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Benjamin Hutchins woke, stretched, yawned, and realized that he could happily murder an entire chicken pot pie. This was a good sign; in fact, a very good sign. It meant that he was finished lying around and could go and become a productive member of society again. As soon as he tracked down that pie.
He sat up and had a look around. Château Saint-Ulrich's sickbay was empty but for him; the light was on at the doctor's desk in the corner opposite the foot of his bed, but there didn't seem to be anyone home, and none of the other beds had been occupied in the night. At the far end of the room, a stripe of light shone through one edge of the blackout curtain; from its angle he guessed that meant it was early morning.
Swinging his feet out of bed, he stood up and stretched his arms back a couple of times, then gave his torso a couple of careful twists, checking for pain. None to be had. All his internal diagnostics were coming back A-OK. He picked up a folded bathrobe from the bed next to his and tried it on - it fit, so evidently had been placed there in anticipation of his needing it sometime. Thus clothed, more or less, he turned and looked toward the door, wondering whether he ought to go in search of someone.
A moment later he heard a sound from outside, faint but growing louder: the drone of an approaching Striker Unit. Not a healthy drone, though - the engines were stuttering, sputtering, and coughing, occasionally cutting out altogether. Somebody was nursing home a very sick pair of boots.
Galvanized, Gryphon went to the window, steeled himself against the brutal caress of the accursèd daystar, and swept the blackout curtain open. For a moment, the sunlight dazzled him, but his eyes adjusted quickly enough for him to scan the bright blue sky and pick out the form of the approaching witch. Whoever she was, she was still a couple of miles out, too far for him to tell much about her visually. She wasn't Sanya, he could see that much. No boxy shape of a Fliegerhammer rocket launcher, and this witch was wearing a Striker model he wasn't familiar with: bigger than any of the ones he had known the 501st's witches to use, with a twin-boom configuration he didn't recognize.
He turned to go in search of an alarm or something, but just as he did, the door at the other end of the room opened and a person came in. It was one of the 501st's witches, the new ones he hadn't met before - in this case, the one with long, sandy hair in a single fat braid (reminding him a little of Bell Morisato), who had, he dimly remembered, acted as the little Fusōnese one's scrub nurse during the "emergent crisis" part of his recent medical adventure. Indeed, she was dressed as a nurse now, with the appropriate headpiece and a starched white medical smock over her dress shirt and green necktie. (And no trousers, naturally, but that was to be expected, since she was a witch.)
"Mr. Hutchins!" she declared with a pleasant Britannian accent, her blue eyes going wide. "What on Earth are you doing up?"
"There's a -" Gryphon began, pointing to the window.
"Yes, we know," said the girl in the nurse's tunic with a nod. "She radioed ahead. One of our neighbors, having a bit of engine trouble - nothing a person in your condition needs to worry himself about. Now please, I must insist. You need to get back into bed this instant."
"I should really -" Gryphon began.
The nurse shook her head, her expression earnest, but firm. "I know you think you feel better, but that's a side effect of Yoshika's magic," she said. "If you don't lie back down immediately, you could undo all of her hard work."
"Actually I'm -" Gryphon began.
"Now!" the nurse insisted, pointing, as if he might've forgotten which bed was his.
Gryphon considered bulling past her, or making another attempt at convincing her that he was, in fact, perfectly fine; but he knew in his heart that a man didn't defy an English nurse, not if he knew what was good for him.
"... Yes, ma'am," he said, and meekly got back into bed.
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
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Friends New and Old"
Well, said Eleanor to herself, at least I'll have something definite to report to Captain Hartmann this time.
Teeth gritted, she applied herself to getting her sick P-61 to the ground in a way that would leave her in one piece. She could see Saint-Ulrich from here, and she knew they were ready for her; both her own radio call and Heidemarie's had seen to that. If she could just nurse the beast through the pattern and onto the runway, she'd be in good hands.
The Black Widow's right engine surged, threatening to run away, and Eleanor felt herself losing her balance. "Whoa! Whoa, you sonofa, whoa there!" she snarled, essaying the delicate task of getting a little more power out of the sputtering left one while easing back on the right without stalling it outright. She didn't know whether the problem was the superchargers or those new downdraft æther carbs, but either way, the darn thing was not happy...
There. She was over the boundary line and on final approach now, and out of the corners of her eyes, she could see Sanya and Heidemarie settling into formation with her. Even if the '61 conked out entirely on her now, she would at least be fairly sure not to die.
"We're here, Eleanor," said Sanya softly, in case her Liberion colleague hadn't noticed her.
"You're OK now," Heidemarie added.
"I'm much obliged, ladies," said Eleanor with a wan little smile. "I tell you what, I'm tempted to bail outta this thing and let you girls carry me the rest of the way, but I suppose I shouldn't waste Uncle Sam's money like -" She wobbled, then jerked downward as her left engine gave a sudden, thunderous, flame-belching backfire and cut out, its manifold ablaze - followed immediately by the right.
"Right, new plan, Geronimo!" Eleanor said hastily, yanking the emergency cutoff handle. Her legs tingled as the Miyafuji Engine shut down, releasing its hold on her magic, and her ringed tail and standing ears withdrew. Sanya and Heidemarie swept in from either side and caught her arms as the burning Striker slid off her legs and fell away.
"We've got you," Sanya said.
"Thanks," said Eleanor, her smile even more wan. "That was a little too close," she added shakily, and then she just hung there catching her breath for a minute while the 501st's Night Witches flew her down to their hangar. By the time they entered the cool, echoing space, she had regained enough of her usual good humor to quip, "I hope the stupid thing doesn't set your hill on fire."
"Our crash crews are pretty good," said Shirley Yeager casually from in front of her racked Striker. "There might even be some pieces for you to take home as souvenirs."
Eleanor wobbled slightly as Sanya and Heidemarie set her on her feet in front of her fellow Liberion, but she still managed to crack a wry grin and offer a half-decent salute. "Cap'n Yeager," she said.
Shirley smiled sardonically and returned it. "Lieutenant Hutchins," she replied. "Hey, guess who's back in town?"
"Say, I just happened to think of something," Gryphon said, looking up from the November 1945 issue of Modern Witch. "Mio mentioned once that the 'new kids' who joined the squadron after I was here last time were called Miyafuji and Bishop. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the Fusōnese girl is Miyafuji," he said with a self-mocking little smile, "so that must make you Bishop."
The girl in the nurse's smock smiled. "Yes, that's me. Warrant Officer Lynette Bishop, RAF. I'm sorry, in all the confusion I forgot to introduce myself."
"That's all right, we've all been kind of busy," said Gryphon. Then, with an inquisitive head-tilt, he took a closer look at her and said, "Hang on, Bishop as in Minnie Bishop? Are you Wilma's sister?"
Lynette blinked in surprise. "You know Wilma?"
"Well, not biblically, but we met a couple of times in '43, yeah, and she's not the kind of person you forget easily," he added wryly.
At this the younger Bishop laughed (and also blushed just a little, but if she gathered what he meant by "biblically" - if he recalled correctly, the Bible wasn't a thing in this world - she kept it to herself). "No, she certainly isn't that," she agreed. "Yes, I'm her younger sister. Well, one of her two younger sisters." She hesitated very slightly, then went on, "My friends call me Lynne."
"Good to know you, Lynne," he said, offering a hand. "Mine call me Gryphon. Or Gryph. Or Ben. I'm not really that picky."
She was kind of a timid-looking girl, he reflected, especially compared with her elder sister; but she had a good handshake. Very English. Nice smile, too. Sincere.
They were in mid-handshake when the double doors banged dramatically into the room like saloon doors in a Western, and Shirley Yeager swept in, declaring,
"Awright, outta the sack, you lazy bum! Time for - oh! Am I... interrupting something?" she asked, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
At the salacious tone in her wingmate's voice, Lynne blushed flaming red from collarbone to eyebrows, but - to her credit - she didn't pull her hand back as if his had suddenly become red-hot, or sputter, or otherwise lose her composure; she completed the handshake properly, released it, and then said primly, "No, you are not."
"Shirley," said Gryphon reproachfully, folding his arms. Then he echoed her smirk and went on, "You know you're the only one for me."
Lynne blinked, her blush fading. "Eh?" she said, looking from one to the other and back.
They held the smirks on each other for a moment, then both burst out laughing, after which Shirley bounded to his bedside and leaned in to hug him, declaring, "Yaright, that'll be the day. You gave us a pretty good scare, y'old pirate!"
"Nobody told me it was finally hugging time! Gangway!" Francesca Lucchini declared, more or less scaling Shirley from the back and somersaulting over her head to land in Gryphon's lap.
"Francesca!" Lynne admonished. "Be careful, you could - um - Shirley - I don't think he can breathe - oh dear," she said, her blush returning.
"I see you haven't changed any," came a third voice from the doorway, and Shirley moved aside with a grin so that Gryphon could a) indulge his addiction to oxygen and b) see the speaker.
It took him a moment to place her, because she was a little bit out of context. He knew he knew her, but she wasn't a member of the 501st. Plainly a witch, though, the Liberion Army Air Force blouse and lack of pants would've told that plainly enough even if there had been some other reason for a girl in her mid-teens to be in uniform in a war zone. She had short brown hair under a campaign cap with the gold bar of a second lieutenant, pale blue eyes, and a fairly impressive, not to say slightly beaky nose. If pressed, he would gallantly have claimed that it was the eyes that finally clued him in, but in fairness, the nose wasn't easy to mistake either.
"Eleanor!" he said, delighted, and Shirley and Lucchini moved a bit to either side to make room for her. "What are you doing here? Last I heard you'd been posted to Suomus."
"Yeah, well, you know the Army," said Eleanor, snuggling in on his left. "Soon as you figure out where the latrine and the PX are, they're sending you someplace else. I'm with the 511th up in Lichtenberg now. Decent bunch of girls - we're not the 501st, but we do all right."
"Uh... I'm sorry, you are... ?" Lynne wondered.
Eleanor looked up, then grinned and disentangled herself. "Hello nurse," she said. "You must be Darjeeling's big sister Lynette." Looking the Britannian up and down, she raised her eyebrows and added, "I see what she means by that now."
Reddening for what felt like the too-many-th time for so early in the day, Lynne said, "Um, it's because I'm older than Dara Jane."
Eleanor nodded. "Just keep telling yourself that," she said cheerfully, then stuck out a hand and said, "Eleanor Hutchins. Kidding aside, I'm glad you're here - wasn't for Sanya and Heidi, I'd probably be your next customer right now."
"Pleasure to - wait, Hutchins?" Lynne asked, shaking the hand automatically.
"We're related, kind of - it's complicated," Gryphon said, before Eleanor could launch into a lengthy explanation of how, in whatever parallel universe he came from, she was evidently a man named Leonard who would go on to be Gryphon's grandfather.
She might have essayed the explanation anyway - the state of affairs amused her - but just then the establishment's proprietor turned up. Yoshika Miyafuji, her white Fusō Navy officer's jacket open over her swimsuit, had a towel around her neck and was still a little sweaty from her morning workout, but she'd come straight up from same rather than detouring through the shower, since she had an active patient to tend.
She paused in the doorway, smiling a little at the sight of said patient being tenderly besieged by several of her colleagues, then said, "Well, you look like you're feeling better. Thank goodness for that."
"Dr. Miyafuji, I presume," said Gryphon with a smile. "I think we might have spoken a couple of times yesterday, but I wasn't really on my game. Thanks for looking after me."
"You're welcome," Yoshika replied, her smile broadening. "Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up, and I'll do a full check on your progress."
She was back in just a few minutes, towel and jacket exchanged for a medic's smock; shooing the others aside, she powered up her magical healing abilities and gave him a full scan, then smiled.
"I don't know how you did it," she said. "Even with the treatment I gave you, you should've been out of action for the rest of the week at least. But I can't find anything wrong with you. It's like you were never hurt at all."
"I told you he bounces back fast," Shirley said with a grin, hooking her arm around his neck and mussing his hair.
"Good genes," Gryphon quipped, shooting Eleanor a wink that made her snicker. "Does this mean I'm cleared for solid foods?" he asked, with a comically hopeful expression that put Lynne in mind of a puppy angling for a treat.
Yoshika nodded. "I don't see why not."
Gryphon's hopeful-puppy look became the sort of fierce little grin that anticipates mayhem. "Yes," he said, throwing back the covers and climbing out of bed. "Point me to the mess hall. Breakfast is served."
"Right this way," said Yoshika cheerfully. She pulled off her smock and swapped it for her uniform jacket and sword, which she'd hung on the back of her desk chair, and then they all trooped off down the hall toward the dining room.
"Hi, I don't think I know you," said Yoshika to Eleanor as they went. "I'm Yoshika Miyafuji, I'm the flight surgeon here."
"So I saw," said Eleanor. She stuck out her hand to be shaken again and said, "Eleanor Hutchins, 511th JFW. I'm Gryph's..."
"Ha-hrm," said Gryphon.
"... cousin or some such," Eleanor finished. "We come from the same dark corner of Liberion," she added with a wry grin.
"Oh, wow, that's amazing," said Yoshika, wide-eyed. "What are the odds?"
"Pretty long," Eleanor agreed. "Hey, that reminds me, have you guys got a phone I can use? I should probably let somebody up in Lichtenberg know where I am."
While Eleanor reported her whereabouts using the phone in the living room, Yoshika and Lynne banged together an improvised breakfast for Gryphon out of various bits and bobs, since he'd missed the squadron's proper morning feed. This was served with apologies, but he waved them off, insisting that they hadn't had to cook him anything at all - and indeed, based on the avidity with which he attacked the meal, it didn't appear that he had any objection to its content. (Except the nattō, but then, Yoshika hadn't really expected him to eat that. Westerners, in her experience, rarely did apart from General Wilcke, who would eat just about anything. And he didn't actually complain about it, he just... didn't eat it.)
"There," said Eleanor as she returned to the dining room. "They're sending a truck. It'll be a few hours before they can get here, apparently, but at least I don't have to walk," she added wryly.
"Are you hungry?" Lynne asked. "Take a seat - we'll get something for you as well."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Eleanor said, but Gryphon, with a private little smile, noticed that her arm didn't require a lot of twisting before she was sitting down next to him and awaiting her own tray.
"What's this?" she wondered, looking at the small bowl Gryphon hadn't touched.
"That's nattō," Yoshika told her. "Haven't you ever seen it before?"
Eleanor shook her head. "Nope. Is it a Fusō thing?" At Yoshika's affirmative, she went on, "We don't have anybody from Fusō in the 511th. Do you not want it?" she asked Gryphon.
"Knock yourself out," he replied dryly, applying himself to another pancake instead.
"Um... you may not like it," Lynne warned from the kitchen passthrough. With an apologetic glance at Yoshika, she added, "It's something of an acquired taste."
"Hmm," said Eleanor after shoveling in the first spoonful of fermented soybeans. Her expression thoughtful, she chewed slowly, then swallowed and sat as if considering for a few seconds.
Then she said, "Huh. I think that's the strangest thing I ever put in my mouth," and ate the rest of the helping, pausing only to add offhandedly, "On purpose, anyway," which made Gryphon snort some of his orange juice.
After breakfast, Shirley and Lucchini took charge, conducting Gryphon to Château Saint-Ulrich's residence wing. This had been specifically fitted out by the castle's original renovators to have twelve bedrooms, one for each member of a normally constituted witch fighter wing - visitors were expected to be housed elsewhere - but with several of the 501st's members doubled up by choice, there were a number of extras.
"Well, here ya go, Gryph," said Shirley, throwing open one of the doors on the north side, toward the east end of the hall. "You've got Sanya and Eila on your right, Trude and Erica across the way, and the one on the left's empty." With a sly grin, she slapped the brick wall with the palm of a hand and added, "Don't worry about the neighbors, these walls are plenty thick. I'm on the other side and I never hear a thing."
"I'm so relieved," said Gryphon dryly, looking around. "Not bad! Almost as big as the ones at Crone Rock."
"You never saw our place in Romagna," Lucchini said. "Those rooms were huge!"
The room was a bit bare, which was to be expected, since it contained only the stock items of furniture - like a dorm room on move-in day, Gryphon thought irrelevantly - but nicely appointed, with a double bed, dresser, desk and chair, and (currently empty) bookcase. The window afforded a panoramic view of the rolling Alsace countryside and overlooked another, smaller castle, which stood atop the neighboring hill.
"Pretty view," Gryphon observed.
"Yep, you can't beat it with a stick," Shirley agreed.
"Romagna was better," Lucchini put in.
"If you like ruins," Shirley allowed.
"What do you call that?" Lucchini countered, pointing to the other castle.
"Hey, do you mind if I borrow your new bed for a bit?" Eleanor asked, sitting down on the article in question. "I've got some time to kill, and I'm beat."
"Sure, go ahead," Gryphon said.
"Oh, I haven't rounded up any blankets and stuff for in here yet - I'll go do that now if you're gonna rack out," Shirley said, but Eleanor waved a hand in a never-mind-that gesture and stretched out on her back on the bare mattress.
"Don't sweat the little stuff," she said, and then, without further ado, went almost instantly to sleep.
"That's impressive," Lucchini mused, watching the Liberion witch sleep with a certain collegial interest.
Having finished her various morning tasks, Mio Sakamoto swung through the ready room to check the duty board. Clostermann and Bishop had the midday patrol today, and indeed, the little red markers by their names on the board showed that they were out performing it. Everyone else was either off-duty or seeing to various standby tasks. Everything as it should be.
Satisfied, she went down the hall to Minna's office. As was her custom, she entered without knocking. Within, she found the wing commander seated at her desk, but stifled the greeting she'd planned as she saw that Minna was on the phone. From the look on her face, Mio realized immediately that it wasn't one of those routine phone conversations, either. From the tone of voice alone, before she'd even picked up any of the words, Mio could recognize the sound of Brigadier General Wilcke on the warpath, and with a private little smile, she leaned against the doorjamb to listen in.
"... wonder whether you might be able to tell me," Minna said in that cordial-but-no-more tone she adopted when speaking with certain general officers, "exactly why the 501st suddenly has guards." The person at the other end spoke for a few seconds, but whatever he (judging from the timbre of the scratchy sound Mio could make out) said appeared not to improve Minna's mood any. "I see. Here to protect us, are they? Well, I hope you will indulge my curiosity further, General, because I'm afraid that only raises more questions in my mind."
The party at the other end of the connection attempted to explain, but before he could do so, Minna steamrolled over him, continuing in the same coldly cordial tone, "Principal among them: Protect us from what? Not the Neuroi, obviously. They don't operate that way, and if they chose to assault Saint-Ulrich directly, a few men with rifles would accomplish precisely nothing at all in its defense. Are you implying that Headquarters has reason to believe there are Neuroi sympathizers among the civilian population of Gallia?"
Rising from her seat, Minna leaned forward over her desk, placing her free hand flat on the blotter, and said with increasing vehemence, "Is it Command's assertion that, without these men to protect us, bands of fanatically suicidal Alsatian partisans would storm the château and massacre us, rather than let us go on protecting their homeland and striving to drive the Neuroi out of the adjoining territories? You will forgive me if I hesitate to characterize that idea with even an adjective as charitable as preposterous."
Minna whirled to face the window, the telephone receiver's flex drawing taut across her back and dragging the instrument a few inches across her desk toward her. "No, General, I find there is only one logical explanation for what those men are really doing here. They're here to monitor us, and I believe I told SHAEF some time ago that I will not stand for that sort of interference in my wing's operations!"
She let the other party speak for a few moments, then cut him off again, saying, "Well, if you didn't want me exercising a general officer's prerogatives, perhaps you should have opposed my promotion." Then, her voice all but dripping acid, she went on, "Oh, that's right, you did, didn't you?"
Well, that narrows down who she's talking to, thought Mio wryly as Minna turned back around.
"This is not a request, General," the brigadier said icily. "Remove your men from my headquarters by the end of the day or I will remove them for you. You wouldn't subject Twining or Eaker to this sort of treatment and I won't have it either. Good day to you, sir." An indistinct sound of protest came in reply, but Minna merely scowled and repeated in a voice just short of a shout, "I said good day!" and banged down the phone.
Having done so, she stood there glowering down at it for a few moments; then, with a sigh, she looked up and saw Mio standing in her office doorway, smiling.
"I love watching you work," Mio told her, and then, while she blushed slightly, "I don't have to ask who that was."
Minna dropped herself back into her chair and sighed heavily. "I would never be so foolish as to minimize the value of Liberion's contributions to the war effort," she said, "but certain of their personnel, I would just as soon had stayed home."
"You'll feel better after some lunch," Mio said, angling a thumb back over her shoulder toward the hall. "And a nice hot soak."
Minna got to her feet again, cricking her right shoulder, and sighed again, more wistfully this time. "I don't have time to lounge around the bath," she said.
"If I have to get Miyafuji to give you a doctor's order, I will," Mio told her as they left the office together. "You're not going to do anyone any good if you work yourself into sickbay."
While they walked along the corridor to the dining room, Minna glanced at her longtime second-in-command, taking in her stern, I'm-not-kidding-you profile, then gave a tired little smile. "All right, fine. Half an hour. But that's really all I can afford right now. I still have a lot of work to do today."
"It's a start," Mio said.
"Speaking of starts, how's Gryphon settling in?" Minna asked.
"Not bad, considering he arrived with nothing but the clothes on his back, and they were ruined," Mio reported. "Shirley scrounged up some things for him to wear, and now Lucchini's showing him around." She smiled. "He's already charmed Miyafuji and Bishop. I think Hattori will take a little more work, but she'll come around."
Midday, and Gryphon was in the hangar, having a look at what remained of Eleanor's Striker Unit. The crash crew that extinguished and recovered the wreck had laid its pieces out on the long trestle table in the corner. There wasn't a lot left, but a few of the parts were still recognizable, and he was considering one of them - the charred remains of an ætheric carburetor - with a professional sort of interest.
"What do you make of this, Dr. Lucchini?" he asked, holding the item up for his colleague's inspection.
Lucchini peered judiciously at it, then nodded and issued her pronouncement: "It's broken."
"Mm, I'm afraid I must concur with your analysis," Gryphon mused, putting the ruined carb back down on the table. Then, looking back, up, and to his right a bit, he asked, "Are you planning on getting down from there at any point before supper?"
"No," Lucchini replied with a grin, snugging her piggyback hold a little.
"Fair enough," Gryphon said, and he turned back to considering the P-61's remains.
He was still engaged in this task a short while later, when the sound of an engine pulled his attention away from the wreckage. Looking up, he saw an Opel Blitz truck pulling in through the open hangar doors. It was painted in the standard grey of the armed forces of Karlsland, but its markings were those of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. As it pulled to a halt not far from the table, its driver's door swung open, displaying the unit crest of the 511th Joint Fighter Wing.
All the JFWs had a nickname, and all the ones Gryphon had seen were of the standard form "$ADJECTIVE Witches" - the 501st, for instance, were the Strike Witches, while the 507th up in Suomus, if he recalled correctly, were (for reasons he wasn't privy to) the Silent Witches. According to the label at the bottom of their unit crest, the 511th had the nickname "Adamant Witches", which Gryphon thought had a nice ring to it.
The driver of the truck climbed down, shut the door, and started walking toward him. She was a witch, late teens, not very tall, in the low boots, steel-blue serge uniform blouse, white shirt and blue tie of a Royal Farawayland Air Force noncommissioned officer, with the three broad chevrons of a sergeant on her upper left arm. She had shoulder-length dark-grey hair that was a little too coarse and wiry to be kept in order when worn as long as it was. She wore no hat over it, but had on little wire-framed Ben Franklin glasses, which combined with her prematurely grey hair to give her a slightly severe, rather professorial look.
Strangely, Gryphon had the uncanny sense that he knew her from somewhere, although he had plainly never met her before. The only RFAF witch he knew was Wilma Bishop, and this individual was definitely not her. (If nothing else, he had never known Wilma to actually wear her uniform; in his admittedly limited experience, she was always to be found in a beat-up old leather flying jacket and non-regulation cap.) He put down the fragment of P-61 he'd been examining and would have said something, but before he had the chance, the door off to the side opened and Eleanor emerged, looking sleepy.
"So there you are," said the Farawayland witch, as if Eleanor had been keeping her waiting. "Did you have a nice nap after scaring us all half to death?"
"It wasn't bad," Eleanor replied, unperturbed by her colleague's severity. "I wasn't expecting you until sometime this afternoon."
"I happened to be out on a test flight when the call came, so I was able to fly straight to Lichtenberg instead of waiting for a transport," said another voice, and Gryphon turned to see that the truck from the 511th had had a passenger, who had now climbed down and was walking toward the table. She was a petite blonde, also wearing glasses, dressed in the green tunic of a Karlsland Luftwaffe officer - and apart from the glasses, she looked exactly like Erica Hartmann.
"Yay, it's Hartmann No. 2!" Lucchini declared.
The blonde gave her a curious look, plainly not having expected to find her clinging to the back of a man in Liberion Army fatigues, but smiled. "Hello again, Lt. Lucchini," she said politely.
"Well, now that you're awake, you can come help me get the crate off the back of the truck," the Farawaylander told Eleanor, then added grumpily, "It's the least you can do after the heart attack you gave me with your radio call."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Phee," said Eleanor with mild, almost-but-not-quite-deniable sarcasm as she made for the truck. Throwing a quick rolled-eyes grin at Gryphon as she went, she added, "Next time my Striker's about to quit running at 10,000 feet for no reason, I'll keep it to myself, so as not to bother you."
Gryphon blinked, blinked again, and discreetly took a harder look at the Farawayland witch as she disappeared around to the back of the truck.
"Oh," he said quietly, and then, "Oh."
"What?" Lucchini wondered.
"Nothing," Gryphon replied automatically, shaking his head, but then he amended that obvious falsehood, "I'll tell you later."
Lucchini might've pressed, but by that point the girl who looked like Erica Hartmann had come up to the table and picked up the wrecked carb Gryphon had been looking at earlier.
"That's broken," the Romagnan declared instead. "Dr. Hutchins and I have already inspected it carefully and come to that conclusion. It'll all be in our report," she added breezily.
Hartmann regarded the carb for a moment, then put it down, smiling. "Eleanor's a doctor now, is she?" she inquired.
"Not her," Lucchini said. "This Dr. Hutchins." She leaned down to put her chin on Gryphon's shoulder and nudged his head with hers.
"Hi," said Gryphon, raising a hand. "Ursula Hartmann, right? Ben Hutchins. We've never actually met, but we traded letters a few times back in '43."
Ursula looked surprised, then smiled again and extended a hand across the table. "Oh, hello! Yes, I am. We meet at last."
Gryphon reached for her hand. A moment before they would've touched, both of them realized that their hands weren't clean, having been handling charred bits of Black Widow, and hesitated; then, with matching little grins, they shook anyway.
Within a half-hour or so, a small crowd had gathered to watch with quiet amusement as Ursula and Gryphon nerded out on what remained of Eleanor's Black Widow, speaking at what the former's twin sister Erica wryly summarized as "400 miles per word." Only with considerable harrumphing, interrupting, and generally not acting very sergeant-dealing-with-a-captain-like did Phee manage to pry the wreckage away from them and get it crated up.
"Hmm," said Ursula thoughtfully as she watched the last of that operation. "Before you put it on the truck, let me get my Striker off. I'll stay here tonight so that my colleagues and I can write up our notes," she added with a wry little smile for Gryphon and Lucchini, "and fly straight back to Juvincourt in the morning."
Phee looked up from securing the lid of the crate (which, Gryphon noticed with a mild shudder, was painted with the stenciled legend PR-392 U.S. ARMY N-7-481 HAMDINGERS NON PERISHABLE DO NOT DROP), then nodded. "All right, if that's the way you want to do it."
They got Ursula's Fw 190 Striker Unit unloaded from the truck and secured in one of the spare launch stages off to the side of the hangar, and then Gryphon and his "cousin" got the crate aboard and lashed down. This was a task not simplified for the former by the presence of a Romagnan witch on his back, but he didn't complain, and Eleanor seemed to think it was amusing.
"Sure you can't stay for dinner?" Shirley asked as the two 511th witches climbed into the cab of their truck. "We're havin' beef stew."
Eleanor looked like she would've agreed, but Phee shook her head and said, "We need to get back to Lichtenberg - it's not safe to be out on the roads this close to the Rhine at night in our sector." With a pointed glance at Eleanor, she added, "Particularly with our Night Witch out of commission."
"I'm sorry my near-death experience has inconvenienced you so," Eleanor said sincerely.
"Well, all right, drive safely," said Shirley. "If you run into any trouble, holler."
"Thanks for all your hospitality, ladies," Eleanor said, nodding.
"Hey, that's what neighbors are for," Erica said with a grin.
"Nice to see you again, Eleanor," said Gryphon. "We'll have to do it again sometime. Maybe without the engine fire. Pleasure meeting you, Sgt. Schwartz," he added with a nod to the driver.
"And you," Phee replied, a bit distractedly, as she prepped the truck for departure. "Well, we'd better get moving. Be seeing you, everyone." She glanced at her passenger, then added with a hint of a thaw, "Thanks for looking after Eleanor," before she put the Blitz in gear and pulled away.
Gryphon stood at the mouth of the hangar with the rest, waving until they passed through the fence and out of sight. Then, in a conversational sort of voice, he said to no one in particular, "That might actually be the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me."
"Huh?" said Lucchini.
Gryphon turned to go back inside. "You know how Eleanor is the local equivalent of my grandfather?"
"Uh-huh..." Lucchini said.
"Well, that other girl is evidently my grandmother," he told her. "Which, I guess, means I'm not going to exist in this timeline."
"Oh," said Lucchini, and then, after a few seconds' consideration, "But you're already here, so that's OK."
"There is that," Gryphon conceded.
Not until they reached Molsheim, taking the long way around to avoid Strasbourg, did it occur to Sgt. Phyllis Schwartz that she had not actually been introduced to the man in the Liberion fatigues.
"... How did he know my name?" she wondered aloud; but the only person within earshot was slumped against the passenger door, fast asleep, and didn't hear her.
Dinner in the witches' dining room at Château Saint-Ulrich that evening was a festive affair, with Gryphon's semi-official welcome back and a rare appearance by Erica's sister to celebrate. The evening meal was the one time in a regular day when all the 501st's witches could reliably be found together, as the squadron's Night Witches dined with the others before departing for their evening patrols.
So it was that Gryphon found himself introduced to the one member of the wing he hadn't met yet, even briefly - Heidemarie Schnaufer, the second Night Witch, who had joined at around the same time as Shizuka Hattori.
"Heidemarie worked with me at St. Trond when Trude, Erica, and I were posted there, after the Venezia campaign," Minna explained after introducing them. "She was the first witch to have a verified encounter with one of the new-type Neuroi that started appearing just before they launched their Ardennes offensive last fall."
"Er... should we be discussing these matters with a civilian, Brigadier Minna?" the bespectacled Night Witch inquired hesitantly, her pale cheeks going a bit red.
"Gryph's not a civilian," Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak declared. "He's a super-civilian!"
"What is that?" Heidemarie wondered.
"Something Lt. Juutilainen-Litvyak just made up," Shizuka said dryly, buttering a roll.
While Eila was busy sticking her tongue out at the Fusō witch, Sanya explained the situation (broadly) to her colleague, and then the war stories began.
They continued long after their original audience had to excuse herself and commence patrol, but since there were three other members of the squadron and one guest who hadn't heard most of them either, that didn't stop the veterans; they just relocated from the dining room to the living room at that point and carried on. Not until nearly nine o'clock did Minna finally call a halt to the proceedings and disperse the participants to their quarters.
"You should be all set for tonight, Gryph," said Shirley as she left him at the door to his new room. "I scrounged you up a set of bedclothes - it's all GI stuff, but it'll do until we can get you to Colmar to do some shopping." She indicated the desk by the window. "Found you a couple of books that should bring you up to speed, too."
"Thanks," Gryphon said. "'Night, Shirley."
"G'night, Gryph," Shirley replied. Turning to head for her own room, she paused, turned back, and said, "Hey - Gryph?"
"I know you probably didn't really mean to come here right now? But we're all glad you're back."
Gryphon grinned. "Good to be back," he told her, and she gave him a hug and went off to bed.
Half an hour later, he was sitting in bed reading one of the books she'd left for him (Winston Churchill's The Second Neuroi War, Volume III: Their Finest Hour) when there came a quiet knock at his door.
Slightly puzzled - who knocked around here? Sanya, maybe, but she was out on patrol - he closed the book on his finger and said, "Come in," keeping his voice low. The door opened a few inches and, to his mild surprise, Ursula Hartmann put her head in.
"Oh, good, you're awake," she said softly. "Am I intruding?"
"Nah, just reading up on some of the stuff I missed," Gryphon said, holding up the book. "C'mon in."
Ursula entered, swinging the door to but not shutting it, and crossed to stand hesitantly by the bed.
"Have a seat," he said, indicating the desk chair. "What's up?"
Ursula took the chair and didn't reply at once; instead, she sat with her hands on her knees and looked down at her knuckles for a few moments, her expression deeply pensive.
Then, raising her eyes to his, she said matter-of-factly, "Technically, I think what I'm about to do is treason."
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
"Friends New and Old"
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