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"I have to admit I'm not sure why you're doing this," Chris Barkhorn said from her perch on Ursula Hartmann's vacant workbench.
Gryphon looked up from his work, a puzzled expression on his face. "Doing what?"
"Fixing that... thing," Chris replied, gesturing toward the item laid out on FUEL STORAGE's central table in front of him.
Gryphon looked down at the carcass of the XT-474 pressure suit, then back up at her. "Because it's broken," he said.
"Well... yeah, but..." Chris shrugged. "Do you really think you can make it work again?"
"I doubt it," Gryphon said, sounding unconcerned, as he returned to work. "The electrical system is completely trashed, and we had to wreck most of the powered exoskeleton to get me out of it. The best I can do there is free up the superstructure so that I can wear it as an unpowered suit. With a little luck, though, I might be able to make it pressure-ready again."
"I guess I just don't see the point."
Gryphon rolled his eyes with mock irritation. "Witches," he said. "Don't see the point of being able to breathe above 30,000 feet. Give me a hand with this, will you? This main actuator is completely fused, but between us, I think we can probably break it loose."
Chris hopped down from the bench and trotted over, the ears and tail of her magical familiar manifesting on the way. When using magic, her marked resemblance to Yoshika Miyafuji was blunted a little bit, since they had quite dissimilar familiars - the ears of a Karlsland Rex cat might resemble those of a Fusō mameshiba a bit, but the tails were completely different.
Thus geared up for maximum strength, Chris laid hold of the long handle of the wrench Gryphon had fixed to the suit's fused central actuator, and both of them applied themselves to it.
For a few seconds, nothing happened, apart from man and witch grunting and grumbling as the actuator defied them. Then, after a moment's eye contact and a shared nod, they both doubled their efforts -
And the actuator gave way with a sudden, sharp crack. The wrench, abruptly released from its toil, went spinning across the room, while the people who had been hauling on it tumbled to the floor in a disconcerted heap.
"Ow," said Gryphon matter-of-factly.
"Well... I think we got it," Chris offered.
"Are you two OK?" asked a voice from the doorway. Pulling himself together, Gryphon looked up to see Shizuka Hattori (upside down, from his current perspective) standing there, holding the wrench in her hand and looking nonplussed.
A moment later, Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak leaned in behind her, looking around her shoulder, and put in with a sly grin, "I'm not your mother or anything, Barkhorn, but I have to say I think he's a little old for you."
"Don't be crass," Shizuka said as Chris disentangled herself and got to her feet, dusting at her Luftwaffe cadet's tunic.
"What? I'm just sayin'," Eila protested innocently.
Gryphon pulled himself to his feet, pointedly ignoring the byplay, and picked up one of the suit's gloves. Where before the suit had been locked rigid by its frozen exostructure, it now flexed - not to say flopped, all its joints devoid of resistance. The arm fell limply to the table again when he released the glove.
"Huge success!" he declared, turning to high-five his impromptu assistant. "Next I'll have to figure out some replacement for these seals..." He looked up then, mild surprise on his face, as the sound of an arriving aircraft drifted into FUEL STORAGE from the hangar outside. With a glance at his watch, he said, "Hm. I wasn't expecting them back this early."
"Huh, that is odd," Eila said. She leaned out of the door, looking toward the open hangar doors and the aircraft parking apron beyond, with a curious expression; then she blinked and said, "Uh-oh."
"Uh-oh? What uh-oh?" Gryphon wondered.
"That's not Brigadier Minna's transport," the Suomish witch said. Looking around the room, she said quickly, "Hattori, Barkhorn, secure the Classified Equipment. You," she went on, pointing first to Gryphon, then the worktable, "into the suit. Hurry up! I'll try to buy you some time."
And then, leaving the others all very confused in her wake, she hurried out of FUEL STORAGE, closing the door behind her.
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
"Back to Work"
The officer disembarking from the C-47 that had just taxied to a stop outside the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's hangar was, indeed, not the unit's commander, Brigadier General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, returning unexpectedly early from her three-day pass in Paris. It was, instead, a broad-shouldered man in the uniform of a Liberion Army Air Force major general. Accompanied by a harried-looking younger man with the rank bars of a captain, he stomped across the tarmac toward the hangar with a cigar clenched in his teeth and a grumpy expression behind it.
Oh, lovely, thought Eila. This is just what I needed today, but before she could go make an attempt at intercepting him, Perrine Clostermann appeared at her side, a very similar scowl on her face.
"What the devil is he doing here?" she wondered under her breath.
"No idea," Eila replied. "Maybe he heard Minna and Mio weren't here and decided to come nose around."
"Well, that won't do. Is the you-know-what secured?"
"I've got Barkhorn the Younger and Hattori on that," Eila told her.
"You go see how they're getting on, I'll deal with the general," said Perrine, starting across the hangar.
"Better you than me," Eila muttered, then ducked back into FUEL STORAGE.
Halfway across the hangar, Perrine put on her sunniest smile, offering up a salute as she approached the general.
"General LeMay," she said. "Captain Perrine-H. Clostermann, 501st JFW. I'm the Officer of the Day today. My apologies for the paucity of your reception," she added with that perfectly unapologetic apologetic tone only a Gallian could pull off with conviction, "but we weren't notified that you would be visiting us today."
"You weren't meant to be," Major General Curtis LeMay growled, returning the salute unconvincingly. "Where's Wilcke?"
"Brigadier General Wilcke and Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto are in Paris," Perrine replied, giving the CO's rank and the correct pronunciation of her name a touch of frosty emphasis. "We expect them back at 1530 hours this afternoon."
"Hmph," said LeMay, as if the news were in some way unexpected. "Well, you'll do, I suppose. I have reason to believe you're giving unauthorized personnel access to this facility, Captain. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that SHAEF takes a dim view of that kind of thing."
Perrine drew herself up still a little bit straighter and said still a little bit more frostily, "I trust you have some documented basis for these suspicions, General."
"I'm not in the habit of justifying my actions to company-grade officers of foreign powers, Captain," said LeMay sharply.
"This is not a Liberion facility, General," Perrine replied, her tone of voice perfectly correct but utterly uncompromising. "Saint-Ulrich is a joint operations facility; it is not under the authority of the Eighth Air Force. As such, your insinuations are impertinent and your venturing here to investigate them personally is highly improper - doubly so in Brigadier Wilcke's absence."
LeMay's teeth tightened on his cigar as he stared the blonde witch in the eye. "I am inspecting this facility, Captain," he told her flatly. "You can either assist me or be placed under arrest. The choice is yours."
Perrine gazed back at him just as hard for a moment, then turned her eyes to LeMay's adjutant without diminishing their hardness one bit and told him, "I expect the record to reflect that I am complying with this unlawful order under extreme protest." With just a hint of a coldly arch little smile, she added, "I know you Liberions can sometimes be a bit cavalier about your record-keeping."
"Enough," LeMay grunted. "You've made your point, Clostermann, you don't like it. Tough t - ... luck. Let's get on with it." He turned and pointed to the door to FUEL STORAGE. "For starters, what the hell's in there? You witches don't have fuel to store."
Perrine could probably have prevented him from opening the door, but only by committing an act of interpersonal violence that, while richly satisfying, would have engendered a lot of bothersome paperwork. Instead, she followed him to it, hoping that Eila and the others had the situation within under control, and though she showed no sign of it at all on her face, she was cringing a bit internally as he yanked it open.
The workshop beyond was a study in contrast, one of its large workbenches almost pathologically tidy while the other was, though not a mess, more than a little chaotic by comparison. The table in the middle of the room was empty. At one side, a couple of the 501st's witches were sitting on one of several big wooden crates. On another, what looked to LeMay like some kind of strange hardhat diving suit that had been in a fire sat slumped against the wall, with a young Fusōnese girl perched in its lap.
The witches made as if to rise when the door banged open and the cigar-chomping general barged in, but he waved them back, growling, "As you were." Then, standing in the doorway, he raked his eyes around the room, taking in the various tools and random-looking bits of this and that.
"Eila, will you see that the General gets the tour he's so strangely intent on receiving, please?" Perrine asked, doing a masterful job of not concealing her fury behind her cordiality. "I'm going to report this outrage to Headquarters." Then, shooting the Liberion captain a look that dared him to try and stop her, she turned on her heel and stalked away.
"Uh... sure," Eila said, though the person whose instruction she was acknowledging was already out of earshot.
"What's this place supposed to be?" asked LeMay without preamble, and without bothering to introduce himself or expecting her to do likewise.
"Special projects workshop," Eila replied, sounding unconcerned. "We're always pushing the technology envelope here in the 501st."
"What the hell is that?" LeMay demanded, gesturing with his cigar at the charred, dented suit.
"Oh, that?" Eila said. "That's Pilot Officer Ivanovich. He's a crash test dummy," she added in a "that should be obvious" sort of voice, indicating the MAQUETTE sign inside the suit's closed visor. "Hartmann's sister asked us to test the thing he's wearing a while back. It was supposed to be some kind of high-altitude survival suit. As you can see, it, uh, didn't really work, and they dumped the project not longer after. So we keep Ivan and the prototype around as a kind of a mascot."
LeMay stood glowering at the suit-chair and its occupant for a few moments. Shizuka looked back at him, and Eila had to admire the perfect, slightly bemused "what is this person staring at" expression she kept on her face the whole time.
Then, grunting, the Liberion general wheeled and started out of the room. As Eila shot Shizuka a discreet thumbs-up and turned to follow him, LeMay asked her,
"Why is that witch sitting on it?"
"Oh, that's just Hattori," Eila replied casually. "She always sits there when she's hanging around in here. Fusō witches, you know? They're all a little weird, ha ha ha!"
I will kill her someday, Shizuka promised herself silently as the workshop door shut behind them.
Outside, LeMay made a circuit of the hangar, looking in tool chests and behind Striker launch stages, as if he expected he might find Unauthorized Personnel hiding in the biggest, most open room in the castle. At the moment, six of the active stages were empty, showing red lights: Shirley Yeager, Gertrud Barkhorn, Erica Hartmann, and Francesca Lucchini were out on patrol, while Mio and Minna had, per standing procedure, taken theirs with them in case of emergency. The others were either greenlit, their Strikers in place and standing by, or surplus to requirements and shut off - apart from the one nearest the door to FUEL STORAGE, where a blonde young woman in a lab coat was working on a Striker Unit of a peculiar configuration.
LeMay was, obviously, not a witch himself, but unlike many of his colleagues in the higher echelons of command, he had made a point of familiarizing himself with the equipment that Allied witches used. He knew the various models of Striker on sight, and so he knew that the one in that stage, showing neither a red nor a green light, was not of any type currently in production. More rounded than most of the reciprocating-engined models, it sported a peculiar double fin configuration at the tail of each unit, with a low-mounted cylindrical pod nestled in the vee of the tail, affixed so that it would be to the back with the Striker's wearer standing up, or on top if she were in a normal forward flight posture. It didn't seem to be finished; most of the outer skin was missing, revealing structural ribs and internal components at whose functions LeMay could only guess.
"What's this?" the general inquired, pausing in front of the Striker.
The person working looked up from the open access panel in the side of the Striker, overhead lights glinting from her spectacles, then straightened up and said in a mellow, pleasant voice, "I'm afraid it's classified, General."
LeMay gave her a hard look, but she didn't quail before his gaze; merely looked back at him with a calm placidity that he suspected of being cover for something else. "You're Hartmann, aren't you? The younger one. You were mixed up in that business with von Reichenberg trying to snuff the Kaiser." Folding his arms, he declared, "You ought to be in Le Tube explaining yourself to a court-martial, not out here playing with your toys."
Ursula Hartmann didn't rise to that bait, saying only, "My current assignment is also classified, and this Striker is a Luftwaffe project about which you have no need-to-know. I understand you're hunting for some sort of unauthorized personnel. I'm confident you won't find them hiding among the inner workings of my experimental Striker Unit."
"You'd do well to watch your mouth, Captain Hartmann," said LeMay in an ominous tone.
Ursula merely gave a very faint smile, pushed her glasses slightly up her nose with the fingers of one hand, and said, "I assure you I'm fully aware of what it's doing. If you'll excuse me, General, I have much work to do. If you want more information about my current project, you're welcome to request clearance from Rittmeister von Hammer at Joint Command."
And with that, she returned to work, blanking the general out of her sphere of awareness as completely as if he had left the room - but doing it with such an absence of visible malice that he was left not knowing quite how to react.
He spent the next hour ferreting diligently around the castle, looking in storerooms and closets - but Eila flatly refused to admit him to the barracks wing, the witches' private domain.
"Out of the question," she said when he attempted to press the issue. "No one enters our private living quarters without the express permission of either Brigadier Wilcke or Colonel Sakamoto, and neither of them is here." She folded her arms, placing her back against the door, and fixed the general with an arctic glare from her winter-blue Suomish eyes. "End of story."
"By God, you witches are an insubordinate lot," LeMay said. "Lieutenant Juutilainen, let me make this situation perfectly clear for you. I am giving you a direct order to open this door and let me through."
"Let me make the situation perfectly clear to you, General," Eila replied. "No. And the name is Juutilainen-Litvyak."
They stood glaring at each other for a few tense seconds of complete standoff. LeMay was drawing breath to say something further when Perrine's sharp voice came from the stairway behind him:
"General LeMay. Come with me a moment, if you please. I have something important I wish to show you."
"I'll get back to you," LeMay said to Eila through his teeth; then, with one last glower, he turned and marched toward the stairs. He didn't see Eila stick her tongue out at his retreating back - but his adjutant did, and it brought the first look of even slight pleasure that any of the witches had seen on the unfortunate man's face since the two had arrived.
Perrine led the way up the stairs, past the control room, and out onto the roof of the tower keep, the tallest part of the castle. Once they were up there, LeMay frowned around at the empty expanse of slate and said,
"Well? What's so important up here?"
"General, do you see that area of particularly dark, dense forest, away to the east?" Perrine replied, pointing. "That is the Schwarzwald - Karlsland's Black Forest. The river between us and it is the Rhine."
"Yes, and?" LeMay inquired testily. "Is there a point to your geography lesson, Captain Clostermann?"
Perrine rounded on him, her glasses flashing in the midday sunlight, and told him, "My point, General, is this: We are on the front line here. One can quite literally see enemy territory from where we are. We fly on the edge of Neuroi-controlled airspace with every patrol we make. As the war currently stands, we in the 501st and our sisters-in-arms of the 511th, a hundred kilometers to the north, are the most forward units in this entire sector of the European Theater of Operations. We're the point of the spear, the thin red line, whatever military cliché you prefer - we're the ones this world is depending on. We fight. We bleed. Sometimes, we die.
"And over and over again, in the course of the last few years, we've seen some of the most significant threats to our safety and the effectiveness of our efforts come from our own leaders! In 1942, Marshal Pétain abandoned Gallia to the questionable mercy of the enemy. In 1944, RAF Air Chief Marshal Maloney nearly cost us the Battle of Britannia. Last year, the Fusō Admiralty almost threw away Venezia and Romagna. Just last week, General von Reichenberg of the Luftwaffe almost got his own monarch killed pursuing an idea so far beyond asinine the English language doesn't even have a word for it, though I have no doubt Karlslandic has.
"I'm explaining all of this in the hopes that you might better understand why we witches guard our operational prerogatives so jealously. Because we've fought for them. We've bled for them. Some of us have died for them. It's taken us many years and much suffering just to achieve the sort of operational latitude that conventional troops - for which read men - have been given without question since Roman times."
Folding her arms, Perrine kept her gaze steady on LeMay's eyes as she concluded, "There is a chain of command for a reason, General, and - despite what you may believe your rank alone entitles you to do - you are not part of ours. You have neither reason nor right to barge in here and look for anything, far less expect permission to root around in our private quarters. Now, I've already been more accommodating than I had to be, and your conduct has done absolutely nothing to recommend further forebearance on my part. You and your man here will now leave this castle, and you will not return unless invited to do so by Brigadier Wilcke."
LeMay regarded her for a few seconds, puffing his cigar in silence; then, with a faint smirk, he said, "You make a pretty speech, Captain, I'll give you that. But then you Gallians were always better at speeches than anything else. You can cry to Wilcke all you like, but we both know she's finished."
Off in the distance behind him, LeMay heard the sound of approaching Striker Units, but ignored it, assuming it was just some of the 501st's absent members getting in from patrol. His smirk widening as he searched Perrine's face (in vain, it must be said) for signs that his assertion rattled her, he went on, "Did you think I didn't know? It's all over the wires down at SHAEF: In that fracas with the Kaiser last week, she used up her magic, or whatever it is that happens to you people when you get to her age. She's never going to fly again, and she'll be out of this unit as soon as that's in writing. So you had best re-think your -"
He didn't get to finish the sentence. Rather than breaking off and heading into the hangar, the approaching Strikers roared still louder, coming closer still, and before the general could react, the unmistakable forms of two flying witches had streaked past overhead - barely overhead, the one in the lead passing so close by that her slipstream blew LeMay's hat clean off his head and snuffed out the coal of his cigar. Perrine, also within the blast, merely smiled, her cravat and the tails of her Gallian officer's jacket whipping in the artificial wind.
Brigadier General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke pulled a tight, precise turn, the winglets of her Messerschmitt Bf 109K Striker drawing streamers of condensation in the air, and returned, descending to a standing position next to the blonde Gallian. In echelon on her right wing, Lieutenant Colonel Mio Sakamoto matched her maneuver for maneuver, landing in precisely the same relative position. Both women were fully armed, as if for a real combat sortie, and neither looked in any way amused as they shut down their Strikers' piston engines and let their ætheric propellers retract.
"Are you lost, General LeMay?" asked Minna, her voice laced with such icy cordiality that it made Perrine's earlier tone seem like one of cheerful welcome by comparison. "Your headquarters are at Colleville-sur-Mer, I believe." Her auburn eyes narrowing, she added with an audible twist of the knife, "Well to the rear. This is an active combat zone. It's no place for you."
LeMay was so shocked by her sudden appearance, and by the manner in which she'd made it, that it didn't even occur to him to bluster for the moment. He just stared at her, his jaw going slack, cigar falling to the rooftop.
"You - you're still flying. How is that possible?"
Minna gave him a cold little smile. "'The report of my death was an exaggeration,'" she said. Then her smile switched off like a light and she went on, "Now get out."
"SHAEF will hear about this," LeMay told her, waiting for his adjutant to pick up his hat.
"Indeed they will," Minna agreed, nodding. "I'm sure they will find your blatant abuse of authority you do not even have most interesting." Then, turning dismissively away from him, she ordered crisply, "Captain Clostermann, please escort General LeMay and his henchman to the hangar. Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto and I will meet you there."
Minna and Mio didn't take off their Strikers until LeMay's C-47 was in the air, at which point they returned them to their stages and shut down their Miyafuji engines.
"Well," said Minna with a wry smile. "I suppose I'll have to go and deal with that straightaway," and she was off to her office to plunge back into the bureaucratic cut-and-thrust.
Sighing, Mio climbed out of her Shiden-kai and made sure it, and her weapon, were squared away. Then, turning, she saw Perrine standing a few paces away, regarding her with a hard-to-read look.
"Colonel..." Perrine began, then trailed off, her voice quavering, not certain how to proceed.
"Perrine," said Mio, and then, to the Gallian's surprise, she crossed the space between them and drew Perrine into a firm embrace. "Thank you," she murmured, hugging Perrine tight. "That was the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me. I..." She hesitated, then went on in a still lower voice, "I'm not sure I even deserve a friend like you."
Perrine's eyes went wide, then filled with tears, and for the first time in days she didn't stop herself weeping as she returned the embrace with all her heart and whispered, "You're... you're welcome."
It took most of the remaining morning for Minna to express her displeasure to several levels of the brass at SHAEF, after which she finally began to address the less critical paperwork that had built up over the course of her convalescence and leave.
She finally felt like she'd made some good progress on putting things in order when she looked up and realized that Mio was sitting across from her desk - and had been from some time, judging by the smile on her face.
Minna felt a blush creeping up her cheeks, but was struck by the fact that it was a slightly different sensation. Their new... well, new status, really, made her feel less self-conscious, and able to simply enjoy the moment. "Do I want to ask how long you've been here?"
Mio laughed, then surprised them both a bit by leaning in over the desk for a quick, but heartfelt, kiss. "Long enough. It's about time for dinner."
After blinking in surprise at the realization that she'd spent her entire afternoon in the bureaucracy, Minna nodded, downing tools and moving to the door. "Then I think that's quite enough for today."
They walked from her office to the mess, and were quite surprised to be greeted by applause from their assembled wingmates as they came through the door.
Once the 501st had finished making their approval known, Minna smiled and gave a dry "As you were, ladies," drawing a warm laugh as they took their seats. (Near one end of the table, Gryphon made no comment at all about being addressed as one of "ladies".) Unsurprisingly, it was Erica Hartmann who broached the topic of their weekend away, once Gryphon, Lynne, and Yoshika had finished serving dinner and taken their own seats.
"Soooo, what happened?" She gestured down the table, to where Perrine was sitting. "Perrine let us in on her scheme after you left, but she didn't spill any of the details."
Mio glanced down to Perrine, who offered a slight shrug, then gave a soft "Heh!" before she turned back to Erica. "Well, when we got to Orly, there was this beautiful car..."
Minna nodded. "The driver gave us a wonderful tour of the city before driving us to our hotel."
"Which was amazing, by the way," Mio put in.
"Indeed it was." Raising her glass in a salute to the Gallian witch, Minna went on, "We discovered what was going on when each of us went to our rooms to unpack... and not long after we learned that we had reservations for a rather lovely dinner."
Further down the table, Elia gave a sigh, leaning against her wife's side. "That sounds really sweet."
"And romantic," Sanya agreed, taking her hand with a sentimental little smile.
"Mmhmm," Mio agreed, taking up the thread of the conversation. "Of course, I couldn't make heads or tails of the menu - I had to trust Minna to order for us both."
"That's brave," said Shirley, grinning, which drew a giggle from Lucchini.
"I think I handled it very well," Minna objected.
"Yes she did," Mio said. "I had... I'm not sure what I had, but it was really good. Everything was. And the service was terrific."
Minna nodded agreement. "It was a perfect evening. And afterwards... we had a very important conversation."
That simple phrase made the entire room perk up, and it was Erica's turn to prod for answers again. "Aaaand?"
Minna smiled, blushing slightly, and held out her left hand, where a tastefully understated diamond-and-platinum ring now sparkled on her third finger.
"Ooh!" Lucchini squeaked. "It's so shiny!"
When the delighted cries of surprise died down, Lynne Bishop took advantage of her seat on Minna's left to examine the brigadier's new engagement ring. "Oh, how lovely. Perrine, did you arrange that, as well?"
Perrine shook her head, her smile still a bit melancholy, but genuine. "No, I did not - though I certainly wish I had. It's a lovely setting."
Mio smiled. "Actually, in a way you did - Étancelin suggested the jewelers' where I found it."
"Ah! Well, then I am happy to take some credit, I suppose," said Perrine with a little seated bow. "If nothing else, I'm pleased that Étancelin was able to be of service."
"He was a huge help," Minna confirmed.
"And quite a driver," Mio added, grinning.
"He was a racing driver before the Neuroi came," Perrine said, her smile becoming a little sly. "Family legend has it that Father hired him after seeing him win the Gallian Grand Prix in 1930."
Mio laughed. "That explains a few things," she said.
"Sounds like you two had a mighty fine weekend," said Shirley.
"We certainly did," agreed Minna. Turning to her Gallian colleague, she went seriously on, "Thank you, Perrine, from the bottom of my heart. You arranged an occasion I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Blushing crimson, Perrine nevertheless managed a gracious acknowledgement, albeit in such a low voice that it was all but drowned out by her wingmates' applause. Rising to her feet, she held up a hand in a self-deprecating little wave, quieting them down, then picked up her wineglass and said,
"A toast, then, to our beloved comrades and the special bond they share. May they live long lives..." She hesitated fractionally, fighting back fresh tears, and added with a broad smile, "... and find happiness throughout." She raised the glass, her smile almost defiant, and finished in a ringing voice, "To Mio and Minna!"
Amid the chorus of agreement, a grinning Erica leaned over with her free hand on Perrine's shoulder and said something into her ear; the Gallian giggled almost in spite of herself, wiping at her eyes, then returned to her seat.
"So have you set a date yet?" Eila wondered. She gave the couple her sly smile and added, "Some of us have to start planning..."
"Not yet," Minna told her. Beside her, Mio took her hand, right in front of everybody, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and the general's cheeks colored only slightly as she went on, "For the moment, we're taking it a day at a time... much like the war."
"Although, that said," Mio added. "Miyafuji, Hattori?"
Shizuka stiffened to attention in her seat, evidently surprised to have been addressed by name. "Yes, ma'am?"
"What can we do to help, Sakamoto-san?" Yoshika asked eagerly.
"When you get a spare minute or two, I'd like you to look into what it would take to build a half-decent Fusō temple someplace on the grounds here," said Mio. She regarded Minna with a lazy sort of grin that deepened her blush a bit, then continued, "There's no big rush, but I think we're probably gonna need one sooner or later."
"Consider it done, Sakamoto-chūsa," said Shizuka.
"C'mon, kid," Shirley said, laughing. "Tonight of all nights, relax a little."
"We'll take care of it," Yoshika said, less formally and more cheerfully. "You can count on us."
"I always do," said Mio, smiling.
After dessert, Sanya and Heidemarie went out on their evening patrol, while the rest of the witches and Gryphon repaired to the living room to admire Minna's ring some more and chat about the current state of Paris for a while. Eventually, most of them drifted off to bed. It didn't escape Mio's notice that Perrine received quiet, understated, but obviously heartfelt congratulations of her own from most of her wingmates as they (or, ultimately, she) left the room.
Mio wasn't surprised that the rest of them seemed to know how hard the role Perrine had played in this latest turn of events must have been for her - nor that she, herself, had been the last to know. She drew another underline below her mental note to find some way of trying to make it all up to the Gallian witch, sighing inwardly at the complexity of the human heart and her own less-than-stellar facility with same.
As she was thinking about that, Minna got up from the couch next to her and said, "I've just remembered - I still owe Juvincourt a proper contact report on the Neuroi we dealt with last week. I should just go and file that."
With a wry smile mostly for herself - what, exactly, had she been expecting? - Mio rose too and said, "You're never going to change, are you?"
"Are you?" Minna replied with a winsome smile; then, to Mio's faint surprise, she leaned and returned the kiss the Fusō witch had given her in her office earlier. (Behind her, Mio missed Shirley waking up Lucchini, and the Romagnan's wide-eyed amazement at the sight.)
Mio watched her fiancée leave the room, then turned to the handful of witches who remained, of whom only Shirley, Lucchini, and Trude were awake (Erica had zonked out with her head in Trude's lap long ago). "What are you staring at?" she asked, but the challenge in her voice was in jest, the glint in her eye one of humor. Without waiting for an answer, she breezed out by the other door, heading for the barracks wing.
The corridor was night-dim, the lights up only far enough to enable navigation, and quiet. At the far end of the hall, one of the doors stood open a few degrees, letting a triangular slash of lamplight fall across the carpet. Smiling, Mio made for it, passing the closed doors of her wingmates' rooms as she went.
As she passed one of the ones on her left, midway up the hall, her progress was momentarily arrested by a sound filtering through the gap at the bottom of the door. It was faint, but she could make it out clearly in the otherwise silent hallway: Lynette Bishop's voice, with its umistakable English-schoolgirl diction, declaring with delight,
"You beast, you beast, you utter, utter beast!"
Mio's little grin widened as she resumed her course for room 5-East. Go get her, Miyafuji, she thought wryly as she leaned her head into the gap of the open door and knocked gently on the doorjamb.
Gryphon, reclining on his bed, looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. "C'mon in," he said quietly. Curled up at his side, Wolfgang looked up, then scrambled to the end of the bed and bounded down to greet her.
Mio fussed over the beagle for a moment, then picked him up and carried him back to the bed. After depositing him back in his previous place, she shoved the extra pillows against the headboard and stretched out alongside Gryphon, mirroring his posture.
"Minna went back to work, didn't she," Gryphon said, deadpan, as he resumed reading.
"Yep," Mio replied. She leaned back with her fingers interlaced behind her head and sighed. "The more things change..."
They sat in a pleasant, companionable silence for a few minutes, while Gryphon read and Mio scritched a dozing Wolfgang, before Gryphon said, "So... I don't need details, you understand, but how did my secret technique work?"
Mio gave him a curious look, unsure for a moment what he was on about; then she remembered their sickbay conversation, shortly after his arrival, and blushed, grinning.
"Very well," she said, "although, to be fair, I'm not sure I really even needed it by that point."
"Well, it's always good to have some insurance," Gryphon said sagely. He marked his place, set the book aside on his nightstand, and turned to regard her with a serious expression. "So why am I sensing that you have reservations?"
Mio shook her head. "Not about... not about me and Minna," she said. "I just... remember what we talked about before she got out of sickbay?"
He nodded. "You're concerned about what she might've lost. We all are," he told her. "But it seems as though she still has no trouble flying. That's something, especially considering how hard she pushed herself."
Mio nodded. "I know. It's better than I even dared hope for. But... well. While we were in Paris, we did some investigating... and she hasn't come through unscathed."
It was a glorious spring morning, and Minna and Mio had the Champs de Mars all to themselves. The famous park was diminished somewhat by the absence of the Eiffel Tower from one end of it - certainly nowhere near as popular with the tourists who were starting to return to Paris - but it was still impeccably maintained, a beautiful green space nestled in the heart of the city.
The two women stood a dozen paces apart, regarding each other with expressions that were out of place - too sober - for their sun-washed, carefree setting. Though they were both dressed, unusually, in civilian clothes, there was an echo of the military bearing they had almost constantly maintained in each other's presence since their first meeting, all those years and battles ago in Libau.
"Are you absolutely sure you want me to do this?" Mio asked seriously.
Minna nodded firmly, her gaze steady. "We have to know," she said.
Mio looked back at her for a long moment, then gave just the faintest hint of a resigned sigh.
"Very well," she said, as if acknowledging an order... and then she raised the pistol in her hand and leveled it straight at Minna.
The weapon was a Walther PPK, the 501st's standard-issue sidearm, which Minna had selected herself for its light weight and slim profile. Originally developed for the Karlsland police, it was designed to be easily concealed under moderate clothing, and so could be hidden without difficulty under even the somewhat abbreviated uniforms favored by witches. It was sturdy, reliable, and reasonably-but-not-excessively powerful - good for contingencies, so the logic went, and comforting to some.
Some witches declined to carry theirs, on the grounds that a) they were useless against the Neuroi and b) they were highly unlikely to be needed in any other capacity. Yoshika Miyafuji, Mio remembered, had refused to even keep hers, when Minna had issued it to her with the rest of her gear back in '44. She recognized that it was a weapon that would only be of use against other human beings, and as a physician, she abhorred the very idea of owning a tool that had no other purpose.
Mio was of the type who left it behind - hers was in the top drawer of her desk back at Saint-Ulrich - so the one in her hand now was Minna's own. It was, she suddenly remembered, the very weapon the brigadier had once pointed at her, in a poorly-thought-through effort to back up a plea for Mio to retire from combat duty.
The sights of a pistol were an unwelcome, dissonant intrusion into Mio's view of Minna, who stood there with a stone wall behind her, looking gorgeous and free in a pretty floral-print dress the concierge at the Hôtel de Crillon had conjured from somewhere. Only the determined look on the auburn-haired Karlslander's face went any way at all toward fitting the gunsights into the picture.
How does this even happen? Mio wondered rhetorically. Last night I made love to this woman for the very first time... and this morning I might be about to shoot her. How did my life come to this?
Sensing her hesitation, Minna called on her magic for the first time since the previous week's battle had left her briefly comatose. Both she and Mio were faintly but pleasantly surprised when, with a silvery glow and a well-known sound, the ears and tail of her grey-wolf familiar materialized on her body. The latter, to Minna's further slight surprise, emerged from her dress through the discreet slit that was present by default in all clothing meant to be witchwear.
Well played, Madame Concierge, she thought abstractly, then met Mio's eye and said, "Do it."
Mio steeled herself, consciously overriding her extreme, instinctive aversion to aiming a firearm at someone she'd only just fully acknowledged that she loved. It wouldn't do any good to fire near Minna; only the direct peril of being fully and properly shot at would activate her automatic shield spell, if she was still capable of casting it.
Teeth gritted, Mio took a deep breath and fired.
For all that she never carried her sidearm, her aim was true. The bullet zipped past the side of Minna's head, neatly snipping away a lock of her hair and barely grazing her right ear, then pocked into the wall behind her with a sharp crunch of traumatized stone. Minna never flinched, merely blinked, at the stinging pain as a trickle of blood ran down the side of her face. The tears that sprang to her eyes in the aftermath had a different, deeper cause.
The attack, and the injury, had elicited not a single flicker of magical energy.
Mio unconsciously switched on the PPK's safety catch, then dropped the pistol to the grass at her feet and rushed to Minna's side, pressing a folded handkerchief to her ear. For more than a minute, the two women clung together, both weeping quietly.
"Don't you ever make me do something like that again," Mio murmured, holding Minna tight.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," said Gryphon, now holding her in turn. Wolfgang, concerned, crowded up onto both their laps in a way that made them laugh a little, even under the circumstances.
"It had to be done," Mio said, stroking the worried hound's head. "And at least now we know."
"What did you do?" Gryphon asked.
"Étancelin took us to a doctor he knows in Montmartre," said Mio. "She fixed Minna's ear and didn't ask what happened to it. From the way she looked at us, I'm pretty sure she had a good idea. Then... we went for a long walk, talked about what happens next, and decided we'd put it behind us while we were there and just enjoy Paris."
Gryphon nodded. "Sounds like a good plan."
"Now that we're back here, we'll have to deal with it," Mio said. "She can't stay on full combat status with no shield, but the regs don't call for mandatory retirement any more. That got changed while you were away. We'll just have to..." She trailed off, then sighed. "Figure out a new normal."
"Well, I'll help you however I can," Gryphon told her, adding a little squeeze for emphasis. "We all will."
Mio glanced speculatively at him, her expression thoughtful. "I'll hold you to that," she said.
"You'd better," he replied wryly.
"... just saying we should start thinking about it now," Trude said as she and Erica emerged from their room.
"OK, OK, I am thinking about it now," Erica assured her with an indulgent roll of her eyes. "It's not like nobody we know has ever gotten married before, Trude."
"Well, no, I know, but... this is important," said Trude.
"And the others weren't?" Erica teased. "I'll be sure and let Sanya know you feel that way."
"No!" Trude insisted, blushing. "Dammit, Hartmann, you know that's not what I -"
"Shh, keep your voice down," Erica said, placing her fingertips gently against Trude's lips. Tilting her head to indicate the door across the hall, she said, "Gryph left his door open, and you know he's still asleep at this hour." She punctuated the remark with a yawn, then grumbled, "Like I should be."
"Well, if you're still so tired, perhaps you should join him," said Trude mock-severely.
"I might just do that," Erica replied, pushing the door a little farther open. "I'm coming iiiiin," she added in a mischievous, sotto voce singsong... then trailed off as she saw that she'd been beaten to the punch by not one, but two of her colleagues (plus an extremely contented beagle).
"I don't think there's enough room for you," Trude observed dryly.
Erica scratched her head. "Maybe we ought to put up a signup sheet," she quipped. "Where'd I leave my camera?"
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
"Back to Work"
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