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Michael Giacchino
"Life's Incredible Again"
The Incredibles (2004)

The nights after the new moon unspooled in a cheerful golden blur at Scarlet Devil Mansion.

In the afternoons, before the others rose, Gryphon and Meiling worked on the ongoing repairs to the house. Between her strength, her can-do attitude, and her surprisingly wide range of construction skills, they accomplished considerably more than he had been able to do working all on his own, even putting in just a few hours a day. Where it had taken him a month to put the library back in order, working alone at an admittedly leisurely pace, the two of them had the roof repaired, the conservatory cleaned out and reglazed (as much as they had glass for), and a respectable start on repairs to the abandoned ground-floor rooms in the south wing in just a couple of weeks.

These rooms included both a dining room and what Gryphon's twentieth-century American sensibilities regarded as a living room, but which in the house's native architectural idiom was probably more properly called a parlor or drawing room. Over the course of Remilia's long, lonely internal exile, she had consolidated both of those functions into the great room, which was really supposed to be more of a ballroom, but dedicated rooms for both did exist.

Even after those rooms were cleaned out and restored to proper working order, though, they didn't get used much, because all the mansion's residents seemed to prefer the way they'd been doing it all along. There was something homey and comforting about the lived-in jumble of soft furniture and tables clustered around the great room's fireplace, and as for the dining arrangements...

"Do you think we should start eating in the dining room, now that it's fit for purpose again?" Remilia wondered at lunch the evening they pronounced the work on that room completed. "I started eating in here, and moved in all the parlor furniture too, for that matter, because it was easier than trying to keep up all those rooms by myself... but I admit it is a little strange when there isn't an actual dinner party on. Which there never is."

"I don't mind either way, m'lady," Sakuya replied, "but if we do start using the dining room, I'd ask that our construction team please reopen that bricked-up arch into the kitchen from there, so it's easier to get food to the table."

"I like it in here!" Flandre declared.

"Whatever you say, lads, I'm just happy to be here," said Gryphon in a questionable Liverpool accent, but secretly, he agreed with Flandre.

"Well, I mean, I'm just the hired help, but for what it's worth, I don't think we should," Meiling said. "I'm with Flan-Flan, I like the atmosphere we have in here. It..." She paused, reddening a little, then went on, "It feels like home. Y'know? The feng shui is right."

"If being 'the hired help' makes you uncomfortable, Meiling, I can stop paying you," Remilia said with a dry little smile. "I only do it because I think your contributions deserve some recompense." Her smile becoming warmer, she added, "I hope you don't think I view you as a mere employee."

"Eheheh, sorry," said Meiling, hand behind her head. "Like I told you before, I'm fine with getting paid or not, that's up to you. I'm just happy to help out. Got to earn my keep somehow! I know, I know, I don't really," she said before anyone could protest. "But I feel like I do. It's just the way I am. I've had to work hard all my life, so it's just... built in now, I guess."

"I see," said Remilia, sipping her breakfast tea. "Well, I won't pretend to understand your work ethic, but I don't need to understand it to appreciate it. And I agree with you about the dining arrangements. Improper use of the room or no, I've become comfortable with it, and I wouldn't want to risk the... what was the phrase you used?"

"Feng shui," Meiling replied. "It's a... kind of a philosophical thing where I come from. It literally means 'wind/water', and I don't really understand the more esoteric parts of it myself, but basically it has to do with how places are arranged, and how everything in them harmonizes with qi. Which is... uh... sort of the vital energy of the universe." She nodded toward Gryphon. "What he calls the Force, more or less. Like I said, I'm no expert, but I studied it some when I was younger—when I was learning tàijí quán."

Aware that she was rambling a little, she paused, looking for a way to wrap up the lecture, but before she had a chance, Flandre put in brightly,

"So basically, places feel right or they don't based on the feng shui. Right? And this room has good feng shui, which is why we all like it here."

Meiling pointed at her, grinning. "Right! Exactly. And it's kind of a feedback system, so probably part of the reason it's so good is because we like it. Everything runs in a circle, y'see," she concluded, to a bright-eyed, fascinated nod from Flandre.

"That's very enlightening. Now, please eat your Haselnussomelett before it gets cold, Master Hong," said Sakuya with an indulgent smile.

"Yes, ma'am," said Meiling sheepishly, attending to that task.

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
"Moonlight Serenade"
Bluebird B-10214-B (1939)

Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System

Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
special series

Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
Book 2: Notes from the Scarlet Mansion

© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Act I: En Famille

After breakfast, while Sakuya turned to and sorted out the breakfast dishes (still trying to get her head around the fact that Remilia insisted on helping her with them, and with preparations for lunch) and Flandre and Wolfgang reported to the music room for harpsichord practice, Gryphon and Meiling collected their tools and moseyed down the ground-floor corridor to the next door beyond the parlor.

"I've been intrigued by this door since I first started working on repairs around this place last month," he explained to Meiling as they stood surveying it. "Mostly because I can't get it open. It's jammed tight and I didn't have the kind of tool I would need to force it."

Meiling grinned and cracked her knuckles. "And now you do."

"Exactly," said Gryphon with a smiling little bow.

"Welp... let's see what we've got," Meiling said. She tapped the door in a few places, listening to the sound with a thoughtful frown, then nodded. "The house has settled a little, it's jammed at the top." She shook her head. "This door must not have been opened in a really long time."

"Should we try and jack it up?"

Meiling shook her head. "Nah. The whole doorway's going to need to be rebuilt anyway. Which means," she said with another grin, "brute force it is!"

So saying, she turned the knob, set her shoulder to the door, and put her back into it. The upper jamb gave way with a crack of splintering wood, and the door popped open, nearly catapulting Meiling into the room beyond before she could catch herself on the doorway.

For a few moments, they couldn't see anything in the room beyond; not until Gryphon brought in the bullseye lantern and flashed it around did they get a sense for what they'd just entered. It was a large room with very echoey acoustics, the reason for which became obvious in the lanternlight: the room was completely tiled, floor to ceiling, in white and red marble. The area nearest the door was level apart from some raised benches, also of marble, and then it dropped off into a sort of tiled pit that ran the rest of the way to the far wall.

"It's a bath!" Meiling cried, delighted. "And a way fancier one than the one upstairs, to boot."

"The aesthetic is kind of Roman, but the actual layout is more like they do them in Fusō," Gryphon mused, walking around the upper area and shining his lantern into the corners.

"I was just about to say it's almost Japanese," Meiling agreed. "That's basically the same thing as Fusō in this world, right?"

Gryphon nodded. "Pretty much, yeah. We've got a bath like this at Saint-Ulrich, courtesy of the witches from Fusō in the wing. A little more modern, it's got showers and such, but basically the same idea. I wonder why this one was abandoned? I guess it was probably too much of a hassle to maintain it..."

"Well, I say we've got to get it working again."

"Agreed. Let's get some better light in here and see what we're up against."

"Oh, the Fusō bath," said Remilia when they described their discovery at lunch. "I'd almost forgotten about that. Papa built it after his trip there in 1790. Do you remember, Sakuya? The one he brought you home from."

"Of course I do, m'lady," Sakuya replied with a grave nod. The somber look that settled on her face reminded Remilia powerfully of the expression she had always worn when they'd first met—closed down, self-contained, betraying nothing.

"I gave up using it sometime in the 1820s, I think," Remilia went on, steering away from a topic Sakuya was obviously not comfortable discussing in company, even company this intimate. "The staff had dwindled by then to the point where it just wasn't feasible to keep it working. Those few who were left switched to using what had been my private bath upstairs."

"Gryph and I think we can get it working again," Meiling reported. "We just need to make sure the furnace is safe, and scrounge up some new pipes from someplace so we can pump the water in from the well instead of carrying a million buckets from the kitchen. The pump's still there, by the pool, and I checked—the well's already set up for it, but the old outdoor pipes have all rusted away."

"Oh, iron pipes? There are plenty of those in the basement," Flandre chipped in. "After lunch I'll show you. I always wondered what those were for!"

"At the risk of being a wet blanket," Sakuya said, "do we really need a bath the size of the dining room? There are only five of us, after all."

"Well, yeah, but if we had the big bath working we could all go in at the same time, instead of taking shifts upstairs," Meiling pointed out.

"'All'?" Sakuya wondered, casting a significant glance at Gryphon.

"I'll recuse myself if anyone objects," he said equably, "but I should point out that I have free access to the one at Saint-Ulrich and I've never once gone on a rampage."

Flandre giggled, blushing almost to match her red vest. "Sounds like fun to me," she said.

Remilia gave her sister a mildly curious look, then returned her attention to the topic at hand. "It would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to object," she said with a little wink, then added a bit grandly, "but I leave it to the consensus of the household."

"Well, then, I guess I'm outvoted," said Sakuya with a smile.

"No, no, that's not how it works," Gryphon insisted. "I said if anyone objects. It's not a majority decision."

"It's fine," Sakuya said, then added, "My main concern was for the young mistress, but if she doesn't mind..."

"I'm four hundred and thirty-eight," Flandre said, not for the first time, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice.

"Mm, and growing by the day, it seems," Sakuya conceded, giving her a gracious nod. "My apologies, Lady Flandre. It seems your sister isn't the only one still coming to terms with the changes in you of late."

"Well, that makes three of us," Flandre said with a wry grin, her annoyance already forgotten.

"Awright, well, I guess that's settled, then," said Meiling. "When we're done here, we'll go downstairs with Flan-Flan and see about those pipes. I assume the furnace for the pool is down there somewhere too, we need to check that out."

The north wing of the house, where the Count and Countess had maintained their private chambers, was the most dilapidated, having been completely abandoned shortly after the débâcle of 10 Floréal. In the aftermath of the disaster, Remilia had simply closed the upstairs and downstairs corridor doors off the entrance hall, locked them, and thrown the keys into a kitchen drawer. It was less painful to simply seal off the whole affair than face picking through the remains of her parents' lives.

The downstairs door was no longer locked, or indeed lockable, having been forced open by Flandre when she came upstairs via the old north chimney a short way into Gryphon's stay in the house. It was this door that Remilia now found herself hesitantly pushing open and venturing past. She was still not interested in going upstairs, where the bedrooms and her parents' private sitting room had been; but there was something on this level that, for the first time in decades, she felt a restless impulse to explore.

The first door on the left was her goal, a threshold she'd crossed thousands of times in her first three centuries and never again since. She hesitated before touching the doorknob, then steeled herself, turned it, and entered.

The room beyond was silent and dusty, but not particularly disordered. The chaos of that dark night hadn't touched it. Everything was still right where it belonged—the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the great oak desk, the brass orrery. Underneath the musty note of neglect, it even still smelled the same, of leather and wood and the faintest trace of pipe tobacco. Count Victor Scarlet's study seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for its master to return.

At once, Remilia saw that she was not the first person to visit this room since its abandonment. The footprints in the dust, themselves partially silted in with fresh deposits, suggested that someone had been here long after the wing's closure, but also long before the present night—sixty, seventy years ago, perhaps. No points for guessing who that would have been. She wondered what strange impulse had brought Flandre here, wandering alone in the haze of her damaged mind. She evidently hadn't been in a destructive mood; nothing seemed to be damaged, or even disturbed, apart from the dust. Perhaps she'd just been looking for her father. Remilia had never quite known, in those days, whether her sister even really understood that their parents were gone forever.

She paused, steadying herself, and pushed away thoughts of Flandre's torment. That was over now, by the most merciful stroke of fate Remilia had ever witnessed, and there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. Instead, she pressed on with her own mission. To the left of her father's desk, one section of the bookcase was finished with a glass cabinet front, sequestering the volumes on those two shelves from the other books in the room.

These were Count Victor's private journals: a chronicle of one vampire nobleman's nearly ten centuries walking the world, compiled diligently over the course of his long and very active life. Remilia knew the broad strokes of his life before her birth, but he had always withheld the details, telling her that when she was older, she should read these books and learn them for herself. During his remaining lifetime, she'd never felt the time was right, and for a long time after his death, she'd been too numb to be curious.

Now, producing a small key from her pocket, she unlocked the glass case and ran her fingertip down the ranked spines of the journals. She didn't intend to try to read them all in order, start-to-finish, right now. Rather, there were a few specific times she wanted to know more about. Finding the volumes for those decades was the work of only a few moments. Then, just out of habit, she locked the cabinet back up, gathered up the books she'd selected, and left the north wing behind her.

After depositing the stack of journals on the table by her usual reading spot (on the Ottomane in the great hall), Remilia found herself drifting into the kitchen with no particular aim in mind. The main room was empty, but she could hear clinking and sloshing from the scullery. Crossing the kitchen, she looked in and saw Sakuya standing at the sink, her back to the archway, at work on the lunch dishes.

Struck by a sudden, completely random impulse, Remilia silently approached, levitating slightly to make up for the difference in their heights, and then glomped her maid from behind. Sakuya jumped at the unexpected embrace, but only slightly, and then carried on with her work as if nothing unusual had just happened, apart from asking in a mild tone of voice,

"... What are you doing, m'lady?"

"Nothing," Remilia replied casually. "Being impulsive and selfish. Carry on."

"Ah. Very well, then," said Sakuya, and she did as instructed.

After a contented minute or two, Remilia abruptly asked, "Sakuya, in all the decades we've known each other, have I ever once told you I love you?"

"To the best of my recollection, no," Sakuya replied. Then, with a private little smile, she added, "But you've come close enough on a handful of occasions that I was able to deduce it."

"Hah," said Remilia. "That's so you. And so me. I'm sorry for that, because I have for a long time. When you first came to us, you were such an odd, withdrawn child, I wondered whether I would ever even be able to understand you. But I came to appreciate you, then to like you..."

She paused, cuddling tighter against Sakuya's back, and then went on in a quieter voice, "And on that terrible night when my parents died and our world fell in on itself, and you were my rock despite your own grief and fear... then. Then I knew.

"But I was raised not to abuse my position in the household, and I felt that burden doubly now that I was suddenly its mistress. That come what may, I mustn't... impose... on the people who worked for me. People I was ultimately responsible for. So I didn't know what to do, what to say. Nothing I could think of would have been appropriate. I tried to show it in other ways, without breaking the code, as it were. But I'm not good at subtlety."

Sakuya chuckled. "You might be better at it than you think. But why the sudden change of heart now?"

"It's like I told you when I approved of your relationship with Meiling. Whose position I am in no way trying to challenge, by the way! You're not just a servant. You haven't been for a long time, but I'm only now able to acknowledge it out loud. When all the others had gone and we were alone here, you were the center of my world. When you disappeared, I was adrift for years."

"I'm sorry about that, m'lady. It was beyond my control."

"I know. You don't need to apologize. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty... just explaining myself. Probably badly. But I need to. My life is changing in so many ways it's almost frightening, if exhilarating... and I want to be sure everyone in it knows exactly where they stand. And you, Sakuya, still stand very close to the center."

"I'm very happy to hear that, m'lady."

"Can't you please call me by my name?" Remilia wondered, sounding a bit pained. "At least when you say things like that?"

"I can try," Sakuya conceded. "But you must understand... Remilia... that I am still your servant. Not because you insist on it, because I do. I pledged my life to your father's service, and he assigned it to you. I'll never break that promise so long as I am physically able to keep it. And," she added with another audible smile, "you aren't the only one who struggles with the nuances of a relationship that is both personal and professional, so it may be difficult for me to adapt quickly."

"You always adapt quickly... but I am a patient woman, except when I'm not," Remilia added wryly. "Please don't hesitate to let me know whenever I might cross a line. I don't want you to be uncomfortable, just the opposite. I want our lives here, all of them, to run as smoothly as they can. And to me, now, that means leaving as little as possible unsaid... but not applying pressure, either. I'm not asking anything of you. Just telling you how I feel."

Sakuya hesitated for a moment, choosing words carefully, and then said, "It is both a pleasure and an honor to be loved, m'lady, regardless of the complications it may cause. And an honor... and a pleasure... to reciprocate. You make keeping my vow to your father and his memory a gift rather than a burden. You always have."

Remilia blinked in surprise. "Sakuya?"

"Despite your uncertainty about me when I first arrived, you welcomed me into your world from the first, and always treated me with the respect and kindness I had been starved for all my days before I met Count Victor," Sakuya went on. "He saved my life, and serving you made it worth the saving. I think it fair to say that I've loved you even longer than you have me. But, as you said, there were proprieties to consider... so I could only ever bring myself to say it to you when you weren't there to hear it."

"Heh," chuckled Remilia. "What a pair we are. I suppose if you hadn't had your adventure, we'd still have been rattling around this old house together, never acknowledging that anything could ever change, this whole time. How dreary that would have been. And you would never have met the love of your life, either. No, it wouldn't have done, it wouldn't have done at all."

"I'm gratified you feel that way. I confess I've sometimes felt a bit guilty about how well my misfortune seems to have turned out."

"Oh, never feel guilty about good luck," Remilia told her, squeezing again. A moment later, she was surprised to feel Sakuya's shoulders shake in her embrace, and presently she realized that her maid had begun, quietly and elegantly, to weep into the dishwater.

"Good grief, of all we've just said, why did that make you cry?" she wondered.

"I'm sorry, m'lady... Remilia," Sakuya sniffled. "It's... you just exactly quoted something your father said to me, on the carriage ride up from Colmar, when he first brought me to this house. Mere minutes before you and I met. 'Never feel guilty about good luck, Sakuya. It's the fates' way of paying us back when they realize they have slighted us.' ... Oh, dear, and now I've made you cry."

Remilia ducked her head and wiped her eyes on the shoulder of Sakuya's dress. "You do his accent so perfectly. It was like hearing him again."

"I'm so sorry, I didn't even think."

"Don't be, it was wonderful."

They stayed that way for a few silent minutes, just enjoying the closeness. Remilia marveled inwardly about how much easier it all had been to say in this odd position, where they were so much closer together than usual, but could only get bare sidelong glimpses of each other's faces.

Presently, and with a note of reluctance in her voice, Sakuya observed quietly, "The dishwater has gone cold, m'lady."

Remilia chuckled inwardly. And Sakuya will always be Sakuya, she thought to herself, then disengaged and stepped down to the floor.

"Of course. Sorry for interrupting your work. And after I went and told Meiling to make sure she didn't do that too much," she added a trifle ruefully. "Do as I say, not as I do, isn't that what the Liberions say? I'll heat you up some more water."

"Thank you."

Remilia went out to the kitchen to pump a fresh kettleful and put it on the stove to heat, then returned as far as the scullery archway and said, "By the way... Sakuya?"

Sakuya turned to face her for the first time, wiping her hands on a tea towel. "Yes?"

"Speaking of Papa... I have his journals. He showed them to me years ago, but I never dared to read them. I think... I think I'm ready to do that now, but I wanted to make sure you're all right with that."

"Why would you need my permission to read your father's journals?" Sakuya wondered, tilting her head.

"Well... I'm sure he wrote about you. How he met you, where you came from... things you've never told me. I thought it was only right to ask before I go learning them from another source."

Sakuya smiled. "I have nothing to hide from you, m'—Remilia. I only kept the details to myself before for... all the reasons we just discussed. Please. Feel free to read them, and if you have questions for me afterward, just ask. I'm..." She paused, reddening a bit, and then went on with a slightly shy smile, "I'm glad we can speak this way now."

Remilia smiled in return. "So am I." The kettle began to rumble and steam, not yet boiling, but showing that the water in it was hot enough to work with; she went to collect it, then carried it into the scullery and handed it over.

"Your hot water, Miss Izayoi," she said with exaggerated formality.

"Thank you, Lady Remilia," Sakuya replied with equal poise, accepting it. "Will there be anything else for the moment, m'lady?"

Remilia shook her head. "No, thank you. Carry on."

Sakuya bowed. "As you wish."

They regarded each other calmly for a moment, then shared a mildly self-mocking smile before the maid returned to her duties, and the lady of the house trotted off to occupy herself elsewhere.

Not too much later, Flandre put her head into the little workshop Gryphon had made out of the old caretaker's storeroom, wondering—not for the first time—why he'd put up a sign next to the door that said KRAFTSTOFFLAGER. Growing up in the disputed borderland that Alsace had been even back in the 1510s, she'd learned western Karlslandic along with northern Gallic and Flemish Dutch as a little girl, and whatever this room was used for, it clearly was not storing any fuel.

Gryphon was in there, fooling around on his workbench with some unidentifiable piece of equipment she guessed was part of the bath furnace. When he noticed her, he put it down and smiled.

"C'mon in," he said.

"Am I interrupting? I can come back."

"Nothing that can't wait. I'm just trying to unfreeze this damper thing we took off the furnace. Hasn't been used in 120 years or more, so it's a bit rusty. What's up?"

"Well... I was talking to Sis earlier, and she told me you made her engagement ring yourself."

Gryphon nodded. "That's right."

"Where did you get the gold?"

"It used to be a spoon, believe it or not. There's a whole drawer full of them in the china closet."

Flandre looked puzzled for a moment; then her face fell as an old, blurry memory clicked into place. "... Oh. Those spoons."

"Hey, don't worry about it," Gryphon told her. "It was a long time ago. Water under the bridge."

Flandre held her frown for a moment longer, then shook her head and asked him, "Is there any left from the one you used?"

"Sure, plenty." Gryphon opened a drawer in his workbench, rummaged in it, and withdrew a flattened strip of gold, a bright edge showing where a smaller strip had been cut from one side. "Your sister doesn't have very big hands," he added with a grin.

Flandre giggled. "That's true. Do you think you could..." Blushing, she trailed off, then shook her head again and said, "No, never mind."

Gryphon gave her a mock-grumpy look. "Now don't be getting all passive-aggressive on me."

"Sorry," said Flandre. "OK. This is weird, though. But... do you think you could make one for me? Not that I'm asking you to marry me instead of her or anything!" she added hastily, wide-eyed, her blush deepening. "I'd never do that! But... I don't know... so I match with Sis, or... as a token of... something?" She sighed, looking away. "I don't even know what I'm saying. Forget it. My mind works now?" she said, downcast. "But sometimes I still confuse myself."

Gryphon crossed the floor and gave her a comforting hug, patting her back above the low-set roots of her wings. "That's not your mind misfiring, kiddo, it's just part of growing up."

Flandre chuckled wanly, returning his embrace.

"But sure," he went on. "If a ring of your own will make you happy, then I'm happy to make you one." Disengaging, he returned to the drawer and rummaged in it some more. "I think I've even got the other jewels left, you can pick your own color."

"Red," Flandre said immediately. "Like Sis's. I want it to be just like hers." She hesitated awkwardly again. "Is this too weird?"

Gryphon gave her a wry smile. "Sweetheart, if you haven't figured out by now that I have a high threshold for weird, you haven't been paying attention."

That got a laugh, a proper laugh, and brightened her outlook considerably. "OK, fair point." She still looked a little awkward, but her smile was wide and bright as she said, "Um... thanks."

"Anything for that smile," said Gryphon.

"Stop it..." Flandre said, blushing again and tapping her forefingers together.

"Also anything for that fidget-and-blush," Gryphon doubled down.

"Stop iiiiiit," Flandre insisted, squirming slightly with an adolescent mixture of embarrassment and delight.

He measured the finger she wanted it for—left ring, naturally—and then she excused herself with further (still slightly awkward) thanks and headed off to do whatever else she had planned for the aftermidnight.

Is she getting taller? he wondered as he watched her swing the door to behind her. Is that possible? I wouldn't have thought so. Still, she's definitely maturing fast mentally. Casting his mind back to his own daughters' development, he mused, She's gone from a mental age of about eight when I met her, to maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw her after the battle, and just now it felt like she was closing in on 13, maybe even 14. It's only been a week. That's a lot faster than I would have expected her to come on, even firing on all cylinders. Must remember to speak to Remi about this. I'm afraid she may have more adjusting to do sooner than she realizes...

He was smiling, but a little wistfully, as he returned to work on the furnace damper, planning out the construction of Flandre's ring in the back of his head as he did so.

Brings a whole new meaning to "they grow up so fast," he thought.

One of the unwritten rules of Scarlet Devil Mansion's newest configuration was that, barring extraordinary circumstances that had yet to arise, no work was to be performed after supper. The unofficial maintenance and repair crew were expected to down their tools for the night at the call to the final meal and not resume them thereafter, and Sakuya was to consider herself largely off-duty once the dinner dishes were sorted out.

Instead, the customary pattern that emerged was for Sakuya, Remilia, Wolfgang, and Gryphon to repair to the "living room" for the usual quiet late-night pursuits of reading, listening to records, napping (mostly, but not exclusively, Wolfgang), enjoying a bit more wine or tea, and perhaps doing a bit of light sewing or knitting. Meanwhile, Meiling and Flandre developed the habit of going out into the west grounds, by the gazebo, and practicing tai chi together—the exercise and focus techniques, for the moment, not combat maneuvers, although Gryphon suspected the latter would come along in due course.

On the evening of the first quarter, watching them at it through the windows, Gryphon suddenly said aloud, "Hm. That's an idea."

"What is?" Remilia wondered, looking up from her perusal of one of her father's journals.

"I should make myself a bokutō and get back into training," Gryphon said. "We've got plenty of scrap wood from all the construction, I don't know why I never thought of it before."

"That sounds like a Fusōnese word, but I don't recognize it," said Remilia.

Gryphon nodded. "It's a wooden sword. For kenjutsu practice. Remember I told you I was trained in kenjutsu during my exile? I lost my swords a while back, and hadn't gotten around to replacing them before I came to this era. I've got a bokutō back at Saint-Ulrich, but that's not doing me much good here." He chuckled ruefully. "And trying to use a raw tree branch didn't do either of us any good."

"No," Remilia agreed, unconsciously touching the spot on her chest where she'd been staked with a fragment of that tree branch.

"Not that I'm expecting Flan to go off the rails again," Gryphon noted, "but it's really not good to be so unprepared for contingencies. I'm getting soft in my old age," he joked with a little grin. "When I eventually go back to April, they're going to be like, 'How the hell did you get so fat in one afternoon?'"

Remilia snorted. "You aren't getting fat, mon vieux. Trust me, I pay very close attention to your condition." She smirked. "And so will everyone else, if you and Meiling do manage to get the Fusōnese bath working."

Sakuya, in the midst of a sip of wine, suppressed a snicker—without complete success, causing her employer to give her an arch little smile. "Looking forward to that, are we, Miss Izayoi?"

"I've seen it before," Sakuya quipped, then said, "Oh dear, that was indiscreet. Ah, well. Now you know, Chief. At some point in your future, I've seen you with no clothes on."

"At some point in my future, who hasn't?" Gryphon replied philosophically, making both women laugh. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me whether the situation was reciprocal."

"Are you flirting with my maid right in front of me, you libertine beast?" Remilia demanded with faux outrage.

"A bit," Gryphon conceded mildly.

"No, no I would not," Sakuya replied primly to Gryphon. "I've already said too much. The Doctor would scold me if he were here, and he'd be right to do it. I know better than that! I just got drawn into the cozy atmosphere." She gave Remilia a mock-reproachful glance. "I warned you the discipline of the household would suffer if you let me get familiar, m'lady."

Remilia laughed and settled back in the Ottomane. "Ah, well, I suppose I shall have to get used to this. Suddenly my house is filled with predatory females, and they're all going to want a piece of the only man in the game."

"Eh, I'm pretty sure Meiling's not interested. We're just buds," Gryphon said, and then, with a sly grin, "She's got everything she wants already."

Sakuya, going very red, did not reply with words; only looked down at her knitting with an insuppressible goofy smile while Remilia laughed again, higher and heartier this time.

"I'd almost forgotten what it was like for things to be lively around here," she said when she'd finished.

"Nice, isn't it?" Gryphon said.


"Getting back to something I said before we got sidetracked by bath musings," he went on, "I've been thinking that I'd better double back next week."

Remilia raised her eyebrows. "So soon?"

"Well, the thing is... every month I let go by is another I'm going to have to repeat up the road before I can come back here. However long I stay at a stretch, then I have to go back to the beginning and sort of... walk back. It doesn't make much difference from your perspective, since to you I'll only be gone a few minutes, but... well, if I stayed straight through unti July's full moon, three months or more is a long time for me to go without seeing you after that," he concluded with a smile.

"Yes, I can see where that would be difficult," said Remilia, straight-faced but with a little bit of an ironic glint in her eyes.

She knew, too, that there was something he was leaving unsaid: Every day he spent back on the front line was a day in which something might happen that made certain they never saw each other again. It was like that for everyone who had a loved one serving in the war, of course, and Remilia expected no special privileges from fate in that regard; but all the same, it was an outcome she could not contemplate directly, only with sidelong mental glances.

"Of course," Gryphon went on, "this is all moot unless the offer you made me back when I first came here is still on the table, and since the situation has changed, it may not be."

"What offer?" Sakuya asked. "I was wondering how you expected to accomplish that..."

Remilia explained to her how she had ended up more or less trapping Gryphon in the house on the night he'd first come there, and how the next night, in her remorse over her underhanded bid for companionship, she'd promised him the use of The World, then in her possession, to reset his timeline when he was finally able to leave.

"Of course... at the time, I had no inkling that I would ever see you again," she finished. "But now you're here, and The World is back in your hands where it belongs, so... now it's up to you what happens next."

Sakuya sat with a thoughtful frown on her face for a few moments, then said to Gryphon, "You're talking about looping your personal timeline. Possibly more than once. I'm sure you know how potentially dangerous that is."

Gryphon nodded. "I sure do. It'll be tricky—although in this case, the same conditions that make it necessary also make it safer. For almost all of the overlapping time, I'm not quite in the same reference frame, so the potential for crossing my own path is really very limited."

"Mm... that's true," Sakuya agreed. "It's still not without its risks, especially at the junction points, but... I assume your plan is to jump back to April 16, timing it so you arrive at your crash site after m'lady collected you?"

Gryphon nodded. "Right. Then Wolfgang and I will have to walk back down to Colmar and phone Saint-Ulrich for someone to come get us. The worst part of that is going to be having to whack myself in the head with something so I look like I really did just wreck a Jeep," he added ruefully. "Then I go back and do those two months again, making sure to send myself the stuff I sent myself back in May, and then come back here in 'real time' on June 14—say, an hour or so after I left, for a safety margin. If I keep my wits about me, I should be able to pull it off. And while I'm outside, I can round up a few things that'll help, do a bit of research... stuff that needs doing, that I can't do from inside the bubble here."

Sakuya thought it over, then nodded. "All right. It's still a bit risky, but it seems like a sound plan. And you hardly need a lecture from me on the risks of time travel."

"It's always good to have a backstop when you're messing around with these things," said Gryphon.

"True. Very well, then. When the moment arrives, Chief, The World and I are at your service."


"Not at all. Part of my job is to make certain that the lives of everyone in the household run as smoothly as possible—eh, m'lady?" she asked Remilia with a slight smile.

"Quite right, Miss Izayoi," Remilia agreed.

The next night, Gryphon was on the way from his workshop to the basement, passing the music room, when the sounds filtering from under the door brought him up short. For a moment he stood still in the hallway, listening hard. Then, carefully and quietly, he opened the door and slipped inside.

Flandre was sitting at the harpsichord, which was facing the door, but she didn't see him entering. Head back, eyes closed, she was fully in the zone, with no room in her consciousness for anything other than the melody her long, slim fingers were coaxing from the keys. It was that melody, in particular, that had so instantly captured Gryphon's attention. It wasn't because it was out of place—far from it, a Gallic Baroque piece like the one she was playing fit perfectly with the milieu—but because it had such strong associations for events in his past that hearing it anywhere always transported his mind back in time.

François Couperin
"Les Barricades Mystérieuses"
Pièces de Clavecin (1717)

He stood in the doorway, letting the nostalgia wash over him, until she'd finished, then quietly applauded, which made her start slightly as she realized she wasn't alone.

"Oh!" she said, blushing. "Big bro. I didn't know you were there." Noticing his odd expression, she tilted her head, a look of concern coming onto her face. "What's the matter? Are you OK?"

"I'm fine," he said. "I just happened to be going by and heard you playing. I love that piece, it brings back pleasant memories for me. Stuff that happened to me a long time ago." He smiled. "You play it very well."

"Thanks," said Flandre, coloring slightly again. "I just picked it out of the pile when I started trying to remember my lessons, but I really like it. Something about the rhythm of it. How... kind of relentless it is. It reminds me of..." She trailed off, then shook her head. "Something, but I don't know what. Another dead end somewhere in the back of my head. What does it remind you of? If you don't mind telling me."

Gryphon sat down on the bench that went with the grand piano and said, "It's a complicated story, but basically, I danced to that song with a special lady on a special occasion, many years ago, and every time I hear it I think of that day. It was a good day. We'd just managed to save a lot of lives and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves."

"Was that your wife?" Flandre wondered. "Sis told me a little of what you told her about your life. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all. No, that wasn't Kei. That was a friend of mine called Tali. She and I... we're very close too, but it's a different kind of thing. I don't really know how else to explain it."

Flandre nodded. "Maybe something kind of like you and me?" she asked tentatively.

"Maybe something kind of like," he allowed. "Which reminds me—I finished your ring. I was going to find you after lunch to give it to you, but since we're here..." He took a small wooden box from his pocket and offered it to her. "Try it on?"

Flandre took the box with mumbled thanks and opened it, removing the ring. As she had requested, it looked just like her sister's, a slim, simple gold band inset with a single, tiny scarlet gem (a ruby, or possibly a garnet; she couldn't tell). Hesitantly at first, she slipped it onto her finger.

"It's perfect," she said, gazing at it thoughtfully.

"I'm glad," Gryphon said. He watched her face, wondering just what was going on behind it. She didn't look as happy as he might have expected, if the ring was indeed perfect. Something seemed to be troubling her.

After another moment's contemplation, she looked up and met his eyes. "Can you come with me for a minute? There's something I want to show you."

"Sure," he agreed. "I was just going downstairs to help Meiling with the bath furnace, but I'm sure she can hold her own for a while longer."

"Thanks. It shouldn't take long." Flandre rose, closed the harpsichord, and then left the music room.

They passed through the great room, where Wolfgang glanced up with vague interest from a nap in progress in Gryphon's favorite armchair, and out into the grounds. Once out there, she led him around to the south side of the house, a part of the grounds he and Remilia had never visited on their earlier evening walks. Gryphon had never noticed, but now, as Flandre guided him down a path into a wooded area, he realized that Remilia must have avoided this area on purpose.

A moment later, he saw why. They emerged from the trees into a glade, in the center of which stood a small stone building surrounded by a low iron fence. Simple of architecture but stately in its proportions, with only a few narrow windows set high in its white marble walls, it was unmistakably a mausoleum, and above the lintel of its chained and padlocked doors was carved a single word in tall capitals:


Without a word, Flandre took an iron key from her pocket and unlocked the ponderous, old-fashioned padlock that secured the mausoleum's double door, then beckoned him inside.

The interior was very dark, lit only by a narrow shaft of moonlight slanting in through one of the high windows, but once his eyes had adjusted, Gryphon could generally make out its contents. It was a single room, mostly empty, but for a pair of granite sarcophagi laid out side by side. On the ends facing the doors, one bore a carved bas-relief of a fully bloomed rose, the other a tulip. There wasn't enough light for him to read the inscriptions below the floral carvings, but what else could they be but the names and dates of Count Victor and Countess Remilia (the Elder) Scarlet?

While Gryphon hung back at what felt like a respectful distance, Flandre stood before the tombs of her parents for several minutes in complete silence. When she did finally speak, it was to utter what at first seemed like a complete non sequitur:

"The food changed."

Gryphon blinked, opened his mouth, closed it again. What did you even say to that?

"That was how I knew, at the time," Flandre continued. "I heard noise, and shouting, and breaking things. And then the food changed. The scent of Maman was missing from the edge of the tray where she had held it. The white rose Papa would always place by my dinner was gone. The food changed. And I remember how I felt.

"I felt indifferent. And then I felt irritated. Who was to see to my needs now? The staff? Honestly, it was just inconsiderate of them. I was too lost in my madness to even notice they were gone for months. And when I finally did... there was a candlewick's worth of regret, but the storm in my mind blew it out. And I forgot. The thing that I used to be, it took over, and only now it's gone can I..."

Gryphon moved closer, but the tiny girl held out an arm to stop him. It shook. "I have to see them now. And, and I have to be here now, to... I don't know what I'm going to do. Be quiet here, I think. Be still. But be with them. That's why I brought you here, mon grand frère. They should know who's in their family now. And who came back."

Flandre sat down before the dark grey stone of the twin tombs. They weren't that big, but they still loomed over her. Gryphon saw her put down a little crystal vase in between them, a white rose inside.

Then, and only then, did she look back at him over her shoulder, her crimson eyes glowing faintly in the dark, and pat the floor beside her.

"Stay with me, big brother?"

Gryphon placed himself seiza where she'd indicated. "Always," he said.

Flandre took his hand, lacing her fingers with his, and bowed her head over the crystal vase.

The vault wasn't silent. Old buildings never are. They don't know how to be. Still, the quiet that they shared went on for a long time as they sat beneath the little window above the tombs, weak moonlight falling through. There were clouds overhead, and the moonlight flickered and dimmed.

But it never quite faded.

In the basement, Meiling finished fitting the repaired dampers to the furnace, sat back, and wiped the sweat from her forehead with an arm.

"Phew! That's finally done." Clambering to her feet, she started gathering up the tools and stashing them back in the box. "I wonder where the heck Gryph got off to? I thought he was going to help me with this." She shrugged. "Ah, well. No big deal. Maybe after lunch we can start getting these pipes laid!"

And, humming cheerfully to herself, she headed back upstairs to see what Sakuya was cooking.

The Ink Spots
"Ev'ry Night About This Time"

Act II: La Grande Rencontre

The Benny Goodman Sextet feat. Charlie Christian

Remilia Scarlet took a step back, folded her arms, and regarded the scene with satisfaction.

"There," she said. "That's an honest evening's work, if I do say so myself." Turning a smile to her companion, she went on, "Don't you think?"

"Hrf," Wolfgang replied, then hopped up onto the nearby armchair and settled in for a nap.

Chuckling, Remilia gave the hound an affectionate pat, then went and stood next to the other chair in the room for a moment, deep in thought.

Around her, her father's study looked as if Count Victor had just stepped out for a moment. With all the candles trimmed and lit, a fire going in the fireplace, and every surface cleaned and polished, the room bore no traces of its century and a half of abandonment. Remilia, by herself except for Wolfgang's pleasant but not particularly practical company, had spent the whole of the foremidnight getting it into this state.

Of course, she knew the others would have helped her with it if she'd asked, or even taken care of it for her, but this was a more personal task than, say, cleaning out the old dining room, or repairing the windows in the conservatory. This was something she felt she had to do for herself, and now she was well-pleased with her handiwork.

From out in the hall, she heard the creak of the door leading to the entrance hall being moved slightly, and then the hesitant voice of her younger sister Flandre:

"Sis? Are you... are you in here?"

Remilia went to the door and leaned into the corridor. "I'm right here, Flan."

Flandre blinked in mild surprise at the sight of her elder sister standing in that doorway. "What are you doing in Papa's study?" she wondered.

"Come and see," Remilia said, beckoning her into the room.

"Oh wow!" Flandre said, looking around in amazement. "You did all this yourself?"

Remilia rounded on her, fists on hips. "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?" she inquired. "You know perfectly well I can clean a room, we did Sakuya's and Meiling's together."

"Well, I mean... I knew you knew how, I just..."

Remilia laughed and petted her sister's head, sublimely indifferent to the fact that Flandre was actually the taller of the two. "I'm just kidding you, baby sister." Gesturing around at the room, she said, "I came in here last night for the first time in ages, to get a few of Papa's journals to read, and it's been bothering me ever since. This is a beautiful room, and we all used to love it so much. It deserves to be used. So I decided this would be the first part of the north wing we reclaim. I'm the mistress of the house, after all! This is where things should be run from, not my little den in the great room."

So saying, she went behind the desk. Flandre came up alongside, and the two stood quietly gazing for a few moments at the chair behind it. Their father's favorite chair, where he had sat to conduct his extensive correspondence with his far-flung network of scientific, philosophical, and esoteric contacts; managed the affairs of the mansion (those that were not handled by his more hard-headed, business-minded lady wife, anyway); and generally conducted the affairs of the head of a great household. Both of the sisters had sat on his knee in this chair for countless hours as little girls, or played on the carpet before this desk, or whiled away evenings curled up in the chair where Wolfgang now dozed, reading or just enjoying being here.

Remilia turned a sentimental smile that silently shared all of those reminiscences with her younger sister, and Flandre's smile in return showed that she understood.

Then, slowly and a bit ceremoniously, Remilia seated herself in her father's chair for the first time.

"How is it?" Flandre asked.

"Very comfortable," Remilia replied, settling back and arranging her wings. She sighed. "You know, Flan... all this time, I've never really felt like the mistress of this house. I've just been... living in it, for lack of anywhere else to go. I could never keep up with the needs of a place this big by myself anyway, and I have to confess I never really tried once all the staff had gone. What I've spent the last century and a half doing was more like camping in the ruins of our old life."

She reached her hand across the desk, beckoning, and Flandre took it in her own.

"But now," Remilia went on, "with you back with me, and Sakuya, and Meiling and Benjamin joining us... it feels like a home again. And I..." She smiled, squeezing her sister's hand. "I could never replace Papa... but I finally feel ready to succeed him."

Flandre smiled. "I think he'd like that."

They chatted for a little while about times past, and then Flandre collected the Lenshound and took her leave. "It'll be time for lunch soon," she said. "Big bro's cooking tonight. Something called 'pizza'? I've never heard of it, but Meiling seems excited," she added with a grin.

Remilia smiled. "Ask Sakuya to ring for me when it's ready, would you, please?"

"Sure. Don't work too hard," said Flandre with a wink, and then she and Wolfgang departed.

Remilia sat at her father's desk—her desk, now!—for a moment longer, smiling to herself, and then opened one of the drawers and got out the writing supplies. The ink in the inkwell was still wet, would always be, would never run out; she smiled again, remembering her mother's quiet, understated, but very real pride in its invention.

After sitting for a moment, Remilia dipped her father's favorite pen in the perpetual ink and began to write in a neat, rounded, very slightly spidery hand.

Comtesse Remilia Scarlet
Maison Écarlate
Colmar, Gallia

Hon. Vincent Auriol
Palais de l'Élysée
55, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
Paris, Gallia

Colmar, le 11 juin 1946

Objet: rapprochement

Monsieur le Président,

Permettez-moi de me présenter...

Friday, June 14, 1946

Gryphon rose early, by the standards of the house, on the day of the next full moon. He didn't have too terribly many preparations to make, but the day's plan was one that had to be carried through carefully, with little margin for error, so he took his time, checked everything twice, and made certain.

The clothing he had been wearing when he arrived had virtually worn out, since it was the only thing he had to wear, and repeatedly wash, for the whole first month of his stay. Fortunately, the "supply drop" he had arranged for himself in May had contained replacements, one of which was now worn-in enough that it could stand in for his original outfit with none the wiser. Physically, he was taking nothing back except the things he'd been on his way home from Colmar with in the first place (a barracks bag loaded with records and books). His notes to himself about things he had to do next were secure in his omni-tool's personal memo-pad application, safe from prying eyes.

"Gut. Alles in Ordnung," he murmured, uncertain why he was saying it in Karlslandic.

Preparations made and checked, he went back to bed, because why not?

There was a certain frisson in the air at breakfast. Partly that could be put down to the influence of the full moon, which had a tendency to energize the house's vampire residents and raise the overall tone, but in addition, everyone there knew it was time for Gryphon to a attempt a potentially risky maneuver to realign his personal timestream.

"I wish we could get out of this stupid time bubble thing for good," Flandre grumbled. "I want to get out there and see the world!"

"I'm going to look into it a bit while I'm out," Gryphon told her. "There aren't many time-manipulating witches—it's a pretty specialized skill—but a few of my wingmates have connections. I ought to be able to track one down and get a few discreet questions asked."

"Besides, the world is pretty dangerous right now," Meiling put in. "Y'know, what with the war and all."

"I'm not afraid of the Neuroi," Flandre declared, folding her arms. "I know what they're made of. Literally."

Remilia chuckled. "You sound like you want to join the witches, Flan."

"Well, why not?" Flandre replied. "It's our world too. We could be helping."

"Flan," said Remilia, becoming serious. "The last time this family had any contact with the outside world... I don't have to draw you a diagram. Times have changed since you were a little girl. The world isn't like you remember. People don't accept creatures like us any more; they haven't for a long time. If we showed ourselves, they would only turn on us. They'd see us as no better than the Neuroi." She shook her head. "We're better off apart from them."

"How do you know?" Flandre shot back. "The only person from outside you know is big bro, and he's not like that."

"He's a different matter," Remilia snapped. "You know that, don't be deliberately obtuse."

"Sitting right here..." Gryphon mumbled from his seat in between them.

"So... what? You want to just cower in this old house forever? Just the five of us?" Flandre demanded. Bolting to her feet, she went on, "I can't believe this! I'm better, I'm me again, and you still just want to keep me locked up!"

"Sit down, Flandre," said Remilia. "I'm not keeping you locked up, I'm trying to protect you." Her own voice rose in exasperation. "The outside world isn't a safe place. I promised I would always keep you safe—c'est fini!"

"Oh, save it," said Flandre scornfully. "I'll be in the library. I assume that's not too dangerous for me?" Without waiting for an answer, she swept out of the room, her footsteps echoing off down the hall.

Remilia sat looking after her with a hard-to-read expression for a moment, then composed herself into studied neutrality, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and said a little too calmly,

"Well. It appears Flandre's adolescence proceeds apace."

Meiling glanced awkwardly at Sakuya, who made the tiniest look of rueful agreement in return, and neither said anything.

"She may have a point," Gryphon said. His tone was mild, the placid air he always adopted when dealing with Remilia in a dudgeon, and it had the effect now of making her give him a questioning look rather than dismissing his remark out of hand.

"You said times have changed since she was little, and you're right, but they're not what they were when you last knew the world either," he went on. "The wars of this century have brought people together in ways no one could have imagined in the eighteenth. And the role witches have played in this one has the world more mindful of magic than it's been for generations. I can't speak for all of humanity, obviously, but... I know you'd be welcomed by the people I serve with."

Remilia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly nodded.

"You may be right," she conceded. "I've been hiding here a long time... maybe I've gotten too comfortable in isolation, and just having a family around me again felt like world enough. But it's obviously not going to be enough for Flan." She shook her head and took a sip of bloodwine. "But it frightens me," she admitted. "What would I do if I let her go out into that world and she got hurt? What if you're wrong, and the people of this time are just as fearful and violent as the ones who took our parents from us? I couldn't live with myself. I swore to protect her."

"Even if it makes her hate you?" Meiling suddenly asked. Remilia glanced sharply at her, looking for a moment as if she were on the verge of lashing out, but then the words sank in and she relaxed slightly, a self-mocking smile touching her lips.

"You have surrounded my conundrum, Master Hong," she said, raising her glass to the redhead in salute. Then, with a sigh, she let herself relax fully, slumping back in her chair and closing her eyes. "I'll let her be for the moment and apologize when she's cooled down. It seems I still haven't broken myself of my habit of treating her like a child. I still don't like the idea of leaving our sanctuary here, but..."

"Back home we have a saying," Meiling said. "'The dragon can't stay in his egg forever.'"

Remilia opened one eye and fixed it, twinkling, on her. "Meiling," she said, "I've refrained from saying this to your face, but under the circumstances, you leave me no choice."

"Uh... huh?" said Meiling, looking worried.

Remilia opened her other eye, mouth quirking in a wry smile. "Sakuya has chosen very well indeed."

Meiling blushed to match her hair, managing to mumble something along the lines of "uh gosh thanks" into her plate before falling entirely silent. Sakuya, who was none too unblushed herself at that moment, discreetly patted her leg under the table and gave her employer a gracious nod.

"Thank you, m'lady." Then, donning her usual brisk efficiency like a cloak, she went on, "Now then, Chief, we had best be getting ready for you to leave. Something's just occurred to me that I must take care of before you go."

"What's that?"

"Your hair. It's grown two months' worth since you've been here. Your wingmates will surely notice." Rising, she headed toward the kitchen. "Please wait there while I get my tools and I'll cut it for you."

Gryphon chuckled. "She's perfect," he told Remilia.

"Indeed," said Remilia.

"Sure is," Meiling agreed.

They gathered outside the front doors to see him off—Flandre included, though she hung back a little, keeping a slight distance from her sister.

"Hey, c'mere," Gryphon said, gathering her up in a hug as he came out of the door and drawing her off a bit to one side. "Don't be too rough on Remi, will you? She's just worried about you."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'll talk to her before you get back," Flandre mumbled into his shoulder. "I just get so frustrated. Sometimes she still treats me like a little kid—or worse, like I'm still... not me."

"Well, it's a big adjustment. They're both big adjustments. She'll get there. We can help her get there, but we have to be cool about it." He chuckled. "We both know pushing her doesn't help."

Flandre returned the laugh, just a little wanly. "That's true. OK. I'll... I'll see you when you get back." She glanced around, as if about to do something she shouldn't do, then darted her head up and very quickly kissed him. "Good luck."

Gryphon kissed her back—on the forehead—and said, "Thanks. See you in a little while." Then he waited while she parted from Wolfgang.

He was reasonably sure both Remilia and Sakuya had noticed their farewell, but neither remarked on it as he received a backslapping hug from Meiling and then went to join them.

"Ready to go?" Remilia asked.

"As I'll ever be."

Sakuya removed The World from her apron pocket, detached the fob chain from its loop on her dress, and offered it to him. "Do you remember how to use one of these?"

"It's been a while, but as I recall they're reasonably intuitive. I thought you were going to drop me off, though."

Sakuya shook her head. "Given what we're attempting here, I think it's best if you keep it with you against... contingencies."

"Well... thanks," he said accepting the device. "I'll take good care of it," he promised.

"I'm sure you will," she said with a smile. "I'll see you soon. You too, Wolfgang."

Remilia walked with him to the edge of the woods, where the grown-up gravel drive petered out entirely into the barely discernible track that led down to the road.

"I should be back in a couple hours," he told her. "I just hope we don't get a sortie that night. Tonight. You know what I mean."

"I'll be here," Remilia replied, "awaiting your return." She dashed at an errant tear and chuckled wryly at herself. "Look at me, will you? Sending my particular gentleman off to war with a tearful smile. How bourgeois."

Gryphon said nothing, only opened his arms, and she levitated to match his greater height so that she could properly hug and kiss the stuffing out of him.

"Be careful," she told him, forehead to forehead. "Let your honor be unstained."

"I'll do my best," he replied.

"I know you will." Then, turning him loose, she crouched to fuss over Wolfgang before backing up a pace and smiling upon them both. "You'd better go before I change my mind and keep you forever."

"You'll have your chance at that," said Gryphon with a wry grin. Then, crouching, he placed his hand on Wolfgang's back. "Ready, hound dog?"

"Hrf," Wolfgang replied. In his other hand, Gryphon switched The World into manipulator mode, adjusted it, double-checked his settings, and pressed the stem...

... and man and dog were gone, with just the faintest whiff of air rushing in to replace them, as if they had never been there.

Remilia stood looking at the spot where they had been for a few moments, then turned and walked slowly back toward the house. Meiling and Sakuya had gone inside, but Flandre was waiting for her by the door.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you," Flandre said as she approached.

Remilia seemed to ignore her remark, continuing silently toward her, and then, without a word, caught her sister up in a tight embrace.

"I'm sorry too," she said. "I don't want to fight, Flan."

"No. Me neither. I just..."

"I know, little sister. I know. We'll figure it out. Just... be patient with me." Leaning back to catch her sister's eye, Remilia gave her a self-deprecating little smile. "I'm old now, and set in my ways."

Flandre rolled her eyes. "You're only four hundred 'n forty-three."

Remilia laughed and, hooking an arm around Flandre's shoulders, took her inside.

A short while later, Remilia sat at her desk, re-reading the letter she'd written a few nights ago. Was it the best it could be? She hadn't written a formal letter in so long, after all, she had no idea what was really acceptable form any more. She had no doubt its reader would find it painfully archaic in places... but that effect might work to her advantage, given the message she wanted to convey.

Above that, did she really want to send it? Set in motion the process it was meant to begin? It wasn't something she could take back. Once started, it would proceed to an ending, whatever that ending was. Fate would unfold as it would.

Nodding to herself, she folded the letter and sealed it with scarlet wax and ribbon, impressing upon it her family's crest—the rose and tulip intertwined—from her father's signet ring, before turning it over, addressing it, and blotting dry the ink.

Sakuya looked up from arranging her mise en place for lunch at the sound of footsteps and saw Remilia entering the kitchen. She'd changed her clothes since seeing Gryphon off, replacing the everyday skirt set she'd been wearing for one of what she used to call her "town outfits"—broadly similar, but fancier, with a button-bedecked jacket and more elaborate decorative ribbon trim.

"Sakuya," she said, "I shall be going out for a while this evening. Would you be so good as to pack me a lunch, please?"

Sakuya blinked. "Out, m'lady?"

Remilia nodded. "Yes. The weather is fine tonight; I should like to fly up to Ribeauvillé and see these witches of Benjamin's for myself."

"I see." Sakuya took this on board with total composure; if it crossed her mind to point out that Remilia herself had been completely against resuming contact with the outside world not an hour before, it never showed on her face. "In that case, please give me a minute to assemble some provisions for your journey." With a slight smile, she added, "I'm afraid I can't cheat at present."

Tuesday, April 16, 1946

Gryphon sat under the terrace awning of a brasserie in Colmar with Wolfgang and his barracks bag at his feet, nursing a cold Meteor and a sore head. The former was helping with the latter, as was the fact that the freak storm which had swept through the region had abated. The rain was still drumming on the awning above his head, but it was only ordinary mortal rain now, not the tempest that had helped sweep him off the road up in the hills north of town.

He made a mental note to write a nice thank-you letter to the proprietor of this establishment, who was staying open past his usual closing time so that Gryphon could await a ride home on his terrace with a steady supply of his beer. The man had even loaned him half a dozen towels to deal with the worst of his soddenness, incurred by staggering back down from the crash site in the rain. Really damned decent of him. And people said Gallians didn't cotton to foreigners.

The beeping of a horn heralded the arrival of his ride, as Shirley Yeager pulled up at the wheel of the Opel Blitz truck she'd swiped from the Luftwaffe during what she insisted on calling Operation Rocket Heist.

Rolling down her window, she leaned out and said, "I see you're alive, that's good! You want a hand with your bag?"

"Nah, I got it, thanks," Gryphon replied. "Let me pay my tab and we'll get out of here." Rising stiffly, he finished his beer, then went inside and pressed a larger sum of money on the publican than was strictly necessary, overriding the man's protestations by pretending to understand less Gallic than he did. Satisifed with his good deed, he went back out and put bag, dog, and self in the truck.

"I saw what was left of your jeep on the way down," Shirley remarked as she guided the Blitz back out of town. "The heck did you hit? It looks like a mine went off under it."

"Hell if I know," Gryphon replied. "I was trying to swerve around something in the road and the damn thing just let go on me. Next thing I know I'm lying up against a tree." He ruffled Wolfgang's head. "Lucky you were strapped in, huh, buddy?"

"Hrf," Wolfgang agreed.

"You look freezing," Shirley said. "Hold tight, we'll get you back to base. A nice bath, some dry clothes, get some hot soup into you. Lynne and Yoshika were already firing up the kitchen when I left."

"That sounds great. Hey, Shirley?"


"It's good to see you again."

Shirley gave him an odd look. "Are you feeling OK? You just saw me, like... six hours ago."

"Well," Gryphon replied with a faint smile, "it was a long six hours."

The bath, clothes, and soup, plus some medical attention for the bump on his head, worked curative miracles, and soon all agreed that Gryphon was none the worse for his adventure. Being drawn back into the fold that way eased the transition, as well, since he really was being welcomed back from an adventure... just a slightly longer and much stranger one than his colleagues knew.

So it was with a feeling of only mild surreality that he climbed into his bed in Room 5 East, which he had last slept in both the night before and two months ago, and began to drop off to sleep.

He wasn't quite all the way there when he heard the door (which, by his usual custom, he had left slightly ajar) open, then quietly close all the way. A moment later a slight weight pressed down on the mattress beside him.

"Gryph? Trude's sitting up reading, bleah," came the hushed voice of Erica Hartmann. "Do you mind if I crash here tonight?"

"Not at all, help yourself," he mumbled.

"Thanks," said Erica, and he heard the sound of her shoes being kicked off. A moment later she burrowed under the covers, cuddling up to his side. He settled an arm around her shoulders and resumed his trip to the abyss.

"You smell nice," Erica mumbled. "Roses and... candle smoke? Where've you been?"

But they were both asleep before he could think of an answer. His closing thought for the day was,

Shoot. We didn't think of that.

After a day or so of mild disorientation, Gryphon found it no particular hardship to slip back into the rhythm of life among the witches. It helped that there was plenty to do, which gave the days structure and kept him from dwelling too much on the peculiar sensation of living life in parallel rather than series. Between sorties, working with Ursula on weapons design, the Belv project, keeping an eye on developments in the Neuroi situation, and Zauberschule, he had no trouble keeping himself busy.

Along the way, he managed to drop a few feelers here and there into various personal matters, hopefully without causing too many ripples. Lining up the truckload of stuff for the May "supply drop" proved to be relatively easy, although finding a way of arranging it so he wasn't just stealing war matériel took a little bit of doing. Ultimately, though, he felt he'd arrived at a solution that satisfied honor while still meeting needs.

And so it went, right up to the penultimate day before he would find himself back at the June full moon—just in time for the great confrontation over Freiburg. Here again, his luck held. Had that battle taken place the next day—the actual day of the full-moon night—he would have been hard-pressed to slip away, even for the short (relative, objective) time required, and probably too tired to do it, anyway. One day later, though, and he had both the rest and the liberty to make his plan work—providing there were no further unforeseen complications, of course.

Friday, June 14, 1946

After dinner, operations at Château Saint-Ulrich proceeded with an odd mix of lassitude and furtive excitement. Lassitude because it was the day after the already-legendary Battle of Freiburg, and the entire 501st Joint Fighter Wing was on administrative cooldown, still recuperating from the epic struggle of the day before. Furtive excitement because a contingent of the 501st's personnel were gearing up for a daring secret operation that would take them far afield without, strictly speaking, proper authorization for everything they planned to do out there.

Gryphon wasn't part of the preparations for Operation Hammer, so, like the other witches who hadn't been tapped for the operation, he contributed largely by staying out of the mission team's way. He was in his bedroom, sitting propped up in bed and reading Simenon in the original, when there came a knock, followed by someone pushing the door open and putting in her head.

"Ah, here you are," said Hannelore von Hammer.

"Evening, Hannelore," said Gryphon, marking his place and rising. "Didn't expect to see you before you and the gang headed out."

"An item came for you in today's dispatches that I thought I should make certain to pass along before I leave," von Hammer explained. "I know you've been waiting some time for it." With that, she took a manila envelope from under her arm and presented it to him.

Arching an eyebrow curiously, Gryphon undid the button-and-string closure on the envelope and slid the documents out of it. There were two, one a sheet of regular typing paper with a brief cover note, the other an official document on heavy stock, complete with an embossed seal.

Gryphon looked them over, smiling, then put them back in the envelope and said, "I won't ask how you managed this. You know I only asked as a shot in the dark."

Von Hammer smiled slightly. "When you've worked within the bureaucracy of Karlsland's military for as long as I have, the civilian machinery of a place like Liberion is no match."

"Well, thank you," Gryphon said, placing the envelope on his desk. "This will be a big help."

"All part of the service," said von Hammer. "Speaking of which, my other reason for stopping by. We're just making final preparations to go, but I couldn't go without thanking you." Advancing into the room, she surprised him slightly by embracing him, then went on, "We are making this attempt because of your wise counsel. Whether I succeed or fail, I owe you for making me see the value of trying."

"All I did was give you a little nudge," Gryphon said, "but I'm glad I could help."

Hannelore let him go and straightened her uniform. "You are an annoyingly gracious man sometimes. Just accept my gratitude," she said, a slight twinkle putting the lie to her flinty Karlslandic glare.

"You're welcome," he said dryly.

"That's better." Spying the pocket watch lying on his desk, she asked, "May I trouble you for the time?"

Gryphon picked up The World and consulted it. "2030 hours... mark," he said.

"Ach, I thought so. I should get moving. We're to be at Orly by midnight, and there's still much to do."

"Mm. I ought to be getting a move on myself. I'm expected in Colmar this evening."

"Ah?" A slight smile stealing onto her face, von Hammer asked, "Forgive me for prying, but would this be a rendezvous with the lady you mentioned yesterday?"

"It would indeed," Gryphon replied with a smile. "I only get a chance to see her once a month, and tonight's the night."

Over on his bed, Erica suddenly sat up like a zombie levered out of a coffin in a movie, making von Hammer, who hadn't realized she was there, jump slightly.

"You have a lady?" she asked Gryphon, puzzled. "I mean, who doesn't live here? When did that happen?"

"... A while back?" Gryphon replied, a little awkwardly.

"Is it serious?"

"Well, we're engaged, I suppose you could call that serious..."

Erica's eyes went wide. "You're engaged?!" she squeaked. "Why haven't you brought her here? We need to meet her! You can't get married without the approval of the whole wing! Those are the rules I just made up!"

To the further surprise of everyone present, Trude Barkhorn suddenly appeared, abandoning the stealth approach she'd been making on her wife's napping position to pop up from the far side of the bed and demand of Gryphon, in the voice of a Karlslander whose conception of someone's schedule has just been bent beyond its elastic limit,

"When did you have time?"

Gryphon glanced at the device in his hand and briefly considered replying, "I have all the time in The World," but just in the nick of it, he realized what a flagrant temptation of fate that would be, and he aborted the operation in favor of a helpless shrug.

"All right, wait, never mind that," said Trude with a new-subject handwave. "You have a fiancée who lives in the area, but you can only go and see her..." She glanced out the window. "... on the night of the full moon?"

"Mm-hmm," Gryphon replied. "It's a pain."

Erica giggled. "The full moon, really? Is she a werewolf?"

"No, she's a vampire," Gryphon replied before he could stop himself.

All three Karlslanders stared at him and replied in monotone unison, "... What."

"I said—" Gryphon began, but his voice trailed off as he noticed that Trude was staring not at him, but still at the window, a look of blank disbelief spreading across her face. Turning, he looked—

Remilia, rather more fancily dressed than usual, was standing in midair outside the window, arms folded insouciantly, her body language announcing without ambiguity, Behold! I have arrived!

Blinking away his surprise, Gryphon went and opened the window. "Uh, hello."

"Bon soir, mon amour!" Remilia declared. "I decided to come and surprise you."

"Uh, well... mission accomplished," Gryphon said. Stepping back, he gestured and said, "Won't you come in?"

"Why thank you, sir," she replied, crossing the window threshold and stepping lightly down to the floor. "So this is your home away from mine, is it? Very nice! Not as institutional as I was expecting. And these are some of your comrades, I presume?"

"As a matter of fact." Feeling himself swinging from bafflement into a mode that was more of a match to her playfully formal one, Gryphon indicated them one by one. "Rittmeister Hannelore Freifrau von Hammer, our Air Fleet adjutant; Major Gertrud Barkhorn and Captain Erica Hartmann, two of the 501st's witches. Ladies, may I introduce my fiancée, Countess Remilia Scarlet."

"I'm delighted to meet you all," said Remilia graciously. "Benjamin has told me so much about you and his adventures with you, I feel as though I practically know you already."

It seemed to dawn on Erica for the first time that she was sitting in her shirtsleeves on Gryphon's bed, the bunching of the covers around her waist a clear indication that she had until recently been lying in it. Normally this wouldn't faze her at all—a perfectly ordinary state of affairs—but the presence of the man's fiancée, whose existence she hadn't even guessed at until a few moments before, made her suddenly and acutely aware of what it must look like to an uninformed observer. Her face going slowly red, she said haltingly,

"Um... this isn't... what it looks like? I'm actually married." She tilted her head toward Trude. "To her."

"Hi," said Trude with a slightly confounded wave.

Remilia regarded the tableau for a moment with a calm, unreadable look, then crossed the room to examine the outside of the door, which was currently turned inward where Hannelore had left it open.

"Hartmann—!" Trude whispered through her teeth as she realized the new arrival was perusing the signup sheet Erica had stuck on the outside of the door just the day before. "Why didn't you take that down?!"

"I didn't know I would need to!" Erica replied in a similar stage hiss. "I'm not psychic! You want Eila for that!"

"Hmm," said Remilia, considering the partly-filled-in list, including the box for that same evening. Then, turning a cool smile to Erica, she went on, "Well, at least you're not a line jumper, Captain Hartmann."

Erica could only look flummoxed at that; Remilia held the smile on her for a moment longer, then couldn't take it any more, threw back her head, and laughed, fang points glinting.

"Relax, ladies," she said in a much more natural tone. "I know all about the arrangements here. You may rest assured, they meet with my complete approval."

Erica blinked. "Uh... so... wait. You don't mind that there's practically always at least one of us sleeping with him?"

"Hartmann—!" Trude groaned again, facepalming.

"OK ja it sounds totally wrong when I say it out loud like that," Erica agreed.

"No, I don't mind at all," Remilia said, then added with a wry grin. "Trust me, Captain, I'm well aware of Benjamin's value as a restorative sleep aid. I'm not so heartless as to hoard such a valuable commodity all to myself, particularly in a time of war. You could even argue that it's my patriotic duty to support our fighting forces with every resource I possess."

"It sounds even more like a totally wrong thing when you say it out loud like that," said Erica with a wince.

"There you go again, talking like I'm your possession," Gryphon pointed out mildly.

"Which you absolutely are not, mon vieux—except, of course, when you are," the vampire added with a wicked grin, and with that the last of the ice was broken.

When she'd finished laughing, von Hammer composed herself again and said, "I hate to dash away when things are just getting interesting, but I have a most pressing appointment I must keep. It has been fascinating to meet you, Countess Scarlet. I hope you will visit us again."

"D'you know, Rittmeister von Hammer, I believe I shall. I've enjoyed meeting you as well." She offered a hand, which the Prussian gravely accepted and bowed over, as a baroness should over the hand of a countess. "May your errand meet with the most glittering success."

"Thank you, Countess. Ladies. Gentleman," von Hammer went on, offering short Prussian bows to the others in the room.

"Hals und Beinbruch, Hannelore," said Gryphon; the Barkhorns echoed the sentiment, and then she was gone.

"Uh... we should... get going too," said Trude awkwardly, dragging Erica off the bed. Once they were both upright, she offered a bow of her own, nudging Erica to follow her lead, then said, "A pleasure, Countess, good evening."

"She's got little wings!" Erica declared cheerfully as they left the room. "So cute!"


Alone in the room, Gryphon and Remilia stood looking at each other in bemused silence for a moment, then came together in an embrace.

"So that was the Erica and Trude Show," Gryphon observed when he could speak again. "You got one of our better opening acts in those two."

"Mm, so I see. What a charming couple they are. Would you care to show me around the rest of the circus?"

"Sure, let me get my shoes." Having collected those articles, he sat down on his bed to put them on, remarking as he did so, "I didn't expect you to come up here."

"I know," Remilia said, wandering over to poke idly around the items scattered on his desk. "That's why I did it."

"Well, I'm glad you're here," Gryphon said.

"And I'm glad I came. We are in accord," said Remilia dryly. Then, spotting an item of interest, she said, "Hello, what's this?" and picked it up.

Gryphon raised his head to look, and saw that she was holding the investiture certificate Kaiser Friedrich IV of Karlsland had issued him—a document that, by one stroke of the imperial pen, had transformed him from an unauthorized nobody covertly assisting the 501st to a commissioned captain of cavalry in Karlsland's Imperial Air Service, a Reichsgraf of the Karlsreich, and a Knight Third Class of the Imperial Order of the Red Eagle.

"My my!" Remilia said as she read it over. "An officer and a gentleman, are we? And so soon after your return." Putting the certificate back on his desk, she turned and gave him a wry grin. "I guess I won't be marrying below my station after all!"

Gryphon chuckled and finished tying his shoe. "Indeed. I'm even a count!"

"Excellent news. Now our marriage needn't be morganatic," she said with a wink. Then, glancing at the paper again, she asked, "What's the Imperial Air Service, though? I was under the impression that Karlsland's air force was called the Luftwaffe."

"It is," said Gryphon. "The Luftstreitkräfte is the old Karlsland air force. It was dissolved after the First Neuroi War and replaced by the Luftwaffe. The Kaiser brought it back for Hannelore. She's kind of a special operative of his."

"I see. And now so are you."

"Apparently. The duties are largely ceremonial."

Remilia chuckled. "Do you have a proper uniform? I see you're still wearing the same old Liberion rags around the house."

"As a matter of fact, I do," Gryphon said. "I've worn it exactly once, the day it arrived. It's for dress occasions, which we don't have too often around here."

"Well, here's what I think we should do," said Remilia. "You put on your uniform. Spruce yourself up as much as ever you can. Then you'll show me around the castle and introduce me to the rest of your comrades, such as are available. And after that... what would you say to an evening on the town in Colmar? Inasmuch as there is any such thing," she qualified with another wry smile.

"I would say that sounds like a helluva plan."

Fully decked out in the grey, green, and black of the old Imperial Air Service, peaked cap, Order of the Red Eagle, and all; carrying a small suitcase; and with a mildly incongruous set of Fusō-style swords strapped to his back, Gryphon would have caught the puzzled attention of his wingmates if he had been going around the castle alone. Being accompanied by a small, cheerful, archaically-dressed woman who sported a jauntily decorative pair of bat wings on her back did nothing to diminish this effect.

They hit the hangar first, in hopes of catching the Operation Hammer team before they left. In this, Gryphon had a spot of luck; when they arrived, the team's C-47 was still on the apron. Hannelore was already aboard, preflighting the aircraft, but the other witches chosen for the mission, along with Lynne, Mio, and Minna, were gathered around the rear door, where Yoshika was supervising the loading of Lucchini's stretcher.

The operation came to a halt as the witches noticed Gryphon and Remilia approaching, and their chatter died away in puzzlement.

"Hey, guys," said Gryphon, a little sheepishly. "I don't want to hold you up, but I've had a surprise visitor I thought I should introduce real quick if I could catch you." He named off the witches in turn, then presented Remilia as formally as he could under the circumstances.

"You're kidding me," said Shirley.

"It does seem somewhat improbable," Ursula Hartmann agreed, adjusting her glasses.

"More than somewhat," Heidemarie Schnaufer said.

"How rude," Lynne chided them, frowning.

"Don't be mean, you guys!" Yoshika protested.

Perrine gave a dark chuckle that put her wingmates instantly in mind of haughtier times; elevated her chin aristocratically; and said calmly, "Please disregard the rank jealousy of the peanut gallery, Mademoiselle la Comtesse. They can't help themselves. They're from less civilized countries, after all."

There was a moment's startled silence, and then everyone laughed.

"Wow, Perrine," Lucchini chortled. "That was just like the old days."

"One likes to keep all one's skills sharp," said Perrine airily.

"I guess that was pretty rude of me," Shirley allowed. "Sorry about that. It's just that... you know... he kinda never mentioned that he was seeing somebody off base."

"Oh, you mustn't blame him for that," Remilia said. "We thought it best to keep the matter private until such time as we were certain of our course, you see."

"You sly old dog," Mio Sakamoto said with a grin. "I can see keeping it on the downlow from this pack of gossips, but holding out on your own best witch?"

"You'd have tried to help move things along," Gryphon told her blandly. "It would have been a disaster."

Mio laughed, hands on hips. "Yeah, you're probably right. Well, congratulations! I hope you'll come and see us again, future Mrs. Gryph, when we're a little less..." She gestured vaguely at the operation in progress.

"Oh, I shall, Colonel, have no fear," said Remilia. "I apologize for dropping by unannounced, but I rarely leave my home these days, and tonight I was feeling... impulsive."

Minna considered raising the point that this was a supposedly-secure operations base for a combat fighter wing, and not the sort of place somebody's fiancée could customarily just "drop by" in impulse, but decided against it. Her magical sensitivity to patterns of force and power, even operating at its subliminal out-of-combat level, was whispering to her that the tiny woman standing here laughing and bantering with her witches was a formidable presence, one who could be a powerful ally or an implacable enemy, and Minna would much prefer the former. Besides, if Gryphon vouched for her—and he obviously did, if he intended to marry her—well, she'd granted people access on a far weaker basis than that in her time. Certainly the Countess was far more charming than many a "guest" Minna had had to suffer on her patch unwillingly.

So instead of pressing the point, she made a slightly arch comment about arranging a pass for the Countess's convenience on her next visit, which Remilia acknowledged with a faint OK-you-got-me smile, and the conversation flowed away from the potential trouble spot as smoothly as Perrine had cut down her wingmates' rudeness earlier.

After a bit more pleasant conversation, Remilia said, "Well, ladies, we mustn't keep you from your work. I wished Rittmeister von Hammer every success when I met her a short while ago, and I extend the same wishes to all of you now." Spreading her skirts, she bow-curtsied in the style Gryphon had seen Sakuya do so often, adding with a broad smile, "Bonne chance, mes amis!"

Gryphon said his goodbyes as well, and he and Remilia walked arm-in-arm away from the C-47 and toward the doors leading back to the interior of the castle. Behind them, one of the witches excused herself from the rest and hurried after them.

"Excuse me, Countess," said Heidemarie, a touch hesitantly, as she caught up with them. "I'm Major Heidemarie Schnaufer, one of the Night Witches here. This is terribly forward of me, but may I ask you a... personal question? In confidence?"

Remilia gave her a serene smile and replied with perfect unconcern, "Yes, Major Schnaufer. I am a vampire."

Heidemarie, her query short-circuited, blinked. "Ah."

Remilia considered her with a thoughtful air for a moment, stepping a bit closer, then said, "And you've been accused of being one too, in your day, haven't you? I can see it in you."

Heidemarie's pale cheeks colored slightly. "By that do you mean..."

But Remilia shook her head. "No. No, you're not one of us, you're a witch all right—but your magic lineage cuts close by." At the Night Witch's look of confusion, she went on, "There were wondrous things in this world in the time of your great-great-great-grandmothers, Major. Not all the boundaries were as sharply defined as I'm told they tend to be nowadays." Her smile, so ready tonight, flashed on again. "I'm pleased to see that some echoes of that finer, wilder world linger still."

"I see," said Heidemarie solemnly. Then, with a shy smile of her own, she bowed slightly and said, "Thank you, Countess."

"My absolute pleasure, Major," replied Remilia warmly.

"You're really working the charm tonight," Gryphon observed fondly as they re-entered the main castle.

"Would you rather I was abrasive?" Remilia asked impishly.

"Not at all. Besides, it's fun watching you do your thing." He patted her hand where it lay in the crook of his elbow. "Let's see... who haven't we seen?"

The rest of the wing, and Wolfgang, turned out to be relaxing in the living room, apart from Sanya, who was out on night patrol—the only Night Witch covering the sector tonight, since Heidemarie had been detached for Operation Hammer and her temporary replacement had not yet arrived.

"Th' heck?" Wilma Bishop wondered as she saw Gryphon enter. "Why are you dressed like Hellhammer?"

"Except for the pants," Chris Barkhorn noted.

"Mm, true that. Oh well, life is disappointment," Wilma said philosophically, making Chris giggle.

"This is my good suit!" Gryphon said. Then, grinning, he added, "I'm showing off for my lady. We're going to hit the town tonight! Everybody..."

This group of witches, Remilia noticed with amusement, trended more toward astonishment than disbelief. She wondered why they all found it so hard to digest the idea that Benjamin could be engaged. They clearly all found him as charming as she did. Was it simply that they couldn't fathom the notion of him committing himself exclusively to one woman? And yet it wasn't like that at all, except in certain very particular senses that didn't come into play in his relationships with any of them anyway. Human relations were such a mess sometimes.

Regardless, she liked them as much as she'd liked all the others he'd introduced her to so far. They were all such a cosmopolitan lot: girls from Fusō, like Miyafuji and this youngster here, Hattori (who, she noticed with interest, seemed to have a particular rapport with him, almost but not quite like master and student); a Suomi, unmistakable with her ash-blonde hair and slightly insular manner; Englishwomen, Karlsländer, the little Romagnan with her body broken but mending and her spirit undimmed... good girls, the lot of them, girls worth getting to know; and once they got over their initial shock, they all seemed just as eager to get to know her.

Benjamin was right, she thought to herself as she worked the room, the experience bringing back pleasant memories of playing the hostess at dinner parties in the good old days. Maman had certainly never had the patience for that. As soon as Remilia the Younger was decently old enough to take over, that sort of business had been left to her and her father, whilst Remilia the Elder retired to her library and tried to ignore the noise from the great hall.

"May I ask you a question, Countess?" asked Francie Whittle at an opportune lull in the conversation.

"Of course, Group Captain Whittle," Remilia replied. "What would you like to know?"

Pointing with the stem of her pipe, Whittle asked, "Do those wings work?"

"They certainly do," said Remilia. "And they're very convenient," she added with a wink, demonstrating their ability to put her at proper kissing level with her fiancé.

"So I see," said Whittle dryly. "How extraordinary. I've known a few witches in my time whose familiars were bats, but they never manifested like that."

"Oh, I'm not a witch, Group Captain. I have a soupçon of magical ability, but only as a trait of my particular bloodline. I'm a vampire, you see."

Whittle arched an eyebrow. "There's no such thing as vampires."

Remilia grinned, showing her fully extended fangs, but somehow not in an aggressive way. "How certain are you of that?"

"... How extraordinary," Whittle repeated.

"Zowie," said Wilma.

"Um," was all Eila could come up with. Shizuka didn't even get that far.

"Is that the kind of thing you should just go around telling people?" Chris wondered.

"Where do you hail from, originally, Fahnenjunker Barkhorn?" Remilia asked in reply.

"Königsberg," said Chris. "Why?"

"Are you proud of that heritage?"

"Of course," Chris replied. "Königsbergers are the backbone of Karlsland." She grinned. "Or so my big sister's always telling me."

Remilia returned the smile. "You should listen to your elder sister; it's a younger sister's duty. At any rate, I'm proud of my heritage as well. My father was a soldier, a scholar, a tireless protector of these lands... and a vampire. My mother, one of the greatest witches ever to emerge from the Academie van Brugge. I'm proud to be their daughter, and I don't intend to hide it. Why should I? I'm not some kind of savage beast." Winking, she concluded, "Vampires are people too."

Gryphon suppressed a chuckle—that was a phrase he'd said to her, on the occasion of their first meeting, to explain why he wasn't bothered by the idea of dining with one—and it seemed to serve the same purpose in reverse here. They chatted for a few more minutes, and then, as time was pressing, had to move on.

"Sanya's going to be so mad she missed this," Eila said ruefully.

"Have no fear, we'll see each other again," Remilia assured her, and with her the rest, with a smile. "Your commanding general has already extended me an open invitation—and of course you'll all be invited to the wedding, once we know where and when it will be."

"We're building a chapel here," Shizuka blurted out, startling even herself slightly. "Well, it's a Fusō-style temple, but it'll be properly dedicated and everything." Having come this far, she decided to press on and complete the thought: "We built it for General Wilcke and Colonel Sakamoto's wedding next month, but I'm sure you could use it if you wanted."

"That's very kind of you," said Remilia, nodding graciously. "I'll certainly keep it in mind. Benjamin and I haven't really discussed the particulars yet."

"Of course."

"Well, ladies, I fear I must take this gentleman away from you for a while if we're to see anything of the nightlife this evening. Don't worry, I shan't keep him forever..." She smiled a little wickedly. "This time."

Wilma laughed. "Don't wait too long!" she called cheerfully after them as they exited with Wolfgang trotting after. "We ain't all innocent flowers around here."

"Thank you, Sgt. Bishop, that will be all," Gryphon's voice drifted back down the corridor, making everyone laugh once more.

The C-47 had gone when they returned to the hangar. The sprawling room was still lit up, but deserted, the doors standing open on the balmy night. Whistling cheerfully, Gryphon led the way over to the corner where the Belv was parked.

As they approached, Remilia stopped and just... looked at it for a moment, then asked, "What is this?"

"It's my car!" Gryphon replied. "Did you think I was going to walk to Colmar? Some of us can't fly without special equipment we really shouldn't use for personal errands," he added mischievously.

"This is an automobile?"

"Oh!" He slapped his forehead. "You've never seen one before."

"Only in pictures," Remilia said. "And they didn't look like... this."

"Well, you're in for a treat, then. This one's special. Hop in, let's go!"

Count Basie and His Orchestra
"One O'Clock Jump"

"Benjamin, mon amour, tu essaies de me faire peur à mort?!" Remilia demanded.

She had wondered, upon boarding the Belv, what the railing-like bar attached to the panel in front of the passenger seat was for. Now, as she clung to it for dear life to avoid being thrown against the door while the madman she had foolhardily agreed to marry hurled the tiny car around a bend on the Ribeauvillé-Colmar road, she understood.

"Sorry," Gryphon said, backing off just a little. "It's really perfectly safe."

"The outcome of your reckless driving is what led to our meeting, if you'll recall," Remilia pointed out.

"On a point of order, that happened because someone caused a hurricane and then blew up my jeep! Not my fault. But you're right. For your first ever automobile ride, I should probably take it easier. Here. Is this better?"

"Significantly. Thank you." She shook her head and smoothed her clothes, reassembling her dignity. "I never imagined you would be such a daredevil."

"I told you about the jetpack, right?"

"Yes, but that's for a specific purpose. What you were just doing was... hooliganism."

"Sorry," he repeated, genuinely contrite. "I got too excited. Please forgive me. I am but a humble horsie."

"That line's for Flandre," said Remilia, then relented with a smile, sitting back in her seat. "But I'll forgive you anyway. Just try to keep this contraption properly upright, will you? It's been a long time since I even rode in a carriage, let alone anything faster."

"You can fly faster than this car could possibly go."

"When I'm flying, I'm in no danger of hitting trees."

"Fair point, well made. We're here anyway!"

Remilia leaned forward to get a better look at the streets of Colmar through the Belv's windshield. "Mm. It hasn't changed as much as I might have thought. I'm surprised at the number of people about, though, even on a Friday."

"We drove the Neuroi out of Freiburg yesterday," Gryphon said. "Folks around here are still celebrating."

"Of course. ... Where are we going?"

"Well, it's an outside chance, but... aha! Look." He pointed to the large building at the end of the square they'd just swung into. "Lights on in the mairie. Somebody's working late."

"What do we want with the town office?" Remilia wondered.

"You do still want to get married, yes? Here in the twentieth century, that happens here."

"What—right now? Just the two of us? Flandre would never forgive either one of us."

"Well, no, not that part, but there's paperwork to do beforehand." He tapped the breast pocket of his uniform jacket, making the papers within crinkle audibly. "I have to drop off my birth certificate. I'm not sure what we're going to do about yours, I mean, they didn't do those in 1502, did they?"

Remilia frowned thoughtfully. "I was born in the bed I still sleep in," she said. "The only record of my birth I can think of would be in my father's journal for that year, which I assume these modern authorities of yours wouldn't accept. How annoying. Can't we just go to the church where my parents were married and have the canon do it?"

"Not if you want it to be legal. I mean, we can have a church service—I hope we do! Signing some papers in the town hall isn't much of an occasion. But we have to do this part or we're not really married." He shrugged. "C'est le vingtième siècle."

"Wait. You're not even from this world. Or this decade! Where did you get a birth certificate?"

Grinning, Gryphon withdrew the envelope Hannelore had given him from his jacket and handed her the heavier of the two papers in it, switching on the dome light as he did so (it only occurred to him later that she didn't need it).

"'Commonwealth of Dawnland Certificate of Live Birth'," Remilia read. "'Baby boy, born the twentieth June, nineteen twenty-three, to...'" She looked up and gave him a wry smile. "You look a little older than twenty-two, mon vieux."

"It's the mileage," he said with a shrug. "Anyway, I wanted to keep it as close to true as I could. Fifty years' difference... not that big a deal when you get to be our age. It's a lie," he said piously, "but a virtuous one."

"Hm. Well, you're probably right that it's necessary in your case. As for me..."

"You heard me correctly, young man. The twelfth August, 1502, at my family's home outside the city."

The young clerk gazed wearily at her through pince-nez that could have stood a wiping. "Madame," he began.

"Mademoiselle," Remilia corrected him, then added with a grin, "That's rather the point of the exercise."

The clerk sighed. "Mademoiselle. I understand that the streets are filled with revelry at the moment, but if this is your idea of a joke..."

"Monsieur, do you see these wings? They're not humorous."

No, but they are adorable, Gryphon didn't say out loud.

"... I cannot dispute your point," the clerk admitted, then sighed again and said, "But I really don't know what I can do. Exceptional cases are not in my purview. I'm only here to finish up some things that didn't get done during the normal day because of the party this afternoon."

Remilia thought the matter over for a moment, then smiled. "Listen, mon ami. Thousands of people must have lost their documents when the Neuroi controlled the country. How are they handled? Surely you're not telling me that no one who was displaced by the occupation and then returned to find nothing remained is allowed to marry."

"Well, no, there are exceptions. Waivers. But they have to come from Paris! I can't do them here. I'm sorry."

Remilia drew a deep breath, then let it out. "Ah, well," she said, flipping a hand. "I'll try my luck with the capital, then." She patted his forearm in a friendly way. "Don't let it get you down, monsieur. You can't help it if they gave you poor tools to work with."

"Thank you for your understanding, mademoiselle. I can at least take the gentleman's paperwork and start your application. We'll hold it here until such time as your own documentation is ready."

"Excellent. Thank you."

"Thank you for not raking the poor guy over the coals too much," Gryphon observed as they left the mairie.

Remilia shrugged. "I'm in far too good a mood tonight to let a little thing like the intransigence of the Gallic bureaucracy turn me savage. If anything, it gives me hope! It proves that the so-called Fourth Republic is not so different from the ancien régime after all," she added with a wink. Then, pulling at his arm a little, she diverted their course toward the mailbox that stood on the corner, where she paused to remove an elaborately sealed letter from the small sling bag she'd been carrying all night and post it off.

"What was that?" Gryphon wondered as he collected Wolfgang from the car, and they all headed away from the Place de la Mairie and into the center of town.

"Me, trying my luck with the capital," Remilia replied airily. "Now then. We have..." She paused. "That's your cue, man carrying the watch."

"Oh. Sorry." Gryphon fished The World out of the watch pocket of his uniform. "It's 10:23."

"Excellent. We have five hours, or thereabouts, before we really must get back. What shall we do? Are you hungry?"

"I could eat. I don't think anywhere in town serves what you're going to want on a full moon night, though," he said.

"Never fear, mon cheval," she said, tapping the sling bag again. "Sakuya has provided. And I find B-negative always goes well with bouillabaisse on a night like this."

"I thought you said the horsie line was for Flan."

"I was just testing you, mon amour."

They dined in casual but elegant style at the same sidewalk brasserie where Gryphon had awaited Shirley back in April. The proprietor, recognizing the odd foreigner who had tipped him so lavishly for a little help that stormy evening, couldn't do enough for them, and miracle of miracles, even this far from Marseille, there was bouillabaisse. While they ate, and Wolfgang dozed happily at Remilia's feet under the table, Gryphon told her about the Battle of Freiburg in all the thrilling detail she wanted.

Afterward, they went walking around the town center, with Remilia reminiscing about what the place had been like in her girlhood. Colmar had been one of the free imperial cities of the Sacred Romagnan Empire, that strange medieval confederation of proto-Karlslandic states that was neither sacred, nor Romagnan, nor an empire. Though a small place in those day, it had been an important market town, something of a crossroads of the region, albeit mainly as a sort of adjunct or overflow from the larger nearby center of Mülhausen—modern-day Mulhouse.

"This was a borderland then, as it is now," she noted. "Only in those days, as well as being at the crux of the Gallian, Belgican, and Karlslandic peoples' territories, it was also on the boundary between the mortal world and... something wilder. The Schwarzwald is the last relic of those places now, but back then... it was as though this whole area were halfway into the land of dreams. It was an exciting time."

Remilia looked around at the bustling streets, with their mid-century mix of gas and electric lighting, the glow of the shops, and the chattering groups of happy people, and smiled. "Although there's something to be said for the energy of this era as well, I suppose. It's different. I'm still getting used to it..." She hugged his arm. "But I think I like it."

"I'm glad." Spotting a particular business up ahead, he said, "Want to try another new experience?"

"Mm?" Remilia asked, looking up at his face.

Gryphon pointed. "There's a cinema." He grinned. "I've always wanted to be a soldier on leave, taking my best girl to the pictures in the old-fashioned style."

"In that case, how can I refuse?"

The film they saw was a comedy, and although Gryphon didn't quite understand all of it, he came away well-pleased at how well his Gallic was coming on, all the same. It had been a peculiar film to his sensibilities—as near as he could tell, it involved a man faux-kidnapping a haughty young heiress to teach her humility, then having to rescue her from actual kidnappers who then kidnapped her from him, which seemed like a weird premise for a comedy to him—but it was funny once he'd adjusted his expectations, and Remilia had appeared to find it hilarious (when she wasn't too busy being fascinated by the technology being used to display it to her in the first place).

Afterward, there was time for another leisurely walk about Colmar. By now the crowds were thinning, all but the most dedicated revelers calling it a night, but people still stopped Gryphon routinely and congratulated him. Not that they knew he had personally been involved in the liberation of Freiburg, of course, but people were so pleased at the outcome that they were thanking everybody they saw in any kind of uniform, even strange foreign ones they didn't recognize.

The hour grew late at last, and they had time for a quick dinner at one of the last holdouts on the row of cafés near the mairie before reclaiming the Belv from its space and heading back up into the hills. (Remilia noticed as they left the Place de la Mairie that the office light had gone out sometime while they were gone, and smilingly hoped that harried young clerk was getting a good night's rest.)

They left the Belv parked near the end of the track leading up to the house. In absolute terms, it wouldn't be there long, since Gryphon's plan was to come back out on the next full moon and repeat the looping process—and so, thanks to the good offices of The World, his one-month-older self would appear shortly after this point and drive the car back to Ribeauvillé, appearing to his wingmates as if he'd just returned from his date.

"I don't know how many months I can pull this off before I end up confusing myself completely," he admitted as they walked up the hill, "but one bridge at a time..."

"Perhaps you were right, on the night we met, when you said I should just... leave," Remilia said wistfully. "There are other places in the Gallian countryside where we could live. Now that Flandre is herself again..." She gestured to the dark bulk of the mansion, its windows glowing with the dull orange of candlelight. "It's just a house."

"You say that, but I can hear you don't really believe it," Gryphon said, squeezing her hand. "It's your home. And in a way, you're only now taking it back from the ghosts of its past. It'd be a shame to abandon it now. Let's give it a little while. See if we can figure something out."

"Well, we have another month before we even could do anything now, since we've frittered away the whole night having such a lovely time," said Remilia wryly.

"That's the spirit." Gryphon yawned. "Man. I am all in. I don't mind switching back and forth between the day and night shifts so much? But that first day is rough. Worth it, though. Totally worth it."

"I'm glad you think so."

Their welcome home was low-key, given the lateness of the hour, but Sakuya was as fresh as always, still crisply uniformed, when she met them in the entrance hall—despite the fact that under the new régime, she would normally have gone off-duty after supper.

"Welcome home, m'lady, Chief," she said, taking Remilia's bag and Gryphon's suitcase. "Hello again, Wolfgang. I trust you had a pleasant outing, m'lady?"

"It was," Remilia replied, "marvelous in every respect. I'll tell you, and Meiling, and Flan all about it at breakfast. Right now, get to bed. You're not supposed to be working at this hour any more."

"My working hours are always subject to the requirements of the occasion, m'lady," Sakuya objected primly, then added in a more normal voice, "But now that you're home, I'll take you up on that. I've already had to pack Meiling off to bed. She was waiting for you outside—I think she was planning to do some kind of doorman thing for your amusement—but I went out to check on her an hour ago and found that she'd fallen asleep standing up."

"That's an impressive trick," Gryphon noted.

"A bit pointless, though," Remilia said. "The last thing we need in this place is a door guard."

"As for Lady Flandre," Sakuya said quietly as the three of them crossed the entry hall together, "she wanted to wait up for you too, but..." With a smile, she gestured into the great room. Remilia and Gryphon looked in and saw Flandre, dressed for bed, curled up fast asleep on the Ottomane where Remilia usually sat.

"Oh," said Remilia, a sentimental smile spreading on her face. Glancing at Gryphon, she asked, "Would you like to do the honors, or shall I?"

"Sister's prerogative," Gryphon replied.

"Oh, go on," she said. "Carry the princess, you oaf."

"Why did you leave it up to me if it wasn't up to me?" he asked rhetorically, then went and gently scooped up the tiny blonde in his arms.

Flandre didn't wake, but shifted slightly and smiled, as he carried her upstairs. Remilia left them at the door to Flandre's room, kissing her sleeping sister good day and then heading across the hall to start getting ready for bed, while Gryphon tucked Flandre into her own bed.

When he returned to the hallway, he found Sakuya putting out the sconce candles for the day. Taking The World from his pocket, he unhitched the chain from its loop on his uniform and said,

"Here, safe and sound. Many thanks for the loan."

"You're very welcome, Chief." Sakuya accepted the device, fastened the chain to her dress, and held The World in her palm for a moment, regarding it. Then, looking from its face to his, she said, "You realize, of course, that m'lady intended for you to have this?"


"When she first showed it to you, promising that it could return you to your comrades without their knowing you were ever gone. She intended to give it to you, and she never expected to see it or you again."

Gryphon blinked. "Are you sure?"

"Positive. I know her. She wouldn't have felt comfortable leaving Lady Flandre alone in the house for any length of time... and such was her remorse over her underhanded trick to secure your companionship, she was willing to part with this. The last relic she had of me, whom she also expected never to see again." Though she had tears in her eyes at the thought, Sakuya smiled. "Remilia's heart is vast, Chief. So much bigger than her body looks like it could contain. I think it's important you understand that."

Gryphon returned the smile, placing a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently.

"I do," he said. "Believe me, I do."

"Well," she said after a few seconds of silent mutual understanding. "I'll let you get to bed. Time I turned in myself, for that matter. Good morning, Chief."

"Good morning, Sakuya," he replied, and they went their separate ways.

"Everything all right?" Remilia wondered sleepily as he clambered into bed beside her, careful not to disturb Wolfgang in his spot at their feet.

"Alles in Ordnung," Gryphon confirmed.

Remilia rolled in against his side and mimed a shiver. "I love it when you speak Karlslandic," she said.

"Ich werde das notieren," he replied.

"I had a wonderful night tonight."

"So did I."

"I enjoyed meeting your comrades very much."

"Pretty sure that was mutual too."

"But this..." She snuggled closer still. "This is the best part." Leaning up, she kissed him gently. "Welcome home."

The Ink Spots
"I'll Get By (As Long As I Have You)"

Act III: Déclaration de Position

Sakuya Izayoi woke to find herself alone. This wasn't all that unusual. Her daily rhythm was usually a little off from her lover Hong Meiling's. Where Sakuya was almost fully nocturnal in order to suit the needs of the household's vampire mistress, Meiling was still at least partially a creature of the day. Much like Gryphon, she tended to rise a few hours before sunset, and the two of them would customarily use that time to get some work done around the house, off in an area where any noise they might make wouldn't disturb those denizens still sleeping.

Opening her eyes, Sakuya looked at The World, which was hanging by its fob chain on her bedside stand with its face toward the bed. A little past five in the afternoon, still considerably before she usually woke, this time of year. She considered turning over and going back to sleep, but for whatever reason she wasn't feeling particularly sleepy, so after a few moments' quiet reflection, she got out of bed and padded barefoot to the window.

The day outside was grey and drizzly. From her bedroom at the end of the south wing, she could see most of the west lawn, or rather the mostly-graveled area that had been the west lawn, from the edge of the woods to one side of the new gazebo. She was mildly surprised to see Meiling out there, practicing her martial arts in the rain, but only mildly. Meiling trained daily, regardless of conditions. Sakuya had seen her at it on desert worlds, in jail cells, and during blinding snowstorms, indifferent to physical discomfort.

A faint smile touched her lips at the sight. She always enjoyed watching Meiling move. An untutored observer, seeing the tall redhead at rest, might assume that her powerfully built body would be clumsy, or at least tend toward lumbering—but in motion, she was in fact one of the most graceful people Sakuya had ever seen. Well-balanced, perfectly coordinated, as supple as a gymnast, she could move that big, brawny frame around with a smoothness that looked almost effortless. Moreover, this extended to everything she did. Even if she were, say, carrying sacks of cement, or building a piece of patio furniture, Meiling did it in a way that brought to mind a dancer at her trade.

After a few moments, though, Sakuya noticed something that brought a faint crease to her brow. At first she'd taken what Meiling was doing for her usual tai chi exercises, but they weren't. They had little of the flowing, circular grace of that art. Instead, her moves were sharp, percussive, mostly linear except for some sweeping arcs in the footwork. Whatever technique that was, it belonged to an altogether more violent path than tàijí quán. She was still uncannily graceful... but also aggressively so.

Sakuya felt faintly troubled by the sight, but couldn't identify any rational reason why. She knew Meiling had studied more than one martial art. For whatever reason, she'd decided to change up her workout today and practice one of the more forceful ones. There was nothing to be read into that, was there?

Unsure, she gathered her bath things and went to prepare herself for the night. Might as well get a jump on some of the work, since she was up anyway.

Later that evening, Gryphon also had occasion to notice that Meiling seemed bothered by something, but he made the discovery under rather more direct circumstances.

They were in the basement below the Fusōnese bath, still battling with the old furnace that was needed to heat the main pool. This was a foe that they had both come to respect and loathe in equal parts over the nights since they'd discovered the bath. An enormous, complicated, and badly dilapidated thing, it had thwarted their attempts to get it working with a zeal that was almost starting to feel actively perverse.

Just at the moment, Meiling was at the back of the room, trying to remove the cover from one of the mechanisms that (they thought) were for controlling the firebox ventilation from upstairs. This was presumably intended to make the furnace at least partly controllable from the bath chamber itself, without having to have someone stationed down here in the inferno all the time; but it wasn't working, and it had failed in such a way that try as they might, Gryphon and Meiling couldn't keep a fire going for more than five or ten minutes.

The cover seemed to be stuck. From over on the other side of the room, where he was crouched adjusting one of the coal supply chutes, Gryphon could hear Meiling grumbling as she tried to dismantle the mechanism. He didn't make anything of it at first; their shared habit of talking (sometimes persuasively, sometimes aggressively) to things they were working on was a point of camaraderie between them.

She didn't generally utter an incoherent scream and just summarily tear the whole business off the wall, though, so he found that startling when it happened. Rising, he turned and saw her standing by the wall, shoulders hunched, breathing hard, while the device she'd been wrestling with lay scattered in various mechanical bits on the floor in front of her.

"Well," he said mildly, "that was one way to do that." Tilting his head, he asked, "Are you all right?"

"No," Meiling replied after a momentary struggle to collect herself.

"D'you want to talk about it?" Gryphon asked.



"... Yes."


Meiling straightened up, dragging her hands down her face. "How about 'no, but I think I have to'?"

Gryphon nodded. "That works too."

They sat side-by-side, backs against the wall, amid the fragments of the vent mechanism. At first, Gryphon was listening, but Meiling wasn't talking, until finally she said,

"I shouldn't have done the math."

"Hm?" said Gryphon.

"Well... you know how even though we're in this... time bubble or whatever... time is still going by, right? Like the moon goes through its normal phases and all that."

Gryphon nodded. "Mm-hmm."

"So in some sense, it's still a particular date in here. We just can't get to everyplace else where it's that date. I was thinking about that when I woke up today. You ever do that thing where you wake up, and you just kind of lie there thinking about random stuff for a while? That's what I was doing. And it occurred to me that the last full moon was June 14, so today must be the sixteenth. And then I wondered what day that would be back where I come from, so I laid there and figured it out." She sighed. "And immediately wished I hadn't."


"Because it's an anniversary," Meiling told him. "It's the anniversary of the day I lost my home."

Remilia Scarlet entered the great room to find her sister Flandre curled up with Wolfgang on her usual corner settee, reading one of the modern detective novels Gryphon had brought with him. Noticing her sister entering, Flandre marked her place, set the book aside, and looked up with a smile.

"Evening, Sis," she said. "What's up?" Making an exaggerated frown, she went on in a comically low-pitched voice, "You look serious."

"Good evening, Flandre. I have... a task for you."

Flandre raised an eyebrow. "A task?" She gave her elder sister a slight smirk. "Do I have chores now?"

Remilia shook her head with a little smile. "Not quite. Here." Flandre noticed then that her sister was also carrying a book, rather larger and older than the Simenon paperback, which she now took from under her arm and proffered.

"What's this?" Flandre asked, taking the book with her free hand.

"This is your education," Remilia told her. "It's a book you haven't read."

"I read all the books we have," Flandre corrected her, then added wryly, "I just don't remember most of them."

"You haven't read this one," said Remilia. "It wasn't in Maman's library; it's Papa's, and it's been on my bedside stand for the last 150 years. It's the Mysterium Lamiarum."

"The what?"

"Mystery of the Vampires. The medieval authority on our kind. Lamiae was what the Romans called vampires," Remilia explained. "They thought we were all female for some bizarre reason. Anyway, that's not important. What's important is that every vampire should read this, to understand where we came from, why we are the way we are, and what we can and can't do—and you haven't read it."

Flandre frowned thoughtfully. "I don't think I can read Latin."

"Only the title is in Latin. The rest is a Middle Gallic translation Papa made for the Académie Gaulois in 1667. You shouldn't have any trouble with it." Pulling over a chair, Remilia seated herself so their eyes would be on a level and went on,

"The other night, when we had our little spat—"

"You mean when you told me I couldn't go out and see the world, and then immediately went out and saw the world?" Flandre interrupted, but with a mischievous smile rather than the scorn implied by her words.

"Yes, well, you're not wrong," Remilia conceded, her return smile slightly self-mocking but serene. "But in fairness to me, I wasn't just impulsively chasing after my particular gentleman. I was also investigating the present conditions. Seeing whether I was right about the state of the world. And, upon reflection... I don't think I was. Benjamin spoke the truth when he said that the times have changed as much for me as they have for you.

"His wingmates are charming girls, and they almost instantly accepted me for who and what I am," she went on. "I was too caught up in the moment to recognize how extraordinary that was when it happened, but now that I've had a chance to think about it, I'm... well, rather amazed.

"So I've decided that when Benjamin goes back to Saint-Ulrich on the next full moon, you may make the same expedition, if you wish to, and the conditions permit it. You may fly up to Ribeauvillé to meet him at the other end of his timeskip, be introduced to his comrades, and get a sense of what the outside world is like."

Flandre's crimson eyes went wide. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious."

"Can he take me to the cinema in town?"

"He can do whatever the two of you like, within reason," Remilia said, reflecting inwardly as she did that Flandre would probably have enjoyed the frightful machine Gryphon called "The Belv" more than she had herself.

Flandre clapped her hands in delight. "Then that's what I want to do! I want to do everything you guys did that night. Well, except apply for a marriage license. I mean, obviously," she added, blushing.

You're so transparent, little sister, thought Remilia fondly, but what she said out loud was, "However."

Flandre's face fell. "Oh boy. I should've known there'd be a catch."

"It's not as bad as you're obviously expecting. Don't assume your sister is some kind of ogre," said Remilia indignantly. "Now, listen. You're growing fast—faster than I would ever have imagined possible—but you're not an adult yet. Even leaving aside your psychological development, your education has been too badly fractured for you to know enough to be safe in the outside world. So, if you want to take me up on this offer, you'll have to work hard to correct that situation before the night arrives—and that starts with reading the Mysterium. You never had a chance to learn properly what being a vampire means, and you must before I can let myself let you go roaming around the mortal world." She reached and covered Flandre's hand with her own. "Is that fair?"

Flandre nodded. "It's fair."

"Come and let me know when you've finished the Mysterium," Remilia told her. "I'll answer any questions you may have, and then we'll discuss the next step. You have a lot to learn, and I don't have any experience teaching, but..." She squeezed Flandre's hand gently. "In this respect, we're each all the other has. So we'll have to be patient with each other. All right?"

"All right," Flandre agreed.

"Well. In that case, I'll leave you to it," said Remilia, rising and dusting down her skirts.



Flandre smiled. "Thanks."

"You're welcome, Flandre. Thank you."

"What for?"

"For helping your sister see what a coward she'd become," Remilia said with a grin, "and what she was missing in consequence."

"I don't know how long I walked," Meiling said. "Hours. Days. It was all kind of a blur. But eventually, I came to a... not even a village, really. More like an outpost. Just a few houses and some farm fields. But... it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. The buildings were made of metal. And there were... machines working the fields. It was like I'd walked forward a hundred years in time. Or more. And no one there had ever heard of the Earth Kingdom, or the Fire Nation, or... or anything from the world I knew."

"That must have been a shock," said Gryphon sympathetically.

"You're not kidding. I mean, I know now that I wandered through a Veil Nexus into Zipang, but at the time, I thought maybe I'd just gone crazy. Or died and the Spirit World was nothing like I was expecting. But... you know, the days keep coming, so, you adapt. Right? I was in a world I didn't understand, but people were still people, and I still had skills they needed. So... I made a home there, doing whatever I could do." She chuckled. "Carrying heavy things, at first, just like back on the docks, but then someone found out I could build a stone wall, and someone else needed their shoes repaired, and before I knew it I was basically the town handygirl."

Gryphon laughed. "I once knew another young woman who fell into that kind of role in a small farming community," he said. "She went on to great things. Seems like you have, too."

Meiling nodded. "I really have. I was there for... three years? I think? Something like that, before the strangers showed up one day. The madman with a box," she added with a sentimental smile, "and his maid." She shook her head, her smile taking on a touch of retrospective wonder. "I'd never seen a woman like her in all my life. I didn't know what to do with myself. All I could think of was how damn big my feet are," she said, lifting one of them as if in illustration. "Isn't that stupid? Of all the things to fixate on. 'Oh spirits, she's going to notice my disgustingly huge feet and that'll be the end of it.'"

"I used to not know what to do with my hands," Gryphon commiserated. "In high school, especially. I'd just suddenly be ultra-conscious of these things at the ends of my arms," he said, holding them out in front of him.

"Right?" Meiling agreed, mirroring the gesture. "With all these dumb... wriggly bits," she added, moving her fingers, and they both broke up laughing.

"Ahhhh," said Meiling at the end of the laugh. "I needed that." They sat there, shoulder to shoulder against the wall, for a while in a friendly silence.

"Feel better?" Gryphon asked.

"Much. Thanks a lot. Sorry for dumping all that on you."

"Not a problem at all. I'm here to help."

"I usually don't dwell on the past," Meiling said. "I mean, it's the past, right? Even though I'm a time traveler, I can normally leave it where it lies. But today, I dunno. It just..."

Gryphon nodded. "Got up on top of you. It happens to us all."

"Yeah... that's true. Even Sakuya. She's the best at walling stuff like that off of anyone I've ever seen, but even so... every now and then I catch her just staring, and I know what she's thinking about. She's thinking about the tenth of Floréal."

"I see the very same look in Remi's eyes occasionally," Gryphon agreed. "When she's looking into a flame... sometimes the flame looks back at her, and it's that night."

"What do you do?"

"What can I do? Same thing I bet you do for Sakuya. Hold her, tell her that I love her, wait for the moment to pass, and muddle on."


A pause.

"You're a good guy, Gryph. I don't go for guys, but if I did, I could go for you."

"Thank you. Although I have to point out that would complicate many things," Gryphon observed dryly.

Meiling guffawed. "It sure would." She got to her feet, grabbed his hand, and hauled him upright. "So. What are we gonna do about this frickin' thing?"

Gryphon picked up one of the bits, turned it over in his hands, and then dropped it. "I say 'scrap it and build something better'. It may take a little longer to get working, but at least we'll be sure how the hell it's supposed to work."

Meiling nodded. "I was thinking the same thing."

"Right now," he said, glancing at his watch, "it must be just about time for lunch."

"I heard that." They headed for the stairs. "Hey, Gryph?"


"Sakuya knows everything I told you already... obviously," Meiling said, "and I don't mind if it comes out that I needed a little cheering up, but... don't tell her I lost my temper, willya? She hates it when I break stuff. I don't want her to worry."

"What happens in the furnace room stays in the furnace room," Gryphon replied gravely.

Except for lunch and a couple of quick breaks to take Wolfgang for a roam around the west lawn, Flandre didn't budge from her reading spot for the next several hours, so absorbed was she in the Mysterium Lamiarum. Set down here, in her father's clear hand and lucid prose, were the answers to questions she hadn't even consciously realized she had about what had happened to her, all those years ago, and what it would mean for her future.

She had given her consent to be turned, of course—if she hadn't, she would have died—but because of the spontaneous, surreptitious way it had been done, there'd been no time for her to consider the matter in any great depth, much less do any research. She'd had to decide on the spot: Will I let Remilia do this, or shall I perish? In the moment, it hadn't been a difficult choice.

The true vampire is not some undead thing; rather, we are living people, members of a branch of humanity that split off from the main trunk of the race in antiquity. Mortal humans are our close cousins, and though we rely upon them for sustenance, to view them as prey is not the ethical course. Rather, we should seek mutually beneficial relationships with them. With our strength, we can be great assets to their communities, and in return, they may provide for us as, for instance, the farmer provides for the craftsman who cannot grow his own crops.

She wondered whether that paragraph existed in the original text, or was a commentary Papa had added. It certainly summarized his philosophy toward humans in her own experience. She hadn't been a vampire in the time she had properly known him, but she'd overheard him giving just such lectures to Remilia as a little girl, instructing her in the ethics of vampire citizenship.

Although our origins and powers are supernatural, nevertheless we must always bear in mind that we are people, not monsters. We must guard ourselves against arrogance and self-pity alike. Ours is neither a blessing nor a curse; it is simply the way we are.

Flandre revolved that last sentence in her mind while she worked her way through the more practical sections of the book. Mechanics and etiquette of feeding. Effects of contaminants in taken blood, their potential dangers and benefits. Regeneration, its limits. Fecundity of vampires, male (quite low; going pink in the face, Flandre reflected that her parents must have been very fortunate, or very diligent, or both, to have had two children within a mere five years) and female (effectively zero—wait, really?—reasons for). Sunlight, why deleterious. Flowing water and threshold invitations. The myth of religious aversion (had not their parents been married in the great Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk of Bruges, as religious a building as ever there was?), its origins and extent.

She was intrigued to note that the author laid this particular popular misconception about all vampires at the doorstep of House Dracul, in members of which it was actually true. That had the hallmark of her father as well. Count Victor Scarlet had actively hated very few people in his long life, but "the Wallachian and his ratling brood," as she'd once memorably heard him call the Dracul family, were at the top of that short list.

She'd never met a Dracul herself—one would hardly have been welcome in the house in her girlhood—but when she got to the section on the various floral aversions that afflicted the different bloodlines and saw that theirs was to garlic, Flandre felt a tiny pang of sympathy for them all the same. She'd take being uncontrollably revolted by licorice over being unable to enjoy half of Gallic cuisine any day.

When at length she closed the volume and looked at the mantelpiece clock, she saw that it was just past 2:30 AM. Domestic noises and nice smells were drifting in from the kitchen, indicating that someone—probably Sakuya—was at work on supper. Flandre sniffed, but couldn't identify what was cooking beyond the fact that whatever it was, it smelled really good. Then again, she'd never known Sakuya to cook anything that wasn't. Except vichyssoise, and was that really even cooked? Cold onion soup, blech. Who thought that was a good idea?

Leaving Wolfgang to his snooze on their settee, she rose and went in search of Remilia, who turned out to be in the first place Flandre looked: her study. Sitting at her desk, chin propped in hand, she was poring over one of their father's journals with a deep and pensive frown on her face, which rather offset the slightly comical effect her tiny stature tended to have on the scene.

"Sis? What's the matter?" she wondered as she entered and saw the look on Remilia's face.

Remilia looked up and smiled at Flandre's entrance in spite of her obvious preoccupation. "Hello, Flan. It's... I'm reading one of Papa's old journals, and... I'm not sure. I started reading these journals to learn more about him, but now I'm not sure I want to know."

With a quizzical frown of her own, Flandre sat down in the armchair facing the desk and asked, "What does that mean?"

"Well... you know that he was a monster hunter before we were born, right?"

"And after, too. I remember him going on that expedition to Baltland when I was little."

"True, he did still keep his hand in the game. But I mean long ago. In the 1200s, shortly after he came to Alsace in the first place. According to this," she tapped the journal volume before her, "he was the leader of a full-time monster hunting party for much of that century. They roamed all over western Europe, protecting cities and towns from the things that lived in the wilds in those days."

"Why would that make you upset? It doesn't sound too different from what big bro and his witch friends do nowadays. Just... in the woods instead of the sky."

"Benjamin and his comrades are not mercenaries," Remilia pointed out with some asperity. "Father and his... associates... charged tithes for their services."

Flandre shrugged. "I'm sure witches get paid."

"By the government, not the people they're directly protecting. It's... different." Remilia sighed. "I don't know. Maybe you're right and I'm reading something into it that isn't there, but... I never pictured our father in a line of work as... sordid as this account makes it all sound."

"Well, if it bothers you, don't read it," Flandre suggested pragmatically. Holding up the Mysterium, she went on, "Speaking of reading, I've finished this."

Remilia raised an eyebrow. "So soon? You're a fast reader."

"Lots of practice," Flandre said, deliberately keeping her tone light. "It's interesting." She smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "I think Papa editorialized a lot in his translation."

Remilia chuckled. "Yes, I got that impression as well. Still, the base information is sound. Do you have questions?"

"Not really." Flandre grinned. "A lot of it's pretty common-sense stuff, you know. 'Stay out of direct sunlight, remember silver hurts, and don't randomly attack people, it's rude' isn't exactly high arcana."

"I suppose not," Remilia conceded. "I hope you found a few nuggets of more useful wisdom in its pages, though."

Flandre nodded, her expression sobering. "I did. Sorry. I can't help teasing you sometimes when you get so serious."

"So noted," said Remilia dryly. "I suppose I'll have to resign myself to more teasing, then, because the next thing I want to show you is serious as well."

So saying, she got out a small brass key and unlocked one of the desk's lower drawers, rummaged in it for a moment, and placed a small box on the blotter in front of her.

"What's this?" Flandre wondered, rising to have a closer look. That didn't tell her much, since the box was of buff-colored pasteboard and completely unadorned.

"Your next lesson," Remilia told her. Re-locking the desk drawer, she picked up the box and tucked it away in a pocket. "We'll get started on it tomorrow, if the rain lets up."

"Can you give me a hint?"

"Better you go into it without preconceptions."

"Aww. Now who's teasing?"

Sakuya had just taken the special items she'd made out of the oven and set them aside on the counter to cool when the sisters wandered in.

"It smells amazing in here," Flandre declared. "What's for dinner?"

"We'll be having pot-au-feu this evening," Sakuya replied, smiling.

"Oh, good choice on a rainy night," Remilia said. Then, noticing the sheet pan Sakuya had just put on the counter, she approached and peered at what lay on it. "What's this? Some kind of... crisps?"

"It's a delicacy from Meiling's homeland," Sakuya explained. "They're called—"

Before she could get the name out, Remilia had darted out a hand, snagged one of the small orange-brown wafers from the pan, and popped it into her mouth with a crunch.

"—flaming fire flakes," Sakuya finished.

Remilia chewed judiciously, swallowed, and stood there for a moment in thought. Her face went slowly red, but her expression remained neutrally thoughtful, as if nothing odd were happening.

"Hmm," she said nonchalantly. "Interesting flavor. A trifle unsophisticated, perhaps, but... interesting."

With that, she went casually to the icebox, opened it, and started looking around inside. The rummaging became markedly less casual after a few moments, ramping up to what sounded like a frantic search, and then Remilia's voice, no longer nonchalant but rather panicky, came from within: "Sakuyaaaaa there is no milk in here~!"

Barely suppressing laughter, Sakuya took out The World, then presented the mistress of the house with a bottle of milk instantly retrieved from the siege cellar. Its contents disappeared almost as quickly as the bottle itself had arrived.

Meiling appeared in the doorway then, and as she entered the kitchen, she got the distinct impression that she had missed a moment, though there was no hard evidence of it now; just the reddened and slightly-out-of-sorts look on Remilia's face as she stood there with an empty milk bottle in hand, and the way both Sakuya and Flandre were striving valiantly not to laugh.

"Uh... what'd I miss?" Meiling wondered. Then, noticing the pan, she brightened with delight. "Are those flaming fire flakes?! Aw, Sakuya." She swept the maid up in a bear hug and bussed her noisily on the mouth, then put her down and said apologetically to Remilia, "Uh, sorry for the PDA, but best if I do that before I eat these things."

"I quite understand," Remilia replied.

For her part, Meiling's only reaction to eating not one but a whole handful of the things was to make a noise of pure joy, eyes closed in bliss, then declare, "Just like Mom used to make. Sakuya, you are the absolute best."

"Thank you."

"All right, I have to," Flandre said, and before anyone could prevent it, she'd stolen one of the flakes for herself.

Unlike her sister, Flandre did not downplay her reaction; it was spelled out as clearly on her face as if it had been written down. Anticipation; surprise in spite of having been expecting something; mounting alarm; and then, just before the point where a declaration of emergency would have been necessary, a sudden break and a visible dopamine rush.

"... Wow," she said at length, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand. "How can you eat those by the handful like that without an instantly regenerating tongue?"

"I grew up with 'em," Meiling said.

Flandre took that on board with a thoughtful nod. "That'd do it," she said, and then, slightly to everyone's surprise, took another one. This time tears squeezed out of her tightly closed eyes, but the wavering line of her mouth was more smile than grimace, and the long sigh at the end contained a distinct note of pleasure. "Nnnnnnngh—! ... yaaahhhh."

Meiling glanced at Sakuya. "I feel like I'm witnessing an awakening that I shouldn't be witnessing."

"I concur," said Remilia. "Flandre, I fear for you."

Before Flandre could reply, Gryphon entered. "Oh, here's everyone," he said. "What's going on? Oh hey! Are those flaming fire flakes? May I?"

Sakuya blinked at him, then made a silent be-my-guest-you-madman sort of gesture, and he took one of the flakes. His face, too, went red, but he didn't squirm or exclaim, and after giving the experience time to play out, he smiled.

"Perfect. But was that ever in any doubt?" he added with a wink.

"You—how?" Remilia wondered. "What can possibly have prepared you for... that?"

"Three hundred years of Chili Fridays with Zoner and Kei," Gryphon replied. "Is that pot-au-feu I smell?"

"All right, out, out of my kitchen, the lot of you," Sakuya said with a tolerant smile and a two-handed shooing gesture.

"Is that any way to talk to your mistress?" Remilia inquired archly.

"All right, out, out of my kitchen, the lot of you, m'lady," Sakuya said.

"That's better."

After supper, the rain prevented Meiling and Flandre from taking their customary tai chi exercises outdoors, so they did them in the entrance hall instead. Sakuya went upstairs and changed out of her uniform, a thing that still felt vaguely surreal to do before the very end of the night. When she returned to the ground floor, she heard the sound of the piano coming from the music room and entered to find that Gryphon and Remilia had repaired there, instead of to their usual reading spots in the great hall's living room area.

Gryphon was at the piano, playing what Sakuya momentarily recognized as the accompaniment line of Vittorio Monti's "Csárdás", while Remilia stood nearby, tucking her violin under her chin.

Aladar Mozi & Danica Moziova
"Czardas for Violin and Piano"

Watching them play the piece together, Sakuya couldn't help but smile. She hadn't known the Chief had any training as a classical pianist; when she had known him before, he'd played bass guitar in a rock band. But there he was, ably supporting Remilia as she shook the dust of seven decades from her bow, figuratively and literally. And as for the mistress of the house herself, the bliss on her face as she played, eyes closed, body swaying, spoke for itself.

Sakuya wasn't surprised to find herself joined in the doorway by the time the song was a minute old. No one with a particle of musical appreciation in them could have ignored the sound and stayed out in the entry hall doing tai chi with this going on. She glanced to her left and saw that Meiling and Flandre had come up alongside her with near-identical looks of delighted amazement on their faces, which made her own smile widen even further.

At the second minute, when the fast part started, Meiling did surprise Sakuya slightly by sweeping her up and commencing to dance, whirling her about the area just outside the open doors in an improvised step that was part jig, part minuet, and part something like one of the folk dances of her homeland. She had no particular plan, relying instead on Sakuya's natural adaptability—and the fact that they'd done things like this before—to keep up with her. By the time the song, and the dance, were finished, Flandre couldn't decide who she was applauding.

Remilia missed most of that, since she played the song almost entirely with her eyes closed, but when she finished and opened them, she saw the couple standing embraced in the doorway in a position that could only have been the end of a dance. Grinning, her eyes twinkling, she made eye contact with Sakuya, and then, without saying a word, she flipped her violin into position to be strummed rather than bowed and started playing a jaunty, repeating pizzicato line.

Sakuya regarded her mistress with tilted head for a moment, then smiled and, without speaking either, went to collect the cello that stood over by the shelf where Remilia's violin had been sitting. It took her several repetitions of the introduction to get situated, but Remilia was perfectly willing to just keep iterating it until she was ready, and at the appropriate moment, she joined in.

Luigi Boccherini
"V. Passa Calle (Allegro vivo)"
String Quintet in C Major "Musica notturna delle strade in Madrid"
Op. 30 No. 6 (G. 324), ca. 1780

I didn't know she could play the cello, Meiling thought, as she leaned with arms folded on the doorjamb and listened with a broad grin of her own.

After getting the feel of the piece, Gryphon started dropping in an improvised bass contrapunto from the piano, not wanting to disrupt the moment by crossing the room to use the bass violin instead. Flandre caught Meiling's eye and opened her hands in invitation, and Meiling, still grinning, went and swept her up in a dance as well. Flandre wasn't as good at following along as Sakuya, but she was so much smaller than Meiling that she didn't really need to be; her feet were nowhere near the floor anyway.

The five passed the rest of the night in this way, having a little impromptu recital. Gryphon got out the accordion again, repeating some of the tunes he'd played for Flandre in her basement room before the fateful full moon night that had freed her from it; she appreciated them even more now that her mind was clear, and immediately asked to be taught the use of the instrument in due course. In her turn, she showed off the harpsichord skills she'd been diligently dusting off in the early evenings, and Gryphon danced with Remilia to the Couperin piece, a sentimental smile never far from his face. Then Remilia and Sakuya played a few more string duets, with occasional piano contributions from Gryphon.

"Meiling, anything you'd like to try out?" Remilia inquired at one point. "Feel free, this room is for the whole family," she added with a warm smile.

Meiling put a sheepish hand behind her head and said, "I'd love to, but the only instruments I can play are the erhu and the tsungi horn—and I'm not very good at tsungi horn."

"Mieux aimé, make a note: next time you go out, procure an erhu."

"Erhu. Check," said Gryphon, nodding.

"Where are you gonna get an erhu in Gallia?" Meiling wondered.

"Dunno! I'll have a whole month to find one, though," he pointed out, grinning.

Meiling laughed. "True."

"Worst comes to worst, Paris must have a Cathaytown," said Gryphon. "I'll ask Perrine, she knows where to find anything in Paris."

Remilia reached for her skirt pocket, then checked herself with a rueful smile. It was the pocket where, for the last seven decades, she'd been accustomed to carry The World.

"Also, see if you can find me a decent pocket watch, will you?" she asked.

"Pocket watch. Check." Gryphon looked at his GI wristwatch. "It's 4:42, by the way."

"Mm, time we wrapped this up, then," said Remilia. "Dawn comes early this time of year." Then, glancing at the organ, she smiled and said, "But first..."

Flying up to the dais, she seated herself at the console, spent a few moments adjusting stops, and then touched the keys.

Jonathan Scott
"Hornpipe" from Water Music
G.F. Händel, comp.

The first thing Gryphon noticed was that she played this piece much less angrily than he'd seen her play the Mozart a few weeks before. The second was that her performance was no less expressive for that. She still swayed on the bench, head back, wings flourishing, as she drew joyful sounds from the king of instruments. Her movements, though, were gentler, rounder, than when she'd used the same instrument to confront her wrath over her sister's predicament and her own powerlessness to solve it; and though her presence still shone in the Force, tonight it was white to Gryphon's perception, not black shot through with crimson.

The experience made him unreasonably happy.

Remilia concluded the piece with a thunderous chord, then turned a beaming smile to her applauding family.

"We really must do this more often," she said.

Meiling stretched out full-length on her side of the bed with a satisfied sigh, hands behind her head, and—as she had every morning lately—reveled in the grand luxury of having access to a bed that was actually long enough to do that on. Not that the accommodations aboard the TARDIS had been bad? But there evidently weren't terribly many Time Lords who stood six-foot-five.

Sitting at her dressing table to unbraid her hair for the day, Sakuya chuckled. "Between you and Wolfgang, I don't know who enjoys a good excuse to lie down more."

"Are you calling me lazy, Miss Izayoi?" asked Meiling playfully.

"No, just enthusiastic about relaxation," Sakuya replied. Rising, she yawned discreetly, put out the last candle on her dressing table, and climbed into bed, arranging the covers over herself and her lover.

"Long night?" Meiling wondered, noting the yawn.

"A bit. I woke up earlier than normal for no really good reason, so I've been a tiny bit behind all night." Sakuya snuggled against her side, one arm slipping across Meiling's middle, and she settled in with a smile as Meiling put an arm around her shoulders. "It's been a good one, though."

"Yeah, it worked out all right," Meiling agreed. "I didn't realize you and her ladyship were such a musical duo."

"It was a thing we used to do in the old days," Sakuya said. "We never discussed it, because we never discussed any aspect of our relationship out loud, but playing music together was one of the ways we could... commune. Be closest together, without committing what either one of us would have called an indiscretion. It was as near as we could get to interacting as equals, in the framework of our lives at the time."

"You really love her, don't'cha?"

Sakuya raised her head to see Meiling looking at her. "Are you jealous?" she wondered, sounding faintly surprised.

Meiling shook her head, grinning. "Nah, not at all. I think it's nice! She's a really sweet lady, even if she doesn't always like to admit it." She chuckled self-deprecatingly. "Look at the lengths she goes to in order to make a mutt like me feel welcome."

"Stop that," Sakuya ordered, squeezing her hard. "You know I hate it when you cut yourself down like that. Remilia isn't kind to you out of pity or noblesse oblige, nor even for my sake. She's welcomed you into her family because she sees the same things in you that I do... even if you refuse to recognize them in yourself."

"Ah, I'm sorry," said Meiling, stroking her hair. "It's just force of habit. You know how I get sometimes. I... I had kind of a rough start to the night tonight, I have to admit. It was the anniversary of... the thing." At Sakuya's questioning glance, she elaborated, "Me and General Hao."

"Ah," said Sakuya, her face going still, and she held her lover a little tighter. "So that's why you seemed so angry at your exercises this afternoon."

"You saw that?"

"I told you I woke up early. I went to the window and there you were."

"Aw, jeez. I'm sorry," Meiling repeated. "I tried to keep a lid on it. Didn't want to worry you." She made her self-deprecating chuckle again. "Should have known I would never be able to hide anything from you."

"You seemed all right by lunchtime, so I convinced myself I had imagined it," Sakuya admitted.

"I talked it out," Meiling said. "When we were working in the basement, Gryph noticed I was... on edge... and asked me if I wanted to talk about it. And... y'know, I didn't but I had to?" Sakuya nodded. "So I laid it on him. Told him the whole story."

"What did he say?"

"Not much. He just heard me out and didn't judge me. That was all I needed anyway. I think maybe he knew that."

Now it was Sakuya's turn to chuckle. "That's one of his specialties. I've seen him do it many a time. People will tell him almost anything, when the conditions are right, and he always seems like he's just... letting it happen. Like it could be anyone in his place... but it couldn't. Not really."

Meiling nodded. "Yup. That's exactly how it went down. Kind of amazing, really. He's a good guy."

"Yes he is."

"Where do you know him from?"

"In his future, he's the head of a... sort of interstellar special protective agency, and I was... will be... one of his operatives." Extracting her arm from under the covers, she moved the lace cuff she wore around her wrist and showed Meiling her Lens. "Lensman Sakuya Izayoi, Special Assignment 11," she said, her voice businesslike, as if addressing someone at a crime scene. "What's the situation?"

Meiling laughed. "Nice. So I guess I haven't convinced you to marry me by that point."

"It's his future, not mine," Sakuya pointed out, replacing the cuff and returning her arm to its place. "It all happened to me before I met you."

"Oh, right. ... So does that mean I might have a shot after all?"

"Where did this come from all of a sudden?"

"I dunno. I guess just because it's in the air, what with Gryph and her ladyship and all. Watching them together in the music room tonight got me thinking."

"Well," said Sakuya judiciously, "if you intended that as an actual proposal, I have to say I think it was the most passive-aggressive one I've ever heard."

"Sorry. I was just thinking out loud. Another one of my bad habits."

"Mm." A pause. "Well, if we do get married some day, I hope it won't upset you too badly if I don't take your name. Not that there's anything wrong with it! But the one I already have means too much for me to ever give it up... not even for you."

"Fine by me," Meiling said at once. "We don't do that kind of thing with names where I come from anyway."

"Ah. So you were just making a joke."


There was nearly a minute of silence, broken only by the normal faint noises of the old house and the quiet, syncopated sounds of two people breathing.



"I haven't got much, and what I have got mostly isn't great, but I can make you three promises. One: I'll always look this good. Two: I'll carry all the heavy things. And three: I'll always let you have the last baozi in the bag. So what do you say? You and me forever?"

Further silence while Sakuya considered her answer, and then, with a soft chuckle, she said, "Only a fool would turn down an offer as good as that. Yes, Meiling, I'll marry you."

Meiling grinned at the shadowed ceiling and pumped her free fist in the dark. "Yessss."

"Once we're in a time and place where it's legal," Sakuya added.

"Oh. Right." Meiling considered this. "In the meantime, can we shack up?"

"We already have, you adorable fool," Sakuya pointed out. "Go to sleep."

Meiling giggled and ducked her head to kiss the top of Sakuya's. "G'morning, Sakuya. I love you."

"I love you too, Meiling. Good morning."

Brandenburg, Neukarlsland

Midnight in the capital of the displaced Karlsreich, and the Honorable Vincent Auriol, President of the Fourth Gallian Republic, was working late. Thought it was a chilly late-fall night in Neukarlsland, he had a window of his suite at the Hotel Excelsior partly open for some fresh air as he sat at his desk, working his way through some of the voluminous correspondence necessary to the operation of the country. From outside, the sounds of street celebrations still drifted in despite the hour.

Auriol knew his aides found it slightly preposterous that, having come on this voyage of courtesy to a fellow Allied head of state, he would bring his work with him and continue plugging away at it late into the night of the actual royal wedding day itself. For his part, he felt that the fledgling Fourth Republic, still less than two years old, remained too fragile to be left unattended for long. In a few hours, the government bureaux in Paris would be opening for another week's business. He intended to have a full sheaf of cables awaiting his staff in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré and Prime Minister Ramadier when they arrived in their offices.

He finished a letter to the Ministry of Defense involving the provision for a squadron of witches to reinforce the Freiburg salient, until such time as Karlsland could reclaim the newly freed territory for itself. The issues of sovereignty were unclear in this case, but the need to defend nearby Mulhouse was not, and with the 501st and 511th Joint Fighter Wings slated for exercises and probing sorties into Württemberg through July, the homegrown new force would be just the thing for plugging the potential eastern gap.

Setting the paper aside to his left, Auriol rang for an aide to come take it to be encoded and telegraphed to Paris, then turned his attention to the next item in the stack of papers to his right... and sat for a moment regarding that item with fascination so intense, he didn't even notice the telegrapist come and go.

It was a letter, but not a piece of official correspondence; rather, a missive in the old style, a sheet of heavy, creamy paper folded into its own envelope and sealed with wax and ribbon. Auriol tiled his Anglepoise lamp to get a better look at it. The scarlet wax seal had the impression of a crest stamped in it, as from an old-fashioned signet ring: two flowers intertwined, a rose and a tulip. On the other side, the letter was addressed to him in a firm, rounded, quite old-fashioned hand, and though it bore no stamp, it was postmarked from the central post office in Colmar... two days ago?!

"C'est impossible," Auriol mumbled.

Two days ago he had been aboard the battleship Jean Bart, most of the way across the Atlantic from Gallia. No letter mailed from Colmar, or anywhere else in Europe, on that day could conceivably be sitting on his desk in a hotel suite in Brandenburg tonight. By rights, it should probably not even have reached his office in Paris yet. And yet here it was, the date in the postmark clearly legible. Was this some subordinate's idea of a joke? Who would go to the trouble of falsifying an obviously impossible postmark?

His hands trembling slightly, Auriol broke the seal, unfolded the letter, and read it. It was hard going at first, because it was written in an antiquated style of Gallic that he hadn't seen since his schoolboy days, but eventually, he was able to work it out, and what it said left him astonished.

Countess Remilia Scarlet
Maison Écarlate
Colmar, Gallia

Hon. Vincent Auriol
Palais de l'Élysée
55, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
Paris, Gallia

Colmar, June 11, 1946

Object: reconciliation

Monsieur le Président,

Kindly permit me to introduce myself: My name is Remilia Scarlet. I am the elder daughter of the late Count Victor and Countess Remilia (the Elder) Scarlet, formerly of Haut-Colmar. I write to you tonight concerning a matter that you may, with some justification, regard as ancient history, but which to me remains an open wound requiring treatment.

On the night of 10–11 Floréal, Anno II of the Gallian revolutionary calendar—that is, April 29–30, 1794—a gang of fanatical witches under the orders of the Committee for Public Safety assaulted my family's home near Colmar and brutally slaughtered most of my family. My father and mother, along with much of our trusted and treasured household staff and an honored guest of our house, were all slain by these witches without provocation, quarter, or remorse. By the time that red night's dawn drove the witches from the field, only I, my younger sister Flandre, and a bare handful of our staff remained alive.

This action was part of a concerted public policy of extermination directed toward certain individuals who had enjoyed a privileged status under the ancien régime. My father, Count Victor Scarlet, was a Commander of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Louis, a nobleman of three countries, a steadfast defender of all the peoples of Alsace, and a vampire, and for all of those things—but particularly the last—he was murdered by the Revolution. My sister and I were similarly marked for death as vampires. As for my mother, Countess Remilia the Elder, she was no sangsue at all but a prominent witch in her own right, so we must assume that in the eyes of the Committee for Public Safety, she, like the rest of the victims, was condemned by association.

For the century and a half since that night, my sister and I have lived in reclusion, not to say self-imposed internal exile, rather than confront the changed world that destroyed our family; but recent events have led me to reconsider that course of action. With the Neuroi threat still looming over most of Europe, I feel stirring within me the urge to answer the call as my father would have answered it before me. Count Victor Scarlet never backed away from a monster that threatened his home or his people, be that monster a shadow beast from the Schwarzwald or a murderous mob unleashed by a power-hungry madman. Can I do otherwise and still call myself his daughter?

However, before I take the rash and risky step of revealing myself to the modern world and placing myself, as my father would have done, at the disposal of my country in this continuing crisis, honor requires that I demand one thing of you and your Government, Monsieur le Président: an apology. I require that the Fourth Gallian Republic publicly acknowledge that my family and friends were murdered by the said Republic's predecessor, the revolutionary dictatorship of the Committee for Public Safety, and express official regret that this thing was done in the name of Gallia.

I recognize, Monsieur, that no direct responsibility can be apportioned to yourself or your Government for events which took place so long in the past, nor do I mean to suggest any. I seek no compensation other than the restoration of my legal rights, and those of the surviving members of my household, as citizens of Gallia. However, one cannot enter into a relationship of trust with a régime that will not acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors. I therefore require such an acknowledgement from the present Republic as an exercise of good faith.

That I may maintain my privacy pending your response, I have designated as my agent in this matter my betrothed, Rittmeister Benjamin Hutchins Reichsgraf von Katädien of the Karlsland Imperial Air Service, who is presently stationed at Château Saint-Ulrich, Ribeauvillé, serving with 404 Squadron of the First Joint Special Air Fleet. You may direct any correspondence regarding this matter to him and be as certain that it will reach me as if you had handed it to me in person.

I trust, Monsieur le Président, that this message has not come as too great a shock to your sensibilities, and that you have resources at your disposal which can corroborate my assertions. I assure you I consider this anything but a joking matter.

With all best wishes for your continued health and the security and prosperity of the Republic, I remain

Yours respectfully,
Remilia Scarlet the Younger
Countess Scarlet of Cisbelvia and Haut-Colmar

Auriol read the letter six times, then put it down on his desk and picked up the telephone.

"Get me Septième Bureau," he told the operator. "Urgently. Yes, I know what time it is in Paris! I don't care who you have to get out of bed."

Hanging up, the President of Gallia turned the letter over in his hands and refolded it, reassembling the broken seal. A rose and tulip...

He was still looking at it ten minutes later, when the telephone rang.

The Ink Spots
"This Is Worth Fighting For"

Act IV: Magie Domestique

"I gotta be honest with you," said Hong Meiling, "I'm getting tired of spending my afternoons in this basement."

"You won't get any argument out of me," Gryphon replied.

They stood for a moment in the doorway of the furnace room, regarding the ancient machinery, then turned to each other and grinned.

"This is going to be so satisfying," said Gryphon, and they hefted their sledgehammers and advanced.

Within two hours, it was over. The old furnace ducts and vent mechanisms put up a valiant rearguard action, but with Meiling no longer holding back for fear of damaging anything important and Gryphon's detailed diagrams of exactly what to wreck and where, they had the room virtually cleared, apart from the central hulk of the firebox and a heap of rubble in one corner, before breakfast.

"Perfect!" said Gryphon, dropping his hammer beside the spoil heap with a triumphant flick of his hand. "Clean slate. Molto bene." Folding his arms, he gave a satisfied nod. "After breakfast, we are back in hardware mode. Aww yeah."

"I think I can salvage some of these bricks," Meiling noted, picking up a specimen. "Between these, the spares you had the guys from the airbase drop off, and all those extra roof slates we've got lying around, we should have everything we need."

"Finest kind, Miss Hong, finest kind," Gryphon agreed, bumping fists with her. "Breakfast time. Let's go get cleaned up. I think we've earned our oatcakes today."

"Dang right we have," Meiling agreed, following him out into the corridor. "Oh hey, though, that reminds me—Gryph?"


"Do you mind if I use your jeweler's tools sometime soon?"

Gryphon shook his head. "No, not all. My workshop's your workshop. Why, what's up?"

"You called me Miss Hong."


"Well, with any luck, that won't be right for much longer." Meiling grinned, blushing a little. "I asked Sakuya to marry me this morning."

"Ahh, and now you have to make her a ring?" Meiling nodded. "Well, congratulations," he said, clapping her on the shoulder. "For what one random dude's opinion is worth, I think you guys are good together."

"Eheh, thanks," said Meiling, a trifle sheepishly.

"Anyway, yeah, help yourself to whatever you need," said Gryphon as they started up the stairs." "There's plenty of gold left from the spoon I used for Remi and Flan's rings, and a bunch of the little jewels in the lefthand drawer, all different colors."

"Awesome. Thanks."

"No worries."

It rained that night and the night after, keeping the household inside and forestalling Remilia's next planned stage in Flandre's education in self-defense, which needed to take place outdoors (for reasons Flandre could only guess at, since Remilia refused to elborate). Mildly piqued, and with Gryphon and Meiling fully occupied rebuilding the bath furnace and Sakuya busy keeping them properly fed for their hard work, Flandre spent those nights mostly in the music room instead, exploring the transition from the harpsichord (which she had more or less re-mastered) to the piano (which hadn't been invented yet when she'd been consigned to the basement).

Remilia left her to it, except to stop by occasionally and appreciate her ever-increasing skill with the newer instrument. They'd always been a musical family, and Flandre's talent for keyboard instruments hadn't gone unnoticed by anyone in her time. During the long, dark centuries of Flandre's exile and her own, Remilia had often had the wistful thought that it was as though the piano had been invented specifically for her sister, and that she should be unable to appreciate it when it finally came along was a tragedy worthy of Sophocles.

Remilia was herself a fair pianist, and by the middle of the second night, as she listened to Flandre work on a piano transcription of that Couperin harpsichord piece Gryphon was so fond of on, she recognized that her sister would surely soon surpass her. The thought didn't particularly bother her. Music wasn't a contest, and besides, of the keyboard instruments, the organ called more directly to her soul, anyway. She made a mental note to dig through the cabinet of sheet music and look for the piano-organ duets she and her father used to play.

When she wasn't at that, Remilia could mostly be found either in her study, or on the Ottomane in the living room, working her way through her father's journals. She'd decided to take Flandre's advice and leave off reading about his early days in Alsace for now, perhaps to revisit them at a later time, when she was in a different mood. Instead, she'd skipped to the very last one, covering the years 1788 to the beginning of 1794—the volume that was still more than a quarter blank.

It was his trip to Fusō in 1789–90 she was most interested in, of course, but Remilia forced herself to start at the beginning, out of a perverse impulse that she supposed was cousin to the one that made her start eating mixed chocolates with the ones she liked least. It took her most of the first night to plow through 1788, in which nothing much had happened, and get to the good bit.

Count Victor had been cagey, even in his own journal, about exactly what business had taken him to Fusō in the first place. Remilia gathered from context that it had something to do with an outbreak of jiangshi from neighboring Cathay, although as to why the Fusōnese supernatural authorities had thought it necessary to bring in a vampire from Alsace to help them deal with that, the journal was silent. She wasn't really interested in that part, anyway. Zombies were zombies, whether they had notes stuck to their faces or not, and therefore inherently uninteresting. What she wanted was the details of his voyages there and back.

In that respect, she was in luck, because her father had meticulously noted many of those details. Remilia, who had never traveled by sea (the Pas de Calais being narrow enough that, when she and her father had occasionally visited Britannia, they had simply flown there) found the minutiae of shipboard life puzzling—what, for instance, was a "dogwatch"? Did they have dogs aboard ship? Did the dogs stand watch? What could they be watching for?—but intriguing, and she could almost hear her father's exasperated voice in the bits about the surly Dutchmen he'd spent a year and more cooped up with.

After lunch on the second night, she finally came to the part she was really interested in. She wasn't entirely sure where it would be, but with a thrill, recognized immediately that she'd found it when she came to the entry for the penultimate day of March, 1790.

30 March. Wind light out of the southwest. Ship making about five knots. Continued work on the Fusō moon chart; believe I have deciphered all of the characters now, though precisely what is meant by them is ambiguous in many cases. The Fusō language is like that. They are a most richly metaphorical people. I should like to be able to visit their country more openly one day.

I had hoped to complete my study of this document tonight, but events have overtaken me. My cabin maid collapsed before me while delivering my lunch—worn down by starvation, overwork, undersleep, and abuse to the point where she could no longer stand.

I curse my complacency. I knew something was amiss with this child; have I not watched her grow steadily filthier and weaker as this voyage drags on? From the moment she came aboard at the Cape I should have known something was wrong. A child so young and frail as this does not go to sea of her own will. I should have intervened much sooner. Am I becoming timid in my old age?

What's done is done. Any road, the child is safe now. It sticks in my craw to have paid that cretin Van Zandt good money for anything, but in this case the only alternative would have been to challenge him to a duel and kill him. That would have been easy, but it would also have aroused the resentment of the crew—or worse, divided them, since he is not universally beloved by any means. Still, I cannot waste the time it would take to manage such a situation, and gold is only gold. Better to throw it before the swine and have done with it. Again I wonder whether I am growing soft. There was a time when I wouldn't even have bothered making it a duel. Meneer Van Zandt would simply have disappeared, and woe to any of his crewmates who chose to enquire.

Bah. Enough of this maundering. The girl is safe. That is the important thing. I was even able to persuade Remi to take her in, although, hard-headed woman of business that she is, I had to present it as giving her the job of replacing Meiev. I doubt the child will be of much use to Remilia at first, she's so small and unskilful, but perhaps Remilia will take a liking to her. She's always had a fondness for small, wary animals.

She didn't even have a name. What kind of life has she led, even before she fell into Van Zandt's hands?

She's asleep now. Since she declined to choose her own name, I've decided to give her a name from the Fusō moon chart, which will remind us of how and when she began her life proper. She will be Sakuya Izayoi, the flowering night after the full moon. It's unlikely anyone in Europe will understand that beyond the two of us, but that's fine.

It's a strange feeling to know someone's name before she knows it herself, although I suppose strictly speaking, the same is true of any child not yet old enough to understand what names are.

I called her frail before, but that was unfair; her body is small and weak, but on the inside, she must be made of steel to have made it this far. Once she has rested and eaten enough to regain some strength, I shall start teaching her to defend herself. If I have anything to say about it, she will never need fear a blackguard like Van Zandt again in her life.

I am reminded once again that, for all that I have spent most of my life battling monsters, some of the foulest beasts I've encountered have been mortal men.

Sakuya was in the pantry this time, not the scullery, and she was taking inventory of supplies rather than washing the dishes, but she still felt a distinct sense of déjà vu as she found herself suddenly hugged from behind by the mistress of the house.

That sense was dispelled as soon as Remilia spoke, though, because this time her tone of voice wasn't affectedly casual, as it had been the last time this happened. Instead it was low, solemn, almost melancholy, as she asked,

"Why didn't you ever tell me that Papa named you?"

Sakuya blinked. That was just about the last question she would have expected to be asked.

"I... don't know," she finally replied. "I suppose because it... never came up." She raised a hand and placed it on Remilia's forearm where it crossed her upper chest. "I take it you read his journal of our voyage together."

"Only the first night's worth, so far," said Remilia. "His account of how he bought your freedom from someone called Van Zandt. One of the sailors on the ship he was traveling on, I assume."

Sakuya nodded. "Yes. He was... the first mate."

"You were a slave?" Remilia asked, her voice barely audible.

Sakuya nodded again. "I was."

"How? Why?"

"I don't know. I can't remember a time before I was one. My earliest memories are of the Cape Colony—Kaap de Goede Hoop, the Dutch called it."

"The Cape of Good Hope," said Remilia, bitter irony in her voice.

"Mm. When Van Zandt found me, I was a runner in the street market there, and I can't remember any other life before that. He bought me from one of the merchants. I must have been about ten years old."

"He... Papa wrote that you'd been beaten when he took you into his care. Starved nearly to death."

"It's true. When I blacked out in Count Victor's cabin that night, bringing him his lunch, my last thought was that I'd come to the end of my pitiful little life. It was such a shock to be alive, I forgot to be afraid when I woke up. I knew I should be. I'd just been bought by a vampire, after all. What could fate possibly have in store for me?"

At this point, Sakuya gently disengaged herself, turned around, and gathered Remilia into a proper hug. "I never would have dreamed my fate was to be cared for. That had never happened before. I didn't know how to react... but I never feared your father, and by the time we reached land I practically worshipped him. I would have done anything for him, and what he asked of me was to look after you."

"Is that why you stayed when everyone else was gone?"

"I promised to serve you all my life."

"I'd release you from that promise if you asked," said Remilia softly.

Sakuya held her a little tighter. "I never would."

"Why would someone who escaped slavery choose to return to it?"

"Love," Sakuya insisted, "is not slavery."

Remilia's response was a slightly sniffly laugh. "I suppose not," she conceded, then said wryly, "Though it can look like it from the outside."

"I don't care what my life looks like from the outside." Drawing back slightly to make eye contact, Sakuya added with a slightly challenging smile, "Since when have you, O dread Scarlet Devil?"

Remilia laughed again, stronger this time, and pulled her back in for another hug. "Touché, Miss Izayoi, touché." Then, stepping back, she assumed an air of gravity and said, "I'm sorry I dredged all this up for you just to satisfy my own selfish curiosity."

"You needn't be, Remilia," said Sakuya. "I told you to ask me anything and I meant it. I have no secrets from you. Besides, the memories from before I met your father are unpleasant, it's true, but it's worth it for what came after. From that point on, I had two things I'd never had before: a name to be proud of, and a life worth living, even in its darkest moments."

Remilia smiled. "Thanks."

"You're most welcome."

Glancing awkwardly around, Remilia seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for a graceful exit from the moment. "Right. I'll... I'll get out of your way."


The vampire blinked. Sakuya had just called her by name twice in as many minutes. Had that ever happened before? Ever?


Smiling, Sakuya said, "In happier matters, you may be interested to know that Meiling has asked me to marry her."

Remilia's ears pricked up. "I am interested to know that. My my. And here not too long ago she was ready to walk off into the sunrise, or whatever the Liberion saying is." She grinned. "I knew I'd have her feeling at home eventually. What did you tell her?"

"That I will—when we find ourselves in a time and place where it's legal."

Remilia chuckled darkly. "Sakuya."

"Yes, m'lady?"

"I told you both before," said Remilia with a delighted smirk. "In this house, I make the law." Snapping her fingers, she declared, "Begin preparations at once! Tonight we feast! The guest list will be short, but it can't be helped."

Now it was Sakuya's turn to blink, her perfect composure shaken. "Uh... m'lady, I..."

Remilia's smirk turned back into a grin. "I'm joking, Sakuya. In your own time is fine. But I meant what I said about the law. This is Maison Diable Écarlate!" Drawing herself up, she declared grandly, "We need not await the mortal world's convenience here."

"I..." Sakuya smiled. "I shall take that under advisement, m'lady."

"See that you do," Remilia replied with an emphatic nod. Then, dropping the pose in favor of one of her warm smiles, she added, "Congratulations. You've chosen well. It'll be an honor to welcome Meiling fully into the House of Scarlet."

"Thank you, m'lady."

"I'll let one of you tell Flan," said Remilia as she breezed out. "It ought to cheer her up. I think the rain has her a bit restless."

Conveniently enough, Sakuya's next visitor was Meiling herself, who sloped in while Sakuya was putting the finishing touches on dinner to cadge some hot water and wash up in the scullery sink. As she had been every night for the last few days, she was dusty, a bit tired-looking, but very pleased with the night's progress.

"One more night. One more night and we'll have it," she reported from the scullery doorway, scrubbing her face dry with a towel.

"Really! That's excellent news," said Sakuya. "Not only are we all looking forward to the grand opening, it'll be nice to have you two back from the basement."

"Believe me, we're just as glad to be getting out of there," said Meiling. "Anyway! Can I help?"

"As a matter of fact, if you'd like to make yourself useful..." Sakuya gestured to a tray full of items standing out of the way on the counter. "... You can brûlée those crèmes for me while I make the sauce for the main course."

"Just call me dragon sous-chef," said Meiling, grinning. "Oh, but first, c'mere." At Sakuya's doubtful look, she held out a coaxing hand and said, "C'mon, it'll only take a second. Give me your hand. No, the other one. And..." Producing a small item from a pocket, she deftly slipped it onto the ring finger of Sakuya's left hand. "There! Sorry I didn't have it ready when I asked you, but since I didn't actually know I was going to ask you until I went and did it..." She shrugged with a sheepish smile.

Sakuya held up her hand and considered the ring Meiling had just put on her. "Oh my. How did you find the time to make this?"

"Getting up earlier, mostly. And a little while after dinner last night to put on the finishing touches. Do you like it?"

Sakuya smiled. "I love it..." Stepping closer, she rose up on tiptoes to put her arms around Meiling's neck. "... And I love you. Thank you."

With that, she bestowed upon Meiling one kiss, forestalling an attempt at a second with a fingertip to her lips.

"But we've got work to do," she said with a slightly mischievous smile.

"Eheh, yes ma'am," said Meiling, saluting, and then turned to her assigned task with a lingering silly smile.

It was over those same crèmes brûlées that Flandre received the news, not because Sakuya or Meiling had figured out a way to bring it up in conversation, but because, as Sakuya was putting her portion down in front of her, the younger sister spotted her new adornment.

"Oh wow, what a pretty ring," said Flandre, impulsively grabbing hold of Sakuya's wrist and bringing her hand in for a closer look. "Is it new?"

"Very," said Sakuya, smiling. "I just received it before dinner."

Gryphon leaned over next to Flandre to get a better look himself. The ring on Sakuya's slim finger was not a simple band, like the ones he'd made for both of the Scarlet sisters; rather, it was a three-banded spiral, cleverly worked into the likeness of a tiny gold dragon, complete with sapphire flecks for eyes, coiled around her finger. Close up, Gryphon could even spot faint engravings on the middle coil, marking out the dragon's furled wings in minuscule bas-relief.

"Oh, very nice," he agreed, then straightened up and raised his teacup in salute. "Excellent work, Master Hong."

Meiling blushed. "Aw, thanks."

"You made it, Meiling?" asked Flandre, looking up from the ring to her.

"I sure did!" Meiling replied. "But really, I was just following your big bro's lead," she added modestly. "I guess now that two of us have done it, it's a tradition! In this house, if you ask someone to marry you, you make her engagement ring yourself."

Flandre blinked. "You guys are getting married too?"

"Eventually," Sakuya said, still smiling, as she resumed her seat. "Not right away."

"I guess it's actually not legal in this era," said Meiling, her own smile a little sheepish. "I didn't think of that when I asked her."

"Is that right, big sis?" Flandre asked.

"I'm afraid it is," said Remilia. "Although I've already cast my vote for 'why let that stop you?'" she added with a slight smirk.

"For right now, the promise is enough," said Sakuya serenely, breaking the crust on her crème brûlée. Then, with an arch little smile for her mistress, she added, "You know how I am with promises, m'lady."

"I do indeed," Remilia agreed grandly, raising her teacup to her maid. "I do indeed."

Flandre beamed at the two seated opposite. "Well, congratulations, anyway," she said. "I'm glad." Leaning her chin on interlaced fingers, she grinned a bit wickedly and added, "You guys are really cute together." Then, after enjoying their blushes for a second, she dropped the pose and sighed theatrically. "And here I am, the odd one out. A bridesmaid twice over—at least I'd better be!" she broke character to throw in wryly, making everyone laugh, "—and ne'er a bride."

"So dramatic," said Remilia, shaking her head. "You're only 438, Flandre. You have plenty of time."

Flandre shrugged equably. "Mm, true. And if I can ever get out of the house for a night or two, I might meet somebody! Say, big bro, tell me more about your witches. Which one's the cutest?"



"Well, they're not my witches as such," Gryphon hedged, then mumbled as if to himself, "Hmm. Ursula's single... no, what am I saying? She's married to her work... maybe Wilma? Good gods, no, the rest of us would never survive. Hattori's too young..."

"Don't play along with her—!" Remilia burst out, breaking up with laughter halfway through, and the whole company dissolved into giggles along with her.

The next night was clear and fine at last, so after breakfast, while Gryphon and Meiling returned to their seemingly eternal, but supposedly near-complete, struggle in the basement and Sakuya tended to the various evening chores, Remilia collected her sister and took her out onto the west lawn.

"Before I'll feel comfortable letting you go out into the world by yourself," Remilia said, "I need to know you can defend yourself. My opinion of humanity may have... softened... somewhat, but this is still a dangerous era. Add to that the fact that you've already said you want to help fight the Neuroi, and I'm worried you'll get yourself in over your head." With a wry smile, she forestalled Flandre's impending protest by adding, "Go on. Look me in the eye and tell me that, if Benjamin and his colleagues are called out to fight while you're visiting their castle, you'll be a good girl and stay behind."

Flandre opened her mouth, then closed it again in a pout.

"Yes, I thought not," said Remilia. "You're our father's daughter, after all. You would no more be able to ignore such a call than would I." Folding her arms, she went on with a palpable air of dignity, "So it's incumbent on me, as your elder sister, to make certain that when you do, inevitably, throw yourself into battle, you're able to give a good accounting of yourself. I won't have you making a hash of things in front of Benjamin and his colleagues. It would dishonor our family name."

Flandre took that on board, and somehow, in spite of herself, she managed to suppress the little grin that wanted to steal onto her face. She knew what that latter part really meant: I'm sick with worry that you'll get hurt, and if you do I'll never forgive myself. It made her want to smile, because it made her happy that her sister was concerned for her safety, but she knew that if she did, just at this moment Remilia would probably take it as mockery. Flandre was learning that there was a time for pricking Remilia's vanity, and a time for allowing her to stand on her dignity. Following big bro's lead, she was even getting reasonably good at telling which was which.

So she kept her face serious, her gaze fixed on Remilia's, as the elder Scarlet went on,

"You will have seen in the Mysterium that the vampires of our line are magically active—most vampires are; but we have to do things a certain way. No æthereal creature can form a bond with us, so we can't have familiars like human witches. That keeps us from casting any but the simplest spells like they do." Holding up her free hand, Remilia conjured a small ball of fire into her palm, rolling it gently with a faint rustling sound. "You cast this one instinctively the night you attacked Benjamin. Do you remember it?"

Flandre frowned in concentration and held up her hand. What appeared in her palm wasn't a ball of restless fire, but rather a little sphere of light, glowing with the shifting rainbow colors of her wing crystals—which, Remilia noticed, had lit up when Flandre accessed her magic.

"Interesting," said Remilia. "Yours were also fire, before. Apart from the colors, that looks like what you were doing after you... er... assimilated the Neuroi."

Flandre nodded. "It's... I think there's a little bit of it left in me, somehow. I feel the same... energy, inside me, if I concentrate and try to bring it out. If that makes any sense."

Remilia dismissed her own fireball, frowning. "That's troubling," she said, but Flandre shook her head.

"No, not really. I'm not sure I can explain it, but... I can't... I don't hear its voice, like I did when it was taking me over. The Neuroi is dead, you destroyed the core, and now there's only me. All I kept was..." She pointed over her shoulder at one of her wings. "These. And it doesn't feel alien like it did before... before you and big bro saved me. It's just me now. Part of what I am. The Neuroi, big bro's blood, what was left of the potion you dosed him with... they all sort of mixed together and... here I am." She struck a pose with a wan little smile. "Ta-da."

Remilia considered her sister's words with a grave expression.

"You would tell me," she said slowly, "if that weren't the case, wouldn't you? If you ever did hear an echo of the Neuroi's 'voice' in your head?"

Flandre's eyes were steady and solemn on hers as she replied, "Of course I would."

Remilia held her gaze for a moment longer, then nodded. "Good. Then we needn't speak of it again, and I'll show you what we came here to do. This basic magical attack—my fireballs, your pulses of light—is useful, but in a real battle against a real enemy, it may not be enough. Sometimes more specialized effects are needed. The Neuroi I fought during the Occupation, for example, could never be killed by that attack alone—it's too slow. Their armor restores itself so fast that by the time you've found the core and prepared to strike it, it's covered again. The human witches Benjamin fights alongside get around this with teamwork and modern weaponry. In the past, our kind did the same with these."

She produced the small box she'd taken from her desk a few nights before, opened it, and removed what appeared to be a pack of cards, fanning a few of them out in one hand and displaying them.

"These are spell cards," she explained. "They're how vampires of our line do magic. Each of these cards contains a combat spell, mostly cast at the time the cards were written. Frozen in time, almost but not quite fired."

Remilia shuffled the cards, flipped one of them out of the deck, and put the rest away, holding up the one she'd selected between her fingers. Then, grinning, she tossed the card to her sister.

Flandre caught it and turned it over in her hand. It seemed to be an ordinary piece of heavy paper, slightly waxy in texture, a little taller and narrower than a normal playing card. One side had a complicated design with a lot of what looked like Celtic knots and arcane symbols printed on it; on the other were what looked like words, in a language she didn't recognize.

"That one," she said, "is called Divine Flash Donnerwetter." She produced a second copy of the same card, holding it up as she'd done the first. "I'll show you how to use them. It's really quite simple once you know the method. First, you concentrate on your inner magic, as you would if you were simply going to fire an ordinary spell bolt, but focus it on the card instead." Remilia closed her eyes in thought for a moment, then opened them; when she did, the card between her fingers began to glow.

"Now it's primed and ready to fire," she said. "To let it go, make certain of your target, fix it in your mind, and then speak the card's Name."

Turning slightly, she faced toward the stump of one of the trees that had been ruined in Flandre's May rampage, perhaps twenty yards distant.

"Divine Flash!" Remilia declared, then turned her hand so that the two fingers holding the card between them were leveled at the stump, her body settling into a fighting stance as she did so, like a martial artist miming a punch.

"Donnerwetter!" she cried, and a bolt of lightning shot from her fingertips, blowing the stump to smoking fragments.

Straightening up, Remilia turned a how-about-that? grin to her sister, raised her hand before her, and theatrically blew smoke from her fingertips.

"And that's all there is to it," she said. "Care to give it a try?"

Flandre looked at the card in her hand, then back at her sister. "They only work once?"

Remilia nodded. "They're each one frozen spell," she said. "When you cast them, they're gone."

"Oh. Where will we get more?"

"I don't know," Remilia admitted. "The art of making spell cards is an old one, and it may be forgotten in this era—but there are several books on the subject in Maman's library. I see no reason why a modern witch couldn't learn the technique from those if she'd a mind to. Perhaps one of Benjamin's friends will take an interest. In the meantime, we have an ample supply. Papa's penchant for preparedness, you know."

"Mm," said Flandre abstractly, still contemplating the card. "So this was made... hundreds of years ago." She looked up at Remilia. "Did Maman make them?"

"No. Maman didn't know many battle spells; she was an alchemist more than a sorceress. The cards we have mostly came from a Venezian witch, Maman's closest acquaintance outside the family. Her name was Lucrezia Sapere." Remilia frowned thoughtfully. "I suppose she must be dead by now. Witches are long-lived compared to ordinary humans, but Signora Sapere was an old woman the last time I saw her, and that was in... 1792, I think."

"Hmm." Flandre looked up from the card again. "So it's like we're calling on her spirit to help us finish these spells she started."

"I suppose so," Remilia said, looking faintly surprised. "I confess I'd never thought about it that way."

"So..." Flandre took up a stance similar to the one Remilia had started in. "You charge it..." She closed her eyes and concentrated, and after a few seconds the card flickered, pulsing a few times before taking on a steady bright glow. "Fix the target in your mind..." She opened her eyes and locked them on the smoldering remains of the tree stump. "And then say the card's Name."


"What if I don't want to fire it now?" Flandre wondered. "Say I'm with big bro fighting a Neuroi, and he kills it before I can get the spell off. Do I have to waste the card?"

Remilia shook her head. "No. If you stop concentrating, the card loses its charge. The spirit energy goes back where it came from."

Flandre tried that, deliberately relaxing her attention, and the card went dark.

"That's useful," said Flandre with a little smile. Then, her brow furrowing, she energized the card again. This time it lit up at once, without the fitful flickering of her first attempt.

She learns so fast, Remilia thought. Just like when we were kids...

"Divine Flash: Donnerwetter!" Flandre cried, and what was left of the stump was erased by lightning—a more powerful bolt, Remilia was not entirely surprised to see, than her own had been.

What am I worried about? Remilia asked herself. She's so strong. If she keeps her wits about her, nothing the Neuroi can throw will touch her.

That's what I'm worried about, she replied to herself, then shook herself out of her reverie and applauded her sister's accomplishment.

"Good! Very good. You have a talent for this, little sister."

Flandre smiled. "Well, if fate hadn't intervened, I would have been a witch," she pointed out. "Maybe there's an echo of that left in me somewhere."

"Maybe." Brushing past the potential pain point, Remilia went on, "That's just one card, of course. There are other types. Most are different attacks, suited to different circumstances and enemies, but a few do other things that can be useful. If you'd like to practice and experiment with them, I've set aside a few for you to use, but don't overdo it. Remember, the spirit energy to power these comes from you. Our magic reserves are deeper than a human's, but if you throw too much of it around, you can still wear yourself out."

"OK, I'll pace myself," Flandre promised, then grinned. "Besides, there aren't that many more tree stumps out here."

The household regrouped at lunch, as usual, and although Flandre, Gryphon, and Meiling all showed the signs of an evening spent hard at work, they all seemed very pleased, not to say exhilarated, with their progress.

"I think I'm really getting the hang of spell cards," Flandre said excitedly as she buttered some bread. "Hey, big bro, you should try it! I wonder if you could get them to work with that thing you do. And can you teach me that shield spell you use? If you can cast it without a familiar, I bet I could too."

"Flandre, don't badger your brother at the table," said Remilia.

"Well, when else do I see him when he's working on these big projects?" Flandre asked. "It's not fair that Meiling gets him to herself all night."

Meiling grinned at her. "We're not exactly playing pai sho down there, you know, it's hard work."

"Even so," Flandre insisted.

Gryphon gave her a sidelong glance. "You want to hang out, Flan?"


"OK then," said Gryphon. "The house rule is, we're done work at dinnertime. So tonight, after dinner, I'm all yours. Promise."

"I'll hold you to that~!" sang Flandre with a lilt in her voice.

"Flandre," said Remilia with a very mild note of caution.

"What?" Flandre replied, all wide-eyed innocence, and Meiling suppressed a laugh.

Remilia sighed a long-suffering sigh. "Never mind, do as you like."

With a cry of "Yay!" Flandre nearly tipped her chair over, tilting it far enough to get her arms around Gryphon's neck. Unperturbed, he kept eating as though nothing strange was going on.

Sakuya sighed wistfully. "M'lady is so generous..."

Remilia arched an eyebrow. "You just made it weird, Sakuya," she said, deadpan, then gave her a little grin.

"There's something weird about this firebox."

Gryphon looked down from fitting together the lever mechanism for the new top vent to see Meiling frowning thoughtfully into the open hatch on the front of the furnace.

"How so?" he asked.

"It's been bugging me ever since we stripped all the old junk off the top. There's no ash grates, and it's so shallow... I'm starting to think the reason we couldn't get a fire to stay lit in here wasn't the stuff we tore off, or at least not only the stuff we tore off. I'm not sure we could ever keep a decent fire going in this thing. There's not room for enough fuel, and nowhere for the spoil to go. It's almost like it's not intended... for..." She trailed off as a thought dawned on her.

"For?" Gryphon wondered, and a moment later Meiling punched her fist into her opposite hand and looked up at him, eyes bright.

"It's not a firebox," she said. "It never was. That's why there wasn't any ash or soot in it until we tried to start a fire."

Gryphon climbed down from the top of the brick enclosure and stood next to her, looking into the door. "Hmm. OK, I'll bite. What is it, then?"

Meiling beamed. "It's a den."

"A den?"

"Yeah. Like—a habitat. Something lived in here. A salamander, maybe, or a drake. Think about it, it makes perfect sense. It's a little artificial cave. You find a salamander, or some other elemental fire critter, and put it in here. They like this kind of space, so as long as the food keeps coming they'll stay put, and voilà! All the heat you could ever want, and nobody has to come down here and shovel coal or trim a fire—just feed the tenant every few days."

Gryphon nodded, his face thoughtful. "That... does make sense," he said. "I forget sometimes what a magic-driven household this must have been back in the day. And it fits perfectly with something Remi told me about before you and Sakuya got here." At Meiling's questioning look, he said, "The organ in the music room. There's no electricity here, and no one has to pump a bellows."

"Air elemental?" Meiling wondered.

"I think so. When she first opened the music room and showed it to me, I asked her if the organ still worked, and she said it should as long as the aeolians hadn't left. I was distracted by something else and didn't really catch that at the time, but that must be what she meant."

Meiling grinned. "Yep. Figures. Air spirits don't need to eat, so they wouldn't have had any reason to leave, unlike our absent friend here," she added, gesturing to the empty furnace. "Remilia must not have known that was how they heated the bath," she theorized. "And after... you know, the night... whoever was responsible for the critter was either dead, or took off. Eventually it would've gotten hungry and bailed back to the æther."

"It all hangs together," Gryphon agreed. "Hmm. It would be a lot more convenient to heat it that way again, but where are we going to get a salamander?"

Meiling's grin became slightly smug. "You just leave that up to old Master Hong."

Gryphon arched an eyebrow at her. "You know how to summon fire spirits?"

"Dude. Dragon here," Meiling reminded him, flicking his forehead playfully.

"Oh yeah."

"Let's go talk to the lady in charge. I'm gonna need a brazier. Or a wok, that'll do in a pinch."

They did the ritual out on the west lawn. Flandre's spell card practice had to be interrupted for the purpose, but she allowed as she was getting reasonably tired by that point anyway, and besides, she was excited to see the summoning.

"Well, then, stand back and enjoy," said Meiling, gesturing for them to give her a little space.

Then, humming cheerfully to herself, she built a small coal fire in the brazier Remilia had fetched from her late mother's alchemy laboratory, sprinkled it with a couple of powders ditto, and performed a short centering exercise with a flavor of kung fu about it. She finished the exercise in a meditative stance, her hands folded before her in a martial-arts salute.

For a minute or two, nothing seemed to be happening, but then the gently licking flames in the brazier changed color, deepening from the usual yellow-orange of a coal fire to a brilliant red. With a thump and a palpable pulse of heat, it flared up, sending sparks high into the sky, then settled down to a merry, crackling roar...

... and suddenly, wide-eyed, the onlookers realized the fire had not just settled but condensed, the flames taking on a material shape. Where the little coal fire had been, there was now a creature, built something like a fat-bodied lizard, its shimmering, crackling scales each a tiny tongue of scarlet flame.

After a moment's stillness, the salamander opened glowing eyes like miniature furnace doors and regarded Meiling benignly with them.

«Greetings, cousin,» she said in what Gryphon was faintly surprised to realize was Low Draconic with a Kokugo accent. «Thank you for heeding my call. I have a proposition for you.»

The salamander gazed blankly at her for a moment, then inclined its head with a slow blink, as if to say, Speak, then.

«We have a place in this house that would be perfect for one such as you,» Meiling explained to the salamander. «Will you accept it? You will be secure and happy there, and your divine heat will bring joy to us who live here.» She held out an inviting hand, palm upward. «Please, honored spirit... join our household?»

The salamander blinked slowly again, then opened its mouth as if yawning before ambling up onto Meiling's arm. Stretched out, it was about the same length as her forearm, its chameleon-like tail wrapping around her wrist for stability. Thus positioned, it laid its head down in the crook of her elbow and appeared to go to sleep.

Turning to the others, Meiling indicated her arm with her free hand, grinning. How about that?

They all gathered quietly around. Flandre, in particular, was fascinated, leaning in to take a very close look.

"Be careful, it's hot," Meiling cautioned her, voice low to avoid disturbing the creature. "I can take it because of my training, but you'll get burned if you—" Flandre brushed her fingers against the sleeping salamander's head; she drew a hissing breath through her teeth as her fingertips were scorched, but didn't snatch her hand away. "—touch it," Meiling finished a bit lamely.

"It's OK," Flandre said, withdrawing her hand slowly. The burns on her fingers had faded before she finished the gesture, and with a little smile, she added, "I heal fast." Then, turning her gaze back to the salamander, she said softly, "It's beautiful."

"Nice, isn't it?" Meiling agreed. "I never saw one quite like it. Back home they look more like tiny dragons. C'mon, let's get it into its new home while it's asleep."

With Flandre sticking close by her side and the others trailing curiously behind, Meiling carried the salamander to the furnace room and gently offloaded it into the brick enclosure, arranging it just so in the center. With another sleepy yawn, it stretched out full-length on the bricks, the glow of its fiery scales brightening, and the room was already starting to warm as she stepped back and closed the door.

"Beautiful," said Meiling. "Now, someone's going to have to remember to come down here every few days and make an offering. If the local ones are anything like the kind back home, they'll take pretty much anything that's flammable, but they like coal the best."

"I'll do it!" Flandre declared at once. "How much should I bring?"

"Oh, for one this size, a regular pailful every three or four days should do. Like you'd use to start up the fireplace in your room."

"I'll set aside one of the small coal scuttles for you, young mistress," said Sakuya with an indulgent smile.

Remilia, who had stood observing the proceedings with hands on hips and a satisfied little grin, declared, "Meiling, you are a revelation."

Meiling gave her a slightly dubious look. "Is that good?"

"It's very good," Remilia assured her. "I would never have thought of this, even though, in hindsight, it's obviously what Maman did when Papa insisted on building the bath. She would never have stood for one of the servants having to spend so much time down here tending a fire." Her smile widening, she went on, "Very smart thinking."

Meiling made an aw-shucks grin. "Thanks."

"Wait, does this mean we can use the bath now?" asked Flandre eagerly.

"Tomorrow," Gryphon said, and at her look of disappointment, he explained, "Hey, that much water takes a while to heat up."

"I guess," Flandre conceded. "Oh well. I guess one more day won't kill me."

"It does mean," Gryphon went on, "that Meiling and I are finally finished down here, though! And not a moment too soon, if you ask me. I've had enough of the basement."

"I know the feeling," said Flandre wryly.

Although he was aware of intense scrutiny, Gryphon finished his after-dinner tea without hurrying. It was, after all, the best cup of tea of any night, to be savored at the table after another fine meal; a tradition that went back to the nights when it had just been himself and Remilia dining at this colossal table in a quiet, empty house. Even now, with Flandre watching him intently from the place to his left, Meiling unsuccessfully fighting off food coma in the seat across from her, and Sakuya bustling about being Sakuya, he caught an echo of what that had been like on the darker, lonelier nights, and felt a perverse pang of nostalgia for them.

Glancing up, he saw Remilia sitting in her throne-chair at the head of the table, an arm's length away, smiling knowingly at him over the rim of her own teacup, and knew she'd read his thoughts. Not literally, her vampiric line didn't have that particular power; just by knowing him well enough that she could predict whither the stream of his consciousness would take him in a moment like this.

"Seems like longer ago than it was, doesn't it?" she asked him in a low, intimate tone. "I confess there are times I feel rather wistful for those nights. An absurd impulse, I know, but..." Her smile became less knowing and more warm. "... occasionally one does miss having you all to herself."

Gryphon smiled, nodding his concurrence, and took the last sip of his tea.

"However," Remilia went on, her tone more conversational. "At the moment, someone else has the prior claim on that particular honor, and I think we've teased her long enough."

"Yes, you're probably right," Gryphon agreed. Putting down his teacup, he rose and offered his hand. "Shall we, young mistress?"

"Finally!" Flandre declared, seizing the hand.

"Kindly return him in the same condition this time!" Remilia called after her as she half-led, half-dragged him out of the great room.

"No promises~!" Flandre's voice drifted gaily back in from the entry hall.

Remilia chuckled, shaking her head, and poured herself some bloodwine. "That girl..."

Once they were out in the entry hall and around the corner, out of the line of sight of the great room doors, Flandre stopped and admitted,

"OK, so... beyond teasing Sis, I don't really have a plan. I was going to show off my spell cards, but I think I kind of overdid it after lunch. I'm too tired to mess around with that stuff any more right now. Can we do that tomorrow if the weather's nice? I really want to see if you can make them work."

Gryphon nodded. "Sure. Sounds like fun!"

"Great. For tonight..." Flandre hesitated, then went on, "Can we just go to my room and talk? Sis told me some of the things you told her about your life, but... I want to hear about them from you." With a slightly ironic smile, she added, "I mean, you know basically everything there is to know about me. Even though we're the same age, I'm way behind."

"It's not a race," said Gryphon, but then, smiling, he went on, "but it's your night, you pick the program."

"OK, well... I guess I better make sure it's all right with Sis. I mean I asked her before and she said it was fine, but..."

Back in the living room, Remilia had just had time to get settled in her Ottomane with Wolfgang by her side and one of her father's journals in hand (she'd gone back to give the 12th century another go). Sakuya was sitting at the Ottomane's other end, her legs tucked under her, knitting something that wasn't far enough along yet for Remilia to guess what it was going to be, and Meiling, in spite of all the other furniture available, was sitting on the floor in front of her, head leaned back against her knees, just basking in the presence.

Noticing movement, Remilia looked up to see Flandre reappearing in the doorway, still holding Gryphon by the hand.

"Back so soon?" the elder sister said, but then she noticed that Flandre's face was already red, so teasing her wasn't going to have any worthwhile effect.

"Sis... do you remember the thing I asked you about the other night?"

"You're going to have to be a little more specific than that, Flandre," said Remilia dryly.

Flandre sighed in frustration. "I overdid it with the spell cards," she admitted. "I know, I know, you warned me. I just got too into it. So now I'm tired and I'm going to bed early." Brandishing Gryphon's hand as if it were a weapon, she declared defiantly, "And I'm taking this with me!"

Remilia raised her eyebrows. "What, just the hand? He probably wants to keep that, so you might consider taking the rest of him while you're at it," she observed, deadpan.

That had the desired effect, namely making Flandre laugh and drop her defiant posture.

"Seriously, though, is it OK?" she asked when she'd finished.

"I told you before, you need to be asking him that. Benjamin? What say you?"

"Fine by me, I could use an early day," said Gryphon placidly.

"Well, go on with you, then, mieux aimé," said Remilia with an offhandedly dismissive gesture. Then, placing her hand on Wolfgang's snoozing head, she continued, "In return, the beagle stays with me."

Gryphon nodded mock-gravely. "Well-bargained and done."

Flandre's smile was bright with relief. "Thanks, Sis."

"Not at all, Flan," said Remilia, at her most magnanimous. "Good morning, you two. Don't stay up all day talking."

"We won't. Well, uh... morning, everybody!" said Flandre with slightly forced nonchalance.

"See you guys tonight," Gryphon had time to add before he was tugged away from the doorway by the Flandre Express.

"Good morning, Chief," said Sakuya, smiling.

"Later!" Meiling added, raising a hand in salute.

Remilia watched them walk off toward the stairs, then returned to her reading with another mellow chuckle.

"I... think I missed what's funny," Meiling said.

"Flandre's at that age," Remilia said. "She thinks it's a contest... but she'll learn."

"Learn what?" Meiling wondered.

Remilia smiled. "We can't be competitors when we're on the same team."

The version of his life story Gryphon told to Flandre was necessarily a bit edited, both for time and for content. He didn't exactly elide the bad parts, but he was definitely conscious of trying to emphasize the better times—the camaraderie, the fun and adventure, the dash and excitement. He was particularly careful to see that every low point he did mention had a corresponding, compensating high.

Flandre was a more discursive listener than her sister had been, stopping him more often to request clarification or express amazement at some detail. As such, it was probably lucky that he was telling the short version. She also laughed a lot more than Remilia had, although at the end, when he'd finished explaining how he came to be in this place and time, involved in this war, she'd gone quiet and serious again.

They were sitting at opposite ends of her bed, he at the head, propped up on the inevitable phalanx of pillows, she at the foot, sidesaddle with the skirts of her nightdress arrayed in a circle around her. A single candle burned on the nightstand, so that Gryphon could see his audience as more than a shadowed shape. Now, as he finished his story, Flandre sat and pondered his words, her eyes closed, expression hard to read by such low light.

After a few moments' silent thought, she opened her eyes and said slowly, "So... your real life is sort of... still back there. In the other universe, in the future. Waiting for you to get back to it."

Unexpectedly, Gryphon's response to that was an indulgent chuckle.

"Your sister said something like that once, the night you and I ended up having our little... dance," he said. "I made some crack about being useful while I was helping her with something, and she said she would find it ever so tiresome doing everything for herself when I went back to my life."

Despite her serious mood, Flandre couldn't help but giggle at that. "Yeah, that sounds like Sis."

"I answered her with a question, and I'll answer you with the same one," Gryphon went on. "In what way is what I'm doing right now not my life?" Smiling, he opened his arms; she hesitated for a moment, then came to them, letting him enfold her in his most comforting embrace.

"My life," Gryphon said quietly, "is right here where I am. Yes, I have responsibilities in other places and times, and at some point I'll have to attend to them. That's just part of being an adult. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to abandon everything else to do it."

"How can you avoid it?" Flandre wondered.

"I don't know," Gryphon admitted. "There are ways. I'm not sure yet which one will be the right one, but I'm working on it." He held her a little tighter, prompting her to squeeze him in return. "However it ends up happening, you and your sister are huge parts of my life now, and I won't leave you behind."

Flandre was silent for a minute or so. Then, as if apropos of nothing, she said,

"Sis thinks I'm trying to compete with her."

"That's natural," Gryphon replied.

"Sure, and it makes sense that she would, but that isn't it," said Flandre. Releasing him, she sat back so that she could make eye contact and went on, "I don't want to take anyone's place, hers or yours. I want my own place. I want to be as close to both of you as you are to each other. That's why I keep wanting to do the same things you guys have done. It's the only way I can think of to get that perspective." Her eyes searched his face, her own expression pleading for understanding. "Is that... is that dumb? Am I just being a selfish little kid?"

Gryphon smiled and drew her back in. "No," he said. "No, I'd say you're being very grown-up, and it's not dumb at all."

"Do you think I can get Sis to understand it?" Flandre asked.

"Of course. Remilia's no fool, you know."

"I feel like I'm still getting to know her. We were so close as little girls, but that was a long time ago. Neither one of us is the person we were back then. I love her, and I know she loves me, but sometimes I feel like we're almost strangers. When she was teaching me how to use the spell cards... she reminded me more of Papa than the Remilia I knew before I got sick. She's grown so much while I stayed the same all those centuries."

"You're growing too—faster than she ever imagined you could," Gryphon pointed out. "I'm sure she feels just as much at sea as you do sometimes." He grinned fondly. "She's just better at fronting than you are."

That drew another giggle. "That hasn't changed, at least."

"Herakleitos of Ephesus," Gryphon said, "was quoted by Plutarch as having said, 'No man can step in the same river twice.'"

"'Because it's not the same river,'" Flandre quoted back, "'and he's not the same man.'"

"Exactly. So much time has passed, and so much has happened, that it's natural to feel like you and your sister aren't the same people you were before. But... over time, I've come to believe in a different variation on that remark. 'We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.'"

"Meaning?" Flandre wondered.

"I believe that even in the midst of constant change, there are things that don't—at least, not on any practical timescale. Things that have an immutable nature. Maybe it's because of my connection to the living, eternal Force, which is always changing and yet always the same. You and Remilia... whatever happens, however you both grow and change, you're still your parents' daughters. Still sisters. Still who you are. That will never change." He gave her another little squeeze. "Everything else is details."

"You've mentioned the Force a few times now. Is that how you can do magic, even though you're a man and don't have a familiar?"

"Yes. The Force is... well, the short version is that it's a universal life energy. It's sort of at the intersection of the qi Meiling has been teaching you about and magic as your world knows it."

Flandre sat back again and took his hands, looking him in the eye. "Will you teach me how to use it?"

Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "What, right now?"

Flandre shook her head. "No. I'm tired. But soon. Maybe tomorrow. I'll teach you what Sis taught me about spell cards, and you can teach me about the Force." She cracked her sly smile, the one that was a mirror copy of her sister's. "You show me yours and I'll show you mine."

"You're dangerous enough as it is," he harrumphed, then accepted her back into his arms and said, "but all right. Let's play it by ear and see what happens. If the feng shui is right... who knows?"

Flandre chuckled. "Maybe we should invite Meiling too."

"The more the merrier."

"Big bro?"


"Thanks for telling me all that. And for hearing me out. And for... generally putting up with what a mess I still am."

"You're not a mess, Flandre. You're just figuring stuff out, and I'm happy to help you do it."

"Well... thanks for that, then."

"You're very welcome. You ready to get some sleep?"

"Yeah." Flandre put out the candle and crawled under the covers while Gryphon knocked down the pyramid of pillows, and they rearranged themselves for sleep.

"We need to try this sometime with Sis in the middle," Flandre mused drowsily. "I know she thinks we'll have wing problems, but there must be a way... don't you think?"

"Always a way," Gryphon agreed. "Morning, Flan. Love you."

"Love you too, bro," said Flandre, snuggling a little closer with a sleepy smile and a faint blush. It was the first time he'd said it first, which she couldn't help but feel was some kind of breakthrough.

Always a way, she thought, and with that, went happily to sleep.

The Ink Spots
"Java Jive"

Act V: Une Inconnue Bien Connue

The Ink Spots
"I'm Getting Sentimental Over You"

Gryphon woke slowly, rising through dreamy layers until at last he surfaced gently, like washing up on a soft beach. When he opened his eyes, he saw that it was still daytime; just enough daylight was filtering in at the tops of the blackout-curtained windows to make the details of the room visible, albeit in near-monochrome.

He closed them again and just lay there for a while, listening to the quiet. No one else would be up yet, although the walls and floors were thick enough that he probably wouldn't hear anyone moving around anyway. All he heard were the normal faint creaks and ticks of the old house, and the soft breathing of the person beside him. He found it interesting, in an abstract sort of way, that he'd gotten so used to the sounds Remilia made when she was sleeping, he could tell immediately he wasn't with her.

With that thought, Gryphon began to ease himself out from under the covers—or tried to, anyway. Ordinarily he would rise at this point, slipping carefully out of bed and commencing his day. It worked with Remilia, who slept so soundly she rarely noticed him going, but even in her sleep, Flandre was having none of it. She didn't quite wake, but sensed he was trying to leave anyway, and slipped the hand that had been lying on his chest the rest of the way over him, tightening her hold with a mumbled "nooo."

Well, I suppose I don't need to get up, he thought wryly, and adjusted his arm around her shoulders so he could give her a little squeeze. Thus reassured that he wasn't going anywhere, Flandre settled back in, a smile on her sleeping face. With his own smile at the sight, Gryphon kissed her on the forehead and went back to sleep for a while himself.

When he woke again, it was she who had gone, and the light level in the room was unusually high. Sitting up, Gryphon looked around, and with a momentary flash of alarm, he saw that Flandre was standing at the window, the curtains thrown open, looking out over the west lawn at the sunset in progress. She was still in her nightdress and barefoot, her hair tousled from bed, and she squinted a little as the last of the day's sunlight bathed her face.

"Flan?" Gryphon asked, startled.

Flandre turned and smiled at him. "Oh, hi," she said. "I was just wondering if I should wake you up to come and see this. Although I suppose you see sunsets a lot more often than I do. I haven't seen one since I was 12." Turning back to look out the window again, she went on, "It's just as pretty as I remember."

Rising, Gryphon padded across the room to her side and regarded her closely. Her eyes were watering slightly, but other than that she seemed to be experiencing no ill effects from the direct, albeit obliquely angled, light of the Sun.

"Are you OK, Flan?" he asked. "You don't seem to be smoking or anything, at least..."

"I'm fine," Flandre assured him, still looking out the window. "It's a little uncomfortable, but not dangerous. Sis and I used to watch sunsets together when we were little. I remember we even went to town during the day a few times. Daylight isn't really the problem for us that a lot of people think it is, anyway. Sis just avoids it because it stings a little and takes away most of our strength." She gave a knowing little chuckle. "She doesn't like anything that hurts or makes her feel vulnerable."

"I can understand that," Gryphon said. Standing by her side, he watched the remainder of the sunset with her, the day's dying rays painting the partly cloudy sky in pastel colors.

Flandre nodded. "Mm. Me too, but I don't mind it as much. It reminds me I'm alive..." She glanced over at him with a smile, taking his hand. "Although I don't need to be reminded of that so much lately."

"I'm glad to hear that," he said, returning the smile, and they stood together and watched the last sliver of the sun disappear below the horizon.

The moment it did, Flandre drew a deep breath, let go of his hand so she was free to stretch and yawn luxuriantly with fists above head, and then said in a much brighter tone of voice, "Still, I can't deny this feels a lot better." Turning a languid grin that reminded him powerfully of her sister's to him, she asked, "Can I get a kiss good evening?"

Gryphon gathered her into a hug and kissed her on top of the head. "Good evening, Flan," he said, a little mischievously.

Her eyes said that wasn't what she'd been hoping for, but she smiled anyway, a little ruefully. Rather than pursue the matter further, she asked,

"You think the bath is ready yet?"

Gryphon chuckled. "Let's round up the crew and go find out, shall we?"

The grand opening of the Fusōnese bath duly took place a short while later, as everyone in the household, still in their sleepwear but carrying their clothes as requested, met up downstairs. Determined to make an occasion of it, Gryphon and Meiling conducted the Scarlet sisters and Sakuya to the new doors partway up the north hallway with all the dignified gravity of tour guides in a historic home (which, after a fashion, Gryphon supposed they were).

The room had had a standard single door that matched all the others along this hallway when they found it, but since they'd had to break that door down to get in there anyway, they had reconstructed it as a double one, not unlike the ones leading into the great hall and the music room. Where the other doors were solid timber, though, the new bath doors had frosted windows, which now glowed from within.

"Ladies," said Gryphon. "It's taken us a while to get this facility operational, and we, your Plant Services team, humbly thank you for your patience. We hope you'll agree that it was worth the wait. We give you..." With that, and the most dramatic flourish they could manage, he and Meiling each took one of the doors and flung them wide, revealing what lay beyond to their audience all at once.

"... le Grand Bain Fusônais!"

"Wow!" said Flandre, crossing the threshold first.

Beyond lay a room that was easily twice the size of the formal dining room they'd all decided not to use, as wide as the music room and perhaps half as deep. The doors let onto a broad area like an indoor piazza, with a floor of white marble. This was empty to the right of the doors, while the area to the left sported a couple of metal drains and a number of benches carved from red porphyry built into the floor. The walls were covered in marble as well, their whiteness likewise broken up with decorative columns of porphyry every few yards. These extended only about eight feet, or halfway to the high ceiling, and each was topped with a cluster of candles, lighting the periphery of the room.

The main illumination came from a trio of chandeliers, similar to those in the other large rooms, which blazed with dozens of candles—their flames glitteringly reflected in the surface of the great heated pool that took up the remaining two-thirds of the room, its waters lapping at the uppermost of the steps leading down from the washing-up area. The overall impression was one of restrained grandeur, without ornamentation other than the richness of the materials themselves.

"How did you manage to light those chandeliers?" Remilia wondered, looking up. "Neither one of you can fly."

"Wasn't easy!" Meiling replied with a broad grin, and Remilia considered pointing out that that wasn't an answer, but then decided against it.

Instead, she took a closer look at the area of the "piazza" to the right of the doors. Though the floor space was empty, she saw that the righthand wall was covered in shelves and cubbyholes, presumably for the storage of one's bath things and clothes (some of the shelves already held baskets full of soaps, washcloths, and the like), and sported a couple of white dressing tables and chairs.

"No dressing screens?" she wondered.

"What would be the point of that?" Flandre asked, grinning. "We're going to be naked anyway!"

Remilia's face went a little pink. "Even so, one does like a bit of privacy to get undressed."

"That's just silly," Flandre declared, and without further ado, she trotted over to the storage wall, put her folded clothes in a cubbyhole, pulled off her nightdress, and stuffed it haphazardly into the adjoining one, then grabbed one of the soap baskets from a shelf. "What are you guys waiting for?" she demanded.

"Oh, ye gods, my little sister is a naturist," Remilia said, observing the scene through the fingers of one hand.

Jonathan Scott
A. Vivaldi, comp.

Once Remilia was over the initial shock, she surprised herself slightly with how quickly she got used to the whole business. It wasn't really that different from bathing alone with Benjamin—the same sense of benign intimacy, pleasant and lacking subtext. Even since they had become a couple, bath time had stayed like that, and so it still did, even with the addition of another couple and the wild card that was Flan. It was certainly a festive occasion, but it was all, in the most literal sense, good clean fun.

What were you expecting? she wondered wryly to herself. A bacchanalium? We're not a pack of drunken Romans. We're rational adults. She paused in her thoughts for a moment to observe as Meiling and Flandre, laughing like a pair of hyenas, attempted a shampoo rinse method that involved bailing freshly pumped buckets of hot water at each other like they were trying to put out a fire.

Mostly rational adults, she amended. She caught Sakuya's eye and saw from her answering little grin and eyeroll that she'd been having the same thought.

Once washed up and rinsed off, they retired en masse to the big pool for a relaxing soak.

"Oh, the temperature is perfect," Sakuya all but moaned, slouching gratefully until her chin was touching the surface.

"It ought to be, we worked hard enough on the regulating system," Meiling declared, high-fiving Gryphon.

"This is amazing," Flandre agreed. "I think we should give Stephen a raise."

"Who's Stephen?" Remilia wondered.

"The salamander."

"You've named the salamander?"

"Yeah, why? Is there anything wrong with that?"

"No, I suppose not. Why Stephen, thought?"

Flandre shrugged, making ripples in the water around her. "He just looks like a Stephen. Unless he's a girl. I can't really tell."

"Elemental spirits don't really have gender like we would understand it," said Meiling.

"Hmm. That's kind of sad," Flandre mused.

"Doesn't seem to bother them. You can't miss what you never had, I guess."

"I miss plenty of things I've never had," Flandre disagreed, drawing a somewhat uncharacteristic giggle from Sakuya.

Meiling laughed. "Well, OK, you got me there," she said, then settled back against the side of the pool, both elbows propped up on the coaming, and gave a long, contented sigh. "Sakuya's right, though, this is juuust perfect. I bet it'll be just the thing after a hard day's work, too."

"I know the one up at Saint-Ulrich is," Gryphon confirmed, his hands showing Flandre how to fold a towel so it would stay on her head like his as he spoke. "After a sortie, the whole wing usually piles on in. It was like that at Crone Rock, too, back in '43."

"Do all the JFW bases have them?" wondered Sakuya.

"I haven't been to many," Gryphon admitted, "but I hear it's a thing wherever there are witches from Fusō. If there isn't already a proper bath in the facility where they're posted, they'll build one before too long. Fusōnese witches get things done," he added with a grin.

Meiling shook her head with a wry smile. "Man, historians of the future are going to be like, 'Why the heck did so many castles and stately homes in Europe have Fusō-style baths added in the twentieth century?'"

Flandre laughed. "And even when they figure it out, they'll still be wrong about this one!" she pointed out.

"I guess Papa was ahead of his time," said Remilia nostalgically.

With bath time concluded and the household refreshed, dressed, and ready for the night, Sakuya and Remilia took themselves off to make breakfast, and the rest to await it. Before reporting to the table, Gryphon and Meiling paused in the bath doorway to have one more look at the fruits of their labors.

"This was a triumph," Meiling said.

Gryphon nodded. "I'm making a note here: huge success." Without looking away from the bath, they bumped fists.

"How are we going to top it?" Meiling wondered.

"Beats me. Maybe we should fix up that collapsed greenhouse by the north wing and make it into a rose garden."

"Oh, I like that. Where are we gonna get that much glass, though? We barely had enough to do the conservatory."

"One bridge at a time, Master Hong, one bridge at a time. It's got to be standing before we have to worry about the windows..."

To Flandre's annoyance, clouds had gathered during the bath's grand opening, and during breakfast it started to rain.

"Maybe we should wait on the spell card demo until this clears up," Gryphon mused, standing by the windows with her and watching it come down.

Flandre sighed. "Oh well. Want to come to the music room for a bit? I'll show you the other thing I've been working on."

Angela Hewitt
Les Barricades Mystérieuses"
F. Couperin, comp.

With both the music room door and those of the great room open, the sound of the piano filtered faintly but distinctly into the quiet living room, where Remilia sat with Wolfgang by her side, reading. Opposite her, Meiling was sitting in the chair that was usually Gryphon's, a pad of paper balanced on her knees, sketching something. Flandre had played her piano version of "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" to start with; just now, though, the listeners were hearing something completely different.

Scott Joplin
"Maple Leaf Rag"

"What a remarkable musical style," Remilia mused, listening. "Something from Benjamin's homeland, you think? That must be him playing now."

"Oh, sure, that's ragtime," Meiling said, nodding. "Totally Amer—uh, Liberion."

Remilia sighed. "The things I missed, hiding from the world for all those decades." Tilting her head thoughtfully, she nodded toward the sketch pad and asked, "What are you drawing, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Trying to come up with a plan for a greenhouse," Meiling replied, turning the pad around. Sure enough, there on the page was a half-formed sketch of a metal-framed glasshouse, extending from what Remilia took only a moment to recognize as an elevation of the north end of the house.

"It looks like there was one there before," Meiling went on, "but it's a total loss now. I'm guessing it burned down?"

Remilia nodded sadly. "Another casualty of the 10th of Floréal, I'm afraid," she said. "Maman grew plants for her alchemy projects there, as well as a few more mundane things just for enjoyment."

Meiling winced. "Ah, jeez. I'm sorry. I should have figured... I didn't mean to drag that up again," she said, but Remilia shook her head.

"It's all right. It's not as if we can ignore the fact that it happened. I assume Sakuya told you about it at some point in your travels?"

Meiling nodded. "We—well, it's a long story, but the short version is, we were sort of trapped one time by a psychic entity that got its kicks making people relive their worst memories over and over."

"How vile," said Remilia, her face screwing up in disgust.

"Yeah," Meiling agreed. "At least we were together. We could help each other through it." She shivered slightly. "Still not something I ever want to go through again."

"What became of the... entity?" Remilia wondered. "I mean, you obviously escaped."

"We killed it," said Meiling matter-of-factly.


"No argument from me. The Doctor wasn't super-happy with us about that, but..." She chuckled, a little darkly, but also fondly. "You don't do something like that to Sakuya and walk away. You just... don't. She doesn't start things—but she always finishes them."

Remilia smiled. "My father taught her that."

"I know," said Meiling. "She's told me a lot about him, too. Sounds like he was my kind of guy. 'Let he who desires peace be prepared for war.' Or, as Avatar Yangchen put it, 'Don't get in my face and you'll get to keep yours.'" She grinned wryly. "That might not be a direct quotation. Anyway," she went on, indicating the pad, "We don't have to rebuild the greenhouse if you'd rather we didn't. I've just been thinking about maybe planting a little garden, and it'd be nice to have it year-round, since I gather you do get winter in these parts."

Remilia nodded. "No, by all means, do. I'm sure Maman would be pleased." She looked up, cocking an ear, as the music drifting in from the hall changed, then smiled. "Ah, now here's a piece I recognize."

Cory Hall
"Two-Part Invention No. 8 in F Major"
J.S. Bach, comp.

"I've heard this played by Bach himself," Remilia said nostalgically after listening for a few seconds. "He and Papa wrote each other often, and he and one of his sons visited us in... 1730, I think? Definitely after he moved to Leipzig. Dear, charming fellows, both of them. I confess I was a little smitten with Emanuel, even if I was 211 years older," she confided with a wink. "However..." Her smiled widened. "There. Do you hear that?"

Meiling looked perplexed. "Hear what?"

"The left and right hands are slightly out of sync," Remilia said, then chuckled. "Flandre's in a hurry, she wants to show off how well she knows the piece." At Meiling's continued look of puzzlement, she explained, "They're playing it together."

"Ahh," said Meiling, nodding. "They sound like they're having fun," she observed with a smile, then added, "I think it's really nice of you to let them have their own thing like this."

Remilia gave her a curious head-tilt. "Why would I stop them?"

"Well... let's just say I've known some siblings in my time who weren't very good at sharing."

The vampire chuckled. "Flandre and I have never had much difficulty with that. Besides, whatever makes her happy makes me happy. It's always been that way."

Meiling might have commented, but before she had a chance, Sakuya appeared in the doorway and said, "Ah, there you are, Meiling. When you have a moment, there's a basket of laundry in the hall that needs to go upstairs, please." Gesturing with a wry smile at the rain outside, she added, "Luckily, I remembered to bring it in before breakfast."

"I'm on it," said Meiling agreeably, setting her sketch pad aside and rising.

Remilia gave her maid a skeptical look. "Are you foisting your work on your poor fiancée now?" she asked playfully.

"It's part of our agreement, m'lady," Sakuya replied imperturbably.

"It's true!" Meiling agreed cheerfully. "I did promise to carry the heavy things."

Remilia laughed and returned to her book. "The pair of you," she said, shaking her head fondly.

It was a short while after lunch when Gryphon returned to the living room, looking pleased—Remilia couldn't tell whether about something in particular, or just with life in general. Noticing the sketch pad and pencil Meiling had left behind by his usual chair, he picked them up, but then seated himself at the other end of Remilia's Ottomane instead.

They sat in silence for an hour or so, she reading, he sketching something on a fresh page of the pad. Presently Wolfgang stirred from his nap, raised his head, noticed Gryphon, and moved over to his side of the couch, putting his head in the human's lap.

"Well, hello, Wolfgang," said Gryphon cheerfully, rubbing the hound's ears. "Look who remembered whose dog he's supposed to be."

"I could say the same about you, after your disappearances last night and this evening," Remilia said dryly, then smiled. "Did you have a nice time with Flandre?"

"I always have a nice time with Flandre," Gryphon replied, "particularly now that she doesn't beat me half to death." Then, with a faintly wistful look, he added, "I do kind of miss playing horsie, though." He sighed. "They grow up so fast."

"Mm, I've noticed." With a slightly mischievous smile, Remilia said, "I fear it won't be long before she's asking you to play a different game altogether."

"You joke, but I think you're probably right, and not gin rummy, either," Gryphon said. "Tonight when we woke up, she came right out and asked me to kiss her good evening. She's not even pretending it's a game any more."

Remilia raised an eyebrow. "Did you?"

"On top of the head. Clearly not what she was hoping for, but she took it gracefully... for now." He shrugged. "I'm not sure how long that will last."

By way of explication, he told her what Flandre had said to him the night before—that her ambition was not to compete with or take the place of either him or her sister, but to claim an equal place of her own alongside them both.

"She said she wants to be as close to both of us as we are to each other," Gryphon said, "but I'm not completely sure what she meant by that."

"I expect she isn't either, at the moment," Remilia speculated. "But it's nice to know I was wrong about her feeling competitive. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. We've never competed for anything in our lives. Why start now?" At his puzzled look, she smiled, marked her place, set her book aside, and moved toward him. "Excuse me, please, Wolfgang," she said, gathering up the hound and moving him into the space she'd just vacated.

Wolfgang eyed her skeptically, then sighed and relented, evidently accepting the warm spot as a fair trade. Remilia petted him fondly, then turned back and snuggled up to her betrothed.

"You worry too much, mieux aimé," she said, taking his hand. "Flandre's request was to be expected. She's reached the stage where she's taking an interest in such matters."

"I know," Gryphon replied. "I'm just not sure what to do about it. The last thing I want to do is hurt her, but if she keeps going down this path, sooner or later I'll have to."

"Will you?"

He gave her a sidelong glance. "Uh... yeah?"

Remilia sighed. "Benjamin, sometimes you are the densest man on Earth. Shall I spell it out for you?"

"I guess you'd better," he replied.

"Very well, then. If—I should say when, because I'm sure it's inevitable—Flan makes such a request of you again, you needn't refuse on my account. Obviously, if you'd prefer not to oblige her for your own reasons, that's your business, but for my part, I ask only that you be kind to her—which I know you always will.

"Mark you well, however: This only applies to Flandre," she went on earnestly. "I shall otherwise insist upon my just prerogatives as your fiancée, and presently as your wife. I'm not giving you an open license to make love to anyone who may wander up and ask. But Flan... Flan is special. You know that already. And if I must abandon my customary reticence and make it plain to you just how special, then... well, I hope I've now done so."

"... You sound like you've given this a lot of thought," Gryphon mused after a few moments' silent pondering.

"I have. I've been mulling it over ever since I realized that being whole again would free her mind to grow. Soon, terrifyingly soon, she'll be a woman—in some respects, she already is—and I'm not so ancient that I've forgotten what a confusing and difficult time that is. How many questions it raises about oneself. In a way, I'm more worried about letting her venture into the outside world on that ground than I'm afraid she'll come to some physical harm. Once she's out there, meeting people outside the family for the first time... well." She sighed. "You have daughters. I don't have to draw you a picture. When all is said and done, I would far rather she turned to you to seek her answers than to a stranger. After all, there is no one in this world either one of us trusts or loves more."

Gryphon gave that the slow blink it deserved. "Well, I'm... honored. But I don't think..."

Remilia placed a hand gently upon his lips, her smile taking on a hint of a smirk. "No, mon amour, the problem is that you're thinking too much. Just... don't worry. Let fate unfold as it will." Then, withdrawing her hand and leaning closer, she asked, "What have you been drawing?"

"Just an idea I had," said Gryphon, tilting the sketch pad so she could get a better look.

What he'd drawn there meant little to Remilia's eyes. Some sort of machine, she could tell that much, with a box-like central structure connected to the ceiling of the room it was in with what looked like a cluster of pipes. The pipes then ran across the ceiling and down one wall to a panel covered in indistinctly-sketched dials and switches. A vague figure of a man standing next to it gave a sense of scale, suggesting that it was meant to be installed in a room about the same size as the one containing the salamander furnace that heated the water for the Fusōnese bath.

"What in the world is it?" she wondered.

"It's a... well, I'm not sure what you'd call it. It's based on the same principle as the bath furnace, except instead of a fire elemental, it's meant to contain a lightning spirit. I've been wondering how we could electrify the house when we can't connect to the local grid, inasmuch as there even is such a thing this far outside Colmar, but I could never come up with anything that would work. Some kind of coal-fired steam turbine would be too much of a hassle to build and run, and we don't have any other fuel supply, so a gas dynamo or the like is right out. But this..." He tapped the pad with the tip of the pencil. "This could do it. If we can summon the right kind of spirit and convince it to live in there, we could have all the power we need for lights, maybe some small kitchen appliances... all mod cons."

"Hmm. Interesting idea. Do we really need electricity, though? I mean, we've gotten by this long without it, and I think the lighting we have is quite pleasant." Cuddling closer, she added with a smile, "You can't pretend your electrically lighted witch castle has an ambience half as romantic as this house by candlelight."

"Well, no, that's true, but still, it would be nice to have an option that doesn't involve trimming and lighting two or three hundred candles every night, even if they do never seem to burn down."

"Maman was very proud of that particular invention."

"And rightly so! I'm not claiming otherwise." He shrugged. "Maybe you're right and it's just a crazy idea. Speaking of crazy ideas, I've been thinking some more about plumbing, too. Now, I'm going to turn your own argument about the lights around on you here—you have to admit the garderobe situation at Saint-Ulrich has the arrangements here beat."

"... I admit the hot running water in the sinks at your castle was pleasant," Remilia conceded after a pause for thought.

"Right?" said Gryphon. "And now that we have a central heat source, it really just makes sense. The hard part is figuring out how to pressurize the system. Don't really want to put a water tank on the roof, that would look weird. I guess a cistern in the attic would do it," he said, turning to a fresh page and sketching a very rough outline of how that would be laid out. Then, with a sly smile, he added, "Be a lot easier if we had an electric pump..."

"I see where this is going," said Remilia with heavy mock resignation.

"You'll love it."

Remilia sighed. "Fine, please yourself, my love. After all," she added with a fond smile, "it's your house too."

Gryphon grinned. "You won't regret it," he promised, then leaned over and kissed her before rising and trotting over to put his head and shoulders out into the entry hall. "Meiling!" he bellowed, his voice echoing. "We're back in hardware mode!"

The rain let up while the gleeful Plant Services crew was still conducting a preliminary survey of where in the attic they could best site the water tank. On a subliminal level, they had probably noticed the patter of it on the roof abating, but the first conscious indication of it they had was Flandre suddenly appearing in the hatchway leading back down to the second-floor hallway.

"Bro! Meiling! It stopped raining! Let's go do the thing!"

So they went and did the thing, stopping only to be presented with a fresh pack of spell cards by an indulgently smiling Remilia in the great room. Once out on the damp west lawn, they found that while they were getting down from the attic, either Remilia or Sakuya had set up some fresh targets for them, since Flandre had demolished all the tree stumps already. At a suitable distance away from the house, a row of torches on short posts flickered in the dark, inviting their aim and making up for the absence of moonlight caused by the lingering overcast.

Looking very pleased with herself, Flandre gave them the same rundown about the origins and use of spell cards that her sister had given her, then presented each of her "students" with a copy of Divine Flash Donnerwetter.

"It's the one I started with," she explained, "and we have plenty of extras, so..."

Meiling nodded. "Fair enough. So... first you charge it?" She held the card as Flandre had shown her and regarded it thoughtfully. "Oh yeah, I can feel the... it's like a qi conduit. Lemme see here..." She frowned for a moment in concentration, and the card lit up between her fingers.

"Yeah! You got it!" said Flandre, delighted. "Now pick your target, fix it in your mind, and say the words, and zap!"

Meiling did as instructed; not much to Gryphon's surprise or Flandre's, she couldn't resist putting a little martial-arts English on her delivery, spinning as if evading a close-range attack and delivering the card with a sidearm snap.

"Whoa! Super cool," Meiling observed, trying to blink away the purple spots. "Kinda tough on the eyes at night, though. Wish I hadn't lost my JJ200s..."

"Huh, I never thought of that," Flandre admitted. "OK, big bro, your turn!"

Gryphon held his copy of the card up and considered it. "All right, this is as good a time as any to introduce you to the way I have to do these things. I'm not a magician—I don't have innate magic like a witch, or a vampire—or a dragon or bender, for that matter," he added with a moment's smiling glance at Meiling. "So what I have to do is tap into the Force.

"Meiling's probably told you about qi while you've been doing tai chi with her?" he asked, and they both nodded. "Well, if qi is the life energy of individual beings, the Force is... basically the qi of the whole universe, considered as a single entity. Or, if you like, it's the resonance created by all those individual points of energy. Which means once you can search within yourself and feel your own qi, if you reach outward with those same senses, you'll feel the Force."

"That sounds sort of like the way I can sense qi in the environment around me, not just my own," Meiling mused.

Gryphon nodded. "That's exactly what it is. When you do that, you're touching the Force; you just learned to call it by another name."

"Huh," said Flandre. "I think I get what you're saying, but..." Her voice trailed off, and she stood for a few moments, lost in some internal contemplation. Then, opening her eyes, she shook her head, a little disappointedly. "Nope. I don't feel anything."

"Not many people do, right away," Gryphon reassured her. "Or rather, they don't recognize it at first. You have your own magic, which makes it harder. I've taught this stuff to a few of my witch colleagues at Saint-Ulrich, and the ones whose own magic is still active have all said that being able to see past it was the hardest part. It's like light pollution—too many lights nearby make it harder to see the stars."

"Hmm. OK. I'll... keep thinking about it," she said.

"Yeah, same here," said Meiling. "I'm always interested in new ways of looking at this stuff."

"Well, I'm glad to point you toward one."

"In the meantime, show us what you've got, bro," said Flandre with a grin. "Let's see you light up that card."

Gryphon considered the card for a quiet moment, finding the center. He saw, or felt, immediately what Meiling had been talking about; it did have a sort of pathway or conduit built into it. He concentrated, drawing the Force toward him, and pushed. The card flickered, brightening and dimming a few times, then glowed steadily as he found the balance point.

"Cool," said Meiling. "I felt that. What you just did. It realigned the qi currents all around you."

"Me too!" said Flandre excitedly. "Maybe not quite the same way, but I definitely felt you moving magic around."

Gryphon smiled. "See? It's all connected. Now then..." He turned and squared up to the targets. "Divine Flash—Donnerwetter!"

The bolt of lightning lanced out from his extended fingers and blew away another of the torches.

"Nice!" cried Flandre.

"Good shot," Meiling agreed.

"Thank you," said Gryphon, and then, matter-of-factly, "I am now blind."

"I guess we better switch to a different card if we're going to practice any more," said Flandre.

"Don't wear yourselves out too extravagantly, you three," came Sakuya's voice, and they turned to see (well, two of them saw) her standing by the gazebo, smiling. "Dinner tonight will be something special, and I don't want any of you falling asleep at the table, Meiling."

"Eh heh... c'mon, you know I only fall asleep after I eat," said Meiling, sheepishly scratching the back of her head.

"Special dinner? What's the occasion?" Flandre wondered.

"Now that it's past midnight, it's these two's birthday," said Sakuya, nodding toward Meiling and Gryphon.

"Oh hey, you're right, it would be the twentieth now, wouldn't it?" said Meiling. Then, turning to Gryphon, she said, "It's your birthday too?"

"I guess it is! I'd lost track."

"Well, hey, happy birthday! Many happy returns," she said, ostentatiously shaking his hand.

"Same to you, Master Hong, same to you," said Gryphon cheerfully, and Flandre jumped in and hugged them both, adding her congratulations.

Then, disengaging, she asked, "Hey, Sakuya, do you want to give spell cards a try too?"

Sakuya's smile became a touch sly. She stepped away from the gazebo and up to the impromptu firing line, but when Flandre offered her a card, she didn't take it. Instead, with the same magician-like hand motions she'd shown before, she suddenly had a fistful of daggers in one hand and The World in the other—with a glowing card of her own held between the ring and pinky fingers of the hand that held the watch.

"Illusion Sign: Killing Doll!" she declared, thumbing The World's stem on the last syllable, and suddenly the whole area in front of her was full of flying silver, dozens of blades darting out in a fan-shaped arc and striking not one, but all of the target torches.

"Whoa," said Gryphon.

"That was awesome!" cried Flandre.

"I do love to watch you work," Meiling said, gazing at her with arms folded and a satisfied smile.

Sakuya clicked the watch again; to her observers, she didn't move, but suddenly the three knives she'd started with were back in her left hand. She made them disappear the same way she'd produced them in the first place, then turned to her audience and bowed like a performer.

"Thank you," she said with a mischievous little smile.

"I've always wondered why Papa gave it that name," Remilia's voice remarked from behind them, and they turned to see her standing not by, but on the gazebo, fists on hips. "I suppose it's because when he asked Signora Sapere to write it for you, you were still an adorable little doll," she added with a fond grin.

"M'lady, please," said Sakuya, blushing.

"I've been meaning to ask, do you have any pictures from back then?" asked Meiling. "I'd love to see what she looked like when she was little."

"Only one," said Remilia.

"Oh no," Sakuya groaned, hiding her face.

"Papa had her sit for a portrait when she first joined the family," Remilia went on, hopping down from the gazebo roof to join them. "Maman made a great show of her exasperation that he would spend that kind of money on immortalizing a mere lady's-maid, as I recall, but it was only for form's sake."

"Where is it now?" Meiling wondered. "I haven't noticed it anywhere."

"Well, you've never been in my bedchamber, unless you're sneakier than I think you are," said Remilia wryly, making Meiling blush in her turn. "I'll bring it out for you after dinner. I'm sure you'll find it most illuminating."

"M'lady..." said Sakuya from behind her hand.

"Oh, come now, Sakuya. You were the cutest thing. Don't you think your fiancée deserves to see that? On her birthday, no less?"

"... I suppose," the maid conceded, lowering her hand and giving Meiling an embarrassed smile.

Meiling beamed. "I'm looking forward to it."

"Well, then," said Sakuya, visibly reassembling her composure, "I suppose we should leave you to your training—"

As she spoke, the first fat raindrop hit Meiling square on top of the head.

"Uh-oh," said Flandre.

There followed a mad scramble for the house, which they reached just as the heavens opened up and the rain resumed with a vengeance.

Standing by the windows with a vampire on either side of him, watching the rain stream down the outside of the glass, Gryphon mused, "This feels familiar."

"Mm," Remilia agreed. "Rather like a certain fateful evening in April... wouldn't you say, Flan?"

"Don't look at me," Flandre replied. "Why would I want to rain out my own spell card practice? Besides, I can't even remember how I did that. Or how either of us got anywhere in it!"

"I had an umbrella," Remilia said, "and a lot of time to waste picking my way around little streams. As for you, I suspect you just didn't notice how much it hurt."

"Yeah, that's probably true," Flandre conceded. Then, with a faint smirk, she added, "We both know I have a higher tolerance for that kind of thing than you anyway, Sis."

"I wouldn't think being a masochist was anything to brag about."

"I'm not a masochist," Flandre objected. "I just don't mind being reminded I'm alive sometimes. Right, bro?"

"Don't fight, you two," said Gryphon absently, hugging one of them with each arm.

"This isn't fighting," Remilia told him contentedly.

"You've seen us fighting," Flandre added with a frowning little shiver.

"Hey, now," said Gryphon, holding her a little tighter. "None of that. Those times are over and—"

Before he could finish the sentence, lightning split the sky above the west lawn, momentarily flash-blinding him again, and the thunderous report rattled the windows. Miraculously, none of the panes broke, but as Gryphon's vision cleared, he saw that the gazebo had been hit and now lay in fragments.

"Holy crap!" he said.

"What was that?!" Meiling asked, still wiping her hands on a towel even as she came charging out of the kitchen. "Aw, jeez! My gazebo!"

"Where did that lightning even come from? There's been no sign this was a thunderstorm," Flandre wondered.

"I don't—" Remilia began, then looked closer and pointed. "Wait, what is that?"

"You two wait here," said Gryphon. "I'll check it out."

"I'll come with you," Meiling said, and the two of them plunged out into the driving rain to investigate.

Up close, the gazebo was a near-total loss, its roof splintered and its supporting columns splayed out like the legs of a flattened spider, but, surprisingly, it showed few signs of the scorching one might have expected from a lightning strike. It was more as if it had been struck from above by one or more heavy objects moving at speed.

Lying sprawled amid the rubble, they found those objects: a woman in a brown leather flying jacket, and the bent and battered halves of a Striker Unit, one of them still on her leg, the other lying a short distance away.

"What th' heck?" Meiling wondered, shouting to be heard over the wind and rain.

"A witch?!" Gryphon said, baffled.

"How did she get into the time bubble?" Meiling asked.

"I don't know!" Gryphon replied, and then, "You didn't see me do this, OK?"

So saying, he performed one of the few blatantly anchronistic acts he'd allowed himself since arriving in 1946 and rezzed up his omni-tool to run a baseline medical scan. It wouldn't do to just unceremoniously pick up this woman, whoever she was, and lug her into the house like a sack of grain if she had internal injuries or a spinal fracture—although what else they could do for her, under the circumstances, was an open question for which he didn't have a good answer ready to hand.

Fortunately, a fast scan of her torso and head revealed no life-threatening injuries; she'd been knocked cold by the impact, no surprise there, but not seriously concussed, and everything else was in order.

"OK!" Gryphon said, dismissing the tool. "Get her inside! I'll see to her Striker."

"Roger that," Meiling replied, picking up the unconscious witch like a rag doll.

The other half of her Striker fell off when Meiling lifted her. It took Gryphon two trips to lug the damaged machinery into the house, by which time Meiling and Sakuya, working together with brisk efficiency, had already divested their unscheduled guest of her sodden uniform, dried her off as best they could, wrapped her up in a blanket, dragged the corner settee closer to the fireplace, and laid her gently thereupon with a throw pillow under her head.

"Here," said Meiling, throwing him a towel.

"Thanks," he replied, scrubbing at his rain-soaked hair. "Man alive, the weather around here doesn't screw around this time of year."

"Wait here, I'll get you two some dry clothes," Sakuya said, reappearing moments later with the promised items.

"Well then," said Gryphon once the exchange had been made. "Let's see what we have here... oh 'ello."

"Do you know her?" Remilia asked. "Is she one of yours?"

The witch who had struck the gazebo looked to be about sixteen, with sharp features and a jagged shock of dark-brown hair that was already drying out and un-wilting in the warmth from the fireplace. Not much else could be told about her at the moment, since she was wrapped up to her neck in a woolen blanket.

"She's not with the 501st, but I do know her," Gryphon confirmed, sitting down in his usual chair. "Never would have expected to see her here, though..."

Flandre, peering closely, reached into the top of the blanket and drew out a pair of stamped tags, one oblong and grey, the other red and circular, that were around the witch's neck on a cord.

"'Oxton, L.,'" she read. "'RAF. Flight Lieutenant. U. 3263827.'" Looking back over her shoulder at Gryphon, she said, "I'm not sure what half of that means, but I guess she's Britannian?"

Before he could reply beyond a nod, Flight Lieutenant Oxton stirred, mumbling, and then opened her eyes and looked around. She looked puzzled, though not alarmed, to find herself bundled up on a couch in a room full of odd-looking strangers. Even the puzzlement went away when she spotted Gryphon, replaced by a slightly tired smile.

"'Ello, Chief, fancy meeting you 'ere," she said in a cheery voice with much more than a trace of a London accent.

"Dang it, Lena, one month we've had that gazebo you wrecked," Gryphon said, exasperated. "This is why we can't have nice things. Also, you're a witch now?"

"That's what the RAF thinks, anyway," Lena replied. "Sorry for the dramatic entrance. I thought I was crossing a phase barrier, not a bloody time gradient. Last thing I remember thinking's 'Is this the end for Mrs. Oxton's little girl?' Thanks for the save."

"You're welcome. What are you doing here?"

"I 'eard someone up at Saint-Ulrich was looking for witches with time manipulation skills. Not many of those around, so I got a two-day pass an' 'eaded north. Noticed this... anomaly... along the way and thought I'd check it out. Maybe not my best plan. What're you doin' 'ere?"

"Date night," said Gryphon with an ironic little smile.

"Aw, lovely," said Lena, grinning. "That's so—wait. Why is your date night inside a time eddy?"

Rising from his seat, Gryphon took Remilia's hand and said wryly, "Long story short? 'S where the girl is."

Lena laughed. "Cor, ain't that always the way?"

"Let me introduce you," he said, and did so. As he did, Sakuya returned from the kitchen with a tray bearing a soup bowl and spoon.

"Oh, 'ello, Sakuya," said Lena cheerfully before Gryphon could introduce the maid. "Ain't you a sight for sore eyes? You're looking well."

Sakuya looked slightly confused. "I'm sorry, have we met?"

"Ah, bollocks, I've done it again," Lena grumbled.

"Now you know how I felt," Gryphon said to Sakuya with a little smile. "Lena's a time traveler, like us. We must all be out of order to each other."

"Well, not exactly like you, unless you've done some reincarnating I don't know about," said Lena wryly. "This timeline, I was born in Seven Dials in 1930. Anyway, nice meeting you all, and I'm sorry about your gazebo."

"Eh, I built it once, I can build it again," said Meiling philosophically. "I'm just glad you weren't seriously hurt."

"Here," said Sakuya, placing the tray on the low table by the settee. "This should warm you up."

"Thanks." Lena made to get up, then frowned thoughtfully worked an arm out of the blanket, raised its hem, and peered within. "Uh, I seem to be a bit naked."

"Oh, of course." Sakuya nodded to the fireplace, where Meiling had set up a couple of the dining room chairs with their backs to the fire and hung their unexpected guest's clothes up to dry. "I'll get you something to wear."

"Something to wear" turned out to be one of Meiling's spare shirts, which fit Lena's much smaller frame like a nightgown, but it did at least allow her to sit up and eat her soup.

"Thanks," she said when she'd finished and Sakuya picked up the tray.

"You're quite welcome," Sakuya said. "Is there anything else you need?"

"Nah, I think I'm good, thanks," said Lena. "What's the story on my Striker?"

"I haven't taken a good look at it yet, but I think it's all there," Gryphon said. "You bent some of it pretty good, but I've seen worse."

Lena chuckled. "Well," she said, rising, "you know what they say, any landing you walk away OW," and she pitched over, her right leg buckling under her. Meiling sprang forward and caught her, then carefully deposited her back on the couch, knelt before it, and judiciously ran her fingertips along the witch's right calf and ankle.

"Does that hurt?" she asked, touching a spot just above the point of the ankle.

"OW bloody 'ELL," Lena replied.

"I'll take that as a yes," said Meiling. "Sorry. Had to be sure. You've broken your ankle." Looking up, she said, "Sakuya, would you break up some ice and wrap it up in something, please? We need to get this cooled down before it starts to swell."

"Right," Sakuya agreed, heading for the kitchen.

"'Ow did I not notice a broken ankle?" Lena wondered, sounding more indignant than anything else.

"It probably wasn't fully broken until you tried to walk on it," said Meiling, feeling at the injury more gently.

"Ah, hell, I didn't scan that far down," said Gryphon, slapping his forehead. "I was too preoccupied making sure all the vital stuff was still where it was supposed to be."

"Eh, I'll live," said Lena, and then, blinking in surprise, "What did you just do? It doesn't 'urt near as much all of a sudden."

"I'm redirecting your qi around the break," said Meiling, her fingertips tracing a careful pattern on the ankle, which was starting to turn a bit bluish. "It won't last forever, because you need qi flow through the area for it to heal, but it'll give you some relief until we can come up with something better."

Lena grinned. "Thanks. Where'd you learn to do that?"

"Oh, y'know. The Old Country," said Meiling vaguely. "Ah, thanks," she went on to Sakuya, accepting the ice pack she'd prepared and placing it on the injury.

"You're just full of surprises, Master Hong," said Remilia fondly.

"I do what I can," said Meiling, blushing slightly.

Remilia took herself off to the kitchen then, and returned a few minutes later bearing a teacup on a saucer, which she presented to their guest with a slight flourish.

"Here you are, Lt. Oxton, try this," she said. "My late mother's herbal blend. It should help with the pain."

"Why thank you, Countess Scarlet," said Lena cordially, taking it and sipping. "You are truly as kind as you are lovely."

"Oi," said Gryphon mildly.

Remilia turned an impish smile to him. "Are you disagreeing with her, mon vieux?"

While everyone laughed, Gryphon gave a theatrically put-upon sigh. "I walked right into that one."

"You sure did," Meiling agreed, then gave him a sympathetic fist bump.

"It's just about time for dinner," said Sakuya, consulting The World. "Lt. Oxton, I'll make you up a tray, since we can hardly expect you to sit at the table."

Lena opened her mouth to say that was perfectly fine and thank you very much, but Flandre interjected, "That wouldn't be very sociable of us. Why don't we all just eat over here instead? I mean, it's three different special occasions now," she pointed out with a grin.

"Ordinarily, I would object that mealtimes at the table are sacred," Remilia said, "but under the circumstances, I think you're right, Flan."

And so, Gryphon and Meiling's birthday dinner was served à la mode suburbain, on improvised tables, from seats on soft furniture arranged in what interior-design magazines of a later decade would call a "conversational grouping". It made for a cheerfully festive change of pace, the informality of it meshing nicely with the unusual occasion and the new company.

Despite her injury and the obvious touch of fatigue it brought with it, Lena hit it off nicely with everyone in the household, and by the end of the meal no one was calling her "Lt. Oxton" any longer. Flandre, in particular, appeared thrilled to make her acquaintance, chatting happily away, which brought a private, nostalgic smile to her elder sister's face. It reminded Remilia pleasantly of much older times, when Flan had done exactly the same with guests of the house as a little girl.

Once the birthday cake and hot beverages were consumed, Gryphon excused himself for a moment to go and make a preliminary survey of the damage to her Striker. Upon returning to the living room, he reported,

"OK, good news and bad news. I'm pretty sure I can fix your Striker, but you won't be able to try and fly back out of the bubble until your leg heals anyway, so..." He shrugged. "Make yourself comfortable."

"Ah, this is no problem," Lena said, gesturing. "Now that I've got some good food in me, I can speed up my personal time an' 'eal up in a jiffy."

So saying, she closed her eyes in concentration; with the shimmery sound of released magic, a pair of grey-tipped brown wings appeared, tucked close to the sides of her head.

"Coool," Flandre murmured, never having seen a familiar-bearing witch in the modern style invoke her power before.

Lena opened one eye and grinned at her. "That's nothin', watch this," she said.

For a second, nothing happened; then an ominous rumbling noise, like distant thunder or a passing train, started rattling the teacups in their saucers, growing louder and stronger until the house itself began to shake.

"Whatever you're doing, turn it off!" Gryphon shouted over the noise.

Looking startled (by the phenomenon, not his shout), Lena released her hold on the magic, letting her kestrel's wings disappear, and the rumbling and shaking immediately ceased.

"... Orrrr not," the witch said, blinking. "Uh. Room for one more?"

Sakuya sighed. "Another mouth to feed," she said with mischief in her smile.

"O... K," said Meiling, impressed. "I wonder why that doesn't happen when Sakuya does her thing?"

Sakuya consulted her vortex manipulator's instruments, then said dryly, "Probably because The World isn't brute-forcing the entire timestream like someone I could mention."

"Oi! I can 'ear you."

"Wonderful! It would have been wasted, otherwise," Sakuya said with just a trace of impish humor.

"Lena, please stop flirting with Meiling's fiancée," said Gryphon patiently.

Lena gave him a don't-you-start look, but was only able to say, "I. Wait, wot?"

"We both know you have a type, Flight Lieutenant Oxton," Gryphon said, pronouncing it "leftenant" in the RAF style.

Lena folded her arms, pouting. "Yeah, but you don't 'ave to just say it like that, mate." Then she grinned, to show she wasn't genuinely miffed, and added, "Anyway, fair play, I'll be'ave meself."

Chuckling, Remilia rose from the Ottomane and said, "Speaking of fair play, I have a promise to keep, if you'll excuse me for a moment." She paused as something occurred to her. "That is, Sakuya, if you're all right with our guest... ?"

Sakuya bowed slightly, her expression untroubled. "As you like, m'lady," she said.

Remilia smiled. "Excellent. I'll be right back."

She went upstairs, returning a short while later with a large framed painting, which she propped up in one of the armchairs so they could all see it.

"There you are, Meiling, as promised: your best belovèd as she was when she first came to this house—plus a few months' worth of Papa's home cooking," she added with a little grin and a wink for Sakuya, who blushed, but looked pleased all the same.

"Oh wow," said Meiling, leaning forward in her seat for a closer look.

The painting was a traditional portrait, as one might expect to find in a stately home like the Scarlet Mansion, rendered in oil on gilt-framed stretched canvas. It depicted its subject seated at the edge of a red velvet Louis XV chair, like the ones to be found in Remilia's chamber, with a fireplace in the background: back very straight, hands together in her lap, one of them holding a book.

The girl in the painting was unmistakably Sakuya, with the same steel-grey hair in the same slightly shaggy cut, the same twin braids tied with green ribbons, the same blue-grey eyes in the same prettily composed face, but much younger—no more than 10 or 11 years old, her figure still pre-adolescent in her neatly cut, cleanly starched maid's dress and apron. Her sturdily shod feet didn't quite reach the floor, hanging toes just touching the hardwood. She was very petite, but showed no signs of the malnutrition and abuse some of the onlookers knew had dogged her young life prior to her salvation at the hands of Remilia's father, Count Victor Scarlet.

The portraiteur, whoever he was, had clearly been a painter of some skill and greater discernment, under instructions (from the painting's subject, Meiling wondered, or its commissioner?) to render Sakuya exactly. He hadn't omitted anything, from the chain of The World running from its loop at her waist into the watch pocket of her apron, to the neatly tied little bandages on several of her fingers, evidence that she had still been learning her trade. Her perfectly captured expression was solemn, almost somber, but it also conveyed contentment to anyone who knew Sakuya's face well enough to spot it: the faint traces of satisfaction around her eyes, the very slightest quirk of a smile at one corner of her mouth, just a hint of a blush in her cheeks.

Somewhat to everyone's surprise, the sight of it moved Meiling to tears.

"Meiling, are you all right?" she asked, leaning close with a concerned look.

Meiling sniffled, wiping her face with the back of a hand, but then grinned. "Remilia's right, Sakuya," she said. "You were adorable. I just want to reach right into the painting, pick you up, and take you home."

The adult Sakuya rolled her eyes slightly. "Pervert."

"Not like that!" Meiling hastened to add, her face going crimson, as Flandre burst out laughing (and the others were a bit more discreetly amused).

"In retrospect, I wish I had thought to ask that I be included in the picture myself," Remilia said wistfully. "We would have made a charming tableau. 'A Perfect Maid and Her Splendid Lady'."

"I was anything but perfect in those days, m'lady," Sakuya pointed out mildly.

"Just 'ow long 'ave you been a maid?" Lena wondered.

"In essence, all my life," said Sakuya. "I'll tell you about it some other time."

The witch nodded. "Fair enough, I was just curious." She yawned, covering it with the back of a hand, then said, "I realize the night is still young in vampire-land, but in the world I just came from it's getting pretty late. Any chance of a place to crash?"

"Sure, you can have my room," Meiling said. "I didn't end up needing it for very long," she added with a wink, drawing an exasperated but gentle swat to the head from Sakuya and giggles from both Lena and Flandre. "Let me just take another look at your ankle... hmm... yeah, I think we got the ice on it in time to head off the worst of the swelling."

Looking up from her patient, she went on, "Sakuya, do we have any old sheets or towels or anything that can be sacrificed? Something I can rip up for bandages?" To Lena, she explained, "I'm going to wrap this up for now, so you can at least hobble on it if you need to, and tonight we'll see about setting it properly."

"Some of my old sheets were pretty worn out," Flandre suggested.

Sakuya nodded. "Mm, I was just thinking of those. I'll be right back."

Remilia examined the neatly wrapped and tied dressing, festive in slightly faded red, Meiling had just finished putting on her new houseguest's injured ankle. Then, straightening up, she declared, "Very tidy work, Master Hong. Or should we call you Doctor?" she added with an impish smile.

"I'm no doctor," Meiling protested with a gratified blush, "but I've picked up a thing or two here and there. When you study martial arts as long as I have, you can't help but learn how to take care of things like this. Oh, that reminds me—Gryph, when you get a minute, can you go through your scrap lumber pile and see if you've got anything that would make a decent crutch?"

"Oh yeah, good idea. I'll take a look," Gryphon agreed. "Must be something in there I can bodge together."

Lena lifted her leg to admire the wrapping, then put it gently down and said, "Thanks, you lot." With a slightly bashful smile, she went on, "A girl doesn't always get such a warm welcome for causin' property damage."

"Not a bit of it," said Remilia, folding her arms grandly. "A guest is a jewel upon the cushion of hospitality, after all. Speaking of which, I mustn't keep you from your bed. You'll find we necessarily keep fairly late hours in this house, but of course you're free to keep whatever schedule you like."

"I'm sure I'll adapt in a day or two," said Lena, and then, with a wry grin, "I'm not exactly unfamiliar with creatures of the night—right, Chief?"

Gryphon chuckled. "Indeed."

"Now then," said Meiling briskly. "We can't have you trying to climb stairs on that ankle tonight, so... hup!" So saying, she picked the Britannian witch up in a classic princess carry without any apparent effort, drawing a startled squeak from her in the process, then set off for the front hall. "Be back in a minute!"

"No rush, be careful on the stairs," said Sakuya. "Good morning, Lena."

"G'morning, Lena! Sleep tight!" called Flandre.

"Uh... later, all!" said Lena, waving a little awkwardly over Meiling's shoulder as she was conveyed away.

"She has a very gallant side to her, hasn't she, our Meiling?" Remilia observed.

"Yes she does," Sakuya agreed with a sentimental smile.

"So..." said Flandre, drawing the syllable out. "Is anybody going to mention how well our new guest took the whole 'time-displaced house with two vampires' thing?"

Gryphon laughed. "That's Lena. She's seen even more weird stuff than I have, so she's pretty well un-gobsmackable."

"How can she have seen more weird stuff than you if she's only sixteen?"

"That's almost as long a story as mine."

"Huh. Well, whatever. I like her. And hey! Now I know five people in the whole world!" Flandre said with a bright grin. "That's a twenty-five percent gain in one night! Go me!"

Those who remained awake whiled away the wee hours talking over the various prospective improvement projects for the house, with Gryphon and Meiling showing off their drawings to the sisters and Sakuya, soliciting input as to which item should be prioritized, and strategizing about how and where they would round up the materials they needed. In the end, they didn't make any final decisions, but retired for the morning mulling over the different possibilities.

Gryphon was sitting on the bed which, after two months, he was truly coming to regard as both Remilia's and his own, scratching Wolfgang's ears and listening to her as—to his mild amusement—she changed for bed behind her dressing screen, in spite of everything.

"I've had an idea of my own that I'd like to propose," she said over the rustling of fabric.

"Oh?" he replied.

Remilia emerged from behind the screen. With the days getting warmer, she'd lately switched from the flannel nightdresses to which he'd grown accustomed to lighter, more casual nightgowns of a camisole type, shoulderless apart from thin straps; today's was white, with her customary ruffles and some nice brocading in the bodice. Crossing the room, she sat down beside him and said,

"Yes. Not to do with the house, but with our plans for next month. I was thinking—"

She was interrupted by a knock at the door. Looking faintly surprised, she rose and went to answer it. There stood Flandre, dressed for bed and carrying her pillow, as before.

"Hi," she said in a low voice. "Can I crash here today? No special reason, I just feel like being with you guys. Do you mind?"

"Of course I don't mind," said Remilia, giving her a hug. "Come in. I was just telling Benjamin about an idea I've had for next month." Shutting the door behind Flandre, she took her sister's hand and led her inside. "Let's get to bed and I'll tell you both about it."

"You try being in the middle this time, Sis," Flandre suggested as Remilia hung up her cap by the bed and folded back the covers. "I think we can get it to work... just like... that. Yeah! There we go. Comfy?"

"Surprisingly so—until one of you rolls onto my wing in your sleep," said Remilia archly.

"We'll be careful, right, bro?"

"Always," Gryphon agreed, then put out the last candle and settled in. Down at the foot of the bed, Wolfgang was already snoring by the time he'd finished situating himself.

"Anyway, tell us about your idea," Flandre prompted.

"Hm? Ah, yes. In the letter I wrote to the president, demanding an apology for the 10th Floréal, I designated you, Benjamin, as my agent, because I didn't think I'd be able to receive any return correspondence here. But it occurred to me earlier tonight—on next month's full moon, when you go out and loop back to June, instead of waiting for you here, why don't I come with you?"

"Well... I suppose there's no reason why that wouldn't work," said Gryphon after a moment's thought. "It would be no more dangerous than me going by myself, since we'd both be outside the bubble."

"That was my thought as well. We can go back together, and then you can return to Saint-Ulrich, and I'll get a night train from Colmar to Paris. I shall take a room somewhere in the capital and deal with the bureaucracy directly, however long that takes. When my business there is finished, I'll go to Ribeauvillé, and then we'll wait together for Flan to come up and join us at the July full moon."

"You, all by yourself in the big city?" said Flandre, skeptical. "You've barely left this house for the past 150 years, except for your date last week." She giggled. "You'd better take Sakuya with you or you'll get lost trying to find the train station."

"How can my own sister have so little faith in me?" asked Remilia indignantly. "I know where the train station is. Besides, I can't ask Sakuya to be parted from Meiling for a whole month, it would be a terrible abuse of my position."

"She'd be fine, you know she'll do anything for you," Flandre scoffed, then pointed out, "She'd be more worried about leaving Meiling alone, and from her side, you two will only be gone for a couple hours. Even if I leave for Ribeauvillé before you get back, she'll only be alone for, what, half an hour?" With affectionate sarcasm, she added, "She's a grown-up, she'll probably survive."

"Well... that is true. All right, I'll ask her, but only as a request. I'll have to ask once she's off-duty tomorrow, so it's extra-clear it's not an order."

Flandre giggled again. "You guys are so weird about your relationship," she said. "Master-servant? Best friends? Both at the same time?" She leaned up on an elbow, looking at her sister with mischievous eyes in the dark. "Hey, back in the old days, did you ever, you know... do it with her?"

"Flandre!" said Remilia, scandalized. "How dare you even ask such a question?"

"No, I mean, like... the vampire 'it'," said Flandre. "Not... the other thing."

"Oh. Well, even so, that's a very personal question."

"So, I'm your sister. Tell me."

Remilia sighed. "Very well. No, I never have. I was tempted, very tempted, on many occasions, but unlike certain vampires I could name, I can control myself. It would have been a terribly improper thing to do. The ultimate imposition."

"Mm-hmm. I bet she wanted you to~," said Flandre in a playful sing-song—but if she was hoping to get another rise out of her sister with the quip, she was disappointed, for all she got back was another sigh, this one slightly wistful.

"You're probably right, but I was too blind to see it," said Remilia. "At any rate, it was a long time ago now, and both of us have gone in other directions. I love Sakuya—I always will—but I could never ask such a thing of her now." Seeming to realize for the first time in a while that she and Flandre weren't alone in the room, she went on, "Sorry, Benjamin, is this topic uncomfortable for you?"

"No," Gryphon replied, hugging her a little tighter. Instinctively, she raised a hand and laced it with his where it lay on her stomach. "I mean, you're not saying anything I didn't already know, or at least hadn't already guessed. And I'd be the hypocrite of the year if I held that kind of thing against you, don't you think?" he added wryly.

"There is that," she said, her slight smile audible in her voice. Then, her tone becoming a trifle arch once more, she asked, "Is there any other impertinent question you'd like to ask, Flan?"

"Nah, that's enough impertinence for one day," said Flandre, her voice starting to get fuzzy with drowsiness. Remilia felt a flash of surprise, then a contented glow, as Flandre's hand found the other two and covered them, squeezing gently.

"G'morning, you guys," Flandre went on, now audibly half-asleep. "Love you lots."

Remilia was most of the way out herself before she realized they had never reached a conclusion about her plan.

Ah, well. Later is fine, she thought, relaxing fully, and plummeted into sleep with a serene smile.

Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra feat. Frankie Carle
"Sunrise Serenade"
Decca 2321 (1939)

Act VI: L'Intérêt d'une Divulgation Complète

The Ink Spots
"Bless You"

Flandre Scarlet woke all at once, her eyes popping open, and just lay there for a few moments, staring into darkness, completely disoriented. She'd been having a dream, she was certain of that, but it had evanesced the instant she'd awakened. She had no recollection now of what it had been about... only that she was indefinably glad not to be dreaming it any more.

Sighing, she focused on the here and now and saw that Remilia was still asleep. The jumble of pillows at the head of the bed had shifted in the day, tilting the elder sister slightly onto her left side. She lay with her arm outstretched across the empty expanse that had contained her fiancé, while her right wing had moved in her sleep so that it now lay draped over Flandre's hip.

Flandre chuckled softly and moved to hug Remilia from behind, mindful of her other wing, which lay parallel to her body. The elder Scarlet muttered something in her sleep and unconsciously raised a hand to touch Flandre's arm where it crossed her chest. Though Flandre had no particular desire to go back to sleep, she found herself content to lie there as long as Remilia remained that way.

It turned out to be about ten minutes before Remilia stirred, mumbling again, and then slowly turned onto her back, nestling her wings carefully into the gaps between the pillows, as they had been at the start of the day.

"Evening, Flan," she said with a still-sleepy smile, kissing her little sister on the forehead.

"Evening, Sis," Flandre replied. "How did you sleep?"

"Very well, thank you. You were right about the middle, it wasn't the problem I thought it would be. Perhaps we should try it with you next time."

"I dunno if it would work so well for me," Flandre admitted, a touch glumly. She ran her fingertips along the edge of Remilia's nearer wing, making her twitch and suppress a giggle, then said, "My wings aren't nice and soft like yours."

"I'm sure we could work something out. And you'll be amazed how... secure you feel."

"Well... we'll have to try it. If nothing else, if I'm in the middle I can stop big bro from sneaking off in the middle of the afternoon." She raised her head to give her sister a slight smirk. "You always let him get away."

Remilia laughed. "I've been admonished."

They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, neither quite ready to get up and face the night. When one of them spoke again, it was Remilia, matter-of-fact as could be:

"Benjamin tells me you asked him to kiss you yesternight."

"He told you?!" Flandre replied, startled. "I mean... I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's not like I asked him not to, and he must tell you everything."

"I don't know about everything, but everything he thinks is important."

"Did he also tell you he didn't do it?"

"Of course."

"I'm sorry, Sis. I know it was out of line, but... well, no." Flandre shook her head. "'But' nothing, there's no excuse. I knew it was wrong and I asked for it anyway. I just... I don't know. I love him," she said helplessly.

Remilia surprised her sister again by taking her hand and squeezing it gently. "Be at peace, little sister," she said. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Of course I did," Flandre rebutted. "I asked my big sister's fiancé to kiss me. Even I know that's messed up."

Remilia sat up, folding her legs, and turned partly to face Flandre; after a moment, Flandre assumed a similar posture. Now that they could see each other's faces, the whole thing felt that much more awkward to the younger sister, although she noticed with faint puzzlement that Remilia's expression was serene, even slightly amused.

"You've read too many romantic novels, Flan," said Remilia indulgently. "I'm well aware they were Maman's not-so-secret vice; the library must be riddled with them. But consider: Do you really believe the romantic rules of the eighteenth century apply to the likes of you and me?"

Flandre blinked at her, baffled. "... Don't they?"

Remilia snorted. "Of course they don't. We're not some simpering pair of pitiful hothouse flowers from the dark days of the ancien régime." She took her sister's hand again, then brandished their linked hands in defiance, declaring, "We are vampires! The last survivors of the House of Scarlet! We shall choose whom and how we love, not let a gaggle of hack writers long in their graves constrain us. And if it happens that we've chosen the same path, well..." She brought their hands to her lips and kissed Flandre's knuckles. "So be it." With a dry chuckle, she concluded, "As Benjamin says, 'We'll figure it out.'"

"Are you... you're not messing with me right now, are you, Sis?" asked Flandre.

"Would I joke about such a thing? Have I ever not shared anything with you, Flan, if you but asked?"

Flandre blushed to a near-match with her crimson nightdress. "No, but... this is... special."

Remilia pulled her younger sister into a hug, then carefully lay the two of them back down, each arranging her wings behind her. "So are you, Flandre. You always have been to me, and I dare presume I can speak for Benjamin and say that you are to him as well. Have the three of us not walked the edge of life itself together?"

Flandre sniffled. "That's true."

"Don't cry, little sister," said Remilia, holding her tighter. "You've done all the crying you ever need do in your life. Come, let's get a little more sleep, and then we'll go have a bath and wash all these gloomy thoughts away, shall we? Then we can have a good breakfast and start the night over."

Flandre smiled. "Sounds good."

Because she'd gone straight from her sister's room to the bath, Flandre had to put her nightshirt back on and return to her own room to dress for the night. As she did, her mind wandered. In spite of Remilia's talk of the bath washing the gloomy thoughts away, Flandre still felt preoccupied, partly with futilely chasing the dream she'd had, partly with a lingering worry that Remilia hadn't really meant what she said about... the other matter.

Not that she suspected her sister of lying to her; but she couldn't shake the sneaking feeling that Remilia's calm acceptance of the prospect wasn't as wholehearted as it had seemed. She knew her elder sister still felt guilty about all the years Flandre had spent locked up in the basement, and indeed still blamed herself for the events that had made it necessary in the first place. Could she be swallowing her reservations about sharing her mieux aimé out of a sense that she owed her little sister that much, however it might trouble her? Flandre couldn't help but worry about this, mainly because she felt a similar sense of obligation herself, even though the person to whom she felt obligated had told her repeatedly that she owed him nothing.

On the other hand, she hadn't asked Gryphon to kiss her because she felt she owed him; she'd asked him to kiss her because she wanted him to kiss her. So maybe even if Remilia did feel like she owed Flandre something, that feeling wasn't shaping her reaction to...

Oh, this is getting me nowhere, Flandre grumbled to herself. Worse than that, it was starting to feel something like the bad old days, the way her damaged mind had occasionally just latched onto something stupid and chased it around in circles indefinitely. She wasn't going back there. Never again.

Shaking her head, she buttoned her vest and smoothed it, then frowned and smoothed it again, regarding herself in the tin-backed glass of her dressing mirror. Normally, the matching vests and skirts she preferred met up so perfectly that, at a casual glance, it looked like she was wearing a one-piece jumper dress, but tonight there was a definite gap there. Tug and straighten as she might, at least an inch of white blouse showed between the two—and the blouse itself would only stay tucked in so long as she didn't raise her hands above shoulder height. Was she wearing the skirt too low? No, if anything it seemed to be riding a little high, the ruffled hemline a good inch or so above her knees.

Flandre swung her arms, noting as she did that the vest and blouse seemed a bit snug around the shoulders. Her imagination? Maybe, but...

Stepping into her shoes—they, at least, seemed to fit normally—she went out into the corridor. Sakuya happened to be passing by, carrying a broom and dustpan, and Flandre called out to her.

"Oh, Sakuya—do you have a second? Can you please help me with something?"

Sakuya paused, smiling. "Certainly, young mistress. What do you need?"

"I'm not sure," Flandre admitted. "For the last few nights I've been noticing something a little off, and I think I just put my finger on what it is." Tugging illustratively at the hem of her vest, she went on, "It's... like none of my clothes fit right." She fidgeted a little. "Everything feels a little too tight, or a little too short, or both. Did you do anything differently when you last washed my things?"

"No, nothing out of the ordinary." Sakuya gave her a judicious look, then took her hand and said, "Come with me..."

She led Flandre back up the hall to her own bedroom, where, setting aside the broom, she went to her sewing table and got her measuring tape. This she plied with a tailor's diligence and a thoughtful frown, quietly directing Flandre to turn this way or that, raise her arms, and otherwise accommodate the measuring process.

Then, her work completed, she returned to her sewing table, consulted a notebook that lay next to the pincushion, then turned a smile to Flandre and said,

"Congratulations, young mistress. You've grown."

Flandre stared at her. "But... that's impossible. I'm a vampire, I can't grow. I'll always be the age I was when Sis turned me."

"That's what I thought, too," said Sakuya, nodding. "That's what's supposed to happen, or rather not happen." Indicating the notebook on her sewing table, she went on, "But according to my notes from the last time I made clothing for you, you're nearly three centimeters taller than you were in 1867, and your other measurements are all slightly increased as well."

"So that's why my clothes feel weird," said Flandre with a slightly-shell-shocked giggle. She shook her head. "Poor Sis, I was already taller than she is, and now this. It's going to give her a complex."

"I don't think you need to worry about that," Sakuya assured her. "Your sister is quite comfortable in her own skin."

Flandre chuckled. "That's true. She's never lacked for confidence." Then, looking mystified again, she went on, "I wonder how this happened? Another side effect of... that night?"

"I've no idea," said Sakuya, "but nevertheless, it has happened, and that means I've some work today," she continued with a little smile. "If you'd care to undress, young mistress, I'll get started by altering the clothes you're wearing tonight." Producing The World from her watch pocket, she added with a slight twinkle, "Won't take but a moment."

Sakuya expected Flandre to announce their discovery at breakfast, but when she didn't, the maid kept silent about it as well. If the young mistress didn't wish to make a point of it, after all, that was her business. Instead, the two took their seats at the table with apologies for being the last to arrive, accepting stacks of waffles from a cheerfully attentive Gryphon (who had appointed himself breakfast chef, in spite—or possibly because—of the fact that it was still technically his birthday for another few hours). Sakuya found this pleasantly nostalgic; she'd had his waffles before, far from here, in a future he himself hadn't yet reached, and they were every bit as good now as they were going to be in the twenty-fifth century.

Across the table, in the heretofore-vacant spot to Flandre's left, their accidental houseguest looked up from her plate and met Sakuya's eye, and for just a moment they shared a silent communication that surprised the maid slightly. She was in the same situation with Flight Lieutenant Lena Oxton of the RAF that Gryphon was in with her: they were all time travelers and all out of sequence with each other, such that she knew Gryphon from a point in his timeline which he himself hadn't reached yet, and Lena appeared to know Sakuya from sometime she hadn't yet experienced.

And, if the knowing little grin and wink the dark-haired young witch had just given her was any indication, she also knew these waffles of old.

Sakuya smiled in return, but what she said out loud had nothing to do with any of that; instead, she asked after the state of Lena's broken ankle, which had kept her from sitting at this table the evening before.

"Doing fine, thanks," Lena assured her. "Between Lady Remilia's special tea and Meiling's doctoring, I 'ardly even feel it."

"You ought to put it up as much as you can, though," Meiling cautioned her. "We want to minimize any swelling—need to keep the new splint and wrap on it as much as possible until it sets. Otherwise I'll have to scrounge up some plaster and put it in a cast, and then you won't be able to use the bath," she added with a grin.

"Well, that would never do," Lena agreed. "What's a full-dress Fusō bath doing in an 'ouse like this, anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"

"My late father was a great admirer of that country," Remilia explained. "He built that bath after seeing them in their native habitat, so to speak."

"Ah, a man of culture," said Lena.

"Just so," Remilia agreed.

Flandre waited a moment to see if that conversational thread would continue. When it didn't, she seized the moment and declared, "These waffles are amazing."

"Thank you," said Gryphon. "When I was a kid, I used to skip breakfast..."

"Well, that's a mistake," Meiling interrupted. "Most important meal of the day!"

"Except for all the others," Sakuya teased her gently.

"Well, yeah. Sorry, Gryph, go on."

"Yes. Hrm. As I was saying. I used to skip breakfast, except when I visited my grandparents. My grandmother used to make me waffles every day. It didn't matter how late I got out of bed. Could've been time for normal people to eat lunch! I still got waffles. Eventually I got her to teach me how she made them, and here we are."

"Maybe we should have a breakfast contest sometime," said Flan. "Your waffles, Sakuya's crêpes, and Sis's pain perdu."

"I think we'd all win," said Meiling, and everybody laughed.

"So listen, Gryph," said Lena. "I was on my way up to 501st country because I 'eard someone was looking for a witch with time skills. Was that you, by any chance?"

Gryphon nodded. "It was. Or it will be, depending on how you look at it."

With as few brushstrokes as possible, he explained the nature of the time anomaly she'd accidentally flown into the night before, and the lengths he had to go to in order to live a sort of double life without disrupting his contribution to the war effort.

"We didn't really set out to do it this way, but that's how it's developed," he concluded. "But obviously we can't keep it up forever."

"No, you're right about that," Lena agreed. "Sooner or later something's got to give. So you're looking for a way to get the mansion back into normal time."


"Well... it ain't really my field," Lena mused, then added with a grin, "but I 'appen to 'ave some free time just at present. I 'ear tell there's a library?"

"Yes, indeed," said Remilia. "My mother was one of the foremost witches of her time in these parts, and she built an extensive library. I'm afraid it's a bit of a mess at the moment, but you're free to look through it as much as you like. Flandre, you know the collection best, do you think you could help?"

"Sure, I'd be glad to," Flandre agreed. "I only sort of remember a lot of the stuff, but I should at least be able to recognize the books when we find them."

So, once breakfast was concluded, that was what they did. Meiling and Flandre moved one of the spare couches from the living room into the library, along with a table, and set up a sort of study nook for Lena in one corner, where she could rest her injured leg and do her research in comfort and quiet.

While Flandre was hunting through the jumbled collection for the first few volumes that might be of use to their guest, Remilia acted on an impulse that had formed the previous night, when she'd shown the painting of Sakuya as a child to Meiling and the others. Collecting a candlestick from the living room, she went down to the basement.

Once there, she had to pause for a moment and get her bearings. It had been a long time since she last came down here, after all. Upstairs, she had no clear recollection of where the thing she was looking for would be, but once in the basement, seeing the familiar hallways and doors, it all came back to her. With increasingly sure steps, she followed a path she'd last trod many decades before.

She had to pass by the door to Flandre's old room to reach her destination, which gave her a moment's pause, but only a moment's. The sign that had adorned it for so long, with its terse message of warning, was gone. Remilia vaguely wondered what had happened to it. Flan hadn't moved it to her new room upstairs; she'd made a new one with a much friendlier tone.

As she drew even with the door, it suddenly opened, startling her. She stepped back, instinctively assuming a defensive stance, then dropped it immediately as Gryphon emerged, looking mildly surprised to see her.

"Oh, hi," he said. "Fancy meeting you here."

"What were you doing in there?" Remilia wondered.

"Measuring," Gryphon replied, holding up a carpenter's rule. "I'm considering turning it into the generator room. It's pretty centrally located, about the right size, good sturdy walls... fairly safe bet Flan doesn't care what we do with it, although I'll ask her before we start tearing anything out."

"Ah. That makes sense."

"And you? Were you looking for me or Meiling? I think she's in the storeroom checking whether we have enough leftover pipe to run a feed line to the attic."

Remilia shook her head. "No, I'm after something else entirely—although since you're here, you can help me carry it upstairs."

When the household reconvened for lunch, Meiling was the first to notice that the blank space above the fireplace in the great room had been filled.

"Oh hey," she said, diverting from her course toward the table to go and have a look. "Where'd this come from?"

"Benjamin and I brought it up from the cellar," Remilia told her.

"Oh wow," said Flandre. Tears came to her eyes as she gazed up at the painting. Sniffling, she went on, "I didn't know we had this..."

"It was made in 1750," Remilia said, taking her sister's hand, while Gryphon stepped up behind them and put an arm around each. "For Maman and Papa's 250th wedding anniversary."

Sakuya smiled a nostalgic smile. "I'm pleased to see it's still intact."

"I take it these are your parents?" Lena inquired.

Remilia nodded. "They are indeed. Count Victor Scarlet," she said, nodding solemnly to one of the two figures in the massive portrait, "and Countess Remilia Scarlet the Elder, requiescat in pace."

As portrayed, Count Victor was a tall, thin man with a high forehead and a calm, mildly ironic smile. Though he was dressed in a fashion typical of Gallian gentlemen of the mid-eighteenth century, he had eschewed the fashion for wigs that had been de rigueur with such men in that era, instead wearing his slightly wavy silver hair gathered in a loose ponytail, his pointed ears jutting through at the sides. He had a relaxed, easygoing stance, almost insouciant, which was slightly at odds with the dagger hilt just peeking out of his jacket and the substantial-looking gold-knobbed walking stick he held in his right hand.

Standing next to him, her right hand tucked into the crook of his left elbow, Countess Remilia the Elder was a head shorter and a trifle stouter, although her figure, insofar as could be told in the voluminous lady's wear of the day, was far from stereotypically matronly. She looked no older than thirty or thirty-five, just starting to develop crow's feet at the corners of her cornflower blue eyes, and her blonde hairline below the white kerchief she wore on her head showed no grey. Unlike her husband, she stood foursquare, no-nonsense, her expression just short of grim.

Getting their first sight of the elder Scarlets, Gryphon, Meiling, and Lena could all see immediately that they could be no one other than the two sisters' parents. Remilia had her father's hair, and also his wings; there was more of his angular face in hers than her sister's, which was closer to their mother's, and Flandre's hair was like hers, golden and straight. Gryphon was interested to notice that, although both sisters' eyes inevitably had the same vampiric features as their father's—the red color and vertical pupils—their shape was more like Remilia the Elder's, and was one of the strongest ways in which they resembled each other.

"They look like quite a couple," Lena remarked.

"That they were," Remilia agreed, then chuckled reminiscently. "Maman is putting on her business face in this. She believed that portraits were too expensive for frivolity. No doubt she tried to convince the painter to leave out Papa's knife and paint him with a proper wig, but he always insisted that things be depicted as they truly were in any painting he was paying for."

"She does look pretty fierce," Meiling observed. "Uh, in a good way. No offense."

"She was always very kind to Sis and me," Flandre said, a touch defensively. "I know she doesn't look it here, but she really enjoyed motherhood. If anything," she added with a nostalgic half-giggle, half-sob, "she had to put on that face to stop herself from mothering everybody else."

"I took this painting down after they died," Remilia said, sounding like she was not so much explaining it to anyone there, but reviewing the events in her own mind. "It was just... too painful to look at. But lately, with the household coming back to life and a family of my own forming around me..."

She raised her free hand and flicked an errant tear from her cheek, but with a smile on her face. "I feel the time has come to restore them to their place of honor." With that, she turned the smile to the others and went on, "We're a strange family by their standards, but... I think they would approve. If nothing else, they'd be able to tell how happy we are."

No one replied with words, just gathering a little closer together, all with sentimental smiles. Then, shaking herself, Remilia said with theatrical briskness and a wink,

"Goodness. How very mawkish I can be sometimes. Maman would certainly not approve of that. Shall we to lunch?"

Meiling sat on the edge of the bed and watched as Sakuya, who always took a little longer about these things, prepared for the day. Faintly, through the curtained windows, her sensitive ears picked up the sounds of pre-dawn birdsong, like a musical cue that it was time to wrap up operations in this house of vampires.

She was still feeling warmly sentimental; had felt that way all night after Remilia had shown off the painting of her parents. She was pretty sure everyone had. The after-dinner gathering in the living room had felt particularly cozy tonight, everyone quietly enjoying each other's company, gathered around the fireplace. Even now that it was summer, the great room stayed cool enough that it was worth having a fire going. Meiling wondered idly whether that was some kind of enchantment laid on the place, or just a quirk of the house's heavy stone and timber construction.

Either way, the fire had added just the right crowning touch to a calm, mellow evening, and the cumulative effect had Meiling, never the least sentimental dragon, feeling even warmer and gentler than usual.

Already changed for bed, she watched with a languid smile as Sakuya, her hair down and combed out, did the same, exchanging her off-duty clothes for a light summer nightdress of plain white silk. Sakuya had several of these, all of which she'd made herself. This one seemed to be made on a pattern suited to the house's vampire mistress, for though it had short sleeves and a full bodice with collar, it left the wearer's back uncovered to the waist, like a lot of Remilia's clothing did in order to make way for her wings.

Impulsively, Meiling rose, crossed the space between the bed and Sakuya's dressing table, and embraced her from behind, kissing her just behind an ear.

"Oh! Hello," said Sakuya, mildly surprised.

"Hello," Meiling replied, and then, apropos of nothing, "You're so beautiful."

Sakuya chuckled. She had half-expected Meiling to be in this kind of mood this morning, having picked up on the vibe of the evening herself. Truth be known, she was in that kind of mood herself, so it suited her just fine.

"Why, thank you," she said.

"This is my favorite nightdress," Meiling went on softly. "You know why?"

"Because it's the easiest to take off me?" Sakuya guessed mischievously.

"No, although that's good too," Meiling said. Ducking her head, she unexpectedly kissed Sakuya between her shoulder blades, making her jump slightly and utter a quiet squeak. "It's because it shows your back. You always wear a high dress or a shirt and vest normally, so I can't see it." She straightened up, pulling her in tighter, and murmured, "Which is a shame. Your skin is so perfect."

Smiling, Sakuya settled into her taller lover's strong embrace and leaned her head back against Meiling's shoulder. "By an odd coincidence, you've Remilia's mother to thank for that."

"Oh? How so?" Meiling wondered.

Tuesday, August 17, 1790
Maison Écarlate

Sakuya entered the library with some trepidation. In her nearly three months as a servant of the Scarlet family, she'd never been summoned here before, nor ever summoned anywhere by Countess Remilia. That august lady had never seemed to take much notice of her, beyond a perfunctory welcome and injunction to do her job well when Count Victor had first brought her home from his voyage halfway around the world.

Which suited Sakuya fine, if she were honest, because she found the countess significantly more daunting than her husband or their elder daughter. She had never feared Count Victor, and she'd found Lady Remilia the Younger intimidating only for the first night or two, which was all the time she'd needed to realize that the young vampire was a kind, gentle, considerate mistress who would be a pleasure to serve. (Even her tendency toward egotistical bluster became charming once Sakuya realized it was meant half in jest and never with malice.)

The countess, on the other hand, remained a remote and forbidding figure. The other servants spoke of her in low voices, if at all—apart from Madame Giraud, her personal lady's-maid, who did not deign to speak socially with the rest of the staff—and acknowledged her as the source of the house's fair-but-strict discipline. Never do anything that might displease Countess Remilia, the received wisdom of the below-stairs went, or being dismissed without a reference will be the best outcome you can hope for. Make her genuinely angry, and she might recycle you into reagents for her alchemical experiments... or feed you to her mad daughter who's locked up in the basement.

Sakuya was too level-headed to believe that either of those things was literally true. She had yet to encounter Lady Flandre, but Lady Remilia spoke of her often, and Sakuya knew that the whole point of her confinement was to prevent her from harming anyone. Count Victor would hardly countenance such measures, in any event. All the same, the countess's formidable reputation preceded her, and so Sakuya had been shocked and mildly frightened to receive a peremptory summons to her innermost sanctum.

Pausing before the heavy-timbered door of the countess's private study, uninvited entry to which was strictly forbidden to absolutely everyone save Count Victor himself, Sakuya steeled herself inwardly, then knocked. Her first attempt was so timid, and the door so heavily built, that it made no sound even on her own side, so she screwed up her courage and tried again.

The door swung open as if blown by a stiff breeze, letting out scents of candles and unidentifiable herbs, and from within the countess's voice said crisply,


Keeping her back straight and her face neutral, Sakuya crossed the threshold and entered the small stone room. Countess Remilia was within, seated at her desk-cum-worktable, and to Sakuya's mild surprise, she wasn't alone.

She had known, of course, that Lucrezia Sapere, the countess's friend and colleague from Venezia, was visiting with her granddaughter. The junior Sapere spent a fair bit of her time on such visits in Remilia the Younger's company, since they were much closer in (apparent) age, so Sakuya was reasonably well acquainted with her. In fact, she'd just left them together in the parlor, drinking tea and reading old Romagnan poetry, where she'd been attending them when the summons from the countess had come.

Sakuya hadn't expected that Signora Sapere had anything to do with the summons, though, so she was a bit taken aback to see the elderly Venezian lady here, standing by one of the cabinets. She must, the maid reckoned, have been about the same height as Remilia the Elder in her youth, but age had stooped and wizened her, and with her white hair and prominent nose, she was now practically a stereotype of the agèd witch, apart from the absence of the traditional air of malevolence. Signora Sapere instead projected a sense of near-infinite calm, the presence of a person who had seen more than most people would ever forget and could no longer be surprised.

Pulling her attention away from the countess's guest (who seemed, in turn, to be paying the tiny maid no mind at all), Sakuya firmly suppressed an urge to look around at all the shelves and cabinets of alchemical preparations and paraphernalia that surrounded her—she wasn't here to sightsee, after all—and approached the countess instead.

"You called for me, your ladyship?" she said, her small voice made smaller still by the flat acoustics of the little room.

"I did," the countess said, her tone of voice as clipped and cool as it had been on all the handful of prior occasions when she'd addressed her daughter's maid directly. "Come closer."

Puzzled, Sakuya crossed the room to stand before the countess's desk. Countess Remilia rose from her chair and came around to the front side, then stood with arms folded, looking down at the tiny grey-haired girl with a frown that might have been displeased, but could just as easily have been pensive.

What she said next surprised Sakuya so much, she failed to react for a moment:

"Turn around and strip."

After a second's stunned silence, Sakuya replied, "B-beg pardon, your ladyship?"

"I didn't think it was a complicated instruction," said the countess tartly. "Take off your clothes and face away from me. Now, if you please. You're not the only business I have to attend to tonight."

Sakuya was completely baffled, but an order was an order. Feeling more than a touch of renewed fear, she did as she was told, removing her dress and apron. Unsure what to do with them, she folded them neatly according to her training and placed them in a stack on the countess's desk.

"Your underclothes, too," said the countess. "Quickly, now."

Utterly at a loss, Sakuya took off her chemise and drawers as well, leaving her standing there in just stockings and shoes. She wasn't particularly bothered about being naked—the room was very private, after all, it wasn't as if she were standing in the middle of the main street in Colmar—but she felt very vulnerable and confused.

She resisted an urge to turn and look as she heard the sound of something being picked up, then a metallic noise that presently registered as the lid of a jar being unscrewed, behind her.

"Tch," said Countess Remilia, who now sounded no farther than a foot or two behind Sakuya. When she went on, she was speaking Italian, the common language of the peninsula where both Venezia and Romagna were located: «Look at this, Lucrezia. Have you ever seen such a sight on a child so young? Abominable.»

«Alas, I have,» Signora Sapere replied, her voice drawing nearer as she spoke. «Not for a long while, I admit, but times were much harsher when I was your age, Remilia.»

Sakuya wisely kept silent, guessing that neither woman knew she could understand them, and all but held her breath, waiting to see what would happen. A moment later, she felt someone's cool hand—she couldn't tell whose—touch her back, and jumped slightly in surprise.

"Be still," the countess commanded her, and she felt the fingertips of the hand gently trace the crosshatch of scars on her back—souvenirs of repeated whippings.

«Who is responsible for this?» Signora Sapere asked.

«Her last owner,» Countess Remilia replied, and Sakuya was startled by the depth of loathing in her normally clipped and impassive voice as she went on, «A brute of a Dutchman, a sailor. Victor bought her from him on his voyage home from Fusō,» then added with a grim chuckle, «I say 'bought'. More accurate to say he forced the swine to sell her. Soft-hearted fool! I would have saved the money...»

Sakuya felt tears springing to her eyes. Even though she had already known the countess cared nothing for her, it hurt to hear her salvation dismissed so casually.

So the next words Remilia the Elder uttered shocked her wide-eyed: «... and simply killed him.»

«Just so,» Signora Sapere agreed.

The next thing the countess said was addressed to Sakuya again: "Hold still. This will be cold, and it may sting a little at first."

Before Sakuya could recover from her shock about the previous remark, or ask for clarification on this new one if she intended to, she felt something chill and gooey on her skin, which confused her completely until she realized that Countess Remilia must be applying some kind of unguent or lotion. Firmly but gently, she spread it across the entire scarred expanse of the little maid's back.

«My, my,» said Signora Sapere. «That's quite an aggressive formulation, isn't it? I can already see it working.»

«It's made on a base of troll fat rather than the usual,» the countess replied, working the salve in with her fingertips.

«How extravagant!» declared the elderly Venezian, a note of slightly mocking mirth in her voice.

«Shut up,» Countess Remilia grumbled, and Signora Sapere laughed. «It's a test batch,» the countess went on, and then she said to Sakuya,

"Well? Does it hurt, child? Speak up, this is important for my research."

"N-no," Sakuya stammered, and then, "It tingles. Feels... feels nice," she admitted, as if she feared that intelligence would disappoint the countess somehow. Though she suspected she knew, based on the sensation and the conversation between the two witches, she asked, "What... what's it doing?"

Rather than answer directly, the countess said brusquely, "If anyone ever saw these scars, they would assume you came by them here. That won't do. I won't have my house bruited about as a place where servants are mistreated."

"Oh," said Sakuya, and then, in an even smaller voice than usual, "... Thank you."

"Didn't I just say I wasn't doing it for your sake?" said the countess brusquely, and Signora Sapere laughed again. Countess Remilia finished working the ointment into Sakuya's back, then stepped away and replaced the lid on the jar. "There. You may go. Don't put your dress back on, just your underthings. Go straight to bed and let it work. I'll tell Remilia I've excused you from your duties for the rest of tonight."

"Y... yes, your ladyship," said Sakuya meekly.

She wanted to cry, wanted to thank the countess again, probably more than once; but somehow, she maintained her self-possession and did neither. Instead, once she'd put her chemise and drawers back on, she turned to face the two witches and made the best obeisance a girl could manage in just her underwear, then gathered up the rest of her clothes and withdrew.

Just before the heavy sanctum door closed behind her, she heard Signora Sapere say cheerfully, «You're so dishonest with your feelings, Remicciatola...»

"So you see," said Sakuya in a subdued voice, "if not for the carefully disguised kindness of m'lady's mother, that back you enjoy so much would be... well, not so pleasing."

Meiling turned her around, looking her in the eye, and said seriously, "Sakuya, I would love you regardless. With scars, without scars, whatever. You're well aware that I'm no perfect specimen myself." Hugging her firmly, she rubbed the smaller woman's back comfortingly and went on, "I do love your beautiful skin, but it's not what I love about you. Never, ever forget that."

"I... I won't," Sakuya replied, returning the embrace. "Thank you, Meiling."

"You're welcome. Now then!" Meiling went briskly on, and without further ado she swept Sakuya up in her arms like the child she no longer was.

"What are you doing?" Sakuya inquired.

"Taking my princess to bed, of course," Meiling replied. "And then I'll drive the bad memories away with the power of my positive qi, that you may sleep the sleep of the just."

Sakuya rolled her eyes, laughing. "If I ever run out of syrup for breakfast," she remarked, "I'll just bore a hole in you and let out the sap."

"Hush, woman, I'm being gallant here." So saying, Meiling placed her gently in bed, then climbed in after her and pulled the covers over them both. "I hear you like that kind of thing."

"You're not wrong," Sakuya replied, kissing her.

Some little while later, Meiling lay propped up on one elbow, watching Sakuya sleep with a fond little smile. Here was a face of the Scarlet Mansion's perfect and elegant maid no one else saw, tousled and still a bit flushed, but so utterly calm and relaxed that it was as though she had never had a single care in all her life. All barriers down, absolutely peaceful and secure. The knowledge that she could provide moments like this to someone with such a history made Meiling's heart feel like it was swelling.

She settled down and began to drift off to sleep herself, and as she did so, she gave silent thanks to the departed spirit of that formidable woman, Remilia Scarlet the Elder, for showing the future love of her life such kindness... however carefully disguised.

For the next several nights, while Lena carried on with her research in the library, Flandre spent the first two or three hours of each evening there with her, hunting amid the almost entirely unsorted stacks for books that might be relevant to her search and delivering them to her for study. She also spent part of that time chatting with the household's young guest, who was the first active-duty combat witch she had the chance to meet, about her trade, the war, recent history, and related matters, though she was careful not to monopolize too much of Lena's time.

During the same period, Gryphon and Meiling spent part of their time devising further repairs and improvements to the house. To their frustration, they found themselves too short of the materials they needed to get very far with their two primary projects, the greenhouse and the electrical room. After erecting the frame of the former, they ran out of glass before even finishing the roof, and the latter required so much specialized stuff they didn't have that they couldn't even make a start on it without a supply run—which could, of course, be arranged no sooner than the next full moon in mid-July.

Instead, they started by rebuilding the gazebo, then used spare timbers and scrap lumber from the damaged parts of the house and fallen outbuildings, of which there was plenty, to construct a bizarre sort of playground arrangement in the dead ground between the north wing and the old stables. This sprawling, multi-leveled structure, which Gryphon nicknamed "the jungle gym" for reasons that remained obscure to the mistress of the house, was designed to give a man who couldn't fly a fighting chance in a magical sparring match with a young vampire who could. Thereafter he, Flandre, and sometimes Meiling and Sakuya moved their combat training over there, away from all the fragile windows in the west end of the great room, and to judge from their looks of slightly tired glee whenever they came back in from such a session, had a blast doing it.

Once the jungle gym was finished, the Plant Services team concentrated on doing as much of the planning and prep work as possible ahead of beginning actual work on the new electrical and plumbing systems: figuring out where the pipes and wire runs would have to go, and determining the best ways to install the new equipment so that it was as safe and as unobtrusive as it could be. They weren't interested in doing a clumsy retrofit like Gryphon had seen in a number of old houses plumbed and wired long after the fact; the mansion had to look and feel like it always had, or neither would be satisfied (and nor, they knew, would Remilia).

For her part, Sakuya—as ever—often seemed to be everywhere at once, making certain everyone was properly fed and hydrated, making and mending clothes, keeping the house clean and running smoothly, and looking after their guest. Meiling and Flandre took some of that duty on themselves, running supplies to the library from time to time, so that Sakuya wouldn't have to keep making the trek there from the kitchen over and over.

While all that was going on, Remilia was mostly to be found in her study, where she seemed to be engaged in some sort of study project of her own. Whenever a member of the household looked in at the door, they saw her at her desk, surrounded by small piles of her father's books, and either reading intently in one or another, or writing in a large hardbacked journal.

Meanwhile, when not in the library, Flandre mostly divided her time between the music room, relaxing and honing her piano skills, and the new training area, practicing with spell cards and what little regular magic she knew. Sometimes, when he was free and the whimsy took him, Gryphon joined her for one or both of these activities.

One night the two of them came in from combat practice for lunch looking unusually pleased with themselves. Neither said anything about why until the meal was concluded, when Flandre suddenly said,

"Hey, before we all go back to what we were doing, does anyone want to see something cool?"

With a lead-in like that, she had no trouble enticing the whole crew (including Lena, who was by now getting around quite well on the crutches Gryphon had made for her) out to the training area. Once there, she stepped a few paces out into the open area they used as a firing range, then turned and said with a grin,

"OK, Sakuya—I want you to throw a knife at me."

Sakuya blinked. "... Young mistress?" she said, as if uncertain she'd heard correctly.

"Throw a knife at me," Flandre repeated.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"C'mon, throw one," Flandre cajoled. "Even if I mess up, it won't hurt me much."

"There is that," Sakuya conceded, then glanced at Remilia. "M'lady?"

"Go ahead," said Remilia with an indulgent smile. "It's as she says, you'll do her no great harm even if you hit her..."

Her misgivings still plain, Sakuya produced one of her daggers and took up a stance. "All right," she said. "Are you ready?"

"Lemme have it!" Flandre said, her grin becoming a little bit fierce, and her wing crystals illuminated as she readied her magic—but, her onlookers noticed, did not prepare a spell card.

"As you wish," said Sakuya, and, with a movement almost to quick to follow, she delivered. The throw was on target, the silvered dagger flickering across the torchlit space and heading straight for Flandre.

Still grinning, the young vampire took a half-step back and raised her right hand, open palm facing away from her. An instant before the knife would have flown past her hand and struck her in the chest, a wheeling blue-white magic circle appeared in the air before her—the distinctive rune disc of a modern-day fighting witch's all-purpose shield spell, identical to the one Gryphon sometimes used. With a sharp metallic sound, the knife struck the circle as it would have a solid barrier, rebounded, and stuck hilt-up in the grass a few paces in front of Flandre.

"Ha!" Flandre cried, jumping with glee. "I did it!" Then, running to Gryphon, she caught him up in a hug that nearly knocked him down. "Thanks, big bro!"

"Good job, Flan!" he said, steadying himself and returning the embrace while the others applauded. "I knew you'd get it down."

"Nice!" Lena complimented her, then asked with an inquisitive tilt of her head, "Why's it Fusō-style?"

"That's the only one I know," Gryphon explained. "I learned it from Mio—Major Sakamoto, as she was at the time."

"Aha," said Lena, grinning. "I might've known, it's not like you've been to witch school back in the States."

"Never actually been there," he said, "although I hope to sometime. I'll be interested to see how much of it's like I remember."

"Very impressive, Flan," said Remilia with a fond smile. "Now you know a bit of magic I don't!"

"I can show you if you want," Flandre offered, still hanging onto Gryphon.

He laughed. "And so the student becomes the teacher."

"I'll take you up on that, little sister, but not just now," Remilia said. "Keep practicing, build your strength. Before the next full moon, we'll have to figure out a way to test your full capabilities—I want to see just how strong you are before I turn you loose on an unsuspecting world," she added, baring one side's fangs in a slightly smug half-grin.

"I'll be ready!" Flandre declared.

"I have no doubt of it," Remilia agreed.

A while after lunch on the night before the new moon, Remilia put her head into KRAFTSTOFFLAGER and was pleased to find Gryphon there, tinkering with part of the Britannian witch's strange flying-machine contraption.

"Ah, here you are," she said, then added wryly, "It's rare to catch you alone these nights. For a while I thought I might have to wait until bedtime to talk with you privately."

"I can always make time for you, Remi," he told her, setting the device aside. "You just have to let me know. What's up?"

"I've been thinking about... various matters... for the last little while," said Remilia. "To do with us joining our houses and our fortunes together. I feel I've been a bit unfair to you."

Gryphon looked puzzled. "How so? I haven't noticed anything."

"There are things you should know before you make so bold as to marry a vampire," she told him, her expression serious. "Many of them you know already, but your knowledge of my kind is incomplete. You said so yourself, on a night not so long ago, but I was too busy to take it properly into account. So, to remedy this, I've prepared a bit of light reading for you."

So saying, she placed the large journal she was carrying on the workbench and slid it toward him. "This is the Mysterium Lamiarum. Flandre may have mentioned it to you at some point. It's the most authoritative text on this world's vampires: our ecology, strengths and weaknesses, peculiarities cultural and physical. Knowledge we guarded jealously for generations—and vampire generations can be long indeed—from those who would do us harm. Information every vampire must know... and though you are not becoming one of us, I feel you have a right to know it, all of it, before we proceed."

Gryphon made a noncommittal noise, picked up the book, and opened it to a random page, then looked up at her in mild surprise. "It's in English."

"I translated it myself," Remilia said. "Your Gallic has come along very well, but my father's Middle Gallic version would probably have been slow going for you, and I didn't know whether you'd be able to make head or tail of the medieval Latin original. Besides, I wanted to preserve Papa's commentary. So, over the last few nights, I've written this combined edition for you."

"So that's what you've been shut up in your study doing," said Gryphon. He looked at the book, then back at her face. "I appreciate you trusting me with this knowledge," he said seriously, "but you sound as if you're half-convinced I'll back out of our engagement once I've read it."

"You might," she said, contriving to keep her face and voice steady. "It's a possibility I must face."

He shook his head. "I can't see it happening."

"Please," said Remilia. "Read the book and then decide. Remember, on the night you proposed to me, when we agreed there should be no ambiguity? This will remove the last of my doubts..." She hesitated. "... Or confirm them. Either way, we both have to know."

Gryphon put the book aside, crossed the space between them, and hugged her.

"I'll read it," he said, "if only to put those doubts to rest."

"Thank you."

Gryphon didn't get through the Mysterium quite as fast as Flandre had, but by giving the project his full attention, he'd finished it by ten o'clock or so the next evening—the night of the new moon. Putting the book aside, he wondered what she'd been so afraid of. The information contained within was interesting, and could be potentially useful to the spouse of one of the people described within—for example, he now knew how to address the problem if she chanced to be poisoned with licorice extract—but there was nothing particularly shocking, no terrible revelations of ineffable, inhuman terror. Quite the contrary, in fact. Both the information and the commentary within reinforced his already strong view of the vampires of this world, based on an admittedly tiny sample size, as folks like anybody else. "Awake and alive, loved and loving, fighting to protect and survive," as Talar Kem had described sapients capable of touching the Force in one of his writings.

Rising from his workshop chair, Gryphon left the Mysterium on his workbench and went in search of Remilia. He found her in the great room, sitting in her usual spot on the Ottomane, reading one of his Maigret novels.

"Not your usual sort of book," he remarked, sitting down beside her.

Remilia looked slightly startled at his sudden appearance, or possibly that he'd seated himself so near her instead of in his usual place, but she recovered quickly, marking her place and setting the book aside.

"You and Flan both seem to enjoy them so much, I thought I would give one a try," she said. "You're right that detective stories aren't my usual line, but this fellow Simenon is quite a stylist. If I were just slightly more of a snob," she added ironically, "I would say his talent is wasted on this sort of book."

"He also writes more serious novels," Gryphon said. "He's quite prolific. I suspect the Maigret books are just how he pays his bills. I'll get you some of his other works the next time I'm out, if you like—or you can look for them when you're in Paris, come to think of it. You'll probably have better luck finding them there."

"Hmm, that might be a good idea. In the meantime, the ones you have will suffice." She paused, looking slightly nervous, then said, "Have you finished the Mysterium?"

Gryphon nodded. "I have."

"What do you think?"

"I think you don't have anything to be afraid of," he said gently.

Remilia reddened slightly and tried to look haughty, but mostly failed. "I wasn't afraid," she objected. "Merely... concerned."

"You thought I'd find something in there that would somehow make me decide I didn't love you after all," Gryphon said. "I can't help but find that slightly insulting. But mostly it's just funny."

"Funny?" Remilia demanded. "What's funny about it?"

"Do you have any idea how much I appreciate a partner who goes ahead and hands me her instruction manual?" he asked wryly, and Remilia couldn't help but laugh in spite of herself.

"I suppose when you put it that way," she said, and then, sobering again, she went on, "Do you have questions about anything you've learned?"

Gryphon shook his head. "No, not really. In fact, if anything," he went on casually, "I'd say it's an incomplete record."

Remilia gave him an inquisitive look. "Oh? In what sense?"

"Well, it doesn't mention all of your weak points," he said, leaning closer and enfolding her in his arms. "For example, it doesn't say anything about this spot right here between your wings," he went on, brushing the spot in question gently with his fingertips.

Remilia jumped. "Uu~!" she squeaked, and then, fixing him with a blushing half-scowl, said unconvincingly, "If you were any other man you would lose that hand for such a liberty, sir."

Ignoring her objection, Gryphon leaned nearer still, drawing her half onto his lap, and murmured, "And there isn't a word about this place here where your neck meets your shoulder," before commencing to kiss and nibble the area he'd just named.

"Aah!" cried Remilia, half-heartedly failing to fend him off as her whole body first stiffened, then relaxed—all but melted—into his arms. "Ah, you beast—that's—that's un... unfair..." she moaned. "Not... n-not in the l-living room..."

Unnoticed by either party on the couch, Meiling entered, then stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed and blushing. After staring for a moment, she shook herself from her surprised reverie, performed a crisp military-style about-face, and withdrew. As she went, she swept Flandre, who had been following her, along with her back toward the library.

"What's going on?" Flandre wondered, putting up only a token resistance. "Why is your face all red?"

"Uh, your sister and Gryph are... busy," said Meiling. "Let's leave them alone."

"Ohhh," said Flandre with a sly grin. "Are they playing the kissing game? I wanna see," she said, trying to look around Meiling's shoulder.

"Nope, nope, not gonna happen," said Meiling, chivvying her along. "Sakuya would kill us both."

Sakuya entered the great room herself a few minutes later, bound from the kitchen to the basement on a supply run, but when she did so, she found Gryphon and Remilia sitting at opposite ends of the Ottomane, he sketching cheerfully on what had become the Plant Services communal notepad, she slightly red-faced and ruffled-henlike, but clearly happy.

"Lunch will be ready in an hour, m'lady, Chief," she said.

"Thank you, Sakuya," said Remilia with dignity, straightening her ascot.

"What are we having?" Gryphon inquired.

"Contrefilet et frites," Sakuya replied, "with a peppercorn pan sauce."

"Ooh, lovely. Looking forward to that."

"I thought you might," Sakuya said pleasantly, then excused herself to continue on her errand.

When she'd gone, Gryphon glanced at Remilia and said, "I trust your concerns have been allayed, my lady."

"Completely, thank you," Remilia confirmed, smoothing the last of the wrinkles in her clothes, and then added, "And I should warn you that, once we're married, you won't be able to play that kind of trick without consequences."

Gryphon smiled and returned to his work. "Ausgezeichnet. Ich werde mich darauf freuen, meine Geliebte."

"Keep that up and I may attack you anyway," she said, showing her fangs in a predatory grin.

"Tempting, but we only have an hour before lunch," he quipped.

Remilia grinned at him a moment longer, then relented and turned away, picking up the book she'd been reading. He'd surprised her, and made her worry momentarily about the embarrassment of being caught, but it appeared they'd gotten away with it, and besides, she was inwardly quite pleased. Not only had he, as she told him, put to rest her remaining fears regarding his potential reaction to the Mysterium, she also didn't dislike being reminded occasionally that he customarily kept his hands to himself because he was a complete gentleman, not because he knew no other way. It augured well for their wedding day, when at last that happy occasion arrived.

With a private, slightly blushing smile, she settled in to read until Sakuya announced lunch.

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
"Take the A Train"
Victor 27380-A (1941)

Act VII: Le Départ

Flt. Lt. Lena Oxton's notes
SDM, day 14 (July 4? sort of?)

So! Here's where we stand two weeks into the project. I've averaged 5 books a day—that's 70 so far, math fans—and I've found a ton of incredibly neat and interesting things. This library is stupendous.

What I have NOT found is a single thing that might actually be useful to what we want to do. Loads of stuff about STOPPING time, REWINDING time, SKIPPING OVER time—you know, all the things I can already do?—but permanent lateral displacement of a fixed spatial pocket? Strangely enough, it doesn't seem like anyone's ever even thought about that, let alone tried it, much less worked out how to undo it.

It'd help if we knew what the original witches were actually trying to do, 'cos I bet it wasn't this.

Bugger all, I'm never gonna get paid.

Kidding aside, I can see why they don't want to just give up and leave the house. Even as run-down as parts of it are, this place is amazing. You couldn't build a house like this nowadays if you were rich as Croesus. And the memories it must hold for her ladyship the countess... yeah, I'd stay too if it was my place.

I'm starting to think we might have better luck if we look at moving the house out of the bubble instead. The size of the place is a problem, but if we could round up a dozen or so witches with teleport magic and we had someplace for it to land...

Well, that's probably not on so long as the war lasts, though. Any witches with that kind of power have other things to be doing these days.

Anyway, I'm here for another 11 days, might as well keep looking. Maybe something will turn up.

Must be about time for dinner. I hear we're having chicken fricassée. It's going to be tough going back to RAF "cuisine" after a month of Scarlet Devil home cooking.

I probably don't want to think too hard about where the milk comes from.

Gryphon stood in the empty room nearest the center of the basement, sketch pad in hand, visualizing the changes that needed to be made in order to prepare the room for its new function. In ten nights, assuming he did his job properly when the time came to loop back to mid-June, the supplies necessary to transform this room from a disused space to the heart of the mansion's planned new electrical system would arrive, which meant he and Meiling had that long to make it ready.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Flandre Scarlet standing in the doorway, looking into the room with a hard-to-read expression.

"Hey, Flan," he said. "What's up?"

Flandre shrugged. "Nothing much," she replied, then crossed the threshold, glancing around as if she had half-expected something to happen.

When nothing did, she walked to his side with oddly hesitant steps. "What are you doing?"

"Just picturing where everything's going to go, so I can see what we need to do to prep the room." Pointing, he went on, "The wall sconces can mostly stay, we can route the conduits around them, but the chandelier will have to go. It'll be right in the way."

"Mm," said Flandre distractedly, nodding.

She wasn't looking at the sketch pad, or really at what he was indicating, either; rather, her crimson eyes were darting here and there, glancing at various features of the room, then moving on. Her expression was neutral, but her body language faintly uneasy.

"Hey," said Gryphon gently, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Are you OK? You don't have to stay here. If you need me for something, I can come back and do this later."

Flandre shook her head. "No, I'm... I'm fine. It's just... weird, you know? I haven't been in here since we moved out my things, and... well, with everybody down here together, it didn't feel like this. I didn't think..." She turned her head, looking up at his face. "It's like part of me is expecting that door to slam behind me again."

"Aw, Flan." Gryphon put his arm around her slim shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "That's not going to happen."

"I know," she said. "And even if it did, I'd be free to knock it down. But still..."

He nodded. She'd spent centuries confined to this room, after all, and it was big for a bedroom, but cramped for a person's whole world.

"But still," he agreed, holding her a little tighter.

Neither one said anything for a few moments.

"Hey," said Flandre quietly.


"Shall we play a game?"

Gryphon gave her a raised eyebrow. "What game did you have in mind?"

"Sis told me it was OK if I asked you to play the kissing game," she said, but before he could reply, she took a twirling step to her right, spinning out of his half-embrace and around behind him, and then sprang onto his back. "But let's start with a round of horsie for old times' sake!"

Gryphon laughed, put down the sketch pad, and adjusted her balance slightly. "Do me a favor and don't steer me into any walls this time, will you?" he asked. "Thanks to you, I've already tested them all quite thoroughly for structural integrity. With my face."

"No promises. Giddyup!"

In the event, she did not, in fact, steer him into any walls, nor did she run him until he pulled something in one or both legs, both of which were distinct improvements over the not-so-very-long-ago old days. Instead, they ran a few laps of the room, which was much easier now that there was nothing to dodge—no furniture, no scattered toys, no heaps of books.

Unfortunately, that also meant there was no bed to collapse dramatically upon, which had been the usual finale to the action in the past. Gryphon had to content himself instead with staggering into a corner and sliding down the wall. As he did so, his laughing passenger dismounted over his head, as if converting horsie to leapfrog, then settled into his lap as he took up a sitting position on the floor, drawing his arms around her as she did so.

"Oof," he said, feigning greater windedness than he really felt. "Did you get heavier?"

Instead of reacting to that remark with the mock outrage he expected, Flandre tipped her head back against his shoulder so she could (sort of) see his face and replied, "Actually, you know what? I did, just a little."

"Eh?" he replied, and she told him what she and Sakuya had discovered a few evenings ago—that, somehow, against every expectation, she'd recently grown. Not much, only an inch or so in height and otherwise in proportion to that gain—not even enough to change her shoe size—but enough to make her clothes fit poorly before Sakuya had altered them.

"Huh," said Gryphon. "How about that."

"I assume it was your doing," said Flandre.

Gryphon shrugged. "Who knows? Every day's an adventure. The timing fits, but you know what we engineers say: correlation does not equal causation."

"You're an engineer? I thought you were a pilot."

"I am many things," said Gryphon mock-pompously. "I contain multitudes."

Flandre giggled, then sobered and said, "I'd like to fly with you some day."

"That would be fun," Gryphon agreed. "Maybe when you come up to Saint-Ulrich we can try it, if the weather's any good."

"If it's not, I might not make it up there in the first place. Which would be really sad."

"Don't fret," he said, hugging her. "If it's raining, I'll come and get you. I just have to make sure not to meet myself in the yard," he added wryly. "We wouldn't be able to fly, but we can at least go into town."

"Yeah, if you don't mind me not being able to cross running gutters," she said glumly.

"You just can't cross under your own power, right? So it's not a problem if I carry you."

"Won't people think that's kind of weird?"

"Probably. So? What do you care what other people think?"

Flandre laughed. "You sound like Sis."

"Well, not to put too fine a point on it, she and I do have a certain compatibility of character."

"True." She shifted her shoulders, snuggling up to him a little closer. "That's probably part of why I love you both so much."

"Could be," Gryphon agreed. "Anyway, it probably won't rain. As my grandfather says, don't borrow trouble."

"Heh, OK, that's fair."

They stayed there in a warm and pleasant silence for a while, before Gryphon finally said, "Must be getting close to lunchtime. Somebody's going to come looking for us before too much longer."

"Mm, I suppose," said Flandre. "And you must be pretty uncomfortable sitting on the floor like this."

"Eh, one of my legs is asleep, but it's fine, I've got another one," he said casually.

Flandre laughed. "Even so," she said, and then, rising, turned around, grabbed his offered hand, and pulled him easily to his feet.

He steadied himself against the wall for a moment, shaking his numb foot back to life. When he turned back to face Flandre, intending to suggest that they head upstairs, she surprised him slightly by embracing him again from the front, reaching up and draping her arms around his neck.

"I'm still too short to do this without standing on tiptoe or levitating," she observed, switching from the former to the latter so that their eyes would be on a level. Then, with a grin, she added, "Maybe I should drain you again and see if I grow some more."

"I... think that might be a bad plan," he understated.

"Yeah, I suppose. Although..." She reddened, glancing away a little shyly. "I would like to have another taste some day. I won't ask for that until after the wedding, though." With a wry smile, she met his eyes and added, "I'm a weirdo who's in love with her brother-in-law, but I don't cut in line, that's just rude."

"It's good to know you have some boundaries," said Gryphon dryly.

"For now..." Flandre's blush returned, and in a quieter voice, her eyes steady on his, she asked, "... will you please kiss me?"

Gryphon considered her, his expression almost but not quite a smile, and for a sinking moment she thought he might be about to decline, or cop out and drop one on her forehead. Instead, almost to her surprise, he put his arms around her and properly did as she'd asked.

It was a fairly chaste affair as these things went, the kind of kiss a person would deploy to welcome a loved one home after a long trip, rather than the sort meant as a prelude to other activities. Having initiated it, he let her set the pace, and she seemed content to take it slowly, leaning into it but seeking no escalation. After a few seconds she withdrew, opening her eyes, and smiled, her eyes glittering in the candlelight.

"There's number two," she said, then mused, "Some girls' first kiss is so mundane they forget about it. I had mine under a full moon, half-mad and three-quarters dead, from the only friend I had in the world, with my big sister watching. Not likely to forget that in a hurry."

"It was a memorable evening all around," Gryphon agreed.

She frowned thoughtfully, then observed, "I'm going to have to think of something else to call you," making him utter an involuntary snort of laughter.

"Probably a good idea," Gryphon agreed, and then, deliberately breaking the moment, he went on, "C'mon, let's get to lunch before they send out a search party."

"Probably a good idea," she parroted, hugging his arm, and they both laughed as they left the room.

As they walked down the corridor toward the stairs, Flandre said thoughtfully, "I know this is weird, and I'm still amazed Sis is OK with it." Letting go of his arm, she went on, "I guess the least I can do is try not to rub her nose in it."

Gryphon shrugged. "Don't overthink it," he said. "These things work best when everyone involved feels free to just act natural."

"Good to know," Flandre said, taking his hand instead.

The nights bumped pleasantly along, and anticipation grew in the house as the July full moon approached. With the mistress of the house planning her first significant expedition beyond her threshold in a century and a half, the prospect of bureaucratic progress toward that lady's impending nuptials, and the promise of a new shipment of supplies for the Plant Services team to forward their various projects with, all had the residents watching the moon wax night by night, looking forward to the night when it would reach its peak.

With one week to go, under the light of its first quarter, Meiling and Flandre were out in the open area between the house and the jungle gym, doing tai chi exercises as a quiet cooldown after a session of spell card battle practice. They'd been at it for fifteen or twenty silent minutes when Flandre said,

"Hey, Meiling?"


"Can I ask you a personal question?"

Meiling didn't reply right away, since they were close to finishing the exercise. Only once they had wrapped it up, faced each other, and bowed did she sit down cross-legged on the ground and say,

"Sure. What's on your mind, Flan-Flan?"

Flandre took up a similar seated position a pace or so away, facing her, and asked earnestly, "When did you know that Sakuya was... the one for you?"

"Hmm," said Meiling thoughtfully. "When I saw her?"

"Come on, I'm being serious," Flandre objected.

"So am I," said Meiling. Her face took on a faraway smile as she went on, "The second she stepped out of that blue box, it was like there was nobody else who mattered. I mean, don't get me wrong, I didn't dare to talk to her for at least a week, but even so. I watched her from afar..." She hesitated, cheeks going a bit pink. "That sounds creepy when I say it out loud, but anyway... and she always looked so serious. Kind of sad. And I said to myself, 'Meiling, you are going to put a smile on that face, whatever it takes. And then you're going to keep it there for the rest of your life.'"

"Wow," said Flandre, wide-eyed.

Meiling laughed. "I know, presumptuous much? She didn't even know my name." Then, grinning, she went on, "But, well... so far so good!" Giving Flandre an inquisitive look, she asked, "Any special reason why you wanted to know?"

Flandre grinned. "I realized a little while ago that I'm in love myself, so I'm curious about how it's presented itself to other people I know."

Meiling's eyebrows went up. "Anybody we know?" she asked, half-joking.

"If you think about it for a second," Flandre replied, "you'll figure it out."

Meiling looked quizzical, then thoughtful, and then nodded. "Ah. So that's why you stopped calling him 'bro'."

"Yeah. It just felt too weird. Actually, it feels weird anyway. Because I do still feel that... I don't know what you'd call it. Brotherly warmth? I still feel that. Like sometimes I just want him next to me, or to hug me and tell me I matter. But other times... other times I want something else. Like I said. Weird. I'm still kind of getting my head around it."

"Does your sister know?" Meiling wondered.

"Oh, sure," Flandre replied easily. "I told her first. In fact, now that I think about it, I've never told him in so many words..." She grinned again, a little wryly this time. "... But he's figured it out from context."

She turned around and flopped down on her back, her wings splaying out to either side of her and her head in Meiling's lap. "You look funny from this angle," she observed, and before Meiling could reply, she switched back to the previous topic and said, "Sis swears she doesn't mind." Flandre smiled fondly. "The other night when I 'fessed up to her about it, she made one of her little speeches about how the likes of us can't be constrained by the conventions of the eighteenth century. But..."

The smile faded, replaced by a look of uncertainty. "Even so, I can't help but wonder if she's really... humoring me. Because she still feels bad about all the time I had to spend in the basement. Because my turning went wrong in the first place. Like she feels she owes me, and this is how she's decided to pay me back, even if it hurts her. I don't want it to be like that."

Meiling was able to follow the thread of her musings; she'd learned about the sisters' history, and how Flandre had become a vampire, in conversations during previous training sessions. Now, smiling kindly, she brushed Flandre's disordered blonde bangs away from her eyes and said,

"I think you might be overthinking this."

Flandre laughed. "That's what Gryph thinks too," she admitted. "But I can't help it. It nags at me. Makes me feel self-conscious. Like... when we're all together, I keep glancing at her, thinking I'll catch her hiding a hurt look or something. I don't want to, I never want to see her that way, but I keep thinking I will."

"But you never have."


Meiling grinned. "Then there's probably nothing there. I mean, granted, you've known her a lot longer than I have, but Remilia doesn't strike me as the kind of person who's that good at hiding her feelings."

"No, that's true," Flandre agreed. She sighed. "I don't know, it's probably just my dumb mind being dumb."

"Love is like that," Meiling said sagely.

"So I've been told," said Flandre.

They sat in silence for a few moments, both of them looking up at the sky.

"Meiling? Young mistress? Are you out here?" Sakuya's voice called from the direction of the house.

"Right here, Sakuya," Meiling called back.

"It's almost time for dinner."

"Be right there!" Meiling replied. Then, looking down at Flandre's face, she said, "Sorry I don't have better advice for you, Flan-Flan. I'm not real good at that kind of thing either." She shrugged. "All I can do is be myself. It's worked out OK so far."

Flandre sat up, then sprang to her feet and turned around as Meiling clambered upright.

"It's OK," said Flandre with a smile. "Just being able to talk about it with somebody else helps."

They entered the great room to find Sakuya setting the table, Remilia rummaging in the wine cabinet, and Lena, off her crutches now but still using a cane, hobbling in from the library. Presently, as everyone got arranged, Gryphon emerged from the kitchen, amusingly decked out in one of Sakuya's spare aprons (frills and all) over his customary Liberion fatigues, and carrying a large platter upon which was a heap of what looked to Flandre like some sort of sandwich.

"Ah, good, everyone's here," he said, placing the platter in the middle of the table. "Tonight, ladies, we will be enjoying one of the great icons of Liberion cuisine, the humble yet mighty cheeseburger—so named, of course, because it was invented by immigrants from the Karlslandic city of Cheeseburg."

That got a laugh, even from those at the table who didn't know the actual etymology of the word cheeseburger, and then everybody dug in.

In the lazy time after dinner, with everyone lounging around the living room, Remilia sat jotting in a notebook with a pencil, a thoughtful frown on her face. Presently she looked up and said,

"Meiling, what would you say your function is around here?"

Meiling, who was in her customary spot in front of Sakuya's place at the other end of the Ottomane, craned her neck to look up and back at the mistress of the house, her expression quizzical.


"When I go to Paris," Remilia explained, "I expect I shall have to make an accounting of my household for the government—explain to them who lives here and what role they play. Obviously I'm the head of the household, Benjamin is my fiancé, Flandre needs no particular title, and Sakuya is... well, Sakuya is many things, but for bureaucratic purposes I've chosen to call her the housekeeper. But you, I don't know... I think 'housekeeper's snuggle bunny' lacks gravitas."

Sakuya unsuccessfully suppressed a bark of laughter; on the other sofa across from her, Lena didn't bother trying, while Flandre giggled and Gryphon more decorously snickered.

"I know!" said Remilia, brightening, before Meiling could get over being flummoxed and attempt a reply. Applying her pencil, the vampire went on, "I'll put you down as my huscarl. People around here used to have those, long ago, and I like the sound of it."

Sakuya eyed her narrowly. "I'd say you're enjoying this entirely too much," she said dryly, then went on with a warm smile, "but I enjoy seeing you enjoy yourself too much."

"That was quite a sentence," Flandre observed cheerfully.

"The heck's a huscarl?" Meiling wondered.

"Medieval chief of security, more or less," Gryphon said.

"Oh." Meiling considered that, then nodded, smiling. "Could do worse."

"From the sound of it, you almost did," Lena pointed out.

"I fail to see how being my snuggle bunny is anything other than a highly honorable office," said Sakuya with exaggerated dignity.

"Fair point, well made," Lena conceded.

"You must be looking forward to Paris if you're doing homework for it," Gryphon observed.

Remilia grinned. "Apart from our date in Colmar last month, it's my first outing in centuries. Of course I'm looking forward to it—even if I do presume the official business I'm going there to transact will be unbearably dull," she added with a shrug.

"I've been thinking," Flandre put in. "If Gryph is going back to his unit, and Lena's going back to hers, and you and Sakuya are going to Paris, why don't Meiling and I go too?"

That got a raised eyebrow from the elder sister. "And leave the house empty?"

"Well, from the house's point of view it'd only be for a couple of hours," Flandre pointed out. "Anyway, I want to get out there and see stuff! I've been working hard, I think I'm ready. And besides, I'll have the huscarl to keep me out of trouble," she added with a wry grin.

"And did you discuss this with Meiling before you volunteered her to look after you for a month in the wild?" Remilia inquired.

"Hey, Meiling—you want to go look around Gallia for a couple weeks?" Flandre asked. "You can keep me from accidentally eating villagers or whatever it is Sis is afraid I'll do on my own."

Remilia's cheeks went slightly red. "For the record, that is not what I'm afraid of."

Meiling grinned. "Sounds like fun to me," she said. "I always like checking out new places. Heck, I was a nomad for a lot of years back in the day."

"Hm," said Sakuya. "This will complicate the logistics somewhat, having to provide for both of you away from the house for an extended period... but I think I can just about manage it, young mistress, since you'll have Meiling along to carry the baggage," she added with a little grin, nudging one of her lover's shoulders with a stockinged foot.

"Once again my core competencies come to the rescue," said Meiling mock-smugly, hands behind head.

"Can I just point out that I haven't agreed to this part of the plan yet?" said Remilia mildly.

"Oh, come on, Sis. It'll be fine. How about this?" Flandre proposed. "The four of us can all go to Paris together. That way Meiling and I will be handy if you need to, I don't know, prove to somebody that we really exist or something. You can see for yourself how I handle myself in the big city. If you don't like it..." She shrugged. "Then I guess we'll all head straight for Ribeauvillé when you're done. But if you think I do OK, then we'll... you know... just kinda wander for a while, and meet you up there sometime before the fourteenth."

"Hmm," said Remilia thoughtfully. "Benjamin, how do you think your witches are likely to react if all of your outside household shows up at Saint-Ulrich in search of shelter for a week or three?"

"Well, Minna already said you're welcome anytime," Gryphon said. "I don't imagine it would be a problem to extend that. We're not short of space, for sure. I mean, having my whole family camp out for a while would never fly at a regular airbase, no pun intended, but we do things a little differently in the JFWs," he added with a smile. "Besides, she'll be busy getting ready for her wedding, which is on the twelfth."

"Oh yes, Hattori mentioned that when I visited the castle last month, didn't she?" said Remilia. "When she offered to let us use the chapel they're building for it."

"Are you thinking we might take her up on that?" Gryphon wondered, but Remilia shook her head.

"No, it's a very kind offer, but I have something else in mind. If I can arrange it, which I'm not sure of yet, I'd like our church service to be held in the church where my parents were married."

"The big one in Bruges?" Flandre asked. "That's pretty far from here, isn't it?"

"Six hundred kilometers, or thereabouts, depending on the route," Sakuya said. "A good day's drive if we had an automobile."

"I have an automobile!" Gryphon said cheerfully.

"No, you have a terrifying tin box on wheels," Remilia corrected him. "Which is far too small to accommodate all of us, anyway. No, I expect we'll have to go by train, most likely via Paris. I'll have to check the railway timetable. Another of the many things on my to-do list. At any rate, assuming all goes well in Paris, Benjamin and I can visit the Colmar mairie to finish the paperwork, after which they'll need time to publish the banns and so forth... shall we aim for the following full moon? The twelfth August, I believe..." she said, as if the precise date were of no particular consequence.

Gryphon smiled. "Your birthday."

"You remembered," said Remilia, pleased.

"Of course I did. And that works for me! I hope you don't mind if I invite my wingmates."

"Not at all. I wish you would! If you don't, there'll be hardly anyone there," Remilia pointed out archly.

"Yay! A date!" cried Flandre, leaving her seat to hop into her sister's lap and hug her. Then, turning to Sakuya, she said, "We have to start planning my clothes! I need something nice and martial if I'm going to be sergeant-at-arms."

Lena laughed. "I don't think I've ever seen a wedding that 'ad a sergeant-at-arms before."

"Well, you'll see one next month!" Flandre told her. "Assuming you're invited."

"Of course she's invited. We don't have so many friends that one has to pick and choose," said Remilia with a slight smirk.

"Delighted to accept, your ladyship," said Lena with mild but friendly sarcasm, inclining her head. Then, puffing out her lower lip to blow her jagged bangs out of her eyes, she added, "I just wish I 'ad something better to tell you on the research front. I've been 'ard at it this 'ole time, but so far, all I've got is a big pile of nothing."

"Ah, don't sweat it," Gryphon said. "We knew it was a long shot."

"Indeed," Remilia concurred. "And in any case, it's been a pleasure to have you with us. Once we're situated a bit more conveniently, I hope you'll visit us again—hopefully without injuring yourself on the way," she added with a smile.

"So," Flandre persisted, "we never decided. Is it OK? Can I come with you to Paris, and then explore for a while before we meet up at Saint-Ulrich?"

"I still need to see your skills for myself before I'll be comfortable with you going anywhere," Remilia pointed out. "But assuming I'm satisfied once I do..." She sighed. "Then yes, Flandre, as long as Meiling is really all right with accompanying you, you may go exploring."

"Like I said, I'm up for it," Meiling said agreeably. "Been a while since I had a good walkabout."

"You guys are the best," Flandre said, hugging her sister again.

To celebrate the newly expanded plan, they repaired to the music room for the rest of the evening. Gryphon and Flandre showed off the work they'd been doing on piano-for-four-hands pieces, after which they broke out the accordion and passed it back and forth in an impromptu polka duel. Invited to join the festivities, Lena ferreted out a classical guitar and got into the Baroque spirit, as she and Remilia improvised a guitar-and-violin arrangement of Bach's "Air on a G String" together.

Modern Strings
"Air on a G String"
A. Wilhelmj, comp. (1871), after J.S. Bach (ca. 1730)

From there, the evening became a string recital for a while, with Flandre switching back to the harpsichord for some Bach and Couperin (including pieces by the latter other than "Les Barricades Mystérieuses"), Remilia and Sakuya playing some more violin-and-cello duets, and Meiling experimenting with the double bass (not an instrument to which erhu skills are directly portable, as it turns out). Gryphon, lacking a left-handed stringed anything to play, just sat back and enjoyed the show until the right moment came along.

"Say, do you mind if I try something out on the organ?" Gryphon inquired of his lady during a lull in the action.

Go right ahead," said Remilia. "I didn't know you could play the organ."

"I'm not sure I can," Gryphon admitted, a touch ruefully. "It's been a long time. I just happened to think of a piece I used to be able to play, though, if my fingers remember it as well as my head does."

Mounting to the console, he spent a few moments familiarizing himself with the layout, hunting for stops and working out which manual they went with. Then, once he had everything the way he thought he wanted it, he sat for a moment collecting his thoughts, put his fingers to the keys, and began to play.

Jonathan Scott
"'Trumpet' Voluntary" from Voluntary in D Op. 6 No. 5 (1792)
J. Stanley, comp.

It was a fairly simple arrangement—bordering on primitive, using only two manuals and no pedals—and only about a minute and a half long, but the tune was cheerful and triumphant. After taking a few bars to get his ear in, he played it competently enough to win some applause when he'd finished.

"I haven't heard that one in a long time," said Remilia. "Purcell?"

"Stanley, I think," Sakuya corrected her.

"Oh, yes, of course. I always get those two confused," Remilia said. "Still, one does enjoy a good voluntary. Do you know Clarke's Prince of Denmark's March, by any chance, mon amour?"

"I can whistle it, but I never learned it for organ," Gryphon confessed. "I could probably play it on the trombone if you had one, but then I'd be tempted to turn it into a jazz solo, and I don't think the 1940s are ready for that," he added with a grin.

"Well, then, allow me, s'il vous plait," she said, gently displacing him at the console. "It's in my head now."

Jonathan Scott
"The Prince of Denmark's March" (ca. 1700)
J. Clarke, comp.

"Proper wedding music, that," Lena observed when she'd finished.

"Hmm, I suppose we'd best be thinking about that," Remilia said, turning around on the organ bench to face the room. "And about where we'll find an organist. I'll be a bit too busy," she added with a smile.

"I might know one," Gryphon said. "I'll have to find out if she's up for it, but I'm pretty sure one of my wingmates plays. I remember her mentioning at dinner one night that she used to play the one in the chapel of Perrine's family's château, for some of the orphaned kids they put up there after the Romagna campaign."

"Splendid!" said Remilia. "Well, I hope she can be persuaded. I'd much rather keep that sort of thing in the family, as it were, than hire a stranger."

Now that the plan had expanded to include a grand outing for everyone, preparations stepped up for the upcoming full moon. The next evening, after breakfast, Gryphon put his head into the pantry to find Sakuya frowning thoughtfully at the shelved supplies, notebook in hand.

"Sakuya? Have you got a second?"

"Of course, Chief," she replied, turning to him. "What do you need?"

"I just wanted to thank you for agreeing to go to Paris with Remi," he said. With a self-deprecating chuckle, he went on, "I know she's an adult and can take care of herself, but apart from our trip to Colmar last month, she hasn't left this place in so long... well, I'm glad she won't be alone, is all."

"Not at all," Sakuya replied. "After all, looking after m'lady is my job. More than that, my vocation, if I may be excused for using such a religious word in the context of caring for a vampire," she added with an ironic little smile.

"I wish I could go along myself," Gryphon noted, "but having three parallel timelines wouldn't be smart, especially with two of them outside the bubble."

"I quite agree. We're pressing our luck hard enough as it is." Sakuya's smile became less ironic as she added, "I'm sure Remilia will think of you often. After all—thanks to your previous loop, you've had a long stretch away from her, but this will be the first time since you met that she hasn't seen you for more than a few hours. Although I'm sure if either of us pointed that out to her, she would make a great show of scoffing at our assumption that it might trouble her," she added fondly.

Gryphon chuckled. "On the second night I was here, I asked her how long she'd been alone, and she told me, 'Solitude is no hardship for a vampire! We thirst for mortals' blood, not their company.' But I already knew that was a lie when she said it. Or, well, not a lie," he corrected himself. "Remi doesn't lie." He smiled.

"It was bullshit," he and Sakuya said together, then both broke up giggling.

"Anyway, I'm glad you're going along," Gryphon said. "That's all. I figured I ought to tell you."

"I'm looking forward to it," Sakuya assured him. "Believe it or not, it'll be our first real outing together. She never went with me when I went on the occasional shopping expedition in the old days, because she dared not leave the young mistress alone in the house."

"Well, enjoy it," said Gryphon, smiling. "I haven't been myself, but they tell me the reconstruction of Paris is coming along amazingly."

"I'm sure we will," Sakuya said. "And while we're on the subject... I've been meaning to thank you, as well."

"What for?" he wondered.

"For the change you've made in both of the mistresses' lives," Sakuya said seriously. "What you've done for Lady Flandre speaks for itself, of course, but you must know that even before I..." She cast her eyes down regretfully. "... inadvertently abandoned her, Remilia was rarely what one would call truly happy. Contented, at times, we were able to eke out that much in our semi-exile, but there were always more shadows than light. I can only imagine what she went through when she was completely alone. When I discovered that I could get no nearer than seven decades after my disappearance..." She closed her eyes, suppressing a shiver. "I feared what I would find.

"So you can imagine my astonishment when what I found was Remilia with a light in her eyes I hadn't seen since I was a child, even in the midst of a desperate fight for her life and her sister's. Who could laughingly push Meiling and me back together when my own outdated ideas had driven us apart. Who boldly acknowledges out loud things long known but never spoken. Who looks forward to the next night, and the night after that, and all the nights to come."

With that, Sakuya startled him slightly by seizing him in a firm embrace, leaned her head on his shoulder, and murmured, "All that is your doing. Thank you."

"I... you're welcome," Gryphon said, returning the hug. "Although I don't want to take too much credit. None of it was part of any kind of plan, after all."

Sakuya chuckled. "No. Your best work never is."

"... OK, that felt a little uncanny," Gryphon said after a moment's reflection.

"Sorry. I forget occasionally that you don't know me as well as I know you."

"Well, that's what's weird," Gryphon said, giving her an extra little squeeze to show he wasn't upset. "Moments like that, I feel like I do, even though I shouldn't really. It's a good kind of uncanny," he added, turning her loose with a mischievous grin. "So, he said, transparently changing the subject, what are you up to?"

"Sorting out supplies for the expedition," Sakuya replied, smoothing her hug-rumpled apron and turning back to the shelves. "It's like packing for a picnic... that will last 28 nights," she said with a wry smile. Picking up a jar that looked like it contained raspberry jam, but did not, she went on, "Fortunately, that's why m'lady's mother invented concentrated preserves."

"Heh! Vampire trail rations," Gryphon remarked.

"Something like that. With a bit of planning and care, I think I can pack enough for both m'lady and the young mistress without making the baggage too unwieldy... just. M'lady's small appetite helps. I'm afraid Meiling will have the lion's share to carry..." Sakuya smiled. "But she's used to that."

One night from full, heavy with promise, the waxing gibbous moon presided over a sultry summer evening. The silence was almost palpable, as though the Alsatian countryside itself were holding its breath—until that silence was broken by the sound of a lone voice raised in merry laughter.

On the lawn to the north of Scarlet Devil Mansion, a man armed with an ordinary steel sword faced east, toward the still-rising moon, and confronted the laughter's source.

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
"Let's Dance"
Columbia 35301 (1939)

The laughing vampire descended into Gryphon's field of view, occluding the nearly-full moon. The fitful light of the torches scattered around the battleground couldn't reach that high, so with the moon behind her she was entirely in silhouette, lit only by the glow of her eyes, the energy spheres in each hand, and the fourteen rainbow crystals of her wings.

"Are you ready?" Flandre Scarlet asked, her teeth glinting in a fierce smile.

Gryphon returned the smile and readied his weapon. "Bring it."

"Here I come!" Flandre cried, springing into motion, and filled the air around him with pulses of light as she charged.

He stood his ground, ignoring most of her fire—such a wide spread was more about intimidation and spectacle than an actual targeted attack—and batting away the few pulses that stood a chance of hitting him. At the last moment he ducked and rolled, evading her grasping hands, then sprang up, reversed his blade, and dealt her a gentle tap on the back of the head with its blunt side as she sped past.

"One!" he cried, spinning out the follow-through to face her again as she banked hard and came back around for another pass. This time, rather than stand and let her come to him, Gryphon kept moving, heading across the north lawn toward the "jungle gym".

"You'll have to do better than that!" Flandre declared, opening up with her Neuroi-style energy bolts again.

Instead of countering them like arrows this time, Gryphon set himself and threw up his witch shield, shedding the central mass of Flandre's barrage like hail off a windshield, then dove away from another attempt to grab him. The dive carried him too far for him to be able to hit her again, so he contented himself with using the moment it bought him to produce a spell card and charge it.

He caught her in the turn, her eyes off him, as he jumped and scrambled onto one of the jungle gym's middling-elevation platforms, then locked on and loosed the spell card: "Divine Flash: Donnerwetter!"

The lightning didn't hit her, but it hadn't really been intended to. Rather, by forcing her to avoid it, he had made her change course, throwing off the rhythm of her assault. She adjusted for it almost instantly, but the momentary interruption of her fire was enough for him to put the next part of his strategy into action, jumping to the jungle gym's highest point. Now, if she wanted to continue this attack run, she would have to correct upward, losing a bit of energy in the process, which would go some way toward offsetting her dramatic speed advantage.

That was the idea, anyway, but Flandre didn't play along. Instead of shaping her course to intercept him directly, she pulled up well before she needed to, climbing above his elevation, so that she was diving upon him and regaining her lost speed by the time she reached him.

"Haha! Weren't expecting that, were y—whoa!" she said, breaking off in a startled yelp as Gryphon, in turn, confounded her expectations. Instead of fading back or breaking to either side, he charged, using the Force to perform an inhumanly acrobatic leap. As she was coming down, he went up, springing over her head and bonking her with the blunt side of his sword again as he passed.

"Two," he said, and then applied himself to the task of falling from a significant height without pulverizing himself.

For this, he applied a trick he'd seen his witch colleagues do, using his shield circle as a defense against... well, the ground, more or less, by combining its usual physical barrier effect with a touch of the gravity manipulation witches used to assist with takeoffs and landings. It worked, more or less, in that he made it to the grass without breaking any bones, but the dished crater he ended up in cost him a half-second or so in scrambling back to ground level and reorienting—

Cackling with glee, Flandre hit him amidships in the football tackle from hell, knocking the wind out of him and wiping him completely off his feet. His sword went flying off in the other direction, winding up stuck in the grass a fair distance away, as he crashed to the ground on his back and slid for a few yards across the grass with Flandre still atop him.

She recovered from the impact faster; when his vision cleared and he started getting oxygen again, he found himself pinned, her knees astride his chest, left arm trapped against his side, right outstretched and held down by her left hand, as she grinned down into his face.

"I win!" Flandre declared, but her grin slipped as she saw that, now he'd recovered his wits, he was giving her a sly smile. "What?"

Gryphon's eyes angled downward, as if inviting her to look back along his outstretched body, and she felt something hard and blunt poke against her right side, just below her rib cage. Craning her neck, she followed his eyeline...

... and found that he'd drawn his sidearm, that slab-sided Liberion pistol he'd been wearing the night he first came to the mansion, and with his trapped left arm bent at the elbow, was pressing its muzzle to her body.

"Bang," he said, prodding her gently with the gun. "And that's three." Glancing at his pinned right arm, he added, "You forgot I'm left-handed."

"Go ahead and shoot," she said with a challenging grin. "It wouldn't even slow me down."

"Unless I'm loading silver hollowpoints packed with licorice root," he replied.

"OK, that would hurt," Flandre conceded, leaning closer. Her grin widened slightly, teeth parting to give her fangs room to extend. "I might take something like that personally, you know?"

"Well," said Gryphon philosophically, "giving offense is an occupational hazard of vampire hunting." He let his hand flop to the side, the weapon falling from it to the grass.

"I'm sure it is," Flandre replied. Her hair was brushing his face now, her faintly glowing, half-hooded crimson eyes almost too close to focus on.

"Don't look now," Gryphon said, "but I think the judges are ready with your score."

Flandre hesitated for a moment, as though about to throw caution to the wind and go for another sort of score. Then, with a slightly put-upon sigh, she sat up straight, letting go of his arm, and said,


Getting to her feet, she hauled him upright as well, then picked up his gun and handed it to him. As she did, she noticed that the safety was on. Had he put it back on before letting the gun go... or had it never been off to begin with? She hadn't noticed.

Shrugging inwardly—it didn't matter now, surely—she turned to see the rest of the household approaching with expressions somewhere between bemusement and merriment. Sakuya had thoughtfully detoured along the way to pick up Gryphon's sword and put it in its saya.

"Thank you," he said, accepting it and slinging it over his shoulder. "So? How'd we do?"

"You did fine, mieux aimé," said Remilia with a faint smile. "Flandre, on the other hand, clearly lost three-to-one."

Meiling nodded. "Yup. Well, I might call it three-to-two, that one hit was a pretty big one," she added with a grin. "Still, it's definitely your loss, Flan-Flan. Sorry."

"Your technique is extremely wild," Remilia went on, her tone faintly lecturing now. "You don't consider the consequences of your decisions enough, and you get so caught up in the flow of things that you let important details go by the wayside. For example, you didn't use a single spell card."

Flandre considered protesting that there had never been a good opportunity to use any of the ones she was carrying, but recognized that it would have sounded like excuse-making and kept silent.

"Can't fault your commitment, though," Lena put in cheerfully. "You don't do things by 'alves, that's for sure."

"Sakuya? Anything to add?" asked Remilia.

"Only that, in the young mistress's defense, she will likely tend to be far less interested in closing to grappling range with any other opponent," said Sakuya with just the faintest trace of a mischievous smile.

"That's true," Remilia agreed. She stood for a few moments with a thoughtful frown, then came to an internal decision with a slight sigh. "Well, I suppose you're not likely to come up against anyone as skilled, or as... interesting... as Benjamin out in the wild. It's good enough."

Flandre blinked, the blush raised by Sakuya's remark fading as her eyes went wide. "You mean... ?"

Remilia nodded. "Yes, Flan. I mean I'm satisfied with your abilities. If," she went on with an upraised finger, "you keep in mind what I've said. In a crisis, you need to think, not just act. You're incredibly powerful, but power alone isn't always enough. I think, though, that's a lesson you just learned," she added with a smile. "With that, and with Meiling along..." She hesitated for a moment, a last flicker of worry crossing her face, and then smiled her most magnanimous smile. "You may come with us to Paris, and if you behave yourself, I'll approve your... what did you call it, Meiling? Your walkabout."

"Thank you!" Flandre cried, leaping into her big sister's arms. "Thank you, Sis, thank you. I won't let you down."

"I have no doubt of it," Remilia replied, returning her embrace. When Flandre showed no sign of letting her go any time soon, she turned a slightly wry half-grin to Sakuya and said, "Perhaps you all had best get started on lunch without us. We'll be along presently."

"Of course, m'lady," said Sakuya with a graceful smile. Meiling scruffled Flandre's cap and Gryphon briefly touched her shoulder on his way past, and with that the other four went back inside, leaving the sisters to their moment.

"I almost can't believe it," Remilia said softly after a while. "You've grown up so much in such a short time." Then, after a thoughtful pause, she went on, "If I didn't know better, I would almost say you've done so literally, not just metaphorically."

Flandre sniffled, then leaned back to look her in the face. "Would you believe me if I told you I have?"

Remilia tilted her head quizzically, then released her, took a step back, and looked her up and down. As she did, her expression passed in succession from puzzlement, to realization, to disbelief, to bafflement. Brows knitting, she put up a flattened hand horizontally at her own eye level, then moved it as straight away from her face as she could until it touched the tip of Flandre's nose.

"Impossible," Remilia murmured.

"That's what I said, but Sakuya confirmed it," Flandre said. "I've grown three centimeters."

"Your clothes still seem to fit."

"Sakuya fixed them."

"Of course. And neither of you saw fit to inform me of this development?"

"I was waiting for the right moment," Flandre said, a trifle hesitantly. "I mean... first I had to kind of absorb it myself, and then... I was afraid it might be kind of awkward. What was I going to do, just blurt it out at dinner some night? 'Hey, by the way, I know this isn't supposed to be possible, but I grew a bit.'"

Remilia chuckled in spite of herself. "You have a point," she admitted, then drew her sister back into her embrace. "Ah, well," she said with mock resignation. "You were already taller than me. Another side effect of Benjamin's blood, I suppose?"

Flandre shrugged. "It's as good a theory as any." Then, with a dark snicker, she said, "You could always drain him yourself and see what happens."

"That would be impolite," Remilia countered dryly. "Besides, I was born a vampire, not turned at a young age like you. This is as big as I was ever going to get." She held Flandre a little tighter. "I'm happy as I am, anyway." She chuckled. "Mark you, this changes nothing. You're still my little sister."

"I'll always be your little sister, big sister," Flandre replied, giggling.

Pre-dawn birdsong outside the windows, and Gryphon and Remilia were carrying on their usual bedtime conversation, he stretched out on the bed, she behind the dressing screen changing for the day.

"Your preposterous automobile is too small to get all four of us and our baggage to the train station in one run," Remilia said.

"True," Gryphon agreed. "And we were out so late that night, in order to make sure we don't run into ourselves coming home, we'll have to jump back to almost dawn."

"Well, then, once we do the time jump, we'll say our goodbyes at the car, and then Sakuya can use The World to take the four of us straight to the station," said Remilia. "It feels a bit like cheating, but needs must when the Devil drives."

"Says the Devil," Gryphon observed, "who doesn't know how to drive."

"I'm a devil, not the Devil," Remilia quipped, then emerged from behind the screen.

Gryphon turned his head to look, then raised an eyebrow. Remilia had donned the most daring nightclothes he'd yet seen her wear: instead of the usual camisole-type nightdresses she'd taken to wearing in the warmer weather, she had on an actual camisole, one of only waist length, of pink silk, on top of a pair of black panties in the most modern style. The outfit wasn't really much more revealing than he routinely saw on the witches of Saint-Ulrich, but on Remilia, who usually dressed in an older, more conservative style, it was a little startling with no warning.

She saw that thought process cross his face and went a bit red. "Sakuya made them for me," she said. "Do you like them?"

"Indeed I do. What's the occasion?"

"Do you have to ask? It's the last day we'll be together for... some time," Remilia said. "I..." She paused, her blush deepening, then went on, "I intended to wear this for our wedding day, but I decided not to wait."

Suddenly, her expression changed, as if she had just willfully discarded her bashfulness. With a slightly fierce little smile, she stalked toward the bed, then pounced, pinning him to the mattress, not too unlike the way Flandre had pinned him to the lawn earlier.

"Resign yourself to your fate, human," said Remilia, grinning down into his face. "We may not have done all the paperwork or said the words yet, but make no mistake: You already belong to the House of Scarlet. The elder and the younger—both have claimed you now."

Gryphon smiled lazily back at her. "I can live with that."

"We shall see," Remilia said, smirking, as she leaned closer. "We shall see..."

Yawning, Flandre knocked at her sister's bedroom door. When there was no answer, she tried again, but her second attempt was no more fruitful than the first.

"Are they already asleep?" she wondered to Wolfgang, who stood at her feet. Turning the handle, she gently opened the door and put her head in. "Sis? Gryph? Do you guys want Wolfgang, or..."

She trailed off as her eyes resolved the room in the light of the one candle that was still burning on the nightstand. They were, indeed, already asleep, and so entwined that there was no obvious way of entering the tableau, if indeed Flandre had wanted to. It felt like it would be intruding, anyway. From the looks of things, they'd fallen asleep while playing the kissing game, as improbable as that seemed.

"I didn't even know that was possible," Flandre observed wryly to Wolfgang, and then, easing the door shut again with a fond smile, she went on, "Looks like it's you and me today, hound dog."

"Hrf," Wolfgang agreed, and they went across the hall to Flandre's own room.

Following bath and breakfast the next evening, with the full moon climbing in the east, Scarlet Devil Mansion became a hive of activity out of all proportion to the modest number of its inhabitants, as everyone did their last-minute packing, double-checked to-do lists, and generally got ready for the first mass exodus the house had seen in many years.

In Flandre's bedroom, a small suitcase lay open on her bed as she, humming cheerfully, removed folded clothes from her dresser and arranged them within it. She was only bringing two of her matched outfits, the red one she was wearing and a black one for more formal occasions, devoting the rest of the space in the valise to shirts and underclothes. She assumed there would be some provision for getting laundry done where they were going, although she wasn't sure how she and Meiling were going to manage that once the business in Paris was done with and they were out on the road. Still, there was nothing for it but to cross that bridge when she arrived at it.

In the bottom of the lowermost drawer of her dresser, under the spare bloomers and socks, she uncovered a small box, about the same size as the pack of spell cards she'd already tossed into the suitcase with her clothes and toiletries. It was a well-made little thing, all its corners meticulously dovetailed, with brass protectors on the corners, a cunning little bronze latch, and an intricately carved sigil on the top: something like the spade suit from a deck of playing cards, but stylized almost to the point of unrecognizability.

"Oh," she said softly, picking up the box.

She'd almost forgotten about it—had forgotten, until seeing it again just now. It had been in this drawer for decades, undiscovered when she moved upstairs because Meiling had just picked up the entire article of furniture and carried it up without removing anything from it.

Now she stood considering the box for a while, her fingertips tracing the carved Nordic knotwork border that surrounded the spade sigil on the top. Holding it in her hands this way, she vaguely remembered taking it from her father's study, some blurred and indeterminate time before, but she had no idea now what had drawn her to it or why. Some instinct whispered to her not to open it, but neither to leave it behind. Turning, she stuck it into her suitcase, alongside the spell cards, and covered it with clothes.

There came a knock at the door, and a moment later it opened partway and Sakuya put her head in. "Young mistress? Do you need help packing?"

"No, thanks, I'm just about done," Flandre replied, placing the last item (her favorite nightdress) and then closing the suitcase. "Is everybody else ready?"

"Nearly," Sakuya confirmed.

"OK, I'll be right there!"

Preparations complete, the residents of Scarlet Devil Mansion mustered their baggage in the front hall, where Sakuya double-checked everything against the master list she had compared and meticulously made certain that everything was properly packed and secured. Gryphon made a slight stir when he turned up in his Luftstreitkräfte dress uniform, which he had been wearing when he left Château Saint-Ulrich and so had to be wearing when he returned, and which Flandre, Meiling, and Lena hadn't seen before.

"What is that?" Lena wondered. "Did you join the Barovian Navy or something?"

"Karlsland Imperial Air Service," he replied. "It's a long story."

"When isn't it with you?" the young Britannian remarked with a grin.

"All right, everything's here," Sakuya reported. "Let's get it outside."

With everyone pitching in, they got everything out into what remained of the front drive in one trip, and then, with a ceremonious air, Remilia produced a heavy iron key from a pocket of her "town outfit" and locked the front doors.

"Haven't needed to do that in a long while," she said, dropping the key back into her pocket.

"You do realize that from the house's point of view, we'll only be gone a few minutes?" Sakuya reminded her.

"All the same, it gives one a sense of occasion," Remilia told her.

"Well, gang, I guess this is it," said Lena. She fussed over Wolfgang for a moment, thanking him for all his help during her sojourn in the library; then, while Meiling steadied its halves for her, she climbed into her Striker Unit, called on her magic, and engaged its Miyafuji engine. "Thanks for lookin' after me! It's been fun. I'm sorry I couldn't find anything to 'elp you with your problem, but I'll put the word out when I get back to my outfit. Got to be somebody out there 'oo knows something useful."

"Don't fret about that," Remilia said, smiling. "It was a pleasure to have you with us, results or no. As I've said before, we knew it was a long shot, anyway. Have a safe flight back."

The others added their thanks and farewells, and Lena started up the Luna Moth night trainer's main engines, rising to a hover as her Britannian-style rune circle illuminated the ground beneath her.

"Are you sure I can't drop you somewhere?" said Sakuya with an impish smile, holding up The World.

"Nah, I'm good, thanks," Lena replied. Holding her hands up before her chest, she closed her eyes in concentration, and for a moment, a different magic circle—one that resembled a clock face—glowed in the space between them. She opened her eyes, grinning. "Right! Dialed in." Drawing herself up, she saluted with an open palm, RAF-style, and said, "Cheers, all! I'll be seein' you again."

And with that, she turned toward the open space to the east, opened up her throttles, and was properly airborne in moments, the lightweight trainer springing lightly into the air after only a short takeoff run. She climbed out, above the trees, then turned, circling out to the west before turning back toward the house and accelerating.

Silvery light gathered, shooting forward from the tips of the Striker's winglets to collect ahead of her, and just as she cleared the roofline and was almost directly above the group in the front yard, she vanished in a thunderous flash, the spots where the Striker's exhausts stacks had been leaving twin streaks of fire that hung in the air for a few moments before dissipating.

"Wow," said Flandre and Meiling in quiet unison.

Gryphon chuckled. "Showoff."

The rest of them moved the baggage down to the road, near the spot where the Belv had been parked; Sakuya made some adjustments to The World, ensuring that its area of influence was large enough to encompass the five of them and the bags, and then they all jumped together back to the wee hours of June 15.

From their point of view, it was like the Belv suddenly appeared and the full moon leapt from one side of the sky to the other, going from recently-risen to nearly-setting as the eastern horizon changed from black to the deepest pre-predawn blue. Remilia and Flandre, who had never experienced anything like it before, had to pause for a few moments and just take it all in.

Then it was time for farewells, as the four who were going on to Paris took their leave of Wolfgang and Gryphon. Each of them petted Wolfgang and said they would see him soon, but their partings from Gryphon were each unique. First Meiling, with a backslapping hug and a fist bump; then Sakuya, with a somewhat more moderate but no less heartfelt embrace. Flandre's was more of the stuffing-dislodging variety, and included a rather more leisurely kiss than the furtive peck she'd sneaked in last time; then she, too, withdrew to a discreet distance, loitering by the trunk and suitcases, and left him more or less alone with Remilia.

"So. Here we are again," she said, hovering as before so that their faces were on a level, her arms around his neck, his hands resting on her slender hips. "Only this time, it'll be a prolonged separation for both of us."

"Only a couple of weeks, with any luck," Gryphon replied. "Keep me posted on how things go in Paris. If I'm not right there at the castle, they'll know where to find me."

"I will," Remilia promised. She placed the palm of one hand gently to the side of his face, looking him in the eyes. "Benjamin... be careful."

He took the hand in his own, turning his head to kiss her palm, and smiled. "I will. You too."

"I'm not the one going off to war."

"No, but you're still having an adventure. Good luck." He pulled her closer, his arms going around her waist, and kissed her. "I love you."

"And I love you," she replied, repaying the kiss with one of her own. Leaning her forehead against his, she added quietly, "Sometimes to a degree I have difficulty believing."

Gryphon grinned. "Resign yourself to your fate, vampire," he told her, drawing a laugh. He kissed her again, longer and deeper this time, then said, "Have a good trip. Enjoy yourself. I'll see you when you get back."

One last kiss, and then Remilia disengaged herself with an effort of will, reassembling her composure. "I shan't be long, my love," she promised with her most determined grin. "The bureaucracy of the Fourth Republic is no match for the will of Remilia Scarlet!" Then, whirling, she trotted toward the others, declaring, "Sakuya! We're going!"

"Right away, m'lady," Sakuya replied, and then, shooting Gryphon a wink over her approaching mistress's shoulder, she thumbed The World's activator, and the four of them and all the bags disappeared.

Gryphon stood, hands in his pockets (a condition that would surely have gotten him scolded by Hannelore von Hammer, if she could see him disgracing the Luftstreitkräfte's uniform with such slovenly behavior), and looked at the spot where they had been for a few seconds.

Then, still smiling, he opened the Belv's door and waited for Wolfgang to hop aboard before tossing his suitcase in the back and slipping behind the wheel.

Santo & Johnny
"Sleep Walk"
Santo & Johnny (1959)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios

and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System


Undocumented Features Future Imperfect

Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
special series

Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
Book 2: Notes from the Scarlet Mansion

written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

The EPU Usual Suspects

Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice

Bacon Comics chief
Derek Bacon

E P U (colour) 2020