Chapter 6 - First Love under the Aurora
From February 1st the bitterly cold weather of Suomus began to deteriorate even further.
Regardless of whether or not it was to the benefit of Tomoko's condition, a week long blizzard was sweeping across the country. As such, the assaults on Slussen which had been conducted roughly once every three days were now suspended.
With such a raging storm, training was also an impossibility.
Consequently, all three squadrons of witches that were currently stationed at the Mikkeli Temporary Air-Base were savouring their time off as if it were a gift from the heavens.
Except for Tomoko that is, who just whiled away her time of anguish in bed. Everyone in the squadron brought her food at meal times, which were also eaten in bed.
Before long, Tomoko was summoned to the command room. Without any particular inclination to do anything, and not knowing what to do about the emptiness in her heart, Tomoko mechanically got up, and put her clothes on as if she were in a trance.
“Come on now, you have to comb that beautiful black hair of yours 'K? It's all over the place~”
Unable to let it pass, Katherine began combing Tomoko's hair for her.
Ursula also put down her book and came over to correct the crossed buttons on Tomoko's uniform.
“Let's wash your face next~”
Katherine fetched a bowl of hot water, and wiped Tomoko's face clean for her.
“Open your mouth.”
Thrusting a toothbrush into her mouth, Ursula began brushing Tomoko's teeth.
Tomoko just stood there.
“...Tomoko? Why aren't you wearing any...”
The uniform of a military witch almost always included a miniskirt of some variety. This was due to the practicalities of equipping a Striker Unit. It also meant that the witches tended to stand out, or perhaps one should say; they were always precariously close to exposing themselves completely.
Tomoko was not in the habit of wearing underwear to bed, which is why she would always put them on first thing after getting up. Today however, she had neglected to do even that.
“...Oh come on now, get dressed properly 'K?” With an exacerbated tone, Katherine made Tomoko put on her underwear.
Upon losing the Ki-27, a gaping hole had clearly formed in Tomoko's heart.
With a face devoid of motivation, Tomoko arrived at the command room; “...Pilot Officer Anabuki Tomoko reporting.”
Squadron Leader Häkkinen, with her usual expression, handed Tomoko a single sheet of paper.
“...this, what is this?”
“It's your promotion orders,” replied Sqn Ldr Häkkinen as she adjusted her spectacles.
Tomoko became confused; something was said that she couldn't quite comprehend.
Gazing at the letter in confusion, Tomoko saw that it was written in both Fusan and Britannian.
- 『Fuso Imperial Army Pilot Officer Anabuki Tomoko; the afore-mentioned individual is henceforth assigned the rank of Flying Officer.』
At the end of the document was the signature of the Suomus military attaché.
In appearance, it was similar to a field promotion... but in this case, there was an official notice of appointment.
Sqn Ldr Häkkinen handed over the brand new rank insignia to Tomoko, who was still completely dumbfounded. It featured a single gold line running across the centre, upon which were affixed two stars. It was without doubt, the insignia of a Flying Officer.
Grasping it tightly, Tomoko enquired with a flustered stutter; “Wh, why? Why have I been pr, pro, promoted to-”
“The rank of Pilot Officer isn't suitable for commanding the squadron is it?”
Tomoko's mouth was hanging open wider and wider. With a face that couldn't have looked any stupider, she continued her attempts to comprehend the situation.
“Wh, What, do you mean?”
“We would like you to command the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron.”
“Huh? But isn't Flying Officer Elma already commanding the squadron?”
In response to this, the figure of F/O Elma timidly revealed itself from behind a curtain. Evidently, she must have been hiding there the whole time.
“What the heck were you doing?”
“Aah, umm... Pilot Officer Tomoko, ah no, now it's Flying Officer isn't it... Flying Officer Tomoko, I was the one who recommended you for the position of squadron commander."
“That again... Why?”
Looking a little embarrassed and hanging her head, F/O Elma spoke towards the floor.
“I've always admired your aptitude for command. That time we took down the Diomedia, and recently, when we completely destroyed the Laros-kai formation with bombs... Under my command, I think we would have failed... or rather; is it not the case that you're already leading the squadron? So I would like you to take this opportunity to become the commanding officer in name, because that's the reality of the situation.”
“But I disgraced myself and lost my Ki-27 due to my own incompetent-”
“Flying Officer Tomoko is not incompetent or anything like that! It could happen to anyone if they get distracted! A child like me should be called incompetent! I'm cowardly, and I have no talent for aerial combat... and...”
F/L Elma's outburst left Tomoko feeling as if she had been struck in the head with a baseball bat.
While feeling so down about her own shortcomings... she had been hurting the feelings of her younger superior officer. Realising that, and considering her own self-centred attitude Tomoko was moved to tears.
“Flying Officer Elma...”
“I'm just, a useless child. I can't be a good commander while I'm so incapable; it's always been your responsibility, really.
Because she appeared to be quite upset, Tomoko walked over thinking she should try to comfort her. But thereupon, F/O Elma emphatically raised her head.
“In any case! I want to study while fighting under Flying Officer Tomoko's command! That way I can become a prominent commanding officer myself!”
F/O Elma grasped Tomoko's hand, and forcefully shook it up and down.
“Because of that; Please, you have to accept to position!”
“You are not a pilot of the Suomus air-force. We have no authority to order you to do so. Therefore I can only ask; please, I request that you to do this for us.”
“But, I no longer have a functional Striker Unit.”
“Don't you have that Ki-44?”
“Well then, what do you say to taking command?
Up until now, I haven't really been able to decline.
It would seem that both Sqn Ldr Häkkinen and F/O Elma are expecting this of me. That aside, lying in bed all day just left me in a rut...
With a nod, Tomoko gave a vigorous salute.
“Understood ma'am. I, Flying Officer Anabuki Tomoko of the Fuso Imperial Army, shall assume the role of squadron commander.”
Upon exiting the command room Tomoko was hailed by Beurling, who was leaning against a wall.
“Yo, squadron commander.”
“Why have I; who was shot down, been made squadron commander? What on earth are they thinking?” Tomoko muttered while wiping the tears from her eyes.
Her voice came out sounding quite irritated due to how awkward she found the current situation.
“Everyone wants to see what you're capable of with that state-of-the-art aircraft.”
“The 'state-of-the-art aircraft' that I couldn't even land?”
“Everyone has trouble when they use an unfamiliar Striker Unit for the first time.”
Tomoko turned away and set off towards the barracks. Beurling followed on right behind her.
“Oi, Oi, are you really not going to use that Ki-44?”
“Don't make me repeat myself. I can't possibly use it.”
Beurling's tone of voice was becoming more irritated.
“Hey! You know, that's a fine Striker. If all your country's witches were equipped with those Ki-44s, the Fuso Empire would become the world leader in military aviation.”
“You're overvaluing it by a ridiculous amount. It's a useless thing. The engine might be pretty good, but that's all. Now the Ki-27, it operated like a part of my own body. The difference is insurmountable.”
“You, are an excellent mechanised infantry pilot... but your one major flaw is that obstinate lack of flexibility.” Beurling said as if letting out a sigh.
“Until a new Ki-27 is delivered, I will not be engaging in combat. Until then, I want you to do your best in my stead. Have you considered that recent battle? Where we lured the Laros-kai down to low altitude, didn't we completely obliterate them? Even that feat was made possible by the Ki-27's flight performance.”
“You're wrong,” Pilot Officer Beurling denied it plainly. “That achievement was brought about purely by your own talent. That is why I'm saying this to you; the Ki-44 is ready for action. You need to learn to use it; we're the least dispensable pilots in our squadron.
Shaking her head, Tomoko walked away.
Beurling shouted at her receding back; “Hey, Tomoko! This might sound strange coming from me, but once in a while; try to be more honest with yourself! That which was unseen, may well become visible when you do!”
Tomoko seemed to pause for a moment... before determinedly walking off.
Unable to approach her again, Beurling just stood there watching her disappear.
“...It seems like you're dealing with some rather ill-fitting burdens.”
Looking over her shoulder, Beurling noticed that Flight Lieutenant Rudel was staring at her from behind.
She immediately averted her eyes to the floor and made an attempt to leave.
“Hold up. I have something that you'll want to see.”
Rudel led Beurling as far as the hanger.
“So, what is this thing you wanted to show me?”
At Beurling's enquiry, Rudel pointed towards a corner of the hanger. There were as many as ten large wooden crates lined up, and draped in waterproof sheets.
“What are they?”
“Try opening one.”
Beurling removed the lid from one of the two-metre tall crates. Upon seeing what lay within, Beurling's breath caught in her throat.
“Are you trying to establish your own army or something?”
Rudel shook her head.
“Nope, this is all top quality equipment. As we both know, bombs are not effective against urban areas filled with Neuroi. Because no matter what we do; those things are able to use the scrap resources and multiply.”
Beurling nodded. From mid-January onwards, the bombing runs on Slussen had been kept up tirelessly... but as of yet, there had been no report of the Neuroi occupation weakening in any way.
“When this blizzard clears... a full scale operation to re-capture Slussen will begin. At that time, I intend to wage an all-out duel with these armaments.”
“We'll be relying upon our faithful escorts. Whether or not this plan succeeds or fails, depends entirely upon whether or not you lot can maintain air-superiority in the skies of Slussen. I'm sorry to say this, but I want our escort to succeed even if it means you have to crash into the enemy to pull it off.”
F/L Rudel lowered her head to Beurling.
Feeling constricted, Beurling unconsciously reached into her pocket, took out a cigarette and placed it between her lips, then remembering that she was in the hangar, immediately returned it to its packet.
“Why are you telling me this? I was the one who brought about that scar across your face.”
“Pilot Officer Beurling, you're not your former self are you? You have a different look in your eyes now. Do your former comrades know, or the newspapers back home; that you are no longer so recklessly fixated on your own personal shoot down count? I didn't mean to eavesdrop on your conversation with Flying Officer Anabuki, but 'our squadron' you said? I don't think such a thing would ever have been heard from your former self.”
Beurling remained silent for few moments, before opening her mouth wearily.
“I can't guarantee the escort you want. At any rate, we're lacking that kind of military strength. If I understand what you're intending to do, we'd need a further two squadrons.”
“I know that.”
“However, we will fight to our last ounce of strength; that much, I can promise you, Herr Kapitän.”
Beurling demonstrated a textbook example of a Britannian air-force salute. Which F/L Rudel returned, along with a rare smile.
“We dive bombers must choose our shields, it is the sorrow of the spear. But because you wouldn't ever just give up, I think you ladies make a fine shield. It's what I expect of you, Silver Fox.”
That, was Beurling's call-sign during her time with the Air-Wing for International Neuroi Observation in Ostmark.
Before long, the two of them left the hanger shoulder to shoulder. Night came early to the skies of Suomus, and the sunlight was already being driven away.
That icy sky was now shrouded in a curtain of wondrous light.
“Look,” F/L Rudel said, pointing towards the sky.
She was pointing at the aurora. A spontaneous florescence brought about by complex interactions between the earth's magnetic field and a flow of charged particles from the solar wind... Such a spectacle was often visible from Suomus.
“According to folklore in this part of the world, the northern lights are caused by light reflecting off the armour of Valkyrie.”
“Beautiful armour isn't it? It's worlds apart from our Striker Units.”
Without responding to Beurling's cynical comment, F/L Rudel continued as if speaking to herself; “Should we not pray that this aurora guides us to victory? Will we become the modern era's Brünnhilde, and bring about the twilight of the gods? Or become Beowulf, magnificently destroying Grendel?
“From the perspective of a Britannian, I would like to support the Beowulf analogy... But personally, I also like The Ring of the Nibelung, so I can't honestly agree with your preferences towards poetry.”
“That sounds like a truly Britannian remark.” F/L Rudel laughed.
The two of them continued to gaze at the aurora shining across the sky.
Meanwhile, Tomoko had tried to return to the common room in their living quarters, but had been stopped in the doorway by the tall figure of an engineer calling out to her.
“Pilot Officer Tomoko.”
Looking back, Itokawa was standing there with a smile on his face. Tomoko turned away in disgust.
“Have your injuries healed? I was worried about you.”
Fury welled up inside Tomoko at that remark.
Worried about me? Even though he didn't so much as visit!
Ignoring him, Tomoko tried once more to enter the room and distance herself from the source of her smouldering rage.
“Hey wait a minute; I need to speak to you.”
“No thanks. I'm not going to talk with a shameless person like you who doesn't understand common courtesy.”
“You really hate me don't you?”
“Who is the one doing things to be hated for?”
“How rude; this time I was even going to give you time to resist.”
Tomoko's face was dyed bright red. Without even a thought, she sent a slap flying is way.
A dry sound pierced the air.
Itokawa had not made a single move to avoid Tomoko's strike.
“What..! What did you say! What did you just say to me!”
“As I was saying; today I came to apologise. My behaviour the other day when I kissed you, was the result of my true feelings getting the better of me, but my discourteous behaviour will not change. However, there must be an order to things.”
“That's right. We have a reservation at a restaurant.”
“We'll head into town and have a meal. Because of the snowstorm, there won't be any sorties for a while anyway right? A cute witch like you needs a day off once in a while.”
Eventually, Tomoko's resistance broke down and she got into the tattered Karlsländ-built Ford that Itokawa was driving.
To get to Mikkeli, they had no choice but to traverse a battered agricultural track that was clearly meant for farm vehicles.
Tomoko grasped hold of the empty window frame by the passenger seat to keep herself stable.
“Oww, what kind of restaurant are we going to anyway?”
“A popular one.”
Approaching the town, there was a steadily increasing number of small shed like barracks. They were thrown together from planks, and odd bits of sheet metal forming crude shacks. Usually, buildings in this country were constructed with logs or brickwork, but that was not the case with these pitiful shelters, which would be unable to defend against the extreme cold.
“These homes look very cold.”
As soon as she expressed her thoughts, Itokawa stepped in; “They were constructed by the refugees from Slussen. Without a doubt, this winter must be difficult for them with walls like those, but the people who were able to build shelters in this area are still better off. The town has become even crueller than this.”
Their car soon made it into the town of Mikkeli proper.
Upon seeing the tents lined up along the main road, Tomoko was rendered speechless. They went on and on, uninterrupted and squashed together right into the heart of the town. Smoke could be seen rising up from here and there.
“There's smoke coming from some of the tents. Has a fire broken out?”
“Nope. There are open fires inside the tents for cooking upon; they say it's a nomadic design. But it's not a good substitute for a twentieth century town in northern Europe.”
Tomoko hung her head. She couldn't bear to look at it a second longer.
If we had only done a little more for them in Slussen...
“So what kind of 'restauraunt' would still be trading amid this catastrophe?” Tomoko enquired in such a manner.
Is it even possible for a restaurant to function in a town overflowing with refugees? And supposing they are open for business, there's no way I could bring myself to eat an extravagant meal in front of them.
“I'm fine without eating. It's the thought that counts, so let's return to base.”
“It's just round the corner.”
Itokawa parked the car as they came to the town square, and got out.
No matter how one looked at it, there was nothing that could be considered a restaurant of any kind. There was a water fountain, and a huge number of refugees sitting in the circles of light beneath the street lamps, staring up at Tomoko and Itokawa with weary eyes.
“And where would this so called 'restaurant' be?”
“It's right there.”
The place Itokawa was pointing at was a large cauldron, in front of which the refugees were lining up. It was an improvised distribution centre, from which they were handing out hard baked bread and some kind of stew.
“Restaurant 'League of Nations - Salvation Army', run by volunteers from the signatory nations. Well then, let's get in line.”
They took their place at the end of the queue.
Foreigners were very rare here, so the two of them were receiving many curious and unreserved stares. It was making Tomoko feel very awkward, she looked like she was trying to make herself as small as possible so they wouldn't notice her.
After about thirty minutes of standing in line, it was Tomoko and Itokawa's turn. A wooden bowl filled with stew was handed to her by a young Liberion girl. She had an armband pinned to her sleeve with a design featuring the alphabetical letters 'L' and 'N' upon a world map.
“Now here's a new face. So where have you come from?”
“The Fuso Empire.”
Giving Tomoko a scrutinizing stare, the girl asked; “By any chance, are you a witch? From the airbase?”
Looking uneasy, Tomoko nodded.
“Oh!” and with that she started yelling in Suomi as loudly as she could.
The surrounding refugees swiftly surrounded Tomoko, demanding handshakes with smiles on their faces.
“Ah, what's going on?”
“Everyone's very excited to meet you. After all, the mechanised air infantry are idols the world over,” replied the young Liberion girl enthusiastically.
Overwhelmed, Tomoko bowed her head.
“I'm so sorry! We're nothing but failures! They were able to steal your home town from you... and we allowed such a terrible thing to happen...”
The refugees stared on with puzzled expressions as Tomoko reeled off one apology after another.
“What, are you apologising for?” Itokawa enquired.
“Wh, what for? Are they not angry with us?”
“Angry? Why would you assume that they're angry?”
“Bu, Because... if we mechanised air infantry had done a better job, this kind of situa...”
While they were speaking, the Liberion girl had begun translating the conversation for everyone, stirring up laughter from the refugees.
“What a strange girl,” she commented. “Indeed, everyone here has been driven from their homes, but you've come all the way here from a distant land to help them. They wouldn't resent such people.”
An elderly refugee began speaking to the Liberion girl, but her message seemed to be intended for Tomoko. The girl proceeded to translate it into Britannian for her.
“She says; 'Everyone has times of failure in life. What's important is to not give up.' These people haven't given up, neither have I. That is why they are able to laugh, even given these harsh conditions. And that is why you mustn't give up on them. We expect nothing less from our witches!”
Hearing this filled Tomoko's heart with emotions she wasn't quite able to express, and could only shed tears into her bowl of stew.
During the winter months, night came early to the skies of Suomus. The town was already enveloped in darkness.
Due to the potential for enemy bombing raids, a blackout was in effect from nightfall, which often left the area pitch black.
Tonight however, with a natural florescence shining in the sky, the town overflowing with refugees had taken on the appearance of an image projected from a magic lantern.
Through that surreal looking town, Tomoko walked side by side with Itokawa.
They had both maintained silence, but eventually Itokawa decided to ask; “You're not thinking that it's your fault or something like that are you?”
“That's known as 'being conceited'. Do you understand? You're not the only person fighting this war, everyone is; not just you and your comrades, but even the residents of Slussen, and myself too.”
Itokawa handed a package wrapped in brown paper to Tomoko.
“It's my true objective. I wanted to give this to you.”
Tomoko opened the package with a suspicious expression.
What she took out was a beautiful evening dress made from black velvet. Tomoko stared at it with wide eyes.
“I bought it in Paris while on my way here, and blew off half a year's pay in the process. But I was coming to meet Tomoe Gozen of the Fuso Sea, so this much is natural don't you think?”
Tomoko's eyes couldn't get any wider upon hearing that remark.
Wouldn't that mean that Itokawa bought this for me before we had even met?
“It was truly love at first sight; which just happened to be while I was watching your film.”
This line affirmed Tomoko's unspoken question. Her face reddened at the realisation that the mood resembled some kind of destined meeting.
“Try it on.”
“But, bu, but, this kind of thing wouldn't suit me. I've only ever thought about the sky, and nothing else. I look like a child, and I've never worn anything like this before...”
“It's perfectly fine; you can change in the car. Don't worry; I'm looking the other way.”
She continued to mumble something, but still resigned herself to accepting Itokawa's coercive offer.
Inside the car, Tomoko wrapped her body in the dress Itokawa had given her.
Timidly coming back outside, she was met by Itokawa's smiling face.
“I, Like I said, it would never suit me!”
“You're wrong. It's far beyond my imagination.”Tomoko's black hair and matching dress, illuminated by the light of the aurora, gave her silhouette an ethereal beauty, as if floating in front of the pitch dark town. The extremely low-cut dress wrapped snugly around Tomoko's immature figure in a truly bewitching fashion.
Itokawa reached out and grasped Tomoko's hand tightly.
“It suits you perfectly!”
“Nothing but lies,” Tomoko muttered, but her voice was no longer harbouring any anger. She repeated herself in a bashful voice, “This kind of look doesn't suit me.”
Itokawa's response was a kiss. He guided her lips with a hand under her chin.
Tomoko found herself completely unwilling to resist. Without knowing why, she placed her hand on Itokawa's back.
After a little while, Itokawa slowly pulled away.
“That dress, and the Striker Unit too, the only person who thinks they don't suit you, is yourself.”
Tomoko realised that she had just been completely entrapped by his words, but it was not an unpleasant feeling. Instead, her body was enveloped in a refreshing happiness that she had not felt before. Despite Mikkeli's biting cold air, it felt like something warm was welling up inside her.
“You're impossible,” was all Tomoko managed to force out.
While gently brushing aside her hair, Itokawa asked; “So you'll use the Ki-44 for me then?”
Tomoko remembered Beurling's parting advice; “once in a while; try to be more honest with yourself! That which was unseen, may well become visible when you do!”
I guess so...
Once in a while... For at least once in my life, I should try following the impulses of my heart.
Just because... for some reason... it feels good.
Just like the time she first flew through the skies.
While holding Itokawa close, Tomoko decided as such.
As usual, there was a shadowy figure carefully watching those two people from a street corner.
It was Haruka and F/L Ahonen.
Trembling uncontrollably, and looking absolutely mortified, Haruka managed to stutter out; “F, F, Fl, Flying Of, Officer To, T, To, Tomookooo~! That's not possible! That kind of cheek-reddening kiss wasn't real! What's so good about someone like that! Is there anything good about him!
F/L Ahonen swept back her curly golden hair with a thin smile on her face.
“Hey Haruka. Stalking her to this extent... it's a little bit weird.”
“I, I'm sorry...”
“But... I too have accompanied you thus far, so perhaps I'm a little weird too... uFuFu~. Watching my little sister's former crush put on such a performance, it's rather romantic isn't it.”
As usual, F/L Ahonen's hand swiftly found its way under Haruka's skirt. Her long porcelain fingers were placed upon Haruka's body with the accuracy of a professional musician, and without further ado the performance began.
“Aaahh... F, Flight lieutenant~! That, not like that! I, I'll become completely lost.”
“You lost yourself long ago. You know as well as I do, that your body can't go on without my precise touch right? Just like this, and this! Like this~!”
Within Haruka, there were mixed feeling of profound joy, and sorrow.
“Flying Officer Tomoko... I, I've become such a hopeless girl... But, but but! Absolutely, unconditionally, I will rescue you from the evil influence of that engineer! At that time, you'll notice me for sure... Ah! You, who is the most important person to me!”
The mysterious light of the aurora affectionately illuminated those two strange girls; as Haruka laid bare such an unusual proclamation.
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