Author's Notes: Hello there! Sorry for the wait with this one, life got a bit crazy over the past few months, especially on the work side of things. Hopefully it'll start calming down soon. Fingers crossed.

Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty-Five: No Need For A Frantic Incursion!

Washu upped her game here, thought Heero as he took cover in an alcove while streams of orange bolts zipped through the air mere centimeters to his right, I guess I shouldn't be surprised…

The ground team had barely set foot inside the repository's entrance hall when they'd been showered by a barrage from no less than six automated defense turrets. With Ryoko being joined up front by Ayeka and her Royal Guardians, pirate and princess had together forged a barrier that had proven capable of withstanding the rapid-fire bursts of plasma, but while the rest of the team had been able to fan out, forward progress remained difficult. In addition to the turrets, drones of the exact same sort as had been found in the first repository almost immediately began streaming into the room through a series of openings up in the vaulted ceiling, and they were proving to be much more aggressive than their predecessors.

"They're not going to let us have this one easy!" Duo shouted as he blasted two drones with his plasma shotgun.

The L2 native was sharing the same alcove as Heero. On the opposite side of the entrance hall, Trowa and Quatre mirrored their position, while Wufei was a bit further forward. Ryoko was moving up to join Heero, her barrier engulfed in orange light as the turrets constantly pelted her with fire. With her energy focused on tanking so many shots, she couldn't even get off a blast of her own in retaliation. Not even Yosho could deflect such intense fire, and he had actually been forced to stay with Ayeka and her Royal Guardians as they focused on defending Washu along with Hilde.

Ryoko slipped into their alcove a moment later. "Well, we're off to a great start! Barely five meters in and we're already pinned down."

Heero lowered his rifle and grabbed one of his grenades. "Duo, you and I can take the turrets on this side of the hall. Ryoko, we're going to need some cover. Can your barrier handle that?"

Through her helmet visor, Heero could see Ryoko smiling confidently. "Definitely!"

Glancing at Duo, Heero saw that he was likewise preparing a grenade. "So, who blows up what?"

"I've got the turret furthest to the left," Heero answered, "You'll take the next one down the line. We'll roll them all up in one sweep. Trowa, Quatre, Wufei; lay down some covering fire to keep the other turrets and drones occupied."

"Copy that!" Quatre acknowledged from across the hall.

"Awaiting your signal," Trowa added.

Heero peeked around the edge of the alcove. "Three… two… one… now!"

Ryoko was first out, and the turrets wasted no time in concentrating their fire on her. Her barrier had been activated before leaving cover, and the air around her crackled with light and sparks as she fended off a truly withering barrage. Behind her, Heero and Duo took only a second to judge the distance before lobbing their respective grenades. Brilliant detonations of azure light followed as their targets were atomized, and the trio rushed forward. From the other side of the hall, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei opened up with everything they had, peppering turrets and drones alike with plasma bolts and proving to be more than a sufficient distraction. Two of the remaining turrets diverted their fire towards the three of them, taking enough heat off of Ryoko for her to begin diverting some of her energy to offensive efforts. Using her left hand to keep the barrier up, she fired off blasts of crimson energy with her right, demolishing the third turret in line before shifting her fire to the drones.

"Now's our chance," said Heero, "Duo, let's go!"

"Right with you, buddy!" Duo cheered.

The two of them broke out from behind Ryoko and charged. Taking aim, Heero sent a precise volley from his rifle right down the barrel of the fourth turret, and the emplacement quickly belched smoke and sparks as vital components were destroyed and the weapon rendered inoperable. Duo needed to get closer for his plasma shotgun to have real effect, and the shields of his armor took a few bolts as he zigzagged across the entrance hall, but the risk proved well worth the reward. Leaping into the air and using his armor's thrusters to close the gap, he landed on top of the fifth turret and pumped two shots into it. The emplacement shut down as what Heero assumed to be its energy regulators were destroyed, and he was already shifting his aim towards the last turret. He opened fire at the same moment that Ryoko unleashed a sphere of crimson energy, and the final emplacement was swiftly reduced to scrap.

With the turrets dispatched, the team could finally begin their incursion in earnest. Heero, Duo and the other former Gundam pilots directed their weapons towards the drones streaming down from the ceiling, taking out their targets with ruthless precision and speed. Ryoko took to the air, blasting still more of the floating machines with crimson spheres of energy before heading towards the openings that they were coming from. Concentrating her firepower, she unleashed devastating barrages that quickly caused debris from fresh drones to pile up in the access tubes and block passage. With Heero and the others providing supporting fire, she repeated this process with the other hatches, and soon the flow of aerial drones was brought to a complete halt.

"Well," said the pirate as she floated back down to join the others, "that takes care of this room."

"Fine work," Yosho complimented as he and the rest of Washu's escort moved forward, "but we need to pick up the pace. I don't like our chances should we get caught between the mechanical guardians of this place and Kagato's entourage."

"They haven't landed yet, have they?" asked Hilde as she cast a nervous look back towards the entrance.

Heero shook his head. "Kiyone's watching the landing zone; she'll contact us when Ken-Ohki moves in. We'll at least have a bit of warning."

"Hopefully," said Washu as she nodded towards the door at the far end of the entrance hall that led deeper into the facility, "The further underground we get, the weaker any signal from her will be."

"All the more reason to move swiftly," Ayeka added.

Heero nodded, already heading towards the door. "Agreed. Ryoko, you're on point with me."

She nodded as she matched his pace, but the two of them quickly found themselves joined by Yosho. "Heero, a moment?"

"I thought we didn't have time to waste," Heero remarked as he took up position to the side of the door, waiting for the others to be ready before opening it.

"And we do not," Yosho confirmed, "I just wanted to advise you of one thing."

Beneath his helmet visor, Heero arched an eyebrow. "And that would be?"

"You're fighting as a soldier at the moment," Yosho answered, "but you have far greater power at your disposal now than you ever did during your old war. Don't forget to use it."

"Yosho's right, Heero," said Washu over his helmet speakers, "My defenses were designed to fight against conventional soldiers, and that's how you're acting at the moment. Don't get me wrong; you're very good at it, far more so than most. Proceeding like this, though, will cost us time that we do not have. The good news for us, though, is that we don't have to keep proceeding like this. My defenses are effective against soldiers, but against foes wielding Light Hawk Wings? You'll find that to be another matter entirely. We haven't been developing your powers just for fun and games, Heero. It's time to start using them."

Heero could feel all eyes in the group on him, even though all their faces were obscured by helmets. Taking a deep breath to center himself, he knew that Yosho and Washu were right. He was still going by the old playbook, and it had served him well up until now, but it was time that he began embracing the new tools in his arsenal.

So, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and drew Achika. He ignited her azure blade in his right hand, while at the same time concentrating energy over his left arm. The air around him crackled with pale sparks, and a brilliant sheet of white light took form a moment later.

"That's it, Heero," Washu encouraged him as he felt the power of his bloodline surging throughout his body, "You're so much more than just another soldier. You always have been. Now's the time to prove it."

Instead of acknowledging her, Heero turned to Ryoko. "What do you think?"

Crimson sparks danced across her fingers. "I think I'm ready to start trashing some robots. How's that work for you?"

Heero had to chuckle as he braced himself for whatever onslaught lay in wait beyond the door. "I'd say that works just fine."

….

Time for your first real test, Heero, thought Washu as the door slid open, I was never worried about you up in orbit; combat piloting is old hat for you, and my drones were never going to be a serious problem for someone of your talents. Down here, though, where you no longer have the fighter and Eva to command? This is what I've been waiting to see.

And she wasn't disappointed. The moment the door opened, a barrage of orange bolts flew out as the drones waiting for them opened up. None of those shots were able to threaten the team, though, thanks to both Ryoko's barrier and the single Light Hawk Wing Heero had generated. The shots bounced harmlessly off of both shields, and the pirate and the soldier generating them wasted no time in pressing forward.

While Ryoko kept her barrier up with her left hand and fired off volleys of crimson spheres with her right, Heero lunged forward. The azure blade of Achika flashed as he began carving into the bipedal combat drones filling the corridor, slicing through his foes with grace and precision. The Light Hawk Wing over his left arm proved to be good for more than just defense, as Heero demonstrated by swinging that limb and cutting apart several drones with the edge of the white energy sheet. When combined with supporting fire from Ryoko and his fellow former Gundam pilots, it was more than enough for the team to plow through the drones in their way and pick up the pace.

"Goodness," she heard Ayeka mutter next to her, "Lord Heero seems rather… enthusiastic in his efforts today."

"No kidding," Hilde muttered, her gaze constantly shifting between the fight up ahead and the corridor behind them as she kept an eye out for their inevitable pursuers, "He's really tearing into them up there. Then again, we are on a time crunch."

"Indeed," Azaka chimed in, "There's not a moment too lose!"

"Let us make haste!" Kamidake chirped.

That, they were certainly doing. Yosho had joined his grandson up front, and the two Juraian Royals were carving through the soldier drones guarding the corridor with blistering speed and ruthless efficiency. Even from her spot at the rear, Washu could quite easily see scorched mechanical limbs and halved robotic torsos flying in seemingly every direction as Yosho and Heero ripped apart their opposition. Brilliant flares of crimson light signaled the impacts of Ryoko's energy blasts with her targets, only adding to the carnage. Covering fire from Duo, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei helped to trim the edges of the enemy ranks and funnel the rest into the flashing azure blades of the long-lost crown prince and his descendant.

It's almost a shame that I kept Sasami hidden away in the lab, Washu mused as she watched Heero thrust his Master Key through a drone's chest while blocking fire from others on the Light Hawk Wing that hovered over his left arm, Tsunami would've loved to see this firsthand. She'll just have to settle for the highlights from me later.

Of course, that presumed they survived both the onslaught of drones and Kagato's eventual strike. Curious as to where the latter was, Washu switched frequencies and reached out to Kiyone.

"Seven, this ground team," said Washu, "What's our uninvited guest up to?"

"Ken-Ohki's moving in," Kiyone replied, "but he's being cautious about it. Sky over the repository is a roiling dogfight right now, but there are enough Juraian fighters in play that some could break off to intercept Nagi. I think she's waiting for more drones to come in so she can exploit the chaos. Got plenty of them on the horizon… on all the horizons, actually."

"Did you have to build so many of them, Washu?" whined Mihoshi in the background, "Are you trying to get us killed out here?"

Washu winced. "No, I'm not, I promise. Look, sorry about the mess up there. Just try to keep your heads down!"

"Easier said than done when there's thousands of drones trying to take potshots at you," Kiyone grumbled, "We'll find a way to make it through, though, and we'll give you a heads up when Ken-Ohki drops Kagato's party. Seven, out."

That's all I can ask, thought Washu grimly as she returned her focus to the fighting up ahead, along with hoping that cleaning up for my past mistakes doesn't get my friends killed.

….

The corridor wasn't particularly wide, but it had a high ceiling, which at least gave Ryoko some room to maneuver. While Heero and Yosho led the charge on the ground and Heero's old friends backed them up, the pirate took to the air. As her companions were focusing their efforts on the soldier drones down on the floor, she fixed her gaze on the flying drones that were entering the corridor through hatches in the ceiling.

She grinned as she aimed both of her arms at the first drones to drop into the hallway. "Hello there!"

Both palms facing her targets crackled with sparks of crimson energy, and volleys of scarlet spheres ripped forth a moment later. Ryoko almost felt sorry for the combat automata; the first batch barely had time to register her presence before they were blown to pieces by her attacks. The superheated bits of debris hadn't even hit the ground when new drones immediately made their appearance, and Ryoko immediately cut loose with a second barrage. Her newest targets fell just as quickly as the previous ones, but still more were dropping into the corridor.

"Time to put this new toy to the test," Ryoko muttered as she grabbed the Key clipped to her belt with her right hand.

Igniting both blades, she flew forward. Spinning the weapon in front of her, she carved into the drones like a scarlet buzzsaw. Some of them were able to snap off shots before their demise, but their orange bolts were deflected by her Key's crimson blades. She had to give credit where it was due; Washu had designed her weapon well. Ryoko was barely putting any of her power into the Key, yet that tiny sliver of energy was all the Key needed to generate the crimson shafts from both ends and do its job.

Still, while she was certainly reaping a fearsome toll, Ryoko knew that this wasn't good enough. There were too many hatches in the corridor for her to cover. She had to find the central access tube, just like she'd done at the first repository, and jam it up. Heero didn't have AIDA in his helmet this time, which meant that they couldn't access the repository's schematics. She'd have to do things the old-fashioned way.

"Heero!" she called out as she sliced two drones in half, "I'm going into the shafts!"

Down below, Heero was still focused on the soldier drones, but he acknowledged her over the group frequency. "Understood. Give 'em hell."

Ryoko smirked. "Don't have to tell me twice!"

Her double-bladed Key would be too big to properly wield in such confined spaces, so she deactivated the weapon. Surrounding herself with an energy shield as she clipped the Key to her belt, she then unleashed a hail of scarlet spheres at one of the shaft openings before diving inside. If she followed it, she figured that eventually she'd make it to the central drone access tube where all the subsidiary passages branched off from. From there, she'd wreak absolute havoc.

Her amber eyes gleamed as a constant barrage of crimson orbs flew forth from her hands, obliterating any drone before her as she made her way down the shaft. She almost pitied her foes.

Almost.

….

"We're making good time," Quatre noted as he shot the head off of a drone.

Next to him, Trowa nodded as he laid down a stream of fire with his heavy plasma rotary cannon. "A much more rapid advance compared to the first repository. Heero's new powers are definitely coming in handy here."

"I'll say!" Duo chimed in as he blew apart a drone's torso with his plasma shotgun, "It's actually kind of scary. I mean, the guy was always good in a fight, but now? Yikes!"

Wufei chuckled as he picked off two more drones with quick bursts from his rifle. "I'll have to ask him for a sparring match when we get back. He'd be fun to fight like this!"

Still as battle-happy as ever, Quatre mused as he took aim past Heero and silenced another drone, Wufei, you haven't changed a bit. This whole mission might as well be a vacation for you...

That wasn't really fair to the L5 native; Quatre knew that Wufei was taking this assignment as seriously as he would any other Preventer mission. Even so, the casual ease with which Wufei took to his task of engaging in battle far from the Earth Sphere against much more advanced foes than any petty terrorist cell was a little disturbing. After this whole affair with Kagato and the Array was concluded, would Wufei even want to go home? Now that he'd gotten a taste for the kind of action that the rest of the galaxy had in store for him, that question was one that definitely bothered Quatre. He resolved to keep a careful eye on Wufei; he didn't need his old friend falling back into the mindset that had led him to join the Mariemaia Army.

Quatre had more immediate concerns than Wufei slipping into old habits, though. With the team making quick progress down the corridor, they would soon make it to the doors at the end. Given that the interior layout had thus far followed a similar design to that of the first repository, it was logical to assume that a junction lay ahead. Given that the junction at the first repository had been guarded by weapons powerful enough to qualify as anti-vehicle emplacements, it would only be prudent to assume that this one was likewise heavily defended.

Quatre pushed forward until he was right behind Heero, firing a few bolts over his friend's shoulder and taking out two more soldier drones while trying to formulate a plan for the next wood. "Heero, how much fire can you tank on your Light Hawk Wings?"

"According to Washu, quite a bit," Heero replied as he blocked several bolts on the white barrier while impaling a drone through the torso, "These things are supposed to be well beyond the capabilities of conventional shields and weapons."

Quatre nodded while picking off another drone with his rifle, an idea already forming in his head. "Think you can block whatever's in the next room?"

"With two Light Hawk Wings providing coverage, probably," Heero answered as he cut the head off of his next robotic victim, "I won't be able to attack in that state, though."

"The Light Hawk Wings can be used offensively," Yosho reminded him as he casually deflected bolts with the azure blade of Tenchi-ken.

Heero shook his head while shoving his own sword through another drone's head. "I'm not that skilled with them yet, and I can only create two so far. Best not to push my luck. Ryoko and I can get up front and draw fire. The rest of you will have to eliminate whatever turrets are in the junction. Ryoko, did you catch that?"

"Yup!" came the pirate's voice over the tactical channel, the distinct sound of energy bursts echoing in the background as she continued to blow apart drones in the shafts overhead, "I've got an access hatch up ahead; I think it drops directly into the junction. Not that I need it to get in there, though."

"Do what you can to block it off," Heero ordered, "We don't need any drones dropping in there while we're trying to deal with the defenses on the ground. We'll hold outside the junction until you've completed that task. Once you're done, we'll go into the junction together. I'll use the ground entrance while you drop in from above."

"You got it!" Ryoko acknowledged.

Quatre looked over his shoulder. "Ayeka, we'll need you and your Guardians up here to help block enemy fire in the junction!"

"Understood, Lord Quatre," the princess replied, "Azaka, Kamidake; make haste!"

"Good call," Heero remarked as he dispatched one of the few drones remaining in the hall, "You and the others can take cover behind her shield if things get too hairy. I should've thought of that."

"You've got a lot on your plate," Quatre noted as he shot the head off of another drone, "That's why you've got me on the team, remember? I can cover for your blind spots."

Heero nodded, and Quatre suspected his friend was smiling beneath his visor. "I'm counting on you to do just that."

….

Having put his Master Key away, Heero was already gathering the necessary energy in his right arm when Ryoko contacted him. "Heero, I'm in position, and the shafts leading into the junction are blocked. You ready?"

A bar of pure white energy came to life and covered Heero's right arm a moment later, mirroring the one that hovered over his left. He nodded at Yosho, who was standing on the opposite side of the doorway. The others were behind them, with Ayeka and her Royal Guardians ready to throw up a barrier the moment the door opened.

"I am," he acknowledged, addressing both her and the rest of the team, "We move on my mark. Three… two… one… mark!"

The door opened a moment later, and Heero was the first to step through. His arms were held in front of him so that the Light Hawk Wings would provide sufficient cover, and he could actually feel energy coursing through the air behind him as Ayeka and her mechanical servants activated their barriers. It was a good thing that their collective defenses were at the ready, because two heavy turrets occupied the other end of the junction, while four smaller anti-personnel emplacements flanked them, and they immediately opened fire. Dropping down from the ceiling, Ryoko already had her shield up as well, and together she and Heero took the majority of fire. Heero had expected to be rocked by the blasts from the heavy turrets, but the Light Hawk Wings tanked the shots with seemingly no ill effect; he barely even felt the impact.

Washu did say that these were far more powerful than any conventional shields could ever hope to be, Heero mused, I see she really wasn't exaggerating.

It was hard to see beyond the shields, but Heero's peripheral vision was good enough for him to spot soldier drones running into the circular chamber through several entrances. While none of their floating cousins accompanied them thanks to Ryoko dealing with the access shafts, there were still more than enough to make life miserable for Heero and his companions. As they started to fan out, Heero knew that his team had to act quickly before their foes overwhelmed them.

Ayeka and her Royal Guardians moved forward, with the three of them spreading out to maximize the coverage of their combined barrier. The turrets began shifting some of their fire towards the princess and her escorts, and while Heero was still forced to keep the Light Hawk Wings up in front of him, Ryoko had enough breathing room to start going on offense. A volley of scarlet spheres pummeled one of the heavy turrets, slagging the barrel and wrecking the mounting. As Yosho stepped forward to block fire on his Master Key, Quatre, Duo, Trowa and Wufei fanned out along the flanks. Trowa and Wufei concentrated their fire on the remaining heavy turret, while Duo and Quatre each moved on the smaller emplacements. Using their armor's thrusters to amplify their mobility, the former Gundam pilots propelled themselves forward, coming down on top of the turrets and blasting them with their weapons of choice.

With the amount of incoming fire now significantly lessened, Heero felt confident enough to drop the right Light Hawk Wing and reignited his own Master Key. Charging forward, he plowed into the soldier drones and began carving them up. A barrage of crimson orbs rained down from above as Ryoko shifted her focus to backing him up, and several of the drones were blown apart by the volley. With the last of the heavy turrets neutralized, Trowa and Wufei shifted their focus to the remaining anti-personnel emplacements, silencing them in short order. Meanwhile, Duo and Quatre had already begun laying into the drones entering the junction, the former blasting away with his plasma shotgun while the latter picked off targets with precise headshots.

"Hilde, bring Washu up!" Heero ordered as he stabbed a drone through the chest, "Ayeka, and you the Guardians form up around her. Yosho, take point and get them into the next corridor. We'll mop up here and catch up shortly."

We need to pick up the pace, he thought as he cut down another mechanical foe, Kiyone hasn't signaled Kagato's arrival yet, but it can't be far off now.

We're running out of time.

….

Kiyone clutched the yoke tightly as the Yagami shuddered under a series of hits. "Mihoshi, get them off of us!"

"Firing now!" her copilot replied, "Got three of them! I can't hit the rest!"

"Agile little buggers," Kiyone muttered before addressing their comrades, "232nd, we could use a bit of support here!"

"Copy that, Eve Seven," came the voice of Major Morimoto over the speakers, "Hold tight!"

Kiyone did what she could to shake off the drones peppering her ship with plasma fire, but the Yagami was hardly a fighter. She was fast by the standards of larger ships, but she could hardly turn on a dime. She certainly wasn't meant for dogfighting with swarms of tiny drones that could also double as suicide bombers should the mood strike them. The crimson patrol cruiser rumbled again as several of the drones dashed themselves against her shields, setting off their explosive payloads and causing alarms to ring out in the cockpit.

"Shields are down to twenty percent!" Mihoshi cried out.

"232nd, it's now or never!" Kiyone yelled as she saw another host of drones moving in for the kill.

A rain of azure fire ripped into the drones a moment later as the Juraians finally made their move. Massed plasma volleys tore the combat automata apart and caused the survivors to scatter. The Juraians' barrage was joined by a salvo of crimson energy beams as Ryo-Ohki swooped in, burning anything in her path as she helped secure the airspace around the Yagami.

Kiyone breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks. That was too damn close."

"You should pull back a bit," Usagi suggested as she picked off two drones with precise shots, "You're drawing too much attention from the enemy."

Kiyone shook her head. "I don't want to move too far away. We might have to provide covering fire when Ryo-Ohki extracts the ground team."

"Then she'd better keep you safe so you'll be able to do that when the time comes," Usagi replied while shooting down another drone.

"Ryo-Ohki won't let us down!" chirped Mihoshi, "You'll watch our backs, won't you girl?"

"Meow!" Ryo-Ohki cried out in affirmation.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Kiyone had to smile; Ryo-Ohki might have been an easily amused and distractable furball, but she was loyal to her friends and on-the-ball when it counted. "Thanks, girl. When we get back to Jurai, we'll have the cooks serve you all the carrots you want."

"Meow!" the living starship cheered as she began tearing into the drones around her with greater ferocity and enthusiasm.

Kiyone chuckled as she watched the crystalline vessel go about her work. "Not hard to get her motivated, I see."

With Ryo-Ohki sweeping the skies around the Yagami, Kiyone diverted some of the ship's power away from her engines and into recharging her shields. As the patrol cruiser slowly drifted away from the main engagement to maintain watch at the edge, Kiyone allowed herself a weary sigh. She and Mihoshi were beat cops, not soldiers; giant battles like this one were way outside their lane, so to speak. Sure, the Galaxy Police made sure that its officers had training for large-scale engagements so that they'd be prepared to fight the formidable pirate fleets when the Juraians or other galactic powers couldn't do that work themselves, but Kiyone and Mihoshi had never really been involved in those operations. With their decidedly checkered service record, they'd always gotten the fringe assignments and grunt work, with their stint in the Outland Sector looking after Ayeka and Sasami on Earth just a slightly more prestigious and admittedly easier incarnation of their prior tasks. To go from a rather plush assignment to essentially open warfare was a jarring transition to say the least, and the weight of it all fell heavily upon Kiyone's shoulders.

A chime from the sensors brought her focus back to the fight at hand, and her eyes narrowed as she saw a particular contact designated by Heero earlier in the battle moving in. Kagato was making his play, and Kiyone could see that it was well-timed; additional drone squadrons were rushing forth from hangars built into the moon, and they were doing so in numbers more than sufficient to keep the Yagami, Ryo-Ohki, the 232nd and any other Juraian forces from interfering with Ken-Ohki's approach. Washu's defenses would unwittingly aid her old enemy, an irony that Kiyone supposed their foe would doubtlessly find amusing.

"Mihoshi, get a hold of the ground team," Kiyone instructed, "Let them know that our enemy's making his approach and will be landing shortly."

We can't stop him, she thought in grim resignation, Heero, it's all up to you now.

….

"Understood," Heero acknowledged as Mihoshi gave the announcement they'd all known would be coming sooner or later, "How long do we have?"

"Probably not very long!" Mihoshi nervously replied as some static came into the transmission due to how deep underground the strike team had gone, "Heero, you have to hurry!"

"We will," Heero reassured her, "Just look after yourself and Kiyone for now, Mihoshi. We'll handle things down here."

"Be careful!" Mihoshi pleaded.

"You do the same," said Heero, "Eve One, out."

"Crunch time?" asked Duo.

Heero looked over his shoulder and nodded. "Kagato's inbound. Ken-Ohki will be touching down any moment now."

"Shit!" Ryoko snarled as she looked at the door the group had gathered behind, "I knew that this was coming, but still… shit!"

"We need to move quickly," said Trowa, though Heero knew he wouldn't advocate for charging in recklessly, "Whatever's in that room, we need to ascertain the threat and hit it hard and fast."

"About that," Washu chimed in, "Think back to where we are now and compare it to our progression through the first repository. Remember how far we've come, and recall what lay ahead when we reached this point previously."

Quatre was the first to reach the appropriate conclusion. "The next chamber… it's like the one at the first repository with the drones tucked away into the ceiling, isn't it?"

"And those weren't garden-variety combat drones," Wufei added, "Those beasts could actually make a good show of it."

Heero nodded. "The shielded heavy units… and there could be more than those waiting for us in there. Plus there's another chamber beyond this, and that one likely has this place's best defenders lying in wait."

"We don't have time for a drawn-out fight like those clashes at the first repository!" Ayeka protested, "We need to clear out our opposition swiftly!"

Yosho nodded, his gaze focusing on Heero. "We do. Fortunately, we have the tools to do that now… or, more specifically, my grandson does."

"Yosho's right," said Washu, "Heero, you've done well with the Light Hawk Wings so far, but your first real test with them will be in here. Use them along with your Master Key, and we'll be able to deal with the opposition beyond that door quickly."

Heero had already come to the same conclusion. "I'd rather not engage those things up close, but there's not much of a choice here. Ryoko and I will enter first; if this room is like the one back at the prior facility, then the drones won't drop in until we're in the middle of it. While the enemy focuses on us, I want the rest of you to pick a single target and concentrate everything you have on it. Once that one falls, move onto the next one."

"That will leave you and Ryoko as the primary targets of some rather powerful foes," Azaka pointed out with a noticeably apprehensive tone.

"Will you be alright?" asked Kamidake, not even trying to hide his nervousness.

Heero nodded. "As long as the rest of you are ready to back us up, yes."

He then turned to Ryoko, and Heero could see the pirate smiling even through her helmet visor. "You ready?"

Her amber eyes gleamed with eagerness, and she brandished the unignited handle of her Key in her right hand. "You have to ask?"

Heero allowed himself a small smirk. "I suppose not. Well, you know the drill."

The door slid open a moment later, with the soldier and pirate sharing one last look and nod before charging in together.

….

Not even bothering to wait for the enemy to reveal themselves, Ryoko had activated the blades of her Key the instant she and Heero had entered the room. Heero had done the same, and he also had a Light Hawk Wing covering his left arm. The two of them were racing towards the center of the chamber, with Ryoko's gaze locked on the ceiling as she waited for the enemy to make their move.

She didn't have to wait long. The pirate and the soldier reached the middle of the room quite quickly, and unlike last time, they stopped right in the center. Sure enough, four circular sections of the ceiling slid open, and a quartet of hulking drones dropped down a second later. They were the same models as the bulky units they'd fought at the first repository, which meant that they'd be a royal pain in the ass to take down.

At least, they would if both Heero and Ryoko hadn't gotten considerably stronger in the intervening period between the raid on the first repository and this one.

Not even waiting for their foes to hit the ground, the brigand and prince both leapt into the air to meet their first target halfway. The giant drone already had its sword brandished and double-barreled plasma cannon at the ready, yet it still seemed surprised by the two relatively puny bipeds that were taking it head-on. Ryoko struck first, whirling her double-bladed Key as she attacked the machine's right side. Her crimson shafts of energy glanced along the unit's energy shields and didn't penetrate, but they didn't need to; they simply needed to keep the mechanical beast's attention on her rather than Heero.

Her partner then struck from the drone's left. Heero led with his own Master Key, and just like Ryoko's its blade couldn't get through the drone's shields. However, he then thrust forward with the Light Hawk Wing, and Ryoko's eyes widened as the sheet of white energy cut through both shields and metal as if both were nothing more than tissue paper. Tackling the mechanical beast in mid-air, Heero pushed his barrier-turned-weapon deep into his target, and a geyser of sparks and smoke erupted from the drone's torso.

With his momentum aided by the armor's thrusters, Heero drove the drone to the ground. For her part, Ryoko had to twist out of the way to avoid being crushed by the heavy machine, but she wasn't about to let Heero do all the hard work here. She came down on top of the drone, spinning her Key and slashing across the unit with both blades. Heero's Light Hawk Wing had been more than enough to overload the machine's shields, and so this time Ryoko's crimson blades cut through the metal shell and into the core components. Further sparks and gouts of flame gushed forth, with both the pirate and soldier leaping clear as something within the machine overheated and burned the drone to a crisp from the inside out.

Not a bad start, thought Ryoko as she took stock of the situation, but we might be in trouble here…

One drone had been dispatched before it could properly put up a fight, but the other three had touched down on the floor and were more than ready for a brawl. They had Heero and Ryoko surrounded, and the prince was already putting up a second Light Hawk Wing in preparation of having to endure a brutal assault. Ryoko put up a barrier of her own, confident that she could at least weather the inevitable fire from the drone's plasma cannons but somewhat less certain in the shield's ability to withstand repeated strikes from their menacing swords.

That was when one of the drones found itself rocked by a veritable hailstorm of orange plasma bolts; Heero's old friends had made their move. Concentrated fire from Duo, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei hammered the shields of their target and caused the machine in question to turn its focus on them. The mechanical beast immediately began lumbering towards them, and Ryoko hoped that they'd be able to bring it down before it could pose a serious threat. That still left two drones for her and Heero to contend with, and neither of them had been distracted from their targets. Both opened up with their dual-plasma cannons, and while Heero and Ryoko were able to block the shots, they knew that this was just the initial salvo.

"Get airborne and attack from above!" Heero ordered as he tanked shots on his Light Hawk Wings, "I'll keep them occupied!"

It wasn't a plan that Ryoko particularly liked, but she took flight without hesitation. Shifting the Key over to her right hand, she deactivated one of the blades to make the weapon easier to wield. At the same time, she let fly with a barrage of crimson spheres from her left hand, and while the orbs did little more than splash against one of the drones' shields, they did serve to draw the machine's attention away from Heero…

…and unintentionally serve as a perfect distraction from Yosho's subsequent attack.

Ryoko hadn't even noticed the old man moving in, but she wasn't about to turn down the assist. The azure blade of Tenchi-ken swept across the drone's back, not piercing the shields but sending waves of blue energy rippling across them. The drone retaliated with a swing from the sword in its right hand, and while Yosho was able to deflect the strike, the shrine keeper was sent skidding several meters back across the finely polished floor.

"Don't get careless, you old fool!" Ryoko shouted as she peppered the machine with energy blasts.

Yosho chuckled as he raced back into the fray, and although the pirate couldn't see his face, she was sure that he was smirking. "You really do care, don't you? That's quite touching."

Ryoko scowled beneath her helmet visor while letting fly with another volley of scarlet spheres. "If you go dying on Heero, I'll have Washu bring you back to life so I can kill you myself! Don't forget that!"

"Trust me, I will not," Yosho replied as he casually dodged a powerful swing from the drone's sword before striking at its torso, his sapphire blade once again glancing off the unit's shields.

As the drone rounded on Yosho, Ryoko recalled what Duo had discovered about these particular drones during the fight with them at the first repository; their shields were weak at the back of their necks. With the drone now bringing its sword down like a hammer, repeatedly smashing it into the floor as it tried in vain to turn Yosho into nothing more than a bloody smear, that weak point was now wide open to Ryoko. She swooped in, landing on the drone's shoulders and thruster her Key into the base of the drone's neck. Her crimson blade initially met resistance from the shields, but it punched through a moment later, and she drove it so deep into the drone's neck that the tip of the scarlet shaft came out the other side. Pulling the key to the left and then making a hard swipe to the right, she took the mechanical beast's head off, and the lumbering drone crumpled to the ground.

Two down, she thought as she raced to help Heero alongside Yosho, and two more to go!

….

"Tough son of a bitch," Wufei muttered as he pumped burst after burst with his rifle into the charging drone, only to see its shields tank every shot.

"Keep up the pressure," said Trowa, matching words to deeds with an unrelenting stream of fire from his heavy weapon.

"Duo, be ready," Quatre ordered as he sent shot after shot into the drone's head, "We'll keep it busy, but you have to make the kill!"

"No pressure or anything, right?" Duo muttered under his breath as he moved to the left while the hulking drone charged his friends, preparing himself for the strike, "Damn it, I hate these things…"

The mechanical beast's advance was inexorable, with all the fire the others were pumping into it simply splashing against its shields without doing any damage. The return shots from the drone's arm-mounted double-barreled plasma cannon were nothing to sneeze at; Duo had already taken a glancing hit that dropped his shields by a quarter, and he didn't want to think about the kind of damage that thing's sword would do should it get into range.

And I'm the one who has to get up close to take it out, he thought ruefully as he prepared to make his move, I'm such a lucky bastard, aren't I?

With the greatest volume of fire coming from Trowa, the drone was naturally focusing on him. It rushed forward, spitting out crimson blasts with its cannons while raising its blade for what would no doubt be a devastating strike. Trowa was quick on his feet when he needed to be, but Duo didn't want his friend to have to rely on his circus stunt skills here if he could help it. Judging that the machine had disregarded him for the moment, Duo took a deep breath before charging in. Making a running jump, he activated his armor's thrusters, and the boost in both altitude and momentum carried him forward just enough so that he came down on the drone's back. Knowing he had mere seconds before the titan tried to shake him off or worse, Duo jammed his plasma shotgun into the barrier at the back of the machine's neck and started pumping out shots.

Energy rippled across the shields as his first two shots failed to penetrate, but the third broke through. With the others still keeping the enemy's attention on them thanks to their concentrated fire, Duo kept shooting into the drone's neck. Smoke and sparks flew in short order before a heavy impact sent Duo tumbling towards the ground. The hit had come from the drone's right arm, and only by sheer luck had it been only the arm to hit Duo and not the heavy sword it carried.

Quickly regaining his feet, he raised his weapon in time to see the drone rounding on him to finish him off, and Duo fed it a plasma shotgun blast right to the face. Its face and ocular sensors were pulverized by the shot, and a follow-up blast must've destroyed something important in its thick skull, for the machine unceremoniously dropped forward and flopped head-first onto the ground.

"Cutting it a bit close there…" he whispered under his breath.

"There's still one left," Trowa reminded him.

"Not for much longer," Wufei remarked, already charging at the last drone.

Duo heard Quatre chuckle over their shared channel. "Actually, I don't think they even need our help for this one."

Following his friend's gaze, Duo had to agree with Quatre's assessment. The last drone was already contending with the combined might of Heero, Ryoko and Yosho, and it clearly wasn't long for this world. Ryoko was harassing it from above, peppering it with volleys of scarlet spheres. Meanwhile, Yosho darted in from the left, striking with his Master Key and leaving ripples in the drone's shielding as his blade hit the barrier again and again. As for Heero, he was taking the beast head-on, dodging and weaving between blasts from the drone's plasma cannons and blocking strikes from its heavy sword with the Light Hawk Wing over his left arm.

I keep forgetting the man's not entirely human, Duo mused as he watched Heero bat aside strikes that would've crushed any other soldier from Earth and her colonies with ease, I guess that explains how he survived some of the crazy shit he pulled during the war…

Well before Wufei or anyone else could join in on the fun, Heero put their foe to rest. Sidestepping to the left as the drone brought its sword down, he then thrust his left arm and the Light Hawk Wing over it forward, severing the drone's right arm at the elbow. Another volley of energy blasts from Ryoko along with a series of slashes from Yosho took the drone's shields down, and Heero finished the job by leaping into the air and stabbing the azure blade of his own Master Key through his mechanical adversary's face. The drone collapsed in a heap mere moments later, with Heero already moving past it and heading for the doorway at the far side of the chamber.

"Let's move," he ordered, "We've wasted enough time here."

Duo couldn't argue with that.

….

Haste could make for carelessness, but there was little choice in Heero's mind as he raced down the corridor. Kagato and his entourage had certainly landed by now, and they wouldn't face anywhere near the same level of resistance as Heero and his friends had on their way through the second repository. Blocking fire on the Light Hawk Wing over his left arm while tearing into soldier drones with his Master Key, Heero was determined to reach the final chamber and clear it quickly so that the ground team could then prepare for their stand against Kagato while Washu downloaded the repository's data.

Break through, defeat the drones, and then hold out until Washu's got our prize, he silently told himself while thrusting his azure blade through a drone's head, I mean, it worked last time, after all.

Next to him, Yosho was tearing into drones with ruthless efficiency. None could stand against the long-lost crown prince's supreme skill, yet the old man looked concerned nonetheless. Heero guessed that, like him, the shrine keeper's thoughts were more on the enemy that was coming up behind them than the one that lay ahead. The drones were a conventional threat, one that so far had proven to be incapable of standing for long against both the strike team's skill and the power of the two Juraians leading the charge. Kagato and his retinue, by contrast, would not be so easily dispatched.

As if Heero's grandfather was reading his mind, the old man smirked as he sliced a drone in half. "These machines don't seem like all that much compared to the foe chasing our tails, right?"

"Took the words right out of my mouth," Heero replied as he tanked fire on his Light Hawk Wing before retaliating with a swift thrust that impaled another drone through the torso, "They can't be that far behind us now."

Yosho shook his head while casually batting aside a handful of plasma bolts. "They're not, but they still have a good deal of ground to cover. I can sense them, and I'm sure you can as well."

It was true. Letting instinct take over and guide his body through the fight with the repository's mechanical defenders, Heero stretched out with his Juraian energy and probed for their true adversaries. He found them soon enough; they were doing the same with regards to him and Yosho. It was an eerie sensation, being aware of a distant foe while knowing that they were tracking him with the same power that he was using to detect them.

"They're still a good way back," said Heero as he cut down another drone, "but won't be for long. You need to go to the back of the group; someone has to back up Hilde when the enemy catches up."

Yosho shook his head as he sliced and diced drones with graceful ferocity. "We're almost to the end of this corridor. We need to hit the final chamber hard and fast. You know that just as well as I do."

"Washu will probably have those elite drones up there," Ryoko chimed in as she rained down volleys of scarlet spheres from overhead, "just like she did with the first repository. Probably more of them than last time, if I had to guess."

"Seems like a pretty safe bet," Duo added as he blew a drone apart with his plasma shotgun.

"Can we beat them before Kagato catches up?" asked Trowa while lighting up the right side of the corridor with his heavy cannon.

"We don't exactly have much of a choice in the matter," Quatre pointed out while picking off additional targets with his rifle, "If they catch us in the middle of a fight with those drones, we're done for."

"Which is why we'll have to play this very aggressively," Yosho insisted, "There can be no holding back. That goes for those at our rear just as much as it does for those who have remained at the tip of the spear."

"Yosho's right," said Washu, "Ayeka, we'll have to move up with them. If we hang back this time, there's a chance that Kagato could catch us while the others are fighting the drones. That can't happen."

"But my powers are purely defensive!" Ayeka protested.

"Our as well, or nearly so," Azaka added.

"I doubt our ability to restrain foes will work well against your most powerful of drones!" Kamidake lamented.

"You can still draw fire," Hilde countered, "and provide a distraction while the others take out the drones."

"You have your Light Hawk Wings," Washu pointed out, "and I know you've been training with them since returning to Jurai. It's time that you started using them."

Ayeka frantically shook her head. "But I can barely maintain them for more than a few minutes! I certainly can't use both them and my barriers at the same time!"

"That's what your guardians are for!" Washu argued, "It's been their true purpose from the start!"

"You can count on us to defend you," Azaka reassured her.

"We will not fail in our duty to keep you safe!" Kamidake chirped.

"Whether you use the Light Hawk Wings or not is up to you, Ayeka," said Heero as they took out the last of the soldier drones between them and the door to the next chamber, "Either way, Washu's correct; you're going to have to move forward with us. Leave the heavy fighting to us, but be ready to defend yourself however you can."

Ayeka nodded, clearly nervous but working to steel her resolve. "As you wish, Lord Heero."

I hope she's up for this, Heero thought as the door slid open, Sasami will never forgive me if something happens to her. Neither will her parents…

…and neither will I.

Taking point, Heero led the group through the doorway to face their next challenge.

….

I'll be right in the thick of the action this time, Washu mused with both eager anticipation and more than a hint of fear as the team moved into the chamber together, I suppose I should consider it an opportunity for some up-close research. If nothing else, I'll get the best seats in the house to see just how far my daughter and her boyfriend have come.

Unlike before, where the trained fighters of the group had taken point while the others followed, this time the team was proceeding in a much more cautious and deliberate manner. Washu and Hilde were at the very center of the formation, with the latter acting as the former's final line of defense. Ayeka, Azaka and Kamidake formed a triangle around the two of them, the air around them crackling with energy as they deployed their shields. Meanwhile, the others were spread out in a loose circle surrounding the core of the group, with Heero and Ryoko leading that circle towards the center of the room.

Their pace was brisk, but Washu knew she and Ayeka were hampering the group's progress. For all of the former's brilliance and the power of the latter's bloodline, neither of them could be considered particularly fit when compared to the likes of Heero and his old friends. Were it not for the two of them slowing down the group, Washu was certain that the team would've rushed across the room to the far wall so they could be on the opposite side of the chamber when the inevitable drones dropped down. That simply wasn't possible now due to the concern that Kagato might catch up and take those at the rear of the group by surprise; their only option now was to move as one and count on mutual protection to see them through.

Sure enough, as they drew near the center of the room, several holes began to appear in the ceiling as trapdoors slid aside. Washu counted fourteen in total, but there was a twist; twelve of them appeared to be only marginally larger than the average human, while the last two were significantly wider. She immediately realized what that meant.

"It's a mixed group!" she called out, "Watch out for the big ones!"

The others already had their weapons prepared, and not a moment too soon. Fourteen drones dropped down. Twelve of them were the same samurai-like machines that they'd encountered in the final chamber of the first repository, but the two larger ones with them were the hulking machines they'd just fought in the prior chamber. It was a nasty combination to be confronted with, and as the group found themselves surrounded by the machines Washu could only hope that the shields surrounding her and Hilde would be enough to withstand the inevitable onslaught.

Fortunately, Heero was the type of guy who could think on his feet. "Ryoko and I will take out the big ones as fast as we can. The rest of you just focus on staying alive!"

The young prince was already lunging at one of the two hulking machines, Light Hawk Wings covering both arms. Dodging to the left as the drone brought its sword down in a powerful strike that resulted in its blade digging into the floor, Heero got in beneath the reach of the mechanical titan's arms and immediately plunged both sheets of white energy into its chest. Washu's eyes narrowed as she saw the drone's shields immediately flare up and overload, and the edges of the Light Hawk Wings plunged deep into the torso.

Those shields might as well have been tissue paper, Washu thought as Heero brought both of his arms together in a scissoring motion and cut the drone in half, a chill going down her spine as she processed what she was seeing, Tsunami, our candidate's growing more comfortable with his powers by the minute. It's almost scary, just how quickly he's progressing…

She could only hope that Kagato was as intimidated as she was.

….

Her twin crimson blades spinning in front of her, Ryoko batted aside a powerful downward strike from the behemoth of a drone before her. Angling the blade that caught the sword to bleed off much of the attack's energy, Ryoko countered with a whirlwind of slashes. Waves of red energy rippled across the drone's barriers, not taking them down but at the very least keeping the machine's attention focused firmly on her.

Hurry up, Heero, she thought as she ducked beneath a salvo of plasma bolts from the machine's arm-mounted double cannon, I can keep this thing busy for now, but once those smaller drones move in, I'm going to be in trouble here!

She was only dimly aware of what she'd mentally designated the 'warrior' drones. While the two larger drones had come down in relatively close proximity to each other, the warrior drones were much more spread out. Advancing cautiously, they appeared to be convinced that Yosho was the biggest threat, because three had been devoted to the shrine keeper alone. The remaining nine were approaching Heero's old friends, with some trading shots with their sidearms while others had drawn both of their blades and looked quite eager to use them. For their part, Duo, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei were already unleashing everything they had, with the latter already swapping out his rifle for the sword on his armor's back as he moved forward to meet two of the drones head-on. Orange energy blazed along the edge of the blade, and while Ryoko couldn't see Wufei's face she was confident that he was smiling; if nothing else, the young man had demonstrated over the course of their travels thus far that he clearly enjoyed a good fight. Ryoko could definitely respect that, though she hoped that his eagerness to test himself would at least be balanced with some measure of caution.

Then she heard Heero's voice from behind her. "Get airborne and attack from above!"

She immediately did so, deactivating one of her blades as she ascended while letting fly with a volley of scarlet spheres from her left hand. The crimson orbs splashed against the drone's frontal shielding, but as the mechanical beast aimed its cannons at Ryoko to retaliate, the pirate immediately understood that she wasn't really the target that the combat automata should've been focusing on. Barely a second after she'd taken flight, Heero lunged through the space that she'd occupied before, Light Hawk Wings and Master Key both blazing. The drone still had its aim focused on her, though, leaving itself wide open for Heero's lunge. He leapt forward and drove the Light Hawk Wings into the drone's upper torso, and once the shields flared and overloaded the azure blade of his Master Key joined the sheets of white energy in piercing the machine's armor. The drone tried to dislodge Heero with its sword, but Ryoko immediately swooped in and cut its right arm off at the shoulder. That gave Heero all the room he needed to finish their target off, which he did by moving both of his arms upwards. The Light Hawk Wings and Achika's sapphire blade followed suite, with the white and blue shafts of energy cutting up into the drone's neck and face before coming out of the top of its head.

Both big guys are down, thought Ryoko with a satisfied smile as she and Heero both turned their attention to the warrior drones assaulting their friends, and their little friends will soon follow!

….

They're not bad, thought Yosho as he weaved a cocoon of blue light around him with Tenchi-ken to fend off sword strikes from the three warrior drones that were trying to bring him down, I'd commend Washu on the work she put into programming them if they were not trying to kill me…

Their moves were swift, with their sword strikes barely more than blurs even to Yosho's trained eyes. The three units he was contending with had set up their attacks well, with one drone taking him head on while the other two came at him from the flanks. Keeping his energy blade in close to minimize gaps in his defensive coverage, the crown prince could only deflect and parry as he waited for the right moment to counterattack. It was a much more cautious approach than he'd wanted to take with this fight given the time crunch, but there was simply no other alternative.

Then a volley of orange bolts flew forth from behind him and hit the lead drone in the head. While the bolts glanced off the unit's shields, their impacts did distract the drone for a precious second, and that was just what Yosho had been waiting for. Side-stepping a thrust from the unit attacking from his right and leaping over a low horizontal swing from the drone to his left, he brought his weapon down hard upon the lead drone's head. Blue waves of light washed over the unit's barriers, and he struck again while additional plasma bolts hit the drones on his flanks, momentarily drawing their attention. With only one drone to contend with, Yosho further ramped up his assault, batting aside the drone's blades and hitting it again in the head. This time, the shield's fell, and his Master Key cleaved the drone's head in half.

Whirling around to deal with the other two drones, Yosho finally saw the source of their distraction. Using gaps that Ayeka and her Royal Guardians had deliberately left in their shields, Hilde was peppering both drones with fire from her sidearm. By itself, her weapon couldn't bring down their shields, but it was still enough for the drones to designate her a target. Their blades hit the barrier surrounding Hilde, Ayeka and Washu, and Yosho feared that they might cut through. Fortunately, the barrier held, but if other drones joined them then there was no guarantee that the shield would remain intact.

He rushed in to help, and he wasn't the only one. Having dispatched the two larger drones, Heero and Ryoko were now free to help the others, and the latter was moving in to aid Yosho against his two remaining targets. Both blades of her Key were activated again, and as Yosho angled for the drone on the left the pirate went for the one on the right. Their respective azure and crimson blades didn't penetrate the drones' shields, but they did convince the machines to turn their ire back towards the prince and the pirate rather than the energy barrier and those behind it.

As he crossed swords with his target, he felt a chill run down his spine. It wasn't due to their current opposition; the warrior drones were formidable, but they were also a threat that Yosho and the others were well able to handle. No, it was from a familiar presence that was drawing nearer with each passing second.

We're running out of time.

….

"About time you joined the party, buddy!" Duo called out as Heero decapitated one of the warrior drones with a sweeping motion from his left Light Hawk Wing.

"Stay focused," Heero admonished as he parried a sword strike from another drone with his Master Key, his tone sharper than he'd intended, "We need to wrap this up quickly."

Almost unconsciously, he'd moved the second Light Hawk Wing so that it was no longer over his right arm, instead now hovering over his back. That saved his life when another one of the warrior drones attacked from behind, with both of its swords glancing off the sheet of white energy as if they were rounds from a pistol hitting the armor of a battleship. The attacking drone proceeded to eat a blast from Duo's plasma shotgun before Heero rounded upon it, striking first with his Master Key before driving the left Light Hawk Wing forward and impaling the machine upon it.

Three down, he thought as a few bolts of energy splashed against his armor's shields, and nine more to go.

That nine swiftly became eight as he saw Ryoko utterly butcher one of the warrior drones, hammering it with a cyclone of slashes from her whirling double-ended Key and utterly overwhelming its defenses. Behind her, Yosho reduced the enemy's number even further, smoothly parrying blows from both of the blades wielded by his foe before countering with a sequence of thrusts and cuts that slipped beneath the combat automaton's guard. Ripples of blue energy washed over the drone's shields before a strike to the machine's neck got through, and the machine lost its head a moment later. Now there were seven left, but Heero's unease only continued to build.

The presence of Kagato and his entourage grew closer with each passing second. Worse still, Heero had a good enough sense for the renegade cadet branch royals now that he could almost pinpoint their exact location in the second repository. Heero couldn't be completely exact, but from what he could feel, he guessed that they were passing through the chamber where he and his companions had fought the giant drones earlier. That just left one final corridor, and then they'd be here.

There was no more time for fancy tactics or stratagems, and Heero made that quite clear as he blocked a slash from one of the remaining drones. "Washu, Hilde, Ayeka; make a break for it! Everyone else, cover them. We're out of time!"

He'd expected an argument, but none came. With just an exchange of nods, Washu and her escorts ran towards the far end of the chamber, with Azaka and Kamidake flanking the trio and maintaining as broad a barrier as they could. While the others renewed their assaults on the remaining drones, one managed to slip through and made a beeline for Washu. Heero saw Quatre pepper the drone with fire from his rifle, but the plasma bolts didn't penetrate the machine's shields. Additional bolts from Hilde's sidearm made little difference. Heero was about to break off and contend with the drone himself when Ayeka suddenly interposed herself between the machine and its targets. A single Light Hawk Wing materialized before her, and with a gesture from her right arm she sent the sheet of energy at the drone, impaling it cleanly through the neck and taking its head off. The machine crumpled to the floor, and while Ayeka looked a bit unsteady on her feet she still remained upright and mobile as the Light Hawk Wing dissipated.

Heero was about to compliment her on the save when he felt the approaching presence of their true enemy grow stronger, and he knew what needed to be done. "Yosho, with me! We'll bottleneck them at the entrance. The rest of you, take out the remaining drones ASAP!"

"Don't get careless, Heero!" Ryoko called out as she fended off multiple sword strikes with the blades of her Key.

"Might be too late for that," he deadpanned, unable to completely suppress a smirk, "but I'll do what I can."

"Are you ready for this?" asked Yosho as the two men ran towards the doorway they'd passed through earlier.

"No," Heero confessed, "but we don't have a choice."

The two men reached the doorway a moment later, and it opened immediately. They were greeted by three activated energy blades; one green and two white. The sibling cadet branch royals were at the head of the pack and ready for a fight.

Heero and Yosho gave it to them.

….

Kagato had sensed Heero and Yosho drawing near even before the doors had slid open, but he would still privately admit to being caught off guard by their immediate attack. The long-lost crown prince and his grandson were clearly not playing games today, and Kagato found himself thrown immediately onto the defensive by Yosho's opening strike. As for Ragyō, Heero had engaged her with what Kagato could only describe as an assassin's precision and ruthlessness, with both his azure blade and one of the Light Hawk Wings immediately going for his target's throat. Kagato wasn't worried; his sister was more than capable of taking care of herself. Still, even she appeared momentarily taken aback by the young man's vicious opening strike, though a thrilled smile quickly appeared on the other side of her helmet's visor.

Coming at us right out of the gate, Kagato mused as he deflected a series of slashes from Yosho, even as Washu's drones still engage their compatriots. They're desperate, but that adds a whole new level of danger for us as well.

Kagato had to give credit where it was due; Heero and Yosho had timed their moves perfectly. The doorway was wide enough for both Kagato and his sister to engage their foes, but not wide enough for Nagi and the assassin twins to pass through behind them. Yosho and Heero had moved to bottleneck Kagato and his entourage before they could enter the chamber proper, no doubt in an effort to buy time for their compatriots to finish off the rest of the drones and get Washu into the data access chamber beyond.

"Awfully aggressive, Yosho," Kagato remarked while parrying a sequence of blindingly quick strikes, "That's not like you."

"No, it's not," his old friend readily conceded, and behind the visor of his helmet the look in his brown eyes was all business, "but we do what we must."

Next to Kagato, Ragyō looked damn near ecstatic as her twin white blades flashed in front of her in a mad scramble to fend off Heero's relentless attacks. "Oh, I missed you, boy! If I'd known you'd greet me with this level of bloodlust, I might have come out to the capital itself for our rematch!"

"I wish you had," Heero replied as he pressed his assault, "Then I could've fought you with the entire palace guard backing me up. It'd make dispatching you so much easier."

Ragyō gave a theatrical sigh, though her smile remained undiminished as she struck back at her adversary. "You mean this one-on-one clash of ours now is not your ideal form of a rematch with me? Boy, I'm absolutely crushed! I would've thought you'd prefer the chance to avenge your earlier wound at my hand all on your own."

"Don't flatter yourself," Heero shot back as he deflected her strikes with both Light Hawk Wing and Master Key, "I'm a murderer, and a professional one at that. How my target goes down is only a secondary concern. As long as the deed's done, nothing else matters."

"The zeal with which you're fighting me now says otherwise," Ragyō taunted with a smirk, and Kagato saw her gaze linger on the sapphire shaft of energy that had come within mere millimeters of her face, "as does the fact that you went through the trouble of bonding with a First Generation Royal Tree and forging your own Master Key."

Kagato shot the young man a smirk even as he focused primarily on defending himself from Yosho's attacks. "Oh, yes, we heard about that, boy. We have our eyes and ears inside the palace, after all. Even if we didn't, word of a newly discovered main branch royal completing such a task would've found its way to us one way or another."

"Congratulations, by the way," Ragyō added, and Kagato was mildly surprised by the sincerity in her tone, "The craftsmanship of your new weapon is superb and fitting of a warrior like yourself. An elegant device, built for precision in both offense and defense… contrary to what your origins in the galactic backwater might suggest, your tastes are quite refined."

Kagato had to agree with her on that. What few glimpses he'd been able to steal of the curved-hilt Master Key while continuing to deflect attacks from Yosho were more than enough to leave an impression. Every Key, Master or otherwise, that Kagato had seen in the past had followed the traditional handle design, with only minor variations here and there. Heero's was a notable departure from conventional form, but upon reflection Kagato realized that he should've expected nothing less from the boy.

Given his background, it's only natural that his personal weapon as a royal stands out from those of his forebears, Kagato mused, Heero Yuy… you grow more and more intriguing with each encounter. It truly is a shame that you're aligned with the main branch in preserving the empire's status quo.

Amidst the crackle and sparks of clashing energy blades, Kagato heard Nagi's voice from behind him. "You two need to push them back so we can get in there! None of us can lend support right now without risking friendly fire!"

As he parried a thrust from Yosho, Kagato glanced at his sister. "She's right, you know. Perhaps we ought to step things up here?"

Ragyō nodded, licking her lips eagerly. "Do you really have to ask?"

Kagato chuckled. "No, I suppose not."

His sister moved first, parrying a strike from Heero before lunging forward. Both her white blades were aimed at the young man's neck, and he had no choice but to leap backwards with the aid of his armor's thrusters to avoid having his head taken off. As it was, the tips of her Keys glanced off his armor's shields and sent waves of white energy rippling over them. Any closer and they likely would've cut through; not even armor created by Washu could stand against a Key's power for long, let alone two of them.

With Heero momentarily on the backfoot, Nagi immediately moved in behind Ragyō. Kagato caught her glancing at Heero, and for a moment she seemed to consider engaging him alongside Ragyō. Appearing to think better of it, she instead continued forward, and Kagato saw her make a beeline for Ryoko.

I should've expected as much, he thought as he forced Yosho back with a sequence of powerful blows, Professional or not, she still wants to settle the score. Well, as long as she keeps the pirate occupied, I can abide it.

Yosho attempted to press Kagato back, but it was too late. Momentum was on the cadet branch royal's side now, and he drove his old friend into the chamber. Blurs at the corner of his vision were all he needed to know that the assassin twins had moved into the chamber as well. Battle was truly joined, now…

…and the fun was just getting started.

….

Withdrawing her scarlet blade from the chest of a drone, Ryoko wasted no time in moving to intercept the incoming bounty hunter. "I'll take Nagi! You guys deal with the rest of the drones!"

"Copy that!" Quatre replied as he peppered a target with bolts from his rifle.

Ryoko could only hope that he and the others could handle the machines. Thankfully, there were only five of the warrior drones left now with the destruction of her target, though that left Quatre and the rest of Heero's old friends still at a numerical disadvantage. At least the mad dash to the far side of the chamber had been successful, with Washu and Hilde passing through the door and into the data room just a few seconds ago. Ayeka, Azaka and Kamidake had taken up position outside the doors and were generating a formidable barrier, while Quatre and the other former colonial revolutionaries had their backs to the wall to keep the surviving drones from getting behind them. It wasn't an ideal position, but the fact that none of them had asked her to stay and help them suggested that the young men believed they could contend with the remaining drones themselves.

That was when Ryoko saw the two figures following Nagi; the assassins. Both had knives and pistols drawn, and they were rushing into the fray. Ryoko could perhaps stall them for a bit, but if the twins were determined to get past her then she wouldn't be able to keep them from doing so. Nagi alone would be more than enough to contend with.

Hold them all back for as long as you can, she told herself, and trust that Quatre and the others can whittle down the drones a bit further before the assassins get around you.

Switching her Key over to its single-bladed mode, she held it in her right hand while sparks of crimson energy danced along the fingers of her left. Making a broad sweeping motion with her left hand, she let fly with a volley of crimson spheres. Nagi simply twisted and side-stepped to evade, but the orbs hadn't been aimed at her to begin with. Instead, Ryoko had targeted the assassins, and she had the satisfaction of seeing the blasts knock both girls clean off their feet. The way the air shimmered around them told her that they were shielded, just like they'd been in the encounter at the first repository, but the power Ryoko could put into each shot was still more than sufficient to rattle them.

That was when she saw a flash of violet energy, and she frantically brought her sword up in front of her. The move came not a moment too soon, for Ryoko barely managed to catch Nagi's energy whip on her key and fend off the bounty hunter's opening attack. She then saw the whip shrink back until the violet light merely enshrouded the saber in Nagi's hand, with the bounty hunter swiftly closing the distance and making a thrust aimed right at Ryoko's chest.

"I was wondering when you'd show up," Ryoko growled as she parried the attack and responded with a low slash.

"Come on, Ryoko," Nagi purred as she brought her saber down to deflect the pirate's counterattack before retaking the offensive, her confident smirk visible even through her helmet's tinted visor, "Admit it; you were looking forward to this."

"Damn right I was!" Ryoko snarled as she redirected another thrust from Nagi before countering with a kick that caught the bounty hunter in the sternum.

Ryoko immediately followed up with a slash, hoping to end the clash here and now, but she wasn't that lucky. Nagi brought her saber back up in just the nick of time, blocking the pirate's strike before responding with a knee. Ryoko caught Nagi's leg with her left hand, but the bounty hunter smoothly twisted out of her grasp before lunging right back in with her saber at the ready.

She's a pain in the ass, but I got to hand it to her, Ryoko silently and begrudgingly conceded, she's got the moves.

Behind the bounty hunter, Ryoko saw the two assassins already back on their feet. She wasted no time in firing off another volley of scarlet spheres, but this time her foes were ready. Weaving, leaping and rolling like a pair of possessed cats, they proved to be fiendishly difficult targets. A few of the crimson orbs grazed them, but these glancing blows weren't nearly enough to keep them back. Gritting her teeth as she blocked strikes from Nagi, Ryoko activated the second blade of her Key. She needed both hands to effectively wield the weapon in this configuration, so ranged attacks would be harder to employ, but she needed to shake things up and knew that Nagi had yet to face this particular weapon.

Nagi, of course, had seen the weapon from afar as she'd entered the chamber earlier, but seeing and actually being attacked by the Key were two very different things. Whirling the double-bladed Key before her, Ryoko pushed the bounty hunter back with a series of wide slashes. She had the reach advantage over her foe now, although that would change if Nagi switched her own weapon back to its whip-configuration. Even that would prove to be less of a threat than it had been before, though, for the second blade offered new avenues for contending with that pesky tool.

The bounty hunter was still holding her own, though, with her saber practically dancing in the air before her as she deflected Ryoko's attacks. "Interesting… I didn't think you were capable of crafting such a device."

"I didn't," Ryoko confessed as she pressed her assault, "but that doesn't really matter right now, does it?"

Nagi actually chuckled at that. "No, I suppose it doesn't. As long as it keeps the fight entertaining, I don't care about the rest!"

It was a sentiment that Ryoko shared. She threw herself fully into the fight, and despite the gravity of the situation still found herself enjoying this chance to test herself against her long-time rival. Her powers and skills had grown, and she wanted to make sure Nagi knew that.

Even so, Ryoko was limited in what she could accomplish. She had the bounty hunter focused purely on her, but the assassins were on the move. Splitting up, the two women gave the clash between Nagi and Ryoko a wide berth. Arcing around the duel, their courses would take them towards the rest of the fireteam. A quick glance showed Ryoko that the boys had reduced the number of warrior drones to three now, but those survivors were still as dangerous as the oncoming assassins.

Ryoko prayed that Heero's old friends were ready.

….

"Here they come!" called Duo as he blasted a drone in the chest with his shotgun.

"I see them!" Quatre replied, already firing off a volley with his rifle at the assassin incoming from the left.

"How are we playing this, Quatre?" Wufei asked as he fended off slashed from one of the warrior drones with his blade.

It was a good question, and one that Quatre knew he only had seconds to answer. "I'll take the left. Duo, you've got the one on the right. Trowa, Wufei; hold your ground here and take out the last drones!"

"Roger that," Trowa acknowledged as he flooded the third warrior drone with a river of bolts from his heavy rotary gun.

"I hope this works," Duo remarked as he used his armor's thrusters to get clear of the drone he was currently fighting while at the same time put himself on an intercept course with his new target.

That makes two of us, Quatre thought as he likewise moved to engage the assassin that he'd singled out for himself.

The assassins wore the same dark grey armor that Quatre had seen back at the first repository, but this time a sleek helmet was added to the ensemble. Their weapons appeared unchanged at first glance, but Quatre wouldn't take anything for granted here. It was entirely possible that portions of their armor contained concealed weapons, and the last thing he needed was to underestimate his opponents.

Quatre and the girl traded fire as they closed the remainder of the distance, with both combatants dodging, ducking and rolling in-between shots. Landing hits was difficult, to put it mildly, and any shots that did connect were easily blocked by the shields of the target's armor. Remembering just how powerful his adversary's pistol was from the prior encounter, Quatre had extra incentive to stay on his toes; the assassin's weapon might have looked sleek and compact, but the wallop it packed was no joke and could drain his shields quite quickly if multiple direct hits were scored in rapid succession.

This wouldn't be a contest of firearms for long, though, for the woman was moving in quite quickly. Knowing that his rifle was not the best weapon for close quarters combat, Quatre swiftly put it away and drew both a knife and his sidearm. It was a good thing he'd done so, too, for the woman was already close enough to lunge forward, her blade aimed for the neck seal where Quatre's helmet joined with the rest of his armor.

His gaze briefly locked with that of his enemy, and even through her tinted visor the look in her eyes was more than a little unsettling; calm, yet tinged with what Quatre could only describe as fervent bloodlust. This was more than just another job for her. The girl had clearly been looking forward to this fight.

As they began trading knife blows while trying to take shots at each other with their pistols, Quatre spared the briefest of glances towards Duo. He'd likewise closed with his target, but he hadn't drawn his knife. Instead, he was pumping blast after blast with his plasma shotgun at the target, keeping the assassin constantly on the evasive. Quatre envied Duo his weapon; it was much better suited for this kind of a fight than the rifle he was using for the mission. Unlike Quatre's target, Duo's was forced to take potshots at him with her pistol as she tried to find a way to avoid getting pummeled into submission by the bursts of plasma from her foe.

Trust that Duo's got his own target handled, Quatre silently told himself as he deflected a series of vicious slashes from his opponent, and focus on your own. After coming this far, you're not dying here!

….

She's as vicious as ever, Heero thought grimly as he struggled to deflect the blindingly rapid strikes from Ragyō, and quite possibly more so.

Having a weapon custom-made for his hand along with the Light Hawk Wings did make withstanding her assault easier than it had been during the clash at the first repository, but not by much. It certainly didn't give Heero any margin for error. With his focus now solely on Ragyō, he kept the second Light Hawk Wing covering his back, trying not to think too hard on how it was hovering there already with hardly any prompting from him. He knew that he was tapping into the power of his bloodline on an instinctual level, and he didn't want to do anything that might disrupt it.

Falling back under his foe's relentless offensive, Heero knew that he had to mix things up if he wanted to survive. His sword skills had improved thanks to the tireless training he'd undertaken with both Ryoko and Yosho, but Heero wasn't about to delude himself; compared to a woman who had at least centuries of combat experience under her belt and likely a good deal more, he still came off as barely more than a gifted novice. If the contest remained one of pure swordsmanship, Heero knew that he would eventually be overwhelmed.

Luckily for him, Washu's armor provided plenty of ways to shake up the playing field. After deflecting two horizontal slashes, Heero hit his thrusters and lunged forward, attempting to tackle his foe to the ground. Ragyō smoothly sidestepped his lunge, but Heero's momentum carried him well outside of her striking range for a few crucial seconds. His left hand dropped to his hip and drew his sidearm, and he popped off a few quick shots at his opponent. Her twin ivory blades flashed with insane quickness, though, swatting the bolts away like they were no more than irksome flies. Then she was lunging forward, and Heero immediately brought up his sword and Light Hawk Wing while keeping the pistol gripped in his left hand, with the white sheet of the shield extending far enough over that arm and hand to protect the weapon from Ragyō's blades.

He expected his enemy to be disdainful of him bringing a firearm to their swordfight, but her reaction was one of admiration instead even as she struck with renewed ferocity. "Not bad, boy! Not bad at all. Such talent, and at such a young age… I almost don't want to kill you!"

"Too bad for you, the feeling's not mutual," Heero deadpanned as he blocked both her blades on his Light Hawk Wing before striking back with his Master Key, only for his foe to swiftly reposition her left sword to intercept the counterattack.

"Perhaps I can change your mind," she replied as she leapt back to avoid the knee Heero had attempted to plant in her gut before lunging right back in with ivory blades flashing like bolts of lightning, "I'd certainly like to, and not just out of respect for your fighting abilities. For someone with so much potential to throw in their lot with the rulers of a rotting empire is truly a tragedy."

Heero's brow furrowed beneath his helmet visor as he kept both Master Key and Light Hawk Wing in front of him, determined to stall Ragyō by himself and thereby neutralize the threat she'd pose to his friends. "You and your brother already tried this sales pitch at the first repository. It fell flat then; what makes you think it'll work this time?"

"You've been to the capital now," Ragyō pressed as she drove him back towards one of the chamber's long and gently curving walls, "You've seen the heart of the empire and the old fools who run it. You've experienced their outmoded beliefs and antiquated prejudices firsthand. Don't try to deny it; I know all about the reception you got from that pompous fool Seiryo at your debut ball. Hardly the sort of welcome an exceptional individual like you deserved, if you ask me."

"You're clearly well-informed," Heero conceded as he bobbed and weaved, trying his best to evade her blades while looking for an opening to counter, "but by that virtue, you should also be aware of how the 'reception' Seiryo gave me ultimately played out."

Ragyō laughed while her blades met his again. "Oh, do I! Boy, what I wouldn't have given to be present for the utter humiliation you visited upon that arrogant prick! Word of that duel made the rounds in no time flat. If you were looking to make a powerful impression upon the imperial aristocracy, you more than achieved that objective. Even so, making your mark as an up-and-coming warlord can cut both ways."

Heero raised an eyebrow as he used his armor's thrusters to leap back and snap off another volley with his pistol, only for Kagato's sister to effortlessly block the bolts as she chased after him. "Is that what the nobles are calling me now? A warlord?"

"The word's been on more than a few peoples' lips as of late," his adversary answered, "Given that the Admiral of Jurai's Second Fleet has already become one of your supporters, you can hardly blame the less martial amongst the nobles for assigning you such a label."

Heero shook his head as he braced himself to fend off another vicious sequence of slashes from Ragyō. "If my combat abilities and the support I've garnered from the military makes the rest of the nobility nervous, that's irrelevant. Their fears are misplaced in any case. As soon as you and your brother have been dealt with and the Array destroyed, I'll be leaving Jurai behind."

"Is that so?" asked the cadet branch royal as her flashing ivory blades filled his field of vision, "You'll build a base of power to defeat Kagato and I, neutralize the most powerful weapon in the history of the galaxy, and then once you've saved the Empire of Jurai… you'll just leave?"

Despite the severity of both the broader situation and his own immediate circumstances, Heero couldn't help but smirk. "Yes. I'll understand if that's somewhat difficult for a power-hungry aristocrat to grasp."

"Oh, on the contrary," Ragyō replied as her two Keys lashed out like the heads of angry vipers, "Your grandfather expressed a similar sentiment more than once during his time at court. Doing his duty, but ultimately stepping aside, voluntarily relinquishing power for a quiet retirement. I always thought it was wasteful given his potential, but I can understand the mindset behind it. Royal politics isn't a game played lightly, and it can be tiresome. It's why I tend to prefer personal combat; it's refreshing to face an enemy that wants to stab you in the face rather than the back. Even so, that doesn't change the fact that it is a waste of potential, in this case of both your grandfather's and your own. For one with such abilities and skills as yourself to simply fade into obscurity would be an outright travesty!"

"How kind of you to care so much," Heero quipped as he fended off her strikes while looking for the next opening, "Nevertheless, it's my decision, and I intend to stick by it."

Ragyō chuckled as she pressed her assault. "I wonder… do you really think you can? Even if you defeat my brother and I, I don't think you really appreciate the situation you'll still find yourself in. As far as the rest of Jurai will be concerned, you'll still be seen as an upstart and a potential threat. Even if you truly do intend to return to the backwater world you call home, you'll still have your position in the royal line of succession, and the question of you potentially returning to claim it will be impossible for the aristocracy to ignore."

"After saving their empire, I'd like to think I'll have earned their gratitude and a quiet retirement," said Heero as his Master Key and Light Hawk Wing drove off Ragyō's rapid strikes time and time again, "Given my ties to the Royal Family, I'd imagine it wouldn't be too difficult to get the Emperor himself to enforce my willing withdrawal from Juraian affairs. I doubt any trouble would follow me back to Earth then."

Ragyō's voice lowered as she ducked her head beneath a wide swing from Heero's Light Hawk Wing before blocking a thrust from his Master Key. "You can't be so naïve as to believe it'll be that easy, are you? Even if you save their pathetic hides, you'll never be left alone; too many of them fear you. The Emperor might consider himself and Jurai indebted to you, but not all of the aristocracy will feel compelled to abide by that. Cadet branch royals like my brother and I aren't the only ones with deep pockets and grand ambitions. Their reach is long, and they'd have no compunctions about extending it to Earth."

Driving her back momentarily, Heero's brow furrowed beneath his helmet. "You're saying other members of the nobility might try to have me assassinated?"

"Exactly!" Ragyō answered with a delighted hiss as her twin blades danced around her, "Perhaps they'll have the decency to wait until you've performed your service to the Empire, but the odds are just as good of them deciding that you represent too great a threat and acting hastily. Kagato and I are the devils they know; you're the one they don't. You think you and your friends are safe while you're in Jurai? No, you've all got targets on your back. Apart from that fool Seiryo's incompetent attempt at the ball, none of them have worked up the nerve to take a shot at you yet. After this battle, that might change. Succeed, and their concerns about the new prince's growing influence with the military will be fed. Fail but survive, and they'll see you as disgraced. Either way, at least some among them will almost certainly decide to remove you from the playing field."

"People have been trying to kill me for most of my life," Heero deadpanned as he caught both of her blades before trying to kick her, only for his opponent to gracefully leap away before charging right back in and forcing him back onto the defensive, "and not just on the battlefield. I'm well-versed in dealing with assassins. After all, I was raised by one."

The next words out of Ragyō's mouth chilled him to the bone. "I know."

Acting purely on instinct as he continued to defend himself, Heero's mind raced at the implications. "You… know?"

"Like I said, the reach of the Juraian aristocracy is long," his foe elaborated while keeping him on his toes with alternating high and low strikes, "Our resources include far more than just credits and warships. Did you think that my brother and I were idle during the gap between our clash at the first repository and this one? Earth is not hard to find, Heero Yuy, and my brother was once a colleague of Kagato; he learned much from her all those years ago, and he's applied that knowledge extensively. Designing ships capable of slipping through your planet's orbital observation grid undetected, outfitting spies with all the gear they'd need to infiltrate your government's most secure data sensors to extract classified information; all that and more is child's play to him."

Beneath his helmet, Heero grimaced as he continued to block her attacks. "I suppose I should've expected this. Know thy enemy, right?"

"Well spoken," Ragyō replied as she changed her approach, aiming now for Heero's face and forcing him to rapidly backpedal, "and I must say, your file has provided some fascinating reading over the past few days. Orphaned by a brutal regime, a professional insurgent before even entering your teens, one of the deadliest pilots and soldiers your world has ever seen; hardly the typical royal biography! No wonder you dispatched Seiryo so easily. An aristocrat accustomed to elegant dueling versus a man whose entire life so far has been defined by war? He was doomed the moment he challenged you!"

"He underestimated me and paid the price," said Heero as he parried her slashes before countering with a thrust that forced her to momentarily step back to avoid him gutting her, "A mistake that you and your brother have also made. Humans might be primitive and weak compared to you Juraians, but take us lightly and it'll be the end of you."

The cadet branch royal laughed as she was driven back by Heero's ensuing onslaught. "Underestimate you? Boy, that's the last mistake we'll be making! You already demonstrated in our first encounter that you're not to be taken lightly. Your file just sealed the deal. The court will simply attribute your prowess to your bloodline, but I'm of a different mindset… and so is Kagato. Earth may be primitive, but if it can offer soldiers of your caliber, then it deserves greater consideration. Jurai under the current regime will continue to dismiss your people and the potential of humanity. We see things differently, though, and would like for that potential to blossom."

"You're not seriously still trying to sway me over to your cause, are you?" Heero asked incredulously as he hammered her defenses with all his might, only for her to withstand each blow looking no worse for wear.

"I'd be foolish if didn't," she remarked, and Heero was surprised by the sincerity in her voice, "You're new to the galactic stage, so I can understand if you haven't thought this far ahead yet. You've been focused on your mission, as a proper soldier should, but there's so much more that lies before you and your people than just our ambitions and the Array. My brother's rule can be an opportunity for humanity! Your species is already on the cusp of great advancements; I have no doubt that the study of the crashed Treeships of the princesses along with Detective Kuramitsu's craft is proceeding apace, and the fruits of those studies will eventually ripen. With our aid, humanity could make a quantum leap in scientific advancement. Right now, your species remains confined to its native star system, and it will still be some time before it changes that on its own. If you would allow us to uplift you though, Heero Yuy, then humanity could burst onto the scene and show the galaxy just what it's truly capable of!"

Heero's response was immediate and adamant. "A technological leap for humanity in exchange for helping you and your brother hold the entire galaxy hostage? Not a chance in hell."

Ragyō let loose a theatrical sigh as she gracefully parried his thrusting blade before countering with both of her swords in a scissoring-motion that grazed the shields along Heero's neck. "A pity. Well, there's still time for you to change your mind. I wonder if you'll be singing the same tune after the first assassination attempt those cowardly nobles send your way. Mark my words; it's coming. It's just a matter of when and where."

Ignore her, Heero told himself as he was pushed onto the backfoot again, She's just trying to get in your head. Psychological warfare, nothing special. Tune it out.

And yet, even as their dance of blades continued, his mind flashed back to the debut ball. Yes, he'd accomplished his goal of impressing the military officers present and thereby making his overall mission easier, but he hadn't been blind to the looks of disdain and jealousy that had come from no small portion of the attending aristocrats. None of them had dared to make a move after he'd flattened Seiryo…

…but how long would it be until one of them found their nerve and decided it was time to take another shot?

….

He's coming at me harder than the last time around, Yosho thought as he weaved a barrier of blue light between him and his foe's emerald blade, Kagato, you clearly redoubled your training since the battle at the first repository.

Yosho had expected nothing less, of course. It was just one of the reasons why he had devoted so much time and energy to sparring with Heero and Ryoko in the intervening period between that last clash and this one. Yes, it was important to make sure that his grandson and the feisty pirate continued to hone their skills, but what Yosho hadn't told them was that he wanted to make sure that his abilities remained sharp as well. He wasn't as spry as he'd once been, after all; only experience and technique would keep him in the game against a younger and stronger adversary.

Kagato had definitely picked up on it, at least if his chuckling between strikes was any indicator. "You really were worried about our next encounter, weren't you? Well, if nothing else, I'm flattered that you take me so seriously as an opponent."

"I would be foolish to do otherwise," Yosho pointed out as he parried a thrust before riposting with fluid grace and momentarily seizing the initiative, "especially given the circumstances."

Kagato shook his head as he backpedaled while deflecting a sequence of rapid slashes from Yosho. "It truly is a shame that I can't talk you into joining us. You would make for an invaluable advisor, old friend."

"The only advice I'd give you would be to stop this madness," Yosho retorted as he attempted to drive Kagato back towards the corridor, "but I already know that my words would fall upon deaf ears."

Kagato sighed as he parried a thrust before countering with one of his own, forcing Yosho to shift back onto the defensive. "And so, we find ourselves at an impasse. Whatever shall we do?"

Yosho didn't bother to answer; Kagato's fearsome assault made it quite clear just what the renegade cadet branch royal intended to do. Despite his best efforts, he found himself being forced back towards the center of the chamber. Kagato was pressing hard, clearly aiming to overwhelm Yosho and tire him out. It was a sound strategy, with the relatively younger man having both the strength and stamina to pull it off.

I can only do so much to conserve energy, Yosho thought as he crafted a veritable cocoon of sapphire light around him with Tenchi-ken, and he knows it. Time is not on my side here.

He was hoping that Washu would complete the data download soon and trigger the timer on the second repository's self-destruct mechanism, but there was no guarantee on how long it would take her to do that. For all that Yosho knew, this facility could have far more information for her to absorb than the previous one did, or the process here could have different requirements than it had at the preceding repository. Despite all the knowledge that Washu had gleaned from the data she'd studied from the first repository, she had been up front about the fact that she almost certainly didn't know everything about the one that they were raiding now.

As he was forced back into the middle of the room, Yosho at least found himself in a better position to check up on how the others were doing. What he saw was not exactly encouraging, though he supposed that the situation could definitely be worse.

Off to his right, he caught a glimpse of Ryoko's ongoing clash with Nagi. The bounty hunter and pirate weren't pulling their punches, not that Yosho had expected anything less from them. Ryoko was wielding her new weapon well, utilizing the twin blades of her Key to fend off Nagi whenever she tried to use her saber's whip configuration. That alone wasn't enough to completely stymie the bounty hunter, though, and Nagi was primarily relying on precise and swift swordsmanship rather than her whip in this clash. It was a smart choice, for her saber could execute pinpoint attacks and parries with precision that Ryoko's weapon couldn't match. The pirate countered with wide swings designed to let her dictate the flow of the fight, making good use of her weapon's broad reach and coverage. Yosho would've preferred a bit more finesse from Ryoko, but he would readily admit that her skills had come a long way in a very short amount of time.

While the pirate and the bounty hunter indulged in their ongoing rivalry, the rest of the ground team was fighting fiercely to defend the entrance to the repository's data center. Wufei was still contending with two of the warrior drones, expertly fending off their sword strikes with his own blade but still unable to land a decisive blow of his own. Meanwhile, Trowa was keeping the third drone on the defensive with a near constant stream of fire from his heavy cannon, though he too was struggling to actually destroy his target. Yosho suspected that Washu might have programmed these machines better than she'd realized, for they were putting on a much better showing here than their predecessors had at the previous repository. Then again, perhaps they were lasting longer simply because Kagato and his group had caught up much faster than they had the last time around and forced the ground team to split their focus before they'd managed to completely annihilate the drones.

The rest of Heero's old friends were likewise in a dead heat with their respective foes. Duo and Quatre were both holding their own against the assassins hired by Kagato, but neither of them were able to do much more than simply keep their targets at bay. Of the two of them, Duo at least seemed to have the initiative firmly in his grasp, with his plasma shotgun pumping out repeated and deadly bursts that forced his opponent to approach him with much greater caution than she likely otherwise would've given. Quatre, by contrast, was definitely on the backfoot. His skill with the knife and sidearm given to him by Washu were enough to keep him in the game, but his adversary was pressing him hard, her knife moving so fast it was leaving streaks in the air behind it. Several of her strikes had grazed Quatre's shields, and only the quality of his armor was keeping the young man from suffering any injuries.

While Heero's fellow former colonial revolutionaries worked to hold the line, Yosho could at least take comfort in the fact that Ayeka was relatively safe. She and her Royal Guardians maintained their position at the doorway to the data center, the air around them crackling with energy. No stray shots would be able to pierce their combined shield, and even Juraian Keys would have difficulty penetrating, at least initially. Concentrated effort would eventually get through, which made it all the more crucial that Kagato and his sister be kept as far away from Ayeka and her mechanical protectors as possible.

Concern for his half-sister paled in comparison to the worry he felt with regards to his grandson, though. Out of everyone in the group, Heero had the rotten luck of facing the enemy's most talented fighter all on his own. Kagato might have been stronger and more cunning, but for pure skill in the art of the sword, even he couldn't match his sister. Even in sparring matches, Ragyō was an absolute devil with her twin blades, and that was only intensified when she was up against an opponent that she actually wanted to fight. From the way she had gone full-tilt at Heero upon the outset of the battle, it was very clear that the young prince was just the kind of foe that Kagato's sister wanted to sink her teeth into.

He really is too popular with the ladies for his own good, Yosho thought grimly as he deflected a series of powerful downward strikes from Kagato, and this one could end up being the death of him.

Unfortunately, no help could be spared for his grandson right now. Yosho could only trust that the young man's training efforts and his already considerable combat abilities would be enough to keep himself one step ahead of the Grim Reaper. His own foe demanded his full attention, and anything less would mean his end.

….

The chamber that Hilde and Washu were in was identical to the one that they'd found at the first repository, as was the process for downloading the facility's precious data. That meant Hilde found herself in the same position as before; standing behind Washu nervously and praying that the scientist didn't kill herself through information overload.

Did she seriously have to craft this kind of a system for downloading information? I mean, hasn't she ever heard of data drives?

Hilde normally wouldn't be questioning the intelligence of a woman who had created a weapon system capable of snuffing out all life on multiple worlds, though sanity was another matter entirely. Here, though, she couldn't help but feel that Washu had made a mistake with how she'd set up her system. Sure, it meant that the data would only go to her mind, but if it damn near put her in a coma each time then was it really worth the added layer of security?

"Hey, Washu?" she said nervously as she put a hand on her shoulder, "Can you hear me?"

There was no response. Cautiously stepping around her, Hilde saw that Washu's eyes had rolled up so she could almost see nothing but white, and sweat was pouring down the sides of her face. There was a slight tremor running through her body, though she remained on her feet.

That was when Duo's voice came over the group's tactical channel. "Hey, Hilde, how's it going in there?"

Weapons fire echoed in the background, along with the tell-tale crackling of clashing energy blades, which Hilde knew meant that their main enemy had finally caught up with them. "Still in the middle of the download. You guys okay out there?"

"Holding for now," Duo replied in between blaring blasts from his plasma shotgun, "but I'd really like for us to get the hell out of here! Preferably sooner rather than later. You got a timeframe for us?"

Hilde sighed. "Afraid not. Washu's pretty deep into it, and we don't know if there's more data here than there was at the first repository. We could be here a while."

"Was afraid you'd say that," Duo grunted, "Whoa! Shit, that was close!"

Hilde's breath caught in her chest. "Duo, you okay?"

"Yeah," he said, though she couldn't help but notice he was breathing hard, "Just stuck in one hell of a dance right now! Talk to you later, sweetheart!"

Hilde clenched her pistol in impotent frustration. She knew her job, and she would do it just like she'd done the last time around, but she hated being stuck in here with Washu while her husband and the others risked their lives to buy the time they needed.

"Come on, Washu," she muttered as she watched the scientist do her thing, "We're running out of time here."

….

"Why so tense, Ryoko?" Nagi taunted as she unleashed a flurry of stabs and thrusts at her opponent, "I thought you were the type to enjoy a good scrap."

"I might," Ryoko replied as she spun her new weapon before her to fend off Nagi's strikes, "if you were coming after me for the bounty rather than as Kagato's lapdog! Where's your damn pride?"

The accusation stung, though Nagi didn't let it show. Yes, Kagato had paid handsomely to retain her services, and for past jobs that would've been enough. It should have been enough for this one, but for a voice in the back of the bounty hunter's mind that kept on gnawing at her.

Your past clients hired you to go after criminals. Your present one's hired you as a mercenary for a political agenda. Whatever happened to staying out of that sort of thing?

It wasn't as though she'd avoided taking jobs from politicians in the past. Planetary governors had hired her to go after lawbreakers that the Galaxy Police couldn't be bothered to chase down or that local law enforcement couldn't handle, and she'd even worked with Juraian nobility for past gigs. However, all of those had still been within her traditional wheelhouse, as it were; track down a scumbag or group of them for apprehension or elimination as specified by the contract. No balance of power was altered, no feathers were ruffled beyond those of the criminals, and Nagi got to complete the gig with a clean conscience and a fatter wallet. With Kagato, though, the bounty hunter feared that she was starting to go too far.

You saw a bigger payday than any you'd ever been offered before, she thought grimly while continuing to press her assault on Ryoko, and you leapt at it. The client's been good for the cash so far, but the longer you stay on retainer, the deeper you're getting into a mess that you really should have steered clear of. Credits in the bank are all well and good, but you've crossed some serious lines with this job. Greed got the better of you, and now it's biting you in the ass.

She betrayed none of those doubts to her foe, though. Beneath her helmet, Nagi's expression remained cool and aloof, ever the consummate professional working to achieve the aims of her client. For the moment, that aim was to keep Ryoko occupied, something that the bounty hunter had plenty of experience in by now.

She continued to push the pirate back with a graceful sequence of stabs and thrusts, but Ryoko was nothing if not adaptable. Seeing that she wasn't getting anywhere in a traditional duel even with her new weapon, the pirate took to the air and began peppering Nagi with volleys of scarlet spheres. Dodging and rolling while the energy blasts splashed against the finely polished floor around her, she countered by shifting her saber over to its whip configuration. The violet strand lashed out, but Ryoko simply twirled her double-bladed weapon and fended off the attack.

She's using her new toy well, Nagi begrudgingly conceded as Ryoko blocked follow-up strikes with similar ease, no doubt thanks to training with lover boy. I suppose the old tricks aren't going to work here.

Then again, they didn't have to. Not yet, at least. While her client no doubt would prefer that Nagi either stun or kill Ryoko, that wasn't her primary objective. Even as she continued to harass the pirate with lashes from her whip, Nagi kept one eye on her true goal; the doorway being guarded by Ayeka and her cylindrical protectors. Washu was still inside the chamber beyond, and Nagi needed to be ready for when she inevitably emerged. The real prize here wasn't settling the score with her rival, after all; it was getting the repository's data, and Kagato had given Nagi some new toys of her own for retrieving that data when Washu finally came out to join the party.

All Nagi had to do was survive until then and be ready to act when the moment came.

….

"You know, I'm all for being popular with the ladies," Duo grunted in between shots, "but you're taking it a bit too far. Ever heard of personal space?"

The assassin he was working hard to fend off didn't reply, unless one considered the shots from her sidearm to be a retort. Not that Duo had expected any verbal response; his adversary had been completely silent so far, and that didn't look like it would change anytime soon.

Go figure, he thought as he leapt to the right, using his armor's thruster to aid his escape from her sudden lunge, I get the one without a sense of humor. At least Hilde's not out here. Pretty sure she'd be jealous of the attention I'm getting.

He didn't have time to imagine her reaction, though. The girl was fast if nothing else, and Duo found her closing the distance again rapidly. The hasty blast from his plasma shotgun did little to deter her, and he quickly ducked beneath a swipe from her knife. Coming back up, he slammed the butt of the shotgun forward, catching his foe right in the chin. Her helmet cushioned most of the blow, but the impact still snapped her head back and gave Duo the chance to follow-up with another cluster of plasma buckshot right to the assassin's chest. He saw ripples of energy as the blast was tanked by her shields, but the way in which she immediately backed off and began peppering him with fire from her pistol was all he needed to know that he'd rattled her.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw one, Duo got aggressive. He moved in, pumping out two more shots in rapid succession, aiming to take her shields down before they could recharge and possibly remove her from the fight for good. Unfortunately, the assassin was playing things much more carefully now, and she executed a series of graceful leaps and rolls that made her downright impossible to hit. Going out any further would compromise the perimeter that he and his friends had established at the data center's entrance, so Duo reluctantly pulled back and waited for his foe to come to him.

"Any chance I could get an assist over here?" he asked, glancing at Wufei in particular.

"Give me a few minutes," the L5 native replied as he finally put down one of the two warrior drones that he'd been engaged with via a decapitating slash, "I still got one more of these machines to take out."

"How about you, Trowa?" Duo called out while ducking and rolling to evade a shot snapped off from his foe's sidearm.

"Might take me a bit longer," Trowa answered, a steady stream of orange bolts flying from his heavy cannon, "I think Washu enhanced the evasive programming in these drones."

That much definitely seemed to be true, at least if the fact that Trowa's target was still standing was anything to go by. The warrior drone moved with agility that would put a trained Olympic acrobat to shame, somehow managing to stay one step ahead of the veritable hailstorm of plasma that Trowa was sending its way.

I really hate those things, Duo thought as he fired off another shotgun blast in response to his foe's advance, and here I thought Romefeller's mobile dolls were a pain in the ass back in the day. Still got nothing on this damn bitch, though.

The woman closed with him again, her knife swooshing through the air and grazing Duo's shields. He brought up his knee and caught her in the stomach before pumping another shot into her chest, and he had the satisfaction of seeing her shields flare up. They had to be close to overloading by now, and Duo was eager to push them over the edge.

Unfortunately, his foe struck before he could pull the trigger again. With lightning speed, her knife sliced clean through the barrel of his shotgun and rendered the weapon useless. Acting on instinct, Duo chucked the remains of the weapon at her head. She ducked it easily enough, but the move gave Duo just barely enough time to draw his own knife and block her next attack.

As his blade locked with hers, he heard the creepiest giggle come from beneath her helmet. "You're worthy. Good."

Cold sweat ran down Duo's face, and he frantically tried to push his enemy back. A good kick to the sternum did the trick and gave him a chance to draw his sidearm with his free hand, putting him at least on equal footing again with the assassin, but it didn't make him feel any less freaked out.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" he growled as he squeezed off a quick shot, one that she easily side-stepped.

"It means that your blood will feed my blade, and I will draw sustenance from your death," she hissed as she charged back in, sparks flying as their knives met again, "Yours will be a death that will make me stronger!"

"You really are batshit insane, aren't you?" Duo muttered while desperately fending her off.

Eerie laughter was her only response, and even that was more than what Duo wanted. The sooner Washu got the data and they got the hell out of here, the better.

….

I'm not getting anywhere with this, Heero thought as he watched Ragyō once again swat aside his bolts with her Keys while charging right at him, I need to change things up, and I need to do that quickly.

How to actually do that, though, was another matter entirely. As he fought to fend off his foe's new assault, keeping her white blades at bay only through desperate and furious work with his Master Key and left Light Hawk Wing, Heero racked his mind for solutions to his dilemma. He was still very much on his own for the time being, and everything he'd tried so far had come up empty. Using his armor's thrusters to enhance his momentum, he aimed a kick right at Ragyō's stomach in an effort to knock the wind out of her, but he'd already attempted this move before and she was wise to it now. She simply sidestepped it and smoothly transitioned into a series of elegantly flowing slashes, forcing Heero to pull back and draw his blade in lest he provide her with an opening to exploit.

His sword-and-gun combo, along with the Light Hawk Wing covering his left arm, had been enough to keep his foe on her toes, but Heero wasn't going to land a decisive blow with it. Ragyō was too quick, too aggressive, and too skilled. Her reflexes were phenomenal, whether she was batting his plasma bolts aside or parrying his sword strikes, and her instincts were beyond anything Heero had ever seen. She read the flow of the fight with eyes honed by millennia worth of combat experience; engaging in the art of the sword came as naturally to her as breathing. Her preference for what the Earth Sphere had long ago deemed to be an archaic form of combat until the advent of the mobile suit and beam sabers should've doomed her in a conventional battle, yet she thrived upon the theoretical disadvantage and clearly had no trouble overcoming it.

And that, Heero realized, was his problem. Even with all he had learned, he was still engaging her in a conventional manner. True, sword-and-gun wasn't a combo he was used to wielding as a personal combatant; he'd only used it previously as a mobile suit pilot. On foot, he preferred firearms, knives, grenades, and all the other traditional tools of the soldier's trade. Those wouldn't cut it here, and neither would the fancier weapons given to him by either his Juraian heritage or Washu's brilliant mind. There was one tool that could, though; the Light Hawk Wings.

Heero had stuck to using them as shields for the most part, only employing them offensively against drones in close-quarters combat. Using them in that manner here wouldn't do him much good; Ragyō would simply treat it as another blade he was using, a two-bladed style akin to hers. However, there was the second blade to consider.

The one protecting Heero's back had remained there, with Heero not daring to manipulate it out of fear of losing control over it and valuing the protection it provided from potential stray fire or sneak attacks. However, in theory, he could manipulate it independently. Washu had said as much, and she'd tried very hard to get him to accomplish that during their training sessions back on Jurai. For all his efforts, though, Heero had ultimately found it easier to simply use the two Light Hawk Wings as shields covering his arms, moving the sheets of light with his limbs like an ancient warrior might utilize a more traditional shield. That wouldn't work here, though, which meant Heero would have to go well outside his comfort zone. It would be a gamble…

…but hadn't he been doing nothing but gambling ever since this crazy adventure had started?

Hell, he'd been doing that since the first day he'd stepped onto a battlefield as a child.

To take part in combat is, in the end, the biggest gamble anyone can make, he mused while deflecting a sequence of vicious slashes from his foe, and it's one that I've been making all of my life.

Why would I stop now?

Taking a deep breath to center himself amidst the cyclone of strikes being unleashed upon him by his adversary, Heero prepared to roll the dice once again.

….

It wasn't often that Ragyō got to play with her food, so to speak, and she was very much savoring the morsel before her now. Yosho's grandson was something that couldn't be easily found within the Empire of Jurai; an unorthodox foe, unbound by tradition or niceties such as elegance or honor. He was a soldier through and through, fighting simply to survive and win by any means necessary.

He was doing a damn good job of it, too. Even when only considering his swordsmanship, Heero was definitely a cut above the rest. Ragyō had been pressing him hard throughout the duel, her blades moving like twin bolts of ivory lightning, yet she still hadn't been able to land a decisive blow. It hadn't been for lack of trying, either. At least, not entirely. She wasn't exactly going all-out against him, but neither was she using the kid gloves as it were. In her mind, he was a serious opponent, and despite her earlier banter she was very much treating him as a deadly adversary.

Even if he hadn't been trained by Yosho himself, the boy's bladework would've been nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps it wasn't as graceful or refined as that which was expected of a Juraian royal, though a bit more polish and training could definitely change that, but it didn't need to be. His movements were simple and to the point, economical and no-nonsense. Whether on the attack or defense, Heero didn't care about the fancy flourishes that so many aristocrats insisted on indulging in. He simply went with what worked, or at least what would keep him alive long enough to find something that could work.

Washu picked her champion well, she thought as she thrust both blades forward, with her adversary only narrowly managing to keep the shafts of white energy from piercing his shields, although I hardly expected anything less. This boy was born for battle!

It was a shame that she would have to cut his career short. Were he not so insistent on being an obstacle to her brother's grand design, Ragyō would've watched his ascendancy in the Empire with great interest. It was intriguing to imagine just what he would've made of himself had he been born on Jurai rather than out in the galactic backwoods. Almost certainly a warrior prince, and likely one of the finest that the Empire had ever seen. Perhaps a contender for the throne himself with enough time and backing. He definitely had the makings of one, though she doubted that the boy saw himself as a potential Emperor-in-waiting. A shame, really. Under different circumstances, Ragyō could picture Kagato and her supporting his rise to power.

There was little point in ruminating upon what would never be, though. Ragyō could dance with the young prince for a little while longer, but all good things had to come to an end. Sooner or later, Washu would emerge from the data chamber, and all efforts would need to be focused on intercepting her. That meant Heero had to be taken down, and Ragyō would be more than happy to do the honors. The boy deserved nothing less for how well he'd held her off up until now.

She ramped up her assault, her ivory blades lashing out so quickly that she was frankly amazed the young man could still perceive their movements, let alone continue to fend them off. Still, he was clearly becoming desperate. The previous smooth deflections and parries that he'd employed were gradually being replaced by simple blocks, and his openings for counterattack were few and far between. Ragyō had Heero's number now, and it was simply a matter of how long it would take before she cracked his defenses and administered the decisive blow.

She pressed the attack, driving him back towards the far wall of the chamber. Heero was surely aware of his increasingly limited room to maneuver, but to his credit he gave no sign of panicking. His form remained steady, and he made no move to retreat. He wouldn't abandon his friends and comrades, regardless of how the situation might've turned against him.

An admirable sentiment, she mused with approval, I just might carve that upon your gravestone, Heero Yuy.

She was so focused on breaking through his defenses and scoring the hit that would end the fight that she almost didn't notice the flash of white from behind him. Her eyes widened in alarm, and she was barely able to redirect her left blade to block the sheet of energy that had sliced at her from seemingly out of nowhere. For a moment, Ragyō thought the boy had managed to generate a third Light Hawk Wing, but she quickly realized that that wasn't the case.

He'd taken the Light Hawk Wing protecting his back and used it to attack her.

As she was still processing just what that meant, Heero suddenly lunged forward. The first Light Hawk Wing still remained in position protecting his left arm and the pistol he held, but now Ragyō found herself fending off not only Heero's Master Key but the second Light Hawk Wing, which was already reorienting itself to attack her right side now. She narrowly managed to deflect it; just a split-second sooner, and it would've cut her in half at the waist.

He's learned how to use it independently and offensively, she thought as she now found herself on the backfoot, It might just be one Light Hawk Wing that he's attacking with rather than both, but that alone is no small feat. He hasn't even been using this power for a full month yet!

Despite her shock, she couldn't help but grin as Heero went on the offensive and hammered her ivory blades with a ferocious assault. "Marvelous! Heero Yuy Masaki Jurai, you are just full of surprises!"

Those surprises only continued with the Light Hawk Wing guarding his left arm suddenly flew forward. It would've sliced clean through her neck had she not spun out of the way at the last moment, and her evasion was met by the second Light Hawk Wing flying at her from the left. Only Ragyō's skill with her twin blades allowed her to deflect both the Light Hawk Wing and Heero's Master Key, and even then, it was only enough to keep her alive and in the fight; the initiative belonged firmly with her foe now.

She'd underestimated him, but while other fighters would've been filled with doubt and fear at such a realization, for Ragyō it served merely to excite her. What else was Yosho's grandson capable of?

She was eager to find out.

….

"Care for a bit of help?" asked Trowa.

Smiling beneath his helmet while parrying a knife strike from his foe, Quatre immediately broke to the right so that his friend would have a clear line of fire. A swarm of orange bolts flew forth a moment later, peppering the shields of the enemy's armor and forcing them to back off. Pulling back, Quatre took aim with his pistol and added a few potshots of his own to the mix.

"Thanks," he said, "I was wondering when you'd be able to lend a hand."

"Sorry about the wait," Trowa replied as he kept up the pressure, driving the assassin back with a relentless stream of plasma, "My previous target was quite stubborn."

Looking over his shoulder, Quatre saw the smoking remains of the drone that Trowa had been stuck fighting earlier. Not only was the machine's torso and head riddled with charred holes, but its right arm and left leg had been hit by such concentrated fire that they'd been completely blown off at the joints. The drone had taken a truly ludicrous amount of punishment before finally going down.

"Better late than never," Quatre remarked as he returned his attention to their current adversary, "I'm just glad you joined in the fun when you did. She's a real handful."

"I can tell," said Trowa while shifting over to bursts of fire rather than a constant barrage, "You're looking a little unsteady. Need a break?"

Quatre dearly wanted to take Trowa up on that. Now that the assassin wasn't constantly going for his throat, he could feel just how tired he had become. Between the frantic battle in space, the raging firefights through the repository just to get this far and now the desperate clash with the assassin, his body was seriously feeling the cumulative strain. Quatre feared that if he let up now, though, he might actually collapse, and he needed to be sure that he could remain on his feet until the mission was complete.

"I'm good," Quatre replied, though he was sure that Trowa didn't buy it, "Let's just keep her back for now."

Trowa nodded, all the while his weapon kept spitting out bursts of orange bolts at their foe. "Alright, then."

Checking their position to make sure he and Trowa remained between Ayeka, her Royal Guardians, and the assassin, Quatre settled into a supporting role. He timed his own shots so that they came in between the bursts that Trowa was sending down range, and together the two of them kept their enemy constantly on the backfoot. Despite her earlier attempts to kill him, Quatre couldn't help but be impressed by not only her agility but her stamina as well; she seemed like she could keep up the evasion pretty much indefinitely.

"How much of a charge do you have left with that thing?" Quatre asked as he took a few shots at the assassin's head, only for her to almost casually move out of the way.

"Enough to complete the mission," Trowa answered, "I don't really understand the power supply Washu equipped our weapons with, but it seems to be very energy efficient."

Quatre smiled as the two of them peppered the ground around their target with bolts. "As long as it works, right?"

Trowa nodded. "Pretty much."

With Trowa laying down a sustained barrage, Quatre too the opportunity to check up on Duo and Wufei. He was pleased to see that Wufei had managed to dispatch the last of the drones and was now taking point against the assassin that Duo had been tangling with. The L2 native was now playing a role similar to Quatre, providing supporting fire with his sidearm whenever an opening presented itself. Unlike Trowa, though, Wufei wasn't engaging his foe at range. True to form, he was getting up close and personal, weaving a graceful series of arcs through the air with his sword. Face with an adversary who prided himself on his prowess in personal combat, the assassin was very much on the backfoot now. Her knifework was enough to keep Wufei from landing a serious blow, but the greater reach of the L5 native's weapon was proving to be a considerable hurdle for her. Quatre couldn't see Wufei's face thanks to his helmet, but if his friend's energetic offensive was anything to go by, it was pretty safe to assume that the former Gundam pilot was enjoying himself.

"As long as someone's having a good time," Quatre muttered as he turned his focus back to his immediate adversary.

"What was that?" asked Trowa while shifting back to burst firing.

Quatre shook his head as he returned his attention to the enemy before them. "Nothing. How much longer do you think we'll have to hold out here?"

Trowa's answer was just a shrug. Quatre supposed that was fair; the question he'd asked was one that neither of them could answer. The only person who could was still behind the doors that they were guarding.

Quatre could only pray that Washu would pick up the pace.

….

Driving Nagi back with a series of wide slashes from her double-ended Key, Ryoko's jaw clenched in mounting frustration. After all the training she'd done with Heero and Yosho, she'd hoped that she might have a serious leg up on her rival, but all the bounty hunter was still very much in the fight. If anything, Ryoko's increased skill only seemed to be feeding Nagi's thirst for combat. Her swordsmanship had always been superb, as much as Ryoko might hate to admit it, but Nagi was coming at her now with moves that she'd never seen before. Staccato bursts of thrusts would be followed by leaping and twirling lunges, while deflections or parries often led into devious counterattacks aimed at either her legs or arms rather than the traditional center of mass.

I've always had her beat in raw power, Ryoko thought as she whirled her weapon around her in response to sudden flurry of strikes from her opponent, and she's always compensated for that through technique and technology. I guess she's still true to form here…

As their blades locked, she heard the bounty hunter chuckle. "Looks like lover boy's got a new trick up his sleeve. Just when I thought he couldn't get any more interesting than he already was…"

Ryoko dared to give only the briefest of glances in Heero's direction, but even that was more than enough to impress her. The Preventer operative was actually on the offensive, striking with his Master Key and both Light Hawk Wings now. While he led with Achika's azure blade and supplemented it with occasional shots from his sidearms, the two white sheets of energy were really stealing the show. They slashed at Ragyō from the left and right while Heero attacked head-on, and only the cadet branch royal's experience and skill with her twin blades was keeping her from harm.

Ryoko smirked beneath her helmet as she gave Nagi her full focus, lunging at her and engaging with a series of horizontal sweeps and diagonal swings. "Yeah, he's special that way."

"No kidding," Nagi replied as she fell back under Ryoko's assault, "With his power and talents, he'd make one hell of a bounty hunter."

Ryoko laughed at the notion. "As if he'd ever become like you!"

The pirate and bounty hunter continued their exchanges of strike and counterattack, and as the fight went on Ryoko began to feel a growing sense of unease. Her past experience with Nagi had taught her that the bounty hunter would use every tool in her arsenal to accomplish her mission, but so far, she's limited herself to her saber. It was hardly the only implement at her disposal; the utility belt at the waist of her suit was lined with pouches that doubtlessly contained all manner of devices. Yet she was sticking with the sword, with the only changeup being the occasional shift to its whip form.

She's planning something, thought Ryoko while redirecting a thrust from her foe, I just don't know what…

…and that needs to change before it's too late.

….

"Ah, shit!" Washu groaned as she fell to her knees, only avoiding faceplanting on the floor thanks to the timely assistance of Hilde.

"Easy there!" Hilde cried out, clearly surprised at both the outburst and collapse, "Stay with me, Washu! Talk to me. How are you feeling?"

Washu closed her eyes and grimaced as she fought against the searing pain. "Like someone just crammed twenty grenades into my skull and pulled the damn pins…"

"Yikes," Hilde muttered, "Sounds like one of my hangovers after a night on the town with Duo. Would not recommend to a lightweight."

Washu chuckled bitterly as she struggled to keep a sudden onrush of dizziness in check. "Believe me, I wish this was just a damn hangover. Those I can cure."

"Really?" asked Hilde in what sounded like genuine interest.

Washu rolled her eyes, then immediately regretted doing so as a surge of nausea swamped her and damn near made her lose her lunch. "Tell you what… if we make it out of here alive, I'll prove it to you all after our next party."

"I'll consider that incentive to complete the mission and get your ass back to the Yagami," said Hilde, "Can you stand, or at least hobble? If this place works like the last repository, I'm assuming we're on a timer now for the getaway, right?"

Wash slowly nodded, wary of another rush of lightheadedness. "I got all the data, so the failsafe's been triggered. We've got thirty minutes."

"Cutting it a bit close, aren't you?" Hilde noted as she hoisted one of Washu's arms over her shoulder, doing what she could to at least get the dazed scientist on her feet.

"This facility's no bigger than the previous one," Washu countered as the two of them made their way towards the exit, "Provided we can spook Kagato and his retinue again by announcing the repository's impending spectacular demise, we should be okay."

"I hope your right," said Hilde as the door opened.

"That makes two of us," Washu muttered.

Beholding the chaotic fight that was unfolding between their friends and Kagato's entourage, the two of them moved forward, both bracing themselves for what would be a mad dash to the surface. So far, things were unfolding just like the had the last time around… and that was what had Washu worried.

Kagato wasn't likely to repeat the same mistake twice.

….

Even as he took the fight to Yosho, his emerald blade hammering repeatedly against the sapphire shaft of Tenchi-ken, Kagato's eye was still on the ultimate prize. The duel with his old friend, as amusing as it had been thus far, was only a sideshow to the main event, and he had prepared himself accordingly. So, despite the ferocity with which he and the empire's long-lost crown prince traded blows, Kagato had made sure to keep the door at the far end of the chamber constantly within his line of sight, which meant that he saw the moment it opened and Washu and her escort came through.

Her subsequent announcement was really little more than a formality. "Alright, people, let's pack it in! We've got less than twenty-nine minutes before this whole place goes up in flames!"

Don't worry, Washu, he thought with a smirk while deflecting a desperate counterattack from Yosho, I have no intention of allowing any of us to be caught in the blast. That being said, I'm afraid I must hamper you a bit.

He said only one word as sparks flew between his and Yosho's energy blades. "Nagi!"

There was a damn good reason he had sunk so much money into guaranteeing her services for this operation…

…and it was time for her to earn her paycheck.

….

"About damn time!" Ryoko snapped as she blocked a series of slashes from Nagi, "Washu, what the hell took you so long?"

No answer came from the scientist, which was more than a little concerning. Daring to take a brief glance, Ryoko saw that Washu was leaning on Hilde. She seemed more than a little shaky on her feet, and the pirate wondered just how much of a toll had been taken from her this time.

Guess I can cut her some slack, she thought, this time.

Returning her full focus to Nagi, she saw the bounty hunter pull a small disc-shaped device from her utility belt. Before Ryoko could react, Nagi threw the device at the ground and averted her gaze. A split second before Ryoko could do the same, the device burst in a brilliant flare of light so intense that it actually overwhelmed her helmet's visor. Panicking, Ryoko frantically swung her double-bladed Key around her in an effort to fend off any attacks from Nagi; her rival would most certainly not miss this chance to get a hit in.

That was Ryoko's fear, at least, but it did not come to past. As her vision struggled to return, Ryoko caught just the faintest glimpse of a blur moving past her…

…and rushing straight for Washu.

….

All right, then, Nagi thought as she charged forward, Kagato, it's time to see if those new toys you gave me live up to your promises.

With Ryoko still dazed by the flash grenade for the moment and the rest of her friends still fighting Kagato and his entourage, the bounty hunter's only opposition would be Ayeka, the two Royal Guardians, and the young woman supporting Washu herself. The air around the scientist crackled with the energy of a Juraian barrier, one that Nagi now had to break through. In the past, she would've dismissed such a task out of hand, especially given that this particular barrier was generated by both a Juraian princess and her protectors. It should've been impossible, yet Kagato had promised that the special equipment he'd given her for this mission could accomplish just that task.

Putting her saber away, she instead drew two black shafts from a pouch on her utility belt. Individually, they were each about as long as one of her hands, and they ended in a conical tip. Two small stabilizer fins protruded near the base of the shaft, with a red activation switch nestled between them. Nagi triggered it, and the points of each shaft began emitting sparks of crimson energy.

"Here we go," she muttered.

Taking aim, she let fly with the two shafts a moment later. Both of them hit the barrier a moment later, but rather than simply bounce off and fall to floor as conventional projectiles would have, these actually embedded themselves in the shield. Those sparks from before became waves of energy that coursed over and through the barrier…

…and into princess and Royal Guardians that were generating it.

As soon as the first pair of shafts had been airborne, Nagi had drawn a second pair. She let fly with them a second later, and they implanted themselves in the barrier below the first pair, forming a rough square. Crimson energy flowed from the second pair, not only flowing over the barrier but connecting with the previous pair, forming crackling scarlet X between them. A series of rapid pulses emanated as the energy output intensified, culminating in a single massive surge. Ayeka and her two Guardians were struck by that surge as it raced through the barrier, with the princess collapsing to the ground while her two cylindrical protectors sputtered.

The barrier fell. Washu and her lone escort were exposed…

…and Nagi pounced.

….

Washu was caught between trying to puzzle out just how Nagi's darts had managed to overwhelm barriers generated by both a Juraian princess and her Royal Guardians and panicking over what the obvious result of that would be. Nagi was moving in, and she had help. The two assassins that had been engaging Heero's old friends each threw out smoke bombs, covering the bounty hunter's flanks and ensuring that no one could line up a clear shot on her. The coordinated manner in which they did so was all Washu needed to know that this wasn't some improvised play; they'd clearly been drilling for just this moment.

"Shit!" Hilde hissed as she took aim with her pistol.

She did her best, but Washu wasn't doing her any favors by forcing Hilde to keep her upright. Even with that handicap, though, Hilde's shots were on target. Several of the bolts from her weapon splashed against Nagi's shields, although they unfortunately didn't penetrate.

They did elicit at least a modicum of respect from the bounty hunter. "Nice shooting. Now stop."

Nagi backed up her words by drawing her saber and immediately activating its whip configuration. A long tendril of violet energy lashed out and wrapped itself around her arm, and a surge of purple bolts raced across Hilde… and Washu. Hilde's shields were quickly overwhelmed, and she dropped to her knees, hissing as her body jerked from the shocks. The armor's insulation would protect her from the worst of it, but Washu knew she'd be down for a few seconds…

…and those few seconds were all that Nagi needed.

Washu was still reeling from the data download, and the sparks from Nagi's whip that had first gone through Hilde had still done a number on her. Now, the bounty hunter's weapon coiled around Washu before she had a chance to react, and a fresh charge of energy surged through the tendril. Washu seized up and groaned, barely even noticing Washu dropping a smoke grenade behind her.

"Sorry, doctor," said Nagi as she casually unlatched Washu's helmet, "It's not personal."

"Fuck you!" Washu hissed, even as her face paled at the sight of Nagi drawing a very familiar device from her belt.

The same tool she'd used on her during the surprise attack at the countryside safehouse.

With her body and mind equally battered, she was in no shape to resist. Even so, Washu tried to make a fight of it. She attempted to headbutt the bounty hunter, but Nagi simply shifted to the side and caught Washu with her arm. Then she stuck the device to Washu's forehead, and the scientist's mind became consumed by light and excruciating pain.

….

Even though he couldn't see what was unfolding behind the smokescreen, Kagato smiled. Unlike the last time, events were now playing out in his favor. His plans would be back on track, and he could hardly wait to begin mobilizing his real forces.

The pirate rabble played their part, he thought as he redirected a thrust from Yosho before smoothly countering with a wide slash, but they were never going to be good for more than a single engagement. When the next clash comes, I won't be relying on a bunch of marauders with more greed than sense.

"This round is mine, old friend," he announced as he assaulted Yosho with a series of broad sweeps and lunges.

Yosho's eyes narrowed ever so slightly while he deflected Kagato's attacks; the old crown prince knew that Kagato wasn't referring to the duel. "Perhaps… or perhaps not. It would be best not to count your chickens before they hatch."

Kagato's eyes widened as Yosho suddenly ducked beneath his blade. The wily Royal then lashed out with Tenchi-ken, and Kagato hastily leapt back. Even with his considerable resources, though, he wasn't able to completely avoid the strike. The Master Key's azure blade sliced into his left leg, not enough to do serious damage but definitely enough to hurt. Kagato hissed in pain as he tried to adjust his stance, but Yosho wasn't about to let him have it so easy. The son of the Emperor suddenly surged forward, unleashing a sequence of darting thrusts that were similarly aimed at his legs. Kagato was forced to backpedal, and doing so on his wounded leg was most certainly not pleasant.

It seems I'll be claiming my prize at a price today, Kagato mused bitterly as he was forced to stay on the defensive, I won't forget this…

…old friend.

….

"Damn you, Nagi!" Ryoko snarled as she charged through the smoke.

It was reckless to do so; her vision hadn't fully recovered from the flash device that the bounty hunter had used on her, and the smokescreen certainly didn't help matters. Not that it mattered to Ryoko, of course. 'Reckless' might as well have been her middle name, and she had no problem proving it.

Even so, she did at least take the precaution of deactivating one of her Key's blades. With her vision still compromised, utilizing her new weapon in its double-bladed capacity was an accident waiting to happen. The single blade would be simpler to use here, and Ryoko held it out in front of her as she advanced. She became aware of a blur amidst the smoke, and she caught a glimpse of violet light. Reflexively, she raised the blade, but Nagi made no move to attack her. Instead, the bounty hunter rushed past her, dropping another smoke grenade behind her for good measure.

She's retreating, Ryoko realized, cold dread dripping down her spine, which means she's got what she came here for. Washu!

Though Nagi's form had been relatively indistinct, Ryoko was reasonably sure she hadn't been carrying anyone. Suppressing her urge to chase after her rival, Ryoko instead pressed forward through the smoke. Coming through the other side a couple seconds later, she couldn't suppress a gasp as she saw Ayeka, Hilde and Washu all crumpled on the floor. Azaka and Kamidake looked little better, with their lights blinking rapidly as they performed what Ryoko assumed was some form of system reboot to get themselves back online. The princess and Hilde were at least moving, trying to get themselves back to their feet, but Washu didn't so much as twitch.

"Washu!" Ryoko cried out as she knelt next to her.

The scientist's helmet had been tossed to the side, and Ryoko quickly retrieved it. Supposedly, the air inside the repository was safe for breathing, but the team would be withdrawing soon and Ryoko wanted to make sure that Washu's head was protected. Still, before putting that helmet back on Washu, Ryoko made sure to check for a pulse and breathing. She found both, though they were weak.

"Hang in there," she muttered as she slipped the helmet back on and made sure it was securely latched, "You're not allowed to die here."

Nagi, she silently seethed, I swear, you are going to pay for this!

….

Heero was well-aware of Nagi's emergence from the smoke and her ensuing retreat, but he was in no position to do anything about it. Although he had Ragyō on the defensive thanks to both his own bladework and the Light Hawk Wings, he didn't dare try to change targets or direct one of those wings at the bounty hunter. It was taking every bit of concentration he had to maintain this current offensive against his foe, and Ragyō would immediately seize upon his split focus if he made such a move.

Then again, as Heero continued to press the attack, it struck him that Ragyō seemed to be eyeing the exit. It wasn't just her, either. The assassin twins were beginning to disengage, and Kagato himself was falling back towards the doorway.

They've got the data, he thought grimly as he spotted the device Nagi had gripped in her left hand, and they're about to bug out. Damn it all…

Sure enough, Ragyō began falling back as well, though she was clearly reluctant to do so. "A shame this can't go on longer. You grow more interesting as a fighter with each engagement. Even so, we have what we came here for. Until next time, Heero Yuy. Rest assured; I'll most certainly be looking forward to it!"

She then broke for the door. For a moment, Heero considered pursuing her, but he thought better of it. Given the device Nagi had been carrying and what it had done to Washu the last time around, Heero had much bigger concerns on his plate than chasing after the enemy.

Once he was sure that his foe was out of attack range and not about to move in for a sneak attack, he deactivated his Master Key and the two Light Hawk Wings. He rushed into the smoke, only paying a brief glance towards Kagato's retreat before losing sight of the enemy entirely. Coming out the other side a few moments later, he saw Ayeka on her knees and trying to regain her footing, with Hilde faring little better. As for Washu, she was out like a light while Ryoko knelt over her.

The pirate looked up at Heero, and he could see her eyes widen behind her helmet visor. "Heero! What happened with Ragyō?"

"She's making a run for it," he explained as he knelt with her next to Washu, "Kagato's whole team is. They have their prize."

"Damn it!" Ryoko growled.

"We need to get out of here," Heero pressed, "Washu's got this place on a timer to blow, remember?"

Ryoko took a deep breath to calm herself. "Right. We need to move."

"What's the game plan, Heero?" asked Duo as he and the others began to gather, "Kagato's running, and we ought to be doing the same!"

Heero nodded. "Agreed. Ryoko, you need to carry Washu. Quatre, help Ayeka until she can move on her own. Duo, you do the same for Hilde. Azaka, Kamidake; can you move under your own power?"

"Affirmative," the pair of Royal Guardians confirmed in unison.

"Then let's go," said Heero, "I'll take point."

As he led the way out of the chamber, he contacted the Yagami. "Eve Seven, the enemy's making a break for it. Keep an eye out for Ken-Ohki."

"Copy that," Kiyone acknowledged, her voice barely managing to break through the static; the fact that the ground team was rather deep beneath the surface wasn't helping their transmissions, "You on… way out?"

"That's affirmative," Heero replied, "Have Ryo-Ohki on standby for pickup."

With that, the race to the surface was on.

….

"I've got eyes on Ken-Ohki!" Mihoshi called out, "He's thirty degrees off our portside!"

Adjusting the optical sensors of the Yagami, Kiyone quickly zeroed in on the crystalline living starship. "I see him!"

She tried to take a shot at Ken-Ohki, but Washu's drone swarms hadn't let up, and there were plenty of them blocking her line of fire. The beams from the Yagami melted several of them, but even as Kiyone attempted to reposition the patrol cruiser for a cleaner shot she knew that it was in vain. Ken-Ohki was already closing in on the repository's landing platform, and if Kiyone wasn't careful her next salvo could potentially hit the facility's entrance, trapping the ground team inside a structure that was set to blow.

"Ryo-Ohki, can you get him?" Kiyone asked.

"Meow…" Ryoko's trusty companion whined.

Her protests could have been due to the fact that she was busy trying to keep the drone swarms off of the Yagami, but Kiyone suspected that they were really because Ryo-Ohki was reluctant to engage Ken-Ohki at all. Kiyone sympathized with her, remembering how fond Ryo-Ohki had become of her fellow living starship, but a battlefield was no place for hesitation.

"Come on!" Kiyone pressed, "We can't let Kagato get away this time!"

"But we need to make sure we can extract the ground team!" Mihoshi countered, "Isn't that more important?"

Kiyone took a deep breath to calm herself as the patrol cruiser shuddered from plasma hits. Her beat-cop instincts were coming up to the surface; she wanted to nab the perp as soon as she had the chance. This wasn't a criminal pursuit, though. This was out and out warfare, and while the case could be made that Kiyone and Mihoshi had a duty to take out the man stoking this conflict if the opportunity presented itself, that wasn't their actual mission here. Their task was to help keep the skies over the second repository clear enough for Ryo-Ohki to retrieve the ground team so they could make their escape.

And Ryo-Ohki's task is to help us deal with these damn drones until the ground team exits the facility, she reminded herself, which means that engaging Ken-Ohki is not her top priority.

Reexamining the situation, Kiyone realized that there was little Ryo-Ohki could realistically do to intercept Ken-Ohki in any case. Even with the Juraian fighter squadrons providing invaluable assistance, the living starship had her paws full in dealing with the drones. The impending self-destruction of the repository seemed to have no impact on the deployment of the tiny and persistent combat automata; they were still pouring out of hangars dug into the moon like the galaxy's largest swarm of angry hornets.

"I guess it can't be helped," Kiyone conceded as she took her ship into a gradual climb while raining fire down on whatever targets she could draw a bead on, "Alright, Ryo-Ohki; you don't have to fight Ken-Ohki. Just keep zapping the drones and be ready for that extraction, okay?"

"Meow!" Ryo-Ohki cried out with what Kiyone suspected was a good deal of relief.

Hurry up, Heero, Kiyone thought as she watched Ken-Ohki swoop in, I don't know how big of a bang this place is going to make when it blows, but I want to be well into orbit before we have to find out.

….

Back on the bridge of the Juraian carrier Ōtaka, Admiral Fukunaga had her arms folded in front of her as she studied the tactical display. The holographic image before her was currently zoomed in on the moon where the second repository was located, but just that single celestial body alone was alive with activity. One of the most furious fighter clashes that the seasoned officer had ever seen was still playing out, and while the Juraians were more than holding their own against the endless tide of drones flowing forth from the many hangars dug into the rocky orb, the Admiral knew that her pilots had to be running low on steam.

Automated opponents have their limitations, she thought, but endurance is not one of them. A prolonged battle favors them. After all, there's only so much that skill, training and experience can do to overcome the creeping exhaustion that all soldiers eventually face.

With the pirate fleet firmly crushed, the Admiral had gotten to work on securing as much of a perimeter as she could to aid in the eventual extraction of the ground team. It was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The fighters, strike craft and light warships of the Second Fleet could maneuver into position relatively easily, but the larger vessels had to proceed at a relatively slower pace due to the density of the system-wide debris field. Without hostile warships diverting their attention, the heavy fleet units were now free to concentrate their incredible firepower on both the asteroids blocking the path and on providing support for the screening units contending with the drones. With both the initial battle group and Fukunaga's reserves focusing on the same task, they could at least clear out obstacles much more efficiently than they had before, and the advance elements of the fleet were in position to form a cordon around the moon housing the second repository.

Maintaining and reinforcing that cordon was now Admiral Fukunaga's primary concern, and it was proving to be bloody work. Her ships had to contend with attacks from both inside and outside the perimeter as drones continued to pour forth from the moon itself and the multitude of hangars positioned throughout the system. The Second Fleet's screening forces were giving everything they had to blunt the relentless attacks, and while they were holding the line so far, they were paying for their efforts. Kill counts still favored the Juraians by a wide margin, but losses amongst both fighter squadrons and the escort ships backing them up were mounting.

The Admiral watched in stony silence as a group of fighters were pulverized by massed fire from no less than a hundred mechanical foes, while a corvette's engines went up in a brilliant fireball as scores of drones rammed into the aft section of the shift and detonated the explosives within their tiny frames. Destroyers and light cruisers had entire chunks ripped out of their hulls courtesy of multiple waves of suicide strikes, and even the larger capital ships were showing fresh scars from where repeated and concentrated attacks had eventually broken through their shields and allowed the miniscule automata assaulting them to plunge themselves into their thick armor. The Second Fleet would survive this trial, but Admiral Fukunaga knew that many of her ships would require a good bit of time back at the docks to get them back into proper fighting shape.

Still, the core of the Second Fleet was going strong. Her subordinates were performing with the calm professionalism that the Admiral had come to expect of them over the years, and the result was a battlefield whose conditions were largely in their favor. Word had reached the flagship that the ground team had retrieved the data they'd come here for, and that the second repository was in countdown to self-destruction. As soon as the young prince and his retinue were clear, the Second Fleet would commence withdrawal.

Then I can return to the capital and report back to Empress Funaho and Lady Seto, she thought, and together, we can prepare for the next stage of this undeclared war.

….

Exiting the repository, Heero saw the faint silhouette of Ken-Ohki rapidly receding overhead. He silently cursed Kagato's escape, even though he knew that it couldn't be helped. Of far more immediate concern to him was Ryo-Ohki's approach, announced by the living starship blowing apart at least a dozen drones with a barrage of crimson beams as she came down to retrieve the surface team. Beyond the crystalline starship, he saw the Yagami gaining altitude, with the patrol cruiser being escorted by the six custom fighters created by Washu; Heero had already ordered Eva to coordinate with the support AIs of the other craft and begin the withdrawal while they'd been running for the surface. Having each individual fighter retrieve its pilot would take too long, and they were running out of time. Ryo-Ohki could retrieve the entire team in short order, and from there they could all head to the Ōtaka.

"How much time we got left?" asked Duo.

"You don't want to know!" Hilde barked.

"Ryo-Ohki, it's now or never!" Ryoko shouted.

"Meow!" came their ride's reply.

Lowering herself over the platform as the ground team bunched up, she unleashed another salvo of energy beams to discourage an incoming group of drones before a familiar flash of red light engulfed Heero and his companions. He winced as the teleportation commenced; he could never shake just how disorienting the process was, but there was no denying its efficiency. Sure enough, a second later they were all on board Ryo-Ohki, with Ryoko gently passing Washu over to Trowa before rushing to take her place at the console.

"Alright, girl, you know the score," she said, "Punch it!"

"Meow!" Ryo-Ohki cried out.

Heero and the others had no time to brace themselves as Ryo-Ohki immediately shot upwards like a bat out of Hell. He managed to stay on his feet, though several of his companions wound up tumbling to the floor. Scattered curses sounded as they tried to get themselves back upright, their pride more injured than anything else.

As Heero took up position next to Ryoko at the console while giving her enough space to properly fly, Eva's voice came from his helmet's internal speakers. "Were you successful?"

"Partially," Heero replied, "We got the data, but so did Kagato."

"How?" the AI asked, sounding genuinely distressed.

"I'll fill you in later," Heero tersely answered, "We've got more immediate concerns right now."

He then turned to Hilde. "Time remaining before detonation?"

"Thirty seconds!" she snapped, adrenaline and fear compromising her composure.

Heero let it slide as he looked at Ryoko. "Give it everything you've got."

"Believe me, we are," Ryoko muttered under her breath, "Come on, Ryo-Ohki…"

Checking Ryo-Ohki's display, Heero saw that the Juraian fighters were racing alongside the living starship in their ascent. The drone swarms were pursuing, of course, with Ryo-Ohki and the Yagami firing shots from their rear weapons in an attempt to discourage a chase. Given the sheer numbers at play here, the effect was only to destroy a few of the combat automata, hardly even putting a dent in the horde. The Juraians' saving grace was that their craft were faster than the drones, and they were gunning their engines for all that they were worth.

With the time remaining established by Hilde, Heero mentally counted down the final seconds as Ryo-Ohki and her companions reached low orbit. Another part of his mind raced to calculate the potential blast force, though his only real reference source was the explosion that had consumed the first repository. Heero could only hope that Washu hadn't rigged this one with a more powerful explosive device.

You'll find out for sure soon enough, he thought as he watched the rapidly receding facility, in five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

The second repository vanished in a flash of light so bright that it momentarily outshone the star system's native sun. Ryo-Ohki's display screen went completely white, and the shockwave hit a moment later. The living starship cried out as she was buffeted violently, and Heero was nearly thrown off his feet. Still, the fact that he was actually feeling the tremor rather than being instantly pulverized by it was a good sign; it meant that they'd reached the minimum safe distance prior to the detonation.

When the glare from the explosion faded, Heero saw that a new crater had formed in the side of the larger one where the repository had been situated. The rocky surface was glowing harshly in red and orange, while chunks of superheated stone had been thrown airborne. Some of them looked like they were on track to escape the moon's gravity, becoming new fixtures in the system-wide debris field.

Of much more immediate interest to Heero was the considerable number of drones. Washu had said nothing of how the automata would react to the destruction of the second repository, and for all he knew they could have subroutines priming them for kamikaze attacks in just this scenario. Thankfully, that wound up not being the case. Instead, Heero saw the drones pursuing Ryo-Ohki, Yagami and the Juraians simply go inert, with some falling to the surface of the moon while others drifted into each other or bits of debris flung up by the explosion. As Ryo-Ohki and her companions gained further altitude, Heero saw many drones plow headlong into asteroids, while some unfortunately drifted into the paths of Juraian fighters or larger vessels. Countless numbers of the little buggers merely floated dead in space, now just as much a part of the system's debris field as the rocks that had been there for eons on end.

Ryoko glanced at Heero. "Mission accomplished?"

Heero cautiously nodded as he scanned the display. "I think so. Any sign of Ken-Ohki?"

Ryoko leaned forward slightly, adjusting her sensors before pointing at the screen. "I think… right there!"

Following her finger, Heero saw the distant silhouette of Nagi's vessel racing towards the edge of the debris field. The bounty hunter already had a considerable lead on them, and while a few Juraian squadrons were moving to intercept Heero could tell that there was no way they'd make it in time.

"Want to give chase?" Ryoko asked.

Her tone struck Heero as one of forced bravado; she had to know that they couldn't catch Nagi before she jumped to lightspeed, and she didn't really seem to want to. Heero could see how she was leaning heavily on Ryo-Ohki's console. The pirate was tired, and the soldier-turned-prince couldn't blame her.

So, Heero simply shook his head. "No. We need to get to the Ōtaka. The Admiral will want a debriefing… and we need to rest. We've done enough for today."

Ryoko breathed a sigh of relief, already angling Ryo-Ohki towards the Second Fleet's flagship. "I hear you there."

Stepping away from the console, Heero contacted the Yagami over his helmet comms. "Eve Seven, what's your status? Holding up okay over there?"

"Well as we can under the circumstances," Kiyone replied, "Shields mostly held, though we took a few hits. Nothing a bit of time in dock can't patch up, though."

"Are you doing alright, Heero?" came Mihoshi's voice over the speaker.

Heero resisted the urge to smile; Mihoshi might be a klutz and a bit of a ditz, but her heart was as warm as they came, and the concern in her voice was both sincere and touching. "I'm fine, Mihoshi. So are the others… with the exception of Washu. Nagi used her memory stealing device on her again."

"Damn it!" Kiyone hissed, "How bad is she?"

Heero glanced at Washu, who looked no closer to waking up now than she had before. "Out cold. The data download from the repository alone would've been intense, so combine that with the memory theft… I'm not sure how long she'll be down this time. We need to get her to the carrier's infirmary as quickly as possible."

"We'll send a message to the Admiral for you," said Kiyone, "It'll be good to have medical staff primed for action as soon as we reach the Ōtaka."

Heero appreciated her proactiveness. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," said Kiyone, "See you on the carrier. Eve Seven, out."

"How are our birds looking?" asked Trowa as he glanced at the display.

Ryoko adjusted it so that it showed the six fighters formed up around the Galaxy Police patrol cruiser. "They look like they're all in one piece."

"Good," Wufei chimed in, "I have a feeling that we're going to need them again pretty soon."

Quatre sighed as he knelt next to Ayeka while the princess struggled to shake off the nasty shock she'd taken earlier. "I'm more worried about our companions than our fighters at the moment. Ayeka, talk to me. You still with us?"

"I… think so," Ayeka groaned as Quatre popped her helmet off, "Oh, goodness… what in the name of Tsunami happened down there?"

"Nagi hit your barrier with these," Ryoko supplied as she pulled out a series of four black shafts from a pouch on her suit's utility belt and brandished them, "I found them on ground next to you. Figured it'd be a good idea to have Washu take a look at them once she's feeling up to it."

Ayeka blinked a few times, actually looking impressed with the pirate. "That's… remarkably forward-thinking of you."

Under other circumstances, Heero suspected Ryoko would've taken Ayeka's words as a barb, but her focus was still mostly on piloting Ryo-Ohki and she simply shrugged while putting the strange devices away. "Whatever you say."

"I can't believe she defeated our combined barriers!" Azaka lamented.

"That should not be possible!" bemoaned Kamidake.

"I suspect Nagi has Kagato to thank for her new toys," Yosho chimed in, "Remember that he is far more than just an ambitious cadet branch royal. His mind worked in tandem with Washu's to construct the Array that now threatens the galaxy. If these devices are any indication, his capacity for creativity and invention remains undiminished."

"That's a problem," Duo muttered as he helped his wife gulp down water from a flask, "He can give his friends and allies all kinds of nasty little weapons to throw at us."

"As if we didn't have enough of those already coming our way," Hilde groaned after swallowing, cautiously propping herself up on her elbows, "Agh… damn it, that stung! I need to get Nagi back for that one…"

"I'll collect for you when the time comes," Ryoko offered, "No offense, but you're no match for her in a fight."

Hilde looked like she wanted to argue the point, but ultimately conceded. "Fine. Slug her good, you got that?"

Ryoko smirked. "With pleasure."

Heero turned to Yosho, who had removed his helmet and had his gaze fixed on Ryo-Ohki's main monitor. "Kagato had a limp when he was pulling back earlier. Your handiwork, I take it?"

Yosho nodded. "It was."

"Nice job," Heero complimented, "Any chance you can do more than that in round three?"

Yosho folded his arms, and his brow furrowed in thought. "I was only able to land that hit because he allowed himself to get caught up in his impending triumph. Knowing that Nagi would retrieve the data he needed made him cocky, and it left an opening for me to exploit. He won't make that mistake again."

Heero studied his grandfather carefully. The man's composure remained solid, but the weariness in his form was impossible to miss.

"We've still got a bit of a flight before we'll reach the carrier," he remarked, "No harm in taking a load off."

Yosho sighed as he sat down. "That obvious, is it?"

Heero shrugged before joining him on the floor. "I know Juraians age well, but there's no shame in admitting the truth. The years get us all eventually."

Yosho turned to him and smiled. "Yes, they do… which is why it's important for us to make sure that the younger generation is prepared to step in when that happens. You and your friends certainly did so today."

Removing his helmet and wiping sweat from his brow, Heero let out a heavy sigh. "We did what we could… but it wasn't enough. Sure, Washu got the data, but so did Kagato. At best, today's a draw."

Yosho nodded, though his smile remained. "It's true that things didn't go completely our way. However, I can't help but notice that there are no fatalities amongst our merry band of misfits. Some of us are a little worse for wear, yes, but we're still alive. I'd like to think that counts for something."

Heero allowed himself a small smile as he looked around at his battered and tired but very-much alive companions. "It definitely does."

Yosho stretched his arms and cracked his neck. "Take comfort in what you can, for the road ahead remains arduous. Kagato has lost his outlaw fleet, which means that the next armada he amasses will be composed of Juraian forces, outfitted with Imperial equipment and loyal personally to him. I fear they will be a much tougher nut to crack than swarms of drones and bands of brigands."

Heero took a deep breath as the cold reality set in. "The Empire of Jurai's about to erupt into civil war, isn't it?"

"It's on the knife's edge, though few want to admit it," Kagato replied, "My mother and Lady Seto will have their work cut out for them. We will need to confer with them at the earliest opportunity. I'm afraid that we won't have much time to rest upon our return to the capital."

Heero nodded. "This race of ours with Kagato was always going to be a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Even so, I think I underestimated just how many legs this particular race would have."

He turned his gaze back towards Ryo-Ohki's display. As the living starship and her companions crossed the system to rejoin the fleet, Heero's eyes couldn't help but linger upon the various bits of wreckage. Much of it was simply the remains of the countless drones that had been shot down by the Juraians, but of course there was more than that. Twisted and torn frames of fighters and bombers floated silently amidst the rocks, along with chunks of larger vessels. He saw rescue shuttles withdraw from a mortally wounded destroyer mere minutes before the doomed warship drifted headlong into an asteroid and broke apart. Heavier ships were pockmarked all over from weapons fire or collisions, and a vast field of charred and mutilated frames were all that remained of Kagato's pirate fleet. The carnage took Heero's mind back to the titanic battle at the Libra, and a chill went down his spine as he imaged the death and devastation that was to come.

"Will the Empire survive the approaching storm?" he asked quietly, "Will the galaxy survive it?"

Yosho's answer was brutally honest in its simplicity. "I don't know."

….

Ayeka fought hard to hide a blush as Quatre allowed her to rest her head on his lap while he gently guided a canteen to her lips. The cool water that flowed forth felt like a healing balm in its own right, and Ayeka was only now becoming aware of just how dry and parched her throat had become. She hadn't asked the young man for such aid, but she was profoundly grateful for it just the same. He truly was a gentleman, and Ayeka's only embarrassment came from how she'd been reduced to such a state in the first place.

That bounty hunter certainly did a number on me, she thought ruefully, I can see why Ryoko loathes her so. Nagi… the next time we meet, you will not take me down so easily.

Her vengeful musings were interrupted by Quatre. "We'll be reaching the carrier soon. How are you feeling?"

Swallowing her drink, Ayeka smiled, not wanting to burden her caretaker with her new grudge against the bounty hunter. "Much better, thanks to you. Lord Quatre, have you always possessed such a considerate bedside manner?"

"Does it count as 'bedside' if you're using my lap?" he asked with a friendly smirk.

Her face flushed furiously at the reminder. "Oh… I'm not sure. I mean… the thought's what counts, right?"

Quatre chuckled. "I suppose it is."

Surprising herself as much as her caretaker, Ayeka reached up and placed a hand on Quatre's cheek. "Lord Quatre, thank you for getting me out of there. I am in your debt, as is the Royal Family. When we return to Jurai, I will ensure that my father suitably rewards your efforts."

Quatre shook his head. "You don't need to do that, Ayeka. I didn't save you because I was after any sort of reward. I always look out for my friends, simple as that."

Ayeka couldn't help but giggle at that. "I expected as much! You're too kind, Lord Quatre. Still, my offer remains open, and I can assure you that my father would be more than willing to honor it."

A surprisingly mischievous look came to Quatre's eyes. "Maybe I'll hold out until we take down Kagato and the Array. I could ask a much bigger prize for helping to save not just you, but the entire Empire, right?"

Ayeka laughed despite herself. "Yes, you certainly could!"

His expression became one of concern again. "Do you think you can stand? If not, I can help you get to the carrier's sickbay."

"I believe I'll be alright," she replied as she sat up, momentarily closing her eyes as she fought a wave of dizziness, "That being said, I would not turn down your aid in getting to my feet."

Quatre nodded before carefully helping her stand up. The dizziness she felt before returned, and she had to steady herself on Quatre's shoulder.

"Oh, goodness," she murmured, "I must've gotten hit harder than I thought. Those tools Kagato supplied Nagi with… my distaste for them grows with each passing second."

"I'll make sure to pass that along to both of them the next time we meet in battle," Quatre remarked, "Come on, let's at least make sure you can walk before we land. You can keep leaning on me if you need to."

There wasn't much room to stretch her legs in Ryo-Ohki's rather crowded cockpit, but the two of them did what they could. Guiding her to the periphery of the group, Quatre took the lead as Ayeka made several cautious steps. After a few minutes of going back and forth, she became surer of herself and was soon moving about normally.

"Guess I just needed to stretch a bit," she said with a smile, "Thank you for your assistance."

"Don't mention it," Quatre replied, though he still looked a bit worried, "You should probably still have the carrier's doctors check you out just to be safe, though."

"I fully intend to," Ayeka promised him.

The Second Fleet's flagship loomed large on Ryo-Ohki's display, and it was growing larger with each passing second. As the living starship passed through the fleet screen and approached the carrier, Ayeka's heart grew heavy as she saw battered warships limping back into formation while ragged fighters made their way to their motherships.

So much death and damage for what amounts to a draw, she thought, I just hope we can make it all count for something.

At the edge of Ryo-Ohki's viewscreen, the princess saw Yagami pull up alongside the Ōtaka. The patrol cruiser extended its docking umbilical, locking itself with the carrier's portside. They would ride out the return voyage in comfort on the flagship, with the carrier's crews overseeing maintenance on the custom fighter craft Washu had made for Heero and his friends. Work on the Yagami would have to wait until the ship landed on Jurai.

Entering the carrier's cavernous main hanger, Ryo-Ohki positioned herself off to the side and out of the way of other incoming craft. As Eve Squadron's six fighters landed around her, Ayeka and the others who had removed their helmets earlier put them back on. A moment later, a flash of crimson light engulfed them. Blinking and fighting against the nauseousness that Ayeka always experienced during teleportation, she found herself on the carrier's main flight deck a few moments later.

"Ah, so good to be aboard a mighty Juraian warship again!" Azaka cheered in relief.

"It will be all the better once we've returned to the capital," Kamidake added.

Ayeka caught sight of several medics rushing forward with multiple gurneys. She waved off one that approached her, and she saw Hilde do the same. As crown princess of the Empire, Ayeka's pride would not let her be transported in such a manner unless there was no other choice; she would go to the infirmary under her own power. Washu didn't have that luxury, though. The scientist was still out cold, and Ryoko gingerly helped the medics in getting her onto a gurney. Ryo-Ohki, having shifted back to her much more adorable and compact form, was perched on Ryoko's shoulder and let out a soft whine as Washu was carted away.

Ryoko patted her on the head. "Don't worry, girl. She's survived worse."

"Maybe," said Quatre, "but she'll still be out of it for a while. I don't know how Nagi's memory extraction device works, but it clearly does a number on its victims."

"Let's just hope whatever data Washu got from the repository can be readily recalled when she's awake," Trowa remarked, "We no longer have the same lead over Kagato that we did before, and we can't afford to fall behind."

Looking around, Ayeka saw Kiyone and Mihoshi coming their way. The two Galaxy Police Detectives ran across the flight deck, both looking a bit worn out from the earlier engagement. Despite their weariness, though, both women smiled as they joined their friends.

"Glad to see you're all in one piece," said Kiyone, "Medics already grab Washu?"

"Just a minute ago," Duo answered.

"I hope she'll be okay," Mihoshi chimed in.

"Cut the chatter and look sharp," Heero interjected, "We've got company inbound."

Following Heero's gaze, Ayeka saw none other than Admiral Fukunaga strolling across the hangar deck at a brisk pace. While her quick stride suggested a clear urgency, her demeanor was still as cool and focused as always. While normally a Juraian fleet admiral would address the highest-ranking royal present first, Ayeka didn't expect that here. She knew that she wasn't adept militarily like Heero or many of the others, so it wouldn't be right for her to take a leading role. The admiral was clearly on the same page, with her attention fixed squarely on Heero.

"I just got word from the chief medical officer," she said by way of greeting, "Stabilizing Washu will be his top priority."

Heero inclined his head. "Thank you, Admiral."

"She has the data, yes?" Mayumi pressed.

"She does," said Yosho, "but she's not the only one. Despite our best efforts, Kagato is in possession of it as well. We have Nagi to thank for that."

The Admiral's brow furrowed in a scowl. "The Second Empress said you told her of a memory extraction device that the bounty hunter used during her attack on Earth. I take it she had the same device here?"

"Furnished to her by Kagato," said Heero, "I don't know how long it will take him to sort through all the relevant data, but we should assume the worst."

Mayumi nodded. "Agreed. I'll have a message sent to the capital immediately."

Ayeka raised an eyebrow. "Admiral, forgive me if I'm out of line here, but won't that be violating the strict communications blackout you imposed between the Second Fleet and the capital at the start of the operation?"

"That was only put in place to aid in the initial stages of the mission," Mayumi replied casually, "Now that combat is concluded, we need to report back to His Majesty on the results of this engagement."

The Admiral stepped away for a moment and pulled out a compact communications device. Ayeka couldn't quite make out what she was saying into it over the bustle of activity in the hangar, but as the naval officer's eyes narrowed at whatever reply she received the princess suspected that the answer boded ill for them. Sure enough, when Mayumi put the device away and returned to the group a few minutes later, her expression was one of consternation.

"Your Highnesses," she said with a deep breath, turning to Heero, Yosho and Ayeka in turn, "may we speak in private for a moment?"

The three of them looked at each other, their mutual puzzlement and concern evident even through their helmets. After a moment, Heero gestured for the others to leave the hangar, though Mayumi halted Kiyone.

"You can come with us as well Detective Makibi," said the Admiral in a tone that brooked no room for argument, "We'll be convening aboard the Yagami."

"Kiyone, what's going on?" asked Mihoshi.

"I'm not sure," Kiyone confessed, "I suppose I'll find out shortly. In the meantime, go get something to eat and rest with the others, alright? I'll come find you later."

The Admiral then turned to Azaka and Kamidake. "You two will come with us as well."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Azaka muttered.

"Likewise," chirped Kamidake.

The Admiral then led the contingent towards an exit on the opposite side of the hangar as they parted ways with their companions. Ayeka didn't have a clue as to what was going on as they followed Mayumi through the ship's corridors to the docking ring where the carrier and patrol cruiser were linked, but the cool expressions from Heero and Yosho along with the worried look from Kiyone as they removed their helmets only increased her own anxiety.

"I just received word from my communications officer," said Mayumi as they made their way through the docking umbilical towards the Yagami, "As soon as I ordered them to drop comms silence and contact the capital, they received multiple transmissions from the palace. The Emperor and Empresses are quite upset."

"Why?" asked Heero, "I know Kagato getting the data alongside us wasn't part of the plan, but… wait a second. You said multiple transmissions… they were sent before you lifted comms silence and only came through after, didn't they?"

"Correct," Mayumi confirmed, "and the mixed tidings regarding today's engagement would not have been enough for the… oh, shall we say lively messages that His Majesty and the Empresses sent us."

Ayeka raised an eyebrow. "Lively?"

"That word can mean all manner of things when it comes to the Royal Family," Yosho remarked cautiously.

Mayumi sighed as they entered the patrol cruiser. "Believe me, I'm well aware of that."

She then stopped and studied the group carefully, particularly Heero. "Before we proceed further, I want you all to know that I'm inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. You performed well in today's engagement and completed the mission, even if our enemy also gained access to the data within the second repository. It's my desire to continue working with you after this battle and see this crisis through to the end. Whether that happens, though, will be determined by your answer to a certain question."

Ayeka was nervous, but as she glanced at Heero she saw that his expression remained as impassive as ever. "That question being?"

Mayumi folded her arms. "To your knowledge, where is Princess Sasami?"

Ayeka blinked a couple times in confusion; she couldn't have heard Mayumi right. "I beg your pardon, Admiral?"

Heero seemed likewise nonplussed by the question, though in a much more subdued manner. "Sasami? We left her back on Jurai. There was no way we were going to take her into an active combat zone if we could avoid it, and the Royal Family insisted that she stay behind out of very understandable concerns for her safety."

Yosho folded his arms, suspicion clearly aroused. "Admiral, what exactly is going on here?"

Mayumi didn't directly answer the question, instead looking around the interior of the Yagami for a moment. "As commanding officer of the Second Fleet, I consider it my responsibility to have a complete understanding of every vessel that composes it. I take no small effort to study up on the specifications of every class of vessel and craft comprising this force, from the mighty dreadnoughts and carriers down to the humble escorts and fighters. When outside vessels are temporarily integrated into the Second Fleet, I make sure to study them as well. Given that the Yagami is a common Galaxy Police patrol cruiser and that the organization has a strong working relationship with Jurai's Imperial Fleet, it shouldn't surprise you to know that I have experience in coordinating actions involving these vessels. I understand these ships inside and out… and I understand that this one has spent quite some time now operating essentially at the fringes of galactic civilization. More specifically, that it's been operating in proximity to a certain infamous scientist, and that said scientist would find the notion of making modifications to this vessel to be little more than child's play."

"Where are you going with this, Admiral?" asked Ayeka as a quiet alarm bell began ringing in the back of her mind.

"The transmissions from Jurai report that Princess Sasami is missing," Mayumi replied, "and a guess has already been ventured as to her most likely whereabouts."

Ayeka's heart caught in her throat, her brain only focusing on the first portion of the Admiral's statement. "Sasami… is missing?"

"Yes," said Mayumi as she fixed her gaze upon Heero, "though I suspect she will not remain so for long."

Kiyone's eyes slowly widened in dreadful comprehension. "No… she can't be…"

"Admiral, if you're implying that we spirited her away from Jurai, you are gravely mistaken," Heero calmly countered, "As I said before, we left her back at the palace. The last place that we wanted to bring her was to another battlefield."

"That much is true," Yosho added in a thoughtful tone, "but perhaps one of us saw something to be gained in bringing her here without our knowledge."

"Who in the name of Tsunami would do such a thing?" Ayeka asked, trembling in equal parts fear and rapidly building rage, "Who among us would possess the sheer insanity required for such a hairbrained stunt?"

That was when Heero let out a long-suffering sigh. "Damn it… I think I know who… and, more importantly, I think I know why."

Mayumi nodded, and Ayeka was surprised to see her demeanor actually relax somewhat. "If I've read you accurately since getting to know you, Your Highness, I believe you and I both have the same suspect in mind."

"I'm sure we do," Heero grumbled, "and she's going to catch hell for this when she wakes up."

Ayeka's eyes practically bulged out of her head when she put two and two together. "She… wait, you mean Washu is responsible for this?"

"It wouldn't surprise me," Kiyone muttered under her breath.

"Only one way to find out," said Heero, "Admiral, your little tangent about the Yagami just a bit ago… if I know Washu, there's only one place where she would've hidden a smuggled Juraian princess on this ship."

"The lab," Yosho murmured.

"It's the only place where she could've stowed Sasami away without me picking up on her presence," Kiyone added, "If she were anywhere else in the Yagami, the internal security system would've found her well before we departed Jurai."

"Could you lead me there?" the Admiral asked.

Heero was already moving to take point. "Follow me."

Ayeka and the others fell in behind him, and the princess's mind was racing. It was a miracle that she could keep walking; she felt so dizzy with all the information she was dealing with that Ayeka wouldn't have been surprised if she fainted at any moment.

I can't believe this, she thought, somewhere between indignation and terror, Washu… Sasami… if anything had happened to this ship during the fighting…

She almost bumped into Heero's back as he came to a stop at the entrance to the lab, and could only watch as he pressed a button on a wall-mounted console that definitely hadn't come with the patrol cruiser's original design. "AIDA, it's Heero."

The AI's reply was immediate. "Welcome back, Heero. I trust Washu is being looked after by the Juraians?"

"You're well-informed as ever," Heero answered, "Let me guess; you were eavesdropping on Kiyone and Mihoshi earlier up in the cockpit?"

"You do know me well," said AIDA, sounding both amused and proud.

"I do, indeed," Heero confirmed, "and I'm sure that you've been eavesdropping on us as well."

A sigh came from the AI. "No use in denying it, I suppose."

Kiyone folded her arms and scowled. "We're going to have to talk about that later, AIDA."

Yosho stepped forward. "Let's not beat around the bush, then. Sasami; is she in there?"

AIDA's response was blunt and short. "Yes."

"Points for honesty, if nothing else," Mayumi muttered.

Ayeka could no longer contain herself. "AIDA, if so much as a hair on Sasami's head has been harmed, I will have your processing core jettisoned into the nearest star! In the name of Tsunami, why was she smuggled aboard the Yagami when Washu knew we were flying headlong into battle?"

"I'm sure Washu would be more than happy to explain that herself once she recovers," said AIDA, "and I give you my word, Ayeka, that Sasami is completely fine. She's simply resting at the moment. Her earlier exertion was considerable."

"Exertion?" Ayeka repeated, hands balled into fists as she seethed, "What exertion do you speak of?"

"As I just said, Washu will explain that when she's conscious," AIDA calmly replied, "She really just needs sleep right now, Ayeka. I promise that's it. She's tired, but perfectly healthy."

"No offense, AIDA," said Heero, "but we'll be the judge of that. Let us in."

"As you wish," AIDA answered.

The door slid open, and Heero led the group into the lab. "Where is she?"

AIDA's pixy form appeared out of thin air, and despite Ayeka's efforts she couldn't find whatever projector was responsible for the hologram. "Please, follow me."

"I'm surprised you granted us access so easily," Yosho remarked as they followed the azure fairy.

"The good doctor left instructions for me," AIDA explained, "One of those was that, should Heero request entry, I am to grant it."

"Not that I'm complaining," Mayumi chimed in as she gave Heero a curious look, "but what makes him so special?"

AIDA nodded at Heero as she led them towards a backroom. "Washu has high hopes for him. Just as your Empresses do."

Ayeka hoped for further elaboration, but none came. She made a mental note to bring the matter up with Washu at a later point. Right now, she obviously had far more immediate concerns.

The next door slid open, revealing a modest chamber. Sasami wasn't hard to find; she was lying on her back in a simple bed, her chest rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep. She was even snoring, something that Ayeka might have gently chided her for under other circumstances.

Instead, the crown princess simply rushed to the bed and knelt beside her sister, breathing a sigh of relief. "She really is just sleeping… thank goodness."

"Out like a light," Kiyone murmured, "Slumbering like a fairytale princess… wonder how much of the battle she snoozed through."

AIDA gave the crown princess a reassuring smile. "Safe and sound, just as I promised. She really will be just fine, Ayeka. It's just going to be awhile before she wakes up."

"Can we get a timeframe?" asked Heero.

"Most likely a good twelve hours or so," AIDA guessed, "She'll be rather groggy, but apart from that no worse for wear."

"That's good to hear," Azaka chimed in.

"I'm sure His Majesty and both Empresses will be pleased to learn as much," Kamidake added.

"They'll be less pleased regarding Sasami's disappearance and Washu's involvement in smuggling her aboard the Yagami," Yosho deadpanned.

"Mihoshi and I are going to catch so much heat for that," Kiyone groaned.

"No, you won't. I'll take full responsibility," said Heero, "I should've kept a closer eye on Washu."

Standing up, Ayeka turned to Heero and shook her head. "That's a noble sentiment, Lord Heero, but this was not your doing. Nor was it the doing of Kiyone or Mihoshi. Washu bears full responsibility here. We all know it."

"Do we?" asked Mayumi.

The others turned to face her, with Ayeka speaking first. "No disrespect intended, Admiral, but I would think that'd quite evident."

"At first glance, yes," Mayumi conceded as she looked down thoughtfully at Sasami, "That being said, I don't think we're completely giving credit where it's due."

"You can't seriously be placing blame on Princess Sasami!" Azaka protested.

"Why, the sheer nerve!" Kamidake fumed, "You overstep your bounds, Admiral!"

Heero held up a hand for calm. "No… she may have a point. Sasami might be young by the standards of Juraian Royals, but she's not a fool. It would've been difficult for Washu to get her out of the palace against her will without anyone noticing. Sasami's cooperation in the endeavor, though, would make things considerably easier."

Kiyone reluctantly nodded. "It would help explain why we never caught so much as a hint as to what was going on."

Yosho nodded sagely. "I agree. We are overlooking Sasami's own agency in the matter, and that is a mistake. As that charming expression back on Earth goes, it takes two to tango."

Ayeka placed her hands on her hips as she glared at her half-brother. "I learned another expression during my time on Earth, though it was considerably less charming; throwing someone under the bus. Lords Heero and Yosho, I will not allow either of you to do that to Sasami."

"Neither of us are saying anything of that nature," Heero reassured her, "All we're trying to do is take the all factors at play here into consideration. Washu may well shoulder the bulk of the blame, but it's entirely possible that Sasami's not an innocent party here. We'll be able to find out for sure when they both awaken."

Mayumi nodded. "I'll be looking forward to the results of the interrogation."

If Ayeka had been steamed before, she was downright apoplectic now. "Interrogation? If one of your officers so much as…"

Heero placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "Ayeka, calm down. It's true that Sasami needs to be questioned along with Washu, but no one's suggesting going further than that. Isn't that right, Admiral?"

Mayumi turned to Ayeka and smiled. "It is, Your Highness. Princess Ayeka, I understand your concerns, but I promise that Princess Sasami will be treated with the utmost care and gentleness. In fact, I have a compromise in mind that will guarantee it."

Ayeka was wary, but she resolved to at least hear the Admiral out. "I'm listening."

"Prince Heero's earlier reaction was all I needed to know that he had absolutely no involvement in Sasami's covert extraction from the capital," Mayumi explained, "In light of that, I'm willing to allow him to conduct the questioning. My only stipulation is that one of my own officers be allowed to sit in on the session. That officer will have questions of their own, but they will defer to Prince Heero if there is conflict; the session will be entirely under his control. Do you find that acceptable?"

Ayeka turned to Heero, who held out his hand. "I'll go easy on Sasami, Ayeka, and I'll make sure whoever the Admiral appoints as her own representative will do so as well. You have my word. You know that I'd never allow any harm to come to her."

Ayeka took a deep breath before accepting Heero's hand. "I do, Lord Heero. You've had my faith ever since you took Sasami and I in back on Earth, and you will have it here."

Heero inclined his head. "Thank you."

He then looked at the Admiral. "All that being said, I have a condition of my own."

"Name it," said Mayumi.

"I want the same arrangement to apply to Washu's interrogation," Heero replied, "I'll lead on the questioning, with one of your officers observing and asking their own questions as needed."

Ayeka expected the Admiral to argue, but instead she simply nodded. "Acceptable."

"Good," said Heero, "Now, we should…"

Whatever he was going to say died on his lips as his knees buckled under him. Ayeka's eyes widened in dread as Heero stumbled forward, and only swift action from herself and Yosho prevented him from falling face first to the floor.

"Lord Heero!" she cried out.

"It's… nothing," Heero said, attempting to wave her off and stand up but failing miserably at both.

Ayeka was having none of it. "It's most certainly not 'nothing'!"

"You got that right," Kiyone remarked as she looked Heero over, "Were you hit? I'm not seeing any signs of penetration in the armor…"

"I was wondering when it would hit you," Yosho remarked, "You used two Light Hawk Wings quite extensively down there on top of all your other exertions. That takes its toll."

Mayumi looked impressed. "Using two Light Hawk Wings in sustained combat and holding off collapse until now? No small feat for a Royal that's only recently awakened his powers."

"We can praise the feat after we make sure it doesn't kill Lord Heero!" Ayeka snapped, "We need to get him to the infirmary along with Sasami right away!"

"Admiral, contact your ship's medics and have them come aboard the Yagami," said Yosho, "Ayeka and I will meet them at the airlock with Heero and Sasami."

Mayumi nodded. "Of course."

As they focused on getting the two patients out of the lab, Ayeka's mind wandered back to the Admiral's earlier words. She wasn't wrong; Heero's use of the Light Hawk Wings during the fight in the second repository had been exemplary, especially when Ayeka considered how long Heero had been able to employ them compared to the brief periods of time she could use her own before being threatened with exhaustion. In theory, she should've been able to utilize that power with far greater efficiency and potency simply due to the many years of experience she had over Heero when it came to the abilities granted to them by their bloodline. Yet Heero had taken to those powers so quickly that it was downright frightening to contemplate.

He's far more than just another Royal, she thought, but just what does that really make him?

She stole a surreptitious glance at Yosho as he supported Heero while Ayeka carried Sasami with assistance from Kiyone. The long-lost crown prince and Washu went way back, and the two of them had hidden the truth of Heero's heritage from both him and everyone else for quite some time. It only stood to reason that there was far more they were concealing when it came to the Preventer operative.

What are Lord Yosho and Washu still hiding from us…

…and why does it feel like all of our fates are riding upon it?

Preview for next time!

Duo: Well, glad that's over!

Trowa: I wouldn't start breathing easy just yet.

Wufei: We got the data, but so did the enemy. We've lost our advantage.

Quatre: Oh, and the Emperor's pissed off at us because of this whole mess with Sasami!

Sasami: I'm really sorry!

Heero: Tell that to your father. Hopefully he'll go easy on us.

Washu: Good luck with that.

Ayeka: You're going to be right up there taking the heat that you deserve!

Mihoshi: Kiyone, you and I aren't in trouble, are we?

Kiyone: Just keep your head down and pray that this all blows over.

Ryoko: The Emperor needs to chill. We've got bigger fish to fry here.

Yosho: It's strange days indeed when you're the voice of reason, Ryoko.

Funaho: I fear that reason may fast be slipping away within the Empire. The situation is about to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

Hilde: Next time, in Chapter Twenty-Six: No Need For A Powder Keg! Oh… well that doesn't sound good.

Mayumi: No, it most certainly isn't.

Author's Notes: Well, that's two battle chapters in a row, which means it's about time for a break. The next chapter will be much lighter on the action side of things, it's more of a chance for our band of plucky misfits to regroup and plan their next move. Don't worry, the action will heat up again soon enough.

Hope you all liked the chapter. Feel free to review, stay safe, and I'll see you all next time!