Proper Path to Glory

Those Who Matter Most


-- September 27th , 1943
-- Unidentified atoll in Orussian Territory

Yoshika and Lynette were en route to the location where Vince Mallory had been unceremoniously tossed. Since they were all on the common frequency, they heard the entire exchange between Charlotte and Francesca. They felt overwhelming relief when they heard that Charlotte had survived the crash. And Yoshika couldn’t help but smile when she heard Francesca break down and reveal her feelings to her partner.

"Good for you Lucchini-chan. It’s about time you were honest with your feelings. Although I guess I shouldn’t be one to say that, considering." she thought, sparing a quick glance at her own love.

What the Fuso pilot heard next however, filled her with dread. Charlotte’s nonsensical reply to - and then failure to respond to - Francesca told her all she needed to know.

“Lynne, we need to get to Shirley right away.” Yoshika stated firmly.

“Eh?” Lynette responded. “But what about Vincent?”

“Mallory-kun will just have to wait.” the aspiring physician replied. “Did you hear Shirley-san’s reply just then? Most likely she has a severe concussion. If I don’t treat her immediately she will probably die.”

Lynette hesitated for the briefest of moments then simply said. “Ok.”

“It’ll be fine. Mallory-kun probably hit hard, but he’s protected by his flight harness and he’s surrounded by armor-plating.” Yoshika reasoned, half trying to convince herself that this was the right decision as well. “Battlefield triage consists of treating the life-threatening injuries over severe physical injuries. Please trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“I do trust you Yoshika.” Lynne told her with conviction. “I’m behind you all the way.” The two then banked away from the shoreline and inward toward the hilly, forested center of the atoll.

☆ ☆ ☆

Francesca didn’t concern herself with the niceties of landing. She disengaged her Strikers a full twenty feet before touchdown. She hit the ground running, frantic to seek out Charlotte. The discarded Striker units crashed loudly behind her, unnoticed.

Following the trail of destroyed vegetation, she soon came upon a clearing and saw Charlotte lying unconscious on the ground. Yoshika was kneeling over the downed ace, a bright bluish-white dome of energy surrounding them both. Francesca was literally tripping over herself in her haste to be at Charlotte’s side.

The tears she had been holding back only partially began again at full force. “Oh my god! Shirley.”

Lynne intercepted Francesca before the young girl could throw herself into the middle of things and held the tiny Romagnan tightly as she struggled to get free. ”NO! NOOO! Let me go let me go let me go!"

However, Lynne continued holding Francesca in place and soon the tiny Ensign’s struggles grew weaker. She was both emotionally and physically drained from everything that had taken place over the past 20 minutes. Her legs were shaking as she slowly slid to the ground in exhaustion.

“Please Lynne.” she whined. “I need to be with her...”

“It’s going to be alright Francesca. I promise you.” the older girl assured her. “Yoshika told me we reached her in time. We need to let her work. Just have a little faith, ok?”

It wasn’t very long at all until the glow from Yoshika’s magic began to recede, drawn back into its tiny brown-haired source. Francesca perked up when she heard her partners voice.

“Whoa. Did someone get the number of that truck?” Charlotte asked.

Yoshika was concerned for an instant. Did she not heal Charlotte properly? The Liberion ace noticed the look of confusion on the younger girl’s face. “You know. The one that ran over me.” she grinned.

“Shirley-san!” Yoshika scolded her. “Don’t joke about it. You were seriously hurt. How do you feel?”

“Slight headache. And, of course, my arm and ribs ache a bit. But overall? Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good.”

Yoshika breathed a sigh of relief. “Yokatta.”

She looked back at her squad-mates, motioning them to come over. The two girls stood up and moved closer. Francesca appeared almost timid as she shuffled over to Charlotte’s side. Her eyes were downcast and she could barely bring herself to meet the older girls gaze. Her bottom lip began to quiver. Charlotte’s expression melted into a sad, soft smile. She spread her arms open toward Francesca, inviting her in. “C’mere, kiddo.”

Once more the dam burst as Francesca threw herself into Charlotte’s arms, soaking the girls shirt with her tears. Charlotte simply held her gently, petting her head. “It’s okay Lucchini. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Yoshika smiled in satisfaction as she watched the tender scene unfolding in front of her and stepped back. Turning to Lynette, she motioned towards the two. “Lynne help Lucchini-chan get Shirley-san down to the beachhead, ok? I’m going on ahead to take care of Mallory-kun.”

“Yoshika wait...” Lynne called out, but it was too late. The tiny brunette had already disappeared into the bushy undergrowth. She started to follow but then stopped to look back at her squad-mates and felt as though she were frozen in place. Her head involuntarily swung back to the spot where Yoshika vanished and back again to Charlotte and Francesca – torn between what she wanted to do and what she felt she should do. She was a bit irritated for a second... not with Yoshika really, but with herself for her inability to be decisive.

“Go with her Lynne.” Charlotte said.

“But...” Lynette hesitated.

“We can make it on our own. You’d be more useful to Yoshika than to us.” Charlotte assured her. Lynette’s uncertain expression didn’t disappear. “You want to be the one who supports her right?”

“But...” Lynne repeated.

“Go!” Charlotte interrupted. “That’s an order.”

Lynette smiled in gratitude. “Thank you Shirley.”

With that, she dashed into the underbrush following Yoshika’s trail. After she was out of sight Charlotte slumped back to a laying position. “We’ll just stay here for a bit until I feel up to walking, ok kiddo?” Francesca raised her tear-stained face and scrutinized Charlotte’s apparent condition, then quietly nodded her head in agreement tucking back into Charlotte’s shoulder.

☆ ☆ ☆

Luckily Yoshika had a good head for bearings. She came crashing out of the brush into a clearing about fifty yards from her objective. Mallory’s MAGUS was lying near the center of the open area. Since the seal was unopened and Vince himself was nowhere to be seen, it stood to reason that he was still inside. Looking through the visor she saw him unconscious, still strapped into the flight harness. She pounded on the outer casing of the suit trying to get a response from the young pilot.

She knew how to work the seal to open the armor, having seen all three pilots do it numerous times. However, for some reason it didn’t want to cooperate with her. No amount of force or cajoling would coax it to yield.

She invoked her magic and expanded her awareness until she was able to sense Vince. Unlike the usual clarity she experienced when she focused on a patient, Vince’s presence was muddied and blurred. He was alive, but that was about all she could ascertain. She snorted in frustration.

Yoshika reasoned that the grey matter must be causing the interference in her magical senses. She couldn’t open the suit and Vince couldn’t open it for her, leaving her with no real options. Maybe she could force her way through.

Shutting everything else out, the tiny healer leaned forward and placed her palms into direct contact with the armor and pushed with all of her willpower. There was some small resistance and then contact.

Vince was unconscious but, unlike Charlotte, the rough landing hadn’t caused any severe head trauma. A few broken bones - probably from the force of impact when he hit the ground. The slight amount of internal bleeding she found would be from the same cause.

It was hard pushing through the interference. Yoshika had to devote all of her concentration to focus her magic where it was needed, pouring more and more of herself into the process. She first stopped the internal hemorrhaging and then went to work knitting the broken bones. She had already exerted herself quite a bit in healing Charlotte, so this extra effort was affecting her more than it usually would.

Time seemed to distort in Yoshika’s mind. It felt as if she had been at it for hours. As fatigue began to catch up to her, her focus began to drift and the image of Mallory in her mind was superimposed by something else. As she focused on this new image it suddenly sharpened into clarity.

A glittering many-faceted red crystal filled her vision, spinning slowly around and around. It was so beautiful. An almost narcotic sensation of peace and pleasure flooded her body. It was singing to her, not in words but in tones. Music of the Spheres... a melody so peaceful, so soothing, that she could do nothing but allow it to fill her thoughts.

Devoting all of herself to gazing at the slowly spinning crystal that existed only in her mind, she trembled uncontrollably as every sparkling light shot waves of pleasure directly through her spine and in rippling waves throughout her body. Sharp pinpricks of pain drilled through her fingers and palms but the pain never registered - wiped out by the ever-increasing stimulation of her brain’s pleasure centers. The pain felt so good. She wanted more.

Yoshika knew that if she just listened to ~ it ~ the music - if she just gave herself to ~ it ~ the glittering lights - she could feel ~ it ~ this beautiful pain for eternity. The sharp stings and aching pain began to move up her arms and shoulders. Panic jarred her for the briefest of instants but was crushed completely as ~ it ~ the jeweled image grew larger and ~ it ~ the beautiful music grew louder in her mind.

~ it ~ spoke to her through the music and she understood ~ it ~ she knew ~ it ~ wanted her to become a part of ~ it ~ willingly she opened her mind so she could hear ~ it ~ more clearly ~ surrender ~

Yoshika obeyed and her obedience was rewarded as pure bliss and unimaginable sybaritic pleasure flooded her body and drove away her conscious thoughts. The abyss opened and she fell into the darkness.

Falling felt like flying...

☆ ☆ ☆

Charlotte had quickly become restless and as soon as she was sure she could walk more than twenty steps without pitching forward on her face she was up and mobile. She and Francesca were slowly making their way to the clearing where she had thrown Mallory earlier. Her mood was grim. Everything had been going so well. Even with the incredibly difficult set of circumstances with which they had been dealt they had been optimistic that, together, they could overcome everything. And in less time than it takes to boil a kettle of water it had all come crashing down.

Even though it was unforeseen, even though it wasn’t her fault, Charlotte was cursing herself. She had promised the guys that she would protect them - that she would save them.

She had failed.

That failure ate at her soul. The Lieutenant was a good man. And Bill... in the scant month they had spent together they had become quite close. She had never harbored romantic feelings towards him. She didn’t imagine that she ever would have. They were too much alike for one thing. But she suspected that, had he lived, they most likely would have become the best of friends.

She hoped she had at least saved Vince. But, if he were still alive, she knew she would have to face him. She would have to tell him that her failure to properly lead had caused the death of the man he looked up to as an older brother. And the man who had taken him in when he had nowhere else to go.

Her brows knit in anger. Maloney! Even though he was only a piece of a larger puzzle, he was the most tangible target for her hate. She was overcome with an urge to get her hands around his throat and give him the ending that a misogynistic piece of garbage like himself deserved. She knew those thoughts could lead her to a place of darkness from which she may never return. But, at the moment, she honestly didn’t give a damn.

Francesca immediately picked up on her partner’s black mood. “What’cha thinkin’ about Shirley?”

The redhead wasn’t about to tell the younger girl that she was seriously harboring thoughts of murder, no matter how justified she felt she was. Instead, she gave her junior a somewhat edited version of where her thoughts were leading her.

“I’m thinking about what our next move should be. It’s going to be difficult for all of us to continue on. I only have one engine and obviously, even if Mallory’s suit is still operational, I won’t allow him to use it. Although I doubt that will be a problem with him once he learns about Bill and the Lieutenant.”

She paused for a moment, favoring Francesca with an apprising glance. The Ensign was puzzled by the way Charlotte was looking at her.

“Vince is gonna be devastated when he finds out they’re dead.” Charlotte advised. “He’s going to need a friend and he will probably turn to you for emotional support. You two seem to have become close, am I right?”

“Yeah, we have.” Francesca replied. “He’s a really good person.”

The little Romagnan thought back to their final night at Mildenhall. Yoshika and Lynne were off in their own little world. Charlotte, Corporal Fiske and the Lieutenant were out doing grown-up stuff (in other words hanging out at a local pub). So it was just the two of them spending time together talking about their lives and experiences.

Their upbringing had been so different. Francesca came from a very large and loving family and grew up in a metropolitan city - one of the world’s major capitals - whereas Vincent was an only child who had been raised in a sparsely populated and poverty-ridden area. He explained to her why he had been disowned by his father and enlisted early.

Francesca had been incensed at the way he had been treated and was surprised when she found out that, while it had saddened him greatly, Vince didn’t hold a grudge or feel anger toward his father.

--

“Just ‘cause sumthin’ becomes legal don’t mean ever’body’s gonna accept it. Ah think a lotta that comes from a lack a’ education. Where ah grew up, most folks don’ even finish high school. Soon as yer old enough ta work tha’s what ya do. Ain’t their fault. That’s jus’ how it is.

Ah mean, look at me. I know I don’t speak proper. It’s real embarrasin’ ta me sometimes. Ah’m tryin’ ta do better... don’t think ah’ll ever talk as slick as Bill does though. Y’know, ah never had a real big brother, but if ah did he could never be better ta me than Bill is. Ah really do wanna become someone he can be proud of, ya know?”

--

Yes, Francesca knew, Vince was going to be devastated by deaths of his friends. More than friends she realized. They had become family to him. She didn’t know what she could do for him but she knew she would do all that she could.

☆ ☆ ☆

Lynette finally caught up to her impulsive lover. Although she had gotten a bit turned around, the obvious signs of Yoshika’s powers in use were easy to spot, especially now that the sun was beginning to fall lower in the sky. She came upon the clearing to find Fuso healer kneeling over Vince’s fallen machine fully engaged in a healing trance. She allowed herself to catch her breath before walking closer.

As she approached the two it felt as if something were off. Yoshika’s stance was ridged. Her breath coming in ragged gasps and she was trembling fiercely. Lynette was concerned since she had seen Yoshika perform her healing arts on many occasions and even the worst injury she had treated had never brought her to this level of exertion before.

Unsure of whether or not she should intervene, she was jarred from her uncertainty by the sight that greeted her when she moved to stand next to the younger girl. Yoshika’s hands and forearms were covered by grey matter. It looked as if her hands had become fused with the suit itself and the alien matter was slowly moving upward to as if trying to consume her whole body.

"Yoshika. Yoshika!" Lynne cried out. ”Your hands!"

☆ ☆ ☆

Lynne’s voice cut through the fog clouding Yoshika’s perceptions and loosened the grip the alien intelligence had gained on her mind. Like a drowning person reaching for a life preserver the Fuso maiden struggled to place the voice.

"L-Lynette?"

The struggle for awareness was like swimming through quicksand. She felt exhausted and the Neuroi influence threatened to pull her in again but she focused on one thing - only one thing - Lynette’s voice. Lynne was there and Yoshika needed to return to her... needed her... more than she needed peace or pleasure or bliss or pain.

Lynette was her life, the person she had pledged herself to forever. She didn’t understand what was happening to her, she didn’t know where she was, but she knew she needed to get back to Lynne somehow. She blinked groggily as awareness slowly returned to her. The first sight that greeted her didn’t make sense. She blinked again trying to clear her hazy mind.

Something was wrong. Why were her hands... ... ...?

Becoming fully aware she let out an ear-shattering scream.

At that same instant her body emitted an intense flare of pure white light and Lynette, caught unprepared for the reaction, was temporarily blinded by the flash. Falling to the ground in reflex, she rubbed at her eyes, trying to restore her lost vision. Slowly the milky-white haze began to fade and the she began seeing spots...retinal after-images that slowly began to fade as well.

The first thing Lynette saw were the remains of the MAGUS. Mallory was still strapped into the flight harness which was now exposed, hanging from the articulated frame skeleton that was the structural support for the suit. The grey matter had evaporated and the pixie-dust trail from the core fragment had almost faded away into nothingness. But where was Yoshika?

The Britannian pilot frantically scanned her surroundings but could not find a trace of her most important person. Then she heard it... broken sobbing and whimpering from only a few yards away. Diving into the underbrush she saw Yoshika’s seifuku lying on the ground, torn to shreds.

Soon she found the tiny brunette, her body curled up upon herself wedged into the deep bole of a tree frantically clawing at her arms and torso, digging her fingernails deep into bare flesh causing gouts of blood to run in rivers. Lynne was horrified by the sight.

“gekitai... gekitai... gekitaishiro... iyada yamete yametekudasai yamete” the terrified girl mumbled over and over, her eyes wide open but unseeing. “tasuketekudasai... yamero... yamero...”

The panic and terror etched on the face of the younger girl hit Lynette like a physical blow.

Falling to her knees Lynette gathered the panic-stricken girl in her arms and took firm hold of hands, trying to prevent the terrified girl from injuring herself further. Yoshika struggled against her grasp in mindless fright, drenching them both in her blood. Lynne was unsure as to what exactly had happened but she had never imagined that she would ever see her precious love so distraught. So afraid.

Trembling as if caught in an arctic wind she collapsed into Lynne’s arms. The honey-brown haired beauty began to gently rock Yoshika, trying in vain to calm her down.

“iyada... iyada... yamero! yamero! yamero!"

“Yoshika. I can’t understand what you’re saying. You need to speak Britannish.”

Yoshika’s small body was wracked with violent sobs as she gasped for breath.

“mada... mada... kanjirareteru... uyo-uyo... karada no naka... kokoro no naka... soushite... watashi... kore ga hoshiikatta... jitai no naka... yame... yame.. yamerarenakatta... yamesasenakatta... yametanakatta... watashi... watashi datte... ah rin... tasukete... tasukete... onegai... tasuketekudasai...”

[ i can... i can... still feel it... crawling... inside my body... inside my mind... and... i...i...i...wanted it... inside me... i couldn’t... i couldn’t... stop... it wouldn’t let me... i didn’t want to... to.. to.. i didn’t... oh lynne... help... help me... please...]

Lynette understood a very few words of Fusogo. But she recognized ‘Rin’. That was how Yoshika had pronounced her name for the first few weeks after her arrival to Britannia. The clever girl had quickly adapted, even though the hard ‘L’ sound was foreign to her native language.

It had made Lynne quiver when Yoshika called her ′Rin-chan′ in her cute high-pitched voice. But now it alarmed her. It seemed to her as if Yoshika were mentally regressing.

“Yoshika, can you hear me? Can you understand me?”

“rin?”

Yoshika’s voice was so weak. Barely a whisper. Lynette had to strain to hear her at all.

"Yes! Yes, I’m here. I’m right here baby.” Lynne reassured her.

“... rin?... where are you... please find me... please don’t leave me alone... please don’t... please... gomenasai... gomenasai... i’m... a weak person... worthless... dirty... gomenasai gomenasai gomenasai...”

"No! Yoshika, no! What are you saying? What happened to you?”

The Fuso maiden’s lips were mouthing words but no sound came out. Lynne suddenly felt the small girl go completely limp in her arms. Thinking that Yoshika had passed out, she laid her down on the ground but then saw that her sweetheart’s eyes were still open, looking directly at her. It was obvious that nothing was registering. Yoshika was looking right through her.

Remembering a film she saw in Basic Training about battlefield trauma, Lynette recognized the warning signs of hysterical blindness. Yoshika was now in a semi-catatonic state. The older girl understood that whatever had happened, whatever that thing had done, it had been so completely overwhelming for Yoshika that her mind had simply shut down.

Lynne didn’t know what to do. She wished Shirley were here. She would know what to do. ”No.” she thought resolutely. ”Shirley isn’t here. She’s hurt too. I have to do this. I can do this." Determination gripped her. ”I will do this."

She needed to stop the bleeding first. That was the most important thing. Getting up off the ground where she had been kneeling, Lynette first went and retrieved Yoshika’s tattered uniform top, then removed her own. For the second time on this journey she used scraps of cloth as bandages and tried her best to care for her injured love.

She wanted to cry seeing the damage the little Fuso girl had inflicted upon herself. It was much worse than she had initially thought. Yoshika’s delicate skin had been torn to ribbons. In some places, especially on her arms, she had clawed through muscle tissue, as if trying to dig something out of her body. These were not scratches. They were deep, serious wounds. Lynne tried to keep a tight rein on her emotions as she worked, but seeing Yoshika in this condition...

“Oh, Yoshika. What did it do to you? Why are you like this?”

Yoshika was the strongest person she had ever met. No matter how dark things got, no matter the odds they faced, she had never given up - never stopped trying. Now that bright soul had been dimmed almost to nonexistence, guttering like a candle in the wind. Lynette felt despair begin to take hold in her heart.

“lynne? is it really you? are you really here? where are you? i can’t see you. nothing feels real.”

“You’re going to be ok. Everything will be ok. You killed it Yoshika. You killed it. It’s gone.”

“don’t touch me... please... i’m dirty... i’m tainted... i didn’t want to but maybe... maybe i did... what does that say about me... that i’m weak... that i’m a bad person... part of me... was screaming the whole time... but... part of me... w-w-wanted... ”

Lynette reeled as memories forcibly repressed came screaming out of her sub-conscious. ′i’m dirty... i’m tainted...′

--

She had just turned 11 the first time it had happened. Her mother had been dead for over a year and her father... something about his demeanor... had been making her feel uncomfortable for some time now.

One night, long after the servants retired for the evening, the door to her bedroom opened...

She remembered standing in the shower for hours afterwards. The water had long since run cold and she stood shivering under the frigid torrent. No matter how much she scrubbed she couldn’t get clean. She remembered something else too.

As much as she had hated her father for doing that to her, she had despised herself for the way her body betrayed her at the end.

--

Lynette understood now exactly what the Neuroi had done to her Yoshika. It may not have been of the exact same physical sexual nature, but Yoshika had been brutally raped by the vile creature - her body and her mind both forcibly violated. And from what she had pieced together out of Yoshika’s fevered ravings, this had been much worse.

Lynette fought to stay strong, but now that the memories had been released she couldn’t escape them. There was her father, reminding her of how weak she was... how pathetic...

☆ ☆ ☆

“We’ll be ok though, right Shirley? I mean, when we don’t show up at Riga they’ll send out a search and rescue team won’t they?” Francesca reasoned, trying to lift Charlotte’s spirits.

The Liberion’s frown seemed to grow even deeper if that were possible. “We can’t be sure of that. We no longer know who our allies are. This cabal seems to have infiltrated everywhere. Liberion. Afrika. Karlsland. I’m certain the MAGUS suits were sabotaged in Copenhagen. If anyone does show up, they could be just as likely to kill us as to save us.”

That put a damper on Francesca’s attempt at optimism. She hadn’t thought of that. It was true. They couldn’t tell friend from enemy.

She tried to renew her positive attitude. “But still... Ursula must have made it to Capel-le-Ferne. Commander Wilcke and the rest of the 501st... they’ll come to our rescue. We’ll be ok Shirley. I just know we will.”

Charlotte was about to retort. It had only been four days since they had parted company. Even at top speed it would have taken Ursula at least 10 hours of straight flying to reach Britannia from Amsterdam, add in time to clandestinely refuel somehow on the way. The plan had been that Minna would contact any higher-up’s she knew they could still trust and try to stop the MAGI program through official channels. That itself would take some time, even if everything had gone smoothly and Minna took immediate action. And she wouldn’t know to come here or that they were in any immediate danger.

She was about to tell Francesca this, but when she looked down and saw her ‘little sis’ staring at her with anxious optimism she mentally slapped herself. What was she doing? Francesca was trying her best to boost her morale and all she was doing was putting a damper on those attempts.

Instead she smiled encouragingly. “You’re right kiddo. Shouldn’t give up that easily, right? Sorry for bringing you down like that.”

“That’s okay Shirley.” Francesca replied brightly. “I understand. A lot of stuff happened that would bring anybody down. But don’t worry. I’m sure Vince is ok, and as long as we’re all together everything will be...”

“Eeeeeeeee yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaa aaaaaaaa aaaaaaa!”

The two looked at each other in shock.

“Miyafuji?”

“That was Yoshika!” the tiny Ensign confirmed.

Charlotte threw her arm around Francesca’s shoulder for support and the two began hobbling as fast as they could toward the sound of that blood-curdling scream. After what felt like an eternity had passed, they finally reached the clearing where Vince’s MAGUS had crashed.

The bizarre sight made them stop short. The young man was hanging suspended in the bare skeletal framework of the destroyed battle suit. A semi-circular patch of scorched grass surrounded the otherwise empty clearing. Neither Yoshika or Lynne were anywhere in sight.

“What the hell happened here?” Charlotte wondered.

Both girls rushed over to the unconscious pilot’s side. Charlotte placed two fingers against the boy’s neck and felt a strong pulse. She sighed in relief. Now her immediate concern was Yoshika.

Francesca’s sharp eyes spotted broken branches and displaced vegetation on the far side of the clearing. She tapped Charlotte on the shoulder and pointed. “Shirley. Look. Over there.”

Wading into the thick brush they soon found their two missing companions lying on the ground. Yoshika swathed in blood-soaked cloth and Lynette, body covered in dried blood, cradling the younger girl in her arms.

“Jesus Christ!” Charlotte blurted out as she rushed to the girls’ sides.

Lynette slowly lifted her head at the sound of Charlotte’s alarmed cry, looking up at her elder with red, swollen, empty eyes. She then lay her head back down in the dirt next to Yoshika own with a haunted expression. Even worse, Yoshika’s eyes were open but the small girl didn’t react at all. Staring at nothing with a fixed, blank gaze and dilated pupils. Taking all that into account, along with Lynette’s current state, she could only draw one conclusion.

Yoshika was dead.

Captain Charlotte Yeager - speedster, adventurer, frontier-blazer, war hero - simply couldn’t take any more. She fell down on all fours. There were no words to describe the mixture of anger, despair and defeat she now felt. She began pounding the ground with her fist.

“Goddammit! Goddammit! Goddammit! Goddammit!”

Francesca looked closer however. Yoshika was breathing shallowly. Her lips were moving slightly.

“Shirley. Yoshika’s not dead. Look.” she begged. ”Please look.”

Francesca’s words had the desired effect. Shirley stopped her tirade and took a closer look at the girl. It was true. She was alive. There was still hope. Remaining on all fours, she crawled over to the two girls and reached out to them. Lynette’s reaction was immediate.

“Don’t touch her!” she screamed.

Tightening her protective hold on Yoshika, honey-brown haired beauty moved to block Charlotte from coming any closer with her own body. Charlotte was taken aback by the seething anger expressed on the girl’s usually placid face.

“It’s okay Lynne. I won’t touch her.” Charlotte responded in a soothing voice. She knew that Lynne’s outburst wasn’t directed at her necessarily. She understood that the young Britannian pilot was overwrought. Moving in a non-threatening manner, she sat back on her haunches and tried a different tact.

“Lynne.” she began in a quiet voice. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Lynette was silent for a long moment - as if trying to recall the sequence of events.

“She... *sniff* I’m... I’m not quite sure what happened. She was trying to heal Private Mallory when I found her. *sniff* And... and... and she... the suit was trying to... consume her.”

She shut her eyes tightly trying to drive the sight out of her memory.

“The armor was... growing... on her body. Her hands and arms were covered... I... called out to her and she... it was spreading so quickly... and I just watched. I didn’t know how to stop it. I just watched! I let it happen!"

“When she f-f-finally came out of her healing trance she screamed. Her magic exploded from her body. I was blinded by it. When I could see again, the MAGUS was destroyed and Yoshika was... Yoshika was...”

She began crying softly and turned away from Charlotte and Francesca, resting her head back down next to Yoshika’s own. Gently she stroked her girlfriend’s hair as she whispered to her.

“Oh, my sweet baby... I’m so sorry... I couldn’t help you... I’m so sorry... I’m so sorry...”

Charlotte sighed in resignation. She knew she wouldn’t be getting any more information out of Lynette for a while. She was concerned about Yoshika’s physical and mental state - not to mention Lynne’s own mental state. But for now she decided to leave it alone. Both girls had obviously been through hell and as long as Yoshika was alive, they could deal with the rest later.

These two were of no use right now. It was best, she decided, to leave Yoshika in Lynne’s care. Careful not to make any sudden movement, the redheaded ace stood up slowly.

“Lynne? We’re going to go check on Mallory. We’ll be back soon. Will you take care of Yoshika for a while? ”

Lynette didn’t respond or even seem to acknowledge her presence at all. Charlotte gave Francesca a helpless look and nodded her head in the direction of the clearing. Francesca silently acknowledged her and they left the two alone.

☆ ☆ ☆

After taking a few large gulps from her canteen Charlotte sat down at the base of a large tree on the edge of the clearing, leaning back against the broad trunk. Collecting her thoughts and forming a plan of action. For long moments there was silence. Francesca waited as patiently as was possible for her, content to sit back and observe as Shirley had another one of her ‘Eureka’ moments.

“Okay. First off kiddo, I want you to go get your Strikers and then collect everyone else’s, as well as their weaponry and bring them here. Retrieve Merlin for me first though.” she ordered. “Maybe I can fix him. Gotta try.”

Regarding her young partner seriously she continued. “I want you to try to stay under cover as much as you are able to since we don’t know who’s coming or when. But I’m sure that someone will be, probably within the next two to four hours. I’ll stay here until Mallory wakes up. I want to be the one who tells him about Bill and the Lieutenant. As his commanding officer I owe him that much at least.”

“You got it Shirley.” Francesca acknowledged.

“Once we have everything together we’re going to find a more concealed and defensible position. In the meantime, while you’re gone, I’m going to take stock of our supplies and weapons. Mallory was carrying a full rack and if we happen to have to go up against those MAGI, I want to have some big guns like that HS 404 Autocannon ready and waiting.”

Francesca gave a startled glance. “Wait. What? We have to fight those insane kill-bots?”

“Seems to be the most likely scenario to me.” Charlotte explained. “This organization knows we’re on to them. I’m positive that the MAGUS were sabotaged. I had already figured out that sub-harmonic cloak was exactly what it said on the tin. Designed to hide the core fragments presence from the Neuroi.”

“I imagine they hoped that the Neuroi would find us and take us out. Not sure if they knew the fragments would regain their sentience. Probably not. They just didn’t want to get their hands dirty. A dick move like that sounds just like something General Baloney would come up with. Asshole.”

“Indeed.” Francesca responded, using one of Charlotte’s patented lines. “So, basically... collect all our stuff, don’t get spotted by brain-in-a-jar death machines. Got it. Piece of cake.”

Charlotte regarded her with a raised eyebrow and a smile curling at the corner of her mouth. “You’ve been hanging around me too much kiddo. I’m starting to rub off on you.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Francesca chortled and spun in a circle with her arms out airplane-style, stopped and gave a quick wave. “Be right back.”

“Hang on a second.” Charlotte called out. She removed her flight jacket and tossed it. “Give that to Lynne on your way. If she’s still zoned out just drape it over her.”

“Roger.” Francesca replied and scampered off.

Now alone, Charlotte turned to regard her surroundings. Hands on her hips, she pursed her lips and blew an errant strand of hair out of her face. “Ok ‘Glamorous Shirley’. Let’s get this done. Failure is not an option.”

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