Blank Sprite – Mission Record 15

And so, we’ve finally reached the last chapter of Blank Sprite.

Special thanks go to my usual beta readers, Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart, who helped me with most of the later chapters including this one.

I also want to thank again those who helped me with the earlier ones, who are (in chronological order): Desdendelle, Firemagic AKA KarrinBlue, DawnFire AKA Zingenmir, Outhra, Son_of_heaven176, Iximaz, Mattman the Comet, Tesla and Eatpraylove.

Special thanks go to two more people, too:

Aelit, who was one of the other “culprits” with which I had written Mai Dire Fine, the badfic from which Sergio and Nikki come from, and is now looking to become a professional editor. She gave me a lot of advice, and even took up her characters (Kathleen and Faith) again to help me write an important scene.

Jos Ploegmakers, a long time friend and indie game developer. He lent me JJ Colt and his squad from his World In Danger run’n’gun shooter, and we’ve been supporting each other in our creative quests.

Thank you all guys, your help was very important in this project.

 

Mission Record 15 – The reason to fight

 

Sergio sighed in relief once the C-130’s cargo door closed. “And this is done.”

He walked back to his group. Corolla and Josh were looking into the satellite photos, while Homura was looking at a UAV parked on the apron.

Sergio noticed that someone was missing. “Nikki isn’t back yet?”

“Maybe she isn’t feeling well?” Corolla lifted up her head from the holographic window she was looking into. “I can go check on her if you want.”

“Please do.” Sergio then walked next to Homura. “Don’t try pocketing that.”

“I was just curious as to what it is,” Homura said, though her expression said otherwise.

“This is an MQ-9 Reaper, a drone used for surveillance and light strike duties. One from the Italian Aeronautica Militare, judging by the roundels.” Sergio rubbed his chin. “Though I wonder why this one’s here. Malpensa is a civilian airport, the only reason why C-5s land here is because this is one of the few airports with a long enough runway in Southern Europe.”

Josh got up from the crate he was sitting on. “I overheard a couple of pilots earlier discussing it. It made an emergency landing here during a training flight due to a faulty generator the other day. They already fixed it; it will fly back to its base next morning.”

“Ah, that makes sense. I guess it is easier to replace the generator here than to pack the entire thing on a truck.”

“Guys!” Corolla screamed, running towards them. She was holding something in her hands, but she was too far for Sergio to see what it was.

“What’s the matter? And where’s Nikki?”

“She wasn’t in the bathroom, but I found Vanguard on the ground!” Corolla showed them the star-shaped Device. “She would never leave it around like that, so I’m afraid something bad—” Corolla started hyperventilating.

Before Sergio could question her further, his phone started ringing. “A video call…?” He accepted it, and Vera appeared on the screen.

[Hello, Sergio.] She was driving some kind of sportscar, judging by the low roof and high pitched engine noise. [I think you’ve noticed that your girlfriend disappeared, right?]

Vera turned her phone, showing him that Nikki was sitting on the passenger seat, apparently unconscious.

“What have you done to her?”

[Don’t worry, she’s just asleep. For now. It all depends on your next choice.]

“Do even as little as to pluck a single strand of hair from her head, Vera, and I’m going to—”

[What? Kill me? You already wanted to do that, so what’s the difference? Besides, I think you should listen to the choices you have first.]

Sergio gritted his teeth. Vera was holding the metaphorical knife by the handle, and what was worse was that for once she wasn’t aiming it at him but at Nikki.

[Now, as you apparently already know my base of operation is in Venice. I’m headed there, and I’ll even tell you the exact location: Palazzo Ca’ D’Oro. Yes, it’s standing once again. If you want to save your girlfriend, you’ll have to come and beat me there. But there’s a catch.] Vera did a slasher smile. [Those two other girls I had kidnapped? They’re not there. I left them in a warehouse guarded by some of my men not far from where you are… I’ll send you the exact coordinates with a text.]

“And what’s the point in telling me this?” Sergio had tried to sound confident, but dread was starting to take him over.

[Simple: you can’t save them all. If you go to save Madoka and Sakura, I’ll kill your girlfriend. Chase me down to save her, and I’ll have my men kill the other two. So, will you be a good PPC Agent and save canon, forfeiting this cute girl’s life in the process, or will you doom two universes just to save her?]

“You’re insane!”

[No, I’m not! Take all the time you want, it’s a very important decision after all.]

Vera closed the call, but Sergio kept staring at the phone’s screen.

“OK… What are we going to do now? We need a plan,” Josh said.

Sergio’s hands started to shake. “I… I can’t make this kind of choice.” The phone slipped out of his hands and clattered on the ground.

“Sergio?” Corolla called out with concern in her voice.

I cannot let the Madoka Magica and Cardcaptor Sakura continua be destroyed like this. But… I can’t sacrifice Nikki! Why… Why is this happening? I… I should’ve kept an eye on her.

He kept ignoring Corolla, Josh and Homura’s voices as he kept thinking about the two options, his brain stuck in a loop.

Corolla slapped his face twice. “Will you get a fucking grip already?”

Sergio stared at her. It was rare to see Corolla angry at all, and now she was pissed off. “Corolla…?”

“I refuse to believe you’re giving up already! That’s not the Sergio I know. You said you had single-handedly wiped out the evil organization that was ruling this world, right? Then saving all three of them should be easy for you! Stop trying to dismiss your fame as a hero, live up to it instead!” She clenched her fists. “With all the effort I took to bring you and Nikki back together, like hell I’m letting the death flags win! So get your ass into gear and come up with a plan already! I know you can!”

“But… The only way to save everyone would be for me to be in two places at once! I can’t…” He looked down, and his eyes fell on the DORKS hanging from his belt. “Or maybe I can?”

Corolla crossed her arms. “I hope your next sentence starts with ‘I have a plan’.”

Sergio glanced at the MQ-9 again. “I think I do. It’s crazy, but it will have to do. Corolla, can you hack into that thing?”

“Sure thing, why?” Corolla beamed. “Don’t tell me, you’re letting me…”

“Get a new toy. Vera’s headed to Venice, which means her most likely route is State Road 336, then A8 and A4 highways. She’s a Porsche fanatic, and the engine of the car she was driving sounded like a V10, so I think you should look for a Porsche Carrera GT. Black, considering her taste in colors.”

Corolla opened up a few holographic windows and started typing on a holographic keyboard. “Let me guess. I’m going to hunt her down from above?”

“Yes, but keep the drone high enough for her to not notice, I just need to keep her in sight until everything is in motion. Can you do that?”

The MQ-9’s turboprop engine whirred to life. “Roger that, Captain… no, wait, Lieutenant Colonel!”

Sergio shook his head, and unhooked the DORKS from his belt before tossing it to Josh. “You wanted to try the PPC’s gadgets, JJ? Now you can.”

Josh looked at the small metal cube in confusion. “What does this thing do?”

“It’s a surprise. Homura, how are your ammo reserves?”

“I’ve still got plenty.”

“Perfect. All we need now is a couple more cars, and I know where to get them.”

 

Sergio parked the Volvo inside the courtyard of a small house not too far from the airport. “Welcome to my humble home, though we won’t be staying here for long.”

Corolla scratched her head as they left the car. “So you actually did have a place to go.”

Sergio opened the garage door. “We’ll talk about that another time. Do you have visual on Vera?”

“Yes. She’s on the A8 right now, near Milan. She’s going pretty fast.”

Sergio walked inside the garage. There were two cars covered by tarpaulins, and he went straight to the closer one. “Josh, I remember you wanted to try my Trueno, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but you never let anyone touch it.”

Sergio removed the tarpaulin and tossed him the keys. “I’m making an exception for today. It will make your role in this plan more believable. Don’t rev it past eight thousand.”

“OK… But you won’t be chasing down Vera with that Volvo, will you?”

Sergio walked towards the other car. “I never told you I have another one, did I? There’s only one car I have access to right now that is fast enough to allow me to catch Vera before she gets to Venice.”

He took a deep breath and removed the second tarpaulin, revealing an old, red saloon of indiscernible model with a big rear wing and a yellow lightning bolt painted on each side.

Corolla’s eyes widened, probably having recognized the car from a description in Sergio’s badfic. “Don’t tell me, that’s… the Stormer?”

Sergio nodded. “From the time I was a Gary Stu… the biggest of my Suvian artifacts. I’ve been hiding it here for years… but I’m not afraid of it, or of my past anymore. I’m not running away anymore.” He opened the car’s door.

Josh raised an eyebrow. “That old saloon is fast enough to catch up with a Carrera GT?”

“Don’t be fooled by the looks. Under this boxy body there’s a full spaceframe race car with a heavily tuned three liter Busso V6. Supercharger, twin turbo, nine hundred horsepower.”

Josh raised an eyebrow. “Nine hundred? I thought there was no way to push those Alfa Romeo engines past seven hundred… and that would still be a track only build.”

Sergio turned on the engine, its angry growl filling the garage. “That is indeed why this car is a Suvian artifact, and why I planned on never touching it again. But I guess I’ll have to drive it one last time. I don’t have any other choice.”

Sergio glanced at Corolla, then at Josh. “Also, keep an eye on her for me, OK?”

 

Much to his surprise, Sergio found that controlling the monstrous power of the Stormer wasn’t much harder than it had been when he was a Gary Stu.

Muscle memory really never dies, huh? he thought as he neared the highway access ramp, a long right hand turn. Stomp hard on the brakes, weight shifts on the front axle. Steer into the curve, the rear end loses grip and starts sliding out. Countersteer and full throttle.

The car reacted just as expected, going through the corner on a four wheel drift. Sergio kept his foot down once on the highway too, quickly going through the gears of the sequential gearbox. It was already late enough in the night for traffic to be very sparse, which meant it was easier to push hard.

I’m already going faster than the Carrera GT can go, Sergio mused as the digital tachometer read three hundred and forty kilometers per hour, and I’m still in sixth.

The car’s stereo reached the end of the song it was playing, and switched to Ready To Roll by Jet Black Stare.

Sergio raised an eyebrow. I’m pretty sure this song can’t be on this USB drive, it came out when I was at Strike Dove. “Wanting to make your last ride epic, huh? Can get behind that, but…”

He slammed in the seventh gear. “I’m so going to need a check on my glitter levels after this.”

 

Josh glanced at his hands while driving Sergio’s old Sprinter Trueno. “This is so weird.”

Corolla raised a finger, sitting on the back bench and surrounded by holographic windows. “Don’t worry, it is just temporary. As far as I know, there’s no way to be permanently stuck in a disguise.”

“I hope so. How about the timing?”

“Keep driving as you are; Sergio’s making good progress as well so we’re good.”

Josh glanced at her through the rear view mirror. “Out of curiosity… just how fast is his other car? A Carrera GT can do two hundred miles an hour, and he is catching up?”

Corolla opened yet another window. “Well, Vera isn’t pushing to the limit; she probably doesn’t expect Sergio to have brought out the big guns. But, still, according to the data sheet the Stormer is… fast.”

“How much so?”
“Enough to keep up with a Veyron.”

 

Vera glanced at the unconscious girl next to her. “What does he find in someone like you?” she muttered to herself. Sure, you’ve got a cute face, but that hair is the most plain shade of brown imaginable. And the hairdo? ‘Hair intakes’ went out of fashion years ago.

Vera then looked down at her chest. You’re a disappointment there, too. Mine are at least two sizes bigger! He really has a bad taste in girls.

Nikki moved slightly and opened her eyes. “Where… am I?” She tried to raise her hands, but she was handcuffed to the seat.

“Looks like our sleeping beauty has woken up.” Vera grinned. “Too bad the prince won’t be able to save you.”

Nikki glared back at her. “I’m sure he will. He always did.”

Vera turned towards her. Keep dreaming, girl. “Not this time. See, I’ve given your boyfriend a little, challenging choice. Save those two other girls, or save you.” She grinned. “If he decides to save the Goddess and that other version of you, I’ll kill you, and then kill him while he’s busy crying over your death. If he tries to save you, instead, well I’m killing him while he tries.”
Surprisingly, Nikki didn’t look like she was fazed by what she had just said. “You’re too sure about this.”

Vera scoffed. You sure have a lot of faith in that loser.

 

Sergio brought a hand next to his ear. While Strike Dove’s CODEC system was down, Vanguard’s relay function was still working fine. “Robogirl, I need an update.”

[We’re ready to go in as soon as you give us the okay, Lightning. Where are you?]

Sergio just had the time to give a quick glance at the signs above the highway before it was already past him. “I’m passing Brescia now. Where is Venom?”

[Venom…? Oh, right, Vera. Just a couple kilometers ahead of you.]

“Good. Let’s put the plan in motion, then.”

Sergio closed the CODEC call, and selected another frequency, one he hadn’t used in years. The call connected, even if no one spoke on the other end. “I know you’re listening. Can I ask you one last favor…?”

 

Several kilometers ahead, a short, black haired girl ran on an overpass and lay down about halfway through. She unfolded the bipod of an Mk14 marksman rifle and started taking aim in the distance, following the highway below.

Of course.

 

“If my Area Search was correct, we have six hostiles left,” Corolla said as she, Josh and Homura took cover behind some crates. Homura pulled out a grenade from her shield and tossed it over the crates.

“Make that four.” Corolla corrected herself after the detonation.

Josh let out a short laugh before opening fire with his M4, taking a Defective down. “I like her approach to stuff. Have a problem? Use massive firepower to solve it.”

As if to prove what he was saying, Homura fired a long burst with her Minimi, mowing down another Defective.

Corolla rubbed her chin, apparently unfazed by the gunfire around her. “By the way, we’ve been calling them ‘Defectives’ this whole time but that’s not quite what they are, after all that term was—”

Josh raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter once they’re all dead?”

“Well, probably not, but…”

The gunfire ceased, and Homura put her machinegun away. “Done.”

“See? We can call them just ‘dead bodies’ now,” Josh said as Homura ran towards the door that the Defectives had been guarding.

 

“I can’t believe he took that choice,” Vera said, looking at the screen of the car’s infotainment system. On it, Sergio, Corolla and Homura were freeing Madoka and Sakura from their cell. “I thought he would choose you in the end.”

Nikki looked at the footage carefully. There’s something wrong. Where’s Colt? She squinted, looking at Sergio more carefully. It looked like him, but the body posture was off. Wait, the rifle he’s holding… That’s not his ARX, is it?

Vera smiled. “Not that it changes anything for me. Enjoy your last ride, Nikki. Your life will end once we arrive at Venice. You know, it would be a shame to splatter this car with blood.”

Suddenly the sound of another car’s engine could be heard over that of Vera’s car, a lower pitched angry growl that Nikki recognized right away. Can it be…

“Hey, who’s that?” Vera said, looking in the rearview mirror. “Stop flashing at me with that old rustbucket, I can beat you whenever I want with this!”

“I don’t think you can. Sergio’s very good at driving.” Even if he can be quite reckless, Nikki added, remembering why that car’s engine sound was so vividly burned in her memory.

“But that isn’t him, he’s… Wait…” Vera’s eyes widened as the ‘Sergio’ on the car’s screen suddenly morphed into Josh. “This was one of his tricks!”

Nikki studied the look in her eyes. Things aren’t going as she expected. If my hunch is correct, this means that…

Vera floored the accelerator, but her driving wasn’t as smooth anymore: at the first turn she had to wrestle with the steering wheel as the car started to slide out of the intended line. As I thought, she panics if things don’t go as she wants. She looked at Vera’s clothes. Her spy catsuit was actually ripped in some places, and she could see the bandages underneath. Raging Blossom must’ve done a number on her, as well.

Vera kept driving as fast as she could, her car veering dangerously close to the guardrails at every change of direction, be it a bend in the road or some traffic to dodge. “I can’t believe it… I’m at redline in sixth, and he’s still tailgating me? This is the best car Porsche ever made; he can’t be faster than me! Unless he’s back being…” Vera didn’t finish the sentence as she did her best to not crash into a truck, avoiding it just barely.

Nikki noticed how Vera’s knuckles had become white as she clutched the steering wheel desperately. It might be dangerous, but if I can drive her further into panic she might give in. “You can’t get away from him… not now. Just stop. It isn’t too late to settle this peacefully.”

“No, I’ll beat him! By the time we’re at Venice, I’ll have built enough of a lead to—”

“Vera, do you know what was his strongest skill when he was a Gary Stu? Not fighting or shooting, but driving! And that car is the one he used back then. It will go as fast as he wants it to.” Nikki glanced at the speedometer. “You said we’re already at your car’s limit, right? It’s three hundred and thirty… and I saw Sergio’s car do four hundred!”

“No, this must be another trick of his,” Vera said, though it was clear that she was trying to convince herself more than Nikki. “He would never let himself turn back into a Stu.”

Nikki resisted the urge to bit her lip. I hope he didn’t, too. “You’ve researched his past, right? Then you know what’s his berserk button.”

“Harming Sakura, yeah yeah. Why do you think I… No, wait…”

“That ‘Sakura’ was me. And you know what happened when he thought I had been killed, right…? or, rather, what happened to those he considered responsible.”

Vera stared at her for a couple seconds before being able to come up with an answer. “Still, I want to see how he can stop me!”

There was a yellow flash from an overpass in front of them, and something hit the front of the car.

“Hah! So this was the trick. Distracting me from behind while someone else tried to snipe me down! But it didn’t work.”

Nikki glanced at the steam trailing from under the car’s hood. No, if they killed you now we would’ve had a very bad crash. They weren’t aiming for you. What’s your plan, Sergio…?

Vera took the first exit out of the highway. “And I’m not letting them get another chance at taking potshots at me.”

 

Nikki glanced at the dashboard while the Carrera GT sped through the narrow roads of an old town, the Stormer still in hot pursuit behind. I get it now. The temperature of the engine is rising quickly, that shot must’ve hit the radiator. It won’t be long before the engine fails, especially since it’s being pushed this hard.

Vera glanced into the rearview mirror. “It’s just like that time; he’s still there, drifting on my tail, no matter what I do! But it won’t end the same way!”

Her driving showed otherwise though, as she scraped the side of the car against the wall in the following corner, sparks flying everywhere.

Unless she crashes into something first. She’s getting really desperate.

 

Sergio frowned as sparks bounced off his car’s windshield. This is getting dangerous. I was counting on her driving becoming sloppier under pressure like when she challenged me on the radar tower road, but if she keeps this up she’s going to have an accident. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but… Nikki’s in there too.

He feathered the throttle while accelerating out of another bend, letting Vera build a few meters of advantage. Besides, it would be better if her engine fails outside of town. A firefight here could easily get innocent people involved.

 

“And one part of our job is done!” Corolla said cheerfully as she closed the portal after Sakura had gone through. “Now, to get the two of you home we first need to…”

Corolla smiled as she saw Homura still holding Madoka in a tight hug.

“It’s alright, Homura. They didn’t do anything to me. You saved me this time… you really did.”

Homura shook her head. “It’s just… I missed you. I missed you so much.”

Madoka hugged her back. “I know. “

“You’re going to have to go again?”

Madoka looked down. “Yes.” She released Homura and took a step back. “As soon as the two worlds get separated, I’ll be back being the Law of Cycles. But I’ll be watching over you. Even if you won’t be able to see me, I’ll be always with you. I’ve always been with you. I’m everywhere and everywhen, remember?”

Homura wiped off some tears from her face. “Of course.”

Corolla fiddled with some setting on a holographic window. “Sorry to interrupt you two lovebirds…” She grinned at the simultaneous blushing of the two girls. “But Sergio might need some help, so… Hm, nevermind. Looks like the portal-blocking anomaly is still there, it’s just that it’s now much smaller. And centered on Vera, as I thought.”

Josh crossed his arms. “So no warping around for us?”

“Well, we can still take quite a bit of a shortcut, so let’s get back to the car. Wherever Sergio manages to stop Vera, we need to be there as soon as possible to help.”

Josh raised an eyebrow. “I agree with the plan, but… wasn’t I supposed to be in charge here?”

“Shush. When the mission is to keep my favorite couple safe, I’m always the one leading.”

 

Sergio started putting more pressure on Vera once the chase had moved to the country roads around the town. The road is surrounded by fields, so if she makes a mistake she’ll just

The rear wheels of the Carrera GT suddenly locked up, sending the car spinning into one of the fields, the Stormer continuing on the road instead due to the momentum.

The engine must’ve seized completely, Sergio thought as he turned his car around and drove near to where the Carrera GT had stopped. Vera had already jumped out of her car, and sprayed Sergio’s with bullets from her machine pistols.

For once, I’m glad that I claimed this car was bulletproof, alongside all the other implausible things, Sergio thought as the bullets just bounced off harmlessly.

Vera ran away towards the ruins of an old farmhouse, possibly realizing that her shooting wasn’t having any effect. Sergio exited the car and fired a few bursts at her with his assault rifle. Vera staggered, at least one of the bullets hitting her, before managing to get inside the ruins.

Sergio ran over to the Carrera GT, dread in his heart despite the adrenaline from the chase. His plan was relying on Vera being too busy driving to harm Nikki, but what if Vera killed her as soon as she realized she had been played? He pulled open the door screaming Nikki’s name.

“I’m OK; she didn’t manage to hurt me.” Nikki raised her wrists, showing him the handcuffs. “Though I’d appreciate if you could do something about these.”

Sergio got Vanguard out of a pocket, and put it in her hands. “This helps?”

As an answer, Nikki summoned her Barrier Jacket, the transformation blasting the handcuffs open. “This feels much better.”

“And I feel better too knowing you’re alright.”

Nikki got up from the car’s seat. “What about Vera?”

“She took shelter in that farmhouse. I think I’ve managed to hit her, but I doubt that was enough to bring her down.”

Nikki rubbed her chin. “She’s still injured from when I fought her on the tower, too. And she’s starting to feel the pressure. From what I saw, when things don’t go as she wants—”

“She freaks out. One of the reasons that convinced me to bring out the Stormer one last time,” Sergio completed for her. “I’d wait for the others, but we need to keep the pressure on if we want a chance to get her for good. Ready to go in?”

Nikki set up Vanguard in Saber form. “Of course.”

 

Sergio and Nikki stepped inside the farmhouse behind the cover of one of the girl’s Round Shields. The place had clearly seen better days: most of the roof and several awnings had collapsed, and the internal courtyard was full with overgrown plants.

This place must’ve been abandoned at least fifty years ago.” Sergio looked around. “There aren’t many places in which she can be hiding.”

Wait, there’s something on the ground.” Nikki looked more carefully. The faint glow of Vanguard’s energy blade was illuminating some dark stains. “It looks like blood. If Vera’s bleeding, we can follow them to her.”

Sergio nodded. “Let’s try to do that as silently as possible. We want to get the jump on her, not the other way around, so maybe you should shift to Lancer form for now.”

Nikki did as she was asked, and Sergio nodded in satisfaction. A glowing energy blade was a very visible target in the night, after all. They proceeded carefully, following the stains using the moonlight, eventually reaching the closed, wooden door of an old shed.

Nikki, do you still have any flashbangs left?”

Nikki nodded and pulled out a flashbang. She brought it near her mouth, only to be stopped by Sergio waving no at her.

If you keep pulling pins with your teeth, I’m not gonna pay your dental expenses.”

Nikki muffled a laugh, and pulled the pin the proper way. Sergio opened the door, and she tossed the grenade in.

“What the—” Someone, Vera judging by the voice, shouted from inside, followed by a pained scream as the flashbang detonated.

Sergio and Nikki entered the room, weapons at the ready. Vera was kneeling in the middle of the room, rubbing her eyes. The ground under her was stained with blood — the bullet from the previous firefight had wounded her in one of the legs. Nikki lost no time and cast Ring Bind around her wrists.

“A flashbang…” Vera said as she struggled against the energy rings. “That’s just cowardly!”

“No. That’s just proper tactics.” Sergio walked in front of her, and noticed that her expression was still one of full, unadulterated rage. “But I’m not going to have this discussion with you again…. You just don’t listen, thinking you’re always right.”

“I am! I’M THE BEST! You… You shouldn’t have been able to beat me!”

Sergio nodded slowly. “That’s right. One on one, I can’t beat you. But, see, there’s one thing. One I took some time to understand myself.” He turned towards Nikki. “I’m not alone. I have friends who fight at my side, and we protect each other. If I fall, they pick me up, and I’ll do the same for them.”

Sergio then aimed his rifle straight between Vera’s eyes. “You? You’ve driven everyone away, or even killed them. And that’s why you lost. Though, since I’m not really a PPC Agent anymore… Nikki, can you do the honors?”

Nikki shook her head. “No, this is your case, remember?”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “Alright. I’m Sergio Turbo, Lieutenant Colonel of Strike Dove Incorporated, and former Protectors of the Plot Continuum Agent. Major Vera Heartbound, you’re charged with the following: being a Mary Sue, defecting from Strike Dove and attacking its main headquarters, multiple counts of attempted murder of Strike Dove personnel, the murder of James Donovan and Ami Tanegashima, the kidnapping of canon characters Sakura Kinomoto and Madoka Kaname and PPC Agent Nikki Cherryflower, and the attempted murder of canon character Homura Akemi and myself. Oh, and putting three entire universes at risk just to achieve that last one. The sentence is death. Any last words?”

“I hate you!” Vera screamed as hard as she could.

“I knew that already.” Sergio pulled the trigger, sending a bullet straight through Vera’s head. She fell sideways, eyes wide open. Sergio checked her pulse, and sighed in relief when he found none. “It’s over.”

He engaged the safety on his rifle and sat on the ground, back against the wall. “It’s really over.”

Nikki transformed out of her Barrier Jacket and sat next to him. “Do you feel better now?”

“Yes and no. I know she won’t be able to do any harm anymore, but aside from that I feel more of… an emptiness. It didn’t have to go this way. If only she could…” He stopped, unable to find the right words.

“Understand what you did?” someone said from the door. “That’s not something she would ever do.”

Even if he already knew that that girl was somehow still around, Sergio was still surprised to see Ami standing in the doorframe, her signature Mk14 marksman rifle in hand. He got up and took a few steps towards her. “So… it was really you after all. But… How? And why?”

Ami fidgeted a bit. “You know, sometimes you have something to do before you’re able to move on.”

“And that was why you helped us stop Vera?”

“Not really. You’ve been such a great friend to me, Sergio… the only friend I had. This was the only way I could make things even… the only way I could thank you for taking care of me.”

Nikki walked next to them. “We’re the ones who should say ‘thanks’. If it weren’t for you…”

Sergio noticed that Ami was starting to become transparent. “Ami, you’re…”

Ami looked at her hands. “Time’s up, I guess. “

“So it’s a goodbye?”

Ami nodded. “We will meet again someday… but it’s better for the two of you if it is as far from now as possible. So take care and be happy, OK?”

Sergio looked down. “We will. And… Thank you for everything. I wish there was something I could do for you, but—”

Ami smiled, even if she was now just barely visible. “Well… If you end up having a daughter, don’t give her my name. Let her be her own person. That’s all I ask for.” As she said that, Ami disappeared completely.

Sergio took a deep breath. “She… really is gone now, huh?”

Nikki nodded slowly. “Yes. But she did so with no regrets. That’s something, right?”

“Yeah.” Sergio shook his head. “Alright, no time for sentimentalism. Now that Vera is out of the picture, we have to figure out if our world and the Madoka Magica continuum did indeed—”

The ground shook, briefly but with enough force to make them both fall, Nikki landing on Sergio.

“Er… I guess that was the signal for it happening?” Nikki said, her cheeks flushed. “Also, sorry.”

“Hey, you’re improving. No accidental kiss this time… though that wouldn’t have been a problem now.”

Both started laughing, and only stopped when they heard some footsteps.

“The cavalry has arrived!” Corolla shouted, entering the room first. She started giggling as soon as she noticed the position in which her partners were.

Josh muffled a laugh. “Did we just interrupt something?”

Sergio and Nikki quickly got up. “No!”

“C’mon, guys, a little bit of patience,” Corolla said. “We’re almost done here; we’ll give you some privacy later.”

“Corolla? Shut up.” Sergio then noticed the two people standing behind Corolla and Josh. “Uhm… The two worlds split up again, right? Because if that’s the case, then either Homura and Madoka or the rest of us are still misplaced.”

Madoka fidgeted. “Uhm… Something might not have worked as I expected.”

Corolla tilted her head. “Madoka, what are you—”

There was a ringing sound, and Corolla opened up one of her holographic windows. “Oh, it’s the Sunflower. Agent Corolla reporting for duty, sir!”

[I am pleased to see that the mission has been successful, Agents. I have just been informed that the missing canon characters are all back to their continua.]

Corolla glanced at the two girls from Madoka Magica. “But… er…”

[I see. This is one of the reasons why I was against deputizing Homura Akemi. Both her and Madoka Kaname were altered enough by this situation that their most recent uncanonical selves split off from their canonical counterparts.]

“Wait a minute here. Your previous boss was a sentient plant?” Josh whispered to Sergio while the Sunflower continued expressing his dissatisfaction on the last turn of events.

“Yeah. Time to show him the way back to the flower pot, though.” Sergio stepped in front of the holographic window. “Excuse me, Sunflower Official, but you’re trying to tell me that a person’s existence was a mistake?”

[We can see it that way.]

“I’d like you to take into consideration one thing, though. What is the universe in which both of those two girls became separate individuals from the Madoka Magica canon characters?”

[As it happened after the Madoka Magica continuum split from yours, it happened in the latter. Why are you asking?]

Sergio smirked. “Because, if I remember correctly, this universe, MDF-2006-413-QT, had been reclassified into an original several years ago. Which means you’re hassling us over something the PPC has no jurisdiction over… after all, didn’t you say yourself that they aren’t Madoka Kaname and Homura Akemi?”

“That’s right!” Madoka said. “My name is Aya, and she’s my best friend, Kuroko! We definitely aren’t Madoka and Homura.”

[Fine. I assume Agents Turbo and Cherryflower’s intention to resign is final?]

Sergio glanced at Nikki, who nodded. “Yes.”

[Alright. I will be waiting for Agent Corolla’s mission report, then.] The Sunflower closed the call.

Nikki looked at Madoka, or rather “Aya”. “Wait… Why did you have those names ready right away?”

Aya fidgeted. “Well… Contingency plan. Things haven’t worked out like I hoped.”

Corolla crossed her arms. “OK, can you please explain things from the beginning? I believe you might know some stuff we don’t. Like why our friendly neighborhood ghost sniper girl was following us.”

Aya took a deep breath. “It’s simple. When Madoka and I were the same individual, we were everywhere and everywhen, we could see all the possible universes. Which includes the sequel Madoka Magica will get next year. And it was just too cruel to Homura.” She turned towards her. “There will be more suffering, and Homura will break and do things even she knows are bad, just to keep Madoka safe. And, at the same time, we saw that a trio of PPC Agents who had been keeping our universe safe were in great danger of not making it through a very dangerous mission. That wasn’t right, so we… pulled some strings. For example, with a little help from me Ami was able to briefly materialize when it was needed.”

Nikki rubbed her chin. “Don’t tell me… Vera didn’t manage to kidnap you. You let her?”

Aya nodded. “Yes. With Ami’s help, I could get Homura involved. You would have some extra help, and she would meet some nice people with whom she could relate.” She glanced at “Kuroko”. “That way, when the bad things our author had in mind happened, you would’ve been stronger and you wouldn’t break. Things went a bit differently, though. The other me will have to try the other plan… I hope it works in the end.”

Corolla crossed her arms. “The Bat-Gambit Of The Year prize goes to Madoka, hands down.”

Kuroko had a shocked look on her face. “You put yourself in danger for me?”

Aya took her hands. “You’re my best friend, and you’ve always done the same for me.” She laughed. “We look after each other, but we’re really bad at looking after ourselves.”

Kuroko laughed as well. “True. So… I guess we’ll be together forever now?”

“Of course!”

Kuroko took the red ribbons off her hair, and started tying up Aya’s hair with them. “Then I won’t be needing these anymore… I think they suit you better, too.”

Aya tried to shoo her off. “But I wanted you to keep them…! Wait.” She took one of the ribbons, and handed it back to Kuroko before tying her own hair into a ponytail with the other. “We can have one each! Matching is so nice after all.”

“Yes.” Kuroko smiled. “Still, what are we going to do now?”

“Well…” Aya turned towards Josh. “How old do you have to be to be a civilian volunteer, again?”

Kuroko sighed. “Here we go again…”

 

“So…” Josh said while Aya and Kuroko kept arguing on whether it was a good idea to join Strike Dove or not, “What are you going to do now, Sergio? If you hadn’t understood it already from the Colonel, the door is still open for you if you want to keep working for Strike Dove.”

“I appreciate the offer, but…” Sergio glanced at Nikki. “I have too much to lose, and people who don’t want to lose me. Besides, a life of fighting is not what I want for her.”

“So this was your last battle?”

Sergio nodded. “Hopefully, yes. But, then again, life doesn’t always play nicely along, so…”

“We’ll fight back if anything happens,” Nikki completed for him.

Josh pulled out his smartphone. “Not every battle is fought on a battlefield, right? Just give me a minute; I have to inform the Colonel that Vera is no longer a problem.”

Corolla sighed. “Now that you make me think about it, I really should get back to HQ before the Sunflower gets too nervous.”

Sergio rustled through his pockets. “While you’re at it, can you get DoSAT to pick up the Stormer?” He handed her the car’s keys. “I’m sure they’d like to dismantle a Suvian car, and I don’t think I’ll need it anymore.”

“Aww, it’s a shame! Well, sure, I can do that…” Corolla tossed the keys back at him. “But I want to get a ride in it first!”

Sergio took a deep breath, but smiled. “I guess I owe you that.”

 

The following morning, Sergio looked around in surprise as he woke up. Right, I’m home. How many years have passed since I last woke up in my room? He then glanced at the alarm clock. Well, we really needed some rest.

Sergio turned towards Nikki, who was still asleep at his side. She looks so cute while asleep… I almost don’t want to wake her up.

He kissed her on the forehead. “Time to get up.”

Nikki opened her eyes only halfway before snuggling against him. “Just five minutes more. The console isn’t going to blare at us anymore; we can sleep as much as we can.”

“Yeah, but it’s noon already.”

Nikki bolted up, completely awake. “Noon?”

Sergio laughed. “Yes. But, considering we just saved three universes, I’d say that for today only is fine.”

Nikki smiled. “True. We have to start looking for something to do though; I don’t think we’re going to get a pension for that.”

Sergio thought about what Josh had told him while they had driven him, Kuroko and Aya to the airport the previous night. “Maybe I should really try being a racing driver again, but after disappearing for so long I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a seat anywhere.”

“Well, you won’t know until you try, right? And I’ll look for a job for myself, too.”

Sergio nodded. There was no reason to be afraid for the future — no matter what would happen, at his side there would always be Nikki.

 

THE END

 

“And that is the full story of how your parents saved the entire multiverse!” Corolla said enthusiastically, sitting in the living room of Sergio and Nikki’s house.

Keiko raised an eyebrow. “…How much of it is accurate and how much did you just make up?”

Sergio and Nikki burst out laughing while Corolla crossed her arms in disappointment. “Hey, why should I lie to my dear niece?”

Sergio shook his head. “Considering what I’ve heard about the stories you tell at Rudy’s, she’s right in being suspicious. But I’d say you were quite accurate this time.”

Advertisements

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 14

As usual, thank you to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 14 – Wandering Star

 

“What happened to Vera?” Sergio asked as they walked down the stairs of the tower. He was still quite weak, and leaning on Nikki for support.

“I… kinda blasted her off the tower with Raging Blossom. The others are looking for her; she must’ve landed somewhere nearby. I’m going to be surprised if she’s still standing.”

“Raging Blossom?” Sergio let out a short laugh. “She really got you angry for you to bring out the magical equivalent of a shaped charge shell.”

“Well, actually Corolla says it’s more like a Voitenko compressor… but that’s beside the point.” She smiled at him. “How would you have reacted if she had been trying to kill me?”

“I would’ve brought out the big guns, yeah. Especially now that I know who you really are.” Sergio laughed again. “I thought I had fallen in love with you because you were like Sakura… and it was the other way round. I really feel like an idiot now.”

“It’s alright now. It’s not like we can’t make up the time we’ve lost, right?”

“Of course.” Sergio looked up, as if thinking about something. “Still, we’ve been working together at the PPC for over one year. Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

Nikki blushed a bit. “I… kinda lost my memories.”

“Again?”

Nikki blushed harder, remembering what had happened with an uncanonical Clow Card six years earlier. “Well… yeah. Luckily Corolla has been playing detective, and somehow managed to connect the dots and find out that the Sakura she read about in our fic was actually me. She told me last night, and I’ve started remembering stuff afterwards.”

Sergio shook his head slowly. “And you managed to find me anyway despite your amnesia. You always say I’m stubborn, but you’re one hell of a determined girl. Are you really sure I’m worth all of this…?”

Nikki held him tighter. “Of course. The good things about you never changed. And we can work on the bad ones together.”

They reached the collapsed part of the staircase, and Sergio sighed. “Well, that’s a problem… How did you get past that, anyway?”

“Well, when your knife fell near us we realized you were in trouble. Corolla came up with the idea of casting a few of her shields horizontally for me to jump on and come to your help.”

“I see. Well, I’m afraid we have to ask her to do it again, because I don’t think I can— Hey!”

Nikki scooped him up in a bridal carry. “I guess this is where being a Magical Girl comes in handy.”

She jumped down, landing on her feet a bit heavily but otherwise with no issue, and carried him near the group of people standing under the tower; Corolla was looking into a couple of her holographic windows and Colonel Johnson was speaking into a portable radio while Homura, Josh, and his team stood guard.

“Sergio! Nikki! Are you alright?” Corolla shouted as soon as she saw them.

“I’m fine, but Sergio—”

“A bit beaten up, but I’m OK. Mostly.” He glanced at Nikki. “Er… I can walk. Can you please…?”

Johnson put away his radio while Nikki put Sergio down. “Captain, those injuries look very serious. I’ll have the—”

“Don’t worry, Nikki already fixed me up, see?” Sergio pulled open the hole in his jacket to show the intact skin underneath. “I’d be lying if I said I had worse, though.”

Nikki bit her lip. He was admitting that he had been seriously injured, which was progress, but he was also still trying to brush the matter aside.

“Anyways,” Sergio continued, “Did you manage to capture Vera?”

Corolla closed her windows. “Nope.  I scanned every nick and cranny of this base with Area Search, and Colonel Johnson sent his men to search for her too, but she didn’t show up anywhere. She either landed outside the boundary walls, or somehow managed to slip away before I could set up the spell. Sorry.”

“After such a fall, though, she must be injured.” Johnson crossed his arms. “And that’s without counting the damage done by Miss Cherryflower’s… whatever that beam was.”

“By the way,” Corolla glanced at him, “Is the knowledge of magic mundane in this world? ‘Cause I thought it wasn’t.”

Josh raised an eyebrow. “Not really, but we’ve seen a lot of people with strange powers. In our last mission we took down a guy who could summon fireballs and a girl who kept freezing things over.”

“And a mecha. Don’t forget the transforming mecha,” Rocket chipped in before kneeling next to the body of one of Vera’s Defectives. “Though I’m more interested in these guys now. Their hair and eyes lack pigmentation, and as soon as Vera got blasted they started acting very confused. Not that they were any good at fighting before, but… what are they? Mass-produced infantry?”

Sergio walked next to him, stretching his right shoulder as if to check if it moved correctly. “Pretty much. Vera controls them — one of her unnatural abilities. I think she also creates them somehow, as they’re not exactly human.”

Johnson glanced at him. “Captain, by ‘them’ you mean just these men, or Major Heartbound as well?”

Sergio took a deep breath and looked around. “Major Heartbound too, sir. But I’d prefer to talk about that in a more secure place.”

 

“…. And that’s pretty much it, sir. Our world is a fictional universe, Major Heartbound is basically a reality-warping monster, and if we don’t stop her at least three different universes are screwed,” Sergio said, leaning with his back against a wall in Johnson’s office. “Feel free to believe me or not.”

Josh scratched his head. “So when you called Vera a Sue, you literally meant that.”

Johnson rubbed his forehead. “Pardon my French, Captain Turbo, but I’ve seen enough weird shit that I don’t see why I shouldn’t believe you. Though I understand why you wanted only me and Striker Team Raptor to hear about it. Anyways, you said you know where her base of operations is located?”

“Yes, sir. We have reason to believe it is somewhere in Venice. If it’s fine with you, I and my team will take the first flight available.”

Johnson looked up in thought for a moment, then checked something on his computer. “I think I can help you with that. If I remember correctly we have some supplies loaded on a C-5 departing today, as the US military subcontracted us some security work in the Middle East.”

Corolla scratched her head. “Uh… But Venice’s not in the Middle East, right?”

Sergio crossed his arms “C-5s are too big for most of the runways found over there. It will offload its cargo in the Malpensa airport near Milan, right?”

“Exactly. The supplies will be loaded on smaller planes, while Skystreaker team will proceed towards Venice by road. On paper, you’ll be guarding the cargo during the transfer.” Johnson turned towards Josh. “Usually, for such a delicate operation I’d send two teams, but we suffered some casualties.”

Nikki took a step forward “Casualties?”

Next to her, Sergio clenched his fists.

“Luckily, no one was killed, but several people got injured,” Johnson explained. “As such, I’m forced to temporarily split Raptor Team. Captain Colt, you are now assigned to Skystreaker Team. First Lieutenants Nace, Byington and Tundo, report to Captain Wesson of Striker Team Werewolf. Her team is currently tasked with supporting base security, but she’s down two men and could use some reinforcements. As you know, Vera threatened all of us. We need to keep security high here.”

Josh let out a short laugh. “Looks like I’m under your orders this time, Sergio.”

“I’m… not sure it works that way? Sure, this is my team… but we’re the same rank, and you’ve actually got more seniority than me.”

Johnson started laughing. “I didn’t think of that. Well, I might have an idea that solves another issue as well…”

 

“I’m Lieutenant Colonel Turbo from Strike Dove Incorporated.” Sergio handed over some papers to a USAF loadmaster. “My team will be watching over Strike Dove’s equipment during the transport.”

 

“That’s quite the fast career, Sergio. Lieutenant Colonel at… how old are you? Twenty?” Josh joked once they were sitting in the passenger deck. Nikki was actually quite surprised: from the outside she hadn’t seen that the giant cargo plane actually had a passenger deck over the main cargo deck. Which, unfortunately, meant that it was rather cramped, with only a few windows, and noisy enough that they were required to wear earplugs during the flight.

“Twenty-one. And shut up, JJ. It’s just temporary, remember? This way I’ll outrank Vera… though, paperwork aside, I don’t think it will be of any help. Might actually make her angrier, even.”

“A warrior should fear his own anger, because it is the fog that will make him blind.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “This is one of Marco’s sayings, right? I can’t disagree.”

Nikki looked down at her clothes, ignoring the rest of their conversation. In order to not raise suspicion, Johnson had provided them all with uniforms. Not something she ever expected to wear.

Corolla tugged on her sleeve. “So, I think we might have plenty of time for you to tell Sergio—”

Already done.

Corolla blinked. “What? When?”

After healing him on the radio tower.”

Oh, I see. So… You’re back to being a couple?”

Nikki blushed slightly. “Pretty much.

“Yes!” Corolla shouted, clenching her fists triumphantly. Many of the soldiers sitting on the plane turned their heads towards her.

Corolla sank into her seat. “Sorry…”

Sergio sighed. “I think I already know what that was about… Yes, Corolla. Nikki and I are back being a couple. Now you can stop nagging us about it.”

Josh raised an eyebrow. “… Am I missing something here?”

“Well…” Sergio started. “Remember how I had said that I had lost everyone during the War?”

“I remember something about that, but you never went into details.”

“Luckily, I was wrong.” Sergio glanced at Nikki. “The most important person to me actually made it out alive, as well. Though… how? I remember the helicopter you were on going down, the explosion… I thought there was no way anyone could have survived that.”

“I think I might’ve ended up in a plothole just like you did when you took down the Organization. One moment I was on the helicopter, then I woke up in my bed. Well… not really my bed.”

 

“Hoeee?”

Nikki and Sakura screamed at the same moment, both surprised at finding their doppelganger in their bed.

“Who… Who are you? Mirror?”

“No, I’m Sakura… but who are you?”
“I’m Sakura… too?”

Both of them just kept staring at each other.

“What’s the matter, monster?” Touya said from outside the room. “I could hear you from the other floor.”

Before either of the two girls could come up with an excuse, Touya opened the door. “…Why are there two monsters now?”

The two girls looked at each other. “I don’t know?” they said in perfect unison.

Touya stared at them for a few seconds before pointing at one of the Sakuras. “That one is my sister.” He glanced at Nikki. “So, who are you?”

“If she’s Sakura, and I’m not… then I have no idea whatsoever.”

 

“And that’s pretty much how I discovered that I wasn’t Sakura Kinomoto. We contacted Eriol for help, and he took the first plane to Japan to come and see the situation with his own eyes. He explained that several universes existed and, of course, more than one ‘Sakura’.”

 

“Clow Reed visited many of these worlds, and even met some of those worlds’ versions of you. There can be many differences between them even in name. One was actually called Tsubasa, for example.”

Nikki scratched her head. “So I still am Sakura, I’m just in the wrong place?”

“Not exactly, and from what I’ve understood your situation is somewhat different. The world you’ve described as yours is at least partially an exact copy of this one, which is odd. Especially since there was supposed to be only one deck of Clow Cards across all the worlds, but you somehow had one as well.”

“It disappeared, though. I only have these that weren’t in the Clow Book now,” Nikki said, looking at the few cards she still had. Those were the ones that the other Eriol, the one from her world, had been forced to create while he was a prisoner of the Organization. She passed them over to Eriol who inspected them.

“Hmm… Interesting. Your world’s version of me made these, right? The magic dwelling inside them does resemble mine, but… we can say paler. Almost as if he was just an image of me.”

Eriol concentrated, making the sixteen cards float around him. “I get it. Your world is indeed based on this one… a world that was made to tell a story. We can call it a ‘journal’ or ‘diary’ world.”

 

“From that moment, I was the ‘Sakura from the diary’. Which in Japanese is…”

Homura raised an eyebrow. “‘Nikki no Sakura’?”

Sergio smiled. “Nikki Cherryflower.”

“Yeah, I guess my subconscious actually remembered that when I was recruited and had to come up with a name for myself.”

Corolla crossed her arms. “That doesn’t really explain why you had lost all your memories, though.”

“It’s a bit of a long story. Eriol brought me to a shop ran by a witch… Yuuko, was it? Anyways, she let me get back to this world, but I had to give her the uncanonical Clow cards in return.”

“Oh, Yuuko’s shop,” Corolla said, looking up. “Yeah, that’s how it works. You give something in exchange for a magical service. And I guess it comes with the side effect that this way those cards are now sealed there and mostly out of the way of canon.”

Nikki nodded slowly, recollecting what happened afterwards. “After getting back to this world, I started making my way towards the only safe place I knew: Virgilia’s house. However, I didn’t have much money with me, and there was still a bounty on my head, so it was really hard to travel.”

Sergio rubbed his chin. “Well, the Organization believed we were all dead, but I don’t think they had passed down the memo to the bounty hunters.”

Nikki shivered at the thought. “I actually had a run-in with some of them.”

 

Nikki ran towards a building under construction. There was a detonation, and a bullet embedded itself in the wall just as she took shelter inside.

“What are you doing, you moron? They’ll pay more if she’s alive,” one of her pursuers shouted.

“Fine, fine. As long as I can have some fun with her before we turn her in. They won’t mind if she’s a bit roughened up, right?”

“You’d do that with a kid? You make me sick,” said a third person, a woman judging by the voice.

Nikki reached the last floor and hid behind a pile of wooden boards, her heart beating very fast. Without the Clow Cards, she had no way to fight back all she could do was hope they wouldn’t find her.

She saw a metal pipe next to her, and grabbed it just as she started hearing footsteps. Go the other way… don’t look here… Nikki thought, clutching the pipe in her hands.

A man walked past her, a small gun in hand. He stopped, and started looking around, eventually setting his eyes on her.

Nikki swung the pipe at his knees, and he fell with a pained scream.

“You little” he shouted, aiming the gun at her. Panicking, Nikki brought down the pipe on him without thinking. There was a crunching sound, and the man went limp, blood pooling under his head.

Nikki dropped the pipe in shock. Did I… Did I kill him? She picked up the man’s weapon, which turned out to be a small revolver. I had no choice. If he got me, he would—

“She’s here!” the other man screamed.

Nikki turned around, and aimed the gun at him. “Don’t get any closer!”

The man laughed. “I don’t think you know how to use that thing.  Look at how your arms are shaking.” He took a few steps towards her. “Put it down, and I won’t do anything to you. Promise.”

Nikki pulled down the hammer. Contrary to what the man believed, she did know how to use a handgun Sergio had insisted on teaching her.

“Shi-” His curse was drowned out by the first shot, which missed him barely. Nikki kept firing, hitting him with the third bullet. The man staggered back, and fell out of the building through an incomplete wall.

Nikki ran towards the wall, and looked down. The man was lying atop a pile of bricks, his neck bent at an unnatural angle. Nikki looked away, unable to bear the view.

Someone tackled her to the ground. “Got you!”

Nikki struggled to get free, but only managed to turn to face her assailant. It was the woman whose voice she had heard earlier, and she didn’t seem to be in a good mood.

“Guess I’ll have to bring you in dead, but that’s not a problem. After all, since you got rid of those two morons, I won’t have to split the money,” she said while clutching Nikki’s neck with both hands. She hadn’t noticed, however, that Nikki still had the revolver in hand.

Nikki brought the gun to the woman’s chest and pulled the trigger. The woman’s eyes widened as she fell sideways, releasing Nikki as well.

Nikki got up breathing deeply, and looked at the woman. She looked like she was choking on something, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. She stopped moving completely after a few seconds.

Nikki fell to her knees, trying to come to terms with what had just happened. I killed them. I had to kill them all. She gulped, still staring at the woman. But I had no choice, right?

She took a deep breath, and slid the revolver in one of her sweatshirt’s pockets. As much as she didn’t like guns, she wasn’t going to last long without a weapon. Only then she noticed that the woman had a backpack. The idea of looting corpses made her feel sick, but to continue her journey she needed both food and money. And it wasn’t like they needed them anymore.

 

“The thought of what I had to do that day haunted me for years.” Nikki said slowly, hugging her knees. “This is something I wish I didn’t remember.”

Sergio put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey. If someone had to die, better them than you.”

Josh nodded. “Those bounty hunters were nothing short of pure evil. Under the Organization’s rule many unscrupulous people took that career; it was quick money. We kept running into them for a while even after the Organization fell. You did nothing wrong.”

Corolla leaned in front of Nikki. “So… Did you manage to get to Virgilia’s house?”

“Yes. It took me several days, but I did. It was… Late September of 2007, I think?”

 

Nikki finished climbing the last flight of stairs. If she remembered correctly, Virgilia’s apartment was on the second floor.

She stopped midway through the corridor as she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror. She looked more carefully, and was taken aback when she realized she could barely recognize herself: the gray, hooded sweatshirt and denim jeans were a far cry from the colorful shirts and skirts she was used to. She pulled down the hood, but there wasn’t much of an improvement: while the two bangs around her face had stubbornly kept their shape, her usual pigtails and hair decorations were gone and her now messy hair had grown long enough to reach her shoulders.

I don’t look like myself anymore, do I? She shook her head. No, that’s wrong. That was Sakura. But I’m not her after all, so… Is this actually me, for the first time?

She shook her head again, realizing that it wasn’t the right time for that. She kept walking until she found the door she was looking for, and rang the doorbell.

“Mrs. Leone? I’m Sakura.”

Nikki couldn’t shake away a feeling of wrongness as she called herself ‘Sakura’. But, then again, that was how everyone knew her as.

Virgilia opened her door, and Nikki could clearly see the surprise on her face. “Sakura! Come in, quick.”

Nikki walked in, and Virgilia closed the door behind her immediately. “My god, I can’t believe it. You’re alive.” Virgilia grabbed her by the shoulders. “You look terrible, though.”

Nikki looked down at her clothes. They were very dirty, and her jeans were ripped. “I’ve… been through a lot.”

Virgilia nodded slowly. “Of course…  Have you had breakfast already?”

Nikki shook her head no. “Last thing I’ve eaten was a sandwich yesterday for lunch.”

“You must be starving. Here, I’ll get you something.”

Virgilia led her to the kitchen, and brought out a packet of rusks. Nikki started devouring them one after another while Virgilia poured some milk.

“Where are the others? Did they manage to get to the time machine?” Nikki asked after quickly downing the glass of milk.

Virgilia took a deep breath, and shook her head. “No. It was a trap, only Sergio came back… Oh, no. He thinks you’ve died.”

Nikki gulped. Only Sergio came back?

Virgilia took a cordless phone from its cradle, and started dialing a number. “The Organization believes you’ve been all killed, and is holding a victory celebration in a couple hours from now. My brother, Lilith, Karkon… all their leaders will be there, and Sergio wants to set bombs to take out all of them in one go.”

Nikki let a rusk fall out of her hand. Bombs…? That’s not like him at all!

Virgilia kept the phone near her ear for a few seconds. “He isn’t answering.” She dropped the phone on the table. “We have to stop him before he does something stupid.”

Nikki looked at her, still in shock. “What does he want to do, exactly?”

“Since he thinks you’re dead, he… he isn’t planning on getting out of there alive.”

 

Sergio passed a hand through his hair. “So when Virgilia tried to call me that day, you were right there? Damn, I should’ve answered the phone!”

Nikki crossed her arms. “It’s more like you shouldn’t have gone for such a crazy plan in the first place! Even if I was dead like you believed, there was no reason for you to follow me into the afterlife.”

Sergio sighed. “Yeah, I know. But… At the time I thought I couldn’t live without you.”

Nikki looked away, pretending to be upset. “You would’ve had to do anyways, since I would’ve punched you back into the land of the living.”

“If you could do that… I would’ve grabbed you to come back with me.”

Corolla scratched her head. “Uh, guys? Both of you came out of fiery explosions alive and unscathed, and in different worlds from the one you ‘died’ in to boot. What if there were no plotholes involved, and the punching-back-into-the-land-of-the-living thing actually happened?”

Sergio and Nikki looked at each other. “It would make a scary amount of sense,” she said.

“I’m not sure I understood all that’s going on,” Josh said, “but I assume this means the two of you were part of the Kids of the War?”

Sergio leaned against the seat’s backrest, looking at the ceiling. “Here we go again.”

“I didn’t mean anything bad with that… I’m not even sure how it could. Just that now I get why you looked like you had plenty of combat experience despite being sixteen, back when you enlisted with us.”

“Anyways,” Nikki said, realizing that the discussion was taking a direction Sergio didn’t like, “Virgilia had her driver bring me to Venice, but it was too late.”

 

Nikki fell to her knees, looking at the smoke coming from where Palazzo Ca’ D’oro once stood, now just a pile of rubble. “No… No…”

She started quietly sobbing to herself. Considering the state the palace was in, there was no way Sergio could be still alive.

“Don’t worry, he isn’t under there,” someone said behind her.

Nikki turned around, recognizing the voice right away. “Eriol?”

“Not exactly. I’m the image of him residing in this world… though I am indeed the individual you always referred to as ‘Eriol’. Come with me.”

Nikki followed him. After all, what other options did she have?

Eriol brought her into a small alley, and pointed at the wall at the end. “Look there.”

Nikki squinted. There was some sort of ripple in the air, not unlike those found over hot asphalt in the summer, but it was confined to a small space no more than one meter in diameter. “What’s that?”

“We can call it a ripple in reality. They exist in all worlds, but are very common in those like this one.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “And what does it have to do with…”

“Sergio is no longer in this world. He is lost, both literally and metaphorically.”

“I have to find him.”

Eriol did one of his usual Cheshire Cat smiles. “I knew you would say that. Those ripples in reality can be used to travel between worlds, and I know that you will eventually find him if you walk through this one.”

Nikki took a step towards the ripple, but Eriol stopped her. “One last word of warning:  before you find him, you will lose yourself.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow again. “Lose myself?”

“I cannot say more now.  Are you willing to take the risk?”

Nikki nodded. “Of course. Wherever he is, he’s surely alone and sad. I can’t have that.” She walked towards the ripple. “Besides, we love each other. That’s all we need, right?”

There was no answer, though, as Eriol had vanished.

 

Sergio snorted. “If he knew this much, he must’ve known that I was bound to get back to this world on my own. All he had to do was point you at Strike Dove’s headquarters and say ‘He’s gonna work there in a few months from now’. That wretched Cheshire Cat wannabe…”

Corolla raised a finger “Hmm, I think he might’ve done it for a reason. If he had done that, you two might’ve never ended up at the PPC, and so Nikki would’ve never managed to find her own way of magic.”

Nikki nodded. “That actually makes sense… and it is something he would do. Anyways, I kept travelling between worlds, and… Wait.” Her eyes widened as she remembered something. “I met Ami. Several times, in several worlds. And it wasn’t alternate versions of her or something, because she remembered me every time.”

 

Nikki stretched her arms forward, feeling the warmth of the campfire. On the other side of it, Ami was passing a cleaning rod through the barrel of her rifle.

“So… Are you looking for something or someone too? We keep meeting in different worlds, after all.”

Ami smiled. “Something like that.”

“Then maybe we should just travel together? I mean, with two of us…”

“No.” Ami shook her head, “I… I’m not travelling between worlds in the same way you do. We might meet again, but we’re not supposed to travel together.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. Sometimes, Ami’s wording seemed to imply that she had some sort of rules she was being forced to follow. “I… see. It’s just… You’re the only familiar face I’ve been seeing in… I don’t even know for how long I’ve been going.”

Ami set her rifle aside, and sat next to Nikki. “Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll find him soon!”

 

“The following day, I found a plothole that brought me into a fanfiction where Sakura was supposed to appear, and it forced me to take her place. I think Sakura was supposed to lose her memories at some point in it… and it came with the side effect of erasing my own, as well.”

 

Nikki stumbled, her head aching. I’m… shrinking? What’s happening? she thought, realizing that her clothes had started becoming loose.

She clutched her head when she realized that remembering things became increasingly harder. Ugh… Why am I here? No… I’m looking for Sergio. I can forget everything, but not that!

She leaned against a wall, and let herself slide down to the floor. The pain was quickly becoming unbearable.

I must find… Sergio.

Her brain decided to call quits, and she started slipping into unconsciousness.

Find… S… Syaoran…? No, it’s… Who’s Syaoran…?

 

“Eventually, I fell into another plothole, and found myself inside the PPC headquarters… minus my memories, of course.”

 

Nikki ran down one gray corridor after another, trying to shake off her pursuers. Those two weird people wearing black had called her a “Sue” or something like that, and were now hell-bent on killing her.

A cart with some small crates on it rolled out of a door, and Nikki didn’t manage to stop before tripping into it. She fell on the ground, the cart overturning next to her.

“Cocoa, do you have a grudge against carts or…” someone behind her said, possibly the cart’s owner. “Wait, you aren’t Cocoa.”

The voice sounded familiar, and Nikki turned towards its source. There were two people, a tiny, fairy-like girl with light blue hair floating next to a tall, young man with brown hair. The latter flinched after seeing Nikki’s face. “Corolla, do I see things, or did Sakura somehow enter HQ?”

“I am not Sakura… I think…” Nikki answered quickly, afraid that they could mistake her for a ‘Sue’ too. “I… I… I don’t know who I am!”

“Sergio, the CAD reading is strange,” Corolla said.

Sergio…? The name rang a bell in her head. While the two people in front of her discussed the ‘CAD reading’ Nikki tried to recall if she knew someone with that name, but with no results. A big, gaping hole started where her memories were those of a ten years old Sakura Kinomoto, and only ended a few days earlier.

“How rude, we didn’t even introduce ourselves,” Sergio said, offering her a hand. “My name’s Sergio Turbo, and she is my partner Corolla. We work in the Department of Floaters of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. We kill bad fanfictions.”

Nikki grabbed his hand, gladly accepting the help. As soon as her eyes met his, brown and warm, she felt her heart start beating even faster for no apparent reason.

“Kill fanfiction? How

“Here’s the Sue! Let’s kill her!” someone shouted behind Sergio. Nikki shivered, recognizing the voice of one of her two pursuers.

Sergio turned towards them, pulling out a pistol from its belt holster. ”What are you two up to?” he said, aiming the gun at them. Nikki hid behind him, less scared than before. She didn’t understand why, but with him she felt safe.

“That girl is a Sue!” one of the two men shouted.

“Did you even bother to aim a CAD at her?

“What for?” The other one waved his sword in their general direction. “She’s not the true Sakura. She’s obviously a Replacement Sue!”

“If you stop thinking about getting another scalp on your belt, you’ll realize that you always have to double-check.” Sergio took a step towards them. “This one is an original character; the CAD says less than 1% Sue, so calm down!”

“Step aside, she’s a Sue and she’s ours!” The two men started closing in aggressively, until Nikki heard a clicking noise.

“Another step and I’ll fire. At head level,” Sergio said. “So turn back, go drink a chamomile and call it a day, agreed?”

The two men stopped, gave a couple nods and then ran away.

Sergio sighed and put the gun back in its holster. “I’m so going to file a complaint on this one; those two idiots should be pulled out of the field right away.” He then turned towards Nikki. “Are you alright?”

Nikki nodded, but deep down she was still confused. The whole ordeal was feeling like a déjà vu and, somehow, being with him made her feel alright as if she had found something long lost.

 

Nikki smiled. “I think the rest goes without saying.”

Sergio grabbed her hand. “It must’ve been hard.”

“It was. But we found each other in the end, so it’s alright.”

Homura glanced at them before looking down.

“Hey! Don’t make that face,” Corolla scolded her. “We’re going to save your girlfriend too!”

Homura blushed hard. “But she’s not… I mean…”

Sergio sighed. “Corolla, don’t Moemurify her. We need her in top fighting condition.”

Josh nodded. “We all need to be in top shape. Since we’re stuck in this plane for about a dozen hours, we can use the time to sleep and recuperate.”

 

Nikki woke up a few hours later, and got up from her seat to stretch a bit. While she had learned how to take a nap pretty much anywhere due to the lack of sleep time associated with PPC work, a military aircraft’s seat was still less than ideal sleeping accommodation.

“Yeah, those aren’t first class seats,” a girl said behind her.

The voice was familiar, and Nikki turned around, finding the same girl she had met in the morning.

“Ami?”

Nikki leaned towards Sergio to wake him up, but Ami grabbed her arm.

“Please, don’t. He must not see me yet.”

Nikki turned towards her, and nodded. “OK, but why?”

Ami released her and looked down, arms behind her back. “There are things I can and things I can’t do as I am now.”

“You’re a ghost, aren’t you?”

Ami nodded slowly. “Something like that.”

“And you already were when I met you the first time, right?”

Ami nodded again.

“So…” Nikki glanced at Sergio. “You were looking for him, too?”

“For his happiness.”

Nikki looked back at her. “His… happiness?”

“See, when he joined Strike Dove and was assigned to our team I was pretty much alone. My parents were Strike Dove operatives, as well, but they… never saw the end of the War.”

“So that’s why you were fighting?”

“Whenever someone is oppressing people, there’s bound to be people that disappear… leaving orphans behind. Like me. So I did my best to prevent other people from having to share my pain.”

Nikki couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. “I’ve lost people too. I understand.”

“As you can guess, though, someone managed to brighten up my life a bit. Even if, deep down inside, he was suffering as well.”

Nikki glanced at Sergio again. “That’s just how he is, huh? Always smiling for others, never caring for himself.”

“Even if it was just for a little while, I could live happily again. But I never managed to even properly say ‘thanks’.”

“So that’s why you became his guardian, right…? You really love him, don’t you?”

Ami took a step back, blushing. “Is… is it that evident?”

Nikki let out a short laugh. “You’re cheating Death just to keep him safe. Only very strong feelings can possibly do something like that.” She shook her head. “Never thought I’d have a ghost as a love rival. But, then… why did you help me too?”

“Because I’m not your rival. Yes, I love him, but it wouldn’t have worked out. He doesn’t need a little comet that can shine just for a little while… he needs a star to stay at his side and keep the darkness away. And you’re that star.” Ami looked down at herself, and smiled sadly. “Besides, being dead kinda makes it hard to be one side of the triangle, don’t you think? So I wanted to reassure you that I won’t get in the way. Even if someone offered me that reset button… I would never press it.”

“Sorry. And… uhm, thank you.” Nikki smiled, recognizing the reference to Fuwa Fuwa’s lyrics. “You’re being our Tomoyo, aren’t you?”

Ami smiled back. “Maybe.”

Sergio stirred in his sleep. Nikki glanced at him quickly, but when she turned back towards Ami she was gone.

 

“Be careful with that crate, it contains ammunition!” Sergio shouted after one of the men transferring Strike Dove’s supplies from the C-5 to a smaller C-130 turboprop. He then turned back to his group. “Any luck with the CODEC?”

Josh brought a hand near his ear. “Still dead. We’ll have to rely on the backup.” He pulled out a smartphone from his pocket. “Still good enough to receive satellite imagery from HQ.”

“That will have to do. While I deal with the logistics here, can you and Corolla have a look at those images? Venice isn’t exactly small, and we need to pinpoint where Vera is hiding.”

“Sure! What should we be looking for?” Corolla looked up in thought. “Cayennes running on two wheels on Venice’s pavements?”

Sergio glared at her.

“Uh…” Josh said, “Was that a reference to something?”

“You don’t want to know. Anyways, yeah, we need to look for anything that looks strange — she wants to face me, after all, so she’s probably left a clue somewhere.”

 

Nikki washed her hands and face. They were stuck there until the transfer was complete, so she had taken advantage of that to take a bathroom break.

She looked at her reflection in the mirror; seeing herself in a military uniform was a rather weird feeling, especially since Johnson had gone so far as to quickly print out some name tags, hers reading ‘Lt. Cherryflower”. The act was mostly working — aside Corolla’s overeagerness at saluting anyone, civilian attendants included, no one had questioned anything.

She opened the door of the bathroom, and nearly ran into a blonde woman wearing a spy catsuit. By the time she managed to recognize her as Vera, Nikki found a handkerchief pressed against her face. She struggled to get free, pulling Vanguard off its string at the same time, but the sedative started taking effect. Vanguard slipped through her numbing fingers, and her knees gave in.

“Got the right one this time,” she managed to hear before passing out.