Disclaimer: I do not, in any way, shape or form, own the Muv-Luv copyrights, which belong to their respective owners.

"Did you know that there are three kinds of Aces? Those who seek Strength, Those who live for Pride and Those who can read the tide of Battle."

"Yuuya Bridges, wasn't it?" The man with a light complexion and Middle-Eastern features smiled at him, as he led him down the base corridor. "It's good to have you here, Second Lieutenant."

Yuuya politely nodded to the man, as he glanced around his surroundings. He had to admit, Yukon Base was big. It was almost as big as Langley even. Impressive.

Fitting, for the kind of people he would be working with.

There was scarcely a man or a woman who had served, even once, in the Mediterranean theater, and did not hear about Captain Ibrahim Dogulu. "The Hero of Rhodes", as he was known, was a truly legendary pilot, known for both his skill and gallantry. The number of refugees that owned him their lives, Greek and Turkish alike, were pretty much incalculable. Some even said that the man did more to resolve the longstanding Greek/Turkish animosity than decades of careful diplomacy. It was probably one of the key reasons why the Turkish Army's high command reportedly loathed him.

"The pleasure's all mine, Captain," Yuuya reflexively answered, eliciting a small laugh from his guide. "…Sir?"

"It's just First Lieutenant now, Bridges." Dogulu pointed to a light blue tab affixed to his flight jacket, below his pilot's wings, causing Yuuya to nearly smack his head in embarrassment. Seeing his charge's reaction, Ibrahim merely chuckled. "Don't sweat it, as long as you remember it before the rest of the team. Believe me, I know how this feels. Damn UN patches are worthless, if you ask me," he whispered in a conspiratorial manner, and Yuuya let out a small laugh. "Still, it has been a while since anyone called me that."

"I did a tour in the Med, Sir. There's nobody there that hasn't heard about Captain Ibrahim and His Eleven Cobras." Ibrahim made an over-dramatic sigh as he heard that.

"They're still going on about that? Well, whatever, it's not like I can stop it or anything." As they made yet another turn, Ibrahim glanced back at Yuuya. "Just like people still keep talking about the Maryland Dive. I must say, even I was impressed. While I never took on a Diver's job, I knew some people who did." He paused. "Horrible odds down there, weren't they?"

"…we were lucky. Well…that, and more than a few good people put their lives on the line," Yuuya carefully said. It was still a touchy subject for him. Ibrahim however, had an understanding glint in his eyes, as the two men closed in to the designated briefing room.

"…I know how it feels. As a one hero to another…if you ever need to talk, about anything, I'm all ears. We're all together in this here."

Yuuya nodded. While it might have seemed as being somewhat "too familiar", Yuuya saw no harm in getting to know his CO better. First, there was much to be gained from listening to a man who had served in the military for almost half-as-long as Yuuya was alive. Second, being on good terms with his commander would be something he could use to bond with the rest of his flight. Yuuya didn't doubt that Argos flight was on good terms with their flight lead.

Which made his job all the more awkward.

"We're here." As if on command, doors opened, and Ibrahim led him into a small, well-lit room. A fully digital projector lined the wall, while the opposite side was taken by a traditional blackboard. Several flags – UN, American and Japanese – were tucked into the corner. The space was otherwise filled with desks, neatly lined up before the projector, and a small podium.

Three people were already seated, obviously waiting for some time. Yuuya observed them carefully. Each wore standard UN Surfie BDUs, with their jackets emblazoned with a symbol of three-headed snake: the Hydra.

They were Argos flight, one of the oldest, and best, UN Test Flights.

Yuuya carefully looked over each pilot. Sitting closest to doors was the petite, dark-skinned girl he helped earlier. She was the least happy to be here – her violet eyes constantly darting to and fro, slouched back and her arms crossed in somewhat self-important position. She straightened up when Ibrahim walked through, but the frown – a seemingly living, fire-breathing thing – still remained on her surprisingly pretty face. Her eyes bored into Yuuya, before she glanced away with a quiet "hmph".

Behind her sat a tall, dark-haired man. His locks – a deep shade of black - and curious green eyes were familiar to Yuuya, but he couldn't place them in his memory. The man was looking at Yuuya with a mixture of curiosity and passing interest. He sat straight, but without the tension so often evident in people that strictly adhered to rules.

The last was a woman that, in Yuuya's opinion, could not be born anywhere else but in Scandinavia. She was rather tall for a woman, with a very well proportioned, fit figure, and a skin shade paler than most Caucasians. Her flight jacket hung tightly against her figure, especially her large, voluptuous breasts, which promised tender care, romantic love and all other forms of carnal excesses. The charm was completed by her full lips, tender sparkling turquoise eyes and almost stereotypically blond hair. She sat straight, but didn't seem to be a frigid or intimidating person. She neutrally observed Yuuya, with only hints of curiosity.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim took his place behind the podium, and cleared his throat as he begun.

"As you know, the XFJ Plan will be the biggest operation our unit has ever participated in. Because of this, several personnel changes had to be made. This-" he gestured to Yuuya "-is Second Lieutenant Yuuya Bridges, from the United States Space Force. He's serving with us from here on out, as Argos 1. Now, Lieutenant Bridges is a former member of the Special Tactics Anti-BETA unit, and before that, a leading Orbital Diver in the 114thOrbital Drop Regiment." His voice took on a hint of authority. "Lt. Bridges is a veteran pilot, and you will show him the same respect you show me." He eyed each of the Argos pilots, his gaze lingering slightly longer on the dark-skin girl. "Now, for the rest of introductions, the first one on your right is Second Lieutenant Tarisa Manandal, from Nepal." He gestured at the same girl. Yuuya nodded to her, getting only a curt shake of a head in return.

"Behind her is Second Lieutenant Valerio Giacosa, from Italy." The only other man on the team smiled at him, considerably friendlier than the girl. "And lastly, this is Second Lieutenant Stella Bremer, from Sweden." The woman smiled at him, and giggled when Yuuya tried to awkwardly nod back.

Before Yuuya could say anything however, a single knock rang out.

"Ah. They're here. Please take a seat, Lt. Bridges." No sooner had Yuuya done that, when the doors opened. Two people walked in – an old man in a civilian suit, and an absurdly young girl in a UN officer's dress uniform.

"Continuing the introductions, this is First Lieutenant Yui Takamura, from Imperial Japanese Ministry of Technology and Weapons Development. She will be the project manager for the XFJ Plan." With that, Ibrahim took a step back, politely nodding to the girl, as she approached the podium.

If Yuuya had to describe her specifically, "doll" would be the first adjective that came to his mind. Her walk was cold, calculating, empty, like someone whose life was filled with unshakable purpose, and little else. Beyond that, her skin cast a cold, almost harsh glow, despite its nearly alabaster luster. Dark hair neatly flowed behind her back, carefully groomed despite its length. Hard, amethyst eyes glanced at them. She looked like something carefully made of porcelain – beautiful (even Yuuya could admit that), but also cold and impersonal.

"My name is Takamura Yui," the girl began. Her voice was much younger than even her looks suggested. "It will be a pleasure to be working with you. I hope that between the might of our Japanese Empire, and your skill, we can bring this XFJ Plan to fruition with utmost haste and effect. That is all."

Yuuya refrained from frowning. There was… something off about her. The way she also ignored Ibrahim's introduction wasn't a good sign either.

A type that's either arrogant… or too prideful for her own good, at any rate. Impersonal, but still polite. Probably one of the "By-the-Book" fridges, who believe in leading people like little children. With care, but certain distance, because they're different. Like that Ice bi-

Yuuya cut off his train of thought. He couldn't be too sure if this "Takamura Yui" really was this type of person. Some people tended to act completely different depending on their environment. For the sake of the mission, he would- no, he had to – give her a chance.

One chance, he promised himself.

The girl bowed to them from the podium, and walked off, letting Ibrahim reclaim his place.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. And this-" He gestured at the impatient looking man, "is Frank Heinemann, technical advisor from Boening Corporation. Some of you may remember him from the Phoenix Project."

"Hello there!" The man began excitedly. To Yuuya, he looked very much like the epitome of the crazy absent-minded professor – a tweed suit that might have been fashionable in 1960s was contrasted against probably the most outrageous bowtie in all Alaska, and the man's rather long, messy hair, bleached by age. An old, but well-kept pair of round glasses sat on his hawkish nose. The man kept constantly clasping his hands and smiling, which was somewhat…unnerving. His voice was a little hoarse from age, but still simmering with energy. "This XFJ Plan is one of the most ambitious projects our company has ever undertaken, and it might have a profound impact on the future of TSF development worldwide!" The man nearly cackled with glee. Meanwhile, Ibrahim politely coughed, reminding Heinemann that there was more to the meeting than his impending rambling.

"Ah-" the man paused. "I see I'm getting rude again. Well, at any rate, I hope we can achieve something truly remarkable in this project, and I look forward to working with all of you." The man then smiled wide to his audience, and took a step back, letting Ibrahim speak again.

"And with those pleasantries out of the way, we will be getting to work. The development schedule is tight, and we don't have a lot of time to get this team to synchronize. Thus, we're starting our exercises today; therefore we can start before the Japanese engineers assemble all their toys, and gather some extra data on your piloting to have the OS guys something to work with."

The Italian immediately raised his hand. "Sir!"

"Go ahead, Giacosa."

"Sir." The Italian smiled. "Are we going to infiltrate Lilford?" The Turkish CO shook his head, before smiling impishly.

"Something better. Case 47."

Case 47, Yuuya thought. A standard two-on-two combat exercise, fought under victory conditions of "complete annihilation", requiring both teams to continue fighting until they kill the other team. A textbook TSF exercise, good for relatively small units such as this. As Ibrahim proceeded to outline the details, Yuuya took a moment to analyze his situation. …Turkish CO. Italian, Swedish and Nepalese pilots. Japanese program manager. American test pilot and chief engineer. Everything organized in an ad-hoc fashion. Yuuya turned his attention to the digitalized display on the wall. Ibrahim's right in getting us training right off the bat, because getting this circus to work together will be a bitch. The question is, however, if we can actually work together under these circumstances.

As he caught the deepening frown on Manadal's face, and the porcelain mask of Lieutenant Takamura, he was certain that he would have to work for this paycheck.

And in retrospect, he should have just punched Sears in the face and taken the demotion.

Tarisa sighed as she felt the familiar rubbery material of her Reinforced Suit rub against her skin. Having fixed the suit's elastic material to the anti-G force collar, she brushed her chocolate hair, before picking up the hard, glossy shoulder pads, and affixing them to the suit. Although she tried to focus her entire attention onto the simple task, her thoughts were still wandering back towards the briefing…

She didn't like it. Not one bit. Sure, this "Yuuya Bridges" looked "man" enough to her, but she didn't like it that he was taking the Captain's place. Oh sure, Ibrahim was still technically in command, but he wouldn't be in the field – it would be Yuuya, which meant that during real exercises, he would be in charge. To her, that wasn't fair – Ibrahim was a good pilot, and even better commander. There wasn't (in her humble opinion) a reason for her Captain to be sidelined like this, except for petty politics.

She growled. The XFJ team wasn't in Yukon for even a whole week, and they was already walking around like they owned the place. Reassigning Ibrahim into a desk jockey was part of it; taking the best team, best hangars, technical teams – everything really- like they weren't a part of the team, but the team. It annoyed her greatly, like a perpetually scratching itch, one that she just couldn't scratch.

"Are you okay, 'Risa?" Stella's calm voice echoed from behind. Tarisa sighed. She was probably mumbling again, alerting her best friend.

"It's nothing Stella." Tarisa managed to keep her voice calm and neutral. "Just thinking about this latest assignment and all."

Stella nodded, as she dressed into her own Reinforced Suit. "Yes, yes. You do know that holding it in is…bad for you, yes?" Tarisa groaned again, this time loudly and consciously.

"Fine, fine!" She shot back, fixing her gloves. "It's just…I dunno how to put it – the whole thing – this entire assignment just stinks. First we have this Japanese Lieutenant and her team walking around like they own the place, just because Command's feeling considerate for once. Then, they put the Captain on the back seat, and expect us to take orders from some whelp from halfway across America. "

Stella sighed. "True enough, but that's the Big Leagues for you. XFJ is much more important that Phoenix was to Boening. Which is why the design team is running around with their heads held high; it's not every day that any national team gets so much support from both the UN and private industries." She paused for a bit. "That's not the real problem though, is it?"

Tarisa sighed, as she did final checks on her suit. "No, you're right, it's not. It's just…" Tarisa shrugged her arms. "It just bothers me! They sideline Ibrahim pretty much for a pretty face, they take over our development teams, they-"

"Ibrahim isn't being reassigned, you know," Stella gently interrupted her.

"But we both know that he isn't in command!" Tarisa whined. "Have you ever seen a squad CO being reassigned behind the desk, while his unit's out in the field? Because I sure haven't. Blimey, I can stand that Bridges guy alright, but there's this Jap-!" Tarisa bit her tongue as she slammed her locker shut, and leaned back against the door. "She was the one that put him behind the desk, and we both know it. It had to be her, because all personnel changes go through the Project Manager. And she doesn't even outrank him! Which is bad enough, but then this girl isn't even older than me!"

Stella laughed gently. "You do know that you don't exactly look old, Tarisa." The other girl grimaced at that. Sometimes, there were bad sides to appearing as a rather young lady.

"Yeah, but I'm legally 19, and turning 20 this year. This girl looks like she just finished the age when you trip over you own legs, and couldn't tell a cock from a banana. And we're supposed to listen to her as a commander? Now, I understand that this kind of shite flies in Japan. It has to, because of how their recruiting works, yaddayaddayadda. But this isn't Japan," Tarisa snarled, while Stella finally finished the checks on her own suit, and begun to close her locker. "Hell, my cousin works as a commo officer for one of those asshole COs in COSEAN. Keeps talking about how Japan always runs around like they own the place, and always fuck up defense priorities, because they believe that their precious isles should get priority. What priority? They've appropriated almost every resource short of press-ganging the 11th Pacific into the IJA, and it's still not enough! They can't do shit against BETA, and couldn't do since the Day One. And now, one of their princesses waltzes in through the front door, fucks with everything we worked with until now, and I'm supposed to keep quiet? The fuck is this!?"

Stella shook her head at her friend's outburst. Contrary to the best wishes of the Japanese Shogun and her foreign minister, the antipathy that virtually every regional power felt towards Imperial Japan was almost legendary, especially after the failed (and relatively inept) defense of her colonies. That meant that Takamura had to deal with that baggage even before she started work – but that also meant that she had to balance the relationship with her team,with the needs of the project. That couldn't have been easy, and from the one time Stella had seen Takamura Yui talk, she had felt that the girl would rather sacrifice her good image, than somehow delay her project. She could have been wrong, of course, but Stella was rarely wrong when it came to people.

She didn't approve of Takamura's approach of whipping the team under her wing straight away, but she could understand it.

"Now, now," she almost cooed to Tarisa. "I'm not saying that you don't make a point, but maybe she's just in a hurry? It can't be easy, having that much responsibility at such a young age. Maybe she just needs the time to adjust here, hmm?"

Tarisa grumbled again, with what might have been taken for "I'll see." With a great deal of imagination.

Argos Test Flight Hangar, same time

Yuuya rubbed his hand along the anti-G collar, as the mechanics worked across Ibrahim's F-15ACTV. While Yuuya had never piloted the F-15ACTV Active Eagle, from the manual he'd just read, it shouldn't be that difficult, especially after his experiences with the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-22 EMD Raptor, and the YF-23 Black Widow II. That was the great strength of the so-called "Teen Series" TSFs: compared to the old F-4 Phantom, they were easy and forgiving to fly, even for novice pilots. He was more anxious about his Reinforced Armor – the "flight suit". Conventional wisdom among the Surfies held that brand new suits would always take time to adjust to. Which was an unfortunate truth in this regard – the internal layout of UN's Reinforced Armor was subtly different from the one employed by US forces, which kept throwing his groove off. It just felt so similar, yet different. This also applied to the paint scheme, which would have been almost identical to USSF's colors, were it not for the idiotic green trim and this ridiculous shade of purple…

"It's a long way from home, huh?"

The melodic voice behind him wasn't Vincent's. Turning around, Yuuya spotted Valerio Giacosa, now with his hair tied into a loose ponytail, clad in his own Reinforced Armor.

"So…" Valerio drawled conversationally, as he approached Yuuya. "What brings America's top ace all the way out here?" His face broke into a grin. "Some woman, perhaps?"

Instantly, Yuuya felt that he had run into an even worse maniac than Max, if that was even physically possible. "Sadly no," he snorted mirthlessly. "Orders."

"Ah." Valerio nodded sagely. His voice was still eerily familiar, though Yuuya couldn't recall from where. "Being too good to discharge, but too much pain-in-the-ass for the brass to ignore, huh?"

This time, Yuuya managed to chuckle. "If they did get pissed off enough to send me to Alaska, then at least I'd have the satisfaction of doing something right. Sadly, not even that. Some Japanese desk jokey decided that this is where they want me, and voila! Here I am." Yuuya paused. "No offense or anything, I honestly have no idea of what's going on – a few days ago, I was sitting in a classroom, preparing a bunch of kids to fight BETA. Now I'm here, a million goddamn miles from home, while my students are out there somewhere, dropping into the unknown." Yuuya paused momentarily, suddenly becoming perfectly aware that he might have said a little too much.

Valerio's face remained neutral however – his green eyes were equally impassive, but from their sparkle, Yuuya could tell: he was being observed.

"So, that STAB thing-"

"Yeah, pretty much all of it was true," Yuuya nodded. "My old unit is still being reorganized, and the few old timers that are left… well, we're all pretty much instructors now. Someone has to show the kids the ropes, right?" Valerio nodded. "It's not my favorite pair of shoes, so to speak, but if it helps, I'll do it. I-I have to do it." Yuuya added more quietly. "I don't have to like it, I just have to do it."

"Because you promised," Valerio interrupted sagely. Yuuya blinked, but there was nothing that followed. Valerio merely shook his head, and smiled sadly. This man, Yuuya thought. This man is sharp.


Right, back from introspection, and into reality.

Almost immediately after the expletive, Yuuya heard the angry thumping of boots to his right. Turning slightly and lowering his gaze, he found himself staring eye-to-eye with Tarisa Manandal.

"I'm sorry?" Yuuya involuntarily stammered. Seeing Tarisa tense up, he immediately decided that was the wrong thing to say.

"I'm sorry? I'm sorry? Oh, I will see you sorry, you American twat!" The girl snarled, shrugging off her friend's (Stella, wasn't it?) hand as she came up behind the little spitfire. "You think you can just waltz in here and take everything you want? Well, not on my watch! You are not taking the Captain's Eagle!"

Yuuya frowned. He was afraid precisely of this, and knew that sooner or later he would have to deal with this kind of situation – he just hoped it could have been later, rather than right now.

Putting Yuuya into Ibrahim's old slot of Argos One was simply returning Argos Flight to the status quo. Ibrahim had been a very hands-on pilot and leader, and so wore the hats of Argos Flight's commanding officer and chief test pilot. This was in contrast to the other UN test flights at Yukon Base, but Ibrahim had made it work. Now that Yuuya had arrived, Ibrahim was merely going back to wearing one hat as CO. That transition would have had its challenges – Argos were a close-knit team, as loyal to their leader as Yuuya's flight had been to Bishop – but those challenges could have been handled easily, if not for another issue.

It was an open secret that retaining Ibrahim as Argos' CO was a legal fiction. The Turk had been effectively removed from command, relegated to being the de facto XO of his unit; his role was purely administrative. Regardless of what the organization chart said, Takamura was the real CO of Argos Flight, despite the fact that there should have been no way for the girl to have seniority over Ibrahim. But such was the reality of international politics – the Japanese demanded the best test unit for the XFJ Plan, and there simply wasn't enough time to assemble a new test flight around Takamura as CO and Yuuya as chief test pilot.

Which lead to this mess.

Yuuya was aware that Argos Flight would be perceiving events as Ibrahim being sidelined twice, with Yuuya and Takamura replacing him and shunting him aside. Takamura might be more or less distant from the feelings of her pilots, but as flight leader and chief test pilot, it would be Yuuya who would have to deal with the resulting hostility for replacing Ibrahim, especially since he would be the only outlet available to Argos Flight.

He took a deep breath, as he evaluated the situation. Tarisa was fuming in front of him, her armored foot dangerously close to his own. The Swedish blond –Stella –was trying to pry Tarisa away, with an apologetic look on her face, though there was also a sliver of interest in her eyes, as to how Yuuya would handle this. Valerio seemed impassive once again, doing his best to be engaged in everything but the oncoming argument.

Yuuya was acutely aware that whatever he said would have a decisive effect on his team here. He had to be decisive, yet crafty. Apologetic, but determined.

Easy, right?

"So what would you have me do, exactly?" Yuuya finally asked, with as neutral a tone as he could possibly muster. "Because in case you didn't notice, we have a sortie in half an hour, and I'd hate to explain to my CO that I was late because my wingman had a temper tantrum."

Despite Tarisa's dark skin, he could see blood rushing to her cheeks. "Why YOU-!"

"I AM NOT FINISHED!" Yuuya's voice was like thunderclap, and Tarisa's shout died on her lips, while her face had a look of complete astonishment. "Maybe you didn't know, but flying halfway across the country, leaving my teammates and trainees so that somebody could watch a free airshow while causing complete bullshit in the chain of command, is not my definition of "fun"." Yuuya's voice still retained its neutral tone, but there was now an edge to it, an edge usually reserved for particularly dumb and unfortunate STAB trainees.

"So don't give me all this shit." He paused, taking a breath. "Personally? I can understand you. Hell, I even agree with you. But in case you haven't noticed, I'm just following orders here – something, in case you don't know, is in our job description." Yuuya's face now smirked just slightly. "And just so we're clear – the orders to pilot the F-15ACTV in today's exercise came straight from my CO – who just happens to be one First Lieutenant Ibrahim Dogulu!"

Yuuya watched as blood drained from Tarisa's face. "So if you have a problem with our unit assignments, take it up with him. Because I am not defying my CO's orders because some girl's on her period. And just between us –" Yuuya lowered his voice. "I'd like to see his face if you do actually go through with this. Because it was his idea in the first place. Just so we're clear." He managed to somehow refrain from flashing his teeth, waiting while Tarisa regained the ability to use articulated speech.

"...Fine." She finally admitted. "You're off the hook for this one. But don't think that we're through yet, Yank!" She snarled quietly. "I'll be watching you!" With that, she jabbed a lone finger at his chest, before turning and marching off in wide strides. Her friend muttered an apology, before running right after her.

Yuuya sighed. Perhaps that was too decisive. He could tell that the issue was far from settled – though, at least Tarisa had (informally) agreed to wait until the end of exercise. Or at least, so Yuuya hoped.

Sighing again, he turned to Valerio, hoping to dispel the uncomfortable silence that followed the argument.

"So, she's always like that?" he asked. Valerio turned to face him, his face a curious mix of interest, awe and...respect?

"Yeah," the Italian smiled. "Pretty much." Seeing Yuuya groan, Valerio's smile only got wider. "Don't worry about it though. Tarisa is…shy around strangers, I guess? Doesn't work well with people she doesn't know. That's just the way she is, and nobody has managed to completely break her out of it." The Italian slapped his back for reassurance. "Give her some time, okay?"

Yuuya nodded, hoping it would be that easy. Meanwhile, he had a manual to study.

Several hours later, Yukon Base, Command Room No.4

The No.4 Command Room was in a state of organized chaos, as UN personnel scurried around, organizing the upcoming exercise, and preparing the necessary instruments and devices to record it. The TSFs were already in flight, though it would be still several minutes before they reached the (quite massive) testing range, which the command and control team used to refine their plans, and re-check their stations.

Ibrahim nodded as he returned a brief report to one of the bridge bunnies. Technically he wasn't in charge of the exercises; that was the domain of First Lieutenant Takamura, who was the one to propose the exercises in the first place. However, the girl had been prudent enough to leave virtually all of organizing - the executive officer's work, so to speak - entirely to Ibrahim and his subordinates.

On one hand, it was heartening to know that his commander trusted (or at very least, valued) his skills enough to have him carry out this task by himself, and was engaging him as her de facto second-in-command. It was still a virtual demotion, but it was also better than being left to rot in an empty office, and to be honest, even if the situation was different, Ibrahim would probably still be assisting her anyway. On the other hand, Ibrahim wished that she'd pay more attention to the entire organization –after she had given the orders, Takamura had disappeared like a vodka bottle in a Russian camp. Everyone was sure she was just around the corner… except that nobody could quite catch her.

Ibrahim suspected that it had to do at least partially with her responsibilities as the project manager of XFJ Plan. Takamura was a combat pilot alright, but it was evident from her files that she had spent more than the last year-and-a-half with an R&D team. She seemed completely absorbed in the technical specifications and manuals. If he didn't know better, he'd mistake her for an engineer.

On one hand, he could understand that her work had simply kept her busy at this time…but if that would be a regular occurrence, there was no point in making her the Test Team Leader at the same time.

Usually, a standard development team would have three layers of administration: the Test Team Leader (responsible for actual hands-on flight testing and piloting), the Project Manager (who oversaw the research, development, testing & evaluation aspects of the project) and the Third Party Element, that being usually the liaison of either the country or company that helped to fund or back the project (in this case, Boening's Frank Heinemann).

In XFJ, the first two layers were merged into the person of 1st Lt. Takamura, who effectively held the dual posts of Test Team Leader and Project Manager. It was a result of Japanese demands; their government insisted that the Project Manager should have command authority over the test pilots.

It made a certain amount of sense if you really thought about it: By combining the posts, Japan was making sure that the test pilots were always up to date on the results of engineers' work and their needs, while the engineers would have an easier time getting feedback from the pilots. But it also meant that whichever person wearing both hats would be under immense pressure – there just physically wasn't enough time for one person to handle program development and test flight command matters at the same time.

Unfortunately, Japan insisted, and the UN and the US didn't care. Which lead to the absurd situation of Ibrahim being in command of Argos Flight on paper, but in reality a glorified executive officer – and even that was only by the grace of Lt. Takamura. Not only that, but now that Argos was up to full strength, it was no longer necessary for Ibrahim to wear the hats of Argos Flight CO and chief test pilot, which meant that he was stuck flying a desk.

He worried that the mess would adversely affect the team's morale (if it hadn't already, given Manandal's recent mood); they wouldn't react too well to being treated as mere cogs in a machine by two entirely different nations. That Takamura had so far refrained from fraternizing with the team did not bode well for the future.

He sighed. In the end, they didn't have the time to screw around with this. They would just have to learn to deal and live with each other on the go, and hope that it wouldn't adversely affect their work. They would succeed at that.

Or die trying, so to speak.

Before him, the bridge bunnies reported the TSFs' readiness to launch, and Ibrahim tore his mind away from those thoughts and focused on the upcoming exercise, just as both Takamura and Heinemann wordlessly entered the control room.

Yukon Base Test Range

Yuuya quietly sighed, as his TSF walked through the impressive replica of a ruined town, which served as one of Yukon Base's chief proving grounds. The enemy element was still staying silent, which meant that he and his partner had nothing to do…except to search, and hope that they weren't spotted first.

Thank God for small favors, at least: Ibrahim had seen fit to assign Tarisa to a different element. Yuuya had no idea on how to crack the girl's shell right now…and he honestly didn't want to worry about her shooting him in the back during the exercises. While that rarely happened, and was considered to be a universally dick move by all surfies, Tarisa might not be feeling entirely rational today…especially after that whole crash business.

"Argos 4 to Argos 1, I still haven't located them..." Stella Bremer's voice broke through the oppressive silence. "…but there are a lot of noisemakers and =ECM buoys around the area. The filtering just can't keep up."

"So we'll have to rely on our optics, huh?" Yuuya idly replied, while moving the Active Eagle behind a generic housing project. He paused for a second. Out of all people in the Argos Test Flight, he knew Stella the least, having met her only during the briefing and when Tarisa jumped him in the hangar. For the most part, she seemed like the quiet professional type, the kind ideal for mentoring or a senior NCO's slot. But she was also apparently Tarisa's confidant, or at least a good friend.

Yuuya bit his lip. On one hand, he didn't want to imply that he didn't trust his wing-woman, because that opened an entirely new can of worms. But on the other hand, he needed to make it clear that he would not be fucked with, just because some brasshole across the Pacific decided to serve up an extra helping of legal bullshit.

"Lt. Bremer, a word, if you will," he started neutrally, in a quiet voice, as his partner prepared to disconnect from the com. Seeing Stella's questioning face on his HUD, Yuuya released the breath he didn't knew he was holding, and proceeded. "I'm planning on winning here, alright?"

There, short, concise, and not completely dickish. I don't trust you, and I don't know what you can do. But I will not let it slide if you try to backstab me. So let's try and work together.

There might have been a thousand thoughts that flew in the blonde's head in the next few seconds; a thousand answers she could have used. In the end however, Stella settled for a simple light smile. "I am a Surface Pilot. Naturally, I play to win."

Don't worry. That would be beneath me. Do your job, and I will do mine.

She could have been lying, Yuuya thought, but at the same time, something in her face, and tone of voice whispered to him that it wasn't the case. Or maybe she was just that attractive. Women, you know?

Respectfully nodding to her, Yuuya cut the communication, and pressed his Active closer to the ruined apartment block. With his "back" secured, he could now focus on his real task.

Thanking whoever had enough sense to add multiple cameras – not all of them mounted on the head – he peered from behind the building, a new HUD windows showing the visualization of the terrain ahead of him, as seen by one of the finger-mounted cameras. The area looked clear, filled only by desolate, tightly-knit streets, occasional bits of debris and clear spaces that he presumed were meant to represent city parks. Despite that, he remained tense. After all, it was his own maxim that said "Nothing on the battlefield is certain." It was also the first and the only rule he taught at STAB.

So he wasn't particularly surprised when his lock-on warning blared, and his HUD rapidly outlined a target behind his back. Pushing on his flight sticks and pedals, Yuuya immediately hit his jump engines, boosting out of cover, centimetres ahead of the incoming bullets.

"Why don't we get this started, Top Gun?" Valerio challenged on the open channel, as his Strike Eagle raced just above the buildings, trying to pepper Yuuya with training 36mm rounds.

Yuuya grunted as the G-forces slammed at him, as the Active accelerated through the streets. The superior speed and acceleration had given him an advantage, but it was achieved mostly through the two extra engines mounted to the back – which eliminated two mount pylons from the Active, along with their attendant AMWS-21s, which naturally limited Yuuya's options when dealing with his pursuers.

Luckily, he had been scouring this area for a while longer, so it wasn't too difficult to finally run into one of those "mock parks" – really empty concrete rectangular spaces. With superior speed and thrust vectoring, Yuuya expertly flipped his F-15ACTV, taking only several glancing hits from Valerio's rounds. Not waiting for the FCS to acquire lock, Yuuya snapped off a burst. The rounds cut through the air next to the Italian's Eagle, missing it, but he did succeed in forcing Valerio to break off. No longer under fire, Yuuya had several seconds of breathing room, using them to jump and hover in-between buildings, trying to get a good lock.

"Who you're calling a Top Gun!?" Yuuya muttered, as the targeting reticule turned from yellow to crimson. If there was one thing consistent about the US Armed Forces, it was that no-one could mockingly mistake your service and get away with it. Like calling Marines Navy. It was a heresy. And heresy had to be paid in blood.

A stream of rounds streaked from the two AMWS-21s, scoring several glancing hits on the opposing F-15E, before Valerio executed a difficult vertical roll, finishing it with a side-boost, swiftly rolling out of the field of fire.

"What's this?" He jokingly taunted. "I thought American shooting was supposed to be without peer?"

Yuuya moved again, swiftly manoeuvring around the buildings to get yet another clean shot. "Why don't you come down and see for yourself?" His statement was punctuated by several bursts from both of his AMWS-21s, enveloping Valerio's F-15E in a stream of tracers. But despite this, the man quickly and precisely twisted his TSF, opening and closing flaps and playing with the throttle, causing his Eagle to juke with random movements. Several rounds glanced on him again, but none managed to score a solid hit.

Such fluid manoeuvres in closed space. Yuuya's mind noted, as he brought his F-15 in. This guy…this guy is good.

Suddenly, the Strike Eagle dropped like a rock, its boost engines only firing up just as it was about to hit the ground, making a beeline straight for Yuuya.

He frowned. While he still wasn't able to completely master the Active's advantages, he had much more power than the Strike Eagle. Rushing in like that was dangerous, and reckless. Unless…

Grinning, Yuuya rotated his own thrusters into reverse, kicking up a huge plume of dust, temporarily shielding himself from visual lock-on. Dropping his altitude, he slid into one of the alleyways, making top speed towards the closest noisemaker.

With a fluid motion, the F-15ACTV hopped into one of the dead end streets, filled with a bunch of sonic thumpers and a big infrared lamp. Idly reloading his guns, Yuuya opened the comms, as he watched Valerio's Strike Eagle race just past him, its momentum apparently too great, and his sensors too overloaded to spot him.

"You know," Yuuya begun conversationally, "I'm surprised you're the Vanguard. I thought the little Tigress would want to get up close and personal."

With that, he pushed his Active out of cover, holding both his AMWS-21 assault cannons towards either side.

And sure enough, there was an ambush waiting for him.

With a vicious yell, Tarisa descended on her prey, the four assault cannons of her Strike Eagle roaring in unison. But that yell turned into a sour grunt as Yuuya's Active jumped, narrowly avoiding her shots, before firing off his own salvo. A quick boost to the left allowed Tarisa to avoid it, but at the cost of her own lock-on.

Meanwhile, Valerio brought his own Strike Eagle around, jumping atop of another building, and tried to suppress Yuuya with massed fire from all four Assault Cannons. Grunting, Yuuya pulled back, but not before several bullets hit him.

"Argos 1." The voice of one of the bridge bunnies, almost absurdly young and too stoic in quality, rang out in his headset. "Damage to Right Arm. Effectiveness decreased by 25%. Superficial damage to outer armor."

Yuuya bit back a curse as he increased his altitude, firing off several shots towards both of his adversaries, all of them missing.

Fuck. Outgunned alright, Yuuya thought bitterly. Well, there was only one more card left to play.

Run away.

Pulling on his flight sticks, Yuuya entered into a tight turn – before shoving his throttle wide open. The Active Eagle's engines roared at full power, and the TSF jumped ahead, just ahead of his opponents' radar spikes. Mock 36mm rounds trailed after him, staining the ground in bright pink.

"Guess you're just elite in running away, huh?" Tarisa taunted over the open channel, as the two Strike Eagles followed him in. Smiling, Yuuya decreased his altitude, and moved towards yet another open park. Meanwhile, the OPFOR element gained altitude, hoping to just smother Yuuya with suppressing fire from above.

Big mistake.

They only got a second of warning as a pair of 120mm rounds tore through the air around them, Valerio's TSF narrowly evading by pulling back into reverse flight.

"Oh my~" A sultry voice sang out over the open channel. "I missed?"

Not waiting for a reply, Stella hit the boosters on her Strike Eagle, leaping off the building on which she was perched. Meanwhile, with his pursuers distracted, Yuuya brutally whipped his Active around, relying more on thrust and engine power than the much-touted thrust vectoring and control surfaces. He winced as the excessive G-forces pressed him into his seat. Perhaps it was a combination of a new Reinforced Armor suit and a new TSF, but to Yuuya the G-forces were far greater then when he piloted the Raptor or Black Widow. However, he was able to complete his turn, and orient with maximum speed towards his opponents.

"Now it's our turn!" he shouted, bringing his own Assault Cannons to bear, firing off a couple of 120mm rounds, and a burst of 36mm. Snarling, Tarisa dove into the streets, avoiding the 120mm paint round that virtually pulverized the upper level of store she was hiding behind. Meanwhile, Valerio instinctively pulled up, avoiding the first barrage.

But Yuuya was prepared for that.

Immediately raising his left Assault Cannon slightly higher, he pulled the trigger, banking on months spent as a STAB instructor and his own combat experience. A burst of 36mm fire cut close to Valerio, before several rounds impacted his legs and right engine.

While his armor physically shrugged off the training rounds, according to the sweet voice of yet another operator, Valerio's engine was hit straight on, suffering moderate damage. The Strike Eagle's computers immediately reduced the engine's power, simulating the damage received. Satisfied with his work, Yuuya moved on, dodging yet more shots from Tarisa, who was also trying to take potshots at Stella; their TSFs dancing through the city, trading bursts of fire.

"God damn it!" Tarisa whined over the still open-channel comms. "I can't fight like this! VG, go and cover Stella. I've got this guy!"

"Right, right. As you wish," Valerio drawled, as his Strike Eagle limped away. Meanwhile, Yuuya dove into another alley, putting more distance between himself and Tarisa.

"You heard, Stella?" Yuuya asked over his element's tactical net, momentarily forgetting about the rank pleasantries.

"Copy." The Swede was almost positively gleeful. "I can handle him in this state. Don't worry about it."

"Right." He nodded as he dashed behind another building, this time avoiding a 120mm shot. "I'm counting on you!"

"Argos 3 and 4 are now entering sector D…" One of the bridge technicians reported.

"Argos 2, 500 rounds remaining," another spoke into her headset, while updating the computer readouts.

"Aaaaarrrggghhh!" Tarisa's frustrated voice rang over the comms. "Why can't I just hit the bloody cocksucker!"

The command trio of the XFJ Plan watched the excercise from the back of the room. For the time being, Takamura had yet to say anything, instead silently observing the large LCD screens with her cold, violet eyes. Heineman, however, was a different story.

"I must say, this is quite impressive." Heineman's usually high-pitched voice was oddly quiet. "Lt. Bridges is performing just as the reports said…or maybe even better. I can see why Brigadier General Bishop put so much faith in him."

Ibrahim nodded as he observed the screen. Truth be told, Yuuya had performed fantastically, given that it was his first time piloting an F-15ACTV, and he was fighting in an unfamiliar environment, with a teammate he had never worked with before. Impressive work indeed. But the fight was far from over.

"He's doing well," Ibrahim said noncommittally. "But this is not an ideal situation he's in." He smiled wryly. "You see, 2nd Lt. Manandal is a renowned expert when it comes to close-range dogfighting…" Heinemann only nodded in understanding.

Meanwhile, Yui carefully observed the readouts, and listened to tactical chatter from both teams. This was the only chance she would have to watch her lead pilot in action, before the project started, and she would have to make the most of it.

So far, she had to grudgingly admit that he was good. Very good. Perhaps not on the level of General Ikaruga and his 16thGuards Battalion, but close. That, in itself, was good news.

But there is more to him, She observed, as he made several fast-paced feints across the battlefield, before attacking Tarisa up close. The Nepalase pilot only narrowly avoided being seriously hit, and failed to meaningfully counter attack. He's…aggressive? No, that is not completely correct…He's unconventional. Unpredictable.

And that, could be a problem.

She was not so naïve to think that everything could be solved by the book, or by just obeying rules. But that didn't decrease their importance…or the adherence of her superiors to them. She had to handle the XFJ Plan flawlessly – its support in the Ministry was tentative at best, and support from the Imperial Royal Guard was limited by the organization's infighting. Literally anything that could be used as an excuse to hamper her project was being used.

She bit her lip as she observed the progressing battle. As much as she respected Bridges' individual capability, she could not afford for him to become a problem, even potentially…

And if a few harsh words had to be used to motivate him to do what XFJ needed, then what of it?

Meanwhile, the two flight pairs continued to exchange fire.

While Yuuya raced in-between buildings, avoiding Tarisa's wave of fire, Valerio closely followed after Stella, trying to get a good lock on his Swedish teammate.

"Now." He smiled almost greedily. "That's the kind of tail I like to chase."

Stella laughed as she heard the remark over the open channel. "It's going to cost you, you know," she shot back, as her Eagle dove into a street in between two noisemakers. Valerio fired a short burst, hitting everything but his target.

"Oh, I know. It always does."

Meanwhile, Tarisa was giving her utmost efforts to make Yuuya's life difficult.

While her Strike Eagle lacked the power to overtake the Active in level flight, she made up for it by having four assault cannons, allowing her to lay down a greater volume and wider angle of fire. It also made her harder to approach, as the Strike Eagle's gun arcs covered almost a complete 360 degree circle around her, while Active's design limitations meant that Yuuya had only the two assault cannons he started with and his knives, limiting his field of fire to 180 degrees in front of him. Well, one assault cannon now – the other had been spent through the many bursts that he fired to just delay Tarisa, with the frenetic pace of combat and lack of secondary arm manipulators denying him the opportunity to reload.

Luckily, it seemed that Tarisa's heavy trigger finger was finally turning the tide of battle in his favour. A Strike Eagle could, at maximum, carry eight spare 2000-round magazines for 4 assault cannons, in addition to the magazines already loaded and a pair of combat knives. In layman's terms, Tarisa had enough 36mm rounds alone to level a small building into a pile of dust – if not an entire city block.

However, her rate of fire meant that she was rapidly depleting her ammo, while failing to score good, effective hits that could "damage" his TSF.

Ducking behind yet another building, Yuuya spotted from one of his frame-mounted cameras that Tarisa ejected one of the Mount-Pylon attached rifles, apparently completely spent of ammunition; while reloading another in her hand.

Grinning, Yuuya quickly selected the semi-automatic firing mode on his remaining assault cannon.

Time to even the score some more.

He dashed from behind the building, going airborne via a full-boost jump. The delay in his opponent's reaction was momentary, but it was all he needed. Tarisa tried to intercept him with her right Assault Cannon, but his Active was faster than her FCS, and the training rounds hit nothing but air.

Quickly bringing his gun to bear, Yuuya executed the fire plan he had mastered long ago in flight school. With pin-point shots, he aimed at the weak points in Strike Eagle's arm. At their combined closure speeds, several shots still managed to miss, harmlessly impacting the craft's main armour. But the rest found their mark, and the melodious voice of his operator confirmed the effective hits. Seconds later, she was joined by yet another curse from Tarisa, as she dropped her left-handed AMWS, now covered in gooey pink paint.

"Alright, you Yankee fuck." She snarled through clenched teeth. "Time to get serious". With a speed much faster than Yuuya thought was possible, Tarisa pivoted her TSF in the air, while deploying the PB blades. The large bowie-type knives gleamed in sunlight, as Tarisa subtly adjusted her elevation to fly right above Yuuya…just so she could skewer him from above.

Cursing, Yuuya banked hard to the right, heading towards the nearest open area. However, Tarisa wasn't letting up, briefly accelerating, momentarily neck-to-neck with her faster prey.

Acting on instinct, Yuuya flipped his TSF onto its back, and threw his last remaining rifle at Tarisa. Proximity alerts sounded as she knocked the projectile out of its path with her TSF's hand, while Yuuya quickly executed a full-boost jump into the air. Tarisa quickly followed, and the air was filled with an unholy roar, as several pairs of engines tried to tear the sky with their plumes of fire.

Yuuya's brow furrowed as he checked his six. He had faster acceleration than an F-15E, but Tarisa was not that far behind him, and moreover, she had jettisoned her remaining rifles and munitions storage blocks – making her Strike Eagle lighter, and thus faster and more manueverable. Not only that, by not following after Yuuya immediately after his mid-air jump, she was able to utilize his speed against him, as his TSF actually jumped right into her forward sights.

This girl could think when it counted.

Yuuya quickly evaluated his surroundings, trying to find anything to his advantage. As his eyes briefly skimmed over the altimeter on his HUD, Yuuya realized something.

The Hard Deck!

In all training flights, the Hard Deck – otherwise known as the "Minimum Safe Altitude" – was the altitude level where, if breached, the exercise would be terminated. In basic flight training, this was a safety margin to reduce the risks to nugget pilots practising manuevers. In combat training, the Hard Deck took a different purpose, simulating the presence of Laser-class BETA: any pilot breaching the altitude restriction would be considered "killed" by presumed Laser-class BETA.

As a general rule, surface pilots were taught to avoid it at all costs; but the Hard Deck, in its pursuit of realism, was also programmed with drawbacks – for example, the majority of JIVES simulations gave a 12-second delay before the TSF was considered "shot down", this being the shortest possible charge delay for any Laser-class BETA (ignoring the possibility of BETA keeping the lasers "warmed up", as it were). For a skilled - and crazy enough - pilot, those twelve seconds could be priceless…

Pulling hard on his sticks, Yuuya braked his Active, almost stalling in mid-air, before firewalling his throttle. The Active's engines exploded with a flood of power, pushing well into safety limits, and rapidly eating his fuel reserve, as his TSF executed a manoeuvre almost forgotten by mankind – the Immelmann Turn.

"Shite," Tarisa muttered, as she suddenly overshot her would-be target. Pulling hard on her breaks, she opened the flaps with several practiced commands, causing the Eagle to roll horizontally.

"No man will get behind me!" She boasted, as her machine rotated to put Yuuya back into her sights.

For his part, Yuuya could only smile, as the huge G-forces squashed him, even with the Reinforced Suit. Pushing the Active to its limits, Yuuya killed his main engines, using to his auxiliary thrusters to reorient his TSF towards the ground, all the while falling like a metaphorical rock. Yuuya grunted as he continued to play with his controls: the little imperfections in his manoeuvring caused him to fall at the wrong angle, forcing him to compensate with the Active's main attribute – its tremendous velocity.

The Active Eagle roared for the final time, as Yuuya's engines burned through fuel almost as fast as the Black Widow 2. The TSF cut a swift descent through air, while deploying its PB blades. In front of it, Tarisa slowly came into view, her Strike Eagle just finishing its rotation.

Yuuya finally gathered a breath to speak.

"I've seen this trick before," he croaked.

And then, he unceremoniously crashed into her.

Valerio grit his teeth as his Mount Pylons dropped the two empty Assault Cannons. With the mobility of his Strike Eagle hampered by the damage he took from Yuuya, Valerio decided to play more defensively, using cover and the sheer volume of fire available to his standard F-15E.

However, this was paid for by giving the tactical initiative to Stella, who was doing a spectacularly good job of avoiding being hit, especially for someone who served as a marksman, not a dogfighter.

But then again, she is a test pilot…

His proximity alerts blared yet again, interrupting his musings, as Stella descended from behind one of the desolate housing projects. Banking hard to the left, Valerio managed to avoid being hit. Completing his turn, the TSF pivoted 180 degrees, allowing him to fire at Stella's retreating back. Several rounds scratched the armor, and Valerio grinned as he saw Stella lowering her altitude into the convoluted streets below.

Unlike the other portion of the training area, this one was quite old, dating back to the very foundation of Yukon Base, and as such, it was showing a lot of signs of wear and tear. Simple concrete buildings, raised mainly as environmental features, rather than permanent human dwellings, were slowly collapsing, while some already had, ruining the mock streets below. This meant that ground maps were unreliable, while sensors were overwhelmed by still-working noisemakers.

While Stella might have zoomed and boomed over Valerio before, she had now made a mistake – her superior speed would count for little in such a place.

Catching a glimpse of his Swedish comrade, Valerio boost-jumped at an angle over a row of stores, landing right behind Stella. She swung around to face him, but Valerio was already moving, and when her right assault cannon fired, it's chaingun runs ripped only air. Valerio fired off only a few shots himself, all too aware that he was reaching the limits of Eagle's otherwise impressive ammo capacity. He had to win this, and fast.

As one of the rounds struck her shoulder, Stella ducked into another alleyway, trying to escape the Italian.

"Women hate persistent guys, VG," she chided over the comms.

"I was like this ever since I was born, I can't help it,." Valerio swiftly retorted, while carefully manoeuvring through the damaged alley, pieces of broken buildings obscuring his path. As he reached a junction, he noticed Stella hurriedly jumping into another street.

Activating his targeting systems, Valverio grinned. At such a short range, jamming wouldn't matter – Stella's signal would be easy enough to filter out and follow. And sure enough, the crimson reticule easily followed around the corner, before stopping. VG fed full power to his engines (or as much as he could, at any rate), while setting his guns to full auto. He would finish this up close and personal.

"Inviting me again?" He teased, with his Strike Eagle seconds away from the junction. "Or did you give up already?"

His Strike Eagle sharply turned to the right, coming face to face with a modern, military "noisemaker" – a combination of seismic thumper, IR lamp and a poorly-shielded generator.

How the hell did this get here!? VG's mind screamed in panic. Outwardly, he sighed. "Whelp. Sorry Tarisa. The rest is up to you."

After all that, the dull thump of paint rounds hitting his TSF felt anticlimactic.

As Stella's guns repainted her adversary, she grinned. Truth be told, she wasn't just playing around with Valerio, but was instead using her passes over his position to give time for her computer to update the terrain map, and localise the noisemakers…and get a feel for the terrain, which VG gave up when he switched to defense. Once she'd found a good ambush position, it was only a matter of using her piloting skills – and a little bit of personal charm – to lure him in, and finish him off.

But she didn't have the time to enjoy her victory. Yuuya was fighting Tarisa, and the Swedish bombshell was sure that her petite friend was not making it easy on him.

Yuuya groaned as he stabilized his Active Eagle. This was far from a perfect landing…although he was at least alive. He frowned as damage reports begun to flood through the comms. Despite being caught by complete surprise, Tarisa was still able to (virtually) stab her knife into his left arm, and the computers had decided that it did more damage than Yuuya thought it would – while the arm was not completely disabled, its performance has been lowered so much, that it might as well not be there. And that was without mentioning the very real damage he took, when the two TSFs unceremoniously crashed into the ground. The safety limits on the leg actuators had been long-since exceeded, and he couldn't accurately tell at this point when they'd simply refuse to work.

But, his mind rationalized, She has to be in even worse shape.

And indeed, Tarisa's TSF was only now raising itself from the small cloud of dust, visibly sluggish and crude in its movements. But it didn't make it any less dangerous.

Yuuya bit his lip as the Strike Eagle assumed an attack stance, firmly cradling its remaining knife in both hands, preparing for a dashing strike towards Yuuya's centre of mass. Even with all her damage, his opponent wasn't quitting.

The other TSF dashed towards him, leaping off its overstressed legs. Meanwhile, Yuuya desperately hovered sideways with his boosters, trying to keep his craft relatively level.

He managed to turn his craft at the last second, letting Tarisa pass him without scoring a hit. As the heavy TSF stomped onto the ground, he lashed out with his working arm, thrusting his blade towards the Eagle's neck. Before it could connect however, it's greenish arm rose, and the specially dulled blade harmlessly bounced off it. Acting almost instantly, as if on instinct, Yuuya maneuvered his machine to present his unresponsive arm to Tarisa, just as she launched her counter. This time, her own blade bounced off the Active's armor. As she pulled her arm back, Yuuya moved to flip his knife into a reverse grip, while carefully eyeing his opponent.

It would appear that she's finally fighting seriously, Yuuya grimly thought, as he observed his oponent's careful movements. She's well drilled in this, and obviously good. Our damage also appears to be around equal, which in the long run, gives me a disadvantage. Yuuya furrowed his brows. He had managed to stall his opponent, but it would appear that he wasn't able to defeat her, at least in present conditions. C'mon Swedish sweetie, don't leave me hanging here…

Tarisa panted heavily, her head still ringing from the crash.

She would never admit it out loud, but this guy was good. In fact, far better in CQC then an American should be.

She pulled back, eyeing her enemy, looking out for an opening. The usage of his left arm as an impromptu shield was unconventional, but very effective – the arm appeared to be disabled, but it was still carrying several centimetres of military-grade composite armour. And with only one knife left, Tarisa could attack only from one vector.

Frowning, she slowly backed up, thinking. The enemy's guard was first-rate, and she'd waste too much energy trying to break through it.

So instead, she provoked him.

Backing up, Tarisa drew her arm back in a motion similar to one with which she launched her previous attack…and smiled as her opponent launched his pre-emptive counter. Grunting, she moved her right arm, blocking his knife arm as it descended. The downward-pointing knife cut into her armor. The two were locked once again.

And then, she dropped her knife.

With careful, practiced motions, which she had trained ever since the boot camp on the Andaman Islands, she released her PB Knife, letting it fall horizontally into her open left hand. As she reflexively closed it on the falling item, she jerked her Strike Eagle, pulling it into a tight turn.

The American realized what was going on, and tried to pull back, but it was too late. Tarisa finished her pirouette, and the knife raced out in a classic fencing motion, driving ahead of her. With Active Eagle's pilot struggling to control the thrust vectoring engines, the glancing blow proved too much for the auto balancing system, and the machine tumbled to the ground.

Tarisa grinned. It was over.

"Well-" She finally spoke into her mic, "-that wasn't half-bad, Yank. I'll even give you credit for getting in behind me." She flashed him a predatory smile. "But in the end, CQC is my turf. And thus, you should always bet on-"

As her knife drew back to make the killing blow, only one word served as a warning.


With her attention focused elsewhere, her sensors still going crazy from the fall and boosters running cold, Tarisa had no chance to avoid the two 120mm rounds, which ended her short (simulated) life, and along with it, the exercise.

Two hours later

"Thanks for bringing her out in the open," Stella smiled at her newfound partner. The sun was slowly setting over Yukon, casting a gentle, orange light.

The exercise was completed, and the team was now relaxing in front of the hangars, before the formal debrief and the obligatory trips to life support shops (and bathrooms).

Yuuya, still looking over the horizon, waved off the praise. "It was nothing. Rather, thanks for making it there on time." Yuuya turned back to her, and smiled. Behind him, he heard a snigger.

"So you trusted Stella, despite never working with her before? You are a brave, brave man." Valerio's voice was relaxed as always. Yuuya shook his head.

"You'd be amazed on what people with a common goal can do." He replied. The Italian nodded at his words, before poking his comrade, still sitting and grunting on the pavement. "Isn't that right…Tarisa?"

"And you need to learn to keep up VG!" The brown-haired girl whined from her position. "HOW CAN YOU CALL THAT TEAMWORK!?"

The Italian shrugged off the veiled insult. "How can you expect me to keep up when you're fighting with…this much enthusiasm. And besides….you ordered me to go after Stella."

Yuuya instinctively begun to laugh, before covering his mouth. These guys…these guys were a riot, in their own way. Much like his team at STAB.

Much like the Comets once were.

"HEY!" Tarisa's shout broke his train if thoughts. "WHY'RE YOU LAUGHING!? I WAS WINNING WHEN IT WAS JUST BETWEEN US!"

Stella sighed." And here we were talking about how this was a team battle. We were just better as a team Tarisa," she chided. "Individual skill counts for less in these scenarios." Before the feisty Ghurka could retort, her Italian partner smacked her on the head.

"Well, I guess Top Gun has taught us a lesson, either way."

Yuuya didn't miss a beat. "Who you're calling Top Gun…Macaroni." The last word was carried with the hint of Yuuya's rugged, redneck Alabama accent, causing the European to nearly face-fault.

"Macaroni!?Me!?" The Italian melodramatically shouted. "If anything, call me…VG! Valerio Giacosa, my initials, right?"

"Right, Macaroni."

"Fuck you man."



The silence was too much, and the previously depressed-slash-pissed little pilot first barked, then snorted, and finally broke out in a hearty, open laughter.

"Top Gun and Macaroni? These guys are good, Khahahahahahahahaha!" The high-pitched laughter echoed endlessly against the concrete buildings.

""What's the matter…Hobbit?"

"I-what?"Tarisa suddenly paused, as Yuuya's voice cut at her. The other two wasted no seconds in jumping on the bandwagon.

"You're rude, Hobbit!" Valerio teased.

"But you're cute like that, Hobbit!" Stella smiled. Meanwhile, finally putting the meaning to foreign-sounding word, Tarisa turned crimson (at least, as much as a person of her complexion could), before getting up and storming to Yuuya.


Yuuya nodded, as he mockingly tried to deflect the blows the girl rained upon him. To be honest, it was hard to take her seriously, when the top of her head barely reached his neck…but the legs part?

Yeaaaahhhhh. I can agree to that, He thought as he glanced down. She had a mighty fine pair of legs. And that ass. He bet it was deliciously-

"Oh. Yuuya's at it already?" Vincent's voice cut over the revelry as he emerged from hangar.

Stella glanced at him with curiosity. Seeing her, Vincent smiled. "Been stationed with him for a while. Yuuya always nicknames the people he likes. For example, I'm Gearhead, though Vinny is easier to use."

"I see. Hey~" She called to Yuuya. "What would be mine?"

Playboy Bunny?Nah, too long.Yuuya thought as he processed the request. Most marksman callsigns were fairly bland, and Stella's …figure…didn't lend easily to ones that were not…suggestive. Seriously. If it wasn't for Luna, I'd say those breasts aren't physically possible.

"It's got to be Giant Ti-" VG never finished his sentence, as a practiced fist flew into his face.

Shit. Think Yuuya. Think. Oh fuck, she's beginning to frown. Something nice and romantic…only a bit naked. Maybe something with art. Fuck, what was that chick on this huge naked portrait? Athena? Helen? No, more on V. Vi, Ve-

"Venus, maybe?" Yuuya hastily said, rubbing his head. Stella's eyes immediately lit up.

"The Roman Goddess of Beauty and Love? Oh my~ I'm honoured." Behind him, Valerio laughed as he rubbed his chin, while using his free hand to put Yuuya in one-armed hug.

"See? You'll fit right in here…Top Gun."


Behind them, a sun was setting. From one hand, it marked an end. But from another, it heralded a coming of a new day. A new…possibility. In the shadows, a watchful man smiled.

Perhaps…he will be more lucky then I was, Ibrahim Dougulu thought.

Yuuya sighed pleasantly as he made his way away from the ready room. The debrief was short and simple overall, with Ibrahim congratulating him on his victory, with only a minor warning to not push the engineering limits on the unit's TSFs, unless it was absolutely necessary. After that, he was officially welcomed into the Argos Test Flight, and given free rein until tomorrow's morning hours. As he had no test piloting done yet, it meant no reports, and Yuuya decided to immediately try out the bathing facilities – probably the only real benefit of a full-sized base in ass end of nowhere.

"Lieutenant Bridges, a word, if I may." Yuuya instinctively stopped in his tracks, turning to the source of the voice. Sure enough, Lieutenant Takamura was standing there, still clad in her service uniform, the expression on her doll-like face as severe as ever.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "I was watching your performance today. During the exercise."

"Ma'am," he answered noncomitally, not sure where she was going. Yui sighed.

"Those were…some interesting moves, I admit. Perhaps Americans have genuinely improved since the last time." At that, Yuuya forcibly bit back his immediate retort. If she was trying to be friendly, it wasn't working.

"But you are reckless," she chided him, her cold, hard eyes boring into him. "That stunt had nearly cost you the Active Eagle, and possibly the victory."

Yuuya's eyes narrowed. Fuck this chance bullshit, he snarled mentally.

Not waiting for his reply, Yui continued, "I cannot risk something like this during the XFJ Plan. I understand that today might have been unique however, so I suppose I have to let you "off the hook", as you Westerners say." She paused and narrowed her eyes. "However, I expect that you will think your decisions through next time, keeping in mind that what you do will not reflect just on yourself, and I, but also on the XFJ Plan. And I will not allow it to be jeopardized. Is that clear?"

"Yes…Ma'am," Yuuya replied as professionally as he could at the moment, while clenching his fist. Takamura either didn't notice, or didn't care.

"Good. Dismissed." And like that, she walked away, passing next to him like wind.

In all his life, Yuuya never admitted to knowing Japanese, or speaking it. He really couldn't. But his late mother had been adamant about teaching him the language when he was little, and despite the progress of time, some elementary knowledge of his father's tongue still remained. So when Takamura Yui muttered something about "expecting better", whatever goodwill in his mind instantly evaporated.

You little Japanese bitch. He thought venomously, as his head snapped after her. Who the fuck do you think you are, Japanese Doll?!

Chapter End

Author's Note :

Expected that our Yui and Yuuya would get along straight away? Well…


Don't worry, they will get over it. Eventually.With or without the angrysex, I haven't decided yet.

*Goes back to molesting Goose with tentacles for his sins*

Well, that aside, this chapter was really supposed to come out earlier, but various things have conspired against that. So with Christmas right around the corner...well, consider this an early Christmas present. Rest assured, I'm not giving up on this project in any way. As usual, please review. We also have an forum, and I can be also reached on , under the same name.

And yes, the opening quote is from Pixy's speech in ACZ.

BETA's Note:

This chapter was… this chapter was actually not as hard to BETA as earlier chapters, lol. Especially compared to Chapter 1. I submit that as evidence that AMT is improving as an author, unlike certain other trolls I've had the misfortune to be acquainted with. Real life, however, kinda got in the way again, what with increased projects at work, and my spending my days writing training manuals and store playbooks and more documentation. (No, Warframe had nothing to do with any delays experienced. At all. Honest. Really. Sobek, Soma, Ignis, Vectis, Aklex, Penta, Synapse, Brakk… I wasn't levelling and Forma-ing them at all. Really.)Some other drama at another set of forums I visit (not Spacebattles) didn't really help matters, though a thorn in my side ended up being permabanned and I got to focus on this chapter, so I guess it worked out.

I did get stuck with a massive block partway through, though things progressed a lot smoother once I worked through a portion of text that was niggling at me. Relatively speaking, I think that was the biggest rewrite I've done – by choice, I limit myself to spellcheck, grammar and word choice substitutions – but I think it worked out alright in the end. (Author Here: For the curious, he's referring to a certain rationale behind personnel changes and the like, which didn't completely come off smoothly in the beginning.)

Also, I've given up on meeting deadlines. This was supposed to be done a month ago. As a result, I'm now resigned to being crushed, tentacle-stabbed, and trampled and mauled repeatedly by Phorid, for all my sins. T.T

Still, it's done. Merry Christmas all!