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.”

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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.

Blank Sprite – Mission Report 13

As always, thank you to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services. Special thanks for this chapter go to Aelit, who helped me greatly by picking up again two characters of hers after years to cowrite a scene that simply wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.

 

Mission Record 13 – Not Alone Anymore

 

[This the south gate guard post, the enemy has breached! We need reinforcements!]

Josh brought a hand near his ear. “This is Griffon of Raptor Team, roger that. We’re on our way.”

He then turned towards Sergio. “Do you think…?”

“Vera? Yeah, I think she’s behind it.” Sergio brought a hand near his ear as well. “This is Lightning of Skystreaker team, we’re coming too.”

[Lightning? That Lightning? I… I’m glad to hear you’re back, sir!”

Sergio rolled his eyes. “This is not the time, soldier. Hold on, help is on the way!”

[Yes sir!”]

Sergio resisted the urge to facepalm. Evidently, some of the guys on guard duty hadn’t received the “we don’t enforce ranks so formally” memo.

 

Sergio’s group and Raptor Team took cover behind some concrete barriers. In front of them a fierce battle was taking place at the south gate: while Vera’s Defectives had managed to break through the gate with a couple of their usual Cayennes, the vehicles had taken too much damage and so they were now pinned just a few meters past the entrance, shooting at Strike Dove’s soldiers from behind their wrecked cars.

“Rocket, Phoenix, we’ll be providing suppressive fire to allow the guys at the guard post to retreat here. Blackmage, you’ll do your usual thing,” Josh ordered.

“Er…” Corolla said, “we were missing one of your—”

Despite not being with them at the mess hall, though, Marco walked next to the group. He gave a quick nod to Josh before vanishing again. Literally.

Corolla blinked. “What?”

Josh let out a short laugh before opening fire. “Told you he’s a ninja.”

Sergio poked Corolla’s shoulder before starting to shoot as well. “Can you put some shields here? Homura, we could use some more suppressive fire with your Minimi. Nikki, can you try taking out some of the Defectives with arcing shots?”

“Sure, I’ll try,” Nikki said while Homura opened fire.

Samantha ducked under cover to reload her P90, and raised an eyebrow at the two magical girls next to her. “A machine gun and energy blasts? I admit I’ve last seen Sailor Moon years ago, but you Magical Girls are a lot more… radical than I remembered.”

Nikki fired off a couple of Shoot Barret projectiles, taking down one of the Defectives. “Well… Homura is an exception to the rule.”

Nikki turned Vanguard around and put a plasma grenade near the pommel. “I hope there’s not going to be more of these Porsches, ‘cause this is my last one.”

She fired off the grenade right between the two SUVs, which ended up overturned by the light blue explosion. Some of the Defectives ended up killed as well, while the others were quickly gunned down.

Josh lowered his M4 carbine. “Okay, what was that and where can I get some?”

“Classified gear coming from my previous employer,” Sergio explained vaguely. I can’t really tell you they come from that Halo videogame, since I’d need to tell you we’re all fictional characters here. “This is Lightning, all hostiles neutralized.”

 

Sergio crouched near one of the dead Defectives. “What did she expect to achieve by sending just a few of her mooks here?”

“Maybe showing that she always knows where we are?” Nikki rubbed her chin. “We had already realized, though.”

Colt put a hand near his ear. “Wait. What is it, Blackmage?… Understood.” He pointed at a radio tower in the north corner of the base. “Marco saw some movement on the tower.”

“So the attack on the south gate was a diversion?” Rocket scratched his head. “But for what?”

Sergio started walking towards the tower. “There’s only one way to know.”

 

When the two groups reached the radio tower, Colonel Johnson and a small squad of Strike Dove soldiers were already under it. Two soldiers were inspecting a charred electrical cabinet.

“Good timing, Skystreaker and Raptor.” Johnson pointed at the cabinet. “Our comms tower has just been sabotaged, and I’m afraid I know who’s behind it.”

“A retaliation for helping me,” Sergio said dryly before looking down. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Nonsense, Captain,” Johnson rebutted, “Vera’s our problem, not just yours. Especially now.” He glanced at the damaged cabinet. “She knew where to hit. Our CODEC network is out of commission, and it will take a while to bring it back online. If you don’t mind, I’ll take some extra measures regarding your assignment, Captain Turbo.”

“Of course, sir.”

“As a way to properly keep track of the people involved, we will consider your friends here as part of your team, which will be reclassified as Striker Team Skystreaker.” Johnson smiled at the girls. “Of course, that’s just to keep communications easy, especially now that we have to rely on our backup communication systems. None of you is being enlisted against her will, though it would help us if you chose a radio callsign.”

“Corolla, callsign Robogirl, reporting for duty sir!” Corolla saluted enthusiastically.

Sergio shook his head, and corrected her hand’s position.

“What should I choose…?” Nikki rubbed her chin. “Oh, right. Nikki Cherryflower, callsign Starlight.”

Sergio raised his eyebrow. That’s not what she had been given when she tried the flight simulators at DoSAT. I wonder why…? Well, Keycard was quite lame, so I can’t really blame her.

Johnson entered the information on a small PDA. “Alright, so we have Lightning, Robogirl and Starlight. And what about you, young miss?”

Homura, as usual, didn’t show any sign of emotion. “My name’s Akemi Homura, but I wish to not use a callsign.”

“Really? That’s not fun,” Corolla protested. “You need something about time or clocks, I guess? Chrono? Clockwork?”

“What about ‘time to die’?” someone shouted from the top of the tower.

Josh looked up. “Wait, that voice…”

Sergio’s eyes narrowed. “Vera.”

Indeed, when they looked up Vera was standing near the top of the tower, leaning over the railing.

“Major Heartbound, stop this madness and surrender immediately!” Johnson shouted at her.

“Let me think about it… No! My life… my story was perfect, but you didn’t understand that I am the best! Colonel, how could you try to hand over my squad’s leadership to him!” Vera pointed at Sergio.

“Contrary to you, he actually showed tactical knowledge and common sense. We fight to protect people, Major, not for the glory or for some other kind of self-fulfillment!”

“You’re all idiots! Everything was going so well until you arrived, Sergio! That’s why you all have to die now!”

“Sir?” One of the soldiers said to Johnson, his rifle already aimed at Vera.

Johnson took a deep breath. “Major Heartbound is refusing orders, and clearly out of control. Open fire.”

Vera retreated from the railing just in time to avoid being hit by Strike Dove’s soldiers, bullets bouncing on the tower’s metal structure. Sergio ran up the metal stairway leading to the top of the tower, but before anyone else could follow him an explosive charge detonated, collapsing the flight of stairs just behind him. At the same time, gunshots started echoing all over the base.

“We have more hostiles!” one of the soldiers shouted, opening fire against more of Vera’s Defectives.

Johnson fired off a few shots from his pistol. “Captain Turbo, go get her. Everyone else, we need to repeal the attack!”

Sergio gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir!”

Nikki turned towards him. “Please, be careful!”

Sergio noticed the worry in her eyes. “You too. I’ll be right back.” He resumed climbing the stairs, running at first but eventually slowing down in order to not make his footsteps heard.

He clutched his rifle tightly once near the top, listening to the popping sounds of gunshots from below. Vera’s controlling the Defectives, they’ll stop fighting as soon as she’s dead. I have to take her down quickly.

Sergio walked on the top platform of the radio tower, looking around the area. There were several electrical cabinets neatly arranged in rows, some open and emitting sparks from severed wires. Where is she hiding?

He started circling the cabinets carefully just as some music started playing out of seemingly nowhere. Figures… Dramatic to the end.

Sergio put a hand near the sheath of his combat knife. If she was playing hide and seek, it was time to lure her out. “Still listening only to Black Veil Brides, aren’t you? Nothing against them, but you should give other artists a chance too.”

Footsteps behind him. Sergio turned around just in time to parry a downward katana swing. Just as expected.

“They’re the best, and I only listen to the best!” Vera retorted. She took a step back and went for a decapitating swing, which Sergio dodged by rolling to the side.

He took cover behind a cabinet just as bullets started bouncing all over it. By the rate of fire, she’s still going akimbo with those MAC-10s. As expected, she’s not changed at all.

Sergio waited until Vera had expended all ammo in the magazines to retaliate with his rifle, but didn’t manage to hit her before she took cover as well.

This platform is about fifteen or twenty meters per side. Sergio thought while changing cover, barely dodging another hail of bullets. Not enough range for my ARX-160’s better accuracy to actually matter, while she has an advantage on rate of fire.

Sergio fired off a few rounds, before taking cover again. And it goes without saying that her katana means close quarters isn’t going to work.

“Gotta give it to her, she planned something right for once,” Sergio remarked drily under his breath. This is exactly the kind of situation I should’ve learned to not get myself into at the PPC.

“What’s the matter, Sergio?” Vera shouted in a mocking tone. “For someone who claimed he’s going to kill me, you’re too much on the defensive.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. Vera knew she had the advantage — that’s why she had lured him there, and made sure he would get there alone.

“Could it be that you’ve realized you can’t match me? Only another Suvian can hope to draw blood from me.”

She’s getting closer, Sergio thought as he started considering what few options he had.

“What is it? You’ve also run out of snippy remarks?”

Sergio listened carefully. She was approaching from the right of the cabinet, likely at a dramatically slow walking pace. Keep talking; I need to know where you are.

“It isn’t even funny this way.”

Vera was now close enough that he could hear her footsteps. Sergio switched to his pistol and combat knife, waiting for her to be next to the cabinet. If it works, I’ll get the jump on her. If it doesn’t, I’m Swiss cheese slices. One, two, three!

Sergio circled the cabinet from the left, walking as quickly as he could without making noise.

“Hey, where did you—”

Sergio walked past the last corner of the cabinet. Vera was in front of him, aiming the wrong way. He managed to fire off a single round, missing her, before getting close enough to try to stab her.

Vera dodged just barely, the blade grazing her side. The momentum brought Sergio to hit the railing, dropping the knife. He turned around just to be kicked in the gut, and fell to the ground.

“Hmpf. You’ve become sloppier, but you’re still enough of a Gary Stu to be able to land a hit. It doesn’t matter, though. End of the line, Captain Turbo.” Vera aimed one of her machine pistols at him, only for it to be blasted out of her hands by a bullet coming from outside the tower.

Vera held her hand. “What the… “

Sergio took advantage of the distraction to fire some shots at her, but again none of the bullets hit as Vera took cover just in time. He gave a quick glance at the direction her gun was hit from, finding the empty roof of the main base building. Don’t tell me… Ami?

Sergio grabbed the railing, and pulled himself up, his chest aching and his breath cut short as he did so. Damn it, Nikki was right. That rib broke again.

He switched to his rifle again, trying to think despite the pain. A broken rib was going to impair his fighting ability greatly, while Vera had only sustained minor injuries so far. Things aren’t looking good.

He started walking between the cabinets carefully, turning around continuously to try to catch any attempt Vera could make to get him from behind.

“Too slow!” Vera shouted, catching him by surprise anyway, lunging at him with her katana. Sergio raised his rifle to shield himself, deflecting the blade but leaving his guard open enough for a second, stabbing blow to go through his right shoulder, forcing him to drop the rifle. Vera pulled the blade out and kicked him away.

Sergio did his best to get back up, managing just barely as his right arm was refusing to move. He stared at the blood dripping down the arm — too much, too fast. If I don’t end this quickly, I’m going to bleed out.

“How did you…. Why did you get up again?” Vera screamed at him. “You can’t beat me! I’m barely scratched, and you’re on the verge of death! It’s useless!”

Sergio leaned on the nearest cabinet. “They all say I’m stubborn.”

“But for what? You hate your life, your nature, even yourself. Why don’t you just give up and die already?”

“Because as long as there’s people like you causing harm, there’s need for those like me.” Sergio pulled out his pistol with his left hand. “Besides, I’ve made some promises I want to keep.”

He fired off the rest of the magazine, but his shaky aim was nowhere near good enough to score any hit as she charged towards him guns blazing.

Sergio felt the pain of a bullet hitting his left leg, and fell to the ground. He tried to get up again, but his strength faded just as his vision started blurring. Damn it… the blood loss is already kicking in. He slowly rolled on his back, pulling the trigger again in a futile attempt to get his empty gun to fire.

Vera reloaded one of her MAC-10s. “Let me put you out of your misery.”

Sergio closed his eyes. That’s it.

He heard the gunshots, but also the sound of bullets ricocheting off a hard surface. He opened his eyes to find a white, round magical shield and a familiar brunette in front of him. “Nikki…?”

“If you want to kill him, Vera, you’ll have to do it over my dead body,” Nikki said in a very determined tone. “He made me a promise, and I’m not letting you get in the way of him keeping it.” She glanced back at him. “I have something very important to tell you, so don’t even think about dying here, OK?”

Sergio did his best to stay awake as the two girls started fighting, but he was already blacking out, the sounds of the battle coming off as muffled while, for some reason, the song currently playing in Vera’s “arena” was still clear.

[In the end, as you fade into the night/Who will tell the story of your life?]

Well, surely Corolla is going to make up stories about me being the greatest hero of the PPC or something, he mused to himself as he started losing consciousness.

[And who will remember your last goodbye?]

I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Nikki properly, did I?

[‘Cause it’s the end, and I’m not afraid/I’m not afraid to die]

Oh, no, I’m afraid to die. But I guess that’s too late. Forgive me, Nikki. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep that promise after all.

 

Sergio opened his eyes. He was standing in a bare hallway, a white fog blurring the edges. He felt a throbbing pain behind his eyes.

Where the hell am I? he thought. There was a room down the hallway, the door open. A yellow light seeped from it.

Sergio walked towards it. The room was almost as bare as the hallway, except for two expensive-looking leather armchairs and a thick mahogany table. A person — a girl, judging by the silhouette — leaned back on her elbows, the small of her back pressed against the edge of the table. The light cast by a lampshade behind her prevented Sergio from seeing her face.

He took a couple of steps forward, walking into the room, and was taken aback when he finally recognized the girl. She tilted her head, smirking. Her short dark brown hair caressed her neck as she did, the tips dyed bright pink. Her eyes had a spark of life in them, amusing considering that she was dead. There was no way that he could mistake her for someone else.

“Kath… is that you?”

The girl sat on the table with a leap. “Who else should I be? Do you see anyone else here?” She pointed at the room with a sweeping gesture of her hand.

Sergio took a deep breath. Yes, she was unmistakably his sister. “Nice to see you haven’t changed a bit in all these years but, where are we? Am I…” He gulped. “Am I dead?”

Kathleen sighed and crossed her limbs. “No, you aren’t. But if you keep going on like this then you would’ve been better off dead already.”

She still knows how to get on my nerves, Sergio thought before sighing himself. “Good to know, I don’t quite plan to die anytime soon. So, why am I here?” He paused. “I mean, aside from getting the chance to apologize to you.”

Kathleen sneered. “Apologizing, and for what? For allowing my girlfriend to die? For killing me?”

“Yes! I wasn’t able to protect you, or Faith, or anyone else. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To face my sins and failures instead of running away like I did for all this time.”

“You’re here ’cause you need to face yourself.

“Face myself?”

“You’re not running away from your sins. You’re running away from your memories. Only you can run away from something that doesn’t even exist. You’re really an idiot.”

“From something that doesn’t even exist? But Faith died… I saw it happen but I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. And I couldn’t do anything for you, either!” Sergio shouted.

He took a step forward and pulled the string that he wore around his neck. There was a cartridge casing at the end, and he gripped it tightly. “I was only able to put an end to your suffering when it was too late for anything else.”

Much to his surprise, Kathleen burst into laughter. “Are you for real? I wouldn’t have had myself killed by an idiot like you.”

“If that’s a joke, it’s not funny,” Sergio said flatly.

“Really? I find it amusing. Anyway, when have you ever found fun in anything?”

“More often than you seem to think. Pardon me if I can’t find anything to laugh about in my sister’s death.”

“If the main character can, you can too.” Kathleen shrugged. “So, your memories?”

“My memories? Well, I had seen Faith’s death through your psychic outburst and a while later you died the same way, by the hand of the same killer, and—”

Sergio pinched the bridge of his nose. Something in the unfolding of his memories didn’t feel right. “I remember you were shot in the same room as Faith, but that can’t be right. That room no longer existed. What happened then?”

“C’mon, get it on your own!”

“Do you mean that all those deaths I saw — yours, Faith’s, everyone’s — didn’t really happen? My mind made it all up?”

Kathleen rubbed her temples. “For heaven’s sake, no! Weren’t you the one who said ‘no jokes’?”

“Bear with me here. I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s not! Please, stop being cryptic and just tell me what the heck happened back then.”

Kathleen leaned back. “Pretty much what you already know. Faith died. I died. But not like you remember.”

Then how did it really go? Great help you are, Sergio thought, going through his memories from the beginning of that day.

Marcus said he had seen through Kathleen’s deception, then ordered Chianti — one of the Black Organization’s snipers — to kill her. Faith had put herself on the bullet’s trajectory before it could reach Kathleen and he had seen all through the latter’s eyes. Again and again, like a broken record.

And then, something he hadn’t remembered in quite a long time. Kathleen had a breakdown and discharged psychic waves one after the other, pushing herself to exhaustion. Sergio remembered seeing the room’s walls cracking, big chunks of concrete falling onto the ground. The skin of those unfortunate enough to be in her reach melted, baring the bone underneath. That was the full destructive potential of his sister.

“After Faith’s death, you lost control of your powers.”

“You didn’t kill me, yeah. Because I did.”

Sergio nodded; the last piece fell into place. “You pushed your powers to a point your body couldn’t handle it. Why have my memories changed?”

“Because you can’t bear the truth. You’ve always been good at running away after all.”

“So, let’s see if I got it right,” Sergio said, tapping his forehead. “I couldn’t bear the fact that I couldn’t prevent any of your deaths, so I blamed myself to the point I convinced myself that I had killed you with my own hands?”

“Ugh. Something like that. I can’t really understand you, even though I am a product of your subconscious.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “Then you’re basically my subconscious telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself and move forward? I’m impressed. You’re just as annoying as the real thing.”

Kathleen grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Anything else I should be made aware of?”

“Yes. Back then, there was a survivor.”

Sergio cleared the space between them with two long strides, then grabbed her shoulders, keeping her at arm’s length. “Someone else made it? Who? Where are they now? Please, tell me.”

“She’s next to you right now. And take your hands off me.” She shrugged off his hands with a snort.

“How can you— You’re the real Kathleen, aren’t you? Otherwise you can’t know things I don’t know about.”

Kathleen grinned, again. “Oh, so you’re not totally witless, are you? However, I can tell you something. If she doesn’t stop shaking you anytime soon, she’s going to break your arm.”

“Who are you meaning with ‘she’? I mean…”

He was quite sure that nobody nearby him could be one of his old friends — even if his memory wasn’t completely reliable about what had happened during the War, none of his old friends appeared to be working at Strike Dove.

“Unless…”

There was one person who actually looked like someone he knew. One that had been at his side for over one year and a half.

“Nikki? The Sakura we met back then is actually Nikki?”

“You sure took your time to realize it. C’mon, they’re twins!” Kathleen sighed. “Well, that’s not quite right since they are the same person after all.”

“Many things make more sense now… like how she speaks Italian fluently.”

Sergio felt the urge to slap himself on the head for not noticing. Now that he thought about it, the similarities in behavior between the “Sakura” from his fanfiction and Nikki were very evident. And, of course, both had the voice of the Italian dub actress, although he had brushed that aside as a coincidence when he met her at the PPC.

“But why didn’t she say anything—”

A pair of arms wrapped around Kathleen’s waist. The owner was a girl in her early twenties with wavy hazel hair reaching her lower back and gleaming green eyes. Federica ‘Faith’ Leone, Kathleen’s girlfriend.

“I’m sorry to intrude. C’mon, Caterina, our time is running up.”

Kathleen crossed her arms. “You’re such a killjoy, you know?”

Faith laughed, her voice like a hundred little bells. “Really?” she said, then she turned toward Sergio. “She was really worried about you, did you know? She could not stop talking about how you were acting like an idiot and such.”

Kathleen gasped. “You weren’t supposed to tell him that!”

Sergio smiled, shaking his head. “I know. If she hadn’t been worried you both wouldn’t be here. Thanks, Kath.”

Kathleen pouted. “To put it clearly, I haven’t done this for you. I was just ashamed of having such an idiotic brother.”

Sergio couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “It was nice to see you again, but I’m afraid that I must go as well. I’ve got a Mary Sue to kill, worlds to save, messes to fix… the usual routine.”

The two girls nodded. The throbbing pain behind his eyes came back, sending waves of nausea down his throat. The floor tilted beneath him and the room started to spin around. Then, as all became black, he thought he heard a voice in the distance.

“Good luck, oniichan.”

 

“How funny.” Vera snorted, casually tossing her empty gun away. “He’s trying to deny his nature as a Gary Stu, and yet he keeps a copy of Sakura Kinomoto as his pet.”

“I’m not his pet.” Nikki dispelled her shield and shifted Vanguard to Saber form. “I’m his partner.”

“Same thing. But if you wish so badly to die for him…” Vera unsheathed her katana and charged. “Consider your wish granted!”

Nikki steeled herself to parry the attack. Much to her surprise, though, the blow wasn’t as strong as she thought it would be. Blade against blade, Nikki pushed forward until Vera was forced to stagger back a few steps.

Vera, however, didn’t give up and broke blade lock before launching herself at Nikki relentlessly, jumping around the brunette as if dancing, black steel meeting white mana over and over again.

Thin as she is, she relies on agility more than brute strength. Nikki turned around to parry another slash.  She’s trying to overpower me with attack speed, since she can’t win a blade lock.

Nikki ducked under a swing meant to decapitate her, but before she could land a hit of her own Vera had already twisted back into position to parry. Nikki pressed on, trying to force Vera to step back, but her Suvian opponent somehow angled the blade in a way that allowed her to slip away past her.

Nikki turned around just in time to parry another slash. She’s fast. If I can’t find a way to turn the fight in my favor quickly, she’ll eventually get past my guard. Maybe that spell Ari taught me…?

“Not bad. You’re strong,” Vera conceded between blows, “And I respect strong girls. It’s a shame you’ve sided with him, we could’ve been great friends.”

“I doubt it.”

“I guess I’ll have no regrets then!” Vera sidestepped Nikki’s attack and quickly retaliated. There was no time to swing back Vanguard to parry, and Nikki knew it. She raised her left arm, quickly casting Ari’s spell. It has to work!

“What the fu—” Vera shouted as her blade was caught by a translucent barrier wrapped around Nikki’s arm, but before she could end the sentence Nikki counterattacked. Vera jumped back to dodge her slash just barely, Vanguard’s blade grazing her cheek.

Vera touched where her skin had been cut. “Blood? But only another…” She looked at Nikki. “Don’t tell me, you’re…”

“A Replacement Sue? Yeah, I might’ve been one once,” Nikki said as she charged at Vera. “But not anymore.”

“Just great. You’re a traitor of our kind too, aren’t you?”

Nikki ignored her insult, focusing on matching every single one of Vera’s blows. Getting in the hit had destabilized her: Vera’s attacks were slower, as well as her movements. Nikki took advantage of that to keep pressing on, slowly pushing Vera towards an open electrical cabinet.

As they ended up in blade lock again, Nikki noticed how Vera’s katana had started glowing red where its edge met Vanguard. Of course, a metal sword can’t stand contact with an energy blade. It would’ve already melted if it weren’t a Suvian weapon.

Nikki increased the power output of Vanguard’s blade to the maximum, its exhausts blowing off steam, while continuing to push at the same time.

“This… this isn’t possible!” Vera screamed as her katana started to melt. “How can you—”

“I can because I love him!” Nikki shouted as Vera’s katana broke in half. “And love is always stronger than hate!”

Nikki spun around, building up momentum for a slash strong enough to lift Vera off her feet and send her right into the cabinet. Sparks flew everywhere as Vera got shocked by the same wires she had cut while sabotaging the radio tower.

Nikki shifted Vanguard back into Lancer form as Vera struggled to free herself. Now that she’s tangled up, I should have enough time for my strongest spell. Also, in hindsight, what I just said was very, very corny.

A white magic circle formed under her. “It took me five years to find him again.”

In front of Vanguard’s tip a white ball of mana appeared, quickly followed by another one around it. Sweat started beading on Nikki’s forehead as she used the outer ball of mana to compress the inner one. “And now that I did, I’m not going to let you harm him any further! Raging…”

The outer ball of mana started to peel away, the pressure inside too high to be completely contained.

“Blossom!”

The outer ball peeled off completely, opening like a tulip bud and releasing a short but powerful beam. Vera got hit squarely in the chest, and ended up being pushed through the cabinet and off the platform.

Nikki sent a quick message to Corolla explaining what had happened before running desperately to where Sergio was lying on the ground. He wasn’t conscious, and Nikki’s breath was cut short when she realized how bad his wounds were — blood was already starting to pool under him.

Nikki dropped to her knees and set up the magic circle for Physical Heal under him as fast as she could, checking his vital parameters in the meanwhile. The diagnosis was depressing — he had already lost a lot of blood, and if the hemorrhage wasn’t stopped quickly he wasn’t going to make it. Nikki slammed Vanguard’s pommel in the ground and started pushing all the mana she could muster into her spell. Please, don’t die! I refuse to believe you’ll die like this!

Not even thirty seconds had passed when she fell on all fours exhausted, her Device clattering on the ground next to her just as her magic circle dissipated. I’m… out of mana? Did I… Did I waste too much on Raging Blossom earlier?

Nikki crawled next to Sergio, tears running down her cheeks. It looked like his bleeding had stopped, but was that enough?

“Don’t you dare die on me, not like this! Not now that I… That I…” she screamed, grabbing him by the shoulders and starting to shake him in a desperate attempt to get a reaction from him.

“Now that I finally found you…”

He wasn’t moving. Nikki closed her eyes, unable to stop herself from crying. She had looked for him for years, and now…

“Nikki, I’m not a milkshake.”

Nikki opened her eyes. “… Sergio?”
Sergio smiled weakly, with only one eye open. “Sorry. I got you worried again, didn’t I?”

Nikki wiped her tears. “It doesn’t matter. You…”
“It does matter,” Sergio said, caressing her cheek. “I’ve made the girl I’ve always loved cry. That’s unforgivable.”

Nikki looked at him eyes wide open, surprised by both his gesture and choice of words. “You… realized?”

“Well, not quite by myself. Kathleen had to give me a bop in the head from beyond the grave. Looks like I’ve been quite an idiot for not noticing.”

Nikki pulled him in a hug just as tears started running down again. This time, however, they were a different kind of tears.

“Ow! I’m still quite banged up, you know?” Sergio protested before reciprocating the hug. They stayed that way for a few seconds before Nikki pulled back. “So… about that weight of yours? I think I might’ve collected some charges along the way, too.”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking…?”
“If you’re a Gary Stu, then I’m a Replacement Sue and your accomplice,” Nikki said with a smile, “So I’m taking half of it.”

She moved closer, their faces just a few centimeters apart. “And I’m having none of that ‘I don’t deserve you’ nonsense again.”

“I guess I have no reaso—mmh?”

Sergio’s eyes widened just as Nikki pulled him in a kiss.

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 12

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

 

Mission Record 12 – Guardian Angel

 

Ami ran towards Colonel Johnson’s office and opened the door as quickly as she could without slamming it. “I’m sorry I’m late, sir!”

“Don’t worry, First Lieutenant. We didn’t begin the introductions yet.”

Ami looked around while catching her breath. Johnson was sitting at the desk like usual, and, as she had expected, Vera and James were already there, alongside a young man she assumed to be the new guy assigned to their team.

She looked at him out of curiosity. He was quite tall, probably just a couple inches less than James, with messy brown hair and wearing a pair of glasses. He was standing at attention looking towards Johnson, his expression unreadable.

He looks so serious… I was hoping for the new member to be a girl I could get along with. Well, there isn’t anything I can do about it, right?

“Raven Team, this is Second Lieutenant Sergio Turbo, your new team member.”

Ami’s thoughts started trailing off while Johnson continued with the introductions. Well, it’s not like I could be expecting another girl my age. I’m already an exception to the rules.

She glanced at Vera. I’m still curious how she got in, though.

 

Ami walked towards the outdoor firing range, carrying her Mk14 rifle inside its case. It was a cold January afternoon, and so there weren’t many people at the range that day; in fact, only the first two rifle lanes appeared to be occupied, with Josh and Nathan of Raptor Team currently comparing their results.

Ami waved at them and resisted the urge to laugh as she realized that both had tried to draw a smiley face on the targets with the bullet holes.

As she neared the long range lane, though, she noticed that the last rifle lane was occupied as well. She set her weapon case on the ground, and glanced at the other shooter.

That’s Sergio. I wonder why he chose a lane so far away from the others.

Ami peeked at the target sheet he was holding. “That’s not a bad grouping for a beginner.”

Sergio turned around and looked at her, apparently surprised. “Uhm… Thank you, ma’am.”

“Just Ami is fine. We aren’t so formal around here.”

“OK, but… Aren’t you my superior?”

“Well… yes and no? We only use ranks as to tell who’s a team leader and stuff like that. A Striker Team leader is a Captain, regular team members are First Lieutenants and probationary team members like you are Second Lieutenants.” Ami looked up in thought. “I heard Colonel Johnson held that rank in the US Air Force or something, so we’re using his old rank more out of respect than anything.”

Sergio rubbed his chin. “I see. Then why is Major Heartbound, well, a Major? Shouldn’t she be a Captain?”

“I… don’t know, actually. I never asked her, to be sincere.”

 

Ami glanced at Sergio while reloading her rifle. He kept firing in very long bursts, emptying a magazine in just two or three of them. “Maybe you should try shorter bursts?”

Sergio looked at her. “Hm?”

“Well, you consistently hit near the center of the target at first, but then you keep your finger on the trigger and end up spraying rounds all above the target.  You should only fire a few rounds at a time… maybe try the three round burst setting if your gun has it?”

“My M16 doesn’t have it, but I’ll try doing that manually.”

Only then Ami realized that, despite looking a lot like the standard issue M4 of Strike Dove, his rifle had a longer barrel and a different, simpler stock. It looked quite battered, as well. “Wow, they really gave you an old rifle. I didn’t even know we had M16s around.”

“No, I didn’t get it here. I already had it… let’s just say I already have some experience in fighting.”

 

“You were right. This looks much better,” Sergio said, looking at the target sheet in his hand. They had just finished shooting practice, and were sitting at a table cleaning their guns.

Ami peeked at the sheet. His groupings had improved considerably just with her tip. “Wow, that’s pretty good. You surely have been a shooter for a while, haven’t you…?”

Ami bit her lip as she saw Sergio turn away. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that.

“For… I don’t remember exactly, but several years already,” he said after a while. Sergio then glanced at her Mk14. “What’s that? I’ve never seen anything like that rifle.”

“It’s an Mk14 Mod 0, a modernized version of the old M14. Or, at least, that’s what I got explained. Mine is set up as a marksman rifle, but it can be used as a battle rifle as well. Dad used it like the latter before—” Her voice died out as she thought about what had happened to her family.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s alright. You couldn’t have known.” Ami looked up at him. “But… Well, you’re bound to hear it from someone else one way or another, so I guess I should tell you the whole story. It isn’t good to keep secrets between teammates, after all.”

“You don’t have to if it is too hurtful.” Despite having met her only that day, Ami could hear genuine concern in his voice.

“Don’t worry. After all, there isn’t much to tell you about. See, my parents used to work here, as well. But one day, during last year’s war, they… didn’t get back from a mission.“

Sergio glanced at her rifle again. “So you picked up their battle?”

“More or less. I was already living at the base, as our house wasn’t a safe place anymore… and I already wanted to enlist here once old enough. I just ended up doing that earlier than planned.”

“Earlier than planned? Pardon my indiscretion, but… how old are you?”

It is because I’m so short, isn’t it? “I’ve just turned fourteen. I know, I’m too young for this, but…”

“I would be one hell of a hypocrite if I complained about that. How old do you think I am?”

Ami looked at him more carefully, but most of her first impression about him was confirmed. His eyes are very warm, though. “Twenty?”

Sergio started laughing. “I’m sixteen. Do I really look that old?”

Ami widened her eyes. “Well… yes? I mean, in the office you looked so serious and mature, and you’re so tall… you looked like a veteran!”

“Well.. I have to admit I’ve already seen a lot of action.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. He surely couldn’t have been a regular soldier at that age. “Resistance?”

“Something like that. But… I’d like to not speak about it.”

Ami nodded understandingly.

 

“Okay everyone, weapons ready,” Vera shouted over the helicopter’s noise. “We’ll be at the mission area soon. We go in, kill everything, put a bullet through the skull of that warlord, get out. Like usual.”

Ami suppressed a sigh. As usual, Vera’s plan was to simply barge in guns blazing, completely disregarding any kind of tactical approach. I’m a designated marksman. Running in blind is the opposite of what I should do. She’s gonna get me killed someday.

“Here we go again.” Sergio leaned forward. “That’s not a plan, you know?”

Vera crossed her arms, looking offended. “Of course it is. We’re an elite unit with cool weapons, while they’re just random militia with old AKs. They’ll go down like bowling pins, so why bother with complex stuff?”

Sergio rubbed his forehead in an eloquent “are you insane” gesture. “The only way that’s a good plan is if suicide is a good plan for you. What are you, twelve?”

“I’m thirteen! And I’m the leader, so I decide how we go, and…”

Ami shivered. Knowing Vera’s temper, that wasn’t going to end well, and indeed Vera started a long monologue on how she knew better. It was something Ami was used to; while she was too timid to start an argument with her and James simply went with the flow, Sergio was always quick to question Vera’s decisions.

Sergio listened to her silently, his arms crossed and his stare fixed as if analyzing her while waiting for her to run out of steam.

“That’s how it is, huh,” he said once Vera was over with the outburst of the day. “Though, with due respect ma’am, I still believe that’s not the best course of action.”

Sergio grabbed a satellite image with the location of the warlord’s stronghold. “While I agree that this is only an old colonial mansion with improvised fortification, this tower isn’t just for looks. Well, maybe it once was, but it would be stupid to believe they haven’t turned it into a watchtower. Taking out the sentinel up there should be the priority, and this rock ledge south of the stronghold looks like a good position for Comet to take the shot. Once taken care of that…”

Ami listened intently as Sergio laid out a full assault plan, scribbling down routes on the photo and going so far as to suggest how to split the team according to each member’s specialization and loadout. He always comes up with good plans. Where did he learn all of that…?

“Boring,” Vera commented in the end. “Taking them out from a distance? Encircling them? That’s the cowardly way. There’s glory only in facing your enemy head-on!”

“So ‘glory’ is why you want to get us all into crossfire, including our marksman who isn’t supposed to get into close combat at all?”

“It’s her fault if she’s too weak to handle automatic weapons!”

Ami looked down, trying to hold back her anger. I didn’t ask to be this small, you know?

James leaned forward. “Boss, that was harsh. And… well, I think Lightning’s got a point. He seems to know what he’s talking about. You should stop shooting down his plans every time.”

“No. We’re sticking with mine.”

“But, Boss…”

Sergio snorted. “Figures,” he muttered low enough that Ami heard him just barely, and Vera and James didn’t seem to hear over their own discussion, “You’re one too, huh?”

Ami kept wondering what he meant by that for the rest of the flight.

 

Ami held her rifle close to her body while hiding behind a concrete barrier, bullets zipping above her.

Sergio fired a couple bursts before ducking under cover to reload. “Does she have a death wish or something? She just charged in without any cover.”

Ami didn’t need to look to guess what Vera was doing. She likely was in the middle of the courtyard, shooting wildly with her machine pistols or stabbing with her katana, dodging bullets and spinning around like a dancer on stage while the rest of her team was forced to take cover and try to stay alive.

“Lightning, I hope you’ve got one of your clever ideas, because this is going south quickly,” James shouted, laying down suppressive fire with his M60 machine gun.

“Can you cover us? If Venom keeps distracting them with her show, Comet and I might be able to take a detour and get them from behind.”

 

Ami lay down on the rock ledge and unfolded her rifle’s bipod. Next to her, Sergio looked at the stronghold through a pair of binoculars. “Comet, near the gate. The target is escaping.”

Ami aimed where he said, and indeed the warlord was being quickly escorted towards an old offroader. She held her breath and pulled the trigger.

“Hit. He’s down.” Sergio patted her on the shoulder. “Nice shot.”

Ami opened a CODEC call. “Comet to HQ. Target is neutralized.”

[Good job. Raven Team, mission accomplished. Disengage and return to LZ.]

[What? We’ve still got lots of enemies to kill!] Vera screamed.  [And you two stole the most important kill from me again!]

 

Ami opened the door of the southmost hangar, and walked in. As Strike Dove lacked the air fleet to occupy all the hangars of the former US Air Force airfield they were based in, that one was being used as a covered car park by the people living at the base.

She looked around for Sergio. Their shift had ended an hour earlier, and since he wasn’t in his room he most likely was tinkering with his old Toyota coupé, even now that, with summer nearing, the hangar was becoming very hot in the afternoons.

Indeed, Ami caught a glimpse of the bright red car, its hood open. Sergio was leaning on the engine bay, working with some wires while James was talking to him.

“The guys from Raptor team and I are going to do some runs this evening at the old radio tower road. Want to come?”

Sergio looked at him sideways. “Runs at the… Sorry, I’m not into street racing.”

“Hey, don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t know which road it is, do you?” James laughed. “It’s the one leading to the old abandoned tower on the hill. Not a public road at all, the only way to get on it is from inside the base itself.”

“And the Colonel doesn’t mind?”

“He sometimes dusts off his old Charger and comes for a spin as well… though that narrow road doesn’t suit it at all. And, besides, we don’t actually race. Just some sporty driving up and down the road for fun. You should come, so see ya later!”

James waved at him and walked away. Sergio followed him with his eyes, his expression clearly one of disbelief until he noticed Ami standing a few meters away. “Oh, hi. Need anything?”

Ami took a deep breath and walked closer. Why am I feeling so embarrassed…? “Well, yes. Is your car alright? Because I finally decided on getting Ace Combat 6, and… well, if you could give me a lift…”

“I see. Since Namco had the great idea to switch sides in the console war, you’re going to need to get an Xbox for it as well. And you can’t really carry that comfortably by foot or on a bus.” He glanced at the engine bay. “Not a problem, I could use a few more kilometers of break-in for the engine. And, besides, that’s the least I can do since you’ve been letting me play the other Ace Combat games on your Playstation, and made me discover the awesomeness Lyrical Nanoha is.”

“Thank you! And… well, I didn’t do anything special. Videogames and anime are simply better in company.” Ami then glanced at the front of the car in curiosity. “You replaced the pop-up headlights with normal ones? Why did you do that?”

“Well, mostly for aerodynamic reasons. This way I can get better performance and mileage when the lights are on.”

“But the pop-ups were so cute!” Ami mimicked the motion of said headlights with her hands. “I once saw a photo of a car with only one light up, it looked like it was winking!”

Sergio laughed. “Well, I do have to admit pop-up headlights have their charm.”

 

“I can’t believe this,” Ami said, reading the instructions booklet of her new Xbox 360. “I have to pay a subscription to Microsoft to be able to play online?”

Sergio raised his head from behind her television set. “Now I get why people keep spelling their name with a dollar symbol in it.” He walked over to her. “Anyways, the Xbox is plugged in and ready to go.”

Ami grabbed the DVD case of Ace Combat 6 and put the disc into the console. “Aww, there is no split-screen!”

“That’s a shame. Shall we take turns at the campaign like we did with Unsung War?”

Ami nodded, and they sat at the end of her bed.

Why is my heart beating so fast now? Ami thought during Sergio’s turn. We’re just friends, and teammates, right?… Playing games together is nothing special.

“Ami?”

Ami turned towards him. He was offering her the controller, one of his eyebrows raised. “Eh? What?”

“It’s your turn.”

Ami took the controller. “Sorry, I was spacing out.”

Sergio leaned towards her a bit, concern on his face. “Anything wrong?”

Ami could feel her heart skip a beat. “No, nothing. Just thinking about some stuff.” Is that how I feel about him…?

 

“So…” Sergio said, driving his Trueno on the radio tower road, closely following Josh’s Lancer. “I thought you weren’t interested in cars much?”

Ami fiddled with her seatbelt. “Well, yeah. But you’re going to race on a mountain course like in Initial D, right? I was curious to see how it is in real life!”

Sergio raised an eyebrow as he downshifted to tackle a corner. “Initial what?”

“You don’t know Initial D? The main character even has the same car as you!”

“Guess I’ll have to check it out, then.”

“Well…” Ami fidgeted. “I’ve only watched the first season, as it isn’t really my kind of anime. But if you want we can watch it together after we finish Nanoha.

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”

 

“Sergio, you’re pretty good for someone this young,” Josh said as they took a pause to let the engines cool down.

James nodded, leaning with his back against his Mustang. “Told you the guy had potential. And you haven’t seen the best. Pop the hood, Sergio.”

Sergio gave him a quick glance before doing so. “I don’t think it’s anything special.”

Josh and Nathan looked under the hood. “Isn’t that engine a 7A-GTE?” the latter asked. “It looks like you’ve spent a lot building this car.”

“Well…” Sergio said, looking down. “This car’s everything I have left, so I’m throwing everything into it, both in money and time.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. “Everything…?”

“Well, yeah. I’m living at the base, so I don’t have much in the way of living expenses. And I don’t go out much, either… after all, I don’t even have a girlfriend.”

Ami brought a hand to her chest. Why am I feeling so relieved that he is single?

“Being single has its perks,” Nathan said before glancing at his BMW. “Vanny nearly killed me when she realized that the car I had bought was actually an old M5.”

Their chat was interrupted by the sound of an engine. A few seconds later, a black Porsche parked next to them.

“Here we go again…” Josh said, disappointment in his voice.

The door of the Porsche opened, and Vera got out. Ami blinked a couple of times in disbelief. Why has she got a car? She’s too young to drive!

“Sorry I’m late. Let’s see who’s the fastest!”

“For the hundredth time, this isn’t a competition,” Josh said sternly. “We’re here to have fun with our cars, and that’s it.”

Vera scoffed. “What’s the point of improving your car if it isn’t to be faster than the others’?”

“Your Cayman seems to be quite stock though.”

“That’s because Porsches are perfect the way they are!”

Josh sighed. “Feel free to believe what you want, but I thought I had been clear last time: until you accept that our car meetings aren’t about one-upping each other, you’re not welcome here.”

“Oh, but you’ve got no authority to tell me what to do, Captain Colt. I’m the highest ranked one here, so I lay the rules.” Vera smiled smugly, and looked around. She raised an eyebrow as she saw Ami. “Tanegashima? You here too? I didn’t know your feet reached the pedals.”

Ami clenched her fists, breathing deeply. She had to keep her anger in check, as Vera would be quick to abuse her position as a team leader to report any complaint as insubordination.

“Ok, that’s it Vera,” Sergio said, his voice eerily calm. “I’m putting up with you enough during missions; I’m not letting you insult my friends here too. You want to race? Fine, I’ll race against you. And the loser never sets foot here again.”

Ami was taken aback. True, he would go out of his way to help her during missions, but that was a given for a good teammate. Him standing up to Vera there was something she didn’t expect. He’s going so far as to face off Vera for me…?

Vera laughed. “That’s Major Heartbound to you, Second Lieutenant. But I’m letting your insubordination slip for this time. Humiliating you and your rustbucket during the race will be enough.”

As she said that, she entered her car and drove it to the starting position. Sergio opened his Trueno’s door, but Josh grabbed him by the arm. “Hey, you don’t have to do this. Besides, if you lose—”

“I won’t lose, Josh. Sure, she has more power — my Trueno’s still on a low boost setting so that’s just about 220 horsepower against her 300 or so — but this is a narrow winding road so suspension setup and driving skills are what matters most. If she drives like she fights, there’s no way I can lose to her pancaked Beetle.”

Josh sighed, and let him go with a shrug. “Alright, it’s your call. Just be careful, though — we don’t want anyone to get hurt here, and I know for fact Vera doesn’t drive cleanly.”

 

“Rocket, I hope your camera setup is working. We need to keep an eye on this,” Josh said after the race started. As could be expected, Vera’s Cayman was faster off the line, and rounded the first corner in the lead.

Nathan set a laptop PC on the hood of his car. “Looks like it is.”

Ami peeked in, and saw the video feed of several cameras on the computer’s screen. “Wow, you could make a movie with all these cams!”

“Well, the idea was to make a montage of our runs.” Nathan brought on full-screen the feed of the camera from which the two cars were visible. “But it will also be a good way to see if something bad happens.”

Ami kept watching the video feed, with Nathan switching from camera to camera in order to follow the race. Vera was still in the lead, her car faster on the straights, but in the corners Sergio would always regain the distance.

“He wasn’t lying about his claims.” Josh let out a short laugh. “His line is better. He isn’t some kid who just got his driving license.”

“Maybe he was racing karts before the war?” Nathan wondered.

In the meanwhile, Sergio had managed to come out faster from a chicane, and tried to overtake on the inside in the following corner. Vera, however, steered sharply to close the space, forcing him to brake. Sparks flew off as Sergio’s car scratched lightly on the guardrail as he did his best to avoid colliding with Vera’s car.

“She nearly drove him off the road!” Ami shouted.

“That’s why we don’t want her here,” Josh said flatly. “And why I was against this.”

Nathan poked his shoulder. “Josh, look. He’s driving differently now.”

His driving now looks a bit like that in Initial D, Ami thought as she saw that Sergio was now taking the corners very aggressively, sending the car on a four wheel drift in the narrow ones. While he had lost some ground due to the collision, he was making it up at a quick pace.

“Rocket, I think he hasn’t been karting. He’s driving more like a rally driver.” Josh rubbed his chin. “I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen this particular style somewhere, but where…?”

The two cars reached the end of the road, where a cone had been placed to mark the switch-back point. Vera brutally turned her Cayman around with the handbrake, nearly coming to a stop before accelerating away spinning her tires. Sergio, instead, managed to swing his car around the cone cleanly, making up the last of the gap.

“Just a quick tap on the handbrake, then power over to drift around the cone,” Josh explained. “As I thought, he’s indeed using rally techniques.”

Ami kept her eyes fixed on the video feed. He’s right on her tail, but he’s not trying to overtake…?

Indeed, for several corners Sergio seemed to be contented with driving at just a couple meters from the rear bumper of the Cayman. Wait, isn’t Vera’s car sliding too?

“Wow, Sergio’s surely putting a lot of pressure on the boss,” James said. “I can see from here that she’s getting nervous. Look at— Whoa!”

The Cayman skidded out of the intended line during a long right-hand corner, likely due to taking it too fast. The Trueno dove to the inside, making the pass just in time before the following corner.

Josh crossed his arms. “It’s over. She’s not going to keep up.”

Ami noticed a smile on Josh’s face. “Why? I mean, he’s been faster… but you’re so sure!”

“I just realized where I had already seen his driving. A couple years ago, in the Under-16 World Rally Championship…”

 

“You were awesome!” Ami complimented Sergio as he accompanied her to her room.

“Nah, I’m sure I’m not.”

“But… I mean, you’ve been doing great during missions, and you’re very good at driving too.”

Sergio smiled uncomfortably. “That’s the only two things I’m good at, though. Fighting and driving. That’s all I am.”

Ami opened the door of her room. “You’re much more than that. I mean, so far you’ve been such a nice person. You can be a little more proud of yourself… you’re even a world champion!”

Ami realized that Sergio wasn’t following her inside the room. She turned around, and found him looking at the ground a few steps back. “How do you know?”

“Well, Colt said that he had recognized how you drive. He said that you’ve managed to win some kind of rally championship twice!”

Sergio kept looking down. “Think nothing of it. It wasn’t really that big of a championship anyways. Just a few kids doing a watered-down version of the rallies of the proper WRC. It was just an experiment they did as a lead-in class like the small single-seater cars are to F1, and they didn’t even resume it after the War. Too many accidents, I guess.”

“Do you mind if I go looking for some videos of it, though? I’m curious,” Ami said, opening her laptop PC.

Sergio took a deep breath. “Even if I say no, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from doing so when I’m not around so…”

Ami pouted. “I would never do that! It wouldn’t be nice to look up things about you behind your back, you know…?”

 

“Why did you stop racing?” Ami asked after watching a few videos. She brought up another browser window, showing his results. “You won both the 2005 and 2006 titles by a very good margin! I bet you would’ve been earning more money, too.”

Sergio looked away. “It didn’t feel right anymore after I—” He stopped, almost like catching himself from finishing the sentence.

“After what?”

Sergio gulped, and pointed at his copilot’s name on the screen. “Aurora was in my same resistance group during the War, but… unlike me, she didn’t make it out alive. I… I was the only one who did.”

Ami felt her stomach knotting up. So that’s why he’s uncomfortable with remembering his racing career? “Sorry, I shouldn’t have been forcing this onto you. If only I knew…”

“And how? You couldn’t.” Sergio let out a short laugh. “Heh, this is like the chat we had on my first day, but with inverted roles, isn’t it? So don’t worry about it. The only thing we have to worry about is how grumpy Vera will be tomorrow.”

 

“Major Heartbound, your complaint is simply unacceptable,” Johnson said, looking Vera straight in the eyes. She had dragged the entire team to his office, and was trying to get Sergio off her team. “Second Lieutenant Turbo’s refusal to follow your orders isn’t insubordination, but simply common sense. In fact, if it wasn’t for his quick thinking I believe many of the operations assigned to your team would’ve ended in failure.”

“But—”

Johnson raised a hand to stop her. “You’ve been showing a lack of even the basics of tactical knowledge, and that means you’re unfit as a team leader. I’ve scheduled some courses for you, and in the meanwhile I’ll temporarily assign your team’s leadership to Second Lieutenant Turbo. Pay attention, I think you can learn from him.”

“No way I’m working under him! I’d rather fight all by myself… I don’t need a team!” Vera stormed out of Colonel Johnson’s office, slamming the door behind her.

A shiver went down Ami’s spine. She had never seen Vera so furious, but Johnson seemed to take the issue calmly, just letting out an exasperated sigh.

“Well, if she doesn’t want to stay in Raven Team anymore then I guess the change in its leadership will be permanent.” He looked at Sergio. “Congratulations, Captain Turbo. You just got promoted.”

Ami looked at Sergio and was surprised to see that he didn’t seem to be happy about it.

“Uhm… Thank you sir, but I’m not sure I’m good enough to be a team leader.”

James raised an eyebrow. “Are you kidding, man? There’s no way you can be worse than Vera. I saw how you think, and I trust the Colonel’s judgment so you’re the boss now.”

“But…”

Ami walked in front of him and saluted. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Captain!”

Sergio sighed. “Guys… OK, I’ll give it a try.”

 

Ami tied up some of her hair in a single high pigtail before taking a look in the mirror. She nodded in satisfaction as the hair tie matched perfectly with her lilac sleeveless dress and purple eyes.

Despite being already September, the weather was still very warm and so she had come up with the idea of taking a day off. I’m happy Sergio accepted it.

She took a deep breath and walked out of her room. Will he accept my confession, as well…?

 

“Wow, I didn’t think this place was so popular!” Ami said as she and Sergio queued up at an ice cream parlor.

“Maybe we should try another one?”

Ami shook her head energetically. “I’ve heard this one’s the best in the area, I really wanted to try it out!”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “Well, I’m trusting you here. It’s not like we’re in a hurry after all.”

As the queue slowly proceeded, Ami did her best to act normally, even if being so close to him was making her heart race. This feels so much like a date…

Sergio leaned towards her a bit. “Hm?”

“W-what is it?” Ami felt her cheeks heat up. If I keep going like this, he’ll realize on his own before I say anything!

“Your earrings are really nice.”

Ami felt her head become light with joy at the compliment. Those were her favorite earrings; shaped like Japanese cherry tree blossoms, but in lilac.

Sergio looked away. “In pink they would’ve looked good with her hair clip,” he muttered in a very low voice, probably mostly to himself.

Ami felt like the whole world had crashed on her. Her… who? Don’t tell me… he has a girlfriend?

She walked out of the queue absent-mindedly.

“Ami?”

“Sorry, I’m… not feeling very well. Can we get back to the base?”

 

Ami hugged her pillow tightly, lying on her bed and staring at the wall. I’ve waited too much. He mentioned he didn’t have a girlfriend a couple months ago… She buried her face in the pillow, and started crying again.

There was a light knock at the door. Ami raised her face from the pillow just enough to speak. “Who is that?”

“It’s me, Sergio.”

Ami took a deep breath. It might be a bad idea, but… “Come in.”

Sergio opened the door and walked in, a clearly concerned look on his face. “Are you feeling better?”

Even if there’s a girl you love, you really care about me a lot as well… you’re too kind. “A bit.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

The thought of him dropping his girlfriend for her passed on Ami’s mind, but she rejected it. That’s a very selfish and messed up thing to want! “Not really, no. But thank you.”

A thought passed on her mind. Maybe… What if I had gotten it all wrong? How can I be sure…

“You really are too kind. Your girlfriend surely is a very lucky girl,” she said in the end.

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “What? But I don’t have one.”

Ami felt a glimmer of hope. Oh, right, he mentioned he has a sister. Maybe he was talking about her? “Really? By what you said earlier, it sounded like you wanted to get earrings like mine for another girl… your sister, perhaps? You never talk about her.”

“I never really got along much with her… No, you were right in thinking the earrings would’ve been for a girlfriend, but… I don’t have one anymore”

Ami raised an eyebrow, trying to put together the few things he had revealed. “You broke up?”

Sergio sat on the edge of her bed. “No… I lost her during the War. It’s been one year already, but… I still can’t stop thinking about her, even if it feels wrong.”

“Oh, I get it… Aurora wasn’t just your copilot, am I right?”

Sergio shook his head. “No, she was just a friend. I’ve… lost many people. Pretty much everyone.”

Ami looked down. “I know what you mean.”

To her surprise, Sergio pulled out his wallet and retrieved a photo from it. “Here, since you appear to be curious.”

Ami took a look at it. It was a group photo of many people around their age, took under a very big Christmas tree. Here’s Sergio… and that other girl must be Aurora, she looks the same as the girl in the photos of Sergio’s rallying I found on the Internet.

She then noticed that one of the girls was wearing a hairclip decorated with cherry blossoms. “Is this one your girlfriend?”

Sergio nodded slowly. “And the one with a bit of her hair dyed pink is my sister.”

“You never talk about her… wait, don’t tell me…”

Sergio flinched. He put the photo back in his wallet, and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Of these people, I’m the only one left. And maybe some would’ve been better off never knowing me. I was sort of the leader of this group, you know? And that’s how it ended.”

Ami was surprised. It was pretty rare for Sergio to open up that way. “So that’s why you didn’t want to be the leader of our team. But don’t worry: I don’t have any intention of dying on you, and I’m sure James doesn’t either!”

Sergio, however, didn’t seem to be very reassured.

 

“Guys, you need to come have a look at this!” Josh shouted at Sergio and Ami as they walked towards the firing range.

“What’s the matter, JJ?” Sergio asked as they started following him.

Josh led them to the mess hall, heading towards one of the televisions in it. “It’s about James.”

“Didn’t he take the week off?” Ami raised an eyebrow. “He said his brother had just gotten out of jail or something, and wanted to help him find a job and…”

The words died in her throat as she read the breaking news on the screen. They were about a drive-by shooting that happened nearby, with two brothers as the victims. “No…”

“Probably a rival gang,” Josh said.

“Or maybe Carl’s own. James said he had gotten a few years off his sentence by collaborating with the police,” Sergio added, before turning to a table and punching it. “Damn it! Off all the ways it could happen…”

Ami looked down. She understood clearly what he meant — what are the odds of getting shot at home, when your job involves getting shot everywhere else?

 

“Why is it always ending like this lately?” Ami shouted as she and Sergio took cover behind some trees. While they had completed their main mission objective — take down a survivalist militia leader who had holed up in the Alaskan wilderness — a full platoon of his men came out of apparently nowhere to chase them.

“There’s something fishy about this. You fired only a single shot, we relocated right away and yet they’ve pinpointed our location perfectly!” Sergio shouted back over the sound of gunfire.

He took a sigh after taking down the last of the militia soldiers. “It’s almost like they knew of our attack plan…”

“But that can’t be, can it?” Ami said, reloading her rifle. “Anyways, we’re almost done. We just have to destroy their weapons depot, right?”

“Right.” Sergio looked down. “Maybe I’ll feel better once I’ll have blown up that wretched place for good…?”

 

Ami bolted awake, hearing the sound of the helicopter. She looked around, and she was indeed inside Dove 1-1. Did I just fall asleep on duty?

She saw Sergio sitting across from her, looking quite downcast. The door gunner was trying to comfort him. Right, I must’ve passed out after being shot. All what I’ve told him was for nothing, I guess… but that’s better.

“Sergio? Stop worrying about me, I’m feeling better, see?”

Neither Sergio nor the gunner, though, seemed to hear her. Ami got up from her seat and walked towards them. “Hey! I’m alright. The wound isn’t even hurting any—” No, that’s not right.

She tried moving the wounded shoulder and arm, which she did effortlessly. There’s no way I can move my shoulder like this after getting a bullet there, is there? She looked at her winter camo fatigues, the left sleeve of her jacket mostly covered in congealed blood. Or be standing this soon after bleeding out…

Only then she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. She turned around, and saw a black body bag lying on the floor of the helicopter. “Uhm, guys, who’s that?”

Again, no answer. She walked closer to them, and waved a hand in front of Sergio’s eyes, but there was no reaction. They can’t see or hear me? What’s happening?

She turned back at the body bag, looking at it more carefully. Judging by the length of the body, that person couldn’t have been any taller than her.

No, it can’t be… This is some sort of prank, right?

She walked over to the body bag. It wasn’t in Sergio’s style to pull such a mean prank on her, but at that point she was hoping for that to be the case. She mustered up her courage and grabbed for the bag’s zipper, but her fingers went right through the tab as if it were air. Ami recoiled back in shock, and put a hand on her neck, trying to feel the jugular, but there was no pulse. Where’s my heartbeat… Does it mean that, inside that bag, there’s…?

She fell on her knees and started screaming.

 

Ami looked at the papers on Sergio’s desk. He had started investigating some things in the days after her death. The leaked mission strategy, the false weather report sent to our extraction helicopter… it all came from Vera?

She turned around as she heard the distinctive sound of a round being chambered. Sergio was sitting on his bed, oddly wearing civilian clothes — a red jacket over black pants — and was slinging his rifle across his back while walking towards the door.

Ami followed him, her heart heavy. She already knew what he was going to do.

 

Where is everyone? Ami thought as she followed Sergio through the empty corridors. While most of the teams were out on their missions and Colonel Johnson was in Washington for some bureaucratic matter, that night the base was still quieter than it was supposed to be.

Ami kept following Sergio as he entered a small gym — one over which Vera had claimed exclusive rights due to it being her “dojo” or something.

“Fancy seeing you here, Sergio,” Vera said as she jumped down from a pommel horse with a somersault. “What brings you here?”

Sergio didn’t look fazed by her acrobatics. “You can guess by yourself. I know everything, Vera. I’m here to settle matters before you kill more innocents. Those like you have no right to exist.”

Ami looked down. I knew it. He wants to kill her to avenge me. And James, maybe? Was Vera behind that as well?

Vera laughed. “You caught me. So what? They died easily just like the weaklings they were, and the same will happen to you. I wanted to make it look like a battle casualty, but you’re leaving me no choice.”

She pulled out her katana apparently out of nowhere and charged at Sergio, who parried with his rifle before hitting her in the gut with the stock. Vera staggered, a surprised expression on her face. “How on Earth…?”

Sergio calmly pulled out his combat knife from its sheath and attached it to the rifle’s bayonet lug. “I know what you are, Vera. An abomination known as a Mary Sue.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. Isn’t that a term for badly written characters?

Vera scoffed. “Tsk. And now I know why my aura didn’t affect you in the slightest. You’re the same thing, aren’t you?”

Ami noticed a pained expression on Sergio’s face.

“Yes… Probably the only one who’s realized that being a monster isn’t good,” Sergio said as he aimed his rifle and opened fire.

Vera vaulted on the horse, dodging the gunfire before retaliating with her machine pistols. Which, again, Ami couldn’t understand from where they came from, as Vera was wearing only a gymnastics leotard. As the fight went on, though, Ami noticed that reality itself didn’t seem to be applying anymore. I can clearly see the bullets flying as they somehow slowed down… and there’s at least a couple hundred spent casings on the ground, but neither of them has reloaded even once!

Vera swung her katana horizontally, trying to decapitate her opponent. “So you’re a traitor to your own kind? Trying to pass off as a mere human, instead of looking for the success we were made for?”

Sergio ducked, before slashing with the bayonet, missing her just barely. “Success? You’re warping everything around you so you can always have what you want without breaking a sweat. And your answer to your teammates not following your madness was betraying them!”

Vera fired another burst off one of her machine pistols. “If you have a problem with that, you’re free to try killing me. But I doubt you can. You hate our nature… I embrace it!”

“You still don’t know one thing, Vera.” Sergio dodged the bullets and parried her following slash, before charging in with the bayonet. Vera’s breath was cut short as the blade struck her gut. “You’re not the first of our kind that I kill.”

Sergio pulled his weapon out, letting Vera fall on the ground.

“This… This can’t be happening!” she screamed. “I’m stronger than you!”

“You aren’t strong. You just force stuff to suit your whims.”

“I can do that because I am strong!”

Sergio pulled out his pistol, a Walther P99 standard issue from Strike Dove, and aimed it at Vera’s heart. “There is no strength in betraying your own allies. Only cowardice.”

Much to Ami’s surprise, though, Sergio didn’t shoot Vera but lowered his gun. “No, it would be too easy for you to die like this. You know how much Ami held onto life, despite her injury? One hour. Waiting for a helicopter you made sure would never arrive.”

The room began to shake. Ami instinctively covered her head with her arms, even if falling debris couldn’t hurt her anymore. An earthquake? Right now?

Sergio, however, seemed to take the issue calmly. He simply put away the gun as the building kept shaking. “This place’s buckling? Don’t tell me Strike Dove’s existence was your doing, too…? Well, listen: I’m not finishing you now. You’re going to bleed out, or maybe you’ll be lucky and this place will fall on your head first. Either way, you’ll die slowly and painfully. Like Ami.”

Sergio then left the room quickly, leaving the wounded Vera behind. Ami followed him, shocked by what she had just seen. That’s… brutal. And not like him at all. She looked down. My death pushed you this far?

 

Ami was sitting in the passenger seat of Sergio’s Trueno, hugging her knees, as he drove away from the base. She had learned that she could force her ethereal “body” to act as if it could make contact with solid objects, but unfortunately she had found no way to manipulate anything.

Ami kept thinking about everything that had happened. Not only did “Mary Sues” actually exist, but they could make entire organizations at will? No, that’s not right. The Colonel, Raptor Team… There are a lot of people that are too nice to have been made by her.

Much to her surprise, Sergio stopped the car on the side of the road very soon — the base was still in sight. He turned off the engine before leaning back against the seat, looking at the roof. “Where am I even going? It’s useless.”

Ami looked at him. What is he getting at?

“Vera was one hell of a Sue, and yet I overpowered her. I was so angry I let myself relapse, didn’t I?” He leaned forward on the steering wheel, burying his head in his arms. “Everywhere I go, those who get close to me are killed, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Is that my curse? Since I’m such a hard-to-kill abomination, my friends pay for my sins instead?”

Ami clenched her fists. “Stop it!” she shouted, even if she knew that he couldn’t hear her. “You’re a much better person than you think! And there’s no way Vera’s crimes can be—”

Ami gasped as Sergio pulled out his pistol and put it against his head.

“Guess there’s only one way to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Ami tried to grab his arm, but again her hands just passed through. “No! Stop!”

Before he could pull the trigger, though, Sergio noticed something outside of the car. He put the gun away and opened the door.

Ami sighed in relief before looking for what had made him change his mind. There were two people a few meters ahead, dressed in black and with some kind of flash patch on the sleeve. While they were behind a bush, their attempt to hide was pretty much useless as they were discussing something very animatedly.

Sergio had already started walking towards them, and so Ami followed him.

“… so, that guy is not in the Words, he killed the Sue we were supposed to kill, what are we even supposed to do with him?” one of the two people said. Now that she could see them more clearly, Ami noticed that they were two girls — the one talking was a rather short brunette with two ridiculously long pigtails wearing what looked like a black Navy uniform, while the other was taller, with unnaturally glowing red eyes, and wearing a simple black turtleneck and jeans. Neither of them seemed to have noticed that Sergio had gotten out of the car.

“Dunno, Emily. Might be recruit material, but I’d have to get a CAD scan of him first and my last one kicked the bucket when you tried scanning the Sue, remember? And no, I’m not using my own sensors when—”

The two girls appeared to have noticed Sergio, and readied themselves to battle. Ami widened her eyes as Emily summoned some miniature fighter planes from apparently nowhere while the other girl’s right arm morphed into some kind of gun. What the…?

Sergio raised his hands. “Calm down, I’m surrendering. You’re from that Sue hunting organization, right? I’ve already seen those flash patches.”

The two girls exchanged a glance before taking a few steps towards him. “Well, yes,” the still unnamed one said, “I’m Agent Arumi Knight and she’s my partner, Emily Geofon. Department of Mary Sues of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. And I would really appreciate to know why you’ve been running around in this fic pretending to be part of it.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “First of all, what fic? This is the world I was born in…”

 

“If I wasn’t involved in this first-hand, I’d think this is the kind of mission one of the guys from Implausible Crossovers would be telling about after having a couple drinks too much at Rudy’s,” Arumi said after hearing a quick summary of Sergio’s past. “From what I can tell, we don’t know who you are just because this fic is a recursive fanfiction of your fanfiction, but so in-name-only that the Words refused to believe you were actually around. Or something. Anyways, you weren’t supposed to be here, but here you are and you even somehow knew a little about the PPC already. Now, the problem is: what are we supposed to do with you? We don’t even have an Intel report of your fic around, oddly enough.”

Ami tried to wrap her head around what she had just discovered. So I’m actually a fictional character?

Sergio raised his hands again. “Well, I know already that I am a Stu, so if you want to put me out of my misery I’m going to make it easy. I won’t fight back.”

Emily glanced at her partner before looking back at him. “But… if you know you are one, and know it is wrong… that means you’re not a danger, right?”

Arumi nodded. “Damn right. As much as I appreciate a kill served on a silver platter, if we kill you we’re getting yelled at.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Arumi smiled. “Because you might actually be fit to work with us misfits. We’re perpetually understaffed, so the Marquis is gonna complain if we kill a potential recruit.”

“It’s not like I have anywhere else to go, right?” Sergio sighed. “Alright, lead the way if you’re OK with a not really human colleague.”

Both of the girls started laughing. “You’re way more human than we are, kid. I’m a cyborg who usually has a car as her body, my partner here is the personification of an aircraft carrier, and our bosses are… well, plants. Bossy telepathic plants.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow again, but shrugged right afterwards. “Seen weirder.”

“What did I tell you, Emily? He’s gonna fit just fine.”

 

Ami followed Sergio as he entered PPC HQ’s Response Center 1587 for the first time. It’s been several days since I died… and yet, no matter what I do I always end up around him, even now that he’s not in our world anymore.. She looked down at her hands. Am I one of those ghosts who can’t get to the afterlife due to having to do something first?

Sergio laid down his belongings quickly before unrolling his sleeping bag.

“You’re not even going to get a proper bed? That’s not good!” Ami shouted at him, but it was useless. Right… He can’t hear me. If I’m supposed to help him… how can I? I can’t do anything as I am right now.

Sergio started rustling through his gym bag, having probably changed his mind on going to sleep. He took two Ace Combat games from it, 04 and Zero, and held both in his hands for a while before putting the disc of 04 into the console. Once the game loaded up, he moved the cursor on “VS Mode” for a few seconds before going to “Free mission”.

“Guess I’m going to make do with single player from now on,” he said, his voice little more than a somber whisper. “If I fight alone, there will be no betrayals… and no losses.”

“No, that’s not right,” Ami said, hugging him from behind. But, again, he could not hear or feel her. “You don’t have to be alone.”

She started crying quietly. There must be something I can do for him.

“Ahem…” someone said with a feminine voice from behind her.

Ami turned around, and she found a girl with long, pink hair, golden eyes and a long, flowing white dress. Sergio hasn’t noticed her either… is she another ghost? “Uhm… Who are you?”

“Well… they call me Law of Cycles… will call me Law of Cycles?” the girl said, looking up. She seemed rather confused. “You can call me Madoka though. Sorry if I’m being a bit pushy, Ami, but… I have your same problem with a friend of mine, as well.”

“… You know me?”

“Oh, well, I’m… kind of a goddess? Anyways, I know things will become rough both for him and for that friend of mine, and neither of us will be able to do anything on her own.”

Ami started feeling intrigued. “How do you know?”

“I’m everywhere and everywhen. Don’t ask me how it works, it just is that way?”

Ami raised an eyebrow. Despite being presumably an ageless goddess, Madoka gave her the feeling of not being any older than her.

“Anyways, what I wanted to talk about with you was this. Things aren’t looking good for our friends… but we can make it alright if we help each other helping them. If you give me a few minutes, I can explain.”

Ami glanced back at Sergio, who was still playing Ace Combat completely unaware, and took a deep breath, determination swelling inside her. “You don’t need to tell me any more. I’m in.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 11

Again, a big thanks to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta reader services! Special thanks also go to Jos Ploegmakers of Coltgames for letting me borrow a few characters from his World In Danger videogame. If you’re a fan of old-school run’n’gun 2D games, you should check it out here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/560180/World_In_Danger/

 

Mission Record 11 – Lost Lightning

 

Sergio closed the CODEC call, rifle aimed at the young man in front of him.

“Who is that?” Homura asked, keeping the guy in her sights as well. “He looks just like you.”

Indeed, the young man’s face was identical to Sergio’s, although he wasn’t wearing any glasses. His gear was different as well, as he was wearing a long overcoat and had a black AK-style rifle hanging from a sling.

“Sergej Speed,” Sergio said slowly. “Lame as it may sound, he’s my evil clone.”

“Clone? Not exactly… brother.

Sergio stiffened. To define him like that, Sergej likely knew more about Marcus’ plans than when they last met several years earlier. “Brother?”

“Yes, brother. Marcus made both of us, and that makes us his children.” Sergej clenched a fist. “But the only one he ever called son was you, while I, the one who actually embodied what he wanted from a son, was only the weapon made to kill you after you betrayed him!”

Sergio frowned. “He made me as a weapon as well, you know? Besides, if you’ve come all the way here to claim the right to be Marcus’ son you can have it; I’ve never really seen him as a father anyways. I actually have some important business to tend to, so if you don’t mind…”

“I do mind! Since neither of us is dead yet, we never settled who’s the strongest!”

Sergio resisted the urge to roll his eyes, instead keeping a steady aim on his clone. “I’m rather curious on how you’re alive, actually.”

 

Sergej pulled the trigger of his Venom multi-barreled machinegun, but Sergio managed to fire off a shot at him from his Glock 17 pistol before his clone’s weapon could pick up enough speed.

Sergej dropped his gun and stumbled backwards until he tripped over the bridge’s railing, falling towards certain death.

 

Sergej outstretched his arms dramatically. “We’re fictional characters, brother. Being shot before plummeting down from a bridge? Hardly ever killed anyone like us.”

Sergio repressed a sigh. Serves me well for not making sure. At this rate, I’m not going to be surprised if Marcus is alive too. “Listen, there’s no need for either of us to die, and plenty of other ways to settle things. I’m sorry you’ve come all the way here for nothing, but if you want we can talk about it another time.”

Sergej started laughing, slowly at first but soon uncontrollably. “Are you for real? No, I’m not going away from here until you’re dead!”

He aimed his gun at Sergio and Homura, and only then Sergio noticed that his clone’s weapon had a bayonet and a grenade launcher attached to it. The latter of which, obviously, was the first thing Sergej fired.

Sergio and Homura jumped away in opposite directions, narrowly dodging the explosion as they took cover in the nearby corridors.

“Figures. Trying to talk some sense into him is useless, after all these years he’s still a mindless killer!”

What’s the plan?”

Sergio glanced at Homura in surprise. Not only she was asking for directions instead of simply unloading whatever weapon she had against Sergej, but she had also used her own telepathy to do so.

We’re two against one, so we can try to outmaneuver him,” Sergio thought, making a conscious effort to spell the words clearly in his mind for Homura to read, “I didn’t recognize the rifle yet, but the grenade launcher looks like a GP-25, so he has to reload it after each shot. We need to take advantage of that opening, because—”

There was another explosion, and the corridor intersection was filled with dust.

“It goes without saying that one of these is enough to blow us into tiny bits,” Sergio said just as Homura started returning fire. While he couldn’t see her due to the dust, the long bursts of automatic fire clearly meant that she had switched to the Minimi machine gun. “Good, this will keep him pinned. I’ll try to get him from behind. But be careful, please.”

Leave it to me.”

Sergio ran away from the intersection, looking for a route. The gray, empty corridors were all identical to each other, and Sergio found himself having to rely on the sounds of gunfire to navigate the place. His clone seemed to have given up on using the grenades, and his rifle’s gunfire sounded distinctly different from Homura’s machinegun.

It sounds like the first two rounds are fired closer to each other compared to the rest of the burst… an Izhmash AN-94? Russian name, Russian rifle, he just needs a fake Russian accent and he would be a good 007 villain.

Sergio gripped his ARX-160 tightly as he turned the last corner. “Stop firing and take cover, I’m behind him!”

Sergej heard his footsteps and turned around, giving Sergio time to fire only a couple bursts before having to dive in another corridor for cover. A grenade exploded on the wall just behind him. He’s saving up those for me!

Sergio rolled on his back, aiming his rifle at the intersection just in time to welcome his clone with another burst.

Sergej dodged sideways, but just as he tried to raise his rifle another burst of bullets, this time coming from the corridor he had just exited, forced him to retreat inside a room.

Sergio got up just as Homura caught up with him.

“Are you alright?”
Sergio gave a quick nod. “Yeah, you drove him away just in the nick of time.” He reloaded his rifle, and noticed some small red stains on the floor. “He’s wounded.”

Sergio walked next to the door, and gestured Homura to follow him. “Have you got any flashbangs?

Homura took one from her shield and tried to pull the pin with her teeth, but Sergio snatched the grenade out of her hands before she could do so. “Not with the teeth, unless you’re willing to lose some. You do it this way.” He pulled the pin with his hands, and tossed the grenade inside the room.

They both walked in right after the detonation, with their weapons at the ready. The room began as a short corridor before widening out in a lobby, which Sergio recognized as the one where he was ambushed by flamethrower troops years earlier. He gritted his teeth as he found the spent flashbang on the ground inside the corridor; Sergej likely had been shielded from the flash by the walls. “I don’t think the flashbang worked, keep your guard up. I’ll check left, you check right.”

Homura didn’t answer, but in the corner of his eye Sergio saw her move to the right side of the corridor.  They entered the lobby back-to back.

“Clear on my—” Sergio didn’t manage to end what he was saying as Homura started firing.  He turned around just in time to see his clone stab Homura with the rifle’s bayonet.

Sergej pulled out his weapon from Homura. “Right in the heart. And now—”

Sergio cut him off by hitting him with the stock of his rifle. Sergej staggered back a couple steps, and tried to raise the AN-94 to shoot. “Hey, you’re supposed to stop and listen!”

Sergio let go of his rifle, letting it hang from its sling, and cross-pulled his Beretta 92 pistol and a combat knife. His mind emptied while only one thing started to matter to him. I’m killing you, here and now!

Sergio charged forward, firing off a couple shots. One of the bullets grazed Sergej on the shoulder, but he didn’t seem to realize it as he swiped the AN-94.

Sergio dodged the attack just barely, the bayonet cutting open his jacket’s right sleeve. He retaliated with his knife, but missed.

“Not bad. You’re starting to see the thrill of the kill, brother,” Sergej said, charging at Sergio with the bayonet.

Sergio dodged sideways, but before he could aim at him with the pistol Sergej already had him in his sights.

“But you’re still not at my—”

There were two detonations and Sergej flinched, hit from behind. He turned backwards to where Homura was on the floor, holding an M9 pistol in her hands.

“You? How—”

Sergej never managed to end the phrase, as Sergio took advantage of the distraction to stab him right in the middle of the chest. Right in the heart, was it?

Sergej let out a short laugh. “We’re the same after all, aren’t we?” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.

Sergio pulled the knife out and turned his clone around. He slashed his throat as well before emptying the entire magazine of the Beretta 92 on him as he fell.

Sergio kept pulling the trigger several times after the gun started clicking empty. “And stay dead this time!”

Sergio started breathing deeply, feeling the smell of blood and burned gunpowder. He kicked the AN-94 out of his clone’s hands, and reloaded the pistol before walking towards Homura. “Are you alright?”

Homura had gotten up to her feet, and was standing with her back against the wall, holding some Grief Seeds against her Soul Gem. Her Puella Magi outfit was ripped and stained with blood where Sergej’s bayonet had stabbed her, but the skin in the gap looked intact. “Had worse. Not being human actually helps sometimes.”

“Not human, huh?” Sergio said, his voice weary. He looked back at his dead clone’s mangled corpse. “You’re not the only one here, I’m afraid.”

That’s right. I’m still a weapon… a freaking killing machine.

“If we want to nitpick, technically no one of us here is a normal human,” Corolla said from behind him.

Sergio turned round, and saw her and Nikki walk into the room. “How did you find us?”
Corolla raised an eyebrow. “We just followed the sound of gunfire. Anyways, yeah, neither of you is actually a natural human. But neither I nor Nikki is, remember? Magical construct and badfic clone. But, guess what? All the four of us are people. That’s what matters, the soul inside!”

Corolla glanced at Homura just as the latter flinched. “Or not so inside. But you still have one, and that’s what matters.”

Nikki walked over to Sergio, and glanced at his dead clone. “Is that Sergej?”

“Yeah… I went a bit overboard.”

Nikki nodded slowly. “I… see. Kurara didn’t go down easily, either.”

She then turned towards Sergio, and grabbed his arm. “You’re hurt!”

Sergio looked at where his clone had cut his jacket earlier, and indeed there was a cut on his arm as well. The adrenaline must’ve kept me from realizing. “Don’t worry, it’s just a scratch.”

Nikki sighed, and a small magic circle appeared, hovering over his wound while healing it. “With you, it’s always ‘just a scratch’.”

“It is?” Homura said, “I’ve just been stabbed to the heart. A cut like that is daily business for me.”

Nikki looked at her, her eyes wide open. “You’ve been what?

Corolla raised an eyebrow. “Great, we’ve got two of them now.”

Sergio picked up his clone’s rifle. “Anyways, I guess it’s back to get out of here and try to guess where Vera actually hid? Though I admit I have no—”

“Wait. Kurara mentioned that she was going to get back to Venice after killing us.” Nikki said. “She mentioned that it was to kill Sakura as well, so I guess that’s where Vera is keeping both her and Madoka.”

“By the way, apparently the two clones were working for her.” Corolla added.

Sergio rubbed his chin in thought. “Venice, huh? I guess it’s time to pay Vera a visit.”

Nikki looked like she was going to say something, but as soon as she opened her mouth the chopping sound of a helicopter filled the room.

Sergio gestured the girls to follow him. “I really hope that’s not some other old enemy of mine. Or more of those damned Defectives.”

 

Sergio peeked out of a window. “Hmm, that looks like a Westland Lynx.”

The helicopter had just landed, and was painted in three tones of gray in a hexagonal camo pattern. On the pilot’s door there was an insignia looking like a cartoonish white bird wearing a helmet, and holding a rifle while giving a salute.

“Wait… that’s Strike Dove’s insignia.”

“So… Are they on our side?” Corolla said.

Sergio kept looking at the helicopter. “I’m not sure. On one hand, Vera pretty much betrayed them. On the other, I don’t know how strong her Suefluence was on them. So let’s be careful.”

Sergio walked away from the window. “The helicopter looks empty, they must be already inside. Weapons ready.”

 

The group walked past a corner, and found themselves in front of four armed men in arctic camouflage gear. The one in front, armed with an M4 carbine, was oddly wearing a black cap under the uniform’s hood, and was flanked by a big guy with a machine gun and a redhead woman with a P90 submachine gun. Almost hidden behind them was another guy, armed with a machine pistol and his face hidden by a scarf.

Both groups aimed their weapons, but the leader of the soldiers raised his hand towards his men.

That means ‘Stop’,” Sergio translated. “They’re not going to attack us… for now, at least.”

The leader gave a thumbs-up.

Sergio lowered his ARX-160 rifle. “Friendly. Weapons down.”

The leader put a hand next to his ear while the other soldiers lowered their weapons as well. “Raptor Team to HQ. We’ve found Lightning.”

Raptor Team? Wait… Sergio then recognized the voice. “JJ? Is that you?”

“The one and only,” the leader said as he pulled down the hood.

Sergio let out a short laugh. “I should’ve realized right away. There’s only one man who would wear a black SWAT cap together with arctic camo.”

“Says the one who’s wearing a red bandana in the middle of Alaska,” ‘JJ’ retorted.

Corolla walked next to Sergio. “Who are they?”

“These four people in front of us are Striker Team Raptor, among the best of Strike Dove. The one with the SWAT cap is the squad leader, Captain Josh Colt Junior. The big guy is Nathan Nace, on the other side we have Samantha Byington, and the guy who’s desperately trying to pretend he’s invisible back there is Marco Tundo.”

 

“So, what brings you here?” Sergio asked once introductions were done.

“You. The guys at mission control picked up your CODEC’s signal. They were quite surprised, since you’ve been MIA for four years.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “And the Colonel sent a full team to check on me? And not only a full team, but yours?”

“Nobody gets left behind.” Josh crossed his arms. “Besides, we’ve had some troubles with a guy who really resembles you.  Part of an assassin duo, they nearly wiped out the team that had been tasked with taking them down last time. So some people suspected you had gone rogue.”

“An assassin… Wait, was he with a girl? One who resembled her?” Sergio pointed at Nikki.

Josh rubbed his chin, looking at her. “Now that you make me think about it… Yeah, the girl resembles her. She has shorter hair, though.”

Sergio glanced at Nikki, then looked back at Josh. “Let me guess, Sergej Speed and Kurara Tsukimoto?”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, they’re our evil clones. Well, were, we bagged them what, ten minutes ago?” Sergio noticed Josh’s weirded out stare. “Long story, I’ll tell you along the way. The Colonel will surely want to see me, and to be fair we could use a lift anyway.”

“I… see. Sergio, what have you gotten into this time?”
“What I was already into last time, JJ. Vera’s machinations.”

 

“… And that pretty much sums it up,” Sergio said. He leaned against the thin backrest of his seat, listening to the helicopter’s chopping sound.

“So Vera’s still alive? Doesn’t surprise me. Stuff always stopped making sense around her.” Josh crossed his arms. “Starting with the fact that she was a Major at thirteen years old when we don’t even have that rank.”

Nikki leaned forward on her seat. “Thirteen? That’s way too young for a soldier!”

“Told you she’s a Sue,” Sergio said. “As I was saying earlier, she must’ve Suefluenced her way through.”

“Well, neither you nor Tanegashima were above the minimum age, either,” Nathan said from the helicopter’s pilot seat, “but after the War we were so desperate for manpower that some of our officers took advantage of the confusion and didn’t bother to ensure all paperwork was in order. Luckily, we discovered them and gave them the boot.”

“That’s not Ami’s case, Rocket,” Josh corrected him, “She was the daughter of Kenta and Midori, remember? The Colonel decided to shelter her, but—”

“She was hell-bent on fighting to try to make sure that no one else would suffer as she did,” Sergio completed for him. “I know this very well. It was my case, though. On paper, I was just a civilian volunteer. The kind that would cook meals during disaster relief and such. Maybe we should’ve been assigned there for real.”

Josh shook his head. “It would’ve been a waste… though I understand why you’re saying that.”

You don’t really understand how it is to lose your friends until it happens to you, Sergio thought, glancing at Josh and his team. You’re really, really lucky. He looked down. Or maybe they felt that way about me? Sergio glanced outside the window, and saw Strike Dove’s main headquarters in the distance, apparently fully repaired after the collapse during his fight with Vera. Here’s another place from which I just ran away instead of facing my own mistakes.

 

“Captain Turbo of Sniper Team Skystreaker reporting for duty, sir.”

Sergio saluted the man sitting at the desk in front of him. Colonel Leroy Johnson, the founder and leader of Strike Dove Inc. His office had changed very little: the desk was still full of paperwork, and on the wall behind him there were the same old photos of a younger Johnson during his days as a USAF F-4 pilot.

“At ease, Captain.  I have already received some information from Captain Colt, but I’d like to hear your report.”

Sergio couldn’t help but notice how Johnson had aged in the last years. His hair was now almost white, and there were more wrinkles on his forehead than he remembered.

“And it goes without saying that I’m really glad you’re alive. We were starting to lose hope.”

“Thanks for your concern, sir. I’m reporting the successful elimination of Sergej Speed and Kurara Tsukimoto. Their bodies have been already transferred to the morgue for confirmation, and their weapons turned over to the quartermaster.”

Johnson gave a nod. “I see. Good work out there, Captain. What about Major Heartbound?”

Sergio took a deep breath. “I’m still working on it, sir. Or, shall we say, she’s still trying to kill me.”

“Her determination would’ve been commendable if she used it in another way,” Johnson said, before typing something on his computer. “By the way, after you went missing we received some data on First Lieutenant Donovan’s death. You remember him, right?”

“Of course I do, sir.”

James Donovan, the fourth member of Striker Team Raven alongside Vera, Ami and him. Or, at least, until Vera threw a fit and decided to go lone wolf because she thought she was so much better than us all combined.

“The police were quick to file off this case as a drive-by shooting meant to kill his brother, but the footage gave me some doubts. I’d like your opinion on it, as it might be related to your current assignment.”

Johnson turned the screen towards Sergio. On it, the black and white footage of a security camera showed James and his brother sitting on a bench and eating hamburgers, discussing animatedly about something.

He had asked for some days off in order to help Carl get a job and clean up after he had gotten involved with gangs.

On the footage, a black SUV slowed down next to them. The men inside, wearing black balaclavas and tactical gear, opened fire on the two brothers with submachine guns, emptying their magazines before the SUV sped away. A typical drive-by shooting, if it weren’t for some details Sergio noticed right away.

“A Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Heckler & Koch MP5Ks!” Sergio punched the desk. “That wasn’t a drive-by by gang members, those are Vera’s minions!”

He realized his outburst, and composed himself. “Sir, that gear is exactly the same as the gear Major Heartbound’s men use. I believe without a doubt that this assassination was under her orders.”

Johnson crossed his arms. “That’s what I was afraid of. Major Heartbound is responsible for the murder of two fellow operatives and the kidnapping of two young girls. This cannot be forgiven. She is clearly out of control, and needs to be stopped.” He lowered his head a bit. “With lethal force, if necessary.”

“Of course, sir. I’m heading out immediately.”

Johnson got up from his chair, and walked over to Sergio. “At least wait for lunch, it isn’t any good to fight on an empty stomach. Besides, I think you could use a shower.”

Sergio looked down at his clothes. They were still full of dust from his fight against Sergej.

“Your room is still number 27, and we have some free ones that your friends can use, as well.”

Sergio raised his eyes. “You kept that room assigned to me for all this time? I… Thank you. I’m sorry for disappearing this way, sir.”

Johnson put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be. I’m sure you had your reasons for not contacting us after your first attempt at arresting Major Heartbound failed.”

Sergio lowered his eyes again. “It… wasn’t a capture attempt, sir. I wasn’t even on your orders.”

“I know. But you were doing what had to be done.” Johnson gripped his shoulder with slightly more strength, prompting him to look up. “Vera has betrayed us all. You’re not alone, Sergio. Not anymore. Anything you need to stop her, just let me know. Dismissed.”

Johnson let go of Sergio, who saluted and walked towards the door.

“Good luck out there, Captain.”

 

Nikki walked down a corridor, rubbing her head with a towel. I really needed a good shower. Now, let’s see if Sergio is already back at his room.

She looked at the closest door numbers, and frowned. They’re too high. I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.

“Hey! You’re on Sergio’s team, right?” someone said behind her.

Nikki turned towards the source of the voice, who happened to be an Asian girl with short black hair in a bob cut, wearing Strike Dove’s uniform.

“Nikki, was it?”

Nikki nodded, surprised that the news of Sergio’s return had already spread. “Yes, that’s me. What’s the matter?”

The girl waved her hands dismissively. “Nothing important, really. I had borrowed a book from Sergio, years ago, but I never managed to give it back. Can you bring it to him?”

Nikki nodded. “Sure… well, as long as you show me how to get back to his room. I’m kinda lost.”

“No problem. It was number twenty-seven, right? It’s in the same corridor as mine, even,” the girl said, leading the way.

Nikki raised an eyebrow. If her room was so close, there was no need to ask her to bring back the book. Maybe she’s just that shy?

The girl opened a door labeled “14” and walked inside. “Just a second, I have it somewhere here.”

Nikki peeked inside the room. Much to her surprise, it didn’t look like a military barrack at all: the bed had a brightly colored bedspread and there was a poster of what looked like a J-Pop singer on the wall. On the desk there was a laptop computer playing some music, and on the bookshelf there was an assortment of books, DVD cases and even some plush toys. This looks more like the room of a teenager.

“You can come in, if you want,” the girl said, rummaging through the shelf.

[Daisuki ni natta… dou shiyou?]

Nikki walked in, and glanced at the computer. Isn’t that a Yui Makino song? What was it again…?

[Mada deatta bakari nanda kedo.]

“Here it is!” The girl tiptoed to pull down a book from the highest shelf.

Nikki looked at the girl more closely as she walked towards her. She was fairly short, probably around one meter and fifty, and did indeed look like a teenager. Maybe she’s one of those civilian volunteers? Even then, she would’ve been very young four years ago.

Nikki took the book the girl offered her. “A book about fighter planes?”

The girl looked somewhat embarrassed; her cheeks flushed. “Well… I play Ace Combat a lot.”

Nikki nodded as they walked out of the room. “I see. Sergio likes those games, too. He kept ranting on how Assault Horizon was terrible for weeks, though.”

The girl tilted her head slightly. “Assault Horizon…? Oh, right. I think I didn’t get that one.”

They walked for a few meters, stopping in front of Sergio’s room.

“By the way, can you tell him something from me? ‘Nobody is blaming you’.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow while knocking on the door. “Blaming for what? Besides, we’re already here so you can tell—”

Nikki turned towards the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. She looked around, but both sides of the corridor were empty. Where did she go?

“Come in,” Sergio said from inside.

Nikki walked inside. Sergio was sitting at the desk, cleaning his pistol. Homura was looking at what he was doing intently, while Corolla was napping on the bed.

“What took you so long? I was starting to worry.”

“Sorry. I got lost, then I met a girl who gave me this book. She said she had borrowed it from you before you left.”

Sergio lifted his eyes off the dismantled gun and gave her a quizzical look. “A book?”

Nikki handed the book to him. “This one.”

“Oh, right, I had lent it to… Wait, who gave you this?”

Nikki looked up in thought. “I’m afraid she didn’t say her name. About this tall, black hair in a bob cut, she looked fairly young. Oh, she’s in room fourteen, if that rings a bell.”

Sergio’s eyes widened. “Wait, what… the…”

“Sergio, you OK? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

Sergio got up from his chair, and ran towards the door. “I didn’t, but you did! The girl you described, and to whom I had lent this book, is Ami!”

Nikki followed him as he ran towards the girl’s room. He pushed its door open, and sighed. “What was I even hoping for…?”

Nikki caught up, and looked inside the room. “Wait, what happened here?”

The bookshelf and desk were now completely bare, and the bed was now only a frame and a mattress.

“This room wasn’t so empty a minute ago!” Nikki looked around in disbelief. “There were books, and DVDs, and plushies on the shelf, and there was a poster on the wall! There was even some music playing on a laptop, it was… Fuwa Fuwa by Yui Makino, I think.”

Sergio rubbed his chin. “That’s indeed how this room was four years ago. But her stuff had been packed up after her death. How on Earth…”

Nikki looked down, before remembering something else. “Oh, she asked me to tell you something. ‘Nobody is blaming you’.”

“Of course they don’t.” Sergio started walking back to his room. “None of them was the type to blame people.”

Nikki glanced at him. The problem is that you are blaming yourself, isn’t it?

 

“So, let’s see if I understood it,” Corolla said as she, Sergio, Nikki and Homura were walking towards the mess hall. “Our friendly neighborhood ghost sniper appeared again, this time just to give back a book?”

“Seems so,” Sergio said. “Though I’m not sure why she went through the trouble of giving it to Nikki.”

Corolla snorted. “She was probably afraid you’d have a heart attack or something, considering how you reacted the other time she showed up.”

Nikki stopped listening to their banter. Ami must’ve felt very strongly towards him, if her spirit is following him like a guardian. She glanced at him. An undying loyalty towards her friend and teammate… or something else?

Nikki lowered her eyes. Maybe she never got the chance to confess. She took a deep breath. That’s why I should tell him who I am, right now.

“Sergio! Over here!” Josh called out, he and his team already on queue for lunch. Sergio sped up his pace so they could join them.

Nikki rolled her eyes. Again? Every time I try to talk to Sergio about it, something happens. Where are we, in an anime? Well… I am an anime character, after all.

She picked up a tray while still lost in her thoughts. Now that I think about it, this is the world where our badfic happened, so… I’m actually at home? Maybe after all this mess is over we should just settle somewhere in this universe. All the people here seem to be very glad Sergio’s back… though I’d prefer if we find a job with less shooting involved.

Corolla waved a hand in front of her. “Nikki? Are you listening?”

Nikki blinked a couple of times. “Sorry, I spaced out. What was it?”

“Survival lesson about the Strike Dove Restaurant,” Sergio said, “Avoid the pizza they make here at all costs, it’s unworthy of the name.”

Josh shook his head. “It’s nowhere as bad as he claims it to be. The Colonel knows that a good soldier needs good food to stay in good health.”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “I admit this is the only place outside Italy where I’ve found properly cooked pasta. But, still, anchovies have no place on a pizza!”

Nathan raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with putting anchovies on a pizza? I actually like that.”

“What’s wrong? Everything!”

Samantha turned towards the girls in Sergio’s group, ignoring the heated pizza debate. “If you happen to see any apple pie, go for it. The one they make here is delicious.”

“Rule number one for working with us: don’t get between Sam and her apple pie,” Josh said, setting his tray on an empty table.

Corolla took a seat as well. “Speaking of you guys, where did the one with the scarf go?”

“Marco? Oh, he almost never eats with us,” Josh explained. “He says he uses the lunch breaks to meditate. Ninja stuff.”

“By the way,” Sergio said once they were all sitting at the table, “how has stuff been in these years?”

“We’re not seeing as much action anymore, what with the world finally starting to shape up after the War,” Josh explained. “So less evildoers to chase around the globe.”

“Most of us are tasked with civilian duties nowadays, like security and disaster relief,” Nathan continued.

“‘An army’s duty is to protect people, not fight wars’, right?” Sergio said, “Just what I was expecting from the good old Colonel.”

“Rocket, you’re forgetting to tell him the most important thing.” Josh pointed at Nathan. “He’s a father now.”

“Really? That’s nice!” Sergio congratulated him.

Nikki glanced at Sergio. If they managed to fix their relationship, they would likely have children of their own one day. Corolla would surely want to be the godmother.

She looked down on her tray, thinking about what would’ve been the reaction of her friends from her badfic days. Kathleen and the others surely would’ve fought for the role. Well, maybe not Kathleen… but between Aurora, Luna and Corolla it would’ve been a mess.

She started imagining the scene: the girls hovering around her all day while planning every single detail, and showering her with ideas for the baby’s name…

“Have you told him yet?” Corolla asked her telepathically, waking her from her daydream.

“What? But I’m not pregnant! We didn’t even ever—”

Corolla raised an eyebrow. “Nikki, what are you talking about? I meant that you and the ‘Sakura’ he knew are one and the same. I wasn’t trying to imply anything for once… though I’d really like becoming an aunt, so you’d better hurry up.”

Nikki glanced around. “I don’t feel comfortable telling him in a room full of strangers, sorry.”

An alarm siren started blaring, accompanied by a loudspeaker announcement.

[All personnel, Attention: We are under attack. This is not a drill. All personnel…]

Besides, that’s what happens every time I try.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 10

I want to thank Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 10 – Broken Mirrors

 

Nikki ducked under one of Carol’s hammer swings. She had no idea where she was, how she had gotten there, how Carol was alive, and especially why they were fighting each other.

Carol fired up what looked like a small rocket engine in the back of her sledgehammer’s head and hammered the ground, causing an explosion that lifted Nikki off her feet.

“What do you think about this, Sakutaro?”

Nikki got up, readying herself for another attack. “My name is Sakura!”

Wait, no, my name’s Nikki. Why… why did I say ‘Sakura’?

“Whatever that is.”

Carol shrugged before launching herself at Nikki, who instinctively brought up a Round Shield to parry the attack. Or, rather, that was her idea.

A giant, wing shaped object with a red gem in the center appeared in front of her instead, deflecting the blows with what appeared to be some kind of forcefield.

Is this one of the Clow Cards, The Shield? There was something wrong with the staff she was holding, as well. This isn’t Vanguard, it’s… Sakura’s Star Staff? What’s going on here?

Carol bounced back from her last attack, but regained her balance quickly and ran towards Nikki again, sparks trailing behind her as she dragged her sledgehammer’s head on the ground.

“Let’s see how long you can resist, Sakutaro!”

Carol raised her weapon and fired up the rocket motor.

“I said my name is

The Shield shattered, the backlash knocking Nikki on the ground for the second time. She drove the Star Staff’s tip into the ground, using it as a crutch to get on her knees, but it was too late. Carol was already over her, with her sledgehammer high ready for a finishing move, and a wide grin on her face.

 

Nikki bolted up in a sitting position, panting heavily. Was that just a dream?

Corolla raised her head and rubbed her eyes.

“What’s the matter, Nikki?”

Nikki shook her head and smiled to reassure her.

“It’s nothing. I just had a bad dream.”

Corolla sat up and looked around, and Nikki did the same. Both Sergio and Homura weren’t in the room, but their empty sleeping bags and Sergio’s backpack were still on the floor next to them. They must’ve decided to patrol this place. She looked at her wristwatch. It’s four in the morning. Sergio always sleeps so little… is it the same for Homura? The nightmares, everything?

Corolla leaned towards her. “Want to tell me about it?”

“It was a bit of a weird dream, though. There isn’t much about it.” She rubbed the back of her head. “I was fighting Carol — I know, that makes no sense. If she was still alive, we would be on the same side, right?”

Much to her surprise, a thoughtful look appeared on Corolla’s face.

“Let me guess, you were Sakura in that dream?”

“Eh? How do you know?”

“Simple, it’s because… Wait, I think I can show it.” Corolla got up and looked into Nikki’s messenger bag. She came back with Carol’s weapon in hand. “If this is anything like a Device, it should have a video recording feature somewhere. Let’s just hope Carol had left it on…”

The small hammer turned into its full size, its sudden weight increasing enough to knock Corolla on her butt.

“Whoops, wrong function.”

Nikki looked at the sledgehammer more closely. It had a long, chromed handle with a red grip, and a squared, gunmetal gray head. One of the two faces of the hammer, though, was replaced with what looked like a jet engine nozzle.

“Weird, it looks the same as it did in my dream! But I had only seen it in standby form until now. How—”

“Just a bit of patience, if I tell you all right away you’re just going to think I’m pulling a joke on you.”

Corolla opened a holographic window. It was different from her usual ones, lacking the light blue frame around it. Inside, a scene as seen by Carol’s eyes played, in which she was attacking a girl who appeared to be Sakura Kinomoto.

“That’s exactly how my dream went! How is it possible?”

“The dream you just had really happened. Look at the timestamp.”

“It’s sometime in July 2007,” Nikki read from the upper left corner.

“Keep that in mind.” Corolla opened another window, this time one of her own. “That is a scene from Chapter 157 of Sergio’s badfic. Like this one I recorded myself, this time from chapter 90.”

This time, the recorded video showed Sakura worried over a younger Sergio’s bandaged arm.

Nikki raised an eyebrow trying to ignore the déjà vu feeling the video was giving her.

“How did you record it?”

“I was clever with the portals on our way here.” Corolla waved her hand dismissively. “Anyways, what’s Sakura doing here?”

Nikki let out a short laugh. The scene was quite familiar.

“She’s fussing over his lack of regard for his own wellbeing as much as I do.”

Corolla emitted what sounded like a TV quiz’s wrong answer buzzer sound.

“Not quite. She’s fussing over him exactly like you do.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. Exactly like… What is she getting to?

“Now, how old does she look in these windows?”

Nikki rubbed her chin in thought.

“I don’t know. She’s already got the Star Wand, so… Twelve, maybe?”

“Yes.” Corolla nodded. “Well, that’s how old she is in this video. The one with Carol is set some months later, and she’s thirteen there if my calculations are correct. Anyways, one million Midchildan credits question: how old would she be now?”

“Well, she would be around my age? Wait, do you mean…” She widened her eyes as realization struck her and touched Sakura’s image. “This… is actually me?”

“Ding-ding-ding! You just won a million dollars!”

“Wait a minute here. This means…”

“That you’re technically already a couple, and I’ve missed your first kiss. I’m disappointed. Well, technically it was your second, if we consider that time you tripped, fell on Sergio, and your lips—”

Nikki felt her cheeks heat up. “That’s not the point now! What I wanted to say was, why was I fighting Carol? That is, assuming you’re right about this Sakura being me.”

“You still don’t remember? Well, it wasn’t a real fight. Your group had split in half, and one half pretended to defect to the Organization’s side. You were just pretending to fight each other. I’ll resume the recording, but beforehand, since you seem to still have doubts…” She opened yet another holographic window, this time a log of her CAD subprogram. “I took this on ‘Sakura’ after recording the scene with Sergio.”

“The character is currently under PPC employment as…” Nikki read, “Agent Nikki Cherryflower. Ok, I believe you now.”

“By the way, that also marks the first time you’ve berated him for his chronic lack of self-preservation. He’s still not getting it, is he?” Corolla said, resuming Carol’s recording.

 

Faith: That’s enough, Marcus is gone!

 

<Marcus, indeed, was gone and Aér was unconscious on the ground.>

 

“Wait,” Nikki scratched her head, “Didn’t you say that we were only pretending…  no… Aér didn’t know, right? They had to knock her out to prevent her from knowing the ‘defection’ was all a ruse.”

Corolla smiled. “You’re starting to remember! Good!”

“It’s still all foggy, though.”

 

Carol: You’ve been lucky, if it hadn’t gone this way I would’ve had to kill you ❤

 

“She managed to pronounce the heart smiley. I’m impressed.”

Nikki sighed. “I’m really from this?”

Corolla patted her on the shoulder.

 

<in less than a split second Sergio already grabbed Carol by the collar of her dress.>

 

Sergio: Who were you supposed to kill?

 

“Touch Nikki and Sergio will go angry~~~” Corolla said in a sing-song voice, somehow managing to pronounce the tildes.

Nikki blushed. “Corolla!”

“Don’t worry, the best is yet to come.” she said with a very wide grin. A chill went down Nikki’s spine.

 

Kathleen: Put her down.

Faith: Slowly.

Faith and Kathleen: Or you’ll die ❤

 

“Nikki, please tell me you weren’t part of the Spoken Hearts Club.”

“I… don’t think I did?” Nikki said, doing her best to remember. “My memories are still quite fragmented, sorry. Also, you’re not one to speak, after all those tildes.”

Corolla pouted. “You’re not fun.”

 

Sergio (letting her go): Ok… Anyways, we know that they blew up the governments with bombs, but we don’t know from where the trigger signal was sent.

Faith: Lilith has some radio transmitters, but neither I nor my mother know where they are.

Nina: Then when those are discovered, we can go back?

Sergio: Uhm… not necessarily. We have to discover how many, and which ones they’ll use. We can’t destroy them all.

Kathleen: I can find it out, but it will take some time.

Sergio: It doesn’t matter how much time it will take, Kath. We’re already in the wrong future. What matters is to find the way to set things right when we get back to the past.

 

Nikki looked down. She knew already that that makeshift plan, as could be expected, didn’t work. And now they were all dead, except for her and Sergio.

Corolla put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

 

Kathleen: If I am not able to get the information in time, we’ll be stuck here with no way back.

Everyone: What?
Kathleen: There’s a time limit for time-space alterations, we have only a month, and we already wasted a week.

 

“No, wait, what?”

“That was one of the limitations of the spell Kath had used to transport us to the future, I think. But…”

“Yeah, don’t expect things to make sense in this fic. I read it all, I know.”

Nikki gave her a glance that clearly meant “then why did you ask?”

 

Sakura: What if I were to use the Time card?

 

Corolla clapped her hands.  “Congratulations, Nikki! You had the only sane idea there!”

“Uhm, thanks?”

 

Alice: I doubt it will work, it’s a scientific mutation, not a magical one.

 

“Wait a minute here. Magic overrides science. Because it’s magic. I want a word with her.”

Nikki took a deep breath. “I don’t think she’ll be able to listen.”

“Sorry.”

 

<Sergio takes a deep breath, and with an excuse he walks away from the group together with Sakura>

 

“This is going to be interesting!”

Despite not remembering what happened afterwards, Nikki could feel her heart pound faster. Kathleen told someone to start recording what Sergio and “Sakura” were doing, and the video followed them.

 

Sakura: What did you want to tell me?…

Sergio: Sakura, I…

 

“Don’t tell me…” Nikki blushed. “This is when…”

 

Sergio (taking her hands): I… I love you, Sakura!

 

“Do we really have to—” Nikki said quickly.

“Yes! Also, I think I can fry an egg on your cheeks.”

 

Sakura: Sergio, I…

Sergio: I already know what you’re going to say… After what Kathleen told us about my past, you don’t trust me anymore, do you?

 

Corolla let out an exasperated howl. “He was already like that back then?”

Nikki could do nothing but keep staring at the video.

 

Sakura (visibly blushing): No!… What I wanted to say is… is… is that I love you, too!

 

Corolla clenched her fists, her nose just a few centimeters from the holographic window. “Kiss already!”

Nikki covered her face with her hands, unable to bear the embarrassment. And, even worse, her past was now being considered just like a movie by Corolla. She mustered up some courage and peeked through her fingers.

 

<Said that, Sakura hugs him and they share a tender kiss.>

 

“YES!”

Nikki felt her cheeks hot as if they were on fire. “So, we actually already…”

“Yes, the most important moment in your lives, and I wasn’t there for it!” Corolla cried, her eyes watery.

 

Kathleen: They did it, finally.

 

Corolla sighed.

“Not quite, Kath. Not quite. But don’t worry.” She clenched up a fist. “I’ll continue this battle for you.”

Despite not being Sakura, and having long ceased to believe to be her, Nikki felt the urge to say a long, desperate “Hoeee!”

 

“Looks like the snowstorm has stopped.” Sergio said after looking out of the window, “I think we should start travelling back to the town.”

Nikki rubbed one eye while nibbling on an energy bar. After talking with Corolla, she hadn’t been able to get much sleep — memories from her life as “Sakura” in Mai Dire Fine kept resurfacing.

“Shouldn’t we wait for the sunrise, at least? I could’ve used a couple hours of sleep more.”

“It’s nine thirty in the morning, Nikki. Rise and shine.”

Nikki looked at her wristwatch. He was right. But then, why is it still dark outside?

“They don’t get much daytime here, do they?” Corolla rolled up her sleeping bag.

“We’re pretty close to the Arctic Circle here.” Sergio checked the magazine of his rifle. “Luckily not enough to not get any light at all, though.”

Nikki took a deep breath in resignation as she picked up her messenger bag. She glanced at Sergio while they were walking towards the exit. Now I understand why I fell in love with him right after we met at the PPC… I was already in love with him from much earlier.

She walked closer to him. All the troubles he had with accepting her feelings were because he believed that, as a Stu, he had forced Sakura to fall in love with him.  But that wasn’t Sakura… that was me. He needs to know it. “Er, Sergio?”

“What is it?”

“I—” An explosion shook the building, drowning her words.

“We’ll talk about that later.” Sergio readied his rifle. “I think we have company.”

Nikki nodded, summoning her Device and Barrier Jacket. Next to her Corolla and Homura did their own transformations as well.

“Why the explosion?” Corolla set up some Round Shields around her allies. “If Vera’s Defectives are trying to get in, they could just enter through a window, or maybe that unlocked door we used.”

“Unless they’re trying to collapse the entire building on us.” Sergio gestured the girls to follow him. “Let’s get out of here.”

There was a second explosion, and the ceiling started cracking, some pieces of concrete falling down on them. Nikki dove out of the way just in time to avoid being buried by the rubble.

“You really had to say that, didn’t you?” she said between coughs. “Sergio…?”

Nikki looked around. The corridor was cut off by the rubble and there was only Corolla in sight, sitting on the ground slapping her own head lightly. “Uhm, gimme a minute, my HUD went all fuzzy.”

Vanguard’s gem lighted up and the words “Incoming call” appeared in it. Nikki accepted it right away.

“Nikki? Are you alright?” Sergio said.

“Yes, I’m fine. Where are you?”

“On the other side of this pile of rubble, I guess. I’m with Homura, we’re both OK. Corolla is with you?”

Nikki glanced at Corolla, who had just given herself a slap strong enough to knock herself sideways on the floor.

“Yes, she’s got some HUD problems but she seems fine… mostly. We’ll try to catch up.”

“Let’s not take any risk, get out of here through the first window big enough, and… Uh. Problem on my side. Stuff not staying dead.”

Nikki helped Corolla getting up.

“What do you mean by…?”

A girl appeared at the other end of the corridor, wearing a black sailor fuku school uniform with an unusually long skirt reaching her knees. She was holding a submachine gun in her right hand, and was playing with a yo-yo with the left.

What caught Nikki’s attention, though, was the other girl’s face. An exact copy of her own.

“Don’t tell me Vera played the “evil clones” card?” said Corolla, summoning a Round Shield between them.

“No… or rather, not her,” Nikki said.

Her mirror image had Sakura’s shorter haircut, but what gave Nikki no doubt about her identity was the small red yo-yo she was playing with.

“Sergio, I think I have your same problem here.”

She closed the call.

“… I think I get it,” Corolla said, “She’s…”

“Kurara Tsukimoto. One of the clones Marcus made to try to kill us.” Nikki aimed Vanguard forward, readying herself for combat. “I presume the one Sergio was talking about is Sergej?”

“You’re not as dimwitted as our original, are you? And it seems I was right. The Sakura I’ve fought against is you, not that kid Vera kidnapped.” Kurara licked her lips. “This will make killing you much sweeter, after what you did to me.”

 

Nikki dodged another throw of Kurara’s bladed yo-yo and pulled out one of her Sakura cards, The Shot. It materialized into a vaguely star-shaped body of magenta light and started shooting energy projectiles at Kurara relentlessly.

The clone did her best to avoid the attack, but to no avail. The Shot hit her with enough force to send her flying towards an electrical substation and into a transformer. There was an explosion and sparks started flying everywhere.

Don’t… you dare… attack… my friend… ever again!” Nikki shouted after her, expecting her clone to get up. However, she was nowhere to be seen, and the electrical equipment started to fall like domino tiles, a fire quickly engulfing the entire substation.

Nikki fell on her knees, realizing what she had just caused.

Sakura… are you alright???” Sergio called out to her.

I… I… I’ve killed her?” Nikki kept looking into the inferno, “I’ve… I’ve killed… I’ve killed a person?

Sergio grabbed her by the shoulders. “… if you hadn’t done that you would be the one in the middle of those flames now! She wouldn’t be having these afterthoughts!

 

“Can’t we just talk it over?” Nikki said, despite preparing herself to cast Shoot Barret, “if you weren’t continuously trying to kill me or my friends, I would’ve never had anything against you.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m getting paid depending on how many of you I kill.” Kurara smirked. “And, besides, do you know how frustrating it is to be a clone? To know that your entire body is just a copy of someone else made in a test tube?”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “As a matter of fact… I do? I wasn’t born in a test tube, but I was copied from the Sakura Vera has kidnapped. And I’m not being homicidal about it.”

Kurara seemed to be contemplating her answer for a few seconds. “Great… so I’m a clone of a clone?”

Corolla floated towards her a bit, but still behind the safety of her own Round Shield.

“It doesn’t mean anything, you know? You can still live your own life and make your own choices, like Nikki’s doing. It’s not too late.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve already made my own choice. And that’s killing my original here, and then I will kill her original once I get back to Venice. When there will be only me, then I’ll be free from their shadow!”

Kurara opened fire with her submachine gun, but Corolla brought up more shields to protect herself and Nikki, continuously replacing the ones shattered by the bullets. “It doesn’t work that way!”

Nikki returned fire with some Shoot Barrets. “It’s no use. She still understands nothing but violence.”

“We have no choice then. There’s little space in here, I think it’s better for us to Unison.”

Nikki grabbed her hands and Corolla disappeared in a flash of light. Nikki’s Barrier Jacket changed, becoming light blue with white trim and, even if she couldn’t see it, she knew that her eyes and hair had changed color as well.

“Unison successful, we have 81% synchronization and our mana reserves are in the green.” Corolla said, now in an incorporeal form inside Nikki.

“Keep talking, it will make things easier for me!” Kurara shouted. Only then Nikki noticed that her clone had taken advantage of the small delay of the Unison to close in. Kurara jumped over Corolla’s Round Shields and threw her yo-yo at Nikki, missing her by only a few centimeters.

Nikki tried to aim Vanguard at her, but could do only half of the movement before something started pulling it. The string of Kurara’s yo-yo was wound tightly around the handle, and Kurara yanked on it, pulling the Device out of Nikki’s grasp. “Your magic wand has changed, but you still fell for the same trick. You’re disappointing me… you’ll die before I even start having fun.”

Kurara tossed Vanguard behind herself and started attacking with her yo-yo again.

Nikki dodged sideways. “Corolla, any idea?”

“Hmm, I think I have one. But I need you to buy a bit of time.”

Nikki ducked under another throw, the yo-yo’s blades passing dangerously close to her head. “If you can help with that too it would be nice.”

A couple magic circles appeared vertically next to her, a dozen small energy darts emerging from each.  They shot out towards Kurara all at once, some striking her, but she just shrugged them off. “Is this the best you’ve got? They barely tingle!”

Nikki kept doing her best to dodge Kurara’s onslaught. “Corolla, you really need to start working on Moonlight Dagger’s damage! You’ve just made her angry!”

Nikki felt a sharp pain to her side. A glancing hit, but enough to cut into her skin.  She barely had the time to realize she was bleeding before having to duck under another throw. She cut through my Barrier Jacket like it was butter?

Kurara recovered her yo-yo, and opened up its blades before licking Nikki’s blood off one of them. “Weird. Tastes like mine.”

Nikki resisted the urge to facepalm. She opened her mouth for a retort, but a small ball of mana appeared next to her, quickly materializing as Carol’s sledgehammer.

“I’ve managed to give you full access to it!” Corolla said triumphantly, “I’ll deal with your wound, you deal with her!”

Nikki grabbed the weapon with both hands just as the pain started subsiding. AMS-02 Mjolnir system initialization appeared on her vision, quickly followed by Authorized user. Safety lock disengaged.

“Like you getting a new toy would change anything!” Kurara tried to shift into attack position, but she found two light blue energy rings blocking her ankles. “What the…”

“Also, thank you for standing still doing useless creepy stuff,” Corolla continued, “that was exactly what I needed to cast Ring Bind.”

Nikki ran towards Kurara, holding Mjolnir to the side. Once she was a couple steps away from her clone she swept the sledgehammer horizontally, igniting its engine as well.

The swing hit Kurara in the belly with enough strength to send her straight through a wall, and Nikki took advantage of that to pick Vanguard up. “Thank you for lending me your strength, Carol,” she whispered before changing Mjolnir back to its standby form.

Nikki gripped Vanguard’s handle firmly. “Vanguard, Saber Form.” The device started glowing, and its head disappeared while the handle shortened, becoming the hilt of an energy blade. She then walked carefully towards the hole in the wall.

“I’m going to be surprised if she still has more intact bones than broken ones after that.” Corolla said.

“I threw her into a freaking high voltage transformer that other time, and it didn’t kill her. I’m not so sure.”

As it was, bullets started spraying out of the hole. Nikki summoned a Round Shield and entered the other room behind its cover. Indeed, Kurara was still standing, though she was covered in bruises and her clothes were torn and dirty. Nikki closed in, bullets bouncing against her shield, and slashed at her clone. Kurara managed to dodge just barely, but Nikki’s energy blade managed to cut her submachine gun in half.

“I might’ve underestimated you, but that doesn’t matter. You Sakuras are nice girls — you don’t have the guts to actually kill someone.”

Kurara tossed the remains of her guns away, then threw her yo-yo at Nikki, only for it to be deflected by her shield. Nikki retaliated with another slash, and Kurara took advantage of the opening to attack, managing to ensnare her weapon.

“You may be right.” Nikki said as both girls started to pull, locked in a deadly tug of war. “Sakura wouldn’t harm anyone.”

Vanguard’s energy blade burned through the string of Kurara’s yo-yo. Kurara stumbled back, trying to regain footing, but Nikki was quicker, charging her with a stab. The momentum was enough for both girls to end up in the wall.

“But my name’s Nikki.”

Kurara’s eyes were wide open and blood trickled from the side of her mouth as she tried to speak, but only choking sounds came out.

Nikki dispelled her blade and stepped back. Kurara’s body slid down the wall, completely limp.

Corolla de-Unisoned. “I think this time you’ve gotten her for real.”

Nikki breathed deeply, still looking at her clone. There was a hole in the upper part of Kurara’s chest; Vanguard’s blade had stabbed right through. Despite knowing well that she had had no choice, looking at her dead mirror image made Nikki start to feel sick to the stomach. “Is she dead? I don’t want to have to deal with her again.”

Corolla opened a holographic window. “Both heart and brain activity are flat, so I think she is.” She scrolled down her scan. “Oh, and she didn’t die a virgin, if that’s of any interest to you.”

Nikki opened her mouth for a retort, but her stomach decided it was the right time to turn on her. She stumbled to a nearby wall for support, reaching it just in time before throwing up.

Corolla floated next to her, offering a tissue. “Here.”

“Sorry,” Nikki said as soon as her stomach settled. She was glad to have eaten only an energy bar earlier. She wiped her mouth and took a deep breath. “It’s just… she looks exactly like me.”

Corolla grabbed her arm. “Hey, I understand. But she’s not you.”

Nikki gulped, her throat still burning. “Yes, but… In the end, we’re both copies, aren’t we?”

Corolla floated in front of her. “I know where this is going and it’s not like you. So stop doubting yourself like that.” She put a hand under Nikki’s chin, forcing her friend to look in her eyes. “What makes you a person? Your choices.” Corolla took Vanguard from her hand. “Why do you think your Device’s standby mode is shaped like a star?”

Nikki pondered the question for a few seconds. “I have no idea. Maybe Anne got inspired by the Star Wand?”

“Nope.” Corolla shook her head vigorously. “I chose it. And yes, there is a correlation to the Star Wand: the meaning of the star.” Corolla floated back a bit. “You remember it, right? Sakura’s magic ‘doesn’t come from the sun or the moon, but from her own star’. And yours too. You didn’t let your being a clone of Sakura weigh on you, you looked for your own path, and you started shining with your own light.” Corolla pointed at Kurara with her chin. “Her? Not so much, considering how obsessed she was with taking your place, and Sakura’s… just like the moon doesn’t have its own light, but needs the sun’s. She kept repeating that to herself, and was engulfed by the darkness.”

Nikki smiled. Corolla was right; between her and Kurara there was an abyss. “Thank you.”

Corolla shook her head. “It’s nothing. Now, let’s go see if Homura and your boyfriend need any help with his clone.”

Nikki felt her cheeks heat up. “Corolla!”

“Hey, that scene pretty much meant that you two were a couple, and I don’t recall you breaking up.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 09

I want to thank Aelit, Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 09 – Buried Regrets

 

Sergio looked behind himself again before proceeding to the next flight of stairs, but nobody was following him. Unsurprising, considering he was supposed to be dead.

Second floor. He walked towards one of the doors, clutching his cloak’s flaps tightly.

Sergio stopped mid-motion before taking a deep breath and ringing the doorbell. “Aunt, it’s me.”

The door was opened by a woman wearing a blue dress. Virgilia, Faith’s mother. “Come in,” she said. She looked weary; there were some wrinkles in her forehead that Sergio was sure weren’t there just a month before. He gave one last look behind himself before walking in.

“I’m glad to see you,” Virgilia said with a forced smile. “Would you like a cup of tea? Or maybe you prefer some coffee?” she added, showing him to the living room.

Sergio followed her almost mechanically. “Just a glass of water, thanks.”

Sergio looked down as Virgilia went into the kitchen. Upon seeing him, her expression had beamed for a second. Was she getting up her hopes?

“Here,” Virgilia said as she came back with the water. “Thank God you’re fine, my brother had made an announcement, the other day, and I was getting worried.”

Sergio started drinking the water slowly. Here it comes, he thought.

“But, since you’re here, it was all propaganda,” she said, looking straight into his eyes. “Right?”

Sergio averted his eyes. “Not quite.” He took a deep breath, “The others—” He gulped, trying to find the courage to tell her the truth. “They’re all—” His voice died out, tears already rolling down his cheeks. He shook his head.

Virgilia covered her mouth with a hand. “What happened?”
“Remember what we said about that time machine? Turns out there never was one!” Sergio said, before letting himself fall on a couch. “Those rumors, they planted them deliberately. They were waiting for us.”

 

Sergio looked out of the helicopter’s window, looking for the other one flying in formation with them. He brought his hand near his earpiece. “We’ll be in sight of the lab soon. Everyone remembers the plan, right?”
“Why are we splitting up? We’re stronger all together,” Carol said, rocking back and forth on her seat for as much as the seatbelts allowed her.

“We can’t afford to put all our eggs in the same basket, sis,” Alice said in the earpieces. “That’s why you, Sergio and Nina will go in from the north while Sakura, Li and I will enter from the south.”
“Exactly. If one team gets cornered, the other has a chance to reach our goal,” Sergio agreed, pushing up his glasses. “All we need is to be able to send even a single one of us back to January with all we’ve gathered on the Organization’s coup.“ He took a deep breath. “Even if we take more casualties, as long as someone gets to that time machine it will be a success.”

“We have a problem!” the helicopter’s pilot said. “Bandit twelve o’clock, it’s an attack helicopter!”

Sergio looked forward just as an alarm went off. “An Apache? Damn!”

Both of the Foundation’s helicopters dodged sideways.

“Wind, blow away those missiles! Release!” Sakura screamed over the radio, followed by the card appearing outside and ensnaring the two missiles in her tendrils, causing them to crash on the ground.

Sergio opened the side door. “That thing’s well armored, but if we can get the rotor hubs we might be able to take it down!” He fired a couple bursts from his M16, but the Apache was too far and none of the bullets hit. The Apache retaliated with its cannon.

“You’ve made him angry!” Nina said, covering her head as the helicopter’s windows shattered under the hail of 30 millimeter rounds.

“Raitei Shōrai!” Li said over the radio. Sergio looked out and, indeed, yellow lightning was hitting the Apache. However, in order to allow Li to cast his spell, the other helicopter was flying at only a few meters from the Apache.

“Crown Two, you’re too close, you’re going to crash into each other if you—” the pilot of Sergio’s helicopter said, but it was too late. The Apache’s pilot, shocked by the spell, lost control causing his helicopter’s blades to cut into Crown Two’s tail, shredding it.

Sergio could only watch in horror as both helicopters crashed into the ground and exploded.

 

“They sent an attack helicopter after you?”

Sergio nodded slowly. “It wasn’t the first time, either. How do you think we’ve lost KITT? Anyways, our helicopter was damaged, and the engine failed just before reaching our destination…”

 

Sergio unbuckled his seat belts. “You alright?”

Nina nodded, while Carol got up and shook the pilot’s shoulder. “I’m fine, but our driver’s gone for a Burton.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. Another victim. “We’ve got to get moving. We’re not far from the lab, I’m pretty sure they’ve heard the crash.”

Carol jumped down from the helicopter. “You’re right; if we stay here we’re dead meat.”

 

“We didn’t meet anyone on the way to the lab, and we got inside easily. But that’s what they wanted.”

 

Sergio, Nina and Carol took cover behind a desk just as bullets zipped past and a long flame swept over their heads.

“I can’t believe it, they’re using flamethrowers!” Carol said, holding her shotgun over her head and firing back.

“They want to make sure none of us gets to that time machine!” Sergio said, opening fire as well. One of the flamethrower-wielding soldiers went down, his chest riddled with bullets.

Nina fired a couple laser beams from her Taldom. “Wait, that guy is on fire, why—”

“Down!” Sergio pulled the two girls back under cover. There was a loud explosion, and the entire corridor in front of them was filled with flames.

“I don’t want a flamethrower as a birthday gift anymore, I really don’t,” Carol said, earning a stare from Nina.

“That should keep them busy for a while. Let’s move to the next room,” Sergio said, getting up.

 

“But no matter how many lab rooms we searched, there was no trace of what we were looking for.”

 

“This place’s burning down, we don’t have much time left,” Nina said between coughs as smoke started filling the corridors.

“There’s only one lab left, it must be there.” Sergio fired some rounds at their pursuers. “Damn, they just don’t give up!”

Carol fired off the last rounds of her shotgun before tossing the empty weapon away. “You two get in there; I’ll hold them here for as long as I can.” She summoned her rocket sledgehammer, and put herself between her allies and pursuers. “Go!”

Sergio nodded, and ran towards the door with Nina. When they opened it, they were greeted by a hail of bullets. Sergio took cover just in time, but Nina wasn’t fast enough. She fell backwards, bullets ripping through her flesh.

Sergio emptied the magazine of his M16 into the room, before reloading and storming inside, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Time seemed to slow down as bullets zipped around him. Sergio started shooting, taking down the four soldiers inside the room one after another.

He breathed heavily as he realized that the threat was gone. Only then he had a better look at the room: a small laboratory with white tables and very simple instruments.

“Damn, it isn’t here, either!” he muttered in frustration before bringing a hand near his headset. “Carol, we have a problem! The time machine isn’t here, and Nina bit it too.”

There was no answer.

“Carol? Come in, Carol!”

Again, only static could be heard over the radio. Sergio gritted his teeth, before noticing that one of the soldiers moved slightly, still alive despite the wounds. Sergio grabbed him, and put his laser pistol right under the man’s chin. “Where’s the time machine?”

The man laughed weakly. “You… really believed it all?” Blood started dripping from the side of his mouth. “Time machines don’t exist. Only some stupid kids would believe that… you all fell for it.”

Sergio hit him on the head with the pistol’s grip before letting him go. “Fuck!” He threw the pistol on the ground. They had been played, and now everyone was dead.

The building shook; the fire was starting to take its toll on the structure.

Sergio looked down at his pistol, and dropped his laser rifle as well. Those were his favorite weapons — if the Organization was to search for proof of their deaths, they would believe that he had died in the fire too.

 

Sergio curled up in a ball, hugging his knees. “They trusted me, and I led them all to their own deaths. And for what? For nothing.”

Virgilia took a step back. “My God… Marco must’ve lost his head completely. All of that… to kill some kids.”

“We were the biggest threat to the Organization’s rule. He wanted to make sure we were all crushed, I guess.”

Virgilia sat on the couch and pulled him into a hug.  “Don’t worry, we’ll stop him,” she said, before wiping some tears from her nephew’s face. “You can stay here if you want, I don’t think they’ll come to look for you now that they think you’re dead. Then, when things calm down a bit, I’ll help you find some way of fighting back again. I know this former U.S. Air Force colonel who—”

“I’m going to act tomorrow.” Sergio said, getting up. “That’s my best… no, my only chance.”

Virgilia glanced at a pamphlet lying on the coffee table. “Don’t tell me… You’re going to the Organization’s victory celebration at Palazzo Ca’ D’Oro? That’s suicide!”

“I know, but Marcus and all the other leaders will be there, and possibly a lot of high ranking officers as well. I can kill the head of the serpent if I blow the entire place up.”

Virgilia sighed. “I can see your point. But, please, promise me you’re going to come back. I’ve lost Faith and Kathleen, I—” She hiccuped. “I can’t lose my nephew too.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. “I… can’t.  I’m honored you see me as a relative, but the truth is that I think I should die in there, too.”

Virgilia got up and grabbed his arm. “You can’t be serious! What makes you think something like that?”
“You know how I was made, right? I think that also has to do with why I’m still alive,” Sergio said, before looking down. “Do you know how many of the Organization’s men I’ve killed while on my way here, while gathering all I need for tomorrow’s assault?”

“I don’t know.” Virgilia said slowly. “But Kathleen always said you never wanted any bloodshed, so—”
“Probably around one hundred.”

Virgilia’s eyes widened. “What?”

Sergio looked her straight in the eyes. “I was outnumbered, outgunned, and yet I could kill them all every time! I’m not a human being, I’m a fucking weapon!”

“No,” Virgilia said, pulling him into a hug again, “No. I admit I know you only a little, but—” Virgilia grabbed him by the shoulders, keeping him at arm’s length. “I know your heart is in the right place. Can weapons be altruist? Can weapons love? No, but you do!”

Sergio winced, and looked away. “Someone else told me that, some time ago. A girl I loved with all of my heart, and who was starting to convince me that I wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Now she’s a dead corpse somewhere in Alaska. I—” Tears started running down again. “I can’t live without her.”

Virgilia shook her head. “It doesn’t mean you need to immolate yourself to avenge her! Would she want you to die? I don’t think so.” She stared straight in his eyes. “Live. For her, and for all the others. I’m sure that’s what they want.”

Sergio stepped back, slipping out of her grasp. “I’ll… think about it.”

 

Sergio woke up, and rubbed his temples, looking at the ceiling. I should’ve expected that I would have that dream. He pulled out his cell phone, scrolling back into the missed calls list. There was one he had never deleted in years.

Virgilia, 23rd September 2007, 8.43 AM. She was likely calling me to know if I had made up my mind. But I had done so in the way she didn’t like.

He put the phone away, and looked up at the ceiling.

 

Sergio walked towards the room in which the celebration was being held. He was clad in a stolen Organization soldier uniform, his head covered by a balaclava. The headgear was common enough between their ranks that no one paid any attention to him.

He gripped the detonator in his pocket tightly. All the C4 charges were in place; all it would take was for him to press a button to blow the entire place to smithereens. He could do that right away, but there was something he had to do first.

Sergio entered the room, which turned out to be a rather big auditorium. He looked at the stage, and ignored the other Organization leaders as he noticed that Marcus was the one currently at the podium.

Sergio walked down the main aisle, his eyes fixed on his creator and nemesis. The man who had taken away the lives of his friends and his girlfriend, and was keeping the whole world hostage.

“You in the middle! What are you doing there? Get back to your patrol.” Marcus called out. Sergio pulled off his balaclava.

“…You!” Marcus’s eyes widened in surprise. “I thought I had killed you! But it doesn’t matter. We’ve won, and there’s nothing a stupid detective like you can do about it.”

Sergio heard the distinctive sounds of safeties being taken off and rounds being chambered around him.

“Wait. Don’t shoot him right away. He can be our special guest. A representative of our enemies attending our victory celebration… I like that. You can always join your friends afterwards. What do you think about it, son?”

“I’m sorry, but I have to decline.” Sergio pulled out the detonator from his pocket, and held it high so everyone could see it. “You, me, the Organization, this war… this madness ends here!”

Sergio saw Marcus’s expression turn into horror as he pushed the button. “This is for Sakura.”

 

“And yet, someone must’ve thought that for me it would’ve been the easy way out.” Sergio muttered under his breath.  He sighed, and got up. Maybe a little walk can help me calm down.  He picked up his rifle, and walked out of the room, lost in his thoughts.

 

Maybe I should’ve called Virgilia, and let her know that I had made it out alive. Sergio looked out of the window. Scratch the maybe, that was the right thing to do. Does she think I’m dead as well? Did she mourn me? Why… Why didn’t I contact her afterwards?

He sighed. Who am I kidding? I know very well why. Since Kathleen’s death, I just can’t face—”

He heard footsteps behind him and turned around. “Looks like I’m not the only one who can’t sleep, huh?”

Homura nodded and walked next to him.

“Nightmares?”

She tilted her head towards him “Yes. How do you…?”

Sergio looked outside again. “Because that’s what is waiting in the night for those who have seen hell.”

“How do you deal with… everything?”

Sergio took a deep breath. “I guess I really don’t.”

He sat down, back against the wall. It was cold enough that he could feel it through his jacket. The snowstorm wasn’t ceasing, the wind strong enough he could hear it clearly even from inside. “I ran away.” He continued after a few seconds, “I’m still running away. The PPC is the perfect place for doing that. It’s basically in between all the universes: nowhere, and everywhere at the same moment. And yet, I’m still playing hero. I guess I don’t really know when to quit, do I?” He smirked.

Homura gave him a thoughtful look. “Why do you still fight?”

Sergio lowered his chin. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just waiting for some Sue to get lucky and put an end to my misery. But part of me also wants to atone, and… well, fighting is one of the few things I can do well. So I guess I still have some use as a protector for those who can’t defend themselves.” He shrugged. “If I was made as a weapon, I can at least make sure I’m aimed in the right direction.”

Homura sat next to him. “It’s the same for me.  After Madoka ascended, I didn’t know what to do at first. But then I realized that, while the world had improved with her sacrifice, it still needed someone to protect it. And I happened to be able to do that.”

“And not make her sacrifice go to waste.” He chuckled. “Looks like we aren’t that different. But, still, what are we?”

“We’re both heroes, or fools.”

Sergio shrugged. “I don’t know about you, but I’m probably the latter.” He glanced at his rifle. “Or maybe I am just a weapon pretending to be a human.”

“Well, technically we’re fictional characters, right? Or, at least, that’s what the fairy said.”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “You’re lucky she didn’t hear you. Mistaking her for one is the fastest way to get her angry.” He got up. “Let’s get back. If they wake up with us missing, they’ll worry.”