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A Bittersweet Symphony - The Tale of Manchester and Captain Falshaw

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Chapter 1 - Stand Before the Storm


November 25 1940 14:05, log of VADM L. E. Holland - Operation Collar's convoy rounding Gibraltar carrying 1370 RAF technicians, HMS Manchester and Southampton escorting the merchant ships SS New Zealand Star, SS Clan Forbes and SS Clan Fraser with Force F. Fair weather and fair seas, and no fighting God willing. No movement reported by Force H's scouts.

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This wasn't what I had in mind when I think about going on a Mediterranean cruise, John Falshaw mused as yet another man gave up his lunch to the ocean. The Yorkshireman shook his head at the sight and turned his gaze over to the ocean. As much grief he gave those RAF blokes, he too was feeling a bit queasy as HMS Manchester gently rolled along the waves, and anything to take his mind off of it was welcomed. It was hard to believe that he, a former sniper in the Duke of Wellingtons Regiment during the Great War, was now lumped in with these pseudo-fly boys en route to Malta and Alexandria to tune up Hurricanes and Spitfires. Then again, they didn't really have much that an old war dog such as himself could do.

His left knee began to ache as he started to move himself from the side railing and along the side of the warship, reminding him of the Jerry bastard that got him at Passchendaele. It was a different time back then, and remembering it brought forth a heavy sigh. He had been another one of those bright eyed youngsters who at 16 lied about his age to go off to war almost as soon as it had been declared. It didn't take long for the romantic visage to become replaced with the horror that was reality. The first battle he had ever been in had taken four of his best mates in a single artillery shell, and his second resulted in another two choking to death on poison gas. His older brother (by three years) got tangled up in barbed wire at the Somme, an easy target for the German machine guns that cut him to bloody shreds, and his youngest (by only a year) impaled by another's bayonet while he was recovering in hospital. By war's end he had seen every conceivable way a man could die on the battlefield, and he was none too excited for another Great War.

Which was why, in an ironic twist, he was now once again in the military in a new world war, only this time he hedged his bets to make sure he would never serve on the front lines again. Getting work during the Depression was hard, but he managed to do well in a machinists job, well enough that when he applied to become a Royal Air Force technician they took him on the spot. Granted it was probably out of necessity than anything. He had little experience with the planes before he and the nearly 1400 others were stowed on board HMS Manchester and Southampton, so he had been trying to read up on manuals on the voyage, something that he ended up tossing aside. He was the type to learn as he worked, rather than to be straight taught what to do, and the manuals only served to alleviate boredom.

Stopping for a moment for a quick smoke, John looked across the water to HMS Southampton, and noted the figure standing on the foredeck with mild amusement. It was unusual to have a woman on board a vessel unless they were being transported someplace, but this girl wasnt a normal woman. She was, as they called themselves, a Belle, a physical manifestation of a warship that protects the world from the Morganas, a group of seemingly demonic forces that want nothing more than to wipe out humanity. The Belles choose their captains with no discernible criteria, no matter what they are or where theyre from. There was even tale of a female American Belle captain, and of a German Belle going off with a Russian. Fortunately, Southampton's Belle stayed to her mother country so there was no fear of some foreigner getting their hands on one of His Majesty's ships. The captain was also a rather unsurprising pick, a Lieutenant who was on board for a training exercise when the Morgana fog rolled in. From this distance, John was only able to make out Southamptons white sun hat, though he was sure the daintily appearing Belle was enjoying herself in the sun. Funny how she would probably be better suited as the Belle for HMS Brighton, but that ship hadn't manifested a Belle yet, and she at least was a good enough representative of Southampton itself.

Just as he finished his cigarette, tossing the butt into the sea, he looked up only to see Southampton's Belle rigid and staring to the east. Something caught her attention, something that snapped her from her usual cheery disposition, and that wasn't easy to do. Following where she was looking, he found himself gazing at a fog bank. It wasn't close by any stretch of the imagination, but from what the sailors told them, when there's fog, there's almost certainly a Morgana. It didn't take long for the ships to turn towards the south to try and avoid contact. With all these extra bodies on board, the two Town-class cruisers weren't at peak combat efficiency; the best tactic was to avoid conflict as much as possible. It was left to Force H to deal with any such threats. Heading back inside the warship, John took one last look towards the fog bank and thought he could see lightning coming from inside. Morgana or not, a storm wouldn't do well for Force F, and with any luck they would avoid it. Hoping for the best case scenario, he went down into HMS Manchester and to his bunk to see about trying to understand those damned manuals.

Nearly an hour passed before the ship lurched, nearly tossing Falshaw out of his bunk in the process. "What the-" he grumbled as he tossed aside the manual he had been reading (rather using as a cover over his eyes so he could take a nap). He groaned as his knee shot with pain, getting down with a short leap. Those bloody sailors are trying to kill me, I just know it.

Several other technicians were wondering what was going on, some trying to look out of port holes and others like John scrambling to the deck. As soon as he had made it back on to the foredeck, the fog bank had now nearly closed the distance. From what he could tell, it was well out of sniping distance but for ships it was right in the sweet spot. Again he saw lightning coming from within, except this time he could hear thunder, followed by a whistling sound. The water next to him erupted into a column, making him jump. It was a warship alright in there, a small fleet of Morganas. The thing was though, only a scant few shells landed around them, and they seemed to be deliberately aimed so they wouldn't hit. Most shots were being fired at targets within the fog, and it was unclear who. Another British convoy? A supply train? A group of Belles from Force H out of position?

Things were slowly clicking into place for the former sergeant as the warships steamed towards the thunderous fog. The lurching was probably Manchester turning to avoid a shell and towards the fog, and the shells missing around them were probably to get the attention of the British force. At this point running away wasn't an option, so the two cruisers along with the rest of Force F were forced into combat. He just hoped that whatever happened, he'd stick to his plan of being as far from the front line if possible. Maybe the Morganas would be sunk before they arrived on the scene. In any case, he wasnt going to stick around on deck waiting to be shot at. He was going to head back down and wait this skirmish ou-

"Oh no you dont!"

A hand suddenly grabbed the back of his RAF jacket and began to yank him out. "You need to get onto the bridge, mate."

John was spun around, and was looking right into a young womans face. "We need you, Captain."

Oh, you've got to be kidding me


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Well here is my foray into Victory Belles fanfiction courtesy of YuriMom. The next chapter will have more dialogue as this was more for setting the scene and getting the ball rolling. Let me know what you think. I decided to end there because it was a decent enough spot to do so, otherwise I would have carried on for longer

 

(chapter 2)

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If the Like This worked for meh I would like it. Also added to the index.

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Chapter 2 - Stand By Me

 

November 25 1940 15:23, log of VADM L. E. Holland - Force F beginning engagement with Morgana ships, sending light cruisers Southampton and Manchester to skirmish while destroyers continue to protect merchant ships. Force H closing in on position.

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There are a few dignified ways to make your way through a ship. Being dragged by a Belle by the back of your jacket isn’t one such way. It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to get away from the grip, far from it. The thing was, the girl’s ironclad grasp made him like a fish out of water. “You know, most people are mad fer captaining a Belle.” Manchester scolded. “Show a bit of gumption, won’t ya?”

 

“Who told you that rubbish?” John earned a hard pull for that, nearly making him trip through a doorway.

 

“South’ampton told me. Her cap’n was chuffed to be ‘ers.”

 

“She’s a dainty little thing.”

 

“And I’m not?”

 

He was half tempted to answer back, but he held his tongue. The firecracker’s other hand was wrapped firmly around a cricket bat. How in bloody hell she had one was beyond him, but he did not want to test her swing. He shut up for the rest of the way through the vessel, turning his attention to the Belle he was now the “proud” captain of. He had to admit, for as fearsome as she could be, she had a rather pretty face free of freckles and other such blemishes. Matching in beauty were her eyes which were a sort of sapphire, contrasting quite nicely with the dark red, almost burgundy-colored hair. Not much of it stuck out from under her flat cap, and weren’t it for the fact her chest stuck out a decent ways and had a shapely rump, she might’ve been mistaken for a newsboy. She was also rather shorter than him. He had thought himself small at just shy of 5’5”, but she was a good three or four inches shorter.

 

The Yorkshireman could only assume they were nearing the bridge, as Manchester loosened her hold on him and stopped. Finally able to take a breather, he straightened up his technician uniform and brought out a cigarette. “You done?” He asked, annoyed at his treatment.

 

“That depends on you, mate.” The Belle crossed her arms and glared at him. “I didn’t just randomly choose you out of my ‘at. I felt you on board. I felt you since you first set foot on my deck.”

 

“Oh thanks for that mental image of you feeling me up.”

 

“Quit your skriking and listen, alright?”

 

Her hands tightened around the handle of the cricket bat as she became flustered. “Look, ok, fine. I get it. It’s a surprise an’ all. I can understand that. But there’s Morgana out there that need killing and we’re ‘eddin’ for ‘em. Now are you gonna pull your pants up or are you going to continue to winge?”

 

Taking a deep drag of his cigarette, John stared right into her sapphire eyes. “I’ve seen more than my fair share of death and carnage. I wanted as far away from war as I could possibly get while still serving King and Country. This was the last thing that I wanted to happen to me.”

 

As he spoke, he seemed to feel his resentment at his treatment being slowly lifted the longer he looked at her, the more he was in her presence. He could feel himself becoming more confident, and deep within his gut he could tell that he already made a choice as soon as she first laid her hands on him.

 

“Oh bloody hell…” He tossed the half smoked cigarette to the ground. “Alright... I’ll be your captain. Don’t have any choice in the matter anyways, might as well accept the facts.”

 

The last thing he had expected was for this tough tomboy to nearly tear up and wrap her arms around his neck, nearly sending him to the floor. His arms instinctively went around her as she hugged him. “Oh thank you, thank you! You won’t regret it!” Her voice wavering from her initial roughness to vulnerability. “I’m a proper mint Belle, I am. Just you wait an’ see!”

 

For the first time in his life, he felt genuinely sorry for someone. He wasn’t sure if it was how bitter he was sounding, but he wanted to punch himself for upsetting such a pretty young woman who wanted to do her best. He well and truly pitied the poor girl. When she finally pulled away, she quickly wiped her eyes and cleared her throat, attempting to regain composure. “I-I’m sorry. Just a little overwhelmed is all.”

 

“I figured.” He managed a small chuckle which seemed to help settle her down. The two stood there looking at each other, seemingly sizing the other up and trying to become calm before the inevitable storm. “Well...shall we take the bridge?”

 

A cocky smile adorned Manchester’s face. “Aye, cap’n. Lead on.”

 

-

 

“So where is the sodding Belle? Without her we’re just pissing about in the wind.”

 

“I admire your honesty, Mister Danton,” The more elderly man narrowed his eyes at the other. “But there is no need to get so mithered. She is more than likely finding her way up here.”

 

“She had better be, or else we will be joining the submarine corps, and not of our own volition.”

 

“Sir, reports from Southampton coming in.” A young radio op called over. “She’s already at general quarters and awaiting her sister.”

 

The scene on the bridge was actually not as chaotic as John had first thought it would be. Everyone seemed to be reasonably calm and at their appropriate stations with minor exception. Probably what came from centuries of training and heritage. Regardless, there wasn’t much they all could do what with Manchester in control. Speaking of the girl, her ears perked up on mention of her sister and moved towards the two senior officers. “South’ampton’s waiting for me?” She asked. Heads turned towards her, throats were cleared, and the elder officer put on a small friendly smile.

 

“Aye she is, Manchester.” He gestured towards Falshaw. “Am I to assume this is your captain?”

 

“Oh bloody hell, he’s a ruddy crabfat.” Danton swore. A stern glare came his way.

 

“If it’s all the same,” John spoke up. “I’m only a technician as of two months ago. I was a sniper in the Dukes.”

 

“With all due respect, Admiral, this man has no place being the commander of one of His Majesty’s warshi-”

 

“Captain Danton.” The admiral turned his head sharply, interrupting the impending rant. “With all due respect, you are no longer captain of this vessel. Our good fellow over there is. If you wish to debate naval politics with me, you are free to do so, sir, once we have made it into safe anchorage. Until then you are subject to his orders as well as mine, and you shall start by removing yourself from the bridge for the duration of the combat. Is that understood?”

 

Exasperated, Captain Danton’s shoulders sagged as he let out a loud sigh. “Yes, Admiral Holland.”

 

The captain spun on his heel and marched off of the bridge, right past Manchester and John. The tension in the air was rather thick. “What’s your name, son?”

 

John blinked, the question catching him off guard. “Ah, John Falshaw, sir.”

 

“Well, Captain Falshaw, I am Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland,” The older man seemed to relax. “And it appears you have commandeered my flagship.”

 

“My apologies, sir.”

 

“No need to kiss arse, captain. I’m sure the Admiralty will be all too happy to give me another assignment. For now, there is quite a daunting task laid in front of you.”

 

“That there is.”

 

The newly minted Captain Falshaw slowly approached the vice admiral, Manchester by his side. “I’ve never commanded a ship before, let alone a Belle. I don’t know what to do.”

 

A curt yet friendly laugh came from Admiral Holland. “I believe I have that advantage over you, yes, but I was holed up at HMS Excellent during the Great War while you have actual combat experience. That is something where you outrank me.”

 

“Sir?”

 

Vice Admiral Holland’s tired blue eyes looked over at John. “Jack, there is a battle out there that needs to be won. I’m no stranger to being a teacher. Hell, I’m quite the gunnery specialist if I do say so myself. So use me if you need me, but remember that I still outrank you.”

 

John nodded. “Aye aye, admiral.”

 

“Now, shall we beat to quarters, captain?”

 

“I think we should, sir.”

 

“Very well, Captain Falshaw. The ship is yours.”

 

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(crabfat - RAF personnel)

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An awesome chapter. I can't wait for the next one! Keep up the amazing work.

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Agree with Pill. Interested to see how her "voice" develops.

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Agree with Pill. Interested to see how her "voice" develops.

 

When I get to more areas when I can do more dialogue, should be interesting. I also couldn't help myself and put in a reference to your story since it was what inspired me to write this

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Just a little note before I begin that I am not the best at battle scenes. Hopefully the more I write them, the better I'll become. I usually prefer to focus on characters than action, but gotta get out of my comfort zone now and then, otherwise I don't grow as a writer. Anyways, hope y'all enjoy

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Chapter 3 - Crashing Steel, Raging Fury

 

November 25 1940 15:50, log of VADM L. E. Holland - HMS Manchester closing into engagement distance of Morgana fleet. Her Belle arrived on bridge along with her captain. Captain Danton was ordered from bridge as a result of voicing his dislike of the new Captain, and turned over command to Captain Falshaw.

 

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John could remember the organized chaos of preparing to go over the top. He could easily recall every shouted order, every scared and stern face, and how tense the atmosphere became while awaiting the dreaded whistle. These scenes of young dirty men wanting no more than to survive the impending ordeal came flooding back as HMS Manchester became alive with the swarming of crew to battle stations. His body became rigid while he looked out towards the fog, gazing at the thunder and lightning of guns blazing from within. It seemed like the battle had picked up as soon as he took command of Manchester. He could feel the mentioned Belle’s eyes on him. “I’m alright, Manchester.” He said to her. “Just gotta get used to this feeling again.”

 

“What feeling is that?” She asked. He mentally chuckled as he could picture her cocking her head.

 

“Trepidation in the face of death. You never get over it, only to learn to live with constant fear.”

 

The new captain could swear he could feel his back become weighted down by his old pack and gear, his hands flexing as they tried to grab tight hold of an invisible Enfield rifle. In this moment, he was once again the soldier he used to be, but this time he wasn’t wallowing in a pit of rain, mud, and despair. This time, he was at the helm of a warship, and responsible for the lives of the thousands of sailors on board.

 

“Manchester,” John began. “What’s your armament like?”

 

The Belle grew a confident grin. “I got four triple 6-inch main guns, four dual 4-inch secondaries, eight .5-inch machine guns, and two triple 21-inch torpedo launchers. I can work wonders on enemy destroyers.”

 

“You know your ranges?”

 

“Aye, by heart.”

 

He looked over to his side and picked up a lone pair of binoculars, using it to observe the fog. “Shapes coming out.” He muttered. Just as he did, the lookout called out.

 

“Vessels exiting the fog, Cap’n!”

 

Next to him, he sensed Admiral Holland grabbing his own binoculars and heard the old man hiss. “Corruption-class destroyers. And there’s four of the buggers.”

 

Corruption, eh?”

 

“One of a few we got identified. Got a mean streak about Belles that runs miles long and they repair using battlefield debris.”

 

It was fairly obvious to see, as the hulls of the destroyers were seemingly a hodgepodge of different ships of different nations, something that added to the unsettling sight. Taking a deep breath, John hatched a plan and turned to his Belle. “Manchester, we can take them on easier one on one. Fire on whichever one you like the look of to draw them specifically towards us, then concentrate. Tell Southampton to fire at whichever takes her fancy. We’ll turn the odds in our favor.”

 

An energetic smirk grew across her face. “With absolute pleasure, Cap’n!”

 

With a loud and echoey “thwump”, the two forward turrets flung 6-inch shells towards the closest Morgana. Four of them created large columns of water, but two hit home. He could see the small explosions of HE shells impacting on the thinly armored vessel, and it seemed to get its attention. One Corruption-class peeled off from the pack, charging right towards Manchester and returning fire with its smaller 5-inch batteries. These smaller shells fell short, but it was only a matter of time before they got range and before torpedoes would be in the water. Another salvo went out, more accurate this time. The flashing of burning amatol raked across the bow of the destroyer.

 

A few small calibre shells made contact with Manchester, and Captain Falshaw could hear the Belle let out a grunt. “Bloody mozzy bites is all.” She turned the ship sharply to starboard away from Southampton, crossing the Morgana’s T in the process. “Lemme show ya real firepower!”

 

The ship shuddered as all of her 6-inch guns opened up on this sole destroyer, and the damage this time was startling. A large detonation from one of the sids tore up a large chunk of metal, while the bridge seemed to burst into flames. “You got one of her torpedo tubes!” Holland called out.

 

“Keep on her, Manchester!” John yelled, knowing he didn’t have to tell her twice. More 5-inch shells impacted against the cruiser’s thicker hide, aimed more towards the secondary guns.

 

“Lost four boys to that one, Cap’n!” She seemed to take it quite personally. “Take this!”

 

Another broadside slammed into the destroyer, followed by secondary gunfire. There didn’t seem to be any place not aflame, and soon the oncoming ship slowed down. One more volley into the Corruption-class sealed its fate, as it tore open holes along the waterline and immediately began to list to her port side. Manchester let out a yelp of victory, and pumped her fist into the air.

 

“Yeah! Take that ya bloody Morgana cu-!”

 

“Torpedoes in the water!” A lookout cut off the Belle.

 

“Go! Go! Move out the way! Everyone else brace!” Falshaw commanded. He tried to search for the oncoming ordinance in the water, but his lack of naval knowledge prevented him from identifying them. Manchester turned hard, and a tense few seconds went by. Everyone on board awaited whatever would happen with trepidation. Seconds became minutes as they hoped that they would miss. Without any warning, the whole ship suddenly and violently shook, sending most of everyone to the ground. John was right back up, looking about the bridge. “Everyone ok?”

 

The general response were those of groans, and he noticed Manchester struggling to get up herself. “Come on, girl, let’s get you back up.” He was stunned to see what had happened to her.

 

Manchester had a hand on her side, pressing hard into a crimson blot as she hissed in pain. “Fucking ‘ell…” She swore. “Blasted a hole in the side with that torp and got ‘bout twenty guys.”

 

“Can you move?”

 

“Nngh...Yeah...I can move. I can shoot too.”

 

John nodded and turned to Admiral Holland. “Is there damage control?”

 

“Aye there is. Should be getting that under control soon as possible.”

 

“Good, because we have three more-”

 

“Southampton’s got one!” Another lookout called. “There’s only two left!”

 

The captain and admiral gazed out and could make out the severed bow of the other destroyer. Now it appeared that the other two smelled blood in the water and were heading to Manchester.

 

“They know we’re badly hit. Can’t take another hit like that.”

 

“Alright so what’s your suggestion, Admiral?”

 

Holland bit his lip. “Keep showing them our side and pour as much fire and brimstone downrange as we can. Can’t outrun them, might as well outgun them. Send everything their way.”

 

“My bloody pleasure.” Manchester reared back, sucking in a terse breath as she fought to control the pain she was in. “Bugger off to hell!”

 

All at once, every single gun on board opened fire, even the small anti-aircraft guns. These weren’t so much well aimed shots as they were just a pure pouring of as much fire as possible. John could see that even Southampton was getting in on it, spurred on by the wounding of her sister. One destroyer started to turn to starboard, most likely the one that hit Manchester the first time. This didn’t bode well, as shell after shell came down in a heavy hailstorm. Within mere moments, the destroyer buckled and erupted into a huge explosion as the magazines ruptured, unable to hold up against the superior firepower. Only one was left, and as swiftly as the destroyer could, it began to turn away when a vengeful salvo from Manchester smacked right into the Morgana. The stern was engulfed in a fiery blaze as it became locked into a port turn.

 

“Got ‘er steering, Cap’n!” Manchester let loose a growl as her guns trained on target. “Teach ya to run away from me ya bleedin’ twat!”

 

“We need to get to a port soon as possible, Captain.” Holland said. “We can’t go too long with that hole in our side.”

 

“But what about-?” John began, being interrupted as a flight of Swordfish zoomed overhead.

 

“Looks like Somerville sent Ark Royal’s flyboys to assist.” The admiral sighed in relief. “Force H should be close now. Southampton should be alright to follow the convoy the rest of the way. I’ll telegraph James to request him split some of his cruisers and destroyers to escort while we turn back to Gibraltar for repairs.”

 

“Think she can make it?”

 

A curt chuckle came from the still wounded Manchester. “I can make it fine to there. Gonna be a long sail though.”

 

Admiral Holland took his cap off and wiped his brow. “You didn't do too bad today, Captain, but it could have been a lot worse than it was. Four destroyers against two light cruisers is a decent match for a first time.”

 

“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.” John saluted.

 

“I would like to see you later on to go over things in greater detail, but for now you deserve a bit of a rest and to spend some time with your Belle. I shall send for you this evening, and perhaps if she is feeling better, Miss Manchester as well.”

 

“Understood, Admiral.”

 

With a soft smile, the admiral walked off the bridge, leaving Captain Falshaw with Manchester amongst the bridge crew. The Yorkshireman gently rested a hand on Manchester’s shoulder. “How is it?”

 

The bravado seemed to melt away into frustration and disappointment as she looked away. “Didn't see the bloody fish till it was too late. Should’av seen it coming an’ turned sooner.”

 

“That's tunnel-visioning, and it's something I had to get over as a sniper.” He said in a calm voice. “You need to learn to look around more at things that aren't your target in case there's something impending. It takes time, so you’ll get it eventually.”

 

“Yeah but I should’av been able to dodge it, come out with ne'er a scratch from those pop guns.”

 

“Hey, you had a non-navy person as your captain and it was only four destroyers. I'd say that's decent enough. Now cheer up. We got a long trip ahead of us to Gibraltar and I don't want you to be moping all the way there.”

 

“Oi, I don't mope! Just think I could’a done better is all.”

 

“So could I. Come on, let's see if there's anything the doc can do for you or if you really do need a port for that wound.”

 

Being careful not to agitate the wound, John gently wrapped his left arm around Manchester, steadying the Belle and giving her something to lean against as she walked. The smaller girl leaned into him, wincing with every step that she took. It was going to be one hell of a long walk.

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After a long slog, I finally got chapter 4 up and ready to go. There's also a little surprise in with the chapter too.

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Jojo for this. Now I have a fully colorized Belle too, Ninja! Muahaha!

 

 

Q8TTWVB.jpg?1

 

 

 

Chapter 4 - Through the Punishment and the Pain
The chaos of earlier had melted away in the following hours since the battle. In his quarters, Admiral Holland was putting the finishing touches on the after battle report when there was a knock at the door. “Come in.” He called. A loud creak was followed by the sound of boots on metal as Captain Danton walked in.
“Sir.” He saluted. The admiral didn’t bother to look up, instead focusing more on wrapping up the report. It kept Danton standing there at attention awkwardly for a few moments more before he set his pen down and looked back up at him.
“Which number is this one, Marshall?” Holland asked sternly. “Number three? Four?”
“Fifth, sir.”
Holland leaned back in his chair. “You are the unluckiest captain, and yet such an asset to King and Country. To have five Belles manifest under your command and none choose you...I can understand some of your resentment towards Captain Falshaw. Almost.”
“Sir, with due respect-”
“Why do you think that is the matter then?”
“I…”
Danton shuffled about, making Holland roll his eyes. “So you have no idea why they would choose other captains over you. Perhaps there’s something about you that they don’t approve of. What do you think?”
“I think that I’m a good officer who gets the job done, admiral...sir.”
“Mm. Perhaps. You see, I’ve acquired many a friend at HMS Excellent where you went for your gunnery training from HMS Collingwood, and I asked them about you before I decided to make Manchester my flagship. Would you like to know the opinion of the senior officers?”
The captain opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Holland folded his arms across his chest. “Remarkably average scores in every area, with numerous complaints about your temperament and resistance to changes in command and situation. Not exactly the best kind of officer to have on a vessel, wouldn’t you say?
“Of course, we are forgetting that you also apparently have resentment towards anyone not of the Navy who becomes part of it, as your former commanding officers have noted the previous five times Belles manifested under your command.”
Holland leaned forward, looking at Danton with sharp eyes. “You believe it’s your right to have a Belle, instead of the privilege it actually is.”
Admiral Holland could see Danton was very uncomfortable. “Is that correct, Captain Danton?”
“S-sir, I-”
“Is. That. Correct?”
“...yes sir…”
“Well now,” Holland began to relax. “I believe we have found the crux of the issue. Perhaps you should learn to temper yourself, and maybe you shall finally obtain the Belle you have been seeking for so long.”
“I...I understand, sir.”
“For the moment, however, I have sent a message to the captain of HMS Despatch to have you take over command there. Do not disappear so easily, captain. I still have one more thing to discuss before your new posting.”
Captain Danton saluted again. “A-aye sir.”
Once the captain had left, Holland sighed heavily, closing his eyes. One down, one to go.
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Down in the infirmary, John Falshaw watched as the doctor finished wrapping a bandage and gauze around Manchester’s side. He thought it a good thing that the wound was low enough that she didn’t have to raise her top up much, sparing more his own embarrassment than anything else. The Belle winced as it was pulled tight, but managed a smile at her captain, the doctor pulling away and letting her pull her top back down. “Well I’ve done all I can for her.” He remarked, moving over to wash his hands. “The wound won’t heal until the ship itself is repaired, so all we can do is control the pain and prevent the wound from being agitated.”
“Do you think the agitation can be prevented what with the hole in the ship?” John inquired.
“I believe so, but best to play safe.”
With a grunt, Manchester slid off the bed and stood up, still in a bit of pain but not as much as she was before. “I hafta say, Doc,” She said with her hand back over her wound. “It feels much better.”
“Aye, well hopefully I don’t see either of you down here too often.” The Welshman chuckled. “Ain’t good for morale when your ship personified is bloodied and bruised.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but once a fight gets goin’, I wanna be in the thick of it!”
John smiled at Manchester. She was easily excitable and cheery, a far cry from her just a few hours earlier at the end of the engagement. The Belle was beating herself up over not doing as well of a job as she thought she could have done, and it took everything in his power not to just slap her across the face for saying that. He did however speak his mind, that she had done as much as she could have for a new Belle under a new captain and that in the end they made it out not too bad all things considered. That had seemed to settle her down until they got to the infirmary and had to wait for the doctor to wrap up some wounded sailors before taking care of Manchester.
“I’m gonna go get some fresh air, Cap’n.” She continued. “It’ll do me good!”
“That’s not a bad idea.” He nodded. “I’ll see you back on the bridge.”
Upon her taking off, the doctor looked at John with worried eyes. “Captain, a word.”
“Uh, sure. What’s up, doc?”
“Please, call me Lenny.”
“Ok. What do you need to tell me, Lenny?”
Producing a pack of cigarettes, Lenny pulled out one and lit it up, taking a quick drag. “Y’know, this isn’t my first ship I’ve served on. I was on a battleship early on in the war. HMS Royal Oak. She was in Scapa Flow when the Morgana struck right at the start. I still remember the Belle. Long and wavy light brown hair that flowed over strong shoulders, the warmest brownest eyes I’d ever seen, and a strong sense of duty to her King and Country. Always wore a Victorian dress in red.”
“I remember her,” John said as he leaned against the wall of the infirmary. “Well the ship, not the Belle. I also remember hearing those first reports of Morgana and Belle appearances.”
“She was the most caring person you would have ever met. She desperately wanted to see frontline combat, and considering that Belles are the best counter to the Morgana threat, the Admiralty set about trying to fix her lack of speed. This meant she had to remain in Scapa Flow well after the attack, and a strong guard erected to prevent another massed Morgana attack. Other ships and their Belles either stayed in port or were shifted down to others like Portsmouth to get modernized.”
“And that’s when Scapa got attacked again.”
Lenny puffed a small cloud of smoke and chuckled a little. “It was supposed to be impenetrable, especially to submarine assault. They sure proved us wrong.”
“The radio never really went into detail on how bad the attack was.” Falshaw noted.
“Direct orders in case Jerry was listening in.” The other man explained. “Didn’t want them to know we had multiple ships heavily damaged. I was down in the infirmary when the first torpedo struck. I had issues sleeping that night, and it sure shook everyone else awake. Everyone thought it was an explosion in the inflammable store at first, that is until the Belle started to sound the alarm. Everyone rushed up to battle stations, unsure about what was going on, checking every magazine store just in case. About fifteen minutes later, no one had any doubts that we were attacked. Three of those bastard torpedos got her amidships and everyone could hear the groaning of the hull and pained screams of Royal Oak herself. HMS Brazen, having just saved some German U-boat crewmen the day before, had come to Scapa to drop them off, and now was on full hunting mode. She started to chase off the Morgana submarine, hoping to sink it before it got away, but it was too late.”
“I know. That was in the news.”
“What wasn’t was how bad Oak was. She was only just able to limp into drydock being pulled alongside HMS Pegasus and tugboats, doing their damnedest to keep her afloat. At the time, I was still fine in the infirmary, though all electrical power had been cut off in the explosion. I remember thanking God that I was in a Belle ship, because though I’m no sailor, I could recognize that in any other vessel we all would have perished. Almost immediately I rushed to sick bay to grab as much morphine as I could, taking as many boys with me as I could to grab supplies. Instinct told me that I should set up the messes to deal with the casualties, especially as I very quickly came across many a bloodied man. I was fortunate that at least the mess for the sailors was intact; I heard that the Stokers’, Boys’, and Marines’ messes were thoroughly destroyed in the explosions. I honestly can’t tell you how long I stayed awake for. Two, three days? I tended to everyone, from men who had chunks of steel embedded in their chests to charred, blackened corpses, those with arms and legs hanging on by the sinews and those already lost causes that I put out of their misery.
“At a point, I was finishing up amputating some poor lad of 16’s arm, or what was left of it anyways, when some seamen brought over to me Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove. His uniform was shredded up and down his chest and his breathing was labored. I didn’t think he had much time left to live so I gave a quick check and gestured to move on to the next patient. A woman in obvious pain was crying and was begging me to do more to help save him. I thought at the time that Scapa itself had been attacked and she was from a hospital ship that had come over to help me, and so I turned to her, reaching forward to brush some of her matted, dark hair away from her face in an attempt to comfort her. That’s when I saw the warmest brownest eyes I had ever seen, except now they wavered with fear. I looked at her hair in earnest, and saw that the hair was actually a light brown, and what I was brushing aside had been stained with blood.”
“Royal Oak…Jesus wept.” Falshaw swore.
“And he would’ve if he saw the state of her. The red dress of hers was ripped across her stomach, and I could see she was bleeding badly from it. As much as I wanted to check her wounds, my heart wouldn’t have been able to take seeing the full extent of what the torpedoes had done to her. She coughed up blood almost every other sentence, and gripped the Admiral’s hand as if she would fall if she let go. I nodded to her and ordered morphine for the both of them, bandaging her up and gently laying her down on one of the mess tables right next to where Blagrove was. I pushed myself to extract as much shrapnel as I could from him, keeping him awake as best as possible until word got to me that ambulances would take the severely wounded to a nearby hospital. Oak was sobbing and crying out that she didn’t want to abandon her Captain. In his weak state, Blagrove was just able to get up with assistance and put a hand on her cheek, telling her that he would be fine and back in action before she knew it, setting her at ease.
“That was the last time I saw Admiral Blagrove. The doctors at the hospital informed me that he had died almost as soon as he was set in the ambulance, and the more skeptical of them believed that it was being away from Royal Oak that caused his death. The Admiralty...tried to keep it a secret from her out of fear of what would happen, instead fabricating that he had to be transferred inland and would be a long time before he gets well enough to command. She seemed to not take it well and accused them of lying to her, that Blagrove was dead. They insisted, and she got more and more distressed until finally one of them gave up and told her that she was right. Once she had been repaired, the Admiralty sent a new captain for her, but she flatly rejected him. Every captain they tried to put on her met with stiff opposition, even the crew began to side with her, until finally the Admiralty surrendered. She still fights for King and Country, but after what happened, she sails captainless.”
John looked down at his feet, letting all that was said sink in. “So what does all this have to do with me?”
Lenny finished his cigarette and stared at Falshaw hard. “I don’t want to have to do it again for another Belle. I don’t want to have to lie to them that their captain is fine when they’re dead. I don’t want to see another Belle nearly gutted by the Morgana. I don't want to risk another captainless Belle running about. I want you to do everything you can to keep me from having to do that.”
Producing a cigarette of his own, the new Captain struck his lighter. “You don’t have to tell me that twice, Lenny. I’ve seen enough horror to last a lifetime and then some during the War. Despite her aggressive tendencies, I don’t want to get stuck into that kind of situation. I promise you, Lenny. I will not let that happen if I can help it.”
Nodding slowly, Lenny extended his hand out. “Just had to get it off my chest was all.”
“No worries.”
As the two shook hands, a junior officer walked in and saluted them both. “Captain Falshaw? The Admiral wants you to meet him in his quarters.”
“Ah. Thank you…”
“This is where you salute back.” Lenny pointed out. John blinked and gave the officer a quick salute, the NCO heading out as swiftly as he arrived. “You’re still very green.”
“I’ve never been in command of anything before, let alone a ship.”
“It shows.” A warm smile crept across Lenny’s face. “Don’t keep the Admiral waiting. I hope the next time I see you it won’t involve one of you getting injured.”
“I can’t make too many promises about Manchester. She’s a troublemaker that one.”
The two men exchanged a light chuckle and a salute before Falshaw departed, determined to not only make a good impression on the Vice-Admiral, but more importantly keep everyone as safe as possible, including Manchester.
------------------------------------------------------------
As John started towards the Admiral’s quarters, his thoughts remained on what Lenny had told him. The most jarring thing about the whole experience was the description of Royal Oak, and his mind kept replacing her with Manchester. It made him feel sick to his stomach, and he would have almost collided with a sailor if he hadn’t looked up at the last second. Eventually after another couple near collisions, he stopped and leaned back against a bulkhead to light up. The nicotine started to relax him until he felt that he was fine enough to keep moving.
If it wasn't for the sailors he periodically asked for directions from, there was no way he could have managed to get to where the Admiral was, and less so in identifying it if there weren't two sailors on the burly side standing outside sternly. They reminded him of those penny dreadfuls his parents had and the pulp magazines he used to read where the heroes would encounter giant ape-men who could throw tree trunks around like they were nothing. “Captain John Falshaw, here to see the Admiral.” He saluted the guards. The men saluted back and one of them knocked on the door.
“Captain Falshaw is here, Admiral.” The sailor called in. A semi-muffled “Let him in” replied back, and gave John clearance to enter the quarters.
The quarters were well furnished, with a pair of nice leather couches on either side of a low table which had an already opened bottle of Johnnie Walker Swing. A few feet from the table was a simple oak desk cluttered with papers, a pen, and various other curios. Behind that was a leather chair which sat Admiral Holland. To his side standing with a half full tumbler happened to be Captain Danton, whose presence Falshaw wasn’t overly keen on.
“Ah, captain.”, Holland looked up and gestured to one of the couches. “Sit down, will you?”
“Uh, yes sir.”
“Would you like a glass? I find that a stiff drink usually does well for me after combat.”
“I don’t know much about spirits, sir, but if it’s got alcohol in it, I’ll drink it.”
Holland chuckled as he poured out two half full tumblers of the scotch. “Spoken like a true ranker.”
The other captain sat across from Falshaw as the admiral stood up in front of the desk, leaning against it slightly after handing one of the tumblers to John. “I don’t believe you two have been formally introduced. Captain Falshaw, this is Marshall Danton.”
“Sorry about taking your ship from you.” John apologized. Danton raised a hand.
“There’s no need. I...I understand that having another Belle in His Majesty’s service is valuable, and I was wrong to snap as I did.”
“I see…”
“Hm?” Holland raised an eyebrow. “What's the matter?”
“Nothing sir, just…”
“Just what?”
Falshaw cleared his throat. “Well, sir, with no disrespect meant towards Captain Danton here...I've seen that look on his face before.”
“Which is…?”
“The uh, look of a man whose pride has just been whipped into line. Sir.”
“Indeed.”
The Admiral took a sip from his tumbler. “Speaking your mind so freely. You are a ranker.”
John sat still for a moment before quickly knocking back some of the whiskey. He figured he had better stop saying anything along those lines unless he wanted to get whipped too.
“So why did you call me and Captain Falshaw here, sir?” Marshall broke the brief silence.
“Well-”
“There you are!”
The Mancunian accented voice startled the captains, and most likely the Admiral too though if so he didn't show it. Manchester stood across from Holland with her cricket bat over her shoulder, a happy grin on her face despite the wound. “I was lookin’ all over fer ya!”
“How did you get here without using the door? Did you...did you change your clothes?” Falshaw looked her over. She still had a white shirt and grey flat cap and skirt, but her vest was exchanged for a long dark blue one and a light blue tie was nestled snug between her chest.
“Yup! I figured it would do me well to ‘ave some clean clothes an’ fit ‘em over the bandage. I quite prefer this.” She put her free left hand on her hip. “Whaddya think?”
“Honestly I think you look great.” John smiled. “Even looks like the bleeding stopped.”
“Aye, that it has. So what’re ya talkin’ about ‘ere?”
“I was just starting when you came in.” Admiral Holland went over to the oak desk and fished out another tumbler. “Are you wet or dry?”
“Oh for sure a wet Belle.” Manchester gladly took the tumbler and began filling it up three-quarters of the way. “I'm not one of those teetotalers.”
“So how did you get in here then?” Falshaw inquired. “I never heard the door be knocked on or opened.”
“Oh, us Belles can just poof anywhere on the ship we like near instant we can! Of course, if we wanna cause some mischief,” Manchester grew a smirk as she walked through the table and sat down next to her captain. “We can ‘over through like ghosts do.”
“Speaking of the undead,” Holland cleared his throat. “Let us get to the point. You’re here, Captain Falshaw, because you are the newly appointed captain of HMS Manchester, because you need official officer training to become a Belle Captain, and because as captain of His Majesty’s Ship and Belle you have a duty to be informed of the butcher’s bill.”
Reaching behind him, Admiral Holland grabbed a piece of paper and held it in front of him. “Leonard had the tally sent up to be just before you and Manchester went down to see him.”
“Leonard?” Half a second later, it clicked in John’s head. “Oh, Lenny.”
“Yes, Doctor Leonard Mallory. Anyways, the good doctor sent this up, and it reads as follows: “Twenty-nine dead, fourteen wounded. Of those wounded, another three won't survive the night.”.”
Manchester’s prior confidence gave way to guilt, feeling her stomach drop. John on the other hand seemed very unnerved. “Not as bad as it could have been.” He mused. His Belle looked over at him.
“People died! How can you be so...so...so calm?”
“I've seen my friends die in the hellish place of no-man’s land, Manchester. I survived the godforsaken fields of the Somme with my unit. Believe me. I feel for these men, but honestly I've seen worse.”
“I hope this does not mean that you are willing to sacrifice the crew at first opportunity, captain.” Holland noted as he set the paper down.
“Not at all. In fact, I want to keep casualties to a minimum if possible. I don't want to relive that.”
“Of course.”
The Vice Admiral took another sip of the whiskey. “On to the other matters, Captain Falshaw. It is necessary to get you into training as soon as possible. Therefore, tomorrow at 1330, you will begin your journey to Gibraltar to get Manchester patched up before the ultimate destination of Portsmouth. There you will be processed and start training as a Belle captain while Manchester gets repairs. Now under normal circumstances you would need about seven to nine weeks for basic naval boot camp, as you are not a naval personnel, followed by another twelve for officer training and another month for specialized Belle training. Time is of the essence, however, and we need as many Belle captains trained up as possible. Because of this and your prior military experience, you will have only three months of training.”
“That's about as much as they gave us in the army.” Falshaw downed the rest of his whiskey and started to fish around for a cigarette. “So spring of the new year, I should be an officially trained Belle Captain.”
“With the uniform and rank to go with it.”
As John produced the cigarette and began to look for his lighter, Captain Danton had already got his own out and held it out. “Here. Least I can do for you.”
“Thanks.” John let Marshall light him up and began having a smoke.
“I've already contacted James to inform him of this, and to get the technicians transferred to HMS Sheffield.” Holland resumed. “Admiral Somerville will also take command over the rest of the operation and get the RAF lads to Malta.”
Taking a drag, John leaned back as Manchester started on her second tumbler. “So where does that leave you, Admiral?”
“Me?” The admiral set his tumbler down and chuckled. “Well I have to look after my investment, don't I?”
“Eh?”
Admiral Holland capped the Johnnie Walker Swing and started to also grab up the tumblers. “I would rather not have a Belle captain under my command perform poorly during their training, so why not follow them back at least to Gibraltar and give as much advice as I can?”
“That does seem to make sense, sir.” John nodded. “But sending one ship back is dangerous.”
“That's why Danton on the Despatch and HMS Hotspur will escort you. HMS Berwick shall also provide escort and become my new flagship, which I will move over to effective tomorrow, which is also when I shall start tutoring you what I know. It may have been years since Collingwood but I know a thing or two.
“As for now,” Holland checked the clock on the wall. “It's about that time when we should head to the officer’s mess. Marshall?”
“Aye, admiral.” The other captain got up and stood by the door as Holland put away the scotch, holding a hand out towards Manchester.
“I would prefer all my glasses together.”
The Belle frowned as she knocked back the rest of the whiskey and handed it over. “I was quite enjoying that.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it on your own time. For now, let us get something to eat.”
Falshaw looked at Manchester and smiled. “Come along, Manc. Must be starving after the fight you put up earlier.”
A soft grumble answered him promptly from her stomach, making her blush. “Ah perhaps a little.”
“Well let's get you topped up. Don't want my Belle fading away.”
“Aye aye, cap’n!”
=====================================================================

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Chapter 5 is ready to go. It's a bit different from the previous ones, but hopefully you all enjoy it. Be sure to let me know your thoughts

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5 - In the Army Now

 

In the smoke, in the mud and lead
Smell the fear and the feeling of dread
Soon be time to go over the wall
Rapid fire and end of us all

Paschendale - Iron Maiden

 

The cold mud slithered down John’s back, sending a sharp shiver up his spine as his hands gripped tightly around his SMLE Mk III. A low misty fog hovered over no man’s land, covering up most of the craters and debris. He heard the soft sopping of boots in mud and he released a hand, open and waiting. A routine maneuver, the hot mug was settled in his palm and brought to his lips without his eyes ever drifting away from his scope. This was ruined as soon as he tasted the contents, nearly spitting it out before looking inside and then over his left shoulder.

 

“If I wanted hot mud I would have asked.” Falshaw grimaced. A chuckle came from the corporal, taking a sip from his own mug.

 

“Make yer own next time then.” The Lincolnshireman set his mug down next to him. “Better than the cold mud around ye.”

 

“Anythin’s better than this muck.”

 

Returning his gaze to the front, John brought up his rifle and peered down the scope. “Any news?”

 

“Well far as everyone else in the regiment is concerned,” The other soldier started to check over his own rifle, wiping some of the mud off. “Command’s gonna order an attack soon if Harry Hun doesn't. Captain says that we need to keep an eye out for anything they may be trying.”

 

“Yeah, well they ain't gonna’ just let us in on the plan before they do it.” Falshaw’s eyes narrowed and he adjusted the scope. “Movement. About 250 yards.”

 

“Jerry?”

 

“Can't say for sure… Riley, get the binos.”

 

“Aye Sarge.”

 

Riley fished out the pair of binoculars from his pouch and looked in the direction John was scoped in at. “I don’t see what you’re on… wait a moment... I think I see it...”

 

“Herr Kaiser grey.”

 

“Aye.” The corporal dropped the binoculars and stroked his chin. “Looks like they're moving’ about. Think they're gearin’ up for somethin’?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

Sergeant Falshaw lowered his rifle and turned to Riley, ready to give an order when his ears caught a whistling sound. “Artillery! Down! Down! Section down!”

 

All along the trench just behind the sniper/spotter team, men dove for whatever kind of cover they could get. John and Riley hunkered down in their crater with their guns held tightly as the first shells landed. Mud and dirt flew up into the air, the debris coming back down to pelt them. More shells began to fall, one striking just in front of the crater the two men were sheltered in. The ground shook intensely, almost as if the world was ending all around them.

 

“Jaysus! Ye think they’d keep it light so they have somethin' left to fight!” Riley cursed.

 

“Just keep your head down!” John ordered as a spattering of mud rained down upon them. “Hopefully someone got word to command!”

 

“Peh! Bunch of useless gits the lot of them!”

 

“No kidding! Wouldn't know how to pour piss from a boot with the instructions on the heel!”

 

Almost as if accentuating the point, one such shell brought with it the screams of wounded men and a shredded leg thrown right in front of John and Riley’s foxhole. After what seemed to be an eternity, the bombardment slowed to a halt. For a moment the air was still, only the sounds of the wounded moaning and the soldiers’ heavy breathing filling it. Then, the dreaded whistle and a rising thunder from across no man’s land. John swiftly picked himself up and readied his rifle, Riley loading a fresh ten rounds in his.

 

“Here they come!” Falshaw yelled. “Stand firm, boys! Hold your fire until I say!”

 

From inside the fog, it was hard to see specifically who they were, but there were things that allowed him to identify a few of them. Scanning the mob, he spotted one shadow with a pistol, squeezed the trigger gently, and fired.

 

The bullet screamed down range until it hit its mark, sending the supposed officer down into the ground. Chambering another, he repeated this feat three more times, until he eyeballed the Germans at a hundred yards or so.

 

“Open fire!”

 

The first guns to open up were the sharp putputput-ing of the Lewis guns, beginning to mow down the charging foes. After them came the massed rifle fire of the rest of the soldiers interspersed with more accurate sniper fire from John.

 

Despite the firepower sent their way, however, the blob kept coming, screaming and howling as they got closer and closer until John had to shoulder his rifle and draw his Webley revolver, just as one screaming German beared down upon him with a bayoneted rifle. Aiming in the general direction, he fired, reaching around to draw his knife as well and hoping his shot would hit home.

 

---

 

John woke up in a cold sweat, panting hard and looking around him. His right hand was gripped so tightly the knuckles had turned white, and his left hand was grasping for a non-existent knife. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he began to relax as he recognized the surroundings as the captain’s quarters on Manchester. Slowly he began to fully wake up and sighed, bringing a hand up to his brow and rubbing it. “Shitting hell…,” He swore. “Another bloody dream.”

 

Realizing what probably happened, he turned his eyes to the closed door. “Lenny won't be too happy about this.”

 

Sure enough, through the closed door came Manchester, stopped with a loud bang as she apparently forgot that the person with her can't go through bulkheads and doors like she could. “Gah! Sorry Lenny!” She sheepishly opened the door, letting in a very grumpy Welshman.

 

“Ya know, I wouldn't mind so much her gettin’ me up here to help ya if it wasn't the fourth bloody time this night!” Lennard rubbed his forehead and stood unamused across from John. “Lemme guess. Another night terror of sorts?”

 

“Sorry Lenny.” John shrugged. “It's what I have to put up with on a usual basis at night.”

 

The ship’s doctor sighed heavily. “Care to bring over the Johnnie’s, lass? I have a feeling we’re gonna need it.”

 

“Aye, Lenny!” The Belle began to root around for the scotch as Lenny grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the bed where John was.

 

“Jack, it’s three in the morning, I'm dead tired, and I'm pretty sure if Belles can get heart attacks Manchester’s going to have one. So let's work out what the hell these dreams are about and how to knock you the hell to sleep so I can get some shut eye.”

 

“Three tumblers comin up!” Manchester called out as she started to fill them up. John swung around so he was facing Lenny and scratched the back of his head.

 

“I didn't know you were a psychiatrist.” He mused as a three-quarters full tumbler got passed to him.

 

“I'm not,” Lenny paused to take a big sip from his glass. “But if it'll get me my sleep, I’ll even be a bloody politician. Now, what's wrong? And don't tell me “It's nothing” like you've done before. It's something, that's for sure.”

 

Nursing the tumbler in his hand, John took a drink and sighed, looking up at his audience and chuckling to himself: an exhausted Welshman who was close to strangling the captain just for a night's rest, and a rather eager Belle who had pulled up a chair of her own and was sat rather...unladylike, straddling the chair and resting her arms on the top of the backrest.

 

“Well,” John began. “I have been having these dreams for years. Not really dreams but more like memories I'm reliving.”

 

“From the war?” Manchester piped up. “What was it like? Did you kill a lot of Germans?”

 

“Lass, let the man take a question at a time.” Lenny grumbled. John chuckled again.

 

“Yes, Manchester. From the war. For a while now it's been of the same battle I was a part of. See, in late 1915 I had been injured in my leg by a German sniper and was sent to hospital where I was treated, slapped on the back, and sent back out after a few months as it wasn't a terrible injury. Thing was, by then my unit had been moved somewhere that the local brass didn't know or didn't care, so I was lumped in with a bunch of other strays into another regiment. For the moment things seemed fine until we entered Hell on earth: the Somme.”

 

“Bugger me… you were in that mess?” Lenny swore.

 

“Aye. Up and down wherever command needed a hole to be plugged until about the 20th of October when we were stuck about the Ancre valley. We had seemed to finally catch a break, that is until a few days later when the Germans attacked our line.”

 

---

 

15 November, 1916

Ancre, France

Battle of Ancre, Somme Offensive

 

Sergeant Falshaw braced himself as the charging German soldier collapsed in front of him, his revolver shot, catching the foe in the chest dead on. There was barely any time to celebrate as another two seemed to take his place.

 

Firing away with the Webley, John managed to just knock the bayoneted rifle of the first soldier away and thrust his own knife up and into his rib cage, yanking out with a twist. The second caught one of the wildly fired pistol bullets in his arm but kept coming at the Yorkshireman, dropping his rifle for a makeshift club on his belt.

 

Suddenly a bayonet appeared through the German’s chest from behind, followed by its retrieval and a hard hit to the back of the head from the Enfield Riley was holding.

 

“Gotcha, sarge!”

 

“Thanks Riley.” John sighed a quick breath of relief before holstering his pistol, grabbing the club the German dropped. It was made out of some kind of oak with two metal bands around the top and some “studs”, which were more than likely cartridges hammered down into the wood.

 

“Come on, sir!” Riley cracked a shot off at another German. “They're in the trench!”

 

“I see that, Corporal! With me!”

 

The two managed to get out of their foxhole and dashed for the trench. With a knife in one hand and the club in the other, Falshaw leaped down into the British trenches, his knife driven down into a German neck.

 

All along the trench, Englishmen and Germans were brutalizing each other, trying to get the upper hand. One such Jerry saw the two newcomers and yelled out a warning for the next closest guy. He had only turned his head to see what the warning was about when it was promptly bashed in by the newly acquired club with a sickening crunch.

 

For what seemed to be hours, the two sides smashed, stabbed, gutted, strangled, and outright slaughtered each other in the trenches until there came another whistle. The Germans, battered and bloodied, began to fall back. As they did, those English that could still fight opened up on them, killing more and more until at last they were out of sight.

 

Panting heavily and leaned up against the trench wall, John slid down until he was sat on the bloodstained floor. The club he had used was now busted and had small specks of pink matter embedded between the metal bands, bloody splinters now making up the majority of the weapon.

 

His knife had long since left him, been driven down into one German’s guts and forced to be left there when another had gotten the jump on him. Cuts and bruises adorned his body, and his uniform was sticky with blood from friends and foe alike.

 

Riley sat down next to him, passing a cigarette and lighting one up for himself. John took it with a shaky hand and lit it. Turning to the other man he asked, “How's it?”

 

The Lincolnshireman winced as he adjusted himself and put a hand over his left side. “Missed me by enough to matter. Bugger got Tommy before comin’ after me, dropped him .”

 

“Know about any of the others? Harris?”

 

“Didn't keep his bloody head down and got his face torn to shreds by Jerry arty.”

 

“Martin?”

 

“Head bashed in with a rock.”

 

“Cochrane?”

 

“Still breathing.” The aforementioned soldier yelled over from his Lewis Gun position.

 

“How many rounds you got left?”

 

“Two full magazines, one almost spent loaded up, Sarge!”

 

“Is Donnie with you?”

 

“Yeah, he’s here. The blighter got stabbed in the hand but he’ll live.”

 

“Alright.” John took a deep drag of his cigarette and raised his voice. “Get the wounded looked after and sent back. I wanna know how the other sections are and these dead removed in case the Huns want to attempt another attack.”

 

“You heard the sergeant!” Riley spoke up. “Get to it, lads!”

 

The bloodied men collectively groaned, but began following their orders, some grabbing the dead and beginning to shift them from the trench. Tossing a quickly finished cigarette, John forced himself to stand up and ready his Enfield, hands gripping it tightly. “I’ll keep an eye out for Jerry patrols while you lead the clean up.” Sergeant Falshaw fished around for a fresh 5-round clip and loaded it into the rifle, looking over at the Lewis Gun team. “Cochrane, Donnie, you too. Keep the Lewis ready to go. If there’s another attack, load the full mag.”

 

“Yessir!”

 

As he began to get into position, John stepped over a gutted German and pulled one who was missing most of the left side of his face down into the trench, resting his rifle on a relatively undamaged stahlhelm helmet to help stabilize. Peering through his scope out into no man’s land, John kept hands tight around his sniper rifle, anxious for when the next attack would be.

 

---

 

“And did they attack again?” Manchester asked, nearly stood up as she leaned forward to listen intently. John shook his head.

 

“Not until we had been reinforced, but by then we were on the offensive.” He explained. “Drove into their lines, then were pushed back. Practically netted nothing.”

 

He turned his head towards Lenny, who was two and a half tumblers down. “So, that’s my dreams. Got anything, Freud?”

 

“First,” The Welshman gestured with his half empty (or was it half full?) tumbler. “No. I don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know about him and his sodding Odey-pus complexes and,” He looked at Manchester and coughed, “...other, fixations.”

 

“Eh? Why’d’ya look at me like that fer?” The Belle huffed.

 

“Second,” He continued, ignoring her. “I think I found a theme going on there.”

 

“Care to enlighten us?” Falshaw refilled his tumbler, then looked at the bottle. “Need to get more of this.” He mumbled. The ship’s doctor mumbled back some form of agreement, but it looked like he was nearing the point where he’d collapse asleep.

 

“Well, near every time you’ve woken up, your hands have been clutched tightly together, almost like you're holding something.”

 

“Hey, I noticed that too.” Manchester nodded taking a nip from her drink. “When we were approaching the Morgana, you had your hands like that.”

 

“It's comfortable.” John explained. “Whenever I'm in a situation like that, my mind thinks up me holding my old rifle.”

 

“Hmm…” Leonard turned to the Belle. “Lass, mind grabbing a splint or a crutch for me? I wanna try somethin’.”

 

“What are you on about?” The captain raised an eyebrow, only to be met with the Welshman shaking his head.

 

“You’ll see.”

 

Manchester nodded and stood up, setting her drink on the chair. She then seemed to descend through the floor as she ghosted down to the sick bay. John chuckled. “So how often you think the crew’ll be surprised by that?”

 

“Enough that they’ll get used to it. She’s quite the rascal y’know.”

 

“Yeah, but so far there's no harm in it.” Falshaw shrugged. “If she was more destructive I’d be more concerned.”

 

“Don’t give her ideas. The last time she woke me up tonight she did it with a bucket of water.”

 

“Yeah, you were steaming mad at that.”

 

“Were she anyone else, I’d’ve throttled her.” Lenny growled before downing his tumbler.

 

It took a further ten minutes for Manchester to return, holding a wooden leg splint in her hands. “Sorry it took so long! I can’t ghost through or anything while ‘olding this thing!” She apologized.

 

“Just get in here before I fall asleep.”

 

The Belle nodded and walked in, handing the splint over to her captain. “So…,” He looked at it. “...what do I do with this?”

 

“Sleep with it.”

 

“Ok. Now what do I really do with it?”

 

“Sleep. With it.”

 

John raised an eyebrow at Lenny. “You...want me to sleep with this?”

 

“Jesus it’s not like I told you twice already-YES bloody sleep with it!”

 

The ship’s doctor sighed heavily and slumped in his seat. “Sorry...I’m so bloody exhausted.”

 

“It’s fine, Lenny.” Falshaw smiled, stifling a yawn. “So I sleep with the splint. How does that help me?”

 

“Well remember when you said about how when in a stressful situation you think about holding your rifle?”

 

“...I think I see what you’re getting at.”

 

“Then you don’t mind me getting to bed before I pass out?” The Welshman yawned and stood up. “See you in the morning.”

 

The two men nodded at each other, and Lenny headed out of the captain’s quarters. Once gone, Manchester looked over at John. “So what’re ya supposed ‘ta do with that?”

 

“Well,” He got up to set his tumbler down. “I’m supposed to think this is my rifle.”

 

“Oh, I got it!” She beamed. “You’re too used to havin’ a rifle on ya on all times, right? So you’re tryin’ ta get that feelin’ back to help ya sleep better!”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“...will it work?”

 

“I don’t know, but if it does,” John chuckled as he laid down on his bunk. “This’ll be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, including joining the Navy to be the Captain of the female manifestation of a boat.”

 

“Oi! I ain’t weird!” Manchester huffed.

 

“No but you’re one hell of a troublemaker.” He smiled gently at her. “Please, for Lenny’s sake, don’t go after him if I get into another dream. Otherwise he’ll probably try to knock you out.”

 

“Pah! No one can knock me out! Not even a Morgana!”

 

“I don’t want to test that on Lenny though. Promise?”

 

She sighed. “Promise.”

 

John finally settled down and closed his eyes, holding the splint as if his rifle. It was a bit shorter, but had a similar size overall, and he found himself easily able to imagine the feel. Eventually, he felt himself dozing off, tightening his grip on his “rifle”, and for the first time in a very long time, he felt secure and safe.


-

 

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I like the character development, including the rifle pining. Some good ideas. Your doc has a lovely bedside manner - this doctor approves! Your Capt Falshaw and my Rep Stirling (it'll be a LONG time before she feels comfortable being called captain, even by her Belle) couldn't be more different, but I suspect the latter will like the former if they ever meet. I need to follow your lead and write more about Pensacola...

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I rather enjoyed the gruff and very annoyed doctor. He brought a good bit of life to the story. The backstory scenes were interesting. They feel a bit like a side event, unrelated to the story, but they offer a stark contrast and a nice insight into the pre-Captain life of Mr. Falshaw. They're very chaotic, which I enjoy as it reflects what they're trying to portray. Not much of Manchester this chapter, but that was fine because I was more focused on Lenny.

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After a very long delay, I present to you all Chapter 6 today, on my Birthday and the day WWII got kicked off.

 

Chapter 6 - The Rock

 

As the cooks started to get breakfast ready and a steward poured out the tea and coffee, Doctor Leonard Mallory chugged down a full cup of black coffee, tugging at the steward’s uniform and earning another full mug. Though he was used to spending late nights and waking up early in the morning as a ship’s doctor, Lenny didn’t ever get used to it. If he had his way, he would be dozing away until midday, followed by a lazy afternoon of fishing and reading, ending with a night of drinking at the local pub. However, there were no pubs around in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and as he was on a vessel, he had to wake up when the officers did. Well, at least today he did.

   

    Nursing the new mug of hot dark coffee, he glanced over at the other officers currently in the mess, namely at Vice Admiral Holland and Captain Danton. At dinner the previous night, Holland had told all officers about the plan for the vessel and introduced them to Manchester and John and the latter to the other officers. Apart from Danton’s initial disgruntledness, the officer corps on board took swiftly to their new captain, probably out of desire to serve on a Belle and to make a good impression; John was, after all, liked by the admiral, or at least the impression was there, and it was natural to want to get on his good side. Holland this morning seemed to be in good spirits, as good as Lenny could see anyways, and even Danton was cracking a smile. Maybe he had actually come around to the new captain.

 

    It was when some of the officers were getting visibly uncomfortable and his own stomach quietly complained about not having food yet that the doctor realized that John was still not there, and checked the time on his pocket watch.

 

    “Bloody hell, he’s almost an hour late,” Lenny muttered. “Maybe I should tell the admiral-”

 

    “Tell the admiral what?”

 

    Lenny nearly jumped out of his skin, as Holland and Danton had walked over to him and overheard what he was saying.

 

    “Oh sorry Leonard. I didn’t mean to spook you.” The admiral said with a small genuine smile. The doctor chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck.

 

    “No worries, Admiral. I just haven’t fully woken up yet. I was up too late last night.”

 

    “I’ve heard.”

 

Lenny took a swig of his coffee and sighed. “I’d prefer it if it didn’t make the rounds.”

 

Holland looked at Danton who snapped a quick salute between them and walked off, before looking down at his mug of coffee. “You know no one has any control over Scuttlebutt, Leonard. All I know is that you got woken up near half a dozen times last night by Manchester. Some of the rank and file have made some comments but most are about her wounds. However...”

 

He paused to take a sip and took his cap off. “I believe whatever it was has something to do with our tardy captain. So, what’s been going on?”

 

-----------------------

 

Racing up through the hallways of the ship, John swore under his breath as he yet again banged his shoulder against the bulkheads. When he had initially come aboard Manchester, the sailors told him and the other RAF technicians that the bumps were the ship giving them little love taps and that they would get use to them the longer they stayed on board. He had no intentions of getting used to them, but now that he was now captain, he had little choice. He also regretted relying on Manchester to wake him up, as she had let him lie in. While he appreciated the gesture, it meant that he was now late to breakfast. He had only enough time for a quick dip in the shower as he was so late, his hair still wet and slowly dripping down on to his uniform.

 

After a while, he finally made it to the officer’s mess, sure that his body was well and truly bruised from his rushed journey. He took a second to straighten himself out. With any luck, the officers wouldn’t notice his shabby appearance as he patted his hair down till it felt dry enough. Taking a small deep breath in, he walked in, taking care not to make too much of a scene.

 

“Cap’n! Over ‘ere!” Manchester called over, waving and patting a seat next to her. “I saved ya some bacon an’ eggs!”

 

With eyes now upon him, John sighed and walked to the seat, fittingly right across from Vice Admiral Holland and Captain Danton with Lenny to the opposite side of Manchester. True to her word, a small plate with bacon and scrambled eggs was right at his place, as well as a mug of tea. Straight away he set about taking a swig of tea, not reacting in the slightest to the very lukewarm temperature while he scooped a forkfull of eggs into his mouth.

 

“Sleep well, Captain?” The vice admiral asked, sipping on his mug of coffee.

 

“Hm? Oh, uh, yes sir. Well enough, Admiral.” He replied, focusing on trying to get food into his system swiftly without eating like a pig. Manc on the other hand was munching down like a kid, happy as a lark.

 

“Mmhmm…” Holland lazily looked over to Lenny. “Well, the good doctor here told me he had to administer some medication to you.”

 

John paused and looked up into a small but very knowing smile. “Oh there’s nothing to worry about, captain. There’s plenty who struggle to sleep at night, so taking something to help you sleep is not uncommon.”

 

The captain sighed and let out a little chuckle as he relaxed, thinking that Holland was talking about actual medication. “Yes sir. I’ve had issues since the war ended, so it’s good that Lenny was able to whip something up for me.”

 

“Well so long as it’s under control.”

 

Holland cleared his throat loudly so that everyone in the officer’s mess could hear, grabbing their attention. “One more thing. I received orders last night to stay with Somerville and finish transporting the technicians to Malta, so I will be transferring over to Renown this afternoon. Incoming messages from the Belle Bolzano confirm that she and a small Italian-led task force was patrolling in the area when they were jumped by Morganas.”

 

He looked over to Manchester and nodded towards her. “She apologizes for shooting at you but in the thick of the battle, it seemed the best option, mostly due to it being easier to disguise as trying to call for help.”

 

“Well she di’nt hit me so no ‘arm in it.” The Belle shrugged. “If she ‘ad then I’d be expectant of ‘er sayin’ sorry.”

 

“Regardless,” Holland continued. “There’s still the threat of Morganas in the area, and the Italian force has taken a large battering. The destroyers Carducci, Jaguar, Encounter, and Z8 are in dire need of repairs, with the latest report saying that Encounter may not make it to port. Zara, the leader of this task force, is reduced to only her rear two turrets and requires escort back to port as well. So, after conversing with Captain Parker, he, Cossack, and a few of the Belles from our own escort group will merge with the Italians and he will assume command to hunt down these Morganas.”

 

“Isn’t that the Canuck?” One of the other officers spoke up. John recognized him as William Caleot, the lieutenant of Manchester. They had met briefly the previous night and exchanged pleasantries but outside of that, he knew little about the Scunthorpian.

 

“Aye, it is, and he’s a good officer.” The vice admiral stood up from his seat with a small smile on his face. “Now, let’s set about our duties and make ready, shall we?”

 

“Aye aye, Admiral!” Came the call from everyone. As John got up to leave, however, Holland caught his attention.

 

“Oh, and captain,” He started, gesturing in the direction of Lenny. “I have given the good doctor a letter approving you to take whatever medication you require, and if there’s any bother about it, to state that it is for the Belle. Belles have quite the...unusual tastes after all.”

 

The old soldier chuckled and glanced at Manchester who was searching around for a steward to refill her mug of tea. “Aye, they certainly do.”

 

“God knows what Somerville has to put up with.” Holland sighs. “Bit of friendly advice, if you have an aversion to puns, try to politely turn down requests to come aboard Ark Royal. I don’t know how he stands her, but he has the patience and will of a saint.”

 

John laughed a little, and even Holland started to chuckle. “Anyways, I do hope you perform well during your training. You have potential there.”

 

“Thank you, admiral.”

 

With that, the mess was emptied and everyone started to go about their duties. For John, this meant heading up to the bridge. The previous night, it was agreed that Lieutenant Caleot could help teach him about naval lingo and get used to commanding a ship quicker so that once he did arrive in Portsmouth for training, he wouldn’t be completely useless. While it did seem a little embarrassing, it was required for him, and so he wormed his way up and out onto the deck, making his way towards the bridge. While he could have made the trip shorter, he decided to take the long way, wanting to take some time in the fresh air to himself. It was as he approached the bridge that he swore he could hear singing. He turned out to the sea, and as he did so, could hear the song louder.

 

Chernoglazaya kazachka
    Podkovala mne konya
    Serebro s menya sprosila
    Trud nedorog tsenya/

Kak zovut tebya molodka
    A molodka govorit
    Imya ty moje uslyshysh
   
Iz-pod topota kopyt.

 

Pulling up alongside Manchester was a destroyer, slowing down as to match speed, and on the bow was a very interesting sight. Long black hair came flowing from under her small brown fur cap, reaching just above the middle of her back. The uniform itself was a bright crimson, with what looked to be built in bullet loops on the chest, going all the way down to her cavalry boots. It was open at the top and down a ways, exposing a white shirt underneath and accenting her rather busty appearance. A dagger in a simple sheath was harnessed on to her belt, maybe one of cultural significance. When the Belle turned her head towards John, her eyes opened to beautiful dark eyes shining in the mid-morning sun. From across the decks, she chuckled to herself and smiled.

 

Каk vam pesnya?”, the woman asked. John smiled back politely and rested his hand on the railing of Manchester.

 

“I enjoyed it, yeah. Only knew a few of the words but it was still good.” He gestured towards her. “HMS Cossack I presume?”

 

K vashim uslugam. I didn’t know you spoke Russian, Kaptain Falshaw.”

 

“I understand a wee bit. Benefits of my Grandfather fighting in the Crimean War included being able to recite every swear word and words for weapons in Russian. Spent a great deal praising the Cossacks.”

 

“As he should.”

 

Cossack brushed her hair behind her and straightened up. “We are a great people that have been suffering under the cruel tyranny of the klyateekh sotseealeestaw. I have a lot to live up to.”

 

She turned slightly and looked over her shoulder. “Which is why I don’t understand why we have some of those soochki with us.”

 

“Oh come on Cossack,” Came the deep, rugged voice of her Captain, rolling his eyes. “You know the Morganas are worth a little cooperation.”

 

“And a little is all they will get.”

 

The Captain sighed and flashed a short salute over to Falshaw. “Captain Falshaw.”

 

“Captain Parker.” John saluted back. “I wonder if all Belles are a bit...awkward to deal with right off the bat.”

 

“Oi!” Manchester huffed, strutting over to her captain and slinging her cricket bat over her shoulder. “I’m not awkward!”

 

Parker chuckled. “He means it affectionately.”

 

“Oh. Ooohhhhh. Well in that case thanks!”

 

The two captains shared a small laugh, Parker looking at Cossack who smiled and shrugged. “Well we best be off. Have to get the Italian flotilla assessed and start the hunt.”

 

“Can I protest against having Gremyashchiy as the second in command again?” Cossack pleaded. Parker shook his head.

 

“She is the second most experienced vessel in our force. Regardless of how you feel towards her and Captain Gorsky, they are second in command. Understood?”

 

Cossack sighed. “I ob'yasneniy zdes' ne zhdut' , zdes' umirat' i v boi idut'. Understood Kaptain.”

 

Parker chuckled and shook his head. “Big fan of Tennyson that one. Well, I look forward to working with you again sometime, Captain Falshaw. Fair winds and safe travels.”

 

“Same to you, Captain Parker.”

 

Manchester waved over at Cossack and smiled. “Hey, at least you’re able to get right to fightin’. I ‘aveta send off to port to get my hull patched.”

 

Nye bespokoisya, Manchester.” Cossack smiles back. “I will make sure to leave some for you.”

 

Once all goodbyes were said and the Canadian captain and his Belle turned away to prepare for their own mission, John resumed his journey up to the bridge where the bridge crew were already in position, and the lieutenant was stood ready, saluting as John got there. “Captain on deck. Ready to go, Mr. Falshaw?”

 

“Aye, Lieutenant.” John returned the salute and nodded at the crew. “So who is transferring the vice admiral to Renown?”

 

“We will pull up alongside her when we turn around to head to Gibraltar. Till then, he’s finishing getting packed and gave me materials which to further...educate you with.”

 

John sighed. “Well I suppose it could be worse. I could’ve been one of the other technicians and became a Belle captain.”

 

William chuckled. “Aye, that would be a whole lot worse.”

 

Lieutenant Caleot then looked over at Manchester. “Well unless you want to learn a bunch of boring stuff, I’d advise to get us heading back Gibraltar ways in the direction of Renown and giving us an hour or two. It’ll take us almost a full day to get to Gibraltar, so better we head off sooner rather than later.”

 

“‘Nuff said.” Manchester shrugged. “Cap’n?”

 

“It’s a good plan, so let’s do it.” John nodded. “If I’m not lying with my head on the ground and ears billowing smoke from overworking my brain.”

 

“Oh come on, Cap’n! I’m sure you can do it! It’s just a little book work.”

 

“A little book work eh? So you want to stick around and learn boring and dry naval terminology and such?” William patted a very thick book he held in his hand. “Because I can accommodate.”

 

Manchester blinked and sheepishly smiled. “Uh, I’m good. Lemme get us underway, yeah? I can keep myself busy until you finish.”

 

“Just don’t torture the crew.” Her captain chuckled. The Belle pouted.

 

“I ain’t that terrible!”

 

The bridge crew chuckled and smiled in amusement as the Belle made her way back out and onto the deck, the ship starting to turn to her port and start her journey. Lieutenant Caleot sighed and reached inside the big book for a few cards.

 

“Shall we get started, Captain? I’ve taken the liberty of assuming you know your arse from your elbow and port from starboard.”

 

“Not a bad assumption, Lieutenant.”

 

“So instead, I’m going to teach you the non-basic stuff, starting with being able to identify vessels at distance.”

 

Caleot smiled. “Should be easy for an old sniper such as yourself.”

 

“You say that now.”

 

With a quick nod and a smirk, the Lieutenant carefully stepped backwards a few feet and raised a card up. “So, battleship, cruiser, destroyer, carrier, or patrol craft?”

 

 

-----------------------

 

The port of Gibraltar was an impressive sight, especially with the morning sun shining brightly in the sky. Cargo vessels flowed in and out, carrying much needed supplies for the men and women stationed at the Rock. A few destroyers laid moored in the harbor for a variety of reasons sporting neutrality stripes for Italian, British, and even Polish captains. Atop a very tall flagpole was the flag of the INPF, flying above the Union Jack. The entirety of the Rock bristled with fortifications and guns. As he looked over the view in front of him, John was almost certain that no force in heaven or hell could take the Rock from them.

 

“Morn’ Cap’n!” Manchester bounded over happily. “You got a nice kip?”

 

“Aye, Manc.” He nodded, working on the mug of coffee that was brought up to him. “Better than yesterday because I didn’t get left sleeping in till later.”

 

Manchester lent back against the railing of the ship. “‘S’not my fault that you di’nt wake up till 7:30. Besides, you’re going to tell me that you di’n’t need the rest?”

 

“At another time, sure, but not then.”

 

He sighed and straightened up as a set of footsteps came towards them, turning to face Lieutenant Caleot. The two men exchanged salutes and the Lieutenant yawned.

 

“Well we should work our way into one of the drydocks and set their repair crews to work. If we’re lucky, they might be able to fix Manchester up all the way while we take on provisions and whatnot.”

 

“I would rather they did.” Manchester winced as she moved and touched where her wound was on her body. “I can only last so long with this annoying the ‘ell outta me.”

 

“We will see when we get there.” John finished his coffee and handed it to a passing sailor who promptly saluted and started down to the galley. “Set course to the drydock.”

 

Within an hour or so, the light cruiser had settled itself into the dock and work immediately commenced on assessing the damage and what the repair crews could do about it. As this was happening, John and the William left the ship in the hands of one of the more capable warrant sub-lieutenants and went ashore, partly due to the former wanting solid ground under his feet, but mostly due to the letter the vice admiral had left Lenny, who had given it to John as they were pulling into the drydock.

 

“Any idea what the letter says?” William asked, quickly saluting another Royal Navy officer as they caught each others eyes. The latter was busy chewing out some sailors, probably (and hopefully) of his own crew for some kind of infraction that neither of the two walking men wanted to stay to hear about.

 

“Just to head to the armory and present it to the sergeant there.” John shook his head. “I wonder what the blazes the vice admiral has in store for me.”

 

“Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be bad. Holland’s a good man and officer. I would think he has the spirit not to do anything heinous to you.”

 

“Well we won’t know until we get there, so let’s just get a move on, figure out where the hell it is, and get it sorted and back to Manchester.”

 

Lieutenant Caleot nodded to himself. “Good enough plan for me.”

 

As the two men wandered through Gibraltar, following signs pointing them to where the armory was, they noticed the variety of personnel there. While predominantly a bastion of British dominion, the Rock had plenty of men and women from other nations wandering about in their varied uniforms. John remembered what the papers had said about the situation. The INPF strongly requested (a fancy term for “demanded” in his book) that Gibraltar and Malta become INPF bases to aid with the war against the Morganas. The newly elected prime minister Winston Churchill had reservations about letting other nations making themselves at home on British soil, especially the Germans and Italians, but it was only a matter of time before something was settled on. The agreement reached was that while they would accept captains of other nations and be equipped to sort out Belles, they would remain controlled by the British, and captains of the two Pact of Steel countries would be under strict watch.

 

It was thanks to a passing Turkish captain that the two British men made it to the airfield where the armory was. The captain, Azra Erdoğan, was heading there anyways as she had some complaints she wished to lodge to the Rock’s commanding officer about supplies for her Belle, Ostro. John and her exchanged pleasantries and chatted about how each one became captain of their Belle until they had to finally part ways. Captain Falshaw waved as Captain Erdoğan walked away, immediately zeroing in on a nearby British soldier and demanding to be taken to where the commander was.

 

“Ah I’m going to miss her.” John chuckled. William looked over his shoulder at the scene developing behind them.

 

“Hell of a spitfire. Would hate to be the commander when she finally makes it to him.”

 

“Great conversationalist though.”

 

The two men finally made it to the armory, a building several meters from the other side of the airfield with a small sign indicating it was such and a makeshift training field and shooting range behind it where a few soldiers were firing off their rifles. As they approached, they could spot a giant of a man barking at the soldiers in a very distinct Australian accent.

 

“Come on, ya poms! You can do better than that!” He gestured to the targets. “Rodgerson! Patterson! You shoot like that, you’re going to give them a headache at best!”

 

“Sorry Sarge.” One of the men apologized.

 

“Nigel! This isn’t the cunting Mad Minute! Make every shot count!”

 

“Aye Sarge.”

 

“Now load up and try again until you hit the bloody things!”

 

While the men readied for another go, John and William approached and the former cleared his throat. “Sergeant?”

 

The burley Australian man turned to them, his eyes rolling as he spotted the RAF technician uniform on John. “I’ve told you poms once, I’ve told you twice. This is the best spot for the firing range. If you hate it, then stuff cotton in your bloody ears!”

 

“We’re not here about that.” John grabbed the letter from out of his pocket and handed it to the sergeant. “See, I’m a Belle captain and-”

 

“xxx me dead.”

 

The language took Lieutenant Caleot back, but made John grin a little. “And Vice Admiral Holland has-”

 

“-told ya to come here and get some supplies, yeah I can read the letter. Not all us Aussies are too dumb to read y’know.”

 

“I know. Had a few ANZAC boys post up near our little outfit post Somme. Nice lads.”

 

The sergeant’s ears perked up. “Is that so?” He turned to the soldiers at the range. “Fire off at will for another thirty shots. I’ll be back to inspect what damage you do.”

 

A few acknowledgements were given before the big man headed over to John and William, extending a hand to John. “I was at Gallipoli before getting transferred to Europe and was at Ypres. Sergeant Bill Cox.”

 

“Captain John Falshaw. Was a sergeant in those days.”

 

“And I a corporal. Seems like we both got a promotion.”

 

Any tension there was before, if there was any, was immediately gone as the old soldiers acted as if they were old friends. Before they could get started telling tales about their war experiences, William raised his hand politely.

 

“As happy as I am for this union of old war dogs,” He nodded to the letter in Cox’s hand. “What does the letter say?”

 

“Oh, right.” The sergeant looked the letter over one more time and grinned. “Oh you’re going to love this, mate.”

 

John and William exchanged looks, neither one understanding what the Australian man meant as he walked over to the armory building, until he returned with a rifle.

 

“Captain Falshaw, it is my distinct pleasure to hand off to a former sniper this Lee Enfield Mark III for whatever purposes you may have for it.”

 

The lieutenant was obviously mystified. “Why would the Vice Admiral sign off on you getting a rifle?”

 

“Other than I’m a former sniper?” John thought back to the conversation the other day at breakfast and mentally cursed as he realized the admiral had known and was referring to his situation.

 

“However,” Bill continued. “You must prove you’re worthy of using this weapon by firing off a few shots at the range and running the course.”

 

The captain looked at the rifle, then glanced at Lieutenant William. “I suppose it could be worse.”

 

“Good man.” Cox handed the rifle over to the Yorkshireman as well as two five round stripper clips. “Walk over to the range and load up. I’ll tell you when to fire.”

 

“Alright, Corporal.”

 

Sergeant Cox grinned. “Get a move on, Sergeant!”

 

With an energy he hadn’t felt in years, John made his way to the range and set up. The other soldiers looked over, wondering what was going on until the sergeant walked over and looked at the targets.

 

“You lads did better, but you’re all still crap. Captain Falshaw!”

 

“Yes sergeant!”

 

“Show these young pups how us old war dogs shoot.”

 

With fully loaded rifle in hand, he aimed down at the target at the other end of the range. The rifle felt right at home in his hands, fitting in perfectly and comfortably. Lining up the shot, he fired, taking care to mark where he was shooting at. While he wasn’t firing like mad, he was still rapidly firing off his shots but landing most of them on target. When the last bullet was fired, John pulled the bolt back and stood ready, looking at the sergeant. Cox scanned down range and smirked.

 

“The best you poms did with ten rounds was 6 on target from Nigel. This pom landed 8 and he’s as old as I am. Forty rounds down range from you lot. If you can’t land seven out of every ten, you are going to sweep up the range top to bottom.”

 

With an approving nod, John closed the bolt and followed Sergeant Cox. The three men didn’t have to go far before they saw the training ground. It was a small thing, with a wall to climb over with rope, two three meter long log bridge that needed to be balanced across, mud and barbed wire with a Vickers mounted in position for good measure, and three dummies at the end for melee.

 

“I’ll man the Vickers when you get close, Captain. No sense in wasting my time if you don’t make it.”

 

“Just make sure to aim high.” John winked. The sergeant reached into his pocket and pulled out a whistle.

 

“Quick as you can, Captain. Else I’ll make you run it again.”

 

“Not quite fair. It’s not even a full course.”

 

“Blame the war effort switching to fighting the Morganas. Now get ready. Get set!”

 

At the shrill screeching of the whistle, John took off at a sprint towards the wall. The ropes were worn but relatively untouched, resulting in a rather swift scaling. The captain leaped down, going into a roll as he hit the ground and started to the log bridges.

 

“Come on, Falshaw! Show me what you can do!” Cox barked at him. Slowing down as he reached the bridges, he used the rifle to help balance him as he walked on over. As he reached the midway point, he heard the heavy footfalls of Sergeant Cox dashing for the Vickers, making sure it was in good condition before cocking the machine gun.

 

It didn’t fire immediately once Falshaw dived into the mud, but instead waited until he crawled a few feet before opening up, the whistle screeching as the Vickers opened up. The mud caked on his technician uniform, getting on his rifle and on his face. Before he made it to the end, he slowed slightly to wipe his face of mud, and before him everything changed.

 

The sounds of the machine guns nearby continued as the officer sounded his whistle, yelling at the men. “Come on! Keep going! Almost there!”

 

Holding tightly to his rifle, John finally made it from under the barbed wire, making immediate eye contact with three Germans ahead of him. Two were already in a melee with British soldiers, but the third one was trying to shoot him. His rifle spent and all ammo lost, John had little choice but to charge. His pace quickened when he saw the German couldn’t shoot his rifle, and was trying desperately to get the bolt to close fully. As he got closer, he could see the young face of the German growing more and more frightened, but it didn’t stop him. He raised his rifle up, ready to strike the soldier down when the German dropped his gun in fear and held his hands up. Ignoring the pleas for mercy, John barreled in, tackling the poor man to the ground and starting to bash his skull in with the butt of his rifle. The whistle grew louder and louder, until he felt someone grab his arm and yank it.

 

“Captain Falshaw!” Cox yelled in his face. John blinked a few times as he came back to reality.

 

“S...Sergeant Cox?” He felt his body ache, his left knee in particular was in burning pain from the exertion he did.

 

“You almost smashed the dummy to bits.”

 

John looked down, seeing not the German soldier he was fighting, but rather a crudely made dummy with its head crushed and battered. “I...I thought I was at the Somme…”

 

“It’s alright, Captain. You’re in the present. No Jerries around. Just me, the Lieutenant, and the idiots at the range.”

 

After taking a second for a breather, John slowly stood up, using the rifle to help support him. The sergeant lightly patted the captain’s back.

 

“Well, I think you’ve earned the rifle, John. So long as you don’t go nuts with it.”

 

“Unless there’s rifles and mud and trenches on the seas, I think I will be fine.” John cracked a light smile. Lieutenant Caleot walked over and placed a hand on the captain’s shoulder.

 

“Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up and sorted, and have lunch. Then we can check on Manchester.” He suggested.

 

“Not a bad idea. Hopefully Manc hasn’t gotten herself into trouble.”

 

The three men exchanged salutes and went off on their ways, Cox to the range, Caleot and Falshaw towards the nearest mess hall. All the way, though, John’s mind went back to the course and near the end. He swore he was back at the Somme. It felt like it. It was all too real for him. It made him worried about his mind. What if he did something like that during battle? Could they last long? Would he be committed to an institution until they cured him? What of Manchester?

 

Instinctively his hands gripped the rifle tightly, and his worries subsided. They would need to be dealt with another day. For now, he needed to take care of the current issues, and so after giving himself a quick once over with some water to make him much less muddy than he was, he and the Lieutenant made their way to the mess hall, hoping that things would go smoothly from now on.

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Phenomenal work, Welly. You did a smashing job of handling Falshaw and his flashback on the course.  Your dialogue skills are coming of age. The characters are truly becoming real to me now. You're inspiring me to get back to Dory. :-)

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I've only read the most recent chapter completely, but I like it very much. You have a good writing style and I see now how putting talk into separate lines helps the reader. The characters are well drawn in my book and it is a joy to read your fanfic.

I like Lenny. If Korky ever comes across the Manc he makes sure to toss a bottle or two over. Hannah has plenty..... as long as the Nixen haven't blown it to pieces. My only worries could be Captain Falshaw going off on his ship, his crew or Korky himself due to his condition. But since Korky's unaware, he'd do it if asked convincingly.
Is it bad I autoread "Manc" instead of Manchester from the get go?
That Aussie sarge reminded me of that joke about how it is 'mate and not mate in Australia. Why? Well 'mate is short for inmate.
I also would've put that shooting range at the spanish border. Just to piss them off with all the ricochets from beginners. But that's probably the reason why it's well away from it.
What seems odd is airmen having trouble with noise. I mean if a Spitfire takes off, isn't it much noisier than 30 rifles?
 

Spoiler

Also this, don't thank me. Well you have to imagine everything sung by the men with a heavy british accent.

 

 

and if the captain is Canadian, isn't it HMCS Cossack?

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6 hours ago, Käpt'n Korky said:

I've only read the most recent chapter completely, but I like it very much. You have a good writing style and I see now how putting talk into separate lines helps the reader. The characters are well drawn in my book and it is a joy to read your fanfic.

I like Lenny. If Korky ever comes across the Manc he makes sure to toss a bottle or two over. Hannah has plenty..... as long as the Nixen haven't blown it to pieces. My only worries could be Captain Falshaw going off on his ship, his crew or Korky himself due to his condition. But since Korky's unaware, he'd do it if asked convincingly.
Is it bad I autoread "Manc" instead of Manchester from the get go?
That Aussie sarge reminded me of that joke about how it is 'mate and not mate in Australia. Why? Well 'mate is short for inmate.
I also would've put that shooting range at the spanish border. Just to piss them off with all the ricochets from beginners. But that's probably the reason why it's well away from it.
What seems odd is airmen having trouble with noise. I mean if a Spitfire takes off, isn't it much noisier than 30 rifles?
 

  Reveal hidden contents

Also this, don't thank me. Well you have to imagine everything sung by the men with a heavy british accent.

 

 

and if the captain is Canadian, isn't it HMCS Cossack?

It's more about the fact that they have soldiers shooting right by the airfield rather than somewhere else than the noise. You can imagine they've had pilots complain about it, and so hence why he's saying about stuffing cotton in their ears so they can't hear it.

While that would normally be true, two things:

1) Cossack is a British ship. She was HMS Cossack all the way through the war 

2) Would that therefore mean that it would be possible to have HMS Bismarck? (Bismarck under a British captain) I would assume that they would just refer to the ships by their names rather than the navy they belonged to, but when they would, it would be in regards to the original navy. So Mahan would be USS Mahan even if the Japanese had her

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16 hours ago, Wellington99 said:

It's more about the fact that they have soldiers shooting right by the airfield rather than somewhere else than the noise. You can imagine they've had pilots complain about it, and so hence why he's saying about stuffing cotton in their ears so they can't hear it.

While that would normally be true, two things:

1) Cossack is a British ship. She was HMS Cossack all the way through the war 

2) Would that therefore mean that it would be possible to have HMS Bismarck? (Bismarck under a British captain) I would assume that they would just refer to the ships by their names rather than the navy they belonged to, but when they would, it would be in regards to the original navy. So Mahan would be USS Mahan even if the Japanese had her

The prefix is decided by the register the ship is kept in. So if the Bismarck is put under british high command as part of the british fleet she would become HMS Bismarck. Like Prinz Eugen became USS Prinz Eugen after the war. But I wasn't and still am not sure about the rule inside the british empire/commonwealth at that time. Because ANZAC and Canadian troops were under british high command. Or did Canada have its own, independent admiralty? Did the first Lord of the admiralty command all HMAS, HMCS and HMNZS, etc.?

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8 hours ago, Käpt'n Korky said:

The prefix is decided by the register the ship is kept in. So if the Bismarck is put under british high command as part of the british fleet she would become HMS Bismarck. Like Prinz Eugen became USS Prinz Eugen after the war. But I wasn't and still am not sure about the rule inside the british empire/commonwealth at that time. Because ANZAC and Canadian troops were under british high command. Or did Canada have its own, independent admiralty? Did the first Lord of the admiralty command all HMAS, HMCS and HMNZS, etc.?

In any case, John was the one saying HMS Cossack, and he's not even gotten close to starting his Belle captaining training.

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What rhymes with Self-Isolation? New chapter! ....not really, but it's been so long since I've uploaded a chapter and considering the situation in the world, probably a good time to upload. It took so long because of making sure I got a couple of special characters down. You'll see what I mean.

Also wish I could have got it up yesterday if I had remembered but life gets in the way XD It was Manchester's Launch day on the 4th of April, technically Birthday if you wanna view it as such and a Belle's commission date as like a Bat Mitzvah or Catholic Confirmation

Special thanks to Gerrion for the Portuguese assistance

Spoiler

 

Chapter 7 - An Improbable Meeting

 

“So once I had convinced that piç of a commander that I was going to string him up on the bow by his taşaklar if he did not give me the respect a kaptan should deserve, Ostro was finally resupplied.” Captain Azra Erdoğan slyly smirked. “And I earned the nickname of Dişi şeytan, She-Devil, from the brass.”

 

“I’m surprised they let you stick around in Gibraltar as long as you have.” John Falshaw mused, finishing his second beer.

 

“Eh, what can they do? I’m an INPF kaptan. If they want to run around and act like götlers towards me, then they had better be ready for the fucking repercussions.”

 

As Lieutenant Caleot chuckled, Azra produced a pack of cigarettes, and split up the remaining three sticks of nicotine between the three officers. John and William had managed to find a place where the captain could get his uniform washed, but it would be some time before it dried. It didn’t matter, though, as a Royal Navy captain’s uniform that was near enough a nice fit was available to him. It would work at the very least temporarily until he got back to England where he could get a proper uniform.

 

When they had gotten to the mess hall, they found the Turkish captain in a yelling match with an unfortunate young buck of an American captain. Only by their intervention did they manage to avoid the Yank getting further humiliated. Since that moment, the three had been sitting and enjoying the alcohol provided to officers and sharing cigarettes and stories, with Azra alone nearly going through a pack herself.

 

Only now that they were relaxed and comfortable did John get a good sense of Azra. She wore the uniform of presumably a man, as it was visibly larger than her in several places, her modest chest only showing if she stretched her back. Long dark brown hair that had light brown streaks in it fell down to the distinctly broad shoulders of a long time swimmer and framed the lightly tanned face. The most shocking part was her eyes which looked like they encased a bright blue flame each, which matched the temperament of the 34-year-old.

 

“Hey, İngiliz,” She barked at the nearest poor British officer. “You have any information as to when my ship’s supplies will be ready? She’s due in two days.”

 

“U-uh, should be ready by then, I think.” The Englishman wavered. “I-I would suggest talking to the harbormaster, or the officer in charge of resupply.”

 

Azra struck a match and lit her cigarette. “Could you write down directions for me?”

 

“M-ma’am, I don’t-”

 

“Unless you would rather walk me there yourself?”

 

Turning slightly pale, the officer walked away to grab a pen and paper as quickly as one could while retaining some resemblance of being dignified. William shook his head. “You do realize that you’re setting yourself up for trouble.”

 

“I can handle what comes my way.”

 

“Of course.”

 

The lieutenant stood up from the table and straightened his uniform. “I don’t suppose either of you wants another beer, do you?”

 

“Seeing as I am about to visit the harbormaster or supply officer, it probably would be a bad idea to have a beer with me. Bad impression.” Lieutenant Caleot chuckled at Azra’s response.

 

“Because they don’t have one already of you?”

 

“Being Dişi şeytan is no problem. Being known as a drunk is.” Azra smirked.

 

“She has a point.” John moved his empty glass towards the other two finished ones. “One for me if you wouldn’t mind, Will.”

 

“Right on it, Captain.”

 

As soon as the Lieutenant had left to find someone to get their beers (as at this point most of the sailors and various other men in the mess hall wanted to keep a good distance from the Turk), Azra sighed and looked back at John.

 

“I trust Antonio with my life, but I’m still worried about him and Ostro and the rest of the crew.” The flame in her eyes simmered down as she became more subdued, puffing a small smoke cloud.

 

“I’m certain they’ll be fine.” He reassured her. “Besides, it was a distress call and they had to go answer it. Not your fault the commander kept you for so long.”

 

“Yes, well, my worry is that they’ll encounter a fleet of those piçler and she will be heavily damaged, or worse.”

 

John nodded and reached into his pocket to light up the cigarette she had given him earlier when there was the faint sound of artillery. Everyone in the mess seemed to jump and look around worriedly at the noise.

 

“Scheduled practice, everyone.” An officer spoke up. “Nothing to worry about.”

 

Slowly but surely the mess seemed to relax, as the artillery fire was steady and regular and not the frantic chaos of battle. Captain Erdoğan nodded towards the Yorkshireman. “Would you like me to light that for you?”

 

John didn’t respond, instead looking straight through her. She leaned forward slightly and looked into his eyes. “John? Are you alright?”

 

“U-uh, what?” He blinked and shook his head, free of the trance he was under. “Y-yeah, just ah…”

 

“Would you like me to light your cigarette for you?”

 

He opened his mouth to say something when he finally noticed that the hand grasping his lighter was shaking, thanks to the fire of the guns. Carefully he withdrew his hand and put the cigarette in his mouth, leaning towards Azra.

 

“At least this way I won’t cock up and burn myself if my other hand goes.” He muttered. The Turk smiled gently and struck another match, lighting his cigarette for him and extinguishing the small flame. 

 

“I have had my experiences with, ah...shell shocking?” She explained.

 

“Shellshock.” John corrected.

 

“Ah yes, that. You see, my father and two uncles were drafted and sent to Gallipoli. My father used to tell me stories about the Australians and New Zealanders, how brave they were.”

 

She took a pause. “One of my uncles was killed in the initial shore bombardment. The other and my father both survived the war. My father still does suffer from the shellshock, even when it is just a slamming door he jumps and starts shaking. But, he manages.”

 

“And the other uncle?” John inquired. Azra’s eyes softened, tears forming in the corners without her knowing.

 

“The...other uncle couldn’t take it. His life was a waking Hell for him. He...he took his service revolver and…”

 

The once hard woman now wiped the tears from her eyes as she tried to hold herself together. “That was five years ago, and I have never forgotten it.”

 

She took a moment, finishing her cigarette off and managing to compose herself. “My father once told me he was proud that he ended up with a daughter, because then I wouldn’t be exposed to the horrors of war.”

 

Azra cracked a small smile. “He did not expect me to command a ship imbued with the power of a spirit.”

 

“I don’t think anyone did.” John smiled back. “What did he think?”

 

“Initially, he didn’t say a word about it. After I had managed to escape the crowd that wanted to see the new Belle kaptan of Turkey, I got home and he and I set about making dinner. Once we had finished, he turned on the radio and made tea, which he never makes tea unless it’s something important. That’s when the broadcast began.

 

“As I was being mobbed, someone managed to work out where I was from and got to my house and interviewed my father. By the time I got home, they had it ready to go for the evening news. “Azra Erdoğan, a fisherman’s daughter, elite swimmer, and Turkey’s newest Belle kaptan. Hero of the Ostro and her crew, scourge of the Morganas.”. I was certain he was mad with me so I began to apologize.

 

“Instead, he hugged me and told me that I was the strongest woman he had ever known and that he would be disappointed if I hadn’t saved the crew and the ship.”

 

She leaned back in her chair, some of the fire in her eyes returning. “He helped me pack the next day, and I was off to Istanbul. I finished training four months ago, and now I am here.”

 

At that moment, William came back carrying two fresh pints of beer, setting one in front of his captain. “Well, that took longer than I thought.” He grumbled.

 

“At least you came back with them.” John sipped at his glass, wincing a little. “Though I would rather it have a head and not lukewarm.”

 

Azra chuckled and stood up, straightening her uniform. “As much as I would love to stay and chat, I need to work out what’s going on with the supplies.”

 

Turning to John, she smiled softly. “I do hope we meet again. I would be more than happy to have you on board Ostro for tea.”

 

“Likewise, Captain Erdoğan.” He gave her a small salute. William sat himself down as Azra started to make her way out of the mess, the Scunthorpian lieutenant raising an eyebrow towards John.

 

“What?”

 

“You. Getting invited by the She-Devil for tea.”

 

“She’s not that bad.”

 

It was at this moment when the distinctly sharp sound of a slap echoed through the mess, causing all attention to turn towards the noise. A very, very cross looking Azra had turned towards a seated British army garrison officer, who was very clearly sloshed.

 

“Pardon me, İngiliz,” She seethed. “But do you know who was the one who slapped my ass?”

 

The officer wavered back and forth, a dumb drunk smile on his face as he cleared his throat. “Why it was me, of course.” He said proudly. “You should take it as a compliment.”

 

“Oh? And how so?”

 

“Here we go.” William rolled his eyes. John leaned back in his chair to get a better view of the impending action.

 

“You see, I don’t see women becoming officers in the navy as a bad thing.” The officer explained cheerily. “Some can really make a uniform work with them, especially with as tight an arse as yours.”

 

“Really now?” Azra cocked her head, cracking a sweet smile just before swinging with a strong left hook, catching the drunk and knocking him out of the chair and onto the floor.

 

Seni sarhoş, sapık piç! Mutlu olmalısın şu an seni hadım etmiyorum! Kahretsin domuz!”

 

The officer from earlier who had run off to write the directions for her now entered the frame, cautiously observing the scene.

 

“M-Miss?”

 

She spun around, fire in her eyes still blazing and causing the young man to flinch. “I-I have the directions right here, ma’am.”

 

A handful of seconds passed before she took a deep breath and made herself calm down, taking the paper from the officer’s hand and nodding. “Thank you. Now if you wouldn’t mind cleaning this piece of bok from the floor and kindly educate him on how to treat an officer, I would be most appreciative.”

 

With that, the Turkish captain finally exited the mess. The garrison officer was helped up to his feet by the young officer just as a couple of soldiers walked over to escort him, probably to somewhere where he could sober up. John and William went back to their drinks, though the impression left on them by Captain Erdoğan was impressive.

 

“Oh, I almost forgot.” The lieutenant spoke up. “Manc’s repairs are just about done.”

 

“Already?”

 

“Aye. They managed to weld a patch over the big hole in her side. That should keep her good until we hit Portsmouth and she can be properly fixed up.”

 

“Good. With any luck, the only excitement we’ll see from now till England will be from Manchester herself.”

 

-----------------------

 

Shells slammed into the ocean just off of Manchester’s starboard bow as she desperately maneuvered around. Her own 6-inch guns fired off, scoring direct hits on the lead Paranoia-class Morgana. The Belle gritted her teeth impatiently on the bridge as she waited for her crews to reload, eyes trained on the two shapes out in the distance.

 

“It would be bad enough if there was just one of them,” Lieutenant Caleot muttered. “But two Morgana heavy cruisers?”

 

“Do you think we can at least outrun them?” John asked.

 

“Run? I can take them easy!” Manchester boasted, before an 8 inch shell exploded against the face of her Y-Turret. The redhead fell to one knee in wracking pain, leading John to rush over to her side.

 

“Manc?”

 

“Nng...Turret...is still workin’.” She spat out, slowly getting up with John’s help. Blood was seeping from various wounds across her body, and some of her ribs had been broken. “Just HE. But one more shell like that…”

 

“We have to turn and run.”

 

William nodded in agreement. “With our maneuvering, Porto is to our port side. If we turn now and drop torpedoes, we might be able to make it.”

 

Manchester shook her head. “The lead Morgana is close to biting it. I can land one good shot on her and make it an even fight.”

 

“What, against their eight 8-inch guns? She’s been ripping us apart from the beginning.”

 

It wasn’t that far off. The initial surprise attack had punched a few more holes in Manchester’s hull and caused some of the crew to panic. The fact that Belles were supposed to sense Morganas meant that many thought surprise attacks made by them would be impossible, but Manchester had insisted she had no idea until the first shells were in the air towards them. The crew were still suspicious until she yelled loudly for the Morganas to “get bent!”. This seemed to have a profound effect on the crew, shaking them from their fear and putting them into action. This, John had been told, was the effects of the Morganas. Paranoia brought with her her namesake, and if not for Manchester would have caused paranoia throughout the whole crew. Even for this effort, Manchester was taking one hell of a beating. She had already seen her X-turret knocked out of action and her port torpedo tubes had exploded, ripping into her hull. The casualties were mounting, Still, she stood strong against the heavy cruisers.

 

“Manchester, turn hard port and dump the torpedoes.” John ordered. “You can get off one last shot on the lead ship if you want but we are not sticking around to deal with the second.”

 

The redhead nodded. “Alright Cap’n.”

 

As she concentrated on the lead Morgana, John and William went to the other side of the bridge to consult the charts there. “They must have been waiting for a lone ship to come back this way.”

 

“You think waiting on us?” The captain shook his head.

 

“I doubt it. Probably any ship coming this way, Belle or not. Regardless we need to treat it with utmost caution, get out of here with our lives and come back with a larger force to deal with them.”

 

Caleot chuckled. “You’re already starting to sound like a captain. Albeit only a little.”

 

“Better a little than not at all.”

 

The sound of Manchester’s guns opening up interrupted the brief moment of levity as the two officers hoped the aim would be true. “So Porto?”

 

“Porto’s the closest port.” The lieutenant nodded. “Neutral but I’m sure they’ll be fine with us docking there temporarily to get repaired enough to continue the journey.”

 

“We can’t make it back to Portsmouth?”

 

“Well no, we can.” He clarified, pulling a map out to show their position relative to Portsmouth. “The problem is in the form of those two heavy cruisers. We have to go through them to get to Portsmouth, and who knows how many other Morganas will be on the way.”

 

“What about escort?”

 

“Yes!” Manchester cheered, pumping her fist into the air before wincing in pain due to her broken ribs. “Got that bint!”

 

“Nice job, Manc! Sunk?”

 

The Belle turned to the two officers grinning tiredly. “No but her engine’s been damaged enough that the torpedoes I’ve juuuuust launched will finish her off.”

 

A sigh of relief came from the bridge crew just as another salvo just barely missed the light cruiser. “Good. Now let’s try to make tracks to Porto.”

 

Manchester appeared disappointed at first, but nodded and the ship began turning away. John looked back over at William. “So what’s the chances of us outrunning it?”

 

“I don’t know.” The lieutenant shrugged. “We have the range on it, but it probably has similar speed. We can evade its shells better but it can afford to take a few more hits than we can. Our best bet is to send out a distress call and hope another Belle comes in to help us. Otherwise it’s up to chance.”

 

“We didn’t already?”

 

“Well a certain someone was sure it wasn’t needed.”

 

Manchester sheepishly waved at her captain. “I uh, can get that sent out right now, Cap’n.”

 

“Do it. Let’s hope the cavalry arrives in time.”

 

John made his way up to where Manchester was and looked out. As more 8 inch shells landed around them and Manchester’s Y-turret fired back, the captain started to feel his left hand start shaking ever so slightly. 

 

“Oh bollocks, not now.” He cursed under his breath. Sensing this, he quickly went to grab it with his right hand when he felt another hand on it. When he looked up, he saw Manchester, looking as concerned as she did two nights ago.

 

“You alright, Cap’n?” The sudden change in tone in her voice was almost shocking, being serious and soft. “Your hand’s shakin’ and you’re gettin’ anxious.”

 

John cleared his throat. “Yes, Manc. I’m just ah...I’m just a bit…”

 

“Cap’n?”

 

“Look, I’m fine, just focus on getting us safely out of harm’s way and stop worrying-”

 

“John.”

 

For the first time since introducing himself to her, she used his proper name instead of Cap’n. John started to feel himself calming down, even as another salvo from her guns sounded off. “It’s your duty to look after me an’ the rest of the lads on the ship. It’s my duty to look after you and them in turn. Besides,”Manchester cracked a small smile. “I wouldn’t be a proper mint Belle if I didn’t.”

 

John gently took Manchester’s hand in his and nodded. “Alright, Manchester.”

 

The scream of narrowly missing 8-inch shells caused everyone on the bridge to flinch, and made Manchester move back over to the center of the bridge, holding Captain Falshaw’s hand in hers as she refocused. “Don’t worry, Cap’n. I’ll get us safe an’ sound.”

 

Time seemed to pass slowly for the crew. The occasional shell from the remaining Paranoia heavy cruiser did connect, but thanks to Manchester it would hit someplace non-vital and cause minimal damage. Still, she was growing tired from the prolonged engagement, and every minute that went by was another minute where everyone hoped and prayed the Morgana wouldn’t get lucky. John and Manchester still held hands throughout it, something that, if they weren’t in a life or death situation, the crew probably would have made fun of, but it was doing a good job of settling them both down to do their duties, so no one brought it up.

 

“Sir!” One of the radiomen perked up finally. “Contact! Straight ahead of us!”

 

“Belle?” John asked hopefully. Manchester squeezed his hand excitedly.

 

“Aye, a Yank too!” She smirked. “And a ‘eavy cruiser at that.”

 

With a sigh of relief, John looked out to the horizon towards the approaching shape.

 

“Welcome to the fight!” Manchester shouted. The radioman also sent brief greetings and acknowledgement of the arrival. “Mind getting this monkey off our backs?”

 

-----------------------

 

Sailing out from Porto to hunt Morganas and inadvertently come to the aid of another Belle was not originally in the cards for the day, but as Captain Doug Stirling  knew all too well, nothing ever went to plan. He had been sent to the Iberian peninsula to bring the American INPF liaison in contact with her Portugese and Spanish counterparts. In particular, the suggestion of opening up more of their overseas territories to becoming INPF bases, such as the Azores and Canary islands, was high up on that list. Considering Portugal’s poor economy at the moment, they could ill afford to properly defend their territories, which is where the US and other INPF nations would hopefully come in.

 

They had only been in Porto for a few days when Pensacola and Doug had to sail out to rescue a handful of supply ships en route to Gibraltar. The commander of the small convoy was more than thankful for driving the two Morgana heavy cruisers away and proceeded on their way escorted by the light cruiser Enterprise. Not wanting to leave these threats unchecked, with Dory’s affirment, both Belle and Captain proceeded with their hunt for their enemies. It was only a day later when they intercepted a distress call from HMS Manchester, who had been lucky (or unlucky) enough to have run afoul of the Morganas.

 

When Pensacola arrived, she found the other two ships in a prolonged chase. One of the two Morganas had been sunk, leaving Paranoia all on her own hot on the heels of the British Belle. Manchester did a good job of scoring hits on the Morgana, ensuring that at least a bit of blood had been spilled, but it was Manchester who was coming off the worse. Part of her hull was smoking, right where her torpedo tubes used to be, and her X-turret was smashed apart, her guns twisted and contorted. It was almost a reminder of some of the ships at Pearl on that fateful day.

 

American 8-inch rifles barked, AP-shells screaming through the air towards their target. Pensacola’s aim was true, as when they slammed into the hull of the Morgana great holes tore open the already battered hull. Manchester too opened up again, her 6-inch shells peppering Paranoia with HE fire. Outnumbered and outmatched, she had no choice but to turn away with her tail between her legs. With the battle over, Doug sighed and checked the status of his ship.

 

“Not even a single hit, Captain.” Pensacola reported. “Seems like she was too focused on hunting Manchester down to be concerned with us, and wanted out as soon as possible.”

 

“Well we managed to prevent any further damage to her. How is she?” Doug waited a moment, watching Pensacola ask Manchester the question. The American Belle smirked at the response.

 

“What?”

 

“In her own words: “bloody fucking knackered but I’m still standin’. Wish I coulda ‘ad that other Morgana”.”

 

Doug chuckled. “Please don’t try a British accent again. You’re not that good at it.”

 

“I thought it wasn’t half bad.”

 

Enjoying the brief bit of levity, the two then returned to the task at hand. Giving her a proper look over. Doug could tell that she would need at least a day or two in port to at least get patched up enough to sail back to Portsmouth where the actual repair work could take maybe weeks. Not only was her X-turret and one of her torpedo tubes wrecked, she had several tears in her hull where the larger caliber shells had ripped into her. Fortunately these were mostly above the water line, but a few were spotted below. Even so, she appeared ready to keep on going as long as possible. She wasn’t close to sinking, not yet.

 

It was Pensacola’s idea to at least have the two captains and two Belles actually meet one another even for a brief moment. It would provide an opportunity to get more familiar with another officer and crew, and give some needed respite. As they pulled alongside the British Belle, several of her crew funneled out onto the deck. Some gave a cheer, others were too tired to do anything but smile. Doug waited for the gangway to be laid across before stepping on over. It was here that he encountered the captain and Manchester.

 

“Captain Doug Stirling, USS Pensacola.” He saluted.

 

“John Falshaw, Manchester.” The British captain saluted back, cracking a weary smile. “Thanks for saving our arse there.”

 

“Well I know Pensacola would have loved to finish off that Morgana. Make sure that no other ships get attacked in this area. At least we’ve made it think twice.”

 

Taking a moment, Doug looked over John. The man looked to be about the same age as he was, if not a bit older with a roughly shaven face. The Royal Navy captain’s uniform he wore was about a size too big on him, a decent enough indicator that he must have been a relatively new Belle captain. He also assumed his British counterpart had fought in the Great War, considering how his bluey-green eyes seemed tired witnesses to carnage. The most outstanding things though were the rifle slung over his back and the redheaded woman on him holding on to his left hand. It wasn’t uncommon for Belle captains to have certain allowances, but it sure did make Doug’s mind wonder what on earth the rifle was for.

 

As for the woman, it was an almost surefire guess that she was Manchester. She looked every bit as battered as the ship itself, her clothes stained with blood with tears exposing cuts, her hair in disarray. Regardless of how torn up she was, she had a fire about her that still burned. Even leaning against her captain and holding his hand, she radiated a youthful confidence and desire to get into the next bit of action.

 

“Is Penny around?” Manchester beamed and looked around. Pensacola waved at her and called over from her own deck.

 

“I’m over here, Manchseter! I’m glad we wound up here just in time.” Manchester grinned.

 

“Ya owe me a good ‘unt ‘gainst some more of those Morganas when I get better! Nuthin’ could stop the two of us goin’ on a tear!”

 

Pensacola chuckled. “I would love nothing better; although, I am tied by my duties to my captain.”

 

“Yes, of course.” Doug cleared his throat. “And the duties are to help you to Porto.”

 

“How-” Manchester winced as she attempted to stand on her own. She went back to leaning against John who seemed more concerned that she had hurt herself. “How bad does it look?”

 

“How bad does it feel?” Pensacola asked back. Manchester gritted her teeth.

 

“Like shite.” She rested her head on John’s shoulder instinctually. “Like I got trampled over by a hundred ‘orses.”

 

“Don’t worry. I won’t let anything else happen to you. We’ll get you back safe and sound.”

 

From that point onwards they escorted the battered British Belle back to Porto. The trip was, fortunately, uneventful, although Doug was still curious about Captain Falshaw. He seemed a fellow war dog, and considering what Dory had said before about trying to be friendlier to other Belle captains, perhaps now was a good time to start.

 

Upon arriving at Porto, Pensacola began restocking on ammo, fuel, and supplies while the dockworkers went to work straight away on patching Manchester up who was docked just across the way. Even with her injuries, the Belle insisted on chatting with them, striking up conversations with those that could understand English. She certainly seemed very comfortable chatting to the workers, being careful when laughing not to hurt herself too much. Captain Falshaw was nowhere to be seen, probably back on the bridge commanding everyone. It seemed though that they might be in for a quiet evening, if not for a small black car pulling up to the gangway on Pensacola. Out from it came a man in a well dressed military uniform with a letter under his arm.

 

Com licença, I would like to speak with Capitão Stirling.” Doug sighed, already having an idea as to what it could be.

 

“I am Captain Doug Stirling. What is it you need?”

 

The soldier grabbed the letter and handed it over to him. “Sargento Netto. The ambassador has invited you to his home for dinner along with sua esposa, Senhora Dorothy Stirling.”

 

“Is it not something that just Dory can go to? I have to look after my ship.”

 

“He has requested both of you.”

 

Looking over at Pensacola then back at the man, he sighed. “Fine.”

 

Excelente! I will inform him that you are coming. Oh, and do you know the name of the Capitão who is on board that Belle?” He gestured over to Manchester.

 

“Hmm? Oh, that would be John, why?”

 

“The ambassador happens to have with him the British ambassador as well, and would like to get to see one of his own capitão da Bela.”

 

Inwardly Doug groaned. That did it. He’d consigned John to a slow painful death at the hands of dinner with ambassadors. At least he would have company in that regard, but he felt bad as the officer gave a quick salute and started his way over to Manchester.

 

“Remind me to apologize to John tomorrow in some fashion.” Doug muttered.

 

“Noted.” Pensacola patted him on his back. “I’ll take care of the crew. You take care of my captain.”

 

“She’ll be the one taking care of me, but I will try.”

 

A few hours later, the two captains found themselves at a house not too far from the port. The house itself was quite grand, resembling an old chateau of sorts with a couple of soldiers standing guard outside. Considering the nature of Dory’s duties, Doug had been to a number of non-democratic countries, but it was probably here in Portugal where everything seemed almost normal where he felt the most uncomfortable. The Portugese were well intending to keep neutral in regards to the conflict in Europe, but with the Morgana threat, they leaped at the opportunity to aid the neutral INPF while trying not to show bias to one side or the other.

 

Whereas Doug wore his dress uniform, John wore the same one he had on earlier, presumably because he didn’t have a dress uniform of his own. At least it was spruced up nicely. Gone also was the rifle, left on board the ship. They had both come in the same car and John had opened up a bit, namely about the reason why Manchester had clung to him. Shell shock was not an uncommon sight amongst Great War veterans, especially those who fought in the trenches, but at least having Manchester there who could offer some relief from it wasn’t terrible. That was also what the rifle was for, though it was more of an assumption than most. Regardless, John joked, he would need some intensive care after tonight.

 

The two were then escorted inside and to the dining room where Dory was already conversing with her Portugese and British counterparts. She had on a nice but plain blue dress, a small amount of make-up, and her hair was done up. Once she got eyes on her husband, she excused herself and welcomed him, sharing a quick kiss. Doug quickly introduced her to John, who was well reserved. She then in turn introduced them and the two ambassadors to each other.

 

João Almeida looked more like a businessman than a politician, what with his slicked-back black hair and clean-shaven face trussed up in a finely pressed black suit. Whenever he talked, he would make grandiose gestures with his arms, a man full of energy with a story for every situation it seemed. It made him appear younger than he was, something he relished in being told. When the Estado Novo required someone to be their eyes and ears at the INPF, the former low-level politician leaped at the opportunity, using his wit and charm to gain the position. Underneath all the bravado, however, was a staunch dedication to Salazar, for better or worse. He sat at the head of the table, as the master of one’s house is warranted to do.

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Sir Harold Greyfax. An Oxford man, he was like Dory a member of the other side of the ruling government, a Labour man in a Conservative ruled country. Whereas João got his position out of pure charisma, Sir Greyfax was personally appointed by Churchill from Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax’s office due to his experience. In this capacity he directly reported to both Lord Halifax and the First Lord of the Admiralty A. V. Alexander. He was very much a career politician, knowing the ins and outs of the game. It was a shock to both Doug and John that he was merely in his 50s, as his silver hair and jowls made him appear twenty years older at least, and were doubly shocked that João was about the same age. Sir Greyfax ended up seated next to Captain Falshaw, who were both in turn across from Dory and Doug.

 

“"Ahh, it is always a pleasure, conversar com uma mulher elegante e talentosa such as yourself, Senhora Dorothy.” Almeida grinned as the waiter poured out another glass of porto wine for him. “It is rare to receive a diplomat with a...maravilhosa habilidade.”

 

“Thank you, Mister Almeida,” Dory smiled kindly. “However, please do keep in mind that I am still a married woman and loyal to my husband, who just so happens to be here with me.”

 

“Ah, com licença, Capitão Stirling. You must be a very lucky man to have been swayed by her ways.”

 

“As I’m told.” Doug had been to one or two of these fancy dinners before, diplomats intrigued by the fact that Pensacola technically had two captains. As such, he was used to the way to behave around the pomp, and around the various dignitaries flirting with his wife. The majority of them were doing it as part of the game of politics, as flattery can get you to certain places as demonstrated by João’s rise. Some though did see this wandering woman as an opportunity, the poor fools not knowing how much trouble they would be in just from Dory, let alone a furious Doug.

 

Compared to Doug, John seemed well out of his league, sitting quietly by himself just focusing on not trying to draw attention. He and Harold did have a few words exchanged between them, though it was clear that he was very uncomfortable.

 

“I believe we should get back to the point at hand, João.” Sir Greyfax picked at the remains of the fish on his plate with his fork absentmindedly. “Will Portugal allow INPF vessels to be stationed at her overseas ports? And if not, what will it take?”

 

“We have been over this before, Senhor Greyfax. The Estado Novo requires that we keep out of conflict with the other European powers as much as possible. If we allow INPF ships there, then it must remain a neutral harbor, especially when this conflict is over.  And while we appreciate the offer to aid in building the bases, we must not show preference to one side or the other. We have already turned down German advances due to this.”

 

“That is where I come in.” Dory spoke up, reaching inside her handbag for a letter. “This is from Roosevelt. If you get us the bases, the United States is willing to cooperate with Germany and Italy to transport all materials and manpower required to build them up. I believe that Sir Greyfax has something similar?”

 

“Parliament would prefer a British taskforce to help ensure that the construction stays as uninterrupted as possible and to aid in the defense of the Portuguese coastline,” Harold nodded, sipping down the last dregs of wine in his glass. “However we understand your desire to avoid showing too much favor to the Allies or the Axis. Therefore I talked with other liaisons and scraped together a small force, equal parts German and British led by a Swiss captain.”

 

“Swiss?” João laughed. “How in God’s name did a Swiss wind up so far away from the Alps?”

 

“He was on a transport ship en route to the United States from the southern coast of France when he encountered the Morganas. That poor soul is serving as the captain of Canarias.”

 

“That is...quite the situation.” The Portugese liaison rubbed his chin chuckling. “De acordo. I will take these to parliament tomorrow and propose. With these, I might be able to convince them to allow this.”

 

“Better than nothing.” Harold grunted, setting his silverware down. “Well, I say that was a fruitful discussion.”

 

Claro. It is getting late and I do not wish to let Senhora Dorothy be away too long from her duties to her Belle and her husband.”

 

As everyone cleaned up, Doug noticed Harold talking once more to John. A part of him wanted to eavesdrop, but he decided against it. It was probably just more discussion on being a recent addition to Britain’s INPF detachment anyways. Once all was said and done and goodbyes were said, he, Dory, and Captain Falshaw stood outside the house together. They would be leaving in seperate cars as John wished to hit up a pub on the way back to Manchester.

 

“So you’re off to Portsmouth next?” Doug asked. John sighed.

 

“Yeah. With any luck without much excitement. I don’t think I can handle another battle this soon.”

 

“I’ll bet.”

 

“Why don’t you give him an escort up there?” Dory suggested. “I’ll be fine here for a couple days while you do that.”

 

“Are you sure, Dory?”

 

“Just be careful, Doug.”

 

“I will.”

 

Dory turned to John and cracked a smile. “He’s better at taking orders from me now than when Penny first manifested.”

 

“It was a very stressful situation and had no idea what a Belle was or what the hell you were on about.”

 

John chuckled. “I suppose that is why it is better to become a Belle captain long after the initial skirmishes. They were well prepared for me when Manchester manifested, despite my lack of experience.”

 

“Oh?” Dory raised an eyebrow. “I thought you had fought in the last war.”

 

“On land, not on a ship.”

 

“Oh good thing you didn’t tell Penny. She’s not a fan of army types.” Dory smirked. The three laughed as two cars pulled up to the house for them.

 

“Have a good evening, Captain Falshaw. Doug and Penny will take good care of you and Manchester tomorrow.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Stirling. Same to you, and to you, Doug.”

 

“Goodnight, John.” Doug and John exchanged a parting salute, and a parting wave between the Englishman and Dory, before getting in the vehicles and being driven away for the night.

 

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