Japanese Royal Guards. (…) You could say that she's… unaware on what to do"

"Ah… so… I guess you heard about that too huh?"

"The whole world knows of it" She corrected without even breaking her smile. "Though I can only imagine that half of that populace considers the whole story to be mere propaganda. I don't suppose you can tell me if it's true or false. (…) Ahuhuhu, forgive me. I was being rude. But please don't mind my subordinates. Their reason for their confliction is merely personal. I'm sure that they will see you in new light despite knowing your identity, Shirogane san. (…) Well, I've overstayed my time here. Let us meet again, 1st Lieutenant"

And just like that, Sigel left the PX before I could even say another word. There wasn't really anything I could say.

I guess I've been holding in me but there's really no hiding it. My reputation for defeating the Household Honor Guard alone has been something of a legend here. I've tried my best to block it out but no matter where I go I keep getting these weird looks from soldiers and officers around the block. I supposed subconsciously, this is probably the reason why I decided to have breakfast early too.

Defeating one or two hundred BETA , or a couple of TSFs alone is a rare record alone. But to defeat a whole company of Takemikazuchis and not to mention to XG-70… those are different matters entirely. Still… that doesn't mean I should be treated any differently from the rest of the crowd.

"Hnn…"

"Huh? Oh sorry Kasumi chan. I guess I was a little deep in thought. (It's ok…) Ahehehe… anyway, we should probably hurry with our meal. I don't want to be late for the morning match"

"Yo! Lieutenant! I got your juice~~eh?" Ilfriede showed herself dramatically with the juice box in hand only to find that her CO was gone. "Wh… where'd they go!-?"

"Uh… if you're looking for your friend… they kinda left a few minutes ago"

"Ah! They left me? That's not fair! I was just about to have some delicious yakisoba too! (Ano…) Scheiße! They'll definitely rat me to the commander. I have to beat them to the barracks! I'll get you back for this Helga!" I'm not really sure what to say at this point. "Ah, here, you can have this Lieutenant" She quickly handed me the orange juice she bought. H… hey wait a second! Not this again! "Take it as payment for ruining your suit. Later!"

And like her teammates, the girl was gone before I could say another word. Are all girls like this—or just the ones I know?

(Hallway) (A few minutes later)

Haaa… man… a lot of things happened this morning. So much went on so quickly that there wasn't enough time for me to process them all in my head. Though I don't necessarily hate what happened this morning, I still got the chance to meet with Sigel again.

"Hnn…" Kasumi is still tailing me from behind. It's still early too. Maybe if I head back now, I can grab myself another uniform before we meet at the briefing room to watch the next match. The barracks shouldn't be too far and there shouldn't be anyone walking around at this time of day. They're probably still sleeping or in the PX gorging on breakfast.

"1st Lt. Shirogane" Hmm?

"Ah… Isumi san…"

"Address me as Captain when I address you in rank…"

Oh, that's right. "Sorry ma'am. I was tardy"

"Don't give me that lame excuse. Kazama could've thought of a better one than that. (Geh…)" Oh crud. The Captain looks pretty serious. I guess it was only a matter of time before she found out. "Judging by your face, I think you already know why I'm talking to you in person, don't you? (Ma'am) Didn't Hayase tell you to come meet me after dinner last night?"

"Ah… she did say something about that but there were… some reasons that I couldn't meet up" To be honest, I was actually planning to talk with Meiya but instead got to meet with Mikoto's dad.

"I see. Then I guess I don't have to give you much of a lecture. To be honest, I was actually surprised when I heard of what happened. (…) At first I was quite upset that you didn't show up for the afternoon match in the meeting room. But after hearing your little brawl, I supposed that was punishment enough" Punishment? Was she going to do something to me before this? "Well… no matter what I say, you know exactly what you did, so I won't breathe down your neck and make you uncomfortable"

"Huh?" I raised my eyebrow a bit, surprised by her reaction.

"I received a formal apology from the Lt. Colonel commanding the Zhar Battalion Test Flight. It was pretty well written so I have to accept it. They even added compensation to the Armed Force to make up for the damage" A formal apology? I didn't hear anything about that until now. "And on my way to the PX, I was ambushed by the nurse from the infirmary. She regaled me of the epic of your courageous deed" The nurse? (Flash) That girl. Geez… I hope she didn't say anything ridiculous about me. I have enough rumors floating about as it is. "She even went ahead and gave me this assorted fruit-basket as an amnesty gift. It seems like you have a strange habit of saving damsels in distress, Shirogane. You're starting to sound like one of those Knights in Shining Armor"

"Ahehehe…" Knights in Shining Armor? I'm not that impressive.

"In any case, I'm glad to see you unharmed. Having more than half the squad out of commission for a few weeks is bad enough. If we get deployed, I might only bring you and Kashiwagi along. (…) Hmm? What's the matter? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Uh… sorry ma'am. It's just that… I guess I was expecting some kind of punishment from you, since I did assault a foreign officer"

"Oh? But the reports say that your opponent struck first, didn't she? (Well, yeah…) Then there's no problem. But to tell you the truth, I was planning to throw you to Hayase for a sparring match that she's been itching so badly" Please don't. Anything but that. "But after what happened in the infirmary, that should be punishment enough. (Ahehe) Speaking of that… how are you injuries? You didn't get too badly beaten, did you?"

"Ah no. Not at all. Just a bruise here and there but nothing worth mentioning"

"Good. That's a relief. But just to be on the safe side, I requested Professor Kouzuki to give you a thorough examination for any injuries"

"Eh? Yuuko? But why?"

"She asked to meet you later this afternoon in her labs at 13:30. (…?) She says that she has a special mission for you to do. Besides, according to her orders, she's the only person allowed to give you any medical treatment" My only doctor? Wait… did she tell me about this already? Ah… I guess she has a point. With my regenerative powers and my abilities behind the TSF she probably doesn't want little secrets getting out of her reach.

"I see… I guess I'll do that…"

"I don't know why the Professor would go this far just to get you in her reach but I won't question her methods" The Captain must also be worried. Being ordered to stay in the sidelines isn't exactly comfortable with anyone. I probably have to explain this power to them sooner or later. "Well, it's none of my business so I'll leave you be. You're exempted from the afternoon match but come to briefing room in the morning, alright?"

"Yes ma'am"

"Hey… Shirogane. (Yes Captain?) Don't go pushing yourself alone, alright? This world still need someone with your strength. (…?) The others might not show it willingly, but they're really grateful to have you in the team. So don't go betraying their trust in you, alright? (…) Besides, who else am I gonna ask to go risking his life for me. (Captain?) Ah! N… nothing! Anyway, don't forget to meet with the Professor this afternoon. Repeat!"

"Ma'am. I am to meet with Professor Yuuko in her laboratory in 13:30 today"

"Good. Dismissed"

Heh… it's funny. For a moment there I actually felt like I was being lectured by Marimo chan all over again. But I supposed something like this is natural. I mean… the Captain was taught by Marimo chan too back in her days.

"Hnn…" Kasumi is tugging my shirt again.

"What? You want to play some more? (Nod) Geez. Alright, I guess we have enough time for one more round. What do you want to do? (…) H… hey where are you going? You want to go in there? (Nod)" The simulator room? What's so interesting about that place? There shouldn't be anyone using it at this time.

"Hnn…"

"Alright alright, we'll go"

(Simulator room)

Uwaa… it's been awhile since I've seen one of these. After being out from Yokohama Base for so long, there's been nothing but fighting 24/7. I haven't used them since our first training regime with the Captain and the 1st Lieutenants. Man… just looking at these little pods makes me realize just how green I was when I first rode on them. Though they didn't affect me directly, it was the birthing place for Eishis to hone their skills over and over. Some might even call it a cocoon where true pilots are born.

But as expected, the place was pretty much empty. The only people that were here were the engineers that hold training sessions. There's nothing much to do here.

"Hey Kasumi. Come on let's get you back to the lab. There's nothing for us here. (…) I didn't bring my exosuit along so I can't use these simulator pods. Maybe another time when we get back to Yokohama Base, ok?"

Whirrrr!

Hmm? What's that noise?

"Unit 01 and 05, disabled. Training Course: G, failed. Pilots may now exit their units" Oh? There were people here? Training at this hour?

"Eeeya… that was horrible" Hmm? That voice. I know that voice. "We were so close to the finish line too"

"Things would've gotten smoothly if you didn't try to pull something that ridiculous" Oh… it's Tatsunami and Asagi. They're training pretty hard for a pair of rookies. "Seriously now. What in the world were you trying to prove by doing something that stupid?"

"Ahehehe. Sorry. I just wanted to try out something cool for once. I was thinking of finishing with one of those nice-guy-hero pose, but I guess that ended badly"

"And instead you had to crash onto me which ended the course… haaa…" The boy's partner let out a sigh to herself. I guess having a reckless partner makes it difficult for others to support you. "That's already the third time you tried to do something like that. It doesn't matter how well you finish the course as long as you finish it. You may be better than all of us when it comes down to piloting a TSF but in the long run, it'll be the team that wins. (Hai hai) Haaa… I really want to pinch your cheeks right now, but I'm so tired, I couldn't even care"

"Hmph!" Tasunami raised his hands up to face as if blocking out of reflex. "A… Asagi. Please not the face. If you keep doing that, my skin will peel off"

"Just treat me for breakfast and I'll consider letting this slide. Now come on. Let's get changed and head to the PX before the line fills up. (Yes ma'am!) Haaaa… hmm? Who's there?" Ah… crud. I've been discovered. My stealthiness isn't up to par, it would seem. "You're… Shirogane?"

"Ahehehe… hi there"

"Sorry. 1st Lt. Shirogane" She corrected herself. "Are you here for somethi—"

"Shirogane sempai~~~~! (Yoink!) Yeow! My chweek!"

"Address the officer by rank, idiot. (Hai hai!)It's pretty early. I didn't think anyone would be coming here so early, especially in this weather, 1st Lieutenant. Are you here for any particular reason sir?"

"Ah well, not really. I was just…"

"The reason should be obvious!" Tatsunami interrupted with his blatant ego. "The only reason why sempai would come to this room so early morning is because he sensed my desire to improve myself! He wished to witness the growth of his pupil himself and re—(Yoink) Ow! Ow! Ow!"

"Quit kidding yourself for a minute" I think that hurts him a lot more than she realizes.

"Ahehe… you guys are up pretty early to be training" I stated looking at the wear and tear of their suits. "I wasn't expecting anyone to be using the simulator room at this time"

"It's a bad habit, sir" Asagi answered. "Our training school back in Hokkaido isn't as well supplied as most of the forward bases here. Since our post is the farthest from the frontlines, equipment to our base isn't prioritized. We barely have any functioning simulator pods to work with ourselves and most of the time they would be used by another group entirely. (…?) The only time people like us can get to use them is during independent training in the early morning or late at night"

It's that bad? I guess frontline soldiers really do get priority when it comes to equipments but I supposed that doesn't count for us. The Valkyries are at the top of the line 'Special Task Force' and as an elite group, we usually get the 'First-Pick' privilege for all manner of supplies. It was no big wonder why I was able to get another Shiranui after I wrecked mine at Sadogashima. I supposed it's a different story for the people at the back.

"Well, I supposed it's not that bad" Tatsunami added after he recovered from his earlier pinch. "Now that we're commissioned officers, we get to use the simulator pods whenever we like. Our uniforms are totally different too, way cooler than what we used to wear"

"You're just saying that because you like it when other cadets salute to you. (Ahehehe) Why don't you try focusing on your piloting rather than your cheap talk? (Hey!)"

"Ahehe… you guys get along well" I mentioned, hiding my laugh.

"It's not like I have much of a choice. He's the best Eishi in the Training School but his other skills are lacking. I only wish I could pound more sense into him. (Ahehehe)" Hoo? So he wasn't joking about being the best pilot in his class. "The only problem is that his skills are too good that the rest of the team can't keep up with him"

"Ahaha… it just goes to show that they all still have room for improvement"

"It's because of your reckless movements, the others are having a hard time adjusting. (Geh) Seriously, I don't think there's anyone more reckless than you, Hibiki"

"Ahehehe. Being reckless just means that I have potential. Ah! That's right. How about you, Shirogane sempai? (Eh?) Why don't you pilot with me? You can teach me a few of those cool stunts you pulled off like what you did in Tokyo. What better way to teach an apprentice than by hand-holding sessions?" Is he going on about that? "Come on, sempai! Show me the power of the Legendary Ace first hand!"

"Ah… I'd love to but I didn't bring my exosuit with me"

"That's fine. You can borrow mine. (Eh!-?)"

"Then what will you be using?"

"Oh… that's right. Then you can borrow Asagi san. (Huh?) Come on, Asagi, take it off"

"H… hey wait a second! Oi! Hibiki! Wh… what the hell are you doi—No! Keep your hands off me! (Come on Asagi!) No! Wh… where the hell do you think you're touching! Stop that!"

"Wait one minute sempai. We'll be right back~"

Like hell I'm waiting! I'll run away. I'm not sticking around for more than that!

(Hallway)

Phew… that was a bit crazy even for me. That Hibiki was just asking for a hit. I wouldn't be surprised if his partner pinched him by the cheeks by now.

Oh well, not that it matters to me. I'm just glad to be out of there before things got hectic.

I still have time before I'm needed at the meeting room. Maybe I can grab a little snack from the PX. I'm sure the Captain wouldn't mind if I have something to eat while I watch the match. Besides… something as entertaining as a fight between two teams of TSF isn't something you see every day.

I wonder if I can get one of my drinks from my room. It'll be a nice beverage for the afternoon too. I can probably get a sandwich from the PX so long as the chef is feeling generous. Haaa… looking at that old guy, I'm beginning to actually miss Kyozuka san's cooking.

Tap… tap…

Hmm? Hey… I recognize that hairstyle. That's Meiya. What good fortunes. I was planning to meet with her ever since last night but thanks to Yoroi's interruption I had to settle it for today. She appears to be talking with Kashiwagi. In a normal day I would've considered that a strange pair but after seeing those two playing in the same team during the Lacrosse match during our school festival, they pretty much look like decent friends.

"Ah! Hey, Takeru!" Kashiwagi waved in my direction. "I see you're not planning to skip the meeting this time"

"It wasn't voluntary"

"The Captain was pretty mad when you didn't show up yesterday. I almost thought that she was gonna feed you to the hounds"

"Yeah. She lectured me about it too" I admitted. "But it was all just a big misunderstanding. We're fine now"

"Is that so? Well if everything's alright then I guess she won't be feeding you to Hayase anymore. (Geh…)"

"You don't have to tell me that. Just thinking about it scares me. I wouldn't want her on m—"

"Kashiwagi. I'll be heading back to the meeting now" Meiya interrupted me. "Please don't be late"

"Huh? Ah… yeah, sure. I'll do that"

"Well then. Excuse me"

"Ah! Wait, Meiya" I quickly caught up with her before she could leave us.

"What do you want?"

"Ah… well…" What's wrong with her? She looks… angry for some reason. "I wanted to talk with you for a bit"

"The morning match will be starting soon. Can it wait for later? (Eh? Umm… well…) If it is an urgent matter then speak"

Whoa? What's grinding her gears? "Hey what's with that snippy attitude? You're not being your usual self"

"I am worried that I will not make it to the briefing room in time. What is this matter which you wish to discuss? Be quick or you will make all three of us late"

Her tone is definitely not normal. This is probably the first time I've seen Meiya this angry. Even when we were together in both worlds she never reacted like this. Something must be really bothering her. "A… are you mad about something? (I am not…)" That was a pure lie right there. "Then why are you being so snippy?"

"I am not snippy!" Whoa! I think I hit a nerve there. "If you do not have anything else to say, then we are done here. Good day"

"Hey wait a second! Meiya. (…!)" I grabbed her shoulder before she could run off. "What's the matter? This isn't like you. If there's something bothering you, you know you can always talk to me, right? (…) I might not be as reliable but I'd like to help if I c—(Quiet!) Yeow!" Ow… that actually hurt. She smacked my hand really rough.

"I have no need of your pity. Neither you, your empty words nor your false promises! (Wha?) Don't think light of me… Shirogane…"

"Meiya…? What are you saying?"

"Nothing. (Eh?) Please do not go touching people without their consent. I'm leaving now"

"Ah! Wait… Mei…ya?" And right before I could recover, the girl was already long gone. "What the?"

"Wh… what just happened?" Kashiwagi asked from my side and to be honest, I really have no clue. "Oi, Takeru. What did you do this time?"

"I don't know. I don't understand what could've made her that mad"

"You didn't do something to upset her, did you?"

"No… at least… none that I can think of" But it was plainly obvious that her source of anger was directed at me. I know that I'm not exactly the best when it comes to women but she didn't have to go that far when I was just offering my help.

"You sure? She seemed normal when she was talking to me earlier. (…) You sure you don't remember doing something horrible? Like forgetting a date or something"

"No of course not! I wouldn't forget something that important" Hayase said that Meiya has been avoiding me for the last few days but I've only just noticed now. Was it something I did or something I said?

"Well, whatever you did, it seems like you got her madder than the Captain. (…) You should fix it as a soon as possible. I won't tell anyone what happened here. Scout's honor. (Thanks… Kashiwagi) Any time. But I expect you two to settle your problems before it escalates. Otherwise it might affect the rest of the team. (I'll do that) Good. I'm counting on you, Takeru. Ah… and look at the time. We're about to be late. Come on!"

"Yeah I'll be… right there" My hand still hurts though. Meiya really wasn't holding back when she slapped me. What could I have done to make her so mad? The only time we hung out together was during the arcade and that was it. I even gave her one of the stuffed toys that I won from the crane machine. She couldn't possibly be mad at something so simple, could she? Nah… it must be something bigger, but what?

"Hnnnnnn!"

"Hmmm? Kasumi… chan?" Wait… didn't I leave her at the simulator room earlier?

Thwack!

Yeow!

(U.N. Kyoto Base) (Yuuko's lab) (01:20 PM)

Haaaa… this sucks. I couldn't enjoy the morning match at all. Ever since my little scuffle with Meiya, I could barely watch the show as it was. When I got to the briefing room, I kept glancing at her trying to figure out what made her so angry at me. She didn't pay attention to any of my stares of course and kept her focus on her documents or the screen in front of us.

The fight was a good one but not that I could enjoy it. I was just too bothered by the events that led to this.

In the end, I couldn't find the chance to speak with her privately or publicly. Even during lunchtime, she ate her share and darted off before I even got to my seat. It seems like what Hayase said was correct. She really is deliberately avoiding me whenever possible. I still can't figure out what I did wrong. I'm trying really hard to think back to all of our conversations but nothing comes to mind.

Haaa… it seems like this will have to be a problem to be dealt with on another day. Right now I'll have to see what assignment Yuuko has in store for me.

"Hnnn…"

Kasumi was pulling my sleeves again. She's been following me around since this morning. "Sorry Kasumi chan, but I can't play right now. Yuuko has something for me to do. (Hnnn!) Geez, you're beginning to act like a spoiled brat, you know that? (Thwack!) Hey! Stop that!" She's smacked me with her creepy bunny rabbit.

"Takoyaki…"

"You're still going on about that?" Geez… I guess she really is just a kid inside. "Alright alright. After I meet with Yuuko, I'll get you one box from the shop. (Smirk) Eh? D… did you just smirk at me? (…)" I must be seeing things. I guess it can't be helped. After leaving her in the simulator room when I dashed off like that, it was only natural that she'd be mad at me. I should consider myself lucky to be able to resolve that with just a box of snacks.

Now the only problem is how to get out of the base. As far as I know, the Captain said that there will be a strict lockdown until the Training Exercise was done. I don't want to get myself in trouble but I supposed there's always a loophole somewhere.

"1st Lt. Shirogane…"

"Hmm? Oh… 1st Lt. Piatif" I saluted at her when she came out of the lab room.

"Good to see you in good health. The Professor will be here shortly. Please wait a moment. (Ah… sure) I can assume that she already told you the details of your escort mission? (Escort?) Oh? She didn't explain?"

"No. I just heard from Cpt. Isumi that she had a mission for me"

"Odd. I thought the Captain was already briefed with the details. Perhaps she forgot to mention it" Hmm… now that she mentioned it, the Captain did look like she was in a bit of a hurry. I guess she didn't have time to explain the whole thing. "Anyway, your mission is as follows. You will be providing protection to a certain VIP here in Kyoto Base"

"An escort? For who?"

"A certain individual that the Professor has keen interest in. (Eh?) You can get more information from her yourself. Ah… but before you do that, here" She handed me a small envelope which was small enough to fit in my pockets.

"What's this?"

"It's your money card. (…?) Lt. Suzumiya informed me that your paycheck was delayed. Something like this is a common thing to happen with soldiers who have been deployed for a long while. I was able to finalize it with the financial department and got your account open. Inside you'll find your bankbook and your card" Oh right. They did say something about my money. Suzumiya handed me a fat wad of cash as compensation earlier but holding something like that made me feel like I had a giant bull's eye painted at my back that only muggers can see. "You shouldn't have any problems with it. I'm sure you've already used one of these before"

"Ah… yeah"

"Then you should have no problem with your next paycheck"

Whoosh

"Haaaa… good morning… ahh" Yuuko yawned out loud when she exited from her lab. Morning? It's already way past noon. Has she been sleeping this whole time?

"Professor. It's already noon" Piatif corrected which she obviously ignored.

"Haaaaa… who in the world can tell the time in this dark and gloomy weather?" She does have a point there. Without the sun, moon or the stars, the only way to tell the time is by looking at the clocks we have. "Ara? Shirogane? What are you doing here? Did you come for something?"

"You asked me to meet you"

"I did? Eh… what was it for again?" Is she playing with me? She does look a lot more exhausted than usual.

"Ma'am. You requested 1st Lt. Shirogane to escort a VIP"

"Ah that's right. I knew I was forgetting something. That thing. It's good that you came early. I was about to leave without telling you"

"Eh? Are you going somewhere, sensei?"

"Just another boring meeting in Kyushu. I stayed up all night preparing for a conference. Haaaaa… keeping my eyes open is starting to get unpleasant. Well, good luck with the job. I'll see you in a few weeks"

Eh? That's it? "Wait a minute. (What?) What about the VIP? Weren't you gonna assign me to some special mission"

"That's correct. (…?) What's with that face? Didn't Isumi fill you in already?"

"No… she just told me to come here"

Yuuko raised her brow with an unexpected expression. "Is that so? I thought she'd tell you the details herself and save myself the trouble"

"So… who's the VIP?"

"She's standing right next to you. (Eh?) Haaaa… I guess an idiot will always be an idiot. Look, Yashiro might cry if you start treating her as just another regular bystander. (Ha?) Do I really need to say it?"

"Wait. Are you saying that Kasumi chan is the VIP I'm supposed to be escorting?"

She clapped her hands thrice in mockery of me before answering in a sarcastic tone. It looked as if she was trying to play innocent to the conversation. "Did it take you that long to figure that out? I guess you weren't playing stupid but you really are stupid after all. (Hey!) Ahh… I'm starting to feel bad for Yashiro. Not to be treated like VIP"

"Wait wait wait a minute! You're making me watch over her?" I barked.

"You're the one who was worried about her, weren't you? (But why me?) Why not? Yashiro doesn't have any close attachment with anyone other than you and besides, you're more than perfect for the role of her bodyguard. It saves me time and money along the way. But if it were my choice I would've preferred to have Silvio do it. (Silvio?) An old acquaintance. No one you need to know. But in any case, this is the mission I have for you. Are you going to take it or not?"

"What kind of a request is that? Well… I'll take it if I'm ordered but…"

"Good, then we have no problems then. (Hey wait!) What is it now?"

"How long am I supposed to watch over her for?"

"I don't know. I guess until I get back from Kyushu. She'll be staying with you until then. So walk, talk and sleep with each other. Keep yourselves busy anyway you can"

"Huh? Sleep with each… other?"

"That's right" Yuuko waved her hand playfully like she was just brushing my expression as dust in the air. "I already sent her stuff to your room so you shouldn't have any problem"

"There's a big problem right there!" I screamed. "I can't have Kasumi sleep in the same room as me! People might get the wrong idea!"

"Shirogane… you're being such a bore. Just tell them that it's part of your bodyguard duties. People will just pass it as another assignment"

"That's because your commonsense is weirder than all of us!"

"Haaaa… really now. This is just time consuming. The point of being a bodyguard is to be able to protect the target 24/7. How can you protect someone if you can't even see the person? (But still!) Don't be so stubborn. Besides, aren't you free right now as it is? (…?) If you have time to dawdle around and save princesses from assassins, then you have time to do some work around here"

"Save princesses? Ah… so… you heard about yesterday?"

"Of course. I received a formal apology from the Soviet Union Commander, himself. Fighting with a foreign soldier on your first encounter. I'm actually surprised this didn't cause an international incident. (Geh!) But in either case, protecting Yashiro will be your duty from here on end. Just don't go doing anything to her like you did back in Yokohama"

"That was accident! An accident, I tell you!" Damn it woman! Why is she always trying to grind my gears whenever she can?

"Vice Commander" Piatif interrupted us. "Your escorts have arrived. They're waiting for you"

"Hai hai. Tell them to hold the flight for a little bit longer. (Yes ma'am) Haaa… those old coots are always getting impatient. It's not like the answers will change just because we got there early. Anyway, let's get down to business, Shirogane. (Huh?) What's with that look? You didn't think I called you here just because I wanted you to watch over Yashiro, did you?" Eh? Wait… is she saying all of that for just a build-up? Well… that does makes sense. I mean… if she wanted me to look after Kasumi chan she could've just sent Piatif san with a message instead. It would've saved her a lot of time rather than talking to me directly. "Looks like you really are simple-minded after all"

"Hey… that's rude" I whined.

"Anyway, come into my office. This isn't something I want to discuss in the open.

The lab was about half-empty when I got in. It looked as if the lab was missing half of its components already. Yuuko must be in a hurry to leave if she wanted all of these equipments taken out in such a rush.

"So… what did you want to talk about?" I asked, feeling a bit unnerved from all this cloak and dagger movement.

Yuuko turned around to face me and scanned my body from head to toe like she was looking for some kind of sign. "I'll be direct about this so I want you to answer me honestly, 1st Lt. Shirogane" I flinched back a bit as if struck by lightning. That was probably the first time Yuuko ever addressed me by rank. She has always been a casual person and never allowed regulations to obstruct her. My body snapped at attention, feeling almost like a hypnotic hold was cast upon me. "My sister, Motoko. Did you talk to her recently?"

Motoko? (Flash) Oh… that girl who looked a lot like Yuuko sensei. The R&D department chairman. She must've heard something about the other night.

"Yes… I did…"

"What did you talk about? Answer me straight…"

"She… asked me to participate in the Training Exercise. (…) She 'requested' that I become a test pilot for the new series of Type-00 Takemikazuchi"

"I see. So she's bringing in those. And what did you say to her?"

"I… said that I'd think about it. But I also asked her to consult with you or Cpt. Isumi before anything else"

"Is that so? Well I guess that does explain this" Yuuko then handed me a small folder that had the U.N. seal stamped on its face. "It's an official request from the CO of the 6th U.N. Pacific Army. They're asking me to put you and the rest of the A-01 in the Training Exercise. (…!)" A request from that high up? Yuuko's sister must have some big connections if she could make the CO write a request like this. "I wasn't the only one who got it. Radhabinod and a few other staffs received the same thing. It seems like she's trying to create a commotion with the higher ups just to pressure me into agreeing"

"Pressure?"

"The request doesn't really state you by name but it's obvious that she wants you to be in this exercise more than anything"

"Hey… Yuuko sensei. Can I ask you something? (What is it?) This… Training Exercise. Isn't this supposed to be something good for mankind? (…?) I mean: Bringing pilots and resources from around the world to create better weapons and strategies to fight the BETA. Isn't this what this what it's all about?"

"That's what they say" She answered without a hint of hesitation. "Though the whole thing might sound like one big farce, people can't argue with the results it has given. Multinational exercise like the Blue Flag has yielded excellent progress in developing new equipments for many companies"

"Then don't you think I should support it? (…?) I mean, if everyone benefits from seeing me pilot then shouldn't I help them too?"

"Ora… if you had this kind of thoughts in mind, then why didn't you agree with her from the start? (Ah… well…) But you're right. If you did fight, there's no doubt that the results would be spectacular. But there's one tiny flaw in your equation. (Flaw?) Your pattern of thinking is conceptualized through human standards. Have you already forgotten how your body is different from the rest of the world? (…!)"

M… my body…

"You heal from wounds faster than anyone, you can withstand force greater than any ordinary person and you survive battles that not just anyone could. It should more than clear by now that your body is not the byproduct of man but something else entirely. (…) If you keep thinking that you're in the same league as any other man you may end up killing someone unintentionally"

Damn.

It's hard to admit but she's right. Yuuko is mostly right when it comes to something like this.

My body heals faster and I'm admittedly stronger than your average soldier. If I'm not careful, I might actually hurt someone. (Flash) Those two bullies back in Yokohama Base were a prime example of my strength. Even though they were wearing their exosuits inside their uniforms, I was still able to wound them. Badly enough that they needed to see stay in bed for a whole day. If they weren't wearing their suits then, their injuries could've been a lot worse.

"But I supposed it does sound rather interesting… (Eh?)" Yuuko added suddenly breaking me from my train of thought. "To see how long humans would last against you would be a rather intriguing. Don't you think?"

"Wha? What are you talking about? Weren't you against this from the start?"

"Against it? When did I say that? (…?) I only stated that you were thinking of yourself as a human and nothing more. I never said anything about you not joining"

"But wouldn't it be dangerous for me to fight other people?"

"I said that if you fought a person man-to-man" She answered as if it the obvious thing. "You're stronger than the average soldier but in a TSF the only differences you'll have is experience and skill. You don't think those people would just let you go out there to kill each other, do you?"

Of course! In a TSF, there's really no difference in strength. Only your skill can make a difference between the two sides. Besides, we won't be using live bullets but paintballs instead. The sword we use will also be equipped with training sheathes to blunt our blows and react solely to the JIVES program. That's why the battle looks so realistic on the screen.

"So… does that mean you'll allow me to compete in the Exercise?"

"I don't see why not. Besides… it would be good practice for you before the real fight. (Real fight?) Just make sure you don't overdo it. And don't forget to keep an eye on Yashiro. She's your responsibility from here on end. Understand? (Yes ma'am) Alright then. Put on a good show for me. I'll be very disappointed if you lose even just once" Yuuko then turned to her secretary and gave me one final wave before leaving through the doors. Though she might be bizarre from time to time, I guess she makes a lot of good points in the end. I should know… I've always been beaten by her logic plenty of times already.

(An hour later) (TSF Hanger)

I saw Yuuko's plane go off a few minutes after she left the lab. Lt. Piatif returned to her duties and quickly dismissed me. I didn't feel like returning to the afternoon match. Doing so would be pointless. Besides, I can't fully enjoy it knowing that Meiya is still angry with me.

I'm still trying to understand what I did to make her so mad. Everything was fine in the last few days we've been having but other than that, her attitude towards me just made a complete 180. I wonder if it really had anything to do with that crane game we did earlier.

Haaa… I can't think of anything. And sitting here in the cold breeze wasn't helping either. I thought that looking at TSFs would calm me down at least but it wasn't. Back then—whenever I looked at my good old war-machine, all my doubts become really small and practically pointless. But now… it seems like my machine was sent to the scrap yard already. Apparently the mechanics thought that getting a new one would be far cheaper than the one I've wrecked in both Sadogashima and Kyoto. And the Takemikazuchi that I destroyed in Tokyo didn't exactly come back in one piece either.

…!

Wait… could that be it? That Takemikazuchi. It was given to Meiya by her sister, the Shogun but back then she was unconscious. When things were heading south I took it upon myself to use it but I didn't exactly ask for her permission.

But… she wouldn't be angry about that… would she?

Nah… that wouldn't be the case.

"Zzzz…" Kasumi fell asleep by the time we got here. I guess her stamina isn't up to par. Not only that but I also left her in the simulator room when I dashed off into the blues. I keep forgetting that my strength is higher than a normal civilian. The poor girl must be exhausted just trying to keep up with me.

"Ara? Shirogane and… Yashiro?"

"Hmm? Oh… Marimo… sensei?"

"What are you doing here? If you're here to find your TSF, you won't find it"

"Ah… no it's not that. I thought I'd come by to clear my head around here. Why are you here?"

"I'm managing the supply rosters. They're shorthanded right now so I decided to volunteer for the extra work. (Ah… I see…) The afternoon match ended half an hour ago. The others were looking for you. (…) Is something wrong? It's unusual to see you depressed like this. Did something happen you're your meeting with Yuuko?"

"No… it's nothing like that. I was just thinking about something…"

"…" Ah… this is embarrassing. I didn't really wanna spill anything to anyone right now. "Do you want to talk about it? (Eh?) Whenever you are troubled with something, it's always best to have someone to talk to. Isn't this what you've been telling others? (…) Since you've listen to all their problems, maybe I can return the favor. You can't hold all that pent up emotions in your heart forever. Sometimes, you need someone to hear you out. And besides, saying things out loud can really help clear your mind"

Heh…

This woman is just so… She's saying all the same things I've been telling my teammates. Why am so stupid to forget things I've been preaching to others?

Laughing my words down, I scooted away, making room for her to sit. "I guess I must look pretty bad if you can notice it, Marimo sensei"

"Just because my job description has changed doesn't mean I can use my old skills to help others" Heh that's true. But saying something like that makes her sound old—I think I'll keep that thought to myself. "So… what's troubling you? Considering what you've gone through I'm thinking that it has to be pretty serious if it was able to make the Legendary Rookie, depressed"

"Please don't call me that. I hate that title" People have been calling me that left and right. Even that rookie, Hibiki has been pronouncing it like he was some kind of preacher. "Besides, I'm not a rookie anymore. I'm a fully commissioned officer now. I should already have a new title"

"Old nicknames are hard to die. If it was easy to erase I would've changed mine a long time ago"

Her old nickname? "Do you mean the 'Mad Dog'? (Pffft!) Whoa!" She spat out her tea when I mentioned it.

"Who told you about that!-? (Ah…) Was it Isumi, Hayase?"

"Ah… Y… Yuuko sensei mentioned something about that. (…!) Sh… she called you that when we were talking about you" It wasn't a total lie. Back in my world, Yuuko called her the 'Mad Dog' because of her wild powers when she intoxicated.

She calmed down a bit after I mentioned my source. "Ah… I see. I guess Yuuko would know something like that. Sorry… that was a little unsightly. (…) I guess I'm a little sensitive with that nickname. I haven't heard that for a long while now. To be honest, I got that title when I was still an instructor. It was long before you and the rest of Squad 207 came in"

"Why did they call you that?"

"Because of my teaching methods. (…?) I wasn't always this nice when I first became an instructor, Shirogane. Back then I used to be very harsh in the way I taught my cadets" Harsh? I don't think I can imagine Marimo chan being harsh. In both my worlds, she was always the sweet caring woman that I've known, the person who was there when I needed her the most. "What's with that look? Are you surprised?"

"Well… a little bit" I admitted. "I mean… ever since I've known you, you've been very kind. Not just to me but to everyone. It's hard to imagine you harsh at all"

"Ara ara. That still means you have a lot to learn about women, Shirogane kun. We're a lot more complex than that. We show on the outside what we want to show and hide all the little secrets inside" Hey… where have I heard that before? "Sorry but I'd rather not talk about it"

"Hey now. What happened to 'Whenever you are troubled with something, it's always best to have someone to talk to'?"

"This is this. That is that. They're totally different matters!" Ahehehe… I got her again. "Shirogane… that smile of yours says that you're intentionally trying to irritate me. (Ahehe, sorry) Geez. I went all this way to help you out. The very least you could do is cooperate"

"Ahehehe… sorry ma'am. I'll try to be more considerate. But… I'm feeling a lot better now that I got to talk to you"

"You sure?" She inquired. "We haven't even talked about your problem yet"

"It's nothing serious" I waved her worries off. "I'm sure it'll resolve itself soon enough. Besides… there are just some problems you really need to do by yourself. If we can't overcome it, then it'll feel like you haven't grown at all"

"Ahuhuhu…" Oh? She laughed. "You know, Shirogane. That was a really mature thing to say. (Eh?) I have no doubt in my mind you'll make someone very happy in the future" Huh? What's that supposed to mean?

Whirrr!

Hmm? The hanger doors are opening. Is another squad coming in?

"Ah… it's finally here" Marimo lifted from her seat and approached the railing, turning her attention to the newly incoming mech. "It took them awhile to get it out. I supposed you can't transfer something that big especially in this weather"

And then I saw it.

The black and white painted TSF. It entered the hanger, hauled in by four freight trucks like a giant being towed at sea. A large thin fabric was the only thing that protected it from the weather. But I can make up the shapes that weren't covered too well.

"Isn't that…?"

"That's the TSF that you piloted back in Yokohama Base" Marimo confirmed it for me with a hint of a smile on her lips. "The XFJ-01a Shiranui Second Phase 2"