Houshou Marine hadn’t been happier in her life, aboard the Lunar Light alongside her family.
Well, aside from the circumstances that brought her to the joyous situation she was now in.
Still, despite everything that had happened, she was alive, as was everyone she cared about.
Her adopted children, Minato Aqua and Murasaki Shion, were both alive. As was Uruha Rushia, who wasn’t quite an adopted child but was still a close family friend and an older sister figure to the younger pair. Shirogane Noel and Shiranui Flare both made it out just fine, alongside their adopted children. Even Himemori Luna, as much of a pain as the little princess could be, was much beloved and the pirate would feel legitimately terrible if she was hurt; and of course the rest of the Hollow Force minus the dragon was with her.
Dealing with Luna was made much easier by the fact that Oozora Subaru had been brought on as Luna’s main distraction for the duration of the journey, much to the annoyance of said Oozora Subaru.
It was as much as she could’ve ever wanted, really. The Lunar Light was a magnificent ship, and boarding it managed to feel like a throwback to her piracy days while also still being a huge moment for her found family.
The only difference was that, in the past, she would be at the helm of the vessel because she was stealing it, and now she was letting someone else have that responsibility, and she was happy to do so, as it meant she could spend more time with her friends and family, and given the events of the last few days she intended to spend every minute she could with those she loved.
Curiously, while the navy of the Lunar Kingdom technically was part of the Lu-knights, the imagery didn’t match as much; It was pretty clear that the naval division was more or less left to its own devices. The helmsman for the journey was perhaps the most interesting figure; unlike Natsuiro Matsuri, the official leader of the Lu-knights, she was open about who she was, even though her face was half covered in a mask.
Sakamata Chloe was driving the ship. With her was a girl with pink hair and coyote ears, as well as another girl with blonde hair and a katana.
Hakui Koyori and Kazama Iroha were clearly high-ranking members aboard the ship, and Chloe instructed them to take command.
Or, at least, for Iroha to do so; Koyori didn’t seem terribly interested.
To be honest, I’m not really sure Koyori’s really doing much. Iroha’s clearly the only person who actually knows to actually be in charge of things.
Marine had a long history of observing others, and while Chloe was nominally acting seriously and making an effort to appear so, the former pirate knew that underneath that mask was someone who wasn’t really in charge at all.
On the other hand, Iroha was taking her duty seriously; it was fairly clear that she knew that they had a princess on the ship and she was going to make sure that nothing went wrong on the journey home.
That was just fine with Marine; she wasn’t intending to do anything that would get herself in trouble with those who ran the place.
I’d rather not see just how skilled she is with that blade; she strikes me as someone who’s very well practiced with it.
Not that she was going anywhere shortly; right now she was currently residing in a bed meant for two, alongside her youngest daughter, with one wrapped around her body while using her other hand to gently ruffle her hair.
Aqua was understandably a little shaken; Marine suspected that was probably due to the fact that in the last few months she had been kidnapped, held hostage by her own essentially mind-controlled sister, imprisoned, kidnapped again, and then electrocuted by another magic user who was also effectively mind-controlled.
Like she tended to, Aqua said nothing, but instead silently positioned herself as to make sure that she was never outside of Marine’s line of sight. Not that it was hard; Marine was also acting similarly; just with a better degree of subtlety.
Never in her life had she been so glad that the princess who ordered this ship built - which apparently was one of Luna’s predecessors - was a hopeless romantic, because it meant being able to have a moment such as this one.
It’s interesting, Marine thought, how when I adopted Aqua she wasn’t able to handle physical touch very well at all, and now she actively relaxes from it.
I’m sorry, my little Aqu-tan. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there when you needed me.
She thought about the other bed in their cabin onboard the Lunar Light, which was currently occupied by Shion and Rushia, and thought about her family.
But I’m glad that I’m not the only one looking out for you, too.
Sometimes words didn’t need to be spoken for the sentiment to be understood. Aqua visibly relaxing was a sight that her mother had come to appreciate more than almost anything else in the world.
Shirogane Noel, like she often did, was having a nightly conversation with her wife, Shiranui Flare.
Unusually, however, there was a third person in the conversation: Yuzuki Choco.
The topic of discussion was shared between the three of them: the five children that were being adopted between the three..
Choco drew a sharp breath.
“I’m going to be the first to confess that, in retrospect, my adoption was premature and I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Too late, Marine confessed to that with regards to raising Aqua. And Noel actually already gave that speech to me with regards to raising Lamy.”
Choco smiled amusedly.
“I suppose. Though, between the three of us, by expectation I’m probably the worst at raising kids here. In general, demons aren’t terribly known for maternal instincts. At all.”
Noel spoke with a relatively reassuring voice.
“Neither are warriors, but here I am. To be honest, I think you’ll be fine; you have a much better knowledge of the different demonic species than I do, and you actually have the ability to heal Aloe if she gets hurt again. In addition to that, Botan is, somewhat regrettably, very mature for her age, while also harboring a deep protective instinct.”
“Botan speaks like someone who was forced to grow up too quickly. The way she looks out for the rest of the kids she was with is not necessarily normal; it’s fairly evident - at least to me - that she quickly became the one the rest of them looked up to, along with Lamy to a lesser extent.”
“Look, I don’t really know how to be a parent, but I do make a point of not enlisting children. In general, the Shirogane Knights have always had a general hardline policy of not involving innocent people in combat situations whenever it is even remotely possible, and in a sense children are the best example of that principle. Botan has the awareness not of an innocent teenager, but something that’s much more soldier-like in comparison.”
“It’s interesting that you’re the one to make that observation, given your confession about knowing nothing about kids.”
“It’s less knowing kids and more that I’m very aware of the subtle behaviors one exhibits when you’re a warrior.” Noel replied, “Botan might not be enlisted as part of an actual military group, but she very much has the awareness to be. And the will, given that she actually tried to enlist with the Shirogane Knights when we met for the first time.”
“I’m not sure this fills me with confidence. The Lunar Kingdom is a peaceful nation, and the Lu-knights aren’t really an army.”
“That’s perfect, though. Botan has to learn how to relax for the most part, and the Lunar Kingdom is definitely a better place to learn it than the Shirogane region.”
Noel continued: “Which, for the record, isn’t at war either - we’d leave all of the children here if that was the case - but it’s a little more militarily structured by nature, and I am the leader of the Shirogane Knights, which, well…”
“Makes sense. How are your three doing, then?”
Noel replied: “Nene’s an optimistic little ball of energy, Polka’s a surprisingly observant little ball of chaos, and Lamy’s the only relaxed one of the three. Honestly if you didn’t know their past you’d never suspect that Nene and Polka were ever in captivity, though…”
“Polka’s putting up a front for Nene. Like, it’s clear Polka adores her little sister - especially since it’s official now - but it means that our fennec girl is doing her best to make sure that Nene doesn’t notice. Which she doesn’t, because Nene isn’t that kind of observant. At all.”
“As for Lamy, well, she’s fairly well-adjusted; it’s fairly clear that back in captivity the snow elf was given preferential treatment. And Nene, who I simply don’t understand. I do not get how that girl doesn’t display any residual trauma whatsoever, especially since I know she has some residual traumas to deal with.”
Noel and Choco both froze.
“She’s good at hiding them, for what it’s worth. I’m just well-versed at seeing it because of Noel.”
Noel glared at her wife, while Flare simply smiled amusedly.
“Noe-chan, you might think you’ve spent years perfecting that cover-up, but you know I’ve spent just as many years learning to read the tells. I’m surprised you aren’t that good at it, really.”
“It’s much easier to see someone else’s tells than to recognize your own. What gave it away?”
Flare thought about it for a moment.
“Nene’s very close with the other four from her group. When we first figured out the rooms for the trip, when we realized that sharing beds was more-or-less required - except the pekoland princess, she ended up being the one left alone - Nene immediately declared she wanted to room with the other four kids.”
“That seems fairly normal to me. Yes, we’re adopting them, but I don’t see how this is a sign of anything bad. That, and given the fact we’re splitting up when we get you guys home, it makes sense that they’d want to spend as much time together as they can.”
“I get what Flare’s saying, actually. You see, Lamy’s been fairly open about how she’s been feeling about her time in captivity. In fact, she openly cried to Flare because her release was the first time that she really had to process the fact that both of her birth parents weren’t around anymore. Since the chances of us finding Nene or Polka’s parents are essentially nil, it would make sense if they did the same.”
Choco caught on to what the leader of the Shirogane Knights was implying.
“But they haven’t.”
“I suspect it’s because if they did cry their hearts out, it’s to Lamy and Botan, not us. Polka’s front is a lot more obviously directed; it’s the exact kind of front a warrior would put up for people that look up to them, because face it, the knights have never been good at showing vulnerability, and relative to Nene, Polka is a knight, just without the sword and combat training. Again, I’m good at catching that.”
“To ask the important question then, if Nene’s also putting up the knightly front, who is it she’s doing it for? She’s obviously comfortable with the rest of them - to the point of hyperactivity - but she’s acting like nothing affects her when she has perhaps some of the most supportive friends I could imagine within that group. And, you know, us, but clearly we don’t have that level of trust.”
“You could try just asking her; she doesn’t strike me as having any ability to lie.”
“Fair enough. It just feels mean to, as Noel would probably put it, strip her of her armor all at once like that. Which reminds me, she refuses to change clothes in front of us, which strikes me as weird given how much she doesn’t usually care about how people see her.”
Choco paused, thinking about it.
She came to a conclusion, frowned, and then drew a sharp breath.
“I think I know why, and you’re not going to like the reason. I’d like to, if possible, do a quick physical examination on the five, because I suspect that, despite Aloe claiming to be the only one abused, she wasn’t alone in that.”
Noel responded: “Botan would’ve flipped if they touched Nene, though. She already didn’t take Aloe’s abuse well, and Nene’s younger and more innocent.”
Flare replied: “That only works if they were all kidnapped at the same time. It’s possible Nene was held in captivity before Botan was and it’s Nene, she’s never going to talk about it.”
“I suppose I’ll ask when she wakes up.”
The sleeping situation between the five formerly-captive children was as follows: Shishiro Botan and Mano Aloe took one bed, while Yukihana Lamy, Momosuzu Nene, and Omaru Polka took the other, with Nene in the middle, resting between her two newly-adopted sisters.
The arrangement was made only slightly awkward by the fact that, of the five of them, Nene tended to be the one that woke up with the most enthusiasm, and was situated beside two people who were somewhat less so.
In particular, Polka, who made a bunch of grumbling noises but otherwise didn’t get up at all.
Nene, undeterred, sat up in bed between Lamy and Polka, and proceeded to exit the bed by inching off it entirely straight, making sure not to go over top of either Lamy or Polka.
Much to her satisfaction, Botan and Aloe were both still soundly asleep; in fact, it was quite early and nobody else was up.
And as such, she got dressed, only to find the very gentle whispers of a suddenly awake snow elf when she finished.
Nene, for the most part, was a cheerful child who had very few cares in the world. Even while in captivity, Nene’s sense of unshakable childlike joy, even if somewhat clumsy, was remarkably unshakeable, and Lamy found it rather precious.
But Lamy also knew Nene, and had seen what she had been through. While Aloe was the only one of the five their captives had tried to kill, she hadn’t been the only one abused. And while Lamy knew about it all, she also knew that Nene had always been the kind of child who would rather bear the pain, and then move on and forget as a coping mechanism.
Nene absolutely hated revealing her whiplash scars.