Red Crown: Hey, guys, sorry to have suddenly taken this down then repost it. The way I had it written earlier it was not of the quality that I want this story to be. Here is the updated and revised version. I would like to thank Wing Zero Alpha for the wonderful edits that he provides. Please enjoy!

"There is no need for me to curse you -the murderer survives the victim only to learn that it was himself that he longed to be rid of. Hatred is self-hatred."

― Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March


Date: December 22, 2016

Time: 0730 hours, 7:30 A.M. (Philippine Time)

Location: Island of Palawan, Philippines

As Frost finished grabbing her breakfast and began to search for a table to sit at, she felt as if something was missing. It wasn't hard to figure out, as she always ate with Luck, Stix, or Mozart, and right now they were all unavailable; Mozart was getting briefed for an early CAP while Stix and Luck were still in recovery. Beyond them, she wasn't really close to any of the other pilots, and it didn't help that new ones kept appearing as the war continued on.

Such was the point as Frost looked over the tables, scanning the faces that were currently in the mess. She estimated that she didn't recognize about forty percent of them, and much more, the ones she didn't recognize were clearly FNGs (to borrow the rather crass American term) as they lacked the weathered and exhausted gazes of the experienced pilots. This was emphasized by further when one of the newcomers, who spoke with a Northeastern American accent ,likely a New Yorker, and had to be in his early twenties, declared to those around him that he was personally going to kick Yang's ass at the end of this whole affair and that he was going to kick him so hard the "chicom bastard" would taste the sole of his boot. Frost shook her head at that; as if the Dark Horse's development into an air wing hadn't been hard enough to endure, and that hadn't even been too long ago.

Soon finding a table that had yet to be occupied, Frost slowly took her seat and began to eat her bland eggs and overcooked bacon. As she did, she couldn't help but again gaze around the mess as she chewed. The aforementioned newcomer aside, it was pretty obvious how the other pilots were taking the recent news; Frost had never seen so much demoralization in one place before. The politicians might have called it a ceasefire, but the Dark Horses were treating it as a declaration of surrender, and not even the promise of quieter days ahead would change that outlook. This was emphasized further when one of the pilots, yet another one of the newly arrived Americans, strummed a guitar and began to play Don McLean's "American Pie" in a slow and sad tone.

Now looking down at her plate, Frost herself couldn't help but feel the sadness well up in her again, and it took her entire effort to not clasp her hands over her face and cry. The Dark Horses had fought this war long and hard and had lost several good people along the way, yet the war was still lost in the end. Even worse was how the war, despite its brief span, had transformed entire lives; many families, such as Steel's, would never see their sons/daughters/husbands/wives again, while several of the pilots themselves would be forever scarred by what they had seen and experienced. All of this so that the Chinese could take prospective oil fields and satisfy its own desires.

And that wasn't even the worst part of it, Frost slowly began to realize as a new question entered her mind: what happens now? Would the Chinese, having acquired the Spratly's in their entirety, adhere to the ceasefire as the SEAC nations and their supporters, including her country, hoped they would? Or would they...?

"Frost?" the Englishwoman suddenly opened her eyes again and immediately saw Lena standing over her. "Are you okay?"

Letting out a sigh, Frost nodded. "Yes, I'm fine." she replied. "Want to join me?"

The FSB officer smiled, "Certainly," she replied, taking a seat from across Frost and placing her own tray on the table.

After a few moments of silence, Frost spoke up again. "How's Krylov doing?" she asked. "I haven't seen him since our return here."

Lena blushed. "He slept all day and still hasn't woken up," she answered. "How's Luck?"

Frost's expression grew melancholy, while a certain anxiety welled up in her stomach. "Physically he's fine..." she paused as she reflected on him, "...but he's not the same psychologically." The British woman looked away slightly upon speaking the thought. "After that mission with Krylov he's been emotionally distant."

The Ukrainian woman's facial expression went from one that was smiling to a look of concern, realizing that she had touched on a subject that her compatriot did not wish to discuss. Quickly noticing that she had brought down Lena's happy mood, Frost shook her head and feigned a smile. "Sorry," she said, "I didn't mean to burden you with my problems."

"Don't worry about it," Lena replied, not at all bothered. "Please feel free to do so anytime. I'd be more than happy to listen."

Frost looked back at Lena and could see that she had a true friend in her, causing her to gently smile at the FSB officer. On that, she decided to ask a rather sensitive question. "I don't suppose you know what that mission was all about."

Lena paused for a moment, but then shook her head. "I'm sorry, you would have to ask that cheap suit wearing bastard from the CIA on that," she spoke with clear distaste. "The FSB had no knowledge nor participation in setting up that mission."

Frost sighed. "I figured you wouldn't, but I wanted to ask anyway." She looked down again. "All I know about the mission is that it ended in failure, entailed huge casualties which included a dear friend, and that Luck, despite how much of an act he puts on, has changed from it. And not for the better."

Lena nodded in understanding. "That's not surprising, as much as I hate to say it," Lena said as they stood up and put their trays away. "Krylov has been through similar missions several times, and the result speaks for itself." She eyed the British pilot with visible sympathy. "I'm sorry that happened to Luck."

Frost merely nodded. "Well, I don't know what else I can do," she said. "Luck certainly isn't up to talking about it, even to me."

Lena let out a breath. "Again as much as I hate to say it, there's nothing you can do," she started to say. "Sometimes, the only way to help the man you love is to stand back and let him fight his own demons," she stated factually, inadvertently projecting experience as she did. "If you try intervening too quickly, you'll only end up hurting him and yourself."

Frost opened her mouth to speak on that, but Lena went on. "You have no idea how many times I've had to stand back and let Krylov fight on his own, especially whenever he remembers Sudan," she spoke almost confidentially. "Believe me I wish there were another way, but from my experience, there isn't."

The Englishwoman blinked at that, then hesitantly nodded. "I understand," she said. "Even so, it still hurts..." she let out, now sounding exasperated. "Not being able to do anything for him."

Lena nodded in agreement. "I know," she replied, once more showing sympathy.

Not wanting to dwell on the negatives however, the FSB woman quickly shifted gears. "But enough of that," she said, looking at Frost intently. "How free are you today?"

The former RAF pilot thought about that. "I don't have much to do actually. My Gripen is down for the time being; beside the obvious repair work, it's scheduled to be repainted with the rest of the wing's aircraft..."

The FSB operative nodded at that, having heard about the Dark Horses' new standardized colors herself. The two Foxhounds on her end were set to be repainted in them as well; in fact, they were the only Russian aircraft to be part of it. The Frogfoots, as Commander Wellington himself had agreed on, already had the ideal camouflage for their mission profile, and there was no way Krylov was going to let anyone repaint his Berkut.

"...and every credible intelligence source has confirmed that the war is winding down as well. I'm scheduled to brief some of the pilots that just got in to share my experiences of what combat has been like so far, but that is all. Why do you ask?"

"Are you free right now?" Lena's eyes almost twinkled.

"For an hour or two."

"Great!" Lena exclaimed. "Come to my barracks. We can play a game of chess."

Frost stared at her blankly for a few moments, slightly taken aback by the suggestion.

Chuckling, Lena explained. "When I'm worried or distressed I like to play chess. It's kind of a therapeutic. I usually go online and play, but it's never the same as a face to face match."

Frost cocked an eyebrow but then said, "Alright."

Both women exited the mess hall and made their way over to the Russian side of the tarmacs. Today there were few clouds and the sun was bright, with the air being slightly humid and warm; great weather for the South China Sea. Certainly good enough for flying had Frost still had her Gripen.

It was then that the Briton saw the Russian barracks. They had all set up residence in a series of advanced tents, which were all connected and shaped like a large grid.

When Frost entered she found that the tents were thermally sealed and had air conditioning that kept the inside pleasantly cool, just as the Russians liked it. Titanium support beams were dug deep into the ground and created a frame for the tents so that they could withstand harsh weather. She and Lena walked through the grid and by many Russian personnel before they finally came to a place inside with a zipper seal over it. Lena pulled down the zipper and stepped inside with Frost following behind her.

Inside of Lena's room was a desk mounted with papers, a computer, a bed, and an AK-74 assault rifle that had a lock through it and was attached to her desk with a chain. She had placed a few paintings on the walls to add decoration, but against the olive drab of the tent they did not help much. At the far side of the room was a small stove with an associated cooking set. The stove was on and it was currently cooking something in a pot.

"Damn it. I told Vladimir not to leave the room while the stove was on," she said.

At that moment they heard Vladimir call out from a tent nearby, "I am just using the restroom! Give me a break!" he stated in Russian.

Lena walked up to the stove and lifted the lid on the pot to inspect its contents. "It's finished." She then turned to Frost. "Hold on for a bit. I'm going to deliver this to Krylov."

Before Frost realized it, she found herself asking, "Is it alright if I join you?"

The FSB officer nodded her head, seeing no harm in it. "Sure."

Location: Spratly Islands, Thitu Island

Major Feng was in the process of examining the condition of his J-20 when he suddenly spotted Tao coming towards him. The fact that he was running made Feng slightly worried about what he was going to say. When he finally reached him, Feng saw that Tao's face held a grave expression; the kind of one worn when a death warrant had been issued. "The cease fire is in effect," he spoke in a very nervous voice. "Also, General Yang is on his way here."

Feng was surprised, but also took the news as positive. "That's good. It means General Yang thinks the Spratly's are secure enough for him to set foot in them."

"But the place is a mess!" Tao began to protest. "We need to clean all this up and-"

All of a sudden they heard a woman scream. Quickly following the scream was the sound of several gun shots. Both the Major and the Colonel turned their attention to the area where the Filipino civilians were being held. When they looked over they saw a brawl had taken place and five of the civilians were dead while several soldiers were getting into a physical altercation with the rest. One of the soldiers lifted his Type 95 assault rifle up in the air and fired it on full automatic. While the sound of gun fire ripped through the air it caused everyone to get down flat on the ground for fear of getting shot. When everyone was down the Chinese soldiers then began to forcefully push and kick the civilians back into place.

Feng looked over at Tao and the two exchanged a look of shock. Tao immediately began to head over to the civilians and Feng climbed down from his J-20 to follow him. When Tao reached them he approached the soldier with the highest rank among the small group of men, which happened to be a Sergeant.

"Sergeant, what happened here?" Tao asked him.

The Sergeant stuttered before responding, "I don't know, sir. The Filipinos just started a brawl with those two soldiers over there. My men rushed in to put them down." The Sergeant pointed to two soldiers and Feng immediately recognized them as the two that had been eyeing the beautiful Filipino woman with a son.

Feng's eyes shifted to the civilians and he spotted the beautiful woman holding her son in her arms while another young Filipino man held her in his. This man clearly cared for her on a grand scale.

Tao then looked at the two soldiers and asked in an angry fury, "What happened?!"

One of the two Chinese soldiers immediately spoke, "That man refused to do work so we beat him. He fought back and soon they all were fighting us."

"That's a lie!" said the Filipino man in Mandarin Chinese, much to the surprise of everyone.

It was then that Feng and Tao looked at the young man and realized that he was well educated.

"Those two soldiers sent me to work so they could rape my wife while I was gone," he said with a look of pure anger in his eyes. "They tried to take her and she screamed! You must have heard that!"

Feng and Tao looked at the woman and saw that she had several bruises on her exposed skin. There was one large one on the side of her face as if she had been hit. The young man had been shot in the arm and was bleeding, but the wound was not fatal.

Feng whispered to Tao, "I believe he is telling the truth. I've seen those two giving her looks myself."

Tao merely nodded. He looked at the Sergeant before motioning toward the two soldiers and saying, "Put those two in the brig."

"Yes, sir," the Sergeant responded before motioning to a group of other soldiers to seize them.

Tao then motioned for the young Filipino man to come before him. The young Filipino man stood up and approached Tao. The man was eerily calm as he did so; if he had any fear toward Tao or the other Chinese soldiers, he did well to conceal it.

"Did you start the fight against my soldiers?" Tao asked.

The man closed his eyes. He knew what was coming. "Yes."

(Music: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 - Estate Betrayal)

Tao then reached for his QSZ-92 pistol and flipped the safety off. Feng, immediately realizing what was happening, moved to intervene, but was too late. A second later, Tao leveled the gun at the young man's face and pulled the trigger, the shot ringing out through the air as the round went clean through the Filipino man's skull and came ripping out the other side. His head violently jerked backwards in reaction before his lifeless corpse collapsed on the ground. Several screams of horror came from the women among the civilians and the man's wife and son exploded into sobs.

All Feng could do was look between the corpse and Tao's passive face, his mouth hung open as if he attempted to speak, but could not find the words. On the inside, he felt a sickness too powerful for words to describe.

Tao walked forward to stand in front of the civilians directly. In a loud warning voice he said, "I will not tolerate any kind of rebellion on my island! Do not ever attack my soldiers for any reason! If you do you will end up like this man here!"

As Feng looked at the remaining Filipinos he could see emotions in their faces that he would never wish on anyone. Horror, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness were all displayed in their eyes. As he looked at the beautiful young woman and her son he saw that they were still crying, tears and snot streaming down their contracted faces. Their sobs seemed to fill his mind and a sickening guilt began to overpower every other feeling he had at that moment.

"Soldiers, get them back in place," Tao ordered. Upon this instruction the remaining soldiers on the base began to grab the civilians and forcefully pushed them back. None of them gave any resistance.

The Colonel flipped the safety back on for his pistol and holstered it before turning around and heading back to the hotel. Feng followed him, still very much in shock of what had just transpired. "Why did you shoot that man?" Feng asked in a hardened, almost emotionless voice once he was assured he and Tao were alone. "He was clearly not in the wrong."

Tao simply responded, "General Yang is almost here. Do you know what he would say if I allowed one of the civilians to attack my soldiers and walk freely without punishment?"

Feng contemplated this very carefully and deep down realized that he did not confidently know the answer to that question. Yang would probably have a drastic response. "Yes, but that kind of punishment was still unnecessary," Feng said trying again to hide just how powerful his discomfort really was.

Tao only shrugged, as if indifferent. "Not at all. That man attacked soldiers of the People's Liberation Army. Therefore, a message had to be sent so that the others would not follow his example."

Now Feng was beginning to feel the first vestiges of anger. "Colonel, in the few days that I have spent on Thitu, I have come to regard you as one of the finest officers the Air Force has ever gained. And even more so, I have come to see you as nothing like the typical breed that comes out of Beijing, which I fear plagues our army's upper echelons..."

The colonel turned on that, almost completely shocked himself at what he was hearing. What Major Feng was speaking now could have amounted to treason if heard by the wrong ears, especially those of a political officer.

"However, from what I have just witnessed, I am beginning to wonder if have misjudged you," Feng stated, narrowing his gaze into the colonel's. It was a large risk to challenge Tao directly given their vast difference in ranks, but Feng was not about to back down. Besides, if Tao was indeed the man Feng had thought he was, then he wasn't going to bring military decorum into this matter.

A few moments of silence passed between two Chinese officers, such that for a brief period of time it seemed like neither was going to budge. But then, slowly, Tao let out a slow exhale from his nostrils, then found himself looking away. "Do you think I enjoyed doing that?" he stated, his voice full of disgust and regret. "I know full well that man did not deserve to die, and much more, what we are doing to his family and the rest of this island's inhabitants is unforgivable."

He then mustered up the strength to face Feng again, his face now like a man resigned to his fate. "Even so, I have no choice in any of this. General Yang wants us to show strength, and the rest of the General Staff support that measure. Thus, I must employ options like this one, because they are the least disastrous to my men, those under their care and the Middle Kingdom as a whole."

He paused for another moment before continuing. "Now I can face General Yang and say that I've dealt with the issue, and above all else know it will never be brought up again. You know as well as I do the political officers from our unit will tell him shortly after he gets here and if the issue is not handled he will have me deal with it his way."

Reluctantly, Feng nodded in understanding; Tao did not want to kill people and did not enjoy killing people either, but had no choice indeed given the delicate situation on Thitu. It was this that caused Feng to finally feel that he had some common ground with Tao, and much more, he had not been wrong about the man.

Along that end, Feng also noted the dark shadow within that last sentence Tao had spoke; clearly he did not want Yang to deal with any situation personally. Was it because Tao was afraid of the consequences that would ensue, namely in his career? That seemed unlikely; again Tao was not a typical higher ranked PLA officer who enjoyed career comforts more than anything else. The colonel's motivation was serving the Middle Kingdom and nothing more. Yet that only left only one other explanation, and Feng did not dare consider it.

"I see." Feng spoke up reluctantly. "If you deal with it now it's under your control. Put it off and Yang will do it."

Tao nodded appreciatively at that, before turning around and walking away.

Now alone, Feng began walking himself, but unlike Tao, or at least what he suspected of Tao, he had no destination in mind. Despite the colonel's explanation, he still felt the sickening guilt inside of him, churning about like the storm he had flown through not too long ago. At the same time he realized that General Yang had still not responded to Tao's request for instructions regarding the Filipino civilians earlier, making Feng wonder if the General even cared about them at all. Once more, Feng would rather not consider.

If a strong response was already made then the issue would not need to be addressed again, or so Feng hoped.

Location: Island of Palawan, Philippines

Krylov's eyes opened and he scanned his surroundings. He was in his rack wearing only cargo pants and a Telnyashka shirt. As he looked around he scanned the inside of his barracks. Aside from a book shelf, a small night stand, a desk, and an office chair, his room was mostly bare. The few possessions he had included some books on aerial combat that he kept for reference, a laptop with wireless internet, and a small model of an Su-35S painted in Ultranationalist colors. All of these things had been given to him by Russian citizens that had heard of his story. Lena had somehow managed to get them through to him. The model Su-35S even had his personal insignia painted on the sides of the nose, just like the actual plane he had flown during the war. In any case, every other possession he had was stripped from him.

He sat up and could feel his body still fatigued from the last mission he went on. As the Russian aviator rose from the bed to his feet he could feel the headache still dissipating. However, this soreness was still preferable to other kinds of pain he had endured.

Just then the zipper seal for his room was opened and Lena walked inside. In her hands was a tray with a meal she made herself: borscht, a buttered open faced sandwich with raw fish, and a small glass of vodka. "You're finally awake," she said with a smile as she set the tray down on his desk. He could see that Frost was standing outside his room and decided to pay no mind to her.

Krylov's cold gaze fell on Lena and stared for brief moment before he opened his mouth to speak in his native language. "Lena, what is..."

Before he could finished his sentence Lena quickly interjected. She spoke in English so as not to be rude to Frost. "It's about zero-eight-hundred right now. You've been asleep for over fourteen hours. Your plane's down for maintenance for the next two days. Our flight doc has recommended that you stay grounded for the next three days to recover. The Chinese are right now taking the rest of the Spratly Islands. And the latest news is that a cease fire is under negotiation today so the fighting has winded down and is expected to halt sometime within the next twenty four hours."

Krylov closed his lips and blinked with mild surprise. She had just answered every question he was about to ask.

"Did I miss anything?" she asked sweetly.

The Russian pilot's eyes briefly scanned the tray on his desk before turning to look back to Lena. "I want more vodka." He spoke in Russian but Frost was able to catch the word vodka and knew what he was saying.

The Ukrainian looked at the glass, and then nodded. "Be right back," she said before leaving the room briefly.

Frost went to follow Lena. As she did so she was able to see Krylov slowly take a seat in his chair and start to eat the borscht. The British pilot followed Lena and saw that she was going to a small compartment in the tent that stored food, liquids, and other things. Near the top of a shelf she saw the large vodka bottle for which Krylov had traded his pistol. The FSB officer grabbed the bottle and headed back to Krylov's room with it.

Frost continued to follow her. This time, however, Frost wanted to understand what Krylov was saying so she pulled out her smart phone from a pocket on her flight suit and set it to translate Russian.

When they got back they saw that Krylov had finished the glass of vodka and was almost done with the borscht. Lena refilled his glass and set the bottle on his desk. "Let me know if you need anything else," she said.

Krylov did not even look up from his meal, but he took a pause from eating. "Lena..." he began to say.

This time Frost's phone was picking up his words and actively translating.

" should find yourself another man to look after," Krylov said.

This caused Lena to look at him directly, surprising Frost. Krylov's cold emotionless gaze rose to meet Lena's eyes and he spoke again. Frost looked at her phone to get the translation: "Your affections are wasted on a cold heart."

Lena confidently responded, "I'll make that decision myself." She then placed her hands on her hips and said, "Until then, eat your borscht."

Frost watched with anticipation to see how Krylov would react. Much to her surprise, all that happened was his eyebrow twitched and he slowly turned right back to his borscht to continue eating it. No other words were spoken from that point on.

Frost's jaw dropped open and her eyes went wide as she looked on in disbelief. She was amazed that anyone would be able to talk to Krylov like that and he would accept it. It was then that she noticed he was slightly different at that moment: the Russian ace was actually somewhat comfortable when he was with Lena. It was the most bizarre thing ever as Frost did not think of him being capable of anything like this.

Lena then turned to Frost and said in a cheerful voice, "Now for chess!"

As the FSB officer led her back towards her room Frost asked, "Krylov actually listens to you?"

Lena chuckled at that. "I'm an FSB officer. He technically has to listen to what I say. Granted, I have to show him I have a spine sometimes, otherwise he would walk all over me. Even so I've gotten used to confidently expressing what I want and I think he's starting to like it."

The look on Lena's face was then changed to a smile. It was a genuinely happy look that seemed like a far cry from the one she had when they first met. "I've been helping him for almost a year now and I'm one of the very few people he actually trusts to have his best interests in mind."

It was then that Frost saw Lena was using the same approach she had decided to try. Lena was constantly reaching out to Krylov and Frost could see that after doing it for almost a year, it had actually worked to some degree. She also saw that there was something else. Lena had refused to believe that Krylov did not have a heart, even when Krylov himself did not believe this. Frost could not tell if it was because Lena had better insight or because she was just so blindly love sick that she could not wake up to reality.

For Lena's sake, as well as Krylov's, she prayed for the former.

Time: 1813 hours, 6:13 P.M. (Philippine Time)

Location: Spratly Islands, Thitu Island

(Music: C&C Generals - Chinese Soundtrack #1)

Just when the sun was nearing the horizon to set General Yang's plane touched down on the air strip. The Y-20 transport's wheels made contact with the runway and the big bird taxied to a tarmac before coming to a complete halt. Within minutes General Yang stepped out onto the ground of Thitu Island, setting his first step on territory he had conquered. Near the tarmac was the delegation from the base that stood ready to meet him, which included Colonel Tao, Major Feng, a few political officers and higher officials, and Jacqueline.

General Yang smiled upon seeing them, "I see my team is full of winners," he said as he looked upon them. "You have all done good work here, both in taking the Spratlys and holding them. The Middle Kingdom is proud of all of you."

Tao was very elated to see General Yang and rendered him a proper salute, which was quickly followed by one from Major Feng. However, Jacqueline stood with her arms crossed and had a lit cigarette in one of her hands, which radiated smoke from its holder. She remained completely unmoved by General Yang's appearance, looking almost annoyed by it. Major Feng, on the other hand, looked upon the general as China's bright future. Or at least he tried to as he pushed back certain memories of recent events.

General Yang returned the salute allowing Tao and Feng to drop their own. He then approached Tao and extended a hand. "You're an excellent air group commander, Colonel," he said to Tao. "One of my finest officers at that."

Tao shook his hand and responded with intense motivation, "Thank you, sir!"

General Yang then approached Major Feng and shook his hand as well. "And you Major. I've heard many things about your recent performance," he said in a congratulatory manner. "You're indeed the best pilot I have."

Major Feng nodded and feigned intense motivation. The last thing he wanted was to project hesitance, as he had no doubt the general would detect it like a shark picking up fresh blood.

The General then approached Jacqueline, who was in the process of taking a whiff from her cigarette, and extended a hand to her. Much to the surprise of Major Feng and Colonel Tao, Jacqueline did not shake his hand; in fact, she responded by slightly tilting her head back and expelling smoke from her lips that briefly concealed her face as it rose into the air. "Spare me the pleasantries, General," she spoke, in clear English with a flattened tone. "You know what I really care about."

Withdrawing his hand, General Yang let out a small sigh before he reached into a pocket inside his coat and pulled out a touchscreen tablet. He uploaded an app then presented the tablet to the French mercenary leader. From there, the general also spoke in English, "The payment has been made to the account you specified, Madame."

Jacqueline took the tablet and pulled out a smart phone before uploading an app of her own. She eyed both screens carefully, checking the numbers with close attention. Once they were to her liking she handed the tablet back to Yang. Tilting her head back, she said, "Good. I am assuming the next portion will be transferred when the second phase of your plan is carried out."

Feng's eyes lit up on that. Second phase?

"Correct," General Yang responded. "Until then, I want you to give what training you can to my remaining air groups."

"That will be difficult. Few of them speak English and even fewer French. Those are the only two languages that all my pilots know."

"Several of mine speak English," General Yang responded as he turned to Tao. "Colonel, I'm sure you can draft up a list of our English speaking pilots."

Colonel Tao shot a glance at the French mercenary that was laced with disgust. She caught the glance out of the corner of her eye and without a care in the world started to take in another whiff of smoke from her cigarette. Tao responded in a courteous manner to General Yang, "I can have that finished tonight."

"Have your pilots mustered near our tarmac at zero-seven-hundred tomorrow morning for training," Jacqueline said as she let loose another cloud of smoke. "General, I should let you know that even if we do train your pilots they will never be as good as us."

General Yang nodded, "I understand."

The French mercenary pilot then turned around and walked away to her quarters. Once she was gone, Tao turned to General Yang and asked with a voice that did not hide his resentment, "Sir, with all due respect, do we really need these western mercenaries?" he almost protested. "Surely we can fight our wars without them."

General Yang looked at his Colonel and could see the resentment visibly on his face. Chuckling inwardly, he answered, "Colonel, I have a high regard for you since you are now the most experienced air group commander in our air force and I know how loyal you are to me and my cause."

The look in Yang's eyes then became slightly more intense. "However, you must trust that I know how to play this game and that I will do whatever it takes to win." Yang spoke with a direct tone, causing Tao to visibly tense up. Despite that, the general decided there was no harm in cluing his subordinate in. "To answer you however, these French mercenaries are the only ones selling what I need: something that can't be found in our own national forces."

"What is that, sir?"

The General answered with one word, "Expertise."

Tao fought to restrain his own anger, which Feng, who had remained close by, observed bemusedly. A good officer and a good man, the Major thought, but a little too driven by national pride.

"Sir," Tao continued, his voice now mellow but still retaining strength. "They're disrespectful and think they're better than us. That Frenchwoman trounces our national pride and I'm sure she'd spit on our flag if she wanted to."

Yang looked at Tao with understanding eyes. "I know how you feel Colonel, but I assure you this is all completely necessary," he answered. "Think about it: our forces won the war, but how many air battles did we win?"

Feng did not even know the answer to that since he had focused much of his attention on fighting the war without getting the larger strategic view of the wins and losses. He was eager to know the answer to question as well.

For his part, Tao merely looked down on the ground in defeat. "We don't know the exact numbers yet, but we know it was about half."

General Yang nodded his head. "We can overwhelm the SEAC nations with numbers anytime, but when it comes to skill and tactics they unfortunately have better personnel. That should be enough of a reason to answer you."

Major Feng did not know that his national forces had suffered such heavy losses. A solemn look took over his eyes before he asked a question that was weighing heavy on his mind. "Sir, did the war help China?"

Again Yang turned toward the Major. As opposed to the pleasantness he had displayed before, Yang had an unreadable expression now, while his eyes focused on Feng's. And as much as Feng tried to read those eyes, he found himself incapable. "Yes Major, this war has helped China," Yang replied, simply and forwardly. "Now we have a new source of energy, one that we can access freely. Without bargaining with Russia or the western nations for."

He then looked away again. "Unfortunately however, our work is not done yet. It will take time to search the Spratly's for oil, and while the riots have calmed down, they haven't stopped," he spoke, sounding almost regretting. Feng, more than anything, wanted to believe that was the general's true emotions shining through, but something in him feared otherwise. "...which is why I have a second phase ready for this explicit reason."

Feng felt a cold wave wash over him as that phrase was again mentioned. "A second phase, sir?"

"Yes Major," Yang said, once more turning to face Feng, this time with a small, reassuring smile. "You will know in due time."

Knowing better than to say anything else, both Tao and Feng nodded their heads. With that addressed, General Yang told them, "You're both dismissed."

Major Feng and Colonel Tao saluted their General before turning around and walking away. As they were leaving General Yang called out to Tao, "Colonel!"

Tao turned around and looked directly at Yang.

Swelling with pride, Yang asked, "When was the last time France had an empire?"

The question was rhetorical and Tao got the message. This was the age of the Middle Kingdom. He gave a slow resounding nod with his head to Yang before heading toward the hotel to carry on with his duties.

As he and the Major walked together Feng asked, "When do you think the political officers are going to tell him about the incident with the civilians?"

Colonel Tao looked back at Feng and could see a hint of genuine worry in his eyes. "Probably sometime tomorrow morning."

Feng then looked back toward his J-20. "I don't know how I would handle it if..."

"I'm not sure how I would handle it either," Tao stated firmly, purposely keeping the Major from speaking any further. "Even so, I still believe he has China's best interest in mind."

Tao's gaze, however, was on the tarmac given to the Rafales. "And if nothing else, I know one thing: I want to go home and see my family again and I have no intention of doing anything that would jeopardize that."

Red Crown: Well, after writing that I realized that this chapter was quite heavy. Oh well, war isn't full of light emotions. More reviews means a sooner update!