Head in the Stars
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Yamatai Star System
The Moon Iðunn
31日 8月 YE 44
From any vantage, the Ketsurui Samurai facility on Iðunn was a sleepy little installation whose collection of buildings stood among the paradise moon's ubiquitous orchards with their clean, white walls sprouting up unobtrusively against the clear blue sky above. A great snow-capped stratovolcano dominated the northern horizon while an idyllic spring-fed lake bounded the haven's southwesterly perimeter. Other than the main dojo and barracks, there were only a few sparse outbuildings situated around a courtyard upon which sat a white-and-red Ketsurui Clan T-10 shuttle beside another whose hull was bare polished chrome and sea blue like its mothership the YSS Kaiyō II.
This place had become one of Ketsurui Aiko's favorites after she returned from the Kuvexian War. She enjoyed the unbreakable quietude here. That it was untouched by few hands beyond those of her clan's Imperial retainers and the dutiful contingent of Star Army soldiers who kept the grounds in order and the orchards flourishing. Among all of the places Aiko felt at home from the Kaiyō to the palace in Kyoto and Hoshi's ranch on Tami, Iðunn was somewhere that she had mostly kept to herself as somewhere to retreat and train with few interruptions.
It was still before midday when Aiko spotted her captain Hoshi. The princess had just finished her third bout of training, and patted sweat from her brow and neck as she stepped across the bright wood flooring that furnished this building's central ground floor hallway.
She waved over to Hoshi from behind a fanged smile, who had just entered through big glass double doors that overlooked the courtyard, with the damp linen handkerchief still flopping in her hand. But she quickly caught her excited mistake and shoved the sweaty rag into her loose training gi's tunic.
"Hoshi!" Aiko called, striding over past the white walls and traditional shoji doors that lined the hall with a spring in her step. "I trust you have not waited for me unattended. The samurai might not dare show any disapproval but I still could not bring myself to disappoint them by cutting our session short. Have you yet seen some of the orchards?" she asked excitedly. "Savored the flesh of an Iðunni peach while beholding great Fujisan in the distance?"
"Yes I have!" Hoshi's bright smile lit her words as she spoke almost breathlessly. "But is it true there's a special way to eat them with the peeling and the throwing of the stone pit?" Hoshi asked as she gauged Aiko's reaction with a look of skepticism. "See, I knew he was pulling a fast one on me! Saiga had a whole process; he had me make a wish with the pit and everything! I knew he was just being silly, so why did I believe him? He's never been here, either, right?"
The princess pressed her middle and index fingers down into the base of her palm so her gi's sleeve would stay and quickly used it to hide a chuckle. With the Kuvexian War finished, Aiko had learned to smile more in public despite her samurai-imbued personality. But privately, with Hoshi and other friends, she still presented with her sincere courtly discretion that was more comfortable and genuine than what the masses expected of their royalty.
"I do not think he was fibbing to you," she said, still covering her grin for a moment before lowering her hand. "It is not within the man's nature to lie in spite of his job, especially not to his 'stampeding star,'" Aiko added, incorrectly remembering how the veteran SAINT commando referred to his girlfriend as a shooting star in the Trade language.
Though Saiga's apparent nickname for Hoshi left her confused momentarily and she listened, considering all the ways that "stampeding" was an affectionate adjective. When she understood Aiko's misnomer for her, the recognition lit her deep blue eyes.
"I should have given him more credit! He took me on quite the galavanting circuit of the orchards and I thanked him by mocking tradition. I suppose it can't be helped," she took a moment to sigh as she looked outside, toward the courtyard with their red and blue shuttles. "Would you show me to the spring and join me for a swim? It would seem we both worked up a sweat."
"Of course," Aiko agreed, simultaneously sending a telepathic message to the installation's staff that their planned lunch would be postponed. She would then usher them both toward the quadrangle where Hoshi had just come from and out into the idyllic groves that surrounded this tiny spec of civilization that Yamatai had planted on Iðunn.
"And Saiga-sensei has not visited here as far as I know," the princess added while they walked. She looked around at the traditionally-minded ricepaper walls and proceeded through the more contemporary glass exteriors to the beautiful moon's landscape outside. "This will be his first time here, just as it is yours. Few come to Iðunn beyond some samurai and Star Army caretakers. Or myself. And for that I am glad. It would be most unfortunate to cut an ally or cousin for disturbing the serenity here."
Aiko instinctively dropped her right hand to her waist and tucked its thumb into her gi's red belt near to the empty spot where she normally wore her katana.
"With my words, of course," she added, shooting Hoshi a warm look from behind her eyes that the captain knew by now indicated Aiko was joking around.
"Wait a second," Hoshi said. With a tone to that of jesterly ribbing she turned quickly on her XO with her elbows flared out from her pockets at her sides.
"I'm not here as an ally and not really a cousin of yours, Ketsurui-dono. I don't know if it's going to be easy for me to keep the peace here... But for a friend, best friend even, I think I could try."
They strode along the path whose delicate cloud-colored flowers drifted absently in the idyllic breeze. She nodded placidly, knowing the feeling of having a home away from the Kaiyō to call her own.
"I'm happy for you. To have a place you love that loves you back is all I could want for my best crewmen after our long tenure in the stars," Hoshi mused as she tucked her hands into her denim jeans.
A part of Hoshi wanted to jump up at the Ketsurui princess and wrap her in a hug. She had known the princess when she was but days old and had seen her blossom into a beautiful young woman. Part of that knowing of her peer meant Hoshi knew to keep her hands in her jeans and pacify her instinct for showing affection physically. Seeing Aiko had found what made her happy was enough to make Hoshi's heart soar out of her chest and into her throat. The sight of her out of uniform and doing what she loved in such a lovely area didn't do anything to temper Hoshi's swelling joy.
Her original Ketsurui-designated purpose of being a propaganda tool for the Kuvexian war had honed Princess Aiko into a capable diplomat and strong warrior, but Hoshi knew that the purpose of the Nekovalkyrja was greater. The discussions she had with Uesu, the creator of their species, was testimony to that enough. But here was Aiko proving it in practice, not just theory.
"I'm very proud of you. You've come so far for yourself and I'm very proud... Like I said." Hoshi added the last words with a giggle meant to push the tears swimming in her ocean eyes back.
Aiko's right arm lifted off of her crimson hakama's waistline and reached out to touch Hoshi's shoulder when she saw her captain's misty eyes. And though her fingers curled back in hesitation for the slimmest moment right before they touched, Aiko still grabbed on to the pink Nekovalkyrja who stood so much smaller than she did and gave Hoshi a squeeze.
"It often feels as though the entire Empire has told me the same since we came home, Hoshi," the princess told her. And indeed it had been difficult for Aiko to travel anywhere in Yamataian or Nepleslian space without being recognized, which she certainly did not enjoy as much as she put on. "From you it means the universe."
"Once after William and I were freed, you ordered me to know our crew mates with more familiarity beyond all of the meals and training and missions we shared," Aiko recalled, thinking back to Task Force 282's forward operating base in Kuvexian territory and an evening conversation the two Nekovalkyrja had shared back then.
"I am sorry to have failed my captain's assignment, but trust that my..." Aiko said and then halted more than trailed off, looking around conspicuously for any listening samurai before finally saying, "best friend will not hold it against me. They abandoned us to a man, after all."
Hoshi had seemed immediately shocked by the friendly squeeze from Aiko, then doubly so by her strong terms of endearment. After a moment, though, she had composed herself enough to reflect. The dappled lighting pushing through the white-flowered trees cast soft glows of light on her sky blue hair, pink skin, and denim overalls. The ume lined path only fortified her belief that the princess had chosen a retreat that mirrored the stoic idealism of Aiko's own nature. Her pink arms extended over her head to bend and hold the crown of it as she looked upwards even more.
"I thought for sure my request had gone unanswered, but I see for myself you've found your own path. Whatever led you here, I'm happy to have captained the ship that was your cradle in many ways. Sorry if that's weird," Hoshi added with a laugh. "But I sometimes wonder how I got so lucky to provide you with a place to grow. You know my first ship was the YSS Yamatai: the namesake of our very home. Our ship means ocean... Not so grand." She scoffed at the thought, then shook her head slightly and bent at a fallen flower, then picked it up and tucked it behind an ear, looking forward to continue.
"Kaiyō... I wondered if it was a big enough title to be a princess' home. But somehow we all grew together to meet the needs of a war without ever considering treating you like royalty to coddle. At least not me. The precious cargo I had been entrusted with, a princess of Yamatai, somehow made the ship bigger than its dimensions. You made it feel like we had never left home; we were leading from the front with a beacon of home... All of Yamatai found a home on our ship."
The pink captain was right about her words sounding a little weird for Aiko at first, though the princess would never admit it at a time like this. Nor would she acknowledge the deep fulfillment that Hoshi's subsequent commentary imparted. Of course all of Yamatai had been aboard the Kaiyō with her; it was the purpose of her birth, after all. Billions of Yamataian citizens had seen their lives glamorized on the news almost every evening during the Kuvexian War. And though Aiko already knew these facts in her mind, Hoshi now made her feel the truth in her chest.
"Yamatai is our home by fate," the princess said as her sandaled feet crunched over the compressed dirt path beneath them. Warm dots of sun sprinkled her face as she and Hoshi proceeded deeper into the manicured forest of fruit trees. "It nonetheless floats on the vast stellar ocean, just one star among countless others in the twilight."
Their orchard trail had first taken them away from the lake but now seemed to curve back, and now the two Nekovalkyrja warriors were bounded on one side by water and the other by walnut trees, whose taller and fuller branches shaded their way more completely than the whimsical plum flowers did. Hoshi's gaze strayed from the white blossoms and dark woody branches above to the raven-haired woman next to her as she listened.
"You should never doubt the grandeur of our Kaiyō," Aiko explained. "It has always been big enough to carry me, the Empire, and all of those who have served Yamatai from within its gleaming hull."
"I appreciate the sentiment." Hoshi stayed quiet a little longer, then closed her eyes. The next sound from her was a heavy sigh before she gave a strained laugh, the type meant to cut the edge off tough feelings. "Sometimes I wish it was just Saiga's team, our Karasuhime, maybe our infantry squad, Asuka on the bridge, and your samurai. The pressure to fill up such a big ship when I've found only a few that reliably serve under me is enormous."
"Many of those no longer assigned to your command now were still reliable soldiers in their time," Aiko told her as they continued forward. Out over the lake stood a series of thin wooden gangways that served to corral salmon and yellowtail nurseries, separating them from the waters nearer to any shore.
"Sifsdottir-chui never let us down, nor did the husband Fujiwara or Soban-heisho or Weeyico-heisho..."
Aiko trailed off, meditating on the myriad others who were now scattered across the cosmos. Thinking of her 'brother' William, too, whose government had grown more sour toward Yamatai since the war ended. And their trusty tank Chlorate. The litany of departed comrades ostensibly intended to cheer Hoshi up made the place behind her nose tingle with some small amount of sorrow but the princess didn't let any tears fall now.
"They were not all stolen valor and cowardice and collars," she insisted, remembring in her final word Hoshi's similar concern for past crewmen during the International Relations Conference. The curve of the waterfront path had brought them around far enough to see the samurai complex where they'd began standing off to their side rather than looming unseen behind them. "Most were capable subjects of the Empire and good friends.
"I do not doubt that they would answer your call should you ever decide to make it."
Taking extra care to watch her footfalls, Hoshi kept quiet. She made use of the silence she wasn't afforded when on the bridge or a mission with her XO. But eventually the words from Aiko had tugged at Hoshi's heartstrings and she found herself sniffing to pull back the tears she didn't contain, as her peer had. Whether it was Aiko's enumeration of those departed or perhaps Hoshi's uncertainty that they would return at a start for something so simple as her command. With another couple of wet sniffs, Hoshi brought her pink wrist up to her eyes, ineffectually wiping the tears on her bare skin.
"I don't know. Part of me doesn't want another war just to keep from stocking the ship with crewmen that will just do the same thing." Ketsurui Aiko beside her spoke of the grandeur held under the Kaiyo's blue and silver bonnet and the reliability of those gone. "I've reached out to one of those reliable crewmen you listed—just one." Hoshi's lips twisted up on her face as she stopped herself from saying what hurt the most. The sudden quirking of her mouth made the tears dart from the edges of her cheeks. With another sniff Hoshi quickly added in the moment her nose was clear enough to speak, "Seems they have more doubts than you do."
Aiko slowed her step and then halted when Hoshi began weeping, still immune to giving in herself. Privately, with her sensei Rei and in those solitary moments she usually savored so much, the princess had let out her own sorrows. And doubts, some likely identical and others wildly different from those that kept her old associates in war away from continued service.
"They have that right, Hoshi," Aiko said in a kind and steady tone that was as close to delicate as she could be. "Doubts of my own have manifested since we returned. Oh, how shocked I was to learn the Empire I was created to defend only existed in my mind."
The princess clenched her jaw tightly for a moment and she turned her head to gaze out over the misty lake as it glittered under the creeping late morning light. Caught in a gusty breeze, her black hair danced with a subtle midnight blue iridescence that called to mind a crow's feathers and justified Hoshi's nickname for her.
"'They have that right...' That they do." Hoshi said, repeating Aiko's words. "You really were trained by Nicholas if you have such sensible advice." She looked up at her, the familiar dark hair reminded her of Saiga, the SAINT operative that had been instrumental in teaching Aiko and Hoshi alike.
Lazy swathes of steam began pooling over some of the lake's basin as long rays of sunlight creaked further over the surrounding hillside. Hoshi let herself become enamored with the stretching arms of her namesake, the star above Yamatai, touched down on the cool lake. It was inviting and a part of her thought about the swims they would enjoy within its still waters, perhaps even with Saiga.
"Always the reasonable thinker, that one. At least one of us has to keep that rational thinking." Though her tears had dried, Hoshi's whimpering eyes matched her voice as it choked out her words.
"But that Yamatai also exists on the Kaiyō for me," Aiko said, back to the point rather than commenting on her spy sensei's tutelage. She moved closer to Hoshi but did not touch the captain like she had earlier. "Here on Iðunn, too, and a few other places across my family's Empire. Those things are worth protecting but our past companions, even the best among them, cannot be forced into a feeling of purpose through the Star Army."
Something in Aiko's deep reflections on Yamatai reminded Hoshi of the way the Nekovalkryja creator had ideated. Uesu had said back then, "Places and memories have a character of their own." Though he had spoken to Hoshi in private, Aiko's analogous outlook to his gave Hoshi pause, making her consider what he had confided as calling to him most from Yamatai.
With a movement of her hand back up to her brush her hair away from face, Hoshi breathed in again. The little pink flower she had tucked behind one ear trembled delicately, but remained in place in much the same way Aiko's bellflowers remained behind her own ear. Her expression grew resolute as she took in some of the bellflower motif on Aiko's training gi. She looked completely absorbed while her face slackened, but the feelings inside her were welling like a choir's crescendo.
The small woman stepped back to raise her arm, placing it brusquely on the princess' shoulder while her eyes lifted to look at her more fully. Hoshi could feel her XO's body squirm at the touch, but Aiko did not reel away. After all, the princess had all but given permission only seconds prior. With that, Hoshi's second arm moved swiftly from its stiff position at her side to wrap up Aiko in a hug around her neck more fully. The princess returned the embrace, gently placing her hands on Hoshi's lower back.
The small captain pushed forward in her overalls with her trail of blue and white hair waving behind her as she squeezed into the towering champion. The Ketsurui warrior, clad in her severe red and white clothing and dark black hair, being enfolded from below by the flush of pastels that was her captain was quite the contrasting vision.
But despite the severe distinction between the two, their dispositions had built off one another over their years together. Their very different frames of view had created not just a solid foundation between XO and captain, but between friends.
"Thank you," Hoshi said and was the first to pull away. She held Aiko at both arm's length to give her a tearful smile and grateful words. "There's so many more places besides the Kaiyō where that Yamatai exists. Let's keep finding them together. We have so many more reasons to defend what we love than we know!"
Aiko nodded and returned Hoshi's smile warmly, even though her captain's proximity still forced her to look down her nose to address her while Hoshi's neck craned up to look at Aiko.
"For now I think finishing our trip to the hot spring will suffice," Aiko said, changing the subject now that she was satisfied to see Hoshi's buoyed spirit.
She looked up and beyond the petite Nekovalkyrja captain toward where the path ahead diverted from the shoreline and past a mossy crop of rocks that jutted out from the water and lined the coast on the lake's south edge. A bamboo forest backed the rocks on this side of the water, too, with a newly-constructed torii gate standing tall over the trail at the point where the thick green grove took over from the orchards for which Iðunn was most renowned.
"The samurai contingent and Star Army commander here have permitted the building of a retreat through there," Aiko told Hoshi, pointing off into the reedy thicket. "They found it inappropriate that I should stay with them in a barracks every time I visit. But I digress. The onsen soak I've promised is only steps away, so let us now make haste lest we dwell upon the past any further."