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No one was entirely sure what the room off the main hangar was actually supposed to be used for. On the blueprints used by the Liberion Army Corps of Engineers for the renovation, it was labeled FUEL STORAGE, which rather invited the question of what Liberion Army engineers thought Striker Units ran on. It wasn't anything that could be stored in a room, and so FUEL STORAGE had ended up being used as a sort of general junk room.
Now, though, there was an actual need for some securable space near the hangar - a need which FUEL STORAGE would fill quite handily once it could be swamped out a bit. Thus, on the Thursday morning after Operation Raketendiebstahl, the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's maintenance crew moved out the junk, and then a couple of the witches and their mysterious man friend from the future moved some other stuff in.
Gryphon stood in the middle of the (respectably large) room, ostensibly sorting the contents of one of several large crates marked with inscrutable Karlsland Luftwaffe shipping codes. This was not a terribly taxing job, since everything in the crate, and indeed all the crates, belonged to the same person.
"Yours," he said, removing an item from the crate and handing it to the petite, bespectacled blonde standing by one of the several large workbenches that lined the room's walls. "Yours," he repeated, handing over the next item. "Also yours." Looking up from the crate, he added with a wry grin, "Look, all of this stuff is yours, I didn't bring anything with me."
"Well, that's hardly my fault," Ursula Hartmann pointed out. "Besides, I'm happy to share. Except that," she added quickly, taking the next item he fished out of the crate from his hand. "Please don't touch that."
"Yes, ma'am," said Gryphon, without remarking further. He worked his way through that crate. That done, he went on to an assortment of items that had been unpacked and lay strewn on one of the other workbenches, picking them up one by one and handing them to Ursula for her to put away as she liked. "Yours... yours... no, wait, this is Trude's," he corrected himself.
In his arms, Ursula's twin sister Erica opened one blue eye and fixed it on him with sleepy skepticism. "Funny," she mumbled.
"Erica, if you can't be helpful, at least don't sleep in the middle of everything, please," said Ursula mildly.
"Sorry, sorry," said Erica, who yawned and stretched as she climbed down from Gryphon's arms. "I started to unpack this one, but the bench looked really comfy. We drove all night, y'know. And there are certain things you can't do in a truck Charlotte Yeager is driving. Like relax in any way."
"That was Tuesday," Ursula pointed out. "This is Thursday."
"It was a very intense ride," said Erica.
"I slept fine for most of the way here," countered Ursula.
Erica rolled her eyes. "You beat up half the Feldgendarmerie that morning," she said, then grinned and hooked an arm around her twin's neck, miming a noogie. "It was too much for your delicate constitution."
With an indulgent smile, Ursula gently freed herself and replied, "Yes, yes. Why don't you go back to bed, then? You're not on call today."
Erica yawned again. "Yeah, I think I will," she agreed. "I'll see you guys later..."
Shortly after she left, Gryphon and Ursula finished unpacking the last of the crates, then stood regarding the one item in the room that hadn't come out of one of them: the red-painted shape of the He 162 jetpack, codename Hochdruckpumpe, which they had "liberated" from Ursula's previous commander two days before.
"I haven't had a chance to write up a proper flight test report," said Gryphon, placing a hand on the jetpack's turbine housing, "but I've had a few thoughts about how we might improve this beast."
"Improve it?" Ursula inquired skeptically. "It now appears that it wasn't even a real project."
"Maybe not, but it's still a real thing, and it's got potential," Gryphon told her. Then, with a shrug and a smile, he added, "Besides, might as well keep busy while we wait to find out what your real next assignment's going to be."
Ursula considered this for a moment, then returned the smile, picking up a notepad and pencil. "Fair enough," she said. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well, first of all, this handle here," said Gryphon, pointing to the yellow priming handle on the side of the pack. "I'm not always going to have a flight engineer along..."
Flying Yak Studios
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"A Gallant Woman"
Minna drifted in and out for most of Thursday morning, and each time she woke, she found someone at her bedside. Mio Sakamoto was, unsurprisingly, the most constant, but at various points she also spoke to Trude, Perrine, Eila, and Lucchini.
When she woke after a brief post-lunch nap, however, she was surprised to see Hannelore von Hammer sitting at her bedside, leafing through a sheaf of documents with an incredulous look on her face. "Those idiots!"
Von Hammer didn't seem to have realized she'd said that aloud, and Minna couldn't quite resist twisting the veteran's tail slightly as she sat a bit further up in bed.
"I certainly hope you're not remarking on my paperwork, Rittmeister von Hammer."
"Mm?" Von Hammer looked up, surprised, then smiled back at her. "Oh. No, Generalmajor, this has nothing to do with your work." Setting the paperwork on a side table, she poured a glass of water from the bedside decanter. "Here - have a drink. You gave everyone quite a scare, you know."
Minna accepted the glass and took a long drink before nodding. "I know... but there was no time to do anything else. If I'd hesitated even a single instant..." She left the thought unspoken, but shivered slightly despite herself.
Hannelore nodded, sympathetically. "True. Those kind of decisions are never easy, but sometimes they must be made. You did a damned brave thing, Minna." Leaving aside the possible cost of her actions, von Hammer changed the subject, picking up her papers again.
"This, on the other hand, is the other half of Projekt Salamander - planned and constructed without Hartmann Minor's knowledge when it became clear that the He 162 wasn't going to be an instant success. Reichenberg called it Bedienung Natter."
Minna frowned. "'Operation Grass-Snake?' That's a horrible name."
Von Hammer chuckled. "Fitting, though." Moving the decanter aside, she began laying out the documents for Minna to read. "The idea was to present his fake Raketenkorps as a viable alternative to witches, buying Reichenberg more time for Hartmann to make the Hochdruckpumpe operational. Not that she actually could, of course," the elder witch allowed before Minna could point out that fact, "but Reichenberg never accepted that in the first place."
She looked up with a slight smirk. "For what little it's worth, the plan did not involve attracting a real Neuroi - the 'target' that they were supposed to neutralize was actually an unarmed zeppelin and a modified generator that Reichenberg 'acquired' from some remnant of the Britannians' Warlock program. Just strong enough to generate armor, but not enough power for it to form an operational core. Without that, it wouldn't pose any actual threat. Or so he thought."
Minna shook her head. "That madness keeps coming back to haunt us. So the faked Neuroi generated enough of an energy signature to attract a real one?"
Hannelore nodded. "That's our theory. Impossible to know at this point. Regardless," she flipped a few more pages over, "they were using a modified Do 17 to send out Knickebein transmissions. One guiding the dummy Neuroi to intercept Fritzschen, the other serving to direct the Nattermenschen toward their target."
Minna looked over the various diagrams of their planned 'intercept' with a fascinated horror. "So those men couldn't even steer?"
"Mm. Just as Hartmann Minor predicted. They were essentially just there to arm their modified Fliegerhammers and pull the trigger at a specific point to destroy the 'Neuroi' decoy. These documents claim it was rigged for a cleaner self-destruct than Hattori caused," she added, diplomatically omitting with a wink the fact that Shizuka Hattori hadn't been alone, "but it's anyone's guess whether it really would have. Worst-case scenario, those poor fools would have been hurtling helplessly headlong into a fireball."
"What horror," Minna said. "Did they realize that was a possibility?"
"Probably not," von Hammer replied. "In fairness, the operational plan does call for them to be routed around the blast zone, though it would've taken a prettly steady hand on the control transmitter to accomplish that. At any rate, if it had gone according to plan and they weren't roasted alive, the packs would expend themselves, and each man was to parachute to a pre-planned landing area, thence to be collected and driven to Juvincourt to present the Kaiser with his 'saviors'."
Minna read over the page she'd picked up again, then put it down with a shake of her head. "And His Majesty would never have had any way of knowing that the Neuroi wasn't real, the rocket men were only cargo, and the whole thing was nothing but theater." She frowned again as a thought occurred to her. "What about you, though? You would have been there..."
Von Hammer nodded. "There, and apparently helpless against the Neuroi, until the Nattermenschen heroically swooped in and destroyed it for me," she said with a look of bitter distaste. "I'll give Reichenberg this, if it had worked, it would have been a very dramatic gesture. He always was one for the dramatic gesture."
"But there are so many variables," Minna observed, gesturing to the heap of documents. "And once a real Neuroi appeared..."
"We also found proof that Reichenberg inserted false orders into the escort timetables for JG 11 to keep them 'safely out of the exercise area,'" von Hammer told her. "If you and your wing hadn't happened to be conducting your little... escapade... in the area, it's quite likely everyone would have been killed. The Nattermenschen plainly had no answer whatever to the contingency of a real Neuroi appearing - a significant liability in a force proposed to replace witches," she added dryly.
Minna didn't answer, still flipping through the files. Eventually she came to the personnel dossiers for the ten Nattermenschen themselves.
"Oh, here's a charming-looking fellow," she said dryly.
Von Hammer didn't even really need to look, but she did anyway, just to be sure, and nodded. "Ah, yes, Otto Skorzeny. He's a real piece of work, that one. He's Viennese, by training a civil engineer (of all things), and had made quite a name for himself in some circles through a certain facility for dirty tricks and a flexible moral standing. Evidently he and Barkhorn know each other from somewhere." With a dry chuckle, she added, "She doesn't appear to like him."
"I can imagine," Minna replied. "Trude doesn't have much patience for people like that, or for the Aufgegeben generally."
Hannelore sighed, a bit overdramatically. "I will say one thing for Skorzeny. He possesses that special Ostmark quality we call Backpfeifengesicht. In nearly inexhaustable quantity."
Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was not, in general, the kind of woman who would laugh so hard she almost fell out of bed. It was the combination of the delivery, the deliverer, and the word itself - Karlslandic for "a face badly in need of a fist" - that got her. Von Hammer had to step in and make certain she stayed on top of the mattress, if not properly upright, until she got it out of her system.
Once Minna was restored to something like equilibrium, Hannelore put away the paperwork into a collapsible file, snapped an elastic band over it, and stood.
"Now that that's out of the way, do you feel up to another visitor?"
Minna nodded, and the older witch left the room. She wondered who Hannelore meant, given that most of the 501st's witches hadn't hesitated to come in and say hello while she recovered; the only ones she hadn't seen at least once so far were the Night Witches, Heidemarie and Sanya, who had so far not managed to be awake at the same time she was. That answer came a few minutes later when the door opened, and Kaiser Friedrich IV entered.
Minna began to try straightening up in bed, her hand coming instinctively up in salute, but the monarch stopped her with a slight gesture of his hand.
"No, please, Brigadier Wilcke - you don't need to salute me. If anything, it is I who should be saluting you."
Walking to her bedside, Friedrich took the chair that Hannelore had vacated, and sat - breaking the stereotype of a perfectly correct Prussian gentleman by hunching forward slightly, his elbows against his knees.
"Actually... what I truly need to do is apologize to you," he went on soberly, his eyes fixed on her face.
Minna's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Apologize, Your Majesty?"
"Yes - and you don't need to be so formal. You've more than earned that." Blowing a sigh through his impressive moustache, he took a moment to collect his thoughts before speaking again. "I was foolish the other day. Worse - I was careless. Not only with my life and the lives of the men aboard my plane, but with our entire nation."
Minna hadn't thought about that in the heat of the moment, but she realized with a shock that he was telling the truth. The Kaiser was unmarried - and had no acknowledged children. There was a line of succession, certainly, but the news of his death would have been a shattering blow to every Karlslander, and likely sent the government back in Neukarlsland into a frenzy until power could be stabilized.
"I was selfish. I should have ordered my pilots to firewall their throttles and get us out of danger... but I had a chance to see some of the greatest witches of this era in battle, and I was too caught up in the opportunity to think of the risk it really involved."
Friedrich paused, but before Minna could say anything, he had reached out and taken her hand.
"Were it not for your bravery - your sacrifice - my mistake would have been fatal. You paid a terrible price for my stupidity, and I owe you my life."
Minna blushed. She hadn't expected anything like this from the Kaiser - or indeed to see him in person at all; if she had thought about it, she would have assumed that Hannelore would have gotten him back to Juvincourt by now. It took a few moments for everything he had just said to sink in before she could begin to speak.
"Sir... I don't know what to say. I wish I could tell you I had thought of any of that. But in the moment..." Minna shrugged. "I simply saw that I was the only one who had a chance to protect you, and I acted."
Friedrich smiled a bit wistfully as he released her hand. "I doubt anyone goes into battle thinking of such things. But that doesn't change the fact that you deserve recognition for your courage."
Reaching into the pocket of his uniform jacket, he drew out a thin black box, then handed it over. "This is the least of what you deserve - and I intend to do more, once I return to Headquarters. But this... this I can give you, today, with my sincerest thanks."
Minna gasped as she opened the box, revealing a blue-enameled gold Maltese cross resting on a bed of soft grey velvet - the legendary Blue Max, identical in most respects to the one von Hammer wore at the high collar of her old Luftstreitkräfte tunic.
"I've never awarded anyone that honor before," the Kaiser said, his tone conversational, even a little absent-minded. "It's a Prussian order, and when I took over from my father, I thought that the best way I could recognize the contributions of the rest of the nation in the Great War was to retire it and create a new highest honor for our armed forces. One that would reflect all Karlsland. Thus was born the Knight's Cross."
Speechless, Minna could only nod, but that seemed to be all Friedrich expected as he went on, "But... this occasion called for something more personal than simply awarding you the Diamonds, or even the Gold Oak Leaves and Diamonds, to your Knight's Cross. Your sacrifice was not only of great value to the country, but of direct and immense benefit to the Crown - to the House of Hohenzollern - as embodied in my own flawed and foolish person. And so it occurred to me that I might, after all, put this old honor to a worthwhile new use."
Rising from his seat, Kaiser Friedrich IV came to attention with a sharp click of bootheels, intoning solemnly,
"Generalmajor Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, in recognition of your bravery in battle, your service to your country, and your selfless defense of your unworthy monarch, it is my great honor to welcome you to the Orden Pour le Mérite." Saluting her as crisply as ever he could, he went on, "You are a gallant woman, Brigadier Wilcke. It is my privilege to be your commander-in-chief."
In keeping with the willfully low-key nature of his entire stay at Château Saint-Ulrich, the Kaiser did not depart with the pomp and ceremony that was normally customary when he left a military establishment after an official state visit or inspection. He wasn't exactly slipping out the back way - his personal Ju 52 was hard to miss on the flagstoned apron outside the castle's hangar, waiting to depart, and he went to it openly. There was no honor guard, nor indeed any official send-off at all. With his pilots already aboard, he crossed the hangar with only von Hammer for an entourage.
Partway across, he noticed the door to FUEL STORAGE standing ajar; within, a man in a brown Liberion Army Air Force mechanic's coverall was arranging items within a large, multi-drawered tool chest.
"Are you sure nobody's going to miss this stuff?" the Kaiser heard the man inquire as he approached.
"Nah, they're all spares," a woman's voice replied. "I'll say this for SHAEF, we have to buy our own food sometimes if we don't want SOS three times a day, but we get more parts and tools than we can ever use."
The man chuckled. "Well, priorities are priorities," he said, then turned and saw the Kaiser standing in the doorway. "Oh, uh... hello."
The woman who'd been speaking, a well-built redhead in a nonregulation maroon jacket with Liberion insignia pinned to it, turned around from one of the workbenches with a wrench in her hand. "Who're you - oh."
"Be at ease," said the Kaiser, holding up a hand (though neither of them seemed inclined to be otherwise). "You're one of Brigadier Wilcke's witches, are you not?" he inquired of the redhead.
"I sure am," she replied cheerfully. "Captain Charlotte Yeager, Liberion AAF. Call me Shirley." With a slightly lopsided grin, she added, "You look just like the picture in Minna's office."
"My royal portraiteur will be pleased you think so," the Kaiser deadpanned with a small bow. Then, turning to the man in the mechanic's coverall, he went on, "You are the young man who was able to make Captain Hartmann's remarkable invention work. Yes?"
Letting the "young man" part pass, Gryphon decided there was little point in trying to brazen it out; he gave a short bow of his own and replied, "I am indeed, Your Majesty."
Friedrich walked around him to consider the dropcloth-draped shape of the He 162, which stood in the middle of the room on an improvised stand. "I have been told several times that such a device is beyond any man's ability to control," he observed.
"That's ordinarily true, Your Majesty," Gryphon replied. "I have... well, I don't like to sound like I'm boasting, but I have certain abilities which I believe are unique."
"Mm. After seeing you in action, I can well believe it," the Kaiser mused. "What is your name, young man?"
"I'm Benjamin Hutchins - but most people call me Gryphon."
Giving him a curious look, Friedrich asked, "Where do you come from, Herr Hutchins? Liberion?"
Gryphon thought about it for a moment, and then, with an inward half-smile, decided to just throw it on the table and see what happened. "In a manner of speaking. I was born in what you would know as Dawnland - and I came here from the year 2411."
The Kaiser gave him a sharp look (and in the background, von Hammer made a stifled coughing noise), but saw no trace of facetiousness in his face. After a long, searching moment, the ruler of Karlsland said, "Then humanity survives. This war will be won."
"I wish I could say that was definitely so, Your Majesty, but I can't," Gryphon told him, shaking his head. "With time travel, things are never that simple. My past isn't your present. In the history of my world, the Neuroi never appeared."
Friedrich frowned thoughtfully at him for a moment, then said in a conversational sort of way, "I should dismiss you as a madman or a fantasist at this point, you know."
"I'm well aware of that, Your Majesty," Gryphon replied equably.
"Oh, stop it with the 'Your Majesty' business," said the Kaiser with faint irritation, waving a hand. "If not for your scheme to steal Hartmann's invention from General von Reichenberg, I would be dead now. I think we may dispense with formalities in private." After a moment's thought, he added, "I recall hearing vague rumors of a man with the powers of a witch a few years ago, in connection with the 501st, but nothing was ever proven. Was that you?"
Gryphon nodded. "It was."
"Hm." Friedrich walked slowly around the He 162, his face deeply pensive behind his moustache, then said, "Hannelore, you're very quiet. Have you anything to add?"
Von Hammer considered the youthful-looking man in the coverall for a few moments, then asked him, "Why involve yourself? If this isn't your world, isn't even the past of your world, you have no stake in our war. Why risk your life alongside us witches?"
"Do you know John Donne?" Gryphon asked in reply. "Sixteenth-century Britannian poet. 'No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main.... / Any man's death diminishes me, / Because I am involved in Mankind.' The idioms of his day are more than a bit androcentric, but the sentiment is sound," he said, then went on,
"Or, if that's too lofty for you - there are people in this world I care about, and I've got to do what I can. Because it's what I do. I try to help. I once spent some time in an organization whose holiest law was 'never get involved'. It... didn't work for me. It's just not who I am." He shrugged. "Sorry if that's not a good enough explanation. It's the only one I've got."
Von Hammer had been looking him in the eye the whole time he was speaking. Now she considered him for a moment longer, then shook her head. "No... no, it's good enough."
"Quite good enough," the Kaiser agreed. "You have my thanks, Herr Hutchins. I don't know whether one should literally believe your explanation of where you come from... but I'm inclined to think that, ultimately, it isn't the important thing." Drawing himself up, he clicked his bootheels together and gave another proper little Prussian bow, first for him, then for Shirley. "Good day to you, Herr Hutchins, Captain Yeager. You shall be hearing from me soon."
They said their goodbyes, then stood in the doorway of FUEL STORAGE and watched as the Kaiser and von Hammer boarded the Ju 52 and departed. As the aircraft disappeared from view, Shirley turned to Gryphon and said,
"I can't figure out if that last part was a threat, or what."
"I don't think it was," Gryphon said, "but I have to admit I'm not 100% sure myself."
After a thorough examination in which Dr. Miyafuji took vitals and performed a magical evaluation, Minna was finally cleared to leave sickbay the following morning.
"Make sure to stay hydrated, eat regularly, and take things slowly at first," Yoshika instructed her as she dressed. "You're still grounded for the moment - light duty only."
"Understood," said Minna, buttoning her tunic. She took a moment to settle her Pour le Mérite in its unfamiliar position. Unlike the Knight's Cross, which was meant to be displayed on full-dress occasions only, tradition held that the Blue Max should be worn whenever in uniform, but Minna's modern uniform didn't have the high, square collar the medal was originally designed to be worn with. Instead, on hers it rode a bit lower down, just below the top button of her dress shirt, about where the knot of a necktie would be.
"That looks really good on you," Yoshika observed with a smile. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," Minna said, her cheeks coloring slightly. She was, on some level, still trying to get her head fully wrapped around the idea that the Kaiser had resurrected a moribund Prussian order specifically for her in the first place. (It hadn't yet occurred to her to wonder why he'd had the medal that went with it ready to hand on an inspection tour of the front, half a world from his capital.)
As she left sickbay, Minna decided her first order of business was to shower up, then take a nice hot bath. She still wasn't entirely comfortable with the Fusō-style bathhouse that had been set up when they took possession of Saint-Ulrich, any more than she had been with the ones at Crone Rock or Isola delle Streghe; but after almost four days in bed, she found it a blissful luxury as she sank up to her chin in the warm waters.
She let herself relax, half drifting into another nap for a short time, and had just begun considering rinsing off and getting dressed again when she heard the sound of another bather slipping into the water nearby.
"I wondered where you'd gone," Mio Sakamoto said. "Lynne let me know that you'd been discharged after my patrol came back in."
Minna opened her eyes and smiled, a slight blush rising on her face even though both women were submerged almost to their shoulders. "Dare I ask where you looked first?"
Mio's face turned to a knowing smile at the blush. "Your office, of course. Even if Miyafuji has you off flight status, I expected you to be trying to get back to your paperwork."
The auburn-haired witch chuckled. "I have to admit that occurred to me. But I needed this a bit more than SHAEF needs more of my requisition forms." She frowned slightly in sudden realization. "Actually, have you been taking care of that? It wouldn't do for us to run out of ammunition or spare parts because I was laid up."
Mio nodded. "I've had the relatively urgent matters handled. HQ is aware that you were...unavailable." That last made the Fusō witch's mouth turn down slightly, and for the briefest moment she looked away with her one visible eye, a pained look on her face. "We haven't really talked about what happened."
Minna shook her head. "No, we haven't."
"You scared the hell out of me, Minna."
"I'm sorry. I know. But...there wasn't anything else that I could have done. There wasn't time."
Mio sighed. "It took me a couple of days to accept that. It doesn't make it any easier, but I understand."
They sat quietly in the bath after that, neither quite able to say what both knew was being left unsaid. Finally, after the silence had stretched too far, Minna stood, reaching for the towel she had placed at the edge of the water.
"I really ought to get back to my office eventually, but I was ordered to make sure I ate regularly. Would you care to join me?"
Now it was Mio's turn to blush slightly as she stood, nodding. "I could go for something."
"Good. I'll see you in the mess after I get some fresh clothes."
They didn't speak as Minna finished drying off and headed for her quarters in the barracks wing. Mio sighed, then dropped her face into her hands with a soft sound of frustration. "I can't figure this out. I can't say it."
Wrapping herself in her towel and some self-pity, she never noticed the pair of legs visible in one of the shower stalls.
Both women were back in their duty uniforms when they met for what was either a late lunch or an early dinner, depending on one's perspective.
During the meal, they started to have a conversation three or four times before hitting awkward pauses or slightly embarrassed mentions of going back out on flight duty. Minna had finished most of a plate of garlicky sausages and choucroute when she finally decided to tackle one of the subjects they'd been dancing around:
"Even if I can't get my shield spell to work any longer, it doesn't mean I have to leave the service, you know."
Mio seemed almost startled by the change in subject. "Have... have you tried, yet?"
Minna shook her head. "No. I hadn't really felt up to it until today - and I'm still not quite mentally ready to try crossing that bridge." Putting her utensils down, she looked up, her eyes regaining more of their usual spark. "A lot of what I do isn't direct combat these days. Fighting the war with paperwork and planning isn't quite as glamorous, but it still needs to be done."
"That's true, but... it isn't quite the same."
Minna sighed. "No. No, it's not. But for some of us, it's enough."
Both women could feel themselves teetering just on the edge of an argument that was a proxy for more than a few other things. The remark sat, anchoring a leaden silence, but before Mio could respond, they were spared by another voice joining the conversation.
"Ah, good, I've found you both."
They turned to see Perrine Clostermann approaching, a message form in her hand. Walking up and saluting both of her superiors, she waited until the salutes had been returned before handing the form to Minna and reporting, "We received this from SHAEF a few minutes ago."
Minna's eyes swept over the form; then her brows went up in clear surprise. "A staff conference? Now?"
Perrine gave a perfectly Gallian shrug. "Perhaps it has something to do with the Kaiser's visit to the front - he may be taking the opportunity to meet with all the senior leadership at once."
"Mm. I suppose..." Minna handed the form to Mio. "This says they want both of us there. Can you detail out the patrols and assignments for the next few days?"
Mio nodded, reading the form before tucking it into one of her jacket pockets. "Certainly." She then looked up, over her shoulder. "Perrine, are you comfortable acting as the Officer of the Day until we're back? If I ask Trude, she'll just recommend you anyway," she added with a wry smile.
The Gallian pilot drew herself up. "It would be my pleasure, Lt. Colonel."
Mio smiled. "Good. Well. If you'll excuse me, I guess I have some paperwork of my own to do before our transport arrives."
Mio was a bit surprised when Perrine came to her office just before 1700 with a packed suitcase in hand.
"I took the liberty of acting as batman for you and the Brigadier," the younger witch explained. "I also have your travel documents ready, and Eila reports that your transport is 10 minutes out."
Mio glanced at the clock on her office wall and saw that she'd completely lost track of time; she'd intended to wrap up what she was doing and go start on her own packing nearly an hour ago. She stood, closing up the folder of reports she'd been going over, and took the bag with a chagrined look. "Well, I appreciate all the help. I'm still not quite sure why we're doing this in Paris instead of Juvincourt or Istres-Le Tubé, though."
Perrine gave a slight smile. "Perhaps some of the SHAEF staff want an excuse to enjoy some truly expensive wine."
Mio laughed as she took the travel papers. "Ha! You may be on to something, Duchess." Heading for the door, she turned back. "Try not to let the place burn down, would you?"
Perrine saluted, that same smile breaking up her usual military formality. "I think we'll be able to manage that. Have a safe trip."
The flight into Orly Airport south of Paris, aboard a Liberion C-47, lasted a bit more than two hours. The sun was just setting as the aircraft touched down, and evening had fully fallen by the time the two women had deplaned, collected their respective bags, and headed out to look for ground transportation.
To their surprise, instead of encountering some other wing commanders as they arrived, or at least a SHAEF staff car waiting to take them into the city, a black-clad chauffeur stood at the exit of the terminal building, holding a large card with "Generalmajor Wilcke" printed on it.
Minna walked towards him, and the man straightened before giving a little bow, obviously having been told whom he was looking for. "Bonsoir, madame générale. My name is Étancelin. I have been instructed to take you and your companion to your hotel."
Mio glanced at Minna, surprised. "When Perrine said she was taking care of our travel arrangements, she wasn't messing around."
Minna nodded. "No, indeed." Turning back, she offered a polite nod to the driver. "Merci, Monsieur."
The chauffeur led them to a glossy black Citroën Traction Avant limousine, arranged their luggage in the boot, then opened the passenger compartment, waiting for both to settle in before plunging into the Parisian traffic.
The "City of Light" had suffered during the Neuroi occupation - the famous Eiffel Tower, for example, had been consumed by one of the flying invaders, and had yet to be reconstructed - but since the liberation of their country, the Gallian people had worked heroically to restore much of its lost glory. Far enough from the front that it was no longer under blackout conditions, Paris lived up to its nickname, coming alive in a blaze of gas and electric light as evening fell. With the evidently fearless and extremely skillful Étancelin at the wheel, the witches were given a brief and thrilling motor tour of the city as it glowed and glittered around them.
The car finally arrived at a large building off of the Place de la Concorde, its face covered in columns and arches.
"Here you are, ladies!" Étancelin declared. "Hôtel de Crillon."
As the car came to a halt, a uniformed porter arrived, opening the door for both women with a bow, then moved to the trunk to collect their luggage.
As they made their way to the entrance, a doorman appeared, ushering them through and into a lobby of beautiful white-clad walls and black-and-white-checked marble floors.
Minna stood for a long moment amid the historic splendor, her eyes wide. "Mio... are we quite sure this is the correct hotel?"
It was, indeed, the correct hotel. The front desk had rooms reserved for each of them, and though both witches were a bit goggle-eyed at the sight of the place, the adjoining rooms the bellmen led them to were quite comfortable - just as opulent as the rest of the establishment, but on a somewhat more manageable scale than the cavernous lobby might have implied.
Mio took a moment, after the bellman had gone, to enjoy the sight of Paris through her windows, beautiful and unafraid of the invaders. The pure, stiff-backed defiance of it all resonated with her Fusō upbringing, and even if she was a stranger here, she felt a certain kinship to the place.
Walking back to where the porter had left her bag, she put it on the foot of the bed to unpack, then blinked in surprise as she opened it up.
Sitting at the top of the case was her full dress uniform, neatly folded up, and a note pinned to the breast just above the row of decorations and ribbons.
If I've done this right, you'll be reading this alone in your hotel room, having discovered it while unpacking your suitcase. I must now confess I have deceived you both. There is no staff conference scheduled for the weekend. You and Brigadier Wilcke are both on a 72-hour liberty I requested from Headquarters under false pretenses.
You have dinner reservations for 2130 hours this evening at La Petite Chaise. You have always taught me that if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well, n'est-ce pas?
Toujours la vôtre,
Mio read the note twice, then let out a faint chuckle, her mouth quirking into a little smile. Folding up the note, she tucked it away, then took her dress uniform from her suitcase.
A few minutes later, the connecting door opened and Minna entered, carrying a similar sheet of paper in one hand and her red silk evening dress in the other, a look of deep puzzlement on her face.
"Mio, do you have any idea what on Earth is going -" she began, but then ground to a halt as Mio turned from the mirror to face her. She'd just finished hanging the last of the hardware, and now the breast of her gold-braid-bedecked white full-dress tunic blazed with all her decorations.
And not just the placeholder ribbons she'd have worn to a real staff meeting, either, but the actual medals themselves: the Fusō Empire's Order of the Golden Kite Third Class; Romagna's Medaglia d'Oro al Valore Militare; the Distinguished Service Order of Britannia; the Gallian Croix de la Libération; and several more. At her throat, on its red, white, and black ribbon, hung Karlsland's Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, for which Minna had recommended her personally to the Kaiser after the Ardennes campaign.
In that tunic with all her medals shining, spotless white swimsuit and gloves, and the low boots that the Fusō Imperial Navy's full-dress code specified in place of the usual boat shoes - and with her two swords arranged just so on her back - Lieutenant Colonel Mio Sakamoto of the Imperial Fusō Naval Air Service looked every inch the war hero she was: a nine-year veteran in a field where few careers lasted more than six or seven, a woman who had been fighting the Neuroi since two years before the proper start of the current war. One who had refused, continued to refuse, to yield to anything, her small frame packed with more courage and resolve than could be found in many a man three times her size.
Minna knew all that, of course, had known it for years; but Mio normally downplayed it, disdaining braid and bullion, preferring to let her actions speak for themselves. Seeing her in her full glory was such a rare experience that Minna found herself momentarily dumbstruck by it - a reaction only deepened when, her visible eye twinkling mischievously, Mio said,
"Better get dressed. We don't want to be late."
Perrine entered the squadron's living room and wasn't surprised to find it empty. At this hour, even with no duty shifts scheduled the next day until the midday patrols, she expected most of her wingmates would be in bed. She supposed she should probably do likewise, but she found herself unwilling or unable to do so.
Instead, she went to the phonograph on its stand in the corner, rummaged for a few moments in the rack of records next to it until she found the one she wanted, and started it playing, then went to the end of the sofa nearest the window, sat down, and poured herself a glass of wine.
Slowly sipping her wine, Perrine sat gazing out the window at the lights of Ribeauvillé below, her face still. She was so lost in thought, and the music, that she didn't immediately notice when other members of the 501st started filtering into the room. The first few were attracted by the music, but before long a sort of critical mass was reached in which the others seemed to be drawn to the room by a sort of social gravity. Seeing the Gallian sitting by the window, visibly preoccupied, no one addressed her, but all took up positions on the various other pieces of furniture in the room, quietly filling in her solitude without ever quite breaking it.
Most of them were confused as to what was going on, and while the record played, they gave each other curious looks to which the only responses were beats-me-I-was-hoping-you-knew shrugs. Only Lynette Bishop, who seated herself at the other end of the couch Perrine was on, and Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak seemed not to be perplexed by their wingmate's odd, melancholy behavior.
When the record reached its end and the needle began scratching repeatedly against the edge of the label, Perrine didn't rise to take it off. After a minute or so, Eila went and did so, shutting off the phonograph without a word. Still Perrine didn't react. Only when Sanya gently opened the keyboard cover of the squadron's prized baby grand piano and began to play did the blonde Gallian seem to realize she was no longer alone in the room.
At the sound of the piano, Perrine turned to look; a flicker of surprise crossed her face as she saw the entire squadron gathered, all of them (apart from Sanya) regarding her with looks of mingled puzzlement and concern. With a faint blush, she turned back to the window, taking another drink.
Sanya finished the piece at about the same time Perrine finished her glass of wine. In the silence that followed, Yoshika Miyafuji was just drawing breath to ask, "What's wrong, Perrine-chan?" when the Gallian suddenly spoke, evidently apropos of nothing:
"I hope I haven't done this wrong."
"Huh?" asked Eila. "What do you mean?"
"I didn't pack General Wilcke's dress uniform, or her medals," Perrine not-really-explained. "Only her dress."
"... I'm confused," said Francesca Lucchini after a few seconds.
"Maybe you should back up and start again," Erica Hartmann suggested.
Perrine gazed silently out of the window for a few seconds longer, then turned to look from one of her wingmates' expectant faces to the next.
"I sent General Wilcke and Colonel Sakamoto to Paris," she confessed. "There is no SHAEF staff meeting. No official reason for them to be there at all. I arranged a three-day leave for them, booked them into my favorite hotel in the city, and sent my family's chauffeur to look after them while they're there."
A brief pause.
"Uh... why?" Shizuka Hattori wondered, but before Perrine could answer, Shirley said,
"Aaaahhh. That's..." She smiled, a little sadly, and then got up to pour herself a glass of wine from the bottle on the table by Perrine, so that she could raise it in a toast and say, "Nicely done, Captain Clostermann."
"I... wow," Gertrud Barkhorn said, a look of something like astonishment crossing her face. "I don't... I don't even know what to say about that."
"Trude, are you crying?" asked Erica.
"A little," Trude replied, dashing at the tears in the corners of her eyes, then covered it with a brusque, "Shut up."
Next to Perrine on the couch, Lynne - who had suspected as much - was momentarily dumbstruck, not so much by the gesture itself as by her own sudden realization of its full importance. The English witch probably knew Perrine best out of anyone in this room; she'd spent months by her side, both after the liberation of Gallia and again after the Venezia campaign. The experience gave Lynne an insight into the workings of Perrine's mind, and her heart, that the others might not have had.
Perrine's choice (Lynne suddenly realized) was far more than a simple decision between selfishness and its alternative. It was an act of courage - more than that, though she was sure Perrine wouldn't have thought of it in such terms, it was an act of defiance. It was her way of saying to the world, "Here is how a daughter of Gallia responds to the cruelty of fate: with magnanimity, with generosity, with gallant kindness. Our hearts do not break in defeat; they grow stronger."
Lynne had seen ample evidence of Pierrette-Henriette Clostermann's strength of character before, of course: both in the crucible of combat, and as she watched her Gallian comrade's at-times-superhuman struggle to wrest her beloved country from the ashes of the Neuroi occupation; but this was by far the most deeply personal act of bravery she thought she had ever witnessed. It was quite enough to move her to tears, for Lynette Bishop was many things, but she was not one of the unsentimental Englishwomen one reads about. She controlled herself only with the greatest effort of will, for she knew that if she started bawling now, the fragile mood of the evening would collapse irretrievably into ruin.
It might well anyway, but if it did, Lynne was determined not to be the cause.
Instead she moved to the middle of the couch and took the Gallian's hand, telling her, "Perrine, that's a beautiful thing to have done."
"Yeah," Shirley agreed, perching herself on the sofa arm on Perrine's other side. "What do you mean you might've done it wrong?"
"Well... as I said, I didn't pack Brigadier Minna's dress uniform, or any of her decorations," Perrine told her. "It's only just occurred to me that... well, she might consider that a slight. After all, she's a great soldier in her own right. It might seem like I... like I was minimizing her achievements by only packing her civilian clothes."
The others looked at each other, in various degrees of puzzlement; but then Yoshika left her place to sit down on the floor in front of the couch, leaning against Perrine's legs, and told her earnestly, "I don't think she'll feel that way at all."
"Absolutely," Shirley concurred. "Minna's sharp enough to figure it out. You weren't belittling her accomplishments as a soldier..."
Erica crowded onto the couch next to Lynne, dragging Trude along with her, and picked up her Liberion colleague's thread with a sentimental grin:
"You were giving her permission to just be... Minna in love, for a couple of days."
Lynne nodded, squeezing Perrine's hand. "She'll have to come back here and get to work again soon enough," she said. "In the meantime, let her have Paris." With a moment's eye contact and a shared, knowing little smile with Yoshika, she added, "That's what it's for."
As all the others gathered around as well (except Sanya, who began to play another song on the piano, and Eila, who stayed by her, misty-eyed, on the bench), Perrine took that on board. Her eyes closed, she sat and just listened to the music, absorbing her wingmates' closeness and quiet support.
Hovering a little uncertainly by the end of the couch, not 100% certain what was going on, Shizuka noticed movement at the far side of the room. Looking up, she saw Gryphon standing in the doorway that opened onto the main corridor, a look of fond but sad satisfaction on his face. She opened her mouth to hail him, but before she could do so, he placed a finger to his lips, shaking his head. Then, while she gave him a baffled look, he turned and - with Wolfgang quietly following - moseyed off down the hall toward the barracks wing, his hands in his trouser pockets.
On the drive over from the Hôtel de Crillon, Étancelin had informed his passengers that the restaurant to which they were bound was the oldest in Paris. It had opened in 1680, he said, and had remained so, apart from the years when Paris had been home only to the Neuroi, ever since. Parisians, and indeed Gallians throughout the world, considered it a particular triumph that the great establishment had reopened so soon after the enemy were driven from their country - a feat for which, he said with an audible note of pride, Perrine Clostermann could rightly claim a considerable share of the credit, not that she ever did.
As she and Minna entered the restaurant - unprepossessing from the street, and not as fancy inside as she might have expected - Mio reflected that she had known Perrine was well-regarded in her homeland, but she had never really grasped the depth of Gallia's debt to its daughter until she saw the Miracle of Paris for herself...
... nor, until this moment, her own debt to the Gallian witch.
Oh, Perrine, she thought, as the headwaiter showed them to their table. I'll find a way to thank you for this. I don't know how. But I will.
The headwaiter looked after them personally, either because he knew who they were or simply because Mio wore the Cross of Liberation, she wasn't sure which. He was respectful and discreet without being obsequious, looking after them perfectly without ever seeming to hover or intrude. Mio, having only a passing familiarity with the Gallian language as it was spoken and virtually none, beyond road signs, with its written form, could make neither head nor tail of the menu, and so she had to trust Minna to order for them both. This might have daunted her on another day - Minna's fondness for dishes that were, let us say, powerfully flavored was well-known to Mio, and her tastes could sometimes even overpower the Fusō witch's relatively catholic taste in food.
Tonight, though, Mio felt completely at ease, willing to place her dining future entirely in her auburn-haired companion's hands. More than that, she felt... urbane, witty and relaxed in a way she rarely felt in purely social settings. She could have bathed in Minna's fluent, fluid Gallic as she spoke with the waiter, and the food, when it arrived, arrested her interest in ways food very rarely did. Everything about this evening seemed to be turned up to eleven, but not in a way that applied any pressure - simply a great... richness of texture and sensation, without any particular intensity.
A big part of that, she supposed, was that Minna looked astonishing. Mio had seen her in her red evening dress - as far as she knew, the only dress Minna owned - before, but not often, and never in a setting like this. She seemed to... to shine somehow, able to relax and let her "game face" completely fall away. Minna never seemed masculine, even at her most militarily buttoned-up, but she was rarely as completely feminine as she was right now.
They spoke of nothing consequential during the meal - the beauty of Paris, the transformation of Gallia, the food and wine themselves. Mio metered her intake of the latter carefully. She well knew that she had a low tolerance for alcohol, and although she didn't mind staying in the spirit of the occasion at all, she wanted to keep her mind clear and her voice steady for what she planned to say once the dessert plates were cleared away and the waiter left them with their final cups of coffee.
At which point Mio Sakamoto steeled herself, as if going into battle, and said quietly, "Minna... there's something I have to tell you."
Minna's expression was curious and faintly trepid as she replied, "What is it?"
Mio paused, considering her next words carefully, and then said, "Last year, when I left to find Gryphon... when my magic was failing me... I told you that I wasn't done with you yet. But that wasn't strictly true." Minna looked faintly startled at that, but before she could interject, Mio took a breath and continued, "Worded that way, it implies that I would be done with you someday. And that's wrong."
Reaching across the table, Mio covered Minna's hand with hers. As if in a hurry to say it - speaking before she had a chance to stop herself - she plunged on, "I never want to be done with you, Minna. I never want to be done with us. That was true a year ago - it was true much longer ago, but by then I knew it was. But..." She closed her eye, giving a resigned little shake of her head, and admitted, "I kept letting the war get in the way."
Minna gazed at the Fusō witch for a few seconds, almost not daring to speak, and then asked softly, "What are you saying, Mio?"
Mio raised her head, opening her eye again, and said matter-of-factly, "I'm saying I've spent too much time hiding behind being a Good Soldier. Too much time convincing myself I had to set an example, when the truth of the matter is, I was just scared. Scared of my own feelings, scared that I didn't know how to express them to you. I knew that because you're my superior officer, you would never push, and I used that to duck the issue. I used being your subordinate as an excuse."
Minna's reddish-brown eyes - so remarkably close, Mio noticed (not for the first time), to the color of her hair - were huge, her pupils dilated in the restaurant's low light, as she looked back. Her lower lip trembled as she whispered only, "Mio..."
Mio reached up with her free hand and moved her eyepatch up to her forehead. It took considerable concentration to suppress the tendency of her right eye, her witch eye, to look for a far distance that, at the moment, wasn't there. Since her reawakening in the Force, though, she'd found that she could do it, for brief periods - compel both her eyes, the grey left one and the shining violet right one, to look at the same point in space and time, like a normal person's did.
That point, right now, was Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke's face. Standing and leaning close to her over the small table, Mio looked her straight in both eyes and said, in a voice filled with quiet intensity,
"I love you, Minna. I've loved you for so long. I wasted so much time... and then I nearly lost you, without ever being honest with you about how I feel." Her jaw set, like it was when she went into battle, she said firmly, "I won't hide behind protocol any more. Not after that. If you'll have me - if you can forgive me for dithering so long - I want us to be together for the rest of our lives." Then, with an echo of her wry grin of old, she added, "However long that manages to be."
Neither woman had any inkling of it - at that moment, their universes consisted exclusively of each other - but they had the whole restaurant on tenterhooks at that moment, every patron and every member of the staff hanging on the silence between them as if from a cliff.
"Mio," said Minna, her eyes filling with tears; and then she was on her feet and in Mio's arms, crying, "Yes, oh Mio - yes!"
And then there was no more speaking for a while, as La Petite Chaise resounded to the applause of its customers and personnel - who, Parisians all, appreciated a damned-well-executed proposal when they witnessed one.
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
"A Gallant Woman"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
Though it has nothing to do with him directly,
this Eyrie Production is dedicated to
Leonard Simon Nimoy
March 26, 1931 - February 27, 2015
without whose work, it is entirely possible
there wouldn't be an Eyrie Productions in the first place.
E P U (colour) 2015