Chapter 21: Leap of Faith
On that chilly night after the confrontation between the Royal Navy and the Sirens, two Sakura ships remained, arguing about their next course of action on the rooftops over the almost empty urban streets.
"To watch and learn as much as possible from them without getting discovered. That was our mission, Akatsuki, and we have more than fulfilled it." One Kuroshio argued with crossed arms.
"But this could be our chance! W-we saw them fighting the Sirens!" Akatsuki rebutted, though her voice came out shaky. "They are just like us. We don't have to be enemies."
"What you are proposing far exceeds our purpose. We are ninjas, not diplomats."
"Even so, If we could talk in person with the Commander of the Royal Navy, then maybe…!"
"That again?" Kuroshio's eyes narrowed. "You are putting too much trust in that man. We know nothing about him aside from his strange powers. Who knows how he would react upon discovering about us? You'll be exposing the Sakura Empire as a whole, just for a hunch."
"I know." Akatsuki lowered her head. "I know it's not my place to decide things like this, and that I am putting our faction in danger." She raised it again. "But if this works, it could be the first step to achieving Nagato-sama's dream!"
"Her grace's dream…" Kuroshio repeated softly.
Like much of the Sakura Empire, she was aware of Nagato's ultimate objective. However, doing what Akatsuki proposed would mean going against her direct orders, something Kuroshio couldn't even dream of doing.
Yet, what was more important? Her grace's orders or the possibility of being a bit closer to her objective?
"Please, Kuroshio! Let me talk to him just once" She bowed her head towards her fellow ninja.
Kuroshio observed her partner; it was rare for the usually meek Akatsuki to ask for something with such determination.
It was just like that time.
"You are naïve, Akatsuki. Even if what you want is noble, not everyone would share those ideals." Not even in the Empire, and Kuroshio was very much aware of the internal power struggle occurring in her faction. "However, if Her Grace hated that kind of thinking, she wouldn't have allowed you to come to this mission."
"Then…!" Akatsuki raised her head, surprised.
Kuroshio's nails unknowingly dug into her skin, but she returned her partner's gaze with a serious visage.
"You have two hours. If you can't find and talk with that man in that period of time without getting discovered, then we will return to Japan at once."
"Kuroshio!" Akatsuki bursted gleefully, motioning for a hug, but Kuroshio's serious face stopped her.
"Remember, this is not just training anymore. If you get caught, you'll be on your own, and mentioning the Empire or Her Grace's name would be an act of treason. Do you understand, Akatsuki?"
The gravity of the situation seemed to finally drop onto her then. Akatsuki kneeled before his friend, lowering her head and putting a fist on the ground.
"Yes!" She replied with a serious but equally energetic voice. "I, Akatsuki, First Destroyer of the Sixth Destroyer Division of the Sakura Empire, understand and accept this mission!"
Kuroshio turned away and started walking towards the edge of the roof where they were, observing the roads below. "The Royal Navy and the British soldiers have left already; we need to go after them now if we want to reach them." The ninja said, hiding her face with her red scarf.
And so both of them leaped in the air, jumping between buildings to follow the Royal Navy.
In the end, she had gotten what she wanted, but in the worst possible way, as everything that could have possibly gone wrong for her had gone wrong. She had first gotten lost in the navy's research center; Akatsuki wasn't exactly good with directions and the place was basically a maze, ending up wasting precious time just trying to find the room where the British Commander was.
And when she finally did find him, he was still unconscious.
She approached the sleeping man, moved by curiosity. She had never seen a human capable of healing Kansens; it was something completely unheard of in the Sakura Empire.
But that curiosity was what sealed her fate; she had been so distracted observing the man that she didn't notice the footsteps approaching the door before it was too late; someone was behind the door and about to enter the room.
Akatsuki quickly hid inside a wardrobe next to her when realizing she couldn't escape on time, but regrettably, that woman from the military didn't leave, which kept her locked for quite some time.
All of that led to her current situation: the man she had been observing before had opened the wardrobe and was now in front of her, staring with a mixture of surprise and alertness.
"Who are you?"
"H-hi…?" She raised a trembling hand to salute him. All possible decorum she could have while meeting a crucial person for the future of her faction was lost in mere moments.
"You… you are a shipgirl, right?" The man asked while carefully studying her. "Were you asked to spy on me?"
"N-not at all!" She profusely shook her head.
It was technically true, for she had not been asked to spy specifically on him but rather to get information about his whole faction.
"Then why are you inside this wardrobe?"
"Ah! W-well, about that…B-Because it's cozy here?" Akatsuki fidgeted like a deer caught in headlights.
It quickly became clear to him that this girl didn't think well under pressure, and she could surmise so by the man's deadpan expression. Akatsuki would've wanted nothing more than to disappear from such judging eyes, only stopped by her loyalty.
A couple of seconds of heavy silence followed, ones that felt like an eternity to the young ninja.
"It's fine." The commander sighed deeply, annoyance and exhaustion ladening his voice." "I guess I am not the most trustworthy person right now." But yet he extended his hand towards her. "Come on, get out of there."
"A-ah? Sure…" Akatsuki took it, surprised by his calmness. She had expected to be immediately detained and thrown in a cell if discovered, yet the man didn't seem surprised by her presence.
"We have not met before, have we? I am Fujimaru Ritsuka." He introduced himself, leading her gently out of the wardrobe. "You could say I am the current Commander of the Royal Navy, acting on behalf of the Queen. Nice to meet you."
He changed his grasp on her hand, switching the pull into a proper handshake.
"Fujimaru… Ritsuka?" She parroted.
Why would a British Commander of all people have such a clear Japanese name? It didn't make sense. She felt she had heard that name before too, but she couldn't recall when or where.
"Your name?" Ritsuka's question brought her back to reality.
"Ah…! Sorry, I am Akatsuki." She tried and failed to meet his gaze.
"Akatsuki, huh." He repeated thoughtfully. "I have to say, you look quite different from the others."
"Yes, I have met maids, a knight, and a Queen so far." He walked away and hung the giant shield he had in his right hand against the wall. "You seem totally different from them."
"I uh- I am actually…"
That's when Akatsuki understood: he had mistaken her for a Kansen of the Royal Navy. It wasn't that far-fetched to think that the British didn't know about their existence either; the Sakura Empire had only recently discovered that other nations were creating their own Kansen a few months ago.
She briefly thought about correcting him but stopped herself.
Maybe this was her chance to find out what kind of person he was.
"Ah…that's understandable!" She snapped back to reality, and puffed her chest with pride. "It's because I'm a ninja!"
"A ninja? Like a Japanese ninja?" Ritsuka chuckled. "That's pretty cool."
"Right!?" She nodded joyfully, not realizing immediately that she had just received praise. "Eh?" That stunned her for a second, she was not accustomed to it.
"I have worked with someone who was like a ninja before." He reminisced with a melancholic smile on his face. "He was very resourceful; his ability to disrupt the battlefield with traps was a sight to behold." Ritsuka then stared at her, his gaze showed a certain glow of expectation "Can you do something like that?"
"I-I am actually still in training..." The girl confessed sheepishly. Akatsuki wasn't as good as Kuroshio when it came to ninjutsu, though she did have something to feel proud of. "But I am actually really fast! I may not have the raw power of the Carriers of the First Division, but I would definitely not lose to them when it comes to speed!"
"Carriers of the First Division?" His voice was laden in what less keen individuals would mistake as innocence. "More shipgirls?"
"N-never mind that!" She quickly tried to change the subject. "More importantly, can I ask you something, Shi- Commander?"
"Hmm? Sure, ask away." He replied, his expression calm.
"Well, you see…" Akatsuki wasn't exactly good at lying. "I-I am actually quite new here, but I have heard a lot about you, Commander."
"About me?" His mask was pleasant but still unreadable.
"Y-Yes, I have been told that you are special, that you can do things that no other human can, like healing shipgirls with your own…"
Fujimaru's smile then disappeared and morphed into a frown. His calm exterior gave way into alertness.
"B-but we don't have to talk about that if you don't want to, of course!" And she realized too late that she had stepped on a landmine.
"Don't worry." He said, but he still looked slightly uncomfortable about the topic. "It's not something I should be showing everyone, but yes, I possess a certain set of abilities."
"Abilities? You have more!?" The ninja couldn't contain her excitement.
"I do." He confessed slowly. "Though unfortunately, I can't show you most of them without destroying this room."
"Yes, they tend to be a bit destructive." He pondered deeply for a second. "Since you are a ninja, you won't happen to have a blade that you wouldn't miss, right?"
"A blade?" Curious, Akatsuki quickly produced a kunai on her right hand, and eagerly offered it to Ritsuka, blade pointing down. "Would this work?"
"Sure." Ritsuka took the weapon and briefly swung it, scrutinizing its blade and handle. He then closed his eyes and went silent for about a minute. "I see, so they really are different."
The ninja cutely tilted her head, which he noticed.
"Nothing, just speaking to myself." He closed his eyes again.
He then murmured some words in a language that she didn't comprehend. Glowing green lines came to life on both of his arms and hands as in response, which shone bright enough to be seen through his clothes. Before Akatsuki could say anything, he moved towards the bed. He placed one hand on top of the nightstand, only to raise the kunai above his head with the other.
"Wait what are you-!?" Akatsuki could only watch as Ritsuka brought the kunai down to stab his own hand with significant force.
The ninja instinctively closed her eyes expecting the sound of flesh and bone being torn, but she heard no cry of pain contrary to all her expectations, and instead, she heard the loud clang of metal clashing against metal.
Confused, she opened her eyes again only to find that her kunai had broken into multiple pieces, and even more puzzling, she could clearly see that Fujimaru's hand was completely clean and unscratched.
"I also can do this." He opened and closed his fingers slowly, and everything seemed to be still in place and working correctly. "And a few other small things that are not worth mentioning right now."
The ninja-in-training was speechless; she had so many questions.
How could he do that? Could more people in his faction do it as well? Could he do it with his entire body or just his arms? Could he do it whenever he wanted, or did it have a limit? Could he block bullets with that? What about a Kansen's attack?
Akatsuki wanted to ask all of that and more, but words didn't come out of her mouth, and instead, her body moved; tiny hands slowly reached for a larger, still glowing one.
"How…?" She intertwined her fingers with his, her hands only showing their smallness in comparison to Ritsuka's. "How is this possible?"
She had expected his hand to feel stiff and cold as metal, but it was actually warm to her touch, it didn't feel as if it could resist one of her kunais at all, it was a completely normal hand.
"The line between the possible and the impossible keeps getting thinner and thinner with time." He answered in a somber tone. "I have seen things believed impossible happening right before my eyes more times than I can count."
She was fascinated by the man in front of her, her curiosity stirred by his words. Just who was this man who spoke about extraordinary things while also being able to equally heal and destroy with his bare hands? Warm, calloused hands at that. She could feel that his palms and fingers were rough to the touch, and as if betraying his unassuming physique, she could feel the strength of his hands. Physical contact was not truly commonplace in Japan, let alone the Sakura Empire's ranks, but Akatsuki knew somehow that these hands had been fighting for a while.
While she was thinking about many things, the ninja finally realized she had been touching his hand a bit too much.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to-" She tried to retract her hands, but Fujimaru actually didn't allow her to let go.
"Actually, there is another thing I can do." He said while looking at her directly in her eyes, and Akatsuki was intimidated by the sheen of his blue orbs. "It's not as impressive as what I just showed you, but do you want to know?"
"A-ah! S-s-sure?" Akatsuki was surprised by the sudden return of contact, but also knew she wasn't really in a position to refuse.
He slowly, deliberately moved closer, making the young ninja's face turn a shade of red unsuitable for any sort of stealth, right until he was close enough to whisper in her ear.
"I can tell when someone is lying to me."
The words sent icy daggers shivering down her whole spine.
As much as she wanted to believe otherwise of herself, Kuroshio was a softy.
Why else would she have accepted Akatsuki's proposal in the first place? Why else would she have waited three hours, one more than the limit she set, outside the British base for her despite saying she would leave? And why else would she risk everything and decide to enter the base when she didn't come back?
Because she was a softy that couldn't just leave her student alone there, that's why.
However, her efforts to find her fellow ninja had been fruitless so far. The base was heavily guarded, and to remain undetected had proven difficult even for her.
After slipping past a good dozen of armed soldiers and moving through blind spots of security cameras, she had managed to find an empty storage room where she could rest and stay hidden with only minimal risk of getting caught.
"Akatsuki, can you hear me?" Kuroshio whispered once more like she had been doing throughout the past hour, trying to reach out to Akatsuki through the mental link. Needless to say, she hadn't received an answer yet."Akatsuki… where are you?"
Her silence only made her fear the worst. The only thing that reassured her was that no alarm had been triggered yet, and the soldiers appeared to be calm.
She quickly pushed those thoughts out of her head and positioned herself next to the door, ear against it, to listen very carefully to every sound coming from outside.
People came and went. She managed to catch parts of their conversations sometimes; most of them talked about a certain unknown man being kept in the infirmary or about the abrupt death of a high-ranking officer. The most common topic, however, was the "damaged prototypes", also referred to as "sentient weapons".
By their tones, she could deduce they were talking about their own Kansen and not Akatsuki, so it seemed that the British hadn't discovered her yet.
However, she was bothered by how the humans talked about their Kansen. There was a clear uneasiness whenever they spoke about them. From the interactions she had witnessed before coming here, she suspected that the relationship between the British and their Kansen wasn't the best.
Not once had anyone used the word "allies".
"Wait! You can't leave just like that!" A sudden shout caught Kuroshio's attention. A man's voice seemed agitated, coupled with hurried steps.
"I wish to see my Commander." A dignified woman's voice responded, one that Kuroshio recognized. She moved to see her through the keyhole, and there she was, the British Kansen of the black and white dress and pigtails. "I need to make sure he is being taken care of properly."
"The Commander is safe and sound; I have no idea what you are talking about." Answered the soldier, dumbfounded. "Also, she is a woman."
What followed was a long and very awkward silence.
"I-I don't have time for such jokes." She must have been a bit taken aback by that comment because she lost her serious tone. "I must go now."
"I said wait!" The man shouted again. "You can't walk around the base by yourself. The Commander ordered for you to be escorted whenever you leave the laboratories."
"A lady doesn't need an escort breathing behind her all day." The woman ignored the protests and continued. "I'll be fine by myself, don't follow me."
"Again, I can't…" The soldier tried to put a hand on the Kansen's right shoulder, but she slapped it with force. When she did, Kuroshio noticed it: the right sleeve of her dress was loose, as if there was nothing there.
Another moment of silence followed, much heavier this time. The Kansen looked icily at the soldier as if he had been a breath away from committing a crime, while the man clenched his hand and wore an expression of pain.
A fight could start at any minute as it was.
"They truly are like we used to be." Kuroshio thought. Such a scene reminded the ninja of some unpleasant memories, of the times when the mood around the base was so tense that it felt like their alliance could be broken just by a passing argument.
She was glad those times had come to pass, all thanks to Her Grace. Many things had changed since Nagato took the leadership of the Sakura Empire, but Kuroshio personally thought it had been for the best.
She just hoped everyone could share those same thoughts…
"What are you doing?" The soldier's voice took her back to reality, and when she saw through the keyhole again, she found out that the Kansen was looking straight in her direction.
Kuroshio quickly moved away. Did she make a sound without realizing it? No, it couldn't be. It must have been just a coincidence.
Or so she wanted to think, but the steps coming progressively closer to the room said otherwise. She covered her mouth and nose, trying not to make any sound. If she was discovered, any possibility of peace between their factions would be lost.
"Formidable." To her surprise, help came from an unexpected source. It was another female voice, and one that was much heavier than any other one Kuroshio had heard so far. "That was your name, right?"
"Hmm, correct." The steps stopped. "I remember you from before; you were with the soldiers pointing guns at me."
"My name is Marcia Haydes, and discussing what happened in the base could wait." She had a serious tone. "He has awoken."
"…yes, him." There was some reluctance in her voice. "I was on my way to find you."
"As I said, I don't need escorts." Formidable seemed to finally walk away from the door. "I'll go visit the Commander by myself."
"I am not saying you can't, but do you even know where he is?" Marcia asked.
Another awkward silence filled the room.
And then Formidable sighed.
"Lead the way."
And so the voices finally went silent; the three of them seemed to have left. Kuroshio stood completely still for a few more moments before finally daring to slightly nudge the door open and looking outside.
She scanned the hallway with precision, and after ascertaining that no one was there, she exited the room and moved close to the wall, ready to sprint if she heard any sign of more people coming her way. Walking in the hallways was dangerous as there was nowhere to hide, but still, she really needed to find Akatsuki now.
"Akatsuki, a Kansen is going towards the Commander's room." She tried to contact Akatsuki again. "We need to retreat now; the risk has become too big. I repeat: we must abandon-"
She couldn't finish. No words could form, no matter how much she tried to force them. In fact, she couldn't move at all, not even a finger. It was like her body had abruptly frozen.
"Who are you and why were you spying on us?" That's when she heard Formidable's voice again.
"I can tell when someone is lying to me."
That was just a bluff; I had no such ability, but I didn't need magecraft to know that this girl was hiding something. After all, no one should have known about my abilities as a magus except for Marcia and her subordinates, and I doubted either of them was the type to gossip.
I looked at Akatsuki's face; her reaction immediately gave her away. It was clear that she was either not sharing the whole story or just lying to me.
"You have not been honest with me, have you?"
"I… I…" She tried to free herself from my grasp, but I held her tightly. "I don't-"
"Tell me the truth; who are you, and how did you find out about my powers?"
"…!" She looked at me as if her entire world was about to crumble.
At this point, I should have realized that appearance didn't matter when it came to superhuman beings. No matter how many times I read books with Rhyme or played hide and seek with Jack, the truth was that despite their childlike innocence, they could still easily rip apart an average human if they wanted. This girl was no different from them; she could have manifested her rigging at any time to fight me.
"Please, let me go!" And despite that, she still looked as afraid as an ordinary child while I was grabbing her. So from an outsider's perspective, I most certainly looked like I was just bullying an innocent girl.
I sighed for what I felt was the hundredth time today. My naivety was going to get me killed one of these days.
"Alright." I let her go.
"Eh?" She looked at her now free hands and then back at me with a wide eye. "You are letting me go…just like that?
"I am not that far gone to start hurting someone who looks so terrified, much less a child," I pinched the bridge of my nose. I stepped away from her and walked toward the door. "So if you aren't willing to tell me the truth, then I will find someone who can."
Marcia must know something about her; better go ask her directly instead of trying to guess.
As I was about to exit the room, Akatsuki grabbed my shirt from behind.
"I…. I am not a child…" She said, looking crestfallen.
"Okay." I tried to leave the room again.
"I am not a child!" She repeated, this time with more force. "I am a Destroyer from the Sakura Empire!"
"The Sakura Empire?" Where had I heard that name before? It felt oddly familiar. "What do you mean by tha-?" I suddenly felt something hard pressed against my back, which turned out to be a pair of small cannons when I turned.
"I am sorry for lying, and I am sorry for this, but I need you to listen to me." She pleaded sadly, the gun battery in her right hand trembling. She raised her face, and I could see a bright yellow iris peeking from behind her half-mask. "That's why I can't let you go yet, British Commander."
Formidable was puzzled.
She had been feeling on edge since she recovered her sense of self after the battle against the Sirens, but what she felt at that moment was entirely another matter.
After all, it was the first time she couldn't recognize a Shipgirl.
As a fair Lady of the Royal Navy, she knew she served under Queen Elizabeth, the leader of her faction. She also knew that maids like Belfast, Sirius, and Dido were at their service for everything they needed. The names and hierarchy of everyone in her faction naturally fit in her memory as if it had always been natural and would continue to be forever.
But the horned shipgirl was a complete stranger to her; not only couldn't she remember anything about her, but her whole appearance was also strange. The sharp ears and the black horns protruding from the sides of her head were traits that she had never seen or heard before. Even her clothes, a really short skirt and a cut-out shirt, appeared to favor mobility over elegance, something that didn't fit in her image of a royal lady, a knight or a maid.
"Marcia Haydes." She spoke without taking her eyes away from the unknown Kansen. "Who is this girl?"
"I… have no idea." Marcia was equally dumbfounded, but followed with an accusatory glance to the soldier beside her. "We were ordered to stop the creation of prototypes after what happened with Admiral William!"
"A-all our resources are being used in fixing the damaged prototypes, Commander!" The soldier quickly replied. "No new prototype should be in production, and even if it was, it would never be allowed to run free like this."
"Then how do you explain this, soldier!?"
"I have never seen this prototype in my life, ma'am!"
Formidable meanwhile wasn't paying attention to Marcia and the soldier, her eyes were instead stuck in the mysterious shipgirl, trying her best to find something in her memories about the girl, and failing to do so.
Just who was this shipgirl, so different from the ones she knew?
As she was looking at her carefully, she noticed a small black sphere tightly gripped by one of her hands. Curious, Formidable tried to reach for the small object, when she noticed a slight twitching on the girl's hand.
Formidable tried to manifest her rigging in response, but it was too late. With a quick move, the horned shipgirl threw the object towards the floor, causing an explosion.
The carrier stepped back as a cloud of black smoke immediately filled the hallways of the base, obstructing everyone's vision.
"What the-!? Formidable!?" Marcia cursed, forced to cover her face with her arm.
"She could move all along!" A pair of airstrips, which could almost be mistaken as black wings, materialized on Formidable's back and with a quick wingbeat dissipated the smoke around her.
Only to find out that the shipgirl was gone.
I felt a strong sense of déjà vu.
This was definitely not the first time a shipgirl had pointed her weapons towards me, right Sheffield? This situation was still a bit different, however.
While the aloof maid always maintained that cold exterior while pointing her pistols at me, this girl was trembling, and in a quite notorious way despite her sudden bravado. It was obvious that she wasn't accustomed to it.
That wasn't a good thing, though. A house cat could become as fierce as a wild lion when cornered; I knew that very well because I was usually in the cat's place. The truth was that people tend to ignore what they are truly capable of until they find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
I, too, did it.
"Sorry, I guess I underestimated you. It won't happen again." And as it was now, I could feel Akatsuki was ready for anything. "Are you here to kill me?"
"What!? N-no! Of course not!" She seemed sincere, but her nervousness wasn't helping to get her point across, or any point for that matter.
"In that case, there is no reason for you to keep pointing that gun at me, is there?"
"I am sorry, but I can't let you go yet." She apologized but kept the cannons firmly pressed against my waist. "I need you to stay here… and listen to me."
Despite the quivering in her voice, I could feel that she was really trying her best to maintain her composure.
"I am listening." It wasn't like I had another choice anyway.
She seemed to want to start talking but stopped before any words could leave her mouth. She then looked to the sides and then downwards; that motion was repeated a few times until she finally spoke.
"I…I am not good with this type of stuff; I can never seem to find the right words when I most need them…that's why someone like me isn't fit to speak for the Sakura Empire." She raised her face to meet my gaze. "That's why I will speak for myself, British Commander. Is that alright?"
I nodded, and she continued.
"As one of the envoys of the Sakura Empire, my mission in this country was to find as much information as possible from the Royal Navy. It was supposed to be an undercover operation and by no means we should have met. But then I saw you, standing your ground between the human soldier and the wounded Kansen."
"So you were there."
"It was at that moment when I thought 'Oh, so that man wants to protect them, just like I want to protect my sisters. Even if we are from different factions, we still want the same: To beat the Sirens and protect our people. So why must we fight?' Our leader ordered us to return immediately, but if I had left then we would have never gotten another chance to meet like this. That's why I decided to find you, British Commander, and ask you directly."
"Ask me what, exactly?"
"Would you….would you…." Akatsuki seemed to have problems finishing the question. "W-would you like to return to Japan with us!?" She shouted the question as if to force the words out of her mouth.
"Would you like to come with me to Japan and meet our leader?"
Having confirmed that what I heard was right, I could only reach one conclusion.
"…Is this a complicated way to take me hostage?" I asked, signaling the weapon that was still pressed against my waist.
Akatsuki looked confused for a second and then followed my gaze.
"Sorry! It completely slipped my mind!" Her rigging disappeared in a dispersion of fine blue particles. "I-I wasn't trying to threaten you or anything. It's like a… diplomatic visit! I am sure that if you meet Nagato-sama then you…!"
"Calm down." While I appreciated not being held at gunpoint, I was still confused. "I do not understand anything. Why do you want to bring me to Japan all of a sudden? And who is this Nagato?"
"Ah! I am sorry, I am getting ahead of myself!" Akatsuki cleared her throat. "The Sakura Empire is the Kansen faction allied with the nation of Japan, and Nagato-sama is our current leader."
"Shipgirls from Japan…?" That was when I remembered. The Sakura Empire, alongside two others, were mentioned in the illusion the Sirens showed me; it appears there was some truth in it. "So more nations are creating their own shipgirls."
That could present a whole new set of problems that I had not foreseen.
Things in Chaldea were relatively straightforward; we were a small group, no more than 20 people without counting Servants, and everyone was working for a common goal: the salvation of the human order. While the situation here was similar, it was on a much larger scale. Could various different countries that were thousands of kilometers apart and had different beliefs and priorities even achieve that same rapport? It was a complicated situation.
"I-I know it's too sudden, but I truly believe that the meeting between you two can be good for both of our nations. You could even achieve peace between our factions…"
I didn't say anything for a while.
"You said you were speaking only for yourself. What does your leader think about this?"
"Ah… well…" She lowered her tone. "She… huh… doesn't know yet."
"I thought so."
"But I am sure she will be willing to-"
"Akatsuki, I understand your feelings. Frankly, I don't want any kind of conflict between our nations either."
"But I can't just go uninvited; that could invite huge misunderstandings, especially when we know almost nothing about each other. It could even lead to a war."
The Sakura ship tried to object, but no words came from her mouth. Maybe she knew I was right.
"Besides, I can't go anywhere right now, I am needed here. Our situation isn't exactly the best right now."
"I… understand." The girl whimpered, her head tilted down.
My hand instinctively moved to pat her, but I managed to stop myself at the last second. She isn't Jeanne Lily, Ritsuka. You shouldn't act so familiar with her.
"Regardless, I am open to a formal invitation."
"Talk to your leader; if she is fine with me going to Japan, then I have no issue with doing so after I resolve my situation here. It's in my best interest to have a friendly relationship with Japan since, as you might imagine, I was born there." While that was technically a lie, it didn't mean that Japan from this world meant nothing to me. I wanted to see my country again eventually, even if it wasn't the exact same place I left. "And as long as I occupy the role of Commander of the Royal Navy, there won't be any hostilities against the Japanese shipgirls or Japan. Our enemy is and will continue to be only the Sirens."
"I…I am glad." Akatsuki released a respite of relief. "Even if we had never talked before, I knew from the moment I saw you healing your companions that you couldn't be a bad person. No one with such power could! I am so glad Kuroshio allowed me to talk to you."
"Kuroshio? Is there someone with you here?"
"She is my direct superior, a ninja like me; it's thanks to her that we could meet, she should be waiting for-" Just as Akatsuki was saying that, the loud sound of an alarm reached our ears; followed by what I thought were a couple of explosions.
"That was…!" I shot a glance at her. "That was your companion, wasn't it!?"
"I-It can't be! Kuroshio doesn't have a reason to come here. Unless…" She brought her hands to her head as if she suddenly realized something. "I have to stop her. I have to stop her before it's too late!"
She sprinted past me the moment she said that, opened the door with a swift movement, and dashed away with tremendous speed.
"Wait!" I exited the room myself, but I only caught a glimpse of her as she went downstairs. She wasn't lying when she said she was fast, damn it.
I reinforced my legs and followed her.
Kuroshio darted like a blur to escape from the Navy's Kansen. Her presence had already been discovered and their mission was compromised, but as long as she wasn't caught she could still prevent a war between factions.
The best course of action would have been to leave the base for good, but it would have been for nothing if Akatsuki didn't leave with her.
"Akatsuki! Answer me!" She shouted again, in hope that her voice could finally reach her companion.
"Kuroshio!?" And that time it finally did. "What happened!? Were those explosions?"
"Akatsuki…!" Kuroshio almost couldn't contain her relief upon hearing her companion's voice again, but she knew she had to do it. "They know we are here!" So she immediately issued her order, as the one in charge of the operation."We need to leave, now!"
"But you don't understand, I met him! We can-'' Their link was forcefully cut as a loud vibration reached Kuroshio's ears, followed by a barrage of bullets.
The ninja jumped to the side to avoid the projectiles. On her back was a group of miniature aircraft fighters were flying towards her, no doubt coming from the Navy's Kansen.
"A carrier!" Kuroshio had fought alongside Shoukaku in the past; she knew that despite their size, those planes could easily pierce through a Kansen's skin with their bullets; even if one of them wasn't a threat, they were especially dangerous as a group.
The red-eyed ninja used the momentum of her running to jump and somersault mid-air, producing metal shurikens between her fingers. The exact moment her eyes met the planes again, she threw the star-shaped projectiles toward them with inhuman accuracy and a velocity that rivaled bullets.
By the time her feet touched the floor again, the shurikens had landed in each of the planes, and destroyed them. Feeling silently proud of herself, Kuroshio turned back to continue running only to meet an identical group of fighters blocking her way.
"Tsk…!" She materialized more shuriken between her fingers and stepped back to put some distance between them, but the distinctive sound of the planes' propellers also came from behind her.
"There is nowhere to run." The British Kansen made her appearance, walking among the planes. She had finally caught on to her. "I suggest that you surrender peacefully."
Kuroshio quickly scanned the area searching for a way to escape, but she found none, she was completely surrounded by all sides.
"…I don't want to fight you." She reluctantly said, sheathing her shuriken back into ether.
"I do not wish to fight you either." Formidable extended her only arm; various planes flew around the japanese shipgirls like a flock of birds. "That's why I am only using fighters and not bombers. I don't want to hurt you; I just need to ask you a few questions."
"Would you believe me if I say that answering could cause a great tragedy?"
"I am afraid you would have to be more specific than that."
"I can't. The meeting was a mistake in the first place, something that shouldn't have happened." Kuroshio shook her head. "I assure you: it would be the best for everyone if you let me go."
"Forgive me, but I can't do that."
Kuroshio released a deep sigh.
"So be it, then." In a slip of a second, Kuroshio manifested her rigging.
Formidable realized so and quickly moved her planes to shield herself, but Kuroshio's guns were not directed at the carrier, but at the wall on their back.
Kuroshio fired, creating a hole in the wall and raising a cloud of dust and debris that hid her improvised escape. That didn't stop Formidable's fighters from shooting blindly into the cloud of dust; a barrage of bullets was released upon Kuroshio as she leaped into the air and outside the building, falling a couple of meters to the ground below.
"Argh!" But just as her feet touched the ground, a sharp pain assaulted one of Kuroshio's legs.
A quick look revealed a sizable wound on her right tight; the bullets did reach her after all.
"Forgive me." Formidable calmly let herself fall after her, the black airstrips on her back allowing her to land gracefully on the ground. "But you left me no choice."The carrier moved her hand, and her planes began to encircle the Sakura Destroyer.
Kuroshio looked at her wounded leg, then back to Formidable. While she could still move, she doubted she could outrun those planes in her state. She couldn't allow herself to get caught, but was there really no other option but to fight?
Perhaps in the end, they were bound to repeat the same mistakes again, no matter how much they tried to avoid them.
"I am sorry, Nagato-sama." Kuroshio whispered as she materialized a short blade on her right hand.
Sensing that the enemy had switched strategy, Formidable moved her planes to intersect her. The fighters fired, but Kuroshio was still fast enough to dodge their bullets, and she wasn't running away this time, but straight towards the carrier.
"…!" Formidable jumped back to put distance between them, but that was a mistake. No matter how powerful a carrier was, they could never compete with the speed of a destroyer.
Kuroshio got even closer, and with a swift move, brandished her blade in order to stab the British Kansen, aiming at the lower side of her abdomen.
"Kuro-!" But right as the two shipgirls were about to clash, a sudden voice caught both of them off guard. Too late the ninja realized that a person had come between her and the British Kansen, and her blade ended up piercing someone, but not her initial target. "…shio?"
Akatsuki looked at her fellow ninja, seemingly confused. Then her gaze moved downwards, towards her chest, where the weapon of her friend had sunk in her body; her blood quickly spilling on the blade and Kuroshio's hands.
"Ah…" A single breath escaped Akatsuki's mouth.
Then, she fell.
"Akatsuki!" The ninja quickly dissipated her weapon and pressed her hands around the wound. "Why!? Why did you..? Why did you do that!? I wasn't going to...!" The words stumbled in her mouth. "It was just so we could escape!"
"We don't…" Akatsuki looked toward her friend, her voice was weak. "We… don't need to fight. Nagato-sama… would not like it."
"Idiot! That doesn't mean you could just jump in front of a blade like that!" Kuroshio shouted, her expression was a mix of anger and helplessness. "We are not in the base! A wound like this could be…!"
While Kuroshio fought to keep her friend alive, the British carrier had become wholly frozen in her place. The scene before her slowly started to distort, and her vision began to blur.
Formidable blinked and she was no longer there. She was in that military base again, the bloody bodies of her friends surrounded her; the people she cared about slowly bleed out to death.
She desperately ran towards them, the red pools splashed blood on her dress and dirtied her foot as she approached. She threw herself beside Elizabeth and tried to stop the bleeding with her hand, the only hand that she still had, but it was useless; the wounds became larger and larger; the bullets of her drones being fired resonated like explosions in her head.
Formidable moved towards Warspite, and then to Sirius, then Dido, then Belfast, then Sheffield and Edinburgh, but it was the same with everyone. No matter what she did, she could not save them.
She was the one who did that to them, and now all she could do was to watch them die or wait for a miracle.
And so she waited, covered in the blood of her friends.
But no one came.
"Formidable." A hand touched her shoulder.
The carrier immediately moved to fight off whoever had touched her but found someone she wasn't expecting.
"Commander!" She breathed painfully, as if air had reached her lungs after hours of agony. "D-don't sneak up to me like that, please…"
"I actually called you out a few times, but you didn't answer." The Commander looked genuinely worried. "Are you okay? Did you get hurt anywhere in the battle?"
"I… no, I am fine." She lied, but her condition could wait. "Commander, we have a situation here. I think those two were spying on us. I ignore what their intention was, but it's possible that this base has been compromised-"
"Formidable." He cut her. "Do you trust me?"
She was confused for a second but managed to answer.
"You saved our Queen; I trust you with my life, Commander."
"Then let me handle this. I'll explain everything in due time, I promise." He said and walked towards the two Sakura ships.
"Ah…Commander…" Despite the wound on her chest, Akatsuki was still conscious, if only a bit weak; she was the first one to notice him.
"Don't get any closer, Royal Navy!" Kuroshio snarled, a ferocious gaze distorting her features. She wasn't wary of him but of the faction he represented.
"You know who I am, so you must know what I can do." He showed his hands as if to make a point.
"Are you saying that you can heal her?"
"Why? What do you gain with this? What does the Royal Navy gain with helping spies?"
"Akatsuki and I talked a bit before this; it can be said that we reached an agreement beneficial for both of us. That's what the Royal Navy gains." He sighed. "As for me, I just can't watch someone die in front of me when I can do something to prevent it. Are those enough reasons for you?"
Their eyes locked on each other for a few seconds, then she looked at her bleeding companion.
The man took to work immediately, kneeling in front of Akatsuki's body and placing his hands on the wound, not minding the blood at all. At that exact moment, a blade reached for his neck, barely touching his skin.
"Try something weird, and I will kill you."
"Commander!" Formidable was about to intercede, but the man stopped her with a gesture.
"I am fine. I expected no less from a ninja." He never took his eyes off Kuroshio once.
Disregarding the kunai, he turned to look at Akatsuki again. "I didn't take you for someone so daring. Or did you do it knowing I would be able to heal you?"
"I… actually thought Kuroshio could stop in time." She said with a weak smile, which got a chuckle out of him.
"You are not very brilliant, right? Not that I dislike that." He placed his hands on her wound. Green light illuminated his arms, and extended towards her injury; as that light touched her skin; the blood that previously escaped her body slowly returned back to her.
The process was completely alien to Kuroshio, or all of them for that matter. Kuroshio and Akatsuki had seen Akashi repair some of their companions when they got hurt, but it didn't look anywhere close to what this man was doing. It wasn't so much "fixing" as it was reversing the body to its original, undamaged state.
Once the blood flow had stopped and the wound looked mostly closed, the green light disappeared.
"It will probably leave a scar, but she will be fine." He looked at Kuroshio. "It would be better if you let her rest before making any major exertion."
"The Royal Navy made a healer their Commander?"
"I am a far cry from a proper healer; my knowledge of real medicine is pretty basic; a commanding role fits me more." He stood up. "I would gladly discuss the details with you, but you must leave now before the situation gets more out of hand."
"So you are letting us go?" Kuroshio asked, doubtful and mildly stunned.
"Yes." He looked at Akatsuki. "The military wouldn't be as understanding as me, and I believe it's in our best interest that you aren't caught here, right Akatsuki?"
"O-of course." The shipgirl answered, still not fully recovered. "I promise to talk to Nagato-sama… as soon as we return to Japan."
"Good, now go."
Kuroshio took her friend in her arms, placing her in a princess carry and turned to leave when Ritsuka stopped her.
"Wait." He pointed at Kuroshio's leg. "Can I? I imagine it would be difficult to carry her in that state."
Kuroshio gave a quick look toward her wound and then back to Ritsuka, only to nod silently.
He extended his hand and, carefully not touching inappropriately her thigh's exposed skin, and like with Akatsuki, healed her wound in almost no time.
The ninja made a few test moves as if to corroborate that her leg could move like before. Once she had finished, she looked at Ritsuka again and lowered her head a bit.
"May we never repeat the mistakes from the past, Commander of the Royal Navy." She said, and she hit the floor to leap with those words and disappeared into the distance.
"Was that the correct choice, Commander?" Formidable approached him.
Ritsuka didn't answer immediately.
"I hope so."
END OF CHAPTER 21
AN: It's been a while. Do people still remember this story?
I still do.
This chapter had the most rewrites so far, I wasn't satisfied with the direction I was leading it so I scrapped a lot of text. Life, in general, didn't help.
But let's not talk about that, let's talk about the future of the story.
I know that's what authors say when they are canceling their fic or whatever, it's not the case this time.
Arc 1 was about Ritsuka trying to run away from his "fate" and Arc 2 was about him being forced to face it. So Arc 3 will be about him finally coming into terms with it (or at least trying to). I want the new arc to be breath of fresh air for the story and I want to show that I can write more than people suffering. In other words, I will finally focus on the romance part of this story; this is fic is tagged as such for a reason after all.
My initial idea is to release shorter chapters, more focused on character interactions than plot, which will still be an important part of the story but I want it to take a backseat for a while.
We'll see how that turns out.
Obligatory discord publicity: discord. gg / kvRCbruzaT (erase the spaces, obviously)
Thanks to Fleece, who did the proofreading, and Lower who did a pretty big editing to the chapter. You guys are the real MVP.
And that's it. I am done. I will proceed to sleep for a hundred years again.