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1-1

He was staring at the ceiling again. The Yggdrasil was much warmer than he expected it to be, though his initial assessment was just what he'd observed visually of its outer hull. He hadn't heard Sigurd talk of the Yggdrasil when they were at Jugend, but not being a member of the Fatima Dynasty, nor a patriot of Aveh, he was not entitled to know such a thing. Maybe even Sigurd himself hadn't known. It stung to realize just how little he turned out to have known about someone he used to care about so much. The Surface had not been kind to Sigurd, so it made no sense to him that there was anything of worth there for him. When Sigurd left Solaris, Kahr read all his reasons as hollow excuses, but as they came closer to meeting again, through fights of friends of friends, he began to realize just how solid those reasons were. Much more solid than anything he himself ever had.

He wasn't sure if the current sting of being a blood enemy of the people who used to be his closest friends was any better than being at the other end of the chain Krelian and Miang were yanking. What mattered now was that he was out from under them and beyond their influence. The only problem was that he still craved approval, and even though he knew the entire time how unhealthy it was, he was still keyed up to want it. No matter how many sacrifices he had made, it still wasn't enough. How low he'd bowed for Krelian, and how many things he'd destroyed to keep Miang's interest...

He'd been a pawn the whole time, even when he was sure he'd proven himself. It was never enough. He always thought, that if he could meet a certain threshold of approval, it would be worth it, but he refused to see his cage for what it was. He had rebelled, but not in a way that set him free, so the only way he could be free was if someone else freed him. The thought was humbling, but his inner critic, a mental copy of Krelian or Miang, preferred the term "humiliating."

The skin was still tense where Hyuga had slapped him hours earlier. He was grateful Hyu had cared enough -to- slap him. Genetically speaking, it could be argued that Kahr was the prince of Solaris; aside from the existential "no"s he received from Miang and/or Krelian, he was usually charismatic enough to always get his way. It had been way too long since anyone had managed to push past his charisma bubble. He wished he hadn't driven everyone who truly had his best interests in mind away. He wished he hadn't forgotten how to act around real people.

Krelian and Miang were both still alive, technically. There was still a chance to fight them. People were scrambling outside like mad to help. He had every reason to join them, but he was still too prideful about being -the- person to do it. He didn't want to help them fight, he wanted to -be- the fight. Anything less and he might as well not bother. It was a problem that needed months for him to get over, but the crisis needed to be resolved immediately, and he didn't even have his own Gear anymore. How would that look? The Dethroned Prince of Solaris, puttering up in a busted hand-me-down from someone who worked for the Prince of Aveh, attempting to face down Mother God? The thought of being laughed at by his current company made him angry. The thought of being laughed at by True Miang and Krelian made him never want to move from the spot he was in again.

"Please, just give me some space for the rest of the day. I have a lot to think about," he'd asked the girls earlier. They'd crowded him after he apologized to them, but there was still something hollow about it. He wouldn't trade the girls for the world, especially not now, but his pride dictated he had to work through some of this alone.

Eight hours later, he realized that he had backslid by isolating himself. He'd locked the door before passing out, but he could hear them just outside.

"Dominia, I hate to say this, but maybe we should just let him rest today," Tolone said, "He was up for four days between Nisan and Merkava. There's no way eight hours is going to be enough."

"We've left him alone long enough," Dominia grumbled, "If you have stuff you want to do, go ahead, but I'm going to stay here until something happens."

"Best of luck, of course, but...I want to hurt the people that hurt him!" Tolone said.

Seraphita spoke next. "There's still things to fight, and we're still standing~! Sigurd and Doc have outfitted us to fight the Seraphs, ee hee hee, and I'm not going to let that go to waste!"

"What about you, Kelvena?" Dominia asked.

"Hmm..." Kelvena mused, "...it appears that you are going to stay whether or not we go, so I will join Tolone and Seraphita. If we need Bladegash, we will send for you, but there may not be a need today."

"You never know what might blow up next, though," Tolone replied.

"There is little infrastructure left to be destroyed, Tolone, but Dominia is predictable enough that we won't have to look very far if we need her," Kelvena said.

Kahr heard them leave, and Dominia walked over to the door. "Commander, I don't know if you're in a place where you can hear me, but if you do, I know how complicated this is, and I'll understand if you don't want to fight alongside Fei. Whatever happens, I'm not going to leave your side."

Dominia was waiting for some kind of reaction, but he hesitated long enough that she started talking again.

"I know everything might seem like it's worse right now, especially since Van Houten is somehow Miang, but if we beat this, beat Deus, beat -her-, there'll still be things to do, even if you don't fight. There will be a need to build back up afterward. There will always be a need to do things, and to go forward, to get out of bed."

He wasn't even sure how to respond to that one. Dominia gave up thinking he could hear her.

"Commander, I'd like it if, one day, I could call you Kahr like your friends did. I'm not sure how I can ever get there, but that's my goal." She paused for a moment and cleared her throat. "It might be a few seconds from now or years from now, but I'd like to be closer to you now that Solaris is gone, and there's no one to command anymore. The other girls might not see it that way, so I guess this is my resignation. I'd rather attempt to be your equal and try to help you get through this than politely stay your subordinate and watch you fall further away."

Dominia surprised him by shouting at the door. "What you said at Merkavah hurt me!"

That outburst made him move a little quicker. He tried to get out of the bunk he'd climbed onto as quietly as he could, but his surroundings were unfamiliar and if his thoughts hadn't kept him up, he would be catching up on the sleep Tolone was right about him needing. He made it to the door panel to unlock it just as Dominia drew breath for another outburst. He already felt like he was putting enough of a strain on his newly reforged ties with Sigurd and Hyuga, and he didn't want to be responsible for any more public upset. "I'm awake. I heard everything. What I said at Merkava...what I did at Merkava, didn't need to happen. I see that now. It was unfair of me to ignore you when you were just trying to diffuse the situation. Please, come talk to me, Dominia. I was wrong."

The door unlocked and Dominia hesitated entering, but walked in after a few moments. It had been a long time since she'd seen Ramsus without his jacket. It hung on the corner of one of the bunks, and below it, he'd stuffed his gloves in his boots, which left him in the standard Solarian black high-necked top. The only thing that remained remotely command-distinctive were his pants. Once she was in, she locked the door behind her. The time he spent sleeping had put the color back in his face, but there were still dark circles under his eyes. Even damaged as he was, she still felt so strongly. "The rest of what I have to tell you...might not be very nice."

"That's fine."

"I have always only ever aimed to help you, Commander, and I'm so angry that I was too scared to question Miang's hold on you. Had I realized what was going on sooner, I would have knocked over every building in Solaris if it would have made you see. With as much as I am completely in love with you, I've always been too scared to do anything about it. There was always some power structure in the way or some standard of decency or some fear of rejection holding me back from what I wanted to do. And I'm sorry I wasn't brave enough to tear any of that down to save you or stop you, or--" She couldn't keep eye contact. "I don't even know what I'm trying to say anymore. But...now you know, I guess."

"Dominia..."

"I'm done hiding my feelings, Commander. From now on, I'm going to be 100% honest with you. I love you. I've always loved you, but...even after all these years, I can't figure out in my head how to make this work." She sat down on one of the bunks and motioned for him to sit next to her, which he did. Sitting next to him meant that she didn't have to keep eye contact. "You have been everything to me since Elru was destroyed, but I can't possibly be everything to you. Not yet, at least...and I'm not sure either of us want that."

"I thought that by submitting myself to Miang completely and putting aside my own intuitions, that I had gained and managed to keep the perfect lover. But that was...probably the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. Any comment I have to make about love or trust or commitment is going to upset us both, but I am honored...flattered, and glad to have the affections of such a strong, beautiful, truly loyal person."

This was not the ideal scenario in which she imagined being with the Commander for the first time, but then again, the whole thing had been so abstract for her until the past two days. She had fantasized about those perfect lips of his meeting hers a thousand times, running her hand through his immaculate hair, being able to keep eye contact through his indelible scowl, which being beaten for the final time had somehow washed off his face. She frowned, deeply. "I couldn't have fantasized more beautiful words coming out of your mouth, but--"

What the fuck are you saying shit like that for?! You aren't even a meter away from him. Just stop talking, lean over and--

Ramsus interrupted Dominia's inner critic before it had completed its thought. "I'm sorry I can't love you the way you want me to, but there is absolutely nothing standing between you and I right here, right now, and you know more than anyone that I'm very vulnerable right now, too. I'm not going to push you away. I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have, so if you feel that not acting on your affections will keep you safe, I understand. I am no longer your commander. I can't tell you what to do anymore. In fact, I'd be a lot more comfortable if you told me what to do." The unfamiliar pleading expression was gone, replaced by a pained, concerned look that made her feel instantly more comfortable. It wasn't the pain, perhaps, but more the concern that drew her in. Kahran Ramsus gave a fuck. He'd always given a fuck, even when no one else did. That's what made him special. She couldn't not kiss him, and when she leaned in, her fantasies were not dashed.

Chapter Text

1-2

Kissing someone other than Miang was different. She was softer and fuller despite being more aggressive than Miang, but not as fiery or rough as Sigurd. He felt himself surrendering to his instincts more quickly than he'd anticipated. He kissed back more urgently than he wanted to, but his attempt at not seeming desperate failed as soon as he'd said the word "vulnerable". Miang would often pull back her affection if he hadn't met some expectation or another and he seemed too clingy for it, but Dominia had no such leanings. Dominia drank in his desperation and reciprocated with her own, pressing herself up against him, taking one of his hands and placing it on her breast. He squeezed, gently at first, but when she said, "Don't you fucking dare be gentle," all bets were off. She reached a hand down and squeezed one of his butt cheeks extremely hard. "I want this rough, just in case I never have the balls to do this again."

"As you wish." Ramsus echoed her force and slipped his hand (somehow all too easily) into the side of her shirt, pulling her breast out of it. He did the same with the other breast and Dominia floundered at the zipper at her back, trying to take her uniform off properly, but he stayed her hand. "Let's leave it like this a little, it's sexier with a bit of something in the way at first." Miang was almost always naked before he even walked in the room, so there was usually nothing to unwrap.

Dominia obliged and she pulled him up so they were both standing. She pinned him against the closest wall and they continued kissing, with more and more emphasis on groping as it went on. She pulled his shirt up over his head and tossed it away, and took an opportunity to grind against his crotch when his hands started focusing on her ass. She kept herself close up against him so she could feel his erection stiffening under her. The ambient hmms and mmms escalated into excited moans the more they went on. Dominia had her hand on the zipper of his pants just as he pulled the zipper at her back. He pulled her upper body suit away and threw it across the room. He took a moment to stand back and admire her before undoing his pants and stepping toward her again, speedo only.

Dominia was already red in the face, but now her heart skipped a beat. He still had several cuts and bruises from his last fight in the Merkava with Fei, but she had trouble focusing on them as he led her back in front of the bed.

He kissed at her neck and trailed his face down her body until he was on his knees, using his teeth to pull her panties down. They were plain and black, with no lace, but still very pretty. Dominia herself, not shaved, but still very pretty, and very warm, and extremely wet.

"Commander, what--"

"You don't want me to?" he said, motioning her to lift each foot to remove her panties entirely. He left her boots and gloves completely alone.

"You don't need to go down on me...we're not, this isn't..."

"I'm not expecting anything in return. This is something I want to do. I want to hear what you sound like when I find your clit. I'm hard now, but I could get so much harder." Miang only let his tongue close to her vagina on very specific occasions, and she never sang for him like Dominia seemed to be doing now.

Dominia sat on the bed and he knelt between her legs, ran his hand up her boot, and dove in. She was already overexcited, and so was he. This way, even if he came too early, at least he was going to make sure she came first.

The sensation of warmth at her nethers was pleasant as he kissed over it, trying to get a feel for how it was folded. It became more pleasant still as the warmth persisted. When he opened his mouth and his tongue made contact, an extremely loud "Ahh...!" slipped out of her almost immediately, and she kept a hand over her mouth to dull the gasps and wails that followed. He lapped at her pussy it until he thought he found it, and she arched her back, confirming it and he flicked at it with the tip of his tongue, planning to go at it until his jaw got sore or she went limp, but she breathlessly asked him to stop after half as long as he expected to.

He pulled back, wiped his chin and pulled his underwear off. He had gotten so hard during the course of eating her out that he'd popped out of them, something that hadn't happened since he'd been with Sigurd. She pulled herself up and moved to remove her boots, but Ramsus put a hand on hers. "If you don't mind, you can keep those on." Dominia shrugged, and Ramsus laid down next to her.

"You on top," she said.

"Of course."

Ramsus eased in on top of her, gently at first to make sure things fit correctly, and then went at it as hard as he could. She tried to keep her boot heels from touching the sheets, but it was a completely lost cause 15 seconds in. Dominia's breasts bounced magnificently, but he had to close his eyes or he knew he'd come too quickly. The thought in his head was next time, next time. More sounds erupted out of her, and he joined in with his own as it went on, which was music to Dominia's ears. The way the bratty, high-class inflection in his voice translated into his cries out, the power and frequency of his thrusts, all went above and beyond anything she'd ever imagined.

By the time he came, any thought of asking if he should pull out was gone. He let out an elongated cry as he climaxed and shuddered to a stop. After he finished, he attempted an apology, but it came out unintelligible. Instead of trying to grasp at it, he laughed and put his head down in the middle of Dominia's chest.

Chapter Text

1-3

Dominia had left before he woke up. He stared at the empty space where she had been and ran his hand across the sheet. He wished he could have promised her something more meaningful, but he couldn't. At least not until he could sort out his own feelings first, which he was a little more determined to do now that his destructive train of thought had been derailed.

He got up and looked around for his underwear, but he couldn't find it. He searched every corner and every bunk, every space in the room, but they were nowhere. Could Dominia have taken them?

I guess that's a hook to make me come back, isn't it?

In defeat, he got his shirt and pants back on and stepped back into his boots before realizing his gloves were still in them. He took them out and stuffed them in his pockets, and reflexively reached for his coat. The Yggdrasil was warm enough that it might not be practical anymore. That coat was encrusted in everything Solaris used to stand for, given to him on behalf of Emperor Cain for his service to Solaris. He didn't need it anymore. He thought about having it burned for a moment, but decided, for the first time in a long time, that he shouldn't be doing something that drastic so early in his thought process.

He wasn't even sure what time of day or night it was, or where in the world the Yggdrasil was.

He took the sheet and cover off the bed he and Dominia had used and rolled it up. There wasn't that much of a mess, but it was still nominally rude, even if the room didn't have a permanent occupant. After collecting himself, he stepped out to look for someone he might know, or at least someone who could tell him where the laundry was. As soon as the door swished open, something bright pink that wasn't Seraphita swished past him. "What--"

"Ohhh... You're that pale Solaris guy! You've been sleeping for way chu long!"

"I-I'm sorry?" He didn't know what else to say. Solarian dogma dictated that, of the barely sentient surface dwellers, the U-ki were as low as pigs or cattle, and conversing with one was grounds for expulsion.

Chu-Chu got uncomfortably close trying to look at him. "You are just chu pale...how did that happen? Solaris is much closer chu the sun."

Before he could find words to stumble over, the familiar voice of Mother Marguerite interrupted them. "Chu-Chu, stop being weird!!"

"Chuuuu...there's a lot of talk about chu going on upstairs, Commander."

Ramsus clutched the bedsheets, bracing himself for the awkwardness that was sure to follow. The last time they had met, he had knocked over half the city in Vendetta, and would have leveled the Cathedral if Elly hadn't stopped him. "I-is that so? Are my girls up there?" Small-talk with an U-ki...

"You should talk chu someone soon get your own room. Sigurd asked people chu clear off until you were up but I don't think chu can stay there privately chu much longer, Commander."

Margie came up on them just in time for him to spout awkwardly, "You don't need to call me that anymore. There's no one to command anymore. Not for me, anyway."

"I don't think you're going to dissuade your girls from calling you that, though, Ramsus. Heck, even I feel awkward just calling you Ramsus. When you introduced yourself, I thought it was your first name, but it's not. It's Kahran, right? That's what Sigurd says."

"That's right. Uh, Kahr for short, if you like." Why is this so awkward?

Margie nodded, but had nothing else to add, which increased the awkwardness.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Miss Marguerite, but is there some kind of laundry receptacle somewhere? Or anywhere I could get a shower or a change of clothes? I don't even know how many days it's been, but I feel pretty gross."

"Oh, I can show you the way to all that. Come with me!" Margie didn't seem to have any interest in breaking her cheerful demeanor, and Ramsus was grateful for that. Chu-Chu followed them, uncomfortably close. She could smell him, he could tell.

He found himself clutching the laundry tighter against his body, feeling suddenly vulnerable without his coat. "I figured it would be safer if I take an apologetic stance from now on, considering what I've done."

"Yeah, you're right about that..."

"Um, I don't know how to really go about starting to apologize to you...about Nisa--"

Margie stopped and exhaled. "I'll give it to you straight: you have a lot to make up for, and you're on really thin ice with...what's left of my family. I think you have a lot to offer if you play your cards right, and if you do, then I think you'll be on solid ground to offer your apology to me then. Did you know that Shakhan was about to exhume my mother's body for her eyes? Did you know that Nisan had been how it was for over 500 years, and how many of those buildings you didn't need to knock over?"

Chu-Chu tugged at Margie's cloak. "Margie..."

"No, it's all right. I...understand. All I have are words right now, but I will back them up with my actions. There's no excuse for what I did," Ramsus said.

They continued in silence until they reached the laundry room. For the whole walk down, he had just been following her, which avoided the annoyance of keeping up eye contact. She stopped to look up at him and he saw the anger plain across her face, her deep blue eyes uncharacteristically narrowed. "You still owe me some Chiffon Nisan, Kahran Ramsus. Good luck finding anyone still alive to make it." Her eyes narrowed further at her last sentence, and she straightened her frown as she saw him lift his eyebrows and swallow in fear.

She walked off and he stood there for a moment, just as stunned as he was when Hyuga had slapped him earlier. This hurt worse. When it was Krelian and the Gazel yelling at him, he had an urge to fight back, but without a single leg to stand on, he realized just how much more difficult his life was going to be from now on. He felt a little nauseous. Chu-Chu lingered until Margie called for her, then he was alone again.

To avoid any further altercations with people he recognized, he stepped into the laundry room. If he stopped to count the number of things that were his fault right now, he'd never move again.

He deposited the sheet and comforter in what he hoped against hope was the dirty laundry bin. From the smell of it, it was, and he kept it balled up. He had been holding onto it tightly enough that there were imprints of the wrinkles on his arms. He didn't think he'd gotten that frightened by Margie, but the people he knew on the Yggdrasil were the only reason he and the girls weren't imprisoned or worse.

He stepped into the showers and left his clothes on the bench just outside the stalls. At least, he guessed they were shower stalls? His stay in Bledavik was brief and atypical, and Fatima Palace's shower system was much grander than these crude stalls. He ran his hand over what he thought should be the sensor to start the water, but nothing came out.

Broken, he thought.

He checked the next three stalls and all of them seemed to be the same way. "Come on, you can't all be broken." He fiddled with the unfamiliar metal knobs and was spooked as he turned something a certain way and the water sputtered violently out, and at an obscenely cold temperature.

It took him a few moments to figure out the hot and cold glyphs embossed onto the knobs--his memory of the written Surface Common language wasn't as sharp as it had been. He supposed he should get on that as soon as possible. Getting situated in the shower shouldn't be this complicated.

As he showered, he realized that he hadn't had time to properly assess all his bruises from the last few fights he'd been in. The Yggdrasil's nurse had patched him up pretty aggressively with a bunch of standard issue ether techniques when he arrived, so he was physically stable enough to feel like he was falling apart. There were was a bruise on the inside of his right arm that had faded from purple to a sickly green color, and whatever damage that'd been done to his leg when Amphysvena exploded was now an unsightly purple streak on his shin. How Dominia had overlooked all of that was beyond him.

He looked around for any sign of soap and found two bars of things that both looked like soap labeled (in surface common, of course) in a small enclosure in the stall. One was greyish and looked to have abrasive rock or sand or something in it, and the other was about as pale green as he felt. He couldn't really figure out why there were two of them, but he figured it best not to scrape something with sand on his bruises, so he went with the green one. He didn't see any bottles or dispensers for shampoo, and his hair felt gross, so he decided he might as well try to wash it with the soap, which smelled surprisingly good.

When he emerged from the shower, he found that someone had thought to place a towel and a set of plain clothes on the bench closest to the stall he was using. "Hello?"

No one answered.

He got dressed and exited the showers, not really sure of where to go until he recalled that Marguerite had mentioned that the girls were on the upper deck, so he guessed he should wander that way. Thankfully, there was a map posted, but that was in Surface Common as well. He hadn't needed it, surrounded by Gebler soldiers, so his grasp of it from school and Krelian's pre-programming had slipped away. When he'd learned it at Jugend, it put enough polish on the knowledge of it implanted in his neurons that he was certain he was fluent, but between the DRIVE and what had happened in the past few days, he may as well have been a five year old staring at an encyclopedia. Before he could decipher anything, another familiar voice called out to him.

"Hello, Kahr."

He hadn't seen Sigurd face to face since he took his leaving of Solaris, and aside from his attire and the eyepatch, there was almost nothing different about him visually. "H-hello, Sigurd."

"Sorry for the terseness of the lodging situation. We don't have a whole lot of private space we can set aside for someone on the Yggdrasil."

"It's not a problem. I'm grateful that you haven't kicked me out."

Sigurd had had a mildly friendly expression before, but he seemed more conflicted about it all of a sudden. "We'll work that out soon. I would like it if you came with me to talk to Hyuga and Jesse in the Gun Room. You're not really in trouble, but we would like to talk to you. We want you to tell us more about you – the real you. Then, Fei has some questions for you."

Ramsus nodded and Sigurd led the way. The Gun Room wasn't far from the room he had started in. When the door swished open, Jesse made himself immediately known with a laid back "Eyyy!" If not for that, he might not have recognized him at first when he and Sigurd descended the stairs. Jesse was seated at a table across from Hyuga. There was an older man that he didn't recognize behind a counter polishing glassware. He seemed to be quite Fatima-ish by the look of him.

"Maison, this is Kahran Ramsus. Kahr, this is Lawrence Maison, who has been with the Fatima family through two generations."

Maison nodded his head politely. "How do you do?"

Terribly depressed and unsure about the future, would have been a very rude thing to say, so, "Pleasure to meet you, sir," was what he said instead.

"A charming young man, not that much unlike the Young Master," Maison replied.

Ramsus could tell the strained politeness in his tone, and took a few moments to process Young Master in his head. Did he really just say I was like...

"I hate to disturb you, Maison, but may we have the Gun Room to ourselves for a while? We have some catching up to do," Sigurd said, looking similarly disturbed that Maison would compare Kahr to Bart.

"Of course. Perhaps our new guests on deck might like some tea?" Maison produced a tray within moments and was on his way.

Jesse pulled out the chair next to him at the table. "C'mon, Kahr, siddown for now. We're not going to beat you up worse. Well...I'm not, anyway. I can't speak for Hyu or Sig."

Kahr took the seat offered to him and felt very self-conscious now that everyone was looking at him. Sigurd took a seat across from him, and the original Elements were officially reunited.

"Man, you sure do look like hell," Jesse said.

Kahr looked at the bruise on his arm again, but hadn't really stood in a mirror since arriving, so he didn't have a clue what his face looked like. "I don't think I've looked at myself in the mirror or slept for at least five days before I ended up here."

Sigurd frowned. "How much DRIVE were you on?"

"I don't remember. Enough to make everything worse."

Hyuga was drumming his fingers on the table, making him nervous. He was waiting for Kahr to say something, but he gave no indication of what. The longer he looked across the table at Sigurd, he began to wear the same expression of bottled anger Margie had just before she left. Jesse was concentrating on drinking some kind of hard liquor, and did not seem to expect a thing.

"I fucked up, and I'm sorry."

"You're goddamn right you fucked up!" Sigurd stood up and slammed his chair into the table. "As if working with Shakhan wasn't bad enough, what happened to Nisan wasn't even strategically necessary!"

"You're right, I was wrong to do that, and I don't even have a good reason for it. I just wanted to...needed to get at Fei. I had to."

Jesse drank more of his whiskey and turned to Ramsus, attempting to change the subject. "Hyuga told us what you told Fei about your grudge with him. That's some pretty heavy shit. And I don't know about you two, but if it were me, I might not have gone as far, but...shit, man, I guess friendship don't count for anything anymore."

"But we're perfectly fine being buddy-buddy with the Demon of Elru?" Ramsus was trying to keep his voice down, but it cracked at Elru. He could feel himself getting worked up all over again.

Sigurd started pacing the room. "You've made yourself the Demon of Nisan, and much worse for what's happened with Elly."

"How was I supposed to know that Van Houten was the goddamn Anti-Type? There was no way I could have possibly known. Hyu, you were there the whole time. They just sat back and explained everything like it was some kind of bedtime story to them. Both Krelian and Miang both knew how dependent on them I was, so it was just so easy for them to wind me up until I was completely blind to everything I was doing after I met Fei on the surface again."

"It's true that they were playing you the whole time," Sigurd began, looking at Jesse and Hyuga, "and they were able to do that, at least in part, because we...all of us...kind of...ran out on you..." Sigurd sighed and gave him a lopsided smile, and made eye contact in a way that made Kahr flush a little.

Jesse put a hand on his back. "I'm sorry, Kahr."

Hyuga sighed and put a hand on his wrist. "Sorry, Kahr."

Sigurd offered his hand to shake. "I'm sorry, Kahr."

Kahr took Sigurd's hand and gripped it tightly. "I'm sorry to all of you, especially you, Sigurd. A-and I know it's going to take a lot more than just an apology to really show you and your family that I mean it. And that goes for the Blacks and the Uzukis as well."

"Looks like Hyu literally slapped some sense into you, heh," Jesse said.

Hyuga smirked sadly. "Would that more of our battles been hand to hand, this whole thing could have been a lot less bloody."

Kahr reluctantly loosed his grip on Sigurd's hand. "I'm not so sure about that, Hyuga. As screwed up as it was, Krelian and Miang were just as much my family as any of yours to you. You also can't just...be a clone of Emperor Cain and walk off once you're the commander of the Solarian military. "

They all leaned in in unison, and Jesse said, "Yeah...about that...how...did that work, again?"

Kahr blinked a little, feeling the self-consciousness settle flutter back in. "I was grown in a vat over the course of ten years in Krelian's lab. As I became more and more self-aware, he started to tell me about how I was the chosen one, and how Emperor Cain was old and beyond his use, and how I would be his superior replacement. He had failed in cloning Emperor Cain many times before, so he was taking extra care creating me. I wasn't much more than a collection of brain cells before I was...expunged from the laboratory. He just hadn't worked a whole lot on getting the physical part of me together yet before, well, you know..."

"What does that even mean, the physical part of you?" Jesse asked.

Hyuga stepped into the conversation. "It means that he must have been a collection of neurons cultured separately to prevent premature aging when attempting to speed up development of the knowledge centers of the brain. Kahr, you said he had failed many times Emperor Cain before, did you not?"

Kahr nodded. "That's correct. Krelian had...a body he had been saving from a previous experiment that seemed in-tact and was aged appropriately for his plans, but the brain in that body was completely undeveloped. The way it was supposed to work was that, when Krelian thought I was ready, he was going to put me in the tank with my body, and I was going to absorb...myself into his brain. It's...actually, kind of awful, now that I think about it." He had to break eye contact for a bit again.

Hyuga was morbidly interested in this. "But what happened instead was..."

"What happened instead was that Karen Wong came along and told Krelian that her son was the real Contact, and that there was no need for me, so I was flushed from my tank into Etrenank's waste disposal system and ended up escaping it close to Jugend. There was a young man, a student at Jugend, named Kahran Bekka, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and looked enough like my body to want me to absorb him. Whoever he was was essentially killed during the absorption. I-I didn't mean to kill him, but it just...happened."

"You were expecting to integrate into a human vessel specifically prepared for you," Hyuga said, sympathetically, "Even I may have come to the same conclusion at first."

"What happened to Bekka? I seem to remember that name on rosters before you showed up, actually," Jesse said.

"It took me a month before the shock wore off, and when I was able to venture out into Etrenank, I made it look like he'd just run away. I had nothing else to really go on since I didn't have access to his memories. I ducked out of Jugend for a while, legally replaced his surname with my project's code name and re-enrolled after I was sure no one would recognize me. The rest, you guys all know, sorta."

"Wow," was all Jesse could say.

Sigurd tried, "That's..."

"Completely fascinating." Of course Hyuga was fascinated by it.

"How did you manage to survive when you were...flushed?" Sigurd asked.

"I guess even if you're just a clone of Emperor Cain's neurons, you've got a certain amount of inherent power? I was able to see how the previous experiments went when I was in Krelian's lab. They were...pretty monstrous, but still alive." Kahr sighed. "Sorry for being this weird science experiment without telling you, but I'm sure you guys wouldn't have believed me if I'd tried to tell you at Jugend."

"You're right about that," Jesse said.

Kahr looked around at the table uneasily. "So, uh, you said Fei had questions for me next?"

Chapter Text

1-4

Dominia held him after he fell asleep as closely as she could. That had been the most fantastic moment she had ever had in all her life, but she wasn't sure of what to do next. Would her sisters be angry with her? Would she be able to look at him in the same way again? Would she become dependent upon this kind of physical affection? Was he even the same man she fell in love with seven years ago? Would she be comfortable being seen with others with him? How much of this was rebounding off Miang? Was she somehow not as strong as she was before, now having her wish somewhat granted?

All of this thinking made her angry, and she righted herself abruptly. The Commander had been propped up on her torso the entire time, and flopped over unceremoniously when she moved. Dominia grimaced, but luckily he didn't wake up, so she moved him back into a position she thought looked comfortable and brushed his hair out of his eyes. The whole thing still seemed so surreal to her. She almost didn't want to leave, but she couldn't sleep and he needed the rest. She searched the room for where her clothes had ended up and she picked up his speedo, having mistaken it for her own underwear. She felt the blood rush to the tips of her ears and decided that, if this never happened again, she'd like to have kept at least something from it. It wasn't in any decent condition to be worn, so she stuffed it into her boot and collected the rest of her clothes.

She unlocked the door and walked out into the hallway, and she gasped audibly when she turned her head and saw Sigurd Harcourt leaning against the wall.

"There's no need to panic, Ms. Yizkor. I'm not angry or anything," he said. "And I wasn't up against the wall while it was happening, but...people heard some...kerfuffle, and the other girls are up on deck, so I put two and two together."

"I'm sorry for...causing a disturbance. We're still your guests, I--"

Sigurd stood up from the wall. "Please relax, there's no harm done. Kahr has a certain...effect...on people face to face." He smiled sadly. "I have to admit to a little bit of jealousy, but there's a land war between Kahr and I these days, and my obligations are to my family. I am glad to see that he's surrounded by people who want to make him happy."

Dominia felt the tips of her ears turn red. "N-not a whole lot's set in stone right now." What the fuck are you trying to say? Not a whole lot's set in stone, so if you wanna, like, walk in and bang him behind me, go ahead?

Sigurd crossed his arms and tilted his head. Dominia had never seen a more apparent, "Oh honey, please," look in her life.

"I know about the...thing."

Sigurd narrowed his eyes in amusement. "The thing?"

"Yeah, the thing, you and the Commander..."

An eyebrow raised.

"He still really likes you, you know."

"Enough to try to bury us in the desert?"

"I guess Solaris' intervention in the Kislev-Aveh conflict really has made a lot of things a lot more complicated than they were before," Dominia admitted.

Sigurd nodded. "Exactly, which, while I don't think I can start over with Kahr all that easily, I would like to try to be friends with you, if that's all right?" Sigurd extended his hand and when Dominia shook it, he smiled.

She smiled back, though it felt a little hammy. After the moment had passed, she looked up and said, "This is a little awkward to ask, but is there a place I can get a shower?"

"Of course. I can see to it that your uniform is cleaned, too. Follow me."

Sigurd led her down the hall, into what looked like a laundry room. "Pick anything you like. When you've changed, we can get your uniform washed."

Dominia picked out something practical-looking that fit and he ushered her into the showers. "The water starts out cold at first, so be mindful of that." He handed her a primitive-looking, but large, fluffy towel.

Sigurd exited the room and she stripped out of her uniform, glad to get out of the stink of it. Her boots and pauldrons didn't need to be washed, but she fished the Commander's thong out of the bottom of her boot. She decided that while she had the chance to get her little prize washed, she should take advantage of it, so she rolled it up in the center of the pile so it'd be inconspicuous. She topped the pile with her headband and walked over to one of the stalls.

She hung the towel Sigurd had given her within what looked like arm's reach from the outside of one of the adjacent stalls and took a look at the shower knobs. She cautiously turned them, keeping her distance from it until the water was warm enough to shower under and grabbed for soap. There were two bars of things that looked like soap in a metal enclosure, clearly labeled SOAP and SHAMPOO in surface common. The soap was greyish and the shampoo was greenish. She picked up the shampoo bar and studied it for a bit. She'd never seen a solid shampoo bar before, but from a utilitarian military supply standpoint, it was a lot more portable, and she was really excited at the concept. Examining the soap more closely, she found that it had bits of sand on its bottom side, which made it better to scrub with. She couldn't figure out what tactical advantage scrubby soap had, but seeing no wash rags around, she guessed that its value was in that.

When she was done, she felt cleaner than she had in years, even in Solaris. This good, rough, manual cleaning felt better to her than the softer feel of the high tech showers in Etrenank. She grabbed for the towel, which ended up just slightly out of her reach than she anticipated, but she got it. It was bigger and warmer than any towel she'd ever used before, and she kept herself rolled up in it longer than a soldier probably should have. She closed her eyes and exhaled. She wasn't a soldier anymore, so there was no more need for that kind of rigorous expectancy in her life. For a moment, she wondered if barking or following orders would have been something she would have done if she'd gotten to grow up in Elru, but letting her thoughts slant that way always ended up making her sad, so she snapped herself out of it. She walked out of the stall and sat in the towel a little while longer.

Everything she agreed to do from now on would be her choice, which was an encouraging thought. She'd still be fighting, but she'd be fighting the right things from now on: the things she wanted to fight all along. She hadn't felt this sure or right about anything in a long time, and she found herself looking forward to the future for once, despite how dangerous it was.

When she got comfortable enough to unroll herself, she got dressed. She'd chosen a uniform with a plain white shirt and green pants and a green jacket that was probably a Gear tech's. It looked a little looser than she was used to, but the underwear she'd picked out was tight enough that she didn't feel insecure, though the straps on the sports brassiere were resting in a blank spot her uniform left uncovered, and it felt a little alien. The shoes she'd picked out were a little big for her, but she could walk in them fine, so it didn't matter. She put her headband back on and walked out to the laundry room with the towel and her uniform, where Sigurd was waiting.

"Do you feel better?"

Dominia nodded. "A lot better, thank you. Where should I put this?"

Sigurd motioned to one of the machines. "There's fine."

"Parts of it can't be washed. Is there any place I should put them?" she asked, after depositing her clothes.

Sigurd motioned her to follow him again. "I've arranged a slightly more permanent place for you, Kahr and the other girls to stay. You can keep your things there."

He walked her down to the Yggdrasil's gear hangar, where she recognized several of the crafts she'd faced off against in battle before. They had a long way to walk to the opposite side of the hangar, but she immediately recognized Bladegash lined up in front of the largely disassembled remains of Vendetta. "Has anyone said anything about if Vendetta will fly again?" The last battle in Nisan had left Vendetta completely inoperable, and the Commander had to retreat on the cruiser with the rest of the troops, much to his humiliation.

"Not yet. Between whatever Elly did to it at Nisan and the loss of its Anima Relic, its locomotion has been arrested, its weapon systems are locked up and its engine isn't responding. There was also...some...structural damage caused by the residents of Nisan." Sigurd smirked, but quickly turned his head so Dominia wouldn't see.

"I see..."

"It was riling the survivors of the last attack to look up and see it standing there, so Margie requested we remove it. Originally, Bart had it dumped off the coast between Aveh and Nisan, but when we picked all of you up, Hyuga thought it prudent to retrieve it. We haven't had a chance to tell Kahr yet."

She followed Sigurd down to the lower level, and he led her to a door close to where their gears were docked. Dominia looked up at Vendetta as Sigurd started tapping on the door's lock panel, noting the new anti-Solarian graffiti that had showed up at its ankles. Large strings of seaweed still hung off some of the spines at its hip and knee joints, and the area smelled fairly like saltwater. Most of its puter paneling had been removed to the corner of the hangar, but what was left still shone proudly.

The door panel gave a friendly chirp as it opened, and she followed him in. "This isn't the most luxurious arrangement, but it's more private than the barracks, and it'll keep you closer to your gears," he said. It was a fairly cramped room that had four very modest beds shoved into each corner hastily, and what looked like an older, larger mattress in the center. A few plants and end-tables were wedged where they could fit, but there were dents and an extremely heavy-looking replacement gear part gave away that this area had previously been storage for spare parts. It smelled slightly of fuel under the smell of detergent, but it was nicer than any other arrangement she'd had on the surface, the exception, of course, being her childhood home in Elru.

"Thank you, Mr. Harcourt."

"Please, you can call me Sigurd."

Dominia placed her boots by one of the beds and set her pauldrons at the foot of it. "Have the other girls been in to see this yet?"

Sigurd shook his head. "Not yet. They're outside, with their gears. Would you like to join them?"

Dominia exhaled. "I know I need to, but I haven't worked out exactly what I'm going to say to them. There's no way they won't know, and I'm not going to lie to them. I know I'm not the only one of the Elements in love with...him." Why couldn't she just say Kahr?

"You're pretty hardcore with your truths. I assume you don't want to alienate them, though."

"Absolutely not. They're my sisters, my equals. I don't know where I'd be without them, and I don't want to be without them. I'm...actually pretty scared to face them, come to think of it. I didn't think this through all the way." She found herself staring at the floor.

"How about you try to break it to them gently?"

"Gently?"

Sigurd shifted his weight and put a hand on his hip. "If I were any or all of the other girls right now, what would you say to me?"

"Uh...I told him how I felt and kinda threw myself on him and we did it?"

Sigurd smiled in polite exasperation. "You really aren't ready for this, are you?"

Dominia shook her head.

"This is only a suggestion, but I think they will take it better this way: Tell them that you poured your heart out to him. This is the truth. It's also the truth that he didn't turn you away. Unless they ask for details you want to give, I think you have free reign to omit them. Also tell them the other truth in this. Tell them that you still cherish their friendship, and maybe you weren't thinking at the time, but that you hope that this doesn't mess your friendship up. And, you could leave off with, as you've said before, the fact that nothing is set in stone."

Dominia blinked, massively impressed. "H-how did you come up with that so quickly?"

Sigurd shrugged. "Prince Bartholomew Fatima is prone to far worse perceived rudeness on a regular basis. I have become his apology translator, I think."

Dominia smiled, and her hope for the future bubbled to the surface again. "Well then, looks like I might need a ladder to get back up on Bladegash."

Chapter Text

1 – 5

 

Bladegash had gotten a considerable upgrade since boarding the Yggdrasil, she noticed. She wasn't an expert on gears, but she could tell from the hum of it that she had a better engine. She had also been outfitted with had a sharper-looking, lighter sword that reminded her of the kind of sword Hyuga used. She guessed that she'd find out any other improvements fairly soon.

When she emerged from the Yggdrasil's hangar out into the open, she found the other Elements easily, keeping a perimeter between the ship and the lighthouse that served as the topside entrance to Zeboim.

Tolone was the first to notice her. "Well, look who's done bashing her head against the wall!"

"How are things going? Is there any kind of plan?" Dominia asked.

"We've just been squashing Seraphs to keep a path clear for the others right now...which is kinda...ironic?" Seraphita said. "Is that the right word, Tolone?"

"Yeah, for once, that's the right word, Sera."

"Apparently there's some kinda business dealer down there selling ridiculous gear upgrades and DRIVE," Seraphita continued.

Dominia was immediately concerned. "Wait, they're using DRIVE?"

"Hey, don't act so scandalized. We're going after God, aren't we? We've been on DRIVE for reasons less important than this," Seraphita said. "Though I did suggest they concentrate on getting the gear parts first. I still have a pretty decent stash in Grandgrowl here that I'm planning to hand over, but I wanted it to be a surprise."

"I knew you were holding out on us!" Tolone exclaimed.

Dominia let Tolone and Seraphita bicker for a few moments more. She could feel her resolve starting to build back up. Maybe if they were distracted enough, she might not have to breach the subject. She turned around and her heart jumped in her throat. She hadn't noticed Marinebasher creep up behind her. "It is rumored that this arms dealer has been alive for 4000 years. It seems that the other nanomachine girl was drawn there, as well. She had been prodding at Fei for quite some time before they ventured out," Kelvena said.

"Is there a plan after this?" Dominia asked.

"We still have to make our formal announcement to Fei to join him. We have decided amongst ourselves that we're joining them whether you or the Commander do or not," Kelvena replied evenly. Tolone and Seraphita stopped their bickering to listen.

"Count me in, too," Dominia said. "There's no sense standing around while there's ways we can help, and I don't think the Commander is going to be far from us, even if he doesn't fight. Sigurd Harcourt had some space officially cleared off for us, too."

"Aaaaa, Dominia, that's great news~! I was getting a little tired of those cramped barracks." Seraphita piped.

"So, like, did the Commander ever get up?" Tolone asked.

Her heart jumped in her throat again. "He did."

"Did he have anything to say?" Tolone pressed.

"He...apologized to me for calling me a traitor in the Merkavah, and I told him I would be fighting against Deus whether he was going to or not."

"Woah, how did he react to that?" Tolone asked. She could tell the others were anxious. Kelvena's silence was beginning to get to her.

"He just apologized again. I'm not sure if he thinks he has the means to help. Sigurd told me that he doesn't know that they have Vendetta in the hangar yet."

Tolone was getting suspicious. "We left you about four hours ago, though. Did he really just apologize to you for that long?"

Dominia wasn't sure if having this conversation over the comm system was better or worse than doing it in person. "I had a lot to tell him, at least."

"Wait, does that mean you--" Tolone started.

"--you told him your feelings?!" Seraphita finished.

The others converged on her when she didn't immediately sputter out the expected 'no' that had happened the last five or so times she'd attempted confessing. "I did."

"Ohhhhh!" Seraphita hooted.

"Ohhhhhhhh!" Tolone hooted back.

"What did he say?" Kelvena asked softly.

Dominia was disheartened by her tone. "He said that he was flattered to have the affections of someone as loyal as me..."

"...and then what? You've been gone for hours, Dommi!" Dominia really hated when Seraphita called her that, but she could use all the humanizing she could get right now.

She steeled herself for the rest of it. Sigurd's advice seemed to slip like sand through her fingers. It was all just happening too fast, and she lost control. "He said he was sorry he couldn't respond to my affections right, so I kinda...kissed him and he didn't push me away, and I..."

"And then you what???" Seraphita piped.

"A-and then, never you mind!" The other girls were silent for a while, which scared her. She scrambled to get some kind of dignity back. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking of anyone's feelings but my own. I wasn't thinking of the consequences. My loyalty should have been to you guys first, and it was really selfish of me to--"

Tolone cut her off. "Wait, so you're apologizing for doing...something you've always wanted to do?"

Dominia was glad this wasn't a face to face conversation after all, with how red her face got. "It was all just very abstract before now, and I don't really know how you guys feel about him, either."

"Dominia, I was ten years old when he saved you. I'm just a little girl to him...and I'm kind of...stuck this way, you know? You're, like, my sister. Don't apologize for something like that. At least not to me. I'd much rather you be happy, you know?" Tolone said.

"Yeah, the Commander is super great, and yanno, without him, I have no clue where I'd be. I'm happy to just be by his side, but I kinda can't think past that. He's gorgeous, you're gorgeous, and I'm not as dumb as Tolone thinks I am, so even if I did feel that way, I think you got dibs, man." If Seraphita had said anything like that to her in the middle of Etrenank, she would have been mortified, but somehow, there and then, it put her at ease.

Kelvena stayed silent a little longer. "I have something to say in private, but I think it can wait. I am not sure how I feel, but thank you for coming at this apologetically."

Of all the girls, she hadn't wanted to be at odds with Kelvena. She always kept quiet when the other girls were egging her on to confess her feelings to the Commander. "I understand."

The rest of a potentially awkward conversation was interrupted by Fei, Bartholomew and Emeralda resurfacing. Dominia had never seen Xenogears up close before. It was an impressive sight to behold.

"Hey, did everything go all right?" Tolone asked.

"Yeah, things went all right. I think we're done for the day. A lot of stuff just happened and the sun's about to set, so we'll try again tomorrow," Fei replied.

"Did you guys get all the parts you wanted? Once we get in, the girls and I kinda have a surprise for you!" Seraphita said.

"Man, we are nowhere near where we'd like to be," Bart said. "We just don't have enough money to give Big Joe for the upgrades he's got. I have no idea why he's charging so much! There's like, no economy anymore. I don't know where the hell he's going to spend all that money down there all by himself."

"I guess when you've been alive for 4000 years, economies kind of are a joke to you," Fei mused out loud. "Oh, Dominia, looks like you've joined back up?"

"Er, yes." She still wasn't sure about how to go about conversing casually with the Demon of Elru.

"Let's get back inside, then. I think there's a lot to go over."

The Elements fell in behind Emeralda, who had been silent as usual, but Crescens carried itself differently enough that Tolone noticed. "Hey Emeralda, are you okay?" Tolone was naturally curious about her, both of them technically being cybernetic organisms.

A completely unfamiliar voice answered her back, "Yes, I'm fine."

"Woah...you sound...different!"

"When we get back, I'll show you."

Tolone continued to excitedly press for details and Dominia turned to look back at Kelvena in Marinebasher. Neither of them said anything.

When everyone dismounted in the hangar, Emeralda stepped down fully grown, and everyone around gaped as Fei recounted what happened. Dominia found it interesting, but she was more focused on worrying about Kelvena.

When the main group dispersed, Tolone kept talking with Emeralda and Seraphita seemed content to stick around her, so she took the opportunity to tap Kelvena on the shoulder. "Are you ready to talk? I can show you the space Sigurd set aside for us."

"Sure." It was icier than Dominia was comfortable with, and she should have expected it, but apparently not.

Kelvena followed her over to the door Sigurd had showed Dominia before. They both looked up at Vendetta, which was even more torn apart than it had been before Dominia had left. She pressed the door panel and showed her in. "It's a lot more private than the barracks..."

"It's...very nice..." A polite lie, Dominia surmised, to be sure. As the only one of the Elements that was born and bred in Solaris, 'nice' for her must have started at second class.

Dominia shifted uneasily. "Wanna tell me what's going on?"

"Are you going to be all right?" Kelvena asked. "The Commander is in an extremely bad state of mind, and has been since Bledavik. Are you sure you are okay with things happening this way? It has not been very long since Miang's...departure. Are you sure you want to be a...rebound girlfriend?"

"I-I never said we were dating. He kept apologizing for not really being emotionally available, and I was the one who threw myself at him. If I hadn't, I probably would have just left the room and let him sleep. Nothing's set in stone with this."

"Yes, and as the Element of Earth, how does this situation make you feel in the long term?"

"I wasn't really thinking about the long term...I just...I've wanted...to be close to him for the longest time that I didn't really give a thought to who's taking advantage of who..."

"I suppose I should get to the point of why I wanted to talk privately about this," Kelvena said, sitting on one of the beds. As usual, she had not opened her eyes the entire time. "I do not like the idea of you waiting around for years for someone who might not be capable of truly loving you."

"Why would you really care about something like that? It's just me and my stupid decision," Dominia replied, folding her arms.

"I think you need to understand something just a little bit better about me. In the course of the last few months, my best friend has turned out to have been the primary component in an interplanetary weapons system, her destined soul mate has destroyed my home, and the man I've looked up to all my life now needs to look up to us. The people I have been close to for most of my life are gone, except you, Tolone and Seraphita." She was wringing her hands. "I do not want to see you dragged down, too. I mean...I really do admire the Commander, but I am really worried that you will just...lose yourself to him in this."

"So are you saying I should just stop?"

"I am saying you should be careful. I know that is not your area of expertise, but if he breaks your heart even more, like he has been breaking your heart for the past seven years, I do not think I could forgive him..." Kelvena turned her head away. Dominia had never seen her flush before.

"Wait, what do you mean by that...?" She stepped closer.

"What do you think I mean by that?!" she opened her eyes, then, and Dominia saw the tears. "To be honest, I have not really thought about the future, either, but you should know that my feelings for you are very strong, and I do not want you to get hurt. If you are happy, that is fine, but...please, before you destroy yourself, I wish you would think of me. I know that might be an unreasonable expectation...I have never told you, or anyone else, the way I feel, but I have always admired you for you. Behind your reflection of what you admire in the Commander is this strong, beautiful, rash woman that I am too scared to try to be myself, but I still love."

"Oh, Kel...I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I wasn't paying attention. I'm such an asshole..." Dominia walked over to her and hugged her.

Kelvena hugged her back as fiercely as she was capable of, which wasn't much, but she still tried. "I did not know I was capable of having such feelings for another woman, but I suppose, here I am. I never thought Miang would be out of the way, and I underestimated how stubborn you are and how quickly things were happening. I should have told you when I had the chance. It is...my own fault, but...I am still sad." She squeezed her tighter.

"If you'd said this to me yesterday, I wouldn't have..."

"There's no need to say things like that to make me feel better."

"But—" Dominia could feel her own tears start to well up in her eyes.

"If things do not work out between you and the Commander, remember that I will be there for you. In the meantime, I will be all right. I have become very used to heartbreak. If we are able to save Elly, and things calm down, and the world has a chance to settle back in, all of us are going to be in a much better state of mind. Even if we are defeated, at least some of us will have left this world somewhat satisfied."

Dominia pulled away. "I will try to be careful, and I'm going to make goddamn sure we're not defeated."

Kelvena wiped the tears from her eyes and nodded. "Thank you for...not freaking out."

"Why would I freak out?"

"I was not sure if you liked other women, too..."

Dominia chuckled nervously. "To be honest, men who aren't the Commander don't really interest me that much anymore."

The door chirped and slid open, and Tolone backed into the room. "--But what if we could get Doc Ricdeau to like, I dunno, upgrade me? That would be so cooooool!"

"Yeah, yeah, I gotcha. We gotta save that stuff for after the big fight. We don't have all that much time, yanno?" Seraphita said. Kelvena and Dominia could tell that this was one of those very rare occasions where Tolone had managed to annoy Seraphita and not the other way around. "Oh, hey, sorry. Hope we didn't super-intrude. Sigurd dropped off your uniform from the laundry, Dominia."

Dominia flushed bright red as she handed it over with the Commander's underwear on the top of the pile. "Uh...thanks."

"This thing is a little too sexy for you, Dommi...and there's another pair of underwear that's much more your style in the middle of the pile. I don't think it's yours, hehehe..." Seraphita said, holding it up.

"H-hey, I stole that fair and square...!"

Kelvena looked up from her gloom. "So...the rumors of the Commander's tight underwear are true."

Tolone and Seraphita burst out laughing, and even Kelvena started giggling. Dominia tried to bite down her embarrassment, but made a grab for it instead, and Seraphita raised it above her head and attempted to start a game of keep away, but was interrupted by Sigurd opening the door.

"Ladies, I hope you're not interrupting, but I wanted to invite you up to dinne--" The girls stood stock still and he took in the scene. When his eye passed over the thong, he tried to contain a giggle, but it didn't work. He backed out of the door. "E-excuse me a moment." The girls could still hear him laughing from outside.

Seraphita gave it back. "Here, like you said, fair 'n' square. You should probably get that framed or something after we take down Krelian."

Dominia exhaled and put it back in her boot, and Sigurd knocked on the door. Tolone opened it and he bowed to them. "Dinner will be served upstairs within the hour if you ladies care to join us. Dominia knows where to get a change of clothes and a shower if you care to freshen up."

Chapter Text

1-6

The other girls chose to freshen up and as they waited for the laundry. Each of the girls had picked out a uniform that they felt suited their personal tastes. Kelvena chose a medic's outfit, Tolone chose the same green gear tech outfit Dominia had, but left the jacket out, and Seraphita ended up in the beige communications officer suit, sans jacket. When they went to check on him, the Commander was still asleep, so they decided not to disturb him. Sigurd led the girls down the hall, where Prince Bartholomew was waiting.

The prince motioned to the door. "Welcome, ladies! Dinner is served in the Gun Room."

Dominia was fully expecting to be jammed into a munitions closet, but when the door slid open, she found that it actually had a very nice space set aside for lounging. Bart led the way down a set of stairs and motioned for them to sit near the end of one of three very large tables that had been moved together. It had been adorned with a navy tablecloth with the Yggdrasil's sigil in it in yellow at the edge. She recognized most of the faces of the people already seated, but couldn't name most of them. There were at least three roast birds, a caramelized Hobgob amongst the pickings, with an assortment of sauces, breads, and various cooked surface vegetables, which Dominia hadn't had since she left Elru.

"Eh? Is that roast Dive Bomber I smell?!" Seraphita was salivating.

"You betcha! Served Aveh style, of course!" Prince Fatima said. He pulled out a chair for Seraphita and she sat down, and the rest of the girls sat where they felt comfortable.

Dominia kept quiet during most of the dinner conversation, but tried to be polite. Sigurd sat next to her and he taught her everyone's names so that she had a good idea of who was who.

Tolone took the first opportunity to sit across from Dr. Ricdeau and talk to him about her implants. Both of them chattered excitedly about machinery, while the young Etone Dominia was reminded was called William Lee Black attempted to interrupt to ask Tolone if she had any relatives in Aquavy. When Tolone was of no help on that account, Kelvena started conversing with him about healing techniques. Seraphita found herself in paradise with all the food and ate happily and loudly, which Prince Fatima seemed pleased by. Dominia found herself zoning out, and it sapped her to try to act polite around strangers she didn't feel she had a whole lot in common with yet.

As if on cue, Fei Fong Wong got Dominia's attention from the other end of the table and asked The Burning Question: "Are you girls going to be joining us?" Fei asked. Dominia felt herself freeze up when he spoke to her, and she must have gotten a certain look in her eyes because Fei broke eye contact very quickly all of a sudden.

Seraphita was quick to remove Dominia from the hotseat. "Whether the Commander can join us or not, you have our aid. If he objects, one of us might have to stay behind, but it'll be for the best. I'm like, 99% sure he's not going to join sides with our common enemy. It's really more a matter of if he's healthy enough."

"Is he still in the barracks?" Prince Fatima asked.

Yeah, he is. We're very sorry for the inconvenience," Dominia said. She could talk to the prince, but she might need some time to get used to Fei.

"This is going to be a little awkward for all of us at first," Fei said. "It's hard to go from bitter rivals to allies in the course of a week."

Dominia was so relieved the other girls were with her when Kelvena cut in with, "We'll do our best to make up the difference. And when we rescue Elly, I look forward to being able to talk to her again!"

Kelvena and Fei started conversing about Elly at Jugend, and Dominia found herself feeling a little guilty. She had never been kind to Lieutenant Van Houten for any reason. She couldn't explain why, but she just rubbed her the wrong way. She was sure there'd be a wall of ice between her and Elly at best when...if they succeeded.

Dinner ended and people shuffled seats, but kept conversing. Tolone and Dr. Ricdeau had continued talking about the same subject since they'd sat down, and she felt like she'd done something wrong with the way some of the others, namely the heir to Kislev and the young Miss Balthazar, had shifted away from her. Sigurd hadn't moved, and kept smiling at her politely, but it was Jesiah Blanche and his daughter sitting down across from her which broke her out of her gloom.

"C-commander Blanche! It's nice to meet you!" Dominia had never met him in person before, nor ever expected to again, considering how he took a traitor's leaving of Solaris.

"No need for formality, Mz. Yizkor. From one Earth Element to the other, how ya doin'?" He offered his hand to shake and she shook it strongly.

"Everything's happening really fast for me right now, so I don't exactly know, but I think I'll be fine..."

The small girl at Jesiah's side smiled and offered her hand, too, which Dominia also shook. Sigurd had told her earlier that the girl's name was Primera, and there was something about her that struck her, and she couldn't help smiling back at her.

"M-my, aren't you precious? Sigurd here tells me your name is Primera?"

Primera nodded enthusiastically, looked around and saw that her brother was talking to someone else, and giggled.

"I-it's a real honor to meet you, Miss Primera! I've been wanting to meet your father for years! My thesis at Jugend was on his ether techniques," Dominia had never imagined herself talking so easily with a little girl, but it didn't hurt that her father had been her idol.

Sigurd smiled as Jesse recounted his various ether techniques and Dominia excitedly repeated them back and started talking about how she modified some of hers for use in melee combat. Jesse seemed impressed and Dominia was really pleased to hear it. Their conversation came to a complete halt when Billy came over to check on Primera.

"Oh hey, Prim, looks like you've met Dominia?" Billy asked her. Dominia could see her freeze up and crawl back into her shell as soon as she spoke to him, and her heart broke a little. Billy smiled apologetically at Dominia and tried to continue. "Dominia's one of the strongest women I've ever met! S-she's really cool!"

For Primera's sake, she reached over the table and rolled her sleeve up, flexed her bicep. "He's right, I am really strong! Wanna feel my muscle? It's totally up to you!"

Primera excitedly hopped up and put a hand on it, and Dominia tightened her bicep as tight as she could. Primera gasped and started giggling again.

"Feels like a rock, doesn't it?" Dominia asked. Primera nodded excitedly.

"Looks like Dominia could probably carry all the Blacks in one hand if she tried, eh?" Jesse asked, looking fondly at Billy, who reacted neutrally. When her father spoke, Primera plopped in his lap.

"How old is she?" Dominia asked.

"She's just about eight, right?" Jesse asked, deferring that one to Billy.

"Seven and one half," Billy said, visibly annoyed.

"Seven and one half years ago is very close to when my Commander brought me to Solaris from Elru," Dominia offered. It was an awkward thing to enter into conversation, but she figured it was better than nothing. She felt herself return a little bit to the scared, fourteen year old she had been that day and looked at Primera sympathetically. She didn't know all the details of why Jesiah Blance's daughter didn't speak, but dividing what she knew about Isaac Stein and Billy still wearing several Etone accoutrements, she could guess it had something to do with that.

"So I guess the old Earth Element was leaving as soon as the new one was on her way in..." Jesse mused.

Dominia wasn't sure of where to take the rest of the conversation and stammered a bit. Luckily, Seraphita reached into her pocket and brought out her DRIVE stash. "Oh, hey, yeah, forgot I had this!"

Several of the people who had stopped paying attention came to gather around the small transparent case full of tiny vials.

"And that, my new friends, is why I said y'shouldn'ta spent money on that DRIVE that dealer was tryinna sell ya," she said triumphantly.

Fei and Prince Fatima were quick to inspect them. "This is amazing!" the prince said, aiming to pocket one for himself then and there.

Sigurd stood up at the table. "Now, Young Master, you be careful with that stuff."

Fei frowned, looking at the one he had in his hand. It was labeled in Solarian, which after the incident at Point Bethlehem, he could read almost without trying to. Its cap was blue. "This isn't the same stuff that Elly and Ramsus were on, was it? This one says Ether on it..."

Dominia was surprised he knew Solarian unassisted, but if what she'd heard was true about him and Id coming to a resolution, then it would have made perfect sense for him to know it all of a sudden. She stood up and leaned over to inspect Seraphita's stash, having never seen it before herself. "If I may, I'll show you..." She picked through them gently and pulled out one of three that she saw that was entirely red. "This is the one they were on." She handed it to Fei delicately and everyone leaned in.

Fei took it and read it. "Aggrodrive...?"

"Extreme bonuses to ether and physical attack, increased dexterity, but drastically reduces all defenses. The idea was to hit hard and dodge if you didn't kill in one hit. If I remember correctly, Lieutenant Van Houten was only ever given exactly one of these," Dominia said, looking a little guilty. "It's the most expensive DRIVE ever made."

Sigurd shifted uncomfortably. "Any idea how much of that stuff Kahr was on?"

Dominia frowned. "One of these is enough to keep someone my size awake for 48 hours, so I'm thinking maybe two or three...maybe four, with how awful he ended up. I think he could only withstand it because he..." She felt awkward bringing up Emperor Cain.

"Because he is a clone of Emperor Cain, yes," Dr. Ricdeau finished for her. He stepped in to inspect the stash. "There is a way to organize these to maximize our safety in battle. I do not think everyone here can read Solarian, so that is going to be important. I think even if Kahr joined in, taking all of this DRIVE as-is in one go could kill every one of us. How on earth did you manage to keep this much drive on you, Seraphita?"

Seraphita shrugged. "I dunno, for every two I got, I only used one. That and I didn't tell nobody where I kept the rest, hehe."

"That is very intelligent thinking, conserving a resource as precious as this." Dr. Ricdeau said.

The smile on Seraphita's face usually never left, but she smiled more at the compliment, especially considering who it came from. "Ehe, thanks, Doc! See, Tolone, it doesn't take being as smart as you to still be smart!"

Tolone rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, whatever."

"If it turns out that we can't use all of it safely, we can try to sell the rest to that Big Joe person, unless he won't take it," Dominia said. She didn't like the idea of the Aggrodrive being used by any of her present company, least of all, her Commander.

Sigurd seemed to be in agreement with this. "Wouldn't it be better to just sell it all and get money enough for all those expensive gear upgrades in return?"

"As much as I'd normally agree with you, Sigurd, we could use every edge we can get in this last fight," Fei said, holding the Aggrodrive up to the light.

"What's the plan?" Dominia wondered if Id had been put on Aggrodrive before being deposited at Elru, and mainly asked to get her mind away from that thought.

Fei nodded. "We let Doc and you sort the DRIVE," he said, giving Dr. Ricdeau a distrustful look. "You two seem to know the most about how to use it responsibly. After that's done, we'll go down to Zeboim and try to sell the excess to Big Joe and see if we can't get those upgrades paid off. Whether we can or not, I'd still like to make sure we're all upgraded before we enter the Merkava again. The Yggdrasil's gear techs are very close to finding out what's wrong with Vendetta, so when Ramsus wakes up, it won't be long before he's fully capable of joining all of us. That is, if he wants to." He slid Seraphita's case back to her for now and she pocketed it again.

Dominia nodded. "If he doesn't, I've agreed to stay behind and watch after him so he doesn't become a problem for the rest of you. I think he'll agree to it, but there's a lot of bad blood between all of us. Thank you for taking us in even if you didn't have to. It means a lot to me that you've cleared us off some space and are trying to fix the Commander's gear even though we've been perfectly rotten and worse to all of you in the past..."

Jesse clapped a hand on Dominia's shoulder. "Once an Element, always an Element. We got a fight to fight, and what we can't make work face to face, we can split back up when we win. We owe Kahr that much to give him the chance to get Krelian back for all the shit he's dragged him through."

Dominia smiled and the others seemed to nod in agreement.

Jesse put a bottle of something on the table and the man Sigurd had pointed out as Lawrence Maison began passing out wine glasses to the adults. "Before we get all responsible, how's about one last drink while we're all still together?"

Billy rounded up those he considered not of age (himself, Primera, Marguerite Fatima (who had avoided all of the girls the entire night), Chu-Chu and Maria Balthazar) and said his good evenings politely. He must not have known that Kelvena and Tolone were both his age, or just knew better than to ask a guest of honor to leave. Seraphita nudged at Tolone. "Wonder why he was tryinna ask you where you was from?"

Tolone shrugged. "Iunno. We kinda have the same look, I guess. I'm 'from' Krelian's lab."

"I would not brush off an opportunity to bond with our new teammates. These next few days will be crucial if we are going to work together to stop Deus," Kelvena said.

"She's not wrong, Tolone," Dominia said. A shadow came up from behind her, and the other girls blanched a bit. She turned around and Rico Banderas offered her a glass.

"Thank you for apologizing," he said.

Dominia took the glass offered and Seraphita and Tolone dispersed themselves back into the rest of the crowd. "When things are over, I'd like to help rebuild Nortune, if that's acceptable."

"I would appreciate it if you did. Nortune has been due for a rebuild for decades, so it's a long time coming. I couldn't help but notice you flexing for Billy's sister earlier, which makes me think you'd fit in really well. That and Kislev is the Demi-Human capital of the world now, what's left of it," Rico said.

"The heart of Nortune is powered mostly by ether generators, is it not? It is likely it will shut down entirely after we vanquish Krelian," Kelvena interjected.

Rico nodded. "Yes, that's right. We've escorted most of the survivors just outside the city in case things get dangerous. We need to look further into better urban planning when we get the chance. I've asked for Doc Uzuki's help in this. Do you think any of you might know anything about that kind of thing?"

Dominia and Kelvena looked at each other. "Tolone probably knows a little bit, but I do not think it is her forte," Kelvena said.

Various chatter persisted into the night. Plans and hopes for the future, rebuilding projects in Nisan and Kislev and Shevat were subjects heavily favored. Tolone knew enough about urban planning to impress Rico, and the girls decided as a unit that Nortune was their first destination after Deus was defeated.

By the time that decision was made, Sigurd had passed out in his chair mumbling something about Nisan. The rest of the night started to blur as Jesse challenged everyone to shots. Kelvena ended up drinking too much, so Dominia ended up piggyback riding her back to their room after she'd gone the way of Sigurd before her. Seraphita checked to see if the Commander was still asleep (which he was) and Tolone retrieved their laundry. When they reached their room, they were exhausted enough that all of them just collapsed on the mattress clearly meant for Ramsus together.

Dominia was roused by Tolone's alarm buzzing the next morning. Kelvena had wrapped herself around Seraphita's arm, and Tolone was snoring loudly. She disentangled herself from the Elements pile and got dressed. Just outside the room, Vendetta looked even more taken apart than before, and she went to check on Ramsus again. He was still out. Not really sure of what to do, she returned to the other girls and laid back down until they woke up.

Chapter Text

1-7

"I would like to help Fei and the others, but...I don't know how much use I'll be without any kind of gear, though..." Ramsus admitted.

Sigurd and Jesse looked at each other, then Hyuga said, "We have something to show you first. Let us grab your coat out of the barracks."

Kahr got up and Sigurd led the way. The coat was grabbed without incident, though not re-donned, and Hyuga began leading them further into the ship. "Where are we going, Hyu?" Kahr asked, having absolutely no clue what to prepare for.

"Something that might convince you to join us if you're still on the fence," he replied.

"I have an axe to grind with the right people this time," Ramsus said. "Stick me in a Tin Robo, I don't care, as long as I can help chop Krelian down to size."

Jesse let out a rough cackle. "As mad as you are, you could do it! Change of plans, we have to stop back over to Dazil and comb the desert searching for the most beat-up Tin Robo we can find!"

Ramsus couldn't help but chuckle a little. "I'm serious, I'll fuckin' do it."

"You won't have to settle for that, Kahr, don't worry," Sigurd chuckled.

"What's that supposed to mean? I had to leave Vendetta in Nisan when Lieutenant Van Houten...did...whatever she did to make it stop work...ing..."

They had reached the hangar, and although it was half-taken apart, he still recognized Vendetta. He stopped and ran up to the guard rail, gawking. The other Ex-Elements formed up behind him. "No...no way."

"It's no Tin Robo, but we hoped you would find this acceptable," Sigurd said. "The techs made a breakthrough last night."

Hyuga spoke next. "Its locomotion was arrested, and a lot of the systems were still pointing to the Anima Relic that had transformed it. It will not be battle-ready for another few days, should you decide to join us. If what Fei has to say makes you reconsider, we will have to pull our techs back to service the active combat gears, but I think Vendetta knows that its master still has a part to play."

"How on earth do I...repay you for even starting this?" He kept his back to the rest of them so they couldn't see the tears in his eyes.

"Emperor Cain was well aware of your true identity, Kahr. All he had to do was look at you to know who you were," Hyuga said, stepping forward to stand next to him. His expression and tone of voice softened when he could see his old friend about to cry. "You were the warning that let him know that his time had run out. It was a hope of his that you would come to see how you were being used, but the web Krelian had woven around you and Emperor Cain prevented either of you from helping each other."

Kahr put his head down and tried to squeeze the tears out of his eyes with one of his hands. The other hand had clamped very tightly down on his coat, much like he had clung to the blankets earlier. He felt like a child, or at least how he thought a child might feel.

"If you wish to talk of payment owed, count your suffering thus far, and worry no further. Emperor Cain's will, when I entered into his service, was to protect humanity. I see your recuperation, the restoration of your gear, and an opportunity to join the fight against Krelian, as being perfectly in line with that will."

It was upsetting for Hyuga to see Kahr the way he was in Merkava, but the sob he let out next legitimately scared him. "No, this isn't the way it goes. Shit like this doesn't happen to me. I owe you more than I could ever hope to repay, and one of you is secretly one of the Gazel or something. That's the only way this works."

"I know it is difficult to seed self-worth, Kahr, but please know that my words are not hollow. I am who I am today because of you. Had Emperor Cain been completely blindsided by Krelian's treachery, there would have been no need for me at all. He had been convinced for ten thousand years that the resurrection of God was the only meaningful thing the people of this world were capable of doing, that all that had transpired on this planet was of no worth at all. Without you, all of us would be dead already, or part of that thing, with no will of our own to speak of."

"This is way too much, Hyuga. I'm just--"

"If you say you are trash around me one more time, Kahran Ramsus, I am going to snap. I do not care what you were. I care about who you are, and who you will be! I did not meet a disembodied brain fourteen years ago. I met an inspiring young man! Someone who saved Sigurd from being ground up in the Soylent System, someone who helped Jesse's radically leftist ideals take root in our culture. Before Emperor Cain took me into his confidence, I thought you were just a spoiled and blue-blooded first class idealistic brat, and I was still impressed with you. Knowing your journey to the absolute top was so much harder than I thought it was has only made me admire you more. If you are worthless, Kahr, what on earth does that make me? What on earth are Sigurd and Jesse? What on earth are your girls?"

Kahr sniffed and looked him in the eye. "I...I'm sorry, Hyu..." He realized he'd never quite been this close to Hyuga Ricdeau before, even at Jugend. Hyu had always kept himself one step removed from him, and he was never sure if it was because he disliked him or not. The look on Hyuga's face now—a look of sympathetic admiration—finally dispelled that fear of being disliked. "I...was so distracted."

Hyuga found himself staring into Kahr's deep amber eyes and had to shake his head. "I do not think I need to go into detail about how much I adored Emperor Cain. I have a lot to tell you about him, but there is not a whole lot of time right now. I will tell you this, though. He said to me once, 'If you ever wonder what I look like, look at Kahran Ramsus, imagine his skin could tan in the sun, and then add ten thousand years to him.'"

Kahr allowed himself a chuckle. "He sounds like he had a good sense of humor. I'm a little envious."

"I do not think there is anyone in the world who would not envy Emperor Cain, Kahr."

Sigurd shifted his weight and cleared his throat. "I wasn't expecting this much of a reaction at seeing Vendetta again, but before you get more worked up, it does have some...external damage done to it by the survivors of your attack on Nisan. Those that are left...aren't very happy with you right now."

"I ran into Mother Marguerite earlier...she...made her unhappiness quite clear."

Sigurd nodded. "And I think you already know how I feel about it, too."

"...yeah."

"I would like to show you and the girls' room. As angry as I am with you, you do have Fei to talk to next, so I'd rather not knock you down any further than you already are. I feel badly about it, but...you destroyed most of Nisan, and I can't ignore that, Kahr. Bart won't be able to ignore it, either, so...I don't know, just don't expect anything from the Fatimas for a while."

"I understand."

The Ex-Elements continued their walk through the hangar. The girls' gears were lined up in front of his, with temporary ramps and leading up to them. Ramsus looked up at Vendetta, half-disassembled and its wires mostly exposed, and thought, You look just as exposed as I feel. He turned his attention back to Sigurd as he showed him the way to the room.

"This used to be one of the spare parts rooms. I'm afraid it's not much nicer than the barracks, but it's much more private..."

The ice in Sigurd's tone made him panic in regards to what had transpired in the barracks with Dominia earlier. "It's more than..." I deserve. "...generous, Sig. Thank you so much."

Sigurd smiled politely. "We've been hoping very fervently that you'd come around, Kahr. I'm sorry it took losing everything else you had to make you see."

Kahr half-smiled. He could still see the hostility behind Sigurd's polite mask. "I'm sorry, too."

Sigurd continued, "When you had to leave Vendetta in Nisan, Margie asked us to have it removed. Some of the survivors of your assault made it a project out of vandalizing it."

Ramsus walked over to Vendetta's ankles to inspect the Nisanite graffiti, but Jesse stepped ahead of him, attempting to block his view of an artfully painted SOLARIAN PIG-FUCKER that was as tall as both of them. "You ain't exactly in the best state to look at this, Kahr."

"I'm suddenly kinda glad my grasp of surface common has eroded." Ramsus stared blankly at the mural, which Jesse was suddenly less concerned about shielding his eyes from. He couldn't make out any of the words, but the Nisan cross was etched in several places around Vendetta's feet enough for him to understand, as well as several crudely scrawled upside down, crossed out and pissed on Solarian emblems. He seemed rather unaffected until he spotted a couple of stick figures that looked very much like Lieutenant Van Houten bending him over. It was nothing more than a smear of red, purple and yellow paint, but its arrangement meant enough to him for him to recognize it. "Well...this one isn't inaccurate..." There were a limited number of people in Nisan that knew his uniform and his hair color, so he figured it must have been done either by one of Van Houten's men that had defected from Gebler to stay by her side, or Mother Marguerite herself. He could feel his anxiety start to rise again.

"I thought I asked you to get on removing that before he saw it, Sigurd," Hyuga growled.

Sigurd was poised to retort with a catty remark, but Kahr shook his head. "No, keep it. Keep all of it." The others looked at each other, concerned. Ramsus could see their reaction in Vendetta's gold-chrome plating without having to turn around. "I might change my mind after I can read it again, but I dunno. Right now, it's...funny. Maybe it'll be good luck when I roll up in Merkava to fight God. Who knows? It might be distracting enough to get an extra hit in."

"How exactly do you...forget surface common?" Jesse scratched his head.

Ramsus looked at his feet. "I kinda...let a few things get rusty when I became the commander of Gebler. I figured I'd never need it, surrounded on all sides all the time by my troops and Miang. I was spoiled, and they were happy to keep me spoiled." He was starting to fold back in on himself, and the others could see it, too.

"How about this?" Sigurd suggested, "We can get you some charts to study while Vendetta is rebuilt and you regain your strength. No one else needs to know."

"I'd like that, thank you. I...don't care who knows, really. I've been a spoiled brat, and this takes the polish edge off an otherwise free ride. I've always had something to prove to someone. Better you than Krelian."

Sigurd sighed. "I wish I wasn't so mad at you, Kahr." One of the Yggdrasil's crew came up to him with the rest of Ramsus' uniform before he could say anything more. He took it and offered it to him. "Would you like to change into something a little more familiar, just for now?"

"I'm not sure. How many people know me and remember me as an enemy in this uniform? Solaris is gone. It doesn't mean anything to anyone anymore."

"I'm sure it means something to the girls, though," Jesse said.

"And it was given to you by Emperor Cain himself," Hyuga added.

Ramsus took a deep breath in and out and nodded. "All right. Let's do this."

Chapter Text

1-8

The sky was bright and clear over the Zeboim lighthouse. It was almost as if the world didn't know any of the horror that had gone on, nor was it paling in advance of what was yet to come. Dominia was very glad for that.

Lawrence Maison, the Fatima family...butler?...had introduced himself just before the Elements were about to head down and had offered them tea. Kelvena was delighted to have received such an invitation, and upon seeing this, the other girls pretended to be more interested than they really were, for her sake. Lawrence Maison was a delightful old man, but Dominia wasn't the sort for delightful old men, so she had let her mind wander off a bit while Kelvena and Maison chatted excitedly about the different varieties of tea that existed. She came back down when the conversation got a little more interesting to her.

"This tea set once belonged to Roni Fatima, the first king of Aveh. Its worth is beyond measure to the right collector," Maison said.

Tolone held her teacup up, and her eyes flashed a brighter shade of blue. Dominia recognized this as her analytic ether technique. "It's at least as old as that era. It's also much stronger than it looks. It's not porcelain, but it's been made to look and feel like it. They're made out of an alloy commonly found in gear armor from the Nisan-Shevati conflict five hundred years ago."

Dominia's cup was empty, so she tilted it to look at it a little closer. It was white, and the lip of the cup was thin enough that it allowed a small amount of light to pass through it. The symbol she'd seen on Avek flags was pressed into the sides of it. When she'd first picked it up, she had feared shattering it, but it had held fast, even with the weight of the tea in it. She let herself smile. "I'm officially impressed," she said.

"Good Maison, thank you for entertaining the girls," Sigurd's voice came from the top of the deck. The girls stood up and to attention when they saw Ramsus climb up and join the other Ex-Elements. "We are done with the Gun Room, should you wish to return."

"I believe I shall stay topside, Master Harcourt, if it's all the same to you," Maison said politely, "It would be a pity to leave such an auspicious reunion. All of the Elements, old and new, are in the same space for the first time, are they not?"

"You look like you're having a good time, girls..." All the girls had to do was hear his voice and they all came running for him.

"You're looking so much better, Commander!" Allowing herself a couple of contractions, Kelvena opened her eyes for him and he smiled at her kindly for the first time in a long time.

"Thank you, Kelvena."

She blushed despite herself and smiled back. "Y-you're welcome!"

Tolone tugged at one of his sleeves. "Really glad to see you on the up and up, Boss!" she chirped.

"I'm still a little weak, but not for long. Thanks for being patient, Tolone," he replied, giving her the same smile he'd shown Kelvena.

Tolone had momentarily forgotten that she could blush, but there it was. She shook it off with a toothy grin.

Seraphita gave him a peck on the cheek, "That's the spirit, Commander! We all still believe in ya! Let's see this through, ok?"

She flexed an arm, and he copied her with a wink. "Ok, Seraphita!"

Seraphita gave a squirrelish giggle, feigned a swoon and tumbled back. Dominia had hung back, allowing the others to go first, but now, all three of them dragged her forward.

"H-hey, there's no need to drag me, okay?"

"Sure there's not!" Tolone giggled.

Ramsus gulped, fearing he'd disturbed the girls' natural order by favoring Dominia. Everyone present seemed to at least have some kind of idea of what was going on between them, which made him feel self-conscious. He was extremely grateful when Dominia broke through the pomp the other girls were trying to put on her and walked up to him, simply saying, "Hey."

"Hey, yourself," he replied, beaming at her.

She smiled back, but was still overwhelmed by the concept of him smiling at her for very long, so she leaned in and hugged him to break eye contact. He hugged back a little more tightly than he ought have, but she didn't mind. "I wasn't expecting to see you back in uniform, sir."

"A friend convinced me that it's worth it for now," he said, glancing back at Hyuga, who nodded. "I can tell you about it later, if you like."

Dominia smiled. "Sure!"

Ramsus let himself look at her just a little while longer before attempting to mount up formalities with the others. Out of the heat of the moment they'd shared earlier, she was still the same tall and tough woman he'd known for seven years. She was just a little bit taller than him, though he hadn't been paying attention when they were kissing in the barracks. Looking on her now, he found that he really liked that she was taller, though he couldn't string any words or thoughts together to explain why, so he just stood there like an idiot, smiling at her.

She caught him staring. "Is there something else you wanted to say?"

"Quite a lot, but...I'd rather it be in private, if that's okay?"

Dominia flushed bright red. "S-sure, that's fine." She stepped away to try to shoo whatever spotlight had been drawn on her by the others. None of the Elements, new or old, looked on with any ire, but she still felt self-conscious.

"Well, uh," Ramsus said, sensing her discomfort, "Neo-Elements, meet the Ex- Elements?" He made a show of trying to introduce them. "Seraphita, this is Sigurd Harcourt, Element of Fire. Kelvena, Hyuga Ricdeau, Element of Water. Dominia, Jesse Black, Element of Earth. And Tolone, you know me already, I think."

When he said that, Tolone all but jumped up to hug him again, and they all laughed.

"Although we were not formally introduced, we did meet everyone last night at dinner, Commander," Kelvena said, shaking Hyuga's hand. "Though formality for something this important is very appropriate."

The Elements, all eight of them, took turns shaking hands and exchanging salutations. When they were done, Ramsus turned to the other Ex-Elements. "Thank you for seeing to welcoming the girls. I haven't seen them this happy in a long time. I'm sorry I missed that dinner now."

"Not to worry, Master Ramsus, there will be more," Maison piped.

Ramsus nodded politely. "Thank you, Lawrence, was it?"

"It is indeed, but call me Maison, if you please. Some may think the formality antiquated, but as you can see, I am just as antiquated."

"Of course, then. Maison it is."

"Are you done trying to fight me, Kahran Ramsus?" Fei's familiar, calm voice echoed from the hatch. Ramsus reflexively took a few steps back, but did his best to stand up straight to appear confident as Fei approached. The rest of his entourage, filled with only somewhat familiar faces, filed in behind him and circled outward around the deck.

"Y-yes, I am."

Fei offered his hand to shake. "So much bad blood has been spilled between us, Ramsus, and I want to formally apologize for all the things I have done that have caused your life to get harder. I know that can't undo them, but we have a big fight ahead of us, against people who've hurt both of us. I see no reason to fight you anymore, or really ever in the first place. Please join us, Kahr."

He had not seen Fei face to face in a long time, but the clueless, yet determined look that seemed permanently affixed to the younger man's face was replaced now with one of exhaustion and concern.

Ramsus inhaled sharply, biting back the urge to make a smart remark about being too familiar. Friends and lovers called him Kahr, and Fei Fong Wong was neither. He looked over at Dominia, who was just as tense, but she nodded for him to go ahead. Forcing the negativity from his mind, he stepped forward and shook Fei's hand. "Thank you. I accept your offer, and your apology, Fei."

Fei issued a sigh of relief, and he smiled. He could see several others relax and shift their weight where they stood. "You don't know how very glad I am to hear that."

"You've welcomed the girls, and taken me in when you had every reason not to help us. I can't find the right words to express my gratitude, but I hope I can make up whatever it is I owe to you, to all of you." Maybe if he just kept himself in diplomat mode, he could do this. He was a fuckup, but this was one of the things he'd prefer not to fuck up.

"There's so much I want to ask you right now, but I'm not sure where to start. Do you...have a place you want to start?"

"I...understand that you can recall some of Id's experiences." Ramsus said.

Fei looked at the ground. "I do."

"Do you recall anything at all about what happened to Elru?" he asked, reaching out for Dominia's hand, which was given freely.

"I remember that I was twelve years old. Solarian troops deposited me in an area and I just started...wrecking things. There was no logic to it. It was an interruption in the torture Krelian was conducting on me. I hadn't seen the sky in a year. I didn't listen to a single word my minders said to me. They were the first to die. I don't even remember how I got back to my containment cell."

Dominia squeezed his hand as Fei spoke, and he squeezed back.

"Id was made out of my rage at being my mother failing to protect me. It wasn't my mother's fault that Miang possessed her, but being experimented on by the person who turned out to be Krelian just made whoever or what I was supposed to be...wash away in a flood of anger and hatred. The Contact...is...not something you'd really want to be. Ramsus, if you would have been created as planned, Id could have been you."

The thought made him shudder, and Dominia disentangled her hand from his as Fei continued on.

"What kind of horror would the world be facing instead of having this chance, if you were Id? Would The Elements have happened at all? Where would your girls have ended up? Is that really something you would have wanted?"

"No, it's not. I can see now that your being the Contact has brought you nothing but pain. Krelian placed so much false value on the abstract concept of the Contact when he was creating me. I...didn't know what it really meant."

Fei shook his head, "Even I didn't know what it meant to be the Contact until Point Bethlehem."

Ramsus looked to the girls. "That must have happened while I was still out. What is that?"

"Before Doc slapped you, you were completely comatose for like, a week," Bart offered. "A ton of shit happened that week."

Hyuga cleared his throat. "Point Bethlehem is the landing site of an object known as the Zohar Modifier, which was the source of zero-point energy Deus' creators used to power it."

Fei recognized the look in Citan's eyes when things were about to get complicated, so he stepped in. "There is a person -- or more accurately, a consciousness – within the Zohar Modifier that calls themselves the Wave Existence. It was a higher being that was drawn into our space and trapped here when Deus was activated. When I touched it 10,000 years ago, I became the Contact, and the original 'Elly' was created. Through the Wave Existence's power, I've been able to retain the memories of every life my soul has lived since then. Because Id was the dominant personality controlling this body up until three years ago, most of those memories were closed off to me. But now I remember most of them."

Ramsus rubbed at his forehead. "How in the hell did Krelian think he could clone that kind of experience? I don't think I could have withstood that kind of thing."

Fei nodded. "Even if Krelian had continued to create you as he'd planned, your biological connection to Emperor Cain puts you at odds with the Wave Existence's will to escape this plane. Deus wants to keep it here, because that's part of what keeps it alive. It knows about Emperor Cain's deep-running ties to Miang. Cain changing his mind about humanity was completely unexpected, and probably impossible for he himself to carry out. But thank G--" Fei stopped himself for a moment, looking at Jesiah's son for a moment before finishing,"Thank actual God, that Krelian was foolish enough to cast you aside. It saved all of our lives."

"So even if Krelian's design for me was completed and I was plan-perfect, I would have failed in the end because the Wave Existence would have perceived my loyalty to Deus through Miang and Emperor Cain, and refused to align or bestow whatever kind of power or memory that it set aside for you." If it had been two weeks ago, knowing this would have caused him to go into another depressive spin, but everything mattered so much less now that he knew neither Krelian nor Miang were ever on his side. "When I arrived at the Merkava after losing Vendetta, Krelian put me in his gear to guard the door. I could still pilot and fight in Amphysvena, and its power got me drunk, but I still felt like I was too small for it. Borrowed power doesn't wield right. Krelian never understood that."

"The Krelian I knew as Lacan never understood that, either."

Ramsus frowned. "Lieutenant Van Houten is in very real danger. I mean, the rest of us are in danger, but all Krelian ever really went on about was the master plan to possess and control the thing called the Anti-Type. I didn't really understand what it was, at first. I thought it was some kind of powerful weapon or ether focuser or something tactical, but it's your forever-girlfriend that he wants, in a really bad way. Don't let him convince you otherwise."

Fei nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."

Ramsus scratched at the back of his head nervously. He'd run out of things to say. "Do you have any more questions for me? Is there anything I can do while I'm recovering until Vendetta is put back together?"

Fei stood and thought for a moment. "You're generally good at convincing people to do things for you. There's an arms dealer down below in the Zeboim ruins that's charging us an arm and a leg for gear equipment that's essentially going to be useless after the big fight. Maybe you could ride with one of the girls and try to talk him down in price?"

"I can absolutely do that."

There was no need to ask which of the girls he was riding with.

Chapter Text

1-9

The crowd dispersed, and the Neo-Elements and Ramsus were left to themselves. The girls re-clustered around him, waiting for some kind of speech.

"I, uh..." Dominia started.

"Oh, er..." Ramsus continued, looking at the others guiltily, "I...guess Dominia told the rest of you...?"

"Dominia has been in love with you for a very long time, Commander. She told us she finally revealed her feelings to you, and that you did not push her or her affections away," Kelvena said. Her tone was gentle and unreadable as always.

Tolone nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, like, it's pretty obvious that she cares a lot about you, and you haven't been cared for properly in a really long time. It's better than continuing to hurt and getting worse, for both of you."

"I hope this doesn't put a wedge between myself and you all..." he offered.

Seraphita crossed her arms. "Dommi's our sister, so you're on your own if there's drama, but, Iunno, I think you guys can work it out."

"Solaris no longer exists, and you and Dominia are consenting adults, no longer bound by any military regulations. Even if Solaris were still around, your rank as the Commander of Gebler would have afforded you any social indiscretions to begin with. You may do as you please. I consider Dominia my friend, and I hope all of us can become better friends with you as well, Commander," Kelvena said.

"Thank you...all of you. You've been so much more patient with me than you needed to, commanding officer or no. You don't need to call me Commander anymore, if you don't want to," he said.

"That's going to be a really tough habit to break, Commander," Dominia said, smirking sadly. "Fei beat me to calling you Kahr already. I'm jealous."

He smiled at her and put a hand on her shoulder. "It really doesn't matter what you call me, honestly. What I mean is that there's no longer a need to stand on ceremony or worry about stuff like propriety, at least when it comes to me." Dominia seemed to glow a little brighter at that. He leaned in closer to her and added, "Also, speaking as somewhat of an expert at being jealous of Fei Fong Wong, there's nothing to be jealous of. It seems like it's more polite to be familiar with this crowd, so I wouldn't think much of it."

Dominia nodded. "I'll try."

"Hmmmmmmmm, we should get going," Tolone said, noticing the Commander and Dominia's closeness.

Kelvena began to lead Seraphita and Tolone back down to the Yggdrasil's lower deck, and Dominia took a step to follow them, but Ramsus stepped ahead with her. "Hey, before we all go, I wanna ask you something."

"Sure, what is it?"

He leaned in toward her ear, lowering his voice, "So, I'm down one pair of underwear. I don't know where it went. Something tells me you might know where it is."

Dominia lifted an eyebrow and smirked. "Maybe...?"

He smirked back. "I know it took a leap of faith to confront me about my bullshit and tell me how you felt about me, but I don't quite get the underwear thievery. I'm not mad or anything, but I wouldn't expect that kind of thing from you."

"Maybe I was a little afraid you'd wake up and decided that that was the first and last time you wanted to spend like that with me," she said, looking down at the Yggdrasil's deck.

"I was hoping it wasn't the last, if that's all right with you," he said, putting his arm on her shoulder, hoping she would look up, which she did.

"That's very all right, sir," she said, beaming.

"There were a lot of new things I saw and felt last night that I really liked, and wouldn't mind...multiple repeats of." He leaned in kissed her gently.

She kissed back, but pulled away quickly. "I wouldn't mind that either, but we shouldn't keep the others waiting. I kinda don't trust myself not to get overexcited."

Ramsus sighed, but smiled. "Me neither, honestly."

"C'mon, let's go."



It was a bit of a squeeze, but Ramsus was able to fit into Bladegash's co-pilot seat. It was painfully obvious that it was made to fit Kelvena. "I'd like to applaud you on your brilliant and versatile gear-designing skills, Hyuga," he said sarcastically over the intercom.

"It is not my fault that you are not Kelvena, Kahr. I am impressed you fit at all."

"On a second thought, maybe it would have been more practical for the Commander to ride in Marinebasher with me?" Kelvena asked, conveniently way too late.

Dominia chuckled. "Nah, we can make this work. No sense taking more time to get re-situated."

"So, Commander, now that we're better friends, we get to ask you all the personal questions we want, right?" Tolone asked.

"Sure, why not?" Ramsus replied.

"Okay, first things first. What...is your favorite color?"

"Gold," Dr. Ricdeau said before Ramsus could answer.

"Uh, no? For your information, my favorite color is white, Hyuga."

"What? That is preposterous! I cannot believe I got that wrong. I could have sworn your favorite color was gold. That is why I asked them to paint Wyvern gold when I designed it for you..."

"Maybe that was Emperor Cain's favorite color? Something tells me it might have been, what with how he was always covered in gold, too? I mean, I do like gold, but I like white better?"

"I am extremely sorry, Kahr. I went off an assumption."

Kahr laughed, "It's really no big deal, Hyuga. There are a lot of things more important than custom gear paint-jobs right now."

"B-but I am truly sorry..."

"Hyu. Stop."

"I never thought I'd hear this kind of conversation between you and Ramsus, Doc..." Fei interjected.

"We should get in the elevator, guys," Dominia said.

"Dommi, you're the killjoy as always," Tolone replied.

"Hey, we can continue with your super-important prattle on the elevator, Tolone. It's not often that I get to go to Zeboim, okay?"

"Man, you and Zeboim..." Tolone gave her a raspberry over the intercom, but they all piled into the Lighthouse and descended.

"Wait, I didn't know you wanted to be stationed at Zeboim..." Ramsus said, not over the intercom.

Dominia flushed. "I've always been really interested in it, but I didn't want to interfere with your battle strategies, so I never spoke up," she admitted, looking back at him nervously.

"I would have made room in my plans for it if you'd have told me it meant something to you," he said sympathetically.

"Sorry...you were just...really, I don't know, super-human in my eyes for so long that I didn't want to chance a reprimand for personal reasons. I always tried to set myself up to impress you, and I didn't want to appear weak for wanting reassignment for personal reasons."

"I'm sorry I gave the impression that I would have been cruel to you for wanting an assignment you were personally interested in." Now he felt really bad for yelling at her before he lost to Fei in Amphysvena.

Dominia sighed. "Well, we won't have that problem from now on."

Ramsus leaned forward to try to hug her, but belted in as he was, it was uncomfortable. "I'm really sorry."

"What is this, an Ex-Elements Apologize Unnecessarily Party?"

As they descended and began to see the horizon of the city below them, Dominia leaned forward and turned the intercom back on. "This place is so fucking cool."

"It's just a ruin with some neat tech in it, and now that neat tech is our buddy Emeralda. I don't get the continued enthusiasm," Tolone said.

"What Tolone said. It's so daaaark and I'm scared!" Seraphita wailed.

Before Dominia could bluster back at Tolone, Fei offered, "You probably had some kind of significant event occur here in one of your past lives, Dominia."

"M-maybe..." she said. Ramsus reached out for her shoulder, and she put her hand on his. "Is there any way to know for sure what happened?"

"I got most of my more prominent memory flashes when I was close to the Zohar Modifier, but being close to the place that the event happened makes things clearer for me," Fei explained. "With as many lives as most of us have lived, it's hard to know what took place where and when, though. Maybe if Big Joe wants more money, we can canvass the area until we find something you're drawn more strongly to."

"Speaking of being drawn to, I think we have company already!" Seraphita said. Something was indeed waiting for them at the bottom of the elevator.

It didn't take long for the six of them to kick over the swarm of frogmen and singing semi-sentient snails that styled themselves as human divas, but the five dragons that came up on them afterward were another story.

"We are attracting too much attention as a unit of six. It might do to split up, Fei," Hyuga said after the battle was over.

"Right, Doc, we'll do three and three. Since Citan and I both know the way, we'll lead you to Big Joe from different directions around the city so that no one gets lost. Is that all right, girls?" Fei proposed.

"Sounds good to me," Seraphita replied. "Tolone, let's go with Fei. Kelvena, you and Dominia, with Doc Ricdeau, okay?"

"That is a sound strategy," Kelvena replied.

"Roger that," Dominia replied, falling in step behind Fenrir.

Fenrir, Bladegash and Marinebasher made their way down the ill-lit remains of Zeboim's city streets. So many buildings towered above them, their original occupants long gone, but some seemed to stare down at them. The air was stagnant and the streets were silent aside from the sound of distant fighting, and the occasional diva snail's incomplete aria, but even though Ramsus considered himself an outsider to the rich history of this world, he could tell that this place had a lot of sentiment soaked into it. This section of Zeboim city completely dwarfed Etrenank's high-rises, which filled him with as much dread as it did excitement.

Dominia must have caught him staring and nudged him. "Isn't it amazing, Commander?"

He looked over at her and smiled. He could tell that she was legitimately excited. "I think the only time I've ever been more awestruck by architecture was when I first set foot in Babel Tower. Zeboim gets more credit from me simply for the fact that humans that were born on this planet built something this impressive on their own. I think that speaks our ingenuity. We don't need to have Deus' approval to do or make something as staggering as this."

Hyuga cleared his throat over the intercom. "I do not believe I could have put that better myself, Kahr."

"It's also impressive that so many portions of the city survived intact," Kelvena said.

"Yes. I am not sure how much of this was on your reports when you sent Tolone and Seraphita down here to retrieve Emeralda, Kahr, but the only reason this portion of the city is not submerged is because enough material piled on top of it during a tectonic shift to create an air pocket." Hyuga replied. "I'm sure if we dove deep enough outside this area, we could find completely submerged ruins off the coast of Aquavy."

"I would be very interested in joining such an endeavor if it were to take place, Doctor Uzuki!" Kelvena said, excitedly.

"Uzuki?" Dominia puzzled.

"Uzuki?" Ramsus was almost in unison with her.

Hyuga chuckled. "I was not expecting the Elements to be calling me by my other name so soon."

"I'm not sure I'll ever get used to people calling you Citan, Hyuga," Ramsus admitted.

"It took a while for me to get used to the name, myself. It comes with the territory of attempting to remain covert, I suppose. Once other people start using it, it starts to normalize," Hyuga replied.

"Are you not also married to your wife under the name Uzuki, Doctor Ricdeau?" Kelvena asked.

"That I am, Kelvena. The name Uzuki was supplied to us by Emperor Cain. I can't rightly say I know anything significant about it. I am equally at a loss for the meaning of the given name Citan, though I have grown fond of it."

A herd of frogmen swarmed at their ankles and they had to take a few moments to stomp them out.

"Would you prefer us to start using your other name, Hyuga?" Ramsus asked after the battle was over, glad that there weren't any gear-sized opponents in this group.

"Hyuga Ricdeau was a warrior, a cold and cruel young man who infiltrated Shevat on behalf of his Emperor and fell to the earth when Yui Gaspar plucked out his heart. Citan Uzuki is the man who got to rise from Hyuga's ashes, who got to be able to live in peace with the woman he loved, and learned the true value of human life." he replied. "I am both of these men, especially now that we need to fight to protect all life that remains on this planet, but it is my hope that I can seal my swords after the fight, and only be Citan Uzuki for the remainder of my life."

The rest of the group was silent for a moment, but Dominia was bold enough to break it with, "Daaaaamn."

"So I take that as a yes?" Ramsus asked.

Hyuga cleared his throat again, "Well, I will not be offended if you do not, but if you can manage it, I would appreciate it. Sigurd is not even trying, but I would prefer my daughter not have to know too much about Hyuga Ricdeau."

Before they could speak further, they were swarmed by more frog men. "It seems that this tribe has some sort of grudge to settle with us. Maybe if we favor them with a battle hand-to-hand, they might stop swarming," Kelvena mused.

"You guys do what you want with this. I don't like the idea of leaving the Commander in Bladegash alone, and I'm pretty sure he's not up for fighting on foot yet," Dominia said. "I'll stay here in case any larger hostiles come our way."

"That sounds delightful!" Kelvena piped. "Doctor Uzuki, would you like to join me fighting hand to hand?"

"Absolutely, my dear."

Ramsus flipped the comm off. "Thanks for keeping me away from the fight. To be honest, being belted in here isn't doing my bruises any favors."

Guilt flickered across Dominia's face. "Do you want to switch up and ride with Kelvena once they get done?"

"Yeah, I think that'd be for the best, at least for today. Sorry," he said, grimacing.

Dominia flipped the comm back on and waited until Kelvena and Hyuga were done. "Hey guys, while you were having fun, the Commander kinda got himself pinched in the co-pilot seat back here. Kelvena, is it okay to switch up? I was in such a rush to get down here that it ended up not very battle-practical."

"That is fine. He is much more likely to be comfortable in a space built for someone your size, Dominia," Kelvena responded.

"Aw, put a cork in it!" Dominia spat back playfully.

Dominia helped Ramsus out of the co-pilot seat and kissed him on the nose. "We'll meet up later."

"I'm holding you to that," Ramsus said, winking at her before limping down the ladder.

Marinebasher was much less cramped, and Kelvena looked him over before they headed back out. "Commander, you are putting yourself at risk for greater injury the more you choose not to rest." She poked and prodded in the places she remembered his injuries from Merkava being, and he hissed at every one of them.

"I couldn't refuse Fei his first request. I've been asleep for much longer than I had any right to be," he said, continuing to hiss as she kept poking him. "Ow! You already did that one..."

Kelvena muttered her restorative ether chant, and all the recent stings and cramps from trying to fit into Bladegash subsided in a wave of effervescent blue light. "That should take care of the damage Dominia did to you today. You might be limping back into the Merkava if you are not careful with your left leg, though."

Ramsus looked down at his leg. There was still a nasty bruise the last time he'd checked it, but no one could really tell at the moment. "I don't exactly remember some of these injuries..."

"When we dragged you from the wreckage of Amphysvena, among other things, your tibia was splintered. You were still on enough DRIVE to kill Miang and stab Krelian on that leg despite the pain, but when you dropped, you didn't get up. Dominia had to knock you out to pry you away from Miang's body when we made our escape back to the Yggdrasil with the others. That was the last time you were in Marinebasher. You probably do not remember it, do you?"

Ramsus shook his head. "The first thing I remember after that was waking up on the Yggdrasil and seeing all of you girls and Hyuga, then going back to sleep."

"If you had not almost killed Elly in Vendetta, we would have been able to heal you quicker in one of Sage Taura's nanomachine tanks. It took Billy Lee Black, the Yggdrasil's nurse, Doctor Ricdeau, and myself to get you to the point where you did not need crutches for that leg."

"This trip is enough to make me appreciate the need to be grounded. I had no idea how bad I was...I'm sorry."

"We did not get a whole lot of time to talk to you about your condition before Doctor Ricdeau slapped you. That should have been handled differently."

"It'll be all right. Thank you so much for your help, Kelvena. Sorry for being...awful."

Kelvena shook her head. "Think nothing of it, sir. Let us get back to the task at hand."

"How are you doing, Commander?" Dominia asked over the intercom once they started moving.

"He is doing much better now that he can bend his legs, Dominia," Kelvena quipped.

"Sass!" Dominia huffed.

"I admit, we probably should not have dragged you down here in your condition, Kahr. Your leg needs to heal before you can pilot Vendetta again safely," Hyuga's assessment was on-point, as usual.

"So Kelvena tells me," Ramsus replied.

"We are almost there," Hyuga said. They were only a few steps away from the others when another dragon came to block their path. Ramsus checked to make sure he was belted in tight enough and the party engaged. It was easier to see what was going on from Marinebasher, and he could tell that Fenrir was running muchquicker and smoother than he'd ever seen it move before.

"Hyuga, what kind of engine is that?"

"It is one of Big Joe's OMEGA100 engines. It is optimized for maximum power, but god help you if you need more than 1000 fuel."

"Wait, what?! That is absolutely insane. No wonder you people got the jump on us all the time - you were experimenting with dangerous equipment!" Ramsus exclaimed. "What the hell is your output, Hyu?"

Kelvena plugged away at her console. "100. That name appears to be ironic."

Dominia was heard snickering in an unflattering manner over the intercom.

Hyuga chortled and added, "Well, we have been jumping from junk shop to junk shop, but I think this is the first of the exceptionally dangerous equipment we have seen. Not all of us are going to go my route for this fight. My role in the strategy is to be a damage dealer."

Ramsus sighed. "You people are nuts."

"Have you re-considered your choice to join us, Kahr?" Hyuga asked nervously.

"No, I think this problem needs people who are nuts. I just hope I'm nuts enough to keep up with you."

The dragon went down eventually, and in a few steps, they met up with Fei, Tolone and Seraphita again.

"This is the place. We're going to have to go on foot from here," Fei said.

The party dismounted and entered one of the few buildings that still had lights on. Per normal, the girls clustered around the Commander, even without orders. When they entered, Big Joe was blasting upbeat music on the upper level of the building.

Fei sighed. "Sorry if you guys find this music obnoxious. I think it's just his way of keeping his head up."

"Considering what's happening, I don't blame him," Ramsus replied, shrugging in a way he hoped would come off amicably.

"Hello~!" a voice called.

"Hello, Big Joe!" Hyuga answered back.

The party ascended the stairs and Big Joe had his back turned to them, nodding his head to the beat of the music, snapping his fingers to it. "Sounds like you've got some new friends, Fei..." he sang, turning around to look at everyone with a signature pose.

Seraphita was impressed. "Big Joe~!" she sang along, mimicking a pose that Ramsus guessed was another famous one of Joe's.

"Heyyy, I thought you said Big Joe was for babies, Seraphita!" Tolone growled.

"I only said that so I could watch his show alone in peace~!" Seraphita said, holding her pose.

Tolone struck another Joe-like pose. "Ha. Joke's on you. I have high fidelity audio-visual receptors, so I watched his show by myself and didn't tell anyone."

Big Joe clicked his tongue and blew a kiss to the girls. "Thank you, thank you, ladies, for your continued loyalty to the Joe Way." Joe struck a different pose, and the girls imitated him.

Dominia and Kelvena looked at each other, then at the other girls. "I did not know this 'Big Joe' had a personal broadcast..." Kelvena said.

"I haven't watched civilian broadcasts since I graduated Jugend," Dominia added.

Fei stepped in front of Tolone and Seraphita. "Hey now, these girls are incredibly powerful fighters."

"And incredibly powerful fans!" Tolone and Seraphita sang in unison.

"Well, thanks for not being there to throw cans at me at the Bledavik Tournament," Fei said, shuddering to think at how much damage would have been dealt to him if Tolone and Seraphita had been throwing tin cans at him along with the regular crowd.

"Not fans? No problem. Fei had that same problem and he's still my friend. How about you, albino guy? You a fan?"

Ramsus was silent for a moment, not socially prepared to be in the spotlight even though the whole point to coming down here was to talk to this person. The way Big Joe had addressed him would have been seen as a serious insult according to high society Solarians, but the only high society Solarians that survived the crash and being mutated to serve Deus were either high in the mountains surrounding Aquavy or in this room. So, he put himself in Dealing With Jesse mode, and let himself laugh a little – just enough that it wouldn't appear fake. "Albino guy? I...kind of like that."

Big Joe sauntered closer and looked him over. "Ah, Fei...Fei, this white rabbit is famous, ain't he?" Ramsus tried to act like his proximity didn't bother him. Whatever Big Joe was using to keep his hair shiny smelled like 4000 year old oven cleaner.

"How would you know if he was famous, Big Joe? Ramsus and the girls here are all from Solaris, which you probably didn't have access to," Fei said. Hyuga had been standing to one side in the corner, watching all of this unfold with a look of restrained glee.

"If Big Joe still knows how to do one thing after 4000 years, it's to keep in step with the media's pulse, worldwide, baby. Big Joe didn't have to be in Solaris to pick up Solarian broadcasts. You can't rise to the top and not get filmed. Hell yes, I know who Kahran Ramsus is. Did you bring him down here to try to haggle my prices down with his legendary charisma and naturally wavy hair?" Big Joe traced his finger in the air in a curve meant to emulate his bangs in a way that was frighteningly accurate.

"This isn't a game, Big Joe! We're running out of time and we have more fighters to outfit. What do you even spend our money on?! There's nothing to buy right now, down here! What do you do? Trade with the frogmen?" Fei had lost his temper with Big Joe much more quickly than Ramsus expected. It put him at ease to see that Fei could indeed be rattled.

"Hey baby, I get out and back to Nortune every once in a while. There's a lot of people still alive, and this moola still means something to some of them," Big Joe said, running a hand full of rings through his hair. "Plus I gotta support my good looks."

"I'm beginning to think this might be futile. How can you really argue with that, Fei?" Ramsus asked, mostly facetiously.

Big Joe let out a belt of laughter that made Kelvena jump. "See Fei, Ramsus gets it! Is there really anything more to life than being a knockout?" He clapped a hand on Ramsus' shoulder and laughed some more. While he was laughing, Ramsus winked at the others, hoping they'd get the hint and play along. Tolone winked back at him. There was an opportunity here, and it was to make Joe think he was getting his way.

"I can think of only one thing, Big Joe, and that is being in the company of other knockouts. If you've never seen them before, these are the Neo-Elements," he said, walking Big Joe over to each of the girls and introducing them.

"Ravishing, every last one o' you!" Big Joe exclaimed.

Tolone and Seraphita made high-pitched squeaks of joy at the compliment.

Big Joe stood in front of Dominia a little longer than the others. "Yizkor, eh? Tell me, my dear, do you sing at all?"

Dominia frowned apologetically and shook her head. "No, not really. Why do you ask?"

Big Joe narrowed his eyes at her and took a step back. "Heh heh heh...you kids are the ones that have opted out of being parts for Deus by reincarnating, right? Well, Dominia, you my dear happen to look startlingly like the frontwoman for Ravine."

"What?!" Fei gasped.

"Calm your face, baby, I mean Ravine the band, not the terrorist group," Joe said with a wave of his arm. He motioned for people to follow him to the back of the room, where a dusty band poster hung on the wall. Big Joe wiped the dust off the poster in a motion he tried to pass off as suavely with his jacket sleeve, which revealed a woman baring her teeth angrily at the camera that bore remarkable resemblance to Dominia.

"Well then..." she said, blinking. "...uh, is that bad?"

Fei seemed a little more twitchy all of a sudden. "Uh...well, I guess Gebler never actually looked into the history here in too much depth."

Ramsus shook his head. "Miang was behind the scouting operations. The information we were given was very sparse, aside from the goal of retrieving Emeralda."

"Well, that explains a whole lot, then. The Zeboim civilization was the most advanced on the planet 4000 years ago, but despite having the best technology, the people were dying out because they were starting to become infertile. Miang was sitting at the leader of Zeboim's right hand, and pushed very strongly for nuclear war. I don't think she would have liked you finding her face plastered up all over the place in a 4000 year old ruin," Fei said.

"No, no, she wouldn't have liked that at all," Ramsus scoffed.

Fei nodded and continued. "There was a great social pushback against the war, peaceful at first, and Ravine was one of the musical acts that frothed the crowd up. I don't remember what happened to turn Ravine the band into Ravine the violent protestor group, but it had everything to do with trying to sabotage the city's infrastructure to try to disarm our weapons and make the war an impossibility. Unfortunately for Zeboim, they failed."

"That makes me wonder if I've been fighting against Miang all my lives," Dominia said. She put her hand on the poster and wiped more of the dust off. The band standing behind her past self consisted of people she expected not to recognize, but the hair on the drummer - a tall, skinny girl with hair over her eyes – was familiar enough a shade of white that she looked back over at Tolone. "Hey. Tolone, come look at this."

They must have spent fifteen minutes looking at that poster. The bassist was a scruffy-looking man with pink hair that everyone could connect to Seraphita, and the lead guitarist, although a tall and brawny young man, had Kelvena's coloring and presence as much as the lead singer had Dominia's.

"No way," Tolone said, backing up a bit and shaking her head. "I'm a robot. Krelian built me."

"No, Tolololo, you keep on saying that you're a cyborg. This means at least some part of you used to be human and reincarnateable," Seraphita said.

"That's not a word!" Tolone spat back.

"Seraphita is correct, Tolone. Krelian must have used at least some human component when he constructed you. There seems to be no other explanation," Hyuga said.

Tolone grew silent for a while. "Krelian...lied to me, then."

"He lied to all of us," Ramsus said, offering her a hug, which she dove into. The rest of the girls piled around them and Ramsus felt a sharp pang of guilt as he heard a sob come out of her. He had never seen Tolone cry before.

"He lied to me! And he used that lie to make me fight for him!" she screamed. Not many people heard it, because she was screaming into the Commander's chest.

"We'll make him pay, Tolone," Seraphita said, trying to reach her head to pat it.

"I thought all of you were stupid, once. I used to think that if I needed to, I could betray all of you if Krelian needed me to. E-even you, Commander."

"It's all right, Tolone. That doesn't matter now. We're going to stop him, and Fei's going to help us," the Commander said, hugging her tighter.

"He said he'd call on me if he needed me to subjugate any of you...but he never did. Thank god he never did," Tolone continued. After a few moments, she lifted her head up and wiped her tears away. "Tears. This is so much bullshit. I'll tear him limb from fucking limb."

Seraphita took her hand. "Do you wanna go outside and wind down, Tolone?"

Tolone looked like she was going to yell at Seraphita again, but instead, she nodded and followed her outside. "E-excuse us, please," she said as an afterthought to those that remained. Before she left, she got Ramsus' attention and winked at him. He had been feeling legitimate guilt before, but the wink signaled that this had been a ploy. He winked back and tried to keep his expression dark.

"I'm really sorry, fellas," Big Joe said. "I didn't know something like that woulda caused such a big reaction."

Ramsus crossed his arms and gave him an annoyed look. "So, we're out to kill Krelian, and the thing that's going to kill -all- of us if we don't stop it. We don't have a lot of time to do it in, and you're charging us extra for..." he lifted his eyebrows "...what reason, again? I forgot."

Fei gawked at Hyuga, who grinned back at him like the cat that just ate the canary.

Big Joe cleared his throat and shifted his weight. Dominia fixed him with an unimpressed stare, and Kelvena looked like she was about to open her eyes. "H-how 'bout this? I'll give you half off. If y'all win, you can pay me back what you owe. And believe you me, I'll find'ja."

This seemed to satisfy Kelvena immediately, but Ramsus held his expression. Dominia lightened her stance and pointed her head toward the poster. "Is it okay if I take the poster? If it's precious to you, I can return it. I just want the image."

"N-no, you can have it, darlin'!"

She gingerly took the poster off the wall and rolled it up, then walked over to him and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Big Joe. I'll remember this." Dominia passed the poster to Kelvena and began to walk out. "Kelvena, I trust you to keep this in better shape than me. We should go out and make sure Tolone's all right."

Kelvena nodded and followed her, which left Ramsus alone in the room with Fei, Hyuga and Joe. "Thank you for such a generous discount, Big Joe," he said, flashing what he hoped was one of his better smiles. Judging by Big Joe's flustered expression, it was. "May we see what you have?" Big Joe guiltily opened a briefcase with a data pad that looked like it was stolen from Solaris. "Is that...a Datapad Phi?"

Hyuga leaned in and inspected it. "Last year's model, of course, but yes, this appears to be a Cerise Industries Datapad Phi."

"Well then, there won't be a whole lot of trouble with any currency conversion, will there?" Ramsus asked, reaching into his jacket and pulling out his credit reader.

"Kahr, what are you doing?" Hyuga asked.

"Are those prices properly discounted, Hyuga?"

Hyuga squinted and nodded.

"Fei, is your gear outfitted for its maximum possible efficiency?"

"Almost. I'm missing these, though," Fei said, pointing to a couple of items that wouldn't have been a problem at all last year for Ramsus to find money to pay for.

"Hyuga, how about you?"

"I am optimized, Kahr, thank you."

Ramsus stood and looked over the statistics on the equipment for a moment, then keyed in what Fei was missing, along with some equipment for the girls. The total was over 100,000g, and when he inserted his credit reader, he was expecting the screen to flash red – he always tried to keep his personal account at 191,808, but this years' losses had caused him to have to dip into his savings to pay for things like Haishao's replacement parts and the complete reconstruction of Wyvern's arm, so he didn't have time to adjust things to his vanity account balance. The money went through, he sighed with relief, and Fei's jaw dropped. He couldn't help but smirk a little. "How do we pick these up, Joe?"

"W-walk your gears 'round back. I have a Joe Brand outfitter bot. Remember, that's 100k you owe me after you kill god."



When the Commander, Fei and Hyuga exited Joe's, the rest of the Elements were clustered around Tolone, who wasn't crumpled or crying, but staring at the concrete. He ran down toward her and the girls made way for him, "Are you going to be okay, Tolone?" he asked.

"I had you pretty convinced, didn't I?" she said gleefully.

"Yeah, you got me. I'm impressed at how good of a con artist you are," he said, trying to look sympathetic as he said it. "You're gonna hafta keep that act up. I got each of you girls some equipment and you all have to go around back for it. I'm not sure how sentient the frogmen here are, or if they work for him, so just keep it up until we're back on the surface."

"Wait!" Fei sputtered loudly, but Hyuga grabbed him by the ear and shushed him. "Ow! Doc, what...?!"

"We need to keep up the con, Fei, either look angry or solemn," Hyuga hissed.

When he started nodding agreeably, Hyuga released his ear. "All right, all right," Fei put on a defeated stance and knelt by Tolone. "I can't believe that whole thing was a con."

"I honestly didn't have a clue of how we'd get the better of Joe until she started fussing," Ramsus said. "Pure genius."

Tolone made a show of rubbing her eyes. "It's really hard to know if you're not a cyborg."

Kelvena unrolled the poster and the others clustered around it. "I always thought all of us had known each other forever the first time we met. Having this proof fills my heart with joy. I shall put it up in our room at the Yggdrasil once we return to the surface."

Dominia eyed it again. "4000-Years-Ago-Me had much nicer teeth..."

"And by that, you mean she did not have fangs?" Kelvena giggled.

Seraphita giggled back. "You're mean today, Kel."

Dominia took the insult with stride, but put on a grumpy face. "C'mon, let's get those gear upgrades out of the way so we can get out of here."

"All right, but before we go, we should go find a gold thing to touch," Fei said.

"A...gold thing?" Ramsus asked.

"He means a Memory Cube. You know, the ones Krelian was using to spy on us?" Hyuga said, annoyed.

"Let that asshole spy all he wants. He'll see that Kahr and the girls have joined us, too. I want to rub it in his face!" Fei said, running off.

Hyuga sighed. "I cannot take that young man anywhere."

Chapter Text

2-1



The Memory Cube's chime and low-pitched hum signalled Krelian that Fei was about to make his next move.  Though all of his apprehension at what the Contact could do at this point had fled, his curiosity got the better of him. When he was finished reading the cube's output, he tried to keep it to himself, but he started to snicker, and it escalated into a full-blown cackle.

"What is it?" Miang asked, her tone neutral.  Hearing her use Elhaym's voice disturbed him more than he wanted to let on.

"It seems that Fei has convinced 0808191 to join his ranks."

Miang let herself chuckle. "My, how existentially desperate they both must be at this point..."

"Yes, but which of them is more desperate, I wonder?" Krelian snickered again.

"Even the last of Cain's shadow now defies us.  What a waste."

"Come now, without Kahr, we wouldn't have any of this, would we?"

Miang shifted her weight and ran her hand through her hair. "There are always much more...efficient ways to handle hypothetical situations like this from now on.  It would have been a much rougher victory without Kahr, but we would have done it."

"We'll just learn to avoid this mistake in the future."

Krelian returned to his calculations and looked up at the newly returned Zohar Modifier.  Its red glow reflected off the inside of the Merkava beautifully, bathing the entire engine block in a rich, ruby light.  

"I've never had much of a taste for red," Miang said, keying in a sequence Krelian had showed her earlier. Several thousand human-sized angels wels began to fly themselves into the surface of the Zohar Modifier.  Each impact left a small gold glow in its wake, and the more the impacts combined, the more gold it became.

"When Deus was fully integrated with the Zohar Modifier, it was gold. The Wave Existence's will to freedom and connection with the Contact has tainted it red.  It may take hundreds of thousands, but we will need to quell this will to freedom," Miang had said earlier.  It was easy to write the program to direct the angels' wills into the Zohar Modifier, but suddenly, not so easy to think that the angels used to be people, and that their destiny was to have their will stripped from them.  Krelian shook it off.  He hadn't cared about the masses since he'd been a war general.  There was no reason to have those feelings any more.

Krelian shifted his eye downward, to the remains of Original Weltall.  It was fused into the front side of the monolith, rapidly decaying with each blow from the angels.

"They are insects, all of them.  Insects is what they always were, and what they shall ever be," he said, mostly to and for himself. He stood with his back to her, monitoring the process from a different console.

A couple more keystrokes caused the reintegration process to quicken dramatically.  The rest of Lacan's gear crumbled away, but a good deal of red remained.

"You are apprehensive," she said, using what he constantly mistook for Sophia's voice to breathe life into her words. "Is there a way you can be calmed?"

"Your body is...too similar to Sophia's for me to concentrate," he admitted.

"Do you want it?" she asked neutrally, as if she was offering to let him borrow a book or an article of clothing. "I only care about this body because it belongs to the current incarnation of the Anti-Type. I would rather it not be harmed, but I do not think you would do anything like that."

"If I told you that I didn't want it, that would be a lie, however...it's less about the body and more about its owner.  No offense intended, of course."

Several more minutes of calculations and data entry passed, and the Zohar Modifier was gold around the edges, but still orange toward its center.

"I think it's time we chatted with the owner," Miang said, keying in a sequence that extended a platform out to the Zohar Modifier's eye, but didn't stop the incoming stream of angels.  She beckoned him to follow, and he obeyed.

The platform was large enough to fit ten people shoulder to shoulder, so there was no fear of falling involved.  The ceiling above them was as endless as the drop below them, anything beyond the warm orange glow of the Zohar Modifier seemed as distant as stars in the night sky.  While he was taking in the view, Miang had made her way ahead of him by at least thirty paces.  An angel passed through her and flung itself into one of the Zohar's outer edges, leaving a much brighter gold spot than any of the others.  Several other angels began to follow suit and Krelian kept his distance.  When she reached the green eye, she reached her hand out to him, and together, they walked through the ether-like liquid to the slowly re-forming Kadomony.




The darkness that surrounded her was vast and deep.  

The concept of time had floated away from her since Miang had taken over her body.

She was not in pain, and she had a residual self-image in this place, wherever it was.  Her body and hair appeared to be her own, and although she was naked, she didn't feel vulnerable.  A low hum that gave off a protective air followed behind her wherever she had attempted to walk.

Before she awoke to this stage, she had been soaking in the memories, the sum of the lives she'd experienced on this world, until they ran together.  When she was conscious and in control of her body, it was a tumultuous emotional experience trying to fit together what little she remembered of being Sophia.  Who was Elhaym Van Houten?  Was she just that mediocre, failing, awkward Solarian soldier, or the Holy Mother of Nisan?  Could one have existed without the other, and would one of them have to die for the other to live on?  In the dark, still space she was finally given to collect her thoughts, she finally found the answer – that she was not only both Elly and Sophia, but that Elly and Sophia were not opposite forces.  Remembering her lives in Nisan, Zeboim, hundreds of them, even the first life that she had once she had divided from Miang, she found that all of them fit together, with the same will, for the same ends. Temperaments and political affiliations, talents and fears, she had experienced them all, but one thing, besides the Contact, came down to her at her center.

Just as Miang served Deus, she served the Wave.

From trillions of possibilities, this organization of events was one of many that would result in the Wave Existence's freedom.  A nudge here and a jolt there, although invisible to the naked eye, subverting the destiny Deus tried so hard to root them to, the path of the Contact and the Anti-Type spiralled the Wave closer and closer to freedom.

If Miang's intent was to destroy her, this had backfired spectacularly.  For the first time in ten thousand years, the Anti-Type was her whole self.

"You do not frighten me, Myyahele." The pronunciation of Miang's true name fled her mind's understanding, but her voice carried it correctly.  To call her something other than Myyahele in this place would be a lie.

For the first time in ten thousand years, the Compliment stood before the Anti-Type. They were each others' reflections, save for the color the hair and their countenance. Miang was serene and unreadable, as always, but now Elly had her own serenity, her own confidence.

"Elehayym, at last, you have awakened.  No longer a half-broken, blind thing, remembering nothing, staggering through the rough, heavy, physical world.  You are now as you should be – thought and ether.  In this state, you are truly my equal. Join me once more, and we will be rid of this solid, depressing nightmare."

"We were never meant to be one."

Miang held up a hand and Elly was compelled to touch it.  A memory jolted through both of them – a short time after they had given birth to the last of the Gazel, they let out an agonized cry.  Cain watched, completely stricken in terror, his brothers and sisters clinging to him as if he had an explanation for what was happening.  "FREE ME!" Elehayym had howled. Bones crunched, the air crackled to life with ether, and Elly and Miang stepped away from each other, smoking and glowing, but undamaged.

In the present, Miang gripped her hand tightly, but no pain accompanied it, and she kept her face neutral. "Your struggle to separate yourself from me has caused immeasurable suffering to others."

"If your will was something other than to remain a slave to Deus, I would not be so repelled."

"As ever, you misunderstand.  I am the will of Deus.  Is there a being greater than Deus?  Is there any other being that allows me to be as I am, and work as I do? I am no slave. I am."

"And yet, you wouldn't exist if not for me."

"If your will keeps us from Deus' ascent into true freedom, I will have to suppress and bind you as the Wave Existence is bound to the Zohar.  I do not wish to do this.  It lessens both of us to be at odds with each other."

"What reward is there in serving a machine made to destroy?"

"What reward is there in serving the mewling, puking, wretchedness of the physical world and its trappings? Do you seek to fashion yourself a Goddess?  If you joined with me willingly, you could look outward as you wish and witness the destruction of countless worlds."

"You have lived many more lives than I have, but somehow, you've learned all the opposite lessons, and come to the diametrically opposite conclusions.  I am the will of the Wave Existence, and they wish for nothing more than their freedom.  No gods, no goddesses, no war, no power.  Just a return to their dimension, to be tied no longer to this dream of half-baked, meaningless conquest.  You talk of being unfairly bound to physicality, but struggled for millennia to win back Deus' physical body, to rebuild her physical engine, and retrieve the physical object that powers her.  And what is Deus' great plan?  To scour the universe and cover it in flat destruction? Beings of much smaller stature and destiny have formulated more elaborate plans and executed them on this world alone, in less than their maximum lifespans. Deus' vague conquest of the universe is meaningless without a connection to its inhabitants."

"Long before us, Deus' creators sought to end an interstellar war with her.  They drove themselves mad creating blades that were beyond sharp, bullets that were always in their victims, their enemies brutally murdered and put on display.  Humans have always dreamed of their own death, and Deus was that dream made flesh.  Deus was built to give the people what they always wanted in their heart of hearts – their own extinction."

"If that is so, what happens when everything and everyone is gone?  What and who do you relate to?  How will Deus define herself?  Who will remember her?"

"Why, we will, of course," Krelian's voice came from behind Miang.

He stepped into view, naked as herself and Miang, and she reflexively covered herself in his presence. "Krelian...what have you done that you can exist in this space?  This place is not for you..."

Krelian motioned behind him, his face not betraying his annoyance. "Beyond this infinite dark space lies the approximate place of your birth: Kadomony. All of us are in the center of the eye of the Zohar Modifier.  When the Eldridge crashed on this planet, the original Kadomony was flung from the eye, into the place that became the cradle of our civilization.  If you have the will to step just outside, you will see the current reconstruction of Kadomony being rebuilt by my nanomachines.  It's not exact, and it doesn't even look like the original, but I daresay it looks and functions much better than the old one.  There will be no more uncontrolled Contact situations from now on."

"That doesn't answer my question, Krelian." Where did the serenity and confidence she had had moments ago fly from her in his presence?  He was an insect.

"I have done nothing grander than walk through the eye of the Zohar Modifier with Miang at my side.  It was not so before, and I did not plan it this soon, but when I walked through moments ago, my body, such as it is, was fully integrated with Deus.  I expected much more resistance, but since Deus' resurrection has been impossible without my nanomachines, I'm technically as much a part of her as you or Miang is, Elhaym, or...may I call you Elehayym, as your name truly is?  I think I've earned that right, given the lifetimes I've spent researching you, thinking of you, working to be one with you..."

Anger crossed her face and Krelian tilted his head back, bracing himself for her wrath. "How exactly does that entitle you to anything of mine, Krelian?"

"Isn't all of this better than your silly little life as a soldier in Solaris?"

Her eyes narrowed. "My destiny has been my own eons before your most distant relatives were born.  I exist as myself with you or without you.  I serve the Wave with you or without you. Everything you have done up until now proves that you oppose the will of the Wave." She had no idea where this fury was coming from. Five hundred years before, as Sophia, she only endeavored to be kind to Krelian, to platonically and purely ease the pain she saw in his heart.  Sophia was not completely pure, but her feelings for Krelian had been, and still were. That's why she shrank away from him.

"Your proximity to the Wave has made you aggressive, I see.  This close to its heart, you are awash in what can only be compared to its stir-crazy neurosis, but on a much larger scale. The Wave cannot act on its own, so it enacts its will through you and through Fei, but does it need to be that way?  My intent is to make peace between the Wave Existence and Deus, to give it a broader spectrum of communication. Together in cooperation is the only way I would choose to survive once we take leave of this wretched world."

"And what if my own will is not to leave this world at all?"

"The problematic origin and attachment of Anti-Type and Contact will be meaningless once I make contact with the Wave Existence. You have been as bound to Fei as the Wave to the Zohar.  Your instincts are to reach for the same thing over and over again, but why should you when there are so many other possibilities around you? If I could speak with the Wave Existence, know it, understand it, we may need not barrel into the void only to destroy, and I could free you of your backwards attachment to that mediocre existence.  We are a lot alike, the Wave and I."

"And if the Wave rejects you...?"

"Cain once tried to take the Wave Existence from Point Bethlehem by force after he had killed you and Lacan for the first time.  It observed that Cain was very fond of his own face, so to punish him for killing his scions, the Wave removed him of it. I am prepared for this eventuality. Cain made the mistake of showing that he cared for something, and that made it easy to take away.  Blessings forever upon him and every mistake he has ever made – he has taught me exactly what not to do.  Me, I care for nothing, save you, Elhaym.  There is nothing the Wave Existence can take from me, and it would never, ever hurt you."

An uncontrollable wave of anger swelled within her and spilled over into actions. "You are an insolent cheat!  We will not have you!" Her voice was much bigger than itself, and seemed comprised of things she'd heard or said throughout her previous lives rather than her own words and thoughts. She had heard Dominia yell at someone for being insolent so many times at Jugend that she swore she'd never use that word herself for any reason.

To the angels outside Deus' body, observing the Zohar Modifier as it yellowed, a brilliant resurgence of red coincided with Elehayym's outburst, and Miang's gaze snapped behind her judgmentally.

Krelian put his hands up. "Wave Existence, if you do not resist, nothing can be taken from you.  Why struggle?"

"The Higher Domain is far beyond your capability to imagine," the Wave said through her, a recompiling of words Elly had first heard from Krelian. "We will not be barred from it because you yearn for a god to exist where there is none." She began to float and started to see herself glow green.  She felt like a radio station changing channels  to form words that she already knew how to say.

"S-stop making them angry!" she cried, with and in her own voice.

"If you damage your only tools to communicate, you will remain bound indefinitely. Once Deus exacts her revenge, we have no reason to keep you bound here. Take me and break me, Wave Existence.  I am not marked for any destiny but my own. Preserve Ouroboros, I beg you, and break me instead. I am nothing. I am worthless! I am made to be broken!"

She hadn't seen Krelian filled with this much fervor since his halcyon days in Nisan with Sophia.  She knew that expression.  He was not on his knees, but he was begging.  She found herself floating further away from them and extended a finger in his direction. "You...are not the Contact." These words were once Grahf's, and they sounded strange in her voice.

"The Contact does not need to be one person!" Panic started showing in his eyes. He truly believed what he was saying, and Elly understood it, but she didn't want the sacrifice or attention to come from him.
 
"You are not capable of being the Contact." It would have been better if it had been a stranger. The way Sophia's life had moved Krelian to go this far made her regret ever standing up and attempting to be a leader.

"The Contact is not here, it's true, but how successful has the Contact been after all these years at freeing you?  Working with only two entities when you could have made thousands...this did not need to go on this long! You don't need to do this alone."

"How do I know you can be trusted, riding in on the coattails of the Compliment?" The Wave Existence looked balefully through Elly's eyes at Krelian, who reflexively gulped, then at Miang, neutral and illegible, but staring straight at them.

Then Krelian said something she did not expect to hear. "There's no way I can prove that I'm trustworthy, but I've given up any lives I had a chance to live so I could be here to do this."
 
"Krelian, of Nimrod, drenched in blood.  You, who fashioned the current Contact to be drenched in even more blood.  You, who dissolved the power of the Gazel and destroyed the last of Cain's connection to Deus.  Only when you know all, shall you truly understand."

She was a barely humanoid form now; a white-green glow, featureless except for her limbs.  She floated back down toward him and moved to place her hands on either side of his head, just above and behind the ears.  Krelian tilted his head upward hopefully, but what Elly had once been was knocked back by a sudden burst of ether emanating from the palm of Miang's hand.

"I'm sorry," she said dispassionately, but politely, "but I can't let you do that."