Chapter 40: Count down toward The Day (2)

December 14, 2001

"Professor Kouzuki, fancy meeting you here,"

An inclined voice rang, levelling Yuuko's irritation to an entirely different height than it already was. Of course, this was Yuuko's office, there is no such thing as a fancy meeting if someone was to see Yuuko in her own office.

"What's your business?"

Yuuko asked bluntly, without batting an eyelid at the man in Indiana John style suit. Other than him, nobody was capable of the feat, raising Yuuko's temper to this degree if not Shirogane Takeru, it was none other than Yoroi Sakon, the section chief of the Empire Intelligence Network.

"Don't be so cold, Professor. Can't I come here just to marvel the sight of your beauty?"

Indifferent to the coldness in Yuuko's attitude, the man nonchalantly attempted a flirtatious question only to receive a darting cold and fierce glare from Yuuko.

"Don't push your luck. I'm not in the mood for chitchat. Speak of your business here and be done with it," the emotion within Yuuko was no longer at the level of a mere irritation anymore, it was hostile, it was that of anger. She had an idea as to why the man is here, looking for her and it was not a welcome thought to Yuuko, not at all.

"…well, I have several overdue assignments with my boss that need to be address as soon as possible. May I have the honour to meet him?"

"He's on a special mission. Until he finished his mission, he won't meet anyone else," Yuuko bluntly answered. Needless to reconfirm the identity of the boss that Yoroi Sakon was talking about, which boss was it, Yuuko has already guessed correctly the identity of the man in the old spy's question.

"Well well, as expected from someone of his calibre. No wonder that his identity was among the top secret of the Fourth plan. But, I wouldn't be here and take your time if it wasn't something pressing, Professor."

"If this is about the meeting with head of the Imperial Guard Department that you are talking about, he can wait until Shirogane finished his mission. Otherwise, I could act as his representative…or is it that I am not worthy to have that role?"

Yuuko kept her icy glare level with the old spy's line of sight, challenging.

"No, no, no… the proposal from your right hand man stirred quite a major interest within the Imperial Guard, so many of them would like to meet him in person and hear his explanation to that. Well, he need not attend that meeting if he was to be on one of your special mission. We all know that your order should prioritize over anything. Though, it would be the greatest honour for us to have you attend to the meeting knowing just how busy you are these days." the old spy wryly laughed theatrically, shrugging his head left and right and then paused, letting out a calculating smirk "But, if I said that I'm not curious, I would be lying through my teeth. It's weird that I got no news from him after that incident, it's like he totally vanished just as he came. I'm not even sure if he was…"

"Do not push your luck Yoroi. Can't you understand something as simple as that?"

The temperature within the office dropped dozen of degree just as Yuuko minced her words slowly.

"My apologies. It seemed that I have overstepped." the old spy said unapologetically with a smirk plastered on his face, seemingly satisfied after witnessing the rare sight of Yuuko losing her temper "I will inform them of your answer as soon as I can. But Professor, one word before I leave if you may? What is he to you? Is he just another chesspiece or he is just another sacrificial pawn just like I am?"

The old spy chuckled as though enjoying the irritation that he caused to Yuuko, and then he picked his hat, bowing in a theatrical manner before disappearing behind the office's sliding door. He left with a sense of satisfaction adorned on his chest, knowing full well that he ticked Yuuko's off her balance with that single cryptic question.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

The easiest thing in the world is giving up.

Those who said that line must be terrible liars, Tamase Miki thought along the line as she was writing a letter to her father, reporting the events of the last few weeks of her life and her squad.

It was an eventful period for Miki ever since she passed the evaluation exam along with the squad 207. Takeru aced the aptitude exam along with several training courses, a HSST fell down from the sky, a Christmas night when everything turned wrong, Instructor Jinguuji transferred to a different position, members of the squad 207 started to proceed to their self-taught and self teach method in order to improve themselves, many things have happened indeed. Looking back, she has travelled a fair distance, both as a girl and a soldier.

Though, Miki often had an inferiority against the rest of her squad members. She may grow a lot as a person and a soldier, but as a girl in her puberty, she didn't make much progress. Contrast with the effort that Miki put into doing pull up and squash as her daily routine, including the fact that she paid extra attention to her usual diet, her height didn't grow much. Miki hated the way that she remained small and petite whereas her friends were all having a grow spurt. On the bright side, Yoroi Mikoto, Miki's best friend seemed to suffer the same problem, remaining small and petite. Small and cute just like a junior high girl, Miki almost fainted from anger, hearing such a random praise once in a while. But then again, Meiya, Ayamine and Sakaki were nothing like Miki and Mikoto, especially Meiya and Ayamine with their smoking three sizes on the level of cheating. They could even make the spoke women for the army magazine crying the tears of jealousy with their curvy figures, much less a person like Miki. They were glamorous abundance where they should be and appropriately slim at the proper parts.

A girl had many problems to worry about, this was only one of them, one that Miki could not easily give up. One day, one day, she would become like that, her effort will be rewarded. Miki secretly hoped.

On the other hand, Miki has yet to give up in becoming an Eishi even after that Christmas. She couldn't accept what she has been told by the CO on that night. The years that she spent, polishing her sharpshooting skill, the effort that she paid, pursuing the art of piloting a TSF, the tears and hardship that she went through along with her friends, they were all for nothing. There would be no way that Miki could accept it even if Miki was a told to do so. Pursuing the same path as she did was hard, but to abandon it after coming so far was even harder, she could not stand the thought of abandoning every effort and hardship that she went through to pursue it. The fact that Miki was already a Second Lieutenant was the very proof that giving up was not an easy task.

But then, the hardest thing to give up was her first love.

It's weird, she has thought of giving up, standing on the side line, giving her friends encourage and blessing. But it was much harder than Miki thought, it was unimaginable hard. The boy that she loved has already gone steady with someone she called friend, becoming an item. She should give up on him, trying to forget her first love as soon as she can while giving her friends her blessing, that's what Miki telling herself at least. Yet, if only she was able to do something like that as easily as she imagined. The circumstance made it extremely difficult for Miki to do so. That guy and Miki was in the same squad, she met him and exercised with him as her daily routine. Even if she wanted to avoid him, she couldn't. Forgetting about him was really hard, not letting go of her measly hope was even harder… since that man was an incredibly blockhead, an extremely unbelievably dense man to a point that it was frustrating, making it harder for Miki and her broken-heart-friends to create some distance between him and themselves in order to sorting their thought and emotion, mending their broken heart during the process and at the same time, avoiding feeling conflicted and jealousy toward Meiya. Two years, Miki managed some progress in forgetting her first love. It subsided somewhat, comparing to two years ago but she ultimately felt hurt every time she watched Takeru acted intimately with Meiya. It should be the same for everyone else but…

Miki believed that she was at fault for being like that. But on the other hands, the circumstance and Takeru's denseness that was also to blame for this pain in her heart. He didn't aware of her feeling or that of anyone else, treating Miki and everyone without a notion of their conflicted heart, not knowing that his kindness and his feeling would only hurt them even more. But Miki knew, she wasn't the only one feeling this way, so she endured.

It was so hard to give up.

Miki thought.

If it was me who trapped with him back then at Mt. Tengen, would he choose me instead of Meiya san?

Every there and then, a glowering ember unconsciously surfaced in which Miki immediately buried it, casting it away as she was unable to bear the thought, unable to bear her own self-hatred for the meagre conceited jealousy she had.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tsukuyomi was born in a dark time, one that called men, women, boys and girls to arm, going to war. This is an age where responsibility preceded over everything, the freedom to live and to love, dream, hope, literally everything.

She was trained among the greatest warriors, those who pledged their lives for the empire and their pride in their warrior bloodline. She was one of the chosen few that given the sacred honour to serve the Shogun herself in person, to be the Shogun's personal guard. But instead, Tsukuyomi was assigned to a greater duty, directing by the Shogun herself, guarding the other half of the Shogun, her shadow, her relative, and soon Tsukuyomi realized that person was none other than the Shogun's sister, her twin, Mitsurugi Meiya.

It came to Tsukuyomi on that day such mission gave to her in person that she has done something wrong, something unworthy that she couldn't remain by the Shogun's side whereas she should, along with her cousin. But time told Tsukuyomi otherwise, there was a purpose within the mission itself and she was trusted by the Shogun.

Like two droplets of water they were, Mitsurugi Meiya and the Shogun Koubuin Yuuhi. The moment Tsukuyomi first laid her eyes upon the mirror reflection of the Shogun, she understood that she was sorely mistaken about the true intent of the Shogun. It's not that she was not trusted, it's not that she was not good enough. It was precisely because she was trusted and has enough skill to back up for her reputation that Tsukuyomi was given on such mission. On that very day that such realization came to Tsukuyomi, her life changed in a way it never did and never could it be the same again.

The sword that she has not pledged to anyone, not even the Shogun herself, was accepted by the shadow of the Shogun. An oath was made, for honour, for duty and for the noble pride that Tsukuyomi had. Her lordship, there was only but one, Mitsurugi Meiya.

That's why, morality, laws, rules, Tsukuyomi was willing to throw them all away, waging her honour as an Imperial Royal Guard to protect who she must protect, Meiya. Her duty, her responsibility, her oath preceded them all. Tsukuyomi was willing to do everything she could, so that the safety of Mitsurugi Meiya would be assure. She promised no mercy to those who dare to cause harm to Mitsurugi Meiya, her lordship and her oath receiver.

"Who sent you?"

Tsukuyomi interrogated, glaring at the prisoner.

" "

The interrogated one answered, absently, his eyes were not focused. The irises dilated, wandering on the land that beyond rationality and sanity itself. Foam of white overflown, streaming from both sides of his mouth.

The man himself was broken, in mind and body, spiritually and physically. Yet, his words held nothing but truth even when his mind was broken. No, it was precisely because that his mind was broken that his words held nothing but the truth.

"Why are you doing that? Money? Power? What did he promise you? How could a captain of a hundred men like you be swayed from the path that you should walk?"

Tsukuyomi gritted her teeth, trying to contain her anger within herself and narrowing her sight at the man, or what little remained of him. A soldier, a proud elite member of the capital garrison he was, or at least used to be, definitely not now, not the kind of person he is at the moment and definitely no longer be in the future. Despite that he didn't look the part at the moment, among the assailants who were captured by Takeru, this man was the one with the highest rank.

"My family, they will be safe. They are promised to be among the migrating fleet when I agreed to this mission."

An unexpected answer came, crashing at Tsukuyomi with a sense of guilt and pity for the man himself. She bit her lips, spewing a trickle of blood, slightly regretting her forceful method to draw out the truth from the man's mouth, but only for a moment. On that day that Tsukuyomi swore the oath of loyalty, she also swore that she would do anything to protect Meiya and that very reason was the answer behind this immorality and unlawful action that Tsukuyomi took at the moment.

She didn't torture the man, no, Tsukuyomi never has any intention in doing so after forcefully acquired the man from the hand of the UN Army, making them relinquished the prisoner to her device. Those people took advantage of Tsukuyomi's and her subordinates' absence to attack Meiya, they must pay for their crime. It made no different if her enemies were someone's father, someone's children, someone's beloved. It made no different. They all became meaningless the moment Meiya's existence and safety was at risk. Whether a person is someone's son, father of a child, someone's lover, it made no different at all. That's what Tsukuyomi told herself.

The man was a soldier, with a long term of service. Besides, if he was to commit such an act, he must be mentally prepared against everything, including the fact that he would be captured and being interrogated. Torturing would be useless and meaningless, Tsukuyomi knew, and it was never her intention to do so. A dose of truth serum plus a strong hypnotic suggestion was all Tsukuyomi needed to break down all barriers, pride, lies, determination, mental fortitude, they will be all broken without fail.

"How did you people know about her? She is only known by a chosen few"

Tsukuyomi asked, slamming her fist at the table, almost throwing off the interrogating lamp off the balance. Her conscience pressed Tsukuyomi hard but the sense of dread that she felt at the moment was even greater.

"…"

The interrogated one stared blankly at Tsukuyomi, making some unintelligent sound but not providing the answer like he should.

Something was off. Tsukuyomi realized it, glaring at the man. No, the truth serum didn't run out of effect and neither does the hypnotic suggestion. The effect of the truth serum should last another hour or two and the hypnotic suggestion would even last for weeks or even the rest of the man's life. Besides, the irises of the man was still dilated, he has not come to his sense yet.

"Why did you choose that place to attack?"

Tsukuyomi threw a question to check condition of the man himself.

"…With the absence of the Imperial Guard's escort… that's the best place to prepare the ambush to catch her alive. There would be no witness once we are done with it"

The man replied sentiently despite his lack of reason, saliva still foamed, overflowing from the corners of his lips.

The drug and the suggestion haven't worn off. Tsukuyomi deducted from the answer she received. But still, something was off, her gut kept telling her.

"Since when did you start preparing this attack?"

Tsukuyomi pressed the question, confirming the sense of wrongness that she felt.

"Five months ago," bluntly, the man answered, much to Tsukuyomi's surprise.

Impossible

Tsukuyomi thought, believing that she was onto something but then immediately shrug her head as the she felt that something was still not right.

The mission asked of the UN army by the Imperial Guard was planned weeks ago. Besides, the secrecy behind Meiya's existence was never disclosed among the Imperial Guard Department. No one but the people involved should realize it. The Imperial Guard Department should not involve in this plot.

Then was it those people who Takeru made his connections? It could be, but the chance would even be lower.

An idea sparked within Tsukuyomi's head, she then asked, reconfirming her suspicion "Who are you after, plotting this attack?"

"Her Highness the Shogun, Koubuin Yuuhi," replied the interrogated man.

"I see," Tsukuyomi gritted her teeth as she has finally confirmed the source of wrongness that she fell during the interrogation. It was a case of identification mismatch at the man's end. But, it didn't make the entire situation anything less dire.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

As a child, the first thing that was taught to her was neither happiness nor freedom, nor it was the warmth of a family, it was responsibility, it was honour, the code of bushido, the noble's oblige instead.

Happiness, sometimes, she couldn't help but wonder what it is. Was it the sense of self satisfaction that she felt every time she accomplished something, got praised by her master, earning respect from her attendant? Was it the elation that she felt each and every time she learned, mastering a new skill? Was 'happiness' what she felt, helping people to accomplish something?

Sometimes, she couldn't help but wonder if the relationship that she shared with her trusted attendants, her chamberlain was what people called "Friendship". Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. Perhaps, their relationship was closer to that of a noble confidant than of a lord and her subject. Perhaps the girl was a fool for over-thinking about that. She could only understand the definition of the word 'friendship' through books and stories, but not in real life. Nobody was there to show her the very definition of the word 'friendship' itself, she could only study, learning the meaning of that word on her own definition and experience. But, it didn't matter. It's not like she was really want something like that or anything.

She was different from everyone, people who she interacted in her everyday life, people who she learned of from novels and text books. She was different from them, whether it was her role or her life. But never has she blamed it, lamenting on it, regretting about it. It was who she was, what she was, the very definition of Mitsurugi Meiya, a shadow, a double for the Shogun herself.

There was always an invisible wall separating between her and normal people. Even when she stepped down from her status, becoming a cadet, volunteering to be a soldier, nothing has changed. If it came to works and missions, she was able to talk it out with them, those who she called her squad mates. But when those mission and works came to an end, the air was awkward. They talked to her with formal language, with utmost respect. It's hard…but she has already got used to it. She has already expected it.

Who am I?

That question arose within her head every time she looked at the reflection of her own through a mirror. Mitsurugi Meiya is who she is, from her very first breath and even this day, but it wasn't what her people think, looking at her. Seeing her, people wouldn't think that it was Mitsurugi Meiya that was in their eyes, it was always someone else. But, such was her role, such was her responsibility and she never lamented on it nor did she once grow to hate it. In this world, there were girls who lived their lives, dreaming to become princesses and there were princesses who lived their lives, wishing if they were normal girls. But Mitsurugi Meiya was neither.

Meiya

Never she would have thought that there would be someone who would called her given name, not her family name in that intimate manner as he did, much less from a stranger, moreover in their very first meeting like that. If he was a person from another culture, that explained. But he was definitely a Japanese just like everyone else that she interacted until now. The only explanation was that he was a returnee, having no knowledge of her identity at all.

Meiya

She couldn't help but frown seeing how he intimately called her despite it was their first meeting. His etiquette was bad, that Meiya knew that much just as that man realized it himself. He should not call her as such without being someone close to her. But never has he changed the way he addressed her, back then and now.

Meiya

His etiquette was definitely bad from Japanese's perspective, even the entire squad must reckon on that fact. He didn't talk to her in the way that anyone else did. He didn't interact with her with formality or pay her the kind of utmost respect that people always revered at her. His etiquette was definitely bad. Meiya did oppose to it but strangely a part within her didn't, she didn't pay much effort to correct him or demanded him to change the intimate manner that he adopted against her. It was indeed strange.

Little by little, things changed before Meiya realized it. The invisible wall that she thought would accompany with her for the rest of her life vanished from god know when. Those who she called her squad mates, her friends treated her intimately in a way they never did, similarly to that strange boy. It was much easier for her to join in their conversation during their meal and all, it was much easier for her to talk with them. She was even able to argue, clashing ideas against them without any reservation, without the fear that their relationship would turn sour or return to what it has always been. Was this what people define as 'friendship'? Was the flutter sensation that she felt within her heart, able to talk with people around her normally as everyone else what people define as 'happiness'? She couldn't help but wonder every here and now. Did she even have the right to emerge herself in such feeling?

He was a strange man, much weaker than anyone else, more awkward than anyone else aside from being cruder and ruder than anyone that she has ever met. It was like he was a person fell from the sky, not knowing a thing, not knowing how the world worked. His head filled with strange things and yet missed a numerous common knowledge that even a child should know. Despite that, he always has that strange confidence despite being a dead weight and a dunce. Yet strangely, she didn't hate him for who he is, even a man like that has his own charm.

Still, at the depth of her heart rested turmoil. That man was merely didn't know anything about Meiya that he was able to treat her in the manner that he did. If one day, the fact about Meiya came to light, would he able to treat her as such?

"Takeru,"

She called him as such, not by his family name but by his given name, knowing that those days would grow short. And, it didn't take long for that day to come, the day that the needle would come out of the bag.

A Takemikazuchi was bestowed upon Meiya. Brilliant purple it was, signifying the origin of Meiya, signifying the blood that runs deep in her veins. Even at its present, that man didn't know a thing. As expected, he only treated Meiya in that manner because he didn't know a thing about her or of the implication behind that Takemikazuchi.

Afterward, he was suspected by Tsukuyomi for being overly intimate with Meiya, for being near Meiya. He was questioned by Tsukuyomi despite not knowing anything. In response to that, Meiya sensed something rose within her, something that resembled anger, something that didn't even exist even at that time Tamase Miki was hurted, something that she has never felt toward Tsukuyomi before. The words came out of her after that were surprisingly sharp, like that of blades, like that of daggers, subduing Tsukuyomi into submission with Meiya's authority.

In the end, she could not hide it. She explained to that man of her own origin.

"Do you really not know?"

Meiya gingerly asked while aware of the impossibility of her doubt.

"Yeah," that man bluntly answered in one word.

"Can you not tell anything by looking at my face?" Meiya asked, frowning, couldn't even believe that she just heard what she's expected from him.

"It's just Meiya," he replied.

"I can only be amazed by your ignorance" Meiya sighed, half of relief, half of the tiredness that she felt regarding just how impossible that man could possibly be. And it was possible that there was more than that to explain the relief that she felt at that moment. Her heart leapt, beating at an impossible pace. It's that one line that she secretly wanted to hear for almost the rest of her life. It was the answer that she looked forward to hear the most.

Is this 'happiness' or perhaps it was something else entirely different.

Despite everything, the explanation Meiya gave him afterward, that man still treated Meiya in the same manner as he did before that. If only he knew just how appreciated Meiya felt by doing something as simple as that, talking to Meiya normally without tiptoeing or given her any special treatment.

"Takeru," she called, slowly caressing the man's sleeping face with a smile unknowingly spread across her cherry like lips. It became a habit for her, waking up a little bit early to watch her lover's sleeping face. He was snoring innocently without knowing of Meiya's little enjoyment.

Love, it was the one word that changed Meiya's entire world and even transformed herself into a completely different person. She felt that she became weaker at some point, can not imagine herself to live, separating herself from the warmth that she experienced at the moment, unable to forget the scent of the man she loved and definitely would never able to forget the raw emotion that she had, to be able to stay inside his hugging arms.

Is it happiness that she felt at the moment? Meiya couldn't help but wonder, couldn't stop herself from brushing her hand against her lover's unkempt hair and his cheek.

What a special man he was.

Meiya smiled at that thought, reminiscing of the time she spent with him.

Knowing the full implication and consequence of his action, he stayed back, assisting Meiya to the end back then during the eruption of Mt. Tengen. During that foolishness, he almost lost his life, together with Meiya inside her Fubuki's cockpit. It's only during that time that Meiya understood her feeling, the meaning behind her racing heart every time she watched him from afar.

"Why didn't you make use of the card I gave you?"

Meiya unknowingly let out a sigh. The biggest worry of her life, it wasn't the rise and fall of the nations, not the fading pride and the glooming weakness within herself, not the fate of her own, but the safety of the one man that she loved. For him, she forwent everything, her nobility, her strength and even her pride and has done something that unfitting of a member of a royalty lineage. For him, she was willing to go that far, secretly without letting him know.

"Why didn't you?"

Meiya lightly kissed on the sleep man's forehead, without waking him from his peaceful slumber as a trickle of tear welled up at the corners of her eyes.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The sempai, the one that passed down the emblem of the Valkyries to the youth was probably a monstrous existence. That experience could only be described as standing right in front of a dragon's snout, the meeting with that particular sempai. The blades in her hands were closer to claws than blades. Furious blows came like waterfall, ceaseless and endless. She was more akin to a war beast than a warrior. She swung her blades around without any proper form of technique, lacking both style and elegance. But it was more than enough. Her attack was far from slow with the strength that on the level of absurdity itself. Fighting against her, Takeru could only imagine that he had fought against a monster that came out of myth.

If that sempai was a dragon for her reckless and wild fighting style, Tsukuyomi would be a warrior in those fairy tales of old. Strong and solid, elegance but deadly was her technique. Being her student, Takeru had known of it more than enough.

Sparks flew as the duo clashed. Their weapons were the similar and even their technique was the same. But, the more they clashed, the more the youth realized his own helplessness.

Twin knives in each hands, the youth furiously repelled against his master's attack, though barely.

The despairing gulp in technique, skill and experience between the youth and his mentor was colossus. There was no way he could fill up such gigantic hole with only two years of learning from her. A genius in millions was what people called him, but he was not. The youth knew it better than anyone else that he wasn't a genius. Geniuses were those like his friends, his squadmates or his Yuuko sensei. He was not a prodigy like everyone thought him to be. He was just different.

But even if he was a genius, it wouldn't make any different in this kind of match. His mentor was that good. The youth don't feel like he could win at all. Worse, the disadvantage in machine spec took it toll. Her Tactical Surface Fighter was the Takemikazuchi, the strongest TSF that the youth could imagine. Its spec was overwhelming in all aspect and was miles away from the technology that used to create the youth's TSF, a Gekishin.

But, the mentor didn't use her TSF to the fullest extend. She didn't even take advantage of her machine's overwhelming spec to win the battle. She did it with skill and experience. That's what so infuriating about this battle. The youth already did his best and he was still losing, stuck in defensive position with no way to breaking out whereas his mentor didn't go al out on him yet.

All he could see was an invincible god of war donned in crimson armour. There was no opening in the war god's attack nor there was one in her defence, impenetrable like a fortress and unstoppable like a hurricane. Even this was not the first time that the youth has gone through this routine, the youth was still surprised at the different in strength between himself and his mentor.

He tried to lure his mentor into a narrow spot, one that would be advantageous to him to make full use of his acrobatic fighting style to confuse her while sealing off her sword technique. And his mentor took the bait…or rather she happily complied with her pupil's invitation.

Her sword was sealed or it should be. The current stage was too small and narrow to make full use of a Type 74 PB Blade. A narrowed street of 7 meter wide was totally not a good battlefield for one to deploy his melee halberd. Still, the hardened carbon blade in the hand of her machine danced beautifully, cornering the youth each and every time.

A feeling that akin to regret assaulted the youth for a second before faded into oblivion.

It was really regrettable that he wasn't entirely serious back then. If back then, he was as serious as he is now, listening to Marimo's lesson probably and took on practice probably, maybe he would be a little stronger now and maybe would provide more of a match than this.

But, even if he was a little stronger than he is at the moment, the youth doubted that he could actually turn the match around. The mentor was just that strong.

"There is no point in this lesson if you hold back like that"

From his earpieces, a voice rang.

"No, I was just trying to see if I could somehow do it without showing this baby's true colour. As expected, I couldn't," the youth regretfully admitted.

"That's some big ambition you have there," the mentor chuckled with a slight tinge of anger in her tone. If the youth thought he could defeat her without resorting to his final card, he was completely over his head.

Without waiting for her pupil to respond, the mentor charged, breaking through his cross guard defence stance with a lightening thrust and then promptly executed flurry of hack and slash.

He was caught surprise. His HUD flared yellow, orange and red for a second, flashing warning due to the damaged received from the score of furious onslaughts from his mentor.

Sparks flew as the youth became more and more desperate to fend of the endless onslaught of his mentor. In a desperate attempt, he leapt back, throwing a knife at the crimson TSF to buy some time. However, the mentor easily brushed it off, charging her machine at her pupil's retreating TSF with blinding speed.

If it was the old Shirogane Takeru, the youth would have plunged his machine from the narrow street, jumping building to building and then flew his machine to the blue sky to avoid the crimson bullet tat was his mentor's TSF. But, he has learned that method only delay his inevitable defeat. Fighting a Takemikazuchi on an open field with a Gekishin was like hitting stone with egg considering the difference in power output between the two machines. It wouldn't make much of a chase either considering the speed of the Takemikazuchi and the control skill of Tsukuyomi. That's why, if he fought against a Takemikazuchi, a narrow place like this was the best battlefield he could possibly seek. He might be overpowered by the Takemikazuchi's raw power output, but not speed, not in his chosen fighting spot.

The youth commanded his TSF to twirl half a circle, delivering a sharp high kick to stop short of his mentor's attack and at the same time, furiously dragging out the internal command board and input dozen of command.

The seal was lifted and the beast was free from its chain. The beast roared majestically in jubilation, Gekishin Mk II was its name.

"What a disaster!"

Even after one and a half year, Shirogane Takeru still could not forget the first time he teamed up with his second assigned TSF, the Gekishin. The moment he walked out of his machine's cockpit, away from his trial simulation, the head mechanic came with his dejected head shaking at the worst performance he has ever seen from Takeru. Being the head figure of the entire team of mechanics and engineer of hundreds, the old technician was more or less a father, mentor and boss among the mechanic team and had the highest authority among the mechanic department.

"It's too different from the Fubuki. I've known that it would be different. But I didn't expect it would be like this," Takeru blew out exasperatedly and commented. "Old man, do you think we could do something about this?"

He was neither the type to boast nor being an arrogant guy, but Shirogane Takeru had a lot of pride on his piloting skill. That's the only thing that in his disposal that he could be confident that he was better than his squad mates and even any Eishi he had ever met at that time. Yuuko sensei commented that as long as it was solely on piloting technique, he was second to none. And Marimo chan often told him that even if it was being reckless and completely irrational in its own way, his thinking and style wasn't wrong.

"Sure, with time perhaps…" the head mechanic mumbled along the line as he stared at the Gekishin. "Well, to put it bluntly, this machine isn't exactly inferior to the Fubuki or the Shiranui in its own way. It all came down to the Eishi's piloting skill in the end."

Even though he had yet to have the chance to pilot a Shiranui, Takeru could more or less understand what's the old mechanic was talking about. It wasn't the difference in spec and technology that determined a worth of a TSF for most of the case. A Gekishin was designed with a tank like frame to withstand against straight-on hits and collisions despite possessing some aerodynamic ability of fighters being the first generation TSF. The latter generation's design, second and third generation was however different from the first generation, heavily implemented with aerodynamic and manoeuvrability in design. They were designed to evade attacks and could not receive hit as nearly as much as the first generation TSF.

That's why it was a complete mismatch, the synergy between Takeru and his Gekishin in their first fly. One is an Eishi who prided himself in his ability to evade almost any incoming attacks whereas the other is a machine took pride in its ability to receive almost any sort of attack head on without budging, the gear between them was completely out of synch, resulting in an extremely poor performance. Their compatibility with each other was the worst.

"I would prefer if they actually hand me an Eagle or something similar. But I guess that was too much playing favourite… for a cadet," Takeru mumbled as he shrugged away his frustration over the earlier failure. "But this will do, I just need some time to settle our conflict, perhaps."

"Don't you think it's a waste?"

The head mechanic suddenly asked a strange question.

"Sorry?"

Takeru asked, being confused by the cryptic question of the old technician.

"It's such a waste, don't you think? Seeing one's potential dwarfed in this manner, even I would become agitated. This is like tasking a butcher's job to a knight and giving the knight's job to a butcher," the old mechanic looked back and forth between Takeru and his Gekishin.

"You don't mean?" Takeru gasped lightly, staring at the head mechanic with disbelieving eyes.

"I know, as a mechanic, I should never try to do something like that. But, I do think it waste for the two of you to stick with each other they way you are. Yes, so be it. Son, do you want a knight sword of your own size?"

Takeru completely forgot what reply he gave to the old mechanic at that moment. But he vividly recalled the old man's respond after that "A knight sword, you will have."

Since that day, both human and machine were no longer what they used to be.

A Gekishin it is, both in name and record was no longer just a mere Gekishin. It's not just any average Gekishin.

The outdated OPW was ripped out to be replaced with the current popular OPL to lessen the useless dead weight on the Gekishin and to improve the reaction speed and control sensitivity. The auto balance program as well as many other programs that deemed almost unnecessary by Takeru set to lowest priority, deactivating upon manual control.

The left Jump unit was replaced with Takeru's old Fubuki right Jump unit which miraculously undamaged during the incident of Mt. Tengen's eruption. Of course, the head mechanic faked a completely busted status form regarding Takeru's old TSF to retrieve that Jump unit without any speculation. As for the right Jump unit, the head mechanic managed to perform a miracle feat of a job, dismantling a completely busted Shiranui and secured its damaged Jump unit. Though, it took the old man and a team of dozens of his loyal technicians nearly 3 months to completely repair that particular Jump unit before replacing it to the Gekishin's right Jump unit.

The old Jump unit of Takeru's Fubuki then went through a complete modifying, enlarging the blast chambers and refitting several accessories to generate greater propulsion speed and power to keep up with the right Jump unit of a Shiranui.

Core reactor was also forcefully dragged out during the overhaul. Takeru's personal team of technician once again perform another miracle, allowing the machine to generate greater power output than it normally should, rivalling even an Eagle or a Shiranui in term of instantaneous output. The only offset of this modification was a dip in operating hour of the machine as a whole.

The zealous mechanics also intended to lighten down the load of the Gekishin's weight by reducing its armour's thickness but was stoped by Takeru.

"Don't do it, I have something that I have always want to try," he said, giving his opinion in the topic, participating in the designing process for the modification of his Gekishin's armour. On a contrary to his trusted team of mechanic's expectation, Takeru told them to increase the Gekishin's armour thickness at several parts in his designed instead. And as the result, the Gekishin gained yet another several thousands kilograms. Intriguing design, but nevertheless, the team went along with their Eishi's strange request.

Carbon actuators, muscle packs, hydraulic motors and several other motion assisting parts experienced the same fate as their neighbours, undergoing a complete modification and refitting process until both the head mechanic and Takeru gave an 'okay'.

A Gekishin in name, paper and appearance, but it was definitely no longer just a mere Gekishin. After the long and extensive illegal modification process it went through, nobody could say that it is just a mere Gekishin. The safety guild-lines were treaded in a way they never did. Several experimenting phases were skipped, shortening down with the amount of time that would strike any TSF developers, technician specialists and test Eishi dumb, mind-freaked even.

(Warning: Aspiring engineers don't do it at home or workplace. Currently employed engineers, strictly follow the guild line for your own sake. This is a work of fiction! Don't blame me if you ever get yourself fired after mimicking this. I absolutely won't take responsibility in the case you did.)

The trial and testing phases were however not blatantly ignored. Instead, the performance of the machine after each and every new modification was proven through out battles, or what many people recognized as 'the Shirogane's show' where Takeru went and challenged each and every Eishis around the Yokohama base for those unofficial matches.

"A sword that befits a knight's hand," would be the comment of the machine's father if anyone asked of his opinion. "My pal," would be the opinion of the machine's tasked Eishi as he would reply unhesitatingly with pride.

However, a "What the *peep* was that?" would be the common feedback from any test pilot if they've ever accompanied the Gekishin Mk II in a fly or two. Or perhaps it would be "what kind of junk was that?"

Completely unbalanced in every aspect, the machine was. The sensitivity of the OS was set to a point of absurdity itself, responding a huge spike in even the most delicate controls. The distributing weight of the machine is also a problem, with the slightest movement, the entire balance of the machine can easily be offset, let alone flying. The thrusting performance of the Jump units was also a problem with the difference in power between left and right Jump unit.

"Who could possibly fly such a defected machine?"

That would be the most common feedback the illegal modified TSF would receive if anyone else other than its master give a try at controlling it.

Without king Arthur, the Caliburn would just be a sword that stuck in stone. Without Zun Wukong, the monkey king bar would just be an average supporting pillar. Without Alexander the Great, Bucephalus would just be your average wild and untamed horse. And without Shirogane Takeru, the Mk II would just be a useless piece of junk. That's said, the Mk II was crafted for Shirogane Takeru alone. It's unimaginable for anyone else other than him to fly and master such a deviant of a manmade craft.

But, if the TSF was such a deviant one, the one who managed to control it could only be labelled as a deviant by all standards. Two years ago, back to 2001, he was already a deviant the moment he entered a TSF cockpit simulation for the first time in his life, his deviance just got worsen at the moment.

The sword in the hands of the red god of war was seemingly unstoppable. Yet, the Imperial Royal Guard Commander wasn't even surprise to see it got blocked… or in fact stopped by Tsukuyomi's own will. The remained knife in the hand of the now freed beast maliciously zigzagged and then plunged straight at Tsukuyomi's cockpit, completely neglecting its duty to guard its master and instead attack Tsukuyomi. In fact, Tsukuyomi knew well that her own student aimed for a double KO, willingly be skewered by Tsukuyomi's sword and at the same time impaled Tsukuyomi's Takemikazuchi with his own knife.

Like a clap of thunder, the two weapons collided and the shorter blade mercilessly flung out of the metallic grab of the Mk II. Yet, it was as though that the youth has expected to such result, seizing the moment to ram his TSF at the crimson war god.

Ironically, it was the war god who was being pushed despite having superior thrusting power. Her blade out wide, leaving her unattended due to the prior clash and giving the Mk II just the chance it needed to take advantage of its overwhelming mass to brutify its way through.

"You should have done it from the start," the mentor mumbled before sending her opponent flying with a powerful shoulder toss with her remained free arm, taking advantage of its charging momentum.

However, the mentor was shortly betrayed by her expectation. She expected a loud crash as the heavy first generation TSF would land on the ground on its back.

The piercing sound of jet engine dominated the atmosphere. And the Mk II fought against gravity with its Jump unit, skidding on the dried concrete.

"You are wrecking your machine. How many times should I tell you to avoid doing something like that?" The mentor lamented at the sight.

"It's not like I could do something else in that situation," the pupil replied as he swiftly deployed his melee halberd.

It was not normal, not at all. Even compare to his old piloting style, the one that said to be irrational and irregular, the way the youth piloting his TSF at the moment went beyond that. The most dangerous thing about his piloting style was the way he took advantage of blind spots and the speed of TSF tracking reticles to deliver a final blow without his enemy understood how they were defeated in CQC. That level of feat wasn't achieved by solely rely on the speed of the TSF and the tracking ability of a TSF's tracking reticles but also the mentality of the opponents. Since his piloting style was so out of place and the way he flied his TSF was so unorthodox that people hardly can cope with it. But that piloting stye has evolved drastically during the last two years.

Since the Mk II shut out most of the youth's prided manoeuvres as the behemoth could barely support such illogical piloting style with its mass, the youth learned to defend himself, to block, to absorb hit and the way to evade one's attack with the least movement. That part made him as the same as any regular Eishi, those who struggled to learn and fight without a single blessing of talent. Which was why, he became even more dangerous than what he used to be.

The fact that he was a novice as best at the art of self defence when piloting a TSF was but a guise. The moment his opponents were lured into his clever deception, getting used to his faked tempo would be the moment Shirogane Takeru would switch his gear, overwhelming them with his prided unorthodox piloting style to defeat them. Furthermore, the youth could now change the flying trajectory of his TSF in just a matter of second at the moment by merely shifting the centre of gravitation of his Mk II. That made it worse for his opponents to figure out the general trajectory, and even if they were somehow did it or being a genius of the same mindset, it would be impossible for them to do anything about it. The sensitivity of the Mk II will ensure that Takeru responded faster than any other Eishi.

Amidst the claps of thunders and the dance of sparkling sparks, dozens and then hundreds of blows were exchanged.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

One, two, three, four and five, five slaps in total. No, actually it was four slaps and one punch.

"How could you possibly order us such a thing? Take back your joke, this is not funny at all," Meiya growled, eyes brimmed with tears while tightly grabbing onto the ID card given to her with one hand while folding her lover's collar with other.

"We have been with each other through thick and thin, you can't possibly order us such a thing?"

Chiruzu too, couldn't hold back her emotion, shaking with anger as she slammed the ID card given to her to the ground. Her eyes reddened, swelling with tears.

"Takeru san…" Tama was unable to say anything but Takeru's name, only stood on her feet, sobbing.

"Why?" Ayamine asked, gripped her fist tightly. On her ever-poker face, irritation and anger flushed brightly along with what people recognized as sorrow.

"You can't do this to us, Takeru," Mikoto angrily shook her head, tears trickled. She has a looked as if she was completely dismayed, utterly shocked and could never ever bring herself into convinced to believe in what she has just heard.

"As the squad leader, I order you all to take those ID cards to board the shuttle and go to space," Takeru expressionlessly repeated his order once again, still with his butt on the ground, his cheeks swollen and his lips bruised.

"I refuse," Meiya answered, representing the shared will of the entire squad with her tears filled eyes.

"Don't do that. Live. That's an order. I repeat," Takeru ordered with a low and commanding voice as he rose. Yet, it sounded more like a desperate plea than an order.

"Do you mean to order us to go to space?" Chiruzu quiveredly asked, her hands gripped strongly to her sleeves, darting an angry look at her squad leader. She has the look of a person who was betrayed by the one and only person that she has never expected to. Indeed, after all, she could never ever bring herself into believe that there would be a day that Takeru would have told her such thing.

"Yes, I want you all to live on," Takeru returned the stare defiantly at Chiruzu, hiding his own emotion behind his bruised face.

"So this was the reason you spoke so frequently with Major Jinguuji at the HQ, so this was the reason behind your disappearance every then and now?" Meiya grimly gave a fierce look at her boyfriend.

"Changing the list was an awfully dangerous thing for Marimo chan to do. I don't want anyone of you to waste it," slowly stood back on his feet, Takeru replied.

"Why?" Ayamine asked, a rare sentimental drop of tear fell down her cheek. Her line of sight dropped to the ground, directly on her own feet. This sudden betrayal was too much for her to take.

"You ask why Ayamine… Can't you see the answer for yourself? Can't you see how afraid I am? If any of you were to die before me, if I lost you…" Takeru shifted his gaze between the members of his squad and finally stopped at Meiya. "If i lost you... I do not know if I could live on"

Those five cards were all he had within the envelop given to him by Marimo, his old mentor. One way tickets to join the orbiting space station to the migrant fleet gathering at Lagrange points, they were.

Tommorow, the last shuttle to the faraway star would launch with the rest of its kin, joining the journey to the faraway star with the migrant fleet. Those cards were all that he had.

Few hundred thousand people would allow to board the fleet whereas a billion, the remained of the world population will remain, waging war with the BETA on a new scale, fighting to the bitter end with nuclear warheads and mass-produced G bombs. Those ID cards would ensure Meiya and the girls to be part of the few hundred thousand people that to be saved.

Of course, acquiring those cards was not an easy thing to do for someone like Takeru with the exception of the first two cards that came to him. Somehow, he was chosen as a part of those few hundred thousand people that represented for mankind, those chosen selective fews that would be saved whilst the rest will not. Strangely, those two ID cards were both registered with his own identification, one of the biggest mysteries that Takeru could not explain. Did someone make a mistake or perhaps this was a coincidence? These cards were one of a kind that could not freely distribute to just anyone or anybody. It would be unthinkable that someone would make such a grave mistake to issue two ID card like that to Takeru.

But it mattered not. On that day, he has thought a lot, about the cards in his possesion and what he should do in the future.

He arrived at the one and single conclusion, to save his dearest.

In the end, he made his decision, dealing a numerous back door trades and dirtied his hands several times and has finally gathered five cards in total using his connection and Yuuko's. But, the ID cards' identification wasn't matched and couldn't use by the girls. Therefore, he asked a favour from Marimo who at the moment, working at the HQ to change to name to match with the ID of those cards, an extremely dangerous job and could result in execution if discorvered.

"You should have know that starting with the emperor, the entire imperial family has thrown away their cards," Meiya adamantly rejected the card given to her. Her face brimmed with tears as she looked fiercely into her lover's eye, asking why.

"I'm sorry to force my own selfishness on all of you at this moment...but I want you all to survive. If it's fighting, I'm more than enough. If it's fighting and killing BETA, I'm more than enough. I can fight better knowing that you all would be safe, I can fight with a combined strength of our entire squad on my shoulder… So please, don't cry," Takeru said, wiping tears on Meiya's eyes and brough her near, held her softly.

But, Meiya pushed him away, crying.

"I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. You are a cruel man. Do you want me to suffer?" Meiya began hitting at Takeru's chest, hitting and crying at the same time while everyone else just stood there, crying.

"I'm sorry...but why don't you try to understand my feeling a little bit?"

"I hate you. I absolutely hate you, Takeru," Meiya cried, still hitting at Takeru's chest with the strength of a child.

"If you stay on Earth, you are just waiting to die," Takeru looked at the ceiling, holding back his tears. "I can't stand the idea of seeing such a predeterimined fate push on you"

There are two kind of predetermined fate awaited for the followers of the Alternative Plan. The first was a bright one, one that ensure their own survival, fleeing into space, running away from the BETA, creating a new home with the knowledge and ability that passed to them. The second was a doomed one, left behind in the Earth, fighting with the BETA to the bitter end. For Takeru's case and his squad, it was the latter. But furthermore, this squad 207B was always in a rocky position ever since that fateful Christmas came. The role of political hostages that was forced on them wasn't what it used to be. The use of the 207B squadron has run out.

"I'm not afraid to die. Let me stay here with you," Mikoto joined Meiya, hitting at Takeru's shoulder, crying and pleading.

"I'm not afraid as long as I'm with you so... I'm staying," Tama sobbed, falling on her knee, unable to stand with her trembling feet.

"Why are you so stupid? Why can't you understand my feeling? Why do you force this onto us?" Chiruzu cried muffledly, pushing back her card at Takeru.

"I'll never forgive you for this," Ayamine too, bit into her lips, holding back tears, darting an angry scowl at Takeru.

In response, Takeru bit his lip, muttering himself that he must let go of them, these girls no matter what. He vowed to never let his emotion get better of him, not this moment, not now. Otherwise, they would die or suffer a fate worse than death itself if they remained with him in the Earth, fighting against the BETA. The desire to feel his lover's warmth, her scent, her kiss, her kindness was great. The desire to have a place to call home, having someone to love and to be loved was great. The desire to remain in the arms of his friends and his beloved was great. But the fear of separation was greater. However, nothing can compare to the desire to protect his family and his beloved. It's very cruel of him to suddenly force his own selfishness on them, Shirogane Takeru knew, but he must do it.

If he was to tell them all long ago, prior to this, there would be no way that they would change their mind. Takeru understood their personality well enough to be sure of that. Tomorrow is the last chance as the last shuttle will be launched. That's why, if there was a chance to convince these crying girls to change their mind, taking the tickets to the migrating shuttle, it would be now.

XXXXXXXXXXX

"And?"

"Sorry, I wasted your effort and the risk you went through to do that for me. It's not easy at all to switch five cards, yet…" Leaning his back against the telephone booth, Takeru apologized.

"Of course, if you forced something like that on all five of them in an instant like that, that would be the answer," through the phone, Marimo's voice chimed. It seemed that she didn't angry or surprise on bit, judging from her tone. Actually, her voice didn't sound like someone who held a grudge on someone who wasted her effort and the danger she went through to procure those five cards.

"Sorry…" Takeru apologized again. "I was all over my head"

"No, I don't mind about that. I have vaguely had a feeling that it might be something like this. You, Shirogane is completely useless when it came to stuff like this, as always."

Even if he couldn't see Marimo's face, Takeru believe that she was smiling, a kind and understanding smile like the old Marimo chan in his old world. He has wanted her to criticize him, growling at him for his stupidity and everything. But this will do… Marimo chan always has a knack to deal with him when it all came down to this, when he was down in bad times.

"But it was a waste that you didn't take the card for yourself Shirogane," a surprising line suddenly came. Though, Takeru could imagine that Marimo wasn't totally smiling when she delivered this surprise attack.

"Marimo chan, you knew that I could never do that. So don't even joke about it," Takeru complained, slightly angry at the joke.

"Of course, I should have known," in a barely audible voice, Marimo replied as if she regretted saying such thing. Then, she immediately brushed it off with her usual chiding voice at Takeru. "But Shirogane, how many time must I tell you? It's Major Jinguuji," Marimo grumbled like usual as she heard her old student addressed her not by rank but by her given name, worse with the 'chan' attached.

"Sorry, old habit dies hard," Takeru reasoned, his tone was completely unapologetic. "It would take some time, I guess"

"That's what you said every time. You never make the effort to change it," Marimo sighed outwardly, completely exhausted to correct her old student like she used to.

"Well…"

"Forget about it. Tomorrow, your squad will be ordered to be a part of the third defence line, correct?" Marimo asked, suddenly shift the direction of the conversation.

"That's what I heard. We will be placed to guard the mainland long range artillery. We will be fine as long as the battle wouldn't turn out badly," Takeru replied, reassuring his old mentor.

"I could only hope so. But Shirogane, you have to pay extra attention to your surrounding tomorrow. There is currently an unrest within the HQ regarding some strange orders and rumours that have been floating around for a while," Marimo advised cautiously. "If it went bad enough, just ignore the command from the operator and act according to your instinct. I will take the sole responsibility for that afterward."

"…thanks for the thought Marimo chan. But I will handle it on my own if that was the case. I couldn't involve you with this kind of business any longer."

Takeru respectfully declined. He has depended on Marimo a great deal, more than what he should. But, his position among the UN, especially his status as the remnant of the ALTERNATIVE plan that left behind on the Earth gave him and people around him in a dire situation these days. That's why he intended to sent the girls away as quickly as possible to avoid suffering the same fate as him. He couldn't drag Marimo into the mess with him as well after everything she has done. Since Marimo has long cut her connection with the fourth plan not long after that Christmas, it would be incredibly terrible if Takeru get her involved with him once again.

"No, that's an order Shirogane. Do not die of unworthy causes and unclear reasons. Do everything to stay alive. I don't need you to act cool here. I don't care if anyone calls you a coward. These two years, I could understand what you have gone through. You have done enough. Let me help. I could…"

"Thanks for the thought Marimo chan. But no, I can't do that," once again, Takeru declined the offer.

"Why? Am I not dependable enough for you? Or that you are scare of getting me involved? You don't have to. I'm more than enough to take care of myself. I have my own connection." Marimo reasoned, slightly agitated by the hint of hesitation within the voice of the person at the end of the line.

"I love you Marimo chan. So I would rather have you stay out of these dangerous businesses if possible."

A cliché line came crashing, burying all Marimo's reasoning to the ground.

"S...stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, what are you saying? It's because you always say something like that with a straight face that people have a wrong impression of our relationship,"

Tongue twisted, stuttering, Marimo growled into the public phone, screaming hysterically.

"Well, sorry about that. But it wasn't a lie. I really love you," an even more explosive confession came, detonating all of Marimo's logic to kingdom come. Takeru's voice was so serious that Marimo could hardly believe it.

"Stupid, stop spilling some kind of flirting line like that. And stop treating me like a fool."

Her face felt hot, flushing brightly. Marimo could only stand and growl into the phone.

"No, I'm not. I'm very serious. You are like a mother to me, I can't stand the idea of having you involve in this kind of business after you have already cut your tie with it."

"Is that so? Of course, you would, wouldn't you?"

Monotonously, Marimo coldly replied, feeling that she was a fool. Then she feigned a cough, switching her tone. "I don't care about this anymore. I'll hang up now. Please reconsider what I said. Your life is important, don't waste it carelessly."

A loud crash echoed. Marimo slammed the phone at the phone booth to hang it after hastily saying what she must.

Author: I don't think there is much to discuss about this chapter… so folks, thank you for your patron. Hopefully, the next chapter will be finished faster than this one.