Chapter 19- Beached

Sunlight beat down hard on Ava’s black Cera Space Force uniform as she trudged across what seemed to be mile after mile of sand.  A scourging, salty breeze worked its way through her hair, irritating and scouring her skin, making her long for the dust-free, filtered air she’d become accustomed to in space.  All manner of sounds and smells assaulted her senses as she forced herself to continue walking, one foot in front of the other.“First Officer’s log,” she gasped into her bracelet, the dry, salty air rasping at her throat as she mounted yet another sand dune, staggering down its slope in her stocking and heels.  “It’s been almost a month since we’ve been marooned in this godforsaken place… Day by day, crew discipline disintegrates and decays.  The chain of command no longer has meaning here… lost to chaos… anarchy… I can see it in the eyes of the crew.  Weakness… they would rather stay than return to their duties.  I fear it is only a matter of time before we have a full blown mutiny on our hands.  The Captain, of course, does nothing.  It, therefore, falls to me, Ava Crescentia, First Officer of the Sunrider to maintain order or die trying!  I-”Ava’s speech was cut off as several swimsuit clad women emerged over a sandbank behind her, carrying mats and towels, umbrellas, and other beach essentials.“Hey Ava, whatcha’ doin’ over there?” asked Asaga, dropping her gear and popping over Ava’s shoulder as she tried get a better look at the First Officer.  The pilot was wearing a two piece swimsuit, blue and white stripes.“HURK.” Ava froze, an extremely forced smile, almost a grimace, on her face as she stared at the approaching women with barely concealed horror.

“H-hehe…” Chigara laughed nervously, unsure what to make of Ava’s facial expression.  Putting down her things gently, Chigara walked up as well, dressed in a cheerful, skirted one piece yellow and polka-dotted swimsuit.  “I-it’s still Commander Crescentia, Asaga…”

“Oy!” Asaga stuck her tongue out, protesting.  “The Capt’n, I mean, Kayto said no ranks while we’re on vacation!”

Ava gave a soft moan of pain and horror as she watched the others come over, eyes glazed, knuckles white.

“Oh my…” Claude sighed, striking a dramatic pose in her very revealing pink bikini.  “Looks like I barely fit in this anymore… these bikini straps are so tight they might burst at any time…”

“Ceran… regulations…” Ava gasped as she stared at the ninety eight percent of Claude that was not covered.  Sweat began to bead on her forehead.

“Put those away,” grumbled Icari, folding her arms over her more modest, but admittedly, more proportional cleavage.  “N-nobody wants to see them.”  Icari also wore a two piece bikini, yellow, although hers left more to the imagination than Claude’s did.

“They’re a woman’s best weapons,” lectured Claude.  “You’re not… intimidated are you, Icari?”

“Gurk!” Icari’s eyes bulged and her smug attitude started to crack.

“Hahaha!” Kryska pointed at Icari triumphantly.  The Alliance officer wore short, boyish swimming trunks and a top piece resembling a training bra.  “If you had a bit more armor, you wouldn’t need to be afraid of those!”

“You’ve got armor alright,” snapped Icari.  “But looks like you’ve drawn a short straw in the weapons department.”  Meaningfully, Icari arched her eyebrow at Kryska’s flat chest, her small breasts further diminished by the tight upper piece she wore.

“You!” Kryska lunged at Icari who danced out of the way, sand spraying behind her slim legs.

“What’s the matter, Soldier Boy?” laughed Icari.  “Can’t keep up with my speed?”

As the two chased each other, periodically wrestling and grappling whenever one caught up, Ava watched with mounting hysteria.  “Fraternization… strictly forbidden!”

“Mouu…” Chigara looked at her own chest unhappily as she regarded Claude.

“You’ve got some growing up to do before you can compete with me,” laughed Claude, puffing her chest out at the distraught engineer.

“T-the Captain’s not interested in those, the Captain’s not interested in those…” muttered Chigara, closing her eyes as Claude advertised herself.

“Chigara… Captain… Those…”  Sweat pour down Ava’s face as a weird tic began twitching in her temple.

“Hey Commander!” Asaga threw an arm around Ava’s shoulders, showering her pristine uniform with sand.  “Is it true… That you made out with the Capt’n in high school?”

“Mphfff” Ava’s vision went blurry as her eyes crossed.

“You did, didn’t you?!” Asaga thumped her on the back.  “You minx!  How far did you two get?  Second base?  Third base?  What’s he like in bed?”

“EEEAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!”

Ava screamed out loud, grabbing fistfuls of hair before fleeing the madness before her, unable to take any more.  Knocking Asaga to the ground, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her before tripping over a buried piece of driftwood and falling flat on her face in a plume of sand.

“Fatality…” Sola muttered as she casually walked past, dressed in a sleek navy one-piece swimsuit with yellow accents.

******

“Ugh…” Ava brushed at her uniform for the hundredth time, convinced that she could still feel grains of sand rubbing uncomfortably into her skin from her uniform despite the Sunrider’s decontamination protocols.  “Captain… why?”

“Eh?” Kayto peered over his holo at his exhausted XO, trying desperately not to nod off as he worked on a stack of paperwork that had accumulated since the Defense of Far Port.  “Why what?”

“I must protest your decision to grant the crew extended leave during these trying times!” Ava looked at him with desperation in her eyes.  “There’s a war going on!”

“Ava,” Kayto looked at her sternly.  “After Far Port and everything before, I think the crew’s earned this one.  Besides, the PACT fleet took a major blow at Far Port; given the tactical situation, the rest of the war will be fought in the Neutral Rim, not Alliance Space.  This crew’s responsible for saving billions of lives and putting the PACT fleet on the defensive; they deserve some R&R.”

“But Captain!” Ava shook her head vehemently.  “Those accomplishments were only made possible through constant vigilance and discipline!  We cannot let our guard down simply because of victory at the first battle of the war.  Cullen was a fool!  Arcadius is not.  The PACT will be back; we need to be ready for them!”

Kayto sighed and turned off his holo, giving up on the paperwork.  “Listen to yourself, Ava; you need a break more than anyone on this boat.  When was the last time you did something fun?”

“F-fun?!” Ava looked at him in disbelief.

“Yes.  Fun.” Kayto cocked an eyebrow at his First Officer as she gawked at him.  The two sat in silence for several long seconds.  “Exactly my point,” he said.

“But the paperwork…” Ava groped desperately for an excuse.

“Can wait.”  Kayto rose from his desk, stretching and making an executive decision.  “Come on, we’re joining the crew.  Buy yourself a swimsuit.  Have some drinks.  Make some mistakes.”

“Captain!” Ava protested.  “This is a mistake!  Woman’s Intuition!!!!”

“That’s an order, Commander,” winked Kayto, disappearing to his personal space and rummaging for his swimming trunks.

“Absolutely… Unbelievable…”

******

“Ahhh!” Asaga stretched out luxuriously on her beach towel as she basked in the warm sunlight, listening to the crashing of waves and the cries of gulls.  “This is incredible!  Hard to believe we’re even on a space station!”

Kryska propped herself up on one arm, looking out into the distance appreciatively.  “The Lydia’s one of the biggest resort stations in Alliance Space,” she said proudly.  “One hundred acres of forest and beach; you won’t find a better spot for a vacation anywhere in the galaxy, just another one of the Alliance’s cutting edge technologies!  Hahaha!”

“Do they pay you to advertise for the Alliance or something?” grumbled Icari, hiding behind a large pair of shades, but sprawled out in comfort all the same.  “Oh man, this is the life… beaches and drinks on the Alliance’s tab… a girl could get used to this.”

Looking around, Chigara had a worried expression on her face.  “The Commander’s been gone for a long time… do you think she’s OK?”

“Ah,” Icari waved lackadaisically.  “She’s probably cracked and hiding in a cave somewhere shouting orders to hermit crabs.  Besides, she was being a buzzkill anyways…”

“Whoa!” Asaga shot up with interest.  “Is that the Capt’n?”

Sure enough, Kayto’s white hair signaled his approach from the distance.

“Ooohhh…” Claude swooned.  “Looks like he came without a shirt… Chigara, does your bow take photos?”

“Eeehh!” Chigara flapped her arms and covered her eyes.  “C-Chigara can’t look!”

“Don’t be like that!” Claude giggled, prying her hands off her face.  “This is your chance to feast your eyes… ohh…” Claude’s jaw slackened as she caught full blast of Kayto out of his usual uniform.

“S-seriously…” Icari muttered, snapping her shades down firmly and making a show of drinking her beer without a care in the world and staring pointedly out at the ocean.

“He’s not alone,” Sola said quietly.

“I can barely see,” Asaga shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun.  “Sola’s right!  There is someone with him… wow… Hey Capt’n! Where’d you pick up a babe like that?” she shouted with a wolf whistle as Kayto and his companion got within earshot.

“Uhh… Asaga…” Kryska saluted reflexively.  “I think that “babe’s” the Commander.”

“Gurk!” Icari choked, spitting up a bit of beer and throwing aside her sunglasses, staring in shock at Ava as she and Kayto walked up towards the group.

“Wha?!  No way!” Asaga rubbed her eyes in disbelief as Claude huffed unhappily.

Sure enough, the tall, long-legged brunette next to the Captain swam into focus, revealing Ava in a tastefully revealing swimsuit that showed off her curves and body without coming off as tacky as Claude’s choice in swimwear.

“W-wow!  Who would’ve guessed the Commander had a body like that…” whistled Asaga, half in admiration, half dismayed.  “Where does she even hide those under that uniform?”

“Uuuu… deeper down the rankings Chigara goes…” muttered Chigara, flopping over listlessly into the sand.

******

Before he knew it, Kayto was laying on a beach chair, reclining in the the warm sun as the sound of breaking waves surrounded him, carrying away the tension and stress of Sunrider’s command.  Sighing deeply, he let himself sink further into the chair, his only regret that he had been unable to leave the ship for shore leave sooner.

The clinking of glasses next to him shook him from his reverie.  Beside him, Ava reclined on her own beach chair, her pale skin slathered with sunscreen.  Face hidden behind a large pair of shades, she gave him the suggestion of a smile as she drew forth an unmarked bottle from the depths of the cooler they had brought.

Kayto watched as she poured them two shots of brilliantly green liquor.  Silently, she gestured for him to take one.  Raising the shot glass to his lips, the liquor’s vapors hit him like a brick wall.  Gagging, Kayto quickly put distance between himself and the drink, watching Ava with admiration as she pushed her head back and tossed the drink down without hesitation.

“How’s the booze taste?” asked Kayto skeptically.

“The crew’s been calling these Vanguard Shots.  They can melt through a cruiser’s armor, apparently.  I… might have confiscated a bottle or two,” Ava looked somewhat guilty before shrugging and pouring herself another.

“A cruiser’s armor huh?” Kayto gulped.  Holding his breath, he downed his own shot, struggling not to gag as the liquor burned fiercely on its way down.  Eyes watering, he struggled to keep a cool face.  “Wow…”

“As advertised?” asked Ava with amusement.

“Are you sure you didn’t confiscate some of Sunrider’s reactor coolant?” coughed Kayto.  “But… being on the beach makes it almost taste good.  Almost.”

Ava sighed deeply, looking out at the sparkling ocean with conflict in her eyes.  “We shouldn’t be here, we should be fighting in the war.”

Rolling his eyes, Kayto wondered just how much of their short vacation Ava would sabotage with her all-work attitude.  “Ava, come on.  A well-rested crew is going to do a lot more for the war effort than if we patrolled Alliance space for an extra few days.”

“Hmph,” Ava leaned back, accepting his reasoning with half a smile.  “You’ve grown since the old days,” she said ruefully.  “Become a leader.”

“Learned from the best,” answered Kayto smoothly.

“No,” Ava spoke as much to herself as to Kayto.  “I’m afraid I was never cut out to be Captain… I haven’t changed as much as you have.”  Inexplicably, she raised an arm and touched her back, lost in thought.

“You remember those days,” Ava continued as Kayto frowned slightly, watching her.  “All the members of the student council left me, one at a time.  We started with nearly a dozen members, but week after week, people just stopped coming.  People with ideas and excitement when we first started.  I never had much capacity to inspire others, I’m afraid.”

“I stayed,” remarked Kayto, thinking back to high school again.

“Yes…” Ava poured another shot and downed it.  “You did…”

Neither said much, listening to the cries of gulls above, but Ava studiously avoided Kayto’s gaze as she turned a little pink, not entirely from the drink.

“Who’s the girl you used to have a crush on back in those days?” asked Ava, looking out at the horizon.

“Eh?” Kayto was thrown by the sudden question.

“My third year, your second.  She was all you could talk about.”

“I, uh, have no idea who you could be referring to,” muttered Kayto, the beach suddenly becoming too warm for comfort.

“Alice?  Hana?  Golden hair?” asked Ava, pressing mercilessly.

“O-oh.”  Kayto gulped.  “Hana.  Right.”

Ava turned towards him lazily, a smirk on her face.  “Did you two ever shack up after I left?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”  Kayto swiped the bottle of Vanguard Shots from Ava and poured himself a second shot.

Ava laughed happily, suddenly in much higher spirits.  “The girl who broke the mighty Captain Shield’s heart.”  Looking at him sideways with interest, mischief in her eyes, Ava continued to tease him.  “The man who dropped a PACT Veniczar and held his ground outnumbered six-to-one, flustered over an adolescent romance.  I’m almost ashamed to look at you.”

“Well that hasn’t changed then,” Kayto shot back, liquid courage burning a hole through his stomach.  “But it wasn’t Hana who broke my heart.”

Ava flushed a little more, but refused to rise to his bait.  “You always had a weakness for cute things,” she said, deflecting him.  “And I don’t mean the puppies you set as your holo background.”  Nodding meaningfully towards the others on the beach, Ava stood suddenly.  “Go work your charms and chat with the rest of the girls, Captain.  I need to use the restroom.”

Without another word, Ava walked off, hair blowing in the sea breeze as Kayto looked at her back with what he sincerely prayed was not a hopelessly longing expression.

Barely ten seconds elapsed before a practically nude woman dropped into Ava’s vacated seat, clearly having been awaiting her chance to solicit his attention.

“Oh Captain~!” Claude’s cheery face blocked his line of sight.  “Whatcha lookin’ at?”

“Nothing.”  Kayto did his best to look away from Claude’s bare figure.  If her medical outfit had been salacious, her swimwear was on another level.  Truly leaving nothing to the imagination, Claude’s outfit practically screamed sex.  Several local beach bullies glared at Kayto with hostility as they walked past, eyeing Claude jealously as she blew them a kiss.

Turning towards Kayto, Claude made no attempts to hide the fact she was visually molesting him.  “Why the long face, Captain?  Sure, Ava’s got a nice pair… but who needs them when you’ve got these?”

“Gurk…” Kayto looked away as Claude practically shoved her breasts at him under the extremely thin pretense of stretching.

“Anyways, this is perfect timing, I need your help,” Claude said, rummaging in one of the bags on the sand.  “You see, everything’s perfect on this beach except… I don’t have a tall, handsome man to lather sunscreen all over my smooth, luscious skin…”  Drawing forward a tube of sunscreen, Claude drew a heart out of lotion between her two breasts.

“Seriously?” Kayto rolled his eyes.  “That’s not even remotely original, Claude.”

Claude stuck her tongue out teasingly as she squeezed again, trying to fill the heart in.  Nothing came out of the tube.

“Eh?” Claude shook the tube and squeezed again, making farting sounds with the tube and completely ruining the effect she was going for.  “N-no way…”  Crestfallen, Claude eyed the other girls on the beach angrily.

“Sorry,” Kayto shrugged, amused.  “Looks like you’re out of luck this time.”

“Uuuu…” Claude flopped back on the chair unhappily.  “But Captain!  Aren’t you turned on by my bodilicious self?”

Kayto arched an eyebrow as she whined with the maturity of a five year old.  “Easy on the eyes, I’d say, but I’m here to relax.  Take things easy for a change.”

Claude nodded knowingly.  “The burden and solitude of Command?  I can help with that…”

Kayto sighed.  “Claude, level with me.  You never told me what you want out of all of this.”

“Hmm?” Claude suddenly looked playful.

“What’s your stake in all of this?” asked Kayto, unable to keep a note of suspicion from his voice.  “Asaga and Sola are in it for Ryuvia, Chigara’s here for Asaga, Icari wants revenge, and Kryska has orders.  But you’re the only one here… voluntarily.  So what do you want?”

“You!” Claude said happily without hesitation.

“Heh,” Kayto snorted disbelievingly.  “Flattery will only get you so far, Claude.”

Claude leaned over on her chair, invading his personal space with her body.  “Captain…” she purred, batting her eyelashes and going doe-eyed.  “Is it so hard to believe a young, fawning girl could be swept away by a dashing and handsome hero and wants to play with him a bit more?”  Practically rubbing against him, she ran a finger down Kayto’s jawline and chin provocatively.  “You can wear your uniform as tight as you want, but that only makes me want you more~” she said, dripping honey from her voice.

Kayto gave her a small smile.  “You might want to stop doing that.”

“What am I doing?” asked Claude innocently, her other hand now creeping along his thigh.

A dark shadow suddenly fell over the two.  “And what are you doing?” came Ava’s deadly voice, having returned from the restroom.

Claude’s face froze in horror, realization dawning slowly.

“I see the prisoner has been enjoying herself,” Ava continued acidly.  “Perhaps I ought to tighten the chains around her neck a little, just to remind everyone we have boundaries aboard our ship…”

“Hurk…” Claude did her best to look calm.  “But Commander… we’re not on a ship right now…”

“LIKE I GIVE A DAMN.”  Ava seemed to loom over the nymphomaniac pilot.

“That’s my cue,” Kayto brushed off and made to put some distance between himself and the impending slaughter.

“It takes two to fraternize, Captain,” hissed Ava at his back.  “I’ll deal with you later.”

A chill running down his spine, Kayto walked towards the other girls as Claude’s divine punishment ensued.

“EEEAAAHHHH!”

******

“Captain,” Sola’s deadpan greeting was barely audible over the crashing waves as he walked over to her.  Dressed in sleek one-piece bathing suit, Sola’s lithe frame was far more modest than some of the others on the beach, but Kayto found the sight of her kneeling by a massive sandcastle breathtaking.  Her flawless skin practically glowed in the full sunlight and her silky white hair reflected the blues and violets of the sky almost imperceptibly.  Beside her, a massive and impressive sand castle rose out of the ground, painstakingly sculpted by her dainty hands.

“Wow,” Kayto admired Sola’s creation.  “I never knew you had such talent, Sola.”

“You give me too much credit,” Sola cast her amber eyes down, deftly cutting a tiny window into her sandcastle with a short stick.  “My hands are simply steadier than most.”

“What is it?” asked Kayto, curious.

“The Imperial Palace at Far Port,” Sola straightened her back and tossed her short hair backwards in the wind as Kayto sat down next to her gingerly.  “The Imperial family used to take summer vacation at their palace on Far Port.  During my time, Far Port was a bustling trade world.  It is also where I was born.”

“You weren’t born on Ryuvia Prime?” asked Kayto, surprised that a Ryuvian Princess would have been born on a colony world.

“No.” Sola looked into the distance.  “I… rarely spent time at the Imperial Palaces.  Although I remember them vividly.”

“It must be a vivid memory,” observed Kayto.  “I don’t think half those buildings exist anymore, even as ruins.”

Sola looked sadly at her sand sculpture.  “Perhaps… nostalgia has embellished some details,” she admitted.  “I remember being swept away with wonder, feeling pounding in my chest as I laid eyes on the Imperial Palaces for the first time in my life.  It is a feeling that I will remember for the rest of my life…”

“You’re not really a Princess of Ryuvia, are you?” asked Kayto, voicing a thought that had been lurking in his mind for some time.

“Ah?” Sola looked surprised.

“When we first met,” Kayto reminded her gently.  “The Talbur glowed for Asaga, not for you.”

“…” Sola said nothing for several long seconds.  “It is as you say.”

“So who are you, really?” asked Kayto with curiosity.

“Ahahaha,” Sola gave an exquisitely delicate laugh, surprising Kayto as she rewarded him with the shadow of a smile.  “You ask such silly questions, Captain.  I am Sola.”

“Uhh…” Kayto looked at Sola as though in an entirely new light.  It must have been the good humors on the beach or something because he had never seen Sola with so much as a ghost of an emotion previously.  The change was startling and, as a funny feeling coursed through his chest, revealed something in her he’d not seen previously.

Sola’s expression faded like a cloud covering the sun, ending the moment almost as quickly as it had come.  “Captain… the galaxy of mine was a different place than yours.  A sad place.”  Sighing with the weariness of a hundred lifetimes, Sola looked utterly dejected.

“Here,” Suddenly inspired to cheer her up, Kayto pulled open a small box he’d evacuated from the beach chairs where Ava and Claude’s battle had taken place.  “Try this.”

“Hm?” Sola looked at his offering blankly.

“It’s a sesame ball,” explained Kayto, holding the pastries closer to her.  “It’s a popular food on Cera, where Ava and I are from.”

Sola picked one up with her slim fingers, turning it as she examined its seed encrusted, golden exterior.  “A sesame ball…”

“It’s crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside,” advertised Kayto.  “And its center is filled with sweet red bean paste.”

“The merchants at Far Port brought exotic foods from across the galaxy to market, yet I have never had one of these… sesame balls… Perhaps, I could try…” Sola bit into the pastry tentatively, her small mouth  struggling to reach the sweet paste inside.

“Do you like it?” asked Kayto eagerly, biting into his own with gusto and enjoying the burst of flavor.

“Mmm…” Sola took another bite, more aggressively this time, delight flickering in her eyes as she savored the snack.

“You should join us at the mess hall more often,” suggested Kayto.  “If you like sweets, the dispensary can make all sorts of deserts; more sesame balls, apple tart…  You might like it.  Don’t eat by yourself in the corner anymore, OK?”

Sola turned pink, but looked agreeable.

“You’re part of the team now, Sola.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what timeline you’re from.”

Sola turned away from Kayto, hiding her face behind a curtain of hair, a single amber eye looking back at him over her shoulder.  “You are… kind.  I must return to my castle.”

Smiling, Kayto set the box of remaining sesame balls beside her, indicating that she should take them before rising and leaving her to her peace.

******

“Capt’n!” Asaga waved Kayto over excitedly, practically jumping up and down in her striped bikini set.  Sighing happily, she twirled on the spot, her red twin tails flying in the wind.  “It’s amazing here!  I never even knew stuff like this existed.  Man, I shoulda’ left Ryuvia ages ago!  Being cooped up in Star Palace couldn’t compare in a hundred years; nothing but dry lessons and old geezers!”

Kayto smiled at Asaga’s carefree attitude.  “Is that how you learned to pilot a Ryder?” he asked.

“Nah!” Asaga practically fell over laughing.  “They’d never do something that cool on Ryuvia!  I learned in a simulator in Chigara’s lab, but you could say I’ve always had a natural knack for it.”

“I’ll say,” agreed Kayto, still unsure how Asaga had managed to pull off some of the impossible feats she’d achieved in the Black Jack.

“Ya’ know…” Asaga put her hands on her hips confidently.  “Back in ancient times, all Ryuvian girls learned to pilot Ryders.  The greatest pilot in the Empire was called the ‘Sharr,’ kinda’ a mix between ‘princess’ and ‘destiny.’  In other words, we had a female warrior society!”

“I read that too,” nodded Kayto.  “I guess that explains why many former Ryuvian territories still have mostly female pilots.”

“Well that explains a thing or two about our ship at least,” winked Asaga.  “But we’ve got someone who can tell us for sure!  Oy!  Sola!”

Sola stood and brushed sand off her legs before coming over.

“Tell the Capt’n and me about the Sharr!” asked Asaga excitedly.

“The Sharr?” Sola cocked her head to the side before deigning to answer.  “The Sharr was not merely a person or a title, but an ideal.  The Sharr is a girl whose mind is soft, yet steadfast.  Gentle and kind to all beings, yet resolute in her ideals.  Merciful and humble, yet never fearful.  Meek and obedient to the Emperor, yet standing at the spearhead of the Imperial fleet, the unquestionable commander of Ryuvia’s swords.  The Sharr is powerful and deadly in battle, yet peace loving.  Infallible, but prepared to die for the Holy Empire at any time.  Perhaps the Emperor may have been feared, but throughout the Holy Empire, the Sharr was always the love of the people.”

“Wow…” Kayto whistled.  “That’s quite a standard to live up to.”

“That’s what Ryuvian Princesses are like!” declared Asaga, pointing at Kayto triumphantly.  “Right, Sola?”

“Not all princesses are Sharrs, and not all Sharrs are of noble birth,” shrugged Sola.

“Mmm,” Asaga grinned.  “Tell us more!” she urged.

“In my time, princes sought to wed only the most graceful and deadly Sharr.  It was every girl’s dream to master the art and take the hand of the most well-bred prince,” Sola’s flat voice made the romantic notion something less dramatic than what Asaga had been hoping for.  “Naturally, their consummation would continue the royal bloodlines and further enhancement of the Sharr’s skills would be augmented through genetic engineering and nanotechnology.  I’ve already mentioned it to Chigara, but it is likely that some of the Sharrs modifications persist to this day within the Royal Family.”

“Well… that might explain Asaga’s piloting skills,” remarked Kayto, impressed with Sola’s story of the Sharr.

“Well… that’s enough learnin’!” declared Asaga.  “We’re on vacation!”

Kayto rolled his eyes; Asaga’s attention span would have given most squirrels a run for their money.

“So Capt’n!” Asaga leaned in conspiratorially.  “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Hurk,” Kayto choked.  How the devil did that train of thought even make sense?  “No, I don’t,” he answered, recovering.

“Ufufufu,” Asaga looked inexplicably smug.  “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” Kayto said, somewhat annoyed.

“I see, I see,” Asaga nodded like she’d stumbled upon something profound.  “I wonder why not…?”

“War has hardened his heart…” Sola said quietly, looking Kayto over head to toe.

“Ya’ know…” Asaga thumped him on the back.  “Having a girlfriend would help you to relax a bit.  Ya’ gotta’ have love in war, Capt’n! Hohoho!”

“Men seek affection in times of peril,” Sola said, nodding.  “Comfort in companionship.

Kayto extracted himself from Asaga awkwardly, unsure what to make of the situation.  “I can’t say I’ve had much time to think about my personal life between keeping all of you safe.  I have a responsibility to all of you and that’s much more important than anything as selfish as that,” he said, falling back on the company line to buy time.

Asaga looked at him appraisingly before tossing her head back.  “Just the answer I was expecting, Capt’n!  You never disappoint!  Uwahahaha!”

Still chortling, Asaga threw an arm around Sola.  “C’mon Sola, let’s go have some fun.”

Giving him a backwards glance, Sola held his gaze for a moment longer before allowing Asaga to drag her off.

******

The artificial sun had started to set, casting brilliant orange hues across the sky, reflected in a thousand gem-like ripples of the ocean in front of them.  Kayto made his way back to the collection of beach chairs and umbrellas the group had made their own, confident that Ava’s fury would have mellowed out over his absence.

“Hey!” Kayto waved as he got closer.  “Chigara!”

“Ah, Captain,” Chigara gave him a big smile as she continued to putter around.

“Setting up the grill?” asked Kayto, eyeing the charcoal grill keenly.

“Mhm,” Chigara nodded, pushing back a strand of hair and smearing a dark smudge of charcoal dust across her face.  “Working with hands was always my thing.”

“I can’t wait; I haven’t used one of these in ages,” said Kayto enthusiastically, almost salivating at the thought of real barbecue.  “Nothing ever tastes as good as the real thing, eh?”

Chigara leaned in to share a secret.  “Actually, I might be getting close.”

“Oh?”

“Because the Sunrider doesn’t have the capacities for a bakery, I’ve been experimenting with directly replicating pastries with a spare matter replicator.  It’s still experimental, but I managed to create a gelatinous cube that tasted unmistakably of pan du chocolat!” Chigara’s eyes were bright with excitement.

“Congratulations?” said Kayto, unsure what the implications were.

“It’s a huge breakthrough in food replication technology!” Chigara practically skipped with happiness.  “No one’s managed to replicate palatable food in hundreds of years!  But if I can perfect it, I’d be able to start a galactic bakery chain anywhere!  I’d even be able to deliver fresh pastries straight into homes if the replicators were mass produced!”

“Still holding onto your dreams, huh?” asked Kayto, smiling at Chigara’s earnest expression.  “Good for you.”

“Yes, Captain!” Chigara looked into the distance happily.  “I’ve always wanted to open a bakery, even if I could do other things… I guess I prefer a quiet life over galactic heroics.  I’ve always imagined opening a bakery in a quiet neighborhood.  All the kids would run to it during lunchtime for sandwiches and pastries.  In the afternoon, people would come for bread and pastries for their families.  I’d be so happy knowing that my bakery was feeding all those families and putting smiles on their faces.  We’d live above the bakery on the second floor.  Eventually, we’d have lots of little children running around to help our business…”

Chigara smiled serenely at the ocean, lost in her narrative.  “Eh… heh…”  Nervously, Chigara looked at Kayto, a bright red flush rising through her neck to her face.  “Please ignore the last part, Captain.”

“Really?” Kayto said half-teasingly.

“PLEASE!!!” Chigara balled her tiny fists and hopped up and down.

“But it was such a nice story.”

“Nooo!” Chigara waved her arms furiously, causing the charcoal embers to roar with the sudden fanning.  “I was just carried away with my fantasy… I mean, not that I fantasize about things like that…”

Kayto burst out laughing, unable to hold back any longer.

“Mooouuu…” Chigara covered her face in shame.  “I-I’ll just… go back to work.”

******

After a little while, the coals had gotten hot enough to begin grilling.  Kayto and Ava worked together to cook, Kayto arranging meat on the grill while Ava skewered vegetables.

“You know,” Kayto spoke over the sizzling of meat.  “I can almost imagine we’re back on Cera.  I remember when Maray was young and the whole family would go to the beach together.  I wish we’d gone to the beach one more time before I left, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.”

Ava must have picked up on the melancholy in his voice.  “Captain, try not to get overly sentimental.  I do not wish to have to blame the onions if you are seen by the crew crying.”

Kayto looked at Ava with one eye.  She seemed almost… happy.  Although Kayto was not one to rub victory in someone else’s face, this was an exception.  “So what changed your mind?” he asked.  “It’s not every day I see you more than an arms length away from your holo.  Never mind dressed like that.”

“I fulfill your orders to the letter,” Ava grimaced at him.

“Oh come on,” Kayto prodded her.  “Admit it, you’re enjoying this.”

“Well… perhaps a break every now and then isn’t so bad,” agreed Ava grudgingly.  “I don’t remember ever going to the beach with my family.  I’m afraid such frivolities were lost on us, even when my father was home from deployments.”

“Not even once?” Kayto asked, surprised, not because he doubted Ava’s family was as hard as she was, but because his memory told a different story.

“I do not recall.”

“We went once, when you were sixteen!” Kayto said disbelievingly.

“Oh please,” Ava crossed her arms and glared at him.  “Like I had time for that when I was sixteen!”

“Well…” Kayto rubbed his chin, thinking back to the day.  “I remember you brought your holo and a whole stack of paperwork that you tried to do on the beach.  Not that you were very successful.”

“You’re making this up,” decided Ava, waving a wooden skewer at him dangerously.

“No, no!” Kayto held his ground.  “I remember it distinctly; after all, I was the one who organized it.  We went to the beach as a student council team building trip.  There was this one girl who kept yapping and texting with her holo at the same time about different things, never figured out how she did it.  And there was that other girl who wore the same ribbon each day, red.  I don’t even want to know how often she took it off to wash, but I sat behind her in class for nearly a month.  I don’t remember anything about the class except that I had to stare at that damn red ribbon every day.”

“Ah.”  Realization flashed in Ava’s eyes.  “Kazumi.”  Ava’s lips quirked up.  “Another one of your crushes.  You must have enjoyed staring at that ribbon instead of having to pay attention to galactic history.”

“Heh…” Kayto flipped the meat.  “Remember how she used to twirl her hair with her finger if she got nervous?  I thought it was cute at the time… Really takes me back though.”

“Only you would remember a detail like that, Captain,” Ava put a hand to her face before groaning and staggering into Kayto.

“Hey, are you alright?” Kayto asked nervously.

“The onions…” Ava’s eyes swam with tears.  “I shouldn’t have put my hand up to my face…”

“How tough could they be?” asked Kayto incredulously.

Without hesitating, Ava pressed her hand to Kayto’s face, sharing the pain.

“Oh… Damn!” Kayto reeled as Ava half-giggled, half-groaned.  “Now I’m getting flashbacks of being shot with nerve gas during training…”

“Permission to be excused?” asked Ava.

“Granted.”  Kayto rubbed his stinging eyes.  “What a harsh mistress…” he muttered to himself as Ava walked off towards the restrooms to wash her face.

******

Meanwhile, Asaga stood by the water’s edge, savoring the way the wind ruffled its fingers through her hair.  Salty droplets sprayed in the air as the sea breeze carried the ocean’s fine mist just far enough to be smelled.

“So they can simulate even that, huh?” Asaga sighed deeply, looking around at the beach in utter contentment.  Catching a glimpse of Kayto, Asaga felt her knees weaken slightly.  The way the sunlight reflected gently off his shirtless body, accentuating his trim and firm figure, his white hair flapping gently with the beach breeze, and those eyes.  Kayto’s piercing blue gaze was enough to make her heart skip a beat as he looked up and gave her a smile from the grill.

Asaga gulped, lips weak.  Since her rescue, she had hoped the feelings would fade as the events of the Star Palace faded into memory, convinced it had been nothing more than momentary enamoration.  However, it was, apparently, not the case.

“Chigaraaa~!” Cluade pranced over, spraying sand over Asaga and shaking her from the train of thought as she bounded towards the glum engineer.  “Guess what~~?”

Chigara looked up at Claude’s bright demeanor with apprehension.  “W-what?”

“This is the perfect opportunity to tell the Captain how you feel about him!” Claude’s eyes lit up with manic energy.

“E-e-e-ehhh!” Chigara squealed in surprise, shaking her hands.  “C-Claude!  That’s supposed to be a secret!” she said, mortified.

“Hurk…” Asaga’s eyes bulged.  She’d forgotten all about Chigara and the Captain.

“Who knows?” Claude salivated slightly.  “All this hot weather might be getting to him.  He might be in the mood to blow off some steam with you later…”

“I’m not blowing off anyone!” Chigara said, stamping the sand with her feet before turning beet red at the inadvertent innuendo and looking faint.

“Ooohhh~” Claude smirked appreciatively, pleased Chigara was catching on.  “Then I guess it’s alright if I take care of him myself then?”

“N-NO!” Chigara rallied, putting her tiny frame between Kayto and Claude.

“You’d better hurry then…” Claude teased in a sing-song voice.  “Make your move before I do~!”

“Tsch,” Icari sauntered over, investigating the commotion.  Tossing her long black hair over her shoulder, she crossed her arms smugly.  “You two are acting like two junior high schoolgirls.  It’s not a big deal, just tell him how you feel, Chigara,” Icari said with a carefree shrug.

“A-and then?” Chigara’s eyes were wild with panic.  “W-what if he doesn’t like me back?”

“Pfft,” Icari rolled her eyes.  “It’s not the end of the galaxy.  You move on and tell yourself you’re better than that good for nothing schoolboy.”

“I-I’m not sure I could do that…” Chigara said glumly, kicking at the sand with her foot.

“Argh… you’re hopeless!” Icari reached the end of her patience.  “Oy!  Hero Girl!  Help me talk some sense into your friend here!”

Asaga jumped in surprise with Icari’s sudden invitation to join the conversation.  “M-me?  I uhh…” Asaga stammered, unusually tongue-tied.

“Yes you,” snapped Icari.  “Tell your friend that keeping her feelings to herself won’t accomplish an iota of good!”  Turning back to Chigara, Icari kept up the pressure.  “Listen!  You’ve been through hell and back!  I’ve seen you launch your Ryder against outrageous odds with the rest of us.  Compared to that, what’s there to be scared of now?”

Chigara mumbled indistinctly.

“And who knows?” Icari continued her speech.  “A stray quantum torpedo could end it all tomorrow.  And the Captain will never know a girl named Chigara liked him. Are you going to let that happen?”

“Uuuu…” Chigara sighed unhappily.

“Come on, Hero, say something, damn it!” Icari snapped at Asaga.  “Back me up!”

“Y-yeah!” Asaga did her best to give Chigara an encouraging smile.  “You can do it, Chigara!  I believe in ya!  Uwahahaha!” Asaga finished lamely with a nervous laugh, an unpleasant squeezing sensation in her chest.

Miserably, Asaga looked inwards, unhappy with what she found.  Envy, jealousy, a secret desire for Chigara to fail and clear space for herself… Asaga struggled with herself for a moment before firmly slamming the lid on those feelings and shoving them as deep as she could.  No matter what, Chigara was the sister she’d never grown up with and, damn the rest of the universe, Asaga knew she had to support her in this time of need.

“Chigara!” Asaga pepped up, getting some of her confidence and bravado back.  “Listen, remember all the times you’ve patched me and Black Jack up from jobs gone wrong?  You’ve saved my hide more times than I can count!  W-what I’m trying to say is… you’re my Best Friend!  You can do this, I believe in Ya!”

Chigara teetered with indecision for a moment but, slowly, a smile started working its ways into her features, Asaga’s vote of confidence shoring up her intention.

“Don’t forget Chigara…” Claude wagged a finger in front of the girl.  “I could steal the Captain away any time… I’ve already seen his… equipment.  It was very satisfactory…” Claude drooled slightly at the memory.

“Eeehhh?” Chigara’s eyes crossed.  “H-his… his…” she said faintly before falling face first into the sand.

“Oy!  Good going, you bimbo!” Icari looked ready to tackle Claude.  “You broke Chigara!”

“C-cant.. breathe…” Chigara gasped.

“I-I got this!” Asaga started splashing her friend with water from the ocean.

“Uuuu…” Chigara came to, spitting up sand and seaweed.  “O-OK… I’ll do it…”

“You’re going to grab the Captain and f-”

Icari tackled Claude, sending a spray of sand everywhere.

“Oooohhhh, Icari…” Claude moaned as she rubbed herself against Icari’s bare skin, causing the mercenary to leap back in horror.  “If you wanted me so badly you only needed to ask… I’ve always thought you were a bit That way…”

“S-SHUT UP!!!” shrieked Icari, her cheeks looking hot enough to grill with.  “C-come on, you dumb floozy… We got to come up with a diversionary plan to get the Commander away from him and give Chigara a clear line of fire!”

Grabbing a grinning Claude by the scruff, Icari marched her away.

******

Dinner was served and Sunrider’s Ryder pilots gathered eagerly around the grill’s sizzling meats and vegetables.

“Here you go!” Kayto skewering a particularly good cut of meat off the grill and placed it gently on a bed of grilled vegetables on Chigara’s plate.  “A hearty piece for our Chief!”

Chigara opened and closed her mouth several times, nothing except a strangled gurgle coming out.  “G-good bye!” she managed to choke out before fleeing from the grill.

“I wonder what that was about?” muttered Kayto, watching her stumble, ashen-faced a short distance before burying her face into her food.

“Yo! Capt’n!” Icari slapped Kayto’s bare back painfully and threw an arm around his shoulder.  A bottle of Vanguard Shots was clutched in the other.  Swigging straight from the bottle, Icari looked at Kayto with slightly glazed eyes.

“Hey, Icari…” Kayto eyed Ava nervously as Icari’s bare body sidled up to him.  Ava aside, the mercenary’s unusually warm demeanor also threw him for a loop.

“Heh,” Icari hiccuped slightly.  “You know what?  You ain’t so bad after all.  I had my doubts when I first came aboard, but you really do have a pair don’t you?  You got us through that FUBAR at Far Port like it was nothing! Hahahaha! I would’ve loved to see ol’Pigman’s face before we roasted him!”

Swigging again, Icari smiled at him glowingly, her emerald eyes sparkling with interest.  “I never thought you’d have the balls to order a frontal assault with eighty cruisers against a PACT fleet six times our size… I like that… a lot.”

Kayto remained rooted to the spot, stunned by Icari’s complete reversal in personality.  As she looked up at him, her eyes took on a soft sheen and her lips parted slightly, her warm scent wafting on the breeze to his nose.

“My apologies, Captain,” Kryska dragged Icari off him with an unimpressed look on her face.  “It appears our mercenary is quite intoxicated.”

“Shadup…” Icari took a swing at Kryska and missed by a mile.  “Speeeed!” she said, slurred, ambling towards Kryska ridiculously.

Kryska sidestepped the drunken assassin with distaste and made to grab the bottle of Vanguard Shots, but Icari managed to stagger away with her prize, clutching the bottle like her child.

“Make sure she gets some protein,” laughed Kayto, handing Kryska two heaping plates of food.

“Yes, Sir!” Kryska shouted, as she took the food from him and marched off.  “Icari, get back here!”

Kayto sighed with amusement.  “They’re like a married couple, those two.  I can’t tell whether they like or hate each other…”

Ava rolled her eyes.  “Alliance ships are gender segregated so I wouldn’t be surprised if Kryska was… you know.”

“Oh?” Kayto grinned at her.  “Gossiping about the crew?  Dear me, how the mighty have fallen!”

Ava stuck her tongue out at him, slapping at his chest.

“Ow, ow… such a harsh mistress…” Kayto mock recoiled as Ava continued to hit him, half seriously.

“All right, all right,” Ava grumbled, composing herself.  “That’s enough of that.  We’re missing some one.”

Kayto did a quick headcount.  “I figured as much.”  Loading a plate with food, he turned towards Ava and gave her a mock salute.  “You have the grill, First Officer!”

“Aye, Captain.”

******

Kayto walked along the shore until he reached a likely cluster of rocks near the edge of the beach where the simulated sky had started to show the first of the night’s stars.  Stepping around one of the large, monolithic stones, he found himself in a tiny pocket of sand ensconced by the rocks and protected from the bustle of the beach.  Sola sat alone, her slender legs drawn up to her chest as she reclined against stone, staring up at the night sky with her empty amber eyes, a profoundly sad expression on her face.  If she had looked beautiful before, the soft glow of starlight illuminated her pale skin with unearthly radiance.

“I thought I’d find you here,” said Kayto, announcing his presence, trying not to stare at her bare thighs.

Sola turned to look at him without surprise, although her free hand pushed an empty tin of sesame balls behind her and out of sight.  “…The stars give me peace… I much prefer the sound of waves to the clamor of large gatherings.”

“You must be hungry,” Kayto offered her the plate of food as he took a seat beside her.

“Mmm…” Sola accepted and chewed on the food gratefully.

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, Sola’s chewing lost to the sound of waves.  A sudden shooting star crossed the sky in front of the two, burning a brilliant path across the simulated stars.

“Ah,” Sola gave a small smile at the sight.  “Even if it’s just a simulation… it still reminds me of the night sky of my home on Far Port…”

“Home huh?  Tell me about home,” asked Kayto, leaning back on the rock with Sola.

“It is as you said earlier,” Sola’s small feet dug into the moist sand as she launched into her memories.  “I was not always a princess.  For most of my life, I was merely a lowly peasant, hardly worth more than the livestock my family raised.  Home was a small wooden cottage, too hot during the summers, too cold during the winters.  We survived on what grew in our gardens and what game I could hunt in the forests.  My mother was a commoner whom my father took a fancy to when he was a young prince on one of the Royal Family’s vacations.  She was… taken by dreams of living in a palace, being cared for.  But none of her dreams came to pass.  We were abandoned, forgotten.”

“Sola… I’m sorry,” Kayto said with heartfelt emotion.  Even though she betrayed no anger or frustration, the complete void of emotion that she spoke with suggested a sadness of such profound origin that she’d cut herself off from all other feeling.  “That must have been devastating for your mother…”

“She wasted away, waiting for him to return,” said Sola.  “It was… foolish.”

“For her, he must have meant the world,” Kayto sighed sadly.  “If love were not foolish… well it would not be love at all.”

Sola fell silent, mulling on the idea before changing topics.  “Do you recall how I told you of the death of the Emperor and his heir in my time?”

“Of course, you said there was an assassination,” answered Kayto.  “One that started a war of succession between your father, the second prince, and his step-brother, Crow Harbour.”

“Correct on all counts,” nodded Sola gravely.  “But I never told you who was responsible for the assassination… I have long suspected it was my father, the second prince, who slew his own father and brother for the throne.  The Ryuvian Court in my time was a snake pit.  Betrayal, assassination, machinations, shifting alliances… such was the culture of the Star Palace.”

“Sounds like your father’s plan didn’t go exactly the way he imagined,” remarked Kayto, only modestly surprised by Sola’s revelation.  The entire plot could have been taken straight out of one of those historical holos his parents enjoyed so much.

“Indeed.”  Sola set her sights firmly on the horizon.  “The civil war had been raging for years, our Empire was on the verge of collapse.  It was clear drastic measures would need to be taken.  The Sharr’Lac had to be awakened.  Yet, the princess of Ryuvia was a stranger to hardship, unwilling to sacrifice her life for the sake of our Empire.  She was no Sharr.”

“Sola…” Kayto had a prickling feeling as he guessed where her story was going.

“She used every connection and lead she had to find me,” Sola’s voice remained as blunt as ever.  “The Emperor’s men seized me from my own home three years after my mother’s passing.  I was a complete stranger to palace intrigue, politics, and royal succession, yet I found myself thrown into the midst of his dangerous game.  They dragged me from my life… impressed me into service against my will… Some nights… I still feel the chill of irons on my wrists and neck.”

Kayto looked at Sola with pity, the sliver of the sadness and harshness of her life that shone through the closed shudders of her eyes almost too much for him to bear.  By comparison, the entirety of his own life seemed soft, almost decadent.  “So your father abandoned you, then kidnapped you when he needed you to save his own rotten hide?” asked Kayto, rising ire in his voice.

Sola said nothing for the longest time before sighing.  “For a while… I was angry.  Like you.” Sola turned to look at him.  “But, I realized the task before me was too great to abandon.  The future of the Empire rested in my hands and I chose to wield the Sharr’Lac willingly to defend my homeland.”  Sola’s fine cheekbones blushed with the barest hint of color and moisture pooled in the corners of her eyes as she relived the emotions.

“You must have been terrified…” Kayto scooted closer to her gingerly.  “That was a brave, selfless thing to do.”

Sola watched him settle in next to her so that they were almost touching skin-to-skin, but did not withdraw.  “It was strange.  For the first time in my life I was… happy.  Even though I knew what awaited me at the end of my mission, the people called me the Princess of Ryuvia.  I remember, after each victory, marching through the Arch of Destiny on Ryuvia Prime.  The people on their knees, weeping, hailing me as their Sharr…  I, a simple country girl, would die as a hero of the Ryuvian people… it filled me with such unspeakable pride and love.  It was a great comfort to me when I gave my life to the Sharr’Lac.”

Kayto put an arm around Sola’s thin shoulders protectively, pulling her close.

“Ah…” Sola blushed harder but did not fight, letting her head rest gently upon his shoulder, her soft, white hair silky against his skin.

“Powerful and deadly in battle, yet peace loving.  Infallible, but prepared to die for the Holy Empire at any time,” quoted Kayto, remembering Sola’s description of the Sharr.  “You really were the Sharr of your people, Sola.”

“Captain…” Sola cast her eyes downwards demurely.  “You say such things…”

“You’ll never have to sacrifice your life again, I promise.  Not while I’m Captain.” Kayto said firmly, holding Sola close.

“A-ah…” Sola gave a small gasp of surprise, now properly blushing.  “…N-no one has ever spoken worlds like those to me before… I’d expected to die for so long that… I’d forgotten what it meant to live…”

Sola trembled suddenly, clutching a hand to her breast and pressing against Kayto’s side as she dug deeper into the embrace.  Squeezing her eyes shut, Sola had an intense expression on her face.  “I-”

“Oy!” Asaga’s voice rang out, intruding into their pocket of quiet.  “There they are!  Capt’n!  Come out, we’ve got more food!”

Several pairs of footsteps came as the rest of the pilots and Ava showed up, having apparently set out to search for Kayto with his disappearance.

“A-ah!” Sola jerked as though jolted with electricity.

“Well then,” Kayto pulled himself to his feet and offered his hand Sola who looked up at him with round eyes.  “Shall we?”

“Mmm.” Sola nodded and recomposed herself, taking his hand and pulling herself to her feet.  “Captain.”  Sola’s cool hand held his own for a moment longer before she let go.  “I know not why I was brought to this timeline or what purpose I will find here.  Yet, I now know it was not travesty, but fortune.  I know not if I will ever put the sorrows of my past behind me, but… you have my appreciation.  Not as a princess, but as a common girl.”

As the two emerged from between the rocks to rejoin the others, Claude suddenly closed her eyes, practically resonating with a power only she could commune with.  “I sense… a disturbance… another formidable rival has emerged…”

“Eh?  Eh?” Chigara peeked around the rocks with confusion.  “W-what did I miss?!”

“Seriously!” Icari grumbled, having miraculously sobered up already.  “W-what does everyone see in him anyways?!”

“Absolutely… unbelievable…” Ava covered her face in shame.  “Captain, can you go anywhere without charming some hapless female?”

******

Bellies full and shivering slightly against the cold night air that blew ashore, Kayto and the others piled gratefully into the wooden cabin they’d rented for the evening.  A crackling fire was already blazing merrily in the fireplace, giving the entire cabin a comfortable, rustic feel.

“Ooohhh,” Claude’s eyes lit up as she surveyed the cozy room.  “You sure know how to impress a woman, Captain!”

“Ahem,” Ava marched in front of the group and planted her feet solidly, giving Claude a meaningful look.  “I want to reiterate that I expect all crew to be on their best behavior for this overnight st-”

The rest of her speech was cut off as the Ryder pilots practically trampled her as they charged into the cabin properly.

“Yaaaahoooo!” Claude hopped up on the coffee table and began gyrating.  “Who’s up for strip poker!?”

“We can stay up all night!” shouted Asaga, dragging Chigara along as she raced around to check out the cabin’s furnishings.  “Oh… a stereo system.  We can play loud music!”

“Winner gets to sleep in the Captain’s room!” declared Claude as rhythmic bass beats started pounding out of the cabin’s entertainment system.

Kayto made himself a mental note to lock his room’s door for the evening.

“Tsch.  L-like anyone would even want to win that!” objected Icari.

“Ouch, ouch…”  Kayto winced.

“Let’s play for something real!”  Icari gave a wicked grin.  “Loser has to run around the cabin six times, naked!”

“H-how disgraceful!” Kryska shuddered.

“Whasamatter Soldier Boy?” Icari’s grin widened.  “Afraid to show us what’s hanging between your legs?”

“Y-you!” Kryska turned red and shrieked with indignity.  “P-permission to engage?!”

“C-Captain!” Ava picked herself up off the floor, pale and sweaty looking.  “S-say something!  Before we lose complete control over the crew!”

“Have fun?” Kayto gave her a thumbs up before yawning and retiring to his room.

The door’s lock clicked loudly as he locked himself into his room, leaving Ava well and truly alone.

“NOOOO!” Ava cried out in horror.  Back against the wall, she cringed as Icari and Claude closed in for the kill. “Captain!  Don’t leave me alone with these people!”

“Don’t worry Commander,” Icari pried Ava off the wall as she and Claude frogmarched her to the couches near the fire.  “We’ll take real good care of you.  Here, have some wine, it’ll sooth your nerves and you can join the game.”

“H-highly i-inappropriate!” Ava struggled futilely against her captors as Asaga pulled out a deck of playing cards.  “Section 39-A line 98 of Cera Space Force Regulations strictly forbids all games of chance on board-”

“Hold her still, Claude,” Icari advanced menacingly towards Ava with a glass of wine.

“Ava Crescentia!  Commander, Cera Space Force.  Service Number AC48271!” screamed Ava, eyes bulging, losing her mind completely.

“Hahaha! Take this!” Icari swirled the wineglass under Ava’s nose, allowing the aroma of the wine to reach her.

“O-oh…” Ava’s struggles became less pronounced.  “T-that’s quite impressive…”

“A little something I’ve been saving in the Phoenix’s hidden compartment,” Icari smirked at Ava’s predicament.  “The merchant I got it from claimed it’s wine from the lost cellars of the Fourth Ryuvian Dynasty.  Honestly, it’s almost good enough to believe.”

“W-well…” Ava took the glass as Claude released her.  “I suppose it’s best for me to remain here then… to ensure we all remain within Ceran Regulations, of course…”  Sipping the wine happily, Ava settled into the couch, blind to the dealing of cards in front of her.

“Exactly my thoughts Commander,” Icari gave Claude a high five.  “AHAHAHA!”

******

Several hours later, the logs in the fireplace had burned down significantly and Icari, Asaga, Kryska and Claude all sat around the table of cards in various states of half-dress as they eyed each other suspiciously.

Ava poured herself another glass of wine, several open bottles already littering the common room, angrily sloshing some over the side of her glass.  Pink in the cheeks, the Commander had spent the entire last hour berating a string of girls, who appeared to range from crushes to mere acquaintances of Kayto’s during their schooldays, citing innumerable personality flaws and incompatibilities.

“And then!” Ava continued angrily, brandishing a glass of wine at her half-attentive audience.  “During his first year of high school, he was head over heels with this goo-eyed girl!  What was her face?  Flora!  She was nothing but an empty head, full of hot air!  But I suppose that was his type!  Just a month before that he had been fawning over Hana!  That was a bimbo if I ever knew one, let me tell you…”

“Wow, the Commander’s really smashed isn’t she?” whispered Asaga from behind her cards.

“Shut up, this is dirt is gold!” hissed Icari.

“S-such impropriety!” Ava stood up on wobbly legs and clenched a fist.  “It was then that I, Ava Crescentia, swore to beat some sense into that man!”

“Uwaahhhh!” Asaga’s eyes glittered.  “So you were a couple!”

“But not even that was enough, oh no!” Ava monologued loudly over Asaga.  “After that, even with my guidance he fell for another one of those lambs he fancied!  What was her name… the library girl!”

“Commander…” Kryska helped Ava back into her seat before she fell over.  “P-perhaps you’ve had a little too much to drink…”

“Eehh?” Ava jerked her wine glass away from Kryska.  “I-I’m fine!  I don’t feel a thing!”

“Hufufu…” Icari snickered as she hid behind her hand of cards.  “Looks like Operation Fine Wine is working exactly as planned.  This is your chance, Chigara!”

“I-I’m not sure…” Chigara said bashfully, “M-maybe I’ll just go to sleep…”

Claude snuck up from behind, raising a glass of wine to Chigara’s tiny lips.  Tilting the glass up, Claude smiled as Chigara’s eyes widened and she began gulping it down.  “Now or never, Chigara~!”

“C-Chigara will do her best!” Chigara declared, hopping up, invigorated by the wine.

******

“A-ah,” Chigara announced her presence with a nervous cough.  “Captain… there you are.”

Kayto stood alone on the wooden deck of the cabin, looking out over the deserted beach and at the bright, full moon in front of him.  As he turned to look at her with his pale blue eyes, Chigara felt her breath quicken, the soft moonlight accentuating his handsome features.

“The girls getting too rowdy for you inside, Chigara?” asked Kayto with a smile as Chigara walked up to the railing beside him.

“Eh-heh…” Chigara felt her cheeks warm.  “Y-you could say that.”

As Kayto turned to look back out at the beautiful landscape in front of them, Chigara found herself at a loss for words.  Despite the fact she’d been nervously reciting what she’d say over and over again in her head, the words she looked for utterly deserted her now, leaving the two in silence as an owl hooted in the still night air.

“Well Chief,” Kayto gave Chigara a hearty smile.  “We couldn’t have done it without you!”

“No…” Chigara shook her head unhappily.  “Please don’t call me that, Captain.  Call me Chigara!”

“Heh,” Kayto smiled.  “All right… Chigara.”

Meanwhile, Icari, Kryska, Claude, Asaga, and Ava spilled out of the cabin’s side door, scrambling into the cover of a very large, convenient bush beside the deck.  From there, between the branches, the five had a nearly unimpeded view of the deck and were close enough to hear both Chigara and Kayto.

“Eh?” Ava surfaced from her stupor as the crisp night air revived her senses.  “W-where am I?  W-what are we doing outside!?”

“Shh!”  Claude clapped a hand over Ava’s mouth.  “Commander!  They’ll hear us!”

“I-I don’t know what’s happening!” Ava pointed a swaying finger of authority at the three Claudes that swam before her vision.  “I order you to take me back this moment!”

“Just enjoy the show!” hissed Icari, grinning and pushing her way through the brambles to a better view.

“Uuuu…” Asaga made an involuntary unhappy sound as she spotted Chigara and Kayto standing side by side.  Her heart pounded uncomfortably in her throat despite the fact that she wasn’t even the one to confess her feelings.  Wiping a sweaty brow, Asaga wondered if she felt worse in the bushes or if she were the one in front of Kayto.  “Jeez, this is like an anime…” Asaga muttered.  “Now all we need is something stupid to interrupt Chigara.”

“Ufufufufu,” Claude looked extremely pleased with herself as she pulled Chigara’s communication bracelet out of her pocket.  “I swiped it off her when she was drinking; now she won’t be interrupted!”

Asaga’s heart sank, feeling her chances with the Captain plummeting with each second passing.

“That’s not all,” Icari took a menacing black box out of her pocket.  Adjusting a few dials and pushing the button, Icari’s box made a small burp of noise as the cabin’s lights flickered wildly before recovering.  “I’ve just disabled all electronic communications in a one hundred meter radius!”

Claude squealed happily.   “Not even Arcadius dropping out of the sky is going to stop those two from getting it on tonight!”

“G-getting it on?  Who?!” demanded Ava, still confused and struggling, tangled up in leaves and branches.

“O-oh…” Chigara broke the long silence between Kayto and herself.

“I-Is something wrong?” Kayto scrutinized Chigara in the dark of the night.  “You look really pale…”

Chigara’s world seemed to spin as the wine hit her all at once,  “I-I’m feeling dizzy!” Chigara giggled as she swooned and pitched unevenly.

“T-they’re going to-!” Ava suddenly panicked as she realized what was going on.  “H-highly Improper! I-I must put an end to this at once!”

Icari and Claude tackled her, shaking the entire bush with their struggle.  “Shh!  Commander, it’s all in good fun!” grunted Icari, flattening Ava underneath her.

“Commander~” Claude pulled a hip flask out from one of her pockets.  “I’ve got some more wine for you…”

“O-oh…” Ava snatched the flask from Claude and took a pull at it before falling still.

Asaga looked morosely at Ava’s prone form, her last hope for salvation gone.

“C-captain…” Chigara swayed even more wildly as Kayto’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Save me…”

Happily, Chigara fell into Kayto’s arms as he caught her, scooping her tiny frame up with both his arms.  Without a second thought, Chigara threw her arms around his neck and looked up into his wide eyes, having never been so close.  One of her hands slipped and grabbed at his collar, tearing his shirt open and revealing his chest, not altogether unintentionally.

“Hehehe…” Chigara giggled,  most unlike herself, but clearly enjoying the sensation of being surrounded by his arms.  Carelessly, she kicked off her shoes, leaving only her stockings on.

“C-Chigara!” Kayto steadied the two of them, holding her to his chest.  “A-are you alright!?”

Several stifled gasps emanated from the bushes, unheard by either of the two.

Not good, not good! Asaga’s mind raced as she watched the increasingly grim situation unfolding in front of her.

“W-wowowow!” Claude’s eyes were unfocused as she watched, enraptured.  “That girl’s got more skill than I gave her credit for!”

“The old falling into his arms trick?” Icari crossed her arms and blew a stray strand of hair out of the way.  “I could do that…”

Chigara and Kayto started laughing on the deck.

“Mmoouuu…” Chigara reached up and stroked Kayto’s cheek.  “Captain…”

“Yes Chigara?” Kayto’s laughter receded with surprise.

“Why are you always so cold to Chigara?” Chigara’s hand dropped onto her bosom as her face turned serious.

“I-I’m not sure I follow…”

“We all worry about you,” Chigara looked up at him with concern in her eyes.  “I worry about you…  There’s a shadow behind your eyes and over… here.” Chigara placed her small hand over his bare chest, feeling the pounding of his heart.  “But you never let us get close enough to help.  You don’t have to carry that burden alone, Captain… I’m here…”

Kayto looked at her silently for a moment.  “I never expected my first command to be like this…” Kayto gave a world-weary sigh, letting his barrier fall and the weakness and uncertainty behind his mask show.  “I’m probably the youngest Captain in the fleet.  Sunrider’s crewed by the greenest recruits we had… and here we are, fighting for the fate of our entire world and maybe even the galaxy.  All of your lives are in my hands… the lives of billions of innocents too…”

“Captain…” Chigara stroked his hand on her thigh, feeling its contours and pressing his grip closer to herself.

“But… these hands…” Kayto’s face fell as darkness strolled across his features.  “They’re also stained with the blood of millions that I left behind to die on the day the PACT came to Cera.  Nothing will ever wash that away… Every decision, every triumph, every failure… they ultimately rest on my shoulders and it’s not fair or right for me to ask anyone else to share that burden.”

“Why?”  Chigara buried her head against his chest.  “Why do you want to be alone?”  Wiggling, she pulled free his grasp and set her feet on the ground, holding the railing of the deck for support.  “You’re always like this!  To everyone!  Smiling and laughing so that we won’t see.  But I… I know how you feel!  That’s why I want to help.  Every time I think of you leading us into battle, giving us orders… it must…”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Kayto turned away and looked out at the moon.  “I know…”

War has hardened his heart.

Sola’s words echoed in his mind.

“…There’s… really nothing for me to say, is there?” said Chigara after a full minute of silence, leaning against his upper arm as she joined him in the view.

Kayto ran his free hand through her soft, lavender hair, her sweet scent rising and comforting his frayed nerves.  “You will always be my shield… So long as I have you all to fight for… I’ll be fine.”

“I understand.”  Chigara closed her eyes in comfort as Kayto’s hand continued to run through her hair.  After a moment, she extracted herself from him, giving him a small smile.  “It’s late… I should go.”

“Good night, sleep tight.” Kayto nodded at Chigara as she turned to leave.  “Thank you… Chigara…”

******

“Come on, come on!” Claude was practically jumping up and down.  “Kiss him and drag him to bed already!  He’s yours!!!”

“Hurk…” Asaga’s world was spinning.

“Good night, Captain,” said Chigara, the cabin door sliding open and shut behind her.

“Well…” Icari shrugged with disappointment.  “That ends that, I suppose.  Time for us to abort the mission and head to bed too…”

“Aww!” Claude practically fell over with the let down.  “I was sure Chigara was going to seduce him!”

Ava picked herself up from the ground, looking bewildered and very drunk, a rosy glow to her cheeks.  “Ahem… Well, if you are all satisfied… we should all head inside, clean up, and get to sleep.”

Asaga closed her eyes and rubbed her brow.  “Chigara…” she thought.  “Now I don’t even know how to feel about all this…”

“Move it people!” Ava made shooing motions with her arms ineffectually, the effort threatening to unbalance her.

“Come on!” Kryska barked, making everyone jump.  “You heard the Commander!  Move it!”

Grumbling, the entire group half-shambled, half-crawled back to the main cabin to settle in for the evening.

******

Alone, Sola perched on top of the sloped roof of the cabin, basking in the glowing moonlight of the night.  Snippets of conversation floated up to her from below, but she continued to lay motionless, staring up at the night sky.  The other women could play their games with each other and the Captain, but she, Sola vi Ryuvia, needed time for herself.

Thinking back to the beach, she remembered the fluttering sensation in her chest as Kayto held her close, as if sheltering her from the universe itself.  The sensation returned to her now, flitting through her body so intensely she feared she would cry out with its pressure.  Breathing hard, Sola raised a hand up to the sky, watching her fingers tremble in the moonlight.  Feelings she’d never had, sensations that she’d long ago left behind in her life, secure in the knowledge that no matter what, her time and fate was set in stone, came roaring back into her frigid body, as though the universe was breathing new life into the cold vessel she resided in.

“Captain…”

******

The next morning, one of Ava’s eyes cracked open, watching the rising sun with mounting horror.  That feeling of spinning disorientation and nausea, the sensation of dried sweat on her soiled uniform, the pounding in her head… she’d not felt this way since… since… ever!

“Ughh…” Ava didn’t so much as get out of bed as pour off of it.  Taking a deep breath, she rose to her feet and waited for the room to settle.  “Hurk…”

Barging into her room’s bathroom, Ava retched and let loose in the lavatory’s toilet, feeling some relief as the poison left her body.  Suddenly her hand found a hard packet on the floor.  Grasping it and raising the packet to her eyes, she saw a note attached to it.  Apparently it had been strategically placed on the floor beside her toilet.

“Sorry about last night, love you!!!!  Claude.”

Ava groaned and tore the packet open, finding two pills inside.  Without hesitation, she drank water directly from the sink and swallowed the two pills.  Five minutes later, color rushed back into her cheeks as her world stabilized, her epic hangover blasting away into a foggy discomfort with Claude’s medication.

“What happened…” muttered Ava, the entire night’s memories a disjointed pile in her head.  As she sifted through her scattered memories, the evening’s frivolities seemed to coalesce back into a half intelligent narrative.  “Uck…” Ava’s eyes were wide in horror.  Had she really made such a fool of herself in front of the crew?  Suppressing mounting panic, Ava resolved to reassert herself before the crew returned to the Sunrider, lest she become the laughing stock of the entire ship for the next few months to come.

“All hands, form up!  NOW!” she bellowed as she walked towards the common room.

“ATTEEENNN-HUT!” Kryska bolted out of her room, already dressed.  “The Commander wishes to speak with us!”

The rest of the Ryder pilots shambled out of bed with slightly less enthusiasm, still wearing pajamas, but fell into line all the same.  Only Chigara and Sola appeared anything close to baseline mental status.

“Well…” Ava stalked up and down the line of pilots, glaring into each and every one’s faces.  “I believe this concludes our shore leave experience.  While we have certainly made many… colorful memories and reaffirmed our bonds of camaraderie, we now return to our mission with dedication and focus!  We will not stop until Veniczar Arcadius is overthrown and the PACT has offered unconditional surrender of their forces!”

The Ryder pilots gave a enthusiastic, if motley chorus of cheers.

“Get your things together!  We leave for Sunrider at 0800!”

******

Five minutes to departure, a shuttle put down in front of the team’s cabin and Kayto’s pilots walked aboard with their luggage and souvenirs, giving the beach one last look goodbye.

Kayto stood on the wooden deck of the cabin, savoring the final minutes of vacation as Ava walked up behind him.

“Captain!” Ava saluted.  “Shall we return now?”

Kayto closed his eyes and tilted his head back, breathing in the salty air as deep as he could.  “It’ll be a long time before we can do this again, Ava… Part of me wishes we didn’t have to go back.  Just stay… bask in paradise… let the war sort itself out… Doesn’t seem to be our fate in this universe.”

“No Sir.” Ava agreed gravely.

“Is the crew ready?”

“The crew is one hundred percent.  They’ll be with you every step of the way.”  answered Ava.

“And you?”  Kayto turned to look at Ava, meeting her gaze.

Ava looked back, a moment of disquiet flickering through her eyes as she took note of the dark circles under Kayto’s eyes and the firm set of his mouth.  “I am, and always will be, your XO,” she said, more gently than she would have otherwise.

“Good.”  Kayto turned and trudged towards the waiting shuttle.  “Let’s go then.  We’ve got a war to win.”

CHAPTER 20 >>>>