This is the first of two chapters uploaded today.

Chapter Two – The Secret Origin of Ritsuka Fujimaru – Eagle's Nest

[January 3rd, 2021]

The doorbell rang.

Ritsuka Fujimaru paused. He couldn't think of someone who would visit his tiny apartment, especially not this early in the morning.

He thought it over for a second, palmed his phone, went to the door and looked outside.

It was a young woman with long silver hair and gray-blue eyes, wearing a casual off-shoulder white tee and black shorts. A black cap and sunglasses were perched on her head and what seemed to be a yellow jacket was tied around her waist.

She looked vaguely familiar but Ritsuka couldn't place his finger on it.

Shrugging to himself, he opened the door. "Hello?"

"Good morning," the woman replied. "It's nice to meet you properly, Mr. Fujimaru."

The usage of his real name made him frown. "Do I know you?" he asked.

"I don't think so, but maybe you saw me last night."

Last … oh, right.

"Could I come inside?" the woman requested. "We might draw attention out here."

"Sure," Ritsuka said, stepping aside to let her enter.

The woman took a few steps into the small apartment and paused. "Yeah, I know, I know," Ritsuka sighed. "Looks cheap and empty, right?"

"… Actually, I was going to say it looked … very tidy, but now that you mention it…" the woman seemed to be struggling to find a tactful response.

"It's a dump," he said flatly.

The woman winced. "I … can't disagree…"

Ritsuka snorted. "So, what did you want to talk to me about, miss…?"

"Oh right!" the woman realized, and saluted. It was snappy and formal and made him feel a bit awkward. "Yorktown-class aircraft carrier, Enterprise!" she introduced.

Ritsuka raised an eyebrow. "So the super-famous strongest ship girl of the Eagle Union is standing in my run-down apartment. Neat." He shook his head. "What did you say you wanted to talk about?"

"I've been tasked to escort you to Azur Lane HQ. My superiors want to talk to you," Enterprise informed him.

"That's sooner than I hoped," he admitted. "It's not even half a day since the incident at the docks."

"The Vice-Director said that the sooner they contact you, the better. Apparently you would have gone under the radar again otherwise."

"I would," Ritsuka admitted without shame. "I don't suppose I'm allowed to refuse."

Enterprise shook her head. "No. I don't know why they want to talk to you. I wasn't told."

"I doubt it's just to talk. I don't really want to go."

Enterprise tilted her head. "Why?" she asked, honestly confused. "It's not like I'm taking you to a den of villains. Why are you so against the idea?"

"Personal reasons," he said, but didn't elaborate further.

Enterprise stared for a second and sighed. "The Vice-Director did warn me that you'd react like this," she muttered. "She also told me to tell you this: her name is Leonardo da Vinci and she wants to see you back at Chaldea."

Ritsuka stilled. "Azur Lane is working with a magi-built observatory?" he asked.

"Chaldea is different now. How I'm not at liberty to say, it's still a public secret. The Vice-Director will explain everything in person."

Ritsuka hummed in thought. "Fine, but just to talk."

"Great," Enterprise offered him a smile. "I'll wait outside for you to change."

"Isn't the base in a different state?" he asked as she walked to the door.

"I was given plane tickets," she explained, and walked out, closing the door behind her.

For a few seconds, Ritsuka actually did consider changing his mind and not complying. But that would be rude, and he didn't want to be rude, whatever else people might think of him.

Sighing, he grabbed a better-looking set of clothes.

*~B~*

Enterprise was confused.

She couldn't at all tell why it was that Ritsuka Fujimaru was so wanted by her superiors.

Da Vinci had told her to wait in the area while she talked to High Command. And not ten minutes later, Enterprise received orders from them personally: Ritsuka Fujimaru was designated a VIP and was to be taken to base posthaste.

Naturally, she was curious. All she knew about the man was what Sheffield told her, and the Royal maid had thrown in a lot of unfamiliar terms. Sheffield didn't bother trying to explain, saying that their bosses could explain better.

So all Enterprise knew was that he was a young man with black hair and blue eyes, and was capable of some magecraft.

Meeting him in person, she was even more confused as to his merit.

Ritsuka Fujimaru looked like a man going through the motions. He had unkempt hair that had grown a bit long, and it looked like he didn't much care. He had no facial hair, but judging by the state of his head, Enterprise deduced that it was less because he was clean-shaven, and more because he just didn't have any.

He was fairly tall, and from what little she could tell from his loose shirt, fairly well built. Everything about him looked average, except for the eyes.

For lack of better adjectives, Enterprise would call them dead-fish eyes. They were bright blue, but at the same time sort of dim. Dull and empty. Eyes like that weren't uncommon in her line of work: they spoke of deep-seated PTSD. Like their owners had seen so much and been through so much that they had lost the ability to care about anything.

Despite that, on the plane to their destination, he was fairly cordial. Apparently he had no difficulty making small talk.

Enterprise's alert mind, still trying to evaluate him, noticed that not once did he give away anything about himself, however.

Once the plane landed and they made their way out of the airport, they got into an inconspicuous but expensive black car. It was then that Fujimaru finally asked something that seemed to have been bothering him for a while.

"'Erina Kirk'?"

"Huh? Oh, right," Enterprise realized. "We have a secondary, civilian identity that we go by sometimes. It saves us the hassle of immediately being identified as a ship girl, and helps us avoid attention."

"I'm fairly certain that an attractive young woman in light clothing would make heads turn regardless of her name," he commented dryly.

"Thank you for the compliment," Enterprise graciously accepted. "But I can assure you, it's a great help. If I was identified as a ship girl right away, we would have been swarmed by paparazzi and wouldn't have gotten anywhere in good time."

"Fair enough," Fujimaru said with a shrug. "Still," he continued with a small smirk, "I didn't take you for a Trekkie."

This managed to fluster Enterprise. "W-well, I mean … Enterprise," she protested lamely.

Fujimaru snorted lightly. Looking at his expression made Enterprise think of Hornet.

"Sis, you nerd," mind-Hornet playfully teased.

Enterprise corrected herself. No, he didn't look like Hornet. Even when cracking a joke, there was no light in his eyes. Hornet would never have that kind of expression.

Soon, the base came into view. Fujimaru raised an eyebrow at it. "I actually expected your base to be coastal," he remarked. "Or, you know, not land-locked."

"It's not strictly necessary to be near a body of water," Enterprise began. "Most humans don't possess the ability to travel on water like us. Choosing a land-locked area was just a matter of convenience since most important things are not accessible by boat. That said, the NY base is coastal but we don't use it too much these days."

The car drove on past the large gate in a tall barrier and they got a better view of the place.

The place was massive. There was a very large land area that was walled off. The base consisted of multiple smaller buildings and one especially large white structure that was several football fields in width.

Said white structure was a multistory building with a lot of windows. The walls were neatly painted white with some silver portions. From far off, it appeared like dozens of cubic structures stacked together. A satellite dish rotated slowly atop it, and there were several antennae grouped together at one end. The road leading to its main entrance was adorned by tall flagpoles, each bearing flags with the emblems of each nation and their faction respectively. The tallest pole bore a flag with the Azur Lane logo.

There was a large building that looked like a gymnasium to the north. The roof was segmented, like it could be opened up. Just behind it were two artificial lakes, rectangular bodies of clean water. They were like swimming pools but many times larger and much deeper.

To the west of the white building were smaller houses that appeared to be dormitories. Next to them was what looked to be a two-story cafeteria. A narrow bridge-like structure enclosed by glass connected its second floor to the second floor of the white building, held up by intermittent white pillars.

To the east was what appeared to be a miniature town. It included the necessities you would find anywhere. Ritsuka caught a momentary glance of a Starbucks and smiled slightly in amusement. You really could find them anywhere.

The entire area was walled off by a rectangular high iron fence. Barbed wire cables crisscrossed the open space between the vertical iron bars. Topped off by a uniform arrangement of bars and stakes, it looked quite imposing.

"Welcome to Azur Lane High Command, Eagle Union branch. We call it the Eagle's Nest," Enterprise said.

Eventually they reached the main entrance. Enterprise disembarked and Ritsuka followed.

There was, of course, a security check at the entrance. Enterprise showed her ID card and was able to walk in unimpeded, but Ritsuka had to go through the minimal processes.

Enterprise wondered if it was because of his average Joe clothing that made him stand out in a place like this. That said, he walked through the metal detector with no issue. A security guard systematically patted him down while his phone – the only thing he had on him – was inspected.

One guard turned it over in his hand. "I could swear they're not this thick normally," he said curiously.

"Right, my bad. The back has a false cover that opens if you press it, uh … there," Ritsuka explained, indicating it. As he said, the cover popped open, revealing a few bills. A couple hundred dollars, Enterprise estimated from a cursory glance.

The guard raised an eyebrow. "You're an impressively paranoid man," he commented, putting the cover back in place. "Emergency cash?"

"More or less," Ritsuka agreed.

The guard absently nodded and pressed the home screen. The wallpaper, Enterprise made out, was a selfie of Ritsuka and a bespectacled young woman with short pink hair. Both looked much younger than Ritsuka did in the present.

After a moment the guard handed the phone back. Ritsuka nodded his thanks and followed Enterprise through the inner sliding doors. "I didn't think you had a girlfriend," she casually said.

Ritsuka stopped. He glanced down to where his phone was held in his left hand. For a second, Enterprise saw something in his usually empty eyes: anger.

And then, just as suddenly, it passed. "I don't," he said shortly, pocketing the phone.

Silently, Enterprise berated herself for putting her foot in her mouth again. She quietly walked on, an awkward silence beginning to form.

She met eyes with a receptionist, who nodded and returned to her computer, logging in Enterprise's entry. Enterprise glanced at the lobby and paused. She then changed directions, Ritsuka following her.

Two young girls were sleeping on one of the sofas. Both wore their long hair in twintails. The white-haired one, Laffey, was leaning against the shoulder of the blonde, Eldridge. Both were in sitting positions.

Despite herself, Enterprise smiled. "Excuse me for a moment," she said to Ritsuka, before quietly approaching the two.

Crouching in front of them, she carefully outstretched her arms. "You shouldn't be sleeping out here," she chided softly. "You'll hurt your necks."

With the ease of long practice, Enterprise gently picked them up one by one into her arms. "Could you please wait here for a few minutes, Mr. Fujimaru?" Enterprise asked, keeping her voice low so as to not wake the two. "I need to take these two to a proper bed."

"Sure, no problem," he assured her.

Nodding her thanks, Enterprise slowly walked to an elevator.

In her arms, Eldridge stirred. "Warm," she mumbled, and held on tighter.

Enterprise tried hard not to make a sound of adoration.

Unseen by her, Ritsuka watched her leave. "Should've brought insulin," he muttered, taking a seat on a sofa.

*~B~*

"Sorry for the wait."

Ritsuka glanced up from his phone. He saw Enterprise walk up to him and pocketed the phone.

She'd changed her clothes. Instead of the casual look, she now sported a sleeveless white shirt and an open black jacket, a black tie and a naval cap.

Wordlessly, he got up and began to follow her again.

It was quite the long walk, but given the sheer size of the place he hadn't expected much else. They took a private elevator at the end of it and after exiting it they ended up at a hallway with large doors at the end. "That's the one," Enterprise informed him.

Enterprise walked up to it and knocked politely.

"Yes?" said a muffled voice from inside.

Ritsuka frowned slightly. It was a vaguely familiar voice, but it wasn't Da Vinci.

"Enterprise here, I've brought Fujimaru," Enterprise replied.

"Excellent. Come in, please."

Enterprise glanced back to ensure Ritsuka was following. She opened the door and the two of them walked in.

The first thing Ritsuka noticed was the sheer size of the room. It was a very large office with a carpeted floor and fancy wallpaper. A single red carpet stretched in a straight path from the doors to the desk of the office. The walls on one side were covered by many bookshelves, not all of them filled. On both sides were sofas for visitors, three of which had been moved to a rectangular formation in front of the main desk. There was a smaller desk and chairs to its left.

The second thing Ritsuka noticed were the four other women already inside the room. None were Da Vinci but two of them had black hair and blue eyes, much like himself. The one at the desk –

Ishtar?

– looked strikingly familiar and had a piercing, soul-searching gaze. Both women looked to be about 30, the one at the desk wearing intricate red clothes and the other wearing a pink flower-patterned kimono.

On one sofa was one of the ship girls he'd met last night. Prinz Eugen lazily raised an opened bottle of wine as a greeting. "Guten morgen, Herr Fujimaru," she drawled, looking somewhat tipsy. Ritsuka replied with a nod.

On the sofa opposite was another that he'd met last night. Sheffield nodded to him, and Ritsuka missed Enterprise's raised eyebrow; most people didn't even get that much from her.

Something else about Sheffield made him blink. Is that a maid outfit? Huh.

"Leonardo was right, we do look quite alike," the red-clothed woman mused. "Anyway, do sit down. Leonardo – that is, Da Vinci – will be here soon. Chaldea is usually quite busy after all."

"That's fine," Ritsuka waved off. "It's a pretty long way away too. Who are you, by the way?"

"You seriously don't know?" the woman asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I think we found someone who doesn't watch the news, nee-san," the other woman said.

"Well, in any case." The red woman cleared her throat and drew herself up. "Sakura Empire High Commander and member of the Azur Lane World Security Council, Rin Tohsaka. It's nice to meet a fellow countryman of your caliber, Fujimaru-kun. Now then, please take a seat and we can get started."

Ritsuka did as told. Logically he knew that there was probably no danger to face here, but he still kept a hand near his phone out of habit. Enterprise sat down beside Sheffield.

"You've already met Enterprise, Sheffield and Prinz Eugen," Tohsaka continued, indicating the three with nods. "This is my equally talented sister, currently my secretary, Tohsaka Sakura," she introduced.

The kimono-wearing woman, Sakura, bowed politely in a traditional Japanese way.

"I would have had Ayanami here, too," Rin continued, leafing through a small file, "but she's busy back home. Anyways, make yourself comfortable."

There was a small silence. Ritsuka looked around the room. Eventually, the silence got a bit too awkward and he looked at Prinz, who had lifted her bottle to her mouth. "It's morning," he said.

Eugen shrugged. "It's evening somewhere," she replied, taking a slow sip.

Ritsuka shook his head and glanced at Sheffield. "So are you a ninja maid or something?" he asked dryly.

"No. I'm from the Royal Navy, not the Sakura Empire," she flatly replied.

"What she means to say is, she's the Brit equivalent," Prinz remarked.

Sheffield looked at her. If she showed any expression at all, Ritsuka would have imagined disdain. "Must you really drink so early in the day?"

"Like I said, it's evening somewhere."

"Don Fujimura … Hatsuharu Hayasaka … Gudao Tanaka," Rin said suddenly, drawing Ritsuka's attention back to her. "There's even a Tohsaka in there," she continued, sounding amused. "Should I be flattered or offended?"

"Uh … the former?" he said.

For half a second, Rin smiled. And then she looked at him with a perfect poker face. "I'll get right to the point, shall I? Do you know why you're here, Fujimaru-kun?"

"It probably has to do with last night, doesn't it?"

Eugen scoffed. "No points for that answer. We'd like to hear your side of things."

"And we would prefer to do that while sober," Rin interrupted, before fixing Prinz with a look.

Prinz pouted and reluctantly put the bottle down.

"Prinz is right, however. Let's start there," Rin said, regarding him coolly. "I want to hear your side of the incident."

Ritsuka had expected as much and had been readying his story the whole way there.

He recounted an edited version of events. The way he put it, he made it sound like he was a first-generation magecraft user who just happened to be on the scene. With a combination of trickery and luck, he had successfully led the man to his own demise.

Prinz looked like she heavily disagreed with the idea of luck being a major factor, but said nothing. Enterprise frowned, deep in thought. Sheffield gave nothing away.

Neither did Rin. "I see. That does align with what I've heard," she mused, expression unreadable. Sakura glanced at her briefly. "Alright, then, Fujimaru-kun, let me ask you this: do I look like an idiot to you?"

Ritsuka blinked. "What do you…?"

"I know who you are. I know what you are. I know as well as you do that there is a lot more to that story than you're saying. So let me reiterate: do you know why you are here?"

"… It's not just to detail my side of things?" he tried.

"Even if you were being upfront with it, you and I both know that's not the only reason."

"It's not?"

Rin didn't say anything, just continuing to stare.

Ritsuka relented. Evidently playing dumb wasn't going to get him anywhere. He sighed. "You want to offer me a leading position here at Azur Lane, don't you?" he asked.

That got reactions. Sheffield narrowed her visible eye, looking him over again, as if some secret about him would suddenly make itself known. Enterprise blurted out a "wait, what?" and Prinz frowned.

"It's pretty obvious," he explained. "As far as the rest of you are concerned, I'm just a magus who happened to be on site to help out. And it's not like I did anything special."

"Besides cleverly maneuvering the enemy into a falling building," Sheffield interrupted.

Ritsuka ignored that. "You sent the Eagle Union's strongest to find and bring me in not twelve hours after you found me, someone who should just be an average magus. Not to mention I know the name Tohsaka. You're an old magus family with considerable pull at the Mage Association – whatever's left of it – which means you no doubt know about my Sealing Designation. Therefore, you wanted to use that to blackmail me into a position here, to find out exactly why I got Sealed in the first place."

"Interesting deduction, but you're not quite right," Rin replied, crossing her arms. "For one thing, your Sealing Designation is effectively void, so I couldn't use it against you even if I wanted to. For another, I'm sure Enterprise has told you about Leonardo – come to think of it, I mentioned her too, so is it wrong for you to assume I know exactly why you were Sealed?"

"I've been told time and again that I shouldn't trust magi at face value."

"I can't blame you for that," Rin agreed. "We're a manipulative sort. You're correct in that we do want to give you a job, but for the wrong reasons."

"Herr Tohsaka," Prinz began. "What this guy did last night might be impressive, but that shouldn't be enough to land him a job at Azur Lane. He could be a super magician for all I know–"

"Magus," Sakura corrected.

Eugen rolled her eyes and continued, "But it doesn't feel right to me to just give a commanding rank to someone with no military experience. I assume."

"Thank you for the vote of confidence," Ritsuka deadpanned. "But she's right," he agreed, looking at Rin. "There's no reason why I should have that job. I don't have any military experience."

"That's certainly true. You have no modern military experience," Rin said.

Prinz narrowed her eyes. "'Modern'?" she muttered.

Ritsuka noticed the phrasing himself. Wait … does that mean –

"But no experience at all?" Rin smiled. "I beg to differ, Mr. Savior of Humanity."

Enterprise blinked. Prinz Eugen sat up straight. Sheffield's visible eye widened.

All three turned to stare at Ritsuka.

For a long moment, nobody spoke. Finally Ritsuka sighed. "Doctor Roman–"

"–wasn't responsible for even half of what Chaldea tried to credit him with," Rin dismissed. "I was involved with the cover-up, Fujimaru. I know what really happened."

Ritsuka stayed quiet. He tried to ignore the stares of the three ship girls. He'd thought Sheffield's gaze was searching before – compared to this, it had been merely a pinprick of light in intensity.

"I understand why they did it," Rin continued. "Easier to pin all your achievements on a historical legend than a first generation magus who hadn't even heard of magecraft until he went to Chaldea. Unfortunately the important parts – or, well, the parts that those pompous old men cared about – those got out and hence you were hit with a Sealing Designation."

"Wait, wait, wait, back up," Prinz interrupted, raising her arms. "What's this Savior business?"

"And what's a Sealing Designation?" Enterprise added.

"Does this have to do with the missing year?" Sheffield asked.

"You're right, it does," Rin answered Sheffield. "As for a Sealing Designation, it's a status assigned to magi who are exceptionally talented, exceptionally dangerous or both."

"That's almost as much of a non-answer as what Sheffield said," Prinz snarked. "So does that mean Herr Fujimaru is a super magician?"

Ritsuka snorted. "Hardly. I'm dead average."

"Think of it like Interpol's Most Wanted list, but for magi," Sakura added her two cents.

"So what happens when someone is designated for sealing?" Enterprise asked.

"At best they're forcibly taken to the Clock Tower and prohibited from leaving the grounds."

"Clock Tower?" Enterprise repeated, confused.

"And at worst?" Prinz asked instead. "Killed?"

"No," Ritsuka answered. "You only wish you were dead."

"Live experimentation," Rin said bluntly. "They'll do everything but kill, so long as they can figure out your secrets."

Enterprise looked ill at that. Even Sheffield looked disturbed – as far as she showed it anyway.

Prinz Eugen nodded. "So … you are a super magician!" she said to Ritsuka.

"Please stop saying magician," Ritsuka retorted. "And it only happened due to coincidence."

"Contracting more than one Servant is eye-catching enough," Rin said. "Contracting with however many Chaldea had? Even if you were merely the mediator, the fact that you got so many Heroic Spirits to trust you is enough to attract all sorts of attention. Easier for a magus to believe you had some secret mind control magic than to accept that you were naturally charismatic. Hence, Sealing Designation."

"Servant?" Enterprise repeated.

"Manifestations of Heroic Spirits," Sheffield explained. "Said Heroic Spirits are legends from history and mythology."

"What, like King Arthur?" asked Eugen

"Met her," commented Ritsuka.

Eugen blinked. "Wait, her?"

"We're getting off track," Rin interrupted. "Now that we've established that I am fully aware of what you've accomplished, let's return to last night. How exactly did you defeat Atrum?"

"… He was using the powers of Medea of Colchis," Ritsuka explained. "And whatever method he was using was driving him mad, causing him to see me as Jason, someone Medea really hated. I exploited that, made sure he was seeing me as Jason, and as a result he wouldn't let a fall off a lighthouse do me in before he could, got a point blank shot for a Gandr and got away as it came down."

"What would you have done if I hadn't listened to you?" Sheffield asked suddenly. "What if I hadn't told Enterprise to destroy the lighthouse? How would you have defeated him then?"

Ritsuka shrugged. "Take him into the water with me, stop holding back, use every trick I knew and hope it was enough. Crazy or not, Medea's powers are incredible."

"… I still don't understand a lot of this magic gibberish you're spouting," Eugen said. "But I understand enough to know that you're extremely reckless."

"Old habits die hard," Ritsuka said.

"I saw the light getting blown up," Enterprise spoke up. "How did that happen?"

"He tried to laser me, and, uh … missed."

"Missed," Rin repeated sarcastically. "A point blank shot."

Enterprise frowned. "I couldn't see very clearly, but I'm sure he wasn't even facing it," she pointed out. "And I doubt he had his back to you."

"He missed because …" Ritsuka was reluctant to explain, but he didn't see another way out of this. "Because I made him miss," he sighed. "I reflected whatever he shot at me, and it blew up the light instead." He reached into his pocket, already having guessed the coming question.

"And how, exactly, did you – your phone?" Rin interrupted herself, bemused. "I've never heard of using a modern device as a Mystic Code."

"Not exactly," Ritsuka said, unlatching the false cover.

*~B~*

"Ritsuka Fujimaru."

Ritsuka paused in the hallway, seeing the man in golden armor waiting.

It had been a long time since he had been intimidated by the King of Heroes. That said, the number of times Gilgamesh, the arrogant king of Uruk, had said Ritsuka's name could be counted on one hand. Usually it was just 'mongrel'.

"Yes, Your Majesty?" he politely replied nonetheless.

For a moment, Gilgamesh said nothing, only favoring Ritsuka with a blank gaze.

"I do not enjoy small talk, so I will be brief," the king declared more than said. "Ritsuka Fujimaru. Your accomplishments in the seventh singularity, your actions to protect my kingdom. I, the King, have deemed it … adequate."

Ritsuka had enough experience with the man that he could make a good guess as to his true thoughts. He also had enough survival instincts not to make any remarks on tsundereness.

"And therefore, it is only right that you are justly rewarded for your deeds." Saying so, he uncrossed his arms. A small golden portal opened just above an outstretched hand and dropped a small object into it, which Gilgamesh then handed to Ritsuka.

Ritsuka politely accepted it and looked it over: a small grey plastic card. One side was featureless, the other was covered in tiny cuneiform.

"Um … what is it?" he asked eventually.

"Are you familiar with how my Gate of Babylon works?" Gilgamesh began. "I had to unfortunately demand assistance from the witch and the gender-confused inventor, however the result is sufficient. Think of it as a pass to use the Gate."

"… Wait, is this a key to your treasury?" Ritsuka asked, wide-eyed.

For a second, Gilgamesh glared. "Were you anyone else," he finally said, "I would have killed you for daring to make that assumption. But as you are different from the other mongrels, I shall let it pass. No, it is more like a key to your own personal treasury. Of course, it is nowhere near as limitless as mine, for you cannot replicate perfection. It is, however, suited for a person such as yourself."

"How do I use it?" Ritsuka asked.

"As long as it is in direct contact with you, you can open portals like I do," Gilgamesh explained, then paused as said portal appeared in front of Ritsuka and he stared curiously at it. "Like that, yes. Evidently being in proximity to myself has made it easier for you to picture the deed. Unlike my Gate of Babylon, where I can store whatever I wish, yours can only contain items that belong to you, without a shred of doubt."

"Isn't that true for you too? You own everything," Ritsuka pointed out.

Gilgamesh chuckled. "Indeed! It is good to see you learning!"

"Is there anything else I should know?"

"Nothing with greater mass than yourself can be held within it. And there is an upper limit on the number of objects it can contain. I neither know nor care what that is, so I will leave it to you to discover. Finally, it does not allow you to dematerialize your treasures and return them at will. That has to be done manually."

"Got it. Thank you, Gilgamesh. I'll make good use of this," Ritsuka promised.

"See that you do," Gilgamesh warned. "I will not stand to see my generous gift being wasted. Not that I expect such of you. You are someone I have acknowledged after all – twice over."

That was high praise coming from the King of Uruk. Not that he'd ever admit it.

*~B~*

"Incredible," Rin breathed, turning the object over in her hand. "A Mystic Code imitating a Noble Phantasm from the Age of the Gods."

"I understood maybe five of those words," Prinz complained.

"You'd understand more if you'd actually studied magecraft like Sheffield and Saratoga," Rin fired back absently, still examining the object.

"Hmm … nope, still not interested."

At her seat, Enterprise finally shut her jaw. "It was the cover?" she said incredulously. "I thought it was something you'd hidden there yesterday but – it was the cover itself?"

Indeed, the object Rin was admiring was his featureless gray phone cover, the false one that concealed a hidden compartment where he claimed he kept some emergency cash. There was a similarly colored sticker on one side that concealed the cuneiform writing on the plastic card.

"Someone told me once that the best place to hide something is in plain sight," Ritsuka said.

"Interesting … could you demonstrate, perhaps?" Rin asked, handing the cover to Sakura, who walked over and gave it back to Ritsuka.

He waited a second after receiving it and then a rippling golden portal appeared on his left. He held out his left hand and the portal deposited a pen into it.

"Wow," Sakura marveled.

"Was that the golden glow I saw?" Sheffield suddenly asked.

"Yeah," Ritsuka confirmed. "I'd used something I keep in it to protect myself. When I put it back in as I was falling it doubled as probably the most obvious signal I could make."

"What did you use?" Prinz asked. "Is it that pen?" She indicated the object in Ritsuka's hand. "I assume there's a reason you have a seemingly ordinary pen in your video game inventory."

"No, this really is just an ordinary pen," Ritsuka refuted. "The thing I used was a mirror that can reflect some energy attacks. Also … you remember when I said Atrum was seeing me as Jason and I exploited that?"

Rin nodded, silently indicating to him to continue.

"Well, Jason had blond hair. So did Atrum. So I showed him himself and let his fractured mind take care of the rest, ensuring that he'd follow me to kill me himself instead of letting me fall to my death. Gandr and the falling building finished the job."

A small silence followed his explanation. "Risky," Rin said eventually. "Relying on your enemy to react the exact way you wanted them to. That's extremely risky."

"The fact that it worked, though," Sakura countered. "That's very impressive."

"High risk, high reward," Eugen summarized, scrutinizing him with a small smile. "You're insane, you know that?"

"If you're trying to disprove that you know mental manipulation magecraft," Sheffield said, "you're not doing a very good job."

Ritsuka gave her a dirty look. For a moment, Sheffield smirked – a rarity that made Enterprise do a double-take.

"What magecraft do you know?" Sakura asked curiously.

"Basic Reinforcement, a strictly inferior variant of Structural Analysis, Gandr and a lot of other small spells, most of them unnamed," he answered.

"Which ones did you use last night?" Sheffield asked. This time there was no suspicious stare; it was the plain curiosity of someone wanting to learn more.

"Well, I already mentioned Gandr," Ritsuka began. "I kept Reinforcement up the whole time, and there was this other spell to turn a small amount of my magical energy into electricity to electrocute them."

"Electrocute? Small?" Prinz repeated disbelievingly.

"About as much as a taser. It wouldn't do jack to any of you."

"Yeah, he's no Eldridge," Enterprise agreed. "I think."

"Hold on," Prinz said, frowning. "That cloak you were wearing. It wasn't just something you hid at the yard, was it? And I definitely wasn't seeing things when I noticed you were dry."

"Yeah, that's another one I keep in here," Ritsuka sighed, putting the false cover back in place.

"How many items do you have in there?" Rin asked.

"A few dozen," he answered. Seeing several eyes widen he added, "Only around ten of them are combat-applicable. Fifteen if you stretch the definition. I'm not exactly going to start taking people down with a pen."

"I could," Prinz helpfully supplied.

"You're a ship girl with several times a human's strength," Ritsuka deadpanned.

She shrugged. "Semantics."

"There is one thing I still don't understand," Enterprise interrupted. "You've demonstrated just how capable you are, and also have a story that we still haven't heard. Knowing all that, why are you so reluctant to officially help us?"

And so the topic returned to the thing Ritsuka was the least willing to discuss. "Personal reasons," he cited again.

"Saving a drowning child, personally apprehending a thief, interfering in and single-handedly stopping a gang war," Rin recited, flipping pages in a file. "That's just a small fraction of it. For someone who claims to be so hesitant, you're quite altruistic, Fujimaru."

"… If I see something happening right in front of me and I can do something about it, I can't ignore it," Ritsuka said.

"If that's the case, why are you so leery? I can see why you used fake names in all these cases," Rin said, indicating the file. "You didn't want the Mage Association to track you down. But with the Clock Tower in ruins and not just yours, but every Sealing Designation rendered invalid, I can't understand why you don't want to come back."

"I'm nowhere near the best person for the job," Ritsuka argued. "You can find someone more qualified."

"Unlikely," Rin coolly refuted. "The Grand Order was an entirely unique journey that you went through. There is quite literally no one else alive who shares your experience."

No one alive? Yeah, that's definitely true, Ritsuka thought bitterly. "My experience isn't valid for a military organization," he countered.

"Debatable," Rin said back. "Leonardo speaks highly of your skills and determination as a leader. You've saved the world once, you can do it again."

"I didn't do it alone," he said.

Rin frowned. "Nobody is asking you to do it alone. What is your real reason, Fujimaru? Why don't you want to be a part of this?"

Ritsuka said nothing. He glanced around the room, finding everyone silently observing. Prinz Eugen was no longer smiling, staring blankly. Sakura, however, didn't look as searching as everyone else, but curious and a little concerned.

Eventually, Ritsuka sighed and ran a hand over his face. "I've had enough," he said, keeping his eyes lowered. "Big world-ending fights, massive battles with the fate of the whole world at stake, I've had more than enough of those. The Grand Order gave me enough experience with that to last a lifetime, and I want no more of that. I'm tired of it."

No one said a word. Ritsuka didn't look up. He didn't want to see their expressions.

"All those stories romanticizing heroes saving the world, sometimes several times, they keep missing how hard it really is. How much toll it takes on whoever the 'chosen one' is," he continued, a bit bitterly. "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and as a result I had to do it, not because I was the best one for the job, but because I was the only person left who could do that job.

"Small things, like the ones you have in that file, those are fine. I'll always do something to help in those cases. But big fights with high stakes … I'm done. Once cost me too much. I don't want to go through anything like that ever again."

Ritsuka didn't look up. Anger, understanding, disgust, sympathy. He wanted to see none of that.

"You know," he heard Rin eventually say, "that sounds quite selfish."

"Nee-san," Sakura chided.

"Yeah, it is," Ritsuka agreed. "And what's wrong with that? I saved the world once, I deserve to be a little selfish."

"With great power comes great responsibility," Ritsuka heard Enterprise say. He looked up at her dryly. Enterprise met his gaze coolly.

"I know what you're thinking," she continued. "But regardless of where you've heard that statement, it doesn't make it any less true. If you can do something to help the world, if you have power like that, it is your duty to use it."

"Good thing I don't then," Ritsuka retorted. "I'm just another guy you can find anywhere, with the only difference being that I've seen way too much."

"Herr Fujimaru," Prinz Eugen spoke up. He looked up at her to find her looking at him coldly. There was no anger or judgment there. There was nothing. Tonelessly, in a way Ritsuka hadn't heard her speak before, she continued, "You're in a room with three ship girls. We are tools of war. We were built for war, and we've lived through war. We're in the middle of one right now. I don't know how your experience compares to that, but perhaps you shouldn't look down on us by wanting to shy away from what we've all seen."

Ritsuka smiled humorlessly. "I suppose you're right. Sorry about that, didn't mean to say I looked down on any of you. I think the opposite, really. I respect you all for everything you go through, everything you do for the sake of the world. I just don't want to be a part of that, not again."

"Why?" Sheffield asked. "You've made it very clear that not only are you very capable, but also that you care. I cannot understand why someone like that wants to walk away from the same things he is willing and able to do."

"I've just said that. Also, I disagree about qualifications," he said to Rin, who was regarding him like one would a disappointing pet. "I don't know the first thing about ship girls or Sirens."

"Neither did you know anything about Servants or magecraft at the start of the Grand Order," Rin fired back.

"Back then I had no choice. This time I do."

"I'm not so sure about that," Rin refuted. "Someone of your caliber can't afford to look away from a demanding job."

"We know what we're talking about," Sakura added. "Nee-san is a genius among magi, and intelligent enough to handle non-magical jobs as well. Because of her vast qualifications she was forced to take this position."

Rin looked at Sakura, unamused. "Isn't that all me?" she asked.

"I spent three years trying to teach you how to use a laptop, nee-san, I deserve some of that credit."

Rin did not quite blush. But she did close her eyes in embarrassment, groaning, "Sakura…"

Ritsuka could tell that Sakura was trying to lighten the mood in her own way. He appreciated the effort, he really did.

"Anyways," Rin collected herself and looked at Ritsuka. "I understand your hesitation, Fujimaru. What you have to understand is that Azur Lane can't afford to let someone like you go. I know you don't like it, but we need you to fight for us. The war against the Sirens looks like a stalemate at first glance, but the truth is that if things stay as they are, humanity will lose. And there won't be anyone else to ask."

"If he doesn't want to," Prinz interrupted, "then just let him go. Someone who doesn't want to be here won't be much help."

"That may be the case," Rin agreed. "That said, Leonardo has assured me that if Fujimaru chooses to do something, he gives it his all. Well?" she asked Ritsuka. "Are you going to let Da Vinci down?'

Ritsuka said nothing.

Rin shook her head. "I suppose that's better than a straight rejection. Fine. Wait here for Leonardo. If she cannot convince you to stay, you're free to–"

The computer monitor on her desk beeped frantically, interrupting her. Rin looked at the display and eyes narrowed.

"Sakura, prototype hangar," she commanded.

"I'm on it." Wasting no time, Sakura seemed to effortlessly interpret that non-sequitur and picked up a phone. She began to dial quickly.

"Trouble?" Enterprise asked, all business.

"Siren signals detected, three of them," Rin informed. All three ship girls tensed. Ritsuka, too, was alert. "One of them has the same signature as the one from last night. Enterprise, take two from whoever is available and head to hangar 3."

Enterprise saluted and left the room in a hurry.

"Yes, go straight to the hangar when you arrive. Yes, they'll meet you there," Sakura said over the phone.

"Eugen, Sheffield, you two head straight to the hangar as well," Rin ordered. "Fujimaru … you have two options. You can wait here till they finish dealing with this and then talk to Leonardo, or you can go meet her now and then go with the rest of them. Well? Can you ignore this?"

It was a challenge, and one he couldn't back down from. As much as he was reluctant to get in over his head again, he could never sit still when he could do something to help.

"Unfortunately not," Ritsuka said promptly. "If you're not against it, I'm going."

"That was a quick 180," Prinz remarked suspiciously.

Rin smiled. "Excellent. Sheffield, Prinz, lead him to hangar 3. We'll use this opportunity to field test Leonardo's prototype. Get going."

"Understood. "Jawohl~!"

Ritsuka followed them as they left.

Once they were in the lift again, Prinz spoke up, "Looks like I was wrong about something."

"What's that?" Ritsuka asked.

"I don't like you," she stated bluntly.

Ritsuka accepted that with a shrug. "Fair enough."

"Let's see if Director Da Vinci was right," Sheffield said. "You would give your all to anything? Prove it."

Ritsuka nodded.

The lift doors opened again. "This way," Sheffield said, jogging off.

It was a minute or so before they arrived at large automatic metal doors labelled 03. A plate at the side also said 'Experimental Project Hangar'. It opened to allow them to enter.

It was massive and spacious. The roof looked so high that a eight story house could fit inside. Rods and beams of iron, either a metallic red or gray, formed a complicated framework sectioning the hangar into several partitions.

Jet planes, a couple helicopters, and various other aerial vehicles Ritsuka didn't recognize were parked within. Small vehicles like one would see at an airport – carts that carried a small number of passengers, vehicles with bars at the front for lifting and carrying cargo – and even some tow trucks were among those he saw straight away.

Paths were painted in yellow, makeshift runways that led to large rectangular sections of metal and concrete in the wall, which were painted differently and appeared to be hinged. Ritsuka assumed that they were gates that lifted up to allow entry and exit. There was also a circular section in the roof divided in the middle. It looked like it opened up for helicopters.

"There," Eugen pointed to a part of one runway and Ritsuka followed her finger to a vehicle he had never seen in his life.

It was a black, streamlined contraption. The main body was the size of two vans stacked side to side, and in fact, resembled a van. Windowed doors hinged vertically upwards on either side and it had six wheels, each resembling those of a bus. Large wings extended from either side of the doors, being four in total. The forewings were smaller and there was a small emergency door for the pilot above the left forewing. At the center of each wing were what looked like arc reactors straight out of science-fiction. The glass of the windows were polarized, so he couldn't make out any of the interior details.

Standing near it, watching cables connected to a tow truck being untied from the contraption, were four women.

One of them was Enterprise, who wore a completely serious face that made Ritsuka realize why she was called the Eagle Union's strongest. She was inspecting a large longbow, whose size would make it nigh-impossible for regular people to even lift, let alone pull. Seemingly having completed her inspection, she dematerialized it, letting it dissolve into motes of blue light.

The second looked to be in her early teens. She had light pink hair in short twintails, light amethyst eyes, and wore a fancy outfit that seemed totally impractical for battle – a white-frilled blue dress exposing the midriff, an open white naval officer's coat, black tights and white shoes. Then again, Ritsuka had seen much more bizarre 'battle outfits' so he just assumed it somehow worked. She was animatedly chatting with the third woman.

The third woman had dark pink eyes and hair, with dark gray streaks in her hair that was tied in pigtails. She was tall, one of the tallest women Ritsuka had ever seen. Her blue jacket was also left open, with a lone hot pink strap over her chest keeping it in place. Her clothes consisted of a red-pink bra, a two-tone midriff-exposing 'vest' that did little in the way of modesty, hot pants fashioned from tearing a longer one, deep blue leggings and black-and-red shoes. There was a polarized visor on her head. It was also a very impractical outfit but Ritsuka paid it no mind. He'd seen stranger.

What Ritsuka was attempting not to think about was how … horizontally gifted she was. It wasn't quite to the levels of Rhongomyniad, or even close to Raikou, but she was still among the biggest women he'd ever seen. Her bust was so sizable, in fact, that what passed as a 'vest' ended up looking like a crop top.

Maybe she hasn't closed the jacket because she can't, Ritsuka mused. And is that a belly button piercing?

The last woman was one Ritsuka recognized easily, and not just because of her (deliberate) resemblance to the Mona Lisa. Even after five years he wasn't liable to forget her. She'd made sure of that, with how larger than life she acted usually, how much like a meddlesome old man she was in his and Mash's lives.

Which, come to think of it, was true.

She had her usual blue-and-brown form-fitting outfit on, the usual bulky golden mechanical gauntlet on one arm. Ritsuka hadn't forgotten the number of times it had launched a rocket punch at misbehaving inventions that were annoying her, or that one time in Jerusalem that she showed off just how much power it packed.

The staff she was carrying was no slouch in the power department. Even the unassuming mechanical bird on her shoulder could put up a fight.

She heard Ritsuka and the others approaching and turned around. For a second she wore that familiar serene smile, the one which was impossible to read her true intentions from.

Then she frowned. "You need a haircut," she said.

Ritsuka rolled his eyes. "Yes, mom."

"You have a son?" the shorter girl asked, whirling around and looking Ritsuka up and down. "I thought Servants couldn't have kids."

"Eh, close enough," Leonardo da Vinci waved off. "Good to see you again, Ritsuka. I can tell you've got a lot of questions, but–"

"–those can wait, yeah," Ritsuka finished. "Nice to see you again, though."

"So … who are you?" the taller woman asked. She turned to face them, and Ritsuka saw more clearly just how revealing her outfit was. The number '130' was printed on one front side of the jacket, and 'BREMERTON' was written along an edge.

"Ritsuka Fujimaru," he said. "I'm an acquaintance of Da Vinci." It was a practiced answer that gave away nothing. He didn't want to go through another interrogation, especially since they were short on time.

"… Wait, that sounds familiar …" the shorter one muttered.

Everyone missed Enterprise's small frown upon seeing him. She raised an eyebrow and turned a questioning glance at Eugen and Sheffield. Eugen shrugged.

"I'd tell you to go into more detail, but we are pressed for time," Prinz said, going up to the vehicle.

"She's right, now get in!" Da Vinci ordered.

The seven of them walked up the ramp and into the vehicle.

There were eight seats inside, arranged in threes and ones opposite each other, with an aisle separating them. One end of the aisle led to the back room of the vehicle and another led to a curtained passage that Da Vinci walked through.

Enterprise and the two pinkettes sat together, Prinz and Sheffield opposite them. Ritsuka took one of the single seats.

[Testing, testing, is this thing on?] Da Vinci's voice came from an overhead speaker.

"Yes, D, we can hear your cliché lines just fine," the taller pinkette said.

[They're cliché for a reason. Aaanyways! Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the maiden flight of the Sky Border Type 0.5! This is your pilot, Da Vinci speaking. Fasten your seatbelts and all that, but more importantly, enjoy the ride!]

"…Shouldn't it be Boarder?" Enterprise asked plaintively.

*~B~*

Lights flashed along the runway. Sirens blared. And at the end of it a rectangular section of the wall slowly hinged upwards, revealing a passage behind it that ascended and slowly spiraled outward.

The engines of the Sky Border started up. It began to move forward, accelerating. It didn't actually need a runway, technically speaking; it could achieve liftoff from a stationary position. But a running start was more dramatic, and naturally, that's why Da Vinci chose it.

The Sky Border accelerated at a tremendous rate. It reached the end of the short runway in mere seconds and sped along the rising tunnel to the outside.

And in less than thirty seconds, the Sky Border roared into open sky, adjusted its trajectory and immediately shot off at many times its previous speed. A shockwave buffeted the ground below it and a receding sonic boom was heard as it bolted into the clouds, disappearing from sight.

*~B~*

Yes, I made Rin High Commander of Sakura Empire. No, I see nothing wrong with this.

This was basically just a massive exposition chapter, I know. Initially, I'd planned to make this chapter and the next just one chapter, but it got a bit out of hand. I'm still posting them together for the feeling of completeness. Next one is around 80% action, which, at the time of writing this, is still in progress, so I can't tell whether it'll be just as big or a bit shorter.

I'll not keep you all so I'll end this AN now. Anything I could say should be said by the next one.

Punitor567 out. El Psy Congroo.

5 of the 7 new girls from Multilayer Medley went straight to my favorites. This was a good event.