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Gertrud Barkhorn was not a woman inclined to complain, but on this particular morning, she would have had to admit she was not best pleased.
She would have been annoyed by being dispatched to investigate a possible Neuroi sighting that turned out to be nothing at any time, but it particularly irritated her in conditions as rotten as these. Her magic might protect her from suffering any lasting ill effects from exposure to the chilly rain that was bucketing down on Alsace today, but it didn't protect her from being wet and miserable.
Shirley Yeager pulled up next to her, close enough to speak to her without using the radio. Like Trude, the Liberion witch was soaked and bedraggled, her red hair plastered down as if in a shower, the brown serge of her uniform blouse almost black.
"This sucks," Shirley declared, her voice raised over the relentless rustle of the rain.
"Nn," Trude grunted, in no mood for conversation.
"Still, could be worse," the Liberion went on. She wiped uselessly at the rain-streaked lenses of her goggles, then grinned a cockeyed grin and said, "It could've been for real. Can you imagine trying to fight a Neuroi in this crap?"
At that, Trude had to admit her wingman had a point; she cracked a tiny smile and said, "There is that."
"And hey - when we get back, you get to crawl back into your nice warm bed with Frau Barkhorn," said Shirley, punching the Karlslander playfully on the shoulder. "All I've got to welcome me home is a half-rebuilt Indian cylinder head."
Even after all this time, Trude couldn't help blushing at Shirley's innuendo - though now, at least, it was with a smile.
"Molsheim road!" Shirley declared, pointing, as they passed over the route in question. Her grin widening, she performed a soggy barrel roll around Trude, then cried, "Race you back!" before throttling up her P-51 and roaring away.
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
"A New Normal"
Half an hour later, Trude was walking down the barracks wing's main corridor, wrapped in one lovely fluffy towel and scrubbing at her hair with another. (This was one of the nice things about being posted to Gallia: In her estimation, no nation on Earth did towels better.) To her mild surprise, she saw the door to her room open when she was about halfway to it; a moment later, a large grey Karlsland Luftwaffe barracks bag emerged, followed by her younger sister Christiane.
"Chris?" Trude said, puzzled. "What's going on?"
"Oh, you're back," said Chris, smiling. "I heard it was a false alarm."
"Mm," Trude confirmed, nodding. With a curious look at the bag, she asked, "Where are you headed with that?"
"I'm moving," Chris told her.
"Moving?!" Trude blurted. "Where? Why? Are they sending you somewhere else? I thought it was arranged that you'd do all your training here."
Chris giggled. "Only across the hall, Sis, not to Juvincourt or something."
"Across the -" Trude glanced at the door immediately opposite her own: that of room 5 East. This was Gryphon's domain, home of the one man who had ever been allowed onto the witches' residence floor. Blinking, the elder sister turned back to Chris, a look mingling dismay and incredulity on her face, and the younger Barkhorn laughed again.
"Not there," she said, and pointed to 6 East, at the end of the hall. "Next door."
"Oh. All right, but... why?" Trude took her sister's shoulders in her hands and asked her seriously, "Did Hartmann say something to you?"
"No, of course not," Chris insisted. "You know better than that, Sis. It's my own idea." With a sly little smile that reminded Trude uncomfortably of Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak, she nudged her elder sister with an elbow and said, "We can spare the space, and you don't really need me cramping your style any more."
Trude felt her face go red again, as it had at Shirley's remark earlier - only to a much greater extent, because the innuendo was worse coming from her own as-she-still-saw-her innocent little sister than it had been from the Liberion. She managed to stammer out something about how Chris was old enough to make her own decisions about things like that, but she shouldn't hesitate to come back if she got lonely, and then more or less retreated into her room.
This was a dim and quiet space, neither as rigorously ordered as her quarters had been when she lived alone, nor anything like as catastrophically messy as Erica Hartmann's had been when she lived alone. Somehow, despite their wingmates' direst expectations, the two Karlslanders had - without even really trying to - struck a harmonious balance when they had thrown their lots in together to the fullest extent possible under their country's laws. Much more harmonious, come to that, than when they had roomed together before marrying, when they had essentially maintained separate rooms inside a single larger one.
To be sure, Erica's clothes from the night before were still scattered on the floor, and various items around the room were not precisely at right angles with each other any longer, but Trude had long since ceased to be annoyed by those things. She still wouldn't put up with her own clothes being left lying around - or, for that matter, more than one set of Erica's - but on the whole, such imperfections were now part of her mental landscape, features her unconscious mind flagged as homey and comforting instead of slovenly and irritating. On her part, Erica really had gotten a lot better about keeping her things, if not exactly orderly, at least a good deal less disorderly. Now that she was sharing the bed, for instance, she no longer left so much junk lying around on it that she was forced to sleep on the floor, which had often happened in her solo days.
As for the bed, it was unmade, but it had a good reason to be, given that Erica was still in it. That, too, had stopped infuriating Trude some time ago, and today she was especially not bothered by it. Today was, after all, Erica's birthday.
Standing by the bed, Trude folded the towel she'd used to dry her hair, then the one she'd been wearing, and placed them neatly on her desk before drawing back the covers and climbing gratefully back into bed. An early riser she might be, but 0500 was a bit too early, particularly on a day like this. Only half-waking, without opening her eyes, Erica smiled and cuddled up to her.
"Welcome back," she murmured, and then, matter-of-factly, "You're freezing."
"It's raining and cold outside, and I've just been out flying around in it," Trude replied, arranging the covers over them, "so yes, I am."
"Mm... soon fix that," Erica mumbled, smiling again.
By midday the rain had stopped, the sun had come out, and the chill had gone from the air. The hangar doors stood open to let in the fresh air, and in FUEL STORAGE, Erica's twin sister Ursula and Gryphon were putting the finishing touches on their new modifications to the He 162 jetpack while Shirley and Chris looked on with interest.
"There we are," said Ursula as she closed the turbine casing. Then, giving the machine a judicious look, she said, "Hmm, some of these screws could stand to be replaced."
"The little short 10mm flatheads?" Gryphon asked. "I'm on it." He went to one of the cabinets that lined the far wall between the workbenches, opened a drawer, and scooped out a handful of the requisite fasteners. As he turned to make his way back to Ursula at the center table, however, his attention was grabbed by a small item lying on the bench next to the cabinet.
"Hey Ursula?" he asked, picking the object up to have a closer look at it. "What is this?"
"Hm?" Ursula replied. She looked back over her shoulder to see what he was talking about, then said, "Oh, that. It's a miniature ætherjet turbine."
"That's what I thought," said Gryphon. He put the handful of screws down on the bench, careful not to let them roll around, and examined the turbine more closely. "You're not kidding, this is tiny," he said admiringly. The whole device was no bigger than a roll of Life Savers candies, its inner workings wrought with delicate precision.
Leaning in past Gryphon's shoulder to get a closer look herself, Shirley said, "That's some very nice workmanship there."
Ursula's cheeks colored with a hint of a blush. "Thank you," she said.
"Does it work?" Chris wondered.
"In a manner of speaking," Ursula replied. "While I was working on the reduced-scale engines for the other He 162, I started wondering just how small I could actually make one, and, well... there's the answer. It functions perfectly, but it's too small to generate a useful amount of thrust, so it has no actual point."
"Still, that's pretty impressive," Gryphon said. He gave the tiny turbine a thoughtful look for a moment longer, then put it back, scooped up the screws, and went to help Ursula finish reassembling the jetpack.
"I've been meaning to ask you what the deal is with that," he said offhandedly as they worked to screw the casing back together.
"Well, Projekt Salamander was covered as a jet Striker development project," Ursula explained. "As such, I thought it best that there actually be a jet Striker under development, in case anyone came to have an unexpected look around."
"You mean you developed a real jet Striker at the same time you were working on this thing?" Shirley inquired.
At Ursula's confirmatory nod, Chris started to say, "That's..." and then trailed off, unsure of the word she wanted.
"Crazy?" suggested Ursula with a slightly raised eyebrow and a hint of a mischievous twinkle.
Blushing, Chris shook her head. "No - incredible! Amazing! Something like that."
"But also a little bit crazy," Shirley added with a grin.
"Well, I had a workshop, I had a full set of tools, and no one ever questioned a single supply or parts order I put in," Ursula said. "At the time I thought I was just very lucky. As it turns out, General von Reichenberg didn't really care what I did so long as I stayed busy enough not to ask any questions," she added, a trifle glumly. "And so I -" She looked up from her work then, a puzzled expression coming onto her face, as the sound of an approaching engine drifted into FUEL STORAGE from the hangar. "Speak of the devil."
"Hm?" Gryphon asked.
Ursula shook her head. "No, that's ridiculous, it can't be him. But it does sound just like..." She went outside, the others right behind her, as a vehicle drove across the empty apron and into the hangar, halting not far away.
The new arrival wasn't a military truck, a Kübelwagen, or a Liberion Jeep, the three most common ground vehicles to be sighted in the 501st's hangar. Instead, it was a civilian automobile, the first one Gryphon had seen since his arrival in 1946. It was an open-top roadster, a bit old-fashioned even by the standards of the time - clearly dating to before the war, but in extremely good condition. Long, low, and sleek for its era, with silver paint and wire wheels, it had a rakish stance with its steeply angled windscreen and exceedingly long hood, tipped with a brightly chromed radiator grille and a distinctive ornament.
"Oh, hello there," said Shirley. "Are you what I think you are?"
"It is if you think it's a Mercedes-Benz 540K," confirmed Gryphon appreciatively, and the two low-fived without taking their eyes off the car.
"That is General von Reichenberg's car," said Ursula, sounding surprised.
"Not any more it isn't," said the woman at the wheel of the car. With a slightly cruel little smile, Hannelore von Hammer climbed out, picking up a leather briefcase off the passenger seat as she did so.
"It appears the silliness with the men in rocket packs wasn't the only thing our mutual friend was diverting Wunderwaffe funds to support," von Hammer went on as she approached. "He also bought himself an extensive selection of fine wines; a collection of paintings that are uniformly ghastly but, I will concede, quite valuable; and this really rather excellent automobile. All of which, since he paid for them with Luftwaffe funds, he has now forfeited to the Crown."
"Rittmeister von Hammer," said Ursula with a smile. "It's good to see you again."
"And you, Captain Hartmann, I trust you're well?" said von Hammer with a heel-clicking little Prussian bow. Then, with a much less cruel smile than before, she handed the blonde witch a small object, adding, "Happy birthday."
Ursula glanced at the object she'd been handed, saw that it was a key, then looked up to meet von Hammer's eyes again with confusion on her face. "I beg your pardon?" she asked.
"It's not Reichenberg's car any more," von Hammer repeated. "It's yours, with the grateful felicitations of your Kaiser."
"Oh, you lucky, lucky witch," said Shirley.
"What?" said Ursula, blushing. "I couldn't possibly -"
"Refuse a birthday gift from the Emperor of Karlsland, I know," said von Hammer with a sympathetic nod. "I realize it's terribly ostentatious, Hartmann, but I'm afraid you're just going to have to live with it," she went on with a conspiratorial wink.
"If you really can't stand the thought, you could always re-gift it to me," Shirley said helpfully. "The Kaiser would never have to know."
Von Hammer laughed. "I thought Liberions didn't like Karlsländer cars."
"I always try to keep an open mind," said Shirley with a grin. Then, spotting the entry of two people from the door leading off to the barracks wing, she raised her voice and called, "Well, look who finally crawled back out of bed at the crack of noon!"
Trude said nothing, only looked embarrassed, but Erica grinned and said, "It's my day off! Wow, Hannelore, nice wheels."
"They're not mine, they're your sister's," von Hammer told her. "But I shall wish you a happy birthday as well."
"Why thank you - wait. What do you mean they're my sister's?" Erica turned a suspicious look to her twin. "What did you do, Usch?"
"Well," Ursula replied with a perfect look of mild innocence, "I did rather arrange matters so that the rest of you were able to save the Kaiser."
"There's that," Erica conceded, smiling.
"Why don't you try it out?" von Hammer said. Hefting her briefcase for emphasis, she continued, "I have some business to discuss with Minna, and it's turned into a fine day for motoring."
"Shotgun!" Erica declared before anyone else could speak. "C'mon, Trude, I think we can make room for all of us."
"Hey, no fair!" Shirley said. "I was here first!"
"You can ride in the back," Erica told her.
"There is no back," Shirley pointed out, gesturing to the car's very obviously two-seat arrangement.
"Oh yes there is!" said Erica, and stepping to the back of the Mercedes, she demonstrated her point, flipping open part of the coachwork between the cockpit and the tail-mounted spare wheel to reveal that it did, in fact, conceal a second seat.
"Rumble seat! Awright!" said Shirley, delighted. "C'mon, you guys!" she added to Gryphon and Chris, gesturing for them to follow her as she bounded toward the car.
The final arrangement was not in any conceivable way safe, with Erica perched in Trude's lap in the passenger seat, and Gryphon and Shirley jammed into the rumble seat with Chris happily wedged crossways athwart their laps - but with five of them witches and one whatever-Gryphon-was, they more or less got away with it. The Benz itself didn't seem to care at all that it was hilariously, almost grotesquely overloaded. Though not generously provided with seats, it was still one of the biggest, most powerful cars of its age, and it behaved as if nothing at all out of the ordinary were happening.
The six spent a happy couple of hours haring around the byroads of western Alsace, pausing occasionally to switch drivers, as Ursula generously gave her passengers each a turn behind the wheel. Only the Barkhorns didn't take theirs: Chris because she didn't know how to drive yet; and Trude because she knew how but was hopeless at it, and didn't want to break her sister-in-law's nice new car. By the time they returned to the château, all were agreed that whatever the ex-general's faults might be, and there were many, he had indisputably fine taste in automobiles.
They got back just as the afternoon patrol group got in after an uneventful few hours scouting the western hills and the fringe of the Schwarzwald. Appreciative remarks about the car followed, and Ursula was about to suggest that she could take Mio, Shizuka, Yoshika, and Lynne out for a ride of their own with a bit of creativity, when the voice of the wing's commander suddenly came over the Tannoy and derailed the plan a bit:
"Now hear this: All witches report to the briefing room. All witches report to the briefing room immediately."
They arrived in the small auditorium that served as the wing's mission briefing room to find von Hammer standing at the briefing officer's lectern. This came as a mild surprise, particularly as the wing's own commander was present, but stood off to one side on the little stage at the head of the room.
Von Hammer waited until everyone was seated and attentive, then said, "Good afternoon, ladies. ... And you," she added with a wry nod to Gryphon, who made a smilingly dismissive little don't-sweat-it gesture. "I have an important announcement to make. You'll all be receiving a memorandum from SHAEF about it soon, but I thought you'd prefer to hear about it in person."
After taking a moment to make sure no one's attention had wandered - not much chance of that - she continued without further preamble, "Allied Air Command has reorganized the assets in this sector of the front somewhat. The 501st and 511th Joint Fighter Wings, as well their support and logistics organizations, are now grouped together under the overall authority of the new First Joint Special Air Fleet. On the day-to-day level, this probably won't change much, but operationally, it should make for tighter coordination between the two most forward units in the sector, which will simplify matters as we gear up for our summer offensive against the Neuroi occupying western Karlsland."
This sent a ripple of excitement around the room, since it constituted the first official confirmation that there would be a summer offensive. Von Hammer waited for it to die down, then said, "To tell you a little more about what you can expect from this operational change, I'll hand you over now to the new commanding officer of Sonderluftflotte 1: Major General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke."
There was a startled silence; then, as Minna took von Hammer's place at the lectern, the witches of the 501st broke into applause, rising to their feet almost as one to congratulate their commander. Blushing a bit, Minna waved them back to their seats.
"Thank you all," she said when the room had quieted again. "This is an... unexpected development, and I don't have much more information to give you about it right now, but... well, let me start by telling you a few things that aren't going to change. I am retiring from regular combat duty, but I would have to anyway, with the increased operational responsibilities of being fleet commander. I'm not coming off flight status," she added firmly, drawing a private little smile from Mio.
Placing her hands on the lectern, Minna looked around the room with a serious expression, then went on, "What's more important to me, though, is that I'm not leaving you. The Joint Air Fleet's headquarters will be here at Saint-Ulrich, which means I'm not physically going anywhere. And that's... that's critical to me." She smiled, a little bit sentimentally. "Occasional interruptions by the vagaries of war aside, we've all been together for a long time. It's my hope that we still will be when this war finally ends - that we can all see it through together. My new responsibilities won't change that."
Yoshika shot back to her feet, crying, "Let's hear it for General Minna!" Beside her, Lynne sprang up as well, then led the rest of the witches in a Britannian triple cheer.
"Thank you all," said von Hammer, smiling, as a furiously blushing Minna resumed her seat. "It'll take a few days to sort out all the details of the transition. In the meantime, operations will carry on as normal from tomorrow evening. You're all off-duty until then; the 511th will be covering for you so that Hartmann and Hartmann can have a proper birthday party tonight."
"Hooray!" Francesca Lucchini cried, startling Ursula slightly by grabbing her in a hug.
As the members of the 501st were filing out of the briefing room, von Hammer intercepted Gryphon and Ursula, drawing them aside in the hallway.
"I have to fly back to Juvincourt and manage the transition on that end for Minna," she said, "but before I do, I wanted to make a couple of things official for you two." As the two in question gave each other puzzled looks, von Hammer handed Ursula an envelope marked with the Luftwaffe eagle and went on, "Hartmann, you're being reassigned. We decided the easiest thing to do was just backdate the transfer paperwork you forged for the He 162 and pretend we meant to do that, then attach your new squadron to the 501st, so you can stay here. If von Reichenberg has any friends left at Command, you should be safe from them here, especially now that Minna's got her second star."
Ursula unfolded her orders, read them over, and blinked. "So there really is a 404th Experimental Flight Test Squadron now?"
Von Hammer gave her a faint smirk. "Mm-hmm. Of course, it's just you and Rocketpants over here," she said, nodding toward Gryphon, "but that just gives you room for expansion. As for you," she added, turning to Gryphon, "Fritzchen asked me to give you this," and she handed him a rolled-up document tied with a black, white, and red ribbon.
Curious, Gryphon untied the ribbon and unrolled the document. It took him a moment to fathom the ornate blackletter typeface enough to translate the writing on it from Karlslandic in his head, but once he did, he saw that it said:
We, Friedrich IV,
by the Favor of the Ancestors
Emperor of Karlsland,
King of Prussia,
Margrave of Brandenburg, etc.
do by these presents hereby appoint and ordain
Benjamin Hutchins Reichsgraf von Katädien
Captain of Cavalry, Karlsland Imperial Air Service
Experimental Flight Test Squadron 404, Joint Fighter Wing 501
Knight Third Class with Swords
Imperial Order of the Red Eagle
On This Day 18.4.1946 Sealed
He read it twice, then handed it to Ursula and transferred his curious look to von Hammer.
"That ought to keep the Allied Inspector-General off your back," the senior witch told him. "Welcome to the Luftsreitkräfte. We're the same cavalry rank and he made you a higher-ranking noble than me, but I have a lot more seniority, so it ought to work out about even," she added with a brief return of her little smirk, then went on dryly, "Anyway, the duties are largely ceremonial."
"Oh my," said Ursula, reading the decree. Looking up from it to smile at Gryphon, she added, "You must have impressed His Majesty quite a lot."
"You could say that," said von Hammer. "Anyway, carry on, you two. I'll be seeing you."
"Are you sure you can't stay?" Ursula asked. "You'd certainly be welcome."
Von Hammer shook her head. "No, I wish I could, but I've got to get back. Keine Ruhe für die Bösen. Your medal should be arriving in a few days - we had to have it sent from Neukarlsland," she added to Gryphon. "In the meantime, if anyone calls you out, just show them that. Or hide under Hattori again," she added wryly. "Whatever you find most amusing."
"I'll keep that in mind," Gryphon deadpanned. "Please pass on my thanks to His Majesty the Kaiser. It's a great honor."
After taking a few moments to admire the decree, Lynne, Yoshika, and Gryphon turned to in the kitchens and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing a feast suitable to the occasion, with a menu studded with the delicacies of both western (for the Hartmanns) and eastern (for Minna) Karlsland, followed by an enormous cake. Perrine handled the selection of wines, unlimbering some of the finest vintages from the castle's extensive cellar (the stocking of which she had overseen in the first place).
After dinner, while their comrades retired to the living room to continue the celebration in comfort, Minna and Mio slipped off to the former's office for a few moments.
"What's up?" Mio asked once the door was shut. "They're going to notice we sneaked off before too long and come looking for us," she added with a wry grin.
"This shouldn't take long," Minna told her. "There's something important I have to ask you, and I didn't want to put you on the spot by doing it in front of everybody."
Mio gave her a curious look. "Oh?"
"Mm," Minna said, nodding. "In my... new capacity, I have a couple of very important positions that need filling. For starters, I need an adjutant I can trust. Someone who can work closely with me as I find my way into the details of this new job, then help me run everything once it's all set up... just as you've done for me in the 501st since the beginning."
"Are you asking me?" Mio wondered, but Minna shook her head.
"No," she said. "It's a staff job; the person who takes it will most likely see very little action. I know you would do it if I asked you..." Minna smiled. "... But I also know you would be miserable."
Blushing mildly, Mio chuckled, conceding the point with a slightly sheepish nod.
"So I'll look elsewhere for that. What I want from you... the 501st is going to need a new commanding officer." Taking both of Mio's hands, Minna looked her in the eye and said, "In a lot of ways, you're the one who's made the wing what it is today. I can think of no one better to entrust it to than the person who helped me build it in the first place."
Mio smiled. "It'd be a pleasure," she said. "Who'll be my replacement?"
"That's the wing commander's business," Minna replied with a wink. Then, embracing her, she said, "Thank you, Mio. It makes things easier knowing that I won't have to hand the outfit we've worked so hard on to a stranger."
Still smiling, Mio returned the hug, holding her lover tight, and murmured, "You're welcome."
If anyone noticed when they rejoined the party a few minutes later, it didn't come up. When they entered the living room, they found that their colleagues had broken out the photo albums and were catching Gryphon up on certain grand occasions he had missed in his two-year absence from their lives.
"Oh, this one's great!" Eila declared, pointing at a page in the album that lay open before him on the coffee table. "This was Barkhorn and Hartmann's Polternacht."
"What's that?" Shizuka wondered.
"Old Karlslandic tradition," said Lucchini offhandedly, petting Wolfgang (who had clambered into her lap and, despite the hubbub in the room, was now thoroughly asleep).
Shirley took up the thread. "Basically, the night before a wedding, the groom and his friends get lit up and break a bunch of dishes in the fireplace. 'Course, there wasn't a groom at that wedding, so they were both in on it," she added with a wink for Trude, who grinned a little in spite of herself at the memory.
"What in the world for?" asked Shizuka, leaning over to get a better look at the photo. Indeed, it did appear to depict a fireplace (without a fire going), its hearth heaped with broken crockery, beside a group photo of most of the squadron, and most of them did seem to be mildly-to-moderately blitzed.
"It's symbolic," Heidemarie Schnaufer explained. "The next morning, the couple clean up the mess together, as their first official domestic task."
"See?" Erica added, pointing to a picture on the facing page. This one showed herself and Trude, looking a bit hungover but massively happy, in the process of sweeping up the wreckage and getting it into a sack.
"I still love that the first thing Erica Hartmann did in her life as a married woman was clean up a mess," said Perrine with a sly little smile.
"Well, not the first thing," said Erica, winking (which nearly caused Trude's next sip of wine to go down the wrong way and made Shizuka blush bright red).
"It's never happened since, I'll wager," Lynne remarked with a grin.
"The best part was how most of the mess got there in the first place," Sanya observed.
"Ha! Yeah, that's true," Eila agreed. "Have we got a shot of that? We must," she went on, paging through the album.
"Oh?" said Gryphon, raising a tell-me-more eyebrow.
"Well, we were all pretty into it, throwing stuff into the fireplace, but Major Sakamoto decided just doing that wasn't challenging enough," Lucchini said.
After watching her gleeful wingmates throw dishware into the fireplace for a few moments, Mio Sakamoto suddenly lurched to her feet and barged into the line of fire, causing them all to halt the operation with cries of consternation. Ignoring the one saucer that Eila hadn't been able to stop herself throwing (which narrowly missed the major's head to smash against the brickwork behind her), she stood blocking the fireplace foursquare - then drew her sword, its enchanted blade gleaming in the lamplit room.
"Miyafuji!" Mio barked, her one visible eye shining almost as brightly as the sword.
As the other witches scattered in fear for their lives, Yoshika hurriedly extracted herself from Lynne's sweater vest and straightened to a wobbly approximation of attention. "Yes, Major?!"
Grinning fiercely, Mio took up a ready stance, holding Reppumaru in a manner reminiscent of a baseball player at bat, and commanded, "Start throwin'. I'll take 'em all out!"
"It all got a bit... hectic after that," Lynne said delicately.
"Oh, so that's why Mio has a black eye in the 'after' photo," Gryphon mused, considering the group picture in front of the crockery-filled fireplace again.
"Miyafuji's got a pretty good arm for such a li'l thing," said Erica, hugging her grinning Fusōnese wingmate from behind.
"Got me with a coffee mug. I didn't even feel it until the next morning," Mio said. "Unfortunately, Miyafuji was too hungover to fix it for me until afternoon," she added with a grin.
"These Fusō girls just can't hold their liquor," said Shirley, shaking her head mock-sadly.
"Says the witch who could only handle one shot of salmiakkikoskenkorva at our wedding reception," Eila quipped, taking Sanya's hand.
"That isn't because it was strong - although it was," Shirley acknowledged. "It's because it was horrible."
"To be completely fair, that is true," Lynne said.
"Salmiakkikoskenkorva is my national beverage!" objected Eila. "Don't disrespect it!"
"Yes, it's a combination of two great Suomish institutions," said Trude dryly. "Salty licorice and vodka."
"As made by a people with a long-standing historical grudge against, uh... the inventors of vodka," Shirley put in.
"My people have a long tradition of friendly relations with Orussians," Eila insisted.
"No, you have a long tradition of friendly relations with an Orussian," Lynne corrected her, drawing a slightly guilty giggle from Sanya. "Not quite the same thing."
"I quite like salmiakkikoskenkorva," Minna observed, breaking up the whole room.
"Anyway, here's our wedding party," Erica said, flipping to the next page.
"Look at all those fresh young faces," Shirley said nostalgically. "You'd hardly even know we all got so drunk the night before that we got ourselves thrown out of the railway station in Bari."
"That was mostly the Countess's fault," said Trude, pointing to the mischievously grinning face of the Luftwaffe-dress-uniformed woman standing to her left in the group wedding-party photo.
"Huh, you guys aren't in uniform," Gryphon observed. "Nice dresses, though."
"Yeah, we decided that since the whole thing was unofficial, we should go civvie for it," Erica said. Tapping the same woman with her forefinger, she added with a grin, "Krupinski didn't get the memo."
"More likely she just ignored it," Trude said with a fond eyeroll.
"Sanya and I split the difference," Eila said, putting down another album on top of the first. This was open to a similar photo of a different wedding party, this one centered around herself and Sanya. The latter was wearing her full-dress Orussian Imperial Air Force uniform, the all-black one with the shoulder boards and braid. Eila, too, was dressed in black, but in her case it was in the form of a traditional Suomish wedding dress, very simple in design but flattering, and resplendent with tasteful gold trim that matched the finely wrought wedding-crown she wore atop her ash-blonde head. In the background, hung from the rafters of what looked like a ballroom, was a large banner emblazoned with the words VAIN TÄNÄÄN.
"Wow, look at you two," Gryphon said appreciatively. In their wedding photo, Sanya and Eila's demeanors were curiously (and rather appealingly) reversed from the usual: Eila looked a touch bashful and reticent, even demure, while Sanya stood so straight she seemed taller than she really was, head up, shoulders back, her green eyes almost fierce with pride. Looking at it now, the couple slightly mirrored it, Eila blushing a little shyly while Sanya smiled proudly.
"What does the banner say?" asked Chris.
"It's Suomish for 'just for today'," Yoshika supplied.
"... That seems like an odd sentiment for a wedding decoration," Shizuka mused.
"It's an inside joke," Sanya explained. "Before Eila and I were married, I used to get into her bed in the mornings, when I got back from night patrol. She thought I was wandering into the wrong room by mistake," she added with a fondly indulgent smile for her wife.
"Every day?" Chris asked, giggling.
"I didn't want to jinx it!" Eila said.
"And every morning," Sanya went on, "she would grumble that she was letting me stay vain tänään. Just for today."
"Did I, or did I not, make good on that after Miyafuji's little speech?" Eila inquired haughtily.
"Indeed you did," Perrine agreed. "One cannot dispute that. You put it to very good use in your proposal."
"What did you say?" Chris asked eagerly, leaning forward.
"Well..." Eila paused as Sanya, still smiling, raised their linked hands to kiss the back of hers. "I told her Miyafuji was right, we all should live our lives without regret. And then I said..." As she spoke the next words, Sanya murmured along with them under her breath. "'I want just for today to be every day of my life.'"
"Oh, that's beautiful," Chris said, tearing up a little.
"Yeah, I hate to admit it, but it beat your sister's idea of a proposal all hollow," Erica said with a wry grin. Composing herself into an exaggerated impression of Trude's Serious Face, she pitched her voice a little lower and said, "'Hartmann, let's get married.'"
"Well, whatever else, you can't accuse her of beating around the bush," Shirley said, grabbing the brown-haired Karlslander in a headlock-hug.
"As it were," Lucchini put in, drawing a chorus of coughs and groans.
"There's something to be said for the direct approach," Lynne said.
"And speaking of which, here's us!" Yoshika went on, proffering still a third photo album. The picture covering the whole page on the left was a similar shot of a full wedding party - in the same room, no less - but the figures in the middle were herself and Lynne. Like Eila, they had gone for more traditional bridalwear as worn in their native lands: Yoshika was wearing a complicated white and red formal kimono, while Lynne wore a classic English white lace wedding gown, complete with opera gloves and veil.
Around them, all their wingmates had dusted off their dressiest uniforms and most formal accessories. Perrine, standing just to Yoshika's right, was even wearing her ancestral rapier, and had done her long, normally-straight blonde hair up in a cascade of vertical Gallian curls that put Gryphon automatically in mind of his elder daughter Kaitlyn's lover Juri. With all their medals polished up and on show, the 501st as pictured completely looked the part of the Allied Forces' most decorated outfit.
"Oh wow," said Chris. "I've never seen this one before. Lynne, your dress is really beautiful."
"Thank you," said Lynne. "I made it myself!"
"My Grandma Akimoto made my kimono," Yoshika said. "I wish she couldn've been there to see it in action."
"Did she know you were marrying a girl?" Shizuka wondered.
"Sure," Yoshika replied. "She's met Lynne-chan before, she and Perrine-chan visited Fusō when they were raising money to help rebuild Gallia." Chuckling, she added, "She probably knew we were going to get married before we did."
"I wouldn't doubt it," Perrine agreed, nodding. "Grandmother Akimoto is wise."
"Oh hey, there's Wilma," said Gryphon, pointing to the grinning figure on Lynne's left in the group photo. "I didn't recognize her without her hat."
"Yes, she actually dressed up for the occasion," Lynne said, smiling.
"And behaved herself!" Eila put in.
"That was disappointing," Lucchini said as an aside to Wolfgang, pouting.
"And surprising," Sanya added.
"Heh, she's a firecracker, that one," Shirley agreed.
"Nothing like her sweet and innocent little sister," said Eila with a sly elbow for Lynne.
"Oh ho, you have no idea," Yoshika began.
"And that's the way it will stay if certain witches know what's good for them," Lynne interjected, reddening.
"Ha! ha! ha!" said Mio, hugging them both from behind.
They talked and laughed long into the night, dividing the time between showing Gryphon photos of events he'd missed, and showing pictures of his original visit to the witches who had joined the outfit after it. This eventually led to Erica hauling out an envelope of brand new prints, just developed the day before - photos, for the most part, of various visitors to the room across the hall.
"How did you manage to get these without waking anybody up?" Heidemarie wondered, considering a photo of Ursula snuggling with Gryphon.
Erica struck a seated faux martial-arts pose. "Ich bin Fotoninja," she intoned.
"How do we know this isn't you?" Eila asked skeptically.
"She's not taking up three-quarters of the bed," Trude said dryly before Erica could reply, and the room broke up with laughter.
It was after midnight before the party broke up, with everyone filtering back to their rooms. The lateness of the hour, and the recentness of some of the changes in room assignments, caused minor confusion in a couple of cases, as when Chris nearly reported to the room she had shared with her sister and Erica until that morning, and Perrine almost went to her old room instead of the new one she'd lately moved to, down at the other end of the hall.
Seeing the latter, Mio hesitated at the door of the room next door - Minna's, into which she'd moved from her own across the hall when they returned from Paris. She couldn't blame Perrine for moving; the Gallian had been hugely, heartbreakingly noble about the whole thing, but that didn't mean she could or should be expected to keep living right next door.
Turning away from the door, Mio took a couple of quick strides to catch up with her, then matched her pace down the corridor, saying quietly, "Perrine... there's something I'd like to discuss with you before we turn in."
Perrine turned a curious look to her. "Oh? What is it?"
"It won't be official until Monday, but... Minna's asked me to take over for her as commanding officer of the 501st."
"Oh! Well, congratulations," said Perrine, leaving unsaid-but-obvious the continuation: But what does that have to do with me?
"That means I've got to have someone to replace me," Mio went on. "Trude has the rank and the experience, but we both know command isn't something she's interested in. She'd do it if I asked her, but her heart wouldn't be in it. Instead... I'd like to offer the job to you."
Perrine stopped walking and blinked at her, unsure how to react for a moment.
"I know this is kind of... awkward," Mio went on, a bit uncomfortably. "For all I know, you might be thinking about leaving the 501st altogether. And you'd be perfectly within your rights to do so," she added bluntly. "By any measure, you've done enough. More than enough. I don't want you to leave us, but if you decided to go home tomorrow, no one would have any right to stop you.
"If you do decide to stay, though... I could really use your help. My second-in-command has to be a person I trust - someone who understands me, who can think like I do." Putting a hand on the Gallian's shoulder, Mio looked her in the eye and said earnestly, "If you're staying, I can't think of anyone who fits that description better than you, Perrine."
With a smile, Perrine raised a hand and covered Mio's on her shoulder with it. "Of course I'm staying," she said. "You heard General Wilcke. We'll all see this war through together." Then, drawing herself up, she saluted and went on, "It has been, and will continue to be, my privilege to serve under you, Colonel Sakamoto."
Mio shook her head. "No, please, Perrine," she said. "The privilege is mine... and after all we've been through, I think you can call me Mio."
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 New Normal"
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