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Daybreakers (Utawarerumono x Azur Lane)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Eisen, Aug 29, 2020.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: Paradise Lost
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    So, this will mark my permanent relocation into QQ. You'll see me more often around here for a long time, and I guess this is a way easier entry to put into the forum compared to the rest of my works. Have fun reading.


    --- Summary ---

    The azure sea encompassed over 71% of this planet. Humanity constructed ships to record sea chart and conquered this cruel and mysterious region. However, that glory came to a premature end as the harbingers of dark clouds and purple sky arrived. On that fateful day, the gears of destiny began to turn, all so as to weave another myth.​


    --- Chapter 1: Paradise Lost ---

    Fire. The living incarnation of destruction was the beginning of everything. As far as the eyes could see, a wave of rolling flames razed down the earth while black smoke blotted out the midsummer sky. The blue sea that stretched far in the horizon could only watch as the fortified shorelines crumbled into blackened rubble.

    The land wept with thunderous tremors. The heavens furiously roared. Pillars of wind and flame rooted buildings and people while the roads melted into a sea of hot tarmac. Screams and wails ripe with despair filled the city as the planer's crusts collided to produce a tidal wave that washed over the harbor, devouring the remaining voices into oblivion.

    It was as if the planet was singing its death knell.

    Children cried next to charred corpses of their siblings and parents. Adults called out the names of their families or friends in the heat that scorched their throats. Puddles of blood on the grounds boiled and evaporated as the heatwave roared through the city. Flesh burned, melting away in the burning pyres that were once a house filled with a warm atmosphere. In no less than several minutes, the product of modern civilization fell apart, turning into a wasteland of ashes and charcoal. In the midst of all this, gazing from the horizon, two pairs of eyes observed the natural disaster that would forever be etched in mankind's history with clear disinterests.

    "Oh my, there it goes again," one of them said, the limb of her equipment, a piece of herself lazily swaying from side to side "I wonder how many times this has to make at this point. No matter how much humanity advanced, they remain ignorant of nature's wrath."

    "That too is a trial for every living being born on this blue planet." A short pause. She felt the dry winds and smelled the faint scent of salt in the air; two things that had yet to change. "Those who survived will know of the truth. They will take this as a lesson, adapt themselves to better prepare for the next trial, and conquer Mother Nature once again. Such is the destiny of man."

    "How envious." The pair of golden eyes lowered down before turning to the corner. "But this too shall be used for our benefits. Tester, will you be a dear and establish contact with Purifier?"

    "Another brainchild of yours, Observer?"

    "But of course. We have aaaalll the time in the world to achieve our objective." The one named Observer licked her lips. "Now that humanity has obtained the method to sculpt their own Pieces, I cannot wait to see what sort of innovation will be born in this era. Don't you feel the same?"

    "To defeat that which cannot be defeated." Tester Beta turned her gaze to the sky and then hung her head low as if in deep lamentation. "If only killing 'That' is as easy as killing off the human race. How many times do we have to repeat this war of ours?"

    "Uhu hu hu… isn't that why we are conducting our experiments? To grasp that so-called fighting chances?"

    The sea was blue. It reached far and wide, spanning over 71% of this planet. In the distant past, humanity had traversed the oceans, created sea charts, and conquered this cruel and mysterious region. Surrounded by the azure seas, mankind thrived and evolved, climbing the food chain to become the king of the world. The planet was theirs, and so they shaped it into their desired form of paradise.

    "Such arrogance and conceit… but that too is the nature of man." The Siren–Observer–looked up to the dark, smoldering heavens. "Show us what it means to live by your own will. Guide us down the endless branches of evolution, o humanity."

    For everything shall be done for you–our dear Creator.

    +-+-+

    When the emergency alarms rang out, the quiet city was put in a state of frenzy. The weather turned for the worse and people hastened their movement to evacuate or flee from the city.

    Before long, fog blanketed the harbor, shorelines, and the bay. With that as the signal, they arrived in their jet-black and blood-red glory. The waves split as frigates darker than the night sky advanced, surrounding the port city and opening fire at it. Sounds of cannon fire burst out, the waves breaking, and salvos of plasma piercing the coastal defense. The sky darkened as buildings crumbled into melting rubble. Wails of the dying soon filled the air.

    Shadows of people rushed past the alleyways as the fire consumed the city. The city which had survived the wrath of heaven was now lit in flame once again. Not because the world quaked in anger. Not because humanity had committed a grave mistake and trespassed the realm of gods.

    These agents of destruction one day emerged by challenging humanity. Even so, all weapons that humanity had invented were rendered useless, the culmination of eons of wisdom effortlessly obliterated in the face of superior weaponry far too advanced in this age and time. It didn't take long for armies to fall, planes falling from the sky, and fleets of warships sunk beneath the waves as humanity declined in the span of a year. There was no mercy or room for negotiation; only brutal efficiency as global trades crumbled at their hands. As if it wasn't enough to destroy mankind's economy, the mechanical force of evil conquered the oceans to spread their reign of terror across the globe.

    These monsters fancied themselves in the name of witches who lured sailors to their deaths with bewitching allure and songs. They... were later known as Siren.

    +-+-+

    Twenty years. It had been a long time ever since that fateful day. Even now, what remained of mankind continued to survive despite everything they had lost.

    For example, Yokosuka Naval District was previously a part of the empire's landmass, but it became a completely detached island after the Great Kanto Earthquake. A mandate to rebuild everything was given by the previous ruler of the empire at the time. Steel walls were erected, lining up by the shores to defend the island from tidal waves and Siren invasion. Residential blocks and important facilities were moved to higher grounds, and only the shrine gates remained as they were; existing as silent reminders of the tragedy that had struck this land of 8 Million Gods.

    The Naval District was a national asset for its shipyard, maritime academy, and naval force that allowed international shipping to keep ongoing. Today as well, in this very island, a young girl in school uniform diligently worked on the task given to her. It involved paperwork after paperwork, an incessant number of papers detailing classified information owned by the imperial navy to date. One would wonder at the idea of leaving sensitive information to be in the hands of a teenage girl, but Ashigara had the right as a delegation ship of the fleet. Plus, it wasn't like there was no shortage of staff in the navy.

    "Myoukou nee-san, please sign this." Ashigara slid a document across the table to the waiting hand of her eldest sister. The nameship of the Myoukou-class accepted it with a nod and gave her sign on it before swiftly adding another number into the stack of papers lying at the corner of the rectangular table. "And another one, please."

    Myoukou frowned, her expression shifting on slight annoyance."Mm. Next time, just have them group in one before passing them to me."

    "Ah! M-my apology. I'll be sure to do that, nee-san."

    "See that you do." After an untold amount of pen-scratching noise, a sigh leaked out. "This is certainly not what a KAN-SEN should be signed up for…"

    Ashigara feebly laughed. She felt the weight of her headphones hanging around her neck shift a little, but since it wasn't in any danger of falling off she refocused on the paperwork. Being frank, there were still so many left that her legs felt like they were about to fall asleep. They had been working since early in the morning after roll call. It was good to know that neither of them was ordinary people, but it didn't change the fact that this experience was uncomfortable even for Ashigara. Just as the thought of taking a break crossed her mind, the door to the dormitory room opened. A smiling pink-haired girl walked in with a tray of tea set in hand, gracing her two sisters with the relaxing aroma of herbal drink.

    "Nachi nee-san," Ashigara called out, her older sister's smile already infecting her.

    "Yahhoo, Nachi's special delivery service here!"

    "Well, I suppose this is enough work for now, then." Myoukou nodded as she tidied the table. Soon there was enough space for the three of them, all formality and work attitudes quickly forgotten. Within the comforting tranquility, the eldest raised her eyebrows. "Mm, the tea is delicious. As always, your effort is appreciated, Nachi."

    "W-whatever do you mean, Nee-chan? It's just normal green tea!"

    Myoukou nonetheless nodded with a smile on her usually stoic face. "Yes. Indeed it is."

    Completely bemused, all Ashigara could do was watch as her older sisters exchanged words thrown together only when they were not under prying eyes. This was the normal sight only allowed for people who knew the two very closely, and Ashigara considered how they could smoothly switch their back and front personas depending on the situation. Of course, she was their younger sister, so it was only natural to be truthful around her. However...

    "The two of you are amazing," the youngest in the room blurted out. She immediately held her breath, realizing what she had just said, but it was already too late—

    "Ashigara, I think you're looking down on yourself." The eldest of the three squared her shoulders, the feathers by the sides of her head bristling slightly. "There is no denying that you too have been fulfilling your duty exceptionally."

    "That's right, Ashigara! Myoukou-nee is one thing, and this big sister of yours is also a genius, but you don't need to be worried about anything, you know!" Nachi waved an index finger as she straightened her posture and placed her other hand on her waist. "There are things only you can do as a delegation ship representing everyone, right? Take pride in that!"

    "Huh, mm, o-okay...?"

    Somehow, this didn't feel right. No, actually, Ashigara felt embarrassed on how the flow of conversation turned out. She felt ashamed of herself for having so little self-restraint; she needed to fix her bad habit like this. Preferably sooner than later. For now... she must change the subject before she died from shame!

    "W-well," Ashigara said. "Speaking of duty, nee-sans. What do you think of the empire's navy these days?"

    "Hm? Quite a sudden question to ask, but let's see..."

    Ashigara pumped a fist in her mind. Victory!

    "The navy's performance is—adequate. Not like in our times, but for understandable reasons." Myoukou took another sip of her tea. She paused to look at her cup as she murmured a floating stalk. "...everything was in shambles before we were summoned. If not for Mikasa-sama and Nagato-sama's guidance, the public order would have never been restored. Nevertheless, in only ten years, the sailors have rebuilt the navy and now people can live a little more at peace. While this is just a small victory, it is the kind of achievement only humanity can accomplish."

    Ah wait, that's not what I meant... Auuuuuu...

    "And then... there's this." The eldest sister ship pointed to the stacks of documents sitting nearby. "The Admiralty Board has given the clearance for us to judge which of their sailors are fit for promotion. This is a privilege for warships like us who have been through the thick and thin of battles together with our crews. Knowing more of the organization so that the navy's performance can rise even higher is a great honor, but it is difficult to correctly judge people's characters."
    Nachi snapped a rice cracker that was already halfway into her mouth. Her pinkish-red eyes hovered at the same object. "Oh, is that what it's all about? I thought it was off when you were checking out the weird sailors, Nee-chan."

    Strange...? Ashigara wasn't sure since she was often off the country's waters for political meetings, but were the sailors of the empire that odd?

    "It can't be helped. Only those with the thickest skin would join the navy and to tell the truth, I cannot fault them for it." Myoukou shrugged and cast her gaze to the opened windows. The sky was bright blue with nary a cloud in sight. "In that regards, a few personally caught my attention, but the others are... well, perhaps they require further psyche eva—wait, what are you doing, Nachi?"

    Ashigara blinked and shifted her gaze to the side. Nachi had scooted over to the documents and pried on them while Myoukou was going on her brand of lengthy details. She was on all-fours, rice cracker crumbs trailing after her and stopping right before the documents, and she took a skim of the profiles without a care to the world. Myoukou growled in annoyance yet doing nothing.

    Nee-san is far too lenient on Nachi nee-san.

    Still, Ashigara thought that Nachi was being inappropriate. She wiggled her butt so her short skirts lifted up. If this was anywhere else, Nachi would have received a reprimand, but the three were in the dormitory room, their personal space, and home. It couldn't be helped to act lax and defenseless in front of your family. Didn't mean it wasn't shameful in Ashigara's eyes.

    "Oh? Hmmm?" Her thoughts were broken when Nachi raised a piece of paper, a profile of a sailor it seemed. "Say, Nee-chan. What's with this one? Doesn't he look really weird even by your standard?"

    "Weird?" Ashigara parroted. Her older sister returned to the table and placed the profile in the middle of the table. The three sisters then looked over the profile detailing a sailor with all the details that entailed... which turned out to be not much in all honesty. "Huh, this one was stamped by you, Nee-san?"

    "Hm. That I did, yes." Myoukou returned to her default posture. Having noticed her cup was empty, she picked the pot and refilled her drink. "In terms of service years, his current station is more than appropriate. If you look at his track records, however, it is clear he is far more experienced than his resume suggested."

    Nachi then tapped her fingernail on the portrait. "But what's this thing on his head? It's listed under special medical conditions. That's so weird."

    "His character and backgrounds more than made up for it." Myoukou took a sip and sighed in deep relief. "Consistent performance, no history of psychological flaws, though perhaps in need of more experiences to polish his skills and leadership quality. He's a viable candidate for promotion, while his apparent high affinity with Wisdom Cubes is perhaps a rather curious case."

    Ah, she's right. Ashigara scrolled down her gaze over the profile and indeed, this person carried a level of aptitude to be a Commanding Officer, even if only slightly above average. Even still, with just a glance, she could tell he could go far should he be given the right opportunities.

    "Ohho~? Are you interested in this man, Nee-chan?" Nachi slyly smiled.

    "Perish the thought. The empire needs every capable hand to restore its former glory."

    "Boo. You're no fun." Nachi deflated, but she immediately redirected her attention to Ashigara. "How about you, Ashigara? Feeling excited having a masked man as a Commander?"

    "Eh!? Huh… uhm, that's a bit..."

    "Enough with that dated joke, Nachi. Our life isn't an anime." Putting back her teacup onto the tray, Myoukou clapped her hands as she swoops into Ashigara's rescue. "Break is over, girls. Let's do our best, we still have works to do."

    +-+-+

    The cherry blossom petals continued to flutter, dancing by the whims of the sea breezes. The wind carried the scent of salt, sometimes humid and sometimes dry. Walking through a corridor riddled with Torii, a pair of girls marched forward with purpose in their steps. They had just finished an expedition to the extraterritorial zone, so their duty was already done for the day, but they had one last matter to attend before that.

    "Hmhmm, the preparation is going smoothly. To tell the truth, I feel a little disappointed with how easy the board was in accepting our plan."

    Long brown hair fluttered in the rain of cherry blossom petals. Nine tails swayed in the wind, and the fox-eared woman stretched out a hand to grasp one falling flower petal.

    "Hmph. They simply saw the merits in it." Walking behind her with a steady and firm pace, Kaga looked up. Her white ears twitched like her button nose. "As is, our standing is in the same footing as the Admiralty Board now."

    "Yes, that is true enough..." Akagi chuckled, looking to the side and over the hell cresting the naval base.

    That prompted Kaga to follow her directions. As always, the sky was wide and far. The sea, similarly, was deep with the color of blue. In the distance, sounds of seagulls and crashing ocean waves overlapped; so out-of-sync and natural. The winds blew from behind and Kaga brushed aside a few strands of the white hair that discomforted her.

    "Can you see that, Kaga?" Akagi's question echoed in the winds, clear and vivid. "Those girls are still working hard, even after this country's separation from Azur Lane. They are laughing, crying, and living to the best they can in this turbulent era."

    "...yes, I can see that. Nee-sama."

    "The people of our nation are… pure. Perhaps far too pure for their own good," Akagi continued on. "We are warships, weapons deliberately made to protect and destroy. First and foremost, our purpose has always been to fight and sink beneath the waves. This is our destiny, yet the people… the humans who summoned us chose to treat us as divine spirits, entities bearing the blood of gods. The blessings of the Eight Million Gods course in our veins which allowed us to drive off Siren."

    Kaga lifted her chin. Her lips parted, thoughts about to flow out. Even so, in the last second, the woman in white and blue clicked her lips shut. There was no point arguing.

    Because of the Sakura's kansen' peculiar appearances and abilities, many believed that the gods lent humanity the power to protect themselves from the encroaching tides of despair. Legends and holy scriptures inherited from the Old World spoke of humanoid entities with animal characteristics who could shake the heaven and earth, a mythical force that rained down miracles and curses upon the world. Though everyone knew that the Wisdom Cubes simply collected the wishes of humanity for a weapon to defeat Siren, deep in the hearts of the people of Sakura, they wished for salvation from the silent gods they had kept on believing since ancient times.

    Here, the kansen' words were gods' providence. Only fools would try to deny them.

    "...are you hesitating, Kaga?"

    The white-haired fox gasped. She looked to the side, meeting Akagi in the eyes in fear. Even so, it wasn't because she was scared of her "sister" ship.

    "No, that's not it!" Kaga refuted, raising her voice a tad louder than she wished for. "I will follow you wherever you go, Nee-sama! It's just…" Trailing off, Kaga bit her lips. Her fists clenched tight. "We are… going to wage war against the world. Against our compatriots. But our cause is just! And yet, only we know of the truth..."

    She held herself back from letting out those words. The two were still not in a place where they could speak of their contract so complacently. They were sworn to secrecy in exchange for the ability to fight against destiny. It was a fair trade; in exchange for unimaginable power, they made a pact with the Devil himself. However, they were not wrong. Akagi's decision was never wrong, and Kaga guaranteed that. They and humanity simply could not go on like this. The world could not continue with their slow and naive method to regain peace.

    "...that's right. We are all still weak. Nothing will change unless we make it happen." Gritting her teeth, she glared up and met Akagi in the eyes once again, steeled resolve blazing in her blue eyes. "We have to grow strong enough to defeat Siren. We are kansen, living gods made manifest. We were born strong. We have the right and obligation to guide mankind down the correct path."

    Hearing her words, Akagi slowly bobbed her head. A thin smile spread across her face.

    "Indeed," her older sister murmured. "This world has been quivering in front of the Siren. It'd only be a matter of time before everything came to an end. When that time arrives, those girls' futures will forever be lost."

    A beat passed.

    "To identify, adapt, and integrate the unknown is the true nature of every living being. A form of love based on give-and-take." Akagi lifted her right arm. With her left hand, she took out an object from within the sleeve to reveal it to the world. Gleaming with purplish radiance, a Black Cube floated atop Akagi's open palm. "Those who cannot endure the heat of this love will fall, and those who can embrace it will rise even higher."
    Kaga gravely nodded. Then, the two looked back to the wide ocean spread beyond their island country.

    "We have to hurry. All so that everything dear to us will not be taken away for the second time."
    +-+-+
    Who'd have ever thought the night could be so quiet, even in a naval base? He had just returned from patrol duty and since there was no more shift to do, he could have retired to his room. Unfortunately, he wasn't in the mood for it; the dream last night kept him up and tight through the entire work today.

    His feet came to stop. He had arrived at the district's harbor before he could realize. The weight of the plastic bag in his hand reminded him why he chose to be here, so Aoto sat cross-legged at the edge of the pier with the deep, dark sea capturing his sight. A chilly wind blew. The man nodded to himself and retrieved a canned beer out of the plastic bag. A dry pop filled the quiet night.

    "Cheers," he said before drinking. The cold beer rolled down his throat and energized his nerves, the feeling of intoxication slowly rising almost immediately. Even so, he couldn't get drunk just from a single chug, so Aoto breathed out a sigh and looked at the pitch-black horizon. "Even during the war, the sea will forever be quiet at night. Well, until some ships fired a salvo, I guess."

    The waves crashed and receded. As the man closed his eyes, a chilly wind blew past him and the goddess of the night escaped from the curtain of clouds.
    It had been twenty years. While he wandered around like a wraith, the world changed in such a way that he almost couldn't believe it. After the crushing defeat humanity suffered through, the world literally burned as the enemies—Siren—attacked and ravaged everything. Only after ten years could humanity develop a weapon capable of standing against the Siren, and then another ten years for the global sea trade line to be established once again. With the rapid advancement necessitated by war efforts, civilization slowly but surely regained its former glory. If not far exceed the previous one.

    "Really, now." Aoto laughed, feeling the utter irony of his situation. "In the present time, there's no real need for people to be conscripted for senseless deaths. The world has become a much nicer place to live in, yet here I am, a naval officer in an age where human personnel can barely do much in the face of Siren threats."

    It was both a blessing and a curse. Aoto had been a Lieutenant-Commander for years, now. The tasks he could do were limited to patrolling the territorial sea than actively fighting against the Siren, a duty no different to coastal guarding. While he didn't mind staying behind the frontline, he didn't have anywhere else to go, so the base had inevitably become his home. What a sad fate he had; he couldn't possibly tell his benefactor this was his present lifestyle.

    "Still, why did I have that dream?" Tilting his side, Aoto craned his head up and stared at the stars faintly shining in the heavens. That awful, haunting memories returned with a vengeance that it made his beer taste awfully sour for his taste. "Maybe the age's getting to me..."

    He was pushing 40 this year, yet he hasn't bothered the thought of settling down or having a great deal of interest in long-term hobbies. Then again, just how old he was exactly?

    Looking down at the ocean surface, his reflection could barely be seen. His black hair melded with the night, his facial feature that of a Sakura native. However, a bone-white mask resembling the skull of a bird latched on to his face, seamlessly melding over his facial structure. Sliding his thumb down his jawline, Aoto was quite certain that his appearance had barely changed through these years. Well, actually, he did age but just by five years or so. His aging sure was nice, though he seriously wondered what sort of face was hidden behind the mask; if only it wasn't glued to his head. Living without an identity was already terrible enough, but then he had to live as a suspicious character seen with a mask 24/7 on top of that.

    "Why can't life be simple…?" Just as he threw out a complaint, Aoto sensed a peculiar sound from the sea. He raised his head back up, and then he saw human silhouettes skating along the ocean surface. "That's..."

    +-+-+

    Night patrol. It was a typical mission assigned to fast-moving ships like Destroyers and Light Cruisers. It was only natural that those with the right skills should be given the right spots for them to work. Now, if only the mission didn't end with turning in a violent poacher ship to local authorities. Because of their strong resistance, it was getting really late, now.

    "Auu… so sleepy..." Ahead of Ayanami, her elder sister groaned as she wobbled to the sides while slowly cruising forward. Deciding to help her out, Ayanami upped her pace and sailed by Fubuki's side as she clasped her hand with hers. "Oooh… Sorry, Ayanami. Onee-chan really wants to sleep..."

    "Un. There are only a few hours left before daybreak." Ayanami nodded in affirmation. Lifting her chin, she blinked and pointed for Fubuki. "That's the dock. Just a little bit more, Onee-chan."

    "Wah! Really!? Let's go, then!"

    Just like that, the reinvigorated Fubuki leaped in action. All tiredness washed away from her expression, the blue-haired kansen sped past Ayanami and rushed straight to the dock while yelling through public channels about their arrival. Also, what was that about hot spring?

    "...aaah, she's always like that."

    Feeling helpless, Ayanami slowed her speed back to default. Skating across the ocean surface, the Fubuki-class Destroyer took a look at her surroundings. The ocean was pitch-black, almost without sounds aside from the roaring waves. The cloudless night sky exposed a crescent moon, but the stars were growing fainter the closer she got to the base's harbor. Ayanami sucked in cold air, then she looked back.

    There was nothing. Nobody was there. They were not tailed by enemies while en route to the base. Even so, Ayanami knew that she often looked back to the direction she and her older sister came from. It had only been a few months, but for some reason, Ayanami felt like it had been forever. It wasn't good; she kept on thinking of that place and those girls.

    "This isn't… good..." Ayanami murmured to herself, upset with frustrations bubbling up her throat. She hated it, she hated this feeling of restlessness and anxiety, yet she couldn't do anything about it. "This isn't… good at all..."

    Every time she remembered the past, she needed to tell herself there was no point in it. Her nation had left Azur Lane in the beginning of this year. The people of her home country was no longer allowed to go to that base so freely, and the tension between countries had increased as time flew by. Even if she asked for permission, Ayanami was certain that her wish would never come true. She could understand the reason, didn't mean she could accept it. Not when their separation was still fresh in her mind.

    "I miss you all..."

    As she returned her gaze back to the dock, Ayanami caught a glimpse of a figure in white. She paused, her boiler ceased moving as she stood on the ocean surface like nobody's business. She was a kansen, it was simply in her nature to achieve what humans were not meant to accomplish. When she equipped her riggings, she could sense things like a warship should, her superhuman sight zoomed on a human figure at the pier close to the dock. He was dressed in white naval uniform, the insignia of the Sakura Navy on his cap. However, for reason unknown to her, he was waving at her direction.

    ...what is he doing?

    Ayanami did not expect to see human personnel this late into the night. She could think of a few possibilities, but before all that, why would a lone human stay so close to the sea like this? This person did not make sense at all. Ayanami thought that humans no longer wished to live next to the sea, yet one of them was waving to a kansen with the manner of one who had just sighted an old acquaintance standing on the other side of the road.

    Uh… I don't get it.

    For now, all Ayanami could do was answering his earnest action in kind. Holding her sword in her left hand, the white-haired girl raised her right arm and waved back at the naval officer. It was a little difficult to tell from her spot, but it seemed her reply was accepted positively—

    [Ayanamiiiiii? Where are yooouuu?]

    Ah, Onee-chan. Ayanami stared back to the dock upon receiving the radio message. Since there was no more time to dilly dally, Ayanami resumed her boiler's activity and regrouped with her sister.
     
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2020
    Lord Greyscale, Azum and Jiven like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: Intersection of the Past and the Future
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    So, apologies for the non-activity. Mainly because I was sick, absolutely feverish and all that so I could only do some light postings. Anyway, here's the second chapter.


    --- Chapter 2: Intersection of the Past and the Future ---

    Fire. The incarnation of destruction consumed everything. As far as the eyes could see, the earth was razed down by burning flames while the midsummer sky was blotted out with jet black smokes. The sea, far in the horizon, could only remain in watch as the fortified walls along the shorelines crumbled into rubble.

    It’s hot...

    He could hear the land weeping with thunderous tremors. He could see black ashes raining down from the heavens. Pillars of wind and flame rooted out buildings and people. Screams of despair filled the air without an end, and a tidal wave washed over the neighboring port city; dragging the lives of people be it young and old into the maws of certain death.

    No matter how far he moved his scalded legs, he could not find a place for solace. He no longer felt his feet or even the tips of his fingers. Unable to discern reality and fantasy, he ignored the burning pyres and the bodies set in flame.

    It hurts... It burns...

    Where was water? Where was the sea? Red filled his vision. The color of brilliant red consumed every single thing that he knew. The wide roads melted into a black sea of hot tarmac, becoming a death trap to those who did not pay attention to the surroundings. Houses and buildings crumbled as they became fuel for the great fire to expand beyond reaches. He walked on aimlessly, his eyes already blinded by the embers slipped past his eyelids. All that he could see was a curtain of red dyeing everything in blood crimson color.

    Somebody... someone...

    There was no god in this living hell. There was no people to save or be saved in here. Even demons refused to touch this place devoid of miracles. Only Death ruled the burning city, scattering torches of life into the blazing winds. The last bits of his strength vanished. He stumbled and fell, his soul sinking into the pit of absolute darkness.

    Then… and then—
    +-+-+-+-+

    The ceiling abruptly came into view. Dark and plain, devoid of any speck of stain. Awareness abruptly came to him like a speeding train, and Aoto sucked in air as if he had forgotten how to breath. With it relief washed over his body, and he felt the tensions riding on his shoulders easing away.

    It was… just a dream. That was all—everything was just a dream.

    No… that’s not the case. Aoto slowly got up, throwing his legs off the bed and planting his feet on the crisp cold floor. After sitting up, he stared at his hands and feet. They were still there without any finger missing. It wasn’t a dream. What he had seen in his sleep was a glimpse of memories, a forgotten past his current soul could never connect no matter how hard he tried to. Scratching his head, the masked man lowered his gaze. The Great Kanto Earthquake… it truly was a catastrophe of an entirely different magnitude.

    He hardly remembered much about himself. He didn’t know if he have parents or siblings or even relatives. Where did he once live? Was he living in happiness or in sorrow? Did he even have any friends before he wore this mask, or was he born like this? Aoto didn’t know; everything was devoured by the Great Kanto Earthquake, leaving him and the few survivors remaining scars that continued to haunt them up to this day.

    ...enough already, there’s nothing in the past.

    Leaving the bed, the naval officer walked off to clean the sweats sticking to his body. It was still one hour before morning roll call, anyway, so he took the time to wash his face first. The sound of running water echoed meaninglessly through the shower room, and soon Aoto exited with a fresh look. In the way, however, he came across a mirror.

    He stood still in front of his reflection. His black hair was trimmed short, and his jawline sharp and clean as per the regulations. He stood straight and his taut muscles lacked extra fat, all thanks to the harsh military regiment and his participation in military operations prior to the arrival of the kansen. The fact that there were no scars would surprise those who didn’t know any butter, but inside his head, a single thought emerged from the depth of his heart. The moment he faced his own self, staring at his own eyes shrouded with the ivory white mask resembling the upper half of a bird skull, the accusation rose and pointed at him like the blade of a sword.

    Who are you?

    Aoto held his breath. Long enough to lose a sense of time, but short enough that he was quickly taken back to the present time when the sounds of footsteps approached him. Turning around, he saw an officer in full uniform, a look of clear purpose trailing each of his steps. The officer—a Lieutenant upon further inspection—gave Aoto a firm and formal salute. It seemed his schedule for the day had been decided.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun showered the naval district indiscriminately, yet Aoto had long gone out of his way from the base with a briefcase in his hand. He knew that things could happen in life, but who'd have thought he would get promoted out of the blue? He should have learned not to tempt fate, and now he felt stupid for going to the pier and throwing out complaints last night. He just wasted his time!

    “Though saying that...”

    With the promotion coming along, he was now reassigned in a different division. The higher-ups finally accepted he was “qualified” enough to command a fleet, which would have been a great deal had he not been told in the face that he was going to command a fresh, relatively less important one made by the Admiralty Board. It was their way of telling him to go through a trial program first before he could even think of picking his own ship to add into his fleet. Once again, it made him realize that the Board still couldn’t abandon the tradition of treating some of their underlings unfairly. He had become far too used to this sort of treatment, but there was no way he could meet his new subordinates with a foul mood either, right?

    I need to relax…

    Deciding his next course of action, Aoto slowed down his pace. One of the new duties he must fulfill was to move out of the barracks and find his own division’s main office. Packing his belongings didn’t take much time, as he barely have any personal baggage in the first place, but aside from that…

    “Well… I’ll be damned, I’m lost.” Aoto stared ahead to the path raining down with cherry blossom petals, to the waterway separating the road in two, and then to the row of traditional Sakura buildings lining up on his left side. He could feel how out-of-place he was, judging by the number of people mingling about and how they were all comprised of human civilians instead of military officers. “I guess this is only appropriate for an area protected by the kansen. Still, this place has always been inaccessible for lower-ranked officers...”

    Looking down at the piece of paper in his hand, a map drawn by his now-former superior spoke of the direction to his new workplace. It was well-designed and straight to the point, so it was impossible for him to lose his way, but the real place truly instilled a strong impression on him.

    Maybe it’s fine to take a break?

    The amount of people here was dizzying. While the military barracks tended to be packed like hell, it was less confusing when everyone wore the same uniform. The palette of colors in this place were so diverse they utterly overwhelmed him. Walking while minding his steps, Aoto decided that a break was a must, preferably with a resting place devoid of stall air. He glanced left and right in search of the right spot, aimlessly loitering around while staying in the lane so that he would not get lost any further than he already was. After a few minutes, he found it.

    A little further ahead was a moderately empty place with a cherry blossom tree standing next to the man-made waterway. Across of it was a traditional confectionery store with empty benches laid out in the front and under the tree. Personally, he found it a good place to play games and drink, but that uncouth behavior could only be seen in the naval base. The navies always needed something to do in the downtime, which couldn’t be helped when there wasn’t even much to do in the first place. Shogi, hanafuda, baseball, some people even bothered to bring games specific to their hometowns just so that they would not get bored to death.

    “...I keep on remembering things. More than I initially expected, huh...” Aoto exasperated. Shaking off his thoughts, the man mindlessly approached the store and ordered a set of snacks with a drink. “Ah, please warm the cup as well. I’d like to enjoy them outside.”

    For some reasons, the old woman tending the store smiled happily. Aoto paid for the snacks first, then walked back out with a tray on his hand. He began to hum a light tune, but it soon died off when he saw a woman sitting on the bench he was aiming for. Her long brown-colored hair was tied in a high ponytail, and the young woman consumed dango with a blissful expression on her face.

    Huh… are the snacks of this store that good? Now compelled to enjoy himself, Aoto approached the woman and asked him if the space next to her was free. The woman nodded twice, and so the newly promoted naval officer sat beside her. Aoto settled back and started with the rice cracker first. Oh, the outside is slightly sticky and salty, but the inside is dry, crunchy, and reasonably sweet.

    After a few bites, he finished the first delicacy and continued on with a sip of green tea. Aoto took his time, then a breeze blew by, scattering pink flower petals and shaking the branches of the cherry blossom tree he was sitting under. The sounds of rustling leaves, the brushing branches, and the faint sounds of the crowds… It was all so nostalgic—and Aoto let out an annoyed sigh.

    “Nostalgic, is it…?”

    Today had been a chain of unexpected events. After that dream and the double promotions, his current situation began to feel unreal. As a result, his mind might have tricked himself to go to places he was more familiar with: one of them being to reflect on his original identity. It wasn’t such a good habit to have, but sometimes, setting aside a problem than confronting it was an acceptable solution for a brief period of time. There was a limit to how much an individual could endure stresses before they break, and sometimes, what you needed to ease the burdens was to stop thinking and focus on breathing.

    Aoto paused midway through as he felt the gaze of someone from close by. Since there was no one else in the premise, the answer to his suspicion rested on the only other person in the vicinity.

    “Uh… yes? Is there something I can help you with?” Aoto asked the young woman sitting beside him.

    “Oh, it’s nothing.” The brunette waved, her expression seemingly having to go down from the bliss she had experienced just earlier. “It’s jrare to see a naval officer around here. You do know that this district isn’t exactly a place for sightseeing, right?”

    “Hmm?” Aoto had no clue what she meant by that. Still, he took another rice cracker, chewed, swallowed, and then washed his palate with tea again. “That was… excellent. Well, I’m new to this area, so pardon me if I did something wrong. However, I have some business around here.”

    “Eh? Are you sure you’re not lost?”

    Aoto handed the young woman his map. According to his intuition and the brief dialogue he had with her, she must have better knowledge about this place more than him. He could at least ask her for directions.

    “...oh, I guess that makes sense. The residential complex tends to be samey so they can be really confusing for first-time visitors.” The young woman got off the bench and stretched her spine. The flowing white haori complemented her elegant red dress, though Aoto believed that the cut on the chest area and the skirts were designed a bit too low. Personal style, perhaps? “Well, I guess it can’t be helped. The place is close by. Do you mind me escorting you?”

    Aoto looked up, his curiosity piqued. “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to intrude your time.”

    “Is fine, fine. Helping out people who are in need of help is a good thing. Let’s go after you’re done.”

    What a kind girl… Unable to hide his smile, the man nodded at the proposition offered to him. It truly was nice to know that wherever he went, there would always be good people like the priest who took care of him, his colleagues, and the woman standing before him. Yes, the world’s not always bleak and dull.

    It had never been that way, no matter how much things have changed.
    +-+-+-+-+

    Walking down the winding road, concrete pavements were soon forgotten and beaten paths mixed with bricks or wooden planks spread out in various directions. They and the maze-like layout of the area made the proximity of adjacent houses uncomfortably close to each other. Aoto worried that should fire break out, this entire place could turn into a death trap. The terrains went up and down in many places, a sign that the area had yet to be modernized, and the number of civilians lessened to nil. Unable to contain his curiosity anymore, he tried out asking what was up with the population disparity.

    “This block is exclusively for kansen,” his guide said as she hopped down a rough sloped road. Even the stairs were made by carving steps out of the earthen mounds, but the young woman with bright gold eyes weaved through the slippery terrain with extreme ease. “It is also an exclusive property of the navy. There are facilities that can’t be found anywhere else and power spots for wounded kansen to recover faster. I guess it’s similar to the Sanctuary, but that place is a whole different level even for a sacred ground.”

    “I see...”

    “You don’t really get it, do you?” The woman turned her head, looking over her shoulder with a smug grin on her face. She returned her gaze back to the road ahead and harrumphed. “Kansen are born from Wisdom Cubes which had gathered sufficient amount of human wishes. They represent the totality of mankind’s history, aspiration, ideals, struggles, innovation, hopes, and dreams. From the very first breath they let out, the knowledge and strength to fulfill the expectations placed on them run deep in their veins.”

    “Hm. I remembered being taught that by my peers and superiors. But what does that have to do with...”

    “It’s simple!” His guide turned around, arms held akimbo. “The weather here regularly changed from the suffusion of kansen’s presences. While first generation like Mikasa-sama was summoned through injection of Wisdom Cubes into the hull of her ship, the later generations were all summoned straight from Wisdom Cubes. Though the theories on this aren’t too clear, it’s a confirmed phenomenon that when a whole kansen fleet is gathered together, their auras energize the leylines and alter the climate to a degree.”

    “Ah,” Aoto realized. “Is that why there’s a strange atmosphere when I entered this district?”

    “Precisely. Now, let’s resume our journey! It’s just a bit further ahead!”

    As she had announced, the two continued on trudging through the beaten path. However, Aoto’s thoughts wandered elsewhere. His guide’s explanation undoubtedly explained many things, but wouldn’t that mean humans with aptitudes to Wisdom Cubes existed because of prolonged exposure with the ship girls? It certainly didn’t explain Aoto’s circumstance.

    He had rarely, if ever, directly interacted with any of the kansen. He never even touched the so-called Wisdom Cubes through his life. Perhaps it was another factor that caused him to possess the affinity for it, yet there was a nagging feeling that he was missing something in the equation. Just what was he missing? What did he forget to include?

    “Hm? Wait a moment…”

    Just as his thoughts meandered off, Aoto heard his guide showing genuine confusion. He looked up, staring at her back, and then looked past her. In front of them was an opened double gate leading to an extravagantly traditional residence that he swore seeing in classical paintings before. It was one thing to see a house dating back to a few decades ago, but the place he and his guide had stumbled to could push the date all the way back to pre-World War. The walls acting as fences, a one-floor pavilion made entirely by wood, a path decorated with smoothed river stones, a vast yard with a fish pond and lastly a lone but leafless old tree. Aoto couldn’t believe a stereotypical antique house stood in a place so close to the ocean.

    “Huh…? Wait, hold on, the direction is right, so why are we here…?” His guide lanced back and forth to the piece of paper with a map drawn on it and the residence before her. “But, but…! There’s no way, right!? This is our living space!”

    While Aoto, feeling a foreboding sense from the way his guide panicked, the sounds of sliding door rattling open interrupted the tension. The two of them looked ahead at the front door as a white-haired figure in kimono exited the house with light steps. The blue-eyed stranger looked up, noticing them, and her delicate expression morphed into surprise half-filled with confusion.

    “Oh my,” she started. “Zuikaku, what strange coincidences. Here I was about to send a shikigami to inquire you for dinner’s menu today. And...” Tilting her head a little, the white-haired blue-eyed young woman rested her gaze on Aoto. “A naval officer? Do we have a mobilization order, today?”

    “Eh? Ah, that’s…!” The now-named Zuikaku stuttered like a child caught committing a prank. “Well, Shoukaku-nee, this is…! Umm, how should I say this…”

    Aoto quickly understood. He knew better that the situation had developed in a way that he felt it as far overdue to address. Or rather, Zuikaku? Shoukaku-nee? Now, he might be an amnesiac with only twenty years of intimacy with the empire, but he wasn’t so much of a country bumpkin to not know what those two names meant. Or rather, he’d be a clown to not have connected the dots by now.

    The strange atmosphere he felt once he entered this special district. The knowledge his guide had in regards to the empire’s national assets. The reason why the area the woman named Zuikaku was in seemed to lack much people. Finally, the term she used to address the person before her. Who’d have thought he was this slow to recognize the obvious?

    What a fool I am… He had never asked the name of his guide, nor had he ever told her his name or the kind of business he had. It also couldn’t be helped that she wouldn’t notice a thing when he didn’t even wear the new uniform meant for his new position, as it had yet to reach him for a couple more days. However, it was too late. He needed to set everything right, even if it would only cause more troubles to him and his helper. Here goes nothing...

    “This is a bit late, but it is a pleasure to meet you two..” Adjusting the tip of his cap, the newly promoted Rear-Admiral smiled wryly at the spellbound sisters. “Zuikaku and Shoukaku, right? My name is Tatsumiya Aoto. As of today, I am to be assigned in the Fifth Carrier Division as your Rear Admiral.”

    Silence passed. Time passed. The two kansen stared dumbstruck at Aoto who had finally introduced himself as well as his agenda. He could feel the palpable awkwardness hanging in the air, and by gods was it felt awful like hell for him. Eventually, however, a high-pitched confused scream erupted, ripping his eardrums apart with the sheer volume of it.
    +-+-+-+-+

    A clear reflection of the moon could be seen in the surface of the pond. As night ushered in, the day ended without much incidents. As if afraid of the darkness, the night was deathly quiet. Even in the special district, an exclusive zone reserved for kansen, the typical brand of hustles and bustles befitting highly populated areas could hardly be detected at this hour.

    “What a stellar first impression I just gave to my subordinates...” Sighing while staring out the windows of his quarter, Aoto closed his eyes after recalling the reactions of the two Shoukaku-class aircraft carriers. The rest of the day was spent with them giving him a brief tour throughout what turned to be the living quarter for the permanent members Fifth Carrier Division. Of course, they were still shell-shocked by his presence in the premise. “What a model superior you are, Tatsumiya Aoto.”

    Like this, he doubted the coming days would go smoothly. He could expect paperwork and other menial tasks as a freshly promoted commanding officer, but it was going to be difficult if he couldn’t coordinate with his subordinates. Unfortunately, the higher-ups loved to be unreasonably demanding in the wrong time. Combined with the new workplace environment and the way things had developed, Aoto really couldn’t imagine looking forward to work tomorrow.

    “Aaaaah, I need some strong sake…” Rubbing his throat, Aoto lamented the lack of good fortune throughout his life. “I hope things could only go up after this...”

    No, wrong. He had to work for it if he wanted to make it true. Plus, it wasn’t like he was a stranger to this sort of situation anyway. With his past and peculiar appearance, it was only natural to be cautious around him until you got to know him more. He wanted to laugh at how he judged himself, but a person seen with a mask on his face for 24/7 could never make a good first impression. It simply wasn’t natural.

    “Well… let’s do my best.” Aoto nodded to himself, reaffirming his resolve. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all.”

    The man looked up to the moon as if making a vow to the starry heavens.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: Sakura Empire's Fifth Carrier Division
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Here's another chapter.


    --- Chapter 3: Sakura Empire's Fifth Carrier Division ----

    Early in the morning, Aoto woke up, took a bath, and dressed up. His routine hammered by military discipline helped out in keeping up appearance, and he didn’t want to disappoint his subordinates any further. Looking himself in the mirror, he nodded to himself. There was no dream of the past this time, and though there was yesterday’s event, he had no reason to be down all the time.

    “For now, I should try to know my subordinates.” Aoto looked outside the windows, seeing the clear blue sky with nary but a speck of clouds present. “Either one is fine. Let’s get right to it.”

    Exiting his quarter, Aoto recalled the building layout. The pavilion… or rather, the main office of the Fifth Carrier Division housed a number of facilities only seen in high-class resorts. There was a water heater for a nice bath, a dojo, a study room, even an office. The only real thing to nitpick was how the kitchen and storehouse were put away from the main building, but it was most likely as a safety precaution in case fire broke out. The faint scent of spice in the air and the lack of steam puffing out from the kitchen’s ventilation meant breakfast was already served, so he walked straight to the dining hall—only to encounter a certain woman in white and red clothing. His dark eyes met the woman’s golden gaze.

    “Oh...” Aoto trailed off before he came up with a response. “Good morning, Zuikaku.”

    “Huh, ah… un. Good morning… Rear Admiral Tatsumiya.” The kansen rigidly saluted.

    Well, now. Aoto couldn’t hide his surprise. The friendly and energetic individual from yesterday was nowhere to be seen today, replaced with a meek personality. Zuikaku broke off the eye contact as she wore a strained smile. That wasn’t a good sign, but before Aoto could mitigate the problem, Zuikaku hurried past him.

    “S-sorry, I promised to exercise together with other division, today! Catch you later…!”

    Just like that, she escaped without even turning a glance back. After a brief silence passed, Aoto let out the breath he was holding and scratched the back of his head. It looks like things really aren’t going to sail smoothly...

    “Zuikaku… Geez, where did you—oh my, if it’s not Rear Admiral.”

    The man blinked. Returning his gaze to the front, there he saw the other half of the division, a white-haired woman dressed in a similarly white kimono. The pair of blue eyes framed on her face, however, showed a depth of clarity that set them apart from mundane people by a terribly wide margin.

    “Good morning, Shoukaku.” Aoto nodded, this time a little more prepared than before.

    “Good morning to you as well.” Shoukaku bowed her head, polite and respectful in both gesture and speech. “I was just about to call you for breakfast. Also, there are documents in dire need of your signatures, Rear Admiral.”

    Already? “I see… thank you. I will check on them right after breakfast.”

    “Yes. Please come this way.”

    The rest of the morning flowed with that sort of pace. Aoto partook breakfast which consisted of a standard meal and side dish, fulfilling but also not too much. He felt the freshness of the ingredients thanks to the rich flavors they had, but that made him wonder if Shoukaku had already been up even before him just to buy groceries, or if the meal’s freshness was because of her cooking skills. The dishes Aoto was familiar with were more or less cooked in a hurry, all so that the mess hall’s staff could feed the entire base, so this was a breath of fresh air. He really liked it.

    “Thank you for the food.” Aoto clasped his hands and lowered his head in gratitude. “It was delicious.”

    “You are welcome.” Shoukaku kept up the same polite smile. Once again, it felt as if she was putting up an act. “I will tidy the dishes later. For now, let’s go to your office and arrange the tasks to work with for the day.”

    “Yes, that’s true. Do you mind assisting me, Shoukaku?”

    “That is my intention. Of course, I do not mind, Rear Admiral.”

    Getting up and going on their way to the office, Aoto trailed behind by a few steps. They weren’t even familiar enough with each other to even walk side-by-side, so he tried to keep some distance. He was the stranger in the premise, and Shoukaku could be said as the landowner in this case. With time and effort, he hoped the siblings could open up to him. Pray that no Siren invasion will interrupt us, that’d make things harder than they already are.

    “By the way...” Aoto muttered, glancing to the backyard. “Are there only the two of you in this division?”

    “Hmm? Well, that is indeed the case.” Shoukaku hummed as if searching the right words to explain the circumstances. “Unlike our prestigious and experienced seniors, our division was originally made as an extra. Here is a place to group together new members whom our seniors could borrow at any time should there be a lack of manpower in their divisions, or when the frontline is spread too thin for some nebulous reasons. The only permanent members are us Shoukaku-class carriers.”

    Aoto winced. Shoukaku certainly didn’t mince her words. He had a premonition that there was some specific reason why only she and her sister lived in an absurdly huge residence like this, but who’d have thought such a thing was the reason? Aoto began to suspect if this had something to do with his promotion. Was this the above’s way of saying his past merits only amounted to this much? Was he seen as just another upstart?

    “Well, it has been that way from the beginning,” Shoukaku interrupted, completely oblivious to Aoto’s internal musing. “As long as you are stationed here, there is no need to worry at the chance of commanding a larger kansen fleet, Rear Admiral.”

    “Ah… that’s certainly reassuring to hear...”

    For what it was worth, Aoto took that as reassurance. No matter how he looked at it, his presence was not welcomed by Shoukaku. It was painful to admit, but military ranks mattered not when it involved sapient warships. These entities commanding the strength of steel behemoths were objects for worship in this country, and it wasn’t like Aoto had ever been graced with the chance to regularly interact with them. Still, it wouldn’t do if the issue was never addressed. Regardless of the value of his position and role, he could at least ask what was going on with Zuikaku’s sudden shift of behavior.

    “That girl did…?” For once, Shoukaku seemed to be baffled by the subject he just brought up. “Oh, I think you are misunderstanding a few things, Rear Admiral. Zuikaku is a truly kind girl in spite of all that, just...”

    “Just…?”

    Looking over her shoulder just like Zuikaku did, Shoukaku showed him a teasing smile. “That’d be telling, so please work hard to understand why, Shi-ki-kan-kun.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    Kinetics Artifactual Navy-Self-regulative En-lore mode—abbreviated KAN-SEN. Countless matters pertaining to them remained a total mystery in the present time, but one thing was certain: they were capable of competing with Siren. Humanity’s mental image and perception over Old World’s warships helped to shape up the kansen’s forms and strength, acting as their keels or past. In other words, each and every kansen carried within them the complete history of humanity.

    Zuikaku was no different. She inherited the legacies of her original form, memories, and attachments from the past altogether. She had personally witnessed the glory of the Sakura Empire, fought for it together with her elder sister, and then sunk in a battle that risked the fate of the entire world. She remembered the last moment before her death, and while her defeat was frustrating, she had to admit that she never regretted fighting to the fullest of her abilities. She was a warship, after all. A weapon purposefully designed for naval warfare.

    You can’t choose where you are born, but you can choose where you will be at.

    The lesson taught to her resurfacing like a vengeful ghost. Zuikaku gritted her teeth and deeply inhaled to the limits. After exhaling with a loud sound akin to a screech, Zuikaku refocused her vision, finding herself at the edge of a cliff overlooking the harbor. A cherry blossom tree stood up ahead, and Zuikaku slumped down beneath it; feeling all the energy in her escaping through the pores of her skin.

    “Just what was the Admiralty thinking...”

    The wind rustled the tree branches. Pink flower petals scattered and showered her. Zuikaku’s gold-colored eyes stared through the foliage, a haze of memories flashing in her head. True, there was merit in having a proper commanding officer, but the assignment of one was too sudden that she didn’t know what to make of it all. On top of that, she couldn’t even fathom that person. The man looked like he could barely make it to Lieutenant rank with abundant talents and skills, but Rear Admiral? What the hell?

    “I don’t understand...”

    The kansen threw her gaze aside, looking at the harbor past the cliff edge. She got it. The action she took this morning didn't suit the appearance of a lady much less a proper adult. Even so, she wanted to let loose for once and so she chose to vent out her stress in a place as remote as this. It was partly because she didn’t want to trouble Shoukaku any further than she already had, but this time, Zuikaku really wanted to be alone. Unfortunately, her hastiness caused her mind to recall the morning incident.

    He called himself Tatsumiya Aoto, not a name she had ever heard of. Even digging into her memories as a warship yielded no result, so the man must be an individual that could only be born in this time period. He certainly didn't give off the aura of an ordinary person, but the strange mask on his face didn’t make a good impression on her. He never took it off yesterday, and the horned bird skull design was tacky as it didn't look to serve any purpose at all aside from showiness. Was he being shy? Then again, he might as well wear a helmet if he was that much of an eccentric.

    Plus… I can't even tell if he's weak, underhanded, or even just a passive person.

    That unsettled her, way more than the usual. It was one thing to protect oneself by hiding in a shell, but it was an entirely different matter if that was to hide malicious intentions. Though she didn’t like doubting others, especially a citizen of the empire she served, there was no denying the possibility of him being put in the Fifth Carrier Division due to some foul play. In that case…

    “That settles it.” Zuikaku got up, turned to face the sea, and then raised a fist to her chest. “I have to investigate this! This is all to protect the honors of our division, and to protect Shoukaku-nee!”

    “...what does that even mean?”

    “Well, it’s simple, really! All I need to do is—eh!?

    Turning around at breakneck speed, Zuikaku came face-to-face with a white-haired and red-eyed girl in a sailor uniform. Her intense gaze and the close proximity between them threw Zuikaku’s thoughts in disarray. As she stuttered, the brunette tripped backward and hit her head against the bark of the cherry blossom tree. Ow!

    “Ah. A, are you okay…?”

    “Uuu… Y-yeah. I’m fine! It’s fine, really.” Zuikaku rubbed the back of her head, secretly relieved that there was no bump or bruise. That being said… “Umm, Ayanami-chan? What are you doing all the way out here...?”

    Ayanami, the Advanced Fubuki-class Destroyer tilted her head. “Mm. I heard of a strange scream and thought that something bad happened. Are you okay, Zuikaku-senpai?”

    “Eh!? Ah, yes! I’m totally fine!! Absolutely!!”

    Zuikaku raised her voice a bit too high for her liking. To think someone heard of that was more than a little embarrassing but wait... if she raised her voice that loud, didn’t it mean she might have leaked her thoughts out to the world? What if someone else heard of her? Or rather, what if that guy happened to pass by? It might not come to that but what Zuikaku was planning to do could be interpreted as trying to find dirt on someone, her own superior too at that.

    That counted as treason! What was she going to do!? She still had no proof of his wrongdoings!

    “Err… you have been quiet for a bit, senpai…? Are you—”

    “A, actually, Ayanami-chan!” Zuikaku half-shouted, took a big stride forward and made Ayanami to reflexively step aside. “I’ve got something urgent to do, so catch you later! See you again!! I’m so sorry...!”

    Like that, Zuikaku beat a hasty retreat, fleeing like the winds and disappearing from sight. Before long, silence returned and all that remained at the cliff edge was Ayanami. Her arm was stretched halfway out, but it was too late. Not even her senior seemed to be fond of her. Or rather, she had scared her.

    “I failed again...” Ayanami heaved a forlorn sigh, looking down at her feet. “Why… is it so hard to make friends…?”

    Unfortunately for her, nobody could give an answer to her aching heart.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun was going down in half an hour. At the main office of the Fifth Carrier Division, Aoto leaned back in his chair as he finished reviewing the last paper that required his stamp of approval.

    It just so happened that there were only a few today, but it took him a hefty amount of effort and time to reorganize the office so that it could serve his needs. Important documents were put in easy-to-spot places while decorations were assigned accordingly to make the office look breathable. Although there was only so much he had in his luggage, the most important things like a gun for self-defense and a photograph he held dear these whole times worked wonders in making the room's mood more than comfortable. Above the fireplace, a sword a kaiguntou with a worn-out sheath was quietly enshrined on a stand; Aoto smiled in pride at the result of his handiwork.

    With work for the day done, what’s left now is…

    Tapping the arm of the chair, Aoto looked past his desk. Illuminated in deep orange shades, the office, his office, had a smell of wood, ink, and paper in the air. He needed to revise his opinion of the Board’s decision to give him double promotions. His new position was certainly a few ranks superior, but it was also a little lonesome by itself. He didn't have many ideas on how to command a kansen fleet, and it wasn’t like his relationship with Shoukaku and Zuikaku started right. Being frank, he had messed up since day one, and he was paying the price for it.

    Well, it wasn’t that bad if he compared this place to the imperial military academy, but he couldn’t say that it had all been good and dandy either. No matter what sort of value his existence had in the grander scale of things, he could never deny the reality of his current situation. He needed to take matters at hand if he wanted to change the relationship between him and his subordinates. With that decided, Aoto dialed the naval library’s numbers using the office’s phone. For a few beats, there was nobody answering, but soon the line connected.

    “Good evening. Pardon me for inconveniencing your office this late, but I would like to order certain books from the naval library. Yes. That’s right. I am Tatsumiya Aoto, Rear Admiral of the Sakura Fifth Carrier Division. I’d like to request… yes, indeed. Every book related to Kansen. Please do.”

    Shadows lengthened. The orange shades of dusk faded into pale blue, and the sand of time slowly but surely moved forward.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The night was quiet, cold, and uncaring. Deep in the hidden section of the naval district, a seaside cavern riddled with shrine gates branched into countless dark passages. Though the cave had been naturally formed, rough carpentry work allowed paths to be made. One of these winding passages ended in a place right below the heart of the special district. No life sign could be seen, and only the sounds of dripping water filled the eerie atmosphere. In that place where no human personnel or even ordinary kansen knew about, a secret meeting between three persons ensued.

    “This is what we promised.”

    A pale hand thrust forward with a cube emanating dark light on it. The object hovered and floated away, landing softly on Akagi’s hand. The kansen solemnly accepted it, but her eyes were fixated on what people could have mistaken as a sham of a Wisdom Cube.

    “The Black Cube,” Akagi muttered its name, marveling the key that would allow her to achieve her lifelong aspiration. “I see. I can certainly feel a pure, undiluted power from this cube.”

    “The Wisdom Cube and the Black Cube are two sides of a coin, The head and tail, the beginning and the end.” the original handler of the cube said. Her yellow eyes, shining with alien glow, reflected the two figures of Sakura’s First Carrier Division. “Humanity nurtures Wisdom Cubes with their hopes and prayers so as to shape Kansen.”

    “In contrast, the Black Cube is used to manifest and control Siren,” Akagi continued on.

    “On the surface, at least.” The abomination scoffed, a ridiculing tone was potent in her voice. “Much like Wisdom Cubes, that tool will absorb wishes and desires. However, the best ingredient to feed it is desires born out of conflicts… and the wars you all despise so much.”

    From behind, Kaga sharpened her gaze into a glare. However, she did not make a move. Akagi had never once raised the sign throughout this secret exchange. Gritting her teeth, the white fox kept her hand to let her older sister finish the pact.

    “Then… this is all we need?” Akagi asked.

    “Aah. Do whatever you want with it.” The negotiator shrugged, but the glows of a massive creature slithered behind her, lines of yellow orbs roaming in the darkness as if swimming. Lifeless and without wills, something was certainly there; like a deep-sea creature that lurked in the deep, deep abyss of the ocean. “But with this, you must commit yourselves as our accomplices to your dying breath.”

    “But of course. This is a negotiation, not a bargain. We will keep our words and promise you that the results will be as you intended, but...” The brown-haired fox lifted her chin. “I wonder what happened to make you visit us instead of her. I hope this isn’t a sign that you are dilly-dallying while we fulfill our end of our trade...”

    “Her?” The yellow gaze lowered in disinterest. “Aah. Observer is somewhere else. She is fine-tuning the stage, so she gave the role of negotiator to me.”

    “Then...”

    “Indeed.” Tester Beta nodded. “Your laboratory—the Sanctuary is about to be finished.”

    Imperceptibly, Kaga’s eyes widened in shock. It had only been a few years, but the Sirens not only had the time to establish their footholds, but they almost finished creating a Sanctuary? How? What sort of technologies did the Siren actually have to accomplish something that could only be described as the accumulation of eons of purification rituals?

    “...your face is saying that you want to know. Be that as it may, I do not possess the authority to tell you the truth. Observer is your best bet should you seek it.” Tester closed her eyes, the lights of her rigging fading as if melding into the darkness. As if following after it, the high-ranked Siren began to fade from view. “However… sooner or later, you should be able to take a glimpse of what you’re seeking for.”

    “Wait…!”

    “May the Creator’s light be with you, little foxes.”

    The sound of rippling water stopped. Silence reigned true, and there was now nothing in front of the two kansen. Kaga bit her lips, but Akagi suddenly raised a chuckle.

    “My, aren’t you impatient? Kaga.”

    “Ah… That is…” Kaga looked away. “My apology, Nee-sama. I could not help myself.”

    “That is fine. It is natural to be surprised by what that being… Tester said.” Akagi turned around, walking past her sister and into the moonlit platform filled with ankle-deep saltwater. “The Sanctuary is the heart of our empire. A giant network of dragon veins exists there, containing a massive amount of energy regularly harnessed through places of worship to enrich the land. By no means is it an easy feat to maintain, much less replicate its divine mechanisms, but the Siren has always been known for achieving the impossible.”

    “Yes… that is... indeed the truth, Nee-sama...”

    While not much could be said about their technology, one which humanity could clearly identify was a phenomenon named Mirror Sea. It was a subject formally known to have a dealing with alteration of spatial axis and flow of time, creating an isolated subspace anchored to reality bound with its own set of physical laws. It was a place so out-of-the-world that one could only presume the Siren was a race of extremely advanced civilization, and yet…

    “To think they are capable of reproducing even the Sanctuary…”

    In spite of their overwhelming advantage, the Siren refrained from exterminating humanity. They could have lorded over mankind, enslaved them, or exterminate their entire species during the First Contact War, but instead they let them grow a new set of fangs and claws. It was as if they were goading mankind to rapidly change, but there was no way that could be true. There was something they sought, some sort of thing they wished to ascertain and make use of; hence why they saw fit to toying around with humanity. Kaga had no doubt her conjecture on that point was the absolute truth.

    “Nee-sama, what do you think their true aim is…?” Silence. “Nee-sama…?

    Kaga looked back. There she found her sister standing in the moonlight. Her long brown hair reflected the pale blue light of the moon, and all her nine tails swayed ever so slightly to the sides. Had she not paid attention to the minute details, Akagi’s back would have overlapped with that person, but...

    “The Creator… yes, this is indeed the light I saw that day.” Akagi curved down her lips, a distorted smile blooming on her face as the Black Cube on her palm gleamed with ominous shine. “That is indeed the light that will guide us to a new era. There’s no doubt… with this…”

    Kaga stifled her breath. “Akagi… nee-sama…?”

    Akagi finally nodded back in response, but something was clearly off. “Have no fear, Kaga. I am simply… thinking of our next course of action. The time for us to rally the empire is fast approaching.”

    “...indeed. With the Black Cube, we can finally negotiate favorable terms with the above.” Even though she had been paying attention to it, the gift from the Siren faded as if it had never existed. Kaga hastily followed Akagi to the exit, both of them walking into the thick of the shadows. “However… I doubt that naive empress… Nagato would easily agree, even with solid facts shown to her face.”

    “Now, now. Even that girl is hoping for a better future, Kaga. Don’t be so harsh to her.” Akagi chuckled, yet she wasn’t putting much effort to make herself sound convincing. “She will come to know that there is no stopping the storm bound to engulf the world. She will accept our proposition no matter what, I can assure you that.”

    Kaga closed her eyes, letting out a sigh. "If you say so, Nee-sama. What about the navy, then? They don't hold much sway, but words alone aren't enough to make them turn a blind eye."

    "Oh, yes. Now that is troubling, indeed…" Akagi hummed in thoughts. "I do have a few cards in my sleeve, but... I seem to recall one division will be a tad more difficult to convince than the others."

    Kaga, having noticed what her sister meant, retraced her memories to the recent past. Indeed, it was a very last-call decision, and though she had heard of it, she never ascertained it. When one held so much authority and fame in their hands, it was only natural for their movements to be restricted. It was a little shameful to admit, but her past recklessness would have moved her to do her own things and expose the siblings' weaknesses. That could not be allowed to happen again; it must not happen at any cost.

    "I doubt they could possibly meddle with our plan, but I see your point. What do you suggest us to do, Nee-sama?"

    "Making a fuss over it will be counterproductive, but yes, considering our situation…" Akagi’s smile twisted into a cruel smirk. "We have been in schisms with the Azur Lane for a while, now. That is one reason we can use to fortify our defense and… plant a few seeds, yes. Uhu hu, I’m sure they will bud into beautiful flowers that bloom in profusion..."

    A strong wind howled through the empty clearing far behind the two. Cherry blossom petals scattered into the night sky, and dark clouds slowly consumed the stars as well as the moon. As the winds died down, the central network of the seaside cavern fell into the embrace of deep darkness.
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The First Mission
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Here's the next chapter.


    --- Chapter 4: The First Mission ---

    A few weeks passed without notices. Within that period of time, Aoto had settled himself in his new post and worked earnestly.

    Not without his share of troubles, of course, considering the distance between him and his subordinates, but that wasn’t an excuse to play hooky. While Zuikaku was often absent to exercise together with Kansen from other divisions, Shoukaku answered his inquiries so long as they were related to work. He also didn’t mind the tranquil atmosphere of his office. Taking a short pause, Aoto mulled about his thoughts; that didn’t sound too bad. This whole place was his and his only.

    There’s a certain class in working while being surrounded by the scent of ink and papers, too.

    Sadly, he still had to prepare his drink, but he considered regularly being on the move as a good thing. There was no value in moping around, and complaining would only enable bad habits. Naturally, it was only a matter of time for him to run into someone during one of those moments. It all began with footsteps coming from the direction he was going to, then a veil of pure white hair, and then—

    “Curse them both…”

    He held his tongue right before he could call out to his subordinate. Was… was he hearing things or did Shoukaku just… cursed at someone behind their backs? The image of a vengeful spirit who had been wronged in her previous life completely clashed against the impression of a well-tempered aristocrat etched in Aoto’s mind.

    It took him too much time to reboot his brain that Shoukaku ended up bumping her head against his chest. Aoto took a half-step back but quickly regained his bearing.

    “Ow! Khg…!?” The white-haired woman reeled back, suddenly assuming a defensive posture as white papers slid out of her sleeves to float in midair like a defensive perimeter. However, she instantly came to awareness as her eyes reflected Aoto’s figure. “Eh? Huh, Shikikan… kun…? What...”

    And now I’ve done it, again. Aoto swallowed the sigh of lamentation back down his throat and ran a hand over his hair. He was slightly curious about the floating pieces of papers that slid back into Shoukaku’s sleeves, but that could wait for later. For now, I should play along and act accordingly.

    “Sorry, Soukaku. I didn’t notice you’re back already.” Aoto scratched the back of his head, which seemed to have become a new habit for him, now. “You weren’t hurt, right?”

    Shoukaku blinked. She stuttered out an apology and waved at him as if saying there was nothing to worry about. Good, it didn’t seem like she suspected him of eavesdropping on her.

    “I, uhm…” Shoukaku’s blue eyes swam from side to side before finally settling on Aoto. “Err, Shikikan-kun… you, didn’t hear anything… right?”

    Or maybe not. “Hear what?”

    “Nothing! If you heard nothing, then it must be my imagination!!”

    Aoto hummed as he nodded to himself, dismissing the topic there and then. The diffusion of the situation succeeded. It seemed he finally got some grasps on effective social interactions. It was never in his skill list, so it was good to know that nights of self-study paid off. Though saying that, what else was he supposed to do next…?

    Aoto stared at Shoukaku and noticed a brown envelope held and kept tightly to her chest. Some of the words written with calligraphic brush and ink were hidden, but he noticed the sender read as “First Carrier Division” at the top corner of the envelope.

    “Well, now.” Aoto tilted his head, not even bothering himself to hide his curiosity. “A letter from the empire’s most renowned division…?”

    “Eh? Ah, yes… This is...” Shoukaku’s gaze clouded over, and she hesitated for the briefest period. Lowering her shoulders, the aircraft carrier relaxed her shoulders and handed the envelope to Aoto. “It’s for you, Shikikan. A formal letter from higher-ups. It has just arrived when I was about to leave for a grocery run.”

    Accepting the letter, Aoto flipped it, discovering a familiar stamp only seen a few times through his time of service. His eyebrows had already been raised, but now even his eyes stared in wonder.

    It seemed he had to break his routine this time around.
    +-+-+-+-+

    In the living room, Aoto settled down on one side while Shoukaku sat on the opposite side of the table. After a few minutes, Zuikaku returned in haste but her impeccable timing was a bit too good to be coincidental. Looking at the person sitting across him, it seemed Shoukaku had somehow delivered a message while he wasn’t paying attention.

    I didn’t see Shoukaku using telephone or radio, and I’m certainly above guessing that the two possess some sort of telepathic skill. An image of the floating pieces of papers returned to the forefront of his mind. They had weird gimmicks and it seemed like they were propped up by some sort of advanced technology or occult-like technique. That must have something to do with this, how peculiar.

    “So… what kind of message did headquarters send to us?” Zuikaku finally broke the ice.

    “Hmm. About that...”

    Aoto began to read aloud the letter. As suspected, the content was an order for expedition to hunt down a fleet of Siren in the east pacific which involved scouting, suppression on sight, and safeguarding. Not only this deployment order was approved by the Flagship of the fleet, but it was also given with the Admiralty Board’s stamp of approval. It further noted gathering spot and deployment time at the eastern port by 2000 tonight, but Aoto couldn’t help blurting out his honest thoughts.

    “Capturing a Siren...?” Aoto glanced between the letter and his subordinates with an utterly baffled look. “Is this supposed to be some form of an inside joke, Shoukaku?”

    “No, it is possible with the current technology we possess, Shikikan. Although it’s not a discovery accessible for public consumption either.”

    “...what do you mean by that?”

    “It is the way everything has become.” Shoukaku brought her teacup to her lips and took a few sips. “A few years ago, the empire’s research and development department succeeded in molding a new type of Wisdom Cube. This new strain possesses the ability to summon and control low-ranked Siren to do your bidding. This breakthrough was done by the initiative of Akagi-senpai as soon as she became the flagship of the fleet.”

    “What…?”

    Aoto forgot time was flowing. He stared blankly at Shoukaku, but her expression told him that she was not joking at all. That alarmed him of the gravity of the situation.

    Siren—those monsters were enemies of the world. However, their strength, habits, mode of life, or even intention were all shrouded in mysteries. Ever since the First Contact War, the surviving countries such as Iron Blood sought to unravel the truth, but they all failed to do so without any exception.

    Nevertheless, their objective remained the same: to capture a living specimen of Siren and unravel the complete truth about this long war. However, Iron Blood remained the only one country left to pursue that ideal even after joining the Azur Lane; it inevitably worsened their standing in the alliance and resulted in that country leaving the Azur Lane.

    On the other hand...

    “If that is the truth, Shoukaku...” Aoto considered the right words to describe their country’s current situation. “The Empire, after achieving this breakthrough, must have tried to suggest a fusion of Kansen and Siren technologies to win the war. But with the nature of Siren and their fearsome powers...”

    “Yes, it is exactly as what you think, Shikikan-kun.” Shoukaku nodded grimly. “We received wide criticisms from our allies.”

    The Rear Admiral swallowed an invisible lump down his throat. This… was… far more than he could take in with one sitting. Though there was a breakthrough, there was just no room allowed for Sakura Empire to complete their research. Without political, technical, engineering, or even monetary support, the empire believed they had been wronged. On top of that, there must be political pressures that further ignited hatred under the belief of unjust oppression.

    Aoto was a soldier first and foremost. He had never been too close with politics and neither did he have the interest to dabble in it, but he could guess there was another reason why the empire broke off from the Alliance.

    From his superiors, peers, and public information, the empire could not stand the way Azur Lane handled their approach in fighting against Siren, but such pettiness didn’t seem real for him. This new piece of knowledge cleared his doubts. The clash of ideologies was something he had personally seen and heard of. It was only a matter of time when this breakthrough made it out to the world. The Siren was frightening exactly because they succeeded in shutting down 90% of the global sea trades after rendering conventional weaponry to the point of uselessness.

    Obtaining the power to control Siren, even if it was just the Piece-class, meant holding a vast majority of the strongest naval force in the world.

    It would become a menace for countries that hardly have any Kansen to protect their borders, and a cause for concern if it fell upon the hands of superpowers who already possessed a massive number of active Kansen. The balance of world power could easily tip and shatter with the introduction of this wild card, not to mention the ethical and political consequences of revealing this research to the world. Worse came to worst, a second World War would occur, this time using the power of Kansen and Siren technologies to the furthest limits...

    “And yet, the higher-ups want us to… capture a Piece-class Siren?” Aoto deeply inhaled, feeling more than a little lightheaded. “Is this for further research? Do we even have the equipment or the Cube to achieve that...?”

    “I am… uncertain.” Shoukaku shook her head. “This is a first to us, and while we have done a few missions before, openly assaulting a Mirror Sea to capture a Siren is the first. Dear me, just what are those shady seniors up to?”

    So you’re not even hiding it this time around…? “Let’s think more positively. I don’t think the truth is what you expected it to be. Shoukaku...”

    “No, you don’t understand, Shikikan-kun. You have never met them so you wouldn’t know the sort of characters those people have…!”

    “I’d say we accept this mission!”

    Both Aoto and Shoukaku stopped arguing. They looked to the third person in the room and stared at Zuikaku who held the deployment order up. She looked back to the two with a serious expression, one that surprised Aoto. He… didn’t think he had ever seen her looking so determined like this.

    “Order is order, so we can’t just reject it. Not to mention this type of mission require an escort or two to succeed.” A brief image of a ship girl who waved back at Aoto in the night before his promotion appeared in his mind. However, that delusion was soon broken off as Zuikaku elicited helpless laughter. “Well, it’s our seniors we’re talking about. The designated escorts will surely be under their recommendation, but it’s better than nothing. Aircraft carriers like us need suitable vanguards to be truly effective in the battlefield. Right, Shoukaku-nee?”

    “W-well… that’s true, but...”

    Aoto flapped his mouth. Open, close, open, close. In the end, no word came out. Shoukaku swerved the conversation to convince Zuikaku her opinion was far too optimistic, but there was no real heat in her words. She was just worried and perhaps more than familiar about the outcome of the sibling argument from the looks of it; the matter had already been decided and nothing could stop both the deployment order and Zuikaku’s steadfastness.

    Even if he was disgruntled and not liking the prospect of this mission, as a newly promoted commanding officer, Aoto’s opinion mattered little to the agendas of the admiralty. Zuikaku was… completely correct.

    Letting out a small sigh, Aoto placed a hand on his mask. Anxieties swirled in the depth of his dark eyes. I hope nothing will go wrong...
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun had long sunk and the clouds rolled in, hiding the glow of the moon and the glitter of the stars. A cold wind blew through the harbor, but from the pier, all Aoto could see was a lonesome pitch-black ocean. It was five minutes left before the appointment time.

    “I see that you have all arrived.”

    Aoto turned around upon hearing a firm and level voice from behind him. Walking out of the shades cast by trees hiding a stone stairway to the upper level of the district, a young woman in white and blue came into view. Her eyes were blue as the sky, but her gaze was sharp and focused to an uncomfortably stern degree. Her hair was cut short to shoulder length, white like driven snows, and a pair of triangular animal ears rested atop her head.

    He blinked, staring past the white-haired woman and at the nine tails swaying ever so slightly behind her. It was then that he saw two other persons coming out of the shadowed stairway, but they only further surprised him.

    “Oh?” Zuikaku let out a surprised but joyful gasp. “So we do get escorts. Hi there, Fubuki-chan! Ayanami-chan!”

    “Yes! Good evening, Zuikaku-senpai! The Fubuki-class nameship and her sister Ayanami are here to provide help!” A boisterous blue-haired girl in a combination of shrine maiden and school uniform saluted with a wink. That playfulness, however, didn’t extend much to Aoto as she straightened her back and formed a formal air as she faced him. “Are you going to be our Commander in this mission? Pleased to meet you!”

    “Ah… yes, nice to meet you, too… Fubuki?” Aoto smiled. Glancing to the other girl, the red-eyed girl in a modified sailor uniform—Ayanami—silently nodded in greeting as well.

    “Hmm!” Fubuki suddenly closed her eyes and tied her arms behind her back, the stick dangling with papers… was that a gohei? It appeared to be one. Aoto grew a little curious as it was supposed to be a tool for shrine rituals. A shrine maiden Kansen…? “I know that it’s a biiiit different for each person, but straight up using names on first meeting sure is embarrassing.”

    Oh, I didn’t think of that. “Should I use honorifics, then?”

    “No, it’s fine! It’s not like I’ve got some stick for formality,” Fubuki waved off, the gohei rising and down a few times. “You’re kind of strange, but you seem like an okay person for a Commander! Good, great even!”

    What an energetic girl… Aoto almost couldn’t believe he was talking with a Kansen if he didn’t know much beforehand. Fortunately for him, the metallic devices carried by this girl, Fubuki, looked to be very familiar to parts of a warship. Indeed, this must be the so-called rigging. I wonder what kind of rigging do Zuikaku and Shoukaku have?

    The two had been acting subdued ever seen they came to the harbor. He stared back at the Kansen whose form made her seem like a character straight out of local folklore. Kitsune youkai… was it? An animal spirit with the ability to shapeshift and assume the form of a human, based off a fox that lived past a century. The Wisdom Cube’s trait to accumulate wishes and general perceptions of idealized figures for the Old World warships must have influenced the fox-eared Kansen’s appearance during her construction.

    It does seem like this person is the one who assigned the mission.

    “Reporting,” Aoto started with a salute to the stern-looking woman in blue. “I am Rear Admiral Tatsumiya Aoto, commanding officer of the Fifth Carrier Division. Our preparations are done, we can set sail immediately.”

    The woman stared at him for a short while as if gauging him. Before long, she closed her eyes and nodded in acknowledgment. Aoto lowered his hand in response and waited.

    “I am Kaga, Aircraft Carrier Kaga of the Sakura’s First Carrier Division.” The now named Kaga crossed her arms under her chest as if to assume an authoritative posture. “As per the directive granted to you, your mission is to enter Siren-controlled water and capture a Piece-class Siren. Do you understand what it means?”

    “Yes, though I’m afraid I lack much of the details regarding the capturing of a Siren.” Aoto glanced back, catching Zuikaku and Shoukaku who stood in line closer than the usual before returning his attention to Kaga. “This will be the first mission for the division under my lead as a Kansen fleet’s Commanding Officer.”

    “Hmph. A greenhorn, is it? I expect no less,” Kaga scoffed. Aoto swore he could feel some dark aura emanating from behind him, but he chose to not do anything lest he worsens the state of things at the moment. “Needless to say, fighting Siren is to be expected. However, sending two prized carriers of our empire without an escort is a fool’s errand. Which is why...”

    “We will be your escorts, Commander!” Fubuki cheerfully announced. “With two of the world’s most advanced destroyers at your side, we will protect your division without fail!”

    Right beside the bubbly girl, Ayanami nodded. It seemed like she was partially influenced by Fubuki’s cheerfulness. Either way, Aoto was grateful for their enthusiasm. Plus, these two eased the mood somewhat.

    “Very well. I see no reason to deny help, and our division is certainly lacking in manpower right now.” Aoto tipped his cap as he nodded in acceptance.

    “See that you use them well,” Kaga said. Her expression was stone cold and indifferent like her words. “I am certain you have personally seen the scale of the battle against Siren in your past missions, but the battle you fought in and the battle we fight in are as different as the heaven and earth. Know your place, or you will be crushed like the other ants out there.”

    “Understood. We shall deploy as soon as we establish a chain of orders and formation.”

    “Hmph. Let’s hope that you do just that.”

    Like that, Kaga departed from the scene. Without giving parting words or encouragement, she simply went back to the way she came from. Her white hair and presence faded from view, melding into the dark shadows cast by the trees. Remaining in the scene now were the Fifth Carrier Division and its escorts. Aoto released a deep sigh he didn’t know he was holding until that moment.

    “Well, that’s that. I guess...”

    “Ah… ha ha… Sorry there, Rear Admiral.” Zuikaku walked up and stood by Aoto’s side. “I’m sure you’re overwhelmed, but Kaga-senpai has always been like that. She was much sweeter in the past, though...”

    “Really, now?” Aoto gave the dark stairway a long stare. “I almost can’t imagine that, but if it’s as you say, I guess it’s only because I have nothing on me to boast for.”

    “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it!”

    I sure hope I can, although… Aoto turned around, finding none other than Shoukaku making some gestures like a person throwing salt at evil spirits who intruded her home. Upon noticing his stare, she quickly returned to her default persona, all smile and charming. Aoto raised an eyebrow. Shoukaku’s smile strained. This one has issues, too.

    Pinching the bridge of his nose, Aoto lamented the slow death of his hope for a tranquil workplace.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Hmhm… How should I say it, it sure is a pleasant surprise...”

    From the sidelines, Fubuki grinned widely at the exchanges between her seniors and their commanding officer. She felt a tad bit worried when she was about to participate in a night mission while escorting a human, but it wasn’t because she thought she wouldn’t be up for the task. On the contrary, she worried over the kind of commanding officer she and her sister was about work under, no matter how brief it’d be.

    For Kansen, their purpose in life was to protect and serve humanity. It was their main directive as a warship, and Fubuki was no different on that matter.

    However, that didn’t mean a Kansen could easily work under anyone’s lead. A good degree of aptitude with Wisdom Cubes was necessary for a human to be a Kansen fleet’s Commanding Officer. Hope drove Kansen to live, aspiration granted them the willpower to struggle, histories of naval warfare became their weapons, dreams realized their forms, and love gave them the strength as well as courage to keep on sailing. A Commanding Officer served to link Kansen with humanity as a whole. Those known as Commanders were their foundation pillar, hence why Kansen became much stronger in body and stable in mind the moment they found the right Commander.

    “Yeaap.” Fubuki nodded once, then twice. “It sure is good to know that our Commander in this mission is a good one. Aren’t you excited, Ayanami?”

    “...no comment.”

    Aww, she’s embarrassed! Fubuki’s grin stretched, but any wider and it’d have threatened to split her face in two. Unfortunately, the nameship of the Fubuki-class destroyers could not contain her joy and excitement. She knew from just a glance that while Ayanami had no idea what to do about working together with a Commanding Officer, this being her first time, it was clear that Ayanami wasn’t completely against the idea. Fubuki had nothing to worry about now!

    “There, there! Don’t worry, Onee-chan is here for you!” Fubuki caught Ayanami in a hug and rubbed her cheek against her sister’s. “Now, let’s… hm? Hmmmm?”

    “...is there something wrong…?” Ayanami asked, clearly bothered by the skinship.

    Fubuki’s nose and her ears twitched. She sniffed the air, tasted the temperature with her skin, and listened to the sounds of the night sky. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but somehow, Fubuki had a feeling something felt a little different than the usual. The atmosphere didn’t feel quite right, but it also didn’t feel quite so wrong either.

    The odd feeling soon vanished and Fubuki blinked in wonderment. What was that all about?

    “Hmmm, I guess that’s just the winds…? Aaah, I don’t like night mission...”

    “Before that...” Ayanami grunted, her hands moving to push Fubuki off from her. “Please get off me, Onee-chan. Too close… this is uncomfortable...”

    No way! Ayanami is so cute!
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sea was quiet at night. Leaving the harbor, embarking on a journey to the dark realm guided only by acoustic radar instruments and ocean charts, the Fifth Carrier Division sailed at a steady pace.

    However, with Aoto added into the equation, he must use an escort ship. Considering it was the division’s first time working under a Commanding Officer, Shoukaku suggested that he should see how Kansen fought first before thinking of making a proper strategy. The issue with that, however, was that he couldn’t be escorted by the two carriers. They were simply not the fastest ship around with their tonnage. Eventually, everyone agreed that Ayanami was to escort him by switching her rigging to her ship form. They hadn’t even reached the enemy’s territory yet Aoto already felt like he was a burden to everyone.

    “Maybe going along wasn’t such a good idea, after all...” Aoto murmured to himself. “I lost the chance upon seeing a Kansen’s rigging transform into a warship that isn’t a paper tiger.”

    That honestly overwhelmed him. Ayanami’s rigging wasn’t particularly small or big, but for a destroyer, it was clear she preferred fast movement and close combat maneuver with her giant sword and torpedoes. When she switched the form of her rigging, all of the metal parts latching to her broke down into numerous azure cubes that flew to the sea and formed a whole, actual warship. The sea roared and the waves raged as the Type-2 Fubuki-class Destroyer’s weight settled in while throwing several physical laws out of the ballpark.

    That scene was probably comical if seen by people who had become far too used to Kansen shenanigans. As for Aoto... it was the shock of his life.

    Some said seeing was believing, but personally witnessing the capability of a Kansen made him question what was real and not. Of course, being delirious or drunk wouldn’t do when he was still in the working hours, but...

    “I dropped my jaw like a child…” Aoto complained, a mirthless smile spreading on his face as he rubbed his chin. “I guess I still have a long way to go, then. As if I can gain the respect of my subordinates if this is all it takes for me to get stunned speechless.”

    Between the intervals, there had only been periodical reports for recording and banters exchanged among the vanguards. So far, there was no sign of the enemy, not even a scout. That made the frontline members to chit-chat as they skate across the water surface. Aoto worried if they were getting too relaxed, but then again, being too tense wasn’t good either.

    Still, an hour left before we reached the designated coordinate...

    Aoto glanced around. The observation deck was a lonely place when all the electronics and levers moved on their own. It was unnerving, but Aoto chalked that up as yet another innate ability of a Kansen.

    Kansen are truly wondrous existences, he thought as he left his station. He never saw a soul in the way out of the observation deck. Automation of this level is extremely efficient, it saves up resources, time, and manpower which you can divest for other, more beneficial tasks. No wonder the navy chose to restructure their organization.

    Exiting into the starboard, Aoto found the person he was looking for. Her figure illuminated by the moonlight, her ponytail swayed in the winds as her red eyes gazed to the distant horizons.

    If he didn’t know any better, Aoto would have thought that the lone girl at the starboard of a warship was just that; a girl. Even so, Ayanami was not just a girl or even a person. She was a Kansen, a war machine given flesh and blood. To think of her the same as a human was a bit more than misleading, but Aoto had a feeling he would never be able to label the Kansen the way headquarters wanted.

    Is it bad that I’m being sentimental? Perhaps. Do I regret it? Absolutely not.

    He might not be skilled in socializing, and he was still fumbling his way through things, but there was nothing wrong with treating people as people. Aoto genuinely believed that, and he was certain nothing could challenge that line of thoughts. As he took the final step, he arrived a few meters away from Ayanami—just enough that he could speak and listen without having to raise his voice or sharpen his hearing. The girl seemed to appreciate the distance between them, judging by how she glanced at him before returning to observe the ocean once again.

    However...

    “This place… is dangerous. Commander,” Ayanami warned.

    “There’s been no enemy in sight, so I think it’s fine to be here,” Aoto countered. “Besides, the sea breeze has a nice feeling. It’s been a long time since I last have nothing to do on a ship sailing so far away from home.”

    “...is that so…?”

    “It is so.”

    The conversation died then and there. A strong wind blew across the deck. The clouds rolled, coming and going as they pleased, all while the stars and the moon shone brightly in the night sky. The scent of saltwater was particularly distinct out here, and the sound of the ship hull splitting the waves rumbled with soothing rhythms. After a while, Aoto heard his present company speaking once more.

    “I… don’t hate fighting,” Ayanami said.

    Aoto closed his eyes and nodded, tying his hands behind the small of his back. “I see, I don’t think that mindset is wrong.”

    “But I also don’t really like it,” she added. “Even so… we have to fight because we must.”

    That’s true. Memories of the past slowly resurfaced to the forefront of his mind, at first vague images he could barely recognize. With the eventual passing of time, however, the images became clear and ghosts of voices, as well as gongs of battles, flashed through his head. The shed blood, the sound of rent steel, the screams of the damned, and the grieving wails all made it feel like the brutal nightmare just happened yesterday. It was hell, but that hell only existed in the past.

    The world was no longer stuck in the darkness. The breakthroughs in the research of Wisdom Cube and the successful manifestation of the Kansen allowed mankind to fight back against Siren. Time had changed. The world had changed. No longer was there a need for people like Aoto to throw their lives away for senseless deaths. A semblance of stability finally returned to this blue planet.

    “...is there… really no other choice?” asked the girl.

    Aoto reopened his eyes. He stared off into the distances, finding Zuikaku, Shoukaku, and Fubuki sailing a little ahead. The clear night sky allowed the stars and the moon to guide them by illuminating the pitch-black ocean.

    “If there’s a choice between running away and fighting,” Aoto paused. “I’d rather fight. To tell the truth, I was relieved when I came to know that I can oversee this operation directly.”

    “...why?” Ayanami finally asked, looking at him as she stopped distracting herself.

    Well, now, why indeed… Aoto pondered, forgetting the passage of times as his mind swam, searching for the right words to describe his opinion. There was no need to sugarcoat it, and there was no reason for him to be so overly formal. He had doubts Ayanami wished for the textbook answer, anyway, so… I guess this is it, then.

    “Being left behind is quite painful, you see.”

    “Huh…?”

    Oh, dear. Did he mess up? He hoped he didn’t offend Ayanami, but that was the only—

    “Eh? It’s here?” Ayanami suddenly looked back ahead, her confusion clearing path for intense focus which alerted Aoto. She nodded, murmuring acknowledgments, and then she finally directed her sharpened gaze to him. “Rear Admiral, this is from Zuikaku-senpai. Her scout plane discovered the target.”

    So the time has come at last… “How many are there? Composition? Formation? Their speed? Chance of them sensing us?”

    “No, not yet.” Ayanami shook her head and pursed her lips. “There are three Pawns, two Knights, and one Bishop. There is no Queen or King. Sailing in a single line formation at forty-two knots. We can catch up to them if we hurry.”

    So no carrier or battleship then, Aoto concluded as strategic maneuvers flashed through his mind. The intel he received said that it was a patrol unit, but his personal experience might as well be useless in this situation. With Kansen put on the field, there was finally an adequate amount of combat power to retaliate. No, not just retaliate. We can destroy them so long as there is no higher-ranked Siren nearby.

    However, the order given to him was to capture them. One was enough, but two or three would no doubt please the Board. Unfortunately, Aoto wasn’t confident in the chance of his force’s victory. How would his fleet dispatch the enemy force? Where was the right place to attack? How was he supposed to gauge the strength of his and his enemy’s force, and was there a critical need to prepare for an escape route in case things go south? What about...

    “...Rear Admiral?” Ayanami’s question brought him back to reality and so Aoto shook his head so that he could dispel the pessimistic thoughts binding him in place. “Your approval…?”

    There’s no point in overthinking it.

    “Good work, Ayanami. Tell Zuikaku my gratitude, and...”

    Aoto trained his gaze to the disjointed blood red lines shrouded in the dark of the night. He could hardly tell their shape, he wasn’t a Kansen and binocular could only let him see so far, but the glowing sigil of the Siren’s frigates was hard to mistake. It seemed some things had yet to change even after all these years...

    Good, that’s how it should be.

    Aoto inhaled and sharpened his focus to the limits. He heard a faint gasp from the side, but his sight was already dead set on the oblivious enemies. Either take the chance now or lose the opportunity and fail. The answer had already been decided from the moment Ayanami reported the scouting result. Aoto placed his left hand on the pommel of his kaiguntou, a habit he had developed throughout his career, and steeled his resolve.

    “...permission to attack granted,” Aoto declared. “Commence the operation!”
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: Sinking Moon
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 5: Sinking Moon ----

    It was time. Zuikaku almost couldn’t believe it.

    The gathering of black clouds and purple lightning signaled Siren’s presence. Like Kansen, the enemy was a force naturally capable of altering the weather and changing the landscape when they grouped up in one place. However, while Kansen blessed flowers in their path to bloom, Siren made them wither. Like opposing forces of good and evil, the two seemed as if they existed to reject each other. Zuikaku, however, couldn’t care less. Siren was the enemy that had taken countless precious things away from mankind; they were invaders and she was a protector of her nation.

    Yes, let’s keep it simple. “Rear Admiral Tatsumiya, I’d like to propose a battle plan.”

    Tapping into the communication channel with her Shikigami, Zuikaku’s thoughts flowed to all members of the fleet. There were still some distances before the radio grew tumultuous. The other annoying thing in fighting Siren was that their territories could disrupt communication channels in moment’s notice. That was why invading or being trapped in Siren-controlled water could become a huge gamble; a situation where all communication channels turned useless guaranteed a solid chance of defeat from a critical lack of information.

    [I’m open to suggestions,] from the other side Aoto replied. [All I could do now is observe from afar. The rest is up to your discretion in this case.]

    Zuikaku pursed her lips. He understood his own lack of experience, huh? It seemed like her superior had many stories behind his mask. No matter, his words meant approval to her.

    “I will fight alongside Fubuki-chan,” Zuikaku announced.

    A short pause.

    [Can you do it?]

    “It’s not a matter of can or can’t do,” Zuikaku waved off the concern in his question. “We are here to capture a Piece-class Siren. We’re going to succeed.”

    [...very well. Go ahead and give them hell.]

    Zuikaku grinned, her gold-colored eyes blazing with resolve. She revved up her boiler, yelling “Follow me, Fubuki-chan!” as she jumped into action. Fubuki hastily followed, and Shoukaku sighed out loud as she joined the fray.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The moon half-covered by the clouds bestowed comfort for voyagers. The ocean shrouded in the darkness, however, provided a perfect cover for a night battle. Unlike warships, kansen barely split the waves when they moved, their engines imperceptible to notice, and their humanoid forms allowing them to evade searchlights better than a mass of steel could ever do.

    One Kansen silently closed in and fired a barrage of shells. They struck the hull of a Knight-class frigate squarely, explosions, and smokes spewing from the damaged hull.

    “Direct hit!” Fubuki yelled out, her main turrets vomiting spent bullet cases as the belt moved to supply new bullets into the chambers. Her torpedo launcher gyrated and launched all that it had at the light cruiser. “Zuikaku-senpai!”

    “Right on it!” Zuikaku jumped onto the deck of the burning frigate. Obscured by the smokes and the dancing embers, she took a stance with her sword unsheathed. “Sever!”

    In a flash, Zuikaku’s blade drew a silver line that cleanly sliced the frigate’s radar tower off from its deck. With the enormous sound of groaning steel, the tower plunged into the dark depths of the ocean, inciting a pillar of water to rise to the sky. Rippling waves spread throughout the area.

    That’s one…! Zuikaku quickly began to aim for her next target when the deck of the damaged light cruiser rumbled to the core. The Sakura carrier faltered as she saw more smoke and fires spewing from the other side of the Knight-class Siren’s hull. Through the saltwater rain, she found all of the enemies’ turrets aiming at her regardless of her position at the deck of their ally. Tch, no mercy like the monsters they’ve always been, huh...!

    With a flick of wrist, a red paper shaped like an aircraft dropped from the sleeve of her haori and into her empty hand. Zuikaku threw the paper into the sky. A dose of focus allowed the Shikigami to fly higher and higher, breaking the usual expectation of it floating down. Fire engulfed it and from within the conflagration a full-sized fighter aircraft flew out.

    The fighter roared as it drew an arc before sharply diving to the Knight-class Siren. Zuikaku ran through the burning deck and kicked off from the edge of portside, landing right atop the wing of her fighter aircraft.

    “Come on…!”

    As if noticing that she had escaped, the Siren fleet switched to firing their anti-air guns. Bullets chased after her like slithering snakes, but Zuikaku sensed a short delay between the salvos.

    The weather and time was giving her force powerful advantages. If they wanted to win this, then they must not abandon the initiative. We can do this, I’ll show him what we’re made of!!
    +-+-+-+-+

    Siren’s weaponry had always been known as unrivaled. Their rail bullets punched into hulls of warships as if they were paper armors, and the higher-ranked Siren carried with them laser armaments that could pierce even the toughest of fortress walls.

    However, Kansen held the power to withstand the brunt of the damages to a degree. There was little known about why or how, but it was believed to have something to do with the nature of Wisdom Cubes manifesting prayers, hope and the will to resist against despair in the form of the Kansen.

    “Yo! Haah!”

    Fubuki parried a bullet that came a bit too close to her vitals. The battlefield was, as expected, chaotic. Aoto communicated with her through Ayanami’s radio interface and so far, it didn’t feel bad to her. After the light cruiser-type sank, Zuikaku swept down on the second Knight-class while drawing the heats. There was no battleship or aircraft carrier among this Siren fleet, so it was a really good thing to know. A fleet of two carriers and two destroyers pitted against a full-house Siren fleet would have been suicidal.

    But still… Fubuki glanced up, catching a squadron of airplanes dropping torpedoes. After the initial splashes, her radar detected signatures of the torpedoes heading straight to the Bishop-class hanging in the back. That’s another direct hit…! Amazing!

    Fubuki knew how powerful Zuikaku was from seeing her dispatch a Knight-class without using any of her planes, but Shoukaku was similarly able to accurately target an enemy hidden in the darkness of the night. Although mass-production type Sirens possessed glowing signs which made them easy targets, coordinating a squadron of planes to avoid anti-air barrage and land a successful airstrike right after was something else.

    Our senpai are awesome… I wonder if I can be as great as they are some—

    [Fubuki, can you hear me?]

    Fubuki yelped. Her course was disrupted and she almost tripped, but she quickly recovered and hopped forward. A bullet struck the spot she was previously at, shaking the waves she was riding on. Without batting an eyelid, the destroyer doubled her pace.

    “Y-yeah!? What’s wrong, Commander?!” Fubuki asked through the radio comm. That was too close for comfort, I need to pay better attention to the battlefield!!

    [I would like sitrep.]

    “Eh?” Fubuki couldn’t help herself from throwing out that sound. “Are you sure it’s okay to hear it coming from me?”

    [You’re the vanguard,] Aoto answered. [I’m also worried about Zuikaku. She said that she can fight together with you, but I’m afraid asking the person herself will just break her focus.]

    So you’re fine breaking mine…? Fubuki couldn’t suppress the hapless smile spreading on her face. This person was different than what she expected, and he wasn’t even hiding it. Not this one, not that one. All of you Commanding Officers sure have no fixed patterns.

    “We’re doing fine, Commander.” Swinging her gohei to the side, Fubuki skated to the side as she fired another barrage at a Piece-class. Boom, the Siren’s turrets exploded. Another direct hit. “Zuikaku-senpai destroyed the Knights and Shoukaku-senpai just sank the Bishop! I’m almost done here, too!”

    [I-I see…] Aoto’s overwhelmed response soothed Fubuki. It really seemed like he had no idea how to act when it came to commanding a kansen fleet; he really was a new blood. And yet, Fubuki noticed he wasn’t freaking out or getting angry over the method used by the Kansen, a plus point for him and the empire to have recruited another good Commander. [Then, good luck. Be wary of any possible reinforcement.]

    “Roger dodger…!” Fubuki cheered. Another shell dropped right before her, sending a wave that drenched her. “Bwah!? What was that for, you little...!”
    +-+-+-+-+

    “...it’s over, Commander.”

    Aoto mindlessly nodded at Ayanami’s report. Her ship was still a fair bit distances away from the battlefield, but It was difficult for him not to notice the ridiculous spectacle in all of its glory.

    Honestly, he thought as the ship sailed past Siren wreckage. Their blood-red sigils no longer shone, a proof that they had been thoroughly sunk. Only fifteen minutes had passed and the mission was over without casualty at all, this was ridiculous. Not that I’m not grateful about the stellar performance, but still...

    “There they are,” Ayanami pointed out, drawing Aoto’s thoughts back to the present. “And that’s the capture target.”

    Surrounded by Shoukaku, Zuikaku, and Fubuki, a Pawn-class Siren floated in place with all of its turrets blown up, its radar tower disabled, and its engine shut down. The sigils decorating the hull was glowing faintly; it must have taken a severe beating. Unfortunately for it, Aoto had not even a shred of sympathy and he would never dream of giving the Siren such a thing.

    “What are we supposed to do with this?” Aoto asked, looking to Ayanami. “Towing it back is fine and all, but there’s no telling if it will stay put. We don’t even know if it’s truly neutralized or not.”

    “There’s no need to worry...” Ayanami raised her index finger, directing Aoto to the position of her sister. “Onee-chan has the key for this operation.”

    As if noticing the cue, Fubuki took out an object from her sleeve. Aoto squinted his eyes as he saw what appeared to be a cube floating on the kansen’s palm. It was solid black in color, not even reflecting the shreds of moonlight peeking through the dissipating clouds, and yet it was somehow able to glow with purplish shine. The strange cube’s glow heightened when it was directed to the disarmed Pawn-class.

    “What is—“

    Aoto visibly recoiled. His heartbeat jumped by a notch as unpleasant feelings ensnared his heart. Reflexively, his hand moved to grasp the handle of his kaiguntou but Ayanami stopped him at the last second.

    “It’s okay, Commander. There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “The Black Cube’s only capability is to command and control the lowest-ranked Siren. It has no other function...”

    “Is, is that so…?”

    Aoto shook his head, trying to dispel the strong disgust boiling in his stomach. It didn’t work well. The longer he stared at the so-called Black Cube, the more he felt nauseous. It was as if he was staring at something that must not be allowed to exist, so he covered half of his face with his hand, his fingers pressed against the ivory white mask to fight off the headache.

    “Umm...” Ayanami’s gaze could be felt being directed at him. It seemed he had worried her because of his reaction. “If you’re feeling unwell, you should go back and rest, Commander...”

    “No… it’s fine. Everything’s fine, Ayanami.” Through the gritted teeth, a small part of Aoto’s mind ridiculed himself over his sloppy effort in putting up a front. He ignored it by shaking his head to the sides. “I was just… still overwhelmed by the battle earlier.”

    “Is that so…?”

    The girl clearly didn’t buy it. However, the capture procedure had already finished while they were going back-and-forth. It was instantaneous. The red sigils of the Siren frigate stopped blinking, turning into a more subdued shade of red. The damaged turrets no longer propped up and the boiler ceased to function. As it silently stayed afloat, the Pawn-class Siren looked like a defused bomb—harmless in look but still showing the same dreadful impression.

    “And that does it! Cheers!!” Fubuki raised the Black Cube and twirled in place before she put it back in her sleeve. “I already set it to go with us, so let’s go back, Commander!”

    Aoto blinked owlishly at her antics. He was about to ask a question when he realized the throbbing headache was no longer. Even the unpleasant feeling in his chest vanished as if it was never there. What was that all about? He really didn’t get it, but… looking at his fleet, each and every one of them looking at him for an answer, made it difficult to concentrate on his questions.

    Letting out a dramatic sigh, Aoto switched gears as he announced, “Very well. Let’s go back, everyone.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    The night was growing old. When the Fifth Carrier Division returned to the harbor, the ones who welcomed them was none other than Kaga, but Aoto noticed there was another kansen standing next to her. This one possessed a deep brown hair that went below her waist and she styled herself in a black-red kimono. She sported the same triangular ears with the same numbers of fox tails behind her back. At a glance, she looked like a sibling to Kaga, but something felt a little off about the two.

    “It’s Akagi-senpai...” Fubuki was breathless when she said that. “Wow, this is my lucky day. I can’t believe the Flagship of the Fleet is personally welcoming our return...”

    Ah, so she is the imperial navy’s flagship. Aoto certainly didn’t expect meeting two high-profile figures in the span of several hours. There was a feeling he could not easily describe, but if he tried to make a comparison... It feels like meeting the boss of your boss.

    “Greetings, and excellent work. You have done a splendid job in this mission,” Akagi began as she curtsied upon facing Aoto. “My name is Akagi, the Aircraft Carrier of the First Carrier Division. I am also currently serving as the Flagship of the fleet.”

    Aoto saluted, but before he could introduce himself, the kansen waved as she turned her gaze to the captured Siren ship. He visibly relaxed somewhat.

    “How exquisite,” the navy’s Flagship said. “There is not much damage, and though the turrets are forcibly disabled, this ensures that it will not be able to fight back at all.” Akagi’s red eyes returned to reflect Aoto’s figure. “Was this your idea, Rear Admiral Tatsumiya?”

    She already knows me? No, wait. That was a stupid question. Of course she knew. What sort of Flagship wouldn’t know the Navy from top-to-bottom? At the very least, the commanding officers functioned as links in the hierarchy. Knowing their identities would obviously make a few things easier to address. Aoto felt like reprimanding himself, but that could be set aside for later dates. For now, I have to answer to her.

    “Indeed. I have to admit, I am not too keen on letting the base be at needless risk.”

    Aoto looked at the damaged Pawn. Being up close to a Piece-class was uncomfortable. It felt wrong, and staring at it for too long only brought back memories he wanted to bury. But duty called, and needs must.

    “No… I’d say that is a good call on your part.” Unexpectedly, Akagi praised him. “We still know little in regards to the Siren. They are powerful, dangerous, but their technology far surpasses ours by generations. It makes one wonder how advanced the Siren is and where did they even come from.”

    The Flagship of Sakura Empire raised a hand, touching the sigil that had no longer glowed as if proving it no longer possessed a will of its own.

    “You have done well, Rear Admiral. I hope you will continue on serving the empire.”

    “Submit your battle report by three days from now,” Kaga piped in. “I expect you all to be ready at all times should there be mobilization order. You are now dismissed.”

    Aoto felt a shiver down his spine. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Shoukaku staring daggers at Kaga. That was bad, really bad. Zuikaku thankfully noticed like he did and dragged her older sister by hand, going past their seniors while throwing excuses as they returned to their living quarters. It was a poor showing, one Aoto would have given pity if he wasn’t the two’s direct superior. After the Shoukaku-class carriers left the scene, Aoto looked back to the smiling Akagi.

    “My apology,” he confessed. “Those two were forced to deal with my inexperience, so please forgive them. They meant no ill will.”

    “What are you saying, all of a sudden? There is nothing to forgive, no?”

    Aoto almost breathed in relief. Unfortunately, Kaga seemed to think otherwise and stared at him suspiciously. Out of the frying pan and into the fire…

    “Uhm. I guess this is it for today, then!” Fubuki chirped as she approached Akagi. Aoto noticed a certain cube hovering on her hand, and the destroyer handed it to the aircraft carrier who accepted it as if already expecting it. “Akagi-senpai, Kaga-senpai! See you tomorrow!”

    “Ah… Onee-chan, wait…!”

    The two destroyers ran off to the stairway. Halfway through, however, Fubuki turned around and waved at… was she waving at him?

    “See you later, Commander!”

    “Huh… a-ah… yeah.” Aoto sucked in air, thinking of what to say. He waved back at the two Fubuki-class destroyers.“See you later, Fubuki. Ayanami, too.”

    With that, the two disappeared into the stairway. All that remained in the harbor was Aoto and the two members of the First Carrier Division. There was an invisible tension hanging in the air. Or rather, there was… nothing wrong if he were there with Akagi alone. The problem was that Kaga clearly didn’t think too highly of him, and he wasn’t sure he’d like sticking around a Siren for an extended period of time. Ahh, the woe of having a personal meeting with people who can toss your head on the chopping block…

    “They are good girls, aren’t they?”

    Akagi suddenly spoke out. That came out of nowhere that it left Aoto stumped, but by that did she mean…?

    “I... haven’t known them for long, so I can’t say I understand them as well as you do.” Aoto looked back to the empty stone stairway. “But yes. I believe they are all good people.”

    “People, is it?” Akagi giggled as if finding something amusing. “How nostalgic. There is also one other person who referred to us as if we are just regular people.”

    “Then it’s a good thing to know.” Aoto tipped his cap down. “We have already delegated our responsibility to fight for ourselves to you. If we can’t even treat you like people, then there is no hope left for humanity.”

    “Pessimistic, aren’t you? The world is vast. I am certain there are plenty of humans who treat us the same way you do, Rear Admiral.”

    “I’d like to say that I’m just being realistic, but what do I know about the world, anyway?”

    Aoto felt like laughing. He, a person without memories or even an idea of self, was talking as if he somehow someway represented mankind. Now that was a good joke. If only he had a drink to share; he could definitely get along well with Akagi. Shoukaku must have exaggerated a few things about this person.

    “Now, then.” Akagi closed her eyes, the Black Cube vanishing into her sleeve. Was that some form of safekeeping items for the Kansen? “The night has grown old. Before we part ways, do you mind if I ask of you one minor matter?”

    Hmm? “I do not mind.”

    Without waiting for it, Akagi asked, “What do you think of us after your first battle?”

    ...

    Silence reigned. No, that wasn’t it. Akagi’s question was a simple one, but it felt strange in his ears. It was as if she wanted to know more; as if she wished to understand him through his reaction. At the same time, Aoto’s thoughts returned to the battle from just earlier. Everything came together like bursting bubbles, and his heartbeat increased by a notch momentarily.

    At this stage, there was no way for him to form a proper opinion about his subordinates and the Kansen in general. And yet… If there is something I have to say… Taking a deep breath, Aoto cast his gaze down to his feet. As he closed his eyes, a though coalesced together. He nodded to himself before meeting Akagi’s gaze.

    “The KAN-SEN Project,” he said. “You truly are capable of defeating Sirens.”

    With a voice half-filled with bitter resignation and lamentation, Aoto drew Akagi’s attention.

    “Many years ago, long after the First Contact War. At a point of time, the navy fought off a Siren invasion in the north pacific front,” he elaborated, recalling the snowy days and the eternal gray clouds that stretched as far as he could see. “I and my classmates were placed there, and our superiors warned us any ship that encountered Siren will sink for sure. Of course, we were fresh out of the military academy. We didn’t know the gravity of the situation, nor the meaning behind those words until we saw the frontline with our own eyes.”

    It wasn’t an exaggeration. Without the weaponry born from the research on Wisdom Cubes, there was simply no method of fighting back. The Siren were juggernauts, and mankind as a whole was their prey. There was just no way in contesting that empirical fact.

    Even so, the soldiers could not retreat. They must not give any more grounds for the Sirens to invade, for they had people and places they wanted to protect. Many of them were in dispute over what to do, and many felt that they would die without being able to fight back at all. In fact, they did die just like that. It was only because Aoto and his peers served in the far back that he could survive to tell the tales, but he still was forced to recognize the extent of the Siren’s invincible power directly.

    “It felt like a living nightmare, haunting me even to this day.” Aoto looked to the side, staring off to the distant horizon and the vast, wide ocean. “I’d give everything if I could stop that tragedy from happening ever again. But then you all came, granting us the salvation we needed but never asked for.”

    He looked back at Akagi and Kaga. There he smiled at the two.

    “Thank you… if our struggle bought enough time for your arrival, then my comrades’ sacrifices were not in vain.”

    He was truly thankful. That fact would never change even if the world turned upside-down.
    +-+-+-+-+

    Dawn was nearing. Only three hours away and the sun would rise, greeting the world as tomorrow came. Judging by the barometer, it seemed tomorrow would be quite warm.

    “What do you think of them, Kaga?”

    “They’re not a threat, Nee-sama.” Kaga sat on the railing of the balcony, looking into the room from her vantage point. Her sister was tending to paperwork, diligent and patient if not a little distracted considering her current pace. That wasn’t unusual; at least as far as Kaga was concerned. “Their tactic was basic, though making a carrier to double as a vanguard is mind-boggling. The stunt isn’t practical at all.”

    “The same as always, aren’t you?” Akagi giggled, making Kaga to growl in annoyance. “If you feel irritated, would you like to know what I think of them?”

    “What do you even know, you bootlick—never mind.” Kaga felt winded. Already, she was lapsing back to her old habits. Fighting over childish things like this… she thought she was already beyond that phase. “If you say so, Nee-sama. But not about our kouhai.”

    Akagi nodded down in acknowledgment. “That commanding officer is a kind person.”

    ...kind?

    “Instead of being upset over the losses he had, he chose to look ahead and accept our late arrival as a way to honor his fallen allies.” Akagi’s ears twitched, the nine fox tails swaying to the sides. “He gave the commanding authority to the kansen without a beat of hesitation, and he kept himself at an arm’s length so that he could intervene if it’s necessary. He lives up to his records and reputations, but…”

    Kaga felt cold chills running down her skin. The voice of her sister changed, ever so slightly, twisted and filled to the point of overflowing with intense emotion. It was…

    “Kindness and forgiveness are not enough to win this war. Not even nearly enough.

    The floor trembled. Kaga’s tails bristled as embers began to gather around Akagi. Before she could say anything, the embers vanished and the atmosphere reverted to normal. The white-haired kansen breathed in and out. In. Out. Shaking her head, the kansen stepped back into the room.

    “If that is so, then that division will pose no problem to our plan,” Kaga huffed. “There is no need to concern ourselves with them.”

    Akagi nodded in agreement. “However, I have no desire for even the tiniest gap in our armor to be exploited. And so...”

    “And so…?”

    “Uhu hu. We have tilled the soil. I believe it’s about time to plant the seeds, now.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    A few days later. Things had returned to a normal routine, what with Aoto having to finish the report faster than he should because he needed to stop Shoukaku from infecting everyone with her dark auras. The woman clearly hated being pushed around by her seniors, so taking whatever business related to the First Carrier Division away from the office seemed to do the trick.

    “Shikikan-kun, your tea.”

    “Ah, thank you very much.” Aoto reached out to the cup of tea offered by Shoukaku. It was one of the few times where Shoukaku chose to assist him in his work, so he was grateful for her soothing presence. “Today is green tea, hm?”

    “Oh my, you can tell?”

    “From the scent, yes—”

    A knock was heard. Aoto blinked and stared at the door to his office. It was unlocked so he told whoever standing outside to come in, but he identified a pair of mechanical headband akin to horns, an altered sailor uniform, and a familiar pair of red eyes in the frame of a young girl’s face.

    “Ayanami-chan…?” Shoukaku mused.

    “Nn. It is Ayanami, yes.” The girl nodded, stood straight, and gave a salute. “Good morning, Rear Admiral Tatsumiya. Advanced Fubuki-class ship, Ayanami. Reporting for duty.”

    Huh?

    “Umm… well...” Ayanami paused, fidgeting as if unsure of what to say. “By the order of... Akagi-senpai, I have been transferred to the Fifth Carrier Division… yes.”

    A solid sound that hurt the ears echoed. The tea cup in Shoukaku’s hand cracked and the hot tea spilled over Aoto’s arm. Owowowow!?
     
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  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: Mountain, River, and Demon
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 6: Mountain, River, and Demon ---

    As spring neared its end, the weather warmed up in preparation for summer's arrival. In less than a month, everything would be hellishly hot. Aoto hoped there would be no big event to attend or else he was going to file a complaint to higher-ups.

    Now, then. As a commanding officer, his career had just begun, and the streams of paperwork from headquarters increased as if to make a point. He wasn't quite certain if his superiors had finally recognized the value in granting double promotion to him, but the pile of tasks in the list must have something to do with it. From logistics to combat operations, missions after more missions popped out like a bulk-printed newspaper. The kansen fleet was more proactive than he had initially expected, but it made sense. They had become the navy's new face after conventional weaponry turned obsolete.

    In this day and age, a kansen could replace hundreds to thousands of crews and saved resources like no other. However, the enemy still had the advantage of numbers and quality.

    Excluding the North Arctic region, the northern hemisphere has all been reclaimed. Aoto jotted down a few additional lines in his report. Some things were better left out in the open rather than kept close to your chest. This allowed the restoration of global sea trades to a degree, but the southern hemisphere remained under Siren's thumb.

    Aoto drafted yet another report to be sent to headquarters. As if there was some form of foul magic in play, it turned out there was still one more document to check out. The masked man sighed, rolling his shoulders. They had turned stiff from dealing with paperwork for too long.

    But that's not the biggest elephant in the room…

    Sensing the presence standing nearby, Aoto placed his elbows on his desk, crossed his fingers, and rested his chin on them. The unblinking stare of Ayanami was beginning to grate on his nerves. The girl was, for some reason, taking her work attitude to the point of extremity and while Aoto had gotten used to the scrutinizing gaze, it still unnerved him how the girl was trying to learn something from observing his every activity. She also rarely interacted with the other members of the division. Shoukaku refusing to acknowledge Ayanami's existence was just the icing on top of the cake, which only turned the work environment feeling unbearably hostile.

    Yesh, this isn't good.

    He wished somebody could take up the slacks and mediate between the two, but the prime candidate also known as Zuikaku was rarely around. Both carrier sisters always acted on their own, preferring to be in their comfort zones. Both of them similarly loved to run away from responsibilities as long as they did not have anything to do with combat. Problem children, indeed.

    I really should ask where can I find Zuikaku one of these days, it's getting inconvenient when I'm the only one who can't contact my own subordinates in moment's notice.

    Coughing to his fist, Aoto decided enough was enough. "Ayanami, would you kindly tell Shoukaku and Zuikaku to gather here? We are going to have a brainstorming session."

    "A… brainstorming session?" The red-eyed girl tilted her head.

    "Yes, planning out a work-sanctioned trip, to be more precise." Aoto stretched a smile under his mask. "Which do you prefer, mountain or sea?"
    +-+-+-+-+

    "It's the sea."

    "It's the mountain."

    For the first time ever, Ayanami discovered two close siblings glaring at each other with some invisible sparks flying between them. After she told the two to gather at the office, Ayanami was terribly anxious. Her seniors seemed incredibly reluctant, which she had no idea why, but when the Commander… Rear Admiral Tatsumiya announced his agenda, the two immediately launched their own suggestion. Their timing was impeccable, yet their conflicting wishes sowed discord.

    "Hm. I thought something like this would happen, but can I hear your reasoning, both of you?"

    Taking this in a stride, the Rear Admiral managed to look like the wisest person in the room even though he was the cause of this mess. Ayanami could only stare in a daze as his audacity fanned the flames bigger.

    "I am not comfortable with the idea of being so far away from the sea." Shoukaku opened fire by seizing the initiative. "If it's the sea, we are right next to it. Going inland will take the effort, time, and money that could be saved for better things."

    "The mountain is better!" Zuikaku slammed both of her hands against the Rear Admiral's desk as if to subdue her sister's argument. "The fresh air of the mountainous region, the green forest, the sounds of wildlife, and the cool shades under the trees are all things us kansen rarely experienced! To widen our horizon is the duty of those willing to change and improve themselves, Rear Admiral!"

    But that sounds like you just want to go there for recreational purposes…

    It wasn't good. The two were hopeless. Ayanami could feel the mental image of her seniors crumble at record speed, yet the culprit who caused her the stinging pain of betrayal only nodded along as he smoothly argued that both had their own strong points. Just as she hoped nothing would go any more wrong than this, the Rear Admiral looked to her direction.

    "So, what do you think, Ayanami? I don't have the right to decide since I was the one who asked for this, but which one is better for you?"

    He wants me to be a tiebreaker while avoiding responsibility! Ayanami's mind reeled in dread, but the damage had been done. The ball was now in her court. The girl shuddered as she felt the judging stares of her seniors, cold sweat forming on her back from the intense focus cast upon her. If she sided with either one, she would make the other party look bad in front of their superior. Worse came to worst, she would be hated for taking sides. W-what should I do…?

    Her head tried to process the right answer, worries, and doubts piling up at the speed of light. In less than two minutes, her brain fizzled out and Ayanami stopped thinking. There was no thought left. Empty space filled her mind, stretching forevermore to the infinity. All was silent, and then—

    "I… appeal the right to keep silent," Ayanami finally answered.

    Whatever happened after that, the destroyer couldn't quite recall. She did, however, notice one of the Shoukaku-class sisters discreetly sulking until the day of the trip. Ayanami died a little on the inside upon knowing that.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun showered upon the region evenly. From the train cabin, the scenery shifted at such a speed that the only sight worth to observe was the unending row of evergreen mountains and hills in the distance. Spring persisted with a few brushes of pink decorating the forest.

    Aoto looked out to the windows, humming to himself. There were few clouds, but the winds carried with them faint scents of flowers. While he didn't expect himself to be this happy, it was true that he wanted to get out of his office for once. The work-sanctioned trip was a thing he had been negotiating with the higher-ups for a while, and though they imposed restrictions like staying at a navy-owned vacation house, he still looked forward to it. He had no doubt the trip would let everyone relax and bond together.

    "Rear Admiral? Are you there?"

    Aoto perked his head up. Poking out from the seat in front of him, a pair of gold-colored eyes made contact with his gaze. Zuikaku next to her face was a hand holding up an opened box of biscuits. Aoto smiled and received the offered snack.

    "Need any drink?" Zuikaku asked.

    "Just water is fine," Aoto replied. After a few beats, he got what he wanted. "Thank you, Zuikaku. Also, we're not at the base. It's alright to call me by name, you know?"

    The woman waved and returned to her seat without answering to his plea. Aoto sighed. As usual, both Shoukaku-class carriers still put up some distances with him. He had much more to learn, but he would no doubt hit a limit someday. It'd have been better to ask an expert about how to interact with kansen, but then again… Things would have been way easier had there been many people like him, no?

    There's no use overthinking it. He took a cookie from the snack box and threw it into his mouth. Crunch, the dry sound broke out. A little salty, but still sweet. It was a good delicacy, definitely better than military rations.

    "...ah."

    Aoto glanced to the side. When he met his newest subordinate in the eyes, Ayanami quickly tried reverting her expression to her default emotionless persona. Unfortunately for her, what had already been exposed could not be easily forgotten. Aoto simply smiled and offered the box of cookies to her. The girl shifted in place, looking troubled beneath the visor cap. Her red eyes glanced at the box, then down, then to the other side, and then…

    "Uuu… thank, you..." Ayanami took out a cookie and held it with her two hands. She made a look as if she had discovered a great treasure, innocent and yet completely fitting for her.

    Aoto chuckled. He raised his hand and placed it on Ayanami's head. The girl stiffened like an alerted small critter, but she didn't push him away or telling him to stop. Aoto took that as his cue to lightly rub her head, feeling the soft strands of hair. No matter how he looked at it, both the hair color and texture all felt natural and never off-putting; yet another thing about kansen, perhaps?
    +-+-+-+-+

    There were a few more transits throughout the train ride. The group of four had gone really far from Yokosuka, but two took everything with complete ease that it was difficult to feel either the discomfort of being in unknown places or the travel fatigue. In fact, Aoto couldn't help but going along with the mood, trying out local delicacies and buying miscellaneous objects he thought would look good in his office.

    "You have to keep your spending low, Shikikan-kun."

    "Ugh," Aoto grunted, feeling the disapproving gaze of his secretary. "Y-yeah, okay. I'll make sure to keep it within the budget."

    Well, there were a few bumps in the road, but everything worked out fine. The sun had risen to its zenith, and with that, the long travel came to an end at a rural place so far and detached from anywhere. Walking out of the train station, the group headed for a few hundred meters to the only mountain in the region. At the foot of it they found the vacation house owned by the Navy, a two-story wooden cottage that had aged like a fine wine. It lacked the impression of having been visited for a long time, but from the looks of it the infrastructure had yet to suffer major damages.

    It was livable, cozy, and undoubtedly more than enough for a group of four to inhabit.

    "Hmm?" Aoto glanced around, finding no security around. Instead, there was a small shrine sitting at the entrance of the path leading to the vacation house. "Well, I suppose this is a trait of the countryside but is the public order high enough there's no need for security…?"

    "I don't think that's it, Rear Admiral." From up ahead Zuikaku's voice traveled to Aoto. "See that shrine over there? That's proof this property is owned by the government. It also has the ability to grant minor blessings to the surrounding area."

    Ah, so that's how it is. "A land protected by godly blessings is not to be trifled with. Likewise, making mischief in the vicinity of a shrine will most bring down divine punishment, hm?"

    "Well, the Lord of the Forest will do just that even if there's no shrine around, but..." Zuikaku's trailed off. "Whatever. Rear Admiral, hurry up! You're the one holding the house key!"

    Oh, right, I almost forgot. Aoto hastily chased after Zuikaku, but after a short while, he came back and placed a cookie in front of the shrine. After nodding to himself, he ran back to the vacation house, setting up stuff for the events to come. Unbeknownst to any of them, a small four-legged creature snatched the cookie at the altar before vanishing back into the bush.
    +-+-+-+-+

    When it came to the mountain, there were many things that could be done. From foraging to fishing and grilling meals at the riverside, a lot of activities could be done easily. Aoto might not be as well-versed in having fun, but he could do fine with gridiron cooking.

    Needless to say, he never expected the first activity of this trip to be playing at the river.

    "Cold!" Zuikaku visibly shuddered the moment she leaped into the river, sandals discarded almost instantly. A wide, childish smile bloomed on her face as she made splashes while twirling in her light green sundress. "It's the river, Shoukaku-nee! It feels so cold and the taste is so different than the sea!"

    "Zuikaku!? What are you doing, your dress is going to—bhwa?!"

    Ah, there it goes. Aoto expected something considering how high-tension Zuikaku was, and it indeed came true through water splash to Shoukaku's face. And three… two… one—

    "Zuikakuuuuuu!"

    Yep, there goes the two. Aoto set down a grill, checking if the footing was solid for it. Once he confirmed there was no problem, he dropped charcoals evenly, then placed the grids over them. He had bought the ingredients and the gridiron tools beforehand, so the next thing to do was… Oh, forgot the lighter and cooking oil.

    Aoto was about to head back when he saw Ayanami sitting in the shades of a tree. Even though there was nothing to stop her from joining the carriers, she chose to stay away from their sight.

    Walking to her while keeping himself in her line of sight, he entered the shades. He didn't sit down like Ayanami did. There were no greetings. Ayanami seemed to be very preoccupied on staring at the river, so Aoto followed her direction as the sounds of Zuikaku competing with Shoukaku in throwing waters at each other fell into the backdrops.

    A gentle breeze passed through the area. The tree branches rustled, and green leaves flew into the sky. It wasn't time yet for cicadas to cry so it wasn't so quiet, but it wasn't so noisy either.

    "So," Aoto began. "Are you enjoying this vacation?"

    "...the first day… isn't even done."

    That might be so. Aoto thought that the three would have preferred to relax after the long trip, but it seemed he had underestimated their stamina. Even without rigging, they were capable of performing menial tasks with boundless tenacity and vigor. While their personalities, maturity, and knowledge differed on a case-by-case basis, there was a form of streamlined design that allowed kansen to live as peak humans while off-duty. Aoto pressed two fingers on his chin. How many secrets do these girls have?

    "I see," he eventually said. "Are you doing fine?"

    "Just a little… tired. I'll be fine, Shikikan."

    Aoto pondered, but he accepted Ayanami's answer as it was. If she said so.

    "I suppose it's still overwhelming for you, huh? I did ask you to be Shoukaku's assistant right after you transferred into our division."

    "No… that one, is fine..."

    "Is that so?" He received a slow nod as an answer to his question. "Have you done that sort of job before, then?"

    For some reason, the question took several minutes for Ayanami to process. After a long silence, she looked up, staring through the green foliage and into the blue sky.

    "I… participated in missions," Ayanami slowly answered. "Day and night patrols, joint exercises, expeditions with all of the senpai, but..."

    "But…?"

    "I've… never been apart from Onee-chan… lately."



    Oh, so that's the real reason why. Aoto didn't know. He had never thought of the possibility that Ayanami was joined by the hips with Fubuki, even though it was quite easy to tell even with first impression alone. The girl's routine must have been mostly spent with her sister, and considering the two siblings' personalities, Ayanami must have felt great comfort in being with Fubuki. It was a dependent relationship, and when that bond was abruptly ripped apart...

    "...I'm sorry. That is all my fault."

    "...huh?"

    The moment Ayanami looked to him, Aoto had already bowed down to her.

    "It's my failure for having not noticed. I didn't think you have been missing your sister," Aoto explained. "I'm truly sorry."

    "Ah… uh..."

    When the transfer was suddenly decided, it should have been natural to expect Ayanami unable to get used to working in the Fifth Carrier Division. This problem stemmed from his oversight on top of the naturally bad first impression Ayanami gave to Shoukaku. Aoto felt guilt and shames seeping into the cracks between the rocks under his feet. He made Ayanami vice-secretary because he thought he couldn't leave her unsupervised, but that seemed to have only delayed the inevitable.

    He should have noticed. It was so obvious, right from their first meeting. He had learned of his post and all the duties that entailed it, yet he made a giant blunder by failing to understand his subordinate's woes. Rookie's mistake, yet no less severe in consequence—

    "I… please raise your head, Shikikan."

    Aoto blinked. Lifting his head, he saw Ayanami looking up to him with a different look on her face. It was a determined expression.

    "I do not think you are in the wrong," the girl said. "Fubuki… Onee-chan, and I. The two of us were given the order to work in different divisions. We were allowed to choose which division we want to transfer in..."

    Huh…? Then…

    As if having read his thoughts, Ayanami nodded. "Onee-chan chose to be in the Second Carrier Division. So I… chose to join your division… yes."

    "But… Doesn't that mean that..."

    "Kansen are," Ayanami interrupted. "We are… we possess physical durability, and mental fortitude far surpassing humans. But even that has a limit. So I chose… to give Onee-chan some space. I want to be… a little more dependable so that Onee-chan won't have to work so hard..."

    The girl lowered her eyelids. The shades cast by the tree made it difficult to tell the kind of expression she made, but… Aoto could guess there was something more. There was one other reason why Ayanami decided to be this harsh to herself. He sat down and waited, patiently sitting without trying to look like he was waiting for her. It all didn't make sense, but he just wanted to avoid making things even more difficult for her as he already had.

    And then… after a few minutes passed...

    "It's the same for my friends, too…" Ayanami admitted. "They're all busy, so much we rarely ever meet each other. But we're fighting a war to protect humanity. It's our duty to fight for your kind, Shikikan. But I think… I still miss them… too."
    +-+-+-+-+

    Would he… be upset? Ayanami had never once talked about her problems. Fubuki could tell what she was thinking, it was purely because she was her sister. I've… never once told anyone about this… haven't I?

    So Ayanami waited. She waited, and waited, and waited. Somehow, there was no answer, but his presence had yet to go away at all. Ayanami looked to the side, and it was then that her superior hung his head as he heaved a long sigh.

    "For the love of…" he murmured. "What did we even do to deserve you all..."

    Huh?

    "No, it's nothing. I didn't mean it in a bad way." Sitting cross-legged, the Commander placed his elbow on his knee and placed his hand on one side of his face. He really liked to use that pose, as if he was trying to reflect on something. "Each and every one of you is just so pure, it's difficult to understand what sort of goodness do you see in us that is worth dying to protect for."

    Huuuh…? Ayanami didn't understand. She didn't expect the Rear Admiral to criticize his own kind like that. She almost wondered if she had given the wrong answer, but… It feels as if he's talking like he's not a human…?

    That was a strange thought. Sure, the Commander had a suspicious and shady-looking mask he never took off no matter the time and place, but he was a human through and through. He had the physique of a soldier and the work attitude of one. Aside from that, he was laid-back and diligent. Although he needed some work on his worrywart side... he always scrunched his eyebrows whenever he was deep in thoughts.

    "I don't think… you should over-analyze some things, Shikikan..."

    The man blinked. His dark eyes reflected her figure and he tilted his head. "Do I look like I'm overthinking it?"

    "Un… very often."

    Ah, I made the wrong choice. Ayanami shouldn't have been that blunt. No matter what others said, Tatsumiya Aoto was her superior. Even though this was supposed to be a vacation, she should have known her place and behaved accordingly. W-what should I…

    A big and rough hand fell onto her head. Ayanami tensed up. She thought something would happen but after many beats, all she experienced was her receiving headpats. Gently, gently, soothing if not a little warm for the current weather. Ayanami closed an eye in reflex as she looked up to her superior, feeling his hand rubbing her head and his fingers brushing her hair.

    "You have a point," the Commander said, a soft but guilt-stricken smile spreading across his face. "Sorry if I made you worry, Ayanami. I rarely considered how I look in front of others. I guess it turned into a habit over the years."

    "Unh…?" Ayanami nodded, but the headpat was making her sway back and forth. "I don't really get it, but… it's alright, Shikikan...?"

    The Rear Admiral nodded in acceptance to her words. He pulled back his hand and gazed back to the river.

    "I'll work harder to be a Commander the three of you can be proud of. But..." He raised an index finger. "All of you should also keep it in moderation. I can't have my subordinates fall apart because you're overworking yourself."

    Ayanami stared at his profile. No matter how it looked… his advice wasn't as effective when he just got reprimanded from overdoing things, right? The girl couldn't help but feel he was sort of lame. He wasn't shameless per se, unlike a certain person, but he seemed to have the innate ability to make himself look incompetent when he was expected not to.

    Now I'm worried… will the division be fine like this?

    "Also," he said. "Next time, it's okay to request for a day-off. I don't know what I can do, but surely there's a time to take off your mind from duty and visit your friends."

    Ayanami's eyes widened. "Shikikan…? I-is that, alright…?"

    "Of course. Wanting to be with your friends is never a crime in my eyes. Oh right, I'm going back to the cottage." The Commander stood back up and turned to head to the cottage. "Tell those two we're going to have yakiniku for lunch."

    Ayanami stared long and hard at his receding back. She looked down to the ground, then at the green foliage above, and then to the clear blue sky and the sun shining down upon this empire. The girl raised a hand and pressed it against her chest. She could feel her own heart beating, the proof that she was alive once more. She could no longer live in the form she was once accustomed to, but by no means was the miracle given to her unneeded.

    Ayanami closed her eyes. She deeply inhaled, and her mind backtracked to the time she treasured dearly. It was not the recent past, or the present time. She could no longer go back to those halcyon days, and clouds of uncertainty stood in the future waiting for her.

    "Javelin… Laffey… Nimi..."

    Where was she going? What could she do for everyone? Would it even be possible for her to wish for a future where everyone was happy? Ayanami did not know, she couldn't possibly guess what destiny had in store for her. However… even still…

    "P-please wait for me!"

    Getting up, Ayanami hastily ran to her superior. She quickly caught up, but as if expecting her, the same soft smile was plastered on Tatsumiya Aoto's face. And, instead of asking her, he just chose to walk ahead. Ayanami thought that was a little unfair of him; telling her thought was the most difficult thing she had ever done.

    "I want to..." Ayanami inhaled, following after her superior. "I want to help out… Can I…?"

    "Well now," the Commander said. "I thought you'd never ask!"

    The human and kansen walked back to the wooden cottage. Eventually, however, a thin object floated down from the tree foliage. Pure white like driven snow, the piece of paper then trailed after the two receding figures.
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: Crane on the Water Surface
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    And this is it for today's batch of chapters.

    --- Chapter 7: Crane on the Water Surface ---

    The following days followed with the same energy, though Aoto had to admit he couldn’t quite catch up with the division’s pace. Kansen and humans really are two different species…

    The terrible fact hammered in on the second day. He had assumed everyone would want to take their time, but they in fact didn’t. Zuikaku dragged everyone to explore the whole region, checking every nook and cranny of the rural area. Shoukaku, in the meanwhile, went to the town hall only to strike a deal for a special supply contract, all tabbed to him. The one who did things in moderation was Ayanami alone, but even then, she didn’t look impressed by the lack of… well, anything.

    This trip has been an endless wave of ups and downs from start to finish.

    Was it just him or did karma caught up to him? That was probably it. Aoto did force Ayanami to choose where to go in the beginning. It was only natural to receive his just reward for his deed. Truly, fate was a harsh mistress.

    “And now I can’t even sleep...” At the balcony of his room, Aoto peered outside. It was half-past midnight. Everyone aside from him had retired to their own room, sleeping away their fatigue for homecoming tomorrow. But in places like the naval base or the capital, there was no way for him to see celestial bodies shining so bright and clear. “I guess this is also a good fortune, a tranquil place perfect for self-reflection.”

    And so he did just that. Things had been busy. Extremely so. Making himself familiar with his new place in the world had become a routine that it felt weird for him to be far and away from the sea. Perhaps that was a good thing; it had been a long while since he last appreciated the fact that he was still alive and in one piece.

    I should plan for trips like this more often, he thought to himself. Not just for their sake, but also for my own.

    Aoto took the lid of a sake bottle out. It was made by the local brewery, a rice wine. It was not particularly high-class or strong for its kind, but he appreciated the exotic flavor resulting from the technique, materials, and process involved to brew it. He tilted his refilled cup, making a small ripple that broke the waning moon’s reflection, and smiled to himself as he luxuriated in the moment—

    ...Shikikan-kun? Why are you still up?”

    Aoto raised an eyebrow at the sight of a paper floating in front of him. It had dirt tainting the native white coloration of the paper, tear marks sprinkled all around it, and the human-shaped paper having a few ends roughly rolled in. The floating item suddenly appeared from thin air, but it also felt as if it had been waiting for the chance to appear before his eyes. Plus, that overly soft and polite voice pointed to one person in this trip.

    “Good evening,” Aoto said while raising his drinking cup. “It looks like you caught me in an awkward situation, Shoukaku. What can I help you with?”

    I asked first, Shikikan-kun. We are going back to the naval base this morning, no?”

    “Yes. Well, I cannot deny that this isn’t the right time to drink, but...” Aoto chuckled, he truly had nothing to defend himself with, this time. Perhaps he might as well come clean. “Since you don’t seem to be resting as well, won’t you come over? It’d be nice if we could avoid waking up the others.”

    There was a round of silence. A whole minute passed, then a sigh full of lamentation could be heard coming from the paper familiar.

    Only for this once, please.”

    “That’s more than I could ever ask for.” Aoto smiled.
    +-+-+-+-+

    Aoto didn’t have to wait for long. In less than five minutes, Shoukaku descended from the roof of the wooden cottage, landing in his balcony with nary a sound.

    Dressed in traditional sleepwear, a white jinbei, the older sister of Zuikaku gave a polite bow in greeting before taking a seat directly opposite of him. As always, she was calm and refined, almost like an exquisitely designed puppet. The moonlight shining down upon her hair simply magnified her charms. If it were any other person, they would have mistaken her as a fairy or a goddess, but Aoto wasn’t fond of exaggerating compliments. Plus, he just… couldn’t think of the kansen as anything other than extremely gifted humans.

    “Shikikan-kun?”

    Broken off from his internal thoughts, Aoto poured a cup of sake for Shoukaku using another cup he had prepared beforehand. It wasn’t like he had been waiting for a drinking companion, but the two drinking cups on him were his warden’s gift to celebrate his departure from the old shrine he came to consider as his home.

    “So,” Aoto began after seven cups had been drunk by the two. The bottle of sake felt light, the liquor must have already been reduced to less than half. “As you can see, I couldn’t sleep, but the night is lonesome on its own, so I decided to have a drink while viewing the moon.”

    “What you should do is preparing yourself for the days ahead.” Shoukaku took a sip from her cup, quietly partaking on the rice wine bought just yesterday. “It means resting, not drinking yourself to a stupor.”

    “In my defense, my alcohol tolerance is higher than average.” Aoto closed an eye and tilted his head to the side. “What about you, Shoukaku? What is your reasoning?”

    “Needless to say, I...”

    Silence came and went by. Shoukaku had yet to shift her expression from the solemn air she had been projecting, but the words she used smoothly flowed out of her lips. It was both something within and beyond his expectations.

    “I was… I have been spying on you this whole trip, to understand your character.”

    Oh?

    “It wasn’t my intention to invade your privacy, but I couldn’t take it any longer.” For once, the white-haired woman looked to the side with a guilty look on her face. “After that night, our division has been saddled with many missions. Regardless of their importance, the feeling as if we are being judged and expected to fail do not sit well with me.”

    “...setting aside the last point, is the current situation so different to your past circumstance?”

    What he meant was whether or not the Fifth Carrier Division had been accepting completely different directives until he received his mandate to lead it. There was something Shoukaku had yet to tell. He wished she could fess up already, but forcing the issue by this point would do nothing but invite troubles. In the end, Aoto leaned back in his chair and patiently waited.

    “Yes,” Shoukaku eventually replied. “Our directives have always been of little consequences for the empire. To tell the truth, our situation has been almost exactly the same as to the time when I and Zuikaku were still living our lives as ordinary warships.”

    That again, hm… Aoto expected the conversation moving to that direction at one point, but not this soon. It was difficult to ascertain, but "that time” Shoukaku referred, could it be that they completely remembered their memories of the Old World? If so, that’d make further inquiries be more complicated. No, I don’t think such a thing matters for now.

    “I am not too knowledgeable on that subject, but if you say so, wouldn’t that mean you are fed up with your past and present circumstance?”

    Greatly,” Shoukaku huffed. “Our seniors have not changed at all. They continued pushing us who arrived later to do meaningless jobs while they hogged the spotlight as if they did all the important things. But more than that...”

    Aoto blinked in silent surprise. He tried to not show it on his face, but Shoukaku’s expression turned forlorn, biting her lips as she deeply lowered her head.

    “The fact that everything we did amounted to nothing… is the most humiliating for us...”

    “...Shoukaku...”

    “I know. I know that it’s untrue,” Shoukaku rebuffed, looking back to meet Aoto in the eye. “But I can’t stop doubting myself, doubting our peers, doubting our seniors and the higher-ups, Shikikan-kun. Nothing we did have worked until now.”

    Was it enough? Will we be praised for our hard work and achievements? Will we finally stop being treated as if we mattered little?

    Even though those questions were left unsaid, Aoto could hear them. He could see the dense black clouds filling Shoukaku’s clear blue eyes. It made him at a loss for words, the alcohol in his system and the cool winds blowing through the surrounding forest forgotten in the face of his current predicament.

    “I thought of it all throughout this trip,” Shoukaku confessed. “I’m terribly sorry for increasing the burdens on your back. Even though you are just fulfilling your duty… The two of us have been doing nothing but causing problems for you, haven’t we?”

    “That’s not...”

    Aoto couldn’t finish that sentence. The final word died in his throat, and he visibly swallowed.

    If he tried to ask himself, then the answer would become clear. Aoto wished he could reject it, refute her claim, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want to lie to himself. For his whole life, this empty self of his had been living a life of lie by using a new identity to fill the hole that was his blank past. Even the only clue plastered on his face yielded no result, not even a hint to his true origin.

    Who are you, a corner of his mind asked. Aoto unconsciously held his breath, hissing quietly to repel the treacherous accusation away. He had no right to criticize Shoukaku. Even still…

    “Does that… have something to do with the reason why you treat Ayanami as if she doesn’t exist?” Receiving no answer, Aoto hardened his gaze and glared at his secretary. “You are far more familiar with your peers more than I could ever be. You should know better than others that the girl couldn’t possibly be conspiring with your seniors to undermine you and Zuikaku’s efforts.”

    The woman bit her lips, but she didn’t interrupt him. Receiving his reprimand, all Shoukaku did was hanging her head low in shame. Aoto exasperated. This was getting nowhere. He loosened the tensions riding on his shoulders and poured himself another cup of sake.

    There was a chance of Shoukaku finding the idea of apologizing to Ayanami equaling to him taking sides if he told her to do that. That included doubting her words in regards to her seniors; it was all nonsense but humans and kansen seemed to share the concept of rejecting cold logic even when they were forced to face it. Aoto was still skeptical, but he would not speak of Shoukaku’s perceived notion about her seniors and neither was he going to accept everything Shoukaku said as the whole truth. It didn’t mean he could dismiss the fractured team dynamic and leave it on others’ hands.

    What should I do, then? Aoto pondered his mind diving into his memories in search for an answer. Being excessively hard or soft wouldn’t do. The middle ground where he could find a form of compromise must have existed somewhere, a solution even a person like Shoukaku could accept within her set of reasons. What sort of plan would be—ah, that’s right, wouldn’t this work just as well?

    “What you cannot accept is the higher-ups’ decisions, and your seniors, no?” Aoto cracked a smile upon seeing Shoukaku’s stilled, reluctant nod. “By that reasoning, Ayanami has nothing to do with your grudges and rivalry, right?”

    “...yes. That is indeed the truth.”

    “Then,” he paused. “I recommend talking it out with that girl.”

    “Huh…?”

    Aoto held up the bottle of sake to Shoukaku. The woman’s shoulders fell as quick as they rose, and he refilled the cup offered by her.

    “Just talk with her. Whatever you chose to tell her, it’s better than doing nothing.” Aoto pulled back after Shoukaku’s cup was almost filled to the brim. He then poured his own cup another refill, but it could only be filled half-full; the alcohol was finally gone. “You can also treat this as rambling of a drunkard. This isn’t an order from your boss, but an advice from your peer. The same applies to my commands from now onward.”

    “That’s… but… Shikikan-kun, that is a breach in military code.”

    “It’d make you feel at ease, right? ” Aoto took a slow sip, properly savoring the last cup of rice wine for the night. “I’m only one person. It’d be good to have someone who can point out the holes in my plans.”

    As the night grew old, a soothing silence prevailed. Aoto hummed quietly. There was still time left for them to enjoy the moment. Therefore, he waited, waited, and waited. Eventually…

    “I… understand.” Shoukaku lifted her head, meeting Aoto in the eye at last. “I will try to make amend with Ayanami-chan.”

    “Mhm. That’s good to hear.”

    “But,” she added. Sucking in air, Shoukaku looked as if she had decided on something. “This is not because I have fully acknowledged you. You still have a long way to go before Zuikaku and I could truly accept you as our Commander. I am doing this because Ayanami-chan did nothing wrong at all.”

    Ah, Aoto thought. So I really am still in trial. Well, I expect no less, but confirming it is one step forward already.

    “Then… I will retire to my room.” Shoukaku placed her cup on the round table, emptied out and all. “Good night, Shikikan-kun. Please rest up as well.”

    “I will try to,” Aoto said, closing his eyes and feeling the night breeze brushing off his cheek. It would probably take a while until he felt like slipping back into his bed—

    “Also...”

    Hm? Aoto reopened his eyes and looked ahead. Shoukaku had already left her seat, standing on the railing of the balcony. Her lithe, slender figure was accentuated by the jinbee she wore, and her long white hair swayed in the wind like a veil made with fine silk.

    “I’d rather not make this be a habit,” Shoukaku said. She turned her head and gave him a mischievous stare from over her shoulder. “Please keep it only for when we are in private moments, Shikikan-kun.”

    Before he could come up with a response, the kansen jumped to the roof, smoothly and without sound before vanishing from view completely. Aoto stared at the empty air, then he lifted his head to gaze at the moon that had been overlooking their interaction. He wondered if it had noticed, but he swore he sensed a different vibe from that smile of Shoukaku. Reclining back in his chair, Aoto let out a long sigh.

    “She comes and goes like a crane,” he noted, shaking his head all the while. “The Thankful Crane doesn’t fit your image, Shoukaku.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    A few days later, everything had returned to normal. The naval base was as busy as always, and Zuikaku continued her routine by attending exercises and missions diligently.

    She was in a good mood, actually. The mountains, the rice fields, and the clear river she had seen during the whole business trip refreshed her mind and drive. Those things were a part of the land she had been trying to protect. A country had no business existing without its people, and people could not live without land to inhabit. Everything in this world was necessary for people to keep on living as people.

    “You are in good spirits,” her sparring partner remarked. A smile graced the typically strict and restrained face of Takao as she sheathed her sword. “And your attacks have grown more bold and confident.”

    “Well, of course!” Zuikaku harrumphed. “This is the result of training, and partnering with you proved to be good in heightening our skills, Takao-san!”

    “That is indeed so.” Takao nodded in agreement. “But being arrogant will not do, Zuikaku-dono. Always remember that there is no meaning in strength wielded by an immature heart.”

    Oops, looks like I triggered a landmine. Zuikaku laughed in embarrassment as she half-listened to Takao’s sermons. The Heavy Cruiser was a good person and an excellent warrior, but she was extremely strict on everyone including herself. Perhaps it was because she had been adopting close combat maneuvers into her battle maneuvers, or perhaps it was because of humanity’s perception influencing her character. Either way, Takao had a few bad habits—though I could say it’s her own way in showing her care for others.

    “...ah,” Zuikaku muttered out, her internal clock notifying that it was close to afternoon. “Sorry, Takao-san! I promised to help Shoukaku-nee prepare lunch, please excuse me!!”

    “Hm? A-aah, but of course.” Takao gave a small nod. “Go ahead, Zuikaku-dono. A promise is not to be delayed. Give my regards to Shoukaku-dono as well, and...”

    “Un! See you later!”

    Zuikaku left the training field, entering the winding, labyrinth roads of the Kansen’s residential block. Her steps were light, making clear echoes as she rounded a familiar corner. Soon, she reached her home and immediately passed through the front gate. Opening the sliding door, the kansen inhaled.

    “I’m back!” Zuikaku announced, taking off her shoes and pacing through the corridors to the dining hall. In the way, however, she smelled something nice but it came from outside. From the open corridor facing the backyard, the carrier saw steams rising from the kitchen’s air vents, and something resembling chatters could be heard mingling with sounds of frying and stirring. “Hmmm?”

    Out of curiosity, she walked through the backyard and poked her head into the kitchen. There she found a surprising sight.

    “That’s right, form your hand like a cat’s paw. This will prevent you from cutting your fingers.”

    “Okay…!”

    Two persons were there, interacting with an energetic dynamic as one taught the others how to prepare ingredients and how to cook. Shoukaku’s sleeves were rolled up, while Ayanami wore an apron over her uniform. A lidded pot could be seen leaking out steam bubbles on the stone stoves.

    “Uhh...” Zuikaku slowly crept in, feeling as if she had entered a different dimension. “What, is… going on here…?”

    Hearing her words and sensing her arrival, Shoukaku turned to greet her with a smile, one which Zuikaku noted to be completely genuine and honest. Shoukaku was somehow in a really good mood. What happened to have caused this sudden and radical change of air around her sister? Could it be that guy did something again!?

    “I think you are jumping to conclusions again,” Shoukaku sighed. Her words made Zuikaku reel back in shock. “Please. Nothing special happened. Also, don’t just stand there. We have work to do, Zuikaku. Our lunch isn’t going to be magically done by itself.”

    “B-but… uuuugh, fine!”

    Zuikaku stomped forward, roughly rolling her sleeves up and fetching her own apron. When she passed by Shoukaku, however…

    “There is no need to worry,” Shoukaku said, making her younger sister stare at her with confusion apparent in her eyes. The white-haired woman giggled in a way that spoke of something Zuikaku had no idea about. “I only made a compromise on one thing.”

    Whaaaaat?
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: Summer of Memories
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 8: Summer of Memories ---

    Zuikaku started the day by waking up before dawn. Immersing herself in morning practice as the morning sunlight greeted her, cleansing herself after it, and then dressing up to face the day was all a “ritual” to her, but to tell the truth, food after exercise simply tasted like heaven.

    Zuikaku loved Shoukaku’s cooking. Having a taste bud made her understand the depth and breadth of the world called human cuisine, so as if she could pass up the chance to make the experience feel even better. Like always, she could—oww!?

    “Stop taking the dish on the far side of the table by yourself, Zuikaku.” Sitting opposite of her, Shoukaku’s creased eyebrows made Zuikaku to reel back; the stinging pain on her hand a painful reminder of her sister’s scolding. “I will reduce your portion if you do that again.”

    “Wh-what!? But Shoukaku-nee, the meal is delicious!”

    “That doesn’t mean forgetting table manners!”

    After a few banters, Zuikaku hung her head in defeat. She picked at the leftover pieces on her plate, already feeling a part of her appetite sinking into the void. Bits of a fried mackerel could never be enough for her! Maybe if she tried to ask Ayanami…

    “Shoukaku, could you pass me the mackerel?”

    “Here you go, Shikikan-kun.” Shoukaku picked up the plate left with only one mackerel and handed it over. “Make sure you eat properly. There’s still much work to do this month.”

    “That is my intention, yes. Thank you very much, Shoukaku.”

    The chopsticks in Zuikaku’s hand made an unpleasant sound from her grips. Why did it have to be him who got the last bite!?
    +-+-+-+-+

    After the monsoon, summer arrived without much fanfare. The mainland was hot, but the base became unbearably dry around this time of the year.

    Zuikaku groaned as she turned to lie on her back, gazing at the ceiling with an empty mind, all in hope that the heat could go away by doing that. Both her body and dress were drenched in sweat. She could sense her main body at the dockyard incarcerated by the sunlight, but there was no sortie order until the evening. Her sparring partner was on duty, and Shoukaku had gone out with Ayanami. Zuikaku truly had nobody but the gods to blame for her misfortune this time around.

    And I’m still way too inexperienced to even be the seniors’ sparring partners. Zuikaku deeply sighed, closing her eyes and letting her mind empty itself. I’m so bored, I want to go out…

    Be that as it may, today was hot. The sky had no clouds, and the cicadas cried without a sign of stopping. The situation prevented Zuikaku to take a short nap, much less concentrate on a sliver thread of serious thoughts. The more she thought about her misery, the angrier she became. With an annoyed grunt, Zuikaku slipped out from her haori and threw it aside with abandon. The admittedly expensive robe sailed somewhere beyond her view and—

    “Gah!”

    Eh!? Zuikaku instantly got up, looking to the direction the shocked but familiar sound came from. There she found her haori hanging onto a person, the robe slowly peeling itself off to reveal the figure of Tatsumiya Aoto. Nwaah!!?

    “R-r-r-r-rear Admiral!?” Zuikaku scooted back by many steps.

    “Aaah… well, pardon me for not announcing my presence...” The Rear Admiral scratched his own cheek, catching the haori—her haori—with a smooth gesture. Somehow, Zuikaku felt the blood rushing to her cheeks and she had no idea why. “But I also didn’t expect myself to be treated so coldly either...”

    “No, wait! That’s not…! G-give that back to me!” Zuikaku sniffled, got up, stomped towards her superior, and snatched back her haori. “W-why are you here, anyway?!”

    “No, well… I was just taking a break, so I thought of making barley tea...”

    “But why are you here!?”

    “Isn’t that because I have to go through this corridor to reach the kitchen…?”

    Zuikaku flapped her lips to no avail. All of her questions were shot down with the utmost grace that they made her look like the dumb one to persist on throwing out random questions. This was too much. Or rather, just what was up with her, panicking and overreacting like this? It was out-of-character even for her! It was just him, not her sister or her junior. Why would she panic like a child caught doing a prank?

    Hold on, doesn’t that mean I’ve internally acknowledged him as a part of the division? Zuikaku made intelligible sounds which quickly died down her throat, the horrifying realization bringing some senses back to her fraying mind. Uuugh, I need to reorganize my composure!

    That was right, panicking wouldn’t do anything. Zuikaku slowly inhaled and exhaled. Inhale. Exhale. After repeating the same steps for some times, her heartbeat calmed down and the tension on her shoulders quickly evaporated. Once she told herself she’d be fine, the kansen looked ahead—only to catch a soft smile on her superior’s shady-looking face.

    “...what’s with that smile, Rear Admiral?”

    “Hn? Ah… I suppose it is intriguing,” he answered, casting a curious gaze on her. “There has not been many moments where I could interact with you like this. Today is proving to be my lucky day.”

    Huh? What did he even mean by that? Zuikaku couldn’t tell what he was thinking like always, but somehow, him claiming he was lucky didn’t sit well with Zuikaku. He’s turning more and more irritating than before, ugh!

    “That’s right,” the Rear Admiral continued on. Either because Zuikaku wasn’t paying attention or because he had a thin shadow, the man had turned his back on her, looking out to the yard of the pavilion. “Do you mind us having a small talk here, Zuikaku? Over tea, of course.”

    The kansen narrowed her eyes. “...what kind of talk?”

    “It’s just a little chat. Only you and me. You wouldn’t mind having one over chilled tea, right?”

    Guh, as shrewd as always… Though she thought of his move like that, Zuikaku did not reject his request. As the division’s last bastion of defense, there was no way she’d let down her guards. This time, she’d win fair and square and reclaim her once peaceful, ordinary life!
    +-+-+-+-+

    The art of negotiation necessitated keeping your cards close to heart, read your opponent’s mind, and make the right judgment. Her sister was a veteran on the cloak-and-dagger thing, but even she had been defeated.

    “Answer me this,” Zuikaku started. Even though the barley tea quenched her thirst in this hot weather, her mood did not recover for the least bit. “What did you do to Shoukaku-nee and Ayanami-chan?”

    “Saying nothing would be a lie,” the Rear Admiral replied after taking a long sip of his drink. “But if there was anything I did, it’d have been to advise Shoukaku to talk with Ayanami. Of course, it was all up to her whether she wanted to get along with the girl or not.”

    Zuikaku’s narrowed glare did not recede for one bit. “Isn’t that sort of solution too sloppy?”

    “That’s true,” he conceded. It was rather easily at that, and his cool-as-cucumber manners carried a hint of dry amusement. It was kind of irritating. “Unfortunately, I am not dealing with fellow soldiers.”

    “Muh. You are saying we are difficult to handle, then?”

    “Certainly a handful, but highly specific treatment is not warranted.” The Rear Admiral took another sip of tea. “I’ve seen many kinds of people in my life. I doubt you’d have liked it if I were to treat you as disposable pawns or subjects for worship, no?”

    Zuikaku considered his words. While the alternatives would have been within her original expectations, it would have created needless frictions in the division. Neither of them were ideal alternatives to lead a kansen fleet, and the resulting social dynamic would only destroy the division from inside-out. In that sense, Tatsumiya Aoto suited the role of a commanding officer just fine. Nevertheless…

    “...even as the lesser evil, you are severely lacking in ambition.”

    The woman couldn’t help but to blurt her thoughts out. Yes, her issue was rooted in the fact that her superior had nothing to boast about. Unlike Azur Lane’s Grand Admiral—Tatsumiya Aoto worked within the limits of normal humans, appropriately fair and diligent for a marine as well as a pencil pusher. He was physically fit like an experienced soldier should be, committed to the empire’s causes, yet… that was it.

    That’s all he’s about, Zuikaku realized, looking at the surface of her tea. He’s a good man, but not that unique of an individual.

    In fact, the lack of ambition highlighted his differences to other commanding officers she had encountered before. Tatsumiya Aoto wasn’t so terrible of a leader, much less an awful human being, but he could have been more passionate in his job or a tad bit reckless in his own right. She would never let herself be caught dead for thinking of this, but he could have at the very least possessed a higher standard for both himself and everyone under his command. Thus, if there was a way to describe him...

    “Like a dry log that follows the river current, hm?”

    Zuikaku instantly whipped her head up. Staring at her superior, she found a wide smile across his face. However, that wasn’t all. There was some sort of light within his dark eyes, a sort of emotion Zuikaku could not clearly discern.

    It… stunned her, more than she had initially anticipated. Because of that, she lost the chance to interject her superior.

    “You see, Zuikaku.” The Rear Admiral refilled his cup, drawing out an interval as he drank a few gulps of the barley tea. “As far as I know, doing odd jobs suits me best. Sitting behind an extravagant desk and having my own office… I’ve never imagined myself in such a position.”

    “...then why did you become a Rear Admiral?”

    “Hm. Well, I’m similarly curious about that.” The Rear Admiral chuckled. “Everyone always said I have the making of an Admiral, but I can’t tell if that’s a joke or not.”

    If you consider that a joke even after reaching your current position, I wouldn’t want to know what kind of thing you take seriously. Everything no longer made sense. The brunette could feel a headache forming, and she nursed her temples to process everything that had just transpired. This was… going to take some time… A lot of time, in fact.

    “Ugh, that’s it. I give up.” Zuikaku shook her head, setting down her cup and then falling to the sides, deciding that propriety no longer mattered. Lying on her side and rolling to face the other side, she ignored the inquisitive stare thrown to her back. “It’s so hot today. Leave me alone. I want to rest. Good luck with your work, Rear Admiral.”

    “Is that so…?” Though she was facing away from him, Zuikaku could imagine him taking her words as they were. “Well, summer has never been this hot before, although…”

    Hmmm? Zuikaku was lying on the tatami mat with left elbow propping up her forearm and her left hand cupping her cheek when he abruptly trailed off for no reason. She wasn’t with her rigging, so her strength was limited to peak human performance, but she swore she had heard some words filled with an unfamiliar emotion. Wait, could it be…?

    Glancing over her shoulders, she peeked at her superior’s facial feature. Lo and behold, he had scrunched his eyebrows, looking to some distant place perceived through his clouded dark eyes. It looked as if he was not really “here”—whatever that could mean. Sitting back up, Zuikaku pointed out:

    “Doing that never tires you, huh. Just what were you deep in thought of?”

    The Rear Admiral blinked, his fugue shattered by Zuikaku’s question. “Ah... Sorry, I wasn’t thinking of anything. Just… I suppose it reminded me of the past.”

    “Your past?”

    “Yeah.” He nodded deeply. For once, there was a certain degree of heaviness in his gesture, word, and expression. That was… agitation, why? “It’s not exactly a pleasant memory—”

    A powerful sound spread across the whole district. Both Zuikaku and Aoto instantly looked outside, the “small talk” they had been having quickly forgotten as a wave of alarm blared from the center of the island. The ordinary summer atmosphere drowned. Zuikaku’s heartbeat quickened. Something was happening, something big and powerful. She had always trusted her intuition to grasp a better understanding of the situation, and yet…

    “All military personnel, to the battle stations. All civilians, please evacuate to the designated shelters,” a public intercom announced. “A Siren Invasion has breached the territorial waters. I repeat, a Siren Invasion has breached the empire’s territorial waters!!”

    A large-scale mobilization order. Zuikaku gritted her teeth, cursing her fates for having her wish granted in the worst way possible.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sea raged. The waves rose higher than normal as if a typhoon was about to be here.

    Right after moving out, the winds blew strongly. Black clouds rolled in, and thunders boomed from distances away. Skirting the shorelines, the entirety of Fifth Carrier Division had sailed for half an hour. Throughout their voyage, they saw other Kansen and half-sunk wreckage of Siren ships. Many of the kansen had survived their fights with little injuries, but the rest returned to the port for repairs or resupply. Nobody voiced out the high chances of more enemy encounters, yet the division was given escorts throughout their journey.

    Shoukaku was grateful, but she wished those girls didn’t have to push themselves after all the fighting they had gone through.

    Siren Invasion, she thought back to the meaning behind that term. It was a tactic of the Siren, a logistic mystery yet to receive an answer even after all these years, and a nightmare for soldiers who had survived the battles post-First Contact war. This strategic maneuver started with a seemingly endless wave of humanoid and ship type Sirens, all bearing an extremely aggressive move focusing on the complete annihilation of their targets. For mankind, it is the kind of threat that always resulted in massive losses regardless of the outcome.

    The emergence of Kansen had allowed a turnabout, but it didn’t mean the threat of the Siren’s maneuver was completely nullified. After all, humanity possessed only so many kansen.

    “We are going to arrive in thirty minutes,” Ayanami reported from ahead. At the bow of her materialized ship, the girl had been wearing a severe expression while guiding everyone to the designated site for their order. “From this point onward, we will be out of our ally’s reach. Please be ready at any time.”

    “Confirmed,” Aoto replied. “All hands, summon your rigging, and be on the lookout.”

    Shoukaku furrowed her eyebrows. Without breaking his gaze from the direction the division was heading to, the man’s poise was tense and rigid ever since they sailed out. She never saw him like this. The way Tatsumiya Aoto presently carried himself didn’t match his usual attitude or the image he had conjured so far. Similarly, Zuikaku was acting a bit off. Shoukaku wished to know what exactly happened while she was out with Ayanami. Unfortunately, there was no time for that.

    “...Shoukaku, can you do me a favor?”

    Shoukaku tilted her head upward, feeling the texture of her trusted partner, an onmyou flute that was in her left hand and gave a nod. A second later, she remembered he was not facing her, as if he would notice. People did not have eyes in the back of their heads, so Shoukaku made her response known.

    “Yes, I can. Would you like me to scout ahead?”

    “Arrange a section to fly in two directions,” Aoto continued. “Their missions will be to inform our allies of reinforcement and to secure the perimeter. Do not stick close to each other. We are not letting the enemy gain more advantages than they already have. Keeping our position and movement hidden is the top priority.”

    “Very well...”

    Shoukaku was not sure if she should be impressed by the tactical decisions or the fact that even after a considerable shift of attitude, the Rear Admiral had yet to abandon logic. It felt like watching a man intent on crushing his bitter enemy with everything he had. That sort of mindset could prove to be fatal at times.

    Shoukaku must pay close attention to his following commands in this mission. She needed to prepare herself for the worst. I just hope nothing will force my hands so early…
    +-+-+-+-+

    How many times did this make, now? He didn’t want to close his eyes for fear of recalling the haunting memories of the past, so he removed thoughts from his mind as he closed his eyes. Reopening his eyes, however, didn’t change the scenery before his eyes.

    Black pools of oil floated in the ocean surface, tainting the blue seas with dancing crimson flames atop some of them. Past the broken innards of manyPiece-class Siren was a bay with a town lined up across the shoreline. The settlement itself was not quite advanced, what with being a fishing town, but he could hear no automotive sounds, see the light of vehicles, and sensed the presence of life. The harbor was particularly in a bad shape with capsized fishing ships, ruined port, and a lighthouse that had lost its upper half as if something had cleanly bitten it off. A few trails of smoke faded into the blackened sky.

    “...were we too late…?” Ayanami murmured in trepidation.

    “The collateral damage is certainly significant, but the town layout could still be defined. It is possible that the attack was interrupted in the preliminary stage...” Shoukaku stepped forward, looking around with a stern gaze. Her eyes rested at one point and everyone else followed her direction, looking at a wide mass of iron in the bay. “That shape… there they are.”

    Indeed. As Ayanami’s ship shored next to the vessel, Aoto came to recognize the number of turrets, the overall shape of the hull, as well as the banner of Sakura flying proudly. His eyes widened in belated realization: it was a Fuso-class battleship. Looking at its deck, he could see some familiar figures lined up. Two of them were clad in white military outfits, the third one in a heavily modified shrine maiden attire, and the last one dressed in an extravagant black and red kimono. The Takao-class cruisers Takao and Atago, the lead ship of her class Fubuki, and the incarnation of the Fuso-class battleship herself—Yamashiro.

    “Fubuki… onee-chan!” Ayanami called out in surprise and relief.

    “Yaaay! Ayanami, heeeeeyy!” Fubuki waved cheerfully, not even minding her own singed and soot-stained appearance.

    “Thank goodness… it looks like they are all safe,” Shoukaku deeply exhaled with a hand pressed against her chest.

    “Un! Heeeey! You girls alright!?” Zuikaku added while waving back.

    Well, now… Aoto watched his subordinates racing ahead to meet and greet their allies. There was not a hint of formality in their midst, but it made the atmosphere bittersweet and painful to accept. With the damaged seaside town as the background, it really made the Kansen feel as if they were just a volunteer army, a group of civilians conscripted into the military. Aoto chose to keep that awful thought in the corner of his heart. A boorish person like me has no right to interrupt their moment of respite.

    Tugging down his cap, the man glanced to the open seas outside of the bay. The black clouds and the faint streaks of purple lightning had yet to end. Shoukaku’s scouts which were sent to that direction had yet to return, too. Even without the compass working, the mainland should have still been visible for them to use as a beacon. That could only mean one thing…

    It seems I really do need to prepare for the worst.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Though this is sudden, I would like to request full cooperation of every member in this place.”

    Ooh? It had been a while since she had last met him, but Fubuki could sense a change of air surrounding the Rear Admiral. The way he carried himself resembled a notched arrow, but his speech was not coarse just to reflect the magnitude of the situation. It was clear that he knew his ways as one frequently put in the role of a leader. Ayanami sure is lucky to be stationed under a commanding officer like him, it makes this Onee-chan a bit jealous~

    But of course, that didn’t mean Fubuki was not paying attention. None of the scouts sent out by her senior had returned, it seemed. On top of that, the interval between their deployment to this very second meant the next wave was about to knock on their doorstep. Fubuki’s fuel and ammo reserves were in yellow, and the same could be said for the two Takao-class cruisers. With only Yamashiro as this combined fleet’s sole battleship, defending the bay would be a daunting task.

    “First, I would like to know the composition of the enemy’s fleet and their strategy so far.” His gaze swept over everyone standing at the deck. “It is possible that the ones sunk here were just the advance party.”

    Fubuki halted her personal observation. She… did not think of that. With the Siren having penetrated so deep into the empire’s waters, the frontline must have seen even worse things. But before her mind could go deeper into the rabbit hole, Takao stepped forward, answering the Rear Admiral’s expectations.

    “The attack force we faced were made of eight Pawns, four Knights, two Bishops, a Queen, and a King.” The heavy cruiser then frowned. “Though we successfully eliminated them all, a few of their fighters flew past our anti-air range, worsening the damage done to the coastline city behind us. Furthermore, having had their carrier destroyed, the fighters chose to fly back to the direction the lesser Sirens came from. We believe they’re preparing their force to fulfill their objective, but your late arrival means we also have an ace in our sleeve, Commander.”

    “Any reason why so many could reach all the way here?”

    At that, the black-haired sword-wielding cruiser put up a sour look. “...unfortunately, the empire’s exit from Azur Lane has forced us to fend against Siren threats all by ourselves.”

    The Rear Admiral blinked. He certainly didn’t expect to hear that. The air suddenly turned heavy to a point that Fubuki could see Ayanami visibly fidgeting. Well, this was a mine nobody had ever expected to detonate, but on hindsight, it was inevitable. The kansen was privy to classified information more than the human officers of the navy could ever be. It could even be said that many of them possessed the authority a few steps below the Admiralty Board to equaling them. Above all else, the likes of the first and second Carrier Division were deeply tied with the inner workings of the empire.

    Looks like it’s my time to shine, then…!

    “Aaah, Shikikan-san? May I have a bit of your time?” After raising a hand, Fubuki became the main focus of the conversation. Taking a deep breath, she eased herself into the position she was most comfortable with. “The Pacific theater, as you can see, is too big of an area to fully cover. There’s only so much the empire could see and defend with her limited resources. Needless to say, this resulted in a co-dependent relationship with Azur Lane for the entire world’s resources are concentrated in it to ensure that the global trade routes remain afloat.”

    “In other words… this incident may be considered as one of the many consequences of leaving the alliance.”

    Merciless, ruthless, or total indifference. Fubuki really couldn’t tell what sort of emotion was contained in Tatsumiya Aoto’s voice. Both the mask and the stoic expressed crafted an impassive persona that coldly reasoned without a shred of feeling. However…

    “That doesn’t make any sense,” Aoto said. “If they knew that the empire has been weakened, then how did they find their ways into our waters so quickly?”

    ...huh?

    “The interval is too short for the scale of damages done. There are coastal guards regularly taking rounds. In fact, now that we have left Azur Lane, our attention to our own territory should have been at the highest level, but the enemy managed to break through every defense line even when there are Kansen mixed in the ranks. Something doesn’t add up.

    “Eh, huh? Doesn’t that mean...”

    “They memorized the patrol shifts,” Shoukaku concluded, trepidation and shock emitted through her every word. “This is bad, Rear Admiral. There is no telling how much data they have gathered. We have to make haste!”

    “Indeed.” Aoto nodded in agreement. “However, we cannot let them gain any more grounds than they already have, too. For now, our objective should be pushing back the next wave as quickly as possible and reestablish radio channels with HQ to report our findings.”

    Aoto looked at the distant horizon where black clouds gathered to cover the twilight. Lightning flashed and the thunderous roars boomed. From the line separating the sea and the storm clouds, crimson dots slowly appeared. Seven became fourteen, fourteen became twenty-three, and it continued to grow in numbers until they reached thirty-six torches. The Siren was fast approaching, yet the Rear Admiral simply unpinned his sword from hanging to his waist and pounded the rear end of the sheath against the observation deck.

    A clear sound reverberated. Everyone’s scattered thoughts were immediately put down and gathered at a single point; him. The Rear Admiral.

    “Zuikaku, Shoukaku. I need you to prepare two squadrons for preemptive bombardment,” the commanding officer of this combined fleet announced. “Slow them down and find out their fleet composition. Yamashiro is to provide artillery bombardment once they reach the firing range. Once the salvos landed, all of the vanguards will—“

    All of the vanguards? Are you seriously saying that?”

    Cutting his words short with a scathing question, Zuikaku stepped ahead to face the Rear Admiral.

    “Z-Zuikaku-senpai…?” Fubuki couldn’t help but wonder aloud. Looking at the carrier dressed in red and white, her glare and scowling lips clearly showed how upset she was; she had never seen her acting like that before. “What are you—“

    “This plan is too reckless!” Zuikaku shouted. “If everyone heads out to battle, it will leave our flanks wide open! Who’s going to protect you, the chain of command, if we obey this order!”

    “We don’t have much time to organize a better plan,” the man countered. “As long as we keep their focus away from the bay, it’s still possible to win with the least amount of damage.”

    “There’s a high chance of things going wrong from the very first step! You can’t expect the enemy to move exactly like you want them to!! This isn’t a game of Shogi!”

    A-awawaaah! They’re fighting! Neither of them wanted to give some grounds. None of them wished to back down, and this was going nowhere while time was rapidly ticking out. What am I supposed to do in this situation…!?

    “Zuikaku is right, Shikikan-kun. You should stay behind with Ayanami-chan.”

    “Even you, too, Shoukaku…” At this point, the Rear Admiral looked exasperated.

    “Using your command, it is true that we can fight better. However, we will not be able to cover you should we leave you without any support,” Shoukaku pointed out. As she moved to stand next to Zuikaku, the two looked up to him with serious eyes. “At the very least, you must be with an escort or hiding in a fortified position. Perhaps behind a blockade so that we can reinforce you in time should the enemy reached your position.”

    A blockade in the open sea...? Fubuki was glad for the timely save, but she had to admit it’d be more than difficult to erect a sea blockade when they were pressed in time. The ideal scenario would have submarines and mines to intercept potential pincer attacks, but this combined fleet had nothing like that. But it would’ve been really nice if we could fight and move around without a worry...

    “...there is merit in that idea, but to fulfill the requirement will be a daunting task…”

    Even the Rear Admiral echoed the same sentiments. Aoto swept a glance over the whole members present in the scene as if searching for something that could meet Shoukaku’s strict criteria. Fubuki followed along, but then she saw Ayanami staring really hard for some reason unknown to her.

    “...Ayanami? What are you looking, at… huh…?”

    Her eyes fell on Yamashiro. She had not been contributing to the strategy meeting, but unlike Takao and Atago who didn’t mind obeying every order given to them, Yamashiro wasn’t the type of person who could follow along when people were engrossed in serious matters. The others eventually noticed as well and followed Ayanami’s lead.

    Yamashiro began to sweat in the face of everyone’s attention to her. It’d have been one thing if it was just Fubuki and her sister, but not only Zuikaku and Shoukaku were deep in thoughts while forgetting the argument that had just happened, even Takao and Atago seemed to have shared a mutual understanding as they glued their gaze on the cat-eared, black-haired, kimono-wearing battleship.

    “U-umm… is there… something wrong…?” Yamashiro asked nervously.

    Oh yeah, there’s also that method, huh.

    “Uhh…. I, guess this works too, huh…?” Shoukaku’s murmurs were half confusion and half resignation. “I’m terribly sorry for proposing this plan without thinking ahead...

    Everyone but her and Yamashiro nodded. Then, Ayanami raised a hand to point an index finger at the Fuso-class battleship.

    “You can work as our blockade, Yamashiro-senpai.”

    Soon after, Yamashiro’s shriek flew to high heavens. Unfortunately for her, nobody listened to her pleas.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: Summer Siege Warfare
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 9: Summer Siege Warfare ---

    The black fleet sailed in a diamond formation, each and every one of their ships going at sixty knots in average. The symbols on their vessels glowed in blood-red color, their engines quiet even as they split the waves, and their radars as well as turrets periodically rotating in search of enemies. With their level of technology in mind, not even the Piece-class Sirens were a slouch even when caught off-guard.

    The Siren were powerful and numerous, their army a legion of heartless monsters. Be that as it may, they rarely utilized tactics. To tell the truth, it was more accurate to claim that they had no need for strategies when overwhelming mankind with numbers alone worked just fine. For humanity who had just modernized their steam engines to usher a new phase of industrial revolution, all that they had was simply no match against the Siren. Their tyranny ushered in a second Dark Age.

    However, even when defeated, broken, lost and thrown into the kiln of hell, the remnants of mankind fought not just with their ruined fists and feet. They recorded the Siren’s activity, gathered as much data as they could, and passed down legacies that would one day become the footholds of the Azur Lane. Innumerable documents were written and spread across the continents. Then, one day in the near future, scholars would eventually discover a few facts in regards to the Siren’s attack patterns.

    First seen in First Contact War—the Siren would accumulate a naval force multiple times bigger and stronger than what the world could have offered in one spot. With aggressive brutality they broke through defense lines, crushed the armed forces, and then unleashed destruction at unprecedented scales. Some countries were razed down in seven days and nights, some could barely stand after the vicious onslaught. Even those who had valiantly resisted suffered casualties that would cripple them for indeterminately.

    Attack. Destroy. Kill. Leave none standing. Spare nobody.

    Such was the nature of the so-called “Invasion”.
    +-+-+-+-+

    It had been a while since she last used her rigging. Ever since she began working at the Fifth Carrier Division, she had not seen live combat on her own. The division was, after all, lacking any proper organization aside from her seniors and the Commander. It was hard to admit, but she was starting to get used to being an escort more than a vanguard, so the weapon in her hand felt a bit unfamiliar now. Trailing behind her sister, Ayanami shifted her grips over the handle of her anti-ship greatsword.

    Can we do it…? Ayanami quickened her pace as she followed Fubuki’s sign through her moving gohei. It was their cue. There was no more room to hesitate. Then…!

    “Here we go, Ayanami!” Fubuki declared, skidding to a halt as her turrets and torpedo launchers took aim. “Show them who’s the boss here!!”

    “Under...stood!” Ayanami lowered her center of gravity and revved up her boilers.

    Boom! Boom!! Salvos flew and struck the waters in front of the Siren fleet. Not even a minute after and the hulls of three Piece-class ships heavily shook, chunks of steel and machinery exploding from their sides. With Fubuki’s torpedoes hitting them squarely, the enemy escorts were neutralized. Ayanami pierced through curtains of water and stabbed her sword into the hull of a Pawn. The girl heaved, and she twisted the blade in before slashing outward. With a great groaning sound, a gaping maw revealed the innards of the Siren ship. Ayanami kicked back with her rigging belts loading bullets into the gun chambers—

    “Take this…!”

    A flash of white, yellow, red, orange and then black filled her sight. Ayanami landed on the surface of the ocean with a stagger before she turned her back to the sinking Piece. Her red eyes swept around, identifying five, seven, and then nine ships a slight distance away. From her position, she could make out their overall shapes and her database quickly figured out their official signatures.

    Five Knights, two Bishops, one Rook, one King. Ayanami immediately sailed forward, exiting the smokescreens as hails of bullets filled the sky above her. Black aircraft roared past with a squadron of Zeros engaging a deadly pursuit through the bullet storm. The distraction would not last long. I have to find the enemy aircraft carriers before they launch more aircraft than everyone can handle…!

    Ayanami skated through the chaotic battlefield. She continued to stream codes indicating the positions and numbers of the enemy vessels but she couldn’t find the thing she was looking for. Her heartbeat drummed in her ribs while her nose no longer able to sense anything other than smokes, embers, and gunpowder. Through the roaring winds and the rain of shells, a violent cacophony belonging to a war zone sang to its heart’s content.

    It all brought back memories. Of the Old World. Of the Final War. Of the time where she spent killing and sinking as many ships as possible as a true machine of war—

    “Ayanami! Watch out!!”

    The red-eyed demon swerved to the side from the warning. In doing so, a plasma bullet flew and crashed by her side, covering her whole vision with a wall of seawater. Salty flavor filled her mouth and stung her eyes, but this was nothing for a fully-equipped Kansen. Still, she could not let herself to stand still so she retreated as she detected the signature of her sister. Fubuki swung her gohei in an upward arc the moment she reached Ayanami, a line of light surrounded with electric sparks repelling another plasma shell with a deafening crack.

    “Khg...!!” Fubuki’s rigging lined up in front and above the two, protecting the two destroyers from the enemies’ turrets. Ayanami noticed the smokescreens and water pillars thinning out, the telltale sign that they were rapidly losing their initiative. “Why you little pieces of junk! So annoying…!”

    Ayanami blinked. Fubuki always liked to smile and take everything at her own pace, but she was still responsible enough to fulfill her duties while being a good influence to the Kansen younger than her. She rarely blamed someone or saying rough words just for the express purpose of spitting at them… It’s been a long time since—

    “Alright, looks like this is Onee-san’s time, then!”

    Interrupting her thoughts, a black-haired woman dashed past her with rigging that shifted into formation like an armored coat. Her turrets fanned out and salvos far stronger than what a destroyer could throw fired out, whizzing through the air in an arcing trajectory. The resulting shockwaves whipped at the sea behind her, her senior’s long black hair dancing in the winds alongside her white skirts. Atago smiled as her aims struck her intended targets, the HE shells unleashing explosions that further burned the decks of the Piece-class ships.

    Some of them had missed their targets, but a heavy cruiser’s guns allowed just enough rooms for the Siren to reconsider their deadly calculations. Ayanami quickly regained her bearings together with Fubuki.

    “Atago-senpai…” Ayanami called out.

    “Hn. That was a splendid job done,” Atago responded, giving a smile over her shoulder to the two Fubuki-class Destroyers. “However, please do not be hasty. I won’t be able to face Takao if I were to let our cute juniors get hurt when I could help it.”

    “Ah… un, I’m sorry…”

    The heavy cruiser’s smile turned a little helpless. “While it is good of you to reflect on your actions, perhaps that apology should be redirected to the right person.”

    Eh…? It took a few beats for Ayanami to process the meaning behind Atago’s words. Then she looked to the side and met Fubuki in the eye. Oh, that’s right… how could I be so stupid?

    “Oh, dear.” Suddenly, Atago’s shadow fell upon her and Ayanami looked at her back. “Brace yourselves!”

    Faster than sound. Cutting through Ayanami’s thoughts was a burst of white that became a blinding wall right before her. The only reason her eyes did not see spots was because she and Fubuki were behind Atago, casting a blind spot to the arrival of searing hot white pulse that was divided in two by Atago’s rigging. The sea around the three boiled and evaporated. Ozone filled the air as the light subsided. Ayanami held her breath.

    From the other side of the sea a humanoid figure with three-pronged gun barrel pointed at the three Kansen. Standing atop the water surface, the humanoid figure held up a strange gun that let loose heat hazes and smokes. A canister then flew out of the gun’s compartment as a pair of yellow eyes stared at Ayanami. The longer she stared back, the deeper the cold shiver ran down her nerves. It was a familiar and horrible sensation.

    A black rigging that resembled creatures from the deep sea. Lifeless yellow eye. And pale gray hair bordering on bone white. There was no doubt about it; all of the characteristics matched.

    “Executor-class…!?” Fubuki gasped in shock.

    “And it seems like there’s not just one of them.” Atago grimaced, shifting her damaged right rigging with her left sent forward. Two more Executor-class—identified as Chaser as well as Scavenger—rapidly approached. “My armors can only withstand their shells for a few more times before I have to regulate my pacing. The two of you should fall back.”

    Fall… back? “But senpai, we—!“

    Ayanami stilled. Her acoustics caught a faint sound in this chaotic battle zone. Something that roared, louder than the engines of the Zeros. The burning verniers. The noise of jet engines claimed to be the technology of tomorrow. This could only mean one thing, and Ayanami felt her blood freezing from the alarming number of findings she had just detected.

    “They’re launching aircraft!!” Ayanami shouted, the silhouette of a ship twice larger than the Piece-class ships encountered so far emerging through the wreckage of its brethren. Right when she was about to raise her anti-air guns, jet-black planes blasted through the smokes and soared to the sky; faster than her turrets could aim at.

    First there were three. Then it was ten, sixteen, twenty-two. And then there were thirty-eight.

    The majority of them were fighter jets, but something different stood out this time. Ayanami recognized the silhouettes of human figures riding on the wings of the fighters, all of them possessing similar yellow-accented black rigging. Her crimson eyes widened in fear. No…!

    The enemy had regained their momentum.
    +-+-+-+-+

    We’re sorry! Enemy’s warplanes are heading your way! There are Executor-class riding on the fighters!!”

    Shoukaku held her breath. The radio transmission ended with a sharp buzz as jamming went on full-effect as Siren aircrafts blotted the skies. She didn’t expect them to have Executor-class in their midst, but it also meant the main body of the Piece-class fleet would become vulnerable. With their current fighting power, it was possible to destroy the enemy fleet and halt the Invasion, but they had to be quick. After all, they couldn’t afford to let the enemy go even deeper into the bay.

    “Zuikaku, send out all of your planes!” Shoukaku announced her order as she brought her flute close to her lips. “I will follow right after, so shoot down every fighter coming this way!”

    “Got’cha, Shoukaku-nee!”

    Zuikaku’s rigging, a miniaturized flight deck, shifted in position as red shikigami papers scattered to line up at the end of the deck. Each and every one of them popping into tiny warplanes that began to spin their propellers as the engines roared to life. One by one, the fighter aircraft squadron took off from Zuikaku’s flight deck. Nodding to herself, Shoukaku followed as her flute resonated with her shikigamis, drawing them out en masse from her sleeves as they transformed midair into another squadron of Zero.

    “Go!” Zuikaku could be heard shouting, commanding her flights to double the pace. Her order was effectively transmitted across the squadron and they all flew to the sky, embarking on a deadly hunt with the Siren aircraft. “Shoukaku-nee, I’ll go and throw down the Executors!”

    “Be careful!” Shoukaku warned in-between the intervals.

    Her sister grinned back as she sailed ahead on her own. Anxiety washed over her heart, but Shoukaku knew better that this much of an attack would not sink Zuikaku. That girl was made of tougher stuff, and her spirit would not betray her even at the darkest moment. Shoukaku trusted her to win and make it back safely.

    But...

    The battle was turning chaotic, the darkened sky blotted with a dancing fighter crafts that chased after each other. As smokes and gunpowder blurred the scenery, every plane shot down became burning wreckage that showered the area around Shoukaku. Some fragmented into smoldering pieces of iron that smashed into the sea, quickly sinking beneath the ocean after creating a burst of water splashes. Others plunged as a whole piece, the collision at their speed squashing their engines and igniting the fuel tanks. Like fireworks, they exploded, and the aircraft carrier did her best to navigate through the flying shrapnel safely.

    Sending out another squadron would be too hasty of a move. Shoukaku looked around in search of anything out of the ordinary.

    Her anti-aircraft guns still had more than enough. Her sister was effectively a bulwark for the Siren to climb over and she was doing a very excellent job at suppressing the numbers of the enemy aircraft. The bulk of the Piece-class had also been stopped by the vanguard—

    Shoukaku-nee!”

    The white-haired carrier froze up. Instantly her intuition forced her body to divert away from its original direction, a burning plane wreckage instantly smashing into the sea right after she did just that. Not only that, her radar detected further movement but the water pillar made it next to impossible to ascertain where they would attack. That was, unless…!

    “Above!” Shoukaku removed a hand from her flute as she thrust the armament upward. Not even before it reached past her elbow a black gun barrel fell atop it. Bang! “Ghh…!?”

    The drizzle ended, but the waves rolled and roared. Shoukaku’s hand trembled after receiving the feedback, and she saw a pair of yellow eyes shining down at her. Without thinking twice, she tilted her flute and the gun barrel slide off and away from her. Shoukaku immediately retreated—only for the Executor-class to chase after her.

    This is bad, Shoukaku reassessed her own situation. The enemy was pushing tight that she could not use her onmyou flute to command her planes. It took almost all of her focus to read and parry the following attacks. At this rate…!

    Shoukaku was not as good as Zuikaku in terms of close combat. Her proficiency was in being an aircraft carrier through and through, so she only took the barest minimum when it came to defending herself. Dodging, parrying, and distancing herself from the enemy were perfectly valid tactics when all you had were just anti-air guns and planes that required a specific method to send out first before they could even be half as effective.

    In that case…!

    Shoukaku shifted her rigging’s positioning horizontally in front of her right when the Siren threw out another punch. It was fast, faster than Zuikaku’s sword draw. Shoukaku felt the impact through the rigging, but the pause was the exact thing she needed.

    Now!

    The anti-air turrets rotated. They took aim, pointing at one thing and fired. Behind the rigging, Shoukaku could only feel the rattles of the turrets crossing through the connector of her rigging while the deafening gunfire noise mixed along with a long flash of orange. Taking further precautions, Shoukaku leaped back after her gun barrels approached overheat. The smokes subsided and—

    “She’s gone!?” Shoukaku immediately turned around, her rigging following closely after her as a black flash dropped from the edge of her vision. “Kyah!”

    The blow struck her rigging just barely on time, but Shoukaku was not prepared for the force put in it. All she could do was lose her footing and be sent away; her feet skidded across the ocean surface until the momentum died off. Her body trembled and Shoukaku winced. She pressed a hand on her left shoulder, feeling a burning sensation on her back. It was close to the nape. The Siren must have aimed for her spine and effectively ending the fight with one decisive blow.

    Looking at her enemy, Shoukaku felt a little bit of respect at her foe. There were damages all over her body, the black outfit torn and singed while the flesh beneath holding a number of bullet wounds. Yellow fluid bled out from her wounds, and yet the humanoid Siren didn’t show any hint of agony in her face.

    Those heartless eyes were always unchanged, silently staring and observing their target to the bitter end. Just like actual deep-sea creatures. “I admit you are proving to be quite a troublesome foe…”

    In spite of her words, the Siren didn’t seem to care for the slightest bit. Shoukaku was about to ready her planes when a figure crossed into her sight from the far right side. The white-haired woman deeply inhaled, only for the short relief vanishing the moment she heard faint sounds of airplane engines.

    “No, Zuikaku! Get back and resume your order!”

    “Shoukaku-nee!?”

    Shoukaku stopped paying attention to their own situation. What mattered the most was—

    “This is a distraction! Their aim still hasn’t changed…!!”

    Just as she warned her sister, another sounds of roaring jet engines passed by. The two Kansen looked up, staring in horror as a new batch of fighter crafts crossed the sky with a few more “passengers”.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Eh, what!? The enemy broke through the second defense line? No way!!”

    Yamashiro lifted her head to stare at the darkened horizon. With the color scheme the Siren gave to their aircraft, it was more than difficult to detect their shapes. Furthermore, her radar had yet to undergo upgrade to the latest model until the end of this month. No matter how she tried to put it, shooting down the enemy’s airplanes would be a challenging task.

    Wh-what should I do?! That’s right, I have to ready my gun ports and—wait, I have to inform the Commander!

    Looking down from the roof of her vessel’s control tower, Yamashiro inhaled. “Milord, the enemies are coming!! It’s too dangerous to stay outside!!”

    The figure in white staying idle at her deck had no right to be so discernible and conspicuous, but for some reasons, he was intent on monitoring the battlefield from up and close. While it was true that Yamashiro could handle all the logistics needed to process the self-updating flow of this battle, that didn’t mean she ignored the Rear Admiral’s presence. In fact, she had been warning him incessantly to stay inside of her vessel as he was just a normal human…

    But why is he smiling back and waving at me? Yamashiro stilled, seeing the man in a mask shaking his head in total rejection of her nth attempt to protect him. W-why!?

    “My lord, you promised to mind your own safety!”

    Well, I suppose I did.” The Rear Admiral’s voice came over through the private radio channel. Yamashiro began to wonder as why would he not use the local channel linked with the frontline members when he added. “But if I don’t at least make myself useful, then I cannot guarantee the success of this operation.

    “What…?”

    They’re coming.”

    Yamashiro jerked her head back up. Black fighter crafts adorned with crimson symbols soared into range. The battleship hastily took aim and began firing, but as she shot down the enemy aircraft from the closest to the farthest…

    Even for low-ranked Sirens like Executor-class, they’d undoubtedly think of the best way to break their foe’s rhythm,” a lecture flew into Yamashiro’s head. “But to disrupt it, the wisest move is to eliminate specific vitals points. For examples, a fortification, communication center, conquered checkpoints, supply chains, a control base, a route leading to an objective, retreat paths, or…”

    Yamashiro’s heart began to beat unpleasantly. She had a hunch. A tiny, tiny hunch she didn’t want to believe coming right up. Unfortunately for her, today was proving to be her unluckiest day in her second life.

    In naval warfare, that’d be the enemy’s flagship. It’s even better if there’s a commanding officer on it.”

    “Eh, wait, so this is…”

    This wasn’t part of the plan, of course. It’s just a hunch I had a few minutes ago.” From the corner of Yamashiro’s vision, Aoto walked towards her bow as he drew out his kaiguntou—a military-issued stainless steel sword that didn’t have the same vibe as the swords made for anti-Siren battle—as well as a pistol. Was… was he going to fight with ordinary weapons? As a mere blood and flesh human with only the power to connect with Kansen and nothing more? “Keep on shooting down their planes. We cannot make Shoukaku’s group any more distracted in this precarious time.”

    “Milord, are you serious!?”

    As soon as Yamashiro shrieked that, a burning fighter plane shot plunged past the battleship and exploded as it smashed into the ocean surface. A figure then landed on the starboard of Yamashiro’s ship, a wounded Executor-class termed as Scavenger by the Admiralty.

    Sorry, Yamashiro. I accept any future scolding from you and everyone, but…” Aoto’s voice lowered to a degree that Yamashiro could feel a chill running down her back. She could not see his face properly from her vantage point of view, and yet… “This one’s mine for now.”

    If there was one thing she could remember to when she was still just a warship, the second most frightening thing to her was the fury of a vengeful soldier.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The moment she recognized he wasn’t a kansen, the Scavenger attacked him at a speed that far surpassed his reflex. It took all of his might and experience to avoid death from a punch to the head, and he parried a sharp swing of gun barrel aiming to slice his body in two.

    Fast, and also heavy…!

    Aoto couldn’t help but marvel at the speed and force exerted by the humanoid Siren. He had learned as much as he could about the world’s enemy, but he only knew so much about them like everyone else of his age and experiences. The Piece-class were steel behemoths bringing with them frightening firepower and aerial opposition, but the Executor-class was simply unstoppable juggernauts clad in human skin. They resembled Kansen in appearance and basic capabilities, but the similarity ended there and then.

    They don’t care whether their targets surrendered or begging for their lives. The Executor-class used their weapons, rigging, even their own hands, and feet to squash scattered human lives that had survived the Piece-class’ onslaught. For the remaining survivors, what had once appeared to be humans suddenly became a source of nightmares. And to your kind, human lives must have little values.

    Aoto’s arms numbed by the second blow. He defended himself well, yet cracks and dents formed on the blade of his sword. Reinforced as it might be, his weapon did not have any of the Cube-infused weapon’s special properties. He swung his sword and he missed. He mixed his moves with feints to lead in his foe but the Scavenger never fell for it. This close quarter combat was everything he never hoped for; an extremely one-sided death match akin to a child fighting against a master martial artist.

    But even a martial artist possesses graces in their steps.

    Aoto stopped feeling anything over his hand that was holding the sword. His hand grip was locked in gripping the bent handle of his sword, and the enemy swung the barrel of her gun upward. It’d smash his chin if left alone and shatter his skull, so Aoto twisted his arm to use the damaged blade as his line of defense.

    Crack! The blade’s edge broke off, and the sword shattered into a hundred metal pieces. Aoto was knocked back. With what was left of his grip strength, Aoto raised his hand gun and aimed for a point-blank shoot. Two bullets left the chamber one missing and the other striking true to its target. The Siren slightly bent her body as smokes spewed from her abdomen—but the bullet only left a scratch. Aoto’s eyes widened in shock, a mistake he had to paid dearly as a roundhouse kick sent his body flying across the deck.

    His vision went white, dark, and then spinning uncontrollably as red dots repainted the world seen through his eyes. At the edges of his consciousness, a thought crossed Aoto’s mind.

    Not even five minutes… huh—
    +-+-+-+-+

    “My lord!!”

    Yamashiro dropped drown from the control tower, but that wasn’t enough. She landed on the outer walls only to run downwards as she accelerated through kicking at the platforms jutting out from the tower from top to bottom. Before the Scavenger delivered the final blow, the girl came in range and drove a body blow into her side, sending the Siren to the edge of the battleship’s bow but not away and out of the deck. Looking to the side, the battleship saw a puddle of red seeping out from beneath the Rear Admiral’s body, but his shoulders were still rising and falling.

    He was alive. He still could be saved—but there was no way he could be tended to if she had yet to beat up their enemy. She had to fight up and close without her rigging this time.

    “I… I have to do it!” With a step forward, Yamashiro lowered her lower body as she raised her arms in a guard stance. “I’m sorry milord, but I can’t let you die!!”

    The sounds of jet engines persisted in the background. Yamashiro gritted her teeth, her processing ability split into multiple tasks. The radar to search for enemy aircraft and possible reinforcement, the anti-air turrets to shoot down the torpedo and dive bombers, the main cannons to support the frontline—and also herself.

    I can’t do this. The Siren got back up to her feet. Even though her left leg twisted and her fingers bent in weird angles, the Executor-class stared long at Yamashiro with the same unfeeling gaze that she had been displaying up until this moment. The yellow eyes at one point cursored to reflect the figure of the Rear Admiral, but Yamashiro stepped in to stand between the two. With that, her yellow gaze moved to the battleship. I really, really can’t do this all by myself, but…!

    “I won’t let you reach him!!”

    Yamashiro dashed forward, crossing half of the deck in seconds and meeting the humanoid Siren head-on. Her fist struck the gun barrel, putting a huge dent that would no doubt disable its firing mechanism, and dug her fingers so deep that she completely neutralized the pulse cannon as well as immobilizing one of the Siren’s arms. When she saw the Siren swinging her other, wounded arm, Yamashiro stopped it by the wrist and turned the fight into a contest of strength.

    I can’t…! Yamashiro growled, slowly being pushed back. Without the rigging attached to me, I’m just half as powerful!

    It was the first time for her to feel frustrated for being a humanoid lifeform. As a Kansen, there were several ways for them to participate in the battle. By equipping their rigging, they could use their full strength which was compressed in their bodies. With superhuman agility, physical prowess, as well as reflex and processing ability, it was the most natural way for a Kansen to fight at the open sea.

    Their second method which was summoning and remote-controlling their own ships, however, only released the limiter by half. Accordingly, the research concluded that the ship possessed the same qualities as their Old World counterparts in terms of specs, but all of its mechanisms were automated and only moved at the will of the Kansen’s main body. In a way, it was a very convenient form if one wished for a show of force, but against the Siren…

    If only… if only I was as strong as Nee-sama...

    Yamashiro felt her hand creaking. She winced and cried, tears forming at the corners of her eyes as blood trickled down from her cracking knuckles. The Siren pushed her back to the point that they were only a dozen meters away from the Rear Admiral.

    No, I have to hold out…! Yamashiro scolded herself, hissing through the pain. It was fine, this was nothing to complain about. Her Commander was not like her. He was just a human and yet he tried to challenge the new laws of nature. If I… if I run away here, then I can never pride myself as Fuso Nee-sama’s sister…!

    Another roaring sound blew through the surrounding airspace. Yamashiro, however, noticed that it was a lot louder than usual. The silhouette of an aircraft passed over the deck and a dull sound crashed behind her. Yamashiro felt a shiver.

    It… can’t… be…

    Glancing over her shoulder, there she saw another Executor-class a short distance away from the Rear Admiral. The humanoid Siren bore a black rigging tinted with yellow stripes, a cruiser gun in her right hand, and a pulse chain gun in her left hand. It was a Light Cruiser-type Executor, code name Chaser. The Siren trained her cruiser gun—

    “Remain calm, Yamashiro!”

    A series of fireworks exploded in the sky above Yamashiro’s vessel. Shrapnel rained down alongside chunks of steel that originally constituted Siren aircraft, and with the powerful winds smokes descended upon the deck. Amidst the haze and embers, a silver line flashed by Yamashiro’s eyes. The battleship blinked. The force trying to push against her suddenly relented, and the moment she looked ahead, her opponent fell to the side with yellow blood spraying from her right shoulder down to her side.

    When she looked back, a figure dressed in white stood over the corpse of the Chaser who was only a step away from eliminating the Rear Admiral. Takao’s Cube-infused sword dripped yellow blood of the Siren which she flicked off to the side. As the heavy cruiser sheathed back her sword, the clinking sound snapped Yamashiro out of her fugue and she rushed to aid the Rear Admiral.

    “My lord, are you okay!?”

    “Ugh… aah, please don’t shout…”

    Yamashiro gasped in surprise. Her face was soon dyed with relief and she carefully looked over the Rear Admiral’s condition. His hands were bleeding, his finger nails split and metallic pieces embedded on his forearms. Red seeped out from his side, a clear sign that the blow the Scavenger delivered was a serious one. He was still conscious, fortunately, but he was rapidly losing blood.

    “P-please wait, I will bring first aid kit from the medical ward! Takao-san, please look over my lord!”

    “That has been my intention. But please be quick, Yamashiro-dono.”

    Profusely thanking her peer, Yamashiro immediately darted to the nearest entry leading into her vessel’s hull.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “I cannot say I accept this type of strategy.” The heavy cruiser knelt down next to Aoto, taking off his coat to make stripes of clothes out of it. “Us Kansen are made of entirely different matters unlike humans. We are people, but we are also not. Our paradoxical nature is the reason why we could stand up against the threats posed by Siren, Commander.”

    Aoto smiled through the pain and nodded. His body was screaming in agony, yet he found himself wanting to stay conscious. It was difficult to pay attention to the surrounding world. If he focused on his hearing, the cacophony of battle had yet to end. Alas, he couldn’t even pinpoint where exactly to focus beyond that.

    Casting his shaking vision, he saw Takao’s hands moving to wrap the stripes of cloths around his abdomen. The way she tended to his wounds was nothing short than professional, but considering how this Takao by his side was the incarnation of the Heavy Cruiser warship Takao, perhaps it was more accurate to say that she carried with her the entire legacy of her original history and the skills of the people who had previously fought alongside her.

    “This will slightly hurt you, please endure.”

    Aoto nodded, then winced. Takao finished tying up the wraps and she retreated back. “Thank you, Takao… Also—“

    “Apology is unnecessary.” Takao stood up, picking up her sword and summoning her rigging once again. “I am simply fulfilling my duty as a soldier. This is what I was meant to do, Commander, so apologizing would only insult my sworn oath.”

    Ah, how strict… Aoto smiled wryly. Truly, the Kansen all possessed diverse personalities. It was surprising how some lived and acted like children their ages and looks, while others like Takao took themselves to be soldiers bound by duty and honor. I still have much to learn, it seems, huh...

    “Commander,” Takao called out. He followed the direction of her gaze and looked up to the darkened sky. “This battle will not last for long. Still, please exercise caution by staying close with Yamashiro-dono. We are Kansen, yes, but we are not all-powerful deities. There’s only so much we can do, and only so far our grasps could reach.”

    “...I’ll keep that in mind… is what I’d have liked to say,” Aoto paused, taking in a sharp breath as he pushed his consciousness through the burning pain from his side. “But with the way things have become, I will listen to your advice. Thank you again, Takao.”

    “Yes. Then I shall stand guard until Yamashiro-dono returned.”

    A strong wind blew. The sea roared as high waves tilted the hull of Yamashiro’s warship body.

    As he closed his eyes, a series of images flashed by Aoto’s mind. In the darkness ghosts from the past reached out to him, a weight he thought he never carried on his shoulder slipping off the same way his past comrade’s hand gave out as they took their last breath.

    I don’t… want to die… like this, Lieutenant...”
    +-+-+-+-+

    By the time the battle ended, the sun had long set and the stars and moon decorated the sky. With the Siren gone, so did the abnormal weather.

    The marines and ground forces had been dispatched to inspect the city before civilians could return to their homes. There was no telling whether the Siren hid some farewell gift or not, so the city remained in high alert. Meanwhile at the pier, the defense fleet went on stand-by until further notices from the headquarters. If only a certain person listened to others and just go back along with Shoukaku to the naval base for further medical assistance...

    “Is it alright not to talk more with your sister, Ayanami? You haven’t seen her for a while, no?”

    “It’s fine… I think,” Ayanami said while shaking her head. “Shikikan’s injuries can’t be ignored. And I’m the vice-secretary, so this is also a part of my duty...”

    Aoto bitterly laughed. Unfortunately for him, it elicited an annoyed grunt so he stopped and looked down at her. Zuikaku ignored his gaze, focusing on disinfecting his wound before pulling out bandages. When she told him to raise his arms, he did as he was told, though it took him quite an effort. That there was yet another point Zuikaku wanted to complain about, but she was exhausted after the intense battle and she didn’t want to add more things to stress over for the rest of the week.

    “Using yourself as a bait… It’s true that humans sighted at the sea are their prey, but do you have a death wish or something?” Zuikaku checked the jagged gash on the man’s abdomen before wrapping a fresh layer of bandages. The bleeding had stopped and it didn’t look like the internals were severely damaged, but she intended to have Shoukaku write a medical appointment for him later on. As if she was going to let him weasel his way out. “There, done. Don’t move too much, or the wounds will open up.”

    “Ah, sorry for the trouble…” The Rear Admiral gave a polite smile. “Also… good work out there, Zuikaku.”

    First, he apologized, then he praised her. Zuikaku wasn’t so cheap to blush like a schoolgirl just because of the streams of compliments, but the sincerity in his words made it hard to come up with a proper response. In the end, she only made a grunt as she got herself off from his personal space. Looking to the sea, she wondered what was going to happen after this.

    Aoto hummed. “I thought of submitting a proposal to change the sea patrol shifts. There’s also requesting for ally reinforcement, if possible.”

    “You’re surprisingly thinking ahead.”

    “The navy will not be able to stay afloat in its current state,” Aoto explained. “The decision will certainly cause political backlashes, but the Empire needs a different approach to properly defend herself. The Siren are getting craftier, too, but I’m going to run it on the Board later.”

    Zuikaku raised an eyebrow. “Why not? If you push for it aggressively, won’t the higher-ups listen to your concerns? It’s also the truth.”

    “Well, I’d rather not come across as needy at the start of my political career.”

    What a reason to have… Zuikaku couldn’t help shaking her head. The Rear Admiral was not predictable by any means, and yet he was still the same even after the severe beating he had just taken. He was shrewd, calculative, but also knew when to draw a line. I guess it really is just his nature, but he’d probably be better off as a politician than a military officer.

    “As always, there’s no telling what the future will have...” Aoto placed a hand on his mask, a habit which Zuikaku had become aware of lately. “The world is always in a state of flux. What a troubling matter...”

    “Eh… I’d say worrying about the future is useless. Don’t you think so, Ayanami-chan?”

    “Mmm… I don’t think so, actually…”

    Ugh. Zuikaku was aghast by how she was swimming alone in this three-way exchange. She needed to change the subject, quickly!

    “S-speaking of,” the carrier paused to draw the two’s attention. That was the moment where Zuikaku shot the Rear Admiral a sharp glare. “That aggressive plan from earlier. What was up with that? I can’t believe you ignored so many things in your judgment the moment the Siren knocked on our doorstep. What kind of stupidity was that?”

    There, she did it. What she accused him of was a valid criticism. She questioned his decision-making skill and she was sure that he could never be able to escape so easily. Now, show me your true colors—

    “I admit that wasn’t like me. I’m sorry for betraying your expectations, Zuikaku.”

    “...eh?”

    “To be honest, I let the blood rush to my head. I didn’t want to stand idly for a second time. I was too full of myself to think that I could settle my personal grudge so easily.”

    H-huh…? What was up with this blunt honesty? Or rather, wasn’t he being way too forward about his shortcomings. Thankfully nobody else could hear this, but he would have become a laughingstock if he openly admitted his tactical oversight in public! Just what’s wrong with...

    “Commander, the way you put it…” Ayanami chimed in, looking visibly concerned. “Did… something happen, a long time ago…?”

    Instead of answering right away, the Rear Admiral laughed. Even so, Zuikaku didn’t like it for one bit. There was just something offbeat, something a bit different to his laughter. It didn’t take long for her to understand that there was a sense of loathing and bitter resentment in his voice, yet to who was it addressed to? Staring to his eyes, the woman slowly but surely came to a realization.

    “A long time ago, a Siren invasion visited a coastline city and set it ablaze.” Tatsumiya Aoto glanced at the harbor which had slowly regained the artificial starry radiance of modern civilization. “The city everyone had rebuilt in spite of their valiant efforts crumbled into ashes for a second time. The heat was unbearable that day, the dazzling flame consuming all in their terrible glory. People, trees, and buildings alike were reduced into blackened rubble. The KAN-SEN project had yet to yield a result back then, so we could only watch in silence as Sirens destroyed everything precious to us. But…”

    Looking down on his open hand, Aoto let out a heavy sigh. An image from the past flashed through Zuikaku’s mind. She had seen that expression before. The knowledge that there was nothing else to do but march on to their doom, bitter resignation to a fate of certain defeat, and a whole load of regrets as if wishing that there must have been a better option.

    In her final days, the sailors who had fought together with her always wore such an expression.

    “I despised myself for being unable to do anything, and I despised the powerless feeling carved in my heart. Even now, that feeling has yet to change.” Aoto once again laughed, but this time, he was no longer hiding the hollowness in his voice. “So I thought that this time, something will surely be different. I was arrogant to believe in that.”

    “Shikikan…”

    As silence lapsed, Zuikaku lowered her head and then looked up to the night sky. Finally, she came to understand a little bit more about the Commander. Even after accepting his lot in life, he still wanted to settle his past grudges no matter how hopeless. When he chose to remain instead of retreating to a safe space, it was all so that he could face the reality of his situation and finally put down his hopeless dream to a rest. Even if he needed to be beaten to an inch of his life, he had to make sure that he did not avert his eyes from the truth. He lived while being burdened by past failures and lingering attachments, and in doing so, turned his eyes away from the future for all this time.

    What a pitiful way of life…

    As a kansen, Zuikaku had never thought of the natural disparity between mankind and Siren, or the true factor that clearly set her away from humankind as a species. Men were not born with fangs and claws specifically designed to challenge the laws of the jungle. Humans also were not born capable of walking on water or firing gun turrets that could easily blow apart a concrete fortification. The foes she fought and intended to challenge existed in the same park she was born in, so she had unknowingly taken many things for granted. It was… a mind-boggling discovery, one that she couldn’t fully comprehend just yet.

    Looking up to the night sky decorated with shining stars and waxing moon, the answer to her conundrums, however, was nowhere to be seen. Ugh, I’m too tired for this...

    Zuikaku rapped her temple a few times. Overthinking it was no use. A change of mood was needed on this occasion more so than the usual, so Zuikaku lent Aoto a hand.

    “...whatever’s plaguing you, it’s not right if you don’t value yourself. Our fleet can’t function without people like you, Shikikan.”

    Aoto blinked at first, but he calmly nodded down. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true.”

    He acquiesced and held her hand using the one that did not suffer terrible damages. Zuikaku noted his hand was big, but also calloused. His other hand must be the same, a testament to the battles and training regiment the man had taken throughout his military career. Carefully pulling him up to his feet, the Commander looked back to Ayanami and gave a nod. Ayanami responded in a similar fashion and the three began their trip to the Naval District. After a short while, though…

    “Wait, the Great Kanto Earthquake happened in 1923, so you being around the rebuilding means you’re reaching…” Zuikaku’s eyes widened to the limits. “Just how old are you!?”

    Aoto uproariously laughed without answering at all. Give me a break already with all these stupid mysteries!!
     
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  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: Summer's End
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Importing story is tough when your internet is rather unstable...

    --- Chapter 10: Summer's End ---

    In the beginning, the calm sea reflected only the twilight and the clouds in the sky. Then ripples formed and earthen pillars rose from the bottom of the sea. With a roaring sound as if the planet’s tectonic plates had moved, cliffs and islands formed one after another, creating a messy pattern as excesses of seawater showered down from the top of the newly-formed landmasses. In spite of that, the largest of them all appeared in a set of layers vertically, the center of the platforms suddenly sinking as spring water flourished to fill up the depression.

    “How… astounding,” Kaga uttered out, finally having a way to describe the creation of lands that far surpassed her wildest expectations. Not even the most advanced technology brought by mixing Wisdom Cubes into the formula could have possibly done this, and yet… “So the Siren are capable of creating matters from nothing in a Mirror Sea…”

    “Indeed. And soon, our plan will also go in motion with this,” Akagi added. “The promised time is fast approaching. Make sure you have prepared yourself properly, Kaga.”

    “What does that even mean, you…” Kaga paused, closing her eyes and deeply inhaling as she thought better than bickering. Really, she couldn’t believe Akagi still had the time and mood to provoke her… She needed to use this chance for more important things than just sibling rivalry. “The last plan went as intended. It turned the whole fleet’s attention away from us and kept them conscious of their current capacity.”

    It was a brazen plan, as expected. While they had struck a deal with Siren, Kaga remained apprehensive of this shaky alliance. After all, the Invasion could have easily been a trick to conquer the whole empire. However, it was not. She could at least recognize that the Siren had the capability of holding on to the promises they made. It wasn’t much, but it was a start nonetheless. There was no way a contract could ever happen in the first place if both parties refused to fulfill the terms agreed by themselves.

    But how long will they stay that way is unknown.

    “I see. Is there anything else to report?” Akagi asked without taking her eyes off from the raised platform riddled with red Torii gates.

    “Anything else…?” Kaga tilted her head, adopting a pondering look. “Just recently, I received a report from the fifth Carrier Division. The stationed Commanding Officer requested for a change to the patrol system.”

    A load of nonsense, she believed. The Invasion was just a ploy meant to alert the fleet that they could not go on as they were. Instead of changing their tactics, there was a far simpler answer to fix the issue, and the results were starting to appear already. Therefore—

    “What a perfect opportunity.” Akagi’s words snapped Kaga back to reality. Before she could ask what she meant, her “older sister” smiled as she looked up to the dusk sky that would forever go on and on in this isolated space. “Having that child be in their division is proving far more useful than I initially hoped.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    As always, the office smelled of fresh ink and papers. Aoto cracked his neck as he finished half of today’s quota just a little before lunch. It had been nearly a month ever since the successful repelling of the Siren Invasion, he didn’t expect time to flow so quickly.

    “But why are you working right after recuperating…” Shoukaku murmured, looking utterly baffled in spite of going along with his whims.

    “I’ve already been given the clearance, so isn’t it alright?”

    “This and that are two different matters…” Shoukaku hung her head in resignation. “Your recovery speed is clearly not normal.”

    “Really?” The pen in his hand stopped scratching the paper “But I’ve been like this for as long as I remembered…”

    The worst he had suffered was third-degree burn injuries, but miracles often happened in this Sakura Empire. The priest who took care of him said the gods smiled at him and gave their mercy, which reminded Aoto that autumn was about to arrive. A different kind of energy had moved people’s activity with the coming of various religious festivals. At this time of the year, it was natural for meals to have variety in them. Yes, for example...

    “Baked sweet potatoes are definitely a great delicacy to have…”

    “Denied,” Shoukaku vehemently rejected. “The nutritional balance is far too unbalanced for someone who has just recovered from internal injuries. Please don’t make me confiscate your wallet, Shikikan-kun.”

    Ugh, how strict… “Shoukaku, aren’t you being extremely severe on me these days?”

    “May I remind you which human tried to face an Executor-class alone with just a sword and a handgun?”

    Aoto hung his head in defeat. He wasn’t going to live that down, wasn’t he?

    “Shikikan-kun, you should at least expand your strategies a bit more. Otherwise, I will not accept any order from you in the next mission.”

    “Ugh… I’ll try to work on that.”

    “See that you do. Now, then…” Shoukaku blinked in surprise when she checked over the clipboard in her hand. At Aoto’s prompting, she showed him the clipboard. “Please look at this section...”
    +-+-+-+-+

    The clear blue sky with few clouds indicated a safe voyage at the sea, but for Zuikaku, it was a chance to eat snacks while feeling the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the winds. At the dango store she always frequented to, she happily took a bite of the sweets she had just bought in packages.

    “Mmm…! This is great!” On the bench under a cherry blossom tree overlooking the river, the aircraft carrier squealed in bliss as she stuffed more dango into her mouth. “This is why you can never miss out this store’s menu. Obaa-san, another please!”

    “Yes, yes. Another plate of dango and roasted rice tea coming right up!”

    Hearing the reply from the store, Zuikaku cheered at heart. Then she remembered.

    “Say, Ayanami-chan, how’s the snacks? It’s tasty, right?”

    The smaller girl sitting next to her nibbled on rice crackers like a small critter, but she gave a small nod before resuming consuming her chosen snack. As always, the red-eyed girl seemed to prefer speaking as few words as possible, but when she focused in eating, it actually made for an adorable scene to watch. The traitorous part of Zuikaku’s mind thought of how popular and endearing Ayanami could be just by being herself while Zuikaku herself would not be treated the same. Her brashness and terrible domestic skills could never make an appealing romantic partner.

    Ugh, what in the gods’ name am I thinking about? Zuikaku shook her head to diffuse the strange thoughts away. She wasn’t one to be so easily depressed. Snack time meant snack time, so Zuikaku would never let anything ruin this delightful moment. Not even her own self no matter how true the self-introspection was!

    “Mm… I think I’m full,” Ayanami eventually said.

    “Oh? Well, it can’t be helped. Obaa-san, the bill please!”

    After tidying up was done, Zuikaku walked back together with Ayanami. They exchanged stories from daily routines to hobbies. Ayanami seemed to have grown an interest in cooking, but Zuikaku couldn’t cook well and… come to think of it, wasn’t she supposed to be the one who should have asked for cooking lessons to Shoukaku instead of Ayanami? She couldn’t cook, didn’t have housekeeping skills, and she barely even have a clue about the current trends in favor of warrior training; leaving all the housework to her older sister. I, I think I might have taken Shoukaku-nee’s skills for granted…

    “Zuikaku-senpai?”

    “Eh?! Ah, ah… well,” Zuikaku stuttered in search of a different topic. Right, there’s that! “Speaking of, don’t you think the dynamic has changed ever since your transfer into the division, Ayanami-chan?”

    “Really…?” Ayanami tilted her head, looking upward to the sky as if it would give her an answer. “I… don’t think anything significant has changed…?”

    “No, no. It definitely has. I can vouch for that!” Zuikaku nodded twice as she folded her arms.

    Ayanami had become a full-fledged, blooded member of their division. Despite the rocky start, the girl had managed to get along with Zuikaku and Shoukaku, and she properly fulfilled her duty as a vice-secretary which allowed outings like this to occur. The bit of information dropped by the Rear Admiral was an unintended side-effect, but Zuikaku had no reason to make her praise become insincere.

    Leave the shrewdness to the other, more crafty bunches; she much preferred to stick to her own methods and be herself.

    “...Zuikaku-senpai?”

    “Hm? What is it, Ayanami-chan?”

    “What do you think of… the Commander?”

    Zuikaku’s smile stilled. Her thoughts came to a grinding halt, and after a long pause, the woman slowly tilted her head like an old machine with rusted cogs. “What… do you mean by that?”

    “Unn…” For the first time, Ayanami looked troubled. She furrowed both of her eyebrows, closed her eyes and shut her lips tight as she hummed as if in search of the right words to put. “The Commander, barely talks about himself… right?”

    Ah, so that’s what she means. Though she had no idea why the girl brought it up, Zuikaku did think that even someone like Ayanami would notice how shady their commanding officer was. On top of that, with his bitter resentment against the Siren still fresh in their minds, being curious about his past was simply inevitable. Somehow, I feel relieved there are others who think the same way about him.

    Unlike her or Ayanami, Shoukaku seemed rather keen on letting the matter be. Unfortunately, Zuikaku was not patient enough to play the long game when it came to this kind of thing.

    Every person may have a few skeletons in their lockers, but having more than a few is just asking for doubts and suspicions to be cast upon you. Zuikaku folded her arms, nodding to herself as she felt her motivation to investigate the truth justified at last. It was a good feeling. I can’t pass up this chance, I need to convince Ayanami-chan that we must work together to unravel that guy’s true face!

    “Don’t you think it’s incredibly strange how little we know about him? We’ve been working together for months, even living under the same roof on top of that, but he refuses to open up his heart to his subordinates! Not even once!!”

    “Unn… That’s, true, yes…” Ayanami acquiesced with a nod. “Where he’s from, what kind of life he lived before joining the navy, stories about his friends or family… We never heard any of it.”

    Yes, that was exactly it. It wasn’t like he participated in top-secret operations. Heck, there should have been records if it were like that, considering how privy the kansen were about the innermost workings of the navy. Was his promotion really a coincidence as he once said, or was there something else that made him unnoticeable until now? So many mysteries, so little hints, not even an answer or two.

    “Ah, but Shikikan is… really old, right?”

    Zuikaku blinked, raising an eyebrow at Ayanami’s point. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    “But, senpai…” Ayanami trailed off, seemingly hesitating. “Wouldn’t that mean… his existence goes against the common theory…?”

    ...ah, that’s true. Zuikaku didn’t consider that possibility. She honestly never thought of seeing the situation from other perspectives. She was too fixated in what Aoto was hiding and not about what he was or where he was standing in the grander frame. But… the common theory, huh…?

    The common theory, also known as the theory of Natural Affinity, was the byproduct of the research in regards to the application of Wisdom Cubes in human technologies and its impact to the progress of civilization. After many tests, the greatest minds of humanity concluded that the Cubes possessed some sort of effects to humans exposed to it. In this case, people who received long-term exposure acquired the chance of having their descendants be born with the talent to resonate with kansen and connect with them in a deeper, more psychological sense. This inborn talent then became the main criteria for a human to be the commanding officer of a kansen fleet.

    However, this theory emerged purely because of the numbers of children gifted with especially high affinity eligible to become commanding officers. Should there be a person with the same ability that existed before Cube-derived technologies spread across the globe, it could only mean that they were directly involved with the KAN-SEN Project, unless…

    “Artificially engineered affinity…?” Zuikaku’s golden eyes narrowed, multiple threads of thoughts crossing through her mind. “The research of Wisdom Cube is humanity’s most guarded secret, right below the kansen project in terms of priority. The only way to achieve this would be to reach a major breakthrough that should have been shared among all countries regardless of the situation, or…”

    Zuikaku immediately put a brake on her thoughts. There was no way, right?

    Committing a blasphemous act with utter disregard to human rights was something the Iron Blood had tried to accomplish. The military empire previously struck out on their own to capture a living Siren specimen for the sake of dissecting their physiology, mode of life, as well as technology, but they had ultimately failed. As for Sakura Empire, toying with the sanctity of life and trying to play god, no matter what the reason was, would only taint the blessings of the dragon veins. This island nation could only last for so long only because the previous empress had utilized the imperial treasures to protect it until her very last breath. Any impurity mixed in with her magic would have undone the divine mist enveloping the empire ever since a long time ago.

    Then how do we explain his affinity? Where did it even come from? Just what exactly is he?

    After thinking about it for the rest of the trip back home, Zuikaku loudly groaned, “I give up. I don’t know anymore…!”

    “S-senpai…?!”

    Zuikaku immediately raised a hand. “Sorry, Ayanami-chan. I’ll gladly have another discussion with you about our superior, but not now. This is enough brainstorming for me!”

    “Eeeeeh…”
    +-+-+-+-+

    Zuikaku-senpai is so decisive… Though she didn’t voice it out, Ayanami had respect for her to be so nonchalant be it ion active duty or on breaks. Unlike her, the senior clad in red was an epitome of mood maker, a person who was capable to liven up the atmosphere no matter how tense the situation actually was. Always looking straight ahead with head held high, and acting on her decision without a shred of delays…

    Ayanami believed Zuikaku was really amazing. She was incredibly cool.

    But as for me… As the two continued walking back to their division, Ayanami couldn’t help but reflect on herself and her past actions. She never had the confidence to be frank to others or even herself, always overthinking things, and pushing herself recklessly in battles. There was a tiny voice telling her the simpler times when she was just a vessel of steel that roamed the oceans to fight and destroy her enemies, but the girl hastily warded off those thoughts. That’s not good… but, what should I do, then…?

    “Oh? Hey, Ayanami-chan…” At her words, Ayanami saw her senior pointing to a direction and so she followed her cue. There standing in front of the gate leading to the headquarters of the fifth Carrier Division was a person in a modified sailor uniform. “Isn’t that…”

    “Un. That is, Ashigara-senpai…?”

    The two approached the girl… the Kansen whom they knew well. A pair of animal ears on a short dark hair, a stern visage, a headphone on her neck and a sword dangling by her side. Her figure was slender but to Ayanami there were muscles in just the right places only a trained swordsman would have. It was indeed their comrade—the Myoukou-class Heavy Cruiser Ashigara.

    “Hey, Ashigara-chan!” Zuikaku promptly called out.

    “Huh? Ah, Zuikaku-san, and… Ayanami-san?” The heavy cruiser turned to face the two and politely bowed in greeting. “Good afternoon! It is good to meet the two of you again.”

    “Yep! Been quite a while, hasn’t it?” Zuikaku nodded down, placed a hand on her waist and then raised her other hand. “How’re you? From the looks of it nothing bad happened while you were out there.”

    “Fortunately,” Ashigara replied with a nod, this time a deep and solemn one; stickler to the rules until the very end. “As a delegate of our glorious empire, my own health and safety are paramount to the tasks given to me. Still…”

    Ayanami sensed something odd, something different from the way her other senior cast her gaze away. It didn’t seem like she had been hurt, but…

    “The foreign relations with the other countries aren’t going well, huh… Sorry to hear that.”

    Ah, so that’s it. Ayanami understood Ashigara’s vexed looks now. The girl was a delegate for Sakura Empire. She had been honored with the tasks and took to her missions like a fish in the water. There was no telling how many times Ashigara went out to meet representatives of other countries, and she was recognized by the aristocrats from the western side of the world through a special moniker. She was even stationed in Azur Lane, but after the political fallout between Sakura Empire and Azur Lane, the political strains must have become much heavier than before.

    “Though I and the others have managed to make our country looking amiable to the world, we cannot be sure how long this unstable peace will last.” Ashigara let out a rough sigh full of lamentation and shame. “I am sorry, Zuikaku-senpai. I could not bring back any good news.”

    “I think you’ve done really well, though…” Zuikaku gave a bitter laugh. “Well, don’t beat yourself over it. The important thing is to keep positive thoughts and look ahead, right?”

    “Verily. Although…”

    “Mmm?” Ayanami tilted her head and lowered her gaze, finding a large rectangular briefcase behind the heavy cruiser. It had deep brown color and it must have seen better days, but it was clear that it was cared for. If she remembered correctly, the old luggage was something Ashigara had bought after visiting the Coronation Review of the Royal Navy’s fleet. “Ashigara-senpai, that luggage, could it be…”

    “Hn? Ah, yes.” Ashigara nodded down to Ayanami’s words. “Speaking of official business, I’d like to give my greeting to your superior. Would it be alright if the two of you guide me to him?”

    Though she wasn’t one to notice the minute details, she had a feeling that the twitching lips on Zuikaku’s face were not just a hallucination. A brief image from the recent past also told the destroyer of a really unpleasant premonition. Why does this feel so familiar...?
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Hmm… Now this is quite a bit to process.”

    “My deepest apology for not informing your division beforehand!”

    Aoto waved at Ashigara’s fervent display of military discipline. It was not a foreign sight, but having it coming from an individual who looked precisely like a teenage girl still in her second year of high school was a rather eye-opening experience. Had he been not in the know, he’d have accused the navy for lowering the age requirement for conscription. His friends did not die cursing the next generation to carry the burdens they were once forced to carry.

    But I suppose the point becomes moot with these ladies…

    Aoto swept his gaze over the three kansen standing in front of him, and then to the official documents relayed by the Myoukou-class Heavy Cruiser. The content was simple, if a tad more than harsh.

    Relieved from original duty as a delegate and given mutation to our division...

    He still couldn’t get the Admiralty’s sense of humor even after this long. They seemed to wish for Ashigara to take a temporary break, yet the document read out more like a demotion than a proper transfer. Coincidentally, the fleet’s reshuffling occurred at the same time, meaning a top-to-bottom restructuring of the patrol schedule and personnel across the board. For all intents and purposes, Ashigara was just a victim of circumstances tugged into a mess after another mess. Aoto’s mind had settled on a decision, but he decided to relay his thoughts first to his secretary.

    “...what do you think, Shoukaku?”

    “Well, this is the decision of the Board, Shikikan. It’s a completely different case,” Shoukaku explained. “Besides, the duty of a representative can be far more taxing than braving against dangers in the open sea. The authority and responsibility they govern can be… overbearing, to say the least.”

    I see, that makes sense. “Then far be it from me to reject you. Welcome aboard, Ashigara. I look forward to working with you.”

    “Yes, sir!” The dark-haired girl saluted. “Ashigara, reporting in. Rear Admiral Tatsumiya, my sword shall help you cut through all enemies!”

    How enthusiastic. This youthful zeal and duty-bound persona was certainly a breath of fresh air in his division. Aoto also had to admit, it was getting too much for Ayanami to be the only vanguard. Having a Heavy Cruiser would no doubt be a great boon, so he had one less worry now—

    “Ah, that’s right…” Ashigara produced a second letter from her pocket and handed it to Aoto. “There is actually another matter I need to relay. This is personally directed to you, Rear Admiral.”

    Aoto lifted an eyebrow. He picked up the letter, flipped it to check the seal, and noted how it was stamped by none other than his superior. He lowered his eyebrows and immediately cut open the envelope to read its content. Shoukaku scooted closer, her gaze falling on the letter as she read it out loud.

    “We have taken note of your talents as a commanding officer, and commend your noble dedication to the empire’s cause. Therefore, we hope for the prestigious Fifth Carrier Division to fully cooperate with Myoukou-class Heavy Cruiser Ashigara in periodical data gathering of your division’s performance. For the sake of furthering the empire’s research on Wisdom Cube and its effect on the relationship between humans and kansen, your efforts shall be judged accordingly. May your continued service bring prosperity to our glorious empire…”

    Hmm…?

    Shoukaku clicked her tongue, an emotionless smile creeping into her pale face that definitely did not make her sister, Ayanami, and the new addition to the group to shudder in terror. Her long white hair bristled with a wintry cold aura, her blue eyes losing light as she looked down at the letter in Aoto’s hands with terrible malice. A bone-chilling giggle then leaked out from the corner of her lips even though they barely even twitched.

    Uh...

    The clipboard Shoukaku held close to her chest was getting crushed from her deathly grips, cracks visibly appearing over it, and there were unpleasant sounds in the air. Aoto suddenly felt the need to reconsider the difference between humans and kansen were even when the latter were not equipped with their rigging; mainly the physical strength part because there was no way in hell he could sleep properly if he didn’t have a countermeasure just in case…!

    “...so not even the headquarters understand us, hmmmmm?

    Aoto’s heart quaked in fear. His gaze immediately darted to Zuikaku, seeking for help. The brunette pointed to herself, glanced at her sister, looked back to Aoto and frantically shaking her head with a hand gesture that said “absolutely no way”. The man sharpened his gaze at the woman in red whose composure began to crack from the pressure. After a seemingly long staring contest that must have lasted fifteen seconds in reality, Zuikaku groaned in defeat.

    “Uh, umm!” She shouted as she slid to Ashigara’s side, both of her hands placed firmly on the new addition’s shoulders. “S-since this is a cause for celebration, let’s have a party! I also want to eat dinner outside!!”

    “Huh? Where did that even come from—“

    “I heard that there’s a new yakiniku store in the upper block! There’s a discount too, and if we lack the fund I’m sure the Commander will cover the rest, right!?”

    Me!? Aoto dropped his jaw at the sudden betrayal of his subordinate. Unfortunately for him, Zuikaku already stuck out a tongue before quickly replacing it with a placating smile to her sister. Before he could voice out his protest, Shoukaku hummed in thoughts with closed eyes. Et tu, Shoukaku!?

    “Well, I suppose once in a while is fine.” Everyone except Aoto was about to sigh in relief when the white-haired carrier raised a finger. “But only this time! Don’t think I didn’t notice what you were plotting, Zuikaku!”

    Seeing Zuikaku’s shocked expression, Aoto made a mental image of pumping a fist. The young woman turned teary-eyed in his direction, but he didn’t care. She had thrown him under the bus when he was only asking for a slight distraction. If I’m going down, then you’re going down with me, too!
     
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  11. Threadmarks: Intermission #1: Wind Chimes
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Intermission #1: Wind Chimes ---

    Ayanami’s day began with waking up a minute before the alarms rang. Getting up from bed was an incredibly difficult trial to overcome, but she did her best, and she intended to commit herself to work the hardest for everyone’s sake again. Opening the windows, Ayanami sensed the crisp morning air brushing past her skin and entering the room.

    Ah, the season. It was starting to get a little colder than usual. The wind was picking up speed and there were more clouds than last week. Even without her rigging, the girl could tell that something was beginning to change. Autumn is… soon.

    It had been more than three months. Ayanami turned around, looking at the room given to her the moment she joined Sakura Fifth Carrier Division. A futon, a study desk, and a wardrobe. It didn’t have much, and it has stayed that way for a while. Ayanami paused her breathing when her gaze fell on the objects sitting on her desk—

    Excuse me, Ayanami-san? Have you woken up?”

    “Hm? Ah, yes.” Ayanami went to the sliding door and opened it, meeting a raven-haired girl in a modified sailor uniform. “Ashigara-senpai…?”

    “Eh… un. Good morning.” Ashigara sucked in the air before letting out a large sigh. “I, uhm, this pains me to admit, but… will it be fine of you to assist me on managing my new quarter?”

    Ayanami tilted her head. She stepped to the side and glimpsed the door across of her room laid open, miscellaneous objects coming to view as she peered the interior. There was a tea set, cosmetics, boards for chess and shogi, traditional to foreign clothes, sword replicas, a tribal mask, a flat-faced statue, and more. Ayanami stood still with eyes round as saucers, speechless by the messy scene that would have made her stricter friend feeling faint just by looking at it all.

    “Please!” Ashigara clapped her hands together as she bowed deeply. “You may ask of me any favor after this, but please help me out!!”

    Even though it was morning, Ayanami could tell today was going to be a long day.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Hmmm…”

    “Why the long face, Myoukou-nee?”

    Myoukou blinked the thoughts away as her focus receded back to the present time. At the squadron she had been transferred in, together with her sister and a few faces she was more than just acquainted with, it seemed her hands had stopped working on the paperwork. This wouldn’t do, though she supposed it was already nearing afternoon. Lunch time was around the corner, so Myoukou shot Nachi with a thankful smile for the well-timed interruption; her little sister smiling back with pride clear in her expression.

    “Guess without Ashigara around, you’re feeling antsy, huh?”

    Myoukou stacked the documents into a tower and tidied her desk before getting up. “Don’t be silly, Ashigara is already an adult. She can take care of herself, and she knows better than turning people away from helping her.”

    “Well, that’s true, too.” Nachi followed along, the two leaving the office to head towards the cafeteria. “So, what were you thinking about, anyway?”

    “Aside from today’s works?” Myoukou hummed. “The fleet’s reorganization is sudden, though I understand the reasoning behind it. The last Siren attack taught the navy a lesson it cannot forget, and it reminds us again how frightening the enemy could be if they willed it so.”

    “Them remembering our defense patrol’s routine is a shock for sure…” Nachi agreed with a nod. “Still, for the Board to immediately approve restructuring is quite a surprise, right?”

    “It is prudent to change and adapt when necessary. Those who couldn’t will find themselves left behind by time.”

    Myoukou, naturally, did not voice any opinions about the Board. The Admiralty of the current time worked in a rather mysterious and complex way. Only a few could meet the people in charge face-to-face, but as far as intention goes, they had been working for the good of mankind. It was not much, but it was more than enough for Myoukou, though others would more than likely find faults on it. Just as she finished her thoughts, she noticed her sister spilling out a wide grin.

    “What is it?” Myoukou asked.

    “It’s nothing~” her sister answered with a sing-song tone. “You’re the same honor student like always, Myoukou-nee.”

    “Oh? And what does that even mean?”

    “I mean… isn’t that something Mikasa-sensei and Nagato-sama often said?” Nachi gave a small wave as the two passed by a fellow member of the reformed Defense Squadron. She noticed a step too late so all Myoukou could do was give Fuso’s sister a curt nod. “Time is a fickle thing, it can be both the greatest blessing and the worst of all disasters… something like that. Well, sensei would no doubt say that she can still keep up.”

    Ah, so it’s like that. “Mikasa-sensei’s wisdom is tempered by experience. She is the first kansen ever summoned, and she is also the one who fought at the end of the Second Dark Age along with a few others. I believe only great people like her could come up with ways to match up with the challenge of ages.”

    “Pffht. Age, she said. I feel sorry for sensei now, khe ke ke…”

    Huh, did I say something strange that warranted entertainment?
    +-+-+-+-+

    “F-finally done…”

    It was long past the afternoon that Ayanami’s errand finally finished. It took a lot of time, effort, and planning as she met Ashigara’s requests on trying to arrange her room into a somewhat livable place. Even then, the number of souvenirs was way too much. Some willpower was needed for Ayanami to stop Ashigara from giving away various trinkets that she suspected to have some sort of spirits attached to them. The girl wasn’t an expert by any means, but most kansen had higher-than-average spiritual affinity which enabled them to fight evenly against higher-ranked Siren. Besides, a mask bought from a souvenir shop couldn’t possibly have glowing eyes with the motion-tracking feature!

    “Hmm?” Thoughts cutoff by a delicious aroma hanging in the air, Ayanami was quickly drawn to the dining room wherein which she encountered a familiar white veil. “Shoukaku-senpai?”

    “Ah, you’re finally here.” Shoukaku expressed a warm and soothing smile as she gestured for Ayanami to take a seat. “Good work, Ayanami-chan. Lunch is ready. What about Ashigara…?”

    “Ah… about that,” Ayanami paused while doing as her senior wished and sitting down properly before she could pick up the chopsticks. “Ashigara-senpai said she wants to finish before tomorrow, so she wants her portion set aside for later.”

    “I suppose it’s just the two of us, then…”

    Huh? Ayanami glanced around the table, finding that none of the usual occupants nowhere in sight, much less the plates and cups meant for them. “Zuikaku-senpai and Shikikan…?”

    “Zuikaku is tied up at the office. Shikikan-kun is relaying reports to other divisions even though I asked him not to,” Shoukaku sighed. “I don’t think both of them will be available until dinner.”

    Ah, now that’s new.

    Though Ayanami nodded twice in understanding, Shoukaku who was sitting across of her let out a deep and exasperated sigh. Her senior seemed to be troubled by how nobody could enjoy her cooking. There was also no helping it. Zuikaku was one thing, but their Commander was like a child who refused to stay still even when he was hurt. Although he did say before that he was more of a man-in-action type, nobody expected him to just up and disregard his own state of being just to make a point.

    Mmm, since I’m hungry, I can probably make it up for the other’s sake.

    Deciding such, the two of them clasped their hands together, giving prayer and gratitude for the chance to eat properly for yet another day. The whole time there was only the soft sounds of clinking chopsticks and shifting plates. Lunch was quickly done, and Ayanami helped her senior out to tidy the dishes. Shoukaku gave a thankful nod.

    “You’re an earnest child, aren’t you?” It sounded like rhetoric more than a question. “It’s fine to take it easy once in a while, you know? I can handle this by myself.”

    “That’s… true. But…” Ayanami trailed off. “I don’t dislike… working hard. It’s… better than fighting.”

    “...I see.”

    What followed after was a comfortable silence. It stretched on as they brought the dishes to the kitchen to wash them, but Shoukaku stopped Ayanami there.

    “Leave the rest to me,” she said. “Ayanami-chan, why don’t you take a break?”

    “Eeeh…”

    Shoukaku wore a helpless expression. “Geez. If you don’t have anything to do, then… could you do me a favor?”

    A favor?

    “Yes.” Shoukaku nodded down with a smile. “Do write a letter to your sister. It’s been a while since you last saw her, right?”

    ...ah, I totally forgot. Ayanami recalled the papers on her desk from this morning, and she shrunk away. Was… was she that easy to read? Uwaah, this is so embarrassing…

    Much to her dismay, Shoukaku giggled in a way befitting of an all-knowing adult. Ayanami felt the blood rising to the tip of her ears.
    +-+-+-+-+

    That certainly took a long time. While it was him who proposed the idea, it turned out there were so many improvements to be made only after he received the plan’s schematics. The Admiralty did a good job in creating a guideline, but it was rough. Inflexible. More than a bit of a bother if one squinted at the tiny details.

    And I can’t ask for them to revise it so early…

    Aoto trudged down the complicated residential block of the exclusive district. He had been going up and down, left and right just to give the reports. In doing so, he came to know the people… well, women whom he’d work together with for the foreseeable future. To tell the truth, he wished he could get used to this situation, but there was no doubt about it. There was simply way too few human sailors among the chains of command. The structure of the Kansen Fleet was a lot more focused, trimmed down to the absolute limit for the sake of efficiency.

    That was the issue, wasn’t it? He had been in service as a sailor for so many years, yet only recently did he get himself introduced into the other side of the war for humanity’s survival.

    It was surreal, but Aoto had come to terms with the reality of his situation. At least, that was what he wanted to believe. He really needed to get his bearings or else he would never hear the end of it from Zuikaku. There’s still so much I need to learn.

    “And once again, I returned to this place.”

    Aoto came to a stop at the farthest end of the pier eking out to the sea. All alone, with only the winds and the occasional seagulls in his company, he raised a bottle of old sake; opening the lid to pour the content into the sea. The darkening sea, illuminated by the fading light of dusk, made the pouring liquid sparkle for as long as it lasted. When he stopped, there was only a third left.

    “This is for you all,” his voice delivered to the sea breeze. Taking out a small drinking cup from the breast pocket of his uniform, Aoto filled it up. He made a toast gesture with a faint, longing smile on his face. “Next time we meet, let’s exchange stories again... old friends.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    Late at night. Though it was nearing the curfew, Ayanami still could hear a faint noise from somewhere in the division’s admittedly spacious pavilion. For a place entirely made in a traditional way with traditional techniques and materials, sounds could travel rather far.

    Judging by the bickering, it was most likely the two Shoukaku-class sisters having an intense argument about recent past deeds. There was also the possibility of their Commander drawn to the mess yet again. Whether he noticed or not, the Rear Admiral definitely had an aura about him that would easily attract the wrong kind of attention. It was kind of strange since she had never seen similar cases throughout her lives both as a ship or as a kansen.

    Ah, but I do get called as a demon, so maybe that evens out.

    Ayanami hummed to herself, a tune she just came up with going to various places while she wrote a letter for her sister. While it was spurred on by Shoukaku, the girl also wanted to do this for once. Not because her sister had sent a letter to her, or because of family obligation.

    She just wanted to. Sometimes, that reason was more than enough to move people.

    “But what should I write… yes?”

    She could write her regular activity, but Fubuki surely already knew that Ayanami would stick to her habits. The new stores at the upper block? Her sister was far more knowledgeable than she could ever be. The newest addition to the division? This was about Fubuki. She’d rather want to know more about Ayanami’s story herself.

    Muuuu, this is harder than I expected…

    She needed to step back. When she focused on one thing, sometimes she could get tunnel vision and that was one thing she didn’t wish to let happening again. If she relaxed and see things properly, there would not be another communication problem… probably.

    Uuuun, what was it again? I think Nimi said something about it before…

    That was right. “Recall the… most vivid memories that happened recently… yes?”

    Taking a look at the photo frame sitting at the corner of her desk, Ayanami pondered. A few images popped up in her mind alongside faint whispers as if she was listening to a recorder.

    Eventually, an idea formed and Ayanami felt her hear throbbing in delight. Yes, this could definitely work. The girl smiled as writing became easier with every stroke.

    “Then first… a prayer for... Onee-chan’s well-being. And then…”
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sea was calm. The dark sky glittering with stars, the sounds of the waves, the smooth feeling of the sand under her feet, and the cold breeze. All of them truly made her feel like this was the place she belonged in as a warship, and the place she would eventually return to.

    And here comes the sunrise, the girl thought as she saw a speck of light rising in the horizon, squinting a little bit as dawn cracked open and chased away the night. Aah, how pretty...

    Even though she had seen it for so many times, she could never get tired of it. She loved the dawn as much as she loved the twilight. The world was full of beautiful scenery if you just try to stop for once and look to your surroundings carefully. Well, she was never a poet but she really believed that there was nothing impossible to achieve. After all, she did befriend people whom she once fought as enemies in her previous life. If she could do that, everyone could surely do the same or be way better than her.

    But what about them…?

    What were her friends doing right now? Were they doing fine? Were they happy? Were they sad because of their sudden parting? Were they able to look ahead like the time they did when the four of them were still together? The lavender-haired girl couldn’t know for sure. She was not them, but she hoped her knowledge and understanding about them was mutual. Also...

    “I wonder… when will we meet each other again…?”

    The girl sighed. The rolling waves did not answer her question, and come to think of it, wasn’t it a stupid thing to expect the waves to have cognitive and speech abilities? Or rather, that’d be hilarious and ridiculous...

    “Oh, if that isn’t Javelin? What are you doing out here?”

    “Huh… ah, Enterprise!” Javelin turned around, only to realize there were two more additions after the voice belonging to the one and only Grey Ghost. One was a girl who wobbled side to side slowly as if caught by sleeping spell, and the other was… “Laffey and, Admiral…?”

    The man raised a hand in greeting. Dressed in Service Dress Blue, he made a matching pair to Enterprise’s slightly modified uniform. A tall stature, blond hair trimmed neatly with a pair of green eyes resting between a sharp nose, and a rather carefree smile that didn’t make the Grand Admiral of the Azur Lane feel as if he was the highest-standing person in the base.

    Yes, that goofy but jovial expression certainly was one of the Grand Admiral and nobody else. Javelin couldn’t think properly as she realized she had been caught going out even though it was already well past night curfew.

    “Err, A-Admiral, this is…!”

    “Oh, don’t you worry. I know that feeling well, Javelin.” The man no older than a college graduate waved. “Skinny dipping in the morning is my past—gohok!?

    Faster than Javelin’s reddening face, the ashen-haired lady had already moved to drill an elbow at the Admiral’s side. The man shuddered, bent, and writhed in place as the damage rendered his charismatic impression destroyed into the oblivion. Taking her purple eyes off from their Commanding Officer, Enterprise beamed at Javelin.

    “Come with us, Javelin. The sea can be so cold in the morning. I recommend warm drinks and a hot breakfast, though it's a little earlier than scheduled.”

    “...un. Laffey... also agreed…” The other girl in an attire heavily resembling sleepwear murmured as she rubbed the sleep away from her eyes no matter how futile. “Night patrol… is hard work.”

    “That’s true, too.” Enterprise chuckled, giving Laffey a gentle pat on the head. “So, what do you think, Javelin? Even the Admiral thinks the same, right?”

    While Javelin wasn’t certain if the Grand Admiral was alright, he still gave a raised thumb as he forced a smile. Really, she was amazed at how durable he was that she couldn’t help but to elicit small laughter that chased away all of her worries. After the laughter subsided...

    “Okay! I’m going, too!” Javelin retreated to the beach, joining the three who had been looking after her from the beginning of her permanent transfer into the Azur Lane. When she matched up her pace, she felt a hand sliding in to hold hers, and Javelin’s smile grew brighter as she whispered “thank you” to her friend. “What’s breakfast will be today?”

    “It seems Vestal came up with a new menu, so I suppose it’ll be full of nutritional values.”

    “...I hope it’s not entirely vegetables.”

    “I want.. sweets… and whiskey.” No, please don’t drink so early in the morning, Laffey.

    “Personally, I want to eat meat,” the Admiral chimed in.

    Enterprise expressed her dismay with a sigh. “I still can’t believe you have the nerves to say stuff like that so bluntly and seriously, Commander.”

    “Well, I do consider myself a very carnivorous man, after all.”

    “No, that is not something to be proud of!”
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: Herald of Autumn
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 11: Herald of Autumn ---

    For the umpteenth time of the day, Aoto’s pen stopped scratching on the documents sent to his office, his eyebrows deeply furrowed while he hummed in thoughts.

    Reports have consistently flowed to his hand over approval on researches and developments of military technology. The deadlines of the projects were unexpectedly tight, and though Aoto didn’t have actual saying in them, he could sense the direction the researches were headed to. Or, at the very least, he wished that his assumption was right on the money. Not much was still known about the Wisdom Cube. Nevertheless…

    “It’s worrying, isn’t it?”

    To Shoukaku’s question, Aoto nodded in agreement. He moved his pen again to sign the documents and pushed it so that it’d join its brethren. There was no telling what the Board intended to do, but at least none of the proposals required extreme funding or breaching of moral and ethical grounds. The royal family was particularly privy on the working of the navy, as they would never allow anything to harm the empire’s first defense line. Defilement of the divine mist would be a grave treason as well as a direct insult to the late empress’ sacrifice; transparency must be kept at high level these days.

    “Rear Admiral!”

    Like a storm, Zuikaku slammed open the door to the office with gusto. Aoto blinked in surprise at the sudden destruction of the office’s atmosphere, but Shoukaku was already one step ahead of him. A white shikigami flew to Zuikaku’s face, latching to it with incredible grip that turned whatever words she was about to utter into complete gibberish..

    “Zu-i-ka-ku?” Shoukaku approached with a mirthless smile on her face. “What did I tell you again about basic courtesy, hmmmm?

    “Mph!? Hmgh! Gmhghhhhh!!”

    At the admittedly comedic byplay between the sisterships which he had grown accustomed to, Aoto shook his head, a polite smile concealing his urge to laugh which would have surely ruined the pecking order in the division if it were let loose.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Combined Fleet Exercise ?”

    “Ah, is it already that time of the year?” To the curious gaze directed at her, Shoukaku cleared her throat twice. “It’s understandable that you have no knowledge of this, Shikikan-kun. This is an event mostly known by people who live in the exclusive district.”

    “Ah, so it’s kansen-related.”

    “To put it simply.” Shoukaku nodded. “The Combined Fleet Exercise is meant for the Admiralty Board to assess the strength of each kansen division, demonstrate new equipment and technology, as well as a chance for Commanding Officers to curry favors from the higher-ups. There’s actually a bit more, but with how it’s held, festivities naturally follow.”

    “Huh...”

    “It’s a game for the elites,” Shoukaku concluded. “Don’t waste the tax payers’ money, please.”

    “Needless to say.” Aoto let out a sigh and looked at Zuikaku. Unfortunately, the kansen had long tuned everything out with a dreamy expression all over her face. She must be fantasizing glimmering battlefield, fighter crafts locked in dogfights, and roaring cannons. This battle junkie is hopeless. “Is there no way to discourage your sister from participating, or…?”

    “What do you think have I been dealing with in the past years, Shikikan-kun…?”

    I see. Aoto gave the division’s secretary his condolences with a tip of his cap.

    +-+-+-+-+

    From the entrance gate to the heart of the commerce district, people could be seen going around fully committed to their respective tasks. Under the clear blue autumn sky, preparation for the festival was met with absurdly high enthusiasm that the district was getting fancier at no time at all.

    “Everyone is so excited…” Ayanami finally commented.

    “The Combined Fleet Exercise is a special event for the people living in the exclusive region, after all.” Ashigara hummed. “Although... it has certainly been a long time since I last visited the commerce district at this time of the year. A fortuitous thing, indeed.”

    Ah, that’s right. The last time Ashigara participated in it. It was when the Board wagered the position for the Fleet’s Flagship. However, after the Washington Treaty with Mikasa and Nagato stepping down from leaderships, the event had changed into extension of a festival instead of its own event.

    “Then… this year’s exercise will have no real reward, other than battle experiences…?”

    “I can understand why,” Ashigara replied with a nod. “The ocean is vast, it is very difficult to cover every section. While we are living incarnations of warships, we have our own limitations due to our ship class specifications. The entire fleet must be restructured so as to suit the new warfare doctrine.”

    That’s true… Ayanami trailed behind Ashigara when she took notice of a couple set of brown and white tails ahead of them. Ah, aren’t they...

    “Oh my. What a chance encounter, indeed.” With a soft but chime-like giggle, Flagship Akagi’s gaze fell on the two members of the Fifth Carrier Division. “Good afternoon. Are you helping the festival’s preparation, too?”

    “Ah… no, unfortunately, we are simply sightseeing.” Ashigara visibly tensed up. “Umm, good afternoon to you as well, Akagi-sama. Kaga-sama as well.”

    “It has certainly been a while since we last talked face-to-face, isn’t it?” Akagi chuckled. “I hope there is no discomfort through your adaptation. I had little choices on your transfer, so an apology is in order.”

    “Eh!? N-no, I am doing well and the division has taken care of me greatly! Please, there is nothing to apologize for!”

    Oooh, Ayanami voiced out in her mind. It was surprising to see Ashigara being so flustered, but then again, she always dedicated herself to be the best. Perhaps she recalled the time when she fought their seniors in the last Combined Fleet Exercise. Even back then, Akagi-senpai and Kaga-senpai were far above the rest in terms of strength and tactical excellence.

    “Ufufu, if you say so, it looks like I can rest easy. Have you decided on whether to participate in the upcoming Joint Exercise, by the way?”

    “Ah, yes… Zuikaku-san expressed her wish to participate, and is seeking our Commander’s approval for it.” Ashigara placed a hand on her chest. “I myself am looking forward to it. If it is possible, I’d like to measure how far can I go after the last time.”

    “I see, I see. What about you, Ayanami?”

    Feeling the focus shifted to her, Ayanami briefly forgot how to think. Instinct took over and she shyly took half-a-step back before her thoughts restarted. What would she do? What would she gain from participating? Well, a stray thought crossed her mind, but…

    “Uuh… I think… I’d like to participate as well…” Ayanami’s cheeks reddened at the inquisitive gaze directed on her. “I… I don’t mind… some praises… from Shikikan…”

    “Oh my, oh my!”

    She knew it! The woman absolutely knew what she was thinking, yet she tricked her into confessing her innermost desire out loud.

    “Ufu fu fu! It looks like none of you have been mistreated. It’s a relief to know that there’s still some good in the navy, yes.”

    Huh…? “What does that, mean…?”

    “Well, it is nothing but a boorish thing to explain, but yes…” Akagi hummed with an index finger placed against her chin as she gazed to the crowds of people working on the festival preparation. “Sometimes, some people have zero idea on how to treat kansen. They could be extremely not understanding or be absolutely worshiping, which are non-conducive for the fleet to work properly.”

    “Huh…”

    Ayanami couldn’t tell if she should be surprised or be shocked by this revelation. The people—or rather—the humans she had met so far were all kind and understanding, though none of them were ever good at acting reasonably normal. The maintenance crew, the researches of the RnD section, or even those stationed at Azur Lane. Hm, was it just her or were all the people she bonded with a bunch of eccentrics, the Rear Admiral included?

    “Regardless, I have the duty to rectify the issues when found. As it is the Flagship’s duty to lead and protect the kansen fleet, always do tell me if your Commander goes too far.”

    Going too far… Ayanami pondered but she couldn’t imagine such a scenario happening. In the first place, the Rear Admiral was a sensible and reasonable person. He was the definition of a reliable adult, but he was also rather distant. The thought of him being a bad person who would harm others was well beyond her imagination, but… If there’s anything to worry about, Shikikan is the type to push himself over the edges when it comes to personal vendetta...

    “Speaking of...” Kaga suddenly interrupted. “Have your superior submit a report should your division wish to participate. Send it to our office before the registration deadline, preferably a few days before it. Also, include any pledge you make with the RnD section who wants your division to test experimental weapons as well. All in details.”

    “Ah, understood! We will get right to it!” Ashigara saluted, turned around, and patted Ayanami’s shoulder. “Let’s go, Ayanami-san.”

    “Eh, ah, okay...”

    The two broke away from the group with a mission on hand. Ayanami, however, gave a look over her shoulder and saw Akagi smiling warmly as she waved goodbye. The destroyer then clumsily nodded in respect before trying to catch up with Ashigara.

    +-+-+-+-+

    “Being a bit forceful than the usual, hm? You won’t be popular like that, Kaga~”

    Kaga turned away her face from her sister’s gaze. “I am simply doing my job, precisely like what Nee-sama wanted.”

    “My, it isn’t good to mix personal matter with business, don’t you think?” Akagi chuckled, once again in the same and practiced manner if only a little bit more sincere. “You could have tried harder by turning the table against me instead of denying the cards you are dealt with.”

    Kaga, having no comeback to that jab, stayed silent. She did let her exasperation clear, but all she received was another round of joyful giggling. Kaga looked away and stared at the hustle and bustle in hope that the silence would cut her some slack. It did, to a degree, until…

    “Combined Fleet Exercise… how nostalgic.” Akagi paused, her words carrying an entirely different kind of emotion never been shown to anyone except Kaga. “That person, too… would have loved to take part in it.”

    The white fox slowly closed her eyes. It was all she could do so as not to release the boiling emotions left to fester in the corner of her heart. And yet, when she reopened her eyes, all she saw was the overlapping image of a woman with identical appearance to Akagi, always seen propping up that paper umbrella of hers as she smiled demurely to the very end of her life. A familiar, dearly beloved and hateful name crossed her mind.

    Amagi…

    +-+-+-+-+

    A perfect sunny weather, few clouds, and the forecast promising a week of clear blue sky. As fireworks bloomed in the sky, an uproarious cheer spread across the exclusive region of the Yokosuka Naval District.

    From ends to ends, people across the empire came to Yokosuka Naval District. For Aoto who had heard of it in the last minute, it was a big surprise for sure to know that civilians from the mainland were permitted to join in the festivity. Every place was brimming with people that the naval officers and the few kansen volunteers stationed in place were having problems in maintaining public order. According to the pamphlet given to him, the first day was the preliminary round which would weed most of the competitions. Most of the kansen would be at the arena around this time. Perhaps that was the reason?

    He wondered if it was okay to leave Zuikaku’s group be, but Shoukaku reasoned that there was no way her sister would lose so easily. Not even the tournament staff would want the Dark Horse of the joint exercise lose so quickly.

    “You’re being exceptionally harsh, Shoukaku.”

    “Is that a problem?” The crane shot back.

    “Not at all, though I do think you are better off with your usual attitude else it will needlessly worry your sister.”

    “...why is it only when we are alone could you be so smooth with your words, honestly?”

    Aoto shrugged. He wasn’t doing this on purpose, and the recent roller coaster of events certainly must have taken a toll on Shoukaku. He might not be able to read minds, but he had gotten used to know how to deal with specific kinds of people. Did that make him a sly person to take advantage of his experiences? Most certainly. Would that make him stop doing that?

    Looking at Shoukaku’s pouting face, Aoto believed that no, he wasn’t going to stop. At least not just yet.

    “Want me to treat you, then?”

    “Hmph. Bribery isn’t going to move you anywhere, but it’d be a waste to disregard the efforts the people have made to make this festival happening in the first place.” Shoukaku let out a sigh. “I’d like something light on the stomach, please.”

    “As the lady wishes.” Aoto smiled mischievously, bowing in a mock gesture of a nobility servant. Needless to say, he received a shake of head from his secretary.

    +-+-+-+-+

    At an open terrace housing many round tables and chairs, Shoukaku picked the table under the shades of a green-leaved tree that had yet to wilt in preparation for winter. The cafe her Commander chose was an establishment slightly far from the entrance, so not many tourists were around, but it was still busy enough that the cafe would easily flow in money by the second or third day.

    Taking a sip of the jasmine tea she preemptively ordered so that she could pass the time at leisure, Shoukaku observed the crowds. It was difficult to differentiate humans and her fellow kansen, but the latter’s exotic appearances tended to be hard to miss.

    Looking at the scenery again, the two different species intermingled with so much ease that it was a little surprising. Perhaps it was because she rarely came out of her comfort zone, but watching the Mutsuki-class ships play with elementary schoolers who were close in mental age to them, and finding destroyers manning vendors or attractions of their own painted a large, large picture full of peaceful harmony. It was truly the height of coexistence, as opposed to the endless conflicts that plagued the world she once knew.

    As for the naval officers…

    She supposed she should have expected it, but many of them were young. A little too young, perhaps. There was a clear division between the veterans and those who had joined after the Second Dark Age came to end, most likely because of the change to conscription rule where one must possess adequate level of affinity to Wisdom Cube. While the veterans stayed in certain range from the kansen, giving “just enough” level of respect and berth, the fresh blood were having a difficult time in trying to socialize with the kansen. Young and impressionable; the sign of a new generation raised with stories of tragedies and heroism.

    As much as they look so easy to tease, they just don’t fit the image that man has imprinted on us.

    Perhaps it was because he was such an enigma, but Shoukaku had to acknowledge the strength of his character and impression. Just as she leaned back in her chair, she saw a familiar bone white mask resembling the skull of a bird walking to her direction with a bag of snack and drinks of her choices in hand. However, he crossed path with a few people who stopped him dead in his track. Shoukaku blinked, recognizing the sign of respect and formal greeting given to the Rear Admiral who began to converse with the group of people.

    Huh, they are wearing old uniforms of the navy...

    It didn’t take a while for Shoukaku to realize they were retired sailors. The talk was rather animated, but before she could use her shikigami to probe on them, the group of people gave the Rear Admiral a deep bow before they melded back in with the crowds; leaving a very stumped man all by himself. It made him look like a lost child, but the strange moment didn’t last long as he looked back to her direction. He quickly walked back to Shoukaku’s table as if nothing had happened.

    “Here you go, Shoukaku.”

    “Ah, thank you…” Shoukaku accepted the snack and the drink, all of them traditional treats specified with low sugar. “Shikikan-kun, those people were…?”

    “Those…? Ah, them.” Aoto bitterly smiled. “I wish you didn’t notice, but I suppose we made a scene right there. Yes, they are my old comrades.”

    “From your previous post?”

    “No, specifically from my school day.” Aoto sat down as he took off his cap. He drummed his finger against the surface of the round table as he hummed in thoughts. “I suppose you could say they are the only ones who remained…”

    Shoukaku quirked an eyebrows. He was being cryptic, a sign of subject he particularly did not wish to disclose unless he must. She had heard of this behavior from Zuikaku, but seeing it firsthand was certainly an experience in its own right. There was something a tiny bit off, a somber atmosphere in Aoto’s mannerism that it was difficult to fathom just what was wrong with him unless you wholeheartedly focused on observing him; most likely it was his method to trick others so that they could not perceive the truth, but… that doesn’t mean I did not learn anything through my lives as a ship and a kansen.

    This was an opportunity. Everything that happened here need not be told to others, so one could say there was no better time than now. Therefore—

    “I do not mind,” Shoukaku preemptively said. “So please, do tell me your story. Whatever it is you have seen, I will recognize it all and judge it accordingly.”

    The looks her superior gave her was exquisite. If nothing else, that expression of his was far more amusing than watching teenagers flunking out their love confession scenes.

    +-+-+-+-+

    The harbor had changed, transformed into viewing platforms. Layered tribunes akin to those of a baseball stadium were erected, and mass-produced model ships had similarly been renovated to hold seats for watchers of the Combined Fleet Exercise. The first preliminary round was about to start in thirty minutes, so one could easily hear people’s chattering growing louder by the minutes.

    Meanwhile, the situation at the dockyard carried an entirely different tone of hustle and bustle.

    “Ah, how nostalgic. It’s rare to see maintenance crew, engineers, and frontline members to gather in one spot like this.” Zuikaku grinned before she turned to her team. “So, are two of you prepared for the match? Remembered your roles and play tricks?”

    “As ready as we can be,” Ashigara readily answered, the turrets of her rigging shifted along with the equipment itself. “I believe I can fulfill my duty well. Though it is unfortunate that we cannot have Shoukaku-san to support us.”

    Ayanami certainly did not miss the awkward twitching of the edge of Zuikaku’s lips.

    “Ah, ha ha ha… well, it can’t be helped. We’ll just have to do our best with what we have!”

    As a Heavy Cruiser, her rigging was larger and far more defensive in specification, so there was larger surface area. Armored indeed, but Ashigara also used a sword at her disposal, allowing her to confidently fight in various ranges without much problems. Ayanami sort of wished she could have a more complicated rigging design; Ashigara’s just looked so cool.

    “While the First Carrier Division isn’t participating...” Ashigara hummed in deep thoughts. “There will be other strong contenders for sure, yes. Ayanami-san, are you ready?”

    Ayanami confirmed with a nod. With her rigging on standby, she raised her gargantuan sword and looked over her equipment, adjusting the torpedo launchers, rotating the anti-air guns, and leveling her main gun held in her left hand. All of her electronics functioned at optimal capacity, and though she needed to limit her performance to non-lethal capacity, she still could deal a great blow if she ever wanted to.

    “There’s no problem—“

    “Ayanamiiiiiiiiii!!”

    Oh, this voice… Before her thought finished, somebody tackled her from behind and almost making her fall to the front. However, as she was equipped with her rigging, the ballast anchored her in place and all that happened was just a soft shove to the front. Ayanami turned around, meeting Fubuki face-to-face at long last. The usual messy blue hair, a childish face full of vigor and innocence, as well as an upbeat personality in her every gesture. Yes, it was indeed her older sister Fubuki.

    “Onee-chan, don’t surprise me like that.”

    “Ehe hee! I can’t help it! You sounded like you were having soooooo much fun in your letters, you know?”

    Oh, I didn’t tell her to keep them a secret. Ayanami immediately covered Fubuki’s lips with her hands in an effort to prevent further leakage of her own privacy. It was a close call. The stares of her seniors were hurting her back. Auuuugh…

    “Oh, it has also been a while, Zuikaku-senpai! Ashigara-senpai!” Fubuki side-stepped to escape Ayanami’s grasp and gave a carefree salute above the eyebrows.

    “Yes, it truly has been a long while, hasn’t it?” Ashigara quirked her lips into a soft and gentle smile. “I am glad to know that you are the same as always, Fubuki-san.”

    “Well, I got transferred into the Second Carrier Division, but yeah! Ahahaha!” Fubuki rubbed the back of her own head.

    Oh, right… Onee-chan is in the CarDiv two, now...

    Looking around a little, Ayanami quickly discovered familiar faces among the participants on stand-by. Two pair of rabbit ears atop a black-haired and white-haired young women styled in archery uniform, the most defining traits of Souryuu and Hiryuu. Just looking from afar already promised Ayanami of a hard fight, but somehow… she wasn’t scared at all.

    “Hoh hoh…?”

    Ayanami frowned, her focus receding back to her sibling who was still clinging to her. “What, is it, Onee-chan?”

    “Noooothing. It’s just,” Fubuki said as she took a few steps back while twirling around, the gohei in her hand fluttering and swaying from her little dance. “Ayanami, let’s not hold back when we face each other out there, okay?”

    Huh…?

    Fubuki grinned, an aura of mischief and confidence twinkling in her eyes. Ayanami held her breath for a moment, but as her heart throbbed from her sister’s cheeky statement…

    I don’t like fighting, but… That was right. She also didn’t hate it. To her, battle was a part of her nature, a duty she must fulfill. It was a destiny she could not escape from, but also a fate she had no problem living with for the rest of her life. She was a weapon first and foremost, and yet… lately, something had begun to change. Above all else… I don’t think it’s a bad idea to like this sort of thing, now. Shikikan really has influenced me...

    With that concluded, Ayanami nodded down to Fubuki’s provocation. She raised a thumbs up and blew an air through her nose.

    “I also… We won’t lose!”

    “Oooh! The Ayanami that I always knew is fired up! Onee-chan isn’t going to lose either!”

    “Un. Bring it on!”
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2020
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: Festival's Beginning
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 12: The Festival's Beginning ----

    The preliminary was beginning. All of the participants left the dockyard to reach the exercise premise, lining up before the pier that eked out the most to the sea.

    There they witnessed four figures, all of them bearing the traits of heavenly foxes. Staying only a dozen steps behind were the prized members of the First Carrier Division, solemnly following in respect to those who walked ahead of them. In front of them were two young girls dressed in shrine maiden outfits. The shapes of their massive pagoda mast-like rigging, and the air surrounding them were the physical proof of the bizarre existence known as kansen, and the crowd grew silent in their presence.

    “O beloved citizens of the empire,” the one ahead of the three stated, making herself known with a regal voice carrying the weight of authority. Her luscious black hair danced in the winds and the sleeve of her priestess outfits fluttered as she extended both of her arms forward. “Today marks the annual event for the pride of our naval force to test their excellence once again. Crude as it may be... Unfortunate as it may be, true peace has yet to dawn on this blue planet of ours. The threat of Siren continues to test the strength of our bonds, thus, we must unite as one so as to open up a path to the future we seek for.”

    The audience, caught in rapt attention, focused at the figure of the previous Flagship of the kansen fleet who looked over the kansen at the exercise premise.

    “As one honored with the position of a referee, this Nagato shall watch over your effort and passion to the very end! Look alive, and hold your pride high as protectors of mankind!!” The battleship announced, “Let the Combined Fleet Exercise begins!”
    +-+-+-+-+

    A splendid speech, Aoto thought as he gave his applause along with the other crowds of observers. For the Shrine Maiden who manages the central leyline network of the empire, she certainly has the making of a leader.

    The special seats reserved for VIPs had a roofing as well as comfortable space between each seating. Indeed, he could observe the fleet exercise very clearly from his current vantage point, though he had to admit that there weren’t even many people who chose to observe this event. Either the other CO believed that it wasn’t necessary, or they were watching from other spots. Regardless, he didn’t like abusing his authority, but he was feeling a little windup after experiencing the opening day of the festival.

    Even though I said that… it really does seem like my age has started to catch up with me.

    It was one thing to mingle with the crowds, but he had an image to preserve now. As a high-ranked officer, his presence was making a difference more than ever, though that was natural in its own rights. The rate of his adaptation to his new role was slightly worrying; Aoto hoped it wouldn’t take another drastic measure for him to make the lesson stick in his head.

    “Nagato-sama is as prim and proper as always, I see…” From his side, Shoukaku’s voice traveled to reach his ears. “It doesn’t look like she suffered any issue after devoting herself as the Maiden of Sanctuary. Thank goodness...”

    Oh? It was a surprise for sure. Aoto didn’t think Shoukaku would worry about somebody else at the same level she worried over her sister. Perhaps noticing his gaze, Shoukaku raised an index finger up. Aah, looks like I’m in for another lecture...

    “Nagato-sama shouldered the duty of a Flagship out of necessity. It was given to her when she reincarnated, for no one else could inherit the regent’s position that required innate ability to calm down the dragon veins.”

    “...by that admission, even among the kansen, her ability is far above the rest, then?”

    Shoukaku deeply nodded, her gaze still glued at the Nagato-class battleships. Once formality was done, it seemed their positions made them to sit out in different place. Aoto wasn’t sure if that was fine; it just seemed like the one person holding the highest authority of the empire had no right to share the same level of freedom as her citizen. Shoukaku, however, didn’t miss the thought swirling in his mind.

    “Unfortunately, it is how it is,” she said. “Mikasa-sama is undoubtedly a force multiplier, a peerless warrior, but she could never be in two places at the same time. The death of the imperial family necessitated an individual capable of managing the leylines to reactivate the divine mist, a burden too great for ordinary humans.”

    “And so, she was selected as the best choice…”

    “Of course, after the world order reestablished itself, it was deemed unnecessary for her to lead the navy, rule the empire, and manage the Sanctuary at the same time. The last Combined Fleet Exercise existed solely to reduce the burdens Nagato-sama was forced to carry, but…”

    Noticing the strange lull in the conversation, Aoto moved his gaze back from the exercise premise to his secretary. He saw her looking downtrodden, her lips twisted in bitterness that contained multitude emotions he couldn’t pick off. All that he could gather was how terribly distressed Shoukaku was, and it just didn’t feel right.

    “You don’t have to force yourself, you know?”

    “...no, you don’t understand, Shikikan-kun. This is...”

    “It’s fine,” Aoto said with a tone full of finality. “I may not be able to know everything, but this festival is just beginning. We still have time, Shoukaku. You can tell me the whole story when you are ready for it.”

    He gazed back to the exit at the far side of the tribunes. It was slightly difficult to identify, but no one could mistake the pagoda-style mast of the rigging Nagato carried. She was already heading away, together with what he could only assume her sister through their identical rigging designs, and waiting for their arrival was a silver-haired girl dressed in white and green haori. The last one bore the stance of a warrior as she bowed her head deeply to the two.

    How heavy was the burden those tiny shoulders had to carry? He wasn’t a kansen, but Aoto knew that even these wondrously pure-hearted girls had their own dreams and worries.

    In that case… “It is only fair. You were the one who told me to look ahead instead of trying to change the irreversible past, no?”

    Aoto cracked a cheeky smile.

    “I am quite sure that my sharp-witted secretary knows better than going back on her words.”

    He wasn’t fully focused on the naval exercise. His gaze was also still transfixed to the exit Nagato had departed from. However, at the corner of his eyes, he could see red tinting the cheeks of the Shoukaku-class carrier. He then heard of some murmurs from her, but when prompted, Shouaku only threw a pout as she looked away from him, shouting “never mind” from the top of her lungs—

    “Hmm?” Aoto suddenly scrunched his eyebrows. The sudden spike of pain in his head quickly receded the moment he took his eyes away from the Sanctuary’s Maiden. The dizziness was suddenly gone, too. “What was that…?”

    “...is something wrong?” Shoukaku asked when he rubbed the spot between his eyebrows.

    “Anemia, probably.” The Rear Admiral let out a long sigh. “Perhaps I should get out in the sun more often. Staying at the office for days is unhealthy.”

    “Ah, do you need a drink then?”

    “Yes. Chilled barley tea please,” Aoto said with a nod. “And thank you, Shoukaku.”

    “Save it for after I bought the drinks, Shikikan-kun…”

    I much prefer giving thanks rather than apologizing.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The open sea. The smell of saltwater. The rough breezes. And the rays of the sun.

    The exercise premise encompassed the naval district’s surrounding waters. Plenty of jutted out rocks, small islands, and also hidden routes scattered through the area. In a way. it was the best place to train one’s tactical excellence and intuition. Setting aside the purpose of the naval exercise for the navy, it acted as a training ground as well as a test to determine who would go out to the frontline for the kansen—a rite of passage of some sorts.

    That’s why, Zuikaku decided. As the senior, I must not tarnish the honor of our division.

    Glancing to the tribunes, rigging equipped and sword drawn, the brunette could recognize the shady mask of her superior. She couldn’t find Shoukaku, but there was probably a reason for that. Her sister would never not cheering for her, and it wasn’t like the exercise had reached the right level of excitement for Zuikaku to need the encouragement. Most likely, she was on an errand, but did it really have to be now of all times? And why did the Commander looked a little out of it as if he got a heatstroke? Summer had already passed for that.

    Shaking her head, Zuikaku transfixed her gaze to the open seas laid out before her. Focus, the thing I must do is right here.

    She didn’t know from where her peers would attack. Nevertheless, she knew the sea chart of this area like her own backyard. Or rather, it was her and everyone’s backyard. In that case, the standard search-and-destroy directive should be good enough. Her rigging shifted in place and shikigami began to fly out from within the sleeves of her haori.

    “Okay, then!” Zuikaku announced. “I’ll spread scouts around! Ayanami-chan, Ashigara-chan, guard the perimeter as we slowly advance! Single line formation!”

    “Understood!” Came the swift response from the destroyer.

    “Affirmative! Leave the defense to me!” Ashigara responded with the same fervor.
    +-+-+-+-+

    A bold move from the get-go, but it does fit her style. Aoto would not let himself be caught dead saying that line, especially around either of the cranes. He wasn’t quite sure how much effort was needed to earn their full trust, so he had to pay attention to the minute details and stay his hands away from any form of faux pass. It is troublesome, but it’s a risk that often existed in forming relationships with other people.

    In any case, the first phase of the naval exercise went in an expected manner. With all of the participants dispersed throughout the exercise premise, the event committee put up monitors for people to observe every battle that could occur. A pair of cruisers fighting off the surprise attack of an entire destroyer division, a battleship coming in contact with another battleship with swords pointed at each other, and then there was a division sailing with eyes peeled open to every direction as if anticipating for an ambush.

    Many had their own tactics and fleet composition, but Aoto noted how they seemed to prefer working together only when they could help it. Ships like destroyers required their sisterships to hit above their weight class, but there was some strange focus in individual battles to a degree that it became noticeable. Only a few took advantage of the confrontations to kill two birds in one stroke.

    “Shikikan-kun, I’m back!”

    Aoto hummed noncommittally, accepting the drink offered his way and moving on auto-pilot to open the lid of a chilled canned tea. The cool flavor of barley seeped into his tongue and fell down through his throat, but his gaze fixated itself on the giant screens powered by Wisdom Cube-derived technologies. With an impeccable timing, a battle suddenly broke out at the sea far ahead from the harbor.

    “Ah, that one is…”

    A woman clad in red and white launched out of the smokes, skating across the ocean surface with inhuman graces. At the speed she was going, Zuikaku must be running her boilers at higher than average capacity. Going on a hot pursuit was a group of Nagara-class light cruisers, but they were immediately beset by a series of shells that struck at the route they took, making them flinch at the sprouting columns of water. Right then and there, the roaring sounds of multiple aircrafts crossed the sky with splashes obscured by the water columns.

    Shadows swam close to the surface. Like hungry sharks, dive bombers homed in to strike the light cruisers with terrible impunity. Aoto paused, growing apprehension at the usage of the powerful arsenal; they were blanks but that didn’t mean the perfect reproduction of the effects comforted him. It was oddly realistic, and the singed forms of the Nagara-class cruisers came out of the smokes as the harbor’s megaphone blared to announce their retirement from battle caused by multiple direct hits to hull integrity.

    “Hoo…” Aoto murmured, gazing at the regrouping members of Zuikaku’s team. “Brazen like always. Aircraft carriers are vital components of a fleet, and yet…”

    “Aaaah, she did it again. That girl is always so reckless, geez…”

    Aoto agreed. After dragging out her foes with fighter crafts, Zuikaku lured them into a trap for her allies to kill their momentum. In the following instance, preemptively deployed torpedo bombers would strike and eliminate the enemies all at once. It was not a standard strategy, and it certainly deviated from the tactical manual he was already used to, though he couldn’t deny the simplicity of it allowed wider freedom of choices.

    Still, kansen were not as large and vulnerable as actual warships. They were capable of executing high-speed maneuvers and fighting like superhumans.

    Aoto stroked his chin as he processed all this. “A strategy manual specifically aimed for kansen will no doubt increase the entire fleet’s combat efficiency…”

    “Then perhaps you are interested in new armament as well?”

    “Yes, that is also another thing to consider… hm?” I’m pretty sure Shoukaku doesn’t have such a quiet and monotonous voice.

    Looking to the side, Aoto’s gaze fell upon a diminutive girl dressed in black kimono. She bore a flat gaze that perfectly concealed her emotions while some purple fireballs floated around her lazily. With a tilt of the head, the front bang concealing her right eye shifted aside to reveal a color of deep red that matched her left eye. The mechanical bunny ears on her head twitched.

    “Good afternoon,” the dark-haired girl said. “A strange mask you wear. Quite well-made.”

    “Huh? Ah…” Scratching his cheek with his free hand, Aoto cast a troubled look. “Not that I can even take it off. But yes, good afternoon to you, as well.”

    Though I believe this is our first meeting…? He tilted his head and the girl in a black and red kimono gave a small nod.

    “I am Shiranui,” she introduced herself. “The Kagerou-class… or rather, the second ship of the Shiranui-class, Shiranui. People mistakenly think my name refers to ghosts, but it is merely the name of a natural phenomena. I personally prefer to think of my appearance as a “cosplay”… That aside, I humbly ask for your kind treatment.”

    Cosplay? Was that a slang or something? Aoto had to admit he wasn’t particularly in touch with current trends, so he guessed younger people these days had expanded their dictionary broader than he could know. And I doubt there’s anything that warranted any concern, I feel.

    “Ah… here she comes, huh…”

    “Hmm? What do you mean by that, Shoukaku?” He looked back to her secretary only to see her waving off his question with murmurs that drowned in the wake of another huge cheers.

    Oh, it looks like Zuikaku has toppled yet another opposing team with minimum damages.

    Well, in any case, his musing was heard of and responded to. Meeting the bunny-eared girl in the eye, Aoto began to ask for further explanation.

    “I see. A new blood, is it?” To his nod, Shiranui replied in kind before settling down at the unoccupied spot next to Aoto. “This will take quite a while. Do you mind sparing your time or shall I give you a summary?”

    “Since I am already informed of the basics, you can skip straight to the main topic.”

    “Very well, then.” A sigh escaped the destroyer’s lips. “Bringing the infusing of Anti-Siren trait in armament to mind, weapon effectiveness against the Siren may sometimes vary depending on the ship-class or ranks. This results in the need to improve on preexisting concepts to the development of new weaponry that can strike better and harder. The inner workings of this tech tree remain as mysteries just like the Wisdom Cubes but rest assured. There is no known negative drawbacks from this.”

    “Is it normal for Wisdom Cubes to have negative influences on the technological application?”

    “Normally, no.” A slight twinkle radiated in Shiranui’s deep red eye. “But a good question. We still do not know for certain what makes Wisdom Cubes tick, though there are rumors of a certain military empire managing to modify this rare side-effect to their advantages. With that being said, our department… the Research and Development section, are working together with domestic companies to produce top-of-the-line equipment for the navy.”

    Ah, isn’t this conversation taking a rather familiar direction, now...

    “If you’d like to know more, you should try to contact the current head of RnD section.” The Shiranui-class ship raised a hand to draw out a pamphlet that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. “Our numbers and address are in this brochure. You may also negotiate an order right in this moment since I am available, though custom-made project will cost you some more and an extra. We no longer have Akashi in our service, but I assure you, my work is not as terrible or random as hers.”

    At this point, Aoto wasn’t certain if Shiranui’s speech had been rehearsed or not. Then again, he was relatively new to the place. He needed to get the right edges to ensure that none of his subordinates would go out with poor equipment. Accepting the brochure, he skimmed the content in hope for something useful—only for his eyes to bulge in shock. What kind of scam is this?!

    Shoukaku sighed out loud, “I told you so… the RnD is composed of gold diggers, Shikikan.”

    “No, no, no! This is highway robbery!!”

    “Either you buy something or get out.”

    What kind of customer service is that?!
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun reached past its zenith, eventually sinking in the western horizon. The sky, previously dyed in clear blue, began to fade into orange red and then dark blue. As time passed, most of the crowds visiting for the festival had begun to disperse, but the festive mood continued without missing a beat.

    The preliminary ended with the best eight chosen to step up for tomorrow’s matches. Unlike the free-for-all format of the preliminary, all the matches after it would be team duels. The committee probably thought of having the participants’ skills and strength tested personally, hence the battle format. It was rather old-fashioned, to be perfectly honest.

    “Auuu… I’m hungry…”

    Zuikaku’s stomach grumbled as if to match her words. Unfortunately for her, the others had already gone home right after the preliminary ended. Her sister also turned to have already eaten before the preliminary, so she wasn’t planning on cooking dinner tonight. Noticing the soft smile directed at her, Zuikaku threw an upturned glare at her superior.

    “Well, many shops are going to be up for a little longer.” Completely unfazed, the man raised a finger to point at the roadside buildings. “Good thing their desire to stimulate the economy is giving you a chance, then.”

    Urgh, why is this happening... She knew that it couldn’t be helped, but she still had yet to click with the Commander. All the information she had gathered painstakingly was still not enough to comprehend his true nature, but at the very least, he didn’t hold malignant intention to the division. For now, I think… but never mind that!

    “Let’s find a place to eat already. I’m hungry!” Zuikaku half-shouted half pleaded..

    “Yeah, but we’re on budget tonight.”

    “...wait, what?” Seriously, how?

    “Shoukaku told me to keep the spending in moderation, so...” Aoto took out his wallet and waved it at Zuikaku with a troubled smile. “It’s your choice. Nothing fancy, though.”

    Zuikaku went cross-eyed. She was supposed to be feeling like a winner tonight! Her team had the second highest scores, for gods’ sake!! Why did her sister have to choose to be strict in this kind of situation!

    “Now, now. Your group just passed the preliminary. Getting ahead of yourself does not make of you a good leader and strategist.”

    Zuikaku yelped, sputtered, and then tried to counter her superior’s argument. Unfortunately, any of her ideas fell flat when she realized he was absolutely correct. Grumbling to herself, the woman averted her eyes from the incomprehensible menace that was her superior. It wasn’t fair. Why did it have to be him who’d say that to her? It’s like hearing Mikasa-daisenpai’s lecture all over again...

    “Mikasa…?”

    Ah, whoops. Was she speaking her thoughts out loud. Ugh, why does everything have to go against my wishes, tonight..?

    Taking a deep breath, Zuikaku readied herself for a barrage of questions. As if he’d know the great person she and many others aspired to be. Then again, it was an opportunity to show that he was still a greenhorn of a commanding officer, so…

    “Hnn?” Realizing nothing was coming her way, Zuikaku looked back to Aoto—only to find him staring into empty space, his gaze turning misty before she even knew it. “...Shikikan…?”

    “Hm? Ah, huh…?” Blinking, the man reacted right when she used a different way to address him. “Sorry, what was that?”

    Really, was it that surprising to hear her calling him like that? Zuikaku wasn’t sure what to say or think now. It also didn’t seem like he was still entirely here, so with a big sigh leaking out of her lips, Zuikaku dragged her superior with a strong tug by his sleeve. She then pointed at a vendor a few dozen meters ahead, a sign with a kanji signifying the featured dish it could offer glaring into attention through the neon light; the tried and true traditional dish, ramen.

    “I want that,” Zuikaku demanded. “Since we won today, you can’t refuse, okay?”

    There was a short silence. After that, a burst of laughter left her superior’s mouth, carefree and seemingly without any of that melancholy his voice tended to have at times.

    “Since it’s the wish of my capable subordinate, I suppose it can’t be helped.”

    She wasn’t sure why, but her grip eased up after hearing that. Just a little bit, of course.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The ramen stall was a small and cheap-looking one with just enough space that if one were to sit in front of the counter the shoulders would easily brush against another person’s. After ordering a bowl for each, silence permeated almost naturally until their orders arrived.

    “As expected, a roadside food vendor is the perfect place to have all formality stripped bare.”

    Aoto made out a chuckle which swiftly received a side glare from Zuikaku. Did he have any problem? The man shook his head in denial, yet the same thin smile remained on his face.

    “Alright, alright. So, you’re wondering what I just recalled, right?” Aoto slurped in the ramen noodles, taking his time as if to savor the taste. Once he was done, he requested for an atsukan and turned to meet Zuikaku in the eyes. “While this is not an open secret, let’s talk about the Second Dark Age. I’m sure you know what started it and how long it lasted, right?”

    “The Second Dark Age, uh…”

    Needless to say, Zuikaku knew about it. In 1921 they emerged, disabling all military forces and subjugating countries with extreme prejudice. Economy collapsed with the fall of sea trades, and the world that had just about to go past steam engine could only break down as political ties shattered, public unrest spreading far and wide after the loss of civilians’ trust on military forces’ effectiveness against the Siren’s onslaught. A year after that, Wisdom Cubes began to emerge in various corners of the world, and in the following decade, the kansen project was perfected with the summoning of Mikasa and Avrora.

    “That’s how the official story goes,” Aoto interrupted, bringing Zuikaku’s mind fly back to the present time. “In reality, naval forces were still utilized alongside the first-generation kansen. It just so happened that my division, having returned from the Northern Front, was given the task to escort Mikasa in her maiden’s voyage. She has a strong impression, to say the least.”

    “Hm. Well, Mikasa-daisenpai does have that kind of image at first glance.” Zuikaku held the ramen bowl and drank down the broth with several big gulps. “How nice… So senpai’s maiden voyage was like that. I’m feeling jealous.”

    Aoto laughed and patted Zuikaku’s head. “Don’t worry. You also worked hard. Nobody is going to deny your achievement.”

    A little tipsy and annoyed, Zuikaku swatted the arm away. Why did he have to treat her like a child? She was an adult no matter how little her life experience was. All newly formed kansen possessed past life memories, sense of identity, as well as general knowledge to integrate themselves in any societal period they were summoned in. In this case, she knew that Aoto wasn’t even treating her as an equal. So rude!

    “Hah ha. Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it.” Taking another sip of atsukan, Aoto placed his elbow on the counter and rested his cheek against the half-formed knuckle. “Be it Ayanami, Ashigara, you and your sister—all of you are too pure. Far too good for me. It makes one wonder just what sort of thing that made you put your faith in us so wholeheartedly.”

    Huh…?

    “Even Mikasa was like that,” he continued on as he lifted his gaze to stare into the distance that only existed in his dark eyes. “She called out to us with a bright smile, trusting us with her back even though we couldn’t even support her. Always inspiring those who are about to crack from the pressure, charging ahead like a one-man army, and then promising us with the dawn of victory.”

    Through the melancholic smile always attributed to his enigmatic past, Tatsumiya Aoto then hung his head with eyes closed shut. And then… and then—

    “… ……”

    A sentence left the lips. A line heard and echoing.

    In the following tranquil moments, Aoto nodded off. Zuikaku didn’t remember much what happened after that. Everything became a blur. She didn’t even remember the taste of the meal she had ordered even though it was her favorite.

    However, she was sure that the two of them had reached home sound and safe. Staring at the dark ceiling of her room, beneath her futon—a single question manifested itself from the depths of her heart. One her sleepy and tired superior mumbled back at the ramen stall.

    What sort of purpose… would I have, had I not been born a kansen?
    +-+-+-+-+

    The moon waxed, the night waned. At the guesthouse once reserved for the imperial family, it had since then been repurposed to better suit the needs of especially high-ranked kansen.

    To tell the truth, Nagato found it all stifling. Keeping up her appearance, fulfilling her duty, and now courting politics as the ruler of a country. While it was true that she had once served proudly as the fourth flagship of the fleet, her era had long ended. She already passed down her title and duty so she should have no reason to concern herself over the well-being and the future of the fleet. However… was her decision correct? Could it truly be possible that with just uniting hearts, an age of peace would come by? I...

    “Unya… Ane-sama…”

    The dreadnought battleship paused her thoughts, her consciousness receding to the present time. Glancing back into the room, she saw her little sister mumbling as she slept soundly. It was a rare sight to see Mutsu be so relaxed in her sleep, but she supposed the girl had grown nostalgic over returning to the place that could be said as her hometown. No matter how long they had been away from it, the smell of the sea and the touch of the winds invoked emotions as well as memories strongly here than in any other place.

    “...Nagato-sama, are you not sleeping?”

    “Hn? Ah… Kawakaze, is that you?”

    Appearing as if from thin air, a gray-haired girl dressed in dull green and white haori bowed her head low across of her. Kawakaze’s rigidness in even her greeting carved yet another painful reminder of the difference between her and the rest of her kin. Because she was the Shrine Maiden of the Sanctuary. Because she was the imperial regent. And because she was the prided battleship of the Sakura Empire, Nagato.

    No matter whence I go, the blood and glory of the past latch on to define mine existence.

    Nagato breathed out, looking over the balcony to gaze down at the naval district. Many lights preserved through the biting cold autumn air, but the hustle and bustle had died down. As a new day was about to start, so did people return to their homes, all so that they could recover and face yet another day full of hardships. Together with the blowing winds, red maple leaves scattered and vanished into the night sky full of stars.

    The moon silently observed.

    “...Nagato-sama, I implore you to return to your room and retire for the night. Your health is paramount above all else...”

    “I am aware,” Nagato answered without looking away from the scenery of the place where everything had begun for her. “I am… simply thinking of a certain matter.”

    Kawakaze lifted her head, settling in a formal sitting posture. The girl then tilted her head. “Is there… anything that dissatisfied you, in regards to the festival?”

    “Hardly. In fact, this year’s event has gone to a length that surpassed my initial expectations.”

    Nagato would have allowed herself to smile, but that would only drop the importance of the issue she was about to discuss with her… retainer. Her lips twisted in distaste whenever she thought of referring Kawakaze as that. It wasn’t something she liked, neither it was something she wished ever getting used to. Alas, the girl’s stubbornness to serve her was turning into a constant headache. Had Nagato been allowed to be truthful, it was a pain in the neck to keep up this working relationship.

    I am rambling, now… this won’t do.

    Shaking her head, Nagato closed her eyes, deeply inhaled, and then exhaled to disperse the nonsensical thoughts away. After reopening her golden eyes, recent memories flew to the forefront of her mind.

    “Kawakaze,” Nagato called out to her kin. “Was there something you noticed throughout the day? It could be anything just slightly off, but it could also be something that has no right to even be there. Small or big, it does not matter.”

    “Uhm… that is quite sudden, but…” Frowning, Kawakaze struggled to finish her sentence. “I am afraid, I do not understand what you mean, Nagato-sama? If there was even anything unusual, then I would have informed you right then and there.”

    I see… yes, that is a very good point. Though she internally agreed, Nagato had somewhat expected such an answer. That didn’t mean she was trying to be condescending. However, she did feel that it was… simply could not be helped. Then it was only I who noticed that presence…

    When she was still at the exercise premise, Nagato had noticed a prickling sensation on her neck. As if that wasn’t enough to alert her, her instinct as a Shrine Maiden sensitive to the changes of the leylines had detected something wrong, something that definitely had no right to be there. Even so, the strange presence vanished as soon as the thought of responding to it appeared. It was not the presence of mere mystical entities. It was also not the presence of a vengeful demon, nor was it the trace of a heavenly deity.

    It was something more difficult to define, something pure and yet chaotic. Like the deep, deep bottom of the ocean, cold and unforgiving even from the ancient time, that presence was truly one-of-a-kind. In which case—

    That primal existence I sensed… what reason did it have to be there, and just what did it see in me...?
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: Ill Omen
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 13: Ill Omen ---

    Under the clear blue autumn sky, a battle reached its climax. Waves rolled and scattered as shells fired, creating shockwaves that spread far and wide. Through the mist of gunpowder, smokes, and ember, the blade of a sword flew forward along with its user. Cheers resounded at the duel between a heavy cruiser and a battleship.

    This is a bit more than unbalanced, Aoto noted with serious concern over the very real chance of his subordinates encountering a higher-ranked Siren who was their polar opposite in the future. Ashigara may have the element of surprise, but her strength isn’t nearly enough to match the might of a battleship.

    Unlike yesterday, the crowds had grown more excited in this second day. It was possible that they preferred watching duels than a free-for-all elimination match, but maybe it also had to do with the current powerhouses being people who had a stellar battle record even in the last naval exercise. The enemy lineup this time was composed of Hiei, Kirishima, Yuugure, and Ariake. It was a full-offensive setup though lacking anti-air capability, not a real problem until one considered that Zuikaku was a glass without an escort.

    “What’s more…” Aoto glanced to the opposite side of the exercise premise, witnessing a drawn-out battle between Zuikaku and Ayanami against Kirishima. This side of the team match was less a fight and more a hide-and-seek. “They really got riled up, huh...”

    Zuikaku had sent out planes to keep the opposing battleships from supporting each other, but that didn’t stop them from fighting back and trying to destroy the encirclement. Unfortunately for the enemies, the carrier no longer needed to worry on getting pelted with turret shells and torpedoes. Nevertheless, the Kongou-class sisters were no slouch even when cornered. This was going to be a drawn-out battle with quite a gamble to clear through.

    “...she’s distracted.”

    Hmm? Looking to Shoukaku, the white-haired woman gazed down at the exercise premise while wearing a solemn look. Distracted… could it be—

    “Yes, as I thought. Zuikaku isn’t being herself, today.” Switching her attention to Aoto, the older sister of the Shoukaku-class ships narrowed her eyes with a mirthless smile. “Care to explain what happened last night, Shi-ki-kan?

    “Err…” Completely taken aback, Aoto shifted in place. He almost had the desire to obey his fight-or-flight instinct, but… “I’m, actually not sure?”

    “What does that even mean…?”

    And what does that even mean, indeed… He remembered up to the point where he drank a bottle of atsukan, but everything beyond that was a little foggy. The stress and anemia must have worked together with the alcohol to crush his inhibitions. Scratching the back of his head, the man felt like apologizing. I really overdid it last night, huh…

    Even though his intention was pure, his lack of consideration caused this problem. Try as he might, he only remembered bits and pieces, but from what he gathered...

    “I… might have given her homework while I was half-asleep. I guess the timing couldn’t be any more worse.” Aoto pressed two fingers on his chin. “I’m sorry, Shoukaku.”

    “Ah, no. Err... Zuikaku is more distracted than being in a bad mood, so...” Shoukaku trailed off, feeling the awkwardness between the two. It didn’t take long until she cleared her throat into her fist. “W-well. That girl is always looking ahead, but she never tried to hesitate and look around to see what’s going on. Because she often gets blindsided, I have to support her to the best of my ability. I suppose I have been spoiling her all this time...”

    “But that doesn’t excuse the bad timing, no?”

    “Well, yes. But still, I don’t think it’s a bad thing in this case…” Shoukaku hummed, folding her arms and tapping her right index finger against her left elbow. “Since she never slows down, that girl tends to forget the crucial details when the timing counted for it. When you run so fast all the time, you won’t notice the small rock that will trip you and make you fall. If Zuikaku can relax, even if just for a little, then the fall won’t be so hard and difficult to recover from.”

    “...that is an interesting way to view the situation.”

    “I am her older sister, after all. I know her way better than anyone, Shikikan-kun.”

    Aoto chuckled. Shoukaku truly was strict on her little sister.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The round ended with Zuikaku’s team’s victory, but it was barely. Zuikaku was ran ragged, Ashigara was admitted to the infirmary due to muscle pains after overextending herself, and Ayanami rested on the floor of the pier that it made Fubuki to come over and give six water bottles to her. Ayanami quickly drank them all.

    Aoto had decided to congratulate their victory, but in the way, he saw a familiar figure interacting with a Commanding Officer and two girls. It’d be one thing if that was all, but he realized the corridor from this point onward was restricted to staff only. The CO conversing with the leader of the First Carrier Division wasn’t a person of Sakura, what with his flaxen hair, sharp jawline, and conspicuous facial structure. The same could even be said for the two girls accompanying him.

    They were not wearing clothes typically seen in the mainland, though Aoto couldn’t say they weren’t stylish what with the mix of red, black, gray and golden color schemes. Halfway from reaching them, the group of three parted ways with Akagi, and the flagship came to notice his presence as if she had been aware of him from the start. Aoto felt a small tug near the small of his back. Looking to the side, he saw a sour-faced Shoukaku. Aoto gently smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder; nudging her to go ahead.

    “But Shikikan-kun...”

    “It’ll be fine,” he said. “You should celebrate with your sister instead of hanging around with a boorish man like me.”

    Ugh. That’s not how you push aside your subordinate…!”

    Shoukaku reluctantly left, giving a simple greeting to Akagi before going off on her own. She still threw a glare at her senior when they passed by each other, and Aoto shook his head in helpless disapproval. Really, there should be a better occasion to show irritations. The white crane still had a long way to go before she could get over her inferiority complex.

    “Ufu fu. Your division is as energetic as always,” Akagi said in lieu of greeting. “Rear Admiral Tatsumiya, it looks like you have been doing fine.”

    “Well, there’s still some work to do, but thank you for the compliment.” Aoto tipped his cap as he straightened his back. “It has been a while. Should I refer to you as my superior or an equal in this situation?”

    “Please. I’d rather we see ourselves as comrades-in-arms.” Akagi giggled. “You and I are fighting for the same cause, after all.”

    Fair enough. He wasn’t quite sure if she truly possessed the same ideal as him, but he didn’t feel the need to clarify the matter. Kaga would instantly lambast him for “acting beyond his position” if he ever get caught saying that. Although Shoukaku would strongly disagree...

    “Ah, yes. Lingering around here will only get in the others’ way,” Akagi continued on. “Would you like to have a tea with me?”

    “Well...” Aoto readjusted his cap, checking if a certain white fox was around or not. Since that seemed to be not the case this time, he nodded in confirmation. “I do not mind.”

    “Magnificent. Please do come this way.”
    +-+-+-+-+

    From the bottom of the stone stairway, red Torii extended all the way uphill. Through the holy passage graced with sacraments and charms, strong winds blew, scattering reddened leaves into the air.

    Aoto closely followed Akagi as small talks flourished in order to pass the time. Akagi was the overseer of the festival, so she was inspecting the site on top of acting as a guide to important guests. The tasks she carried were many, but it didn’t seem like she was bothered by it. If anything, she seemed to enjoy devoting herself to meticulous works. A perfectionist, perhaps?

    “You are a responsible person,” Aoto commented. After engraving the scenery of the harbor situated far below into his memories, he looked back up and continued his ascent. “Looks like I really do need to step up my game if I want to be treated as an equal.”

    Akagi chuckled at his words, “all the rumors did no justice in describing you, I see.”

    “Rumors?” Aoto quirked an eyebrow.

    “Have you not heard of it? The illustrious Sakura’s Fifth Carrier Division is now lead by a man of mystery, a Commander bearing the mask of the mountain guardian.” With an exaggerated gesture, Akagi raised her voice as if narrating the prelude of a theater show. “You are popular, Rear Admiral. Your tales have been used as bedtime stories among the destroyers.”

    “I… am not sure if that counts as a good thing,” Aoto expressed his feelings with a deep and weary sigh. “Being mistaken as a Tengu wouldn’t have been so bad if they were not the type to kidnap children.”

    “Ufu fu, aren’t you an honest one?” Akagi’s fox tails swayed in the winds, her heels click-clacking as she approached the end of the stairway. “Take pride in your achievements. Otherwise, it’d make others who genuinely believed in you look like fools in front of everyone, Rear Admiral.”

    ...oh, I never thought of it in that way. He was too preoccupied on himself that he had not considered what his words could mean to people related to him. Actually, when was the last time he got chided without being actually scolded like this? It was such an effective way to point out where did he go wrong.

    Inhaling, the man closed his eyes. The noise of running water in the waterway next to the stone staircase filled his head, and the falling leaves brushed past him. Once he reopened his eyes, Aoto looked up to face a smiling Akagi.

    “I suppose you are right. Thank you for correcting me.”

    “Good to know that we have a fast learner,” the brown fox narrowed her eyes in delight as she stood at the top of the staircase. “Your division is truly fortunate to have a Commander like you.”

    “We will see how that competency will turn out,” Aoto said as he saw the end to the stairs only to enter a wide clearing split by a creek. On the other side of the clearing was a waterfall and another staircase he assumed leading to the peak; a gazebo sat near the small river. “I shall work hard to match your expectations.”

    In the gazebo was a hearth with a kettle and a teaset next to it. Aoto settled down in it after Akagi and waited as she prepared to boil tea with the tools on site. It didn’t take long for the kettle to whistle, signaling that the water had boiled. Akagi picked it up and poured a cup of tea for Aoto. Her manner was immaculate, her knowledge of tea ceremony clearly shown, and yet she did not needlessly chatter. Shoukaku and Akagi seemed to be similar in how they took their professionalism.

    Although at this point, I think the antagonism is extremely one-sided on Shoukaku’s end…

    Taking a sip, Aoto savored the taste. A little too hot for his taste, but it didn’t detract the quality of the tea. The leaves were most probably one of the finest. The water used also seemed to be of different quality. He couldn’t say for sure, but it all brought the best out of the two tea ingredients. The end product was definitely a drink to die for.

    “Delicious,” Aoto said. “Excellent choice of leaves you have made.”

    “Why, thank you. I am honored to know it is to your liking, Rear Admiral.”

    Silence fell and then faded. The wind carried a different feeling this high up, cold and yet soft with a near invisible mist made from water vapors. Aoto couldn’t help but to close his eyes as he sensed the nature enveloping him. It was… refreshing, to say the least.

    “A good place for a tired mind to relax, don’t you think?” Akagi chimed in. “I often came here when I need some space. It is… one of our secret hideouts.”

    Ah, so Kaga also knows this place, then. That fact actually didn’t comfort him, but it might be fine to leave it be. If it were as she said, then not even Kaga would try to expressly come here just to reprimand him for a slight he had never done. She’s probably aware of Akagi’s intention too, which explains why she’s not around today.

    “The two of you are really close, hm?” Aoto eventually asked.

    “Our relationship goes a long way back,” Akagi responded with a nod. Taking a long sip, the fox-eared woman closed her eyes as if in deep thoughts. “Always competing with each other for the most inane reasons. Never backing down when arguing. Our younger days were just a repetition of them all.”

    “I see…” Aoto grinned at the inquisitive gaze directed to him. “I may not know how it feels to have siblings, but I can tell both of you deeply care for each other.”

    “Hn, yes… that is true, though Kaga would no doubt scoff at the notion.”

    With the passing of time, Aoto felt his remaining fatigue ease up. It was a strange feeling. As he focused on the conversation, surrounded by the “breath” of nature, the corners of his lips slowly tugged upward.

    Sorry, Shoukaku, looks like I will be here for a while...
    +-+-+-+-+

    Ayanami heaved a light sigh. Exiting the shower with a towel hanging around her neck, she tried to dry her hair as she walked back to the changing room. There she saw the rest of her allies minus one; it seemed Ashigara must stay in the infirmary for a bit longer.

    We won today, but it was a hard fight…

    Their senior—Hiei’s team was a force to reckon. They might not have the range of an aircraft carrier, but the arena format of the naval exercise played to their strength very well. It took a long time to subdue Kirishima, and it was only through sheer luck and willpower that allowed the division to win the match. At the end of it, Ayanami felt absolutely drained, her boilers steaming hot and her fuel tank going down to critical level.

    But Shoukaku-senpai said eating right after intense exercise is unhealthy.

    Hence why they were still in the changing room. Here, they could avoid interviews, rest for a while, and then use the backdoor to leave for lunch. Her division fortunately had no more match to attend, so it was practically free time for the rest of the day. Ayanami wondered what she could do after this. Follow her sister or spend her time with her seniors?

    “Owowoww!” A shrill voice squeaked out from nearby. Looking to the bench in the room, a familiar white-haired woman rubbed an ointment around her sister’s ankle. Subjected to the medicine for exhausted joints, Zuikaku winced with tears at the corners of her eyes. “S-Shoukaku-nee, that hurts!”

    “This is what you get for acting tough when you’re not supposed to,” the older sister said. She then noticed Ayanami’s presence and smiled her way. “Ah, are you finished, Ayanami-chan?”

    Ayanami nodded. “Un. It’s good that there’s a shower room in here.”

    “Your spare clothes are over there.” Shoukaku nudged to an opened locker with her chin. “I already sent the dirty clothes back with my shikigami. You worked hard.”

    “Aah… thank you…”

    A show of kindness. Ayanami was still not quite used to the carrier’s change of attitude and view of her, but it wasn’t unwelcome. She helped teach her how to cook and do house chores, and she often supported her decisions when Ayanami asked for guidance. Shoukaku was a very kind adult. It was difficult not to admire her.

    Someday, I have to pay back these favors.

    It wasn’t that she felt obligated to. On the contrary, Ayanami felt it was simply the right thing to do, and because she wanted to. There was no deep reason, but that didn’t mean it was a bad thing to repay kindness with kindness. Ayanami never thought there should be a limit to how kind one could be to others and to themselves.

    Going to the locker, her locker, Ayanami checked out the folded spare clothes. Huh…?

    “A yukata…?” The girl muttered out loud.

    “Well, we have a lot of free time today. I think it’s a good opportunity to get in the mood.” Shoukaku stood back up and approached Ayanami. “Here, I’ll help you out. I’m sure Shikikan-kun will be glad to see your new dress.”

    Huh, this is a new dress?! Ayanami didn’t know what to say, now. Not only had Shoukaku ordered a brand new yukata, this one seemed to be personally tailored for Ayanami. Th-this is way too much to process at once…!

    How did she even know her preferred colors and size? As seconds lapsed, Ayanami recalled how Shoukaku dealt with everyone’s laundry. She had more than enough time and chances to correctly guess everyone’s taste!

    “I think you should give up, Ayanami-chan…” Zuikaku said. “When Shoukaku-nee decides on something, she will never back down…”

    As the hands of doom reached her, the demon could only whimper.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “Uuu… this is… uncomfortable.”

    Clasping hands, Shoukaku beamed. “You look so pretty in that getup. There’s nothing to worry about!”

    Ah, isn’t this horribly nostalgic… Just by observing from the sideline, memories she didn’t want to recall resurfaced like loosening knots. Zuikaku’s smile was relaxed, but her heart was caught in a storm of emotions ranging from embarrassment to humiliation. The only saving grace in this situation was that the subject of torment wasn’t her, but that didn’t mean her heart wouldn’t go out for the poor destroyer. I’m sorry, Ayanami-chan… at least the yukata suits you way better than it did for me…

    “Hmm? Zuikaku, do you also want to change into yukata?”

    “Huh!? Eh!?” Zuikaku immediately reeled back. Oh no, not this again!! “N-no such thing! I don’t think it’ll fit me and today’s hot, so I wouldn’t want to wear it while the sun is still up!!”

    “Aww, too bad.” Shoukaku’s sad expression stabbed deep into Zuikaku’s conscience, but that didn’t last long as her sister smiled again, this time with a hand placed against her cheek. “But I guess it can’t be helped, your fashion sense has always been off like that.”

    What does that even mean, Shoukaku-nee…!?

    “In any case!” Shoukaku cheered. “We’re all set. Let’s go, both of you!”

    Shaking her head, Zuikaku followed her sister and junior. Through the backdoor route, they took a detour around the harbor, going past the residential block, and reached the commerce district. By the time they reached their destination, the sun had gone past the zenith while the festive atmosphere reached full-swing.

    “Oooh…” Ayanami could be heard making an awed sound as the three walked by a roadside circus performance.

    Ah, looks like they even have strange attractions going on, huh. Though Zuikaku expected a few things standing out in the second day, she still didn’t expect some. There was even a dragon dance native to Eastern Radiance. It sure feels like everyone’s going all-out this year.

    Hm, was it just her, or did it feel like the people were forcing themselves? No, that didn’t look to be it. The smiles and laughter of the people felt genuine, and Zuikaku believed herself as a good judge of character when it came to this sort of thing.

    “Ah!”

    What is it this time? Zuikaku instantly turned her head to the source of voice. It turned to be Ayanami, and the destroyer stared into the distance with wide eyes. What’s she… oh.

    Following her direction, Zuikaku saw a few figures outside of a confectionery store. Two of them possessed soft flaxen hair while the third possessed a gleaming silver hair. If it was just the hair color, that didn’t mean much. However, Zuikaku recognized them by the uniforms and their appearances.

    “Ah! Uh… umm,” the destroyed murmured, drawing Zuikaku’s attention back to her. “I’m sorry, but there’s...”

    “Friends you want to see?” Zuikaku saw Ayanami’s hasty nod as a message that she would not be able to catch up if she didn’t hurry up. I never imagined how easy to know what she’s thinking, now. “Sure. Go ahead, Ayanami-chan! W’e’re gonna stick around this area for a little longer, so don’t worry about us!”

    Ayanami visibly brightened. The girl ran off and quickly vanished in the crowds, not even once looking back. It was weird how much happier Ayanami looked just because she could meet her friends again, but then again, the empire was no longer attached to the Azur Lane. Many who had befriended girls from other factions could no longer see each other, and the political climate made it even more difficult for them to move freely. Zuikaku wished something could be done, but pleasing the higher-ups was the same as trying to drain blood from rocks.

    “...something nigh impossible, huh…”

    Ah, crap. Even though she was trying to not remember, she ended up remembering the words murmured by his superior. Her heart throbbed unpleasantly and the smile on her face twisted into a scowl. Zuikaku hissed under her breaths. Stupid Shikikan, why did you have to mumble something like that?

    It ended up bothering her, now. Was it even possible for her to have a different life? In the first place, kansen was not a naturally formed existence. They were all pseudo-biological entities deliberately made to combat Siren threats, a race of sentient weapons tasked to protect the survival of humanity. They had been made to follow the orders, their purpose built around the concept of sacrificing themselves to protect those who could not do so.

    Fighting was, for better or worse, their reason for existence. What was the point if they couldn’t even be allowed take pride in that? Just what the hell does he even want—

    “You’re making a very awful face, Zuikaku.”

    Suddenly snapped out of her reverie, Zuikaku blinked, finding her sister poking at her cheek from the side. When she gasped in surprise, Shoukaku poked, prodded, spun and rubbed her fingertip against Zuikaku’s cheek that it was beginning to go past annoyance into a smidgen of pain. Ow, stop that!

    “No.” As if she had read her mind, Shoukaku smiled slyly. “Thinking hard on one thing was never your strong point. It’s not healthy if you overlooked the minuscule details in the process of solving it, you know.”

    Ugh, she got me… Receiving her sister’s pure gaze, Zuikaku found herself unable to endure and decided to look away. She crossed her arms under her bosom as she harrumphed. And now my older sister is bullying me, this is all your fault Shikikan!

    She needed to change the topic. What was it? What could be talked about… Oh, there was one, actually.

    “Speaking of,” Zuikaku muttered out as she gently batted away Shoukaku’s prodding. She still refused to make eye contact so as to prevent her sister from gaining more grounds against her in the battle of tongues. “Don’t you think we have been fighting a lot more than the usual, Shoukaku-nee?”

    “Isn’t that how it goes around here…?” Shoukaku tilted her head, a little more than confused by the abrupt change of topic. However, Zuikaku’s question definitely piqued her interests, so she counted that as a small victory. “Siren threats in the southern hemisphere are particularly rough. With the Pacific Front too wide of a place to explore without thinning the defense line, it is only natural to expect powerful resistances from the enemy.”

    “Errm, no. Not like that...” Zuikaku groaned, unsure of how to explain her curiosity. “Without international support, we’re having harder time fighting against Siren, right? The empire isn’t really easy to defend when there are so many islands to protect...”

    “I see your point,” Shoukaku conceded. “The intensity of Siren attacks have been growing unusually fierce. Even our division has been regularly sent out to patrol and attack stragglers.”

    Indeed, thinning out Siren threats would allow trades with neighboring countries to keep on going. Especially because the empire was an island nation that the navy must work hard to ensure the security and stability at the seas. However…

    “Even though we made new countermeasures, the intensity of the skirmishes haven’t abated.”

    “While our mission deployment require special factors, the Siren succeeded on crossing the borders multiple times, destroying patrol ships, taking advantage of security loopholes, and forcing us to fight defensively.” Shoukaku wore a somber look. “A siege has and never will be a favorable situation. Sooner or later, something will give in.”

    “Well,” Zuikaku paused. “There’s only been a few Executor-class up to now, so things are still in manageable state, but...”

    Shoukaku gravely nodded, all of her drive to tease her sister forgotten. “Any more intense than this, and we will bleed our resources dry. The empire needs ally reinforcement, or a more effective mean to protect itself.”

    Silence stretched. An indescribable atmosphere now replaced the festivity and caused the noise to fall into the backdrops. Somehow, the atmosphere had grown heavy. Guilt seeped from Zuikaku’s feet to hide deep into the grounds. Oh no, what should I do…

    “Are you worried, Zuikaku?”

    “Huh?” Blinking, the brunette reflexively turned her head and met her sister in the eyes. There she saw a soft, reassuring smile. “Umm… yes?”

    “I see,” Shoukaku deeply nodded. “I’m glad to know that my sister dearest isn’t just a fool who loves swinging around her sword like hyperactive children.”

    Et tu, what?!

    “Shoukaku-nee, I never swung my sword like a bandit!!”

    “Your idea of ‘attack first, ask questions later’ is no less barbaric.” Shoukaku covered her lips behind her sleeve while she cast a half-lidded gaze to the side. “My sister has always been such a hoodlum that I worry you’d attract unsavory bunches one of these days.”

    “Shoukaku-nee…!”
    +-+-+-+-+

    How much time had passed? Honestly, Aoto was beginning to forget that he still needed to congratulate his subordinates for entering the semifinals. He was completely engrossed in conversing with Akagi over tea and snacks he almost didn’t notice the cooling air. It seemed evening was fast approaching.

    “I greatly enjoy your reports,” Akagi said, interrupting his thoughts for the umpteenth time. Like a mother listening to the stories from her children’s homeroom teacher, her smile was bright and gentle, devoid of tiredness. “I wasn’t sure if you could take the burden of a commanding officer, but it seems my doubts are left unfounded. In fact, everyone has gone to follow your pace, instead.”

    “I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not…” Aoto scratched the back of his head.

    “It’s a wonderful thing,” Akagi stated out. “It means everything for me to know that none of those girls have been mistreated.”

    ...I see, so that’s what you are truly worried about.

    “Then I will take up your words for that.” Aoto nodded, took a sip of his tea, and then breathed out in relief. “It has been difficult, but those girls are—“

    “Too pure for their own good,” the leader of the First Carrier Division finished. The swiftness of her reply made him quirk his eyebrows. “Those girls were born from the faith and hope of humanity in warships. In essence, kansen are the physical manifestation of humanity’s love for this world.”

    Love… huh? While Aoto wasn’t an expert in romantic matter, it felt like this “love” Akagi talked about differed to the “love” people normally referred to. There was genuine sincerity in the word, but there was some sort of weight that made it difficult to parse through, as if the gravity of this so-called “love” meant much more than it had any right for. I might also be trying to see too much into things, too, so who knows?

    “And so… we come to the main reason as to why I called you all the way here.”

    “Oh?” Aoto stared curiously at the fox-eared and fox-tailed woman. “So this isn’t just parent-teacher conference.”

    “Why, there is also that, but well…” Akagi’s smile deepened. Coincidentally, clouds blocked the light of the sun, making the shadows to meld together as one. “As a matter of fact, I’d like to know of your opinion on this Combined Fleet Exercise.”

    Tatsumiya Aoto stilled. He stared unblinkingly at the woman, yet he sensed no falsehood in her words. Gently, calmly, like the surface of a lake deep in a forest untouched by human civilization. Against such an adversity…

    “Can I tell you my honest opinion?”

    Receiving a wordless nod, the man processed his own thoughts. It didn’t take a while.

    “Everything feels… off.” Aoto tasted the word he just let out. He nodded to himself; that was an apt way to describe his feelings. “I understand the importance in rousing soldiers’ morale and reassuring the public, but now that our country is cutoff from the rest of the world, I do not think this festival could remain as effective in the long run.”

    Akagi took a sip, hiding away her emotion with perfectly timed cover. “Indeed. The empire is unable to last long in her current state. Our industry is not the largest, even in this part of the world, and we heavily rely on sea trades to acquire resources we scarcely have. The wind of the era has changed. Isolating ourselves will only destroy our very last chance to reclaim the oceans. It is imperative for us to not let our guards down.”

    “Then…?”

    “A sword slick with blood becomes a dull blade. Skills unpolished are wasted potentials, and excessive self-indulgence results in complacency. The Combined Fleet Exercise is meant to keep our wits as kansen sharp. All in an effort to face the approaching storm.”

    A… storm?

    “I cannot say for certain,” Akagi continued on. “However, it is a powerful and violent storm, one that will engulf everything with total impunity.”

    Aoto felt the hairs on his back rising. Whatever Akagi meant, he couldn’t tell for sure. Even if he considered every possibility, there was simply not enough information for him to ascertain the likeliness of it all. However, a certain image from the past loomed in the depth of his heart, crackling fire and wails of the dead beckoning as if to drag him back into the living hell he had struggled to get out of.

    Am I… going to see that scenery again? Before he could notice, Aoto gave his answer, and only after that did he realize how he had taken the wrong step.

    “I shall heed your words and prepare ourselves for the coming disaster.”

    There was no change to Akagi’s expression. Though she had given him critical information, even mentored him, it felt as if he was hearing what he truly wanted. It was… it was way too convenient. All of this. He had let his guard down, but he still had the chance to retreat and rebuild his formation.

    “Well, then.” Aoto placed his tea cup down, bereft of its content, and bowed to Akagi. “Please do excuse me. I must return to my subordinates. I cannot break the promise I made with my secretary, after all.”

    “I enjoyed our time together, how ever short it was.” Akagi closed her eyes as she held the tea cup at chest level. “May the grace of God be upon you, Rear Admiral Tatsumiya.”

    Aoto chose to not ask which deity she meant by that. As he climbed down the staircase, he recalled the recent past and grimaced. He doubted the bitter taste in his mouth could be washed away for a while. It was a familiar taste, one of crushing defeat.

    He must apologize to Shoukaku later. Only now did he realize that there was a semblance of truth to his secretary’s accusations.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: A Joyous Reunion
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 14: A Joyous Reunion ---

    Vibrant colors painted the architectural designs, but the color red stood out among them all. From the gates in front of the commerce district to the pagoda-styled buildings, the grandness of their design and the color they had seemed as if they were trying to make a point about something she had no real knowledge of.

    Staring at the sky from the bench owned by a confectionery store, white clouds could be seen spreading across the bright blue canvas. It was one thing to know from hearsay, but seeing it all with her own eyes gave an entirely different experience. The ceiling of the world was far and tall; so different to the skies of her homeland. The air, the culture, language, lifestyle and customs, even the daily habits of the people native to this land were different to what she was accustomed to. But the most important thing…

    Everyone is having so much fun living their lives.

    The girl wondered and worried. Dipping her head, memories resurfaced to let out echoes of the past. Words unsaid. Promises unfulfilled. A sudden farewell. And then…

    “Niimi… finally, I caught up...”

    The girl looked up. Ahead of her was the figure of a white-haired, red-eyed girl. Dressed in a traditional clothing native to this Far East country, the girl panted, seemingly out of breath with sheen of sweat on her face. It was as if she had been running… no, she had rushed out the moment she saw her.

    ...ah.

    The two met each other in the eyes. The foreign girl’s heart throbbed painfully. It was difficult to breathe, and a shiver ran down her spine. Her cheeks heated up as blood rushed past her neck to the tip of her ears. A smile eventually spilled out and tears flowed down freely.

    “...Ayanami,” the flaxen-haired girl called out. “It has been a long—“

    “Niimi!”

    Ayanami sprung to embrace her. The girl stiffened, not knowing what to say or how to react to the sudden gesture of affection. Then she heard a quiet sob from her friend as she felt the warmth of her body spreading through the physical contact. It was soft. Familiar, even. When was the last time she could be this close to other people, much less those who she truly came to acknowledge as her friends…?

    “...yes,” Z23 said. Placing away her tea cup, the girl returned Ayanami’s affection by caressing her friend’s back. “It has been a long time, indeed… mein freund.”

    Thus, the passage of time gently passed, soaking in the bundle of emotions kept hidden for a a short yet painfully long time. In that transient moment, all was right in the world.
    +-+-+-+-+

    “I’m sorry, I couldn’t control myself…”

    Ayanami hung her head low. Her friend, Z23, was the type to draw a line between personal and business matter. Her strictness extended everywhere, but it was all in good faith.

    Suddenly throwing herself to her like earlier was a breach of manner. Though it was enforced by Z23 alone, Ayanami wished to respect her friend’s boundary. Be that as it may, she did the opposite right after crossing path with her again. I want to bury myself in a hole...

    “...I don’t think you need to think too much about it.”

    “But, still…”

    Z23 warmly smiled. “I’m happy to see you are well, Ayanami-san.”

    Butterflies danced in Ayanami’s stomach. In a mix of embarrassment and relief, she let out a sigh and nodded to her friend’s words. Even after all that happened… this was okay. This was more than fine for her. She didn’t want to count her blessings, but…

    I’m so happy I want to cry…

    She didn’t part ways with her close friends in the best terms. One day she was told to return only to find out that the Sakura Empire had left Azur Lane. The pain she felt upon realizing that she’d never be able to meet her friends again, even though they had made a promise to see each other tomorrow… it hurt, so much so that it tore her heart. If fate willed it, then she’d have loved to be with Laffey and Javelin as well, yet…

    “Oh my, now this is a welcome surprise.”

    “Eep!?”

    Before she had noticed, a silver-haired woman popped her head into the corner of her sight, making a surprising appearance that similarly stunned Z23. The two, frozen stiff like deer caught in headlight, stared at the one and only Admiral Hipper-class Heavy Cruiser—Prinz Eugen. The silver-haired kansen stared, hummed, and then slyly smiled as she slid her gaze to Ayanami’s friend. Z23 began to sweat profusely.

    “I see…” The moment she said that, Z23’s shoulders jolted. The straitlaced gunboat horribly failed in maintaining her composure. “So, it looks like you didn’t tell the whole story when you insisted to escort mich und den kommandant, hmmmm? My, aren’t you a naughty girl, Niimi~

    Just like that, Z23 turned flabbergasted with red face and a hanging jaw. A squawk flew out of her lips, and it looked as if there was steam puffing from her ears. That was… new. Ayanami didn’t expect such a powerful reaction from her close friend.

    “Kommandant…?” Ayanami paused, and then realized. “Am I interrupting something…?”

    “No such thing, no.” Prinz Eugen narrowed her eyes in delight. When she raised her hand to rest it on Ayanami’s head, the girl sat still. However, there was no malice so she let the older girl to pat her head. It felt different to when the Commander did it... “We are here for work, but it is more that our superior who is mostly in need of escorts.”

    “Oh…” So the same as what I’ve been doing for Shikikan.

    “Ufu fu, such a dear you are, fraulein.” Pulling her hand back, the Heavy Cruiser straightened her back. “You as well, Zerstörer. Had you admitted it, things would have gone much easier for you. Well, he already suspected as much, though.”

    “K-kwaaah!?”

    Z23 was beginning to sound more and more like a dying bird, now. She really had changed in the time they missed each other, but… If what Eugen-san said is true, then Niimi also feels the same way I do...

    Still, that actually raised a question. Iron Blood was half a world away. The routes one must take to cross the Land of the Gods was simply beyond the norm that it should have cost a fortune just to pay a friendly visitation. Ayanami then tilted her head; why did the two travel so far out from their country to Sakura Empire? With their Commanding Officer too, at that...

    “Your face is making a look that wants to know why we are here,” noted Prinz Eugen.

    Ueeeh?! H-how did she notice!?

    “Now that is top secret,” the Heavy Cruiser sang with a smile and a finger raised in front of her own lips. “The mystery box will open at the end of festival, so do look forward to it~”

    “U-uuh…? Okay…?”

    “A-at any rate!” Abruptly standing off from the bench, Z23 took a few steps forward and turned around to face the two. “Time’s a wasting! Eugen, I thought we’re supposed to buy souvenirs for Hipper and the others?!”

    At Eugen’s carefree laughter, Z23’s face lit up like traffic light. It really was a sight to witness, but Ayanami couldn’t help but to follow the former’s example. She laughed, laughed, and laughed until she had her fill. Even as she glimpsed the look of betrayal on her friend’s face.

    Aah, she thought. This is so nostalgic…

    They were not in the past. Javelin wasn’t here. Laffey was also not here. In the end, nothing could be done about what had happened, but that didn’t mean everything was lost. After all…

    Niimi is here for now, so…

    “Then, let me help you both.” Leaving her seat, Ayanami patted the skirts of her yukata.

    “E-eh? Huh, is that alright with you…?”

    “Un. There’s nothing to do today, plus…” Ayanami smiled. “I know the stores around here. So, can I help you both…?”

    Like that, the decision was set. The three marched out as a group, exploring the commerce district to browse for items of interest. Sometimes busy and sometimes slow, there was no fixed rhythm during their shopping spree. Z23 and Eugen didn’t have much knowledge of local specialties, so it was all up to Ayanami to help explain it all to them. Laughter echoed, shouts and complaints flew by, yet the three never stopped moving. There was simply no need to; not when they were all having so much fun.

    Eventually, however, all things came to an end, even this magical moment.

    Orange shades began to light up the streets. Lanterns and torches shone bright that they chased away shadows of the night. The warm ambiance of the festival was extremely telling, yet things began to slow down as people’s activity winded down. The three had gone all over the places, checking every nook and cranny. As a result, both Eugen and Z23 now held a pair of bags riddled with gifts in each hand. It was a good thing to know that even without rigging, kansen were already above normal humans in physical conditions.

    “Then, we will be on our own way,” Z23 said at the entrance of the commerce district.

    Ayanami cast a downtrodden gaze, prompting stutters from her friend.

    “I’m sure you can see each other again tomorrow,” the Heavy Cruiser said. “We will be here for the following week. Unfortunately, we can’t just leave den Kommandant be.”

    Ah, I guess that’s true, too.

    “Niimi… is your Commander… a good person?”

    “W-whatever do you mean by that?” Z23 averted her gaze, clearly not wanting to talk about it.

    “Well, ours is as stiff as Zerstörer here, but…” A glint flashed by Eugen’s eyes. “Feel free to come and join us. More fun to have, no?”

    Ayanami stilled, considering the idea briefly. However, it didn’t take long for her to answer by shaking her head.

    “Oh? Would you mind telling us why?”

    The Fubuki-class destroyer inhaled. How was she supposed to say it…? “Our Shikikan is… a good person. Nice, but distant. Even so, he’s really nice to everyone.”

    But is that all he is about?

    She had known him only for some months, no more than a season and a half. Nevertheless, that person never seemed bothered by the admittedly shallow bonds he had forged so far. He preferred to take his time, no matter how long. Even though he was already pushing past his prime, there was just something about him that seemed content to let things flow the way they ought to. Like a hermit patiently waiting for a fish to bite the lure as seasons went by.

    No, that’s not what I want to say, Ayanami rebuked herself. If there’s a reason why, it’s—

    “Shikikan is… a very lonely person,” Ayanami concluded. Meeting the eyes of the Iron Blood’s Heavy Cruiser, she conveyed her thoughts and feelings as best as she could. “I don’t want to leave him be, or else… he’d up and disappear while nobody’s looking.”

    Yes. That faint feeling, as if that back burdened with sorrowful past would abruptly vanish from sight… Ayanami didn’t want to see that unpleasant thought to come true.

    She might not know the complete truth. She might just be presuming things and acting as if she knew better. Even so… she hoped that the she could be by his side, all so that he’d not look back for the rest of his life. The kind of life Tatsumiya Aoto had right now was just far too lonely be it for himself or for people who knew him.

    “Hmm, so even this faraway land has a person worthy of your loyalty.”

    Ayanami snapped out of her own thoughts. Looking up, Eugen’s gloved hand fell upon her head, once again caressing and ruffling her hair like before. Looking back to the two in front of her, the girl saw her friend softly smiling, seemingly relieved while Eugen curled her lips into a gentle, elder sisterly smile. Squinting her eyes, Ayanami let out a tired but satisfied sigh, now knowing that she had become capable enough to properly tell others of her own feelings.

    For once, luxuriating in praises wasn’t a bad thing to have.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The way back was dark. In any other circumstances, a girl seen wandering alone by herself in a road devoid of people would have been a cause for concern, but Ayanami was never any ordinary person. Navigating herself out of the commerce district, the noise began to decline in volume, eventually fading into the backdrops.

    “Ah, Ayanami-san?” Crossing paths at an intersection, Ashigara’s appearance came to be a surprise. A pleasant one, but still a surprise. “Good to see you again. Have you just returned from attending the festival?”

    “Un. It was fun,” Ayanami replied. Especially since I could talk about so many things with Niimi. “Ashigara-senpai, have you recovered enough to freely walk around?”

    Asked like that, the Myoukou-class warship wore a slightly embarrassed face. She scratched the back of her head, her legs shifting and rubbing against each other. It seemed something happened while everyone wasn’t around…

    “W-well… I was harshly reprimanded by my sisters for overexerting myself, so…”

    Ah, that explains it all.

    “A-anyway! I’ve fully healed so please have no worries! I’m sure we will win tomorrow’s match!!”

    Ayanami paused, recalling the announcement and the tournament lineup. If she remembered it correctly, the next match was going to be…

    “We are going up against the Second Carrier Division, though…”

    “...oh.”

    Let it not be said that as much as Ashigara’s encouragement was better than pessimism, they were going to fight the cream of the crops. While the First Carrier Division was comprised of the strongest, the Second Carrier Division was only a few steps behind them. Plus, they had a better lineup, team synergy, as well as a wide array of tactics honed with experiences. In a battle between kansen, the Second Carrier Division might be the best throughout the fleet.

    Winning against them would be… challenging, to say the least. Onee-chan is also there with Takao-senpai and Atago-senpai.

    “T-that might be true, but we will never know if we don’t try… right?”

    Ayanami gave her senior a pitying look. Not even Ashigara herself was convinced by her own attempt to lift the mood.
    +-+-+-+-+

    Dinner that night was a bit stranger than the usual. The first ones to return were Shoukaku and Zuikaku, Aoto, then Ayanami followed by Ashigara. The last one in particular looked pretty haggard, while Ayanami was humming a tune to herself. Aoto shifted his gaze to the crane sisters who looked like they knew something he didn’t.

    “I met my friend today,” Ayanami suddenly explained over dinner. “A close friend… and she’s been doing well. We went around, buying souvenirs for her friends.”

    “...I see.” Aoto nodded at his subordinate’s latest tale. It was unusual. Ayanami was never this upfront. It was… pleasant, to see how cheerful the girl was, compared to her usual self. In fact, Aoto preferred to see her like this. “Was it fun?”

    “Yep!”

    Aoto once again nodded in response. He lifted his hand, reached out, and ruffled Ayanami’s hair. Once, twice, thrice. The girl hummed with an infectious smile on her face.

    “...somehow, aren’t you doting on Ayanami-chan like a parent would, Shikikan-kun?”

    “Hm? Aaah, I suppose so.” Pulling his arm back, he scratched his chin. “I wasn’t planning to make this a habit, but I guess it just somehow turned this way.”

    “I’m not saying you’re doing something bad,” Shoukaku refuted his statements, walking a little ahead of the group. “But… aren’t you already at marriageable age? I don’t think I have ever seen you taking some days off to meet your family...”

    Oh, so it’s about that? It wasn’t an open secret by this point. Aoto was indeed about to reach 40 years old this year. He was no longer a top shelf product even with his deceiving looks, but how could he say it…? It’s difficult for me to think of a future where I could settle down.

    “Eh? Do you swing the—“

    “Shoukaku, finish that sentence and I’m going to cut your paycheck by forty percents.”

    Ignoring the horrified gasp, Aoto lifted his chin as he pondered about her earlier question. It was rather difficult to process when asked so suddenly, but even then… Even if it was in a different circumstance, his answer would be—

    “Having family… I don’t think I will ever be ready for it,” Aoto admitted. “Never once has the thought occurred to me. Perhaps because I only know how to live as a soldier all my life.”

    At the confused gazes of his subordinates, all Aoto could do was smile.

    “Well, my own story will have to wait,” he continued on. “For now, let’s have our fill and rest up. Tomorrow is semifinal for you three, right?”

    Acknowledging their responses, Aoto resumed consuming dinner, keeping himself busy. Yes, there would come a day where he could tell his story, but that wasn’t here or now. He’d rather leave the troublesome things for later.
     
    UnfortunateWatcher likes this.
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: The End of Beginning
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Finally, getting past the SB's counterpart.

    --- Chapter 15: The End of Beginning ---

    The third day's naval exercise differed from previous ones. For once, the semifinals were held in the morning with the final match set at night. This decision was made to ensure the finalists could be fully-rested but also alert enough to stay combat-ready, simulating conditions often seen in a naval campaign that could last for days. The team must focus on preserving their strength if they truly wished to grasp victory.

    Quite a severe winning condition, but I suppose it's a good test as any.

    On one side was the Fifth Carrier Division led by Zuikaku. On the other side stood the Second Carrier Division, a force lacking only a rear escort to protect their Flagship. Aoto knew three of them—Fubuki, Takao, and Atago—but the carriers were not ones he could consider having seen often even while out at the sea. Hiryuu, the white-haired woman in white and blue kimono stood with a hand resting on the pommel of her sword, her gaze steadfast and ready for battle. Souryuu, in the meanwhile, involved herself with the rest of her team; most probably to review tactics and mental preparation.

    Both of them ranked exceedingly high in the navy's hierarchy. They also carried an air of professionalism tempered with experiences. I do wonder how this match will turn out.

    "It seems everyone's here." A regal voice chimed in. Aoto glanced downwards, noticing the arrival of the referees. "The second semifinal match shall begin shortly. Have all of you fully prepared yourself for the upcoming battle?"

    A round of nods answered her. Nagato responded in kind as she organized the two sides to form lines opposing each other. After a little encouragement speech that seemed to have been made with the crowd's excitement in mind, the referees stepped back to allow both teams to take their fighting stances. Once they were in a safe distance, Mutsu raised a flag.

    Nagato extended her right arm forward. "Let the match begin!"

    +-+-+-+-+

    It all began with a charge executed by the opposing team's Heavy Cruisers. Takao aimed for Zuikaku along with her sister but Ashigara moved to block their path, her sword drawn while her rigging activated its offensive mechanisms. The barrels pointed at Atago and promptly fired, unleashing a volley which prompted her to retreat. In the next moment, however, Ayanami stepped in to cut the enemy's escape route.

    "Eeei!" The giant sword in her hand fell into space right before Atago, unleashing a water column which stopped Atago from trying to break out from the front. Additional volley rained down around her that further isolated her in place. Before the obstruction receded, Ayanami leaped through the curtain of water and foam. "You're not getting away!"

    "Arara, looks like this Onee-san has become rather popular." The Heavy Cruiser curled her lips upwards. "But don't forget your guest of honor, Ayanami-chan!"

    Right then and there, a round of shells fired in her direction. The first few brushed her aside, but the other two struck her directly. Ayanami staggered as another volley reached her, but this time she flew out of the way. Smokes rose from her side, a visible dent with scorched marks engraved on her rigging. The power of the barrage wasn't nearly enough to defeat her, in which case—

    "Heh hen," Fubuki's voice arrived along with her figure sliding into position. She stood at the corner of Ayanami's vision, very close to a blind spot with turrets and torpedo racks pointed to her. "Sorry, Ayanami! All's fair in love and war!"

    "...that's true." Ayanami lowered her legs, readied her sword in one hand, and held the gun turret in her other hand. Her torpedo racks strapped to the sides of her rigging readjusted to aim at Fubuki and Atago. "Then—I will also give my all, Onee-chan!"
    +-+-+-+-+

    There was a clear disadvantage. Even with the difference of numbers and firepower in mind, the Second Carrier Division seemed to have never once entertained the thought of holding back against their juniors. Their movements as fluid as running water, their finely coordinated attacks a testament of their tactical advantage. Even before five minutes had clocked up, the opposing team successfully divided Zuikaku's team. What an outstanding performance.

    "Shikikan-kun, don't you think you're focusing on the wrong side…?"

    "Hm. While I certainly am rooting for Zuikaku, you cannot dismiss the severe disparity of strength." Aoto pressed two fingers on his chin. "It'd be one thing to have numbers backing the enemy up. If they also have the raw strength and discipline to act on their strategies, they are practically invincible. Willpower and bullheadedness can only go so far."

    Shoukaku's wince told him more than enough of what she was thinking. It seemed she had reached the same conclusion as he did, yet she didn't want to admit it.

    It was admirable of her to keep on rooting for her sister, but she needed to realize that there was no meaning in looking away from the truth. However, it wasn't about her this time; it was her sister. Zuikaku had yet to qualify for the leadership role. Her orders were haphazard, and while giving Ayanami and Ashigara free reigns past the general guidelines seemed like such a good idea at first, the lack of team cohesion and backup plans made things even more difficult than they already were for them. That girl needed to polish her leadership skill if she wished to be the fleet's Flagship, otherwise…

    "They're not going to make it."

    The first to fall was Ayanami. Cornered with no way out, the destroyer quickly accumulated damages to her rigging and succumbed to fatigue. She still managed to take down Fubuki, but her defeat allowed Atago to assist her sister in dispatching Ashigara. With the opposing team's carriers retaining their full strength, Zuikaku found herself surrounded with no way out.

    Aoto saw the brunette biting her lips ash she scowled in frustration. Her eyes darted from side to side as if in search of the feeblest chance, but there was truly nothing left that could be done on her lonesome. The sword held in her right hand trembled until Zuikaku spat out a harsh breath. Sheathing her weapon, the last surviving member of the Fifth Carrier Division raised both of her arms to the air, the match concluding with her declaration of defeat.

    "Huh… that girl chose to surrender," Shoukaku murmured.

    "...why does that sound like she has a habit of charging headlong even when she's alone?"

    "Well… there hasn't been a situation that could force her hands so far. For you not knowing it cannot be helped, Shikikan-kun…"

    Why am I not surprised…

    "Umm, since the match's over, I'd like to go to Zuikaku's side." Shoukaku abruptly stood up, seemingly jittery to rush down for her sister. "Shikikan-kun, are you not going?"

    "I'd like to stay here for a bit longer. You can leave a shikigami with me."

    "Okay…?"

    After the post-announcement handshake between the two sides, there was nothing left to see until this evening. Both the crowds, the staff, and the referees had gone on their ways as afternoon break began in earnest. However, Zuikaku was the last to leave the premise. She stood on the ocean surface with her chin lifted, both of her eyes closed as if listening to the world around her. Aoto hummed in thoughts.
    +-+-+-+-+

    When Shoukaku joined the group, she had already seen everything she needed to know. All three members of her Division had cast their gaze downward in shame. She had somewhat expected them to feel bad for losing, but she certainly didn't anticipate Ashigara to join in sharing the weight of defeat with the others. As Zuikaku joined the group without saying anything, the atmosphere was growing so heavy it was difficult to even say anything at all.

    "Errm…" Shoukaku started, unsure of what to do. She needed to handle this very carefully lest she made her sister and allies more depressed than abandoned pets in the rain. "E-everyone…"

    "Excuse me, Shoukaku. Can you hear me?"

    "Wah!"

    Shoukaku's sudden shout alarmed everyone. All of them turned in one direction, but instead of the thing they had expected to see, there was a piece of paper floating between Shoukaku and them. It had a white color, trimmed neatly, and folded to look like a person; the hallmarks of Shoukaku's finesse in the art of Onmyoudo.

    "Shi-Shikikan-kun…?" Shoukaku replied, staring half in relief and half confused. "Is there something wrong?"

    "Well, no. Not exactly in the way you should be worried about."

    "Then…?"

    "How should I say it…" The silence lasted for five seconds. "I was trying to buy a few drinks for you all, but it seems the vending machine broke down. I ended up having quite a few more than I asked for…"

    From the corner of her eyes, Shoukaku noticed Zuikaku perking up.

    "Can any of you help me out? I'm close to the harbor's entrance—"

    "I'll go! I'll do it!"

    Zuikaku…? Before the white-haired woman could comprehend her sister's fast response, the girl had already gone off and rushed out while telling them to wait for her. In a matter of half a minute, the brunette vanished from the corridor. Aaaah, there she goes…

    Why couldn't that girl be honest to herself and the others? Shoukaku exhaled as she hoped for the best while expecting the worst to happen.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The harbor's front side possessed many warehouses, many of them currently used for the sake of the festival. Of course, now that the semifinals had ended, many people were on the moves, chattering as they talked about the matches and wondering how would the final match be like. Others, in the meanwhile, sought to go back to the upper layer to have hearty meals or just to have a well-deserved break.

    Zuikaku pushed through the crowds, apologizing as she interrupted the flows of masses while taking care not to overstep her boundary. After a bit of a struggle, she reached the vending machine that only existed at the front side of the harbor. Her breaths were ragged, and the heat was starting to get to her. Fall had yet to go in full-swing, so traces of summer still could be felt in the air. It didn't help that she had to squish her way through the crowds just to reach her destination.

    "You're here," the familiar voice of her superior reached out to her. However, it sounded rather apologetic this time. "Sorry for troubling you. It must have been tough to get here."

    Zuikaku was about to shake her head in response, but then she saw a can rolling to her feet and it made her pause. The brunette witnessed more than a dozen canned drinks ejecting themselves out from the vending machine without a sign of stopping. Tatsumiya Aoto bitterly smiled with six held in his arms.

    "Wh-bwuh!?" Zuikaku recoiled in shock. "W-what did you do, Shikikan!?"

    "What did I do…?" Aoto tilted his head and then pointed his chin to the vending machine next to him. "I only pressed the buttons and somehow this thing won't stop throwing out more…"

    Gah, so it is broken!

    "At any rate, it might be better if you could bring a tray or something." Once again giving off an apologetic smile, Aoto huffed. "Or you can contact the customer service, I guess…? This one is navy's property, so the RnD section might help us out…"

    Zuikaku groaned, looking up to the clear blue sky that seemed to be out to mock her. She was starting to regret her past choice, now...
    +-+-+-+-+

    Hah, life always surprised you when you least expected it to. He never thought much of his luck, and neither had he ever relied on it even if it was for the most inane reasons. However, he didn't expect to have so many free drinks as a token of apology. The RnD section could be surprisingly thoughtful at times, though he wished they extended that kindness to the pricing and marketing department. What a shame.

    The "splurging" aside, his companion seemed to have no interest to strike a conversation. It didn't mean she was not receptive to his invitation for dialogue, however, so he took that as a good thing. Perhaps, rather than talking about the merits and demerits of the battle, a simpler approach could work here. Rolling his shoulders, Aoto eased himself for his next move.

    "I didn't expect you to raise the white flag," Aoto started. "I assume there's something to do with the sigh you let out after the match's over?"

    He could have looked directly at her. Instead, he gave a cursory glance to bear witness to a hard wince from Zuikaku. As always, she was incredibly easy to read.

    "Well, I won't pry if you don't want me to." The man grunted as he continued carrying the cans in his hold. "More importantly, were you having fun out there, Zuikaku?"

    "...huh?"

    Aoto quirked the corners of his lips upwards. "This festival has been full of surprises. It feels a tad overwhelming, but it's a warm welcome from the monotony."

    Of course, there was more than just that. He learned more about his subordinates, received a degree of acknowledgment by his superiors, and he got to know the kind of firepower allowed for his division. It wasn't without rough sailing so far, but his efforts genuinely felt rewarding; as if he mattered this time around. It might have sounded a little depressing, coming from him out of all people, but there was no use in denying the truth.

    Life became far more fulfilling this way, also eventful. Therefore—

    "I'm looking forward to next year's festival." Aoto looked to the side, meeting the brunette in the eyes. "What about you, Zuikaku?"

    At a loss for words, the woman hung her jaw. As she stared back at him with what could only be described as a perplexed expression, the Rear Admiral patiently waited. And then…

    "That's… true," Zuikaku murmured, looking ahead once again. It was rather difficult to tell what sort of expression she now had, but Aoto didn't mind that. "We didn't win in the end, but still… the festival has been so much fun to each of us."

    The maiden lifted her head and threw a wide grin his way. Bright, dazzling even. Aoto wasn't sure if he could resist losing himself in the audience of such radiant happiness like that, yet he somehow managed to; a testament to his efforts in adapting himself to his new role as the commanding officer of a kansen fleet. Certainly, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to recognize.

    "Ah, but!" Zuikaku raised her voice, squinting her eyes. "Don't think you can get away from dropping awfully heavy questions like that out of the blue! I still haven't forgotten, Shikikan!"

    Aoto chuckled while shaking his head. "So I cannot expect any answer in the foreseeable future, then? My, you've come up with a frightening punishment, indeed."

    Zuikaku stuck out her tongue and she sped up to leave him behind as they entered a path surrounded by maple trees. He recalled there was a clearing with resting spots well-protected from the sunlight. The man then huffed as a white shikigami made its presence known on his shoulder. It had such a precise timing he believed it had been waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. It was highly likely that his other subordinates were waiting up ahead. Being worried was one thing, but perhaps someone ought to learn some self-restraint.

    "...I can hear your thoughts, you know?" Annoyed retort reached out to his ear.

    Aoto huffed in mild amusement. "Yes, that is precisely the thing I wished for, Shoukaku."
    +-+-+-+-+

    A loud cheer reverberated across the harbor. As the day came to an end, so did the main focus of the festival. With the victorious division crowned with a trophy, the audience reveled in the momentous occasion as they listened to the speech delivered directly by none other than the dearly beloved regent of the empire. The Shrine Maiden of the Sanctuary nodded in silent recognition before she thanked the people for their ceaseless devotion to supporting the country, rousing the people's spirits in this turbulent time.

    Certainly, it was a magnificent sight to behold. The race aptly named as kansen were known for their prowess and absolute trust in mankind, a perfect breed of soldiers all armed forces would have given everything to have. Although, if she could add a little thing of note, it would be the fact that this land worshiped the grounds those girls walked on. It was certainly a kind of culture shock, but she had come to enjoy the strange sight by now.

    "My, it seems like you have found yourself a rather excellent viewing spot."

    The silver-haired woman paused, relishing at the moment before acknowledging the presence that seemed as if it had appeared out of thin air. Without a single doubt, some sort of sorcery had been put in place to conceal her arrival.

    "Dear me, now. You could have given me a message if you wish to seek me out." Prinz Eugen tilted her head to the side, her sight capturing the approaching figure of an uninvited guest. A late-blooming cherry blossom petal gently landed on the surface of the drinking cup she had taken a liking to, the petal floating while creating ripples across the surface of the local brand of liquor she had poured in it. "Come and sit down. Though, I suppose that'd be an act of impudence from me considering you are the owner of this fine establishment, isn't it?"

    "You jest, but it is not entirely wrong." A lighthearted giggle left her guest's lips. "The exclusive district was built for the sake of those girls' wishes to live as close to the people who they had sworn to protect as possible. Needless to say, only those who have distinguished themselves are allowed to have a saying in changing this little corner of our paradise."

    "Such extravagance."

    The Iron Blood hummed, her gaze returning to the festivity beyond the open-air terrace facing the commerce district. For normal humans, it'd be difficult to recognize the signs, but Eugen was no ordinary person. She could make out the subtle signs where people gave wide berth for seemingly no reason at all, and those who promptly stopped whatever they were doing in favor of getting enraptured by the charms kansen naturally exuded. She would have taken a little time in teasing the latter kind; the Kommandant was far too stoic and no-nonsense if compared to that person, not unlike Bismarck and Tirpitz.

    For the briefest moment, a scene from the past replayed itself in the forefront of Prinz Eugen's mind. "How long has it been ever since the last time I indulged myself, I wonder…"

    "Pardon?"

    "No, it's nothing…" Prinz Eugen lightly shook her head before she returned her attention to her guest. "Well, it was only yesterday did we see each other. Is there anything more you'd like to discuss with our side?"

    "A tempting offer," the smiling fox said. "But no. We already have more than enough. Even our ruler is satisfied with your unexpected generosity."

    Oh my. If she could, she would have laughed there and then. The Admiral Hipper-class Heavy Cruiser was certainly no spymaster, but even she could tell when a person told a bold lie. This woman in front of her relished in the knowledge that she knew that she knew. A cunning fox through and through, the Flagship of the Sakura Navy was not a person to be trifled with. Had our straight-laced honor student been nearby, she'd have fallen for the trap right in the spot.

    Still, two could play the game. The Kommandant might not approve it, but it wasn't like there was any other option when she was confronted by the other party like this.

    "Then, I assume there will be no problems?" Prinz Eugen asked.

    "Yes. With this, all conditions have been met." The puppet master nodded, wearing the same soft smile that had been rehearsed to perfection. "Though it will take some time, I assure you, our research data will undoubtedly accelerate your project's development. In exchange, we are looking forward to your efforts and cooperation."

    The silver-haired, red-eyed woman acquiesced, and with that, there were no more subjects to discuss. Her guest bowed in place of parting words, but as she left the premise…

    "You are playing a dangerous game," the steel shark said. Despite her warning, her gaze remained latching on the commerce district. The lanterns glowing in red and yellow flickered, the hustle and bustle melding into the backgrounds, and the faraway sounds of beating drums echoed through the seemingly magical atmosphere. "I hope you are ready for what is about to come. We do not need allies who cannot commit themselves to their causes."

    She had expected little. Her suspicion would have been proven had silence persisted for any longer, but a surprising answer unexpectedly delivered itself to her.

    "But of course," Akagi said as the sound of sliding door opening and closing drowned into the festivity. "All that has been sacrificed, and all that I will sacrifice—everything shall be engraved in this heart of mine… as well as this world's history."

    Before long, the other presence in the place vanished. Left to her device, Prinz Eugen took a slow and long sip of her liquor. The warmth of the so-called atsukan had been a pleasure to have when the cool autumn breezes swept the observation deck, but it had rapidly cooled down within minutes. Such a shame. The lucky cherry blossom petal struggled so much to stay afloat, and yet it ended up sinking to the bottom of the drinking cup.

    "Well, it is none of my business." Prinz Eugen brushed strands of her hair over her ear. "This empire doesn't have much time left since the rumors are true."

    I suppose I should prepare an apology to Leberecht, she'd no doubt be upset about the bargain we had to sell to our allies.
    +-+-+-+-+

    The last hours of the festival was a ritualistic dance performed by none other than the sibling priestesses of the Sanctuary. As resounding beats of percussion instruments filled the air, a tune of flute followed plucked strings of yamatogoto. A song of the Old World ushered in figures clad in red and white, the shrine maidens donning masks that represented the Eight Million Gods who had created this archipelago.

    At the central plaza of the commerce district, people began to mingle and take each other's hands, following the tradition to act on the stage graced with the blessings of the gods.

    "The Mikagura, huh…"

    Even while being preoccupied with the dance, Zuikaku did not miss the sardonic smile on her superior's face. There was a glint in his eyes, a sort of indescribable emotion that seemed to almost boil over, suppressed only by sheer self-control. As they sat on a bench below a cherry blossom tree, the brunette hummed to follow the familiar tunes of the ancient song; enough that she didn't come off as overly curious, but around the appropriate volume that her voice could be picked off amid the noise. It elicited a little reaction from the Rear Admiral, so she looked to him from the side.

    "Shikikan, you know of the imperial ritual dance?"

    "Not in the way you'd describe it, though." Her superior leaned back with his arms propping up his upper body. "I was under the care of a priest after the earthquake. Some shrines and temples somehow survived the horrifying calamity, but it was better than nothing. Thus, they became shelters for people who had nowhere else to go but to believe in the gods."

    "...life seems rough back then."

    Aoto chuckled. "It truly was. Rebuilding the city was an insane undertaking, but people always managed to find ways to make do. It is only natural."

    Is that all there is to it? Zuikaku had lived out her previous life as a warship, but that did not mean she was entirely clueless about human behaviors. Her existence was suffused with the life and vigor of the ship crews that commanded her, and as their legacy, she carried their spirits proudly in her chest. However, the scope of the Great Kanto Earthquake could hardly be called normal. After all, the empire should have been shielded by the graces of the gods, no matter how weakened they were at the time.

    Would it be impudent of her to say more? Still, she'd assumed he'd have gone out to join in even if it was just for the festivity. Is he restraining himself, because he still thinks he needs to work for our approval?

    Zuikaku looked up, her gaze listless for a full minute before she dragged her chin down. She let out a sigh. The young woman left the bench and turned to face her superior with both of her arms akimbo. A displeased expression made itself known on her face, one which Aoto quickly took notice of judging by his raised eyebrows. As they stared at each other, Zuikaku felt a sense of irritation built up and so she immediately grabbed his hand to then pulling him toward the bunch of dancers encircling a burning pyre. She heard him addressing her in confusion, but she didn't care.

    "Come on," Zuikaku said as they reached a fairly good spot to go along with everyone's and the song's rhythm. Having finally grasped her intention, they faced each other before moving in opposite directions, walking in a circle with their gazes at their respective partner. "You're not bad at this, Shikikan."

    "Well, I learned many things from the priest." Aoto shrugged, taking a step forward as Zuikaku took a step back, beginning the prelude to the dance. "The Mikagura is set to a certain tempo and tone. That's because the song used is always the same."

    "Guess it must have bored you, huh?" Zuikaku raised her right arm, offering her hand.

    The man surprisingly shook his head, even as he took her hand. "It helped me sleep through some rough nights. I guess it is more fitting as a lullaby than a ceremonial song."

    "...I see."

    As they entwined their hands, Zuikaku felt the warmth transferring to her core. This human warmth was something she had felt before, but it was now more pronounced than ever. It seemed she had to give it to Akashi and Shiranui; the sort of bond made between a kansen and a proper Commanding Officer was far beyond the psychological boundary. The life, faith, history, and love of mankind created the foundation that formed a kansen. Nevertheless, she was not ready to trust him just yet.

    The connection between people, after all, must go both ways. She wasn't naive enough to think that she'd be given with everything from the get-go. That was why…

    "I want strength," Zuikaku eventually spoke out. With the scarlet flame that consumed the pyre as a witness, the shadows cast by the two flickered. Weaving through the crescendo of the ritual dance, she could feel the dragon veins energized. It was subtle, a fact only known by those like her who had practiced the arts of Onmyoudo. "I want to be stronger than I am now, in a different way to my previous life. Do you think… that's a bad thing?"

    Yes, that was why she chose to give up. Because she needed to accept the bitter taste of defeat, to see through her decisions no matter how humiliating. But it's so childish and naive, we all know what sort of ends await those who willingly surrendered in wars.

    Would he be upset? When she lifted her gaze, she saw his unblinking eyes while his black hair swayed in the gentle breeze. The uncanny mask plastered to his face oftentimes made her feel as if there was something more about it. And yet, the way he narrowed his eyes, the way he softly smiled, and the way he gently tightened his hold of her hands told her more than enough about what he was thinking. She didn't want to admit it; her heart skipped a beat, just a bit. Then, as she spun in place to settle the last part of the ritual dance...

    "Isn't it fine?" The Rear Admiral replied, taking her hand one last time. "Live the way you like, make as few regrets as possible. That's not a bad way to live, no?"



    Zuikaku didn't realize she had been holding her breath. Even so, she let out a sigh as the tension left her shoulders. Before long, she felt her cheeks loosen. As she pulled back her hand, the song coming to an end, the woman puffed her chest and impishly smiled.

    "Geez, if that's what your caretaker taught to you, no wonder you are so sloppy most of the time, Shikikan."

    Aoto chuckled self-depreciatingly. "Well, I'm just practicing what I learned…"

    And isn't that the problem, there? Not only was he such a carefree individual, but he also rarely bothered to get his act together because of that. One more thing she came to learn about him, and it just had to be another disappointing bit she already knew about him. She had a feeling that she must beat the bad habits out of him, lest he'd truly be slacking at work. I can't believe how hopeless you are—

    "Hey, look…"

    Zuikaku blinked upon hearing a wave of confused noise. There she looked around, finding the people around her to stare in one direction. Many of them confused, yet many more of them wore anxious looks. She followed their direction, unease invading her mind—

    "Thank you, everyone. For participating in this wonderful festival once again." Atop the stage set at the far back of the plaza was a figure of a woman dressed in red kimono. Her long dark hair fluttered in the winds as she stood together with the Priestess of the Sanctuary by her side. "Truly. Everything could never be done without your cooperation. I can only thank the people of our beloved empire for this. Know that my gratitude has no bound for the hope and prayers you have given to us."

    As the torches lighting up the stage crackled, the banner of cherry blossom could be seen on the makeshift wall meant to be the background of the stage. For the spirit of untarnished purity, justice, and unwavering faith is embodied within the flower which could only bloom in this land shrouded by divine fog.

    "Do you remember, dear people of the empire? The day where the sea was once still ours?"

    As the shadows stretched, the clouds moved to block the light of the moon. An oppressive silence, therefore, brought forth attention to the speaker's voice as well as words. From then on, something began to change.

    "The Second Dark Age stole so much from us. The invading force of the unknown shattering a short-lived peace that tore the world asunder. Surely, you still remembered. Surely, it was a nightmare like no other. Despair so insurmountable that there could no longer be light even through the starry night."

    A third figure walked to the stage, making Zuikaku widen her eyes. It can't be—

    "We have sacrificed so much. We have fought and lost so many things precious to us. And yet, what has the world done for our painful struggle? I'm sure all of you realized by now."

    Right next to the banner, a new one rolled down to reveal itself to the world. Striking black, white, and red comprised a symbol that extended to four directions. Nobody could dismiss this as a joke any longer. None could deny the symbol of a nation that now flew right next to the banner of the empire. Even so, the people's spirits began to move, showing one emotion only apparent during the moment the world turned its back to the Sakura Empire.

    "Let the world know our strength," Akagi announced. "Let the world's twisted righteousness be broken. We shall henceforth usher a new page of history, a turning point towards the correct future! All as our God willed for!"

    1944, New World Calendar—the beginning of Autumn. Twenty-three years had passed ever since the emergence of Siren as well as the First Contact War. Approximately ten years ever since the Second Dark Age, the collapse of world order, and the rebuilding of civilization.

    "Hereby, I announce the formation of Crimson Axis!"

    It was in this fateful night that the rusted gears of destiny began to turn once more.​
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: 1945, New World Calendar
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    --- Chapter 16: 1945, New World Calendar ---

    Scarlet red color painted everything. The streets, the buildings, gardens, schools, and the harbor. As pillars of wind and fire pierced through the city, lives and memories crumbled like a sandcastle blown by the winds.

    Lying on the ground, he gasped for air and water, his charred limbs hardly moving after the desperate struggle to escape from the living hell. He had left everything behind, but the sea remained far from his reach. His lungs withered, his throat choked by embers that tasted like burnt flesh. He heaved and then retched, his vision blurring with black spots as stomach acid and blood pooled beneath him. Still, he couldn't pay attention to his own unsightly self anymore; he simply couldn't.

    Aaah… so… close…

    Water. Water. Water. The sea was right ahead. Just a little bit more. Only a little further. The boy told himself, but he could no longer move his arms. Not even his fingers twitched, and his nerves had long frayed out. Only the sense of parched throat was registered in his crumbling mind, but even that desire was fading by the minutes. Black spots blotted out his sight and the last bits of his strength faded into oblivion. Eventually, all he could feel was a biting coldness as well as sweltering heat that threatened to break his sanity. It hurt him, it weakened him, it drove him to pray.

    For anything. For something. For the sake of his own salvation, the boy made a wish with all of his heart and mind. Whoever it was out there that could hear him. Whatever the cost may be, just… as long as he could be saved, then… Then—

    ...wish…

    A tremor jolted him awake. The city had burned down to the ground, yet the deep darkness shrouding the boy's consciousness made him look up instinctively. He stared at the abyss—and the abyss stared back. A silhouette emerged from the cocoon of darkness with piercing red eyes reflecting his pitiful existence. As a pair of enormous clawed hands reached out, they dragged him into a maw full of razor-sharp fangs. The boy's soul quaked in terrors, but it was already too late.

    Oh feeble creature, upon this contract shall your wish be granted—

    In the following moment, the darkness swallowed him whole.

    +-+-+-+-+

    1945—late winter. The year had rounded up a month ago, and the Fifth Carrier Division was now undertaking missions and exercise routines in succession. Though there were breaks in between, the air of brewing conflicts was becoming palpable. Even sailors who had stopped seeing actions in the frontline had turned rigid. There was no doubting the immense weight of forming an alliance with the technological empire Iron Blood. Even Aoto with his vast life experience agreed that it was groundbreaking news.

    "...Shikikan, what do you think…?" Ayanami asked, standing nearby as the two observed an exercise involving the Rearline Flotilla and the Fifth Carrier Division.

    "Well, that is difficult to say."

    Aoto scribbled on the clipboard in his hand. The division in charge of protecting the mainland had a fairly high team synergy, but their mobility was lacking. While their firepower couldn't be underestimated, it was more or less because they mainly fielded old warships like the Fusou-class who contained more conceptual weight in their pseudo-magical keels. Aoto understood why the navy expressly ordered war supply now; it was all meant for the moment the empire allied themselves with the Iron Blood. He had a sneaking suspicion that the weapon refitting project existed to further optimize the Combined Fleet's combat efficiency as well, but the idea of changing the rigging of a battleship into an aviation battleship seemed… no, they were kansen. Perhaps his worries were unfounded.

    "Shikikan…?" Ayanami's voice brought Aoto back to the present time which prompted a nod.

    "Aaah, sorry sorry." Aoto looked to Ayanami's direction and smiled apologetically. Recalling her earlier question, the man adopted a ponderous look while tilting his head. "Regardless of the esteemed Flagship's intention, the main reason of forming alliance must be because we are far too exposed to dangers. I do not doubt the chances of conflicts from breaking out, but it is too early for us to assume that things will definitely go that way. Does that suffice…?"

    In the ensuing silence, Aoto could feel the disappointment of his subordinate. It seemed he and Ayanami were seeing the picture differently, a simple yet inevitable contrast. Be that as it may, he really believed that there was nothing good in jumping to conclusions. Ayanami didn't look like she had any doubts about the alliance between Sakura Empire and Iron Blood was a pretext to declare war against Azur Lane, but…

    It is hard to think that we'd go back to fighting against people.

    Aoto did not remember his life before the Great Kanto Earthquake. Much of the town records had burned away with too many lives lost that there was no accounting whether or not he had surviving relatives. Even worse, much of the historical records had been lost throughout the Second Dark Age, making it difficult for people to know the truth of the world's past. However, Aoto had no doubt that fighting against each other was wrong. Not only the Siren still existed, but the world order was also still too fragile to even be called stable. Both the time and situation did not match; just what was Akagi thinking to make such a speech?

    No, I'm being hasty. Considering Ayanami didn't seem to wish for further conversation, Aoto turned back his focus to their division.

    There was tense energy in everyone's actions. It was to be expected, but Aoto felt it was worth noting. Zuikaku had taken herself in acting as the second opinion to Shoukaku on the battlefield, opting to learn her way of controlling the flow of battle. In the meanwhile, Ashigara had chosen to stick close as their escort while switching to offense and defense freely. The three had thought of this through but among them all…

    That's a peculiar combat maneuver.

    Z23's battle performance was already above standard, yet she managed to synchronize with her new teammates by rushing ahead to deliver a heavy blow before swiftly retreating. Her personal battle strategy possessed the quality of a vanguard ship that must charge forward at any given time, and also the ability to know when she must pull back. Perhaps it had to do with the bestial shape of her rigging, the fact that she was more of a Gunboat than a simple Destroyer, and the extremely effective utilization of her own weaponry. That combat output wasn't just the result of her discipline and experience. The Iron Blood's Wisdom Cube's research clearly exceeded Sakura Empire's in many ways.

    But it feels like I'm being watched whenever I see this girl on the battlefield. Aoto hummed noncommittally as he jotted down the result of today's exercise. Well, whatever was going on with the newest addition to his Division could wait for now. He still needed to make a report that must be submitted to the headquarters, then deal with many other tasks. He wished the people upstairs could be a little more sensible in their desire to make use of the kansen as tools of war, but even if he had the voice to tell them off, he was but one man. Why can't we live in peace…?
    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun had set and the moon rose. The stars glimmered, then the dawn broke out. As the sand of time passed by, the world gradually and surely changed. Little by little, and little by little.

    A repetitive rattling noise roused Aoto from his slumber. He slowly opened his eyes to glance at the windows, seeing a gray canvas splotched with white blobs covering most of the world seen through the circular window frame. As his mind started to wake up, he remembered from last night's radio that bad weather would persist for a bit longer, so he heaved a sigh before getting up from the bed. Opening his wardrobe, Aoto switched to his winter uniform, adjusting the sleeves and rolling his shoulders to fit himself in the outfit he had grown accustomed to.

    The naval officer uniform set was an acquired taste if he had any right to have an opinion about it. Putting on his gloves and wearing the cap with a golden emblem of cherry blossom on it, Aoto glanced at the built-in mirror at his wardrobe door, pausing once again when he took a look at his own face. The mask covering the upper half of his face was shaped like the skull of a bird with tiny horns. However, Aoto's focus lingered on his reflection for a fraction of a minute before he closed the wardrobe. There was no use in thinking about it.

    Who "I" was no longer matter, Aoto decided. For those girls that have come to trust me, and for my fallen comrades, "I" am Tatsumiya Aoto, the Rear Admiral of Sakura Empire.

    With that thought in mind, Aoto ended his conundrums and joined everyone in the dining room. What he noticed first was the aroma of freshly cooked rice and soup broth.

    "Ah, Shikikan-kun! Good morning," greeted Shoukaku. The blue-eyed and white-haired girl walked with a tray of food to the table where almost all seats had been occupied by the other members of the Fifth Carrier Division. "Come, come! You're lucky we haven't started!"

    Aoto smiled and nodded. His reaction came off as natural as it had appeared and he felt a deep sense of warmth from hearing Shoukaku's words. He took his seat at the head of the table, gave his gratitude for the food, and began breakfast in earnest. Everybody followed after his example and soon the dining table grew rowdy. Obviously, Shoukaku had drilled manners into everyone's heads, with even Z23 following in suit with no problems. Which, come to think of it…

    "Though I feel this is redundant, where did you learn handling chopsticks, Z23?" Aoto opted to use the addressing label agreed upon by the Iron Blood girl and Ayanami. "It seems like you have already known how to use them."

    "Mh? Well…" Z23 glanced at her friend before answering. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Though that being said, the Azur Lane is an international hub where the exchange of cultures happens regularly. Picking up this skill is a trifling thing."

    "Huh. Is that how it is…?" Aoto relaxed and smiled upon catching the other destroyer at the table puffing her cheeks. "I don't think there is a need to put it in such a way, though."

    It took Z23 a few seconds to realize the meaning of his words. She instantly sputtered as she looked to the side, only to meet her friend's upset stare. Ayanami mumbled something along the line of "I was the one who taught you that…" and it caused the flaxen-haired girl to panic way more. Z23 spent a few minutes to finally coax her friend while everyone watched on. As a ring of laughter filled the room, the coldness of the morning melted away.

    Time naturally went by. Aoto began his daily routine at the office, once again battling the endless horde of paperwork as if there was no tomorrow. Of course, while he needed to match the schedule given to him, he still needed to analyze each document so that nothing awful could result from signing them. Just then, he heard a knocking sound. Aoto paused his work and looked to the door, finding Z23 inviting herself into the office. He tilted his head.

    "Is something the matter?" He asked.

    "Well…" The Iron Blood girl shifted her sight, looking around the place as if in search of some sort of thing. There she furrowed her eyebrows. "Kommandant, I'd like to assist you in your work, if that is possible."

    Aoto blinked, taking a few seconds to process the sudden request. "Well, I certainly do not mind having more hands to help me, but… Can I ask what's the occasion?"

    "I believe it is only right for me to repay the favors," Z23 answered. "That, and it seems you have many questions in mind. Otherwise, you would have employed me far more efficiently."

    "Huh…" Aoto was at a loss for words, now. He wasn't even trying to hide it, much less making a big deal out of it, but he didn't anticipate Z23 herself to give an offer he sorely needed. But then again, he did have one immediate question in mind, now. "Am I that obvious?"

    "Not exactly. Your mask did not give any positive first impression, though your lax attitude is far more than enough to make up for the difficulty in reading your expressions." Z23 crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. "In the first place, what purpose does that mask serve, if I may ask?"

    Aaaah, I haven't heard of that question for a long while, now… Scratching his cheek, Aoto felt abashed. Ever since he was stationed in the exclusive district, the exotic appearances of the kansen made it easy for him to blend in. With the type of fashion every local kansen liked to wear, his mask would of course barely register in their minds. This is kind of refreshing.

    "It's not anything serious, though if I must say…" Aoto lifted his hand from his cheek to his forehead, the palm covering half of his face. "I simply cannot remove this mask. For better or worse, I suppose."

    "You… cannot?"

    "Mhm. Well, there was a great fire ten years ago. Saved from the fire in this state, perhaps the extreme heat that day welded this thing to my skull."

    "That is… I'm sorry to hear that."

    Aoto lightly laughed and waved. "There's no need to apologize. Sometimes, there are things you can't help but live with. I've long already accepted that this is my fate."

    Z23 didn't look convinced. Well, he guessed it couldn't be helped, but he'd rather not continue work with an awkward mood hanging in the air. Moving his focus to the stacks of documents on the table, he took a document and read it over. Then he nodded down before handing it toward the Destroyer.

    "Can you look over this, Z23? I'd like to hear your opinion."

    "Huh? Ah… well, if it's this…" Accepting it, the flaxen-haired girl immediately analyzed the file as if the previous conversation was just a backdrop. "Hmm, budget allocation and weaponry development…? The performance listed is… no, this won't work…"

    Oh, looks like she truly is as capable as Ayanami said. Aoto's smile widened a little bit as he watched on his new aide went over the document. He settled back comfortably in his chair and switched his current task to split the work between him and Z23. The scent of fresh ink returned in the office, and Aoto lightly hummed a tune he couldn't quite remember the title yet dearly familiar with. Man, it shows my age that I can't even remember the title of a song…
    +-+-+-+-+

    The snows were piling up. It seemed winter still had one last storm before spring could melt the snows away. It had yet to let up, so everyone was stuck lounging around in the pavilion. Shoukaku couldn't say she liked winter since the kitchen was placed a short distance away from the main building. At least she could still heat up the kettle and boil water with her onmyoudo, though she had to admit it was a luxurious usage of supernatural power gifted by the gods.

    "Zuikaku… I think you should help out, too." Looking over her shoulder, she saw her sister half-swallowed by the kotatsu in the central room. The girl, having had refused to change her clothes with thicker fabric by calling it spiritual training, was now looking more like a slob that was way too far from the image of a youthful woman. "You do realize that we now have a Commanding Officer, right…?"

    "Is fine, fiiiiiiine…" Came the equally lazy response. "That guy is always in the office these days anyway, and it's been freezing cold lately. Shoukaku-nee, want to join in? We still have some leftover tangerines~"

    Shoukaku frowned and discovered that not just Zuikaku, but Ayanami as well had let herself be devoured by the temptation of kotatsu. She could only see her head and shoulders poking out from the thick feather blanket, facing away from her while leaking out a quiet murmur that signified a girl deep in the dreamland.

    "Ah, geez…! You're giving a bad example, see!?"

    After a short while, Shoukaku walked toward the office with a tray of tea and snacks. She couldn't believe her sister actually ran out but at least she stopped staying so slovenly like that. She could imagine the disappointed face of their superior and she'd have none of that under her watch. She could never allow the pride of the division to be tarnished, after all!

    "Hmm, say. Z23…"

    "Ah, please call me Niimi. I can tell that it is difficult to pronounce my name in Sakura tongue."

    Shoukaku slowed her steps instinctively, minimizing the sound she had produced moments before she reached the office. The door was left slightly open and she could hear two people talking with each other. Without noticing, Shoukaku had already killed her own presence and stood by the door, a desire to eavesdrop taking over her desire to fulfill a regular task granted to her. Hmmm, the conversation sounds rather animated than normal...

    "Have you gotten used to living in this land? I know that the Iron Blood is somewhat affected by Siren from the polar region…"

    "Hm. It is true that the Fatherland is colder than before. Every year, there is a subtle change to the atmospheric pressure and climate. The weather could hardly be predicted even with the latest advancement of technology."

    Oh my, Shoukaku realized. A budding sense of guilt grew in her heart upon realizing that the conversation would not go down as she had initially expected. In fact, she felt foolish for even thinking that something was going on. Well, at least I have yet to use a shikigami so maybe I should mind my own business…

    "I see… it does seem like the Siren has yet to cease their activity entirely, hm."

    "...by that, what do you mean?" Z23 asked.

    "I'd say that it's just a needless worry, but I suppose I could gain more by having a different perspective on this." A short silence. "How far is your nation's research on the Siren, kansen, and the Wisdom Cubes?"
    +-+-+-+-+

    Under his scrutiny, Z23 initially did not give a response to his question. Surprise colored her face, realization dawned in her eyes, and finally, the girl narrowed her eyes as she took in his question, processing it from end to end.

    "...though I am now a part of your Division, Kommandant, my loyalty stands together with the Fatherland." Z23 straightened her back, adopting a formal posture that broke away from even her typical attitude. "I'd like to exercise my rights to protect national security. What you are asking is tantamount to demanding information on the highest security level."

    "Even though our countries are now allies?"

    "Even more of a reason why I cannot hand over this information," the flaxen-haired girl said as she shook her head. "I do not know your intention. Though you earned Ayanami-san's trust, I have yet to fully understand your character."

    Aoto wryly laughed as he hid a wince. "You sure are blunt, Niimi-kun…"

    "It's because of that attitude of yours that I could be this frank to you, Kommandant…" Z23 blatantly sighed, looking as if she was starting to have a headache. "Though I have no desire to give names, others would not take so kindly to your approach. Some would even use their authority to lock you down at the spot and know that they have the authority to do so. Please refrain from trying to overstep your boundaries. This is also for your own sake."

    So it really is like that, huh… Even though it was within his expectations, the only avenue for him to see the grand scale of things seemed to require more than just conventional methods and parlor tricks. This is sort of depressing, but I can somewhat understand why…

    "Thank you, Niimi-kun." Leaning back in his chair, Aoto rested his hands on the table and entwined his fingers. "And I'm sorry for bringing this topic. I felt I had to ask, because—"

    "Yes. I have heard of your story from Ayanami-san," Z23 interjected, her expression gradually softening like thawed snow. "You are a rather clumsy man for a sailor who has sailed to the place nobody should have been sent to. As a form of respect to your loyalty and valor, shall we make a compromise then?"

    Aoto blinked in surprise. "Is that alright…?"

    "But of course," the Destroyer airily replied with an amused snort. "Let's try to focus on basic history first. The Fatherland had been ravaged by the Siren more thoroughly than the other countries. Our armed force was not the greatest nor at the forefront at the time. And as the world came to know later, we were forced to rebuild everything from the grounds up in spite of having nothing to protect ourselves from the Siren threats."

    "And that is why you chose to reform the state as a scientific empire…"

    "Yes. I see that you remembered world history class, Kommandant. Efforts are paid in full in our land, but the military and the Kaiser also expected much from you to learn and search for your own answer. We had to catch up with the world no matter what if we wished to protect ourselves from further threats."

    "That desperation drove you to seek the technology of the Siren, then."

    "Unfortunately." Z23's smile thinned with a tinge of sorrow. "We were extremely vulnerable as a nation. To borrow help when we had nothing—it would only lead to an end where we have no choice but to move like a puppet. We had to create our own power, a new symbol that could bolster the faith of our people as well as elevate our position as a nation in front of the world. Do you think this is deplorable, Kommandant?"

    Aoto opened his mouth, but the words he was about to utter died in his tongue. As he stared at his subordinate's eyes, he began to sense something more than just a vague but intense emotion. He knew that gaze well. He had seen it many times throughout his life. The resigned determination, the bitter regrets, the unwillingness to be hinged, but also a pride cracked with worries and uncertainties. Many of his juniors back in the Imperial Academy wore such faces when they saw him off to war.

    Aoto sharply inhaled, his mind spinning the gears to think it over. What he wanted to say, what he could say, what he must say. He was no longer in a spot where he could just throw cautions into the winds. Therefore...

    "Not many would actually try to learn from their own enemy. It's an extremely risky choice when you could barely arm yourself," Aoto started. "However, I can understand the logic behind it. When you are in no position to demand something better, you make do with what you have. And the Siren happened to be there, right?"

    Z23 slowly nodded. However, she did not utter a single word as if waiting. Waiting for the moment of judgment. Confident of his own conjecture, Aoto then formed a soft smile.

    "That is why," the man—the Rear Admiral stated. "I will not condemn you for using the power of the Siren. After all, only people would assign strength with good and evil."

    Yes, that was what his thought had concluded. With all his heart and age-tempered wisdom, Aoto knew that people could not be picky when it came to certain things. Had he been at that point in his life where he wished he could have power no matter what the cost was? Far too many times. However, he also knew that it was the accumulated regrets and losses he was forced to endure that made him wish for it.

    "...yes, that is correct." Sighing with relief apparent in it, Z23 closed her eyes as she returned his smile. "It seems Ayanami-san's faith in you truly was not misplaced. You possess a broad mind, a brilliant potential for you to become a wonderful Commanding Officer."

    I'm not quite sure what to feel, is that honest praise with a jab or what? "Well, I wasn't exactly trying to impress..."

    "But I would like to correct one thing."

    "Oh?" Aoto lifted his head, meeting Z23 in the eyes.

    "Among my sisters and peers, the degree of modification I permitted to be installed on my rigging only reaches the bare minimum." The purple-eyed girl placed her gloved hand on her chest. "My circumstances could hardly be called an optimum innovation to the anti-Siren effort. I know my limits, Kommandant."

    Aoto rapidly blinked his eyes in wonderment. The way she worded it seemed to indicate there was something more about this brand new avenue of the technology tree. However… there was no doubt about it; she had given a hint to the top-secret information she had said to have been withholding not just for her homeland, but also for his sake. Did that mean Z23 had approved him—no, haste makes waste.

    As if noticing his wavering focus, Z23 giggled. "...you are a strange person, Kommandant."

    "Ah, well…" Taken aback, Aoto scratched the back of his head. "I guess I was being nosy. It has nothing to do with your excellent work performance, I assure you. Though it does have some relation with an issue I have with a certain someone."

    And now that I have acquired a piece of the puzzle, I can take a little break at last. He got off the chair and straightened his back. His shoulders felt stiff and his spine made a few popping sounds, though now that he was away from the desk, he noticed that the rattling had stopped; it seemed the snowstorm was now over. Guess I've been working with tensions all over my body without noticing…

    "Kommandant, you need to do regular exercise."

    "Ahahah… well, that's true." He walked to the clothes hanger and picked up his winter jacket as well as a scarf. The former was colored in dark blue while the latter was a handmade given to him by the priest who had taken care of him. He looked fondly at the scarf before he wore it after the jacket. "Then, I'll be off for a moment. Want to come, Niimi?"

    "Mhh… a tempting offer," Z23 said with two fingers pressed on her chin. "However, I will have to decline. I need to check if Ayanami-san has been caught by the evil of kotatsu or not."

    Aah, yes. I remember that particular winter devil. "Looks like you too have it rough, huh?"

    "More than you could ever imagine, Kommandant."

    At her sigh, Aoto could only offer a smile full of sympathies.
    +-+-+-+-+

    There were two ways to reach the harbor. Leaving the exclusive district and travel down the winding paths cresting through the hills, or from the naval base situated only a fair distance away from it. Unlike the usual, however, the sea was calm and cold, the wind biting at his exposed skin and ears.

    As snow fell and he uncapped a bottle of warmed sake, Aoto soon realized that a shadow loomed over him from behind. The man blinked, finding Shoukaku standing with a paper umbrella held up so that he was beneath it. The young woman stared at him without saying anything, and not knowing what she was thinking made it difficult for him to refuse the act of kindness—if it could even be said as that. Regardless, he took the umbrella and Shoukaku invited herself into the shade of it. Right next to him.

    "How did you know I am here?" Aoto eventually broke the ice.

    "Niimi-chan said that you went out to stretch your legs," Shoukaku replied. "Though saying that, it's not hard to find a sailor brave enough to stand so close to the sea these days."

    "...true enough." Aoto acquiesced with a nod, closing his eyes as he took in a sharp breath. "I do not think any sane person would go so far out here by themselves."

    "And you always came to this place, no? To give your respect, almost like an obsession."

    The man laughed. It was a bit much, but he supposed there was merit in the thought of it. Tatsumiya Aoto was one of those who had returned from the battlefield only to jump back to active duty shortly after. He certainly wasn't alone on that front, but as years went by, he became one of the few who continued to pledge their services to the empire.

    "...I suppose I now have a few more regrets," Aoto confessed. "And perhaps a little envious."

    Though he lived through the tragedies, the smokes of another, a different war could be seen on the horizon. Aoto wasn't sure if karma followed him, but his comrades at least were fortunate enough to have long retired or already too dead to even worry about it. Still, he couldn't say he disliked the time he had spent together with the girls that were his new subordinates.

    "...Shikikan-kun, are you…" Shoukaku paused and then shook her head. "No, never mind. At any rate, please go back already. You should mind your own health a bit more."

    Hmm? It seemed that there was something Shoukaku wished to say. However, it didn't seem like she was being reproachful either. If anything, she seemed confused and at a loss.

    "Something on your mind?" Aoto asked.

    "Eh? Aaah, n-no! Not at all…"

    Looks like she doesn't want to talk about it just yet. That was fine. While pressing the issue could help, it could also make things much worse. It might be alright to let her sort herself out until she had the courage to bring it up to him. He didn't mind waiting, though he also noticed that Shoukaku truly was related to Zuikaku; even their immediate reactions were remarkably similar to each other. Plus, it's not like we don't have the time for it either; at least for now.

    "Very well, then. Let's go home, Shoukaku."

    Aoto tilted the umbrella and shook off some piling snows, the action snapping his secretary's mind back to the present time. She hastily nodded and they climbed back up to the exclusive district, Shoukaku only lagging behind by a step when they were not on the stairs. As soon as they reached the division's quarter, however, they saw someone familiar standing in front of the gate leading to the Fifth Carrier Division's headquarters. That headphone belonged to…

    "Ashigara?" Aoto murmured. And who's the girl in green and white kimono?

    Even Shoukaku looked perplexed. Ashigara and the girl seemed to be talking heatedly until the former resigned herself to accept an item from the shorter, dark-haired girl in white and green. The heavy cruiser held a brown envelope tightly against her chest while the other girl bowed before going on her own way. Shoukaku immediately called out to her junior, and yet Ashigara suddenly stiffened, her eyes darting to reflect Aoto's figure. The envelope he held began to deform in her grips.

    That… didn't look right. Not at all. Aoto folded the paper umbrella and approached Ashigara with hurried steps. "Ashigara, what's wrong?"

    "That… is… This is…" The girl hitched her breaths as she looked at him and Shoukaku. She was on the verge of panicking, but Ashigara abruptly shut her eyes close and deeply inhaled. After going through the herculean struggle against whatever it was that held her back, she surrendered the brown envelope to Aoto. "This is… addressed for you, Shikikan…"

    Aoto stared at the envelope, connecting the dots almost immediately. He heard Shoukaku drawing in a sharp breath, and even Ashigara began to wilt in the spot. Still, he accepted the item and flipped the brown envelope, seeing that it was indeed given the seal of the Admiralty Board on it. Not only that, but a purple seal of the imperial court had also been stamped next to it; a regal and sacred color symbolizing an authority equaling the Combined Fleet's Flagship and right below the High Priestess of Sakura.

    This is… I see, so that's how it is...

    As he held the imperial mandate, he sensed his subordinates' gazes as well as the burden he must carry from now on. There were no words exchanged, but he already understood what must have happened. His heart felt exceedingly heavy, his trust and loyalty were shaken to the very core. However, he must do this. Even if it meant he must kill his own heart, he had to fight and protect those who now stayed under his wings.

    It was time to fight against the world.​
     
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  18. hyperlunatic

    hyperlunatic Making the rounds.

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    You may want to transfer this to the NSFW forum even if it has no NSFW content. The reason is that the SFW forum lack the sheer amount of traffic that the NSFW one have.
     
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  19. Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Hm, while I do feel that seems to be a good idea, I don't want to give the false hope that there will be NSFW content. I have no plan to turn this story NSFW, and I feel it's not kosher to post what clearly doesn't belong there.
     
  20. Azum

    Azum Slightly amused

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    The SFW forum is kinda dead though, i know i only check it when i've really got nothing to read. And its not like there arent sfw stories in the nsfw forum.
     
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  21. hyperlunatic

    hyperlunatic Making the rounds.

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    Yeah, it's deader than dead. They wouldn't give a rat's ass as long as your story are good.
     
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  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: Day of Departure
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    Eh, think I'll stick around here. Dead or not, this subforum exists for a reason and what is there to put than SFW fics in it.


    --- Chapter 17: Day of Departure ----

    Early spring, 1945. The sky was clear in contrast to the atmosphere riding over the harbor.

    In spite of the few numbers of people running the place, each kansen was a personified warship with the ability to fight like demigods while requiring little to no maintenance. Their pseudo-magical nature allowed for cost-efficiency the likes of which yet to be seen throughout human history. This allowed the human staff to manage logistics without the usual headaches. After briefing his Division one last time about the upcoming mission, everyone dispersed to follow their own directives. Those with nothing to do, however, seemed to prefer dropping off Ayanami's hull to have a sendoff party with their circle of acquaintances. Left to his own device, Aoto found himself staring down at a letter which he had received from an unexpected guest this morning.

    His overall thought about it, however, was unfortunately interrupted when Akagi announced herself through a rather unconventional arrival by floating over from the deck of a warship nearby. As soon as she made her graceful landing, another woman floated down as if following after her—but it was not Kaga. In fact, it was a young woman in a uniform remarkably similar to that of Z23. He almost immediately turned their way to deliver a formal greeting.

    "Welcome aboard, though I'm afraid we are not in a state capable of offering some relaxation."

    "Good day, Rear Admiral Tatsumiya." Akagi's smile looked the same as always, humble and alluring without a crack. If anything, the fact that her expression did not change even after their last exchange unnerved Aoto, but he did not believe it as wise to point that out. "It seems the briefing is over. I expect there is no complication on that front…"

    "Well, we can depart any time, though this will be my first time participating as a part of the attack force instead of the defense force." Aoto tipped his cap so it'd fit in on his head a little bit more. He then glanced at the silver-haired woman. "And a good day to you once again. Iron Blood Heavy Cruiser, Admiral Hipper-class Prinz Eugen."

    "Indeed." Prinz Eugen pursed her lips into a smile of her own brand. Unlike Akagi's smile which was in possession of ethereal charisma and a hidden depth, this Heavy Cruiser's smile felt predatory, obvious in intent, yet full of sweet temptation. Her gaze hovered on him from top to bottom like a shark who was sizing her prey. "I hope there haven't been any issues between you and our cute junior?"

    "Certainly. Niimi-kun is the studious sort, diligent, and also proficient in managing secretary tasks."

    As Aoto went off to describe the dynamic between Z23 and his Division, he couldn't help but tear his gaze away from the four gun ports writhing behind the Iron Blood woman's back. Prinz Eugen strutted and the rigging connected to her moved in tandem, their serpentine joints writhing and slithering like snakes. The rigging seemed to be much more alive than Z23's that it truly made him wonder just what sort of technological marvel was behind such innovation. It also oddly reminded him of the humanoid Siren's rigging in the way that it was neither a true living being nor an exclusively mechanical device.

    "...though I feel that it's only because Ayanami is with us that there has been no problem until now."

    "A little humble, aren't we?" The Heavy Cruiser tilted her head, a glint flashing through her eyes. "It is well and fine that you can measure your own strength, but such a thing may ruin you all the same."

    Aoto let out a burst of small laughter. What a familiar turn in the conversation. "Shoukaku has been nagging about that for quite a while, too. I will strive to be better next time we meet, then."

    "Humm? Now that is interesting…" Prinz Eugen mumbled as she came even closer to him. However, she stopped when there were still a few steps away, and she waved while turning in the opposite direction. "Well, I will go and give my greeting to Zed. Do your best out there, Rear Admiral~"

    What…? Utterly perplexed, Aoto could only stare at the Heavy Cruiser's shrinking back. The woman had appeared with such a strong gravitas, but suddenly she walked off as if she had lost all interests to pursue the matter. Her mood swings gave him whiplash. Just… what was her deal?

    Akagi's chuckle rang out, "I see that it's the first time you have ever interacted with people like Eugen."

    "...are, are there more people like her at Iron Blood…?"

    "I'd say yes, though I'm afraid I am not well-versed about their fleet any more than other people. Well, I suppose she is whimsical by nature."

    I'm not even sure if whimsical is the right word to call that…

    +-+-+-+-+

    The sea of the Fatherland was cold. After the First Contact War, the Siren spread their influences across the seven seas, claiming territories of their own to conduct whatever nefarious plots they had while ignoring the consequences.

    A raging storm without premonitions. Tidal waves of catastrophic proportions. Abrupt formation of islands and archipelago overnight. An extremely unstable climate that defied existing natural laws, and so on. Iron Blood was especially troubled with the dense black clouds, unceasing hail storms, as well as giant edifices that sprouted out of nowhere in the middle of the sea. Even now, Z23's homeland was besieged from all directions as if constantly monitored by their archenemy. Despite the presence and might of the reborn naval force, the Fatherland remained plagued by the Siren's threats. Thus, the need to become stronger became all the more important for the Iron Blood kansen. No matter what happened. No matter the reason... to survive in this chaotic era, to possess strength was a badge of honor, as well as to bear the burden of lighting the path in the darkest hour.

    Only the strength you have cultivated will never betray you; such is the creed of—

    "Working earnestly like always? My, you're such an honor student."

    "Eep!?"

    Her reflection was interrupted while she was handling the tactical overlay at the control tower of the ship. It had been decided that Aoto would be there until hours before the battle where he would stay behind alongside the rear line, so there were not many things that needed to fuss over. Still, that voice was unmistakable with all of the faux playfulness. Turning towards the door, Z23 came face-to-face with one of her peers.

    "Eugen!?" Z23 almost shouted.

    "It's been a while. How're things going on your side, my dear fraulein?" The Heavy Cruiser smiled, this time a lot more teasing in tone. One of the woman's awful traits was to poke, prod, and then press the buttons of everyone she decided to fancy with. Unfortunately for Z23, she happened to be among the said group of victims. "I do hope that I'm not intruding, though?"

    "Ugh… you always said that after doing exactly that." The Destroyer resigned herself to her fate as she dropped all tasks she must do to prevent any further embarrassment from her side. "You could have at least sent a letter. The headquarters aren't exactly fond of your hobby. Please show some restraints, already..."

    "Now, now. I am working as well, you know? No need to worry, I've already taken countermeasures, including for this visitation~"

    Z23 promptly gave up, all thoughts of countermeasures cast into the void. When Prinz Eugen said it like that, she actually meant it. It was definitely like her to act so sly and slovenly, but if only she could actually put her act together and use that strong whimsical trait of hers for better use. Still, Z23 had one more trick left. Straightening her posture and clicking her heels together, the Destroyer gave a salute. Prinz Eugen nodded down as she accepted the formal greeting.

    "Mhmm. Well, I am simply passing by, but say…" The woman with a pair of burning gold eye colors tilted her head. "The superior assigned to you is something else, isn't he?"

    "Pardon?"

    "Well, there is nothing exactly out of the ordinary. Appearance and attitude-wise, he seems to be as reasonable as a normal person." Prinz walked back out, prompting Z23 to follow after her. As the two looked over from the catwalk and down at the front deck, the Rear Admiral was now conversing with the Flagship of the Sakura Empire's Combined Fleet. Still, even with their enhanced senses, the winds were being awfully strong and noisy this time. "From his profile, he is a quite talented sailor who has successfully climbed the ranks. A sturdy character through and through, but…"

    The lull made Z23 pause. She assumed a ponderous look and then gazed at her superior. "Are you suspecting there is some sort of foul play?"

    "Of course not." The Heavy Cruiser giggled. "On the contrary, it all feels… let's see, a little convenient, don't you think? A late bloomer of a Commanding Officer is assigned in a Division infamous for their peculiar characters. As he learns more about his own duty, he also acquired an increasing number of subordinates with varying special backgrounds. The fact that he could still be eligible to command and synchronize with a kansen fleet at his age is already something, but he is now recruited for the war effort in spite of his standing in this empire."

    That's…

    "Just observe him. It's not that hard since your real task doesn't need you to stand out." Prinz Eugen's smile softened. "Now, how about the upcoming battle? Can you do it, Z23?"

    Once again, Z23 was thrown off. Abruptly bringing up a strange topic only to follow it up with another completely unrelated on, Eugen's whim truly had no bounds. Even if she tried to pursue the matter again, she had no doubt the woman would tease her all the way. By that point, either time would be already up or she'd get too exhausted to even bother Eugen. Z23 let out a long sigh through her nose as she sorted her mind.

    "Yes. This is all for the Fatherland and our allies. What I must do… is level my gun and shoot at our enemy—even if they were once my friends."

    "...I see."

    I see…? Really, what a reaction befitting Eugen. Z23 didn't even know what she was expecting, so she let out a deep sigh. In the following moment, however, the girl felt a hand on her head and she looked up, seeing Prinz Eugen ruffling her hair without saying anything. The flaxen-haired girl widened her eyes, but any thought and word she tried to conjure faded within the silence. It wasn't much of a comfort, but Z23 felt she needed it at the moment.

    +-+-+-+-+

    "Six aircraft carriers. Two battleships. Three heavy cruisers. Five destroyers." Aoto made a thoughtful hum. "At a glance, this force has a weak vanguard. In spite of that, we are in an age where battleships can fight with the agility of destroyers, and aircraft carriers so small it'd be difficult to target from afar."

    This composition is awfully geared for aerial supremacy, a very bold strategy right off the bat...

    "Your Division will be there to protect our rear line as well as to increase your real combat experience." Akagi slightly tilted her head. "Or could it be you wish to do more than just staying at the back? My, that'd require a complete reshuffling of the fleet formation."

    "Please don't assume I'd demand something so unreasonable," Aoto sighed. After the weird meet-and-greet with Prinz Eugen, he felt like he had exchanged a shark with a vulture. Akagi was as elusive as always, but this time she seemed a bit shadier. "I just hope we won't lose anyone."

    "Oh? So you are not against fighting fellow humans, then…"

    Aoto furrowed his eyebrows. Was she messing with him? No, judging from the inflection of her voice, it seemed the Flagship was genuinely curious about his wording. Identifying the intention of the person speaking with her while having the willingness to openly ascertain the truth… Really, now. Not only a schemer, Akagi possessed the capability to act audaciously whenever it benefited her. Aoto looked out to the sea once again, discarding all other thoughts to answer the expectations given to him.

    "I can only save those within the reach of my arms," the Rear Admiral said. "Beyond that line is where God toys with the fates of all creations. I am not so conceited to believe that I am the writer of this outrageous script we call life."

    Of course, there was a reason why he could call life as outrageous. Many things flashed through his mind, his own survival being one of them all. Still, outrageous things did not mean they were all bad, though he didn't have the desire to even discuss such a thing. It was boorish of him for sure, not to mention there wasn't anything attractive in talking over the ma—

    "...yes, only God can possibly toy around with people and their fates."

    Aoto reflexively turned his gaze at the Flagship of the Combined Fleet. There he saw her dipping her head low, a smile plastered on her face, and a gaze bearing intense light. As her giggle wormed into his ears, chills ran down his spine. He had almost given himself to panic before a restraining order was delivered from his brain to his body, experiences, and wisdom allowing him to not expose himself any further to the kansen with the highest authority of the imperial navy. However… he needed to say something; to warn her of just one thing.

    "...I hope you are not thinking of anything outrageous as well, Akagi-dono."

    "I suppose it shows on my face." Akagi's smile did not falter. As a matter of fact, the air surrounding her was rapidly changing. It became difficult to miss her next words. "Needless to say, I am fully aware of what we are doing, what we are going to achieve, and the repercussions of our actions. But needs must because we cannot allow ourselves to stay like this for any longer."

    The woman gazed to the horizon where the sky and the ocean met. An indescribable emotion lurked within Akagi's eyes, one Aoto was sure to never forget even if he wanted to. It was faintly there when he first talked with her, the second time during the festival, and then now. He couldn't say for sure what it was about, but his intuition told him that he was already grasping a few hints about it. Just, if my instinct is correct, then—

    "...the tactics are sound," Aoto abruptly switched the topic. "Silence the patrol boats, deactivate the defense arrays, neutralize communication modules, then unleash aerial bombardment over important facilities. The damage will be kept minimum to non-military areas, but I assume your goal is to isolate the Pacific ocean from Azur Lane's grasp."

    "Well done. You've noticed, I see." Akagi's smile deepened. "Sadly, it is not perfect. There are three objectives that must be achieved in this operation."

    "Three… you say…?"

    The primary objective was to declare war against the Azur Lane as well as stating out the Sakura Empire's righteous cause. The secondary objective was to steal the initiative by crippling the first defense line of Eagle Union. Aoto didn't know there was the third objective. What is she...

    "The third objective is—to hasten the progress of our empire's research."

    Aoto blinked, unable to process for a moment what Akagi just said. However, realization soon dawned and yet another piece fell to fit in the frame. Could it be—

    "The Black Cube…" Aoto stared with wide eyes. "You're using this war for… publicity stunt?"

    "Not only that," Akagi's smile distorted at that point. As the Aircraft Carrier directed her gaze back to him. Once again the chills returned, but Aoto had lost the initiative. "What we will do… is a large-scale field experiment, Rear Admiral. And we will have our former friends take part in it, simple as that."

    +-+-+-+-+

    The sun soon set, then evening arrived. As the sea calmed down, a number of spotlights illuminating the harbor harshly chased off the darkness. Among the dazzling white curtains were a row of red lights, and the vessels carrying the heavenly mandate sailed off as their identification lights glimmered like the stars in the heavens. Whether or not they'd bring a triumphant return or perish in blazes of glory—nobody could ever know. Fate always had something in wait, hiding away the grander pieces of truth from everyone's eyes. But as people entrusted their faith in the power of the kansen, that strange and vague power would sweep the world to become a feast for the gods of the heavenly plains.

    "They have… departed, then." A somber voice echoed. "If so, I too shall fulfill my duty."

    Deep in the heart of the empire was an island no mortal could ever hope to approach, much less enter at whims. In this most sacred place existed an ancient tree that oversaw the death and rebirth of the world. Ropes tied with charms symbolized boundaries between the impure and the pure, the countless rows of Torii gates emanating mystical energy that permitted only those blessed by the eight million gods. Through the barrier that purified even Siren corruption, several maidens resided within a shrine at the base of the divine tree.

    "Onee-sama…" Mutsu wore a pained look as she tugged the sleeve of her older sister. "Please, you can't do this…! It's not your fault that this is happening! You don't have to shoulder the burdens forced on you! There must be… there must be another way!"

    Her voice, shrill and disheartened, echoed through the shrine grounds. However, no matter how much tears she had shed, the expression of her older sister did not change for the slightest. A half-lowered gaze full of compassion, a thin smile without strength… it was a mask that had become the Priestess's true face. Nagato reached out to rest her hand on Mutsu's head. Softly, softly, the older sister soothed the pain of her little sister even though both of them knew that their parting would only make this act of kindness feel even more painful.

    "It's fine, Mutsu. It's fine…" Nagato lowered her eyelids. "Our era… the age of battleships has come to an end. With people's faith resting on the aircraft carriers, there is no more role for us to play."

    "There must be a mistake! We are two of the Big Seven! Our might is not just about firepower!" Mutsu protested. "We can still fight! We are still useful! Surely, surely…!"

    As tears dribbled down her cheeks, the younger sister was left out of breaths. Crying and mourning over the present situation, it was just like Mutsu to overreact and get caught up by her emotions.

    But that is also why she is so precious, Nagato thought. As her gaze landed on her most loyal retainer, she had never thought that there would come a day where she needed to rely on Kawakaze. There was truly no telling what the world would come to be. Slowly nodding down, the retainer shut her eyes tight before she deeply exhaled. The girl clad in white and green kimono then stepped forward to rest her hands on Mutsu's shoulders. As her little sister sobbed, the retainer called out before telling Mutsu the message that must be said. Her gait was precise with practiced ease after having rehearsed it for countless nights. I'm sorry Kawakaze, for having you go along with my selfishness to the very end.

    Nagato had receded the authority as the Combined Fleet's leader to Akagi. With the people's faith in her waning, so did the power that sustained the Sacred Tree. The empire… this homeland of hers was dying, and it was all because of her incompetence. Efforts had been put to no avail. Years after years, the situation did not turn for the better, not even once. Optimism and hope could only lie broken at the end of such a despairing truth. In the end, what must be done was for Nagato to extend the lifespan of the divine tree while Akagi directly commanded the kansen fleet to boost people's faith. Some would say that the trade-off was extremely one-sided, but it suited both Nagato and Akagi just fine. Those who knew of their history would think differently for sure, and above all else...

    The very last thing only I could fulfill; my final duty as one entrusted with the people's hopes—

    Nagato quietly stepped back. The shallow lake that masked the floor of the shrine grounds created a number of ripples with every step. As she moved further and further away from her sister and friend, she felt her body tugged toward the sacred tree. The moment she was half a step away from fulfilling her final duty, she heard her name called. Nagato gazed down at Mutsu's crying figure as she was finally taken into the bark of the divine tree. Her cheeks grew hot, her eyes blurring as the world seen through her vision distorted like a broken kaleidoscope. Cloths of light enveloped her body, sealing her as well as preserving the state of her being. The girl extended her arm past the magical veil that would forever separate her with the world—

    "Thou shalt not touch a human, for they would tarnish thy divinity."

    "Thou shalt not smile, for thou must maintain thy dignity."

    "Thou shalt not forget; the Creator is your only God."

    As she smiled one last time, Nagato pulled back her arm, pressing her hand against the inner veil as if to wave goodbye. Countless thoughts crossed through her mind, but as the rules enforced upon her shackled her, the Priestess discarded all of her opinions so as to become the vessel to contain her people's wishes. In doing so, she knew that she had doomed herself.

    I'm sorry, Mikasa-senpai, for failing to fulfill the expectations you have blessed me with.

    A lullaby could faintly be heard gradually growing louder as if to sing praises for Nagato's secession of this human body of hers. Her eyelids fluttered shut, her strength fading by the seconds. She first lost her sight, then her sense of touch, taste, smell, even her hurting heart stopped bothering her. There was no pain, thus there was no agony. Because there was no agony, there could be no despair. As she came to that conclusion, Nagato oddly felt at ease. Then, from the depth of the abyss—the ring of voices whispered to her once again.

    "Thou shalt not touch a human, for they would tarnish thy divinity."

    "Thou shalt not smile, for thou must maintain thy dignity."

    "Thou shalt not forget; the Creator is your only God."

    The "hymn" suffused her entirety. Over and over again, the three phrases she had heard throughout this new life of hers latched on to her freshly beating heart. However, as she resigned herself to the "voices" of the gods, a few things came to mind. The first was her worry over her sister's future and well-being. The second was a deep regret for that person who had believed in her. Finally… Nagato wondered if she'd see that dream once again, this time for eternity. What would she bear witness to, now that she was giving up everything she had to atone for her sins?

    Will I… dream of it once again?

    Though she had lost all of her senses, her heart could never forget the past of this world. Though her soul was fading away in order to sustain her homeland, the vision she had been forced to bear witness of could never be erased. The hellfire that burned everything down. The day the heavens raged and the earth cried in anguish. The day the first ill omen befell upon this blue planet. On that fateful, hot summer day, all that she could remember was…

    A cruel event that left behind destruction, despair—as well as the footsteps of the one being sung.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: The Flame of War
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    And we have now caught up to the FFN version.
    --- Chapter 18: The Flame of War ---

    The sea was quiet. All one could hear were sounds of the ship hull splitting waves as the Sakura Combined Fleet embarked on a journey to a certain naval base.

    Zuikaku stood at the bow of the ship, Ayanami's physical vessel, and stared to the dark horizon. It was past bedtime and closing into midnight. She had been thinking for a while, but as she figured, she couldn't take her eyes off from the place where it all began. The Pearl Harbor base of Hawaiian Island, the international Anti-Siren headquarters of the north pacific front, and one of the Azur Lane's main bases. Her memories were not clouded. As a matter of fact, it had become more vivid the closer the fleet was to it. Her previous incarnation had fought there together with her sister, providing the vanguard fleet with only the least amount of protection as ordered to. The tactic used then and now seemed to be no different, but only slightly.

    Even in a less than ideal circumstances, kansen had no reason to fight against each other in a battle to the death. However, something felt amiss this time. She wasn't sure why or how; she just had this sense of assurance that something smelled fishy. But what is it…?

    "Mm. As I thought, it's hard to figure this out." Zuikaku lifted her chin before hanging her head as she sighed. Thinking wasn't her forte, but she had decided to be better than that. Diligently learning and reviewing her errors would one day bear some fruits. Unfortunately, she wasn't virtuous enough to endure the long struggles. "Ugh. Fighting is much better. Why can't learning be the same…?"

    It was difficult for seagulls to reach this far out to the sea, so only the blowing winds could heed her lamentation. Needless to say, her question went unanswered. After deeply exhaling once again, she glanced at the vessels sailing behind Ayanami. The First Carrier Division opted to carry themselves on Akagi's hull with Tone as an escort. In the meanwhile, the Second Carrier Division chose Takao's hull to carry them. There were also Kirishima and Haruna to consider. With that in mind, the current fleet was pretty much balanced. Zuikaku chalked this setup as them looking out for each other, so she believed she still had much to improve to even get on the same level as her seniors.

    Yes, that's right. Brushing her hand over the hilt of her sword, Zuikaku reaffirmed her resolve as a warrior one more time. A big war is coming, I must be ready for it.

    After all, she must protect her sister and her friends. Oh, and Commander as well though it wasn't like she'd let herself be caught dead saying it.

    +-+-+-+-+

    As the night grew old, the moon waxed and waned. To avoid detection, any spotlights and outside light were switched off. A curfew was set, and a rotational watch duty was employed.

    At the captain's cabin, Aoto worked through the night on his lonesome. Scribbling documents one after another, he pondered, read a reference book laid open on the desk, and continued to scratch away with his pen. The cup of coffee Shoukaku made before she retired for the night had turned cold, yet the faint sounds of the rolling waves tilted the ship's hull comfortingly. He had grown accustomed to living out at the sea. In fact, he felt safe by once again living out this rough lifestyle even sailors would get fed up with, but it was merely him setting aside the issue that would soon arise from picking a fight with the entire world. Stopping his hand, he looked at the opened pages with an unreadable gaze. In the following moment, he heard the door of his cabin knocked; Aoto lifted his head.

    "Um, this is Ashigara… Rear Admiral, are you still working?" When Ashigara slightly peered into the cabin, the girl's eyebrows furrowed down. She walked over to the desk but soon looked at the many diagrams Aoto had just made. Picking one up, she soon came to realize the nature of his late-night work. "This is all… tactical responses?"

    "Hmm. I was trying to come up with appropriate commands once the battle started," he admitted. "I have never once fought in wars between people. Now that it's no longer the case, I must rethink all of my strategies. I don't want to make the wrong decisions when the time calls for it."

    He had responsibilities to fulfill, expectations to match, and a hope that everybody would come back alive. However, a small voice in the back of his mind often whispered that there was no way he could possibly do all that. Real combat was a hell of a mess no matter what the circumstances. War, on the other hand… well, the variables multiplied and turned every existing plan to always deviate from the tracks no matter what. The question was whether it happened at first, midway through, or right in the deciding moment. Human factors, quality versus quantity, geographical advantage, logistic, raw power as well as momentum; so many elements to consider, so little things that could be achieved with the hands of just one man. And the sin of sending these girls out to that loathsome hell will all be on me.

    "Are… aren't you working yourself too hard…?" Ashigara eventually inquired, concerns in her voice.

    Aoto smiled sadly and shook his head. "This is what I must do. This is also the least I can do for you all. I'm sorry that I couldn't do much more than this."

    "That's…" Ashigara looked away, but after some moments, met him in the eyes. "I don't… I don't think that's true, Shikikan!"

    Aoto blinked, staring dumbly at the Heavy Cruiser who had suddenly raised her voice. He had never once thought he'd see Ashigara shout with all of her heart. However, he sensed no anger. As a matter of fact, her expression twisted in pain as she averted her gaze. And as the faint sounds of waves crashing against Ayanami's hull, the girl lowered her head.

    "...truthfully. Truthfully, I… I have been feeling uneasy." Ashigara harshly inhaled. "Many from our fleet have previously worked together with the Azur Lane. However, they are also bound by loyalty to serve our homeland. Surely… surely, they all feel the same at the idea of fighting against each other, Shikikan. That is why... that is why I… we are…!"

    Ashigara started to talk rather incoherently, her composure falling apart as the seconds passed by. He had thought of getting off from his chair to comfort her, but Aoto immediately connected the dots. He softly smiled as he closed his eyes.

    "Thank you, Ashigara." Aoto looked her in the eye. "Still, let me be selfish a bit more. You should rest up. Your shift may already be over, but that's no reason to not be careful."

    The girl took a sharp intake. Her eyes widened, her lips opened wide as a word was about to leave her tongue. However, she closed her mouth and hung her head low. Aoto could sense guilt creeping up on his back when he saw shame and disappointment deep in her eyes, but he restrained himself from saying any further as Ashigara excused herself from his cabin. The Rear Admiral shook his head and looked at the half-opened drawer of his desk—a torn envelope with a half-folded letter sitting within. As he breathed out, he unpinned his collar; turning his gaze to the dull gray ceiling.

    Those girls are wasted on a terrible adult like me.

    +-+-+-+-+

    Days had passed. Under the cover of the darkness, the Sakura Empire's fleet was closing in on the defense perimeter of Hawaiian island. The timing of the attack was planned to be thirty minutes before dawn broke out. They'd strike with everything they've got before quickly retreating. Of course, some energy conservation had to be achieved, so the Fifth Carrier Division was ordered to stay back, much to the seething annoyance of Shoukaku. However, Ayanami couldn't really remember anything beyond her own role in this operation. After all…

    "Ayanami-san, this is not a good place to sleep."

    Atop the control tower of her physical vessel, Ayanami sat down while hugging her knees. After she sensed the familiar presence and hearing her voice, the demon looked back to find her friend standing with both of her arms held akimbo. Her amethyst-colored eyes reflected her figure and the way she crinkled her nose and eyebrows made her disapproval clear for anyone to see. A deep sense of joy and comfort washed over Ayanami, even as the feeling quickly faded as the awareness of the huge battle that would decide the fates of many came to her. Still, Z23 was correct.

    Even though kansen retained a good portion of their true strength in their humanoid form, they still had to look after themselves to ensure battle readiness. The war would soon commence, so everyone must already be in position. Ayanami smiled until her crimson gaze fell upon the tiny island far in the horizon. The Pearl Harbor base—a name engraved in her memories and heart as a place where the beginning of the end began. Yes, even the entirety of her new memories could never forget what had happened in the world's previous incarnation. Now, though...

    "...Niimi… I'm scared."

    Their friends were there. Their former Commander was also there. That Azur Lane base was the place where the four of them had crossed paths together. It was where everything began in this second life of hers, but now… now, Ayanami wasn't sure anymore.

    "I'm scared," Ayanami confessed as she pressed her forehead against her knees. "I know that it can't be helped that things go this way, but… but—"

    She had made friends in that place. She had come to embrace that place as her second home. And yet, their friends… What would happen to their friendship once this battle took place? Ayanami had no doubt that those two would be disappointed, hurt, and saddened. In fact, there were chances of them hating her. Ayanami didn't want to be hated because betrayal hurt. However, however… she could not choose which was more precious between her best friends and the people of her homeland.

    "Ayanami-san…"

    "I'm sorry, Niimi… It's, it's probably too late to say this, huh?"

    As Ayanami expressed a resigned smile at her friend, she knew deep down that the Iron Blood girl was in the same boat as her. Politics, nationality, ideologies, way of life. All those things mattered less than the idea of hurting their friends who had once entrusted their backs to them through the countless battles against Siren. However, she could not allow herself to stay as the whiny girl who always cried over each and every unfortunate turn of fates. Therefore… therefore—

    "...I have to fight." Ayanami slowly stood up. "This is what I can do, after all… right?"

    Z23 didn't respond with words. Unbeknownst to Ayanami, her friend had given a tiny nod even as she held her arm as if to reassure herself.

    +-+-+-+-+

    Time waited for no one. Everything became all the more precious because of that. As the sand flowed, events were set in motion. With thoughts and prayers held tightly, the world waited with bated breaths, seemingly in anticipation of the impetus to change. And then, with one word—the trigger was pulled.

    On the mark of hour five hundred, communications with the patrol boats abruptly vanished. It was only three minutes in when unidentified planes soared to the sky. As black dive bombers cut through the airspace, communication towers were destroyed in succession by their missiles. Aerial bombardment then fell over the supply warehouses, hangars, and the dry docks. Once the armories ignited, a giant detonation followed, sparking more and more enormous explosions. The sea waves shook as the scarlet flames seethed, black smoke rising to choke the lives of the survivors who had somehow avoided the surprise attack.

    Panic enveloped the base. A mix of Eagle Union and Royal Navy ships hastily jumped to the sea only to face a merciless barrage of the mass-produced Piece-class Siren. USS Pennsylvania had thought that the Siren was attacking when she saw dozens of A6M Zero joining in to sow seeds destruction.

    Screams and yells could be heard across the base, but help would not arrive. They would never arrive in time now that the base's communication modules were cut off. Behind the Siren fleet which would weaken the enemy, humanoid figures cruised forward to execute their own directives. Swords were drawn to cut down stragglers, turrets loaded with explosive shells were aimed at surviving important facilities, and ironclad convictions crushed the confused opposing force. With one fell swoop, almost thirty percent of the Azur Lane base were deemed lost at the hands of the Sakura Empire. Akagi joyfully hummed as Kaga shouted orders through their transmission channel.

    "Now, then…" The Flagship of Sakura Empire's Combined Fleet flicked away a red paper that burned in the air before a fighter aircraft flew out of the blazing flame. The tiny airplane enlarged in size as it took off to join in with its comrades. "Let us bestow divine punishment upon this world."

    +-+-+-+-+

    In the darkest hour before dawn, not even the starlight could shine down on the sea lit with a blazing flame. As ships moored at the harbor fell apart in succession, smokes and explosions rose one after another. Beset from all directions, the base could only helplessly endure the surprise attack.

    Ah, this is familiar. A detached voice wormed to the forefront of his mind. Just standing at the catwalk, the winds had already brought him the scent of rust and gunpowder. The low groan of ship hulls torn asunder, the raging waves that crashed against them, and the bright flames that dyed the landscape. It all was so very familiar that he wanted to puke. This is… war, between people.

    The absolute impunity of the air raid certainly did a number to the base's facilities. The hangars storing military vehicles, the supply warehouses, armories, communication towers, and barracks. It seemed there were merits in having past intelligence related to the Azur Lane, but using that information to lay down a beating on those dedicated to combating Siren… Aoto screwed his eyes shut as he stopped himself from going down that road. There was no use in regretting or lamenting. What was done was done, and so—what he must do was to make the best out of the situation. Tapping into the channel shared between his subordinates, he gazed down to the deck where they waited for his order.

    Aoto took a deep breath. "The first phase of the operation is completed. We will now move on to the second phase. Are you ready? Ayanami, Ashigara, Zuikaku."

    Among the three, only Ashigara gave a salute. Ayanami hung her head before she looked up to meet his eyes. The girl gave a slow nod. Aoto briefly smiled but when he saw Zuikaku, he could only tilt his head as the kansen folded her arms under her bosom. She was definitely glaring at him… Ah, I guess my current position does make me look like a haughty officer standing above her.

    He gave her a slight nod. Zuikaku huffed and looked away. Shoukaku forced out a smile and Z23 stared from the side with disapproval at the brunette's manners. Well, at least he didn't need to worry about his Division's battle readiness.

    After the air raid, the base's defensive mechanisms should be active by now. A broken line of light was appearing just as he had anticipated, spotlights being cast to the sea so the base could identify their attackers. The kansen currently stationed there must be moving out as well, but Aoto couldn't say for sure who and how many. The intel was somewhat outdated after Sakura Empire's departure from the alliance, and he was also curious about the base's responses being not up to his expectations. Could it be that our main targets aren't even here…?

    "Hey, Rear Admiral! What's the holdup!?"

    Aoto blinked, looking back down at his subordinates. Zuikaku's irritated mood was at full swing now, but he quickly shook his head as he pinged Shoukaku to not hit her sister from behind. He honestly didn't mind Zuikaku's attitude, no matter how much he gotten used to it. In fact, he was grateful that the girl could easily break him out from his reverie, though he noted that it had been a long while ever since Zuikaku last addressed him by his title. As such…

    "Then, I'll be brief." Aoto straightened his posture and clicked his heels together. "I will not order you to do as you wish, and neither will I tell you to cast off your dignity for your orders. If, by any chance, you find yourself doubting the orders given to you, however…"

    He swept his gaze over the girls whom he had come to trust. He could not lose any of them. Hence—

    "Know that you are fighting because I tell you so." Aoto lifted his right arm parallel to his chest, extending it forward like the orator of an orchestra. "Now, fearless warriors of the empire! Draw your swords and load your guns! Fight to your heart's contents—and return without fail!"

    +-+-+-+-+

    A pair of eyes gazed upon the sea illuminated with scarlet brilliance. Even without using her terminal, she could witness a historical moment where fates scattered across the seven seas. The symphony of fired shells, soaring warplanes, and detonating torpedoes filled the air as a mist made out of ashes as well as gunpowder descended upon the battlefield. It was an exquisite riot, writhing chaos that was slowly but surely consuming everything; a marvelous "reenactment" of the war from the olden days.

    "Once again, the fate of this world headed toward this direction, hm?" The being lurking in the dark depth narrowed her eyes in delight. "Be that as it may, we are slightly behind the schedule. Well, no matter. Tester and Purifier could fill in the blanks rather easily."

    Her heart was singing. Artificial she might be, a processing terminal she could ever hope to be, this black core that composed her existence was filled with fulfillment. Though this was but another step to accomplish her dearest creator's wish, she could not stop herself from feeling giddy at the idea of her effort being rewarded. With the upcoming arrival of her old "friends", there was no doubt that the gears of destiny could eventually be reversed. Ah, but was she talking about the inevitability of the future, or was it the sophistry of mankind? The creature laughed at the slight increase of her idiosyncrasies.

    Well, then. As her figure melded into the mist, the pair of the inorganic yellow eyes looked back to the opening act of the stage. Do your best out there, o "kin" of mine.
     
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  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: Rising TIdes
    Eisen

    Eisen A QQ Dweller

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    And now a new chapter at last.

    --- Chapter 19: Rising Tides ---

    Bright scarlet color engulfed everything in sight. The buildings blackened and infrastructures crumbled in moment's notice. As chaos ravaged everything, the groaning sounds of a steel crane falling could be heard. The dormitory, hangars, warehouses, dockyard, and even the harbor. The enemy's ruthless assault destroyed everything in their sight, leaving only charred remains as well as wreckage.

    "Gh…! Aaah…!" A shrill voice appeared from beneath the rubble, the heaps of metal and bricks quaking before bursting. A small figure got up, panting as her arms numbed from the forceful summoning of her true strength, but she cared not for herself as she circled the arm of a sailor around her neck. The girl with bright purple hair dragged both herself and the half-conscious sailor out of the site before she found an empty space where there was no worry over the fire or crumbling infrastructure. "Are… are you okay!? Please hang in there!"

    The senior sailor who happened to be in the building to repair the radio module groaned, wincing as he clutched his side where dark spots began to spread across the fabric of his outfit. The girl's face paled, but as the injured man reopened his eyes slightly, his unfocused eyes reflected her figure. He forced out a smile.

    "Well… that was uncool of me to drag you into the mess, missy…" The older sailor winced. "I will… I will somehow manage. J-just go…"

    "But…!"

    "Don't make me repeat myself! The enemy's here!"

    At the authoritative command, the girl stiffened. Biting her lips, she shook her head with her shoulders quaking, yet in the end—Javelin nodded and got up. Giving the technical officer a salute, she turned around to head toward the sea. She hastened her speed, speeding through the barren road where rubble began to pile up from both sides. Faster and faster, the girl quickly outran even the pace of a motorbike and leaped into the sea, Wisdom Cubes flying from the other side of the base to form her rigging. As she twirled her spear, the armed kansen landed on the water surface before charging into the battle zone rift with the scent of gunpowder.

    This is all wrong, she thought. It was supposed to be just another morning like usual. It's all wrong…!

    Several Siren aircraft flew overhead. Javelin whipped her head, registering the enemies into her sight as the turrets lifted their gun barrels to fire a volley of anti-air shells. The yellow bullets cut through the air, chasing after the fighter crafts before shooting them down one-by-one. As a shell dropped next to her side, Javelin immediately circled around to point her spear at a Pawn-class Siren—the gun ports installed on her primary weapon lashing out with burst fire. A single barrage could never be enough to break a mass-produced model Siren, so she readjusted her turrets and torpedo pods to supplement her previous attack. The armor-piercing shells punched through the enemy's hull and the torpedoes ignited the Siren into a giant pillar of flames that scattered smoldering wreckage.

    Unfortunately for Javelin, the rest of her enemies did not move as they usually would. A shell flew and struck her from behind, the rigging absorbing the impact but also transferring searing pain across her back. Then there was another and another, throwing her body forward.

    The kansen spun around only to face gun turrets of multiple Bishop and Rook from three different directions. Javelin froze up like a deer caught in the headlight—then a barrage of crimson shells fell from the sky to punish the Siren. Pillars of water rose up alongside black smoke and fireballs, the shapes of the Piece-class Siren remained to be seen. However, another volley, this time linear to the horizon struck their gun ports and keels. Javelin quickly sensed a familiar presence linking up with her transmission channel and she looked toward her savior.

    "Laffey…!"

    A white-haired girl sailed to her direction while giving a slight nod. "Are you okay, Javelin…?"

    Javelin's breaths hitched. An intense emotion bubbled up, but she quickly shook her mind off the relief washing over her. Steadying herself, she stood in line with Laffey. The enemy was still around.

    "We have to end this," Javelin said. "We can't… we can't defend the base like this. Evacuation won't ever finish, and the others... have yet to return."

    "Un. We have to defend… the home base." Laffey looked up. The sky was full of jet-black aircraft and bullets. The sea was filled with Siren fleet that had appeared out of nowhere; even if their allies could regain the momentum, there would be nothing left to protect as long as they did not force the enemy to break up or retreat. "There's… Repulse to help us."

    ...eh? Javelin reflexively stared at her friend's face. She knew Laffey. The white-haired and red-eyed girl always looked so laidback, moving at her own pace. No matter how complicated the issue was, the girl was never hinged. But there was… no way, right? What about Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and—

    "I'm sorry," Laffey eventually broke out. As she gazed in a direction, Javelin's radar detected a familiar signal fast approaching. But because of that, the Royal Destroyer could not see what sort of face her close friend wore. The bubbling emotion once again returned almost to the point of bursting. "We have to regroup, this place isn't… good."

    Javelin held her breath. Then she sharply inhaled, hissing as she shut her lips into a tight line. She held her spear tightly, then she nodded down. Even as her aching heart threatened to expose her grief in the open. There was… there was no time for sadness. She had to be strong. She must not fall apart now. If not for the lost ones… at least, for her own friend…

    "I understand…" Javelin revved up her boilers. Her gaze soon fixated itself on the humanoid figures on the sea surface that dashed through the rain of artillery shells. Whoever they were, that could be for later. Now… what the two of them must do was one thing! "I understand! Let's go, Laffey!"

    Even if she were to fall here, she must protect the place the Grand Admiral would return to.

    +-+-+-+-+

    "The worms moved at last," Kaga notified with a scoff. "Such a slow response. Are they even trying?"

    Akagi hummed from the side, manipulating the Black Cube hovering on her palm. Her fingers danced and every touch emitted ominous blue lines that ran across the cube's surface. Their Gift was working to the fullest potentials, allowing them to manipulate Siren fleet freely. Circling around her, red balls of flame soon spread out in a single direction as their forms shifted into another aircraft squadron.

    "Well, it looks like the bulk of their power is not here. What a shame," Akagi lamented. In spite of her claim, Kaga could tell she was fully enjoying herself. "Do you think that person will be upset now that we have declared war against those girls, Kaga?"

    Kaga paused in the midst of alternating orders. Her mind raced, but soon she realized the person her "sister" referred to was not the same individual. Once again, the incorrigible fox teased her no matter the circumstances. This deplorable, ungrateful bootlick—ugh!

    "...the Grand Admiral is young." Kaga took a deep breath and let out a small sigh. "However, he is not so immature that he will easily break. We have already witnessed his growth with our own eyes."

    "That's true…" Once again, Akagi hummed noncommittally. "The person we have chosen to forsake is not a mouse anymore. Perhaps, the reason why he is not here is also…"

    Also? As Kaga waited, a transmission reached out to her ears. Statics began to flood the central network, then a publicly accessible channel arose as the rotors of a foreign airplane echoed in the other end of the newly formed transmission route. This encryption code, identification number, and engine's sound…

    "The Devastators," Kaga shouted. Flaring into the channel network, she announced the fleet's next move. "The fools have taken our bait! It is time to prove your valor, warriors of Sakura!"

    A round of tense agreement replied back to her. Then, Kaga met Akagi in the eyes; her sister blessing her with permission to directly challenge one of the Ghosts. Her rigging shifted to her back, the side of the hull unlocking a compartment that allowed Kaga to draw out a Cube-refined sword. As strength coursed down her limbs, the white fox deeply inhaled.

    "...I shall be off, Nee-sama."

    Akagi waved. "May the Creator's blessing be with you, sister of mine."

    Kaga gave no other response aside from a steady nod. Jumping down from the physical vessel of her sworn sister, the white fox landed on the sea surface before quickly sailing forward; becoming a white flash that joined the hunt along with her pack. Akagi narrowed her eyes and gazed over her shoulder.

    "What an unpleasant tailwind." Her ears twitched as if having sensed something—a force swift as well as powerful, riding the waves in order to reach this battlefield. "Let's see if my dear juniors can handle themselves well in this first trial."

    +-+-+-+-+

    Ashigara skidded to a halt upon reaching the furthest position she could allocate herself to. While the Fifth Carrier Division only served as the safety net, the rearline guard so to speak, the girl felt that she must not give any chance of oversight.

    The defense line served in several layers in order to protect the Combined Fleet's Flagship. Ashigara as well as Ayanami were selected to be stationed in the outermost circle to notify any incoming enemy signatures, repel attacks, and eliminate aerial attacks as needed. However, from the looks of it, she had a hard time imagining the enemy in their present state to retaliate. While kansen could fight back and move at their own discretion, that didn't mean there would be no delay and stutters in their chains of commands. Surprise attacks at the sea tended to throw things out of control exceedingly fast.

    And we, as the attackers, are taking advantage of it all to ensure that no one is left standing.

    The girl unconsciously inhaled and looked up. Far away, as dawn began to break out, an island could be seen burning intensely. The harbor had completely fallen into ruin. Most of the warehouses were in a similar state, and the armory as well as the hangars were not left unscathed. Her heightened sense of scent traced smoke, ashes, embers, and the burnt remains of what had to be human lives. She saw multiple silhouettes crossing paths in front of the harbor, but she couldn't say for sure whether it was her allies or her enemies. They seemed to be fighting fiercely, in which case the second phase of the plan had gone off without a hitch.

    [...Ashigara? Ashigara!]

    Senses returned at full force to her. Ashigara gasped and instinctively pressed a hand against her headphone. The girl stuttered a "yes?"

    [I want a sitrep,] the cool voice of her superior could be heard. Commanding, but lacking any sort of tension; there was something deeply off in that.

    Ashigara quietly heaved her chest down. She began to describe the situation when suddenly her radar pinged her of unusual things. Before she could take a look, a giant white sword flashed by her side to cut down three shells. The heavy cruiser froze as Ayanami had abruptly arrived to protect her, and it made Ashigara redirect her turrets as she repositioned herself.

    "Enemy attack!" Ashigara announced through the local channel shared with the entire fleet before she switched to a direct channel connecting her with the Rear Admiral. "Your order, please!?"

    [Hold your ground.] A slight chill ran down Ashigara's back at the rough order that indicated she must not let the enemies pass. [Identify the enemy's designation, formation, and armament. Distract them as best as you can. When aerial support arrives, retreat to the inner circle and regroup.]

    "Y-yes Sir!" Ashigara jumped to the side, dodging another wave of shells. The enemy's aim was haphazard with wide margins between each salvo. "Ayanami-san, will you back me up?!"

    "Nnh…!" Through gritted teeth, the horned destroyer gave her affirmation.

    "Then, let's go!"

    The two vanguards revved their boilers and charged toward their sudden assailants. All the while not knowing what awaited them.

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    Ayanami flew into action. Her body was light, moving as she willed it to, yet there was no denying the growing anxiety rooted in her mind. She had thought that her role would come only after things were said and done, but her hope dashed so quickly.

    Her rational side deduced that this was the enemy's counterattack. However, it seemed odd that they ignored the rest of their enemy as if trying to cripple the Flagship. Several possibilities came to mind, but she quickly dismissed them in favor of finding out herself. Together with Ashigara, the two parted ways to attack from different directions, Ayanami circling around to cut off the enemy's retreat route as Ashigara advanced like a moving fortress weathering through artillery raids. The opposing force had substantial firepower backing them up, but the intervals between their salvos spoke of low ammunition and few numbers. The moment the initial barrage began to clear out, Ayanami dove into the smokes with her sword flashing forward.

    Clang, a powerful ringing noise burst out. Orange sparks scattered and Ayanami confirmed that the enemy was not incapable of close-range combat. Skidding to a halt, Ayanami cut out a sharp u-turn while firing at the enemy. Half of her salvo had failed to mark their targets thanks to poor visibility, but the ensuing water pillars allowed for the smokes to better disperse. Ayanami caught the tip of a spear and a slender figure from the corner of her eyes. Before she could further identify their identity, shells flew through the water pillars. Ayanami grunted as she was forced to swerve beat a hasty retreat.

    [Aerial support arriving in one minute.]

    The girl stiffened, yet she was broken out of her stupor almost immediately. Through her dance with death, the ice-cold voice of her Commander served like a bell of clarity. His voice steadied her racing emotions, brought relief into her battle-addled mind, and yet also giving her a sense of discomfort for how long it had been since the last time a Commanding Officer actually supported her.

    It made her aware of the battlefield. It made her too aware of the small details, perhaps.

    When her sword made contact with her enemy's spear, she saw an emblem of a lion with a crown. The peculiar design of the spear was familiar, and so were the retaliation moves that followed after. Soon as those facts registered themselves in her mind, Ayanami could no longer stop herself from recalling every shard of her past both new and old. Her heartbeat quickened, the rhythm of her breathing finally disrupted. As the smokes cleared out completely, she came face-to-face with two figures.

    "Eh…?"

    In front of a lavender-haired girl was a white-haired girl. Her bent knees allowed for her torpedo pods to stay close to the sea, and she trained her gun at Ayanami. The pair of ruby red eyes blinked upon catching her foe in her sight, and her lips parted so as to utter a name that felt like a needle poking at Ayanami's heart. The two were clearly Destroyers, what with their light armament and the rigging that emphasized speed over the defense. To Ayanami, however, they were much more than just Destroyers.

    They were fast friends. They had met each other on a sunny day at the base that was now turning into a fiery ruin. They had talked about their likes and dislikes, learned of their respective hobbies, ate at the same table, and even went so far as having a sleepover. They were best friends who had fought together under the same banner; all four of them. Ayanami, Z23, and...

    "Laffey… Jave…lin…"

    As the three came to a halt, time seemed as if to have stopped. Ayanami stared at her best friends in silence, all words she could come up dying in her throat. Her grips over her weapons slackened for the briefest moment and a certain thought finally occurred to her. Even though she tried so hard to steel herself, even though it was a choice she knew would have increased her regrets…

    Why… are you here…?

    Ayanami felt her heart hammering in her chest. Her body trembled, and the urge to avert her gaze from the two girls almost made her did just that. However, her ears caught the faint sounds of crackling fires, her nose sensing the smell of gunpowder and oil, and the warm air of the morning; it was all real. This was all happening—and she had been indirectly participating in the ruination of all fond memories she and her three friends had made in this place.

    "Aya...nami…"

    The Sakura Destroyer flinched, hearing the disbelieving tone in Laffey's voice. Even though the white-haired girl had tilted her gun, the Eagle Union girl did not drop her guards. In the face of that unfamiliar aggressive stance, Ayanami realized she was now at the receiving end of the disciplined battle mode the Eagle Union's kansen was famous for. A professional combat doctrine only directed to the rightful enemy—Siren—was now pointed her way, and Ayanami felt a terrible pang of pain deep in her heart for understanding the reason behind this well-known fact.

    "No… this… is… this is…" Ayanami whispered almost inaudibly, falling back by a half-step. "This isn't… I… we are…"

    What was she going to do? What was she supposed to do? What could she even do at this point?

    Ayanami's breathing intervals quickened and she stood in place. Then… then—

    [Disengage, now. Ayanami.]

    As Tatsumiya Aoto's command rang through her mind, a squadron of warplanes flew overhead. Laffey reacted first, looking up to the sky as her anti-air guns whirred to life. Ayanami was the second to react with her focus returning to the present time. Her lips quivered, unable to process the tactical command she had just heard.

    "Dis…engage…?" Ayanami wondered aloud, her eyes looking to the sky and the sea.

    [Ashigara will cover your retreat. Hurry.]

    The demon gasped before making a snap decision, leaping back to flee with all of her might. Any other thought was discarded, and Ayanami reached her maximum speed. To run, to flee, that was the best the current her could do. It was all she wanted to do now.

    "Ayanami-chan…!" Javelin's shrill voice was drowned in the ensuing gunfire and explosions. "Why!?"

    The demon did not look back. She did not heed that question as she regrouped with her ally. Ashigara trailed after her, but Ayanami was already too deep in her thoughts to see how she was doing. The Destroyer's muddled mind twisted and turned, innumerable words clashing with a tidal wave of emotions that her vision registered only the brightening sea ahead of her.

    What… should I do…?

    She could feel her heart drumming in her ears. She could sense her chest heaving up and down. She didn't know what to do. She had never been thrust into a situation like this. Even though she had said all that, Ayanami failed to restrain herself when it mattered the most. But, had she kept on attacking... fighting and shedding the blood of her best friends… If she were given the choice whether to betray the trust given to her or to prioritize her personal bonds, then… then—

    What… am I supposed to do… after this…?

    It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. Ayanami's numbed mind could not connect itself with her body that was already moving in auto-pilot.

    Her core of existence trembled, shuddering in pain and sorrow to the point that she had forgotten whatever happened in the world at the moment. She didn't respond to her seniors' concerns, reacting to her Commander's questions only at the bare minimum, and walked past her other friend to find a place where she could be all alone. What mattered was the pain of her heart. It was all that mattered for the current Ayanami. She needed… she needed time to process all this, no matter how little or futile it would turn out. She had to do this, if not for the others, for her own sake.

    However, little did the girl notice the silent creaking of her Core—the Wisdom Cube she possessed.

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    Flames danced and flickered atop the sea. Spilled oil polluted the deep blue water, and scarlet dyed the background bright like a herald of dawn. Two figures stood in front of each other. One turned her back on the harbor, gazing at her opponent as her reflection twisted under the waves. The other turned her back on the sea, blue papers held in-between her fingers flickering with foxfire. Then, the woman with kind eyes parted her lips.

    "...it has been a while, hasn't it? Kaga." USS Yorktown forced a smile as she held her bleeding arm.

    "Several years, indeed." IJN Kaga raised her hand which was holding the set of shikigami. "Retired you might be, that altruistic side of yours has yet to change. That wound is not caused by any of ours."

    Yorktown merely held up that thin smile. Kaga scoffed. The woman knew better than getting wounded in battles unless it was unavoidable. Her silence also spoke volumes of what had actually happened. It was most likely because she had tried to help out people buried under the rubble. Her Devastators buzzed around overhead because they were distractions. Rather than putting efforts in swatting the flies away or dragging out answers with force, Kaga sharpened her focus at the eldest of the Yorktown-class.

    This was a trap. A harmless trap to lure either her or her sister, but for what reason? Of course, it would always boil down to that one point of their past.

    "...make no mistake, resentment is not our motive in attacking this place." Her rigging whirred to life, the hilt of a sword emerging from within a hidden compartment that slid out from it. Kaga drew the sword and scattered her shikigami into the air. "Your rejection certainly wounded us. However, we expected that. That man, you and your sisters, as well as that upstart loudmouth never saw things beyond what you want to see the most."

    "There was…" Yorktown heaved, a pained expression painting her face. "There was never a need to use that terrible power, no…? Kaga, what you have done here is proof—"

    "History will tell who is right in this place." The sound of gunfire and explosion intensified. They were the breaths of battles, the elements of war. Kaga cut off all that noise and unsheathed the sword she had held for as long as she could remember. "The strong survive. The winner obtains all. Prove yourself worthy of your words by taking action if you can!"

    The woman in black trembled, closing her eyes and biting her lips tightly. A moment later, the Union's carrier's rigging slid to the side, grim determination replacing the kindness in her gentle blue eyes.

    "Then so be it!" USS Yorktown declared, warplanes launching from her flight deck as the Devastators descended from above to meet their match. "Brave warriors of the Union, it is time to take flight!"
     
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