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Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Mio Sakamoto entered the hangar with no higher purpose than to see whether the afternoon patrol group was back yet. As it turned out, they weren't hard to find. Wilma Bishop, Amélie Planchard, and Chris Barkhorn were all standing out on the apron in front of the hangar doors. As Mio approached, she saw that they were all looking up, their attention apparently riveted by something in the sky above Ribeauvillé.
Puzzled, Mio jogged out to join them, wondering what they were looking at. Presumably not a Neuroi; even Barkhorn, inexperienced though she was, wouldn't just stand around gawking at a Neuroi so close to a population center. Besides, the warning net would have picked it up when it crossed the Rhine, in plenty of time to scramble the standby interception watch.
"What's going on?" she asked when she reached them.
"Just the witch we need," Wilma replied. Pointing, she said, "Ain't that General Hakurei and her friend?"
Mio looked. Sure enough, there were two small figures hovering at moderate altitude above the village, maybe half a mile from the castle. At this range, the naked eye couldn't make out much detail, but neither had a Striker, and the predominant color of one was clearly red, the other black.
"Looks like it," she agreed. Flipping her eyepatch up onto her forehead, she closed her left eye and concentrated on the witchsight in her right.
"What are they doing?" Amélie wondered.
"I can't hear them, but from the body language involved, it looks like they're arguing about something," said Mio as the two hovering figures resolved.
Indeed, the two looked considerably agitated. The blonde half-Liberion, Marisa Kirisame, seemed to be in a positive rage about something. She was standing on her broom, alternately gesturing and folding her arms in what looked like scorn, haranguing General Reimu Hakurei about Mio knew not what. The general, for her part, didn't look so much angry as desperately unhappy, like the situation was spiraling out of her control and she didn't know how to get it back.
As Mio watched, both figures went still—but not the sort of stillness that suggested anything was resolved. They were just staring at each other, Kirisame's expression grim, Hakurei's almost unreadable. As the seconds ticked past, Mio felt the tension growing in her own back and almost forgot to breathe.
And then all hell broke loose.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
They broke almost as one. Reimu energized a fistful of ofuda and launched them at Marisa at virtually the same instant that the blonde witch conjured a magic circle, wheeling just past the fingertips of her free hand, and unleashed a fusillade of star-shaped spellbolts from it. Their first strikes met and mostly annihilated each other. What little fire got through found nothing to hit, as by then both combatants were in motion, converting their standoff instantly into a dogfight.
Down in Ribeauvillé, people stopped what they were doing and just stood, craning their necks, gazing up in amazed incomprehension at the show. By this time, they were used to the comings and goings of the witches up in the castle, but what combat had taken place in the sector thus far had happened well away from the town. Moreover, for safety reasons, the witches of the 501st made their training flights and practice gunnery duels over the uninhabited stretch of mountainous forest north of town, not above Ribeauvillé itself. Even practice munitions dropped spent casings and empty magazines, after all. So not only had the good people of the ville never seen what was unfolding above their heads now, they had never seen anything even like it.
The two flying figures locked in evidently mortal combat in the air over Ribeauvillé—neither of whom seemed to be using a Striker Unit—were filling the sky not with paintballs or bullets, but streams and swirls and intricate geometric arrays of multicolored light as they darted and swooped. Sometimes one was chasing the other; sometimes the other way around; sometimes they seemed to be racing, blazing away at each other while exchanging the lead in a headlong parallel dash to some arbitrary point.
The blonde one in black seemed to be faster, the brunette in red more maneuverable, though neither showed a marked deficiency in either regard. Their combined firepower was staggering, far beyond anything a regular military witch could summon from the most advanced hardware of the day. The individual pulses took the forms of stars, spectral talismans, taijitu, occasionally just beams of raw light, and they streamed out in patterns sometimes geometric, sometimes pointilist representations of arcane diagrams, and sometimes all but random.
Most of the specific details were lost on the observers in Ribeauvillé, none of whom had much, if any, magical training. They were not lost on the growing crowd of curious witches that was forming on the Château Saint-Ulrich apron, attracted by the noise and the profound disturbance to the local magisphere. These more technically savvy witnesses stood and looked on in wonder, murmuring among themselves about what it might mean.
All but Mio Sakamoto, who, faced with an unprecedented confrontation between two of the most powerful unconventional users of magic in the world—one of whom held ultimate (if largely symbolic) authority over every single witch of her country, including herself—merely gritted her teeth and demanded of anyone within earshot who might care to speculate,
"What in the seven hells are those goddamn fools doing?"
No one nearby had an answer, but she wasn't really expecting one. Turning to survey the crowd, she collared Yoshika and started half-dragging her back into the hangar.
"Miyafuji, you've got one of the strongest shields in the outfit," she said. "You and I are going to saddle up and see if we can stop those two idiots from killing somebody."
"Roger that," Yoshika agreed, nodding.
"If you break them up before they reach a decision," said a calm voice matter-of-factly, "they'll just start again at the first opportunity."
Mio turned to see Alice Murgatroyd, the retired RAF officer who was traveling with General Hakurei and her companion for reasons that had never been made clear, standing by the door to FUEL STORAGE. She was regarding the two witches from Fusō with a slightly solemn expression Mio found hard to read. Her two dolls, one hovering near each shoulder, were ironically easier to read than their mistress: they both looked worried.
"Well, we can't let them go on like this," Mio told her. "They're apt to barbecue some poor sucker on the ground at this rate, and even if they manage not to do that, they still stand to attract a lot of Neuroi attention with the amount of magic they're throwing around. What the hell is going on?"
"Adolescence," said Alice with an air of faintly amused resignation.
"What?" Mio replied, baffled, but somewhat to her surprise, Yoshika seemed to get it.
"Aha," said the doctor, nodding. "Sakamoto-san is right, though. We can't just—"
"Look out!" someone shouted outside, followed by the sound of an explosion.
Mio and Yoshika glanced at each other in surprise, then ran back out with Alice right behind them. The duel's "audience" had scattered, most of them lying sprawled on the tarmac where they had dived for cover. A dark scar of scorched concrete crossed part of the apron, ending in the burning remains of what had, until a moment ago, been one of the wing's Kübelwagens.
"Right. This nonsense has gone far enough," Mio growled. Turning back once more, she made for her Striker at a run.
"What on Earth is going on?" asked Minna from the top of the stairs leading up to the wing offices.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Mio replied, jumping the safety rail of her Striker's stage and powering it up before she'd even reached bottom. "Come on, Miyafuji!"
"Whoa! Shit!" Marisa declared as the fireball blossomed up from the Kübelwagen she'd just accidentally nailed.
"Nice job," said Reimu grimly. "Doing this here was stupid. Let's take it somewhere safer."
"Don't talk like it's my fault," Marisa snapped, but she followed the miko's lead all the same, falling in behind as Reimu streaked off eastwards.
They flashed across the Rhine into what was still technically enemy territory, although no Neuroi had been seen south of the Stuttgart Hive since the liberation of Freiburg. Either way, there was no one living on this side of the river yet. Below them now lay not a bustling little town of a few thousand, but only empty forest, overgrown fields, and the already-ruined shells of villages.
So now they could really cut loose.
Per the current standard operating procedure in the 501st's sector, Mio and Yoshika were obliged to halt at the river's western edge. They hovered there, the former stifling a curse, and watched the other two speed across, then resume their conflict over the woods on the far side with even greater intensity.
"What do we do?" Yoshika wondered.
Mio shook her head, her expression grim. "I don't know, Miyafuji."
Although the sun was starting to dip in the west, it was still high summer in Alsace, and wouldn't be dark for hours yet. Even in daylight, the fireworks show of the two mages' duel was visible for miles—including from the higher parts of Château Saint-Ulrich. People gathered at upper-story windows, on Gryphon's balcony, in the control tower, and on the roof, employing binoculars, spotting telescopes, rifle optics, and even (in Patchouli Knowledge's case) what appeared to be jeweled opera glasses to monitor the conflict.
The show those observers who managed to get a sightline on it were treated to beggared even the one they'd had at closer range. It was as if the two combatants had abandoned any semblance of restraint and were throwing their full strength at each other, heedless of risk, determined to leave nothing on the table. Sometimes they disappeared among the trees, only to pop out again amid gouts of magelight and fire. Occasionally one or the other would soar high up, brushing the broken cloud deck, and then dive on the other out of the sun, all metaphorical guns blazing. Far out of earshot, the watchers could only imagine the crackle and sizzle, the explosions, the battle cries they were sure were ringing in the Karlsland woods.
To the combatants themselves, there was no time, and now that they were across the river in no man's land, no place either. The only thing of consequence in the universe of each was the other, the only moment the razor-edged now of total concentration.
At this point, there wasn't even room in Reimu Hakurei's consciousness for the keen sense of regret she'd begun this fight with. It had been pushed clean out of her head, along with the consternation that had prompted it in the first place, by the recognition that she needed the absolute best she had if she wanted to come out of this thing intact, let alone victorious.
This is for your own good, Marisa, she thought, then sealed off that corner of her mind entirely and committed herself fully to the task at hand. This kind of mental compartmentalization came naturally to her. It was part and parcel of life as the miko of Hakurei. The only thing she could remember her predecessor in the role having taught her before that maiden's untimely death.
Don't think. Do. Thinking in battle is death.
For her part, Marisa Kirisame was doing plenty of thinking. Her mind was racing as fast as her broom, as fast as her heart. She needed to think. Like her magic itself, her prowess in magical combat wasn't as instinctive, as effortless, as Reimu's. It was the result of more hard work than talent. Though she wouldn't claim to be devoid of the latter, she couldn't just let the flow of events carry her like Reimu could. She had constantly to observe, to analyze, to react.
She weaved in and around the seething shoals of another of Reimu's giant patterns, layered shells of ofuda and taijitu in interlocking webs, and flung out a handful of spell vials as she streaked past the miko during the stationary moment such outpourings required of her. The test tube-like vials tumbled, sparkling, then burst, surrounding Reimu in slashes of colored flame that hemmed her in like a magic circle around a summoned demon. They didn't last long, deployed in mid-air, but long enough for Marisa to negotiate the back half of Reimu's spherical fire zone, shoot out the other side, and make a hard turn back toward her, broom bristles drawing a luminous trail in the air behind.
Marisa was approaching the limit of her endurance now, and uncomfortably aware of that fact. Not having Mr. Murgatroyd physically with her wasn't a crippling handicap—their spirit conduit was strong and stable—but operating remotely like this without some kind of amplifier was hard work, and she was throwing around a hell of a lot of energy. If this went on much longer, she'd lose her speed and rate-of-fire advantages. That would be catastrophic. The smallest slip, the slightest show of weakness, and Reimu would have her.
Oh, she knew Reimu wouldn't kill her, any more than she would do the same in her turn. That wasn't what this thing was about. But Marisa fought as though her life were on the line anyway, because when you got right down to it, the prize at stake was something she valued more than her life. Against an opponent of Reimu's caliber, she would have to lay everything she had, including that life, on the line to win.
So be it.
As she and Reimu charged toward each other for what had to be at least the twentieth time, filling the space between them with light and menace, Marisa felt the expected beginnings of magic fatigue setting in: a dull, gnawing ache in the back of her head, a cold flutter below her heart. Too far. Too long. Too much.
Finish this soon or not at all.
She shook her head, teeth gritted, tears spattering into her slipstream. There is a fire inside you that cannot die, she reminded herself.
Reimu saw her falter. Just the tiniest hesitation, all but instantly overcome, but it was enough for her to know the game was nearing its end. She readied herself. Stomped out a final ember of doubt in her heart. Don't think. Do.
They flashed past each other barely more than arm's length apart. Marisa scattered another handful of spell vials—her last—and barely avoided a storm of taijitu. She knew her flying was getting ragged as she carved another hard turn, reversing direction just before she would have gone out over the Rhine.
Reimu was glowing now, both in the Force and to the naked eye, as she dispelled Marisa's fire circle and gathered all her energies. Her eyes burning, she raised a handful of ofuda before her face, the writing on them lighting up as the enchanted paper touched her lips. Marisa felt a chill well up from that point of ice in her chest. This was it: Reimu's final play of the game. Those weren't spectral talismans. They were real.
And now they were heading right for her, multiplying as they flew, whirling into a horizontal tornado. There was no avoiding them. Marisa's only choice was to fly straight down the middle, straight toward Reimu. Any attempt to veer off or turn back and she'd crash into the cyclone of wards, which was already closing behind her.
But in that instant, she knew she'd won. This technique—she'd seen it before. In Ōita, that one time, and again during the great unsealing in Aokigahara. It was a trap of sorts, and like any trap, it took time to spring. Time she could use.
Gathering her strength, she raised the mini-Hakkero in both hands and focused every last scrap of her will on it.
And I shall shed my light over the darkness of fear...
Reimu saw her raise the weapon and realized she'd blundered. Marisa only had a second, but a second was all she would need. She wasn't trying to escape or evade Reimu's final spell. She intended to get her own last shot off before it completed, then accept it. They would both fall, but Reimu would go down first.
Despite herself, Reimu felt a smile tug at her lips.
Well played, Marisa.
... for dark things cannot stand the light!
Movement. Recognition. Dread. Instantaneous reaction.
The beam raved out, bigger and brighter than Reimu had ever seen it. She set her jaw, determined to take it with eyes open—
—it shrieked past her, so close her hair and sleeves whipped in the slipstream, so close she felt a wave of heat and the tingle of its magical corona on her skin. She blinked, dazzled, confused. Marisa missed? Marisa never missed with Master Spark.
Well, she had this time, and an instant later she paid for it as Reimu's trap closed on her, overwhelming whatever feeble defense she had left in the wake of an all-out blast like that and sending her tumbling like a leaf to the ground.
Reimu hovered, spots still dancing before her eyes, so hopelessly confounded she could feel no reaction to her victory. What had just happened? Marisa had her cold and then blew it. Had she thrown the fight? It had certainly looked like it. Replaying the moment in her mind, Reimu saw the fierce concentration in the blonde's eyes change in the split-second before she fired. Not break, but shift, her pupils shrinking—as if something fearful had just come to her attention, barely in time for her to react. Had she flinched? Realized what she was about to do and failed, at the last possible instant, to bring herself to do it?
Behind her, Reimu heard a distinct, familiar sound: a muted metallic bong, like the striking of a cracked bell. Eyes going wide, she whirled in midair.
No more than a dozen yards behind her, the air was filled with a great cloud of glittering crystalline "snow", still spreading outward from the shape it had held until moments before, and just beginning to fall.
To leave a debris cloud of that size, Reimu realized, the Neuroi Marisa had just killed must have been truly gigantic.
Reimu touched silently down on the apron outside Saint-Ulrich's hangar, her unconscious opponent cradled in her arms, hat and broom piled on top. Nearby, the wrecked Kübelwagen had been put out, its remains still smoldering. A few of the 501st's witches were still out there, regarding her with expressions ranging from plain confusion to puzzled reproach—not knowing just what was going on, but instinctively sure they wouldn't like it if they did.
Mio and Yoshika came in behind her, having watched the whole thing from the near side of the river, then followed her home. They docked their Strikers and dismounted, standing by their stages as Reimu carried Marisa into the hangar. Shanghai and Hōrai, Alice's dolls, took Marisa's hat and broom, respectively, then returned to their mistress, who stood watching the scene with a look of cold disapproval, arms folded.
Without a word, Reimu passed them all by and climbed the stairs, heading for sickbay.
"Miyafuji," said Mio, her voice hushed.
"Right," Yoshika replied, and followed them.
"You want to tell me what the hell that was all about?" Mio asked.
Reimu slugged back sake, then put the cup down next to the half-empty bottle on the coffee table and sat gazing at it.
"Not really," she replied.
Mio regarded her for a moment, then sat down next to her on the couch, picked up the sake bottle, and drank from it, since there was only one cup.
"I ought to bring you up on charges," she remarked, but her tone was conversational—almost light.
"That'd be interesting," Reimu replied, equally casual. She refilled her cup, apparently unconcerned that Mio had just taken a drink straight from the bottle, and knocked it back. "Army general charged by Naval Air Service colonel. What with?"
Mio shrugged, taking another drink. "Being stupid in a war zone."
Reimu gave a snort of half-hearted laughter. "That's not in the Articles of War."
"You haven't read the Navy version."
Reimu considered her cup, then sighed, put it down unfilled, and stood up.
"If you'll excuse me, Colonel," she said, and with a perfunctory bow, she turned and headed for the hallway back to the ops area.
"Carry on," said Mio sardonically, helping herself to a bit more sake.
Minna, who had watched part of the exchange unobserved from the barracks wing doorway, now entered and sat down in the departed miko's place. "Did you get anything out of her?" she wondered.
Mio shook her head. "Not in a talkative mood," she said. "I have a pretty good idea, though. While it was going on, I asked Squadron Leader Murgatroyd if she had any idea what it was about, and she said one word: 'Adolescence.'" With a wry smile, she took another sip of Reimu's abandoned sake and added, "I didn't get it in the heat of the moment, but Miyafuji did. 'Course, she's not an old lady like I am, so she probably remembers those days better than me."
"Mm-hm," said Minna skeptically. With a judicious look, she moved the sake bottle out of Mio's reach. "That's enough of that, I think. I need you conscious in the morning."
Mio laughed and sat back, slipping an arm around the general and drawing her into a snuggle. "Yes, ma'am."
"You realize it would be terrible for discipline if anyone came in and found us like this," said Minna, making no effort to move away.
"I think today of all days, they'd give us a pass," Mio remarked. Then, after a moment's thoughtful pause, she said, "If what I think happened happened, it reminds me of us back in the day. In Britannia, toward the end."
"I don't know what you mean," said Minna, her tone of voice making it plain that she knew exactly what the Fusō witch meant.
"Luckily, I'm not a hothead like Kirisame, so when you pulled a gun on me, I just talked you out of using it."
"I never did such a preposterous thing," Minna insisted.
"You did," Mio confirmed, then leaned down and kissed Minna on top of her head. "It was sweet."
"You are a very strange woman," said Minna. "I think it must be combat fatigue."
"Well," said Mio, repeating the kiss, "good thing I'm going on leave tomorrow."
Marisa was sitting up in her sickbay bed, Mr. Murgatroyd in her lap, chatting cheerfully with Gryphon and Yoshika. Reimu paused in the doorway, not yet noticed, and just watched for a moment. Apart from looking a bit tired, the blonde seemed like nothing had happened.
"... And she says to the guy," Marisa was saying, but then she spotted Reimu in the doorway and stopped talking, a perplexed look crossing her face. Gryphon and Yoshika, noticing it, glanced at each other, then turned to see what she was looking at and smiled.
"I'll be right down the hall if you need anything, Kirisame-san," said Yoshika, patting the patient's hand. "Just ring the bell."
"And I'll be in the kitchen," Gryphon added. "Dinner's in half an hour if you're feeling up to it. C'mon, hound dog." Wolfgang, standing by the foot of the bed, didn't budge. "No?" Still nothing. "OK," said Gryphon equably, shrugging, and he followed Yoshika out, tagging Reimu's shoulder in a friendly sort of way as he passed.
She touched his hand in an absent gesture of gratitude as he went, and then she was alone with Marisa, save for the pets.
"Hey," said Marisa, a little awkwardly, as Reimu sat down on the edge of the bed. Unbidden, Wolfgang jumped up and lay down, head on paws, where they could both reach him.
"Hey," Reimu replied. "Are you OK?"
"I'll live. The doc put everything more or less back where it belongs." Marisa sniffed suspiciously. "You drunk?"
Reimu shook her head. "Not really." She chuckled weakly. "For once, I didn't see the appeal."
"Mm." Marisa fell silent for a moment, then said, "So... I guess you won, huh."
"Only because you saved me."
Marisa made a dismissive gesture. "Eh, don't gimme too much credit. I just saw it comin' up behind you and... reacted."
"Bullshit," said Reimu. "You saw that it had me dead to rights and you saved me." She took Marisa's nearer hand in hers, both of them resting on Wolfgang's back. "You had won. You know that. Your timing was... perfect." She looked down at her own knees, tears gathering in her eyes. "You threw away the duel... to save my life."
For a moment, there was silence. Then Reimu turned her head, meeting Marisa's eyes, and smiled. "I'd say that's a forfeit. It's your win."
Marisa blinked. "Uh... does that mean..."
Reimu's smile turned into a grin, and for the first time since the shrine, she looked completely like herself in Marisa's eyes as she said,
"If Fusō falls because of you and me... you're on the hook to help me stand it back up again."
Marisa's answering smile was like the sun coming up after a cold dark night, and deep inside, Reimu wondered what she had ever worried about.
"You have absolutely got yourself a deal," the blonde witch declared, leaning forward to throw her arms around the shrine maiden.
The somewhat subdued dinner conversation came to a complete halt when Reimu and Marisa entered (Mr. Murgatroyd on Marisa's shoulder, Wolfgang ambling along behind). For a moment, the two stood just inside the archway, hand in hand, looking a bit awkward and embarrassed, saying nothing while all the witches and company stared at them.
"Hey, guys," said Marisa, her free hand behind her head. "Sorry about all the noise earlier." She paused for a second, then grinned and went cheerfully on, "We're a pair of goddamn idiots, but we're cute, and Reimu's important, so you have to forgive us. I don't make the rules!"
The laugh that remark elicited broke up the pall of awkwardness, and the two were cheerfully welcomed back to the table as Sakuya brought them helpings of the evening's offerings: Gryphon's famous lasagna, salad, and homemade rolls.
Between the food and the obvious fact that whatever had gone wrong between the two visitors from afar had somehow been mended already, those who had witnessed their duel felt free to remark upon it, and it was the dominant topic of conversation for much of the evening—the beauty and uniqueness of the techniques employed, the amazing aerial agility displayed by both combatants... the question of who was going to pay for that Kübelwagen.
"Ah, jeez," said Marisa with an embarrassed smile as the last item came up. She reached up as if to pull down her hat and hide behind it, then belatedly realized she wasn't wearing it and put her hand sheepishly behind her head again instead.
"Eh, don't worry too much about it, they're cheap," Erica Hartmann reassured her.
"How cheap are we talkin'?" Marisa wondered.
"Eh..." Erica snagged an extra roll and commenced to butter it, a thoughtful look on her face. "Twenty-five hundred Mark? Something like that. Usch?"
"Two thousand, seven hundred eighty, to be precise," said her twin sister Ursula at once.
"You wouldn't happen to know what that is in Liberion dollars, wouldja?" asked Marisa.
"$661.90 at the most recently published exchange rate," Ursula replied at once.
"Of course she does," Erica teased.
"Oof," said Marisa, wincing. "That's not gonna make the ol' wallet happy."
"You can factor it into the cost of your trousseau," Alice suggested, her face perfectly straight, and both Marisa and Reimu blushed as a giggle made the rounds of the table.
"Hey, at least you didn't blow up a deuce-'n-a-half," Shirley Yeager offered. "That'd set you back a cool four grand." She grinned ruefully. "Ask me how I know!"
Lucchini didn't miss her cue. "Hey Shirley, how do you know?"
"OK, so, there I was..."
When dinner and dessert were finished, Minna ran down a final timetable for operations on the morrow, then turned everyone loose to spend the rest of the evening as they would. A majority decided to make an early night of it, given what a busy day was coming up, and so most of the wing headed to the barracks together, still chatting about what they were looking forward to most in the morning.
"I've never seen a Fusō-style wedding before," Flandre Scarlet remarked. "Have you, Sis?"
"Only in the book Papa brought back with him from his trip," said Remilia. "And I imagine things have changed somewhat in the 150 years since then."
"Well, I guess we'll find—" Flandre began, then trailed off as a figure emerged from one of the bedrooms farther down the hallway and turned toward them, as if to investigate the approaching commotion.
"Oh," said Gryphon, in the tone of a man who had just remembered something important a fraction too late.
"Neuroi!" cried Flandre, and before anyone could react, she was in flight, wing crystals leaving bright tracers in her wake. Neuroi-chan had just enough time to recoil slightly, surprise evident in her body language, before Flandre hit her amidships in a literal flying tackle, carrying them both straight down the hall...
... and clean through the window at the end.
"We forgot to warn Flan about Neuroi-chan," said Gryphon matter-of-factly.
Remilia's only reply was a wordless grumbling noise as she followed the pair out through the jagged hole where the window had been.
The hallway window faced more or less north, overlooking an open field at the side of the castle. The Liberion military police who had briefly been posted to guard the 501st, before Minna put the run to them, had used the area as an assembly yard. The witches hardly used it, except as an occasional picnic and outdoor play area.
Remilia emerged from the castle to find Flandre and Neuroi-chan in a sort of aerial standoff, the latter having freed herself from the former and backed off a few yards. Now they watched each other warily, weapons energized, waiting to see who would flinch.
"Flandre. Flandre!" Remilia barked.
"Stay back, Sis, I've got this!" Flandre replied without looking away from her target. "Go ahead, Neuroi. Make your move." She grinned. "I'll even give you the first shot for free."
Then, before Remilia could try again to intervene, the blonde vampire blinked in surprise, the fierce grin fading from her face. "What? Seriously?"
Neuroi-chan nodded, then extruded the fingers of her right "hand" and pointed to her upper left chest, where part of her hull plating stood out in geometric relief just above the swell of her simulated bosom. Though it was fully night by this point, both of the vampires could clearly see what it was, now that it had been pointed out to them: an eight-pointed star, its rays pointed and ribbed, surrounding a circular medallion featuring a spread-winged eagle.
"What does it mean?" Flandre asked, and then, as if someone had told her, "Oh. Really? Wow. OK, that's... not what I was expecting." She stood down, the glow of unspent magic fading from her hands. "Sorry about that."
She and the witch-type Neuroi both floated down to the ground, still facing each other. Bemused, Remilia followed, standing next to her sister. Behind them, some of the witches started coming out of a side door from the castle, while others crowded into the broken window above, looking down on the scene.
"The last time I saw a Neuroi," Flandre continued, "some... things happened, so..." She shrugged sheepishly and repeated, "Sorry."
"Who are you talking to?" Remilia wondered.
Flandre glanced at her. "Huh? Winifreda, obviously."
There was a brief, baffled pause.
"... Her name is Winifreda?!" said Erica, incredulous.
"It's just one damn thing after another around this place," Mio remarked, flopping backward onto Gryphon's bed with a tired grin.
"Never a dull moment," Gryphon agreed mildly from his desk chair, looking up from his current book. "Mind you, the Kaiser might have mentioned to someone that he gave her a name. Even Hannelore didn't know."
"I guess it slipped his mind," said Mio sardonically. "He's a busy man, you know."
"So I've heard." Gryphon put up the book, swiveled to face the bed, leaned back, and put his feet up on the corner, crossing his ankles. "So. The big day has arrived at last."
"Sakamoto Mio finally becomes an honest woman."
Mio laughed. "It'll take more than a wedding to accomplish that," she said. Then, to his mild surprise, she got up, but only to take off her jacket, throw it over a chair, and then get under the covers with Wolfgang.
"You're welcome to stay tonight if you want," said Gryphon, then added wryly, "but we may both not hear the end of it for some time."
"I cleared it with the head office. Besides, it's bad luck for the couple to see each other the night before the wedding. Isn't that what they say?"
"That's what they say."
"Well, then," said Mio. Rolling on her side, she took off her eyepatch and put it on the bedside stand. "One more time for old times' sake..."
Gryphon chuckled. "Right you are." Rising, he went behind the screen and changed for bed, then shut off lights and climbed in on his side. For a minutes, there was silence.
"Sleep well, Major," said Gryphon. "I'll most likely kill you in the morning."
Marisa looked up at the sound of the door to see Reimu returning from her after-dinner bath, dressed in jinbei and carrying her folded clothes. The shrine maiden looked pensive, but no more so than she usually did when she had business on her mind. Given what she was lined up to do in the morning, that didn't seem like cause for worry to Marisa.
"Everything all right?" she asked anyway, just to be sure.
"Fine," Reimu replied, smiling. "Sorry. Just a little preoccupied with... everything."
Marisa nodded. "Yeah, can't blame you. Big day tomorrow!"
"What are you doing with your hat?" Reimu wondered. Marisa was sitting on top of the bed, cross-legged with the skirt of her nightdress stretched over her knees; she had her oversized witch's hat in her lap and seemed to be fussing with part of the trim.
"I was tryin' to fix the ribbon," she said, indicating the broad white cloth tied around the base of the hat's conical crown. "You blew part of it off during our little dance this afternoon. I thought I might be able to fold the burned part under and re-tie it, but there ain't enough material left to make a decent bow." She shrugged and started undoing it. "Guess I'll just do without until I can find some fabric somewhere..."
Reimu tilted her head thoughtfully, regarding the hat. Then, stepping out of her slippers, she put her stack of folded day clothes down on the bed, climbed up opposite Marisa with her legs folded under her, and took the hat. Marisa, puzzled, let her have it, then watched as Reimu unfolded the wide lace-trimmed red ribbon she normally wore in a large bow in the back of her hair, wound it around the hat, and then re-tied the bow so that it sat jauntily off to the left of center, in the same place as the usual white one.
"There," she said. "Good as new."
Marisa picked up the hat, turned it around to face her, and considered it. "Huh. Red ain't really my color, but that actually looks pretty good," she said, and then, lowering it to look over the crown at Reimu, she added with a sly grin, "Stakin' your claim?"
Reimu went slightly red, but she didn't fluster. Instead, she smirked and replied, "Something like that."
Marisa laughed. "Fair enough," she said, then added, "You'll look kinda funny without it, though."
"I have spares," Reimu said, shrugging, and she rose to put her clothes away.
"Semper paratus," Marisa quipped, tossing her hat onto the desk.
She climbed under the covers, careful not to disturb Mr. Murgatroyd in his spot at the foot of the bed, and switched off the lamp. A few moments later, Reimu slipped in beside her and turned off the other lamp.
"I'm sorry I freaked out like that. I just... I wasn't expecting it. I didn't know how to react. I panicked. I've always been taught that I can never have anyone special, and... I don't know. It's childish. I really thought all this time that if we just never said it out loud, maybe we could get away with it."
"Nothin' to get away with," Marisa replied, but mildly now, not vehemently as she had earlier.
She felt Reimu's hand close over her own, warm under the covers. "I know that now. And I want to make it clear... I'm not ashamed. I was never ashamed. Only... afraid."
Marisa chuckled, squeezing her hand. "You ain't afraid of anything."
"Only when you're with me," Reimu admitted. "When I'm alone, I'm just a scared little girl in a job that's too big for her. But when we're together... I can do anything."
"Well... all the more reason not to let me go," said Marisa with an audible smirk.
Reimu laughed softly. "Yeah." A pause. "I don't really know what I'm doing. But... I'll make you happy."
Marisa turned on her side, facing the middle; Reimu did the same, and they regarded each other past their linked hands, barely able to make out each other's eyes now that the room was lit only by faint moonlight filtering through the light curtains.
"Y'already do, ya big dope," said Marisa, her teeth glinting in a grin. "G'night, Reimu. Love ya."
"Good night, Marisa. I..." Reimu swallowed audibly, grateful to the darkness for hiding her blush, and went on, "I love you too."
"Well, Nipa," said Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak as she and her countrywoman stood regarding the hastily-boarded-over hole at the end of the hallway, "for once there's a broken window you had nothing to do with."
"It had to happen sooner or later," Nikka Katajainen replied philosophically.
Reimu woke early, without needing an alarm. She dressed quickly, not putting on a light, and stood by the side of the bed for a moment, just smiling at Marisa's sleeping face. Then, with a passing pet for Mr. Murgatroyd, she quietly slipped out of the room, easing the door shut behind her.
The castle was still mostly asleep, since no one from its usual complement was expected on duty today. Only a skeleton staff, mostly on loan from the 511th, was running the operations office. Reimu made her way through the silent halls and put her head into the communications room, where a witch she didn't recognize was on duty—a blonde young Farawaylander with sergeant's stripes on her blue uniform blouse.
"Ah, General Hakurei, good morning," she said, rising to salute when she recognized the visitor.
"Good morning, Sergeant," said Reimu, returning the salute. "Has there been a telegram for me, by any chance?"
"I don't believe so," said the sergeant. She opened the overnight comms logbook and studied the last page, then looked up and shook her head. "No, ma'am. I see your outgoing message from last night, but as yet there's been no reply."
Reimu thanked the girl and took her leave, mulling the matter over as she went downstairs. She couldn't remember the time difference between here and Kyōto, but she presumed given the distance involved that it was substantial. For all she knew, it was still the middle of the night over there or something.
Well, whatever the reason, no answer is no answer, she thought pragmatically, then put the matter out of her mind for the moment. She had work to do, anyway.
She decided to walk to the shrine rather than fly, since it was such a crisp and pleasant morning. It felt like the heat of the last few days might be easing off, which was good news for the wedding guests, since there was no room for them inside the shrine and they would have to watch the ceremony from the courtyard.
Once she arrived, Reimu opened the main doors to let the fresh air into the central chamber, then went into the private rooms in the back of the shrine to prepare herself. First, a cold-water bath—not particularly for hygiene's sake, since she'd had a proper one right before bed, but as a ceremonial purification. In addition to its ritual cleansing properties, the ice-cold dousing had the benefit of waking her the rest of the way up.
Now fully alert, she dried herself off, wrapped herself haphazardly in an unadorned yukata, and padded barefoot out of the bathroom into the adjoining chamber, where her working clothes awaited. For this task, she'd be wearing the traditional garb of a miko, a full-sleeved white kosode and ankle-length red hakama, rather than the modified Army aviator's uniform she customarily wore for her everyday duties.
Closing the bathroom door behind her, Reimu turned and almost jumped out of her skin in shock.
"Gah!" she cried, reflexively grabbing at the front of her yukata and pulling it more fully closed.
There was someone standing by the dressing table—someone who definitely hadn't been there when Reimu passed through this room a few minutes ago, and whom she just as definitely hadn't heard come in while she was bathing. It took her a moment to realize she knew the intruder, because her appearance here was so out-of-context.
"Marshal Yakumo?! What are you doing here?"
The intruder smiled, tutting good-naturedly, and reached out to tap Reimu playfully on the chin with the folded fan she held.
"How many times must I tell you, Reimu—call me Yukari."
Reimu blinked a few times, then recovered her aplomb and replied, "And how many times must I tell you, I'm not comfortable addressing a member of the Imperial Household so informally."
Yukari sighed. "You decline to stand on ceremony in any other context, and yet..." She shrugged. "Ah, well. Have it your way."
Reimu eyed the other woman suspiciously. She'd never known quite what to make of Imperial Marshal Yukari Yakumo. Despite her military-sounding title, her office in the Imperial Household Ministry was purely ceremonial as far as Reimu had ever been able to tell, and had nothing to do with the armed forces; but her influence in high places was unmistakable for all that it was poorly defined.
She claimed to be a distant relative of the Emperor's, a claim which neither he nor anyone in the Ministry seemed inclined to dispute, but in spite of that and her name, she was the most un-Fusōnese-looking person Reimu had ever seen in Kyōto, bar the occasional foreign diplomat. Blonde, violet-eyed, and thoroughly Western in her facial features, she looked to be in her late teens, but her equally European dress sense was a century or more behind the times. In fact, Reimu suddenly realized with a faint shock of recognition, that hat she liked to wear was the same sort of thing Gryphon's fiancée—the vampire from the 1500s—often wore.
Also, she looked exactly the same today as when Reimu was first introduced to her, and that had been 11 years ago.
"Don't let me hold you up," said Yukari after a few seconds' silence.
Reimu held her dubious gaze on the older woman for a moment longer, then shook her head and started dressing. "What are you doing here?" she repeated.
"His Majesty the Emperor was reluctant to entrust his reply to your interesting message to the telegraph system," said Yukari. She held up a narrow brown envelope sealed with the imperial chrysanthemum, incompletely hiding a mischievous smile. "So I came to deliver it by hand."
Reimu paused halfway into winding her sarashi to give Yukari an even more skeptical look. "I sent that message nine hours ago," she said, her words blurred by the free end of the cloth held between her teeth. "How could you possibly have gotten here so fast?"
"Oh, I have my little ways," Yukari not-really-replied airily. Reaching past Reimu (and invading her personal space in the process), she placed the envelope on the dressing table, then took over dressing her in lieu of backing off.
"Have you read it?" asked Reimu, too distracted to object.
"It's a personal communiqué from the Emperor. Of course not," said Yukari; and Reimu knew instantly from her tone that it was a lie, and that she wanted Reimu to know it was a lie.
Reimu wasn't entirely pleased about that, or about being dressed like a doll, particularly by this strange and faintly unnerving person; but since the only alternative appeared to be fisticuffs, she decided to let her get on with it. At least she was doing it properly, not using the exercise as an excuse to get handsy. The list of people from whom Reimu would have tolerated that kind of thing was short indeed, and it included no members of the Imperial Household, royalty or not.
Once the dressing was finished, Yukari moved seamlessly on to Reimu's hair, combing it out and gathering it into a simple queue, which she adorned with red and white ribbons in lieu of the usual large bow.
"I've always envied your beautiful black hair," Yukari remarked, and Reimu was surprised to realize that she sounded sincere. Then, with something more like her usual teasing tone, she went on, "Even though you look after it so poorly. These split ends are a disgrace. You need to look after yourself better, you know. Especially now."
Reimu turned her head and tried to look back at Yukari, but she was standing too close. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked.
"Nothing, nothing," Yukari replied. "Just an old woman's mumblings." She finished tying in the last of the ribbons, then moved Reimu's hair aside, leaned down, and gently kissed the nape of her neck.
Flinching forward away from the surprise contact, Reimu said in a warning voice, "Oi!"
"Valet's fee," Yukari said lightly. "Well, my work here is done. His Majesty's best wishes to the happy couple. Ta ta~!"
"Dammit, Yukari—" Reimu blurted, her early refusal to call the marshal by that name forgotten. Whirling, she made ready to confront Yukari about her uninvited liberty and her cryptic insinuations...
... but she was gone.
"What the...?" said Reimu.
She hurried to the nearest door, which had been behind both of them and was still closed, yanked it open, and charged through into the shrine's small kitchen.
The room was deserted.
Reimu stood there looking pointlessly around for a few moments—there was obviously nowhere in here a person could hide—then sighed and fidgeted with her clothes. She'd been wearing the Army-style uniform for so long now that it felt weird to have her shoulders covered, even though the kosode was far from a confining garment. Grumbling in resignation, she threw up her hands and went back to dress her feet.
"I'll never understand that woman," she muttered, drawing on her plain white socks.
With that done, she noticed the sealed envelope on the dressing table. Picking it up, she regarded it for a long moment, then stuck it inside her kosode without opening it. She had to concentrate now. Time enough for that when the job was done.
After a last look at the unfamiliarly dressed and coifed young woman in the mirror, Reimu picked up her gohei and turned to go get started on the final preparations.
Breakfast at the castle that morning was a low-key, hurried affair, with various persons ducking into the kitchen to grab toast and coffee or wolf down a bowl of oatmeal before heading back to their quarters to get ready. Everyone knew lunch was going to be where the action was meal-wise today, anyway.
Following that, the witches of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing and 404 Squadron, as well as a select few of the First Joint Special Air Fleet's other personnel, gathered in the hangar amid a quiet buzz of excitement. No one there, not even the witches from Fusō, had ever attended an official military wedding in that country's tradition before.
They gathered in little groups, inspecting each other's dress uniforms and decorations as if at an inspection parade. In one corner, the Karlsland contingent caught up with old comrades from earlier campaigns who had come in that morning from their current home stations. Heinrikke Prinzessin zu Sayn-Wittgenstein had been at Saint-Ulrich only recently, of course, helping to fill in for Heidemarie Schnaufer while the latter was in South Liberion, but it had been a long time since Trude and Erica had seen Waltrud Krupinski. Similarly, the witches from Fusō had last set eyes on Junko Takei, Mio's old friend from her Naval Academy days, back at the end of the Romagna campaign, nearly a year before.
The hubbub died away as the door to the operations offices opened and Mio emerged onto the little "porch" at the top of the stairs, her dress uniform so white it made the hangar seem even dingier than it was. She wore her swords and her sidearm, the Navy-issue Nambu pistol she hardly ever took out of her desk drawer, and she was carrying a furled Fusō-style oiled paper umbrella, the purpose of which was not immediately evident to her observers on such a fine day.
Alongside her, Minna had exchanged her usual green fatigue jacket for a sky-blue Luftwaffe dress uniform, complete with all the decorations she normally never wore, and her own general officer's Walther sidearm. Like many of those among their wedding guests, both she and Mio had even dusted off their class-A hats, which practically no combat witch ever bothered to wear. (The last time she'd been called upon to wear hers, Erica Hartmann hadn't even known where it was, which almost led to an Incident, but fortunately she now had Trude to keep track of these things for her.)
"At-tennnn... hut!" Shirley Yeager roared in her best impression of a drill instructor, and with an asynchronous but respectable clatter of shoes on concrete, the assembled witches fell in as they virtually never did.
Mio stood for a moment with her hands on the railing, surveying the troops with an expression that combined a cheerful grin with just a hint of a smirk.
"As you were, you bunch of pirates," she said, and a laugh rippled around the room as the witches relaxed. "Are we about ready to move out?"
"Yes, ma'am!" cried the room enthusiastically.
"All right then. Before we do, though, I just want to let you all know something. In Fusō, we're known for throwing big feasts to celebrate weddings, but normally we keep the ceremonies themselves very small. By that I mean it's usually close family only. But Minna and I..." Mio hesitated, an uncharacteristically sentimental look coming onto her face, and then went on, "You're our family.
"We thought about restricting it to our oldest comrades—only inviting the 501st, or even holding it down to just the ones who've been with us since Britannia," she went on. "But when we thought about it, we decided... nah. To hell with that. Here in this outfit, we're all family now. Some of you go back with us all the way to Libau; others to..." She chuckled. "Last week. But in this war, 'how long' doesn't matter. What matters is that you're here. Each and every one of you. You heard the bell and you answered it."
Smiling, Minna picked up the thread. "Some might say it's inappropriate for us to celebrate this way. And it's true we've a great deal of work yet to do before we can claim the job is done. A long way to go before we can say the world is safe. But today... a great witch once said we have to live each day as it comes and leave no regrets," she added, shooting a wink at Yoshika—who blushed, having been that witch. "So today, let's all do that. Even if there's still work to do, we've earned that much." Turning to Mio, she added formally, "Shall we, Sakamoto-taisa?"
"Indeed we shall, Generalleutnant Wilcke," Mio replied. She offered her arm; Minna took it, tucking her gloved hand into the Fusōnese witch's elbow, and the two of them walked at an unhurried pace across the hangar. As they emerged onto the sun-drenched apron, Mio casually opened her umbrella and held it across her body with her free hand as if shouldering a rifle, so that Minna was in the shade.
With expressions of glee that somewhat dimmed the stateliness of the affair, everyone else assembled in the hangar fell in behind them in two slightly ragged rows. Thus the procession wound its way around Château Saint-Ulrich and up the mountain path, ascended the stairs, and passed through the torii into the wedding shrine's courtyard. The tranquility of the scene that awaited them there was flawless. Gentle flames burned in the stone lanterns, the flagstoned courtyard was swept absolutely clean, and the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches awaited them on the porch before the open doors in her spotless, perfectly arranged robes of office.
Reimu didn't make a speech, the way the chaplain would have at a Britannian or Karlsländer wedding. No homilies on the sanctity or higher purpose of marriage were to be offered this day. Particularly in the case of a military ceremony, the Hakurei priestess assumed that the individuals she was there to join knew in advance why they were there.
Instead, while their honored guests formed up into ranks in the courtyard, Reimu quietly welcomed General Wilcke and Colonel Sakamoto to her (however temporary) domain and bade them enter, to stand before the altar to Fusō's gods both marital and martial. Clapping her hands smartly together, she spoke the names of the kami, soliciting them to look favorably on the union presently to be sealed; then, with a flourish of her gohei, she carried out a formal purification of the couple in their names and the Emperor's.
There followed a complicated drinking ceremony involving several cups of increasing sizes, passed back and forth between one bride and the other in an intricate round that seemed to the observers to involve doing everything not just three times, but in sets of three triple actions. In the front row, Perrine Clostermann found herself wondering what they were drinking. If it was sake, as seemed likely for an occasion like this, and Mio was drinking as much as it looked like, this ceremony might find itself taking an unexpectedly chaotic turn before too much longer.
She seemed to be doing fine as the ceremony of the cups concluded, though. Her tread was steady and her face no redder than it ought to have been as she approached the altar, clapped her hands, and bowed before the kami, thanking them for their kind attention to her and her belovèd. Then she stepped back to her former place, walking backward without a bobble, and waited while Minna did the same. A few of the witches in the gathering glanced at each other in surprise; all this time, and they'd never realized that Minna could speak any Fusōnese, let alone with such competent inflection.
She kept speaking it for the next part, in which the two faced each other before the miko and addressed a few remarks to each other. Those watching who knew the language got a little misty-eyed at the general's bald declaration of her love for her comrade of so many battles, forged in the fires of Libau and tempered over the long campaigns in Britannia and Romagna.
The surprise of those who didn't know she spoke Fusōnese was matched by that of those who hadn't realized Mio knew Karlslandic, for it was in her bride's language that Mio's reply was delivered. (They would never know how many snatched off-duty hours Mio had spent in odd corners of the castle with Trude, doggedly rehearsing her speech until the Prussian was satisfied with her pronunciation.) Her remarks were in the heroic mode, almost Wagnerian in their intensity, and brought some very fetching color to Minna's cheeks.
There followed an odd interlude in which Reimu and both brides offered up evergreen branches upon the altar, which those unfamiliar with Fusōnese botanical traditions rightly assumed was a sort of closing gesture of gratitude to the kami. With that concluded, the miko stood by while the couple exchanged rings.
Pronouncing a final blessing, Reimu closed the ceremony with a reprise of her graceful purification dance, then presented the couple to their guests with a deep bow.
The Strenbach valley echoed with cheers as the witches threw their hats in the air. It was a much noisier procession that wound its way back down to Saint-Ulrich, singing songs of victory.
Reimu stood on the shrine porch and watched them go, then relaxed with a sigh, stepped back inside, closed the doors, and went to change back into her regular clothes.
In the wedding party's absence, those who had remained behind at the castle had converted the hangar into a feast hall worthy of the occasion. Bunting draped all the upper galleries and the faraway ceiling, some the red, white, and black of Karlsland, the rest the subtly different red and white of Fusō, with giant flags of the two countries hanging on the back wall. The technical crew had moved all the machinery out onto the apron to make room for the long banqueting tables. Over in the corner where the ground vehicles were usually parked, some enterprising soul had erected an improvised bandstand, then gone so far as to move the piano from the living room onto it.
When the procession arrived back at the castle, they found the tables set for the feast and the ground crew decked out in their best and making a credible stab at being waiters, under the perfect and elegant supervision of Remilia Scarlet's maid Sakuya. From the kitchens flowed a seemingly endless procession of delights in the culinary idioms of a dozen countries. Toasts were drunk, plates exchanged, and this time no fights broke out.
After an equally astonishing array of desserts, the newlyweds and their guests were lingering over closing beverages and chatting, some of them wondering with pleasant anticipation where the occasion would go from here, when the sound of the piano caught everyone's attention. Alone up on the makeshift stage, Flandre Scarlet had seated herself at the instrument and was playing a cheerful, leisurely melody that had a bit of a swing to it. It seemed to be an improvisation, and after only twenty seconds or so it gave the impression that it was petering out...
... and then, with a sudden flash of green light that took everyone by surprise, the stage was filled with men and women in eldritch robes, some brandishing wind instruments, one rocking an upright bass, and the room was filled with red-hot jazz.
Gleefully, the witches and their guests flooded away from the tables into the open area beyond, some spilling out onto the apron, and commenced to dance.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, those in attendance learned a number of things they had never known—in many cases, never imagined—about the world. In no particular order, they discovered that:
Despite the almost comical disparity in their sizes, Gryphon and his vampire lady could cut a rug to ribbons with the right accompaniment. (To be fair, that disparity had nothing on the difference between Gryphon and Shanghai, and they did surprisingly well on their turn around the floor as well.)
In addition to being a flying bear and a rocket-launching bear, Wojtek was also a dancing bear.
Shirley could play ragtime piano; Gryphon could make sounds come out of an accordion that were worth dancing to; he and Flandre could team up on a single piano to very good effect; Witolda Urbanowicz knew the words to both the Fusōnese and Karlslandic national anthems, and how to make torch songs out of both; and, in perhaps the greatest musical surprise of the afternoon, Reimu Hakurei—the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches herself—could just about burn down a barn with a tenor saxophone, given both a tenor saxophone and a barn.
She had just returned Perfect Tomaak's enchanted sax, with thanks for the loan of the instrument (and the gift of the spare mouthpiece and reed), and was making her way to the refreshments table for a drink when Marisa caught her arm.
"Sometimes I hate how easy things are for you," the blonde remarked, then grinned and added, "but that was awesome."
"I'm sure Baron Zoria would lend you his trumpet if you asked nicely," said Reimu with a smirk.
"Nah, not today. You know we'd just get all competitive. I think everybody's had enough of us lockin' horns for a while," Marisa added with a wink.
"You're probably right about that," Reimu agreed.
They went and got drinks, then sat down on a bench by the wall, out of the scrum, to refresh themselves and just watch the festivities for a while.
"That was a really beautiful ceremony," said Marisa. "I don't get to see you do straight-up miko stuff all that often. I forget how graceful you are."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Reimu asked with an arched eyebrow.
Marisa reddened. "No, I mean, you're always graceful, but when you do the kami dances and stuff... I dunno. It's... next-level. So serene. Usually I see you kicking ass, and that's good too, but..." She trailed off, looking into her cup, thoroughly embarrassed. "Ehhh, I ain't drunk enough for this speech to work."
Reimu laughed. "It's OK. I get it." With a sentimental glance, she added, "Thank you."
Then, knocking back her drink, she set the cup aside and drew the envelope Yukari had given her that morning out of her sleeve. It was still sealed, the gold foil and crimson wax of the Emperor's kikumon pristine.
"What's that?" Marisa wondered. "Looks like an imperial dispatch."
Reimu nodded. "It is an imperial dispatch. It was... uh... delivered this morning."
"What, like by courier?"
"Something like that."
"How come you haven't opened it?"
Reimu sighed. "Because like you said yesterday... I'm a coward."
Marisa gave her a confused look. "Eh?"
"Never mind." Reimu sat looking at the sealed letter for a few long moments; then, with a quick, decisive motion, she broke the envelope's seal, drew out the document inside, and unfolded it.
As Marisa watched in continued puzzlement, Reimu read the letter, her brows knitting in concentration; then her face cleared, her dark red eyes going wide, and a look of joy and relief spread across it.
"What? What is it?" Marisa demanded, unable to stand the suspense any longer.
"See for yourself," said Reimu, handing over the paper.
Marisa took a moment to orient herself. The letter was handwritten, or rather hand-painted, in a distinctive hand she'd seen many times before. It took her a few moments to figure out the content, which was written with an excruciating formality that she rarely dealt with in her mother's language.
Translated into something more like normal-person English in her head, what it said was basically, "We received your telegram this morning with astonishment. Your unprecedented request has thrown the Household Ministry into turmoil. However, in the spirit of our edict of 6/20, we find that no bad thing. Out of gratitude for your long and dedicated service to our people, and in reflection of the great personal regard we hold for you, we hereby do grant your request. Our blessing upon you and your choice."
"I don't get it. What request? What choice? What's he talking about?" Marisa wondered.
Reimu shook her head. "You really are dense sometimes," she said. "I sent a telegram to Kyōto after my bath last night. Told the Emperor about you—about us. And asked him for the same blessing he gave to Colonel Sakamoto and General Wilcke."
Marisa gave her a skeptical look, then reread the letter, then stared at her. "You mean..." She blinked, then couldn't stop herself from asking, "What if he'd have said no?!"
Reimu shrugged. "Then I'd have had to improvise," she said nonchalantly, and, taking Marisa's half-empty, forgotten drink from her hand, finished it off before adding, "After all, you won. A deal's a deal."
It took a moment for the full implications of what Reimu had just said to work their way through the gears in Marisa's head. When they did, she broke out in a beaming smile and burst into tears at the same time, then threw her arms around the shrine maiden, crying out her name.
"Yes, yes," said Reimu patiently, petting her perpetually disheveled waves of golden hair.
"I love yoooouuuu~!"
Reimu smiled serenely, feeling truly content for the first time in days. "I know."
Alice found them there a few minutes later, still happily cuddling on the bench, and remarked with a smile,
"Well, you two seem to be getting along rather better this afternoon." She sat down a discreet distance away on the bench and sipped from a glass of champagne. "I take it the crisis is resolved?" she added dryly.
"You bet it is—look! Look!" said Marisa, holding the letter from the Emperor toward her in both hands.
Alice raised an intrigued eyebrow, then produced a pair of delicate gold-framed pince-nez and fitted them carefully on, giving herself a slightly schoolmarmish air. With the optics in place, she perused the document carefully without taking it.
"My my," she declared at length. Smiling, she took off and put away the pince-nez. "It appears congratulations are in order. My absolute best wishes to both of you."
Marisa withdrew the letter, folding it up and hugging it to her chest like a favorite stuffed toy. "Thanks."
"Thank you," said Reimu, blushing mildly.
"Upon reflection, my only question is, who will do the honors? After all, the only miko in the country will have other business to attend to that day," said Alice with a mischievous smile.
"One bridge at a time," Reimu replied wryly.
"What are you three conspiring about over here?" asked a cheerful voice, and they looked up to see Mio, red-faced and grinning, ambling toward them with the loose-limbed gait of a well-lubricated sailor.
That was Marisa's cue to unfold and hold out the letter again. Mio leaned down and read it, then reared back and laughed her bellowing laugh, fists on hips.
"You've got balls, Hakurei-taishō. I like that!" With a sly grin, she added, "Evidently, so does His Majesty." With that, she clapped Reimu on the shoulder so hard, she probably would have knocked her over if Marisa hadn't been leaning against her on the other side. "Well done!"
While Alice giggled and Reimu mumbled embarrassed thanks, Marisa uttered a snort of tipsy laughter and said with a wink, "Technically they're orbs."
Mio gave her a puzzled look. "Huh?" Then, before Marisa could explain (if, indeed, she intended to), the colonel brushed it aside, turned, and called to her bride, "Hey Minna, guess what!"
Before they knew it, the bemused pair found themselves swept along with the current as word of their situation went around and the party took on a new dimension. Suddenly they had become something like secondary guests of honor, to be toasted, congratulated, winked at, and danced with.
This effect only became more pronounced after Mio and Minna departed, with many hugs and tears and other entirely unmilitary shows of sentiment, to catch their train to Paris. They had a week's leave to enjoy, and they intended to start it there, in the same city where they had first really acknowledged all that was between them. With their goodbyes said, a gleeful Gryphon drove them to the Colmar station in Remilia's Duesenberg, then saw them off at the platform.
"Thank you for all your help," said Minna at trainside. She put down her suitcase to give him a hug, adding with a mischievous smile, "And for making sure a certain someone couldn't run away last night."
"Not much chance of that, I assure you," he replied, returning the embrace. "Have a good time! We'll try not to lose Haut-Rhin while you're away."
"C'mere, you," said Mio, taking her turn somewhat less formally; and then, when she practically had him in a headlock, she murmured privately, "Thanks. You made this possible, you know. On so many levels."
Gryphon squeezed her warmly. "My absolute pleasure, Major." The train's whistle sounded. "You better get a move on."
"Yeah, guess I better." Mio let him loose, picked up her bag, and sprang to join Minna on the steps up into the first-class carriage. As the train's brakes released with a hiss and the vehicle started to move, she leaned out and yelled to Remilia over the noise,
"You've got one of the good ones there!"
"I'm quite aware of that, Colonel!" Remilia called back. "Bon voyage!"
Gryphon and his lady stood waving until the couple's carriage cleared the train shed and made the bend, carrying them out of sight. Then she caught his arm and remarked in the suddenly quiet station, "What a charming woman Colonel Sakamoto becomes when she's in her cups."
"What, so you don't like her the rest of the time?" Gryphon teased as they left the platform.
"I didn't say that."
They passed the mairie on their way back to Ribeauvillé; Remilia turned in the passenger seat to watch it go by, then faced front again and said, "It's been ten days, you know."
"Oh has it?" Gryphon replied airily. "I hadn't noticed."
"It has. We may proceed with the bureaucratic part of the program whenever we like."
"Good to know." He upshifted as they accelerated past the city limits.
"I presume the office won't be open on the fourteenth."
"Doubt it. Not only is it a Sunday, it's Bastille Day."
"Ah, of course. That detail had slipped my mind."
"I see where you're going with that line of thought, though. You'd like to get it done before we go back into the bubble."
"I think they're there until noon on Saturdays. We could do it in the morning."
Remilia laughed. "We'll see. If every member of our household is in a fit state to venture forth tomorrow morning, I'll be shocked."
When they arrived back at Saint-Ulrich, they found the party still in full swing despite the loss of its original guests of honor, just as Mio and Minna had wished when they departed. As they parked the Duesenberg outside the hangar, both could hear the band hammering away at an up-tempo number while the crowd of witches and friends tore up the floor. A balls-to-the-wall solo duel was in progress, saxophone vs. cornet, and Gryphon rounded the hangar doors expecting to see Perfect Tomaak and Baron Zoria doing their thing.
Instead, to his surprise and amusement, he saw that it was Reimu and Marisa, going at it hammer and tongs while the instruments' usual wielders stood a little way off, nodding to each other in approval at each hot lick. Sakuya had taken over the piano as well (to the obvious delight of both Meiling and Flandre), and the three of them were not embarrassing themselves before the mighty Circle of Horns.
Thirty minutes to midnight, and the castle stood silent and dark on its crag above the sleeping village. The last of the celebrants had finally staggered off to bed an hour before, leaving the hangar in shambles, to be picked up and put right on the morrow. The only light burning in any window was in the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's offices.
Perrine Clostermann sat at her desk, stamping documents. She didn't really need to be doing this right now; the entire wing was at liberty through the weekend, per their arrangement with their accommodating neighbors up in Lichtenberg. Even with the wing's commander absent for a week, there was really no slack that couldn't wait to be picked up until normal operations resumed on Monday.
She hadn't really felt like sleeping, though, so here she was, trying to put the time to good use. It wasn't that she was moping, exactly. She'd gotten that out of her system some time ago, and she was genuinely happy that the day had gone so well.
But she'd be lying if she said she wasn't feeling just a trifle melancholy.
She took the next document off the stack and nearly stamped it with the wrong stamp before noticing her error. Sighing, she set aside the incorrect one and opened her top desk drawer to hunt for the other, which was seldom called for these days.
On top of all the other things in the drawer was an envelope with no address, franking, or military routing information; just her name, written in a heart-skippingly familiar hand.
Slowly, her hand shaking just a little, she opened the folded-under flap and took out the note within.
I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be too hectic for me to have a chance to tell you this in private, so I decided to take a page from your book and do it this way instead.
When I got back from Paris in April, I said I wasn't sure I deserve to have a friend like you. I'm still not, but on this of all days, I need to make it clear how grateful I am that I do. It's only recently that I've truly come to understand what it must have cost you to do what you did, and the strength, grace, and honor with which you did it leave me in awe. I don't know whether I could have done the same in your position. I hope so.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Your valor, both on and off the battlefield, is an example to us all. It has been and continues to be my privilege to fight at your side.
Perrine read the note three times, then carefully folded it up, put it back in its envelope, and tucked it away in her uniform blouse's inside pocket.
She was cleaning salt from her spectacles, her eyes reddened but dry, when there came a gentle knock at her open door. Looking up, she squinted slightly and made out a redheaded blur that was too short to be Shirley or Countess Scarlet's housecarl, Meiling.
"Good evening, Amélie," she said, smiling. "I'm surprised you're still awake at this hour."
"I was just on my way to bed," Amélie Planchard replied. "I saw your light and thought you might have left it on. Do you need anything?"
"No, I don't think so," Perrine replied. "I was just..." She gestured aimlessly to the papers, then pushed her chair back and stood up. "Fidgeting. It's past time I turned in as well." Giving her countrywoman a speculative look, she said nothing just long enough for Amélie to start feeling slightly anxious before continuing with a little smile, "Care for a nightcap?"
"I could make us some tea," Amélie suggested, brightening. "Herbal, of course," she added hastily, considering the hour.
"That sounds like just the thing," Perrine agreed. "You get started, and I'll join you in a moment."
Amélie gave a short bow. "Right away," she said, and hurried off to the kitchen.
Perrine watched her go with that same small smile, then straightened up her desk, switched off the lamp, and left her office, locking the door behind her.
She had just walked past the comm room, pausing only to nod to the fill-in night duty officer, a blonde Karlslander she didn't recognize. As she reached the corner to the living area, she heard the Teletype machine start up, but paid it no mind.
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
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
created by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
ALLIED JOINT FORCES COMMUNICATIONS COMMAND SUPREME HEADQUARTERS ALLIED FORCES EUROPE MEDIUM PRIORITY MESSAGE DATE 12 JULY 1946 2257 GMT FROM SHAEF G-2 PARIS TO 404 FLIGHT TEST SQDN 1 JSAF YOUR ASSISTANCE REQUESTED WITH UNCONVENTIONAL OP OUR MUTUAL CLOSE PERSONAL FRIENDS INVOLVED DETAILS TO FOLLOW BLAZKOWICZ ENDIT
E P U (colour) 2022