Muv-Luv: Breaking the Tide

Chapter 5 / Fleeting Moments

By HitokiriOTD

#

October 31, 2001

"…and so, I'll turn the briefing over to Shirogane."

"…Huh?" the person in question blurted.

"What?" Kouzuki Yuuko raised a shapely eyebrow. "Weren't you listening? Get up here and start the briefing on the new OS already."

"Me?" Takeru asked incredulously.

"Do you see any other Shirogane here?" she demanded, starting to sound exasperated.

She had a point there. Takeru swallowed his protests and reluctantly stood up from the hard plastic briefing room chair to head up to the front of the room.

"Sensei," Takeru hissed quietly as he stepped up next to Yuuko, "you never said anything about this!"

"You came up with the idea," Yuuko countered easily. "Besides, you're an Eishi, aren't you? You can explain it to them in a way they understand."

The explanation made sense, but he couldn't help but feel a nagging sense of doubt. Takeru had never known Yuuko to avoid a lecture. Normally she loved giving explanations about her work, even if her audiences couldn't understand a tenth of what she was saying.

"And your real reason?" he quietly voiced his skepticism.

"…What do you mean by that?" Yuuko gave him a wounded look.

"Haa," Takeru sighed tiredly, his shoulders drooping in resignation.

"Well, good luck~," she hummed cheerfully before making a beeline to the back of the room to grab a drink from the water cooler in the corner. Takeru had a sneaking suspicion that she had just foisted the explanation off on him because her throat was getting dry.

Turning around, Takeru faced his expectant audience. It took an effort on his part to conceal his nervousness as he met the expectant gazes of the Valkyries. For all his experiences, he couldn't remember ever having to conduct a briefing on anything before. Well, technically he'd done so a few times after Alternative IV had been cancelled, but his only audience had been Squad 207, so it didn't really count in his mind.

But it didn't matter. He was stuck with the job, so he'd just have to do it.

"Umm… the prototype TSF OS you're about to help test is called the XM3 Operating System," Takeru began awkwardly. "It's based around the idea of letting pilots perform cancels and combos, and, uh… with it, you'll be able to perform maneuvers that are impossible with the current system."

He could almost see the question marks that immediately popped up over their heads.

"What do you mean by cancels and combos?" Hayase asked intently, stumbling a bit over the English phrases he'd used.

It was really unnerving how attentively she was listening to him. Even more weirdly, Hayase wasn't showing any hints of the usual sense of rivalry or bloodlust she normally directed towards him. She was even diligently taking notes. It was kind of creepy.

In fact, all of the Valkyries were listening quietly and attentively as he talked, and Hayase wasn't the only one taking notes. Not for the first time, Takeru felt like he'd been dropped into some surreal alternative reality where he was a teacher. It was an utterly uncanny feeling.

"Well…" he began, only to trail off into silence.

How do I explain this? For some reason, he was having a hard time coming up with the right words to say. It'd been so much easier when it was just him and Yuuko. Explaining it to her was… actually, in the end, how was it different? Takeru was the one that had come up with the concepts behind the XM3. There was absolutely no reason for him to be at a loss for words.

His uneasiness fading, Takeru turned around and picked up a dry erase pen, popping off the cap, and began to write on the whiteboard that was mounted on the wall at the front of the former classroom.

"Move cancelling," he said aloud as he wrote it quickly in big red English letters on the board, the pen squeaking with each stroke. Then he moved to the right and wrote a second word. "Combos."

Once done, he turned back around to face his new squadron and pointed the pen towards his first note. "Move Cancelling is one of cornerstones of the XM3 OS," Takeru explained, his voice growing more relaxed as he warmed to the subject. "Basically, it's the ability for a pilot to freely override a TSF's automated safeguard actions, like balance stabilization, or any other kind of movement in order to take another action. It's the main reason why the XM3 is capable of providing a TSF with increased mobility."

Hayase's eyes had started sparkling. It was honestly scary.

The captain's brows furrowed thoughtfully. "That must be tough on the unit," she commented.

"Yeah," Takeru nodded. "The wear on the TSF's parts can be significantly increased, and the maintenance requirements can become a nightmare, depending on how hard you push it. But the freedom of movement it provides can give you an enormous tactical advantage compared to your TSF's current performance."

"And… combos…?" Hayase prompted impatiently, once again stumbling slightly over his use of an unfamiliar English term.

"Combos are a combination of actions or commands," Takeru clarified. "The XM3 can keep track of the command patterns you tend to use. After you build up some piloting data with it, it can be used to automatically execute a series of commands based on the thought pattern data recorded in your fortified suit. In other words, let's say you like to use an attack pattern consisting of four different actions. After a while, the OS will be able to predict the pattern you want to use based on your brain waves and execute the series of commands for you."

"Isn't that kind of dangerous?" Akane asked skeptically, her green eyes challenging. She'd been a bit standoffish towards Takeru ever since he had won the duel against Hayase on his first day with the unit.

Takeru shook his head. "You can cancel a combo at any time," he pointed out. "With the ability to cancel, the XM3 is more flexible than any other TSF OS. You'll never be locked into anything and you can change your course of action instantly."

"Are there any drawbacks?" Ichijou Minami, one of the Valkyries he'd only just met, questioned.

"A few," Takeru allowed. "Like I said earlier, the ability to cancel any maneuver can put a lot of stress on a TSF. That means a TSF with the XM3 will need more maintenance than one that doesn't. And at first, a TSF's controls will be a lot more sensitive and hard to control, but that won't last long. After it accumulates enough of your piloting data, the new OS will actually end up making your unit easier to control than before."

From the perspective of a TSF pilot, the XM3 really had no major drawbacks compared to the current OS. The significantly improved freedom of movement and responsiveness it provided made it an overwhelmingly superior upgrade. From a logistics or maintenance standpoint though, he could see why it might make some people balk, due to the increased cost in time, parts, and money to maintain a TSF that was equipped with the XM3. But Takeru was still utterly convinced that the tactical advantages it provided significantly outweighed any logistical drawbacks.

"The Vice Commander mentioned it was possible to share control information?" Kazama queried.

"Right," Takeru turned back to the whiteboard and began writing. "Basically…"

In the end, the Valkyries grilled him for more than an hour on how the OS worked, both trying to learn about it for their upcoming trial runs and attempting to find any overlooked weaknesses in his idea's logic. Throughout it all, Yuuko simply sat in the back and listened with a bored look on her face. Eventually, as the questions came to an end, she got up and began to hand out a stack of printouts.

"What's with these controls!?" Akane blurted after scanning through the papers she'd been given. "They're insane!"

"Those are Shirogane's control logs from his last simulator test using the XM3," Yuuko said.

"They're definitely strange," Kashiwagi agreed.

"What kind of brain do you have?" Miyata Yuka wondered quietly, the short, mousy girl giving Takeru what looked like an honestly curious look.

"Hey!" Takeru protested.

"Um…" a soft voice drew Takeru's attention. Tsukiji Tae had raised her hand in the air like a schoolgirl wanting to ask a question. Takeru could only stare in bewilderment. Her blue eyes darted uneasily away from his and back again a few times as she waited quietly.

Was she waiting for him to call on her?

"…What is it?" Takeru asked eventually.

Tae's hand came down. "Can I ask why you did this here?" she held up a page, pointing to a circled set of commands.

Takeru paused, a bit speechless at the fact that she really had been waiting for him to call on her like a diligent student.

"Okay," Takeru sighed as he saw that most of the Valkyries were similarly mystified by the control logs they were reading over.

Except for Hayase, that is. The blue haired Storm Vanguard was suspiciously quiet as she diligently read through the logs. Takeru could only feel foreboding at the sight, since according to his knowledge of Hayase's personality, it probably meant she was studying intensely in order to kick his ass in the next mock battle to get him back for her previous loss or something like that.

After unsuccessfully trying to explain the reasons why he'd used that particular sequence of commands in that situation, Takeru thought a change in approach was in order. "Look, it'll make a lot more sense after you've all experienced the new OS for yourselves," Takeru declared. "The best way to learn it is by actually using it."

He looked at Yuuko inquisitively. The vice commander nodded at his unspoken question. "The simulators have been installed with the latest prototype," Yuuko announced.

Captain Isumi stood up from her chair, apparently in agreement with Takeru. "Okay, people, study time's over," she clapped her hands. "Now let's go see if Shirogane actually knows what he's talking about."

#

Takeru had to struggle to keep himself from bouncing up and down in anticipation as he watched the Valkyries stumble out of their simulators onto the catwalk and start shuffling towards him. He was extremely eager to see what their reactions would be like after their first simulated test flight using the XM3. Admittedly, he'd been in the simulators with them throughout it, but then they'd been too focused on trying to control their units to give him any real impressions of what they thought about the OS.

Takeru had deliberately decided that their complaints about the sensitivity didn't count.

It had been pretty hilarious to see their TSFs stumbling around clumsily as the elite pilots struggled to adjust to the suddenly unfamiliar ways their controls responded. The spectacle was destined to become a cherished memory of his.

He really couldn't wait to hear what they had to say about the XM3 prototype.

"Stop grinning like that," Yuuko grumbled at his side as she folded her arms and gave him a reproving look. "It's disgusting."

And just like that, Takeru's happy moment was dashed. "Disgusting!" he spluttered indignantly. "How was it disgusting!?"

Yuuko considered his question for a beat. "Fine. I said too much," she admitted. "…It was just nauseating."

"Are you bearing some kind of grudge against me!?"

"You're such a pain," she sighed. "Your creepy leering was going to make everyone uncomfortable. You should be thanking me for saving you from alienating your new squadron."

"Now you're just reaching for synonyms! Just what kind of person do you think I am?!"

"…Do you really want me to answer that?"

"…No," Takeru pinched the bridge of his nose. "On second thought, I really don't."

A polite cough drew the quarrelling pair's attention.

At some point, the bemused Valkyries had gathered in front of them. In spite of himself, Takeru could feel his cheeks heating in embarrassment.

"Ahem," Captain Isumi awkwardly cleared her throat and stepped forward. "We've completed the trial simulations, ma'am," she reported formally to Yuuko.

"Good work," Yuuko said casually, totally unfazed at the mystified looks being directed her way. "So, what did you think?"

Takeru's breath caught as his anticipation came soaring back.

"I think… I'm going to be sick," Akane blurted, a hand coming up to cover her mouth.

The unexpected answer was crushing. Takeru's spirits began to freefall. Had something gone wrong with their copies of the OS? Was there something he'd missed when testing the prototypes?

"Ahahaha…" Haruko laughed weakly, her expression pale and haggard. "I know what you mean," she placed a sympathetic hand on the green-faced Akane's shoulder.

Nearby, Tae's cheeks puffed out in nauseated sympathy, while Asakura swayed in place, her blue eyes looking almost swirly. Takahara looked steady at first glance, but a second look revealed that her long green hair was stuck to her sweaty forehead and her jaw was clenched tightly together as if to hold something at bay.

"It was quite a ride," Munakata murmured in agreement, though she and all the other veteran pilots looked a lot more composed than the rookies. "Shirogane, you're supposed to be gentle during a girl's first time," she scolded him.

"Wha-!?" Takeru coughed, taking an instinctive step back in fear.

"You were too rough with the rookies," Munakata continued mercilessly. "A smooth operator like you should have known better." After a beat, she put a fist into her palm as if coming to a realization. "Unless… you like that kind of play?"

Shut up! He glared desperately auburn haired lieutenant, but she only smiled in response to his sharp look.

Yuuko's eyebrows shot up. "A smooth operator?" she echoed, looking at him speculatively.

"Guh-!" Takeru tried to choke out a response, but the words wouldn't come.

"Munakata," Hayase said quietly. "You don't know what you're talking about."

Everyone stared in surprise at the blue haired ace's unexpected defense of Shirogane.

"He's a genius!" Hayase exploded. She quickly walked up to him and took his hands, her eyes sparkling. Seeing her almost worshipful look, Takeru felt a sudden irrational fear of Mitsuki grip him.

"Um… thanks?" Takeru managed.

"Have my babies!"

What.

His brain crashed.

Off to his left, Haruka, who had been walking down to join the group from the simulation control center, stumbled over empty air. "…Mitsuki…" she mumbled despairingly, shaking her head and sending her long pink hair swaying. The rest of the Valkyries could only gape wordlessly… all except one.

"Shouldn't it be the other way around?" Munakata wondered innocently.

…the devil. Takeru was sure of it. Munakata Misae really was the devil.

"Give me your babies!" Hayase corrected herself promptly.

"Lt. Hayase…" Akane whimpered mournfully. Was it his imagination, or was she crying?

"…What is happening?" Takeru asked, utterly bewildered and more than a little frightened. He tried to pull away. "I can't move," he reported, his fear levels rising.

It was weird, even for Hayase. Last time, she had praised the XM3, but she hadn't reacted in anywhere near the same manner… had she? In that world, it had been a while between the time the Valkyries had been introduced to the new OS and Takeru's first meeting with them. So she'd had a long time to cool off after any hypothetical initial high she might have had. But was that enough to explain it?

Then again, he was vaguely starting to get the feeling that when the Valkyries weren't focused on a mission they were kind of… well… crazy.

Instead of answering his question, the insane woman tightened her grip on him. "Let's do it again!" she demanded fervently. It was like he was being held by a she-gorilla. One wrong move and he'd be torn limb from limb.

Tearing his eyes away from her terrifying, glittering gaze, he looked towards Yuuko for help.

The violet-eyed scientist had her mouth covered with her hand and was struggling futilely to stifle her snickering. Clearly, he couldn't rely on her for assistance.

"…Seriously, what is this?" Takeru asked plaintively, his pleading look swinging over to the assembled Valkyries.

Captain Isumi was cradling her head like she was in pain. Most of the rest were still shocked speechless. Akane looked like something precious to her had been shattered… or maybe she was just still nauseous.

Munakata was smiling joyfully. Takeru's entire being cringed at the sight.

"1st Lt. Hayase is a pervert who gets sexual satisfaction out of battle," the devil informed Takeru happily, ever eager to torment him. "So this training is basically like masturbating to her. Your new OS must have made her feel re-al-ly good," Munakata finished breathily.

Abruptly, the gorilla woman's grip on him tightened. Takeru felt the bones in his hands creaking. Then, miraculously, she let go.

"Mu-na-ka-ta…" Hayase rumbled ominously. Apparently she hadn't been quite as out of it as it had first appeared. The strange fervor that had overtaken her had disappeared. A simmering fury, still scary but also at least familiar, had taken its place.

"Ah." Slowly, Munakata began to back away. "…That's what Shirogane told me, anyway."

"What did I ever do to you?!" Takeru cried in protest.

"Don't lie!" Hayase growled, whirling to face Munakata. Takeru felt absurdly grateful that she hadn't fallen for Munakata's deflection, even as he gloomily had flashbacks about the many times he hadn't been so lucky.

"I should go," Munakata declared, then smoothly turned on her heel and began walking away.

"Munakata! Come back here so I can hit you!"

A sharp clap echoed through the simulator bay, freezing the quarrelling pair in place. "…That's enough playing around, don't you think?" Captain Isumi asked mildly once she saw she had everyone's attention. The way her right eyebrow was ticking kind of ruined her calm façade though.

"…Yes…" was the sulky reply. Like chastised schoolchildren, the two 1st Lieutenants shuffled back into place near the captain.

Isumi nodded in satisfaction. "Now, let's go over our impressions for the professor. Tsukiji, we'll start with you."

Finally! Takeru perked up excitedly. At long last, the terror was over and he was about to hear their feedback on his pride and joy. Things were looking up. Thank you, Captain!

One by one, each member of the Valkyries described their initial thoughts on the prototype OS, offering observations, suggestions, and occasionally asking questions. All in all, the responses were positive, even enthusiastic. Takeru couldn't help but be pleased by the initial response to the new OS, even in its rough experimental form.

"…Good work, everyone," Yuuko offered some distracted praise at the end, already looking thoughtfully down at her clipboard of notes. "That's enough for today. Isumi, come see me later." With a final nod to the captain, Yuuko walked off, still intently reading her notes as she went.

"Now that we've completed the simulations for today," Takeru spoke. "I'd like to review the control log printouts from earlier with everyone again," he looked at Captain Isumi. "This time I think it'll make a lot more sense."

"Good idea," Isumi nodded after a brief moment's thought. "Everyone get cleaned up and then report back to the briefing room in 10."

"—Ma'am!"

#

The automatic door to Vice Commander's office opened with a quiet hiss.

Yuuko looked up from her desk, blinking in mild surprise. "Shirogane?"

"Hey, sensei," Takeru greeted casually as he entered the room.

"Did you need something?" Yuuko asked, sounding slightly annoyed.

Instead of answering, Takeru walked up to her desk and offered her a steaming mug.

"What is it?" she gave him a distrustful look.

"I thought you could use a drink."

"…What do you want?"

"Just take it," Takeru sighed, ignoring her suspicion.

Gingerly, she took the mug from him, curling both hands around the warm ceramic. Her eyebrows rose in genuine surprise as she studied the liquid within. "Cappuccino?" she glanced up at him.

He couldn't help but smile smugly. "Your favorite, right?"

"Hmph," the professor made a disagreeable noise, but didn't contradict him as she raised the mug to her nose and sniffed delicately. Some of the skepticism seemed to fade from her expression as she inhaled the scent of coffee, but she continued to glance back and forth between the drink and Takeru.

"…It's not poisoned," Takeru said, annoyed.

"I never said it was… Why? Do you have a guilty conscience?"

He rolled his eyes. "Just try it already."

It was like watching a fearful deer trying to decide if it should take a drink at the edge of a lake, suspicious of a predator lurking beneath the water. Finally, she brought the cup to her lips and took a small sip. Then another. And another.

Takeru beamed proudly. It had been an incredible stroke of luck for him to get ahold of real coffee. The base had plenty artificial stuff, but genuine coffee beans were a rare luxury. He'd been extremely surprised to find it tucked away in a corner of the kitchen's vast pantry during his daring stealth raid, and he hadn't been able to resist pinching some of it. Takeru just hoped no one noticed what was gone.

After instinctively acquiring it though, he hadn't really known what to do with it. Walking back to his room with his pants stuffed with coffee beans just seemed like a recipe for disaster. Then he'd laid eyes on a worn down espresso machine in another corner of the kitchen and a light bulb had blinked to life inside his head. If he couldn't smuggle it back, he might as well drink it. Even better, while he was at it he could win some brownie points with Yuuko-sensei.

After all his many experiences in being Yuuko's gopher, he knew how she liked her cappuccino, from the exact ratio of espresso, milk, and foam, to amount of sugar and the temperature she liked it at, all the way down to her preferred latte art shapes (though regrettably he still wasn't good enough to make a recognizable kitten shape). He had become a veritable master at making her coffee just the way she liked it. If this Yuuko was anything like the Yuuko from his world, there was no way she would dislike it.

That's not something I should feel proud of, is it? Slowly, his self-satisfied smile faded and a fog of depression rolled in. Takeru had always fought tooth and nail against being made to run errands for Yuuko all the time. And yet, internally he'd started to accept that he had been her lackey? He was proud of how well he could make her coffee? Somewhere along the way, her brainwashing had really infected his brain. It was terrifying to think of how deeply Yuuko had infiltrated his psyche.

The sound of Yuuko setting the mug down on her desk interrupted Takeru's gloomy turn of thought. Glancing at the mug, he was surprised and gratified to see it was empty. Normally Yuuko tended to nurse her coffee over time rather than gulping it down quickly. Then he looked up, his mouth opening, and froze as he took in her face.

"I didn't know there was cappuccino in the PX," Yuuko said finally, breaking the awkward silence. "…What are you grinning like that for?" she glowered at him.

"Th-there normally isn't," Takeru replied unsteadily as he struggled to contain his amusement. "You… you have a little…" he gestured vaguely at his upper lip.

Takeru had never seen Yuuko with a milk mustache before. It was actually pretty adorable looking. It was also utterly hilarious, and his mind was already frantically burning the image into his brain as a memory he would cherish forever.

There was absolutely no dignified way of wiping off a milk mustache, but Yuuko tried anyway, calmly wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her white lab coat. Her indifferent expression was somewhat ruined by the sudden rush of color staining her cheeks.

Takeru could hardly breathe at that point. The sight of her blushing in embarrassment was, to Takeru, a bit like striking gold.

Full of emotion, Takeru could only look up towards the heavens. Thank you, he thought sincerely. Thank you for letting me see this.

He was, at that moment, very happy to be alive.

"Shirogane."

His euphoria abruptly vanished. An inadvertent shiver ran down his spine at her ice cold voice. "…Yes?"

"I probably don't need to say this, but… if you tell anyone, I'll kill you. Painfully."

"R-right."

"Good," Yuuko nodded in satisfaction, her usual poise fully recovered. "So, what do you want?"

It didn't even cross his mind to protest her assumption that he wanted something. Normally he would have, but, well… his instincts were screaming that he was only a step away from death. So, to live another day, Takeru decided that honesty was the best policy.

"...The day off tomorrow."

"Oh?"

"Well, not really a day off," he clarified. "I'd like to spend the day with Squad 207."

Yuuko was starting to look annoyed again. "Why are you asking me? Shouldn't you be asking your captain?"

"Because you can make it happen. And… because you're the only one who would understand my reasons."

Her violet eyes turned up in thought for a brief moment. "…Yoroi Mikoto?"

Takeru smiled wryly, impressed but somehow unsurprised at how quickly she'd reached the correct conclusion. "Yeah," he nodded. "She's scheduled to come back tomorrow, right? I'd like to be there to meet her."

"Hmm…" Yuuko made a contemplative noise. "What's in it for me?"

"…My gratitude?" Takeru offered. At her unimpressed look, he continued, "Also, cappuccino."

The scientist in charge of Alternative IV visibly hesitated. "…You think that's enough to repay me for making me waste my time?" Yuuko asked finally.

Takeru kept his face neutral. It wouldn't do to smile and get her to dig her heels in out of stubbornness. "It won't take much of your time. Besides, it's your favorite, right?" he countered. "And no one else can make it just the way you want it."

He'd unfortunately tasted the artificial brown sludge the base's cooks tended to make more times than he had ever wanted, and Lt. Piatif's attempts somehow managed to look and taste like a strange watery coffee-flavored soup. Yuuko could do it herself, but he knew for a fact she didn't have time.

"What makes you think you can?" Yuuko shot back defensively.

Takeru didn't bother to dignify that with a response. He pointedly glanced down at the empty cup that she had gulped down, then looked back up to meet her gaze.

For once, Takeru was the winner of the staring contest. "…Fine," Yuuko capitulated, glancing away sourly. "I'll talk to Isumi."

Finally, Takeru allowed his smile to show. "Thanks, sensei," he said gratefully.

Then, to demonstrate his gratitude, Takeru moved towards the bookshelf against the wall to his right and knelt down to gather up some of the thick binders left carelessly scattered on the floor.

"What are you doing now?" his former physics teacher demanded exasperatedly.

"I thought I'd help you clean up as thanks," Takeru grunted as he stood from the floor, heavy binders in hand. He began to place them back on the bookshelf.

"I won't be able to find anything if you bumble around in here," Yuuko complained, her leather chair squeaking as she stood. She marched over to stop him just as Takeru placed the last of the binders he'd picked up back onto the shelf. "Take them out," she ordered. "You'll mess up my…" her voice trailed off as her eyes scanned the shelves. After a long moment, she turned to look at him.

"I know how you like to organize your work," Takeru offered in response to the obvious question written on her face. "In my world, I was your… or, well, that Yuuko-sensei's… assistant… for a while," he explained haltingly.

After that Yuuko-sensei had gotten the idea that he was interested in her research, she'd forcefully drafted him into being her assistant… among other things. Takeru didn't think it'd be a very good idea to explain that part though.

Yuuko's arms had folded while she absorbed his words in silence. The inscrutable look she gave him was nerve-wracking.

"…I see," she said finally, her voice quiet.

After it was clear she didn't intend to say anything more, Takeru decided to take her response as an implicit approval and moved to pick up some more scattered items on the floor. "...Do you just throw stuff on the floor when you don't need it anymore?" Takeru grumbled as he gathered some scattered books and papers together.

He already knew the answer though. When Yuuko was struck by inspiration, or when she got into the zone while working on some equation, she couldn't be bothered by anything else. After she finished with a reference book or sheet of notes, she would carelessly drop it on the floor and continue on wherever her train of thought took her.

When her brilliant mind soared to heights normal humans could never follow, Kouzuki Yuuko often transformed into a stereotypical scatterbrained scientist, casting aside all normal considerations for the world she saw through her numbers.

It could be a real pain dealing with her when that happened.

Even so though, Takeru thought she was really amazing in those times.

And… he also thought she was even more beautiful in those moments. It was the adorable way she tended to chew on her pens when she was lost in thought, and the graceful movements of her hands as she painted a whiteboard with numbers, and the way her violet eyes glowed happily when she reached a breakthrough, and…

Memories flooded through Takeru like a river. The time he'd spent with Yuuko-sensei back in his own peaceful world gleamed brightly in his mind's eye.

"Really," Takeru murmured fondly, his gaze focused on distant memories as his hands worked on autopilot. "Such a troublesome woman."

"Well, it's all right, isn't it?" Yuuko unexpectedly replied after a long silence, her voice light again as she shocked him out of his reverie. "It looks like you'll pick it up for me, so it's fine~."

Takeru almost scattered the stack of papers he'd painstakingly gathered.

#

November 1, 2001

As always, when Yuuko said she would do something, it got done. Takeru found himself free to drop in on Squad 207's training while the rest of A-01 spent the day in the simulators trying to get accustomed to the prototype OS. He happily took advantage of the time, joining his favorite cadets for breakfast and then following them to their classroom for Marimo's training.

Sadly, Marimo wasn't too happy to see him if the icy looks she occasionally gave him were any indication. Apparently she was still upset over the hallway incident, even though Takeru was pretty sure he'd already paid for it many times over. Not only had Marimo-chan decked him, but he'd also had to endure Munakata's knowing comments. Hadn't he been punished enough?

But despite the instructor's clear annoyance with his presence, the morning lessons went by without a hitch. After Squad 207 was dismissed for lunch, Takeru briskly exited the classroom and turned left.

It was finally time for Takeru's scheduled reunion slash first meeting with his long lost buddy.

Takeru slowly walked down the former school's third floor hallway and deliberately studied the gray panels on the ceiling. Quick, quiet footsteps approached.

A small, slender body collided with Takeru and bounced off like a small bird hitting a sliding glass door.

"Kya!"

"Sorry!" Takeru said quickly. "Are you all right?"

"Ahaha… yeah… sorry, how are you?" the short turquoise haired girl he had bumped into asked.

Yoroi Mikoto peered up at him with wide, concerned brown eyes. She was dressed in the formal uniform for Hakuryou cadets, a white and purple sailor uniform which bizarrely happened to be the exact same as his old school uniform.

"Yeah, I'm… fine…" he mumbled.

Images tumbled through Takeru's head. Once again, just like he had with all the others, he relived his memories of Mikoto in different places and times. He remembered her as a boy, as a girl, as his friend, as his comrade, as his lover…

And just like he had with all the others…

He remembered her giving her life to buy him time in the Original Hive.

"Umm…" Mikoto poked him. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes," Takeru sighed, his gaze focusing on the present once more. He gave her a weak smile. "I'm okay."

"Hmm…" she stared at him.

Takeru resisted the urge to take a step back. "…What?"

"You're not sick, are you?"

"No!" Takeru denied.

"Because I've been in the hospital for a long time, and today's the day I can finally come back, and I really don't want to get sick and have to go back there, so…"

"I didn't ask about that!"

"…and I heard there's an amazing new instructor. Can't wait to meet him."

"That's me."

"Ah!" Mikoto's eyes widened in realization and she clutched her hands together in front of her. "Wait a minute… are you the new instructor?!"

"I just said I was."

"Eh?" she blinked quizzically.

"I just told you I'm the new instructor." Somehow he'd forgotten how tiring talking to Mikoto could be. It could be maddening at times, but at the moment Takeru couldn't help but smile a bit.

"Ah, is that right?"

"Yes."

"Oh." Then, as if seeing him for the first time, Mikoto's eyes slowly took in his gray service uniform and the blue rank insignia on his lapels. "Ah!" she made a noise as if suddenly struck by a realization. She stiffened like a board as she saluted. "I'm Yoroi Mikoto, sir!" the cadet said sheepishly. "I'm sorry for, um… bumping into you."

Mikoto smiled cheerfully and held out a hand, "I'm Yoroi Mikoto. Nice to meet you."

Takeru's fond smile became strained.

"I'm Shirogane Takeru," he replied quietly, returning her gesture. Then, after a brief hesitation, he held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Mikoto."

Big brown eyes blinked in surprise as she looked down at his proffered hand for a long moment. Then, tentatively, she reached out.

Her hand, soft and slightly cool to the touch, felt very small in his.

Takeru had to swallow a lump in his throat. Finally, reluctantly, he completed the handshake and released her palm.

"I already had this talk with all the others," Takeru said, trying to fill the strange silence that had developed. He wasn't used to Mikoto being quiet. It was kind of unsettling. "But I'll say it again since you weren't around. I'm not a fan of stuffy formalities, so you don't need to bother with saluting and calling me 'sir' when no one else is around. Just 'Takeru' is fine."

Given the way the others had responded to that same talk, he didn't hold out too much hope. But still, he had to keep trying.

Mikoto stared at him, barely blinking, for a long moment. Then she beamed. "Okay!" Mikoto chirped easily. "In that case, you can call me Mikoto."

Eh? Had he heard that right? Had she just…? Could it… really be that easy?

"…Sounds good to me," he replied belatedly as he recovered from his surprise at her unexpected response. Slowly, Takeru began to smile again, which soon widened into a huge grin at her easy acceptance of his unconventional directive.

Sometimes Mikoto's weirdness was tiring, but other times it really could make things seem sunnier.

None of the others in Squad 207 had taken his request at face value. Even though they had warmed up considerably towards Takeru since he had first shown up, he still couldn't get any of them to call him by just his name. As much as he tried not to let it bother him, a small part of Takeru couldn't help but be depressed about the whole thing.

In a way, to Takeru, Mikoto's easy acceptance felt like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man.

Takeru was really, really happy to see her again. He couldn't even put it into words. Just… somehow the world felt a bit brighter than it had a few minutes before.

"You're an unexpectedly nice guy!" Mikoto commented happily.

Takeru's euphoric smile quickly died. "…What do you mean by that?"

"Man, I was nervous for a second," she continued blithely. "Miki-san's last letter said the new instructor was actually really mean and scary. But it looks like it wasn't true!"

"Ah! Yoroi-san!" Tama exclaimed excitedly from behind Takeru.

Mikoto tilted sideways to peer around Takeru. "Aaaaah! Miki-san!" she beamed. "It's been so long~!"

Takeru turned slowly to stare at the small pink haired cadet that had come up behind him. Miki stood there with her hands under her chin, a huge smile on her face.

"Tama." His heavy voice wiped the smile from Miki's face.

"S-second lieutenant?"

"You've been writing letters again, I heard."

"…Eh?"

"Let's have a talk." Takeru dropped his hands onto her small shoulders and loomed over the increasingly nervous little sniper. "Don't worry… I'm not actually really mean and scary."

"E-ehh!?" Tama's arms began to flail in panic.

The Class Rep walked up behind her, blinking in surprise as she spotted Mikoto. "Oh? What are you doing here?" she asked Mikoto. Then she slanted a sideways glance at Takeru and Miki. "And what on earth are you two doing?"

"Ah!" Mikoto gasped in delight. "Chizuru-san!"

"Ch-Chizuru-san~," Tama mewled. "Help me!"

Two tall feminine figures in blue fatigues appeared behind Chizuru and Tama.

Takeru huffed, giving up on his vendetta. He didn't want to mess up Mikoto's happy reunion, even if the girl in question probably wouldn't notice. "I'll let you live," he whispered darkly to a pale-faced Tama, releasing his iron grip on her small, trembling shoulders. "For now."

Tama squeaked in wordless terror and fled to cower behind Meiya.

Meiya halted in surprise. "Tamase?" she questioned, glancing back at Tama before looking curiously towards Takeru. Then her eyes widened slightly as she noticed an unexpected sight. "…Yoroi?"

"Meiya-san too! And Kei-san! It's been forever~!"

"…Yeah," Ayamine nodded halfheartedly.

Mikoto quickly ran by Takeru to stand closer to her friends.

"We heard you shouting and wondered what was going on," the Class Rep said carefully. "Is everything all right, sir?" She was clearly nervous about whether Mikoto had gotten into some kind of trouble with him.

"I just bumped into her, so we were introducing ourselves," he explained.

"I see," Chizuru breathed a soft sigh of relief.

"Ah, that's right!" Mikoto exclaimed abruptly, eyes widened in panic. "I've got to go see our instructor! Our other instructor, I mean!" She dashed off.

"Ah! Hey!" Takeru called belatedly, but Mikoto sped away unheedingly.

"We should get going too," Chizuru said, shaking her head at the departing girl. "We don't have much time to eat."

Meiya nodded in agreement. "Indeed. Let us go to the PX."

"It's yakisoba today…" Ayamine closed her eyes in bliss.

He was kind of disappointed that his reunion with Mikoto had been so short, but there would be other opportunities to spend time with her. In the meantime… Takeru had a lot of fond memories of eating yakisoba for lunch with Ayamine. Maybe it was time to make new ones with her again.

"Yakisoba!" Takeru exclaimed, abruptly changing gears as he sensed an opportunity to work on his relationship with another one of his friends. "What are we waiting for? Let's go!" He briskly stepped forward and caught Ayamine's elbow, careful to make sure he approached her from the front to avoid triggering a reflexive Space Tornado Ayamine, and pulled the surprised girl along.

Maybe he'd teach her how to make yakisoba bread.

#

"…and that's how you make yakisoba bread," Takeru presented the completed sandwich with a flourish.

For some reason, yakisoba bread had never really caught on in the world Takeru currently inhabited. He wasn't really sure why. It was one of the many mysterious little differences in history between the world he'd been born in and the one he'd been pulled to. But, in any case, the ingredients were readily available from the cafeteria, and it wasn't hard to put together the sandwich made up of bread, yakisoba from the lunch menu, and some mayo and ginger.

Gingerly, Ayamine took it from him and studied it carefully. "…not poisoned?" she asked after a moment.

"No!" Takeru shouted, unwittingly drawing stares from around the PX. "You just saw me make it right in front of you!"

"…but 2nd Lt. Shirogane's talented…"

"I don't have that kind of talent!"

"…you don't?" Ayamine said, making a disappointed expression.

"Just eat it," Takeru sighed.

"Sir, yes sir…" Thus persuaded, Ayamine took a bite of the yakisoba bread. She chewed thoughtfully for several moments. Slowly, her violet eyes widened and she turned to stare at Takeru.

"Well?" Takeru finally asked, unnerved by her silent, intense purple gaze.

"…marry me?" Ayamine asked earnestly.

Meiya, Chizuru, and Tama simultaneous choked on their lunches.

"Wha—!" Takeru coughed. Incredulously, he glanced at her. Ayamine was good at controlling her expression, so it was hard to tell by her face if she was joking or not, but knowing her it was almost certain. "…When you can make better yakisoba bread than me, I'll think about it," he said finally, taking the guaranteed bet.

"Tch…" she made a sour noise, glancing away. "…no point then."

"You'd only marry me for my cooking!?"

Ayamine took another bite of the sandwich, not bothering to reply.

#

November 2, 2001

Amazingly, Takeru had gotten a second day in a row to spend with Squad 207.

Yuuko had given the Valkyries a day off to rest while she compiled the data from their testing. Captain Isumi, being the perfectionist that she was, had gathered the first lieutenants and locked them in a room to go over the squadron's performance in the simulators, leaving the rest of the Valkyries free to relax a bit.

With no other demands on his time, Takeru elected to again act out his cover story and observe the cadets' training.

In the morning, Marimo had the squad work on CQC, grouping them in pairs to spar with each other using blunt plastic training knives. Since Training Squad 207B consisted of five trainees, normally Marimo would move between the groups, spending some one on one time with each so there wasn't an odd person out. After sensing an opportunity to show off once again, Takeru had hijacked her role and spent the morning sparring with his friends, shamelessly using his extensive knowledge of their skills and how they fought to dominate the exchanges.

Even then, Ayamine had nearly put him down several times, and Meiya had pressed him hard, but in the end he'd won anyway. It would have been embarrassing if he hadn't, considering just how much of an unfair advantage he had over them.

The sun had climbed high in the sky by the time they finished with the hand to hand training and Marimo dismissed them for lunch.

The PX's dining area was, as always, swamped during lunch time with soldiers and staff from all parts of the base. The hum of all the conversations going on in the massive cafeteria was like a tidal wave of white noise to Takeru.

"Ahh!" Takeru belched contentedly. "That was good," he sighed, patting his stomach fondly. After a hard bout of CQC training, even the normally bland synthetic food tasted good. Hunger really was the best sauce after all.

As noisy as the rest of the PX was though, the area around Squad 207 was oddly silent. The cadets had spent most of lunch quietly eating. It reminded Takeru of those first few awkward meals, back when they were too intimidated by his rank to even talk around him.

"What's up with everyone?" Takeru finally asked, looking around. "Did you guys use up all your energy this morning or something?"

The girls all seemed to look away at his question.

"…my face hurts," Ayamine finally muttered. When he turned to look at her on his right, he saw she was giving him a faintly accusing look. Despite her words, her face was uninjured. Takeru figured she was probably just being sullen about the way he'd planted her into the ground at the end of their match.

"Oh…" Takeru rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry about that. You were coming after me pretty hard when we sparred, so I accidentally got a little rough," he said apologetically. Honestly, even though Takeru had made a good show of it, he'd gotten a little desperate a few times during their fight. Ayamine was definitely the most dangerous member of Squad 207 in close combat, unless Meiya got her hands on a sword.

"…Indeed," Meiya nodded, breaking her silence. "It has been a long time since I was so thoroughly routed." Her expression managed to look simultaneously thoughtful and chagrinned.

"You're really, really good," he praised her, causing Meiya to blush slightly. "But you can be better."

She had to be better.

They all had to be better.

Not just in CQC skills, but also with firearms, and tactics, and TSF piloting, and… everything.

If she was… if they were, then maybe… maybe they wouldn't…

Takeru's fists clenched. "If I can help you all get stronger, I will," he said resolutely.

After a moment, Meiya nodded slowly. "…I see," she said. She suddenly smiled, "I am grateful for the opportunity to cross blades with such a strong foe. I will endeavor to live up to your expectations, second lieutenant." Fierce determination gleamed in her blue eyes.

"I'm looking forward to it," Takeru smiled weakly. She's going to kick my ass the next time we fight.

"Takeru, you're amazing~!" Mikoto enthused. For some reason, her squad mates all gasped.

"Umm… thanks."

"Yoroi!" the Class Rep burst out, sounding scandalized. "You can't just call him by his first name!" she rebuked sharply.

"Eh?" Mikoto's brown eyes were puzzled. "But he told me it was okay."

"Yeah, it's fine," Takeru agreed.

"It's not okay!" Chizuru protested. "It's against regulations!"

That sounded bad. "…Well, I did say 'when we were alone,'" Takeru backtracked.

"Ehhhh?" Mikoto whined.

Chizuru made a growling noise in response.

"Fine," Mikoto sulked. "2nd Lt. Shirogane."

Takeru felt an invisible arrow pierce his chest.

"That's better," the Class Rep nodded approvingly.

Shoulders dropping, Takeru stared down at his empty plate in disappointment. He'd been so happy to have one of his old friends refer to him informally, only to have that joy dashed.

"Hey, hey, what are we doing this afternoon?" Mikoto asked, abruptly changing tacks.

"A lecture on strategy," Chizuru replied.

"Really?" Mikoto groaned. "I'm not good at stuff like that," she sighed. Then she perked up. "Hey, are you going to be teaching the lesson, 2nd Lt. Shirogane?" the petite blue haired girl asked brightly, looking up at him in expectation.

"I—" Takeru started to reply, only to get cut off as she spoke again.

"Speaking of which," Mikoto randomly changed topics again. "I saw a lot of fun TV in the hospital."

"Haa…" he sighed. It was hard to keep up with her.

"TV?" Tama echoed curiously.

"Yeah," Mikoto nodded. "You know how we can't change the channel on the TV here in the PX? In the hospital I could watch whatever I wanted."

The Class Rep made interested sounds.

"So then, I saw something really moving on TV," Mikoto continued.

"What was it?" Meiya asked.

"A dog that got left behind when its owner evacuated walking hundreds of kilometers to find him!" She clutched her hands together, her eyes closing tightly with emotion as she remembered the bittersweet story.

"Eeeh!?" Tama blurted. "That's amazing!"

"Right? Right?" Mikoto's eyes watered. "You'd cry if you heard the details..."

"…I like stories like that," Ayamine murmured, smiling faintly.

So did Takeru, even though he knew that it was probably just made up propaganda. Still, hearing the story again reminded him of Sumika and the dog they had met while eating in the park. This time though, he kept his emotions on a tight rein, not wanting to relive that uncomfortable conversation with the girls about his childhood friend.

Lunch passed uneventfully, with Mikoto happily detailing all the television shows she'd seen. To Takeru, they all sounded frankly boring, but for the people of this world's Japan the chance to watch TV just for leisure was mostly a rare luxury that his squad mates were eager to hear about. Still, whatever the subject, he was grateful that at least the conversation had started flowing naturally again.

After lunch, the squad returned to their assigned classroom for a lesson from Marimo covering battlefield tactics and strategies. The particular lecture she gave was one Takeru hadn't heard before, so he contented himself with listening quietly, acting out his role as an observer even as he secretly learned along with the girls.

When Marimo finally dismissed the squad, the sun was setting on Yokohama Base. Squad 207 returned to the PX for their evening meal.

#

The night air was cool as Takeru walked towards the track. The temperature had been dropping over the past week from muggy to pleasantly cool. It wouldn't be long before the bite of winter started to appear though.

As he reached his destination, he was disappointed to find it empty. It looked like he wouldn't get a chance to run with Meiya after all. But even with her absence, he still needed to train, so he began to jog. After his muscles were warmed up from a few laps around the track, he began to speed up into a full-fledged run.

When he finished running, Takeru did some stretches, then wiped off his sweat with the towel he'd brought and gulped down some water.

"Hmm?" Takeru made a startled noise as he wiped some excess water from his chin, his eyes taking in the light shining from the 3rd floor classroom above him. "That's our classroom," he realized.

There shouldn't have been anyone in there, given the time of night. The more he thought about it the more curious he became. So, of course, he went to check it out.

After making his way through the building, climbing up several flights of stairs to reach the third floor, Takeru quickly approached the rear sliding door to the classroom that 207B used for lessons. Surreptitiously, he took a peek through the square glass window on the door, his eyebrows climbing inquisitively as he took in the room's occupant.

"Class Rep?" Takeru called, sliding the door open.

The brown-haired leader of 207B was visibly startled, letting out a surprised squeak as she whirled around from the blackboard. "Eh!? S-second lieutenant…?" Chizuru stammered, her green eyes wide behind her round glasses.

A wave of nostalgia hit Takeru. How long had it been since that day when he'd walked in on a similar scene? How long had it been since that amber autumn afternoon when he'd found the Class Rep worrying alone in their classroom about the lacrosse match and the positions for their class's impromptu team?

It felt like it had been decades ago.

Back then, he'd been so… well, there were a lot of things he'd been. Naïve. Carefree. Idiotic.

So incredibly young.

…Happy.

Takeru wanted to shake his head as he remembered just how invested, how desperate everyone, including himself at times, had gotten over a simple lacrosse tournament for the school cultural festival. Looking back, it seemed almost laughable.

And yet… those memories were irreplaceably precious to Takeru. Sometimes, he wished he could go back to those happy, carefree times.

But he could never go back.

Nor would he, given the choice.

In the end, it would just be another way of running away, and he had had more than enough of that. Even more, the time since then was not something Takeru could willingly throw away. After all his struggles, all the sacrifices he had seen, all the things he had broken and strived to mend, all the excruciating lessons he had learned…

No. Even if he had a choice, he could never return to those days.

Even if being thrown into this alternate world once more was his worst nightmare made manifest.

Even if… he had to watch everyone he wanted to save die again.

Takeru couldn't, wouldn't, choose to go back. All he could do was keep moving forward.

"…lieutenant?" Chizuru's worried voice grabbed his attention. He blinked, his eyes focusing on the present. The Class Rep was fidgeting nervously.

"What are you doing?" Takeru wondered aloud, his eyes moving past her to take in the blackboard. Symbols and arrows and letters were scribbled in white chalk all over the place, practically covering the board. "…Working through some tactics?"

"I… yes," she answered hesitantly.

"You're working hard, as always," Takeru made an admiring noise as he studied the board.

"…As always?"

Takeru wondered if he'd said too much. "Hey now, I have been watching you pretty closely over the past week and a half, you know?" he tried to cover for himself. "That's plenty of time for me to see how hard working you really are."

"T-thanks." The Class Rep averted her gaze in embarrassment, her cheeks pink.

Chizuru had always been awkward about accepting praise from him for some reason. But that hadn't been a bad thing, since Takeru thought the way she looked when she was embarrassed by him was cute.

Normally, he would have teased her a bit about her reaction. But, for the Chizuru in front of him, that would probably be too much considering their current relationship.

Pushing aside the pang of sadness he felt at that thought, Takeru mustered up a smile. "So, you're trying to figure out the best way to deal with the ambush scenario Sgt. Jinguuji was talking about earlier?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Yes," Chizuru nodded, her embarrassed expression fading. "I've been trying to figure out a better way to handle it, but…"

The squad had not fared well at working through the scenario Marimo had given them. Their teamwork had improved a bit, but it was still far from great.

"…But?" Takeru prompted.

"My plan was the best possible response. It should have worked," Chizuru said finally, folding her arms stubbornly as if daring him to disagree.

"You're right."

"Eh?" her mouth went slack at his easy agreement.

"Your response was good," Takeru said. "So… that being the case, what went wrong?"

"…I couldn't control my team," the squad leader of 207B muttered despondently after a long pause.

Takeru took a deep breath. He had to be careful with his words. At the same time though, he wanted to help the Class Rep not only feel better, but also guide her towards the right answers.

"That's right," he concurred again. "You couldn't control your team. But… I think part of the problem is the idea that you have to control your team in the first place."

The Class Rep looked confused. "But it's a squad leader's job to—!"

"A leader's main job is to lead," Takeru interrupted her protest. "This may sound like I'm just splitting hairs, but…" He ran a frustrated hand through his hair as he groped for the right words. "…You can't always control soldiers like you control your TSF. They're human beings. They have their own thoughts, their own emotions. They can choose their own courses of action."

"But they have to obey orders," the Class Rep insisted.

"That's true. As soldiers, they have to obey orders from their superior officers. But again, they're also human beings. They can doubt, or hesitate, or… well, lots of things. So, just controlling them isn't enough. You have to learn how to lead them."

"That's…" Chizuru trailed off uncertainly.

Takeru looked up at the ceiling, thinking desperately. How could he explain it better? It was incredibly hard to find the right words, especially since he was hardly an expert leader himself. He had barely led anything before, so how could he teach others how to do it? At best, he remembered leading Squad 207 in the aftermath of Alternative IV's cancellation, and he'd been in charge of the Valkyries' B Flight for a short time.

But… he'd seen incredible leaders in action. Captain Isumi, 1st Lt. Hayase, and 1st Lt. Munakata had taught him a lot about it, through their words and their actions. He'd also learned a lot from Yuuko, even though she wasn't really a traditional leader. Instead, Yuuko had a terrifying level of insight into how human beings ticked and she knew exactly how to motivate and manipulate people. Maybe he didn't have a lot of experience in leading troops himself, but he didn't think he would go wrong if he followed the examples his teachers had set.

Takeru looked back at Chizuru, meeting her troubled gaze, "A squad leader's orders should be followed if they're legitimate. That's a fundamental point of military discipline, and you can use that to control your squad," Takeru said quietly. "But the best leaders are respected by their troops, and real respect has to be earned."

Biting her lip, Chizuru glanced away for a long moment.

"It's not just a matter of orders," he continued. "It's… getting the squad to decide for themselves to follow."

Silence filled the room.

Unfortunately, he couldn't think of a better way to explain it. In the end, he could only anxiously wait for Chizuru's reaction to his words.

"How…" Chizuru whispered finally, her voice catching. "…how do I do that, sir?"

How? Takeru wasn't even sure himself. However, it wasn't like he could just avoid answering, not after running his mouth so much already.

Again, memories of the leaders he'd admired in another time and place rose up.

"By your words and actions," his mouth seemed to move on its own. "You can start by listening a bit more to your squad mates. Sometimes they'll have good ideas, or at least a useful perspective you might not have. And… try to trust them a bit more. If you can show them that you trust them to get the job done, they'll live up to that trust."

"Trust…" she murmured.

"It's incredibly hard," Takeru said frankly. "Honestly, they're so many different things to do and keep track of, I don't know how the good commanders even do it. And it can be different for each person and each group. So, I guess… I can't really give you all the answers you need." He felt almost ashamed at admitting that.

There was just so much more that he needed to learn.

"No," the Class Rep shook her head, sending her long brown braids swinging. "That's not… I'm really grateful for your words, sir!" she burst out.

"Class Rep…"

"You've given me… a lot to think about, second lieutenant," she gave him a weak smile. His chest tightened at the sight of it. "I should—"

The pained look in her eyes was something Takeru abhorred. He had to say something, anything, to make it go away.

"Before you go," Takeru cut her off. "I want to say one more thing." He took a step closer and gently placed his hands on her slender shoulders.

Chizuru's eyes looked huge behind her glasses. "…Sir?"

"Class Rep," Takeru began. "You're not in it alone. Everyone in the Training Squad 207 is your comrade. It wasn't just you who failed today. Everyone else also bears responsibility for it. So, don't worry about it all by yourself! Get your squad together and think of a solution together," he implored. "And when you take the Comprehensive Combat Skill Evaluation in a couple of weeks, you won't be taking it alone. You'll be taking it with your comrades, and you'll pass it together with your comrades!"

"2nd Lt. Shirogane…" Chizuru looked startled by his increasing passion.

Takeru paused, taking a deep breath to calm down a bit.

In the end, maybe he had been thinking too much. He had worried desperately about how to fix their teamwork without being in the middle of the squad that he'd lost sight of the things that had worked before.

Even if he wasn't a member of the squad, if he could just help them get closer, to bridge the awkward distance and breach the walls they had made around themselves, then their teamwork would just naturally come together. Before, Squad 207B had become true comrades by first becoming true friends. The answer to the problem in front of him was probably the same as it was back then.

"This may sound weird after I said all that earlier, but…" he trailed off hesitantly. "Well… for now, don't worry too much about how to lead them. I think you'll all do fine simply by being friends and respecting each other."

"I… see…" she looked down, unable to meet his intense gaze for long.

"And no matter what…" he continued, not wanting her to look depressed again. "I think you're a great squad leader, Class Rep. Please believe that."

Chizuru had worried deeply about that before. This time he wanted to help ease some of the burden off her small shoulders, if he could.

"Eh!?" Now her green eyes were wide, a light blush dusting her cheeks as she gaped at him. "I…" Chizuru trailed off, flustered. She looked away. "…thank you, 2nd. Lt. Shirogane."

Grinning, he patted her shoulders lightly. "No problem, Class Rep." At least he'd succeeded in driving away her gloomy look, if only temporarily.

"Don't call me Class Rep!" she burst out, but she was smiling slightly even as she protested. Then, abruptly, she paled and swallowed. "Ah. N-no, I didn't mean to…" Chizuru stiffened in place, looking like she saw the Mad Dog barreling towards her. "I apologize for my rudeness, sir!" she barked. "I—"

"That's enough," Takeru immediately held out a warding hand, silencing her.

Damn it! Mental curses flowed through his head. An intense sense of displeasure filled him. It had been going so well for a moment. Her automatic protest at his teasing nickname had been music to Takeru's ears. It was the first time she'd said those words since he came to this world. And the way she'd said it… the faint smile she had given him… how long had it been since he'd seen her like that?

It reminded him desperately of the Chizuru he'd left behind.

"You know," Takeru sighed, "I keep telling you it's okay to be informal when we're alone. I really mean it when I say that," he looked earnestly into her eyes. "So stop worrying so much. I'm not going to punish you even if you are a bit rude to me. In fact, at this point, I'm about ready to order you to be a bit rude if you don't start taking me seriously."

The nervousness faded from her expression. Instead, she looked a bit speechless at his last words.

Takeru puffed his chest out and looked down his nose at her with a stern expression. "Do I need to make it an order, cadet?"

Finally, an involuntary snort of laughter escaped her. "…You're weird, 2nd Lt. Shirogane."

Unbidden, the image of Valgernon's victory screen flashed before his eyes. But what he'd won with her laugh and her words, vaguely insulting as they might have been, was worth far more to him than any video game win. Takeru resisted the urge to pump his fist triumphantly.

Piece by piece, day by day, Takeru was slowly rebuilding his relationships.

#

That night, Takeru dreamed about home.

In his dream, there was a girl with deep green eyes and long brown hair.

She really was a troublesome girl… proud, stubborn, annoyingly nitpicky, serious to a fault, secretly insecure, and totally unable to be honest about her own feelings…

But she was always thinking of others, caring and diligent and mindful and…

They were utterly unsuited for each other, him and her. At least, on the surface, that was what it had looked like at first. She was the stern class representative while he was a carefree clown. But they'd ended up getting closer and closer somehow. He'd ended up seeing her at her worst, and yet… somehow, he hadn't been able to leave her alone.

He wanted to protect her.

Shirogane Takeru had fallen in love with Sakaki Chizuru.

By some miracle, she had loved him back.

They had made each other happy, despite—or maybe because of—their personality conflicts. Together, they became more than just the sum of their parts. She drove him to grow, to become a better man, and supported him when he stumbled. He smoothed down her sharp edges, helping her relax and learn to enjoy life a bit more, and protected her. They kept each other honest.

It took hard work for them to fit together, but fit together they did. Neither of them would have accepted any other outcome.

Takeru missed his home.

More than that though, he missed Chizuru.

#

November 7, 2001

Testing, testing, and more testing. That was what Takeru's daily life had narrowed down to.

As he listened to Captain Isumi discuss the latest round of training with the squadron, Takeru resisted the urge to slouch and start doodling on the printouts laid on the hard briefing room desk's surface like he so often had back in high school.

Takeru was really getting tired of how much tedious work was involved in testing a new TSF OS. Last time, all he'd had to do was pilot in the off hours and enjoy how the new OS finally let him move his machine the way he wanted. This time around, the amount of testing he was being asked to do seemed to have increased exponentially.

He had never thought he'd ever get tired of TSF simulations, yet that day had come relatively quickly. Takeru was the chief test pilot helping Yuuko and Kasumi as they developed the new OS, and he was also a member of the Valkyries, who had also been assigned to help test the prototypes. That meant he had basically been living in the simulators for days on end. Occasionally, it was broken up by tedious lectures and paperwork, as he had essentially been drafted to help write the pilot's operating manual for the new software.

It didn't help that he had only been able to spend brief moments with Squad 207 in the meantime. Occasionally, he had been able to snatch a few precious minutes while he scarfed down a meal in the cafeteria, and a few times when he was finally released from the sweaty simulator box late at night one of them had still been around doing independent training. But all in all, he had spent significantly less time with his friends than he had wanted to.

Thus, Takeru was thoroughly fed up. Logically, he knew it was a necessary process to help the prototype OS grow into the production version of the XM3. But that didn't stop him from wishing that day would come sooner rather than later.

"…our TSFs are currently being reconfigured with the latest version of the prototype OS," Captain Isumi announced, immediately blowing away Takeru's disgruntled musings. "According to the Vice Commander, the upgrades should be finished within two days. After that, we'll commence live testing."

The briefing room buzzed with excited chatter at the news.

The prototype is being loaded onto their TSFs already? Takeru had to swallow down the barrage of questions that tried to burst out from his mouth. I didn't hear anything about this! His mental complaint felt bit childish, but he figured he was entitled to grumble. After being worked like a mule by Yuuko, the least she could do was keep him in the loop as far as the OS's development was concerned. Apparently she didn't feel the same way though.

Sadly, that didn't surprise him in the least.

"We'll go over the details tomorrow," the captain continued. "In the meantime, get some rest. We'll be even busier over the next few days." Isumi folded her notebook up with an audible smack. "That's all. Dismissed."

"Salute!" Hayase called.

The room was filled with the sound of metal chair legs grinding against the linoleum floor, then the sounds of boots striking as the Valkyries came to attention and saluted. The captain returned the salute, then remained at the head of the room as her pilots began to shuffle out into the hallway.

"Shirogane," Captain Isumi called just as Takeru began to walk towards the door.

He corrected his course, walking towards his unit commander. "Ma'am?"

"I have a message from the Vice Commander. You're to report to Hanger 7 at 18:00 hours."

"The hanger?" Takeru echoed, confused. "Why?" he asked unthinkingly.

"Unfortunately, the Vice Commander doesn't always see fit to tell me the reason why she does things," the captain said dryly. "You only have about 20 minutes to get there, so you'd better get moving."

He was lucky he had been talking to Captain Isumi. Hayase would have chewed him out for blurting out a question like that. "Yes, ma'am," Takeru acknowledged. "I will report to Hanger 7 at 18:00 hours."

"Very good," Isumi nodded approvingly. "Now get going."

Hanger 7 was about a ten minute walk from the Valkyries' briefing room if he hurried, so he was relatively lucky. Yokohama Base was huge, after all, and some hangers were very far away indeed when on foot. Takeru took a few spare minutes to grab a drink and relieve himself before marching speedily to his designated destination.

The hanger was busy when Takeru entered the massive room. Mechanics and other personnel moved in coordinated chaos on the ground floor, working on maintenance tasks for the rows of UN Tactical Surface Fighters that stood tall and silent in their steel alcoves.

Heels clicked on the metal catwalk to Takeru's right. "It's about time you got here," Yuuko stopped next to him and placed her hands on her shapely hips as she gave him an irritated look.

Takeru double-checked his watch. "I'm two minutes early," he objected.

"Didn't anyone ever teach you not to keep a woman waiting?"

"Aren't you the one who said to be here at 18:00 hours!?"

"…Well, whatever," she sniffed. "Come on," Yuuko gestured, her white lab coat fluttering over her fitted UN uniform as she turned to walk back the way she came.

Instead of proceeding through the doorway at the end as he'd expected, she took a left, starting down the catwalk that ran along the outer hanger wall.

"Where are we going?" Takeru asked.

"You'll see."

They passed a pair of F-15Js, and then he saw it.

A Type-94 Shiranui stood in the third alcove.

Takeru's heartbeat started to race in anticipation as he stared at the primary Japanese 3rd generation Tactical Surface Fighter, his gaze fixed on its uniquely rounded head, with its tall twin sensor masts on each side and the horizontal strip of azure optical sensors that he could only think of as its eyes in front. The unit before him was a dull gray, painted only in primer, but somehow he already knew the next time he saw it the unit would be covered in the UN's blue. Despite the colors being dull, it looked almost brand new. He couldn't see a single sign of wear on the machine.

"Is this…?" Takeru trailed off, unable to tear his eyes away from the surface fighter.

"As you can see, it's a Shiranui," Yuuko answered his incomplete question. "Starting today, it's yours."

A breath he hadn't even known he was holding escaped his lungs.

Mine.

He hadn't been expecting to get a TSF when he'd woken up that morning. Yuuko hadn't said a word about it, even though he knew she must have arranged the transfer days ago.

It was one of Yuuko's better surprises.

"Yuuko-sensei…" Takeru said quietly, finally tearing his gaze away from the Shiranui to look Yuuko in the eyes. "Thank you."

"I didn't do it for you," Yuuko waved his thanks away. "I'll get much more use out of you if you have a TSF."

It was true that she was using him. But it was also true that he was using her. They were both using each other, hopefully for the benefit of the world.

No matter what she said or who was using who, he felt incredibly grateful for the gift she had given him.

"Even so," Takeru kept her gaze. "Thank you."

Violet eyes studied him in return for a moment, then her expression seemed to soften slightly. Her lips curved up into a small smile. "You're welcome."

Takeru resisted the urge to step closer to her.

"So…" he forced himself to look away, to turn back towards the Shiranui. "You rip the vinyl covering off the seat yet?"

Yuuko made a small, startled noise. A moment later, he could almost feel the laser-like glare she aimed his way. "...I don't know what you're talking about," she muttered after a suspiciously long pause.

"So that's a yes, then," Takeru translated.

"…the mechanics just finished adjusting the unit," the Vice Commander changed the subject. "The cockpit's been personalized based on your fortified suit's data, and I've loaded the latest version of the prototype OS."

"Already?" Takeru was astonished.

"All that's left is the paint job," Yuuko nodded, a self-satisfied expression on her face. "Now then, I'll let you check out your new toy." She began walking back towards the exit, her heels clicking distinctively on the metal floor, then stopped suddenly. "Ah, right, I almost forgot. I'll be busy tonight, so you don't need to bother coming by for more tests."

"Roger."

"See you later~," she waved nonchalantly as she started walking again.

Takeru watched her go for a long moment before turning to look back up at his new TSF.

Finally.

The emotions that swirled up when he saw it were complex. It stirred so many memories, many of them unhappy ones. And it was a grim physical reminder of the future yet to come.

It wouldn't be long until Takeru would have to put his life on the line and fight once more.

The precious, fleeting days of just spending time with his friends and training with his comrades were almost over.

The true horror of the alternative world had yet to appear before his eyes, but Takeru knew they were coming. When things became quiet, he could envision them all too easily.

The BETA were coming soon.

Numerous lives were about to be lost again.

Yet… with the BETA came Takeru's chance at saving the world.

The irony was bitter enough to choke on. Nevertheless, he would swallow the bitter pill and use it, turning it into the lever he needed to change fate.

Finally, Shirogane Takeru had once again been given a sword to fight with. With a TSF, he could once again stand on the battlefield and protect his comrades.

And soon, he would get the proof he needed to save the world.

#

That night, Takeru dreamed of death.

#

November 8, 2001

It's time.

Takeru's hands clenched in determination as he stepped forward.

I'll do what only I can do.

The automatic reinforced door opened with a quiet hiss.

"Oh, Shirogane," Yuuko looked up in surprise as Takeru walked into her office. "What brings you here?"

"BETA from the Sadogashima Hive are going to invade the mainland."

#

Muv-Luv was the created by Age, not me. All the concepts and characters from the franchise are theirs. This is a non-profit work of fiction.

Author's Notes:

Thanks for reading the fifth chapter of Breaking the Tide. Thank you to everyone who has left a comment or a review about the story so far. I really appreciate all your feedback. And, for those of you who've been waiting, thank you for your patience.

I proofread this chapter by myself, so there may be (or rather, almost certainly will be) mistakes that I missed. If you see any, I'd be grateful if you pointed them out so I can fix them. And of course, I always want to hear any other thoughts you may have about the story. Any comments and/or criticism you have on grammar, spelling, or the story in general would be highly appreciated.