Proper Path to Glory

In This Bittersweet Now


"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao Tzu

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 27th, 1943
-- 501st JFW - Onboard Flying Fortress AE-710
-- Crossing Karlsland Airspace

The overall mood was pretty tense in the spacious hold of the immense airship. Every girl there knew that this wasn’t going to be a typical battle. In this instance if there were action it was going involve, not alien invaders, but members of the very same military organization they themselves belonged to. Ultimately though that didn’t matter. Their friends were in danger and they were going to save them.

Two days earlier life had been normal. There had been no Neuroi incursions so their duty was light, even though they were temporarily short four members. Even though some of them felt a tiny amount of envy of their missing comrades for what was essentially a paid vacation, they all appreciated this lull in combat to relax and recharge. However, in the wee hours of the morning on the 25th, Minna Wilcke left the base accompanied by Erica Hartmann.

~ After leaving Amsterdam Ursula Hartmann had realized she could use a third, much quicker and safer, option to contact Minna Wilcke. Reasoning that she would never reach Britannia before their enemy figured out her destination, she had doubled-back after passing the North Sea Canal and landed at a farm in rural Aalsmeer - about 50 klicks south of Amsterdam. She knew the owners of the farm quite well - childhood friends of her mother - whom she had last seen at her mother’s funeral a little over a year earlier. They were trustworthy and, more importantly, they were civilian.

At Ursula’s request, Dame Dana VanHedren made an innocent phone call to Capel-le-Ferne to catch up on things with her late friend’s daughter. Without rousing suspicion, VanHedren was able to instruct Erica to get Commander Wilcke off-base to a private phone somewhere. Which she did. Minna trusted Erica and Erica trusted Ursula, so there was no need of convincing. The Strike Witches commander listened intently as Ursula related the findings of both herself and Charlotte Yeager.

Late afternoon on the 25th Minna Wilcke scheduled a meeting with the highest ranking official she truly believed she could trust - a man that, although she had not known for long, felt was the most unlikely to be compromised and most able to give them the help they needed.

When the meeting ended she had returned to Capel-le-Ferne and called the squadron together - telling the assembled Witches about the conspiracy that threatened to undermine everything they risked their lives for daily. And informed them that their four absent friends may be directly in the heart of it. ~

It was now midday on the 27th. Earlier that morning they had received the go-ahead from General Briggs and they were now en route directly to Riga where, Minna suspected, Charlotte would need help. She understood from Ursula that Charlotte had promised to protect the MAGUS pilots in the event the program could not be halted by official means. She knew Shirley wouldn’t give up those boys without a fight. The squadron would be heavily outnumbered. And, depending upon the allegiance of whoever was in command at Riga, they may even be treated as enemy combatants.

Soon they would be landing in Hamburg to refuel and then another six to seven hours in the air until they reached Tansaffal Airbase in Riga. Minna bounced the heel of her foot against the deck of the hold unconsciously while she tried to lay out as many scenarios as possible in her mind. Mio, who was sprawled out on a couple of packing crates half-opened her unpatched eye and regarded her friend’s nervous twitch.

“You’re over-thinking things again Minna.” She drawled in a matter-of-fact manner. “When the time comes, you’ll make the right call. You always do.”

The Strike Witches leader gave her second in command a wry smile. “I’m glad someone thinks so.”

Mio stretched and sat upright. “No. You always do. From the day we lost Hanna and you took over you’ve made the right decisions. Maybe they haven’t always been easy, but they have always been right. You need to stop pushing yourself so hard.”

The reassuring smile Mio gave her made Minna chuckle. “Okay, mom.”

A voice from the back of the bay suddenly caught their attention.

“No. Oh, gods, no.”

“Eila?” Minna inquired. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re... we’re too late.” The precognitive Witch murmured in reply.

Minna felt a chill run through her body. “What do you mean? We can’t be. They should still be a few hours out from Riga. What could possibly...”

“No.” the Soumos precognitive breathed. “Before landfall. Over the ocean. Death follows two, despair follows another. It’s going to happen. It may be happening now. We can’t stop it.”

By this time everyone in the cargo hold was listening intently. They had all been trying to keep cool but this sudden news had everyone instantly on edge. The group looked at Minna expectantly. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done about it. They had no way to contact Charlotte and the rest without using a series of skip relays and they were not even supposed to be here. This was officially a cargo run.

“Minna?” Mio questioned.

“General Briggs should be on-board the Akane by now. That’s Admiral Nishimura’s flagship. I will notify him of your prediction.” she frowned. “We may not be able to stop it, but we can sure as hell try to minimize the damage.”

Mio maintained a stoic expression, but inside she was roiling with turmoil. She was worried for all four girls, but her thoughts couldn’t help but focus primarily on the young Fuso girl she had dragged into this war in the first place. Although Perrine was convinced that there was a romantic attraction between her beloved Major Sakamoto and that nasty ‘raccoon dog’ she had brought into their midst, nothing could be further from the truth. The Gallian noblewoman was simply ignorant of the senpai/kohai social dynamic that existed in Fuso culture.

Mio was Yoshika’s senior, nothing more nothing less. Having actively tried to recruit Yoshika and having brought her to Britannia in the first place, she felt responsible for the younger girl and took it upon herself to make sure she trained well and stayed out of trouble. Not to mention the fact that Yoshika’s own father had taken care of her when she was a young recruit. She felt she owed the Miyafuji family something as well, so there was that. For Yoshika’s part, she looked up to “Sakamoto-san” and tried her best to learn from her and make her proud, just like any good Fuso junior would.

“And you always do make me proud Miyafuji. I should probably let you know that more often. Please be all right.”

☆ ☆ ☆

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

Yoshika was sleeping now although her sleep was anything but peaceful. Her body had run out of whatever stores of adrenaline that had been keeping it going earlier, but even unconscious she squirmed fitfully.

Lynette couldn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed by her own fears and memories. She needed to take care of her precious love. Now that Charlotte and Francesca had left them alone, Lynne was able to focus enough to center and calm herself. It was a technique her therapist had taught her, back when she first began recovering from her father’s abuse. One she hadn’t needed to use for quite some time. Now that she had a moment to prepare, she was able to face her returning memories head-on.

Yes, her father had beaten her down mentally and abused her physically and twisted her shame to keep her quiet. For a while, that had been enough.

But there had been people who loved her, who helped her when all seemed lost. And now, at long last, she had a special someone who believed in her whole-heartedly. That special someone needed her now.

“Yoshika thinks I’m wonderful. That’s all that matters father. What you think is irrelevant.”

you are weak - you are pathetic - it was your fault

“No father. The fault was your own. You are the one who is weak. You are the one who is pathetic. Doing... that... to your own daughter? For two years? Who could be more pathetic than you?”

Lynne squared off against the demons in her mind. Quite frankly, she’d had about enough. She’d already come to terms with this. Yoshika’s words may have triggered her flashback but she possessed the tools to fight it and regain control.

“Aunt Ellen saved me from you. Dr. Lack helped me see that it wasn’t my fault.” She looked fondly at Yoshika. “And without even knowing it, this amazing girl gave me strength - gave me my life back. My life.” she thought with finality. " You are no longer a part of it.”.

And as she thought it - she knew that it was true. His voice was gone once more and this time it felt like it was for good. Truly, she was beyond his reach now. Even if she did encounter him again one day, she now knew she could face him. She could stand up against him. She wouldn’t back down.

Because of her. It was all because of her.

Now that her existential crisis was over, the young Britannian allowed herself to feel a sense of satisfaction at the personal victory she had just achieved - reveling in both her new-found resilience and her staunch determination. Yoshika had always been strong for her and now it was her turn to be strong for Yoshika.

Her quiet reflection didn’t last long, however. Yoshika suddenly started becoming highly agitated again, her body shuddering with violent spasms. Before Lynne was able to move to comfort her, the little Fuso girl’s eyes snapped wide open and she sat bolt upright, screaming with renewed terror.

As Lynne once again held her girlfriend tightly, an odd and unfamiliar feeling of disassociation suddenly washed over her. She felt as if she were in two different places at once. The world around her grew darker until she was floating in pitch-black emptiness... empty save for the feeble glimmer of light barely visible in the distance. The light was crying. She could feel it’s helplessness and despair.

“where am i? what’s happening to me?” the light cried out in fear. “please. someone please help me.”

Lynette gasped in sudden understanding.

It was not unheard of that Witches who were partners - life partners - developed a bond deep enough to share their thoughts and emotions with one another. Generally it took years together for that to occur. However, Yoshika’s anguish was resonating so deeply within Lynette’s soul that for the moment they were sharing an empathic bond.

She found herself being pulled into Yoshika’s memories - reliving the experience along with the terrified girl. Pain and pleasure indistinguishable. The darkness. The emptiness. The loss of self. The seductive whisper in the back of her mind, holding her docile and receptive while her life was consumed by the malignant spread of the parasitic alien intelligence. Shame at the willingness with which she had given her body and soul to her aggressor.

The memories kept replaying in an infinite loop that Yoshika could not escape, renewing the cycle of terror and shame over and over again. Lynette felt Yoshika’s emotions and heard the thoughts behind them clearly. Part of the reason Yoshika was trapped in this hell was that she believed she deserved it. That she was to blame for being weak. Lynne knew those feelings well, and it broke her heart that her sweet and innocent lover had to experience such pain and degradation. In comparison, Lynne reflected, her father fell far short in the infliction of helplessness and horror that the Neuroi had achieved - although she perceived it was not for lack of trying.

“You’re wrong Yoshika. It’s not your fault. There was nothing you could do.”

The chain was suddenly broken. Yoshika became aware of Lynette’s presence and the relentless visions faded into the background.

“lynne? where are you?”

“I’m here. I’m right here with you. Even if you can’t see me, I’m with you.”

“i feel so lost. i feel so alone.”

“I will never let you be alone. I love you Yoshika, with all my heart. Never doubt that.”

“but... but... you can’t... i’m... i’m not... not... worthy of your love. i don’t deserve your love.”

“Hush now. You’ll feel better with time. I understand what you are going through. You know that I do.”

“but...”

“You need to sleep, baby. Just sleep. I’ll watch over you. I won’t let anything hurt you anymore, I promise.”

Relief washed over Lynne as she felt Yoshika slide into unconsciousness. The connection was broken and Lynne found herself alone in her head once again. The girl in her arms was finally sleeping normally, her breathing steady and even. Looking to make sure there were no rocks or rough ground underneath her girlfriend’s body she laid her out, then sat up to catch her breath. She smiled thinking about the experience she had just gone through, now more sure than ever about the bond that existed between herself and the girl she loved. She was positive that, although it was going to be hard - and sometimes painful - she could help Yoshika get through whatever rough times were ahead.

Just as she knew Yoshika would do for her.

Taking in her surroundings she suddenly became aware of Francesca standing at the edge of the brushy area observing her. The Romagnan ace appeared to have been hesitating, unsure of whether or not to approach the older girl. Lynne smiled awkwardly and motioned for her to come over.

“Are you okay Lynne?” Francesca asked, in a cautious way that made Lynette smile for some reason.

“Yes. I’m all right now.” assured the Britannian ace. “I’m sorry about earlier. Revisited by some old ghosts I’m afraid. But I think I’m past it.” Pausing, she continued in a firmer voice “No, I know I’m past it.” She looked down tenderly at the unconscious girl she watched over. “And I can help her get past it too.”

The full meaning of Lynne’s words were a bit too cryptic for the young Romagnan to follow really, but it sounded like it was a good thing so she just nodded her head and gave an encouraging smile. Lynne seemed as if she were pretty much back to normal, albeit a bit more... naked than usual.

“Oh! Right. Shirley wanted me to give you this.” Francesca suddenly remembered. Handing Charlotte’s flight jacket over to Lynne, she glanced down at Yoshika’s sleeping form. “So. She’s... gonna be ok, isn’t she?”

“It may take a while, but I believe she will be.” Lynette answered confidently, sliding the jacket around her shoulders. “She’s a very strong person after all. She won’t give up easily.”

“Not to mention very stubborn.” Francesca finished with a smile.

Lynne smiled as well and nodded in agreement. “So what are we doing?” she inquired. “I assume Shirley already has a plan in motion?”

“Well, for now, just stay with Yoshika.” the pint-sized pilot told her. “I have to go collect all of our stuff and bring it back here. If you can get Yoshika moving by the time I’m done, we are going to retrench ASAP since we don’t know when they’re coming.”

“Wait. Who’s coming?” Lynne asked in confusion.

“Well, Shirley’s not sure who exactly but she thinks that the MAGUS suits were sabotaged so that the Neuroi would find us and kill us. She figures once the people who did it find out it wasn’t successful they’ll be sending in a clean-up crew.” Francesca hesitated for a moment and then continued. “Part of that crew may very possibly be those MAGI things.”

Lynette digested this news with a frown. Looking thoughtfully at her injured partner she felt like a new person. Gone was the constant feeling of uncertainty, of indecision. After all these many years she truly felt like herself again. Felt the courage and optimism she once had as a child. And she had someone to protect.

“Can you help me carry her out to the clearing so Shirley can keep an eye on her? I don’t imagine she will be waking up any time soon, but I’d like her to not wake up alone, ok?”

“Huh?” grunted Francesca blankly.

“I’m going with you. You need the help and it sounds like we don’t have a lot of time.” She actually found herself grinning at Francesca’s dumbfounded look. “I have a wonderful life to look forward to and she’s going to be in it... she’s going to be the most important part of it. I’ll do whatever I have to do in order to make that happen.”

" ’Righty then.” The little ace grinned back. “Let’s do this.”

Brandishing the oversized machete she had lifted from out of Mallory’s weapon rack she began to hack a path back to where Charlotte and Vince were waiting. Lynne picked Yoshika up and marveled once again at how small and how light the adorable little Fuso maiden actually was.

This girl... this tiny girl, who took Neuroi particle beams point-blank without breaking a sweat, who had once shielded an entire fleet as it retreated from an ambush, who could bring a person back from the very brink of death through sheer force of will... that same tiny girl, now in her arms, felt as fragile as spun glass.

☆ ☆ ☆

In the scant twenty-or-so minutes Francesca had been gone Charlotte had already started scavenging serviceable parts from the now-defunct MAGUS, working around Mallory as it looked like the kid was going to just sleep the rest of the war away. As much as she wasn’t looking forward to it, she decided was just going to have to wake him up. She had to get it over with at some point.

However, before she could move to do so she turned in surprise at the sound of bushes crashing down and saw her energetic partner clearing a path through the dense brush, followed closely by Lynette carrying Yoshika princess-style. Bursting into the clearing, Francesca struck a pose with the machete, coming dangerously close to nipping her ear in the process. Lynne immediately moved to the shady side of the clearing, carefully laid Yoshika down and kissed her softly on the lips. Then standing she turned to face Charlotte while coming to attention.

“Master Sergeant Lynette Bishop reporting for duty ma’am.”

Charlotte cocked a suspicious eyebrow, giving Lynne the once-over. She seemed normal enough, if perhaps a bit more stiff than usual. Still... not thirty minutes ago she had been having a pretty serious emotional melt-down. Lynette could sense the skepticism in her senior’s penetrating gaze.

“Shirley, I’m fine. Honestly.”

There was a long pause as the two stared each other down.

“Well ok then.” Charlotte finally relented. “Won’t try to pretend we don’t need you. I don’t know how much Lucchini has filled you in, but time is of the essence. Get your wings, get our gear, and get your asses back, pronto.”

The two girls nodded in assent.

“And you!” she continued, pinning Francesca with a glare. “Don’t think I forgot. I don’t care what your hurry was; if you permanently damaged your Striker’s with that so-called landing of yours, you will still be peeling potatoes two wars from now.” Francesca swallowed hard, knowing Shirley was only half-kidding.

“One last thing before we go.” Lynne spoke up. “About Yoshika.” They all glanced over to where their injured companion was lying. “If she wakes up while I’m gone... she’s likely to be confused and disoriented. You need to move slowly... don’t startle her or do anything, you know, she may feel is threatening. Talk to her in a calm manner. She may not even respond, but...”

“I know Lynne. I saw the same training film.” Charlotte assured her. Clapping the younger girl on the shoulder she flashed a confident smile. “Don’t worry. I promise... I’ll take good care of her until you get back.”

With a feeling of gratitude Lynne turned and left - with Francesca in the lead of course. Charlotte was acting more like herself again, making Lynne feel a bit more at ease. She felt like there was a good chance they could still come out of this intact. Shirley was the best tactician she knew after their own commander Minna Wilcke. And she had actually been out in the field with Shirley more often than with Commander Wilcke. She was certainly grateful that Shirley was mission commander for this assignment. She was going to have to confide certain personal things to Shirley relating to Yoshika’s current mental state and she definitely wouldn’t have felt as comfortable talking about such things with, say, Major Sakamoto or Lieutenant Barkhorn.

So having Charlotte in command and on top of things made her feel a bit more confident. They had faced worse than this. Hadn’t they?

“Let’s see...” she thought as she made her way through the undergrowth. “Two of our friends are dead, Yoshika was almost consumed by a Neuroi and is now traumatized, Shirley is still recovering from her injuries, plus her Striker is damaged and, not to be mean or anything, but without the MAGUS suit Vincent is just a regular guy who can’t even lift most of the weapons he was carrying.”

Her frowned in reflection.

“Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yes. The search and rescue operation is probably going to leave out the ‘rescue’ part.” She mentally retracted her previous statement. They had definitely never faced worse than this.

☆ ☆ ☆

After making it back to the crash site with Lynette, Francesca went on to backtrack where she had ‘landed’ earlier. Even before Charlotte had brought it up, the little Romagnan had been slightly worried, after the fact, about the flight-worthiness of her Strikers. “Eh!” she had finally decided. “... how bad could it be?” And put it out of her mind.

The answer, as it turned out, was ‘pretty bad’ actually.

Focused only on reaching her injured partner, Francesca had been coming in hot - probably clocking roughly 185 mph when she abandoned her Striker’s and jumped the rest of the way. The impact of her slender body on the ground where she skidded to a landing dug a trench about a foot deep and fifteen-or-so feet long. The dead-weight Striker units - plummeting uncontrolled and still moving at-velocity - made an even bigger impression on the landscape.

The tiny ace stared at the impressively-dinged fuselage of her Fiat’s. Rubbing the back of her head in embarrassment, she glanced around self-consciously - half expecting Charlotte to come racing out of the bushes, shouting ‘J’accuse!’

“Whoops.” she told herself. “Won’t do that again.”

She hefted her Strikers up and laid them out on a clear patch where she could get a better look. Ignoring the cosmetic damage of course, it turned out there were only two major problems... both potentially fixable.

First of all, the starboard rudder assembly had become completely unseated from the housing. She could probably force that back into place if she could find something that had the leverage and tensile strength of a crowbar.

Second was the intake manifold on the port engine. It seemed fine on visual inspection, but when she fired it up, it stuck in the open position and the engine threatened to redline. She could fix it easily with a hex wrench and long-shafted Phillips-head. She was ‘Glamorous Shirley’s’ number-one sidekick and Girl Friday after all. She had learned a few things.

She cursed her short-sightedness. “I should have grabbed the toolkit out of Merlin. That was dumb of me. Shirley would never make that mistake.” she thought sourly. “Hey, that’s right. Why don’t I have one?” She scanned the ground for something to use as a makeshift tool. “Crowbar... crowbar... crowbar...”

☆ ☆ ☆

Lynette, meanwhile, started on her part of the salvage operation. Pulling two bungee cords from the emergency storage hatch in Yoshika’s Striker and the two in her own as well, she used them to bind Yoshika’s Zero’s together. She found Yoshika’s supply belt as well and about 40 extra rounds of ammo for her Type 99. She stuffed all of that, as well as her own supply belt and ammo, inside the leg cavities of Yoshika’s Striker.

She decided to save Francesca some time by hauling Charlotte’s Striker’s upright and using the cord in Merlin’s emergency storage to do the initial binding. She tried to think of a way to leave Francesca a note on what to do with the rest, but decided that the savvy Ensign could figure it out on her own.

Strapping her Boys AA to her back and slinging Yoshika’s T-99 Aircraft Cannon over her right shoulder she grabbed the cords binding Yoshika’s Zero’s in her left fist, braced herself against the added weight and took off toward the rendezvous point.

When Lynne returned, Yoshika still had not woken up but Vince had. She landed and brought the equipment out for inspection. Deciding to wait and see what the atmosphere was before she said anything to Vince, she reported her findings to Charlotte.

“Ok. Good. Well, once Lucchini gets back we can figure out where we are going to hole up. Where... where...” the Liberion ace mused.

Vince raised a hand. “Beggin’ th’ Captains pardon, but whilst ah’ was gettin’ thrown upside-down an’ sideways, ah’ could swear ah’ saw what looked to be the mouth of a cave system along that cove on th’ north side a th’ island or whatever this is.”

Charlotte perked up hearing that. “That’s pretty likely actually. Many islands and atoll’s like this have extensive cave systems. That would be a great place to stash our armament and establish an observation post.”

She eyed Vince - somewhat cautiously it seemed. “You want to walk with me and check out the lay of the land? Figure out our defensive options?”

“Sounds good ta’ me ma’am.” the young man answered. “Better’n sittin’ around waitin’ ta get picked off by a bunch a’ scrub rats, fer’ sure.”

Seeing the underlying guilt and sadness on Charlotte’s face, Vince gave her what he hoped was a reassuring look. “Ah’ really am okay ma’am. Like ah’ said, ah’ll grieve for ‘em both when the times’ proper. But ah’d be dishonorin’ Bill and the Lieutenant if ah’ didn’t use everything they taught me ta’ help you guys get home safe.”

Charlotte smiled gratefully at his words. She admired the grit and determination the boy seemed to possess, while maintaining a rather humble personality. He certainly lived up to Francesca’s opinion of him. Not surprising really, as she knew the little Romagnan tended to choose her friends well.

“Alright then. Do me a favor, will ya? Go on ahead and start mapping out the leading tunnels. I’ll catch up to you in a bit.” Vince nodded and moved out to attend to his assignment.

Charlotte then motioned to Lynne to walk with her to the spot where Yoshika lay.

“She woke up for a brief moment, but she wasn’t lucid. I got her to drink some water. Well, to be fair, I poured it in her mouth and she just swallowed reflexively.”

Looking thoughtfully at the little Fuso girl, she continued. “She is definitely catatonic. One thing I could tell for sure is that she is still can’t see. Hysterical Blindness, at least in the battlefield is generally caused by sensory overload. You know, heat of battle stuff... gunfire, explosions, fear, confusion - everything happening all at once. She experienced sensory overload of some kind and now her brain can’t process the information it’s receiving. A defense mechanism for her sanity. Which again leads me to ’what happened?′ y’know?”

She frowned at her inability to understand why her squad mate and friend was hurt so badly. “I can’t even begin to imagine what she could have experienced to cause this level of trauma. Especially for someone like Miyafuji. She’s one tough girl.” She mused.

Lynette had known this discussion was coming and had already made the decision to trust Charlotte with the more intimate details of the psychological consequences of violent assault. She motioned for the older girl to sit.

“I can tell you exactly what happened Shirley. After all, I experienced it second-hand. And even though I knew it wasn’t actually happening to me, it was still pretty terrifying.”

Charlotte felt like she missed something. “What are you talking about?”

“She woke up again while you and Francesca were gone. I heard her scream my name, but it was in my head.” glancing sideways she saw that she had Charlotte’s full attention. “An instant later I felt like I was in two places at once. I was kneeling on the ground next to Yoshika and I was also floating next to her in a dark and empty space. She was reliving the incident and I experienced it as well.”

“That’s... ... uh... ... wow!” Charlotte managed to stammer. The Liberion ace certainly understood the significance of such an event. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the souls of these two young lovers were bound by something deeper than destiny or fate.

“I couldn’t get direct information, but I got the impression that she was exhausted. The Neuroi caught her by surprise and played some pretty nasty mind-games with her. When it had her I am positive that she didn’t even understand what was happening.”

She swallowed hard and fought not to waver. “I understand that, as our commanding officer, you’re going to need to know. What I’m about to tell you is very personal Shirley and I’m trusting you to keep our confidence.”

Charlotte nodded an affirmative.

“And also,” Lynne continued. “to fully understand what happened to Yoshika and why she is reacted the way she did, I need to tell you something about myself as well.”

“Huh?” Charlotte asked in confusion.

“I know they may not seem related, but they are.” she sighed. “I guess I should start at the beginning...”

☆ ☆ ☆

Back at the ‘landing’ site, Francesca was putting the finishing touches on her repair job. She had ended up running back to the crash site and retrieving the tool kit from the storage area in Charlotte’s Striker unit, where the red-headed ace kept a small stash of emergency supplies. The Liberion-made P-51 Mustang bodies were a bit larger than her own Fiat’s and had extra space for such things. She still wanted her own tool kit though.

Replacing the shroud over the now-repaired intake manifold, she thanked her lucky stars that she actually paid attention when Shirley showed her this stuff. Although her ‘big sis’ seemed to have a knack for getting her to pay attention and retain this kind of knowledge.

Even though busy, she had time to reflect on everything that had happened today. Specifically, her reaction to what had happened to Shirley. Was she in love with Shirley? She knew that she loved the older girl, but was she in love with her? She hadn’t thought so, but when the crisis came it seemed that was truly the case.

She said some pretty powerful things in the heat of the moment. There was no way they could just ignore this. The redhead was treating her just the same, but when she was holding Francesca in her arms earlier, comforting her, Shirley had whispered to her. “When things settle down, we need to have a serious talk, ok kiddo?”

Francesca was not the brooding type though. Things would work out as they worked out. She was confident that, no matter what, the close friendship she shared with the older girl would always remain. Shirley would never abandon her and Francesca would always do her best to make her mentor proud.

Time to collect Merlin, get all their junk, and head back. Smiling, she fired up the engines and snorted in satisfaction as they purred smoothly for her.

“Good as new. Shirley probably won’t even notice I used the landing strut as a crowbar. Or the two foot long gash in the starboard fuselage...”

The tiny Romagnan ace never received the scolding she had feared from Charlotte about her Fiat’s. The older girl had more important things to worry about and simply expressed her relief that Francesca was back safe and sound.

Ruffling the youngsters hair, Charlotte gave her some rations and water. “Why don’t you stay here and rest up a bit while the rest of us start setting things up. Someone needs to stay with Miyafuji anyway and I want Lynette on ordinance. Okay?”

“Okay Shirley. Whatever you say.” Francesca replied confidently.

“You did a great job kiddo. I’m proud of you.”

Ordinarily, receiving such praise from Charlotte would simply cause Francesca to grin like an idiot and giggle, but not this time. She was even surprised herself when she felt her face heat up and her cheeks flare bright red in embarrassment. Turning her eyes away and staring at the ground she managed to stammer “T-thanks Shirley.”

Charlotte couldn’t help but notice this drastic change in behavior. She arched an eyebrow, but kept her observation to herself and went on about her business.

“What the heck was that?” Francesca thought in confusion. “Why did I react that way? Gods, Shirley is gonna think I’m getting weird or something.”

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 27th , 1943
-- Command Deck I.F.S. Akane, Southern Baltic Sea

Akane’s Chief Communications Officer perked up immediately upon hearing the radio transmission between the two parties he had been tasked to listen for. He spun in his chair to face the command deck and looked upward.

“Admiral Nishimura? We are intercepting a transmission between Tansaffal Airbase in Riga and the MAGUS Task force.”

Nishimura frowned and stood, clasping his hands behind his back. “Very good, Lieutenant. Put it on speakers. Let’s hear what they have to say.”

There was a brief crackle of static and then the Latvian-tinged accent of Tansaffal’s Operations Officer could be heard over the bridge’s loudspeakers.

“Yes, General Maloney? Dis is Tansaffal Control Tower. Your pilots are now 3 hours overdue und ve are unable to establish radio contact. Ve are preparing S&R teams now and vill keep you apprised as to our status. Over”

“Thank you Tansaffal, but there is no need for you to send your teams at this time. We are in the vicinity of their last sighted position and are currently preparing our own operation. Please be aware that while the M.A.G.U.S. program itself is no longer classified, some of the tech involved is still restricted material.” There was a pause in the transmission. “Quite honestly, unless we deem it necessary, we would like to minimize involvement with non-essential units. You understand, of course? Over.”

The voice of Tansaffal’s Operations Officer was replaced by a new voice that carried with it a distinctly Liberion inflection.

“General. This is Lieutenant-Colonel Hollister. I acknowledge your message and we will remain on standby. I have to say on-the-record General, I do not like this. My people are not accustomed to sitting on the sidelines while others do our job. Over.”

“While I do understand your feelings Colonel, I repeat, we are simply trying to avoid a potential security breech. You are, of course, free to confirm our current assignment and mission parameters with Central Command if you feel you must. Over.”

“That won’t be necessary General. I will defer to your authority in this instance. We will have S&R teams standing by at any rate. Please let us know if you require assistance. Tansaffal out.”

Nishimura turned to address the figure that had entered the bridge during the transmission and was now leaning against the rail of the Command Deck. “Did you get all that Douglas?”

Brigadier General Douglas ‘D.W.’ Briggs nodded to his long-time friend. “I did. Sounds like the 501st’s precog was right on the money. Thanks for sticking your neck out like this Noboru. It means a lot to me. Since we don’t know who in Central Command has been compromised, we have to make this stand without official backing.”

“Don’t mention it Douglas.” the Admiral answered. “If even half of what you told me is true it is worth the risk. So, I’ll leave it to you. How would you like to proceed?”

“Just keep us on this heading and speed until we rendezvous with Commander Wilcke’s squadron. If we do end up having to deal with those experimental mech units I’ll feel a hell of a lot better having a full contingent of Witches to back us up.” Briggs cast his old friend a hooded glance. “I just hope we’re in time.”

Both men turned as Ursula Hartmann approached them with a stack of research notes and mission briefs.

“I’ve gathered all the relevant information on the MAGI General. Hopefully we can find a weakness in the units’ defenses.”

“Thank you Lieutenant.” the General acknowledged. “Noboru, do you mind if I use your office for a while?”

“Go right ahead.” The Admiral told him. “Anything else?”

“Have your Com officer establish a secure line to Commander Hollister in Riga. As soon as you get him, patch it through to your office.” Motioning Ursula to follow, Briggs began making his way to the Admiral’s office.

☆ ☆ ☆

Francesca perked up the instant she saw Yoshika stirring. She forced herself not to react rapidly, moving slowly and deliberately toward Yoshika while calling out to her in a half-whisper. “Ciao, Yoshika. Are you feeling better?”

The Fuso pilot slowly took in her surroundings with half-focused eyes, finally settling on Francesca, staring at her while recognition slowly returned.

“lucchini-chan?”

The little Romagnan smiled. “Yeah. How are you feeling?”

For a long while there was only a blank stare.

“...it hurts...” Yoshika finally answered dully.

“What hurts, Yoshika?”

“...it hurts...” she repeated in the same dead monotone.

“Can I get you anything? You want some water?” Francesca asked her.

Yoshika squinted at the blurred figure before her but the image refused to make sense. “lynne?” Yoshika questioned hopefully.

Francesca started to become worried. “No. It’s me. It’s Lucchini.”

The reply was weak and confused. “lucchini... -chan?”

“Yeah. Lynne is out helping Shirley and Vince drag all our stuff into these caves that we’re all gonna hide in from the bad guys. You know, I may be fast and all around bad-ass but Lynne has me beat in the upper body strength department , if you know what I... mean... and... I... umm...”

Francesca’s stream-of-consciousness babble trailed off as she slowly realized that although Yoshika was awake she was far from aware.

“… oh...” the hollow-eyed brunette whispered dejectedly. “… ok...”

Francesca watched in dismay as Yoshika curled herself into a fetal position and began to cry. Why on earth was her friend was acting like this? Why didn’t she heal herself? Did something else happen that Lynne and Shirley were keeping from her? She was desperate to help somehow. The sight of Yoshika crying... it was just wrong.

“Please don’t cry Yoshika.” Francesca pleaded desperately. “We’re all here for you. We’ll keep you safe, just like you’ve always done for us. I promise.”

It was no use. Yoshika still couldn’t fully comprehend where she was or what was happening around her. Reality was too bright and too loud and too sharp. With every heartbeat the lacerations covering her body throbbed in excruciating pain, further dulling her ability to think. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut she whimpered. “i need... i need... *sob* i need... *sob* i need...”

At this point Francesca was crying quite heavily herself. “Shhhhh. Shhhhh. It’s okay Yoshika. It’s going to be okay.” She soothed, trying to reassure the older girl. “I know. I know who you need. I’ll go get her right now? I’ll be right back. I won’t let you down. Just stay with us, please?”

With a final worried look back she ran as fast as her magically-enhanced form could carry her to the spot where Shirley had decided to set up shop. She found Vince and Charlotte placing camouflage in front of certain cave fronts and flumes that faced skyward. Lynne was off to the side checking, prepping and loading the ordinance.

Panting she dashed up to them dragging her sleeve across her eyes to wipe away any remaining tears.

“Lynne! Lynne! You gotta come quick. Please!”

Lynne looked up from her work, concern written deeply on her features. “What’s wrong?”

“She’s... she’s scared. She’s really really scared. And I don’t know why. And I couldn’t help her.” the younger girl answered desperately. “She barely even knew I was there. What’s wrong with her Lynne? Why is she acting like this?”

Lynne looked questioningly at Charlotte who gave her a brief nod in return. “Go.”

As Lynette dashed away, Charlotte snagged Francesca’s collar preventing the lovable little pest from butting in where she didn’t belong. The kid was still a bit too young to fully understand relationship boundaries. Instead of protesting though, Francesca spun around to confront her partner.

“Why won’t you guys tell me what’s really wrong with her?” She was angry and tried to show it by her furrowed brow and stern countenance and serious demeanor. It was the indignantly puffed-out cheeks that finally did it for Charlotte. “Gah! She is so adorable.”

The Liberion didn’t even try to hold back her laughter. “Oooo. Is Wucchini wewe angwy?”

‘Wucchini’ stomped her foot in frustration. ”Shirley!"

The redhead chuckled and held her hand up in a consolatory gesture. “Sorry kiddo. You’re just too cute sometimes.” Ruffling the youngsters hair, she continued. “But seriously, all you need to know is what you already know. A Neuroi tried to assimilate Yoshika and she beat it. And she got seriously injured doing so. Anything else that may have happened is personal and is not for me to share, all right?”

Francesca knew Charlotte was giving her the straight skinnie and grudgingly nodded in agreement. Then, looking for any assurance she could get, she asked in a quiet voice. “Will she be ok again?”

The smile Charlotte answered her with was genuine. “If I were placing bets? I would bet on Miyafuji every time.”

☆ ☆ ☆

Right now they were playing a waiting game. Their preparations had been made, as far as they could make them. Camouflage in place. Weapons primed and ready. Yoshika had been moved to a safe place, deep inside one of the main caverns they had found. Lynette was currently with her.

Charlotte found a comfortable vantage point and settled in to await their theorized aggressors. Feeling a lump inside her jacket, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a cigar - one of the brand Bill Fiske had carried with him habitually. She silently thanked him as she patted the pockets looking for her Zippo. Puffing on the cigar to get it roaring, she looked up to the wide open blue reflectively.

“Don’t worry Bill. I intend to kick their asses all the way to Hades. I will make them pay for what they’ve done to you and Padric. And I’ll get Vince home safe and sound too. I promise you.”

~ to be continued...

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