AN: Work schedule changes are a bitch and overtime kind of blows. That's about all I have to say in regards to why this took so long. On a more on-topic uh... topic: little reminder that this was rated 'M' for a reason. As to how far I want to take that: well, further than Chronicles, but not so much that the inevitable love scenes become out and out smut, as that wouldn't exactly fit the tone of the narrative, and it's never been what I'm about. Nothing outright explicit in this chapter, but in light of how it begins, I thought I should probably have it recorded for posterity just in case.
Solace: A Commander's Tale
Chapter Thirteen: An Evening Spent
The kiss was perfect.
The young woman hummed in contented delight as her lips parted, inviting her partner to explore her further. His tongue probed, and hers gingerly edged forward to meet him. She thrilled as she felt his arms slide from her cheek to her neck, across her collar, and down to her shoulder to draw her closer, deepening the kiss for a blissful instant before pulling back.
The woman whined, feeling the absence of her partner immediately. The man chuckled, brushing at her cheek with a hand. Each moment his hand touched at her caused a hundred thousand sparks to ignite beneath her skin, her body aflush with heat, her breath quickening as she took in his dashing profile; from the faintest strand of his fair, brown hair, to his wonderfully deep, green eyes; his high cheekbones that lent him an almost aristocratic air; his crooked grin that displayed a line of immaculate teeth.
It begun as it so often did in her dreams: her dashing knight coming to her rescue, saving her from physical peril with nary a thought spared for his own safety. Then, as he had held her aloft on the staircase, he had murmured… something or other, she couldn't quite recall, but she knew it made her feel like she was floating on the clouds themselves, so suave and charming were his words. Naturally, then, being a proper lady, she had invited him to her chambers to thank him for his selfless deeds.
"You are exquisite," she heard him murmur, and she felt goosebumps form along her arms at the barely concealed hunger in his low, husky voice.
She liked that word. Exquisite. She decided that she liked it a lot more when it was coming out of his mouth, using it to describe her.
He darted back in before her rapidly overheating mind could even begin to formulate a response, claiming her lips once more. The arm on her shoulder drifted lower, and her breath caught in her lungs as he felt it grasp the cut of her dress before tugging down. She gasped into his mouth as her breasts were exposed to the cool air of her bedchambers, her heart thump-thumping like a drum as she felt her nipples stiffen under his smouldering gaze. Her core was alight with desire. Her skin buzzed, tingling with anticipation as she watched his big, warm hand lower ever closer to her eagerly awaiting—
Formidable opened her eyes, her mind clouded by her waking fatigue, eyelids heavy and her vision blurry. It took her a few dull moments before she registered that she was in her lavish four-poster bed. Comfortable. Warm.
The carrier blinked, uncomprehending for the span of a heartbeat, playing back the last thought she'd had before reality and consciousness had asserted themselves once again. She remembered the dream—and it had been a dream, she realised, no matter how much she wished it could have been otherwise. Formidable sunk her head back into her ludicrously fluffy pillows as her pelvic region throbbed in frustration, and groaned.
It had just been getting to the good part.
She tried to ignore the throbbing in her loins—an itch that could be satisfied in only one manner—but, as she well knew, the feeling would not subside unattended, not swiftly. Mumbling to herself, she rolled onto her side to find out what time it was. Maybe she'd have a few minutes to—
Six fifty-six. Four minutes before her alarm was due to go off.
Formidable buried her head in her pillow and fought the urge to scream.
Despite hopes to the contrary, Formidable's morning had not improved once she had forced herself to roll out of bed. As she slipped on her thin, white stockings, she had lost her balance and hit her head against the frame of her bed. Then, when she had meandered into her en-suite bathroom to search for something to help dull the pain, she had rapped her left hand much too hard against the sink, bruising two of her fingers. Then, she had bumped her head again, against the wall as she had recoiled. Then one of her cute, black hair ribbons snapped. There was a knot in her hair that felt like it took an age to fix. One of the seams in her dress tore, and by the time the beleaguered carrier finally made it to the officer's mess for breakfast, Formidable wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and sleep this awful morning off like a bad dream. She was aching, and cranky; too tired to even bother putting on her dignified, noble air, and several of the younger destroyers parted before her as though alerted to her foul mood by whatever techno-sorcery fuelled their creation.
Illustrious watched from a distance. Her little sister, she well knew, was not a morning person, but this one seemed to have been especially awful to her. With a practised eye, she observed a patch upon Formidable's forehead, upon which had been applied an unusually sloppy amount of makeup which only barely covered a bruise. Such was becoming increasingly common since the Azur Lane detachment had departed. The white-haired carrier sighed. Formidable was increasingly prone to daydreaming of late, gazing off forlornly into the distance with distressing frequency.
She was far from stupid. She knew what pained her sibling so—or rather, who. Even with her considerable influence within the Royal Navy, however, there was very little she could do about it. Part of her was even a little uncertain that she even wanted to. Friendship was—as her other, now absent sister, Victorious, was so fond of saying—a beautiful thing, but she did wish it didn't clash with family as it did in her case.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Illustrious blinked, and then felt a comforting warmth spread through her heart as she realised that she recognised the owner of the voice.
"Good morning to you, Captain," greeted the carrier with a polite nod, threading her arm through the gap in between the officer's torso and elbow. She did not, however, take her eyes off of Formidable, who wandered aimlessly in search of a place to sit. "How does the day find you, if I might ask?"
"More agreeable than your sister, it seems," noted Captain Roy Hastings, a darkly handsome officer in his mid-thirties with neat, close cropped sandy-blond hair, and a set of piercing blue eyes she just couldn't get enough of.
"She's been getting worse," sighed Illustrious. "Quite honestly, I thought that this crush of hers was just that—a passing attraction that she would get over, once the man left for his new post. This, though…" she took a forlorn breath, shaking her head. "I'd almost say she's—"
"Lovesick?" provided Captain Hastings. Illustrious blinked.
"Well… yes, actually. I suppose that might be apt. How would you—"
The officer leaned in close enough to whisper into the white-haired maiden's ear, his voice pitched low and threaded with amusement, "You recall the half year you spent away in the Mediterranean, just before I got my promotion?"
Illustrious felt her cheeks burn, though a soft smile split her face. "I recall it well, my dear Captain," she said, before giggling scandalously to herself, "and exactly what we did upon my return."
"Truly," he sighed, affecting a dramatic air, "those were the longest six months of my time in the Royal Navy. Often did I count the seconds; the minutes; the hours and, of course, the days that we could be reunited, and—"
"Hush!" tittered the carrier, gently slapping at his arm with a gloved hand. Then, after glancing around the canteen to check if anyone was watching them, she stood up on tip toes to plant a kiss upon the man's cheek, feeling a brief rush of excitement at the danger represented by such a bold and public act of affection. She knew full well that her relationship with Roy Hastings was among the various open secrets within the Royal Navy. She also knew that such partnerships—already rare enough that she could count on one hand those she was aware of, and still have a few digits to spare—within the Royal Navy were only tolerated as long as they were conducted behind closed doors.
Privately, she suspected that the only reason this was the case was down to the fact that none in the Royal Navy knew much about what she and her kind were. Not truly, anyway. The earliest shipgirls had been brought into being almost entirely by accident, according to scraps of knowledge she had gathered throughout her brief lifetime—at least, by comparison to the average human man, or woman. The process to create a shipgirl was, even now, barely understood in terms of functionality. Each nation knew that exposing a Wisdom Cube to certain levels of energy at precise, measured, and regular intervals would result in the creation of a shipgirl, but the full science behind the process was beyond even the greatest human geniuses of the time. Voices, then, differed in opinion on the matter. Were they merely weapons, to be used like any other piece of equipment? Or were they living beings, who deserved to be treated with all the respect any sentient individual was?
She knew which side of that particular argument she preferred, and quietly thanked the Light that she lived in a country that leaned far more towards the latter belief, than the former.
Illustrious had long held the belief—as irrational as she knew it to be, at times—that there was a force beyond understanding that guided the construction. Her Holy Light. It worked in strange ways, at times, sometimes striking her with inspiration when she found herself in a particularly tough spot; at other times gifting her with the right words to say to a struggling soul. On occasion, she believed that she saw it at work in others as well, gifting them with insight, illuminating a path forward, and a myriad of other ways.
She had believed it to be at work when one Lieutenant-Commander Graves had been named Commander of the top-secret Project Azur Lane. She knew of her dear friend Hood's relationship with the young officer, and believed at first that this was the Light's answer to the question of whether she should be rooting for her sister, or one of her closest friends. Her friend had gone, and her sister had stayed. Now, looking at her sister's miserable, dejected profile, she wasn't so certain.
A nudge against her waist brought her out of her musings with a start, and she sucked in a quick gasp of air in surprise.
"You're overthinking, again, Lusty," murmured Captain Hastings.
Illustrious flushed at the nickname, and cast her gaze around quickly to see if anyone might have overheard it even as his utterance of it set her heart aflutter. A foolish gesture; Roy would never have put either of them in such an awkward position by being so careless. She slapped at his shoulder again, pouting up at him. The officer chuckled.
"Easy, love. There are still eyes present. Might want to ease up on the abuse."
"Spoken as if you don't actually enjoy it," huffed the carrier, though she allowed herself to smile as she said it. Now it was Roy's turn to blush, and he cleared his throat as Illustrious smirked, satisfied at her petty victory.
"Regardless," spoke Captain Hastings after clearing his throat one final time, "I know that look you have. You've got a reputation, dear, but despite the pedestal you and those others put you upon, you don't have to try and fix everything yourself."
"Pardon?" inquired Illustrious, quite confused. She had no designs at all with regards to her sister. All she had wondered was how she might help her out of her sorry state.
"I love you more than I ever believed I could love anything," said the Captain, quietly, with such certainty that it made Illustrious feel as though she was walking on the air, such was her quiet elation, "but you're a meddler, my dear. I'm sorry, but there it is."
"I do not meddle," frowned the white-haired carrier, indignant.
Roy cocked an eyebrow at her.
"That—I just wanted to make sure she was getting on all right. I thought maybe she could do better if she had some more positive reinforcement, and a fellow carrier to follow and learn from."
"Mhm," hummed the Captain, dubious. "And Lieutenant-Commander Cutting's reassignment to Scapa Flow?"
"The way he treated Swiftsure was positively dreadful!" Illustrious huffed. "That she and those other poor girls had to languish under him as long as they did was a crime of itself."
"True," conceded Hastings, "but my point still stands. Then there was that little incident at the ball, last year," he shot her a pointed look, "with the whipped cream, the punch bowl, and Dido's poor sister, Spartan?"
Illustrious paled, staring up at her Captain in mortification, "You promised never to speak of that ever again!" she hissed.
"I'm not," replied the officer in a mild voice, "just reminding you. Lastly, as I recall, Belfast's little assignment to the Eagle Union carrier—Enterprise, was it?—during the last War. Your suggestion, am I right?"
He knew full well that he was, and Illustrious felt her cheeks flush with heat. Temporarily at a loss for anything to say, she sniffed in ladylike derision and turned her head. Roy chuckled and gave her arm—the one still linked with his own—a squeeze.
"I'm not trying to put you down, love. I know you only do it because you care, and that's a wonderful thing, Lusty. But you can't be expected to fix everything. I'm worried that, one day, you might end up biting off more than you can feasibly chew."
Illustrious thought on this, and then shook her head.
"I understand what you're saying, Roy, but this is my sister. My family."
He said nothing for a few moments, but eventually, he nodded.
"I understand. For whatever it's worth, I hope she gets better soon. That look really doesn't suit her."
"It doesn't," she agreed, "and she will."
She refrained from adding that she might need to pull a few more strings first, though...
A flash of vibrant red caught Graham's eye as he and Sirius made their way back to his quarters through the smooth, stone pathways of the naval base. Despite his eagerness to crash into bed, he couldn't help but investigate, ignoring the quizzical noise from his bodyguard. A head peeked out from around a corner of one of the many silent, unoccupied buildings that lined the port, and the young Commander caught a glimpse of midnight raven hair and scarlet red eyes, which widened as they caught his approach. In an instant, the face darted back and out of view again.
Now truly curious, Graham picked up the pace.
"Who's there?" he asked, poking around, and coming face to face with a surprised-looking shipgirl. Clad in a bright red kimono with a yellow trim and dark obi with a flower pattern, he felt his eyes almost boggle at the excessive amount of flesh on display. The Sakura shipgirl wore her garb off her shoulders, offering a view of her collar, and a portion of her absurdly large breasts that he'd hesitantly describe as tantalising, were no one around to hear him say it. Her raven hair was tied into two long pigtails that fell almost to her ankles; such was its length. A mask fashioned to resemble the skull of some fantastical bird sat perched on her right temple, and Graham found himself curiously in mind of Kaga's fox mask.
The foreign shipgirl started, toppling almost off her feet and losing her balance in the process. Managing to ignore the way her physical assets bounced in a manner suggesting little else lay beneath her already provocative garb, Graham snatched out with a hand. His heart had all but stopped in his chest at the idea of causing one of the foreign contingent to fall and potentially crack her skull open. Vaguely, he recalled a similar incident happening back in the Isles with one of the carriers. Unthinkingly, he acted in much a similar vein as he had then, taking hold of the shipgirl's wrist to arrest her fall, he pulled, even as he pivoted to wrap his other hand around the falling Sakura woman's shoulders, bracing his legs as he went. Even then, however, he realised that it would not be enough.
Then Sirius was there.
Even having been forewarned of her prowess as a fighter, Graham found himself almost stunned by how swiftly the light cruiser moved. He had seen talented, professional boxers dance around one another during his time in training, and felt certain that Sirius would make each one seem painfully, amateurishly slow by comparison. One arm snaked around Graham's waist to help steady him as she leaned to the side, adding her own strength in halting the Sakura girl's fall as her other hand reached out to catch the misfortunate woman.
Then, the curse struck again.
Recounting the event at a later time, Graham would find that he had absolutely no idea how on earth Sirius managed to slip. Nothing about her posture suggested—at least to him—that she was ever off balance. Yet, the moment he had thought disaster had been averted, Sirius suddenly lost her footing, careening back with a terrified squeak. The hand that had once helped him prop the foreign shipgirl up immediately latched around Graham's torso, and the sudden, extra weight pulled all three of them down.
He was starting to think that Sirius might be cursed. At the very least, she had been constructed under an extraordinarily unlucky star.
Fortunately, he managed to keep his hold on the unknown shipgirl, keeping her close to his chest to ensure she didn't come to any harm. Much as he'd liked to have done the same for Sirius, too, there was no universe he lived in where such an outcome was possible. All he could do was hope that his poor bodyguard wouldn't be too badly damaged by the fall, and braced himself for impact.
Sirius yelped as she hit the ground, a noise that become a pained exhalation scarcely an instant later when Graham and the other shipgirl landed atop her, forcing the air from her lungs. The sound made him wince, but it hadn't sounded as bad as it could have been, so there was that. A sound from the foreign shipgirl drew his attention; a groan, or a short, sharp utterance in her native tongue, he wasn't sure. Her head had landed in his abdomen, and though it had been neither comfortable or painless for him, it at least looked as though she'd been spared harm as she looked up into Graham's eyes, first in befuddlement, and then growing wonder.
"S-Shikikan saved me?"
"I wouldn't go that far," he grunted in response, rubbing at his belly, which would almost assuredly sport a fresh bruise within the next hour or so. "Worst would have happened is a few bumps and bruises," which was nonsense, of course, else he'd not have felt so spurred into action, but he felt a dash of reassurance would go some way here. The girl was clearly shy, given her earlier reactions. Now that he caught a proper look at her, he recognised her from the first-day exercises. She was a carrier. Ta-something or other. Tako? Takao? No, that last one was the strict-looking cruiser.
"What's your name?" he asked, and belatedly realised there was something else he should have asked first. Cursing his stupidity, and wondering why the back of his head felt curiously warm, he readjusted his priorities. Sandwiched in between two curvaceous shipgirls, he found himself becoming increasingly antsy, in spite of himself. A part of him noted, dimly, that he could smell white lilies—Sirius, he realised, having been in close proximity to her for the entirety of the day—and something else; something stronger and headier, that felt as though it was clouding his thoughts. Jasmine? It was… strangely hard to think.
The shipgirl cocked her head and blinked her wide, blood red eyes at him. Graham cursed himself for a drooling idiot, and forced his wandering gaze up and away from the abundant valley of flesh that hung below the Sakura woman's neckline like the udders of a c—
Language, Graham, he quietly chided himself.
"Sorry, sorry. Silly question. Are you all right?"
"I am..." she said in a faint voice. Graham felt a hint of concern as he realised the girl had yet to blink at all. Then there was the growing flush in her cheeks. The young Commander frowned. Had she been hurt after all?
"Sorry in advance," he murmured. The raven-haired carrier tilted her head in the opposite direction.
Graham gently reached out and took hold of the carrier's face with both hands. Immediately, she froze, statue-still, and her blush became a bright red flush, face so red that he fancied they could almost use her as a beacon of some sort. He grimaced. Almost certainly not used to being touched, he thought, let alone by strange men. He resolved to be swift. Carefully, so as not to do her any harm, he gingerly manipulated her head to check for any injuries, but found nothing, unless they were hidden beneath her long, lustrous black locks.
He heard Sirius groan beneath him, and paled when he remembered that they were still laid atop the luckless cruiser. Hurriedly, he ushered the Sakura carrier to her feet before forcing himself up, only to find himself caught on something and pull him back against the white-haired maid's impressive bosom. Irritation surged through him, even as he quietly marvelled at how soft Sirius' plush body felt, and he tugged himself upright with more force. Something ripped as he pushed himself onto his feet, and he winced at the sound. Oh well, he thought, his uniform could be repaired. Maybe he would ask Sheffield about it later.
He heard Taihou gasp, and whirled around to find the foreign carrier staring down at Sirius with wide eyes. Graham paled, and spun around, fearing that his bodyguard might have done herself more grievous harm than he'd first thought. Thankfully, this did not seem the case.
On the other hand…
In that moment, Graham recalled several occasions in which he had overheard some of the enlisted men wondering about the Royal Maids. Sailors being sailors, most of these discussions invariably drifted towards what lay beneath the frills and aprons. He recalled one such conversation that ran on far longer than it should have done on whether or not some of the more well-endowed maids wore brassieres at all. Bets were proposed, but then Graham had pointed out that, to find out, one of them would need to either sneak into one of their chambers and scrounge through their drawers; or they would need to approach one of the maids and ask directly.
He supposed now that he had his answer.
Sirius, it seemed, did indeed go without.
The sight was… hypnotising, and though he knew he shouldn't, Graham found that he could not stop staring at the glorious, pale, fleshy mound that wobbled like jelly as Sirius shifted uncomfortably on the ground. The swell was generous, her skin appeared pliable, and despite the evident lack of support, there was not a hint of sag. Gulping, he tried not to stare at the rosy peak that seemed to glare accusingly at him like a stiff, pink eye.
The ripping he had heard, clearly, had not come from him at all.
Sirius mumbled something under her breath and sat upright, rubbing at her head. Then, frowning, as though puzzled, she raised a hand to her chest, probing in confusion. Glancing down, her frown deepened as she took in the sight of one of her large breasts hanging free of her torn dress. Realisation struck, and, with excruciating slowness, she raised her head to Graham and the foreign onlooker.
Snapped out of his lustful stupor by Sirius' mortified expression, he rediscovered himself and averted his eyes, knowing as well as the poor cruiser did that it was far, far too late to preserve what remained of her modesty. Or her dignity.
"Sirius," Graham said, fighting one of the hardest battles of his life to keep his voice level and steady. The image of Sirius' half-bared form remained stuck in his memory like barnacles on a ship's keel. "Why don't you run on back to your quarters and… see yourself sorted?"
He heard a variety of noises from the very embarrassed maid, ranging from hiccupping gasps, to whimpering murmurs, until, finally, the poor thing simply gave up, and made a groan that was vaguely affirmative. He heard the maid get up to her feet and trudge away in the manner of a most dejected soul. Throughout it all, he noticed with some curiosity that the Sakura shipgirl's attention had remained on him, rather than the hapless Sirius.
Even once his bodyguard was gone, however, Graham felt the awkwardness linger. The event couldn't have spanned more than a handful of minutes at most, but it felt like an eternity to him, and throughout it all, the dark-haired carrier before him wouldn't stop staring. Actually, now he thought about it, he didn't think that she had blinked even once since clambering back onto her feet. It was starting to get a little unnerving.
Realising that he could not stand there like a buffoon forever, he cleared his throat. Then, he cleared it again. The Sakura woman twitched each time, a half-flinch that Graham wondered at. Her face was still very red, and he wondered if he shouldn't send her to…
…where did he send her, exactly? Was Akashi as well-versed in medicine as she was in engineering? He didn't have any medical personnel on site at all, now that he thought on it, and the thought gave him pause. God, he thought, what if something happened here? Did anyone here possess anything approaching medical knowledge?
The Sakura carrier continued to stare for another moment before it registered that he was addressing her.
"Ah!" she gasped, and then started chirping in her own language. Eventually, however, she must have realised that Graham didn't speak Sakura, as she paled and dipped her head.
"My apologies, Shikikan. I am Taihou, carrier of the Sakura Empire," she paused, and then added something under her breath that he didn't catch.
Of course! Taihou! That was right. Now that he looked at her properly, he did indeed recall her from the joint exercises. She had performed admirably, though Graham couldn't help but notice that her communication with her fleet mates appeared to have been sorely lacking. Definitely something he'd need to consider. Perhaps he'd bring it up with her fleet flagship tomorrow.
"Right, well, lovely to meet you, Taihou. You already know who I am, it seems, so I'll spare you that introduction," he said, offering her a reassuring grin. "I think I asked you this before, but are you all right?"
"I am, Shikikan," she said, in an airy sort of way that made him wonder how true that really was. "Actually… I feel better than ever."
"Well, as long as you're certain," Graham replied, dubious. "Why were you hiding out back here?"
Taihou finally averted her gaze. She seemed almost embarrassed, and perhaps a fraction dejected.
"I was…" she trailed off, shifting in place awkwardly. Graham began to suspect that maybe the carrier was lonely, or perhaps unused to dealing with others. Thankfully, he thought, he had experience in a situation like this, thinking back to a certain soft-hearted, lavender-haired escort carrier—at least, up until the moment she had been moved out of his combat flotilla. Perhaps all she needed was a friend, or at the very least, someone to talk to.
"You don't need to tell me, Taihou. It's fine. I won't worry about it. But, if you do feel like you'd like a friendly ear, or if you have any concerns or worries, then my door will always be open to you."
The carrier's face lit up like a neon street sign, and Graham felt satisfaction swell within his chest. Job well done, he thought. He doubted that would be the end of whatever social ails the Sakura carrier had but, hopefully, this was at least a step in the right direction. If nothing else, the wide, happy smile suited Taihou's typically striking features more than the hesitant, uncertain expression she had worn before…
…well, before he and Sirius had almost caused her injury, but it had all worked out in the end, and no one had gotten... well, okay, not quite true; Sirius had been hurt, but…
…Graham decided he was just going to take the little victory here and leave it at that. He was still quite tired, and could almost hear the siren call of his warm, soft bed in the near distance.
"Well, if you'd excuse me, it's late, and I quite need a lie down. Have a good night, Taihou."
"Good night, Shikikan," Taihou murmured, bowing low and deep. Once more, Graham had to exercise considerable restraint in keeping his gaze above her neckline. Briefly, he wondered what on earth had gone into her construction to give her such an absurdly bountiful bust. "Sweet dreams," she added, and Graham felt himself pleasantly warmed by the sentiment.
"Thank you, Taihou. Take care, now."
And with that, he turned neatly on his heel to resume the short trek back to the main admin building, where his quarters awaited. With his back thus turned, he did not notice how Taihou's unblinking eyes never once left his departing form.
Or the manic grin that split her face…
The size of the bed had seemed a smidgen like overkill when Graham had first set eyes upon it. Looking at it now, though, he could hardly wait to feel himself sink into the plush, marble-white mattress and its thin, silk sheets. Looking over the rest of the room, he could see that Sheffield had done a typically marvellous job at tidying up, and he took a brief moment to thank Belfast for having assigned her older sibling to his new command.
He sighed as he sauntered over to the bed and slid his smart, black shoes from his feet, relishing in the act of wiggling his toes, now freed from their confines. His feet ached, and even as he felt a relief at being sat down, he frowned at the feeling. Perhaps he needed to do more exercise. It had been a while since he'd last gone for a run, and he didn't want anyone thinking him a slob. Maybe if he had a spare half hour tomorrow…
The young Royal grunted, putting the thought to one side. Sod's Law said the moment he made such a plan, he would find himself without so much as a moment to breathe. Besides, here was a point he could set this strange and heavy new burden down; at least for a short time. Now, he was not Commander Graham, of the Royal Kingdom. He was just Graham, a tired man who desperately wanted—and needed—some well-deserved shuteye.
He shed his uniform and laid it on the chair by his desk before changing into a pair of thin, cotton pyjamas graciously laid out on his bed. The garments were unfamiliar to him, and were he less tired, he might have wondered how on earth Sheffield knew what his measurements were—or where she even procured them, for that matter. Being as late as it was, however, he didn't much care. He was too tired to even run himself a bath or take a shower. Tomorrow, he was sure, would bring its own unique set of challenges, and he felt strangely certain that rest would be a commodity in short supply in his future.
Stretching his stiff limbs out one last time, he made to switch off the lights and turn in…
…and then came a knock on the door.
For a brief moment, Graham pondered on whether or not he could get away with pretending he hadn't heard the noise. He had almost settled, when the knock came again. This time, however, it was notably softer, and the young Commander detected a note of hesitation behind it, as though whoever it was behind the set of double doors was reluctant to disturb him.
He sighed, realising that the light of his room could probably be seen from the outside hallway through the gap underneath the door. If this was someone like, say, Jean Bart, or Saint Louis, or any one of the other more serious-looking shipgirls, he doubted he would endear himself to them by ignoring the knock. Grudgingly, and with one last, longing look at his waiting bed, he trudged over to his door and turned the handle.
Empty space greeted him, and it was only once he lowered his gaze that he found himself regarding the intruder. Unicorn stared up at him with her wide, lavender eyes from behind the head of her ever-present companion, Mr U. She was wearing a cute little nightgown the same shade of purple as her hair, and Graham arched an eyebrow at the idea of the little carrier wandering around the base in such a state.
"G-good evening, Mister Graves," Unicorn said, softly, her shoulders softly hunching in as though to try and make herself appear as small and unthreatening, or unnoticeable, as she possibly could. Graham suppressed the urge to sigh. Clearly, her time under Illustrious hadn't changed her as much as he'd liked to have thought.
"Hello Unicorn," he said, offering the girl a friendly, if also somewhat weary, smile. "What are you doing here at this hour? And looking like that?"
Unicorn shifted in place, and Graham could imagine the thoughts going through her little head in that moment; whether or not she should be bothering someone—anyone—with her own personal problems. He hadn't kept her in his own fleet for too long, but he had liked the girl then, and that still held true now. Something about her stirred his more protective instincts, and not for the first time, he thought that he wouldn't have minded having a younger sibling like her.
"Unicorn," he said, crouching down so his head was level with her own, "I'm your Commanding Officer, yes, but I'm not a miser. You remember what I told you when you were first assigned to my fleet, yes?"
The little girl nodded shyly, "I could talk to you if I had any worries. Like Illustrious."
"That's right," he nodded. "That held true when Lady Illustrious had you transferred over to her fleet, and it's still true now. Whatever troubles you, Unicorn, you can tell me. You can tell anyone else from the home isles too, I'd think," he added with a soft grin.
Unicorn nodded, and Graham had to resist the urge to reach out and ruffle her hair.
"I-it's Miss Victorious… she, um…" she said, in a small voice, scarcely more than a whisper.
Graham blinked, unsure if he'd heard correctly.
"Why? What has she done?" Graham found himself perplexed. Haughty as she could be, Graham had seen absolutely nothing to suggest the blonde carrier held anything but affection for her younger charge.
"I… I had a bad dream the first night we were here," Unicorn explained, "and Miss Victorious said I could sleep with her if it happened again. I-I went, but…"
"But…?" Graham prompted, his curiosity mounting.
Unicorn fidgeted again, squeezing and relaxing her grip on her little stuffed friend at regular intervals. "She… she's…"
"Yes…?" Graham coaxed, fighting the impatience he felt at Unicorn's unwillingness to get to the point.
Fortunately, he wasn't waiting too much longer.
"She's really uncomfortable to sleep next to!" Unicorn blurted out, her words tumbling out in an almost indecipherable jumble.
"I… beg your pardon?"
"S-she's really, really nice," Unicorn stammered hurriedly, "a-and I know she's only trying to help, but she keeps… turning, and twisting, and…"
"…and you can't sleep because of it?" he finished for her, at the same time trying to draw up an imagine in his head of just what the young carrier had shared with him. The image was amusing, to say the least, even as it surprised him.
Unicorn buried her head into her plushie friend and nodded, her very bright red ears speaking to how embarrassed she felt at having disclosed such personal information.
"But why come to me?" he asked. "You could have gone to Rodney, or King George V, or Hood, or one of the maids, or…" he stopped himself short as he realised that Unicorn very likely had precious little interaction with any of the other Royal Navy shipgirls, save Javelin, and he knew full well that the excitable destroyer's fleet would be on patrol rotation about now.
"So, you just wandered over here, dressed like that?" he wondered. Unicorn nodded again, still aflush with embarrassment.
"You, um… you remember that night?" she asked, hesitantly, "With the thunder storm?"
Graham blinked, before realisation came. He did indeed recall. It had been the third day she had been under his command. Portsmouth had been all but emptied of its shipgirl complement at the time, leaving a skeleton crew to keep the base running. Poor, scared little Unicorn was, by all accounts, still a fairly recently-constructed shipgirl, and the crashing and flashing had spooked her considerably…
He exhaled softly, and then offered her a nod of his own.
"C-could I… I-I mean, could we…?"
Graham answered by stepping to one side and gesturing for her to come in. Unicorn's little face lit up like a floodlight, and she scampered on inside with undisguised relief.
"T-thank you, Mister Graves," she said, bowing in a manner similar to those from the Sakura Empire, before then curtseying in a hurried, if earnest manner. "I-I'll be quiet, I promise."
"It's quite all right, Unicorn," Graham affected a chuckle, patting her on the shoulder. "I should think the bed's got more than enough room—more than my old one did in Portsmouth at any rate."
"Wow…" Unicorn said, marvelling at the bed as she took it in for the first time. She looked up at him in quiet, restrained awe. "This is all for you?"
"It is indeed," he nodded, grinning down at her. "Did you need to do anything before we turn in, perchance? I was just about to turn in before you knocked."
"No," she answered, shaking her head, long, silky tresses of her striking lavender hair swaying in time with the movement. "I'm all right."
"Good," Graham smiled. "Go on in, then. I'll get the lights."
Unicorn needed no further prompting, diving beneath the covers of the bed and claiming a portion of the large bed for herself immediately. Graham felt his heart warm at the sight, and his mind was briefly cast back to Admiral Mercer's words before he left for the Azur Lane facility. She acted so much like a little girl, it was impossible for him not to view her as one, even when he knew full well what awesome power she, and all those like her, could command with a thought. He had seen her, in the brief time she had been under his leadership before, lay waste to entire Siren battle groups with the help of her fleetmates. Now, here she was, wriggling underneath the sheets of his bed like a caterpillar.
He turned his thoughts away, and onto his own weary bones. Sleep called, and he felt sure Unicorn was equally tired. Chuckling again, he switched off the lights before making his way carefully to the bed and sliding beneath the sheets, feeling himself sink into the soothing, soft mattress and the perfectly fluffed pillows. He felt a warmth beside him, hearing—and feeling—Unicorn shuffled about before curling up next to him.
"Good night, Unicorn," he said, quietly.
"Good night, Mister Graves," came her soft response. "Th-thank you."
She shifted again, and Graham felt something warm and moist plant itself on his cheek. The feeling was familiar, casting his mind back to the first time he had shared a bed with Unicorn. A warmth spread through his heart, and he chuckled again, reaching blindly out with a hand to gently rub the girl's head.
"Anytime, little lass."
AN the Second: Formidable? More like Adorable, am I right? I love the noble little lady act she puts on when around others, and how it slips whenever she gets flustered. I've wanted to do something with her for a while, and it was only as I started penning the first chapter of this story that I realised I could quite feasibly bundle the ideas I had for a separate tale into this. Expect to see more of her later on, cause lord knows I'm certainly not done with her after only that little tease of a segment. On the topic of adorbs, you can also expect to see more Unicorn as we go on, though perhaps to not such an extent as some of the primary cast, most of which you've seen in some capacity already at this point. Cutest little carrier by far (Akagis need not apply).
As ever, I hope you enjoyed,