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Chapter 5 - Tomoko's Unrest

The very next day, an opportunity to utilize the new equipment came in the form of a sudden order to sortie. As they stood in line, it was clear to the other witches that Tomoko was not in her usual condition. She was fidgeting and shifting uneasily; sometimes blushing with tightly pursed lips, muttering vehemently, or stamping her foot in frustration. “Pilot Officer Tomoko?” inquired Flying Officer Elma with a puzzled face. “Ah, no, it's nothing. Yes.” “It's like, your minds somewhere else~” Katherine said while she raised her hand and waved it up and down right in front of Tomoko's eyes. “I'm fine!” “You don't look 'fine' in the slightest.” Beurling walked over and put her hand on Tomoko's forehead. “You don't seem to have a fever.” “What's wrong Pilot Officer Tomoko? What on earth could be bothering you... Even though you're the most reliable~” Utterly confused, F/O Elma sounded like she was about to cry. Meanwhile, Ursula had been fixedly staring at Tomoko's face... “Wh... What?” With her head tilted to one side, Ursula breathed out a single word; “Love.” “Wh..! What the heck are you saying! This bug-eyed girl! If you screw around I'll smash those glasses to pieces!” “What! Tomoko! You, you fell in love~! Who? Who is it~?” “I'm not in love!.. I'm not I tell you!” “That denial was a bit suspicious, wasn't it~ You said that about your mysterious companion very fast, didn't you~” Clinging to Tomoko, Katherine launched savage tickle-attack on her. “That's true.” Beurling put her hand to her chin and nodded. “Who is it!” “Say, is it that engineer who came from your homeland? Am I right?” “You're not right! You're wrong! That's absolutely wrong! Falling into a state of panicked confusion, Tomoko began firing her machine-gun. Because they had been allowed to fly a normal escort mission this time, everyone was equipped with their main armaments. “Uwaa! You idiot! Don't shoot! Looking on at the disturbance, F/O Elma cried out in a heartbreakingly tragic voice; “Even though we were just asking... it seems like that was unreasonable~”   

Meanwhile, a certain figure was staring intensely at Tomoko from within the ranks of the 1st Squadron. It was the little girl with the bobbed hairstyle. Haruka's chest was burning with jealousy. Recalling what she had seen in the dining hall last night... What she had witnessed there, was Itokawa and Tomoko enveloping each other in a hot embrace. If it had just been a hug, that would have still been acceptable. Perhaps it could also have been explained as some kind of impulse... But, but..! “But, but! A kiss! Because... It's just not possible!” “What's not possible?” Flight Lieutenant Ahonen swung back her curly hair and wrapped her arm around Haruka's shoulders. A chorus of complaints arose from the other members of the 1st Squadron, which their Flight Lieutenant completely ignored. “Ah, it's nothing.” “It's not; 'nothing' is it?” F/L Ahonen slipped her hand into an opening in Haruka's flight uniform, and whispered while making her squirm. “Were you not just looking over at Tomoko? You troubled child, have you still not forgotten about her?” “That's... It's not... Aah!” “Have I not already said? Your body, and your heart too, those things are mine alone. This is the law of First Squadron... You're a naughty girl, aren't you.” “Ah, Aaah.... Lieutenant~” “It's 'big sister' isn't it?” “Aah, ye, yes, b, big sis~” F/L Ahonen continued to grope Haruka's breasts with her well-practised finger techniques.   

While looking back and forth between the pre-sortie spectacles created by 1st Squadron and the Independent volunteer Air Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Rudel commented to the capable adjutant standing beside her. “I guess there's no such thing as a carefree battlefield, Adelheid.” With a face like a frozen rose, Adelheid replied in her forever consistent tone of voice, “No, I don't suppose there is.”   

At a point fifteen kilometers outside of Slussen, along the usual flight path for the bombing raids, the witches of the Temporary Mikkeli Air-Base encountered a violent Neuroi interception. Through a break in the clouds came a formation of the usual Laros-kai, numbering twenty aircraft. 1st Squadron moved to engage, and an intense air battle kicked off. F/L Mika Ahonen lead 1st Squadron's assault, utilizing the Messersharf's proficiency in boom and zoom tactics. The entire maneuvre was conducted in formation, and in a remarkably solid manner. Taking the role of F/L Ahonen's wingman was Haruka, and there had been many opportunities to see her fly with the 1st Squadron. Until last week, she had been flying in a completely different manner while paired with Tomoko in a Rotte. Despite being bewildered by the difference to begin with, Haruka had gradually become accustomed to the new techniques. Before engaging the enemy, F/L Ahonen would always have her formation ascend. Gaining even just a little altitude, she would then usually strike from the enemies' side. “My cute little sisters; proceed as usual!” When F/L Ahonen gave orders like that... “Understood! Big sis!”...all her witches would reply. Flying as if they were a single entity, the witches of 1st Squadron clashed with the enemy. F/L Ahonen fired into the broken enemy formation. With that signal, the entire squadron split into their designated Rotte units, and opened fire with each wingman shadowing their leaders aim. Initially having targeted three enemies, four were left severely damaged, but F/L Ahonen did not pursue. Each respective Rotte then broke off and once again began to climb. Thereafter, the crippled enemies were brought down one by one. Certainly, it did not compare to Tomoko's showy personal shoot-down count. However, Injuries to Ahonen's allies were also rare. Occasionally a witch might be shot while exchanging gunfire from the front. Today as usual, Haruka was keeping tight on F/L Ahonen's back. With a volley of fire, the enemy formation had fallen into chaos. Before long, F/L Ahonen seemed to focus her attention upon a single aircraft. Under pressure, the Laros-kai wavered back and forth unsteadily, but F/L Ahonen was hot on its tail. Although the Flight Lieutenant was shooting from close range, her attack failed to connect. No longer able to continue her pursuit, F/L Ahonen promptly broke off, and switched to gaining altitude instead. Haruka considered this while watching from directly behind. If it were Pilot Officer Tomoko... she wouldn't have let an enemy escape in a situation like that. Skillfully twisting her body, she would eat away at the enemy's tail, showing that she can out maneuvre and shoot them down spectacularly. Pilot Officer Tomoko... Flight Lieutenant Ahonen's methods are reliable, but in spite of that, Tomoko's magnificent close-quarters dogfighting really suits her. Haruka whispered in her heart. Haruka shook her head to expel her daydreams. They were in the midst of a battle after all, and it was Haruka's turn next. The Laros-kai seemed to be preoccupied with F/L Ahonen, and thus did not notice Haruka as she approached from behind. Steadily drawing up to the enemy that Ahonen had missed, Haruka commenced her attack from near point-blank range with her 20mm auto-cannon. Due to the increased barrel length of the type 99-2 machine gun, the bullets did not arc down as quickly as they did before. The shots flew straight as if being drawn into the target. One of the wings of the Laros-kai was completely ripped off, sending it spiraling down towards the earth. “Yahaa~!” F/L Ahonen's words of encouragement came through over the wireless radio. “That wasn't half bad!” “Thank you very much! Big sis!” “When we get back, I'll have to give you a suitably ample reward. ~uFuFu...” Aah... Haruka scrunched up her body by reflex. The person I want to be admired by... it can only be her. I want Pilot officer Tomoko to praise me. But... just thinking about Flight Lieutenant Ahonen's touch makes my body tingle. From Pilot Officer Tomoko's cold attitude... it seems, she thinks I'm a hopeless child. With those feelings of mingled joy and sorrow, Haruka searched for Tomoko amidst the sky of fighting and swirling gunpowder smoke. Off in the distance, she located Tomoko in the midst of a battle against challenging odds. Somehow or other, it seemed that Tomoko and the Independent Volunteer Squadron had gotten themselves surrounded by a huge number of enemy craft. Haruka immediately wanted to fly off to assist, but she was now under F/L Ahonen's command. A wingman going off at their own convenience was absolutely not permitted. In a worst-case scenario, it could even be deemed as such a serious case of insubordination as to warrant a minimum of ten years in a military prison. With her heart pounding in her chest, Haruka watched Tomoko's battle.   

“Damn!” Tomoko absent-mindedly cursed to herself while pursuing a Laros-kai. A new formation of Neuroi reinforcements had appeared at around the same time as F/L Ahonen and the 1st Squadron had engaged the main force. The count was a mere six aircraft, and so the independent Volunteer Squadron had moved to intercept at once. Numbering roughly the same as Tomoko's group, the enemy force had apparently lost the will to fight, and began a gradual evasive dive. Lacking the will to fight, and not having the numbers to over-power the witches, Tomoko had declared them 'easy pickings' and initiated the pursuit. That... had been a miscalculation. There were not just two enemy squadrons. As soon as they had been lured to low altitude, no less than twenty more Laros-kai came raining down upon them. Just like that, Tomoko's group had been dragged into a brawl with such an unfavourable odds. Under normal circumstances, Tomoko would consider this a prime spot for such a fight. But today, she was not in good form. “Tomoko! Behind you! While forcedly pursuing a single enemy target, Tomoko's attention was shifted to the rear by Katherine's voice flowing from the radio. Two Laros-kai had taken her tail. “Ah, thanks!” As she expressed her gratitude, Tomoko turned her body and prepared to line up her next shot. Her 7.7mm machine gun was not very effective against the Laros-kai, but they could eventually be brought down in flames by continually shooting the weak points. At first glance the Laros-kai was a difficult opponent, but it was not an undefeatable enemy so long as one remains calm. With a skilful twist of her body, Tomoko out-maneuvred the pursuing aircraft and stole their backs. “Just give up!” she yelled, sending a stream of bullets at the tail-plane of one of the enemy targets. The machine gun bullets grazed the Laros-kai's surface with a *BaChi-BaChi. It was the sound of the bullets ricocheting off its metal armor. I can't seem to hit its weak points! Why, why can't I aim properly? The moment she asked herself this, the face of Itokawa surfaced in her mind. Leaning in to kiss her... Her heart was pounding. 'Wh, What am I doing!' she reprimanded herself. This is not the time think about that incident. Not now, in the midst of a battlefield! GaGaGaGaGaGa! A shock suddenly travelled through her body. “Tomoko! Tomoko's been hit!Eh? Eeh?” For a second or two, she was not able to grasp the situation. Looking behind, the initial Laros-kai she had been trying to pin down had approached unnoticed from behind, and was ripping into her with its twin machine guns! The bullets were accurately deflecting into Tomoko and tearing through her magic field. “Damn it! Tomoko twisted her body, but couldn't control her maneuvre. "Wh, Why can't I..!”You're emitting smoke!'' Beurling's voice came through once again. Upon checking her Striker Unit, it was indeed fuming. The magic field protecting the body of the machine had been ripped through, and her Ki-27 was hit. “I, I can't turn! The tail rudder had clearly suffered damage. This superior combination of Tomoko and her nimble Ki-27, had now had its mobility sealed, and been driven into a corner from which it could not escape. “Why! Turn and evade!I said I can't! Aaaah! Under continuous fire, the Striker Unit on her left leg finally gave in and exploded. At the same time F/O Elma and Ursula, who had came rushing over to assist, managed to shoot down the Laros-kai, but it was already too late... Tomoko was already spiraling down towards the earth. Tomoko would surely have crashed had her arm not been seized by Katherine, who's diving speed with the Buffalo outstripped anyone else's. By this point, 1st Squadron had torn through the initial enemy squadron and came to join the fray. They began to break up the Laros-kai formation that was building on its momentum against Tomoko's group. Having somehow escaped a crisis, the Independent Volunteer Squadron all rushed towards Tomoko's position. “Tomoko! Are you alright?” Tomoko nodded. Her own body had miraculously avoided serious injury, but on the other hand... “My Ki-27...” Tomoko muttered feebly as she took in the tragic state of her favorite aircraft. The unit from her left leg had been completely blown away, leaving her bare leg exposed. And the surviving right leg of the Striker Unit was also tattered from machine gun fire. As the propeller driven by the amplified output of the magic engine ground to a halt with a scraping noise, the right leg of her Ki-27 took on a truly lifeless appearance. Staring at the machine that was now full of holes, Tomoko didn't even try to hold back her tears.   

Because only one half of the Ki-27 remained, nothing could be done to repair it. Deciding to dispose of it was the only practical choice. It had been her favourite aircraft ever since the Fuso Sea incident. Upon losing it, Tomoko had returned to the base, and was reported to have hurried straight to her quarters. Tomoko could not have been delivered a bigger shock than losing her prized aircraft. She pulled her quilt up over her head, continuing to condemn herself without paying and heed to the concerned words of her comrades. “How could I have been so preoccupied... I've failed as a mechanized air infantry pilot...” Images of her Ki-27 and Itokawa's face floated around in her mind. The Ki-27 Striker Unit, Type 97 Fighter... With which she had shared all her joy, sorrow, and honor... Which felt like an extension of her own body... Which had now been lost due to her own negligence in battle. “I don't have what it takes, to fly...” Hiding away under the quilt with tears streaming down her face, Tomoko had fallen asleep before she knew it.   

The members of the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron worriedly crowded around Tomoko's bed. But it was Katherine that took the initiative to speak. “Tomoko. It's hopeless isn't it~ Like just now, saying she would quit the mechanized air infantry and stuff?” Even though she was the quietest member, F/O Elma cried out. “At times like this, I think comrades should lend each other their strength!” “That's for sure,” Beurling added. “But, what should we do? I don't understand it~ Even if my Striker Unit was destroyed to that extent, I'd be alright, so how should we console Tomoko? I just don't understand. After all, it's just a tool right? I can't comprehend what's bothering her~” “I think they say in the Orient, that spirits can also dwell within tools. That kind of emotional attachment is probably beyond what we can imagine.” Beurling's comment left everyone speechless. For a little while, silence permeated the room... until F/O Elma resolutely raised her hand into the air. “What is it?” “Umm... I, for a long time I've been thinking this. Moreover, I'm wondering if the time to put it into practice has come...” “What are you talking about?” F/O Elma gathered everyone around and began whispering conspicuously. Hearing that, Katherine stared at her with wide eyes. “Flying Officer Elma, that's... are you serious?” “I'm totally serious!” F/O Elma threw out her chest determinedly. “well, I agree with you but... bringing it up at a time like this...” With a worried expression on her face, Katherine's eyes travelled to the form of Tomoko wrapped up in the quilt. “We should do it precisely because of a time like this! Because no matter what; our war potential is plummeting with Flying Officer Tomoko feeling down!” Beurling nodded. “I also agree.” “Beurling, you're being unexpectedly adventurous.” “Eeh. As far as she's concerned, it might be a good chance to free herself from the title of a mere ace.” Katherine turned her attention to Ursula, who was sitting in a chair and reading. “Hey Ursula, were you listening just now?” Ursula gave a sharp little nod. “What do you think?” “Do as you please,” was all she had to say. Katherine began tampering with Ursula's face by placing a hand on each side of her head and rubbing them around. “You're gonna live a long life aren't you~”   

There was one more figure concernedly watching over Tomoko as she confined herself in depression. Stealthily peering into the communal room from the hallway window, was Haruka. “Aah, Pilot Officer Tomoko... looking so hurt... *sniff, If I'm lucky I might...” While she was muttering to herself, a breath applied to her ear made Haruka contort her body in surprise. “Ah...” “You're a naughty girl aren't you? Who are you so worried about I wonder? Are you not a sister of 1st Squadron? Didn't I say that feelings of affection towards another group are not permitted?” “Bu, but, but... Pilot Officer Tomoko became so... and I was worried... ah!” She twisted her body once again. F/L Ahonen had let her hand slip into Haruka's uniform, and spread her fingers across her sensitive chest. “Lieu, Lieutenaaant...” “I told you to refer to me as 'big sister' didn't I? Look here. Look at me. You're my partner through and through right? Is looking away permitted?” “I, I'm very sorry... big sis...” “Not good enough. Who is your master? I shall firmly engrave it upon your body for you.” F/L Ahonen's fingers slid up from underneath Haruka's short skirt. Skillfully seizing her trigger, Ahonen opened fire. “Ah! Ah! Big sis... Forgive mnn! Please! Ah! Aauhh! I, I'm a bad girl! Aah!” “Well now. Look at me! Was it your former leader, or someone else who taught you how to reply so well? Allow me to show you! Hoho! Ohohohohoho!” Haruka's feeble voice begging for forgiveness, and F/L Ahonen's gentle laugh, no matter what, these sounds would be clearly audible to anyone inside.

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