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Departure

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The wind was dragging at Jankovic's cap, but his headset kept it firmly in place. It dragged at his open jacket as well, but that was also kept in place by his belt. His eyes scanned the buildings that surrounded him and the street that they were driving along.

People had come out of their houses or started leaning out of their windows to see the tank that was slowly trundling through the village. A few of them, mainly children, waved at the crew. Before Jankovic could wave back however, the parents scolded their offspring and dragged them away. Jankovic could remember the times well when a tank driving through a town would have caused a big commotion. Being a hero for these people was always something that had kept him fighting. The way the people had started looking away or even cursing was something that was slowly but surely breaking his heart.

His tank reached a square - probably the main square of the village - which contained something that caught Jankovic's eye immediately and made him forget his pondering thoughts. His crew noticed it as well. The Jagdtiger halted. Besieged by a small crowd of children, there were three Panthers, their crews doing their best to be rid of the young ones. Jankovic climbed out of his hatch, the crew following behind him, except for the driver, who went about finding a spot where the giant Jagdtiger wouldn't be in the way.

Jankovic strolled over to the Panthers. He had already spotted someone whom he wanted to talk to urgently. He had to smile as he watched the Oberfeldwebel trying to rid himself of the kids.

"Get lost!" Weidner barked. "Go home!" But the Polish children didn't seem to understand German, or at least pretended not to. He was in the process of prying a girl off his leg, who was clinging to it. His platoon mates also had their hands full. The kids were shouting over each other; Jankovic understood enough to guess what had happened here. 

He reached the crowd. They immediately recognized his uniform as that of another tanker, fell silent, and looked at him.

Jankovic said something in Polish to the children. They exchanged a few looks and then ran off screaming and laughing.

The Panther crews looked after them with bewilderment, then sighed with relief. The platoon leader spoke up.

"Would you look at that!" Weidner said with a raised eyebrow. "The Stabsfeldwebel himself graces us with his presence!" He saluted, but then his features grew soft. "Man, I haven't seen you in ages," he said.

Jankovic grinned and snatched his comrade, hugged him tightly. Weidner's breath was squeezed out of him for a moment, but he returned the hug - if less vigorously.

Jankovic let go again and looked around.

"How did you end up here?" he asked. In the meantime, his crew had caught up to him and joined him with equally curious looks.

"I could ask you the same," Weidner replied. "Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?"

"We are on a mission," Jankovic got straight to the point.

"What a coincidence," Weidner grinned. "So are we."

Jankovic blinked.

"Kampfgruppe Schiefer?" he asked.

Weidner gave him a puzzled look.

"How-?"

Then the realization seemed to hit him.

"Oh, you as well?"

Jankovic nodded with a crooked smile.

"That's actually convenient," he said.

Weidner put his hand on his hip.

"We wanted to grab some food. What do you think, wanna keep us company?" he asked and pointed at the sign of a tavern to his left.

"No objections from me," Jankovic said.

Weidner turned to one of his crew members.

"You stay here and look after the tanks," he said to the radioman. "And if the brats return, then lock yourself in and don't let anyone inside, understand?" The addressed man nodded but didn't look thrilled by the task. Weidner rolled his eyes. "Don't look at me like that. We'll get you something."

With that the issue was sorted and the crews made their way to the tavern. All acquaintances immediately found each other and started conversations.

"He's the new guy," Weidner said to Jankovic. That really explained everything.

The tavern was nearly empty. A waitress watched the guests warily, but didn't do anything else. The men and women chose seats, taking off their jackets and getting comfortable before ordering drinks. Everyone was busy with their exchanges of memories and news after not having seen each other in a long time.

"How have you been?" Weidner asked after sitting down at a separate table with Jankovic. Jankovic made a drawn-out "Hmm" before replying.

"Same as always, basically. Well, that's not completely true. Things have been going south a little lately," he said.

"It's the same for us," Weidner sighed. "We've been fighting over the same area for two months now. We just can't make any progress."

"Our situation is similar. We are so busy defending against the Russian advances that there's no time to move forward."

Weidner nodded and only stared at the tabletop for a moment. He looked up as the waitress placed his drink in front of him. Jankovic received his drink as well.

"What do you want to eat?" the young woman asked. Weidner ordered "something with sauerkraut", while Jankovic took his sweet time reading the menu before he finally decided on the main dish after a lot of mental back-and-forth.

"You really haven't changed at all," Weidner pointed out soberly. He wasn't nearly as patient as the waitress. Jankovic shrugged. Weidner remained silent for a moment before throwing a quick look over his shoulder.

"There's something else," he said, turning back around to look Jankovic straight in the eye. "I think that things will get much worse for us very soon." Jankovic tilted his head with an inquiring look. Weidner went on, his voice more quiet than before. "I saw something. But no one wants to believe me."

When he didn't continue speaking, Jankovic gave him a verbal nudge.

"What did you see?"

"A tank ..." Weidner said. That was nothing unusual, and he was obviously aware of that, but searching for the right words. His eyes grew narrow as he thought hard. Jankovic suspected that he was remembering the battle in which he had seen that particular tank. "At first I thought we were engaging an IS-2. It looked like that, from afar. But as we tried to shoot the tank, our shells just bounced off its front. Bouncing off an IS-2 one time, I'll believe it. But not three times."

Jankovic hummed with agreement. He himself didn't worry about IS-2s, since his Jagdtiger didn't have any trouble dealing with them. They could endanger a Panther, but it should be able to penetrate their armour.

"And then it left us a hole as a parting gift before it bolted," Weidner went on. "The radioman bit the dust."

A commotion further in the back of the tavern made Weidner look over his shoulder once more. Jankovic followed his gaze. Two of Roth's men had started arguing about whose turn it was to choose the next song on the jukebox. Their commander didn't seem interested in the conflict - she was busy talking to someone.

"Always those two," Weidner grouched. "They're really a walking stereotype."

Finally another tanker got himself involved and tried to mediate. It wasn't the intention of the crews to earn themselves a reputation as a pack of rowdies. Jankovic would have intervened himself if the other tanker hadn't done so.

Weidner turned back around and tried to pick up where he had left off.

"No one wants to believe me. Even Bachmeier, that asshole. He even shot at the tank himself!"

Jankovic nodded pensively.

"I can see why they wouldn't want to acknowledge it," he said. "If word gets around that a new tank showed up and defies our own strongest tanks, the morale would suffer for sure. And it's not like that morale is good to begin with."

Weidner pulled up his shoulders.

"Yeah, but you can't just sweep this under the rug!" he said, forgetting to keep his voice down. "It could be a serious threat!"

"Did you tell your superiors about it?"

The other man's expression grew irritated.

"The Schar-... Hauptmann is also an asshole," he growled.

Jankovic gave him an empathetic look.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you could do either," he admitted. Weidner looked distressed but nodded.

"There is nothing I can do," he mumbled. "They're just laughing at me. Maybe I really should stop talking about it..."

"For now that may be the best course of action."

Weidner's expression grew even darker at first, but then he shrugged.

"They'll feel sorry soon enough," he said.

"Mh-hm. But say, on a completely unrelated note. How's Emma?"

Weidner's features turned downright tender, which was something that didn't fit his rugged appearance at all.

"We got married the last time I was allowed to go home," he said, lowering his gaze with a warm smile.

"Oh? I'm happy for you!" Jankovic said with a smile as well. "Congratulations."

"I'm looking forward to going home again after this mission." Weidner's own smile turned into a grin.

Jankovic nodded. Weidner looked up again and scrutinized his friend with intrigue.

"And what about you? Have you found your darling yet?" he asked after a moment of silence.

"I thought you knew me," Jankovic smirked. He shook his head.

"Well, who's to say," Weidner said. "I'm sure you'll meet the one too, eventually. Someday."

"Maybe. Maybe not," Jankovic said.

"But do you never get lonely?" Weidner asked. "When no one's waiting for you at home?"

"My home is the frontline," Jankovic replied gently.

He didn't want to say it out loud to not spoil Weidner's mood, but he thought it was better if there was no one who'd be grieving if he fell in combat. After all, that could always happen, no matter how experienced one was. His latest battle had reminded Jankovic of that fact, even if he had gotten away with a scare and some bruises this time.

Weidner knew that he wouldn't change Jankovic's mind on this. He switched to a different topic and the two of them told each other anecdotes from their battles, sharing a few smiles and even laughter. Their food arrived eventually, and they enjoyed what would most likely be the last truly delicious meal in the near future. As soon as their bellies were full, the tankers left the tavern and got ready for travelling on.

***

The tanks had formed a column and drove across field roads. Jankovic was deeply invested in studying a map that he had acquired in the village. He had been able to navigate to said village without a map, but couldn't remember ever having been in the place where the Kampfgruppe was supposed to meet up. As his tank stopped at a fork in the road, he had no clue which of the two paths was the one they should follow.

Luckily Weidner didn't seem to be having similar trouble. Only a few moments later, his Panthers rolled past Jankovic's tank. Weidner saluted with an amused smile as he passed his comrade. The Panthers purposefully entered one of the roads. It was only then that Jankovic noticed said path already having track marks. He shrugged, rolled up the map and put it into his pocket before issuing the command to follow the others.

About ten minutes passed while they drove through seemingly endless fields, until they spotted the silhouette of what had to be the camp in the distance. As they approached it, Jankovic could make out a handful of tanks parked at the edge of the camp. He counted three Panzer IV/70 tank destroyers. So, together with his Jagdtiger and Weidner's Panthers, they were dealing with a very ragtag troop.

Jankovic suspected that they had requested every unit that was in any way expendable for their respective company and tried to arrange themselves with whatever they had gotten. It wasn't a secret that the situation was dire for most battalions; each tank was needed where it was. It was actually impressive that they had managed to assemble a Kampfgruppe at all.

The newcomers trundled along the border of the camp. A few soldiers, who were busy with various tasks, looked up at the tanks passing them by. Some of the expressions brightened, seemed even relieved at the sight of the powerful backup - even though the Panther with the odd inscription on its front caused a couple of frowns. Weidner carried himself with dignity.

Jankovic asked the driver to park the tank near the Panzer IV/70s and the crew dismounted. They waited until Weidner's platoon had left their tanks as well, then walked over to a small group of soldiers that were loading jerry cans into a truck. Jankovic addressed one of the men.

"Where can I find the chief?" he asked. The man pointed at one of the tents in the center of the camp. Jankovic thanked him and the tankers made their way to said tent.

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