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.

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