Proper Path to Glory

Codename: Phoenix!

“Kimi ga unmei no tenshi dayato” *

*You are an Angel sent by Fate

---- September 28, 1943
---- IFS Akane — Eastern Baltic Sea
---- 07:48 Hours

The crew of the command deck watched helplessly, as the young girl that had just saved them all from certain death was strafed from behind. They were stunned, but only for an instant. This is what they trained for, after all. Nishimura’s executive officer, Lieutenant Aisaka, was first out of the gate to spur the crew into action. She keyed the all-call from her tactical station — giving the rescue crews first priority.

“Evac teams! We’ve got one injured Witch in the water, directly below the bridge tower. Deck gunners…take that damn plane down now!

“Lieutenant, wait!” one of the crewman cried out.

“Deck guns, hold your fire!” she barked. “What, Komaki?”

“The five-oh-one pilot is on an attack vector,” the young man announced. “He’ll get caught in the crossfire.”

The ensign was correct, of course. Aisaka decided to hold off while the Strike Witches’ orphaned eagle took his shot, which looked pretty clean from her own vantage point. The Optimal Order aircraft wouldn’t get away. The atmosphere on the bridge felt like a sporting event for a moment. Everyone was cheering Vince on in ernest as he came within firing range of the enemy plane. The cheers turned into shouts of frustration as the Liberion’s fighter suddenly banked off before he could engage.

“What just happened?” Ensign Komaki cried out in frustration. “Why didn’t he shoot?”

“Guns are jammed,” Brigadier Briggs surmised. “Jammed or overheated.”

“He’s coming around again,” Aisaka observed.

But the young pilot did more than just ‘come around’. He made a High-G Barrel, ascending as he tracked his now-fleeing target. He continued to gain altitude until he caught up to and paced the enemy planes trajectory. Without preamble, he pointed his aircraft straight down on a collision course with the enemy combatant, throttles wide open. The de Havilland Mosquito streaked towards the Optimal Order fighter like a guided missile.

“Don’t tell me he’s going to do what I think he’s going to do,” another member of the crew called out.

“Come on, lad,” Briggs muttered, as the Liberion’s plane neared the point of no return. “Pop the damn canopy already.”

At seemingly the last possible second, the pilot ejected and was yanked free of the blast radius as his parachute deployed. Again cheers arose among the crew and, again, they were cut off prematurely as the shrapnel from the exploding planes tore through the pilots ’chute and he fell into the cold ocean below.

“Evac!” the XO called out once more. “You have a second pick-up. Non-powered combatant. Hit the water with no parachute. Respond accordingly.”

“Young idiot,” Briggs muttered, although he was smiling as he said it.

“Hmmm, yes,” Nishimura responded with a sly smile of his own. “Reminds me of an old friend, whom shall remain nameless. He would do the craziest things with astonishing regularity.”

“Yes, well…” the older man grinned.

“Sir, Dunkirk seems to be recalling her forces,” Aisaka informed.

One of the two MAGI engaging Wilcke’s crew had split off and was escorting the three remaining enemy fighter planes back to their own ship. Captain Yeager and the other two 501st pilots were in retreat as well — moving to cover their three remaining Akane comrades. The lieutenant was grinding her teeth in frustration as she watched Yeager’s group return to the ship instead of going after the enemy.

Dunkirk’s troops are running. Why doesn’t Commander Wilcke have her people press the attack?”

“Press it with what, Taiga?” the admiral responded wearily. “If their forces are stretched thin, ours are stretched thinner. The 501st needs to rest before their powers are depleted. The remaining fighters need to refuel and re-arm. We have a break in the action. We need to take advantage of it. Commander Wilcke is making the right call.”

---- HMS Dunkirk

---- 07:35 Hours

“General, I am recalling the MAGI for a bit,” Doctor Mengelé informed the bridge. “Have your troops return for refueling and re-ordinance, and rotate in new pilots. You will await my permission before you re-start the battle.” Maloney thought he had heard the man wrong.

“What do you mean, Director? Why are we stopping?” the general snapped irritably.

“We are not stopping. We are fine-tuning. I am in no rush to end this altercation. Let them gather their strength. Let them feel like they may have a chance. In the end it won’t matter. There is valuable data to be had under field conditions. The amount of information we have been gathering since the first salvo is astounding. I want to adjust the MAGI’s regeneration algorithms. Also, I believe I have found the proper frequency for the particle beams to disrupt a Witch’s shield. That discovery alone will be enough to allow us to lay waste to the Allied forces, once the Neuroi problem has been addressed.”

The conversation was muffled for an instant as Mengelé turned away from the receiver to speak to Lord Bishop. After a brief, unintelligible conversation the scientist’s clipped, raspy voice continued.

Akane’s long-range communication equipment is out of commission and they are crippled,” he explained in a offhand manner. “Even if they tried to run, it would be a futile effort. They won’t be going anywhere.”

The scientist’s icy tone grew a few degrees colder. “Let me be clear. My research takes precedent over any pissing contest you may be having with your former colleague. Make no mistake, it will be my MAGI that deliver the fatal blow. This is not your battle to win General. You are simply a chauffeur. Your little troops can run interference, but this victory will be the MAGI’s victory.”

There was a barely audible response from the bridge, that sounded a lot like grumbling.

“Did you say something, General?” Mengelé asked in a droll tone, “If you are trying to venture an opinion, please understand that your opinion is worthless. Withdraw for now. That is an order.”

“Of course, Director. Right away.”

---- IFS Akane — Main medical bay

---- 07:54 Hours

Eila had been moved to the recovery bay. Her damaged skin healed and the risk of infection averted. The Suomus pilots own body would take care of the rest. Afterwards, Yoshika had remained to help tend to the other injured pilots and crew who had been brought in. Seven personnel in total — a small number compared to the twenty six crew members occupying body bags in the outer room, waiting to be moved to the morgue.

Concussion, head trauma, minor contusions and shrapnel wounds took up most of her time. The surgeons did their jobs and Yoshika got them stable afterward. She was currently working on her last patient.

Just a bit more and…that was it. For the moment at least. There would be more injured as the battle dragged on, but at least she could finally sit down for a few minutes. She stepped back, brushing her hands together in satisfaction and started heading for the doctors’ lounge. Before she could even step out of the room, the rescue crew-call from the bridge came over the speakers.

Evac teams! We’ve got one injured Witch in the water, directly below the bridge tower. Deck gunners…take that damn plane down now!

Yoshika had no way of knowing who was going to come through those doors. Was it Lynette? Even though she wasn’t religious, in the Western sense, she breathed a prayer to the Kami. When the evac team finally arrived, she received a shock. Whoever she had expected it to be, she didn’t expect it to be Francesca. She felt overwhelming relief that at least it wasn’t Lynne — and then felt ashamed for thinking such a thing.

The tiny brunette immediately moved to be with her friend. Francesca’s left leg had been badly mangled by the bullets that had torn through the fuselage of her Striker, and she also had multiple bullet wounds on her upper torso. Dried tear trails were evident on the young Romagnan’s cheeks, her skin a bit ashen and her pupils dilated, but she was now mildly sedated and was calm, managing to smile when Yoshika approached.

“Oh good. I’m glad you’re here. I kinda got shot a little bit,” she stated sheepishly.

Major Kessler entered the suite holding some x-ray plates, which caused Yoshika to worry a little. If the lead surgeon was taking Francesca’s case it may very well be more serious than she thought it was. She waited patiently until the doctor finished studying the film. Spotting his patient and his new temporary assistant, he approached the two, nodding to Yoshika and handing her the plates, then turning his attention to Francesca.

Yoshika took a quick glance at the x-rays, which confirmed her unease. Still, she managed to keep her upbeat demeanor intact. No sense making things worse by giving her friend cause to worry.

“So little lady,” the major said cheerfully, “are you ready to do this?”

Francesca glanced at her friend. “Well, I dunno…what do you think Yoshika? Is this guy a quack or does he know what he’s doing?”

It was meant as a joke and the military surgeon took it as such. “Believe it or not, I’ve done this sort of thing before.” Doctor Kessler responded with an amused tone.

“I’ve been working with him all afternoon Lucchini-chan. I’m pretty confident he knows what he’s doing,” Yoshika added reassuringly.

Doctor Kessler motioned to the two orderlies standing by to wheel the gurney into the operating room. Once her friend was out of sight, she allowed her smile to fade. Looking up, she saw the physician’s equally serious expression — which confirmed what she already knew.

“You have a natural bedside manner Miss Miyafuji,” Kessler stated in a low tone. “I was a third-year intern before I was able to fake it that well.”

“The main artery in her leg is badly damaged,” she said, more a request for confirmation than a statement of fact.

“Correct. The damage is near the main arterial branch in the upper pelvic area. She has no idea how close she came. Literally another 16th of an inch to the right and she would be in a body bag right now. And I’ll be honest with you, she still may not make it. I can do some stop-gap work but that’s not going to be enough.”

The young surgeon knit his brow in frustration. “We’re pretty well equipped here, but this isn’t Johns Hopkins. I don’t have anything suited for work this delicate.”

Yoshika was thoughtful for a moment. “If you can put some stents in the area, I can use them as a support structure and force the arterial cells to repair the damage. She won’t be able to get out of bed for a couple of weeks, but by the time the stents dissolve and fall away she’ll be good as new.”

The Liberion surgeon looked at the youngster skeptically. “And you’ve done this before, have you?”

“I’ve regenerated muscle tissue and nerve ganglia. Repairing a section of artery is no different.” Yoshika answered confidently. “And as for using artificial grafts to support organic repair, my obaachan is one of the pioneers of the technique.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Your grandmother is Akimoto Yoshiko?” Kessler asked incredulously.


“Huh,” The young doctor ran his hand through his hair as he looked at Francesca’s charts once more. Then he looked down at Yoshika and grinned. “This certainly has been a day full of surprises. Alright Miss Miyafuji, you’ve convinced me.”

Beckoning the head nurse to start getting the room ready for the procedure, he then hooked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the double doors she had burst through earlier. “The lounge is over there. Why don’t you go grab something to eat and rest for bit. Even if there are no complications we’re going to be at it for a couple of hours.”

He reached out, taking the clipboard from Yoshika’s hands and tapped her lightly on the top of her head with it. “I’ll get things started. Come on back in about 30 minutes and you and I will perform a miracle you can write home to your grandmother about.”

Yoshika was very grateful that Doctor Kessler was going to do this personally. She had observed him earlier, while there were still a number of casualties being triaged. Knowledgeable and confident, with steady hands and without a typical experienced surgeon’s aloofness. Francesca was in good care.

Placing her hands together at the knees, she gave a deep, formal bow.

“Kessler-ihaku arigato gozaimasu”

“You are quite welcome, Sergeant. Go. Eat.”

---- 08:05 Hours


Lightning erupted from the tips of Perrine Clostermann’s fingers as she strafed the HMS Dunkirk’s port-side forward gun emplacements — electricity arced and danced from the guns to the metal railings and deck of the ship. The gunners mates, as well as a number of crew in the vicinity of the energy surge, fell to the deck, either stunned or unconscious.

Although she was fully capable of generating enough raw power to melt the barrel-ends of the massive guns, she hesitated to do so. Unleashing that much power would literally fry everyone around the blast. Even though this was a battle in which no quarter could be given, the young Gallian noble had never outright taken anyones life and she was reluctant to do so now.

We’re supposed to be fighting aliens, not killing our own people,” she thought in frustration.

Those downed combatants would be out of action for quite some time. There was no need to kill them. Next it was time to take the guns firing controls out of commission. She let loose a more focused blast — this one impacting where she knew the gun battery’s targeting control cluster to be — and was gratified to see a column of thick oily smoke curling into the air. Four less anti-aircraft guns for Akane to worry about.

She hoped Lucchini was going to be alright. Silly, damn reckless kid. Although the tiny Romagnan was far from being the only pre-teen Witch in the Allied military, in Perrine’s opinion, 12 years-old was pushing the envelope a bit. Even taking into account the accelerated maturation rate and power-surge Witches experienced in pubescence. Power, ability and raging hormones don’t make up for a lack of life experience. There were war orphans, living on her estate back in Gallia, that were the same age.

Major Sakamoto approached her position, surveying the damage the Gallian ace had dealt.

“Well done Perrine. Very impressive,” the Fuso major commented. “Your control is incredible. All of your practice and hard work is really paying off. Think you can take out the other one as well?”

“T-that? That was nothing…uh…I-I-I mean…” the Gallian pilot stammered, flustered by the praise her adored senior officer was doling out. “I mean, yes ma’am. I can. Take the other one out, I mean. I can do that.”

“Of course you can, Lieutenant,” the major encouraged, with her trademark booming laugh. “You know what I always say…”

Perrine did, indeed, know.

“There’s nothing a Witch can’t do!” they chorused together.

“That’s right. If you can take out that second gun emplacement before we retreat, we’ll have an even better chance during round two. You handle that and withdraw to the Akane immediately. Don’t worry about the MAGI. They’re going to be pretty busy. I’ll see you on deck.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The major peeled away and Perrine advanced on the second gun emplacement. The timing was excellent. There was currently no enemy air support to speak of. The Optimal Order planes had already left the battle and the MAGI were all engaged elsewhere. A dozen or so sailors stood their ground, firing their rifles in her direction, but most of the crewmen scattered — they had witnessed what had happened to their shipmate’s a minute earlier. Their bullets ricocheted off her shield, and she let loose another massive electrical discharge.

The crewmen who had been firing at her fell to their knees, their weapons slipping from their grasp. Once more she searched for the fire control cluster. Instead of another lightning strike, she decided to try out a new technique she had been practicing. Reaching out with her mind, she found the electrical potential of the internal power feeding the panel and tweaked it, folding it back in upon itself.

The panel exploded, with a satisfactory amount of noise and a light show accompanying it. Perrine hovered in place admiring her handiwork, imagining basking in the major’s praise once more…a momentary distraction that she would pay a price for. Having assessed that the crew below were no longer a threat, she took no notice when one of the downed sailors drew his sidearm and fired. She didn’t even realize she had been shot until she saw the crimson bloom spreading on her shirtfront. She spun around in shock, and that movement alone saved her life. The second bullet had been aimed right at her head and had instead grazed her temple.

The Gallian ace fell backwards and head-first — losing blood rapidly and finding it impossible to determine which way was ‘up’. She did have time to feel stupid. Time to wonder how cold the water would be. Time to wonder if Major Sakamoto would be angry with her. And even more time to wonder…was it her or was this taking longer than it should?

A wave of blackness began creeping in on the edges and as her sight tunneled she had a sudden vision. A strikingly handsome woman — a warrior — clothed in gleaming armor and radiating a serene yet unstoppable power.

Perrine knew the stranger immediately. Had worshiped at her temple since she was a child, as had her mother and generations of her ancestors before her. She was Andarta. The most powerful Celtic Goddess/Warrior in her pantheon. Racing downward from the open sky, reaching out a mighty hand to catch her. Perrine had one final thought before she passed out.

I didn’t know the Goddess wore an eye-patch.”

---- IFS Akane: Deck 2 — Hanger B

---- 08:45 Hours

The members of the 501st, accompanied by the Akane shield contingent, filled a corner of the large open area. Everyone was crowding around the four long portable tables that were overloaded with a vast amount and wide variety of food. This feast wasn’t a perk or an extravagance, it was a necessity. It has been said that an army runs on its stomach. This axiom was true for Witches, even more so. To manipulate magical energy, a metabolic catalyst is required. The application of powers which defy the laws of physics, is still bound by them, after all.

After an almost solid hour of expending those powers at their fullest, they were famished. Even Sanya, the daintiest eater among them, was shoveling it in like there was no tomorrow. Minna noticed Mio finally rejoining them, returning from sickbay where she had personally carried Perrine, after catching the young Gallian girl before she hit the water.

Minna shoved whatever was handy at the table between two slices of bread and moved to intercept her. She wanted to know the situation before Mio started getting bombarded with questions from the others.

The major cast a skeptical eye at the proffered snack. “An onigiri sandwich? Well, that’s…novel,” Mio commented wryly.

“Oh, just hush up and eat it. Give me five minutes and you can go have whatever you want,” she responded lightly. “How is she?”

“She’ll be okay,” the major assured her commander, carefully picking the smushed rice ball from out of the bread. “It was a clean shot and missed all her vital organs. She’s already in recovery.”

“Thank goodness. Any word on Lucchini yet?”

“They’re still at it,” Mio informed. “Her internal injuries are pretty bad. Miyafuji is assisting the lead surgeon. According to the nurse, they’re using an experimental technique developed by Miyafuji’s grandmother.”

“Her grandmother?”

“Akimoto Yoshiko-san is a world renowned surgeon, and a pioneer in the blending of magical and scientific medical techniques. In fact, everyone in the Miyafuji family is quite gifted. Her mother has degrees in multiple fields and runs the largest private medical clinic in Yokosuka. And of course, you know who her father is.”

“Doctor Miyafuji Ishiro,” Minna acknowledged. “Lead developer of the Striker Program. When I first read her records, back when she joined up, I could hardly believe it.”

Mio nodded solemnly. “That’s why it may seem as if I’m pushing her too hard sometimes. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t know she is capable of all that and more. She’s a remarkable girl, and I want her to achieve all she can. And I did promise her family that I’d watch over her.”

Minna smiled warmly, putting an arm around her friends shoulder and giving a gentle squeeze. “Awww, you really do sound like a mom.”

“Jeez,” Mio squirmed in embarrassment. “Knock it off, will you?”

“So, how is Shirley taking all this?”

“About as well as you would expect. She said, like, five words to me. ‘Yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘leave me alone’.”

Minna sighed and gave the older girl a weary look. “Well, I’ll take some food down to her and check in on Lucchin’s progress. And then, like it or not, I have to get her back up here and on the job. We need every damn one of us left or we are done for. Simple as that.”

She stood up straight and squared her shoulders. “I’ll go handle Shirley. You make sure that everybody doesn’t get complacent after they gorge out. We could have to scramble at any time.”

“I’ll take care of it,” the major assured her. “Quickest way to the wards is to use that stairwell on the left as you go out the door, and go down two levels. Believe me, you can’t miss it. Miyafuji’s pumping out so much energy, you can see the glow from the hallway.”

---- IFS Akane: Deck 3 — Medical bay

---- 11:00 Hours

Lynette headed for the doctor’s lounge, carrying a cafeteria tray laden with Yoshika’s favorites. She was well aware that, when the girl applied her healing magic over an extended period of time, she became almost comatose until roused with food. The buxom Britannian smiled to herself, recalling the very first Combined Forces battle Yoshika had participated in, so many months ago now.

--- --- ---
The 501st were there to provide support for the 39th Battalion, during a nasty surprise engagement with a stray collection of Neuroi ‘land walkers’. Yoshika had spent almost all of her time doing triage rather than fighting, since the ground battalion had lost three of their field medics and their only healer. As they flew home after the battle, she had literally fallen asleep in mid-flight. Fortunately, even back at the beginning, Lynette always had her eyes on the curious little Fuso maiden.

Waking Yoshika up before she could crash, and before Commander Wilcke or anyone else in the squad noticed what had happened, she overcame her then-extreme shyness, and offered the new girl the bar of chocolate she happened to be carrying in her flight jacket. The blood sugar spike had been enough to keep the chestnut-haired spitfire awake until they had returned to base.

Rin-chan arigato! Grateful for gift of the chocolate, I am,” the strange, adorable girl had said in her cute, heavily accented, broken Britannish. The beaming smile the statement had been delivered with made Lynette’s heart stop beating for an instant.

You’re…you’re…you’re welcome,” she had stammered back, turning her face away, as she was blushing like crazy.

From that point on, the Britannian ace had made sure that she always carried a chocolate bar in her flight jacket. Just in case.
--- --- ---

Spying the object of her affection sitting on a bench in the back of the lounge, Lynne couldn’t help but giggle at the cuteness of the scene. Yoshika was sound asleep, head lolled back against the wall and a slight bit of drool on the corner of her mouth. Pulling a small table from the center of the room up to the bench, she carefully put the tray down took a seat next to her love, who cracked open an eyelid and gave a sleepy smile. Closing her eyes once more, she shifted her position, so she could lay on the bench and rest her head in Lynette’s lap, her expression a study in contentment.

“How are you feeling?”

“Daijoubu genki desu,” she responded, lifting her head slightly. “Even better now that you’re here.”

Rolling on her back, she gazed up at Lynne with a sober expression. “We were really busy in there. On top of everything else, Lucchini-chan’s injury was pretty serious. That took a lot out of me. I knew we could do it, but she was this close to having a severed artery. Honestly, I couldn’t relax until we got her closed up.”

She inclined her head in the direction of the young surgeon, who was currently sitting with his back to them at the opposite table. “Kessler-ihaku was amazing. He is as skilled at micro-surgery as my obaachan. And that’s *yawwwn* that’s really saying something.”

“Shouldn’t you eat?”

With that statement, Yoshika gained a bit more energy. “Oh? What did you bring me?” Popping her head up to table level, she viewed what was on the tray and her eyes went wide. “Katsudon? Yakisoba? Onigiri? Green tea? Yum! How?”

“Well, we are on an Imperial Fuso ship after all. It’s not that surprising, is it?” Lynne giggled in response. Slipping an object from her pocket, she held it aloft as if it were a grand prize. “And for dessert…”

“A Fry’s Chocolate Sandwich!” Yoshika cheered quietly, spying the distinctive navy and gold packaging. “Yes! Chocolate filled with chocolate, wrapped in chocolate. Britannish chocolate is the best. So decadent.”

“Assuming you still have room for it, after you have eaten all of that,” the older girl commented wryly.

“Didn’t you know?” her love chortled happily, grabbing her chopsticks to scoop up a healthy portion of katsudon. “Fuso girls have a second stomach just for sweets.”

The Britannian pilot smiled, and was content to simply allow her girl to work on replenishing her spent energy. She needed time to consider how to address something that was making her feel uneasy.

--- IFS Akane: Deck 3 — Recovery Suite #6

---- 11:10 Hours

The Liberion Ace and her Girl Friday were speedy. Not just the ability to move quickly, but reflexes, perception, thought-processes, decision-making — all taking place in an instant, from thought to deed. The so-called ‘single-synapse’ state. Twelve year-old Charlotte had been exactly like Francesca was now. Impulsive, reckless, inquisitive…extremely limited attention-span. Charlotte had tamed all of those traits by high school, through sheer force of will. And, she had some rough times getting through it.

She remembered how it felt to be so different, so out-of-synch with the rest of the world. Trying not to jitter impatiently over literally everything. Forcing yourself not to answer all the questions in class — not because you are some genius, but because your brain simply processes information so much more quickly than most people. Boredom leading to mischief leading to disaster.

People either hated you, because they thought you were showing off, or avoided you, because they thought you were some kind of hyperactive loon. Charlotte understood Francesca so well because she saw herself. That was why she seemed to have infinite patience with her.

“So, how are you feeling kiddo?”

“I’m okay. They did a good job. Although if it weren’t for Yoshika I could probably whistle out of my thigh now,” she grinned sheepishly. “Guess I really screwed up, huh?”

“I don’t think so. Sometimes this stuff just happens,” Charlotte quickly reassured the younger girl.

There followed a kind of awkward silence, neither one knowing what to say next. Charlotte had come with a purpose though, and she meant to follow through with it. She owed Francesca an answer, even if it wasn’t the best answer. Recent events made her realize that important stuff can’t wait. And, that it’s best to be honest with the people you care about most.

“Remember what I said to you, after I was shot down? That we need to have a serious talk?”

She grabbed one of the chairs from the opposite side of the cabin and pulled it next to her partner’s bed. For her own part, Francesca was kind of dreading this, since she knew how this conversation was most likely going to go. There was no way in hell Shirley was going to confess her love to her.

More and more, she was regretting acting so stupidly, blurting out her feelings like that. It wasn’t fair to Shirley. The little Romagnan knew she had put her friend in a very awkward position. It was best, she felt, to cut her losses and let Shirley off the hook.

“It’s okay… I know you don’t love me that way,” Francesca stated quietly.

Charlotte was silent for a moment, considering how to approach what was, at best, a morally ambiguous situation. She heaved an uncharacteristically heavy sigh.

“I didn’t say that, kiddo. But, for right now… for right now, I can’t love you. It’s just not proper. I know you think I’m all cool and badass and I do whatever I please, but I still believe in right and wrong. And it’s wrong for a 19 year-old to have a loving, sexual relationship with a 12 year-old.”

“But I’m not…” Francesca began to protest.

“Let me finish,” Charlotte said, cutting her off. “Not a lot is going to change for me in the next two years. The difference between 20 and 22 isn’t much. But for you things are going to change drastically. The difference between 13 and 15 is vast.”

Francesca was confused now. “So, you’re saying…what are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is, even if we can’t be together right now, I don’t have any plans to go looking elsewhere.” The redhead regarded her young friend seriously. “As ashamed of myself as I am about it, I can’t deny the fact that I truly do love you, Francesca Maria Raffaella Alessandra deContessa Lucchini. I love you enough that I’ll wait for you.”

“Shirley…” the younger girl whispered.

“What I’m saying is, if you still feel this way about me two years from now, I will gladly accept those feelings.” The ginger-haired Liberion then leaned down and softly pressed her lips to Francesca’s. It was a chasté kiss and it was brief, but it held a promise — a promise for the future.

And Francesca realized she could live with that.

“You know I’ll always have your back, Shirley. Even if we aren’t a couple, we’re still a team. Glamorous Shirley and the Amazing Lucchini.”

A smirk came to her lips.

“What?” Charlotte questioned with a cocked eyebrow.

“Well, realistically, we don’t live in a bubble. A lot of things can happen in two years.”

“Yes, that’s kind of where I was going with that,” the redhead responded carefully. “But what’s funny?”

“I was just thinking, it’s not really fair. I mean, you’re bi, so I have twice the competition,” she laughed.

“If the pictures of your older sisters are any indication,” Charlotte quipped back. “you will be forever Lolita, so I’ll have to fend off twice the perverts.”

“Says the professional pervert.”

“You got that right, Lolita.”

They laughed easily together and it felt good. It felt right. It felt normal.

“So…wow! You knew all my names. Even the ‘deContessa’ part.”

“Oh, that. Heh, you had some kinda legal papers laying out in your room a while back. I just happened to snoop, since I’m nosey like that,” the Liberion ace shot the youngster an evil grin and chuckled. “I thought it was pretty damn funny that your name is bigger than you are.”

Francesca puffed her cheeks in feigned indignation, causing Charlotte to outright double over.

---- IFS Akane: Deck 3 — Doctors lounge
---- 11:20 Hours

Yoshika was acting like her normal self — as jovial, quick-witted and social as ever — and that worried Lynne quite a bit. There was no pretense in her demeanor as far as she could tell. The girl wasn’t faking it. When they had parted ways on the atoll, less than five hours ago, her love was still suffering from the intense aftermath of a horrifying physical and mental assault. Having had experienced something similar, she knew that Yoshika could not have recovered from that kind of violent trauma in only five hours. She had to be repressing her memories of the incident on some level.

The older girl was aware, from years of therapy, that repressing those types of memories was both a natural instinct and the wrong thing to do. Such repression creates a subconscious loop of anger and self-loathing, and is the main reason that some rape and assault victims, who do not seek professional help, eventually end up taking their own lives.

Lynne knew this was true, because she had made a serious attempt to commit suicide when she was 13 years-old, and had come frighteningly close to succeeding. Ironically, it was that incident that had finally alerted her Aunt Ellen to the full extent of her father’s abuse, and enabled her aunt to remove her from that environment.

At any rate, the current situation was probably alright for the short term. Assuming they lived through this battle, it would still take days before they were back home and able to get Yoshika professional psychiatric help. If she was able to function right now, it was probably best to just leave it alone. And if something bad did happen, Lynne would do whatever was necessary to protect and care for this person, who was the other half of her soul.

She would have continued to dwell on it, if she hadn’t suddenly become aware of Yoshika’s eyes upon her. The Fuso girl had stopped eating and was carefully studying her face with concern.

“Lynne, what’s wrong? You look really stressed about something all of a sudden.”

“No. I just… how long until Francesca can have visitors?”

“She can have them now. Other than her leg, she’s fine. I healed everything else that was wrong with her and I gave her immune and adrenal systems a little boost after she came out of the anesthetic. Which she’s probably getting a bit of a head-rush from, right now,” the spunky brunette chuckled. “She won’t be getting out of bed for at least two weeks, and she’ll have to spend another two weeks in a wheelchair. After that, she’ll be fine.”

“That’s wonderful news. I’m so relieved.”

“I just hope they don’t have to sedate her when we go back out there,” Yoshika mused half-seriously. “I don’t imagine she going to take being confined to her bed very well, while the rest of us are in the thick of it. Maybe I’d better go talk to her about that.”

And there it was. Exactly what Lynette had been most afraid of.

Working as she was right now — healing people…helping them — that was part of who Yoshika was, and she was in an environment that would be unlikely to trigger any emotional backlash. But for her to even consider going into battle now? No. Just…no! No matter how okay she thought she felt, she wasn’t.

“When ‘we’ go back out there?” Lynne questioned with a soft voice, that belied the concern evident on her face. “Are you certain you are ready for that?”

Yoshika tensed up slightly at the question. She had gotten as far as she had today by focusing on everything else and putting the incident out of her mind completely. She knew she wasn’t alright, because just that gentle reminder twisted her stomach into knots. She closed her eyes for a moment and found her center.

“I kind of have to be. I mean, I don’t know our exact situation right now, but I do know we are at a disadvantage. I know Lucchini-chan, Eila-san and Perrine-san are out of the picture. And I know it’s going to take all of us, together, if we’re to have any hope of surviving.”

What Yoshika said was absolutely true. And she had that look in her eyes…a look that Lynette knew well. A look of determination that had given Lynne strength and encouragement in many a battle. The Fuso girl had already decided what she would do, and nothing would stand in her way…not even the person she loved. Lynette weighed the reality of the situation against her unreasonable wishes, and decided there was no merit in having an argument she was destined to lose.

“If you are truly that determined, I shan’t make a fuss,” she finally answered. “And if that is the case, you had better hurry up and finish eating. We have a mission briefing at 1200. That gives you less than half an hour to splash your face, change your uniform and talk Commander Wilcke into putting you back on active duty. I will back you up, and help try to convince her, as well.”

“Ariga…,” Yoshika began, but was cut off as Lynette placed a finger against her lips, shushing her.

“Here are my conditions. You promise me that if you get tired, or it becomes too much to handle, you will return to the ship. You promise me you will not take any unnecessary risks, or pull any crazy stunts like you always do. And finally, I will fly lead this time. You are going to back me up. Agreed?”

“Oooo, strict Lynne-chan is strict,” Yoshika said playfully. “Kinda sexy.”

That finally lightened the mood, as the Fuso girl intended.

“Agreed?” Lynne repeated, smiling in spite of herself.

“Agreed,” Yoshika assured her. “I’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“This isn’t about trust. I trust you,” the older girl stated honestly. “I’m just very very worried about you.”

“I know you are. And I love you for it,” Yoshika responded sincerely. “Anata, I promise…no crazy stunts or unnecessary risks. And, as soon as all this is over, I will talk to someone about what happened. I will deal with it properly. Let’s just get through this first, okay?”

“Ana…? Did you just call me darling?” Lynette blushed.

“Hai,” the Fuso maiden winked at her. “Thought I’d try it out…see how it feels.”

Giving her blushing love a peck on the cheek, Yoshika quickly finished her meal, allowing Lynne to clean up after her so she could inform Doctor Kessler of her intention to rejoin her squadron.

The young surgeon was a bit disappointed, but he had been half-expecting this. Watching while she healed her squad-mates, he saw the friendship and deep connections the Fuso girl had with them — connections that could only come from a cohesive, tightly-knit unit…a family. He hadn’t been made privy to the circumstances that had kept Yoshika ship-bound, while her squadron engaged the enemy, but from what little he had gleaned of her personality, whatever was stopping her earlier was not going to stop her now.

He stood from the table to face Yoshika, and was surprised when she took a kneeling position before him, bending forward from her waist, palms down on the floor in front of her body, with the fingers facing. A Shin bow, Kessler knew, was performed to show gratitude and respect to an admired teacher or superior. This was Yoshika’s way of conveying how grateful she was, for all that the major had done for herself and her friends.

“Major Kessler arigato gozaimasu. It was an honor to assist you, and quite an education as well, sir.”

“Ha, I should be thanking you. I got quite the education myself,” the young surgeon responded breezily. “And by the way…” he added with a mischievous grin, “…what’s with the ‘Major’ stuff? I told you to call me…”

“Sir,” she cut him off, “I will not call you ‘Kessler-senpai’! It would not only be against regulations, it would be very embarrassing.” she deadpanned, containing her laughter.

“Only embarrassing for you, though,” he winked. “Well, at any rate, thanks again for your help. You have a bright future to look forward to, Sergeant,” the major stated confidently, giving her a firm handshake and large grin. “Now, just to make sure… you do intend to go on to medical school after you’ve finished your tour of duty, correct?”

“Yes sir. It is my dream to someday take over our family’s medical clinic. Although, it will be a long time before I can ever hope to measure up to my okaasan and obaachan.”

“Probably not as long as you may think. Listen, when you start applying, you are more than welcome to use me as a professional and personal reference. And, if you apply to either Harvard University in the US, or Heidelberg-Mannheim in Karlsland, I will write a personal recommendation to the Department Chair.”

“Sir, I-I don’t know what to say…”

“Say that you’re going to win this battle, and that we can finish this discussion on our way to take you guys home. Come find me when this is all over, alright?”

“Yes, sir,” came the confident answer. “I will, sir. Promise.”

Leaving the medical bay, Yoshika reflected on how right it felt being in that operating room, how good it felt helping people, and how much she was looking forward to a future in medicine.

But for right now, that was not where she belonged.

She was a proud member of the Strike Witches, and it was there, by their sides, that she belonged. Stand or fall, she would do it with her friends.

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