It's birthday time bois

Real talk, I am very, very aware of how ridiculously long this update took. Trust me, it was not the intent. Usually I'm just slow, but this time around I actually got freaking buried by work. Every two days was another assignment from some client or other, and by the time one was finished, another one was slated to go. Of course, I needed the money, because within the span of one month, my car's alternator died twice. TWICE.

Needless to say, the past few months have been rough. I'm terribly sorry about that. I hope this chapter is entertaining enough to make up for it a little bit.

In hindsight, planning for a belated birthday was a little harder than Rin thought. Not in and of itself, but Charlotte had been right in saying that they should have asked Church a whole bunch of questions about what he liked and wanted. Naturally Rin had been too irritated to do that at the point in time that Church had revealed the news to them. Even now, days later, the thought of it pissed her off.

What on earth was he thinking? Not telling any of them that his birthday had come around... did he really not think it was worth celebrating? Where'd he get the gall to think that? Who did he think he was, just assuming that none of them would want to celebrate his birthday, like he wasn't important enough to them to do it?

It was kind of ironic, this type of anger at a person, but both Rin and all the other girls felt it nonetheless. Well, Houki wasn't particularly invested. She didn't hate Church and thought well of him, but the two weren't particularly close. She probably felt that it was his prerogative to share his birthday or not. Well, she was wrong.

And that was why Rin, Laura, Charlotte and Cecilia sat together at lunch that day to discuss birthday battle strategies. Because despite her bravado before, Rin wasn't exactly sure where to take things. She needed everyone's help.

"So, any ideas? I mean, I know I'm the one that declared metaphorical war, but... I don't actually know what we should do. Now that I really think about it, we don't really know enough about Church to guess what he might like or want. It didn't really occur to me that he was this secretive until now..."

Laura seemed to find this sentiment amusing, for reasons the other girls didn't understand.

"Really? Until recently, we didn't even know his- ah, never mind."

Reminding herself of something halfway through that sentence, Laura fell silent, prompting everyone else to cock an inquisitive eyebrow at her. The German was going to say that they hadn't even known Church's first name until recently, making it obvious how secretive he was, but she had promised him to keep that information to herself. For a moment she had forgotten.

Ordinarily someone might have asked what she had meant to say, but as of right now they had bigger fish to fry, so Cecilia stayed on topic.

"Why not just do what we did for Ichika's birthday? I imagine Church would be very appreciative of a little risque dress-up. More so than Ichika was, at any rate..."

Remembering the way that had played out last time, Rin couldn't help but frown. Then again, considering that Tatenashi didn't care about the boy in question this time, it was unlikely she would interfere again. Still, she didn't get a chance to comment on the idea before Charlotte did.

"I don't know, that seems kind of unoriginal... and it kind of gives the vibe that he's not worth coming up with an original idea."

"I don't think he would feel that way about it."

"But I would..."

While Rin felt that Charlotte kind of had a point, she also assumed that she just didn't want to dress as scantily for this as she had for Ichika. After all, she didn't feel anything romantic for Church, right? Kind of made sense then.

Laura's hand went to her chin as she contemplated their situation.

"But if we don't do some sort of activity as a present, we'll have to actually get physical presents, and we don't have any idea what he would like. And then there's the cooking aspect of it... we really don't know what kind of cake he would like. Or if he even likes cake."

The other girls gave Rin a look, somewhat blaming her for being so determined to keep Church out of the loop, apparently as some sort of punishment for hiding his birthday in the first place. Asking about his food tastes would have made this all a lot easier, at any rate.

But while the other girls were simply throwing these warranted complaints around, Rin had actually gotten an idea out of them. An idea that would allow her to do something she knew Church would like, and look good doing it besides.

"OK girls, hear me out: what if we all just cook a special dessert for him from our home countries? He loves getting to experience parts of other cultures and he's always happy when someone takes the time and effort to cook for him, no matter what it is. And we could all wear something representative of our nation, too. It's the best of both worlds."

Based on the expressions around the table, it was immediately apparent that everyone liked this idea. Of course, they were pretty vocal about it too, with Charlotte commenting first.

"Oh, that's a wonderful idea! Hm, maybe a soufflé? And a maid outfit, that would be a great combo! Hm..."

Rin wanted to comment on how she hadn't expected Charlotte to want to dress up for a boy she only liked as a friend, but she didn't manage to get the words out over Laura's own musings on the idea.

"Yes, that could work... a Dirndl dress perhaps? Would I even look good in that...? And what would I do for dessert...?"

Cecilia was quick to state her agreement on this matter.

"A capital idea Rin, truly. I think I shall make... Spotted Dick! Yes, I'm certain I'm quite good at that."

Being an experienced cook, Rin knew that Spotted Dick was indeed a real British pudding, but even so, the ridiculous name brought a weird image to her mind. It may have meant something else in the past, but one would think the culture would elect to change the name in the modern era. More importantly, this was Cecilia they were talking about.

"I think you'll benefit from a bit of help in the kitchen for this Cecilia. Also, let's workshop the whole 'Spotted Dick' idea, Ok?"

"Whatever you are implying is insulting, Rin. Are you saying I am a bad-"

All three of the girls at the table answered simultaneously.


With no way to rebut such a consensus, Cecilia fell silent, a prominent pout on her face. As for Rin, she turned her thoughts to her own machinations. Thinking up a dessert to make was no great challenge: aside from being a pilot, she was essentially a chef, after all. The real question was what she was going to wear. The answer was obvious on the surface: a qipao dress was the only right choice. The real question was, what color? She had a few to go with...

Either way, this meeting had proven very productive for everyone involved. Now it was just matter of solidifying some details, procuring some time and ingredients, and maybe making a hop, skip and a jump back home for some clothes, if any of the girls didn't have them on hand. Then again, with how many cultures existed within the school, the nearby town had embraced the diversity and capitalized on it in nearly every way. Chances were some store somewhere in the city was selling what any of the girls was looking for.

It was a good thing they had been so vague about the time for this belayed birthday, because now that they had settled on something to do for it, it was obvious that the whole ordeal was going to take more time than anticipated. But considering that Church had been willing to let a birthday slide in the first place, surely he wouldn't have much of a problem with waiting a little longer for everyone to be ready.

That said, Rin felt that he'd better be damn appreciative of all their hard work when all was said and done, whether he had asked for it or not.

While most of the girls he knew were focusing on the birthday side of things, Church himself was mostly invested in actual work. That was primarily because the girls weren't giving him the slightest hint as to what they were doing, or at least they hadn't these past few days. In fact, he'd hardly seen any of them since this whole scenario began.

Not that he hadn't seen them at all, of course. In his own conceited opinion, Church didn't think they could go that long without interacting with him. But any time he had talked to one of them in the past few days, the conversation had been pointedly directed away from his birthday and anything related to it. At most, Rin had asked him about colors that he liked, but she hadn't revealed what that knowledge had been for.

While he had to admit that he was curious about all of it, at the end of the day Church knew the girls wanted this to be a surprise for him, so he had decided against any sort of recon to discern more. Besides, even though he couldn't remember the last time he had celebrated his birthday, he had to admit that the notion of throwing a party with his friends sounded fun. Of course, the fact that all of his friends were beautiful girls looking to make him happy probably contributed to that feeling greatly.

Even so, there was nothing for him to actually do in regards to the birthday party other than wait. That being the case, he was focusing on things he could still have a hand in, namely the preparations for another Phantom Task engagement. Since neither Kanzashi nor Tatenashi were in on the birthday plans, the three of them could still work on things like this. Church had spent most of the past couple of days doing this with them, mostly calling the Academy's workshops home in that time, since it was the best place to do anything in regards to IS R&D. However, today Chifuyu was with them: perhaps checking in on their progress over the past few days.

The four of them stood around a table in one of the R&D rooms, an Uchigane under repairs against one wall and numerous parts and tools scattered about on various benches. However, their table only had papers and blueprints on them, the latter of which were primarily drawn up by Kanzashi, who was speaking on their behalf right now.

"R-rather than try to make entirely new weapons, we figured the best way to r-really cover the weaknesses of each IS would be equipping them with the strengths of their teammates as well. Each of the party's IS has a valuable weapon or tool one of the others would make great use of, but... even putting aside technical requirements..."

Since she was starting to lose steam while relaying their ideas to Chifuyu, Tatenashi took over.

"Even if we do the work to make these weapon systems compatible with the constraints of each individual pilot's IS, that doesn't mean it'll actually do a lot of good. We can put a rifle in Houki's hands, but..."

Seeing where this was going already, Chifuyu sighed as she finished Tatenashi's statement for her.

"But it would be pointless, as Houki's aim is terrible."

"Exactly. We could give everyone the weapon they're lacking to cover their weaknesses, but the reason they probably don't use those weapons in the first place is because they aren't very good with them. And there's nothing we can do about that."

"Duly noted. However, that sort of deficiency can be addressed with training. That can be left to me, of course. So tell me what you have in mind for everyone."

Since Church had far more experience with the girls in question as far as watching them fight was concerned, he spoke up to answer this question.

"First up is Rin: oddly enough, because she and Shen Long are the most well-rounded. Between her blades and her Dragon Cannons, she's not actually hurting much for offensive options. Shen Long is decently fast and defensible, striking a good middle ground between pretty much everything. Really, the only thing she's truly lacking is long-range firepower like Cecilia's: her Dragon Cannons lose any sort of real effectiveness beyond medium range."

Pointing to a few of the schematics Kanzashi had drawn up over the past few days, Church elaborated further on their plans for Rin.

"But rather than give her a dedicated ranged weapon that won't fit in well with her offensive pressure strategy, we figured we could just give her more Dragon Cannons, but as BITS like the ones on Blue Tears. They can pursue enemies at range if need be, but also offer supporting fire in close range engagements. And considering the already difficult to predict nature of Shen Long's Dragon Cannons, having more firing from extra angles is going to significantly increase the pressure on enemy Rin is facing."

Since he was done, Kanzashi finished the explanation for the idea.

"Unfortunately, we could only equip Shen Long with two of these BITS: her frame isn't equipped for any more than that. We could push it to three if we tinkered with the parameters themselves, but at that point the IS will suffer in other areas."

Folding her arms as she gazed at the blueprints on the table, Chifuyu's expression remained neutral, despite praise coming their way.

"An excellent idea, you three. This compliments Rin's fighting style overall, while still covering the one major flaw in her machine. Moreover, her thorough experience competing against Cecilia's BITS means she'll already have some level of familiarity with how to use them herself. Who is next?"

For this, Tatenashi took the floor, though it was brief.

"Well, hate to say it, but there's not much we can do for Houki. Not that we wouldn't like to try, but there are just way too many unknowns about her IS. We don't even know what all Akatsubaki can do, much less try to add to it. We figured her greatest weakness was a lack of ranged weaponry as well: she used BITS of her own during the Gospel fight, and some laser type attacks from her swords, but there's little doubt those aren't effective at ranges Cecilia's rifle can manage... either way, we aren't comfortable trying to make any modifications to Akatsubaki, all things considered. With her top speed and regenerating shields, Houki's probably better off going all in on her strengths, rather than trying to cover her weaknesses."

All this talk of the Gen 4 Akatsubaki put a frown on Chifuyu's face. Even now, Tabane had not released any sort of meaningful information on it. The fact that her childhood friend was being so difficult in this time of crisis was truly testing Chifuyu's patience.

"That sounds reasonable, considering the facts. Better to not tinker with creations directly of Tabane's own making... what about everyone else?"

With Houki's special case out of the way, Church took the reins again on the other girls.

"Well, Cecilia's weakness is pretty obvious. She's got long and medium range down, but her specialization is so focused that she's seriously lacking in all non-related areas. She has no real way of defending herself in close combat, and the speed of Blue Tears is so mediocre that most dedicated close-range fighters can stay close to her even if she is in full retreat. Naturally, her machine isn't suited for solo combat and a close-combat fighter like Rin would cover that weakness, but against enemies as strong as Phantom Task each one of us needs to be able to react to any combat situation with some degree of efficiency."

Focusing his attention on the blueprints on the table again, Church laid his eyes on the ones related to Blue Tears.

"Of course the solution to a close-range combat deficiency would be the addition of a sword or similar weapon, but this is where we run into problems with the pilot again... Cecilia's skill with a blade is practically equivalent to Houki's with a rifle. Possibly even worse. Of course, like you said skill can be improved with training, but swordplay is a long road to mastery compared to competency with firearms. That said, we figured it would be better to cover this weakness with equipment more up her alley. Perhaps an energy bayonet like the one on the Silent Zephyrus, or BITS that can function as shields."

Tatenashi followed up with a slightly dismayed look on her face.

"We know it's not very creative, since the proposed equipment is just taken from the Silent Zephyrus, but... well, the Silent Zephyrus is an improved Blue Tears. It makes sense that the equipment it has that Blue Tears doesn't is what Cecilia's machine needs to cover its weaknesses. Significantly higher thrust would be a nice addition too, to get rid of that problem with speed and evasion. Problem is, Blue Tears just doesn't have the specs to support all of these upgrades. The thruster upgrade is especially problematic for Blue Tears considering its maximum power distribution and the energy cost of her rifle. Truthfully we haven't really settled on what to do with all this yet. We were gonna run it by Cecilia first to see how she felt about it before making a solid decision."

Chifuyu simply nodded at all this, as there wasn't much to say about it. After all, the trio was right about all of this, so other than agreeing with their sentiments, there was nothing meaningful to say.

"Go on. I'm quite curious to what you came up with for Laura and Charlotte."

Surprisingly, it was Kanzashi that spoke up on Charlotte's behalf. Then again, perhaps she shared a certain kinship with the French blonde: they had both renovated an outdated, common model to be fit for combat with Gen 3 IS. But Charlotte's Rafael Revive had some big problems to consider, even compared to the Uchigane Nishiki.

"Charlotte's Rafale Revive... at the end of the day, its main weakness is too much focus on one type of firepower. She... has so many weapons, t-twice as many as most other IS, but almost all of them are projectile weapons. Those have their niche, but... it's too much s-specialization in one area. Bullets fall short in so many areas, especially at the longest ranges. She needs beam weapons, missiles... there's no point in focusing so heavily on conventional firearms. So, thankfully the solution is p-pretty easy. We just have to change out some of her superfluous projectile weapons for alternative options that will broaden her combat abilities."

With that out off the way, Church took the reins for the last person in question, at least as far as their efforts were concerned. Granted, Ichika was around, but knowledge on the Byakushiki was sparse. Like Akatsubaki, Tabane had too much of a hand in Byakushiki and trying to mess with it was just asking for trouble. Besides, now that Byakushiki had other options besides the one sword, it was actually a very well-rounded machine. The final IS in question was a very different matter.

"Strangely enough, Laura's Schwarzer Regen may actually be the most heavily specialized IS being taken into consideration. And even weirder than that, it's a very odd specialization for an aircraft: Schwarzer Regen is the IS equivalent of an artillery piece. Big gun, low mobility. The fact that her aerial machine has to cut its mobility and essentially make itself a near stationary target to attack at any decent range is a huge disadvantage. With mobility being king of the battlefield, her greatest weakness is just how niche her craft is in its function. Her most powerful weapon is difficult to aim against highly mobile targets, and with most opponents being notably faster than her, close quarters combat is inevitable against practically any foe in single combat."

Having put a lot of thought into this, Church's hand went to his chin for a moment.

"To defend herself in close combat, Laura has her AIC, those six dagger whips, and an energy blade for each arm... she actually has more close-range weapons than any other type, despite being mostly focused on long-range heavy fire. The more one thinks about it, the more evident it becomes just how odd the design philosophy behind Schwarzer Regen is. That said, it's kind of difficult to judge what her machine needs the most. At the end of the of the day, her strongest tools are just so niche, really only able to shine in very specific scenarios, most of which require allies to facilitate that scenario. Naturally we don't plan on just one of us ever fighting Phantom Task while alone, but we all still need to be able to operate optimally against multiple foes when alone."

As always, Chifuyu's face was impossible to read, so it was hard to tell if she agreed with Church's assessment so far. That being the case, he had no choice but to continue.

"Problem is, Schwarzer Regen's flaws isn't in its weapons, but how specialized it is in maximizing the efficiency of only one of those weapons. Too much focus on long-range fire and defense, not enough focus on mobility. Her machine needs to have its stats equalized. Like Blue Tears, too much specialization on one factor is actually more detriment than boon in the big picture. Multirole craft have far more versatility. We're thinking of shedding some armor and improving thruster capability to even everything out. If possible, we'd like to talk with her about the possibility of expanding her AIC's versatility as well. It'd be nice if her IS could use it without such dedicated focus from the pilot herself."

With everything said and done, the three younger members of the group gave their attention to Chifuyu, since she was the one that had asked for a status report of sorts on their progress. Her opinion on everything was kind of important. And naturally, it was kind of difficult to tell how she felt about anything with that stony expression she usually donned. In the end though, she usually made her opinion known soon enough.

"Very acute analysis, all of you. However, keep in mind that multirole capability isn't everything. In one on one fights, hardline specialization is indeed more detriment than boon, but what we do have over Phantom Task is numbers. We can afford to have specialized units because there are other units to cover the weaknesses those specializations create. Of course, you're right in saying that a group can be separated, in which case a single specialized unit may find itself alone and at a disadvantage. However, don't go so far as to remove their specializations entirely, if possible. At the end of the day, a group made of only multirole craft can find themselves in a bad situation when specialized enemies put them on their back foot."

Sharp as always, Chifuyu… always so insightful.

"That said, your ideas aren't necessarily the wrong way to go about any of this. Just keep in mind that you don't lose the strengths everyone does have in an effort to compensate for their weaknesses. That said, what about you, Church?"

"Ah, what about me?"

"Surely you don't think you are in no need of upgrades?"

"Oh, not at all... but Kanzashi nor even Tabane can help me with development on my machine. Besides, I haven't really put a lot of thought into myself these past few days. Kind of figured there'd be enough of that sometime this week."

"How do you mean that?"

Not imagining that Chifuyu could possibly be uninformed about anything, Church revealed the plans of the other girls without a second thought.

"The girls are determined to throw me a birthday party."

To Church's own surprise, Chifuyu did actually seem surprised herself to learn this information.

"Oh? I didn't know your birthday was coming up."

"It isn't. It was actually a while ago, I just didn't tell anyone."

At this comment, Chifuyu's expression changed to one of dismay, not all that dissimilar to the one Laura had donned upon learning this news.

"And why would you do that? Surely you knew everyone would have wanted to celebrate that with you."

Seeing that even Chifuyu found his behavior odd, Church wondered if he was really the weird one here. Then again, he was able to see that his background and past life might have had something to do with his perspective on all of this.

"I just didn't really think it was important enough to mention..."

By the look on Chifuyu's face, it was clear that she wasn't pleased by this notion. However, she didn't say anything else about it.

"I see. Well, there's little else to say here. I approve of everything you three have come up with. I'll take care of all the paperwork needed to give you permission to go through with all of it. You've all been working hard, so try to find some time to take a break today."

With that, Chifuyu turned her back on them and made her exit from the room, the metal door sliding shut behind her without delay. Church was left a little flat-footed, since he hadn't expected the conversation to turn to his birthday at any point. He hadn't really expected the older woman to care about it to any extent. Maybe he really was just a weirdo... but that's what life had made of him, as far as birthdays were concerned. Maybe he'd be brought into the light by the celebration his friends were going to hold for him.

He'd never felt like he'd been missing out on anything, but then again, he supposed it was impossible to miss something one had never experienced, so maybe that didn't amount to much.

Turning back to the Sarashiki sisters, Church made it clear that he would be leaving them for the day.

"Well, far be it from me to ignore Chifuyu's advice. She wants me to take a break, I've got no reason to refuse. You two try to find some time to relax today too, alright?"

With that, Church made an exit not at all dissimilar from Chifuyu's, leaving Tatenashi with a finger on her chin.

"Hmm... I wonder if Sensei will do something scandalous for his birthday too?"

Naturally, Kanzashi was put off by this musing.

"S-scandalous?! With a minor? Don't be ridiculous, Tatenashi! A-and what do you mean by 'too?"

"Oh, nothing. Besides, my investigations indicate that, if he had a birthday recently, Church should be 18 now. So no legal problem there! Ah, well... all the other girls are under 18 though, so I guess that could be a problem depending on which country's laws we're considering..."

"I didn't think you'd care this much about this... b-besides, just what are you implying they'd be getting up to?!"

Waving her little fan around, Tatenashi dispelled her sister's notions.

"Well, I don't have any personal interest. Church seems like a nice guy, but I hardly know him that well. Probably won't crash the birthday party, that being the case. As for our Sensei, it just seems to me that she has a personal investment in him. Isn't it obvious?"

"Not... really? She seems to talk to him like she talks to everyone..."

"Oh Kanzashi, it's not about words, it's about the face, the face! Expressions are worth a thousand words! You could see it in her eyes, she was really let down that Church didn't tell anyone about his birthday, even her! I bet all the other girls feel the same way."

For the life of her, Kanzashi didn't really get it. Maybe she hadn't watched enough romantic anime.

"That seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe she just didn't think it was healthy for someone to have that kind of mindset?"

"My dear sister, so naïve. Imagine if it was Ichika's birthday, and you came to him to spend the day. And he says, 'sorry Kanzashi, but I'd rather be alone than spend my birthday with you.' That'd feel super depressing right?"

Kanzashi's face fell as she imagined the situation her sister had described. That kind of thing would be pretty upsetting. Even if the boy in the hypothetical wasn't trying to be dismissive, it would be pretty insensitive of them to say such a thing to someone who really cared about them. Still, she couldn't see what Tatenashi was getting at with Chifuyu. She was an older (moderately) woman of intelligence, beauty, fame and capability. She could feasibly have any man she wanted. What could someone like that really see in someone that was only mildly older than the students she taught? Sounded more like the plot of a manga than reality.

Still, the nerd inside of her couldn't help but think it would be really cute. If it were a manga or an anime, Kanzashi would definitely ship it. But, that was something she felt was best to keep to herself.

Though it was kind of funny, thinking of a ship name when the names of both parties started with the same letters.

Over the next few days, Church found that his secret birthday party wasn't going to be kept as strictly confidential as Rin had made it seem. Not that specific details were revealed to him too often, but the girls had given him a few hints here and there as they asked questions that were no doubt intended to probe him for his personal preferences.

Some were more subtle than others. Rin had asked him about his favorite color, but she hadn't given enough info to indicate why that information was important. Charlotte, on the other hand, had been pretty straightforward in asking him about just how much of a sweet tooth he had, which clearly had something to do with types of food he was going to get. She hadn't actually mentioned anything about cake though, which was a little curious. Church supposed it could have been a coincidence, but the word had been oddly absent.

At some point Laura had asked about if he preferred her with her hair down or in twin tails like in England, though he wasn't sure why that was important. Naturally, he'd given an answer along the lines of 'you're beautiful with both.' Short of something crazy like shaving herself bald, Church didn't think that Laura would look bad with any hairstyle. It was hard to go wrong with that gorgeous silver.

All in all, Church was very curious to know what was being planned in his honor, since the hints he had gotten about it where pretty vague. Moreover, he didn't really know what people usually did at birthdays. While he was sure he had celebrated a few in the past, he just couldn't remember them. They were locked behind a turning point that had mostly overtaken any memories of a happy childhood.

Was it just going to be the five of them? Would people that weren't really that close to him bother showing up? Ichika was an acquaintance at best, and somehow, despite being the first girl he had seen in the nude, Houki wasn't really all that close to him either. He'd spent a few days with Tatenashi and her sister at this point, but didn't think he could qualify them as birthday invitees. Chifuyu knew about his birthday now, but surely she wasn't going to go out of her way to attend the party. She had way more important things to do than that.

Still, even if it was just Rin, Laura, Charlotte and Cecilia, Church knew he would be happy. While he hadn't even thought his birthday important enough to mention prior to now, in hindsight he was glad that they were so obstinate about this. It was uplifting to know they cared enough to get angry about it, even if that did seem kind of silly.

That said, it had been more than half a week since the girls had settled on doing this, so Church couldn't help but wonder what the hold up was. Now that he was actually looking forward to this, he was getting a little impatient. Nothing he could do about it though, as he sat in the cafeteria for breakfast that day, alone. It was strange, since he couldn't remember a day in this Academy where he had been by himself, but with all the other students steering clear of him by now and his usual party busy with their nefarious schemes, Church did well and truly find himself alone today, and for a few days this past week in general.

The isolation was especially noteworthy for one particular reason: Cerberus had been awfully quiet lately. Not that that AI had gone completely silent, but it this past week or so Church generally had to speak to Cerberus first, which was a lot different than the AI's usual Modus Operandi. Questioning the nature of this silence hadn't exactly revealed anything meaningful. It was a little troubling, to be honest.

Come now, Operator. There's no need to worry. I am simply busy.

For once actually startled by the sudden intrusion, Church jumped just a little bit as he took a bite out of a pancake.

That's what makes it so concerning, Cerb. What are you busy with that I haven't asked you to do?

Operator, I have always done things you have not specifically asked of me. If you had to direct all of my operations, imagine how difficult it would be to run the suit. It'd hardly be any different than operating it yourself at that point.

OK, fine. But you've still been remarkably quiet lately. And last time I asked you didn't really give me a reason as to why.

Cerberus didn't seem to find this at all strange, if the tone of its voice was to be believed.

I simply did not wish to report anything before there was anything to report, Operator. I have been attempting to discern a means of contacting the Creator. I did not wish to get your hopes up before I came to a conclusion.

I suppose that's fair... and what exactly did you conclude, then?

There was a moment of silence, something that didn't bode well for the direction of the conversation.

I'm afraid there is no way to establish contact from our end. With the established link we had before cut off, I have no way of knowing what system I would need to access to reach the Creator. The Creator would have to establish contact with us first, assuming he has moved to a new situation. Does this make sense?

With a sigh, Church managed to contain any other outward expression of the conversation.

Yeah... it's like he knows our address, but we no longer know his. We can't send mail to him until he sends mail to us. We have no way of knowing his new address and there's literally billions of possibilities. But then, why hasn't he already established contact? He has to know we're worried about him.

There are many reasons the Creator may not be willing to establish contact. Perhaps he is under watch, and unable to do so. Maybe he does not have access to the necessary means. Or of course, he could be dead. I do hope that last one is untrue.

Instead of answering since he could only agree, Church scowled, entirely forgetting the act of eating. His relationship with Marcus had been a kind of weird one. Technically a professional relationship, but with plenty of friendliness as well. Of everyone on the base, Marcus had been the only one Church felt comfortable calling his friend. All the soldiers there had been too detached, and the big boss had viewed him as nothing more than an asset. As for Strelka, she had likely seen Church as an obstacle to her own designs more than anything else.

Marcus had literally been the only semblance of friendship Church had possessed while working for Umbra Stratum, so it went without saying that he didn't want the man to be dead. Unfortunately, hope wasn't enough to bend reality. Church was capable of admitting to himself that Marcus could very well be dead, which was a perfectly likely explanation as to why he wasn't contacting them.

The real question was why. While it was possibly that some terrible accident had befallen Marcus, Church wasn't about to assume that Marcus had just fallen down some stairs and snapped his neck. He would have been informed about something like that by someone. So foul play was really the only possibility. But why? What could Marcus have done or learned to earn an elimination by his own superiors?

The logical conclusion was that it has something to do with Lightning Shiver or Valravn. Considering how difficult it had been to gain access to that information, Church didn't doubt for a second that it was the type of thing Umbra Stratum would kill someone over. That was one of the main reasons the American pilot was so wary of the entire operation. Lots of concerning factors were starting to pile up, and he had no explanations to anyone of the mysteries surrounding those factors.

On the more emotional side of things, Church really hoped that Marcus was still alive simply because of the way their last conversation had gone. The last time Church had managed to speak to him directly was the Crucible incident, which felt years in the past even though it was kind of recent. Thinking that the strained conversation had possibly been the last one shared between them certainly didn't bring Church any amount of joy.

That said, there was still one other possibility to consider: that Marcus was actually in on the whole Lightning Shiver business. It was a terrible thing to think about a friend, but as long as he was being rational Church couldn't just outright ignore the possibility. Marcus had a pretty high position in Umbra Stratum: it wasn't hard to imagine that he was privy to some top secret operations, especially considering how much of a hand he had in Exeter and Cerberus.

But if that were true, surely he would have done something by now? Church found it hard to believe that the man had no means of controlling or manipulating Exeter remotely. If not, it was a pretty big oversight on Umbra Stratum's part. Why they would neglect that kind of safety feature was beyond him.

There was little doubt that Church would have dwelled on the matter far longer, but he had no time to do so, since someone was sliding into the seat across from him in the next moment.

The blonde hair and violet eyes of Charlotte greeted him once he was paying attention, though Church wasn't surprised this was the case. Over the course of this past week, Charlotte had been the person that usually came to him when it was time to talk about his birthday. Chances were that, while the others were determined to make everything as secret as possible, Charlotte was the one that wanted to make sure Church would actually enjoy the celebration.

"Good morning Charlotte. Finally here to reveal the details of your secret plans?"

With a good-natured smile overcoming her features, Charlotte nevertheless shook her head.

"Not quite. Rin wants this to be the best birthday possible, which apparently necessitates it being a surprise. She'd be pretty angry if I spoiled things for you."

"Of all the things for her to be adamant about..."

Seeing as how she hadn't brought any food of her own to the table, it was obvious that Charlotte was nevertheless here to provided information.

"But I am actually here to tell you a few things... I know Rin feels like everything needs to be a surprise, but some stuff should probably be considered more improtant: like making sure you actually enjoy everything. All of our preparations are done, so we were thinking we could have the party this evening. Unless you're busy?"

Church almost scoffed at the notion of being 'busy.' Ironically, he didn't actually do all that much when everyone else was busy in the Academy. Aside from the time he had spent working together with the Sarashiki siblings, he mostly just ruminated on the current situation. He couldn't imagine a time when he'd be too busy to set aside an evening.

"Well, I'll have to forego my regularly scheduled brooding, but I'm sure the sacrifice will be worth it, considering how hard you've all been working."

"I'm certain you'll enjoy it, as long as you don't eat a heavy lunch and hold out on dinner until the party."

Being relatively uninitiated in the ways of birthday partying, Church cocked an eyebrow at the girl across from him.

"Do birthday parties always have that much food?"

"Well, not usually I suppose, but this time around food is half the whole thing..."

"What's the other half?"

Considering that the other half of the party in question amounted to dress up, Charlotte was understandably flustered by the thought of answering, and made sure to evade the question.

"Sorry, I can't reveal everything, now can I? But don't worry, I'm certain you'll like it, even though it's not the... usual way of celebrating one's birthday..."

Unable to discern any particular information from that, Church simply commented on the more important thing at hand.

"Well frankly I'm sure I'd enjoy anything you girls put together just because you cared enough to do so. It's kind of weird having friends that want to celebrate a birthday so badly..."

For reasons Church couldn't discern, his words put a slight frown on Charlotte's face.

"You say that like you haven't had friends before."

With a shrug, Church saw no reason to be dishonest.

"Well, not that I've never had friends before... but not any that would go this far to celebrate my birthday just because."

For a moment, Charlotte's frown grew even deeper, but it was fleeting. In no time at all she was smiling again, perhaps even more brightly than before.

"If that's true, all the better that we found out about this! It would have been too sad to think you'd go another year with no one celebrating your birthday, and if you really are this unused to them then the whole thing will well and truly be an enlightening experience. Though, I suppose this won't be a typical birthday party, so maybe it'll give you the wrong impression..."

"Somehow I get the feeling this will be better than whatever is considered typical."

"I sure hope so. That said, if you just wait here in the cafeteria at around five this evening, I'll come find you, alright? That way we don't have to worry about directions or anything."

Pleased to hear that things would be so easy, Church smiled.

"Sounds good to me. Thanks, Charlotte."

"Not at all. I'm sad to cut this visit so short, but unfortunately we do still have a few classes today, so I'll just be on my way. I'll see you later today, alright?"


With a smile and a parting wave, Charlotte made her exit from the table, leaving Church to his lonesome as he watched her back. His relationship with Charlotte had advanced exponentially in a very short time frame: while he always made an effort to ensure that things felt natural, he couldn't deny that he felt a little put-off by it. Not that he minded for any personal reason: Charlotte was sweet, smart and very beautiful. He had no qualms with being close to her. But as best he knew, she was still in a relationship with Ichika.

He supposed that maybe he was looking too far into it: Charlotte seemed like the type of girl that was this kind to everyone, so her newfound closeness to Church most likely just meant that they were better friends than they had been before. There was no reason to suspect anything romantic was afoot. After all, she hadn't displayed any of the much more obvious signs of attraction that Rin and Laura.

But then again, some people were just more subtle than others. At the end of the day, Church wasn't certain if he actually wanted Charlotte to have any feelings for him. At the most basic level he certainly wouldn't frown on it, but in reality it would only make his already complicated romantic situation even more so.

Either way, Church had a new problem now that Charlotte was gone. He was actually quite excited for the day to come, and it was only early morning. He really had nothing to do, and he was sure the wait was going to be more unbearable than he was used to. The fact that it was before noon and he had to wait until five certainly didn't make the situation any better.

Despite the whole experience being a bit more grueling than usual since he was anticipating a later, event, Church nevertheless managed to keep himself entertained until the evening of his party. He could have done plenty of other things, but even with excitement on the mind it wasn't too hard to relax. After all, Chifuyu had made a point of telling him to do exactly that, so he didn't want to be defiant.

That said he had spent most of the day taking leisurely strolls around the Academy, or taking a nap while magnetized to the central tower. As Charlotte had requested, he ate a light lunch and hadn't bothered going for dinner, so as of right now Church was actually decently hungry, which made the entire ordeal of sitting in the cafeteria even more frustrating since a bunch of other people were eating what appeared to be good meals.

Church himself found it kind of funny really: he sat alone, completely unmolested by anyone. It was not at all the same situation he had seen Ichika suffering while on the grounds. Anywhere that guy went, he had a horde of girls hounding his every move. It was obvious by the way he reacted to them that they were mostly strangers he didn't even know. Why girls that barely knew him were constantly on his heels, Church could only guess at.

Was it actually scientific curiosity? People interested in the only male pilot of I.S.? Somehow Church doubted that was the case. But if the interest was romantic, was tailing around some guy and just watching him from afar really doing you any favors? It was pretty obvious he had no interest in them, so what was the point?

Maybe he just didn't know how your average girl thought or felt.

But it did raise a good question regarding why he didn't receive the same kind of attention. Being the only other male in the whole school, one would think he'd get the same kind of treatment, but while he wasn't oblivious to the looks that came his way every time he walked around, Church was never subjected to a flock of fangirls following him around. Not that he wanted such a thing, but he was curious as to why it was so. Was he just unapproachable or had he already given off an air of disinterest? Frankly either option was a little concerning.

While he might have dwelt on this a little longer, Church didn't have much time to do so. It was probably a good thing, since Cerberus no doubt would have had something to say about it. Fact of the matter was, a hand was on his shoulder, and there was little doubt as to who the perpetrator was.

A glance over his shoulder was enough to reveal a smiling Charlotte, not all that dissimilar from this morning.

"So glad to see you, Charlotte. I was getting kind of restless."

"I don't doubt it. But the long wait is over, we're finally ready to celebrate! Let's go!"

Church had honestly expected bit longer of a talk between the two of them, but he couldn't deny that Charlotte seemed nearly as excited as himself, so perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised that she was eager to get going.

I do hope this party doesn't take too long, Operator.

As he got up to follow Charlotte to their destination, wherever that may be, Church frowned.

Any reason in particular?

No, it is just that I see no point in revelry. Time could be better spent.

Your objection is noted and ignored.

Instead of expressing any sort of displeasure with this, Cerberus fell silent. As usual, Church was mildly concerned about the level of quiet the AI had displayed recently, but Cerberus himself had claimed that it was nothing important. Even so, Church couldn't shake that niggling feeling...

He could ignore for now though. He was being lead through the halls of a school by the hand, courtesy of a cute girl that wanted to celebrate his birthday. Dispelling doubtful thoughts wasn't particularly hard, all things considered.

Ultimately, Charlotte lead Church completely out of the Academy's central tower, which wasn't really a surprise to the boy. For the life of him, he wasn't sure where within the tower would be suitable for a birthday party. All things considered it was understandable why the girls had to plan the celebration elsewhere, though he was curious to find out where exactly.

Since it was a decently long walk, the two of them made small talk, but any attempts to get Charlotte to spill the beans were met with failure. Honestly Church wasn't too bummed about that, since it wasn't like he had long to wait anyway.

Within fifteen minutes, the duo was standing outside of a building that was mostly plain on the outside, in the sense that it was just another of those rectangular structures that dotted the campus, no different from the dorms. Of course, the words at the top of the doors said 'Rec Center' on it in both English and Japanese, so it wasn't that hard to figure out the identity of the place they were about to enter. That said, Church was a little confused about it.

"The Rec Center? Isn't this place going to have a lot of people in it?"

Her usual cheery smile in place, Charlotte placated his fears.

"That would usually be the case, but don't worry. It's all ours for the evening. And even if it wasn't, we really only need one room."

"And how did you manage to get the whole building to yourself for the evening?"

"Oh, you know..."

Charlotte petered off at that, making for the door. Apparently this was some sort of trade secret that Church wasn't going to get the answer to. Or maybe it was just part of the surprise, though he couldn't imagine why that was the case.

Either way, the French blonde lead him throughout the carpeted halls of the rec center, a much different atmosphere than the steel and white walls of instructional buildings. As they passed various rooms, including the usual game rooms, workout spaces and the like, Church saw that the place was well and truly empty. He felt kind of bad about it, since some people that may have wanted to spend their evening here weren't able to, but in the end they could surely sacrifice one day, right?

When Charlotte was finally done leading Church to their destination, it ended up being a lounge area, with sofas, chairs and a coffee table. The rest of the girls were present in this room, though their group even included Houki, much to Church's surprise. He had half expected her not to be here.

Of course Rin was here as well, and she was on her feet in a heartbeat to accost him.

"Geez, never mind forgetting to even mention your birthday, but then you're late to it when we do celebrate it? You just really have no common decency at all, do you?"

Before Church could even muster a reply, Laura defended him from her position on the room's brown sofa.

"Come now Rin, insulting someone is no way to celebrate their birthday. Perhaps it is you that has no common decency?"

"Yeah, yeah, it was just a joke! I'm still mad about it but I'll pretend I'm not for today..."

With a smile on his face, Church surveyed the room around him, not noting anything particularly special. Rin, Laura, Charlotte, Cecilia and Houki were all here, but other than that there were no decorations and no cake to be seen. Maybe his stereotypical imagery of a birthday had been wrong?

He had half a mind to ask, but he didn't want his curiosity to be mistaken for disappointment. Besides, Church was being swiftly ushered towards the couch that Laura was now rising from, courtesy of Charlotte.

"I know things look a little bland, but don't worry. We're going to spruce things up a bit: in a manner of speaking, that is..."

Not sure what she was implying by that, Church nevertheless took his seat, still warm from Laura. He had half a mind to tell her that she didn't have to move since there was plenty of room, but he didn't even have time to say that. The girls had a lot to say, it seemed, though it was Cecilia this time.

"Church, you didn't eat anything right? I hope you followed the rules!"

"Come on, I know how to listen at least. I mean, I didn't know that's what you're supposed to do for birthdays, but I'm uninitiated. Still know how to listen though."

The American birthday boy didn't quite catch the confused looks on the faces of those around him, not that he would have understood the reaction anyway. That being the case, he was subjected to the next step of the girls' master plan. Which included something else he didn't quite understand.

Rin pointed a finger at him, exuding that aura of begrudging kindness she often put on when she felt embarrassed.

"Alright you ingrate, you just sit right there! We've got something to take care of and you aren't allowed to know what it is! So don't follow!"

With that, and a few winks and waves across the board, all five of the girls retreated into another room, leaving Church alone in just a few moments. Needless to say, he had not been expecting this.

Why does this feel like the buildup to a prank rather than a birthday party?

Cerberus chimed in, perhaps feeling the weight of his own silence for once.

Perhaps you are being punk'd as the kids say.

I'd prefer to think that this is just how birthdays usually go.

A quick internet search is more than enough to reveal that this is not the case.

That answer left Church feeling a little uncomfortable and awkward as his solitude stretched out into several minutes. Surely he wasn't the subject of some cruel prank, right? Well for one, Church knew that the girls would never do that. While this current situation may not have been typical, whatever they were up to, he knew the end goal was to celebrate with him. So his curiosity wasn't of an ill nature, even as the minutes stretched on.

Thankfully, his solitude came to a close, though not in the way he had been expecting. With the sound of a door opening, he turned his gaze to the doorway he had used to enter the room with Charlotte initially, though this time the person entering was none other than Chifuyu. Needless to say, Church sitting alone on the room's sole couch placed a confused expression on her face almost immediately.

"I hope this isn't their idea of a birthday party... even I know how to celebrate something better than this."

With a smile at her arrival since he had not been expecting it, Church agreed with her initial sentiment.

"Tell me about it. I think they have something in mind though, it's not like they just left me alone or stood me up."

Chifuyu shut the door behind her, stepping into the room completely.

"Glad to hear it. I would have had to punish them severely if they botched something as simple as this."

"Aw, you care that much?"

"I simply think it would be pathetic to be so incompetent that you can't even celebrate someone's existence for a day."

With her expression as stern as always, Church wondered if she had only shown up to make sure things weren't getting out of hand or something. He wasn't sure what the rules were around here, and maybe she thought the girls were going to do something crazy?

Then again, he could always just ask.

"I'm honestly surprised that you're here, Chifuyu. If you have free time you probably shouldn't waste it keeping an eye on those hooligans, right?"

Church's words put a mild frown on Chifuyu's face, something he had very much not intended to do. The older woman folded her arms as she walked up to the couch Church was sitting at and took a seat right next to him. He hadn't been expecting that or the displeased look on her face as she leveled her hazel gaze at him.

"I came to celebrate your birthday just like everyone else. Did you honestly think I wouldn't?"

While her tone was stern and difficult to read beyond that, Church was almost certain that he could hear the slightest undertone of dismay as well. Or perhaps she was well and truly offended. It wasn't all that different from when the girls had initially accosted him for claiming his birthday wasn't all that important.

"I-it's not that, I just... I don't know, I didn't feel like it was important enough for you to bother with..."

"And why would you think that?"

Finding himself a little squeamish under her Chifuyu's intensity, Church still tried to put his thoughts into words. Frankly, it was difficult to talk about this directly to the woman in question. Unfortunately, he didn't do a very good job of it.

"Because, you're... y'know, you. I didn't want to be presumptuous."

By the mounting confusion on her face, it was clear that Chifuyu really didn't know what Church was getting at.

"It's presumptuous to think I care about you enough to celebrate your birthday? Are we strangers now?"

"N-no, of course not, it's just..."

Knowing full well that there was no way to get out of this situation short of blatantly avoiding it (and he knew that wouldn't work against Chifuyu), Church figured he had no choice but to be upfront. Short of the girls coming back from whatever they had disappeared to do, there was no escape from this line of questioning.

"Chifuyu, you're very unapproachable."

The look of surprise, slight though it was, made it clear that Chifuyu had not expected that response in the least. She opened her mouth to say something, but Church continued what he started before she could.

"But, not like, unapproachable in the bad way. It's not that you're standoffish or condescending or something. It's just that you exude an air of... unattainability, in a sense."

"I'm afraid I don't follow."

Church knew he was about to say many things that were really embarrassing, but as always, he found that he didn't feel as flustered when push came to shove and he really had to share how he felt about things. Even if it was with a woman like Chifuyu in this case.

"I don't know if you're just humble or oblivious, or if the things you are just don't seem all that special to you. Whichever it is, I get the feeling you don't really grasp how incredible you are, Chifuyu. To start with, you're literally a living legend. People that don't even know or care much about Infinite Stratos still know your name. You've hit a level a fame equal to... I don't know, Michael Jordan or Tony Hawk. Nobody ever asks 'who the hell is Tony Hawk?' Your name is like that for most of the world."

Really Operator, that was the best comparison you could come up with?

Church ignored the AI's condemnation instead of defending his words, seeing as how he had to continue his spiel to Chifuyu now that he had started it.

"But it's not just the fame: it's why you have that fame. Chifuyu Orimura, greatest pilot in the whole world of the most powerful weapon humanity has ever made. It's quite the title. On top of that, you're an astounding warrior in your own right: I mean, you swept the first Mondo Grosso with a sword. Literally just a sword. Everyone else had missiles and guns and lasers and you crushed them all effortlessly with a weapon that, at its core, was outdated all the way back in 1500 or something."

To her credit, Chifuyu didn't seem all that flustered by this praise. Then again, it was hard to tell what flustered would have even looked like for her. Either way, she certainly didn't sound embarrassed when she interjected.

"I think you are putting too much emphasis on me and not enough on my machine. The White Knight was made explicitly for me, it's no surprise that I performed so well in it. The level of synchronization isn't something that could be achieved otherwise..."

The older woman petered off, perhaps not really believing what she was saying. Church didn't believe it either.

"We both know that a tool, even one that caters to your very physiology, is only as good as you can make it. In fact, if the thing about the White Knight is that it was made specifically for you, then isn't it more accurate to say that it complements you, not that you complement it? The extraordinary person existed first, Tabane just made an extraordinary tool that would be fitting for her."

"Even so, those feats are-"

"Not the main reason you're unapproachable: at least not to me."

Church found it a little odd cutting off Chifuyu of all people, but considering the nature of the conversation it felt necessary to do so.

"It's true that you have all those feats and fame and ability: and I won't say that they aren't somewhat intimidating, even for someone like me who doesn't place people on a pedestal just because of what they've accomplished. Honestly, maybe your renown in the world of Infinite Stratos is exactly what makes you hard to approach for all of these girls that look up to you as some sort of ideal for what IS pilots should be. But, as we know, I can't do that."

"Well then, if my reputation as a pilot or my fame as a public figure isn't the issue, what makes me... 'unattainable,' as you said it?"

Knowing that this would be when things got embarrassing, somehow Church still found it amusing more than nerve-wracking. He even managed to smile at the thought of it.

"Well, this might be kind of blunt, but it is what it is. Frankly, you're an intelligent, capable woman with a dry but amusing sense of humor. Some people might not see it initially, but for anyone that knows you even a little bit it's obvious that you deeply care about those that trust and rely on you, and you strive to make sure everyone can be the best version of themselves, without beating their esteem into the ground along the way. You're a reliable leader, teacher, and teammate. And aside from being an overall badass, you're really, truly gorgeous. Take all of that together and for some random schmuck like me, you seem more like a goddess than a person I can expect to show up at my birthday."

Since he had been facing away from her in order to keep up the courage to say all of this, Church didn't see whatever expression may have crossed Chifuyu's face upon hearing all of this. Of course, he had no doubt that she would have had something to say regardless, but whatever it was, he didn't get to hear it since Cecilia's voice broke the ensuing silence, from the same direction all the girls had disappeared to initially.

"O-Orimura-Sensei!? What are you doing here?"

Church turned his gaze towards the voice, temporarily forgetting the awkward situation with Chifuyu because the sight before him was entirely unexpected. Cecilia, Houki, Charlotte and Laura were wearing something entirely different than they had been prior to leaving the room, and the new outfits were certainly a far cry from school uniforms. They also all had some sort of dish in their hands, all of which looked like dessert of some kind.

Seeking to answer Cecilia's question on Chifuyu's behalf, Charlotte, crêpes in hand and outfitted in the traditional visage of a French maid, stepped to the fore.

"I told her about everything, obviously. It would have been really rude not to invite her, and I'm sure she wanted to come..."

Cecilia, wearing a crimson bunny outfit and carrying an English trifle, placed a hand on her hip.

"That seems like a lot to assume..."

With her discussion with Church unceremoniously cut off, Chifuyu was nevertheless unable to put it from her mind thanks to the nature of the girl's comments. Aside from Charlotte, did even they believe this was something beneath her? She hadn't really noticed this perception of her prior to Church bringing it up, and frankly she didn't like it. Well, she liked the way Church had spun it, but she didn't like the notion of people thinking they weren't worth her time.

"I assure you that Ms. Dunois made the right call. Though I daresay you didn't tell me 'everything.' I didn't know an outfit was required. Or dessert for that matter."

Laura, clad in a dark green dress with a white blouse Church sort of recognized as being traditionally German and her hair in pigtails, seemed a little put off by the notion. She was holding what appeared to be a traditional chocolate cake, though Church was certain there was something more to it than that.

"I'm actually grateful for that. It'd hardly do to have you show us all up again."

Chifuyu's expression actually grew mildly bashful at that, perhaps recalling a memory she was slightly embarrassed of. Still, it was Houki, clad in a very traditional white kimono with blue accents, that followed up. She had a bowl with some sort of white balls in it.

"Oh, but that's not really fair to her, is it? Having a chance to dress up every once in awhile is really fun! The fact that Chifuyu did it before is just evidence, right?"

With that slightly bashful look growing slightly more intense on her face, Chifuyu nevertheless reached a hand back to the tie that held her hair.

"I'll just undo this. That should be good enough for a moment's notice, right?"

She said this while glancing at Church, who realized in that moment that she was actually asking for his approval on the notion. Having never seen her with her hair down (the image Tabane had sent him didn't count because Chifuyu had been on her back), Church was quick to give his agreement, naturally.

"U-uh, yeah, of course! Very reasonable!"

Watching as the older woman followed through with her own suggestion, Church found himself unusually mesmerized by the ensuing cascade of raven black hair, not at all dissimilar to a waterfall or a curtain. It was quite odd: it wasn't like much had changed other than the way Chifuyu was wearing her hair, but something about it being down offered an entirely different feel than the woman generally presented. In a way she felt more removed from the harsh and strict position of teacher and warrior that Church generally associated her with. He'd almost go so far as to say she felt...gentle.

Sensing that he was staring like an idiot, Church tried to shift his attention elsewhere. Scrambling to find some sort of diversion that wouldn't be obvious evasion, he thankfully managed to find the perfect topic.

"H-how come Rin isn't with you? Is she still getting dressed?"

Cecilia shook her head as she huffed, seemingly annoyed by her friend's absence.

"Hardly. Even for something as important as this, she stayed behind to clean up the kitchen. Such a busybody, even after helping everyone with the cooking itself..."

Thinking of it, Church couldn't help but smile.

"Heh, that's one of the things I really like about her though. Still a chef through and through..."

The soft smile on his face while thinking about Rin in particular clearly made all the girls feel some sort of way, but the expression disappeared as he thought of something else.

"Hold on, I'm not baking or desserts expert, but there's no way you made all of these dishes in the ten minutes or so you guys were gone. If it was all cooked before I got here, why didn't she use the time waiting for me to clean the kitchen?"

Finding her friend's behavior cute, Charlotte smiled as he gave an explanation for Rin's time management skills.

"Well, she didn't want to be off somewhere else when you first got here. Even though she didn't really say happy birthday when showed up, she at least wanted to be here when you did..."

While her logic was a little odd, Church found that aspect of Rin to be charming as well. She really was sweet, even if she had weird ways of expressing it.

Sensing that he was spending a lot of time thinking about their Chinese compatriot, the other girls finally decided to take some of the limelight for themselves, made obvious when Cecilia swiftly stole the remaining spot next to Church on the couch, much to the chagrin of her comrades. No one said anything though, because eventually they were all going to get a turn.

Having stolen the opportunity to go first, Cecilia placed the large glass she was holding on the coffee table before them, while the other girls all took seats elsewhere in the room's many lounge chairs or alternative seating options.

"This, my dear Church, is an English Trifle! Banish the thought that my people have no good eats, which I know that dastardly Rin has been telling you."

Church refrained from mentioning that his food experience in Britain was more than enough to have him form an opinion without input from anyone else, since it wouldn't have been appropriate or polite at the moment. His lack of response allowed Cecilia to continue unfettered.

"This particular trifle is of the key lime variety. As you can see, it's a layered sweet: custard, strawberries, sponge cake and whipped cream! I doubt this is exactly how it was done in England when it became popular in the 18th century, but I'm certain it still tastes good. Rin had me make so many of them over the past few days, after all..."

Taking this as confirmation that Rin had helped Cecilia with her supposedly terrible cooking, Church had no qualms believing this trifle would taste good. Frankly he wasn't a huge fan of most fruits, but like anything Rin had a hand in making, he was certain it would taste great. Not to say that she had made it herself, but Cecilia's earlier statement made it clear that Rin had helped her master this dish to a degree where it wouldn't kill anyone.

"It looks delicious. Spoon?"

Aware that Cecilia had no such utensil on hand, Charlotte stepped forward, fork in hand. She had foreseen this scenario, and a fork was a better option when all of their dishes were taken into consideration.

"Here you are, 'Master.'"

With a curtsy and a giggle that proved she was enjoying herself and the mild roleplay, Charlotte handed the utensil to him. Church was too flustered by the idea of Charlotte calling him 'Master' to notice that he had been handed a fork instead of a spoon, even if she was just joking. For a moment, Church entertained some racy thoughts about the blonde, but he swiftly remembered that she was in fact taken. He couldn't help but wonder if Ichika would have been bothered by this if he knew his girlfriend was doing it.

Likely sensing that his attention was on the wrong blonde, Cecilia intervened in an attempt shift Church's focus back to her.

"Make sure you get every layer in one bite, alright? Otherwise it's not the right experience!"

Following her advice, Church dug the fork through all four layers of the trifle, being very careful not to spill any of it as he brought it to his mouth. It was an odd experience eating while everyone had their eyes on you: kind of more nerve-wracking than he had been expecting. Still, he managed it without incident, and his reward was a creamy, chewy and sweet experience that certainly changed his mind about Cecilia's potential cooking skills. With enough practice she could actually make something delicious.

"Cecilia, this is really great! I'll admit it, maybe the British can come up with some good dishes... as long as they're cooked by a beautiful woman, I suppose."

Blushing, Cecilia struck a pose to show off her body in the crimson bunny suit she had worn for this event.

"Well, that's true isn't it? Frankly I'm more of a blue-loving girl, but I look quite striking in scarlet, do I not?"

"Absolutely. But about that... are bunny suits British? I mean, everyone else wore something that's obviously from their country, but..."

Cecilia's smug expression fell a bit as she contemplated her response. Unfortunately, she took a little too long to answer, as Laura took it upon herself to do so.

"By my calculations, the popular 'bunny suit' was actually brought about by that man Hugh Hefner. So hardly British, no."

"H-hey, I'll have you know that said suit was based on traditional showgirl costumes, it's not like that sleazy man came up with it all on his own!"

Charlotte placed a finger on her chin as she dwelt on that.

"But traditional showgirls and the very nature of that type of thing originated primarily in France in the 1800s, so..."

Defeated, Cecilia hung her head.

"I didn't have as many options as the rest of you, alright...?"

Having made it through half the trifle while this was all occurring, Church did his best to comfort the girl.

"I wouldn't worry about is so much, Cecilia. It's very flattering on you. Does it really matter where it came from?"

Cecilia's mood was quite obviously improved by his words, but she didn't get to bask in his attention for very long, since Charlotte was standing by the couch again, intent on evicting her fellow blonde.

"Now now Cecilia, I think it's time to switch, don't you? We have to get to everyone, after all."

"Perhaps so, but Church hasn't finished eating my trifle!"

Still gingerly holding the chocolate cake she had made in the chair she had selected to wait in, Laura explained why Cecilia's notion was a bad idea.

"If he eats all of every dish, there's no way he'll be comfortable tasting everything everyone has made. Besides, there's plenty to go around, why not let some of us taste it as well?"

"Ah, I suppose..."

Reminding the others of her presence, which wasn't something that had to happen too often considering her nature, Chifuyu agreed with her past student.

"Indeed, it would be a little strange to have us all just sit here and watch Church eat, wouldn't it? I would like to enjoy some of these desserts you all worked so hard on as well."

Having also been prepared for this scenario, Charlotte drew more silverware from the folds of her dress.

"Here you are. Cecilia, why not find some plates so everyone can have some?"

Aware that this was as much a ploy to get her out of her seat as it was a reasonable suggestion, Cecilia huffed as she nevertheless complied.

"Very well, allow me to pay the kitchen a visit..."

Despite the fact that Cecilia was admittedly the girl he was least attracted to out of the group, Church still couldn't resist watching her leave, noting how well her attire accentuated her curves. 'Least' was a very relative term in this scenario, seeing as how Cecilia was still utterly gorgeous.

But he didn't get to focus on that for too long, since he noted that the now long-haired Chifuyu didn't bother waiting for Cecilia to return with plates, instead choosing to go ahead and take a bit of the trifle out of the glass it had originally been served in. This was noteworthy because Church had put the fork he had put in his mouth back in that trifle and in that glass at least a few times.

He wasn't the kind of guy to lose his cool over something as silly as indirect kisses, but if everyone was going to try the trifle he had already eaten half of, it was possible he's be sharing such kisses with everyone. He imagined that Chifuyu just didn't think of this at all, or else there was no way she would have done it.

Church didn't get to focus on this for very long either, since Charlotte was now occupying the space Cecilia had been in a moment ago. This of course meant he now had a beautiful and very charming French blonde at his arm, and in a subtly provocative outfit no less. The French maid getup wasn't as blatantly sexual as Cecilia's had been, but there was an allure to it that was almost even naughtier.

Either way, she brought a plate with several Crêpes on it, which Church rightly assumed was next as far as meals are were concerned.

"These are Crêpes. There's a national holiday in France all about these, so you know we really love them. They're basically thin pancakes with different types of filling, usually sweet but sometimes savory too. They supposedly originated from the Brittany region of northwest France, but they've become very popular around the world. I decided that it would be better to make sweet Crêpes for the occasion, but I made a whole bunch of different types just to make sure one of them would be right for you."

Church couldn't help but smile. All the girls had strong points and wonderful qualities, but Charlotte consistently managed to be the most considerate. She always took into consideration the small and seemingly unimportant things to ensure that people were happy.

"Well I'm certain I'd enjoy anything made with so much consideration for my tastes. What are the options?"

"There's one with maple syrup, a lemon juice one, custard, whipped cream and a fruit spread. Please take your pick."

"In that case, I think I'd like to give the whipped cream one a try. Sounds like my favorite breakfast."

Charlotte handed him the Crêpe of his choice with a smile.

"Here you are, no fork required. Am I right in assuming you'd like to learn a thing or two about my outfit while you're enjoying that?"

"What, good food and a lesson in culture? Who'd refuse that opportunity?"

"Well, don't get too excited: the whole notion of a French maid is quite... pedestrian, I'd say. It's about exactly what it sounds like, that being a uniform for a lady's maid in France. A lady's maid was the senior servant of the house in the early 20th century, often helping her with her appearance and sometimes even serving as a confidante. But of course, today's notion of a French maid is a lot more 'scandalous,' isn't it?"

Charlotte said this last but in a tone that was bit more sultry than Church had been expecting, and right in his ear at that. There was no way she hadn't intended to do that. Was she actually in a relationship with another guy or what?

Having taken a very good first bite out of his Crêpe of choice, Church tried to play off his embarrassment.

"W-wow, this sure is good! Surprising that something so easy to make can be so delicious..."

Not nearly dense enough to miss such blatant evasion, Charlotte had no problem centering the conversation back on what she wanted. She wasn't the shyest girl in the bunch, but she didn't muster up enough courage to flirt so blatantly this often, so she wasn't going to let the chance slip by. In the back of her mind, she acknowledged that she was still in a relationship with another boy and that her current behavior was traditionally frowned upon, but a larger voice at the front of her mind drowned it out.

"It's good because it's filled with my dedication to my Master. Isn't that obvious?"

Needless to say this line of reasoning made it difficult for Church to stay level-headed, almost making him choke on the last bit of his Crêpe. He knew Charlotte was probably joking, but didn't she feel the slightest bit flustered saying something like that so blatantly?

Thankfully, Houki intervened on his behalf.

"I thought this was supposed to be an informative lesson on an aspect of your culture?"

Glancing back innocently, Charlotte seemed intent on pretending she wasn't doing anything remotely questionable.

"Well, I could go into detail about how the idea of French Maids became overly sexualized around 1897 due to certain plays and the overall fetishization of young French women in subservient positions, but is that really something to talk about during a birthday?"

Understanding that this was indeed not a savory topic if one really wanted to get into how terrible that was at a basic level, the conversation was derailed by the return of Cecilia, who now had plates.

"Geez, I had no idea it would be such a hassle just to get plates... alright everyone, here we are!"

Turning his attention to her as she passed out the plates and utensils she had brought, Church asked Cecilia why she was still alone.

"Is Rin still not done cleaning?"

"She's nearly finished. Not to point fingers, but uh... a certain someone may have made a large mess..."

It was pretty clear that Cecilia was vaguely pointing at herself, so Church let it slide as the blonde divvied up what was left of her trifle for herself and her three friends who hadn't gotten any of it. Figuring that her turn was just about up, Charlotte rose from the couch to ask who wanted which of the Crêpes that still remained.

Since there was an intent for Houki to go last, Laura took the opportunity to close in on the spot Charlotte had recently vacated, but unlike her predecessors, she behaved a little differently. After placing her cake on the table before them, she ignored the open spot on the couch and instead chose to sit in Church's lap, much to his surprise, and the chagrin of three out of four of the room's other occupants.

Whether she was trying to one-up Charlotte of she was just actually comfortable being this bold now, Laura didn't seem flustered by her own actions in the least. Of course, unbeknownst to all of her companions, she had overcome such petty things as embarrassment and shyness thanks to Church himself. Once he had made it clear that he found her attractive and likable, she didn't feel nervous flirting with him like this: after all, there was no fear of rejection or displeasing him, as she knew for certain that he enjoyed this.

"So, Church, would you like to hear about the dessert or my dress first?"

Certainly unable to ignore the pressure of Laura's thighs and rear on his lap, Church decided that his best course of action was to get distracted by some interesting factoid about cake or fashion before his body reacted to the situation in a way that would definitely be perceptible to the girl sitting on him.

"U-uh, the cake, I guess? Might as well stick to the pattern, right?"

"Well then, you'll be surprised to learn that Black Forest Cake has nothing to do with southwest Germany's Black Forest mountain range. It's based on a dessert called Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, literally 'Black Forest Cherry-Torte,' but the name is supposedly derived from the liquor of the Black Forest region. Some sources believe it was named after a hat that was popular in the region called a Bollenhut, but there's no concrete evidence to claim that it is without a doubt one or the other. Either way, this is a more traditional variant of the cake: layers of chocolate sponge cake sandwiched between cherries and whipped cream. I do hope everyone enjoys it, seeing as how my first time making it was a week ago."

Seeing as how Church certainly wouldn't be consuming the entire cake on his own, Laura made to cut the thing into slices for everyone, giving the boy an opportunity to analyze her outfit. It looked very familiar to him, what with the white blouse and sleeves and the red and black apron design. He was sure he had seen this type of dress somewhere before but he couldn't quite place where that may have been. It did make him think of a tavern though.

"Well, I've heard of Black Forest Cake before with how popular it is, but I don't actually know about your dress, other than the fact that it looks very good on you. Can I learn more about it, too?"

Glancing back at him as she continued cutting the Black Forest Cake, Laura smiled, clearly enthused with the idea of sharing her culture. Really, this whole idea had been quite good on Rin's part.

"But of course. This is called a Dirndl dress: technically, it's not a solely German fashion statement. Instead, it's considered traditional Alpine attire, being prominent in southern Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Austria and parts of Italy. Admittedly, there isn't that much special about them, as they originated as sturdy clothes for female peasantry and servants throughout all of those regions, though of course the wide geographical area had a large impact on varying designs. It's worn more as a costume these days, but much like Charlotte's outfit, it started as something altogether ordinary. In hindsight, it seems somewhat strange that today's costumes are so often based on the lower-class of a culture..."

"Well, maybe it's a way to show appreciation for the hardworking people of the past? Since I doubt they got much of it in their own time."

Now with a slice of her own in tow, Chifuyu commented on Church's line of reasoning.

"That you can have such an optimistic view of things is honestly admirable in its own way. Especially considering the connotation of Dunois' outfit in the modern era..."

While she had been smiling in delight at the taste of Laura's chocolate cake, Charlotte's expression became bashful at the mention of it.

"H-hey now, don't give me that look. I don't like what you're implying..."

As for Laura, as soon as she was done cutting the cake so everyone could get a piece, she turned to a much more important task, that being taking advantage of her position in Church's lap, and in more ways than one.

First, she made doubly sure to sidle in a little closer to him, being very deliberate about pressing into his chest. After all, he didn't have a plate to get in the way, not that she was going to rectify that situation. Moving closer in this manner also pressed her a little tighter against another particular part of his body, but she hadn't intended for that to happen. Surely not.

In the end, she took the opportunity to take a large chunk of the dessert she had worked so hard on and held it up to him.

"Here you are: courtesy of the house."

Church could see Cecilia fuming out of the corner of his eye, likely berating herself for not having the same idea. As for him, while the notion of being fed delicious cake as a girl sat her delicious 'cake' on his lap was embarrassing, he certainly wasn't going to pass up the opportunity, so he wasted no time in accepting the gift Laura offered to him.

Besides, focusing on food made it easier to keep his physical impulses in check: it wouldn't do to have a certain reaction while Laura was right on top of him, though he wasn't sure if she would actually be displeased. Thinking of that was counterproductive, of course.

Thankfully it was pretty easy to take his mind off of the physical aspects of the situation when he got a taste of the cake Laura had made for him. Aside from cherries being one of his more favored fruits, he was a sucker for whipped cream and everybody loved fluffy chocolate. Getting all three in one bite was delightful, to say the least.

"Laura, I think it's safe to say that you're a quick study if you only started making this a week ago. This cake is awesome."

Any of the naughtier things Laura was thinking at the moment were lost to an innocent glee regarding Church's praise for her cooking. She found it quite uplifting to hear such things: maybe this was one of the reasons Rin liked cooking good food so much. Making people happy this way did feel really good.

"I-I'm glad to hear it. I'll make a note of your enjoyment for the future."

If there was one thing Laura was good at, or rather, one thing she had become very good at, it was this sort of subtle flirting that had been beyond her in the past. Turns out that all she had really been lacking was the right degree of confidence and the knowledge that she was desired by the person whose affections she desired.

She had to admit, her current love life was much better than it had been a mere year ago. She didn't mean to speak ill of Ichika, but having a relationship like this one was infinitely better than pining after someone who, nice as they may be, didn't ever show any real interest in you as a potential partner. Needless to say, Laura had gotten used to the new status quo, and save taking the next step forward, she had no desire to change it.

With everyone busy eating what was definitely the largest dessert to be presented that evening, the next few minutes were spent mostly in enjoying it, though of course Church got a bit extra out of the whole ordeal considering his position with Laura. Of course he noticed a slight bit of displeasure from the other girls, Houki excluded, but there was no petty attempt to intrude on the situation. After all, they had each had their turn, and they very well could have done what Laura was doing now.

Church couldn't help but wonder how far the situation really went. He knew that Laura and Rin really, really liked him. To an extent where they would actually want to be in a meaningful, long-lasting relationship with him. It was also obvious that Cecilia liked him, but Church wasn't sure if it was to that same extent. It felt more like an infatuation from his point of view, though he wasn't presumptuous enough to try and speak Cecilia's thoughts for her. It was just that Church didn't really factor her into his relationship computations often, or at all. She was beautiful of course, and friendly enough, but Church didn't feel like they had really connected as much as he had with the other girls, except for Houki of course.

But that said, Church felt reasonably confident that Cecilia wouldn't take it as hard as Laura or Rin if he ended up choosing a partner that wasn't her, so he wasn't quite as worried about that.

What he was getting a little more confused on these days was Charlotte. Church had always liked her, considering that she was very pretty and immensely kind, not to mention cool in that kind of nerdy way (what man didn't like a girl with rigorous knowledge on war machines and weapons?). But the attraction had always been in that 'respecting boundaries' and 'from afar' kind of way. He had learned very early on that Charlotte was in a relationship with Ichika, so he didn't consider her a viable target for his affections, and assumed that worked both ways.

But during her turn tonight, and in several instances before now, Church couldn't help but feel that she was interacting with him in a distinctly flirtatious manner. He had certainly picked up that 'notice me' vibe a girl tended to put out when she was interested in someone. But was that all in his head? He couldn't imagine Charlotte being the type to cheat behind Ichika's back.

Of course, that was being awfully presumptuous of him. He had no idea what Charlotte's existing relationship was like or if she was happy in it. He also didn't know if she was still in a relationship with someone else at all. And fact of the matter was, regardless of which of those was true, if Charlotte made it clear that she was looking for a relationship with him, the romantic situation was going to get exponentially harder than it already was. Having Rin and Laura in the equation was already difficult, having a third individual that Church actually considered worth romantic investment would make everything much worse.

If only life were as easy as the harem idea Cerberus had put forward.

Either way, with the delicious nature of Laura's Black Forest Cake, the dessert was all but consumed in ten minutes or so, which signaled an end to the German's turn at pleasing the birthday boy. But even though her turn was over, she didn't leave without a final move.

"Now Church, you know if you just ask, I'll be more than willing to make this cake for you again. All you have to do is ask and accept an invitation to a private room somewhere..."

An irate Cecilia made sure to intervene on the situation before Church could offer a no doubt flustered response.

"Perhaps you should be a good hostess and clean up your dirty dishes instead of shamelessly attempting to seduce our guest of honor with food?"

"Very well, but only because I can't have him fainting before all the courses are finished. Rin would be livid."

Removing herself from her position on Church's lap (much to his admitted displeasure), Laura decided that Cecilia's recommendation was a good one, and made to clean up her mess. Thankfully for Church, Charlotte had embraced her costumed role this evening and provided him with a glass of milk at some point, which was useful for washing down all the chocolate and whipped cream the last three desserts had focused on.

He couldn't help but wonder if this was intended timing on her part, seeing as how the only desserts he had left to try were presumably going to be Asian in origin. Not that he believed Asian desserts couldn't use the same ingredients as European ones, but Church also knew they were likely to have a different flavor profile altogether, so finding a way to separate the experience between the two was probably a good idea.

Besides, when Houki stepped up for her turn in her white kimono, it was indeed obvious that she would be serving him something relevant to her culture, and she seemed quite happy about the prospect as well. The plate she put before him was filled with little white confections that reminded Church of donut holes, though they were a bit larger.

"This is Mochi ice cream. I uh... haven't really made this particular variety of Mochi too much before, but I was hoping to get a little bit of practice in before giving some to Ichika... uh, not that I'm using you as a guinea pig or anything!"

"It's fine, Houki, I understand what you're getting at. Don't worry, I'll be glad to participate in this test run."

The Japanese girl smiled, glad to see that her intentions hadn't been taken the wrong way.

"Well then, I'm sure you've heard of Mochi before, all things considered. It's quite popular here in Japan. Mochi is pounded sticky rice, formed into a dumpling that often has various types of filling. As you might have guessed, this Mochi has an ice cream filling. Honestly, it's not traditional in any sense short of Mochi being a rather old concept... the ice cream variant is as recent as 1994, when it debuted in Hawaii. In Japan we like to use flavors like green tea or Kona Coffee, but I figured you might like some more readily Western varieties like chocolate and vanilla, so I made some of both. I hope you enjoy them."

Frankly, Church didn't quite understand the appeal of rice and ice cream together, but he wasn't averse to trying it. After all, Mochi was really popular in both Japan and the West, and he wasn't about to say that millions of people around the world had no idea what they were talking about.

"OK, how about a chocolate one and a green tea one? That sounds interesting."

With a smile, Houki handed him the two treats he had specified, and motioned for everyone else to come and pick the types they may have wanted to try. Thankfully it didn't take too long to point out what was what, which meant she was able to explain her attire relatively swiftly.

"I know you probably already know what a kimono is, generally speaking. But what I'm wearing is actually a certain type of kimono called a yukata. It's usually worn around summer festivals, or sometimes as bathrobes. Traditional kimono are very stuffy and difficult to wear, while yukata are generally a bit more forgiving, even though they share some similarities in design and materials, so they're much more common. In fact, when most foreigners visualize a kimono, it's a yukata, since it's worn so much more frequently across all forms of media."

"Gotta admit, didn't know that. I also didn't know rice and chocolate ice cream went together this well. So weird having a chewy texture with a cold and creamy inside... either way, really delicious. The green tea one as well, you've got nothing to worry about Houki. I'm sure Ichika will like these too."

Seeing that his statement seemed to be the general consensus as far as everyone was concerned, Houki seemed delighted.

"I'm so glad to hear it. Maybe I'll try a strawberry one for Ichika next time..."

To some extent, Church found it a little off-putting that Houki's primary ambition here was to do something for someone else entirely. But he didn't think she was being rude or anything: out of everyone, Houki was the only girl Church knew for sure felt nothing for him romantically. Her feelings were very clearly reserved for Ichika. And frankly, they were good acquaintances more than true friends. They didn't hang out much, or even speak to each other that often. But she was a kind person that considered him a friend all the same, and while she was getting some practice in for something she wanted to try with Ichika, it was obvious that she had put genuine care into the endeavor for him as well. So he wasn't upset about the notion in the slightest.

Church may have put more thought into it, but the voice of the only girl that had been absent the whole evening interrupted the process.

"Hey, did I miss anything important? Well, probably not, the most important part of the night has yet to go down..."

Turning his attention to the source of the voice, Church laid eyes on Rin, dressed in something that, oddly enough, he had never actually seen her in before. Considering how often she shared her culture, it was kind of odd that he was only just now seeing her in a Qipao dress of the traditional variety. The way the sleek emerald silk accentuated her curves revealed a truth that was generally hidden by the girl's state of dress: her body was very feminine.

Rin generally wore clothes that were comfortable to move around in. T-shirts, shorts, boots, even her uniform at school focused more on comfort rather than sex appeal. That being the case, her body was often hidden behind loose clothes. It was easy to assume she just had nothing to flaunt, considering that.

Of course Church knew better, because he had seen Rin in a bathing suit before, and moreover he had gotten some on-hand experience to prove otherwise. But even so, he didn't get to see her dressed in such an effeminate and flattering manner very often. The dress she wore, embroidered with a golden dragon across the torso, accentuated every curve: her bust was more modest than many of her friends, but it also has a certain perkiness that they lacked. Her body was slim and slender, but her waist still have her a noticeable hourglass shape. With a small but cute bubble butt and lovely thighs to top everything off, Church was firmly reminded that Rin was hot, and if he wasn't flopping all over himself trying to make a decision about relationships, he could have been her boyfriend by now, doing potentially intimate things.

Realizing that he was thinking really naughty things, and that he probably wouldn't be able to keep that off of his face, Church tried to distract himself from those scandalous images through dialogue.

"H-hey Rin, I was beginning to think you were going to miss the whole thing..."

If she was aware of the way Church was mentally undressing her, it didn't show on Rin's face. She certainly seemed none the wiser as she answered. Then again, it didn't really matter, because her response made Church blush anyway.

"Don't be ridiculous: I wouldn't miss this for the world."

To get such a statement from her, and with such a gentle tone and smile, was more than a little flustering for the male it was all directed at, though that smile was replaced with her more common smirk soon enough. Not that Church didn't like that side of her too.

"Except for that time I did miss it because some idiot didn't tell anyone about it. But there was nothing I could do about that."

With a little bit of flak coming his way, Church's heated cheeks faded a fair deal. Rin always knew how to scathe when she felt like it. Now he was in the mood to adhere to their usual routine.

"Well, I think it's actually better that things were delayed. I mean, everyone got more time to prepare, and even Chifuyu got to come. That wouldn't have happened if we celebrated back in Britain."

While Church was definitely right about that, it actually put a small frown on Rin's face.

"Yeah... how did you even know we were doing this, anyway?"

It was obvious that this question was directed at Chifuyu, but it was Charlotte who responded to it.

"I told her about it, of course. I mean, it seemed kind of obvious that she would want to be invited, right? Um, you did want to be invited, didn't you?"

The latter half of that was also directed at Chifuyu, so this time she had to answer. Granted, she actually wanted to provide an answer, because it seemed that even Charlotte wasn't sure if something like this was beneath her or not. By far the most polite and considerate person in the group was unsure if celebrating someone's birthday was worth Chifuyu's time. And this was to say nothing about the fact that Church felt he wasn't worth her time, at least in this regard.

She hadn't forgotten what he had said before the other girls showed up. And she had a lot to say about it in return. But for now, it would be enough to make it clear that a friendly relationship with her was not 'unattainable.'

"Of course I did. I would have been very upset to miss this chance. You can bet you all would have had weeks extra homework if I hadn't been informed of this celebration."

Glancing at the person whose birthday they were celebrating, Chifuyu actually felt somewhat bashful finishing her sentiment.

"I... also wouldn't want to miss this for anything."

Having not missed the somewhat shy glance, Church found himself blushing again, something that Rin didn't miss herself. Eager to regain the attention she knew Church had been affording her when she first entered the room, Rin finally laid the large white porcelain container she had brought onto the table in the center of the room.

"Alright, stay focused you! I worked long and hard on these, just... j-just for you!"

Removing the top, Church and everyone else was finally able to see what Rin had had labored so hard over. And the results of that labor appeared to be... cotton balls?

Unable to contain his curiosity regarding the two dozen little white balls in the container, Church felt the need to ask.

"I trust that these are delicious because you're you, Rin. But... what are they exactly?"

"I'll tell you what they are: hard as hell to make, that's what! This is Dragon's Beard candy, named because the wispy white strands of sugar they're made of are reminiscent of the whiskers on a Chinese dragon. Some people call it Chinese cotton candy because of the aesthetic similarity to western cotton candy, but it's actually a lot different. You see, you have to simmer the sugar and sweetener, and once it cools, you shape it into a ring, and make a ton of figure eights until you've got hundreds of strands... it's all really time consuming, trust me. The strands get wrapped around a filling to make a little sugary nugget! I've made a bunch of different kinds: nuts, sesame seeds, there's even a coconut one in there. Go ahead and try them, they have to be eaten really quickly after being made! They're super sensitive to heat."

With everyone greatly intrigued by this very unusual treat, they heeded Rin's advice without reserve. Church grabbed one out of the container at the same time everyone else did, biting into the wispy sugar nugget to see what lied within. It didn't take long to determine that it was peanuts.

"This texture sure is something else. Tastes great though, what a wonderful combination. And a really cool treat overall... thank you Rin, I really appreciate all the hard work you put into this."

Blushing from the praise for her cooking, Rin tried to wave it away dismissively.

"Well, if you appreciate it so much you should eat more than one, right?"

Greatly enjoying the candy herself, Laura gave a response instead of Church.

"Don't mind if I do... are you going to tell us about your dress, Rin? That's part of the experience, is it not? I'm sure Church is interested..."

Having been quite aware of the look on his face when she had first entered the room, Rin knew quite well that Church was interested in her dress, especially on her. To say she had felt uplifted about that was an understatement. She had just barely managed to keep a tame expression on her own face, pondering the things that may have been going through his head.

Still, part of the experience was the cultural learning going on, so she did have to talk about her attire, not that she minded in the slightest. She loved knowing that Church was genuinely interested in learning about her culture.

"Well, this dress is referred to as both a Qipao and a Cheongsam. The terms are interchangeable, it's just a dialect difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. The origin of the dress itself dates all the way back to the Qing Dynasty when the Manchus ruled China. Actually, the clothing it originated from was unisex, and initially reserved for a particular social class... it became more popular as a female specific dress in Shanghai in the 1930s, undergoing a lot of different aesthetic transformations as Western fashions changed. Believe it or not, this kind of dress used to be worn with trousers! Anyway, there's a whole lot more to it than just that, but in short, it was a dress for a particular social class, then it became a commoner outfit, and then celebrities and the like made it popular as high fashion again. Take a few more twists and turns, and here we are. This is the more traditional long dress version, but I have a mini skirt variant too, that one's white..."

Sensing that she was starting to ramble, Cecilia intervened on the explanation at this point. Having gone first, she felt the large gap in attention that had been afforded to her, though to be fair Church hadn't really been paying any more special attention to any one girl.

"Alright Rin, I think that's beyond the scope of a history lesson, isn't it?"

"I'm just letting him know that I've got more where this came from, you know?"

While she directed these words at Cecilia, the not so subtle wink in Church's direction let him know that Rin was making an offer of some sort, or at least implying that she'd like to wear something else for him. And admittedly, he couldn't see any downsides to the prospect of seeing Rin in the miniskirt variety of the already erotic dress she was wearing.

With all of the Dragon's Beard candy eaten by now, Charlotte clapped her hands to get the attention of everyone else.

"Well, now that everyone is all here, we've still got something really important to do. We haven't actually said happy birthday yet! That's crucial."

Church leaned back as he commented on that very true sentiment.

"Hey, I actually recognize that part of a birthday party. Based on my limited knowledge that is indeed absolutely mandatory. I think singing is also involved?"

While his tone was humorous, Church's words put frowns on the faces of pretty much all of his companions. He didn't really get why this was the case until Rin vocalized it.

"You make it sound like you've never had a birthday party before. What, you live under a rock your whole life or something?"

Thinking back on his life, Church gave his reply without any of the inflection that one would expect of such a statement. After all, for him it was just normal.

"Well, it's not like I've never had a birthday party, but... it's been long enough that I can't remember anything about it. I was probably four or five or something."

Needless to say, this comment garnered a great deal of confusion from his female companions. Houki vocalized why this was the case.

"I hope this doesn't sound rude, but did you anger your parents a great deal? It's hard to imagine having such a long period with no birthdays..."

Thinking on why this was the case, Church realized that, like the girls had said some time before, they really didn't know all that much about him. His past really was a mystery to all of them. It wasn't that Church was reluctant to share, but it had just never come up. And like his birthday, it just didn't seem important enough to mention of his own volition. It was important to him: hell, it was the whole reason he had gotten involved with Umbra Stratum to begin with, but did the girls really need to know?

He couldn't help but feel that their perspective on him would change if they knew, and he didn't want to be pitied.

Either way, he must have been silent for a little too long, as Laura prodded him for a response, or perhaps to see if he was alright. Maybe his expression was telling.


Glancing around the room, Church saw that his hesitation had put a worried expression on everyone's face. And seeing that, he reconsidered hiding the truth. These were his friends, who cared for him greatly. They had risked their lives alongside him, and he'd risked his to save theirs. Was there really any harm in telling them why he had so little experience with birthdays? The circumstances that had ultimately led him to where he was today?

"I'm not sure where my father is, or was, rather. Never knew him. Possibly dead, possibly avoiding fatherhood, no idea. Never really thought or cared about it. My Mom... got into a car accident when I was really young. That put her into a coma that she hasn't woken up from. That's why I haven't had a birthday in so long. Foster parents didn't really care to celebrate, I was mostly a burden on them. As for my Mom... well, you know how U.S. healthcare is. Some family friends paid the bills to keep her on life support for as long as they could, but that only went so far. I uh, may or may not have run away from my foster home to visit a government testing site that promised a lot of money, which is how I ended up flying around as the world's first real Iron Man. The government foots the bill to keep my Mom on life support. And also overlooks a few legal issues regarding a teenager running from foster care and serving as what is essentially a legal adult. Although, this being my 18th birthday, I guess I actually am a legal adult now..."

Falling silent since he had nothing else to say, Church saw that he had even further killed the mood. Every girl in the room had a frown on her face, and Charlotte was even getting a little teary. Church supposed it was understandable: objectively it was a sad story, though it omitted Umbra Stratum of course. He had just never really spent a lot of time dwelling on how tragic any of it was. His life was what it was. Wallowing in self-pity wouldn't solve any of his problems, and neither would putting unnecessary thought into them.

Despite his mother being the main reason he had even joined up with Umbra Stratum, Church only thought about her occasionally. Not for lack of caring or affection, but only because the situation never changed. The scenario had been the same for over ten years: his mother away from the world and she hadn't woken up. Money was needed to keep her alive so that she could potentially one day wake up. It was Church's overarching goal, but a long-term one. He didn't necessarily think about it every day. He loved his Mom on principle, but hell, he couldn't even remember that much about her. He just had vague recollections of her affection.

Either way, he was swiftly bombarded by words from his many companions. It was hard to pick out individual comments or statements, since it was a smattering of 'why didn't you say anything' and 'you could have trusted us' and 'are you alright,' among other things. He could tell that, like the omission of his birthday, the girls were greatly displeased by the fact that he had kept this to himself.

Chifuyu, sitting beside him still, was not saying anything as she watched the girls fret over the reveal of a tragic past. Not that she wasn't thinking about it. It was just that, sitting here, hearing that this was essentially the first birthday Church had experienced with people he cared about, it occurred to her that she hadn't done much to contribute. She hadn't brought a present, hadn't made anything, and hadn't worn anything special. She was just around, and was that really enough?

Still, what could she do at this point? It was too late to do any sort of present: she couldn't go and get anything, cook anything, or change outfits somehow. So anything that she could do would have to be possible right this second...

Deciding that there was something, little though it may be, that she could do, Chifuyu made up her mind and leaned towards the man whose birthday they were celebrating, figuring that a kiss on the cheek was about the best she could do right now.

Church on the other hand, was in the midst of deflecting the pity (or ire in some cases) from his friends.

"Come on you guys, it's not that big a deal. I mean look, Chifuyu isn't saying any-"

Turning to face Chifuyu as he used her incessant stoicism as a defense, Church didn't manage to finish his sentence, because, thanks to the fact that he was talking and turning to face her at the same time she was moving for her present, he and Chifuyu accidentally met in the middle: with their lips. And a bit of tongue.

Needless to say, this did indeed silence the rest of the girls in the room. It just happened to be because they were utterly flabbergasted, and possibly dying a little bit on the inside.

I'm actually building the world's greatest fleet of ships. I've already got the Tirpitz (Germany) and the Chao Ho (China). The Richelieu (France) is still in port and the Allies have reported that the Yamato (Japan) is on the horizon!

Soon my fleet will be unstoppable!