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uoısɹǝʌuı – ıɹɐʇɐƃouoɯ ɐɥɔǝɯ ǝɥʇ

Posted by Doug on February 28, 2009

Sun 09 Oct 2016: A Slice of Life in the World of the Mecha Monogatari

Classes at the Takagi Mamoru Titan Gundan Shikangakkō ran for eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. There were proposals from time to time to increase the training schedule to seven days a week, but these rarely gained much traction in the Titan Gundan, where the consensus was that everyone, from the highest-ranking veterans to the newly-conscripted recruits, needed to be able to unwind sometimes.

Thus, Sundays were the trainees’ free days. Most trainees would spend the day out on the town, and Class 275’s Team Three was no exception.

“So, where do we want to go?” Ōhashi Chitose ittō rikushi asked as the four of them entered the subway station. The assigned leader of Team Three, Chitose had little talent for leadership, and knew it. Tall and athletic, he was much happier staying out of the limelight and allowing someone else to give all the orders.

“Shibuya,” Tsuchiya Riku ittō rikushi said.

“Akiba,” Hatsutori Masae ittō rikushi said, almost simultaneously.

The two glared at each other for a second.

Rather handsome, with a slight frame, Riku had grown up in a wealthy family, attending private schools, and generally getting whatever he wanted. He was known for bragging about his elder sister, an elite titan pilot known by the shikona Tessen. In short, he was a spoiled rich boy.

Masae, on the other hand, had frequently been the target of bullies, who harassed her about her weight, her glasses, her complexion, her slight speech impediment, and above all, her otaku-ness. Only since she had been conscripted into the Rikujō Jieitai had she begun to stand up for herself more.

“We are not going to spend all day in Akihabara,” Riku said.

“Well, I d-don’t want to spend all day shopping for clothes,” Masae said.

“You ought to,” Riku shot back. “You really ought to start wearing something a little more fashionable. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant, ‘something the least bit fashionable’.”

“Here they go again,” Chitose sighed.

“There’s n-nothing wrong with w-w-what I wear!” Masae protested. She had a tendency to stutter, especially when in confrontational situations, and Riku tended to be very confrontational.

“Riku, Masae-chan, stop it,” Seki Akiko ittō rikushi said. “I am not going to put up with you two bickering like a married couple again. Not today.”

Masae fell silent; she usually followed Akiko’s lead in situations like these. Riku, on the other hand, was not so easily quieted. “Don’t be so quick to take her side,” he said. “You’re in worse need of clothes than she is.”

Akiko could not argue that point. She did not own any civilian clothes; raised in an orphanage, she had discarded all the hand-me-downs they had given her when she had been conscripted. Although her salary as an ittō rikushi gave her more than enough financial freedom to do so, Akiko had not had occasion to buy any new civilian attire. “I know,” she said. “And, sorry, Masae-chan, but I’m going to have to agree with Riku. I was kind of hoping on getting some civilian clothes today. How about we go to Akihabara next week?”

Masae frowned, but she relented. “Ugh. I hate shopping for clothes.”

Akiko turned to Riku.

“Whatever,” Riku said, looking away.

“Do I get a vote?” Chitose asked, but no one was listening to him.

They boarded the subway in silence.

* * * * *

Riku’s ill mood did not last very long; once they reached Shibuya, he—the self-appointed ‘fashion expert’ of Team Three—began leading the way to all the trendy shops. He knew the most direct route to each one, and more than a few of the sales clerks knew him by name. Chitose was clearly bored, but said little; Masae looked-and felt-horribly out of place; and Akiko, conspicuous in her uniform, was taken aback by the attentions of the eager-to-please clerks.

Team Three browsed each one in turn, until finally Akiko had to stop him. “Riku, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’d really rather not spend my entire last month’s pay on one outfit.”

“No kidding,” Chitose said. “This stuff isn’t that great to be paying, what?” He looked at a tag on a nearby rack, and his eyes widened in surprise. “Twenty thousand yen? For a single pair of jeans? What sort of idiots buy this crap?”

“Keep your voice down!” Riku hissed. The shopkeeper had overheard Chitose’s remark and was fixing them with a very pointed gaze. Riku offered a hurried apology, and then he herded his teammates out of the shop with great haste. “Bakayarō!” Riku snapped, pushing Chitose. “Now I’ll never be able to show my face in there again!”

“You’re not going to want to, after I kick your ass,” Chitose growled. Normally he was very laid back, but nobody pushed him around. Chitose was pretty strong for his age, and a nikyū jūdōka.

“You two have fun beating each other up,” Akiko said. “I’m going to go look for a Muji or something…”

“You’re n-not going to stop them?” Masae asked.

“Why bother?” Akiko said, walking away. From the moment they had been put together in a team, it had been a nonstop argument, or so it seemed to Akiko. Certainly she was tired of playing the peacemaker.

“Akiko-chan is right,” Riku said. “This is disgraceful, bickering in the street like little kids.” A cool smile replaced the violent stare. “And please tell me you’re not seriously thinking of buying clothes from Muji.”

“W-what’s wrong with Muji?” Masae asked.

“What, too low-class for you, your highness?” Chitose said. He was still angry.

Masae winced, anticipating the resumption of the quarrel, but fortunately, Riku did not take the bait. “Okay, so how much do you want to spend, Akiko-chan?”

“I don’t know,” Akiko said. “Maybe five thousand yen for an outfit?”

Riku shook his head. “This is so wrong. Akiko-chan, you’ve got to be the first girl I’ve ever met that was this clueless about clothes.” Riku glanced over at Masae, and his frown deepened. “Okay, the second. But my point is, I don’t see you getting anything even remotely stylish under a hundred thousand. You got a good figure; you might as well pay a little more and get something that puts it to use.”

“I am not going to wear a miniskirt and over-the-knee socks,” Akiko said.

Masae chimed in: “You would have looked good in that—”

Akiko silenced her with a glance. “Forget it, I can just wear my uniforms.”

Chitose suddenly snorted, repressing a laugh. “Hey, Akiko-chan, Masae-chan, excuse us for a moment,” he said, and then, their argument forgotten, Chitose grabbed Riku’s arm and dragged him a ways down the street.

Masae and Akiko watched as Chitose whispered something to Riku that caused Riku to look up at Akiko, his face scrunched up in confusion, and then ask, “Really?”

Chitose quickly hushed Riku before continuing.

“I wonder what they’re talking about?” Masae asked.

Akiko had no idea. “Boys,” she said, as if that explained everything.

Chitose and Riku returned, Chitose with a big grin on his face, Riku with a knowing smirk.

“What were you two talking about?” Akiko asked.

“Well, Chitose had a…brilliant…idea,” Riku said, picking his words carefully. “There is a shop not far from here that’s…well, it’s…”

“…Not as expensive…” Chitose prompted.

“Not as expensive as these other shops…” Riku said.

“You’re lying,” Akiko said.

Chitose waved his hand in front of his face. “No, really. I remember Hijū-sensei talking the other day about how inexpensive their clothes were.”

Akiko’s interest piqued with the mention of their instructor, Nagaoka Minoru ittō rikui, a veteran titan pilot more commonly known as Hijū, the Soaring Eagle. Hijū was the definition of cool, with his boyish good looks, cavalier attitude, and ubiquitous sunglasses. Even a couple of the guys in the class had a crush on him, it seemed. Of course, his sense of style was all his own, but… “Well,” Akiko said, “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.”

Riku shot a confused look over at Chitose, whose face bore a confident I-told-you-so smile.

As Riku led the way on to yet another shop, Masae hung in back and said nothing. She felt it was cheap of Chitose and Riku to exploit Akiko’s crush on Hijū-sensei like that, but on the other hand, the sooner they were done shopping for clothes, the better. They might be able to swing by Akiba before the day was out…

* * * * *

Lunch was bought at an American-style hamburger place adjacent to Memorial Park, and the quartet ate at a picnic table in the park, under the shadow of the titan-sized statue of the legendary pilot known as Alpha. Ishida Takako ‘Alpha’ was the first to be able to control a mecha’s synchronicity operating system back in the 1950s, when the first wave of the Eschatos began marching across Europe, but that was all ancient history to the four youths of Team Three. There were more pressing matters to dwell on, like what they would do with the rest of their afternoon.

They could easily pass for a group of young students, now that Akiko had changed out of her uniform. She now wore one of the outfits she had bought at the store Hijū-sensei supposedly shopped at, a casual denim skirt and sweater combo (Akiko liked it, as did Masae. Riku grudgingly deemed it suitable. Chitose was entirely too bored to comment). While her goal had been to keep the costs down, Akiko had ended up spending quite a lot of money, the largest portion of it on a pair of sleek black sunglasses very similar to the pair Hijū-sensei was never without.

Chitose followed suit, buying a different style; Riku already had a very expensive pair of sunglasses; and after a liberal application of peer pressure, Masae caved in and spent fifteen thousand yen on a pair of her own, just so that Team Three could match…more or less.

Eating their lunch, the question was, What now?

“No,” Riku declared after Masae’s fifth bid for heading to Akihabara. Unlike the other three, who had ordered the house special hamburgers, the very health-conscious Riku had ordered a salad, with low-calorie dressing.

“We ought to go by that martial arts store Akiko mentioned,” Chitose said.

The shop was where the Kendō Club at Akiko’s junior high school had always bought their kendō supplies; they also carried training equipment for a variety of other styles of martial arts. “That’s over in Setagaya,” Akiko said.

“I don’t think we should go that f-far,” Masae said.

“It isn’t that far,” Akiko said.

“Well, we’ve already done what you and Riku wanted to do,” Chitose said. “We’re doing Akihabara next week. I say it’s my turn to pick.”

“That sounds fair,” Masae said, although it was obvious she was still a little upset by the matter.

“Okay, Setagaya, then,” Riku said. “Something wrong with your sunglasses?”

His question was directed at Akiko, who was holding her brand-new sunglasses in front of her face, peering intently at them. “Ah, no,” Akiko said. “I was just…checking my reflection.”

“I have a mirror,” Masae said, and after fishing through her handbag, presented a small circular mirror to Akiko.

Akiko scrutinized her reflection in the mirror.

“What is it?” Chitose asked, his mouth full.

“I need to get my hair dyed again,” Akiko said. “My roots are beginning to show again.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Riku said. “Is that your natural hair color?”

Akiko nodded.

“So you’re gray-haired, like an old lady?” Chitose asked.

Akiko nodded, and, unbidden, Masae provided confirmation. “Yeah, she’s like that all over. It’s really bizarre.”

There was a pause, and then Riku and Chitose burst out laughing.

“What? W-what?” Masae asked, confused.

“Shut up, Masae-chan,” Akiko said, blushing. “Just…shut up. Please.”

It took a couple minutes for the two boys to calm down. Well, Riku calmed down. Even after he stopped laughing, Chitose couldn’t look at Akiko without his face contorting into a ridiculous grin.

“You ought to let it grow back natural,” Riku suggested.

“That would look r-really weird,” Masae said.

“Oh, you’re one to talk about weird,” Chitose said.

“She’s right,” Akiko said. “I don’t want to stand out.”

“No, you ought to do it once, just to see what it looks like,” Riku said. “You can always dye it brown again if you don’t like it.”

“Yeah, do it,” Chitose said. “I’d pay real money to see that.”

Akiko seemed doubtful. “It will look awful while it’s growing back…”

“I’ll tell you what,” Riku said. “I know a stylist who is the best in Tōkyō. Her salon is just a couple stops down the line from here. She could dye your hair back to its natural color, and you wouldn’t have to mess growing it out.”

“Is that even possible?” Masae asked.

Riku nodded. “G.G. is a miracle worker.” He was dead serious, too.

“Do it,” Chitose said. “We’ll pay for it.”

“Yes. We’ll split the bill between the three of us,” Riku said. “Right, Masae-chan?”

“Yeah, I kind of want to see this, too,” Masae said.

Akiko, frowning, a grave look on her face, considered this as if it were a matter of life and death. “No pictures. None.”

Her three teammates immediately swore there would be no photography. Akiko extended the prohibition to any sort of video recording, and they agreed without protest. Riku and Masae promised not to laugh, either, but Chitose could only promise not to laugh too much.

“Fine,” Akiko finally said. “Let’s go now, and get this over with.”

* * * * *

Tucked into a nondescript corner of Shibuya, G.G.’s salon—named, simply, G.G.-no-Biyōin—was not famous, but most of its clientèle was. Akiko, Masae, and Chitose were surprised to see a particularly well-known movie star leaving as they walked in. Masae immediately began rummaging through her purse, obviously to find pen and paper for an autograph, but Riku just grabbed her arm and pulled her in.

They were also surprised by the salon itself. For all Riku’s bragging about how amazing this G.G. was, they were expecting something…well, something amazing, but it was so utterly mundane, just like any other run-of-the-mill hair salon one could find anywhere.

A rather mannish woman who appeared to be in her early forties came forward. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Riku-chan!” she said with a thick Okinawan accent. “I haven’t seen you since you became a pilot.”

“Hi, G.G. It’s been a while, huh? These are my teammates,” Riku said, and then handled the introductions.

G.G. looked from one of them to the next. “Well, I can see why you decided to come here. I should have stayed in the Jieitai. You kids are supposed to be titan pilots! You can’t be going out, saving the world looking like this.” She gestured disparagingly at the four young pilot trainee’s hairstyles.

“You u-used to be in the J-Jieitai?” Masae asked.

G.G. nodded. “Rikusōchō with the 517th Reconnaissance Company.”

Recon?” Chitose said. “You’re kidding, right?”

“There are two things in this world I never joke about,” G.G. declared, fixing Chitose with a stern glare. “And one of them is the 517th Recon.”

“And the other?” Akiko asked.

G.G. looked at her evenly. “Baseball.”

No one said anything until G.G. cracked a wan smile. “Oh, you kids are too serious.”

They laughed. It was a courtesy laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

G.G. shook her head. “So, who’s first?”

“Actually, the reason we came by is to see if you could dye Akiko-chan’s hair back natural,” Riku said.

G.G. turned her attention back to Akiko. “Yes, I was noticing your roots were showing. Your hair is naturally silver?”

Akiko nodded.

“Oh, yeah, it really is,” Chitose said in between snickers.

Riku coughed. Masae turned away. Akiko ignored him.

“It wouldn’t be the most difficult dye job I’ve ever done,” G.G. said. “But it’ll be right up there. Well, sit down and make yourself comfortable. This is going to take a while.”

* * * * *

While G.G. worked on Akiko’s hair, Riku talked with her about all the famous people that they both knew, Riku’s older sister Junko among them. Masae half-listened, half-flipped through a magazine. Chitose, bored out of his mind, fell asleep in one of the other chairs. It took a couple hours for G.G. to finish her work, and after Masae woke Chitose, they gathered around to view the result of her efforts.

No one spoke for what seemed like forever.

“That…” Masae slowly began. “That…looks…awesome.”

Riku nodded. “It suits you, somehow. Well, of course it suits you, it’s your natural hair color.”

“Almost,” G.G. admitted. “It’s a shade or two darker than her natural color. Her natural color would look brilliant compared to this.”

“You look a lot older,” Riku said. “More mature. In a good way.”

Chitose smiled, started to laugh, but then just shook his head instead. “They’re going to have a fit over this back at the Academy.”

“The regulations for hairstyles are relaxed for titan pilots,” Riku said.

“Very true,” G.G. said. “So, Akiko-chan, what do you think?”

Akiko just sat in the chair, staring at her reflection in the mirror, a puzzled look on her face. Her voice low, she muttered something that, to, the others, sounded like It’s you.

“What did you say?” Chitose asked.

“Nothing,” Akiko said. “I don’t know…that doesn’t even look real.”

“You look good,” Riku said. “Trust me.”

“Agreed,” Chitose said. “Dark hair doesn’t suit your features. Are you sure you’re a hundred percent Japanese?”

Masae, the only one who knew that Akiko was an orphan who had no knowledge of her parentage, quickly came to her defense. “Y-yes, she’s J-Japanese! You look really c-cute, Akiko-chan, like Queen Serenity from Sailor Moon!”

Akiko turned slowly and gave Masae a look of complete disgust.

“Masae-chan, you’re not helping,” Riku said.

G.G. directed Akiko’s attention back to her reflection in the mirror. “This is what you really look like, Akiko-chan. Close enough, anyways. You’re not just another teenager who has to fit in with the crowd. You’re a titan pilot. You’re not supposed to be like everyone else. You’re supposed to be you.”

Akiko agreed with the sentiment, but she wasn’t completely convinced. Not yet. “I guess…I’ll give it a try.”

* * * * *

“Enough of this girly stuff,” Chitose said. “Let’s head to Setagaya and check out this martial arts store Akiko was talking about.”

Masae noticed that Akiko had stopped, and was looking off into the distance to the southeast. “Akiko-chan, what’s wrong?”

Riku, assuming very incorrectly that Akiko was feeling self-conscious about her distinctive hair color, was quick to attempt to diffuse it. “This again? Just think of Kishin—she still has that ridiculous hairdo that probably went out of fashion a hundred years ago—”

“I’m not worried about that,” Akiko said. “It’s just…never mind. Let’s go.”

As they made their way via subway and bus to Setagaya, the topic of conversation turned to Japan’s greatest living heroine, Suetomi Yōko, more commonly known by her shikona: Kishin, the Fierce Goddess. The sole surviving member of the Seven Gray Knights, Kishin was considered by many to be the ultimate exemplar for a titan pilot.

“Have you ever noticed,” Chitose began, “that when anyone mentions Kishin around Benkei-sensei, she sort of just frowns and doesn’t have anything to say?”

Benkei-sensei was their other instructor, senior to Hijū-sensei. She was tall (taller even than Riku, who stood 181 centimeters tall) and powerfully built, and where Hijū-sensei was laid-back and informal, Benkei-sensei was very strict, with a tendency to follow protocols to the letter.

“I-I noticed that, too,” Masae said. “We asked if sh-she had ever met Kishin, and she s-said she had, but when w-we asked her what K-Kishin was like, she just ch-changed the subject.”

“Who knows?” Riku said. “My sister—”

“I knew you were going to bring up your sister,” Chitose interrupted.

“Don’t even start,” Akiko said. “What about your sister?”

Riku gave Chitose a dirty look before continuing. “Well, she just said that every pilot trainee should research Kishin’s career. But for some reason, I’ve never been able to find much out about her, other than the occasional news story.”

“She is very active in politics,” Akiko said. “Hijū-sensei said that a lot of people thought that it was improper for Kishin to be involved in politics the way she is, given that she’s still active-duty.”

“Yes,” Riku said. “Maybe they support different political parties, and Benkei-sensei doesn’t want to come off sounding like he’s disparaging a national heroine like Kishin.”

“M-maybe Benkei-s-sensei knows some embarrassing s-s-secrets about her,” Masae suggested.

“That’s stupid,” Chitose said.

“It c-could be true!” Masae insisted.

“Doubt it,” Chitose said.

“Hey, it’s Team Three!”

They turned to see four of their classmates, the four boys who formed Team Two, approaching. Their attention was instantly focused on the one person in Team Three who wasn’t quite how they remembered. “Seki-san, is that you?” Nakamura Ryō ittō rikushi asked. A very friendly and dependable young man, Nakamura had already become known as the Iinchō of the class.

“It sure is,” Riku answered.

“I can speak for myself,” Akiko said, a little embarrassed by the attention.

“That is so wild,” Kanno Takumi ittō rikushi said. He was the leader of Team Two, although it was no secret that he depended heavily on the more diplomatic Nakamura. Unlike Chitose, who was the leader of Team Three, Kanno actually would take the lead, though.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Hirose Kazuto ittō rikushi said. A soccer otaku, but not a soccer player, Hirose was always talking about what teams had won and lost and what players had been injured or retired or what new rookies looked promising. “What made you want to dye your hair white?”

“It’s not white,” Masae said. “It’s s-silver.”

“You know what I mean,” Hirose said.

“It’s my natural hair color,” Akiko said.

“Really?” Nakamura said, smiling. “It looks really good on you. But to tell the truth, between that and your civilian clothes, the only reason I recognized you was because you were with Ōhashi, Tsuchiya, and Hatsutori-san.”

Kanno nodded. “She looks…what’s the word for those paintings that look so real they don’t look real at all?”

There was a pause as everyone tried to think of the word.

“Surreal?” Masae suggested.

“No,” Riku said. “Surreal is when the images are dreamlike.”

“So you’re saying I look fake?” Akiko asked.

“Ah, no, that’s not what I mean,” Kanno said. “You just look—”

Whatever Kanno was about to say was cut off as sirens began sounding throughout the city. The eight students froze; indeed, for a moment, everyone seemed to stop moving. A calm but firm man’s voice called out over the public address system: “As of this moment, the Tōkyō region is under a Class One invasion alert. This is not a drill. All civilians are to evacuate to the defense shelters immediately. Public service personnel are to assist with the evacuation. All designated MGT routes are to be cleared for Jieitai deployment. I repeat, the Tōkyō region is under a Class One alert. This is not a drill. All civilians…

When the Eschatos launched their assault forces towards Japan, the civilian populace retreated into heavily fortified underground bunkers so that the Rikujō Jieitai could handle the defense of the area without having to worry too much about civilian casualties. Usually the Eschatos would simply ignore anything that was not a titan, especially civilians, but more than once the Eschatos had deliberately targeted civilians—the massacres at Aomori and Hachinohe were not easily forgotten.

All around them, people began running every direction at once, it seemed. Parents frantically dragged their children behind them; police officers waved people towards the entrances to the underground bunkers. One car backed into another as drivers tried to get their vehicles off of the Military Ground Transportation route, and the police officers rushed to make sure the injuries were not severe and that the vehicles got moved posthaste.

“The nearest shelter is this way!” Nakamura called out.

“Let’s go!” Kanno said. “Move it!”

Reflexively, Masae, Chitose, and Riku began to follow Team Two’s lead, but then they noticed that Akiko wasn’t moving. “Akiko-chan, we’ve got to get to a shelter!” Riku said.

“We are pilots,” Akiko said, her voice strangely calm. Unlike the others, she was not the least bit affected by the sense of fear and dread that the evacuation order had induced. For a moment, she seemed very otherworldly. “I will not hide in a hole. Not ever again.”

“A-Akiko-chan, it’s d-d-dangerous out here!” Masae said, grabbing Akiko’s arm in a futile attempt to pull her along. “And w-we’re not p-pilot’s yet!”

“Hatsutori-san is right,” Nakamura said. “We have got to go to a shelter!”

Akiko turned away from them. “Go ahead. I’m going to go somewhere I can see what’s going on.”

The others looked back and forth at each other, wondering what to do. Technically, the evacuation order only applied to civilians; military personnel were expected to report to their duty stations, but as pilot trainees, they did not have any assigned duties during an evacuation. Benkei-sensei had told them on the first day at the Academy that in a situation like this, they should stick together with their teams, no matter what, but other than that, they had the latitude act under their own best judgment.

Still, they had always gone to the shelters during an evacuation.

“Yeah, come on,” Riku said, his voice wavering. He was afraid, but his ego would not permit him to show it. “I’ve always wanted to see a real battle.”

“You can’t be serious!” Kanno said.

“You’re not afraid, are you?” Riku shot back.

“Hell no,” Kanno said, puffing himself up with pride.

“This is no time for childish games,” Nakamura warned.

“This is no game,” Akiko said. She was already walking away.

“You know,” Chitose said, as he walked over to join Akiko and Riku. Putting his sunglasses on, he feigned a casual tone. “Back in junior high, a bunch of us snuck out of school during an evacuation, but we were found by a police officer. I got in so much trouble.”

“Yeah, I’m going to watch,” Hirose said, leaving his team.

“Kazuto!” Nakamura said.

“Sorry, Iinchō,” Hirose apologized. “But hiding in a shelter is so uncool.”

Seeing that the only way to keep everyone together was to go with them, Nakamura said, “Okay, fine. But we have got to stick together. You remember what Benkei-sensei said.”

“This is a bad idea,” Kanno said.

“Before we find a spot to watch, we need to make sure we know where the shelters in the area are,” Nakamura said. “Because if we see anything getting anywhere near us, we will evacuate.”

Akiko was not listening. She was already halfway down the block, and the others had to hurry to catch up with her.

“W-wait up, Akiko-c-chan!” Masae said.

* * * * *

Within minutes, the city was emptied, all save for the occasional police officer or public safety official. The evacuation announcement and the sirens had been silenced; it was ominously quiet in the typically bustling Shibuya district. The main roads were emptied of cars. All the stoplights flashed red. The sky seemed filled with helicopters, mostly military ones, but a few from the news agencies could be seen, too. The only people out were the group of young titan pilot trainees in search of a suitable vantage point to watch the battle unfold.

After unloading the bags of clothes they had bought earlier into a rental locker, they walked along MGT-246, the silver-haired young woman at the fore. As fearful as they might be of what lay ahead, none dared fall too far behind; ‘keep together’ was their one unbreakable rule.

Nakamura and Masae were still trying to persuade the others to head to a shelter, to no avail. Akiko could not be swayed, and the others, caught up in the excitement of the little adventure, followed her lead.

Hearing the sound of heavy vehicles, they turned, and saw a long column of drab olive Rikujō Jieitai semis approaching, each one loaded down with an San’nanashiki Senjinzōningen—a twenty-meter tall bipedal war machine more popularly known as an Atlas-class titan. “Oh, wow, check it out,” Chitose said, pointing. Even Akiko, who had not slowed in her march since the evacuation order had been issued, finally stopped to watch the semis approach.

The column slowed, and when it was about fifty meters away, the door opened, and a man in a technician’s coveralls and the rank insignia of a rikushōchō hung out the door, and with the mic to the semi’s loudspeaker held up to his mouth, shouted, “Stupid kids! This ain’t no damn festival! Get your asses into a shelter, stat!”

Akiko saluted sharply. “We’re with the Takagi Titan Shikangakkō, Class 275!”

“What?” the rikushōchō said, and then turned to the driver of the semi. The semi came to a stop, as did the rest of the column of vehicles. The rikushōchō jumped out of the semi, and walked over to the youths. As he did so, the driver of the next semi blared his horn, prompting the rikushōchō to direct a vulgar gesture in his direction before returning his attention to the group of trainees. He gave Akiko a quizzical look. “Is that your natural hair color?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Akiko answered, still saluting.

“Weird. And you can quit saluting,” the rikushōchō said, and Akiko stood at ease. “So you’re from the Shikangakkō, huh? Let’s see some ID.”

Akiko produced hers in a second. The others followed suit.

The titan’s pilot hopped down off of the trailer. She wore the characteristic gray pilot’s beret and a pair of mirror-lensed sunglasses, the arms of her jumpsuit tied around her waist; she wore a bright orange and white athletic top and a pair of dog tags besides. “What’s the holdup, shōchō?”

“Bunch of kids from the Shikangakkō,” the rikushōchō said.

“Oh, yeah?” the pilot said, smiling. She turned to the other semis in the column and performed a series of quick hand signals, which Akiko recognized as Move to target; I will catch up. As the other semis moved on down the road, the pilot turned to face the trainees once again. “Looking for a good spot to watch the action?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Akiko said.

“Then you want the Cerulean Tower,” the pilot said, pointing to a tall building in the direction Akiko and the others had been walking. “Highest spot in Shibuya. Come on, hop on the trailer, we’ll give you a lift.”

“Since when did we become a damned taxi service?” the rikushōchō asked.

“Since right now,” the pilot said.

“If this is a problem, we could always just walk,” Nakamura said. “It’s only a kilometer or two.”

“Nah, we’re in no hurry,” the pilot said. “Nothing is going to happen for at least another hour or two. Get on, before I change my mind.”

Akiko, mindful of her skirt, boarded the trailer, and the others quickly climbed aboard after her. The rikushōchō just muttered a nonstop barrage of profanities under his breath, but retreated back into the cab of the semi. “This is so cool,” Masae said as they all found a spot on the back of the trailer to ride.

The pilot laughed as the semi started moving. He had to shout in order to be heard. “Beats walking, huh? I’m Saji, with the 16th Battalion. Whose class you in?”

“Class 275,” Kanno said. “Our instructors are Benkei and Hijū.”

“Hijū?” Saji said, turning serious. “Next time you see him, tell him that the 29th still owes us thirty thousand yen from the baseball tournament back in August.”

“They didn’t pay up?” Chitose asked. “Isn’t it bad luck not to pay your gambling debts?”

“Yeah,” Saji said. “Hijū paid his part of the wager-so did most of the others. But a couple didn’t have the money on them, so we let them have a week to pay up. That was two months ago.”

“What’s your unit’s call sign?” Riku asked.

“Takeyari,” Saji said.

“Did you used to be based out of Kagoshima?” Riku asked.

Saji nodded. “Yeah, how did you know?”

“My older sister is in the 577th,” Riku said.

“Huh, small world,” Saji said, and then she looked closer at Riku, a sense of recognition crossing her face. “Older sister? You don’t mean…you’re Tessen’s little brother?”

Riku nodded.

“Oh, wow, this is a small world,” Saji said. “Me and Junko used to go out and get drunk all the time! I haven’t heard from her in forever! How’s she doing?”

“Good,” Riku said, a little embarrassed. The idea of his older sister, who he idolized, getting ‘drunk all the time’ obviously didn’t sit too well with him. “I remember her talking about facing off against the Omega Cuélebre with the Takeyari unit.”

“That was a bad day,” Saji said, nodding grimly. “It was cold, and it rained nonstop, thunder and lightning and all that, and to top things off Sakurajima was having another fit. I’ll never forget was Junko did that day: right before the counterattack began, standing not a kilometer from him, she syncs out, climbs up on the top of her titan in the pouring rain, and holds her fan out in front of her like an old-time samurai general, and declared that this was Japan, and Cuélebre had two choices: surrender—” Saji paused dramatically, “—or die. That’s how she earned her shikona. Bravest thing I had ever seen.”

“Did Cuélebre surrender?” Chitose asked.

Saji shook her head. “Nope.” Then she smiled triumphantly. “He chose the latter option. Here’s the tower. Hey, sansō, pull over here.”

The semi came to a stop at the base of the Cerulean Tower, and Teams Two and Three disembarked. “There’s a shelter access in the lower basement level, if things get too intense,” Saji said, standing tall on the shoulder of the reclined titan. “Don’t be stupid and move on—your neesan would never forgive me!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be careful, ma’am,” Riku said.

“Say hi to Benkei and Hijū for me!” Saji said, and then gestured to the semi’s driver to proceed on.

As the semi disappeared down MGT-246, the group headed inside to find the building was still in the process of being evacuated. “We can’t tie up the elevators,” Nakamura said. “They’re still evacuating.”

“The stairs, then,” Akiko said.

“You’re going to take the stairs?” Hirose said. “How many flights is it to the top?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Akiko said.

The stairwell had a steady stream of people descending to the shelter deep beneath the tower, and it seemed that every flight someone stopped them, determined to lecture the wayward group of youths about the recklessness of their actions. Akiko finally took to holding her Rikujō Jieitai ID in front of her, saying “Jieitai personnel, coming through,” over and over to preempt any further lectures. The only one to stop them then was a police officer, who scrutinized Akiko’s ID before saluting and advising them to be careful.

Chitose had no problem climbing all the stairs, nor did Kanno or Akiko. The painfully shy Kuwashima, who had not said a word since Team Three had joined them, was close behind, breathing hard. Riku struggled to keep up. Masae had to stop at the twelfth floor, and Nakamura and Hirose said they would stay with her and catch up in a few minutes.

They were not the only ones who had defied the evacuation order-on the observation deck just below the helipad on the roof of the Cerulean Tower, a dozen or so office workers had gathered to watch, as Hijū-sensei had often called it, The Show.

Chitose, Akiko, and Kanno had raced the last three flights to the top, and all three were out of breath as they walked out onto the observation deck. Chitose had won, but not by much. Gasping for air, Chitose held his hand out. “Five hundred yen.”

“Just a minute,” Kanno said. “Let me catch my breath.”

Akiko just took her wallet out of her handbag and paid without comment, and then she went over to the railing and looked out over the city, the wind blowing her silver hair.

Kuwashima made it to the top, and then Riku joined them. “Ugh, my legs,” Riku complained. “They need more elevators. Oh, wow, what a view.”

“Yeah, Tsuchiya,” Kanno said. “Take a look—you can see where the 16th Battalion is.”

All eyes tracked to where Kanno pointed, and indeed, off in the distance, they could see a titan standing in the center of the street. Riku got out his cell phone and took a picture. “It’s a pity the phone services are down,” he said. “I’d love to send this to my sister, and tell her about Saji-san.”

“Am I the only one who thought that pilot was hot?” Kanno asked. Taking a five-hundred-yen bill out of his wallet, he handed it to Chitose.

Chitose nodded his agreement. “Thank you very much. Yeah, I was hoping all women titan pilots weren’t muscled-up like Benkei-sensei. Not really my type.”

“So, what kind of girl you like?” Riku asked.

Chitose shrugged. “I dunno. Athletic girls, I guess. Just not so mannish-looking.”

“Figures,” Riku said.

“This is my type,” Kanno said, and held out his wallet to show the others a picture.

“Girlfriend?” Chitose asked.

Kanno nodded.

“Yeah, she’s cute,” Riku said. “How old is she?”

“Eighteen,” Kanno said.

“Ah, you like older women,” Riku said knowingly.

“What about you?” Kanno asked.

“American girls,” Riku said. “My family is good friends with a lot of American expatriates and those are The. Most. Beautiful. Girls. Ever.

“Ugh, traitor,” Chitose said, holding up his hands in mock disgust.

Riku turned to the shy boy from Team Two. “Hey, uh, what was your name again?”

“Kuwashima,” Kanno answered for him.

“Kuwashima, yeah, what’s your type?” Riku asked.

Kuwashima hesitated, looking back and forth between the three other boys (and, briefly, at Akiko, who was still staring out over the city, apparently paying no heed to the conversation). “Ah, well, I don’t know…”

“Come on, you can tell us,” Kanno said, putting his arm around Kuwashima’s shoulders and shaking him roughly.

“I don’t really have a type,” Kuwashima said, all but shrinking under the sudden attention.

“Yeah, I forgot, you’re the moody artiste,” Kanno said. “Kuwashima here needs him a genki girl.”

“Artiste?” Riku said.

“Yeah. Kuwashima plays the cello,” Kanno said. “Self-taught. Or so Nakamura says-I’ve never heard him.”

“I remember seeing you lugging that big case around,” Chitose said.

“But he’s too shy to play in front of others,” Kanno said. “What good is it to be able to play an instrument if nobody ever hears it?”

“No joke,” Riku said. “Besides, classical music is so old-fashioned. Only boring people listen to that stuff.”

“You should learn to play the guitar,” Chitose said, and then played a little air guitar to illustrate his point.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him,” Kanno said. “I can play guitar a little, and I think Hirose plays keyboard. If we could con Nakamura into singing, we could have a band.”

“What, like Omega’s Bane?” Riku asked.

Omega’s Bane was a rock band formed by four of the members of the Seven Gray Knights. Between the four of them, they had approximately zero talent; they published their only album, Kill It With Fire, themselves, burning CDs on a laptop and passing them out to anyone who would accept them. The songs, with titles like “Last Titan Standing”, “The Realm of the Dead”, “Treachery at the Northern Gate”, and “The Eternal War” were performed with great passion, they were loud and defiant, and they were oh so terribly bad. “No,” Kanno said. “Just…no.”

Kuwashima, crushed at this casually cruel dismissal of his passion, just lowered his head and said nothing.

“If he loves playing the cello, why should he waste his time with something else?” Akiko suddenly asked, still watching the movements of the Jieitai vehicles in the distance. “A person should be who they are.”

Kuwashima looked up at Akiko. He had never thought much about her before today, but seeing her in civilian clothes, with her radiant silver hair, he had fallen in love. That Akiko had stood up for him like this only reinforced the feeling. Unfortunately, Kuwashima was just too timid to be able to express any of this; besides, they would only be together for a few months here at the Academy before shipping out to their first assignments. With the way the war against the Eschatos tended to go, it was likely he would never see her again after that.

Everyone else, of course, was oblivious to his feelings towards Akiko.

“Well, yeah,” Chitose said in response to Akiko’s statement. “I meant…ah, well, I don’t know what I meant.”

Finally, Nakamura, Hirose, and Masae joined them on the observation deck. Having found some vending machines, they had brought canned drinks. The cans were passed out, many thank-yous were spoken, and they enjoyed the refreshment as a squadron of heavy transport helicopters flew by within two hundred meters of the tower. “I also found a vending machine that sold these,” Nakamura said, holding up a brand-new disposable camera.

“Yeah! We ought to take a picture and submit it to the Gray Tops Newsletter,” Riku said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Nakamura said. “Here, I’ll go ask if one of these people will take the picture for us, so we can all be in it.”

Once Nakamura explained the situation, one of the other people on the observation deck, a middle-aged woman in a business suit, gladly agreed to take the picture. They all gathered close; Akiko got squished in the middle, in between Riku and Nakamura. “Okay, everyone, V!” Nakamura said, striking a pose with his fingers held up in a V. The others did likewise, and with a flash of light, the businesswoman took the picture.

“I think I blinked,” Kanno said.

“I know I blinked,” Chitose said.

“Baka,” Riku said.

They all thanked the businesswoman as Nakamura reclaimed the camera, and then they returned to their sightseeing and idle conversations. In the end, they would see nothing really interesting-the Eschatos would not get within fifty kilometers of Tōkyō this time-and they would return to the Academy late, and spend most of the night talking with Hijū-sensei about Saji and the 16th Battalion. Nakamura would forget about the camera for a couple weeks before having the film developed and submitting the picture to the Gray Tops Newsletter, earning him five thousand yen when it was published in the January 2017 issue. He would treat Teams Two and Three to drinks with his winnings.

Seki Akiko and Kuwashima Fuyū would never realize how much that one photograph would shape their destinies.

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