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FLIGHT SURGEON'S REPORT
TO: WILCKE BGEN Minna-Dietlinde cmdg 501 JFW
PATIENT: HUTCHINS Benjamin D
ATTENDING: MIYAFUJI 1LT Yoshika MD
DATE: 1 April 1946
Patient is a Caucasian male approximately 25 years of age, height (N.B. approximate: patient was not standing when measured) 178 cm, weight 82½ kg. Patient presented with unconsciousness and profuse bleeding from a wound to his right lower dorsal region.
DIAGNOSIS: Patient suffered a deep penetrating shrapnel wound to the right side of his back, just above the lumbar-dorsal line. Closer investigation disclosed a severe laceration to his liver (the source of the most significant hemorrhaging). Other symptoms were attributable to blood loss and shock.
TREATMENT: After stabilizing the patient with emergency magical healing, standard wound/shock protocols. Patient required two units of blood (special thanks to Maj Barkhorn and Cpt Clostermann) and further magical treatment coupled with conventional surgical intervention to remove metal fragments.
PROGNOSIS: Good. Patient responds well to magical healing. External wound has closed nicely and should require no further treatment. I recommend 5-7 days bed rest and follow-up magic sessions as needed to complete the internal repairs. There is a small possibility of renewed internal bleeding until the last of the deep damage is healed, but as the patient is under direct medical supervision this shouldn't be an issue.
DISPOSITION: Patient is in good, stable condition, resting comfortably in Saint-Ulrich sickbay under medical staff observation. He should regain consciousness sometime tomorrow, at which point I will carry out a fresh assessment of his condition.
Monday, April 1, 1946
Château Saint-Ulrich, Gallia
Off and on throughout the day, various members of the squadron stopped by sickbay in ones and twos to check on the patient.
After supper, Minna, Mio Sakamoto, and Perrine Clostermann all arrived together. "No change?" the wing commander inquired.
Yoshika shook her head. "As expected," she said.
Minna nodded. "Well, keep me posted."
"Either Lynne or I will be here all night," Yoshika assured her. "We'll let you know if anything comes up, but I think he's going to be fine."
"I hope so," Mio mused, regarding the unconscious figure in the bed by the window. "Be a hell of a note..." She trailed off, leaving the rest of it unsaid, then turned her head to see Perrine giving the sleeping man a slightly harder look. "What's the matter, Perrine?" Mio asked. "You look like you're not happy about something. Still feeling a little lightheaded? I told you to take the rest of the day off if you wanted."
Perrine glanced at Mio, reddened slightly, and shook her head. "No, I'm fine. I just..." She made a vague gesture toward Gryphon.
"If you have concerns, Perrine, tell us," Minna prompted.
"Well..." the Gallian hesitated, then said, "All right, look. I'm not saying I don't believe he's who he says he is. But how can we be sure?"
Mio opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything, Gryphon shifted slightly in his sleep and said, without waking but very distinctly,
Perrine, Mio, and Minna stood looking at each other for a moment with near-identical expressions of bemusement, and then - to Yoshika's considerable confusion - they all broke up giggling, trying to keep their voices down and in the process making the whole thing perversely even funnier to themselves. This went on for a while, feeding on itself, until they finally wound down with a long, shared sigh... at which point Perrine and Mio made injudicious eye contact and set themselves off again, taking Minna along with them.
Finally Perrine managed to pull herself out of the cycle; with an almost palpable regathering of her dignity, she straightened herself up, shot the cuffs of her Gallian officer's jacket, and said in her most elaborately formal tone of voice, "Very well, I shall withdraw the question."
"... Huh?" Yoshika wondered, but by that point, she was alone in sickbay but for her unconscious patient again.
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"All That We Can Truly Count On"
Tuesday, April 2
Gryphon woke to dim light, an unfamiliar ceiling, and an ineffable conviction that it would be best if he did not sit up and wonder where he was. Instead he lay for a bit, processing, before raising just his head to have a look around. He was in a large room, high-ceilinged, with white-painted brick walls and a row of old-fashioned metal bedsteads, one of which he was currently occupying. The others were empty. To his right was one of the empty beds; to his left, a double door leading he knew not where. At the opposite end of the room was a tall, mullioned window, mostly covered with a blackout curtain, so he assumed the door led out to the rest of the building.
On the other side of the room, opposite the foot of his bed, stood a metal desk, and at that desk, a person sat reading a document by the light of a gooseneck lamp. As he raised his head, she noticed the movement, put down the file, and got up to approach him. She was a young girl, maybe 12 or 13, with short brown hair and a cheerful smile, dressed in what looked like an old-timey nurse's uniform with a starched white headpiece and the badge of a Karlsland Luftwaffe officer candidate.
"Oh, good, you're awake," she said, keeping her voice low. "How do you feel?"
Gryphon considered the question for a moment, then replied, "I've felt worse. You must be Chris Barkhorn."
The nurse blinked in surprise, her cheeks coloring a little, and said, "Yes, I am. How did you know?"
Smiling slightly, Gryphon told her, "You're wearing a Luftwaffe eagle and you look like a younger version of Trude. Who else could you be?" While she took that on board, he added, "Last time I was here, you were in a coma. Fully recovered, I hope?"
"Yes, thank you," said Chris, not knowing what else to say. He almost died and the first thing he does is ask about my health? "Is there anything you need, uh... is it 'mister', or do you have a rank of some kind...?"
"I think Trude's little sister can probably call me Gryphon," he said, winking. "I mean, Erica's little sister does, so it's only fair."
Chris giggled. "All right. Is there anything you need, Gryphon?" She checked the chart hanging on the footboard of his bed, then went on, "You can't have anything to eat until Yo - Dr. Miyafuji has a chance to look you over, but I can get you some some ice water."
"That'd be lovely," said Gryphon. "Thank you."
By the time she got back with the water, though, he'd drifted off to sleep again.
By mid-morning, Yoshika was back in sickbay herself, having shooed Chris off to her morning training session at 0900. The patient was sleeping quietly, and everything else was going smoothly, so she and Lynne took advantage of the quiet time to do that inventory of the medical supplies they'd been putting off for ages, tidy up the place, and generally putter around. As on the day before, the others came and went at will. Yoshika paid them little mind, trusting that none of them was about to disrupt the workings of her sickbay, and tended to her business.
There was something pleasingly domestic about days like this, and while she sat at her desk filling in requisitions forms, Yoshika kept glancing up to watch Lynne as she bustled about, humming cheerfully. This was not only because she enjoyed watching Lynne move about generally (and particularly in the nurse outfit), but also because when the English witch was in this kind of mood, it put Yoshika pleasantly in mind of what life promised to be like after the war. They hadn't discussed where they might find themselves, but wherever it was - taking over the Miyafuji Clinic back in Yokosuka, going into practice in Paris, maybe running a hospital in London - it was sure to involve lots of, well, this.
She was nudged out of this pleasing reverie by the arrival of another wingmate in sickbay. Shizuka Hattori, her countrywoman from Fusō, stopped in front of her desk and stood looking around, a mild frown on her face.
"Something wrong, Shizuka-chan?" Yoshika asked, putting down her clipboard.
"No," Shizuka replied, her eyes still scanning the room. "I'm just looking for Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto. We're supposed to -" Her gaze fell then upon the one occupied bed, and her expression shifted rapidly from surprise to puzzlement to irritation.
"Lucchini!" she snapped. "What are you doing?!"
Confused, Yoshika rose from her desk and came around it to investigate. She hadn't even noticed when Francesca Lucchini arrived in sickbay, but it didn't surprise her to find her wingmate where she was: curled up on top of the regular covers, but under her favorite Romagnan-flag-bedecked blanket, next to the patient. There was plenty of room, both because Lucchini was tiny and because they hadn't received proper hospital beds for Château Saint-Ulrich's sickbay, so all the beds in here were doubles like the ones in the witches' own quarters.
Roused by Shizuka's voice, Lucchini slowly opened one aqua-green eye and fixed it on the angry Fusōnese witch's face, then mumbled, "I was sleeping," in a tone that clearly conveyed her conviction that she only wasn't now because someone was being almost inconceivably rude.
Shizuka folded her arms and scowled. "I know General Wilcke said you can sleep wherever you want, but I would have thought that even you would understand that doesn't extend to occupied sickbay bunks."
Yawning, Lucchini sat up, her blanket falling to her waist as she did so. This revealed that - as Yoshika had expected - she was fully clothed (by witch standards, anyway); in the two years she had known Lucchini now, Yoshika had never known her to bother undressing before she sacked out, anywhere, at any time.
"Shirley said you have to keep blood loss patients warm," Lucchini explained, "or they might go into shock and die."
"Well... technically that is true," Yoshika mused.
"Don't encourage her, Miyafuji," Shizuka growled, shooting her a look.
Yoshika shook her head sadly. "You're very repressed, Shizuka-chan," she said, then placed a friendly hand on the younger witch's shoulder and went on, "As your doctor, I'm concerned about the effect it may have on your health."
While Lynne giggled, Shizuka twisted her shoulder out from under Yoshika's hand and said a little frostily, "I'll thank you not to drag me down to your level."
"Eh? What's that supposed to mean?" Yoshika inquired innocently, making Lynne giggle again.
Shizuka might've replied, but before she had the chance, the door opened and Mio moseyed in. "Oh, there you are, Hattori," she said. "Ready to go?"
"Colonel Sakamoto," said Shizuka, gesturing, "please do something about this."
Mio raised her visible eyebrow and looked over the situation, then shrugged. "None of my business where Lucchini sleeps," she said. Lucchini stuck her tongue out at Shizuka, then pointedly lay back down, covering herself once more in her blanket.
"That's not the issue!" Shizuka protested.
Mio gave her a blank look. "Then what is?" she wondered, mystified.
"Ladies," came a bleary voice from the bed, "I hate to intrude on your fascinating discussion, but some of us are trying to be half-dead over here."
"Sorry, Gryph," said Mio. "Go back to sleep."
"Roger that," Gryphon mumbled, his eyes closing again.
"Hattori, we'll continue this elsewhere," Mio said, nodding her head toward the door. "We're due for patrol anyway."
"What about Lucchini?" Shizuka persisted.
"Leave her alone, she's not hurting anyone," said Mio, and then she turned and left, her body language making it clear that she expected to be followed. With an inarticulate sound of frustration, Shizuka did so, leaving Yoshika and Lynne to give each other puzzled looks.
"What's her problem?" Yoshika wondered.
"Search me," Lynne replied.
"That's very tempting," Yoshika said, eyeing her speculatively, "but we've still got a lot of work to do."
"Beast," said Lynne, giving her a playful swat with a towel.
"Didn't I see something in this month's Modern Witch about new herbal stress remedies?" Yoshika wondered as they got back to work organizing the medicine cabinet. "I'll have to see if I can find that article again later. Shizuka-chan really needs to relax."
For the first hour or so of their patrol, Mio held her peace. Perhaps she was waiting to see whether Shizuka would raise the subject first, or maybe she was just lost in thought - the younger witch couldn't tell - but she said nothing until they had made the corner at the northeastern limit of their patrol area and headed west.
Then, without preamble, she tightened up her formation so that Shizuka would be able to hear her without the radio and said, "All right. What was going on in sickbay earlier?"
The question momentarily flummoxed Shizuka, who would have thought that was fairly obvious. She couldn't come up with a reply for a couple of seconds, then said hesitantly, "It... well... you saw what was going on. Lieutenant Lucchini was acting... inappropriately."
Through the transparent left lens of her flight goggles, Shizuka could see the colonel's eyebrow arch. "Really?" she asked. "It looked to me like she was just trying to get some sleep. You probably noticed already, but she does that a lot." With a wry little smile, she added, "I found that out on the first day."
Major Mio Sakamoto was not a happy woman.
She'd been on this base for exactly 37 minutes now, and in that time she had seen enough to make her profoundly dissatisfied with the situation. The facility was nice enough, which was a pleasant surprise after some of the hellholes she'd found herself in during her military career, but the quality of the staff ranged from indifferent to abysmal. She hadn't encountered any of the actual witches yet, but the support personnel had completely failed to impress her in any way. Sloppy cooks, comms clerks who clearly didn't give a damn, maintenance technicians who didn't seem to know or care which end of a Striker Unit was which. It was all a complete mess, and Mio had a fairly good idea of the cause.
I can see why Minna begged me to come out here, she thought as she marched, jaw set, down the corridor she thought led to the squadron briefing room. She's a great flyer and an able administrator, but she's too nice to crack the whip on the noncombatants the way it needs to be cracked. She inherited most of the staff in this place from the RAF unit that was based here before the 501st, and they were on nothing duties too long. They got soft. She needs me to beat them back into shape. To be her attack dog. She smiled a slightly cruel little smile and acknowledged to herself, I can do that.
She rounded the corner at the end of the hall and came upon the crumpled figure of a person lying on the floor. Even by the established low standards of this operation, this took her a bit by surprise. Instinctively, she did what she would have done had she come across someone napping in the hallway aboard a Fusō warship and applied one of her shoes.
With an outraged yowl, the target of her disapproval sprang to her feet and rounded on her attacker. Green-eyed, olive-skinned, with thick dark hair drawn up in twin tails, the individual who had been on the floor was both smaller and younger than Mio had expected. Why, she couldn't be more than ten or eleven years old, and yet she was dressed in what the major recognized as a Romagnan Royal Air Force officer's jacket, and it appeared to fit her, so presumably it was her actual property.
"Who the heck's kicking me in the butt?!" the Romagnan girl yelled, so annoyed she appeared to have actual fangs; then, blinking, she realized the person she was shouting at was a) a superior officer b) some kind of scary-looking Fusōnese pirate witch with an eyepatch and everything and c) scowling at her in a cold, implacable way that struck more than a little bit of fear in her heart. "Uh... Major. Ma'am," she added, saluting half-heartedly with the hand that wasn't clutching a rumpled army blanket to her chest.
"What were you doing down there on the floor, Lieutenant?" Mio demanded severely.
"T-trying to get some sleep, Major," the Romagnan stammered, her face taking on the look of someone who has belatedly realized that she is really, really going to get it this time.
Mio gazed coolly at her for a second or so...
... then gave a hearty laugh, clapped the terrified girl on the shoulder so hard she almost knocked her down, and said, "Well, get back down there, kid - you're the only soldier or witch in this headquarters who knows what she's trying to do."
And with that, she moved on, striding purposefully off down the hall and leaving a deeply bemused Francesca Lucchini blinking after her.
"So it may go against your grain," Mio said, "but I want you to cut Lucchini some slack, Hattori. I know she's even younger than you, and she's a terrible goldbricker and an irritating little beast sometimes - but she's an officer and a decorated combat veteran. Lucchini wasn't born to the military life like you and me, she's a pure volunteer," she elaborated. "She gave up her family and any semblance of a normal life to come fight with us when she was eleven." Making momentary eye contact with the younger witch, she added seriously, "Between that and her accomplishments in the air, she's earned your respect."
"I..." Shizuka fumbled with her words for a few moments, then realized that under the circumstances, there was exactly one and only one thing she could say in response: "Yes, ma'am."
Mio smiled slightly and reached to punch her on the shoulder, causing their formation to drift slightly apart. "Good girl. Besides which... larcenous little slacker she may be, but if you try, you will never make a more loyal friend than Francesca Lucchini." Her expression softening, the elder witch faced forward again and went on almost to herself, "And in this crazy world, that counts for a lot." Glancing at Shizuka's face once more, she added, "I want you to think about that."
"Aye aye, Colonel," said Shizuka, but she was thinking, That wasn't even the problem.
As instructed, she thought about it. Thought about it for the rest of the patrol, in fact, and through a long post-mission soak in the base's (artificial, but very convincing!) hot spring.
At length, with a sigh, she concluded that Colonel Sakamoto was right. Lucchini was a peculiar girl who often behaved inappropriately, but it wasn't Shizuka Hattori's job to do anything about that. And she hadn't really seemed to have any sort of... intent... in snuggling up to the strange man from who-knew-where. (Shizuka felt herself blushing at the thought, even in the negative. She was only a few months older than Lucchini herself, and had no concrete evidence that such matters even crossed her mind, but everybody knew about Romagnans...)
Shizuka dried off, dressed, and went up to sickbay, thinking that she could either apologize to Lucchini if she were still there, or get a lead on where she might be found, if not. As she entered the room, it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the low light, since the blackout curtains were still drawn. Lynne seemed to be absent; Yoshika looked up from her medical journal and nodded, smiling.
"Sorry to bother you, Miyafuji," Shizuka murmured, in that instinctively-lowered voice people used in hospitals. "Is Lt. Lucchini still here?"
Yoshika shook her head. "Mm-mm," she said. "She left hours ago. She does that - rarely naps in one place for more than an hour or two," she added with a little smile.
"Oh," said Shizuka. "Well, do you have any idea where she might -" she began, turning to go. Her voice cut off abruptly as her eyes fell across the occupied bed - because, she saw, there were still two figures in it. One was the stranger, still asleep with the white covers drawn up to his chest and just his arms and head outside them, a peaceful little smile on his face.
It took Shizuka, in her surprise and the dim light, a moment to place the other, curled up atop the covers where Lucchini had been, with her head on the stranger's shoulder, her right arm extended across his body, and his hand on her shoulder. Only after a moment's bafflement did the pieces click together - the black jacket, the blonde hair - and she realized who it was.
"Captain Hartmann?!" she blurted involuntarily.
"Hnn," Erica Hartmann replied, but her only physical reaction was to settle in a little more, her hand reaching for, but not reaching, the far side of the stranger. Without waking, she mumbled, "vierundsechzig Minuten mehr..."
"... What did she say?" Shizuka wondered, her voice lowered again, as Yoshika came up to stand beside her with a little smile on her face.
"She asked for 64 more minutes," Yoshika said.
"That's... arrestingly specific," said Shizuka, who was beginning to wonder whether the entire day might turn out to be a weird dream at this point.
"Well, she's still a Karlsländer," said Yoshika philosophically. "They like precision."
"I suppose," Shizuka found herself agreeing. Then, shaking her head, she recalled herself to the moment and said, "Wait a second, now you're acting like this is OK too."
Yoshika gave her the puzzled look from before again. "Well, sure. Why wouldn't it be?" Smiling once more, she went back to her desk, sat down, picked up her journal, and added, "It's far from the first time. I'm told that Gryph-san and Hartmann-san are nap buddies from way back."
Shizuka gave her the not-sure-if-serious look and asked, "Who told you that?"
"She did," Yoshika replied, unconcerned. "In Karlslandic they even have a word for it! Schläfchengenossen. Isn't that interesting?"
"But - what - no." Shizuka shook her head again, more vigorously this time. "No! This is - Lucchini I could just about overlook, she's younger than me, but Captain Hartmann is definitely old enough to know better."
"Better than what?" came a voice from the doorway; looking up from Yoshika's baffled face, Shizuka saw Gertrud Barkhorn standing at the door, giving her a curious look.
"M-Major Barkhorn!" Shizuka said, the color draining from her face. She edged away from the bed, as if just by standing near it she might somehow acquire a tinge of guilt by association, then stood rooted in terror as the slightly-confused-looking Karlsländer came fully into the room and took in the scene. She wanted to run, but the only way out was past the major, unless she wanted to try her luck with the window. Then again, given the explosion she was sure was coming, that might be worth attempting, even if they were on the fourth floor.
At the sight of her partner sleeping with the stranger, Barkhorn frowned, fists on hips, and made a sharp tch sound. Shizuka imagined that as something akin to the noise a land mine makes when you step on it...
... but then, to her great surprise, Trude went to the unoccupied bed next door, picked up the folded blanket that lay at its foot, and unfurled it, then placed it gently over Hartmann, tucking it around her shoulders.
"Dummkopf," she said affectionately, smoothing Hartmann's hair as the blonde snuggled into the blanket with a slightly goofy sleeping smile. "You'll catch a cold sleeping like that."
"Wh - you," Shizuka sputtered.
Turning, Trude gave her the curious look again. "Problem, Hattori?" she asked.
"She's been acting weird all day," Yoshika supplied helpfully. "She even yelled at Lucchini this morning."
"Lucchini?" Trude said, eyebrows rising. "What in the world did she do to warrant that?"
"I..." Shizuka hesitated for a moment, visibly fighting with herself; then, fists straight down at her sides, she demanded, "Am I the only one who sees this?! What in the world is going on?!"
"Whoa, take it easy, Hattori," said Trude. "You're going to burst something."
"See? Weird," Yoshika said.
"hnnnn... trude?" Erica wondered, sitting partway up and blinking blearily in the gloom. "wha' you hollerin' about?"
Fists on hips again, Trude asked her, "Why do you always assume it's me losing her temper?"
Erica rubbed her face briskly with both hands to wake herself up more fully, then gave her lover a dubious eyeing. "D'you really want me to answer that?" she asked.
"Shizuka-chan, this is the second time today you've come into my sickbay and started yelling at people," said Yoshika, sounding as severe as such a naturally bubbly girl could sound. "I really can't have that. If you can't be quiet, be elsewhere."
"What's all the noise?" another new voice asked from the door, and everyone turned to see Mio standing there. At the sight of Shizuka, clearly in an agitated mood, she sighed. "What is it with you today, Hattori?"
"I don't understand," said Shizuka, her voice sounding slightly hollow. "Today just isn't making any sense. How is any of this OK?"
"What are you - ah," said Mio, as she turned her head and brought Erica out of her blind spot. "OK, all of you, out. Barkhorn, Hartmann, explain it to the new kid. Miyafuji, you too. I'll hold things down here. If you're needed, you'll hear about it."
"Right," said Trude. "C'mon, you. Let's get this sorted out."
Mio stood and watched them all leave, then sighed again and turned to the bed. "Thank you for pretending not to notice that," she said.
Without opening his eyes, Gryphon smiled and replied, "I don't know what you mean, Major Sakamoto."
Mio chuckled and sat down on the edge of the bed. "I've been promoted," she told him. "It's Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto now."
"You'll always be Major Sakamoto to me," he said.
"Ha, that's what Perrine said," Mio remarked. "You should thank her when you get a chance. Trude, too. You've got a pint of blood from each of them roaming around in you now."
Gryphon opened his eyes to regard her, then grinned slightly. "Essences of Gallia and Karlsland, eh? That explains why I feel a strange urge to attack myself without provocation, preferably in a way that violates Belgican neutrality."
Mio snorted, a little guiltily, and said, "That's awful."
"Yeah, true. And not even fair," he admitted. "I mean, that only happened once so far in this timeline, not three times." Then, reaching out his right hand, he took hold of her left and drew it over to take a closer look at it. "Speaking of international relations..."
"You're unusually nosy today," Mio remarked dryly, but she didn't take back her hand.
"Must be the Perrine," he said casually, then lowered (but did not release) her hand and looked her in the eye. "Assuming you made the return trip without losing a lot of time, you've been back nearly a year," he said, not reproachfully, but curiously.
Mio sighed again and stretched out in the spot Hartmann had vacated, her free hand behind her head. "It's complicated," she said.
"Is it?" Gryphon prompted mildly.
"Don't act like you don't know why," Mio replied. "You said it yourself - she's still my commanding officer. That's gonna have to wait for the end of the war."
"On a point of order," Gryphon said, "what I actually said was that, barring really extraordinary circumstances, that'll have to wait for the end of the war." Raising their linked hands in lieu of eye contact, which wasn't really feasible in their current arrangement, he went on, "Now maybe you don't wanna go by me, but I would say that ripping a hole in the universe with your bare hands to get back to her is pretty damn extraordinary."
"Well... for what it's worth, I don't think she would entirely disagree with you about that," Mio allowed. "It's just... I don't know, it's complicated. The chain of command..."
"Mio," said Gryphon quietly. "Really? Given what you just sent Trude and Erica off to explain to the new kid, do you really think the chain of command in this outfit is going to be compromised if you and Minna draw a line under what everybody knows is there? Hell, if that was gonna happen it would have by now. 'Cause I promise you, there isn't a witch in this castle who doesn't know full well already." With a fond little grin, he added, "You've got a good poker face 90 percent of the time, but Minna doesn't."
Mio couldn't help laughing at that. When she'd finished, she conceded, "All right, you might have a point there. I'll... well, I was about to say I'll think about it, but that would imply that I haven't been thinking about it for the past year or so, which would be a lie."
"You don't have to listen to me," Gryphon said. "It's totally none of my business, but... well, this is war. It's not going to go on forever, but while it's going, there's no time to waste."
"You sound like Miyafuji," said Mio with a chuckle. "She's the one who talked Trude and Erica into making it... well... unofficial. And Eila and Sanya, though in their case they've been recognized by the Tsaritsa of Orussia, so that's as official as that kind of thing gets." She sighed once more. "To tell the truth, part of the problem is that I don't really know what to do. I've been a soldier all my life. I never gave any thought to romance before. It's... not in my portfolio," she admitted wryly.
Gryphon turned his head, regarding her out of the corner of his eye, then said, "Major, I can't think of a single person in this world you would have to work less hard to seduce than Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke. One or two, perhaps, on whom you would have to work no harder," he said with a self-mockingly didactic upraised finger, "but nobody who'd be easier. But, fine, I'm here to help. Just this once, just for you, Gryphon-sensei will teach you the secret."
"... Excuse me?" Mio wondered, raising herself on an elbow to look down at his face.
With a wry grin, Gryphon released her left hand and held up his right. "Watch carefully," he said. "This is a very subtle gesture. I don't want you to miss any of the nuance. Are you ready?"
She gave him a funny look, then lay back down and settled in, regarding his extended hand. "Ready, sensei," she said.
"OK. Here it is." He turned the hand palm-upward, crooked his fingers inward a couple of times - the classic martial-artist bring it on gesture - then said decisively, "There." Dropping his hand back to the covers, he declared, "Seduction complete. Gryphon-sensei's work here is done."
Mio laughed. "Smooth," she said.
"Exactly as smooth as you'll need to be," Gryphon agreed.
"... I'll take it under advisement," she said.
On the official floorplan of the renovated Château Saint-Ulrich, the big room adjacent to the officers' mess was labeled PILOTS' LOUNGE, but the witches of the 501st never called it by such a sterile, institutional name. If the castle was their home - and it was - then this room, with its couches and carpets and nice wood paneling and Sanya's piano, was their living room.
In hindsight, Gertrud Barkhorn had to acknowledge to herself that it was probably the wrong room to bring Hattori to if she and Erica wanted to have any real chance of explaining the situation without a lot of "help" from the peanut gallery. As it was, they almost instantly attracted a small crowd consisting of most of the other witches in the squadron, and several of them - not that Trude was taking names, but Lucchini, Shirley Yeager, and Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak - were pleased to muddy the waters further as soon as they divined the purpose of the impromptu meeting. Erica, Trude reflected ruefully, really didn't need any backup to accomplish that on her own, but she was getting it anyway.
"Gryph?" said Shirley, raising an eyebrow. Then, sitting back in her end of one of the couches with her hands behind her head, she grinned and said casually, "Oh, yeah, he slept with pretty much everybody in the squadron at one point or another, back in the day."
"Sometimes two or three at a time," Erica agreed, nodding.
"And that one time with everybody at once!" Lucchini put in helpfully.
"Oh, man, that was that horrible box patrol mission, wasn't it?" Eila moaned, leaning her head back against the couch cushion. "The one where they had us fly like a thousand miles?"
"Mm-hmm, Folkestone to Cork, and then back by way of Penzance," Erica said, nodding. "I still think that had something to do with a bet."
"We were out for like 15 hours," Eila remembered. "I'm amazed we had the energy to even make it as far as we did when we got back."
"That was an awkward time for Air Chief Marshal Dowding and General Galland to make a surprise inspection," said Sanya quietly.
"Don't remind me," said Eila. "I'm sure Galland knew that wasn't my shirt."
"Well, yeah, seeing as it had 'YEAGER' stitched onto the pocket," said Shirley, smirking.
"And it fit her like a tent!" Lucchini chortled gleefully, drawing a raised head and tiredly-stuck-out tongue from Eila (who appeared to have exhausted herself just remembering the marathon mission).
"I've told you before, Francesca, you're really not in a position to belittle other people's... frontal accomplishments," said Perrine.
"Yeah, well, look who's talking," said Lucchini with a saucy grin.
"My figure is elegant and harmonious," Perrine replied, drawing herself up in a mild parody of her old hauteur. "Whereas you're just scrawny." Her golden eyes twinkling with wry merriment, she added, "Like a rat."
Lucchini giggled. "Yeah, that's true, but I'm from Rome. If I keep eating right, I'll pass you one day soon, you'll see."
"Besides, Yeager, it's not like you're in any position to laugh," Eila put in. "As I recall, you were wearing his shirt - inside-out."
"Ha, that's right, I was," Shirley laughed. "I forgot about that part. Good thing he's got that barrel chest, somebody coulda lost an eye."
On the loveseat off to the left, Yoshika and Lynne looked at each other as if to say, Wow, the old days sound like more fun than we thought.
"All right, girls, you've had your fun," said Trude, a touch wearily, as the laughter died away. "I think it's time we actually explain a few things..." Placing a hand on the shoulder of the dismayed-looking young witch seated between herself and Erica, she went on, "... before Sergeant Hattori ends up with completely the wrong idea."
The others looked at each other for a few moments; then Eila sat forward, elbows on knees, and said, "OK, I'll start. The day we're talking about is a good example, actually. It wasn't that long after Gryph first appeared, and some of us -"
"For which read Perrine," Shirley snarked.
"All right, fine, I admit it, I was cautious," said Perrine. "I can't help that, it's in my nature."
"Oh, bull," scoffed Shirley. "You just thought he was going to put a move on Mio."
Eila cleared her throat ostentatiously. "Ladies, if I may? Thank you. Some of us didn't completely trust him yet when we got handed that patrol mission from hell. We were surprised when he said he wanted to come along with us."
Shirley nodded agreement. "Yeah, I mean, he didn't have to. It wasn't like he was officially part of the outfit, and scrambling to help deal with an incoming Neuroi is one thing, but that was just busywork the brass rolled downhill at us. Minna was ripped, too, because they said we all had to go. If the Neuroi had come across the Channel the next day, we wouldn't have been able to do jack about it. There wasn't enough magic on tap between us to light a candle."
"I agree with Erica, that had to be some kind of generals' wager," said Perrine.
"Why, thank you, Captain Clostermann," said Erica.
"Not at all, Captain Hartmann," Perrine replied grandly.
"My point is," Eila went doggedly on, "He came along even though he didn't have to, and once were were out there he was a huge help. Kept everybody's spirits up, handled a bunch of the navigation, shuttled around the formation bringing people sandwiches..."
"Gave us an excuse to stop and breathe for a minute every couple hundred miles so he could refuel," Shirley chipped in.
"By the time we were on the home stretch, we were really dragging, and he was... well, kind of amazing," Eila admitted. Beside her, Sanya nodded silent agreement. "He practically carried Perrine the last hundred miles after she had a cylinder blowout."
"It's true," said Perrine.
"And he did it all without any of the advantages we have," Eila continued. "No magic, no Striker Unit to boost it, nothin'. Just a bag of sandwiches, a big Thermos of hot tea, and a sheepskin jacket. And that must've weighed a ton by the time we got back, with all the rain we hit coming up the Cornish coast."
"After that, there was no more question in any of our minds that he was on our side," Perrine said. "That, stranger from another time or not, man or not, he was someone we could count on. Before that patrol, he was our guest, and some of us were uneasy about that fact. After it..."
Barkhorn nodded and spoke for the first time since calling a halt to the jokes and innuendoes. "After it, he was one of us."
"So if you're seeing that we're all pretty comfortable around him," Shirley said, "that's 'cause we are." She sat forward, eyes intent on Shizuka's and looking as serious as the young Fusō witch had ever seen her. "Look, this is war. King and country is all well and good, but in an outfit like this, what we're really fighting for is each other. To do that you have to trust your buddies - trust 'em right to the limit."
"Once they've earned it," Eila put in.
Sanya nodded. "Довэряй, но провэряй."
"Exactly," Shirley agreed.
Shizuka blinked. "... You lost me."
"It's an Orussian proverb," Sanya explained. "'Trust, but verify.'"
"Oh," said Shizuka, who seemed still none the wiser. "It... it just seems... unprofessional. I mean, I know this is an irregular unit. I've learned that much since joining you," she added with a little flash of wry humor, "but still... seeing some of you act so casually with a civilian... and a man... it took me aback. Still takes me aback," she said honestly. "There are good reasons for the regulations against fraternization. Flouting them that way seems very... undisciplined."
"I suppose it is, in a way," Trude conceded. "But there's more to being a successful soldier in a war like this one than discipline."
There was a brief, startled silence. Trude looked around at her fellow witches, taking in their universally stunned expressions, then elaborated, "Don't misunderstand me, discipline is good - and important! In combat, it can keep you alive. But there comes a point where you have to let some of the small stuff go, because it can blind you to the bigger realities. Too much discipline can drive a wedge between you and the people you're depending on."
In the wake of this little speech, no one spoke for another few moments. Then, with slightly ostentatious gravity, Erica got up from her end of the couch, crossed behind it to the other, leaned down, and felt Trude's forehead with the inside of her wrist.
"What? Stop it," Trude said, batting her hand away. "I'm being serious here."
Erica giggled, then bent down and hugged her from behind over the back of the sofa, arms around her neck, resting her chin on Trude's shoulder. "She's right, though," she said, turning her head to meet Shizuka's eye. "The people who wrote the regs about 'fraternization' aren't up there in the sky with us - and sometimes they don't understand what we have to do to win."
Trude nodded. "Or sometimes just to survive."
Sanya took Eila's hand and added quietly, "In the face of the enemy, all that we can truly count on is each other."
"Amen to that," said Shirley soberly, and there was a general murmur of agreement all around.
"So hey," said Erica cheerfully, rounding the sofa arm to plop herself into Trude's lap. "We're not asking you to sleep with him, but maybe stop yelling at us for doing it? 'Cause it's... not what you thought."
Turning to the loveseat, Trude said, "Miyafuji, Bishop, you're awfully quiet. Anything to add?"
"We don't really know him either," Lynne observed. "I haven't even spoken to him yet."
Yoshika smiled. "But if you guys say he's OK, that's good enough for me," she said. With an encouraging smile for her countrywoman, she added, "OK, Shizuka-chan?"
Shizuka sat in contemplative silence for a few moments, acutely aware that all her wingmates were watching her carefully. Then, sighing, she met Trude's eyes and said, "OK. I'm... I may need a while to get it fully on board, but... I'll try."
"That's all we can ask," said Sanya with a little smile.
"Besides, once you get to know him yourself, you'll wonder what you were even making a fuss about," Eila added with a winking grin.
"Yoshika, we should go and get started on dinner," said Lynne, rising to her feet.
"Right!" said Yoshika, putting on her Determined face. She sprang to her feet, nodding firmly. "You guys had better go and get Sakamoto-san." Smiling, she went on, "She's not going to want to miss out on takoyaki night!"
"Yay, takoyaki night!" said Shirley as she got to her feet and headed for the dining room.
"I thought you hated octopus," Lucchini said accusingly, trotting after her.
"No, I hate raw octopus," Shirley replied. "Bleagh."
"Raw octopus is best octopus," Lucchini insisted.
Trude, Erica, and Shizuka entered sickbay to find it even darker than they'd left it, since evening was now falling outside the blackout-curtained window, and silent but for the sound of quiet snoring from the one occupied bed.
When Erica switched on the light on Yoshika's desk, its glow provided just enough illumination to that end of the room for them to see its source. The patient, yes, right where they'd left him...
... but also Mio Sakamoto, who lay atop the blankets in the spot Erica had vacated. She wasn't curled up, but sprawled out, like she'd just finished making a snow angel, her head tilted sideways against his shoulder, left hand loosely folded over his right. Erica and Trude glanced at each other with private little smiles, then turned as one to see the new kid's reaction.
Shizuka stood regarding the tableau for a few seconds, her expression neutral... and then she chuckled faintly, her mouth quirking into a wry little grin.
"She's human after all," she said softly...
... and then, to her mildly renewed terror, General Wilcke walked in.
Like Trude before her, though, the general didn't react with horror, anger, or even particular surprise; she just smiled and said, "Well, someone looks comfortable."
"Just like old times," Erica agreed. "Come to take your shift?"
Minna reddened slightly and gave her a look of mild reproof. "Not in front of the enlisted personnel," she said, then shot Shizuka a wink to show she wasn't serious.
"Hmn?" said Mio, opening her eye; then, recognizing the speaker, she smiled. "Oh, hey, Minna. Another day's paperwork dealt with?"
"Two more reams closer to winning the war," Minna replied dryly. "I understand Yoshika has declared tonight takoyaki night."
"Works for me," said Mio. She yawned, stretching, then climbed carefully down from the bed, jostling the patient as little as possible and managing not to wake him. "Who's going to watch Gryph?" she asked.
Erica and Trude glanced at each other again - Crap, we didn't think of that - but Shizuka surprised them slightly by saying, "I'll stay here until Miyafuji can relieve me."
"You sure?" Erica inquired, giving her a speculative glance.
"Sure," Shizuka confirmed. "Not a problem."
"Well, OK." Erica grinned. "Just make sure you behave yourself ow!"
"Come on, you, you've caused enough trouble for one day already," said Trude, conducting her partner out of sickbay by the ear.
"All I did was take a nap!" Erica protested. "Ow, Trude, leggo, that really hurts!"
Mio watched them go, then shook her head with an indulgent little smile. "It would be the wonder of the age if those two could have children," she said wryly.
"Wouldn't it just," Minna agreed. "I'm going on ahead. Don't dawdle, or Shirley will get your share."
Mio chuckled. "I'll be right behind you," she assured the departing general. Then she turned to Shizuka and said, "All right, then. I'll send Miyafuji up as soon as she's finished with dinner, and you can come down and get your own. We'll keep Yeager away from it."
"Roger that, ma'am. Thanks."
"Are you OK now?" Mio inquired.
Shizuka considered her answer, then smiled. "I will be."
Mio nodded. "Good. I know the 501st hasn't been what you were expecting," she said, "but we're stronger with you than without you. I hope you know that."
"Thank you, Colonel," said Shizuka, who then squared herself up and saluted.
"Carry on, Hattori," Mio replied, returning the salute.
"Aye aye, ma'am."
Alone with the stranger, Shizuka stood looking at his shadowed profile for a few moments, then went and sat down at Yoshika's desk. There was a magazine lying open on the blotter; she picked it up and saw that it was the current (to the front line, and so actually two months out of date) issue of Modern Witch.
"'New Herbs for Stress Relief,'" she read quietly aloud, and then, adjusting the gooseneck lamp for better illumination, she sat back and began to read.
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
"All That We Can Truly Count On"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015