Proper Path to Glory

The Pure Rugged!


“It is evil things we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution.”
~ Neville Chamberlain

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 27th , 1943 - 1830 Hours
-- I.F.S. Akane - Eastern Baltic Sea

Akane’s operations room was unusually busy for the late hour. Operations and tactical officers bustled about making constant adjustments to the wall map and the Big Board - the to-scale table display showing Akane’s relative position in relation to their objective.

Gathered around a large conference table off to the side were General Briggs, Admiral Nishimura, a hefty assortment of Department heads and the present members of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing. First Lieutenant Aisaka, one of Nishimura’s most trusted tactical officers, currently held the floor.

“Up until the engagement started, we were pretty much shooting in the dark, but thanks to all the radio chatter we were able to pinpoint their location and we are en route now. Our ETA is just shy of four hours.”

“What about my people?” Minna interjected.

“There were two pilots airborne during the engagement. One was positively identified as Captain Yeager the other, from the description given, was most likely Ensign Lucchini. There was ground-based fire from two, possibly three, sources. The MAGUS suits were not part of the battle.”

“So the only thing we know for certain is that Yeager and Lucchini are okay. Judging from Eila’s divinations, two people are dead and one injured, we just don’t know which ones.” Mio stated grimly. “If Miyafuji and Bishop are alright why weren’t they in the air? If the MAGUS pilots are alright, then why weren’t they?”

“This is pointless.” Minna concluded. “There’s no way to know what’s happening until we get there. Beyond that, we hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” She looked across the table at Gertrude. “When we arrive ’Trude, I want you to take a small boat to that atoll and try to make contact with them. Take Eila with you.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The commander of the Strike Witches sat back and let out a frustrated sigh. “... four hours...”

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 27th , 1943 - 2300 Hours
-- Unidentified atoll in Orussian coastal waters

Sleep wouldn’t come to Charlotte, no matter how hard she tried. Things had quieted down considerably in the enemy flotilla and although it appeared that work crews would be continuing repairs on into the night there was really no sense in continuing to watch. She knew she was correct in her assessment that there would be no more enemy action to worry about until well after daylight. Watching them wouldn’t gain a thing. Restless she strode around their base camp and, ending up at the mouth of the cave, decided to look in on her juniors and see how they were doing.

The two youngest of the group were sleeping. Francesca half-sitting, propped up against the cave wall holding Vince’s head in her lap, his tear-stained face now relaxed in repose. She had heard the boy finally break down earlier and had wisely ignored it, allowing her partner - his friend - to provide the comfort that she, as his commanding officer, could not.

Although she obviously wasn’t nearly as close to Bill Fiske as Vince had been, his death stung her as well. Beyond the fact that she felt partially responsible for the man’s death, she had developed a real connection to him as a kindred spirit. She wasn’t about to break down and cry about it. She had already lost her family and childhood friends, comrades in earlier postings... too many people close to her to get worked up over something like this. But, goddammit, it really sucked that things had played out this way.

You couldn’t help becoming friends with the people you worked and spent time with every day. In wartime, that meant you couldn’t avoid being sad or hurt... someone you cared for inevitably was going to leave or die. Knowing that ahead of time did nothing to alleviate the pain involved when the inevitable actually happened. She was glad Vince had a friend like Francesca to turn to when the pain became too much to bear.

And speaking of pain what of her other two charges? Was Lynette was making any progress helping Yoshika get through her very real and present anguish? She had to admit to herself that seeing the tiny Fuso girl hurt so very badly disturbed her at a gut level. And after Lynne had explained to her exactly what had happened she felt she had yet one more reason to hate the Neuroi on a personal and visceral level.

Now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting she noticed, from the rear of the cavern, a soft bluish-white glow cutting through the darkness - Yoshika’s magic. Was Yoshika finally together enough to heal herself? She didn’t want to disturb the two girls, but she couldn’t help being curious. Finally she decided to take a quick peek. Just enough to assure herself that everything was alright.

The sight that greeted her wasn’t quite what she expected... and even though she knew that she was witnessing something very personal - something that was definitely not meant to be seen by others - she couldn’t take her eyes off the very intimate and, quite frankly, very erotic scene before her.

The bodies of the two girls were pressed so tightly to one another they seemed to be melded together, enveloped in a magical aura. Lynette’s fingertips gently tracing Yoshika’s wounds leaving trails of liquid-blue fire in their wake. Judging from the gasps and moans she was hearing the process was not unpleasant for either one - quite the opposite in fact. The intensity in their gazes, the passion in their kisses, the obvious longing and desire in their touches...

Charlotte had seen more than enough and reluctantly pulled back, leaning against the wall of the cavern to catch the breath she was unaware she had been holding. The Liberion ace had been around the block a few times in her young life and their were not a lot of things that could fluster her. But that had been, without doubt, the hottest scene she had ever witnessed.

She couldn’t help but chuckle under her breath. Whatever challenges awaited the two young lovers in their future, their sex life was probably not going to be one of them.

Leaving the girls to their own devices, still restless as hell and now with a mental image she just couldn’t shake off, she strode back outside the cave and took a deep draught of chill night air. An irregular sound breaking through the background noise of gently crashing surf caused her to come to attention. Ores cutting through water and the murmurs of some very familiar voices. Invoking her spirit animal, she listened closer - judging where the sound was coming from.

“Impossible.” she thought “How would they know we needed them? How would they even know where to come?”

Impossible or not, she had to believe the evidence of her own ears. Renewed hope singing within her, she began to quickly make her way down to the beach.

☆ ☆ ☆

“Can’t you go any faster?” Eila Juutilainen griped at the broad-backed Karlslander manning the oars of the small lifeboat carrying two Witches on a mission.

“I’m not ‘uff’ Yeager for god’s sake.” Gertrude Barkhorn huffed. “I’m built for power, not ‘uff’ speed. You don’t like it, why don’t you ‘uff’ take a turn?”

Eila sat back and swallowed whatever retort was coming to her lips. She definitely did not feel like rowing. “Well, at least I don’t foresee anything happening within the next few hours.”

“You know, I’ve always ‘uff’ wanted to ask you...” Gertrude continued. “... how does that work anyway? Your precognition I mean? You ‘uff’ predict some events with such certainty, you’re accurate enough that you’ve ‘uff’ been called to sit in on strategy sessions at Central but you’ve never ‘uff’ predicted the outcome of any battles or ‘uff’ anything when it comes to, say, us on the spot.”

“It’s complicated.” Eila answered seriously. “It’s not like I have a direct window to the future or something like that. It’s more like interpreting variables. Those tarot cards I throw? There is no inherent power in them. My real ‘power’ lies in my ability to foresee major junctures that lie ahead in the, well, time-stream is the easiest way to describe it - although it’s not technically accurate.”

“My sight gets overloaded with information from the various ‘threads’ of future I foresee. The cards are kind of like shorthand notes. They fall the way my subconscious tells them to fall... I read the results and make a determination. My high percentage of accuracy stems from my ability to read the variables, figure out the most likely ones and make a correct determination more often than a wrong one.”

“And how ‘uff’ does that answer my question?” ’Trude remarked.

“It’s because of the amount of variables involved in a given situation.” Eila replied. “Certain events have so many possible outcomes that predicting them is literally counter-productive. Plus...” she hesitated. “the very act of predicting the outcome of a battle we are about to engage in has a very real possibility of affecting the outcome of that battle negatively.”

“How so? You obviously ‘uff’ use precognition in battle to dodge enemy fire. I’ve ‘uff’ long since noticed you use your shield rarely, if ever.”

“That’s... a completely different situation.” Eila answered seriously. “Look, imagine I tell the squad ‘We’re going to win this one.’ Everyone goes out with the assurance that we’re going to win and as a result, even if it’s subconsciously, everyone is a bit too relaxed or not as on-point as they should be.” she finished grimly. “The variables change. Splat!”

Both girls were silent for a long moment.

“Don’t you think if I had any way to make sure you guys were all safe I’d do it?” Eila finally blurted out in frustration.

“Yeah.” Gertrude answered soberly. “Yeah, I get you Eila. Sorry.”

☆ ☆ ☆

They had taken the long way around and landed on the far southern side of the cove, out of sight of the ships moored off-shore. The two were just beaching the small boat when a shadowed figure stepped out of the thick brush. Eila addressed the person without even bothering to look up and see who it was.

“Hey Yeager. Glad to see you’re in one piece.”

" ’Bout time you guys showed up. What kept ya?” Charlotte responded without missing a beat.

“Well, you know...” Eila responded dryly, “we had to find an aircraft carrier lying around that no one would miss...”

“I’m glad you’re okay Yeager.” Gertrude impatiently chimed in. “But what about the others?”

“Yeah.” Eila added. “Don’t mean to be blunt, but who died?”

Charlotte sobered up noticeably. “Corporal Fiske and Lieutenant Hughes.”

“And...? Something else happened, right?” the precog pressed.

“Yeah, I was getting to that. Miyafuji was pretty seriously injured.”

“Yoshika was?” Eila gasped in surprise.

’Trude’s eyes narrowed. When the young Fuso girl first joined them she had been quite cold to the new recruit. But Yoshika had more than proven herself to the terse Karlslander, both as a soldier and as a person. She consequently now felt quite protective of the girl who reminded her so much of her dear sister.

“Miyafuji? What happened? Is she alright?”

“She’s... alive.” Charlotte answered carefully. “She’s in pretty rough shape honestly, but I think she’ll be okay eventually.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Gertrude began angrily.

“Look.” Charlotte sighed. “Not now, okay? Just... not now. We have other matters to deal with.”

She motioned the others to follow and began leading them to their encampent. “Come on. We’ll compare notes and bring each other up to speed.”

Since concealment was no longer an issue Charlotte had gotten a small fire going, which the three now took a seat around. “Let’s just let the others keep on sleeping for now, okay? Believe me, they need it.”

“How about you?” Eila questioned.

“Eh, I’m fine.” Charlotte answered, stretching and cracking her back. “I could use about a gallon of coffee though.”

“Well,” Gertrude said, opening the rucksack she had dragged along and pulling out a thermos jug. “I can’t help you with the gallon part, but I did bring some coffee along.”

“Hot damn.” Charlotte cheered. “Barkhorn, you are my new best friend.”

Gertrude snorted, handing the thermos over to the eager Liberion. “Yeah, yeah... whatever.”

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 28th , 1943
-- I.F.S. Akane - anchor-down in Orussian Coastal waters

“… so, you’re saying that on the day our planet was invaded by mysterious aliens from outer space, there existed a group of people who came together and said ‘Here’s our opportunity to take over the world.’ ?” Minna asked in an incredulous tone.

She was sitting in the officers mess along with General Briggs, Admiral Nishimura and Mio Sakamoto as they awaited word from Gertrude and Eila about their missing friends .

“Yes,” the Briggs responded. “I am saying exactly that.”

“But the depth that this has attained, the actual power these people now control... how could things come to this? How could something like this even happen?” The young Commander snorted in frustration. “It seems almost surreal.”

“In retrospect, I don’t see how something like this could not happen.” the General answered her seriously. “Even though we are all theoretically allies, as you know, that wasn’t the case until the Neuroi showed up on our doorstep. And believe me the ideological differences that existed still remain. The biggest problem is that those ideological differences are no longer constrained by national boundaries.”

“How do you mean?” Mio questioned over the rim of her coffee mug, arching her eyebrow. Minna and the Admiral also leaned in to listen with interest.

“Well, take Maloney for example. He certainly does not represent either official or cultural Britannian ideology. But he has been able to find like-minded individuals and groups - ‘underground nations’ for lack of a better term - to bolster his views and foster his agendas.”

He sat back and re-lit the pipe he had been cradling most of the evening. “Maloney seems representative of this in particular as I believe I have a pretty good idea of his character. He is a creature of envy. Jealous of others’ power - be it wealth, standing, rank... - while grabbing up as much power as he can for himself. ”

“I would imagine he has those feelings of jealousy and envy even more so for Witches, as you represent a power he that can never attain.” he paused reflectively. “At any rate... ‘How could it happen?’ It’s because, as a military organization we have become too compartmentalized. No nation was willing to take a back seat and let another lead. As a result the compromise, at least on the surface, was to let every nation have an equal say in all facets of military operations. Of course, in reality the Big Four - Liberion, Britannia, Karlsland and Orussia - still run things underneath it all. And the East Europan Bloc is still the East Europan Bloc after all.”

“Yes,” the Strike Witches CO acknowledged. “I get that. But how does what you’re saying relate to the question at hand.”

“Relax Commander, I may be going at it in a roundabout way, but I’m getting to it.” The old General continued. “Central Command has become too top-heavy. To the point where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. The obvious result is the massacre that Lieutenant Hartmann showed us happening in that Orussian village, without Central Command’s knowledge.”

He let those words linger in the air as he re-stoked his pipe. “I’m pretty damn sure I know who at least three of the upper-echelon moles are. Marjorie always tells me I should rely on my instincts more often.”

“I’ve looked over those reports Lieutenant Hartmann pulled together. You have too, right Noboru?” he gave a questioning glance at Nishimura. The Admiral nodded in acknowledgment. “Troop movements... personnel transfers... re-deployments... all done slowly and quietly. I think they’ve been at it for quite some time.”

The ships com whistled, interrupting the narrative. “General Briggs, sir. I have an ‘eyes-only’ message here for you from Colonel Hollister.”

“Okay son, be right there.” he turned to face Minna. “Would you mind tagging along with me? There are still some things I want to discuss with you.”

“Of course General. Mio, I’ll catch up with you in a bit. As soon as the girls get back from their recon.”

“Sounds good.” her second-in-command waved off.

“Major Sakamoto.” the Admiral turned to address her. “I have to get back to the bridge but I wanted to let you know, I’ve a small shrine set up on Deck 3. You are welcome to use it if you wish to meditate before you go into battle.”

Mio smiled gratefully. “Thank you sir. I’ll take you up on that.”

☆ ☆ ☆

Minna followed the General below decks, heading for the radio room. “So General, I can’t help wonder why we are anchored within visual distance of the enemy flotilla and they don’t seem to notice us?”

Briggs laughed. “Ah, that. Well we have a pretty fool-proof counter-detection system in place. Come, let me show you.”

Entering the communications room, the General led Minna to an isolated corner where two girls, looking to be around 14 or 15 years old, were seated around a work-table playing a card game.

“This is our counter-detection system. The Holloway twins here, provide a cloak for the ship.”

Minna was intrigued. “Illusion-casters?”

“Of course not. Illusion-workers are psychic based. They need contact with the mind of those they wish to misdirect. No, these girls are both spatial manipulators. They are literally bending the light waves around the ship.”

Minna brightened. “An invisibility screen?”

“Spot on.” The General grinned back. “And these two girls are the most talented of their kind out there. Although I may be a bit biased in my opinion. They are my great-granddaughters after all.” He pointed to the brown-haired girl on the left first. “That’s Sarah and that’s Emily.”

Motioning Minna to follow him, they approached the two girls. “Emi? Sarah? There’s someone here I’d like you to meet.”

The girl with the lighter colored hair, Emily, looked back at them and gave a beaming smile. “Hi General Grandpa.”

“I’ve told you not to call me that while on duty.”

While his words were gruff, his tone was that of affectionate amusement. The old General leaned forward and ruffled the girls hair.

“Yes sir.” She giggled mischievously. “Sorry sir.”

Minna was warmed by the display of affection. It had initially been just a gut instinct that caused her to trust this man after only one real meaningful interaction with him a little over a month ago, but more and more she was being given cause to believe that decision had been the correct one. General Briggs was, without a doubt, on the side of the angels.

Gertrude returned to the Akane alone, Eila’s spot on the boat filled with the larger anti-aircraft weapons Mallory had been carrying with his MAGUS suit. No sense leaving them on the atoll since they were unusable as personal arms. After instructing some crewmen where to offload the ordinance, she ran into Major Sakamoto heading back below decks. Together they made their way to the radio room where Commander Wilcke was still conversing with the General and his granddaughters.

As they all sat together around the small card table in the corner of the room ’Trude brought them up to speed on everything Charlotte had told her about the initial Neuroi attack that resulted in the deaths of Corporal Fiske and Lieutenant Hughes, Yoshika’s obliteration of the Neuroi core fragment and subsequent injury and the opening assault that the Propaganda Squad had staved off.

“I have to say Minna,” Gertrude commented “Yeager did an outstanding job keeping everything together. And to beat back an assault like that while being at such a disadvantage... well, I’m just saying, she did a pretty damn impressive job.”

Minna smiled hearing Gertrude come out and say that. She knew that the two clashed quite often. Both of them capable professionals but with diametrically opposed personalities. Beyond the chain-of-command relationship she had with her fellow Karlslander, they were friends and she was well aware that ’Trude - with her always serious, by-the-book attitude - strenuously disapproved of Charlotte’s carefree and seemingly frivolous approach to soldiering. She was glad to see Gertrude opening her mind a bit.

“I believe that in this situation we should all assemble on the atoll.” Gertrude advised. “It may be a better staging area for us in the long run. Since we need to maintain radio silence, you’re going to have to go there to co-ordinate with Yeager at any rate.”

Minna took a minute to digest this information. “Hmmm... if we are all going we’ll have to risk using a troop carrier.” She paused in thought. “Mio, assemble the squad please. We need to do this sooner rather than later. I want us squared away before it starts getting light out.”

“I’m on it.” Her second-in-command acknowledged, standing and heading for the door. “Give me twenty minutes. I’ll have everyone ready for you in the landing bay.”

“You may as well go with her ’Trude, unless there’s anything else?”

“No ma’am.” the Karlsland Lieutenant acknowledged. “That about covers everything.”

“All right. Dismissed.”

Mental gears spinning, she turned to address Briggs as she eyed the two young girls still playing cards in the corner. “General, do you think it would be possible to get some of the same cover the ship has for our trip over to the atoll?”

“I don’t know.” he answered honestly. “Sarah? Can you handle cloaking Akane alone for a bit while Emi escorts the 501st to the atoll?”

“I won’t need to sir. We have an effective mesh range of 1.5 kilometers. We can support each other and easily cover the ship and the troop carrier at the same time. No sweat.” she answered with a confident smile. “Right Em?”

“Right-o.” Emily confirmed. “Got it covered General Grandpa.”

Briggs grinned, beaming with pride. “Good show girls.”

☆ ☆ ☆

Charlotte and Eila were sitting in front of the fire chatting while they waited for Gertrude to come back with Commander Wilcke and the rest of the squadron. Francesca emerged from the cave rubbing her eyes sleepily, with Vince following close behind.

“Who are you talking to Shir... holy crap! Eila?" Suddenly wide awake, she launched herself at the new arrival, tackle-hugging her, causing the new arrival to fall backwards off of the log she had been sitting on. They both landed on the ground in a heap.

“Oh my god this is so great when did you get here where’s everyone else you missed everything you should have seen us kicking ass they were all like ‘whoosh’ and we were all like ‘zam’ ‘kapow’ and they were all like ‘eeerrrrrrr BOOM’ and then they sunk one of their own ships which was actually kinda cool and oh hey did you bring any chocolate I’m dying for some chocolate.”

“Jeez, get off.” the overwhelmed Suomus pilot griped, laughing as she pried the Romagnan pixie’s arms from around her shoulders. “A month on the road hasn’t changed you a bit has it ya loon?”

“Lieutenant umm... Juutilainen, right?” Vince questioned, reaching out his hand to help her up off the ground. “What are you doing here?”

Francesca punched his arm lightly, grinning from ear to ear. “They’re all here. The 501st. I told you they’d come to rescue us. Ha!"

“That’s right.” Eila confirmed. “We’re all here, as well as the Imperial Fuso aircraft carrier Akane.”

“I hate to tell you this but that isn’t going to be much help.” Charlotte interjected. “You have no idea what we’re up against.”

“Yeah. We kinda do.” responded Eila. “We have Ursula Hartmann is with us so we know everything that you figured out up until now and what we’re up against. Those MAGI things, right? We’ve been briefed. Besides, we have more than just the Akane. There is a bunch of ships en route from Riga as we speak. They should be here by morning.”

“You haven’t seen these things in action.” the Liberion ace said seriously. “Two rogue WARLOCK took out a Light Cruiser, did major damage to a Battle-class Destroyer and one MAGI wiped out both WARLOCK with no effort at all.”

The discussion ended as the remaining two members of the squad emerged from the cave to join them. Lynette leading Yoshika, who was now wearing Lynne’s sweater vest and wrapped in a blanket, doing her best to avoid making eye contact with anyone.

Eila was shocked by the sight of her. She couldn’t believe the difference in her squad-mate. It looked as if Yoshika were a hollow shell of her former self. Whatever had happened to her, it was obvious there was more to it than just a battlefield injury. Curiosity and concern vied for top billing in her mind. Ultimately she decided to say nothing. Making eye contact with Charlotte, she saw the Liberion simply shake her head sadly.

"Yoshika! You’re walking.” Francesca shouted happily.

The girl in question cringed slightly at the loud exclamation, stopping dead in her tracks. Lynette turned and gently placed her arm around the little Fuso girl’s shoulders.

“Please don’t shout Francesca.” Lynne admonished quietly. “She’s not yet fully recovered.”

Charlotte took a good hard look and knew it was true. Although most of the horrible scarring seemed to be gone, some of the visible wounds still looked a bit tender. But more telling was the way Yoshika was carrying herself. Even though surrounded by friends the Fuso maiden seemed extremely skittish. It was quite evident to her that the young girl’s spirit had been completely broken.

She made the determination then and there that Yoshika would not be joining them in this battle.

Eila passed out the rations she had brought along with her and the squad members enjoyed the first actual meal they had eaten in over 24 hours. Sitting around the fire, they continued the discussion... although Yoshika didn’t speak a word or have a bite to eat, no matter how much Lynne tried to coax her.

The tiny brunette stared into the fire, seemingly disconnected from what was going on around her until felt her loves’ arms gently wrap around her. Charlotte smiled softly seeing the tension visibly flow out of Yoshika’s body as the Fuso girl relaxed into Lynette’s warm embrace. Watching the tender scene reminded her of a passage from one of her favorite stories from childhood. One she had requested her grandfather read to her over and over.

“Love conquers all.”

She had believed it to be true then and she still believed it. Yoshika was going to be alright. They were all going to be alright. She was determined to make sure of it. She had already seen too much pain, too much suffering... too much death.

They had to make it through the upcoming battle. Not only for Yoshika’s sake, but for everyone’s. The whole goddamned planet. That evil dipshit Maloney and whatever organization was pulling his strings had to be taken down - quick, hard and permanent.

Eventually, the Liberion Witch heard the motor from the troop carrier approaching, letting her know that the rest of the Wing had finally arrived.

☆ ☆ ☆

Greetings were exchanged all around as the 501st were happily reunited with their missing friends, the happiness marred by the obvious proverbial white elephant in the room. Everyone could sense the radical change in Yoshika’s demeanor but nobody seemed willing to acknowledge or discuss it directly. During her debriefing with Minna and Mio, Charlotte gave them the upshot of what had happened to the girl, but – in her attempts to be discrete - she apparently wasn’t able to convey the true extent of Yoshika’s injuries since Minna seemed to think Yoshika appeared well enough to join them in battle.

“I respect your opinion Charlotte and I will keep it in mind. But let’s hear what Miyafuji herself has to say about it. She’s normally so gung-ho that we have to hold her back.” Minna stated confidently. “It may well be that you are trying to be too careful. Which is understandable. This is your first command mission after all. I know what a huge responsibility it can be”

“As you say Commander.” Charlotte responded uneasily as they rejoined the group.

“Miyafuji, Captain Yeager feels that you are in no shape to fight. Would you agree with that assessment?”

Everyone else fully expected Yoshika to protest with her usual vigor. Instead, the young Fuso girl kept her gaze firmly on the ground.

“Hai.” she answered quietly.

The squad members looked at one another uneasily. This was not the Yoshika Miyafuji they had all grown to know and love. It was heartbreaking to hear that once energetic and confident voice sound so timid and broken. Minna quickly realized that she may have pushed too hard.

“All right.” the Karlslandian commander responded, trying to downplay her surprise. “Why don’t you sit this one out then?”

Hearing Yoshika choke back a sob, she hurried to reassure the young pilot. “Hey, it’s okay. You did well Yoshika. Captain Yeager told me what a great job you did. You’ve done your best. Just like you’ve always done. You just rest. We’ll take care of this one, okay?”

Yoshika nodded silently, still avoiding any eye contact. She made no sound but even so, a few teardrops escaped her clenched eyes and splashed thickly in the dirt at her feet. Minna felt terrible for not listening more closely to what Charlotte was telling her – or rather, what she wasn’t telling her.

“Are you sure you’re not just coddling her Commander?” Perrine interjected. “She looks alright to me.”

"She looks all right to you?” Lynette thought. She balled her fists in anger but kept silent. “What part of her looks all right you... you... bitch.”

“You’re out of line Lieutenant.” Minna answered sternly. “This is not your decision to make. And I don’t recall ever ‘coddling’ someone under my command.”

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Perrine just couldn’t leave it alone. “So the Great Miyafuji isn’t so great after all.” she smirked. “Maybe this will teach her not to come off so high and mighty all the...”

*smack*

The Gallian pilots words were cut short as Lynette quickly strode up to her and slapped her as hard as she could with her open palm. The resounding crack of flesh on flesh was followed by Perrine’s flying backward and landing on her rear end in the dirt. All other conversation stopped as everyone’s attention was grabbed by the drama playing out in front of them. You could hear a pin drop. Lynne glared down at the older girl with unconcealed rage.

“Get up Perrine!” the Britannian ace snarled. “Get up so I can knock you back down again.”

The Gallian officer sat on the ground dumbfounded, rubbing her face where the young Britannian had slapped her.

“Wha-what? What did you do that for Lynne? How dare you strike me?”

Lynne wasn’t having any of it.

“Ever since the day she arrived you have been on Yoshika’s back. Making fun of her, insulting her, berating her. And even with all of that, she still tried many times to reach out to you and be a friend.”

Her glare grew more intense. “The truth of the matter is that you’re jealous of her... you envy her... because you know in your heart that in spite of your breeding and your background and your education, she is a better person than you will ever be.”

With that, she spun on her heel and returned to the side of her beloved – leaving everyone else stunned at the display from the normally quiet and reserved Britannian pilot. Charlotte looked down at the indignant Gallian who was still rubbing her sore cheek, looking rather abashed, and commented wryly. “Oh, by the way, they’re dating now.”

☆ ☆ ☆

In the end, Commander Wilcke ordered Yoshika to return to the Akane on the troop carrier, while the rest of the 501st prepared for the upcoming battle. Lynette received permission to escort the injured pilot to the beach. They walked slowly, if for no other reason than to prolong their time together before they had to part.

“Ne, Lynne. Am I a coward?” Yoshika asked in a quite voice.

Lynette was stunned by the question. “Of course not.” she quickly responded. “You have been through an extremely traumatic experience. Something that would probably break most people. You’ve been badly injured. And the mental torture you experienced... you know, a lot of other people in your position would probably not even be able to function right now.”

“But I feel like I’m abandoning you. I can... I can still fight. Physically I’m almost fully healed. But...” she paused, struggling to put her feelings into words. “... I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. When Lucchini-chan shouted earlier it scared me half to death. It really scared me. And the thought of facing the Neuroi again...”

She drew a deep shuddering breath. “What if they try to take me over again? Why am I the only one this has ever happened to? They’ve been on Earth for years now. I’ve never heard of anyone being controlled like that, have you?” The Britannian girl shook her head.

“I don’t know what to do Lynne.” Against her will, the tears began once again. “I feel like I’ve lost a huge part of myself. I feel as if it took me and part of me didn’t come back.”

Lynette took the smaller girl in her arms, silent for a moment as she decided how to best verbalize what she was thinking.

“You know, after my Aunt Ellen rescued me from my father it took me years to even begin to behave half-way normally.” the Britannian responded seriously. “And it was only very recently I found the courage to fully be me again. And it was mostly because of you.” She placed her forehead against Yoshika’s own. “Without you my love, I may have never found my way back to myself.”

“But I did.” Raising her head, she gave Yoshika a confident look. “And so will you. I know you will. And I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

The little Fuso maiden hugged Lynette tightly, burying her face into her lovers ample bosom. “Don’t die Lynne. Please don’t die. I don’t want to go on without you. I can’t go on without you.”

Lynette gave Yoshika the same confident smile the younger girl had always given to her when the odds seemed stacked against them. “I don’t intend to die. Even if you aren’t there you’ll still be with me. That alone will keep me strong enough to do what I have to.” She wiped away her girlfriends tears. “I don’t want to go on without you either, you know? I’ll fight better knowing you’re safe. Okay?”

They embraced tightly. Yoshika leaned her head onto Lynette’s shoulder. “Can we stay like this? Just for a little while?”

In answer, the honey-brown haired beauty drew her even closer. The distant surf crashing in the background the only sound in their world.

☆ ☆ ☆

Emily Holloway returned to the Akane with the empty troop carrier and a lone passenger. Although the young Britannian sailor tried to engage Yoshika in small talk, the shell-shocked Fuso maiden remained resolutely silent.

Emily felt badly for the girl. Although they had never met, she had heard some anecdotal tales about her from the others and this shivering girl with her was not the person they had described. She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to cause such a radical shift in personality. In retrospect she realized that she probably didn’t want to know.

She had noticed while on the atoll that Sergeant Miyafuji had kept mostly silent the entire time. Only becoming vocal and agitated when Commander Wilcke insisted that she return to the Akane, both for her own safety and to keep her from being underfoot while the rest of the squadron did their jobs. She seemed horrified at the prospect of being separated from Sergeant Bishop.

“Her girlfriend?” She wondered. Most likely, considering the way they had been interacting with one another. Sergeant Miyafuji practically had to be dragged away from Sergeant Bishop when they left. Her fellow Britannian had looked so worried as the landing craft launched into the choppy waves...

There was a jarring thump as the troop carrier was maneuvered into the Akane’s hold. Once the boat was firmly anchored down, Emily gently took Yoshika by the hand and helped her out onto the deck.

“I’m sorry Sergeant. I’d show you to your quarters, but I have to get topside and make my report. Your squad mates cabins are on Deck 3, Cabins E through K. If I remember correctly J was reserved for the four of you and K was for the gentlemen. Your effects were brought along, so you can get a change of clothes.” She informed Yoshika helpfully. “Can find your way? Or shall I call a deck-hand to guide you?”

The Fuso pilot finally broke her silence “I’ll be fine on my own. I’m pretty familiar with carrier layouts.” she answered quietly. “Arigato Holloway Jōtōhei.”

Emily gave her an encouraging smile and nodded in acknowledgment, then headed for the bridge where her sister and Grandfather were awaiting her return.

☆ ☆ ☆

Yoshika watched silently as the younger girl left and stood motionless for awhile collecting herself. Eventually she began to shuffle towards the stairs leading below-decks.

There were crew-people milling about, all preparing for the upcoming showdown and all too busy to disturb or attempt to help Yoshika – for which she was very grateful. Everything since yesterday had happened in a blur. She needed silence and solitude so badly. She needed to sort herself out.

She knew that unless she pushed past this trauma she would be a changed person. And she didn’t want to change. Not in this way. She had observed patients with dis-associative disorders in the past at her family’s medical clinic back in Yokosuka. Some of those cases had, of course, been victims of rape.

Now she knew what it was like to experience that first-hand.

Her thought processes were slowly returning to something approximating normal. She was beginning to have serious second thoughts about not participating in the upcoming battle. Walking down the companionway the bulkheads seemed to be closing in on her, making her feel somewhat claustrophobic. She was suddenly overcome with the desire to fly.

From the very first time she had donned a Striker unit she had fallen in love with flying. With the freedom and exhilaration that came from soaring above the clouds. Flying made her feel truly alive and she desperately wished for that feeling right now.

Soon she was standing in front of her assigned quarters. Heaving a deep sigh, she opened the door and entered the empty cabin. Picking the closest bunk, she lay down and stared at the ceiling, lost in thought. Why was the Core fragment able to do to her what it did? True, Neuroi had assimilated people in the past – a localized version of what a Neuroi Hive did when it melded to the land and spread it’s deadly miasma. But she had never read any reports of a Neuroi doing... what it did to her.

But that only meant there was no record of such an incident. Every other person that had been assimilated had died - their bodies converted into raw mass with no way of knowing if there was any mind control involved. Actually, no. Now that she thought about it, it seemed every record of Neuroi conversion she could think of noted that the victims fought against it to their last breath.

Why didn’t she fight it? What was different? The nature of her powers perhaps?

When Yoshika healed someone it took every bit of her concentration. In order to clear her thoughts and focus on the complexities of the human body it was necessary for her to use a form of self-hypnosis to block out distractions from the outside world. Could that be what left her so open and vulnerable, allowing the Core the ability to take control of her mind?

She had left the door wide open and in it came. Was that the key? Was that the answer? If so, then maybe... just maybe...

If the open door analogy was correct then perhaps she had just found a weakness in the Neuroi’s defenses. After all, an open door can be entered from either side.

☆ ☆ ☆

General Briggs finished reading the written message Commander Wilcke had sent back with his granddaughter. They now had a coordinated battle plan to work from – barring any unforeseen circumstances of course. Commander Wilcke was proving herself to be an excellent strategist.

“Nice work Emi. I’m quite proud of you.”

Emily smiled happily. “Thank you, sir.”

In the midst of this exchange, a loud crackle of static filled the bridge.

“Attention unidentified aircraft carrier anchored off our starboard. This is Major-General Trevor Maloney of the Optimal Order. We know you’re there. Our main gun batteries are trained on your position. If you do not respond immediately we will open fire.”

“Impossible.” Sarah Holloway squeaked. “We didn’t make any mistakes sir. I swear we didn’t. How can they know we’re here?”

“Hush dear.” the old Brigadier rumbled. “I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head. I know it isn’t your fault. All you girls can do is mask the visual spectrum. They are carrying Neuroi with them, in the form of their mechs, and we already know that Neuroi can read electromagnetic signatures.”

“We knew going into this that your abilities would only buy us a limited amount of time.” He reassured his granddaughter. “You both may as well drop our cloak and catch your breath. We’ll be needing you for that other thing soon enough.”

“Acknowledge now. This is your final warning.”

Briggs nodded his head toward the Bridge communications officer who opened the channel.

“I see you’ve given yourself a promotion Trevor. And shed your spots as well.”

“Douglas.” Maloney responded. “I was hoping it would be you. It will make this victory all the sweeter.”

“That is quite a bold statement coming from a traitor such as yourself.”

"I’m not here to debate philosophy with you Douglas. I am here to crush you and those damnable Witches and anyone else who gets in our way. I consider you and the rest to be the traitors. Traitors to the human race.” Maloney ranted in malice.

"The current multi-national defense force is ineffective. You are practically giving our planet to the Neuroi. This fractured world needs to be unified. Under one rule. Our rule.”

“We know what you’re up to Trevor. We know what you are attempting to do.” Briggs answered firmly. “We are here to put a stop to it.”

“The difference being that we are here with official sanction and you are not.” came Maloney’s reply, the unseen smirk on his face evident in his voice.

“Enough shilly-shallying.” Briggs responded with an edge to his voice. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. General Trevor Maloney, I am formally ordering you to stand down and present yourself for disciplinary action.”

Maloney snorted in derision. “What an uninspiring epitaph. Goodbye General Briggs.”

The radio transmission abruptly cut off. Admiral Nishimura wasted no time in response. Grabbing the bridge mic he flipped it to all-call, at the same time slapping the large red button on the main console.

“Attention all hands! Battle stations! Repeat! Battle stations!” he ordered. “All pilots prepare for immediate launch. All gun batteries - light ’em up and keep ’em hot.”

As the red alert klaxons blared, Nishimura turned to his long-time friend.

“This is it Douglas. We are committed.”

General Briggs wearily rubbed the bridge of his nose. “God help us all.”

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