Proper Path to Glory

Sound and Fury!


“They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” ~ British Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris

☆ ☆ ☆

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

Francesca found Vince sitting on a rocky outcropping, overlooking the ocean, gazing at nothing in particular. Just lost in the clouds. After a moment of hesitation she strode up to join him. He turned his head to acknowledge her as she approached.

“Oh, hey Lucchini. You guys need me for somethin’?”

“Nope.” Francesca answered, sitting down beside him. “I just wanted to see how you were doing. Are you gonna be alright?”

Vince gave a sigh. His thoughtful demeanor remained. “Ah ’spect ah will be. Still kinda don’ feel real, y’know? Ah half expect Bill t’ come over that ridge any second now and tell me this was just one’a his stupid jokes.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Silly, huh? I’ve had people close to me die before. I know it’s just ‘shit that happens’.”

Looking up through the bangs of his tousled hair he appeared, to Francesca, both old and young.

“Just by enlisting, ya know there’s a good chance you ain’t comin’ home. Ya do the job yer sent ta do. Ah’ know fer sure that Bill had no regrets. He wasn’t lookin’ ta die, but he was ready ta give his life fer what he believed in.” He gave her a confident smile. “An’ he believed in Cap’n Yeager all the way. An’ so do I. She should never doubt that.”

Francesca looked at her friend and found that the respect she had for him had grown even stronger. She wondered if she would ever be able to develop the kind of grace and maturity that Vince possessed. Hugging her knees, she leaned forward and looked up into the sky. Vincent smiled and turned his gaze back upward as well. The two sat in a comfortable silence, enjoying a peace they both knew would be short-lived.

It had been around four and a half hours since the whole debacle had ended.

Only four and a half hours since Bill Fiske and Padric Hughes had been killed in action, their lives taken by the very machines they flew in. Four and a half hours since Charlotte Yeager had been shot down by a Neuroi and injured. Four and a half hours since Yoshika Miyafuji had been deeply and grievously harmed by the remaining MAGUS core fragment.

The sun was about an hour and a half from setting and Charlotte was beginning to think they had bought themselves some extra time. Eventually though, she heard the muffled drone of a twin-engine aircraft approaching from the open ocean to the west. Here it was - the reconnaissance flight she had been expecting - and it wasn’t approaching from the mainland either, also as she had more than half-expected.

Hustling over to where she knew the youngsters were hanging out, she managed to come in on the middle of an interesting discussion that made her chuckle.

“... no action, as such. Unless you count groping everybody’s boobs. Like my friend Yoshika, I’m a breast girl.”

“Well, yer young an’ cute.” Vince joked. “You can get away with sexual harassment.”

“Ha. Not always.” the twin-tail laughed back. “I did it to Lieutenant Barkhorn and... well, let’s just say she can be pretty scary when she’s pissed off.”

Charlotte cleared her throat to get their attention. “Sorry to interrupt your scintillating intellectual conversation, but we’ve got company. Head for the cavern double-time.”

The two youngsters got up and followed their commanding officer into cover. They watched and waited as the minutes stretched out and above them a lone aircraft made a sweeping arc around the atoll, then came around for another pass.

“Well, that clinches it.” The Liberion Witch stated with certainty. “That search plane isn’t out of Riga. It came from almost due-West. Any flight out of Tansaffal Airbase would have approached from the South East.”

Francesca followed the flight-path of the small aircraft as it finished its second pass. “So who sent it then?”

“I’ll give you one guess.” Her partner answered grimly.

“General Maloney.”

“Yep.” The redhead confirmed. “Not a doubt in my mind. Us, alive, is a huge set-back to his plans. He knows we know about the MAGI program. Ursula and I both assumed as much when we discovered how tied up in all this he is. We know they discovered the security breech at St. Trond but it wasn’t officially reported. That was another reason I didn’t want to send Ursula back there.”

Everyone watched without comment as the airplane made four sweeping passes, the last two concentrating south and east of their position.

“Well, he’s found the crash site. Since we collected everything, they’re gonna know that at least some of us survived. Only a matter of time now.” she frowned. The recon plane made a final approach up the coast of the atoll and then abruptly banked away and headed back out to the open sea.

“Now the big question is how far away is the ship it launched from?” Charlotte mused. She turned towards the cave’s interior. “Lynne,” she called out. “can you come here for a minute?”

In short order the Britannian pilot emerged from the smaller cavern where she was caring for Yoshika. “Yes, Shirley? What is it?”

“Reconnaissance just did a fly-over. I’d like you to get some elevation and see what you can spot.” Charlotte ordered. “Be careful and don’t go too far afield. I just want an idea of what we’re facing.”

Lynette nodded in the affirmative and moved to haul her Strikers out from the cave mouth to the small clearing in front. “What’s my baring?” she called out.

“Heading of Northwest 321°, stay low enough to not get spotted yourself. Just try to get me the number of ships we’re facing and an estimate of how far away they are.” the squad commander concluded.

“On my way.” Lynne called out as she started her engines.

The sun was very low in the sky and it wouldn’t be very long before dusk started to settle in. Lynette knew she had to be careful since she would be much easier to spot, flying into the sun as she was - but she needed enough elevation to raise her horizon line-of-sight.

There! There was the recon plane - a small black dot against the slowly-setting sun. She let her gaze fall to the ocean below, following the trajectory of her unknowing quarry. Narrowing her eyes to focus keenly on a darker patch in the middle of the dark blue-green expanse, she was able to make out a flotilla of three ships.

She concentrated even harder until she could begin to feel the pounding of her heartbeat in her temples. Her focus sharpened by magnitudes and she was able to make out the fine details of the ships - including their registry. ”HMS Dunkirk and HMS Euryalus..." She couldn’t make out the third - much smaller ship - clearly, as it was trailing behind and partially obscured by the other two.

Hovering in place for a moment taking note of the ships’ position and bearing, the young Britannian then turned and headed immediately back the way she had come, hugging the ocean at wave-height all the way back to their base. The whole trip had taken her perhaps 15 minutes tops.

☆ ☆ ☆

“I’d estimate that they are about 25 to 30 nautical miles out and heading this way pretty darned fast.” Lynne reported to her commander, who digested this information and began to fine-tune the battle plan.

“Let’s see.” Charlotte mused. “Dunkirk is a Battle-class destroyer. She can hit about 35 knots but she’ll have to back that down a bit for Euryalus to keep pace. She’s a Dido-class light cruiser and they can only crank out about 27 knots at best. Still... that puts them at less than an hour away. I was hoping it would be fully dark before they got here and we could buy a few hours grace, but they may very well still try to mount an expeditionary force when they arrive.” she explained to her crew darkly. “Depends on how desperate Maloney actually is.”

Taking the group in with her gaze, the commander of the ‘Propaganda Squad’ fell into full work-mode. “You two get your weapons together.” she nodded toward Lynne and Francesca. “C’mon.” she motioned towards Vince. “you need some kind of stable platform to shoot effectively. I have a couple of ideas.”

Stooping down, the ginger pilot retrieved her toolkit from the floor of the cave and headed out with Vince following close behind. The two remaining girls went to the pile of ordinance stacked in the rear of the chamber to find a compliment for their own weapons.

Lynette didn’t hesitate as she picked up Yoshika’s own primary weapon, the Type 99 Aircraft Cannon. Francesca favored a Suomi M1931 to go along with her Breda-SAFAT. It packed a 19mm round as compared to her Breda’s 12.7mm bore. ”Bigger bullet, bigger bang.” she thought happily - hefting the large sub-machine gun and looking down the sights, giving a predatory grin as she did so. They spent a good 30 minutes prepping their weapons and ammunition - trying to ensure that nothing mucked up when they needed them to perform.

Noticing Lynette was finished with her maintenance, Francesca decided to give the older girl some more time to be with her injured lover before heading into a deadly, potentially life-threatening battle. “Why don’t you go talk with Yoshika a bit?” she offered her friend kindly. “Say whatever it is you need to say to her before... well... you know.”

Understanding what her friend meant, Lynne nodded solemnly in agreement. “Thank you.”

☆ ☆ ☆

After Lynne had left her, Francesca hurried out to find Charlotte and Vince. She was eager to see what sort of engineering marvel the brilliant redhead had cooked up now. She wasn’t to be disappointed this time either. She arrived just as it looked as if they were finishing up, both of them stepping back to admire their handiwork.

“Wow!” Vince gasped. “Cap’n Yeager, this is incredible.”

“Ain’t it though?” Charlotte replied cockily. “And practically nothing to work with either. I definitely outdid myself this time.” She shot him a thumbs-up. “I am pretty damn awesome.” Her righteous swagger made Francesca want to swoon on the spot.

What the Liberion gadgeteer had accomplished was nothing short of amazing. Using sections of framework from the MAGUS the engineering wizard had crafted a standing gun platform. The gun mount was attached to the gyroscopic stabilizer from the suit’s navigation array, giving it a 360º turning radius and a 55º attitude radius. Unless something came from ground level or directly above, it was within the strike zone. It was rigged with a counter-balance as well, seeing as how the massive gun in the cradle was meant to be mounted on board a ship (or carried by a person in a mechanized battle-suit, Charlotte had thought wryly).

“I mounted your Bofors L/60 because it has the most rounds of ammunition available and packs one hell of a punch. We can switch out from our own guns to some of the other iron you brought if necessary, but you’re gonna be stuck with only this. Sorry.”

“That’s okay ma’am.” the young pilot chuckled. “Ah think ah c’n do some pretty righteous damage with this rig.” Advancing on the roughly thrown together construct, the young southerner grinned as he climbed inside and began to familiarize himself with the set-up.

Francesca chose this moment to approach Charlotte. “You just love doing the impossible don’t you?” she stated with affectionate amusement in her voice.

“Heh.” Charlotte grinned. Her grin faded somewhat as she turned to fully face her partner. “Okay, listen. I want you to do something for me. Lynne is without her partner and Vince is without his. I want to team up with Lynne. And I would like you to partner with Vince alright?”

The Liberion ace was expecting some sort of protest from the younger girl, but Francesca understood how important this all was and why it was best for things to be this way. “Absolutely Shirley. You can count on me.”

“I know I can.” The older girl responded with a warm smile. “So, let’s get to it. Just make sure you take care of yourself, y’hear?” she gently admonished as she moved towards the gun platform.

“You too, Shirley.” Francesca called out as she headed back to the cave. Under her breath she muttered. “I don’t think I could take losing you twice in one day.”

☆ ☆ ☆

“... so that’s the situation Yoshika.” Lynne finished with a confident smile. “We’re going to beat these guys, I promise.”

Her fingers interlaced with those of her unconscious girlfriend. She was quiet for a long while as she reached down with her free hand to stroke the girls chestnut-brown hair. “You remember that day... over the Straits? You saved my life that day. You acted like it was nothing - no big deal... but the way you held me in your arms carrying me home. So strong but gentle.”

She drew the Fuso girls hand close, brushing the knuckles with her lips. “My gallant knight. I remember looking up into your face, your head wreathed in clouds, back-lit by the sun. You looked like a brave angel.”

Lynne squeezed her eyes tightly to stem the flow of tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Taking slow, measured breaths she managed to maintain a normal tone of voice. “Your smile was so caring, so confident... I felt so safe. So very happy.” She brought her love’s hand close once more, this time giving a soft lingering kiss.

“I will always remember that moment. That instant. That was when I fell in love with you. Honestly, I was attracted to you the very first time we met... but that was the moment I fell in love. From that moment on you were all I could think about.”

In spite of her tightly-closed eyes, a few hot tears leaked down her flushed cheeks.

“I know that you’re strong Yoshika. I know that you’re going to come back to me. But until then, *sniff* I’m going to be the strong one, okay? After all...” through her tears a genuine smile took form. “... we’re going to be together forever. Right?”

The younger girl looked so peaceful now that she was under the influence of the sedative Lynne had found in the First Aid kit. She was glad of it but still, her mind kept racing - focusing on the worst possible outcomes. What if they all died here today? Yoshika would wake up alone, never knowing what had happened.

Or worse... what if they found her and took her. A presumed-dead Witch they could use as a test subject. Lynne couldn’t help but remember those slides - the dead bodies with the tops of their skulls removed... but instead of faceless strangers she saw Yoshika’s body lying on the gurney.

“No. That won’t happen.” she thought resolutely. “I won’t allow it to happen.”

It was time to go. Gently laying Yoshika’s hand back down on her chest, she rose and turned to leave, pausing only once as she looked back over her shoulder and placed two fingers to her lips.

“I love you Yoshika Miyafuji. Wait for me.”

☆ ☆ ☆

The sun had become a dull red ball, half-submerged in ocean when the ships finally appeared on the horizon. They were probably 8 to 10 miles out. Close enough to launch an assault easily. The squad members were as ready as they were ever going to be.

“Time’s up.” Charlotte thought bitterly. “Better hustle.”

“Mister Mallory, stay put. Lucchini will be right with you. Just stick with the plan and keep your head down.”

Crossing the short distance quickly, the Liberion ace kept an ear out for any activity in the flotilla. The sudden blaring of flight deck klaxons alerted her that the first wave was about to begin. She entered the mouth of the cave just as Lynette was emerging from the rear cavern. Motioning the younger girl to follow they both went back outside.

“Good timing. I can hear them clearing the flight deck. Use those sharp eyes of yours and tell me what’s coming.”

The young Britannian invoked her magic and focused her sight on the distant grouping of ships. As she watched, four dark shapes rose into the sky and began heading directly towards them. They were not the squat grayish shapes of the dreaded MAGI Large, angular, not-quite black.

“They... they look like those WARLOCK machines from the slide show.” Lynne reported. “But I thought Erica’s sister said they discontinued the WARLOCK program.” she stated with confusion.

Charlotte frowned. “Just because they discontinued the program doesn’t mean they threw away the already completed machines. Even now they don’t want to tip their hand. If they are carrying the MAGI with them, they seem to be holding them back as a last resort. ”

“So... there are no people or brains or anything inside them, right?” questioned Lynette. “They are basically just Neuroi who have been leashed, right?”

“Yes.” confirmed the Liberion commander.

Lynne’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Good!”

The look that washed over Lynette’s features when she said that caused Charlotte to worry a bit. The way she said it. The grit in her voice. She decided that she better keep an eye on the younger girl when the fighting started.

☆ ☆ ☆

After donning a spare ammo belt the young Britannian girl slung Yoshika’s Type 99 across her shoulder-blades as if she were well-accustomed to doing so. She had never felt so focused - almost tunnel vision. No matter how you looked at it, it was a Neuroi that hurt Yoshika... she could now repay them in kind. She would not stop until every last one of them were dead and gone from this earth.

They hurt her. They hurt the most important person to her.

*atashi no motto mo taisetsu na hito*

Yoshika had whispered that phrase lovingly in her ear, lying next to her in their bunk on the trip to Amsterdam, both exhausted after their non-stop lovemaking marathon. When she asked what it meant, the adorable little Fuso girl explained to her the true meaning behind that simple sounding phrase. It was a case of the literal translation being inadequate.

Apparently, it meant ‘My most important/beloved person’... almost. Truly it meant something much more - much deeper; ‘You are the most important person in the world to me/You mean more to me than anything or anyone else.’ In Fuso culture it was not something one said casually.

They hurt Lynette’s motto mo taisetsu na hito. Now they would pay the price.

Taking her position, Lynette motioned to Charlotte that she was ready. The busty redhead spared a glance to where Vince and Francesca were positioned - about 40 yards away - and saw that they were ready as well. When she looked back skyward she saw that the WARLOCK formation was advancing rapidly, close enough now that she could make them out easily.

“All right.” she called out. “Here they come. Hold your fire until they are right on top of us. We don’t want to give away our...”

* BOOM *

“... position.” she finished with a sigh. “Never mind. Fire at will.”

The lead WARLOCK was hit directly in the weakest spot, the access panel - constructed of human-made materials. It flailed about and tried to bank away from the line of fire. Charlotte followed the trajectory of the shot back to its source and was frankly unsurprised to see it was Lynne that had fired that first shot. What did surprise her was Lynne’s demeanor - unlike anything she had ever exhibited before. To say she had her game-face on would be an understatement.

The Britannian pilot’s eyes were narrowed to slits, brows knotted in unbridled hatred, lips curled back to bare her teeth with an animalistic snarl. She had already reloaded and lined up her next shot.

* BOOM *

This shot nailed the exposed core squarely. The WARLOCK’s ablative armor simply began to dissolve like a traditional Neuroi. The Britannian sharpshooter had reloaded a third time before the second spent cartridge had even hit the ground.

* BOOM *

"Just die! All of you just fucking DIE!"

Her shell narrowly missed the second WARLOCK which managed to swerve away at the last instant. Dropping her own weapon, she grabbed Yoshika’s Type 99 Aircraft Cannon and blasted away at the fleeing machine.

Even in the midst of this life or death fight for survival, Charlotte couldn’t help but be amused at hearing the high-born, blue-blooded ‘Lady Lynette’ using the word ‘fuck’ in a sentence. Still, she knew she had better get the girl on a short leash before her recklessness got them all into trouble.

“Whoa. Slow down there Ace. Save a few for the rest of us.”

The out-of-place lightheartedness of Charlotte’s admonishment seemed to shock Lynne back to reality. She looked ashamed that she had lost control like that. Nodding an acknowledgment to her superior, the Britannian ace took a deep breath before choosing her next target.

“All right Lynne. You know the drill. Hold it down here and keep ’em too busy to deal while Lucchini and I take ’em out.” she grinned, flashing Lynette a thumbs-up. “I will do my very best to try to bring your Striker’s back in one piece.” The younger girl couldn’t help but grin in return, then hold her hands over her ears as Charlotte bellowed at the top of her considerable lungs.

“OKAY LUCCHINI! LET’S GO!”

Down-range, Vince was making good use of the Bofors AAC, nailing two out of the three remaining WARLOCK with jarring blows that blew holes big enough to trigger the regeneration process. Lucchini was strafing the exposed areas on the off chance of tagging a core. But from this vantage it was, of course, pretty useless. She was just killing time until she heard Shirley give her the go-ahead.

Sprinting towards her Strikers, Francesca suddenly stopped short and after a brief instants hesitation turned back to Vince and reached down, unbuckling her holster and shoving it into his hands. “Here, take my Beretta. Just in case.”

He gave her a startled look, then laughed. “Th’ hell’m ah s’posta do with this? Yer waist is about as big as mah thigh.”

“Strap it to your thigh then, sheesh.” retorted the pantherette with an exasperated grin. Leaning forward, Francesca caught Vince up in a crushing hug. “Just be careful bro.”

Vince returned the hug just as meaningfully. “You too sis.”

Pulling away from the hug, the small pilot made a running leap and settled into her Strikers, firing up the engines and making a vertical beeline to rendezvous with Charlotte, who was doing some quick shake-down turns before fully engaging in battle. The Britannian-made Ultramarine Spitfire felt a bit more sluggish than Charlotte’s own personally tuned and tinkered-with P-51 Mustang - but there wasn’t an aircraft built that the buxom Liberion ace couldn’t fly.

Charlotte and Francesca had partnered together long enough to be able to work a flow without discussion. Francesca peeled off to the left engaging the WARLOCK that was lagging slightly behind the others, trying to bring it closer to Vince’s position. Charlotte dove in-between the remaining two machines, raking them both with HE rounds and gaining their full attention. There was a high-pitched screeching sound and the redheaded ace immediately flipped backward just as an intense shaft of ruby-red light shot by, annihilating the air molecules in its path.

"As advertised," she thought grimly. ”full-on Neuroi-style particle beams." She had already figured as much, considering the slides they had viewed back in Amsterdam, but this confirmed it.

The Liberion ace made a low, tight loop and strafed the two enemy machines once more. She succeeded in luring them towards the blind where Lynette was lying in wait. As she did so she spared a glance back to see how Lucchini and Mallory were faring. They seemed to be handling things well enough and Charlotte was determined to make sure they only had to deal with the one. ”C’mon, c’mon. Follow me you dirtbags."

After leading them on a merry chase out over the ocean, she doubled-back and began making her way towards the camouflaged cave mouth. Looking back, she noticed that one WARLOCK was directly behind her. She was already pushing the Spitfires’ throttle-edge - she simply couldn’t coax any more speed out of them. Finally the cave was in sight and Charlotte started in confusion for an instant when she noticed Lynne was aiming straight for her but relaxed when she realized the shots were moving in an arcing trajectory around her to target the WARLOCK directly on her tail, exploding violently on impact.

“That’s right.” The Liberion ace grinned. “I forgot she can throw a curve ball.”

Her Britannian squad mate was more than just a sharp shooter, although that was her primary task and expertise. Lynette could also guide the trajectory of her shots and infuse them with energy in order to cause more damage. She did not make full use of her secondary abilities very often. They usually cost her dearly in energy and effort. But not this time around. This time it felt different. It took very little effort to influence the path of her bullets and the magical energy she used to super-charge the rounds didn’t even begin to make a dent in what felt, to her, like a bottomless supply.

"We are going to make it through this." the formerly-bashful Britannian thought to herself with determination. We’ll make it through this and after that - we will end this endless war. Then Yoshika and I can truly begin our lives together."

The shot staggered the mech unit behind Charlotte and the ginger ace immediately turned her attention to the second one that looked to be targeting Lynne’s position - cutting off its approach and forcing it on the defensive. Instead of pressing its attack, the remaining WARLOCK peeled off and started heading for the engagement Vince and Francesca were a part of.

"Oh no you don’t!" Charlotte thought angrily. Painting its back with more high-explosive rounds, the Liberion ace managed to divert its attention back to her. Her satisfied grin turned into an annoyed grimace as she heard the ‘klatch’ of her rifle jamming. “Are you effin’ kidding me? What the hell is it with me and rifles? I don’t get it. Engines love me.”

She tossed the worthless thing aside, allowing it to plunge into the ocean. Like Francesca and Lynette, she had grabbed up an auxiliary weapon as well. Looping to avoid a particle beam blast from the WARLOCK she was facing down, she swung out the big gun from behind her back. The M18 recoilless rifle was rifle in name only since you couldn’t honestly call something that spat 57 mm shells a rifle. In the field it was a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon. In Charlotte’s capable hands it was a Neuroi-decimator.

They had to eliminate these things quickly since they had only so much ammunition and a Witch’s powers could only last so long. The Neuroi, on the other hand, while not possessing infinite supplies of energy, had always seemed to have a much greater power reserve.

And these things were fast as well, damn them. Vincent and Lynette were doing their jobs well, providing covering fire, but all they were really able to do was prevent the mech units from being able to target the two flyers effectively. They weren’t making much headway in wearing down their regenerative processes. They were just too goddamned fast.

Also, it was getting dark rapidly. That didn’t really matter from a targeting standpoint since the WARLOCK, although grayish-black in color, emitted the same intense ruby-red light that a Neuroi did. Easy to track. Against a human adversary in the same conditions, the Witches would have an upper hand. But Charlotte knew that wasn’t necessarily so in this case. Who knew how a Neuroi saw things? If they could see in the infrared, for example, the girls would stand out like beacons against the cold night air and even colder ocean below.

“This is no good. We’ve really gotta trim these odds.” she thought grimly. “Screw this.”

The Liberion keyed her mic. “Lucchini. Keep that one busy. Really pour it on. Mallory, Bishop, I want you two to concentrate your fire on the one I’m engaging now. Keep them both busy while I take out number three.”

Without waiting for the acknowledgment she knew was forthcoming, she disengaged from the brute in front of her and dove straight on directly at the remaining machine. She was on top of it before it had a chance to react. Jamming the barrel of the M18 directly into contact with the lower part of the mechs access panel she blew a gaping hole directly through the thing. The core went with it and it fell apart before her eyes.

She grinned happily as she looped back to join the others. “Four against two now.” she thought. “You guys are toast.” She keyed her mic again. “Two on one people. Mallory get back to supporting Lucchini. Bishop and I will take down the other.”

With renewed enthusiasm they all began pouring it on in earnest. No matter how fast they were, the WARLOCK units were unable to fend off attacks from two different vectors at once. They still continued to put up one hell of a fight though and Charlotte’s confidence in a quick win began to wane.

Suddenly the two machines broke off the engagement and flew straight up, out of range of the ground-based fire. They hovered in place for a moment and Charlotte was trying to figure out what they were going to do next when, without warning, they turned their “backs” on the Witches and made a beeline straight for the rapidly approaching flotilla.

“What the hell...?” Charlotte thought. “Going for reinforcements?”

Then she laughed out loud as she observed the WARLOCK’s suddenly attacking their own ships. Twin particle beams lanced out as one and Charlotte heard warning sirens blaring. They had hulled the Euryalus. Damn big hole too apparently, as the ship began visibly listing almost immediately. She watched the crew scurrying around madly as lifeboats hit the water. Dunkirk began firing it’s big guns at the mechs but their speed and reaction time was too great. They split up and started targeting the destroyer, painting the deck with destructive beams of coherent light.

The redheaded ace was enjoying the sight until she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her attention to the smaller ship that had been trailing behind the other two. A lone object had lifted off the deck and headed directly into the WARLOCK’s line of fire. From this distance even Charlotte could make it out. Unmistakably one of the MAGI units. Sometimes she hated being right.

As fires erupted on the deck of the Dunkirk, fire suppression teams began running about trying to deal with multiple incidents. But it was the action in the air that riveted the attention of the Liberion ace. One of the WARLOCK nailed the MAGI squarely and the smaller mech shrugged it off as if it were nothing. Charlotte’s eyes widened in disbelief as the MAGI unleashed its own weapon - a beam of dark purple that obliterated the larger mech instantly. It didn’t dissolve... it simply vaporized.

“Christ on a bike.” she thought in alarm as the MAGI turned its attention to the remaining mech. “We barely held our own against the WARLOCK’s. How the hell are we going to stand up to those things?”

The final WARLOCK was done in just as quickly and Charlotte felt the bile rise in her stomach as she anticipated herself as next on the hit list. Instead, she watched with great relief as the MAGI immediately returned to the ship it had launched from.

The smaller ship sat calmly astern of the chaos surrounding it. Dunkirk was still dealing with multiple fires and other damage control maintenance while Euryalus was sinking rapidly, with both lifeboats and crew members flailing about in the water. Charlotte suppressed the impulse to go to their aid. For the moment at least, they were the enemy.

She should have felt some small satisfaction at the fact that at least one of the vessels they faced was now permanently out of commission, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. And it wasn’t even their victory. It was just a fluke - pure luck that the WARLOCK chose that moment to turn on their masters. And not at all comforting that their savior was going to be turning all that fire-power loose on them soon.

Still... thank god it was over for the moment. Wearily, she turned and headed back to their encampment.

☆ ☆ ☆

The squad was assembled and their commander was assessing everyone’s physical condition and state-of-mind. All of them were pretty spent, Charlotte included.

“How’s your ammo holding out Mister Mallory?”

“Still got over three-quarters left ma’am. ’Bout 280 rounds I’d reckon.” the young man responded.

“Lucchini, everything square with you?”

“All good Shirley.” the twin-tailed pixie answered. “Just pretty darned tired.”

“How about you Lynne? Everything okay?”

“Huh?” Lynette said with a startled voice, tearing her gaze from the mouth of the cave. “Oh... yeah. Fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

As Charlotte continued the debriefing she couldn’t help but notice Lynette’s eyes continuously darting over to the cave entrance, her body fidgeting nervously. She decided that this was enough for one night. Everybody needed some down-time badly, besides which it was obvious that Lynn’s mind was focused on something, or rather someone, else.

“All right, we’re done here. There won’t be any more action tonight. On top of everything else, they have too much on their plate to launch any more attacks right now. You all need to decompress - hate to say it but tomorrow is going to be even worse. I know it won’t be easy, but try to get a good night’s sleep, okay? You’re dismissed.”

Lynne immediately sprinted towards the cave to be reunited with her beloved.

☆ ☆ ☆

The sounds of the intense battle had made their way into the cavern where Yoshika lay recovering, jarring her out of her drugged stupor and frightening her immensely. While she had been in terrifying situations before, this was entirely different. They had always been when the young Fuso girl was in full control of her faculties and could use her fear to sharpen her senses and fuel her combativeness.

But now, injured and helpless - unable to fully shake off the effects of the morphine she had been injected with, not knowing what was happening to her friends or her lover - the fright was almost too much to bear. Especially since she had not yet recovered mentally or emotionally from the Neuroi’s psychic rape.

The sudden silence that ensued did nothing to squelch that fear. Was Lynne all alone, injured or dead while she was just lying there worthless? Suddenly she was desperate to find her love. Simply sitting upright took almost every bit of strength she possessed. Her head was swimming and her vision blurred in and out of focus. Standing was out of the question, so she instead began to slowly and painfully crawl towards the tunnel that led to the main cavern. The effort re-opened some of the wounds on her arms and torso and fresh wells of blood began to soak through the dirty makeshift cloth bandages.

The sound of footsteps approaching caused her to try and lift her head up, but as she did, blackness began to swallow her vision. Lynette rounded the corner and gasped in horror upon seeing the little Fuso maiden struggling to crawl across the cavern floor, just as she began to lose consciousness again.

The honey-brown haired beauty ran forward, covering the distance between them in an instant. “Oh, God! Yoshika what are you doing?”

“i have to find...” The younger girl mumbled, half-conscious. “i have to protect her. i promised...” Her fevered murmuring stopped as she fell unconscious once more.

“Oh, Yoshika.” Lynne thought in affectionate exasperation. “You may be the most incredible person I have ever met, but my goodness... whatever am I to do with you?”

Gently she picked up the injured girl and carried her back to the pile of emergency blankets she had been resting on.

☆ ☆ ☆

It was an autumn moon, low and full and bright. Charlotte stood on the edge of the cliff above the cave entrance, watching while the crew of the Dunkirk continued their damage control efforts on into the night. Pulling out the precious half-stogie that she had been hoarding, she lit it and stood in quiet contemplation while she continued to observe the proceedings across the water. On the ground below, Vince and Francesca were wearily making their way back to the cave.

Vince looked up to see Charlotte’s form silhouetted against the gibbous moon - standing proud and erect, puffing her cigar, flight jacket flapping in the light breeze. As he looked at her the silhouette wavered in his mind’s eye, the hair becoming shorter, the body leaner.

His breath hitched. “Bill...?” he whispered.

Francesca followed his gaze and immediately understood what was happening. The enormity of his sorrow over Bill Fiske’s death was finally starting to hit him. She had noticed a while ago that the two senior pilots shared startlingly similar traits and personalities. He was looking at Charlotte but she knew that he was seeing Corporal Fiske.

Vince turned to look at her and Francesca’s heart knotted up at the expression on his face. He looked like a lost child... a lost and frightened child. His body trembled as he fought to contain the emotions welling up inside of him. “Aw... damn it Lucchini. He’s gone. He’s gone...”

The young man was trying so hard not to allow his grief to overwhelm him. His face strained with the effort he was putting out to keep it all bottled up inside. Francesca could see he was becoming unbalanced. Gently she put her arms around him and helped guide him to a seated position on the ground.

She could tell he was about to lose the battle so, placing her hand on the back of his head, she guided it to her shoulder. He couldn’t hold it in any longer. His eyes swimming with tears he finally let it all go. Francesca didn’t try to offer words of comfort... there were none to give. But she knew he needed this. He needed to cry it out in order to move on.

☆ ☆ ☆

Yoshika awoke with a start. Confusion was her first emotion. Why was she lying here covered in blankets? Her last memory was crawling across the hard, rough ground trying to find Lynette. How did she end up here? A gentle, familiar voice pulled her from her disoriented thoughts.

“Yoshika. I’m so glad you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“lynne?” Yoshika asked, not quite sure if she could believe her eyes.

“Yes, it’s me. Can you see me?” The older girl questioned with some trepidation.

“hai. i can see you.”

Lynette let out the breath she didn’t even know she was holding. “Oh, thank goodness. I’ve been so worried for you. I was afraid that... I was so afraid... that you weren’t going to come back to me. Do... do you remember what happened?”

The young Fuso girl shuddered. The emotions that tore through her were so foreign. Helplessness, shame... these were feelings she had never really had to deal with before. Of course she remembered. How could she forget allowing that horrible creature to use her? How could she forget the terror and pleasure and desire of wanting to be used? She felt sick to her stomach and a strong impulse to curl back up inside herself and shut the world out forever.

“hai...” She answered weakly, her eyelids beginning to flutter. “... i remember...”

“No!” Lynne said firmly. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare leave me again Yoshika Miyafuji. I won’t have it. I need you so much, baby. I need you with me. Please don’t go away again.”

“but you don’t know... what happened... what i did...”

“Yes, I do know. I saw it all. I felt it all. Don’t you remember that?” Lynette questioned in earnest. “I was with you in the darkness. I told you then that it wasn’t your fault. It tricked you... took advantage of your exhaustion and confusion. There was nothing you could do.”

“you were with me? i thought... i thought i dreamed that. how? how did you...?”

Lynne gave her a warm smile, filled with the love she felt.

“atashi no motto mo taisetsu na hito” She answered softly. “For you, I can be brave. For you, I can be strong. For you, I can do anything.”

Removing her uniform top and necktie, she unbuttoned her shirt and knelt down next to the makeshift bed, sliding underneath the covers. The Britannian girl gathered her lover up in her arms and they simply lay there in the silence cuddling close. Eventually, she raised up a bit and kissed Yoshika lightly on the top of her head. “Have you tried healing yourself at all?”

“hai. i can access my powers but i can’t apply them. i... i can’t... focus properly.” the brunette answered shakily.

Lynette gently caressed Yoshika’s face and brought her into a deep, passionate kiss. Purely by intuition or instinct she initiated the empathic bond once more - this time, entirely of her own volition.

’what is this?′ Yoshika thought in wonder as she floated in an empty grayness, occupied only by idealized versions of Lynette and herself, their naked bodies both emitting a gentle glow.

Lynette’s soft voice echoed in her mind. ‘This is us, together.’ she answered lovingly. ‘Let me be your focus. Pour your energy into me and let me give it back to you.’

Yoshika concentrated and a ribbon of energy emerged from her astral form and flowed into Lynette, flaring and then flowing back into the younger girl like a river. To an outside observer, in the real world, it would have looked as if Yoshika’s powers had suddenly manifested. Instead of the usual bright bluish-white dome of energy, however, his time her power manifested as an intense skin-tight aura that clung tightly to the bodies of both girls.

With the help of her most important person, Yoshika began the difficult process of self-healing.

~ to be continued...

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