AUTHOR'S NOTE: Not much to say, other than this is the last chapter for this story arc; an epilogue of sorts. I'm currently in the middle of a move to a new city, so posting may be light for the next week or so. Still, I'll try to do what I can.

Kat: thanks as always. I will get to reading your stories when I remember and have a spare minute.

Bien: whew...your last review was so long, but I'll try.

Question 1: Yes, my story does contradict Battletech canon, but as I said in the introduction to Snowbird's Battalion, it seems to me that a guy like Hanse Davion would never let an enemy catch their breath–he'd keep hitting them. Therefore, the Planting offensive. I initially wrote what became this story before Blood Legacy came out back in 1990, and so I figured that the next book would deal with the Inner Sphere going on the offensive. I didn't feel like completely changing the premise, so here you are. (It also violates BT canon in the Jade Falcons taking Planting rather than Clan Wolf, as it is explicitly stated in the Clan Wolf Sourcebook that the Wolves are the ones who take Planting from the 41st Avalon Hussars. I will sort of explain that in the next chapter.) The Clans pretty much keep the initiative throughout the Clan War: other than raids, there isn't any mention of Inner Sphere offensives.

Question 2: Probably more like Band of Brothers.

Question 3: Both the Snowbirds and the Sentinels will be forced into a "last stand" situation, but it will not happen on Tamar, Luthien, or Sudeten. I do have plans for the Snowbirds to be peripherally involved with the Luthien battle, but not actually onworld (don't want to steal the Kell Hounds or Wolf's Dragoons' thunder). The Sentinels will fight on Sudeten, but that won't be the spot for their last stand. I've already given some hints as to where that last stand will take place (and no, it's not on Tukayyid).

Question 4: Well, I haven't seen From Here to Eternity, so I don't know what happens (other than the infamous beach scene). As I recall from Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart leaves Ingrid Bergman (I think that's who it is) at the airport with a "Here's looking at you, kid." That isn't going to happen with Max and Sheila. I intend their romance to be a case where two close friends are thrown together by war, end up becoming lovers and then get married. Their love is based more on circumstances and hormones at first, and later blossoms into true love through the hard times. Sheila and Max will either survive the story or they'll die together.

Question 5: They do use mob tactics. Check out Sheila's Command Lance fighting the Star Colonel's Exterminator in Chapter 7. Max, Maysa, and Marion ended up fighting alone because of literary license (Max, to provide tension in the chapter; Maysa, because she will end up a major character as the story goes on; and Marion, because she's piloting a 100-ton killing machine).

Question 6: Look at the Snowbirds' order of battle in Chapter 6, and you'll see that there is a Griffin and a Wolverine in the unit. I hate the Quickdraw, so don't expect to see any of those...but I do like the Grasshopper...

Question 7: They work for the FedCom, but don't use exclusively FedCom 'Mechs. The Sentinels and the Snowbirds pretty much use anything they can get their hands on. (Just wait until they capture some Clan 'Mechs.)

Question 8: There's an Axeman in the Snowbirds; it's the version with the AC/20.

Question 9: Sure, why not?

Question 10: Sheila's Shruiken is probably closer to a Warhammer, though it's supposed to be an upgraded version of the Wolfhound chassis. (I'll have to get around to posting the stats at some point, but it's kind of hard to do that without it sounding forced. I can't find a place for Sheila to say something like, "Look, here's my 'Mech sheet...")

Question 11: Oh, you never know when a Star League cache might get found somewhere. I'm rather partial to the Black Knight myself. My favorite 3050 era 'Mech (and 3025 era 'Mech, for that matter) is definitely the Battlemaster.

Okay, NOW onto the story...

"We who have known war must never forget war. And that is why I have a picture of a soldier's corpse nailed to the door of my library."

–Harry Crosby, American writer and veteran of World War I

Todd City

Planting, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth

21 November 3050

The Snowbirds had cheered when the Sentinel flag and the Federated Commonwealth flag was run up the pole in the middle of Fort Pilum's courtyard. As Matria had predicted, the surviving courtyard defenders had surrendered once the door opened and they saw Maysa's Rifleman. Intelligence had messed up again: Fort Pilum had two platoons of foot infantry at Fort Pilum, and they had prepared a lethal ambush, had the SLI come through the front door. Still, it had taken Mikkansia's squad some time to push them back to the entrance, and considering the odds, the SLI had done well. At the cost of four wounded, Mikkansia had taken Fort Pilum's interior and taken the second-largest bag of prisoners of the Clan War to that date. Moreover, the landings across Blackett Strait had been successful, with the dropzones secure. The Kell Hounds were fighting their way into the suburbs of Tel Akbir against very stiff Jade Falcon resistance, and the Eridani Light Horse's 50th Cavalry, with the Sentinels, were closing in on Second Try, the capital and largest city on Planting. The campaign was far from over, but the AFFC forces were at least on the offensive.

Sheila recalled the flag-raising ceremony in a daze. One look at her and Elfa had quietly taken command of the Snowbirds for the night. There wasn't much to do in any case; Mikkansia's other platoons finally arrived with a company of Planting militia, and they would occupy Fort Pilum for the time being. The Snowbirds were moved to the coastal town of Todd City, in preparation for the move across Blackett Strait to the main continent. Calla had sent his congratulations to his daughter for her action, but it was lost on her.

Max and Sheila were quartered in the city's best hotel, thrown open by the grateful populace, and the hotel manager had winked when Max asked for the honeymoon suite. He had hoped it might rouse Sheila, who seemed to be moving on autopilot. The hotel manager had not seen the blood and vomit-encrusted flak jacket and fatigues. Max helped Sheila take off the filthy clothes and he tossed them in a hamper, promising to burn them if he got the chance. They showered together, scrubbing the day's grime and blood off, then climbed into the oversize bed and shut off the lights.

After awhile, as Max had figured, Sheila began crying, burying her face in his chest as she finally let go in great, heaving sobs. He held her, stroking her hair until she subsided. "Okay now, babe?" he asked softly.

"No," Sheila sniffed. "I don't know if I'll ever be okay again."

"You will," he assured her. "You're still alive." Max paused. "He would have killed was a fair fight, you or him."

"I know. I've been trying to justify it like that. But I still killed him." She laughed softly, humorlessly. "Funny. I know I've killed before, Max. I almost certainly killed that Mad Cat pilot on Twycross when I DFA'ed him. But it's different in a 'Mech. You almost believe that you're not attacking another human being, just some machine. Deep down you realize that it's not true, that there's someone in that other 'Mech who has a family and bleeds red just like you do. And you're happy when you see the other guy punch out, even though it might mean that he's just going to come back next week with a new 'Mech." She shook her head. "But it's different at close range. He...I watched him die, Max. Right in front of me. My God, I felt his last breath." She rubbed at already raw eyes. "I know he would have killed me, Max. He was killing me, strangling me, but still, I just...I can't..." Her voice trailed off.

There was silence in the room for a few moments. "Sheila," Max said, "I killed a man today too."

"That's what Mikkansia said. You may have saved Moose Hoose's life."

"I doubt that; the guy I blew away was a lousy shot. But anyway, Moose asked me if it was the first time I'd killed someone."

Sheila sat up and faced him. "Oh, Max...I'm so selfish. I never even thought to ask you–"

He put a finger on her lips. "It's okay. It wasn't the first time I've killed someone at close range, Sheila." At her intake of breath, he began to explain. "It was when we lived on Shensi. There were places in Shensi City that you didn't go at night, especially if you were eleven years old and the son of a high-ranking mercenary officer in the AFFC. But my dad had been drinking that night, and he and my mom started fighting, so I hit the streets before I became a target.

"I wasn't watching where I was going and I got into the bad part of town. Well, I got out of there in a hurry, but some toughs decided to follow me and beat me up, because I wasn't Chinese. Luckily they were drunk, so I was able to bloody the first guy's nose pretty good, even after he knocked off my glasses. Unfortunately, that just pissed him off, so he pulled out a knife.

"I don't think that he or his buddies meant to kill me. The repercussions would have been terrible; Mom probably would have flattened the Chinese quarter, and they knew it. But they certainly could pound me into the pavement, or maybe slice me up a bit. Anyway, this guy came at me, and we both ended up on the ground. He yelled something about carving him a piece of merc kid, and, hell, I was scared. I grabbed the knife and turned it back against him; stabbed him in the chest. I hit something; there was blood all over me too...I never knew a man held that much blood. His buddies ran away, because about that time the constabulary arrived. The other kid died on the way to the hospital. They didn't hold me responsible, but my folks made sure I got that appointment to NAMA as soon as they could." Max shook his head. "It took a long time for me to get over that, and I didn't see him die, but I can still remember everything about that fight, and how surprised that kid looked when I stabbed him. I didn't go out of the house, except for school, for almost a year."

"Why didn't you ever tell me?" Sheila asked.

"Well, I didn't know if you wanted to know. I didn't want to tell anyone about it." Max smiled wanly. "Funny thing is, for some reason I told Kai Allard about it at NAMA, when he asked me what Shensi was like. It just sort of came up, and I burdened the poor guy with the story. Kai, God bless him, just told me a story about his dad, Justin Xiang. Apparently Kai got into one of those schoolyard 'my paw can beat up your paw' contest, and Kai said that his dad could kill the other kid's dad. Justin told him, 'Killing a man isn't easy, and never should be.'" Max sighed. "I don't know where I'm going with this, Sheila. Just trying to make us both feel better, I guess. As coldhearted as this sounds, you can't let it get to you. It's war. We didn't start the damn thing, but if we're going to win it, both of us is likely to have to do more killing before it's over."

"I know." Sheila drifted back down to the pillow, snuggling her body against his. "Justin Xiang is right, it's not easy."

Eventually, they slept.

Sheila awoke, her eyes flitting around the room. The morning sun streamed in through the curtains, and she stretched languidly, having slept surprisingly well. Of course the day before had been rather hectic.

Then she remembered the Elemental, whose face seemed to materialize out of the air in front of her. Sheila closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and put the man into a locked box in her mind, with all the other memories she did not want to remember. She knew they would have their time to haunt her. She wondered if, had it been the other way around, he would have been thinking of her.

Do the Clanners even think the same way we do? I know they're human. I know they feel pain and they get scared. But would he just write it off as being something that happens in war, or would he be as remorseful as I am?

Who the hell are they, anyway? What the hell are they doing here? Why did that man come all the way from...well, wherever the hell they're from...just to try and take over some planet and get killed there? It's not fair, dammit. Sin enough that I had to kill him, but not knowing why makes it worse...

Sheila rubbed her eyes and commanded herself to quit thinking about it, though she knew that she would. She had a battalion to run, and a war to fight, and it wasn't going to wait for her to find a way to forgive herself. Sheila got up from the bed, careful not to disturb Max, who was still sleeping, and padded naked to the phone, intending to check in with Elfa. Before she got to it, however, her eyes fell on a sheet of paper that had been shoved under her door. She knelt, picked it up, and unfolded it. It was written in a small, precise hand.

Commander Arla-Vlata–

I'm passing on a message from your Major Brownoak. She says not to worry: sleep in. Your orders to move will not come until sometime in the afternoon. Things are quiet across the Strait for now.

As for myself, my respect for MechWarriors has gone up a notch or two. All my doggies are telling me that your men and women fought like tigers yesterday in Fort Pilum. I personally saw your Togan Nordkoping take out that machine gun with a grenade; I'm putting him in for the Order of Steiner-Davion. And I heard that you killed an Elemental in hand to hand combat, which is not something I would take lightly, if it had been me.

You probably have never been in real close combat before, and I have no words for what you may be feeling right now. I still struggle with it. Your mother told me once that if I ever stopped caring about killing, it was time to quit, because pretty soon I would cease caring about myself or the people I lead into battle. Know that the Elemental, had he killed you, would have finished off Lisa Felton and Fred Matria, then hit us from behind. So you saved some lives. That probably won't make you feel any better, but it's true. It's what makes war so horrible, and it may sound strange coming from an old SLI hand like me, but I wish we would quit having them. Nonetheless, sometimes you must fight and kill, to prevent a greater killing. After hearing about Turtle Bay, I'm afraid I don't have much sympathy for these Clanners.

And I am starting to ramble on, so I will quit writing. Know also that you have the respect of the SLI, for yourself and not just for the name you bear. That is not an honor we give lightly. I would be proud to serve with the Snowbird, or her battalion, anytime, anywhere.


Captain Mikkansia Jackson

Commanding, 1/1 Sentinels Light Infantry

Sheila set the paper down next to the phone. She took a deep breath, and walked over to the curtains, opening the window and letting in a cool sea breeze. She leaned against the doorjamb and watched the ocean.

"Hey, beautiful," Max sleepily called out. "As much as I admire the view, I'm a selfish bastard, and I don't want to share it with someone else." He motioned at the window. "All it's going to take is for someone to look out their window and see you in your naked glory."

Sheila turned and smiled. "I was just thinking."

"Mmm. 'Bout what?"

"Where we should get married." She crawled back into bed with him. "I hear the cathedral in Second Try is rather nice."