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The Feathers In Your Hair

Chapter Text

 

December 1968, Evening

Presidio of San Francisco

California, USA

Prologue

 

Outside of the Lombard Street gates of the Presidio of San Francisco, under the gaze of the twin sandstone pillars carved with the bald-eagle emblems of the United States of America, a myriad of lights illuminated the streets punctuated by shouting and fighting. Steel drum bonfires and candles scattered amongst the sea of protesters illuminated protest signs that called for the end of the Vietnam War.

A line of San Francisco Police Department officers, augmented by Military Police from the Presidio formed ranks and held the line against the protesters with batons and shields. The vicious barking of guard dogs held back by long leashes competed with the anti-war slogans, punctuated by the flashing red lights on police cruisers and the intermittent sweeps from the Presidio’s searchlight towers.

Moments later, the police officers pushed back against the protesters and cleared a path through Lyon Street. In response the protesters began throwing tomatoes at the officers. One of those tomatoes struck the right pillar of the Presidio’s gates and sullied the talon of the bald eagle holding the arrows, while the others struck police cruisers and the helmets of military police.

Undeterred by the chaos, a brown 1966 Ford Thunderbird coupe crossed through the tomato-strewn pavement of Lyon Street. Its headlights cut through the darkness until it reached the wrought iron gates reinforced with chain-link fences. One of the MP’s hurried over to the side of the car, ducked under a flying tomato, and knocked on the driver’s seat window.

After a short pause, the window lowered and a hand brought out a small passport-like document. The MP took the document and scanned through it. He then promptly returned it to the driver and gave a stiff salute.

The gates of Lombard Street opened for the Ford Thunderbird and the vehicle shifted from neutral to first gear. All the while, the bright honey brown eyes of the driver regarded the tomato-stained arrows in the bald eagle’s talon.

Blood on the keys, and not an olive in sight. What are we to do?

With that, the Thunderbird carried on down Lombard Street and the gates closed behind it. The fervor of the fiery protests disappeared and gave way to the relative silence of the military base at night. That silence urged the driver to reach for the knobs of her radio and turn it on. Scott McKenzie’s song, San Francisco , sounded from the Thunderbird’s speakers.

For those who come to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. ” The driver sang along with a placid voice and hummed to the tune of the rest of the song.

Before she could finish the song, however, she reached her destination that evening - the headquarters building of the Presidio on a hill overlooking Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge. The driver pulled the Thunderbird into the parking lot and shut off the car and its radio along with it.

The car door opened and a pair of well-shined army boots hit the pavement. Lights from the Presidio’s headquarters illuminated the driver’s pretty face, her head of long brown hair tied into a ponytail and a pair of brown owl’s feathers that stuck out like cowlicks. She was dressed in an olive drab US Army officer’s coat with a matching green tie and dress shirt and well-pressed green trousers.  The shoulders of her coat were adorned with patches of brass bald-eagle pins and a single gold-colored bar: the marks of a Second Lieutenant.

On her lapel, she wore two golden pins: one that was plainly stamped “U.S.” and another showing the crossed swords of the US Army infantry. Then, over her breast, she wore her Vietnam Service and Purple Heart medals - both of which were polished to a mirror sheen - along with her name tag that read ‘NANASHI’.

Her most distinctive decoration, however, was the one she wore in her hair: a pretty golden hairpin in the shape of a runic R.

The driver checked her appearance off of her faint reflection on the Thunderbird’s window. Once she was satisfied, she brought out an olive green peaked cap, tucked her head of brown hair and her two brown feathers beneath it and wrapped a brown poncho-like shawl adorned with decorative hieroglyphics over her shoulders.

Now fully dressed, she then marched into the Presidio headquarters with her chest and head held high.


The Feathers In Your Hair

Are You Going To San Francisco?


First Verse - The Sparrowhawk and the Owl

 

Inside the halls of the Presidio headquarters, Second Lieutenant Mumei Nanashi stood firmly in parade-rest alone before a panel of high-ranking officials of the US Army. Stern gazes of the brass shifted back and forth between Mumei and the stacks of paperwork and Manila envelopes that were laid before them.

Four of the officials, one-star generals closely affiliated with the Department of Defense, talked amongst themselves and sang praises for the enthusiasm of the owl-girl standing like a cold, unfeeling statue before them.

She was called many names by these folks: a true patriot, a stalwart veteran, a shining example for the Armed Forces and an efficient operator who got things done. They cited her stellar record during her first tour in Vietnam among other things and endorsed her to the high heavens. However, none of those praises lifted Mumei’s spirits. The Second Lieutenant simply let her eyes wander to the American flag and the picture of the outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson with halfhearted curiosity.

Only one voice of dissent was present in that room.

It was the lady general who sat at the center of the panel who watched Mumei and her papers with grave concern. The lady general’s long black hair nestled under her peaked cap had streaks of color that mirrored the Purple Heart medal over Mumei’s breast. Moreover, the bright blue sapphire pendant that she wore over necktie contrasted with her dark green general’s coat.

Mumei watched the lady general with skepticism.

Major General Cecile Sparrowhawk. Two stars. Aide-de-camp of General Creighton Abrams of MACV. THE MACV! Why did they put ‘The Eccentric One’ on my case?

As much as she wanted to speak up, she kept her thoughts to herself.

After their long round of deliberations, the lady general faced Mumei and spoke with a firm, commanding voice.

“Second Lieutenant Mumei Nanashi.”

“Yes, Major General Sparrowhawk.”

Sparrowhawk picked up a handful of papers and thumbed through them while she spoke calmly, “You have served the United States with distinction in your last tour of duty. This much is true, and I thank you for your service.” She then turned her bright red eyes to meet Mumei’s honey brown and her voice became stern, “However, you surely have seen the protests going on outside of the Presidio’s very gates. Draft dodgers are a constant problem of the Armed Forces. Folks who are deployed there can’t wait to get back home. Then there’s you - someone who was already drafted once - ready and willing to take another tour in Vietnam.”

“I am simply eager to serve my country and ensure that the war is won, madam general.” Mumei answered, gazing back into Sparrowhawk’s red eyes, “Besides, it is an honor to be deployed with the Airborne Combat Battalions. The ACB’s are the best of the best units of MACV.”

“They also have the highest casualty rates.” Sparrowhawk countered, “In this year alone, there have been…”

“A thousand deaths under MACV’s watch. I am aware, madam general.” Mumei interrupted, completely unmoved by the statistics, “Almost all of them are from the Airborne Combat Battalions.”

“And yet you still wish to go back? Even if you are not obligated to do so?”

“I simply wish to fulfill my duty, madam general.”

At this point, Major General Sparrowhawk rose up from her seat, aided by her ornate walking cane adorned with a crystal hawk’s head. She pointed the head of the hawk at Mumei and lashed.

“Poppycock! There is more to your application than duty to our country, Second Lieutenant. My eyes are sharp, young lady, so answer me honestly.” Sparrowhawk set down her walking cane and asked, “Why are you so eager to go to Vietnam again? Is it because of her again?”

The other four generals crossed their arms and turned to Mumei as well, waiting for her answer. Despite their curious gazes, Mumei managed to wear a confident, knowing smile and gave her answer.


Second Verse - Hand to Hand, Hand in Hand

 

Another hour passed before Mumei’s meeting finally ended. The second lieutenant emerged from the headquarters building, stretched her arms and her legs and breathed in the salty breeze that blew in from San Francisco Bay. In her hands, she held her Commission papers that bore the seal of the Secretary of Defense and the signatures of the four one-star generals of the Presidio’s panel.

The signature of Major General Sparrowhawk, however, was noticeably absent from the document. Mumei eyed the gap between the four signatures and snorted.

I wonder who ruffled her feathers this morning.

Mumei, heaved a sigh, pocketed her commission papers and sauntered past her parked Thunderbird. She carried on down a footpath to the Crissy Field airstrip and descended down the steep hill. Even though it was dark and the standing electric lights were few and far in between, Mumei moved through the path briskly. She traced her steps through those paths as if it were second nature to her, just as she had done many times in the Presidio a few years ago.

When she got closer to the airstrip, more lights illuminated the path. A quintet of UH-1 helicopters were landing on the paved strip and the roundels on their tails caught Mumei’s attention.

Air Force? I didn’t know they’d be visiting the Presidio tonight.

Perhaps they were there to transport the panel of five generals back to their posts, Mumei thought. Her honey brown eyes followed the five helicopters on their descent and she watched the cockpits with quiet anticipation. However it was simply too dark and far away from her to see anything.

With a sigh that fogged up before her eyes, Mumei adjusted her peaked cap and her brown shawl and carried on down the path that ran alongside the airstrip

That path took her to a small nook overlooking San Francisco Bay and the luminous outline of the Golden Gate Bridge. In that nook flanked by shrubbery, Mumei came face to face with the small bronze statue of a young lady that shimmered under the moonlight. Bouquets of flowers, baskets of fruits and snuffed-out candles were set down at the statue’s feet.

Mumei walked over to the statue, took off her peaked cap reverently and let the two owl feathers rise up from her head of brown hair. With her hand and hat over her heart, she read the bronze plaque.

Ms. Francine Crissy, granddaughter of Maj. Dana Crissy, mother of the US Army Airborne Combat Brigades (ACB) and Guardian of Civilization of the Tenth Council . (1930-1966)

A cryptic smile formed on Mumei’s lips. She reached into a pocket of her officer’s coat, brought out a handful of red berries and added them to the pile of offerings at the statue’s feet. Mumei straightened up and brought out her stamped commission document.

“Salutations, Lady Knowledge.”  Mumei spoke to the statue with greater respect and reverence than the generals on the Presidio panel, “I’ve finally received my commission! The 110th Airborne Combat Brigade - the first ACB to be led by a Second Lieutenant.” She noticed the gap between the four signatures again and heaved a sigh, “If you were still here, I’m sure you would have given Sparrowhawk a piece of your mind.”

While Mumei was conversing with the lifeless statue, a cold breeze blew in from the bay. Her brown hair and the two owl’s feathers that crowned her head were ruffled along with her shawl and her officer’s coat.

This was when she heard a twig snapping behind her.

Mumei paused and fell silent. Her honey brown eyes became sharp and she steadied her foggy breath. She quietly reached for the holster at her hip and felt the outline of her M1911 service pistol. However, when she heard the rest of the approaching footsteps and listened to their timbre, Mumei brought her hand away from her gun and breathed easy.

“It’s not wise to sneak up on me like this.” Mumei spoke without turning her back, “You, of all people should know that, Kronii.”

The person named ‘Kronii’, however, didn’t comment. Instead, she panted heavily and fought hard to catch her breath.

“Mumei…” Kronii finally managed to speak, “I knew you’d be here.”

“Seems like I was the only one who wasn’t told my commission was approved by the SecDef until today.” Mumei aired her grievance, “If you’re here, I’m sure the Air Force already told you about it too.”

Mumei turned around and saw the winded figure of Kronii Ouro, a tall lady who stood a full five inches higher than her. She was clad in a US Air Force jumpsuit and the protective vest for UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. Her long dark-blue hair fluttered in the sea breeze and her blue eyes reflected the moonlight with grave concern.

“Why are you doing this, Mumei?” Kronii demanded, “You already went to Vietnam last year. Why are you so eager to go back!?” She clenched her fists and added, “Lady Knowledge disappeared in 66’! She’s not there anymore!”

“We don’t know that for sure!” Mumei snapped back. She glared at the helicopter pilot for a moment but caught herself before she could spit out more venomous words. Instead, she pointed to the pilot’s sleeve and noted, “Besides, who are you to talk to me about going to ‘Nam! Your unit’s joining MACV in January!”

True enough, the patch on the sleeve of Kronii uniform bore her unit’s new insignia: a tilted hourglass that mirrored helicopter rotors with the number VII at the top and “MACV - VALKYRIES” at the bottom.

Kronii self-consciously held her shoulder, feeling the weight of Mumei’s gaze. A frown then formed on her lips.

“It wasn’t my choice to go.” Kronii clenched her fist and faced Mumei squarely, “You, on the other hand, went to the Presidio and volunteered to go again! Not for some base deployment in Saigon either - but for an ACB!”

This was the second time she had heard this urge for caution. It made her wonder if Kronii had something to do with Maj. Gen. Sparrowhawk’s stiff opposition to her appeal. When that thought crossed her mind, a fuse within her broke.

“Only the ACBs are allowed to patrol and investigate the Demilitarized Zone - the Light Green.” Mumei argued, repeating her argument before the Presidio board, “That’s where Lady Knowledge and the rest of the Tenth Council disappeared.”

“Oh yeah? But that’s where the Horrors started appearing too!” Tears started to form at the sides of Kronii’s eyes, “The DMZ is a hellhole! If the Reds don’t get you, then the Horrors will! A tour with an ACB is basically a death sentence!”

“That’s because only the ACB is brave enough to do what needs to be done!” Mumei growled, saying the helicopter pilot’s name with concentrated venom, “If there is even a sliver of hope that Lady Knowledge is out there, dead or alive, then I want to pursue it.” She crumpled her commission papers in her hand and declared, “Nobody can change my mind. Not the Reds. Not the Horrors. Not even you, Kronii! What are you gonna do about it?”

Kronii frowned, stripped off the protective pilot’s vest and tossed it onto the ground by her feet. She cracked her knuckles and squared off against Mumei.

“I’m gonna knock some sense into you, Mumei, that’s what.”

Mumei scoffed. She took off her brown shawl, her olive-green officer’s coat and her cloth necktie. With a flick of her finger, she unbuttoned the top button of her dress shirt and squared off against Kronii as well.

“What are we to do, Kronii?” Mumei’s eyes shone in the moonlight and she steadied her breath, “It seems diplomacy has failed.”

“Only because you’re always so damn stubborn!” Kronii lashed.

With that, Kronii and Mumei charged at each other and punches started to fly between them. In the heat of the battle, the soldier and the pilot were brought back to the days of their Basic Training as if they had a shared dream. Night turned to day and the two veterans of the Vietnam War were fresh-faced draftees clashing on the Parade Grounds of the Presidio while the rest of their peers watched and egged them on.

Mumei swung her fists and threw strong, aggressive punches that struck Kronii’s sides and jaw. Kronii, on the other hand, countered with methodical punches of her own and used her long legs to kick the owl-girl away. Kronii grabbed Mumei by the collar of her dress shirt, but Mumei buried her shin into the pilot’s stomach.

Kronii’s and Mumei’s panting breaths grew heavier. Sweat formed on their brows and the bruises on their bodies started to accumulate.

Eager for a breakthrough, Mumei headbutted Kronii and attempted to tackle the pilot to the ground. However, Kronii stood her ground and wrestled with the owl-girl.

Just like before, the two of them were evenly matched.

“You’ve gotten… stronger, Kronii.” Mumei grunted and pushed back against the pilot’s strength, “You can take… a beating now.”

“And you learned… to use your legs better!” Kronii grunted too, “But it’s not enough!”

Kronii shifted her weight and managed to get behind Mumei. The pilot then wrapped her arms around the owl-girl and held her firmly in place. Mumei tried to struggle out of the bearhug, but her arms were completely constricted by Kronii.

Wrapped now in Kronii’s arms, Mumei tried to struggle fruitlessly. Restrained by her foe, Mumei felt time fly back to the present day. Sunlight gave way to moonlight and the late summer heat gave way to the early winter chill.

Their shared dream came to an end and their breaths fogged up in the December frost.

“If you were an enemy…” Mumei’s hand probed her opponent’s hip, “I could steal your gun.”

“And I could steal yours.” Kronii countered and tightened her bearhug, “Give up.”

Mumei heaved a long, heavy sigh. She closed her eyes and frowned, “I concede. Now let go.”

“No.” Kronii refused. She kept Mumei trapped in her bear hug, “Before that, I want you to listen to me.”

“Do I have a choice?” Mumei snorted, but she stopped struggling and resigned to letting herself be trapped in Kronii’s arms.

Kronii softened her bearhug and fondly embraced Mumei from behind. She rested her bruised cheek on Mumei’s shoulder and apologized.

“I was going to tell you about my redeployment, Mumei, but I never got the chance.” Kronii explained herself, “Not a lot of people want to be flying helicopters over the DMZ right now, especially with the horrors appearing more often. Seasoned aviators are few and far between.” She paused and took a deep breath, “I made a deal with Maj. Gen. Sparrowhawk to lead the air wings of MACV - on the condition that you would be spared from being called back into service. But then here you are in the Presidio, presenting yourself to the panel I hoped you would avoid.”

So that’s what happened…

“You were worried about me…?” Mumei piped up, hints of tenderness sprouting in her tone.

“O-of course not.” Kronii got flustered.

Mumei took this chance and slipped out of Kronii’s bearhug. She then stood face to face with Kronii under the moonlight and spoke.

“I’m sorry for not telling you about this either, Kronii. It’s just that I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately.” Mumei’s eyes wandered away from the seas of Kronii’s blue eyes, “Things I wish I could forget. You know how it is.”

“Mumei…”

“So then.” Mumei faced Kronii again, “Are you going to stop me, Kronii? From going to Vietnam a second time?”

“When your mind’s made up like this, I know you won’t listen to me even if I did.” Kronii chuckled, “So instead of stopping you, I want you to promise me one thing.”

“And what would that be?”

“Call me and my unit for Close Air Support any time you’re in a pinch, Mumei. No matter where you are in that forsaken DMZ, I’ll come flying CAS.” Kronii spoke with a tender voice and took Mumei’s hands in hers, “I won’t let the Reds or the Horrors touch even the feathers in your hair. I will protect you.”

Mumei paused and smiled warmly.

“Just like before, huh?” Mumei asked, letting her fingers intertwine with Kronii’s.

“Just like before.” Kronii reassured her, “You won’t be getting rid of me that easily. I’m not letting go of you.”

Mumei’s cheeks flushed red. For once, even in the midst of the December frost, she felt warm. She let go of Kronii’s hands and hugged the pilot this time.

“I’ll hold you to your promise.” While she wrapped the pilot in her arms, she looked up to the taller lady and beamed, “I won’t let go of you either, Kronii.” She closed her eyes and rested her head over Kronii’s heart, listening to the pilot's heartbeat, “I won’t forgive you if you do.”


Epilogue

January 1969, Sunrise

MACV-SOG Command & Control North

Da Nang Airbase, South Vietnam

 

Second Lieutenant Mumei Nanashi stepped out of the rear of a C-130 Hercules transport plane, clad in simpler basic infantryman fatigues tagged ‘NANASHI’ and pristinely shined combat boots. However, she still kept her brown shawl draped over the fatigues and had her golden R-shaped hairpin on her bangs.

The moment she stepped onto the runway of Da Nang Airbase, her entire body was assaulted by the relentless tropical heat. Despite this, her eagerness didn’t wane in the slightest. With a heavy rucksack filled to the brim with her things in hand, she joined the rest of the passengers of the C-130 to see the quartermaster to get their lodging sorted out.

Most of the grunts were dropped off at large shared tents with bunk beds scattered around the airbase - the same kind that Mumei stayed in during her first tour of duty. That time, however, Mumei was shown to the officers’ barracks near the command post and the mess hall for pilots. She was given a room number scribbled on a scrap of paper before the quartermaster left her to her own devices.

Mumei searched for the room number and eventually found it at the end of the corridor: a double room with two nameplates by the door.

 

-Room 11-

[2nd Lt. M. Nanashi]

[1st Lt. K. Ouro]

 

The owl-girl’s jaw dropped. She then heard a familiar voice of the helicopter from the other end of the hall.

“So what do you think, Mumei? Do you like it? It’s not the Grand Hotel in Saigon, but it’ll have to do. Had to pull a few strings with MACV, but it worked out.”

Mumei turned around and saw a tall girl wearing Air Force’s khaki fatigues tagged ‘OURO’ and a pair of aviator glasses that rested on the bridge of her nose. She wore a confident smile and ran a hand proudly through her long, dark-blue hair.

Before the figure could speak again, Mumei dropped her heavy rucksack and ran towards her at full speed. She caught the figure in an embrace and exclaimed, “Kronii!”

Kronii was surprised and her aviator glasses were tilted slightly, but she promptly returned Mumei’s embrace.

“I’m glad to see you again, Mumei. Welcome back to Vietnam.”

To Be Continued