Chapter 1:  The Spy
Footfalls mingled with the crackling sound of leaves underfoot as a solitary figure walked on the carpet of yellow leaves that covered the avenue. Misty sunlight threw the clear-cut shadows of the great maples and oaks into solid relief. A breeze filtered through the whispering trees, whispers that murmured the secrets of centuries past and present.
Whispers, of course, that a wandering Kirishima could not and did not wish to decipher. The gentle whispers meant little to her, and she continued on her way. Autumn was in full swing and the silence that the melancholic season brought with it was palpable, unbroken by the multitude of soft murmurs that swept through the park.
At last, she came to the spot she was looking for – a great oak with its roots forming almost unnatural niches and alcoves. Many carefree parties of laughter and merriment had been held here, games of hide-and-seek and treasure hunts. But now in the grip of autumn the great tree stood silent – only the wind carried echoes of those days.
Kirishima looked around her, checking left and right for anyone following. Satisfied, she walked around the tree, her eyes searching the roots. It didn’t take long; halfway around it she found Haruna sitting in one of the smaller alcoves, waiting expectantly, the remains of a light repast beside her.
“You weren’t followed?” Haruna asked.
“No, Haruna-sama. I did my usual checks, as requested,” Getting onto all fours Kirishima crawled over to Haruna, who relaxed and, giggling softly, let her gently crawl over her until their faces were inches away.
“I guess it’s been rather boring lately, hmmm?” Kirishima softly whispered, adjusting her glasses idly.
“Hard to say. The Admiral isn’t letting slip much,” Haruna coolly answered. “I, on the other hand…”
Kirishima smiled. “I know.” Without any more prompting she leaned in close, and nothing more could be said.
In a leaf pile a little way from the great oak the little scene reflected on the polished glass of a camera, hidden craftily amongst the leaves. Its lens captured every passionate movement, every little shift of the jumble of white robes.
Inside the leaf pile the obtrusive spy studied the images, feeling a little thrill of daring as the camera clicked again – another delicious little picture to add the files. She wiped a bead of sweat off her brow – even in the cool shade of the trees the interior of the leaf-pile was baking – she felt like a chicken in an oven.
At last the little scene relaxed and stilled. The spy detached the camera from the tripod and flipped through the images, contemplating each picture’s caption. She thought of the possible headlines for the little affair – Sisterly Love: a secret affair? Trysts under the trees? Or something else? The spy smiled to herself as she carefully extricated herself from the heap, taking care not to make too much noise. The evidence was sown, and the seeds of a scandalous story began to sprout.
The viscous liquid in the pot bubbled to a boil while a merrily humming Kaga stood by, chopping up an assortment of vegetables. In a singular flash of bright steel the chunks flew into the pot.
The stew turned from blood red to a murky brown almost immediately. She peered at the mixture, breathing in the fragrant spices.
“Good enough,” Kaga murmured to herself. “Maybe a bit more fuel…” Idly her hand found the fuel can and raised it up to the rim.
“Ka-ga-senpai! What are you making today?” With an abrupt shock Kaga felt the can slip from her fingers. The iron can clattered on the tiles, its contents oozing out on the polished surface. Quickly and decisively Kaga whipped her bow up and deftly notched a green-feathered arrow. She looked down the arrow and saw Ikazuchi, frozen in her tracks.
Oil continued to leak from the can as Kaga stood her ground, bow drawn and tensed while Ikazuchi looked at the arrow, her expression melting from a frozen frieze of a joker into a face of pure fright.
Kaga was the first to break the pregnant silence. “Ikazuchi. Why are you here?” she asked in a flat monotone.
“Aha-ha-ha-ha, me? I was just checking if….” Her voice shook and trailed away as she tried to edge towards the door.
Kaga’s grip on the bow tightened. “Now you make this mess,” She glanced down at the spreading puddle of oil. “And now you clean it up.”
“M-me? B-but I have to go and see- Eeeek!” Ikazuchi jumped hurriedly out of the way as Kaga loosed the arrow, which flew and exploded in a great burst of flames against the wall. Ikazuchi felt the force of the blast and tripped backwards, landing hard on the tiles.
“Ouchy…” As she nursed the spreading bruise on her thigh, Ikazuchi looked up and saw Kaga looming over her, bow at her side. “Clean up the mess,” she said, throwing down a large sponge. “Or you won’t be getting any dinner tonight.”
“Yes, Kaga-senpai…” Ikazuchi ruefully took up the sponge and began mopping up.
Behind her, however, another little camera watched the whole spectacle from the safety of a dusty niche in the spice rack. Its tiny lens contracted and expanded, covering all the movements and gestures.
In the adjacent room the same conniving spy sat straight in her chair, watching the replay of the awkward scene. With a rapid click she paused, tapped a few keys, and another juicy image saved itself into a folder. The spy closed the live feed and leant back, smiling to herself. And there, she thought to herself, is another little story all sewn up.
She idly shifted over to another desk, where several photos and pieces of print lay pinned and arranged over a cork board. Scrutinising the layout, she moved the pieces around, edging some into the more obscure columns and others into prominence. With a flourish she placed the last item on the board and grinned, admiring her own handiwork.
Tomorrow’s going to be a hot day, she thought, and it thrilled her to think of the little outrages her small but explosive paper was about to cause.
Chapter 2:  Alarm and Encounter
A muffled roar echoed through the polished halls, reverberating on every angry note. There was a note of fury in the roar that many of the girls shivered at – they knew who it was, but at the same time they shrugged inwardly. It happened all the time.
Doors slammed open. Some, immune to this behaviour, looked at the glowering Kongou with a frank curiosity: what was it now?
Kongou stared back at the looks of the lazing girls, barely controlling her rage as she searched the room with her furious eyes.
“What is it, Kongou-san?” asked Fuso, not even looking up from her embroidery frame. There was no reply – the rocket had moved off to the next room.
“AOBA! SHOW YOURSELF!” screamed Kongou, as she kicked open the next door. Instead she found Ise, Hyuuga, Nagato and Mutsu sitting around a green-baize table – the soft click of bone tiles could be heard. Not this one. Before any of the battleships could even register surprise Kongou swept away from the doorway, moving on to the next room.
“What the hell was that all about?” Mutsu pondered aloud.
“The usual, probably,” Ise answered as she adjusted her tiles. Play continued as normal.
Kongou raced up the steps, her fury guiding her to every disused room, her vengeful hands scouring every nook and cranny. No sign of the offender.
“WHERE THE **** ARE YOU, AOBA!?”In her blind fury she raced unknowingly into the administrative department, a blur to the sedate workers who ambled quietly in the pristine corridors. Surprised aides scattered as the raging battleship flew through the corridors.
She kicked down another, blurred door, rushing in. She was about to call again, but upon seeing the scene before her, the anger within her died almost in an instant.
Every inch of the hall was covered in ordnance maps, little pins in red, blue and green dotted all over the surface. Before her was the largest table she had ever seen – on it was a complete map of the Pacific region, furnished with little blocks with tiny flags that littered the field. Her fury turned into awe as she gazed at her surroundings. She was so dumbstruck by the sight that she did not notice the Admiral standing at the side of the table.
The Admiral surveyed her with frank curiosity, like the countless others who Kongou had barged in on. “Kongou? Did you need something?” he asked, clearly puzzled.
Kongou felt her face growing hot extremely rapidly as the attention of the assistants in the room turned to her. “Err… I, um, was wondering….” Her nerve failed her as the Admiral’s stern brown eyes bored into her.
“Does this, by any chance, have to do with this morning’s paper?” the Admiral wryly asked, sensing her lingering anger.
Kongou was silent. The Admiral had completely read her thoughts. Her forehead flushed with embarrassment, and her conscience kept her quiet.
The Admiral was silent. After regarding her for a moment he motioned to her with a gesture – slowly, but agonizingly she took a seat next to the door.
To her relief the attention of the assistants quickly shifted back to the giant table. Some bent back over their stations beside the radios; others ran documents to the various radio operators and board plotters. Kongou recognized them as the destroyers and cruisers that she saw the least, the girls (that she had seen) that never went into battle – Nagara’s brood lined one side of the giant map, tenderly shifting the pawns on the board, while the little Mutsuki sisters raced along the upper galleries, laden with stacks of documents.
She saw Oyodo sitting next to the Admiral, clipboard in arm, observing the movement of the pawns and scribbling away; various other destroyers manned the radios and receivers – Hatsushimo, Oboro, Arare, and a whole host of others, pushing pulling, racing, jabbering, ordering, and movements so fluid it appeared as if the entire room was a single machine.
Kongou observed the Admiral nodding as he surveyed the board, the strict and correct Oyodo summarizing the situation for him. Like a magician unfolding his tales his hands swept here and there, pawns moving to his will.
A high-pitched bell chimed – on this signal the paddles were raised aloft, like spears at the salute. To this forest of paddles the Admiral stood up.
“Alright, everyone, we’ll take a fifteen minute break. Dismiss!” With a cacophony of sighs of relief the assistants stood and stretched, the operators and controllers chatting amicably. At last the pawns stood still, and the radios (save for one) fell silent.
Kongou continued to watch, fascinated, as some left the room in twos and threes, while others broke out bottles of water and wrapped snacks. The Admiral exchanged a few last words with Oyodo before the cruiser herself walked out of the room, concentrated on her clipboard. At last, the Admiral was alone. But she needn’t have worried – the Admiral beckoned for her to come forward.
But even before she could get out of her chair a gaggle of girls – Oyodo among them – burst into the room.
“Sir! Sir!” they cried. The Admiral, startled once more, turned his attention to them. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
Oyodo spoke up, breathless but excited. “Recon patrol 7B in sector 4-south has just radioed in – the Battleship Hime has been spotted and engaged by an unknown fleet! They say they’ve also identified formations of unidentified aircraft over its location! What-”
“Admiral!” This time Oboro called from the balcony, the lone radio operator still remaining. “Patrol flagship Sawaka is reporting in – her recon planes have identified the aircraft as possibly Messerschmitt Bf 109s! Whatever could they be?”
Me 109s? The Admiral jogged his memory, back to the early days of his career. Flashbacks came before him, and he remembered his first overseas posting – to Kiel, into the welcoming arms of the Germans. But what were German ships doing so far away from home?
“Kongou, come over here for a moment.” The lithe battleship got out of her chair and, feeling a little sheepish amidst the stares of the little group of assistants (the gaze of Oyodo particularly unsettling), walked over to him.
The Admiral smiled at her. “Kongou-” His voice was warm, reassuring. “Did you, by any chance, have any experiences concerning the Germans?”
“Ummm… not particularly.” Kongou glanced over at the waiting gaggle, who continued to stare at her. “I don’t think I’ve ever had contact with any modern German warship.”
“Thank you, Kongou.” The Admiral continued to smile, but as soon as Kongou stepped back his demeanour immediately changed. The benign grin turned into a grim look as he surveyed the map again. After regarding it for a moment he raised his head, towards the balconies.
“Oboro, advise Sawaka that we are on friendly terms with the unknown ships. Any assistance signal coming from that fleet is to be answered post-haste. If possible, escort them back to base. That is all.” The tough little destroyer turned back to the radio, rapidly relaying the orders.
“Oyodo, get everyone back in. I want headquarters on the line just in case this escalates. Everyone, we’re on red alert!” The Admiral jammed his peaked cap back on his head, his expression serious, and Kongou finally saw the last facet of her beloved Admiral – the cheerful Admiral, the cunning Admiral, the kind Admiral, and at last, the fighting Admiral.