Well, after a long three months in the academy and a subsequent long road of self-reflection I'm finally back home...and into another academy. A lot of stuff happened last year and I hope you all had a good holiday season.

In truth, I had been chipping away at this since last October, albeit at a very slow pace. This means I wouldn't be surprised if this is one of the weaker chapters given that I believe my writing has taken a hit between long periods of inactivity. That said, for those of you still reading, I'm thankful for your patience and understanding. We also have some new readers, A LOT of new readers, so to you newcomers welcome aboard. Be thankful you didn't have to wait as long as the old guard did.

Anyways, enough sentimental shit. I gotta go to class here soon and I put the Dead Space Remake/Warthunder grind to the side for ya'll, because your patience deserves it.

Lets get back to it.

More Hearts and Less Minds

"It was the Marines who taught me how to act. After that, pretending to be rough wasn't so hard."

Lee Marvin, American actor and former Marine


Of all the districts in the great city of Sadera, none had a reputation as bleak as that of Akusho's. Situated towards the very edge of the city and far away from the splendor of the upper districts, Akushho served as nothing more than the city slums. Lawless, and filthy, it also doubled as a melting pot for all the demi-humans and otherwise deemed too unfit to walk alongside their "betters". The lack of any city guard made it the perfect place for gangs to carry out their business. Rampant crime and prostitution were a daily part of life for all that lived here.

Ever since the war began, however, Akusho's reputation only further worsened. Something had moved into the district. Disappearances and murders were nothing new to Akusho, but these were deliberate and targeted. Whoever or whatever had moved in made it a point to only target criminals, Imperial soldiers, and anyone who otherwise had ill intentions in their hearts. Those who had been fortunate to have been spared told wild tales of horned hooded figures that descended from the rooftops leaving only bodies in their wake. It all sounded very outlandish, but not enough to not warrant at least a cursory investigation. The Oprichina were the Empire's elite police unit, none could escape their eye or their blades. To have the Empire's hounds unleashed upon you was a fate worse than death, so naturally, it fell upon them to investigate Akusho. A foolish mistake as they'd soon find out.

At the center of an empty intersection, the last three Oprichina of the ill-fated expedition stood back to back, two of them with their bows drawn another with his sword and shield raised.

"Argus! Romus! Reform ranks!"

"Against what?! There's nothing there-"

Suddenly a loud crack followed by the clattering of a bow atop stone. One of Oprichina suddenly gurgled and sputtered, blood bubbling from his mouth as he wrapped his hands around a ragged hole in his throat.

"Romus!" Seeing his comrade slowly die choking on their blood, the other Oprichina lowered his shield and went to assist.

"Argus you idiot, your posture!"

Too late, another loud crack, this time a neat hole drilled through the center of the swordsman's forehead. His two comrades down, the remaining Oprichina yelled out in panic and let loose an arrow at what looked to be a shadow atop one of the buildings. The shadow swore as the arrow ricocheted at a high angle against something atop its head. A hit to be sure, but nothing that would stop his would-be attacker.

Then, another crack echoed down the alley and that was when the soldier felt the sharp burning sensation in his left hand. A ragged bloody hole had punched through his knuckles. The Oprichina howled in pain, taking no time to look at some of his nearly severed fingers before burying his mangled hand in his cloak and taking off down one of the streets.

He had to flee, had to warn the others.

The last Oprichina picked up his speed as he ran through the labyrinth of alleyways and claustrophobic streets. Everywhere he went doors were closed and citizens gave him a wide berth as they scattered for their hiding places. Ordinarily, this sort of reaction was to be expected, everybody knew better than to get in the way of the Empire's elite. This time though, they weren't trying to hide from him.

Without the rest of his now-deceased unit, he was lost and in a district that cared not to help him. The soldier turned a corner and froze in fear as he looked down the alleyway, it was a dead end. He could hear the shadows chasing him, hear them as they babbled in a language he couldn't understand.

"You seem lost soldier, is something wrong?"

Suddenly a soothing female's voice called out to him from behind as a beautiful woman in a revealing red dress emerged from the darkness. One of the district's prostitutes, a scantily clad blonde demi-human with white wings. She was half the reason he was in this predicament. His unit had tried to enter one of the brothels and interrogate those within. The prostitutes knew Akusho better than anyone else so it stood to reason they would be the first to be put under the blade. No sooner had one of his men backhanded the youngest of the prostitutes, the killing started.

Seeing the soldier's plight she giggled and blew a puff of smoke from her pipe. Mizari was her name, the Oprichina had heard one of the shadows call out to her, the thing putting itself between her and his men before something in its hand thundered into his men.

"You're an awfully long way from home to be here amongst us. Get lost in your reflection somewhere?"

The soldier spun on his heels and pointed his sword at her. "Silence wench and tell me where the nearest Imperial checkpoint is!"

" A lost cause I'm afraid, they're likely dead too." The woman shrugged. "This place belongs to them now soldier man and soon the whole city will too. You should never have come here and you never should have struck my friend."

"I said silence, there is fight in me yet and it is more than enough to cut off that whore's tongue of yours." The soldier stammered as his eyes darted around, desperately searching for an exit.

The woman giggled before towards the rooftops above. "Perhaps if you hadn't wasted your time talking to me you might have made it."

The Oprichina looked up toward where she pointed. There and against the backdrop of the afternoon sun, the hooded figures looked down at him. It would be the last thing he'd see before something punched clean through the back of his head his perception of life shutting off as one would blow out a candle. As his body twitched and fell into a dirty puddle of water, another figure emerged from the darkness behind. It stopped next to the body and examined its handiwork for a few moments before spitting.

"For Ginza, Tomoe, and Kenji, you animal." The figure raised the NVGs above its eyes as its fellows began to emerge from various spots around the alley.

Nothing short of amused at it all the woman chuckled. "Oh, how I love watching you men go to work."

"Mizari, I told you to stop interfering with our business." One of the figures pointed back at the prostitute with an accusatory finger. "Your job is to scout and report back to us on anything you see. Not get in the way of our hunt."

Mizari giggled and cooed at the soldier. "James dear, you can't just promise a girl a future and not expect her to get curious." She wrapped her arms around herself and cooed at the Green Beret. "And the way you saved me, what a hero. It gets me all bothered!~"

"And we are not on a first-name basis. I don't know what Heidegger and the others promised you, but I work differently." Recker slung his weapon and turned his attention towards the Japanese Special Forces soldier still standing over the corpse. "And you, Lieutenant Kenzaki. Stow that anger, no amount of vitriol is going to change what happened that day. Next time take the shot and end it the first time."

"With all due respect sir, I don't answer to you." The Japanese soldier spat back. "I want these animals to feel the same fear my family did when they….when they-"

"They already do Lieutenant." A nearby Wong added. Like the others, he too wore a large cloak over his gear. Plundered from one of the other ill-fated Oprichina incursions. "We run these streets, but we're still professionals. Don't let your anger cloud your judgment, take it from someone who knows."

"Right….summimasen." The Japanese soldier answered solemnly before dropping to a knee and starting the process of removing the cloak from the Oprichina's body. Kenzaki was the last to "earn" his right to wear one of the coveted garments. They were warm and comfortable, and above all, they did a good job of concealing the operators. They also scared the hell out of the locals. Kenzaki draped the black fur coat over his shoulders and sighed before rejoining the rest of his comrades.

Recker went to say something else when Wong nudged him. "Kenzaki is a good soldier sir, they all are. Too much operating out here, too much time away from home is all."

"They're getting suspicious, the Empire. We've been here too long and all these fuck fuck games we're playing need to be sped up." Recker looked at the corpse and shook his head. "We could be inside that palace tonight with that bastard King and the rest of his shit head family on a plate and instead we're out here."

"If command wants the people to storm the upper districts who are we to not rile em up?" Wong shrugged. "Besides, you said it was good work."

"I did, didn't I?" Recker looked at his watch. "Well, daylights burning, let's pack it up and head back-"

"Sir Heidegger's on the line." One of the other Green Berets with a radio on his back lowered his boom mic.

"What's he want?"

"One of his boys will be here tonight, need to pick him up before phase two starts. He's bringing the other prince with him too."

"Oh, now we can move on." Recker spun his hand. "Alright, let's go. Put the body in a ditch before we go."

"Ceremoniously or?"

"Leave a message, like the others."

"Heh, I can do that." One of the other soldiers reached into a pouch on his chest rig and took out a can of bright red spray paint. He gave it a few shakes before going to work on a wall nearest to the corpse.

Seeing all the soldiers Mizari offered a hand to Recker and giggled. "Care to provide a girl an escort back?"

"You're an adult. You got yourself here, you can get yourself back."

"But I was the one who told you the Oprichina were coming here, I did such a good job today.~"

Recker lowered his NODs and gave one last sigh before bringing his neck gaiter up over his mouth. The MQ9 Reaper drone loitering in the skies above had seen the men long before Mizari knew about it.

"...File in the back, don't follow us closely."

Mizari nodded before glancing back at the strange bright red writing etched into the brick walls. The characters and symbology were sloppy sure, but the message was clear as day and the same as all the ones in other parts of the city.

"Justice for Ginza."


Aldritch had made it only a few steps into the courtyard when he saw the circus that had been waiting for him. Locals, locals everywhere. Some traders, some curious onlookers, others there to pray for deliverance at the tan behemoths that had saved their town. All were uncomfortably close to the tanks and Aldritch's Marines, the latter of which seemed more than amused to be talking to them.

"What the hell is this?!" The Captain outstretched his arms incredulously and looked directly at Hicks, the same sergeant who was currently cleaning a sword he had bought off a trader. Upon seeing their angry superior all of the Marines went wide-eyed and started shooing off the locals, some of Itami's subordinates nearby quickly doing the same before getting out of dodge.

Hicks quickly hid the sword he had bartered off a trader before jumping down off the tank and hurrying over.

"Sir, you're uh back early."

"No shit Sergeant, you mind telling me why I see goddamn locals getting near our vics and personnel?"

Hicks looked at the Marines and then back at Aldritch. This was a disciplinary blow he'd have to take for the platoon.

"That's my fault, sir, I wasn't paying attention. By the time I figured out what was going on things got a little too deep."

"Wasn't paying attention?" Aldritch repeated the statement and would've rolled his eyes were it not for the fact he was too tired to be so animated. "Sergeant, you know the score, same as I or anyone else who's ever been on deployment. I expect you of all people to know better."

"Sir, we have full coverage high and low-"

Aldritch sighed and rubbed his eyelids in frustration. "That doesn't make it any better Hicks, you're the goddamn platoon sergeant. You set the example and know just as well as I; no matter where we are, we don't trust the locals."

"But not enough to not let them accompany us on our road marches?" Hicks raised an eyebrow. "Tell Japanese officers no?"

"Are you calling me a hypocrite-"

"Absolutely not sir, I'm just stating facts. You trusted them enough to let wizards and that….thing come along with us. Japanese trucks or not, then there's the situation with the princess."

"What situation?" Now Aldritch was getting visibly annoyed and he gritted his teeth knowing full well Hicks's reputation in the unit and the courage it gave him.

Hick's quickly changed topics, seeing the visible irritation in his superior. Reputation or not even he had his limits. "Nothing sir, I-tempo's getting to me that's all."

"Anyways, sight count* is good, after ops* are done and fuel's green across the board." Hicks blew out another puff of smoke and noticed the dark circles under Aldritch's eyes. "Had the boys eat too, you should probably do the same, sir. Get some rest, you've been at this nonstop since we got here."

Still agitated about the earlier topic, but otherwise too tired to care, Aldritch simply nodded his head. "That…yeah that sounds good. I think I'll do that. We're gonna be here for a while so might as well get comfortable."

"Sir?" Hicks raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah, you heard me. We're pretty much stuck here until the next phase is carried out."

"Phase? Sir we could have this shit done before Christmas, the hell we standing around for?"

"I don't know Sergeant ask the brass, Mums the word for now it seems. Best go let the boys know. As for me, I'm taking a fucking nap."

Hicks stopped just shy of the tanks, his cigarette still trailing smoke from between pursed lips as he watched his captain walk past the rest of the line and the lounging Marines.

"Just seems a little fuckin' stupid to me, but hey what do I know? I'm just a Mike Golf."


Back at his tank Aldritch unslung his shotgun and let it rest on the front slope next to the pile of laminated maps he had been carrying with him. Seeing his tank commander return Dillard stuck his head out of his driver's station and flashed a grin. It was a sight that never ceased to amuse the Captain.

The M1a1 was not a small tank by any measure, but some tankers were a bit too big for the job. Dillard was one such tanker and the Alabaman Marine's broad torso slightly jutted out of the station.

"Sir? Good news?"

"A little bit of this and that, unfortunately."

The young driver's mood immediately doured upon hearing the news. "Guessing we're gonna be here a while….huh?"

"Fraid' so, sorry Dillard." Aldritch grunted as he hefted himself up aboard and crawled up the front slope. "However, I did twist some fingers. You'll be able to watch your daughter be born."


"Really, we should be heading back to Alnus tomorrow. We'll resupply before we pack up to come back here. Should be there long enough for you to get a video call."

For the first time in months, Aldritch watched his driver's face light up like a kid's on Christmas day. "Christ, thank you sir!"

The Captain suppressed his urge to smile. If there was anything he could still get satisfaction from it was caring for his men. "Just make sure miles and hours are updated."

"Yes sir!"

Back at the top of the tank, Aldritch let his shotgun and paperwork rest next to the tank's sights. Reeves and Clancy had already gotten comfortable, the gunner and loader both listening to music from a small speaker as they read over their respective literature pieces.

Seeing his tank commander Reeves earmarked a page from his language book and pocketed it. "Sir, tank's good to go. Clancy and I were just practicing language-"

"Easy Reeves, I know. I just need to get some fucking sleep."

"Any word from high up?" Clancy paused from reading his comic.

"Nope, gonna be sitting right here for a while." Aldritch shuffled some things around in his sponson box before taking out a pillow and some headphones. "I'll be behind the blowout panels."

"Roger that sir."

Aldritch slowly made his way to the back of the turret and dropped the pillow in between the panels and instruments separating them from the packed bustle rack storage. The captain contemplated taking his boots off to air his feet out, but he remembered he hadn't packed his crocs.

With a groan and the cracking of overworked joints, Aldritch lay down between the panels and the bustle, taking a few seconds to pop the earbuds out of their case and into his ears before fishing out his cell phone from within a cargo pocket. He flipped through a few folders via touch screen before finding the playlist he so desperately needed right now.

Never Too Far Away

As the familiar music filled his ears Aldritch got comfortable and flipped to a side where nobody was watching, taking care to slowly reach into his shirt for the ring still hanging on its chain.

With everything going on, he had almost forgotten it was there, what it meant to be so close to Japan and yet so far away at the same time.

Calloused hands rubbed the polished metal as Aldritch closed his eyes.

The captain sighed and gripped the ring tighter as he felt exhaustion start to take over.

It wasn't long before the toll of days of operating with little to no sleep caught up and the Captain felt himself nod off. In a foreign world far from home and a place no doubt surrounded by the enemy, anyone else would have struggled to sleep. Not Aldritch, he knew his tank and his men would keep him safe.

Another war at another time

Aldritch filled his lungs with air as he sprinted back to the MWR, his boots kicking up rock and sand as he made his way through the winding HESCO mazes. He could still feel the hot Iraq sun as it burned against the back of his neck. He had to be fast, he was late for his call, no thanks to the firefight that had escalated into a full-blown engagement. Thankfully the fight was over the moment the tanks arrived to relieve his platoon.

The lieutenant quickly turned a corner and paused for a moment upon seeing the collection of conex crates that served as a makeshift structure. No lines, thank god.

The young officer ran inside and past a few US Army soldiers lounging around. None paid him any mind, he was a frequent visitor after all. Meanwhile, Aldritch made his way to a small wooden table where the satellite phone was. He quickly dialed the number and waited with bated breath as he heard the dial tone.

"Come on….come on!"

The tone continued until finally, it stopped, the sound of someone breathing heavily indicating that the line was open. Aldritch immediately switched to Japanese, he was still learning, but a promise was a promise so he would try his best all the same.

"Yoko kun? It's me, James."

The breathing continued.


Still, the breathing continued and it was here that Aldritch realized something. It wasn't her, it was him.

"Yahagi san?"


"What's going on, where's Yoko?"

That was when Aldritch could hear the shakiness in her father's voice, the breathing he did when something was wrong.

"Yahagi san….where's Yoko?"

Then came the sobbing and with it the sounds of panicked hospital staff in the background.

"Yahagi san! Answer me goddamnit!"

Still no response and now Aldritch could hear the EKG machine and the slow sorrowful dull tone of a flatline.



"Sir! Sir! Captain!"

Aldritich grunted and flailed his arms as he felt a pair of hands shake him awake, his eyes quickly darting open and rapidly scanning as he tried to remember where he was. His playlist had long since stopped and with it, the sun had disappeared. It was evening now and the sky had started turning a dark blue.

"Sir? You okay?" Reeves cocked his head and maintained a firm grip on his superior's shoulder. His expression twisted into one of concern. "Another bad dream?"

"Yes.." Aldritch rubbed his eyelids. "What's going on."

"You and your men have been cordially invited to the Formal Estate Captain."

The captain looked over the side of his tank and at the bald-headed Major looking up at him. Flanking the officer on either side were two other Marines in full gear. They looked just as enthused as Aldritch was.

"Come again, sir? Another briefing, did I miss anything?"

"No Captain Aldritch, Count Formal himself has invited you and your men to join him for dinner and festivities at the Formal Estate." The Major folded his arms. "He isn't budging on it either."

Aldrtich rubbed his tired eyelids as he tried to find some sort of excuse. "But sir my tanks? I can't just leave them here."

"Figure it out Captain, we're not telling him no. You'll be joining up with Lieutenant Itami and the rest of RCT3. Orders come from higher"

Aldritch would've groaned were it not for his sense of military bearing. There was no getting out of this dog and pony. He and his men were being paraded around for hearts and minds, exactly the sort of thing he had feared would happen.

"...Roger that sir, I'll let the men know and detail a guard force."

"And make sure you and your men are shaven and look at least halfway squared away."

"Yes sir."

"Oh and one more thing."

Aldritch hoped to god the Major couldn't sense his rising agitation.


"That tank of yours with the claw marks? Bring it with you."

The bad news delivered, the Major promptly turned on his heels and calmly walked off, his bodyguards following close behind.

Aldritch sat there wordlessly for a few moments. Unsure whether to yell at the top of his lungs or scream into his hands. Instead, he did what any Marine did in such trying times.

"Reeves. Do you still have any cigarettes?"

Hearing the bizarre request Reeves cocked his head to the side. "I thought you didn't smoke sir."

"Well, I fucking do now. Now give me a smoke before I lose my goddamn mind."

Not wanting to push his superior any further Reeves fumbled through the pockets of his FROG pants and passed his tank commander a half-crumpled pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

Aldritch quickly put one of the old cigarettes in his mouth and lit it, taking a few tentative puffs before clenching one of his fists.

"Pass the word along to four and start getting the platoon formed up around my tank." The captain blew some smoke out of his nose and glared at his gunner. "Now."


At the front of the mansion and patiently watching the cobblestone path leading to the building stood a motley crew of guests. First, there was Itami and the members of RCT3. Like the Marines, they too had gotten the bad news regarding their cordial invitation. The only difference was, they were far more excited if not honored to be able to attend. Accompanying the Japanese were the wizards and Rory. They had been with the Marines and the Japanese since the beginning, and each held a title of great importance. So, it only made sense they'd be there to join them in the festivities as well.

Then there was Piña and her knights. They had forgone their battle plate in place of wearing their uniforms underneath. As the leaders of the knights; Piña, Hamilton, and Bozes had donned formal attire. Silk dresses crafted by the finest Formal artisans and gifted to them for their efforts in defending Italica . The fabric conformed to their bodies, not leaving a whole lot to the imagination. Risque by earth standards, but this was custom for single royals still pining to be married off. It was believed that if the Rose Knights could share a dinner table with what was supposed to be their enemy then perhaps peace could be achieved after all.

Finally, there was the Major and Count Formal's CIA charge, Ramirez. The former needed to be there to help smoothen the transition into the occupation phase of the war, and the latter was the one in charge of making sure everyone held hands and played nice. At the front of all these guests from far and wide, stood the Formal clan. Headed by the esteemed count and his daughter the clan had fully assembled, maids and all. Hosting lavish parties was their specialty and this time would be no different.

The Count glanced at Ramirez and cleared his throat. "Are they still coming?"

"In due time good Count, in due time." Ramirez glanced at his watch and tapped its digital display before switching his language back to English. "Major, how long does it take to get a tank over?"

Next to him, the estranged Marine officer furrowed his brow, a gesture that brought looks of concern over his junior enlisted. "I gave them the word not long ago. These things take time and I told you there was no way a goddamn M1 Abrams was going to fit through those crowded streets."

"Well, you can tell our hosts the bad news because I sure as hell am not."

Agitated, the Major was just about to reach for his radio and start barking orders when he heard it.

The distant telltale whine of a turbine engine and the rhythmic clanking of tracks. Ramirez heard it too and he smirked, nudging the major's shoulder. "Well how about that, looks like you Jarheads really can meet any challenge huh?"


Both the Formal Clan and Rose Knights waited with wide eyes and bated breath as they felt the ground begin to shake. Many had only heard stories of the "tanks", few had seen them.

Then, from the gate leading to the cobble path emerged a few figures. First came Aldritch, the Captain having shaved his stubble and donned a fresh uniform. Then came his Marines, like their captain they too had put on their Sunday's best. By choice or force was anyone's guess. Agent Ramirez had pulled a lot of strings to get this to work, but he had to.

He needed these people to fear and respect the Coalition's power so that they would never dare try to pull what the Afghanis did. One of the Marines stopped and looked back at the gate before moving his arms in strange exaggerated motions as he tried to guide something behind him.

Then, it arrived. The pitch of the turbine engine increased as the hulking war machine effortlessly propelled itself up the path.

For a moment Count Formal hesitate. During his stay in Japan, he had seen a great deal many of the Japanese war machines, but this one was different. The men, the Americans, weren't like the Japanese. They had the eyes of killers, from the young to the old, the small to the big. Their machine also reflected that in its very design. They had named it after one of their great generals, so the count was told. Abrams, a general who had fought in a great war years ago. The Japanese didn't name their vehicles the same way, choosing instead to use symbols and numbers. The Americans immortalized the names of both leaders and ancient foes in their war machines.

As the Abrams drew ever nearer Count Formal made a vow that one day he would acquire such technology, and use it so that never again would Italica be threatened. When that time came he knew who'd he come to make bargains with.

"Magnificent….isn't it?"

Seeing Count Formal's jaw hanging out open Ramirez couldn't help but chuckle. "You know we have a great many allies back home who also have Abrams." The Agent folded his arms with pride. "When it comes to combat-proven tanks, there can be none higher. Italica is safe indeed."

"Would I be able to I would pay any price for such machines Mr. Ramirez." Then the Count noticed the claw marks etched into the side of the tank's turret. "So that is the one that felled the dragon?"

"So I've been told, yes." Ramirez answered.

"By the gods, so it is true." The Count looked down at his nervous daughter. "What say you? Perhaps some Formal Livery someday? Resplendent in our colors?"

"We would grow stronger for it yes." The young countess nodded. "We should get a painting of it next to the fountain."

"All in due time. First, let us end this war. Then we can talk about bringing you into our fold good count." Ramirez responded with no small amount of enthusiasm.

The tank and Marines stopped at the end of the path and just short of the fountain before starting the process of putting the beast back to rest. As this was done Aldritch and Hicks approached the assortment of guests.

"Charlie Company Headquarters platoon 2nd Tank Battalion. All present."

Suddenly the M1's gun jerked towards the sky with a clank just as the rest of the Marines formed up.

"All accounted for." Aldritch grumbled in Falmartian as he finished. "I am Captain Aldritch and this is my Platoon Sergeant Hicks."

"Howdy." Hicks flashed a smile and tipped his eight-point cover as the M1's engine began to die down.

"An honor to meet you Captain." Count Formal took a bow. "You honor us by responding to our invitation."

On cue all the maids did a curtsy, eliciting more than a few flushed red faces from the Marines.

"Good evening honored masters!"

"Good evening indeed." Next to the Count, Ramirez clapped. "I knew you and your men could pull it off Aldritch. Well done and glad to see you."

He extended a hand and smiled, the kind of smile that belonged to a man who did business in corpses and misery. Aldritch had seen that sort of smile before, it was the same one Roger had.

"Ramirez, glad you could join us….Captain."

Aldritch glanced at the olive-colored bare hand and back at Ramirez's creepy smile before slowly shaking it.

"I wondered when you guys would show up."

"'And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free'." Ramirez firmly shook the Captain's hand as he repeated the mantra of his organization.

"John 8:32." Hicks chimed in as Aldritch let go and fixed the sling for his M4. "I know that verse."

"Ah, religious man?"

"We all are when the bodies start piling." Hicks answered grimly. "Besides I've been to Langley once."

"Could use a few good men."

"I passed then, I'll pass now Ramirez." Hicks tipped his cover once more. "So we eatin' or what? I got a platoon of hungry Marines here that are in fresh cammies wondering why they're here."

"Easy Sergeant." Aldritch put a hand up.

"No that's quite fine." Ramirez gestured back towards the rest of the group including a now nervously waving Itami. "I take it you met the others?"

"Something like that." Aldritch answered flatly.

"Good, well let's not delay any longer." Ramirez switched back to the local language. "Good Count the tank is here as are the Marines."

"But of course!" Formal looked at one of the maids leading the army behind her, an elderly woman with glasses. "Kaine, if you would? Ensure our esteemed guests are given a heroes' welcome."

"Yes Count." The head maid fixed her glasses. "Ladies, we are in the presence of knights who have come from afar. Do your due diligence."

As one, all of the maids sounded off with a loud "Yes Ma'am!" before practically swarming both the Marines and the Japanese.

Aldritch nervously flipped the hood down for his holster and raised a hand in protest only to be stopped by Ramirez, the agent putting a hand on his shoulder.

"Easy Captain America. They're vetted."

"By who, you?" Aldritch looked back at his Marines who were now very much chatting it up with the curious maids alongside some of Itami's men. "You're not the one who has to write the letters back home."

"No, but I am the one who has to clean up any mess that comes next." Without hesitation, Ramirez then confidently flipped the hood back up for Aldritch's holster. "They're fine, you're fine. We're all fine. Relax for a bit Captain, I've got them wound around our fingers."

"You say that…." Aldritch looked at the crew of Here We Go Again and at the Marines with them. Nervous, startled a bit, but otherwise nothing short of amused playing hero to a bunch of curious maids. A few of them slapped the front of the tank and egged Kincaid on to translate all sorts of nonsense for them.

And that's when the backstabbing starts.

"Fine." Aldritch cupped a hand over his mouth and yelled back at the Marines. "Corporal Elton, detail two to watch over the tank. The rest of you form up and let's go!"

"You heard the Captain move it Marines!"

"Roger!" Elton yelled back before pointing at his gunner and loader, mumbling something to them only they could hear.

"One of your men, I heard he can speak the language fluently." Ramirez raised an eyebrow at the Marines beyond. "Heard he had a visit with…." The agent struggled as he tried to find the words. "Something, while he was knocked out."

Aldritch knew better than to divulge anything about his Marines to anyone who wasn't his corpsman or in his immediate chain of command.

"Dunno where you heard that, they're all studied up on the language." The captain shook his head and led his Marines past the inquisitive agent toward the rest of the group.

"Uh huh…." Knowing the captain was lying, Ramirez let it slide for now. He'd get his answers soon enough. This wasn't the first time he had heard about something like this happening. It likely wouldn't be the last either.

The agent shrugged and went to join the rest of the group. There would be plenty of time to chat later.


Seeing the massive walled-off capital city ahead, Roger gunned his ATV off the dirt road and into a nearby forest. If his contact was smart and wanted a chance at staying in power he'd have stayed put like Roger told him to.

The agent effortlessly guided the four-wheeled vehicle through some natural forest paths and around trees until he made his way to a natural forest clearing. At the center of it stood a small tent and a hooded figure surrounded by a few Imperial Officers.

Thankfully the idiots hadn't lit any fires to draw any attention to him, but he still seemed nothing short of impatient upon seeing Roger drive up.

Roger turned his ATV off and quickly dismounted, unslinging his carbine and twisting his ballcap forward. He lowered his Balacvlava and raised his goggles up over his hat.

"Looks like you can follow instructions after all."

"Unlike my siblings, I know when to talk and when to listen." The man turned around to face Roger, strands of his blonde hair jutting out from under his hood. Next to him, a few of the officers had their hands over the hilts of their swords. Not that it would matter, Roger could drop them all in a heartbeat if he wanted to. He was getting exceedingly skilled at bringing the engagement distances closer.

"I take it the next part of our plan is a go?"

"Quite, my contacts in the city have already started their work in Akusho. By the time they're done, it'll take more than the Imperial Army to stop what's coming."

"And my place for the throne?" The man inquired.

Roger wagged a glover finger. "One thing at a time Prince. We said you would have a place in the new order, no more and no less. Now then, the secret paths into the palace."

The young royal took a rolled piece of parchment out from under his cloak and held it aloft. "As drawn here. Your men have their necessary disguises?"

"And can walk the talk like any Imperial officer." Roger answered matter of factly as he took the parchment. "How about those sympathetic to our cause?"

One of the turncoat Imperial officers took a step forward. "The Emperor and Zorzal have lost their minds to the fires of war. To end this soon would end the suffering of all involved. Our men understand this."

"Good, see what happens when you see reason?" Roger unrolled the parchment and turned on a light mounted to the side of his hat, illuminating the map for a few seconds as he scrutinized the details. Satisfied, he rolled it back up and tucked it under one of his arms. "Well, I must say. You are a man of your word, take it from someone who prides himself on doing the same."

The royal removed his hood and let his blonde hair breathe in the cool Falmartian air. "But of course. Diabo El Caesar never reneges on his agreements. Now then, let us bring about a new tomorrow."


"Finally some peace and quiet."

Kincaid popped the tab open for his energy drink and got comfortable against the tank's turret. He savored the sweet aroma wafting out of the can. The caffeine didn't do much for him anymore, not since he came through the gate anyways. Next to him, Wilkes did the same as he lowered his boonie cover down over his eyes.

"Been a while since we've had some time alone brudduh. I'm surprised you didn't volunteer to go inside. Figured your weeb ass would be all about the maids."

"Hardly." Kincaid lit a slightly bent cigarette and puffed at it. "Not like anything fun is gonna happen anyways."

"Still mad you can't get out?"

"Every day." Kincaid looked up at the starry night sky, admiring the crystal clear view he got. It reminded him a lot of Afghanistan, how the lack of a solid industrial base meant there was a lack of pollution to obscure the skies above. He looked back at his watch and sighed at the month. He had long since adjusted the device for both Falmartian time and Earth time. He could have been home by now, sitting in his living room enjoying a beer. Still, though, the sound of running water from the nearby fountain, the pleasant temperature, and the ambient music courtesy of their Bluetooth speaker made for a calm he hadn't experienced in a while.

Sensing unease in the sudden silence, Wilkes tried to break the tension. "You think Raymond would've liked it here?"

"Pfft, Raymond didn't like anything that involved him doing his job." Kincaid quickly responded.

"Makes you wonder why he was the company's best gunner then huh?"

Both Marines exchanged tired laughs briefly.

"I miss him."

"Yeah, yeah I do too." Kincaid took a sip from his can. "But he'd be proud of us you know? Probably watching us even now."

"Even in another world?"

"That fucker could tell if you were cranking one off in the shitter stall from a mile away. You bet your damn ass he is."

More tired laughs.

"You two look like you're having just the grandest time sitting out here."

Both of the Marines stopped at the sound of Kuribiyashi's voice. Upon looking at the source, sure enough, they could see the energetic sergeant walking up, rifle slung across her front. Of course, she wasn't alone. Joining her was Kurokawa, the abnormally tall medic was easily identified even in the dark

"Well of course they are. Elaborate dinners are hardly their forte." Kurokawa chimed in.

"You've never been to a Marine Corps ball then." Kincaid rolled his eyes and blew a puff of smoke out from his nostrils.

"Well before everyone gets drunk." Wilkes added. "So what's your excuse? Comin' out here to ruin our moment?"

"Somethin' like that." Kuribiyashi unceremoniously hopped up atop the tank's front slope and let her legs dangle off the edge. "It's boring in there."

"Ain't much fun out here either."

"I beg to differ Lance Corporal." The sergeant flashed a grin. "I think hanging out with a few Marines and swapping war stories would be fun. How about you Mari?"

"I suppose." Kurokawa answered back wistfully. "If anything I just need to make sure you don't cause any trouble."

"Me? Never."


"So? Who's goin' first?" Kuribiyashi reached into a few empty pouches on her vest and took out a few tall silver cans. "Or did I smuggle these out of Alnus for nothing?"

Both of the Marines' eyes widened upon seeing the cans. Japanese beer, straight from the homeland. Not as strong as the stuff back in the states, but beer was beer and neither had had so much as a drop of alcohol in months.

"Ok then, welcome aboard Sergeant." Wilkes outstretched an eager hand, not unlike a child reaching for a candy bar.

The Japanese sergeant slightly retracted the can with a sly smile. "Fuck rank, you call me Shino when we're not around that pencil-necked lieutenant of mine Got it?" She then looked at Kincaid. "That goes for you too. First name basis, we're war buddies now."

The Marines exchanged glances and nodded.

"Alright then, Jasper, Damian." Kincaid pointed at himself and then his loader. "Your turn."

"Shino and Mari." Kuribayashi pointed a thumb at herself and then back at the medic who was now shaking her head at the informalities.

The ice formally broken, tabs were popped and cans clanked together as the four soldiers began to partake in conversation under an alien sky.

Thus bonds strong as steel were forged there.

Terms/Jargon/Acronyms Used:

Sight Count: Serial numbers for all issued equipment gone over and accounted for

After Ops: After Operations, all maintenance to include track work and the like after the tanks have been operating.